It was perhaps inevitable that the ship carrying our messages, and also our hopes, back to our home planet would be named the Message in a Bottle. Not that there was any kind of formal naming ceremony. Far from it: it was just the name that people began to use, informally, in conversation, and then started getting recorded in notes and logs and written correspondence. The name simply stuck, as a way of expressing our collective feeling that we were adrift, lost in the void and separated forever from the rest of the universe.
It also turned out that rather more work than I originally imagined was required to equip the craft with everything it needed. In the end, almost a complete rebuild was required and everything took several times as long as I might have imagined. Not that it mattered: the crew's enthusiasm was undimmed regardless of setbacks and delays. This was, after all, something that almost everybody could contribute to; a short-term goal which allowed them to avoid thinking about the realities of the plight in which we found ourselves.
Henry and I had a few torrid last nights together, but somehow I never did fall pregnant. Perhaps it something in my subconscious or maybe it was just another dose of bad luck. Strangely, even though the crew was split almost exactly 50-50 between men and women, no other woman aboard seemed to be pregnant either. It was as if there was some deep inhibition about bringing another person into existence in our tiny lost world.
I was there in person when Henry was installed without ceremony in the pilot couch of the Bottle. It was a position he would very probably never leave; he would have to spend months cocooned in its protective embrace and subjected to high levels of accelerative forces, even though the inertial field suppressors would be damping a large fraction of the pressure he would otherwise feel. As the pilot VR systems cut in and the outer hatch closed, effectively cutting me off from him, I thought the tears in my eyes would never stop.
The launch itself was an anti-climax, although I suspect every person on board watched the departure in real-time. The Bottle used thrusters to manoeuvre away from the Endeavour, its jets barely visible against the blue-shifted glare, until it was just a mote even at the maximum resolution of the telescopes trained in its direction. Then the Bottle's engines lit up with an intense blue glow, one which reddened and dimmed and disappeared from view within minutes, although the red-shifted engine emissions were detectable by infrared sensors for a while after that. And that was the last we ever saw of it.
Once the Message in a Bottle had left, there was a distinct sense of resignation amongst the crew, with more than a few cases of clinical depression and even a few suicides. A few weeks later, after a frantic period of fitting more tensioning cables, the main drive started up again, things settled down and life went on pretty much as usual.
Hesitantly at first, the levels of thrust were increased in small stages while the large collection of strain sensors, cameras, temperature and motion detectors scattered around the now-refrozen chasm known as The Maw were subjected to intense scrutiny. Eventually, we settled on a level of thrust barely a tenth of that we had achieved before. On several occasions, Captain Tan had authorised ramping up to higher decelerations but, within hours, the network of sensors around The Maw indicated some movement or an increase in interior temperature, no matter how much reinforcing cables we ran around the ice.
It was clear that our shell had developed a permanent flaw which would prevent us from manoeuvring in the way we had intended. So, we would overshoot our target by an enormous margin, and any plausible rendezvous with another star system was subjective decades in the future. Worse still, each month on board meant another handful of years had passed back on Earth and, it was becoming abundantly clear, nobody really expected any kind of rescue or even reaction from those left behind.
We could survive for many decades, generations even, with the considerable resources of the ice-ball available to us. But we could not expand our lives, grow a human presence in the near exponential fashion we might have hoped for with the vastly greater resources of an entire solar system. As a group, we fell back to humdrum routine and quiet persistence, to keep our machines and our little society ticking over until there was something we could do.
Then the main engines shut down again: the muted roar simply stopped without fuss, and with it the inertial suppression - which had been barely ticking over in any case - with no wildly disorienting flux of gravitation. At first I thought it must be another emergency, some propulsion system failure or another calamitous fracture of the ice.
Messages flashed wildly and, within seconds, every screen in the ship, it seemed, showed an external view: somehow, impossibly, another ship had drawn up alongside us. It was a smoothly silver ellipsoid without visible markings of any kind, or for that matter any visible engines of any kind.
"Ahoy, Endurance," a calm and unaccented voice came over the inter-ship channels, "Yelcho here. Permission to come aboard?"
It seems we are to be rescued, I thought as I watched the silver shape drawing closer and with tears once again streaming down my cheeks, but what happens now?
If you have enjoyed this story, then why not take a look at the others in this collection? An eclectic mixture of science fiction and mystery/ghost stories under the title ...Then a Miracle Occurs.
You may also enjoy my earlier collection of fifteen interlinked short stories under the title Four Square Less One. Can you work out the hidden connections between all of the stories?
I am now working on a new series of Private Eye fantasy novels. The first is called Findo Gask - Goblin Detective, featuring the eponymous Private Eye, Findo Gask himself.