Beyond the Distant Stars

The sky, the air, and the very ground they walked on seemed permeated by death. The ground was frozen, holding in the cold of the eternal night that enveloped everything. There was no difference between night and day in this place. At Night, all that could be seen was pitch black, the distant stars giving the only distinction between the ground and sky. During the day, the closest star provided a dim light comparable to a full moon, if even that much. The only distraction was the huge face of the orbiting moon, one almost as big as the planet itself.

The landscape lit up by this dim light, could have been considered a wasteland if it had been a little less desolate. Probably the worst thing was the loneliness. Dark, cold, and vacuous and so far from anything that the nearest star looked little larger then any other the others, it was oppressive. Although the explorers were never more then a few feet from each other, they could all feel the loneness, the desolation. They all agreed. If there was a hell, none of them could imagine hell being very much worse. It was almost as if God had taken time out of his busy schedule to specifically forsake this world.

The four members of the exploration team were all sharing the same thought as they made their way slowly through the extremely low gravity that existed here. They would all rather be somewhere, anywhere, else. However, they had orders they needed to complete. Their planetary exploration ship had arrived at the farthest planet for the first time in history, only days before. It was a milestone that marked the final step before they were ready to leave the solar system and face the universe beyond. Once they achieved a stable orbit, they began their first detailed study of the planet that previously, they had only seen from a distance. So far, it had been a disappointment. There was absolutely nothing down there to speak of and no shadows to cast distinctions.

That's why what they saw next surprised them so. All of a sudden, a black mass began to creep into view, forming a blotch on the otherwise desolate surface of the planet. Subsequent analyses confirmed it was indeed unusual, and might even be artificial. With mission command so far away, the decision was made almost immediately. A landing team was assembled, supplies were gathered and the lander was launched. However, if the team had known that getting there would involve hours of walking through what had to be the most godforsaken piece of real estate in the universe(due to a misjudgement of the distance involved), they probably wouldn't have been so eager to volunteer.

Finally, they arrived that at their objective. It turns out the object was far smaller then expected, about the size of a small home. It was a featureless mound, made of unknown material that looked absolutely ancient. The team scoured the structure, looking for any kind of entrance or clue as to what it was, but found none. There was not even any indication wether it could be entered. One thing was certain though, it had been created by someone, or something. The creators certainly weren't from around here, otherwise the explorers would not be looking at the only interesting object on a desolate planet.

Just as they were about to give up, one of them noticed something that hadn't been there before. A large rectangular section of the side was now missing, providing a prefect entrance to the interior to the mound. There was no sign of there ever having been anything solid there and no one had seen the entrance appear.

The explorers took what recordings they could from outside, set up instruments to record all manner of data, and radioed the new developments to the ship. While they were eager to explore the inside of the structure, they realized it wasn't going anywhere and it was best not the take chances. No one wanted to end their lives on a planet that reminded them all of a graveyard.

Finally, the time came. They double checked everything, turned on their lights, and, with a mixture of fear and exhilaration, entered the dark passage that would take them who knows where. It had already been agreed that if they failed to report in six hours from time they went in, no rescue would be attempted. Their shipmates would keep an eye out for them and would continue the mission as schedule. They would not, however, delay their return trip home waiting for the explorers to reappear. As, the team's suits had a total of twelve hours of oxygen, they would be presumed dead at thirteen.

The explorers walked silently through the dark hallway that was gently sloping downward for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, the tunnel seemed to open up and the explorers were bathed in blinding light. At the same thing, they felt something an odd sensation, like something penetrating into their minds, and they were unable to do anything about it. The feeling felt like it fully penetrated and then everything went black again. Only this time, they couldn't feel anything other then cool, fresh air. All they could do is watch as images appeared before their eyes and a voice, perfectly understandable, began to speak. The strange thing was, the words were not heard coming from around them, but inside their minds . . .

I am among the last of a dying species. My name is not important and does not deserve to be preserved by history. Likewise, I have excluded names for the most part, as they would be meaningless to one unfamiliar with our culture and they mean very little to myself or anyone else who still remembers them. I leave this record so that if worse comes to worse, at least some record of our history remains. If this record is imparting these words to you, then at least part of our purpose was fulfilled. I just ask that you listen, take this message to heart and do your utmost to avoid following the path we followed to our doom.

Our history began long ago in the ancient past. Our species, Humans, had made its first appearance on the face of the universe so long ago that no records exist, on a planet lost in the mists of time. After several thousand years, mankind had left the cradle and made its first stumbling baby steps into space, eager to explore this entirely new wilderness. After leaving the solar system, mankind discovered that it was almost alone in the galaxy. It spread out, always looking for new worlds to conquer and colonize. As man made its way outward, interests conflicted and wars broke out. These colony wars lasted for thousands of years, changing maps again. However, the human colonies were finally united under the leadership of the first emperor, at the end of the War of Unity. The few alien species he had encountered had been conquered, absorbed into the expanding empire or remained in isolation from the outside. Eventually, a million years after leaving the cradle, man had become master of all he surveyed. The human empire was all powerful. The entire galaxy was under his control and efforts to begin colonizing other galaxies had begun.

This golden age continued for millions of years. Advanced technologies were invented. Man became all powerful, almost as gods. He could manipulate the universe around him and manipulate himself to almost any degree. Peace and Prosperity reigned, want was nonexistent and the living were almost immortal.

Unfortunately, because of this, man also became lazy and decadent. There were no challenges, nothing to look forward to anymore and no one cared about anything. Vice and corruption began to grow among the leadership and quarrels began. The golden age began to crumble, almost imperceptibly at first, but it became ever more apparent as time went on.

What they quarreled about is forgotten and of no consequence. Maybe just out of pure boredom. At any rate, it was only a matter of time before quarreling gave way to confrontations, and eventually, violence. Having no threats, humanity had long since stopped making weapons and the only mention of them were in ancient history books. However, with the outset of conflict, mankind soon rediscovered his favorite, though long-forgotten hobby, finding easier ways to kill his fellow man. It turns out that he had not lost his touch, and even after millions of years of neglect, it came back almost too easily to him. With such incredibly advanced technology available, Man was able to build unimaginable weapons. Compared to the last weapons he had built during the war of unity, it would be like starting with a rock, and then upgrading straight to a hydrogen bomb.

Having quickly remastered man's former art, The Empire spilt into sections and men lined up against one another on the galactic plane, brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, with few knowing what they were fighting for. Patriotism, nationalism, religion, and anything else was used to incite people to take up arms to fight. The real reasons weren't nearly as inspiring as the propaganda. It didn't matter anyway. As the trumpets sounded, the great armies and fleets threw themselves against each other. Move and countermove, blow and counterblow were struck across the galaxy in a thousand different places. As the great fleets and war machines tore into each other, they left behind them great swathes of destruction across the tracts of stars. Plant after planet on all sides were engulfed in flame. Millions of stars were destroyed in massive supernovas, leaving broken and battered, cold and dead solar systems. Thousands of worlds that weren't directly affected experienced massive starvation when supply lines were cut and the supply sources simply ceased to exist. Planets that had valuable resources were liberated from enemy hands by using specially engineered biological weapons, viruses that could kill quickly and easily, leaving all resources and technology intact and ready for instant use by the conquering power. The conquerors would, of course, be protected by vaccines.

The war continued for ten thousand years. Finally, the end came when the remaining fleets faced off against each other for the last time at the core of the galaxy. The two remaining sides had both come seeking to possess what had been the capital of the empire, giving each other a convenient meeting place for what all knew was the last battle. Both side's supply lines were hopelessly smashed, the war factories destroyed, the fleets at less then 10% of their peak strength, and the populations all but dead. It was rumored that on a few scattered planets, remnants of their once proud armies still fought a war that was all but over, a few independent units with no ammunition and few supplies, long cut off from the fleets which had long since moved onto other targets and battlefields, refusing to accept anything but total annihilation of the enemy. Other rumors persisted that some of these isolated pockets, cut off from civilization, had sunk to the base instincts of the human soul, engaging in such horrible activities that even thinking about it made all but the most hardened horribly ill.

The commanders of the opposing fleets didn't even know what the war was about anymore, if there was even a reason in the first place. They had been operating independently for years, the leaders of both sides having been long killed off. There was nothing left to defend. There was nothing left to attack. Trillions were estimated to have died in the war, but no one knew for sure. Communication was almost futile, as almost every communication relay ever built was either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The ones that weren't were in isolated sections of the galaxy that no one cared about and were so far out of the way as to be a waste of time and resources to destroy. The fleets were gone, all but two, slowly depleted over the years. Dropped across the galaxy, there are still pieces of the great battleships floating in the space between the planets, sections of the great carriers at the bottom of the largest ocean in the known universe and pieces of the planet killer buried deep within the great desert of the outer rim. The last remnants of the once proud battle fleets had gathered, at least those that could still be contacted, and were waiting at the core. It was believed by some that a few scattered ships, maybe even a phantom fleet were still prowling the far corners of the galaxy, trying to find something, anything, doomed to roam the eternal voids forever.

Nothing they had begun fighting for existed anymore. Almost every planet in the galaxy had been touched in some way. Most had been razed by fire that fell from the sky, others had been invaded again and again, reducing most of the surface to an eternal no-mans land. Thousands of solar systems had ceased to exist, either reduced to floating clumps of rock after the star went nova, or replaced by a black hole, which sucked everything in, leaving nothing but a hole in space. Other such rips and holes in space were scattered throughout the galaxy, tearing through hundreds of light years as giant tears in the fabric of reality and space/time.

Many worlds, cut off for centuries without supplies or communication, had suffered far more then those worlds which were destroyed in one blow. Some had descended into anarchy, others into tyrannies that made any seen before pale by comparison, and others had regressed so far in every aspect, scouts who visited could hardly recognize the inhabitants of ever having been human. Even today, there are thousands of planets that, while once utopias, now contain only frozen or crumbling, buried ruins of the greatest cities and structures the galaxy had ever seen. Some only have a mile deep layer of ashes and rubble coating the surface, sitting under a thick atmosphere of deadly radiation that creates an eerie glow over the charred landscape, so that any visitor who survived to see it would have a perfect backdrop for his nightmares. Even planets that looked untouched and inviting could easily be the home to those deadly viruses that were unleashed during the war, having migrated with the refugees, the vaccines now useless due to viral mutation.

There was nothing. Even what had been the shining jewel of the galaxy, the capital plant of the empire, over which the last known remnants of humanity were about to fight the last battle, was nothing more then scorched rock, only a quarter of its former size, and had been so for the last five millennia. Both sides knew the war was over and that there was no conceivable reason to continue to fight, except one: Death. The galaxy was giving its last breath and nothing living remained as far as both sides knew after spending the last 10 millennia trading shots from one side of the galaxy to the next. At this point, the dead were envied far more then anything else by the survivors. Both wanted to end their existence, and upon learning of the other fleet's locations, both set a head on course for each other. Ironically, they met at the Core, above the place where the war had begun so long ago. Both were eager to die and while they did not have any reason to fight, they both decided to go out fighting and die with honor, as their long departed leaders had ordered. However, this they did not for the sake of their leaders, but for each other. They fought for the honor of putting the other out of their misery.

The opposing commanders and their officers celebrated with a banquet the night before the battle. They talked of a time long gone by, long before the war, that neither of them had experienced, but that both of them would do anything to go back to. No one spoke of the war or the current state of things. To do so would be only be stating the painfully obvious that both had seen far too many times before. With the final toast, they both pledged to each other that the winner would leave no survivors. The formalities concluded, they saluted each other and went back to their ships. The next morning, the commanders put on their dress uniforms, the fleets lined up facing each other, and for an hour that seemed like forever to the crews, the remnants of mankind stared at each other across the void. Finally, at 06:00, the final charge was sounded.

The battle of the core began with the simultaneous firing of every weapon present, as the two fleets tore into each other with their full power and fury, like two sharks sent into a frenzy by the smell of blood. Missiles, torpedoes and blasts of energy rocketed silently though the eternal night. Bombers shot from the launch tubes of the carriers and raced toward their targets to begin their bombing runs under protection from the fighters.

The two fleets then closed on each other to point blank range at full speed, continuing to pound each other mercilessly. Tactics and strategy were forgotten. There would be no escape, no retreat and no quarter...It would all come down to who could hold out the longest against the constant bombardment.

The battle was on and there was no turning back. Fighters exploded, ships collided, bulkheads screeched, buckled and gave way, sucking those nearby into the vacuum of space. One side lost their flagship, a mega-battleship, when its main gun batteries overloaded and exploded, tearing the ship apart and incinerating large portions of the crew. They were the lucky ones, as they were spared the horrible deaths of getting sucked into the open vacuum and dying a slow death of suffocation like those who were trapped in a few surviving airtight chambers with no oxygen supply available.

Meanwhile, the remaining forces continued, fighting on like men possessed. They displayed a raw fury and ferocity, a display pure courage and recklessness that had seldom been seen before and might never be seen again. Wether it was the behavior of men tapping into the most base, primitive instincts in the human mind, the mind set of men who have nothing left to lose, or a twisted combination of both, may never be known. All that was known is that an almost controlled anarchy settled over the battlefield and everyone involved.

Finally,three hours later, though it felt very much longer to the those who fought, the guns fell silent for the last time. Where there were two opposing fleets, now there was only one. The largest, most destructive war in the history of the galaxy was over at last. They had won. How little comfort that gave the survivors.

The survivors looked over just what they, what both sides had sacrificed so much to gain. As far as the eye could see was a sea of scattered debris and concentrations of scorched, twisted metal, held together in almost nightmarish patterns. The remains of the great imperial battle fleets that had just rivaled for total victory and defeat. The galaxy was in ruins, consumed in the conflagration that had lasted 10,000 years.

The survivors took a moment and said a short prayer for the dead, hoping they were now in a better place then they were before. Even if they were simply sleeping forevermore and there was nothing on the far side of the grave, they were the lucky ones. They had been the last causalities of a war that had brought nothing but misery and suffering. They had died with "honor" like true soldiers. They would not have to face the epilogue of humanity. They had been the true winners, of the battle and the war.

The commander of the last human fleet, after this painful reflection, finally set to work. Less then a dozen ships remained, mostly heavily damaged and with half their crews left. The survivors made what repairs they could, scuttling the ships they couldn't repair, shifting the remaining crews to fully man the remaining ships, and salvaging as many supplies as they could to keep the fleet going as long as possible. The fate of humanity was in his hands, though that didn't give him much of a motivation anymore.

A meeting of the higher officers was called once all preparations were made. Several places in the officer's boardroom were vacant, partly due to the general shortage of officers and partly due to a number of suicides since the end of the battle. It didn't matter much anyway, for there was little to discuss. Unless the remainder of humanity planned to commit suicide by intentionally destroying the four remaining ships in the once grand human fleet, they had to find a safe haven, a new home. That was the problem. During the golden age, it was estimated that at least 75% of the solar systems in the galaxy had at least one colony in them. During the Apocalypse, as the war was already being called, the galaxy had been decimated in every sense of the word. Planets that could be colonized without special equipment (which they did not have) had ceased to exist, as far as anyone knew, according the extremely limited current reconnaissance, military intelligence, war records and reports dating back to the day the apocalypse began. Some sections of the galaxy had been out of contact for millennia, so there was no way to know if there was anything out there, making them wildcards as search parameters. Other galaxies had been briefly considered, but immediately rejected. Such a journey would take far too long to complete, even if supplies could last. Besides, even if they could, there was no guarantee that they wouldn't arrive to face the same problems, as the last reports across the trans-galactic void indicated the war had spread even to those outlying territories.

There were habitable planets out there, but they were rejected for the singular reason that they were inhabited. Some were the decedents of colonists who had been cut off from the rest of civilization during the Apocalypse, and over the millennia, had regressed and created their own separate cultures, remembering the empire's existence only in ancient myths and legends. Others were intelligent alien species who had not yet achieved spaceflight and were unaware of the true state of the galaxy. While the empire had been eager to conquer in the past, after the Apocalypse the opposite was now true. Humanity had its day in the sun, had reached and passed its peak, bringing the galaxy down with it on its decline. Man had his chance and blew it. To deny another species it's chance, as limited as that may be now, because of humanity's penchant for self-destruction, was a crime no one could bring themselves to commit. No, if humanity was to have a second chance, they would find a suitable residence that no one claimed.

It was finally decided that the fleet would search areas that were calculated to have to greatest chance of having a planet with the proper conditions. This was computed by using starcharts and every possible piece relevant data available and determined to be the outer rim of the galaxy. The fleet would follow a relatively straightforward course, making detours only to look for supply bases whose status was unknown and not confirmed destroyed, where supplies would be taken on if at all possible. To conserve supplies, the crew would be put into cold sleep, a condition that lowered the body temperature and put the body into a coma-like state, only one step above death. They would only be awake if supplies needed to be taken on or a habitable planet was detected. A manned ship would also be a reason for at least a partial waking of the crew.

Silence. For the longest time, there was silence, with only the faint hum of the engines and the occasional sound of machinery to break the monotony. The freezing cold penetrated the complete darkness that enshrouded the sleeping men and women. Anyone awake to see it would have felt as though locked in a tomb. In actually, they wouldn't be very far off.

The journey had lasted 1,000 years, during which mankind had slept in a near-death state as its ships drifted through the silent void. The detours to hopeful supply bases were futile, as each time the sensors picked up only dead planets and long abandoned ruins. The crews knew none of this;... they slept soundly. Better that they did, as the sight of more death and decay would have done nothing more then depress them further. So they slept, and would wake to find a new home, or not at all.

A display lit up, followed by many more around the ships. The heaters and life support began struggling to life to get the crew spaces ready to be inhabited once again. The sleeping pods began executing their final programming, slowly bringing their inhabitants back from the edge of death. As these things were happening, the engines began slowing the ships for insertion into a planetary orbit.

When the crew woke up and looked at their surroundings, they were happy for the first time in as long as anyone could remember. Stretching out below them was a beautiful ball of green and blue, inviting them to step out onto it. Scans indicated it was not only habitable, it was like a paradise. Most importantly, there were no signs of a civilization of any sort. All the conditions set had been met and in many cases, surpassed. Their journey was at an end and they had found what they were looking for. They were home, once again.

Once stable orbit had been achieved, celebrations broke out among the explorers. Plans were made up almost immediately to move into paradise as soon as possible. However, celebration was tempered by sadness and mourning. What had formerly been the flagship of the victorious fleet and more recently, the last survivors of the human race, was now the sole ark bearing the last of humanity to its final home. During the course of the 1,000 year journey, they had lost the other three ships they had left the core with. According to the scanner logs, one ship had completely disappeared halfway through the journey, apparently due to an error in the ship's navigation system that had erroneously shifted their course by 1 degree. While this may not sound like much, over the course of 500 years and millions of light-years, it multiplies so much as put a huge distance between it and the remaining ships.

Where that ship was now was unknown, and probably would remain so. If it didn't accidentally collide with a planet, star or other astronomical object, it would continue to sail on until finding a habitable, uninhabited planet. Failing that, it would continue to float on forever, going beyond the distant stars and into the starless, empty abyss between this galaxy and the next. If that happened, the crew, if still alive, would never wake up, waiting only for the equipment to begin failing from old age or damage before crossing the invisible line separating their sleep on the edge of death from the eternal sleep of death. The second ship had fared almost the same way. It had stayed on with the convoy, but due to an unfortunate minor error in the system controlling the sleep pods, power was lost and life support stopped functioning. The sleepers felt no difference, but continued to sleep in the cold dark ship that had become their tomb. Boarding parties gathering information, along with supplies from the ship before setting it on a collision course with the sun discovered the cause. Less then year before the end of the journey, a faulty resistor shorted out and created a power surge which overloaded several key components controlling the sleep pod life support system, causing a power loss across the board. The irony was so thick you could choke on it.

The third ship survived the journey without incident and began inserting itself into a final orbit around its final destination when disaster stuck. A miscalculation of relative speed to the planet caused the engines to fire ten minutes longer then they were supposed to. As a result, instead of settling into a stable orbit, the ship began descending into the atmosphere. The ship was only designed for flight in a vacuum and was incinerated in the planet's atmosphere when the heat resulting from the rapid decent became too much for the hull. Fortunately, the entire crew was killed instantly and, hopefully, painlessly.

Despite these tragedies, they had survived and had a chance to start over. When they had gone to sleep, gloom was the universal feeling. Now, the gloom had given way to enthusiasm.
It was fewer then two weeks later when the first landing craft descended to the surface and the first human set foot on the new world. In a decision that was accepted unanimously by those who would follow, that first man christened the new planet "Earth", an ancient word that meant "Home." It signaled a new hope for all and the beginning of a new age.

So our history comes to an end, and we begin our second chance. What remains of humanity have moved completely down to the surface, taking little of our technology with us. The ship has been scuttled, creating a beautiful explosion in the night sky for the new settlers. We have burned our bridges behind us now.

It was decided that we would only take the basics, only enough food and medicine to survive for six months. The empire, in fact, the whole of human civilization is dead, gone and buried. We will build a new world, a new civilization, a new humanity from the beginning. The knowledge of our past, the empire, the apocalypse and the journey will die with us, with this generation. We will only pass on the basic knowledge of survival and a warning not to let anything so horrible happen again. All of us will be only too eager to forget what we have left, so this should not be a problem. Our decedents must never know about the unforgivable sin we have committed, for the knowledge that they may be truly alone, the sole oasis in a wasteland their forefathers created, will only hang above them like an ever present nightmare. Only when they have achieved the ability to leave their solar system, when they take their first baby steps into the galaxy once again, will they be ready to learn the truth.

This is why I took one of the last short range ships to set up this archive on the furthest planet. Once I have finished, I will go back to earth and land my ship off the coast before departing it for the last time and destroying by remote detonating one of the weapons onboard. The screen is already in place and activated, a string of far-orbiting satellites, just beyond the orbit of this outermost planet. It will realistically project a view of the galaxy around the solar system, simulating change and distance, from any angle within. This is necessary, for it would be very disconcerting for our posterity to slowly watch the galaxy grow dim and die as the light, or lack of it, from the apocalypse reaches them. It should last at least a five million years before failing, if needed, but our decedents should reach it long before then, at which point this archive will be found and the screen will be penetrated.

If the discoverers of this archive are our decedents, then you now know the full truth about your heritage. You have also been prepared for what you will see once you penetrate the screen. I hope you will use this knowledge well and for the good of mankind. If you are not our decedents and the third planet of this system is devoid of intelligent life for any reason, then you will know we have surely vanished from the face of the known universe, but at least a final record of our species will have survived. Please, whoever you are, if you preserve no other part of our history, remember what happened to us and avoid a similar fate. Do not let the tombstone that is our dead galaxy be a preview of your fate.

Lt. Gilmore, The Second in Command of the Endeavor, looked over the video records for the tenth time in an hour, trying to figure out what had happened. The first sign of trouble had been when Captain Sullivan and the exploration team had failed to check in six hours after they had entered the mound. Twelve hours came and went, but no signal was received. Telemetry from the instruments around the mound showed nothing. Finally, 16 hours after the team entered the mound, the voice of Captain Sullivan was picked up on the radio. "Landing team reporting in. Endeavor, Do you copy?" Having given the crew up for dead hours before, the voice of the Captain surprised the crew so much they were almost convinced it was just their imagination. When the transmission repeated, Lt. Gilmore rushed to the communication unit as the comm officer answered "This is endeavor. We copy you, landing team". Lt. Gilmore then added " Good to see you again. What happened down there?" There was no answer, just a pause. The silence was deafening. After 30 seconds with no answer, Gilmore asked "Captain, are you there?" After another 30 seconds, Capt. Sullivan only responded with "We're Okay. We're coming home."

The next few hours felt like days as the they waited for the landing crew to return. When the landing craft finally docked after an agonizingly slow ascent from the surface, a sign of relief was heard from everyone onboard. What replaced it was a general feeling of anxiety among the crew. Finally, the hatch to the landing craft opened and the team emerged one by one, looking like they had just survived hell. Last of all was Capt. Sullivan, looking like she about to collapse from fatigue. Gilmore was about to escort them to sickbay, where they would sleep and be checked over, when Capt. Sullivan stopped and refused to move. She ordered that the Endeavor be made ready to leave orbit when she woke up, and with that, joined the rest of landing team in sickbay.

That had been 36 hours ago and Lt. Gilmore was still trying to figure out what had happened and what was going on. All of the data showed nothing. Only the landing team knew what had happened and they were still asleep. Lt. Gilmore started to review the data once again, hoping to catch some speck of information he had missed before, when Captain Sullivan stepped onto the bridge. She looked more like her old self, but it still looked like something was weighing on her, though more subtly now that she was refreshed. According to the medical report, nothing was physically wrong with her or any of the landing team, other then the fact they were all suffering from stress. The only question was: what was causing that stress?

Lt. Gilmore wasn't any closer to an answer 2 weeks later, when they arrived at the edge of the solar system. After leaving sickbay, Capt. Sullivan had ordered the ship to leave the orbit of Pluto. However, they did not set course back to earth. Instead, they left on a course going farther away from the sun, in a new heading given by Capt. Sullivan. No reason was given, but the crew members who were on the landing team with her all seemed to have an unspoken agreement to press on. A hypothetical mutiny was briefly discussed, but it was ruled out. It was impossible to a keep secret that required any kind of planning on a ship as small as the endeavor, which only had eight crew members. Even if the 4 remaining members, including Lt. Gilmore decided to do so, they would be evenly matched with the crew who agreed with the captain, as there were no weapons aboard. Finally, there was no brig and all 8 members had an important area. A successful mutiny would be counterproductive, as half the crew would have to be locked in their quarters for the rest of the voyage, something that could be deadly to them all. On top of all this, Lt. Gilmore, though distressed and puzzled by this strange behavior, decided that there was no reason at this point to consider a mutiny.

Now, it appears the captain had found what she had been searching for. Floating before them, out here beyond the orbit of Pluto, was an object the size of a skyscraper. There was no question about it's origins. Sensors and the sight of it confirmed it was made of the same material the mound on Pluto had been made of, and looked just as ancient. There were three distinct differences, though. First off, the structure on Pluto had been buried in the frozen ground, while this structure was floating free in space. Second, while the first structure had been a mound, this was a diamond. Finally, and probably most importantly, while the structure on Pluto had been inert in every sense of the word, this structure was radiating energy on several different wavelengths. It was built by the same civilization who had built the mound on Pluto, it was powered and it was doing something, though Lt. Gilmore had no idea what.

It was at this point that Captain Sullivan rose from her chair and ordered the Endeavor cancel all momentum relative to the structure and ready the landing craft for launch. She would personally pilot it solo once it was ready. As she turned to leave, Lt. Gilmore rose from his chair and moved to intercept the captain. He was about to confront her when he stopped and thought better of what he was about to do, instead, saying "May I have a word privately with you, sir?". She motioned him to follower her and they exited the bridge, not stopping until they entered the captain's quarters. Once the door shut behind them, Lt. Gilmore waited as Capt. Sullivan turned around and said "What did you wish to speak with me about, Lieutenant?". He began sternly " I didn't want to say this in front of the crew, but you can be assured they feel the same way I do. Permission to speak freely, Sir?" She nodded, and then turned away from him. He continued "What happened down on Pluto? You haven't been the same since then. Neither has the crew who went with you to the surface." "Nothing" she replied. "Sir, I disagree. Something happened down there. You were gone 16 hours and haven't told anyone why or what you saw inside the mound. After you came back, we immediately set course for that floating object, whatever it is. The orders you gave brought us right to it. As scientists, we both know how unlikely it is to find anything by pure chance in space." He paused, waiting for a reaction. When none came, he continued " Now, we have halted near an object that bears a striking resemblance to the one you entered on Pluto, and now you are planning to go over there alone. I ask, why?" No answer.

Gilmore tried one more time "Captain. I ask you not to do this. Not only for your safety, but for the crews well being. They've been having trouble accepting your orders, as they have become increasingly erratic and no good reason has been given. They are beginning to lose faith in your judgement" He finished and waited for the captain to respond. Finally, she said "Lieutenant, I appreciate your concern, and I thank you for sharing it. However, I can't tell you why. All I can tell you is I must go on that lander alone." There was a pause, then she continued " I realize the crew has been taking it hard. All I can say is that once I finish what I need to do out there, I will immediately order a course set for home at the best possible speed. That I pledge on my word of honor and on my command".

Lt. Gilmore let out a sigh of relief. They were finally home, after 5 years in space. In a few days, the suspense and mystery that had pervaded the entire return trip would be revealed. Captain Sullivan had promised to reveal everything once they were safety within the confines of mission command.

However, He wasn't sure if he wanted to know or not. After the captain had left the ship in the landing craft, two and a half years ago, It had drifted outward slowly for two hours to conserve the remaining fuel in the craft. Finally, it reached the "satellite"(the unofficial name they had all started calling it) and began it's approach. Lt. Gilmore wondered what the captain had planned, since there was no sign of any entrances, or if it even had anything more then unmanned(un-aliened?) equipment inside. It turns out that was a minor issue, since according to the readouts, she has just passed the satellite and was not appearing to make any effort to turn around.

He radioed her, saying "Captain, are you having problems? You just missed the satellite." There was no answer. He tried again, only to hear silence once again. He sat there, watching the craft recede slowly into the darkness and contemplating whether to try a third time when the craft disappeared from both the instruments and sight. It was impossible. The ship had space on all sides, but the craft had simply vanished into the vacuum of space. It was almost like a curtain had been drawn in front of it, blocking it from view. However, he didn't have time to ponder this increasingly bizarre mystery at the moment, as he frantically began transmitting "Captain, can you hear me!? Where are you?"

Over the next half hour, the tension remained thick on the bridge. A couple of the crew suggested perhaps going after her, but for several reasons, the fact they had already wasted enough fuel making this unscheduled detour, not being the least among them, had quickly made Lt. Gilmore dismiss the option. There was nothing to do but sit and wait for her to return, if she ever did. Finally, the tension broke when the craft appeared as quickly as it had disappeared, this time coming back towards them. However, the transmissions continued to go unanswered. It was not until the craft docked again with the Endeavor and the captain stepped back on board that it was confirmed that she was alright. At least, for the most part. When she had left the ship almost five hours before, her hair had been a beautiful raven-black. Now, at age 36, her hair was completely white.

As before, a physical exam showed nothing wrong with her and she was released. She was true to her word and they began their journey home before the day was out. On the way back, though, it became apparent her private excursion had only made things worse. The crew who had been with her that day on Pluto all showed signs of visible distress when they saw her hair. Whatever she had seen or experienced had become instantly known to all of them, without her having to say a word.

Whatever it was, it must have been something horrible. Other then the obvious sign, one of the members of the Pluto landing crew was found in his quarters three days later, a rope around his neck. A week later, the captain began to show signs of depression. It wasn't too long afterward that she withdrew completely from her duties and any interactions with the crew and Lt. Gilmore had to assume full command. She stayed mostly in her quarters, sometimes not being seen for days at a time. Other times, she was in the mess hall, sitting alone, staring out at the stars. He tried a couple times to ask her what was wrong, asking how he could help. Most of the time she said nothing, but every once in a while she would thank him for caring. Lt. Gilmore wasn't sure what to do. In the back of his mind, he had briefly entertained the notion of sneaking into her quarters and reading her private logs, hoping for at least a clue. He quickly pushed it out, because if it was that horrible, it is unlikely he would be able to hide his knowledge. This, of course, was second to the fact he respected her privacy even if she hadn't been his superior.

She finally started to improve somewhat after five long months had passed that way. Part of it may have been the second suicide to strike the crew happened around that time. This one, also a member of the Pluto landing team, had also been found hung in her quarters. Maybe it had given the captain a preview of she might end up if she didn't try to end the depressing. Soon, she was soon back in command, to the relief of Lt. Gilmore. However, he was still never able to find out just what had caused it in the first place. He couldn't even bring himself to ask anymore, worried that it might send Capt. Sullivan spiraling back into depression. Even more so, he wasn't sure he wanted to know, after the knowledge caused so much distress and suffering.

Now, he could turn his attention to what lay ahead. They were due to enter earth orbit in less then 48 hours from now and everyone was glad to be home. In less then an hour, they would emerge from the dark side of the moon and would get their first real glimpse of earth in half a decade. Gilmore didn't know if he ever wanted to go out again, or ever leave the earth again, for that matter, after this trip. He'd have plenty of time to think about it once he got home.

The big moment arrived when they emerged from behind the bulk of the moon. As the great blue earth rose above the horizon, a small cheer rang out and they began transmitting , being able to have the first real time conversation with mission command in months. "Mission Command, this is Endeavor reporting in. We're back. Request clearance to begin preparations for docking at Space Station Alpha". They waited for a reply, but none came. They repeated it, but heard nothing but static. After 5 minutes, jubilation began to turn to concern. It usually didn't take this long to get anything back at this distance. Finally, figuring something was wrong, they checked the antenna. It was in perfect working order. They checked the software and found everything was working fine. They began to try everything, from reinstallation of the software to rerouting power through other connections. Nothing.

They didn't get their answer until 6 hours later, when a half-hearted, almost fearful voice said "Oh my god...Captain, I think you should look at this." Everyone instantly turned and looked at the main view port, almost expecting what they saw next, but no one wanting to admit it.
In the time since they had crossed the threshold of the moon's light and dark sides, the earth had made a quarter turn. What was previously been daylight had become half dark where night had fallen. The daylight had made everything look normal, but the darkness told the true story.

Where night had fallen, no lights could be seen. All that could be seen and stood out was large blotch of crimson. Crimson that could be seen for miles , casting an eerily light into space. The crew stared, in shock, not knowing what to feel, do or say. They just stared. Finally, Gilmore managed to tear his eyes away from the morbid sight before him, turning around in an attempt to block it out. When he did, his eyes fell on the captain. Her face remained stotic, without emotion. As she continued to stare at the brightly burning continents below, a single tear was seen rolling down her cheek.