The Shadow of Space

a original short story by Philip Jose Farmer
report & analysis by Dave Eversole

 

The TSN-X (Terran Space Navy Experimental) Sleipnir, based out of Asgard, the eighth planet of Alpha Aquilae, is 28 days out of base, preparing to be the first ship to exceed the speed of light. Careful preparations are underway for the big test.

Suddenly, alarm klaxons sound. Captain Eric Grettir is informed by Chief Engineer MacCool that Mrs. Wellington, armed with a laser, has taken over the Engineering section and sealed herself inside. She is wearing a spacesuit so MacCool cannot flood the room with knockout gas to incapacitate her. She has taken control of the acceleration components (ingeniously sealing off any override systems), and the Sleipnir is approaching light speed.

The fear is palpable as everyone aboard contemplates the imagined horrors that could occur when the speed of light is broken. Grettir watches as the ship’s computer indicates they have hit 1.0 on the scale, then 1.1, then 1.2. The ship doesn’t explode, and in fact nothing unusual seems to happen.

Grettir is informed that Mrs. Wellington will only talk with him. With the crews’ eyes on him, Grettir leaves the bridge, makes his way to Engineering, recalling how they got here.

Only a few days out of Asgard, the Sleipnir intercepted a Mayday call from a small disabled spaceship. Onboard, they found the dead body of Dr. Robert Wellington. His wife Donna was alive, but mentally unbalanced. Because of a very superficial resemblance between Eric Grettir and her late husband, Mrs. Wellington clings to the belief that Grettir is really Robert Wellington, and is playing some type of cruel joke on her.

Arriving at Engineering, Grettir tries to reason with Mrs. Wellington, but she will not listen. As MacCool mans a laser cannon with orders to fire should she attempt to harm him, Grettir enters Engineering. Mrs. Wellington, quite insane, will not listen to his reasoning, and fires at him. He is knocked unconcscious.

Coming to consciousness under the ministration of Doctor Wills in the ship‘s sickbay, Grettir learns that Mrs. Wellington is dead, but MacCool did not kill her. She stripped off her spacesuit, set an airlock to recycle and stepped inside.

MacCool and Wills share worried glances. What is it, Grettir wants to know. MacCool explains that he has retaken control of the engine and has undone all the jury-rigging Mrs. Wellington implemented. But just before he returned the engine to normal operations mode the ship passed through a strange nausea-inducing distortion "wave." The whole ship rippled.

"We don’t know where the hell we are," MacCool says.

Grettir and crew soon find out that the Sleipnir’s final recorded speed was 300,000 times the speed of light. They passed out of the universe into a grey area, devoid of stars, but filled with large spheres.

Close by is a particularly large sphere which dwarfs them. About this sphere orbits a much smaller sphere and the gargantuan body of Mrs. Wellington! The Sleipnir has also been enlarged and bloated from its normal slim lines to a large spindle shape.

Grettir is informed that the Sleipnir emerged from the smaller sphere. Soon they realize that the smaller sphere is their universe. The larger sphere and all the other spheres are separate universes.

Grettir orders the ship to reenter the sphere from which they came. They hit the sphere at 25,000 times the speed of light. Waves of nausea hit them as they reenter their universe.

Back inside their universe, they are dumbfounded as small dots of milky white light which slightly resemble fireflies pass through the very interstices between the molecules of the Sleipnir’s hull. Several hit members of Grettir's crew, and they scream and collapse in pain with severe burns on their skin where the lights touched them. One crewmember almost swallows a dot of light, but coughs it up, spews out a hazy grey film of smoke and brilliance which quickly fades. One dot of light collides with Grettir’s forehead. When readings come in reporting that the Sleipnir’s size and shape have not reverted to normal, that they are still trillions of times larger than normal, Grettir orders the ship brought to a dead stop. He realizes what the dots of light are.

They are entire galaxies!

He and his crewmates have just destroyed trillions of planets and untold trillions and trillions of lifeforms by not stepping out of the way of the galaxies. Hopefully they did not destroy the Milky Way. Overcome by remorse, Grettir orders the Sleipnir to once again exceed the speed of light by the same factor as before and return to the gray space beyond the universe.

Back in the gray void, the pull of gravity emitted by the gargantuan body of Mrs. Wellington drags the Sleipnir inside her mouth. They reverse course and exit her body.

Grettir has a plan. He believes that the Sleipnir’s speed when reentering the universe was too great which caused the ship to remain gargantuan. He theorizes that if they approach the sphere, use force beams to cut a hole in it, then pass through into their universe at normal speed the Sleipnir will revert to it normal size and shape.

His plan works. The Sleipnir leaves behind the gray void and reenters their universe, and the hole seals up rapidly behind them. All is normal, but Captain Eric Grettir and his crew know that they have truly gone where none have ever ventured, and no experience will ever rival it. Grettir also knows he will carry the guilt of destroying a number of galaxies for the rest of his life.

 

"The Shadow of Space" is included in Farmer's 1971 collection Down In The Black Gang. The foreground portion of the cover artwork for the Science Fiction Book Club edition illustrates the TSN-X Sleipnir entering the mouth of the enlarged Mrs. Wellington.

This is an incredible story -- one of the true "sense of wonder" pieces that makes science fiction a legitimate form of literature. Taut and filled with suspense, one even forgives the necessary technobabble, as it is integrated so well into the dialogue and background.

The humanity and remorse that Eric Grettir expresses would have fit the character of James Kirk perfectly.

Farmer himself feels that it would have broken the budget of a weekly 1960s television show. I agree, but with today's special effects methods it would be feasible. Too bad something like the recent revival of The Outer Limits never got hold of it.


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