By Matt Hudson
Prologue: The Final Hours
AC (After Colonization) 1294:142 Astral
They sat in the hallway, waiting impatiently for their father to get his shoes off. Tuss had promised his daughters that he would take them through the Arch of Twilight to the plateau above the Omega Plaza. There was a once in a lifetime event happening tonight; most people were gathering in the Omega Plaza to watch for the Harbinger comet, and Mel and Flora were not going to miss out. Tuss got stuck at the quarry late again because the foreman needed a few extra bodies to load up the last of the sleds with the extra vorilium that had been mined that day. It delayed his arrival long enough that a flurry of excitement and outrage greeted him as he walked through the door.
“Girls? Are you ready to go? Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s about time. What took you so long? We’ve been ready to go for an hour already. You can already see the comet.”
Mel was his eldest daughter. Mature for her age, she took after her mother in so many ways. Tuss could always rely on her to take care of her sister when he or Kelana couldn’t be there.
“I know, I’m sorry Mel. I’ll be ready to head out as quickly as I can. Make sure your sister’s ready in five minutes.”
Tuss tossed off his work clothes quickly and lay down on his bed. He knew he had to be ready or face eternal wrath, but he needed this. Just a moment to relax. Work had taxed him dearly this week. The quarry had struck a new vein of vorilium. A big one. The demand for the ore was such that he had been required to work half again as much as normal. His body ached, his head hammered, and just one minute alone on his bed was all he asked. He inhaled sharply and sat up to get dressed.
“Daaad, hurry up! We’re gonna miss it!”
Flora was small for her age, her hair a tangle of knots, blue eyes darting this way and that way as if the walls were invisible and she was trying to see the comet through them.
“I just need my shoes, open the door.”
Mel pushed through and ran outside the house, turning her eyes to the red and orange hues of twilight that were always present here. Their house was just a few blocks away from the terminator, the line that separated night from day. They lived in the oldest part of the city; an area where the first colonists had settled on this new, tidally locked planet orbiting an old orange dwarf star they had named the Coil. Living in twilight was much better than living in perpetual daylight or darkness. It was still light enough here that vision was not a struggle, and yet it was still dark enough to make sleep come a little bit easier.
“How far over are we going?” Flora didn’t like the night side. She had been scared of it her whole life and nothing seemed to break her of it. She always said it felt like someone was following at her back, and she swears she turns around sometimes and catches a little twinkle of an eye. The Arch of Twilight was on the night side, but it would be worth it for the view they would have there.
“We won’t need to go over too far, honey. Just a short walk, I promise.” There were sheer cliffs not too far over on the night side. Following those cliffs a short distance would lead them to the arch, a grand ornate structure made from marble blocks with gems set in the center of each. Sitting atop the keystone was a Viridescent Raven, exquisitely carved from obsidian. Its wings, which were encrusted with thin vorilium platelets, were at full span. The light from the Coil bounced off the vorilium and radiated a majestic deep green glow all around the arch. Tuss and his daughters passed underneath the arch and arrived at their destination. They looked down beyond the cliffs at the sprawling city of Ultimo Eventu, The Last City. It stretched as far as the eye could see into the night side, and he knew if such a view existed on the day side it would stretch just as far. This was the home they had made here. Everyone worked together, lived together, and enjoyed a simple and peaceful life here in Ultimo Eventu. Almost everyone, at least. There are always those who go against the grain, like the ones that went beyond the mountains to the northwest many years past.
He looked out towards the night, stars dazzling in the sky ahead. The comet would race towards the Coil, shedding its skin in the form of a brilliant display of light and fire. He could see it on the horizon, hurtling forward faster and ever faster towards the orange star on the horizon.
“How does it get so fast? Nothing else in the sky moves that fast.” Flora had not started learning about astronomy, so Mel answered. “Everything moves really fast in the sky, but the comet is a lot closer to us so we can see how fast it moves with our own eyes.” Mel had been a quick study. She was fascinated with the sky. She wanted to be an Observer, someone who watched the stars, made maps, and discovered the unknown.
“Do you want to sit on my shoulders?”
“Yeah!” Flora hopped up playfully and sat on Mel’s shoulders, thinking through what her sister had said. “So the comet is a lot closer…? How close?” Flora asked with worry in her eyes. “Not close enough to be a worry. It will fly past us and around the Coil. In a couple of days it will come back around and we’ll be able to wave goodbye.”
Tuss was relieved they had made it in time. Seeing the wonder in his daughters’ eyes filled him with pride. They stayed on the cliffside for a couple of hours watching the comet retreat towards the red star. Mel had grabbed a pile of rocks and was trying to show Flora the difference between them. Flora would look at one, turn it over in her hands, and then throw it off the cliff. Mel went and sat by herself after the fifth rock had taken a fateful trip down to the apartments below.
“Mel? Can you explain again why it’s not my birthday tomorrow?” Flora asked.
“It’s not your birthday yet because we’re in the umbral cycle right now.” Mel grabbed a stick from the ground and started drawing in the dirt. “Today’s date is AC 1295:142. Since it’s an odd-numbered year it means it’s an umbral year. You were born on AC 1280:143, an even year, or an astral year. That makes you an astral child. Since we’re in an umbral cycle you’ll have to wait for the eclipse before we’re back to an astral year. Then, when the date is AC 1296:143, you’ll celebrate your eighth birthday.”
Flora stared at the markings her sister made on the ground for another moment before speaking again. “Why does it matter if it’s an umbral year or an astral year?”
“It doesn’t, really.” Mel replied. “It’s just how we keep track of when we celebrate our birth. Umbral years are heralded by a small partial eclipse that follows the total eclipse.”
Tuss listened to his daughters’ conversation continue for a while, but then slowly started to tune them out. He looked out over the cliffs at the Omega Square below him, crammed full of people looking to catch a glimpse of the comet. He was thankful they had this place to themselves. The Arch of Twilight wasn’t easy to get to unless you lived in the community that he did. Tuss was as content as he’d been in a long time.
He felt a touch on his shoulder and spun around to see Kelana. He grabbed her face and kissed her deeply. She had been sent deep into the darkness to the south to investigate a small land mass that had been surfacing in the Cold Sea. She had been away with her team for what seemed like an eternity.
“I didn’t know you were coming back. I hadn’t had word in a while and I was starting to get concerned. I tried to contact the base out there but there was no response.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Our comms have been down for a while, we couldn’t contact anyone. Once we got back to base camp they gave each one of us a speeder to get home. I thought I could surprise you.” Kelana kissed Tuss again. “How are the girls? Did they get to see the comet?”
“Mom! We missed you so much!” The kids ran to their mother and jumped into her arms. “Did you get to see the comet?”
“I saw it, Mel. It’s the third most beautiful thing I’ve seen today, next to you two.”
Flora tugged at her mother’s jacket. “Mom, I’m scared. Can we all go home now?”
“Yeah, we should. It’s getting late.” Tuss was ready for his bed again. He needed as much rest as he could get because he would need to be at work all day tomorrow, and he wanted to be with Kelana now.
They turned away for home, but something flickered behind them now. Flora turned her head back and saw it. “Look, there’s another comet.”
Tuss turned back around to see what Flora was talking about. He could see a small point of light in the distance. It had not been there just a moment ago, but now, moments later, it was as big as the comet that had just passed. Suddenly it burst into flames. The asteroid was streaming down towards them. In a matter of seconds it had grown too bright to look at. There was no time to run, no time to scream, no time to understand that this was the end.
Everything was chaos and confusion then. The asteroid plummeted into the planet at seventy times the speed of sound. There was a massive explosion at the epicenter, sending rocks, dust and more chaos miles into the sky. The whole planet shook from the impact. There was a deafening blast that spread through the air. The concussive wave ripped through the air, tearing apart everything and everyone it passed through. Buildings toppled and spires collapsed for miles around as a burning cloud of death expanded further and further without discrimination. All of this within the first seconds after the impact.
When the dust settled, more than half of Ultimo Eventu had been vaporized. In its place was a huge crater, nearly eight hundred feet deep and four miles across. The surrounding landscape was wasteland and ruin; the venerable city reduced to nothing more than a memory of a once monumental achievement. All that remained of this place was scourged civilization and a blanket of xenolithic stones spread throughout the ruins.
That, and the asteroid.