An alarm screamed throughout the tiny ship. A shrill electronic wake up call, sounding it's relentless warning to a groggy Vince Smith. He finally dozed off a scant two hours ago after being awake for the last 28 hours straight, making final calculations and adjustments for the upcoming 'fall'.
“Alarm off!” he croaked. Thankfully, silence returned. The whispering of the air circulation fans and the occasional click and whir of an automatic switch being thrown, were the only sounds competing with the steady heartbeat drumming in his ears. He threw his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up allowing his senses to return like a drunk awakening from a binge.
He rose to his feet and stumbled into the galley for a cup of coffee and some nourishment to drive away the cobwebs and place him in the world of the living once again. Ordering up hot coffee and a high density nutrient bar, he sat studying the monitors.
Outside the stars, twisted and warped, amid all colors of the rainbow, blazed in their final glory before dropping through the event horizon and being eaten by the enormous black hole dead ahead. Ahead lay what...infinity, death? The possibilities were endless. No one has ever done what Vince was about to do. At least no one under observation by thousands of eyes and instruments that lay scattered in known space. “There may be no coming back from this.”he thought. At least that is what he was told and every law of physics backed up the dire prediction. No evidence could assure that either he or the ship would make it through intact. The scientists had postulated that the larger the hole the better his chances of surviving, which held little comfort for him now. He was racing toward an event horizon as wide as the whole of Earth's orbit at an ever-increasing velocity. Pulled by the immense gravity of the singularity. This was a giant, consuming every atom that happened to come too close. When it swallowed more than it could ingest, great jets of plasma and radiation would blast from the beast irradiating everything in its path for light years. Thankfully, this beast was not feeding now and the radiation from it was endurable with full shields up.
Vince sat back sipping his coffee as he remembered an old white-haired astrophysicist explaining what they knew or theorized about black holes during one of his mission briefings.
“...matter that comes to close to the event horizon, that boundary between where light can and cannot escape. In other words, the region between what is in the universe as we know and see it and what is forever lost to the black hole and the mysteries beyond. If you were to free fall feet first into a black hole the force of gravity would grow astronomically as you approached its center. Since you're always weightless in free fall it wouldn’t be the incredible gravity of the black hole that would kill you.”
“Tidal force”, that's what would get you. You'd be pulled apart as a result of the difference in the gravitational force between your feet and your head. Tidal force tries to accelerate what is closest to the black hole faster than what is farther away. Your body would stretch to the breaking point and then begin to break apart. Finally, because your whole body would be moving toward the same spot, the black hole's center, like dough through a spaghetti maker you'd be reduced to a thin string of falling atoms. The smaller holes are the worst because you can get much closer to them before you cross their event horizons and the change in the tidal force at that point would be catastrophic. Black holes are.......”
“Eye of the Needle, this is Control...do you read?” the communication system squawked, thankfully jolting Vince back to the here and now.
“Affirmative Control, I read you. You're starting to break up though. It won't be long now and you'll be beyond my system's capabilities to translate your signal.”
“That's for sure, gravity is beginning to warp the feed on this end too and all other telemetry is suffering. We have you at about 8 minutes before transit.” The voice said in a strange phase-shifting hollow tone.
“Vince, this is Ted, ol' buddy. You still have 3 minutes to change your mind, after that you won't have the power to escape the gravity well. Are you sure you still want to go through with this?” his friend said.
“Ted you know me better than that, I didn't come all this way to turn around now. This is the chance of a lifetime and I'm not about to back out.” He wasn't really convinced of that but it sounded brave.
“Ok Vince, God speed my friend. I hope to see you again. We have some beer to drink when you return. Ya hear?” Ted signed off.
Vince's mind returned to what an old scientist had said during a mission brief.
“Black holes come in all sizes, not all of them will kill you in the same way, I just described a small one. The tidal force is proportional to your size and your distance from the center of the object pulling on you. A giant one, like the one you will be visiting, is so big we're not sure just what will take place. While the gravity is strong, the difference in gravity, from say your head to your toes, nearer the event horizon is relatively small. You might fall through in one piece, you just won't be able to come back out and tell us about your trip. At least as far as we know.“
The reluctant explorer gazed at the monitors that filled the bulkhead in front of him. Lights flashed and numbers scrolled. Several screens were video sensors that gave him views outside the ship. All around him was a fiery ring of dying stars being drawn into that monstrous celestial vacuum cleaner, below that, nothing. A darkness that escaped description. It was as though there never was such a thing as light. The blackness was total, so much so that it gave the viewer the illusion of being blind when you looked at it. It reminded Vince of the time long ago when he had explored caves in Northern California and turned off his flashlight to see if his eyes could adjust to the total darkness. They couldn't. After twenty minutes of darkness, try as he would, no matter how close his hand was to his face he could not see it. He could feel the heat from his hand on his face but could not make out the slightest detail. This “Blind Spot“ as it was known, seemed to suck your mind into it. Researchers had actually gone into trance and some even required psychological treatment from staring at it for too long a time. Such were the properties of black holes. Vince deliberately kept the viewers off until now just for that reason.
On another screen was the view rearward and home. Sol and the tiny planet that circled it was many light years away and visible only as a faint dot among the myriad of stars even with his “high-Mag” telescope. For a moment great sadness overcame Vince. What he was doing was a form of suicide, even if he should survive the fall, he may never see home again. Shaking off the lonely, foreboding feeling, he remembered the goal of the mission, to 'go where no one had gone before' and should he survive, search for a way back if there was one to be found. Every probe that was sent into the black abyss was never heard from again. The odds were not good for him but he knew great knowledge took great risk. He had volunteered for the mission because he had no major ties to hold him in known space and originally the concept awed him.
“30 secoooonnds to the pooooint of nooooooo returrrrrrrn.“ the tinny voice wavered nearly indistinct.
“Telemetry on, transmission at full strength, all systems read optimal,” Vince radioed back, not knowing whether or not they could hear him.
“No time for cold feet now.”as he strapped into the reclining couch and positioned the control panel over himself. This was it! POT, (point of transit). There was no longer the chance to back out. He was now committed to going through. He was lying with the axis of the ship, so the tidal force would travel through the thinnest body section he could present. Even the ship itself was to enter the event horizon on it's side.
“...five...fooouur...thhrreeeeee...” Was it his imagination or was the ship beginning to dissolve in front of his eyes. The monitors had turned black cutting off any view of what was happening outside the ship. The bulkhead in front of him was becoming transparent. The “Blind Spot” was appearing before his eyes. He closed his eyes tightly and opened them just a slit, only to find that more of the ship had been consumed. Vince found himself holding his breath as the ship appeared to fade before his eyes. Until...
“Funny, he thought, I still have atmosphere to breathe.”
The control panel, just inches in front of him began to fade as he drew back his hand in terror.
“Oh my God, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.” he said out loud. All the fears for not going through with the mission that he concealed, even from himself, now flooded his mind. It was “your life flashing before your eyes” scenario. Visions were flashing through his mind at such a rate that he couldn't grasp hold of even one. Vince kept his eyes closed and waited for the inevitable.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light so bright that pierced his eyelids and bathed his entire body in a red imagined warmth. He dared to open his eyes to the brilliance, only to find that it did not hurt his eyes. The brilliant white light was all about him. It shimmered and sparkled like handfuls of silver glitter had been thrown into the air and was floating, tumbling, weightless, all around. He tried to look at his hand, but in the dazzling light could not see it. He couldn't make out any part of the ship. All that was visible to his eyes was the twinkling iridescence surrounding him. The fear vanished and in its place a sense of awe and wonder and peace, great peace. How long he was in that state he could not tell. Time seemed to stand still. He had no reference points to compare time with motion. At length the shimmering began to clear. Around him only that brilliant white light fading. Space itself appeared to blink several times and then, consuming darkness.
The old fear returned. Was he in the blackest part of the hole again? Blind from that all consuming darkness. Alone with his thoughts, his other senses numbed, Vince considered the option that he had not survived. “How could he even hope to be alive after being devoured by a black hole; a monster that dines on stars with an unquenchable hunger. How could he have even hoped to make it through this? How could he be having this conversation with himself if...?”
Slowly the blackness began to fade, his eyes focused and the ship was there, around him once again. The flashing lights returned along with the sound of whirring servos and switches. Stars reappeared in the monitors. Stars he had never seen before. Vince broke out into hysterical laughter, tears streaming down his face, “I made it...I made it! It can be done! I'll be damned.” as he unstrapped himself and danced around the cabin. With renewed spirit he began to plot his location.
“No, that can't be right!” he ran the figures and observations through the computer again, and yet again. Staring in disbelief, Vince found himself entering a system of planets in NGC 147, a galaxy two and a half million light years from the Milky Way and home with no sign of the black hole that brought him here. He sat frozen, dumb struck for long minutes as his mind tried to wrap itself around what had just taken place, until...
“Phase II, yes Phase II.” he thought, now begins the task of finding the way back if that is possible.
“But first, I must explore.” He turned back to the monitors only to find the sensors alive with signals, intelligent signals.