Unlike the last two jumps executed by the freighter designated M614B there are no anomalies or sudden unexpected drops out of FTL. Instead, there is the entirely expected and announced drop that sees the Transit class freighter return to sub-light speeds. The deceleration is gentle, by comparison to the previous occurrences. Carmen exhales in relief until she raises her head to peer out the canopy. The view is very different this time compared to before. So different in fact Carmen cannot be sure it is even the same world. That’s why she blinks, hoping her eyes are deceiving her, but they aren’t, and she finds herself staring down at a brown barren world.
“NIGEL, check spatial positioning and initiate scans.” The words leave the redheads mouth, while she stares at the sight before her so intently that her eyes go glassy as a result.
“Location is Sunfire Three according to all available stellar data.” NIGEL confirms before taking a synthetic pause and then adding, “No habitable atmosphere detected, but scans have picked up an object floating in excess of four hundred thousand miles off our starboard.”
“What is it?” Carmen says following a pause, and a series to blinks to return her vision to normal.
Before an answer is given, Carmen turns to focus on the console in front of her that occupies the space between her pilots’ seat and the canopy beyond which space and this dead barren world lie. She can’t say why she does it. Maybe it’s out of nothing other than habit, though it could also be because a thought entered and then immediately slipped out of her head.
Silence continues to linger for what seems like an age before NIGEL answers, “It is a supply drop beacon shaft.”
“Origin?” Carmen questions without a seconds delay.
“Designation reads Mike Six One Four Bravo.” NIGEL replies, his voice sounding more distant than Carmen has ever been able to recall it sounding before.
In fact, it seems so dulled that it’s almost like the navigational system is speaking through cotton wool. Yet, Carmen knows for a fact that he isn’t and that there is nothing wrong with her hearing.
Carmen sighs relieved. It’s what she’d been hoping for, even though she cannot definitively answer why the world before her looks so different. It might be that she is facing what was before the far side of the planet. Or it could be that the beacon shaft has drifted closer to Sunfire Two or Four. She expects that it’s the latter. It seems the most probable, especially when factoring in that NIGEL’s nav data is without a doubt corrupt, if only partially. Another revelation she is semi-relieved to know.
However, Carmen’s relief doesn’t last long as NIGEL soon reveals, “Data confirms the beacon shaft has been active for twenty thousand years.”
At first the words uttered by the nav system doesn’t sink in for Carmen. Instead, she continues to feel at ease. Then suddenly the gravitas of NIGEL’s words break through the thick fog in her head. They’re like a fist to the face and in that moment result in Carmen bolting upright as she exclaims with a mixture of horror and disbelief, “How is that possible?”
NIGEL doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have a logical conclusion, at least not one that he is as yet ready to verbalise. Instead, he continues to sift through all of the data he has available to him, searching for a confirmation of what the more limited sample of information offered in conclusion. After all, being an advanced computational system he needs to be able to reconcile what has been presented to him. After all, its data that Carmen is, as an organic being, unable to process or discern the value of because she is not programmed to comprehend the values it returns in its raw forms. If NIGEL were an AI he may be able to recompile it into an understandable format for her, but he isn’t. So instead he will simply have to review it himself and then offer up his conclusion once he is sure all avenues are exhausted and corroborated as thoroughly as is possible for he, as a navigational system, to achieve.
Meanwhile, Carmen is mulling over what little information she herself possesses in hopes of discerning an answer of her own. Suddenly an idea hits her. At first she refuses to accept it. But the more she considers it the more apparent it becomes that it is the only possible answer and she had in no way, shape or form considered until now. That alone makes her wonder how it has taken her this long to reach such a conclusion. And to make matters worse it should be entirely impossible, at least from what she knows, which is limited by her own admission, about the universe and how it works.
Finally, when she feels she can contain the thoughts no more and that if she doesn’t verbalise her belief now then she might explode, the redhead announces, “The anomaly did this. It must have sent us forward in time. But how can that be possible?”
It’s the conclusion NIGEL had itself reached, what for it is a while but for a human is not. However, it hadn’t been sure of how to convey its conclusion to Carmen. Now it doesn’t have to.
Still, Carmen hopes more than anything before in her life that this isn’t true and prays, silently, on a romanticised idea that NIGEL might come swooping in and offer up some other, more simple and seemingly possible, outcome that she been unable to grasp thus far. However he does not. Instead he stays silent.
The silence lasts a long while. So long in fact that it becomes uncomfortable. Not because of its presence but because it leaves Carmen to dwell on her thoughts. That is until she can take the silence no more and so orders, “Send a wide berth data blast across all known space frequencies.”
NIGEL gives no indication that he attempts to carry out the redheaded woman’s order, but he does. However, he soon has to advise that, “Such a thing is not possible.”
It follows a number of attempts by the integrated nav system, all of which ended in failure.
“What do you mean it’s not possible? Why?” Carmen queries while feeling light-headed and unsure as to whether she really wants answers to the questions she has just asked. Even though she is sure it’s far too late for her to take them back.
“I can detect no functioning communications network.” NIGEL advises before immediately continuing without offering a pause for Carmen to have the chance of uttering a single word.
“Furthermore, from the data gathered it appears besides this ship, the beacon shaft and you there are no other instances of technology or organic life within data burst range.”
Carmen’s head spins. That isn’t possible. In fact, it seems more impossible than the idea of her being hurled through time. It’s why she quickly asks, “What is data burst range?”
“Roughly seventy light years from end to end.” NIGEL confirms succinctly.
Carmen’s jaw and face drop. She’s speechless, lost for words. She is the only sentient, organic being in a massive section of what was once heavily populated space. Her hands begin to tremble wildly and her breathing becomes heavy. However, her mind is empty. Not a single thought enters her mind. Instead, only panic and fear well up inside her chest. Her world, her life, has been turned on its head and she hasn’t a clue what to do, where to go or how to continue. Is there even a point in continuing? And where did humanity go? They are all questions of which there seems to be no answers for. If only these questions would enter Carmen’s head. Maybe they would give her direction, purpose, but they don’t and instead she is left sitting in the pilots’ seat of her Transit class freighter more alone than she ever believed could be possible, and for the first time in her life that bothers her.