A Distant Light

[The following is taken from the prologue to Nightwind.]

Light.

Captain Lucius Mullins felt the light invade his entire being. At first he fought it, spent an eternity attempting to twist his body, attempting to push it away. No matter where he turned the light was there. No matter how tightly he closed his eyes the light pushed through. It hammered against him, forced its way to the very center of his being.

It all rushed back to him in a moment of clarity. He had to stop fighting the light. The light was good. The light meant that it was finally the end. The light had already come once.

Tau Ceti, his mind said to him, The light last came at Tau Ceti.

Tau Ceti. The first time the light came. That must mean…

82 Eridani.

82 Eridani. They were at 82 Eridani.

Home.

Captain Mullins’s eyes shot open. He found himself staring at the uniform gray bulkhead of the human colony ship Zaqar through the distortion of his stasis pod’s translucent bubble. After a moment the bubble rotated up and away. Mullins sat up slowly.

“Hello, Lucius,” a voice croaked out to his left.

He turned. Sandra Mbarita, the elected governor of the soon-to-be 82 Eridani colony was sitting up in her own stasis pod.

He nodded. “Governor,” he replied, voice scarcely above a whisper.

“So this is what it’s like waking up from a two hundred year sleep,” she said.

“Pleasant, isn’t it?”

“No.”

“You get used to it,” Mullins said. He attempted to chuckle at his own joke, but broke down into a spasm of sickly, wet coughs instead.

“Maybe you should hold off on the jokes for a while, sir,” a voice said from his right. He turned and saw Commander Jane Wrobel, his first officer. She was already rotating her petite frame over the edge of her stasis pod. After a moment’s hesitation she pushed off and hit the deck on wobbly legs.

Mullins leveraged himself up and swung his legs over the edge of his own pod. “No rest of the weary, I see,” he said.

“A century of sleep isn’t enough for you?” Sandra asked. She, too, was already standing on the deck.

“Hey,” Mullins smiled, “You didn’t have to wake up halfway through. You’re not allowed to judge.”

“But that just means I’ve had half as much practice,” Sandra responded.

“Get a room, you two,” Wrobel said from behind him. He could feel her eyes rolling at the back of his head.

“Gotta build ‘em first,” Sandra said. “But once we do…” she smiled at Mullins.

It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t seen Sandra in over two hundred and fifty years. He’d checked her stasis pod when the Zaqar made its first stop over the sixth planet in the Tau Ceti system just over a century before, but it wasn’t the same. “Maybe,” he collected his thoughts, “Maybe we can go find a quiet place somewhere on the ship. You know, before everything gets all crazy.”

“Oh, Lucius,” she said, “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?”

“No,” he shook his head, “No I do not.”

Mullins and Mbarita had first met two years prior in their reckoning, but in 2096 in reality. He had just been appointed captain of the Zaqar and sent to meet with Mbarita and Randall Jeffries, governor of the colony that was to be planted in the Tau Ceti system. He’d almost immediately fallen in love with her. She’d taken longer to warm up to him.

Sandra began walking towards the lift at the end of the row of stasis pods.

“Wait,” Mullins said, reaching out and putting his hand on her shoulder.

“What?” she asked, turning back.

He pulled her back towards him and wrapped his left arm around her waist. “It’s good to see you,” he smiled, “It’s been a long time.”

“I guess it has,” she smiled back.

He shifted his left hand from her shoulder to the back of her head and leaned down to give her a long kiss.

“No, seriously,” Wrobel said after a few moments, “Get a room, you two. But later. We have work to do.”

Mullins pulled away. “I suppose,” he sighed, “We need to get to work.”

“Yeah,” Sandra nodded. “I guess so.”

The trio shuffled to the end of the row and boarded the personnel lift. In moments they were speeding upwards towards Zaqar’s central spire. Thirty seconds later they had a view of the massive colony ship few had ever seen and that no one would ever see again.

The personnel lift itself was a transparent aluminum cylinder with drive mechanisms on the top and bottom. It moved along one of the eight spokes connecting Stasis Ring 1 to the central spine of the ship. Five more stasis rings stretched out behind them, each connected to the central core with eight spokes. He saw the rings as the inner surface of a vast cylinder, open to space on both ends. The spokes gave the only sense that each ring was rotating to create an artificial gravity equal to one half Earth gravity. The odd numbered rings rotated clockwise while the even numbered rings rotated counterclockwise to avoid pulling the ship off of its line of travel.

Each ring was divided into eight sections. Zaqar had left Earth carrying 2500 colonists and enough supplies to last for approximately 10 years in each section. The hollowed out central core of Zaqar had held enough raw construction materials to build shelters and whatever heavy machinery the colony would need. The colony ship had also carried eight heavy lift shuttles and all of the necessary materials to construct a space elevator.

Every other section on the outer stasis rings was now empty and dark. In a few days the remaining occupied sections would begin to empty out as Zaqar reached one of the inner planets of the 82 Eridani system and began to send colonists down. When that happened the Zaqar herself would slowly begin to disintegrate. The command module was designed to break apart into the shuttles the colonists would need for the move. The ship would then be broken down and taken to the planet’s surface to be turned into permanent housing and farming machinery. The main drives were the only part of the ship designed to remain intact. They would be placed in geosynchronous orbit as an anchor for the 82 Eridani space elevator.

The lift slowed as they reached the central core then came to a complete stop while it waited for a chance to drop into the ship’s spine. They were close enough to the center of the huge wheel that the compartment was almost completely weightless. The trio held onto grab rings to brace themselves for the next part.

Mullins scratched the small of Sandra’s back and smiled at her. “Are you ready?” he asked.

She smiled back weakly. “Ready for everything but this drop. I’m always worried—“

The lift shook briefly as the brake released and there was a brief return of gravity as it accelerated through the open gap that gave it access to the central core. It shook again as magnetic clamps grabbed it and forced it onto a new track. After a moment they began moving again, sideways this time.

“—that something will go wrong and we’ll get crushed,” she finished.

“Not this time,” Wrobel said.

“It should be smooth sailing from here,” Mullins said.

“Um, maybe not,” Sandra said.

“Why?”

She pointed out past the two officers. “I think that star just moved.”

They turned and followed the line from her finger out into the distant starfield. It took a moment for what Sandra had seen to resolve itself in the perspective of the others. The lift was now hurtling along the outside of the central spine of the ship. The effect was thrilling and vertigo-inducing all at once. They were standing at the forefront of humanity’s journey to the stars with nothing but a thin sheet of transparent aluminum between them and the void.

All around them millions of tiny points of light spread out in a breathtaking panorama. It was peaceful, vast, and still. Except for one thing. One of those tiny points of light was moving.

“That is…something,” Wrobel finally said.

The trio fell silent, staring at the light as it continued to follow its own path. It seemed to be changing, growing at times brighter and then dimmer as if its course was wobbling slightly. That made it less and less possible to think of whatever the light was as natural.

The lift finally reached the rear access point to Zaqar’s command module. They activated their mag boots and tried to run down the gravity-less corridor to the main bridge. Each step was accompanied by an increasing sense of dread as seconds turned to hours and minutes to days.

They finally reached the bridge and found their moving star had reached it before them.    A spaceship paced the Zaqar a few hundred meters off of the port side of the colony ship, just far enough ahead to be in clear view from the bridge. It looked like a pair of dinner plates stuck together at the rims. Two massive drive engines stuck up above and another two down below the center of the ship.

“What do we do now?” Sandra asked.

“I have no idea,” Mullins replied.

“The comm panel is active,” Wrobel said. “Maybe we should start there?”

They walked across the bridge to the communications station. A red light blinked next to the voice communications section of the panel. Wrobel shrugged and activated the bridge speakers. They were immediately assaulted by a loud, indecipherable wall of gibberish.

“Well that’s not good,” Sandra shouted. “What if they’re saying, ‘Stop before we blow you out of the sky?’”

“I have an idea,” Mullins shouted back, “Hold on.”

He cycled through the comm station files until he found the file that contained English, including the alphabet, basic vocabulary, and a collection of key phonemes. He activated the ship’s transmitter, matched the frequency of the alien transmission, and sent the file. The bridge speakers suddenly went silent.

It was almost worse. The trio stood in silence, staring at their new companion, searching for any indication of intent, hostile or otherwise.
Finally the bridge speakers crackled to life again.

“Unidentified ship,” a stilted, mechanical voice said, “You have entered space controlled by glorious Joshan Empire. Please state your intentions.”

Mullins tentatively reached out and pressed the transmit button. “I am Captain Lucius Mullins of the Earth ship Zaqar. We are explorers and colonists looking for a new home for our people. We are unarmed and do not desire a confrontation.”

“You will follow us, Lucius Mullins of Earth ship Zaqar,” the alien voice ordered. “You are now at mercy of glorious Emperor of Joshan group.”

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