Aphelion

Amid a Crowd of Stars

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

“When You Are Old”, WB Yeats

Alaam hired the 25th Hour, chartering her on her first solo mission to attempt the salvage of an Uthari Family explorer lost in the Thuriei galaxy 11 years previously. He had a personal connection to that ship and by a stroke of luck he had received an extremely delayed, unofficial communiqué from one of the crew. Following a long trail into wild space beyond the Middledeep Gulf and out to the Portus Sector, through the ancient warp gate and into Thurien skies the 25th Hour eventually located the Longest Shot, and discovered a strange artificial world at the nexus of a spatio-temporal beacons.

This layered world was apparently built as a series of concentric shells arranged in four dimensions, each level stacked “above” or “below” the three-dimensional spheres in a fourth dimension which corresponded to both time and space. Towers linked these shells, extending backwards and forwards through time as well as up and down through the world’s more mundane aspect. The complex filigree surface was littered with abandoned ships, whose crews, it transpired, had been brutally abducted by a race of mutated bethuriens with the ability to co-locate – that is, occupy the same point in time at different points in space, giving them a considerable advantage over higher-tech opponents.

Mai Vogel didn’t want to risk her crew on what was obviously a ship’s graveyard, so half of Wayfarer’s fighter squadron and their combat shuttle took down a landing party lead by Alaam. Investigations revealed that the crew of the Longest Shot had been tricked into letting their guard down by the famous charm of the bethuriens and then hauled off to an unknown fate – or murdered, trying to hold the ship. Three bodies were found and identified despite their decay by Strontia: a human, Captain Hai; an ursid, and an ephrini pilot, strangled, the sight of whose body caused Alaam to pause, face hidden by his suit helmet. Even the Navigator had been taken, though she had had time to write a message: “PARALLEL LINES_”

After escaping an attack and attempted abduction, the landing party retreated to orbit. On the way Alaam used his psionics to view the inside of the tower. The experience was traumatic – his mind shot into two directions in time simultaneously, and that, combined with the death of his long-lost love, drove him to suicide.

Fortunately, he’d already emptied the magazine of his shotgun, and, after a brief struggle with the much more heavily-built Pethren, Alaam was disarmed and, once aboard the 25th Hour, sedated.

There followed several hour’s focused analysis of sensor data and the recovered logs of the Longest Shot. Still groggy, Alaam was able to rejoin the crew in the morning to discuss the situation. The Navigator had been an Ephradan ephrini before joining the Guild, like Alaam, and Alaam remembered an old Imperial proverb: “there are no straight lines in space”. Dr Savage correctly interpreted this to mean that there are no parallel lines, or rather, that parallel lines here, only appeared straight, but could, in fact, meet and cross over.

It seemed that the only way to “rescue” the Longest Shot’s crew was to send a message drone down one of the towers and into the past, using the date of arrival from the ship’s logs as the co-ordinates. Alaam warned the ship not to land, using his relationship with Leearna and the recovered data to establish his credentials. He finished the message with another warning, telling the Longest Shot to stay far, far away, to avoid destroying causality and, perhaps, fracturing all of reality.

So the 25th Hour accelerated out of orbit and prepared for transition – and at the same coordinates, almost at the moment of departure, another ship broke into their sky. It was, of course, the Longest Shot, over a decade older than the one on the surface and chartered by Alaam’s wife, Leearna, who’d chartered her old vessel to find her husband.

This Longest Shot had come from a parallel timeline in which, warned by a strange message transmitted by a Free-made drone and sent by someone apparently armed with genuine foreknowledge and personal memories no-one but Alaam could have access to, they returned after only a careful analysis from orbit. Based on the logs and data gathered by their alternative-reality selves, the Longest Shot crew concluded that the megastructure was some kind of observatory, built to observe the entire lifetime of a star. The natives – or the settlers, perhaps – had formed the belief that their divine purpose was to witness the explosive death of the sun in a fiery apotheosis, and they had charmed or forced all visitors to ascend into the future levels to watch this event with them.

Alaam and Leearna had settled together on the Uthari, then launched a ship themselves and lived a simple but prosperous life as traders. 11 years after Leearna’s return, Alaam agreed to mentor Mai Vogel and the 25th Hour on it’s maiden voyage, a scientific mission in Thuiei. On that mission, the 25th Hour went missing, and Leearna asked her old captain, Hai, to help find her husband. After 5 months of searching, they returned, on a hunch, to the observatory world…

Now, the Longest Shot and the 25th Hour are returning – but to a new, hybrid timeline. The simple fact that they have met means that neither crew can quite go home again.

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