by L. Jayde Holmes
Out beyond the Solar System the generation ship Douglas Adams is travelling at 100kms per second. Not even halfway on its journey, but already there is trouble. A riot turns into mutiny, which culminates with the Captain and the leader of the mutineers in a shootout on top of the ship. Each is ducking carefully, for if they stand up the forcefield scoop won’t protect them.
The Mutineer is at the front of the ship, trying to open the hatch to the bridge. The Captain catches up to her and fires a warning shot. Or maybe he just missed because he’d never fired a gun in space before. Either way, it zips pass the mutineer’s helmet. She keeps prying, desperate to get inside to safety. The Captain fires again. The scene remains silent, but a ball of smoke issues from the gun. Direct hit. The Mutineer floats away, the hole in her suit already freezing. Once she breaches the forcefield scoop she comes a blur falling away above the Captain.
The Captain never thinks about the warning shot again. Why would he? The chances that it would go through the forcefield scoop at just the right angle and while no dust was going over it weren’t worth considering. But in an infinite universe, bullets are fired from such ships all the time. With so many bullets being fired each second, it was inevitable that one would do something near impossible eventually.
The bullet was fired at a speed of 4400km/h. Or, a measly 1.2kms per second. In theory, a bullet fired into space should have gone on forever. A body in motion stays in motion, and even though the universe is full of stuff to hit, it expands so fast that the average bullet would never catch up to anything.
But Newton’s First law is more complicated than that. Since the Captain was standing on a ship travelling at 100km/s, the bullet was already moving at 100km/s before it left the barrel of the gun.
The warning shot is shooting through the cosmos fast enough to reach something.
But in theory, that shouldn’t be a problem.
You see, 66 light-years away is a hydrogen rich nebula. It would provide a fuel source for the Douglas Adams, but oblivion for the bullet. The dust particles would rip it apart as it zoomed through.
But between the bullet and the nebula lay a patch of wormholes. Wormholes are more common in our universe than one would think, but are usually microscopic so we never find them. Larger wormholes, such as those the bullet was approaching, are much rarer. Of course, the word larger can be misleading. The largest ones in the patch were just big enough to allow the bullet to enter.
Our bullet has no method of steering and even if it did, no mind to guide it. It was destined to follow the path the Captain had set it on decades ago. The chances that its path would send it straight into the mouth of one of the few wormholes large enough were incalculably remote. Preposterous to even consider. It would be like someone winning the lottery. Twice.
But the thing is, people do win the lottery. Sometimes twice. Incalculably remote does not mean impossible, and in an infinite universe anything not impossible must happen.
The bullet goes through the wormhole. It leaves behind the Douglas Adams, which had been catching up, and keeps only its momentum. It exits the wormhole faster than any bullet before it, in an empty area of space between two galaxies.
And it travels in that void for centuries. Long after the Douglas Adams had brought her human cargo to a new star, the bullet hurtles towards a spiral galaxy larger than our own.
As it gets closer to the edge of the galaxy, gravity begins to notice the bullet, and it is pulled closer to the suns around the outer arm. It whooshes pass the Sentinels; giant machines from a long vanished intergalactic civilisation that keep watch for invaders. They notice the bullet, but pass it off as harmless debris that would meet its end burning in the atmosphere of a sun or planet somewhere.
In theory, they are correct. There are a lot of things for the bullet to hit now, but as more centuries pass and the descendants of the Captain forget all about the Douglas Adams, the bullet travels past solar system after solar system, missing everything along the way.
This wasn’t really that improbable. Space is mostly empty space.
The first few systems the bullet passes are old white dwarfs with dying planets. One has a dying civilisation scratching out a living on the Oort cloud. Once they had ruled this part of the galaxy.
Our bullet doesn’t get captured by any of these systems, but their gravities have an impact. Our bullet curves around them, and after a thousand years of these slight course alterations, it is set on a new trajectory.
A trajectory that leads to a system that has never known the Galactic Civilisation. It is a system unique in this galaxy and probably in the next as well, for it has a gas giant in the habitable zone. Of course, that in itself is only somewhat rare; the unique part is that five of this planet’s moons are life bearing. Not only that, but they each have intelligent life on them at the same time.
The bullet gets pulled into this system as people on one of the five moons are working out agriculture. It falls into a stable orbit around the sun for a few thousand years until another of the moons started looking at its neighbours with a newly invented telescope.
Now it gets captured by the gas giant’s twin further out in the system. Our bullet’s fate is in the balance. Would it be pulled into the giant to finally die? Would the giant’s pull eventually slow the bullet until it drifted along harmless? Would it crash into one of this giant’s lifeless moons?
No. Instead there is a collision between an asteroid and a moon as the bullet is passing. This collision ejected the bullet from the giant at great speed. Our little bullet is the fastest man-made object in the universe. Though of course, even if humans still existed, the light from the Milky-Way is yet to reach this galaxy.
But this event signifies the end of the bullet. It is now on a course that will take it into the habitable zone gas giant in a mere 134 years.
In that time, the inhabitants of the moons keep busy. They build radios and then spaceships with peaceful intentions. Soon they are at war with each other. Decades of hostility which last until a great leader from the Second-Largest Moon begins campaigning for peace. As more people from the Moons hear his message, the desire for peace grows. It is decided that the time has come to sit down and talk.
Neutral ground is needed, so a space station is built. Delegates from across the Moons fill it. There are more than just five factions involved; a world, even if it is a small moon, is a very large and diverse place after all. The talks last weeks, and would have been a success.
Except the space station is right in the path of the bullet.
And the talks took place 134 years after it was ejected from the other giant.
The bullet ripped through the space station; its speed giving it the force to penetrate steel that was thought to be able to withstand micrometeorites. All the delegates – all the moderates and progressives from each faction – die as they toast peace. The great leader dies earlier than the most; the bullet pierced his breathing sack for good measure.
The bullet continues into the atmosphere of the giant and burns up, its journey finally over. In its wake it left an end to any hope for peace. The people of the Moons didn’t stop fighting until they had destroyed too much of their home to ever travel the stars again.
As rare as a planet like the life-bearing giant is, and as improbable as the bullet’s journey is, the universe is so large and old that this type of event is inevitable.