As Jaren predicted, it took the better part of three days to retrofit the New Horizon. Given the ship’s status as an historical artifact as well as a starship, an orbital storage facility was converted to house the components of New Horizon which would need to be removed in order to be replaced. The pieces belonged to Haven and when they decided what to do with them the pieces would be there for them to retrieve.
The large ion drives had to be removed first in order to be replaced with the Koboli anti-matter engines. Not much integration between the systems was required. Quite a few of the now empty round hydrogen and xenon storage tanks immediately aft of the engines were removed to make room for the anti-matter storage tanks required to supply the engine. Since they were self-contained units, the most challenging part to accomplish so quickly was programming the module which would translate the computer interface between the entirely different programming languages used in the different world’s technologies.
But, with a tremendous effort, the upgrades were now complete, and the physical archives were transferred to an orbital outpost where several dozen automated reading machines could be used instead of just the three manual readers the New Horizon was equipped with onboard.
With the three teams of four found themselves splitting into four specialist teams quite organically. Jaren and Kathryn teamed up with Teresa in a command and oversight role, while Felix and Irvina teamed up with Francis who turned out to also be an engineer. Deirdre, the humanities specialist they’d brought along with them teamed up with Keri and Xion. Deirdre turned out to be Teresa and Francis’ daughter, and so far all three seemed to be getting along quite well, and would spend hours on end comparing notes on the differences between their respective cultures. Something magical happened when people of similar interests and research backgrounds got together, especially with humanities experts, where by virtue of being part of different cultures, each was both a teacher and a subject of study to the others.
Anastasius, who preferred to be called Ana, was the personal physician assigned to the ambassadors, and had been as eager as any Roman to be a part of the expedition which was finally being sent to investigate the Earth mystery. Like Elim and Nadelle, he also had a background in biology with a specialty in genetics in addition to being a medical doctor. The three of them also seemed to be getting along quite well, if not as eagerly engaging with each other as Keri, Xion, and Deirdre so enthusiastically were.
The morning of the launch, Kathryn was consulting with Teresa in the captain’s office when Jaren arrived to speak to her as well. The office was rather unremarkable for a commanding officer’s, not opulent or status conscious as may have been the case in other fleets. It was just an office, with a 2 meter wide glass window in the floor through which the planet occasionally passed through the field of view as the habitat ring rotated. Window views were at a high premium on the ship given that they could only exist on the exterior of the habitat ring, and if the office betrayed any status over any other, it was this privileged view.
“Commander Barnes?” Jaren asked as he knocked on the open door frame. “Or should I say Captain? I hear you got a promotion?”
“Yeah, well can’t have a lowly commander heading the only ship in the fleet,” she observed with playful dryness.
“You certainly seem to have earned it,” Teresa offered. Kathryn only respectfully nodded in acknowledgement of the compliment.
“What’s up Jaren?”
“We’re all done,” he informed her. “We’re doing final checks on everything, but barring any problems turning up, we’re good to go.” He entered the office and sat himself at the second chair in front of the desk beside Teresa. “You’ve got yourself quite a ship here now haven’t you? If you’re only going to have one, this is certainly a good one to have. Your people are now free to travel rather quickly to any planet where we’ve set up an Escher Rift.”
“Hard to imagine that a month ago just getting to orbit seemed like a nearly impossible feat.”
“Well your people are ambitious. I’m sure before long you’ll have a whole fleet of starships. You’ve got a lot of learning to do but I have absolute faith in… your people.”
“Thank you. I was just telling the ambassador here that I’ve been in contact with Haven and preparations are being made to send a diplomatic mission to both Kobol and Roma. As soon as Kobol can spare an appropriate ship, we can begin the process.”
“Well if we weren’t heading off on this wild gargan chase you could use New Horizon to ferry people around.”
“I know, we- wild gargan?”
“Oh, somewhat sizeable flight less bird around these parts.”
“Mmmkay, well in any case you’re right. In fact, Haven is desperate to get New Horizon back to Haven after our current mission. With the shuttles you’ve provided us there are so many people who are incredibly anxious to come up and see this ship for themselves; there’s still so much to learn about it. And now with the re-fit, there’s even talk of formally recommissioning it. But, the anxiousness to do all of that remains eclipsed by our need to find out what happened to Earth. Everyone seems in agreement that all that can wait against the weight of our current mandate.”
“It’s too bad Roma still hasn’t developed or accepted any appropriate ships. If they had you could exchange embassies without our help.”
Teresa looked insulted but remained diplomatic. “Not everyone is as comfortable being as reckless with developing their technology as your people can be Jaren. Kathryn,” she said turning to the now Captain Barnes, “my people certainly were offered Kobol technology as freely as your people were, but we declined and I recommend you do as well.”
“Oh?” Kathryn inquired with all due concern.
“Oh it all works fine I’m sure, but it is dangerous to rely on technology you do not understand. My people value the process of methodical inquiry itself. We appreciate being pointed in the right direction, but prefer to discover and develop things for ourselves, so that we understand what we build and use as well as anyone.”
Kathryn nodded her understanding but Teresa seemed to feel the need to continue.
“Yes, your ship is now equipped with anti-matter engines, but you’ve already admitted you don’t even know what anti-matter is. What if the systems break down and stop working? What if they break down that they put the ship at risk and you can’t even tell? Do you know that if the magnetic containment bottle the anti-matter fuel is kept in fails for even a fleeting moment this ship will instantaneously vanish in a titanic explosion? Yes on this trip Jaren and his people have been kind enough to come along and assist in case of any trouble, but they can’t assign people to assist you on a permanent basis, and even if they could and would, you can never be fully independent now that you use their technology.”
“Well to be fair,” Kathryn observed, “we didn’t understand how New Horizon worked before at all before it was upgraded.”
Teresa laughed out loud. “Fair point my dear, fair point. I only meant to convey that my people place as much value in the process of development as they do in the result, in the accomplishment of discovery as much as what a discovery allows. My people are patient. As long as Jaren’s people are willing to offer transport when they are able to we are happy to accept their generosity, but we will also not complain when our schedules and interests do not align. This is why we were so delighted to discover that your interests in Earth were as serious as ours.”
“We are not immune to your sensibilities Ambassador,” Jaren pointed out. “In fact if you’ll recall it was our attempt to understand your reluctance to accept what you offered, that led us to wait to make contact with Haven, to allow them the opportunity to rediscover New Horizon on their own without us. Once we had the opportunity to make contact we were desperate to, but you taught us what we might be robbing them of if we gave them so easily what they’d been working so long and hard to achieve on their own.”
“I am pleased to have had any role I might have in that decision. It was the right one.” Teresa said with certainty in her position.
“What do you think Captain Barnes?” Jaren said with smile when he got to call her captain for the first time, “were we right to wait?”
“In retrospect… yes. I believe you were. If you’d made contact earlier it wouldn’t have seemed like we’d been deprived of anything right away, but in time… I do believe in retrospect we would have had that sense, yes. However Ambassador, while my people will indeed want to thoroughly understand whatever technology we routinely employ, I don’t think we will place the same premium on discovering the science behind that technology for ourselves. We collectively have from the beginning had a sense of… trying to regain a technological competency we once had. Even if Kobol technology far surpasses New Horizon’s original level of technology, I believe we will want to catch up as quickly as possible. It’ll be important to us to understand the technology so we can use it safely and responsibly in transforming our society, but if it’s out there… just on offer and waiting for us… no,” she shook her head, “no way in hell we’d be able to resist. We have an ambitious and adventurous spirit. I understand and completely respect your point of view Ambassador, but I doubt we’ll share it.
“In that vein Jaren, Haven has asked me to clarify that it is acceptable to send some of our best and brightest scientists to learn about your technology so they can teach others back on Haven.”
“It is more than acceptable Kat- Comman- Captain, if fact after our experience with Roma it would be a relief,” he uttered. He then realized his offence and put his hand on Teresa’s shoulder. “I apologize Ambassador, that didn’t come out the way I’d intended.”
“I suspect it did,” she surmised with a sigh, “but regardless, I’m pleased for your people that you now seem to have the playmate you’ve always hoped for.”
Jaren accepted the jab without comment, considering it fair retribution for his own inadvertent attack.
“The ambassador is certainly correct that none of my people adequately understand the workings of this ship yet. While I will be in command of this mission overall, I would like you to consider yourself in command of the operations of the ship, my… executive officer of sorts.”
“Other than this I don’t consider any official ranking to be necessary between any of us. My own people have ranks in our own service of course, but our three teams I consider to be collaborating equally.”
“Very well,” Teresa agreed.
“Understood,” Jaren acknowledged.
“Although… you know, on its original voyage there was a tradition on this ship, of having a captain, a matriarch, and a patriarch as the top command structure of the ship. We are three teams coming together, each with a leader, it only seems appropriate. I the captain, Jaren the patriarch, and ambassador if you’ll accept the honorary title you shall be the matriarch.”
“What did the titles mean?” Teresa asked.
“Well captain is pretty self-evident,” Kathryn suggested, “but the others I haven’t any idea, perhaps just elected father and mother figures. I think it had a nice sense to it. For our purposes though it’ll just denote we three the leaders of our own teams but working collaboratively.”
“Works for me,” Jaren offered.
“I agree as well,” Teresa added.
The departed with surprisingly little fanfare. Kathryn received an obligatory communication with President Mortensen wishing her a safe and prosperous journey, and she likewise received a recorded message from President Kim back home reminding her of what a grave responsibility she had been burdened with, but with an expression of her confidence that she was up to the job.
She sat on the central captain’s chair in the centre of the bridge and listened while her crew called out ready status on all of the relevant systems. In addition to the engines and environmental upgrades, the Koboli had also provided them with a year’s worth of food including fresh food which would spoil relatively soon if not eaten, food which would last a couple weeks, as well as long term emergency rations which would remain edible for hundreds of years.
She felt the weight of the moment as her crew finished calling out ready status, and when they’d finished the bridge crew turned in their chairs to look at her expectantly. She gave the order and they all looked about them a little nervously as the ship pointed itself in the correct orientation to expand its orbit around the planet, and brought the engines up to full power. They accelerated remarkably quickly and got further and further away from Kobol until on the final pass they pointed the ship in the opposite direction of the planet’s orbit around the sun. They gradually slowed in their orbit around the star and fell ever faster in towards the gravity well of the sun.
Once on course Kathryn ordered the shift rotation for the twenty hours it would take to reach the star as she marvelled at the power of their new engines. She assigned three shifts and encouraged everyone to try to get a good sleep in before they reached the rift. She took the first watch, and then after seven hours in the captain’s chair was relieved by Teresa. She headed to her quarters, got undressed, and laid naked on her bed staring at the ceiling. She’d never been comfortable wearing anything while sleeping, but now it seemed even the comfort of her nudity would be insufficient to whisk her away to sleep.
There was just too much on her mind, too much anticipation. She grew increasingly frustrated, knowing that she’d have to pay later for her inability to sleep now. Her body betrayed not a hint of fatigue though, only the sharp awareness of a constant low level of adrenaline. She found her thoughts cycling between Jaren, Earth, her new rank, Jaren, Kobol, Roma, Jaren… ‘Dammit,’ she chastised herself. ‘You’ve gotta do better than that,’ she insisted of herself, ‘for both our sakes.’ She kept thinking about the other night with Jaren, how she wished he’d never had to leave her bed in that residence, how unlike her experience with him that night had been than with any other (admittedly few) men she’d been with before, and how much she was growing to resent their need for subtlety now. The feeling of his skin against hers was unlike any she’d ever known and she craved to return to that moment again. Being with him now and pretending they were just colleagues and close friends was agonizing. Every other thought when she was with him was how much she wanted to take him to bed again. She wished they could just get on with it and be together if not just share a suite on the ship. Being partners in command now though… such behaviour was as inappropriate now as a result as ever. She was beginning to wonder if she’d made a terrible miscalculation.
With her thoughts racing about Jaren and the mission, it seemed inconceivable that she’d be able to sleep, but after several hours of staring at the ceiling, she surprised herself by being able to fall asleep for at least a few hours, and later on that day she was appreciative for at least that.
They passed through the rift without incident, and the Roman and Havenite crew felt an odd and unexpected feeling as they exited the rift into the Solar System. For all of them, there was a sense of reverence, as though they had just stepped into a graveyard. This was the place of their ancestors, it was Mount Olympus, home of the gods. It was the birthplace of all that they were and had become. And now it would take them nearly three full days to scale the mountain and reach the home of their species.
To Jaren and his crew it was nothing special, just another jump into another unremarkable system. But to the rest it was a place of myth and mystery, a place they’d been working for hundreds of years to find their way back to, to answer the greatest mystery of all time. Why did Earth go dark so many years ago? What catastrophe, what force could have made them abruptly stop transmitting out of the blue one day, with no warning or explanation whatsoever. Well now they would have the chance to find out, finally, after half a millennium of waiting. If Kathryn thought she’d had trouble sleeping before, it was nothing compared to the anxiety she felt now being on the other side of the rift.
They had figured out how to use some of the original New Horizon devices they’d found left on the ship. The most useful were the items the ship’s computers informed her were called ‘scrolls’, devices which seemed to come in three different sizes. They were portable information interfaces with the ship consisting of two narrow posts which one pulled apart to reveal a flexible double sided screen. It could be pulled apart to whatever the desired length, and anything stored in the archives could be displayed on it as well as control systems and maps for the ship. Of course there had only been time to load the basic operations programs into the ship’s computers so there wasn’t much for the scrolls to access, but it was convenient to at least be able to easily interface with the ship’s systems. It appeared that they were primarily designed to be operated by thought control, but they were quickly figuring out how to use them with touch controls on the screen, which went rigid after the scroll was pulled apart to the desired size of screen.
She’d heard that the original crew had had devices implanted in their heads which allowed them to operate the technology by thought control, but that was one of the first technologies her people had lost the ability to use. They certainly couldn’t make new implants for themselves, nor did they have the ability to extract them from their dead and re-implant them in others. Besides, it wasn’t long after that, that any technology they could have operated by thought control stopped functioning anyways.
She’d never thought much about the ancient technology the original settlers were alleged to have. She often wondered how much was historical record and how much was mythic magic. It was a chaotic time in those early years, and reliable records were hard to come by. Thought control had always struck her as something much more likely to be myth than reality, but here in her hand was the evidence that it was a real technology that existed and was widely used. It blew her mind to imagine what it would be like to be able to talk to technology in that way; she just couldn’t imagine. She had a moment of pride looking forward to the scholars of her world being able to analyze this ship and finally have the chance to definitively discriminate the fact from fiction of those early days.
In her playing around with her scroll in the long hours of waiting, she’d figured out how to access the onboard telescopes which she hadn’t even know had been a part of the original design. When she’d activated them they emerged from the structure of the central engineering section and began feeding data to her scroll. The user interface was remarkably user friendly, and while she’d discovered that the system was designed in such a way that the four telescopes could somehow work together to render a sharper image than any one could individually. For this to work tough, the ship had to be pointed at the target so all four telescopes were in a square face on to the target. While the ship was under power, it had to remain pointed at Earth or away from it when it was time to slow down.
So, while she could only look at Mercury and Venus with individual telescopes (as she had spent many hours doing so), the multi-telescope ‘interferometry’ mode which she really didn’t understand could indeed work for looking at Earth, and she was thrilled and humbled at the incredible degree of detail this view of the world provided. She’d clued in the others to the feed and between the entire crew an innumerable number of hours had been spent by all staring at the live feed and wondering. They’d found a conference room which had an entire wall for a display screen, and hours passed in the room as people rotated through, staring at the live feed on the wall for hours, wondering, dreaming, speculating, imagining…
What would they find? Would it feel more familiar on the surface than their colony planets or were they truly more people of their new worlds more now than of Earth? What would the people still left on Earth be like? Kobol’s basic reconnaissance scans showed that there were indeed humans (or something like humans) on the surface, but not much more than that was known. They detected no technology they deemed interesting. Were they survivors with living memory of their once great civilization, or were they people with no such memory and only wonderment at the ruins which must still persist on the surface. So many questions…
After what seemed like an eternity, New Horizon inserted once again into orbit around the Earth. The noble ship, after so long away, was finally home. Its journey had brought it full circle back to where it had started, and neither it nor its crew knew what lay in store for them down on the surface after so long an absence.