The Last Barrier

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This was a wordcount challenge as part of my Masters Course. We had to reinterpret the Arthurian legend of 'The Lady of Charlotte' in under 500 words.

This is an example of highly-edited storytelling, with almost every unnecessary part stripped out to leave a simple (and I think effective) fable.

Tolemac was the prize: Mankind's first chance to study a protoplanetary nebula.

It was the rarest form of nebula. It takes place during the shortest phase of a star's growth, after it exhausts all of its main fuel, hydrogen, but before it exhausts its backup fuel, helium. In time, the volatile helium reactions would blow away the star's atmosphere in a cloud of ionised blue and gold.

But for now, the helium burned, and Tolemac was an orb of violent red amongst the stars. In cosmic terms, it was a brief sight. Like the spark before a flame.

Long had humanity sought to grasp this jewel, and from the Earth the metal ships and daring minds had reached like claws. But now, at the end of the 22nd Century, only one relic of this quest remained. Like a sword lain beside the nebula, Charlotte Station drifted, its cavities dark, its chambers cold. The crew had long perished from the nebula's radiation, one fateful day when the station's shielding failed.

Only one astronaut remained. A sole survivor of that terrible accident, who had routed power to the shielding of the smallest compartment on the station. In her tiny womb of metal she maintained the shield, holding back the radiation. And within the protection of this barrier she surrounded herself with flashing readouts and lights of myriad colour. A web from which she compiled information on the nebula, storing it for the Earth that had forgotten her.

At times she would play the old recordings, the messages that her former crewmates had made for their loved ones back home. A girl in a red dress posed for her lover; the station chaplain blessed his children; and proud men in uniform spoke of their pride to serve. The voices of the dead mingled with the bleeping of the consoles. Fragments of a life that she would never have.

For years she sustained herself in the shielded part of the station. And for years the Tolemac Nebula glowed behind the barrier screen, a perpetual sunset over her solitude. She learned not to look at it. The screen filtered out the colour and the detail of the nebula, till it was but a shadow of the jewel she had strived for.

And when at last she stirred, it was not the light of Tolemac that roused her. One morning, like a rising crescendo, the instrument panels came alive. She clambered to her chair and watched with awe the tumble of readouts. The sensors had begun to track an object, a body that streaked through the scarlet waves of Tolemac. She recalibrated and rechecked; and her smile grew deeper. It was a ship.

Through the barrier she spied the vessel. At first it seemed a comet trailing tails of ice, but then she discerned the emission of thrusters. A ship of glowing silver twisted through the heavens. And as it moved it turned the gas of Tolemac to plumes of blue and purple, repainting the cloud.

The station shook as the vessel passed, and she knew in that moment that it was nothing born of mother Earth. It was a thing entirely alien, the chariot of another race who had made their way across the stars to bask in the light of Tolemac. As it rolled past the barrier her eyes struggled to take in the detail of the ship, technologies strange and incomprehensible glittering upon its hull. And like the station her flesh began to quiver as she heard the alien sound of its engines. A music that her soul had never imagined, crushing her – crushing all that humans had conceived.

In a moment the ship would be gone, passing out of sight of Charlotte Station and vanishing behind the nebula. Her only glimpse of the unimagined would be lost.

Her hand flew out and slammed against the button, awakening dormant circuits. With silent grace the protective screen slid back from the viewing port, and that which had obscured her view of the void was finally removed. Her clear gaze fell upon the vessel as it vanished into the night. She saw what no other human had ever seen.

After three days she was killed by the radiation of the Tolemac Nebula. She turned off the lights in her chamber and stopped collecting her readouts. With a smile she was carried away by her dreams, and she died with her eyes upon the red star.
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*remains silent for 10 minutes*

I love it! I love it! RADIATION RULES!