A gentle breeze brushed through the trees from the north and the flames shivered in its embrace. One of the sticks, engulfed and utterly crisped by the heat of the fire, snapped and fell, sending burning embers soaring upwards. My gaze followed their graceful dance skyward and I watched as each burned out in the cool night air, now far from their mother fire.
My eyes landed on the stars far above, hundreds of them were visible through the tiny clearing, it was a majestic celestial tapestry as if weaved for me alone. It was an increasingly rare display of beauty, unmatched in radiance and wonder: the absolute depths of the infinite cosmos. For it was a sight of extreme contrast, analogous to our species' struggle to survive, and the feeling of loneliness and profound curiosity it stirs in us is a pleasure we can only experience as a result of our intelligence. And it was this, I knew, which separates us from the animals: that we have the awareness and intellectual capacity to feel small and alone when gazing into the dark abyss of space.
I took a scrap of paper out of my pocket and looked down at it, using that moment to build back up my determination for the coming morning. It was a photo I'd carried with me with years, since the fall: a woman with flowing red hair, a pale complexion and a warm expression; a little girl who looked just like the woman, though her tiny face, with a beaming smile, was dotted with freckles; and a man, a man who looked happy, but a man I didn't recognize. This was my family, this was my wife and daughter, and this photo was the only thing I had to remember them by.
Flipping the photo over I could read the familiar text,
"Barbara, Sam, and Aaron Danus
This was why I was there, and why I had to keep pressing forward. I folded the photo and put it back in my pocket before laying down and falling asleep, staring up at the stars.
- Later -
I awoke in my quarters to the roar of the engines, the same as I did every morning. Standing up, I knew something was amiss but I didn't notice anything immediately, so I took my time and stretched. I smiled, feeling refreshed and ready to face the day, but in the back of my mind I knew the next morning would bring with it a fresh storm of trouble and I'd have to prepare for it.
I opened the door to my quarters and noticed something odd for the first time, there was an intense, bright light shining through the cracks around the door to the cockpit. But there were no alarms and the temperature of the ship seemed normal, so I decided there had to be an explanation. I began walking toward the cockpit, but stopped a moment in the hallway to look out the window.
But I reeled back in horror. Where I expected to see stars, there was nothing at all. I was looking out of my ship and into what seemed an infinite blackness, nothing. It was as if peering into the face death as I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and despair. Standing there, I began panting as my breathing grew rapid, I leaned forward and grasped my knees for support, but then I stopped. I heard a loud thud and then silence. The drone of the engines had stopped.
Standing back up and regaining my composure, I decided it was time to check on the cockpit. I walked carefully down the rest of the hallway and slowly opened the door, but there was nothing out of the ordinary upon walking in. There was no light, and everything was as it was the last time I'd been there. Except for the view out of the front window.
There were stars visible through this one, but they were all in a slowly shrinking bubble which was outlined in a beam of light. They also seemed to be distorted, as if through a fish eye lense. This was a completely alien sight to me, and I was terrified. I sat down at the flight controls and tried to direct the ship forward, but it wouldn't budge.
Assuming there was a problem with the ship, I opened the manual and skimmed through its table of contents. I found nothing immediately helpful but my eyes landed on a line of text at the bottom of the page, listing the publisher, date of publication, and the author of the manual. The author's name, though I couldn't explain why, filled me with dread. It was "Lt. Samuel Barbara, 08/05/1998."
My mind began racing, the room began spinning, and I fell out of my chair, hitting my head on the side of the control panel. As I slipped out of consciousness the orb of stars disappeared completely from view and a voice echoed in my mind, "You'll be flying through Eridanus." Everything went dark.