… continued from Observatory
The days wore on, and each member of the crew developed a new routine to cope with anticipation and concern.
For the past three years, there had been little to do beyond constantly check ship systems for proper function, and even that was primarily handled by the onboard AI. They made regular observations of the interior of the warp bubble, but it never changed. They read books, they watched videos, they played games, they studied texts. After the first few months, as familiarity became intimacy, flirtations became trysts, trysts became romances, and then romances settled back to awkward friendships. With only five crew members, and nowhere to go, everyone was keen to keep their stronger emotions well in check. Awkwardness eased back to familiarity, and routine ruled their days.
Now the situation had changed. Once again, there was an outside to observe. As the pilot, navigator, and astronomer, Anna became the busiest member of the crew, but they all had preparations to make for arrival. Takashi Sato, the engineer, spent a few weeks running complete diagnostic systems checks on the orbital shuttle and the lander, as well as ensuring the environmental suits were airtight and fully functional. A failure in any of his systems could quickly turn fatal. Laxmi performed final medical workups on all of the crew, ensuring everyone was up-to-date with vaccine boosters and not harboring any illness. She also enforced a physical exercise regimen on everyone, to Anna’s consternation. David Benetton, the captain, was also the geologist and atmospheric scientist. As they grew closer to the planet, he spent nearly as much time as Anna wearing an AR visor to learn more about the makeup of 62f’s atmosphere.
The only one without much to do was Jacinto. Jacinto Baltasar Capella Rojas, anthropologist, sociologist, and linguist, who had expected to be the one to figure out how to say “Take me to your leader” in Keplerian, now openly wondered if he would serve any purpose at all on this mission. The normally irrepressible Catalonian took on a subdued air, and Anna inexplicably felt guilty for not finding any little green men for him to speak to.
She suppressed her guilt, however, just as she suppressed the attraction she had once felt for Jaci, and concentrated on her job.
From the moment Aniara exited the warp bubble, Anna had focused one sensor to take constant readings from several far-distant but well-known pulsars, using the millisecond radio bursts to provide a constant navigational fix, accurate to within ten kilometers, precisely placing their position within the galaxy and within the star system. Another sensor monitored the five planets, plotting their orbital trajectories, refining the system map EASEA had prepared before their journey’s start, and looking for smaller objects: asteroids, planetoids, moons, and any other rock which could potentially pose a hazard. With the long-range telescope, Anna created a star map, identifying each of the stars visible in the Kepler 62 sky, plotting their relative positions and noting differences from what EASEA’s astronomers had predicted the sky would look like. Those differences would help EASEA to refine their understanding of each star’s position and movement through the galaxy.
Mostly, though, Anna focused her attention on 62f, growing closer with each passing day. The continents took on a more distinct outline wherever they were not obscured by clouds. Given Aniara’s approach vector, 62f always presented a daylight side toward them, but as the planet swung around the star on its orbit, racing to meet them, gradually the terminator became evident and a tiny sliver of nightside revealed itself.
Two weeks after exiting the warp bubble and beginning their approach, with ten billion kilometers still to go, Anna once again was in the observatory, observing the nightside, looking for any evidence of artificial lighting, evidence of cities, despite the radio silence. In the visible spectrum, the nightside disc of the waning planet was indistinguishable from the blackness of space beyond it, so Anna shifted toward infrared, looking for heat. When she did so, she could just make out a thin glow of atmosphere marking the disc, warmer than the background space.
“Anna, are you in the observatory?”
It was David on the intercom. After the special occasion of shutting down the Alcubierre drive, the crew was back to casual informality. No more “Mr Laukkonnen.” No more “Captain Benetton.” Without interrupting her observation, Anna clicked on the microphone.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Anna… Look, I know you’re trying to find something for us all, but by my calculations, you’ve been on shift for… let’s see, more than twenty-four hours now. The planet isn’t going away, and we still have weeks before we arrive. You know the ship will record everything.”
A tiny, brief flare of sunlight glinted right at the dark horizon. Anna blinked, not sure if she really saw it. She pulled the visor from her head and rubbed her eyes, took a deep breath, then put it back on before speaking.
“David, I’m just checking out a few observations. As you know, the nightside is starting to come into view, and…”
“And it will be even more in view tomorrow. You need to sleep.”
There. Another flare. It wasn’t a trick of tired eyes. That was a satellite flare. Something was in orbit around the planet. Anna increased the gain on the infrared band.
“Anna, are you listening to me?”
There was something, faint. With some finger twists on virtual controls, Anna narrowed the spectrum and shifted it up and down, looking for the best resolution.
It was more than one satellite. It was perhaps quite a large number of satellites, but the distance was still too great to be sure. Or it could be…
“Anna? Did you say something?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m… seeing something.”
“I’m sure you are. I’m just not sure you’re seeing sense, though.”
“David, I think you need to take a look at this.”
There was a pause. After a moment, he clicked on the microphone again.
“Ok, what am I looking for?”
“Filter down to the 2.5 to 3 micrometer wavelength band and look from the terminator to the nightside disc, and beyond the atmosphere.”
Another pause, and then an intake of breath. That was when Anna was sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes, David. We’ve definitely confirmed that there was, at some point at least, a technological civilization here. A highly advanced civilization. This is a major piece of engineering. You’re looking at reflected heat from an orbital ring that completely encircles the planet.”
… continued with Flip and Burn.
image credit: qimono / pixabay.com
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