A year had passed since Elara left home. Cramped up in her research pod, but overflowing with excitement at the prospect of new discoveries, she endured the six month journey to the Outer Belt with a single-minded determination. But now, after a further six months of hunting, that excitement had passed, strangled by a creeping fear and the weight of terrible responsibility. She could hardly bear to think about the time it would take to make the return trip, but with brows furrowed in concentration, she tapped in to her control console the last calculations for her tiny ship to navigate through the asteroid cloud and take her home. Another six months. Every moment would be an agony of waiting. How could she endure the burden of knowing what she knew now?
From a scarred and barren world, Elara’s pod streaked through the thin atmosphere and out toward the stars. She leaned back in her seat and reached out to pick up the object that had taken months of pain-staking searching to find: a data tablet with the engravings of a legend written thousands of years before her time - forgotten truths. Truths which should never have been hidden. She brushed her fingers lightly over the engravings, wistfully longing to capture the mind of the person that had etched the images and letters into the stone. Elara shifted her gaze away from the tablet and out onto an ocean of floating rocks and crimson gas clouds that stretched on forever. Only a thin frame of nano-enforced glass separated her from eternity.
It was a daunting sight. Sometime in the distant past, a terrible cataclysm had ravaged this world. Some believed an astral collision had torn up several of the outer planets, leaving behind a graveyard of shattered rocks that formed a massive ring around the boundaries of the system. Others with a mythological persuasion credited the destruction as the result of a war between ancient gods. Residues of an ancient human civilisation lay strewn across a belt of debris that covered almost five thousand, million miles. Expeditions departed for the largest fragments of the broken world on a regular basis in the hope of finding out more about their ancestors and the origins of their species, and occasionally a lucky researcher would happen across something of historical significance that revealed a little more about their past, but never had anyone made a discovery as shocking as Elara's. Usually, she would wait a while before making a return trip once unearthing an important find. It would take time to study the location in which it was found, care to examine the environment in greater detail. Samples of the surrounding area needed to be catalogued. But not this time. This find was far too important to waste time on petty protocol. Only half of the information had been recorded in her data banks before she decided she could wait no longer to return home.
As the pod weaved its complex path through the planetary fragments, Elara began to compile a message ready for transmission as soon as she was into clear space. A flashing light caught her eye on one of the consoles half way through typing the text, she paused to look at the message lit up on the display beneath it. ‘Unpredictable Gravitational anomaly detected - Four point five units by twenty nine - manual course correction required.’ Elara leaned forward and craned her neck to look out the window. The anomaly would be directly above her pod, several miles distant. At first she saw nothing. Then, as she took the controls to manually realign the pod she saw something strange. Several small asteroids had clumped together to form a vibrating mass. She brought the pod to a standstill, turned it, focused the long-range scanning camera on to the anomaly and watched it on a view screen with curiosity. Zooming in, she could see that the centre of the mass was red hot. Jets of scorching particles spat from the rocks as they began to crush against each other tighter and tighter. A few brief seconds passed as the rocks pulverised into a few particles of glowing white dust and seconds later a subtle shockwave jostled her craft. It was enough to shake her out of her mild confusion.
'What was that?' she mused.
Another message flashed across her screen.
'Unpredictable Gravitational anomaly detected - Thirty-one point seven units by twenty - manual course correction required'.
Elara refocused the camera on the new area and watched the same peculiar anomaly repeat itself, closer this time. The next shockwave hit her pod much harder.
'I have to get to a safer distance.'
With a few swift touches on her console, she backed her pod well away from the area and began to plot an alternative route out of the belt.
'Unpredictable Gravitational anomaly detected - twelve units by seven - manual course correction required urgently.'
Elara's heart leapt. This one was far too close.
Suppressing a rising panic, she changed course again and rushed the pod much farther away from the anomalies to what should have been a very safe distance. She was wrong.
A barrage of rocks streaked past the hull and collided to form another white-hot mass just a few hundred metres away. She screamed as the violent displacement threw the pod aside. Hands shaking now, she made yet another course correction and pushed the thrusters to maximum, praying that she would not fly straight into another asteroid. The messages continued to flash across her screen, but she was no longer interested. A delirious fear seized her as the tiny ship hurtled deeper back into the belt.
My God! Something is following me.
She shot a glance at the stone tablet and her stomach lurched as she realised what must be happening.
'Massagula! Oh God! Surely it isn't Massagula - The Spirios!'
An awful voice filled her mind and she understood that her life was over. She would not escape, and there was only one thing left to try. She grabbed the tablet and threw it into one of the tiny jettison units at the rear of the pod. The shuddering vibrations came with such force now that she could hardly read the display as she punched a set of directional instructions into the jettison unit's data bank. She slammed her fist on the ejector button and heard a familiar hiss as the unit shot from the pod. She knew she would not survive, but perhaps the unit would. And if luck was on her side, the tablet would safely reach home in a few months.
She stumbled back to her seat as the pod buffeted from side to side, and as she looked again out of the window, she wished she hadn't. The last vision she ever saw chilled her to the marrow. A giant mockery of humanoid features stared back at her from the stars shrouded in a halo of blood-red light. Something was looking at her with a hatred given shape by the deepest primordial fears buried in the darkest places of her mind. It smiled in malevolence and then everything was gone in a blast of white heat.
A bubble of fire bloomed outward as a crowd of rocks pummelled Elara's pod, and as the debris began to settle, the tiny jettison unit sped through the dusty fragments towards its distant destination.
But Elara's hope was in vain. Less than a minute from the carnage, a fiery splinter flew from the wreckage, guided by an unseen force. Flame consumed the unit, together with its contents. Elara's discovery - forever lost.