The Colony Ship swept out of the darkness, a pinprick of light growing by the minute. From above the ecliptic plane, it passed over the asteroid field at the edge of the system. Aimed downwards towards the two planets that orbited each other another few light-hours towards the center of the system, the ship looked like a gigantic, dark-skinned glow-worm as it decelerated, the football-field-sized array of thrusters on its slightly curled tail glowing as they fired forward, slowing the craft.
There was a jolt, then a siren, then lights were flashing, shining through the closed eyelids of Duty Pilot Lind. He opened his eyes, vision blurry from the cryo-sleep, but alert enough to focus on the status screen directly in front of him, mounted inside his pod.
He saw the bank of red lights, swore out loud, and thrust the lid of his pod open without bothering to examine the screen any further. He stumbled on shaky legs as he stepped out of the cylinder, then found himself crawling, falling, sliding, across the floor, fighting gravity that seemed to be swirling in circles. One second crawling uphill, the next sliding down in the same direction, the next pushed sideways. He half-fell against the edge of the doorway from the crew chambers, ricocheted off into the bridge, and threw himself into the pilot's seat, strapping himself in as he struggled to stay in the chair.
‘STATUS,’ he called as he swept his eyes over the ship readouts. It couldn't be too bad though, he thought, or more of the crew would have been woken. The autopilot obviously judged it small enough to not even warrant waking the Captain.
‘Engines at 90%. Automatic stability system is working to correct rapid spin around the lateral axis, but flight-path is still within tolerance.’ came the reply. The voice seemed strangely soft, amidst the sirens and flashing lights, but its artificial tones were plenty clear enough. ‘Severe air leakage in Closed-Storage Bay 27. Minor leakage in Zoo Compartment 2 is contained. All partition locks now in operation.’
The screen showed the madly spiraling view from the tail of the ship, towards the planet that was the ship's destination. Lind could do nothing but wait and watch, as the computer compensated for the missing thrusters where the ship had been hit, gradually slowing the spin.
The ship finally back under control, all lights green—at least, those that would be without external repairs—Lind returned to his cryo-pod. He, and the rest of those on board, would be woken in a few days anyway, when the ship reached its destination.
The ship carried on through space, a rigid cocoon carrying thousands of sleeping bodies.
It seemed like a different ship today, Lind thought. Thirty or so busy people in crisp uniforms made the now brightly-lit bridge seem a world away from the bad dream of flashing red lights and sirens it had been last time he saw it.
The busyness of the bridge was not far from chaos as all the last-minute preparations for landing were made. The ship itself couldn't land on the planet, of course, so everything and everyone was being loaded into hundreds of smaller landing modules. These would, in a few hours, leave the giant Colony Ship and slowly descend through the atmosphere of the planet towards which the ship was still slowly traveling as it shed the last of its inter-stellar speed.
Even in the near-stasis of cryo-sleep, the passengers had aged nearly three years over the course of the journey. The actual length of the journey had been hundreds of times longer, though, so no-one was complaining about three years lost. But, like any journey, the last small fraction seemed to take the longest. Now that everyone was awake and ready, even after a half-thousand-year wait the ship couldn't make its destination fast enough. The passengers watched as the planet that was to be their new home grew across the main screen, faintly tinged orange-green at the edges by the light of the main engines, now at full power as they slowed the bulk of the ship.
A shudder shot through the ship, followed by a cracking noise, and the planet in the view-screen twisted sideways. People stumbled, swayed, then grabbed onto those nearby for balance.
‘Con, what was that?’ the Captain snapped, hand still on the bridge-rail he'd grabbed for support.
‘A section of the thruster array broke away, sir. Loosened by the earlier impact, I'd guess.’
‘Nav, what does this do for our trajectory?’
‘Just a moment, sir.’ The officer at the nav console bent over his computer, tapping control cells. ‘It's not good, sir. We can straighten out, but we've lost too much power to be able to stop in time. We're going to have to evacuate the ship in transit, sir.’
‘Damn! Liaison, get everyone on the landers and evacuate.’
‘Sir.’ The Liaison Officer headed for the Ops Room, throwing orders as he left.
Landing Modules began leaving the ship as they filled, a steady stream of strange round eggs heading out, around the engines, then turning towards the planet.
‘With any luck,’ the Captain thought, as he gave the orders to set the autopilot and evacuate the crew, ‘we'll have everything down to the planet as safely as otherwise.’
Within a half hour of the loss of power the final lander had left the ship, leaving a shell—still slowing, quietly twisting as the autopilot fought the damaged thrusters. First Pilot Lind watched the ship, and the distant planet across its path, as his lander headed into the gravity well of their final destination.
M'nen was the first to see the light in the sky. He was playing at the edge of a shallow stream with his clutch, ducking under the water then leaping out as high as possible, flapping his scrawny, feathered arms in an attempt to pull his taloned feet out of the water behind him. It was at the top of one of these leaps he saw it; he tried to shout just as he went back under, gaining himself a beakful of water in the process.
Once he'd surfaced—and stopped spluttering—he shouted out to the others, and shortly everyone was staring at the sky, at the strange light that kept growing.
His flock-brother, M'naqar, was the first to notice the orbs strung out between the strange light and the other, more familiar light of their brother-world. Attention quickly divided between the two. Brother-world was, as far as they knew, deserted—after all, it was only there as a light in their darkness, the Prophets said.
‘Perhaps the Second Race is returning’ M'naqar suggested.
‘Why would they go to brother-world?’ M'nen's clutch-sister, T'yen, asked, head tilted to one side, crest-feathers lifted.
‘Maybe they're coming to us in that light, and the orbs are something else’ M'tan suggested. The way his shoulders hunched suggested he wasn't convinced, though.
Eventually, they tired of watching; it wasn't growing that quickly, anyway. Although… they didn't go long without glancing at it as they journeyed back to the nest. Even their minder, a particularly placid, ape-like Low One, kept casting anxious glances skyward. Every so often, while they were hopping across the lower branches of trees, one of them would quickly climb to the the uppermost branches, peering through the foliage, and report any news to the others. Such reports were almost invariably short and dull, always along the lines of 'the light is a little bigger, and the orbs are closer to brother-world.' The most interesting update came a bare chick-fall away from the nest, no longer underneath the tree-top chatter of the Low Ones, when T'nar clambered down from a large spider-nut tree and breathlessly told them ‘The orbs are gone! They must be on brother-world. I saw one of them glow like a coal for a few flutters, but then it was gone.’
With the disappearance of the orbs, one of the two reasons to watch—the most interesting reason too—one of the reasons was gone, and interest largely disappeared too. Besides, light was dimming and the clutch-brothers and -sisters were growing hungry, and were glad to be inside under the heat of glow-lamps.
M'nen woke sometime in the middle of the night to the sound of upset warbles from some of his clutch-mates, and the gentle trills of the flock-mothers attempting to soothe them.
‘What is it?’ he asked flock-mother A'net, who was stroking T'nar's crest. ‘Why are the others upset?’
‘Oh, M'nen, I'm…’ she faltered a little, then began again. ‘Elder S'tanarn came before, to tell that the High Circle think the light in the sky is a… they think it will keep growing, until it… it's going to hit the world, M'nen, and we don't know what will happen.’
The nest swam before him. Hit the world? No!
‘All we can do is wait, M'nen’ A'net said, and he didn't resist when she wrapped her arm-feathers gently around him.
For a few hours they dozed, woke, warbled softly, stared blankly, dozed again, woke again, but hours before the sky normally grew light a glow began to creep through the trees, through the gaps in the weave of the roof, and then they could hear a noise like a strong wind, but a long way off. The light grew, and so did the noise, until it felt like a roaring gale in full daylight—then even brighter, even louder, until the nest shook and vibrated, and M'nen felt his beak chattering against itself.
Then, as if changing its mind, the light all but disappeared, and the noise slowly began to fade.
‘It's passed by’ A'net breathed. ‘We might be alright—’
As if to mock her words, the world shook hard enough to break branches, and as the nest began to tilt precariously the noise suddenly became a crashing, louder than anything he'd ever heard. M'nen thought he was warbling in distress, but nothing, nothing could be heard over that noise and its after-effects.
When the noise—and its echoes, and the ringing in his ears—seemed to abate, M'nen found himself, silent in a silent nest, jammed where the wall met the curved bowl of the floor, nest-family under him, on top of him, jammed all around him. The nest seemed to be stable now—he could see where a large branch had stopped its fall, leaving a large round hump across a corner.
As he tried to extricate himself others began to do the same, a few with moans and warbles as they discovered sprained or bruised limbs, and torn feather-roots. There was no point staying inside, M'nen thought, so he climbed through the doorway and picked his way down to the forest floor.
He was halfway down when he realised something was wrong. Instead of the usual snatches of sunlight between the leaves, it was as if there were nothing beyond the trees. He walked quickly to the nearby clearing in the trees, where he discovered why.
A column of dark, dirty, sooty gray, the gray of smoke-holes and cookpots, was rising from the direction of the crash. A vein of darker gray that was almost brown, thicker and darker, pointed towards the ground. The smoke was rising, spreading, blown by the morning breeze.
By the second day, the smoke had spread over half the sky, and continued to darken. The whole day was like evening. By the third day, no sky was visible; all was dark, gray, smokey, and particles had begun to settle, leaving a greasy, dirty coating on everything.
Life carried on for a season, albeit always under those dark clouds, with everything a little colder and darker than before. But then, when the wet season usually appeared, things began to get dry, on top of the cold and the dark. Leaves fell from the trees, and were not replaced when the growing-season came around. The fields of plant-crops that the Great Nests relied on failed one by one, the farmers gathering in only a tenth of the usual harvest, and that more withered and diseased than even the High Circle could ever remember. Rains came eventually, but not the warm, wet showers the world was used to. The new rains were cold, wet, vicious squalls.
The worst was yet to come. One of the Great Nests took much of its water from a lake near which the nest-ship had fallen from the sky, and the summer following its appearance those who drank the water began to get dangerously sick. Many died of this new sickness, after feathers fell out, beaks softened and fell off; worst of all, even the brood-nurses could do nothing to stop it, once it had begun in a body. Clutches born to diseased mothers—even mothers who had escaped death—were born already in the throes of the disease, the lucky ones already dead.
Then, rains began to carry this sickness. It began to eat into trees, grass, nests, as well, eating and continuing to eat away at anything green or once green. The world that had once been green and beautiful became a seared, blackened land of sickness and death. The High Circle of the Third Race (this was what the bird-people called themselves) met for three days and nights, at the end of which they announced that all the people must move below the diseased earth, into the comparative safety of the vast network of caverns that burrowed beneath the surface.
Resistance was met in the form of the ape-like Low Ones, who had taken up residence below the surface when the sickness first began. However, the apes' clubs and sticks were no match for the slings the Third Race guards carried, and in short order the surviving Low Ones had been captured, and were put to work as slaves for the Thirds, digging deeper caverns downwards into the world. Those who would not cooperate were thrown back above-ground to survive as they could.
The population of the planet plummeted; there was room for all too few under the ground, even with the new caverns, and the expanding of old ones, and those who stayed above-ground did not last long. The only species to survive beyond the Thirds and their slave-race were those already underground, and the few useful creatures the Thirds cultivated—glow- and silk-bugs, fat caterpillars bred as a delicacy, and a few other species such as the small birds that fed on the moths, hatched from those caterpillars to escape the cookpot.
Somehow, against all likelihood, the two dominant species of the planet survived—shadows of their former selves, certainly, but after a time they were more than just a remnant fighting for survival in a foreign environment. They had changed, adapted, and now, belonged.