In my alternate timeline, I have penciled in that intrepid cosmonaut Polina Valentinova undertakes the ultimate adventure of her time: a manned version of the Voyager probes’ “grand tour” track, visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune…and then turning around at Neptune and visiting all the major planets of the inner solar system as well. In this more-than-a-decade-long excursion she becomes the first human being to visit Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as well as the first person to visit all eight major planets of our solar system.
I had some more thoughts on her character, what she might do afterwards, but none of my ideas felt right, so I shelved it. Then, this week, I got an inspiration: what if she does her eight-planet expedition and then rather than becoming a full-time mother, space advocate, or lone explorer doing what amounts to mop-up operations after her grandest achievement, she collaborates increasingly closely with Menteith Reinhardt, a.k.a. Count Gleichen, he of the “Hunt for Count Gleichen’s Treasure” fame (among other things).
And then, it hit me: as part of my worldbuilding I’ve established that in the mid 2020s, when he’s well up into his seventies, Count Gleichen disappears in deep space, never to be heard from again. He was wont to disappear for long stretches only to reappear, so it’s only after months and then years pass without him ever returning to check in on his affairs that the rumors start, and his absence becomes truly worrisome.
Anyway, by the 2040s rumors are swirling that Gleichen was testing some sort of ultra-fast relativistic propulsion, perhaps that also utilizes stealth technology, making it very difficult to trace. Either something went wrong or he zoomed away from our solar system. In the absence of effective warp technology (well, unless that’s what he was working on), then relativity would dictate that it would be far longer in Earth time before he came back. If he went fast enough, days for him might be millennia for the rest of the human race.
What if the rumors are true? What if Count Gleichen achieved some sort of far-out breakthrough (perhaps what he was working on during the times he vanished for all those months at a stretch) and actually did zoom out of our solar system? What would that look like? My current thought process is definitely something relativistic, with the leading candidate in my mind’s eye being a high-g laser sail, a more primitive yet still viable version of what was developed in the later pre-warp era in my universe’s chronology. But we’ll see about that.
Perhaps Polinka (as her nickname is) worked in a very close relationship with Count Gleichen on this project, and went away with him? She too would be in her old age, albeit considerably younger than Gleichen: in her sixties (…ish). Neither of them would have much left to lose at that point, so if there’s some far-out propulsion method they can test, one that can propel them at speeds no one has ever dreamed of before, even at the cost of their own lives, would they really turn that down? They just might do it.
Now, it’s possible that they speed up, experience the effects of the cosmic microwave background becoming visible, and die in some kind of romantic embrace, going out in a blaze of glory as the ship is torn apart by the stresses of the acceleration, rather than the whimper of old age’s decay.
But perhaps a more intriguing idea would be for them to successfully decelerate, ending up very far away, lost in space, and so far ahead in time even a thousand years after their departure they haven’t been heard from yet…assuming they even have enough transmissive power to get a message out, or that a human expedition would reach them within their own lifetimes. Them being trapped on a tin can isn’t exactly exciting, so I was thinking I’d merge this with another idea I had.
Originally I was thinking about a knockoff of Wayne Barlowe’s “Expedition”, which was later adapted into the Discovery Channel documentary “Alien Planet”. A strange new world inspired by the western United States where the ecology is the focus, the expedition consisting of self-replicating disc-shaped micro-probes propelled at high-relativistic speed by laser sail. But with the Gleichen-Valentinova concept, my focus is shifting to a manned expedition to such a planet.
This planet, which they might coin Polinkamir (Polinka’s world), consists of formidable mountain ranges of Himalayan proportions with the interiors being filled with badlands and buttes evoking Devil’s Tower, only much more pronounced. Which would be really cool and creepy. Another detail, and one inspired by “Alien Planet” (well, “Dune” too…) is that it never seems to rain there, and the life is all fed by groundwater, sequestered in cactus-like plants that did a bit too good a job of preserving water, taking it all in for themselves and turning the planet into a desert, forming the base of the ecosystem. There are some more exotic details in the works as well that I’d have to mull over, but “the true story of Count Gleichen’s disappearance and the last chapter of the life of Polina Valentinova” would make for a really cool piece of science fiction I think.
Could work in some survival motifs, some low-key romance for a much older age bracket than I’ve hitherto written a story about, a lot of alien ecology (which I haven’t dabbled in…really about 3 years), some mystery factor, fleshing out the worldbuilding, some character-building…ooh, I think this has a lot of potential.