All Rudak’en’ziz could think, staring up into the sky at the precipice of the mesa, was how bright the Visitor had become.
It had been in the sky for a great while already. Years, in fact. It had started out dim, barely detectable by the best equipment the world had to offer, but now it shone brighter than even the closest planets. Those on the Nightside could see it, even through the typical cloud cover, and the public found itself once more preoccupied with the subject that had been first discussed many years ago.
For as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of actually meeting whatever strange beings the Visitor brought with it. The things they could know, the things they could teach…
And now the dream would very soon become reality.
The low rumble of thunder reached his ears, and he looked down at the vast fields below. The hot season was coming, and the storms would come with it. Du’lonkowo Province would be spared the worst of the weather, and the launch site with it, but he didn’t wish to take any chances. When the storms were especially bad, they bring the howling winds and pouring rain to even the top of the mesa. It had nearly cost them years of research.
His wristband chimed, and he raised it to answer.
“This is Rudak.”
“We’ll be ready to launch within thirty.”
“Understood. I’ll be there soon; I’m just enjoying the view for now. It’s going to be some time before I see it again.”
“You will see it again, Rudak. I have faith in that.”
“As do I.”
Rudak ended the call, and resumed gazing down at the fields below. The city lights were blurry splotches at this distance, but he could faintly hear the familiar hustle. He’d been born there, in the city that had cropped up around the observation post. Many thousands of years past, when the world was not unified, and blood poured as freely as rain, the mesa had been used as a fortress by some mad matriarch. Her reign had been brief, and the years had crumbled the fearsome walls, but the legend had endured.
It was a great irony, that something once used for selfish and destructive reasons would help usher in a new golden age for the world.
Thick clouds began to slowly roll in around the mesa, hiding some of the city from sight. A shame for those down below; no doubt many were hoping to watch the launch first hand. They’d have to satisfy themselves with the video feeds, unless clear skies prevailed.
Maybe it’d be for the best. There was no telling how much of the glare would be seen from the city below, but too much could prove blinding.
Letting out a low whistle of exasperation, he turned away from the precipice and began to trudge back to the launch facility. The gravel crunched beneath his feet and knuckles, and he had to keep his head low to the ground. The provinces on the terminator line, as well as those mad enough to actually live on the Dayside, thought that Nightsiders were constantly bumping face-first into walls and rocks in the low light, but that was far from the truth. For one, it wasn’t that dark out, and his palps could sense what his eyes couldn’t.
He didn’t understand why the stereotype persisted, despite the fact that Nightsiders outnumbered Daysiders five to one. Just another separation between the old and new worlds, he supposed.
Vomol’oa was there to greet him at the entrance. They brushed their palps against each other’s faces, then both headed inside. The doors closed with a hiss behind them, and they followed the phosphorescent directions on the metal floor.
“The payload’s fully stocked, and there’s no radiation leakage,” the launch director said, excitement clear as she spoke. “We’re clear to go.”
“Is the vamros ready?” Rudak inquired. “I understand that there were some complications with getting it to grow right.”
“Those have been resolved. No need to carry the big air scrubbers, even if we’re still doing so.”
If the ship was a little more powerful, perhaps I’d have a fellow crewmember for such a long flight, Rudak mused.
At the very least he wouldn’t be under-equipped. The ship was carrying a surplus of tools and machines, and that wasn’t counting the lander they placed in the bottom-most cargo bay. Perhaps later ships, made larger once -if- the concept was proved, would carry a large crew, and enough equipment to colonize an entire world in one mission.
They paused at the entrance to the facility’s suit storage. Vomol’oa nudged her head against Rudak’s shoulder, then turned down another length of the hallway.
“Once you have the suit on, meet us at the entrance to the ship. Your mate and children are waiting there, along with some journalists. They brought the priestess from your district, too; she wants to give you a blessing of luck.”
Rudak paused at the door. “Mother Ulu?”
“Yes. There will be some controversy, I know, but it’s not an official part of the mission.”
“Glad to see she was willing to hike up here,” Rudak murmured, pushing the door open.
There were a pair of technicians waiting for him when he stepped into the next room. He let them smear the personalized vamros on his back, lifting his back plates so they could get underneath. The plants adhered swiftly to his skin, and Rudak could feel a spurious sensation as they tightened over his back. It was necessary, of course; they’d remove carbon dioxide from his suit, leaving more room for air tanks. It was necessary, if he was to go on long sojourns out of his ship.
Once that was done, they helped him pull on his pressure suit. The torso piece came on first, then he awkwardly pulled the pants on, making sure that his tail was comfortable. His feet slid into the hard boots of the suit, and he began to put on his gloves. The helmet came on last, and he retracted his palps as it slid over his head. It dampened his hearing more than he’d like, but it was better than the first models he had to try out.
“We’re going to pressurize your suit, now,” one of the technicians said. “Alert us of any discomfort.”
He flapped his tail against the floor. “Understood.”
Sure enough, the suit began to expand, air hissing in. Experimentally, he flexed his toes and fingers, seeing how the suit’s joints were holding up. Satisfied, he held up his hand and clenched a fist.
“No problems reported.”
“Good. Now, we’re putting the backpack on.”
There was a sudden increase in weight, and Rudak let out a grunt as they fastened the heavy life-support pack over his shoulders. It weighed as much as the rest of the suit put together, and it certainly felt like it. Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to worry about the weight once he was offworld.
Offworld. He’d be the first to ever do so, in all of Ktrit’s history. The first to fly, the first to meet alien life. They could dedicate a scroll to the records he’d be making. He’d had plenty of time to mull it over, but it remained a humbling thought.
“Everything alright, Rudak?”
“Yes. Just heavy. I’m ready to walk to the entrance, now.”
“Good to hear.”
Rudak trudged past the technicians and out of the room. Sure enough, there was a small crowd across the gangplank and by the Allmother’s Light. Yalam’ziz was there, standing tall and proud as she watched her mate approach, while Nomolz and Lulra played around her feet. Rudak felt his hearts pound against his chest when he saw them, and his stride lengthened as he made his way over.
“Waga!” his children cried when they saw him.
He paused, letting them trot over and brush against his legs, then pressed forward. They walked alongside him, practically bouncing with excitement. Yalam strode up to greet him, resting her head against his.
“You will come back to me,” she declared. “I know it.”
“I will come back to you,” he replied, reflexively completing the old saying. “I know it.”
Around them, the journalists took photographs. Rudak pulled away from his mate, then looked down at his children. He brushed his snout against theirs, and regretted that the helmet meant he couldn’t give them a proper nuzzle goodbye.
“I’ll return before the dry season comes,” he said. “Listen to your mother while I am away.”
Nomolz let out a squeak; he was younger and more emotional than his sister. “Do you have to go, Waga?”
“Yes. Don’t be sad, Nomolz. You still have your uncles and aunts and your mother for company. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get some more family when I come back.”
“Could you bring back a rock?”
“I’ll try.” Rudak turned to Lulra, and rubbed a hand over her head. “Try not to get in trouble while I’m gone.”
“Yes, Waga,” Lulra said, a bit mopey.
Rudak laughed to himself, then stepped closer to the hatch of the ship. Vomol’oa was there, along with Mother Ulu. The wizened priestess was wearing her traditional shawl, with the birth of Ktrit by the Allmother woven in. Three of her eyes were grey with blindness, but the remaining one was still quite lively as it regarded him warmly.
“May the Allmother guide you, as She has guided all pioneers,” she said. “May Her light show you the way, and may that light lead you to great fortune and happiness.”
Rudak bowed his head. “So it is said.”
“So it is said.” Mother Ulu gestured to the crate by her side. “I understand that this ship will allow you to carry a great deal of personal effects. Here is a gift for you, Rudak’en’ziz: sacred earth, and your family bloodstone, as was entrusted to me. Perhaps you won’t need it, but perhaps you will.”
“Thank you, Mother Ulu,” Rudak said. “I shall carry your gift into the unknown.”
“It is only unknown to us,” the priestess said, wryly.
Rudak bowed his head. “Of course.”
He grabbed the crate, and ducked inside the hatch. He turned, letting the journalists take their photos, then headed into the interior, where his crash couch would be.
The hatch slammed shut behind him, and the first step to the stars had begun.
“Life-support is at optimal levels,” the capcom declared. “Instruments are at optimal levels. Power at full. Launch will commence in one vo.”
“Nothing to be worried about,” Rudak murmured to himself. “It’s only the most powerful thing ever built. No need to worry at all.”
His heart pounded against his chest, and he looked at the chronometer. After so long a wait, and now it felt like it was happening all too soon…
He began to murmur a small prayer, then stopped himself. He needed to be ready for the launch, in case there were any emergencies during takeoff. Allmother’s Light had never flown before, and though they had run a great deal of safety tests, the only way to truly find out if it was viable was to launch it.
Considering its method of propulsion, the public wasn’t keen on more launches than necessary. They would be even less keen if this flight failed, to put things mildly.
His mind continued to wander. The Visitor was advancing swiftly; it wouldn’t be long before he met with it. Would he be accepted as a peaceful ambassador by whatever beings piloted the craft, or would they turn hostile? The likelihood of the latter was slim, but it was enough to terrify some.
More personally, he wondered when he’d swim in the Calm Sea again, or feel the warmth of his mate’s touch. The flight would be short, but how long would the meeting be? Would they come back with him to Ktrit, and open a dialogue with his world, or would they insist on keeping him longer as an ambassador?
He dismissed the thought, then made himself more comfortable on the crash couch. The forces produced by the launch shouldn’t be too troublesome, but there was no risk in being cautious.
“Towers pulling away,” the capcom said.
Sure enough, Rudak could feel the rumble as the launch towers pulled away from Allmother’s Light, moving on wheels and treads as to move out of the blast zone. Those in command were deep underground, safe from the powerful forces that would soon be unleashed.
“Launch in five… four… three… two…”
Rudak braced himself, and whispered a prayer under his breath.
At that moment, an atom bomb detonated under Rudak’s feet.