The Paradox of Trust
a sci-fi excerpt that will make you think
The quasar loomed, both unfathomably dark and impossibly bright.
Captain Orson Montgomery-Smith stood before the helm of the Umpire, staring at the last unknown frontier of human civilisation. Fear, it seemed, was a reasonable response. Not that he’d let any of that be revealed to his crew milling about the bridge. But despite his reservations, he was hopeful and excited.
“We’re twenty minutes out, sir,” ensign Mathers said, moving to stand beside him at the front windows.
Captain Orson nodded distractedly as his eyes again roved over the enormous mass. The quasar was a picture of immense violence – a black hole surrounded by a blazing accretion disk with two jets spewing matter out at opposite ends of the mass. Matter harvesters with their huge funnels captured the escaping precious resources to be repurposed for humanity’s own ends. A crucial enterprise now that technology had enabled human colonisation among the stars.
Turns out that the things humans needed to survive on earth, and their underlying molecular building blocks, were in short supply elsewhere in the universe. Caught unawares, the ancient space-faring humans had set about collecting critical matter from anywhere they could. Quasars were a constant source of rare materials. Their unique destructive paths through the universe meant that they captured all manner of matter in their accretion disks – the glowing ring of dead planets and stars surrounding the black hole – as it dragged anything and everything close enough to feel its inevitable gravity into its depthless maw.
“It's like travelling back in time.”
Captain Orson belatedly realised the ensign was speaking again. “What do you mean, ensign?”
Ensign Mathers cleared his throat as he glanced sideways at the captain. “Well sir, it will take over one hundred thousand years for any communication sent from the Midnight Cluster to reach Galactic Central. In twenty minutes, when we send our confirmation that we have arrived in our new home, one hundred thousand years will have passed here, on this side of the wormhole.”
The captain mulled over his words. “Wouldn’t that be more like moving forward in time?”
Ensign Mathers frowned. “I admit I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the whole thing.”
The captain turned to face the young ensign. “You’re not the only one. It’s for the CPHS scientists to understand. And for us to follow orders.”
The ensign bowed his head. “Yes, captain.”
With a sharp jerk of his head, captain Orson said, “Back to your post, ensign. We’ve an important journey ahead.”
Mathers nodded and strode back to his comms console.
But the captain turned back to the quasar with a crease in his brow. Were it not for the specially modified translucent windows, the radiation being emitted from the monstrosity was enough to vaporise him and his entire crew in moments. He hated that their path to salvation lead through something that spiked such a visceral fear in his bones. But he was not the first to attempt this jump through space-time, nor would he be the last. It had been five hundred years since the Council for the Preservation of Human Species announced that their scientists had confirmed not only that wormhole travel was both possible and survivable, but that a wormhole existed within a reachable portion of space that exited in another part of the universe that was completely untouched by human influence, with enough vital matter to support trillions upon trillions of carbon-based lifeforms.
Within six months, a maiden voyage had departed through this quasar, JMB-5684-7635. The destination had been popularly named the Midnight Cluster. Since then, hundreds of other wormholes had been located and humanity had embarked on their biggest migration yet – to colonise the far flung reaches of the universe. As yet, no communications had been received back, but, as the wormholes were one way, any comms would take many thousands or possibly millions of years to be received at Galactic Central. Society would have to wait for news of the new colonies. That hadn’t stopped people signing up in droves to see the new worlds. Tickets for the starships capable of making the jump were supremely expensive, and captain Orson was one of the lucky few to be assigned to such an important position.
His starship, the Umpire was commissioned by his employer, Daedalus Enterprises. It had over three thousand civilian passengers, six hundred and eighty crew members and about two hundred prisoners. The prisoners had been a surprise. Orson had never transported prisoners before, and these prisoners had been granted a boon of a new life in the colonies. Something he felt they did not deserve. However, that wasn’t his decision to make; he had his orders. And he intended to carry them out. Even if staring down a black hole made him quake in his standard issue boots.
“Sir!” Orson whirled at the urgency in ensign Mathers’ voice. “There’s some trouble on the lower deck. One of the prisoners has been sowing descent and a riot has broken out. The guards have isolated the prisoner but she’s saying some pretty crazy things.”
Orson quickly crossed the distance between them and towered over the ensign at his station. This was just what he needed, some idiot causing trouble right on the cusp of the biggest moment in his career. “What things?” he snapped.
Ensign Mathers lowered his voice as other crew members looked over, curious at the commotion. “She says we can’t go into the wormhole. She says we’ll die.”
Captain Orson scoffed. “Restrain her and lock her in isolation until after the jump.”
“She’s demanding to speak to you, sir. She says its urgent, that it concerns the safety of all those onboard.”
Orson sighed. Damn these science sceptics, he thought. But what kind of captain would he be if he didn’t check it out and ensure all was right before they made the wormhole jump. “Tell the brig I’ll be there momentarily. And hand over your station, you’d better come with me.”
“In case I need messages relayed to the bridge.”
“Of course, yes sir!”
Orson waited, impatiently tapping his foot while ensign Mathers assigned the terminal to another comms officer. Then the two of them hurried to the porting chamber that would carry them swiftly to the bowels of the starship in a matter of seconds using the network of strategic tunnels in the ship’s interior.
“How long until contact?” Orson asked stiffly.
“Fourteen minutes, sir,” Mathers said as they exited the chamber and marched through the brig’s foyer, guards saluting them as they passed.
Orson nodded to them and saluted the brig master. “Where is she?” he asked.
The brig master turned, beckoning them to follow. “We’ve had her in and out of isolation on the journey here, but after the riot started, we thought it best not to re-introduce her back into the prisoner population.”
Orson nodded. “I assume control has been regained?”
“Of course, sir. Three shocks were administered to all prisoner collars over a period of thirty-seven seconds. Prisoners were restrained and order restored within two minutes and forty seconds.”
Orson grunted his approval. Transporting prisoners across deep space was risky. Enough so that Daedalus Enterprises employed strict riot and mutiny control measures. Some had condemned them as cruel. But to Orson’s mind, they were necessary to the safety of the civilians on board. An opinion that had only been reinforced if the last few minutes were anything to judge by.
Once they entered the interrogation room, Orson was immediately struck by the prisoner’s demeanour. She was middle aged, with dusty blonde hair that was greying at the temples. Her body sagged to one side, either from exhaustion, or pain from the beating she’d clearly taken at the hands of the guards. But her face. Her face was pinched, eyes wide in terror, conviction etched in the lines around her mouth.
“Captain,” she rasped, wincing as she shifted forwards as far as her chains would allow. Pain, then. “You must turn back! There is no wormhole. It’s a trick!”
Orson looked down his nose at this woman. “The jump has been executed thousands of times. There is nothing to fear. Besides, the gravity has already captured us; we cannot turn back.”
“No!” cried the woman. “There must be a way. The wormhole is a lie! Please, you must believe me.”
Orson sighed and then flicked his fingers at the guards. “We’re done here.”
The woman screamed, “The CPHS scientists are lying! It’s a trick to get people to pay for trips to colonies that don’t exist.”
Orson half turned back, mostly out of incredulity. The woman ploughed on, the words tumbling from her mouth in a frenzied fervour.
“Please! You must listen! My name is Andrea Perske, I was a scientist at CPHS. I worked in agriculture, looking at mass food production. I ran into trouble with my resourcing requirements, so I put in a matter requisition that was repeatedly denied. I got annoyed and snuck into the matter production offices and…” She paused, throat bobbing.
“And?” Orson said, intrigued, despite himself.
“And nothing, there’s nothing there. It was empty. No stations, no equipment, no scientists. Nothing!”
Orson raised a brow. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither did I,” Andrea said. “Until I did some digging. It’s all a front. The entire matter production department at CPHS is a front. The narrative CPHS puts out isn’t based on science. It’s a lie. There is no wormhole! There are no colonies!”
“But why? Why would these scientists tell us there is a wormhole if it’s not true?”
Andrea laughed, a low vicious sound. “That took me a while to find out. But I finally managed to find a contact at Daedalus willing to talk with me.”
Orson was becoming impatient. “Daedalus Enterprises? What are you talking about?” he snapped.
“Don’t you see!” Andrea cried. “Haven’t you ever questioned the CPHS announcement? Right on the cusp of the matter shortage, the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, suddenly here exists this perfect solution – a wormhole that leads to a utopia. A utopia that conveniently will not be heard from for hundreds of thousands of years. We have reached our build limit in our little pocket of the universe. Expansion has been steady but far too slow to manage the sheer growth of the population. Everyone knows that to make more things, you must break other things down.”
Orson frowned. What she said was true but-
Andrea took a deep breath. “You think Daedalus only harvests the matter thrown out of the accretion disks, but what you don’t know is that everything that goes inside that black hole comes out those jets as well. Every colonist over the last five hundred years, all those people, they’re gone! Ripped apart inside the black hole and collected in the matter harvesters to be re-used and recycled.”
The captain blinked. This was crazy. This woman is crazy.
“And Daedalus… They’re behind it all! The CPHS works for Daedalus, those scientists are paid to say whatever they’re told to. They charge these hopeful colonists for these tickets and then send them to their death and recycle their parts to make more things, more ships, to bring more people here. To die! It’s sick!”
“Yes!” Andrea’s voice was rising in pitch as she became more and more frantic. “Daedalus founded CPHS. Have you ever thought about how much more valuable humans are when broken down into our foundational matter? Phosphorus, potassium, chlorine. Some of our rarest materials wrapped up inside trillions of meatsuits. They only needed a way to get them. There is no wormhole. The starships and everything they carry are ripped apart into their base elements and spewed out the accretion jets. Daedalus harvests the raw matter and recycles it, makes more ships to ensnare more people. It’s the perfect lie. No one has any way to validate it, the secrets and evidence are guarded by CPHS. And Daedalus pockets the profits. And the matter.”
“I don’t believe you,” Orson said simply.
“I didn’t want to believe it either. But it’s true. And when I tried to tell people, I ended up here. A death sentence disguised as mercy.” Andrea spat the last word in disgust. She was breathing heavily and staring at the captain, awaiting his judgement.
Orson looked her over with a frown. She seemed to believe what she was saying. But these prisoners came from all walks of life. Some might be delusional, some might say anything to jeopardise the mission, some might seek to trick him. And Orson felt he had heard enough. He paused, carefully thinking over his words. Then he said, “I have worked for Daedalus Enterprises for twenty-five years, eight of them at a captain’s level. I have never once known this company to be anything but honest and upfront with its employees and customers. I’m inclined to think this is some last-ditch attempt to sow dissent on a company starship to which you clearly hold a grudge.”
But Orson held up a hand, forestalling her. “I’ve heard enough.” He turned and nodded to the brig master.
“Fool!” Andrea screamed. “You’ll kill us all. This is sanctioned corporate murder!” The guards immediately fought to restrain her as she launched herself from the chair with surprising vigour. Her screams followed Orson down the corridor, along with ensign Mathers, who’s footsteps were pattering behind his own.
Once ensconced inside the porting chamber, ensign Mathers spoke, “You’re sure she was lying, sir?”
Orson glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. The young lad’s face was pale and drawn. His hands shook where he’d fisted them across his front. Typically, a question like that to a commanding officer would not be tolerated. But the ensign’s candid nature was part of the reason Orson had assigned him as his bridge comms officer. He was not about to surround himself with yes-men. “She may believe her own tale. But it is not true. It can’t be true.” It can’t be true.
“But what she said made sense, sir. We cannot know for sure. The price of a ticket is so high. Not to mention the matter they could salvage from the accretion disk using the harvesters. The starships, the people, all their possessions – it must be worth a fortune-“
“That’s enough!” snapped Orson. “It’s not true.”
“They have a financial incentive to lie, sir.”
“They’re not lying. We must trust the scientists that pioneered our greatest discovery, and trust that they value our lives and our welfare.”
“But how can we know what’s right?”
“That, ensign, is the paradox of trust. We serve the company; the company serves us.”
“No! I will not hear another word on the matter.” He turned to face Mathers. “And you are forbidden to repeat anything you heard in there.”
Mathers pursed his lips but said nothing.
“How long until contact?” Orson said.
The ensign’s throat bobbed. “Three minutes.”
Orson’s blood turned cold as they stepped out of the porting chamber and marched towards the bridge.
Three minutes. Even if he wanted to turn back, it was way too late now. The quasar had taken a hold of their starship more than two earth days prior; they had passed the point of no return long ago.
Captain Orson Montgomery-Smith paced across the bridge to stand at the windows at the very front of the starship. The quasar loomed, its black hole absorbing the entire view. The blazing light from the accretion disk had all but vanished from sight, leaving only the freezing, dark abyss. The matter harvesters would still be droning away, capturing all the errant elements and minerals lucky enough to escape the vacuum. Orson couldn’t help wondering if that matter had once been people, human beings believing they were on their way to a new life in the Midnight Cluster.
It's not true. It can’t be.
But still, that little voice spoke from the deepest recesses of his mind. They would never be found out – not for hundreds of thousands of years when no communication ever came from the Midnight Cluster. It’s the perfect crime. They pocket the money from the voyages, harvest the matter from the unfortunate colonists and reap the benefits of their role as humanity’s saviour.
Briefly, Orson registered that the crew had started a countdown to contact. Their last minute in this part of the universe. Their last minute alive?
No. It can’t be true.
Orson had spent his life trusting that the corporations responsible for taking humanity to the stars and beyond only wanted to best for their charges.
He glanced again at the blackness ahead. What did one have if they did not have trust? He had his orders. And he intended to follow them.
“To whatever end,” he muttered.
Orson closed his eyes. One moment he was there. The next he was gone.