A note about this story:
This story contains a very sad ending that has been reworked into something much more hopeful. If you want to read the happier version, it’s available in The Void Between Stars!
Inside: Nonbinary protagonists, magical powers, outer-space, and sci-fantasy
Warnings: Major character death, sad ending
‘There are so many stars in the universe that they cannot even be compared to the grains of sand on the Earth. Each star has the potential to be that star. The star with life orbiting on a planet, far far away. Perhaps, even a star to replace the Earth’s sun one day.
‘Where people fail to look is not the planets, but the stars themselves. Within the stars live creatures made of energy and heat, swimming amongst the bright, piercing rays and explosive, nuclear cores. Tails twice as long as their torso, thin like whips and decorated lasciviously with molten strings and gossamer fins, bright as the stars themselves.
‘Usually, these beautiful and destructive creatures don’t stray far from the stars. The cold vastness between each solar body is dangerous. Not enough heat, for one, and not enough debris to consume to power their own nuclear cores.
‘So to encounter a creature like this was so rare it is undocumented. In all the years humans spent creating an empire in the vast emptiness of space, speculation was the only option. Were they sentient? Were they just anomalies?
‘No one really knows except the creatures themselves. And humans? Well, they call them Sunfolk, for their resemblance to merfolk. No one said that humans were creative in their naming conventions.’
Smiling, the Space Wix closed the book and looked out the window. Stories of the Sunfolk had always been the Wix’s favorite. This book in particular had been worn away at the edges, some words smudged and unreadable. It was alright, though, Sol knew all the words by heart.
Out the viewport window, the spaceship’s destination loomed. It was the first expedition to this planet ever. It was dry and dusty, but Sol was looking forward to it. To be a part of the terraforming process. Scans had shown it was uninhabited by even the smallest organisms, and therefore safe to settle on. The air was supposedly breathable except for the sand, and the temperature was only a few degrees higher than the average desert on Earth.
A voice at the edge of their attention drew them back and they asked, “Yeah?”
“We’re going to land soon, you should be getting ready.”
Sol shrugged, looking at the other passenger. “I’ve already packed,” said Sol. Luna, a friend from before the cryosleep, stared back.
“Impossible,” said Luna, “They only just made the announcement!”
“I never unpacked.” Luna was silent, and Sol shrugged again, saying, “I figured it wouldn’t be long.”
Luna sighed, pushing off the ground to clamber into the nook Sol had found. “You still should have unpacked a little.” When Sol shrugged once more, a sour looked passed over their face. “Stop that, shrugging isn’t a catch-all gesture.”
With a smile, Sol shrugged again, laughing when Luna grunted in disapproval. After a short pause, Sol asked, “How long before we descend?”
“A few hours. We have to circle again, I guess.” They looked out the window, and a smile lit up Luna’s face. “I can’t believe it’s so close.”
“Me too,” Sol said softly. It had been a long time. Some people hadn’t come out of cryosleep, but they had all been prepared for that. Thought they had been prepared for that.
Another peaceful moment passed between them, then Luna pushed off. The ship had very little gravity in space, but the planet’s pull was undeniable. It made for some graceful leaps, but Sol was glad to have it end. Floating had never been Sol’s thing, but Luna seemed right at home in low-gravity.
“I’ll see you on the descent,” said Luna, waving. After a wave in return from their friend, Luna left. Something about the parting was sad.
They knew something was coming, but didn’t want to admit it. You didn’t need to know that Luna was a Space Wix to see it, either. Something about being away from a planet had brought out a sensitivity to energies, and both of them could do amazing things. Luna could predict things with scary accuracy, and Sol was sure they could read thoughts.
To a point, anyway. Neither of their claims could be proven, so they had kept it to themselves. Dubbed themselves Space Wixes and had practiced until they were sure. Or rather, pretty sure.
Sol stayed at the viewport window a little while longer before heading back to their cabin. It was small and cramped and hard to get down the narrow ladder while carrying the book they kept with them, but it was cozy. Something about it felt like home, in a way Sol had never had back on Earth.
Earth. How long had it been? Sol sighed, wondering as they sat on the metal cot. Everyone they knew would be dead by now, that much was obvious. With as many that died of cryosleep sickness, they had to have been asleep for much longer than last time. Sol themself had almost not made it. Luna had been the one to stroke their hair during the worst of it, fetching them water when asked and keeping track of their symptoms.
Smiling, Sol looked past the luggage still packed neatly from the last time they’d been frozen, thinking of Luna. They were something else, that was for sure. Only Luna could make Sol smile the way they did. Dark skin kissed by planets and kinky hair the colour of the sun, a smile like the butterflies in your stomach and eyes as deep and rich as their personality.
Sol closed their eyes, letting thoughts drift for who knew how long. It was a clicking noise just outside the hull caught their attention. There were no windows in the cabins, so they didn’t bother opening their eyes. Debris from the planet, maybe?
Click, click. Click click-click.
It sounded like it was expanding, just like when they were facing a sun for too long. Sol frowned, then opened their eyes. The metal seemed fine, but there was definitely something on the other side. There were strange, frantic thoughts there, but Sol couldn’t decipher them. A stowaway maybe? Or someone talking a stroll on the ship caught unaware by the descent?
The latter thought made Sol sit up. Whoever it was, they couldn’t stay there. Not when they were about to hit atmosphere! Surely, they would die!
Sol leapt to their feet and clambered up the ladder, ignoring the speakers crackling with the announcement of descent. They were all supposed to strap in at the center consoles, but there was no time. Heading directly to the control room, Sol knew urgency kept others from stopping them. A few seemed to want to, then thought better of it and shuffled along towards the center consoles.
It was an officer that finally stopped Sol, just outside the doors to their destination.
“You’re going the wrong way,” said the officer, bemused. Sol knew this one, she was friendly at least. “If you don’t strap in, you might bump your head. Go on, you still have time.”
“I can’t, I ha–”
“It can wait,” the officer turned Sol around by the shoulders, giving them a gentle nudge back the way they’d come.
“It can’t!” Sol spun back to face her, catching an exasperated eye roll. “Someone’s on the hull!”
“We would know if there was.”
“I heard it!”
“Then you’re wrong, Sol.” She sighed, taking their elbow and guiding them the way they were supposed to be headed. “You can’t hear anything from the hull on the inside.”
“I heard it, though!”
“Yes, I’m sure you heard the debris. Now go get strapped in before you get thrown around like a rag-doll.”
Sol opened their mouth to argue, but shut it quickly. The officer was certain, and there was no way around her. Maybe she was right. Another gentle nudge, and Sol slumped. There wasn’t enough time now, anyway. All that could be done was hope there wasn’t someone there.
One last glance at the patient but exasperated officer, and Sol started towards the consoles. At least if someone died on the hull, it would be pretty quick. The heat of the descent would rapidly disintegrate them.
The trudge back felt like it took longer than usual, but Sol figured it was the increased gravity of the approach. It had been getting more and more exhausting the closer it got to descending. The excitement of the new planet quickly overshadowed the feeling of dread Sol had. One more death wouldn’t be the end of things, after all.
Once they were strapped in, Sol looked at the tops of the other heads to see if they could spot Luna. They were turned in their seat just like Sol, and waved when their eyes met. Sol waved back and settled into the seat with a blush, satisfied. All that was left now was to make it to the ground in one piece.
After a few moments, a final call for strapping in was made. The center consoles buzzed with whispers of excitement and dread. What would it be like on this planet? Would this even work? How many would survive the terraforming process and what would settling be like? Above the din another announcement. It was beginning.
The pull of gravity was undeniable. It was stronger than Sol remembered Earth’s gravity being. But there was something about it that made Sol’s stomach flutter. It was like being in love all over again. Closing their eyes, they focused. The room was nothing more than a blur of thoughts, all of them tangling into one another to form one conscious feeling of elation. This was their New Beginning.
Sol’s eyes snapped open when they heard the clicking. The metal dinged right above them, above the unsuspecting heads of the terraformers and passengers in the center consoles. There was no windows here, but there was an unmistakable feel of heat. The frantic thoughts from before felt closer, and bigger somehow.
It took only a brief glance over to see there was something going on. Officers strapped in on the sides were talking back and forth into their radios, and a look at Luna made Sol’s stomach clench. They were looking right at Sol, tears in their eyes as they sat twisted in their seat.
They smiled, mouthing ‘I love you.’
That was the last they saw before the sirens went off. Screams all around drowned out even thoughts as the lights winked out, leaving the metal above glowing slightly in the new heat. Only moments later the metal was so bright it hurt to look, and the electronics in the room started to spark.
The very last thing any of them saw was brilliant light from a small nuclear core. Heat and energy split through the hull like butter, tail whipping out to keep the ship from crashing into the planet it was headed for. Air rushed out, fanning the flames of the super-heated body.
Before the endless confines of space took all their lives, Sol finally understood. There was a reason no human had ever met the Sunfolk.