I am confiding this manuscript to space, not with the intention of saving myself, but to help, perhaps, to avert the appalling scourge that is menacing the human race. Lord have pity onus! . . .
"The human race?" Phyllis exclaimed, stressing the second word in her astonishment. "That's what it says here," Jinn assured her. "Don't start off by interrupting me." And he went on with his reading.
As for me, Ulysse Merou, I have set off again with my family in the spaceship. We can keep going for several years. We grow vegetables and fruit on board and have a poultry run. We lack nothing. One day perhaps we shall come across a friendly planet. This is a hope I hardly dare express. But here, faithfully reported, is the account of my adventure.
It was in the year 2500 that I embarked with two companions in the cosmic ship, with the intention of reaching the region of space where the super gigantic star Betelgeuse reigns supreme.
It was an ambitious project, the most ambitious that had ever been conceived on Earth. Betelgeuse—or Alpha Orionis, as our astronomers called it—is about three hundred light-years distant from our planet. It is remarkable for a number of things. First, its size: its diameter is three or four hundred times greater than that of our sun; hi other words, if its center were placed where the sun's center lies, this monster would extend to within the orbit of Mars. Second, its brilliance: it is a star of first magnitude, the brightest in the constellation of Orion, visible on Earth to the naked eye hi spite of its distance. Third, the nature of its rays: it emits red and orange lights, creating a most magnificent effect. Finally, it is a heavenly body with a variable glow: its luminosity varies with the seasons, this being caused by the alterations in its diameter. Betelgeuse is a palpitating star.
Why, after the exploration of the solar system, all the planets of which are inhabited, why was such a distant star chosen as the target for the first interstellar flight? It was the learned Professor Antelle who made this decision. The principal organizer of the enterprise, to which he devoted the whole of his enormous fortune, the leader of our expedition, he himself had conceived the spaceship and directed its construction. He told me the reason for his choice during the voyage.
"My dear Ulysse," he said, "it is not much harder, and it would scarcely take any longer, for us to reach Betelgeuse than a much closer star: Proxima Centauris, for example."
At this I saw fit to protest and draw his attention to some recently ascertained astronomical data:
"Scarcely take any longer! But Proxima Centauris is only four light-years away, whereas Betelgeuse . . ."
"Is three hundred, I'm well aware of that. But we shall take scarcely more than two years to reach it, while we should have needed almost as much time to arrive in the region of Proxima Centauris. You don't believe it because you are accustomed to mere flea hops on our planets, for which a powerful acceleration is permissible at the start because it lasts no more than a few minutes, the cruising speed to be reached being ridiculously low and not to be compared with ours. ... It is time I gave you a few details as to how our ship works.
"Thanks to its perfected rockets, which I had the honor of designing, this craft can move at the highest speed imaginable in the universe for a material body—that is to say, the speed of light minus epsilon." "Minus epsilon?" "I mean it can approach it to within an infinitesimal degree: to within a thousand-millionth, if you care to put it that way."
"Good," I said. "I can understand that"
"What you must also realize is that while we are moving at this speed, our time diverges perceptibly from time on Earth, the divergence being greater the faster we move. At this very moment, since we started this conversation, we have lived several minutes, which correspond to a passage of several months on our planet. At top speed, time will almost stand still for us, but of course we shall not be aware of this. A few seconds for you and me, a few heartbeats, will coincide with a passage of several years on Earth."
"I can understand that, too. In fact, that is the reason why we can hope to reach our destination before dying. But in that case, why a voyage of two years? Why not only a few days or a few hours?"
"I was just coming to that. Quite simply because, to reach the speed at which time almost stands still, with an acceleration acceptable to our organisms, we need about a year. A further year will be necessary to reduce our speed. Now do you understand our flight plan? Twelve months of acceleration; twelve months of reducing speed; between the two, only a few hours, during which we shall cover the main part of the journey. And at the same time you will understand why it scarcely takes any longer to travel to Betelgeuse than to Proxima Centauri. In the latter case we should have to go through the same indispensable year of acceleration, the same year of deceleration, and perhaps a few minutes instead of a few hours between the two. The overall difference is insignificant. As I'm getting on in years and will probably never be able to make another crossing, I preferred to aim at a distant point straight away, in the hope of finding a world very different from our own."
This sort of conversation occupied our leisure hours on board and at the same time made me appreciate Professor Antelle's prodigious skill all the more. There was no field he had not explored, and I was pleased to have a leader like him on such a hazardous enterprise. As he had foreseen, the voyage lasted about two years of our time, during which three and a half centuries must have elapsed on Earth. That was the only snag about aiming so far into the distance: if we came back one day we should find our planet older by seven or eight hundred years. But we did not care. I even felt that the prospect of escaping from his contemporaries was an added attraction to the professor. He often admitted he was tired of his fellow men. . . .
"Men!" Phyllis again exclaimed.
"Yes, men," Jinn asserted. "Thafs what it says." There was no serious incident on the flight. We had started from the Moon. Earth and its planets quickly disappeared. We had seen the sun shrink till it was nothing but an orange in the sky, then a plum, and finally a point of light without dimensions, a simple star that only the professor's skill could distinguish from the millions of other stars in the galaxy.
We thus lived without sun, but were none the worse for this, the craft being equipped with equivalent sources of light Nor were we bored. The professor's conversation was fascinating; I learned more during those two years than I had learned in all my previous existence. I also learned all that one needed to know in order to guide the spacecraft. It was fairly easy: one merely gave instructions to some electronic devices, which made all the calculations and directly initiated the maneuvers.
Our garden provided an agreeable distraction. It occupied an important place on board. Professor Antelle, who was interested, among other subjects, in botany and agriculture, had planned to take advantage of the voyage to check certain of his theories on the growth of plants in space. A cubic compartment with sides about thirty feet long served as a plot. Thanks to some trays, the whole of its volume was put to use. The earth was regenerated by means of chemical fertilizers and, scarcely more than two months after our departure, we had the pleasure of seeing it produce all sorts of vegetables, which provided us with an abundance of healthy food. Food for the eye, too, had not been forgotten: one section was reserved for flowers, which the professor tended lovingly. This eccentric had also brought some birds, butterflies, and even a monkey, a little chimpanzee whom we had christened Hector and who amused us with his tricks.
It is certain that the learned Antelle, without being a misanthrope, was not interested at all in human beings. He would often declare that he did not expect much from them any more, and this probably explains . . .
"Misanthrope?" Phyllis again broke in, dumfounded. "Human beings?"
"If you keep interrupting me every other second," said Jinn, "we shall never get to the end. Do as I do: try to understand."
Phylus promised to keep quiet till the end of the reading, and she kept her promise. This probably explains why he had collected in the craft—which was big enough to accommodate several families countless vegetable species and some animals, while limiting the number of the passengers to three: himself; his disciple Arthur Levain, a young physician with a great future; and myself, Ulysse Merou, a little-known journalist who had met the professor as a result of an interview. He had suggested taking me with him after learning that I had no family and played chess reasonably well. This was an outstanding opportunity for a young journalist. Even if my story was not to be published for eight hundred years, perhaps for that very reason it would have unusual value. I had accepted with enthusiasm.
The voyage thus occurred without a setback. The only physical inconvenience was a sensation of heaviness during the year of acceleration and the one of reducing speed. We had to get used to feeling our bodies weigh one and a half times their weight on Earth, a somewhat tiring phenomenon to begin with, but to which we soon paid no attention. Between those two periods there was a complete absence of gravity, with all the oddities accruing from this phenomenon; but that lasted only a few hours and we were none the worse for it.
And one day, after this long crossing, we had the dazzling experience of seeing the star Betelgeuse appear in the sky in a new guise.