Epilogue

Diplomat allowed the three of us to accompany him in his shuttle, back to our base camp. The interior was very spartan, and the oddly-shaped seats were clearly not designed for comfort. We opted to stand while he flew over the mountains and to the base camp; it was a smooth ride, anyway.

I looked outside the porthole as we gently took off. The complex and the beacon slowly shrunk as we gained altitude, and I found myself staring at them. After five years and trillions of miles of travel, I’d finally gotten my answers, and they were nothing like what I’d expected.

“Jues behewm prawos wiros?”

I turned to look back to Hol-Thilre. She was standing close to the hatch, arms folded around herself. She’d found some clothes in an abandoned locker, and put them on, even though they didn’t quite fit.

“She’s asking if you’re actually her ancestors, from the original world,” Diplomat translated, eyes still focused on the controls.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m from Dìqiú.”

After having it relayed back to her, Hol-Thilre nodded.

“Egå reskai?” she asked.

“Am I going there?” Diplomat supplied.

I nodded. “Eventually.”

Diplomat translated for her. After mulling it over for a moment, she turned to Rudak, studying him for a moment.

“Wejan durko jues pel,” she said. “Spes jues katsaja.”

“Her people studied yours for some time, evidently. They’d hoped to meet you, eventually.”

“Why didn’t they?” Rudak asked.

“Scarcity of good material for spacecraft,” Diplomat replied. “Resource rich and habitable worlds are few and far between, though those are usually the ones that develop sentient species.”

“Tell her that, though the circumstances are not optimal, I am glad that our two worlds have finally met.”

Diplomat relayed the message. A few moments passed, and a faint smile began to show at the corners of Hol-Thilre’s mouth.

“Kelek jues.”

There was no need to translate that.

I glanced over at Diplomat. “So, is the plan the same as before? You accompany us back to Dìqiú?”

“With some variations,” he replied. “For one, the voyage will be much swifter than originally planned, since you now know of the starbridges.”

“There’s one that leads to my system?”

“Yes. It’s in the Oort Cloud, along a polar orbit as to better avoid detection.”

“Why have we never noticed it?” I asked.

Diplomat let out small squawk. “You didn’t know what to look for.”

I decided to let that pass without comment.

“Are the ktrit’zal accompanying us to Dìqiú?” he asked.

“Rudak mentioned that his world was preparing a larger ship. Once we deliver the news, odds are they’ll send that through the starbridge.”

“Hopefully, that is the case,” Diplomat said. “It’s going to be a massive turning point, for all three of our peoples. Let’s make sure it’s done right.”

0.0.0

As it turned out, Calypso had landed back at the base while we were in the complex. Wilhelm and Valentina were practically tearing the site apart, trying to find any clue as to what happened, only to see me and Rudak step out of Diplomat’s shuttle, along with Hol-Thilre.

I don’t think I’ll forget the look of relief on their faces when they saw I was alive and well.

I’ll definitely never forget the confusion when they saw Hol-Thilre.

It wasn’t easy, explaining everything to them. The conversation took more than an hour, and got rather heated at some points. Diplomat and I handled most of the talking, with Rudak occasionally chiming in. Hol-Thilre was silent for the most part, eyes wide as she stared around the camp. I couldn’t blame her, when most of the conversation was in a language she couldn’t understand.

I had to continually stress that Diplomat had changed his mind about preventing us from returning home, and even then, I could see a vein pulsing on Valentina’s forehead. Having your engine fail when you’re twelve light-years away from help is not exactly a soothing situation, and learning that it was deliberate sabotage didn’t endear them to Diplomat any bit.

That was probably why they decided to follow him into orbit in Calypso, when he went to repair our ramscoop. It was overly cautious, but I could understand their angle.

Rudak took the time to return to his dome and report back to Ktrit, leaving me with Hol-Thilre. It was rather awkward, I had to admit. We didn’t know each other’s languages, and I could scarcely imagine what we even would talk about.

So I invited her inside the rover we’d picked up along the way, and made her some tea.

0.0.0

True to his word, Diplomat repaired our ramscoop. Odysseus was as good as new again, and fully refueled. Now, it was just a matter of coordinating the flight through the starbridge- or, as Wilhelm kept insisting on, a Lorenztian Einstein-Rosen bridge held up without exotic matter. We needed to prepare flight patterns, especially, since we had to adjust from a polar orbit, and we had to prepare official reports on the entire voyage, leaving no detail untouched.

There was also the matter of salvaging everything from the library. Hol-Thilre helped us transfer data from the crystals to our own computer banks, and Diplomat stashed more than a few books and odd relic in his ship.

It was exhausting work, and I took some time off to have some tea. The blend -Luís had nicknamed it Kauetiryi Delights- was starting to grow on me, though I knew a lot of enthusiasts would flay me alive for using it in a Yixing that served pu’er.

“I am being recalled to Ktrit.”

That definitely caught my attention. I looked up from the tea I was making on to see Rudak sitting on his haunches, rocking gently as he stared at me.

I gently put the pot down, sighing.

“It was only a matter of time, I suppose,” I said. “Though it’s rather soon; it’s only been three days since we visited the beacon.”

“Soon by your standards,” he replied. He took a cup I offered, and took off his helmet to drink it. “It’s been a quarter of a local year since I left home. I’ve been missing my wife and children dearly, even if I still get to talk to them over the radio.”

“I’m glad you’ll be able to see them again,” I said. “And I bet they’ll be happy to have you back.”

“Yes,” he said. “Though, I fear that…”

I set down my cup. “That what?”

Rudak paused, then looked up. “That we’ll never see each other again.”

I frowned. “Why?”

“I’ve spent a quarter of a local year in a tenth of my normal gravity. It’s possible that my health has suffered as a result, and I may not be cleared to fly again.”

“I’m sure they’ll let you come back up on the next ship. We’ve had worries about muscle atrophy in low gravity as well, but that takes much longer than two weeks.”

“That will be for the medical experts to decide,” Rudak said. “I hope they clear me. I’ve been discussing the matter with Yalam and the children; my world is hoping to send core families in the next vessel, as to better ensure the mental well-being of the ambassadors on such a long mission.”

“And you think that your core family might actually come to Dìqiú with you?” I asked.

He thumped his tail. “They appear to be willing so far, but we will only know when the time comes, and if I am approved for another flight.”

I got up, brushing some sand from my knees. “When are you leaving?”

“They want me back as soon as possible.” Rudak drained one last cup, emptying the pot, and set it down. “I am leaving as soon as I finish saying goodbye.”

Walking over, I wrapped my arms around his thick neck, giving him a light pat on the back. After a moment, I felt a massive arm wrap around my waist as he pulled me into the hug.

“Goodbye, Rudy,” I whispered. “Give Luira and Nomolz best wishes from Aunt Liu, will you?”

He nuzzled against me. “I will. Even if we never meet again in the flesh, you will always be my sedenbrok. My sister.”

We held each other for a few moments, and he pulled away. A low whistle escaping him, he put his helmet back on. Without a word, he began to turn away.

“Wait,” I said.

He turned back to face me. I began putting away my tea set, then hurried over where I had a spare box and wrapping. Putting the set in, I carried the box back over and handed it to him.

“Here,” I said. “It’s yours, now.”

He looked down. “This is too kind a gift, Liu. You’ve said that it’s been in your family for years.”

“And it will stay in the family, with you,” I replied. “Think of it as something to remember me by, if we never meet again.”

“If we do, I shall return it,” he said. “Besides, I don’t have any tea to make with it.”

I let out a small laugh. “Consider it extra incentive to see me again.”

Rudak gave me another hug, and walked to his lander. The dome had been deflated and packed up already, with only a faint depression in the ground marking where it had once been.

I watched as he climbed into the lander, and gently laid the box inside. At the hatch, he turned once more, and gave a small wave. I returned the favor, feeling a lump form in my throat.

The hatch swung shut. A few minutes passed, then his lander took to the sky, eventually dwindling to a small point, and then it was gone.

I wiped my eyes, and took a deep breath. Slowly exhaling, I returned back to the habitat, and tried to bury myself in the work.

0.0.0

That night, I found myself sitting outside on a small outcropping of rock, watching the stars. Ktrit was visible above the horizon, a bright white star in the heavens. If I strained my vision enough, I could see a faint twinkle near it, waxing and waning in the span of a half-second.

It’d probably be for the last time that I got to see a sky like this. The stars had different positions than back home, and some had drastically changed in luminosity. And on a completely barren world, free of the light pollution that seemed to be everywhere on Earth, the view was beautiful.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”

I looked up to see Diplomat walking over, his clawed feet finding purchase in the rocks as he sat down beside me. In the starlight, his silver mask shone a midnight blue, and the sky seemed to be reflected in his eyes.

“Just watching the stars,” I said.

“Understandable,” he said.

I went to grab a cup of tea, until I realized it was currently making for another planet. Letting out a low sigh, I sat upright.

“Diplomat-“ I began.

“I don’t wish to talk to you as Diplomat,” he interrupted. “I want to talk to you as Teksha.”

Grabbing his mask, he gently removed it and set it down beside him. His face really did look like an Eastern dragon, albeit without any nostrils. Instead, he had a pair of pits along his snout, like a viper.

“I’ve never cared for the mask,” he said, setting it down. “Social etiquette demands it, to the point where it’d be as if I were naked without it, but it’s long after my time.”

I chuckled. “My grandpa used to complain about how society changed as we got older. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, seeing it change over thousands of years instead of eighty.”

“We changed slower than you have,” Teksha said. “But, you have a point. It has been… odd.”

We sat in silence for a few moments, just looking up at the stars. Teksha fiddled with somethings his hands, then turned to me.

“I would like to apologize, for earlier.”

“Hm?”

“When we had our confrontation in the complex, I was rather callous to your own personal suffering when I spoke of the Surge. I hope you understand that ten thousand years of frustration with your world’s mistakes can build into something… explosive. Every time your ancestors waged a war or enslaved each other, I just wanted to come down and say ‘stop’.”

“But you didn’t”, I said.

“No, I didn’t.” Tekska scratched his snout, lost in thought. “I felt I had interfered enough. What gave me the right to determine your destiny in such a way? Not to preserve, but to govern and dictate?”

“Do you think you made the right decision?” I asked.

“I’ve thought about that question for a hundred thousand years, and I haven’t been able to answer it in all that time. But maybe I will get an answer, when I accompany you back to that strange and blue world.”

I smiled. “It’ll be nice, returning home. Funny thing is, I’ve been away for five years and counting, but it only feels like two months have passed. I spent so much of that time in a dreamless sleep, and yet I can’t help but feel homesickness on a level I didn’t know existed.”

“The environment may add to the feeling of distance and isolation,” Teksha offered.

“You’re probably right. It’s not like I’m just in some foreign country, away from familiar people and places. I’m away from the right air, the right pull of gravity. I’ve been deprived of smells and sounds and small details I didn’t notice until they were gone.”

Teksha folded his arms. “I, too, await returning to Dìqiú. It’s been far too long since I’ve taken it all in.”

I looked back up at the sky. “I miss the Moon, too. I used to spend a lot of time in a little treehouse, staring at it. Now, though? The sky just doesn’t look right without it.”

“You do that a lot. Your people, I mean.”

I shot him a look.

“It seems to be something found across all sentient species: we all stare up at the things we can’t reach and wonder. We make legends, try to explain it all, and despite just looking like points of light in the sky, we somehow know that they’re more than that.”

He fiddled with the thing in his hand, and I saw that looked like it was carved from bone, but I couldn’t tell in the low light just what it was meant to be.

“We all have something we look to. The horizon, the seas, the skies. Something we can’t quite reach, but still want to, so we keep trying, and eventually… we do. My kind used to stare at the mountains, wondering what lay beyond them. Your kind stares across the sea, and at the stars, wondering what’s there. I know it’s just environmental and biological factors at play, and yet… I can’t help but feel that you were meant to be star-sailors.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But we were all meant to be dreamers.”

He looked down at the carving. “Do you truly believe we’ll be able to forge a lasting and prosperous peace between our worlds?”

“It’s going to be tough,” I admitted, “but that just means it’ll be worth it.”

0.0.0

“Burn completed,” Luís declared, a grin on his face. “Earth, here we come.”

I looked out the observatory window of Odysseus, staring down at the dwindling disc of the red planet beneath us. I didn’t know what to call it anymore, after hearing so many different names for the place. Kapteyn c, Mulolowa, Kauetirye… different names for the same world.

No, not the same. Kapteyn c was how we’d seen it, before everything happened. A world of interest, one we knew almost nothing of. It was just an invisible speck around a dim red star.

Mulolowa was how the ktrit’zal had seen it. To them, it was a planet they aspired to reach, something that occupied their imagination, their dreams of exploration. It had been named after No’vo’ko deity of fire, but it to them, it was a place of the future.

Kauetirye was of two views. The tianlong saw it as a place of conservation, of hope, and eventually tragedy. It represented their burgeoning and thankless role as interstellar caretakers, fostering the survival of intelligence in the universe.

And it represented their failures.

Kauetirye meant something else to Hol-Thilre, the only one who held such a view. To her, it was home, lost forever in fire. It was an entire world, almost completely snuffed out and forgotten, save for her memory of it. Like Atlas, she would have to carry the world on her shoulders, and pray that she did not fail.

So I watched the world shrink into the distance, then looked away. My shift was wrapping up, anyway; if I wanted to be prepared for the flyby with Ktrit, I needed to be alert, and that meant catching some sleep.

As I climbed down the ladder, I caught Hol-Thilre’s eye as she came up from the lab, gently pulling herself along. Teksha had been kind enough to offer us translation software for her language, and we’d finally been able to effectively communicate with her.

“You must be nervous,” I said.

A speaker near the wall did the translation, and she replied in kind.

“Yes. We’d known for some time that we did not evolve on our world, and we used to spend so much time wondering what our original home was like. Now, as we are only days away… I don’t know what to think.”

“I can’t tell you what to think when you get there,” I said. “That’s all up to you. Just know that, even if it isn’t home, you’ll be welcomed there.”

She smiled at that, then climbed up to the observatory. I watched her go, then went to my room to catch some sleep.

0.0.0

“I never thought we’d fly this close to it,” Wilhelm murmured.

I had to agree. From this distance, Ktrit looked the size of a soccer ball held at arm’s length. The dayside was facing away from us, but I could see a thin crescent of white that marked the planet’s terminator line.

“It’s a shame we can’t explore it ourselves,” I said, pressing my nose against the glass. “It’s so tantalizingly close, but we can’t land there.”

“I imagine the Apollo 8 astronauts must’ve felt the same. Though, at least they could still see the surface, while we’re stuck looking at the nightside.”

“To think, that it happened around a hundred years ago,” I murmured. “What’s the date today, anyway?”

“Going by ship standards? 2057. Early October, maybe the third or fourth. Back on Earth, it’s late December of 2068.”

I chuckled at that thought. “Two important hundred-year anniversaries, huh? The beginning of the Space Age, and the first flight to the Moon.”

“And this,” Wilhelm said. “Those were big steps, but this is something else entirely. Nothing will be the same when we get back. We’re going to look at ourselves differently- not as the sole intelligence in the universe, but as one part of a greater community. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the calendar changes after this.”

“Like an old sci-fi novel, huh?” I asked. “0 AC, or something like that.”

Wilhelm shrugged. “I suppose.”

A chime from the radio interrupted our conversation.

“This is Diplomat. I have detected the launch of the ktrit’zal vessel.”

“Understood,” I replied.

Sure enough, a twinkling light began to make itself visible, blinking every second or so. Wilhelm peered at the computer as Odysseus’s sensors began their initial analysis of the incoming vessel.

“Bigger than the last one, for sure,” he said. “At least twice the mass of Allmother’s Light.”

A few minutes passed in silence as the ship came nearer and nearer, the flashes increasing in brightness. Then, the radio crackled to life.

Odysseus, this is Turolo’va, commander of Song of Peace,” a heavily-accented voice declared.

It seemed they hadn’t cleared Rudak after all. Sighing, I went over to the radio and thumbed a button.

“This is Liu Haipeng’en, crewmember of Odysseus. Exit trajectory is in one hour. We have already sent the needed data.”

“Understood.” A pause, then, “The ambassador wishes to speak with you.”

Ambassador? Could it actually be…

“Good to see you again, Liu,” Rudak said. “I believe I have something to return to you.”

A grin broke out on my face. “It’s good to see you, too, Rudy.”

0.0.0

Getting three vessels of wildly different designs and specifications to rendezvous at a specific location in space was easier said than done. It took two days to reach the edge of the system, where the starbridge was, and the insertion trajectories were apparently complex enough to give Wilhelm headaches.

But, eventually, we found ourselves orbiting the starbridge.

It was a perfect sphere about a half-kilometer wide, and looked almost like some lens occluding the stars. In the very center of it, I could see a bright star that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

The Sun.

“It would be for the best if your vessel went through first,” Diplomat said over the comms. “You can radio ahead to prevent any panic when we come through.”

“Why can’t we all pass through at the same time?” Rudak inquired, voice crackling over the radio. “It is a big moment in all of our histories; it is a step we should take together.”

“I agree with Rudak on this,” I said.

Diplomat made a small clicking sound. “Very well. Burn will begin in five minutes.”

“Putting it in, now,” Luís said. “Can’t wait to pass through.”

Valentina popped up from the lower decks. “I just hope we don’t suffer ill effects from traversing something like this.”

“Should be alright,” Wilhelm said. “Any radiation produced wouldn’t be harmful to us, especially if the tianlong have been doing it for millennia.”

“Hm.”

“Anyone else feeling a bit giddy?” Luís said, grin widening. “It’s happening so fast, and just thinking about what’s going to happen… wow.”

I nodded absentmindedly, still gazing out the porthole. “I feel like we should say something profound for such a moment, or at least quote a poem.”

“Our adventure shall be the poem,” Rudak said over the radio. “They will sing our song for eternity, and others shall hear its echoes, and know of what happened here.”

“Good enough for me,” Luís.

“Burn in one minute,” Diplomat said. “Then, our fates will be forever intertwined.

We fell silent for a few moments, as we let that sink in. In less than a minute, everything would change.

“I wonder what will wait for us in the future?” Hol-Thilre asked. “Can so many different peoples walk the same path, side by side?”

I smiled. “We’re just going to have to wait and see, won’t we?”

And with that, we plunged into the starbridge, and into the future.

You have been reading:

Kapteyn’s Star, Book One: Junction Point

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Ultimatum, Part II

For a few moments, Diplomat stared at Rudak in silence. I had to admit, I was also put off by my sedenbrok’s statement; just what kind of trump card could he be holding?

“What do you mean?” the tianlong finally asked.

Rudak glanced my way. “First, I must apologize to you. I haven’t been fully honest on what I was doing in the cabin.”

Before I could say anything, he turned back to Diplomat. Rising on his hind legs, he stared the tianlong in the eye, arms outstretched.

“I have given my people the secret of nuclear fusion.”

My jaw dropped. Diplomat was also taken aback, if the widening of his eyes meant anything.

“What?” we both asked at the same time.

“Liu allowed me access to all the documents stored by her crew,” Rudak continued, voice strong. “That included blueprints, engineering reports, and essays on their knowledge of physics, which is far more advanced than my own people.”

“That’s what you were reading on the drive over?” I asked. “How did you even know what to look for?”

“I’m well-versed in the science of the atom; I had to be in order to pilot Allmother’s Light. My people know of fusion, but we never knew how to harness it. Until now, that is.”

He lowered himself back on all fours. “I sent what I could in code to Du’lonkowo, where our top scientists are now analyzing the mechanics of fusion power.”

“And fusion drives, I presume,” Diplomat said, something like resignation in his voice. “That explains those strange transmissions I picked up.”

Rudak made a single click. “Yes. It won’t be easy, deciphering the technology and concepts, but we will manage. In a matter of ten of my years, we could have a starship of our own. It would be more primitive than Odysseus, no doubt, but it would work.”

Diplomat’s shoulders sagged. “And you would then be able to reach Earth, and reveal the truth to them yourselves.”

“Exactly.”

The tianlong straightened. “Very well, then. The only valid option at this point is to allow the truth to be revealed naturally, and let the humans be on their way.”

I raised my eyebrows at that. Not less than a minute ago, he was willing to basically imprison my crew and I to keep the truth from getting out, and now he’d swung in the opposite direction. Just how turbulent was he actually feeling, behind those owlish eyes?

“I will return to orbit and restore your vessel’s ramscoop,” Diplomat said. “Once that is complete, I shall return to Sheshak, and advise that they evacuate the nearest worlds to Earth. Hopefully, tensions will cool by the time you can reach more distant planets.”

“Evacuate?” I asked. “Diplomat, do you honestly think we’d go to war with you over this?”

He cocked his head, birdlike.

I sighed. “You didn’t have any malicious intent here, Diplomat. You were trying to save our species from possible extinction, and if what you said about your world and a few others are true, then you had good reason.”

“And yet, everyone here on Kauetirye is dead,” he said. “Who would they blame for the disaster?”

“No one,” I replied. “You really don’t know us, do you? You’ve studied us for thousands of years, but you don’t seem to really know us. What happened here was a tragedy, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just a natural disaster, Diplomat; there was no intention behind it. Earth won’t blame you for what happened here. We’ve fought over stupid things in the past, but this isn’t one of them.”

When he stayed silent, I took a step forward.

“Contact’s gotten off to a rough start between us, but I think it can be smooth sailing from hereon out. We can forgive and forget trying to keep this secret, and you can come back to Earth with us, as we planned. The people are going to accept you with open arms, not guns. I think there can be a peace between us, between all of us. Just trust me, Diplomat.”

Rudak sidled closer to me. His presence was comforting, and I gently laid a gloved hand on his shoulder.

“I believe there can be peace between our kinds as well,” he said. “Don’t let this tragedy create more tragedies.”

Diplomat looked at Rudak, then to me, thinking. He clicked to himself, then finally spoke again.

“I… trust you, Liu.”

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in. Giving Rudak a reassuring pat, I pulled away and stepped closer to Diplomat. I stretched out my hand, offering it to him.

“For peace,” I said.

After a moment, he took my hand. His scales were smooth, almost like a python, but his skin was warmer than I expected. We shook three times, and he pulled away.

“For peace,” he said.

Rudak pulled off his helmet, his breath visible in the cool air as he let out a low whistle. His ears were drooped as he looked around the library.

“To think that this is all that remains of them,” he murmured, looking around. “They were so close, and yet so far away. I wonder-“

Suddenly, he paused. His palps twitched, and he breathed in deeply through his nostrils, like some scent had caught his attention. Perking his ears up, he looked my way.

“I think I smell something.”

0.0.0

It was tucked away in the corner of one of the unexplored rooms, with abandoned medical equipment nearby. A thick coating of dust covered the container, which looked almost like a coffin. Albeit, one that was longer and narrower than normal.

“It didn’t show up on preliminary scans,” Diplomat murmured, brushing away some of the dust with a claw. “It doesn’t emit much heat or energy.”

“Low power conservation,” I said. “They must’ve considered running on a generator for years on end, and designed it accordingly.”

Rudak pressed his snout along the seam of the coffin, then let out a violent chuff.

“It smells like human… and now I need to clear my nostrils,” he said, snorting.

“But is the occupant alive?” Diplomat inquired. “Fifty years in subpar conditions does not bode well.”

“Let’s find out, then,” I said. “Can you man the controls? I can’t read the writing system.”

“I invented the writing system,” he replied. “I can try.”

He stepped towards the panel, and experimented with the controls for a few moments. Then, he flicked some switches and pressed one of the larger buttons, and I heard something click in the coffin.

The lid swung open, slowly, and we all peered inside at the occupant.

It was a woman. She was tall, almost as tall as Diplomat, and her frame was spindly but graceful, almost like a willow. Her skin was paper white, but her hair was a soft gray, which ruled out being an albino. Her face had all sort of features from various races; her eyes had a slight epicene fold, and her nose was long and narrow, with a slight hook.

There were other features as well, ones not found in modern humanity.

For one, her brow was slightly pronounced, and her skull seemed a bit more sloped than what was normally found in modern humans; coupled with her protruding jaw, and I could tell what she inherited from her Neanderthal ancestors.

Her chest wasn’t rising and falling, and for a brief moment, I feared the worse.

Then, she sucked in a gasp, and her eyes fluttered open, revealing startling blue irises.

She was as naked as the day she was born, but she didn’t bother to try and cover herself as she slowly rose to a sitting position. I instinctively helped her along, putting a hand on her shoulder. She started at the contact, and glanced my way, staring into my eyes.

“Qis qid?” she said, voice hoarse. “Egå prisko jues klej?”

“Egå behewm ameiksa,” Diplomat replied.

The woman looked over at him, and her eyes widened. Diplomat spoke to her again, his voice unusually soft. Gradually, her shock seemed to disappear, and they began to speak back and forth.

“What’s she saying?” I asked him.

“She’s asking how long she was in stasis,” he explained. There was something new in his voice as he spoke. “She’s asking if there were any survivors.”

He continued to speak with her, and she began to speak more rapidly with him, clearly growing less uncomfortable. She glanced over at Rudak, and she seemed to understand when Diplomat briefly said something in my sedenbrok’s direction. Perhaps her people had been aware of the ktrit’zal?

“Her name is Hol-Thilre. She was a scientist in the facility, which apparently was built years in advanced when they realized a disaster was coming,” Diplomat said.

Hol-Thilre gestured with her hands, and he nodded along, occasionally interrupting with a word or two.

“They only had power for one pod after they lost some generators, and she won the draw.” He let out low hiss at that, and his voice seemed strained. “They’d remembered my people, and hoped… they’d hoped that we’d be able to rescue at least something of them.”

She stopped talking, and looked my way. No doubt I must’ve looked strange to her, and that was without having a pair of aliens with me. Just what was she thinking, as she studied me with those icy blue eyes?

What could I say to her? Even if there wasn’t a language barrier, what could I say to someone who’d lost their entire world, and now found themselves staring at a long-lost cousin?

Eventually, I decided to say something, even if I knew she wouldn’t understand.

“Welcome home,” I said, voice soft. I felt tears welling in my eyes, but didn’t brush them away. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Ultimatum, Part I

Here we may mount from this dull Earth, and viewing it from on high, consider whether Nature has laid out all her Cost and Finery upon this small Speck of Dirt.

– Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheoros

0.0.0

For a few minutes, all I could do was stare once Diplomat had finished his story. For the greater part of an hour he’d gone on, telling us everything, sparing no detail. Rudak and I didn’t make a sound during any of it; we simply listened to what he had to say.

He seemed to understand the look of shock on my face. Straightening, he glanced my way. Even across the cultural and species barrier, I could see the sadness behind those owlish eyes. For a brief moment, I could almost feel the weight of a hundred millennia on my back.

“What is your judgment?” he asked.

I opened my mouth, only to find that I didn’t have the power to speak. I tried a few more times, wetting my lips.

“I-I can’t judge,” I finally managed to say, voice hoarse with emotion. “What you’ve done is too big to judge. You’re too big to judge.”

“Allmother preserve me,” Rudak murmured. “If it is the truth you speak-”

“It is,” Diplomat said. “There is no reason for it to be a lie.”

“Have you done the same to my people?” Rudak demanded. A low rattle became audible, and I realized it was coming from him. “Did you also take populations from my world to make a-a reserve?”

“No,” came the simple reply. “Until a few days ago, I did not know that your species even existed.”

I looked around the library again, this time in a new light. To know that it had all be crafted by humans, and not an alien race…

“This entire planet was just a conservation effort,” I muttered, shaking my head. “You brought people here, like they were some endangered species of bird.”

“In a universe like this, all species are endangered,” Diplomat retorted. “An entire civilization can be destroyed in a blink of an eye, whether it be by cosmic event or their own foolishness. My own people have toed the line, and I can count several instances for your own species.”

He straightened, like he reading from a book. “The Toba catastrophe reduced your population to ten thousand individuals. Your so-called ‘Cold War’ just a century ago threatened to turn your world into glass all because of petty squabbles, and your short-sightedness…”

A pause, then, “No, I wouldn’t call the Surge a result of short-sightedness. You knew what was coming, had known for decades, but you ignored it. I can’t blame the majority of your species; a lack of proper knowledge of the matter and not wanting to consider your extinction can go a long way. But your foolish leaders cared only for power and decadence, figuring that they’d survive what would come. They were willing to destroy their world for slips of paper.”

“Can you really make such judgments?” I asked.

“Do you not blame them, then?”

I fell silent.

“I’ve watched your species since before your homeland was even settled,” Diplomat continued. “I know humans, Liu. Like all species, you can be a great people, and you can be a terrible one. I got to watch from orbit when you erected the pyramids and began to decipher the secrets of the universe, rising above the natural order of your world. I also got to see the Heavenly Rebellion, the Killing Fields, and the Second World War.”

“You had two world wars?” Rudak asked.

I looked over at him, and felt a pang of guilt. He’d known that humans could be full of cruelty, but now he was learning just how much. Did his own world have such horrors, or would he see me as more brutish?

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Three, if you consider the infighting during the Surge to be a war,” Diplomat added. “Billions of people forced away from the shores in the face of an advancing tide that threatened to swallow your greatest cities. It’s easy for animosity to brew in such conclusions. I’m surprised India and Pakistan never used their nuclear arsenals during it. Your governments took action, building massive walls along the coasts, but that was a drain on the already fragile economy.”

“We recovered,” I said. “We managed to save the cities, and restore normalcy, after we developed our spaceflight industries.”

“Yes, and it only took you two billion deaths over ten years.” There was no anger in his voice; in fact, he almost sounded like a disappointed parent. “Infighting killed fifty million, disease took a billion, especially when that bioweapon facility had the accident, and the rest died from natural disasters and starvation. The governments of sixteen nations collapsed, and the rest had tenuous grips.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” I said, the words almost coming out as a snarl. “My parents died in a flood, and I was half a world away, unable to even visit the funeral. I lost my fiancé in a power-planet accident.”

“Your losses are tragedies,” he replied, “and they illustrate what I am asking. Is Earth ready for contact with my people?”

“We came here to find you and make peace.”

Diplomat spread his hands wide. “That was before you knew of this, of Kauetirye. Our intentions were solely to better preserve your species, but do you think Earth would forgive us for it? If Kauetirye was still home to a thriving civilization, then perhaps they would, but all that remains is  dust and ash.”

“Tragedy can induce anger,” he continued. “And a tragedy of this magnitude will fill your world with a terrible resolve. Earth will not forgive the deaths here, even though it was caused by a natural disaster; they would blame us for bringing people here in the first place. Your world would call for war.”

“We’ve learned to forgive,” I said. “We had to forgive if we wanted to survive. We can forgive you for trying to keep us safe, even if it didn’t end well.”

Rudak stepped forward. “Your own people achieved peace, as has my own. Why can’t you believe that the humans have done the same?”

“Their peace is too fragile at the moment, too newfound. The revelation of Kauetirye would shatter it.”

“What are you getting at, then?” I asked, suddenly growing more than a little concerned.

“I’m saying that news of this cannot reach Earth.”

Before I knew it, Rudak was in front of me, taking a protective stance as he put himself between Diplomat and I. The rattling grew in intensity, and I could hear a hiss escaping him, almost like that of a snake.

I could almost feel the power radiating off him. I had a feeling that, if he wanted to, he could smear Diplomat all over the walls with his bare hands.

“I have no intent on killing any of you,” Diplomat said, calmly. “I’ve done enough to last me a thousand lifetimes. And killing this body will not stop it.”

“What have you done with Odysseus?” I demanded. “What have you done with my crew?”

“They are alive. I simply disabled your vessel’s ramscoop; there’s no way they’d be able to reach Earth within a thousand years, now. Right now, they’re in orbit, no doubt trying to repair it.”

“What are you going to do with us, then?” I asked.

Diplomat folded his arms across his chest. “You and your crew will be allowed to accompany me back to Sheshak. There, you’ll be allowed to explore the Network, going from world to world, experiencing our culture. You’ll be granted full access to our libraries, and learn anything and everything you might wish to know. We could even extend your lifespan, and let you enjoy the quality of life we all have.”

“But I would not be able to return home.”

He bowed his head. “Yes.”

“How long do you think that’d last? We had plans to make four more starships, all more advanced than Odysseus. Chances are, they’d send one over to investigate, or come across one of your colony worlds in the future.”

“But they will not know of the civilization on Kauetirye. We will remove the evidence and bring it to Sheshak. When contact is eventually made with Earth, they will never know of what happened here.”

I clenched my fists. “That’s it, then? Brush the whole thing under the rug? Pretend that an entire civilization never lived and died here?”

“I am disgusted with the thought myself,” Diplomat said. “But it is better than war. Anything is better than war.”

It was Rudak’s turn to speak. “What of me? My people will investigate a disappearance, and they’re only days away.”

“True,” Diplomat admitted. “However, your world does not know of this discovery. And even if they could find this in time, they would never be able to contact Earth and prove it, thanks to the powerful ionosphere of your planet.”

To my surprise, Rudak simply let out a small hoot.

“I believe you’re mistaken on that account.”

The Blue World, Part V

It had taken seven local days for the realization to settle in, and even then it felt unreal, like a bad dream than anything else.

Cefac was gone.

He tried to envision it as a whole, on the level he knew he should see it as, but he couldn’t. For all their ability to create and contemplate, their minds had limits. Perhaps it was for the best; perhaps realizing the sheer magnitude and horror of the event would crush them entirely, instead of mostly.

He could only think of it in bits of pieces, for that was the most he could handle without feeling wholly and utterly empty. Gone were the old towers of ice he used to see in his youth, for they had turned to hot steam under the light of a temporary sun. His home was gone, reduced to smoke and rubble and ash. Even the old rock he used to sit on when he watched the sunset was now radioactive slag.

A world was not just gone; it had taken his memories with them, tainted them with death and destruction. Now, when he’d think of them, he’d think of their inevitable fate, and they would turn bitter in his thoughts.

The great cities were now crumbled ruins, too lethal to even venture into, and the vast mountains they fringed were broken and tumbled, their majesty brought down by his people’s folly. The Eastern Star, a painting he’d seen in the Central Museum, was now just burnt paper scattered to the wind. The books written by old scientists and poets and dreamers and leaders were gone, with only a shadow of a memory remaining. How many philosophies and religions had died out, perished in nuclear fire? How many poems and artworks would be forgotten?

How many ideas would never be born, now? How many thinkers, or poets, or inventors?

It wasn’t Cefac that had died. Life would survive, endure, and spring anew; it’d come back from worse, in aeons past. Maybe, in the distant future, even his own people would live on it again.

No, the idea of Cefac was what had perished. The planet would survive, but the world would not.

And who would carry the scraps?

Sheshak endured. It was a self-sufficient colony, located in a resource-rich system; it would keep his species from fading into extinction, if only for the time being. Already a million called it home, and perhaps a shadow of Cefac would survive through it.

And yet, it was still little more than a mote of dust in the cosmic wind, unfathomably small compared to the vast universe. What was a civilization to the planet it lived on? What was a world to a sun, or to a vast galaxy of suns, where entire civilizations could be wiped out without anyone knowing of their fate? If Sheshak, too, perished, would there be anyone to carry on their memory? Or would only the ruins stand testament?

He had a lot of time to think on it, as the Urshnata swung back to Tenokaskin on a Hohmann orbit. And in that time, he thought of the nurma.

They had a right to live, just as his own people had a right to live. They could create art, and dream, and contemplate themselves; they were above the beasts around them. Perhaps, in time, they would also create a great civilization, and forge works and crafts that rivaled his own.

Would they destroy it, too?

They seemed to lack the same aggression as his own kind, but they were still capable of violence. He’d seen evidence of conflict, where they butchered each other with their stone hand-axes, and sometimes even burnt their homes to the ground. Such disaster had never struck the one he’d visited, but scouting trips had found evidence.

He had faith in them, however. Their tribal settlements were closer-knit than the analogues of Cefac’s own prehistory; it may had something to do with their omnivorous nature, where they still had some lingering instincts from herd animals.

And yet, that did not meant they would survive. In a universe full of solar flares and scouring novas, it was all too easy to be reduced to a vapor on the cosmic wind. Even if they conquered themselves, nature could destroy them.

It wasn’t fair, not in the slightest, but that did not mean there was nothing that could be done.

A civilization spread across other worlds would have a higher chance of survival. If a world was destroyed, either at their own hands or in some cosmic event, then others could carry on the memory, and maybe even rebuild.

He had a lot of time to think about it. As the Urshnata grew nearer, he even began to make some notes on the matter, while continuing his observations of the nurma.

Eventually, those notes grew into something… larger.

0.0.0

The commander called him and his crew back to the ship when it finally parked itself into orbit around Tenokaskin. It was a startling contrast, the difference between the two crews; he and the others looked darker, their scales rougher and their limbs thicker. Tenokaskin had moulded them in a short time, and not without some deleterious effects.

It was a relief, to be away from the thin air of the world below. Now, he could feel himself growing less lethargic, the weary weight of crushing gravity lifted from every part of himself. The food seemed to taste richer as well, and it felt wonderful to stretch his wings and fly once more.

Eventually, he was called to the main hub. The commander was there, along with a handful of members from both crew.

“Teksha,” she said.

“Commander,” he replied.

A moment’s tension.

“Well, you’ve got what you wanted.”

He shot her a look. “What do you mean, commander?”

She gestured to the holograph of Tenokaskin. “We can’t afford to be picky, now. We’re staying in-system. We’ll begin world-shaping within half a local year; I believe there are some methods we could use that you highlighted…”

“Commander, if I-“

“If you may what?” the commander snarled at him.

He ignored her body language, and continued. “Commander, this world is not very suitable for habitation, and it already has a native sentient species inhabiting it.”

“Yes, I read the reports.”

“I believe it is for the best that we head for Sheshak, and help the colonists establish themselves there. Our ship could help them obtain valuable resources for developing a large-scale civilization.”

“It is a risk,” the commander said. “Too large, in my opinion.”

“The Urshnata has been deemed capable of reaching targets up to a hundred light-years from…” He paused, feeling painful memories well up, then pushed past it. “From home. Once we’ve helped Sheshak, we can reach other worlds, worlds that are more suitable than this one.”

The commander paused, thinking, then chuffed.

“No.”

“No?”

“We stay here, where there’s less risk. We need to spread out if we’re to survive.”

“But we can simply choose another world,” he protested. “And what of the natives?”

“The natives?” the commander asked, contemptuously. “They’re primitive, backwards; we could easily beat them off, assuming our worldshaping doesn’t do it for us. And if they survive, then perhaps they could provide useful menial labor while we establish the colony.”

He stared at her, feeling a growl rise in his throat.

“You’d commit genocide? Enslave the first intelligence that is not our own?”

The commander stepped forward, wings raised as she bared her teeth.

“Have you forgotten that our home is gone?” she barked, flicking her tail back and forth. “Millions vaporized? We come first! We’re a civilized species, where they’ve barely learned to stop freezing to death in the night! If there’s a slight chance that it’d give us survival, I’d slaughter a billion of those dirty savages!”

“Savages?” he asked. “Savages?!”

It was his turn to step forward, his teeth bared. The commander did not move from her position, but he could see the fear in her eyes.

“They weren’t the ones who destroyed their own home!” he roared. “They weren’t the ones who ruined everything they’d created over petty differences! If we want to survive, we can’t just settle across new homes; we need to change! And what you’re suggesting is the same kind of narrow-minded, short-sighted, and stubborn brutality that killed us!”

The commander lunged at him, but he managed to move to the side. Her claws scraped the scaled on his chest, but failed to find purchase.

“You would take us on the path to savagery and extinction!” he growled. “You are not fit to lead us!”

“And you are?” the commander asked, voice low.

After a moment’s pause, he raised his crest.

“Better than you, though that is little qualifier.”

She howled, and rushed at him. He ducked under her swing, then brought his claws up, cutting through the scales on her chest. Blood oozed from the wounds, blue as the old home’s sky. He could feel the urges rising up, but he tried to restrain them.

The commander backed away, contemplating her injury. Around them, the rest of the crew stared in silence.

“Stand down,” he managed to say. “I’ve shed first blood. You can give stand down and give up your position to me.”

“Not to a traitor like you,” the commander hissed.

It was his turn to move. He caught her in a tackle, knocking her off the floor, and they drifted through the hub, grappling. Her tail barb caught his side, but he ignored the pain, instead opting to dig his teeth into her shoulder. The commander struggled, but his grip was like iron, after so long in Tenokaskin’s punishing gravity.

Pushing away, he caught her in the snout with a glancing blow, dazing her. Lashing out with a kick, he slashed her in the thigh, drawing more blood that floated away in small spheres.

“Submit,” he said, trying to keep his voice even.

Her response was to try and slit his throat. The attack was clumsy, however, and he rewarded the attempt by grabbing her arm and twisting. The angle was awkward at first, but he snagged her leg with his tail to remedy that. There was a sharp snap, and the commander shrieked.

“Submit.”

She managed to swipe his face, nearly taking an eye. Heat began to spread across his face, and he could feel his control failing, struggling to contain his instincts. He kicked her in the chin, nearly shattering her jaw on the spot, and she fell limp for a few moments.

“Submit,” he repeated.

“No,” was all she said.

She dug her tail barb into his wing, tearing into the delicate skin, and he howled in agony. She began to try and work the barb down, slicing through it.

“I don’t want to do this,” he said, pleading. “Please, don’t make me.”

She worked down further, and his agony doubled upon itself as it sliced through a nerve.

He finally lost the struggle.

His teeth found her throat in a moment. She let out a weak gurgle, then tried to struggle, doing anything she could to avoid what would come next. Hot blood flowed through his teeth, and he hated himself at that moment.

Then, he sank his teeth deeper, tearing back, and the commander stopped struggling.

It was when her body began to grow cold that he finally pulled away, the magnitude of what he’d done hitting him. The commander -no, Virsh– drifted away, limp and lifeless, and all he could do was stare.

For all of her aggression, her temper, her willingness to commit genocide if need be, she’d never actually killed.

He had.

The rest of the crew was now gathering around him, staring. He caught Vark’s gaze, and averted his eyes, painfully aware of the blood staining his teeth.

“What are your orders, commander?” Tararsha inquired.

It took him half a moment to realize who it was directed to.

He licked his teeth, then stopped. “Hold a funeral feast, with full honors. Recite her favorite verse from the Tome of Heroes; you know which one.”

“Understood, commander.”

0.0.0

The feast was a hasty affair. His crew were hungry after subsisting on rations and aquatic life while on the ground, and they made quick work of Virsh, tearing into her like a pack of animals. They’d left him the heart, as was custom, and it took all of his self-control to not just toss it away and clean his hands of what he’d done.

Her bones were interred in makeshift crypt, and that was that. No-one else was willing to challenge him after what he’d done, and so he kept his new position, bloodstained as it was.

After they finished preparations, they set a course for Sheshak, as per Commander Teksha’s orders. He opted to spend the first shift awake, so he could continue to work on his notes for improving society.

Over and over, he stressed a certain theme: they were of two halves- the civilized thinking being, and the vicious animal. The animal relied on instinct and cunning, whereas the thinking being used wisdom and rationality. The animal destroyed, the thinking being creates. The animal seeks only worldly pleasures, while the thinking being finds philosophical satisfaction.

Many of the ideas were not new, but he streamlined and altered them, connecting them together into a thesis. It was time-consuming work, but he had plenty of time to expound upon the ideas that had been forming in his mind, building them into a pamphlet, then a slim volume, then into something larger.

When the shift for cold sleep came, he decided against it, stating that he’d need to prepare plans for when they arrived at Sheshak. There would likely be a need for some minor worldshaping, as well as surveying potential areas for cities and factories.

That was a lie.

The truth was that he feared what dreams he’d have if he went under.

0.0.0

Sheshak had grown while they were on their voyage. When they finally arrived in the system, they found a world with a population of ten million, with large cities scattered over the icy world, and stations littering the orbitals. Industrialization was only a fraction of Cefac’s capacity, but technology had refined itself and advanced over the decades.

And yet, there was something… subdued, about them, something he couldn’t quite put into words. Only a small handful of them remembered Cefac; most of the population had actually been born on Sheshak, and had only pictures and the words of their elders to go by when they tried to think of the home-world.

He was content to settle down quietly, after the initial clamor when he’d arrived and recounted the failed voyage to Tenokaskin. The tome he had written remained stashed away, gathering dust, and he tried his best to forget about all that had happened. He tried to forget the nurma, or the feeling of hot blood on his face.

But it would not forget him. It gnawed at the back of his mind, refusing to stop, until eventually he couldn’t stand it anymore.

He published it a local year after he’d arrived.

The reaction was unexpected, to say the least. He thought it would simply be given a brief discussion, then forgotten, and he’d be free of it forever. Instead, the world seemed to latch onto it, poring over every word he’d written, every idea he’d put forward. Five million copies had been printed and sold by the following year, and it’s popularity refused to die down. The Stargazer Dialogs became a name known to all, and the world began to look to him.

He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because the world needed an ideal to adhere to, a philosophy that could give them hope in such times. When most of their cultural identity had been atomized, there needed to be something to fill the gaps, and they had chosen his work for the task.

It was not a position he wanted, but the world did not care for his wants.

He spent some years as a hermit after that, trying escape the attention of millions, but it only seemed to intensify their interest in him. He continued his work on the nature of the nurma, but he tried his best to

When they finally began to send ships to other stars again, he was all too happy to launch another expedition.

0.0.0

Nearly three hundred years after he’d left, he returned to Tenokaskin, in a vessel far larger and more advanced than the old Urshnata, which now served as an orbital museum. The nurma were still there, along with a close sister-species that was beginning to migrate out of one of the larger continents.

He was not here for a mission of colonization- that had been ruled against shortly after he returned to Sheshak, and there were other worlds far better suited to it. It was neither a research mission- at least, not primarily.

It was a mission of conservation.

It seemed the nurma in the region he’d visited still had faint legends of the strange beings that brought gifts of food; it was easier to gain their trust than before. After a twelfth of the year, he was able to get them into cold-sleep pods adjusted for their biology. In other regions, where it would be more difficult, he simply had the small populations tranquilized and put in the pods.

Samples of flora and fauna were also collected; they would be needed for the next stage. It took a quarter-year to get everything that was required, but he was patient.

Once he had sustainable breeding populations, they were off to Kauetirye, a voyage that’d take thirty years. Six of the nurma and their cousins perished en route, but the other three hundred made it intact.

It was difficult, helping them establish a colony. There were tensions amongst the various groups, especially between subspecies, but they slowly died down as his crew encouraged cooperation. He gave them new techniques and technologies, from metallurgy to writing, and watched as they slowly began to understand them.

Two local years later, he found himself standing on a hill, looking over at a small town that the nurma and sister-species had built for themselves. Already they were forming primitive concepts of government and civilization; in a relatively short time, he imagined, they’d be quite sophisticated.

It was astounding, really, to think of how far he’d come. He should’ve been in the twilight of his life at that point, but new technologies on Sheshak had found ways to slow the aging process, and replace failing organs.

He drummed his fingers over his chest, where they’d removed his heart and replaced it with with a mechanical version, one that did not pound against his chest, or grow pained when he overexerted himself.

Another two local years, and then they’d be off, back to Sheshak. It was changing drastically, he knew, developing more and more advanced technologies. Not too surprising, considering that it had originally been colonized by scientists and engineers. Quality of life was improving, and their newer starships were crossing the void at higher and higher velocities, nearing light itself.

Would he feel at home there, however?

He knew the answer. His own ideas had drastically shaped society, and new technologies had made it virtually unrecognizable. In time, he could adjust to it, but that did not stop him from feeling like a stranger in a familiar land whenever he stepped foot there.

No, he’d only make brief visits there. There were worlds to explore, and a species to observe and safeguard. He’d most likely return to Tenokaskin in a few decades and collect more populations, as to reduce the chance of the nascent civilization on Kauetirye dying out. And it would be best to observe Tenokaskin itself, to see what they would develop on their own, without outside influence.

He looked down at the carving in his hand, and gently rubbed at it with a finger.

Yes, that would be for the best.

0.0.0

A hundred thousand years passed that way.

His people’s sphere of influence swelled over the millennia, until they encompassed a bubble of space a thousand light years across, with colonies in thousands of solar systems. With access to millions of systems worth of material, they were in a true age of post-scarcity. A single individual could use more energy than the entire pre-fall civilization without being a drain on the economy, and there had been discussions of massive engineering projects, of shells that would harness a sun’s power with minimal waste.

Such a civilization would be impossible to maintain at sub-light speeds. The starbridge was the keystone of civilization, developed five thousand years post-fall. Originally little more than an idea on paper, it eventually became a reality after centuries of research and experimentation. It was a power-consuming technology, but they had plenty of power to spare, and soon all the systems were connected by them, with Sheshak at the center of it all.

Sheshak, the glittering jewel at the heart of civilization, a world home to nearly a billion. Dozens of space elevators ringed the planet, connected by lightweight arches until they’d become a halo around the world.

Death was virtually non-existent. Disease was no more. Barring an accident, or a sense of ennui, one could live indefinitely, without falling victim to the rigors of aging. They could transfer their minds into a number of bodies, both organic and mechanical- some even transferred their minds into a single unit, a sharing of minds.

And yet, he found it… empty.

They had followed his ideals, and reached unsettling conclusions. Food was made to be as tasteless as possible; some even got rid of their tastebuds. All reproduction was in-vitro, and though sex was not forbidden, those who did it were considered pariahs. All forms of violent crime were illegal, as they should have been, but even an aggressive personality could result in administration of sedatives.

They’d even taken to wearing masks, based on their profession, as if even seeing their faces stirred the dormant beasts in their breasts.

Gone was the sense of grandeur that Cefac had, and he was the only one who could tell, being the last one alive to even remember the homeworld. Oh, many took pilgrimages to the ruined planet, as to reflect on the folly of their ancestors, but they did not know Cefac.

In the process of conquering themselves, they had become lost, stagnant. The expansion had long-since stopped, and advancement had slowed to a crawl, exacerbated by the long lives they know all led. They refined and improved, but it seemed as though they had stopped creating.

He stopped returning to the colony worlds after the first twenty-five thousand years; he couldn’t bear to see the route they had taken because of his work. Instead, he cast his name aside and threw himself into his work, where he’d be far away from civilization. There were seventeen other sentient species within the Network’s sphere of influence, all of them which had transplanted colonies on other worlds. He received regular observation reports on each one of them, studying their development.

The transplants had proved necessary, twice. One species lost their homeworld to an asteroid impact fifty-thousand years post-fall, while another had a disastrous experiment with ocean vents that rendered their planet an ecological wasteland twelve thousand years after that.

Some of them were beginning to advance to industrial levels, but the ones that attracted his attention the most were the nurma- now called stargazers amongst his people. The subspecies he’d first encountered had perished on the homeworld, with their place taken by their cousins in Africa. They slowly spread across their globe, mastering their world’s vast seas, and he watched as the first civilizations formed.

At first, he watched them from orbit, then he ceased those operations when they began to chart the stars. He watched as they innovated, crumbled, and rose again, small cycles repeating themselves all over the world. He pulled the probes back again to the edge of the system when the stargazers invented the telescope, but he could still study them intently from such a distance. He watched with a small sense of joy as their civilization swiftly advanced, bursting through obstacles swifter than most he’d seen.

He watched in horror when they unlocked the power of the atom, and promptly vaporized two cities with it.

By then, he could simply learn by listening in on their radio waves. Their languages took time to decipher, but he managed, and he devoured the information they cast into the void.

He listened intently to the pings Sputnik made when it entered orbit. When the one they called Armstrong stepped foot on the Moon, he heard the immortal words spoken. And when he realized that the stargazers were sending messages into the void, hoping someone would answer, he knew that it would soon be time to make contact.

Then, for a time, he feared the worst. An ecological catastrophe rocked the globe, brought about by their short-sighted use of non-renewable resources. The oceans rose, threatening billions, and it looked as though they teetered on the edge of annihilation as wars and disease broke out.

Miraculously, civilization survived. It was a trait found across all sentient species, that they would do anything to avoid extinction if they had the option.

And in this case, they swallowed their pride, and worked together.

When they began to venture into the solar system, he knew it was time to pull all probes back through the star-bridge; contact would ensue soon enough.

For years, he waited patiently, until he suddenly detected a signal coming through from another star…

The Blue World, Part IV

Thankfully, it seemed that the stargazers were eager to forget the beacon and focus on his presence. It was to be expected; they’d waxed poetically of contact for many years, hopeful that they would find kindred amongst the stars. Now, not only had they made a peaceful encounter, but they were faced with the prospect of diplomatic relations between worlds.

He was able to navigate the conversation well, steering it away from anything that could reveal the truth of the beacon. He was also sure to keep the location of the Network’s systems and starbridges to himself, at least for the time being. They could be trusted in time, but only after they had left the world behind and forgotten the beacon.

On the off-chance that relations deteriorated before he could establish a dialog with their world, it would be for the best if the stargazers didn’t have any immediate targets.

It didn’t appear as though events would unfold in that route, however. The stargazers were quite amiable, and didn’t seem to pick up on his body language enough to tell that something was off when he spoke. It seemed they would be quick to leave the planet and let him accompany them back to Earth.

There was one enigma, however- the one that called itself ‘Rudak’en’ziz’.

The alien seemed to be amiable, but he couldn’t quite tell. He knew the stargazers well, and could interpret their body language, but the ktrit’zal was a newcomer, its nature and history a mystery. Was it as trusting of him as the stargazers?

There was another matter as well. Its homeworld was in the system, an astronomical stone’s throw away, and he highly doubted there would be no more expeditions to this world. Even if he could stop the stargazers from finding the beacon and learning the truth, could he stop the ktrit’zal?

Had they seen the colony already, with ground-based astronomical equipment?

He made sure to ask the ktrit’zal that. Thankfully, it seemed that they’d only been able to study nearby worlds in depth for a short time, long after the event must have scoured the planet they stood on. Still, it was a worrying thought to consider.

He’d need to take action as soon as possible.

0.0.0

The aliens, Teksha found, were rather strange.

They still seemed to be rather wary of him, but the offer of food seemed to sway them over to the point where they brought him and a few others to their community- a group of twenty adults and fifteen children, all living in a large cavern. There were a pair of structures near the mouth, made from the bones of the species he’d killed, but it seemed to be reserved for the elders of the group. At least, he assumed they were elders; their skin was more wrinkled, their bodies more frail-seeming.

There had been alarm in their group when the hunters came back with him and some of his crew. Some held the children back, while others began to speak with the three hunters in some odd tongue. For a short while, Teksha feared that he’d be driven back, after coming so far, but eventually the hunters seemed to be able to convince the community that he meant no harm, showing the meat as proof.

He and the crew were allowed to stay near the area, though the natives grew defensive if he tried to actually enter the cavern proper. They feasted on the meat he’d brought to them, cooking it over a fire, and he studied them as they ate. Their teeth were rather blocky in comparison to his own, but it seemed that their strong jaws made up for the difference.

He was surprised to see that they ate plants with it as well. Perhaps they were more nutritious than the types found on Cefac, or it was simply a matter of differences in digestive tracts. Either way, he never expected to see something with elements of both predator and prey.

As night began to fall, he and the others returned to their ship. Two of the hunters accompanied them back to the spot where they had felled the animal, then turned back, seemingly satisfied.

When morning came, the hunters returned, now numbering five. They took more of the meat from the dead animal, and Teksha had the crew help them along. The community was less wary of him this time; the prospect of another large meal seemed too good to pass up on. He sat on the outskirts with the crew, eating some aquatic life they’d caught for themselves, and watched them like before, taking note.

The natives were less uneasy, now, and were becoming inquisitive. Occasionally, one of them would try to talk to him, making crude attempts to breach the language barrier. He manage to learn that they called themselves nurma, or at least, that was just the individual’s name. One of the children even tried to play with his wings before an adult took notice and made it rejoin the others.

Once again, he and the crew left for their shuttle, but they made sure to catch some more food before turning in for the night. The dead animal was beginning to become discolored, and he didn’t want to lose the nurmas’ good will by having nothing to offer them.

A cycle began to form. The hunters would come, and bring him and the crew back with them to the community. As the days passed by, they grew more and more comfortable around him and his crew, especially as the language barrier began to weaken. And as that happened, he could observe them better, and learn more about them.

They were quite fascinating. Despite the harsh conditions of their world, they had managed to actually thrive and develop a culture, albeit a fairly primitive one. The males -each gender only had one set of genitalia- were the hunters. They used tools made by hammering stones and sharpening pieces of bone, and used them to great effect.

Teksha used to study itakshi prehistory when he was younger, and he found the differences and parallels interesting. Whereas his own people had used small throwing knives to slice open the wings of their quarry, or rope to snare them in mid-air, the nurma got up close to their prey, using their great strength to drive sharp points deep into flesh. They were resilient, and knew it; Teksha was astonished to see one get back up after getting kicked by some swift-footed beast taller than him. That did not mean they were limited to such brutish strategies, however; sometimes, they would light fires to chase their prey off cliffs, or tumbled stones from the tops of hills into their herds.

Then, they would bring the food back to the females. The females were the ones who made a number of tools, and maintained the community while the hunters were away. They gathered plants to eat, and used animal skins to make the coverings he’d seen them wear. It was a fascinating process, watching them essentially make removable skin and fur; it was a utility he’d never seen before.

The nurma were not limited to tools, however; they could make art. The females often made necklaces from smoothed stones, or made carvings from stone and wood and bone. A young one, most likely an adolescent, had even given him one. At first, he’d been confused by the large eyes, and strange curves on its head, until he’d realized it was one of himself. The angling of it was odd, and many of the features had been simplified and exaggerated, but it was him.

What had been the most fascinating art, however, was in the cave itself. It’d taken ten days before they allowed him inside the place, which was where most of the group lived. Stone rings littered the broad floor, ash marking where they’d lit fires to keep warm during the cold nights. One of the elders led him inside, guiding the way with a torch. Their eyesight was weaker than his, it seemed; he could’ve made the route without any aid.

Finally, he saw it. One of the flat walls of the cave was covered in markings made from red and black paint. Looking closer, he saw that they were in the shape of local animals, with the large brown one being most common. Smaller figures were featured, and he realized they were meant to be nurma. A stylized depiction of a hunt, it seemed.

The elder leaned in closer, guiding the torch along the paintings. With his other hand, he gestured with a gnarled hand.

“Look,” he said.

Teksha suddenly realized what the elder meant. The flickering of the torch’s flame was creating an illusion, one that normally wouldn’t have been seen. Many of the animals had been painted with multiple heads and legs, but in the low changing light, they appeared to be moving, legs completing the cycle of a trot. As the torch went along, it gave the impression of something almost fluid, as the nurma hunters led the animals into a trap.

There were more paintings. The one on the other side of the wall was not one meant to show a hunt, but something else, more abstract. Hands, outlined in red and black against the smooth rock.

The elder knelt down at the wall, handing the torch to Teksha. Reaching into a small puddle, he splashed a bare patch of wall, making sure it was evenly wet. When that was done, he took a small bowl of red dust in his wrinkled hands and stood back up.

“Put hand on wall,” he said.

Teksha did as told, putting it on the wet patch. Miming the other outlines, he spread his fingers, claws gently scratching the stone. The elder grabbed some of the dust from the bowl, then opened his hand, letting the palm face flat up. Puffing his fleshy cheeks, he blew gently, letting the dust settle on Teksha’s hand and the surrounding rock. Where it made contact with the wall, it stuck, swiftly coloring the stone.

“Wait,” the elder said.

Teksha waited.

Finally, the elder gestured that he could remove his hand. He took a step back, admiring the fresh outline on the wall. Compared to the others, it was quite different, with its seven narrow and pointed fingers. Yet, it was just one of many handprints- different, but not separate.

With that, the elder guided him out of the cave. He spared a glance back at his handprint, then stepped out into a cool night. The stars were up out overhead, and he found his gaze pulled upward. The galaxy could be faintly seen, a band of gems across the sky. The nurma were watching it as well, peacefully resting after a good meal.

It was something they did often, he noticed, even more than his own spacefaring crew. It seemed that anything that could dream and imagine liked to look up at the stars, but the nurma seemed to do it more frequently.

What did they see, when they looked up? They had no knowledge of astronomy; the stars were little more than lights in the sky to them, not entire systems and worlds onto themselves. And yet, at the same time, they could sense that there was something waiting for them in the sky. They may not have not what it was, but they knew it was there.

He made a happy chuff at that. Stargazers, they were.

He’d keep that memory close to him, comforting, when the Urshnata returned, bearing terrible news with it.

0.0.0

The door was locked, but it wasn’t an issue a plasma cutter couldn’t solve.

He winced at the sound it made when it fell inwards, but he knew it was an irrational fear; there was no-one around to hear it. Shouldering the cutter, he stepped inside, ready for whatever could lay within.

There was no warmth in the halls as he descended, and he knew he was stepping into a tomb. Yet, he pressed on, in the vain hope that there would be something to be saved. The stargazers were a crafty and hardy folk; there had to be a way that something of them could survive.

All he could see, however, was dust.

He examined a hall, and found chilled DNA samples. The complex’s emergency power had lasted for some time, long enough to preserve them, and he spent a short while examining them. He was off again, however; they were not his main interest. There had to be something left of their culture, aside from some broken ruins.

The next hall took him to a large room, and he realized it was the control room for the beacon. It took him a few tries, but he managed to work the dials and levers with the help of some labels, and the beacon was shut down.

One less problem to worry about.

Still, it was not quite what he was looking for. He scouted the next few halls, adjusting his eyes to better see down them, but they were all full of equipment that had fallen into disuse. Power generators, analyzers, bulky computers.

The last hall, however, caught his attention. He could make out what appeared to be a library, and his heart began to pound as he stepped closer. Entering the room, he saw that it was indeed filled to the brim with thick volumes and data crystals, meant to store a trove of knowledge.

He went over to one of the shelves and pulled a book free. Flipping a page open, he skimmed the page, reading. The writing system was easy to understand -he’d invented it, after all- and the language had changed little over the years. Satisfied, he put it back in, then skimmed the sections, seeing what they had. History, art, biology, sociology, philosophy; if there was a topic, it was contained within the library.

As he looked around, however, his eyes fell on something else.

There was also a skeleton inside.

The sight of it sent a shudder down his spine as he went over to examine the body. The individual had died fairly recently- around thirty standard years ago. Little remained aside from the skeletal structure and some clothes, but he could still determine the cause of death.

Starvation.

He couldn’t constrain himself any longer. All the dread and worry and fear boiled to the surface, and he set it free. Rearing his head back, he howled, a horrific wail of anguish that echoed through the sepulchral halls.

He’d failed them.

There was no way around it; he’d set out to ensure their safety, a way to conserve and protect, and let them blossom into something beautiful. Instead, a spark of life in the void had been forever snuffed out, and it was his fault. It brought back painful memories of that fateful time, and he let them come unbidden.

The Blue World, Part III

Once it finishes its decelerating burn, the last wisps of plasma escaping the compact engine, it drains the gel away from the sac containing its organic body. Reflexively, the body begins to cough, clearing its lungs like a newly-hatched child. A cord attaches the base of its skull to the rest of its ship, linking freshly-grown nerves to the artificial brain within the core of the starship.

It was time to upload.

Carefully, it begins to disconnect itself from its senses, cutting itself off from the ship. For the briefest of moments, it cannot see nor hear anything; it is deprived of all stimulus, passing through in an almost dreamlike state. Such a transition is always dreaded, but it is necessary. One of these times, it thinks, it may never leave the space between bodies.

Vaguely, it starts feeling a distinct beating against ribs, a painful thump thump, and realizes that the transfer was complete.

Slowly, he opened his eyes for the first time in decades.

Coughing again, he took a deep breath, gulping in precious air. Even the feeling of his lungs expanding against his ribs was agony, like his skin would tear under the strain, but the pain ebbed as time passed. His blood felt like rivers of fire running throughout his very being, but it was a welcome sensation, after so long without tactile sensation. It was always a difficult adjustment, returning to his body, but he always managed it.

Slowly, he tested his fingers, making sure the neuroconnectivity had not degraded. He blinked his eyes, stretched his limbs, curled his tail, and performed other test exercises. His organs and skeleton were artificial, made from metals and plastics instead of flesh, but there was always a correlation between complexity and the number of issues that can occur, and the cybernetics were complex indeed. Still, the advantages they held over their organic equivalents were far and wide.

Pulling the plug from out of the base of his skull, he gently kicked against the wall, pushing off towards the cockpit of his ship. There was a protein brick waiting for him in the synthesizer, and he ate greedily as he seated himself. Already the world was swiftly approaching, and there was much to be done.

Now that he could see the world more intensively than before, he realized the true extent of its changes. It was like there had never been a trace of civilization on it, only expanses of dust and rock. The image brought back painful memories, and he brushed them aside for the time being. He reviewed the signal again, and began to pinpoint where it could have been coming from on the planet. Perhaps there were survivors, after all.

There. Nestled within a mountain range, hidden from view. Scanning the area around it, he could see a single, familiar canal, stretching all the way to the ice cap. It was perhaps the only thing left from before, and he found his attention devoted to it.

He realized there was something else, too.

The stargazers had landed and set up a base camp nearby. No doubt they were intending to launch an expedition to the source of the signal, if they had not done so already. And if they were to find whatever remained there…

The thought gave him pause. He saw what was good in the stargazers, but he knew that they, too, had a darker side. They would let their anger cloud their judgment, let their fear of the unknown consume them. They were young, yes, but that did not mean that their fury couldn’t wreak a terrible havoc upon the Network. The only solution would be to hide, but how long could that last?

Looking closer, he saw that there was another vehicle at the camp, different from the one used by the stargazers. It had to have come from the other spacecraft, the one belonging to some unknown species. Perhaps the prospect of first contact would have kept the stargazers occupied for the time being…

Regardless, there was no use keeping in the dark anymore. They would have seen his deceleration from across the system; they knew he was coming.

And so, he prepared for landing. The ship trembled slightly as he detached from the bulk of the engines, and prepared for reentry. It would be nighttime on the planet when he landed, but he doubted that the stargazers would fail to notice.

As he entered the final calculations, he found his mind wandering, to a much earlier time.

0.0.0

“Toxic?” Teksha inquired, panting.

Tararsha flared his crest. “I’m afraid so, subcommander. The meat’s full of cholesterols; our hearts would be lucky to survive a few bites.”

Teksha glanced down at the animal they had downed. It was a massive beast, covered in a thick coat of brown fibers that served to protect it from the cold weather. A pair of bony protrusions curved from its mouth, longer than he was tall, and its snout possessed a long muscular appendage, most likely meant to grasp for food. It had not died recently, but he could still sense a great deal of heat coming from its corpse.

At least up closer to the poles, he could actually distinguish heat sources. Farther down south, where the temperatures became unbearable, it was a distorted haze of heat, like trying to see through mist. He’d nearly succumbed to sunstroke there, exacerbated by Tenokaskin’s high gravity and thin air. Not only was every step a struggle, but he could not even fly here.

“Yet another thing we can’t eat,” he said sadly. “How many different animals have we examined? Fifty? A hundred?”

“Far too many,” Tararsha replied. “At least some of the aquatic life has proven edible.”

“And so any future colonies would be limited to the humid coasts, where they’d likely develop disorders of the lung. There has to be something farther inland we can use as a sustainable food source, and the farther from the equator, the better.”

“There do appear to be large inland bodies of water, but samples have indicated that they lack the same chemicals found in the oceans; it may be possible that the life there would also be there.”

Teksha let out a frustrated hiss.  “We’ll have to go there and find out for sure. Has the other party returned from their survey?”

“Not yet, subcommander.”

“Call them back. We’ll take the flier to the next location the Urshnata scouted out.”

Tararsha gave a small bow, and went over to the flier. Teksha turned to watch the horizon, thinking. They had been searching Tenokaskin for a twelfth of a local year already, and it was not promising. The weather proved violent despite the thin atmosphere, and the planet’s tilt meant that some areas would become even warmer periodically, which had ruled out anything short of the polar regions.

And now, this. Unless they found something that could easily sustain them here, they’d be forced to use cloned wildlife from Cefac as food, which ran the risk of an ecological catastrophe.

The Urshnata would be swinging back from the asteroid belt in another twelfth of a year. When it returned, odds where they would just pack up and leave; the commander seemed unwilling to make large-scale efforts to make a home here. Kauetirye would likely be the next target world; the results had been even more promising than Tenokaskin, but it was also a great deal farther out. Such a journey could be risky, but would it be more so than trying to remain here?

He clicked to himself, thinking, and watched the clouds roll by. Though it was not a pleasant world to be on, it was certainly a beautiful one. Here, the horizon looked almost flat, giving the impression that there was no end to the vast plains and forests and oceans. Tenokaskin was brimming with life, like a lush garden all over; he could scarcely find anything that didn’t have something alive over it. Even the rocks were often coated in thin filmy plants, and he found himself wondering just what lurked in the deepest parts of the oceans. It was perhaps the most lively world he’d ever encountered, even including Cefac.

Could intelligence thrive on such a world? There had been no signs of civilization discernible from orbit, but millennia had passed between his own people’s evolution and their development of civilization. Perhaps, if there was an intelligent people on this world, the same could be the case for them.

It didn’t seem likely, however. He scratched his snout absentmindedly, and waited for the other survey team to return.

Later on, he mused, it was fortunate there had been a delay.

0.0.0

When he imagined returning to the red planet, he never thought it would be as such.

The stargazers had gathered around his craft as he landed. Though it was a deep night without any moon in the sky, he could still discern that it consisted of two females and one male. They were without spacesuits; evidently, they’d already determined it was safe for them on the surface.

There was another figure with them, a massive bulk that walked on four legs, hidden by a thick spacesuit. The unknown visitor, then. If it was standing freely with them, then contact was already underway, and was going well.

Perhaps he could do the same. If they had not yet found evidence of the previous inhabitants, he could direct their attention away from the search. After all, contact with a living, advanced species that was willing to engage in relations would be far more interesting than a dead one. It would be better if he could convince them to accompany him back to their planet and begin a formal dialog.

He hated to think of them as ‘dead’. He hoped yet that he could find survivors, but the stargazers took precedence. There was no use in hiding from them anymore; the Network was thrust into the center of attention, now.

With that in mind, he grabbed the metal mask from its rack, and pulled it over his face. It was cool to the touch, and the sensation was a reassuring one, giving him strength. He was Diplomat, now, and it was time to fulfill his duty. Opening the hatch, he stepped out into the night, trying to look as professional as possible.

He couldn’t help but spare a glance at the four-legged alien as he exited the ramp, but he swiftly returned focus to the stargazers.

“Greetings,” he said.

0.0.0

They first came into view over the horizon, a trio of dark shapes advancing over the snowy plain. In contrast to the ground, their heat signatures were like flares, drawing his attention swiftly. They must have been attracted by the dead animal; perhaps they’d been tracking it before his crew had moved in for the kill.

His breath caught as he saw them. They stood on two legs, and had two arms and a head, but it was there the similarities ended. Their heads were round in comparison to his, and they lacked either wings or a tail. How they could balance themselves, he could scarcely imagine. Perhaps it helped that their bodies were shorter and more squat than his own; they appeared to be bulging with muscle or their equivalent of it. In their hands, they wielded some kind of hunting tool- a thick pole made from tough plant material, tipped with a sharp stone.

Crude weapons, but they would be effective enough. For a moment, Teksha felt wary as he saw them approach, then relaxed when he saw how cautiously they were also approaching. If he was careful enough, he could avoid a violent confrontation with them, maybe even begin a dialog, assuming they had a language.

First contact. Never had he imagined that he would be the one to make it for his people, and he felt a sense of giddiness.

Slowly, inch by inch, they drew nearer, allowing him to get a closer look. What he’d originally assumed to be the same kind of fibers as on the dead animal were actually artificial coverings, stitched together with flexible string. They did have the fibers on their head and over their eyes, though it was sparse elsewhere, making their smooth pink skin visible. Their eyes were small in their heads, and he could see that they were made of soft white gel, with thin membranes acting as irises and pupils. There was a strange organ in the middle of their face, one whose function he could only guess at.

For a few moments, they only stared at him, tightly gripping their weapons. He glanced over at the dead animal, and realized they must have been hunting it.

Fellow hunters. Already that could be a point of connection between them.

Cautiously, he crouched to the body. The aliens didn’t move, but their eyes followed him. They watched as he cut away a piece of meat from its flank, and he warily held it up for them to see. An offering of food could help convince them that he meant no harm.

There was a long pause, then one of them slowly stepped forward, tentatively reaching forward with its own hand. It had only five clawless fingers, he noted, and it looked far stronger than his own.

After another few moments, the alien took the offering.

The Blue World, Part II

As it approaches the target world, it watches and observes. Anything produced by nature would fail to see anything beyond the red glare of a star, but its eyes are delicate machines, refined over the millennia. It can perceive almost the entire electromagnetic spectrum, shifting through it to find the patterns it seeks. The haze of infrared and visible light from the star is filtered out, and the world can be seen clearly, down to major geographical features.

What it finds is disconcerting. The world has changed since the last visit; though it had always been arid, it was now covered in a global desert. Spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere revealed none of the usual pollutants, which appeared to rule out an ecological disaster. Whatever had caused the drastic change had to have been a natural phenomenon.

It soon detects something else.

Orbiting the world are two spacecraft, each one wildly different from the other. One is long and spindly, with the habitable section trailing behind the powerful engines via a strong cord. It is clearly a true starship, capable of traversing the vast distances between systems. The stargazers must be the builders of such an impressive vessel, for no others have reached even a fraction of the sophistication required for such a development.

The other, however, is an enigma. It is short and squat, with a massive metal plate at its base, and appears to be propelled by nuclear devices. Such a vessel would take centuries to even reach the nearest star, and the target world lacked the sufficient amounts of fissionable materials to fuel such a monstrous ship. It had to have been constructed within the system, but none of the other worlds are habitable. One appeared to have vegetation, but it was far too violent to ever produce a spacefaring civilization; it had been ruled out from the beginning.

Puzzling.

Brushing aside the other vessel for the time being, it reviews what it knows of the stargazers. It received regular transmissions from a nearby starbridge, but even it could be too preoccupied at times. There were sixteen others it needed to consider within the local star cluster, after all, and some of them could necessitate contact within a matter of fifteen cycles. Now, it dives into the data, devouring every vital piece of information it has.

It is surprising to know how far they’ve travelled, despite the hardships they’ve faced. Their very world has changed; looking upon the images taken from their own data feeds, it is clear how different it looks from before.

And yet, it is not the first time there has been a drastic change within memory.

0.0.0

“A global warming event?” Teksha asked.

The commander’s crest flared. “Unfortunately, it is the truth. This planet is in the midst of a drastic change in climate.”

With a gesture, she activated a hologram of Tenokaskin. The image was familiar to Teksha; he’d spent many long evenings studying it, mesmerized by the swirling clouds and vast oceans. The ice caps were extended down halfway to the equator in some areas, and looked quite inviting. Tenokaskin would be warmer than Cefac, he knew, but it would still be rather comfortable.

At least, it should have been.

“We launched another small probe ahead of us,” the commander continued. “When the transmissions returned, this was what we saw.”

The hologram shifted, and Teksha let out a hiss at the sight. The icecaps had receded, shrunken; the vast glaciers had disappeared from all but the polar regions. Entire islands had been swallowed up by the hungry sea, and many of the continents were now divided by water. The entire world had changed, and not for the better.

“How could this have happened?” he inquired. “It was not too long ago.”

“Even changes this large can happen in a short time,” the commander replied, her wings drooped. “In this case, two hundred years.”

“How severe are the changes?” Teksha hated how desperate he sounded, but continued on. “It may still prove to be a viable colony…”

“Perhaps,” the commander admitted. “However, I must admit doubt on the matter. The other conditions were already difficult enough, and now the likelihood that we may only be able to survive in an incredibly small area makes the planet more and more unsuitable.”

Teksha thought for a moment. “We could start worldshaping it. If a seemingly small shift was enough to alter the world’s climate, then we should be able to revert it with a shift of our own.”

“There’s no telling if such an operation would be successful. It’s entirely possible we’d just make the world even less habitable than it currently is.”

“Then what is there to do?” Teksha let out a low growl of frustration. “Are we to just give up this world?”

The commander snarled at him, her wings extending. Teksha decided not to push her any further at the moment, not when he was still weak from hibernation. Thankfully, the commander seemed to calm down, and her wings folded once more.

“I am not one to make rash decisions, subcommander. You will lead an expedition planetside, and research into the habitability of the planet. I will review the data you give me, and then I shall decide whether to colonize this world, or move on to another. We will restock some of our supplies in this system’s asteroid belt while you are on the surface.”

Teksha drooped his crest. “Understood.”

“The rest of your group will be woken shortly. It will be some time yet before we arrive at Tenokaskin.”

The commander flew past him, and lazily glided down to the worldlet below. Teksha glanced her way, and had to fight the urge to chase after her and dig his claws into her neck.

0.0.0

As time went passed, Tenokaskin eventually came into view; first as a small pinprick of blue light, then as a full world, dominating the view out the portholes. It was astounding, just how large the world was; according to the first readings all those centuries ago, it was at least twice the mass of Cefac.

And it showed. The oceans were vast, unbelievably so; it boggled the mind to think of a world almost completely covered in seas. He remembered being surprised by the size of the Sun Lake near Rakaras, when he had visited the old capitol, but this was something different. When he looked down at the world at times, all he could see was a vast expanse of blue, an alien shade unlike any he’d seen before. Cursory scans had indicated that the waters could swallow all but the highest peaks at some areas, and he could easily believe it.

They were wrong to name it after the Hero of Storms. Such a title could never hope to do it justice. It was a blue world, a world of water, and it had depths they would never understand.

Eventually, the time had come to land. His group, numbering only ten after Terok had passed while in hibernation, collected their equipment and took their seats in the shuttle. Vark would pilot it down; all Teksha could do was sit beside him and wait. Through the window, he could see the curvature of Tenokaskin, a thin haze of air blanketing it.

“I heard a rumor that you and the commander almost had a duel on the spot, a while back,” Vark said, eyes not even on the console as he prepared the engines. “Is it true, or am I chewing my own tail here?”

“I’m surprised it hadn’t been brought up before,”Teksha replied. “She and I had a small argument regarding the climate shift and what to do next.”

“And that was enough to nearly rip out each other’s throats over,” the pilot deadpanned. “I am surprised we’ve managed to get this far.”

“Awfully pessimistic thing to say.”

“Doesn’t make the point invalid. I’ve always been interested in psychology, you know, and our own nature. I probably would’ve made a career out of it if it weren’t for a small breakdown-”

“-in school,” Teksha finished, already feeling irritable. “Yes, you’ve had this little speech before. We evolved from predators, prone to violence, and so on. If we were half as violent as you seem to think we are, we would’ve never left the planet.”

Vark twitched his wings. “You always seem to see the best in things. We’ve been able to get along so far just because we’re a small population. We’re more like fifty million nations of one, not one of fifty million.”

“Must you always speak so detachedly about your own people? By heroes past, you speak like you’re from another planet!”

“Very well; I’ll stay quiet for now,” Vark said. “Detaching from Urshnata.

There was a brief lurch, then they were free, drifting away from their home of the last fifty years. The shuttle turned, and activated its engine, making a reentry burn.

Despite himself, Teksha couldn’t help but muse on the pilot’s words as they descended.