“It was a big mission to an unknown destination. My guess is that some of this data was generated during simulations,” said Malachi.
He pointed at some other entries further down the screen where the numbers were only seconds apart. “You see here how the entries become more frequent? This must be the final sequence, and this line here is the moment of the jump itself.”
“How can you be sure?” Tila asked cautiously as she peered closer. This was her history. If what Malachi was telling her was correct she was looking at a record of the day her parents died. It was strange to think that such a traumatic event could be recorded so dispassionately in just a few lines of code.
“After they jump nothing happens for a long time. The next entry doesn’t appear until about four months later.”
“Why so long?” asked Ellie.
“I don’t know. The colonists would have had to wait at least a couple of weeks before making a return jump so they could gather accurate data about the new system, data they would need for a new point of origin calculation, but in theory a return journey would be much easier to calculate because they would have solid data on both sides of the equation. Four months is a long time, though.”
“That’s why everyone thought the Far Horizon was lost forever,” Tila said. “They assumed that if it survived the jump it would have sent back a ship as soon as possible.”
Ellie nodded, then said, “You know we are still talking about this ship as if it is the one Tila was looking for, right?”
Malachi looked at Tila. “Well, I think it is.”
Tila pushed away from the desk and paced back and forth around the workshop. “Okay, so we know, we think, this is from the Far Horizon. That means the jump worked…” she paused. “Wait, do we know if everyone on board survived?”
“We don’t have any reason to think otherwise. This hauler survived so the colony ship must have arrived safely. Besides, someone had to fly this ship back.”
“Right. That makes sense.” She resumed her pacing. “So we know they made it, and we know this ship came back. So where is everyone else? It’s been twelve years. This can’t be the only return journey.”
“Did they return to the same system?” said Ellie.
Malachi shook his head. “That’s something I don’t know. Jump coordinates are encrypted to prevent jump-jacking. I can’t reverse the hashed data to work out where they went.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ellie.
Malachi tapped the controls and the display changed. The first column of timecode data was joined by two meaningless sequences of letters and numbers. He pointed at this new data. “This first column is the same timecode data as before from the day of the jump, but now it’s only showing the entries for completed jumps. This second column is the point of origin. The third column is the destination. We know the colony mission left from Selah so that means that this first line of hashed coordinates must be for that star. We also know their destination, so the first entry of the third column must be for Baru. Now, the second row of data is the return journey, four months later. See how the data in the second column matches the first line in the third column? That’s how I know it left from Baru. But the last entry could be anything.”
“Why?” pressed Tila.
“Because there are five stars in range of Baru. Selah, Berendal, Jenova, Praxis and Avion. All I know for sure is that the ships didn’t return to Selah or I would have a hash match. It has to be one of the other four, but it’s impossible to know which one.”
“Can’t you get logs from other ships that have been to those systems and compare them?” said Ellie.
“That’s a really good idea, Ellie, but it’s not that easy. These hashes are a combination of point of origin and point of destination. This is the only ship we know which has made a journey to and from Baru so there’s nothing I can look up.”
Ellie smiled at Malachi’s praise.
Why can’t any of this be simple? Tila thought, growing frustrated again. One minute it was good news, the next bad.
“But they must have brought back the survivors to one of those systems,” said Ellie. “So, which one would be most likely?”
“Praxis has no inhabited planets, I think?” Tila said.
“It used to. It had asteroid mines years ago, but then there was that big battle during the war. I don’t think anyone lives there now,” said Malachi.
“That still leaves three systems,” said Tila.
“But three of the most heavily populated systems in the Commonwealth. That’s thousands of ships, and billions of people across nine planets.”
“But it should be easy to find anyone that came back,” said Ellie.
“So why has no one ever heard from them?” Malachi said.
None of them had an answer to this.
Unless they’re hiding, thought Tila.
“I found one more thing in the data,” he continued. “I don’t think it helps us much, but it’s, well, odd.” The screen changed again to display a complex equation that looked like even more incomprehensible figures and symbols to the girls.
“What’s that?” said Tila. Ellie just made a face.
Malachi tapped the screen to draw their attention to one part of the equation. “This is the jump calculation, and this variable here represents the ship’s mass. On the return journey, it’s way higher than it should be.”
“Compared to what?” said Ellie.
“The outbound jump.”
“More people?” said Tila.
Ellie peered at the nonsense on the screen, impressed that anyone could understand it.
Malachi shook his head. “No, it’s something else. Even if it was full of people the mass reading wouldn’t be this high. It’s something heavy, though.”
“Well you said it was a cargo ship,” said Ellie. “Maybe it was cargo.”
“But what cargo? And where did it go? Those haulers are for shifting things within their local system. That’s why they don’t have jump engines. And what would they bring back? The colonists would need to keep anything they find to help make the mission work.”
“You’re giving me more questions than answers,” complained Tila. “You’ve already told me this ship is from the colony mission. That’s what I wanted to know. But all this…” she waved a hand at the screen, “this doesn’t tell me what happened. It doesn’t tell me where my father is.”
“I know,” Malachi agreed. “It’s messy and confusing. But something else is bothering me.”
Tila sighed. “What else?”
“Forget everything we’ve learned so far. We know the Far Horizon survived its journey and at least one ship has returned, but no one’s ever heard of it. The only reason we know is because we found a ship with one chip which had been overlooked when everything else had been removed. And this ship was buried deep when most ships are integrated at the surface.”
“You think someone hid the ship here?” said Ellie.
“But why?” said Tila.
“That’s the real question, isn’t it? I can only think of one reason.”
Malachi took a deep breath and answered his own question. “When that colony mission failed, I don’t think it was an accident.”