Strictly speaking, this wasn’t part of their job; Jack and Ianto were cargo hauliers and occasional free traders, transporting goods of all descriptions, up to and including livestock, and occasionally passengers, from one planet or orbital space station to another across the known universe. It was quite a lucrative business, and they’d earned themselves a reputation over the past few decades for being fast, efficient, and reliable. They’d never lost a shipment, and they’d never failed to deliver on time, which meant that when they arrived somewhere they could take their pick of cargoes and destinations. Unlike some independents, they never had to travel with an empty hold unless they wanted to take a break from the haulage business.
It was a wonderful life, criss-crossing the Milky Way, seeing all the sights, meeting new people, and experiencing new cultures. The work was varied enough that they seldom grew bored, but despite all the benefits of their day-to-day lives, at heart they were explorers. The thrill of the unknown drew them like a magnet, and so they never missed an opportunity to set out beyond the frontier of what was already known, into the depths of uncharted space, simply to see what they could see.
There were professionals whose job it was to chart the regions of space that had yet to be explored, and exploited, by the Galactic Federation, but there was a lot of space out there, far too much for the relatively small number of specialists to map out. Less than one percent of space beyond the Federation’s borders had been charted so far, and despite their massive size, the explorer ships were limited in how long they could stay out before they needed to return to civilised space for re-supply.
In that, Jack and Ianto had a distinct advantage. They were a crew of two aboard a cargo vessel that had plenty of space for storing essential supplies such as food and water, spare parts, fuel, and power cubes. Add to that their immortality, and if they chose to, they could comfortably embark on a decade-long voyage of exploration, although they didn’t, because not encountering another intelligent being for such a long period of time would be a bit much. Happy though they were in each other’s company, they still enjoyed spending time with other people.
Their current trip was scheduled to last a Galactic year, as defined by the Shadow Proclamation, a period of time equivalent to approximately fourteen earth months. Even after all this time, Jack and Ianto still tended to think in earth terms. Old habits died hard.
They’d signed a contract with the Millineau Corporation of Zansa Major, one of the Federation’s largest manufacturers of spaceships, to survey and chart a region of as yet completely unexplored space, looking for new sources of certain ores and minerals that were essential for processing the alloys from which spacecraft hulls were constructed. It was a big job, but they were more than equal to the challenge.
So here they were, four months into their voyage of discovery, and a considerable distance into a region of space where the stars were thinly scattered. The trip had been highly successful thus far; the charting was going smoothly, and they’d already discovered two asteroid belts that would yield impressive quantities of several rare metallic elements, as well as a small planetoid with, according to their sensors, a core of solid steel. They hadn’t gone too close to that because its density was such that the gravitational pull it exerted would likely be too strong for their relatively small craft to handle. They would need an industrial-strength gravity nullifier, which the Happy Wanderer wasn’t equipped with; that was something it might be worth investing in for future excursions.
The planetoid was more than two dozen light years behind them, however; what was centred in their viewscreen now was something else entirely.
“Well, that’s new.” Jack blinked at the image on the viewscreen.
“Uh huh.” Okay, so that wasn’t the most intelligent response Ianto could have made to Jack’s comment, but he felt that under present circumstances he could be excused for his lack of eloquence. It wasn’t every day you came across a space doughnut.
It wasn’t an actual doughnut of course, not some stray snack from earth that had been adrift in the vacuum of space for uncounted aeons. It was a planet, of sorts, only it was more of a solidified planetary ring system, like Saturn’s rings if they’d absorbed all the matter that made up the planet they orbited until the only thing left was a solid ring with a hole through the centre.
“The question is whether it’s a natural phenomenon or a manufactured object.” Jack was busily running scans using the Wanderer’s long-range sensors; if the doughnut was natural then it was something that had never been seen before, and any data they collected on it could be very valuable to the Federation’s scientific community. If, on the other hand, it had been constructed by artificial means, they could well be looking at a first contact situation.
Ianto’s brain was still refusing to produce anything particularly coherent, mostly wondering how Homer Simpson might react to a doughnut that big. He may have been travelling in space for over fifty years by this point, but despite all the weird and wonderful things he’d seen in his travels, he still wasn’t completely immune to the effects of encountering things totally outside his experience. Times like this, his brain simply stalled, clinging to things it knew and understood as a way of coping until he could regain his mental equilibrium.
Noticing Ianto’s silence, Jack glanced across at him, concerned. “Ianto? Are you okay?”
“Mm.” Ianto hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen and had hardly blinked since the doughnut had first come into view.
“If it helps at all, from these readings it looks as though it’s been created, or more accurately grown, by some outside agency. But I have no idea why, or what purpose it might serve.”
“There’s something in the… um… hole,” Ianto said at last. “Something moving.”
“Is there? Hold on a minute, let me just… Oh, yeah, I see it.” Jack adjusted the ship’s sensors, moving their focus away from the doughnut itself and onto the hole in the middle. He increased magnification, and what he saw took his breath away. Swimming around in the centre were almost fifty huge creatures, and perhaps a dozen or so smaller ones.
“Space whales!” Ianto exclaimed in awed delight, leaning forward in his seat, as if that would somehow afford him a closer look.
Jack smiled, as completely enraptured by the sight as Ianto. “How amazing is that? I’d say we’re looking at the first space whale nursery ever to be discovered!”
“It’s incredible!” Ianto’s gaze was glued to the viewscreen as he studied the magnificent creatures swimming leisurely around their enclosed area of space like immense goldfish in a pond. Of all the wonderful sights he’d seen, this was right up there with the most spectacular. They’d encountered small pods of Space Whales, numbering up to seven or eight individuals, on a mere handful of occasions over the past few decades; the creatures were considered quite rare, although precious little was known about them. To see so many gathered together in one place, and with young, was something he never would have imagined in his wildest dreams!
This was surely what space exploration was all about!