So Rachel and Clay separated their Ghosts (to a distance of a few hundred meters) and charted a course to the third largest of Gliese 581f’s turquoise moons. They landed in a broad crater, clamped down, and stepped out onto glass-flat ice, the panoply of the galaxy streaming across the sky above them.
“I’m trying to decide,” said Clay, “if the constellations are starting to look familiar.”
“I think the Big Dipper’s coming into focus a bit,” said Rachel. “Isn’t that it? No. Wait.” She used her gloved finger on the outside of her visor to do the poking and sliding, and then announced, as Clay continued to inspect the blue-green ice, “No, it’s over there.” She pointed. There was indeed a scraggly line of stars, but Clay couldn’t tell if that was what she was pointing at.
“Well,” he said after a moment, “the Milky Way is pretty obvious at least.”
“It is,” said Rachel. They marveled at it: a spill of milk across the sky that would never be cleaned up. “Okay,” she said, “what about this planet we have here?”
They gazed in the direction of d. Clay ran a glove over the back of his helmeted head as if he were smoothing back his hair. “It’s not as good a situation as Bluehorse-3,” he said. “Ice caps cover 90% of the surface. The area covered by usable land is under 5%. Colony appears to cover maybe 1/10 of 1%, no, wait, way less than that. The atmosphere is very light. I’m picking up some natural poisons, not high level, but I’d say they haven’t cleaned up the air for their use completely.”
“I got 7% oxygen,” said Rachel. “And 12% CO2. Check it out. They have a bubble.”
They both poked and slid on the outside of their visors. “You know what,” said Clay, “you are right again, Commander.”
“Don’t call me that. That’s an order.”
“Okay. They have a system of bubbles. They’re supporting themselves under the bubble, rather than remediate their atmosphere. What’s that say?”
“It says they can’t have more than ten or twenty thousand population,” replied Rachel. “If these really are the Venture Project, they’ve been here since 2352, less than twenty years after we left Earth. They’ve been here for two hundred years.” They gazed on the distant Planet d. “It seems weird, doesn’t it? Standing here looking at the colony. They presumably have no idea we’re here. It’s like we’re the alien invaders. Spaceships appearing in the sky.” She laughed. “We come in peace, fellas. We’re just stopping by for a little visit.”
“The thing is,” said Clay, rubbing his helmet again, “I’m not that anxious to go knock on the door, are you?”
“No, actually,” said Rachel. “But it’s not like we have a choice. So?”
“So do we buzz right in, or do we maybe land on some rock somewhere very close by? There’s a co-orbital asteroid, it looks easy. It’s twenty km by twelve by ten, it can’t have much gravity.”
“But it’s what, twenty million kilometers from the planet? How much more can we learn there that we can’t see from here? I mean, if d had a moon, that would put us within a million, maybe within a hundred thousand, but twenty million isn’t much of an improvement in resolution.”
“I guess I was just approaching it as gingerly as possible,” said Clay.
“Of course we communicate with the ground,” said Rachel. “It’s entirely possible they’ll still have that much technology.”
“On balance,” said Clay, “it’s probably best to give them a call ahead. Seems unlikely they’d crank up their anti-spacecraft lasers.”
They stood a moment longer. Rachel said, “Why ‘phasers’? Why did they call the guns on Star Trek phasers? Did they put things out of phase?”
“No idea,” said Clay, as they stood and marveled at the beauty of the universe and the colony before them.