Copyright © 2019
by Nathan M. Hurst
The Milky Way was a faint, diffuse line of cloudy stars in the night’s sky over Fuji, the mountain a vast moonlit white-tipped arrow to the sky. In a field to the north of the great mountain, Hatsu Takahashi dropped her shoulder bag and extended the legs of a tripod, each clicking into place in turn. With a thrust of her body, her weight pushed the legs of the tripod into the soft earth, she gave the base a small shove to test its stability. It felt sound. She turned toward the long bag on the ground and flipped open its cover, the refracting telescope within was mirror smooth and cool to the touch. She lifted it with effort and swung it into place, locating it on the mount of the tripod with practiced ease. Rotating the optical tube and aperture towards the sky, she used the viewfinder to locate a star, and quickly checked the focal settings of the scope through the eyepiece. Opening the laptop, she synced it to the optical recorder and initiated the control routine. Servos whirred, and the GPS link combined with the onboard gyro oriented the scope to Polaris. All set.
She loved the stars. She had been an amateur astronomer ever since her father bought her a simple telescope for her eleventh birthday. Peering through that eyepiece for the first time had opened up a universe of possibility and wonder, each tiny sparkling dot a little light of hope in an otherwise desperate world. As she grew, she had learned more, as she learned more, she became compelled to find better kit, tools to open more doors to further knowledge. Her father always joked that he had created a monster, but he never complained as the loft room in the house had become slowly filled with larger and more refined scopes, bigger and better tech.
But the light pollution in the city was terrible. How any self-respecting astronomer was meant to work in the urban sprawl around Fuji, was beyond her. The first summer she was able, she purchased a second-hand Honda Cub from a neighbour and headed out to the darker suburbs and the parks surrounding Fuji. It helped. It was in no way perfect, but she could work. The stars were brighter there.
Scrolling through pre-programmed coordinates, she looked up the Delphinus project file and sent it to the telescope controller. Servos activated again, orienting the scope to focus on Beta Delphini, auto-focus brought the binary star system of Rotanev into sharp relief.
Sat cross-legged on the ground, laptop screen glowing in the darkness and giving a crisp image of Delphinus, she examined the screen intently.
“I think there’s something wrong with my observations,” she had said to her father at dinner earlier that night.
“I doubt that, Hatsu. There is nothing wrong with your eyes, and the attention you pay that telescope, I don’t think even Mitaka keep theirs as calibrated.”
“But Father, the occlusion of Alpha Delphini is significant. It has to be.”
“Are you sure you’re not overreacting? There are billions and billions of objects out there moving around. Why is something moving across the path of this star of yours so important?”
She had thought about that for the rest of dinner. Had she been overreacting? No, this was incredibly important. Some part of her was screaming that she had to make her dad understand.
“Could you ask one of your people to look at it?”
He looked at her kindly, but with the eyes of a man overworked and with little time to run an errand which he believed to be of no consequence.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do. E-mail me the detail.”
Almost squinting at the screen in concentration, the occlusion had increased. Alpha Delphini had disappeared. The black of the night sky just swallowed up the light information from Alpha. More than that it had not gone nova. A similar event had occurred years before, a star in this constellation going nova with visually compelling consequences. This time, nothing of this nature was visible. Something was encroaching on the visual line of the light. She began to run data collection on the constellation. How was no one taking action? This event had to have alarm bells ringing somewhere, what were the authorities doing? Deciding to record every last detail she could on the event, she had made her own data bank, state-of-the-art components and a trans-helix liquid cooled crystalline memory lattice. She had no idea where she had come up with the engineering, it had just come to here one day when she realised that as much real time data needed collating and storing as she could possibly manage. It had tested reasonably well, but had overheated after five hours operation with an impressive flash-out. More work needed to be done, but it would achieve what she needed it to do tonight.
Earlier, she had called Riku. He lived across the city, but that didn’t stop him travelling to the same dark spots in the shadow of the mountain to get a better look at the sky. They had become acquainted as part of the same astronomy club at school, for a moment there had been a brief romance, but it is difficult to give your attention to each other when you are constantly staring at the stars. Their passion for the stars seemed to always overshadow their connection, excitement always elsewhere, rather than each other. Schoolmates called them the ‘odd couple’, never apart, but not together. No one else understood them, but that was okay.
“Riku, it’s happening. Meet you at site two,” she had said, site two being to the north of the mountain, and within the outer parks of the city. “Also, good news is, I’ve got the data core working, to a degree. Enough for tonight, anyway.”
“Good. Have you managed to inform anyone?” responded Riku, the message returned via their secure app. He was a neurotic sort and had insisted on their communication being highly encrypted. She believed it was overkill, as no one other than themselves appeared to be tracking the problem with Delphinus. And even if they were, who was going to be tracking two kids with an overenthusiasm for astronomy? They would have much greater problems to contend with right now.
“Only my father,” she sighed.
“What did he say?”
“If you say so, Riku. ‘Expected’, would be my response. Anyway, meet you there in 30 min.”
“Make that an hour. I’ve got to run an errand for my mother first. Auntie’s Wi-Fi has gone down. To be honest, I might be quicker, she’s probably just tripped over the power cable again.”
“Funny. You know you don’t have time for that.”
“Can’t delay the inevitable, hey?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m on my way, boss.”
Hanging up the cell, she turned her attention back to the laptop. Another star in the constellation disappeared from view, it was happening quickly. Some part of her could not believe the world authorities were not aware, and that they were doing nothing about it. She had asked her father several times to at least investigate the occlusion of Delphinus, but still nothing had come of it.
Rubbing her temples to relieve the low level headache that had been ever-present for almost the last six months, she became impatient. Time was pressing and things were becoming critical. She needed to push the thoughts of the child aside and take command of this mortal shell. She decided that in any further incursion into this timeline, she wanted to be higher up the chain of authority. She wanted to be in a position to directly affect events.
She shook her head to rid herself of the distracting daydream. As she wondered where the thoughts had come from, she heard Riku’s scooter engine a mile away, fizzing up the track to their observation point, the light bobbled to a stop as the noise cut out and silence returned to the darkness.
A sharp sparkling pain across her temples forced her to close her eyes and grimace. She raised her palm to her forehead to try and sooth the discomfort. The world faded. Time slowed.
“You ready?” she asked without taking her eyes off the screen, another four stars had blacked out. The mind of this human finally co-opted, she could at last focus on the task at hand.
Riku quickly erected a mobile satellite dish and pointed it south, then he put his laptop by hers and started to rapidly tap commands, executing in sequence. The dish made a whizzing noise as it aligned.
“Communications open. Recording.”
They both looked to the sky as a new star appeared in the region of Delphinus.
“You know the government knows, right?” Riku said as he looked towards the city in the valley below them.
“And they didn’t tell people because they didn’t want a panic.”
“Well, don’t you think that if they had panicked people then at least some may have managed to escape?” Riku’s mind already co-opted, Calla projecting through the human.
She paused in thought, torn between a half logical conversation about the history of events as they unfolded, the growing light in the sky and the feeling of dread it invoked.
“A few, maybe.”
“Well, a few would have been better than none, don’t you think?”
They sat staring at their monitoring, checking and rechecking data and communications.
“Tracking multiple ground launches,” Calla stated.
“Someone was watching,” she muttered, as the traces of multiple nuclear tipped warheads from multiple countries converge on an intercept with the planet killer.
“Yeah, more than someone. This is coordinated.”
“It’s not going to be enough.”
“Like diverting a bullet train with a pebble, and always too late. Why do they always leave thing until it’s too late?” he reflected. His concentration returned to his monitor. “30 seconds,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“See you on the other side.”
“It’s painless right?”
“Mostly,” she said.
The meteor burned and lit up the night sky, casting an eerie pale black and white world about her. Calla stared up transfixed. They both knew there was no escape, their fate and the fate of those in the valley had already been sealed. She could run, but where would she go, she could hide but it would be futile. In that moment, she let go and felt at peace, if not cheated at the brief time she had been given in the world. She reached across the small distance between her and Calla and took his hand in hers. A small human link, she felt his hand squeeze back, a gesture of understanding; nothing needed to be said.
Radiated heat began to warm her skin, she could see little else, the brightness of the light burning at her retinas and bleaching the scene as the roar of death approached. She felt Calla screaming rather than heard him, she found she had no such voice to give, there was no point. She would cross the boundary of life and death and be grateful that the universe had taken her away in such a spectacular moment. No gentle slide into the night, but taken in a brilliant blinding transition wrapped in the energy of a thousand suns.
Death enveloped her with a darkness and ice cold chill, like plunging into the deepest winter lake at night, while the water about glowed with the life force emanating from within her. She fell into the plunge pool and gasped with the pain of it, her eyes snapped open, the sound of her yell like the birth of a new born, primal and affirming.
Spots of light appeared in the darkness, another close and by her side, and radiating warmth, friendship. Though the shape was amorphous, she somehow knew it was Calla shed of his Riku form, she stared at him in wonder and confusion for a few moments.
Looking to the distance there were other pinpricks of light, thousands of them in a wide swathe across the physical space that would have been the city of Fuji.
‘What’s happening? Are we dead?’ asked Calla, his face forming in her thoughts, in the radiance of the form beside her.
‘We are home,’ she said.
She could just about see the outline of the mountain, but the physical world as she had known it appeared as a translucent suggestion of a thing. She looked back to where the city would have been by the bay, but there was no sign of buildings just the loosely meandering wisps of life rising into a sleek double ended cone shape, a harvester. More, there were others, flowing like car lights along freeways and trunk roads, down into a ball of energy, vivid and vital at the planet’s core. Another much bigger flow of light worked towards a second source much brighter and much further away, a forge of life and energy.
‘That has to be the sun,’ Calla said. ‘It is in the correct place, if we could see through the Earth. What is this place? Why can we see the sun?’
‘You are Shifted.’ They turned to the new voice, being addressed caught them both by surprise. A glowing form stood before them, relaxed and face smiling in greeting. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you. I am Gaido, and I have been asked to reintegrate you into the populous.’
It was a lot to take in; much to accept. She found herself struggling to anchor her thoughts, but some part of her knew what Gaido was saying to be true.
‘Did you say re-integrate?’
‘Kuso’, exclaimed Calla exuding a feeling of astonishment, as she saw his face reflect the emotion in a flash of memory from their earlier childhood.
‘Excuse my rude friend,’ she said.
Calla was now paying more attention to those other distant dots of light.
‘Firstly, welcome home,’ said Gaido. ‘It is quite a busy time for us. We are working to harvest over two hundred thousand due to the meteor strike on Yrtha. Shifting that much Essence is not as easy as you might think.’
‘I’m dreaming,’ said Calla. ‘Any second now I’ll wake up in my bed, nice and cosy.’
‘Not today,’ said Gaido. ‘You are suffering temporary transport amnesia, it is quite normal. Things will start to return in a few minutes. Your older memories will return.’
‘Older?’ she asked.
‘Yes. You, Shamira, for example, are near 633 Yrtha years old. You have been a Shifter since you were 100. Calla, is your student, both Learners and… unfortunate this cycle.’
Learners, she knew that. Some distant memory leaked slowly through a fog. A ceremony of advancement, the day she became a Learner, an observer of alien species.
‘I’m a Learner?’ asked Calla. ‘I’m a Learner,’ he then said in understanding as his memories began to unlock.
‘But I need to get back, I’m not finished,’ she said. ‘There is danger here we need to avert.’
‘There is nothing you can do in this Yrtha timeline,’ Gaido said. ‘The Yrtha populous has been destroyed due to the planet strike you witnessed. The data we received from you was excellent, and will be used to avert this catastrophe in other timelines and extend the human population on this planet for several more harvests.
‘Your team will take care of the next phase of work. You need to recover and regain your strength. Any decision on your shift back to an alternate Yrtha timeline will be taken on your return to duty. For the moment you are both on recovery.’
She looked up at the trail of lights travelling back and forward toward the centre of the planet. Yrtha core, the vital pool of their peoples life force, second only to the solar core in the region. She would merge with the others here and recover. She had been in emergency transit shifts before, she would be back to work in a couple of weeks. Right now she just needed patience.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Two weeks, but no more. After that I’ll be insisting on another host and transit shift.’
‘Agreed,’ said Gaido.
‘I’m a Learner,’ said Calla absentmindedly, staring at the stars and the new world about which had not yet regained its grasp on him, almost unbelieving. She could feel the pride and happiness radiating from his thoughts. He would need to be more focussed if she was to take him on the next mission. The stakes had just been raised. She would need to succeed, this world could not be lost as well.
‘I have cleared you, Shamira. I confirm reintegration. You are successfully Shifted. You may return to the populous when you are ready,’ said Gaido. Moving towards Calla he put out an arm and put it round the distracted man while he dazzled with wonder and simultaneous confusion of the world he had returned to. ‘I will take some more time with this one,’ Gaido said to her. ‘Dimensional transition is not easy on the young.’
She looked at the clusters of lights about the region, a network of connections between each, all leading in seemingly random paths to the core and the city of Yrtha. It remined her of the underground structure of an ants nest, but was infinitely more. Their civilisation known to many as ancients throughout the galaxy, they were the Seraphim and guardians of the mortal energies that sustained them.
The information they had obtained on their last mission would allow them to extend the timeline for human essence production for many more centuries, keeping their own populous vital. Her next Shifted mission would allow them to push the bubble of time out again, each timeline extension afforded them more life and warmth against the march of cold and darkness.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Take care of yourself, Calla. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.’ He was still immersed and just waved an acknowledgement.
With the speed of thought she was back with her family, a light cluster in the outer region of Yrtha. She revelled in their welcome and happiness at her return. With the warmth of their love she managed to sleep. It was the first time she had not dreamt of the nightmare of repeated deaths. It was the curse of a Learner, the endless death and transition. Though, to keep her family protected, she would do it, she would endure. She would always keep them safe.