[22:41] Several million kilometres away from where their trajectory was supposed to deposit them, Samanta Landvik had given up all struggle to keep her curiosity at bay. She took some professional care not to fog the windows of their vessel as she pressed herself as close as the handles and her weightlessness permitted, but her attention was very much outside.
[22:42] She had spent many days trying to simply downplay the whole thing, but had fooled exactly no one – what kind of a biologist was not going to get giddy and excited for the chance to study an Earth-like planet? The surveys had suggested it almost absurdly Earth-like, even. The atmospheric composition and coarse texture of the vegetation had made a part of her question if it wasn't all some elaborate cosmic fata morgana. The resolution hadn't been fine enough to see what the fauna was like – but definitely fine enough to prove that there was some. Definitely fine enough to prove that they needed more than a biologist, too. There were cities. Sadly even with relays to bend the communication past the sun, they hadn't established any long-range communication.
It had all the trappings of a terrible idea, but good luck getting mankind to stand down. The current plan was to land but stay respectfully away from the obvious settlements at first and only ease into a 'first contact' with the potential sapients once they understood the ecosystem and its evolutionary pressures and history better. First investigation would likely defer to her and Jason.
"If this is all a dream, which one of us is dreaming it?" she asked, not taking her eyes off the marbelled globe.
[22:49] Jason was middle-height, a touch shy of 168 cm, with what can only be described as 'average' appearance. Brown hair, hazel eyes, fit enough. He'd been selected not for his combat prowess per se (funny but he was average there, too), but for his light scientific background and a psychiatric profile that indicated he could get along with diverse crewmates who might be more prima donna. "I think I'll go with you," his baritone rang out. "My imagination never came up with anything like this... ever." He caught a glimpse of the spinning sphere beyond her shoulder, as she was nearly entirely blocking the view with her excitement. "If it was ME imagining it, I'd shudder to think of what that could entail." His mouth curved upwards, still watching her more than the world beyond.
"Besides, you've enough imagination for both of us."
[23:05] And what a quiet excitement it was – an excitement purely of tension and attention. If one were not looking straight at her, one might miss it.
And yet, a part of her was still bothered by how reckless this all seemed. Why a manned mission? Why not just a rover? But politics had won this particular battle. Mankind had wanted something that had the best possible chances of communicating their peaceful intentions should said intentions ever be questioned – and while it wasn't in the official explanation, Jason insisted their ability to leg it with precision and fervour was also a factor. Certainly, most of this could be automated, but the trick – so the ESA had insisted to Samanta, at least – lay in the subleties.
Either way, it was their problem now. Once their vessel eased into orbit, it was up to them to pick a landing site for the shuttle they carried and would soon carry them.
"I'm not sure my imagination is any tamer than yours," she admitted, still transfixed by the planet. "Do you think we should trust our eyes on this? Everything I know about this world so far makes me think it's too much like Earth. It feels almost like an elaborate illusion. I don't know how much I should trust my senses. It's eerie." A pause. "What are you imagining?" A different curiosity peels her gaze away from the window and across to Jason.
[23:16] He caught her gaze and looked into her eyes for a long moment before finally looking back out the now-vacated window. "My imagination tends to not be that good of a place to hang around in. Yours is a much prettier place to be." A brief flash of explosive death from a rather vivid nightmare during a recent sleep cycle filled his eyes, quickly suppressed and pushed forcefully into the dark box in the shadowy recesses in the corner of his mind. It occasionally let out forlorn moans and tiny, sad-sounding explosions like dud fireworks. Perhaps his imagination was more robust than he let on. "I'm sure it'll turn out to be a gift, not Pandora's box. Look out there... we've seen no indications of hostile intent, or anything that would indicate this was anything other than a peaceful approach. And I'm very hopeful we'll have a nice, excitingly..." He paused to grasp the exact word he wanted to out of the air, a tiny hand gesture closing around it as he did so. "...excitingly scientific experience."
[23:27] "You're evading again," she pointed out, expelling all of her mild annoyance in one sigh and fleeting look of concern. "Your imagination can't be too terrible or you wouldn't be up here with us," she reasoned, even as she let her gaze drift back to the mysterious planet and let the matter drop. For a moment, she seemed distant again, squinting at the outlines of the continents she could make out from here. "Do you think we have any chance of finding clues as to what brought it here?"
[23:41] He managed to suppress a relieved sigh that she had moved on, holding the relief in his eyes until she'd turned away. "I think it's a virtual certainty. The opportunity to set foot on a foreign world and explore it in detail is not one that will be squandered." He pushed off the handle and floated over next to her, fetching up beside her with his back against the wall, now sharing a handle with her to brace himself. "Geology, geography, biology, it'll all point to the origin of this wonderous place."
[23:53] "But not necessarily what made it appear," she stressed, though her words were a whisper. "Nor where it came from."
But as soon as those last handful of words left her mouth, she realised they were in error – the composition of the ground could tell them a lot about the kind of star the planet had previously orbited, and the evolutionary clues they unearthed much about its orbit and axial tilt. If those signs did not lead credence toward the colloquially designated "Twin Earth" theory, wherein the planet had been jostled into appearance next to Earth from a "parallel universe" (the term equally colloquial), they would hardly be able to tell them exactly which of the pinpricks of light off in the distance had once been a home to this world, but especially once they spoke to the natives they could probably rule out a few candidates.
Spoke to the natives. So many assumptions in one sentence: Informative interaction, audioverbal communication, natives. Whatever sapients they encountered on this planet did not need to be strictly native at all.
[21:46] "Well, granted." He shifted slightly, gaze wandering from her to the panel behind her. A slight reflection, he realized, could be seen in the reflective display surface, giving him a decent, if dark, picture of the orb through the window. Metaphor, he churckled internally, for the mission ahead. "But that's a mystery to be explored. We may never have ALL the answers, but I'll bet we'll have
many of the most important ones."
[22:11] "I'd say coherent cosmology ranks high on the list," Samanta countered, although without any vehemence. Her lips pressed to a thin line for a moment's contemplation, wrestling with the impossible seeming knowns and the equally impossible seeming unknowns. No doubt things would look different once they were actually down on the ground and all these loose ends would gradually tie themselves up.
[22:12] Privately, she held fast to her earlier musings: If this is a dream, which one of us is dreaming it? And when would they wake up?
"At any rate," she mused, finally pushing herself away from the window and into a drift, having determined that the image of the approaching planet was only making her confusion about the situation worse. "In a few hours we'll be in a stable orbit. Give it another two days before we're prepared to head down. It is now..." – she flicked her gaze down from the window to her wrist-watch – "...nineteen hundred hours back at mission control. Let's see if the others have more than my existential ruminations for our nineteen-thirty check-in." With the detour over the proxy, there was an approximately twenty minute delay to any message, making punctuality an awkward matter.
[22:20] "Perhaps, but we've been mostly SENDING data, not receiving new information as of late. Something about us being millions of kilometers closer, I'd guess." He pushed off behind her, carefully timing his launch to ensure she had time to clear the portal before he entered it. "Dolph's been filling my ear with his theories, including the one on wormhole alternate universe mass transfer that he was hot on even before we left Earth. Does any of that make sense to you? Or is he talking out his alternative orifice?"
[22:47] She stifled an urge to quip nothing makes sense to me about this entire situation even in practise. Her right hand came up, running fingertips across her forehead, even as she steadied her drifting with an outstretched left arm. "The sticking point with that theory, even if you assume the physics of it is sound, is why this is the first spatial anomaly we've ever come across." A pause. "Before you say it, no, Tabby's star does not count as a spatial anomaly."
[22:53] Jason's expression looked almost wounded, though whether she had anticipated and headed off his first argument or he felt that she was insulting his intelligence was not immediately clear. "Perhaps that why he is so excited about the theory... it relies on discovering new science, things that would fundamentally transform our understanding of universe. Einstein-killing stuff."
[23:04] "The appearance of the planet itself is already Einstein-killing stuff," Samanta commented. "That's a lot of mass to appear out of nowhere. Where did it get its initial momentum? If its abrupt appearance is because it travelled at tachyonic speeds, it would have obliterated Earth in the shockwave of accumulated superheated space debris; for that matter, we would be seeing a copy of it travel back to from where it came. That's what I mean when I call cosmology important. Our old one's already in shards."
[23:42] Jason fetched to a halt with one hand on a handle to arrest his momentum. He waved his hand once over the top of his head, skimming his hair and sending it flying in the zero G before it settled into some semblance of order. "I think I get it, but its way over my head in the details. Summary, he's probably not onto a workable theory?" His tone was hopeful that he was on track.
[00:07] "No," she sighed. "I'm not saying that. Or rather, I am saying that – I'd like some more Occam's Razor applied, it's more convoluted than it needs to be. But in principle I'm open to anything that starts positing another macroscopic dimension. So far we've always assumed the curvature of the universe is intrinsic – and wormholes as shortcuts don't make a whole lot of sense in that model." A pause. "I don't think." Such were the perils of only being approximately one intense crash course of physics and astronomy ahead of pop science and personal interest.
[00:08] From elsewhere, muffled by the corners: "Samanta? Jason? Are you two coming?"
"I guess that answers my earlier question," Samanta sighed as she resumed her coasting. "Let's hear what they're sending with our names on it."
[00:43] Jason nodded. "Yeah, let's get in there. Want to bet who has the longer list of To Do items today?" He grinned as they floated through to the next room, though his lips quickly faded to a grimace. "I guess I have yet MORE reading to do to get some idea of what's going on with this," he murmured forlornly.