Helena strode across the empty land that stretched unbroken to the horizon. It was like the driest deserts of Earth, but studded with craters like Luna. There was no life anywhere that she could see – not even so much as a scrubby bush or patch of lichen. Not that she’d expect the life forms here to be anything like Earth’s, necessarily. They would differ in fundamental ways, for this was far out of reach of any meteorites that could have carried her kind of life through the vacuum, like the fossilised microbes on Mars, descended from Earth’s most ancient organisms. No, what she would find here she may not even recognise as life. And yet, she had been so certain. The atmosphere, the temperature, the gravity – it all indicated the probable presence of liquid water, and with it, carbon-based life. Well, there was no shortage of carbon. She stared up at the billions of stars that hung overhead, as familiar as any desert sky on her distant home planet, but subtly different. Now she’d had chance to reorient herself, the constellations had started to become recognisable. She was only four light years from home, a miniscule sidestep even in galactic terms. The hazy band of the Milky Way still carved the sky in two, and there was Orion, hardly any different at all. But things were a little skewed, a little squashed, for she was viewing them from a perspective unique to a member of either of Earth’s sentient species.
She spotted Cassiopeia again and smiled faintly at it. Just as from The Spear of Longinus, before everything went wrong, there was a new star in the constellation. Sol. It twinkled through the clear atmosphere and her smile faded as she considered it. It looked small, pale, unremarkable. Just as it had when she’d left. Her journey had taken a century, but six times that had passed in the Solar System thanks to time dilation. Six-hundred years of advances. It had crossed her mind many times that the people she had left behind might well outpace them in the intervening period. She could have arrived here to find a thriving colony populated by settlers who had travelled on a much faster ship, invented in the meantime. It had always been a fairly remote possibility, but a more realistic prospect to Helena’s mind was the harnessing of her home star’s energy. In six-hundred years, humans had gone from riding horses and throwing spears to unleashing atomic weaponry on each other, and that was without the guidance of her people. She had expected to see evidence of stellar engineering – by now, all of Sol’s energy should have been swallowed up in a nested dyson cloud or something like it, powering the lives of trillions swarming across the planets and moons of the system. But she saw nothing like that. Perhaps she’d just been optimistic.
She trudged on, hauling her precious spoils from the lander, searching for somewhere to hide from the coming dawn. There was nothing. No volcanism meant no caves and, despite the strata in the rock back at the crash site, she saw no more evidence of liquid water either. At last, she found a high-walled crater, its edges blunted by wind erosion. It was deep and she scrambled down into its wide basin and crouched against the curving ground. The walls would cast long shadows, but this was a world with two suns, and she didn’t know exactly how the light would move. She might find herself scrambling around, trying to chase an elusive patch of shade, and then transfixed in the glare when the suns were overhead, screaming as her flesh smoked. She shuddered at the thought, but she had to try and take stock of the situation before choosing a direction to strike out in search of better shelter.
Helena unslung the portable laboratory from her back and placed it on the floor. The compact box was stuffed with all manner of equipment that would allow her to analyse biological samples, the air around her and, as now, soil samples. She took a handful of the dry dirt and poured it gently into a clear plastic vial which she then slotted into the box. The analysis took about half an hour, and she examined the results on the scratched display screen with increasing dismay. As she’d suspected, the soil was utterly lifeless. Totally desiccated. And yet, there was subtle evidence of life there. Microbial fossils, just like Mars, the traces of aerobic processes in the dry, dead dirt. There was something more though: something far more significant. The soil was severely irradiated. It was like someone had detonated an atomic bomb right on this spot. She was surprised the ground wasn’t lit up with the afterglow. In either case, it explained the dead soil: radiation this strong was inimicable to all life that she understood. Except her.
Helena considered her position as she tipped out the irradiated soil from the sample tube and put it back, empty, in its slot. A lifeless world, scorched by some unknown disaster. They could never have survived here – the embryos would have perished within days, their DNA shredded by the swirling soup of harmful rays. And then she remembered Eric, limping towards the dawn, with no idea of the danger he was in. Her first thought was that it made no difference. He was doomed anyway. Even if he knew how dangerous this environment was, there was no way to protect him from it, no ship to lift them from the deadly surface to the safety of space, where his frail moon-gravity body belonged. She thought of his dogged determination to find the remnants of The Spear, when it was completely hopeless to suppose anything had survived but blackened fragments. It defied sense, although she knew to expect illogical behaviour form humans. They clung to impossible dreams on faith alone, seeing order and progress where her kind saw only chaos and entropy. It was their short lives; little sparks in the darkness, fragile and meaningless. They were swallowed up by the enormity of this hostile universe, so what choice did they have but to hide in a kind of collective madness? It was a defence mechanism, a psychological shield. Her people had used it against them for millennia, and then harnessed it for the greater good. After all, Eric had subsumed his entire existence into their mission to populate the stars. He and the other humans had been utterly devoted to the embryos, and to the dream of Home.
And then she understood. Of course he was driven to hold onto this thing. It was all he had. His whole life had led up to this moment, and a cosmic accident had robbed him of his destiny. What else did he have but this ragged hope that something might have survived? She pitied him. To be driven by such a base instinct, to strive in utter futility for an impossible goal, just because it was what he was bred to do. But humans could not break evolution’s programming. They were too limited.
Helena turned away. Eric was most likely already dead. She had to think about her own fate now. Without human blood, all that awaited her was a long descent into the hunger, or if not that then the terrible light of the suns. She had very little left to live for. Perhaps she could rig up a primitive radio transmitter using equipment scavenged from the lander. She might establish two-way communication with Earth, although she’d need to wait eight years for a response. By that time, she knew she’d be dead. Maybe there was some way to repair the lander. It wasn’t so impossible. A solid booster would do it, if she could figure her way through rocket engineering. It was just Newtonian mechanics, after all. Or perhaps she could find a way to bore down, deep into this world’s crust, hollow out a cavern where she could be safe from the sunslight. But that didn’t solve the issue of the hunger. There must be some alternative though, if she could synthesise something from these dead rocks…
She saw herself then. A small creature, crouched in the darkness on an alien world, lost and alone, rationalising, hoping, dreaming of a future that would never exist. Praying, like a human, for salvation. She was already dead. She knew that. If not with this dawn, then with another. It was inevitable. She ought to just lay down and accept it. What was the use in fighting? But she had fought all her life. She had preyed on humans in the shadows, or later on after the conquest of space had them brought willingly, sacrificing their lives for the greater good, for the continuity of the species. Believing in something larger than themselves. Her kind did not think the same way. And yet, she had volunteered for this mission. She had sacrificed her future for this human colony that would now never be. And now she was without purpose. Just like Eric.
She found him not far from the crash site. His body was already failing him. It wasn’t just his injuries – he simply wasn’t built to survive in gravity this strong. His breathing was laboured in his thin chest, rattling hollowly as he clawed at the earth, dragging himself forward centimetre by centimetre. She felt renewed pity for him as she watched from a distance, a desire to end his pain for him. But that wasn’t why she here. He didn’t even have the strength to turn his head, and perhaps he hadn’t even heard her approach, because it seemed the first he knew of her arrival was her strong hands beneath his frail body, dragging him up to his feet.
“Helena?” he croaked.
“Save your strength.” He was an easy load to bear, just a bundle of bones and skin. She walked across the desert with him in her arms.
“Where are we going?” he asked her.
“I know. But we’re both already dead.”
“I told you to save your strength. Sleep.”
He dozed in her arms. She walked for kilometres, tirelessly, until the sky began to grow almost imperceptibly lighter on the horizon. It came strangely, that first glimmering of dawn, for the light shone in two places at once. On the ground near her feet, she saw debris. This is where the ruin of the ship had rained down then, just as Eric had seen. She laid him down gently on the ground and he stirred fitfully. “Where are we?”
“At the end of this journey.”
He pulled himself up with a wince. His arm was still clutched limply across his stomach and he looked around blearily. When he saw the wreckage all around them, he clambered up to his knees and began to sift through it. The fragments of metal covered maybe a square kilometre of the cratered ground, and no doubt more had been scattered further afield. The remains of The Spear were probably spread across this entire bleak continent. Forlornly, Eric picked through the closest pieces, turning them over in his hands. Helena picked one up too and looked at it. Blackened from the explosion or the burning descent through the atmosphere, warm to the touch. Nothing could have survived the crash.
“They’re dead,” Eric whispered.
“Yes.” Helena looked across to the horizon, towards the pale glow of the strange dawn. “I’m sorry.”
“Why did you bring me here? You knew what I’d find.”
“It was important.”
“What? For me to see you were right?” There was fury in his pale eyes again.
“No. This is the end of our journey.”
“This? Some end…”
“It never would have worked,” she told him. She sat down on the ground beside him. “The soil is irradiated. I don’t know why.”
“I think the whole planet is the same. It explains why we there’s no evidence of any life.”
“A nuclear war?”
“Maybe,” she shrugged, “or cosmic rays, the light of the suns, a gamma burster in another galaxy for all we know. It isn’t important. If all we found was bare rock, we still could have seeded this world with the algae, but it wouldn’t have survived here. And neither would the embryos.”
She nodded. “You’re already dying. I’m sorry,” she said again.
He coughed out a laugh, and blood flecked his lips. It was too soon to be radiation poisoning – most likely he had sustained internal injuries in the crash too. Well then. It would be sooner rather than later: a mercy, at last, for this poor creature. “What a waste. I thought…I thought we might have saved it. If I could find my mate, we could try again, people this planet. Survive somehow. But with the radiation…”
“There was another problem,” Helena explained, “something about yourselves you didn’t know.”
“Your ancestors were engineered with a genetic defect. A chromosome, like a terminator in their DNA structure, that was designed to keep your population sustainable for space travel.”
“What are you saying?”
“You carry the same flaw. It means that most of your offspring are infertile. It was to prevent you overrunning the ship in the event of an accident. Your birth rate was slow. Even if you had found your mate, it was unlikely you could have established a breeding population.”
“Oh.” He looked forlorn, lost. Nothing had changed, but she saw the last shred of hope die in his eyes.
“You’re human,” she said, “you believe the universe has meaning.”
“This planet was my meaning. Home. That and my mate, my children. But now…I have nothing…”
“But some humans believe that all things serve a purpose, yes?”
“Do you believe that?”
“I knew my purpose, Helena.”
“Then you were privileged. Few humans have that honour.”
He shook his head. “My purpose is gone.”
“Maybe you have a new purpose.” She pointed. “Watch.”
Eric looked up through wet eyes. “Watch…?”
“The dawn. Sunrise on an alien world. We came here for humanity, to prove it could be done, that a human could stand on this world and watch the twin suns of Alpha Centauri rise.”
“You’re going to die,” he said softly.
“We both are.”
The suns rose: one large, bigger and brighter than the sun, and the other smaller, casting a pale orange light beside it. The third sun – Proxima Centauri – was little more than an over-bright star, not currently visible. No doubt it would have been swallowed by its sisters anyway. Helena stared, facing that awful glare for the first time in her long life, feeling the heat roll across the plain towards her like a wall of burning fury. Eric smiled as he saw the light, but she instinctively recoiled, tried to flee from it, but it was no good – the terminator approached, the line that demarked day from night, and swept over them. Her flesh bubbled like plastic under a heat lamp and even her bones seemed to catch fire. Her mouth opened in a silent scream and, in just a few seconds, she was gone, blasted into blackened ash, blown away by the invisible wind of the suns.
Eric lay down on the ground and closed his eyes. It was like a summer’s day, something he’d never known, but had always dreamed of. He was Home. He surrendered himself to death; alone, remote, forgotten, but strangely content.
Even Helena could never have known the truth, although she might have guessed it. Some cosmic events are unpredictable, uncontrollable, beyond the understanding of humans or their nocturnal guardians. A star, just a few dozen light years distant, knocked from its orbit by a microscopic black hole passing close by, sent spinning off its axis and into space. Its fusion reactions became erratic and, before its time, it exploded into a supernova, shedding vast shells of superheated gas into nearby space. That wavefront of deadly radiation reached the Solar System just a few centuries after The Spear of Longinus left and sterilised every circling planet and moon in an instant. There were survivors, in the orbitals, protected by radiation shielding, but without the warm wells of the planets to sustain them, they fell to squabbling over the scant resources left to them. An apocalyptic war engulfed them as humans finally turned against their masters. By the time Helena and her human crew reached Centauri V, Earth and her sister worlds had been dead for three centuries. That same wave of destruction had ghosted through Alpha Centauri ahead of them, blasting the simple life from their intended destination and it was the same reverberating energies that had hit their ship and damaged its electronics, causing the hull rupture. Nothing more than a random, cosmic accident, but one which had doomed all of the life nurtured in Earth’s cradle, even its most far flung adventurers.
And yet, high in the atmosphere of that dead world, a soup of molecules and amino acids rained down. The fragmentary remains of the human embryos, algal soup and the innumerable microbial life forms they had brought with them across the stars. If it had fallen down to the dead, radioactive, ground, it would have been destroyed in minutes and amounted to nothing. But it did not fall on the bare earth: it fell upon the remains of two creatures. A human cadaver, warm and moist, swarming with life of its own and, mingled with the soil, the scorched cells of another form of life, resistant to radiation. That strange DNA, the remains of Helena, would be incorporated into the genetic structure of the falling spores and, though it would take an unimaginable gulf of time to develop into anything more complicated than multiplying bacteria, the exiled life of Earth had found a foothold, far from home.