A HEAD FULL OF STARS

                                      

 

The GWATHIAN lay under the glare of the high intensity lights. The hovering scanbots floated above him reading his vital signs…probing deep into his brain, measuring the echoing thump of his triple interlocking hearts. If he’d understood the concept of time he would have realised he was billions of years old, and to all intents and purposes immortal. But as the Nano-repair bots travelled through his reptilian structure he wasn’t thinking of anything other than the fact that he might cease to be.

 

Their civilization had existed on GWAITH forever. The Gwaithians were powerful, grey skinned, and with reptilian features. They stood over eight feet tall and employed a 360 degree eye-slit that gave them phenomenal visual clarity. Using two or four legs they were able to move with astonishing speed. Their land was unending, and no one had ever bothered to map it. The sky was always a fluorescent white above them and the temperature remained constant.

 

War was unheard of, food was plentiful and they spent their infinite lives producing works of art, which adorned the hundreds of palatial galleries alongside the wide marbled streets of their capital city GWAITHOPOLIS. The huge operating room was crowded with the top specialists in their field. No one had ever ceased to function before, and they were confused and frightened by the prospect of losing one of their kind. In a race that lived forever there was no word for death. It was only a concept talked about by their philosophers…of which there were many. When time has no meaning talking can go on a long time.

The understanding of pain was another thing they were battling to comprehend. JAPOD had tried to explain what he was feeling to the scientists that probed him. He’d been experiencing what he called “the change” for some time, but having no framework of time or pain he was unable to put his condition into words. But now, his “condition” as the specialists were calling it, had become too severe to be ignored. They’d narrowed the problem down to his brain. Whatever his “condition” was it interfered with his thought processes…the simplest of tasks such as walking, talking and eating were becoming too much for him to cope with.

 

Whatever was going on inside his brain was getting stronger while he was getting weaker. The scientists scanned and probed his brain, closing in on the source of the problem. The nanobots returned from their travels through the billions of synapses in his cortex having collected the necessary data to enable them to concentrate on the source of his “condition”.

 

The scientists had to form a whole new cadre of specialism…a branch of the sciences to deal with their own bodies…with no hospitals, surgeons or medical skills they were in uncharted territory. If Japod stopped functioning he would be the first Gwaithian to do so. Scientists pored over their data filled screens. Analysts measured the chemical and electrical balances of Japod’s physiology and compared them to a colleague…it was the only way they could work out what was different in Japod, and what had helped them narrow the problem down to Japod’s brain. As they processed the information it became obvious that the level of electrical activity in Japod’s brain was growing exponentially. As the last of the nanobots disgorged its data into the computer a picture began to take shape. Something alien was living inside his head.

 

 

An unknown creature was moving across his cerebellum towards the cortex…too fast to be a virus it appeared to be a living organism with its own source of energy. Japod’s “condition” had taken a turn for the worse. If the scientists couldn’t halt the alien presence he was likely to become the first Gwaithian in their history to cease functioning.

 

A loud hum filled the interior of the steel cryo-deck on board the spacecraft named “ THE EDGE” as massive pumps drew the freezing gas out from the stasis pods lining the sides of the vast cryogenic deck. Warm filtered air was circulated while injectors forced low levels of adrenaline through the sleeping crews blood system. The pod doors swung open. The crewmembers hauled themselves out. Disengaging the cannulas from their arms. Essential equipment for keeping their blood filtered and oxygenated while they’d been in cryostasis for over a decade.

 

Captain Victus looked around at the bleary-eyed crewmembers.   He’d made three hyper jumps, and even though they didn’t age during stasis, he always felt bone weary. He nodded to a muscle-bound black man, Keno, a Nigerian giant and his second in command. “Something must have tripped the alarms. Could we be at the edge?” Keno shrugged. Like the Captain he’d seen false alarms before.

 

“Who knows? Last time it was a black hole, time before that an exploding sun. The computer’s not as smart as a human.” The Captain nodded to his crew. “Let’s head to the bridge.” The crew headed up the walkway leading to the control bridge. Keno turned to the Captain. “I don’t know about you, but it feels different this time.” Captain Victus smiled. “Don’t tell me you believe in third time lucky?” The Nigerian chuckled, a flash of startling white teeth. “Naa, I’m on my fourth marriage. No…I don’t know, just something…” Victus nodded, he felt it too.

The engine noise had softened, became quieter, like the reactors weren’t working as hard as usual. They headed slowly up the walkway, their protesting muscles, inactive for years, making progress slow and painful. Their mission to reach the edge of space had lasted over thirty years. They’d been in Cryostasis three times now, previously for fifteen years and five the time before. This last trip had lasted over a decade.    Funded by the largest nations on Earth the mission had been contentious. Costing over ten billion dollars it was seen as the final act of decadence by the space agency as the world descended into chaos. Though the agency had cited off world colonization as a reason for the mission, its real purpose had been known by only a few. The ship had been called “THE EDGE” and its true mission was to discover if space was truly infinite or, as theorists had suggested, merely the starting point for something greater.

 

The Captain and crew reached the bridge and took stock. An armored glass observation window spanned the width of the vessel and was protected by a foot of steel during their trip as a precaution against meteor storms. The Captain always liked to look at the reality before he fired up the many electronic versions of what was out there. The steel shutters slid slowly clear of the glass. “Jesus…”

Keno stared through the glass. The Captain engaged the electronic scans. Vanya, his statuesque communications officer looked at the instrument readouts as their ship hurtled through a milky white vapour. It blotted out the canopy of stars visible during their previous awakenings. She pointed to the monitors.  “No infra red signatures, no radio signals, no radiation…nothing.” The Captain and crew stared at the white opaqueness visible through the observation window. The captain shook his head as Vanya ran through every sensor available…she gave up. Turned to him. “ Billions of stars, thousands of suns, black holes, white dwarfs…everything puts out some kind of signal…they can’t all have disappeared.”

Keno voiced the thought in everybody’s mind. “Maybe this is the edge?”   Victus kept quiet. He knew the same as everyone else…which was nothing. The communications officer tapped on her computer tablet…fingers flying across the surface. “It’s getting denser…we’re slowing down.” Victus stared through the viewing screen.

 

The milky fog was thicker now. “Go to full power…something’s holding us back.” Keno engaged the drive and selected full power. The craft shuddered; as it’s massive plasma engines pulsed. The deck groaned as the full force of the drives kicked in. Vanya studied her displays.  “If we keep this power level up the cores will overheat.” Victus stared at the milky mass as it streamed past the observation window. Moisture started to cover the glass. Keno turned to him. “Could be a dense gas. ” The Captain nodded. “A gas giant like Neptune…” Vanya looked askance.  “With no heat signature…?” Keno turned to Victus “Could be a dead star?” Vanya looked at the readouts. “No radiation, no magnetic field, nothing…”

 

An ALARM blared. Warning lights flashed. Keno’s fingers flew across the control surfaces. The warning lights winked off.  “Primary core’s down.” The captain nodded.

“Take us to half power on the secondary.” Keno tapped at the controls. The ship’s engines became quieter. “We’re barely moving. Could be the effects of a gravitational field” The big Nigerian’s face showed an expression the captain hadn’t seen before…fear. The crew all looked to him. Victus furrowed his brow. He was descended from a seafaring family, his father and grandfather had all been Captains, and as long as he’d known there had always been stars to navigate by. But now there was nothing. Less than nothing. All of his instruments useless. Down to his secondary plasma engines and with nothing to guide him he felt helpless and insignificant. “Launch the shuttles.” Keno looked at him. “But Captain, if we have to abandon the mission…” He trailed off, they had been travelling through deep space for so long the power cells in the shuttles would never be able to get them back to Earth.

Victus locked eyes with him. They’d been friends their whole lives, but he was still the captain. “Whatever’s out there the shuttles will meet first. We’ll get readings from their systems before they’re out of range.” Vanya punched instructions into the computer. “I’ve linked all of their sensors into the distress beacons. Whatever happens the data will be streamed back to our receivers.” Keno tapped icons on the control surfaces. A monitor displayed three schematics of the shuttles. “In three, two, ONE.” The icons on the screen dropped away from the outline of the ship. Accelerating ahead of them.

 

Vanya linked a loudspeaker to the audible tracking signal from the shuttles. Each of them emitted a different tone…like an old-fashioned sonar signature but with fewer echoes. She studied the readouts. “Nothing.” The beeps echoed around the ship. Three electronic heartbeats. Suddenly one disappeared. The captain looked at Vanya. “No trace of any impact or even a distress signal…whatever happened must have been instantaneous.”

 

The second signal died. Now there was one mournful beep as the final shuttle continued through the whiteness enveloping it. Victus stared at his crew. “Initiate the self destruct sequence.” Vanya hesitated for a second…then entered a series of numbers.   A tinny speaker squawked into life.

 

“Self destruction sequence initiated…T minus five, four, three, two, one.”  The icon of the third shuttle winked out. The spacecraft rocked as the shuttles nuclear reactor detonated with the power of a small sun. A pulse of white light flickered through the dense vapour streaming past the observation window. Victus looked to Vanya. “Anything?” Vanya studied the readouts streaming across her screens. “There’s a reflection off the electromagnetic pulse wave.” Victus leaned towards her. “What does it mean?” Vanya pointed to a spectral shape on the monitor.

“When the radioactive core of the shuttle detonated it put out a wave of electromagnetic energy. Anything in front of it that alters its speed shows up as an obstruction and generates an image” Keno nodded. “Like sonar.” Vanya touched an outline on the screen. “Yes. Only instead of sound it uses magnetism. This shape here is our ship.” She tapped the ghostlike outline of the spacecraft, which filled the lower half of the screen. Victus touched a semicircle of energy at the top of the screen. “What’s this?” Vanya zoomed in until it filled the screen. “Looks like the outline of a planet.”

 

Victus shook his head. “But it’s concave? So…” Vanya nodded. “We’re leaving it.” Suddenly the ship juddered. An unholy rending sound filled the control deck. Like giant fingernails tearing down a steel blackboard. Overloaded electrical circuits belched sparks. The observation window spidered with cracks. Victus grabbed his seat for support as the spacecraft was tossed and turned like a leaf in a storm. Keno frantically worked the controls. “The secondary core’s overloading…it’s gone!” The lights flickered and died. Emergency lighting winked on. The sound of the engine ceased. The hull buckled under unimaginable forces…as if they were caught in a monstrous vice. And as their ship started to come apart the last thing Victus and his crew saw was a wash of fluorescent light and two vast reptilian eyes.

 

The Gwaithian scientist known as Gorgolia held the smoking metal object in his tweezers above the tray next to his patient Japod. Two twisted pieces of metal lay on the tray already. He studied the microscopic object through an image manipulation bot hovering over his claw. The buckled piece of smoking tubular metal came into focus as he watched. He noted markings etched on the side of the metal parasite…they spelt out “THE EDGE.” But of course they meant nothing to him.  Japod stirred on the steel surface next to him. Looked up at him with his baleful reptilian eyes. The operation had been a success.

They had managed to extract the parasites from Japod’s brain without serious damage to his functionality. There was localised burning from one of them, but they had managed to control the heat it emitted with a superconducting freeze bot.

Gorgonia, dropped the remains of the metallic parasites into a cryo-controlled specimen jar, sealing it with a vacuum lid. He was sure he’d seen a smaller parasite moving inside the thin metallic tube and wanted to investigate further. As he helped Japod out of the investigation room he marvelled that such tiny parasites could become such a big problem.