One: Baleron

Baleron opened his eyes. From his first moment of consciousness, he knew that soon, very soon, life would be different forever.

It was cold that morning. Really cold. Baleron could feel it in all his limbs as it crept deeper and deeper into him with each passing spin. Soon, the cold would reach his core and that would be that.

But today would not be the day of his passing. Today was memorable, momentous even, for another reason altogether. Two reasons, actually.

The first reason was that today was his great-daughter’s birthday. Her name was Safferon and she was a sprite, a tiny creature just ten rotations old. So young and so full of life, he thought. She was a mere sprig-fly to his rather more formidable 227 rotations.

She was also precocious, even for a member of his rather notable family. Intelligence had been one of the gifts bestowed upon their family line. Among his forebears, he could boast of three Academy chairs, seven Chubb Prize winners, and what was most precious to Baleron personally, that his great-sire had been in charge of the first mechanical mission to Dalpheon. Watching those missions unfold with his great-sire had lit in Baleron a spark of joy that had been rekindled with every discovery he made about the giant planet that orbited so closely to the twin star for which he himself had been named.

Baleron’s research on Dalpheon had been groundbreaking. It had led to dozens of prestigious accolades, and to his own chairship of the Academy. It had brought him position, power, wealth, and best of all, enormous satisfaction, until the day his research led him to a startling discovery.

That discovery had undone him in the eyes of his colleagues and peers. It had made him a pariah. He was stripped of his titles and his accolades. Other scientists stopped returning his messages, stopped contacting him for input on their work, stopped acknowledging his existence altogether.

He had become an outcast.

For the last 14 rotations, he had been relegated to the fringes of the scientific community with the wackos who believed in telepathy and girgonometry.

For four rotations, he despaired.

Until the birth of Safferon.

He looked into her eyes and suddenly he wanted to do something about the Calamity. Suddenly, he wanted to make sure that whatever the bleak future held, she would survive it, thrive in it, and keep their lifeblood going.

For the last nine rotations, this precocious young child had done everything she could to help him with his new mission. To say she was intelligent would be a vast understatement. She was a white-hot star that shone so brightly, every other star in the heavens seemed but a dim planet, a rocky core as cold and barren as Dalpheon itself.

Every day, she amazed him. At four, she could speak their own native tongue and the language of the Purels on the other side of their great planet. At five, she had mastered two other languages as well. At six, she had mastered the complex dance of all the objects in their twin-starred system and, by eight, her mastery of mathematics had equaled that of Baleron. Now, she had surpassed it. Independently of her great-sire’s line of thinking, she had herself come to the same conclusion that Baleron had fourteen rotations ago: a great calamity was about to befall their planet, especially the side of the planet now being dimly lit by the light of their system’s weaker sun.

That sun was Baleron’s namesake. He had been born under Baleron’s apex in the sky, the day when the sun shone brightest in their sky and bathed their side of the planet in the most of its dim warmth.

Without that warmth, Baleron and his great-daughter both knew, their side of the world would freeze slowly, surely, and ultimately, so would the entire planet.

Baleron the star was dim, yes, but was close enough to the planet that it produced enough heat to keep their side comfortable for life. In the elaborate cycle of spins and rotations in their complex system, the other side of the planet was currently bathed in the light of the system’s other star, Clareon. So it would remain for another 183 rotations.

The dance of the many worlds in their system and its two stars, Baleron and Clareon, was delicate and choreographed so well that it was thought long ago, the gods of old had created the marvelous heavens to be a constant source of beauty and entertainment for the people of their world. Now it was known, that great dance was the work of the Malvetz Force, the Damrog Force, the other essential forces of nature, and mysteries greater even than those.

Now that constant source of beauty and entertainment was going to prove their undoing as the Calamity brought an end to the life they had always known, the careful order of things. The great dance was coming to an end.

When Safferon reached the calculations that predicted the Calamity, she showed them to her great-sire. She was despondent. He knew the feeling well.

Baleron had had nearly fourteen spins to come to terms with the situation, and now he could help Safferon through it. Now he could truly make her a part of his plan because she knew everything.

From the day he looked into Safferon’s eyes for the first time, he had made up his mind to prepare for the worst, and he set to work.

Baleron had used the wealth he had amassed over the years to buy what would be needed by a small colony to survive underground in what would be an endless winter. He purchased an abandoned calficite mine outside the capital. Its depth would provide shelter from the harsh elements above. They would even be able to harvest energy from the planet’s molten core for many activities. The colony would need lights to grow plants. He amassed seeds from all over the planet.

He purchased surplus medical equipment and massive amounts of raw materials of every chemical variety.

He bought not only drugs and equipment, but the supplies necessary to make more of everything.

The first time Safferon had seen the Bunker, she was awestruck. She wondered how he had found the time to do all of this work. It was simple: he hardly slept anymore. He would sleep forever soon.

Now, the hard part of the operation was approaching. The Bunker, as they had nicknamed it, needed to be filled with people capable of sustaining life until the system’s movement brought the light of Clareon back to their side of the world, providing a temporary thaw.

Calling it the Secret Survival Society, or S3 for short, had been Safferon’s idea. She reasoned that people liked having secrets, and they liked being a part of something special that set them apart from something else, and so this would make the perfect name.

Safferon always made the approach to a prospective member. Baleron had been discredited, and people had stopped listening to his predictions of doom years ago, but a sprite with a curious and clever question always got people’s attention. She would start with flattery and curiosity seeming to genuinely want to know about something. She would build a rapport with them over time. Finally, after dozens of interactions she would ask them if they wanted to join her secret society. She made it seem like a game, and she was so delightful that she always got her targets to play along.

Each invitee got a card that read: “You have been invited to a very special secret society. The enclosed box contains a device that will be activated in the event you ever experience a great catastrophe and are in need of assistance. You are not to open the box until this time.”

She knew full well that everybody would open the box immediately. In fact, she was counting on it.

Inside the box was indeed a device, but it didn’t look quite like what they expected. It looked like an award, a shiny gold spire with their name on it proclaiming them “An extremely gifted individual.”

There wasn’t anybody who wouldn’t immediately put it someplace prominent.

Vanity, Safferon, explained to her great-sire, was the sure way into anyone’s heart.

Baleron thought about his own office full of awards, many now rescinded but hanging on his wall nonetheless, and he didn’t disagree with her.

Each award was embedded with a hidden display and camera. All of her own design.

Baleron had, in fact, put her in charge of the entire selection process, offering her guidance along the way in things to consider, but the ultimate selection process had been entirely her own.

That had been roughly two hundred spins ago.

Today was Safferon’s birthday.

It was also the start of the Eclipse.

Every 70 rotations, give or take, the giant iron planet Dalpheon would pass between Baleron and their own planet, casting a tremendous shadow. This Eclipse would normally last two weeks, during which a series of festivities and cold sports would take place all over the city.

Safferon and her great-sire knew this time would be different.

The impact of another giant iron planetoid into Dalpheon had changed the dance in their heavens. Dalpheon was now plunging toward Baleron instead of spinning around it. The trajectory of the planet as it hurtled toward its final doom would now forever block Baleron’s dim light from reaching their world.

This was the Calamity.

It would lead to a deep freeze on their side of the planet, and a corresponding, although not fatal, drop in temperatures on the other side of the planet. In 183 rotations, the other side of the planet, the one inhabited by the Purels, would switch places. But rather than warming their own side up, it would merely plunge the other side of the planet into a deep freeze as well, a cold from which nothing on the planet would long survive. None of that really even mattered, though, for in a few hundred more rotations after that, the iron core of Dalpheon itself would impact Baleron and cause an explosion that would immediately incinerate all life on their planet. A long, long cold followed by an instantaneous nova that would decimate everything.

Baleron and Safferon had theorized that the only true means of survival would be escape to one of the planets circling Clareon, one that might be safely on the far side of the bigger star, and might survive the destruction.

But it was really and truly only theoretical.

Right now they had more immediate problems.

The leaders of the Authority, the ones who had stripped Baleron of his titles and awards after his predictions, were forecasting that the Eclipse would start in the early evening and last for exactly fourteen spins.

During that time, it would start cold and get colder. There would be snow and ice everywhere, but this was normal.

At precisely the moment when it was supposed to end, Safferon would send a signal to each of the awardees. Each award would immediately project an explanation and coordinates to go to for safety. Safferon and her great-sire believed that the Authority would issue a statement soon after the failed end of the Eclipse, saying that calculations had been slightly off, and that the Eclipse would last longer than forecast. They would say it would last another week or two. However long it took for the leaders of the Authority to execute their own contingency plan for dealing with the Calamity.

Baleron knew, from his former position, that when they truly realized disaster was imminent, the Authority would put into place their plan for dealing with total war with the Purels. They had many safe places into which their leaders and families would be smuggled.

Baleron knew that anybody not inside the Bunker after this initial period was over would likely never make it. It would be chaos as fear and final understanding of the magnitude of the Calamity finally overtook the populace.

Each invitee to their secret society would be instructed to tell no one of the plan, nor of the location of the Bunker. Anyone who did divulge that secret would be prevented from entering the Bunker. A tough, but necessary stipulation.

After Safferon’s birthday celebration, the plan was to immediately take the family to the Bunker. From there, they could manage the situation.

As the day wore on, Baleron packed a case with the things he didn’t want to leave behind. The calculator he had had since he was a boy. It was the very same calculator he used to test the calculations of the Calamity. He would take the plaque that proclaimed him chair of the Academy. He would take the photo of himself with his great-sire on the floor of mission control for the first Dalpheon mission when he was just Safferon’s age. He would take the picture of himself holding Safferon on the day she was born.

As the light faded, and daylight wore into eveninglight, he grew tired and decided to sit for a moment. He picked up the photo of Safferon once again and looked at it. He saw himself holding her. He saw himself feeling, for the first time in years, hope and purpose to his life.

Below his office, the family gathered. They called for him to come down to the celebration.

He heard the call faintly as he focused more and more on the photo. For a moment it felt as if he floated into the picture and could feel himself holding the newly born Safferon. He could feel the tears well up in his eyes as he thought first about the dark world this beautiful little creature had just been born into, and then his thoughts traveled from that dark place to the idea he had to build a sanctuary for her. As he floated there in the photo, holding her, he looked up to see Safferon in front of him. Not the baby, nor the young girl of ten who helped with the clever plan, but a beautiful young woman. She was standing on a new world far from the cold and darkness of their dead planet. She was surrounded by shining, warm light and growing things all around her, and she was smiling. It was the impish smile she wore when she had figured out something difficult for the first time. It was a smile of pure joy and happiness. It was a smile he knew well, because it was his own smile. It was the same smile that he wore the day his great-sire had landed a mechanical on the surface of Dalpheon. It was the same smile that all the members of his family wore whenever they solved a complex puzzle.

Baleron closed his eyes as he pictured that smile in his head. As he closed his eyes, a snowflake fell outside his window. Then another. Then another. Then many, many more.

Moments later, Safferon walked into her beloved great-sire’s office. She saw the photo in his hand, and picked it up in her own. She stared at the photo for a moment, and then back at Baleron.

She didn’t need to touch him to know that the cold had reached his core. She could see it for herself. She could feel in her soul that a great presence was gone.

She knew instantly that she had lost her best friend.

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