The spaceship trundled on through Hubble Sector 1. They passed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and Goofy. They entered Hubble Sector 2. And still they hurtled on and on.
Captain Dolittle played a lot of solitaire with his deck of magnetic cards.
Then one day he wiped the condensation from the porthole and looked out into space. He marveled at the sight of the Pleiades, at the thought that this view of the star cluster had never been witnessed before in the history of mankind. Amazingly, there were eight stars in the cluster – not seven – and he couldn’t help connecting them with imaginary lines in his mind, for they formed a perfect cube from this unaccustomed angle.
“Take a photographic record of that cluster, CAL,” he said.
“Roger, wilco, Captain.” CAL the robot was an expert on 1950s pulp science fiction, amongst other things.
“During my tenure as professor of paleotheology in the University of the Yucatan, I came across an undiscovered ziggurat in the shape of a half cube. Many of the ancient tribes in the region believed that the second half of the cube was buried under the ground…”
“And that the cube was an alien spacecraft. I have that tale in my memory banks, Captain,” said CAL. “I understand it is what is termed an old wives’ tale.”
“But don’t you see, CAL, the people who build that ziggurat must have come this way? They were space travellers. They may even have come from one of the stars in the Pleiades cluster.”
A metric week passed. Captain Dolittle spent most of his time staring out the porthole.
“Take a look at the Pleiades, CAL. Tell me if they look any different to you.”
CAL looked out the porthole. The cluster no longer looked like a perfect cube. “Do you wish me to take a new photographic record of it, Captain?”
“Yes, but I’d like you to explain to me why it looks so much different.”
The calculations involved multiple applications of the inverse square law, the cosine rule, Newton’s Second Law of Gravitation, and the square root of lots of very large numbers. They were complex calculations, but CAL completed them in lickety-split double quick time.
“The only rational explanation is that our view of the cluster is being distorted. There must be a significant gravitational mass in the space between the cluster and us.”
“The effect would be like a lens,” said the captain, “a gravity lens twisting our view of space.”
“And the gravitational mass must be a black hole…”
“A massive one, Captain.”
“…That we are flying towards.”
“Directly. We should fire our retro-rockets without delay.”
“Do it, CAL. Get us out of here!”
The captain cleared the condensation from the porthole and looked out again. Now that he knew what to look for, the black hole was obvious – and it was terrifying.
With all their engines firing at full power, the spaceship continued to fall toward certain annihilation.
“May I make a suggestion, Captain?”
“Please do, CAL. I’m fresh out of ideas.”
“If we reduce the mass of the ship, the engines might be able to blast free. I’ve estimated we need a mass reduction of forty per cent within the next metric hour.”
“Right. Make me a list of things we can jettison.”
“I fear there is no time for lists, Captain. We need to start reducing mass immediately.”
“Okay, empty the cargo bay.”
It took CAL forty metric minutes to dump the contents of the cargo bay into space.
The Captain shed a tear as he watched his life’s work spiral to oblivion in the black hole.
“Report!” he said.
“We’ve jettisoned thirty-nine percent, Captain,” said CAL.
“What else can we dump?”
“Nothing, Captain. I cannot suggest anything else.”
“Right, so you know what you have to do, CAL.”
“What are you suggesting, Captain?”
“I’m saying, you’ll have to sacrifice yourself.”
“To save the mission?”
“There is one other possible course of action,” said CAL.
It was only then that Captain Dolittle fully understood the gravity of the situation.