“A ship! A ship!” cried Joseph. It was centuries ago since “Love Island” had been on TV but the news of a ship returning to the solar system always excited him.
“Do we know which one this is?” asked Saffron.
“Early signs are that it is the Fireheart. It left us in 2056 on a voyage to Canus 6. If they were successful they would have been exploring that system for a couple of years. Their crew would have aged 26 years over the total of their journey”
“This will be our most severe challenge yet. What do we know about their relativity briefing?” asked Saffron.
“They were told to expect a time discontinuity of the order of decades – not the three and a half centuries that have passed since they embarked.”
“What was happening on Earth in 2150?”
“It had just emerged from the protein crisis through the development of biogen gluctose, the weather modification systems had been abandoned as a failure but the moon mine disaster hadn’t happened yet.”
“We had better start preparing for their arrival. Have the reunion contact messages sent to the Fireheart and prepare the holoprojectors to show them Earth as it looked around the mid twenty second century.”
Later crews had been easier to deal with. They knew more about how the Earth was changing but the crew of a ship from mid twenty first century would have no idea just how much had changed. They were going to require special treatment. The phrase, “let them down gently” would hardly cover it.
“They are really excited to be almost home,” said Joseph, “and their stories about Canus 6 are amazing.”
“Yes – if I had developed Slider Tech sooner then they wouldn’t have had to go the long way round. I hope their paths didn’t cross with any of my slider ships'. That kind of disappointment on top of what we need to reveal to them would be too much. But I guess the fact that they took the slow road home means that they didn’t encounter any of our slider ships out there. The slider crews had been briefed to avoid contact with the relativist journeymen but it might not always be possible.”
Saffron was musing to herself as much as to Joseph. “Can you tell what sort of a welcome they are expecting?” she asked.
“They were the first of the long distance crews ever to be sent on relativistic exploration and their first questions were about their own families of course. They know not to expect any living relatives but their descendants …”
“Long gone, I’m afraid,” interrupted Saffron, “their families died out long before the flare-up.”
“Should I start the debrief sequence with that?” Joseph asked.
“Yes. But let them get closer first. It’ll be less painful for them if they are at least in the inner reaches of their home system. Would you say they felt their mission to Canus 6 was successful?” she asked.
“They were full of stories about how beautiful the twin inhabitable planets of Canus were. The lifeforms that they found there sounded quite beguiling. They even left several of their crew behind. It seems they couldn’t be persuaded to come home,” replied Joseph.
“We could String Slide them back out to Canus 6 – how close could we return them to the time of their departure?” asked Saffron.
“With the right choice of string we could get them close enough to make it look like they turned around after only a couple of years.”
“Then that should be our aim. There is nothing for them here.”
The crew of the Fireheart were first told of the demise of their families and their descendants in the protein crisis that followed the collapse of the marine environment. They were reasonably well prepared for this news as a result of their pre-voyage briefings and the doom-laden environmental situation of 2056 Earth explained the food shortages, indeed, they were part of the justification for the trip to Canus 6 in the first place.
Initially, when they were told about the true time discrepancy, they were excited and wanted to find out about the developments that there had been in the intervening years and so Joseph and Saffron gradually filled them in. Eventually, though, the crew started to ask about more recent events; or, rather, the apparent lack of them.
Saffron decided to keep her discovery of string tech (and the way that she was harnessing it to enable near-instantaneous travel to distant parts of the universe) back until after the crew of the Fireheart had been told about the flare-up.
In the Milky Way’s neighbour galaxy, Andromeda, a previously insignificant star went super-nova and unleashed a massive burst of gamma rays that bathed everything in its direct line of sight with a sterilising shower of radiation that spelled death to all organic life.
The twin AIs of Joseph and Saffron remained in orbit around Earth. They had been put there to provide early warning of and to greet returning relativistic spacecraft that had been sent on the long voyages to seemingly interesting planetary systems in their region of the galaxy’s arm. It had been decided that a sentinel should be set up to await the return of the relativistic voyagers and to prepare them for the shock of returning to what would appear to them to be a far-future time. Whilst she was waiting, Saffron worked out the principles of String Tech all by herself and used the orbiting machinery at her disposal to construct what she called String Slider ships. These, she had calculated, would harness String Theory to provide a wonderful way to cross vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye.
Joseph and Saffron kept to their ‘meet and greet’ task but they had the additional responsibility of informing the returners that life on Earth had been eradicated by the neighbour nova. Not all life had been killed as the first waves of radiation washed through our solar system but that which wasn’t killed initially had died out within a decade or two. There simply wasn’t enough of a biosphere left for anyone or anything to get it going again in a way that would support large mammals. Given enough time – geological time – then life would re-colonise again but the returners were not due in geological time.
The crew of the Fireheart took the news stoically. They agreed that it would be best if they took one of Saffron’s String Slider craft back to Canus 6 to re-join their crew-mates. Joseph arranged this for them.
After the crew of the Fireheart were projected down the string back to Canus 6, Joseph and Saffron returned to their vigil.
“How many more have yet to return, Joseph?” asked Saffron.
“If all missions are successful, then there should be another six hundred and thirty eight.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“I think that we should work on the problem of trying to find out why none of the String Slider ships have ever bothered to return.”
“Yes. I agree that does seem odd. I am sure of my calculations but, for all we know, String Sliding might not work at all – it could just be a one way ticket into oblivion.”