By the Light of a Dying Sun

by Michael Caswell

 

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

Derek Quesnal toggled the exterior camera and watched Mercury clarify on the screen. He sighed, envying the screen. His life was losing focus. His dream of deep space exploration faded with each passing year—scientists had yet to lick the problem of faster-than-light travel—and all he had to go back to was an empty room and a forced desk job.

The screen revealed a surface pockmarked with thousands of craters, cliffs, and hills that would have given mountain climbers a worthy challenge if the gravity hadn’t been so low. The quiet, tortuous landscape, devoid of any atmosphere or life, had remained unchanged for billions of years; which made Derek all the more puzzled as to why, three days earlier, an energy source had emanated from the planet’s surface.

Derek released the toggle and leaned back in his chair to give his cramped legs some room. His straightened his faded red coveralls—last worn by his father who had pioneered space travel among the gas giants over fifty years ago—and ran a hand through his short white hair. Who was he kidding? He was a derelict, and heading in the wrong direction.

Derek studied the indicators on the console. He keyed the computer for voice mode. “Tych, picking anything up on sensors?” Derek’s voice betrayed a slight lisp from an injury he’d received in his youth while playing in one of the derelict commjets—he’d rolled down a ramp with his mouth open into an antenna wire.

“Negative,” the flat, male voice responded. “Infrared, radio, gravity, and spectra-analysis read normal.”

“Could the energy source have been a solar flare?”

“Negative. The source of a solar flare is the Sun. This particular energy source clearly originated on the surface of Mercury, and at present there is no coefficient that would link the two.”

“Speculating with you, Tych, is useless.” He reached to key off voice mode.

“Derek?” Tych said quickly.

His hand paused above the keyboard. “What?”

“I am receiving a transmission packet from Central Command on the Moon.”

Derek closed his eyes and rubbed the pain off of his temples. “Let it spin off into space.” He smiled at his play on words. Central Command must have discovered the tests and issued his dry-dock orders.

“This is a priority message and you must–”

Derek cut him off. He darkened the keyboard monitor to avoid reading the rest of it. He laughed suddenly. Trip-Tych was going to be mad when he didn’t return with their new Tych-IV computer. He glanced about his zero gravity compartment and considered the many ways he might go out: he could let the ship burn up in the Sun, or he might simply let the ship drift off into space until his air ran out, or he could rig some kind of detonation and go out quickly. He smiled as he pictured the look on his Catholic mother’s face when she received the news.

The printer sounded off. Derek swiveled around to read the printout. He smiled and shut the printer off before the message was complete.

“Nice try, Tych.”

A yellow indicator light flashed next to the screen listing the planet’s statistics.

“Tych, enough of these foolish…” his voice trailed off when he noticed the screen. He keyed voice mode. “Go.”

“I am picking up large traces of hydrogen from the surface immediately below the ship… now it is gone,” Tych said.

Derek toggled the viewer downward. “Circle back and get us directly over the point of highest concentration.” All he could see was a series of huge craters. Heck, he might have to take the ship down into one of them. “I want a visual on the amount of hydrogen detected.”

One of the many monitors that littered the console filled with dark red colors shaped into a chart. “Spectra-analysis,” Tych clarified.

The screen wavered in Derek’s eyes and he had to shake his head to re-focus on the chart. “This has nothing to do with the Sun,” he said, squeezing his stomach to relieve the queasiness he felt.

“Derek, I have ascertained the contents of that priority message and its message is unequivocal: you are suffering from vertigo. We have been ordered to return.”

Derek wondered if he could reason with this computer that had been programmed to react and respond with certain human abilities. “Tych,” he said, “I know we have to go back; but aren’t you the least bit curious about this energy source?”

“Derek, I agree that this needs to be investigated by us,” Tych responded. “I just wanted to make it clear that after we discover the source of this energy we will return promptly. I am now positioned over the crater which is the source of the hydrogen. I am also getting a reading on the infrared and radiation indicators.”

Derek was intrigued enough by this mystery to delay his other plans. “Care to speculate as to what might be down there?” he asked.

“It is something that has some element of hydrogen, gives off heat, and is highly radioactive.”

Derek tried to gaze through the veil of darkness that covered the crater. “Sounds like a miniature sun,” he said.

“It could also be a malfunctioning hydrogen bomb.”

Derek’s brow furrowed. “How big is it?”

“Two meters in diameter,” Tych replied.

“How deep is the crater?” Derek asked, trying to decide whether or not to enter; the crater was certainly wide enough.

“Two kilometers at its deepest point.”

“Can we–”

“It is moving,” Tych cut in.

Derek cocked his head. “Which way?”

“Upwards at the rate of eleven kph.”

“Tych,” Derek put his hands together in prayer-like fashion, “I believe it’s safe to assume this isn’t man-made.”

“It could be a natural phenomenon hitherto unknown to man. Derek… are you feeling well?”

Derek bent over the console as pain unexpectedly raced through his head; it felt like rough hands massaging his skull. “Tych,” he gasped, “this isn’t from the vertigo.”

“Can you describe the pain?” Tych asked.

The pain increased and Derek moaned; the keys on his keyboard blurred and he lost focus of the rest of the console. He closed his eyes and let out a forced sigh. Suddenly he had visions of a much larger sun darting about his mind. It was a dying sun that he saw; a red giant. A small, scarred planet that Derek somehow knew had once been green and fertile circled this dying sun, a white halo illuminating its poisoned skies and overheated landscape. No wonder, Derek thought fleetingly, that early man had worshiped the Sun as a source of Godhead. The small planet looked like the once favored son in the shadow of its proud father.

Everything faded to black and consciousness faded away.

* * * * *

Derek awoke to a cutting headache that throbbed with every heartbeat. He was startled to realize that he was happy to still be alive. He surveyed the ruins of the vessel. A faint red glow illuminated the main compartment and revealed that the ship now rested on its side. He barely made out his chair—bolted down on what was now the wall—twisted sideways with seatbelts hanging from the back. The scattered remains of a keyboard littered the area near his head; which explained the headache. The console remained fairly intact; a few of the indicator lights still flashed an occasional red or yellow. All four monitors were either cracked or shattered. An open cabinet rested against his legs; its contents, which consisted mainly of dehydrated food and computer accessories, were scattered about the compartment.

Derek rolled onto his side, breaking a red emergency light, and assessed his own personal damage. Besides the headache, which had grown worse, his chest hurt with every intake of breath—probably a few broken ribs. His left wrist ached dully; he felt a large bump on the underside: definite fracture. He carefully flexed his legs and felt no pain. A large bump protruded from the top of his head; caked blood attested to the severity of the blow he’d received from the keyboard.

He tried to collect his thoughts. What had caused him to pass out? And where had those visions come from? Somehow the approaching energy source must have overloaded the system and triggered a shutdown. Backup, however, should have kept the ship in orbit around Mercury for at least seventy-two hours. Had he been out that long?

“Tych?” No answer. Well, he thought, he no longer needed to decide how he was going to die.

Time passed slowly as Derek settled into his “coffin”. The first thing he did was reset the safety switch and run a system check via a laptop that had survived the crash. The main console was inoperative, with the exception of life support, stabilizers, and climate control—although climate control was running at only twenty-two percent. He estimated that he had about thirty-six days before the temperature dropped to zero. He touched the cold walls and laughed. In less than two months, Mercury would fully expose him to the powerful rays of the Sun. He would last less than a day. The distress signal had been automatically sent upon shutdown, but Derek knew that was useless. There was no way a rescue ship could reach Mercury in anything less than three months. He was a dead man.

He eyed the only emergency light still working; it sputtered and gave off little illumination. He reached for a food packet. Why try? He barely acknowledged the taste as memories filled his mind.

“What do you see now?” the woman asked angrily as she and her son stared down at the black, polished headstone whose epitaph read: Faster Than Light. The woman squeezed the little boy’s hand and shook her head.

The young boy grimaced at the pain his mother inflicted, but he turned away to stifle a sob. “I see…” he couldn’t continue; the description eluded him. How could he tell his mom that his head filled with visions of far away planets that held creatures of all shapes? Or that one day he hoped to follow in his dad’s footsteps, this time succeeding at FTL drive, and be the one that ventured into deep space to discover alien life. He couldn’t think of a way to tell his mom that he didn’t want to go back to Earth; that he wanted to remain here, on the Moon, to study and explore the universe.

“I see more than just empty space,” he said, his voice crackling with pride. He shed more tears as he once again read the epitaph.

“Just like your father,” she said, bending down to face him. “But your father is dead… and so is space.”

Derek sighed and let the empty food packet fall to the floor. She never understood. He wasn’t surprised. The last time he had talked to her was twelve years ago when he’d passed pilot’s school. The more he explained how happy he was the angrier she got. He never really understood her either.

Time passed. It grew colder much quicker than Derek had anticipated. He tried to get the computer to run power through the door to his sleeping compartment so he could get a blanket, but the connection to the seal had shorted out and the door refused to be opened manually. He knew that a heating unit had to be located on the ship somewhere, but without the schematics—which had to be with the unit—he was powerless to repair it. He didn’t want to make the attempt anyway; he still couldn’t decide whether he wanted to freeze to death or be cooked to death; freezing sounded less painful.

His headaches also produced several unwanted side-effects: nausea, dizziness, blurred vision—which might be from the vertigo—and blackouts that occurred frequently. He sorely needed medical attention and was happy he hadn’t the means to ask for it. At least he would go out like his father: killed in space.

He passed out.

He awoke to the blurred sight of a small white light hovering just above the cabinet. When he focused on it the light expanded and developed into a shape. The form was indistinct at first, the light expanding more than shaping. But when the light reached past the chair it became more defined. The light split at three feet into two long sections which remained connected to an upper half that had also split into three sections. It was a human shape. Derek wondered, and worried, about his sanity. He didn’t know hallucinations were so vivid.

A tall male stood before him. His white face, with its many wrinkles and even whiter blotches, held a frosty countenance that shed no warmth. He had narrow black eyes and a goatee that hung down over a fuzzy blue vest which was held shut by black buttons. The hallucination had no roundness at all; a cardboard figure that somehow was able to stand.

Derek knew who the identity of this person he now envisioned. He faced a fable, a child’s story, the manifestation of cold.

“Jack Frost,” Derek whispered.

Jack smiled eerily and bowed deeply, then, as Derek’s headache increased, imploded and disappeared.

Darkness.

Derek’s eyes narrowed and his mind raced over the implications of what he had just witnessed. Visions, headaches, and hallucinations all added up to more than just a cracked skull.

“Derek?” a fractured and weak voice sputtered out of a speaker near the ruined console.

“Tych, is that you?”

“Derek,” the voice continued, “I have repaired and rerouted some of the communication lines, but for how long I don’t know.” Tych actually sounded concerned. “The temperature is now at forty-three degrees and dropping, and I can’t reach most of the ship. I am sorry.”

“That’s okay, Tych, I wasn’t going back anyway.” Derek laughed. He was sure that Tych was exuding more warmth at this time than his mother ever would.

“I can record anything you wish to say,” Tych said with seeming delicacy. “Do you have any desire to leave behind any final words?”

“Yeah, tell my mother—no, forget it,” he said. What good would it accomplish? “Tych can you override the doors?”

“No… try your laptop.”

Derek, for the thirtieth time, typed in the override code.

ACCESS DENIED.

He typed an expletive and pushed the laptop away.

“Derek, the com-link has been damaged,” Tych said. “Statistically this is a remote chance, but you might affect repairs in hopes of a ship being nearby.”

Derek laughed. “Most ships are heading out towards Jupiter and beyond now, Tych.”

The next question surprised Derek.

“Do you wish to set off a detonation that would destroy this ship and terminate your life with no suffering?”

Now that was a good idea. “Can you do that?” he asked with some trepidation.

“It might be possible to overload some units near the drive and stabilizer engine which might set off a chain reaction that would cause a small explosion. Coupled with that ‘malfunctioning hydrogen bomb’ outside, this might be enough to end your life quickly.”

“Maybe we can wait a few more days before we try it,” Derek said.

“Why?” Tych asked.

Why indeed? “I guess the desire to live is a strong emotion to overcome,” Derek said. Tych was right: there was no reason to wait. “Let’s do it.”

“Derek, why are you moaning?”

Derek’s head was besieged by a barrage of pain that caused a sob to escape his lips. He felt his consciousness fading away—but he did not black out.

The pain suddenly stopped, but he was unable to move or talk. Wow, he thought, he must have some serious brain damage.

“Derek, unless you tell me otherwise, I am initiating the sequence to destroy this ship.”

But Derek had stopped listening to him. He once again saw a small planet circling a dying sun. But this time he felt uneasy. The sun was about to consume the planet and Derek was going to die. But salvation had come! He witnessed an advanced civilization on this planet with the ability to manipulate energy and cheat death. Thousands of the planet’s occupants shed the planet like a butterfly its cocoon and were dragged into the core of the sun where most were torn into a million bits of energy and scattered throughout the universe. One, however, was not ripped apart!

Derek was overwhelmed by sadness. All of his people were dead. He was the only surviving member of his race; an artificial race created by masters long since dead. It was time for him to die.

The feeling slowly faded and Derek regained control of his thoughts and bodily functions.

Alien life! And it had been under Earth’s nose for centuries. He let out a whoop that echoed about the compartment. The energy source outside the ship housed a sentient mind of the lone surviving member of its race. Derek sobered a bit, however, when he realized how profoundly sad the alien was. It had been drawn into the sun, down to the core, and then hurled, intact, into space. How long must it have traveled before it settled on Mercury, waiting for other survivors to come? Derek guessed from the alien’s thoughts that it must have been a thousand years.

The entity had waited long enough. It was ready to die.

Derek marveled at its ability to exchange thoughts. He wanted to learn more. “Tych, don’t blow the ship.”

“It is too late, Derek,” Tych responded with little emotion. “I estimate twelve minutes before the explosions start.”

“Shit!” Derek roared. He screamed in frustration. Why now, at the end of his life did he have to discover alien life? This was all so… unfair. “Tych, I have discovered that the energy source is an alien entity housed in energy,” Derek said. “It can actually manipulate energy,” he said with wonder.

“This is fascinating,” Tych said. “I hope you are not suffering from a mental breakdown.”

“I’m not,” Derek said.

“I will encode a message of your discovery onto the data banks of the black box in hopes that whoever reads it can act on it. It is interesting, if it is true, to note that such a creature that could control and manipulate energy would, well, have few boundaries.”

Boundaries, Derek thought, something about boundaries. He was missing something. But what? The alien had the ability to live forever; all it needed was a constant source of power, and suns provided plenty of that.

“Derek, talk to me,” Tych said, “I can’t read your mind.”

“That’s it!” Derek shouted.

He was mistaken when he thought that the alien was able to send thoughts and images into his mind. The alien actually entered his mind. That explained the pain and, at first, clumsy attempts at communication. It was searching for a way to communicate. It must use pictures instead of words. Dad would’ve loved this, he thought.

The alien was back. Derek’s head was filled with the previous vision of that dying sun. But it was quickly replaced by the most intelligent, strong, and bravest person he had ever known: his father. But the father he looked at came from his childhood; it was too flawless to be real. It didn’t matter.

“Dad?” Derek cried out.

His father beckoned with a wave of his hand. The alien was using Derek’s memories to get across what it wanted; and Derek knew what it wanted. He sensed the utter loneliness and despair the entity emanated. Like Derek, it also wanted to die. It was proposing a trade—a trade of shells. Why not, Derek thought. It would be a while before he grew bored and restless.

With a shock he realized the transfer had already happened. He now occupied the energy shell. Sight was useless. He could detect other energy sources and, with some manipulation, was able to stretch his shell in any direction he pleased, but only a short distance.

He was alone. Had he totally assumed, or consumed, the alien’s mind? No. He sensed the alien housed in his old body; excited and confused at the new sensations. So be it, Derek thought.

He was about to depart when he detected a third presence. Tych. He decided to leave a final message in the data stream that made up the message on the black box. He then left.

He shifted away from the ship and felt a massive surge of energy sweep over him. It felt good; too good. It was the Sun. Time to leave, he thought.

He sped toward the Sun, hard pressed to hold his senses and shell integrity the closer he got. He shot through the atmosphere and down into the surface, reaching the core in seconds. Here he paused for but a moment, then exploded outward faster than he had entered. What kind of technology created such a form that could withstand the immense pressure of a sun—actually feed off it—and use it as a springboard to the stars? Incredible, he thought.

He broke away from the Sun and headed out into the universe. Eight minutes later he passed Earth, and the message he had left behind quickly came to him.

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

 

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