A Starry Night in a Twilight Galaxy
Kel got back to work on one of his ship’s auxiliary starboard engines, its groaning and sputtering filling the trading post’s hangar. The hangar’s other two occupants didn’t seem to mind, with their freighters parked all the way across the cavernous, rusted space that was only protected from the vacuum by a centuries-old, centimeter-thin seal of energy.
Groaning under his face shield, Kel got back to adjusting the engine’s creaky valves; there’d only been just enough fuel leaking through it to keep the ship stable as it limped into the station.
Loosening and oiling the valves in question, Kel managed to focus again. He was just happy the old hunk of junk functioned at all, given its age. Despite all its problems, the ship was still Kel’s birthright, and he could never see himself flying anything else. It didn’t matter that its eggshell exterior had turned walnut brown, or that its azure Merchant Guild insignia had turned midnight blue, if not a few shades darker.
The Ctesiphon, or as Kel called it, Ctesi, was nearly as ancient as the Mesopotamian city it was named after back on Earth. An Earth where the expanding Sun boiled away all the water tens of millions of years ago, turning it into just another scalding-hot rock. Perhaps the heat had re-fired the ancient mud-bricks that once made up the city, creating a sort of final redoubt against the star that gave the planet life for so long, the same star which would ultimately swallow it whole.
Kel sighed at the thought, putting down his tools for a moment. Too many things were dying, and not just on Earth. The galactic collision was imminent.
While it would take millions of years to complete, its effects would be a near constant, with the gravity between the Milky Way’s and Andromenda’s super-massive black holes creating cosmic tides which would carry away dozens of inhabited systems, isolating them from the galaxy at large. Even those systems that stayed inside the massive new galaxy would be thrown thousands of light years from their current positions.
For the last several centuries, astronomers had figured out which of the systems were most likely to be ejected, and these were the first targeted for evacuation. It was a messy process, but the Confederation’s fifty-year plan eventually managed to get everyone who wanted to leave out. That plan ended a hundred years ago.
There were still some people on these nearly deserted worlds, buzzing around them like bees after the final bits of pollen before the autumn chill. This chill, however, would be permanent. Kel was one of the “bees,” but unlike the rest of them, he was actually hunting for pollen, at least at his next destination.
Wiping his hair off his forehead, Kel finished his work on the valves, then pressed a button on his right wrist gauntlet to test the engine. Thank God it worked.
Letting out a sigh of relief, he reattached the exterior plating and headed back to the cockpit, only to see the station chief waiting by the landing ramp. He was nearly as grubby as his station, with his hands and working harness covered in soot and oil.
“I’m sorry to bother you Sir, but it looks like your ship could sure use a polish.” The man looked like he needed a polish even more than Ctesi did.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t have the time. I do have some spare agias though.” Kel dropped a few silvery coins into his hand, probably three of four times the cost of a thorough polish for a ship Ctesi’s size. The man fumbled some of them for a minute, just catching the shimmering discs before they hit the ground.
“Th…thank you. This’ll keep me open at least a few more days. Make sure everyone working here gets out with something in their pocket. Lord knows there aren’t many customers left.” He looked like he wanted to hug Kel.
“You’re welcome. Best of luck in the new galaxy.” Kel nodded, walking towards Ctesi’s ramp. He felt lucky. His travels had taught him that desperation brought out either the best or the worst in people, and he’d seen enough of the latter for a lifetime.
“One more thing. Nature’s overtaken everything down there. Buildings, tech, maybe even people, if there’s any. Scary what the place has become without the weather control tech.” His tone was grave. Kel nodded and headed for the cockpit. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the chief hand a silver coin to each of the workers on the freighter across the docking bay.
Kel hit the throttle and Ctesi’s wings unfolded, a pair of small engines on each wing propelling it forward, before the main engine in the center of the ship fired, blasting it through the station’s sealing field.
Once he was past the station, Kel started a slow descent into Livana’s atmosphere, with its swirling masses of turquoise clouds obscuring what used to be massive port cities underneath. Putting on the autopilot at the start of a slow descent, Kel suited up, putting on his dingy exo-suit.
It was originally a rather flamboyant bronze, but years of use had taken away its shimmer, making it a darker shade of ochre. Kel preferred the more subtle look anyway, especially given where he typically traveled.
He put on his ancient leather bag, which was at least twice as old as Ctesi was. If everything went well, it would be bursting with the pollen he was looking for by the end of the day. Birtyian flower pollen came in two shades, white and purple, with the white kind being much more rare, as it was only found underground.
Kel finished up by hooking on his belt, which had extra containers for anything else he might find, as well as room for some some extra coins, a pulse blaster, and his knife, which he’d only ever used to clear foliage and fight the VR training program he’d bought ages ago.
Diving through the turquoise clouds and teal rain, Ctesi’s autopilot found a clearing outside one of the cities, whose old urban agriculture program turned it into an oasis on one of the planet’s larger deserts, with plants overflowing from just about every building.
Kel disembarked, his boots shifting on the pebbles which formed the base of the desert; Livana barely had any sand. Somehow, mosses and ferns managed to populate much of the stony desert, though it didn’t look like much fauna had followed them.
The howling of the wind through the city’s desiccated buildings carried through to the desert, with Kel holding his hand in front of his head despite his helmet’s face shield being active.
After a couple scares where he swore he saw an animal slinking through the ferns, Kel reached the outskirts of the city.
Most of larger buildings had been stripped for magnacrete, demi-copper, and whatever else their insides were made of.The exteriors of the city’s homes were still mostly intact, their materials not worth the cost of gathering them. The old hovels were covered in vines and cobwebs which dripped rain into knee-high puddles on every doorstep. After walking a couple blocks down the deserted street, Kel noticed some particles that appeared to be pollen coming off the roof of a house, violet plankton in a rocky sea of teal and turquoise.
Stepping through the threshold of the old stone bungalow, Kel stumbled over the vines on the floor. It was literally rustic, with the shimmering chrome now the color of tree bark, which was almost too fitting given the forest in the building. Kel picked through what used to be the kitchen; the edge of the counter-top fell off when he bumped his elbow into it. The rooms on the lower floor were empty, anything of value had long since been stripped by merchants looking for a quick agia or two.
Kel advanced up the stone steps to the loft, again feeling the chill of the wind tearing through the blown-out windows. He shivered for a moment then turned away from the window and towards the flowers, whose roots wrapped around the wooden floor boards, anchoring them against the wind.
The flowers themselves were scarlet on the edges, with the interior of their four, bell-shaped petals a stark white. Their pollen was also originally white, but Livana’s harsh winds mixed that white with the red of the petals and the blues of the atmosphere, creating the brilliant purple which coated the walls of the loft and made mounds by the windows.
Kneeling down, Kel took the bag off his back and removed two ceramic jars, their dark gray exterior in stark contrast to the nearly luminescent pollen. He filled them both, keeping the remaining two in his bag for the white variety.
Taking a deep breath before going back out into the wind, Kel decided to head north, into the heart of the city. There were a lot more maintenance and transport tunnels there, both ideal locations for the white pollen, at least in theory.
After the gale nearly sent him into the hovel’s wall, Kel pressed further into the city, the streets narrowing as he progressed, squat stone structures turning into massive spires of titanasteel which cut through the low-hanging clouds. For a moment, Kel stood in awe of the place, still so imposing even after decades of being deserted.
Then, he heard the hissing.
Kel’s shoulders bunched up by reflex as he turned to face the beast he’d enticed.
Whatever the thing was called, it was massive. Its feathers, a gray a few shades duller than the nearby buildings, were nearly the size of Kel’s forearm, and its toothless mouth was gaping as it charged towards Kel, who immediately took off towards the nearest building, firing a few desperate shots over his shoulder with his pulse blaster; he heard two of them impact the beast’s feathers, but they only seemed to anger it.
Nearly fumbling his blaster while he tried to reload, Kel ran himself into a dead end plaza. He turned and fired his remaining charges, stunning the monstrosity for a moment, but not nearly long enough to make a run for it. Out of ammunition, Kel drew his knife and braced himself, planning to try anyway.
Before he could conjure up the nerve to charge, a golden explosion made the beast shriek and run away.
“What in humanity’s name are you doing here?” Came a voice from a stone building on the west side of the plaza.
“Picking up a few things while I still can. What are you doing here?” Kel said, slowly approaching the lone stone building in the plaza.
“I got stranded. Now get inside before that thing shows up again.” The woman walked away from the window, the remnants of its multi-colored glass still shimmering. Kel heard the door unlatch as went up the steps and entered the cavernous church. Most of the pews, instruments, and everything else had been removed long ago.
After staring in awe for a few moments, or perhaps much longer, Kel snapped to his senses. “Thank you. I’m Kel. Maybe we could help each other. I have a ship. You have weapons to fend off that…”
“That nynuk. Did you even read anything about Livana before you got here?” The woman scoffed. She wasn’t facing Kel, but he could tell she was rolling her eyes.
“I did. Just don’t have a very good memory. More importantly, I don’t think I caught your name.”
“You didn’t. It’s Selia. Where’s this ship of yours?”
“I know you’re excited to leave, but I’m not done here. I need some white Birtyian pollen before I go. I already have the purple kind.”
“So you’re a fellow scientist? What are your plans for it? I thought the Confederation and private labs already had more than enough to keep the species alive.”
“I’m not a scientist, even if I fight like one . . . not you of course” Selia gave Kel a dirty look as he laughed. “I’m an artist. I want to preserve the lost planets of the galaxy after the collision, and Birtyian pollen is the best pigment from this planet. I’ve already been to Harenno IV, Miklas, Riette, and a few others to do the same thing. Never got attacked by anything that big before.”
“You did this for ART? Are you serious? You risked your life travelling to a deserted planet just to make a little money?”
“I don’t do it for the money.” Kel chuckled for a moment. “Everyone knows the collectors don’t pay shit for anything that has more than three lines on the canvas.” That at least got a laugh out of Selia.
“Then why do you do it? A death wish?” Selia was more perplexed by Kel than she ever was dealing with anti-quarks in the lab.
“This planet will be a memory to the vast majority of the galaxy soon. My paintings keep it alive. And I do sell a few copies to fund my travels, but I’m not exactly wealthy, in case you couldn’t tell.”
“Scientists are literally keeping it alive with all the samples they have. Your art is a nice sentiment, but hardly necessary.”
“You think a few flowers in a lab is keeping a planet alive? The plants in your labs might be reanimated, but they’re not alive. I paint the planet as it is, all the energy and vitality right there on the canvas. Scientists drain that vitality, putting the flowers in neat little planting pots surrounded by diode lights, and pruning them the second they’re not perfectly symmetrical.” The venom spewed from Kel’s mouth as if he were one of Livana’s native hunting beasts. He’d lost patience with people like Selia long before he started his travels.
“Well, I see you care very much about your work. I guess I can help you get your pollen. Not like I’ve got any other choice.” Of all the dipshits in the galaxy to rescue her, Selia was stuck with this one. Her joy was palpable.
“You don’t need to respect my work, you just need to help me get the pollen. You wouldn’t happen to know where any of it is, would you?”
“Fortunately for both of us, I do. Decades ago, this building was used by The Church of the Garden. It has gardens in its catacombs, including Birtyian flowers. They also grew some food crops down there, to symbolize life after death or something like that. Whatever the reason was, I’m grateful for it. I wouldn’t be alive without those crops.”
“The Church of the Garden? Haven’t heard that name in awhile. I have to say their ideas had some charm, with Man overcoming his sins in the Garden of Earth by entering into an even greater Garden in Heaven.”
“Children’s stories also have charms, but well-intentioned fools are still fools.”
“Better than fools with bad intentions.” Kel said, letting the words hang as they walked past the vine-covered pews towards the altar. “The catacombs are behind here?” He asked as they stood at the base of the metallic tree which shimmered enough to give the entire altar a golden glow, even in the pouring rain.
Selia nodded and they went down the old stairs. The wood creaked, but didn’t give way. Kel let out a sigh of relief with each step.
Breaking the silence, he spoke up. “How did you end up stranded here anyway? I imagine you work with other scientists who’d want you back.”
“Yes. I was sent here on a government contract to study the effects of the planet’s winds on the skyscrapers’ unique titanasteel alloy. We were going to see if it was worth using on our ships involved in atmospheric combat. I was supposed to be picked up months ago, but my fellow scientists never arrived. From what’s been going on lately, I’d be surprised if they’re still alive. People are already taking advantage of the chaos the collision will create.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ve seen plenty of despair in my trips throughout the galaxy, so I’m not surprised things have gone to shit for just about everyone. I guess money doesn’t fix everything.”
Kel’s voice faded out as they went into the catacombs, squat stone tunnels lit with ancient candles that somehow still burned. The verses in the Church’s codex on eternal flames seemed a lot less absurd now.
“Down this staircase and to the right.”
“Thank you Selia. What did you use to scare off the nynuk anyway? Did you find it down here?”
“I did. The Garden provides, as they say.” Selia laughed. “I figured they’d have a plant that repels them as much as they love the Birtyian flower. It took more trial-and-error than I’d like to admit, but this stuff works. I just mixed it with a dash of the powder from the flash grenades I brought.”
“Good. You have enough to get us back to the ship?”
“Probably, but I think the catacombs will get us there. It’s an old city, and this is the only cemetery they’ve got. The terrain outside is much too rocky and unstable.”
“Walking through millions of corpses and urns? Fun.” Kel steeled himself as he descended the tight spiral staircase, the stone getting noticeably older, with a few cracks starting to show.
The torches here were soaked in some liquid, their faint blue flames forming a faded corridor towards the garden.
“Forgive me my trespasses.” Kel murmured by reflex as he walked through the narrowing hallway, urns surrounding him and Selia as they approached the garden. Each of them was decorated with the plant life of a different system in the galaxy, their scarlet, chartreuse, and lapus lazuli standing out against the bronze of the urns.
After spending what seemed like an eternity in the hallway of death, the Garden finally presented itself.
It was much more expansive than Kel imagined, especially compared to the narrow hallways leading up to it. The cavern was illuminated by the incandescent white pollen of the birtyian flower, with accents of green, blue, and yellow from flowers Kel had never even seen before. Off to the side was a plot of food crops, obviously Selia’s. It was the only thing in the garden that looked like it had any enforced order.
“The stalactites from the roof provide the water. The birtyian flowers and torches give off enough light for everything else to grow. Now, can we get out of here?” Selia said, taking some of the food with her.
“Just a moment. I understand why you’re in such a rush.” Kel grabbed as many samples as he could, using the auxiliary containers on his belt for the golden and scarlet pigments once he filled up his primary jars with the white pollen.
After a few moments to Kel and an eternity to Selia, the pair headed out. “I’ve had nothing else to do these last couple months besides scouting these tunnels; I even made a map.” Selia took out an old piece of parchment which she’d scribbled on using something she’d found in the church. While the map didn’t look like much, Kel noticed the ground get rockier and rockier as they supposedly headed towards the outskirts. He could also swear he heard the stomp of footsteps above them; clouds of dust falling from the cave ceilings as he and Selia got closer to where Ctesi hopefully was.
After a walk of maybe a mile that seemed to take an hour and a half, Kel and Selia reached an access hatch, which was much too rusted to turn open. After a few punches, the rust on the hatch fell off, loosening it enough to come open. Shoving it open, Kel and Selia emerged, right in front of the nynuk.
Its feathers were slightly singed from Kel’s pulse blaster earlier. Those wounds hadn’t affected its appetite, as it hissed at both of them with just as much fury as it had earlier.
Selia looked at Kel and nodded. He bolted for Ctesi as she threw the last two of her flash grenades, making the beast stagger, coughing up golden particles. The nynuk recovered just in time to see Selia go up the boarding ramp. Ctesi took off, leaving the nynuk leaping and hissing at its missed prey. It was so loud that Kel and Selia heard it over the groan of Ctesi’s engines as she climbed through the atmosphere.
Once they got into orbit, Selia entered the cockpit.“Thank you again for getting me out.” Selia said, still out of breath.
“Thank you for saving my life, even if you think I’m a freak. Where can I drop you off? I’m guessing your lab wouldn’t be a good idea. Sorry if that’s a sore subject.” Kel caught himself, too late as usual.
“Unfortunately not. Just drop me at the nearest Confederation planet. I haven’t had an actual bed in too long, so if you’ll excuse me…” Selia said, slinking off to the guest quarters as they entered hyperspace.
While Selia slept in the cabin, Kel left the controls and began to paint. He started with the standard pigments, making massive titanasteel spires that broke beyond the canvas with ease.
He moved onto the streets, a broken mess of metal and cobblestone, worn down and in parts blown away by gale-force winds.
Then, the sky: an angry mass of turquoise clouds and teal rain the swirling around the metal monoliths, using the space between the structures as an amplifier to strike the surface below.
With the literal ground work done, Kel moved on to using the pigments he found on Livana. First, he made a white stone church, imposing by every standard except for the buildings around it. The church’s facade was covered in stained glass windows, which glowed a brilliant purple.
On the roof was a garden, with vines and ferns overlapping each other’s plots, with flashes of red and gold from various flowers, though purple was the most pronounced color. There was even a lone figure in scientist gear tending the garden.
After a few hours of work, Kel finished up, making a few copies for sale at the next trading post while putting the original in its safe box. He let out a deep breath and went to bed; he definitely needed the nap. They wouldn’t reach the nearest Confederation planet for a few hours.
— Epilogue —
Not long after dropping Selia off at Hytia, the nearest Confederation planet, Kel received a transmission from the middle of what was supposedly dead space. Apparently a scientist working there, one of Selia’s old co-workers, had heard about his work and was very, very interested.
Kel docked his ship at the lab, a shimmering black hexagon with just a few accents of sky blue, tucked deep within a nebula. Whoever the lab’s architect was, they had done brilliantly, making a gorgeous station that was also capable of withstanding the chaos of the surrounding gas clouds.
Kel had barely disembarked, his hands full of a dozen pieces of art when he heard the woman approach him, the sound of her boot heels echoing across the landing platform with each step. “Hello Kel. Thanks for helping out my old friend Selia. Very intelligent, even if she lacks the vision we have.”
“We?” Kel said, confused.
The woman took the paintings from him, setting them on a table that had just risen from the floor next to her. She had short platinum blonde hair, which contrasted sharply with her black work gear and gloves. Her eyes were a brilliant orange, in stark opposition to the lab’s blue lighting. It was almost as if she intentionally made herself a contradiction. “Yes, we. As in we who understand and appreciate art and its power. Selia, well, doesn’t. Surely you know that already.” She laughed.
“I do know. And I can’t thank you enough. Your offer will cover my trips to at least eight more systems on its own. Maybe you’d like a discount on those pieces?” Kel said, struggling to keep eye contact. This woman was equal parts disarming and unsettling.
“I’m afraid not. I’ll be going away for awhile. Some people aren’t content on staying in this galaxy, and they’ve found a way out. I plan to take it as well, so I want as much beauty from this old place as I can get.”
“Then I’m happy to help. If you don’t mind me asking, why are you leaving? Scientific curiosity? The chance to get rich?”
“Neither. I lost someone to the extra-galactic experiments three years ago. I plan to get her back.” She was so matter-of-fact that Kel instantly had a rough idea of her plans. He accepted her payment and left as fast as he could. Whoever this woman was, she was trouble. Kel was just happy she wouldn’t be this galaxy’s problem for much longer.
Freddie Bastiat is a futurist who’s a fan of Yoko Taro games, college football, and the restoration of the Byzantine and Achaemenid Empires. You can find him on Twitter @Bastiat_Child.