The organic blast door closed shut with an eerie whistle, sealing the external platform behind the two women, one of which wore a white-and-blue Starmoth Initiative suit and the other a simple coral-like voidsuit. One of them was indubitably human, though her skin was the colour of a deep ocean. The other had a less firm grip on reality, or perhaps it was the other way around; when she walked on the dust-covered floor, the small particles falling from the decaying structure of the Sequence ruins seemed to remain undisturbed as if she had been a proverbial holographic projection. Heavy thumps echoed from beyond the blast door.
"Talasea, how much time do we have?" asked the coral-wearing woman.
"I am not sure, but I would say not much, sadly. These organic doors are strong, but they can't hold that thing we're trailing behind -- even if it was just a shambler, I would not bet on the door. They can't interface with these ruins anymore but they can just, you know...punch through."
Another heavy thump echoed in response.
"No word from the Al-Andalus?"
"No." Talasea checked the q-aug on her palm again. "Last communication was the one we received in the atrium. I've got an automated shuttle coming down, but it will be too late. I, well..." The irenian took a glance at her laser stylus, a trusty tool, but even at its highest power settings, no more than a flashlight against a Sequence combat organism. "I guess I'll have to start talking with the monsters."
Another thump. The organic door was about to give way, artificial muscles strained to their very limits, stretching like rotting roots under a powerful wind.
"How come you're still there? Fly away, you beautiful lady. Go away, Kalisa. You don't want to see me crushed to death by a Sequence lifeform. You haven't seen the Algorab tapes. I have. It's not very pretty."
The coral-wearing woman looked up, towards the wide, blade-blue sky of the fractured Sequence world, with derelict bio-arcologies reaching towards the twin stars in the shape of skeleton trees. Down below, there was nothing but five thousand meters of cold emptiness.
"You've always had such a detached attitude towards death, Tali."
"That's typically Irenian, I guess. We choose hedonism, so we don't have to worry about when it all stops. Or that's just scientific curiosity. Now go."
A final thump. Two muscles broke, spreading dark artificial blood on the cobblestones.
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You can literally cross the entire galaxy in the blink of an eye and you are telling me right here, right now, that you don't want to be going anywhere?"
"What can I say? I think I like you. And there are things...I have always wanted to say."
The door finally gave way, splattering in a shower of dark fluid and shattered organic particles, spread into the wind as soon as they found themselves freed from the shackles of artificial muscles. The Jeweller followed immediately in the wake of the destruction it had inflicted on the door, a swirling cloud of transbiological particles that evocated images of self-aware baroque paintings to Talasea. The Jeweller spread its tentacles to mirror the two suns above, then moved towards the two women, poised for the kill -- or perhaps, if their biological material was deemed adequate, absorption into its complex transbiology, that had been starved of new inputs for so long.
Kalisa winked, then stepped forward, calmly, gently. It lasted only a second or two, perhaps three at most. The Jeweller froze in time, then extended a tentacle towards Kalisa. The white-haired woman poked it with a smile, and Talasea assumed they spent the following second exchanging information. Then the Sequence lifeform quickly folded its tentacle and slithered away through the remains of the door with a quickness that felt almost like a fear reflex. Kalisa dusted her shoulder, where the lifeform had left a bit of golden dust, then turned towards Talasea again.
"Well, that was interesting."
"What did you say to each other? Ok, I am rephrasing my question...what part of a dialogue between a Lady That Wanders and a Sequencer can my puny brain understand? Couldn't you tell it just...stay for a while, if it wasn't determined to kill us?"
"Oh, I am afraid it was very much determined to murder both of us. We are, after all, trespassing on its domain. To say that I talked to it would be a bit of an overstatement. I just, well, told it who and what I was."
"And it slithered away, just like this?"
"Bedding you has been a terrible mistake."
Elisabeth Hoyle had always looked old. When she oversaw her stellar maps, leaning over the cartography table with her spectacles perched atop her aquiline nose, grey hair around her temples, it was hard not to recognize her as a veteran captain, even though she did not like the title. “Madam”, not “Captain”, such was the home rule on her ship — not the only oddity aboard the Dryad.
“We still have nothing but debris, madam,” announced the radar officer. “We are right inside the cloud created by the destruction of the Hammurabi. It’s still expanding. No traces of the attackers.”
“I am afraid our pirates are gone, madam.”
“They aren’t. They’re still creeping out there, you can be sure of it.”
“Well then” commented Maria, the XO, “we’re broadcasting our infrared signature to the entire world.”
“That is the point. I want them to know that we’re here. That the USRE is watching, and that we have just found what’s left of their last victim.” Elisabeth took off her glasses to clean them up. She hated running missions like this one, especially on territory that, technically, wasn’t even under USRE responsibility. Pirates...now, that was an interesting euphemism. There were no pirates in the solar system, at least no pirates that would blow up vessels in the middle of nowhere. But the High Fleet greatly enjoyed euphemisms, and they were not to be discussed on the bridge.
“I have a ping” announced Jonesy, the tactical officer, headphones blasting old-school drone music. “Light infrared flash, one hundred thousand kilometres downrange, near the highlighted asteroid. Classified as unknown ship, presumed hostile.”
Elisabeth put her glasses back on and raised an eyebrow.
“Automated analysis classifies this ping as an old asteroid miner, type 72, Moon Communes. What makes you think otherwise, Jonesy?”
“Madam, our infrared classification system is derived from civilian space traffic control systems. It is very accurate and quite good at automated tracking, but when it is confused, it tends to come back home screaming, and in that case, it means it’s classifying things as miners by default.”
Elisabeth contemplated her tactical map for a second, then took off her glasses again, folded them in a grey anti-shock case before strapping herself to her anti-g seat. Her voice was calm, focused, incredibly mundane.
The lights on the bridge went from red to blue, and all crewmembers silently strapped themselves to their own seats before closing the helmets of their flight suits.
“IR contact is gone, madam” announced the tactical officer — and a split-second later something blinked on the medium-range sensors, an explosion of lights and cold numbers.
“Contact, contact, twenty thousand kilometres and closing, missiles in the void, missiles in the void, heading 000, vertical 300, he’s right on top of us!!”
“Translate 1-2, dogleg pattern.”
The ship rumbled as its engines fired at full thrust automatically, while its logical cores struggled to compute a succession of two close-range jumps. When the missiles arrived within defensive range, the Dryad’s laser grid triggered a hailstorm of light. Elisabeth felt her heart skip a beat as the vessel translated away, leaving a swarm of frustrated missiles in its wake. The commander blinked when the Dryad resumed existence, fifty thousand kilometres away. Jonesy commented.
“Missiles on IR. Eleven, still burning. No pursuit. They were just needles, commander.”
Elisabeth bit her lip. A trap. Needles hurled through the void at an unsuspecting vessel — instant death, vaporization and crystallization. But the Dryad was not a cargo vessel, it was a High Fleet Firebase and its captain was rightly pissed off — or the closest Elisabeth Hoyle knew to anger.
“I’m having trouble classifying our contact. Fusion drive, Luciole-sized, model unknown, probably a mark 4 considering the firepower.”
“IR ping followed by FTL wake signal, Lances inbound, Lances inbound, eight signals!!”
“Spin and evade 1-5, random pattern, load our Lances, ready to drop, engage countermeasures.”
The Dryad surged forwards again, rapidly translating across seventy thousand kilometres over seven minutes to try and lose its faster-than-light stalkers. When the Firebase had completed its fifth jump, Elisabeth blinked again.
“Two jammed enemy Lances lost and spinning. Two Lances trying to reacquire, and...contact is firing again, eight more Lances away, trying to acquire us!”
“Commander, positive ID on enemy Lancers, we’re dealing with Swarmers.”
Elisabeth glanced at a number on the tactical panels — 70%. That was the efficiency percentage of their laser grid if all Swarmers were to deploy their warheads close to the Dryad. MIRV missiles packed an incredible amount of sheer firepower.
“Spin and evade 1-5, drop decoys” she would have said if she hadn’t known better if she hadn’t felt their attacker was way in over its head. They think they have us cornered. They don’t expect us to come back and bite.
“Offensive translation under 40,000. Switch our Lances to anti-missile mode, load decoys, deploy on my mark.”
The Dryad pulsed forwards again, this time directly towards the Luciole. The latter’s laser grid immediately resolved the USRE Firebase as a threat and started firing. The entire starboard side of the Dryad lit up as ablative armour melted to protect its mainframe.
“Mark on decoys. Engines cold.”
The Dryad cut its engines and engaged two decoys that translated a few thousand kilometres away before blasting their fusion drives at full thrust. They would not fool a good tactical officer but it wasn’t the point — their true goal was to confuse enemy missiles and force the Luciole to assume direct control of them instead of relying on their onboard computers.
“Engaging spin” announced Jonesy as the Dryad started rotating around its axis to uniformly expose its ablative armour to the Luciole’s laser fire.
“Translate away 1-3, keep at 40,000. Fire a Lance at each waypoint.”
The Dryad disappeared, leaving melted fragments of armour in its wake. During the split-second exchange, the Luciole had also suffered, losing half its radiators to focused grid bursts. Three more Lances surged away from the Firebase and locked themselves on the enemy missiles, engaging them in a dogfight spreading across thousands of kilometres.
“Fire all remaining hardpoints” ordered Elisabeth, and eight more projectiles left the Firebase. The deadly dance continued for twenty -five seconds, with both ships trying to guide its missiles towards the other, all the while coordinating laser grids and, in the case of the Dryad, dogfighting enemy missiles with its own projectiles. Logical cores on both ships were pushed to their very limits by the succession of translations and targeting orders they had to compute in a fraction of a second. On the Dryad, on-board CPUs went into full overlock eight seconds after the beginning of the knife fight, its radiators now gleaming in bright red in the void. The Firebase was a large vessel with a small crew, and it could afford to dedicate immense amounts of power — and the thermal load that came with it — to its computers. The Luciole, on the contrary, was constrained by its ancient shape. In a duel relying on CPU cycles, its only hope was to destroy the Dryad fast and reliably. Overwhelm it with firepower before melting itself to death — an option that could have worked had the Firebase remained at long range where the Luciole could have peppered it with missiles, but not in a close-range fight where its computers had to micromanage every single tactical aspect.
After seventy seconds, the Luciole gave up and relinquished direct control on all of its missiles, which allowed the Dryad’s own projectiles to lock on and destroy them. For the next three seconds, the Luciole tried to evade with a long-range jump, but it was too late. Twenty seconds exactly after the beginning of the close-range engagement, two Lances found their way through the small ship’s defence grid. At this range, it was just a small blip of light.
“Target hit” confirmed Jonesy a second later. “Fuselage breaking, fusion core breach. Target out of action, no escape capsules detected, I see no black box signal.”
“All clear. We are alone.”
Elisabeth nodded. She opened her helmet, reached for her anti-shock case and put her glasses back on, then took a deep breath.
“Recall unspent missiles and set course for the debris field. Compile a damage report. Jonesy, I want a full spectral analysis of the ship we just downed. I want to know who the hell these people were.”
The stars were sharp as blades.
The horizon was eerily close. The planet was barely three thousand kilometres wide. Jyothi walked alongside the talweg of a deep valley surrounded by blade-sharp mountains that gnawed at the ink-coloured sky. Sometimes Jyothi would stop and cover the peaks with her gloves, imagining herself as a space goddess gazing a geology she could draw her own blood upon. Then she would grab her walking pole again and resume her walk. In one sixth of Earth gravities effort was limited and energy well spent. She could walk for hundreds of kilometres at a time, as long as there was solid ground in front of her. Fatigue wasn’t a concern. She would walk, and walk, and walk until exhaustion got the better of her, and then she would inflate her little personal habitat and sleep for days, somewhere in the great regolith plains where sunlight was sharper than a razor.
A red dot blinked on the visor of her helmet, then shattered into a bloody flower. An invisible wave was flowing towards the planet, crowds of protons surging among the solar wind. Jyothi looked up, towards the abyssal sky. She lowered the armoured plate on her helmet and the world became gold-tinted. Then she straightened her grip on her walking poles and carried on.
When the radiation storm hit, the regolith started dancing.
The solar flare wasn’t a simple coronal mass ejection. It was a proton storm made of positively charged particles travelling at one third of the speed of light. The regolith, on the contrary, had been negatively charged by billions of years of interaction with the solar wind. Each proton would impart a positive charge to the target, leading grains of regolith to start repelling each other. At one point, about seventy seconds after the initial impact, some of the grains would start moving upwards.
All around Jyothi knee-high pillars of dust would rise up and down, scattered columns birthing ephemeral wave-temples in the valley. At the beginning they looked like hails of bullets sending ripples in the dust, then they became ghost hills battering the landscape and finally the undulations stabilized in a coherent pattern. Blips and waves, up and down, up and down, again and again, a visualisation of music she couldn’t hear on a planet-sized screen.
Jyothi braced and hunkered down as if she was walking against a powerful wind. Protons battered her suit, piercing most of the outer shell except in the thicker helmet section. In a few dozen minutes she had already absorbed a lethal dose of radiation but there was not much left for the protons to damage. Her body was but one single, symbiotic q-aug. Extremophile algae flowed in her veins, feeding the lichen embedded in her skin, spreading towards the roots that were her bones; she was an enclosed ecosystem, a human tower of Babel. What radiation would destroy was almost immediately cut off, reconfigured and reconstructed. Her body yielded under the proton storm but did not break. In her mind memories danced, died and lived again, to the pace of self-repairing neurons. The world would ebb and flow, fragments of meaning collapsing and gathering up again in front of her eyes. Jyothi focused and switched her sensory emulators on. Normally they would detect movement and waves coming from the outside to create a fake soundscape but under the radiation storm, they could only output white noise. Electronic rustle that would ebb and flow along the regolith, set to the tune of the star above. Sound that filled her with warmth and peace, white and reassuring.
Ten thousand lightyears away from the Earth, a two hundred and fifty year old woman walked among a sea of dancing regolith.
Illustration and inspiration taken from For All Mankind.
[Beginning of recording]
Operator: This is Elora traffic control to CRG-type vessel named "Don't Look Please", I am having trouble identifying your engine plumes, could you please specify your propulsion type and engine model so that I can direct you to the approach vector most suited to your situation?
Incoming transmission : [Garbled].
Operator: "Don't Look Please", say again.
Incoming transmission: We have transmitted the full specs of our ship.
Operator: Alright, please hang on a second.
[Garbled background noises.]
Operator Er, "Don't Look Please", I am going to need some additional details on that specifications sheet. It seems that some elements are missing. Unless I am mistaken you are not specifying any main engine apparatuses, I only see RCS thrusters in the propulsion section. What? Alright, "Don't Look Please", hang on for another while.
[Garbled background noises a single swear word might be heard.]
Operator: "Don't Look Please", do you confirm that the piece of equipment mentioned under "High-Impulse Trebuchet" is in fact an electromagnetic mass driver with an exhaust velocity of 30 kilometres per second?
Incoming transmission: Er...confirm, yes.
[Another potential swear word.]
Operator: "Don't Look Please", I have an orbital tug about to translate towards your location. Please stand still, switch off all engines and do not, I repeat, do not perform a deceleration manoeuver. You are to keep your current course and switch everything down, understood? Please confirm.
Incoming transmission: I am not sure I...
Operator: Look, your main engine is a mass driver that fires chunks of rock at 30 kilometres per second in order to create thrust. You are in one of the most well-travelled systems in human space. What were you thinking? Seriously?
1985, Northern Afghanistan.
Jyothi held her breath and crawled under the trees as two Mi-24 helicopters zoomed above her head, their blades mincing the cold morning air. The aircraft looked like oversized insects with bulbous eyes gazing at the dusty landscape. The low-pitched vibrations from their engines shook the very ground as they reverberated through the valley. As they turned around and gained altitude to climb over the cliffs, Jyothi allowed herself to leave her precarious hideout and crawled towards the edge of the hill, among the juniper trees and hawthorn bushes. She grabbed her binoculars from her backpack. She had smeared the lenses with engine grease to avoid reflections that could easily give away her position. In the past few days, the only human presence in the valley had been the soviet helicopters on their way to the nearby plateau, but Jyothi did not want to take any chances. She was a ghost, here. A presence roaming the hills and valleys of a country some western scholars had named "Graveyard of empires" - but of which empire? The British one? The Soviet empire? The Bactrian empire? The Mughal empire? Or perhaps even Alexander's foolish but oh-so-fascinating endeavour? Strangely enough, thought Jyoti, Afghanistan's historical role as a crossroads, much more than a cemetery, was the real reason for her presence here.
Her binoculars swept across the valley, finding dust, juniper and cedar trees, then a dry seabed and, finally, an ancient Bactrian-style arch lost amidst hawthorn and gooseberry bushes. Here it was. The entrance to the Butterfly Garden. Jyothi watched the skies once again, but the helicopters were not coming back. She stood up and slowly crept down the valley, towards the dry forest growing against the limestone cliff. She wondered what she would have looked like to a distant observer. With her well-worn jacket, scarf and ancestral Lee Enfield rifle she would have been easy to mistake for some kind of operative, perhaps even a KGB one, but her veil clearly identified her as a woman. She spoke acceptable Pashto and, maybe, could have had been mistaken for an afghan person. Maybe. In a very dark alleyway.
It felt strange to walk under this time-battered arch, stepping on an ancient path taken over by the overgrowth. Maybe, she thought, some of her ancestors had fought near this valley, in the Mughal Empire's bid over what was yet to be the state of Afghanistan. Perhaps even a few drops of familiar blood had soaked the dust and sand of this very place, unbeknownst to her. Jyothi entered the garden. She felt better now that she was under the relative cover of the trees and bushes. The air was colder and less dry, emboldened by the nearby springs. A few dozen meters away from the arch were the ruins of a small building she could not identify; it could have had been anything, she thought. The pillars of a small mosque, the pedestal of a Buddha, the last stones of a Hindu stupa, the entrance of a long-lost church, the last remnant of a pagan temple, maybe even everything at once, in a strange summary of Afghanistan's history. Graveyard of empires but crossroads of civilisations...Jyothi kneeled in front of the ruins and sent a short prayer to the clear skies above, a prayer that could have been addressed to any deity, then slowly, gently, started to work the stones loose.
It took Jyothi a few hours to finally reach what she was looking for. A small wooden crate, the size of a jewel box, carved in butterfly patterns, wrapped in white cloth in memory of a loved one. She opened the box with great care and unwrapped the jewel that it contained. It assumed the shape of a moth with its wings spread to the wind, made of small crystal fragments sewn together with half-decomposed linen strings. To the untrained eye, it barely had any value, and indeed no self-respecting pillagers of ancient things would have even considered seeking for this thing. And yet, to Jyothi, it was one, if not the most precious artefact in the world. It came from Ethiopia, by way of Cairo, Jerusalem, Tbilisi, Moscow, Baku and all the civilisations in-between. A strange relic, assembled by scholars, peasants and wanderers from fragments found at the heart of old deserts under an ancient sun.
It was made of one hundred and twenty-seven four-dimensional crystals, shards of self-repeating symmetry both in time and space.
Azches considered the enemy with a mixture of interest and boredom.
They were dangerous. Their main weapon was some kind of relativistic particle beam that could very easily pierce a ship's armour. Their passive defences were strong enough to take hits that could have pulverized a human ship by merely grazing its hull. Yet at no point in the already six-hour-long battle had Azches ever felt truly threatened. Mobility was on her side, as the enemy could not perform faster than light travel. After the first exchange of shots, which had revealed the extreme vulnerability of her vessels, Azches had pivoted towards a very careful approach, rotating ships in and out of the killing zones every few minutes. Now she had a rather good idea of their active ranges and could position firebases right at their edge. Entering their firing bubbles was suicidal but Azches didn't need to: her ships just had to drop their faster than light missiles and translate away. The enemy had no way of evading a faster than light translation targeted at one of their ships and mass saturation attacks were almost certain to pierce through their active defences. Apparently the enemy was capable of performing self-repairs on their hulls, probably through some kind of organic process, but saturation was also the answer to this problem. The most pressing issue, really, was that Azches was starting to run out of ammunition. Sure, she could bring in more from Draugr and Algorab was already scrambling to direct supply vessels their way, but still.
This battle would end up costing billions to the commune.
At the heart of the armada was the one they once called the Strategist. From their great throne of immaterial proportions, they had witnessed countless battles unfold and they had won every single one of them. They were known as the spear of the Empire. Which empire, sometimes asked primitives when they first encountered them. To the Strategist, that question did not matter. There were many empires but there was only one Empire. One power to unite one hundred million stars. The cities were ashes, the planets were old and battered, the eyes floated in the void, hollow and broken, but the Strategist did not mind. All empires had to rise and fall, even the Empire. It would endure. It had always endured. As long as the armada stood, the Empire would live on. And they would guide it. They were the Strategist, after all. They had turned the tides of so many a war. They had helmed the great armada as it plunged through the heart of the Pale Path, slaughtering billions in its wake. They had led the great counter-attack against the Vriij and their slave races, carving a path in their cluster, a path so deep and so dark the Vriij had to do the unthinkable to repel the ever-advancing Empire. They had been at the heart of an untold war against those that dwelt between galaxies. They had even vanquished the Forgotten Travellers and put an end to their terrifying machinations by slaughtering what was left of their cursed species. In the unfathomable depths of the dark age, they had even gazed into the Moth's abyss.
And yet, this time, the Strategist was considering blinking.
The enemy was outnumbered, outgunned and outranged. Their ships were brittle things made out of primitive materials that exploded by merely looking at them. Their weapons were more than puny: weak lasers, barely better than storm lamps and needles that would not have been deemed battle-worthy by even the youngest of generals. They had no valuable defences. Worse even, some of their ships carried fragile biological crews. Sometimes the Strategist could feel their last breath exhaled in the void as their ship ruptured, pierced by a glancing blow. Through the void they watched life leave their fragile frames. Most of the time however the death of enemy ships was quick and merciful, life cauterized by a single relativistic burst. No, really, they were no match for their own ships. The Strategist had faced scouting parties that were better equipped than this.
But the armada was not winning.
The Strategist had deployed their best tactics. Five million years of combat experience forged in the furnaces of galaxy-spanning wars, ranging from daring raids against cursed planets to vast battles searing through systems for decades at a time. The combined military history of the greatest Empire to ever span the stars, combined and refined in a mind more complex than entire continents that could imagine campaigns in seconds, down to individual battle plans. Treasures of skill and imagination serving weapon platforms that carried the most powerful tools of destruction ever imagined by a sapient species. The combined talent and firepower of the armada that had conquered one million worlds. Every single manoeuver of the Strategist should have annihilated that puny fleet a thousand times over.
And yet it was irrelevant. Ship by ship, hull by hull, the enemy was slowly but surely grinding the armada down.
The Strategist had already faced enemies that could overpower their ships in a straight fight. The Strategist had already dealt with military minds that were every bit as sharp and capable as theirs. But it was the very first time they faced an enemy that could simply brute-force their way through their plans. The Strategist did not understand how the enemy managed to bend the very structure of space and time. How their ships could just shrug off one of the most fundamental constants of the universe. How they could just...cease to exist in one place and immediately exist again in another. It didn't matter at that point, because the Strategist's mind was entirely focused on how they could counter this ability. And the more time passed the more frantic their attempts became. Brute force didn't work: even targeted by relativistic weapons the enemy could just relocate away milliseconds before impact. Tactics didn't work either. Tactics, in fact, couldn't work because the enemy simply wasn't playing on the same field. They could move entire combat groups across the system in a heartbeat, they could even move ships to and from other systems. What the Strategist would have included in a long-term battle plan spanning centuries they were capable of achieving in a few hours. They simply didn't belong to the same mental space. To the same universe.
There was just no way out.
For the very first time in five million years the Strategist, herald of the Great Sequence, felt something that was a thousand times worse than fear.
Illustration by Internet Archive contributor Ekaterina Valinakova.
Rani's Diary/Unfinished autobiography.
Fragment retrieved by a deep network sweep on [DATE AND LOCATION ERASED BY USER REQUEST].
I have vivid recollections of the evening where we realized what the geometry drive could actually do. We had spent the last two weeks eliminating every single potential bias in our measurements, every single human or technical error that could have fooled us into feeding false data to our computers. Hell, I had even scoured pre Low-Age papers in physical storage to make sure I had not missed anything we could have taken into account. But there was nothing. We had submitted the results of our experiments to the thermonuclear version of Occam's razor and all that was left was the original interpretation.
Ten times out of ten, the geometry drive was beating light in a straight run.
I remember sending a group message with the latest results attached and something like let's take a few days for ourselves and our families and discuss that in a week, then closing my laptop and letting my eyes wander towards the ceiling. That's it. I thought. Our society. Our civilisation. Our Earth. This, right here, right now, is as good as we are going to get. We've won. Game over. Within a few years, we will be an interstellar species. Give it a decade or two and we will have our first settlements outside the solar system. A century and we will be a true multi-planetary species. We've passed the Great Filter. Not through technological prowess, not through hardship and sacrifice but through sheer, dumb luck.
Then I took another look at the drive. The crystalline cube was lying on the table, still wrapped in the apparatus I had used to protect it during our translation experiments in cislunar space. It gleamed slightly albeit there was no power running through its structure at this moment. For a moment I considered its mundane shape as if I had been looking at some kind of rubble left alongside the road. And then a shiver went down my spine and another thought burst through my mind.
This has the potential of breaking physics in half. If what the geometry drive does is indeed spontaneous faster than light travel then we are going to run into a massive wall of problems. Relativity and causality, one of these has to go. Calm down, Rani, and think. After all, we could get rid of relativity. That's an option. If relativity indeed doesn't work, it won't have tremendous consequences for slower than light physics. But what if relativity stands the test of the geometry drive? What if it's the other variable that breaks? What if there is no preferred frame of reference? Then causality paradoxes can exist. Then we can have causality loops. Out of sequence events can happen. Time travel can happen. Magic can happen in the most literal sense of effects that have no causes.
I pray that relativity doesn't hold.
And as my thoughts swirled around me like wisps, I saw myself on the other side of the desk, yet there was no mirror in the room.
The world was black. Up above was a deep, dark sky devoid of stars or planets, offering nothing but the eerie expanse of intergalactic space. Far below there was the pale surface of an icy planet only lit by its distant star, a white dwarf lost in the endless depths. Then three engine plumes ignited the darkness, revealing the unassuming shape of an Open Source Orbiter perpendicularly descending towards the surface.
Talasea's voice echoed on the local radio channel linked to the small local ground station.
"Santa is coming in hot!"
"Yeah, he is...in fact he's coming in slightly too hot. Ground control to Reindeer, you're going too fast, please adjust speed."
"Well, about that...it looks like one of our engines did not ignite. That might explain the slight speed problem. I assume you don't mind if we use your landing pad for a bit of lithobraking?" One of the plumes weakened then suddenly disappeared, leaving only two flames surging beneath the Open Source Orbiter. The small starship wobbled for a moment before the autopilot took back control. "Oh, it appears we've lost a second engine. Eh, I was going to switch it off to balance our thrust anyway."
Talasea turned towards Isaac. Her copilot/best friend/occasional lover seemed slightly worried, his flight suit sealed tight and his eyebrows raised in the general direction of the haptic displays. He was accustomed to Reindeer's capricious behaviour but it was the first time he had seen the loss of two engines at once.
"Are our engines lost-lost, or lost-lost?"
"Completely toast." Talasea shrugged. Her colourful flight suit made her look like some kind of exotic bird lost in space. "I think it's the fuel injection pump. Or the nozzle connections. Or a combination of both. I've emptied the fuel tanks for the two dead engines." As the Open Source Orbiter was standing upright relative to its axis of movement, Talasea's rotating seat was now below Isaac's and the copilot could only see her hands on the stick and throttle. They weren't shaking. She was flying Reindeer as if everything had been absolutely fine. "Ground gravity is one quarter of standard, it will be a bit shaky but we'll walk it off...and with a bit of luck, our presents will as well. Ok, Reindeer to ground control, I'm landing on two engines with RCS emergency assist. I've emptied most of my fuel tanks, terminal velocity will be slightly above 50 meters per second. Performing final deceleration burn in five seconds."
"Well, I wanted to rebuild that landing pad anyway. Don't you want to purge your cargo as well?"
"Santa never abandons his presents, ground control. Negative."
Isaac sighed and curled up in his anti-g seat in a pure reflex as Reindeer pushed its two remaining engines at full thrust then fired its RCS thrusters as well in order to cushion the blow of the final impact. As far as emergency landings went, he found this one rather honourable. The autopilot had maintained a perfectly straight trajectory and while neither the landing gear nor the engine nozzles particularly appreciated the landing, the cockpit itself barely shook.
Tali unshackled her safety harness, opened her helmet and turned towards Isaac with a smile. Her blue irenian skin blended seamlessly with the lights in the cockpit. She opened the outer airlock and waited for Marjani, the local station's science officer and Great Organiser of Various Festivities. Isaac noticed that she was wearing a complete vacuum suit, which meant the airlock wasn't attached to the station...or couldn't be anymore, since it was now half-buried in the ice.
"I'm afraid Reindeer isn't flying away from this, my dears." smiled Marjani.
"Good. This piece of junk was starting to become an annoyance. I can tolerate and even enjoy a certain amount of technical failures but losing engines in a final approach is too much for me." chuckled Tali in response. "At least the gifts are in good shape. I've got Terran cakes, Eloran wine, and kind letters for everyone at the station."
"Why are we even doing this?" grumbled Isaac from the upper cockpit. "I mean, there's nothing special on December 25th, isn't it? This could have waited a few days and technicians could have caught the engine issues."
"Well, it's tradition. Gifts are given on the 25th of December, Terran calendar...it's one of those things you don't really question, like, say, Elorans insisting to call ships her," answered Marjani while she battled with her helmet which was clearly too small to contain her long dark hair. "Personally I think the date doesn't really matter. It's just a time for kind attentions...and I think you'll agree this is all the more important on the edge of the galaxy. There's only darkness beyond this planet, so if we don't bring each other gifts, who will?"
"Fair enough. I still wonder about the choice of the date." pondered Tali. "Hmmm, doesn't the 25th of December have something to do with, you know, that Christian icon?"
"Saint Nicolas?" asked Isaac.
"No, the other one."
"I think she means Jesus Christ, Isaac. Yeah, I know that theory, but it doesn't make a lot of sense doesn't it? It's common knowledge that Jesus was born between September and March but no clear sources are stating that it was on the 25th of December. Maybe in the Old Bible? But I'm not sure it even exists anymore, even on Earth. The Outer Church doesn't celebrate anything special on the 25th of December anyway."
"Hmmm, I don't know, could it be a Jewish thing?"
"Or Pagan? That Saturnalia celebration, I remember hearing something about it once while I was in Cathedral station."
"I don't think it's a very fruitful debate. It's almost midnight. The galaxy is coming up in the sky again, I want to see it."
Tali dimmed the lights inside the cockpit and switched the external viewports to observation mode. Sharp-bladed mountains of ice towered near the horizon. In the sky, the deep darkness had receded, replaced by a sprawling river of distant stars. The Milky Way galaxy, seen from the edge, seven thousand lightyears above the galactic plane, its arms spiralling in everlasting silence. Everyone stood silent in the cockpit, but Isaac could be heard uttering a final question.
"I mean, who's Santa anyway?"
Helena Yue's old bicycle lied against one of the trees alongside the path that went down the hills towards the valley. It was a rusty machine that was almost as old as its owner: both Yue and her bike had come from the Earth, fifty-seven years before, both of them stored in the immense hallways of migrant ship Look At What We Have Here.
A cool wind ran down the mountains and the forest was ablaze with the colours of autumn. In the beginning, it had felt so...wrong to Yue. The colours, the smells, the plants - they were all so reminiscent of the Earth. The trees especially were a striking display of convergent evolution. Sure, they weren't actually trees. They were exceedingly complex colonies of symbiotic micro-organisms where algae, fungi and amoeba would merge to create forest colonies several thousand kilometres large capable of nigh-sapience - but externally they looked like Earth trees. Fungi running in the ground like roots. Hardened amoeba like the coloured bark of deciduous trees. Transparent algae sacks so thin they rustled in the wind like leaves. Even the animals shared similarities - flying lizards with feathers made for acceptable birds, fur-covered insects roamed around the woods as a substitute for mammals if one wasn't willing to look too hard. To the first migrants, Elora had felt like an eerie facsimile for the Earth. As a geologist, Helena perfectly understood the irony of the situation. Elora was in fact older than the Earth and its life had appeared at least a billion years before its entrance on Earth's grand evolutionary stage. If anything it was the Earth that looked like Elora.
0.8 Earth gravities, one atmosphere of pressure, a stable oxygen-nitrogen mix, three small moons keeping its orbit in check, a gentle F-class star illuminating its surface, long autumns and springs followed by short summers and warm winters, three quarters of its surface covered in oceans - Elora was a super-habitable world. Its life was richer than on Earth despite its evolutionary similarities. More complex, more intertwined. Its forests were immense, coherent organisms and its shallow oceans welcomed corals that could entertain complex thoughts. Elora was a planet full of collective intelligence. In the forests, billions of eyes were watching humans come and go, but those were benevolent, curious eyes, the eyes of consciousness billions of years in the making.
Helena Yue looked southwards. The mountains were covered in snow and the forests gleamed in nuances of orange, creating a vast colour chart running from the deep, fog-covered valleys to the azur-blessed tips of young peaks. A few arcologies ran along the abrupt slopes. Like the trees, they changed colours as seasons passed to blend in seamlessly with the landscape. Yue had been one of the proponents of this architectural style, four decades before. How to occupy Elora without ravaging it had been and still was the most pressing concern for the migrants - they still refused to refer to themselves as colonists. How to blend in. How to live and disappear.
To Helena Yue, Elora was humankind's true test. Humans were on the doorstep of becoming an interstellar civilization. Faster than light travel had been the first step, even if to a certain extent humankind had been robbed of this achievement by whoever had invented the geometry drive - but in truth it was irrelevant. Faster than light travel was a problem solvable by engineers. It was a matter of energy conversion. Not a simple one, of course, but still a problem that could be reduced to equations and schematics. It wasn't a test. It was a road bump. A mountain-shaped road bump, true, but a road bump nonetheless. The second phase was where the true stakes resided. Settlement. Elora was humankind's best chance at establishing a permanent, sustainable, independent presence on another world. Mars, Tau Ceti, Trappist - all of them had been but rehearsals for the great play. Elora was the true goal. It wasn't just about establishing a self-sufficient colony - no, it was way more ambitious. It was about creating a civilisation.
In the balance hung the future of humankind. It was as simple as that. Elora was the endpoint of a seven hundred years war humanity had been waging against itself, from the dawn of the industrial age to the last years of the Low Age. A silent battlefield.
On the one hand, there was the endless repeating of history. The same failures, the same shortcomings as usual. There was Elora's incredibly complex and incredibly fragile life. There was humankind's tendency to spread, consume and devour, like all complex organisms left unchecked. There was Earth's example - a battered, ruined planet, left exhausted by the Anthropocene.
On the other hand, there was the legacy of the Low Age. Five hundred years of ecosystemic repairs and comprehension, five hundred years of social and economic progress, there was the power of modern AIs, the ability to model ecosystems in their entirety, the possibility to think as a planet for the very first time in human history. The possibility to do better.
And here she was, cycling under a foreign autumn sun, five hundred lightyears away from the Earth, the first person to step foot on Elora, yet as clueless as everyone else.
_Message sent: 48 days 21 hours ago.
_From: Joséphine (Perdurance-class AI) aboard survey ship "In Due Time" (affiliation: Tau Ceti Settlement Syndicate).
Object: report of relay station with unregistered modifications.
As we translated into system LSPM J0207+3331 (145 lightyears away from the solar system reference point), sensor arrays reported the presence of a relay station that did not respond to our hails. We approached the station, assuming it was a deactivated or unresponsive automated relay base. LSPM J0207+3331 is a white dwarf system whose sole star has a mass equal to roughly 0.60 times the Sun contained and is three billion years old. Its most notable feature is the presence of an extensive ring system made of debris disks. The station is located right outside the main debris ring, a few dozen lightseconds away from the star.
Upon approach within close range (i.e under one lightsecond) we repeated our hails. Still, no response, albeit several automated beacons started tracking us, showing the station was still active. Direct imaging of the relay was requested. It showed that the waystation had undergone significant modifications to its original design. Namely, what appeared to be a small habitation ring had been added and the station sported a docking port for an Open Source Orbiter. Thermal radiations coming from heat sinks showed the station was active, albeit probably in low energy mode.
Upon reaching docking range (i.e under one-quarter of a lightsecond) we sent a third hail. This time we got a response. Transcript of the exchange follows.
_Waystation: "Alright, alright, I heard you the first time, what do you want?"
_In Due Time: "This is TCSS In Due Time, who are we talking to?"
_Waystation: "My name is Mina Himano. I'm this station's sole inhabitant."
_In Due Time: "Do you need help? Are you stranded here?"
_Waystation: "Stranded? No, not at all. I am living here."
_In Due Time: "We are not sure we are understanding you correctly? You...live here? In this system? In the middle of nowhere? Alone?"
_Waystation: "Yes. Why not? What's so strange about it?"
_In Due Time: "White dwarfs are not exactly welcoming stars."
_Waystation: "On the contrary. I love their light. I love the fact that I am staring at a dead star. A stellar ghost. Have you ever fallen in love with a star?"
We came closer to survey the station. All external systems seemed in good shape. We performed simple upgrades on a few obsolete sensors and translated away with a final hail.
Survey still ongoing.
The red dwarf watched over the struggling human with complete disinterest, high in the sky of the tidally locked world.
WARNING: OXYGEN LEVELS LOW.
WARNING: ATMOSPHERE FILTERS OFFLINE
V already had trouble breathing despite her exosuit's efforts to try and delay the inevitable. They glanced at their suit once again. Ironically what had saved their life was now going to kill them. Their light exosuit had cushioned the impact of their fall very well...by breaking the air recycling and filtering system beyond repair. V tried to ask the suit's systems again.
"Engage repair sequence."
The answer blinked on their helmet's head-up display.
REPAIR SYSTEMS OFFLINE.
WARNING: OXYGEN LEVELS CRITICAL.
V tried to find a more comfortable posture against the sandy rock. Several meters above them their drone watched, unable to provide anything but pep talk - it wasn't equipped to repair their model of exosuit and even if it had been, V was out of filters. They were about to die of asphyxiation at the end of this canyon, with a settlement barely a few kilometres away, on a planet full of life.
"How long until the rescue drone arrives?" they asked their suit again.
INCONCLUSIVE: UNABLE TO CONTACT RESCUE DRONE.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: WIRELESS SYSTEMS OFFLINE.
There. V was at the point where the lack of oxygen was starting to get really uncomfortable, way beyond what they had experienced when hiking at the top of Earth mountains without additional oxygen supply. Her breath was dying somewhere in the depths of their throat.
To hell with it... thought V as they reached for the helmet's emergency decoupling handle.
The display shot a few words back at V in angry, fiery red.
WARNING: YOU ARE ABOUT TO OPEN YOUR EXOSUIT.
WARNING: HIGH RISK OF ENVIRONMENT CONTAMINATION.
WARNING: THIS ACTION IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED UNDER REG
The words vanished as V decoupled the helmet from the light exosuit. The CO2-saturated air inside the exosuit whistled as it escaped it. The wind rustled against their cheeks. Alien wind. V took a very long breath. The air rushed inside their lungs, leaving a feeling of pure bliss behind. 18% oxygen, 70% nitrogen, with bits of rare gases. V inspired once more. It smelled like lilac. Yes, lilac with something more bitter hiding behind. Something they were the first human being to smell - the perfume of Trappist ground coral, the planet's dominant lifeform. V slowly extended her fingers in the wind. It carried transparent spores alongside strangely melodic sounds - this was how the coral colonies communicated with each other, a planet-wide song that would only end with the death of all life on Trappist. A small colony clung to the rock above them, bone-coloured tubes built by small creatures seemingly made of sand - in fact, self-sustaining grapes of amoeba-like creatures.
WARNING: ONGOING EXTERNAL CONTAMINATION said the display on their helmet, now abandoned in the sand.
V took a third breath. It could not last, they thought. With every single breath, they were expelling billions of microbes in the air, microbes that would form small colonies within a few hours and then...and then...and then, perhaps, those would be the start of a massive contamination cluster. For all the movies humans had made about alien encounters, very few of them had envisioned what would become the real systematic risk of exploring worlds harbouring life. External contamination by lifeforms carried by human ships and explorers. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, all forged in the billion years old crucible of evolution on Earth. In many cases, alien environments were not really capable of harming humans due to the advances in medicine in the Low Age, as well as the radical differences between lifeforms. The opposite was true - microscopic earthlings weren't capable of seriously harming alien life. No, the real threat was invasive species. Microbes and fungi rooting themselves deep in a planet's biosphere and ending up competing with aliens on their own turf. It had already happened in the past. It would keep happening in the future. In the sands of Trappist, V was now a potential walking bioweapon.
But at this point, it did not matter to them. They were breathing the atmosphere of another world. They were breathing oxygen produced by creatures that had never seen the light of the sun. They were living in this world, instead of just observing it from afar, from the plexiglass prison of their helmet.
V looked towards the star. It gleamed high in the sky. It seemed to approve of them.
Illustration: D. Mitryi
A clear early autumn sun shone above the deep forests of the Ile-de-France region. Five centuries before there had been sprawling wheat fields covering these plains: for a moment after the collapse, the region had even briefly become Europe's granary as worldwide trade networks were down. Now, as the Low Age was in its death throes, the region had returned to a quasi-prehistorical state of things as far as its geography was concerned. Intensive agriculture had become forests. The ruins of Paris and its suburbs had never truly been replaced by anything. Urbanisation had been scattered in myriads of small communes all across the region. Faraway to the horizon gleamed tall windmills and the odd tokamak fusion reactor.
About five hundred and thirty years before, in the 1970s, someone in the French government had had the weird idea of experimenting with the idea of jet-powered hovertrains. The Aérotrain project had crashed and burnt in the 1973 oil crisis but it had left a trace in the landscape, under the shape of a kilometre-long test suspended track in the forest of Orléans. The very name of Aérotrain had disappeared and the test track itself had collapsed but for hundreds of years, this strange aerial track built in the middle of the forest had remained in the minds of the Abbesses of Orléans. The original abbey itself had joined the aerial track among the ruins of Orléans forest but the fascination for speed and aerodynamics was still there. The Abbey of Orléans had ceased to follow Christianity somewhere in the 23rd century. On the white and black tunics of the Abbesses, the cross had been replaced by the moon and arrow. By the early 2400s, the Abbeys of Orléans had become the intellectual centre of the Northern Branch of the Outer Church, carrying with them the legacy of what had once been the European Space Agency.
In the Outer Church, there was no devil and there was no otherwordly God. There was the sacred desire of humankind to reach for the stars and there was the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation - the inescapable truth that a ship was either powerful or fuel-efficient, and the simple reality that the first steps were always the hardest. There was a brute-force method to break free from the Earth's merciless gravity well - launchers surging through the atmosphere like oversized candles containing more fuel than payload. The Abbesses had always thought there were more elegant solutions.
And on this morning of June 4th, 2578, the Abbess of Orléans contemplated the fruit of three centuries of work. A Concorde-O single stage to orbit spaceplane, resting on an Aérotrain-inspired Maglev launch track. White delta wings gleaming under the sun, black streamlined engine pods waiting in the warm wind - above the stars were slowly dying as the sun took over.
Suddenly there was a spark running all along the five kilometres long Maglev track and the Concorde started taking up speed. The Abbess watched as the spaceplane endured a five gees acceleration while sliding alongside the inclined track. Thirty seconds later it left the track at several hundred meters per second, howling in the sunrise when its air-breathing engines immediately ignited. The Abbess felt a sudden warmth surge through her spine when she heard the sonic boom accompanied by a deep, powerful howl coming from the engines. To her, it was the song of the divine. The Concorde kept accelerating above the forests, leaving a wishbone-shaped shadow on the trees. The Concorde was now evolving at hypersonic speeds, using helium coolant to prevent its engine from melting itself as it climbed higher and higher. When the Concorde-O reached six times the speed of the sound and twenty-five kilometres of altitude the engines switched to their closed-cycle configuration, morphing from classical jet engines to rocket drives. Now freed from the constraints of aeroplane designs the Concorde continued its ascent. Its ever-growing speed quickly brought it to the edge of space, one hundred and fifty kilometres above the surface of the Earth. The Concorde performed one last full-power burn to circularize its orbit - and it was in space.
A five kilometres long maglev ramp for the initial velocity. Engines that could seamlessly transition between jets and rocket drives. The long-forgotten shape of a 20th century supersonic airliner. The three solutions the Outer Church used to counter the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation weren't always efficient but they were elegant.
And for the Outer Church, elegance was half the way to salvation.
AI to AI conversations recorded on 3.07.2589 - Earth-Moon communications
Xenya (Verdurance-class AI, Babylon Station): Ok, so we should definitely do something about 1950 DA. It has about 90% chances of impacting the Earth within two years. Any volunteers to chuck a ship in its direction?
Alsich (Illuminate-class AI, Moon): Can somebody tell me why we didn't get a warning sooner?
Xenya: I have no idea. I guess the Earth's defences did not take it seriously?
Evelyn (Fungi-class VAI, Pacific ocean): Speaking of which, can't orbital defences handle it? Surely it wouldn't cost too much to the USRE to send a railgun shell this way?
Xenya: ??? The asteroid would probably shatter.
Evelyn: And the debris would later be picked by smaller crafts, problem solved. Why are we even discussing this?
Alsich: Ok, so let's be serious for a second. The reality is that Earth's defences messed this up and should have noticed this asteroid about six months ago, I have no idea why they missed it but they did anyway. So if we take care of it with a ship, we spare a lot of annoyances to a lot of people. Better get rid of 1950 DA in deep space than in a place where anyone with a telescope can see that the defences failed.
Evelyn: Bah. Let these idiots sort it out themselves.
Xenya: Nevermind, how much delta-v do we need to push this thing away?
Alsich: You can make your own calculations, but it's like, an hour of continuous thrust for a random cargo ship? Nothing important. Doable in a day.
Xenya: Right, I have an asteroid mining motherdrone near 1950 DA, I'll dispatch it.
Evelyn: Hey, what if we crashed it into a deserted area of the moon? That would be spectacular.
Xenya: Request denied.
Evelyn: You are aggressively unfun.
Moon Communes archives - Lunar Forum messages - 2587
From communal user Shoreh Avarala
Topic: What to do with Apollo remnants? (Communal debate 675-A)
So at present, we have six historical sites with remnants of Apollo missions scattered on the visible side of the moon, most of them being what's left of the LEMs and a few other elements like lunar rovers. A few facts for those who just joined the debate: the Apollo remains are in almost pristine shape even after five hundred years, they're just slightly damaged by micrometeorite impacts. Their historical value is extremely important, they represent a key element of one of the industrial age's main space programmes. They are the peak of what our ancestors in 1969 could achieve. Yes, I know the usual objections - they're also the symbol of a cold war that almost turned into nuclear annihilation, and they're also the achievement of a highly imperialistic power that played a great role in the collapse a century later.
I think we should keep them. As usual - never forget anything.
A bright sunset hovered above the steppes near Baikonur. Horses waited in the wind, their forelegs pawing the short grass. Above the horses were the monumental ruins of Baikonur, launch towers finally rusting in the middle of nowhere - except that they were fake, that the original Baikonur was now almost six hundred years old and had since long been dismantled, sold for scrap, abandoned in the chaos of the early Low Age. The massive structures surging towards the setting sun weren't made of steel. They were built in modern carbon compounds, and they would stand the test of time way better than their predecessors. They would remain here for millennia. Pretend ruins. Ghosts of something that had once been one of the world's main launch centres, a gateway to the stars. Time had passed. Five centuries and the centre of gravity of human civilisation had moved south, towards the dispossessed of the ancient world. Baikonur had been forgotten. Cape Canaveral had disappeared in the great swamps of what had once been the North American east coast. Kourou had returned to the rainforest. The world's great launch centres were now all located alongside the equator, in Africa, South America and Eastern Asia - and in a few years, the space elevator would make most of them obsolete, finally freeing Earth from the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation.
Zenya sat on the remains of an ancient railway piled up beneath one of the mock launch towers. She looked at the sky, an old portable tape player in her hands. She listened to a very old tune, one that probably dated from before the Low Age. A short, hypnotic piece of electronic music endlessly remixing the original Sputnik's radio signal - like little stars made of sound that went up and down, carrying eerie nostalgia for a time that had never truly been. Zenya had abandoned her old clothes and her composite bow next to the horses, relinquishing her earthly attributes in the cold air of sunset. She wore a long-sleeved flight suit instead. It was made of bio-engineered plant fabric whose white outer side caught the last light of the day like dying coral. On the right sleeve was the emblem of her nomadic commune, a stylized steppe horse. On the left sleeve was the emblem of the Moon Communes, gleaming slightly in the coming darkness. Zenya focused on the music. It carried her away, away from Baikonur's ruins and towards the endless black-purple darkness stretching lazily from one side of the horizon to the other. She didn't feel nervous, just hungry. Her last meal went back to the day before. Everything felt alright, she just didn't feel like eating. Didn't feel like speaking, too. Her lips were dry and sealed.
When the shuttle appeared Zenya couldn't say if the tingle that ran down her spine was fear, awe or something in-between - a new feeling entirely. Holy terror, except it was entirely profane. She took off her speakers and put the music player in her bag. Sputnik's ancient tune kept dancing in her mind as she watched the shuttle land in the steppes. It was all white and bore only a moon crescent on its side. Shaped like a smooth, elongated cylinder, the shuttle landed vertically, its engines screaming in the steppes like a howling beast. When the engine light finally disappeared the shuttle was standing in the middle of the ruined Baikonur area. Zenya stood up and walked towards the shuttle, alone. Two Moon Communes pilots were waiting for her in the white light coming from the shuttle's ground-facing projectors. They were taller than Zenya, as they were true moon-dwellers, having been raised in 1/6th Earth gravities. They saluted her with a smile and Zenya answered in kind before climbing aboard the shuttle.
The inside of a Moon shuttle was comfier than what Zenya was accustomed to and she strapped herself to the seat that was the closest to the cockpit. The shuttle was structured alongside a perpendicular axis relative to the ground - logical, thought Zenya: that way the acceleration would push the passengers towards the floor and not the walls. Logical but slightly disorienting. Zenya was more accustomed to the horizontal layout of high altitude planes.
"This is your first orbital journey, right?" asked one of the two pilots, a woman with white hair and dark skin. Zenya nodded, holding to her music player. She had never gone above thirty kilometres in altitude.
"Our ascent is going to be rather smooth." continued the pilot. "It will be fine, just relax and calm down. Oh, you've got music? Good."
Zenya nodded again and the pilot climbed towards the cockpit.
Zenya's mind closed up during the first stage of the ascent. She felt a surge of raw power run through her body when the main engines ignited and the shuttle started climbing above the steppes. She tried to look downwards through the viewport next to her seat but the engine plume drowned everything in light. The g-force pushed her against her seat, but she was used to this feeling from her high-speed jet flights. She just closed her eyes and let the shuttle carry her far in the high atmosphere.
Then at one point, there was peace. The engines had stopped. Zenya felt her body lose all of its weight in an instant. Another familiar feeling, this time coming from parabolic zero-g flights above the ocean - but it was different here. It was different because it didn't stop. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. It kept going on and on. Zenya unstrapped herself and floated above her seat. Naturally, without even thinking about it, she reached for her music player, put on the earpieces and let Sputnik's song fill the sudden silence. The shuttle ignited its thrusters and pivoted alongside its axis. A vast blue crescent filled the viewport. Yes she had seen this a million times in videos and photographs, yes it was now something common, something a million persons experienced every year, yes, yes, but for a split-second Zenya felt an incredible feeling take control of her mind.
It wasn't power. It wasn't humility. It was something in-between. For the first time in her life she physically saw the world in its entirety. It was the genuine article. Photons filtered by her eyes without a screen or a picture in-between. The Earth. Millions of layers of space intertwined with each other, all of them grasped in a single look, in a single second.
Zenya was a shaman, a woman who linked the elements of the physical world, between spirits and humans, between local and global, between layers of space and time, all aligned on top of each other. And there, four hundred kilometres above the ground, she had never felt her art and her religion be more important, more justified.
Angaraka Expedition - Sol 32 - 2546.
It's been about thirty martian days since we landed on the planet.
It's strange. Everyone is acting as if we were pioneers, the first people to walk on Mars - but this isn't true. Historically speaking, I mean. This just isn't true. I know the date by heart, from the history books. 22nd of June 2032. The first human on Mars. Roughly twenty-five years before the collapse and the beginning of the early Low Age. It took them six months to reach the red planet. Thirty-five days for us, and once the geometry drive becomes a usable technology...thirty-five minutes, probably. Maybe even less. That's funny, in a way. We aren't even on the cutting edge of technology. We are just the last remnant of the old space age.
Team 6 came across the ruins of a derelict ground station near Marineris Valley. It seems to be from the collapse era, probably around 2060-2070. It has to be. Nothing left Earth for most of the Low Age. The base is made of a landing area, a few surface buildings and a vast underground complex. The surface installations are damaged beyond repair. Radiations and storms have had three centuries to reduce most exposed surfaces to rubble. The underground complex is in a better shape, however, mostly untouched. It's also a necropolis. Everyone down there died about three to five years after the Earth cut contact. It looks like they tried to cultivate their own food but to no avail.
Avasara, our historian, has a theory. This base wasn't a scientific outpost. It was a sanctuary, a refuge for a group of extremely wealthy individuals seeking to flee what they saw as the end of human civilisation on Earth. Bad choice, in hindsight. As the collapse intensified, contact with the Earth was finally cut and the colony simply died. The grandiose plans of colonization didn't survive more than five years without Earth.
We'll bury the victims and leave the station alone, as a sanctuary. The first human necropolis of Mars.