Commander Viktor Larsson hung in the null gravity of the bridge of the Zenith, a hand fixed on a console nearby and his tired sight on the holo-display before him. Countless hours of watching the on-screen telemetry map had engraved it deep in his brain. The pale grid over a blue background, the dots with prompts full of data tracking nearby planets, 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 the old Commander.
A fire raged inside his gut.
“Searching…,” the caption read, and it hadn’t changed since Viktor and his crew had left the generation starships of the Atlas Mission, their home, over a month ago. After a distress signal from the depths of space had hit the starships, High Command had deployed them with one objective: to find whatever was sending it. They had scraped twenty sectors of the Alpha Centauri system so far, yet the source continued amiss. “Searching…”
While the radio dishes listened to the expanse, Viktor’s mind swelled with questions. How much longer would they have to keep looking? What could be sending the signal? Is there really intelligent life this far into space? It sounded like fantasy tales to him.
Thick fingers gripped his shoulder gently from behind. “Come on, bud, give it rest. Go get some sleep,” Lieutenant Casper Lund said, his fatigued voice disturbing the soft hum of ion engines on standby.
Viktor peered at his lifelong friend from the corner of his eye. All he could make was a hulk of a frame in a maroon jumpsuit like his. The words took a moment to register. Casper was right. Whatever the hour was, the caffeine overflowing his body didn’t keep his senses sharp anymore. “Go. We’ll try again tomorrow,” Casper insisted.
“We both know there might not be a tomorrow, Lieutenant,” Viktor said, almost whispering. “We’ve been abroad for too long. Kepler will call off the mission any moment now.”
A sigh from Casper hinted he expected that answer. “Right. We’ve been searching for too long. Maybe…” The next words followed with caution. “Maybe the signal was just a glitch.”
The starships comms equipment was state-of-the-art, but nothing human-made was flawless. The thought wasn’t new to Viktor; it had got to him long ago, but he had managed to bury it deep into the recesses of his mind where it couldn’t damage his sanity. That was the first time hearing it from someone else though—the second in command of his crew—, and it was like waking up to a bucket of ice water. Realization drizzled grief in the Commander; he was the only one in that ship still in denial, obsessed with chasing after a foolish dream. He reached to the console on his station, settling his body on the seat. “Lieutenant, how long ago did the Atlas Mission left Earth?” he asked Casper without looking at him.
Casper took a while to answer, taken off-base by the sudden question. “It’s been a hundred and fifty years, according to the records.”
“Exactly. The mission left a diseased Earth behind, hoping that someday we would find another planet we could call home. Three generation starships, twelve thousand souls each, traveling millions and millions of miles, and during all that time, all space has given us is silence.” He paused. “Then, out of nowhere, a radio signal hit us. Here, where nobody else has ever set foot before.” With the press of a virtual button, a small screen at the top prompted Viktor for confirmation to sign off the mission logs for the day.
“We’ve waited for this for so long,” he continued, “a hint that there is a planet waiting for us somewhere, or at least that we’re not all alone out here. To think the first clue we’ve ever had was ‘just a glitch’? What kind of sick joke would that be? How many more generations will have to perish on those goddamn ships before we get there?”
Out of words, Viktor waited a moment to recollect his thoughts before closing the logs. But as his determined finger was to fall upon the confirmation button, a yell snatched it back.
“No, Viktor, wait!” Casper shouted.
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Viktor turned to him, his heart banging inside his chest. Upon the brightness of the holo-display against the back of the bridge, Casper pointed at the screen, baggy eyes wide open like seeing an apparition.
A soft beeping materialized in Viktor’s ears. It had been going for a while.
Sight back to the display, a chill crept up his spine. All the tiredness and weariness flushed from him instantly, replaced by a surreal sensation as if the bridge stretched away from him.
The caption… it was gone.
Instead, a red, pulsating callout demanded the Commander’s attention. “SOS, 1500 mi,” 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, processing the situation. A sentence left his mouth by its own will: “Wake up the others.”
The Commander hadn’t finished speaking, and Casper was already stumbling his way through the bridge. A thick column of intertwined cables and connections with dim screens on standby attached rose at the center of the bridge. He anchored a hand to it, halting his drift, and snatched an earpiece from one console. “Captain Wallin, please report to the bridge immediately. I repeat, Captain Wallin, to the bridge right now!” He tossed the earpiece away. As he was about to head somewhere else, faint snoring coming from one station to his left stopped him.
Each snore wrinkled his brow even further.
Unnoticed so far, a figure curled up in the shadows, sleeping, peaceful like a child nestled in the arms of his mother. That was until an empty lunch box struck its head, hurled by an annoyed Casper. “Wake your sleepy ass up, Farmer! Didn’t you hear your Commander?”
Doctor Lucas Sundberg grunted in pain, arms on his head. He had one eye squeezed shut while the other scanned his environment as if he had just arrived at an unknown dimension. “What… what’s going on?”
“We found it, that’s what’s going on,” Casper said.
No reply came from young Lucas. He only adjusted his glasses, confused, avoiding eye contact like a scolded dog.
Leaving it at that, Casper returned to the column and shouted once more into the earpiece. “Ann? For Christ’s sake, where the hell are you? Get your ass over to the bridge right—” A door opening at the back of the bridge with a hiss cut him off.
One hand gripped to the door frame, Captain Annie Wallin emerged from a corridor, her blank stare fixed ahead. She stopped next to the Lieutenant. “Casper?” she called without looking at him.
No reply came from the Lieutenant. He had gone pale and wouldn’t dare to make eye contact with this ancient, dormant entity he had foolishly disturbed.
“You don’t talk to me like that. You understand?”
He nodded, and after a moment, she went on. All Lucas did in the meantime was staring at the scene in silence, blinking, still rubbing his hurt head. His sight met Casper’s by accident, but he turned away and did as if he was checking something in his station.
With the crew complete, Viktor headed back to the holo-display, where the others joined him. For a moment, he dreaded that somehow the SOS had vanished from the screen and that wretched “Searching…” prompt was back. But no, the callout was still there—red, pulsating.
“Is that it, huh?” Annie asked the Commander without a trace of emotion.
“That’s it, Captain. That’s where the signal is coming from.”
They went silent, leaving only the engine hum in the background.
Casper pushed forwards from between them, his attention darting from one to the other. “What’s wrong with you two? We’ve been tracking that goddamned signal for weeks, and now that we’ve found it, you look like your dog died? I mean, that’s normal Ann, but you Vik? Come on, we should be—” He stopped, glaring at the map with eyes wide open, his face pale again. “Oh shit. No way—we’re not going in there, are we?”
“Why? Where is it coming from?” Lucas surfaced into the conversation. His voice lacked any strength or punch, adding up to his overall rookie appearance.
“Well, Farmer, why don’t you have a look by yourself?”
Casper tapped buttons on his station, and the telemetry map vanished from the holo-display. A muffled buzz from outside, and the shields covering the viewport cracked in half and retracted.
Dazzling light consumed everything.
Covering his face from the sudden brightness, Viktor squinted as his eyes struggled to adjust. When his sight recovered, the violent scene unfolding before the ship shot a chill through his spine. He had seen this place before on long-range imagery, but nothing compared to seeing it first hand.
A giant planet took center stage. Roiling gray clouds chock-full of debris obscured the surface burning with lava. Rocks swam the atmosphere, some plummeting back through the fogs and others drifting off to a one-way trip. 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 thermal filter of the viewport doing its best to safeguard the crew from a fiery death.
“Centauri Ab. The closest to hell you’ll ever get,” Casper said as if announcing an unstoppable foe. Meanwhile, the holo-display augmented the scene with data on the planet’s mass and composition. “You see those clouds? Orbital pyroclastic clouds. Millions of tons of volcanic material spit into orbit by the most absurdly powerful eruptions known to humankind.”
A pane popped up to one side with a zoomed view of the debris clouds. The rocks 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 spoke, pulses of red fired up beneath the clouds right before massive amounts of freshly baked material erupted through. “So, yeah. Not the place I’d recommend spending your summer vacation.”
Silence took over once more. By the time Casper finished, Lucas had backed off from the viewport, shaken, his forehead shining with sweat and green eyes barely blinking.
“It might be hard to land the ship there, but I’ll do my best, Commander,” Annie said, making Lucas flinch and printing a dazed look on Casper’s face.
Viktor expected such indifference to danger from his star pilot. “There won’t be a need for that, Captain. The signal isn’t coming from the surface, it’s coming from the debris clouds.”
“Oh.” Annie lifted her cap and scratched, revealing a head full of brown hair combed into a ponytail. “Good thing I double-checked the instruments yesterday—visibility will sure be a problem.”
Lucas’s eyes darted between his superiors as they deliberated.
Casper followed. “Woah. Woah. Wait one second. 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. Captain Wallin is one of the best pilots I know. I’m sure she can handle this,” Viktor said.
Casper followed Annie with his sight as she went to her station, determined, and started setting up the course. After Lucas, she was the second youngest in the crew, but she had spent half of her life in the field. Viktor and Casper had witnessed her succeed at piloting crafts under the most absurd conditions space could yield.
No reason for it to be different this time.
Casper sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “How far into the clouds?”
“Sixty or seventy miles. It depends on the orbiting velocity of the debris,” the Commander said. He tried his best to ease up the facts, but the view outside didn’t help his case. The more he spoke, the more careful he chose his words. “Our mission is simple: get in, find whatever is sending that signal, and get out. We have an exact location and a skilled pilot, so getting there isn’t a problem. The real issue here is…”
“Time.” Annie completed the sentence. Data with the average temperature of the clouds materialized on the holo-display: eighteen-hundred Fahrenheit. “We have about two hours for the whole round trip. Past that, the thermal shields will give in.”
They were all aware of what that meant. With the thermal shields gone, the ship would stop responding; that would leave them trapped in that inferno.
Casper glanced at the holo-display, hopeless, with lips trembling. He reached to Viktor in a last attempt to reason. “Viktor, buddy,” he started in a broken whisper, “this… this is too much. We should call Kepler and reconvene.”
The man had a point. Calling back to Mission Control was the protocol in these situations. But no. They would end the mission without a second thought. Viktor couldn’t let that happen. Whatever was in those clouds, it was sentient life, and they must’ve come from somewhere. This could be humanity’s long-awaited passage to a safe harbor. He understood their hesitation, though. Casper had people waiting for him back 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 recalled correctly. However, this was beyond them. For their loved ones, for their future and humankind, they had to complete their duty. He stared at his friend right in the eye. “Lieutenant, I have a good feeling about this one. I need you to help me bring our people home.”
Casper didn’t break eye contact, his face tightened by a stir of stress and panic. His expression softened after a while. He patted on Viktor’s shoulder, nodding and murmuring “Okay” repeatedly, 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, washing off the tiredness from his body. He drifted through the lacking gravity back to his seat and buckled his seatbelt. “Captain, are we ready?” he said to Annie, who glanced back at him as if she had finished preparing the Zenith hours ago. “All set, Commander. We go on your call.”
The seatbelt contracted around Viktor’s body as his station awoke, and the screen filled with telemetry data. “All right then. Let’s get this done.” With all the crew in position and ready, the Zenith’s ion thrusters roared to life, rocking the whole cabin. The sudden surge of speed sunk Viktor in his seat as he glared at their foe, Centauri Ab, its merciless volcanic clouds waiting for them in the distance.
Backing off wasn’t an option anymore.