Ripple

by Rami Ungar

 

Colin remembered when they had first met, a year and a half ago. At that point the Boonat had been on Earth for nearly six months, but only recently had they been allowed to leave their ships. Their ships had appeared in the skies over Boston one day, gray metal ships shaped like rainbows or elbow macaroni hovering in the air. Over every radio wavelength and in perfect English, they had proclaimed themselves as the Boonat, a race of nomads from the far reaches of the galaxy who traveled from system to system looking for intelligent life so as to learn about other creatures in the universe.

“We are not your enemies,” the Boonat had said. “Our mission is the exchange of ideas, of seeing other beings and other cultures and helping each other mutually benefit from what we have to offer and from what you can offer us. We are a peaceful race, and will not harm you unless you harm us first. Come, let us go forth into the future and begin what can only be a new era of progress and prosperity.”

Despite the Boonat’s declaration of peace, the United Nations—the United States particularly—had asked that the Boonat stay aboard their ships until the UN could decide on how to deal with these strange beings that had suddenly appeared in the sky over the Massachusets Bay. After numerous meetings in the UN, and several televised discussions between the UN and the Boonat, both in the UN building and the main Boonat ship, the Boonat were finally able to set foot on Earth, on the understanding that they could do whatever they pleased as long as no human was harmed and no human harmed them.

Colin had met Ynarl not too long after the Boonat had been given permission to come to Earth, in the Boston Public Garden. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, with families playing by the lake, couples strolling hand in hand on the pathways, old men playing chess or Chinese checkers at stone tables. A freshman at Boston University, Colin had gone to see the flowers that were grown in the garden. He had always loved flowers, ever since his grandfather had allowed him to help out in his garden when Colin was seven.

When Colin arrived at the park, what caught his attention was not the beautiful array of flowers, but one of the people admiring them. The other people in the park were giving this person a wide berth and giving her fearful glances. Curious, he got closer, only realizing when he could make out the girl’s features that she was a Boonat.

Colin had seen pictures of the Boonat in the newspapers and online, humanoid creatures with blue-green skin below the collar bone and on their fingers, snow-white skin that extended down their arms from the shoulders and head, red or brown eyes and dark green hair worn long and loose. This was the first time Colin had seen one in person, though, and he was transfixed. The Boonat was wearing a beige dress with short sleeves and a knee-length skirt and was bent over a bougainvillea shrub, studying the flowers with a dreamy expression on her face.

Colin watched her as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and then he found himself walking over to her, desiring to talk with her. There was no particular reason as to why Colin wanted to talk with her, just that he enjoyed the company of weird people. Ever since high school in Idaho, where one had to be Christian and all-American to get by, Colin had preferred to befriend and hang out with those on the fringe—the goth, the ventriloquist, the girl who made her own clothes and would probably work for Lady Gaga one day. It wasn’t any conscious choice, it was just something he did and it was what compelled Colin to go near the Boonat that everyone else in the park was avoiding.

When Colin was standing right next to her, he realized he didn’t know what to say; what did you talk about with an alien? He racked his brain for something to say and finally came up with, “I didn’t know the Boonat had such a good grasp of human fashion.”

The Boonat girl looked up, a surprised expression on her face. For a second Colin wondered if he had said something stupid, but then the girl laughed, a sweet sound that reminded him of birdsong. “I wanted to blend in, as you humans say,” said the Boonat girl. “Boonat do not regularly wear clothes except in extreme environments, but humans tend to become nervous when confronted with full nudity. With your fellow humans avoiding me though, I thought I might have committed some sort of faux pas.”

“Nah, that’s not the reason,” said Colin, glad to see how friendly the Boonat girl was being. “I think they’re just afraid of talking to a Boonat. Really, I think you look great in that dress.” The Boonat girl smiled then, a perfectly beautiful smile.

Colin spent the rest of the day with the Boonat girl, whose name sounded something like Ynarl, going around the park and explaining the different flowers and statues to her. He wasn’t sure if Ynarl was listening, but Colin thought the smile on her face meant that she at least enjoyed seeing the park’s attractions. Later they went and got dinner together at a burger place, where Ynarl told him some of the aspects of Boonat life, including why they were nomads searching for knowledge.

“The histories of the Boonat say that long ago, the Boonat were visited on the home planet by beings from a faraway world,” Ynarl said. “It is similar to how the Boonat are now visiting your planet. The Boonat and this faraway people, they exchanged technologies, knowledge, and cultures and then the faraway people left. When a natural disaster forced the Boonat to flee our home planet, the Boonat leaders decided to search the universe for the faraway people we had encountered so long ago.”

“Did the Boonat ever find the faraway people?” Colin asked.

Ynarl shook her head. “There is not much information left of the faraway people. Much of it was lost in the disaster that forced us from our planet. That is why we go from planet to planet, exchanging information with those who can grasp what we offer them. We hope that someday, we may find the people who had visited us in the first place and thank them for the technology they had given us.”

“I hope you find them someday,” said Colin, taking a sip of his root beer. “Just don’t leave too soon to go find them, okay? We just started getting to know each other.” Ynarl laughed, reminding Colin of just how sweet her laugh was.

Ynarl and Colin continued to meet each other, in and around Boston and even on the Boonat’s main ship, a week before official tours of the strange ship were scheduled to commence. Ynarl came to some of Colin’s classes as a guest, and even to a few parties, though they stopped going to the parties when Ynarl discovered that alcohol had adverse effects on her species’ digestive system. Colin’s friends liked Ynarl once they got past the fact she was a Boonat, and Ynarl’s friends liked Colin as soon as they met him. They went to a lot of parks and even went on a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, mostly because Ynarl preferred nature to the city, and mostly because Colin preferred Ynarl’s company to anyone from school.

At one point Ynarl and Colin were even featured in an article in People magazine on Boonat-human relationships, showcasing what good friends they were. The article and press attention embarrassed both of them, but they allowed the press coverage because they thought it might help people warm up to the Boonat, though the way things had been going, it had seemed like humans would finally come to accept the Boonat and the age of progress and harmony the extraterrestrial visitors had predicted would truly come about.

And then Olberston messed up. A so-called expert on extraterrestrials from the History Channel, Henry Olberston had been appointed by the United States to be a liaison for the Boonat. During the first few months on the job, Olberston had worked hard to help the Boonat transition into Earth society, going so far as to lobby that Boonat and human children should go to school together.

However, in late December of that year, a report came out on Politico, in which a former aide to Olberston said that Olberston had links to Native Collective, a radical right-wing group that was against the Boonat being allowed to interact with humans and called for the Boonat to be exterminated. Olberston replied that the report was false and that the aide was angry over being fired for stealing money from his office. The furor died down and was forgotten a week after the report came out.

A month later though, a video appeared on the internet that showed someone who looked like Olberston having sex with two female Boonat. This video came out almost three days following a report from the FBI that some underground prostitution rings were incorporating Boonat into their illicit trade. Although the video’s quality was too grainy to positively identify Olberston, and Olberston and his wife insisted that Olberston had not had sex with any of the Boonat, the uproar lasted longer than that of the Native Collective story. The video accrued more than two million views on YouTube and other websites within two days, was debated about on several radio and television shows, and was lampooned in a memorable Saturday Night Live skit.

Not too long after that Olberston was audited by the IRS for inconsistencies in his tax returns. It later exploded into a media frenzy when a money trail back to Native Collective and a well-known prostitution ring involving Boonat women was discovered. Olberston denied the charges, saying they’d been created by his wife—from whom he was now separated—and claimed that she’d received the information to set up the money trails from “enemies who wish to discredit my name and the work I’m trying to do,” in his own words.

While the investigation was still going on into Olberston’s finances, the Boonat were trying to help facilitate peace talks between the United States and China. Their reason for doing so was that they believed that the tensions between the two nations would cause the Boonat to have to choose a side in the ongoing conflict and the Boonat wanted to stave that off before it happened. Olberston was invited to the peace talks to help make sure things between the Boonat and the two superpower nations ran smoothly. To prove how serious they were of creating peace, the entire Boonat high council volunteered to preside over the meeting.

Colin and Ynarl had been watching the peace talks together on a public computer in Boston University’s library. The video, streaming live on CSPAN’s website, showed first Chinese officials filing into a large, circular room, followed by American diplomats, Olberston among them, and then finally the Boonat high council. The meeting began with an outline of each party’s needs and grievances, followed by the Boonat high council’s opinion on what could be done about the situation.

Suddenly, midway through the high council’s solution to the United States’ economic problems, Olberston stood up and climbed onto the table. The whole room—and from their computers, the whole world—watched as Olberston took off his jacket, ripped his shirt open, and revealed a bomb strapped to his chest. There was a commotion, several security guards ran into the room with their guns waving, the diplomats scattered in fear, and then the feed was cut, leaving the whole world, including Ynarl and Colin, wondering what had happened after the feed had been cut.

It wasn’t too long after that the world received its answer: Olberston had succeeded in detonating his bomb. All those within a hundred-foot radius perished along with him. No explanation existed for why he decided to blow himself up along with the delegates or what Olberston had hoped to gain from killing them all. All the world got was one screaming headline: OLBERSTON BOMBS PEACE DELEGATES.

The uproar that followed was horrific: China accused the United States and the Boonat of conspiring against them, while the United States said that Olberston had been acting alone on his own motives. All the Boonat worldwide were recalled to their ships, including Ynarl, and a message was released from the Boonat main ship:

“In all the planets we have visited, we have never been deceived as we have on Earth, nor have we ever encountered such barbarity! We can only assume, based on the information we have gathered on Earth culture, that the humans’ intentions towards the Boonat have been all along to destroy and enslave us before we can do to the same to them. It is against the Boonat way of life to use violence of any sort. However, as you have shown the Boonat hostility and have humiliated us with your lies and schemes, we will respond in kind.”

Nobody was certain what information the Boonat were citing—whether it was the questioning from the U.N. when the Boonat had first appeared on Earth or the thousands of science-fiction novels and movies about aliens—but that didn’t seem to matter. China declared war on the United States, the United States retaliated against China, the Boonat attacked indiscriminately, and the nations of the world returned fire. In the span of a few short days, the whole planet was engulfed in war.

A year later the fighting was still raging, during which time Colin had been drafted into the army, forced to fight against the Chinese and the Boonat, had gone AWOL, and had found an isolated hippie commune in North Dakota where he could hide and wait for the day the war would end or humanity would be annihilated, Colin was never sure which would happen first or which one he hoped for more.

And then one day, while Colin was out looking for herbs to add to that night’s meal at the commune, a small Boonat scout ship appeared in the sky and scooped him up, grabbing his jacket with mechanical arms and throwing him in the cargo hold. Colin had been frightened senseless, until the hatch to the main deck opened and Ynarl stood before him, wearing the same beige dress she had worn when they first met.

Colin’s spirit lifted immediately upon seeing Ynarl. Shouting her name, Colin jumped out of the cargo hold and pulled her into a deep hug. Ynarl hugged him back, and then led him to the deck window. Looking out the window, Colin could see all of the Earth spread before him. “Look at it, Colin. It is just like you always wanted to see,” Ynarl said, gesturing at the swirl of green, white and blue. “You told me you always wanted to see Earth from space.”

Yeah, but that still begs the question, Colin thought. “Why did you bring me here, Ynarl? Please, tell me the truth.”

Ynarl just shook her head. “The truth,” she said. “Who can tell what the truth is and what is deception these days?”

“Please, don’t get philosophical on me,” said Colin. “Really Ynarl, what are you doing? I’m glad to see you, don’t get me wrong, but if someone finds out you picked me up—”

“No one is going to find out,” said Ynarl firmly. “I have a plan in mind. I have enough fuel on this ship to achieve speeds sufficient enough to let us reach the nearest life-sustaining planet within a month.”

Colin stared disbelievingly at Ynarl. “The nearest life-sustaining planet?” he repeated. “What for?”

“The Boonat have a tradition,” Ynarl explained. “Before we leave a planet to look for a new one, we allow those of us who have become attached to a planet to live there and start a new population. I know of a planet, the inhabitants of which call it Shunmi, in the Sagittarius loop of the galaxy. The planet cannot only sustain Boonat and Shunmiites, but Earthlings as well. If we can go there and explain everything to the local population, I am sure we can—”

“But what about you?” Colin interrupted, struggling to take all this information in. “It’s a great plan and all, but what about you, Ynarl? Are you really okay leaving everything you know just to save some human? And what about Earth? Can we really abandon everyone and everything just because we want to save our friendship?”

Ynarl shook her head. “I have been thinking lately,” she said. “And the conclusion I have reached is this: for some time now I have been disgusted with my people. Yes, I am disgusted with my own people. They have lost their warmth and kindness; all that is left is their hate and anger. I do not want to be with them, when all they can think of is the so-called treacherous humans and all I can think of is the one human who was kind to me.

“And as for the Earth,” said Ynarl, looking out the window. “I could not stand it, to tell you the truth. I hated it and the dirty air, the congested cities, the war and the pollution. The only things that I enjoyed about it were the places that were pure nature… and you, Colin.” Ynarl looked at Colin and Colin felt himself blushing.

“So really, it is all up to you,” said Ynarl. “Say the word and I will drop you back off in North Dakota. I will fly away and we will never see each other again. But if you want to… if you want to, all I’d have to do is press a few buttons and then we would not be able to see Earth by the end of the day. We could make a home on a new planet, where the people are friendly and are far removed from the conflict of Earth. It is your choice.” Ynarl looked at Colin expectantly, waiting for his answer.

Colin avoided Ynarl’s gaze and looked out the window. Below him was the Earth, Colin’s Earth, the only world he had ever known. Colin put his hand on the glass, tracing his fingers along the edge of the globe as if caressing it. Yes, he wanted to be with Ynarl. She was the best friend he had ever had. But this was Earth they were talking about. Could he really leave it?

And then the answer seemed strangely clear to him. Colin let his arm fall to his side, turned back to Ynarl, and took a deep breath. “Let’s leave,” he said. “Go to this planet of yours.”

Ynarl nodded her head and went to a control console in the middle of the deck. She sat down, pressed a few buttons on a touch-screen computer, and the ship roared to life. Within moments the Earth was getting smaller and smaller, the details becoming vague and melting together. Ynarl joined Colin back at the deck window and watched with him as the planet receded in the distance. Colin took Ynarl’s hand and squeezed it.

Colin had nothing left on the planet. His family was probably dead, any friends he had were very anti-Boonat, and the people at the commune came and went with no one noticing or caring. Really, all he was leaving behind was a bunch of heartbreak.

Still, leaving Earth behind was difficult; after all, Colin had lived there for twenty years of his life. As if reading his thoughts, Ynarl said, “Don’t worry, we are together. We can do anything when we are together.” Colin nodded his head in agreement and watched as Mars came into view.

 

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.”