The Yaw

They couldn’t look back.

That was decided by the elders in the first emergency meeting of the Argo, when the radio broadcasts from the later spacecraft reached them. They were heading for the Taurus gate, some two weeks away, a long-planned escape from this star system. In give or take a couple of years, the central fireball would go supernova. So they had all the time in the world to escape, but not that much time to linger around.

This fleet had eleven craft in total, each carrying about a hundred Milky Way humans, direct descendants from the earthly ancestors. The whispers started when the spaceship at the rearmost of the formation suddenly stopped broadcasting. Its final messages said that it had discovered an anomaly in the star, something of scientific interest. The craft was executing a U-turn to point its directional telescopes to take a better look. Then it was not heard from again.

The elders were sure of some sort of mundane mishap; perhaps an equipment malfunctioned, or the comms. person had slept on the job. When two other ships at the back followed suit, one broadcasting that it was steering its antennas towards the rear just before going silent, the elders hastily convened. A message arrived mid-meeting, the aftermath of a similar council in the craft right behind them, the Mandjet. The leaders there weren’t certain of anything either, but one decision was clear. They were taking zero chances, and all antennas and receiving equipment were pointed in a frontal ninety-degree field of view. All radars were turned off, even the rear-looking windows were shuttered.

They advised the Argo to do the same.

In the days that followed, every human on the craft felt lonelier than ever before, even with ninety-nine of their kindred with them. The Argo was at the very front of the file, so they were denied the solace of another friendly ship in their sights. And a strange atmosphere was brewing.

Space walks were banned, even for repairs, so the fixers were wandering the interior looking for any broken equipment to set right. The scouts were barred from gazing at any direction other than straight ahead, which didn’t take that many eyes; most of them were off duty. But even for the rest of the populace, a trembling dread and maddening curiosity arose.

There were rumors of a new weapon that destroyed anything that looked at it, a basilisk. But no waves of debris had hit the hull, so the scientists reasoned that no disintegration had taken place. Maybe a radio jamming signal was the culprit, and all the ships were fine. However, it was clear that the first ships had no issues before turning around. Perhaps some sort of digital virus, that drove people and ship navigation systems insane, a few argued. They must have found another human fleet, some said, and they’re laughing at us being scaredy cats, afraid to turn around or even receive their messages. Some wanted to open the shutters, look back, but none voiced this opinion near the elders.

The view in the front was no different from the view backwards, in a way. It was the dead silence of space freckled by a million distant stars. And yet, an itch persisted.

ETA to the Taurus gate was one day when the next meeting was called. Once the threshold was crossed, they would arrive at a faraway system, this abnormal thing well behind them. The elders informed the rest of their decision. The gate was wide enough only for a single craft to pass at once. There was no use waiting for the rest of the ships, if they were still behind, to catch up. If it was a wave of lethal debris, and it wasn’t, but if it remotely could be a wave, then they’d be in grave danger if they slowed.

So, the Argo would fire on ahead. If any stragglers were behind, it would greet them in the new star system.

Noise erupted even during the meeting, before being hushed by the elders. Debates, concerns and calculations raged in every room and passageway of the ship. A scout was found trying to force open a rear window, and was held captive in a pod. A group of fixers requested the elders for a final space walk, their argument that seeing the scene with biological eyes would be different from pointing the antennas. The elders refused.

Two hours before final takeoff, a mutiny was called. Some scientists, not content to let the strangeness be, had shored up enough support for an overthrow. The mutiny was relatively peaceful, of course, and fully democratic. As the fifty-first person voted in favor of turning the ship, even some elders heaved a sigh of relief. It had felt inhumane, not trying to make sense of the oddity.

Equal parts joyous celebration and silent excitement followed the yaw motion. The thrusters fired in tandem, turning the craft slowly. The humans stared at what was behind them, with a hushed breath.

A fleet of eleven that was supposed to arrive from a distant system never did, and no message was relayed as to why. This resulted in quite a lot of paperwork for an overworked intern at the Galactic Thoroughfare Nexus, who then decided to quit the job and join a spacecraft crew. Looking at anything was better than looking at files on a screen all day, they reasoned.

Written on 05 September 2020