The world was dead. It was silent and cold and empty. A tomb emblazoned with light blocked only by crumbling stones that cast stark shadows upon the landscape. That was how it was when the explorers found it. 3 sets of tracks led from their vessel with surety and experience in their gait. They had seen hundreds of worlds, faced innumerable dangers, but they had been able to surmount it all. This though, this was something else. This was raw desolation and a world with nothing. There were signs that there had been more, once, but now there was nothing. They hadn’t seen a single drop of water or spot of color beyond brown, gray, and rust. Sometimes, they came across a stone that was a bit too square and perhaps worked by the hand of someone or something, or a stretch of worn ground that might have once housed a river, or even an expanse ground littered with white salt that spoke volumes of an ancient sea. There were only memories, impressions, signs that there had once been more. But there was nothing to tell how the tale began or ended, or even how it was woven in the middle. The explorers made a mark on their long. Resources Negligible, Unable to Support Colonization. They left their footprints in the dirt, adding an epilogue none would read to the forgotten tale of a dead world.
He couldn’t have been more than nineteen and yet he was the one sitting behind the desk in the big office at the end of the hall. Opposite him cowered a much older man, hands trembling with nervousness. They both stood there in silence for a moment, while the young man looked over the latest trade deal his man had negotiated for him. Then he took another drag on the cigarette in his hand before snuffing it out on the papers in front of him. The much older man opposite him grabbed for the papers, frantically trying to blow out the small embers where it had nearly caught fire.
“I thought I made myself clear before. I have no interest in the currency of this backwater planet. The deal is to be negotiated for resource rights and nothing else.”
“Of course, sir. I’ll-I’ll fix it right away.”
The young man nodded curtly closed his eyes, considering his next move. With the resource rights of the entire planet in his hands, he could do what his father had failed to do on Homeworld, he would keep them all safe. He could protect this place, this world. He heard the door slam and checked the news holo. Ah yes, the protests had picked up once more. That didn’t matter. None of it mattered. He didn’t expect them to understand what he was doing for them. Not until long after he was gone, anyway.
The distress beacon gave off a monotonous, patterned beeping calling to any ships in the quadrant that could detect the standard emergency frequencies. That what what had summoned the salvagers. The nimble salvage ship skimmed through the asteroid field, always keeping an eye to their radar displays to track the beacon. It was a stationary array, the sort of beacon that was automatically deployed by a disabled ship. Those were hard to fake and couldn’t be set off in-atmosphere, so they felt fairly confident that they wouldn’t run into pirates. Zooming around one particularly large asteroid, the crew found themselves asking one question as they looked at the monitors and out the various ports. How was the signal being given off by an entire planet?
The sun rose twice. Already hanging in the sky like a baleful eye, a second glowing orb rose to meet it like a drunken firefly grown out of all proportion. It was as though he moon had forgotten her proper course and color, and gone to meet her brother at the zenith of the day. It was a time of no shadows, as the two day-stars cast everything into a sharp relief and refused to be balked. As the day wore on, the original continued it’s inexorable march westward until it finally dipped below the horizon to continue on its millennia old course through the underworld. The second? The second still hung in the sky.
They always talk about what happens when the stars align, or when the planets align. What no one ever worries about is when the black holes align. When the sky is torn asunder and matter is drawn into that endless vacuum. It’s the most dangerous time, a time when space flight is unwise. Whole solar systems would vanish as they strayed into the path of those anomalies. And I stood on the bridge of my explorer class scout vessel, calculating the path to our survival. We had one shot, one looping trajectory around that inexorable line. Space is three-dimensions after all. Setting down the stylus, I turned to the helm.“5 second bursts on engines 4 and 7, followed by a 10 second burst on retros 6 and 8.”
We began to move forward, moving fast.
“Now the sling shot. 5 seconds on engine 3 and 4 and retros 6 and 8.”
We shifted directions nearly immediately but we could all still feel that pull.
“3 degree shift of retro burn, sustained.”
And then, we popped clear. We were free. We would live to report this horror
The silence was overbearing, the silence and the darkness. The sky was empty now. No stars shone in the infinite and the only sound left to us was our beating hearts, hers and mine. We had come this far to stop her and only I remained. The mission was a failure. She held out her hand to me. I stood and accepted it.
“We will bring about a new age, Adam. Accept that. Accept that we will bring about a new people, a new future. Embrace your fate.”
Hers was a forked tongue that told only lies, but I ate them whole. I drew her into my arms and our lips met, tasting sweet and sticky. Her mouth was still, after all, covered in crimson horror. She smiled and let the bitten heart fall from her fingers, reaching to tangle her fingers in my hair.
“I accept my fate, Eve.”
There, in her starship, I understood madness.
Looking up into the sky from my window, I could see the twin moons, Phobos and Deimos, as bright lights in the sky. But there was a third light tonight. My big brother Hank had said it was Earth. I read about Earth in class. Mommy and Daddy were from Earth, they’d said. A long, long time ago when they were kids they had left there with their parents to come here. I hugged my bear tight and wondered what it was like. I’d grown up in one of the big domes all my life, playing in the hydroponic sheds and out in the long corridors. But Earth had forests and rivers and lakes and all kinds of neat things that I’d seen in the vids. They’d brought animals here, but only some, only the food ones or the pet ones. We had a cat who Mommy said was descended from the cat she had on Earth. I wonder how. Did they put the cat into cryo-sleep like they did the colonists? They must have. I bet it was really scared in the pod. I would have been. Mommy says that someday, people are going to go even further than here and leave the solar system. I’ve got a model of the solar system hanging in my room. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I wonder what it’s like out past there. Hank says that there are probes out there exploring and beaming back pictures. I wonder if they’ve found anything with forests.
It was odd being back at the helm of a vessel in the intergalactic fleet after so long. There was no feeling in the world that paralleled this one, the feeling of sitting astride thousands of tons of machinery that bucked and churned and roared with flames to rival the old sun of Terra. She let a slow smile come to her lips, settling the interface helmet down over her short-cropped hair. Ship and Commander were once again one in mind and heart. Together, they would once more commune with the stars. But this time, they would not perform the deadly dance of laser grid defenses and high-grade ordinance. Those days were over, a shadow on the reverse thruster cameras and nothing more. This time, their cargo was the future and their destination was hope.
“Alright, this is experimental trial…One hundred thirty eight…B.”
Derek spoke to the camera, hands trembling as he moved to press the ‘on’ switch. The array lit up almost immediately and the whole thing started to hum.
“Phase one appears to be operating normally…” He picked up one of his instruments. “Phase two power generation appears to be as expected…” There was a long pause and suddenly the needle shot upwards. “Oh…oh no…Not again. Please, not this again.” He dove for the power button, but it didn’t matter. The machine was already smoking. He jumped for the camera instead and dove behind the protective paneling just before it blew. “Well, that was the same malfunction from trial…um…seventy three, I think. So…”
“Derek, are you alright in here?”
He looked up into the face of Professor McKenna and sighed.
“Yes, Professor…I just had a malfunction. I’m alright.”
“You nearly blew yourself up, Derek. Grab your notes, check the prototype for flames and come get some dinner. You need to take a break and redesign or you’re going to kill yourself with one of these `malfunctions.’”
Derek sat down in the cafeteria, spreading his designs out while he tried to simultaneously shove a chicken tender into his mouth.
“You’re still working on that? You know it’s never gonna work, right?”
He didn’t even need to look up to know that was Alexis. Little miss perfect Alexis with her grants and stipends and published papers and all that. She dropped into the seat opposite him and scoffed.
“I mean, seriously, you can’t just pull energy out of nowhere, Derek, that goes against all the laws of physics.”
“As we know them…” was his only response.
“Ugh…whatever. Continue to wallow in your failure while I’m putting an astronaut on Mars.”
She strode away, heels clicking on the tiled floor, and he returned his full attention to finding the flaw in his design.
Hours turned into days and days into weeks and Derek still didn’t have a new prototype. The flaw was there, he knew it was, he just had to find it. Weeks into months and the snow fell hard around the campus as Derek burst into the lab with a tiny box in his hands. He set up his camera, hands shaking and set the little cardboard box on the counter. It was only a few inches high, not the giant bulk of lights and switches and diodes he’d had before. No, this one was simple, sleek and elegant. And most importantly of all, just as Alexis walked in to demand to know what he was doing, the little chrome sphere started to glow and lifted into the air.
“Making it work.”
Silence. Just the dim blinking of the console. A single voice cutting through lightyears of space.
“We lost you on the monitors. Can you get a visual of any local pulsars so we can locate you?”
Nothingness. Darkness. Emptiness. There are stars, but none pulse in erratic patterns. And none flicker. It takes an atmosphere to flicker and sparkle.
A pause. Discomfort in the tone now. Uncertainty.