The farther humans expanded into space, the more necessary it became to figure out a timely way to communicate. Advanced technology was still bound by physics; while it was easy to get bit of voice data or text to go very fast, as opposed to a large spacecraft, there was a growing lag between sender and receiver because, often, “very fast” is still too slow.
Even as far back as the 1900s there was a glimmer of hope in the form of a quantum mechanics concept called “quantum entanglement.” Entanglement was a verified phenomenon that some particles were “hitched” at such a core level that something happening to particle A would be reflected by particle B instantaneously.
Not at speed of light, but instantaneously. Regardless of distance.
At least, as far as scientists could confirm. Even 300-odd years later it seemed like there was much unknown in the world of physics. Granted, some of that was doubtlessly due to subtleties so minute that their instruments couldn’t pick them up.
Regardless, quantum entanglement was the proverbial dangling carrot that scientists across the colonized universe were chasing. If entanglement could be harnessed on a larger scale? At the whim of humans? Communication would be revolutionized.
Juan almost deleted the email. After all, the subject “GREAT OPPORTUNITY — APPLY NOW!” hardly inspired confidence. Most of his spam contained a lot of false hope. But just as his finger hovered over the delete button, he noticed the email address was sent from was a .gov domain.
It was still probably spam, but .gov emails were important spam. They fell in the category of “good to know” more than “dear Lord did I just get a virus.”
Juan, it started off.
My name is Craig Folstar from the research and development branch of NASA. I have been working with a team of researchers to revolutionize the way we communicate. We have been informed that you are leaving with a research team headed for Pluto.
We have developed a tool that will allow real-time communication with a loved one without lag. However, we need testers, which is where you come in. We’d like you to be one of our early beta testers to make sure our device works in a real situation. If you agree, we’d give you a prototype to use as you wish to communicate with one person on Earth.
Please call me at [redacted] for more info, or fill out the attached form to get started!
“Huh,” said Juan, scratching his head. He had been stressing out a bit about being away from his wife for so long. Sure, there was email and time-delayed voice messages and video (it typically took between 4 and 4 ½ hours for communications to reach Earth from Pluto and vice-versa), but it wasn’t the same as having an actual conversation.
Going on this research trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. He’d been on several smaller trips: Mars, the moon, Venus, but that was practically local. Heck, anything beyond Mars was out of text message range. His boss likened it to the Wild Wild West, where the law was minimal–in large part due to the pain of communicating.
And this was going to be a long trip. Flight speed had increased greatly since the dawn of the 21st Century. At the turn of the century it would take about nine years to reach Pluto from Earth. Fast forward 200 years and that time was reduced to one year. That’s a major improvement.
Yet still one long freakin’ year.
Unlike in the movies, where people are put in stasis for a trip, everyone on the ship would stay awake. As nice as the concept of stasis was for science fiction, reality turned out to be much different; not only had technology failed to safely induce the state of stasis, it had turned out that maintaining stasis cost more in fuel than providing food and amenities for the men.
Thus, no stasis. Every inch of the trip would be experienced by its men.
The package was nondescript to the mail carrier. Just another box. Just another delivery. But Juan jittered nervously as he used a utility knife to break the seal. It seemed that such a classified device would be delivered with more security; it was laughably easy to open the box. It could have contained a bunch of books, not the greatest technological breakthrough of the century.
In the box, surrounded by packing peanuts, were two identical devices.
Juan set each on his kitchen table. They were pendulums. The base was circular. Two metal rods about a foot high jutted above the base, with a smaller metal rod connecting them at the top. It was from this horizontal rod that the pendulum hung. The pendulum looked like an inverted teardrop, round at the top, and forming a point. Taped to the side of the pendulum was a bag of sand.
There was also a brochure. Juan opened it and started reading.
How to operate your Distance Communicator.
1. There are two main communication functions provided by the device: physical and verbal.
2. The position of pendulum A will be applied to pendulum B. Tapping one pendulum will cause both to take on the same swing simultaneously.
3. It will also reflect movements that seem to defy gravity–for example, take up one of the pendulums and wrap it around the suspension bar, and the other pendulum will do it without need other physical interaction. At all times the two pendulums will be synchronized.
4. A button on the base of the pendulum activates the ability for the pendulum to transmit and receive sound waves. Due to privacy considerations, both buttons need to be activated to send or receive sounds through the device.
5. As such, signaling via the pendulum that one person wishes to communicate verbally is recommended.
6. Users during our local trials reported that putting sand in the base of each pendulum would allow the pendulum to create designs when swung and would use it as a visual “hi” when one party wasn’t at their pendulum.
7. When sand is in the base, a switch on the side will raise or lower the pendulum; this will be reflected by both pendulums!
Please note that, at this time, there is not a way to send text through the pendulum. Expect the same delays for text and Internet usage that you would normally experience for your journey.
Grabbing one of the pendulums, Juan lifted it. At the same time, the other pendulum raised up. It was heavier than he expected. He moved the pendulum around, dazzled by the way the other pendulum responded without being touched.
“Wow,” he said.
As far as NASA researchers could determine, the entanglement process meant that only two objects could be paired. However, each device was outfitted with a transmitter to send daily reports to the development team. No personal information, mind you–just crucial usage reports, diagnostics, and other technical stuff.
In addition, both Juan and his wife would need to fill out a journal about their experiences. Most of the stuff should be in the automatically generated reports, but NASA didn’t mind the duplication. It was important to get feedback from the actual users.
By the time Juan had been in space a week, he and his wife had worked out a routine. Give the pendulum a tap. If the other person was around, they’d hit the sound wave button and, as a sign to the other person, they’d hang the pendulum over the support. Then the initiator would hit the sound wave button. If the initial tap wasn’t responded to, well, they’d lower the pendulum and leave a design in the sand.
The deeper into space Juan went he found himself half-expecting the device to not function as advertised. Initial prototypes always have kinks. Always. All the theory in the world can’t create a perfect device the first time around.
But if there were problems, they weren’t reflected on the user side. While the other researchers were severely missing their loved ones, Juan was still feeling a sense of intimacy with his wife. Maybe not physically, but there was a closeness that he’d never before experienced during times of prolonged separation.
They’d been on Pluto for four months. Hard months, but productive. Juan still communicated regularly with his wife, although he was so busy that they’d mostly decreased verbal communication to once a day. Instead, they started to keep the pendulum in the sand, tapping it at various points in the day.
“Hi,” communicated the flowery swirls. And, “Thinking of you.” And, “Missing you.” And, “Hope you’re well.” Sometimes they’d layer the designs one on top of the other to create a visual conversation, one without specifically implied meaning, but intelligible nonetheless.
Juan would do paperwork in his room, one eye on his papers, the other on the pendulum. If he saw the pendulum move it’d give him an energetic boost. Just being thought of and watching the pendulum swing in real time–it was good.
Back when he was first dating his wife he’d check his cell phone every two seconds to see if he got a text. And then after they’d dated for a while he didn’t check every two seconds, but did keep a section of his brain trained on any movement of that phone.
And as things happen, after several years of marriage, it stopped being important to check the cell during work. If something was important, she’d call his work number. And evenings were spent together. There was no reason to feel tied to a specific communication device.
But now it was different. It was like those dating days where every second could be a second when the pendulum moved. It was like his eyes could only spend a few seconds on his paperwork before drifting up to make sure the pendulum hadn’t started swinging.
It was like a gnat constantly buzzing in his ear. It was kind of fun. And very detrimental to his work productivity. Suddenly, he lived and breathed for every jostle of that pendulum.
The pendulum jerked.
Juan looked up, surprised. He’d never seen such a violent action from the pendulum before. But it didn’t stop there. The pendulum started whipping around on its wire, contorting and wrapping itself around the support posts. An extra-violent movement caused the whole thing to tumble off the table.
It skidded along the floor several paces, and then back, each movement seemingly more intense than the last.
And then nothing.
The pendulum lay on its side, as if gasping. Except there was no sound.
“What?” said Juan.
He picked up the pendulum and set it back on the desk. He pushed the soundwave button. “You there, hon?”
He tried tapping the pendulum.
Nothing. It just swung naturally back and forth, like a regular pendulum. Maybe her device broke. NASA wouldn’t like that. He sent her a quick email to see what was up and tried to force his focus back to his paperwork–albeit work interrupted every few minutes so he could tap.
First hour: nothing.
Second hour: nothing.
Third hour: nothing.
Aside from overnight, Juan was pretty confident he’d not gone more than two hours without seeing a tap of some kind from her.
Fourth hour: nothing.
Juan tried to get some lunch in his belly, but it tasted like brown Autumn leaves in his mouth.
Fifth hour: nothing.
The clock seemed to be ticking extra slowly.
Sixth hour: nothing.
Juan buried his head in his hands.
During that sixth hour that the ship captain received a transmission. This wasn’t uncommon. He usually received one every three minutes, give or take. Various people at NASA had every reason to need to interact with him.
This was not from NASA.
“Da fuck?” he said colloquially.
The transmission contained three websites.
Internet was technically impossible at that distance. With a 4+ hour lag between Earth and Pluto, it would take eight hours just to receive a single web page. So NASA had created a makeshift workaround. A copy of the Internet was contained on their very ship, updated every three days.
Not the whole Internet, mind you. That would take more server space than NASA money could afford, and more physical real estate on the ship than was possible. However, it did cherry-pick the some crucial sites for the men and women: CNN.com, NASA.gov, FOXnews.com, a limited Facebook.com, among others.
Even Netflix was provided, although instead of a web interface it was two movies and five TV episodes handpicked for the NASA personnel. That helped to limit the amount of data being stored on ship.
Pluto’s Internet had just been updated the day before. Yet here were three sites, packaged together like a special delivery, which showed that perhaps once every three days wasn’t frequently enough.
The websites all said one thing: WAR.
“Men, the United States has been attacked, heavily. NASA is seriously crippled. Philadelphia has been flattened. San Francisco is on fire. Chicago reeling. Washington DC is rubble. I don’t know that I believe in a first strike deathblow, but what the States received today is pretty damn close.
“A lot of casualties. A whole lot of casualties. Juan,” said the captain, turning, “I’ve gotten a note that your house was hit in the blast. Your wife–” The captain’s voice broke momentarily. “I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. The words echoed in Juan’s brain over and over like the end of a filmstrip flapping about. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Juan tapped the pendulum. He stopped it. Tap. Stop. Tap. Stop.