Aphelion Issue 247, Volume 24
February 2020
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Pe Aspera Ad Astra

by Steven Ford




The infant had died in the embrace of its mother and father. After more than 60 years of desiccation and weathering, that much was still clear. The arid atmosphere had mummified all three bodies to form a grotesque sculpture in what must have been their sleeping room. As with all the other remains, there was no sign of suffering or violence.

Erin Kim traced a gloved hand along the infant’s withered face, brushing away the sand as she went. Rows of needle-sharp teeth gleamed white through its brown, pebbled lips. Bony nodules were visible along its forehead, precursors of the intricate horns worn by its parents.

She rose slowly to her feet and wiped the sweat from her face. “One billion dead,” she whispered. An entire race extinguished in a single act of self-destruction. Even after a month on Pi Mensae Prime, Erin still couldn’t grasp the enormity of it.

Jason appeared in the doorway with two water bottles tucked into the waistband of his khaki shorts. He tossed one bottle to Erin and proceeded to open the other.

“I assume you heard the sonic boom?”

“Yep,” Erin said as she flicked off the cap. “Sounds like the Dalen have arrived at last.” She raised the bottle over her head and allowed the cool liquid to drizzle into her hair.

“You should follow my example,” Jason said as he gestured to his bald scalp. “This is a lot more comfortable on a hot planet than your black mop.”

Erin shrugged. “As long as we’re swapping advice, you need more sunscreen. Your cheeks look like they’ve been slapped fifty times apiece, which is probably not a bad idea. And with that pale flesh under your goggles, you look like a raccoon.”

Jason smiled. “Touché.”

“How many Dalen came down? I heard they were sending an entire team.”

“No. Just one Dalen. Their chief of archeology.”

“Our first discovery of a non-human, non-Dalen civilization and they send only one investigator?” Erin asked. “Very strange.” She switched on her bio scanner. She held the scanner at arms length and waited as it probed the long-dead family, scanning their internal tissues and plotting the exact positions of the corpses. A chime signaled when the scan was complete.

“Have you ever met a Dalen?” Jason asked.

“Yes, once,” Erin replied as she studied the scanner display. A magenta spike marked the signature of a synthetic neurotoxin, the same one detected in all the other corpses on the planet.

“Dalens are an acquired taste,” Jason said as he recapped his bottle. “I met my first when I was a graduate student at Olympus Mons University. He or she, I was never really sure, reviewed my exobiology thesis. I got along with ‘it’ just fine…I think.”

Erin slipped the scanner into her pants pocket and took a long draw from the water bottle. “That’s the problem,” she said. “You never really know what Dalens think of you. They’re ciphers. They might despise humans for all we know.”

“If that was true, they would never have made contact and never given us Jump technology. We’d still be puttering around the Solar System and wondering if we were alone in the Universe.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to cuddle up to them.”

“No, but please don’t give this particular Dalen a hard time.”

Erin shook her head. “Don’t worry Jason. I’ll give him the grand tour. You can upload our files to his ship and he can go his merry way. The sooner the better.”

“I guess that’s the best I can hope for,” Jason replied with a crooked smile. His watch chimed loudly. “It’s show time.”

The sleek Dalen shuttle hovered just above the ancient village center. Clouds of pinkish sand billowed as the thrusters screamed, softened, and then stopped. The craft settled with a dull thud. Erin watched as the “chief of archeology” emerged from an oversized airlock.

The Dalen’s six-legged gait was remarkably graceful, especially considering its massive size. Erin couldn’t help but stare at the bands of color that rippled across its black exoskeleton. Swaths of iridescent green pulsed in its thorax, just above a metallic multipocketed belt. In one of the pockets, she could see the outlines of a bio scanner not unlike her own. Dangling nearby was an electronic translator.

Four multi-jointed appendages unfolded from beneath the Dalen’s head as it approached. Each of these “arms” ended in six slender fingers.

Jason fumbled inside his shirt and switched on his translator pendant. Erin did the same.

The Dalen’s mouthparts began to twitch. At first there was only the sound of staccato clicks. Within seconds, the translator massaged them into a smoothly modulated approximation of a human voice. The enunciation was perfect, but sound was flat and emotionless. “We are pleased to be in your presence. We are Kila, of the progeny of Gorn.”

“I am Erin Kim, archeologist.”

“I am Jason Stockbridge, archeology team leader.”

“May we establish our familiarity?”

This was the part of the Dalen greeting that Erin dreaded the most. “Yes,” she replied with a weak smile.

“Certainly,” Jason answered.

Kila swiveled to face Erin, bowing forward with its compound eyes mere inches from her face. Feathery antennae first rested on the top of her head, then brushed across her neck, chest, abdomen and legs. Erin shuddered in spite of herself.

“Do we disturb you?” Kila asked.

“Yes, you do.”

Kila seemed to process Erin’s answer slowly. “Our sincere apologies,” it said at last.

The Dalen pivoted its upper body to Jason and performed the same ritual. “We would like to be briefed on your work, particularly as it concerns the transmitter facility” Kila announced when it finished.

Jason stepped forward and smiled. “Our expert on the Mensae transmitter is Erin Kim.”

Erin shook her head. “I am really not--.”

“I’m sure she would be thrilled to show you the facility,” Jason interrupted.

“The hardware is primitive by Dalen standards,” Erin said. “There isn’t much that would interest you.”

“That is a conclusion we would like to reach independently, your research notwithstanding.”

Erin flushed. She glanced at Jason and saw him clasp his hands as if in prayer. He silently mouthed the word “please.”

Erin flipped down her goggles and turned abruptly. “Follow me,” she said.

They walked through the dusty streets in silence. The Dalen seemed to skip effortlessly over the sand drifts. At times it would skitter ahead, scan something of interest, then wait for Erin to catch up.

They emerged from the village gate just in time to see the shimmering disc of Pi Mensae sinking into what appeared to be an enormous crater. The rim towered a hundred meters above them with walls of upthrust rock that curved to the south and disappeared out of sight. “They certainly fashioned a most impressive parabolic reflector,” Kila said suddenly. “The antenna is visible from orbit, but on the ground its true size is apparent.”

Erin nodded and kept her eyes fixed on the pathway.

By the time they reached the squat building at the base of the antenna wall, Erin was drenched in sweat. She stood by the doorway and drained her water bottle in one continuous swallow. “You can probably just fit through this doorway,” she said. “We think they used it to bring in the equipment.”

Erin stepped into the gloom and switched on the portable lights. The Dalen followed, sweeping the room carefully with its antennae. Erin sat on a nearby power module and watched. Minutes passed as the Dalen used its antennae to probe the controls and displays.

“What is your sense of this place?” Kila finally asked.

Erin took a shallow breath. “Nothing more than the obvious. It’s the transmitter control. Their broadcast was encoded and sent from here.”

“Indeed. We presume you have analyzed the equipment.”

“Yes. The technology is on par with 21st century Earth. We know that beneath this building they installed a high-power microwave amplifier. It’s a huge traveling-wave-tube design with output in the gigawatt range, complete with an elaborate liquid cooling system. One of our technicians determined that the feedpoint of the antenna is designed for precise resonance on 1420.40575 MHz.”

“I see. That is to be expected,” Kila replied while continuing to probe. “Radiation from the precession of interstellar hydrogen is clearly heard in microwave receivers at that frequency. If the intent is to broadcast a signal most likely to attract notice at interstellar distances, that frequency would be an optimum choice.”

Suddenly the Dalen turned to face Erin. “But why do you think these creatures expended so much energy on such a project?”

Erin jumped to her feet. Kila cocked its bulbous head as if in bemusement. “I’m not entirely sure,” she said quickly. “LunaCom Labs have been trying to decipher the Mensae data code since they began receiving the broadcast six months ago. I’ve made some progress here, but it raises more questions than answers.”

“Indeed,” Kila said as it moved closer. Erin stepped backward. “The nature of their communication intrigues us. Tell us more.”

Erin sidestepped and pointed to a nearby switch panel. “Well, their transmission was mostly composed of a long stream of data. They started sending it a little more than 60 Earth years ago. From what I am able to tell, the transmitter was in continuous operation for a couple of Earth years, long after the population—.”

“Yes. We have followed the LunaCom reports.”

“Of course,” Erin replied with a brittle laugh. “Look, I’m just wasting your time with all—“

“No. Please resume.”

Erin frowned and continued. “The digital information is interleaved with a number of analog images. There are pictures of Mensae of various ages and sexes. There are also pictographic symbols. The two symbols that keep repeating are two vertical lines intersected by a broad curving line near the top.”

“Yes, this is known to us also. We sense that you have come to an interesting interpretation, however. Continue.”

Erin pointed to a row of switches. “Well, I’ve seen variations of these symbols everywhere on the planet. Look at these switches. Can you see them?”

“Yes, we can see them.”

“Two vertical lines intersected by a line that curves, although not quite as sharply.”

“Are you suggesting a parallel meaning?”

“Well, yes” Erin said as she drew another hurried breath. “We’ve determined that these switches control the cooling system pumps. If a switch is turned in the direction of the symbol, power to one of the pumps would be interrupted. The pump would stop functioning. I believe the symbol means ‘OFF’.”

“Off?”

“Yes. Or something like it. Off. Cease functioning. Stop.”

“That is a logical conclusion. And?”

Erin inched around the Dalen toward open doorway. She pointed to a solitary platform in the center of room. On the platform there was a gleaming metallic column topped with small panel and a switch similar to the others.

“That switch is marked with what seems to be a reverse configuration of the same symbol. See how the intersecting line appears along the bottom rather than the top?”

“Do you mean ‘ON’?”

“I think so, but I’m not certain.”

“We understand. Have you operated this switch?”

“Yes. Nothing happened. It’s connected to an independent power supply, along with what seems to be a low-frequency transmitter. We think power supply was damaged several years ago by a lightning strike.”

Kila stepped forward again. “Such a strange device. Can you suggest a purpose?”

“No, but we think that whatever this is, it was intentionally left functional. All the other power generation, everywhere on the planet, was shut down.”

“Fascinating. Perhaps we can help you re—“

Erin shook her head. “Kila, Pi Mensae is about to set and I didn’t bring a portalight. I think should return to the village.”

Kila regarded her for what seemed like several minutes. “Of course,” it said at last.

Erin bolted through the doorway and began walking without looking back. She could hear the Dalen following close behind. Its long shadow flickered across the dunes in the fading light. Erin quickened her pace and said nothing.


*****



Erin sat atop the dune with her bare feet buried in warm sand. In the distance the great antenna was a black specter blotting out the twilight stars along the horizon. She closed her eyes and savored a cool breeze that gently ruffled her hair. The aroma spoke of profound dryness…and death.

Her meditation was interrupted by the sounds of Jason’s boots crunching their way up the slope. Jason reached the crest and bent over with his hands on his knees. “I need to get in better shape,” he gasped. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“That’s what you get for spending most of your life on Mars,” Erin replied.

“Are you waiting for Sol to rise?” he asked.

“Yeah. It’s hard to pick out among the other stars. I’m designing my own Mensae constellations based on my favorite foods. That’ll help.”

Jason chuckled as he sat beside her. “Speaking of food, Kila is taking its evening nourishment. That’s something I don’t care to watch.”

“I don’t blame you. Did Kila tell you that we spent some time poking around the transmitter building?”

“Uh-huh. I really appreciate it, Erin. I know it wasn’t easy.”

Erin shook her head. “I don’t dislike Kila, really. The Dalens seem harmless enough, but I can’t get past their . . . nonhumanness. When I look at Kila, all I see is an 8-foot-tall praying mantis. At least with the Mensae I can feel a kind of kinship.”

“Because they were humanoid?”

“Not just that. From everything I’ve seen, the Mensae were very much like us. They seemed to have human-like relationships. It’s reflected in their art.”

“But how do you explain why they would suddenly decide to exterminate themselves? And why did they feel the need to blast an announcement throughout the galaxy? By any reasonable human standard, it’s madness.”

Erin rested her chin on her hands. “You know, my father worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was a brilliant man; he was a team leader on the fusion drive project, but he knew he would never get to space.”

“How come?”

“The psych board blocked him. Bouts of depression that the drugs couldn’t fix. God, it weighed on him. Even as a kid, I could tell. One day, when I was 12 years old, he just stepped in front of a maglev train outside Pasadena. My mother found a note at home with some Latin text scribbled on it: Per aspera ad astra.” That’s all he had to say.

“Through hardship to the stars,” Jason replied.

Erin shook her head. “Yeah. What the hell was that supposed to mean to us?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. My mother carried on and raised me pretty well, I think. She pushed me through college and the Dalen showed up a year after I snagged my doctorate. Perfect timing.”

“And here you sit, 60 light years from Earth. Very few humans can lay claim to that,” Jason said with a grin.

Erin nodded. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but something about this place is getting to me, Jason.”

“Death on a planetary scale is –”

“No, not the death. The senselessness of it,” she said.

Erin began to speak again, but Jason was already getting to his feet.

“Look,” he began, “I’m going grab something to eat and then I’ll be watching a holo in the lab shelter. It’s a comedy, probably just what you need.”

“Maybe I’ll join you.”

“Don’t be long,” Jason called out as he made his descent.

Erin searched the western horizon and finally found a pinpoint of light creeping above the antenna feed point. Erin brought her heels together three times beneath the sand, “There’s no place like home,” she whispered.

A shadow fell over her, obscuring the perimeter lights. Erin laughed. “Jason, I think you—“

“May we—,” a toneless voice began.

“Jesus!” Erin cried. She scrambled to her feet and instantly slipped on the loose sand. A six-fingered hand shot out of the darkness and firmly gripped her forearm, effortlessly pulling her upright.

“Our apologies,” Kila said as it released her. “We did not intend to frighten you.”

Erin shook the sand from her shirt and forced a laugh. “Humans frighten easily. It’s not a problem. I was just leaving.”

“Why do you come here?” Kila asked.

“To be by myself. To think.”

“Dalen never think by ourselves. Each Dalen contains the knowledge of all Dalen. In this sense, we are never by ourselves.”

“I guess that’s the advantage of a hive mentality, ” Erin said as she reached for her boots.

“You dislike us.” The bluntness of the statement caught Erin by surprise. She froze, clutching her boots at her side.

“Kila, there are things about Dalen I do not understand. That lack of understanding causes distrust. This is not the same as dislike.”

“If there is something you do not understand, why do you not ask?”

Erin opened her mouth but said nothing.

“Yes?”

“Ah…okay. How about starting with the question of why you are here,” Erin said.

The Dalen seemed to mimic a human shrug. “To gain insight from your research. To understand what happened in this place.”

Erin frowned. “Everything I’ve transcribed has already been uploaded to your ship.”

“But we wish to understand more. Something happened in this place that is beyond our comprehension.”

“It is what we humans call a riddle.”

Kila paused before responding. “Yes, we understand this idea.”

“Okay,” Erin replied as she began making her way down the slope. “I guess I am all out of questions for now.”

“Then we have a better understanding between each other?” Kila asked.

“No, but that’s okay, too.”


*****



Erin emerged from the mess tent, still chewing the stale remains of a cinnamon bagel. Pi Mensae was already well above the mountains and she walked directly into a shaft of its brilliant orange-yellow light as she crossed the square. Cursing softly, she lowered her goggles.

Jason came around the other side of the mess tent at a trot, carrying a tripod and a holo imager across his shoulders. “Howdy, ma’am! Ain’t it a beautiful morning?”

“Please shut up. I’m begging you.”

“Bad night?” Jason asked as he paused beside her.

“Uh-huh. Hardly slept. Where’s the bug?”

Jason sighed. “The Dalen Chief of Archeology is at the transmitter. He’s been there since dawn.”

“Sorry, Jason. I’ll go look in on him.”

Jason did a mock bow. “And a good day to you, Miss Kim.”

Erin shook her head and made an obscene gesture.

She was 10 meters from the transmitter building when she saw a dazzling burst of blue-white light accompanied by a loud pop. Erin rushed to the doorway, muttering under her breath. The air was heavy with the stench of ozone.

She cautiously peered into the room and found Kila astride the center platform, wildly juggling a tangle of wiring. “Untranslatable! Untranslatable!” Erin’s pendant barked.

“Are you okay?” she called.

“We are nominal. A minor setback, but we have identified the error.”

Erin edged closer. “Can I help?”

The Dalen stopped with its arms in mid-air.

“You may not. Your help is not required.” Even through the translator it sounded sharp.

Erin watched as the Dalen resumed its mad dance. One by one the wires seemed to untangle and fall away. Kila produced a silver tube from its belt and gently probed a dangling circuit. A ribbon of smoke curled to the ceiling.

“There,” Kila announced. “The correct connection has been made. You have arrived at an opportune time, Erin Kim.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We have repaired the low-frequency transmitter power supply by substituting one of Dalen design. We believe the Mensae unit will function now. We believe that it generates a powerful local field of modulated energy within a frequency range of 2 to 10 hertz.”

“That’s remarkable,” Erin said as she approached the platform. “Have you discovered what it does?”

“Something . . . biological. The frequency range is one we have encountered before in biological systems.”

Erin paused with her hand on the miniature switch panel. “That sounds promising—and dangerous.”

“We were hoping that you would test it.”

“What?” Erin cried out with a laugh. “I don’t think so, Kila. This is clearly your project.” She stepped back, but the Dalen nudged her forward.

“Hey!”

“We cannot.”

“We cannot what? Risk our lives?” Erin turned and shoved Kila’s arms away.

“It is important for our knowledge, Erin Kim. It is absolutely critical.”

Erin narrowed her eyes and nodded. “If it is so important, then you test it.”

Kila lowered its head. Its arms hung motionless. “We…cannot. Great danger, we believe, to us. However, we must know the answer.”

“The answer to what?”

“The answer to…untranslatable…the answer to why. We believe our neural chemistry is too dissimilar for this device to connect with our consciousness. However, human neural networks should be…receptive.”

Erin felt her skin prickling. “You mean this is some kind of neural transmitter?”

“Yes. When language cannot be quickly bridged, direct induction into the neural pathways would be effective. The Mensae must have understood this.”

Kila gestured to a dark vertical patch immediately to the right of the switch. “We believe that is a tuning control. The frequency of the transmitter can probably be changed to accommodate various brain patterns. The surface is sensitive to touch. ”

Erin gently traced the patch with her index finger. It felt smooth and cold. “So, they expected visitors,” she whispered. “Non-Mensae visitors.”

At that moment a gust of wind stirred the sand at her feet. Erin licked her lips and wished she had remembered to bring her water bottle.

“You know, the sensible thing for me to do is to return to base and report everything to the Consortium Council. They’ll send another team to test this device, step by logical step. I’ll receive my accolades back on Earth and everyone will be happy.”

“But we sense that you would not be entirely pleased with such an outcome,” Kila said.

Erin smiled. “You’re right. Sensible approaches aren’t always the most satisfying. I guess that concept is unfathomable to Dalen.”

“You are correct. The ability to take irrational action is your advantage as a human.”

Erin laughed as she turned back to the switch. “Maybe so, but I sense a tiny spark of individualism in you, Kila. It has you in conflict. You always speak in third person, but I think there is a first-person Kila that is just as curious about this device as I am.”

This time Kila did not respond. Erin drew a deep breath and reached for the switch. “For the greater glory of new discovery,” she whispered.

The Dalen power supply hummed, but nothing happened. Erin placed her index finger on the tuning strip and slowly inched it upward. When she reached the halfway point, she began to feel lightheaded.

“I think something is happening,” she called out. Erin moved her finger another millimeter and the room seemed to waver as if she were looking through distorted glass. The gray walls vanished, and she found herself standing at the outskirts of a Mensae city. She recognized the distant spires as a city she had visited on a continent in the western hemisphere. Pi Mensae was directly overhead, blazing fiercely.

Hearing the sound of footsteps, Erin turned slowly. A tall Mensae individual was approaching. Its intricate horns gleamed above blacker-than-black eyes. Its chest and leg muscles rippled beneath pebbled skin as it walked with long, confident strides. The Mensae stopped a meter away and began speaking in a series of grunts.

Erin’s throat tightened. “I don’t understand,” she said.

The Mensae pointed to its sun with a three-fingered hand, then crouched and pulled up a handful of dried, withered grass. It held out the brittle leaves as if pleading. A translucent image appeared in the space between them. It showed Pi Mensae with lines that Erin recognized as light spectra. As she watched, the ultraviolet lines grew larger.

“Your planet was becoming uninhabitable for you. Yes. But couldn’t you—“

The Mensae abruptly vanished and Erin found herself standing in the middle of the parabolic antenna. A sea of Mensae adults, children and infants surrounded her. One of the adults stepped forward and began to emit a sound that seemed like the cry of a gull. Other Mensae joined the chorus until they were all screeching in a deafening roar. Silvery threads emerged from each individual, twisting upward and concentrating at the feed point of the antenna before cascading into the parabola and soaring into space.

As she watched, Erin was consumed by an indescribable joy. At the same time, an idea, a concept, seemed to be taking shape in her mind. It soon found expression in English.

“Everything we are!” she cried out. “All we will ever be!”

The vision suddenly winked out of existence. She was back in the transmitter room.

“Erin, are you nominal? Are you injured?”

Erin grasped the platform railing with one hand and wiped her tears with the other. “I’m as nominal as can be expected, Kila.”

“I…we…have excitement. What did you discover? You appeared to be in a trance.”

“A dream,” Erin said with a sigh. “I was in a dream. The data the Mensae transmitted is a kind of stream of knowledge, histories, stories. I’m not sure I can describe it, but I felt it.”

“Why would they do this?”

“Because the ultraviolet radiation from Pi Mensae is increasing. This world is slowly being sterilized. The Mensae must have known what was happening, and where it would lead. They weren’t spacefaring, so they preserved a legacy the only way they could.”

“But why did they not continue to live out their lives? The Mensae could have moved underground.”

“I don’t know. Perhaps it was what we humans call a ‘quality of life’ issue. Maybe they looked into the future and –”

The memory of her father stopped her in mid-sentence. “They didn’t see a reason to continue,” Erin said at last.

“Senseless,” her translator barked. “Senseless.”

Erin smiled. “You’re wrong. Actually, it was…beautiful in a way I can’t completely grasp. Faced with certain death, they sent their essence into the universe in the hope that someone, somewhere, would receive and understand. What incredible beings!”

Kila shuddered and stepped away. “This is a dangerous thought pattern. Intentional, rational suicide. The consequences to the hive are too terrible to contemplate.”

“No doubt. What one Dalen knows, all Dalen know, right? Consider yourself lucky that you didn’t share what I just experienced.”

Kila remained still, as if lost in thought. Suddenly, it turned and began skittering madly for the exit. Erin tried to follow, but the Dalen sprinted across the dunes with astonishing speed.

By the time she reached the village, the Dalen shuttle was already dwindling overhead. Jason emerged from a swirling cloud of dust, waving his arms frantically.

“What the hell happened?” he called out.

“I’m not sure,” she replied between gasps. “Kila powered up that podium, dais, or whatever you call it. It gave me a vision. It showed me what happened here.”

Jason stood silently with his mouth agape.

“Seriously. And then I told Kila what I had experienced and he –”

“What?”

“He ran,” Erin replied as she followed the shuttle’s exhaust over the horizon. A dull boom shook the ground.

Jason jerked his head toward their quarters. “We have to hurry. Kila said all humans had to be in orbit within 30 minutes.”

Erin shook her head and frowned. “And then what?”

“Earth. He said we had to return to Earth. Immediately.”


*****



Erin knelt and brushed the dried grass from her father’s grave marker. Jason stood behind her, hands thrust into his trouser pockets. Twilight was gathering, and the first stars were becoming visible.

“Gonna be a long time before we get back out there,” he said softly. “I still don’t understand why they did it.”

“You mean the Mensae or the Dalen?” Erin replied.

“The Mensae I understand. If it is pointless to continue, a peaceful death and the hope of spreading your legacy among the stars makes a strange kind of sense. But the Dalen…”

Erin placed a daffodil bouquet on the marker and then stood at Jason’s side. “You think the Consortium can reverse-engineer the Jump drives?”

“Not a chance,” Jason said. “They said the Dalen technology used some kind of a tiny, suspended singularity to fold space. God only knows how they really do it. After everyone was called back to Earth, all our drive singularities magically went ‘poof’.”

“Well, we still have our fusion engines.” Erin said with a shrug.

“Yeah. They get us around the Solar System well enough, but they can’t take us back to the stars. Did you ever hear from Kila?”

“Not a word,” she replied.

“If it is any consolation, no one else has heard from the Dalen,” Jason said. “As soon as the last humans jumped through, they bolted the System and destroyed their JumpNet transceivers on the way out.”

“Quarantined,” Erin muttered.

“And it is your fault.”

Erin turned to stare at Jason. “Does the Consortium really blame me?”

“Not at all,” Jason replied as he gently urged her along the cemetery path. “What were you supposed to do? Lie to Kila? You couldn’t know how he would react.”

Erin saw starlight flicking through the tree branches. “They can’t keep us bottled up here forever. We’ll create our own Jump drives eventually. It won’t be in my lifetime, but we’ll do it.”

“A few hundred years, give or take,” Jason said with a smile.

Erin looked for familiar constellations. Pi Mensae glittered somewhere among them.

“Per aspera ad astra,” she whispered.



THE END


© 2020 Steven Ford

Bio: Steven Ford is a published author, although primarily of non-fiction books and articles for the science and technology market. He is presently the editor-in-chief of QST magazine, the official journal of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.