"Soft Sunset" by Ellie Hradsky

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by Glenn H. Morris


"Engines are charged and functional," Commander Sloan said.

"Check is completed, Commander. Slip-stream is go, fire at your mark, and resume contact from Mars orbit," Ground Control responded.

Sloan pulled out a picture of his wife and son. Smiling, he put the picture on the console. "That's a go, Ground Control. Firing slip-stream engines in three, two, one..., engines firing."

A blinding light engulfed the ship; Sloan soon felt a feeling of severe vertigo. Darkness invaded his vision as he slowly lost consciousness.

* * *

Four weeks later -- Ground Control Detainment Center

"He's a good man, not a man to crack up," General Clark said to the physician as they peered through a small, one-way window into Sloan's containment quarters.

"I'm afraid I have to disagree with you, General. Normal men don't talk about families that never existed," the physician replied.

"What about the picture?" the General said, keeping his eyes on Sloan.

"As you are aware, General, we have tracked down the woman, and she has never met the Commander; the boy we have yet to find."

"Then how do you explain all three in the same picture?"

"We can't as of now... computer-enhanced, maybe. Imaging will identify this as a hoax soon enough."

The General's assistant approached. "General, our 3 o'clock meeting is about to start."

"OK, let's hope I get some real answers." The three turned and walked away. Inside the containment room, a solitary figure sat, staring at a small picture in his hand.

* * *

The General entered the meeting room and barked at the assembled scientists: "Tell me what's going on, and it better be good."

A man in a lab coat stood up. "Sir, the slip-stream engines were designed to fold space. We don't know for certain what caused the unexpected results, but we think the engines may have caused a tear in space. The Commander Sloan that came back may not be our Commander Sloan."

"Not ours?" the General responded, as he glared at the scientist. "You'd better explain that a bit better."

"We're considering a parallel-world theory as most likely, although of course there could be other possibilities. Sir, this is indeed Commander Sloan, but he is not the same man that left on Infinity One. This Commander has a different past, a different history." The man in the lab coat sat down again, uncomfortably.

"Well, what do we do about it?" the General said forcibly, continuing to stare at the scientist.

"We could try to send him back, but there are risks."

"Which are?" the General asked.

"We see four likely scenarios. One, the engines work as originally planned and the Commander ends up in Mars orbit. Two, he may end up in another alternate or parallel universe. Three, he may go back to where he came from."

"What about the fourth?" the General asked.

"Some of our scenarios suggest he may not survive another trip. Our doctors have uncovered some cellular damage. Not much, but some. Another trip could kill him."

"Give me your best guess on what would happen," the General said.

The scientist replied, after glancing at his colleagues, "We think we can offer some protection from cellular damage, give him the chance to go home to his family. We could learn what we can about his world and then send him back; anyway, if we don't, then our Commander Sloan probably will be lost forever."

* * *

Three Weeks Later -- Earth Orbit

Commander Sloan looked at the picture on the console and smiled.
He then pressed the voicecom on his suit.

"Thank you, General. Your Commander Sloan is lucky to have a friend like you."

"You just go back to your family. It was a pleasure knowing you," the General's voice replied.

"Engaging countdown," Sloan said nervously.

A bright light surrounded the ship and darkness again engulfed Commander Sloan as he drifted into unconsciousness.

* * *

The ship was slowly moving through orbit as Sloan's senses gradually came back. Checking the instruments and running diagnostics showed that the ship was in one piece and operating under normal parameters.

A reflection caught his eye, as Sloan looked up and saw that the beautiful Earth was right where it was supposed to be.

"Re-entry course engaged, time to head home," he said. "Ground Control, this is Commander Sloan, asking for re-entry course confirmation."

The only reply was radio static.

Sloan began to panic; sweat ran down his face.

"Radio's probably not working," he said, forcing himself to calm down. He checked the scanner and punched in the predetermined landing coordinates.

"There you are. Beautiful Cape Canaveral in sunny Florida," he said, a smile growing on his face. "Coordinates in, touchdown in ten minutes."

During re-entry, Sloan watched as the flames from atmospheric friction encircled the ship, then started to fade. As his ship broke through the thick cloud cover, an alarm went off and the word
ALERT kept flashing on his instrument panel.

"What the hell, radiation levels are that high? What is going on?" he said as he examined the instruments trying to find a malfunction. All instruments were operating correctly.

As the clouds finally dissipated, Sloan stared in amazement at the view screen showing Cape Canaveral. "It hasn't looked that way in sixty years!" He quickly remembered his training for the Slip-Stream Project -- time travel had been mentioned as a possible side-effect of using the slip-stream engines, though an unlikely one.

Trying to control his anxiety, Sloan looked for a possible landing site. Seeing that there weren't any within scanner range, he decided to make an emergency landing on a nearby highway, since his ship carried little extra fuel.

Checking the instruments, which still showed high levels of radiation, Sloan slipped on his spacesuit. It would give him some protection, at least until the air supply ran out.

The landing went smoothly, and Sloan began to monitor all radio and television bands for any information.

"No video signals?" he said, astonished. A thought occurred to him, and he decided to check for short-wave signals. "Finally, at least somebody's alive on this planet."

The talk on the short-wave radio was odd, mostly people with Australian or New Zealand accents chattering mindlessly about food supplies.

After fifteen minutes of listening, he decided to leave the ship. He picked up the picture of his wife and son and put it in an inner pocket. As he descended the stairs, he pressed an air monitor on his sleeve, which showed radiation levels far above normal. Over time, he realized, being exposed to this environment would cause serious illness.

As he began walking down the deserted highway, he noticed the bones of birds and other animals on the road surface and along both shoulders of the road. Clearly, they had been dead for quite awhile. He walked for almost a mile before coming across a small souvenir store. It was deserted, and he searched inside until he found what he wanted, a newspaper.

Stunned, he read the headlines on the crumbling newspaper, which was nearly brown with age. "I didn't go back in time." His hands shook. "The world just stopped long ago."

He now recalled what the scientists had told him about how there could be an infinite number of worlds, all taking up nearly the same location yet unaware of one another. Apparently, he had entered a world that had never been given a chance to see its future.

* * *

He still held the newspaper in his hand as he stood outside the souvenir store. The paper was dated October 22, 1962. In this world, America and the former Soviet Union had never settled their differences.

"Time to go home," Sloan said, pulling off his helmet. He began to walk in the direction of where his house, not far from the Cape, would be in his own world -- a world very similar to this one, except that Sloan's world had lived to see its future.

Story copyright 2001 by Glenn H. Morris glennhmorris@yahoo.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Ellie Hradsky ehradsky@suffolk.lib.ny.us

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