Image By ESO/L. Calçada
By Ron Prichard
Time may be relative but it’s not relevant. Not anymore. The trip to Gliese 3649 B would have taken about 50 years from earth, half that from the depot I started at.
But at near lightspeed only a fraction of those years would pass on my craft. And for me it was just 14 days of aging, the rest in a dreamless, almost ageless sus-am.
The miners I’d meet on Gliese 3649 B might be older than me but born more than a century later. Others might have been born before me and yet be younger, though that’s not as likely. I’ve been out here since some of the earliest Space Shots, so the gaps are on my side.
I wouldn’t know any of them, though they might know of me. I’m famous in these circles. They might not be impressed, though. Whether my big discovery was a good or bad thing was an open question. And Earth history, like TRE – Time Relevant to Earth – doesn’t matter much anyway if you don’t expect to get back that way.
My discovery had changed everything. It made humans a space-faring race. And it killed time.
“Transport 1148, we have you on approach. Auto guidance looks good.”
“Roger, will keep it on auto.”
I often wonder why they still need us. Sure, you can’t rely on fly-by-wire when you’re exploring new planets dozens of light years from home. Things go wrong out in the void. But the AIs have gotten so reliable on arrivals and departures from known locations that it’s usually just a ride.
Still, business is best done face to face. And on places like this, it probably helps the miners to know they haven’t been forgotten by homeworld.
The guy on the other side of the hatch was as eager to open it as I was. “Welcome to the rock. Max Parsons, right? Goddam celebrity. Surprised you don’t have a better assignment.”
“It’s work,” I told him. “And hell, my career is close to 220 years old, but I’ve only been awake for 24 of those. I’m too young to retire.”
He laughed. Mik Torneau was a wiry, wrinkled off-world worker who’d found his way up the ladder to manager of this facility. He was well into his 50s, but like time, age isn’t really relevant. He’d had at least one long space journey, and probably two or three. Everyone he’d known back home was likely dead, and he was living in their future.
He was quick-witted and just as quick with a smile. “Me, I’m just eager to get back to Earth and that century-plus of pay I got saved. Course, that doesn’t go as far as it used to. But I want to see color again. Space is too goddamn gray.
“And the void is boring. That’s why I’m always rushing to meet guests.”
Gliese 3649 B was a rock of a world, close to its star, not a place you’d ever go looking for life. But it was on the way to some promising star clusters. It was first looked at by a sniffer, one of the unmanned probes they’d started sending out years ago to supplement human missions. With no ability to slow or stop, they’d fly by objects in deep space and send their studies to Earth by radio.
Gliese 3649 B turned out to be a reservoir of Irwiniam, a rare metal on Earth that created the chain reactions that fuel the partial quantum engines that power interstellar spacecraft to near the speed of light. No one even knew it existed before a young scientist, James Irwin Blake, discovered this new material and designed a new engine in the 2100s.
That would have been enough to ensure him fame, but he’d also conceptualized inertial transfer technology, enabling craft to speed up and slow down more quickly and sparing metal and crew some of the elongation and mass alteration that came with travel at near-lightspeed.
You still couldn’t beat Einstein’s laws of physics. But you could screw with them a little.
Mik took me to a bar, because there was one. Always is.
“I have to apologize. You’ll be here a couple of extra days. Some of the mining equipment has been down.”
That was fine. I had time in my launch window.
“Suz can get you a room. She runs this place. She might give you some company, too.”
He motioned toward the woman who’d been at the bar, but she was now close enough to overhear. “Don’t make it sound like I’m a space hooker. I’ll admit it’s lonely out here, but that’s all.”
And she did sit down, with mugs of what passed for beer here. She was a few years younger than me, limp brown hair and attractive. Skin just a bit dry and wrinkled from too many years of artificial atmosphere. Strong of limb and cleaner than most of those I’d seen around the station, most of them men.
She wasn’t shy. “We’ll find a bed for you. And we can consider what else. Must have been a long lonely trip for you, too.”
I laughed. “As far as I know, I left Proxima station a week ago.”
Was that awkward? I suppose. And I had been to a lot of stops without female company. I decided to keep the conversation going. “How many of you are there here?” I asked. “The books say this colony can support 600, but it doesn’t seem crowded enough for that.”
She laughed and took the lead from Mik. “There might have been close to that during construction, 80-90 years ago. Not close since I’ve been here. Most of the hard work is done by bots. Just maintenance and a few systems types to keep things running, as needed. I didn’t come here to tend bar; it just helps fill the time.”
I didn’t have to worry about boring her. She was focused on me. “So you’re him, right? A shotnaut, from the one they thought would be the last Space Shot. Was it real? Did you really find it?”
I took a drink. I have a love-hate thing with retelling the story, but the taste was good. So maybe. “Of course. That’s why we’re all still out here, right, a couple of centuries later.”
Mik nodded yes. She wasn’t as easy. “Some people doubt the story,” she told me. “They say it was an excuse, a lie to justify shooting people into the Nowhere Nebula.”
Cute name for deep space. Spacers are dark. Cynicism is one of the few things that grow in a vacuum.
I just shook my head and took another drink. “Can’t vouch for how they use it. The story you already know, and it’s real.
“They shot people out into space, at just shy of lightspeed, for a century and a half and came up empty. We were supposed to be the last Space Shot. The last out and back. Target was a neutron star, where something unusual had been spotted flashing some sort of energy to Earth. Might have just been a freak of nature, there long before we had the tech to spot it, but they were desperate to find something
“And we found something. An artificial object, some sort of space station or ship. Maybe a portal. We were able to go inside, though a door. There were dozens of other doors, and each seemed to lead to another sky filled with different stars.
“It was run by an AI, and it could communicate, so we learned a little. It had been bound to Earth, an ambassador of sorts. But it got stuck in the pull of the neutron star.
“We didn’t learn who built it or where it came from. We tried. I lost two crew members out there. One who went through one of those doors and didn’t come back. Another decided to stay with the AI, hoping the builders came back before the object was lost. It was in a decaying orbit. It’s gone by now, fallen into the neutron star.
“That discovery changed everything. Some other race was out there, trying to communicate. Were they saviors, or a threat? We had to find out. We had to solve the mystery. We had to keep going until we found them, or they found us.”
The Space Shots hadn’t stopped. Instead, humans started to leapfrog to the stars, establishing colonies and fuel depots like Gilese, hopping from Earth and then hopping beyond. But space is damn big, and we were guessing. Missions took decades; centuries flew past.
Suz – Suzuki Kash, that was her full name – was, I could tell, a doubter. “Those discoveries should have made you a hero, right? So how do you end up overseeing freighters on the outer loop?”
“Space is all I know,” I told here. “I’m a 21st century man, outdated even before that so-called last shot. The ‘nauts going beyond colonies like these are raised for space, conditioned from birth, plugged in and equipped with sensors and drives. I’m lucky they still let me fly anything.
“Besides, I came back with questions, not answers. Over time, people started to doubt the quest. The powers that be didn’t want me or my story front and center, reminding people of what we didn’t know. They’re happy to let me wander out here.
“I have tried quitting, going home. Hell, I’ve banked centuries of back pay. But every time I go back, another group of Earthbound colleagues is dead. I meet a lot of ‘nauts and spacetechs out here like you two, but no one connects with anyone here, either. Two missions from now you could both have gone back to Earth, had families, lived to old age and passed to Heaven or Hell. Or vice versa, if you hopped between locations out here and I settled down at home.
“I’m lost in time. We all are. And Earth is entirely focused out here. Until we find what we’re looking for out here, the rest is meaningless.”
I think she found that sad, and a little pitiful. “Me, I’m going home in a few years. I need blue and green. Ocean and forest. Unless someone finds them out here, I’m going back there.”
We hadn’t. For all anyone knew then, those things were only found in one place. On all the worlds out here, we’d found only a handful with the right elements for a blue sky or a standing ocean. The blue was usually poisonous, the water liquid methane or mercury. And the only greens were rusted copper or the right combinations of other base metals.
Life is elusive, that’s what space teaches us. You’d think that would make us value our planet more.
When he had the central com ring me some 13 hours later, I was with her. In her quarters. I mean, why not?
“Maxwell, there’s an issue with one of the mining units – hit an obstacle in the ore — so you’ll be a bit more delayed.”
“Got it. Let me know how long.” I was running through calculations in my head. I had about a week to take off, or I’d have to stay several months for a new window.
“Actually,” he said, “I’m going to ask you to EVA and see what we hit. Bring Suz, she’s really good at this stuff.”
Great. A whole colony full of miners, but I was the one tasked. You do for yourself out here in the void.
The suits were made of a thick plastique, made to take a beating during mining work. But they felt light once we got through the airlock. External gravity was small on Gilese.
We’d traveled by an enclosed railcar to the lowest level of what essentially was a strip mine, some 50 feet below the surface. Then donned the EVA gear and headed out across broken soil.
Suzuki was an extraterrestrial archeologist and biochemist by training, and quite comfortable working sans atmosphere. She’d been one of the point people when she’d arrived, working to see if the planet held more than mineral wealth. Like most places, it didn’t.
She’d told the space agency she’d move when something promising appeared worth traveling for, some small signal of life past or present. Nothing worth a look had turned up.
The digger sat nearby, a cow-sized machine that ate rock into ground ore and moved it up to a conveyor. Several would usually be at work down here.
What had stopped it lay ahead, now chewed clear of soil. A squat pillar, some three feet high and nearly as wide, of a gleaming white stone. Anchored with a rod of a tough metal that stretched deep beneath the surface.
Mik talked to us from his command office. “No telling how long it’s been here. This is the base of a crater, filled in by stray material over eons. In addition to being too perfect to be natural, it emits a high frequency beacon, like a radio signal. And then there’s the inscription.”
I was just getting to where I could see it clearly. Burned in black into the stone, the shape of a cylinder, longer than it was wide, with a string of unrecognizable symbols underneath. Above it, two circles and a line – a path — between that went slightly up, around a black object, and then connected the two.
“Max, is that what I think it is?” she asked.
“Shaped just like the object we found. The cylinder. And a transit path between two worlds, circling a black dot. Our neutron star.” At least, that was what I’d guessed these images represented. We had seen something inside the object’s command center, but as an animation.
To see this here was…. impossible. But here it was. The second sign we’d found in the whole damn galaxy that someone else was out here.
Back in the bar, drinking with Mik and Suz and a couple of others whose names I’d forget soon enough.
“So, the object you found — it passed here on the way to that neutron star? This was a marker, a waypoint?”
I didn’t want them to get any hopes up. “It’s all conjecture, really. We know the object we found was bound for Earth. We know it used the dead star to change course, tried to steal some energy for acceleration, a pretty standard practice. We know that something failed onboard it. That’s about all we know.”
Suzuki, as usual, was the doubter. I was starting to like that about her. “So why not just track its path backwards? Find its home world?”
Mik was quicker than I was. “All they knew was the neutron star as a turning point, and the Earth as the destination. It wasn’t enough.”
“Right,” I told them. “They could have approached the star from any direction. We couldn’t plot a specific course because we couldn’t triangulate, and just a degree or two off would mean light years of error when you’re projecting across space.
“But now maybe we can. Draw a line from the star, to here, and then to where it came from.”
We did the math. Working long days, drinking late nights. Suzuki, as it turned out, was also brilliant at mathematics. Others pitched it. It was like a game, enlivening the colony by day and centered on the bar at night.
And finally, we had it. Couldn’t be sure – maybe it made more than one turn. But backtracking a line from the neutron star to Gilese and beyond pointed us to seven potentially life-sustaining planets in three systems, 47 to 67 light years away from Earth. That was 26 to 41 light years from our location.
“We should send this to Earth. They could mount a mission,” I told my two friends late one night.
“Why wait for Earth?” Mik said. “Mount the mission from here. Go for it.”
But my exploring days were long past. “And my craft is a transport.”
“With the same engine as any Space Shot cruiser. And we can fuel it sufficiently to allow stops at two of those locations. Let an AI check them and decide which we should explore.”
It felt risky to me. I was way past that kind of risk. “They’ll consider it theft. Or mutiny.”
“It’s in the rules,” Suz quickly shot in. She was right, of course. The rules of the Space Shot missions said any ‘naut with a chance to make first contact could deviate from protocols. Finding life was the priority. If you needed to go farther, risk a ship or your own life, you could. That was why they sent people on those missions, to make those calls.
Those same rules applied to every Global Space Agency ship. Didn’t mean there wouldn’t be repercussions, if I was wrong about what this waypoint meant. But what the hell. If I was wrong, I probably wouldn’t even make it back.
“I want to go, too,” Suzuki said, strongly, firmly.
I could use her skills if we found something. Besides, there was no telling her no.
The craft seemed dark. We should have improved the lighting when we decided to use it as an exploration base. I slithered out of the sus-am pod, found a towel, walked hand over hand along the rails until I could get into the shower and then suit up. Polyfiber jumpsuit, booties that kept me locked to the floor. Cheaper than gravity. This was a base level craft in terms of comfort.
Suzuki was still asleep in the second pod. System lights showed green. I checked the date calendar; we were on mission.
Then to the front command bay, a wide window with seats for three close to it. Elaborate panels in front of the seats and in between.
EDN 247. The third of the seven planets we’d flagged as a possible source, orbiting the second star. The AI had skipped the first star. I pulled a comscreen close and punched in to see why. The closest of two promising planets had been scorched by a solar flare eons before; it was a cinder heap. The second was based on mercury and phosphorous; if anything could live there, we’d never be able to even recognize it as life.
EDN 247-4 had promise. It sat at the right distance, fourth of six planets from the largest of two suns. Atmospheric content similar to Earth, indicating liquid water. Traces of methane and strong CO2 production, signaling at least plant life.
Hit the long-range scanners. Yes, those looked like clouds, and there were blue pools that looked like lakes, even with tides. The AI had also read consistent geometric patterns in one area; perfect squares. Unlikely in nature. Were the builders there, or at least some sort of intelligent life?
The sun over EDN 247-4 was still just a brightening star through the window, and while slowing, we were just days away. I went ahead and told the AI to start waking Suzuki. I’d done 11 space shots proper, and counting transport trips, visited 31 worlds. This was the most promising one I’d seen.
Getting into orbit was easy. Waiting for Suzuki was harder; I told her a little about the findings over the com when she woke but waited until she’d recovered and come up to the command center to share all the details. Sus-am travel isn’t easy, and this was only her third trip. She’d need the adjustment time.
She was as excited as I was by the readings, and we both were thrilled once we saw EDN 4. A little smaller than Earth, more evenly divided between land and water. Rolling rivers and lakes with their own tides and waves. A few probes confirmed the sky would be blue.
One anomaly. The land was overwhelmingly brown and dead; we’d later confirm high sulfur content that acted as poison.
Except in one quadrant, the point of a continent with water on three sides. There, green growth of trees and vines surrounded several fresh water lakes. An area the size of several old U.S. states. In the same area where the scanners read those odd squares.
Green with the blue. Life. Unmistakably life.
“We have to go down,” she told me more than once, as we studied the surface for days. Once protocols were done and data sent off to Earth, we did. On a light, jetlike air-ram transport.
Cruised for a bit, then dropped to our target. One of those geometric centers, in the green area. We’d flown drones by, but the structures defied easy description. The fly-bys did show a bit more detail. They were crystal-metal structures, of unknown substance, arranged in broad grids roughly 10x10x10.
“I suppose they could be natural,” Suzuki told me after we landed and walked near them. “Some sort of crystal growth. Or even a plant.”
To me, though, these structures looked like nothing so much as the wooden or metal frames they used to use for buildings, before we die-molded our structures in one piece. Use the plant material around for timber and you could quickly house thousands in this geometric web.
Soon she was chipping away at one, gathering small pieces to put into a bag of samples. “It’s hard. Resilient. Almost graphite. Not plant in any way I know it.”
Then crystal? Crystalline structures can grow and replicate, looking like preplanned buildings. It didn’t mean there were builders.
“But it doesn’t seem natural,” I told her. “And look at this place. Most of the planet is barren. Dead. Except this one section. It seems almost terra-formed. Like they tried to do on Mars.”
Call her a skeptic. “It’s a dual-star system. If we run the numbers, we might find a reason. Maybe only here do heat and light combine often enough, but not too often, to support life.”
It was a stretch. “This is too perfect,” I told her. “Too perfect for human life. Almost designed for us.”
“Which is why life is rare,” she reminded me.
A sound. It jumped. I spun on it and fired. A small bird, as it turned out, or at least a flying creature. Suz gathered that, too. I was glad I’d missed.
We walked along quietly, taking in an alien world. A few fruited plants, then a broad, flat field of grassy grains. Finally took a break in a quiet glen of lower grasses, feeling the breeze.
Yes, the air was much like Earth. Maybe cleaner. There was an amazing joy in just breathing, as our lungs celebrated our first unprocessed air in years.
It’s so strange, she said. You must be right; I can’t believe it’s natural. “And it takes a Creator to make an Eden.”
“We’re an odd pick for Adam and Eve,” I said.
“We could give it a whirl,” she laughed, and we did, there in the leaves.
No new world would be born. We were both sterile, thanks to medicines given with the regular inoculations you get when you into space. We might recover, but it would take years.
Still, we tried many times during the first seven months on EDN. In between, we gathered samples, hunted, tested the native produce and planted seeds brought from Earth.
The early days and weeks confirmed the lack of sentient life, at least anything like humans or the builders we sought. There were animals, mostly small, though we heard large sounds.
The day that stands out, I was laying in a grassy field, looking up at the sun. She came out with a platter of fruits and vegetables, some starchy and some juicy, all sliced and skinned in ways that seemed appropriate.
“I’ve run all the tests I can,” she said. “This should all be healthy, and nutritional. I uploaded all the studies. It’s all about taste now.”
So we tasted. Devoured. Luscious flesh in bright colors. Crisp greens and blues. A few dry leaves with spectacular spicy bites and sweet flavors. We fed, walked some more, fed some more.
“We have food and air. We could stay here, you know,” she told me. “Send all our data back home and pioneer the new Earth.”
The thought had barely crossed my mind. “This knowledge will change our world. The human galaxy. Even more than the object we found at the neutron star. Don’t you want to see what they do with it?”
At that moment, we were both satisfied. We’d used wooden vines to enclose one section of one of the geometric structures. We had a home. “We can just wait,” she insisted. “You know people will come here. People from Earth. This what we’ve been looking for. The second home for mankind.”
Earth. So far away. “It’s almost 60 light years away. We’d never know if they even heard from us. We’d be dead long before they get here.”
“They’ll come,” she said. “This is the whole point of going into the void. Finding Eden.”
“Problem is, the garden of Eden was only paradise when you obeyed its creator,” I told her. “We don’t know who came here before us. Who maybe even made this. We don’t know the rules.”
“Why does it matter? They seem to be working on a long-time frame. We’ll probably be gone before they notice us.”
It matters, I told her, because it’s who I am. “How did I – someone who went to the object – also happen along just as we found the waypoint that made triangulation possible? That led us to this place? Why me? I need to know why.”
There were two major launch windows, one just about a month after the day we tasted the fruit, another 7 months after our arrival.
I chose the latter, but I chose. We talked about it a lot at first, little as the day approached. By then, I knew she’d stay as surely as I knew I’d go.
I asked her again just before I left. “You know you’ll die here, alone. Maybe from sickness or an accident or some animal we haven’t met yet. Maybe just of old age.”
“I’m fine,” she told me. “Food. Solar power. All the knowledge of mankind on solid state drives. I don’t understand why that’s not enough for you. It is for me.”
“But we could do so much more.”
“That’s the difference between us. I’ll be happy if I stay. Content. You won’t be content anywhere.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “It’s way you’re wired. You won’t be content until you die. And then you’ll just run out of time.”
She had me there. Time might be meaningless but the clock was running. I guess there are two kinds of people, those who need to know the unknowable and those who are be happy just being.
So I left her, and soon watched Eden fade to a blue and green dot, a blip around a faraway Sun. Wired myself into sus-am and prepared to sleep.
One last thought, about that old story. There were two people in Eden. One was content. The other wasn’t happy enough in paradise to leave well enough alone.