After exiting the rift, New Horizon was greeted by a small fleet of ships which were waiting to greet them on the other side.
“Are they all here for us?” Kathryn asked Jaren.
“Some,” he acknowledged, “but not all. There is a constant contingent stationed at the rift to render aid if any incoming ships should require it, as well as to deal with any… unexpected guest which might show up.”
“Unanswered guests?” Felix asked in surprise. “You mean like… hostile aliens? An invasion?”
Jaren laughed. “Some people do consider it a possibility yes, if an outside one. Of course it’s never come up, I assure I would have mentioned it by now if it had, but the small fleet permanently stationed here would be the first to greet them whatever their intentions. There is after all no way to prevent anyone from coming through other than destroying our crystal but like I said it’s never come up. We are currently drafting plans for a permanent space station here to supplant some of the ships, but no construction has actually begun yet.”
“Anyone else in the universe with similar technology,” Irvina added, “could in theory lock on to our crystal quite easily but like Jaren said, so far it’s never come up.”
“It occurs to ask,” Keri brought up, “have you set up rift crystals anywhere besides Earth and the colony planets so far? If you’ve had the chance to do so around these planets…”
“Not yet,” Irvina answered, “but the process is underway. We have drone rift construction ships underway to half a dozen systems with promising planets, but none have made contact so far and we don’t expect to hear back from them for years yet. Our first priority of course was the other colony planets. Not only did we want to know if anyone else had survived, but…” she trailed off as though she hadn’t meant to divulge what she was going to say and reconsidered on the spot.
Jaren finished her thought for her without concern. “If you hadn’t made it we at least knew that there was definitely a planet in that system which could be colonized if you hadn’t been able to.”
“Right,” Kathryn acknowledged. “It makes sense.”
“It’s pretty ambitious,” Felix said, “to have sent out all of those drones already. What have you got planned for those systems? You’ve made it clear that your people aren’t very interested in exploration for exploration’s sake.”
“Well if there are any plans for those systems, they’re over our pay grade,” Jaren answered dryly with what appeared to be a hint of bitterness, but then he shrugged. “It’s just a long term process. If we wait to establish the rift until we have plans those plans will immediately be delayed by decades. It’s basic capacity building at this point. Once we have the network established, if we find something useful or come up with plans, the capacity is already right there in front of us. It’s a very resource intense process to set up a portal in a new system, but our government has set up a continuing budget for the project. We’re currently aiming for a cadence of one new drone ship launch every year. So far we’re on schedule, and every new rift we set up creates a new and more distant launch point. One of the things our government will want to negotiate with yours is the launch of such ships out of your system.”
“I had no idea your people were so ambitious,” Keri commented as bright multicolour lights began exploding in front of them between the New Horizon and the ships they could see. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Fireworks,” Nadelle explained. “Of a sort. It’s a way of saying welcome, and of celebrating our arrival.”
“Welcome New Horizon, we’ve been expecting you,” A voice was heard over a loudspeaker back at the entrance hatch to the bubble. “The people of Kobol celebrate your arrival and offer warm greetings.”
Jaren led Kathryn back to the hatchway using their airburst belts. He tapped at the panel and gestured Kathryn towards it with his hand. “Thank you, to whom and I speaking?”
“This is Admiral Velora, commander of the Kolob Space Fleet flagship Utah. With your permission we have tow ships which can attach to your vessel and get you to Kolob in approximately seventy hours.”
Kathryn raised an eyebrow at Jaren and he nodded his approval.
“That’s… very kind of you, thank you,” she offered with a slight shrug.
“Very well, please retract the bubble structure forward of your main engineering section. As it is currently deployed it blocks the grapple point on your ship we have deemed structurally preferable.”
“Will do, please stand by.” She turned around to face the others. Alright, that’s us. Everyone out.”
She ushered everyone out of the bubble and back into the engineering section of the ship. “Let’s all head up to the bridge,” she suggested as she followed Jaren out and firmly closed the hatch behind them.
Once on the bridge they all watched on the external cameras as four vessels approached. They seemed little more than scant skins of ships wrapped around massive antimatter engines like the ones on Jaren’s ships only much larger and more powerful. One by one they anchored to the engineering section of the New Horizon and then pulled away with just enough engine power to pull the thick cable taught and hold position at the correct distance. Once all four had done so they cleared departure with Kathryn on the bridge, and then all four mighty engine ships gradually powered up to full power and along with their escort ships all gradually pulled away from the sun.
The realities of orbital mechanics forbid a direct flight to the planet, instead the thrust was directed towards increasing the distance of their orbit from the sun ever outward until they could meet up with the orbit of Kobol. Under New Horizon’s own power it would have taken more than a month to reach the orbit of Kobol, fighting the gravity of the sun as they were, but with their powerful tow ships attached, it would only take them a few days.
Although there were occasional operational communications between the ships in their small fleet, nobody boarded or exited the New Horizon. The president of Kobol had left clear instructions that after Jaren and his people, he wanted to be the first to greet the visitors at their official ceremonial reception in the capital.
These three days seemed to drag on much longer than the two weeks it took to initially reach the rift. They now felt familiar with the ship enough that it was no longer exciting just to be there. They kept working at their research diligently, but their minds now kept wandering to what lay ahead, to the new planet they’d be seeing so soon. Also on their minds were the incredible responsibility of only the four of them representing their entire civilization to the people of the entire planet.
The days dragged on, but passed nonetheless. Before long they could see Kolob appear before them. A tiny speck at first, but it grew larger and larger over the course of the last day. As they approached they were able to see as well the small moon which orbited around it, which was roughly half the diameter of Earth’s moon, and which orbited at about two thirds the distance.
Once the tow ships had inserted the New Horizons into an orbit around the planet, they detached and wished them a safe descent. Once detached, Kathryn and her crew couldn’t resist reinflating the bubble and having a clear look at Kobol from orbit. It was a beautiful view, but with odd geography. There was a vast global ocean which circumvented the entire equator with massive landmasses capping both poles, each approximately a third of the way down to the equator from the poles. The regions which bordered the oceans appeared rich and lushly green, while some distance inland there were some arid yellow-orange regions and beyond them only white all the way to the poles.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” Jaren asked Kathryn.
“It is certainly an… interesting geography.”
“Yes… it actually leaves us relatively little land area on which we can settle. We’re certainly nowhere near capacity, but…”
Jaren never finished his thought. He was distracted by the beauty of his home planet. For several minutes he and Kathryn floated in silence together looking down on the planet as it raced past them. “Are you ready?” he eventually asked.
“As I’ll ever be…” she answered distantly.
The eight person crew gathered up what they would need from the New Horizon and boarded Jaren’s smaller ship. After consulting with aerospace control on his planet, Jaren disengaged his ship from New Horizon and descended down to the planet below. Although atmospheric braking was required to slow them from orbital velocity, the ship was sufficiently advanced that they hardly noticed.
Through barely noticeable vibrations, Felix asked Irvina if they used ablative materials to slow the ship down the way New Horizon’s shuttles had, but she informed him that this had not been necessary for some time. Their engines were sufficient to slow their velocity incredibly, and to the point that the advanced materials the hull of the ship was constructed of could withstand the extreme friction of re-entry without ablating away.
After slowing to reasonable speeds, the ship rapidly soared through the air across the vast ocean until the city on the shore came into view and grew larger and larger as they approached. The city glittered to the point of appearing to be made entirely of light, but as they approached they saw that it was only an illusion created by all of the tall tower buildings being encased in glass, which reflected the sunlight amongst them. As they got closer they could see that each building had a metal lightning rod on the top of it in the shape of a figure in robes blowing a simple straight trumpet up into the air.
They approached a large clearing surrounded by towers encased in green glass. It was a large parkland with trees and grass sporting a landing pad to one side, vaguely reminiscent of the park Jaren’s ship had landed in back on Haven. As they landed Kathryn could tell that there was something different about the building across the street from where they were landing. There were hundreds of people gathered a respectful distance from the ship, excluding a pathway from between where the ship landed and the steps leading up to what appeared to be a central tower.
The ramp extended from underneath Jaren’s ship as the door opened for them. Jaren urged Kathryn to go ahead and exit the ship first. As she made her way down the ramp she was so startled by the eruption of cheers from the crowd that she nearly fell over and off the side of the ramp. Jaren came up from behind her and put his hands on his hips to steady her. It was the most intimate physical contact they’d had so far, and she savoured it for the briefest of moments as she looked back at him to thank him. She quickly composed herself and together they Together they walked down the rest of the ramp followed by the rest of Kathryn’s crew followed by Jaren’s, and headed towards the steps.
Kathryn reached the stairs and began climbing towards the person whom she could only assume was the Kobol president, flanked as he was by various aides on either side. She was momentarily struck by the similarity of this scene with the one which had greeted Jaren when he’d landed and mused to herself at the reversal of roles. When she reached the top of the stairs the president reached out his hands and she took it pulled her towards him and embraced her warmly, which surprised her. Her own people weren’t particularly averse to physical contact, but from the time she’d been spending with Jaren she was beginning to understand that his people were just more physically expressive in general than her own. She hugged the man back as she came to understand this, and observed as Felix, Elim, and Keri were all likewise welcomed and embraced by the president’s aides.
The president pulled away and introduced himself as Adam Mortensen, President of the Kobol Colony, offering his full name and title. “This is a day that will long be remembered and celebrated by our people. Our long divided family has finally been made whole again.” He put his arm around her shoulder and turned her around to face the crowd. He put his fist in the air and yelled out to the crowd: “UNITY!!!” The people exploded with cheers.
Several hours later Kathryn and her team found themselves at their formal reception for them at the president’s residence. The building they had met the president at the foot of, turned out to be the heart of their central government. At the base, at the top of the stairs, were the congress and senate where the business of governance took place, with offices of the members on the upper levels, and the top half dozen levels taken up by the president’s offices and residence. It was on one of these upper levels which the Haven team found themselves. This reception area was ringed with a spacious open air patio, with the narrower upper three level all taken up by the official residence of the president.
The Haven team spent the afternoon being shown to their official guest accommodations in the presidential residence, and being adorned with what were fashionable high end clothing for modern Kobol. Kathryn and Keri found themselves in long elegant dresses altogether familiar from home with gold jewellery on their ears which attached to the top of their earlobes, and with many fine strands of gold draping over their ears. Felix and Elim found themselves swadled in a very luxurious fabric worn as what could only be described as a toga. They all found the men’s formal wear somewhat amusing at first, but the amusement quickly gave way to an appreciation of how comfortable the garments were to wear.
“Barnes, Parker, Terey, Reed, I have a couple people here to introduce you to,” Jaren offered. “This is Francis,” he offered as he introduced a white bearded man in a black robe and a woman of a similar age on his arm, “and his wife Teresa, they are the Roman ambassadors to Kobol. They are accompanied by a full diplomatic staff, but if you have any questions about Roma or the Catholics,” he put his arm around Francis’ shoulder and his other hand on the nearer one, “these are the people to ask, alright?”
“Oh yes, wonderful. Thank you Jaren.” Jaren nodded before stopping one of the residence staff carrying a tray of drinks and took one. He happily took a drink as he walked away.
“Sirs? Madams? May I interest you as well?” the server asked while holding out the tray. With a nod of permission from Kathryn all four took one of the fluted glass full of bubbling rose coloured liquid.
“What is it?” Keri asked as the Roman ambassadors respectfully declined.
“It is a drink fermented from the nectar of the beashou flower which grows wild on this planet. It is quite a delicacy on this planet and if I do say so myself quite delicious.”
“Alcoholic?” Keri asked with a curious but mild surprise.
“Oh yes,” the server answered. “Roughly nine percent by volume.”
“Forgive me, but…” she cautiously asked, “wasn’t abstinence from alcohol and other substances a rather strict rule for your people?”
“A lot can change in seven hundred years,” the server said with a mischievous smile before disappearing back into the crowd. Keri looked after him for a moment in thought as she watched him leave.
“So, Francis and Teresa, I’m so happy to meet you. We’ve been looking forward to it every bit as much as the people of Kobol,” Kathryn offered.
“Likewise Commander Barnes. We’ve been very anxious to meet you as well.”
“We are both fortunate for having been granted the opportunity by the Kobolians,” Kathryn offered diplomatically
“Indeed,” Teresa said with some uncertainty.
“I look forward to seeing your world, Ambassadors,” Kathryn said with sincerity. “As exciting as it is to be here, I seem to only find myself hungry for more. I feel something like a child confronted with infinite wonder. There is so much to see and learn, it would be intimidating if it weren’t so exciting.”
“Indeed,” Teresa repeated with more satisfaction this time. “Would you join me for some air on the terrace?”
“Certainly,” Kathryn respectfully answered.
“My husband will be happy to entertain your crewmates while we talk,” she said, indicating that she’d like to speak with her alone. The late middle aged woman led Kathryn outside and walked out to the edge of the terrace. It was dark out now, and in front of them was the park where they’d landed in, and beyond it on all sides were all manner of glass towers with a random pattern of rooms lighted on all the towers. Lights would occasionally flick on and off, almost creating the effect of twinkling twilight. Back dropped by the clear night sky, it was an overwhelming and hypnotic sight to behold.
The ambassador leaned over the railing and looked all the way down to the ground before turning her back on the city and facing Kathryn again. “First of all, it is my duty and pleasure to formally extend to you and your people an invitation to visit Roma. Whether you’d like to send an exploratory expedition first or jump right into sending official dignitaries, we will celebrate the day the first representatives of Haven set foot on Roma. From what I understand the Escher Rift can open a portal between our systems as easily as to and from them to Kobol.”
“Thank you,” Kathryn respectfully acknowledged. “Any of us would be honoured to take you up on your invitation and I have no doubt a delegation will be assembled as soon as I have the opportunity to transmit your invitation back home. I have every confidence that a similar invitation will immediately be extended to your people from mine as well.”
Teresa smiled warmly and only slightly mischievously. “Well, now that all of the formalities are out of the way, what do you make of the Kobolians Commander Barnes, one off-worlder to another?”
Kathryn felt cautious. She felt as though anything she might say would be kept in confidence, but at the same time she had only just met this woman and she was representing her world here. “Please, call me Kathryn.”
“The Kobolians seem generous enough to me, given all they’ve done for us so far.”
“Ah,” Teresa acknowledged, “but you have something they need don’t you? That archive of yours… they consider it one of the most valuable things in the entire universe isn’t it?”
“That’s what they seem to think…”
“Hmm, as would we as well.”
“I can’t personally speak for my government to this of course, but I have no doubt that my people would be happy to make the archive available to you as well. It seems to me a legacy to which all of the children of Earth are entitled to.”
“Yes, Earth… Tell me, are you any more curious about the mystery of what happened to Earth as the people of Kolob are?”
“Oh absolutely!” Kathryn exclaimed. “Actually we are quite dumbfounded at Kobol’s lack of interest in it.”
“Thank the lord!” Teresa exclaimed. “Although they have only recently made contact with the Solar Escher facility, we are finding ourselves quite frustrated at their lack of interest in exploring the mysteries of our home planet.”
“Jaren says his people have little interest because they don’t see the story of Earth after they left as a meaningful part of their own story.”
“That’s what they tell us as well… sounds somewhat chauvinistic doesn’t it.”
“Perhaps, but…” Kathryn hesitated, not sure if she should add what came to mind.
“Talking to Jaren I get the sense that… it’s somehow more about technology to them. They seem to value it above all else. They made a few passes of the planet and after doing some survey scanning determined there was nothing they could use. No technology of interest, no value in any further investigation for them.”
“What a waste…” Teresa uttered.
“They can’t be entirely single-minded about it though… If they were the archives wouldn’t interest them. I find it hard to believe that they think they’ll find any technological secrets in it, they are now far superior technologically to those who created it.”
“If I may ask, why hasn’t Roma launched its own expedition?”
“We are desperate to, believe me!” she exclaimed. “But… we need the Kobolians’ help to do so, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit.”
“We are sufficiently technologically competent to eventually mount such an expedition on our own, but it would take many years to develop the technology to build a sufficient vessel with the right tools to mount such an expedition. We have no space program of our own to speak of. As much as we are passionately curious about Earth, my people don’t have much of a spirit for exploration for its own purpose, so our space technology is somewhat rudimentary. As you’ve seen though, everything we’d need are off the shelf technologies here on Kobol. We are growing impatient with them.”
“You think they’re deliberately blocking you?”
“No,” she said with a long heavy sigh, “I think they just don’t care. I think it’s such a low priority to them, that… our interest in it is an equally low priority.”
“That must be frustrating,” Kathryn observed.
“Incredibly,” the ambassador acknowledged with gritted teeth, “but now you’re here aren’t you? And with that marvelous ship you brought with you…”
“What are you suggesting?”
“We really have no right to ask, but… I could offer a suggestion as friends with mutual interests.”
“You have a bargaining chip which we don’t have, your precious archive. With that ship you’re already halfway there. You would only need to request certain modest upgrades to the New Horizon from the Kobolians to be able to mount your own expedition to Earth. If they declined for some reason, Roma could provide you with surface to orbit shuttles and whatever supplies you’d need, but it would take months to get there and then to Earth under New Horizon’s existing engines. With a refit using Kobol technology you could get to Earth in as little as four days.”
“Wow, that’s…” she turned around, leaned back against the railing and looked up into the night sky. “That’s so ambitious,” she said as she looked at her again. “My mission was only to open relations with you Kolob and Roma while letting Kolob harvest the data in the archives in exchange for access to the Escher technology. I never imagined… it never occurred to me that we could use New Horizon in that way, that we’d be in a position to launch our own missions using the ship and the Escher rifts. To us New Horizon was always a… a purpose, a destination unto itself. It never occurred to us that we could actually you know, use it, as a ship, on a continuing basis. I mean until a few weeks ago there was nowhere for us to go in it unless we wanted to leave Haven forever the way our founders left Earth forever.”
“Well it’s something you’re going to need to think about now. The only ships we have of our own are glorified surface to orbit shuttles, everything else we have to rely on the kindness of the Koboli for. We have nothing like on the scale of the New Horizon. As long as you retain control of it, you are automatically the second most space capable colony, but your capacity is incomplete. If necessary we would be happy to provide you with our shuttles if you can’t obtain any from the Koboli. The engines you have are enough to slowly make your way between worlds already, but an anti-matter engine upgrade would make rapid transit quite practical for your people. If you can play Kolob right in renegotiating access to your archives, you could get both from them tomorrow.”
The woman put her hand on the arm Kathryn was resting on the bannister. “Think about it,” she urged before heading back into the party.
Kathryn stood there looking back into the party for a time. It was so bright, and everything with a golden yellow tinge to it. She wasn’t sure how long she was standing there lost in thought when she noticed that Irvina approach her through the doors.
“Nice night,” she offered.
“Yes,” Kathryn agreed, quite mild.” She was always amused when small talk was so small the weather was actually discussed. “What are the seasons like here?”
“Quite mild actually, there’s only an eight percent axial tilt to Kobol, so there isn’t much change between seasons. Of what we do have we’re in what you’d call spring right now.”
“Your president is an interesting fellow, very…”
“Superficial? Glib? Glad-handy? Smarmy?”
“Tell me what you really think…” Kathryn chuckled.
“I don’t particularly care for him… neither does Jaren. He’s too conservative for our liking, not that we’re wild-eyed liberals or anything.”
“He doesn’t support the space fleet’s efforts to open up new worlds, and he’s repeatedly tried to reduce funding for the effort.” The woman pushed off the railing and turned around to lean on it instead, bracing herself with her hands out beside her. “Doesn’t stop him from taking as much credit as he can for all our successes though. I don’t like that. I don’t like what that says about him as a person.”
“Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear someone talk so… frankly.”
Irvina shrugged. “I’m not a diplomat,” she finished her drink, “just an engineer.”
“I can definitely relate,” Kathryn offered, “I’m not exactly in my element here either.” She smiled, looked down at her dress and pulled the fabric out beside her. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore a dress at all let alone getting all fancied up like this. I’m a test pilot for god’s sake,” she laughed. “I’m most comfortable in a flight suit!”
Irvina stepped forward and pulled two more glasses off of the tray of a passing server and handed one to Kathryn who took it. The two looked into the party and saw Jaren continuing to glad hand and converse with other party guests.
“Not like him though,” Irvina said with a smirk. “He loves this kind of thing. Total extrovert that one.”
“Is that why it didn’t work with you two?” Kathryn asked without thinking. Irvina shot a suspicious look at her which then softened. She was seemingly surprised at Kathryn knowing about her history with Jaren at all.
“No… no,” the woman answered somewhat distantly as she looked at him. “That was never a problem. If anything I found that it tended to compliment my inwardness rather well. Who knows why it doesn’t work out between two people?” she asked rhetorically. “Sometimes it does… sometimes it doesn’t.”
The two were quiet for longer than it felt like, both reflecting on what had been in their respective romantic pasts.
“He does, by the way,” Irvina said with a mischievous smile as she took another sip of her drink. “If you were wondering.”
“Does what?” Kathryn asked, confused.
“Like you as much as you like him.”
Kathryn balked as she smiled and looked down; she could feel herself starting to blush. Irvina laughed a friendly and playful laugh.
“Don’t worry, so far you’re hiding it as well as you should be expected to…” she was still smiling. “No, there’s no big dark secret you have to worry about with that one Kathryn, he really is exactly as he seems.”
Kathryn nodded. “Thanks for the intel Irvina.”