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Purify - Chapter 16 The Crab

The Eric Laithwaite emerged from its short slide away from the Tony Robinson in the vicinity of the Crab Nebula. That is one of the joys of having a String Slider at your disposal; so long as you didn’t worry too much about when you were arriving, you could take a slide to anywhere in the universe. To be certain of the time of your arrival took more energy and a more precise choice of string to slide. That sort of accuracy and energy could only be programmed by the boffins back at Time Control on Earth.

Captain Ken had always wanted to see the Crab Nebula since he read about it at school. In fact it was the story of this gas cloud that got him into stellar physics in the first place. From Astro School he went on to become a Shuttle pilot and then to being a slider test pilot when the string sliders were first being put through their paces.

The story of the Crab Nebula and how it was first observed almost a millennium earlier as a supernova had always fascinated him. It was like witnessing god turning on a light while you were watching. The chances of seeing such an event were much greater these days with string enhanced telescopes and such like but back in June of 1054 AD they had only just started to watch the skies closely with any interest. Of course, to them it just looked like another, albeit very bright, star. It was only later that observations of this interesting nebula were linked with those early observations of a bright new star and the realisation that those early astronomers had seen the supernova that was to become the Crab nebula.

“Ben, when are we?” asked Ken.

“Relative to this supernova, I’d say we are about four hundred and fifty years since it happened,” said Ben, “there is still a lot of radiation around, even at this distance, we shouldn’t hang around too long.”

“So we are currently six hundred and fifty years ago,” mused Ken. “Over there on Earth it is 1700 or so; the height of the industrial revolution is going on.”

“Let me know when you have seen enough, Ken,” said Ben as he left the captain’s quarters.

Captain Ken drank in the sight of the Crab Nebula through the main window of Eric. It was a phenomenal sight. Four hundred and fifty years ago this whole nebula wasn’t here at all. If you looked closely enough you might have made out a star in the final stages of its nuclear fire. Soon, as its nuclear reactions ran out of fuel, gravity would take over and like a pan of boiling milk brimming to the lip that is suddenly taken off the heat it will collapse down. But, unlike the milk, that would not be the end for, as soon as the density under the compressive force of gravity gets too large, new nuclear reactions occur liberating yet more energy in a runaway explosion that is a supernova. Ben had always liked the idea of novae because it was these that gave rise to the elements that make up the stuff of planets and of life. Without supernovae there would only be hydrogen, and helium and the other lightweight elements in the universe. But, because of them we have all the elements that we know of today including the ones that are in his body right now, contemplating the sight before him.

The gas cloud wasn’t as blue as he had remembered it from the photographs but then they often used false colouring to enhance the pictures and capture everyone’s imagination. The familiar topography (resembling the crab’s shell) was discernible though, and he wanted to take a ship in to see it and be in it but he knew that the radiation would kill him in seconds. It was this radiation that was illuminating the cloud of gas that he could see and, if it was bright enough to do that, then it would be bright enough to fry him in an instant if he got any closer without the Slide Ship to protect him.

“Well, I can cross that off my list,” said Ken to no one in particular.

“What else is on your list, Captain?” asked Den, who must have been watching Ken as he gazed out of the window.

“Oh, Hi Den,” said Ken, “lots of things if the truth be known. Some of which I’ve done, some I am going to do and some that there just won’t be time to do.”

“How can there not be enough time?” asked Den, “I thought that this ship could travel through time.”

“Yes, but I am still ageing at about a second per second and there’s nothing a time machine can do about that. What I need is a rejuvenation machine. Maybe the next planet we visit will have one, eh?” asked Ken, rhetorically.

“What does Ben say we should head for next?” asked the captain, “because in the near future I am going to have to get back to Earth and the relative safety of the ‘home world’.”