The Brigadier wasn't pleased with my question, posed during our final briefing. "Never mind the goddamned metaphysics, Lieutenant. We're talking physics here!"
His tone became somewhat milder: "Just ... trust the science," he said. "You signed up for this with your eyes wide open."
Well, he was right about that. I'd wanted to be a part of the Outer Planets Project since boyhood. I had followed with rapt attention the reports of all the manned flights to Mars and to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Pioneering in space was the only career I'd ever considered.
But I had expected our upcoming Neptune Expedition to involve fusion rockets and the massive hardware of space travel. As the general had forcefully reminded me, we were entering a fascinating but frightening new era.
Twelve years ago, the Terran Aeronautics and Space Administration (TASA) launched an enormous fusion rocket heading for Triton, Neptune's largest moon. That ship is now orbiting Triton, but it is nothing but a huge, unmanned supply vessel.
At the highest speeds attainable now, in 2046, rocket-powered space vehicles are painfully slow for voyages to the Solar System's outermost planet. Sure, we had crewmembers who would have been willing to undertake a quarter-century-long round trip. Hell, I was one of them!
But TASA said no. After Neptune, humankind's next goal will be interstellar travel. For that, several human lifetimes would be required to reach even the nearest star.
But now, a better way has been found.
Everything needed for survival in orbit around Triton is already aboard our ship. Everything except its human crew.
From the ship, our job will be to send robot explorers on surface missions, both to Triton and to Neptune itself.
We will be performing our work at the greatest distance from Terra that humans have ever ventured. But what is truly unique is the method by which the crew is to be transported. We will travel at light speed — not merely farther, but also far faster than humankind has ever before traveled!
Of course, no vehicle is capable of such speeds. Rocket travel at light speed will likely remain infeasible for a hundred — even a thousand more years.
But no matter. We are to be transported digitally! When my General tells me to "trust the science," he is urging an enormous leap of faith.
Let me say it again: They are sending us ... digitally!
Oh, we won't be the first. The technology has been thoroughly tested. TASA has sent test subjects from New Paris to Buenos Aires — and back! At least two dozen experimental missions have been completed. Twice, human test subjects have been sent to the Gagarin-Armstrong Moonbase!
Every one of these test missions has been successful.
Simply described, a "transmitter" sends digital instructions — trillions of them — through deep space to our orbiting ship. "Receiver units" there — boxes bearing an unfortunate resemblance to coffins — accept the signals through millions of miles of airless space. These receivers, using cellular and chemical matter stored within the ship, then perform their appointed task. Our crewmembers will emerge, each in turn, from the box — finding themselves fully reconstituted as human beings.
Clearly, the Brass doesn't welcome further discussion about the details of this little adventure. We crewmembers can only talk to each other. I chose Flight Officer Debra McNally. She's a thoughtful sort, and, like me, seems a little bit less rigid than most of our shipmates.
"Does this process ... give you any pause at all?" I asked her.
"Pause? You mean, am I afraid it won't work? No. It's been tested again and again. It works."
"No," I tell her. "I'm ... not really talking about it not working. But I'm bothered because it's so freaking strange! I mean, no part of the essence of any of us will actually travel through space! We're just going to be a bunch of zeros and ones transmitted like code. We're like — the universe's most sophisticated fax copies."
"C'mon, Lieutenant! You think this is riskier than growing old in a fusion rocket? What bothers you? The enormous distances our transmissions have to travel?"
Science Fiction /