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In The Harsh Moonlight

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"I know what you're thinking Jonas – but I didn't ask to see you so I could try to recruit you back into the military. God knows we could use you in the fleet, but I know you turned your back on that career a long time ago."

Jonas looked sceptical. "So what do you want with me, Admiral?"

"Well, I've just had a rather disturbing encounter with Captain Rifton. She turned up at headquarters a few hours ago aboard a shuttlecraft. She was alone. Her starship, the Orange Dawn, was supposed to be on a deep space assignment for the next six months. Frankly, she seemed a little unhinged. She's been ranting about some disaster that has befallen her ship, but she isn't making much sense."

"Has it been destroyed?"

"No - she's convinced that the Orange Dawn is intact and its crew alive, albeit debilitated somehow. She says we need to send someone immediately to revive the crew and bring back the ship – and she's insisting we send you. She's certain that you are the only one who can help her crew. Seems to think it would be dangerous to send anyone else. Do you know why that might be?"

Jonas hesitated. He knew vaguely who Captain Rifton was, but had never met her.

"Do you have any connection at all with the Orange Dawn?"

Jonas felt sure that Admiral Trainer already knew the answer to that.

"There is a Lieutenant serving aboard the Orange Dawn – Julia Thompson. We...had a relationship, sometime ago. But it's been over since her assignment began on the Orange Dawn."

"I see. In that case perhaps I should send someone else..."

"No." Jonas stood up and looked Admiral Trainer straight in the eye. "I'll do it. You know I'm well qualified. If the ship and crew really have survived I'll bring them back. Please sir."

After a pause, the Admiral nodded.

 

---

 

Jonas soon tracked down the stricken ship's engine trail. The Admiral had given him use of the fleet's fastest ship, but the journey still took weeks, as he retraced the Seraphine's route in deep space. He had little to do but wait, and hope. He tried not to think about Julia. He had tried so hard to let go of her. He had tried to accept the fact that they were no longer together. How strange - it had seemed so easy to walk away from their relationship at the time.

In the long hours alone in the shuttle, he played over all the possible scenarios that he could imagine. The outcomes of them all were somewhere between the two extremes: Julia was dead, or she was alive and would fall into his arms again when he rescued her.

Finally, his scanners picked up the Seraphine at extreme range and he made for its position.

The ship was adrift. Scans revealed that backup systems were still running, meaning that the atmosphere and gravity on the ship should make it possible for him to safely board.

The ship was dark, the corridors lit only by pale light from the ship's backup battery. But Jonas was not alone. The bodies of the ship's crew lay throughout the vast ship. Yet they didn't seem to be corpses. Even in the warm light of Jonas's torch their skin was pale, their eyes open and unfocussed. Jonas performed medical scans on a couple of bodies. His suspicions were confirmed – the crew weren't dead. They still had a slow heartbeat. Their brains were still active, though in a dormant state.

On the bridge, he found her. Julia was slumped in her seat at one of the science terminals. Like the others she wasn't dead, but she wasn't quite alive either.

Though the Orange Dawn had been adrift for some time, it was possible to trace the position it had occupied before its engines lost power. Jonas piloted the ship back there.

The scanners on the bridge started to display confusing readings. There was definitely something out there. Jonas told the computer to show him the space.

There it was – a moon.

Jonas immediately chided himself for the thought. Of course it wasn't a moon. There was nothing nearby that it could conceivably be orbiting. But its scarred and pitted face and silvery glow had instinctively reminded him of Earth's native satellite.

Wait – was that moonlight? From what source could that light be emanating? There were no nearby stars whose light could be reflected by this "moon". Yet there it shone.

Under the influence of some strange instinct, Jonas turned back to look at Julia. Her eyes were now aglow with the same silvery light he had just observed on the viewscreen. He gently lifted her head – she looked at him, but her eyes remained out of focus.

"Jonas..."

Hearing her voice, a warm contented feeling filled his body.

"Jonas, there isn't much time. Listen carefully.

"We changed course to investigate this planetoid. It was glowing, but our scans couldn't explain why. Then they revealed themselves.

"The light that you can see out there isn't light at all. It's a colony of lifeforms. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the light is the part of them visible to our eyes. They communicated with us in a language that can't be easily translated into words. Nevertheless we understood them clearly.

"They are non-corporeal beings and sentient – up to a point. Communing with them was...blissful. All physical weariness washed away. We began to lose track of where we were – even of who we were. All we wanted was to continue to share our thoughts with these aliens. We noticed however, that the aliens seemed to be growing sad. They explained to us that, though they were glad to be communicating with us, they experienced pain in the process. We reminded them of the limits of their own existence. You see, they are not alive in quite the same way that humans are.

"It was Captain Rifton who perceived the danger. She realised that if we didn't get away from these aliens soon we would never leave. We would be likely to stay until our bodies wasted away. But it was already too late. Captain Rifton managed to escape - but here mind was already badly damaged. The rest of us realised that we could no longer safely inhabit our bodies. Nor can we leave this place – we must stay near this celestial body that looks like Earth's moon.

"I know you have felt their presence. They do not wish you or us any harm. But it is in their nature to reach out to the minds of corporeal beings. The longer you communicate with them the less you retain of your normal human feelings. Their presence crowds out your own personality. You cannot safely stay here. You must leave and warn others not to come here."

Jonas had indeed felt the warm touch of the alien presence growing. But now he felt a wave of grief. He was going to lose Julia after all.

"Why did Captain Rifton send me here?"

Julia's face seemed to be growing paler, more distant.

"I made sure she would send for you. I knew that you would have the strength to come here – and leave again. I knew you wouldn't be sentimental, even about me. We can make sure the moon doesn't attract any more humans to it – but if this ship remains it will draw others to it. Our bodies could still communicate the alien's presence to others. They do not want to hurt others, but they are incapable of supressing their natural instincts. You must destroy the ship and leave – now."

Jonas recoiled. Somehow he had expected a different answer.

As he stood, Jonas felt the alien's influence growing. It felt difficult to move – his body seemed sluggish. But he believed Julia's warning. With great effort he set the ship's auto-destruct device for a ten minute countdown and ran back to the shuttlecraft.

The explosion ripped soundlessly through space as Jonas plotted his course home.

 

---

 

"You can tell your superiors whatever you like", Jonas barked. "I've explained to you exactly what happened, but if you want to make up some more plausible explanation that's fine by me. I won't contradict you.

Admiral Trainer grimaced. "It's not that don't trust you Jonas, it's just...well it all sounds pretty outlandish. And to lose a whole ship and crew - without a fight! This will not go down well."

"So make up some story – I don't care. They were blasted by pirates or had some sort of equipment malfunction. I'll go along with whatever you say – just give me back my commission."

"You're serious? You want to rejoin the military?" Admiral Trainer's face was alight with eagerness.

"Yes. And I want my own ship."

"Of course! But this is great news!"

Jonas turned on his heel and walked out of the Admiral's office without another word.

 

---

 

"Don't forget to engage the dimming screen. We don't want to be blinded when the star detonates." The ensign nodded and engaged the screen. The scene visible through the viewing glass looked dull and grey. The dimming screen filtered out most of the colour.

"Fire the solar torpedo", said Captain Jonas.

The bridge crew watched as the tiny torpedo zoomed towards the star, trailing blue light behind it. After a few seconds it disappeared into the star's corona.

Even for those accustomed to such sights, the resulting explosion was fearsome. The star burned brightest in its final moments. Within a few seconds the planet orbiting nearby was consumed in flame, its atmosphere evaporating instantly. The several billion intelligent life forms on the surface received no advance warning of their obliteration.

Some of the crew bowed their heads, feeling pity for the people they had killed. But their Captain was pitiless. He watched closely as the star blazed in the night sky. His eyes seemed to glow with moonlight.

 

 

Bio: I’m a 25 year old journalist based in London. I've had a fair amount of non-fiction articles and book reviews published, but no fiction so far.

 

 

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