Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Distant Sun by Grant Boshoff

A luxury space cruiser carries an empath on a vital mission to preserve her species, and a mysterious assassin determined to stop her; by Grant Boshoff.

Doors plague my dreams.

All of them just out of reach, they beckon to me, speaking in some ethereal tone just below the level of consciousness.

My mind is numb, my thoughts mangled. I am wrapped in a furnace of emotion so intense that I will surely suffocate. Not a single thread of logic can I derive from the maelstrom that is my consciousness.

Or is it even consciousness?

Perhaps I have passed from the physical world?

Coherent thoughts remain elusive. Yet at the edge of my perception there is always a door, its cold white surface enjoining me to approach. To pass through.

I sense that I have achieved a great triumph and yet an unspeakable loss.

But nothing is clear now. Nothing is certain.

Except the ever present heat.



Soren

I wait for her in the outbound terminal.

The immense blackness of space presses against the viewing port in front of me. A blackness I share. A void within, which mirrors that without. And in my void winks that single star. My singular purpose. Not devised or constructed by me but rather embedded at the forging of my being. A purpose I shall soon fulfill.

Across the viewing port moves the immensity that is the Hyperion. The size of a city, it dwarfs the space station as it glides into docking position. I watch it closely, taking in the sheer enormity of it: the bristling communication arrays, the gaping mouths of service bays, the brightly emblazoned TwinSun Luxury Lines logo, and the seemingly endless rows upon rows of portholes stretching away into the distance until they dissolve again into the pitch of deep space.

She is aboard.

I seem to know this instinctively, although I can't articulate exactly how. It would be trite to say that I sense her, but in some ways that may be accurate. Gazing upon the vast mountainside that is the Hyperion I know with certainty that she is within its crisp white hull.

I don't know her name. Nor do I know how she will appear. But I know that my host will lead me to her. And when he does I shall take from her not only her life, but the one thing she holds most dear.



Madres

I loathe the idea of Alynna being alone, even for the briefest of periods, but I must watch the incoming passengers embark. Though we remain months away from the Silcan system I fear that if they have learned of our success they will take extraordinary measures to stop us. It's not beyond their connivance to send an agent far out of the way to reduce detection. And unlike our homeworld they have ready access to transports capable of bridging such distances in a matter of days.

The thought of home triggers a hollowness in my chest. Our people, our race, our species. Thirty four billion beautiful beings, gifted and caring, stewards of our seven planets, yet doomed to death. Not by war or rebellion, nor disease or famine, but by nature herself. Ever the mother of life, she gives it freely yet rescinds it without remorse.

I must focus. We have success within our grasp and I must remain diligent, must ensure Alynna's safe passage home no matter the cost. With a mere six months left in front of us we cannot falter. The future of our species, quite literally, depends upon us.

The hiss of the bulkhead airlock echoes through the cavernous lobby. I can feel the slight change in pressure even up here on the mezzanine as the gangway doors slide open. A small handful of passengers amble through, their necks craning as they take in the vastness of the entranceway, the sheer opulence of the five hundred foot gallery, the decks upon decks rising up until their necks can crane no more, all of it decorated with the finest of detail and bejeweled with precious metals and stones from every corner of the galaxy. There are only six of them, no seven, and all are immediately accosted by ship's crew bearing ridiculously extravagant flowered leis and brightly colored drinks.

Closing my eyes I empty my mind, letting my beingness expand out to the new passengers, enveloping them, feeling their resonance against me. But I find nothing untoward. No darkness of purpose, no guarded shadows of motive. Only awe and wonder and varying degrees of excitement. Just passengers embarking on the greatest luxury cruise in the known universe.

Perhaps we are safe for the moment.



Jeros

I fix my tie and take one final look in the mirror. The smile reflecting back seems deserved. The shimmering Varcotian linen suit is indeed all the salesgirl claimed it would be. Normally I never spend so extravagantly on clothing, typically staying with the domestic brands, but the no-charge ticket on the Hyperion left me feeling flush and somewhat inspired before leaving home. I'm still confounded at how I came to be chosen by my employer to receive this trip, which represents two years of my modest salary. But one doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Not that it's all leisure to be sure - I'll be working the return run, upgrading docking station software and running systems checks at every port of call - but while outward bound I'm one of them, one of the galaxy's elite. And I think I'll make the most of it.

My cabin door closes soundlessly behind me as I take in the hallway. It stretches as far as the eye can see it either direction, seamless white walls trimmed with blue and violet - the TwinSun corporate colors - and interspersed with holo-murals of the many wonders of the galaxy. Surprisingly tasteful though. Aesthetic and impactful, yet not overdone. I swipe my passenger bracelet near the wall trim and a luxurious woman's voice materializes.

"Welcome, Jeros. Thank you for joining us on the Hyperion. The Captain requests the pleasure of your company for dinner so he may extend his personal welcome. Would you please follow me to the main salon?"

I can't help but grin. "Sure." I say, as I watch a soft glow appear behind the wall trim two feet to my right. I begin walking and no matter my pace the glow remains a constant two feet in front of me. Fascinating.

The main salon is as opulent as all else I've seen of the ship so far, and I suspect this will be consistent with what other parts I explore over the next six months. The salon however does have one distinguishing feature: it is on the top deck and its entire ceiling is comprised of a seamless piece of clear atmosphere glass. I stop for a moment, as I'm sure most do, and take in the spectacle. The inconceivable blackness of deep space is loosely sprinkled with stars, while directly above us spins the Pinwheel Nebula. As overused as it may be, the word breathtaking finds a home here.

"Mister Sareel, welcome."

I look down to find a steward in an impossibly crisp white jacket smiling serenely at me. "Call me Jeros, please."

"Jeros," he says with a nod and a slow blink, while reloading his smile, "the Captain is expecting you. Right this way please."

As we approach the table I see the six other passengers from the outbound terminal seated along one side, with the Captain at the head. He is a stately man, impeccably dressed in full dress whites, with a shock of silver hair cut close. His features are weathered as one would expect of a sailor, yet taut and bronzed and with a strong jaw under clean shaven cheeks. To his right are seated seven others I do not recognize, but surely dignitaries and VIPs. An empty chair directly to the Captain's left beckons me.

As I take my seat introductions are made. I keep mine vague for fear of being recognized as a commoner and introduce myself simply as "an engineer". But I miss most of the introductions. I am heavily distracted by the woman seated across from me. She is slender, almost fragile, yet with a radiant strength that is palpable. Her hair is long and dark, intricately braided in parts and draped over one shoulder, the other shoulder bare with a delicate collarbone visible under porcelain skin. Her eyes are pools of midnight that I cannot look at too long for fear that she will see to my core.

The dinner is exquisite. The conversation effervescent. Yet throughout I am uncomfortable, my confidence overshadowed by this gorgeous creature who seems to know who I truly am even while I do not.



Soren

Perhaps I was over confident. It has been two weeks since embarking on the Hyperion and I have yet to find her. My host has been ineffectual and has, like the rest of the passengers, become entranced by the diversions attendant upon this environ. Lacking clarity of purpose such as mine they imbibe an unending stream of opulent food and drink while busying themselves with mindless entertainment of every sort.

We are fast approaching the Huervan Straits. Within the week we will be entering that vast wasteland of space, and if by then I have not found success I will be forced to take the direst of measures.

As it is I will need to become more pro-active.

I slip from my cabin and inspect the hallway. It is filled only with the gentle hum of the ship. From my pocket I extract a length of insulating cloth and wrap it around my wrist, completely covering the passenger bracelet. I cannot risk activating the virtual steward and thereby having my movements logged in the ship's databanks. Buttoning my sleeve at the wrist I move quietly down the hallway.

When I reach the lift station I press the down button and wait. A pod opens and a gaggle of glazed-eyed revelers look out at me. They wear ridiculous party hats and grins to match. "Going up?" they ask in discordant unison.

I return a meek smile. "Down." I say.

"You're going to miss the party," croons a woman's voice as the doors slide shut.

I continue to wait and repeat the charade a number of times in varied form, until finally a pod arrives carrying a steward. I step in and quickly assess his destination from the lighted touch-panel. "Spa deck, please," I say to him.

"You're not using the virtual steward, sir?" he asks with cautiously raised eyebrows.

I shake my head knowingly. "Finding one's own way can be therapeutic."

"Indeed, sir," he nods. "I too am headed to the spa deck. Is there anything I can help you with?"

I tell him I would like to arrange a massage and steam bath, and he says it will be his pleasure to help me. It will indeed. But not in the way he thinks.

We exit the pod at the spa deck and as I follow him down the hallway I reach into my pocket and retrieve a length of gossamer thread. Uncoiling it I deftly toss the looped end over his head and tighten it down with a sharp snap of the wrist. He stops dead with a quiet choking sound. I step around and to the front of him. His eyes are rife with terror. And quite rightly so.

"Do you know what this is?" I ask in a whisper.

He replies with a muted gurgle, which I take to mean that he does not. "Allow me to enlighten you," I say with a smile. I do enjoy my work sometimes. "It is properly called Paralostrand. But we like to refer to it as The Devil's Leash. I won't bore you with the technical details, but what you need to know is that the unique pain you are presently experiencing can be altered, quite drastically, by the smallest movement of my hand. Like so." I curl my wrist and his eyes begin to bulge. A trickle of foam emerges from one corner of his mouth as a rasping breath fights its way from his lungs.

I relax my wrist. "Now, let's go somewhere we can have a quiet chat."



Alynna

Madres would rather I stay in our cabin but I just cannot sit still and wait for death to find me. If it's even true the Silcans have deployed agents to hunt us. We're guessing at how much they know of our mission, if anything at all. So I choose to stay busy. I take part in ship's activities and hobnob with dignitaries at the many soirees. I try to live up to my fabricated personae of the carefree heiress to the throne of Phaerius 12, a system so far out of the way that the chances of our cover story being exposed are remote while still affording us a permanent seat at the Captain's table. So I dine and I dance and I make idle conversation over such stimulating topics as which planets produce the finest gemstones or the ideal number of servants required to manage a household.

Studiously ignoring the scowl on Madres' face, I buckle myself into the anti-grav suit. She disapproves of the Fly Room games, but while I love and respect her dearly, I find in the games an essential outlet for my nervous tension. Besides that, they're flat-out exhilarating and like nothing I have experienced before.

"Be careful, Aly," she sends to me as I enter the player's tunnel.

I start down the tunnel with a smile. As I walk I touch my hand to my chest, feeling the pendant resting there, and I send back to her a warmth filled with love and images of our homeworld bathed in a serene afternoon glow.

Reaching the end of the tunnel I wait before the arena door. Large violet numbers on its face begin counting down from thirty. I wonder who will be playing against me this session. I hope it's not General Shinto. His four hundred pounds of jiggling flesh are a sight to see in an anti-grav suit but, while amusing, he provides no challenge for me in the game.

The door swishes open and I look across the arena to find Jeros "the engineer" standing on the opposite pad. I give him a wave and he returns an awkward smile. Interesting fellow. He practically ignored me at the Captain's dinner the night he embarked even though we sat barely six feet apart. While I don't sense anything untoward in him, there is something. Some part of him that seems partitioned off. I'm not even sure how to categorize it. A sort of uncertainty of self or shyness - an emotion locked away that I cannot quite perceive, and possibly that even he cannot. But now is not the time for wondering.

I step off the pad. The suit hums and clicks as it calibrates while I bob gently in open air. Jeros stands there looking down at me. "It's okay," I call to him. "Just step off the edge."

He gives me a worried look before putting a tentative foot over the edge of his pad. I can't help but smile. I remember doing exactly the same my first time. Trusting yourself to technology, against your most basic instincts, is nerve wracking to say the least. But he finally does and soon we are floating ten feet apart, separated by a row of holo graphics of various game environments.

"You're the challenger," I say, "so you get to pick the run."

"I am?" He asks with a raised eyebrow. A light grin touches his lips and it's slightly crooked and a little mischievous and completely endearing.

"Yes," I inform him. "I'll have you know that I am the de facto champion of the Hyperion Fly Zone."

"I see," he says. He reaches for the Snowbound graphic, pausing to look at me before touching it. I shake my head.

He then reaches for Centras City but again doesn't activate it. This time I get a raised eyebrow. I shake my head, suppressing a smile.

He tries a third and I grimace.

"Okay," he says with arms folded and both eyebrows aloft, "which one would you recommend I choose?" His shyness has evaporated and I have to admit I feel a little like a schoolgirl.

"I think you would like Zarton's Run," I tell him.

"Zarton's Run it is then," he says and scans down the row of holos until locating it. He taps the graphic and the arena flickers with intense light for a second then dissolves into an achingly beautiful desert of purple and burnt sienna dotted with immense black quartz rockscapes that rise a thousand feet into the air.

"Do you need me to explain the rules?" I ask him.

"No," he says with an impish grin. "I've played a few times."

I cock my head, curious. "You have?"

"Never in a real arena," he explains, "but on a holo console, sure. I grew up on this game."

I can't suppress the smile any longer. He is curious this one. And cute.

The first checkpoint beacon materializes on the horizon and I punch my jets and take off across the desert. No need to go easy on him. I look back to see him right on my heels, grinning like a madman. I close my eyes and feel the hot wind on my face, the sting of sand, and the smell of cactus and ozone. I feel the rush of adrenaline accompanied by an unfamiliar lightness in my chest. And for this brief moment I am no longer Alynna Niphsana of Emaria. I am just another of the carefree beings ensconced in the cocoon of safety and pleasure that is the Hyperion.



Madres

A Silcan Shifter. My mind reels at the thought. "A Shifter?" I blurt.

The Captain gives me a steady look. "What else could it be? You said it yourself. You've pervaded every passenger and found nothing of concern. Yet here we are with one of my crew dead."

I close my eyes, visualizing each passenger, inspecting them anew, probing for something I missed. For all the effort I am rewarded with nothing but a dull headache. "Impossible," I say, massaging my temples. "Shifters are a myth. They're stories sergeants tell their troops to scare diligence into them."

"Stories maybe," He replies, "but stories just as often disguise truth. Maddy, it matters not what we call him. The fact is we have an assassin on board. And one that we can't detect."

I cannot accept that. I cannot accept that such a being exists, one that could harbor such evil intentions without detection. It is simply beyond my experience.

"Then it must be a crew member." I say to him.

"Impossible," he replies without hesitation. "I've spent the last twenty years with most of these people. And none have been on board for less than seven."

I'm sure he is right. The Captain would know. He is after all a gifted empath. He always was.

My mind drifts to an image of the two of us, young and hopeful, our shared aspirations spoken in the quiet of the night - plans of becoming palace guards, the elite of our people, together protecting our race's present and future against intrusion. As well as other, more intimate, plans. But life has many a strange twist. Within the year his father, a diplomat on assignment to the Baldon system, had sent for the family to join him. Through the years of my palace training the void of his presence was my constant companion.

I take a long look at him now. Beneath the weathered lines and silver hair I see the same face. The strong jaw and the blue eyes, now somewhat dulled yet piercing still. "Forty years." I whisper, mostly to myself.

He looks back at me, his eyes reflecting my sentiment. We are both content with our lives but I know he feels the barb of regret for what might have been. And he knows I feel it.

He reaches out and places his hand over mine. His palm is cool and callused. "I'm sorry," he says simply.

I shake my head and pull myself back to the present. This is no time for nostalgia. "Don't be." I say, "Because of the path fate lay for us we are here. And we can make a difference now."

He holds my gaze for a long moment before releasing my hand. Then his features turn serious. "We should make an emergency stop. The Gendar System is just a few days -"

"No!" I interrupt him.

"We have a situation here," he presses.

"What is your normal address for onboard crimes?" I ask.

"We are a sovereign entity," he replies. "All such matters are handled by our Master At Arms."

"Even murder?" I prod.

"Yes," he says, his voice low and somber, "even murder. But, Maddy, once we enter the Huervan Straits we'll be isolated from any communications for six weeks. If something goes wrong we have no cavalry to call. Is it worth the risk?"

"There is no risk unless he discovers Alynna. And you are the only link. Do anything out of the ordinary and you risk discovery yourself." And death I neglect to say. But I don't need to. He knows the consequences as well as I.



Jeros

I know it won't last. But I might as well enjoy it while it does.

I watch her as she stares up at the stars. The gentle curve of her nose, the porcelain skin, the twitch of her dark lashes surrounding bright pools of curiosity, all of it I find intoxicating. Where once I was intimidated now I am, frankly, infatuated. Though I'm not naive enough to expect her to feel the same way, or even hope it. We've been spending more and more time together the last few weeks and I am resigned to immerse myself in every moment without expecting anything more.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.

We're on the sun deck as it's called, though the name scarcely describes it. It is literally a park, the size of which one might find in a large city, perched on the spine of the ship and enclosed within a transparent bubble of atmosphere glass. In a rare outing sans the ever-present Madres we spent the last hour exploring the many walking paths, until discovering this lush knoll on which to rest. Its elevation offers an unobstructed three hundred and sixty degree view. Below us the ship stretches away in all directions, a crisp white planet, while above floats the endless dark canvas that is deep space, bejeweled with stars and brushed with wisps of far flung nebulae. She lies on her back, her hair a dark halo against the turquoise grass. I lay propped on my elbow, a close but respectable distance from her.

"Do you realize that each one of those stars holds the power of life over billions, maybe trillions, of beings in her system?" Her voice is soft, melancholy, as she speaks.

"What do you mean?" I ask.

She turns her head and fixes me with deep liquid eyes, the brightness lost. "We take our suns for granted."

"Do we?" I say with a grin, hoping to add some levity to the declining mood.

She looks through me. A vacant smile touches her lips for the briefest of moments. "We always assume they will be there for us," she says. "To light our worlds. To nourish our crops and our bodies. To provide the thousand little things we barely notice, yet can't live without."

She turns her gaze skyward again. I remain silent, sensing that she isn't done. Or maybe she is, but I have no clue how to respond. Women are difficult enough creatures to understand without the complexities of cosmic philosophy.

After a long silence she whispers, "We call her Na'maj."

I knit my brows. One part of me wants to comfort her and allay her brewing sadness but another part remains cooly detached. Feeling like I'm intruding into a very private moment I ask tentatively, "Who?"

"Our sun," she replies. "It means 'ancient mother'. Because she is old. Very, very old." She turns back to me as her voice catches and tears well in her eyes, "And she is dying."

Alynna rolls toward me and buries her head in my chest as a violent grief explodes from her. Her body heaves from the sobs and I feel the heat of her face mixed with the coolness of her tears soaking my shirt. I can do nothing but hold her, stroking her back and muttering generic sounds of comfort.

Is it wrong that the feel of her body excites me so?

She is wracked with emotion and I should be empathetic and consoling, but instead I am electrified by the closeness of her. The smell of her hair fills my nostrils. The totality of my senses tingle, vibrating like a tuning fork teased by her proximity. In the far reaches of my being is a single dark spot, a doorway which seems cold and impervious to the storm of emotion. I reach for it, but as I do Alynna raises up and looks at me intensely. Her face is but inches from mine, her eyes dark liquid pools. Her cheeks are wet and flushed and shimmering and impossibly beautiful. She swallows hard, and I follow suit. Her eyes are searching mine as the sobs gradually subside. Her gaze so piercing I fear she will know every inch of me, see into the last dark corner of my soul. She takes a deep breath, a pressure I can feel in my chest, then she leans down and presses her mouth against mine. Her lips are hot and salty, her kiss urgent and searching at first, then slowly relaxing as our bodies melt into one.

The stars wink overhead. The nebulae spin onwards in their unending journey. Somewhere, even, a sun draws its last breath of cosmic rays. But for all that I care naught. For right here, right now, in this moment, my universe consists only of one being. Alynna.



Alynna

I feel Madres' anxiety like a flame as I approach our cabin door. I knew she would be annoyed at my sneaking off with Jeros, but this is beyond annoyance. Something has happened.

As I enter the cabin she rushes to me and enfolds me in a tight embrace. Her frail appearance and gentle demeanor belie the strength within her wiry frame.

"You're crushing me, Madres," I say to her.

She pulls back and holds me at arms length. The vice-like grip of her fingers actually hurts my shoulders. I feel her beingness pervading me and my first instinct is to withdraw, but I cannot. I owe her more than that. So I share with her all the details of my interlude on the sun deck. As well as my feelings for Jeros.

Madres opens her eyes and releases me. I prepare to be berated for my impetuousness. Or at least receive a cautionary word on security. But I get neither. She simply walks to the sofa and sits heavily. When she speaks her voice is somber. "They are here, Aly."

I reach for her and instantly see the details. A crew member murdered. Most likely tortured. The captain's suggestion to abort the voyage and her insistence against it. I sense her turmoil: her duty to protect me, to save our people; Not only duty but the depth of her love for me and for our homeworld, and her burning frustration at not being able to take action against the threat. A word hangs there, in her consciousness, a word that is foreign to me - without any concept that I can grasp. An icy finger touches the back of my neck and slowly runs the length of my spine.

"What is a Shifter?" I ask her.

She looks at me from far away, her eyes tired and sad, and says: "After the first invasion, when our world was young, our people repelled the Silcans using the first mindshield. It was then the Silcans realized that taking Emaria by force was not an option, regardless of their technology. Over the ensuing years they sent emissaries to negotiate for the purchase of Emarian ore. It was not known then why they desired it so, but King Nasmeph cared not and rebuked their every advance. So they withdrew and no further contact was made for years. Our system lived in peace and harmony, as we always had, yet the Silcans - ever devious - were busily plotting. One day, twelve years after the first invasion, King Nasmeph was found murdered in his bed."

"How?" I ask, incredulous. "Palace guards are the most gifted empaths on our world. It's impossible that anyone could breach the palace undetected."

Madres nods. "Impossible," she says. "Impossible indeed. Yet it happened. According to legend a Silcan emissary ship arrived the following day with a message for Prince Aornem. The message instructed him to sign an exclusive perpetual contract for the sale of all ore production to the Silcans. If the Prince refused, the message said, then another Shifter would be sent to carry out further 'negotiations'. So, he signed; and committed our race to the relationship we now have with the Silcans, tenuous as it is."

"Is that true?" I ask.

"No one knows," she replies. "It's a legend. Who knows exactly how much is myth and how much truth. But I know this: we have an assassin on board this ship that neither you nor I nor the Captain have been able to detect. Call it what you wish, but the fact remains we have to take the direst of security measures."

My mind staggers. I cannot process the idea of my not being able to sense such motives in another. I am of royal blood line and as such have empathetic abilities of the highest order. And Madres, as a palace guard, is no slouch either. We can't read minds as many assume, but we can sense a being's emotional state and their intentions - evil intentions generally being the easiest of all.

I sit down next to her and take her hand. Together we close our eyes and scroll through the faces of all passengers on the Hyperion, comparing notes, impressions from our various interactions with each, but once again find nothing of use.

Finally I look at her and speak. "What do we do?"

"We remain diligent," she says. Then she fixes me with an intense look and a raised eyebrow, "And you don't go anywhere without me."



Soren

The time draws near. My host has done well in leading me to her, but details are scarce and I must know more before proceeding. Identifying her was but the first step. More important is locating the dark matter. Or even identifying its form. Does she carry it on her person? Or perhaps with the handmaid? Or has the Captain secured it somewhere on her behalf?

Many questions remain.

But soon things will become clearer.

I learned much of interest from the now departed crewman. How he squealed and squirmed and begged before finally giving forth the truth. Pathetic. Yet in the end his exposure of the Captain as a native Emarian was the jewel of the event. It made sense of so much. Of why they chose the Hyperion; and how they remained hidden so well upon it.

Someone approaches. I ease back into the shadows between the stacks of cargo pods as footsteps draw near. They are measured and confident and speak plainly of one intimate with their surroundings. As they pass I lean forward by degrees and glimpse the back of him. He is dressed in a fitted white jumpsuit with shimmering blue and violet trim, just as any other crewman but for the exception of the captain's insignia upon the epaulets. I slip from my concealment and follow him, matching his pace precisely so that but a single set of footfalls echo across the cavernous bay. I detect a faint nervousness in his gait. Could it be that he perceives me? Or is his destination the source of his anxiety? I hope the latter.

Reaching the far corner of the cargo bay he steps onto the rungs of a vertical ladder and ascends quickly to a shadowed catwalk. I pause below, listening to the metallic groans of the platform adjusting to his weight, then I follow suit, stopping as my eyes crest the top rung of the ladder. In the dimness I make out his form, ten yards ahead and moving confidently as before, save for the perceptible tension in his shoulders. I cannot suppress a smile. I do rather enjoy my work.

I withdraw the trusted Devil's Leash from my pocket and with care to produce not a sound I lift myself to the catwalk and the welcoming shadows.



Jeros

It has been a week and I have barely seen Alynna. Her influence with the Captain has garnered me a permanent seat at his table with her - usually granted only for the Captain's Dinner on one's first night onboard. Little good it's done me though as lately she has taken most of her meals in her cabin. Besides, when I do see her it's never without the hovering presence of Madres.

I watch her as she fields an endless stream of blather from the other guests at the table. She is radiant yet humble and soft spoken, with a genuine affinity to which their attentions naturally orbit. Like moths they are drawn to her flame. As am I.

She looks up and catches me staring. A smile lights her lips and her eyes widen enough to cause the breath to catch in my chest. But her eyes are not as bright as usual and her smile fades a little too quickly. She is troubled and doing well to hide it. Is it the riddle of the dying sun that continues to haunt her? She would say no more on the sun deck so I remain in mystery as to the details. I long for a more intimate conversation, but the chances of any time alone seem slim.

"Look at all that rubble," says a nasal voice from down the table. I turn to see a petite purple being with bleached blonde hair and a hook nose. I follow her jewel-encrusted finger up through the ceiling glass to see a massive cluster of space debris gliding in slow motion past the ship.

"Planetary refuse, my dear Porcilla," comes the bass rumble of General Shinto.

"But it's so ugly!" snorts the purple one who answers to the name Porcilla. "I expect pretty displays when I'm dining."

General Shinto crumples his large face into a look of utter disdain but chooses not to voice further opinion.

"Unfortunately you shall become accustomed to it for the next five weeks. We all will," says the soft voice of Professor Melior. He blinks twice over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles before popping a Phaelordian pea into his mouth and chewing carefully. The inventor of some sort of interstellar communication device, he is a thoughtful and soft-spoken man, and fantastically wealthy. All of this according to Alynna, my trusted source on galactic luminaries.

"What?" cries Porcilla. "That is just ludicrous and I won't stand for it. Where is the Captain? I shall insist we fly around it."

That's a good question; Where is the Captain? This is the first time I've ever noted him absent from dinner. From what I'm told the ship practically runs itself and pampering the VIPs is the mainstay of his duties. A worry tickles at the edge of my awareness but finding no logical foundation I dismiss it.

"My dear," says Professor Melior patiently, "we cannot fly around it. The Huervan Straits stretch three hundred lights years in any direction. The only way, as they say, is through." He chuckles softly to himself, apparently amused by his poetic oration, then focuses his attentions on another pea pod.

Porcilla crosses her arms and scowls like a petulant child. "Well, this is most inconvenient. I shall have a word or two to say to the Captain when next I see him. If he insists on subjecting us to such plebeian scenery then the least he could do is fix the net feeds. I've missed my favorite shows for the last week. It simply won't do!"

General Shinto raises himself to his full height and draws a deep breath. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes fixed upon Porcilla with a withering look of contempt. But as he opens his mouth Alynna leans forward and touches him gently on the forearm. His face softens and while his mouth remains open no sound issues forth.

"Porcilla," says Alynna, "there is no net feed in the Straits. It is not an oversight on the Captain's part, nor so any desire of his or his crew to deprive you of your much deserved entertainment. From what I understand no feeds can penetrate the Straits, although I scarcely understand the intricacies of why. Perhaps the fine General could enlighten us?"

With that she directs her fair gaze upon General Shinto and after a quick squeeze releases her hand from his arm. His face remains flushed, but I think no longer from anger. He smiles serenely at her then clears his throat and tilts his ample face skyward.

"Millions of years ago these straits were the largest star system in our galaxy, effectively stretching the breadth of it," he says, "but a chain nova event reduced the majority of the system to rubble."

"A what?" screeches a falsetto voice from the far end of the table.

"A chain nova event," interjects Professor Melior looking down the table at the hawk-like countenance of Duke Vistrehla of Sorian Seven, the source of the question. "It is a chain reaction of super novas - suns exploding, in lay terms. Rarely seen, but in the case of the Huervan System it triggered a continuous chain reaction of practically every sun in the system. Fully two thirds of the entire system, suns, planets, moons and satellites, were reduced to radioactive debris. The nature of the debris naturally interrupts comm feeds of any kind, including your net feeds I'm afraid Porcilla."

"No feeds at all?" squawks the Duke. "Then how so does the ship navigate?"

"A fine question, my dear Duke," says General Shinto. "Triangulation requires comm beams. And a comm beam travels only a few hundred feet inside the Straits. Therefore the ship's route is programmed prior to entering. Small adjustments are made en-route, for the obvious purpose of avoiding collision with large asteroids - smaller ones being destroyed with phasers or simply vaporized against the hull shields - and the computers compensate for those changes internally. But save for a carefully pre-programmed route there is no navigation possible here."

Maybe I should have paid more attention in school, but this is all news to me. An alarm seems to be going off in the far reaches of my mind, though I'm unclear as to why. "Excuse me, General," I say cautiously, "but are you saying that if a ship was to run off course, or get into trouble, there would be no way to call for help?" Then another thought strikes me, and I add, "Or even find its way out?"

General Shinto scans the faces at the table, then settles the full weight of his gaze upon me. His face is huge and round and flat and appears like a yellowed moon with eyes of onyx set in its surface. "That's right, my boy," he rumbles, seeming to enjoy the lowering of this boom of reality. "We are utterly and despicably alone."

He looks skyward as a charred and blackened asteroid floats by, then continues, "But for the grace of the Gods and the competence of our fine Captain shall we all perish in this damnable wasteland."



Alynna

I stand in the passage before his cabin door, my hands clasped together firmly in front of me to stay their trembling. I know I shouldn't be here - indeed Madres would scold me harshly if she knew - but my nerves are frayed and emotions ragged; I need a safe harbor and in spite of logic or prudence my heart tells me to go to him.

The door opens and there he stands, dressed in a shimmering blue robe, his smooth chest visible through the open collar. I swallow, unsure now of my resolve. The color looks well on him and enhances his tan complexion and green eyes. Yet those eyes are flat and void of the dancing expression to which I have become accustomed whenever they light on me. I frown and whisper hoarsely, "Jeros?"

A cloud seems to pass over him and he stands transfixed for several long seconds. Then he blinks and rubs a hand across his forehead and eyes. "Alynna," he says with a shake of his head, "I'm sorry. I couldn't believe it was you I was seeing."

"You thought me an apparition then?" I ask with the beginnings of a smile.

"I don't know what I..." he begins to say but trails off as he drinks me in with his eyes, those eyes to which the light has returned now, and as he studies me it begins to magnify until at length they reflect a smoldering heat. I feel the intensity of his desire like waves crashing on a promontory; and it finds reflection in me. With trembling knee I step across the threshold and embrace him. He takes hold of my face and kisses me furiously. It is hot and full of longing and borders on the savage. I allow myself to melt into him, my prior tensions released by the force of his desire.

After what seems an infinity he draws back, his eyes searching mine. He carefully brushes a hair from my face, and then stooping to place an arm behind my knees he lifts me into his arms and carries me to the bed chamber.

When our passions are at last spent I lie on my back looking sightlessly at the ceiling, idly caressing the intricate helical shape of the pendant laying between my breasts. He reclines next to me, propped on an elbow, watching me as he did that night on the sun deck.

"What are you thinking?" he asks.

Dare I tell him? Have I even the right to beset him with such solemnity? But I long to share my burdens. To lighten their weight through the elixir of spoken words. I know I should refrain but just as my feet found their way to his cabin of their own accord so this connection seems instinctual. And the intimacy we have just shared makes is all the more natural, almost preordained. Slowly I turn my head toward him and look into his eyes, now a deeper green than before. I reach for him with my being and sense his curiosity, that inclination of man to know and control all factors in his orbit, but beneath it rests a tenderness, a well of affection so deep that it catches me off guard and before I can harness it I feel tears welling in my eyes.

Concern clouds his face. "Hey," he says, his voice soft and hoarse, and with the most exquisite tenderness he reaches to me and wipes the moisture from my cheek with his thumb. The word alone means little but his manner and the look on his face say everything I need to know, and my walls of resistance crumble.

"I'm not from Phaerius 12," I blurt out. He cocks his head slightly but says nothing. A subtly raised eyebrow entreats me to continue. "I am Alynna Niphsana, Princess of Emaria."

"The twin sun?" he says with some surprise.

"You know of it?" I reply.

He squints an eye and grins. "I'd imagine everyone knows of it. It's Galactic History 101." Then his face becomes serious as realization dawns. "That's the sun you were talking about last week?"

"Yes," I say simply. What else can I say? What words could possibly mitigate the blow that nature has dealt my people?

Confusion mars his features. "But you said it was dying," he says. "How can that be? It's the oldest star in the galaxy. The original star. Can that even happen?"

"It is happening." I say, my voice choking. "Every year our summers become cooler, our winters harsher." Jeros reaches out and places his hand on the curve of my hip, concern etched in the lines of his face. His touch fortifies me and I continue, "My grandfather, when he was on the throne, formed a council of the finest minds in our system. He charged them with finding a solution within fifty years."

"And did they?" he asks.

"No, they did not."

"But there must be something that can be done."

"Perhaps," I reply, purposely choosing to be abstruse. "But our science is not advanced, and time rails against us. The changes measured by decades when my grandfather was alive are now measured by years."

He says nothing for a long moment. Consternation is written on his brow but I need not even look at him to know it. I can feel it emanating from him like the sonorous chords of a bass cello. It reaches to the far recesses of my heart and teases out the trust I hold captive there. Finally he asks in almost a whisper, "How long?"

"Ten years," I whisper back. "Fifteen at most."

"So you'll have to evacuate the entire system then," he states with finality. The simplicity of this statement speaks both of his empathy and the utter naivete of the engineer's belief in his mastery over the physical world.

"No, my dear Jeros, we do not have ships capable of interstellar travel," I reply, turning my head to face him directly. "Ours is a simple culture. Unless we can heal our ancient mother, we will die with her."



Soren

With the Captain's bracelet I let myself into the central processing chamber. A uniformed man swivels around in his chair, a smile taking shape on his face. With a flick of my wrist I launch my blade at him and am rewarded with the satisfying thud of Silcan steel finding purchase in flesh. His eyes bulge in surprise as he leans back in the chair gurgling and clawing at the protruding handle with one hand. I step to him.

"Not who you were expecting then?" I ask, looking down at him with some amusement. His face is already white and his breath coming in ragged gasps. It appears I have penetrated both lung and heart. A perfect shot, if I do say so myself. His right hand fumbles frantically to release the clip on his sidearm but by the time he does so his blood pressure has dropped so low that he cannot lift the weapon from its holster. He looks at me with pleading eyes but within moments they are glazed over with the unstoppable veil of death. I pull my blade from his chest and carefully wipe it clean on his sleeve.

Pushing the chair with him in it towards the door I turn and survey the room which contains the beating heart of the Hyperion. I breathe deeply as the epileptic flashing lights and electronic hum combine to soothe my psyche. Then I shake my head with a frown. Since when do I need soothing? The thought is preposterous. Yet in the few short weeks I have been onboard I have noticed a weakness seeping in, trying to dilute my resolve. I cannot identify it precisely but I know it has something to do with her. Watching her at dinner last night caused conflict within me. A conflict to which I am unaccustomed. I am a being of singular purpose, steeled against outside influence, no compassion nor empathy, no interests beside my prime directive. Yet what is this unidentifiable emotion that gnaws at me?

Enough! I tell myself, shaking my head again.

I close my eyes and locate my center, my single dark core, and focus on it. Finding myself I open my eyes and return to my mission. I scan the room for the navigation bank. To the untrained eye this room would be filled, floor to ceiling, with identical banks of servo-processors. But not to mine.

I walk to the nav bank and crouch in front of the array, all antiseptic white and humming with critical and dedicated purpose. Extracting a techpad from my inside pocket I uncoil its leads and plug them into the waiting ports of the array. Then I open the techpad and begin tapping commands into its keyboard. This won't take long. It seems almost a mundane task. Yet its effects will be anything but. Once complete I move to the emergency systems control bank and repeat the routine. Finding my way through the digital landscape I arrive at the escape pod processor core, and install the coup de grĂ¢ce.

As I work I find myself humming with my own purpose. A purpose as critical, and surely as dedicated, as these inanimate and unsuspecting processors.



Madres

I set the time-lock on Alynna's bedroom door for four hours, then quietly retreat across the dimly lit cabin and out into the hallway. I suppose I should feel guilty, but nothing can be left to chance. If she awakes before then I pray she will forgive me. But forgiveness is of little import to me now. Only survival matters; Of Alynna, and of our people. Death lurks in every corridor of this accursed ship. The Captain has been missing from dinner for over a week and the stewards report that he is either busy or taken ill. His absence may be innocent enough but until I know the truth I cannot rest easy.

I walk briskly to the lift station and after taking a pod to the bridge level I start down the long hallway. The walls here are stark and unadorned. There are no holo-murals or gilded trim like on the passenger decks, just white walls and doors with crisp blue lettering, the meanings of which are unfamiliar to me. A cold male voice, quite the opposite of the virtual steward to which I have become accustomed, states firmly: "This area is restricted to crew members only. Please follow the lighted panels back to the passenger decks." I ignore the voice and continue toward my target. As the large double doors of the bridge loom closer the voice becomes colder and more insistent. Again I ignore it. But before I can reach the bridge a pair of Masters at Arms step from a connecting hallway. The first takes two steps toward me and extends his right hand, palm towards me. The second stands centered in the hallway behind him, legs apart, a weapon straddled across his chest.

"Ma'am, this is a restricted area," says the first. The name tag on his uniform reads 'Lt. Snelson'.

"Lieutenant, I need to see the Captain," I say, coming to a stop in front of him.

"The Captain is unavailable, ma'am," he responds mechanically.

"It is of the direst importance that I see him," I rejoin, extending my beingness toward him to gain his cooperation. "Tell him that Madres -"

The breath leaves my lungs as I sense the details from the Lieutenant. My throat feels like it is being filled with dry sand as the vision comes into focus; the body crumpled, eyes dull and lifeless. The Captain, my childhood friend and erstwhile lover, our confidant and lone protector on this perilous voyage, has been murdered.

Unable to speak I simply nod and turn back the way I came. As I enter the lift pod the grief washes over me and my throat finally opens, releasing a wail of anguish that if not for being alone in the pod I would not believe was issuing from me.

By the time I reach our cabin door I have begun to compose myself. I stand before the door, breathing deeply, finding my center. Then a sobering thought intrudes on me. One I would rather not consider but must: What did the Captain disclose in those dark moments before death took him? I want to believe that he said nothing, that he protected us to the last. But he was many decades and as many light years separated from Emaria, and I know not what fortitude he may have had at the last.

I enter the cabin with my mind embroiled in the possibilities. The door does not immediately slide shut behind me, and the fact tickles vaguely at my awareness. As I turn to inspect I feel a sharp sting in my back. I react instinctively. Turning away from the pain, I drop and roll over my shoulder, snapping back to my feet and spinning to face the menace. He stands in the doorway, a blade in his right hand glints dully in the suffused light. It is tipped with my blood.

"You!" I spit, drawing my blade from its sheath on my forearm.

He gives me a lascivious look that is such a perversion of a smile I cannot even describe, then holding his blade loosely he circles towards me, saying as he comes: "We didn't think you would make it this far."

I refuse to give him the dignity of a response and instead begin circling the opposite direction. A pain radiates from my lower back and I feel a warm stickiness soaking my blouse. But I must ignore it. I am disadvantaged not only with my injury but my inability to penetrate his thoughts and thus predict his actions.

He feints left then lunges toward my heart with his blade. I instinctively recoil backwards, bending from the waist, then pivoting, rolling my hip upwards and extending my leg. I catch him a hard blow in the ribcage with my heel. I hear the breath leave his lungs and his eyes narrow with a blend of shock and respect. "Not bad," he says as the perverted smile returns to his lips, "Not bad at all." He comes at me again, this time his knife high in a swooping arc. I dance backwards then parry with my own, but he avoids it easily.

Again and again he attacks, feinting left and right, his knife strokes swift and varied, always dancing away just out of my reach when I parry back. We circle the room for what seems like an hour but try as I might I cannot land another blow. A blur is beginning at the edges of my vision along with a tremor in my legs. I know I am losing blood but I steel myself against its effects. I must win this fight no matter the cost, no matter my own life.

Again he comes at me and as I step backwards I feign a stumble. His eyes light with malice and, predictably, he lunges at me, knife held high. I fall onto my back while kicking out with both legs and take his feet out from under him. His arms flail and his eyes are wide as he floats momentarily above me. I lie perfectly still, bracing for impact with a slight smile on my lips and my blade held firmly against my chest, its tip facing upward in faithful anticipation.

But he is quick. He manages to get a hand under him and levers his body to my left as he lands. I hear the sound of blade piercing flesh but I fear I have missed his heart. In a blink he is gone and rolling away from me. We both regain our feet somewhat uncertainly and face each other from across the small room. Blood is beginning to soak his shirt midway between his heart and left shoulder. Yet somehow he smiles. "Well played," he says, affecting a subtle bow and allowing his knife hand to drop relaxed to his side. "But will you be able to protect her at the same time?" He nods toward a point over my right shoulder, toward Alynna's bedroom door.

My mind stumbles. How long have we been at this? Has the time-lock expired already? I glance briefly over my shoulder. No, her door is secure. The time-lock blinks serenely with three hours remaining. "Nice try," I say turning back to him. But as I do I feel a sudden blow in the chest. He stands perfectly still, that perverse smile still fluttering on his lips, his head cocked and looking at me like he is waiting for an answer. Waiting for me to catch on to something, to arrive at the the punchline of some twisted joke only he is privy to. My breath catches and I feel a hot mucous in my throat. My blade seems to have become heavy and my hand, of its own accord, drops slowly to my side. My eyes follow it then lift again to find his knife hand, similarly by his side. But empty.

My knees give way and I stumble backwards then drop heavily onto the couch. My chest feels tight, yet numb. I reach up with my left hand and finally understand as my fingers close on the hilt of his knife. My eyes close. Grief envelopes me. My throat is tight. I cough involuntarily and feel hot liquid run over my teeth and onto my chin. The sticky taste of iron fills my mouth.

I partially open my eyes and see his rancid face looming above me. He is asking me a question, his lips curled and voice rising frantically with each repetition. But I cannot make out the words. The sound becomes a growing hum. His face blurs and expands outward, then gently morphs into the softly glowing sun of my beloved homeworld. My ancient mother. I feel her warmth on my face for one long painful breath. Then she grows cold and fades into darkness.



Alynna

I am jerked from sleep by a searing pain, a scream so piercing that it feels like a nail is being driven into my temple. My eyes fly open as I bolt upright. The room is dark and quiet and I know immediately the source of the scream. Madres! My heart begins to race as I reach out for her but find nothing. I launch myself from the bed and run to the door, yet it doesn't open automatically as it should. I punch the open button but nothing happens. Again and again I beat at the button until the ball of my hand throbs with pain. Madres! I scream with all my being, but there is only silence within and without. I slide down the door until I am crouched against it, hugging my knees, weeping and shouting irrationally.

Then a glimmer reaches me, a sense image so faint yet so familiar it is to me like my own breath. I see a blurred image of our sun, so full of warmth. It fades quickly to black, but before it is gone I get an overwhelming sense of love; a love I have known the whole of my life; a love filled not only with tenderness and caring but duty and responsibility. It is a feeling so brief yet so powerful that it brings me to tears and I sink my face into my knees and sob.

My grief is, however, interrupted as I sense a presence in the chamber beyond my door. I reach for it, trying to ascertain who it is, when a cold hand of dread takes hold of me. I cannot see the face, or even sense the personality. The only thing I can feel is an overwhelming malice which turns my blood cold. Instinctively I shuffle away from the door, turning to look at it as if it holds sway over my life. Then I gather myself and stand. I engage the manual locks on the door and retreat to my bed. I feel the presence on the other side. There is banging, then a series of electronic beeps and chimes, and finally what sounds like a shout. But the door remains closed. Beyond it the presence remains, brooding and angry, it's malevolence penetrating like wolf's eyes in the darkness. I reach for the phone and with trembling hands punch in Jeros' room number. After half a minute I hang it up and try the Captain's personal number. My hopes fade as it rings endlessly. I pull on some clothes and rush for the main door which leads to the hallway, but it too will not open. Again I engage the manual locks then dazedly stumble back to my bed and curl up on the edge. Staring. And waiting.

My eyes open suddenly. How long have I been asleep? An electronic klaxon is blaring loudly and glowing red arrows are running along the walls toward the main door. What is happening? I start moving toward the door but stop short as I hear the banging. I am still trapped! Then I hear his voice. I hear my name coming through the hallway door in a muffled shout. Quickly I move forward and enter my personal code to release the locks. The door slides open and my heart leaps as Jeros rushes toward me and envelopes me in his arms.

I look up at him trembling but before I can say anything he takes my hand and with gentle but firm force he leads me into the hallway. "Jeros, what is happening?" I ask as we move at a half-run towards the lift pods.

"The ship's navigation systems have crashed," he says breathlessly as we reach the pod station. He stabs repeatedly at the call button.

"What? How?" I say, my mind reeling. A pod opens and Jeros yanks me into it. The doors close and it instantly begins descending, its floor selection touch panel replaced by a huge flashing red arrow pointing downwards.

"Don't know," he says, "I just know we have to get to the escape pods."

"Escape pods?" I cry. Then suddenly I remember Madres. The pod doors swoosh open and he grabs my hand to pull me out, but I resist. He looks at me, confusion etched on his brow. "Just wait a second," I say firmly. "A glitch in the nav system can be fixed. There are overrides and backup systems. We have to go back upstairs. I have to -" But I cannot finish the sentence. My throat is choked with a hard coal of emotion. Jeros looks at me, his eyes softening.

"Aly," he replies gently, taking me by the shoulders, "there are no backup systems. It's all gone and -" He pauses, searching my eyes with such tenderness and sincerity that my heart aches. As he does so I read in him everything I need to know. He opens his mouth but I finish the sentence for him, "- we're on a collision course with a dead planet."

As if to confirm it an incongruently calm voice sounds above the braying klaxons saying, "Attention all passengers. Attention all passengers. The Hyperion has experienced critical failure. Please follow lighted red arrows to the nearest escape pod station. Repeat, please follow lighted red arrows to the nearest escape pod station immediately. This is not a drill."

A lift pod opens suddenly and a group of screaming passengers explode from it, rushing past us and through a large set of swinging doors marked with a flashing red arrow. The trance broken, Jeros latches onto my hand and follows them, dragging me in his wake. Through the doors is a cavernous bay lined with dozens of small white doors, each of which has a lighted red arrow leading to it.

"What the -" Jeros growls. He turns a half circle scanning the room, his brows knitted in consternation.

"What is it?" I ask.

"None of these pods have been launched."

I look around and see passengers screaming and punching at entry panels beside the doors but none are opening. Running mindlessly from one to the next they repeat the same motions over and over, and yet all the escape pod doors remain sullenly closed. A cold finger of dread traces down my spine.

"We need to try another pod station," Jeros says as he reaches for my hand.

"No," I say emphatically, retracting my hand before he can take hold of it.

"Aly, we have to get off this ship," he says, his voice cracking with exasperation.

A loud creaking sounds, as if the ship is being bent by unseen hands, and without warning the floor begins to tilt. Jeros stumbles toward me and we instinctively embrace, holding each other as if to somehow stave off the unimaginable forces at work. The computerized voice sounds again, saying: "All passengers and personnel, proceed urgently to your nearest escape pod station. Four minutes until impact. This is not a drill."

Jeros pulls at me. "Aly, we have to go!" he says urgently. "Nothing will survive inside the ship."

I resist him however. A calmness has settled over me. In my minds eyes I see what needs to be done and I accept it with equanimity. I extend my beingness to Jeros, enveloping him, trying to calm him. He seems to know intuitively that I have reached a decision and as he looks into my eyes I see a liquid sorrow reflected in his.

"Aly, what -" he begins, but I put a finger to his lips.

"Jeros, my love," I say to him, "I will not survive. Whether I reach an escape pod or not." His eyes are rent with emotion and I feel the turmoil emanating from his being. "He will hunt me to the end," I say softly as the full realization dawns on me.

Reaching under my hair I unclip the pendant necklace from around my neck. Holding it in my hand I gaze at it lovingly. For it contains not only the essence of me, that which I have traveled quite literally the length of the galaxy to retrieve, but the ancient past as well as the future of my people.

Stepping close to him I reach up and clasp the pendant around his neck. "Deliver this to my people," I whisper to him. "So that our ancient mother may live."

Lifting myself on my toes I kiss him long and full on the lips, a kiss that transcends words, that binds the two of us in spirit yet severs us in body.

Then I pull back and looking up into his tear filled eyes I speak my final words to him, "Go Jeros. Go, my love. And live."



Jeros

Doors plague my dreams.

All of them just out of reach, they beckon to me, speaking in some ethereal tone just below the level of consciousness.

My mind is numb, my thoughts mangled. I am wrapped in a furnace of emotion so intense that I will surely suffocate. Not a single thread of logic can I derive from the maelstrom that is my consciousness.

Or is it even consciousness?

Perhaps I have passed from the physical world?

Coherent thoughts remain elusive. Yet at the edge of my perception there is always a door, its cold white surface enjoining me to approach. To pass through.

I sense that I have achieved a great triumph and yet an unspeakable loss.

But nothing is clear now. Nothing is certain.

Except the ever present heat.

It presses on me from all sides, choking the breath from my lungs, as if I am being drowned in a molten furnace. Again a door beckons, its cool whiteness promising solace from my turmoil. With every ounce of my being I reach for it, fighting upwards through the liquid heat, my lungs burning, crying out for that single breath.

I gasp as air fills my lungs, my eyes flying open. Before me is the door. Flames lick at me from all sides. I scan the chamber as coherent thoughts seep slowly into my addled mind. I'm in an escape pod. A burning escape pod!

I try to get up but my body is unable to move. Straps bite into my shoulders. Flames continue to lick at me as I claw madly at the harness. Acrid smoke invades my lungs and eyes. Finding the buckle I release the harness and launch myself at the door, stabbing at the big green button above it as I go. Rather than swinging open it simply falls out and I tumble to the ground after it.

I feel hot coarse sand against my cheek and the smell of burnt metal fills my nostrils. Placing my hands on the ground I lift myself to my knees. My chest heaves as my lungs strain to recover. I thank the Gods I've landed on an oxygen planet, but as the hope swells in my breast it is quickly dashed by the realization that I am utterly alone in the wastelands of the Huervan Straits. Yet I must survive. Why, I am not entirely sure, but the word "live" rattles through my brain.

With my head bowed I rub my eyes to relieve the burning. Ever so slowly, through running tears, I open them against the harsh light and begin to take in my surroundings. I am looking at sand, coarse and dry and the color of brick. Carefully raising my head I see it stretching away in all directions, barren and devoid of life. Then my eyes reach a large patch of darkness which, as it comes into focus, chills me to the core. I lift my head higher and higher until my neck strains upwards, and take in the beautifully grotesque spectacle. About a mile before me, driven into the ground at a steep angle, and so immense it practically blocks the sun, smolders the charred and blackened carcass of the Hyperion.

The staggering reality of what I see intrudes upon my soul. Emotions to which I am not accustomed invade my heart. On reflex I clutch a hand to my chest. And feel warm metal against my flesh; something that does not belong. I recoil as if bitten by a snake. Then roughly unbutton my shirt and expose the foreign object. A face flashes before my eyes. A smile so tender yet filled with an infinity of meaning. With trembling hands I remove the chain from around my neck and hold it up.

Dangling from it is an intricately forged pendant in the shape of a helix.

Cupping the pendant in my hands I can do nothing but stare. Darkness and light move within me. The logical partitions of my mind begin to flux, bulging outward and releasing like the pulsing of a distended heart. Love and hatred rail against one another, fighting for supremacy within me. I know not how long I kneel in this desolate wasteland, transfixed, riveted by the object cupped in my palms. At length the partitions burst and a tidal wave crashes through my being.

I lay my head in my hands, the helix pressed against my cheek. And I cry.



Epilogue

Salmyra

"Alynna, don't go too far honey!" I call out.

A pair of strong arms wrap themselves around my waist. "Don't be so overprotective," Kelvan says as he rests his chin on my shoulder, nuzzling his cheek against mine. I can feel the smile on his face. I reach up and place my palm against his cheek.

"I just don't want her going so far that I lose sight of her," I respond, pinching him lightly on the cheek.

"She'll be fine," he says. "She won't go as far as her great-aunt, that's for sure. Not until she's a little older anyway." Again I feel his smile.

I cover his hands with mine and squeeze once. He knows me well enough to know that the thought of my aunt brings strong feelings, and he says nothing, but gently tightens his hold on me and pulls my body close against him.

Together we watch our daughter cavorting through the long grass, a stick which serves as her magic wand held high, giggling and squealing as our faithful hound Job nudges her from behind. The sun is setting and the whole world seems to stand still as it's gracefully bathed in a translucent orange glow. The tender caress of our ancient mother.

I was barely six when she left. About the age of my daughter now. But my father kept her memory alive in me. Even as we prepared to lose all that we held dear - though I didn't comprehend the magnitude of it then - my father would put me to bed with tales of the bravery and fortitude of my aunt Alynna.

The man arrived when I was sixteen. He stumbled from a Gysopian trade freighter with tattered clothes and no shoes on his feet, demanding an audience with the king.

I remember the day well. My grandfather had recently passed and a perfunctory crowning ceremony had just been held for my father, the role of a king no longer of great import to a doomed people. We were in the palace courtyard when the guards dragged him in. He may have been handsome in times past, but then his face was marred with blisters and lesions from sustained exposure to the elements of a harsh world. His skin was darkly tanned, leathery and crusted, and what scraps of clothing still hung on his thin frame were loose, torn and soiled beyond repair. My father instructed the guards to wrap him in blankets and fetch warm broth, of which we kept plenty on hand in those days of perpetual winter. Only once warm and fed did my father bid him speak.

Under a solemn grey sky the man related his tale, explaining with little detail that he had been a passenger on the Hyperion and after befriending my aunt had been entrusted by her with a task. He finished by reaching within the dregs of his clothing and producing a necklace containing a helical pendant. My father stared at the pendant for the longest while, fearing to believe too quickly lest his hopes be dashed. Then he sent for the palace scientists.

Once the pendant was validated as truly containing ionic matter from the dark twin of our sun, the elixir that according to legend and our best scientific minds would heal her, my father gave orders for the drone rocket to be readied. He then looked at the downtrodden scrap of a man and through tear-soaked eyes asked him what in all of Emaria he wished in return for this priceless gift.

The man looked up for the first time then. His eyes searched the grateful faces before him and finally settled on mine. Despite the utter ruin of his body his eyes were yet whole. They were green and alive with an internal light of accomplishment and, though I cannot explain why, love. He looked long upon me. At length he turned his now glistening eyes to my father and told him what he desired.

A day later the rocket was launched. I remember watching it and holding my breath along with every soul on the seven planets across our system as it charged closer and closer to the sun, carrying its vital payload. When it made impact, in a brief flash of white, I got a clear vision of the man; now clean shaven and dressed in a flight suit, he sat strapped into the pilot seat, his hands in his lap, tenderly cupping the pendant; and on his lips, a peaceful smile.

My daughter's squeal brings me to the present and I blink away the memory in time to see her rushing at me with open arms. I embrace her as she slams into me and encircles my legs in a voracious hug. Kelvan releases his hands from my waist and moves them to Alynna's shoulders, encircling both of us. He squeezes gently, and I know my world is complete.

I close my eyes and breath deeply, taking in the sweet scents of my child, my husband, my home.

My eyes are misty when I reopen them.

Together we watch the golden orb that nourishes our world as she gently sinks to the horizon.

As I watch - just as I did that day so many long years ago, and have so many times since - I see in her shimmering glow the man's serene smiling face.

3 comments:

  1. Ancient narratives projected with skill into the futuristic and fantastical settings. This tale engaged my emotions and demanded my attention - in a genre that is not my first choice. Great writing, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Ceinwen, thank you for your kind words.

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  3. This story reveals a tremendous leap of the imagination. And it sucks you in. It's possible that it could be trimmed down a little, but then again, perhaps the length of piece adds to the sense of setting. This is a piece that you should take pride in. Well done!
    S.Lucas

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