… continued from Ring
“All stations, shutting down ion drive in thirty seconds. Prepare for zero gravity. Acknowledge.”
Anna ran through final status checks, noting green indicators in the corners of her vision, as the responses came back.
Ghost images of her hands appeared in her view, overlaid across the star field surrounding her, tapping at virtual boxes to expand them momentarily, then collapsing them again once she was satisfied with the data presented.
Thrust appeared as a bar graph, indicating two Newtons of force accelerating the starship.
Vector target overlays highlighted the direction of travel, centered on the bright point of the planet regardless of which way she turned to look, while in one corner a system diagram indicated relative positions of star, planet, and ship, with intersecting orbit and track indicated.
“Benetton, check. Proceed.”
Anna expanded the drive status graph to fill a third of her view as the final seconds counted down.
“Shutdown sequence commencing.”
Three green thrust indicator bars ramped down to zero, and Anna felt the familiar lurch of her stomach as her inner ear tried to convince her she had flipped upside down. After three years of living in zero gravity, and then just three weeks at one-fifth of a G, she thought she could have expected the transition to be as nothing, but it still played tricks on her every time, even if only for a second.
“Commencing attitude adjustment.”
A chuckle sounded over the intercom. Anna thought it might be Jaci.
“Gonna flip the ship!”
Laughter erupted from several voices, until David cut in.
“Ok, stow it, people. Let her do her job.”
Anna rolled her eyes, though no one could see.
Small ion thrusters at the front and rear of the ship fired, and Aniara began a slow roll end over end. For Anna, it felt as if she were the one doing a gymnastic flip, as the AR headset immersed her into the sensation of being the ship herself. Stars wheeled about her, while the vector overlay maintained a target on Kepler 62f. Camera sensors all over the ship gave her a seamless view, uninterrupted by the bulk of the spacecraft. The entire evolution consumed several minutes, until the nose of the ship pointed back in the direction from which they had come, at which point thrusters fired in the reverse direction to halt the spin.
“Attitude spin complete. I’ll use simple words for you, Jaci. Ship flipped!”
More laughter filled the intercom, and David let it go this time.
“Confirming rotational position and vector… ok, it checks out. Commencing deceleration burn at two Newtons in thirty seconds. Prepare for point-two G. Acknowledge.”
“Capella Rojas, ready to get heavy, check!”
“Jaci, it’s a good thing we probably won’t need you to talk to any aliens. Benetton, check! Proceed.”
Over the next three weeks the view of Kepler 62f improved steadily as Aniara decelerated toward a matching orbit, growing closer with each passing day. David mapped the continents as they revolved past the terminator between day and night, and he mapped the craters of the two small moons orbiting the planet. Takashi spent most of his time, on the other hand, studying the ring station, locked in orbit high above the planet’s equator.
Stations would be more accurate, Anna thought as she observed it through Aniara’s eyes. The mega-structure was not one single continuous ring, as she had believed when she first detected it, but a multitude of smaller constructions, each connected to the ones before and behind it by a thinner tube. Strung together, they reached entirely around the globe, and thus, while individually not very large, collectively they constituted an incredible volume of space station real estate.
Three days out from arrival, David gathered everyone together into the crew lounge, a combination cafeteria and meeting room.
“Ok, folks, we’re almost there. We have a plan in place, but let’s go over what we know, what we don’t know, and what our contingencies are. First, the ring station. Takashi, you’re up.”
The engineer tapped his handheld console, and a hologram of the ring projected above the central table.
“Right. So, we know it’s at geostationary altitude, about forty-one thousand one-hundred kilometers from the surface, above the equator. This is important, because, if you look here…” Takashi zoomed the display in to one of the compartments. “Here, you can see a thinner structure extending down toward the planet. It’s very thin, in fact, and it’s counter-balanced by more of the same material extending from the upper surface of the ring compartment, away from the planet. We’ve seen no activity on this, of course, but I believe this is a tether for a space elevator. It just doesn’t appear to be in use. None of them are. The elevators, I mean. There are twelve of them in total, at various points around the equator. Each one has a counterweight extending another ten-thousand kilometers higher than the ring.”
Takashi panned the display across the compartment attached to the tether.
“If you look here, you can see various equipment on the exterior hull of the ring compartment. Solar panels, for instance, are obvious. They look about the same as ours. This array here is a thermal dump. It’s radiating heat, though not a great deal. I’d say it’s consistent with some sort of power source still being active, but it’s low enough it could also just be shedding ambient heat gained from the star.
“And… here… yeah, there we go, these are sensor arrays. Semi-parabolic dishes are pretty familiar; I guess their technology has to follow the same physics, so it makes sense that some things are going to look pretty similar. And… this…”
He focused in on a set of shallow, rectangular depressions in the compartment hull.
“I think these are windows, though there’s no light coming from behind them. They’re dark. Still, at some time someone must have been in there who wanted to look out. And here. That, my friends, is a hatch. A door.”
Anna looked at the circular hatchway with interest.
“I think these structures around it are docking clamps, but of course they aren’t going to match anything of ours. Still, this tells me that the Keplerians used this station as a starting point to go elsewhere. They didn’t need this to get to and from the surface, because they have the elevators, and it’s for more than just stepping outside, because docking clamps implies they had spacecraft to dock to it. But we don’t see any ships. There are ports like this on a number of the compartments, and none of them have any kind of vessel attached that I can identify. Whoever was here, I think they’re long gone. And I do mean long, because, look… see here?”
Takashi pointed out pockmarks in the hull, discolored and irregular. Now that her gaze was diverted from the arrays and sensors protruding from the compartment, Anna realized that the hull was practically more pockmark than unblemished surface.
“These are micrometeorite impacts. There are lots of them, all over. Some of them definitely have punctured through to the interior, and it doesn’t look like anyone’s bothered to repair them. I’d say the inside is probably in vacuum, at least for this and a number of the other compartments I’ve examined so far. I don’t know if we can use this as a means of estimating how long the station’s been unoccupied, but…”
“Hundreds of years.”
All eyes turned toward Anna.
“I mean, we can’t be certain from just this, but I’ve been cataloging what I can of the objects orbiting the planet and their trajectories. It’s not too different from Earth orbit, really. A bunch of junk, bits of metal and rock, captured asteroid fragments and probably pieces of old satellites, too. Anyway, given the apparent density of the orbital debris, I think it would take a long time to produce this much damage, this close together.”
David frowned at her. “So, when you say hundreds of years, Anna, what do you mean? Do you mean one hundred years or do you mean a thousand years? What are we looking at here?”
“This… There isn’t enough data to be that precise. More than a hundred years. Maybe more than five-hundred years, but I don’t know that yet. All I can really say is that it’s almost certainly less than twelve-hundred years.”
“Well, twelve-hundred years ago, someone here was broadcasting, weren’t they?”
“You’re assuming it was whoever built this station that made the broadcasts we heard. Maybe it was someone else.”
“Someone else? Like who?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out. Ok, folks. Anna, get us parked somewhere near enough to the ring that we can check it out. If you place us a hundred kilometers northward declination, same altitude, can we maintain that orbit?”
“Yes, with occasional attitude thruster bursts, we can keep that.”
“Good. Do that. Takashi, get the EVA suits ready, and start thinking about ways to open one of those hatches. You, Laxmi, and Jaci are going inside. Anna, you’ll pilot the shuttle. I’ll stand by here.”
… continued with Geostationary
top: mikkehouse / pixabay.com
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