The Thin Line of Memory
Daniel J. Matias
“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.”
I can’t remember a time when this world was less than ‘perfect.’ At first glance, it would appear that humanity has evolved tremendously over the last ten years. Sure, appearances have been altered (arguably) for the better. Our desires and our skill sets have sought to challenge new heights. Knowledge and discovery are now in attendance over greed and power. So naturally, at first glance, life on Earth is beginning to meet the expectations of ‘perfection.’
However, if someone were to take the time to observe beneath the surface of humanity’s golden existence it would soon be realized that it just wasn’t so. Yes, with the simple push of a button we can now manipulate our genetic structure. And we do as we see fit. Women have the curves of goddesses. Men, the muscles of gods. And both genders can be effortlessly equipped with the minds of physicists. Or not. Doesn’t matter. Men can be women; women can be men. Fat, slim, dumb or smart. Whatever the flavor is at that particular time. Just shapes of skin and bone. But not blood. Blood would mean that life was present. And I highly doubt these participants are still alive. It isn’t living. They’re forged. It’s more along the lines of robotics, something simply sapped of life. And technology has shown us how. “Glastol is the answer to all of mankind’s flaws. It is the substance that will rewrite the boundaries of what a human being can accomplish. Glastol is the future.” Or so the advertisements would lead you to believe. I for one don’t see it that way. I view it as a mere convenience – the answer against diversity. To me, it is an abomination. “Glastol will transform you from the mundane and place you within the company of elites.” All I can say is, without a doubt in my mind, it will do nothing more than cripple our society and rob from us our most precious traits.
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Look around. There is no failure. There is no struggle. With Glastol at your finger tips there is no sense of accomplishment. There is no ‘hard days work.’ The greatest asset to the human race (the human heart) has lost all relevance in today’s society; instant gratification has swiftly seen to that.
I left Earth ten years ago to fight the first war ever to take place on soil that was not our own. I fought along side an alien race that utilized technology so vastly from the realm of our comprehension that even the most outlandish science fiction writer would be hard pressed to imagine its flawless intensity. And still, they were in tatters. The aliens were on the brink of extinction, telling us that our inability to quit – our inability to not accept defeat – our heart – turned the tide of battle. We returned from that war as shining examples of what can be accomplished with nothing more than true grit and unyielding determination.
I now stand in a world that deems individuality and hard work as nothing more than a punch line. It is a world that favors convenience over earning your spoils. We are willingly losing our instinct to overcome obstacles – to survive. We are losing what ultimately makes us human.
The flood gates are open. More outsiders will contact Earth. And not all of them will be as generous as the Trilobians were.
The piercing bell of his cabin door cleaved his concentration. He stared at what he’d written hoping he could ignore the call, shifting his glances from the page to the cabin’s entrance and back again. Quietly, he sat anxiously in the marred silence, having been the one that enabled this intrusion, though wanting now to be left alone. With his hand stymied, still gripping the pen, the man was left stranded atop his towering pedestal by his fickle desire.
But this guest had no intentions of leaving. She, first, would need payment for her troubles. After all, it wasn’t a typical request that an escort be summoned to such a place, by such a person of esteemed rank and position. She had traveled a long way to make his acquaintance, and the agency gushed over how fully committed she was to her line of work.
Worth every penny.
The man weighed his options, though ultimately allowing his new companion to tip the scale. He pressed a button underneath the large desk he sat behind. The latches unlocked and the door began retracting into the wall. And there stood his guest: a silhouette of proud curves. Delicately, she stepped over the threshold.
And the door settled back into place.
The woman was expecting an older man, one whose age merited such an esteemed title. And just as every other woman that stood before him, she, too, was very pleased by his appearance.
Vaughn raised his tired eyes to the escort, hearing the soft, wet parting of her lips as she began to speak. Her voice was pleasant and polite. Perfect. Everything he’d grown to expect. Everything he’d grown to hate. To most people, the melody in her throat would’ve taken their breath away, only to have it regained in order to shower her with compliments.
However, Vaughn was certainly not most people.
He sniffed the air with discontent. The pungent odor of floral accents doused his nostrils. He had been very adamant about this detail: No perfumes of any kind. Ever. He detested them, immediately finding the need to voice that opinion. “Shower’s in the back. I suggest you get acquainted.”
The woman slightly cocked her head in confusion at the odd instruction. “I’m sorry?”
“I explicitly requested you not wear – Actually, no. I don’t need to explain myself. You’re familiar with my file, yes?”
Vaughn smirked, folded his arms behind his head and gently reclined in the leather chair. “I take it you’re new?”
“Fairly new, yes. Why?”
“Your perfume, sweetheart. I want it removed.”
“I—I’ve… never gotten complaints.”
Did she not hear me? Was this not a complaint? “Just—The bathroom behind me, use it.” He nodded in its direction. “You can operate a shower, yes?”
The woman narrowed her gorgeously crafted eyes and gave the slightest of nods.
“Fantastic. And when you finish, get in bed. It’s on the left. I’ll still be a minute.” Vaughn already had his fill of pleasantries. This was meant to be a routine task, like ordering takeout. Get in. Get out. Routine.
With nothing more to say, Vaughn’s attention rested upon the hand written page, aiming to once again perch upon his tower of opinions. He lifted the pen, writing once more.
The woman watched him, curses filling her mind. The man had some nerve; but he also spared no expense. She smiled. However rude and insulting he may have been, his behavior would strike with nothing more than a whimsical breeze. There would be plenty of coin in her pocket, more than enough to dismiss his words in order to respond with grace and elegance. She would ensure her services were rewarded, and regularly requested. After all, pride was supremely inferior to the right amount of persuasion.
“In such a short amount of time, I’ve become a very hot commodity.” Her lips curled playfully, licking over them. “I assure you I’ve—”
“I don’t recall whores needing opinions,” Vaughn slowly said, diligently concentrating on his writing.
“Do it or leave,” his hand paused, anger corrupting his throat. “Scrub off that horrific scent or walk away. It’s your choice. If you leave you don’t get paid.” He convincingly reiterated what the woman was already thinking, feeling that her presence had gone well beyond the efficient interaction he’d hoped for. He resumed writing.
Without speaking another word the nervous woman stepped forward. The clack of her stiletto heels stiffly punctured his concentration. She truly was extravagant; tailored especially to his taste. And momentarily, her masterful movements captured his gaze, though the page proved to be far more poignant. Even as she gently traced her soft fingers along the edge of his desk, her long, lacquered nails dully scratching along the grain – even as she still somehow displayed that ravenous smile – she’d only fair as a beautiful blur in his periphery.
The revealing dress she wore was removed as she neared the bathroom’s entrance gently slipped from her skin in one smooth motion. The electronic door retracted as if bowing to her majestic form before sealing shut behind her. Within seconds the shower was activated.
Again, he was alone. Relieved, he smiled. Fluidly, he resumed scribbling across the page, soothed by the sound of spraying water.
“Captain Mayve report to the bridge immediately,” a female voice rang from the intercom in the ceiling of his bedroom. Vaughn, already wide awake, stared unblinking at the obstruction as he lay in bed, hands tucked behind his head. What an awful contraption radiating such an awful request. He had nearly no intention of answering the page as he knew with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t be important.
It never was.
Just busy work.
Vaughn scratched the coarse, dark stubble on his face, reminiscing about the escort from the night before. Indeed – just as advertised – she was well worth the price tag. Headstrong to say the least. Acrobatic. Rambunctious. Unrelenting. By the time she’d left, Vaughn was dazed in a state of satisfied exhaustion, sleeping very comfortably throughout the entirety of the night; a pleasure he rarely succumbed to. Nothing else was as effective. No form of medication would provide as deeply as intercourse. The nightmares were quelled when he wasn’t alone – when he was completely sapped of his energy, while lying next to a warm body. And with the months leading up to the launch, he frequently played the role of host to a slew of different women, never requesting the same one twice. It was better that way. Variety, after all, was the spice of life.
“Captain Mayve, please respond. You’re needed immediately on the bridge.”
But the voice wasn’t going to cease, sharing as keen a sense of stubborn guile as his own. Ignoring or even fighting against it wouldn’t carry the Captain any closer to the comfort he desired. It was time to act. Vaughn threw the sheets aside and sat up, stretching and cracking into a painfully strained yawn. Every muscle in his back was tight and cramped with ill tended knots; they begged him to lie back down. Slowly, he slid his legs off the side of the bed, wiggling his toes, cracking them as well with each flexed curl, groggily glancing around for clothing.
“Immediately means now, Captain.”
Pressing the swollen pads of his feet onto the static, cold floor, Vaughn stood with a huff. He walked across the room. Having spotted clothing piled in a heap, he fitted a crumpled shirt over his chiseled, beaten body. Digging further into the pile, he snaked out a pair of dark slacks, stepped into one side and jammed his leg through the other. Finally, he stuffed his bare feet into a pair of dull, scuffed, dark boots, leaving the laces untied. He sighed. He felt miserable. Alone.
He felt hollow.
“Captain Mayve, please respond!”
A part of him wanted to just speak out simply for the requests to cease. The long, unnecessary trek to the bridge would still be waiting, but at least there would be silence. However, a more aggressive part of him took pleasure in keeping quiet. He enjoyed frustrating the voice, having done so for as long as he could remember.
The disheveled Captain lazily left his bedroom and headed toward the large desk, snatched the unkempt officer’s jacket – brimming with decorations – from the back of the chair, and paused. His eyes scanned the carefully planned, handwritten words scrawled across the unfinished page. Finishing his thoughts was certainly more important than complying with the voice. But without further hesitation, he continued past, stepping toward the hallway entrance while sliding his arms into the sleeves of his accomplishments.
Vaughn’s boots stiffly clacked against the polished, pristine floor as he stepped down the brightly lit hall, fortified by the posture of a man in command; though, hastily, the charade was marred by his lackluster appearance. As he walked, he tunneled his vision, ignoring the people who were busy fine tuning various electric panels and kiosks, even though they’d taken the time to pause and respectfully offer a nod of acknowledgment.
“We’re waiting...” The displeased voice rang through the corridor.
When he reached the vacant Horiyou lift, he halted, hailing its presence with the push of a button. The doors hissed apart and he entered into the railed travel cab, clearly speaking, “Bridge.” The lift doors hissed as they closed and he was whisked away.
The owner of the voice impatiently waited, arms crossed across her chest with her weight shifted to one side. She was adorned in the same jacket, slacks, and boots as Vaughn, though hers faired far better in condition. Jacket neatly buttoned. Slacks crisply pressed on her curvy frame. Boots polished to a proud sheen. The woman was presentable; a far better representation of rank and command.
She could hear the lift approaching, her jaw firmly closed, yet slightly skewed, locking in place as she angrily rubbed her tongue along the roof of her mouth, glaring at the sealed doors of the lift port. She had waited long enough for them to part and for her captain to emerge. The insults thumbed through her mind; they always did. When it came to his obvious, lackadaisical behavior there was never a shortage, this time would prove no different as she’d once again be forced to berate her older brother.
The hum of the Horiyou lift slowed to a stop and the doors hissed open.
“You lazy son-of-a-bitch. Must we go through this every time?”
Vaughn approached the woman and eyed past her toward his seat. “Nice seeing you at the ass crack of dawn as always, Gavril.”
“Dawn? It’s seventeen-hundred. And you’re late.” She watched him pass by and halt in middle of the open, lively room. The Captain stood next to two lavish seats surrounded by terminals, glancing around the bridge. Displeased with who was stationed at each terminal, he shook his head in disgust and patiently listened to the frantic fingers tapping against touchpads which emanated beeps and blips: the recognizable noise of mistakes brought on by sloppily executed command prompts. The men and women were thickly coated in deep, nervous concentration at his arrival, though an untrained eye would believe the bridge to be in perfect working order.
However, Vaughn saw things differently.
As far as the Captain was concerned, everyone – excluding Gavril – was deeply inadequate mimics, baring no right to be in control of their stations. Their knowledge of ESURTA’s functions took them only as far as the teaching manuals had pages; and Vaughn knew that that would only be a bleak speck of what would be needed to properly run the interstellar ship. Especially when under duress.
As he continued surveying the area, he noticed the pilot’s terminal was left empty. It sat nearest to the bow, being the closest seating to the immense view screen that revealed the stars and space before them as it wrapped around most of the deck.
Vaughn nodded to himself in agreement with his silent assessment, but decided to let it be to hopefully hasten his return to his quarters. “Bridge seems fine. ESURTA seems… just fine.” He then turned to Gavril, “Why am I here?”
Gracefully, his sister motioned towards a small group of people at her side, “This is the new science team that was—”
He scoffed, “Seriously?”
“This meet and greet bullshit is getting old, Gav.” The Captain sighed and gripped the top of his padded seat, spun it around, and heavily plopped down into it. He shifted to one side, propping an elbow on the arm rest and cupped his face in his hand, awkwardly making eye contact between the group of people and his sister. “Just so you’re aware, this is a grossly disappointing waste of my time.”
“E-Excuse me? What, why—Why would you say that?”
“Fuck the lab coats. We have enough. Anything else you wanted?”
Once again, Vaughn’s obnoxious attitude irritatingly burrowed underneath Gavril’s skin. It would have been easy to lash out in an attempt to put him in his place. So easy. And gratifying. But now wasn’t the time for childhood spats, Gavril had a professionalism to uphold. She was the responsible sibling. Her uneventful response pressed dully from her nostrils in a quiet huff as she collected her thoughts, straightening her anger with faked pleasantries. “They’re the final additions to the field operations. These people were handpicked by the I.S.O.; they deserve some respect.”
“And…as acting captain of this ship—”
“Captain? Acting captain? Really?” Vaughn grinned and chuckled softly. “Hardly…”
“W-Wh… What does that even mean?”
“Never mind, Gav. It means nothing. None of this really means anything. Are we about done here?”
“Again.” She paused to still her frustrations. “These are the new—”
“Gavril, seriously – look – I really don’t care.”
“How can you not? Why has this been such a game to you? It’s the single most important—” She cut herself off, watching his grin widen the more she became flustered. “Just stop being difficult – Quit acting like a child. Can you just give me five minutes of maturity? Aren’t you the captain of ESURTA? Why do I feel like—”
“Again with this ‘captain’ bullshit? Gav, look around, what exactly am I captain of? Who exactly do I ‘captain?’ Hm? I’m an over qualified babysitter who’s being babysat,” he laughed at the notion. “Vaughn Mayve, captain of the finest ship in the I.S.O. – the flag ship as it were. The ship that won the war!” He softly drummed the pads of his fingers against his cheek. “That is what they say, isn’t it? The praise. That’s how they reeled me into this cluster fuck. …The praise. But it’s all a sham. A ploy. How can ESURTA be so striking when it’s been ordered to function on training wheels? How am I to take it seriously?
We saved the Trilobians from extinction. We did. The crew and I rallied the forces. We led them. The I.S.O. nor the Trilobian council had dick to do with it. And still, here I sit on my throne of shit.” He gently shook his head, muttering to himself, “…Captain. Indeed.” He shifted in his seat, resituating both of his elbows on either arm rest, slouching down, and folding his hands underneath his chin. “Gavril, in their eyes, I lack the qualifications to carry out this mission without them. A simple task of exploration and data gathering and I need eyes lurking over my shoulder. But, funny how when in the heat of a crippling, demoralizing, blood soaked war I lacked nothing. I was the savior whose ass they kissed.” Vaughn’s mouth corned a deep smirk as he gently shook his head. “But now that the chaos is over, now with nothing to fear, without the need to rely on a hope and a prayer, they’ve deemed it necessary to strap a collar around my neck. Neuter me, as it were. My way doesn’t fit in with their grand scheme. …And you call me captain…? No, I’m nothing more than a glorified figure head chaperoning a field trip.”
Instead of backing down and subjecting herself to anymore of his ranting, Gavril narrowed her eyes and retaliated, “We’ve been offered the chance to fittingly explore the cosmos, something the human race has dreamed of for centuries. Ever since we laid our eyes on the stars above. …And all you can do is sit there and bitch about safety precautions? How short minded are you? The Trilobians are graciously granting us this opportunity – This ship. They know what they’re doing, Vaughn. They’ve experienced more than we can ever fathom. They know what’s out there and alls they want to do is make sure we stay protected. That’s it! Is that really so horrible? We – which includes you – need to accept their advice.”
After Vaughn had rolled his eyes he responded. “I’m not needed here, not if they’re going to take hold and guide my penis every time I try to relieve myself. That can be done for any moron. And I’m quite certain that I’m past needing to be potty trained. If you need proof just open a history book.”
Gavril mustered a strange, calming smile; it was the biggest, fakest smile she could possibly plaster across her face. Even so, she still found it difficult to file away her frustrations, having been left in disbelief by his ungrateful, immature candor.
Vaughn muttered over the brief silence, “…Fucking mobile science fair.” Again, he shifted in his seat, dropping his elbows and leaning forward, folding his hands in his lap. He sighed, glancing around once more at the room he held fond memories of before focusing his gaze upon Gavril, diving back into the argument. “Do we really need so many scientists? So many engineers? So many useless bodies aboard this ship? Hell, you might as well station someone in each bathroom stall and have them ration out squares of toilet paper. Actually get some productive use out of them.”
“That’s about enough.” Gavril’s voice broke, joined by a look of contempt. “These are some of the brightest minds—”
“Yeah. Yeah. Where are the people I asked for?” Vaughn asked flatly.
“You—You’re…insufferable! Both the Scientific and Engineering Divisions are just as important as the – the—” she paused racking her brain, not as quick to the insults as he was, “Go Git Yur Guns! ...Division”
Immediately, Vaughn lowered his head, shaking it slightly as he jarringly laughed at her inadequacies. “Where are the actual, military trained, officers I requested, Gav?” He lifted his head, fading his laughter with a broad grin.
Gavril quickly derailed the subject. “You don’t think this mission needs you? Hm? Think you’re just some cookie cutter commander? Ever think about if we were assaulted? What then? Think they’d trust some hum-drum officer with the lives of hundreds of people? People that – that can actually offer something incredible to the human race? You’re a fool if you think otherwise. The I.S.O. chose you because you are the best option we have at preserving this mission. Why can’t you see that? We’d—”
“Gavril. Stop. Okay? Stop and think about what you’re saying. I know it may seem like I’m some sort of invincible god – that I can simply snap my fucking fingers and avoid or thwart any and all danger. I mean, I don’t blame people for thinking that’s the case with the multitude of embellished stories floating around. But contrary to the ‘Legend of Vaughn Mayve’ it wasn’t just me out there thrashing about and packing heat. I had a crew. A great crew. And the support of about thirteen billion soldiers. So, to answer your question: ‘What if we’re under attack?’ The answer is simple. Plain as day. We die.”
“I hardly think we’ll just roll over and die, V—”
“What do you think I do exactly? Have the stories made you mad as well? Are you with them, spinning the same bullshit? Think I’m fucking Superman? Think I miraculously sprout eighteen fucking arms and run the bridge myself?”
Gavril said nothing, feeling a burning tint of red at her cheeks.
“Gav, I may be highly experienced; that much is true. I’ve had to dig deep into Houdini’s bag and pull out a miracle or two. But don’t think for a second, Gav, that I’m some destined hero or – or fucking an un-killable machine. I’m not. Far from it. I asses a situation and flesh out strategies in my head to appropriate the optimal course of survival. And then I delegate orders… to a competent crew. Most of the time I’m right – I’m successful. My calculations led us through to safety. And often, I was rescued by others with enough balls to give themselves to the flames. But I don’t carry around a magical wand. There’s no hocus pocus. I delegate. That’s it. All the greatest ideas and strategies throughout our history mean absolute jack-shit without the proper cliental to see them through. I need a crew, Gav. My crew. I need them in order to make the ‘magic’ happen.”
Gavril’s gaze shifted to the ground, realizing what her brother had said was the truth. Indeed, what could one person do against a fleet of opposing enemies? A bridge crew performs like a well-oiled machine; they need to undoubtedly trust each other with their lives. Orders can’t be questioned when everything is on the line. Her gaze lifted, her tone was calmed and understanding, “The I.S.O. is working on it, trust me. They’ve heard your requests and are setting the gears in motion to provide you with more military support. It’d be pretty difficult for them to ignore your pleas; you sent enough letters – which actually – Why do you hand write everything? Why don’t you just send them over the D.M.I., like a normal person?”
Vaughn smirked. “Honestly, it’s relaxing. I enjoy writing. Plus, most people find it irritating to receive my hand written rants, so there’s always some fun in that.”
Gavril rolled her eyes. “For the mean time, however, you have a very knowledgeable staff, presently here, that can adequately maintain every function of ESURTA. We’re launching in two more days; the I.S.O. just doesn’t have enough time to accommodate every little suggestion your heart desires. It doesn’t work that way. There’s more at stake here, more to think about and prepare for.”
Vaughn slowly grinned, speaking loudly enough for the entire bridge to hear. “More at stake? Than what? Survival? More at stake than survival, that’s what you’re feeding me, right? Okay. Alright. So, let’s just say… Let’s say we do end up in a hostile situation. Alright? Met by a gruesome, hyper-violent alien race—it’s bound to happen. Now… Actually, wait. Let’s take a step back. Let’s first assume that even before we have the unfortunate experience of being boarded and mauled to pieces by our captors that we aren’t first annihilated by their ship’s cannons because that asshole,” Vaughn pointed abruptly to the person manning the Tactical Terminal without taking his eyes off Gavril, “missed a reading and forgot to adjust the shield parameters accordingly. But, oh sorry, my mistake. Silly me. Each of them have already read the manuals right? They couldn’t possibly make such a costly oversight. Human error and pressure situations never coincide. So, fuck it. Never mind I mentioned it.”
Gavril wasn’t amused with his sarcastic tone, crossing her arms across her chest. “Get to the point.”
“Gladly. Moving on… What if human error wasn’t a factor and it was our systems that failed. Say they were damaged and—
“There’s protocols for that.”
“Protocols? Hm. Okay, fair enough. But are there protocols for when an enemy ship loses complete functionality of its weapons systems, and as a last ditch attempt to claim honor – or simply snuff out a formidable adversary by any means possible – decides to ram their ship straight up our ass?”
“Actually, yes. There are. If the oncoming ship has sustained suitable damage, enough to where we could implement basic maneuvers and reverse course, deploying a few M.I.D.s as we did so, we’d destroy it before it ever got within shouting distance of us. Simple solution.”
“Bravo. That would definitely solve the problem… if the ship were damaged enough. What if there was no damage sustained and it was a blatant kamikaze run. What then?”
“Use greater force.”
“Most of the weapons potent enough to successfully destroy a ship in that state would have equal repercussions on us. You can’t deploy ‘greater force’ at that kind of proximity and expect to walk away from it unscathed. More or less you’d create a hull breach and kill off a decent chunk of your crew.”
“Well…,” Gavril trailed off, searching for another solution.
“But whatever. Forget about that. For arguments sake, let’s say the ship is on its last leg and looking to go out in a blaze. Deploying M.I.D.s is a perfectly scripted, by-the-book solution.”
“So you deploy them, but nothing happens. The ship is undeterred from its crash course. Fuck, right? There was a malfunction with the M.I.D.s detonating system. Happens more often than you’d think.”
“Or, you deploy them and the sensors aren’t tracking them. Nowhere to be seen ‘cause they got all jammed up in the ejector casings….and they’re live.”
“M.I.D.s have anywhere between five to eight seconds before they detonate. Clock’s ticking. What do you—”
“We’d have to… Um…” Gavril frowned, furrowing her brow in thought. “Oh! We could just cut our loss and engage emergency protocol.”
“Meaning, well, we’d activate the reinforced ballistic walls and seal off that particular weapons bay.” Gavril weakly smiled. “It’s a security measure designed—”
“I’m aware. Thanks. And, yeah, you’re absolutely correct. Seal off the sector.”
Gavril’s smile confidently shined.
“But tell me, can you trust that the crewmen currently stationed in that sector would willingly allow themselves to be contained – essentially trapped – only to be vaporized in order to ensure the safety of ESURTA and everyone else aboard?”
Gavril’s smile faltered; she swallowed uneasily. “They know the risk; we all do. They’re aware that if something unplanned occurs that we need to do what’s in the best interest of the majority. It’s right in the—”
“I’ve witnessed hardened, highly trained military personnel who’ve read and understood every damn inch of that manual. I stood and watched them while they swore an oath of honor that they’d always put the success of the mission above all else. Including their own lives. And when disaster struck – when the reaper came to claim us all – I helplessly watched them betray that very oath. They were able to flee. They lived. But by doing so dozens upon dozens more were killed. So many lives needlessly thrown away because of self-preservation. …And you want me to believe some green-ass rookies with zero military training are going to behave according to protocol because they read it in a book?”
Gavril’s eyes again dropped from her brother’s gaze. She grew quiet, standing awkwardly in the silence.
“Gav, I may’ve been bestowed the honors and the respect that comes from shedding another’s blood to protect the lives of those around me. But if it wasn’t for the rock-solid, unwavering trust I had in my crew to act without selfishness and do what was needed, not only would I be standing here void of all recognition, it’s highly unlikely I’d be standing here at all.”
Gavril felt foolish, sheepishly nodding her understanding.
Vaughn studied her for a moment, trying to stifle the memories that began to surface from the words he had spoken. A deep inhale and a slower, softer exhale kept them at bay. “But anyway,” he slowly said, “back to the original question: What if we were boarded?”
Gavril didn’t respond.
Noticing his sister was feeling uneasy, Vaughn decided to address the others on the bridge. “I’m now asking the crewmen stationed at the terminals.” The men and women halted their tasks, giving the captain their undivided attention. “What if ESURTA was boarded and the intruders immediately began tearing everyone apart? How would you react?”
There was no response.
“If they breached our defenses and boarded this ship, what would you do? Anyone? If they systematically began tearing out the spines and hearts of the people around you, what would your course of action be?”
Vaughn swallowed harshly, his voice dimmed. “I’ve known some pretty remarkable people over the years. I’ve spoken with them. Joked with them. Shared in their aspirations. And felt their sorrows. I listened as they fondly spoke of the families they left back home and how they couldn’t wait to be reunited when it was all over. What they would do when they got back to Earth. …I grew close to these people. I admired them.” Again, the Captain paused, staving back memories. “And with no warning whatsoever, I was forced to witness most of them scream and beg for my help as they were torn to pieces. Or impaled. Gunned down. Even disemboweled. Splattered along every surface like a child’s finger painting. Never having a chance to react – to fight back – to utilize all those years of training. Everything they were, decades worth of life… dreams and aspirations, all erased in a blink. Their lives amounted to nothing more than cannon fodder.
“This mission may be looked upon as a peaceful and beautiful, awe inspiring journey to discover more of the worlds that surround us, but it isn’t. It’s unpredictable. It’s frightening. And from what I’ve experienced, it can get very violent very quickly.” He waited for a response, continuing when none was given. “I’ve witnessed widespread confusion. Chaos incarnate. Hopelessness. It’s infectious. It will spread. It always does. It’ll surge through every breath of life aboard this ship until all is consumed. Until all have fallen. I’ve seen it happen. Aptly trained soldiers seizing up, crushed by fear, unable to react, ultimately allowing others to pay the price for their mistakes.
“And you all think you can do better? History will only remember this mission as a stain with gilded intent. That we were overzealous, blinded by our excitement and our costly carelessness. I’ve seen enough to know how this will all turn out.”
Other than the hum of the terminals, there was an eerie silence that overcame the air. Vaughn crushed his eyelids together, forcing the nightmares down. His concentration, however, was dismantled as a man confidently spoke out. “You’re forgetting one thing, Sir. The I.S.O. stated that with the help of the Trilobians we would have nothing to fear from this mission.”
Vaughn’s lips curled into a tiny simper. He knew that what the crewman brashly stated was so beyond the truth that it didn’t warrant a response. He lifted his head and leaned back in his chair. “There was never an answer to my question.”
“And what question was that, Sir,” the same man asked.
Vaughn narrowed his full attention to the man. “If the head of your comrade exploded in front of your, now, blood soaked face, would you be able to wipe away the brain matter and conjure up a solution to the problem?”
“Yes,” his answer was quick and reassuring. “I’d do what was ordered of me.”
Vaughn smirked, easily seeing through the man’s macho façade. “What if the captain and the bridge officers were already dead? They’re just humans after all. No one is exempt from an untimely death. With no one to take orders from, what do you do?”
The man’s eyes darted around a bit hoping that someone else would speak up and bail him out.
“Hm? No? Nothing to say?” Vaughn’s smirk grew. “Any of you – not just this moron – but any of you — what would you do?” Vaughn felt the nervous, quivering stares of the people who surrounded him. The inadequate crew was now proving to be exactly as Vaughn had assessed. “When you witness the entrails of another human being ripped from their gut – and you see the terror in their eyes, knowing they’ll soon die. What is your course of action? Because I can assure you, even if you were lucky enough to survive your life would never be the same. Among all of those whose lives were taken from them, a fair share could only find respite by taking their own. If you decide to remain a part of this mission you will realize one simple fact: Humans, underneath it all, are nothing more than fleshy bags of blood and bones. Every memory you accumulate, ever skill you master will mean absolutely nothing if you are not properly prepared for death.
And, as a result, you will be responsible for every other death that lies in your wake.”
The crew dropped their gazes from Vaughn with blanked, paled faces. They now believed this mission was a lot more involved than glamour and exploring a new frontier in the name of mankind.
“Bet you all felt pretty fucking important, strutting around this ship for the I.S.O.’s fashion show. They did a very nice job of dressing you all up for the occasion. You all certainly appear as a true bridge crew. But in reality, each and every one of you will only amount to succeeding as a liability. Every one of you will end up getting the other killed. You’re nothing but clueless, useless—”
“Enough!” Gavril finally exclaimed, her glossy eyes ready to run over.
Vaughn shifted his gaze to his sister’s. “Something to say, Gav?”
“Just – We get it, okay? Just stop. I’m not sure—”
“Not sure? Yeah, Gav, I know. That’s my point. No one is sure. No one fucking knows what could happen. Anything is possible, even with the almighty Trilobians holding your hands. Yet here we are with a bunch of green-ass sprouts running the bridge. It kills me, it really does.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Weird. It should have been.”
“Vaughn, you may believe in Murphy’s Law, but the Council doesn’t seem to. Regardless of what you say, the Council is running this expedition. They are in charge; and they make the calls.”
“Then I’ll see you on the other side, Gav,” Vaughn said with a smug smile. As he looked around he saw how disjointed the crew appeared. He could tell how badly they wanted to be dismissed and with any luck, they’d all resign. “So, anyway. Who am I looking at? New science division or whatever?”
No one in the group wanted to speak, having patiently waited throughout the duration of Vaughn’s colorful speeches.
“They are your new crew members, Captain,” Gavril quietly snapped.
“Yeah. Okay. So… Do they have names – skills sets – anything of use to me?
“Yes, of course they do. They were handpicked—”
“You know, you keep saying that like it matters.”
Gavril narrowed her eyes, speaking slowly through gritted teeth. “It does matter.”
“Yeah, okay. So, are you going to go over introductions or…”
“Can you cut the attitude?”
“Hey. Look. I’m trying to invest my interest here, okay?”
“Yeah. Trying. You sure are.”
“So, let’s start with names,” Vaughn suggested.
“Just forget it—”
“Names Gav! For the love of—”
“Cambria Timm!” Gavril angrily blurted out.
Gavril calmed her aggression, speaking evenly. “She’ll be the S.W.III Program Director and will head the first dispatch. Next to her is Blarn Mistofius: a remarkable scientist with a long list of credentials, I already supplied his file to your personal kiosk. And finally, Xuvectrin D’Easia. She’ll be our new Chief Engineer.”
Vaughn quickly summed up the trio, “The forgettable blonde. A man named… Blarn. And a Trilobian.” His gaze lingered on the alien, staring at the darkened bone that jutted from the top of her forehead, arching its way back toward the base of her skull. “Try to keep ESURTA in one piece.”
Xuvecrtrin smiled and smoothly bobbed her head with a single, respectful nod, appearing utterly unaffected by Vaughn’s rants.
“Good. Glad that’s over.” The Captain then stood up and brushed off his crinkled uniform, checked his unlinked cuffs (leaving them as such), and walked past the group, back to the Horiyou lift port. He made no further eye contact with anyone on the bridge as the doors hissed open. “Now then, if you aren’t being mutilated, maimed or mangled, please, leave me alone.”
The lift doors hissed closed.
And he was gone.
Trilobian skin would never be described as a delicate tissue. Not in sight, nor in touch. Dull, darkly colored, flattened scutes covered their bodies, allowing their bright, seemingly glowing eyes to captivate any onlooker. With such a reptilian nature, their appearance was often intimidating to those who’d not yet met their acquaintance. The contrary would provide that most of the aliens were not only peaceful, but incredibly generous as well. Xuvectrin D’Asia, the sole Trilobian stationed aboard ESURTA, bore scutes far lighter than most of her kind.
The alien entered the quiet room with a sophisticated, mechanical apparatus attached comfortably across her brow, and promptly, a protective visor protruded down over her doe-like eyes. All who entered the engine’s maintenance room needed to wear similar safety equipment designed to aid with a multitude of programmable functions. Though because of Xuvectrin’s frequent and unplanned visits to what was essentially her office, she decidedly left the customized apparatus attached indefinitely.
Hot light gleamed from the lone stasis chamber that stood a dozen or so feet from the entrance, massive in scope, and bearing within it ESURTA’s humming energy source: a burning star. As it was, the fiery orb wasn’t to scale with other conflagrant celestial bodies that were abundantly littered throughout the universe. Though it didn’t need to be. At its stunted size, it was still able to effortlessly produce an insurmountable array of perpetual energy, acting as ESURTA’s life blood.
The stasis chamber was forged against a dark network of streamlined mechanisms that impressively formed a highly sophisticated prison for the star. These mechanisms needed constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure not only that ESURTA stayed spry, but also to keep any energy from breaching its chamber to absolute destruction. This would be Xuvectrin’s sole purpose aboard ESURTA, agreed upon unanimously by both the Earth Council and Trilobian alike. She was revered by her people as the inimitable representation of everything an engineer needed to be; recommended to the highest degree. However, Xuvectrin wasn’t a proud individual. She understood her task; and though she performed it with conviction, never would she bring attention to those unrivaled abilities.
Continuously, the star erupted a volley of explosions as the Chief Engineer systematically checked each safety module within the stabilizer matrix, never once being distracted by the enraged flares screaming against the inner walls of the barrier. Her demeanor was obsessively calmed and unnaturally relaxed as she operated the kiosk positioned near the entrance of the room, standing as a statue among the wildly dancing shadows that were relentlessly cast about the stark room.
The entrance door retracted with a soft hiss and a tall, broad man entered wearing eye protection. He was neatly dressed in sharp angles and perfectly pressed seams, taking only a few audible steps forward before the door slid back into place. “So you’re the new Chief Engineer, I presume? Xuvectrin D’Easia, is it?” his deep voice echoed in the silence, while hers would echo only within his mind.
It would appear that way, yes.
The man stepped closer still as he spoke, “Name’s Kovac. I’ll be in command of Tactical.” He folded his worn hands behind his back as he stopped at her side, standing two feet taller and twice the width of the petite alien. “For how volatile its nature, it truly is a beautiful sight.” His bold, dark face, creased with age, was ovular and clean cut. Creasing was further carved as a smile curved his full lips.
Well Commander Kovac, you’re in favorable hands. I assure you, maintaining ESURTA’s integrity is my only priority.
Kovac nodded. “Of course.” He had no doubt that she was in control of the situation and had no intention of implying otherwise. “I’m not sure if you heard, but our Council recently received the resignations of the entire bridge roster earlier this morning. Well, with the exceptions of the captain and the science officer that is. I just felt it was necessary to introduce myself now that we’ll be working together.”
I appreciate that, Commander. It is a pleasure to meet you.
“I don’t know why they decided to leave, but I couldn’t be happier. After serving on Brouva for so many years it’ll be an honor to take this unprecedented step into humanity’s future along side you and your people.”
Xuvectrin’s tapered fingers halted and she slowly turned to the Commander. You fought on Brouva?
“I did. I served on ESURTA actually. Same title as well. I assume that’s why I was offered the position.”
The alien smiled, turning her attention back to the kiosk. Thank you for everything you did for my people, Commander. She nodded her gratitude. Your valued experience will assuredly be an asset during this expedition. Trilobians hold the crew of ESURTA, those aboard during the war, in the highest regard. You are all heroes to Brouva.
Kovac grinned sheepishly. “Thank you. It’s…That means everything to us. In all honesty, I’m just glad that we could help.” They shared a moment of silence as they viewed the vivacious movements of the sun before them. “And you do realize that the man who commanded ESURTA during the war is the one leading this expedition, right?”
I do. I met him briefly during my orientation. He certainly is a passionate individual.
Kovac laugher burst heartily. “That is probably the nicest description I’ve ever heard of Vaughn.”
Xuvectrin turned again to the Commander. I am pleased to have him as my captain. He, too, will be an asset. Her attention once again fell back to the kiosk. However, Commander Kovac – and it is not my intention to be rude – but I really must be getting back to my work. There are many more module inspections that need to be accomplished before tomorrow’s launch.
“Of course. Of course. Sorry to keep you. Just…keep in mind that some of the crew is getting together for a few drinks on the dock later to let off some steam before the big send off. You’re more than welcome to join us if you get the chance.”
Unfortunately, I’ll likely be here for most of the night. Commander Mayve was adamant about integrating these A.P. codes as soon as possible, and I don’t want to disappoint her. But thank you, I appreciate the invitation.
“Understood.” Kovac nodded a smile as he made his way back to the entrance, stopping at the door as it retracted, glancing back to the busy alien. “Not to overstep my bounds,” he quietly said. “But your voice – it sounds – I’ve never heard anything like it before. It’s so fluent…like a composed melody.”
The alien smiled, diligently focused in the glow of the kiosk. Because the voice of a Trilobian is only realized inside the mind of the listener, it will vary. We can only imprint the words; the sound you hear is unique to your perception of it.
In our culture, it is widely accepted that the beauty of our inner voice is a direct acknowledgment of our outer appearance. You hear what you see. She turned back to him, blushing if she were able, nodding her gratitude.
“You are one smokin’ broad,” the young, restless, man coyly called out to the opposite end of the swanky, black bar top. “Just call me Brake Ricky Brake!”
The woman finished ordering her drink, turning to him with disgust. “Excuse me?”
“What? Excuse you? Why?”
The woman turned back to the tender who mixed her drink, wondering why a man with such little couth would be allowed into a place such as this.
“Hey! I wasn’t finished.”
The woman ignored him. The man didn’t care. He swiveled from side to side on his bar stool and stared her down, continuing on. “Why is it? The name, you know. Why Brake? Well, it’s simple!” His grin slowly spread from ear to ear. “‘Cause I just don’t know when to stop!” After a pause, his laugher burst, though he quickly smothered it with the rim of his pint. The overdone recipient of his nonsense received her drink and promptly left.
“Hey! I fly spaceships, bitch! Show some respect!” he called after her before swiveling back, facing the tender, and slamming his worn combat boots onto the gold plated foot rests that ran along the lower trim. Steeped with boredom, he incessantly tapped an obnoxiously fast drum roll on the pristine, reflective counter, hoping for more entertainment. “Pchoom!”
The elongated island bar where the young man was seated was situated in the middle of the large, polished, brightly lit room. The rows of comfortable, ornate booths that lined the curved, crystal clear walls began to fill with hungry patrons, treating them to all their eyes could behold with an unmatched gaze into the illumination of the universe. They drank colorful alcohol while they beamed with boastful chatter in between sips, lamenting the tribulations of attempting to squander the girth of their wallets. Most of them were here to witness the greatest achievement in the history of mankind as ESURTA was only hours from embarking upon its maiden voyage. And as more guests arrived, a trio of masterful jazz musicians livened up the atmosphere, effortlessly displaying low-pitched, walking bass lines, sharpened piano hooks, and extravagantly textured rhythms.
The upper crust isolated the underdressed man, assuming his worth was a reflection of his appearance. Though, Rick didn’t care. His demeanor never faltered, still as giddy as can be, as the only entertainment he found he needed emptied down his throat, leaving behind a satisfied smile from underneath the shade of a black I.S.O. cap; his eyes went typically unseen, covered up by silver-rimmed aviator sunglasses. And though the young man’s jovial, sometimes, childish attitude was intolerable to some; there still lay a very welcoming sense about him. A certain slosh of drunken charm. And his loyalty unrivaled. Ironically, the only thing Rick enjoyed more than throwing back drinks was performing his duties as a military pilot of classified, lethal contraptions.
And of course, space worthy ships.
Two tall, clean-cut, well-dressed men approached the bar. They briefly made eye contact with the shabby outcast and ordered matching tumblers of whiskey. A few whispers were traded between the two before they again turned to the young man. “Sorry to bother you,” one of the men said, “but are you Richard Warrick?” Rick smiled and nodded. The men then introduced themselves, took turns shaking the pilot’s hand and upon receiving their drinks raised them in his honor. Rick excitedly returned their gestures as the men kindly spoke words of encouragement and best wishes on the upcoming launch. The three of them then drank to successful discovery before the two men walked away, clasped hands, and made their way through the forming crowd to get a closer look at the musicians as they played. The encounter left Rick with a warming sense of pride and a cockeyed grin as he downed the final remnants of the pint, displaying his affection for the crisp taste of icy beer with a loud click of his tongue and a breathy ‘Ah…’ Then immediately he waived down a tender to replace his now empty pint.
“You do realize the launch is happening in about sixteen hours, right? Granted, I may be responsible for this gathering, and yes, I should have taken into consideration the end result of handing an addict a vice, but can you at least attempt to show some restraint?” Kovac said, resting his wide hand on Rick’s shoulder.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Rick said, trying to sip the dark-tan liquid underneath the layer of froth while his lips uncontrollably stretched into a smile, “this is your fault. Cheers, Commander.”
“Uncharted territories in outer space? Exploration...? Historical relevance? You being trusted to control a priceless, interstellar ship through the heart of the vast unknown? Any of that dropping into focus?”
“In fact, yes. Some of it is. Or, no, all of it. It’s all in focus…I think. But no worries, Kovac. Sit! Drink! And smile!” Rick laughed and slid out a stool with a stiff brush of his boot. “Relax!”
The Commander rolled his eyes and accepted the offering, joining his intoxicated friend. “Also, Brake, look around. You’re aware we aren’t at the Remedy, yes? This place has…more…well, class, for one thing. And as a representative of the military, you should really be in uniform.” A tender approached the two men and instantly recognized Kovac, offered greetings, and swiftly served him a tall pint filled with a robustly hoppy ale. The Commander nodded respectfully as he accepted his usual drink, breathing in its bitter aroma with an air of calmness, and turned again to Rick. “Do you have your pills?”
“Yes, mother. Sure do.” The two men sipped in unison, each clacking their drinks down on the bar. “But enough about me; seems like Vaughn still isn’t adjusting too well.” “Understatement of the year,” Kovac mumbled, discreetly surveying the crowds of people in the room.
“It’s been a year since we got back. Figured, ya know, he’d—”
“Snap out of it?”
“Yeah. Basically. ‘Cause – Look. We were there on Brouva, too. I mean – I get it – his mind is probably still over there…somewhere. Trying to remember— to forget… I don’t know. But, it’s been a year. Well nearly. War’s over, man. We won. Ya know? Let’s now live the lives we earned.”
“No complaints from me. For once, ‘Drunken Ricky’ is making a lot of sense. Wonders never cease,” The Commander said with a budding smirk.
“Funny.” Rick gulped down a mouthful. “I mean… We seem fine, right? We’ve got our heads on. At least I do. You’re okay, too, right?” Rick sipped his beer.
“I am.” Kovac quickly sipped his drink. “Unfortunately, that’s irrelevant. You and I both know Vaughn was in deeper – had to endure more. His experience was ten-fold.” Kovac again sipped his beer, savoring its complex flavors. “He lost a lot, and in his eyes, didn’t gain much.” A shade of silence washed over the two of them as they both reflected on the circumstances mentioned. “Although,” Kovac said, licking his lips, “you see, when it comes to Vaughn, he’s always been—”
“Always been what, Kovac?” Vaughn asked, overhearing the conversation as he approached the duo, taking a seat next to the Commander. “I’m what exactly?”
“A stubborn asshole,” Kovac stated, sipping his drink.
Vaughn grinned and turned to the tender quickly making his way to the Captain.
“What’ll it be, Sir.”
“Yes, Sir. We have many—”
“Doesn’t matter. Just make sure it’s on tap. Anything will do.”
“Sir.” The tender nodded respectfully, departing to prepare the drink.
Vaughn took a moment to survey the crowd, enjoying the lively pace of the jazz trio. “And, you know, Commander, I am the superior officer here. Yes? Let’s try to keep this relationship on a professional level. Keep the insults to a minimum.”
“Since when are you concerned with—”
“Just show some respect.” Vaughn said, diverting his attention to the drink that was placed in front of him.
“This is the finest—”
“Honestly, I don’t care. Did you spit in it?”
The tender cocked his head, appearing more shocked at the horrid notion than confused that it was even asked. “(Enter name of bar) maintains the highest of standards. Acts like those would never be permitted, Sir.”
Vaughn simply stared at the man who nervous met his gaze, unsure of what to say or do next.
“Anytime now,” Vaughn said, gulping down a mouthful.
“Leave. Go. Fucking, do something.”
The man left with a forced smile. Rick began laughing. Kovac drained another gulp of beer.
“You know what they say, Vaughn: Big title, little dick,” the Commander said, grinning. “Small Dong Vaughn. Just flows right off the tongue.”
Rick continued to laugh, trying to speak through the giggling fits, “Come to think of it, Cap, I use that same line on these bitches all the time.” He paused to gather himself. “‘I’m the superior officer, show some respect!’” The noticeably intoxicated man then tilted back his head and filled his mouth, roughly swallowing the bitter pools that collected in his throat. “…And they never will,” Kovac muttered.
Having downed the remains of his pint, Rick slammed the empty glass down on the bar, belching loudly, and giggling afterwards. “I know, right?” Rick said, slapping Kovac on the back. “See, you get it, Kovac. Kovac fuckin’ gets it. They’re all just prissy bitches who just can’t take a hint.”
“Clearly, that’s what I meant.”
Vaughn leaned on the bar, ducking into Rick’s line of sight, making sure the pilot noticed him before briefly raising his pint. “I think what Kovac’s trying to say is, you’re a fucking child.”
“Ha, ha.” Rick slowly grinned, waving down a tender, wanting another round. “Yeah… okay. Maybe I am.”
“Maybe?” Both Vaughn and Kovac answered in unison.
“Alright! Fine! It’s true. Fuck it! I’ll remember you two assholes next time I’m in control of that bird. ‘Cause once we get underway – first black hole we find – I’m going to bang the shit out of it with ESURTA’s tip. Loosen up that lovely bit, ya know?” Rick roared with laughter, “Till it’s ready to burst! Pachoom!” The tender replaced Rick’s empty pint with frothy, fresh one.
Vaughn and Kovac meekly smirked, unable to make sense of what he just heard.
“Gentlemen!” Rick quickly clasped his hand around the fresh, sweaty pint and raised it to cheers, joined shortly by two others. “A toast. Here’s to it to do it, and do it again. Because if you never get to it, to do it, then you’ll never get to it to do it again.” The other two smiled at the familiar drunken slur and raised their glasses as well before clanging their drinks together, draining a few mouthfuls of beer and reflecting in a stint of silence.
“Hey Vaughn, so you meet the new Chief Engineer D’Easia? Pretty cute, right?” Kovac asked, ordering another drink.
Before the Commander could respond, Rick once again chimed in, this time singing, “Who’s the bravest one of all? Gifted with strength, he’s tall, tall, TALL!” his alcohol stained vibrato lingering in the air. The two officers briefly glanced to their drunken friend, lost in his own existence, and simply decided to ignore him, hoping he’d stop being obnoxious, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
“Anyway.” Kovac paused, turning his attention back to Vaughn. “So?”
“So, what?” Vaughn said, swigging down the final swill of beer.
“The new Trilobian—”
“Oh, right, right. Cute? I don’t know…maybe, Kovac. Not really into aliens. Not my…my interest lies more with her abilities and making sure she doesn’t, you know, vaporize us into oblivion. Vandris—” Vaughn cut himself off, staring blankly at the frothy residue in the bottom of his glass. Kovac grew quiet as well. Rick’s attention was instantly corralled. They watched Vaughn with some concern, making sure to grant him their full undivided attention incase he wanted to elaborate further on the name he spoke. Though, with only a momentary lapse completed, the tough-as-nails Captain disregarded the sullen trance with nothing more than a lazy exhale, shifting his gaze to the attentive men next to him. “What—”
“Vandris was one hell of a Chief Engineer. One hell of a leader. A friend,” Kovac interrupted, trying to fish out some of the Captain’s deeper thoughts.
Thoughts Vaughn kept bound to himself tighter than any vacuumed seal.
“I’m aware,” Vaughn quietly said as the tender placed another beer in front of him.
“He really was amazing,” Rick chimed in. He paused and slowly lifted his pint, rolling back a couple gulps. “…Reliable. Count on him for anything, really. …Vandris…” Rick paused again. Emotions beginning to surface and build. His eyes lacquered with a wet gloss while his lips formed a knowing smile across his melancholy demeanor. “Fucking, Vandris… Everything ESURTA needed. Oh, but uh, no disrespect, Vaughn.”
The three men were stilled in sadness and regret. The stillness, juxtaposed by the pace of melody and rhythm and by the dozens of party guests that lively buzzed around them as they reclaimed the past.
“Well…I gotta take a piss.” Rick pushed out away from the bar and wobbly stood from the stool, gingerly making his way to the restroom.
Kovac finished his drink and gently set it down on the bar, covering the beaded water ring that had collected.
Vaughn trained his sight on the flurry of carbonated bubbles that furiously shimmied to the coating of fluffy froth at the surface. “I was already prepared to die – already engaged the core reactor for departure. Literally in the act of booting it…; just had to open the hatch. But for some reason – and I’ll never understand it – he ordered me to stop.” His fingers clasped around the sweaty glass. “He left the bridge. Came down to the reactor bay. ‘Go to the bridge. They’ll need you to lead them home.’” He sipped from underneath the froth. “Then he forced me from the room. Sealed the door. And that was that. Last time I saw him.” Vaughn dipped his finger in the foam, watching it slowly disintegrate.
“It was his order to give, and yours to follow. There’s nothing more to it. You didn’t have a choice, only a solution. His death was honorable, the way any soldier would have wanted to go.” Kovac placed a hand on Vaughn’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “He believed in you more than any I’ve known. It wasn’t in vain, Vaughn. You were the one who didn’t back down. Took charge. You summoned something inside few of us have ever touched on.”
Vaughn sat without a rebuttal – without movement – distracted by an unpleasant bombardment of jaded events. His heavy mind reeled with pending pressure. Nausea crept in. Emptiness swirled his belly. He felt alone, barely hearing Kovac’s words as they seemed to stem at a great distance from a world of specters.
“You led ESURTA into the teeth of the furnace. And did so admirably. You proved Vandris’ actions weren’t foolish – proving that he was doing a lot more than keeping his best friend alive.” Kovac noticed Vaughn’s detached attitude. Again, he squeezed his shoulder, trying to get him to lift his attention and fulfill any sort of emotional stake in his words. But the Captain was too preoccupied. Too buried in his thoughts. Something inside him continued to reach for the surface. It wanted destruction.
It wanted chaos.
Vaughn’s heart began to race. Chilled beads of sweat formed. He crushed his eyelids together trying to force away the anguish.
“Vandris already knew what everyone else would soon realize, that you’d be the catalyst to a victorious end. Vaughn—”
“Enough,” Vaughn murmured, losing control, feeling as if his insides were to separate.
“You saved an entire planet of people from destruction—”
“I said enough,” he said, unsure of whether or not he actually spoke the words aloud or reserved them for the entity within, as it continued to smother against the barricade. Inches from release.
“Stop!” Vaughn’s eyes popped open. His muscles corded.
And there was silence once again.
Kovac eased his grip, doing as his Captain wanted, turning from him without another word. The Commander propped his elbows up on the bar and hovered over his drink, plucking it from the top, letting it dangle, sipping periodically. He nonchalantly gathered a quick glance around before lowering his gaze in favor of another refreshing taste. The sips turned into gulps, until the pint was nearly drained.
The outburst was enough to thrust Vaughn back in control of his emotions; for now it had passed. “At any rate,” The Captain said, keeping his eyes trained forward. “I’m sure Xuvectrin will be a very serviceable engineer.”
Later that night it was empty.
The hibernating kiosk built into his desk blinked a dim red light.
He was craving another sitting with a palatable plaything.
So with desire curling his smile, Vaughn sat down at his desk and tapped the sleeping screen of the kiosk. The screen, now brightly lit, displayed the D.M.I. network, though access would need to be granted to delve any further. He pressed his thumb firmly into the T. I. receiver attached to the keyboard and a sharp light scanned his print, lifting the restrictions on the kiosk. After a quick glance at his more urgent messages, he’d be ordering from another suitable agency. Just a quick glance.
Forwarded by the I.S.O. Council Chief Maedrell.
Vaughn smiled. It must be their apology letter for suiting him with such an inferior bridge crew. Though it wouldn’t ever be worded as such, the Captain wouldn’t see it any other way.
He loved when they groveled.
His assumptions were correct. It was indeed a letter stating the names, rank, and index numbers of the newly appointed bridge crew. The names on the short list were of no matter, the Captain was simply reveling in the fact that he finally got his way.
And then he read the final name on the list: Commander Sara Elizabeth Luxidon. Index Number: 173979. Dred swept over him like a stinging wave of chilling, wet air. The Commander was to be stationed as ESURTA’s weapons officer. It was as far as Vaughn would humor the message.
He reached down and frustratingly tugged the I.C. from its holster on his belt. Outside of the next sentence stating it was all a ruse, the rest of the message didn’t matter. What mattered was who he needed to contact in order to keep the statements he read from becoming a reality. Vaughn shook his head in disbelief. They knew where he stood on this subject, that he wanted nothing to do with Sara Luxidon. His mind burned through each and every reason why she didn’t belong on ESURTA, or at least in his vicinity. Ever. He rehearsed the venomous complaints he’d riffle off in his head as he skimmed through the list of index numbers.
“Not, fucking, now!” He was in no mood for an interruption. This matter needed to be resolved before she was aboard the ship – before he had the displeasure to lay eyes on her.
Bingo! He found the number he needed.
“Leave now! I need to—”
“Did you not read the entire message? No, of course you didn’t. Why would Vaughn Mayve make life any easier on anyone else other than himself? They aren’t going to answer if you call them. Just so you know. Something about… refusing to clean up after the filthy child that pisses vinegar every time something doesn’t go his way. So just cut the shit and let me mosey in.”
It was too late. Sara was already there.
Vaughn’s hopes sank into his stomach. “Go. Fuck somebody else in the ass, okay? I’m still a bit sore.”
“Just open the door.”
“You need to—”
“Open it now!”
Vaughn hesitantly tossed the I.C. on his desk, watching it slide across the surface and over the edge, clacking to the floor. He stood slowly and carried himself to the entrance of the cabin, slamming his open palm against the release panel. The door retracted, and there stood Commander Luxidon, looking distraught, disheveled, and out of uniform.
The latter of the three Vaughn used to spark the first argument.
“You aren’t wearing a uniform, Commander,” he stated. “Find one or exit my ship.”
“Try not… being yourself, okay? I’m exhausted.” She let herself in. “Can you do that? Just once. Obviously I was in a rush. Council Chief Maedrill just informed me—”
“I really couldn’t care less about Maedrill or the sack of bullshit she carries around with her.”
“That’s funny. Even you should realize how profound a person she is. Without her you couldn’t be the life-loathing, selfish prick you strive to be. Don’t forget it’s the Council Chief who – for some reason unknown to literally everyone – believes you are what this expedition needs to be successful. Agonizing. I know.” The dark circles under her light eyes only slightly sapped them of their beauty. “You should be thanking – no – worshipping, literally, the very ground she walks on.”
They steadied interlocking glares.
“Well it’s my ship. My command. And frankly, I don’t remember sending you an invitation to board. Free to leave anytime. Like an annoying little bird. …Anytime.”
Sara shook her head in disgust as she walked further into the room. In her eyes, Vaughn was a gifted fighter and nothing more. And although these thoughts had been repeatedly voiced to the Council, she still found herself curtailed by his foolishness. ‘Maedrill believes in him,’ a mantra she often said to herself to settle her temper. Though Sara did her best to respect the Council Chief’s decision, she would not, however, believe in Vaughn’s leadership abilities herself.
Just a talented soldier and nothing more.
Sara’s I.C. vibrated and she retrieved it off her belt, looking over the message. It was a greeting from Gavril welcoming her to ESURTA.
“I don’t need you.” Vaughn walked back to his desk.
“Yeah well, I’m not going to let a few bad orgasms ruin my chance to explore the fucking universe. Okay?” She quickly snapped back, staying transfixed on the glowing screen, responding respectfully to the greeting.
“I’m sorry. Did you somehow forget what you did during—”
“Keep just – Ya know… You really are an asshole. When will you let it rest?” She was sincere, scraping her words across the tarnished surface of sadness. Vaughn said nothing, feeling his unfinished comment biting inside his chest. He made his way over to the liquor bottles neatly displayed on the wall behind a small bar. The Captain indiscriminately snatched one from its home and inspected it.
“Vaughn… I miss him too. You aren’t the only one. I miss him too.”
He paid her no attention and walked to the outer lip of the bar, leaning against it and unscrewing the cap. He upended a shot glass – paused – and set it back down, deciding that the mouth of the bottle would suffice.
Sara swallowed back the memories, triggering her defenses, and hardening her emotion. “Vaughn.” She waited for him to make eye contact. “I have every right to be on this expedition, more than most. More than you.” Sara tucked her I.C. away in its holster. “I could have easily been ESURTA’s captain – should have – for fucking sake, Vaughn, I basically built it! You and I both know how capable I am. They all do: your crew, the Council, the Trilobians. Everyone knows I can take ESURTA’s tech to a new level. And whether or not you are on board when it happens, I don’t care. It’s going to happen regardless.” Vaughn broke eye contact and took a quick swig from the bottle. Sara watched him, knowing what he was thinking; why he was all of a sudden reserved. She knew the scenario that had forced itself into his head. She knew she was one of two components fixed forever to the hatred and sorrow that cut through their shared memory. “I’m not here to have a power struggle,” she quietly said, “and I really don’t want to argue. I’m tired of it, Vaughn.”
“But I do want to see what’s out there!” Sara watched him drain another harsh swill from the bottle. Vaughn again made no effort to dissuade her.
“And…I know it’s going to be difficult working together…again. But. You know… I had nothing to do with his decision.” Her throat tightened, allowing only a whisper to escape. “I’m sorry, Vaughn.” And her saddened face quickly recovered from the depth to which she had fallen, finding her voice unwavering, “I’m not leaving this ship.”
Vaughn still had no response. He simply sealed his lips around the opening of the bottle and gulped back a shot.
“Fine. I’ll allow you to stay on my ship.”
“Not that you had a choice in the matter, but thanks for reconsidering.” She shifted gears after a drawn out breath. “You know how valuable I am. Let’s just keep it professional and this could actually be…enjoyable – like old times” She slowly grinned. “In spite of your attitude, I’m actually pretty excited.”
“Uh-huh.” Vaughn was unimpressed with her reference, feeling that ‘old times’ were never really that enjoyable. The bottle always had more to offer.
“Okay, great!” Sara slapped her hands together and cracked her knuckles, eyeballing the luxury of the Captain’s Cabin, noticing that it wasn’t being utilized to its full potential. “So now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s move onto the next argument. This is way bigger than the hole-in-the-wall I was assigned. You want to share?”
“But your cabin has its own bathroom – a girl’s gotta have her own potty, ya know?”
“I use it for sluts,” Vaughn stated before drinking back the harsh liquid, adjusting his stance, bracing more rigidly against the bar as the alcohol took effect. “Just got some use out of it earlier today actually. Fucked the shit out of her.” His statement punctuated with a sloppy swig “So, I win. Captain wins.”
Before her face could retract in absolute disgust at the image he planted in her head, Sara resorted, instead, to more desperate measures. She would stoop to puppy dog eyes, displaying the most pathetic expression that ever begged for anything.
It didn’t work. Disapproving noises hummed in his throat.
“Nah.” His mouth collected another sting of alcohol.
“Well it’s bullshit! I don’t like shitting near other people! You know that. I shouldn’t have to say, but I will! I don’t shit next to people, Vaughn! I don’t like it! I need my privacy.” She took a few steps towards him, “So just let me at least use the bathroom, please?”
She tried to persuade him with another pathetic look, only somehow, managing to make it more obnoxious than the last. Vaughn laughed at the display, calmly stating, “Nope.”
“I’ll only use it—”
“No you won’t.”
“Not gunna happen, princess.”
“No, Lux.” He smirked, feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
“You aren’t even letting me finish. I was going to say—”
“You’re wasting my time?” His speech dragged with a slur. “’Cause yeah, you are.”
Sara heavily sighed, giving up. “I’ll be back tomorrow and we can give this chat another go around. Okay? Fantastic.” She turned for the exit.
“You know this isn’t... It won’t work. It’s just going to be not really possible – us working,” he burped, “together. You and me? Won’t do.” The next mouthful he gathered dribbled down his chin before he reluctantly swallowed it: the coup de grâce. That final swing began tossing around the contents of his stomach like an industrial dryer, wavering his ability to stand up straight. His vision dismantled; the spinning walls would not be suppressed.
Sara sighed at the debacle that was, Vaughn Mayve, gingerly pressing in the release panel, retracting the door. “Those who say that something’s impossible, accomplish nothing. If you don’t wise up you’re going to miss what the essence of what we are trying to accomplish here.” She watched him from the threshold as he wobbled back and forth. He said nothing. “Good night, Captain,” Sara said, leaving the cabin. The door hissed shut behind her.
Finally. A moment of silence.
Just one step, he said to himself, viewing the world around him as warped nonsense. One step at a time. He stumbled forward to the edge of his desk, bracing, and spilling the bottle across it. Grimly, Vaughn observed the chugging liquid absorb into the letter head, bleeding the ink he had scrawled onto it. It was doubtful that he’d be able to replicate the rant he had so carefully written, but his heart could only sink so far with its destruction as his headache and whirling stomach pains took immediate precedence, sending his blurry thoughts into a tailspin. He awkwardly slipped from the edge of the desk, this time without bracing, hitting the floor hard. His skewed vision still sought the sanctity of the bathroom. Gathering whatever strength he could, he dragged himself across the polished floor, tainting it with droplets of blood that beaded from the fresh cut on his forehead. A red trail smudged the length of his efforts as he finally pulled his numb body into the bathroom.
His eyes closed.
The Captain was well acquainted with the soothing chill of cold porcelain; a comfort that in his mind was more tentative than warm flesh could ever be.
The thought lingered through each jarringly tense upheaval his body produced.
The morning officers meeting was unexpectedly brief and without unnecessary diversions. The only point of interest was to confirm the message left on the Captain’s terminal: Commander Luxidon would see her duties through without interference. Without question. Thus, without an outlet to sap him of his anger, Vaughn’s patience was wearing thin. An obligatory exchange of slicing glares, tired glances, accentuated sighs and awkward silences filled with a smattering of eye rolls were all that was left in the wake of the situation; and to make matters worse, time couldn’t be afforded to delve into a remedy, bridge officers were ordered to report, sharply, to their appointed terminals for the final systems check. Upon which, they would be greeting the I.S.O.’s most accomplished Admiral, as he would be visiting the ship with some words of encouragement before they disconnected ESURTA from the station.
This truly was an event.
To most, the arrival of the Admiral would be an incredibly humbling experience. He was well respected among his peers, regardless of rank, or importance and his company was highly sought after. No one who had hand in assuring ESURTA was in perfect working condition wanted to disappoint him, no matter the impact their influences may have been.
Each of them waited for Vaughn to dismiss them. The gathering in the conference room was silent. Each of them stared aimlessly at the spectacular view the room bolstered. The endless stars…gently…passing by. Such a peaceful design. Relaxation and reflection.
And soon enough, before they knew what they were doing, they were all screaming over each other, pitting asinine conversations against any form of sensible productivity. Though there were two who didn’t partake in childish games, Commander D’Easia and Lieutenant Bazdik sectioned themselves off from the loudly arguing group. Bazdik, having boarded earlier in the day, sat at a stark contrast to Xuvectrin, towering over not only the petite alien, but every other officer as well. He was a thickly cut, muscular slab of chiseled meat packed neatly into an officer’s uniform. However, as imposing a figure as he was, the Lieutenant was a gentle giant, rarely, if ever, letting his frustrations or anger get the best of him.
Bazdik appeared as a drone, to act only when ordered to do so.
Vaughn slumped further in his seat at the head of the table, noticeably discouraged with the ongoing argument. He still hadn’t bothered to clean up his appearance; his face still unshaved; his uniform crinkled; his boots scuffed. He seemed content with the way his peers viewed him: the shining example of squandered talent.
“Sara, now. Stop asking. Ser– This is a fucking waste of time.”
“Look. I’m not even asking anymore; I’m telling you—”
“Man, just let her. I’ve got a ride to catch…and fly… in space.”
“Shut up, Brake.”
“Who cares, Cap? It’s just a bathroom.”
“Obviously I fucking do!”
“Why do you even bother arguing with her? You’ll crack. You always do.”
“Et tu, Brute? Really Kovac, you’re on their side? I’m fucking sick of this shit. This is why I did not want her aboard in the first place!”
Gavril huffed, narrowing her eyes. This senseless bickering was filling her breaking point. Her fingers slowly curled into tight balls. Her jaw stiffened.
Quickly, Vaughn darted his scowl toward Sara, articulating each word as if speaking to a child. “You. Are. Never. Using. It.”
“You know Vaughn, for once, you should try surprising us all maybe once with some compassion, or common sense.”
“Don’t give a shit.”
“Oh really? Hadn’t noticed.”
Enough! Gavril’s tension exploded. “Enough! Both of you!”
There was a festering petering of comments that each still wanted to convey, though Gavril quickly silenced them again. “We are hours away from embarking on the single most nerve racking – most amazing journey in mankind! And you want to argue about toilets!? Really!? Toilets!?” Silence. Every pair of eyes were fixed upon her as she smoothed her jacket, giving the bottom a quick tug as she and cued a tight smile. A soft menace still scratched her voice, “Get on the bridge. Now. Get to your stations and enable your kiosks. I want every single system you are responsible for to be functioning properly. If you have to run a system diagnostic— then do so. Do you all understand?”
They did, and without a single question each officer stood as she continued, “Also, Captain, I strongly advise you to let Commander Luxidon share the bathroom. We are all going to be working together for a very long time and it would behoove you to find some sort of middle ground with each other. I won’t tolerate any more of this; this stops now.”
Vaughn glared at his sister for what felt like an eternity, before finally breaking contact with a roll of his eyes.
“Close enough. I’ll be on the bridge.” Gavril’s attention then jerked to Bazdik, “Take Commander D’Easia and double check our supplies, and don’t just go by what the bay manifest states, actually take manual inventory scans, okay?”
“Yes, Captain,” Bazdik’s bold voice responded.
“Actually, Bronco, I’m the captain.” Vaughn nonchalantly motioned with his hand.
Confusion settled into Bazdik’s eyes, shifting between the two people. “Um…Of course. Yes. Sorry, Sir – I just – you didn’t seem—”
“Lieutenant,” Gavril said gently, “please send the report to my I.C.” He nodded and exited the room with Commander D’Easia. The rest of the officers awkwardly stood, unsure of whether or not they should stay or exit as well. It was decided as the Commander locked stares with each officer and flicked her head in the direction of the door. Each of them left and Gavril snatched Vaughn by the arm, halting him, and pulling him aside. “You need to start acting more like the man in charge and less like yourself. You may have Councilwoman Maedrill in your corner right now, but it won’t last, not if you continue to treat everything like a joke. You are blowing an amazing opportunity; she will pull the plug on you. Whether it’s her choice or not, you will be removed from command if you don’t start caring.”
A creeping smirk corned his mouth. “‘Pull the plug?’ I think killing me seems a bit rash, don’t you?”
“Do you not have even a single shred of integrity? Of shame? What happened to you, Vaughn? I’ve known you my whole life; it feels like your accomplishments are a part of my past, too. You were so revered as a cadet. The I.S.O. gushed – no – projectile vomited their praise for your potential.” She stared at him, not with anger, but genuine concern as sisters do. She had hoped to see a flicker of remorse, something – anything – that showed he regretted his recent behavior. It didn’t happen, and though she was discouraged, Gavril continued, “During the war you showed them you were worthy of such praise. You were the best damn space captain Earth had to offer.” As the words settled in her ears she couldn’t help but snicker at how silly they must have sounded. Vaughn, too, grinned. And as her snickering became more audible, he couldn’t help but join her as they slid together into laughter.
“Vaughn, I’m trying to be serious, alright? Can you stop?” Their laughter only broadened.
“But, I understand what you’re trying to say… I think.”
Gavril said nothing as her laughter fettered away, replaced instead with the impending reality Vaughn’s childish behavior wasn’t fading. And though she was always one of Vaughn’s biggest supporters, as sisters are, even she struggled to find faith in him. “I hope so,” She finally said in a quiet voice as she lowered her head, brushing by him, making her way for the exit.
Gavril stopped and turned back to him.
Vaughn didn’t turn to her as he spoke; instead, his attention was fixed to the floor. “The Council needs to remove the safeties. But, they won’t. Not with the Trilobians ramming their tiresome suggestions down everyone’s throats. Gav.” He turned to her. “I was out there. I know we can do this without them.”
“They helped us build ESURTA. It was a token of their appreciation for aiding them – for helping them to succeed. Regardless of what you believe, it’s only right to go forward as they deem fit. We would be stupid to do otherwise. You should embrace their help… not punish it. There isn’t a need to rush anything.”
“I’m not saying we should rush anything. Not even a little bit. I have nothing against waiting until we’d be prepared without assistance. But that doesn’t seem to be a popular choice. And yes, I fought with them for years – they’re all incredibly admirable, useful, yata-yata, what have you. It’s just…” Vaughn paused, gathering his thoughts. “I was out there for what, ten years? I have the résumé – And shit – not only me, but the people we have now is the very same crew that was right there with me. We’d be able to handle it. We know what we’re doing; we don’t need them.” He sighed. “It isn’t about rushing anything; simply …I feel… We’re ready. Humans need to venture out on their own. If its success we face, then fantastic, I couldn’t be happier. But that goes for defeat, too. We need to struggle through the rough patches – we need to find solutions on our own,” Vaughn slowly sighed and walked toward his sister, “or there’ll be a massive asterisk next to these accomplishments.” He passed by her, leaving her stilled by his comments.
The two were incredibly close as children; the bond only solidified as the decades came and past. They never had a problem in knowing exactly what the other was thinking. Ultimately, they could communicate with simple looks, or less. And as Gavril stood alone, she began to feel a shiver of fear as it sprouted from within in her belly. Softly, she stepped toward the lift port, fearing not the brash immaturity of Vaughn’s behavior, but the fact that there was a growing possibility that he may be correct.
Even though he was comfortably in his elder years with a deep receding hair line stretched back from his dominant brow, his body was still military hardened – still a man of undeniable stature. “Welcome aboard, Commander Mayve,” the old admiral, dressed in his finest formal uniform, greeted her. Gavril nodded, confidently making her way toward the man, smiling. “Thank you, Sir.”
“This is such an exciting time in our history,” he replied with a deeply creased smile of his own on his dark face.
She stiffly halted, clicking the heels of her boots together as she stood before him, offering a salute “And for our future, Sir.”
The admiral returned her salute, “I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He laughed. “Enough already. Cut it with the ‘Sir’ crap.” He gently clasped his hands over each of her shoulders. “My only daughter is about to take part in an interstellar mission to explore the galaxy. Can we just set the formalities aside for now?
“For now. I suppose.”
They embraced for a moment before he gently pulled back, kissing her on the forehead.
“We’ll be in touch throughout your journey,” he said. “Good luck, Gavril. I love you.” He embraced her again, this time more firmly; a gesture that she graciously reciprocated.
“Thank you, Sir. I’m looking forward to it.”
The man rolled his ageless eyes at her continued use of formalities. It was just Gavril’s way – a way she had always been: proper and presentable. With a final kiss, planted again on her forehead, he made his way past her, heading for the Horiyou lift. The action caused every crew member to stop what they were doing, stand as pillars, and rigidly shower him with respect: stiffened fingers at the brow. The Admiral calmly boarded the lift; and as the door hissed shut, he returned the gesture.
Vaughn had been sidetracked, roaming about in his cabin, hoping to dodge the visit of the esteemed admiral. Thinking he had already made his rounds, he ventured out, walking through the corridors to the lift dock. Thoughts mulled around in his head: only a select few aboard ESURTA were of actual service to him and the success of this mission, as he deemed it. His demands were finally met; he had his crew. However. Would it be enough? The wonderment loomed over him like a restless specter, who beckoned only further questioning. If they chose to follow their own path would they be able to survive? Truly, would they find the necessary solutions? It would be his sole responsibility to delegate the appropriate commands – to decipher the answers.
Was it enough?
The Captain’s extended finger mashed into the wall panel, signaling the lift. As the door retracted, he was abruptly met by the very person he was attempting to evade. “Captain Mayve,” the man spoke deeply. “I’m certain that you have a bridge waiting for your command. Why aren’t you there doing so?”
“Just tying up loose ends,” Vaughn darted his eyes to the corners of their sockets, irritated.
The Admiral paused for a moment in thought, carefully choosing his words before he again addressed him, “Vaughn, they want to believe in you.”
Vaughn said nothing, still strafing away his gaze.
“Though many people disagree with the position you were given, Councilwoman Maedrill does not. And neither do I.” The man faintly smiled. “There is so much potential inside you waiting to be unlocked. They want to follow you; and they want to do so without a weapon in your hands. Son, you are a well decorated soldier,” he reached out and placed his experienced, dark hands to starkly contrast the paleness of Vaughn’s neck, further sliding his grip to a halt upon his broad shoulders, squeezing. “Now, become a well decorated leader.”
Vaughn managed a faint nod as his father let his hands hook downward, giving his biceps another squeeze before dropping them off to either side. Another brief smile mustered against his lips the wage against the silence. Eventually, steps were taken; the Admiral passed by the Captain. Vaughn stood quietly. He stared at the back wall of the empty lift, focused on nothing, trying to allow the bubbling irritation of their confrontation to subside before he entered.
The valuable words that were spoken had no impact. They never did.
“Bridge,” the Captain stated.
And the lift doors hissed closed.
The terminals were already manned by the time Vaughn had finally reached his destination. It was about to commence.
“Glad you could join us, Captain,” Gavril sincerely said with a smile.
The Captain made his way over to his sister, standing at her side. Together, they stared into the endless uncertainty of space.
“How are we looking?”
“Shields are online. ESURTA’s primary and secondary armors are functioning adequately. We are ready for departure,” said Kovac.
“You have the coordinates, Brake?” Vaughn questioned, keeping his attention focused on the glowing stars before him.
“Sure do, Cap! Just give the order and I’ll remove the dock locks.”
Rick happily obliged, pressing a combination of buttons as the heavy sounds of rescinding docking port locks were heard.
“Cap, we are currently in suspended standby!”
“Weapons are fully operational and awaiting your command.”
Vaughn nodded. “Engage the jump, Brake.”
Was it enough?
“Aye, aye, Cap!” Rick began fingering another smattering of buttons at his terminal. The ship slowly drifted forward, gingerly propelled by the pulse engines as ESURTA distanced itself from the C-shaped docking station. When the proper distance was met, Rick initiated the jump sequence. “Thirty seconds until drive execution.”
Were they enough?
Vaughn was unable to peel his eyes from the massive view screen. None of them could. And even though he still felt too coddled by his superiors, if only for an instant, he felt uneasy.
“Ten seconds until drive execution!”
Gavril swallowed down the dry lump in her throat and gently grabbed Vaughn’s hand, bombarded by a multitude of emotions. Though, with every anxiety ridden second that ticked by – transformed into the stepping stones for what would be her most treasured memory. Her grip tightened.
Tick. Butterflies were set free inside her stomach.
Tick. Her chest pounded with chaotic excitement.
Tick. All that she had ever strived for was to experience this very moment.
Was ESURTA enough?
Vaughn felt her clammy touch, unfazed as the ships engines began to fill with energy. He could sense what she was feeling; it wasn’t all that difficult to do. And if he dug deep enough, he could even on some level appreciate what was unfolding right in front of their eyes. It had been a time long past – a person he no longer was. But, as he delved into the pool of his tattered memories, the one retrieved and reflected upon with complete satisfaction was that of his initial launch. Cold hearted, maybe; though internally sensitive on occasion, Vaughn would not rob his sister of being able to reminisce in the same fashion. Knowingly, he squeezed her hand. They turned to each other in unison; their faces smothered by matching smiles. And with his free hand, Vaughn gently wiped his thumb underneath her left eye, brushing aside the welling tears. An act of empathy he’d show only to his younger blood.
The caged star had finally filled the fuel cores to full capacity.
“We’re green, Cap,” Rick informed. Unable to contain his own excitement, he rapidly tapped his chest like a double bass drum before abruptly stopping to again place his hands on the controls of his terminal.
Vaughn and Gavril shifted their attention back to the view screen, though they still clutched each other’s grasp.
Rick obliged. The stored energy poured from each core, feeding ESURTA’s massive engines. Within the blink of an eye, the ship was naught. Vanished in a streak.
If humans were an unknown variable within the numbing darkness of a world that held all worlds…
Was he enough?
The Trilobian’s knowledge of Earth and its people had been well established long before an olive branch was ever offered. The decision wasn’t met in high regard. Many deemed mankind an inferior species, unable to provide assistance to the dying planet of Brouva. Too barbaric. Too short sighted. Impulsive. Too involved in their own petty squabbles to ever have compassion for another race of beings. Though, searching for their strongest effort to eradicate the bloodthirsty invaders was only welcoming the inevitable, the Trilobian’s were cornered in desperation. Forced to take action. Brouva would fall. It was only a matter of time.
Something had to be done.
It was the human spirit, seen as the only redeemable trait, which finally convinced them. In fact, it tantalized the aliens. The studies showed that mankind was plastered with discrepancies in their character, but their will to survive was truly something to behold. The Trilobians had never witnessed anything quite like it; And to their knowledge, no other species possessed such a trait. If every outcome pointed to imminent destruction, humans could still press forward in an inspiring glimmer of contradiction. Where there is a will, there is a way. The mantra carried the beaten aliens, reviving their desires, spreading through them like wildfire. The once faithless populace now believed they could wrench free their planet from the invaders clutch. And eventually, after ten long years of treading in a living nightmare, success had been achieved.
Brouva was spared from annihilation.
Humanity had proved its worth. And as a token of their appreciation, the aliens gifted ESURTA to Earth as a bond of everlasting friendship between the two species.
Though the gift was not received without its limitations.
The aliens realized how headstrong humans were. They knew that giving a gift of such magnitude without guidance could ultimately destroy their comrades with their own wide-eyed ambitions. They wanted to aid mankind – enlighten them – not be the cause of their demise, thus implementing shackles that restricted ESURTA until they felt humans could handle the mighty ship unsupervised. And even at the aggressive recommendation that the captain be of Trilobian lineage, Earth’s Council decided against it. They bestowed the immense responsibility to the highly decorated war hero that had taken control of the dominant ship. The man who procured the embodiment of the human spirit. The slayer of odds: Captain Vaughn Mayve.
ESURTA snapped into view, joined by a pair of established warships. The bridge officers attention was immediately captured by the bulkier of the two escorts, fondly recalling the glory of its past. Pulse Engines would once again suffice as the crew crept closer. Vaughn smiled, released his grip on Gavril’s hand, and took a seat at his terminal. His elbows rested to either side of the padded arms, interlacing his fingers below his mouth, studying the bodyguards through the view screen. He wanted the pleasantries to be brief, if not rushed, as his eyes trailed downward to a large circular contraption embedded in the floor just a few feet from where he sat.
Vaughn waited for communication.
“Incoming—” stated Bazdik.
“Display it, Lieutenant.”
A static-laced, life-sized image slowly materialized from the contraption displaying a Trilobian showing age. Her skin was darker than Xuvectrin’s and a similar, curved bone sprouted from her skull. She looked dignified in her attire as she sat, legs crossed, holding a simple mug, undividedly commanding the attention of the bridge with sheer presence.
“To be honest, I was hoping you didn’t notice us,” Vaughn smugly stated.
The Trilobian faintly smiled; the radiant image flickered, Captain Mayve, my name is Zharra Vauless. I command the most esteemed ship in the Trilobian Fleet – the Vargralus, which, as you know, needs no introduction. However, that was a different time, and a different captain. For his efforts in the war, Captain Reyam was promoted, currently residing as a member of our Council. I will be his successor. It is my pleasure to finally meet you and help guide ESURTA to its next destination. The alien gently sipped from the mug.
Many of my kind believe humans to be ill equipped for solo exploration. Though, I am to point out that it is not our intention to insult you or your people. We will forever be in your debt and hold Earth, only, in the highest regard. Captain Mayve, you in particular will always have our gratitude and respect. And though our Council does not feel you are ready to venture forth alone, I however, feel it is not for us to decide. ESURTA was graciously given to you and your people with the knowledge that it may usher a new era in the growth of your culture, as well as the possibility for it to carry the weight of negative repercussions. I truly believe that if you were not ready to handle ESURTA, then you should not have been given her to begin with. Her voice was elegant inside of Vaughn’s head.
Vaughn could barely contain his relief and excitement. “Finally. Thank you. It’s so refreshing to—”
But, Captain, don’t misunderstand me. I do not have influence within the decisions of our Council. I am simply a solider with situational command…and I have my orders. My personal opinions do not have any effect on the outcome of our people’s agreement, and you will still need to accompany me to Brouva. I simply felt you should know that not all Trilobians share our Council’s beliefs. You should be given the chance to venture out as you deem fit, as it is my understanding that ESURTA is now undoubtedly in your possession. And deservedly so. She slightly shook her head, sipping once again. Unfortunately, that will be a discussion for a different time. Please, follow me to Dranvola Docking Station and you’ll be briefed—
“Another briefing? Really?”
That was not already explained to you by your Council? My orders—
“Captain, with all due respect, I’m getting completely fed up with all the hand holding bullshit. Do I really need to waste more time sitting in a room discussing whether or not I can strap on my big-boy pants?
The Trilobian Council…
Vaughn tilted his head in confusion as the alien trailed off. “What about them? Captain?” His eyes trailed around the bridge wondering if someone knew something he didn’t. “Captain Vauless?”
Still no answer.
My apologies, there’s—
“Captain, we’ve received the signature of a type-1 pod craft on long range scanners,” Kovac finally explained, typing away at his terminal. “It’s rapidly approaching our coordinates.”
“Were you expecting company, Captain?” Vaughn asked.
No, not to my knowledge. We have been given no diversion to our orders. At this time, we do not know the origin—
The unknown voice cut through Vaughn’s mind, surging like a sharpened spike. “Captain Vauless?”
Yes, Captain Mayve?
“What was that just now?”
Just now, Captain?
“You’re voice. It was—How’d you do that with your voice?”
What do you mean? I thought you understood our way of—
“Yes. I do. I get it. I get that,” he paused, “You didn’t just say ‘help me?’”
I did not. Are you alright, Captain Mayve? The subtle glow in her red eyes displayed genuine concern. I can give you a minute to subdue your anxiety; I know this must be—
“Again, Captain, no disrespect,” Vaughn’s voice was blunt, he was tired of being treated like a child, “but I liberated your people. I have no anxiety when it comes to this…field trip. Stop coddling me.”
My apologies, Captain.
“The pod will intersect us soon, Vaughn.” Kovac said, haphazardly keying buttons at his terminal, trying to keep up with the closing speed of the unknown object. Digital models of the two Trilobian warships were abruptly displayed, rotating just above his terminal along with the spherical craft, complete with cycling statistical information. “We have approximately one minute, forty seconds until it passes us.”
Vaughn barely heard the Commander, pitting his thoughts against whether or not the sudden request for aid was a mere coincidence with the emergence of the sphere, his own desires, or something more. He lackadaisically responded to Kovac, “Keep the shields up.” Dismissing further debate inside his mind, he settled on the latter. “Brake, I need a jump online.”
Captain, the jump system matrix still needs to cool down. If the governor triggers we will lose the functionality of our engines. Commander D’Easia quickly interjected, still stationed in the engine room. We would then require the Vargralus’ engineers to board us and reset the system, a costly reboot that would take time to complete. To prevent this, I’ll need seven more minutes for the C.S.M to fully process.
The alien wasn’t present on the bridge. Being the Chief Engineer, Commander D’asia would naturally be stationed in the engine room for immediate access to the star’s mainframe. She was able to hear her captain through an intercom in the contraption around her head, firmly connecting her to all bridge conversations at all times.
“Then keep me updated.”
The pod was now hurtling into view. It sped towards the small convoy of ships, refusing to reveal its intent as it surpassed speeds never before conceived for a craft of such miniscule stature. It was then that the berth of excited curiosity swelled within each officer on the bridge. They had only grazed their toes against the crust of the expedition and already there was an unexplained gem within their grasp begging to be analyzed.
And within seconds it was upon them.
Instantly, the concept of time was trounced to a crawl. Vaughn alone felt this phenomenon the moment he routinely blinked his eyes, and once again when he parted his lips to speak out in favor of it. The air around his body seemed to smother against him like a thickly chilled, woven blanket as he attempted to move. Though it was futile; his motions simply lagged well behind his desire to perform them.
At first, he stayed collected. His adequately trained mind systematically thumbed through his militaristic past, hoping he could apply a solution to the impossibility of this experience. There was no standard for this event. Vaughn sat in useless thought, engulfed in the nakedness of being left without an answer.
Only then did he begin to panic.
Vaughn’s sight was not to be trusted, left to decipher the muddled trails of color that traipsed across his vision with conjecture. His memory tried to soothe his racing thoughts, attempting to piece his surroundings back together as he knew them to be. It was useless. Frantically, he tried to force his body into relevance – to force his voice and command his officers, though, too, these actions further left him disoriented. ESURTA’s captain could only stand by helplessly as the bridge and everyone residing within it washed away into indistinguishable nonsense.
Vaughn tightly shut his eyes; his eyes were worthless.
His courageous desires plummeted to the lowest tier of cowardice, inducing a desperate attempt to scream. The rough, taut vibrations climbed from his sickened stomach and up along his throat as his ability to hear his shame vanished. Reluctantly, with erratic lungs, Vaughn reopened his eyes.
His existence was unveiled…
…And there was nothing.
The Captain found himself confronted by a binding shelter of infinite darkness. He was stilled, succumbing to fear, deafened by the incessant drumming of his heart as it impatiently collided against his tightened chest.
The immediate contrast to nestling fear instinctively circumvented his weakened state, steadying his doubts. His hardened mind finally began to fight back. Rage vivaciously exploded open his consciousness, allowing him a moment of clarity. Though still without a clear concept on how to defend himself, he’d at the very least summon a blaze of coarse grit before he’d be the prey of another.
It then struck him. Breath. Vaughn realized he was in fact breathing. There was indeed oxygen within the darkness. He clung tightly to that morsel of familiarity, feeling a shimmer of relief pulse through his rattled core.
His muscles corded, waiting for what was to stem from the silence.
Suddenly, a flickering, ominous beam of warm light collapsed from the endlessness above, and immediately Vaughn welcomed the comforting heat as he shielded his eyes from its blinding radiance. The beam then divided, breaking into several rays that effortlessly tamed the pitch. Vision would once again become an asset as the light slowly dimmed to a suitable level, allowing his confidence to solidify, convincingly staving off the trepidation that had knotted his thoughts.
He could feel it; the purpose was about to unfold.
A figure calmly materialized from the light in front of where the captain sat. After he struggled backwards, Vaughn quickly realized the benefit of standing, finding now that his movements were unhindered. He knotted his fists into white knuckled balls, settling into a defensive position, ready to react. Ready to pounce. There was nowhere to hide. He knew these waning seconds could be his last.
Even with the aura paling against them, the face of the cloaked figure stayed shadowed as it advanced, subtle in its intention, making no aggressive movements. Vaughn’s jaw tightened before he mustered the confidence to part his quivering lips and shout, “Who are you!?”
There was no response.
“What is happening!? Where’s my ship!? My crew! Where is my fucking crew!?” Again, every muscle in Vaughn’s body tightly folded; he would not tolerate silence. “Answer me!” Rage wouldn’t allow him to blink; his squinted eyes stayed transfixed on the silent being that still offered no reassurance its intent was without malevolence.
This would not do. A reliable tactic bloomed within the wake of his unanswered cries. If the being wouldn’t offer up answers with conversation then more drastic measures would need to be taken. Vaughn crouched down, having made up his mind. Though, at the very instance of mounting an attack, he found himself roughly restrained by an unseen force.
The figure finally spoke, “They are searching.... Do you understand?”
“Indeed, they are without mercy.”
“Indeed? What? Wh—”
“Help her discover the calm. Free her…”
Vaughn ignored the request, as his, too, were denied. He wasn’t afraid anymore; he was volatile. He mightily struggled against the invisible shackles, trying to pierce through with sheer determination. Sweat dripped from his brow. His teeth clamped upon one another, figuring with enough effort he’d soon be rewarded, yet the only thing he reaped was a fit of exhaustion. Vaughn made no progress. Not a single inch. The Captain tried to relax, stewed in thought, figuring on another angle to breach the obstacle, swallowing his breath in healthy gulps and expelling them as aggressively.
“Vaughn Mayve, you are a very unique specimen,” the being stated, poking fun at his struggles. “Are you ready to listen?”
He didn’t want to cooperate. It went against every fiber of his being to oblige with the shadowed figure. Though, knowing he was helpless, subject to whatever outcome the being desired, he quickly decided he would have to. It was the only clear option that would hopefully return him back to ESURTA. He further trimmed his aggression, swallowed the lump of fear in his throat, and through his glaring eyes, he nodded once.
“I’ve been watching you.”
“Who—What is going on? Where am I?” His questions this time were rested and concise.
“If you do not help me, Vaughn Mayve, then they will die. She will surely perish. And you will be solely to blame for the end of all things. We all must make sacrifices.”
Vaughn was overwhelmed by the dozens of questions his brain demanded he ask. He chose two. “Who are you? Who is ‘She?’”
“She is the one you will need to find. It must be you, Vaughn Mayve.”
“That’s what has been decided.”
Vaughn was getting nowhere. The answers only seeded new questions—more frustrating than the last. He did his best to remain calm. The being would communicate if he were calm. “Why must I help you? You’ve done nothing to prove to me that I should be trusting a single word you say.”
“You stand alive, don’t you? You should be content with this outcome.”
Vaughn smirked; it was the last thing he thought he’d find himself doing. “Cute.”
“Follow me, Vaughn Mayve, and I will show you. You will see. You will save them. You will save her.”
“Who is she? Just… can you at least give me a name?”
“Razieal. She is more important to your survival than you can possibly comprehend. Your war is not over. Your fight with the Gradahll is only beginning.”
The Gradahll. Vaughn’s teeth slowly strained against one another at the mere mention of the word. His fists once again balled tightly. The past that embodied his illustrious career now spanned his thoughts. He was taken back—driven to remember those atrocious plots of memory. It was the first time Vaughn’s eyes had fallen from the shadowed figure as his anger again began to boil.
Vaughn had defeated them already: the Gradahll. In fact, he was convinced every last one of the sickening species had been eradicated from existence. He had personally made sure of it.
It simply was not possible.
Vaughn’s breathing became erratic as he dove deeper through his vivid mind, remembering those who had fallen under his command. He spoke sternly, yet slowly, straining to stay collected. He once again made eye contact with the void encapsulated by the beings cowl, hatred oozing from his glare. “I killed all of them.”
“You did nothing of the sort.”
The quick dismissal of his most precious victory ignited his temper. “They are all dead! Do you fucking here me!? Dead! I killed every last one, and – oh, believe me – I’d gladly do it again!” Vaughn cut himself off, finding a shred of solace in the pit of his rage. “I’d do it again to rehash the absolute satisfaction I felt when I sent them all to hell.”
“I am aware that you fought against them in the past. I am also aware that you were victorious. It is the very reason why I must have your assistance in this matter, Vaughn Mayve. However, I assure you they do still exist…and in a remarkably vast quantity.” The figure stepped closer to the enraged captain.
“It isn’t possible. We destroyed their flagship. We made it a point not just to drive them from Brouva, but to make sure that we hunted every single one of them down. All the scraps! And we did.” Vaughn paused in thought, his anger melted away, replaced with remorse – replaced with regrets. “I lost…countless soldiers in doing so. Friends. Close friends. The only reason why…” He slowly swallowed another lump in his throat; he did this a few times before feeling comfortable enough to speak. “It cost so much… but… their deaths weren’t in vain.” When Vaughn stared at where he assumed the eyes of the being would be, he felt his own were saturated in sadness. “What you’re saying isn’t possible.”
“We understand the sacrifices that were made. I was sent to observe your war with the Gradahll. And though to you, and the Trilobians, it may have seemed immense, it was only a lowly fraction. Brouva was only meant to be devoured and reconstituted as a resource planet. The Gradahll use these planets as strongholds to create their soldiers. And before your victories, the Gradahll had never once been challenged, let alone stricken down in defeat.
“We observed your fight. Though we couldn’t interject; it was our wish that we would finally discover those that could stand against them without our aid. It pleased us deeply that you not only kept them from destroying Brouva, but also to witness your unrelenting desire to give chase in their retreat and further damage their forces. It was indeed remarkable…and admirable. As I said before, Vaughn Mayve, you are a very unique specimen.
Now, please, follow my transport. We must have you distanced from the Trilobians, they will only interfere. There isn’t much time. She must be found immediately.”
Vaughn stood in the deafening silence, mulling over the information that was given. He was stunned, unable to grasp that his tireless efforts hadn’t laid waste to the warmongering species; that his comrades had fallen without being properly avenged. And if that were the truth – if the Gradahll still existed – he would spend no more time debating it. The time for disbelief and pride were at an end.
There was work to be done.
“I will help you. I will find Razieal. And I swear I will kill them all.”
“You’ve made a wise decision, Vaughn Mayve.” The figure rushed toward the distraught captain whose body rigidly braced for imminent impact. And in a solid smack of searing light, life resumed as normal.
Slowly, Vaughn blinked his eyes, seeing the bridge once again operate around him. He was sitting at his terminal, left dampened by a cold sweat.
Captian Mayve? Captain, are you okay? Captain Vauless questioned.
Vaughn’s eyes shifted to the alien whose digital self still sat across from him. “Yes… Yes. I’m fine.”
You are sure? You sound unconvinced. The alien paused. You appear, as your people would say, ‘shaken.’
“I’m fine, Captain. Just tell me… where is that pod?”
I had just finished stating to you that when the Vargralus is operational we’ll retrieve it. But you must stay a distance away. We are unclear of the crafts motives and do not want to place you in harms way.
Vaughn stared off in thought.
You are sure you are okay?
“Yes!” He collected himself. “Yes. I’m okay. Just tell me where the pod went.”
We do not know. Our scanners and our engines are dysfunctional at the moment; however, our weapons are still functional. We are currently diagnosing the situation. So please, I implore you to stand by. The image across from him dissipated.
“Xuvectrin.” Vaughn shakily stood up, slightly woozy, wiping the beaded sweat from his forehead.
“It seems our escort appears to be pretty useless at the moment. If you ask me, they can’t properly protect us. I don’t intend to wait around and see if they can prove otherwise. Can we make a jump yet?”
We can, Captain, in seven minutes.
Seven minutes? Was time disrupted? Was it all in my head? Logic didn’t seem to favor him of late. Vaughn decided that trying to figure out if what he experienced had actually happened was pointless, and instead wondered if anyone else was subjected to it. The Captain quietly studied his crew’s behavior. They all seemed quietly involved at their stations, and judging by their blatant lack of fear, he deduced that he was indeed the only one the being had spoken with.
“Vaughn?” Gavril stood from her terminal and walked to him. “Can I speak with you for a minute?”
“I don’t have time right now, Gavril.”
“You may be able to fool Captain Vauless, but don’t think for a second I’m as gullible.”
Vaughn turned to her, trying to dismiss her concern. “I’m -- Gav, really, I’m fine, okay? Can you—”
“Vaughn, you sat there dead silent, completely removed from reality; I watched you the entire time. And you’re covered in sweat.” His sister reached out and gently grabbed his arm. “What’s going on with you?”
Vaughn shrugged her off, deciding to keep what transpired to himself for the time being. “Commander Kovac, are we still tracking the pod on long range scanners?”
“We still have it, Captain. But I hope you aren’t thinking of chasing after it without the Vargralus. That would be—”
“Kovac, I really don’t give a shit about one of your lectures right now.” Vaughn turned his attention to Rick. “Brake?”
“Lock on the coordinates of the pod and set a course on my command.”
“Aye, aye.” Rick grinned. He was most likely the only one that unabashedly shared his captain’s willingness to proceed without the alien transport. He quickly began pressing buttons at his terminal.
The image of Captain Vauless materialized once again, Captain, we’ve detected that you’ve initiated a jump sequence. Again, I implore you to wait for our engines to—
“Sorry, Captain.” Vaughn leaned back against the edge of his terminal. “I’ve got an itch… The best I can tell you is to try and keep up. We’re going to intercept that pod.”
The official order is to cease what you’re about to do, Captain. It is a direct order from your Council that you comply with the standards that we have implemented. If you decide to disobey those orders I will undoubtedly request that you are promptly pulled from your rank and deemed unqualified of your command. I can assure you that you will be dishonorably discharged without hesitation.
Vaughn smirked, nearly laughing at the threat. He rubbed the prickly stubble on his chin. “Well we can avoid all that if you’d just tell me what’s in that pod. Otherwise, I’ll be finding out for myself.”
It is not my intention to withhold information from you. At this time we do not know. Please refrain from any action you are about to take. Your career depends on it.
Her words weren’t completely ignored by Vaughn. He did spare a handful of seconds to the risk that he was going to take. The information that was laid out for him was beyond important, or so the being said. The Council be damned if they tried to stop him. All be damned who tried to stop him! Nothing was going to convince him to take a different course of action. Not if the Gradahll were involved. Vaughn stared deeply into the eyes of Vauless, creasing a coy smile at his lips. “Fire the engines, Brake.”
“Aye, aye, Cap!”
The image of the alien captain dissipated as the star’s energy bled into the ship’s massive engines. The jump commenced and ESURTA was instantly dashed from sight.
ESURTA snapped into view.
The ship hummed quietly within the orbit of an uncharted planet. The signal of the pod had trekked them a ways from their intended rendezvous point; and for now, it seemed the brash captain would get his wish to explore the wonders of the universe on his own terms.
Vaughn stood alone in more ways than one. The crew wasn’t shocked by his actions; in fact, they were quite use to his impulsiveness. It certainly wasn’t the first time he had disobeyed direct orders, and frankly, the odds were favorable that it wouldn’t be the last. Even so, it was unanimously decided, by the shared silence of the crew, none of them wanted to be paired with his antics.
They could of course refuse. Each officer still had the choice to discontinue their services. They knew that if they obeyed further orders and operated ESURTA any further they too would be held accountable for their actions, stamped as accessories to Vaughn’s course altering decision. This is what they mulled over the longest. Was it worth it to continue? …Standing stoically within the silence…Eyes glaring at their captain.
Vaughn didn’t care. Vaughn never cared. Though, he kept himself buried in thoughts of his own as he stared through the massive view screen before him, attempting to figure out possible scenarios in which he could retrieve the pod from the docile planet it led him to. And if need be, how he could accomplish such a feat on his own. Firstly, he noticed the obvious comparisons of his home world and this new planet. There was blue, crisp water, greenish brown land masses marbleized by extensive mountain chains, and wispy cloud accents that swirled about as they cascaded throughout the atmosphere. The only real difference was simply that there were no signs of intelligent life dwelling upon its surface. No sight of glamorous cityscapes, no bright lights, no satellites. Nor greed. Nor Narcissism. Nothing. At least that’s what ESURTA’s auto-scan indicated, prompting the information to his terminal. The uncivilized orb was an unscathed jewel, flourishing with a plethora of priceless, practical resources.
And finally the silence was cracked.
“That’s one quick son-uva-bitch! Am I right?” Rick exclaimed, not being able subdue his excitement any further. He twisted around in his padded seat with a wide grin, facing the rest of the crew, looking for acknowledgement. Rick didn’t much care about being discharged from the I.S.O. As it was, he was barely apart of the organization, there solely on Vaughn’s recommendation. His only desire was to fly. Nothing else seeped into his consciousness. And because of this, he unintentionally sided with the captain’s selfish decisions.
Vaughn knew that would always be the case. Rick was a thrill seeker; he knew he could always count on his pilot.
Rick glanced about the bridge, expecting everyone to be as elated as he was. This was it. This was why they were out here, he thought, to explore, to discover. Though, as his eyes bounced from one person to the next, he realized this must not be the case. No one twitched so much as a courtesy smile; no one was in the mood to. The bridge stayed frozen, like disapproving statues, fixed on Vaughn. Nearly unblinking. Rick’s grin slowly deflated and his excitement was forcibly bottled, now aware of the every other officer’s discontent. Quietly in defeat, he swiveled back around to his face his terminal, puttering around with routine scans that ESURTA had performed.
And then he noticed something. Something odd was blinking on his mainframe: ESURTA had relentlessly burned through the jump’s maximum capacity, well beyond the restriction of the governor. Somehow the device had been disabled, leaving the distributor coils to freely allow searing hot energy through the ship’s intricate engine systems. Rick was stunned, utterly baffled at how this could even happen. ESURTA should have crippling hull breaches throughout its navigational sectors. The ship should be prompting the immediate evacuation of the entire crew. Though even then, the damage would have been too crippling. There would have been no warning. The core containing the star would have ruptured, exploding a supernova that would have eliminated every last trace of the spaceship and its crew.
But ESURTA was not only still intact; the ship suffered no damage. Nevertheless, Rick’s shock didn’t linger. The full lips of his mouth mangled into a magnificent smile that was further accented by the amazement in his wide, screaming eyes. Rick attempted to relay the readings of his terminal, though it was useless, his emotions snuggly tackled his voice, stuttering his words with incoherent garble. He had to settle for a quick information transfer, relaying what he saw to each officer’s terminal. They wouldn’t be able to ignore the incessant beeping that followed, and one by one, each of them scraped their attention away from Vaughn, peering down at the message in front of them. And one by one, they too quickly joined Rick in confused delight.
Vaughn was the only one who ignored the beeping message. He spoke, keeping his focus on the planet. “Honestly, I don’t give a shit if you’re all pissed. I really don’t. You didn’t see what I saw… you didn’t hear what I heard.”
They only half heard him.
“Vaughn…,” Gavril said, keeping her focus on her terminal, checking and double checking to see if the information Rick sent was accurate. Always a being who believed in the need of definitive proof to accept that an impossible action could have a realistic outcome, she responded to Vaughn, dismissing the message. “You do realize that this will not end well for you.”
The captain’s eyes finally broke their strangle hold on the view screen, turning from it, ignoring Gavril, and addressing the bridge once again. “Something happened when the pod intersected us. Something happened to me.”
“What happened, Vaughn?” Gavril quietly asked, still the only one paying attention to him.
Vaughn briefly acknowledged her before continuing, “I’m going to need you all to… just trust me. What we are about to do is more important than anything you could possibly imagine. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
There was no answer, only busy fingers fluttering about on keyboards. Gavril lost interest in his words as well, finding the kiosk much more interesting.
“If we were at war—”
“Vaughn, this isn’t a war.” Kovac blurted out as he stared at his kiosk, with the hope that it would keep his captain from speaking. He needed to concentrate. “When are you going to get that through your thick skull?” The commander shook his head with disbelief. He couldn’t rationalize an answer as to why they weren’t utterly obliterated.
Vaughn opened his mouth to retort; Kovac sensed him doing so and swiftly cut him off, “I told you before we left that this wasn’t meant to be an involved military mission. It isn’t why we are out here.”
“Oh, but it is. It certainly is. The pilot of that pod told—”
Kovac looked up from his terminal and glared at Vaughn. “What pilot? What are you talking about? Sensors indicated there were no life forms aboard the craft. You’d know that if pulled up your pants, checked your terminal, and discontinued your obsession with shitting on every boundary you encounter. ”
“There will be another war.”
The baffled Commander took a short moment to process what his captain said. “Vaughn, I usually stand by your decisions. You know that. We’ve fought together. We’ve had success. You know I seldom question you because you typically don’t stray completely off the cuff without good reason. But not only are you refusing to follow a direct order—”
“Kovac, if they want to demote me, then so be it. If they want to discharge me, I don’t really care.”
“Well then,” he smirked and lowered his gaze to the information on his kiosk. “we can certainly agree on something. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say: None of us really care what happens to you.”
“Appreciate the sentiment, Kovac.” Vaughn’s mind struggled to find a way to convince them. He knew he needed their support. If he was to have any chance at all at obtaining that pod – finding Razieal – he needed his crew to stand with him, not divided – not against him. “People look,” though none of them broke concentration with their stations, “we are on the brink of something special here. You all want to discover new frontiers? You all want to be apart of something much bigger than yourselves? Right?”
There wasn’t a response. There was only an unenthusiastic stirring among the officers.
Vaughn needed to find a better angle. He decided to stop dancing about and exercise what he considered a ‘sure thing’. “Lux.” He quickly singled out his Weapon’s Officer. Sara reluctantly looked at him. “I know you agree with me, Lux.”
“Vaughn…I – Did you even read the message Rick just sent everyone?”
Message? What message? Fuck the message! Who fucking cares? His thoughts lapsed with frustration. He needed her to side with him; the rest would follow if he had her support. Many still believed Sara would have been a more desirable selection as captain of this expedition. It was something Vaughn himself was aware of, which was precisely why he needed her.
They would listen. To her they would listen.
Vaughn swiftly pointed at the Greenish-blue orb that now completely filled the ship’s view screen. “I know you want to step foot on that planet. Something no human has ever done before. And not only humans, Lux, but no one has. Not even the almighty Trilobians know about this place. We would be the first species to explore this planet. You could be the first of us to step into its soil. I can guarantee it.”
“Guarantee what? That I’ll be the first to step on the surface or that it truly is an uncharted planet.”
“Just. Just shut up and look over the probe history. I’m sure it’ll concur that no one knows about this place.”
Sara wanted to object. She wanted to grab his head and smash his face into the monitor, forcing him to read the message, maybe then he’ll shut his mouth and let them analyze what transpired without interruptions. Though even then it wouldn’t be that easy, Sara knew Vaughn too well, he’d take a peak, dismiss it, and continue on anyway. So, instead, she gave in, and sought out ESURTA’s probe history with her terminal.
It was true. Sara did want to step foot on the planet. It was also true that she’d want to be the first to do so, especially if it was a planet discovered by humans. She wanted to explore it, test it – compare its lush contents to that of Earth’s. Seek out new creatures. Be apart of something that was so much bigger than she. It was the exact reason why she accepted the Council’s offer. Why she’d put up with an inferior commanding officer. She wanted to put her militaristic past behind herself and begin a fresh chapter in her life that was guided by her heart – not by the need to survive, but to nourish. It was those thoughts that convinced her to read over the scans. And to her utter disbelief, he was right. The records of every known galaxy and the planets, stars, and moons within them plainly stated that the coordinates at which they currently resided had not yet been discovered by the Trilobians or any other species that they had come in contact with. It was genuinely an uncharted area of the universe, and it beckoned to her as the spring board to stake Earth’s claim in the cosmos. She had no idea how Vaughn knew, but she didn’t care much. Gently, still filled with the shock of ESURTA’s engines having not vaporized them all, she trailed her doubly enthralled, crystal blue eyes from the glow of the kiosk, settling them back on Vaughn. A pause. A smile. And she excitedly questioned, “Can I name it?”
Vaughn began to smile as well. “Sure thing, Lux. Go ape shit. Do whatever.” The captain, having reeled her in, decided to again address the bridge. “I’m asking the rest of you to trust me, too. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t of the utmost importance.” It was a blatant lie; and they all new it was a blatant lie. It was a well known fact that Captain Vaughn Mayve was a loose cannon. There wasn’t a member of the I.S.O. (at any rank) that hadn’t acquainted themselves with his lengthy file. His rogue actions and disrespectful antics were infamously legendary among everyone who was apart of the organization. They all knew he couldn’t care less about the guidelines and regulations the I.S.O. sought to enforce; and they also were completely aware that it never took a whole lot for Vaughn to haphazardly cast the rule book into irrelevance.
But it all was moot; his tactic had paid off. He had Sara’s attention. The rest would soon follow.
Sara took another glance at the readings, exhaling sharply. “Okay, Vaughn. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, or what the hell happened to you back there, or why ESURTA isn’t a pile of stardust, but…”
Vaughn’s face scrunched in confusion. “Stardust?”
Sara ignored him, feeling the stares of the officers as they awaited her response. “I’m in.” She nodded with a stiff smile. “Vaughn. I… don’t know why, but you have my support. I’ll help you find the pod.”
Now Vaughn’s eyes were fastened to the others in wait. And eventually, like wobbly pins toppling over one another – one by one – they each agreed to aid him in the retrieval of the mysterious pod.
“If we are going to do this,” Gavril said, wriggling in her seat, straightening her posture. “we’ll need to take precautions.”
What an ugly word precaution was, Vaughn thought. She might as well have said: Sorry, but I want to waste everyone’s time so I feel important and engaged. The captain smirked.
“We’re going to approach this my way, as a scientist would. I don’t want to leave any angle to chance. We’ll need to know everything there is to know about the craft before we attempt to find and retrieve it.” The officers all nodded their agreement. Vaughn rolled his eyes, though he, too, joined the response with an unenthused nod of his own. “We’ll need to first figure out how that little craft was able to travel at such a ludicrous speed without a star backing it. Kovac. Bazdik. Can the two of you please review the data ESURTA collected from the moment the pod blipped on our radar to the moment it landed on the planet? I need a detailed comparison to not only ESURTA’s engine schematics, but every available ship in the memory bank. See if there’s anything that can give us a hint as to what we experienced. The more we know about the inner workings of the craft itself, the better off we can approach the situation. And further more, we need to figure out how the governor was disabled and why the core reactor wasn’t compromised.”
“It’s a waste of time Gavril. We—”
“Well, I’d like more than just your word. I want proof.”
“Proof that you’re wasting my time? Sure, okay. You’ll have your proof when the Trilobians catch up to us, board us, relieve us of our stations, and escort us to the Vargralus. We can then all sit together quietly inside the cozy offerings of the brig, pondering why in the hell didn’t we just dig in, grit our teeth, and make history.”
Gavril wasn’t amused, smothering the voice in her head that screamed: he’s right! “Did you, or did you not agree to my methods.”
“Whatever, Gav. We’ll do it your way.” He slumped to one side of his seat, bracing his elbow on the arm, cradling his face. “Let’s just hope you don’t ruin our lives.”
What a melodramatic, impatient, fool. She addressed both Kovac and Bazdik. “Get back to me as soon as possible with your findings.”
“Yes, Commander,” the two of them stated in unison, hastily setting to work.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
As it was, the only conceivable way to traverse across the universe at such an incredible speed was by the use of a jump processor and a star to fuel it. Every known interstellar ship was bound to these rules. However, as they were now witness to, the miniscule pod had miraculously achieved high speed travel with neither of those necessities. And not only was it fast, it had successfully out run ESURTA without nearly the effort of the more robust ship. By all rights this wasn’t possible. The possibility of the impossible stood as the singular attraction that would’ve fulfilled the crew’s wildest expectations. Simply being able to analyze such an event was more than they could have hoped for so early on in their expedition. And adding the fact that a select few of them would actually have the privilege to set foot on a planet that had not yet been recorded in any known star chart enticed their curious minds. With every breath, the bridge officers, as well as every technician, engineer, and scientist present, filled the air with the hope that it was to be so. Earth would gain the sole right to claim the planet, barring, of course, that it was uninhabited by intelligent life.
Though not every crew member was stymied with excitement, Vaughn, it seemed, as usual, would stand as the contrary, showing no interest in the spherical craft, its ability to travel at an electrifying speed, or more importantly, being the captain of humanity’s groundbreaking stake at an unknown planet. He turned to Rick, hoping that he, too, wouldn’t get wrapped up by these views – assuming the pilot would stay concentrated on the more important matter: Vaughn’s satisfaction. More action; less wonder. However, even to ESURTA’s commonly restless pilot, the discovery was just too engaging to ignore.
It was an opportunity. Rick knew it. It was a prime chance to try his hand at something new. If they could figure out the inner workings of the pod, they could attempt to duplicate the technology, thus rendering a new toy for him to test, and ultimately, to master. As it was, Rick retained extensive knowledge on most engines capable of interstellar travel. He found no better way to spend his time. His crooked grin stretched his face at the thought of adding to his repertoire, leaving Vaughn to stew alone with his objections.
ESURTA’s captain had no knowledge of engines. No scientific curiosity. He had nothing he could offer to hasten their progress. He didn’t even understand how the intricate engines of the very ship he commanded. A linear set of rails grounded his desires. Always the impulsive soldier. Always more comfortable with action and reaction. To Vaughn, functionality was all that mattered. If the engines were in working order, fantastic; if they weren’t, then order someone to repair them. Keep moving forward. Always move forward. His brain knew no other way. Naturally, he’d happily leave the ‘how’ and ‘why’ end of the mechanical spectrum to whoever he could. Typically, that someone would be Commander Luxidon, for it was her curious mind that aided the Trilobians in amplifying the destructive power of not only ESURTA, but every warship in their fleet. Vaughn may have been the recognized force behind each painstaking, war brazed victory, but it was Sara who engineered the stopping power to enable him to do so.
The Captain lazily slumped further in the seat, sliding deeper into his thoughts as he waited for them to finish wasting his time. He felt the seconds sickeningly tick with what seemed like years in between, and frequently, he expressed his distaste with a flurry of overdramatic sighs. No one paid any heed to his displeasure. They were too busy – too excited – like playful children. And try as he might, Vaughn couldn’t figure how long before the Vargralus would catch up with them. The only thing that kept him from lashing out was the chance that the warship never would.
While the crew worked – with incredible fluidity – they unanimously decided not to keep their captain updated on the status of their findings. Not right way anyway. It would only slow the process – and Vaughn wouldn’t care either way. They were also aware that the stubborn Captain would only remain docile for so long, as patience was something his personality was ill equipped to handle. Diligence was their top priority
On occasion, when Vaughn wasn’t fiddling with the personal settings of his terminal, he did observe the crew at work. He noticed the lack of expressions on their overtly focused faces, and how their fingers effortlessly weaved across the keypads at their kiosks, seeming as if they never made an error – seeming like dull, lifeless robots. Like… morons. Useless morons. And as his impatience nestled more comfortably into the thralls of fatigue, his posture began to further bow…his eyelids became heavier…until softly, they sealed shut.
In the darkness of his mind Vaughn was cradled by the sporadic, subtle noises of the bridge. The hum of scrolling schematics. The pulsating execution of beeps and blips from system overrides.
The clacking of keystrokes.
What could possibly be so important?
It was the lasting question that echoed through his failing consciousness as his muscles abnormally relaxed, his guard dropping, and before he realized it, he was fast asleep.
The eloquent voice stirred inside his muddled head. Colors and scratchy lines. Stagnate images of the past trampled his slumber. He saw the faces of horror – the actions of regret. They tightened each muscle in his body.
Energies melted away. The shadows digressed. And soon the slate was blank. His emotions lessened as he felt himself float to the surface. The gentle voice inside his head teetered his consciousness from the cusp of coarse nightmares, offering him back into reality.
Please acknowledge, Captain Mayve.
Vaughn’s slickened eyelids separated. His clouded vision welcomed him back to a still buzzing bridge.
“Yeah?” He groggily muttered, coughing to clear his throat. “Yes? What is it Commander D’asia?”
Diagnostics have been completed, Captain.
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” he said, not bothering to mask his disinterest.
As you know, we’ve exhausted the cell stabilizers well beyond their capacities, yet suffered no ill consequence from that action. However, by doing so, we were able to travel farther and at a higher rate of speed than ESURTA was thought to be capable of.
Good. Who cares? Glad to hear it, he thought, deciding to keep quiet, assuming it would continue moving the jargon along.
It was determined that the ships’ E.R.G. had been overridden by a string of coding implemented into the computer’s S.F.M. systems. It was integrated by an unknown, outside source. Xuvectrin relayed the textual values of the code to Vaughn’s terminal, to which he stared at blankly. He didn’t care – didn’t understand it. And then his posture abruptly straightened; his eyes widened with a realization. “Do we have an intruder? Are—”
I’ve already enabled a complete DNA scan of every biometric rhythm stationed on ESURTA, as well as one for every known species in the main computer. No intruders were detected. Every crewmen assigned to the ship is well and accounted for. We deduced that the codes were likely transferred by an encrypted signal released by either a pilot in the sphere or the sphere itself, as we could not determine whether or not there was a life-form aboard.
Vaughn relaxed, slumping back into his seat. “There’s a pilot flying that pod. It must have been him.”
Our scans were inconclusive.
Instead of arguing, the captain ignored the comment, knowing in his gut that something was indeed inside the pod.
Though, as potentially dangerous as the script of coding is, it’s still utterly fascinating. It contains equations we have yet to realize. Would you like me to attempt an explanation of its functionality to you?
“Hm?” Vaughn shook his head free of thoughts. “No. No that’s okay. Thank you.”
Of course, Captain. It is also interesting to know that whoever or whatever constructed the coding did so with extensive knowledge of Trilobian technology. It is fully compatible with all of ESURTA’s operating systems. Though, I’m sure you already figured that out, seeing as we are still in one piece.
The script utilized the stored energy within ESURTA’s distributor coils, bypassed the E.R.G., and ignited the core reactor. From there, the searing hot energy was uncharacteristically cooled, and in a way, chemically altering itself into a fuel we have no known knowledge of. The cooled fuel was then discharged into the jump processor, thus, forcing the engines to generate the speed we experienced.
The only issue is, as ESURTA exceeded its energy parameters, the core reactor should have breached, vaporizing us instantly, yet it didn’t. It was instead stabilized, admirably, by the unnaturally cold temperature of the unknown fuel.
“I thought I said not to explain—”
Apologies, Captain. But I believe you should be aware of the basics.
“The basics, huh? Well… thank you, I guess.”
One last thing, Captain.
The pod was utilizing an identical coding script to enable its own engines, that being the reason why it was able to attain such a high rate of speed. It would seem that the pod downloaded the coded information into our S.F.M. systems in order to allow us to keep pace with it. Theoretically, with further analysis, it’s possible that the codes could be applied to the entire Trilobian fleet, ultimately eliminating the need for a star to propel our ships. It truly is a fascinating discovery.
“Seems like it.”
Apologies again, Captain. I don’t mean to… I’m just overly excited by—
“So, basically, what this all comes down to is…we’re faster than we were before?”
Indeed, Captain, we are. Exceedingly so.
Vaughn shrugged with a smile. “Fantastic. Sounds like we lucked out. Anything else I should know?”
Well…Yes. Though ESURTA can now function at a much higher rate of speed, I don’t advise the continued use of the implemented script unless it is absolutely necessary and recommend that we default back to ESURTA’s original navigational programming. The upgrades are of a foreign nature, created by an unauthorized, outside source. There are too many unknown variables to assure the integrity of the ship’s operating systems and stability of the core reactor under these circumstances. Though, if you are convinced otherwise, I will leave the script installed as is and proceed on with the upgrade intact.
That wasn’t at all what he wanted to hear. A faster ship is a better ship. A better ship meant that all this mundane analyzing would actually be worthwhile which treaded more along the lines of his fancy. But, even Vaughn couldn’t ignore the Trilobian’s warning. “It seems like a useful upgrade, Commander. Very useful indeed. And we should utilize it. …But if you feel it could endanger ESURTA and the lives of everyone aboard, then I can’t allow it to stay as is.”
Understood, Captain. I will delete—
Vaughn thought for a moment. “Is there someway to splice the script? Maybe… Maybe section it off? Sort of… put it aside and save it for a rainy day?”
I could encode an overriding program to mask the upgrade from the Sequential Functions Manifest. That way it won’t be recognized as a needed process to activate the Jump Processor, effectively bypassing it. Furthermore, it will also keep the information intact in our system’s memory.
“Good. Do that instead of deleting it.”
Although, I cannot guarantee that I can recover the foreign upgrades once this is done. As I said before, the coding is incredibly sophisticated, possibly beyond my comprehension, which will render it vulnerable to corruption if it is tampered with. Even though I will not be editing the script upgrade itself, creating a program to hide it in this fashion could still compromise its functionality.
“Well…it’s a better option than eliminating it outright, yes? At least we’ll still have a shot to get future use out of it.”
“And you’re sure that it’s safe to have it stick around in our systems?”
It is, Captain.
“How long will it take to write your program?”
I should have it completed in approximately two hours.
“Fantastic.” Vaughn sat up in his seat, arching his back with a deep yawn, tensely stretching his fists high above his head before standing up from his terminal. He quickly glanced about looking for his sister.
“Oh, finally awake?”
He wheeled around with a smirk. “Just finished speaking with Xuvectrin, actually… So, how much of my time did you people waste, Gavril?”
His twin’s glare was reactive and short lived. “Forty… something minutes? Maybe? I don’t know. Must you always be an ass?”
Vaughn’s smirk grew. “And what’s the verdict? Is the planet habitable? Can we mosey on down now?”
“We haven’t determined that yet.”
“Really?” he already figured as much, nevertheless, it wasn’t the answer he desired. Though he remained calm, the chains of anger sunk in their hooks, tugging at his composer. “Gavril, maybe you fucking should determine it. The Vargralus could be en route as we speak. Could be here now. Or seconds from now. It’s possible. I have no clue, but it’s possible. This whole thing you’re doing could be for nothing if they spot us. And still, here you are…dicking around with nonsense and bullshit. So, light a fire under your ass and pick up the pace, sis. Yes?”
“Asshole,” she muttered and walked away.
“Oh. And find out if the atmosphere is breathable. Kind of a big deal.”
From the moment Vaughn gave the order to abandon the Vargralus, Gavril made it known she wasn’t completely sold on the idea. She was even less so now that her brother was insulting her methods. She was perfectly content with dissecting the raw data – they all were. There was even a chance that if Captain Vauless did intercept them, she’d act upon a more lenient punishment when presented with a plethora of theories derived from solid evidence on how to eliminate their current energy source and continue forward with the vastly more efficient upgrades they discovered. They’d be doing the entire Trilobian fleet an immense favor; it was the only saving grace.
As ESURTA’s scanners continued to compile plenty of information to adequately occupy everyone on board, the crew began to worry that Vaughn would eventually prevent them from indulging in dissecting the data. He was already growing more impatient as the seconds ticked by and it wouldn’t be long before he commanded the crew to do otherwise.
So many questions still hadn’t been paired with answers.
“Has anyone at least pinpointed the location of the pod yet?” Vaughn’s eyes scanned around for an answer as he boldly addressed the bridge.
“I have,” Kovac responded, “awhile ago actually… about five minutes after you had fallen asleep.”
Vaughn rolled his eyes. “And?”
“It’s strange… After analyzing the damage report on the pod, I’ve determined that it didn’t land intentionally. It crashed. So, I’m not entirely convinced this planet was at all its actual destination.”
“Data doesn’t lie, come here,” Kovac beckoned to Vaughn with a nod of his head. “I can explain it better on the kiosk.” He didn’t need to be shown, he thought as he walked over to his Tactical Officer, peering down over the man’s broad shoulders.
“Here. Right here,” Kovac tapped on the screen.
“What?” Vaughn squinted at the nonsensical jargon.
“Review the trajectory of the pod’s decent, and the amount of damage it sustained. Look.” Kovac again tapped at the screen; though this time he traced the erratic route of the pod with his index finger, quickly pointing out the correlation between that and ESURTA’s scans of the pod’s hull. “It lost control well before approaching these coordinates. Maybe an engine ruptured? Maybe the pilot lost conciseness? I can’t really determine the cause with so many of its systems destroyed. Could have been anything.”
“Okay.” Vaughn stared at the screen. “But it’s still intact though, right? It didn’t explode or anything like that, right?”
Kovac sighed, knowing now Vaughn was completely unable to read the data presented to him, for if he were able, he wouldn’t be asking such questions. Even though the Commander enjoyed pointing out Vaughn’s ignorance whenever he could, he maturely side-stepped the pending insults and answered his captain’s question. “No. The hull wasn’t terribly damaged. If its engines are as advanced as we believe they are its safe to deduce that the plating of the hull is too.” Kovac briefly cornered his vision up to Vaughn, witnessing frustration furrow the man’s brow. “Anyway…” Kovac trained his sight back to the kiosk. “Our scans took some time, but the data we’ve retrieved discovered that the pod had some type of cloaking grid enabled, which is why we weren’t able to detect any life-forms present in the craft.”
“But. It appears that in a few minutes the energy field that is currently stabilizing the cloak will have a system failure. With any luck, our scanners will be able to penetrate the hull and tell us if anyone is inside.”
“I don’t need scans to tell me that. I already know someone is.”
“Your gut speaking to you again?”
“I’m sure it doesn’t.”
“When will we know when the energy field has dissipated?”
“Basically, when this green marker here,” Kovac pointed out the glowing light on the screen. “turns red.”
Vaughn watched intently at the tiny glowing marker, screaming at it with his thoughts to change color.
“It’s at seven percent,” Kovac said.
Vaughn began to smile, knowing he can finally lay to rest the fact that an alien resided in the pod all along.
“Two percent. And… there you have it. A systems failure.” Kovac tapped away at the keyboard, engaging a focused scan of the pod’s hull.
“Give me a minute.”
“You’ve had long—”
“You know, Vaughn, neither humans nor Trilobians have successfully developed effective cloaking technology. I honestly don’t care too much about whether or not there’s a pilot inside. If we could just take a few days to go over the data we could make huge leap in CT Shielding. It would—”
Vaughn sighed loudly. “Fortunately what you think isn’t important. Tell me there’s a pilot inside that pod!”
Kovac frustratingly shook his head and read over the newly transmitted information. “Scans show that even though the pod is perfectly capable of acting without a pilot… There is indeed a life-form inside.”
Vaughn immediately felt a lofty smile stretch his face.
“In addition, it appears to be what we would consider a male, though, his species doesn’t match any in the ship’s memory systems. But, the life signs are stable… And he isn’t making any attempts to disembark from the pod.”
“He’s waiting for me. I know he is,” Vaughn addressed quietly to himself. “Where exactly on the planet did he crash?”
Kovac’s fingers, again, nimbly keyed in commands in order to pinpoint the pod’s exact coordinates. “A mountain chain. Looks to be… the Northern-west hemisphere. Right here.” Kovac tapped what appeared to be a map of the planet’s land masses until video feed of the damaged, spherical vessel was in plain view on the screen. “Judging by the impact crater, the pod’s velocity rate was still climbing when it came in contact with the planet.”
“He’s lucky to be alive then.”
“Well, not necessarily. Even though the integrity of every craft we have at our disposal with a similar scale to this pod would have disintegrated well before it could ever make a sizeable impact with the surface, this… pod seems to have advanced, reinforced hull plating. Nothing we have compares… Only ship’s that are vastly bigger can generate that kind of energy field. Typically, it’s only apparent in heavily stacked war-ships. It seems…” Kovac cut himself off, lost in thought.
“What? It seems what, Kovac?”
“It seems that the upgraded fuel that was applied to ESURTA’s engines could also be applied to greatly enhance its defenses as well.”
“So, we could use those same upgrade codes to strengthen ESURTA’s shielding, too?”
Kovac slowly nodded, running theories in his head. “It’s the only explanation for why a craft so small could produce a shield strong enough to protect it from not only burning up in the planet’s atmosphere, but to keep it intact after such a devastating impact. It’s truly astonishing.”
“Can’t be that special, I’ve landed plenty of small crafts on planets without burning up in the atmosphere.”
“Not at this kind of speed. If you tried to match this pod’s crash course with one of ESURTA’s escape pods – same angle – same velocity – you’d be vaporized instantly. Even ESURTA itself would have a hard time staying together under those conditions. You see—”
“Never mind. I’m really not in the mood for a lecture. I’ll take your word for it.”
Kovac smirked. “It’s a remarkable piece of machinery, Vaughn. Too bad you’re too dimwitted to appreciate it.”
“Yeah, well, I have more important things to occupy my thoughts.”
“Of course you do.”
“Oh, Vaughn, incase you want to know. It seems all of the pod’s navigational systems are either offline or destroyed. Probably destroyed. And… No, it doesn’t look like there’s any immediate danger of combusting or dislodging from the impact crater. It’s stable. Scans show that there is presently similar air pressure and oxygenated atmosphere inside the pod’s cabin. Looks like the alien has at least some things in common with us. Here. I’ll bring it up on the ship’s overhead. Can’t stand you breathing on my neck anymore.”
Vaughn straightened up and diverted his attention to the same area of the bridge in which Captain Vauless previously appeared. And after a few more clicks, Kovac transferred the rendered contents of his screen to the holographic transmitters integrated throughout the ceiling of the bridge. They emitted a sharp flicker before displaying the mountain chain that the pod collided with in a crisp, three dimensional, hologram which cast a thick glow from above. Kovac then highlighted the exact location of the pod and quickly magnified the resolution of the area. As the flickering image refreshed, the immersive detail was becoming more and more visible. The anxious captain finally laid his tired eyes upon his white whale. “What you’re seeing is live feed,” Kovac explained.
“I’ll dispatch a favorable compliment to bring the pilot aboard. Time to get this over with.”
“Not so fast…” Kovac quickly zoomed out, away from the pod, and receded a vast distance from the mountain chain itself. He refocused the video feed upon the ever expanding, red-orange threat that lurked around the base of the mountains. It greedily engulfed the land, unabashedly stretching for miles with its molten girth, devouring everything in its path. The visual alone was more than enough to trounce Vaughn’s current state of mind. He stood speechless at the scarring obstacle, before accepting that if he truly wanted to retrieve the alien, he’d have to work for it, already rummaging through his mind for answers on he was to overcome the newest addition to lofty list of his frustrations.
Nothing is ever easy.
Simply snatching the pilot from the pod’s resting place was now out of the question as the natural barrier would prove far too dangerous for dispatch to maneuver through. A new approach would have to be devised. Vaughn was silent, intensity bearing down on his brow as his brain blazed through dozens of options to potentially solve the puzzle. It was obvious that ESURTA would now have to land at a distance from the searing obstacle, and in turn, a greater distance from the crash site. That much couldn’t be avoided.
Natural disasters were always the most difficult to overcome. They were unruly, menacing beasts, dominantly displaying their havoc without even the slightest hindrance of an intervention. And though Vaughn had faced some of the most horrifying beings to ever grace the galaxy, he’d much rather have to topple them than go toe to toe with Mother Nature. At least all creatures, no matter how intimidating, still bled. Still died. Fighting was always the easiest answer. The only answer.
A smirk pressed through the Captain’s lips as his eyes continued to stay transfixed on the glowing hologram, muttering under his breath with sarcasm lodged in his throat. “No… we certainly won’t need retrieval craft aboard ESURTA.”
Valiantly, Vaughn had spent the weeks before the launch requesting that the Council equip ESURTA with a handful of military grade retrieval craft, referencing a multitude of reasons as to why. Every point he made was not only viable and well researched, they were immaculately presented with professionalism and grace. For once, he had treated a situation in which he desired something, delicately. With tact. He hoped doing so would undoubtedly clench the attention of the Council, forcing them to see his perspective. It was that important. A ship like ESURTA demanded to be stocked with the proper equipment. Equipment he claimed was absolutely essential to the expedition they were about to undertake. However, even with his most convincing mask of maturity at the forefront of the argument, the Council didn’t feel it was a necessary precaution, citing that the Trilobians would be at ESURTA’s side every step of the way, shielding the mighty ship from any and all harm that they may encounter. And if it was absolutely needed, the Trilobians would gladly lend any and all resources in such a trying event.
As if breaking the hold of hypnosis, Vaughn abruptly shook his head, casting aside his thoughts. It wouldn’t do him any good to dwell on the idiosyncrasies of the Council; he needed to focus on what was actually at his disposal rather than what wasn’t. And by doing so, he acknowledged his only option: the Horizon Hopper. It was the Council’s sole compromise.
The R. O. D. A. N., aptly nicknamed the Horizon Hopper for its astute ability to traverse nearly all terrain, was what the brash Captain was granted. Constructed from years of meticulous development, the R. O. D. A. N. was viewed as the ultimate off-road vehicle, branded as an unstoppable force, equipped with the ability to travel unimpeded anywhere, presumably, on any planet.
And it did so through adaptation.
With the correct command codes installed and executed by a trained pilot, the sophisticated machine could seamlessly restructure its physical appearance into whatever size, shape, and texture needed in order to thwart any conceivable obstacle. Though, it was still grounded in its experimental stages, having not yet proven its worth in the field. So, naturally, with the Council’s approval, the I.S.O. deemed ESURTA’s maiden expedition to be the proper time to put it to actual use.
Though, it wasn’t intended to be a means of destruction. As advanced and rugged as the R. O. D. A. N. was, its purpose wasn’t inclined to execute daring rescues or service a soldier in the heat of battle. And it certainly wasn’t equipped to cater to Vaughn Mayve’s bleak outlook on patience. It was engineered as a means to gather data: a machine of discovery. (spell out the acronym.) Ultimately, it was designed for the safety of those without military training, secluding its utilization as an excavation tool for scientific means and ends.
Even with all of its upside, having the R. O. D. A. N. as the only option left a sour taste in Vaughn’s mouth for two very specific reasons. Firstly, it was sluggish at best, fitted with the mantra that slow and steady keeps its occupants alive. And secondly, it was virtually weaponless, which dubbed its very existence to be an absolute, unnecessary waste of time in the minds of those who find it best to fire first.
“Fuck,” the disappointed Captain huffed, muttering again under his breath, “No other choice… fucking hopper it is.”
The pilot caught Vaughn from the corner of his eye, not quite sure if what he heard was correct. “Did you say… ‘hopper it is?’”
“It’s all we got.”
Rick’s eyes lit up behind his aviators as his chest swelled with joy, unable to contain his mouth as it stretched a toothy grin from ear to ear. Immediately, he wielded around in his chair to further engage the proposition, having his interest peaked full tilt by just the mere mentioning of the machine. “Are you serious? You want to use the R. O. D. A. N.? The fucking hopper?” he excitedly tapped a swift drum beat on his chest. “I can’t wait!”
“Yeah…okay…” Vaughn blankly looked up at Rick. “…fucking ecstatic, too.”
“Hey, now! It’s an amazing piece of machinery. Fun as hell to drive!”
Vaughn rolled his eyes. “Whatever. It wouldn’t be my last choice, let alone what I’m forced to turn to. From what I’ve seen of it, it’s grossly inadequate.”
Sara reclined in her seat, half stewed in thought. “I wouldn’t say that. No, it isn’t the best fit for our situation, that’s true, but its strongest asset is its ability to adapt to a situation. Like Brake said, it’s a pretty amazing piece of machinery. However, there is no record of it ever being challenged with something as devastating as lava. That intense heat… I don’t know.” She paused in thought. “For once Vaughn…I may have to agree with you, the R. O. D. A. N. may not be the best idea.”
“Wow. Can you two be anymore negative? Shit, Lux, I figured you’d be on my side with this; you helped engineer the damn thing. Why all the hate all of a sudden? I read your thesis on its capabilities, you did nothing but praise it.” Rick’s smile diminished. “I know how good it can be.”
“It’s true. I love the R. O. D. A. N. It’s groundbreaking. In every way. And I’m certain it’ll be the center of some really great discoveries. …But to use it as a raft?”
“It’s a lot more than a raft!”
“You do realize that that’s what we’re discussing here, whether or not it’s suitable to ford a river…so to speak. Because, Rick, correct me if I’m wrong, but the R. O. D. A. N. doesn’t have the ability to fly. And it sure as hell isn’t built for speed. I know I wouldn’t want to slowly trudge along through those searing hot liquids. It’s resilient, sure, and yeah we can reinforce the shielding threshold, but I’m not sure to what degree. It’s risky. It just is.”
Rick narrowed his eyes at the Commander. “Trust me. It’ll get the job done. With me behind the wheel, it’ll blow all you naysayers away. What the hopper lacks in flight and speed it makes up for in pure awesomeness!”
Vaughn smirked and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. “Oh? Pure awesomeness, you say? Fuck, can’t argue that.”
“What I’m saying is—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sara interrupted and shot a glance toward the Tactical Officer. “What do you think, Kovac? Any suggestions – input?”
Kovac slowly peeled his stare from his kiosk and cleared his throat, resting his dark eyes on Commander Luxidon. “Vaughn’s concerns are valid, as are yours, Lux, the R. O. D. A. N.’s integrity and speed will both definitely be an issue the longer it’s surrounded in the lava. There’s really nothing more to say. We can modify shielding parameters…but there’s just no telling how long it’ll be sustained. Could be minutes. Hours. Could dissolve instantly. We wouldn’t know unless we ran tests. And as our Captain has made abundantly clear, time is of the essence.”
“Well, at least one person is listening…”
“Yes. I am…Unfortunately. You want my honest opinion? I think hastily deploying an experimental vehicle in those conditions without running a single test to see if it can even withstand such a drastic temperature increase is foolish. I say we either find another way or wait for the Vargralus to help us out. They have the necessary craft we need to retrieve the pod without any mishaps. And as my scans have shown, the pod isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
Vaughn smiled, almost laughing, shaking his head. “Well, Kovac, thankfully you’re still not in charge. ‘Cause if you were all of mankind, every last person alive, would just be shitting in a corner somewhere…diddling themselves.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Okay. Okay. Look. Let’s not get off track,” Gavril interrupted. “If we’re going to move forward with this we’ll need to keep the discussion proactive.”
“Well, in the spirit of keeping things positive, the hopper has my vote,” Rick confidently said.
“Vaughn, running some quick simulations on the hopper’s hull integrity won’t take that long,” Gavril said.
“I’m tired of waiting.”
“Trust me, okay, we all are perfectly aware of how impatient you are. But we’re talking about taking a huge, unnecessary risk if we don’t run some diagnostics. Okay? It’ll only take a few minutes.”
“A few minutes? Really, Gav?”
“She sighed. “Well no… not exactly. Probably longer. …Definitely longer.”
Vaughn rolled his eyes.
“But, if the simulations pan out, alls we’d have to do is install a few simple scripts of coding to increase the shielding threshold.”
Vaughn stared once again into the glow of the hologram, wishing that the problem would just go away. After a lengthy sigh he spoke, “Alright. But I want all the tests done by the time we finish in the armory – not a second later.”
Gavril nodded a worried smile. More time was needed. “I’ll have the Chief Mechanic begin the diagnostics immediately.” She then quickly tapped away at her keyboard.
“I’ll help,” Sara spoke up, standing from her kiosk.
“No, Lux, as much as I would like otherwise, I need you as part of the compliment.”
Sara didn’t argue. She slowly sat back down, trying to stifle the child-like smile that warmed her face. The thought of roaming around the planet’s surface was far more intriguing than another empty argument.
“It’s okay. From what I hear, Ensign Parke is more than capable of handing a few simple tests,” Gavril retorted. “It won’t be an issue.” She began running her fingers over the keys, sending the message to the head mechanic.”
“Maybe there’s a way to rig some sort of ion burst engine underneath it. It might not be able to fly, but maybe it could jump,” Rick said to himself, his smile re-splitting his lips in child-like wonderment, half entranced in thought. “Hey what if—”
“No time, Brake. Forget about attaching shit to the fucking thing. Maybe some other time. I just want whatever tests done all the alterations made to the shields…I’ll take it from there.”
“It’s possible, Vaughn.” Sara said. “Definitely possible. And with a ship filled with some of the brightest engineers, it’s worth looking into.”
“If you can guarantee that those types of modifications can be finished when I’m ready to launch, then by all means do them. But if they aren’t, I’m officially holding you accountable, Lux, and you’ll never step foot on that planet, understand?”
“Understood,” Sara said with a knowing smile, busily typing, relaying messages to every available engineer aboard ESURTA. If only a few of them responded, adding a compact attachment to the R. O. D. A. N. with the diverse spread of materials and tools that ESURTA had to offer, would be child’s play.
“Just wanted to let you know I went ahead and finished the coding to reconfigure the hopper’s speed threshold. Not a huge upgrade, but it’ll chug along at its max. Just needs to be uploaded.”
“Fantastic. …Can we—” Vaughn paused. A thought struck his fancy. He quickly danced his eyes around the Bridge until he found Gavril, having just remembered his orders to determine whether or not the planet was even habitable. “Gavril?”
“Vaughn?” Gavril answered without looking up, standing at Bazdik’s station while he sat, going over statistics with her Lieutenant.
“Earlier I asked you to find out if we could even be on that planet.”
Vaughn smiled in order to keep his anger at bay. “And… what did you find out, dear sister.”
Gavril stayed hunched over the broad man, trying to tune out the drone of Vaughn’s voice, having finished every careful comparison to the statistical information of the screen to the data of her I.C. “Give me a minute,” she muttered, ordering the Lieutenant to indulge in the lengthy safety protocol file the I.S.O. had uploaded to each Bridge terminal. It listed, in great detail, the proper conditions needed to sustain human life, as well as, every other known species in ESURTA’s computer systems.
“I’m sorry… Give you a minute? How long could it possibly take to skim through some of the ship’s scans?”
Gavril wasn’t accustomed to accept any information that wasn’t confirmed through another outside means, showing little faith in the preliminary atmospheric scans ESURTA had automatically initiated upon their arrival. The mind she had for her methods were tried and true and no respected scientist would believe the results of anything that hadn’t been duplicated. It may have seemed tedious as she instituted additional scans on atmospheric anomalies, potentially hazardous biorhythms – microscopic or otherwise – and even the stability of the planet itself, feeling that those involved setting foot on the surface should be aware of any other natural disasters that could potentially occur.
Vaughn stood in the silence, having received no answer from his sister. In a way, he blamed himself. He should have known she’d boorishly engage in a flurry of redundant system’s scans, scrutinizing every shred of data, and comparing it to the previous results. He knew Gavril’s methodology was engrained into every fiber of her being – the proud product of extensive scientific training. He’d witnessed her painstakingly sift answers through tightly knitted mesh plenty of times in the past.
Vaughn stiffly ran his palm against the grain of his short, dark hair, making sure he attempted to collect himself before speaking. “Bazdik.”
The Lieutenant quickly turned to his captain, halting the conversation with his commander. “Yes, Captain?”
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Can you quickly read through the automatic scan data in ESURTA’s computer?”
“Yes, Sir.” Bazdik quickly opened the data folder and read through the shortened information.
“Finished? Okay. Now, if I order a surface compliment to disembark, will they be able to breathe the air on that planet? Yes or no?”
“Short answer, Sir?”
“Yes, Bazdik, always… always give me the short answer.”
“ESURTA’s scans dictate that there is a ninety-seven percent compatibility rating between the planet’s atmosphere and our physiology.”
“Fantastic. Anything else?”
“Even though we should have no respiratory issues while on the surface, safety protocol states that we should still have our M.B.A.s attached at all times.”
“Great.” He raised a hand to silence Gavril’s attempt to interject. “Now, Bazdik, does anything currently residing on the planet pose a threat? Any dangerous wildlife or microorganisms – any plants spores…noxious gases, anything at all?”
“Nothing is present in the initial scans.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. You’ve been incredibly helpful.” Vaughn’s eyes shifted to Gavril, narrowing his lids into a glare – an identical gesture of frustration that she enacted as well. The woman tightly clenched her jaw, staving back the raging desire to lunge at her brother and tear off his head. Instead, she quietly marched toward him, firmly grabbed his arm and hurriedly led him to a more secluded area of the bridge. “I was doing just fine, Vaughn,” the anger in her voice was funneled through a hoarse whisper.
“I’m sure you were. Thing is though, sorta in a rush. Yes? I’m not sitting around waiting for you people to tinker around with useless bullshit anymore. I’ve waited long enough, Gav. I’m done, okay? I’m fucking done with your way. Let ESURTA’s computers do the analyzing; that’s why they were installed.”
“I was just—” Her face reddened, she bowed it to hide it from his view. “I know. I just don’t like… I’m just not used to…”
“Instincts, Gav. Okay? Instincts. Feelings in your guts.” He patted her stomach. “You with me? Gav? Feel it in your guts. A situation—” He paused, and lifted up her chin, making eye contact. “A situation presents itself and you react. Not everything needs to be scrutinized from every single angle every single time. You just… you just charge ahead, full boar, and cannonball into the void.”
The words of a fool, she thought. A damn fool. She didn’t have any instincts, not when it came to interstellar travel. Her mind was brilliant, and it was her intent to flex the bold muscle whenever she could. She knew her purpose. She was stationed on ESURTA to lead all scientific operations for the duration of the expedition. She had impeccable credentials and was the first candidate to be chosen for the role of Science Officer, combined with a medical background, she’d be stationed as the captain’s right hand. Maybe she was incredibly thorough – maybe to a fault. But taking chances led to mistakes. It was a proven fact. Haste makes waste. And she was damn sure that blindly bullying the crew forward into something they didn’t fully understand would not only be a mistake, but a devastating one.
Gavril decided she wanted nothing to do with the sphere. That the risks involved were far too great to proceed without prolonged discussion. She just wanted to take samples of the dirt, of the air, the water, the foliage and animals; she wanted to run detailed assessments in order to acquire precise results. She wasn’t stationed to combat the headstrong antics of the supposed captain of the ship. There should never be a need for such things, for the simple fact that there shouldn’t be any situations needing a rash reaction to.
But, she knew better. The Council had made that perfectly clear. She was meant to be a balance to Vaughn’s impulsive, disobedient, selfish behavior. She was supposed to be the voice of reason. It was well within her jurisdiction to keep Vaughn from dominating the crew and the expedition with his own personal goals. She agreed to those stipulations as she accepted to Council’s request to place her on board ESURTA. And she was failing.
The sharpened tip of her anger was then directed elsewhere, burrowing into her own chest. She should have stood against her brother’s actions to stray from the guidelines of the expedition. She should have forced Vaughn to follow Captain Valhaness’ orders and not part ways with the Vargralus.
Her regrets were stricken from her mind as she phased back into reality.
“Don’t act so ignorant, Commander. If you want the other officers to take you seriously, you need to quit acting so fucking green.” Vaughn smirked, poking at her smoldering attitude.
Gavril’s tightly locked jaw was now held askew. Ignorant? Did he really just claim that I’m being ignorant? Seriously? Ignorant!? He’s the one who continues to throw caution to the wind! He’s the one who continues to disobey every superior he’s ever come in contact with! He’s the one acting like a novice! Not me! She quickly tongued the backs of her front teeth, trying to coax her anger into submission.
Her weight shifted aggressively to one side and immediately she scoffed, folding her arms underneath her chest. “Whatever you say, Captain.” One of them was certainly guilty of ignorance, but it wasn’t she. Gavril’s strained stance was to be taken as a simple warning, like the rattle at the tail end of a desert snake. She felt something in her guts alright: a blistering desire to crack her brother on the jaw. Gavril may have been steeped deeply in the studies of science and medicine, but she was still someone who wasn’t to be provoked into a physical altercation. And being the overtly thorough person that she was, she stood as one of the few in her field to not only request extensive combat training, but to excel at it. Weaponry or not.
Having the ability to defend oneself simply seemed logical and necessary.
Vaughn recognized that she was reaching her boiling point. He didn’t care. “Now, Gav, listen, okay? Are you listening?”
“Yes, Vaughn.” Her words were shoved through the smallest crease in lips.
“Great. I need you to take over the bridge for me. I’ll be heading to the surface.”
She shook her head in disgust as he walked away, wanting wholeheartedly to drive a flying jump kick into his spine and burst her heel through the back of his chest. Complete satisfaction. As she imagined the deed, her jaw loosened, and the tiniest smile curled her lips.
Vaughn made his way back to his terminal, hunched over the chair and began to type, slowly punching each individual key with his index finger. He already knew who he wanted to assign to the compliment and was now pressed to ensure they’d be equipped with proper protection. He searched through the ship’s equipment manifest for every available weapon. Weaponry was never a point he brought up at the initial meetings with the Council. Never saw the need to. Surely, they’d be able to realize the necessity in supplying an interstellar crew challenged with the sole purpose to explore the darkest recesses of the universe with adequate firearms.
His heart twisted and sank when he retrieved the manifest.
With Gavril’s tension finally eased a thought was able to float to the surface, an option she hadn’t accounted for. If Vaughn was dead set on retrieving the pod, the least he could do is perform a few scans while he was on the planet. The idea gleamed rambunctiously throughout her body. She quickly shuffled over to her quiet brother, beaming from ear to ear. “Maybe we could come to some sort of compromise?” She anxiously waited for his response. None was given. Gavril decided to continue on anyway, “I was thinking…some surface scans would be valuable.” Her widened grin almost made it impossible for her to articulate her words. “None of you would need to go out of your way. Just look – Vaughn? Will you just look, please?”
Vaughn unenthusiastically shifted his eyes to her.
“Thanks. Each of you will need to enable the auto scan feature on your I.C.; it’s very simple!”
Vaughn humored her. He had no intention of performing scans, but as long he she thought he did, she’d go away. So he pretended to watch her scroll through the M.S.O. set up on her I.C.
“Okay? That’s it! Takes just a few seconds and the I.C. does all the work. I want samples of everything, Vaughn. Everything! Every morsel of data will be ours to analyze. And ours alone!”
“Whatever you say.” His slid his attention back to the kiosk.
“I’m serious, Vaughn! Okay? Each of you are going to set up your I.C.s before you do anything on that planet. Every grain of sand, every clod of dirt – the air – every rock discovered – every hill climbed – all the plants and trees – every animal that crosses your path better be logged into your I.C. Understand? Do not forget to enable that scanner. Okay?” Her smiling face froze, waiting for confirmation.
“Sure thing, Gav.” He spoke, unable to peel his eyes from the kiosk.
“And…well… So, the I.C. can also be set up to perform manual scans. Just incase the auto function passes over a seemingly minute detail. I won’t make you do it, but if you want to – or actually, better yet – just assign the job to someone else. Doesn’t matter who, just make sure they know it’s important. Independent scans can typically record a far deeper spectrum of detail than any auto could. The more information we have, the better.” Gavril patiently waited with an unwavering smile for Vaughn to turn his attention to her once more. As soon as he did, she shuffled through the menus, showing him how to set the I.C. to perform an independent scan. “Then highlight ‘Menu.’ Select ‘system operations’ from the drop down. Then highlight the ‘Manual Scan Mode’ tab and hold in this button to enable. Just point, click, and voilà! Your findings will be directly transferred into the ship’s storage.”
Vaughn nonchalantly nodded, dismissing her, and questioningly raised a brow as he tried to further examine the contents of the weapons manifest. “I’ll keep that in mind, Gav.” He didn’t know what exactly he’d keep in mind as he hadn’t paid any attention to her. He only wanted her to shut her mouth and leave him be.
“Thanks! I really appreciate it, Vaughn!”
He closed out of the list and quickly attempted a new approach, thinking there must be something wrong with his terminal. He then opened a lengthy, alphabetized catalogue of every hand-held weapon Earth had to offer and quickly glanced over the list. Dissatisfied with what he was reading, he jabbed his index finger against the screen and swiped across it, filing in the next page, hoping for better results.
And again he swiped.
With every passing page, his frustrations threatened to boil over as he repeatedly found the same word listed as the quantity of each item. Unavailable. Vaughn exhaled sharply through his nostrils and slapped his palm against his forehead, roughly running his hand against the grain of his hair, relentlessly continuing his fruitless search.
Gavril’s excitement diminished as she noticed her brother’s aggravation. She knew that if he was too angered he either wouldn’t remember what she asked of him, or flat out not care. Either of the two scenarios were unacceptable. She needed to remedy the situation. Quickly, Gavril stepped around Vaughn, extending herself up on the balls of her boots in order to peak over his shoulder and gather what he was fretting over.
Weapons. Was that all? Just some weapons? If he wanted to view the manifest, why was he digging through the entire catalogue? You really are oblivious when it comes to technology, she thought. Even basic kiosk navigation proves too difficult. Whatever, easy fix. Just show him he can narrow it down and get him back on track.
With a confident smile, Gavril scooted back around him and plopped down in the vacant seat. “Hold on a second.” She reached up and nudged him away from the screen. “You’re doing this in the most roundabout way possible. Here. You don’t need to view the catalogue in its entirety; just do it this way.” Her thin fingers glided across the key pad, bringing up yet again, ESURTA’s weapons manifest. “Here we are. This is what we currently have aboard.” Gavril again fond her smile and twisted around to see his reaction, feeling that she’d soon be thanked for her helpfulness and quickness and finally quell her twin’s frustrated demeanor.
Vaughn, however, didn’t utter a single word of gratitude as his expression remained flat lined, nearly void of emotion.
Oh! she thought, I must be in his way. Gavril suddenly angled away from the kiosk so he could see the inventory without any obstructions. Yet still, there were no words of gratitude. Vaughn’s fingers only tightened around the headrest of the chair, deeply sinking the tips of his fingers into the creaking leather. The same two items he previously dismissed taunted him once again.
A co nfused look settled across the Commander’s face. What was his problem? This is what he wanted, wasn’t it? Weapons right? Well there they are! He should be grateful that I actually helped instead of poking fun at his handicap. Awkwardly, she was pinned between Vaughn and the kiosk, left to only trade glances between the two, trying to piece together what was upsetting him so much. “What’s wrong?” she finally asked.
He scoffed, pacing away from kiosk while rubbing his temples with enough ferocity to relieve the most painful of migraines, staying put in the middle of the bridge. “Bullshit!”
Bullshit? Really? “Isn’t this what you were trying to figure out? I just thought—”
“I’ve already seen the manifest, Gav! I’m not a god damn idiot! I figured it was a fucking glitch.”
A glitch? Gavril slowly turned back to the screen and ran a quick systems diagnostic. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Effortlessly, she returned to the manifest and reloaded it. Nothing changed. After a few screen taps, the thumbnails of both items expanded, revealing greater detail. She read the brief descriptions. Nope. No glitch, she thought. “No glitches, Vaughn. That’s just what we have.”
“They can’t be serious,” he muttered. “How in the holy hell of fuck am I supposed to task a compliment without any damn weapons!?”
Each officer subtly shifted their attention in his direction before going back to their business. Gavril lingered as the only one still indulging in his tantrum. She softly sighed, accepting the fact that he would not be issuing any of the scans she desired, still left in the dark as to why he was so enraged. There were weapons on board, she thought. He must’ve seen them. The descriptions sat there plain as day.
“ESURTA should be brimming, fucking brimming full with weapons!? Why must I be constantly fucked over!?” Vaughn was trapped in a cycle, pacing back and forth, yelling at no one in particular.
Gavril smirked. Why? Why do you keep getting fucked over? It’s simple: you deserve to be. When did you ever show the Council an ounce of respect? Or us? Or the mission? You really expect things to go your way when you’ve done nothing but prove to everyone how selfish and inadequate you can be as a leader? …What happened to you?
Wait!” His anger was stilled. Calmly, he marched toward Commander Luxidon. “Please tell me you have a better fucking sense of what goes on out here, because the Council sure as shit doesn’t.”
Sara calmly looked up to him from her sitting position at her kiosk. “Are you asking me whether or not I smuggled unauthorized weaponry aboard ESURTA?”
“Lux. Not now. I’m really not it the mood. As you can fucking tell.” Vaughn sharpened his glare into flared daggers, burying their pointed embers directly at her. Sara cracked a smile. She was unaffected by his threatening demeanor and casually propped her elbows on the chair’s armrests, resting her chin on her folded hands. “Well, if you stop acting like an infant, I’ll tell you.”
Vaughn said nothing. A statue.
“I believe… I may have.”
“What did you bring?”
The Commander’s icy eyes playfully angled up to the corners of their sockets, recalling her inventory. “Hm. Let’s see now… I brought along some PT32s – 33s… Um… Yeah, I’m fairly certain a few 36s, too.”
She took slow, deep breath and noisily exhaled it.
“Come on, Lux! I know you have more. What else!?”
“Well. It’s possible that there may be a collection of Tarvol 9-12’s with AP ion attachments in my quarters. Maybe a customized Graddess Longshot, military grade of course. Oh! And a duel shot V.E.N.I.C.E launcher,” her smile peaked as she pictured the weapon’s destructive force in her head.
“Okay…” Vaughn’s anger was subsiding. “Is that all?”
“A dozen or so VT grenades… some compact scouting sentries with quick burst capabilities, some retractable, automatic Cronus rifles. Uh… Some L-class hack-n-slash tools… and a shit load of triggered effect ammunition compatible with the entire lot.” She couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of pride as she listed every weapon in her elite stock. “…And a few other unfinished projects. Why do you ask?”
Vaughn turned from her and walked away, heading back to his terminal, signaling for Gavril to get out of his seat. “Log them into the manifest.”
Kovac and Rick traded weary, sidelong glances, being the only two who understood the gravity that Vaughn’s command carried. The pilot swiftly rotated around in his chair to unabashedly witness Sara’s reaction, knowing that a spectacle was to ensue. Kovac, on the other hand, attempted to be more discreet, staying his eyes on his kiosk, snatching quick, sporadic glances from in between his research.
A smile was stamped on Sara’s face for only a moment, realizing this was no joke, her jocular demeanor flattened. Completely. “No.”
Vaughn again hunched over the seat of his terminal, staring at the screen, and tapped jarringly at the keypad, reopening the manifest. “I need an exact count of what we have on board, Lux.”
“No,” she stated more forcefully, filling her tone full of grit, causing Vaughn’s patience to snap as he immediately tore his attention from the kiosk and slammed it toward the disobedient Commander.
“Now! It’s an order.”
“Bullshit it’s an order. It’s my personal collection. I’m not—”
“Really? Well, Lux, now it’s my personal collection. And I have no problem whatsoever with sharing. Log each of them into the manifest. Do it now.”
“Fuck! Lux! Okay? You are in no position, just do it!” Vaughn screamed, feeling the stress crack his voice. She made no attempt to do as she was told. Vaughn breathed slowly, reiterating his demand with a softer tone. “I’m not kidding, Sara. Log them in – Do it right now – Or the only place you’ll be exploring, for the remainder of the mission, is the inside of the brig.”
“So, you’ll imprison me then? I’m pretty sure that’ll spark a mutiny.”
Vaughn smirked at the ludicrous notion of mutiny. “You are neither that important, or well enough liked to trigger something so…stupid. I will, however, toss you in the brig, though. It’s a promise, Lux. I promise you that.”
“The brig?” Her smirk returned. “On what grounds exactly?”
“Oh, I don’t know… insubordination? Maybe... smuggling aboard unauthorized weapons onto an I.S.O. science vessel designated for a class C rendezvous? I’m sure the Council would love to know why.” Vaughn grinned. “Oh. How about endangering the lives of each and every crew member stationed on ESURTA with unaccounted firearms located outside of the armory?
“I have plenty of willing participants for field activities, Lux, and I can assure you any one of them would gladly fill your place in dispatch.”
Sara’s brow scrunched heavily. Her first instinct was to continue to refuse his orders, even though she realized his disciplinary tactic was sound. But she found herself without a rebuttal, fixing only a screwed down glare and shaking her head in disgust. “Asshole...”
The Commander knew Vaughn wasn’t one to bluff. If he wanted something he’d take any measure necessary to ensure that he got it, even if it negatively impacted everything else around him. If he had to, he would absolutely confine her to the brig and confiscate her firearms anyway. There was no other choice. She had to give in to his demands. Her heart raced, aided by the rush of adrenaline. The thought of relinquishing control of things she cherished seemed impossible. Deeply, a scowl carved itself into her face.
And then there was silence. Just beeps and blips.
Vaughn swallowed a few times in an attempt to soothe his damaged throat while he waited, until finally, Commander Luxidon conceded. She peeled her fiery glare from his and twisted to face her kiosk, logging her entire stock into ESURTA’s manifest.
Vaughn continued to watch her, making sure she followed through and did as she was told. The clicking of the keypad were the only sounds that were heard.
When she finished, she curled her fingers away from the keyboard, ashamed of herself for not standing her ground as she read over the results. “ESURTA’s weapon’s manifest has been updated… you prick.”
Vaughn stretched a winning grin across his lips and folded his arms, letting the comment slide, having already secured what he wanted. He then diverted his attention to the rest of the bridge, looking directly at each officer while he addressed them. “Lieutenant Bazdik. Ensign Warrick—”
“Brake is fine. You… don’t… need…” Rick could feel Vaughn’s eyes boar into him. “Nevermind.”
The Captain continued. “The two of you will be joining me in the armory. Kovac you will take over navigation, and Gavril, you will take over the bridge. Any questions?”
“Good.” He then spun around on his heel and headed toward the horiyou lift port. “Xuvectrin, can you hear me?”
Yes, Captain. Always.
“I’ll need you to report to the armory as well.”
Vaughn slammed the side of his fist against the door release. Bazdik and Rick stepped past him and filed into the empty lift. “Kovac, enable the auto-pilot sequence and set the landing coordinates to the closest proximity of the lava that you can. I’ll take it from there.”
Kovac nodded. “Affirmative.”
Vaughn’s eyes then shifted back to a distraught Sara Luxidon. “Are you coming or are you going to sit there and pout?”
Sara’s glossy eyes were still glued to the kiosk in front of her, not wanting to break her concentration on the screen, as the act kept her frustrations and her tears at bay. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to… She wanted him to… The strain of holding back her emotions regressed; she felt more at ease. Soon, she was overwhelmed by a deeply seeded sense of joy.
The adventure of discovery.
Her hopes were about to take fruition.
Even as excitement began to cleanse her sorrows, she was hesitant to stand. First she blinked her eyes, grateful that tears didn’t roll down her cheeks. Next, she inhaled a calming breath and stood up, turning to Vaughn. She forced a smile and confidently made her way across the bridge to the trio of men. After she boarded the lift, Vaughn wasted no time joining the group, bluntly stating, “Armory.”
The Captain gently closed his eyes as the doors hissed back into place. He forged a mild simper when the lift whisked them away.
One step closer, he thought.
One step closer.
Sara stood aloof with her head slung downward – yet still alert – ripened by pressing thoughts. Her focus fixated on the fascinating glint of her feverishly polished boots, before trading blows between their pristine nature and the defiant voices that rang throughout her skull.
It came down to worth.
Unable to let the matter go, Sara defined what those weapons meant to her, and how easily – how foolishly she relinquished them. She once believed there was no circumstance in which she’d part with those energy erupting, engineered alloys. They were beyond prized; they generously helped craft her into who she was.
What she stood for.
They justified her confidence.
And unlocked her potential.
…And still she parted with them.
Couldn’t he see that? What they meant to her? Couldn’t he see her struggles? No. Ignorance wasn’t a factor. He couldn’t claim otherwise. Sara knew Vaughn was abundantly aware of the comparisons she linked between each devastating trigger and the complex miracle of life. As far as she was concerned, the bond was the same. Cherished unconditionally. The weight. The precise control. The deadly stopping power. Each weapon was blended into her psyche as a direct extension of character.
She needed them.
Was he so blind? So pig-headed? So ill equipped to humor empathy?
Sara paused. Her inquiries staved – introducing a budding smirk.
Of course he couldn’t. Pointless. Absolutely pointless. Needlessly fiddling with rectified questions would get her nowhere. The answers were no mystery. Vaughn simply didn’t possess the capacity to sympathize. With anyone. Ever. If their years together taught her anything, it was that he catered only to himself. His whims. His needs were always met. Always more important. And his actions reflected those beliefs. Every decision. Period.
Though Sara knew that wasn’t always true. There was a time…
No. Vaughn wasn’t the same person. There were years of turmoil and loss separating him from his previous outlook. Sara furrowed her brow. A cold shiver laddered down her spine. These memories…
Her wandering mind eased away from any further frustration this particular topic would procure. Such a callused shell. Such a waste. If beneath it all Vaughn still did feel pain – in himself and in others – he’d never admit it— never show it. He’d nonchalantly tuck it away from the jury of prying eyes. From weakness… Regardless of the years he knew those around him; regardless of the blood in his veins. No. There will be no pity for him, Sara concluded.
He’s to blame.
Heated rage seared behind her eyes, numbing her temples.
What a prick! Why couldn’t – He’s just – Fuck! Fucking, fuck! Her temples pounded. Normally, leafing through the past would clear her mind, offer a reflection. Closure. She needed a fresh start. She was deserving enough. A clean slate. Without Vaughn.
So many unwanted… So many unrealized...
No. She shook her head free. Her will suddenly attentive. Her mind suddenly clear. Sara wasted no time, demanding it delve elsewhere. Stronger still. She was stronger than this – than him! Stronger than his actions! His selfishness! Tightly, her eyelids pressed shut. Immediately, darkness engulfed her. Static. Yet warm. And within its empty embrace she found her heart rested. A center.
A sluggish calm.
A blink. And then another. A raw exhale. Within seconds, her talented mind sifted away the useless rigmarole in preparation to spearhead what was truly troubling her. Sara focused on the droning hum of the lift as it neared closer to its destination. The hum in the silence. Focus. Escape. The tone. …A warm note. A gateway into the darkness. Concentrate. Just… slip away. Let it guide you further into the darkness.
Sara opened her eyes, drenched in her thoughts, ready to view the blank screen ahead. She was clear. Her mind stood alongside a film projector seemingly constructed by an outstanding patina. A switch engaged. A flickering cone of light. The rusted reels screeched, laboring with sharp, uneven twists, feeding along warped film. There was a time when she could reminisce…, when she could remember him with a sense of heartfelt pride. With genuine happiness.
With genuine respect.
Her eyes were transfixed to the moving images that formulated on the screen. Distant. Some blurred. Most who truly knew him… Already, they’d forgotten. But Sara never would. She’d never forget. And then the colors bled through. The edges defined. And with the clarity came a comfortable familiarity. They’d spent so many pleasant years in each other’s good graces.
There was a time…
The projector screeched to a halt. The light faded.
The silence expanded.
She visited this place often, whenever she could. Though it was never easy. Sara sighed, hearing again the hum of the lift creeping into existence. When she raised her head, most of the tears were clotted by her lashes, quickly, rubbing the remains from her cheek.
Who she was? The question again presented itself. With glossy eyes she cornered a smile, now realizing the answer. Ever changing. Never left to settle. Her thoughts strutted with importance. Each believing their objections. Each pleading their validation as they trampled over one another. Each of them yearned for the opportunity to be examined. To finally be put to rest. Though, only the one would be granted such an honor. Sara relaxed her eyelids, fluttering them open, only to reveal two tentative, stymied hues of blue, absorbed in her talented mind. Discover. Explore. The words reverberated inside her skull until they were no longer seen as words. Her stoic lips curled further. The words were now an idea, something that needed to be accomplished. And the first step was to find an answer to one question: Why, Vaughn, why?
The lift finally slowed to a stop and the doors hissed apart. Captain Mayve was the first to exit. Sara followed. And quickly, she was tailed by the final two.
“So, what’s going on, Vaughn?” Sara inquired, receiving only silence, watching Vaughn continuing on with quickened, rigid echoes as he stepped. Though, the Commander wasn’t backing down. She kept his pace, speaking to his back. “Hm? Why have you been so gung-ho over this pod? The obvious doesn’t cater to you. You see no value in technological discoveries. So what is it? Huh? Does – Do – Do you just get your fucking’ kicks from blatantly disobeying direct orders?”
He didn’t answer.
“What’s so special, Vaughn? To you.”
Again, he didn’t answer.
“Is it worth losing your rank? Is it worth losing what little admiration your commanding officers have left? Is it? How about everyone back home, on Earth? They still view you as a hero. Who knows why, but the majority of them still adore you. They still somehow believe you’re a legend. Is it worth losing them? Are you willing to let them lose every bit of faith in you? Because it’s no surprise your crew is running on fumes.”
Vaughn said nothing, interested only in navigating the bulbous hallways for the entrance to the Armory. As they ventured closer, the ceiling began to taper upward, the curved walls bulging out further.
Fed up with the silent treatment, Sara roughly snatched the bend of his elbow, forcing him to an abrupt halt. Bazdik and Rick stopped as well, though it was a ways away. They attempted to continue on as a blend to the background, wanting no part of this conversation even though they very much agreed with the Commander. Sara squeezed Vaughn’s arm as she spoke through her teeth. “I think we all have a right to know what your intentions are, Captain.” Her fingers dug in deeper into the fabric of his jacket. Vaughn made no sudden movements, lazily resituating his eyes, briefly acknowledging her grasp before shrugging free and stepping onward through the thicket of tension. Sara paused as Rick and Bazdik finally caught up to her, each placing a hand on her shoulders, offering a couple of quick, reassuring pats and they continued past.
The group was eventually met by an enormous, circular slab of polished metal that was flush with a dimly lit wall. No distinguishable markings or latches of any kind adorned the entrance save for a T.I. indicator jutting from the right, dwarfed by the obstacle’s sheer, solid scale.
Vaughn calmly pressed his thumb against the sensor and awaited confirmation. After the first security measure was satisfied, a thin rod extended from the indicator, bending at a ninety degree angel when the rounded tip was level with his eyes. Swiftly, the rod swiveled side to side, casting a translucent light onto his retinas, scanning his DNA. This security measure, too, was satisfied. The rod retracted. A straining mechanism could be heard as it systematically disengaged a loud series of unseen latches smoothly retracting the massive slab into the left panel of the wall. Each of them were well acquainted with this particular deck, waiting patiently for the door to disappear completely before filing into the eerie, almost menacing ambiance of the expansive room.
During the war, every individual that served aboard ESURTA harbored personal memories of the armory. None of which berthed happiness. Maybe pride. Maybe honor. But never happiness. It was the deck where soldiers gathered in order to prepare themselves with not only the tools of survival, but to undoubtedly strip away the final trace of their roles as civilians. They knew that these walls were last sight of humanity many of them would witness. Many making the trip only once. Stories would be told. They’d be passed along. The horrors that lay ahead. Each story, a variation of sorrow, of guilt, of loss, though they all shared one message: “Cherish the calm. Discover your peace.” Thus, while inside the walls of the armory, the soldier would face fear, face doubt, and leave them behind. They were created anew, charging into their fate as an honored memory.
The officers continued on toward the only distinct structure in the room, feeling a noticeable chill in the air that seemed hellbent on surrounding them, like whispers, cascading down from the maze of pipes and ducts above. The haunting gall of countless specters swathed through their hearts as they were about to pay heed to the fallen.
The clacking of boots halted when each officer was uniformly standing inside the structure aptly named, the Stir of Echoes. Every soldier who had died was immortalized with their full name and rank emblazoned into the length of the massive, dark marble walls that curled around them. While they stood inside the open structure they acknowledged the tens of thousands of names that surrounded them. The fallen would never be forgotten. They’d always embrace those who could still continue on, strengthening their resolve.
With bowed heads and swelling admiration, each officer stood tall and folded their hands behind their backs, paying their respects, solid as statues, until Vaughn initiated the first step through the towering, hallowed gateway. Vaughn took a step; their heads were lifted. The clacking of boots sounded their progression.
“Vaughn,” Sara quietly spoke, easing away from her belittling tone, attempting now to attract bees with honey. “You were completely unresponsive back there, ya know? When you were speaking with Captain Vauless? Remember? You just sat there…staring at nothing… as if you were lost. For awhile too – for at least a couple minutes. Everyone witnessed it” Her words merited no response. “What are you trying to hide? You aren’t fooling anybody. We know something is up. We know you too well. Why can’t you just enlighten us?”
Vaughn finally muttered in a weakened voice, keeping his back to her, approaching a grid-like, labyrinth of lockers, secularly lit by large, oval fixtures in the high, visible duct ceiling.
“We have a right to know why you ignored Vauless’ orders.”
“Lux. It isn’t important.” He stopped suddenly, turning to face her. “it isn’t important why, just that I am.”
“Vaughn -- look -- it is. I speak for everyone aboard when I say we deserve to know why we’re placing not only our careers, but our lives at risk by carrying out your inappropriate whims.”
Vaughn’s green eyes seemed to flicker as they shifted to and from each set looking back at him and with a sigh he spoke, “I telepathically linked with a being inside the pod.”
“Well… I believe so anyway.”
“You believe so? Did you or didn’t you?”
Vaughn smirked and turned from the questions.
“That’s it? That’s all you got? You believe so…”
Again, he ignored her, nodding an assessment to the lockers, wondering if each of them were equipped adequately, having little faith that such measures would have been taken.
“ Assumptions then? That’s all we have to go on?” Sara blurted out.
“A gut feeling is more like it, but sure,” he said, eying a random storage unit, afraid that it would be empty. Each of them followed his lead, finding lockers of their own. Sara muttered to herself, “Oh, sorry. A gut feeling… Big fucking difference.”
“Yes, actually. Big fucking difference.” Vaughn pressed his thumb into the T.I. indicator.
“I’d like to think of it as reliable intuition.”
“What a load of shit. Seriously, Vaughn, you’re going to fuck with people’s lives over an assumption? A fucking guess? Well shit, not like that’s news anyway. You’ve always been a selfish prick, why change now?”
Vaughn jarringly turned to Sara, getting fed up with her attitude. “You all have free will. Yes? I haven’t forced any of you into anything. Each of you can board an escape pod, release a beacon and wait to get picked up by the Vargralus.”
Sara huffed and shook her head.
“What? Don’t like my answer, Lux? Then fuck off. Understand? Turn around and go pout somewhere else.” His eyes shifted from her momentarily, glancing between the other two as well. “That goes for the two of you as well. You don’t fucking like it – don’t like me? Then leave. Walk away. I don’t need any of you specifically. Each of you is expendable. I’m only concerned with those I can trust – If you don’t want to be here – If you constantly question everything I do then I can’t trust you, boils down to you wasting my time. What I need are bodies that can follow my fucking orders. Plain and simple.
“So quit right now – do it. I don’t care. I really don’t. Just have the Goddamn courtesy to do so before we set foot on that planet and your hesitation gets us killed.” He continued to stare each officer down until each dissuaded eye contact. “So, we understand each other then? Good.” He turned from them and angrily shoved door of his locker through the slot on the left, snapping the panel off track and wedging the door into the opening mechanism, crushing it.
Sara’s insides wanted to explode; she wanted to retaliate. Strangle the arrogant prick! Though, she found herself oddly reserved, conflicted by whether or not she dare offer a retort. “I…” The Commander started off quietly, trying to ease around her concerns while still addressing their worth. “I would just – I’d like – no – we’d like something more assuring than ‘a gut feeling.’ It’s a fair request, Captain.”
After a tinge of silence he humored her statement. “Is there a better reason?”
“As an experienced field leader – more often than not – you’re thrown into a situation without much to guide you other than your own senses. We’ve fought together plenty of times, Lux, you of all people should be the last one to stand there and accuse me of haphazardly acting on impulse with no merit to back it up. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. You’ve trusted my instincts in the past. Why is it so different now?”
Sara kept quiet, placing her thumb into the T.I. indicator.
“So, again I ask: Is there a better reason I can give you?”
“I have fought with you. Plenty of times. And yeah, I’ve seen you do incredible things… But I’ve also been witness to your mistakes. You may understand the validity of your gut feelings, but not everyone does. To them it appears that you simply stared into thin air and ignored the orders of a reputable captain and the entire objective of our present mission. Your crew needs to have the same sort of faith – of logic – in your actions as you do… That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Vaughn inspected the contents of his locker, surprisingly he found it properly stocked. “If you follow me, my reasoning is the only reason you need to trust me. There is no other reason. And I sure as hell don’t need to offer up any proof.”
Sara angrily huffed, inspecting the contents of her unit as well, finding all that she needed.
In a way, he knew she was right. The crew should be informed about what exactly was going on. The only issue was that Vaughn, didn’t really have a solid idea as to why he needed to pursue the pod, only that he had to.
The Gradahl were still alive. That was enough for him. But how could he get them to rally behind another war as they were still enjoying the spoils of peace left in others wake.
Vaughn reached around the top shelf of his unit, dabs of sparks tossing about with the aggravated motor of a mechanism unable to jar the door panel back on its track and grabbed a small device, placing it on a nearby bench. Next, the Captain slipped his arms free from the sleeves of his crinkled jacket, tossing it to the bottom of his locker. Once each officer found a suitable locker they mimicked his actions, beginning to disrobe as well.
“Due to Kovac’s readings, we’ll be christening the Horizon Hopper.”
Rick’s demeanor immediately beamed. “Seriously!? The hopper? R—Awesome! I’ve logged hundreds – fucking – hundreds of hours in that beast! It’s an amazing machine! And, I know what your thinking, Cap’, but ya know, it’s more than how it reads on paper. It’s more than numbers and schematics,” Rick took a quick breath and continued, “‘Cause, I mean – Well actually, I know it probably – ya know, to you specifically – looks like a uh clunky piece of useless garbage. Sure. No real upside. Natta. Nothing. Am I right? I’m right,” another quick breath, “But, listen – in a dead serious way – Okay? Being on point, totally factual when I say: Don’t take those specs to heart. They really don’t mean shit when I’m your navigator. I promise you pure brilliance.” Grinning ear to ear, the young man neatly hung up his uniform, following in suit with Sara and Bazdik. He also removed his aviation cap, gently resting it on the top shelf of his locker. And for a moment, his short brown, wavy hair was revealed, though quickly hidden as a fidgety blur when the pilot instinctively wisped his fingertips around his scalp, breaking up the sweaty, matted strands.
“Yeah, well, Brake, that all still remains to be seen—”
Rick confidently laughed. “Trust me. Just—Just trust me, okay? It’s got potential. It oozes potential.”
“Potential doesn’t mean it’ll get the job done,” the Captain said quietly, still digging around in his locker, hoping for the possibility that a rogue firearm was stashed inside. Or maybe a secret compartment. He had no such luck. “It better perform up to my standards.”
“Mhm. Mhm. It will,” Rick stated, somehow widening the confidence in his toothy smile.
Vaughn remained unconvinced, roughly yanking his undershirt up over his head and tossing it aside. He unbuckled the weathered, leather holster that contained his I.C. and placed it, too, inside the locker, before unzipping his slacks and stepping out of them. Physically, he was still an imposing figure (conditioned as well as any athlete perched on the weathering plateau of their prime) not only in fitness, but because of the storied scars mapped into his skin. Many years of damage. Many years of pain. The entirety of his left arm elaborately displayed distinct decorations comprised together to form a colorfully tattooed sleeve. The images depicted memorable moments throughout the war; memories to look back upon with a certain fondness, though, as it always seemed to be, the artful designs didn’t exist without the unfortunate gristle of healed tissue. Regardless of how many times the wounds were viewed, they never went unnoticed.
A clacking of footsteps approached the group. Each officer quickly gathered their attention to the armory’s entrance as the final member of their compliment approached. Commander D’Easia made brief eye contact with each of them while adding a nod as she hurried through the memorial to join the group.
“I will not tolerate any disrespect, Commander D’Easia. These walls are sacred.” The venom in Vaughn’s gaze was obvious as he stared down the lithe Trilobian like a starved hawk detecting prey. Xuvectrin paused in confusion, utterly unaware of her apparent disrespect. Quietly, she mulled over why a simple armory would dictate such high regard. However, it was no matter, the alien was a being of respect, deeming it to not be her place to question his words. So, as it always did, her nature wouldn’t allow her to respond in anyway other than an acknowledgement presented by a single nod as she held her gaze with the stone-faced captain, waiting for him to explain the mistake she made so it wouldn’t become an ongoing issue. Although as the standoff ensued, no solution was given.
Quietly she made her way to a vacant locker and presented her thumb to the receiver. The subtle click of the mechanism unlatching viciously echoed throughout the discomforting silence. Feeling awkward and singled out by her ignorance, she kept to herself, not knowing what else she should do to alleviate the ruthless stare of her Captain. She slid the tall door aside and began examining the contents inside, familiarizing herself with the items that were provided to her.
“Stop.” Vaughn commanded. Xuvectrin obliged glancing back in his direction.
“She doesn’t mean any dis—”
“Shut up, Brake.” Vaughn gored the intensity of his sharpened stare into the glow of the alien’s.
And again, the prolonged silence was unnerving and awkward.
Am I to leave? Xuvectrin’s voice delicately questioned inside Vaughn’s mind.
“As I’ve already stated: These walls are sacred.”
I understood your words, but not their meaning. I want to remedy my mistake, but I’m unaware of how to do so. So, I can only apologize for offending a ritual of your people, which I do so whole heartedly. However, I do not desire to continue disrespecting your customs. So, Captain, please, enlighten me on how I am to remedy my blunder.
A change in the air. Vaughn felt as if the gentle sincerity of her words had nestled into the gnarled, aggravated meat of his brain. Despite his best efforts to remain angered, he faltered beyond the influence of his control, and slowly, he crushed his eyelids together, summoning two relics from his tormented mind. Even though the patina was heavy and thick, the images of his former captain and closest friend were still felt with an indestructible, knowing clarity.
Calmed, Vaughn’s eyes reopened. He focused again on the alien. “Whenever you enter this armory, for any reason, you stand quietly inside the memorial and surround yourself with the names of those that’ve given their lives so you could live yours. Honor them. ‘Cause they sure as hell’ve already done so for you.”
In her usual fashion, the alien, without hesitation, walked from the group, stopping inside the memorial. Unlike before, Xuvectrin’s gaze spanned the entirety of the structure, examining the names that curved all around her. She noticed they appeared to be intermingled randomly as they lacked the structure of military hierarchy.
Rank had no influence.
All were soldiers.
All were equally important.
The humbled Commander then closed her eyes and slowly bowed her head, folding her hands at her stomach. Vaughn watched her every action. “Thank you, Commander D’asia,” he said, turning his attention back to the task at hand.
You’re welcome, Captain. I’m very pleased to be apart of such a thoughtful ritual. …And you have my deepest apologies for having tarnished it. Xuvectrin then made her way back to the unit she’d occupied, resuming her preparations.
“Anytime a compliment is dispatched to a planet, there will be obvious dangers involved. This will be no different. I’m accustomed to having a full spread of weaponry at my disposal in these situations, definitely takes the edge off the nerves. However, as you all may know, we weren’t fitted with that luxury. The Council decided that this particular mission didn’t warrant the need to protect ourselves, having stocked us with an array of laser knives and some pop-n-pull ion side-arms. …Neither of which are very effective in the field.” Vaughn grabbed a thin, metallic canister from the top shelf of his locker and plopped himself down on a nearby bench. “So, having risen to the occasion, Commander Luxidon graciously allowed us to utilize her personal stock for whatever challenge we’ll need to solve.”
Sara, too, snatched a canister from her locker, and found a secluded bench to sit on.
“Any recommendations on what we should bring along, Lux?” Vaughn inquired with a smirk.
She unscrewed the cap of the canister, speaking in a dulled, distant voice. “Recommendations, Sir?”
“Indeed. Recommendations. You do know how to adequately utilize the weapons you smuggled on board, yes?”
If he was trying to get a rise out of her, it wasn’t going to work. Not for the time being anyway. Mentally, she was already stepping foot on the planet, trying to prepare herself for the breath taking experiencing. Calmly, Sara answered, “I do, Captain. I’m quite familiar with them actually. However, as the one who’s now in charge of my personal stock, I believe that pleasure belongs to you.”
Vaughn’s smirk grew through to a broad grin before shrinking away completely. He, too, unscrewed the cap of the canister and removed the contents, carelessly tossing away what he didn’t need among the jumbled heap of clothing. It was a cloth-like material, rolled neatly, that he let unravel in his grasp. First, it was his feet that he stretched the delicate, dark cloth over, slowly rolling it up his muscular legs, and leaving it at his waist. Every officer was provided with one. “Luckily, we won’t need anything too lofty for this particular outing. Scans indicated no warring threats. Nothing down there has the brain capacity for sophisticated development. Still, that’s not to say what is down there is handing out free passes. So…” He slipped the bunched up fabric up along his torso, dipping in each arm. “…Tarvol 9-12 will be secondary; Cronus rifle the primary. Also, just for good measure, strap on a couple of tempered ion clips for when plans go to shit. And of course, before we head out, be sure to thank Lux for miraculously finding a way to make her presence useful. ‘Cause honestly, I was having my doubts.”
Sara continued to ignore him while slipping into the bodysuit, lost in her own world. He wouldn’t get to her. Not now. The careless Captain may have disregarded the true intent of their mission, but that didn’t mean she’d have to as well. His search – his reasoning – didn’t need to mirror hers. After some thought, the Commander decided to embrace Vaughn’s disruptive actions as an opportunity to ironically continue on with what she was brought aboard to do: Explore. Though this wasn’t the first time she’d dig her feet into alien soil. It was, however, the first time she’d be able to do so without the desperate need of survival pumping through her veins.
Gone were the adrenaline fueled blood baths.
Gone were the terror filled, sleepless nights.
Gone were the needs for instinctive intuition and split second reactions.
She closed her eyes. That life was over. The need to have a weapon drawn and a trigger pulled was over. The killing had ceased. Steeped within the recesses of her mind, Sara found herself standing at the very cusp of what she was and what her talented mind wanted to open her up to. There was no argument, Commander Sara Luxidon was a damn good soldier: reliable and loyal. She was also a brilliant engineer with a penchant for both small field arms, as well as, massive, highly sophisticated ship cannons. And everything in between. There weren’t many who could rival both her fighting prowess and diverse mechanical abilities. Alone they were accomplishments that would satisfy most. Together, the barer of such talents would never need to prove anything to anyone ever again. However, Sara Luxidon was never one to plant roots and be content with that which she’s already mastered.
The joy was in the drive.
To always expand.
To continue setting a standard no one else could ever duplicate.
Sara’s unwavering confidence eventually enabled her to master more areas of her life’s passions. Relentlessly, she challenged herself with new brands of education in the years that followed after the war. Anthropology, botany, and zoology, became her focal points, feeling that having extensive knowledge in those areas would not only greatly aid in deciphering her next adventure, it would also allow her peers to place faith in whatever findings she may record. Knowledge is validation.
Thus, as the Commander toed the chasm of her thoughts she could feel the comfortable, taught chains of her past that strained to hold her from plunging into the unknown begin to corrode. The links weakened. And with minimal effort, they shattered.
The fluttered beat within her chest.
A single step forward.
And that life was over.
Rick became increasingly bored. His mind dialed aimlessly through dozens of subjects to occupy his interest. Give him focus. Machines wouldn’t do. The planet – he couldn’t care less. Not now. He needed something more exciting. Raw adrenaline. Something to bolster his spirits. He casually searched about the stark atmosphere of the armory while unscrewing the cap of the canister, seeing nothing of any real interest. Such a morose, melancholy place. The pilot sighed, losing hope that he’d soon be entertained.
It was then that he noticed her. Commander Luxidon. She was sitting alone on an adjacent bench. Her eyes were closed. Her guard seemingly diminished. …And she was virtually nude. Her toned body was glistening underneath a wash of light, as if she were on display at a museum as some rare prized possession. At first, he nervously sought out glimpses, a simple tasting for fear of being detected. Detection more than likely meant punishment, and knowing the Commander, it would more than likely be of a physical nature. It wasn’t the first time he ogled her. In fact, he had done it dozens of times in the past. During the war. And every time the outcome resulted in a fat lip or a black eye. She certainly was feisty, a trait that he thoroughly enjoyed. But her guard was usually raised, overly aware of every miniscule moment. Maybe because of the war. Without the incessant crashing of battles around her, she’d become more reserved. Laidback. She hadn’t yet twisted her attention to him. Rick took advantage of every precious, unsupervised second; oh, the observations he enabled. Seconds that seemed like minutes that seemed like centuries. Every asset entirely enjoyed behind the safety of shielded eyes. She sat so quietly oblivious, unmoving, lost to something unseen, having not yet twisted to his attention; and that was all the motivation Rick needed to press his indulgence; his imagination salivating, overflowing at the warmth of her sex appeal.
It had been awhile for the young pilot, having most of his time spent testing new equipment and writing command scripts for the military. Never really getting much of a chance to explore his sexual options. Thus, he would whole-heartily argue that he was only being human, or male, convinced that in some odd way he was the victim. Just natural behavior. His thoughts continued to persuade him, stating that it would be a crime – an unforgivable waste – to not appreciate the spectacle that was gifted to him.
Suddenly, as if somehow reading his thoughts, Sara opened her bright eyes and displayed a dainty smile of her own. She was very pleased with herself for allowing a new chapter in her life to finally unfold, eager to take action and fill in the blank pages. Rick, however, misinterpreted this small smile as something intentionally created just for him. Though in reality, she was still unaware of his ogling, occupied by the rolled up fabric she pinched from inside the thin metal canister. Maybe he could still get away with it. He did have augmented vision. A heightened range of periphery—of depth of field. Something like a camera lens, though a ludicrously expensive one at that. It was a ocular upgrade that pilots undertook as it widened and sharpened their field of vision for the betterment of their craft. Rick, on the other hand, decided to benefit from the groundbreaking surgery to satisfy juvenile, primal urges. Money well spent, he thought. Money well spent.
Continuing her preparation for the mission, Sara unfurled the fabric in her hands and stretched it over her feet, slowly up the length of her slender legs.
Rick’s mind screamed. His tantalized mind; the sweat. The unabashed grin that continued to welcome the limit of his boundaries. Just the thought of something – anything – touching her skin… He craved to be that something. Gluttonous desires diverted momentarily by the colorful tattoo sleeve inked to her arm, having similarities to Vaughn’s. But enough of that! Rick’s attention to a discrete viewing began to slip; he didn’t care anymore if he was spotted. In a way, he wanted her to know. The risk made his actions all the more enjoyable.
With the body suit rolled up along the frame of her body, Sara glanced around to gauge the progress of her comrades. The Commander was getting anxious. She wanted to begin; the sooner the better. A presence was felt. It was then that she realized she was being gawked at. “Of course,” she sighed, shaking her head, making eye contact with Rick’s gleaming aviators and goofy grin. “Got enough?” She rolled her eyes and tended to her preparation once more, willing to let it slide, there were more important issues to deal with. Standing, Sara reached into the upper shelf of her locker, taking out an oddly shaped, transparent device. “Did we need this? I don’t remember if it was mentioned.”
“I know what I need,” Rick stated, completely void of shame.
Normally, these types of comments weren’t well received by the Commander. A threat would be made and if further inappropriate behavior was displayed, the lecherous pilot would be intimidated and forced to cease. But it was a tiresome act. And that type of discipline wasn’t becoming of her anymore. So, she decided to ignore the problem. It would fizzle out on its own. “Well? Do we?” She glanced about for a response.
Bazdik looked up from his seat already fitted with the bodysuit and the metallic bracer attachment on his forearm, patiently waiting for the rest of the officers to finish. The massive, rippled bulk of his body stretched the fabric to its absolute brink. “What? The R.B.A.?”
“No, Lux, we don’t need them,” Vaughn interjected, holding his attention to the menu screen of the bracer, fiddling with options. “Bazdik said we’d be able to breathe without any issues, yes?”
Bazdik nodded. “Indeed, Captain. It would just be precautionary.”
Sara tossed the device back inside the locker, removing the bracer and sat back down on the bench. Rick effectively traced the Commander’s every movement, licking his lips. Sara shot him a sidelong glance, watching him swing his leg over the bench to straddle it. “Lux…”
Against her better judgment, she responded. “Yes, pig?”
“Believe me when I say: Babe, I would gladly drink a cup of your bath water. Just the thought of it sends shivers down my spine.”
Okay! No! Enough is enough, she thought as her face turned to disgust. Vaughn already stripped me of what was mine, made me look like a fool. I’ll be fucking damned if I’m stripped of anything else. Her looks of disgust narrowed into a slicing glare.
Rick froze. His boundary was met.
But then a thought occurred to her. He was just an immature little prick, never really responding to the obvious brand of violence. So, instead fight fire with fire. Her glare lessened, softened even, replaced with a warm, peculiar smile. What better time to embarrass the man, she thought, while he was in the company of two of his commanding officers. Though she realized Rick may never be completely convinced that his actions were vastly unbecoming, regardless of what she did. Maybe, at the very least, she could aptly delay the frequency in which they were performed.
The opportunity was staring her in the face. It was time to fill the blank pages.
Delay the frequency.
Squash the bug.
The bait was taken. Rick noticed that Sara’s anger had convinvingly vanished, he decided to continue on with the charade. “And after, Lux, After… I would take your wet, beautiful body, and literally clean every last droplet of water off you with just my tongue.”
Sara staved off the urge to laugh outright. “Oh? Is that right?” Smoothly, she slid the locker door along the track and snuggly secured it in place, engaging the mechanism to clasp the latches, somehow making this simple act appear sexual by design. She took a moment to hold her gaze in the reflection of his aviators, trying to pierce through the glass and into his consciousness. As far as Rick was concerned, all was panning out perfectly. She was reacting to his advances in a way she never had before. Maybe he had finally broken her down. As she approached him with slow, smooth steps, slickly swaying her hips, a sudden feeling a dread washed over him, quickening the thump of his heart and tightly knotting his belly. His confident grin began to cripple, diminished by anxiety. With his prize in such close proximity, he could see the body suit acted as a second skin, leaving very little to the imagination. Stymied by rhythmic movements, Rick found he couldn’t produce a single sound, let alone a single word as he slowly trailed his gaze up her body. The Commander stood not more than a foot from him, looming from above with conviction.
Rick’s jaw slackened. He only ever imagined the joys of having Sara respond to him with such acceptance and sultry grace on his own terms, bottled up in a scenario that he alone could control within the privacy of his mind. He harshly swallowed back the dryness in his throat having known that he forfeited that luxury with his prior engagements.
Why was she acting this way?
His mind raced for an answer, having never been so utterly overshadowed by an unexplainable urge to regret something he had so deeply desired. And then he felt them, beads of sweat trickling from his brow, down his cheek. Noticeable beads, swelling until they dripped from his jaw.
What was she going to do?
The suspense triggered the instinct of fight or flight. Rick being a child at heart in these matters chose the later. Without another wasted moment, he shakily stood and swung his leg over the bench, stumbling in a sloppy attempt to flee. Only a single step was managed before a swift, strong, open palmed slap cracked a painful echo throughout the armory, simultaneously joined by a helpless shriek.
There was now an audience.
The surprised cry of pain gathered the attentions of all three senior officers. Xuvectrin briefly interrupted her meditative practice, calmly expressing a minute glance toward Sara and Rick with the intent to confirm whether or not danger was present. With nothing to warrant concern, she closed her eyes and resumed meditation, perplexed by the nature of human beings and their ability to extract gratification from ridiculing one another. Bazdik quietly waited, and with nothing else going on, was more than willing to be amused.
Vaughn, too, decided there was room for amusement, temporarily halting the calibrations he was integrating into the bracer in order to satisfy his curiosity. The sight of an overly confident man-child, standing in his underwear, secured in place by the firm grip on his ass, as if he were an unruly pet in need of taming was too much to pass up.
Strike while they’re interested, Sara coached to herself, curling a devious smile as she tightened the meaty grip she had on Rick’s buttocks, feeling the muscle tense as he was stilled into place. His sweaty hands dropped to either side with shaky fingers tautly spread as regret poured from his mind, filling his stomach and chest.
Sara continued her tender advances, pressing her body against his back, and curling her face around his shoulder, staring inches from his frightened profile. She then moistened the curl of her lips, making sure her cooled breath would be felt against his trembling face and neck, stamping his skin with goose bumps. Toying with him, she tightened her grasp, digging in her nails. And as if on queue, Rick cracked yet another pained yelp.
With weaving elegance, Sara caressed his, dampened, muted cheek with the soft, warm pads of her fingers. Smoothly, she curled her touch around the back of his jaw. Effortlessly, the Commander delicately traced the entire edge of the base, using just her index. She sensually sloped over his rounded chin. And finally, the digit came to a subtle pause against his bottom lip before tickling a trail down the middle of his throat, resting the flat of her palm upon his chest and feeling the anxiety in his heart.
Squash the bug.
Vaughn and Bazdik traded glances, and grins as they watched the scene unfold, allowing muffled laughter to occasionally escape their throats. This was what she wanted. It was the exact reaction she was hoping for out of her audience. If Rick was going to actually realize the error of his ways, she needed a humiliating memory implanted in his head to remind him of what would happen if he didn’t. And it needed to be grandiose to ensure he’d never forget this moment. Brashly, the Commander wrenched his buttocks upward, forcing her victim to extend up to the balls of his feet, though his mouth opened to cry out, barely a sound surfaced as his throat was too dry to do so. Leaning in closer, Sara notched her gaze into his periphery, waiting for him to shift his eyes to meet hers. It took a moment, but he did so, with trepidation wildly flaring his nostrils.
Stiffened by fear for what Sara was planning, Rick was unable to react. Though even if he could, he wasn’t sure what he’d do to free himself. She was faster. She was stronger. He knew he needed to struggle, or try to. Show some sign of life. But his body would not come to his aid, his muscles too tense to grant him any sort of mobility. His mind mirrored his inept ability to free himself, slated in confusion – emptied – clouded by the haze of a dream. No. A nightmare.
And their laughter was escalating.
Sara parted her supple lips with a soft smack of her tongue, sliding slow, wet circles against his cheek before sealing the space with her mouth, massaging his skin gently with both her tongue and front teeth. Rick’s eyes buried shut. Her touch was sensational. Though it wouldn’t lead to pleasure… only further embarrassment. He knew if she didn’t stop he would never live down the outcome. With her palm glazed by the sweat of his chest, she slid lower, ceasing his thoughts. Firmly, she pressed against the bottom of the pilot’s belly, extending her frisky fingers toward his crotch. Small, sensual circles were rubbed into his sensitive flesh as another smack of her lips sounded as the seal on his cheek was broken, leaving behind a subtle hickey. As she continued to swirl her fingers about his belly, the smiling Commander gracefully eased toward his ear, kissing his skin with her breath along the way, and softly biting the bottom of his lobe.
Her talented touch radiated waves of pleasure down his neck and throughout his body. If only he had kept his mouth shut. If only… Rick knew he couldn’t withstand much more of this. Eventually, he wouldn’t be able to subdue his growing urges as they were leading into the final act, wishing desperately to avoid that sort of humiliation at all costs. It was bad enough that anyone would be watching, let alone Vaughn and Bazdik. He didn’t dare make eye contact with them, but he didn’t have to. He knew they’d be laughing. Hell, even Rick himself would get a kick out of it if it wasn’t happening to him.
Sara continued to nibble Rick’s earlobe, proclaiming in a voice gilded with smoked velvet, all the pleasures she’d masterfully perform on him, making sure that only he could hear.
Rick’s heart savagely thumped against his chest.
Nausea thrashed through his stomach.
Chilled beads of sweat rolled from his quivering jaw and shattered against the floor.
Sara’s smile grew, knowing her act wouldn’t need to go much further; she could tell Rick couldn’t hold back much longer. He was going to crack. And with a gentle dip of her fingers she rested them just underneath the elastic band of his boxer-briefs.
Although Rick mustered up his most convincing attempts to ignore her touch – crushing his eyelids together and furrowing his brow in deep concentration, rapidly pacing through the usual images that would keep him from getting aroused – ultimately, she was too much. It was a losing battle. His body would betray him. His only hope was that this was in fact a nightmare and he’d awaken any moment to find himself safely within the comfort of his quarters.
It wasn’t so.
As she trailed his hand back up along his body, the final straw had already been stacked. Her elaborate act would finally produce the desired result.
In a final act of resistance, Rick, gurgled a pathetic whimper as he felt his groin tingle and stir, having reached the point of no return. And with one final, aching twist to his buttocks, his spine was forced into an exaggerated backbend, thrusting out his pelvis to prominently accent his manhood as it slowly ascended into a full erection, tenting the front of his boxer-briefs. Pleased with her brand of revenge, Sara released her grasp, giving his taut buttocks a few quick pats before nonchalantly sauntering back to her locker and unlocking the door, searching the storage space to see if there was anything she missed, acting as if nothing had happened.
The sight of Rick immobilized and fully aroused in his underwear left the two officers speechless with silly grins scribbled on their faces. The sound of a locking mechanism cracked the moment of shock and initiated a stuttering of laughter that ballooned into relentless, roars that bellowed throughout the walls of the armory. Sara calmly made her way back to her trophy and as she passed by, heading for the horiyou lift, she gently pressed down on his shoulder until he sat down on the bench. Keeping his gaze glued to the floor in an attempt to hide his face as it burned brightly with embarrassment, the mortified man tried to channel out the smattering of chuckles that remained. He didn’t utter a single sound as he meekly adorned his gear. And when Vaughn and Bazdik finally did step past him, they offered a few condolence pats to his back while wiping away the tears their laughter left behind.
Once and for all, the bug was squashed.
As the group reconvened in front of the lift, Vaughn instructed each of them to familiarize themselves with the synapse scripting he’d relayed to their bracers. Amazingly, it was the only facet of technology Vaughn had taken any pride in understanding, primarily because he believed it to be quintessential to all field operations. Maybe even more so than a firearm. And he wasn’t alone; the I.S.O. believed it, too. So much so, in fact, that complete comprehensive knowledge of how the procedure was completed and utilized had been integrated into every tier of a cadet’s training for absolute assurance that it wouldn’t be forgotten or overlooked.
The sleek bracer that each officer was now fitted with transformed the density and texture of the bodysuit, much like a brain’s ability to delegate directions with instantaneous results. In this case, directions were in the form of predetermined armor conditions, installed by the compliment’s ALPHA. The user’s thoughts were then converted into a numerical language sentence via the retina lenses and transmitted to a receiver on the bracer itself, which then translates the language in order to select the corresponding synapse script the ALPHA had written. The script was then radiated throughout the seemingly fragile fibers of the bodysuit, altering them into the chosen armor selection. The armor conditions typically varied, balanced by how well the user was protected versus how mobile the user could be. It was perfect for on-the-spot situational adapting.
This technology was well beyond the capacities of mankind. Like every other crucial technological upgrade, it was introduced by the Trilobians who graciously shared the knowledge and materials with their new comrades in arms. Thus, mobile yet nearly impenetrable body armor could be fashioned and refashioned at a whim.
Vaughn believed without a shred of doubt that weapons were the tools that led to victory. All victories. But it was armor that allowed them to continue every satisfying trigger pull. It was the one area that he was never careless. He’d never haphazardly ante up any life under his command unless there was no other solution. It’s why he was rooted in the heat of every battle. The Captain never stood shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, rather, in front of them, leading every charge.
“You’re free to choose as you wish depending on how the situation develops. Don’t wait for my orders, if you need another setting, enable it. For now though Light Plate A will do. Range is more important than bulk.”
Each of them nodded and the fibers began to restructure. The fabric bulged from their bodies before blooming over into hardened, polished plates adorned with ornate engravings across the breast, gauntlets, and grieves. The main focus of Vaughn and Sara’s shared tattoo surfaced on the curve of the shoulder as well, issuing the very same markings his crew flaunted during the war.
“In case you’re wondering, the selection does include a helmet, Light Helmet A. Though—”
“Very creative name settings, Vaughn…”
“Though,” Vaughn calmly ignored Sara’s snide comment and continued, “I doubt you’ll need it. I’ve modified this particular synapse frequently over the years and every time I tweak it, the armor gets lighter and stronger.”
Rick grinned. “Less clunk; more spunk!”
Vaughn smirked, hitting the door release to the lift. “Something like that…”
They each filed in with their captain who quickly stated, “Horizon Bay.”
The doors hissed closed and they were whisked away.
“For obvious reasons, you’re my acting Communications Officer for the duration of the operation. But if you sense any presence – any at all – notify me first before contact.”
Of course, Captain, her smile was accompanied by a single, respectful nod.
Xuvectrin was still an enigma. Over the years Vaughn encountered many Trilobians, sharing drinks and stories, mishaps and victories as he battled along side them. Both men and women. And in that time he observed their behavior, concluding that, as a whole, they did have a defining sense of collectedness to their personas. They certainly weren’t prone to act upon gritty disobedience or an eagerness to be swayed by the strength of a gut feeling. It just wasn’t their way. But over the years, he noticed small patches – sporadic flares – of something else. Something that could be defined as being ‘human.’ Not one of them seemed so willing to be viewed as an unflappable pillar of respect that Commander D’asia embodied. Vaughn stewed deeper into his thoughts. Maybe he was simply nit picking a positive to unearth a desired negative. Granted, the alien accepted every order he’d commanded thus far without complaint or feeling it necessary to offer up a renegade opinion in retaliation. She efficiently did was she was told to do; it was refreshing to say the least. And of all the officers under his command, Xuvectrin seemed to be the only one who treated him like a man of rank. He did like that much about her. Though her demeanor still did leave behind a sour taste. Until she decided to expose any of the layers underneath her respectful nature, if any, her compliance seemed too good to be true. Almost too willing; like an eerie calm waiting to usher in the crash of a devastating storm.
The lift slowed to a stop. The doors hissed open.
“Just… keep me informed. I want to know what you’re communicating before hand,” Vaughn said, stepping over the threshold, followed by the rest.
Yes, understood, Captain.
As the group made their way down another lengthy, convex hallway – only this time it was lined with large, circular windows on either side – they heard a layered crescendo of incoherent noise: buzzing, searing, electric current, jumbled voices, and a grouping of sharp hammer strikes. Not to mention the smell. Foul at best. Like broiled metal. Vaughn sighed, realizing the busy noise could only mean the upgrades weren’t yet applied. He hesitated to activate the T.I. receiver, more or less to allow time for his mind to bottle his anger, and with an instinctive snap of his head, he glared at Sara. “They had better be—”
“Open the door, Vaughn.”
“Just open it.”
Another stressed huff.
“Either they’re done, or they’re not. Nothing you can do about it.”
Vaughn disagreed. He could eject them all into the emptiness of space and watch their bloated bodies float away. At least he’d be left with some sort of satisfaction. With a smirk, he extended his thumb to the receiver with another thought, though this was to prompt thousands of tiny armored plates to momentarily peel away from the digit so the sensor could read his print. The locks unlatched and the door rescinded into the wall, swiftly increasing the mess of noise. Irritated at what he was seeing, Vaughn crossed the threshold.
Scientists, Engineers, Mechanics, and their assistants, dozens of each were present inside the brightly lit bay, meandering around each other like caffeinated ants as they tried to complete the necessary upgrades to the hopper’s hull. None of them noticed the armored crew entering, too immersed in their tasks. The door sealed into place with a stiff hiss as the officers glanced about the controlled chaos within the capacious Horizon Bay. Diverse, mechanical equipment was haphazardly littered about its entirety, be it upon the long rows of workbenches, or hung from a tangle of cords that looped throughout the makeshift scaffolding that surrounded the robust vehicle, in clumps on the floor, or currently operating on the inner workings of the stripped down hopper. Nearly every tool had been in use, leaving only a few still mounted in various places.
Even with the R.O.D.A.N. appearing as if it were on life support, missing many sections of its hull, Rick unwaveringly viewed it as the pinnacle of modern engineering. His mind began to settle in behind the controls, preemptively deciding what script modifications he’d install first. The excitement was enough to dash his memory of Sara’s recent actions, allowing him to focus once again on his passion. A warm smile with the conviction of an elated toddler began to take shape. His eyes feasted. His brain calculated. His heart thumped wildly. Feeling a surge of energy, he ran off toward the robust skeletal structure, wanting to be included in any upgrading processes that remained.
Sara’s mood had brightened as well, pleased to see how many people responded to her message and soon she followed Rick’s lead, breaking from the group to offer help wherever it was needed.
Before Vaughn could call them back an unfamiliar voice called out.
His sight was narrowed by focus, his eyes darted around, trying to peer through the busy weaving bundles of lab coats, though unable to pinpoint who was calling out to him.
“Captain! Hey! Over here!” The voice this time was accompanied by a gloved hand wildly waving above the crowd. He moved forward, bumping past numerous people and knocking several down, keeping his eyes on the visual queue. Bazdik and Xuvectrin followed, though pausing to lend assistance to those on the floor.
“Captain! Hey. So don’t worry, we’re just about set. Mmm… minutes. Maybe five. Promise!”
When he finally squeezed through, he found staring in his direction, surrounded by misshapen scraps of different alloys and humming, bulky industrial equipment – some of which were projecting holographic statistics above them – was a sweaty, greasy, short and dainty, red haired woman. She wore a thin, gold-colored device, similar to glasses, but with interchangeable, circular lenses of various sizes to magnify her sight. As it was, the biggest of them was currently in use; the convex oval dwarfed her pale, freckled face and forehead, making her look like a type of humanoid insect. She nimbly hoisted herself up onto the side of a machine and leaned across the top, thrusting her hand down to him through the glow of a projection, distorting the image. “Hi!” she excitedly said, brandishing a wide smile. “Name’s Hollis. Glad to finally meet you, Captain Mayve.” Some of the lenses reactively rotated out of her vision to lessen the magnification and stabilize the focal distance.
Vaughn gently tilted his head, furrowing his brow in confusion while slowly tracing his stare between the small, outstretched hand of friendship and the fidgety, rotating lenses on her dirty face. “Why… are you on my ship?”
Hollis’ smile and gesture held steady, unmoving from her position while she spoke. “Head Mechanic… or whatever the title you guys gave me was… is. Whatever it is. Doesn’t matter. Been overseeing the upgrades to the hopper. Really looking good.” She smiled as she surveyed the chaos, finally letting her arm relax. “Soon enough, it shouldn’t be an issue for you guys to ride past that lava. Or over it. Hell, you could probably dunk right in and just paddle on through by the time we’re finished.” Vaughn parted his lips to speak, but Hollis hastily interrupted, “It’ll be ready soon. Pretty sure you’re wondering that. But just a few more quick minutes left. Just sit tight.”
Vaughn stared at the girl, struck with a loss for words, the air of confusion having never left his face.
“Oh! Sorry,” Hollis said, quickly extending, again, an open hand and a friendly smile this time to Sara and Bazdik. They both shook her hand, exchanging pleasantries.
Vaughn braced his frustrations and smiled, speaking evenly, “I’m sure they’ll serve their purpose, admirably.”
“What will?” Hollis asked, releasing Bazdik’s hand.
“The upgrades. I’m sure—”
“Oh! Absolutely. Once we finish—”
“No. …No, they’re good enough.”
Hollis cocked her head in question. “Okay, I don’t follow.”
“I’m through waiting, Hollis. I need to—”
“They aren’t finished. The system right now is unstable.” The mechanic started to snicker. “You can’t just – you can’t up and take the thing as is. It’s just pieces! Look. Seriously. They’re everywhere.”
“Assemble the damn thing then. Now. I’m—”
“Sorry, boss. And I know you won’t like it, but, no can do. Not straight away at least.”
Vaughn sighed. “Why not?”
“Hm… Well for starters – Okay, no, wait. Wait. I’ll try and explain it so you don’t look so ignorant.
The girl angled her eyes upward in thought. “Uhm… It’s like… like – It’s like this! Picture …a puzzle. Yeah!” She nodded, agreeing with herself. “Yeah. Yeah. And it’s in a bunch of pieces, scattered all around. But the thing needs to be put together. Quick fix. Easy does it. Alright… Not that simple, though. Regular puzzle just grab a piece with your fingers. Inspect it. Put it where it goes. Repeat. Inspect some more. Connect ‘em all. And bam! Done. You’ve made yourself a charming image. Go take a nap. …All thanks to just one tool.” With a smirk, Hollis wiggled her fingers. “Your hand. Simple Suzy. But, the Hopper? Hopper’s no regular puzzle. Obviously. Ya need a bunch a different tools. Ya need manpower. And ya need time.
“Actually, kinda bouncing off subject, but, if they’d listened when I presented my proposal and instituted a hard meld, reconfigured the core and the memory codex, and used some common sense, they could burn the engine as a single unit. Limit the necessary tools. Then the modifications would’ve been finished much sooner and we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now.”
Vaughn stared blankly at the young girl. Baffled. Yet amused. He could at least understand her frustrations with the council. Hollis continued, “I mean, sure, a hard meld would deactivate the auto-systems – It’d be more hands on. And, of course, anything manual is inevitably tied to the possibility of mistakes – It’s a gamble, no argument there, albeit a small one.” Hollis smiled. “Especially when it’s my hands dipping in the most, ya know?”
“Okay…” Vaughn said, feeling deflated. “Just finish up. Do it quickly.”
“Absolutely. Sorry the Hopper’s so temperamental, sophisticated tech and all... Just wait over by the far wall, shouldn’t be too long.”
The morning storm had finally thinned to a trickle; the air, wet and thick and rolling, wisped in twain as she quickly escaped through the dramatically deformed forest, barely licked by the light of the lowly slung sun. Clumped, fuzzy moss draped through the erratic forking of branches and down along each contorted spine. The trees arched commandingly to the sky forming a sturdy canopy overhead, keeping the soil beneath cold and moist. With each sturdy step divots were roughly pressed in by the balls of her feet. The path ahead was faint. Daylight gasped along with her heavy breath which heaved in quick visible gusts. Life didn’t extend beyond the borders of the arbor fortress; one of few remaining sanctuaries among the decay. It was her mother and her father. It was her home.
Languished lungs and steadied stiff strides continued to carry her past beds of colorful flowers, feathery plants, and whimsical funguses that sprouted from the ground and layers of rigid bark. Though the fragile beauty was a luscious sight, it was not to be enjoyed.
They were gaining ground.
Most of the time she moved as an unimportant blur living in the corners of their vision, exacting lasting punishments to her aggressive enemies. Though, in this instance their numbers were too great for a headstrong attack. Onward she thrived, weaving throughout the maze to lead them to a more suitable destination.
They were without mercy. Without life. The Ohms hunted her.
The slapping pads of her bare steps continued to quicken, challenging her aptitude on slickened surfaces, though balance was of no consequence as she was able to stabilize her pace with a long whip-like tail. Faster still. She surgically darted around fallen dead wood a heavier debris, slid through swaths of winding mud, and leapt chasms at a distance no human could ever manage. Fluid and agile. Her muscles seemingly able to bend and stretch as a stream of winding water would, as if she were able to simply fill in the gaps of where she desired to travel and press through with jarring force unscathed. There were few obstacles that would impede her.
They would never tire. Their pursuit was infinite.
And she was at peace. Confidence surged throughout every tensed, aching muscle in her body. After all it was a game. Cat and mouse. After a time she began to truly believe that, and even enjoy their presence. The opportunity for revenge was always enthralling and eventful. Always laced with satisfaction. The smooth trail diminished into uneven, wildly gnarled terrain, almost haunting in its embrace of overgrowth with none alive to truly travel through. She met this, too, without spraining a single stride, seeming as if the rougher the path became the easier it became to manage. There was a sense of pride that came with being on the surface, existing in the last of the wilds. But it was much more than that, more than existing, she was there to act as a reminder that not all of them were dead. That she was not dead. Splashes of water collected by the broad leaves spotted against her face as she raced past, her eyes squinting through the moisture. Hooked thorns scratched and sliced anything that wasn’t shielded by the ragged cloak and cowl she wore. If they wanted her, if the Ohms wanted victory, they’d have to prove they could keep up through the sharpened jaws and lush pitfalls of the thicket. They’d have to earn their mouse.
Shots were fired. Tufts of soil erupted in her periphery emitting a rank stench of sulfur. Another chasm. Her breath immediately sucked into her chest as she pounced through the air, smiling as a few of the Ohms tumbled down, disappearing into the nothingness. The ground that lay beneath her dropped off into a bed of wooden razors. Nimbly, she reacted to the danger, twisting and hugging her knees into her chest she corkscrewed the sopping wet cloak around herself as she made her descent. The thickly woven cloth guarded her body like a cocoon, splintering the initial onslaught of thorns. And when the sharper, thicker razors began to rip through, curved blades detracted from the underside of her crudely assembled forearms and locked into place, splintering away the rest of the resilient brush. Tatters of the cloak gently fluttered down as the pads of her feet splashed through the soil, sinking in deep as she landed. Tired knees bending. Muscles burning. The blades retracted. Calf muscles corded. She wrangled free one foot from the muck, and then the other. After she consumed a few large pockets of air, she sprang forward, using the hardened craters left behind by the volley of white-hot plasma blasts as more stable platforms to cross the swamp. Soon, she emerged from the cold, soupy thicket and darted ahead, dodging a few more flashes that rifled past, covering her in putrid waves of singed soil.
They would not defer. The Ohms were quicker.
A cliff lay ahead. Another incredibly physical feat was already playing out in her mind, weighing the options and outcomes in a blink. Would she jump? But before she could commit to such an act another volley of plasma collided around her, though this time crushing the rather large jut of earth she clambered across. The jarring quake did all it could to topple her, but she would not succumb. Again making use of her extensive jumping prowess, she took to the air while watching the land below slide and crumble to pieces beneath a seemingly endless haze of dust and smoke. After a brief free-fall through plume of soured air, she met the muddy angle, finding her balance perfectly among cascades of scattered organic debris and boulders. Instead of trying to gather her bearings and fight against the incredulous speed of this new direction she aimed for it like the slicing tip of an arrow, weaving to and fro between the larger bits of the landslide, taming the intensity of the vertiginous gradient. Nearing the jarring elbow of open, stretching land, her feet dug in, flashing twelve irregular, thick claws into the sloppy soil which garnished enough traction to pounce from the slope before colliding into the leveled, grassy expanse, and to keep ahead of any stray bone crushing rocks, meeting her balance on all fours, loosely wrapped, once again, in the heavy frayed strips of the saturated cloak.
She paused. There was a quiet calm to this place, her mind surmised while her lungs drew in every painful inch of oxygen they could handle. Though the Ohms would find their way to her, they weren’t programmed to self-terminate and would need to heed a safer route down the dangerous bank. Knowing this was the case, she took some time to assess her surroundings. She also realized that by being caked in the mud and clay gathered by her descent she’d remain hidden. The heat tracers the machines were equipped with couldn’t detect her through the cooled layers. But the tactic was only relevant if she stayed far enough ahead. Proximity was key.
With her jaw agape, finally finding her exaggerated breaths subsiding, she peered through the filthy strips of cloth searching for the sign of pursuit. But all was still. The sun hadn’t quite surrendered just yet as she saw irregular gaps in the canopy, filled with yellowed, dense beams of light that touched straight to the open ground.
Suddenly, her oversized, bat-like ears pricked up. Cracking. Snapping. Sloshing. The heavy metallic steps began encroaching upon her. But there was still time. Quickly, she pounced into stride, dashing toward the translucent cylinders and playfully traipsing through them with a broadening, fanged smile. She doused herself within their brilliance and comforting warmth and tilted back her head, her appreciative visage reflecting equaled radiance. An uncommon sight indeed. An uncommon, pleasant emotion. A welcomed distraction. To live was to be reminded that such beauty still existed within the solemn rot of the decrepit wasteland. As she continued her gleeful romp, bounding from one beam to another, wishing she could capture a small portion of their radiance, she was amazed that these rays had actually poked their way through. And very grateful that they did.
But soon they’d be upon her, firing without hesitation, intent on her demise, neither content, nor proud of their abilities to tame such an evasive creature. However, even in the grinning face of death, she wanted to remember.
She needed to.
Life hadn’t always been this way.
Eventually, she’d have to concentrate on more grim matters. So with a widened smile she turned her attention to the ominous sounds that echoed through the air, at ease in a passive stance within the embrace of the widest, hottest beam; that grin refusing to diminish, even as they began to surround her.
She watched their dull, reflective bodies aimlessly wander, trying to trace her position. Normally, with the stretch of procumbent land as open as this, she’d already be shredded by a smattering of deadly shots. There was no cover. She had no obvious protection. And still, they stumbled around unable to detect her position as she stood unmoving well within range. So long as the jarringly golden illuminations were present they’d scramble the hapless vision of the machines. Their sensors were stymied, unable to hone in on her.
She now had the advantage of observer, first noticing the odor they emitted, that foul odor: An amalgam of scorched acids – of sulfur. The potent stench forced her typically widened, angled eyes to a protective squint as the fumes itched and burned. It would have to be ignored as any sudden movements could attract harm. No matter, pain was something she was all too familiar with, blocking it out wasn’t difficult, however the welling tears attempting to flush out the toxins were out of her control. She had to remain within what little splash of cover she had. Blinking would have to suffice. Thin, salty trails leaked down her furry cheeks as her eyes overflowed, blotting out the machines in blurry crystals with each press of her eyelids before subtly clearing her vision, leaving behind a thin, distorted halo through all she saw. No matter, it would have to do.
From what she could tell, they didn’t contain much bulk – comprised mostly of tight, curved angles, tubes and varying jointed rods that mimicked the bones of a skeleton. Internal parts hissed as they spun. Black rubbery pumps looped throughout the underside of the plating, mimicking stout veins. They were taller than her. Heavier. A few crept in frighteningly close, forcing her to stifle her breath and slowly bend away back into the warmth of the ray. The machine carried on its search and she again found herself quietly finding her breath. Through the discomfort, she carefully attempted to further scrutinize the habits of her metallic foes, shifting her eyes around at the many perspectives she was granted with, hoping to detect a choke point somewhere. An anomaly. Somewhere. Anywhere. Each of them seemed to be exactly alike. The one who commanded them was not present. If one revealed a secret they’d all be exploited. They’d all fall. Her mind raced, hoping to trigger some clandestine piece of information she may have overlooked. But, nothing was revealed. And the longer she was trapped in their presence the angrier she became, frustrated by the way they functioned without an inkling of remorse.
They’ve taken so many…
Gingerly, she tried leaning closer to the face of another that passed by. Careful. Patient. Movements. Gulping down a knot of air, she held her breath. Her nerves tightened like compounded bow strings underneath her skin. Each knocking thump of her chest pulsated, her muscles deviously trying to spasm her body. No sudden movements or she would surely be detected. The sleek face of the Ohm made no movement as she bared closer, gears hissing inside. That infernal hissing. That dreadful smell. They filled her head with misery. Through the glazed residue in her eyes she could almost see. Creeping closer. And ever still. Leaning further. The answer was waiting…behind their eyes. Her tormented lungs strained anemic wisps of air from her tight, pursed lips. A few more of them slunk past her, their many mechanisms churning and humming along with their unrefined movements, momentarily broke her concentration. So close. She could almost see. Blinking away the tears, straining her screaming vision through compressed slats. Her mind begging for her to inhale deeper. Exhale deeper. And the Ohm she studied twisted its oblong skull away from her and carried on, away from the dwindling ray. As another walked past her eyes shifted again, watching the machine briefly halt before it began creeping further away. No! Her mind screamed. Her corded muscles began to quiver. She leaned further toward it, nearing the border of the protective warmth of the beam. The machine again halted. Having no other choice, she began sifting emaciated trails of breath back into her starved lungs, rapidly trying to blink away the crystals. She pressed the limits of her radiant guardian, having no more than a sliver between herself and annihilation. Strained blinks. Just a little clos—Abruptly, her vision failed, deteriorating completely from focus. Eyes wide, stricken in horror. The swooping, featureless face of another machine consumed her gaze, inches away. Her mind sparked and set ablaze with shrieks of flight. Immediately, she could feel the front of her body frantically try to tear through the back in desperation. Scratching and clawing! Shoving! Anything! Anything to get away! Simultaneously, however, something even stronger, something deep inside was able to disengaged action to those instincts, leaving her mind hysterical for not complying. Violently, her claws pierced the soft soil, making sure she’d abide by the contrary of every fiber in her being. Safety within the heat. The oblong face tilted at an angle, seeming to still be unaware of her proximity. She noticed dozens of objects moving around bundles of gears beneath the semi-transparent face. But she couldn’t see clear enough, quickly she pressed her eyes closed, stamping down a pair of fresh, glistening streams, to refresh her vision. When she opened her eyes, though, the machine had moved on. And in an instant, the rolling bellows of the scorned sky cried out, snapping electrified branches of lightning throughout; there wouldn’t be much time left. The golden pillars were nearly gone as the winds of an awakening storm swirled.
Their sight was no longer corrupted. She was no longer safe. Though, briefly, the Ohms were distracted by the variegated fingers of lightning and crackling thunder above. This was her opening. Her claws quickly retracted and within a blink she was out of view. Their sensors adjusted, scanning for her once again. She was through toying with them. Through trying to surmise a less exhausting, less frightening way of dispatching her enemies. This needed to end. No matter how sophisticated and ruthless the machines were, when she was on the offensive they’d pale in comparison. They may have numbers. They may never tire. But she possessed something they’d never be able to summon: Rage.
Methodically, they continued to scan for the cloaked figure they’d never see again; aimlessly they stumbled around the open field, bathed in piercing flashes of light and crashes of thunder. Poetically, she commenced her attack, slicing her way through their ranks, moving at an alarming speed – a speed that would rapidly drain her remaining energy. But while she still could, she gorged on them, dismantling all within reach with the unnerved hands of unbreakable metals. There were no thoughtful calculations. No strategy. Just raw, flagrant, clawing swipes through much thicker defensive plating, effortlessly tearing out deep gouges of vital, fragile circuitry. The wounds sprayed a black liquid that seemed to reflect no light, not even when bathed repeatedly in the flashes of lightning. And though she could not feel it, this was always the most satisfying part. Having their mechanical organs crunched within her tremendous, machined grasp had almost an equal allure to frolicking through the pillars of light. Each kill exacted the vengeance of one who was murdered by their actions. The pools of blackened fluids bled from their shredded, rigid carcasses, rendering them a morbid sense of life with their expressionless, forged faces failing to realize their final moments.
The Ohms died, or appeared so, as the living did.
Quickly, she clasped the arm of another, mangling it in her grip while yanking it from an exploding socket. With a clean swipe, she splintered the limb against the face of another sending a shower of sparks from the caved wound. Quickly, she turned back and pounced the one-armed machine, jabbing the broken limb, she still clutched, through its skull and leveraging it off, allowing the spray of liquid to soak her face.
She halted, perched atop the chest of the lifeless machine, and became visible. Rest was achingly required, and not all of the Ohms had yet fallen. She stared down at the headless body as a trickling of rain dabbled from above. Satisfaction began to stretch her lips, deeply intrigued by her prey’s every spasm, until at last, the vile, headless machine was motionless.
An aftermath of pieces. Scattered bodies and limbs. And only a single Ohm remained.
She was detected as she slowly stood up, her lips curling ever devilishly. Calmly, she advanced towards the muzzle of the rifle pointed directly at her chest. The pounds of pressure slipped back against the trigger, though the blast wouldn’t find its mark, colliding against nothing inches from her figure and reflecting out of sight. With a exacerbated growl, she clanked her palms against either side of the Ohm’s skull, pressing the helpless machine to its knees and slowly sinking her sharp fingers into its temples until it twitched erratically and crackled with sparks. Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked. With a quick tug, its head was snapped off in trails of wet wiring. She brought the oblong casing up to her cowl to examine it more closely. A flash of lightning. The rain pressed harder. So many delicate, intricately moving parts slowed in perfect sync behind the black strip of vision. Another crack of thunder. And still, while watching its life drain from its eyes, she wondered if it realized it had failed.
She wanted it to know.
“Razieal, you will perish,” a recorded voice spoke from the disembodied head. It knew her words, uttering them in a hollowed, guttural voice and repeated itself as she knelt down and pleasantly set it upon the pile of disheveled metallic corpses at her feet. She enjoyed when the recordings were triggered as it didn’t happen often. She enjoyed displaying the messages as a warning to her enemies, knowing the message was only sounded after an Ohm was defeated.
The rain now poured, falling in sopping sheets. Weakly she stood, trying to find some strength left in her trembling limbs. Her shaky steps took her away from the carnage, trailing her sight up to the sky to wash over her sore face and eyes. She squinted through the droplets to the wind whipped canopy; she did so until she could attempt a step without struggle.
“Razieal, you will perish.”
Slowly, she wrapped the tatters of the soaked cloak around herself feeling the cold bite of the air and continued onward.
Vaughn was the last to approach the RODAN, eying Rick as he sat ecstatically behind the wheel of the great machine, and sauntered around to the passenger side door, wishing he was in control of the retrieval craft he’d requested.
How easy it would have been.
Sara walked around the rear, seeking out Vaughn in an attempt to pry more information from the clutches of his stingy mind. “So, I was still wondering something…”
He spent a moment lost in thought before reluctantly answering her. “What’s that, Lux?”
“This pod… and the alien inside… It—it just decided you’d be the only one it’d contact? A whole room – or no – a whole ship filled with brilliant minded people…” She laughed, “All of whom are far more dignified than you, inexplicably were overlooked—by—a—being—”
“Enough.” Vaughn clanked up onto the polished landing skirt, twisted the handle of the thickly plated door and guided it aside. He nonchalantly peaked back at Xuvectrin and Bazdik who neatly sat next to each other on the elongated, leather seating of the RODAN. The two exchanged glances with the Captain as they strapped themselves in with the durable, crisscrossed harness.
“Not sure why no one else saw it, Lux. Not sure why…it chose me,” Vaughn spoke, seemingly to no one, calm and level. “It happened. That’s all I care about. It’s all you should care about as well.” Before Sara could respond, Vaughn quickly continued. “I don’t owe you or anyone else an explanation, as I was also chosen to command this expedition. And I will do so as I see fit. So… Can we just please locate the damn thing without you stuffing your head up my ass every five—flippity fucking—seconds?”
Sara smirked. “It’s just that—”
“Lux, look, if it gets you off my back—alright—I’ll level with you. Other than me, you may be the most talented soldier here. Presently. And yes, you have every ability to lead it. I won’t dispute that. And I suppose if I was in your position I’d want some answers, too. But you are really, really making me reconsider wanting to bring you along.”
“Can you just—”
“I’m done, Lux. Yes? Finished. Either board the hopper and shut your mouth or head back to the bridge and send me Kovac,” he stated. “He may be old, and starting to fall apart…but at least he shuts his damn mouth. He knows when to quit.”
Their gaze burned into one another until Sara caved, aggravation steadying her tone. “Fine. I won’t say another word about how ignorant it is of you to disobey direct orders of both I.S.O. Council and the Trilobian government. Or how asinine it is to lob hundreds of innocent lives in front of what could turn out to be a very ragged buzz-saw,” the Commander slyly smirked. “Ultimately, I just wanted to make sure you understood your days as ESURTA’s Captain are numbered. Once the Vargralus catches up to us you’ll surely be dishonorably discharged.”
Vaughn rolled his eyes as Sara climbed up onto the skirt of the RODAN. She quickly twisted the handle and gingerly led the rear door away along the track, smirking. “Maybe they’ll still let you be my Weapons Officer.”
Vaughn, again, ignored her remark, hoisting himself into the passenger seat, peaking over at Rick through the small, rectangular window in the bolted divider that stood between them, slamming shut the door. The giddy pilot was still silently frozen in delight by his ever present fascination.
“Brake,” Vaughn said, speaking over the rolling smack of the rear door fitting into place. “Brake,” the tone in his aggression quickly escalated. With no answer, the Captain leaned over and wrapped his armored knuckles against the reinforced window, finally grabbing the pilot’s attention. “Strap in and start this piece of shit up.”
Rick nodded, able to read his lips easier than actually hearing the words, his lavish smile still pressed to its limit. He strapped his harness across his body and resituated a few levers before flipping a switch above his head and pressing a round, red button to the right of it. The engine coarsely roared, bellowing throughout the entire bay, cheered on by the dozens of engineers at the opposite end.
ESURTA deviated from its orbit around the planet, penetrating the crisp atmosphere, and descending into a lush, open field. As it did so, large slots that laddered down either side of the belly of the mighty ship retracted. Moments before contact with the ground the L.E.S. thrusters were engaged, slowing ESURTA nearly to the point of hovering; and after gusts of steam, resilient, yet flexible, L-shaped beams also arced downward from the middle of the belly, poised to absorb the entire weight of the ship as it met the soft, matted bedding of grass and dirt.
The immense bay door separated from its locked position and slowly descended into itself. A blinding glimpse of heated gold squeaked through the growing sliver of an opening as each section of the door neatly nestled into the next. The passing moments saw the light completely flood into the bay, reflecting across its every surface, forcing most who were witness to its arrival to shield their eyes and stretch their faces with a smile. The intensity of the light allowed nothing to be seen beyond the threshold of the bay, acting as if it were a sort of grandiose guardian to the world beyond. Though, that didn’t deter the many sets of prying eyes to try and peer past the secrets of the vibrant veil.
None more so than Commander Luxidon.
Sara’s petty need to pick at Vaughn’s ambitions were instantly razed as her undivided attention awakened anew. Soon she’d be able to witness the planet first hand. And not a single moment was to be squandered. The anxious Commander tried to lean forward, pressing her full weight against the rigid harness and twisting her head to the windshield, shielding her eyes into pained slits as they absorbed the bewildering radiance. She was playfully awestruck and captivated by the wonder of what went unseen.
The warmth against her face…
Her mind raced.
The warmth it felt…
She smiled and allowed her eyes to close, reveling in the caressing kiss of heat upon her skin.
It was so beautiful.
The intensity was unlike anything she’d experienced before, deeming it comparable to the very same strike of illumination that was granted to one as death overtook them. She felt as enticed as a wandering, lost soul, having yet to be enveloped and transported into the realm of judgment by a vivid visual assault. Her eyelids parted, forced again into pained slits, continuing to do her best to fold away the luminous layers and experience the world beyond the curtain.
But a muddled hope wasn’t enough. Best to sprint – not walk, to the finish (or in this case, the starting line). Sara wasn’t alone in this brand of thought. As if somehow indulging her desperation, Rick, too, wanted to shed the chains of hesitation. His fingers clasped tightly around the knob of the throttle, abruptly railing the mechanical beast into gear seconds before stamping his foot against the pedal. Not one of the six, bulbous, deeply treaded tires squealed or spun uselessly in place. The RODAN sped dominantly through the saturated boar of the white hot light leaving their stomachs feeling as if they hovered somewhere in their throats. They were freed from the ship. And dusk was only just beginning to settle in over miles of untarnished, untamed, unclaimed land.
Rick immediately wrenched the wheel to the left, feeling no need to ease into the jarring, hairpin turn, raking trails into the earth before coughing up the shredded pieces from each tire. His blistering speed was maintained without much of a hitch, giggling as he eyed the deep ditches in the side mirror that were left behind. Erratically, Rick surveyed the endless playground surrounding him, feeling overwhelmed by what adventurous actions he should act upon first. His mind battled between the options, attempting to thin out the least exciting, only considering ambitions that were seeded with the greatest impact. Behind the reflective sheen of his aviators, his eyes glossed over. His sense of reality distorted. His lips twisted. And only adrenaline remained.
Brake Ricky Brake.
If it wasn’t for his own desire to reach their destination with speed and diligence, Vaughn would have aired more on the side of caution, demanding his pilot scale back the racing fervor in lieu of examining their steps more closely. But Vaughn had waited long enough. This was the sort of pace he had desired all along and as it was, only a series of migraine induced screams would breach the haze of the mesmerized man-child. The ends certainly did not justify the means. After all, Vaughn knew – from years spent in the advantageous pilot’s company – when Rick had his fill, he’d burn himself out and find a more cautious speed on his own.
The RODAN effortlessly zipped over the grassy, mostly even terrain, pressing through slender castings of long shadows stacked between pockets of light. Light and shadow flickered rapidly as Rick encouraged its frequency with an increase of speed, comparing the effect to that of a rambunctious strobe. A party built up in his mind; an idea that exponentially fueled Rick’s unquenchable thirst to blaze ahead. The gorgeous, dusk smothered scenery was reduced to a sickened flickering of light and colors and blur. And still, the roaring grit of the engine somehow found room to accommodate the brash pilot as the hopper accelerated. Rick wished he wasn’t wearing any armor. He wanted to revel in every last pound of pressure against his body, embracing the wave. The unrelenting force pressed so snuggly against his being would’ve been a welcomed treat.
Enough! Sara’s mind screamed. This isn’t what she wanted. It wasn’t supposed to pan out this way. She was already missing so much. At first, her voice was calmed, when she called out Rick’s name, shifting her focus to the floor, dizzied by the despondent display of nauseating splotches racing past the window to her right, though the voice in her head remained frantic.
Sara knew there wouldn’t be time to immerse herself in the wilds of this world; Vaughn wasn’t going to allow the freedom to explore. At the very least she wanted to experience what she could from the window, and so far, even that was taken from her. It was difficult enough to strain against the rigid harness in order to peak outside. It wasn’t fair! First her collection, then her dignity, and now the denial of simply taking in her surroundings? No! Enough is enough! Sara was bound and determined to witness something tangible. “Brake, slow down.”
Still no response.
Her voice escalated with desperation, “Slow down now!”
“Rick! Now! Slow down!” she shouted in a fit of rage slamming the side of her armored fist against the reinforced cabin. “Now!”
As if waking from a clouded dream, Rick heard a voice in the distance, soft and quiet.
“Stop, you idiot! Stop!!” Sara struggled against the harness wanting to strangle the pilot.
A crescendo of echoes stirred his trance, hearing the commands more clearly. Rick blinked a few times; the glaze washing from his eyes, regaining awareness. The adrenaline subsided. And finally, he obliged, decreasing the angle of the foot pedal and easing back the throttle to a quickened jog. Sara caught her breath, nearly breaking a sweat. Her heart fluttering with trepidation for having miles of scenery lost, never to be regained. But that was no longer an issue. A smile crept through her lips. Blue, frantic eyes darted around like widened saucers. Sara reeled her face toward the window. It was all visible. The sun was still setting. And as her mind purged the remaining pent up knots of frustration. She was finally able to see the unknown world.
The sky above.
Typical Earthl-like vegetation. Nothing really stood out. Nothing overly exotic. Disappointment captured her excitement. For this? She had made a fool of herself for this? Carrying on like an immature child just to see some trees? Some grass and sky? She sullenly looked away, casting her eyes to the textured, metal floor of the cabin, frozen by the heat of embarrassment. She was a warrior – a seasoned veteran – who had earlier proclaimed to her commanding officer that she could’ve – should’ve been chosen to lead ESURTA in place of him. She had the credentials – the respect, though all of it now tamed by the eyes and heart of a child. She felt miniscule. Inadequate. Maybe Vaughn was right... Maybe there was no excitement or wonderment to be had in exploration. Sara quietly sighed as she slowly peeled away from the window, feeling defeated.
The jagged chain of formidable rock was now in view, strung along a smoky horizon of reds ahead of them. Though, even at a distance, its icy caps stabbed the sky with authority, appearing like the jaw bone of some gargantuan, prehistoric animal; a lively bright orange lake flowing from breaks up along the rocky surface. Vaughn looked past all of it, fixating his eyes to the presumed resting place of the pod, high up a large jut in the chain. And then he smiled.
Soon. They were almost there.
Xuvectrin woke from her meditation, splitting the lids of her somber, yellow eyes slightly giving a sidelong glance to Sara. Though the alien favored the depth of her inner thoughts typically doing so without allowing any disruptions, she still fell victim to Sara’s tantrum. They all had. However, the Trilobian was the only one who truly understood what the young woman was feeling. It wasn’t easy, what was expected of her. Trained to gallivant down the gullet of unspeakable horrors. Trained to consistently confront death – to pull a trigger and still possess such a heart and mind for the beauty of life.
Sara waited a moment before answering, making sure her emotions were properly collected. “Yes?” quietly speaking to her grieves, chin against her chest plate.
I’ve accomplished many tasks in my life; I’ve been alive for a very long time. And in that time, a lot has been expected of me. I’ve had to carry out orders that I didn’t want to, to ultimately see things I never wished to see… All for the ambitions of my professions. I’ve lost many, many pieces of myself, and the compassion of loved ones along. Just as many of us have… Just as you have. As your people would put it: I’ve been jaded by the success of my actions.
But one thing I never would lose, nor be stripped of – something I’d never allow to be crippled was my ability to consciously appreciate the beauty of life in the worlds around me. Witnessing the innocence of those that deserve the breath they bare continues to give me an escape from the madness. Commander, I’ve experienced plenty – visited many unique worlds…only to be a bystander to their demise. Though, through all the regret and sadness, I’m utterly impressed with each new place I encounter and I’m always grateful with how those seemingly mundane experiences fill my heart.
Sara slowly began to smile.
It would appear that at this speed the safety line would be a better option.
She looked at the Trilobian with a smirk. “For what?”
Enjoy the view this world has to offer, Sara. You don’t know how many more times you’ll be granted this gift.
The seasoned warrior hesitated only a moment before hastily unbuckling the harness, opening a small compartment in the wall, and threading out a heavy brass rigging. She lengthened the desired amount of slack and hooked the sturdy clamp to the coupling in the back of her chest plate. If the vehicle were upended, the line would automatically reel her back into the safety of her seat, keeping her from helplessly crashing around the inside the cabin.
Sara then stood with ease in spite of the moving vehicle and stepped toward the flickering light that gleamed through the window next to her. A sidelong glance. A head on stare. Noticeable joy spread across her face as she was embraced by the warmth of the gilded rays. First one hand of armored fingers gingerly clacked in curled succession around the brass railing below the window. Then the other. If inspired eyes could have their breath taken, hers would have suffocated. Xuvectrin’s words had worked like spoken magic. That gluttonous stare could barely decide what to feast upon first. So, the forest – the largest game – was chosen. A thick, chaotic grouping of wooden prey continuously shot past the window, volleying for position, stretching and winding upward, aching toward the sunlight’s hallowed embrace. Each of them so brilliant in design. Each intimidating in stature. Majestic and massive.
One hand released from the brass and fingered with restless anxiety for a toggle switch to lower the pane, though there was none to be found. Sara was far too preoccupied to divert her attention – if for only a second – and locate the evasive switch. Her hand froze. An enormous and lush ravine, off in the distance and far below was suddenly sprawled out before her, spliced by an aggressive river of sparkling water. The scene seemed pleasantly out of place. A diamond within an oasis; it demanded her full attention, though for only a moment. The desire to do more than look began to again overwhelm her. She wanted to indulge as many senses as she could. So, again, her blind search resumed, but with more vigor, though it only served to wildly frustrate as the switch still went undetected.
The ravine sloped further only to disappear behind another grouping of arbor pillars, though these weren’t as shy as the others, crowding in on the RODAN as it zoomed past, proudly displaying their swirling, wooden details and true, solid girth with their veined, leafy branches blotting out the straining sun.
The shade was welcomed and refreshing.
With the window still wedged in place, her mind began to nag her inadequate attempts. Was the switch truly evading her? Was searching for it even worth the effort? Just… enjoy the view, Sarah. No. No, never mind. This won’t do. Smash the pane instead. Fuck the switch! Use force. Tear it away! It may have been just a glance – quick as a blink; she’d be sure to discover it – but each and every aged, moss covered trunk was far too enticing to derail her focus.
It was only with the greatest of effort that she was able to part with the view and flip the switch.
Click. The mechanism hummed. The window receded.
The shade abruptly vanished.
Rays of warm light pecked through the open pockets in the foliage as the tree line once again trailed away from her, though still struggling for supremacy over all else. Immediately, she closed off her eyes from the surging sting of fresh air as it freed strands of her sun-kissed hair from their orderly confines, whipping them furiously about. Her mind relaxed, urging a smile across her face. What a resplendent contrast to the vivid warmth of the lowly slung rays. Sara managed to part her lids into a strained squint as she attempted to peer past the cooled sting just in time to witness a seemingly endless, invisible comb thread through an expansive meadow of submissive, feathery, stalks of grass. As much as her instincts told her not to, she leaned back from the window, offering enough distance so her eyes could open normally.
Her heart widened her smile.
Soon, hardwoods began to pepper throughout the meadow with most of them erected in the distance. Their height was breathtaking. And though each of them were giants in their own right, there were still a sparse few that extended further, acting as shepherds with winding, unseen tops, tasked with gathering the stragglers of the divided herd.
This was what she hoped for. This is the change she was seeking. To be taken aback and thickly exhale from her pained lungs. To be completely immersed in the whimsical elegance of something so ostensibly inspiring and vast that her self-awareness would dissolve until she was removed from opinions and rational thought. Removed from the instincts of a warrior. Cleansed. Weightless. Transparent. Existing only as a humbly appreciative spark of miniscule energy within its enthralling, ever encompassing embrace.
For the first time in over a decade, Sara Luxidon felt free.
The warm, bleeding hues of dusk blushed from the fading ball of fire on the horizon as night blended in from the opposite end of the painted sky. The shepherds persistence prevailed as the herd was rallied into denser groupings that drew her back into a mind of curiosity. They were so close to the RODAN. No more than a foot of distance. Just reach out, close the distance. Appease the prominent, dizzying contours with a delicate trace of a finger’s tip.
The light continued to unravel as they continued forward, sinking away into obscurity. Even with such gracious proximity and an unwavering abundance zipping past, the details of the trees began to dull. Before the night consumed them completely and she’d lose any chance to inspect them further, her brain scoured the extensive teachings of her studies, seeking out references and resemblances to the life indigenous of her home. She sorted through the bright greens and whites of the California Pepper Tree; the spacious, variegated branch structure of the massive Chitalpa’s; the malleable, thin needles of a stout, tapering conifer; the vulnerable, thin roping and vivacious flowering of Snapdragon Vines; the trademark woven depth of an entangled jungle. From ferns to fruit bearing trees. From the anemic desert dwellers to the proud, towering species that formed the canopy of a rainforest. Nothing compared. Nothing. Not in color, nor scale, nor any defining trait she had grown accustomed to. Nothing could help her define what she was so deeply engrossed in. The feeling was welcomed, folding into the hand of discovery which she so desperately wanted to firmly grip. However, in trying to bridge any sort of familiarities, she felt at ease, pinnacled at the very center of calm.
And without warning, as if offended by her earlier attempt at comparisons, the forest tightly knitted back together, quickly phasing to a blur.
Speed produced the mush.
Rick produced the speed.
No. Not now. There were more important subjects to occupy her mind.
While the RODAN barreled forward so did the harsh bite of the wind. Sara grimaced, nearly having to close her watery eyes, unable to focus on the colorful, muddled mess of nonsense racing past. Finally, the wind proved too much and reluctantly she closed her eyes. Her thoughts instinctively ached for the lead-footed pilot to slow down once more, but this time she wasn’t going to allow these thoughts to be projected. Ultimately, sight-seeing wasn’t what they were there for. Vaughn had made that perfectly clear.
Mission be dammed; exploration was not the priority.
Sara breathed the crisp air deeply, and slowly exhaled, allowing the expansive, breathtaking meadow, divided by meandering streams of shimmering water to fully garnish her attention. Her eyes popped open, revitalized. The view was set far enough into the background that the speed of travel didn’t hinder it. She hoisted an armored knee onto the brass railing. And after another stiff clack she knelt to the opening. Armored hands and forearms anchored her body inside the frame; the wind relentlessly crashing against her face and hair. Then, with a single thought, reinforced plates branched around the base of her skull, forming over her face, encasing it.
All sound was cancelled.
The driving force of the wind was contained.
Sara saw nothing.
Suddenly, the darkness was lifted as the plating over her eyes rescinded, replaced by a visor that wrapped to either end of her periphery, allowing her see without constraints. With the wind no longer an issue she swiftly arched her head and torso into the teeth of its nullified bite. Digital menus briefly flashed in her view as she already knew what settings to enable. With the aid of the software within her helmet, she performed a series of accentuated blinks, simultaneously capturing snap-shots of the view and opening a video channel, recording the world that seemed to stretch endlessly before her.
Without hesitation, she leaned further through the opening until she could comfortably peer upward. Warmly hued clouds gently pulled apart in thin trails throughout the seemingly endless magnitude of the purple and red sky, flared by the exhausted sun. Her lips could only manage silent words of exasperation. It was her heart that sparkled; it reflected a far better telling of the blended marvel.
If only there was more time.
In the closing seconds of her unfinished thoughts, the details failed to develop until they were lost completely. Only stretching, shadowy shapes solemnly strafed across the final splurge of sunlight. Dusk was nesting, and the shadows made it difficult to observe. And though the sensors in her helmet could adjust for the lack of light, she wanted no synthetic aid for her vision. She wanted nothing to taint the spectacle, deciding this was a sign that nothing more was to come. So, she hopped from the perch, clunking to the floor of the cabin. The helmet smoothly rescinded back into the high collar of her armor, feeling one last brief tussle of wind before the mechanism hummed and snuggly fit the window back into place. She watched the light fade over the passing world… to be forever kept in her memories.
“Alrighty amigos, what we have here is a Lovorium Transport Vehicle,” Rick anxiously decided to crack the silence, speaking into the internal PA system.
“We can hear you just fine without the PA, Rick,” Vaughn sighed.
Rick ignored him, continuing on as he was. “Okay, so basically what you’re in right now appears to be an S1-LTV, your standard ground people carrier. However, this…this is much, much more advanced. Ha, if you couldn’t already tell. A whole shit-storm of awesome tweaked right in,” he said with a smile. “A shout out to the Trilobian people, ya know, for the technology and such. Wouldn’t be possible without ya.” His grin grew. “Anyway, so, Lovorium, right? This thing is slathered in it from the ground up! The stuff, it’s solid as fuck. Light as shit. It can be programmed to render the shape and texture of, well, anything. Absolutely, completely versatile. And all the while, never losing an ounce of integrity. Thin as glass? Doesn’t mean squat. It’ll absorb the same amount of firepower as if it were ten feet thick.” Rick giggled to himself, “Just amazing, amazing.” His smile tried to widen. “This, my friends, is—”
“We get it. Don’t need to sell me on it. I already hate it,” Vaughn snapped abruptly.
“How… is that even possible?”
“A T-67 is faster.”
“Obviously... It flies.”
Rick shot a glance to his captain, branding a look of confusion, though most of his face was shielded by oversized aviators. “Who cares if a T-67 is faster? Or if it can fly? This is—”
“I do, Brake. I care. I want that fucking sphere. I want it sooner rather than later. Quickly. As in, right now. Maybe you—” Vaughn cut himself off, bracing against his escalating anger. “Maybe I wasn’t as adamant as I should have been. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I don’t know. I suppose it’s my fault, really.”
Rick shrugged from Vaughn’s sarcasm and turned away to watch the horizon, quietly retorting, “But this is way—”
Vaughn sharply snapped his gaze to the young man, straining against his harness. “Are they fucking with me? Shut up about it. How—” Vaughn grinned, “This is all a joke. Not having proper retrieval craft. Just a joke. I literally thought they’d all start laughing after they declined my request. ‘Here’s your T-67 all purpose craft as requested. Just joshing you… I shouldn’t even have to request basic, fucking, everyday-common craft that is defaulted to every other damn ship.”
Rick switched off the PA, and by the aid the emotionless silence, Vaughn’s tension relaxed. He rested back in his seat, glancing out his window to the darkened wilderness.
He saw shadows…
…Maybe some discernable shapes. Maybe some water.
Vaughn’s mind stayed the course of the task at hand: the pod and the alien inside.
“So, this vehicle can adjust its shape at will? It just knows what to do – when to do it?” Bazdik responded over Vaughn’s unimpressed gurgling.
“Pretty much!” Rick perked up. “I mean, sort of…but everything has manual overrides. Kinda like using the coding to create our armor…actually, it’s exactly like that! I mean, the Lovorium’s in our armor, too!” He inhaled deeply, ready to continue rambling, but again was cut off by Vaughn, wanting only silence. Though the persistent pilot again attempted to speak, “I can make this look like uh, a uh – well, ya know…anything! Punch in some codes, press some buttons – nothing can stop this thing!” His grin resurfaced. “It’s tons more pliable than ESURTA’s hull given the hopper has less working parts, but not as versatile as our armor…to say the least.” Rick shot a quick cornered glance to Vaughn to see how deep his anger had filled his face and decided he still had time. “Also, the hopper doesn’t need a star to power it. Just runs on PF110’s. See—It’s a battery. With Pharellium energy stored inside. Potent shit. The exertion of the stored energy basically creates a live material that is repurposed into more stored energy. The vehicle itself is its own fuel source. It just keeps regenerating and keeps on trucking.”
“No more explanations,” The Captain plainly said. “No one cares. Just get me up to that pod.”
“Brake, shut up. Okay? You’re giving me a fucking migraine.”
Rick glanced at him from the corner of his eye, weighing whether or not to test him. He decided not to.
The night fully awakened, though the land didn’t necessarily fade into the shadows. Instead it was bathed in beaming porcelain rays. Sara’s armored grasp tightened around the brass railing, steadying herself as Rick maneuvered around to keep the pace as smooth as possible.
It started as a brighter glow in her periphery. Brighter still. Surprisingly so.
Five ornate moons at varying distances and sizes were revealed as the hopper veered left, suspended in the crisp evening atmosphere. The largest of the five was deeply cratered, boasting the explicit details of its heavily bombarded surface, acting almost like a loyal shield that was wielded by the planet itself. Sara pressed her face against the glass like a child in a candy store. Her gawking breath clouded a pocket on the glass.
The ‘first time’ was truly as unforgettable of an event as she had hoped.
The Commander’s attention was cracked by the clack of armored boots, and a glint of passing armor. She gently turned to the distraction with a smile before again peering through the looking glass. Xuvectrin stood next to her, she, too, was staring at the night sky. Both figures kissed by the pale of the brightened glow, with the flat bone that arced the top of Xuvectrin’s skull glowing more adamant than anything else.
A knowing smile crept across Xuvectrin’s dark lips. When we have time, I would like to show you a few of the planets in the Trilobian System. You may find some are as captivating as what you see now.
“That would be… I would be honored, Xuvectrin.”
The alien gently nodded.
Rick flipped a switch, activating the flood lights, and increasing the speed.
We should probably find our seats. We’ll be there soon. Xuvectrin turned from the window and placed a hand on Sara’s shoulder as she walked by, back to her seat, clicking the buckles of the harness into place. And after a moment, Sara did the same.
A familiar voice scratched over the intercom.
“Vaughn, we have company. And it isn’t the Vargralus.”