Ground Work

Note: This story was nominated for the inaugural Canopus Award for Interstellar Fiction at DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Symposium in 2015. The prompt was “Finding Earth 2.0”


 

“Well, this is odd.” That was absolutely the last thing Kimiko Adams wanted to say, but it was unfortunately warranted. She gave the screen before her a blank stare as it stared back, equally blank.

“What is it, Adams?” Steven Singh, here co-pilot and co-colonist sat beside her, still strapped into his seat. Kimiko, on the other hand, had unbuckled as soon as they decanted from warp. She always thought they were too tight.

“I’m not getting any readings. No chatter whatsoever.” Kimiko tapped the screen with her glove. “No electromagnetic radiation of any kind!”

“Are you sure?” Steven raised an eyebrow as the ship’s rotating warp ring passed in front of the cockpit window, slowing down into its rest position. “Maybe it’s just calibrating for dim signals. Give it a minute.”

“Hm. Okay.” Maybe Steven was right. They had only just entered the Tau Sagittarii system. Whatever broadcasts Earth had put out 122 years ago would be reaching them now and were probably fairly weak. Kimiko would be able to use the broadcasts, however slight, to ascertain Earth’s position relative to them. Besides, she was looking forward to catching some re-runs of Welcome Back, Kotter.

“We’ll pick them up soon enough. For now, let’s circle the moon.” Steven activated the sub-warp engines, a pair of thorium nuclear generators, and the La Pinta lurched forward. As Kimiko re-buckled her restraints, the small moon circling Tau Sagittarii Ae inched closer to meet them. Of course, the moon was not their goal, just a short stop on their way to the planet itself. Tau Sagittarii Ae was squarely in the goldilocks zone of its binary system and, at just 1.1 times the size of Earth with a significant water presence, had been deemed the exoplanet most ripe for human colonization. Kimiko and Steven were just the opening leg of the mission. They would be the first to land and set up the habs for the other colonists that would arrive shortly thereafter. Still, they’d be the first ones on the surface. “One small step for a man” and all that.

It only took about twenty minutes to orbit half the moon. The light of Tau Sagittarii A crested the western hemisphere, haloing the blue-green splendor of the planet below. Both Kimiko and Steven had seen Earth from space before, and, although the planets looked similar, the unfamiliar continents and coastlines drove the point home that they were not in Kansas anymore.

“Wow.” Steven said. That was all he had to say.

“Still nothing.” Kimiko was entranced, instead, by the still blank communications screen.

“Kimiko, look at this!”

“Steve, there’s nothing on the screen. It’s been almost half an hour.”

“There’s a brand new world out there, Kimiko and you’re worried about some stuffy old broadcasts from the 1970s?”

“We should be getting something.” She tapped the screen again.

“Just relax and enjoy the view.” If Steven could have put his feet up, Kimiko believed he would have. “You won’t be able to see the whole thing after the Hohmann transfer.”

The thrusters provided a significant amount of delta-v allowing for a fairly fast and painless transfer. Now their view was split between the landscape of Tau Sagittarii Ae and the infinite blackness of space.

“Still nothing, huh?” Steven asked.

Kimiko just glared at him.

“Alright. Well, run a diagnostic.” Steven unbuckled himself and propelled his body out of his chair. He was floating halfway down the hall before he finished his thought. “I’m going to head back to the hold and prep the signal probe for launch.”

She tapped a few tiles on the capacitive screen and started the diagnostic. Admittedly, Steven was right. Even if she couldn’t catch the signals she was looking for, the signal probe would provide them with a much more reliable mode of communication with Earth. A simple satellite module with a repeating 1420 MHz signal, the probe was equipped with its own warp drive and would travel back to Earth by itself. It was a physical, faster than light, note that they had arrived at their destination safely and that all was clear for the next set of colonists.

Kimiko leaned on her palm and drummed her fingers against the console, illuminated both by the blinking glow of the buttons below and the planet above. She finally decided to take Steven’s advice and lose herself in the vast greenery of her new home, drifting past her at over 20,000 miles per hour. Familiar blue shapes – rivers and tributaries – snaked their way through what she could only assume were forests and grassland. Whatever Tau Sagittarii Ae, it had some kind of plant life. And perhaps, other life as well. Earth was not alone in the universe. It almost felt sacrilegious to tamper with this untouched Eden. It may have been –

A sharp beep shocked Kimiko back into the present. Her diagnostic was done. She peered over her fingers at the screen, parsing each line of the readout. Her eyes widened. It didn’t make any sense. That was impossible. If this was true, then –

“Singh!” She slammed her palm down on the intercom and yelled to Steven.

“What?” Steven’s voice crackled back.

“We’ve got…” Kimiko struggled to find the words. “… a situation here! Get back to the cockpit! Now!”

“Okay. I’m on my way back.” Steven was back within minutes. He floated back into his seat. “What is it?”

“I ran the diagnostic. I know why we’re not picking up any Earth-based signals.”

“Is the equipment not working? Is it damaged?”

“No. The equipment is working fine.” Kimiko shook her head. “There’s just no electromagnetic radiation for us to detect. We’re not where we think we are.”

“What do you mean, Adams?” Steven pointed out the window. “That’s Tau Sagittarii Ae right there! Where the hell do you think we are?”

“Well, that’s the thing. We’re in the right place.” It was the second part Kimiko would have trouble explaining, so she just went with it. “But we’re here at the wrong time.”

There was only one proper response to that statement and Steven gave it: “What.”

“The Pinta’s warp bubble generator malfunctioned during our trip. It’s possible, as unlikely, as it may seem, that we’ve ridden on a closed time curve. We’re here now, but now is 122 years earlier than we expected.”

“No. No. That’s impossible. So you’re telling me that now, on Earth, it’s-”

“1855.” Even if the readout hadn’t displayed the date, the math was simple. They had left Earth in 2099. Upon reaching Tau Sagittarii 122 lightyears away, they would expect to intercept signals from 1977. Instead, thanks to the malfunction, they had doubled that. “Any transmission we send back to Earth would only be received in 1977.”

“Can’t we… can’t we just warp back?” A modicum of fear entered Steven’s voice. It was a scary thing to hear someone typically so relaxed stammer.

“Not unless we can fix the drive. Even then, we’d be warping back to an 1855-era Earth. We’d change history!”

Steven could do nothing but stare at his hands. Suddenly, he shot up, straight-backed in his chair. “The probe!”

Kimiko spun around. “No. Don’t tell me…”

“I launched it! It’ll be relaying its first signal in a few minutes.”

Kimiko released herself from the shackles of her restraints and rocketed out of her seat, grabbing onto the walls and thrusting herself back into the rear hallway.

“Where are you going?” Steven called.

“To stop that probe! Just stay on the comm and do what I tell you. Get the sub-warp engines back on line!” Kimiko bounced her way to the rear of the ship, careening off walls with little regard to any injuries she would sustain on impact. She felt the ship shudder and jerk as the engines vibrated to life.

“Which way do you want me to go?” Steven’s voice emanated from the speaker in her suit’s neckpiece.

“Back! Follow the probe. It can’t have gotten far.” She spoke into her neck as she flew around a corner.

“What are you going to do?”

Kimiko rounded another corner and came to rest in front of a roundel of windows before a panel that housed the controls for a cargo manipulation arm. “I’m going to hit it. Hard.” She grabbed the joystick in her right hand and dialed up the sensitivity with her left. Soon, the long white pole outside spun and whirled with a slow ferocity. The claw at the end of it clacked noiselessly. Kimiko could see the probe in the distance. It was not far enough away yet to be lost among the stars, but it was reaching a safe distance for it to initiate warp. “Closer, Singh! We can’t afford to lose this thing.”

Another jerk and the probe began to increase in size. As it got closer, Kimiko could spot the telltale signs of its pre-warp set up procedure. The probe’s warp ring, a great deal smaller than that of the Pinta had begun to rotate. It would be minutes before it jumped back to Earth. It was almost within grasping range, so Kimiko maneuvered the arm toward it. She only had one shot at this, so she took it. She snapped the joystick to the left and the arm ratcheted sideways slamming into the probe’s warp ring. The main claw caught in the rotation mechanism and was ripped clean off of the ship and sent spiraling out into space. Kimiko cursed as she saw that the probe had taken little damage, if any. The warp ring continued to spin.

“What happened?” Steven crackled.

“Nothing. Just lost an arm.” Kimiko grumbled.

“What do you want me to do now?”

“Increase speed.” Kimiko said. “Ram the thing.”

“Are you crazy? We could sustain some real damage!”

“Then we jettison the damaged module!” Kimiko yelled. “We’re not going to go down as the people who wrecked history!”

 

The Pinta picked up a great deal of speed and shuddered as the probe scraped across its hull. Kimiko, meanwhile, floated her way back towards the cockpit. The ship shuddered again and she could hear the squeal of rending metal from within. Klaxons blared. This module of the ship had indeed sustained damage. Kimiko grabbed a metal handle and maneuvered her face towards a porthole. The probe was still intact, but was hanging on by a thread. One more well placed hit and…

The warp ring of the probe fell apart, still spinning violently due to its angular momentum. The hull of the Pinta was less lucky as the remainder of the probe drifted into its path and exploded into several pieces, taking a chunk of bulkhead along with it. The module immediately began to depressurize. Kimiko’s jaw dropped. She swung herself around and crawled along the walls of the rapidly vacating module. The umbilical airlock was up ahead. All she had to do was get there.

“Adams!” Steven yelled. “We’re depressurizing! Get back up here!”

“I’m in the process!” Kimiko struggled through gritted teeth, yanking herself across the boxy equipment that lined the walls. She was careful not to breathe heavily, but that was easier thought than done. She latched her fingernails on the edge of a titanium door, emblazoned with yellow and black caution paint. Kimiko pulled herself up and through the hatch, slamming the button on the other side. The airlock hissed closed. “I’m clear! Jettison the rear module!”

Another hiss, louder this time, as Kimiko watched the entire rear module of the Pinta be left behind. The second major piece of space debris around Tau Sagittarii Ae. She couldn’t help but think that humans had only been here for a few hours and already they were messing up the joint.

It took Kimiko several minutes to catch her breath and make it back to the cockpit. Steven was waiting. “Are we good?”

“As good as we can be, I suppose.”

“So what do we do now?” Steven knew the answer, but asked anyway.

“The only thing we can do.” Kimiko strapped herself back in. “Carry on with the mission.”

“You know our hab and most of our supplies were in the module we jettisoned, right?”

“Well, then it’s just going to be a little harder, now isn’t it, Singh?” Kimiko smirked.

Steven shifted the thrust vectors on the engines. Tau Sagittarii Ae grew even larger. He pointed out the window. “I’m aiming for that river delta. We could probably set up something nice there.”

“Makes sense. So in 244 years when they don’t hear from us and send out a follow-up mission, they might just find a nice little civilization waiting for them.”

“Great. So we have to do all the groundwork?”

“That’s always been the mission, Singh. Now we just have a longer deadline.” Kimiko looked out at the planet that dominated her line of sight. It wasn’t Earth, but for now, it had to be. She nodded slowly, relaxing into her fate. A jaunty tune escaped her lips.

Steven raised an eyebrow. “What’re you whistling?”

“It’s a theme song.” Kimiko clarified. “‘Welcome Back, Kotter’.”

“Never heard of it.”

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