As we drew close to the planet, I was actually on full-time duty as navigator while Gary piloted – it was my job to observe and find out more information about the natives as we approached the space that they were occupying.
“The space habitats are definitely viable and inhabited,” was the first report I made. “I don’t have quite enough resolution to catch a clear look of the inhabitants, but they look… well, they seem to be walking upright, like humans, but I’m not so sure about ‘biped.’ Might be three or four legs each, in addition to arm-like appendages. And there’s some other living creatures that might be livestock, or… well, it’s probably pointless to guess without more information.”
“Why didn’t we plan to go to one of the habitats?” Jody asked crossly. I could tell that she was really getting tired of the acceleration couch, and maybe the pain drugs that Gary had given her were wearing off.
“A few reasons,” the exec put in when nobody else volunteered. “Mostly we had no idea if they’d have a dock facility that would fit this ship. Especially since we couldn’t observe one of their own ships in flight…”
“Hey, I think one’s launching!” I exclaimed. Exec grunted doubtfully. “Just let me capture the video… sheesh, it’s a fast little bugger!”
When it was all done, I played the footage on the screen in the passenger compartment, so that the rest of the team could see it – a somewhat shaky re-enactment of a tiny little capsule speeding through space towards a distant space habitat. I’d have loved to get a clear look at the docking procedure, but the end of the trip was extreme range, and the capsule flew behind the destination habit just at the end.
“Just how small was it?” Archer called up.
“Computing that now… looks like four meters long, and just under two meters across.”
“Wow,” Gary muttered. “Do you figure that it was a one-person vehicle?”
“No way I could guess, but it couldn’t hold very many,” I said. “I have no idea how much space would be taken up by life support or any other equipment, especially since if it’s just used to travel between nearby habitats, those would be short trips.”
“What about the engines?” Melissa asked, the first time she’d spoken up in a long while.
“The speed is deceptive,” Colin told her. “All of the habitats are spinning, to maintain weight without the need to spend power on artificial gravity. So all a vehicle like that needs to do is to cast off, and it’ll fly away at high speed.”
“You’d need to time it well to make sure that you’re going in the right direction, though,” Gary pointed out.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And that accounts for most of that capsule’s raw speed, but it did correct its course in midflight. Without using an action-reaction engine, as far as I can tell.”
“The hell you say?” Colin asked.
“I might be missing some trace of an exhaust – if it’s high energy ions or something like that, but to me it looks like it’s just –” I couldn’t even think of a word. “Acceleration due to some other force that I can’t identify.”
“Gravity lensing, maybe?” Gary brainstormed. “I know that the boys back home are working on that one.”
“Could be… the vector isn’t towards the planet, or the star,” I said, tapping a few other calculations into the console. “Could you use lensing to bend gravity to a new direction, as well as change the intensity?”
“Hell if any of us know,” Exec said. “Well, as interesting as this is, you do have something else to be looking at, Ensign Walker.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and went back to surveying the planet for a good landing site. “Getting some useful data – looks like a forty percent mix of cultivated land, in the climates where it would be easiest and most productive. A lot of small villages, not many roads… no sign of any truly mechanized or industrialized transportation, as far as I can tell.”
“A pre-industrial planet, with space habitats in orbit?” Colin said, scoffing.
“I know it sounds unlikely, but that’s what I’m seeing so far,” I said.
“Maybe the planet regressed into the technological dark ages,” Jody suggested. “Then they won’t have the medical tech that we need. Figuring out how to board the space habitats might be our best shot.”
To be continued…