Story Excerpt

Sacrificial Iron

by Ted Kosmatka


Space is to place as eternity is to time.
—Joseph Joubert

*   *   *

The mission went wrong early.

Only nine years out. Past the Kuiper and deep into the Oort.

The tone of the transmissions had changed over time—the complaints small at first, then growing more heated. More personal.

“Doctor Nasmeth hasn’t seen fit to perform equipment checks.”

“Doctor Nasmeth skipped his turn at the air purifiers.”

“Doctor Nasmeth . . .”

“Doctor Nasmeth.”

For his part, the good doctor brooded but did not complain. Quiet and contemplative, he focused on the mission: a plan to carry three thousand cryogenically suspended blastocysts safely across the black, along with frozen crew. It would take the better part of a century, if all went well, an exploratory expedition to one of three candidate exoplanets and a mission like nothing humanity had ever before attempted.

The two men kept watch. Doctor Nasmeth and Jason Zaya. Sentinels of the long night; they updated the cryo-systems, prepped the saturation engines, and walked like ghosts among the frozen cells.

Back home, a dozen psychologists studied Nasmeth’s every word, every gesture, and none saw the breaking point until it came—revealed in an unplanned communication when on the twenty-sixth of December he took a seat at the comm’s desk, logged onto the transmission channel and spoke casually into the feed. The message was short. Two simple sentences, but they sent a shock wave through mission control and began a series of events that would shake the world and leave thousands dead.

Nasmeth keyed the mic, looked into the camera and whispered, “I’m going to tell you something, because there’s nothing you can do to stop it now. I’m going to kill Jason Zaya.”

*   *   *

The mission had begun in earnest more than a decade earlier. A thousand candidates tested and discarded—Nasmeth and Zaya the best of the best. Three sigma, whole-spectrum, with specialties off the scale.

The public loved them. Two explorers who’d hold the fate of thousands in their capable hands.

When the rockets lifted skyward, the people of Earth were divided, not by race, or nationality, or ideology. They were divided between those who loved Dr. Nasmeth, the quiet, studious biologist, and those who loved the flamboyant engineering specialist, Jason Zaya. There had been a dozen psychological exams. A dozen tests for temperament, intelligence, and mental stability.

There was one test they’d never thought to conduct. They never asked them if they liked each other.

*   *   *

The people of Earth followed the crew’s advance across space and time through a series of video transmissions. The faster the ship accelerated, the more attenuated the messages—arriving at first every two weeks, then every three, then five, then eight. All the while, for the astronauts aboard the Novus Initus, the pattern never varied. Their messages were sent like clockwork, and to them, it was the replies that took longer and longer to arrive.

It was as if time itself was attenuating, stretching thin and weak, along with their link to the world they’d left behind.

The fan clubs started in the schools for the most part. The children watched the broadcasts, and the fanbases grew—the two men like ascendant gods, safe to revere. Their mission, a new start for humanity. New territory. A place to do it right.

The kids picked their favorite and followed him closely. Nasmeth or Zaya. Zaya or Nasmeth. As opposite in appearance as personality. Nasmeth stiff and blond as a reed; Zaya brown-haired, wider, with a neck like a bull. A hundred thousand, a million, ten million fans, from Chengdu to Chicago. A whole generation grew up listening to their video talks, these men who didn’t seem to age—transmissions arriving like mini time capsules, growing further and further out of sync.

“The future is about choices,” Zaya said once, smiling into the feed. “You have to be willing to do the hard thing, or you end up erased from history.”

Future historians would take note.

The men gave talks on the saturation engines, the Big Bang, and universal inflation. Nasmeth a biologist. Zaya engineering. Between the two of them, you picked your hero.

*   *   *

The first hints went public slowly. A comment here, an odd facial expression there, revealed in the slow evolution of the video feeds. Only the most astute caught on. Perhaps the fans knew it first—even before the scientific teams.

“He’s a control freak,” they said of Zaya in a thousand pubs.

“What? Are you kidding? Nasmeth is a slacker.”

“They don’t put slackers in charge of the saturation engines. He’s just following the routines.”

“The routines don’t matter.”

“Routines are all that matter light-years from Earth.”

And in one sense, it was true. Attenuated that finely, small things came to matter much.

*   *   *

The saturation engines. Those miracles.

Not really engines at all, but something stranger. Something that touched the black itself.

Nasmeth had explained it to the news shows before the launch, sitting awkward in suit and tie while smiling hosts fed him rote questions beneath studio lights. Audience looking on.

“It’s like weather,” he’d said at one point, going off script. “As air rises, it cools and can hold less moisture, so humidity precipitates out as rain. Vacuum is like that, too.”

Deer-in-the-headlights. The host blinked. “Vacuum . . .” he’d said under his breath, looking through note cards for where he’d lost the thread.

Nasmeth nodded. “As space-time has inflated, it has thinned and can hold less energy, so vacuum precipitates out new matter. You get Hawking radiation, particles flashing in and out of existence. The saturation engines work because they take advantage of universal inflation.” He paused, giving the host time to catch up to the right note card. “It’s like a triangle,” he said finally, pointing to the video display behind him. “Three corners on the same phenomena. Matter, inflation, and the speed of light.”

*   *   *

As they approached the Kuiper belt and prepared to fire the saturation engines for the first time, the timetable for transmissions shifted. The replies from Earth would take exponentially longer. After the Kuiper, after the Oort, it would be years between messages. Whole decades of silence. Two men alone on the ship—taking turns on watch. A month asleep, a month awake. Overlapping only for hours at a time. Trading places over and over as the Novus Initus streaked its way across the endless night.

*   *   *

In 1980 a cosmonaut wrote of his time aboard Sulyut 6, “All the conditions necessary for murder are met if you lock two men in a cabin measuring eighteen feet by twenty and trap them for two months.”

It was likely on mission control’s mind when they went over the protocols before the big jump, iron sublimate already primed and ready. Only two more transmissions before the long silence.

At the end of their latest message, mission control raised a question—the carefully worded product of a team of psychologists, calibrated to slice through the formality. “Are you sure everything is okay?”

The men stood side by side in the control module.

“It’s fine,” they both said, though Nasmeth sported a new black eye.

“A fall,” he explained. “Nothing serious.”

“How do you fall in zero gravity?” Came the reply three weeks later.

To which no response ever came.

*   *   *

Nasmeth drifted through the corridor, making no sound.

The white walls formed a pale, glossy tube, hexagonal in cross section, as if the tunnels of the ship were part of some colorless, bled-out beehive, and him the last worker bee. Winter coming on.

Fluorescents hummed from the creases, throwing milky white light. He carried a wrench in his hand as he moved down the corridor, thinking of his enemy: the man who’d made his life a living hell.

It was the intractability of the situation that got to him. The idea that there was no escape. No retreat. No getting away from the constant needling of this, and then this, and then this, one thing after another, onward forever.

“Zaya,” he said the name softly to himself.

There was a freedom in finally drawing a line. Beyond here, no more. Beyond here, he would discover that ultimate rebuke of which he was capable. He and Zaya would learn it together.

Nasmeth stopped in the tunnel. He closed his eyes and willed himself to feel the ship moving around him. In old seafaring vessels, zinc anodes were attached to the hulls of boats to protect their metalwork from corrosion. They called these anodes sacrificial zincs, because the salt water would preferentially strip the ions from the zinc and leave the ship’s steel unscathed. At the end of a year’s journey, the sacrificial zinc might be reduced to nothing, in need of replacement, but the ship would be whole. The Universe could be like that, too, preferentially trading one thing for another. A man could trade the years of his life.

He turned and made his way to the end of the corridor where he stood before the glass port and watched the stars. The view never got old. He could see only two things—a vast, dark emptiness and starshine. Light itself, traveling at 299,792, 458 m/s. That’s all there was—only blackness or light. All or nothing. No in between.

Faster than light travel was an impossibility. All the math said so. It was a universal constant, the final unbreakable limit.

Sometimes in moments like this, the enormity of the mission struck him. The sheer beauty of it. Humankind against all that endless night. The purest kind of struggle, and the oldest.

Like a hearth fire pushing back against the darkness.

Sometimes he dreamed of killing him.

And woke drenched in sweat. Not from guilt over the act, or from any instinctual abhorrence of violence, but from the knowledge that he was breaking the rules. Maybe the oldest rule.

Nasmeth liked rules. They defined the social space. If those rules didn’t come naturally, you could study them, learn them. Rules made sense of life. But what do you do when the rules are at odds with the mission? What do you do when the last line is crossed?

*   *   *

When the final message arrived at mission control, it hit like a bomb. There were phone calls in the middle of the night to the head of psychology. Then to the head of NASA. And on up the chain of command, all the way to the president.

“What the hell does that mean?” The president asked groggily. Three a.m. in the White House.

“He says he’s going to kill Jason Zaya.”

“But he doesn’t mean that literally.”

“He seemed pretty literal.”

“Jesus. Get a message to them immediately. Tell him he’s under direct orders not to kill Jason Zaya. Tell him the president said so.”

“We’ll do that, sir.”

There was a pause on the line. The president didn’t like the tone in the other guy’s voice. Something about it. “When will he get the message?”

“Well, assuming he lives a normal lifespan . . .”

“Son of a—” the line went dead.

*   *   *

The message was composed anyway. “Doctor Nasmeth, you are hereby under direct orders from the president of the . . .”

They sent it.

The head of NASA called a special meeting and spoke to his teams. “Under no circumstances is this information to get out. Do you all understand? This is top secret, need-to-know only. The public must never hear of this.”

“Yes,” they all agreed, nodding their heads. Within sixteen hours, it was worldwide news.

Audio of the transmission leaked to a dozen outlets and played over and over. On the screen in Time Square, ninety feet tall, Nasmeth faced the camera. His eyes serious.

“I’m going to tell you something, because there’s nothing you can do to stop it now. I’m going to kill Jason Zaya.”

The crowd stood in stunned awe, faces slack with disbelief. These heroes from their childhoods. These ascendant gods, safe to revere.

It was broadcast on every radio station. Every daytime talk show. Every nightly news report.

*   *   *

An investigation was launched into the evaluation procedures. Friends and colleagues were brought in to help see what mission testing had missed.

“Nasmeth was a quiet guy,” his old colleagues said. “He follows the rules. This makes no sense.”

“This isn’t like him,” others agreed.

“Nasmeth just likes being left alone. That’s why he wanted the mission. No people, just science.”

Zaya’s brother refused to comment, but his old roommate spoke. “He’s a piece of work, that guy. I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.”


“Oh, you didn’t know? You never asked? Zaya is certifiable.”

Faces paled across the table. “But our testing . . .”

“That’s the problem with people who test off the scale,” the old roommate said. “They know what answers you want.”

“You think Zaya is unstable?”

“A nice guy when you meet him, but then eventually . . .”

“Eventually what?”

“He finds problems to get worked up about. He’s a shit starter.” The roommate looked away, as if remembering a bad dream. “He’s like this unstoppable force, always pushing. I wanted to kill him myself, and I was only his roommate for a semester.”

*   *   *

The psychologists had meetings to discuss it.

There were fights in bars and pubs. Fans of Nasmeth versus fans of Zaya.

“He was pushed too far!”

“He’s a murderer!”


The semanticists among them responded, “Criminal? In what jurisdiction? He’s beyond the reach of any law. He’ll never be on Earth again.”

The two sides fought like football hoodlums. Scrapes, bruises, busted knuckles. Busted skulls. Blood on the sidewalks. People died. It was because the truth was unknowable that the fights were so vicious. They fought to convince themselves—some blaming Zaya, others Nasmeth; and always there was the question: “When will we hear from them again?”

“Not till after the jump. Not in our lifetimes.”

“By then it will be done.”

Nodding wisely. Sipping a beer. “What’s done is done.”

*   *   *

It had begun with small things. Notes. Passive aggressive notes typed onto his work screen for him to find. Then the notes had escalated. A page taped to his locker.

It was the provocation of it that took Nasmeth’s breath away. The sheer unmitigated gall. To tape the note over his locker:

“Please leave the fixative where I put it next time.”

But he had. The same shelf anyway, if not the exact same spot.

Notes about the scrubbers and the filters and the endless, pointless routines.

Finally, there came the argument over the door. Such a little thing. Nasmeth liked the steel door closed between the workroom and the mess hall; Zaya wanted it open, the difference amounting to a few degrees of ambient air temperature, if it amounted to anything at all.

“Why do you care what I do during my shift?” Nasmeth asked. “You do your shift, and I’ll do mine.”

And so it had gone, until finally Nasmeth had arrived on his shift to find the door wired to the wall—a twist of copper cable looped through the handle and wrapped to a pipe. Door stuck open.

He stared at the door, barely believing it. “What the hell?”

Nasmeth cut the wire. Then closed the door.

Next shift came a chain. Door chained to the wall.

Nasmeth cut the chain.

Then a steel bar. Welded to the floor.

On the door, his name had been scratched. Nasmeth. Block letters six inches high, and beneath that a sentence: Keep door open.

Nasmeth wondered at the effort it would have taken to weld the steel bar. He got the reticulating saw, and he cut through the bar. Then closed the door.

When he saw Zaya in the mess hall four weeks later as their shifts overlapped, he didn’t speak. Just met his eyes and kept walking.

There might have been a moment of sanity then. A moment when either of them asked, What am I doing? It’s just a door. Who cares?

When Nasmeth next woke for his shift a month later, he entered the workroom, and the door was missing. Missing altogether. The hatch gone. Taken off its hinges. It didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t safe.

How do you lose a door? Where do you hide a door on a ship?

He confronted him in the mess at the end of his shift. “Are you out of your mind? What if there’s a fire? What if there’s an explosive decompression?”

“Try to close it now,” was all Zaya said.

Nasmeth’s memory of the next few seconds was fractured. In his mind, he saw it clearly, Zaya jabbing his chest with his finger, and then him swatting that away, which led to a push, which left him against the wall, and then he’d kicked off—harder than he meant to, harder than needed, and then they were in each other’s faces, screaming full blast, until he pushed again, and spun away, and his eye hit the bulkhead. Zaya kicked off and left the pod—leaving Nasmeth floating on the other side of the room, where he watched his blood spooling out before him into beautiful spiral shapes in the zero-g.

*   *   *

“The discovery was based on the principle that light has not always behaved the same,” Nasmeth had said to the TV host two weeks before the launch. “In the cosmological past, light moved faster. Why?”

On the TV screen, Nasmeth held up a small-scale model of the ship—like a slender silver wand, lined on one side with windows, slightly curved around the mass of the captured iron bolus, gray and oblong. All of it cast in plastic, like a child’s toy.

Psychologists watched the tape, rewound, watched again. Looking for clues. Early hints for where things went wrong.

“We know it from measurements of early inflation,” Nasmeth continued. “The speed of light c in Einstein’s equations turned out to be not so universal as people hoped. And if the speed of light has changed over the course of the Universe—even just a millionth of a decimal—then it changes everything. If the speed of light has changed, then it isn’t a constant at all.”

The host nodded. Brow suitably furrowed.

“The math might not let you break the speed of light,” Nasmeth continued, then paused thoughtfully. “But what if there was a way to cheat it?”

*   *   *

The saturation engines fired.

Nasmeth lay in his fibrigel cockpit and watched the outside feed—watched the stars dim and shift colors, black night gone sepia and strange. A prism of charged particles like the aurora borealis streamed past the camera and blanketed the hundred and ten tons of sacrificial iron that extended alongside the ship, their silent companion.

Outside, Nasmeth knew, the iron was losing mass. Sublimated to the big Empty, to space-time itself. It was the opposite of Hawking radiation. Instead of particles appearing out of nothing, the valence of the vacuum fluctuation was reversed. Matter fed into the system.

The shape of space-time hadn’t changed. They were still traveling at the same fraction of the speed of light: 1/3 c. It was the speed of light that had changed. A local phenomenon.

Inside the arcing fissure of the iron’s halodisc, the speed of light was now much, much faster.



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Copyright © 2019. Sacrificial Iron by Ted Kosmatka

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