Whenever Gantoorn’s double moons rose above its craggy horizon, the view from the planet’s South West Observatory was deeply moving. Chief Astronomer Jantraz paused, as he did each day around early evening, to bounce on his bulbous toes and contemplate the meaning of the universe.
Of course, for an accomplished astronomer, the absence of evidence for the existence of “meaning" was overwhelming. Yet, when confronted with the beauty of Nature on such a large scale, Jantraz was tempted to question the principles of scientific inquiry.
“Lovely,” he whispered into the Observatory’s silent halls.
But it was time to get back to work. The approaching object wasn’t going to analyze itself. On his way back to the Screen Room, Jantraz reviewed the possibilities he’d ruled out so far on a handheld device.
Though humanoid, Jantraz looked nothing like an Earthling. His nearly spherical torso dwarfed his thick, sturdy legs, which ended in spongy five-toed feet. His broad shoulders were jammed under a stubby neck, while his bony arms tapered to elongated fingers.
And that’s leaving aside the eerie sheen of his copper-colored skin, stretched tight over a multifaceted skull. As always, Jantraz was swathed in robes of a flexible metallized polymer foil.
“Anything new?” he called out to his team.
A smile snaked across his lips, as five startled research assistants snapped to attention, including the most promising, a young female named Gelantrik.
“A transmission,” she said. “So far we can’t decipher it.”
“Stop wasting time!” Jantraz growled. “Pipe it over to Linguistics and get back to your mass and density analysis!”
“Uh, Sir?” said Gelantrik. “We kind of think the data set is complete.”
“Kind of think,” said Jantraz. “Very scientific. Would you like to rephrase that?”
Gelantrik blushed deep and called the rest of the team over to her workstation. Jantraz was impressed. The object was not a natural phenomenon, but a ship.
“Size, speed, trajectory,” he demanded.
“Until a voar ago, the ship approached in discrete leaps, as if popping in and out of normal space.” said Gelantrik. “Now, its speed matches standard computer models for particle drives.”
“Plausible,” said Jantraz. “Their proximity to our sun would complicate the gravitational calculations necessary for hyperspatial travel.”
“But Director Jantraz,” said Gelantrik, “hyperspatial travel for exists only in theory.”
“Not to them,” said Jantraz. “Now, where are they heading?”
“Current trajectory suggests Gantoorn Central Spaceport,” another team member piped up. “Arrival time, 45 drevoars.”
“Well then,” said Jantraz, “let’s go. I want to meet our visitors before the WorldCouncil gets to them.”
“But Sir,” said Gelantrik, “won’t the fleet already be there? We’re not the only observatory on Gantoorn.”
Jantraz’ globular center shook with a gentle laugh.
“Who do you think assigns astronomical research and observatory time for the WorldCouncil?” he asked.
“You, of course,” said his assistant.
“Exactly. Every other observatory answers to me,” said Jantraz, “And this sector of space is my pet project. So unless you’ve been comlinking Admiral Prelvac, the military has no idea our visitors are nearly here.”
“But won’t the spaceport report the unknown ship … to someone?” asked Gelantrik.
“Gantoorn Central handles a dozen ships an hour,” said Jantraz. “And I assume anyone capable of hyperspatial travel could easily create a fake ID signal. Right?”
Despite her queasy stomach, Gelantrik nodded.
“Come on, then,” said her supervisor. “The rest of you, pack up the data stream for presentation. And make it air-tight. I don’t want Prelvac’s team claiming credit just for correcting our math!”
The Chief Astronomer and his research associate took an elevator to the street, hailed an autocab and zoomed down to Gantoorn Central Spaceport.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Gelantrik, “how did you pick our research area?”
“You really must keep up with the holojournals,” said Jantraz. He explained that the approaching spacecraft followed the same trajectory as a series of recently received transmissions from deep space. Stranger still, the language of the transmissions resembled an ancient dialect of Gantoorni.
“But … that’s crazy,” said Gelantrik. “We’ve only been space-worthy for 450 cycles.”
“Puzzling, isn’t it?” said Jantraz. “Yet the transmissions assert we were brought to this world in a primitive state of social and technological development — as part of an experiment.”
Gelantrik brushed a strand of bright orange hair off her high forehead.
“And now?” she asked. “What do they want with us?”
“Hard to tell,” said Jantraz. “Their last message was garbled … something about a dangerous device.”
“A weapon?” asked Gelantrik.
“Unknown,” said Jantraz. “What do you make of the phrase ‘time machine’?”
(To be continued)
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