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I'm trying to find a story I read maybe fifteen or twenty years ago. The story itself might be much older, of course: it had a 1950's - 60's 'golden age of hard SF' feel to it.

As I remember it, the plot involved an effort to find out if the universe is closed in 4D by having two ultra-fast ships complete a flight around the entire universe. One of the ships was shaped like a ring so that the other, needle-shaped ship could fly through its central hole.

The idea was that the ring-shaped ship would take off, and after a while the needle-shaped ship would accelerate on a course exactly through the hole in the ring-ship, overtaking it; then the roles would reverse and the ring-ship would accelerate on a course to overtake the needle-ship passing through its hole - and so on. I think this alternating aim-accelerate-overtake process was very fast, the drive being inertia-less hyperdrives or what have you: the crew aboard never noticed the acceleration.

The story follows the crew of only one of the two ships: they could not maintain contact during the flight supposedly because of the choppy flight pattern. They even never saw the other ship during the mission, because they passed one another way too fast for that.

I suppose that the idea was that this would plot a straight course through space (though it would of course be subject to 4D curvature nonetheless). The only other thing I remember is that at a certain point in the story the ship's gyroscope (or whatever they had) revealed their course had begun to curve anyhow.

A detail that I think comes from this story is that when they are really far out on their mission, there are no galaxies or stars in sight anywhere near and the only thing visible is a kind of faraway glow of the assembled galaxies of familiar space. However, I might be conflating it with "The Ethics of Madness" by Larry Niven, where two people in relativistic ramscoop ships fly off, ever closer to light speed and thus eventually covering a huge distance in their subjective time as well.

I also seem to remember that the crew noticed something else; something strange and a bit spooky when they were very far away. But what that something was keeps eluding me, and it might also come from the memory of yet another story, like the Star Trek TNG 'The Traveller' episode, which featured a similar journey to the other side of the universe.

That's what comes from reading too many short SF stories, it seems ;)

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Thanks!

  • edited to add more remembered details
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    Take a look at this guide to help jog your memory and edit any more details. Specifically things like when you read it, or where? Also, take a look at our tour to get a better understanding of our site and earn your first badge! – Edlothiad Mar 14 '17 at 15:45
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    Hmm. I recall a similar story where objects (one a needle, the other a cylinder) were fired off at near-lightspeed from different parts of the galaxy and missed each other with millimetric precision, allowing them to stop. – Valorum Mar 14 '17 at 15:51
  • Hi @Valorum: maybe my memory messed the story up, and it is what you mention. Do you remember what that story was? – Lúthien Mar 15 '17 at 9:28
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    @Lúthien - scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/154739/… – Valorum Mar 15 '17 at 12:58
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    One could write a SciFi story about people posting on SciFi StackExchange about stories they barely remember, but that nobody can conclusively trace to anything. A person from the Nerd Tribe decides to investigate and correlate and concludes that those stories just existed in a single copies of a otherwise unremarkable paperback print runs - a copy that the reader once owned but that, invariably, got lost. Collecting the partially remembered story elements reveals a hidden message, possibly from a meta-reality... – David Tonhofer May 27 '19 at 20:48
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You're neither misremembering the story, nor mixing it up.

The spooky thing was exactly that the gyroscope - which was supposed to ensure they could maintain a straight course - was beginning to turn. One member of the crew got afraid they were slowly drifting off course and would be lost in space forever, and tried to turn off the engines before it was too late. The rest of the crew had to restrain him by force. Then they realised that the gyroscope was turning exactly because space itself was curved and that they would be home again when it had made a full turn. This gave the crew new confidence and energy and allowed them to finish their journey in good spirits.

Unfortunately, I remember neither title nor author. I agree with your assessment of its 'golden age' feel. Maybe the details added above allow somebody else to identify the story.

[edit] Found the story! It's Dead Ahead by Jack Vance, written in 1949.

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    Nice work! Originally published in Super Science Stories, Sept. 1950, as by John Holbrook, it can be read at the Internet Archive. Definitely a match. – DavidW Feb 18 at 20:50
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    Woo hoo! A Vance I haven't read! – Organic Marble Feb 18 at 23:12
  • Wow, thank you! I had all but given up finding it ever :) ++++ – Lúthien Feb 20 at 11:22
  • I searched for "Dead Ahead", and found that it was originally titled "Ultimate Quest" (isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?99869). It's in "Magic Highways: The Early Jack Vance, Volume Three" (goodreads.com/book/show/…) - can't wait to re-read it. Thanks again for your help! – Lúthien Feb 20 at 11:36
  • Thanks to you too @DavidW for pointing to the archived version! – Lúthien Feb 20 at 11:39

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