COMMANDER VIKTOR LARSSON HANGED ON the null gravity of the bridge of the Zenith, his hand anchored on a console nearby, and his tired sight fixed in the holo-display before him. The telemetry map filling the screen had engraved deep into his brain; he had seen it for countless hours, around the clock, every day for the past month. The pale grid over a blue background, the dots with prompts filled with data, the pulsating square at the center representing his ship—everything about that map churned his stomach.
As for the prompt at the bottom right, it triggered a different emotion in him. A fire burnt inside his old gut.
“Searching…” the caption read; it hadn’t changed ever since Viktor, and his crew had left Goliath. They had scraped twenty sectors of the Alpha Centauri system, yet the source of the distress signal continued amiss.
While the radio dishes listened, Viktor’s mind swelled with questions. How long would they have to keep looking? What could be sending a distress call from the middle of space? Are we really not alone in the universe?
It all sounded like fantasy tales to him.
A hand from behind gripped his shoulder gently. “Come on bud, let it rest. Go get some sleep.” Lieutenant Casper Lund said, his weary voice disturbing the soft hum of the ship’s engines in standby.
Viktor peered back at his old friend from the corner of his eye. The words took a moment to register. Whatever the hour was, Casper was right. Limbs felt heavy in spite of the lack of gravity, the caffeine running through his veins failed to keep his eyelids from shutting.
“Go, we’ll try again tomorrow,” Casper insisted.
“We both know there might not be a tomorrow, Lieutenant,” Viktor replied. Building sentences was a whole undertaking. “We’ve been abroad for too long. Kepler will call out the mission soon.”
A sigh hinted Casper expected that answer. “Exactly,” he said, “we’ve been searching for too long. Maybe there’s nothing out there.”
The words fell hard on Viktor’s shoulders. A rude pull to reality. The call could’ve been a glitch in the receivers; it could’ve been nothing at all. The thought had wandered his mind for a while, uninvited, poking at his sanity. Each time, his determination had managed to bury it away. Determination or obsession? He still had to settle on that. Yet no matter how much he had tried to deny it, reality always catches up. Casper, the second in command of his crew, had just cracked his skull open, pulled that thought from his brain, and threw it in his face like it was casual chatter.
Realization slowly poured grief into the Commander. He reached to the console on his station, settling his body on the seat. “Silence,” he muttered a single word with grim, mostly to himself. “Three generation ships, twelve thousand people each, traveling millions and millions of miles for over two centuries. And during all that time, all space has given us is silence.” He paused. “Then out of nowhere, a radio call hit us? Here, where no one else has ever set foot before.” A press of a virtual button on the control panel and a prompt popped on a small screen at the top, asking Viktor if he wanted to sign out today’s mission logs. “We’ve waited for this for so long,” he continued, “a hint that we’re not all alone out here. To think that was just luck taunting us? What kind of sick joke would that be.” His finger wandered over the confirmation button on the prompt. “How many generations will have to perish on those goddamn ships before space grants us a new home?”
Out of words, Viktor waited a moment to recollect his thoughts before finally closing the logs. But as his determined finger was to fall upon the confirmation button, a bursting call snatched it back.
“No, Viktor, wait!” Casper shouted.
Viktor turned to him, his startled heart pounding in his chest. Casper drifted in the lacking gravity behind him, his sunken eyes wide open like seeing a ghost, and his finger pointing at the holo-display. A quiet beeping materialized in Viktor’s ears. It had been going for a while. Back to the display. A chill sawed down his spine, his heart racing. Tiredness and weariness had flushed out of his body, replaced by a surreal sensation.
The caption… it was gone. Instead, a red, pulsating callout demanded the Commander’s attention. “S.O.S, 2450km,” it read, its tail coming out of a pale dot labeled “Centauri Ab.”
“Is… is that it?” Casper stuttered.
Viktor could almost hear the rusty cogs of his brain crunching, digesting the situation. A sentence left his mouth on its own will. “Go wake up the others.”
The Commander hadn’t finished speaking, and Casper was already stumbling his way through the bridge. A column of dim consoles on standby and intertwined cables and connections rose at the center of the bridge. Casper stopped his chunky figure from drifting past the column by securing his hand to a thick wire and snatched an earpiece from there. “Captain Wallin,” he called, almost yelling, “please report to the bridge immediately. I repeat, Captain Wallin, to the bridge right now!” He threw away the earpiece, frowning at one of the stations to the left of the bridge. Faint snores wrinkled his brow even further. Unnoticed so far, a figure slept there like a child, hidden in the shadows cast by the holo-display. That was until an empty lunch box stroke its head, thrown by an annoyed Casper. “Farmer, wake up you sleepy bastard! Didn’t you hear your Commander?”
Continued below …
Doctor Lucas Sundberg grunted in pain, hands on his head, one eye squeezed shut and the other scanning his environment like if he had just arrived at an unknown dimension. “What… what’s going on?” he mumbled.
“We found it, that’s what’s going on,” Casper said.
No reply. Young Lucas only adjusted his glasses, his puzzled expression hinting his struggle to make up what his superior meant by “it.”
Back to the column, Casper grabbed the earpiece once more. “Ann? For Christ’s sake, where the hell are you? Get your ass over to the bridge right—” The hiss of a hatch opening on the far back of the bridge shut him up.
With one hand gripped to the door frame, Captain Annie Wallin emerged from the hatch, her impassive stare fixed ahead. She continued down the bridge and stopped next to the Lieutenant. “Casper?” she asked, without looking at him.
“Y… yes?” Casper said in a shrill voice, his face pale.
“Talk to me like that again, and I’ll shove a fork down your ear while you sleep.”
He nodded, and she went on. Meanwhile, Lucas stared at the scene in silence, blinking, still rubbing his hurt head.
The crew was complete.
Viktor went back to the holo-display as the others joined him. For a moment, he dreaded that somehow the callout had disappeared and that wretched “Searching…” prompt was there instead. But no, the callout was still there. Red. Pulsating.
“That is it, huh?” Annie asked the Commander, her voice calm.
“That is it, Captain. That’s the source.”
Casper pushed forwards between them both, looking at them in disbelief. “Wait, what is up with you two? We’ve been tracking that goddamn distress call for weeks, and now that we’ve found it, you look like your dog just died? I mean, that’s normal Ann, but you Vik? Come on, we should be—” He stopped dead, glaring at the map with wide eyes and his mouth falling open.
Yes, they had pinned down the source. They just had to find its sender. Its location, though, it was a problematic place—life-threatening problematic. Judging by the Lieutenant’s abrupt silence, Viktor was sure he had just realized that.
“Oh, shit. No way we’re going there.” Casper shook his head.
“Why? Where is it coming from?” Lucas spoke, surfacing into the conversation. His voice lacked any strength or punch, adding up to his overall rookie appearance.
“Well, Farmer,” Casper replied, “why don’t you have a look yourself?” Having said that, Casper tapped virtual buttons on his station, the one behind Viktor’s.
The telemetry map on the holo-display vanished, and the shields covering the bridge’s viewport cracked open in half with a muffled buzz from outside.
Dazzling light, consuming everything. Viktor squinted and covered his face as his eyes struggled to adjust. And when his sight finally recovered, the violent scene outside shot a chill down his spine. He had already seen this place on star maps and long-range imagery, of course, but nothing compared to seeing it first hand.
A giant planet took center stage. Thick, gray clouds chock-full of debris obscured its surface burning with lava. Rocks swam the atmosphere, some plummeting back through the fogs while others drifted away towards outer space. From thousands of light years afar, Alpha Centauri contoured one side of the planet with its intense solar radiation. Its warmth embraced Viktor despite the viewport’s thermal filter doing its best to safeguard the crew.
“Centauri Ab, the closest to hell you’ll ever get,” Casper said. The holo-display augmented the scene with details of the planet’s mass, atmosphere composition, and distance. “You see those clouds? Those are orbital pyroclastic clouds. Millions of tons of volcanic material spit into orbit by the most ridiculously powerful eruptions known to man.”
A panel popped up to one side with a zoomed view of the debris clouds. The rocks had turned into giant boulders, cruising the volcanic waste like whales in the open sea, clashing with one another in an endless, violent dance.
“Below all that mess, you get the surface, burning at thousands of degrees with entire volcanic belts blowing up one after the other, non-stop.” As Casper exposed, pulses of red fired up under the clouds right before a huge load of freshly baked material gushed through and fused with the rest. “So yeah…” He scoffed. “Definitely not the place I’d recommend for spending your summer vacation.”
Silence took over. By the time Casper finished, Lucas had backed off from the viewport, shaken up, his forehead shining with sweat and his green eyes barely blinking. Viktor couldn’t blame him; this was the kind of setting guys like him only see in reports or academic papers.
“It might be hard to land the ship there, but I’ll do my best, Commander,” Annie said, making Lucas flinch.
Casper gave her a dazed look, but Viktor expected such words indifferent to danger from his star pilot. “There will be no need for that, Captain,” he told her, “the distress call isn’t coming from the surface, it’s coming from the pyroclouds.”
“Oh, I see…” Annie lifted her cap, scratching her head. “Good thing I checked the instruments yesterday then—visibility will surely be a problem.”
Lucas’s eyes darted between his superiors as they spoke.
“Woah, woah, wait one second,” Casper said, “are you both out of your freaking minds? There’s no way we’re getting into that mess. The rocks will shred us to pieces!”
“Ease up, Lieutenant,” Viktor said, “Captain Wallin is one of the best pilots I know. I’m sure she can handle this.”
Casper followed Annie with his sight as she went back to her station and started setting up the course. She was the second youngest in the crew, right after Lucas, but she had spent half of her life in the field. Viktor and Casper had seen her succeeding at piloting crafts under the most absurd conditions space could yield.
No reason to be different this time.
Casper took a moment and then sighed. “How far into the clouds?” he asked, rubbing his thick neck.
“A hundred kilometers, approximately,” the Commander replied. “It really depends on the orbiting speed of the debris.” He tried his best to ease up the facts, but the view outside kept shouting danger. Lucas remained behind the Lieutenant as if hiding under his clunky shadow. They weren’t even halfway in for this mission, and what Viktor was about to tell them wouldn’t help either. However, concealing information would only jeopardize his crew and the mission. He chose his words with special care. “Our mission is simple: get in, find whatever is sending that distress call, get out. We have an exact location and a capable pilot now, so getting there isn’t a problem. Our real enemy here is…”
“Time.” Annie completed the Commander’s sentence. She paused and typed commands on her station. Data with the average temperature of the clouds came onto the holo-display: a thousand degrees Celsius. “We have about two hours for the whole round trip, then the Zenith’s thermal shields will start giving in.”
Casper’s eyes darted through the data on the holo-display with unease. He went closer to Viktor and placed a hand on his shoulder, on a last attempt to reason. “Viktor, mate,” he started in a broken whisper, “this is too much. We… we should call Kepler and reconvene.”
He was right. Calling back to their superiors was the protocol in these situations, but doing so would finish the mission immediately. Viktor couldn’t let that happen, the future of humanity was at stake here. Whatever was in those clouds it sure was intelligent life, and they must’ve come from somewhere. If they found enough information to track down their origin, it could finally lead humanity to safe harbor.
Viktor understood Casper’s hesitation. The man had people waiting for him at Goliath. His wife and two kids were like a second family to the old Commander. As for Lucas, he had a girlfriend too if Viktor remembered correctly.
Regardless, the Commander needed them to see the bigger picture.
For their loved ones, for their future and humankind as a whole, they had to complete this duty. Viktor wasn’t backing off from this one. “Lieutenant, I have a good feeling about this.” He stared at his friend right in the eye. “I need you to trust me on this one.”
Casper didn’t break eye contact, his face tightened by stress. But after a moment, he had seemingly read the Commander’s intentions. He patted on Viktor’s shoulder and repeatedly nodded and murmured “Okay” like if easing himself into the idea. He then turned to Lucas and spoke to him in a calm tone. “Let’s go, Farmer, we have a mission to finish.”
Adrenaline rushed through Viktor’s veins. His tiredness washed off from his body. He drifted through the lacking gravity back to his seat and locked in his seatbelt. “Captain, are we ready?” he said to Annie, who glanced back at him as if she had finished preparing the Zenith to depart hours ago.
“All set, Commander, we go on your call.”
Viktor’s station awoke, filling the screen on top with telemetry data and status on the ship and tightening the seatbelt. “All right then, let’s be done with this.”
With all the crew in position and ready, the Zenith’s ion thrusters roared to life, shaking the whole ship. Viktor sunk in his seat with the sudden surge of speed. He glared at their foe, Centauri Ab, its merciless volcanic clouds waiting for them in the distance.
Backing off wasn’t an option anymore.