This evening I was dining with another couple, John Wang and Adele Rothschild, both close friends of mine. They enjoyed a long-established relationship, one which pre-dated the conversion of the Endurance and the selection of the crew. I had known Adele in college, where she was thought to be studious and intense; we found we shared a certain camaraderie and I spent an increasing amount of time in her company where the contrast of her petite dark form to my own more Amazonian proportions was not lost on many of our fellows.
Adele and I lost contact after our university years, when I had thrown myself into the political confusion and turmoil which led inexorably to division and civil war. She had returned to her family in Kuala Lumpur, only later becoming convinced that the Expansionist cause was the right one. It was with some delight that we met again when I joined the Endurance crew, fleeing the failure of the rebellion, and we once again become firm friends. I was introduced to her partner John - a delightful man with a scathing sense of irony - and subsequently spent many a pleasant evening in their company.
The Baked Alaska is the closest thing to a restaurant on board the Endurance, with tables having to be booked weeks in advance and strictly rationed. Officially, there's no such thing as money on the ship - what could one buy, in any case? - but a lively exchange and barter scheme had sprung up which made it possible to acquire some things more swiftly that the formal channels allowed.
The restaurant itself was an opportunity for the catering and food science teams to spread their wings and try out new recipes and synthesisers; their 3D-printed steaks and cutlets had long since passed the point where they were distinguishable from the real thing. The menus change frequently and often featured improbable dishes - Dodo Kievs, anyone? - and the whole ambience was carefully tailored to forgotten luxury and decadent escapism as a release from the rather utilitarian existence on board.
The fourth member of our party - and the one who was a relative stranger to me - was Henry Harrington, a black African with wide smiling features and, I was soon to learn, enormous reserves of intelligence and honour. I too am a native of Africa, though my ancestors came from some northern European stock, and so I am tall and naturally blonde, although probably rather too angular and bony to be regarded as conventionally pretty.
Henry joined us at the bar in the Baked Alaska only a few minutes after I arrived in the company of Adele and John. He was a ship's pilot, one of those few who would soon be navigating one of the dozens of smaller craft that were currently hangered in one of the outer reaches of our icy vessel. My friend John was also in the same corps, which was of course why I had suggested that my friends might engineer an introduction.
Our table was ready on schedule, and a smiling waiter - moonlighting from his regular role, no doubt - seated us efficiently, took an order for beverages and made a few recommendations from the short menu projected onto the tablecloth in front of each of us. He returned a few minutes later with the drinks, took our food order and left us to our own devices.
After a few rounds of "how are you?" and general confirmation of everyone's health, followed by a slightly awkward hiatus, our conversation turned to speculation of what we might find when we arrived at our destination. Of course this was not an original topic of conversation, but it was one where we could all relax and kick around a safely controversial topic without huge risk of inadvertently upsetting anybody.
Our arrival in the Tau Ceti system would not be a surprise to anyone already resident there. The flare of our drives as we decelerated would be a bright star in their sky for many years, with an obvious implication for any intelligent beings - or smart machines, for that matter - who happened to be observing.
Henry brought up the possibility of a first encounter with alien beings, perhaps more in hope than expectation. Adele, who had studied cosmology when I had been reading high-energy physics, contented that this was unlikely, but not impossible. She observed that the nearby star systems - those within a few tens of light-years of Earth - had been extensively surveyed from afar a long time ago. We knew that most of them had planets and many had at least one in what some wag had long ago dubbed the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, but just right for the propagation of life as we know it.
But the planets in the Tau Ceti were close enough that they could be studied directly. Spectroscopic analysis of the atmosphere of the single planet in the habitable zone around that star suggested that it had an atmosphere entirely devoid of oxygen: a poison only exhaled once autotrophic life forms - plants, basically - began to evolve on Earth. So her conclusion was that our target stellar system exhibited no sign of life - even of the most primitive kind - at least as we know it.
Our starters arrived, courtesy of the efficient technician with a second string in waiting-on, and we all tucked in with unashamed gusto while our debate continued. John reprised the view - one I had discussed with him before on more than one occasion - on the likelihood of encountering alien artefacts. Surely, he reasoned, if there was other intelligent life out there - the kind of life which would want to explore the cosmos around them - would make their presence apparent through survey devices or just abandoned machinery in orbits close enough to the central star to be easily identifiable.
I had an answer ready for him. The human species in its various guises had already had a pretty good look at the Solar System in quite some detail, at least as far out as the orbit of Pluto and the icy minor planets. To the best of my knowledge, nobody had ever encountered anything that appeared the least bit artificial in origin, not even the slightest hint of non-human technology, no derelict spacecraft or unexplained artefacts of any kind. So why would we expect anything different in another and equally unremarkable system?
Adele brought up another and potentially more dangerous possibility. It was just conceivable that the enemy, the Consolidationalists had overtaken us; maybe they had already arrived in the Tau Ceti system and were lying in wait. Of course, in order to overtake us they would have to deploy some unimagined - and unimaginable - drive technology: space warps or wormhole singularities or something else equally outlandish out of historical science fiction novels.
On the other hand, they would have had years, even decades of time to develop the technology, the time which we had bypassed, from their point of view, by accelerating to near-light speed as quickly as possible - a move considered desirable in order to avoid any missiles that the Consolidationalists might had sent after us.
Henry snorted derisively at this suggestion.
"Why bother?" he responded, "Why go to the expense and difficulty to pursue a few renegades across the galaxy, when they were already safely out of the way? So why not just let us alone, to get on with our lives and build our own worlds?"
On the Endurance, we had already had started practicing this self-sufficiency. We had plenty of resources: the reactors produced all the power we could possibly need for several hundred years, and the hydroponics gardens and the recycling systems were now fine-tuned to the point where biomass was beginning to accumulate at an alarming rate.
There was no shortage of raw materials either. We had all of the elements we needed for life. Carbon, oxygen and nitrogen were all available in abundance from the ice: not just frozen water but methane and ammonia ices as well. All kinds of trace elements could be found as well, although there were relatively small amounts of metals. Not that this was a problem. The principal engineering material employed aboard Endurance was carbon nanotube fibres, which was used for everything from insulating cladding to keep the extreme cold of the ice at bay to the structure of the ship itself.
Carbon fibres are immensely strong and a vast number of extruded cables had been woven into a web stretched all over the outside of the ice-ball, reinforced by high-tension ropes of the same material running in laser-bored tunnels through the interior. All this was necessary to provide a high degree of structural integrity; otherwise the ice would simply have disintegrated under the stresses of our acceleration.
All this still left plenty of opportunity to expand our living space, with many cubic kilometres of virgin ice all around the central region we currently occupied. Not that it was particularly crowded at the moment, but even so the mining and excavation works went on continually, in the expectation of a mini-population explosion in the next year or two.
Just at that moment, while I was still formulating a response to Henry's astute comment, there was a loud bang and a sudden disturbing sensation of momentary weightlessness: not long enough to allow the crockery to drift far from the table tops but more than long enough to cause heart-stopping, stomach-churning fear. Then everything returned to normal, or so I thought at first. I was wrong; there was something missing, something important. It took a moment to realise what it was. The roar of the engines had stopped.