By Stirling Edgewood
Bear the Ember, Chapter 13: Turn Over the Rock
She emerged from the tube leading to the airlock, the void torch, now extinguished, still in her hand. He had felt the sudden surge from the re-ignition of the engines a few minutes previously.
“Considering the great learning of the ship’s designers, I imagined they would have concocted a means of re-ignition more clever than passing a flame into a touch-hole.”
She dropped the torch and stripped off her void suit.
“There is beauty and confidence in simplicity,” he replied.
“Still,” she continued, “returning to the void was most unwelcome,” she observed, sitting down at the table with him.
“I see you still carry our little interloper,” he observed, gesturing to the small blue stone she held.
“Yes,” she replied, “I thought I might keep it. As a remembrance. Perhaps I’ll craft a bauble of it.”
“Has your circumspection of the files revealed any intriguing prospects circling our yellow friend hither?” she asked.
“Well, the gas giants will not serve. Nor have they any tolerable moons. The nearest of the rocky inner bodies shows some small promise, but that quite small. It is diminutive, rendering the gravity is far too insubstantial, and the atmosphere is thin and devoid of oxygen. A stop there for repairs might be feasible, but would lie most uncomfortably upon us. Two others, closer to the star, are entirely too hot.”
He paused, then pronounced dramatically, “Then there is this.” He held up a large, black envelope. Printed it on it in large, red type were the words, “STRICTEST CONFIDENCE. REFRAIN FROM DISGORGING CONTENTS PRIOR TO ARRIVAL.”
“How very curious,” she said with surprise.
“It was stowed with the files for the star,” he commented.
“To what end?” she asked. “Likely an errant file.”
“Perhaps,” he noted, “yet only one course of action can unshroud the mystery.”
“I am appalled,” she said with mock seriousness. “We have not yet reached our destination. The Tome would most certainly disapprove such a premature act.”
“Given that we have roundly shattered the Tome with our recent, uh, activities, I hazard cracking one of its shards will increase our sinfulness none the more.”
“Why, you have become a positive rogue,” she said amused.
“Indeed, I have,” he admitted, handing her the envelope. “I thought you might have the honor, given that my current inability renders opening envelopes somewhat awkward,” he said, holding up his truncated limb.
She absentmindedly handed him the stone as she took the envelope. She tore it open, pulled out a sheaf of papers, and began leafing through them.
“Astonishing,” she said. Then let out another, louder, “Astonishing!” Then, her eyes grew wide, and she exclaimed, “Astonishing and more astonishingly so!”
“Pray, tell of your discoveries,” he prompted.
“This system contains another rocky planet, with light, but tolerable gravity, and atmosphere and oxygen just dense enough for respiration. Though I imagine we will be inconveniently dizzy until we grow accustomed. Bust most astonishing of all…it is…inhabited!”
“Inhabited?” he asked, for a moment perplexed. “Inhabited as in aliens?”
“Quite so,” she confirmed.
He was dumbstruck. In his shock he found himself staring at his remaining hand, which was lying palm-up and open on the table. On it rested the small, blue stone.
“Whyever would our course guide us elsewhere?” he wondered. “What design could be served by hurling us to a further star?”
She shuffled through a few more pages, then, peering closely at one, she announced, “It seems our betters considered the hazard of contacting an alien race too great. Even our telescopes in the mass focus of our star could make out little of their planet. They might merely destroy us as invaders. Or, revealing our presence to them, they might return back on our own planet with the strength of greater technology.”
“Well,” he surmised, “we cannot go further in our present predicament. And though it present many and grave hazards, we cannot simply allow our project to drift despairingly into the void. The great sacrifices made by our kind cannot be permitted to simply come to naught. We have found our destination, unforeseen though it may be. Whether it be the ignoble end of our journey, or the beginning of fresh adventure anew, even a soothsayer could not foretell.”