For the explorers returning to Earth from Cyan, seven and one half years have passed, but that perspective comes from twin journeys at near lightspeed. Twenty-five years have passed on Earth, and there have been changes.
Tasmeen was at the controls; Stephan stood behind her with his toes hooked under her seat. He said, “Stand by to cut. Cut!”
The torch died, weightlessness returned, and the static that had been a soft background accompaniment to their actions became understandable speech. Sort of.
“Bellig-acq. Akno ID. Bellig-acq, hype.”
Gus said, “I would have expected to understand her better than that, even after twenty-five years.”
Stephan said, “That sounded more like code.”
“Or military jargon. Roger-wilco kind of stuff.”
The message was repeated, and the tone of voice was more harsh.
“We’re still several light minutes away,” Stephan said. “Those messages were sent when our torch was still burning. Any minute they’ll figure out who we are and we’ll get a message that makes more sense.”
Sure enough, the grating, official voice now said: “Unidentified craft approaching Ganymede, are you the Darwin? If you are, acknowledge and proceed according to agreed flight plan. If you are not the Darwin, identify yourself quickly or we will assume belligerence.” The message repeated.
“Bellig-acq. Akno ID,” Tasmeen mused. “Belligerent acquisition, acknowledge identity?”
Stephan cut the gain and said, “That doesn’t sound very friendly. I wonder what happened to Ganymede Station?” He keyed the mike and spoke into it, “Ganymede Station, this is Darwin returning from Procyon system. Our trajectory is nominal for the approach we agreed upon twenty-five years ago. If you want any changes made, tell us quickly. We don’t have much delta-V to play around with. Are your ready to receive a flash synopsis of what we found?”
Stephan increased the gain again. The voice of Ganymede Station droned on while Stephan’s reply ran past it at the speed of light. Keir looked at the viewscreen, but there was nothing to see but stars. Even the sun was just a fat, bright dot in the sky.
“Darwin, Darwin. We copy your message. Do not, I repeat, do not make uncoded transmissions. Utilize protocol 7Y4B. Your old flight plan is fine. We are kicking a freighter out of her berth, but we’ll have a place cleared for you by the time you arrive. Welcome back.”
There was little welcome in the voice that said it.
“Jesus Christ, is that all they have to say?” Angrily, Stephan punched the mike key and said, “Ganymede, I will be glad to utilize protocol 7Y4B or whatever makes you happy, as soon as you tell me what the hell it is. What’s gotten into you people? Go get the NASA site administrator.”
Even as Stephan was speaking, Ganymede Station was replaced by another, more pleasant voice.
“Welcome home, Darwin. You will find the language of this year somewhat different than it was when you left. When the Dog Star returned in 2088, we found that it would be best to train comtechs in the jargon of your departure year, and that is the reason for this tape. I know you’re as full of questions as we are, so I’ll save you a time lag. No, we don’t have FTL drive yet. Relativity falls deeper into disrepute every year but no one has come up with a comprehensive theory to replace it. Yes, Dog Star, Europa, and Magellan have all returned. Dog Star found what would have been an Earth type planet, except that it has a Uranian inclination to the ecliptic. They call it Stormking, for obvious reasons . . .”
The tape cut out and the original voice returned. “Darwin, Darwin. Stand by to copy at flash, protocol 7Y4B.” Tasmeen made the connections. There was a high pitched whine as the flash transmission was fed into the computer. Then the tape resumed where it had been interrupted.
“. . . Europa and Magellan both found prime planets. We’ll fill you in on them later.
“The biggest change you will have to be ready for is that NASA no longer exists . . .”
Again the tape was interrupted by the voice of Ganymede. “Darwin, Darwin, copy this carefully. There is no NASA site administrator. You may continue transmitting in clear, but restrict yourselves to necessary navigational queries and replies. No other transmissions will be responded to.”
“. . . because after the general elections of 2103 the people of North America decided to combine all space efforts into one military organization. You are all now members of the Federated Space Service.”
Tasmeen said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”