Sometimes all you need is a neat conceit and the storytelling to follow it through. In today’s story, Baxter starts with the premise that the Pacific Ocean is uncrossable. If you start from Asia and travel eastwards, or start from the Americas and travel westwards, you can sail for as long as you can and never reach the other side. (It is even suggested that the Bering Land Bridge never existed and America’s native population came from Africa, though this is an unexplored tangent.)
The story starts in an alternate 1940s in which, sing along if you know it, the Nazis won the war. Actually I like the setup for this; given that the Pacific is uncrossable, the United States has no vested interest in the Japanese conflict, and subsequently never entered the European theatre. Combine that with the appeasing Halifax being prime minister rather than Churchill (a more likely outcome than our reality, given Churchill’s improbable rise) and you have a peacetime story in which the RAF operates as a subdivision of the Luftwaffe.
But I’m spending too much time on the background. The actual story is told by the diary of a British reporter on the aerial battleship Goering. (I thought this was another piece of typically beautiful Nazi technology, but Ciliax said the bombs are a British design… “They are as British as the banks of Rolls Royce engines that keep the Goering aloft.”) It is designed to fly for at least fifty days without stopping. Its purpose is to fly over Nazi-conquered Russia and attempt to cross the Pacific from the east.
This shouldn’t be too difficult. Ever since Eratosthenes people have known that the Earth is round and have even calculated its size. The crew of the Goering know that the width of the Pacific can be no longer than twelve thousand miles across.
On the twelfth day they reach that distance and still do not sight America. They keep going. They pass islands beneath them, some populated by humanoids with a distinctly australopithecine appearance. After fifty thousand miles they start finding islands that contain what look like dinosaurs. And still the ocean does not end…
The Pacific Mystery by Stephen Baxter
Availability: print, Kindle
Word count: 7,700
Awards: Sidewise Award nominee
First published: The Mammoth Book of Extreme Science Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley, 2006, Robinson
Where else to find it: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2007, St Martin’s Griffin
Last and First Contacts, collection, 2012, NewCon Press (a Kindle edition is available from Amazon here)