In the future, mankind’s ancient nocturnal enemy, long dismissed as myth, has revealed itself. Harnessing the nascent technology of space travel, they have escaped the scourge of sunlight and rule unopposed from the eternal night of space. Together, the two species plan to journey to the stars and, inside a ramshackle ship built with 20th Century technology, Helena guides her human passengers – both crew and cargo – to settle Earth’s first extrasolar colony.
“You know us. You have always known us. We are the reason that you fear the dark. We have walked among you since you staggered, confused and blinking, from the savannah. We are stronger, faster, smarter but, more than that, we do not age or die. And all we have asked from you down all these uncounted ages is a small thing: your blood, and your lives. Short, brutish human lives are a small price to pay for the continuity of your entire species, no? It was in our power to annihilate you, but we stayed our hands. We suffered you. We preyed upon you. It was a beautiful, delicate balance.
“But something changed. You developed technology and culture. Your old legends of us, the nightmares of a half-forgotten youth, became calcified into literature and pop culture. You lit the night with lights as bright as day and you began to chatter across invisible wires beyond even our understanding. You were no longer afraid of the dark, and if you remembered us at all it was as figures of amusement. We were driven to the fringes of your new world, to scavenge on primitives and the lost. The Ancients, the Firstborn, retreated to their sarcophagi beneath the old deserts, content to wait out the years until mankind regressed back to barbarism.
“Some of us did not go into hiding so willingly. Some of us watched you carefully, calculating, seeking some new advantage. And we saw your highest achievement, the mastery of space travel. We looked on in awe as you sent members of your fragile, short-lived species into orbit, and then a scant few years later landed them on the surface of the moon. This was unimaginable to us for, despite our power, we are conservative by nature. It would never have occurred to us to smash so thoroughly the most fundamental of frontiers. We do not cooperate. We hunt, and we hunger. We scheme and we plot. We do not have the patience to pursue any goal save satiating our terrible thirst for your blood. Space travel was beyond our understanding. Many of our number despaired, fearing you would flee Earth for good. They took to delaying your advancement, holding back your development into a true interplanetary species by subtle political maneuverers. For a time, they were successful. That first bright flowering of extra-terrestrial human ingenuity was squandered. But others, others like me, realised that we might pursue a different course.
“For all our existence, we have feared the light of the sun. We did not have the talent for enquiry to pursue explanations for this strange weakness. But it is death to us; that is enough. That is why we must haunt the night. But, we pondered, what effect might the sun have on us in the vacuum of space? Beyond Earth’s atmosphere, would we still be destroyed by it? We toiled in secret for long years, countering the efforts of our fellows who feared humanity’s promise, even resorting to violence when it was necessary. We pushed you further than you had ever gone, but of course we could not test our hypothesis. None of our kind could become an astronaut, for we would be immediately revealed. It took subterfuge and courage to arrange the events of the Achilles mission, and we knew that the risks were high – for both our species. In the end, history has vindicated our actions. All of our hopes were realised. The radiation from the sun is not harmful to us outside of an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. In space, night is eternal.
“And so, we revealed ourselves at long last. By that time, it was too late. Your space program, masterminded by us, had already filled your sky with weaponry. Seizing control of the orbitals was simple. We proved masters of zero-gravity, immune to its debilitating effects and, of course, we do not breathe. And that is how we came to rule you, after so long in the shadows. The Aristocracy of the Void.”
Dragon’s old accession speech always came back to Helena at times like this. Something about the sweep of the stars, the glorious blackness of space, the cavernous cathedral of galaxies whose orderly structure the human eye was not sensitive enough to perceive, made her remember his booming, oddly hollow voice and she felt a smile play across her pale lips. He had been old, with an imagination rooted in ancient ways of thinking. Helena was younger. Old enough to have lived on Earth before the Revolution, but not so old that she felt the need to throw around all those hoary clichés. She was practical; a modern member of society, or so she liked to think. Automatically, she went through the hourly checks of the ship, not even looking at the switches she flicked, barely paying attention to the readouts. If one flashed red, she’d see it immediately, but none ever had in all her long mission through the black, interstellar desert. It had been over a century now. For her, just a small slice of her immortal existence. For the passengers in the hab module towards the back of the ship, it represented three generations of life. There were people who had been born, lived and died in the confines of this Russian-engineered tin can. How strange. How limited. But no more limited than most human lives, at least from Helena’s perspective.
Helena hooked the IV in her wrist to one of the packs that hung down from the rail near her head. It was an irony not lost on her that, even in this age of astonishing advancements, she was relying on 20th Century technology to store her food. Vacuum packed fluids, like the cosmonauts used to squirt into their mouths while they spun through Earth orbit in their ramshackle stations. The only difference was the nature of the fluid. But then, the whole ship was based on those basic principles of early space flight. The Russians had spent decades learning how to live in space, and their work was solid and dependable. This ship, The Spear of Longinus, was old space station technology, hammered together and strapped to a ramjet engine, assembled in lunastationary orbit over Tranquillity City and then fired off into deep space. They had been accelerating for years as they passed through the solar system, slingshotting around Jupiter and later Uranus, through the Kuiper belt and out into the diffuse Oort cloud where the freezing comets spun through their distant orbits. They never got within a thousand AUs of one, of course and, by that time, the light from the stars was already being bent strangely around them as they hit relativistic velocities. Even now, after all these years of seeing them distorted like that, they still looked strange to Helena. But then, she had seen them from Earth in the old days. Not too many people – humans or otherwise – could say that now. Almost all of their planet’s progeny were now scattered throughout the inner solar system, living in vast orbitals, away from the dangerous atmosphere-filtered sunlight.
It was almost time. When she had fed enough and was content that she had performed the required checks, Helena spun around in the lander’s cockpit and floated back towards the hatch that led back into the bulky hab modules. These huge cylinders spun around a central axis, driven by vented heat from the ramjet, to give the illusion of luna-equivalent gravity, at least on the curved outer walls. That was where the humans lived. They were both cargo and crew, an integral part of the closed ecosystem of The Spear, as well as its main beneficiaries. The hab domes were filled with a soup of liquid water and algae, running in tubes along the exterior walls. They absorbed the thin compressed light of the stars, photosynthesising away, producing a nutritious pulp for the humans to eat. Then, their waste was processed back into the system, used as fertiliser to grow more algae to replenish what they ate. The humans tended their crop diligently. Nothing was wasted. When one of them died, they went into the reclamation vat too. It was ghoulish, even by the standards of Helena’s kind, but it was the only way to survive out here. The alternative was hauling supplies all the way to their destination, or the unproven technology of cryogenic hibernation. Helena’s role was to command the ship itself. She was responsible for the technology, and for the integrity of the mission as a whole. Her long life made her ideal, and the only supplies she required were a regular contribution from the humans – it was their blood that filled the packs she fed from.
Going from the cockpit of the lander to the hab modules was always disorientating as she moved from weightlessness to the noticeable pull of centripetal force. Relatively little of the ship was given over to living space. Humans raised on Earth, or even in one of the main orbitals, would have found it unbearably cramped. These willowy creatures knew no other life though. There were around a dozen of them. Helena had known the original crew – their ancestors – by name, but two generations removed from the early years of the mission and their odd, stretched faces had all blurred into one. Like the cramped conditions, she had been a constant in their lives such that her passage through their habitat went unremarked, despite their physical differences. These humans had been conceived, born and raised in the weak gravity of The Spear and their spindly limbs and strange, rolling gait were evidence of that. Their bones were almost hollow, the calcium having leaked out of their urine since they were infants. The irony of it all was that, despite their epochal journey through space, they would not be the ones who would settle their new world. That honour belonged to the even more precious cargo at the rear of the modules, that Helena now loped towards with great, floating moon-strides.
This was another check she had to perform, twice daily. She, with her knowledge and experience, was a safeguard against the failings of the humans. Their reverence for the cold storage section of the ship was almost religious. It was the focus of their entire existence. Helena too had developed an odd respect for the vials and machineries that lurked there in the freezing darkness. In it, was the potential of the entire human species. Bank upon bank of embryos, and the means to bring them to maturity in artificial wombs. They would be deployed on the surface of the world they had been sent to colonise so they could develop naturally, in Earth-like gravity, and then these stretched-out moon people would instruct them in the business of living and mastering their alien environment, guiding them from the orbiting modules. If they were to land on the planet themselves, they would die in weeks, their frail bodies crushed by the unfamiliar gravity. But when they did finally die in orbit, these travelling humans, that would be the end of their genetic line. Their lives were utterly devoted to the mission, from conception to death. But only Helena had the immortal perspective to understand that. Her role, as with her people back in the comforting lap of the Solar System, was to be an overseer of the new colony; the first of Earth’s interstellar outposts. They were pioneers, but no terrestrial explorer could have dreamed they would journey through the stars like this.
When Helena had completed the checks, she walked back through the hab module. She generally disliked being here for long, preferring the zero-g environment of her lander section. And the humans were a temptation. The blood packs were enough to sustain her, but it was not a comfortable existence. Just as with the old cosmonauts, vacuum-packed was no substitute for the real thing. After all these years, even those strange, slender throats looked tempting. But their population was controlled. All had been preordained. Killing one now would unbalance the ecology of The Spear. And it would unbalance the people as well. They would regard her with fear, and one of the secondary objectives of this mission was to breed that out.
Helena was passing by one of the men tending the algae tanks when the ship lurched around them. His skinny legs wavered on the curved floor and he looked up with alarm. His eyes were big in his hollow, stretched-out skull. “Helena?” he asked in his reedy voice.
“I think we’re slowing down,” she told him, “nothing to be alarmed about – I was expecting this. Most likely we’ve entered the inner system and we’re starting to feel some gravitational effects.”
“So we’re nearly Home?”
They had been raised to think of their destination as Home. Indeed, it was much like Earth – a rocky world with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. The gravity was a little weaker and there was no complex life to speak of, but it would be more like Earth than anywhere they’d ever been. She felt almost sorry for them, that they would never visit the surface themselves. “We’re nearly Home,” she told him, “a few weeks, at most. We need to begin preparations for entering orbit.”
She had been readying herself for this moment for a long time, and suddenly she felt tense, worried. Her routine had been unchanging for decades. This cramped tin can, hurled through the vacuum with 20th Century technology, had been her life. Now it was all about to change. How could she not be ready for this? Perhaps she had just gone stir-crazy. She clambered back into the lander and looked out through the curved windows of the cockpit. At last they had slowed to normal speed. They were still moving at thousands of kilometres an hour, but the starfield around her was now unchanging. The constellations were almost familiar, just bent slightly out of shape. When she craned her neck, she could make out the crooked bow of Cassiopeia but, at its far end, there was another faint white star. Sol. Her home. Everything she’d ever known. She watched it for a long moment, then turned back, to the stars glowing hotly ahead of them. Two were relatively close, one brighter than the other and, far in the distance, but much larger than any of the other stars in the sky, a third dim companion orbited. Somewhere in the heart of this complex stellar ballet lay their destination. The human’s Home but, for Helena, it was just Centauri V. Their first interstellar colony.
This was a glorious moment. Neither of their species could have dreamed of seeing what she now saw a few centuries ago. But, under their leadership, they had done this, they had conquered the void at last. She had shepherded humans to another star system. Relief washed through her. And then there was a dull vibration along the spine of the ship and she felt the whole vessel lurch wildly. The stars wheeled around her. The instruments flashed red and, for the first time in over five centuries of life, she felt panic rise in her stomach. Something had gone wrong.