“Here’s what we know so far,” Ralissa said to everyone gathered around the circular console at the rear of the flight deck. “Fifty-one years ago, the Galactic Expeditions deep-space explorer ship EIS George Vancouver vanished while surveying the trinary star system known to Terrans as Beta Persei, or Algol, ninety-three light-years from Earth.”
She touched a button on one of the control panels and the old ship appeared in the holofield. It was one of GalEx’s earlier efforts, back when they focused more on function than form. Basically a three-hundred-meter pole with four centrifuges along its length housing crew quarters, labs, and so on, with a command module at one end and the main engine pods at the other.
Kolya remembered skimming through history textbooks in school mentioning the Vancouver and its sister ships. She wished she’d paid more attention back then, but she’d been focused on her budding supermodel career and hadn’t expected she’d ever need to know any of that stuff.
“The last transmission from the Vancouver stated an intent to investigate what the captain called an ‘anomaly,’ accompanied by scans taken minutes before the ship’s disappearance,” Ralissa continued, turning toward Cora. “Those readings matched scans conducted by a number of other ships over the last few centuries, including yours.”
“The space-time rift we used to get here from wherever we were?” Cora glanced around at her crew. “You think it’s the same thing?”
“Yes. The rifts have been popping in and out of existence for as long as my species has been spacefaring, and we’ve found records on long-deserted worlds of their occurrence even farther back. Almost all of them have been short-lived, lasting only hours or minutes, sometimes mere seconds, but a few remained stable.”
Grishnag nodded. “One of those stable rifts was how humans reached my former homeworld and relocated my people to Earth so they could conduct mining operations without harming the local population.”
“Yes. We’ve never figured out what causes them.” Ralissa glanced around at everyone. “According to our records, the Vancouver appeared near one of our colonies in the star system Terrans call Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuese, six hundred-forty light-years from Earth.” She paused to let that sink in before adding, “Nearly seven hundred years ago.”
Whoa. Kolya took a quick look around the room and figured the wide eyes and gaping mouths on the Mae Jemison crew looked pretty much like the expression she had, herself.
“That turned out to be our first encounter with humanity, though of course we had no idea at the time,” Ralissa said with a chuckle. “A ship was sent out to try to make contact, but the Vancouver turned around and reentered the rift, giving our ship barely enough time for a thorough scan plus a few vids and still images. Then the rift vanished.”
“I’ve been searching archive records from the past thousand years,” Lorkis added. “Haven’t found any indications of the ship appearing anywhere else, but I haven’t gone through all the data yet.”
“As far as we know,” Ralissa said, “this is the first time the Vancouver has popped back up since its initial disappearance. We’re guessing another rift appeared long enough for it to come through. All we know for sure is that the ship’s transponder beacon suddenly started broadcasting again and its navigation system reconnected with the jumpgate network.”
She leaned over and swiped a finger across a touchscreen. The ship in the holofield blipped out and was replaced by a massive blue-white star.
“And that’s where it reappeared. Gamma Orionis, also known as Bellatrix. Two hundred-fifty light-years from Earth, but still close enough that we haven’t done much with it aside from detailed surveys, some mining here and there, and setting up a few research outposts.” Ralissa smiled. “There’s actually some fascinating stuff we’ve found there, but we’ll get to that in a moment.”
“And this is what a shonari scout ship found when it investigated the ping on the jumpgate network.” Lorkis nudged the touchscreen and the image changed to a barren wasteland of a planet with the Vancouver transiting the hemisphere facing the ship’s camera.
“Here’s where things get interesting.” Ralissa braced her hands on the console and stared at the image. “The Vancouver appears to be in a decaying orbit. Our scout ship informed GalEx as soon as they identified the Vancouver, and since it’ll enter the atmosphere in less than a week, they needed to get someone there as quickly as possible. My government worked out a deal with them and picked my team. We’d just finished a job, we’re close enough to get there in a few days – before GalEx could put together their own expedition – and having a couple of Terrans on the team didn’t hurt, either. Cora’s ship was the first one ready to depart without a destination already determined, so she and her crew were hired to transport us to Bellatrix.”
“We’re happy to help out.” Cora grinned. “I’ve never been to Gamma Orionis, since it’s farther out than Terrans had explored before my ship vanished, and it still is.”
“So we’ll be the first people from Earth to take a look around, then.” Dylan glanced at the other females as he slipped his arm around Cora’s waist. “The first of any of our species, in fact.”
“I think you’ve got quite an adventure ahead of you, then.” Lorkis beamed and waved his upper-left hand at the planet. “Gamma Orionis isn’t old enough for planets to have formed and developed breathable atmospheres or indigenous life, but there it is, anyway.”
Ralissa leaned closer to the projection and shook her head slowly. “That’s Gamma Orionis b. From what we’ve found during our surveys, it has a breathable atmosphere and once had an ecosystem and a few dozen outposts all over the planet. Long ago, at least. The species that once lived there isn’t known to us, and may be extinct – but it looks like they were advanced enough in planetary engineering to shape the environment to suit their needs. But something devastated the surface thousands of years ago and left only ruins.”
“That’s scary,” Kolya muttered. “And kind of depressing.”
“It gets even better,” Lorkis said. “We’ve seen that pattern over a large area surrounding Earth. There’s an area of roughly two hundred light-years around your world – though in a few directions it stretches out a bit farther – where remains of advanced civilizations have been found, but no living specimens.”
“Huh. I wonder what happened?” Kolya stared at the planet in the holofield. The land near the equator was clearly desert, and much of the rest simply looked like … dirt.