Chapter 1: Finale, before Prelude
The Goranian World
The huge ship was commissioned on schedule. It had been, by necessity, a rush job. Its colossal size was dictated by the distance it was intended to travel. Fuel, and the facilities for collecting and processing interstellar hydrogen en route took up ninety percent of the immense volume. Plant material and seeds necessary to create the right environment were stowed in huge eco-chambers surrounding the central, heavily protected cargo space.
Loaded into this space, carefully insulated and cushioned, were two hundred thousand of Goran’s most precious assets – its future encapsulated. Two hundred thousand eggs. The DNA contained in the fertilised and screened nuclei, protected by their blue shells, contained the original Goranian genome. Their scientists had spent many cycles removing generations of hybridised strands of DNA from the original species. Once hatched, they would not be able to survive for long – a host would have to be found quickly for them to combine with.
The eggs had been very comprehensively screened for the new virus and carefully packed in sealed containers to withstand not only fearful acceleration and deceleration forces, but interstellar radiation storms, magnetic forces only guessed at, fearful gravitational stresses, possible meteorite impact, hellish heat and frigid cold. The hopes of the entire population would ride on this first ship.
The original traveltube system that existed across their galaxy had been used up – there were no new host planets available with life forms to assimilate. There was enough matter within the boundaries of their galaxy to assemble more traveltubes – they used electro-magnetic forces mainly anyway, but the vast intergalactic voids contained matter too tenuous for them to fabricate the thin walled tunnels that could transport them to another universe. They had built on the ancient, existing system with information their scientists had worked out, but they could not connect with another galaxy.
With the instantaneous access to other planets that the traveltubes granted, all available living beings had been assimilated long ago, and now their race’s genetic defect manifested itself again. It was necessary to find new hosts, but they would have to be found in another galaxy. This time they would have to travel by more primitive means; by conventional fuel-propelled vessels.
The surviving inhabitants of a once happy and prosperous world witnessed the departure of this first vessel with mixed emotions. The voyage would last at least seventeen thousand cycles of their beloved home world. Once the ship reached its destination, the hatched Goranians would hopefully be able to mix with newly discovered living beings, extract and modify the DNA of the fresh hosts, tailor their genetic coding to suit the new environment and thus ensure the continued survival of their species, even if it was altered just a little each time. They would still be Goranian, no matter what the genetic composition, if it contained even miniscule amounts of the original DNA of their ancestors.
Their recurring inherent genetic weakness allowed the newest opportunistic virus to take its toll even at the farewell ceremony; the Prime Being died as he blessed the ship and his body was cremated two microcycles later. They couldn’t take chances, even with the body of as illustrious a personage as their revered leader.
A second, even bigger ship was under construction in high orbit. Work was in progress on the fabrication cradle adjoining the launch pad now in use. The parts would be transported up to complete the mightiest vessel they’d ever built; its cargo of live passengers was already in training. These tough hybrids would endure life cycles on board eventually totalling sixty thousand generations of Goranians, living out their lives and dying en route, reproducing, educating and keeping alive the culture and traditions of their race as the ship sped through the dark void on its mission to find a new home, hopefully in time to fuse with and genetically strengthen the earlier arrivals who had hatched and begun a fresh civilisation in this new galaxy.
This ship, the size of one of their outer moons, would depart in one cycle from now, but their voyage would take far longer than the earlier one – the live Goranian passengers could never withstand the acceleration their unborn cousins could.
With no alternatives within their sphere of influence, the ship passed out of their galactic sphere and into deep space, silently crossing the void between universes to eventually enter a flat, spiral nebula of two hundred billion stars that held over eleven thousand planets that could be potential homes. The onboard computers scanned these worlds and chose the one most physically approaching the requirements for a Goranian revival.
The ship was not built to land anywhere; it had automatically-activated shuttles for that purpose, but after that long a journey, some aspects of the machinery for launching the little landing craft were no longer operable. Many thousands of tiny meteorite showers had disabled the mechanisms too many times, and the service hulldrones were left without material to effect repairs. No conscious creature bore witness to the final moments of the voyage.
The mighty vessel angled into the atmosphere of the chosen desirable, green, lush and water-abundant planet with a violent shock, bounced a few times and began to burn up. By the time what was left of the once sleek and beautiful spacecraft hit the surface, the major mass had exploded with a force that devastated the planet. The immediate damage was brutal – most plant life was burned off the face of the globe. The after effects killed off the rest and the surface of the once verdant world was finally wiped clean of vegetation and water. It would remain like that for a long, long time - hot, dry and sterile.
The precious cargo of eggs was smashed to atoms, except for one block of capsules that somehow survived the impact and was buried deep in a quagmire. The swampy area dried up fast. The mini sensors in each capsule remained inactive – conditions outside were not yet suitable for hatching. They would wait for a long time before conditions changed enough for the process to begin.
Through long centuries, the capsules remained hidden in the now solidified clay, shielded from the devastatingly high amounts of radiation released when the main power drive disintegrated in the atmosphere. And so it remained until a group of geologists surveying an underground excavation for a new transport system discovered the strange capsules in a bed of shale, and removed them for inspection. Some while later the moment that the long dead Goranian scientists had hoped for came, and the eggs began to hatch.
The Planet Earth
The blizzard was gathering in strength – its ferocity was now frightening and none could see further than the man in front of him. The leader, Angus Ferguson, turned to the next in line, a farmer like him from Forfar district.
“Hamish,” he shouted in the man’s ear, “we’ll have to abandon this search my friend, for the time being. This storm is getting to be dangerous. The last thing we need now is for another search party looking for us too. Pass it along – we’ll have to turn back.”
Hamish Maclaghlan stopped the next man and slowly they all turned and began to move, securely roped together, back along the indistinct track that had brought them this far up the side of the glen.
The wind was now at their backs, pushing the group of eight along a whole lot faster than their progress forward had been. They’d been scouring the hills along the north side of the Strathmore valley, where the fierce wind roared down unimpeded from the heights of Glenshee to freeze and batter the search party as it struggled in a white blur of snow and ice.
The track had all but disappeared by the time they reached the Kirriemuir road which had by now been covered with a deep layer of snow. The only indication they had was a traffic sign poking bravely out of a white mound. It was rapidly getting dark and the wind showed no sign of abating.
“Jock’s tavern, then?” Angus called along the line following him.
“Aye,” he heard the chorus, and they struggled through the thick snow, cold and weary. A wee dram would put a better perspective on matters.
They made it to the tavern, following the welcoming light shining like a beacon through the gathering gloom, and within a minute were gulping down the fine product of the Spey Valley further to the north.
Jock Patterson, the proprietor, was silent. He knew at least two of the youngsters in the missing party that had set off five days ago on a hiking trip to the top of Glenshee. They’d been well prepared for this time of year – Hogmanay was still a vivid memory but they were all level-headed and knew the area and conditions well. The district was well known for the sudden cold fronts that would turn the purple heather-clad mountains into chilling white deserts, blasted smooth by fierce gales sweeping in from the Atlantic outer isles and over the Grampians, before whistling down the slopes above the tavern where Angus’ group were now warming themselves internally and externally around a roaring fire.
“What like is it up there, Angus?”
“Fierce, bloody fierce, Jock. No sign of anyone,” Angus ventured after downing the second glass of pale whisky. “We followed the trail as far as we could before the weather closed in. They may have made it down the next glen. Och, but they may well be anywhere. We’ll have to wait until light tomorrow – with a wee bit of luck the weather will calm down. Perhaps the others from the Braemar side have word.”
“Aye, there’s always that hope,” Jock answered morosely. The party of University students from Marischal College in Aberdeen were drawn mainly from this area and Tayside, and there were a lot of anxious local people awaiting word of them. This storm was the fiercest in fifty years – a real thumper. It had already dumped almost a metre of snow in the glens they’d skirted.
There was an air of gloom hanging over the group in the tavern, and they didn’t stay for a third round. Besides, nobody else had thought to bring any money, and Jock was getting a wee bit edgy about the size of some of their bar tabs.
“See you in the morning then – first light, in the car park here,” Angus bade them goodnight as he disappeared into the gloom, large flakes swirling about the single street light at the side of the car park. The rest of them found their vehicles, scraped the windscreens clear and one by one moved slowly off, following the already faint track of Angus’ car down towards their homes and waiting fires.
“Think they’ll be all right tonight, Hamish?” The man sitting in the passenger’s seat was rightly anxious. His niece was among the hikers.
“Well, it’s in the Lord’s hands now, Donald. We’ll pray for them tonight, we will.”
“Aye. God willing, we’ll have them back among us before long.” They drove the rest of the way in silence.
The youthful hiking group of twelve would never be seen in these parts again. It would be recorded as yet another Highland mystery and cause many hours of discussion, and speculative theories to be bandied about.
None of this was realised by the crowd of young men and women who were now staring about them in amazement. They stood in a lush, verdant valley with a warm sun beaming down on them from a pale, silvery sky. Their heavy snow gear was incongruous – the equipment was soon piled up about them as they stripped it off and took stock of their situation.
Two of the younger women were crying, but not with grief; the sudden and dramatic change from a violent snowstorm on a Scottish mountain to this warm, green valley with its heat and unfamiliar vegetation was simply too much. After the previous twenty four hours of freezing wind, zero visibility, frightened, cold, tired and hungry, they simply couldn’t cope with this new situation.
It was years later that two physics students among them finally realised they were definitely a very, very long way from the Scottish mountains and glens they so loved.
The faint hope that they would somehow find their way back to Scotland kept the original settlers going through the long years ahead. And it took many more years of patient studying of the heavens by the two students to find out approximately where they were. They didn’t tell the others how far from Earth this new world was, nor that they didn’t know how they got there. Nor did they ever find a way back.