The three colony ships appeared to hang motionless against the backdrop of a faint nebula. Delicate blue-white tendrils of cloud stretched across the heavenly scene.
Far below the plane of the three spacecraft, a single planet, wreathed in cloud, orbited the warm yellow sun of Selah. In the foreground dozens of ships swarmed away from the rear of the giant vessels.
Three huge engines made up the aft section of each colony ship. They formed an inverted triangle around the drive core. The engines burst into life and strained against the enormous mass of each ship.
Imperceptible at first, the thrust of the engines slowly overcame the dead weight of the spacecraft and against the infinite ocean of stars the ships began to move. First the Far Horizon, and then the New Dawn.
Inside the Rising Star, doors parted to admit Tila and her stuffed companion still running as fast as she could. A dome of reinforced glass and steel dominated the large circular room she entered. Through it she could see Far Horizon and New Dawn starting their voyage. The last time she had been here their sister ships had been at rest. Now she could observe the parallax motion of the ships against the starry background as their engines roared in silent effort.
The observation dome housed almost two hundred people; an assortment of children, carers, administration staff, and others lucky enough to be idle during the jump, but whose skills would be essential once they reached their destination. Then the real work of establishing the colony would begin. So too would the plan to make the journey back to Commonwealth space.
Not one was alone. They sat in groups, many lying on their backs, all of them staring upward at the edge of known space, ready to drink in the view of the first new constellations seen in nearly a hundred years.
The Rising Star ignited her engines at last, and a low rumble shuddered through the walls and floors of the spaceship. Cheers and whoops filled the room as the ship lurched forward.
A few people, caught off-guard by the sudden movement, almost stumbled, but feet and hands moved on reflex as people steadied themselves and no one fell.
The ship intercom was relaying the final countdown from the bridge.
“Eight… seven… six…”
Someone gamely tried to join in with the countdown but after the first number he faltered into silence against the weight of expectation in the room.
Tila raced for a large unoccupied cushion and dived onto it head first. She kicked and twisted in a graceless effort to flop over onto her back and gazed at the scene above. With a mixture of excitement and fear she wrapped both arms around her stuffed toy, squeezed it tight, and held her breath.
“…five… four… three…”
The room tensed. Tila’s scalp tingled and her chest tightened. Heightened emotions spread wordlessly from group to group.
Someone near her shivered, not from cold but simply to release the tension of the coming event. She noticed some of the adults were holding their breath, too.
No one spoke again. Even the restless children became still as they sensed the moment was upon them.
“…two… one. Jump engines engaged.”
The three huge ships had spread out from each other and they now formed the points of a giant ‘V’ with the Rising Star at the base.
Above Tila’s ship and to the right Far Horizon had already begun to pull away from its companions. It would be the first to jump.
Twenty thousand metres ahead of each craft the stars began to shimmer. The distortion points expanded and formed three disks, one in front of each ship, each big enough to swallow the fleet.
The disks bloomed into view from nothing. They unfurled like a flower in the morning sun. The centre of each disk burst like a bubble in slow motion, and the ragged edges peeled back on themselves, twisting through unknown dimensions until the disk became a ring, and a new starscape appeared through the strange portals.
The rim of each halo tinged blue where it faced the colony ships. The far side tinged red.
The central drive core on each ship ignited at last, kicking the colony ships forward on a vector to intercept the centre of their respective disks.
Far Horizon reached her portal first.
There was no flash. No bright light. No spectacle. The ship simply glided through the ring cleanly and calmly, like a knife into water, and vanished.
The portal collapsed into itself. Translucent silver-blue petals spiralled back into the nothingness of an infinite point and blinked out of existence with a flash of impossible colour.
Cheers and shouts erupted around the bridge of the Rising Star as pent-up emotion breached their dam of professionalism.
Excited crew leaped from their seats throughout the bridge. The first ship was away. Now to their left the New Dawn began its own portal approach.
The New Dawn’s portal burst open in the space before it, but this time something was different. Where the portal for the Rising Star had been strong and steady this one twisted and writhed as if two different solar systems fought to occupy the same space. Fierce lightning raced around the rim of the halo and streamers a thousand miles long flashed out into space.
On the Rising Star a priority alert flashed across the screen of the first officer.
“Captain!” he called out. “I’m getting reports of an unstable reading from their portal.”
Dozens of alarms and sirens sprang to life across the bridge. Crew who moments before were dancing with excitement dived back into seats, checking status updates, running sensor sweeps and trying to find something, anything, to explain what was happening.
The captain leaned over her command console, knuckles white where they gripped the rail. “What’s happening? Report!”
“Ma’am! New Dawn is experiencing a pilot wave collapse.”
“Will the Bohrs-field hold?”
The answer came in a blinding flash. The New Dawn was only partway through portal when the integrity of the event horizon failed.
The halo collapsed in on itself in fits and starts and the ring of lightning turned inward. It stabbed at the colony ship from every point of the circumference in a dizzying pulse of light.
The portal shrank to a point of nothing and exploded. The shock wave blasted out in a sphere of devastation, spitting out the remains of the New Dawn.
The portal collapse tore the spacecraft in two and wrenched the superstructure in and through itself into an impossible, sickening knot.
Proximity alarms blared on the Rising Star’s bridge, each new alert more urgent and more desperate than the one before. The jump point failure had thrown the New Dawn into the path of the Rising Star.
The devastation sent a rapid series of explosions rippling beneath the metal skin of the ship. Energy systems, stressed far beyond their safety limits, simply collapsed under the intolerable load. The surge ripped through power conduits, blowing out each safety interlock in a fraction of a second. The explosions drove splinters of super heated casings through the superstructure, into the liquid gasses stored in the hull of the colony ship.
Simple chemistry did the rest.
A second explosion blasted a gaping hole from one side of the ship to the other, engulfing it in flames which died as quickly as they sprang to life, their fuel dissipating rapidly in the vacuum.
The shock wave slammed into the hull of the Rising Star and forced it off course with a sickening lurch. Seconds later the fragmented remains of the New Dawn pulverised the Rising Star. Sections of hull crumpled under the impact. Sensor arrays ripped from their hard points and spun away into space or vanished beneath the destructive hail.
In the observation dome the screams had already begun.
Children and adults alike cried out in hopeless terror. Their former elation turned to horror as they saw the burning remains of their sister ship heading toward them.
On the bridge the captain shouted orders. “Abort! Evasive manoeuvres!”
Technicians and mission specialists hammered at their controls in desperation, as if mere effort could defy the inevitable. One of them looked at the captain and shook his head.
And with a sad finality the captain realised they would not make it. “Impact!” she shouted. “Brace!”
Alarms sounded throughout the ship. Bulkheads designed to protect against collision or explosive decompression slammed shut all around the bridge, metal jaws snapping closed in rapid succession to protect the precious cargo within. The last seal closed with a crash and wrapped up the command centre in a barricade of steel.
The jump engines, no longer able to maintain their bridge between the stars, flared one last time, bright and hot. The portal flickered and died.
New Dawn, now stricken and helpless, tumbled toward the Rising Star. It traced a slow cartwheel through space, leaving a spiral of smoke and debris in its wake. Fires flared and died in the lifeless vacuum as pockets of oxygen aboard the ship ignited in a brief and sudden fury and died as quickly as they were born.
A trail of lights sparked along the superstructure of the New Dawn. They glowed and burst one by one. They raced toward the engines and the primary power core finally exploded, casting a million glittering stars into the velvet night. Then they too were consumed by a fiery white bloom which for one deadly instant formed a new star in the heavens as bright as a nova.
Shrieks and screams surrounded Tila as the observation dome’s protective shell slowly closed. The blinding flash of the explosion outside dazzled the room. The white light of a thousand suns blasted away all colour and shadow and hope.
People, young and old, were flung around the room as one ship impaled the other. The stars above, so far away, so peaceful, lurched violently. The impact threw Tila and her cushions across the room. They fell around her, on top of her, burying her. She squealed in fright. It was hot and hard to breathe and the yielding mass of fabric made it impossible to find her feet.
She struggled in panic, found her footing at last, and shoved heavy cushions aside to look up one final time.
The sky was on fire.
The burning, broken command module of the Rising Star, no longer attached to the rest of the ship, drifted across the scene. She saw the holes that had been rent through the side of the bridge as she watched the debris, equipment and bodies spill out into space.
A final explosion shook the room and the lights failed.
Now the only illumination was the serene silver glow of a cloudless night sky. Around her the room descended into a nightmare of movement and shadow, screams and cries and prayers, while overhead the dome finally closed, extinguishing the light of the stars and the flames.