Chapter 1 – Cole

In the beginning, all was darkness.
Out of the darkness came the Brothers, who rose as the source of light.
And they searched for those who would receive their benevolence.

The Brothers saw the beasts of the dirt and went forth, walking on the face of the first world.
And those who were beasts rose from the dirt, they stood on two as the Brothers did.
And those who were beasts spoke, igniting action with understanding.
And the Brothers heard them, for they were the souls of the first men.
And the Brothers spoke in return, for the first men were worthy.

Extract from the holy text of the Korahe Tribe

“I am such a coward,” my voice cried out. No one was listening. My hand was bleeding heavily. Spheres of blood floated around my head. Our artificial gravity had gone out. The shell of our starship had cracked. We were thirty million light years from Earth, Mars, and everything we had ever known and we were falling. I had just sentenced my friends to death.
There were ten of us that came out here. Each of us had our own motivations for joining Project Aspire. Each of us was gifted; the best in our respective fields. We were training, the pioneers of deep space exploration, testing the grounds for a new slipstream device that would open up the stars for humanity. Theoretically, we could travel light years in the time it took us to maneuver through the warp hole. No longer would billions of people be trapped between the cities of Earth and the mining colonies on Mars. No longer would we be grounded, living behind perpetual barriers. The universe would be ours.
We made jump after jump. First we left the Lagrange point, the transorbital construction site of our ship and jumped to the edge of Pluto. Representatives from every nation and new world celebrated as we sent a message back. It was the happiest I had been my whole life. Some of the others onboard seemed motivated by other things. Eric, the assigned protector of the group, seemed more like he was ready for war than the rescue and assist missions that the military branch D.A.R.C. assigned him to. He was stoic, always calculating, always analyzing, always on edge and ready to act. He was searching for something in the dark void of space. Amanda, the beautiful anthropologist was quiet but excited about exploring. She seemed too fragile for space and her field of expertise did not make sense for our mission, but each of us had been handpicked by the financiers of the project so who was I to judge. I knew she was some kind of celebrity, but I had never been much for pop culture. Maybe that was why she was here. I was lucky to be given this opportunity at all. I had heard Eric and Amanda talking the night before, murmuring in their bunks. Aside from the two of them I felt there was no one else out here I could really get along with. Some of the older crew seemed bitter. They had made a few jumps before and were responsible for our training, but now they were being replaced by a new generation. They were being replaced by us.
“There is nothing out there, so don’t get your hopes up Cole,” Ray, the engineer I had been sent to replace, told me. Apparently they only needed one engineer. “The ship runs itself, you’re only there for aesthetic in the day to day, but don’t get too cozy. If anything goes wrong you will be the only one that can fix the damned thing,” That was his only advice to me.
We had to redefine everything we knew about particles and physics the moment the first dry test was done. There were some failures. A prototype disappeared several years ago. The official word was it was destroyed but we knew the truth. During a jump it feels like no time passes at all. The ship tears a hole in time and space then flies through it, as easily as a bee through a window. If the computers calculate something wrong you could end up in the middle of a star or so close to a gas giant that the gravity would rip the ship apart. Every journey has its dangers. In our hearts we all live for the thrill.
It was just a few moments after our second jump, a small test jump above the eye of Jupiter, when we picked up the signal. It was a hum. A slow, pulsating pattern that was far more complex and familiar than anything nature could create on its own, repeating strings of prime numbers and Fibonacci sequences. The older crew had never gone this far. They knew the ship’s systems and how to fly it, but they had only ever jumped a few thousand miles at a time and never outside the heliosphere.
The younger of us argued in favor of exploring the signal. We were too far away to contact mission control and had no idea if the signal would end as abruptly as it had appeared, making that moment perhaps our only chance to follow it. We debated it for hours. Finally the older crew succumbed. They were not ready to retire and this was their last chance to find something in the out. We were farther away from Earth than any human had ever gone. As far as they were concerned we were crazy and breaking every first contact rule ever made. But it was worth it.
I told them. I told them if we jumped too far then we could get lost, or stranded. I took it upon myself to rig the power to cut back on shields. We would be protected enough from radiation as long as we did not get caught in a supernova or solar flare. We dropped a drone to relay some of our communications back to Lagrange point. We said nothing of our discovery, only that we were planning a few more jumps.
We were out for three days. We jumped twice every three hours, targeting areas of space that were clear of debris, but we knew that the image we saw of empty space came from light that had taken thousands of years to reach our ship. In that time anything could have floated into our jump coordinates. This was part of the reason our ship was so small, a flea on the back of a whale compared to the A-class Cruisers that ferried people and raw materials between Earth and Mars. If we came out in an asteroid field, a small ship could navigate its way out without too much difficulty.
We sped further and further away from Earth and familiar constellations. By the second day I could not recognize a single star in the sky. The slipstream device worked flawlessly, jumping light years into darkness. Everything outside our ship was alien.
By the third day we were getting tense. The cramped confines of the ship were not designed to be used as living quarters for ten people, especially for so long. Our food supplies were dwindling, but the water recycling kept us hydrated and we had a while to go before we reached the point of no return. That would happen on the fifteenth day. Man could survive without food for a month or so, of that we were certain.
With the ion drives powering up between jumps, and nothing else to do, we debated endlessly. I usually spoke to Eric in particular about politics, D.A.R.C., and philosophy. I had worked with D.A.R.C. before. From my perspective they were created to protect and rescue those in need, but I distrusted the fact that they were a military branch with far too much power. In space they chose who lived or died, and who stayed in charge as humanity expanded. Eric kept quiet most of the time, soaking everything in and endlessly processing my views. Occasionally he’d say something like ‘I just do what I’m told’, or ‘my mission is the people, they’re my main concern’. Regardless of how little he said, I knew there was so much more going on inside. Even though I had nothing against him, it is hard to trust someone who plays his cards so close to his chest.
We made our final jump. Moments after our ion drive kicked in and spun us around, a precautionary measure that never failed. The last thing we want is for our engines to stop working. To fall adrift in space would be hell. After every jump our ship faced the direction of Earth. Should anything happen to us the ion drive would take the ship home, kicking us back through the wormhole we had created. You had to manually steer to turn the starship and continue to the next jump. The ship was gears, pistons, new organic compounds all working in unison, a body filled with wires and veins. The slipstream drive was the heart of it all. It was bleeding.
Everyone else was asleep in their cabin when the shields went out. It seemed strange that they could sleep through the jumps now. Perhaps I would be sleeping with them, but as the engineer I felt it was my responsibility to be on hand for each jump. So much for good intentions. I was at the helm looking at the observation screens. We were approaching a planet, the source of the signal. Our long range scanners read no advanced technology or radio signals. Yet somehow, this was where the signal had originated from. It was very Earth like. For a moment I thought I was home, imagining we had returned from our training and would be received as heroes. We would get promotions, medals, even a school or two named after us. Yet this was not Earth. There was a single landmass, broken only in a few smaller areas that must have been islands and peninsulas. The planet itself was larger, maybe two or three times the size of Earth, yet the gravity was only slightly higher. It must not have the dense iron core that our planet has. What stood out the most was the green color that covered the landmass completely. There was life on this planet. Have you ever gone from the purest elation to desperate panic in the same moment?
A jolt hit our ship. The observation screens went black. The lights went out. The engines stopped. For a few moments there was nothing but silence. I felt my body rise off the chair I was sitting on. Our artificial gravity was gone. The water in my cup began to twirl and wrap itself around my hand like a warm gel. I let the cup float out of my hands. The only source of light was from the planet, the sun that it was orbiting was blocked by the back of the ship. I began to move as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was then that the inner layer of the observation glass shattered. Pieces scattered in every direction cutting my arm and my cheek. Then there was the sound of one of our crew screaming. The starship had begun to slowly rip itself apart. I could feel the air growing thinner by the minute as the temperature began to drop alarmingly. My first coherent thought was a question. Why had the ion drive not sent us home?
Unsurprisingly, Eric was the most prepared. He barreled out of the dormitory into the ship’s corridor. Moving with purpose, he had brought several light sticks, cracking and throwing them up and down the corridors and handing them out to the rest of the crew as they fumbled out behind him. I was the last of us to make it to the lower deck that housed our escape pods.
The first tears in the hull were small but they were gradually widening, the air escaping in a high-pitched shriek. Without power, the pods could not be ejected. “There is a manual release, we can eject them one by one to the planet but we’ll have to manually turn the ship,” I said. Eric and the Commander made their way back to the helm. Eric led the way with his rifle, using the light at the end to illuminate their way, and barging shrapnel out of their course with its heavy stock. It moved like an extension of his body. In less than twenty seconds the front of the ship began to turn. I could see the light from the sun shine through the portholes. I grabbed a breather and a jacket from the paneling in the lower deck and began taking small shallow breaths. It was getting colder. Soon we would begin to freeze to death. Not that it mattered; we were in a downward spiral towards the planet.
I showed Eric how to manually launch the pods. The first one out was Amanda. She was crying when we all said goodbye. On the planet the pods should get just enough solar energy to power up and send a distress signal, but we knew it would take eons for it to reach Earth. Inside every pod was some survival gear, enough for us to find each other again, designed for a Martian crash-landing. One by one we saw our crew members off. Then we were down to our last two pods. Eric was about to shove me in mine but I told him we had better chances in the pilot room, the small self-contained command module where the black box was stowed. I knew that the pod parachutes were programmed for entry into a Martian atmosphere. They could open too late on this planet.
I felt so stupid for not thinking of it earlier. It was the only self sustaining room, shielded with a thick lead wall to contain the ionic radiation should the drive jump us back to Legrange. It was the reason the ship always faced home, the ion drive’s receptacle. We floated down towards the room as the hull began to screech. Corridors twisted around us, rivets popping and knocking about the insides like pinballs. A piece of shrapnel hit my breather, shattering the inside. I could feel pieces of broken glass tickle my throat. Eric was in front of me, shouldering his way through the floating mess of debris. He looked back, his eyes widening as he saw me choking. I felt him pulling me forward, launching my weightless body into the wall in the back of the pilot room.
My vision blurred. I watched Eric close the door as the grey steel outside twisted and caught fire. We were in the atmosphere now. I filled my breather with blood and spit. My hand was bleeding.
I am a coward. Had I gone into the engine room straight away, I could have manually turned the ion drive on and sent us home, killing myself with radiation in the process. It would be like giving the ship an electric jolt. I could have reset its heart. I could have saved us.
The starship burned to pieces around us. By the time we were out of the atmosphere it had completely split in two. From the ground it must have looked like a phoenix forming in the sky.
“Why are we falling?” I mumbled. Eric looked at me strangely. He had strapped me to the wall and strapped himself to the other side. I could not remember where I was. I closed my eyes and began to dream.

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