This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
Well, I suppose it really started with the decade I spent working on the problem of travelling faster than light-speed. Ten long years, and while I had some ideas of what might be needed, they just didn’t hang together. There was something I was missing. I could tell that. But for the life of me I couldn’t work out what.
One day, which seemed like so many of the others before it, I’d spent yet another fruitless morning and restless lunch struggling with the problems. I must have been particularly difficult to be around that day because my wife was ready to start demonstrating the practical side of physics by throwing heavy objects at her moody husband. Some glimmer of self-preservation kicked in and I decided to take our two dogs out for a walk.
We lived in the countryside back then. We do now, actually, but on a different planet. Back then the only countryside was on earth. Let me tell you, I’d had some wonderful walks around that area with the dogs. Summer days full of sunshine, crisp winter days with frost on the ground and everything sparkling around us, days when the wind blew so hard it snatched your breath away and made you laugh. Days which made you glad to be alive. Days which could get your feet moving fast and your mind even faster.
This was not one of those days. It was pi… that is, it was pouring down with rain. And had been for three days at least. The sort of rain which will soak through anything and everything given a chance.
I was sensible enough to put on some decent waterproof trousers, the expensive ones which breathe rather than leaving you drowning inside them, and a proper winter coat. And wellington boots designed for country mud, with tread which was at least half an inch deep. Even with those preparations I knew the walk wouldn’t be fun that day, but the dogs needed the exercise and my wife had made it clear I needed to get out of the house for both her sake and mine.
So off we went for a good long walk. And let me tell you, it was damn miserable! But we persevered. We walked a couple of roads to reach the first field then crossed it without too many problems. The next two as well, which took us back onto a quiet back road. The type of country road where pheasants are more common than cars, and it’s just as well as only one car can fit down them at a time.
Despite the weather I decided to take the long loop, to head off over some more fields rather than sticking with the road. In the summer it was beautiful… rolling fields skirting around woodlands. Little streams. Ponds. And huge amounts of wildlife, from deer to hares to foxes to buzzards. Truly beautiful. But that day… not so much.
The first field was still manageable. The path ran along the edge of the field. It was muddy but passable. Then I got to the next field. A big one. The path ran straight through the middle but it only took five or six minutes to cross. In the summer.
You could skirt around it but that was probably four or five times the distance, and crossing the middle wasn’t a problem. Normally. It still wouldn’t have been so bad even then, if the farmer hadn’t ploughed it a day or two before I got there.
So rather than a path that many people had trodden flat over the months, I was faced with trenches a foot deep cutting left to right, full of water and sucking mud and spaced in ways which made it difficult to step from within one trench to the next. Walking from ridge to ridge was slightly better but meant a constant fight against slipping over as the freshly turned mud crumbled under my feet.
Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? But that wasn’t the worst of it. You see the soil around there is clay. Which means when it gets that wet it gets sticky. Really sticky. It grabs hold of your boots and doesn’t let go.
The first thirty seconds clambering across the field was hard work. The next half a minute was even worse. Two minutes in and I’d probably covered the distance I could have covered in twenty seconds in the summer. My boots were weighed down with mud, making me feel like I was wearing ankle weights. Heavy ankle weights. That clay-mud is heavy as well as being sticky.
By the end of the third minute every step was a struggle. The rain continued to pour down, my hands were frozen and damp even through my gloves, and every difficult step across the ruts seemed to leave me with more mud clinging to my boots. It was miserable!
It was quite clear that what I should do was turn around, go back to the edge of the field where I’d started, and then skirt around the edges. The field wouldn’t be ploughed up there, so it wouldn’t be so sticky and muddy. There might even be grass to walk on.
Did I do the sensible thing? Did I hell! I’m just stubborn, I guess. But going back felt like far more effort than going on, even though it was a much shorter distance. The thought of putting in all that effort just to get back to where I started was crushing, and then still having to walk around the field? Going so much further just to get to the same place? I couldn’t bear the idea. So I trudged on.
I swear, by the time I was halfway across that field I’d done more than a week’s worth of exercise. To make matters worse each foot felt like it had ten kilo weights attached. And I’d grown taller! At least two inches taller! That’s how much muddy clay was stuck to the bottom of my boots. And to the sides. And it all made it even harder to clamber through the dips and over the ridges without slipping over.
As for the poor dogs… they were quite hardy outdoor creatures, but they were both thoroughly miserable by this point. The rain wasn’t doing them any favours, and they were having to clamber up the ridges and down into the trenches.
And me? I’d had enough. I just wanted it all to stop. But what could I do? I was halfway across the field now, going back really would be just as much effort as going on and then I’d still need to walk around the field. So I kept going.
We carried on. Somehow we made it across the field, and into the next, where I scraped off as much of the mud as I could. That field was better… still wet and muddy but not churned up, and with a well trodden path, but it was still another thirty-five minutes of walking across fields and down roads till we could get home. Definitely not a shining advert for the joy of walking in the countryside!
* * *
Sir Lance paused, smiling at Sylvie. She glanced down and was pleased to see she’d managed to keep making notes despite being lost in his story.
“Well,” Sir Lance said. “You might wonder how that all relates to faster than light travel. I certainly wasn’t thinking about it as I walked across that field. But during the rest of the walk something was jiggling about in my head.
“You see, the biggest issue with my ideas for faster than light travel was the energy needed. The theory was sound, there was a way to do it, but the energy requirements were far, far greater than we could possibly supply even for a tiny prototype.
“Well I’ll tell you I was exhausted after getting across that field. I’d used far more energy getting across it than I normally would have. And far more than I’d have used going around the field, taking the long way, if I’d chosen to do that to begin with.
“That’s when it clicked. I nearly stumbled over my feet as it hit me. I’d been looking at FTL travel the wrong way all those years! I’d been focusing on how to get from start to finish in the shortest possible path… but what if I took a longer path? One which was a longer distance but required less energy? It might not be as quick as going direct, but maybe it would be possible! And still far quicker than anything else we had.
“That was just the start. The initial flash of inspiration. It was followed by five months of intensive work, but I was on the right path from that moment. And in the end we proved it right. The trick was to choose your route carefully, to take the path of least resistance, rather than the most direct.
“And the difference it made… well, going around the field would have been four or five times the distance but taken probably a tenth of the effort. With taking a different route with FTL it’s more like the energy needed to go direct is a hundred-thousand times as much as taking some of the other routes. Of course if you take the roundabout route it takes longer to get there… but not that much longer, and by doing that the whole universe opens up for you.”
He finished speaking and smiled. Sylvie sat there, thinking over everything he’d told her and smiling slightly. Finally she nodded.
“Thank you!” she said. “You really have given me a simple explanation, and told me how you stumbled on it. So travelling faster than light is like walking around a muddy field rather than going straight across it?”
“Yes… and no. But unless you want to spend fifteen years studying maths and advanced physics that’s about as close as you’re going to get.”
She smiled at him again, shaking her head slightly.
“And the only reason we can reach the stars, the only reason we’re celebrating The Hundred today, is because you were too stubborn to walk around a field?”
Sir Lawrence chuckled and nodded.
“Partly. Don’t forget the dogs, without them I’d never have been there. And my wife practically shoving me out the door for her own sanity! But alongside those, yes, it’s down to my stubbornness. And I’m happy to sign your notes to say that’s the case.”
“Then I guess we should have another toast. Let’s drink to The Hundred, to your stubbornness, to your wife, and to your dogs!”
“Absolutely! And then I need to get home. I’m not as young as I used to be, and while those two dogs are sadly no longer with us I still have two dogs who need to be walked in the morning. Walked around any muddy fields. Not across them. I may be stubborn, but I do learn!”