The stench of blood was thick in the recycled air. Its metallic reek stuck to the new captain’s throat even as the auto-scrubbers got to work removing it from circulation. She didn’t think that she would ever forget the stench, the taste of the air, or the feeling of her knife grinding against the old captain’s ribs.
But there was always a price to be paid. Greatness never fell into anyone’s lap, it had to be seized.
Ignoring the stench, ignoring the wet scraping sounds as the former bridge crew was dragged away, she stood with back straight and eyes resolutely forward. Focusing on the swirling cascade of colours visible through the viewport, she waited for the dragging to stop.
Her mission was divine, ordained, nothing could stop her. But the sight of bodies, staring, lifeless eyes, and mouths frozen open in terror, those were not what she had prepared for. None of her self-imposed but nonetheless rigorous training, could have prepared her for it. Especially not the blood on her own hands.
Still warm, it clung to her fingers before dripping slowly to the deck. She ignored it, pretended she could not feel it as it ran down her hand before gathering in a heavy drop and falling with a muted sound to the cold metal beneath her bare feet.
Once the first-string crew had been disposed of, she relaxed and threw a glance over her shoulder. The blood was still there, and the second-string crew stood in neat rows. Aside from violence, the plan remained in motion. Running at peak efficiency, the ship was due to punch back into real space right on schedule.
Despite the failure of the override, they had tried to bypass the first-string all together, her team was in control. Their passwords opened every door and system meaning the ship was theirs; she was in command. Thousands of hours in simulations buried deep in the Kastorian underworld flashed in her mind. Opening her mouth, she gave her first orders as captain.
Heads nodded and the crew spang into motion.
Tremors started in her hands, still firmly clasped behind her back as they had been when giving the orders, working their way up her arms. Had she been wearing her usual collection of bracelets and necklaces; she would have rattled like a jingle dress. But she was clad only in the standard suspension modesty garments, thank Gia, so her fit of nerves was silent.
As soon as the trembling threatened to rattle her teeth, she moved with stiff, regular steps to the command chair. The bridge of the Enlightenment was nothing like the wide and glamourous bridges shown on holonets across the United Diaspora. She was no grand exploration vessel designed to carve through the black and unravel the mysteries of the universe.
If she could take the readouts from the sextant system as gospel, then the plan was on track. Vi had done her task beautifully, the net-diver with the infectious grin had hacked the sextant and redirected the ship. Since that seemed to be the case, logically that meant everything was in order. ‘Seemed’ being the operant word.
“Luis, doublecheck the sextant information, we can’t afford mistakes.”
“Yes, Captain Skara.”
Glowering for a moment, Skara questioned if she should address that. The simulations had made it clear that she was to be addressed as Captain Heap. However, the second-string crew were not professional spacers and most of them had only served in undisciplined environments. It was not the moon she was willing to die on.
Minutes crawled by as different stations reported: Engines were running at optimal levels, suspension pods were functioning within accepted parameters, air recycling was at peak capacity, etc. Finally, just as her patience began to fray, Luis returned with a favourable report.
“Helm,” said Skara, saying the words as calmly as possible. “Maintain heading.”
A general 'aye, captain' followed that pronouncement, leaving Skara with very little to do. Still, she sat in the command chair and waited, just in case something happened. Following general procedures, she would be the second last person to go back into suspension, meaning she had a long time to wait.
The Echoes started less than an hour after the Enlightenment came under new management. One of her junior crew, luckily not someone with unique technical knowledge, broke under the strain. No one survived faster-than-light travel forever. Eventually the echoes consumed the mind of every spacer.
Orders were updated, and the work continued.
“What should we do with Nelson's body,” Elk's voice grated on Skara's ears, a grinding reminder that she was in command. That she was the one everyone else would look to in a crisis. The non-existent captain's flashes weighed her down like a phantom limb.
In the navy, no one got to her position as a first command. But then, the navy had resources they didn't. That was the whole point. The Children of Gia could never hope to match them, no one could. Not even the Locker’s pirates. If the navy wanted, they could sweep through the Locker like the wrath of God.
But she had already done the impossible. She had taken a Beachhead Class colony ship without taking any casualties in the fight. The system was broken, and she could do anything. The United Diaspora was weak, and her insurrection would spark something greater.
With such words she addressed her crew, having finally decided to have Nelson's body prepared by the ship's auto-doc and preserved in a barrel of rum. They had to custom order the barrel from the ship's printer and sequence the rum themselves, but it was all worth it in the end.
“I know the ancients called it 'tapping the admiral' but I think that Nelson would appreciate it. He helped us to do the impossible, and he'll have the honour of being the first human buried on Holy Terra in generations. An honour he would appreciate.”
Cheers greeted this pronouncement. Echoes were a constant fear whenever someone woke from suspension while still underway, they had known that at least one of their number was doomed; burial on the Cradle itself was about the best any of them could hope for.
Skara ordered her crew back into suspension before anyone else could succumb to the Echoes. The irony was not lost on her that, as each person closed their eyes and the lids of their sarcophagi sealed shut, the veil between those who remained, and the imagined terrors grew thinner.
“When next you open your eyes,” she said, comforting a younger engineer before the lid sealed over them, “we'll be looking down at home.”
Records from pre-ascension were rare treasures, hoarded by the noble families of the United Diaspora, viewed by the lower classes only in museums. Rotating exhibits that did the rounds of settled space continuously, their meager information made meaningless by the frequency of their viewing. Not even the Humanist Clerics could bring any real zeal to such relics.
Walking back to the bridge to oversee the final preparations by the last of the remaining crew, Skara thought about those relics. On her least pious days, they were nothing more than scraps of paper, hollow reflections of a world she had never known. They might even be lies.
But those were only her impious days. The rest of the time, she tried to control even her thinking about those relics and treat them as shards of the divine. After all, they had come from Earth itself. Many of them were written on actual paper. What could be more wonderous than that she could see them?
Of course, the real treasure had been kept from them. Deep in the archives of the Senate on New Rome, the government hoarded something even more precious. Something worth a million of the scraps they paraded before the masses. A map to the lost core worlds. One planet in particular.
Earth, the Cradle, the home world, ancient and holy Terra.
Staring out at the swirling kaleidoscope of colour that was the FTL tunnel, Skara recalled everything she had ever heard about Terra. The first world humanity had called home, a place with resources aplenty, and where everything had evolved alongside her own kind. The cosmological Garden of Eden.
Discovering – rediscovering - Holy Terra was the most treasured dream of every inquisitive child in the United Diaspora.
The nobility, the governors, the senate all claimed that Holy Terra was lost. Destroyed in a great war that had driven humanity into the diaspora. But there were rumours, there are always rumours. Enough proved true to convinced first three people of the divine truth.
Somewhere out there, Holy Terra hung in the sky, waiting for her lost children to return to her. Not only waiting, but calling to humanity, calling them home, if only they would be brave enough to hear her.
“Are you ready,” she asked the helm officer, ticking through her list in her head.
“Aye, Captain,” she responded. “Estimated relative time to destination is 26 standard years. Real time should only be four. They'll never know we're missing.”
“Good. Now, back to your pods, all of you. You deserve a good long sleep,” a grin crept across Skara's face, putting a gleam in her eyes, “when you wake up, she'll be right in front of us.”
The bridge crew saluted awkwardly and rushed off, almost giddy. Like children promised a Unification Day present if they went to bed right now. Skara's grin shifted into an amused smirk, did that make her something like the ancient Saint Nicholas, then?
Despite knowing the truth, Skara hoped she would dream when her own coffin lid sealed over her. They would be pleasant ones, she was certain, after years of stress-fueled nightmares as the mission got closer, they would finally be peaceful. In those dreams , she would walk with spread arms across a field of natural green grass, under a blue dome of a sky that stretched to infinity, and natural wind brushed her cheek.
Earth, Terra, Paradise.
“Good morning, Captain Skara,” chirped a voice two shades from being real. “Acknowledge if you can, please.”
The voice belonged to one of the Enlightenment's automated systems. But which one? Work through it logically, that was what they always told you when coming out of suspension. She was... what was she doing? Nothing... there was nothing. Only the memory of walking into the suspension room...
That was it! She was waking from suspension, and that meant the voice belonged to the auto-doc. Being woken by the ship systems meant that she was the first one, but why would that possibly...
“Good morning, Captain Skara,” chirped the almost-human voice. “Acknowledge if you can, please.”
“Excellent. You are awakening nicely. I will now administer a brain scan, wait a moment please.” An irritating whining noise hung in Skara's ear, jittering up and down as if suspended on tiny wings. “Your brain is at minimal required capacity, initiating rapid awareness protocol.”
She tried to grunt as a series of pinching sensations blossomed down the length of her spine. For the briefest moment, she wondered what that was, then the realization hit with a maelstrom of awareness on its heels.
For the first time in her life, Skara was intimately aware of ever square centimeter of skin. The stale, recycled air of the Enlightenment stung her eyes. Quickly, she shut them, blocking out the burning, freezing air. Sensation blazed across and through her, driving the last of the suspension fog out of her mind with torches and pitchforks.
A retch forced her up and over the side of the pod, heaving the perfect emptiness of her stomach to the deck. Each retch brought on another wave of sensation as the nerves throughout her body sparked, forcing yet another heave from her stomach until, long, agonizing minutes later, everything snapped suddenly into focus.
In an instant, the torturous awareness fled. Leaving her nearly blind in the half-lit freezer.
“Rapid awareness protocol complete,” said the cheerful voice of the auto-doc. “Welcome back, Captain. I apologize for any discomfort, but this is a matter of some urgency.”
“Status report,” the word clawed its way out of her throat, raw from the unproductive dry heaving. It tasted like the memory of bile, a flavour that caused a painful and frightening spasm in her gut doubling her over again.
“Please report to the bridge, Captain.”
“Why did you wake me up?”
“Please report to the bridge, Captain.”
“Where is the medical officer?”
“Please report to the bridge, Captain.”
“Please report to the bridge, Captain.”
Arms shaking with the aftershocks of whatever drugs the ship had pumped into her spine, Skara pushed back into a seated position. The disquietingly almost human voice of the auto-doc repeated its last phrase on a loop. It was just infrequent enough to not drive her completely mad.
Logic began to take over again, the hurried captain's training the Children of Gia could give her had ben thorough. Simple if-then statements were the best way to approach this situation. If the ship had awoken her then either the ship was in distress, or she was the first one awake. Since the ship had not informed her that it was in distress, as it must have done if it were, then she must be the first one awake.
Given that she is the first one awake, then something urgent enough to bypass the usual safety protocols needed a command officer decision. Considering such urgency, getting dressed would be a waste of time. There was no one else awake enough to worry about, and she would be back under as soon as the medical systems gave her the green light.
The Echoes started as soon as her trembling legs took her weight. Lingering in the ranks of suspension pods, the pitter patter of tiny feet. The warm breath of an affectionate dog on her hand. Or, just over her shoulder, a presence, warm and friendly, someone she had always known. Pleasant things that would drive me mad by never being able to find them.
Clanking, tearing, rending. The ship tearing itself apart as the pressure exploded out. Sudden swells in gravity twisting the ship until the hull cracked, shredding open like a banana peel.
Her lungs suddenly cried out for air; she could feel them collapsing as the atmosphere of the ship howled past her into hard vacuum. She was going to die; the ship had woken her up to die. Alone. No, she wouldn't die alone, there was something she could do, open the other pods. If the ship was doomed, then -
Wrestling her mind back under control, Skara buried the Echoes. They still lingered, just at the edge of perception, growing infinitesimally louder every second she remained awake. Eventually, she would lose. Eventually, everyone always lost. The Echoes would break through and...
But thinking about them, about their consequences gave them power. Figments of your imagination can only hurt you if you give them attention, if you allow them to be real.
Mustering her will power, she put one foot in front of the other and opened the door to the freezer. It slid open with a gentle whoosh. A whoosh that sounded like air escaping, rushing past her and out into - no, Enlightenment's hull was not breached. There was nothing to fear.
“Lights,” she croaked. Her throat was so dry, if only she could have a drink. But no, ingesting anything would only result in her having to stay awake longer. The rapid suspension re-entry protocols required it.
“Apologies, Captain,” said the ship's computer, it's measured, neutral voice somehow more comforting than the auto-doc's simulation of human concern. “Unable to comply.”
Of course, the ship was running on minimal systems to maintain temperature while in FTL. The lack of light helped. Her moving around would increase heat, however, so she needed to hurry. Careless could cause delays, or worse, end the mission in one spectacular light show that would be seen across the Diaspora in a few centuries.
Quick stepping down the dark corridor, Skara did her best to avoid looking at any of the shadows. They loomed out of recesses in the hull, faces and grasping hands. They asked her why she was going and wished her luck. Memories and fantom hands, reaching out to try and pull her into the shadows.
And they would, eventually.
That was the point of it all, wasn’t it? Humans were not meant to live in the void, they belonged back down the sacred first gravity well. Back on the blessed soil of Holy Terra.
Her steps echoed back to her. They sounded wet and heavy, her mind filled with images of red blood leaking down her fingers. She cringed away from the memory, suppressing it, pushing it away. She could not listen to them, no matter what, she could not listen to them. If she did, she'd wind up in a barrel alongside Nelson.
As she walked, she hummed a song over and over. One her mother had taught her to drive away the thoughts that kept her awake at night. It had always helped her deal with the Echoes, the constant, soft words, repeated like a holy mantra.
“Row row row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream.
“Row row row your boat,”
Of course, when she reported on her success to the Trinity, she would proclaim that it was in fact a holy mantra that allowed her to complete this task. It wouldn't do for anyone to know that her mother's memory was stronger than her belief.
Her outstretched hand bumped against a bulkhead.
“Please identify,” said the door.
“Captain Skara Heap.”
“Computer, override Captain Heap 2473896JR7.”
“Access Denied, Captain.”
“Fucking Hell, door. OPEN!”
“Access Denied, Captain.”
“Ship Computer, override the door lock.”
“I'm sorry, Captain. We cannot open any of the bulkheads until after we drop from FTL.”
The deck beneath her feet lurched, rising and slamming her into the door. A sudden, warm trail running down her forehead meant blood. Another shudder passed through the ship, making her teeth rattle.
“Confirming transition.... Transition confirmed, releasing bulkhead deadlocks.”
Skara just got her balance before the bulkhead split open. She stared into the darkened bridge, shielding her eyes as the lights slowly came to full brightness. The Echoes were gone, banished back to unreality where they belonged.
Outside the main view port, the stars were still moving. Blending and bleeding across the darkness behind them in an eye bending water colour. She demanded a status report and was only informed that the ship was positioning itself according to orders.
“But I haven't given that order. Why have we left FTL?”
“We have arrived at target destination.”
“We have arrived at target destination.”
“Where are we?”
“We have arrived at target destination.”
Skara bolted to a computer and pulled up star charts, location data, anything. Each one returned an error. She tried again and again, all but weeping with frustration.
“Computer, why am I the only one awake?”
“Orders: Immediately before arrival at target destination, awake serving captain of UDCSS Enlightenment and present on bridge.”
“Who gave that order?”
From the communications station, a gentle orange light started to pulse gently.
Skara froze, the subtle background hum of the ship fading from perception. The light flashed, again and again, calling to her. Maybe the ship could not answer her, but if there was someone... talking to her?
The words of the computer, fully registering for the first time, rattled in her head like dice in a cup. “We have arrived at target destination.” That must mean - it could only mean… It meant that somewhere, just out of sight, was Earth. Holy Terra was finally within reach.
And someone was trying to talk to her.
Each step heavy, awkward, slow, as though she moved under water, Skara crossed the bridge. The light grew brighter at her approach, glowing a shade more intensely as the distance closed. It was almost as though it called to her, sang to her, luring her in like water in a desert.
With trembling fingers, she called up the message and entered the standard passcode. A single line of text appeared on screen, glowing now like the eyes of a starving predator. Cold crawled up her legs from the smooth deck plating, leaching the heat of her body away as a tremble started somewhere in her stomach, sending her thundering heart up her throat. “Prepare to be boarded.”
Frantic, she slammed out a response, demanded answers.
“Unable to deliver message. Prepare for boarding.”
Standing alone, in only her modesty garments, fear clenched around her heart. The ship was going to be boarded, something had gone wrong. She was never going to see Terra, not even a glimpse of the sacred planet as it hung in the void outside her ship. Nothing.
A brief shudder ran through the deck, in her own spiraling mind she could see agents of the United Diaspora coming for her. Clanking down the halls of the ship, guns in hand, coming for her.
She sank to her knees. Despair crashed through her, a roiling wave that drove out thought and desire until only an empty, cold void remained. Until a small, defiant spark flared just behind her heart.
If this was the end, if the Navy had found her, she would at least meet their storm troopers standing tall. Proud. The Enlightenment was her ship, and the captain would never let herself be taken like a child.
Pushing herself to her feet, Skara stood with back straight and eyes locked on the door. Despite the tears drying on her face, she glared at it, waiting for the slaves of the government to crash through. Suddenly, the thought crossed her mind that she ought to sing a hymn. If not for her own soul, then to demonstrate her faith to the heathens that sought to strike her down.
But the song died in her throat as the light on the door changed calmly from red to green and it slid open. Revealed in the widening crack was a thin man in navy work dress. He looked down his long, pointed nose at her and nodded, clearly satisfied, before stepping into the room.
“Captain,” he said, his voice deep and rasping, as the bulkhead slid shut behind him. “Did you sleep well?”
The nonchalant ease of his question rankled, she unconsciously adopted a knife fighter's stance and glared at him. If this lowly officer thought to kill her himself, she would make it a challenge.
Adrenaline coursed through her, making her blood pound in her ears. The officer just stared at her, the corners of his mouth downturned as though disappointed.
“You can stand down, Captain. I don't want to fight you.”
“You've boarded my ship, friend. I have a right to defend myself.”
“Pirates do not have any such rights, Captain. Now please, stand down and let's talk.”
Still buzzing from the adrenaline, she lowered her arms but kept fists clenched. The officer made no move, only watched with wary, but sad eyes. He pitied her. That brought her fists back up, rage coursing through her veins.
“Don't pity me, boy,” she snarled, though he looked a good deal older than her. “You don't know what you're doing.”
“I'm rescuing United Diaspora citizens from a fringe cult militant. Piracy is not tolerated in civilized space.”
“I am a Child of Gia.”
“As I said, fringe cult. Now then, Captain, we're going to talk, you and I, about how all of this is going to proceed. We are going to alter your co-ordinate logs to say that your ship was discovered where the first sextant update site was. You fought with and killed the real crew before the ship was hailed by a local Navy ship.
“You tried to flee, were pursued and overtaken. You fought to hold the ship and half of your number died. The rest were taken into custody by the Navy and now await trial. The ship will then resume its voyage with a Navy supplied relief crew and deposit its cargo at the target destination.
“How does that sound?”
She only glared at him.
“Right. As expected, no complaints. If you'll just follow me-”
A thought sparked in Skara's brain, and she shouted out, “where are we?” before her higher reasoning caught up. She needed to know, if this was the end, she needed to know what the ship would not tell her. There was no reason she couldn't be told anymore, it was over. She was going to die. It didn't matter.
“You must come with me, your companions are being dealt with as we speak.
Dealt with. That meant half, likely chosen at random, were already dead. The rest, assuming the navy simply took the suspension pods, waiting in cold storage to awake in prison. A very different fate than she had promised them what felt like moments ago.
They would awake with the sterile lights and hard eyes of a government surgery above them. None would ever see the pristine blue of Earth's sky, nor even their home world most likely. Life in an asteroid penal colony was the best that waited for them.
Guilt flooded her chest and she walked ahead of the officer, at his request, and passed through the doors. Four marines waited on the other side, weapons lowered, faceless masks reflecting her own resentment back at her. Their eyeless stare taunted her, flaunted the power of the United Diaspora, drove her spirits into her feet.
Waiting in a chair at an empty table, blanket wrapped around her shoulders, Skara fumed. It would have been better to wake up with the crew, unaware of what had happened to her, than to be sitting there, waiting. Even being dumped into vacuum would have been a better fate. Surely.
She clutched the blankets around her, reveling in the warmth of the soft fabric.
If this was her fate, then there were worse places to be. She could have been in a cell, they had those for sailors who got unruly but not enough to be discharged. At least the chair was comfortable and if she wanted, she could pace the boardroom.
Too hollowed out to do more than wait, the void left in her system by fleeing adrenaline filled with blank, hopeless questions. Would it have been better to die with honour instead of being taken prisoner? Were they close enough to Earth that her soul would not have to travel far to get there?
Her stream of listless questions was interrupted by the bulkhead sliding silently open. A tall, broad woman stood in the door with captain’s flashes. Her name tag read, “Harlock.”
“Look out the view port,” Captain Harlock’s voice was level and measured enough for ship systems.
For a moment, Skara considered laughing at the absurdity. Instead, she simply turned and looked.
A blue, green, and brown orb hung in the void. It was huge beneath them, rolling away before her like a map come to life. Mountains and valleys, seas of water and rolling grass laid out before her. For a mad moment, she thought that this was the view God would have, looking down on her creation.
“I thought you'd like to see it,” said the flat, measured voice of Captain Harlock. “Since you came all this way.”
Skara was speechless. She could only stare at the slowly rotating orb. This could not be Earth, the shape of the continents was slightly wrong, they didn't fit with the mental images of the maps she had memorized, dreaming of walking across verdant fields.
“Because Skara - yes, I know your name, we searched the archives of the Enlightenment - I have a proposal for you. Of course, none of your crew will see this view, your claims to have seen her from space will be treated as the mad ravings of a lunatic.
“No one will ever believe you.”
“You're going to kill me, then?”
“That entirely depends on you.”
“How,” the word was hoarse, choked out of her. Hope dangled, just out of reach, the most dangerous thing in Pandora's Box.
“You know what will happen, what has already happened to your crew. But I have a proposition. You want to walk on Earth? Set foot on the ancient Cradle? Earn it; you won't follow your crewmates to prison, none of them will survive there anyway. Instead, we're sending you back to the Children of Gia.
“Spies are wonderfully useful. And if you serve us well enough, we will allow you down to the planet.”
Looking back down at Earth, Skara chewed on that idea. She could see a floating station now, coming into view around the curve of the planet. A swarm of small craft, slowly growing in clarity as the distance closed, shuttled between the station and surface.
People might already live on its sacred soil. Rage clashed with despair at the thought. People, perhaps millions, already there. Her whole quest was... pointless.
“Shame is you're only about 100 years early for full recolonization. The restoration is almost complete. But, if you serve faithfully,” for the first time, Captain Harlock's voice rose in what might have been amusement, “the United Diaspora promises you a place there.”
Betrayal. That was all it cost. Her principles, her friends, her oaths to the Children of Gia. But the reward...
Tears tracking down her face, dripping onto the blanket still clutched around her shoulders against the pervasive chill, Skara nodded. How could she not? It was right there, shining against the glittering void, Holy Terra.
About the Creator
Writing has been a hobby of mine for years, so I'm just thrilled to be here! As for me, I love writing, dogs, and travel (only 1 continent left! Australia-.-)
I hope you enjoy what you read and I can't wait to see your creations :)
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