It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Riss and her crew. What’s going on with Riss’s Rock, and their reactions to it? (and each other?)
Back in the command center, the four resumed their positions as if still on an asteroid hunt. Only this time, they were hunting for something else.
“Right,” Riss said. “Let’s find out where this came from. Coop, run a comparison analysis with some other extrasolar object. Like Phoebe.”
“Yes. That’s supposed to have originally come from the Kuiper Belt. A centaur captured by Saturn’s gravity well.”
“All right, I’ll give it a shot.”
Riss waited silently as the computer ran the analysis.
“No,” Cooper finally said with a tone of resignation. “There isn’t enough data to make a meaningful comparison. At least, that’s what the results indicate.”
“So it’s not a centaur?” Riss said, surprised.
“I can check it against our information on Chiron and Enceladus.”
“I thought Chiron was a dwarf planet, not a centaur.”
“Debatable. But anyway…”
“OK,” Riss said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re the geologist.”
She turned over her shoulder. “Enoch. Pull up that trajectory chart again.”
The 3D image hung in the space between the captain’s chair and the navigation consoles. Riss ticked her tongue as she gazed at the chart.
“I don’t see…ah, there.” She pointed. “We didn’t follow the origin line.”
“Yeah,” Sanvi said. “We were only interested in where it was going, not where it came from. We just figured – ”
“- just figured it was a centaur,” Riss concluded. She sat down in her chair and ran her fingertips over the console. “Let’s hypothesize.”
In a few moments, her best guesses appeared in an updated version of the chart. A thin blue line emerged from behind the red trajectory line and extended well away from the original chart.
“Computer, zoom out,” Riss stated. The image shrank. The red line turned into a curve. The blue line still extended out of the image.
“So it’s not a Kuiper Belt object?” Brady said.
“Oort?” Sanvi wondered aloud.
“Computer, zoom out again,” Riss ordered. “Maximum.”
The red curve became an elongated oval. The blue line remained a line. Riss was stunned.
“Coop, is this what…what I think it means?”
The geologist’s fingers flew across his pads. He switched pads and checked again.
“ES-71107 is extrasolar, all right,” he confirmed. He put the pad down slowly and looked up. “It’s from outside our solar system entirely.”
“But it was so large!” Sanvi protested. “When A/2017 skipped through, it was tiny.”
“Yes,” Riss said. “I remember reading about that during training. It was fast, too.”
“Like a pebble skipped on an ocean,” Enoch put in, mimicking with a gesture. “Scooooon.”
“Weren’t there a couple of other planetoids that people thought might be extrasolar?” Cooper asked.
They turned to him.
“Hey, I’m into rocks,” he said, shrugging. “I just don’t know the history.”
Sanvi snorted. “So much for the ‘astro’ part of ‘astrogeologist.’”
“No, no,” Enoch said, jumping into the discussion. “I think Coop is on to something.”
He looked back and forth between consoles, searching. “Ah. Here it is.”
An image of Jupiter and its moons appeared behind him, next to Riss’s chair. It began slowly rotate. More objects appeared in Jupiter’s orbit, some trailing and some preceding.
“Jupiter has a lot of Trojans,” Enoch said. His hands continued to move over his console. “Over 6,000, actually. But this one…BZ509…it isn’t a Trojan. And it goes around the Sun the wrong way.”
“The wrong way…” Cooper said. “Retrograde orbit. So…”
“That means it’s probably from outside the solar system,” Riss said. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Enoch affirmed. “But also probably billions of years ago. Just happened to get snagged by Jupiter’s gravity well.”
“But can’t Centaurs also be from outside the solar system?” Sanvi asked. “They rotate around the Sun, right? So what makes Riss’s Rock so special?”
“You mean, isn’t it just another Centaur, like we thought?” Cooper asked in return. He fiddled with his pads again. “Enoch, can you expand the Centaur’s…I mean, Riss’s Rock’s trajectory? Even further. And superimpose Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune’s orbits for scale.”
Enoch nodded. “I’ll give it a try.”
The rotating model of Jupiter and its Trojans seemed to shrink. Saturn appeared with its moons. Neptune and its oddly tilted ring. The rock appeared, its blue line trajectory once again trailing out into space.
“Maximizing,” Enoch said softly.
The three gas giants shrank. The Kuiper Belt appeared. Still the blue line stretched into the beyond.
“Inputting hypothetical location of the Oort boundaries.”
The model shrank even further. Jupiter was a tiny spec. The Oort appeared like a cloudy, partially transparent globe. The blue line began to curve, ever so slightly.
“Enoch,” Riss said. “Can you get us an image of the heliopause?”
“Not sure. The old records from the Voyagers only recorded the termination shock boundary. But I’ll see.”
The planets completely disappeared from view, and the solar system now appeared as a series of elongated bubbles. Just outside the front of the bubbles lay a wide ribbon of fuzzy orange.
“Is the bow shock really that color?” Cooper said, eyes wide.
“Um. No idea,” Enoch said, slightly embarrassed. “Nobody’s ever been out that far, and the only info was in black and white so I borrowed the color from a vid game.”
Sanvi started to laugh, but Riss pointed at the image. “Look at the trajectory.”
The blue line clearly extended through the heliopause. The opposite side from the bow shock. But the line ended once it left the bubble.
“Enoch, can we extrapolate a starting point? Based on the current vectors.”
He grumbled but set to work. “I need Sanvi.”
She stopped laughing. Paused, and raised an eyebrow. Cooper turned slightly red.
“Ah, I mean, Sanvi’s better at the calcs than me,” Enoch stuttered. “That’s all I meant.”
Riss smiled and raised a finger to her lips. She should pay more attention to her crew, she thought. Something had happened that she hadn’t caught before.
“Right,” Sanvi replied coolly, swivelling back to her console. “Let’s just see…ah. Enoch, on your console now.”
“Got it.” After another moment, the holographic image of the solar system drastically shrank. The trajectory line arced. The arm of the Milky Way containing Earth flickered, and then that also shrank. Another cloud came into focus. The blue line began to trace a vague oval.
“This is just a best guess, you know,” Enoch warned, fiddling more with his console. “There’s a whole lot of empty space between us and…wherever this came from.”
“Why is the trajectory showing up as an orbit?” Riss asked. “There seems little chance it’d be a frequent visitor.”
“That’s the way the program works,” Sanvi said. She tapped her console to confirm. “Comp’s just not able to track normal astronomical events. We’re hunters, after all.”
The holograph slowed its transformation. The Milky Way on one side. Satellite galaxies and clusters surrounding it in the local neighborhood. The blue line entered a cloud and came out the other side, tracing its path across deep space.
“I should have guessed,” Enoch said softly.
Riss glanced at him. The navigator had turned pale and seemed to shake. She had never seen him act this way.
“Feet of Canopus,” Cooper whispered. “Al-Sufi was right.”
She turned to him. He also looked pale, if that were possible. To Sanvi. She also looked odd.
“Well, I was expecting Andromeda,” she started to quip light-heartedly. “So…”
She stopped herself. It didn’t seem to fit the mood.
Riss leaned back and crossed her arms.
“OK,” she said, “What is it?”
“The Magellanic Cloud,” Enoch replied. He touched his console, and the image zoomed on a particularly bright star. “Canopus is the second-brightest star in the Earth sky. The Magellanic Cloud shows up just beneath it, but only seen from below the equator.”
He held his right hand out as if touching the sky, then turned around to face the image.
“One finger at the north unchanging star, the thumb on the south unchanging star. Straight to morning,” he intoned. “Thus did Hawai’iloa find our land.”
He dropped his hand. “We called it Ke-alii-o-kona-i-ka-lewa. The Chief of the Southern Expanse. The Wayfinders used it to get home to Polynesia.”
Riss felt a slight chill run down her spine. What?
“In the Vedas, it is a cleanser and calmer of water,” Sanvi said, although without much conviction. She tossed her head. “Agastya. A superstition from Hinduism.”
“Wait,” Riss said. “Canopus is in the Carina constellation. That’s only 300 some odd light years from here.”
“Yeah, ‘only,’” Cooper said. “But the blue line shoots underneath that. Into the Cloud.”
“How far is the Cloud?”
Enoch checked his figures. “About 160,000 light years. Give or take.”
“And how long would it take the rock to reach us from there?”
“Well, let’s see the calcs…160,000 light years is about 10 trillion AU, and one AU about 150 million kilometres, so…”
He paused, then shook his head.
“Calcs must be off on the trajectory. It’d take about 10 million years for this thing to get to us, even assuming maximum speed.”
“And if it came from Canopus?”
Enoch glanced down. “Not even a handful of years.”
He leaned back, thinking. “The real question is, why?”
“Why what?” Cooper said. “I don’t see how any of this is relevant.”
“Sure, it’s relevant,” Riss said. “I agree with Enoch. Why did this rock suddenly appear? Was it ejected?”
“Probably,” said Sanvi. “Let’s stay rational.”
“It’s tempting, though,” Riss replied, “to think of alternatives.”
“Like whether it was intentionally sent or not.”
Enoch laughed, then stopped.
Cooper closed his eyes. He seemed to be praying. Sanvi, likewise, had assumed a meditative stance, but quickly opened her eyes and stared into the distance.
After a moment, Riss broke the spell with a clap of her hands.
“Right. Interesting intellectual exercise, but Cooper is probably right in the end.”
“Yes,” Riss said with finality. “Whoever sent it, if it was sent, or whatever it is, we’re stuck dealing with this rock now. Who knows what’ll happen once the settlers on Mars drink this water?”
“I can make a couple of good guesses,” Enoch muttered, toggling the navigation controls. “We’re picking up speed as estimated, but still a few days out.”
“Sorry, Riss. Still no way of contacting Mars or Ceres. They’re just broadcasting the same message.”
Riss sat back in the command chair, steepling her fingers. She surveyed her crew. They seemed strangely subdued, but an underlying tension lay palpable in the air. The Artemis also felt somehow tense, as if it were alive, sensing their feelings.
She pondered. Maybe it was. After what they had all apparently experienced separately, who was to stay the ship wasn’t alive in a certain sense? It was made out of the same atoms, the same subatomic particles as themselves, just in different proportions. Particles that never touched. Held in covalence and nuclear bonds by the laws of physics. Full of space, no substance.
The ship breathed. Riss breathed. What was it she was breathing? Other particles of the universe, all part of the same field. The same threads, same patterns.
“No more pings,” she said suddenly. The crew reacted slowly, almost as if they had expected her to say it. They looked at one another and nodded. The Ceres Council and any other hunters around would hone in on their location if they successfully got through anyway. No need to broadcast their whereabouts until they were close enough to contact through regular comm channels.
“Riss,” Enoch said eventually. “How will we slow down? Without a response from a catcher, I mean.”
She stood up, stretching her shoulders.
“I have a couple of ideas about that. In the meantime, who’s for some tube food? I’m famished.”
“You know,” Sanvi replied, as they all made their way to the corridor. “I have a couple of my own ideas about that, too.”
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 22: The Sagittarius (in which Gennaji faces an old friend/foe and a dilemma)