"You reckon space is the final frontier?"
"Erm... define 'frontier'," replies Ed. It is a typical Ed response. Spin out the question a bit further, buy time to think of a proper answer.
"Well, there's nowhere else to explore, right?"
"Sheesh. Don't put it like that. That's like saying, 'Right! After hundreds of years of diligent exploration, we microscopic bacteria have carefully mapped every nook and cranny of our grain of sand. Lastly, we will explore the final frontier: every other grain of sand on the entire planet Earth.' As far as mankind is-- erm, as far as mankind and physical travel are concerned, space is the first frontier. The first meaningful one. Everything up to today is child's play.
"Other than that... well, I can name a half-dozen frontiers more final than space. Time, for one. Even the Kerrig machine didn't have the capacity to send a man more than two hundred hours back in time, and while we all know that 'true' time travel is impossible, there's still so much we don't know about the splitting phenomenon, divergent universes, and what occurs during transit... and what happens when you go forwards instead of backwards. Then there's the subatomic, that is to say superstrings. Then layers, once the scientific community finds them. Not to mention the as yet almost completely untouched depths of the human mind, and artificial intelligence, and the unexplorable depths of the Pacific and the Earth's core and Jupiter's atmosphere and the Sun's upper layers. All of these are places we will get to one day. And all of them will be a LOT harder to solve than the light speed problem."
"So I guess we won't be able to dive into the Sun in this thing," I say, climbing up the ladder and into the cockpit of the angularly-constructed, lorry-sized, vaguely hemispherical, antenna-spined hedgehog of a spaceship which is quietly exhausting water vapour from a vent on its back. It's powered by cold fusion, and has no obvious thruster exhausts; it doesn't need them. The ship's name, stencilled on the side, is apparently Ed Rocks.
Ed has been building the thing for about six months, though I'm almost positive he's been drawing up plans for it far longer than that. He built it entirely in the basement, though. I must remember to ask him about that.
"You know, it was the little things that were the hardest," he says, following me up the ladder. "Like programming the airlock safeties, and figuring out what to make the coolant pipes out of. And these." He flips open a panel on a nearby piece of external hull. I look inside, seeing wiring in seven or eight different colours.
"Circuitry access points?" I guess.
"No, the clippy thing on the panel that holds it shut. There are about five hundred of these all over the ship. They always look so simple until you try to design one yourself which isn't going to freeze solid in vacuum."
I climb through the ring airlock into a two-seater cockpit which resembles that of a commercial airliner in terms of space and number of switches. In the opposite direction, a cylindrical crawlspace apparently leads all the way down the spine of the ship, allowing access to all the systems, which are modular and multiply redundant. I can see at least a hundred panels featuring handles identical to the one Ed just showed me - they line the inside of the tunnel, in various shapes and sizes.
"So the engine was pretty easy by comparison?"
"The screw drive, as I call it, was a walk in the park," says Ed. "I'd had the design on the books for long enough anyway."
"Dare I ask how it works?"
"Basically it uses electricity to perform an extremely weird subquantum interaction which results in the drive reacting against the fabric of the universe itself."
"Doesn't that... you know, violate Newton's Third Law?"
"Not really. When we move forwards, the fabric of the universe moves backwards... a bit like a water paddle. But I reckoned screw drive - as in Archimedes' screw - sounded cooler than 'space paddle'."
"Well, coolness is what spaceflight is all about, right?"
"It is in my book. Anyway, the fact that the screw drive doesn't use rocketry means it doesn't have to be mounted externally - where, if it was damaged, I wouldn't be able to get to and fix it because I don't have a spacesuit. Yet. Instead, it's essentially built into the skeleton of the spaceship. The ship is lifted by its own frame. And if part of it gets damaged, the rest can keep operating." Ed shuts the airlock behind us and locks it. He motions for me to sit in one of the seats, and climbs into the other one.
"Erm, are we taking off now?"
I glance upwards through the canopy. Up at the basement roof. "Well, how do you plan to move the house out of the way?"
"I guess I didn't tell you about the other drive, did I?" smirks Ed. "A reactionless drive is one thing, but interstellar travel at any sensible kind of speed in an Einsteinian universe of this size is quite another. The screw drive is for manoeuvring. This drive? 'S gonna take us to the stars."
"And how does this one work?"
Ed grins, and reaches for an exciting-looking button on the control panel. He flips up the transparent plastic lid which covers it. "Magic."
And suddenly we are four hundred million miles from home.
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