… continued from Taboos and Discoveries
Anna stepped up to the dais and inspected the telescope more closely. It bore little resemblance to the modern instruments of her own profession; she saw no 3D AR headset, no tactile gloves, no display monitors or digital readouts. Indeed, she saw nothing obviously electronic at all, and she was not even sure it had any source of power, electric or otherwise. She confirmed her suspicion when she located a rotary mechanical crank affixed to a large planetary gear set into a circular toothed track just inside the perimeter of the dais. Turning the crank would rotate the entire pedestal, with the telescope mounted at its center. A similar, slightly smaller crank mounted at the junction of the mount and the cylinder itself served to raise or lower the telescope’s angle. Neither crank was especially close to the eyepiece, so Anna imagined that setting the view angle would either be a multi-person job, or very tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone. Tracking sidereal motion would be arduous at best, and yet from Li-Estl’s words it seemed she had done it, or at least understood the concept. How else would she distinguish planets from stars?
The telescope cylinder itself was constructed of a bright, copper-colored metal, polished and gleaming at its lower, narrower end, but dull with neglect higher up its length. Brass, perhaps, or bronze? Anna had seen some evidence of metallurgical industry among the Kwakitl, on the tips of the fishing spears, and elsewhere, though the majority of their implements appeared to be wooden in nature. She still wasn’t sure where they acquired so much wood on what appeared to be an otherwise barren, rocky island, but imagined perhaps they harvested it elsewhere and brought it back. The rotating pedestal itself was wooden, almost bamboo-like, as was the floor of the observatory, whereas the walls and domed ceiling appeared to be tin. Bronze, she decided, was what the telescope was constructed from. Where it had been polished, it had more of a reddish sheen than yellow-golden, and bronze would be consistent with the presence of tin used for other metals.
The whole room had an interesting mix of Bronze Age and Victorian Era qualities, with gears and lenses and artful decorative flourishes on the telescope mechanism itself, surrounded by starkly utilitarian craft for the rest of the chamber.
The eyepiece was too low for Anna to comfortably look through if she sat on the chair, but the chair was not affixed to the dais, so she moved it aside then squatted, and finally she just sat cross-legged on the dais floor itself. Li-Estl appeared nervous, shifting her weight back and forth from one leg to the other and slightly fluttering her wings. Anna pulled back from the telescope and looked at her.
“I’m sorry, that was presumptuous of me. May I?” She gestured at herself and then at the telescope. Li-Estl didn’t respond right away, so Anna gestured to Jaci for the tablet and activated the translation program. “Li-Estl, back home, I am an astronomer.” The tablet beeped, indicating an untranslatable word. “It is my job to look at stars. I understand telescopes…” Another beep. “Sorry, I understand this device for seeing things far away. May I look through it?”
The tablet repeated Anna’s question to Li-Estl, and a moment later translated her reply. “Anna look through telescope. Please be careful. Telescope very old. No one today can fix if damaged.”
“Thank you.” Anna smiled at Li-Estl, then turned to look into the eyepiece.
The sun had set roughly half an hour earlier, though at this equatorial latitude darkness came on quickly. Anna estimated they were in nautical twilight, still too bright to see fainter stars, though the sky appeared nearly black when viewed directly through the thin wedge opening of the dome. Through the telescope, however, with its greater ability to collect light, the sky took on a cobalt hue.
As soon as Anna looked along the length of the telescope, even before peering through the eyepiece, she knew what Li-Estl had last been observing. Cutting across the open wedge at a steep angle, not far from vertical, the orbital ring station was easily the brightest object in the sky, most of it still well-lit by the sun at its great altitude. Descending from the ring, the fainter line of the elevator dropped to a point obscured by the domed roof. Anna put her eye to the scope, and as she expected, the scope was trained on the ring at a point not far from its junction with the elevator. As the ring was geostationary, rotating at the same angular rate as the planet itself, that junction was forever fixed at the same point in the sky from the telescope’s location, so no adjustments were necessary to keep it in view.
The scope was not focused on the junction itself, however, nor, with the scope’s magnification, was the junction visible through it. Li-Estl had not been studying the junction point. The lower right corner of the scope’s view was largely taken up by the structure of the ring, and Anna was impressed by the detail she could observe. The mechanical nature of the ring station would be obvious to anyone who looked through this instrument, so Li-Estl clearly knew it was not a path of the gods, as she had termed it, but something constructed long ago, by her own ancestors, or the semi-mythical Orta, or both, as the recorded news broadcast from twelve-hundred years ago implied. Solar arrays, wafer-like radiator panels, dish antennae, all were quite easy to discern in the telescope’s view.
Oddly, though, the ring was not centered in the view. Li-Estl had been looking at something else, something near or beyond the ring with a slightly higher declination. Whatever it had been, it was not geostationary, as the center of the view now showed only cobalt blue space, rapidly fading to black. A suspicion formed in Anna’s mind, as she thought back to something Li-Estl had said.
“Jaci, would you ask Li-Estl if it’s all right if we reposition the scope?”
He did so, and a moment later indicated Li-Estl’s assent.
“Excellent. I want to slowly increase the declination while increasing the right ascension, so…”
“Um, Anna, non-astronomer’s terms, please? What do you want us to do?”
“Bring the telescope down and just a hair to the left. Start by turning that crank on the mount. No, the other way. Yes, that’s it. Keep going.”
Jaci spun the crank and the telescope very gradually decreased the steepness of its angle, bringing it’s viewpoint down toward the west-northwest horizon. As it descended, the ring station began to dominate more of the view, filling in from the right.
“Ok, now we need to come left just a little bit.”
Laxmi turned the other crank at the edge of the dais, and the entire mechanism inched around, millimeter by millimeter. The planetary gear clearly imparted a great deal of torque for a moderate amount of effort, conducted through an unknown number of reduction gears, with the result that although Laxmi could cause the entire heavy dais to spin, she could only do so at a very slow rate.
“That’s enough. Stop there.”
Centered now in the telescope view was the object Anna suspected Li-Estl had been studying, though it was in a slightly higher orbit than the ring station and thus, to a ground observer, gave the appearance of gradually moving westward. Anna knew better, of course, because she had planned that orbit.
Li-Estl had been studying Aniara.
Just over two months had now passed since Anna parked Aniara a hundred kilometers above the ring and a hundred kilometers west of the counterweight opposite the tether hosting the space elevator. In those two months, that hundred-kilometer separation from the counterweight had increased to more than fifteen-hundred kilometers, as the ring revolved faster beneath the starship. A total of twelve tethers connected the ring to the surface, although most of them were now in various states of disrepair or outright destruction, leaving just three intact all the way down. All, however, had at least the tattered remains of tethers and counterweights extending thousands of kilometers above and below the ring.
Aniara’s slower orbit meant she was now closer to the next counterweight, shattered though it was, catching up from behind, than to the one she was originally parked near. Less than a thousand kilometers separated her from eventual destruction.
Anna could not see that ominous counterweight in the telescope view, but she knew it was there, and seeing Aniara so far back served as a sharp reminder that she was running out of time.
The ship was not huge in the telescope view, but her shape stood out clearly. Anna could see the double ring structure of the Alcubierre drive, one ring forward and one aft, both tethered to the central fuselage much like the orbital ring was to the planet. She could almost, but not quite, make out the blister of the observatory on the nose of the ship, and the bay windows of the cockpit just above. She could see the hangar doors from which she had launched the shuttle, open wide in the belly of the larger ship, awaiting the return of the smaller craft, a return which now would never come. That shuttle lay smashed and abandoned in the lagoon of a forbidden island.
A sense of loss and of longing came over Anna, and her vision blurred a little. She wiped the moisture from her eyes, upset at her own emotional reaction when she knew she needed to remain laser-focused on survival, dedicated to the task of getting her crew and herself back to that starship, more than forty-one thousand kilometers away, no matter how close the telescope made her seem.
When she looked again, Aniara had drifted away from the center of the view, but was still quite visible. She looked for any sign of damage, anything that could give her a clue as to what happened, though she could not see anything she hadn’t been able to see from the shuttle. She looked for signs of life, indications that David might still be alive, but she wasn’t sure what to look for. Everything was almost as she left it when she and the others set out in the shuttle, with one stark difference. When they left, the hangar bay had been well lit, and navigation lights shined their red and green blinking patterns, intended as a visual aid for their own eventual return. The hangar bay remained open, but dark, and no lights shined, blinking or otherwise. Aniara shone brilliantly in the late evening sun still blazing on her at that altitude, but otherwise she had gone dark.
Anna opened her mouth to ask the others to adjust the telescope position once more, when something else caught her eye. More stars had begun to appear in the background as the sky grew darker through astronomical twilight, but one of those stars was moving. As Anna watched, a bright object crossed her field of view from bottom left to upper right. She had a brief impression of elongated shape and form before it disappeared off the edge of the telescope’s view. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and it was still much farther away, but Anna did not think it was a meteor.
She lifted her gaze from the telescope eyepiece and looked directly through the gap in the observatory dome. She would have missed it if she hadn’t known just where to look, but there it was, a faint spot of light crossing the sky at the even, regular pace of a satellite, except this satellite was much, much higher than the ring. Whatever it was, she did not think it was in orbit, not yet, but she had little doubt it soon would be.
“We have visitors,” she said. Laxmi and Jaci looked at her in confusion. “Someone else is arriving.”
… continued with Cafeteria
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