…continued from Arrival
Anna walked into the exercise room and eyed the elliptical trainer with suspicion. She was still getting used to walking at all, after three years of floating and simply pushing or pulling herself along the corridors of the ship. Now, albeit at only about a fifth of Earth gravity induced by the constant push of Ariana’s ion thrusters, she felt very unsteady on her feet. The Captain had insisted that all the crew keep up with their exercises, and Anna had not skimped, but pushing one’s legs and arms back and forth with feet strapped to the pedals in null-g felt quite different from doing the same thing in 0.2 g. She didn’t want to think about the first time any of them tried to walk on the surface of Kepler 62f — assuming they found something worth landing for — but it wasn’t going to be pretty, and the only way to make it work at all was going to be to put herself through some hell now. No pain, no gain. She had forty-three days to significantly improve her muscle tone, and the little bit of thrust gravity would help with that.
Forty-three days to cross nearly thirteen-billion kilometers of interplanetary space, almost three times the average distance between Earth and Neptune, and yet just one-ten-thousandth of a percent of the distance they had traveled from home, hardly measurable as a rounding error. Aniara had arrived on the edge of the Kepler 62 system almost opposite from the fifth and outermost planet, the object of so much interest, and far outside its orbit. Although the thrust imparted from the ionized xenon atoms accelerated and expelled from the engines was minuscule compared to that of a chemical rocket, it was constant. Aniara’s thrusters would fire continuously for twenty-one days, give or take a few hours, by which time they would be moving more than thirteen-million kilometers per hour relative to the bit of empty space into which they unfolded. Then Anna — or the ship’s computer, under Anna’s direction — would shut down the main engines, use a small attitude thruster to slowly spin the ship on her axis until they were facing back the way from which they had come, and then re-ignite the main engines to begin another twenty-one days of deceleration, bringing them to their destination with a nicely matched vector for orbital insertion.
For now, though, the planet was nothing more than a faint point of light, almost lost in the far brighter glow from Kepler 62. Even the star was merely the brightest of many stars in the field of view, nothing like the Sun back home. Kepler 62 was an orange dwarf, smaller, cooler, and dimmer than Sol, and Aniara was still quite far away.
Anna kept all this in the back of her mind as she slipped her feet into the pedal-straps. From long habit she began to attach the waist-belt, then paused, considering. No, she thought, now with gravity, even light gravity, I shouldn’t need this anymore. She left the belt dangling, moved the pedals a few rotations to experiment, confirmed her program on the control screen, and started the exercise.
The null-g exercise hadn’t been for nothing. Anna wasn’t completely out of shape — none of the crew were. They were professionals and they all took the mission seriously. But adding just a small bit of gravity made it almost a completely different exercise, pushing herself up on the pedals instead of just rotating them around. In three minutes her heart rate was in the zone, and at ten minutes her breathing was heavier. She wasn’t looking forward to the squat machine, and wondered whether she should have started with that.
“Hi. May I join you?”
Laxmi Khan, exobiologist, medical specialist, and the only other woman on the crew, had slipped into the cramped exercise compartment without Anna noticing. Anna smiled her assent, and Laxmi sat down on the universal bench, grabbed the overhead resistance handles, and began a set of pulldowns.
“So, what do you think we’ll find?”
Anna eased per pace a little, allowed her breathing to slow while she considered her answer.
“Too soon to say. 62f is too close to the star’s disc, the photosphere is interfering with the instruments, so we won’t know until we get closer.”
“But the atmosphere would support emergence of life, yes?”
“Initial spectrographic analysis…”
“Anna, I’m asking what’s your gut feeling? All of us have put our lives on hold, risked our careers. We’ve come too far for there to be nothing.”
“Risked our careers? Why, because you insisted we would find sentient life, a technological society of some kind out here, and so far the aliens haven’t materialized to greet us? Laxmi, whether or not there are any little green men on that planet, whether there’s any life at all or nothing but inert rocks, some acidic oceans, and a volcano or two, we have already made history. This is not nothing. Before us, the greatest distance was the Morpheum mission to Trappist-1, which launched well over a hundred years ago, and they still haven’t arrived yet. That crew is sleeping through a journey already made obsolete, while we have traveled thirty times as far in just three years!”
“Can you imagine how that is going to feel for them when they wake up? Who knows, maybe some of us will be there to greet them. ‘Congratulations on arriving! Oh by the way, we’ve been here for ten years already.’ Now that’s career risk. That’s putting your life on hold. Meanwhile, as a pilot, I just brought a starship farther than any human has been before, proving that the Alcubierre principle holds true over this distance, and setting the stage for deepening the warp next time, increasing the apparent speed. As an astronomer, I’m seeing a view of the galaxy that no one before us has laid eyes upon, and getting up close and personal to a star that previously could not be seen without a powerful telescope, a star with some significant and fascinating compositional differences from our own Sun. So, if there aren’t any aliens here to, oh, I don’t know, blow us up with their ultra-high-tech ray guns or something, that’s just fine with me. That would seriously get in the way of my observations and charting of the Kepler 62 system.”
Anna realized she was racing the pedals around the elliptical furiously, gripping the handles tightly, so she forced herself to slow down and relax. Why did she get so worked up? She wasn’t sure. Laxmi hadn’t meant anything with her question.
“Extraterrestrials,” Laxmi said softly. “Not aliens. Extraterrestrials. Or maybe just locals, or natives, or even residents.”
Anna looked at her quizzically.
“We’re the aliens here, Anna. We’re the visitors. And we only make history if we make it back to tell everyone.”
… continued with Observatory
image credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech
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