Blood Beyond the Stars
Chapter 1: The Gagarin is Dead
“Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say,” a voice whispered from the darkness, “Isn’t that right, Ishmael?”
The voice startled him. A red light flashed above in a darkened hallway, once bathed in fluorescence that showed off the painfully white floor and walls. Though the red hazards emitting in the blackness flickered their warning, the alarm sounded muffled and far off. The dull whine petered ineffective. Ishmael's body felt light, almost weightless. He blinked and waved his hand in front of his face, the muscles moving slower than his mind told them to.
The voice. A woman's voice called to him from down the curved corridor with the flashing red lights. Its wispy conveyance called forth thoughts of a lullaby. He did not hesitate. The footfalls of his bare feet on the steel floor made no sound; an auditory lapse as alien as that of the sirens. His hands steadied his body by pressing against the walls to keep his balance during the light-headed trance. Only upon rounding the corner and finding himself in the command room did he realize that he was naked.
The voice, now with a body, came from the shadows along a concave window that faced the void darkness of space. A woman, dressed in white, stepped out of the fluid shadows. Her blonde curls bounced slowly with the swaying of her dress like milk on oil.
“Come,” she extended a hand slowly and beckoned to him, “see.”
Ishmael approached, not embarrassed at his nudity, but rather wary of her warm smile, “Where am I?”
She put a finger to her lips, and lowered her hand before Ishmael could take it, “Who is worthy?”
“I don't know,” Ishmael felt the words flow out of his mouth without him having given them any thought. “I don't know what you're...”
“Who is the one to break the seal?” The voice spoke both with her mouth and inside his head, so that the words echoed in every portion of his brain.
“I don't know what you're talking about... I...” He peered out the window. A large arrow-shaped craft slightly larger than his own appeared out of the void of space and floated silently toward them.
“The Gagarin is dead. Her crew's blood waters the cosmos,” the voice said, pointing a finger at the ship on the other side of the window. “They have gone where you were never meant to go. Go and tell. Your leaders send you to die.”
“The Gagarin?” Ishmael placed his hand on the window. “That's the Gagarin? It should be going at top speed to Gliese now. What is it doing out here?”
“Leave Ishmael,” the voice ignored his questions. “You and your friends are headed to a fate worse than death. The Gagarin is lost. All who seek it are doomed to...”
“Listen to me, lady!” Ishmael shouted and reached out to grab her by the shoulder. Once his fingers touched the feather-like softness of her white robe, the whole scene disappeared and a fierce and high-pitched bang blew up in his eardrums. Ishmael covered his ears as blood seeped through his fingers and sank to his knees. He no longer rested upon the steel of a ship, but a stone surface. Images flashed by his eyes so quickly that he only consciously glimpsed a few of them. Horrible images. Slaughter. Chains. Hooks. Ripping blades through sinew and flesh. A lamb laying with its head facing him. The animal shrieked and kicked, but blood-soaked fiends that appeared almost feral, held it down with their knees. One of the humanoid beings lanced a blade down and severed the lamb’s throat, spewing red over its wool and splashing it onto Ishmael's screaming face.
The voice, now bathed in red, clutched either side of Ishmael's head and twisted it up to her face. Her blonde curls now matted to her scalp with blood and gore, but with her eyes came the fiercest image. Both sockets shown hollow, exposing only torn veins, and skull within, “The Gagarin is dead! Her people's blood waters the void! Follow her and yours will too! Yours will too! Yours will too!”
Ishmael awoke in a deep sweat. The hair of his head stuck to his scalp like a brown mat, saturated in the salty fluid of panic. His chest heaved for breath as his heart pounded out of sync and rhythm. He sucked air into his lungs, but his clenched throat stifled a scream.
“What is it?” Lisa shot bolt awake next to him, her long blonde hair dancing frenzied and mangled. She placed a hand to his chest, “Ish? What's wrong?”
“They're dead!” He said with bulging eyes. “They're all dead...”
“Who? Who's dead?” She rubbed his bare shoulders, trying to calm him from the terror. Her own eyelids sagged from a sleepless night.
“Cumberland and the Gagarin... I dreamed... I saw...”
“Shh...” She held him close, but Ishmael did not notice her own trembling hands. “It was just a dream. That's all.”
Ishmael latched onto her arms, straining to remember all he witnessed, yet unwilling to unlock any further memories that may persist, “It felt real. I can't explain it, Lisa. I know it was a dream, but...”
“It's because this is the big day. That's all,” she cradled him like a babe instead of an on again off again lover. “We're all anxious and stressed. It's normal. None of it is real. The Gagarin is traveling at the literal speed of light to Gliese 581 C now, not floating idly in space.”
“What?” He slowly tore Lisa's hands away and turned to face her, “Who said anything about floating? Did you see it too?”
“It's just a bad dream, Ish. Keep acting like this, and they will ground you.”
“What did you see?” He probed, the terror of the nightmare returning to his feverish limbs.
“Nothing,” she laid back down, the movement uncovering her naked upper half. “I just haven't gotten a lot of sleep is all. Jitters. Same as you.”
Ishmael stared at her, for once his gaze not wandering below her chin, “What are the odds of two people having the same dream?”
“God, you're starting to sound like Avner!” Lisa rolled over and buried her face in a pillow, which muffled the sound of her voice. “We didn't have the same dream, okay.”
“You're sure?” He returned her prior favor, by massaging her shoulder blades, which he found surprisingly stiff.
“Damn it, Ish! Yes! I'm sure!”
“Okay,” Ishmael kissed the back of her neck and laid back down with his face turned to the cracks in the ceiling. In the dark, the cracks seemed to be growing like slowly forming spiderwebs crawling along the white plaster. All sensitivity toward sleep faded away, leaving him wide awake. After ten minutes, he raised up and lifted himself off the bed.
“Where are you going?” Lisa shifted to watch him, her eyelids growing weary in place of his own.
“Can't sleep,” he stated without looking back at her. “I'm just going to look at a few things.”
“Ish, it's four in the morning.”
“Yeah, get up and go time is in a couple more. You get the rest if you need it. I'll be back later if I feel up to it.”
“You're a stubborn ass,” Lisa closed her eyes.
“Takes one to know one,” Ishmael weakly grinned in response.
Her only gesture came in the form of a raised middle finger.
Ishmael slipped on some white socks and an equal shade of boxer briefs before leaving the bedroom. The hallway was dark except for the feeble glow of a security lamp outside that cast its light through the picture window where the hall ended in a T that opened up to a living room and kitchen. Instead of wandering in that direction, he turned to his right farther into the gloom. At the end of the hall, past a bathroom, he opened a door to a meticulously clean office. He pressed a button on a keyboard, and the computer monitor in front of him lit up in a dark blue that permeated the space with its only light. File folders and documents with various tabs indicating importance sat neatly ordered for packaging; another clump of items to join him on the longest and most significant flight of his life.
Where the blue light blended with the blackness and transformed into a deep purple above Ishmael's head, a framed photograph of three grinning pilots in front of a fighter jet looked down at him with thumbs raised. Two of them still remained: one peering up at the photograph now, and the other in his bedroom trying to get some sort of sleep before their big moment. The third... laid six feet under in an unmarked grave outside of Moscow. Ishmael’s fingers clenched into fists. In a few hours he would be flying in a mission again for the first time since the war came to an end. Rather than flying to destroy, now he found himself on the cusp of aiding to create a new frontier of space travel.
While the monitor loaded, he opened one of the folders and used the blue light to peruse its contents. Ishmael hovered over a floor plan of the ship he and ninety-nine other people would inhabit for the next twenty years; although the engineers claimed they would only be aware of a cumulative few weeks of it. The ship, named Megiddo by its Israeli manufacturer, differed from the arrow pointed Gagarin in its own circular body. The disk held all the hallmarks of old UFO stories, a fact that made Ishmael chuckle when considering that this too entailed a major government project supported predominantly by the Air Forces and aeronautic manufacturers of the world.
He scanned the symmetrical layout several times, noting the four stasis chambers directly opposite each other in the circular pattern. His and Lisa's pods were in a smaller chamber on the right, with Captain Dun and several other officers on the left. Scanning just to the left of his shared officer chamber, his finger traced along the corridor path to the cockpit and froze.
Ishmael shuddered as the image of the blood matted messenger flashed through his mind. He looked down and found his finger on top of where she stood beckoning to him in the dream. It was just a dream. Nerves... like Lisa said. Nothing more. He was second in command. He met everyone who was going to be on the mission, and none of them bore her resemblance. The messenger, the carnage, the Gagarin were all just part of a stress induced nightmare.
The monitor fully loaded, giving Ishmael the freedom to sate his anxieties another way. He clicked on a browser window and typed in “GlieseProject.com” to pull up the public record information on the project. In a split second, a profile picture of a grinning old man with shoulder length white hair dominated the screen. Images of Dr. Katsuo Fujimura were prevalent these days, especially with the apparent success of the Gliese missions using his, once thought impossible, speed of light technology. Ishmael slid the cursor past the picture to a tab indicating, “Gagarin.” Before clicking, he spotted a tab next to it advertising information on his own mission. The new window showed a still photo of the Gagarin's officer corps. A nearly bald, Captain Cumberland, stood in the center with his mixed bag of international male and female staff flanking him. Below the group photo came a series of boxes containing video logs sent back to Earth from the first two weeks of their mission. Perhaps hearing some of the crew's reassuring voices would enliven Ishmael's own spirits.
He clicked on the first video made by a Scottish Second Lieutenant. He carried the camera around with him as he spoke, always making sure that it captured his face, “This is early morn of our second day. Trust me when I say that wakin' up to nothin' but darkness outside is a wee bit hard. The onboard A.I. is goin' to be implementing a new lighting system designed around the rising and setting of the sun on Earth, so that things are more suitable. But, ah, can I be honest with you? Take a look at this.”
He panned the camera down to his stasis pod, “The bubbly mattress thing is grade A, but look at this tube. We've got to sleep in that? I'm not goin' to lie, another few nights sleepin' with no ability to toss and turn is going to make me pray for cellular stasis to come early.”
Ishmael skipped to another video made by one of the civilian scientists onboard from Nigeria. Her long, curled black hair bounced as she moved her head around at different points throughout the video to speak with others, “This is near to the end of our flight's first week, and no one has made one of these videos introducing the real brains behind our mission's success. Al, say 'Hi.'”
A synthetic male voice answered, “Hello people of Earth.”
“Al,” the filmmaker explained, “is what we call the shipboard A.I. He puts us to sleep, flies the ship, regulates temperature, cooks, cleans, in fact I think he does everything. Without Al there would be no mission.”
She added in a hushed voice, “You want to know how we named it? One of the Russians thought that A.I. was 'A.L.' instead.”
Ishmael paused the video and scrolled to the very bottom. The latest and, so far, final glimpse of the Gagarin mission came from Captain Cumberland himself. The gruff, battle-hardened captain lacked the more jovial and personable nature of the other films. Ishmael liked that. This wasn't a glimpse for the people back at home of a crew having fun, it was a mission status report... cold and unfeeling; just the sort of thing Ishmael needed to hear.
“By the time you receive this on Earth, we shall be over five years into our mission,” the captain began, his graying hair catching some of the light of the camera. “Each round of cellular stasis causes a few headaches and a handful of people sick to their stomach, but nothing long lasting or serious. The shipboard A.I. does not read out any structural damages or internal issues. So far there are no delays and everything continues on schedule. Our next transmission will be first received by the crew of the Megiddo before they send it back home. Though several years have passed, for us it feels to be no more than a few weeks. Time has no meaning up here. Godspeed Captain Dun and Megiddo crew. We look forward to seeing you on Gliese. Over and out.”
“See,” Lisa stated from the doorway. He jumped, startled at the realization that she might have stood behind him watching this entire time. “There is nothing wrong. Whoever she was, whatever she said is nothing... just a nightmare.”
“Who said anything about 'she'?” Ishmael swiveled in his seat to face her. She wore nothing, and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Didn't you?” Lisa straightened.
“No,” he shook his head. “Lisa, what did you see?”
“Do we have to do this?”
“Please,” Ishmael leaned forward, eyes staring directly into hers. “I need to know I'm not going crazy.”
“Who's saying you're not?”
“Fine,” she caved. Resting the right side of her body against the door frame, Lisa cast her gaze to the floor, “I can't really remember what I saw.”
“You've got to try,” Ishmael interrupted.
“Do you want me to play this stupid game of yours, or not?” She scolded.
Ishmael nodded, “Go ahead.”
“I can't really remember what I saw, but it is what I heard… God, that voice. A woman’s voice. It said something about blood watering space. People going where they weren't supposed to go. Stupid shit. Just a stress dream.”
“What if it's not so stupid?” Ishmael stood up and put his arms around her waist. “What if it was real?”
“You know what you are sounding like, right?” Lisa turned away. “Don't you know anything about psychology? Freud? Jung? Peterson? We both are under the same pressures. Hell, I probably heard you quacking about the voice in your sleep, then subconsciously adopted it in my own dreams.”
“And if not?” Ishmael's hands trembled on her skin. Only when she clasped them with her own, did he realize that she suffered from the same fit. Lisa noticed the same and placed one of her hands on the back of his head and ran her fingers through his messy brown hair, bringing him closer until her chin rested on his forehead. At the far end of the room Lisa’s eyes connected with those of the frozen image of Captain Cumberland.
“What are your options?” She asked, “Not go? Give up your commission? Face the ridicule of pushing a mission back that the world has been waiting five years for? You'd never be able to look at yourself in the mirror again... knowing that I left, when you didn't.”
“You really don't have any second thoughts about it?” He looked up at her.
She shook her head, “No. I've seen and done too much bad here to want to stay. On Gliese, I get to start all over again. I get to leave the past behind... even if that means you, if you choose to bow out now.”
“I'm not leaving you,” Ishmael raised his head.
“Then you're coming?”
“Yes,” he closed his eyes. “I'm coming.”
“Good,” Lisa pushed away from him. “We have a few more hours til we have to be ready. Since you and I are not going to be getting any sleep anyway, why don't you come back to bed and be with me for a bit.”
A weak grin formed, “All right. I'll be right there.”
“Don't keep me waiting,” she winked. “I might fall asleep again.”
He waved her off and waited until he was alone. Rotating back to the computer screen, Ishmael uneasily approached the monitor and leaned over to type in “Who is worthy” in the search browser. Without delay a passage from the Bible appeared. Ishmael moved closer to the blue glare of the screen and mouthed the words in the way a child might read the sign in front of Disney World on their first visit, “Revelation 5:2 'And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?''”
“Who is worthy?” Ishmael spoke aloud. None of the shadows answered. Whatever haunting presence his subconscious conjured worked its way back into the realm of boogiemen and banshees. The future awaited and it did not have the time for childish fantasies of the past.
About the author
I have been writing books and short stories since First Grade. Since then I have written over 15 short stories. I have written the scripts YouTube show called "Cursed Souls Radio." I have five completed novels with more on the way.