Castaway Resolution – Chapter 21

Chapter 21.

“No offense,” a sleepy-eyed Portmaster Ventrella said, cradling his coffee in his hands like a precious jewel, “but this had better be very good, Sue.”

“You know I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for anything that wasn’t,” Sue said. Then her conscience poked her, and she said reluctantly, “Well, it’s not life-or-death. . . not directly now, I think, but. . .”

The Portmaster sighed and gave a weary grin. “Ehh. You’ve got me up, let’s talk about it. I’ll decide whether I’m docking your pay or something later. Has to do with our most recent survivors of shipwreck, eh?”

“Indirectly. It started with Jennifer Buckley mentioning something that sounded very odd, and so I went to check it out. She said that their onboard astronomer was concerned about an ‘extra star’.”

“What did she mean by that?” Ventrella took a sip of coffee, looking slightly more awake and certainly intrigued.

“Literally that — a star in the sky they could see that wasn’t on the charts.”

He frowned. “Well. . . we’re fifty light-years from Earth, and the charts are almost entirely put together based on Earth data. Surely there must be some stars in our skies that aren’t visible from Earth.”

Sue shook her head. “Not. . . really. Modern telescopes, especially the wide-baseline scopes that turn large chunks of a solar system into a telescope with an effective mirror diameter of millions upon millions of kilometers, can spot even brown dwarfs at ridiculous distances. Oh, there’s stars we humans see in the sky that we wouldn’t be able to see with our naked eyes from Earth, but there’s pretty much nothing in our sky that some Earth-system telescope didn’t spot decades back.”

Portmaster Ventrella scratched his beard and then nodded. “And this star. . .?”

“. . . would be a problem even from the naked eye point of view. They said it was the brightest thing in the sky, and that Alia estimated it was a fraction of a light-year away from them. A G-type star like the Sun, or Orado’s own star.”

“Oh. Oh, my. We can spot the Sun — not easily, but with good viewing — with the naked eye from here. And you say this mystery star is, what, about ten light-years from here?” He obviously remembered the distance that Outward Initiative had been when disaster struck. “So it should be easily visible to us, then.”

“Once I looked, yes. It’s about a magnitude 2.26, but mostly visible from the non-settled hemisphere of Orado. Nothing extraordinary about it — there’s plenty brighter — so it didn’t really call attention to itself. I’m still surprised it didn’t get flagged by any astronomers, but that’s a mystery for later.”

“But that means that Earth should have seen it easily. It should have been in the naked-eye catalogs. Yes?”

“It should. But it wasn’t. And I’ve checked actual images of that area of the sky from Earth. This star does not show up.”

There was no trace of sleepiness in Michael Ventrella’s eyes now. “But we can see it.”


He regarded her for a moment. “All right, give me the rest.”

Sue laughed with an embarrassed edge. “You do know me, I guess.”

“You wouldn’t have come here with just that, strange though it is. So. . .?”

“So I slightly abused my authority and hijacked a few minutes from the Orado Wide Baseline to take a quick survey of that star and surroundings.” She triggered her omni to dump the key images to a display.

The Portmaster stood slowly, gaze riveted on the brilliant green-white-brown marble in front of him. “My. . . God. Is that. . .”

“A planet. In the Goldilocks Zone. Spectroscopy says positive for free oxygen in an oxy-nitro atmosphere, water, and chlorophyll.”

“My God,” he said again. “So this sometimes-invisible star has a habitable world around it?” He gave a grin that was filled with a tense disbelief. “Isn’t this the kind of thing that should have ominous background music as an accompaniment?”

Sue Fisher shrugged. “It is creepy, yes.”

The sharp eyes appraised her. “You’ve got more.”

“Well, more what I don’t have. I don’t know what’s hidden it from Earth, or whether it’s still hidden — though it probably is, the latest data from Earth I have is only about seven years old and it still doesn’t show this star. But we also are still missing two lifeboats.”

Ventrella stared at her. “You cannot be serious. Why in the name of all that’s holy would any of them have headed for some unknown star when Orado was only ten lightyears off? Isn’t it much more likely that, for whatever reason, they just didn’t make it here? After all, LS-42 barely did.”

“I know, Portmaster. I have no idea why they might go towards a different, unknown star. Well, one, perhaps, in the case of LS-5; they had limited consumables and one of their passengers was a Bemmie who simply wouldn’t survive a long trip without appropriate water treatments that they couldn’t give inside the craft, and that family had a particular connection with that Bemmie. That would still seem crazy to me, but then, I know all sorts of things the passengers of those two shuttles might not have.

“And yes, of course it’s much more likely that they simply didn’t make it — died minutes or hours or maybe weeks after most of their systems went down and they just couldn’t make enough of it work to get home on.” She drew in a breath. “But maybe. . . just maybe. . . they didn’t.”

“I can’t authorize a faster-than-light jaunt on ‘just maybe’, and for something like that, you’ll want something like. . .” his eyes narrowed, then a grin flashed out. “Oh, clever.”

“I thought you’d like it.”

“You want to send a survey team there, ostensibly to examine this impossible new system and see if they can find out anything unique that might explain why it’s been apparently invisible for centuries, but also because a survey team’s going to have the best chance of finding any trace of castaways.”

She nodded.

“Well. . . that is a thought. And I suppose you want to go with the survey group.”

“Technically it could still be a search-and-rescue. Though I’d be the only person who officially knows that.”

“Hmph.” He couldn’t hide the smile that remained behind the neatly-trimmed beard and mustache. “I will. . . consider it. You’ve got a decent case. I’ll see if there’s the right personnel for this wild-lifeboat hunt, and the resources to support it.”

“It might be possible to –”

“Officer Fisher, don’t say any more. Let me look at the possibilities and figure things out on this end on my own.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ventrella gave her another smile, though a small one. “I’m on your side, Sue, but even if you’re right, this isn’t a trivial expedition you’re talking about. I’m not sure we’ve got an appropriate Trapdoor-capable vessel around right now, and outfitting a new one would take months. We might have to wait that long before it’s practical.”

“All right, Portmaster,” she said, and forced herself to relax. “There’s no rush; If they made it to a livable planet and they’re still alive now, I can’t imagine a few days or even weeks make much difference.”