Prologue

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The Conqueror was launched with much fanfare. Being the first manned interstellar vessel in history, it was naturally greeted with a great deal of fervor. Hundreds of people collected at the Colossus Shipyard to see it on its way, the interior of the space station quickly filling to capacity. Billions more watched from their televisions and computers, awestruck by the machine.

The Conqueror itself was an enormous spacecraft, among the largest ever assembled. There was a vast funnel at the fore of the ship, with a relatively tiny habitation pod and a nuclear reactor hiding behind it. The funnel would collect hydrogen from space and pass it into the reactor, which would generate energy to be used for the ship's internal power needs. It was also means for effective propulsion. In this way, it would never need to refuel. It could fly forever.

The ship was prepared for launch, and only redundant system checks remained to be done. All functions were tested, from the cryogenic hibernation chambers, to the fusion drive, to the magnets that kept the lifeblood flowing throughout the ship's vast body. The ship's computer was activated for the first time, its sensors giving it constant updates as to the status of the machine. The computer, finding no significant issues, gave its recommendation for launch. Unaided by human hands, it set its sights on a dim point of light. Barnard's Star, a tiny red dwarf only six light years away.

The Conqueror's engines flared in a beautiful flash of light, spouting a torrent of radiation behind it. Those on Earth watched as the vessel momentarily outshone the stars and moon. Soon, that second sun dwindled to a spark, a glimmer, nothing.

The years passed slowly as the Conqueror drifted into the ether. Within, the crew slept, ageless, frozen in total stillness. The ship was silent, watchful, waiting. And watching. And waiting.

The centuries trickled like molasses down the cold, empty slope of time. The Conqueror realized that the continuous flow of information coming from the far away Earth had suddenly stopped, but continued to fly into the quiet gaze of the cosmos. The years took their toll, even in the frozen limbo of space, and the ship sustained its due of entropic wear.

It was a very gradual change, the strengthening of the light. Slowly, the Conqueror was warmed by the blood red glow of Barnard's Star.

Finally, the Conqueror coasted into a high orbit, from which it commanded the small solar system huddled around the tiny star. The ship then sent a short status update back toward the long silent Earth, knowing that it would never receive an answer. It proceeded to wake the crew, and awaited further instruction.

The crew, once they came to terms with the fact that they were truly and utterly alone, got to work. The first order of business was to find an asteroid and study it. Barnard's Star was almost ten billion years old, just slightly younger than the universe itself, and any objects in its orbit would be time capsules, almost unchanged since the very beginning.

So, they began studying. A robotic probe brought back shards of stone from an asteroid nearby, and the Conqueror's scientists did their work. The rest of the crew continued to attempt regain contact, vainly calling into the ether. Hello, hello, is anyone there. Waiting for an answer. Waiting, waiting.

The scientists emerged victorious. There was something unimaginable in the rock samples. Not just organic molecules, not just disorganized amino acids. There was somehow active, alien life growing on the asteroids of Barnard's Star.

It was unmistakable, as if the microbes were designed to be recognized. The first sample was unimpressive, a black smudge on a shard of rock, but it breathed, exchanging carbon for oxygen, albeit in tiny, almost undetectable amounts. It was incredible. So far from the balmy waters of Earth, something alive. For a time, excitement overshadowed the sense of isolation.

But the euphoria of discovery didn't last long. The Conqueror had weathered a century of cosmic lashing, and it looked the part. It was perforated with a thousand holes of all sizes, and it wheezed and creaked at every movement. The crew began to worry.

In the following days, further missions to nearby asteroids were organized and sent out, as the Conqueror continued to leak oxygen and the food started to disappear. The scientists were too preoccupied to see their own demise, and noticed before long that the genetic makeup of the extraterrestrial microbes was rapidly changing. The implications were unknowable; without a good understanding of the inner processes, the resulting physical changes were a mystery. All anyone could do was watch helplessly as they mutated.

In the final days of the Conqueror's stay at Barnard, the decision was made to abandon the mission and turn the ship around, head back to Earth with what they had. And so the scientists stored away the alien spores, and the crew returned to their liquid coffins to sleep for another eternity, waiting to return home.

Another century passed, as the Conqueror pushed itself back, clambered dutifully away from the light and into the endless darkness. When finally its hull began to creak and pop with mounting warmth, when finally it saw the light of the sun again, it had been gone for almost two hundred and fifty years. It found a world wholly changed.

But by then, it was too late. The cabin was no longer pressurized, having suffered a catastrophic breach decades before. But there was still something alive onboard the Conqueror

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