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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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