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Chapter 19

Parallel Lives / Surprise

          Nemo-3 awoke with a start, in free fall. Where was he? When was he? Ah, yes – jope 10.3 ship time, since beginning their great voyage. They must have just passed the halfway point.
          Nemo glanced around, at the inert forms of several other metons. The solid walls of the cozy sleeping chamber felt so reassuring. It was hard to believe what lay beyond – an empty vastness, of a type he had previously known only as an abstraction. Strangely, it felt more like he was at the bottom of a heavy ocean, than at the center of a lonely abyss between galaxies.
          He suddenly needed to see their destination for himself. A distant view of spiral galaxy G-3, the destination of Na-3 and Nemo-3 Nemo scurried out of the room, and down a series of tunnels, to a shielded viewing area in a forward section of their craft – a reconditioned, 100 kiluret-wide asteroid, appropriated from the outer asteroid belt in the suolar system. He plugged into a console, mentally adjusted some controls, and gazed ahead through remote eyes at a large barred-spiral galaxy known to Jopians as G-3. Twice as broad as their old home galaxy, G-3 harbored some ten times as many stars. It sported two major, symmetric, loosely wound spiral arms, which extended off either end of a prominent bar-shaped central bulge of older yellow and red stars. The spiral arms sparkled with vigorous young star clusters, and were threaded with enticing veins of dark, dusty nebulae.
          Na-3 entered the observation space through a side tunnel, and quietly approached the viewing panel. He looked forward to the time he could again venture outside, and see with his own eyes. For now, it was far too dangerous. They were traveling at a speed over tach 9, very near that of light. The time dilation factor exceded eleven thousand! He had to be content plugging into radiation-hardened sensors scattered over the surface of their ship. Na slid up against Nemo, breaking his friend's concentration.
          "Na – you startled me! I thought you were still scheduled for sleep mode."
          "Sorry; I reprogrammed my waking before the others. Apparently, the same as you." Na plugged into the remote eyes. He was abruptly overwhelmed by blazing light, streaming in a narrow cone from a point straight ahead, and almost ripped himself from the panel.
          "Have you activated the routine to correct for Niestiik effects?" Nemo asked gently. These distortions of space and time, encountered at extreme speeds, were named after the pre-Dracian physicist Niestu, who first described them.
          "Oh, that explains it." Uncorrected for their near-light speed, the target galaxy had been unrecognizable – tiny, distorted, blindingly bright, and x-ray colored. Na enabled the adjustment, and G-3 materialized before him. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
          "Magnificent. Just look how each major arm branches partway out. It's hard to believe over 220 kilujopes have passed back home. Sometimes, it feels like we just left." Nemo paused. "Do you still feel it was right denying Na-2 and Nemo-2 any knowledge of us? That was a gutsy move, demanding that the Neuro Board make two active copies of each of us, and allow one pair – us – to secretly set out on this quest, with no preconditions. I can barely believe that they agreed to withhold all knowledge of us from our alter selves. Such tampering with the memories of a transfered awareness was unprecedented."
          "But we requested it ourselves! And the Board had already agreed to dampen my own memories of the disaster involving my … daughter." The word still had a strange taste.
          "That was different; it was therapeutic, and was not a total erasure."
          "Still, I knew the Board would do almost anything to get Na-1 to agree to the surgery. And I also knew myself. If Na-2 had been made aware that a double was flying off with no emcumbrances to a totally new start, while he was obligated to spend Maddee-knows how long on some Council project, he would have been devastated."
          "I suppose you are right. Though I often wonder whatever became of them. After all, they could have been us."
          "This reminds me of the Evette interpretation of quantum physics, in which we all have innumerable alter selves in parallel universes."
          "Except that those selves are irrevocably cut off from us. We could, in principle, meet up with Na-2 and Nemo-2 someyad."
          "Well, we both know how likely that is."
          A faint glint of light, off to the side, caught their mutual attention. It came from an identical craft, running parallel to their own a few light nocs away. The ship held inactive copies of all 64 meton crew members, plus extra stores of octo and rey genetic material, and was programmed to awaken the meton copies in the event the main ship was badly damaged or destroyed.
          "I hope we never have to use that thing," Nemo sighed. "Though it is reassuring to see it out there. When was the last time you updated your copy?"
          "During the auto-update, last sleep cycle."
          The companions resumed studying the approaching galaxy. Nemo gestured toward the core. "I was so relieved when we all agreed to steer clear of the core. The central black hole makes the one back home look like a malrot seed. It appears to contain some four million suolar masses."
          "How did you expect the others to feel? They are all former octos. The galaxy center frightens them every bit as much as it frightens you. Every one of the consensus candidate targets is at least halfway from the center to the edge of the visible disk. If you recall, I was the only one who proposed a site closer in."
          Nemo zoomed in on a minor spur between the two major spiral arms, about two-thirds of the way out. "Have any shortcomings been found with the primary target?"
          "Not yet. The site still looks comparatively safe, yet blessed with abundant resources. The closer we get, the more promising it appears as a harbor for our primary colony."
          Nemo glanced remotely at the forward skin of their craft. Even the sparse intergalactic vacuum generated noticeable resistance at their high speed, and the surrounding space glowed faintly in x-rays. Microwaves were beamed ahead from an array of transmitters built into the outer hull, to intercept and ionize incoming atoms at a distance. The resulting plasma was swept back around the ship by powerful magnets, reducing drag and minimizing surface ablation. "Are we due for another course correction?"
          "Yes, we were apparently buffeted a few thoms ago by a dark stream feeding into a dwarf galaxy to starboard. The directional adjustment will be minuscule, at our distance from G-3."
          Nemo impulsively turned off the Niestiik correction to vision, and the view collapsed to a brilliant beacon bearing at them from straight ahead. He blocked G-3, and several ghostlike forms appeared nearby – other galaxies, in reality scattered in all directions around them. Behind was a distorted, grossly magnified image of their home star system, shining dimly at microwave and radio frequencies. Nemo sighed audibly. "The uncorrected view is so bizarre, so unreal. To think, that we willingly came here."
          Na similarly turned off all Niestiik corrections, and winced. "This is the desert we must cross, to attain the garden beyond." He then promptly disconnected altogether from the viewing station.
          Nemo joined his friend a few nocs later, and stared at the hard walls. He was visibly shaken. "Without sleep and enhanced time mode, I would go mad. I think I can handle what feels like another one jope confined to this vessel, but to be fully aware for all ten jopes would be unbearable. There is essentially no sensation of motion, only the knowledge of unfathomable emptiness all around. Without you and the rest of the crew, the loneliness would crush me." Five jopes previously, one of the younger metons had in fact broken down and fled the ship, never to be seen again. Deep space psychosis, they were calling it.
          Na slid close to Nemo. They floated together in silence for several nims. Then a senior female meton, freshly awakened, entered the room for a quick look at their surroundings. As she was leaving, she addressed the pair. "The rest of the crew is up, and congregating in the Central Hall. See you there?"
          Na and Nemo gently bumped, then followed their crewmate toward the center of the ship. There they entered a cavernous spherical space. The lighting was subdued, and the walls displayed a simulated view of the outside world. Most of the other metons were already there, floating about and engaged in excited conversation. Nemo's mood brightened.
          The ship's chief navigator entered, and signaled for attention. The hall grew quiet. "I can confirm what you all suspect. We have indeed passed the half-way mark."
          A spontaneous acoustic cheer resonated through the hall. Nemo joined in the hooray, and added a few bright flashes of ultraviolet. He then turned his attention to Na, and whispered. "Exactly how does one define the half-way mark? The point midway between the centers of G-1 and G-3? The point midway between Jopitar and our planned destination? What if we change our target in another jope?"
          Na performed a playful cartwheel in-place. "What practical difference could that possibly make? Does it really matter?"
          "No, I guess not. One thing is for certain, though."
          "What's that? I didn't think we could be certain of anything."
          "There is no turning back now!"