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Date: 2276 AD
Location: Surface of unknown planet within an unknown globular cluster.

Lately, he'd found it harder and harder to concentrate, his aging mind failing him. Yet, in even this state, he worked at a fantastic pace - A lifetime of doing the same task had made it second nature to him.
Again and again he repeated the same procedure. Aimed his instrument at the night sky, centered it exactly on a star, and wrote down the co-ordinates and brightness data in a thick notebook. Move on to the next star, repeat. He ignored the stars for which the instrument indicated a nil Doppler shift. They were part of the star cluster in which he was and useless for the task.
Millions of times over the years. So many stars - some of them weren't even stars, but the instrument could tell him everything that he needed to know about them.
His digital tablet had worn out many years ago and he had blessed his foresight in bringing notebooks along just in case.
The hyperwave transmitter lay in the shuttle craft, wrapped in multiple protective layers. Someday, he would use it, for the first and last time, and he grew despondent at the thought of what he'd do after that, but he crushed the thought and pressed on. He still had much work to do.


Date: 2204 AD
Location: Galactic Skyliner J371

It was supposed to be a routine trip across the galaxy and back, carrying a contingent of senior researchers and technicians to the Eta Carinae system. The journey onward took only a few minutes and the conference with the natives went ahead pleasantly. After a period of three earth weeks, the passengers returned to the ship. During the previous week the cosmic rays had been extremely strong, but no one had had any worries over it.

The crew had just taken the ship into orbit, and engaged hyper drive, when the tragedy happened. When they emerged, instead of being greeted with the familiar sight of Old Sol, they saw an alien night sky. Worry soon turned into desperation as the crew and passengers realized they were completely lost in a region of space that looked almost opaque with stars. The diagnostics revealed that the warp drive had run for an unknown amount of time, depositing them in an unknown position. It had been the cosmic rays from Eta Carinae, which had wreaked havoc with certain delicate components. Repairs were carried out promptly, but no one had a clue where they had to aim the warp drive to get back home. The energy banks showed slightly over half full, the rogue jump had eaten the rest. That meant they had one shot.
Only.

An impromptu conference was called and the sharpest minds looked for a solution together, but in vain. It was then that the spindly youth had spoken up and broached his plan. Objections quietened down as soon as the realization dawned that there was no other option. They looked at him with a kind of disbelief. He insisted that the lives of thousands were worth the price he would pay.

Preparations were made swiftly and no one talked about anything other than the technical aspects of the procedure. The medical crew swiftly implanted as many photo-synth patches on his arms and back as they could. Six hours in sunlight would keep him going for about a week according to their calculations. They gave him the entire box of patches and explained the replacement procedures to him. It would hardly be needed, but somehow they wanted to do everything they possibly could for him. He tried to keep up cheerful banter, but the smiles raised at his jokes were rather strained and unnatural.

The flight crew programmed the shuttle craft to land on the nearest suitable planet, a few light months away. They were quite confident that the atmospheric and gravitational conditions of the planet were more or less suitable for human life, and the yellow sun it orbited was an added bonus. The craft was equipped with a cryogenic capsule, so he'd be unconscious until he landed. By then the rest of them would be frozen in relativistic stasis as they traversed about 75 light years ahead at 0.9999999998 C. They would use the sub-relativistic drive for as long as they could, at the maximum possible level. At this velocity almost 75 years would pass for him, by which time if he were alive, he should have gathered enough data to get them back home. He would have to map as many stars as he possibly could. They were in a globular cluster and time was of essence.


Date: 2277 AD
Location: Surface of unknown planet within an unknown globular cluster.

He slowly pored over the indexes he maintained with great care. He had regularly digitized his notebooks every few months, keeping the craft's systems running for a few minutes at a time at most. He had staked everything to get the ship back home, and he didn't want to make mistakes, or take any chances. He'd had few illusions about his own going back to Earth, even long ago when he had landed on the planet. The stellar data he had collected would surely allow the ship to warp to within striking distance of Earth, or at least hyperwave range, but the length of the jump would reduce accuracy to a few hundred light years at the very least. Even were they to jump back in reverse looking for him, the odds of finding his planet (It was his! He'd lived there 72 years!) within the hordes of stars in the cluster were astronomically against it. The Earth, the ship, the crew were all a hazy memory now, all he knew now were the stars.

It was finally time.
He plugged in the transmitter into the craft and powered it up. The transmission would repeat for as long as the power lasted. He had to allow for minute errors in the timing of the ships sub-relativistic drive. They may not stop to listen for a few years yet. If the ship had already stopped, and they heard no transmission, they would be smart enough to continue making orbits at increasing speeds until they caught up with his time. They would feed the data into the navigation computers and correlate the spatial relationships of the stars until they found the pattern of a known constellation, or galactic group.


Date: 2278 AD
Location: Galactic Skyliner J371

When they stopped, the hyperwave transmission was promptly identified and the ship's computers were put to work. Several months passed, during which the rations dwindled and hope was all but lost. After 206 days, the computers discovered a familiar pattern among the stars. There was a subdued jubilation as the warp drive was programmed. A few seconds later they reached a point a few hundred light years from Earth, from where they could warp right into Earth orbit accurately.


Date: 2276 AD
Location: Surface of unknown planet within an unknown globular cluster.

The first two days after he started the transmission, he spent in a tired sleep. The next morning he got up, picked up an empty notebook and returned to his life of aiming, measuring, and writing. He recalled no other.


Date: 2278 AD
Location: Earth

They never understood why he had done it. He had insisted that they don't press him. They had returned to an Earth several decades older than they knew it. It was a small sacrifice they'd had to make.
His was the ultimate sacrifice.


Date: 2278 AD
Location: Surface of unknown planet within an unknown globular cluster.

He never understood why he had done it either
After all these years the stars were still beautiful
No man would ever see so many
He smiled


For SciFiQuest 9999

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