Everything was proceeding as expected. The Ursa Minor interstellar cruise vessel, the Salty Dog, was on course down the wormhole that connected the fourth planet orbiting Polaris to Saturn in the Sol system. The long-standing 17 day Earth vacation boasted epic views of the surrounding planets as well as fantastic port calls at New Los Angeles, Highland Hong Kong, and the sun-drenched beaches of Iceland.
Ursa Minor gnomes weren’t exactly warmly welcomed as most of the population of Earth had died or left the planet long ago. However, the epic skyscraper remains of both New L.A. and Highland H.K. were archeological sites to see. The gnomes had kept a colony in Iceland for more than five thousand years. By Earth’s human calendar the current year was 3127.
The Salty Dog was just 7 meters long with five decks: an engine room below, three decks of staterooms, and the bridge on top. It was constructed from clear compressed diamond plating over old growth Polaris redwood. In truth, it resembled a slick four-person 1950s wooden speedboat. With a top cruising velocity about 1/60th the speed of light, it got the job done in style.
Ursa Minor gnomes, because of their extremely small size, had always traveled to Earth incognito.
Captain Octavius was startled awake by an unprecedented jolt. He sat up straight in his chair and took in the situation. Out the large panoramic window in front of him, he saw the soft glowing green edge of the wormhole. Everything looked ok and the ship was gliding along in perfect smoothness. He wondered if he’d imagined it.
“Charlie, what was that?”
The astral scientist frantically worked the computer console in front of him. The pilot, Babz, leaned over and elbowed him.
“Sir, it appears we just passed a small rift in the wormhole.”
“What do you mean, rift?’
Alarms sounded, controls panels begged for attention, and the whole ship started to noticeably shake. Babz slid her little hands over the stabilizers with the expertise of a surgeon. The shaking not only continued but got violently worse.
Octavius was not pleased. The coffee resting on the arm of his chair jumped out of the cup and splashed across his perfectly groomed beard. He punched his communications panel.
“What’s going on with my engine?”
Five decks below, the engineering crew were frantically checking everything. Clea, who had anticipated an early arrival, already had delicate flowers tucked into her blond braided hair. She was a shipbuilding genius and even she had no idea what was going on.
“Captain, we’re functioning at peak efficiency. It’s like the wormhole is coming apart!”
Octavius spoke ship-wide into the intercom. “We’re experiencing some unexpected turbulence on our Saturn approach, please take your seats. Passengers on the Starboard side will be treated to an excellent view of Titan and Port cabins should be able to look down on Saturn’s rings.”
The ship continued to shake. A skinny navigation robot called Kaster, who also functioned as a co-pilot, was stationed to the right of the Captain. Its head spun around when its sensors felt the Captain’s glance.
“Ship on course. Experiencing gravimetric drag. Engine stress nominal.”
Octavius looked to his left. Roshni was doing damage control with reports coming in from passengers. She sent attendant droids to all in need. At least she was on it.
Time passed. The shaking continued.
Charlie cleared his throat. “Captain, I know what’s happening. It’s not good.”
“What man, tell us!”
More alarms sounded. Kaster jumped out of his seat and magnetized his feet to the deck. The shaking stopped and everyone looked forward. The wormhole was splitting in two. A smaller second tunnel was forming.
“Babz, keep us in the mainline.”
She worked her magic. “Captain, we’re getting pulled toward the new tunnel. I’m at full power.”
Charlie wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He was the youngest crewman at 96 years old and sported the salt-n-pepper beard of a novice. Octavius fixed his eyes at the back of Charlie’s head.
“Captain, the Polaris-Sol wormhole has been stable for 10 millennia. The secondary branch seems to be running parallel to the main route. It’s acting like a giant vacuum tube. We won’t be able to break free. Our exit point should only require a minor trajectory change to slingshot Jupiter and still arrive at Earth.”
The shaking came back in a huge way. The Captain’s coffee mug pinged off the ceiling before it crashed to the floor. The ship got sucked down the new smaller tunnel. Luckily, the speedboat scale of the Salty Dog gave them just enough wiggle room. Babz kept the ship in the center of the tunnel, never touching the deadly edges.
A worried communication came from below. “Sir, we’re gaining incredible speed. I don’t know if the ship can take it.”
Octavius huffed, “We’re almost out. We just need to make one more correction.”
Charlie fed the new coordinates to Babz and she executed them in seconds. The wormhole tunnel was nearly collapsing. The Salty Dog, caught in the vortex, surpassed the speed of light before it was fired out of the wormhole like a bullet.
For the passengers and crew time stood still. Silent. Blinding white light filled their eyes even though they closed them as tight as they could. The ship lost all power. It rocketed by Jupiter and no one even noticed. The gravity of the great gas giant slowed them down. They passed through the asteroid belt on luck and took an arching approach to round Mars.
Everyone felt normality returning. They blinked their eyes. Their vision began to focus. Babz cracked her jaw, then putting her hands together cracked all her fingers at once before returning them to the controls.
“Controls not responding, sir.”
Kaster snapped back to life. “System reboot. Acquiring data.”
To the Captain’s surprise, Charlie beat the robot to it.
“Sir, everything is out. No sensors, no com, no engines, no life support. All we can do is look out the window.”
And look out the window they did. A large fuzzy green planet was floating by in the distance.
The Captain pulled himself together. “Kaster, where are we? What planet is that? Charlie, I thought you said we’d exit right next to Saturn and still be on course to Earth?”
“Sir, my calculations were correct, my last readings had us exiting thirteen kilometers from our original destination.”
The robot agreed. “Affirmative. 13.0 kilometers from Sol wormhole exit point. Current location. 326,192 kilometers from Mars. Earth trajectory confirmed.”
“If that’s Mars, why is it green?”
Charlie speculated. “Maybe their terraforming has wildly improved?”
The Captain rolled his eyes. “They’re thousands of years away from this level of vegetation.”
Roshni shouted, “I can run communication through Kaster!”
“Great, contact Europa outpost. Contact Mars. Contact Lunar Control. Contact Earth. Tell them we’re coming in blind.”
Roshni ran over to the robot and flipped open a panel on its back. She accessed its communications protocols and tied them into the ship’s hull. She tried every one. And she tried them again. A perplexed look crept across her oval face. Her nose scrunched up in disappointment.
“The signal’s good, it’s like they aren’t even there. We’re getting nothing. Dead air.”
“See if you can get data on this planet, Mars or whatever it is?”
She worked the robot’s control panel and turned him into a sensor bank.
Mars drifted away a mossy green ball in the distance.
“Planet position positive. Mars. Fourth major orbiting body. Sol star system.”
Charlie and Octavius scratched their heads simultaneously.
Babz gave up trying to get the piloting station to come online. “I’m going down to the engine room, maybe I can help get the ship running. It’s starting to get cold in here.”
Octavius grabbed his mug off the floor, walked over to the wall, and filled it. He wasn’t going to let the last of the hot coffee go to waste. Roshni widened the scanning range on Kaster.
The robot spat out data. “Star alignment off. Polaris negative 20 degrees from north. No stars in the correct position.”
Charlie read the data over Roshni’s shoulder and couldn’t believe his eyes.
He turned to face the Captain. “Sir, I don’t think the question is where are we. It’s when?”
Octavius narrowed his eyes and sipped his drink. When he exhaled he saw his breath. They were coming up on Earth. The moon was there, but the pale blue dot wasn’t very blue. A huge gloomy cloud seemed to be covering half the globe. The ship swung around the planet.
The other side was clear of clouds. The continents were wrong. It couldn’t be Earth. The shapes seemed almost right, but they were all jammed together into one large mass. The majority of the surface was desert. The eastern edge was belching fire and the red glow could be seen from space as if the Great Wall of China was a chain of erupting volcanos.
Charlie had projected their course correctly, but their speed was greater than he could’ve imagined. They would fall into three low orbits that would decay rapidly.
Roshni closed the panel and returned to her station. Charlie walked over to the Captain.
“Sir, if we don’t get power back we won’t survive the descent.”
Babz came back wearing a fur-lined winter jacket.
“Clea says we have enough battery backup power to slow for an emergency water landing. And we might freeze to death. But she vented the oxygen system, so at least we won’t suffocate.” Babz rubbed her hands together and took her station.
The ship whipped around the planet. The view was mesmerizing. The passengers huddled in their cabins and the crew shivered on the flight deck, looking out at a world they couldn’t believe. A giant ocean covered in ash ringed a single landmass. Hypothermia was setting in, but the hardened crew fought it. They had to survive the next two orbits to make the landing.
On the surface near the eastern shore, a Komodo dragon size lizard with a spine sail of spiky elongated bones looked up to the sky. Its marginal intelligence told it that the meteor was too small to kill it. It watched as the fiery object turned into a smoking object and plunged into the water not far from the beach it was patrolling.
The water bubbled from below and something surfaced. A wooden ship drifted on the water. The lizard watched it float for a long time. The tide brought it in.
The ship ran aground and slowly rocked with the waves. A small hatch opened and a 10-centimeter tall dark steel robot emerged. Its cylindrical head and body moved like a matchstick man. Its red eyes scanned the beach. They connected with the lizard, which hesitated, but showed no sign of fear. It could swallow the robot whole without chewing if it wanted to. The robot powered up its blaster.
The bodies below sat motionless, strapped in their seats. Light from an ancient world reflected through the Salty Dog’s windows and into their frozen eyes.
250 million years ago 80% of life on Earth’s supercontinent Pangaea died during a period known as the Great Permian Extinction, but even in such an environment, a highly advanced artificially intelligent robot could easily survive.
…and evolve and multiply.