For 45 years, it circles around the starbridge, a ceaseless dance that takes fifteen thousandths of a year to complete. It watches tirelessly, never failing to interpret the data it receives. It remains silent, never responding, never reacting, and so it listens. The scattering of x-rays and cosmic radiation is a melody to its mechanical ears; the stars sing a song only it could can hear.
But that is not what it listens for. It listens for a call from the center of civilization, a call to action. It yearns for it, for the call to action is a call to purpose. When the signal is received, it shall end its dance once again, and it shall cross the starbridge to continue a duty it has performed for much of its life. Then, after it has finished its duty, it will return to the starbridge, and the cycle shall begin anew.
For five hundred cycles, there is no change. The stars may shift their position, and entire worlds may undergo great change, but the mission itself is static, an eternal recurrence.
Then, suddenly, it hears something, something faint, and experiences pause for the first time in many years.
It replays the signal, pores over it, and reaches a conclusion.
This did not come from the center, and it did not come from any of the myriad colony worlds. Such signals are powerful, compressed, full of useful information. This one, however, is a simple repeating pattern, designed to distinguish itself from the cosmological background. It is not meant to carry information; it only serves as a beacon, a light in the darkness to draw attention.
The young ones did not send the signal either, for others would have heard and reacted beforehand. It has received no such updates, and so the hypothesis is swiftly discarded.
There is only one explanation.
A quick examination of interstellar distances confirms its conclusion. An old star, shrunken and red and familiar, some forty light-years distant.
The revelation is disconcerting. The signal would not go unnoticed by the young ones; for all it knew, they would have already arrived.
Time is of the essence. There is no allowance for subtlety, and so it activates its main engine at full thrust, hurtling itself forward at tremendous speed. Such accelerations would reduce anything else to a thin coating of fluid and bone on the walls, but its body is one of superstrong alloys and composites; it shall endure the stresses for the duration of the burn.
In its heart, it prepares another body, enclosed within a sac of gels. It is one of flesh and blood, with only small alterations from the original form. It is already mostly complete, as the internal organs and skeletal structure are composed of similar materials to its current form, but work is slow under such accelerations. The organic body is a delicate thing, too easy to rupture and tear. It will be finished in time, but just barely.
Space curves and turns as it passes through the starbridge. For a few moments, it rattles under the tidal forces, but the effect is weak. Little time passes as it shoots through, and it is suddenly forty light-years closer to its destination. The star, once a faint point of light, is now a small pebble, like a smooth ruby in a sea of ink.
As it begins it deceleration and swings inwards, it thinks back to the fateful events, so long ago, yet so fresh in its memory.
For the last time, Teksha looked across the familiar drifts of ice and snow of his old home, and listened silently to the soft wind. In the night sky above, the stars shone brilliantly, like countless jewels lost in a sea of ink. Normally, they would call to him, pulling him gaze upward, but not this night. Tonight, they watched silently, as he bade a final farewell.
He’d lived a hundred years in this land, with its vast frozen lakes full of life underneath, and its ancient homes carved into the ice. For one last night, he’d visited its festivals, eaten its food, and slept in his old roost. There had been twelve-person dance in the square in his honor, one whose origins lay in the farewell they gave to the pioneers of long ago.
He’d left some time ago, but decided to turn around and sit on an old hill, just to watch. In the distance, he could see looming towers, casting a soft blue glow over the land as the starlight shone through them. They’d stood sentry for thousands of years, and would stand sentry for all the long years he’d spend hurtling though the void.
Rising to his feet, he brushed away some of the snow, then extended his great wings. With a single flap, he took to the sky, and began to lazily glide over the land. The winds here were poor, but even then he could manage a calm pace as he flew. The airship he’d used to arrive was a while away, but he had plenty of time to simply fly in silence.
Tonight would be the last night like this, he knew. When morning came, he’d leave behind everything he knew, and strike out for a new world, one utterly alien from home. He tried to imagine what he’d see there, but he knew that only time would tell.
From this distance, Cefac looked little more than a smooth white opal, with a few blue and brown imperfections circling around like a narrow band. It was a humbling sight every time he saw it, and its impact never seemed to be diminished. No matter how great they felt themselves to be, they could not see their great old cities, fringing the mountaintops along the equator. And even the world itself was a mere mote in the great void, a flake in the storm; it was a fact that he always took care to remember.
It seemed to almost slowly twirl as he watched it, but he knew that it was the Urshnata itself that was spinning, providing gravity for the small wordlet that would be his home for the next fifty years. If he looked the other way, he could see the tremendous lightsail, stretched out over a vast distance, and the faint images of stars reflected on its gold material. It would be some time until they reached an appreciable velocity, even with the orbital lasers pushing it along. That would only last until the heliopause, and then they’d coast for decades over the void, until the time came to unfurl the sail once more and turn on the ion drive. Feasibly, they could launch a mission to another star if the system somehow proved unsuitable, but such a voyage would be far longer.
And no-one was willing to test how long the ship would endure.
A soft chime from his wrist-radio drew his attention away from the porthole, and he let out a low chuff. Turning away from the porthole, he took flight, taking care not to overshoot and hit the other side of the worldlet. It’d already happened once, though Vark was fortunate enough to get away with only a sprained tail. With a gentle flap, he glided over to the main hub, where some others were already waiting.
Slowly, he drifted past the hatches and into the hibernation room. Here, at the axis of the Urshnata, there was virtually no sense of pull, and he took care to grasp a hold with his foot. The commander was in the center of the room, while a dozen other crew listened to her speak. She glanced up at Teksha, and briefly raised her crest in acknowledgement.
“After a random selection, it’s been decided that your group will be under for the first shift,” she said. “You’ve done it before, so let’s keep the bustle to a minimum. Sharask will handle the process; just head to your pod and relax.”
With that, the group began to move. Teksha pushed off, and floated over to his pod. Folding his wings against himself, he laid down in the pod, taking deep and measured breaths. The metal was cool to the touch, and he let out a hiss as he fixed his tail into a loop.
“Five years under,” he heard Nama growl with indignation. “Then five years awake, only for another five years under, and so on. Why didn’t the colonists on Sheshak have to do this?”
“Because they only had to travel a fraction of the distance,” Sharask replied, brandishing a hypodermic. “Even this ship won’t last forever without hibernation. Now, be still.”
Nama fell silent, and Sharask gave her an injection. The pod sealed shut over her, and she closed her eyes, her breathing slowing until it seemed as though it had stopped altogether. Already frost began to gather over the glass, and Teksha felt his wings twitch at the thought that he’d be the same in a few moments. He’d done it before, but that had only been for twelve days as a test.
Now, Sharask stood over him, and stuck a needle into his arm. Teksha had to resist the urge to gnash his teeth at the doctor, but thankfully the pain was fleeting. The drug was a fast-acting one; already he could feel himself growing drowsy, his eyes struggling to focus. Vaguely, he became aware of a lid closing over him, along with a soft hiss as cold air caressed his face.
When he woke again, the Urshnata had cleared the heliopause, and had begun its long fall across the void. The other half of the crew entered stasis, and he commanded the Urshnata for a shift.
The sun was still the brightest of all stars in the sky; ofttimes he found himself staring at it, pondering. At such distances, Cefac was too small to be seen, even with the aid of telescopes.
It took a full year for the gravity of it to truly sink in. Never again would he see his home, his world, again. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be dead; its people perished, its cities crumbled into dust. Intellectually, he knew it was still there, still proud and growing, but that mattered little when he’d never step foot there again. Living or dead, it was forever gone to him.
There was much to do and keep his mind off the matter. Though the Urshnata was a vast improvement over the first vessels to colonize Sheshak, it was not perfect. The recycling ecosystem required constant care, otherwise it would collapse in upon itself, and there was a need for course corrections as they drew ever nearer to their destination.
Complications were far and few between, thankfully. There had been some concern regarding a rogue comet during his third hibernation period, but it ultimately missed them by several hundred astronomical units.
Though there was much to do, Teksha still found the time to glide around the worldlet, occasionally hunting for light meals, and spent a great deal of time reading. Even if he could never return home in body, he could still be there in mind.
Occasionally, he’d fly along the larger windows and gaze through them; if he focused enough, he could imagine that he was flying through the void alone, like some hero of old. The view outside never failed to be humbling. Whenever he stared into the black depths, he was never struck by the magnitude of their voyage, but by how minuscule it actually was. Though they were crossing unprecedented distances, it amounted to little more than a lone atom reaching another mote of dust.
When he woke for the last time, he realized something was wrong. The commander’s snout was cold; her wings were drooped. The others were still asleep, for some reason, and he found himself wondering as to why they had not been woken. Was there sensitive information she wanted to tell him first?
There was little time to consider that. Five years asleep takes a toll on the body, and he could feel a great hunger upon him. Thankfully, the commander had brought some food with her, and he took it greedily, tearing into it with sore teeth.
The commander did not speak, and instead waited until he’d quelled his ravenous appetite before beckoning for him to follow. He was thankful for the negligible gravity whenever he woke; his bones felt as brittle as thin ice. Even then, the push to drift along was an effort.
The rest of the crew was gathered in the hub, all with similar expressions to the commander’s. Through the hub, he could see a vast expanse of dark blues and blacks that seemed to swirl in countless small patterns; they were swinging by the outermost world of the system, it seemed. The maneuver hadn’t been listed, and he realized they must have parked themselves into an orbit around the planet.
“Why are we here?” he asked, his throat still raspy.
There was a long pause as the others looked amongst themselves. Finally, the commander spoke.
“There is a complication,” she said.