The Icing on the Cake
It was unclear what Ian had been working on moments before he called Sally in to join him, but it now sat in pieces on the floor in an uncharacteristic clutter. At least three datapads were underfoot, as well as two tin trays that might have held rations. To Ian, they did not exist now. Nothing existed but the viewport and the display in front of him. At first, Sally was unsure what had happened, but the moment she glanced out the port she had to look again. There in front of them was a sight both familiar and completely alien.
“There’s your rock,” Ian said.
“It is, sure enough; spectroscope confirms it. I’m also tracking three other asteroids I’m sure were in the data you gave me.”
Sally squeezed into the seat beside him. She looked from one panel to another, but had no idea what to consult first. “Spectroscope,” Sally repeated. “Then the light is different here?”
Ian turned to her, his face serious. “More different than either of us could have guessed.”
Sally looked more carefully at the displays Ian had been consulting. Each of them contained blinking fault warnings and cries for maintenance. Everywhere was confusion. The ship did not know where it was. For Sally, the pieces began to fit together just as they had for Ian, but the picture they created seemed impossible.
“Then that’s not the sun?” Sally asked, pointing in the direction of the reflected glare from the rock.
“Not even close,” Ian said. “Though, compositionally, it has much the same properties. Bugger, I wish I had better equipment here!”
Sally gazed out the window. “A different asteroid belt,” she mumbled.
“Yeah, and look at this,” Ian said, swinging the eyepiece of an instrument in her direction.
Sally looked into the oculars and let her jaw drop. There was the ringed gas giant the computer had painted for them. As an artist, the computer was mundane, its interpretation of the weather belts paling in significance to what she saw now. And the rings glistened in a dazzling rainbow spectacle that no computer-based rendering could match.
“That planet is closer to us here than Mars would be in our system, and it’s as big as Saturn. But look at this!” Ian said with the enthusiasm of a child showing off his baseball card collection. He directed Sally to another window on the panel. Amid the warning messages were small white dots indicating stars. “The computer’s knackered! It’s been trying to match those stars with known constellations. No match!”
Sally nodded slowly. “Where are we?”
“Unknown,” Ian said seriously. “But we couldn’t be anywhere near our system. If I had better equipment, I might - and I say ‘might’ - be able to determine if we’re within our galaxy.”
Sally shook her head.
“Now we know what happened to the prospector,” Ian said.
“I considered that idea, but I think not. At least not in the sense we normally think of them. A wormhole would be like a funnel cloud or a whirlpool. We would expect to see some kind of energy discharge, at least when things went through it. Whatever it was we just went through was completely invisible.”
“That’s why we weren’t able to see it.”
“That’s also why the prospector couldn’t make heads or tails out of what happened. Its systems aren’t as ‘creative’ as we are. The idea of passing through some stellar doorway must not have been programmed in as a possibility.” He smiled. “It simply treated it like a fault in navigation. Of course, it tried to regain its bearings, but beyond that, it simply assumed its navigational systems were fried, maintained a straight trajectory, and continued its job best it could.”
“And it lost contact with the network, so it must have assumed that its com system was down. It would have gone to internal logic.”
“Good point,” Ian said. “That’s absolutely right. I would imagine its com system wouldn’t quite have had the range.”
“Neither does ours,” Sally commented, tapping her bracelet. “How did it get back do you think?”
Ian’s face dropped slightly. “Not sure,” he admitted. “Whatever doorway this is, it couldn’t be very large. The Space Commission surveyed the Kelthy region several times and sent probes pretty close to where we are . . . were.”
Sally looked again at the window. “But it got back,” she said.
“And thank God for that!” Ian agreed. “That proves it’s possible. Much as I like this place, I don’t fancy living out here.”
“Can you get us back?”
Ian paused too long before answering. “It should be possible,” he said, “but it may take some working out. I’m trying to establish a navigational map of this region. The computer will be a while compiling, then I’ll have to figure out how to convince the nav system to follow a map other than the one hardwired into it. Good thing I’ve already got some practice reworking the system!”
Sally nodded. Then her eyes found another display window. It was the mathematical model Ian had described, and it was building gradually, one landmark after another. In its center was a large sphere surrounded by the indications of smaller spheres. “Nine planets,” Sally commented. “Same as our system.”
“But in different order,” Ian observed.
Sally looked more closely at the data emerging from the computer’s attempts to make sense of the star system. Her eyes were drawn to one particular area, a frame containing statistics regarding one of the smaller spheres in the model. Perhaps, in Ian’s excitement at the discovery of a new star, he had missed something equally interesting. The icing on the cake. Sally dared to touch the controls to enlarge the display.
“Ian,” she said.
He glanced at her from his other work. She pointed to the area of the display she had magnified.
Ian skimmed it impatiently at first, but then his eyes fixed intently on the screen. He pivoted his body to get a better look.
“Oxygen,” he said with a voice that betrayed disbelief.
“And nitrogen,” Sally added. “So far, this planet’s atmosphere contains all the elements of ours. And in similar proportions.”
“The mass is about the same, too,” Ian added, taking the controls. “I would imagine it would have roughly the same gravity as Earth. Maybe a little more.”
“There’s the suggestion of water, too. Perhaps oceans. Of course, we can’t tell from here . . . ”
“A planet like Earth,” Ian said in a reverent voice. “Now we’ve really hit the jackpot.”
Sally and Ian both stared at the screen, neither knowing what to say next. They also glanced at the rest of the growing model, and finally out the viewport into the bluish light. They had crossed into a new frontier. The significance of it was only beginning to dawn on them.
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