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Day Two Hundred and Twenty-three: The Nightfinder

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

As part of NaNoWriMo, I came up with an overall theme that had to do with the classical elements – air, water, fire, earth, and aether. During the “fire” section, I thought about campfires and what they represented: safety, warmth, companionship, s’mores – but also a kind of safety in the darkness. A beacon at night for others to find you. A small zone of civilization in the wilderness, rudimentary civilization though it might be.

With that on my mind, my thoughts naturally turned to the end of the universe [1] and how the only stars that are likely to still be shining in the ridiculously far-away future would be the red dwarfs stars. These stars are not only the most common type of star in the universe, but they burn so well and efficiently that they have a projected lifespan of hundreds of billions of years – far longer than the universe has existed so far and much, much longer than our own short-lived sun will exist. So I thought that at some point, these red dwarf stars are likely to be the last ones left when all the hotter stars either burn out or explode. And if there is intelligent life able to do so, it will huddle around these stars, getting as much energy from them as they can until they finally burn out.

So I imagined a ship from one of these star-hugging colonies – one of the first red dwarf stars to fail. The people who lived there would have to evacuate, sending ships in all directions at supra-luminal speeds to try and find new homes somewhere out in the vast, unending darkness of the universe.

The Nightfinder was one of them, and gave me a nice, two-part story. Here’s what we know about the ship and her crew:

171: A New Star 1

  • The captain is Atris Parkell.
  • The ship moves through “supra-luminal space.” At random intervals they would drop back into real space, look around, and move on if they couldn’t find a red dwarf colony.
  • Crew members are outfitted with neural encoders for the transmission of information. They also work as translators, as long as the computers have been given a plaintext code to compare the new language to.
  • Their ship had originated around Delta-b Cygnus, which was a generation or two from failure.
  • The ships were meant to be legacy ships, packed with crew and civilians.
  • Suicides began after a few months, reactions to “existential dread.”
  • There are starkeepers on the crew – experts in solar science.

Part of writing this would be thinking about what kind of ship the Nightfinder would have to be. With the exodus from its star, it was pretty clear that the Nightfinder was going off into the unknown and never coming back. What’s more, it would be traveling alone. The exodus plan for the people of Delta-b Cygnus was basically to send ships in all directions, in the hopes that one of them ran across an inhabited star. Not the best plan, mind you, but the future state of the universe – at least as science understands it now – would really allow for nothing else.

The universe is expanding, you see, and it’s going so very, very quickly. This doesn’t mean much for us, but in the far-off future, it’ll mean that things are farther apart than they used to be. The stars won’t be sprinkled lavishly throughout the sky, but will rather be rapidly-flying pinpricks of light until they get so far away that their light can never reach us. The skies of the future are desolate and empty, and cosmology as we understand it will be impossible.

So the people of Delta-b Cygnus would literally have no idea where other stars were. They would just have to hope for the best. This also was why the Nightfinder and other ships had to be able to travel at faster-than-light speeds. Anything less, and they would never catch up. There would always be more space in front of them so that even if they did have a destination, it would always be receding away from them, faster and faster.

At the same time, it have to be a legacy ship. FTL travel is nice and all, but when you don’t know where you’re going, the universe is still a terrifyingly big place. No one knows how long they’ll be looking because no one knows where the other stars are. All they can do is pop back into real space from time to time, look around, and hope for the best. It’s a crappy plan, really, which is why I knew that there would be suicides starting pretty quickly. By the time they reach Alpha Aurelius, I figure about two-thirds of the original population is gone, and the ship is run by a skeleton crew that consists of whomever they can dragoon into working on it. The sheer hopelessness of their mission, the vastness of the universe – it’s all too much for a lot of people, and they simply give up. Somehow, the captain is able to keep some from doing away with themselves.

Of course, given what he discovers about Alpha Aurelius, it’s uncertain that he will be able to keep doing so…

—–

[1] As they do.

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Day One Hundred and Seventy-two: A New Star 2

November 9, 2011 3 comments

Continued from Day 171: A New Star 1

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The paperwork took five days to complete, even with fudging the numbers. During that time, Atris found himself nearly overwhelmed by his duties. Being the captain of a legacy ship usually involved little more than keeping people doing their daily work – maintaining systems, keeping up the greenhouse, not jettisoning themselves out the airlocks, that kind of thing.

Now, however, he found himself trying to organize a full-scale exodus from the ship. Even though the Nightfinder would remain their home once it was incorporated into Aurelius’ system, the passengers and crew ached to be allowed off. They wanted to see other places, meet other people, to experience anything that wasn’t the shipboard life they’d known for so long. Consequently, he had dozens of different disembarkation plans to consider, groups vying for prominence, and “experts” trying to get their voices heard.

In the end, he announced that he and a small group of officers and community leaders would be the first to go and present themselves to their new neighbors. Following that, people would initially be let off the ship according to their deck and section, and everyone would just have to be patient. “Aurelius isn’t going anywhere,” he said. The plan wasn’t met with great approval, but neither was it met with rage, and that was good enough for him.

Eventually, he got the signal from Beddesh that all was in readiness. He’d transmitted the documents to the appropriate branches of the Aurelian bureaucracy and they were free to board.

“Excellent,” Atris said. “My people are getting restless over here.”

Beddesh laughed, and it sounded jolly and genuine. “Oh, we’re looking forward to meeting them, too!” he said, looking a little too proud as he said it.

Atris gave him the outline of their plan, and after a little negotiation, it was approved. There would be a small ceremony for the newcomers, with all the pomp and circumstance that implied, and then an orderly immigration, part of which involved a fairly detailed interview and recording of each and every person on board. It was hard not to grimace when he heard that. It would only make the whole process slower. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it.

The next day, he and Jackev were in their dress uniforms, waiting by the airlock. Behind them was a full contingent of Nightfinder’s elite – people who had been famous when they left Cygnus and somehow managed to hold on; deck presidents and their spouses; the most interesting philosophers, artists, historians and poets they could find. Everyone was dressed up, and everyone was watching the airlock door.

Atris stood on the balls of his feet and silently wished he could pass all this on to someone else. He thought about being able to say that it wasn’t his problem, but he knew that it most certainly was.

The messenger gave him a start. “For you, sir,” she said, handing him a thin piece of paper with a number written on it.

“Thank you,” he said, but she was already gone. He took his pad from his pocket, signed into the ship’s network, and tapped in the number. It took only a moment to scan the document, and he grimaced as its meaning sank in.

“Sir, are we -” Atris interrupted Jackev with a gesture and handed him the pad. The younger man read it slowly, and his face fell. He looked up. “Sir? Does this…” He swallowed. “Does this change anything?”

Atris shook his head. “No,” he said. “Everything goes as planned. When I have a moment, I’ll take Beddesh aside and… discuss what we’ve found.” He scowled and put the pad in his pocket. “I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say.” He turned to the younger man and give him the full force of his rank and experience. “Until then, you tell absolutely no one. Do you understand?”

Jackev nodded, his expression fighting for composure. “Yes, sir,” he said. Atris wasn’t entirely certain his second could stay quiet. Not with news like that.

The crowd cheered when the airlock doors opened, and they were greeted by an applauding group on the other side. The Aurelian dignitaries looked about as comfortable in their formal clothes as did those of the Nightfinder, but they also looked genuinely pleased to be there. From the Aurelian group, Beddesh Ajaki stepped forward and gestured both crowds to silence. Atris put on his most congenial face and walked up to meet him.

“Friends,” Beddesh said. “Your long journey is over. Your lonely travels are at an end. We of Alpha Aurelius welcome you into our community as new friends, neighbors and family.” He extended a hand to Atris, who took it in a firm handshake. “Welcome home,” Beddesh said, bringing another great cheer from the assembled crowds.

When they quieted down, Atris cleared his throat. “People of Alpha Aurelius. We have traveled far and searched long for a new home, ever since Delta-b Cygnus grew unable to support those she had nurtured for so long. We are honored to be welcomed into your system, and look forward to adding to your strength and uniqueness for many generations to come.” He looked Beddesh in the eyes, and nodded when the other man met his gaze. “We are happy to be home.”

The cheering this time was even louder. The ceremony was complete, and the two sets of ambassadors and dignitaries surged forward to meet each other. The people from Aurelius wanted to see the ship that had brought all these newcomers, while the crew of the Nightfinder were more eager to start exploring their new home. The constant hum of conversation filled the bay, and the constant movement of people brought even more activity. In all of this, Atris caught Beddesh’s sleeve. “Administrator Ajaki,” he said with a smile that was hard to hold onto. “Thank you again for organizing this. I know it can’t have been easy.”

In person, Beddesh seemed much more relaxed. He grabbed Atris’ arm and gave it a friendly squeeze. “Well, you know how the beancounters are,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re in charge.” He gestured out beyond the walls of the bay. “And you know what’s out there.”

“What’s not out there,” Atris muttered.

“Aye,” Beddesh said. “What’s not out there.” He sighed. “Captain Atris, when you know that the universe is dying around you, you cling on to whatever you have.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t know how things were back at Cygnus, but here it has brought a new renaissance in bureaucracy.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case to show Atris. Inside was an ornately carved stone stamp, red with ink. “We can’t control what goes on out there,” he said. “But we can damn well control what goes on in here.” He tossed the stamp in the air, caught it, and then pocketed it again.

“About that,” Atris said, taking out his pad. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” He looked around for others. “Do you have a moment?”

Beddesh nodded without checking. “I reckon everyone will be busy here for a while, sure. Lead on!”

Atris took him to a small conference room near the bridge and closed the door. “Administrator,” he said, “where your people have cultivated bureaucracy to fight against the inevitable, mine have adopted a certain bluntness.” He put the pad on the table and called up the document he’d been sent. “We don’t see that there’s a lot of time for us to waste anymore.” He spun the pad around and slid it to Beddesh. “Any of us.”

The administrator squinted at the pad and picked it up. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. He put the pad down and rubbed his eyes. Neither man spoke for a long while.

Finally, Beddesh broke the silence. “We didn’t think you’d stay if we said anything,” he muttered.

“Aurelius has how long?” he asked. “Two generations? Maybe three?”

Beddesh nodded. “Maybe.” He picked up the pad again and flipped through it with a finger. “We’ve started making plans for an exodus within one, just in case.”

Atris pulled out a chair and slumped down in it. “What do I tell my people?” he asked. He gestured, unable to find the words he wanted. “How do I ask them to go through all this again?”

Beddesh nodded. “I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve been around Aurelius for as long as I can remember.” He looked at the wall as if he could see through it to the small, red sun outside. “I thought I would die long before he did.”

The room was quiet enough that Atris could hear the blood running through his ears. Finally, he asked, “Do your people know?”

“Only the administrators,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “And the top-level bureaucrats.” He grinned ruefully. “They’ve been funneling money into an exodus project for years. We’ve had to arrange for quite a few whistleblowers to get kicked as far out of the civil service as we can.”

Atris laughed quietly, but made himself stop. The laughing was too close to sobbing, which he couldn’t afford to let himself do. Instead, he took a deep breath and stood up. “Two or three generations,” he said. Beddesh nodded. “Okay,” Atris said, a little more loudly than he’d meant to. “That will have to do.”

He extended a hand to the administrator. “We know a bit about exodus,” he said. “Our experience is at your disposal.”

Beddesh looked surprised, but he shook the captain’s hand. “I appreciate it, sir,” he said.

“As for telling people…” Atris looked far away, through his ship to all the people in it. “As for them,” he said again, “we’ll let the future happen in the future.” He clapped the administrator on the back and smiled, genuinely this time. “Right now, let’s go meet our new neighbors.”

The two men left the conference room for the party. There would be a time to break hearts. But not today.

*****

Beddesh Ajaki’s page on 30characters.com

Day One Hundred and Seventy-one: A New Star 1

November 8, 2011 5 comments

Captain Atris Parkell let his fingers unclench from the arms of his command chair as the Nightfinder dropped out of supra-luminal space within sight of the dull red star Alpha Aurelius. Its light was dim and ruddy, but it brought tears to Atris’ eyes just to know it was still there.

“Signal to the ring-docks that we’re on our way,” he said to his Second.

“They already know, sir,” Jackev said. “We’re getting ID requests one after another already.” He ran his fingers over the communications console. “Also receiving plaintext for the translation algorithm. Doesn’t look like it should be too much trouble.”

“Good,” Atris said. He didn’t look forward to the headache he’d get when the neural encoders started their work on the local language, but he smiled nonetheless. “I suppose they haven’t had any new faces out here for a long time,” he said. “Transmit our vitals to the administrators, whoever they are, and see if they have a place for us.”

“Aye, sir.”

Artis tore his view from the shining star in the view screen to look around the darkened bridge of his ship. Too many spaces were empty after so much time, and the few people who remained to keep the ship alive were just as transfixed as he had been. He cleared his throat to get their attention.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Once we’re docked and safe, we can celebrate. For now, let’s do our jobs.” Not inspirational, as speeches went, but it was enough. Slowly, carefully, the ship moved forward through the last of the infinite darkness towards the dim red star. The only one they’d seen in a thousand light years of travel.

They’d left Delta-b Cygnus so long ago that he wasn’t sure when it was. They’d been one of a hundred thousand ships that abandoned the ancient ringworld that circled their dying sun. Their starkeepers had been sure, and the ring administrators agreed, that within a century, maybe two, the cost of capturing energy from their little star would be more than they gained. In another generation, maybe two, the star would no longer be able to support their world. DbCygnus’ life was over. It was time for another diaspora.

Each ship was sent off with as many people and supplies as they could carry, and their departure was met with great pomp and ceremony. Nightfinder had been one of the last to leave, after watching hundreds of others scatter off to all parts of a black and featureless sky. The administrators had decided to stay, to eke out as much life as they could for as long as possible. Atris couldn’t have done it, but he admired their dedication.

Nightfinder had jumped to trans-luminal as soon as they could, dropping back into normal space at semi-random intervals to see what was out there.

Every time, there had been nothing. Nothing but empty blackness as far as their sensors could detect. A thin atomic soup of elementary particles spread evenly in every direction, the occasional proto-planet that had been flung out into deep space by some long-ago catastrophe. Other than that, though – nothing.

The suicides started after a few months. They’d been sent off with as many diversions and as much entertainment as possible, as well as a full complement of counselors and therapists and mental health experts. But all that couldn’t stand up to the existential dread that gripped each and every one of them, the sure and certain knowledge that they were truly and utterly alone in the universe. Atris lost some good members of his command crew within weeks of each other. Training replacements had been difficult at best.

The last time they surfaced, however, the sensors saw something. It was faint, at the very edge of their sensors’ range, but it was there.

A star.

Atris had summoned his command crew and sworn them to secrecy. He didn’t want people’s hopes brought up only to see them brought even lower if they should find that the star was unpopulated – or worse, abandoned. It was still hundreds of light-years away, after all. Anything could have happened in that time.

The vow of secrecy had lasted very nearly ten hours. After that, the entire ship spent their short, final journey talking about their hopes and dreams for this new star, this new world that they hoped they could find a hoe in, if only for a few more generations.

Now, within visual distance of their new home, the anticipation in the ship was palpable.

Alpha Aurelius had built something that looked like a combination of a ringworld and a sun-sphere – four great rings that circled the star at different angles, each ring connected to the others by an incomprehensible series of tubes, transitways, struts and supports. The star looked like it hung in a great woven basket made of carbon-fiber and ceramic steel. Lights ran all along the rings, blinking off and on as the ship changed its angle. It was beautiful to behold. Atris stared at it for a long while, this shimmering, shining gem that hung in the endless darkness, until his Second called his name again.

“Sir, we’re receiving a signal from Aurelius.”

Atris nodded. “Put it on the screen.”

The man on the screen looked like he had put together the only nice outfit he owned by wearing pieces of other outfits that hadn’t worn out yet. The clothes weren’t bad, just it was clear that the people of Aurelius hadn’t had visitors in a long time. Behind him, the room looked dark and dingy, as if that room, too, had not been long in use.

“Greetings from Alpha Aurelius!” he said. “I am administrator Beddesh Ajaki. Welcome to our fire and share in its warmth.”

Atris resisted the urge to wiggle a finger in his ear. The neuro-linguistic implants were working fine already, with help from the ship’s computers, but it was still uncomfortable to listen to him. The original language was consonant-heavy and sharp, and the computer translation lagged a half-second behind. The words, when he spoke, felt awkward and wrong on his tongue, and he was sure that he would sound just as strange as he felt.

“Greetings to you, Beddesh Ajaki of Alpha Aurelius,” Atris said. “I am Captain Atris Parkell of the Nightfinder, and we cannot begin to express how happy we are to see you.”

Beddesh smiled, and it made his worn, leathery face look as kind and welcoming as he sounded. “As we are you,” he said. “We haven’t seen anyone new in, well… Ages, I suppose!” He laughed heartily. “well roll out the welcome mat for you, just as soon as all the official business is taken care of.”

Atris cocked his head. “Official business?”

“Better believe it,” Beddesh said. “There are forms or be filled out, tests to be take, the whole thing.” he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t like it much either, but rules are rules, right?”

“Right,” Atris said. He glanced over at Jackev, whose hands were already moving quickly to deal with all the incoming data.

“It looks like forms, Captain. They want to know where we came from, our sensor data for the entire trip, our crew contingent, ages, genders, what we have on board, all of our ship specs…” He looked up, panic visible on his face. “Captain, this is ridiculous!”

The face on the viewscreen glanced over to the side before smiling and chuckling. “Yeah, it might be a little much,” he said, “but that’s the way we do things around here. Dot every t and cross every i, you know how it is.”

Atris took a step towards the screen, his hands behind his back. “Administrator, I can certainly appreciate your desire to run your ring as you wish. But we’ve come a very long way, and it would be… comforting for my people to know that we’re docked somewhere safe. I don’t suppose you can perhaps… bend the rules a little?”

The man looked taken aback. “I… well, I’m not sure, but…” He glanced to the side again, as if he was listening to someone. Then he looked back out from the screen. “Let me see what I can do for you, captain.” He gave another of those big grins, and the signal cut out.

“Permission to speak, sir?” Atris didn’t need to look at Jackev, but just nodded. “Sir, this is going to take ages to complete.” He tapped his panel, and the main screen was flooded with document data. One of them flashed and then filled the screen. “Look at this – they want a molecular breakdown of not just our cargo, but the ship and crew! To the mole, sir!”

“Did you see how he was set up?” Atris asked after a moment. “Those clothes? That room?” He turned around. “I reckon we could tell them the ship is made of ice cream and catshit and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise until it was too late.” He glared at the screen. “Let them wait a little while, and then feed them some numbers that look like they should be right. In the meantime, get our starkeepers working on Aurelius. I want to know what kind of home we’ve come home to.”

He made an announcement to the rest of the ship that they had arrived and that they were being welcomed with open arms. The cheering echoed from one end of the Nightfinder to the other, and he let it go on as long as it wanted. When it was done, he told them that there were some official issues that had to be taken care of, for everyone’s safety, and that they should be able to deboard in a few days. “Until then,” he said, “be patient, and try not to get your hopes up. They don’t look like they’ve seen visitors for a long while.”

Beddesh Ajaki called them back a day later, and this time the translation was much easier to cope with. Still not as good as actually learning their language, but that was something to deal with later. “Good news!” he said. “I’ve talked to the bureaucrats and they’re willing to relax some of the paperwork for you, seeing as how you’re a special case.” Atris raised an eyebrow at the mention of a bureaucracy, but let the man go on. “I’m transmitting the revised data package to you now. I think you’ll find it a little easier to deal with.”

Atris glanced over at Jackev, who was squinting at his screen. After a moment he looked up, shrugged, and made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. “Thank you very much,” Atris said to the screen. “We understand how important it is to know who’s coming into your colony. We will do everything we can to satisfy your requests, and then our people are greatly looking forward to getting to know their new home.”

The smile on Beddesh’s face froze for a moment, and it looked like he was actively trying not to look away. “That’s great!” he said. “We look forward to having you!” He cleared his throat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some extra preparations to make. See you soon!” The picture snapped off.

Atris spun around. “Get to work on those documents. And get me the starkeepers.” He looked over at the screen, which was now showing the dull red star and its brilliant, enormous cage. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

To Be Continued!

*****

Atris Parkell’s page on 30characters.com