Chapter 7 (Second Draft)

“Five hundred years…” Felix muttered to himself as he poked around the kitchen adjacent to the main communal dining hall of the ship. 

It was eerie to be here; he’d dreamed about being on the New Horizon his whole life, and he’d always imagined it as being very exciting, but it was a little disorientating to be confronted with such mendacity and eeriness simultaneously.  He certainly didn’t believe in ghosts or any such thing, but he nonetheless felt a distinct presence here.  It was a place where hundreds of people had come and gone from this place for hundreds of years.  It wasn’t just these particular rooms either, in every place on this ship he could feel the distinct weight of its history.  Sure it had been almost five centuries since anyone had been on the ship, but for the two centuries before it had been the entire world for a great many people.

“Felix?”  He nearly jumped out of his skin when Kathryn said his name from behind.  She couldn’t help herself when she saw his reaction and she laughed out loud before settling down and becoming much more sympathetic and apologizing for having startled him.  “Sorry about that…  It’s creepy in here isn’t it?”

“Can be,” he answered coolly, trying to regain some dignity.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked.

“Just poking around, really… as curious as I am just to see these parts of the ship, I’m just as curious to see what half a millennium does to a place.  I find it oddly well preserved.  I suppose I should have expected as much though, given the vacuum.  It’s kept everything pretty well preserved.”

“Any food?”

Felix laughed.  “No, no of course not.  Anything usable was brought to the surface when the ship was abandoned, but anything left behind wouldn’t be much use now anyways, even with the vacuum.”  He continued pawing at the random containers and equipment left behind for one reason or another.

They were on their way now.  Having successfully powered up the ship and getting all of the required systems operating, President Kim had authorized their mission to Kobol.  They’d made one more trip down to the surface to bring up all of the supplies they would need for the multi-week trip.  They’d been given their last final orders and instructions, and wished well on their trip.  The president had impressed on them all that although none were formally trained diplomats, diplomacy was a fundamentally primary element of this mission.  Although they were trained engineers and scientists, as was required for such an intrepid mission, in the end they were first and foremost first emissaries from their world to another, in a process of first contact.  They’d had several meetings each with chief diplomats in the President’s inner circle.  Each seemed envious of the opportunity Kathryn’s team had been given, yet at the same time quite content to be avoiding the danger and uncertainty of the mission.  The diplomats weren’t necessarily explorers, but in this case the explorers were required to function as diplomats.

It took the better part of two weeks for the New Horizon to break away from its orbit around Haven and make its way inward towards the planet’s star where the Escher rift facility was located.  The first third of their trip was spent in a maximum acceleration phase towards the sun, but the rest of the trip was spent accelerating laterally to the star to put them into a stable orbit around the star.  As the ship fell closer and closer towards the sun, the increased lateral orbital speed slowed their actual descent towards the sun.  After the two week trip they found themselves orbiting a few hundred kilometers out from the giant artificial crystal which spawned the actual Escher rift.

Jaren had explained along the way (as best as the Haven crew could be made to understand), that thousands of solar energy collecting units were swarming all about the sun.  When activated, they each unit unfurled into much larger apparatus, and all streamed their individually collected energy into higher compiling satellites, which in turn fed the energy further up into four massive compilers which always orbited in a line of sight formation with the massive kilometer wide crystal Escher sphere.  When that massive amount of solar energy poured into the crystal all at once, its molecular structure temporarily exploded into an energy rift which created a tunneling wormhole to any other star with a similar infrastructure established around it, where a similar complimentary process occurred.  Kathryn’s people didn’t understand the physics at all, but they came to understand the process and effect well enough.

Along the way, both crews had a wonderful time exploring the ancient ship and learning its secrets.  The Haven crew roamed the ship with a deep reverence, since for them it was Olympus abandoned, the mountaintop home of the gods now deserted centuries ago.  Beyond their reverence for the history and significance to their culture, they also marvelled at the technology on the ship.  Though still significantly advance by comparison, it was much closer to their own level of technology than Jaren’s ship had been.  Where the Kobol ship seemed practically magical to them, the New Horizon technology was more within their grasp, easier to understand the principles behind the technology.  They found much of it to be fully developed iterations of things which were either very basic, experimental, or at least theoretical back home.  The things which were flatly beyond them, they found the Kobol crew quite happy to explain to them as best they could.  Felix, Elim, and Kerry sometimes felt like they were learning more from the ship and the Kobolians in these two short weeks than they had in all the time they’d spent in university on Haven.

The two crews had largely paired off according to their mutual interests and professional specialties, and had become friends over the two weeks of travel.  As much as the Haven crew were fascinated with how advanced the ship was, the Kobol crew were interested in it as an artifact of history.  They explained that their own much cruder starship which had brought them to Kobol, carved out of the interior of an asteroid, had been directed into the sun soon after their arrival.  They took on the same note of sadness when relaying the story as they always did when they recounted the tragic short-sightedness of the founders of their colony.  It was much the same as when the Haven crew recounted what they could remember of the stories told of the conflict which broke out between factions of the crew as soon as they arrived in orbit, and the social conflicts which brought it about, begun much further back in their long journey.  It always made them sad to think of how far they were knocked back because of it.

Kathryn and Jaren spent most of their waking hours together, touring the ship and diplomatically sharing important information about each other’s cultures.  Kathryn had never had much interest in a diplomatic phase of her career, but it was on the shortlist of things she thought she might be able to turn to some day when she couldn’t do the kind of work she really wanted to do, along with politics.  For better or worse, that was a primary element of her current mission, she was effectively the lead ambassador of Haven to Kobol.  Keeping this in mind forced her to keep an appropriate professional distance from Jaren despite them working so closely together.  She recognized that it could easily be her imagination, but she sensed the same from Jaren, that he was feeling the need to keep things more professional with her than he’d like to in other circumstances.  They’d shared a moment that first night in the shuttle, and ever since they’d been spending more time together than they probably needed to professionally, but under a professional justification for doing so.  They had become quite close, even had some remarkably personal late night conversations about what had happened with her and Tobyn, how he had been married to Irvina a long time ago and how now they were quite close friends.  She appreciated and respected his willingness to be good friends with a woman, even if it was only in the wake of a romantic entanglement.  She felt the maturity required to foster that kind of relationship bode well for his overall emotional maturity.  She was also forced to admit that as things stood presently, she didn’t feel that she’d ever care to foster the same kind of friendship with Tobyn.  The more she reflected on it with time and distance and in conversation of the two weeks with Felix and Tobyn, the more she came to the conclusion that they had always been a poor match from the very beginning, they’d just been too young, naiive, and immature to realize it and before long inertia took over and it took too long for either to have the werewithall to finally end it.  This revelation had left her with the occasional acute bout of depression about wasted time, but her old and new friends comforted her that no time was wasted so long as we learn and face the future with eyes opened wider.  In more existential bends in their late night conversations, Jaren suggested to her that the experience for better or worse had contributed to making her the woman she was today, and to will away such a substantial part of her past would be to will away the person it left her in favour of another version of herself, that to regret such a big part of oneself is to wish away one’s own existence in a sense.  There were a few moments when she realized that she’d never had moments like this with Tobyn and it simultaneously made her want to cry and kiss him, but managed to resist both impulses and instead say goodnight to instead lie awake in bed thinking.  It had been too long since she’d had this much time to reflect on her life.  She felt like her spirit was getting the good rest and rejuvenation it had needed for too long.

The night before they were to enter the rift, lying in bed she admitted to herself that she was falling in love with Jaren, if she hadn’t already, she chuckled to herself.  She wasn’t sure what this meant, but she felt it was an important admission to make to herself, important to not deny or be afraid of it.  She knew that could only impair her otherwise good judgement.  She was a professional, and she’d worked very hard all her life to get to this place in her career.  It had been such an affirmation of the value of all her hard work to be selected out of everyone else in the world to be the first to return to the New Horizon.  She didn’t want to deny herself what she was feeling, but she also knew she had to be careful about how she proceeded.  It seemed obvious that while on the current mission it would be inappropriate to act on her feelings if they were reciprocated.  She’d have to maintain a veneer or professionalism at least that long, and then see how she felt then.  She was also mature enough to understand that although it didn’t feel that way, there was always a chance that what she was feeling was only a rebound effect from having so recently separated from someone she’d until so recently thought she’d marry.  She didn’t think so, but… well, she wouldn’t either way, would she?

In their conversations Kathryn had learned that Jaren came from a family of some privilege.  His grandfather had been a member of their colony’s senate, and his own father had ascended all the way to the height of power and become President of their colony’s government.  Jaren explained though that he himself had turned his back on all of that, and had never wanted anything to do with politics.  He’d spent much of his youth exercising his privilege to discover himself and his world, backpacking around some of the less travelled places of Kobol and seeing the most important sights to see on the planet.  It was in this phase of his life that he discovered his passion for exploration and adventure, and when he felt the time was right to gain some more direction in his life, he’d joined the diplomatic corps of their space fleet, soon after meeting Irvina and falling in love.  After many years he’d worked his way up to the position of being a leading candidate to lead the New Horizon expeditionary team.  It also seemed important to him to elucidate that all through his career he resisted getting or taking any advantage or special treatment out of coming from the family he did.

The other crew members had likewise teamed up according to their interests.  Felix had been spending a lot of time with Irvina, who was also Jaren’s second in command.  She had was his lead engineer and seemed to quite enjoy teaching Felix all about the technology of the New Horizon and bringing him up to speed as best she could on all of the ship’s systems. 

This was common in all of the pairings, Jaren’s people seemed to quite enjoy enlightening Kathryn’s people.  Nadelle and Elim for example spent quite a bit of time in the medical bay examining the surgical pods and chatting about the medical advances the people of Kobol had been able to make.

Keri and Xion hardly ever left the archive room, to the point that they had to be brought food or they’d forget to eat, and also needing to be reminded that sleep was occasionally necessary for human beings, to the degree that at one point Jaren and Kathryn had to order them to get some sleep.  Xion had a similar humanities background as Keri, and had been waiting years on end for the chance to learn what happened on Earth after the Mormon generational starship left Earth.  Keri had had access to the information left them in library drone, but was immensely enjoying learning all about Kobol and its culture and history since leaving Earth.  For the people of Haven, what happened to Earth had been the only mystery greater than what became of the other colony ships which had launched before New Horizon did.  Both were savouring the satisfaction of being able to fill in critical gaps in their understanding of the great human narrative, the greatest story ever told, from early cosmology, to star and galaxy formation, to planet formation, to life and intelligence, and all leading to the extra solar colonization that gave rise to their respective civilizations.  Nothing could be more exciting for either of them than filling in these missing chapters of that great epic, and they were loathed to having to resign themselves to such a temporally wasteful activity sleep.

As planned, as they approached the star, it became necessary for Jaren and Irvina to augment the New Horizon’s artificial magnetosphere with technology from their own ship.  New Horizon’s own field was only designed to adapt to the relatively low level of cosmic and solar radiation at the distance from a star of its planets.  The Escher technology required getting much closer to the sun and required a far more powerful magnetic shield to deflect the intense radiation.

The closer they got to the sun, the more both crew spent time in the zero gravity bubble marvelling at the sight.  This sphere of synthetic material was what turned out to be ahead of the reactor core room where Jaren had detected vacuum.  The inhabitants of the ship had constructed as a zero gravity playroom and observatory en route.  Although the need had never been anticipated by the original inhabitants, the advanced materials the bubble had been constructed of incorporated adaptive shielding as a safety measure.  The bigger and brighter the star became in their field of view, the more the material of the bubble darkened, which not only prevented immediate and fatal burning of their skin, but it also allowed them to look directly at the star without damaging their eyes.  Looking into it was positively hypnotic; the closer they got to it, the more detail they could see at its apparent surface, the roiling and bubbling surface of the massive nuclear fireball raging before them.

The crystal only finally came into view the day they were to enter the rift, and although they knew it was a brilliant violet from schematic pictures provided by the Kobolians, the darkening of the bubble required at such an extreme proximity to the star left it appearing only black in contrast to the star when it finally came into view.

As they looked around, they saw the star appear to noticeably darken as the unseen collectors unfurled and began absorbing the energy of the star’s light.  Streams of unfathomably brilliant light began crisscrossing over the surface of the sun until four frighteningly and impossibly massive pillars of light all converged on the crystal all at once right before them.  The crystal literally exploded into a massive field of energy hundreds of kilometers wide, diffuse at the edges but an infinitely bright purple colour at its core as they sailed directly towards it.

As they passed into the centre of the vortex, they felt a shudder and disorienting rush of colours all about them.  The disorientation soon passed as the forward half of the bubble slowly began to undarken to reveal the blackness of space behind a field of stars which gradually came into view. 

Jaren welcomed the Havenites to the Eta Cassiopeiae system.  As the rest celebrated and cheered, Kathryn hugged Jaren with a lingering tightness which was a little indulgent, but not so much as to altogether be inappropriate given the situation.  He hugged her back just as warmly, waiting for her to finally break the embrace, and it was at that point she was certain that for better or worse, her feelings were reciprocated whether acknowledged or not.