The Spinning Wheel - Part One
The wheel span slowly about its central hub as it drifted through the obsidian expanse of deep space. Silent and serene with frictionless, effortless motion it glided, to all appearances, in absolute calm and tranquillity. But Earthship Pioneer was in a state of acute agitation. Despite the next news bulletin being due in five minutes, apprehension on the bridge was beginning to turn into unbridled fear. There was a transmission black-out about Earth and we did not have the slightest idea what was happening there. Except that it was serious. That was how it had been described on the last broadcast we had received, a serious problem. We had not been told what constituted a serious problem. We had not been told anything at all and not knowing is always worse. We had been asked to stay calm, in the last garbled message, and told that we would be informed as soon as the situation had been brought under control. But what was the situation? Being kept in the dark was agonising torture. We tried to comfort ourselves with the litany 'no news is good news' in vain. Those who were stationed on the decks below, and especially those who were only passengers, were now beginning to panic. Even we, the crew, ostensibly in control, were frightened. We had had no contact from mission control. The black-out extended even to NASA.
We waited in anticipation. We waited for the communication to arrive, to tell us that the problem had been an unusually bad magnetic storm fouling the transmission networks. We even had wagers on what the trouble was. The theory that someone had pulled out the wrong plug was popular, or that coffee had been spilt over a computer terminal. Nothing else, we thought hopefully, would have caused the cessation of transmissions so abruptly and without warning. All the last message had said was that they had a serious problem and would have to stop transmissions until it was resolved. They had given us a time when they would contact us. We did not expect the communication to arrive on time, but the anticipation was reaching a climax as the clock ticked the moments away towards the deadline.
The communication never came. We waited for half an hour, and then an hour, then two before we finally accepted that it would never come.
The anti-climax of the waiting was too much for some to bear. The adrenaline overload spilled into tears or anger. Nerves, already frayed with the strain, splintered, and tempers flared in impotent fury, rage against the unknown disaster. There were a few, the natural optimists, who believed that contact with Earth would still be restored, that we should not metaphorically bury the body until we had seen the death certificate.
We could do nothing but wait. It seemed, in the hours that followed, that each and every one of us expected that at some moment artificially modulated radio waves would be received. That, when de-scrambled, there would be a friendly human voice telling us that all was well. We had consciously tried to accept that it would never come, but, deep inside, there remained hope. If it was the only thing we had left, there would always be hope.
After heated debate we finally made the decision. We had to turn back. We had to know what had happened. Some argued that we should go on, that it might even be dangerous to return to Earth. That we had no idea of what might have happened. That we did now know if it was still there. They questioned why we should jeopardise our mission, and possible our lives, in the attempt. But we had no choice really. Human nature itself meant that, sooner of later, we would be driven virtually insane with curiosity; with the need to know. We had to get it over and done with.
Turning the ship was a huge and delicate operation. It required precise control of the directional jets and rockets. The vast ship was a disc, and spun about its centre to create the centripetal gravity that was necessary for a colony ship. the rotating of the whole ship, including the control room, made manoeuvring the massive structure extremely complicated, especially as the ship travelled edgewise to lessen the effects of solar wind buffeting. The timing of the jet blasts had to be co-ordinated exactly to maintainthe ship's spin and achieve the desired change of attitude. We only had a certain amount of fuel for the rockets, if it was not used efficiently we would be stranded. We had not allowed for such a manoeuvre in our pre-launch calculations. The course was supposed to be straight there, with enough fuel to orientate into orbit. If a mistake was made in the procedure to turn the ship around the result could be the loss of gravity, the increase of gravity beyond a tolerable level, or we could even be sent tumbling out of control into the depths of space or the Sun. So turning the ship had to be done with great care, and that meant slowly. It was more than a day before this complex manoeuvre was completed. The we were on our way back. What we expected to find there, I really don't know. We all had our hopes, and eternal trust in the perpetual nature of things. Maybe we hoped that it was all one big joke.
We were seven day's journey from Earth orbit when I looked into the telescope, picking out the planet from the myriad of stars and other points of light. It looked like it always had, glinting with reflected sunlight in the eyepiece. An insignificant planet, it looked innocent enough, but it was what populated the surface that caused the problems, and ravaged the helpless Earth. A sinking feeling plunged my heart into my stomach and I dreaded what we might find there. There, such a tiny point of light, so far away in such a vast universe, my home.
"My turn," said a voice from behind me, and I was startled out of my reverie. "Let me see .... Is it still there? It's got to be, hasn't it?"
"It's still there," I said, moving aside so the man who had spoken could take a look through the telescope. "It looks just the same." I tried to speak with an optimism I didn't feel, it didn't sound quite right.
"I need a drink," said the man, turning from the strangely disconcerting and depressing sight of our home planet. "Coming?"
Nodding, I said, "I need a lot of drinks."
"You're probably right."
We headed towards the bar area along the antiseptic white corridors illuminated with bland lifeless light. It was strange, but before the corridors had been just corridors, well lit and clean, now they just echoed back my mood. Maybe they always had, maybe my mood had been well lit and clean, I couldn't really remember. It was difficult to feel things now.
A kind of apathy was taking over both the crew and the passengers. The only people in the bar area, that I could see, were thise I had seen using the telescope earlier, and a few of those high up in the chain of command who were unconscious over their drinks.
"That's the best way to be," said my companion, indicating the unconscious group.
"Then let's get there," I said ordering a bottle of vodka. It seemed a good idea to get drunk. There wasn't anything else to do, unless you were inclined to sitting around getting depressed, or having hysterics. I decided to have drunken hysterics.
As we sat down at the table, my new found friend introduced himself as Allyn hunter. I did not reveal that I already knew this, moreover that he was strictly a passenger; we did not have much use for cereal farmers while in space.
"Kit," I said, pouring myself a very large measure of the vodka. I added a dash of lime juice from the table dispenser and took a large mouthful. After several of these the warm feeling in my throat had spread throughout my muscles, and I was sitting quite relaxed in my chair, heavily supported by the table. Allyn turned out to have a poor head for spirits and was now semi-conscious. I looked at him in disgust. He had not been much of a drinking partner.
"Kitrice," said a familiar voice. So I turned towards it, and for a while had difficulty focussing on the face. It was a face from a dim, distant past, from a carefree childhood. It brought back memories of happier times, when the world had been within our grasp. we had been inseparable from our earliest years, through the death of my parents, but when we finished university we had for some reason lost contact. Maybe the pain of separation had been too great. It was Martin Cambridge. I waved at him, even though he was only some four feet away, and offered him a chair.
"How are you?" he asked as he sat down.
"Drunk," I said, well, tried to say. "Very drunk."
I gave him what was supposed to be a very hard look, but it slid about and I expect the effect was somewhat marred. I began to think that the ship's spin had increased.
Martin looked at the two bottles of vodka on the table; one was empty and the other was half full. "Have you drunk all this yourself?"
I pointed in the general direction of Allyn, who was now snoring, and then attempted to pour myself another drink. I probably got more over my hand than I did in the glass, but the next thing I remember was waking up, or regaining consciousness, whichever it was, I'm not entirely sure.
The bar was almost deserted. There were a few bodies lying about, but very few people drinking. It did not seem a very good idea to rectify the matter myself. I had my next month's supply of headaches all at once. Somehow I picked myself up and got back to my room where I collapsed and fell back into oblivion.