I watch the red dwarfs approach on the engineering stations’ single view-screen, attempting to remain steady despite my growing anxiety. My stomach is turning itself inside-out and my hands are shaking visibly. As head of engineering, refueling the Nova Drive always puts me on edge.
The star is barely a speck at our current distance; a tiny, red ember drowning in a sea of blackness. With the sight comes a feeling bitter-sweet. It marks the last star on our journey to nowhere.
The star swells with each passing second. Judging by our spacecrafts’ current velocity, it shouldn’t be too much longer until we reached it.
Costa’s typing furiously at her consol behind me, each click grating at my nerves. “Can you believe we’re finally going home?” she says.
“Yeah, well, three years is a long time,” I respond mindlessly.
The clicking on her keyboard stops abruptly. Hear it comes. “Maybe when we get back to Earth we can start thinking about what we talked about earlier, you know, about starting a family.”
Damn biological clock… I give her only a brief sideways glace before swatting the words away with a gesture and turn my focus back to the dying star before us. Silence is a virtue.
She taps her finger repetitively on her consol—knowing full well just how much that hollow clicking sound irritates me as she waits for any kind of response. “Jason, I need to know—”
“Look at the size of that thing.” Anything to change the subject. I dread this discussion every time she brings it up.
“Asshole,” I hear her say under her breath.
I sigh and walk back around to my post next to hers, both placed towards the back wall on an elevated platform. “Listen, once this is over, I promise we’ll talk about it. We just need to focus on this for now, alright?’
She nods. I can tell by the look on her face she’s not exactly happy, but at the very least, pacified. God, those green eyes are beautiful…
This craft departed Earth’s orbit a little over three years ago as a way to test out a new type of interstellar engine called a Nova drive. Our mission is to jump from star to star on a carefully selected course, refuel then return back home. Nothing more. The first few weeks out here were magic, but the adrenaline rush of being on the first vessel to leave the solar system was quick to wear off. As you might imagine, once you get so far out, containment within a ship the size of a large building becomes a trial in tedium. If it wasn’t for Costa I would have gone mad long ago.
The intercom hisses and Captain Mueler’s voice blares out masked by a digital inflection, “Ten minutes until we’re in range. Please man your posts.”
“We’re already on it, Captain,” I respond.
“Good to hear. And one more thing, I want you guys to be extra alert on this one. No one’s ever attempted refueling from a red dwarf before.”
“Acknowledged.” I turn back to Costa and try to assure her with a smile. “Alright, let’s get ready.”
“Preparing for station extension,” she says.
The engineering station is a large, complex metal orb, detachable from the reach of the craft through a port at the aft. Its walls are a lovely grey color, simplistic in its dullness. Directly in the center of the room, placed in a large, sunken half circle is the Nova Drive—a miniature sun in all its blazing glory, seventy-six feet in circumference, contained within an invisible dampening field. It’s haloed by a series of ultra-violet sensitive absorption plates with a complex mesh of circuitry and wiring connected to their backs. These plates are what power the engines by converting solar radiation discharged from the mini-nova into an infinitely renewable energy source.
I look down at Costa’s brother, Bentley, where he sits a level down from us. He’s currently rocking back and forth slowly with his left hand held up to his ear. His fingers are moving rapidly as if typing on some invisible keyboard. A tangled cluster of wires hang from the back of his head from a permanent synaptic implant designed to create a direct feed between man and machine. The multiple neutrino-amalgamated wire endings embedded within his cerebral cortex are calibrated to read synapse output from over a hundred different parts of his brain simultaneously. They extend into an interconnected system of sequencers in full spread around his station. Since becoming a Sun Singer, his body is little more than an extension of the chair he sits in.
“Bentley. You ready?” I call down to him.
He doesn’t respond. He never responds.
“I’ll take that as a yes…I guess.”
The com hisses. “Ready when you are, guys. And make this quick, sensors read the sun is on the verge of going Nova, maybe even within days. I want to be well out of range when that happens.”
“You got to be kidding me,” says Costa next to me.
“Nothing like a little added pressure, eh?”
At Costa’s command, the shield barrier at the back of the craft cracks open, parting vertically. The sun beyond comes into view as the two sides retract. A series of light filters built into the rooms’ single, wall-spanning viewport readjusts to the intensity of its brightness, giving us sight to something human eyes were never meant to see. The red dwarf expands in every direction; an infinite wall of churning nuclear fire. It swells and heaves with a movement something like liquid.
“Making final preparations,” I say over the com.
First, I disconnect the feed between the solar panels and the engines. Next, I cut the fuel lines from the Nova Drive. The mini-sun in the center of the room begins to flicker and dims as its connection with the fuel pods is severed.
As of now, we’re completely dead in space.
The room vibrates as Costa commences the station’s extension. It glides out into the void smoothly, tethered to the rest of the craft by an expanding cylindrical tube.
Slowly, we inch towards the star, my heart beating faster the nearer we get. There’s a strange stillness in the room as the station enters the stars’ corona. No one says a word. I can’t help but imagine this is what those ancient deep sea explorers felt in the hours it took to descend to the ocean floor…
Finally, the station clicks in place as it achieves its full extension.
A hatch underneath the station opens, unleashing six metal tentacles. At the end of each is a collection scoop with a mesh tip designed to filter an exact concentration of varying solar gases.
I work the controls, gently nudging the scoops towards the suns' surface from where they extend from the station. There’s a gentle ripple down the length of the cord five. I counteract the building momentum by contracting the metal tendons, being careful not to overcompensate. Seven years of simulation training guides my every movement.
Slowly, it levels out.
“Three miles until contact with solar surface,” I say.
“Alright Bentley, it’s time,” Costa calls down to him.
Bentley, still rocking, places both hands on the controls of the sequencers before him. With these Bentley can compose a symphony of frequency's based on complex algorithms orchestrated to calm an isolated section of the suns’ surface, lowering its temp to something more tolerant to heat resistant alloys plating the sun scoops. The metal wires of his implants begin to glow a dull orange as his mind begins producing the necessary variances.
Almost instantly, a small, round portion of the sun, directly in front of the tentacles’ paths, becomes static.
“Good work, Bentley.”
I don't blink. My eyes are burning but I keep them focused on my task as the scoops penetrates the sun’s other layer, creating an isolated ripple at each point of contact. After a few moments, the sun smooth’s back out.
I let out a long held breath. This is the seventh time we’ve done this, and it never gets any easier.
"Initiating fueling," says Costa.
The long tentacles pulse blue as solar gases are sucked down their length where they are sent through a direct line which transverses the back stations’ extender and into the numerous fuel pods located at the base of the main craft.
"What is that?" says Costa.
The area within the Bentley’s distortion field begins to throb. In seconds it's boiling. A sudden influx of solar fire cascades through the tentacles with more force than they were designed to handle.
The scoops begin to thrash. Cord two bursts and whips wildly through space, shooting streams of pressurized hydrogen from the breaking point.
Our screens flash red.
"Fuel pods six and three are overfilling. If fueling keeps up at this speed, they’ll rupture in fifty-seven seconds," says a voice over the com.
"Shut down is not responding. Pull the scoops back in," says Costa.
I fumble at the controls, pressing any button my fingers can find without prejudice.
"It’s not working, they’re…stuck."
Bentley is rocking faster now, the wires of his implants flashing sporadically.
Outside the viewport, the tentacles go taut as if something within the sun is yanking them. The craft shudders in response.
“What’s going on?” says Captain Mueler.
“We don’t know.”
“Figure it out.”
A large bubble forms on the surface and expands towards us, roiling violently. Large firefly-like cinders erupt from its center. There’s something about the flow, something I can’t quite put my finger on…
It begins pulling our craft in. The hull groans with the increasing stress.
"Cut the lines!” yells Costa.
With fingers working rapidly on the keyboard, I disengage the tentacles from their base. Instantly, they’re dragged within the still expanding solar anomaly. The bubble discharges a flare which slams into the engineering stations’ outer hull. The room shakes. The view port cracks. Bentley’s wire implants spark out.
He screams, long and loud, before going limp in his chair.
"Get us out of here!" Captain Mueler yells over the com.
"I can't, the Nova Drive is disconnected from the engines when the station’s extended. Some safety feature…" Costa pauses. "We could use the short range sonic impulse thrusters. It wouldn't get us far, but it's something."
"Make it happen. All hands brace for impact," says Captain Mueler.
The crafts’ proximity sensors go off. The ever-growing bubble of flames is on the verge of overtaking our station. Red fire is all I see. Panic prevails. I cover my face with my arms, all the while knowing how futile the gesture is.
"Almost there...," says Costa as she works the controls. Suddenly, a concussion wave pulses through the craft. Momentum slams me against my screen.
At this moment, pain and disorientation is all I know.
Recovery comes slowly.
In a daze, I look back out through the viewport and watch the solar bubble collapse in on itself as we moves out of its range. The craft is now calm and drifting silently at the residual speed caused by the concussive shockwave. The only sound is the dull hum of the engines running on standby.
The station is a complete wreck. Panels hang half torn off in nearly a dozen places and sparks rain down all around us. Only a third of the light-strips lining the domed ceiling are functioning.
I look over at Costa. An after image of the sun is burned into my retinas, partially obscuring her from vision. She’s unconscious, laying flat against her consol, blood gushing from a large gash in her head. I quickly check her pulse fearing the worse, then let out a sigh of relief as I find it pumping strong through her carotid artery.
"Casualty report," Captain Mueler says over the com. I can't even focus on the words as reports come from across the craft. Costa is all I care about.
I don’t know how long I stared at her, seconds or maybe minutes, but it was the Captains voice the snapped me back into reality. "Commander Moser, retract engineering station."
"Yes…yes captain," I say.
I look down at my screen. A steady flow of red droplets is falling all over it. It takes a moment to realize they’re from my nose. I think it’s broken. I hadn't even noticed until the injury was made visual.
I spread the liquid out with my palm to clear the screen but only succeed in making it worse. Even through the blood, I manage the right sequence and the station begins to retract.
I think it’s safe to say, yesterday was the worst day of my life.
Costa walks up to me where I’m standing at a control panel by the Nova Drive and put’s her arm around my waist. The mini-sun burns a dull orange within its containment field and is only about half the size it should be to achieve 100 percent effectiveness, and fading fast. I work the controls trying to stabilize it.
“Take a break, you’ve been at it for six hours,” says Costa.
I smile at her, lean over and kiss the bandage covering her head wound. Luckily it wasn’t anything more serious that a concussion. As for myself, my nose is shattered in two places and both eyes are black and swollen to the point I can barely see out of them.
“I’m fine. Besides, I think we’re almost ready to reconnect the fuel lines.”
I keep my face business casual, but really, it feels good just to have her by my side. I don’t know why I’ve been so hesitant to take the next step. Maybe it’s the fact that we met on this ship, and a small part of me always considered myself the winner of her affection in a place where friends are few, and suitors are fewer. Once we got back to Earth, her options would multiply exponentially, and I’d be quickly discarded for a guy name Steve or Biff. I’ve played the scenario through me head a thousand times. But now, the way she’s looking at me...I realize how unfair these thoughts are and I’m more than ashamed I gave her so little credit. When this is all over I think I might be ready for that talk.
The door opens behind us. We turn and unison to see Captain Mueler enter. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her look so disheveled. And she doesn’t look happy. We both snap to attention.
“Status,” she says.
“Sir, we still need a few more hours to make sure everything is functioning properly,” says Costa.
“A few hours may be a little more than you have. The science team reports the sun is more unstable than we had previously thought.”
“Could be an hour, could be a minute, they’re not really sure. Look, I know you guys are already under a lot of pressure, but let me remind you how important the success of this mission is. If we succeed in proving the Nova Drive to be a safe means of space travel, our race will expand to the stars. If we fail, it could send humanity back fifty years or even more while they try to refine the process. We’ve had no contact since we left, so if we don’t come back, they’ll have no idea what went wrong and have to start all over. What I’m saying is; it’s just not our lives you’re trying to save. You understand.”
“Completely,” I say.
“Good, then I won’t take up anymore of your time.”
“Minutes, huh,” I say as Captain Mueler exits the room.
“Try not to think about it,” says Costa.
I can’t think of anything but. The sun looms menacingly on the view screen. It’s much worse than earlier. Solar storms bombard the fiery, red surface like a million explosions cascading in a unified dance. Flares burst in chaotic intervals only to be swallowed back within the swirling mass. Its outer layer is throbbing and slowly condensing, as if preparing for the coming detonation.
It is absolute chaos and it is absolutely beautiful.
“I’ve reconnected the fuel lines, you ready?” says Costa.
“Alright, but let’s do this carefully. Let it seep in slowly. I don’t want to overload this thing too quickly.”
“Here we go. Hydrogen stream holding steady. I’m now adding a 1/3 mixer of benstract cicilium and carbon to compensate for low core shell layer masses.”
The small artificial sun flashes as the elements begin to enter the containment field through several small polymer hoses at the base of the Nova Drive.
“Thermal and radiation pressure within normal ranges on a relative level. So far so good,” says Costa.
“Hold it steady,” I say.
I watch the sun closely for variances as it slowly grows in size. Something blinks on the edge directly in front of me, a shape that’s only there for a second. A fear that is not my own is creeping into my subconscious; a strange claustrophobic sensation.
“Jason, what is it?”
I don’t respond. I can’t respond.
I move closer to the Nova drive. The form re-coalesces just in front of me. It’s almost…shaped like a human.
I lift my hand up. The form does the same.
I wave. So does the form in perfect mimic.
“Would you look at that,” Costa says with awe as she walks up behind me.
The form then begins to test the edges of the containment field with its’ outstretched ‘hand’ causing it to fizzle and crack against each touch. The figure works faster and faster, prodding the field at different points with movements akin to growing panic.
“What’s it doing?” says Costa.
“I think it—they—want out. Can’t you feel that?”
“Them. They’re scared, confused.”
Suddenly, the form loses integrity and melts back into the solar fires. After hearing a series deafening popping sounds, I run back to my station. All the readings on my monitor are red-lining.
“Damn, we have a crack in the fuel dams.” I look over to see a sudden influx of gas flooding into the Nova Drive. Quickly, I reroute to the backup systems, but the damage has already been done.
The miniature sun doubles in size instantly. It’s glowing white hot. The containment field crackles red static as it struggles to hold in the increasing mass.
“Divert all backup power to the containment field.” I say.
A flare breaks the field and arcs towards one of walls barely missing Costa, then another in the opposite direction.
The containment field begins to hum with the added energy. A grid of electro-particles becomes visible around the perimeter.
“Adding cooling gases,” says Costa.
The sun recoils for a moment then re-expands, ricocheting around the field and spinning fast.
“Containment field holding.”
“Right, cutting all fuel lines.”
The miniature sun swells as it fights it restraints. “Thank God,” says Costa as she drops down into her chair.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the containment field isn’t going to hold too much longer.”
That foreign sensation of fear and isolation in the back of my mind is almost overwhelming. I try, and fail, to detach myself from it.
The containment field begins emitting a piercing, high pitched squeal as it fights the good fight.
“What are we going to do? Is there any way to extract them?” says Costa.
“I don’t think so. They infect all the fuel pods. Hypothetically, we would have to purge them all and refuel. No, we need to make contact somehow. Try to calm them, make them understand what they’re doing.”
“What, like talk to them, how?”
“Bentley. We’ll get him in here from sickbay.”
Costa glares at me. “What, no way.”
“You got any better ideas?”
“No, but we can’t do this. It won’t work. Besides, we don’t know how dangerous this is, what it could do to him. You saw what happened to him during fueling.”
“We have to try.”
“He could die.”
“We have to try,” I say again, slower this time.
“He’s my brother, damn it. I know that doesn’t mean anything to you. You always saw him as a burden on our relationship.”
“That’s not true.” It is true. “Costa, listen, don’t make this about you and me, we’re going to die, don’t you get that? There’s no more time to argue. I’m pulling rank on this.”
“Please, don’t,” she says, her eyes pleading.
I stare at her for just a moment before opening a channel over the com. “Dr. Nunez, I need Bentley moved to engineering immediately.”
“That’s an order.”
A short delay, then: “Yes, sir.”
Costa gets right up in my face. “If anything happens to him…”
“Can you localize his frequency range to act on the Nova Drive?” I put the weight of command in my voice.
She turns away from me.
“Can you do it?”
I grab her by the shoulders and turn her to the viewport. “Do you see that? Any minute that sun is going to explode and kill every person on this craft. So I ask you again, as your commanding officer, can you do it.”
She pulls herself from my grip. “It’s never been done, but I think so.”
“Yes, sir,” Costa says as she swivels back to her consol. She’s never called me ‘sir’ before in private.
One of the medical staff wheels Bentley into the room. His head is back against the headrest of his chair, quivering back and forth.
“Put him at his post,” I say to the doctor wheeling him.
He nods and moves him into position.
“Thank you, Doctor. That will be all.”
I grab a set of backup wires and attempt to attach them into the implant in the back of his head. He struggles in my grip.
Costa grabs my arm. “I’ll do it. You work on recalibrating the field,” she says with venom.
I can hear her talking to him as she works with his implants. “Bentley, you remember that time when we were kids and I fell out of that tree behind our house?”
Bentley begins to calm. Tears well up in Costa’s eyes as I watch her steady his head with her palm and quickly push the long spike-like end into the hole in his skull with a twist, locking it into place.
“I broke my leg in three places and couldn’t walk,” she continues, “I begged you to get help, but you didn’t understand what was going on, how urgent the situation was.”
Bentley’s eyes become more focused as if he’s processing her words.
Costa hooks the other end of the wires into their various places on the sequencers, turning them on when she’s done.
“Still, you stayed by my side the entire time. Ever since then, I’ve liked to think that you can process some kind of emotion, even on just a subconscious level, despite what all the specialists said.”
Is he smiling?
She leans down to face him. “Listen, Bentley, you need to be subtle this time. Just…use your instincts, ok?”
The sequencers hum as they warm up. Bentley begins rock back and forth once again in anticipation of the only function in this world that makes sense to him.
“You’ll do great,” she says patting him on the shoulder.
The klaxons sound and the emergency lights come on, their dull glow painting the room red.
On the view screen, the star explodes into a roiling mass which is growing in size by the second, a visible shockwave spreading from its center. A billion spark bursts from the edges, then dissolve to nothing.
“Four minutes until impact,” the computers sexless voice says over the com.
“Bentley, now!” I yell at him.
His eyes go wide and the wire implants hanging at the base of his skull begins to glow down their length. A wide range of seemingly random frequencies buzz in the air.
Suddenly the foreign fear is sucked from my mind. I feel almost empty without it.
“I hope you guys got something for me,” says Captain Mueler’s over the com, a hint of panic in her voice.
“We’ll let you know,” I say.
“Not good enough, I need a solution, now.”
“We’re working on it,” Costa explodes, “If you want to help, shut the hell up and leave us to our jobs.”
A short pause, then the com clicks off without another word. Me and Costa’s eyes meet. She shakes her head in disapproval then walks back to her post.
The mini-sun is pounding against the containment field across the entire perimeter, a halo of gas emanating outside the field.
“Escape,” Bentley says, catching us off-guard. It’s the first time he has ever spoke. His speech is awkward from saying words he’s always known, yet never formed.
I turn to him slowly. “What’d you say?”
He doesn’t respond.
More flares rupture the containment field. There is nothing we can do to stop it. The field sizzles loudly in defiance as it reforms over where the flares discharge just to lose integrity at different points.
By now, Bentley is crying.
“Home,” he mutters. “Dying.”
“It’s them talking though him,” yells Costa.
Bently’s pale skin begins glow from within. His entire body is trembling.
“Three minutes until impact.”
By now, Bentley is screaming.
“Costa, establish connection with the engines.”
“I already have.”
Flames erupt from the tips of Bentley’s fingers, and eye sockets. Costa doesn’t seem to notice.
I look out at the sun. It’s already almost quadrupled in size. It now seems almost transparent, as if a ghost of its former self.
“Turn on the radiation panels.”
“Not yet. The engines won’t work unless the feed is stable, any amount of instability within the intensity of solar radiation will stall them.
Bentley’s body begins to levitate from its chair. The dangling wires of his implant are his only connection to anything solid. He reaches five feet above the floor, his arms outstretched wide and his face staring straight up, then he bellows one final scream as he comes to a stop and his entire body ignites. Until now, I’ve never understood the term ‘bloodcurdling.’
“No!” Costa yells, and runs to him were he burns in midair; more inferno than man. His skins cracks and pops like firewood.
I grab her from behind, stopping her from doing anything stupid.
She thrashes in my grip, “Get off me, you asshole. This is your fault.”
“Costa, calm down. We need to finish this. There is nothing you can do.”
She turns back and smacks me in the face. I let go. After catching her balance, she rubs the tears from her eyes and walks back her post, bumping my shoulder as she passes. Once there, she puts her head in her palms and sobs.
There is so much I wish I couldn’t say, but I deep down I know, nothing will ever be the same between us again.
“Two minutes until impact.”
Every negative emotion simultaneously battles within my mind for dominance. Feeling completely helpless, I lose it.
“Damn it. What the hell do you want?” I yell at the Nova Drive. Forms shaped like Bentley solidify and collapse in increasing numbers within the large sphere.
New words form from Bentley’s mouth, all overlapping one another. “A new home. Release. Freedom. Protection. Security. Existence.”
Costa lifts her head slightly and turns towards the entity formally known as Bentley. Her sobs come to a stop. “A new home?...Your world was dying, that’s why you rushed us, you we’re scared,” she says. She seems to be focusing on this to mask her grief.
The flares subside.
“We can give a new home but you have to trust us?” I say.
“We need you to stabilize. If we can’t get out of here, we all die. Can you do that?”
“We’ll bring you to our own sun, we will free you. Do you understand? We can and want to help you,” says Costa.
“Help…freedom…we agree,” says Bentley/the entities.
“One minute until impact.”
The entire view-screen is fire and I can’t look away.
In my peripherals, Bentley flickers in slow motion. Suddenly, the fire is ripped from his body and sucked into the Nova Drive. He hits the ground hard, still smoking. All his clothes and hair have been burned away, and his skin is crispy and black. Costa runs over and kneels down next to him.
“Bentley, please wake up, please move. Do anything?” Costa begs.
But he doesn’t wake up, he doesn’t move, he doesn’t do anything. I never thought it would come to this.
The Nova Drive calms into normality within the field. I hit all the proper commands to reconnect the radiation plates to the engines.
“Engines online, get us the hell out of here,” I yell over the com.
I can feel Costa’s stare piercing me. I’ve never seen a look of such disgust or pure hatred in my life and know I deserve every bit of it. The price of our life was paid with the blood of an innocent and I paid it without question, giving up everything I cared about for a life I now dread the thought of living. They’ll call me a hero; Bentley a martyr. The life we have discovered and saved will be called the greatest discovery in human history… None of that matters. I have nothing left but my guilt.
The engines come to life screaming.
Maybe it would have been better to burn.
Image Courtesy: Flickr