Book: Fractured Sentinel
Copyright © 2020 by Dave Walsh
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
1. The Captain
2. The Artist
3. The Captain
4. The Artist
5. The Captain
6. The Artist
7. The Captain
8. The Artist
9. The Captain
10. The Artist
11. The Captain
12. The Artist
13. The Captain
14. The Artist
15. The Captain
16. The Captain
17. The Sleeper
18. The Captain
19. The Sleeper
20. The Captain
21. The Captain
22. The Dreamer
23. The Captain
24. The Captain
25. The Dreamer
26. The Captain
27. The Dreamer
28. The Captain
29. The Artist
30. The Captain
31. The Artist
32. The Captain
Trystero Book Two: Fractured Sentinel
Also By Dave Walsh
About the Author
As always, special thanks to my wonderful wife, Lori. She puts up with a lot.
Thank you to David Burszan for all his help.
1 The Captain
Valencia sat quietly, ruminating over the next job, hands wrapped around a steaming mug of hot tea. The promenade on Biztsoft Station was abuzz, the ocean of humans and Gra’al ebbing and flowing, all visible from the tiny bistro table overlooking everything. She wasn’t big on tea, never bothering to stock it aboard the Trystero because of the logistics of the warm water bulbs and steeping tea inside of them. That meant sticking to water and coffee. Yeah, somehow a decent cup of coffee was possible, but tea from a synthesizer was demonstrably the worst.
She leaned back in her metal chair, crossing her leg over her knee, scuffed up boot bouncing up and down while her arms folded over her chest, the tug of the taut leather jacket a welcome embrace. Her contact was late, something that always pissed her off.
“Hey Cap,” Bec squawked over her in-ear comm.
“What’s up, Bec?”
“Any sighting of the client yet?”
“No,” she said, glaring up at a clock above the counter of the bistro. “He’s late.”
“That’s too bad. Um, so since he’s late, mind if I disembark and pick up a few supplies?”
“More liquorice? Didn’t we just get some last week?”
“Hey, I’m a growing girl, right?”
“Where’s Drake? Can’t he pick it up? I want to get off of her as soon as possible.”
“Why the rush? If the job doesn’t come through, maybe we can take a break. I think we all need it after everything we’ve been through.”
“Go get your candy,” she said. “Just be ready, okay?”
Bec wasn’t wrong, after what had happened to them with the Gra’al there was a sense of fatigue that came over the crew. Sergeant Rose’s passing impacted her more than she thought it would and his son Drake had turned even more inward, if that was even possible, although he was sharing his art more. Granted, that art was macabre and concerning, although she was trying to be supportive of his newfound sense of expression. They had taken a few jobs since then, mostly small salvage missions that weren’t a ton of trouble. The few derelict ships they had discovered served as must-avoid ill omens after what happened the last time, even at Drake’s protests that someone could need help. Instead, she’d send messages back to Terran authorities and let the professionals handle the clean-up.
Sergeant Atticus Rose was a miserable old man, completely impossible to deal with, yet he had fallen into the role of an uncle or father-like figure for her. He was always loyal and always got the job done, even if it came with cursing and grumbling. His son Drake was another story entirely. He was trying to fill his father’s duties as best he could but was a poor imitation. Instead, the miraculously alive Gra’al warrior Gentar took on the role of the muscle for the crew, doing his best to ignore the reduced range of movement in his shoulder from the damage he took in the battle with Giga.
“Captain Vasquez?” a voice broke her from her reverie.
“That’s me,” she said, looking up to see a short, balding man in an ill-fitting suit looking around nervously. “You must be Mr.—”
“Jordache, yes,” he said. “I’m sorry that I’m late, there’s just been a bit of commotion around.”
“That’s fine, sit down, please. If you don’t mind, I like to get right down to business, unless you want a drink?”
“No, no,” he said, folding his hands in front of him, his fingers twitching.
“Oh, right,” he said, producing a small cylinder and placing it on the table between them. A paper-thin, clear screen unrolled out and the display kicked on, showing a ship manifest filled with numbers. “Two weeks ago one of my ships ran into a little issue out in the DMZ and the crew foolishly jettisoned the container it was carrying to get away.”
“What kind of trouble? Pirates?”
“I don’t know, really,” he said. “They didn’t make it.”
“What do you mean they didn’t make it?”
“Terran authorities picked the ship up and it was empty.”
“Where was your crew?”
“There was no trace, no log entries from the captain or anyone else?”
“Nothing, no. The life pods were even still attached.”
“And you want me to do what here, find your crew?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I mean, if you could that would be great and all, just, the authorities are looking for them already and there’s no trace.”
“You just want us to return your cargo, then?”
“Yes, correct. The cargo drop point was somewhere near the dwarf planet Thuul. I’m not sure if it’s still in orbit or if it’s on the planet somewhere.”
“Okay,” she said, pausing. “You do know that Thuul is an ocean planet, correct? If it is there, it’s gonna be difficult to retrieve, if that’s even possible. Do you even have a tracker on it?”
“Yes, I can give you the frequencies for it if that helps.”
“It should help. Look, Mr. Jordache, this job sounds like it could be difficult. Thuul is over the DMZ line inside Gra’al space and was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Terran-Gra’al War. Both sides lost millions, who knows how many of those ships crashed into the drink there. There’s gonna be a lot of stuff floating around there.”
“I know, but with the tracker...”
“We’ll get rough coordinates, sure, but it could be anywhere. How do you know it didn’t get scooped up by some pirates, anyway?”
“I don’t, but I just want you to look. I can compensate you well, if that’s the issue.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “I just don’t want to put my crew at risk if I don’t have to is all. A disappearing crew and lost cargo on a planet full of water sounds like some sort of old mystery novel.”
“I know, but really, I do want my cargo back.”
“Dare I ask what’s so precious?”
“I’d appreciate your discretion in the matter and that you respect my privacy...”
“No offense, Mr. Jordache But this is a dangerous job.”
“Here, I didn’t want to part with this, but I suppose I have no choice,” he said, producing a small chip with a pulsing green light and sliding it across the table.
“And this is?” She picked it up, inspecting it curiously.
“A key, of sorts.”
“Yes, see, if you press the light the interface node retracts and...”
“I got it,” she said, flicking the node out. “See?”
“Yes, right. That was retrieved from the ship and I’d prefer if you brought it back in one piece, it’s the only one, you see.”
“Of course,” she said. This deal sounded worse and worse with each time he opened his mealy mouth. She noticed that there was a commotion out in the promenade, large crowds gathering in clusters. “Well, I’ll make no promises for now, but we’ll go and look into it. Since this job is a bit riskier than others, I’ll want a payment up front as an act of good faith.”
“A down payment, then?”
“Additional fees, we keep it regardless of if we take the job or not. For supplies to get us out to Thuul and investigate.”
“Take it or leave it. You know our reputation, we can just take another job,” she said, standing up and starting to leave.
“No, wait, I’ll pay,” he said.
“Good, then,” she said, turning around. “We have a deal. I expect that payment in my account before we depart today.”
“How much, exactly?”
“10,000 credits should be good for now.”
“Okay, that’s fine,” he said, offering his sweaty palm. Valencia took it and forced out a smile before leaving him to his thoughts.
Valencia slurped down the last of her tea and headed back towards the hangar bays, pushing through the throngs of mulling onlookers, agitated at the obstructions but her head swimming at the new job. Something about it wasn’t sitting right with her and she didn’t know what to make of it yet. They’d just have to go out there and do some investigating. If anything looked off, though, they were out of there. At least she got the 10,000 out of him.
“Hey Cap,” Bec said through the comm.
“You get your candy? Just met with our client, we’ve gotta head for Thuul.”
“Are you by a screen by any chance?”
“There are thousands of them here, you know that better than I do. I’m just walking through the promenade now heading towards the ship.”
“You might want to stop to look at a news feed or check your handheld.”
“Fine,” she grumbled, pushing her way through one cluster of people crowding in front of a screen.
The image of a cylindrical object with tendrils and an FTL plume filled the screen, the scrawl on the bottom reading “Unidentified Object Seen in DMZ.” A shiver ran down her spine at the object, most likely a ship unlike anything they’d ever seen before. It sure wasn’t Terran, which meant that it had to be some sort of top secret Gra’al project and, of course, it was in orbit around Thuul.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she asked.
“Is that where we’re headed, Cap?”
“I guess so,” she said.
“What is that?”
“I don’t know, but I suppose we’re gonna find out.”
“Bec, why isn’t this hunk of scrap warmed up and ready to get us the hell out of here?” she asked, doing her best to sound imposing knowing that she probably wasn’t.
“I’m on it, Cap,” the dark-skinned woman with her hair gathered into a frizzy poof on the top of her head said.
That was all the assurance that she needed, knowing that while from the outside their crew seemed haphazard, they were in fact a well-oiled machine that knew how to make it all work in the end. Gentar greeted her at the top of the stairs before the door to the kitchen, his bulky gray frame stuffed inside of a green jumpsuit with his name and the Trystero call sign on the back. He had slid into his role as the mechanic aboard the ship with relative ease after all that they went through, even if he was best suited for combat and could have argued about pulling double duty by also assuming Sergeant Rose’s position as security, yet he never muttered a single complaint. His sense of honor wouldn’t let him. Complaints about stuff that didn’t involve honor, though? That was a different story, especially for a Gra’al growing accustomed to Terran customs.
“What’s the matter now, Gentar?” she asked, knowing from his stance he was about to bombard her with some list of complaints.
“Thuul is cursed.”
“A job is a job,” she said. “We both lost a lot of lives in that battle but hopefully this is a quick job and we’re able to get in, find the container and get out.”
“I refuse to set foot on that planet.”
“Good thing that it’s all water, there’s no ground to step on.”
“You know what I mean. That planet was a turning point for Jin’tu, where he understood that for both our sakes we needed to reconcile.”
“I understand that, but an entire planet can’t be some holy grave site. It’s a planet.”
“There are at least a few million dead there. That’s just Gra’al. There were more dead Terrans.”
“And our client’s container of, well, whatever it is. He’s paying and we need money.”
“Is it true about his crew disappearing?”
“Supposedly,” she said. “My guess is they quit, dumped his cargo, and he’s too embarrassed to admit it.”
“And that object from the newscasts?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I figure it’s some sort of Gra’al ship?”
“It’s unlike any Gra’al vessel that I’ve ever seen.”
“There are seven houses, right? I’m sure that some conduct their own experiments. We saw what Gra’al unity looked like with Giga.”
“Vetru is doing a fine job as Protector. I’m sure any attempts at revolt were quietly and efficiently quelled.”
“I’m not saying he isn’t, but it’s not like we’re in close contact with them or anything. How about you send a message to him and see what he says?”
“Already have, I’m waiting to hear back.”
“Good, see? It’ll be fine. You worry too much.”
“I’ve faced death multiple times now, Captain Vasquez. I have a good sense of when it’ll try to claim my life again.”
“It’ll be okay,” she said, reaching out and massaging his good shoulder. There was a constant unease about him since he got out of the med bay and discovered that Drake’s father had died and while he fulfills his duties without a complaint, there’s a shadow hanging over him. “I won’t put any of us in danger for a few thousand credits. I promise.”
She left him to brood while heading into the kitchen, noting that Drake’s door was open and he wasn’t inside. She couldn’t fight the sigh that escaped, with it becoming increasingly difficult to rein him in since his father’s death. She understood why he was a mess and tried to give him the space he needed, but within reason.
“And where is our starving artist, Bec?”
“He’s en route, he says,” she replied over the ship’s wide comm channel, knowing that Drake should be privy to the conversation.
“I want to get the hell out of here already, I know you’re listening, Drake.”
“I’m just outside the hangar,” he said. “I’ll be on in a minute, okay?”
“Just hurry up, we’ve got a job.”
“The ice planet?” he asked.
“Water, but close enough. I’ll explain when you’re onboard.”
“What does it have to do with that weird thing?”
“What weird thing? Oh, you mean the object on the newscasts? Nothing, at least I don’t think.”
“Copy that, Cap,” he replied.
The Captain stomped up into the cockpit, resting her arm against the top and leaning against Bec’s chair, a comfortable place that she found herself often. Bec barely even noticed her because of how often she hovered overhead like that. She watched while the pilot’s fingers danced along the controls, warming up the ship’s systems and preparing for takeoff. Even with all the change and drama they’d endured, there was a comfort with being in the cockpit and watching things working like clockwork instead of brewing in the murky waters of the current.
“We cleared for takeoff?”
“Mhm,” Bec replied, nodding her head while her frizzy hair bounced back and forth over the headband wrapped over her forehead.
An alert chimed, noting that the cargo hold door had shut, which meant that Drake was aboard. Bec ran the final checks while the Captain slipped into the co-pilot’s chair and fastened her harness.
“Alright boys, we’re taking off.”
“Let’s try not to die this time,” Bec joked, turning to the Captain who merely raised her eyebrows at the joke and looked away. “You better be strapped in because I’m taking off.”
Both replied with simple grunts before the ship lurched forward, slowly making its way through the big launch doors and out into the cold, dark and welcoming vacuum of space.
2 The Artist
The ship was safely within the crowded hyperlane when Drake unbuckled his harness and let the folding chair slap back into the wall. He stretched out and let a mighty yawn loose from deep within before turning on something loud and aggressive, not caring what he was listening to, just as long as it would drown everything else out.
The Captain’s big idea of him enrolling in an art class back on Biztsoft seemed innocent enough at the time; something for him to do and keep him engaged in art while being immersed in it, but it had become a lot more than that to him. For the first time in his life he had exposure to people that not just loved art like him, but people that thought and felt like him. In that crowd he was no longer the weirdo that stood out or the kid who couldn’t get his stuff together. He’d even made a few friends, believe it or not. A message came through from Jake, someone from his class with innate abilities to sketch bright, vibrant images who had taken a liking to him. Drake laughed and shot off a quick reply telling him he was out of range and would see him in class soon.
The crew would always be his family, that much was clear to Drake, it was just that finally he had found his people. For something that the Captain had to drag him kicking and screaming to for his first class, the art studio quickly became a second home to him, even if it was a commercial art class that aimed to train young artists to work in marketing.
The crew found itself tethered to Biztsoft Station by their search for legitimate work and that meant that Drake spent every docked moment there, making use of their resources to sharpen his painting skills, take classes and hang out with other students. He found himself a part of a small crew of artists comprising Jake, Anya and Bo, each one from a different background and none of them knowing much about Drake or his adventures with the crew, just that his dad died during the Gra’al Ascendancy struggle and that getting him to talk about it was a fool’s errand.
It didn’t help that Drake had become a minor celebrity of sorts when the news broke about their ordeal in Gra’al space and the role that Drake, a young artist, played in it. Whenever someone asked about it, he played down his role and framed it as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were still suits from the Terran Republic government that reached out to him to glean whatever they could about the Gra’al from Drake. With Vetru in control of the Gra’al Empire now it meant there was more in the way of open dialogue, although old rivalries were still open wounds.
“Hey, Dray?” the Captain asked, sliding the door open and poking her head in. She raised her voice over the music. “You gonna come to the meeting?”
“Can’t you knock?” he asked.
“I liked it better when you left the door open, you know that?”
“Yeah, well, I just want a little privacy, if that’s okay.”
“Still my ship, Dray, still my crew, still my rules. We’ve got a job, and we gotta figure out how we’re gonna tackle it. We’ll need you there.”
“Yeah?” he asked, his ears perking up at hearing they’d need him. He turned his music down to a low drone.
“You’re an important part of the crew. I’m not sure how many times I have to remind you. Especially after everything that’s happened... we need you.”
“All right, let me just clean this brush, so it doesn’t get all crusty.”
“Sure,” she said, disappearing out into the kitchen.
Drake glared at the painting on the wall he had been laboring away on. Trying to lighten up his work a bit, he chose two intertwined flowers sprouting up through a desert landscape as his subject. The lighting was dark and moody, the single red rose sprouted, wrapped by a withering white rose clinging on for dear life. Red and green splatters lined the rough, cracked desert sand. Drake grew frustrated with how dark it had become. Everything he’d been learning in his classes was preparing him to be the kind of artist that Terrans revered: still dark and brooding, but interjecting some hope and light in, to make people feel better about life. That bothered him at first, the nagging voice in his head telling him to stay true to himself, but he trusted his teachers to know the best path forward. He scrambled to rinse his brush and cover his paints, although he’d probably be back at it within a few minutes, anyway. Most of these “briefings” lasted a heartbeat and just included the increasingly careful Captain urging no one to take any risks at all. The jobs they took were all pretty easy, which meant that the money also wasn’t great and tensions were bubbling over because of the lack of ready funds to take care of everything the crew needed.
Bec sat in her usual chair, gnawing on a red rope of liquorice absently while staring off into nothing. Gentar was in his chair, as well, the metal legs showing marks from where he’d gone at it with a hammer to reinforce them, his attempt to keep it from buckling due to his density and weight. The Captain was pacing with her arms crossed, anxiously awaiting Drake even though she had just left his room.
“Thanks for joining us, Mr. Rose,” she said.
“Oooh, Dray’s in trouble,” Bec clacked.
“Stuff it, Bec.”
“Children,” she said, the three of them smiling. “Alright, so this job—”
“Will be just like the last one, right?” Drake interrupted. “Find some Terran Republic ship, pick up the crate, head back to Biztsoft, right?”
“Not quite,” she said. “This time we caught a live one. Gentar and Bec know some details, but not all. We’re heading to Thuul.”
“I don’t get what the big deal is about this Thuul.”
“It’s a water planet,” Gentar said, “right on the border of the DMZ and Gra’al space. It’s a graveyard for both of our people.”
“Oh, wow,” he said. “That Thuul?”
“That Thuul,” the Captain confirmed. “Needless to say, Gentar has filled us in on the fact that it’s cursed, so we need not know more about that.”
“Who’s the client?”
“Guy named Jordache, his crew went silent outside of Thuul and ejected his cargo. They found the ship unmanned.”
“No, not pirates,” she said. “At least we don’t think. There were no signs of a struggle. In fact, there were no signs of any sort of assault at all, with the life pods still attached...”
“Wait, what?” Drake asked, a chill running down his spine. “Where’d they go, then?”
“We don’t know.”
“They’re ghosts, Dray,” Bec said. “Or they disintegrated.”
“That’s not even possible,” he said. “Stop trying to scare me.”
“You also can’t discount the object from the newsfeeds,” Gentar added.
“You mean that squid-looking thing?” Drake asked.
“What was the deal with that, some sort of experimental ship or something?”
“We’re not sure yet,” the Captain said. “Gentar says it doesn’t seem like anything Gra’al he’s ever seen, but we’ve reached out to Vetru for confirmation on that. The Gra’al have been pretty quiet on the whole thing.”
“Anyone ever think it could be one of ours?” Bec asked.
“I mean, it wouldn’t shock me if some information we gave them in the debrief about the organic ships made them jump into action, but do you really think it’s possible within a matter of months to come up with something like that? I don’t think so,” the Captain said. “For now, we have a job to do and we do our best to avoid that thing.”
“Or maybe we’ll get swept up into another life-changing misadventure,” Bec said.
“Or,” the Captain said. “I’m gonna do my best to avoid that, though. We all need the break and this job pays pretty well.”
“Why this job?” Drake asked.
“We’ve been taking really easy jobs, mostly government since they’ve been there for us since we’re all heroes and all,” Drake said. “This job feels different, though. I’m not gonna say that you have been taking lame jobs or anything—”
“—You’ve been taking lame jobs, Cap,” Bec chimed in.
“Yeah. Why this job, then?”
“We need the work,” the Captain said. “The job pays well, it’s something different... I don’t know, since when is everyone all about questioning me? We need money, we need a job, and this is a job.”
“Sure, I just—”
“This isn’t up for discussion,” the Captain said. “Bec, tell me when we’re in range.”
“Can do, Cap,” she said, although the Captain had stormed out of the room and down the stairs into the cargo hold before she could finish.
“I don’t understand,” Gentar said.
“Dray pushed her a bit too hard,” Bec said. “We’ve been all decompressing in our own ways, the Captain is just feeling guilty. She didn’t need that, Dray.”
“I didn’t mean it like that, I just...”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about women, Drake Rose.”
“I’m sorry, Cap,” Drake said, standing nervously in the empty cargo hold while the Captain sat perched on a case like she always was down there.
“What?” she asked, not looking back at him. “Oh, hey Dray. It’s fine.”
“I meant nothing by it, really.”
“I know. Don’t worry about it.”
“Look, I know that things have been kinda fucked up and that we haven’t talked much, but...”
“It’s fine, really. I’m glad you’ve got your art class now. That’s what I wanted for you, anyway. I wanted you to find a place where you belonged and didn’t feel so cooped up all the time.”
“Yeah, it’s been great,” he said. “I always kinda thought it would be stupid to do these art classes, that it was all just snobs or dorks, but it’s been... nice? The instructors have been super helpful, too.”
“I’m sure they love having a celebrity hero like you around, too.”
“Yeah, well,” he blushed. “It’s really not a big deal. I try not to talk about it.”
“What we did was a big deal, Drake. We did some incredible stuff, we helped some people along the way and might have even prevented, or at least delayed, another encounter between us and the Gra’al.”
“I guess so, but the cost doesn’t add up.”
“I know you miss him, we all do. I think about it every day, I can’t imagine how you feel.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not easy.”
“You can talk to me about it, you know. Instead of just blowing up and shutting yourself off.”
“I’m not doing that,” he said, taking a moment to stop and think about the last few months. Yeah, he had spent more time in his room painting, but he always did that. No one had any interest in what he was doing before was the big difference, now they did.
“You sure about that?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m more involved with school now.”
“Yeah, but that’s good. That’s healthy. We want you doing that kind of stuff instead of closing yourself off, I guess I just didn’t think you’d close off from us.”
“It’s okay, it’s expected, right? We’re just sort of family here and we need to be whole to heal. I’m trying to be patient with you here and let you figure this all out for yourself.”
“Anyway, have you replied to Vetru yet? That last video of Bruce was super cute. He’s just getting so big now.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.”
“What is wrong with you, Drake? Send the damned message back already. Stop this feeling bad for yourself shit, okay?”
“Just let me do things my way, alright?”
“You both lost your fathers, the bond is more than you can even understand, don’t mess this up.”
“I won’t. Just give me some time to think.”
“You’re running away from your problems, Drake.”
Drake remained silent, his eyes fixed on the bar his father welded to the wall to use for pullups and other exercises. The image of his father’s presence pulling his fit body up and letting it gracefully fall down, something that he had walked in on multiple times and never thought he’d miss. Yet, there he was.
“I just need some time,” he admitted.
“I get it, we just all handle these things differently. You know, we haven’t been back to Triinal in a while. Forget the message, what if we just visited Bruce and Vetru instead? We’ll be in Gra’al space for this mission. I was thinking we could hop over to see how he’s doing. He’s probably walking by now.”
“Oh, wow,” he said, his stomach turning. “Maybe?”
“Okay, just let me know. Vetru made it clear that we’re always welcome.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, walking off towards the stairs with his hands buried in his jumpsuit’s pockets. His boots clomped clumsily up the steel stairs while he felt the Captain’s eyes on him. There were a lot of things he wanted to say, the words were just a jumble inside his mind and couldn’t quite organize themselves into any sort of cohesive thought.
Drake wanted nothing more than to embrace his ship-family and get lost with them out in the stars, outside of his own mind and his sorrows. The problem was that they were his ship-family, not his real family. Messages from his mother back on Capital Station were waiting for him for days, just little blips that bore into his soul and tantalized him with the promise of a quick, warm embrace before the oppressive reality would turn its ugly head and things would get complicated again. His father was taken from him just when things were making sense between the two of them, arguably his father died defending Bruce and himself. Now Bruce was far away, awaiting his ascension when he came of age and Drake was inside of his father’s room, still untouched since his departure.
His favorite rifle hung up front-and-center on the wall, fastened firmly and glistening, still showing the labor of his love. Random armaments adorned the rest of the racks he installed on his walls, everything from various armors for different situations, knives, pistols and even a few relics of a time before energy weapons that used gunpowder and bullets. Back, buried beneath the nozzle of a shotgun was a photo, pinned to the wall of Drake when he was younger—a lot younger—with his father posing behind him wearing a grin with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It was almost too much for him to bear. He hadn’t been in his father’s room ever, now he was standing there. The gulf between them wasn’t that of personal decisions or friction but the difference between life and death itself.
“Captain, Dray,” Bec’s voice broke through his stupor, “we’re gonna need you up here, I think.”
They were somewhere in the DMZ, which meant that there was always a chance of running into some Gra’al. The Trystero wasn’t exactly an unknown entity for most of the Gra’al by the DMZ. If that was a good thing or a bad thing depended on who had spotted them. Sitting there, staring at his father’s overwhelming arsenal it was difficult not to admit that he had missed the excitement and adventure and felt a sense of longing for some action again, if only to feel closer to his father in some strange way. With his heart pumping he ran towards the cockpit, flying up the stairs two-by-two before stumbling in and his heart stopping.
There before them—within at least one hundred meters—was the object. The object from the news, the long, slim cylinder with the wild tentacles looking like they’d get destroyed by the FTL plume shooting out from behind. After a long moment he took a deep breath, a lone tear streaming down his eye while a torrent of emotions overcame him. It was beyond description and there was a sense among the cockpit that none of them knew what to do or say.
“Cap?” Bec asked, almost in a whisper.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”
“Should we hail them?” Gentar asked.
“Might as well try. Bec, do it.”
“Okay,” she said. “Now what?”
“I don’t know.”
“We hope,” said Drake.
“Hope what?” Bec asked.
The four of them fell silent. Gentar sat in the co-pilot’s chair, the Captain resting her arm up against the overhead dash and leaned against Bec’s chair like normal and Drake was down on his knees, staring at the object. It seemed like it was pulsating with an unseen energy, an undulating sense of horror overcoming him.
“That nothing answers.”
“Let’s go,” Gentar said. “I don’t want to be this close if the answer isn’t favorable.”
“Yeah,” the Captain said. “I think that’s the best call.”
“Um,” Bec said, throwing her hands up. “I can’t move.”
“What?” Drake asked.
“I can’t move. The engines are working, nothing is wrong, but I can’t move the ship.”
“Stop it,” Drake said. “This isn’t a time to joke around like this.”
“I’m not joking, Dray. We’re stuck.”
“Oh,” he said. He flicked the torch off, dropping it while he rushed to his side. “It’s okay, it’s the concussion from yesterday still.”
“I just... I don’t know,” he said.
An alarm rang out overhead, the sound piercing Drake’s sensitive ears while Gentar did his best to shield him. Tuck ran by and Gentar reached out for him, stopping the man in place while he looked concerned.
“What’s going on?”
“Krakthu,” he said.
“Oh no,” Drake said. “It’s not alone.”
“H-how did you know?” Tuck asked. “There’s a whole family of them.”
“Drake Rose,” Gentar turned to him. “We need to get you to safety.”
“They’re here for the container.”
“How do you know that?”
There was no plausible answer, just a sense of certainty that bubbled inside of the dread.
3 The Captain
“This is a mistake,” Gentar said, standing before her with a massive spanner in-hand.
“So it’s my mistake to make,” she said, fastening her encounter suit while staring at her reflection in the helmet’s visor that hung from its hook in the locker. “I can’t let someone else take this risk. This is on me.”
“It’s unnecessary. We should leave it be.”
“We can’t,” she said. “We’re stuck. We can’t get away from it, remember?”
“Let me try to overdrive the engines some more,” he said. “Give me a chance.”
“You work on that, I’ll see what I can find.”
“I don’t like it. Let me go with you.”
“I’ll be okay, Gentar. We need you here in case something goes wrong. You’ve seen how those two work together. They need some sort of adult around or they’ll kill each other.”
“I’m not worried about them.”
“I know, but please let me do this. We can’t risk anyone else’s life. I can’t risk anyone else’s life. If I’m not willing to take the risks on my own what kind of captain am I?”
“You’re smarter than this, Captain Vasquez.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not.”
She blinked a few times before picking up the helmet and clicking it into place on her shoulders, the hiss of the rebreather coming online while the internal readouts pulsed into life on the periphery of the visor. Everything was fine. They had gotten well within reach of the object; she was planning to jump over and explore around the outside to see if she could find a hatch or anything that could give her some idea of how to get their ship away from the damned thing.
“I’ll be okay, be down here and ready for anything, all right?”
“I can do that.”
“... and don’t let Drake do anything crazy, okay?”
“I’ll do my best, Captain Vasquez.”
“Please, can you call me Valencia or something? I’d rather not die knowing only formalities.”
“I’d rather you don’t plan on dying.”
“Thanks, Gentar,” she said, slightly warm at the idea that this former stranger had grown so close to the rest of the crew in such a short amount of time. They had forged their relationships in fire. “Maybe this time you can save me from a certain death, right?”
With a smile she knew he couldn’t see (or understand) she fastened a torch, breaching hatchet and a pistol to her belt, not knowing what to expect. With a deep breath she stepped into the airlock hatch, the inside door zipping shut behind her, Gentar standing on the other side with his spanner in hand watching while she clicked the tether to her waist and slammed her gloved-hand onto the controls, cycling the outside door.
She had lived most of her life in enclosed places, but those encounter suits always made her claustrophobic. Perhaps it was the fact that while out in the vacuum of space, there was the distinct absence of sound, only the sounds in her suit of the air pump, her own breath and whatever chatter came across the comms that added to the claustrophobia. There was no freedom in the expanse while trapped inside of a bulky suit keeping her from freezing and asphyxiating.
The object floated now a ship’s length away from the Trystero. The FTL plume on the ship was at full blast, which made no sense considering the ship’s stationary orbit that had also jammed the Trys up. Valencia suppressed the overwhelming sense of dread while she kicked off her ship towards the object. Her body was like a rocket propelling silently through space, cutting through the nothing, hurtling towards the unknown. The closer she got, the more difficult it was for her to control her breathing, even though the readouts told her that nothing was wrong with her suit’s rebreather. This sort of anxiety was unlike anything she’d known before, of course, no one had ever done anything as foolish as what she was doing, at least not in a very long time. Humanity had a history of diving headfirst into the unknown and was never kind towards those first few explorers and their leaps of faith. She had to hope she’d be different.
With a tug on the tether, she kicked her feet out in front of her, slowing down the unwinding line while the ship was within a few arm lengths. Was it a ship? It had to be, there was no other explanation for something with an FTL plume like it had. This is what she had to convince herself of: this was a ship like any other, it wasn’t answering any hails and neither the Terrans nor Gra’al had laid claim to it, which meant it could very well be just experimental tech from either that wasn’t ready for a big public reveal just yet.
“I’m within reach,” she called over the crackling comm.
“Be careful, Cap,” Bec’s voice broke in and out, littered with static.
“Making contact in 3...2...1,” she said, watching while her feet were ready to contact the hull of the ship. Valencia closed her eyes and braced for what should be a soft contact only for that sensation to not happen, instead she kept moving, a sudden weight and pressure overtaking her.
Her eyes darted open and her suit’s alarms were going berserk. Her waist had disappeared into the side of the ship and was sinking quickly into the object, the slight pressure and weight from the inside feeling like she had dove into water. Her hips sunk down into it, the tether snapping at the point of contact and sending the line adrift into space. Her body twitched while she tried to reach out and catch it, only to find herself unable to spin in time, her motion delayed. The horror overcame her, and she screamed out while her body sunk deeper and deeper into the side of the object before just her head was protruding, her arms unable to overcome the pull from inside of the ship.
“Don’t come for me!” she blurted out before the darkness consumed her, unsure if the plea had made it back to her ship or not. In her panic she jerked her head, only for it to respond sluggishly. Everything around her was a swirling darkness, unlike space, there were no stars, no lights or anything to ground her.
She screamed into the abyss.
The lone blip of the word “connecting” on her helmet was her sole companion while her body sunk deeper like she was inside of the depths of an ocean. After sinking for what felt like an hour, her body hit something hard and stopped in place.
The pressure from the surrounding water dissipated slowly, a blinding light hazily penetrating through the dark fluid before the tug of a current pulled her towards the light. She was speeding up and reaching out for something—anything—to grab hold of, only for there to be nothing but the disintegrating fluid. Her body came to a screeching halt in front of the warm, bright light, the fluid keeping her from lurching forward too quickly before the pressure eased completely and left her light-headed.
She reached up and touched her helmet, everything flowing naturally like the force of gravity that Terrans had known their whole existence. Her weight returned to her and the slight gravity sent her reeling down to her knees. The light hung overhead without a sound and her internal systems kicked back on in a hurry. The readouts were all over the place, fluctuating between heat and freezing, vacuum and pressure and breathable air and toxicity before a figure stepped forward, its shadowy outline breaking up the intense light.
It was the figure of a woman who came closer, casting her shadow over Valencia’s face while tears rolled down her cheeks. The light seemed to be not just all around her, but encompassing her. When the hand reached out through the light for her a power compelled her to reach out and take that hand with her own.
“You’ll be okay,” a soft, saccharine voice said, muffled by her helmet.
“You can take that off now. You’re safe.”
“I don’t understand,” the Captain said.
“Here,” the woman said, reaching out with both hands and taking a grip on her helmet. A rush of air came while Valencia held her breath, eyes bulging at the woman removing her helmet. “It’s okay, you can breathe easy.”
The woman’s eyes emerged from the light and shadow, piercing green and carrying a warmth to them that felt reassuring, like she had known those eyes her whole life. Quelling her urge to snatch the helmet back Valencia took a leap of faith, exhaling heavily before letting the air flow back in, expecting the clutches of space’s vacuum to deny her life only for her lungs to fill up with oxygen.
“I don’t understand,” she said, gasping for air.
“It’s okay,” the voice reassured her. “You’re safe here.”
“I don’t even know where I am. Where is here?”
“You are here.”
“Is this a ship?”
“Come with me,” she said, the figure walking back to the light, motioning for her to follow her into the light. Valencia picked herself up, her helmet fastened to the back of her suit and trudged forward, towards the light and the strange, waifish, effervescent figure of pure energy.
In a flash of bright light Valencia found herself surrounded by a jungle, a crackling campfire delicately danced up ahead, smoke billowing out in thin wisps into the crisp evening air.
“Hello?” she called out furtively, still unsure of what had happened.
“Oh thank God,” a man’s voice said, a figure emerging from the trees with arms full of sticks of varying lengths and widths. “Are you here to rescue us?”
“What?” she asked.
“Please, tell us that Jordache sent you,” he said, his complexion pale and waxy, his brown hair a mess and stubble lining his face.
“Did Jordache send someone?” a female voice trailed behind him, the figure emerging with the piercing green eyes that Valencia recognized.
“It’s you,” she said.
“So you are from Mr. Jordache,” the man said. “That was fast.”
“No, I mean,” Valencia said, searching for the right words. “Her. You were the one that told me to come here.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said, uneasily. “I’ve been here with Rian gathering food for dinner.”
“I don’t understand,” Valencia said. “You took my helmet off, you...”
“Damnit,” the man swore, throwing down the wood. “Don’t tell me you got pulled into this thing, too?”
“I guess so, it just sort of... hung in the air in front of us? Our ship—”
“—Was frozen in place,” the woman said. “While the ship’s FTL plume was on full blast, right?”
“Yes, that,” she said.
“That’s what happened to us,” the woman said. “The three of us ended up over here and are, well, stuck, I guess.”
“So Jordache didn’t send you?” the man asked.
“No, well, yes. Sort of. I met with him and he hired my crew to head out to Thuul and find his cargo.”
“Fuck his cargo,” the man spat. “What about us?”
“He told me that Terran officials were looking for you, that the ship was found floating abandoned, with the cargo jettisoned.”
“So what are you here for?” the woman asked.
“He sent us for the cargo, that’s it. Wait, I thought you said there were three of you?”
“Yeah, Bran is out hunting,” Rian said. “It’s hard to keep him focused.”
“He’s hunting on... a ship? We’re still on the ship, right? Or whatever that object is.”
“I guess so,” Rian said, throwing his hands up. “I can’t tell anymore, this all feels pretty real to me. Maybe it was a portal of some sort.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “At least that’s what I’ve been theorizing.”
“Then it’s not Terran or Gra’al?”
“No,” she said. “At least I don’t think so. I’m sorry, I’m Emma. This is Rian, my pilot and Bran is out there somewhere, he’ll be along soon I suppose.”
“I’m Valencia,” the Captain said. “I guess it’s nice to meet you. How’d the three of you end up here, again?”
“I didn’t want her to go alone,” said Rian. “And Bran is the muscle of our crew, so obviously he felt like he had to come along. So here we are.”
“You said you saw me and I led you here?” Emma asked.
“I guess it was you. It was your eyes and your voice...”
“Crazy,” she said. “It was my mother’s voice that pulled us in here, after the water had gone away, I mean.”
“I guess that makes more sense than you appearing to me. I’ve never met you before, never even seen you. I don’t think.”
“Are you telling me that Jordache didn’t brief you on us at all? Not even in case you found us?” Rian asked, incredulous.
“I swear, if we get out of here I’m going to find him and wring his neck!”
“He’s a nervous guy,” Valencia said. “I’m sure he’d just curl up in a ball.”
“That snake,” he said, stomping off. “That fucking snake!”
“Leave him be,” Emma said. “He gets like this sometimes. I’m not sure what to do about it other than let him go and cool off. I’m sure he’ll go find Bran and they’ll come back with more than just these berries I found.”
“Do you have any water? I’m not sure why, but I’m thirsty. Something about floating in that water.”
“Oh, right, come sit down, there’s a spring just beyond those trees and we’ve been collecting supplies.”
“Is it for real?”
“Sure seems like it. I’ve run a few scans on it and it’s H2O, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“And it just exists here, on this ship?”
“Everything does. I’m not sure that we’re on the ship anymore or if we’re on a planet or what. This place does seem to be a perfect fit for human life, no matter what. This could just be one big Terran experiment.”
“Maybe,” Valencia said. “Maybe not. I don’t know yet.”
She sat down on a log next to Emma, a thin, softly pale figure with short blonde hair that fell just beneath her chin, a square carved out around her face with her bangs to stress her green eyes. The woman handed her a full water pack and Valencia thirstily took it, gulping down the water and confirming that it was as real as she could imagine it to be.
“There’s nothing imaginary about that,” she said.
“How long have you been here?”
“Just a few hours now,” Emma said. “We’ve yet to spend a night here, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t know what this place is like at night. I just hope it doesn’t get too cold or rain or anything.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“What do you mean?”
“Jordache told me they recovered your ship over two weeks ago without you aboard.”
“Two weeks?” Emma asked. “That can’t be right, it’s just been a few hours since we got here.”
“No, they recovered the ship and there was no sign of you or the cargo. They believe you jettisoned the cargo and it crashed into the atmosphere on Thuul.”
“It can’t be...”
“I’m sorry, but it really has been two weeks, at least. You’ve probably been here longer.”
Both women sat silently, staring at the fire. Emma kicked at a small stick with her boot, the flames dancing while emanating warmth while her words hung in the air heavily between them. Time was not moving normally wherever they were, or somebody or something was playing tricks on their minds.
“I want to go back to my ship,” Emma whispered.
“Me too,” Valencia replied. “I also hope that my crew knows better than to come after me. I told them not to, but...”
“They never listen, do they?”
“No,” she replied. “They really don’t.”
“We should find some shelter, it’s getting dark.”
“Shouldn’t we try to find a way out?”
“There isn’t one,” she said. “At least not that we’ve seen.”
“You mean this is really a jungle?”
“This is really a jungle, as much as that is really fire and that is really water.”
“So we’re stuck?”
4 The Artist
Drake drooped down onto his bed, eyes fixed at the in-progress painting staring back at him. It was an assignment from his class, something about capturing the essence of life, whatever that meant. For Drake, it meant a Gra’al cruiser with its living, breathing walls that the Terran investigators that were debriefing him on the whole Bruce affair found very interesting.
None of them had any real idea of what it meant, the actual application or how any of it looked. The Captain had helped to ensure that they didn’t grill him too hard, sitting in on his sessions that felt more like an interrogation than an interview, pulling him out when he was getting overwhelmed. Drake always wanted to assert his independence and that he was a valued member of the crew, yet was fine with letting her take the wheel on that whole thing. Now she needed him and here he was, frozen in place and unsure of how to act.
“Fuck this,” he said, throwing his brush down in the corner and stomping out of his room into the kitchen. Gentar sat at his chair, gently peeling away at pouches of rations. He had found a favorite in the grape-flavored sludge, although when Bec had dropped a sizable portion of her cut from their last job on a cluster of green grapes for him to try he had scoffed at the small, oblong fruit. To say that he found them unfavorable would be an understatement; the texture of the skin, the mushiness of the inside and the occasional seed that got lodged in his throat repulsed him. Instead, he was happy with the synthetic, sugary blend from the synthesizers, or even the bulk-sized packages from one of the supply shops on Biztsoft.
“Drake Rose,” he said in between gulps. “I hope you’re not planning anything rash.”
“No,” he replied. It was the truth, although not the full truth, considering he didn’t know what he wanted to do yet. Gentar knew him too well already. “I just... the Captain wouldn’t let any of us get sucked into a strange alien ship and not come after us.”
“You heard her last transmission.”
“It was a garbled mess! You can’t tell what she was saying.”
“She told us not to come after her, Dray,” Bec interrupted, wiping the sweat from her brow. Gentar and Bec had been working overtime trying to overdrive the engines to break free from whatever that thing was in front of them, it proved to be more complicated than just turning a few dials and rerouting some fuel.
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“It sure sounded that way to me, how about you, Gentar?”
“I’m not leaving her.”
“Then, by all means, Dray, suit up and jump over and get swallowed up by that thing. I’m sure she’ll give you the beating you deserve for it.”
“If either of you survive,” Gentar added grimly.
“So what do we do, then? Just escape from this thing and what? Leave? Finish the job?”
“That’s what the Cap would want.”
“I agree,” Gentar said. “Perhaps this is all related, somehow.”
“Did you ever hear back from Vetru?” Drake asked.
“No, not yet,” he said. “Our transmissions haven’t been the same since that thing.”
“I don’t like this,” Drake said. “I don’t like it one bit.”
“Captain Vasquez put me in charge before she left,” Gentar said. “We’re already in a high orbit around Thuul with the object, investigating further won’t hurt anything.”
“If we can’t move the ship, how’re we gonna get down there, anyway?”
“We’ve done some work on the pods, it should seat two of us just fine. It might be cramped, but it will do,” Gentar said.
“What about breaking atmo? I thought those were one-and-dones?”
“That’s what we’ve been working on, Dray.”
“What about getting our ship away from that thing, I thought that was what you were doing?”
“We’ve tried, Drake Rose. Whatever it is, there is some force at play that has rendered our engines insufficient in breaking free.”
“So why will the pods work?”
“After the initial blast,” Bec explained, “the pod can glide down until it breaks into the atmosphere and then there should be enough time for the retro thrusters to turn on and make sure that Gentar and yourself don’t burn up on entry.”
“Wait, I’m going with him? I thought I was staying with the ship?”
“That’s my job, squirt,” Bec said. “I’m the best person for the job if anything comes up and we all know it.”
“So we’re going down there? How will we know where to look? Isn’t it just a water planet?”
“We’ve done surface scans,” Gentar said. “Come, let’s go up to the cockpit and look through the plans.”
“You made a plan without me?”
“You haven’t exactly been spending time with us after the Captain left,” Bec said.
Drake stomped up to the cockpit and slid into his usual chair behind the co-pilot’s seat, spinning it towards the panels on the wall. The other two followed shortly after, Gentar punching in a few commands and pulling up a hologram of the planet’s surface.
“We’ve located a few floating bodies that we’ve deemed safe.”
“Bodies?” he asked.
“Like, big floating heaps of junk and scrap,” Bec said.
“And they’re stable?”
“Our readings tell us one of the larger ones right here should be,” Gentar said, pointing to a blob on the projection.
“It’s also pretty close to the ping from the container,” said Bec. “Cool, right? This should be a simple job, get in, get out.”
“It’ll be tight, what with the gear we’ll need and all,” Gentar said.
“Yes, outside of our suits I’ve attached a magnetic winch to the shuttle and we’ll need depth charges—”
“—yes, depth charges in case it’s lodged in with some debris.”
“Exactly how much stuff is under the water on this planet, anyway?”
“It’s impossible to know, millions lost their lives in the Battle of Thuul, along with thousands of ships.”
“Have we scanned for life?”
“It’s a graveyard, Dray,” Bec said. “What life is there outside of whatever wildlife there is?”
“Surely someone survived. Plus, yeah, aren’t there going to be some crazy creatures? Didn’t the Gra’al explore this planet before? It’s right there.”
“The minerals found there are all common,” Gentar explained. “Underwater mining and extraction was more costly than mining the asteroids in the system, which are still abundant.”
“So this planet was just left to itself, even after the battle?”
“It’s a sacred place,” Gentar explained.
“Yeah, and you guys really take that pretty seriously,” Drake said sarcastically.
“I’m very lucky the Elders didn’t see fit to exile me for my part in the desecration of Lidar.”
“Everyone knew it was Giga.”
“The Elders didn’t see it that way.”
“The Elders didn’t do shit,” Drake said. “They just stood there and watched.”
“They’re neutral, always.”
“Alright, guys,” Bec interrupted, “I know we all enjoy talking about Lidar and all, but it’s daybreak down in the landing region and you want as much daylight as possible so we can get that container and try to figure out what to do next. Hopefully, you come back and the Captain is here, safe and sound, then we get the hell out of here.”
“We hope,” Drake said.
A voice in the back of his mind still nagged at him, calling out to him to go after the Captain and find her. Her voice from her last transmission haunted him; broken up, static-filled and panic-stricken, most likely telling them not to come after her, but she could also plead with them to come after her. Gentar and Bec refused to think of the latter, instead merely the former, but they hadn’t just lost a parent and Drake was afraid of losing someone else important to him.
To say that the pod was a tight fit would be generous: the two of them, the depth charges, the rest of their gear and supplies made it difficult to breathe, never mind move. Every available surface brimmed with gear, if there was a surface there was g strapped to it. Even getting out of their chairs would require unhitching and moving the surrounding crates.
Gentar’s broad shoulders were pressing against the walls of the pod on one side, his other shoulder protruding into Drake’s space, him doing his best to not say anything about it.
“Are you sure this thing is gonna let us escape?” Drake asked in relation to the ship in front of them.
“As long as the initial launch is properly aimed and you don’t need to use your thrusters, you’re good to go,” Bec said over the comm.
“And if we need them?” Drake.
“Just, erm, don’t?”
“Great,” Drake said.
“Don’t worry, we’ve calculated it multiple times now, it should be a straight shot to break into Thuul’s atmosphere and then we can control our descent. The angle might be a bit severe but—”
“—we’ll be fine, Drake Rose. Trust me.”
“Alright, guys, you’ll be out of comm range on there so—”
“Wait, we can’t call up to the ship? What if something happens?”
“The object won’t let us communicate outside of the ship,” Gentar said. “Our best guess is that we won’t be able to call back.”
“So don’t mess this up, Dray.”
“Great,” he murmured. “Just great. What else haven’t you told me?”
“Just the giant sea monsters, the lack of drinking water, the—”
“That’s enough, Becca,” Gentar said. “No use in scaring him any further.”
“Fine, fine. Prepare for launch, then.”
“So there are no giant sea monsters?”
“No,” Gentar said, “there most certainly are, we just need to avoid them. They’re mostly nocturnal.”
Drake swallowed hard, trying not to show the fear that had just washed over him, trailed by the shame. How could he expect to save the Captain from the unknown on his own if going to a known planet with Gentar had him feeling this torn up? Bec counted them down while Gentar pointed them in the right direction, running his final checks and the subtle push of the jets while they disconnected from the Trystero and crawled by the object.
With bated breath they passed by the ship that the Captain had disappeared into, a chill running throughout Drake’s body while he stared in awe at it. The ship was unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced; it had a strange emotional impact on him. The FTL plume flickered overhead while the flowing tendrils felt like they were reaching out to him directly.
“Do you feel that?” Drake asked.
“Yes,” Gentar replied. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
“I’m just glad it isn’t just me.”
“We’re almost by it. Now we need to worry about entry.”
“I thought we were fine?”
“The angle is a little off, we didn’t account for the interference from the ship. This might be a bit rocky.”
“Brace yourself, Drake Rose. I will try to right us on entry.”
The alien ship was firmly behind them, although the overwhelming sense of dread remained like a stain on his mind. The small vessel rocked while it began its entry into Thuul’s atmosphere. As they sped up the flames engulfed the nose of the ship, heating the interior while the little pod did its best to adjust to the situation and failing miserably. Drake’s head and shoulders pressed tightly to the back of his chair, almost like he was flattening out by the force of their entry. Gentar grunted to himself next to him while he worked at adjusting their angle, finally able to fire the retro thrusters outside of the influence of the object.
Drake couldn’t help but close his eyes while he grits his teeth, them chattering against each other, the ship in free fall. Entry on the Trystero was always cleaner than this, even with the wild Becca behind the controls testing the limits of not just the ship, but everyone else on the ship with her.
A large bump sent the ship reeling, a pocket of air or a storm that sent klaxons blaring throughout the small cabin. Gentar cursed under his breath while still clutching desperately at the controls not just trying to correct the angle of their descent but also slow the ship down to save them from splattering into the ocean.
His fingers were gripping the armrests of his chair and his arms were heavy. The sheer strength—not just physical, but of will—of Gentar to be steering the ship struck Drake as a failing on his own part. Steering them in for a safe landing wasn’t a part of the initial design, just last-ditch survival pods and yet Gentar muscled away at the controls, even with his bad shoulder.
“Brace yourselffff,” Gentar slurred, the controls violently shaking in his hands. He was trying to steer them and slow them down but there wasn’t enough time, Drake could see the ocean surface rapidly approaching and wasn’t sure what else he could do beyond keep his death grip on the chair and make sure his tongue wasn’t anywhere near his teeth. The pod’s impact with the water sent his body flying towards the front of the ship, his harness holding him in place as best it could while the pod penetrated into the water and sank, bubbles swirling around before sucking them back up towards the surface violently, once again tugging them in a different direction.
They hung there for a while, both of them regaining their senses before the pod popped up to the water’s surface and slammed down onto its side. Drake’s head snapped back and left him buzzing, although he was still aware of his surroundings well enough. The clicking of Gentar’s harness echoed through his mind before he felt a helmet slip over his head.
“We may need these,” he said. “We missed the landing pad and might take on water.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Drake said, freeing himself from his own harness. “Is your shoulder okay?”
“So where are we?” Drake asked. “How do we get out of this thing?”
“I just barely missed the mass that we were targeting; it should be a few kilometers away. We can most likely swim for it and get acclimated there.”
“I’m glad you were able to steer us at least near it. That was intense. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
“I went wide intentionally.”
“Yes, I saw that we were going too fast to make a safe landing, so I chose a water landing instead.”
“You’re really something, you know that?”
“I’m not sure I know that idiom.”
“I’m just glad you’re here, I guess. So what now?”
“Pop the hatch and prepare for the ship to flood.”
“Won’t it sink?”
“I’ll grab the tether and try to get to the mass before it sinks too far.”
“Okay, I think I get that. Will you need help?”
“Just get to the platform. One less thing for me to worry about.”
“I can do that, I think.”
Drake braced himself against the chair while Gentar went to the door and fiddled with the controls. The door hissed and opened, water streaming in before getting stuck. Gentar braced himself against the door and pushed, grunting and bucking before more and more water poured into the cabin. Drake quickly found himself overcome by water and realized he was wearing 40 lbs of gear and this wouldn’t be an easy swim.
“Go, go now!” Gentar cried, holding the door open with his broad shoulders.
Drake rushed towards the door, squeezing in between the door and Gentar, fighting against the on-coming water and its force. Gentar’s mighty hand pushed him forward, out into the water. The suction from the pod was trying to pull him back in, but Gentar hefted himself out of the small vessel and let the door slam shut behind him, only the somewhat lesser pull of the sinking ship tugging at them. Gentar motioned for him to swim towards the floating mass while he himself pulled at the winch, freeing the hook before he began swimming.
The water was dark, only bits of light streaming down from the surface. The idea of giant sea monsters propelled him to burn towards the floating mass to get away from the possibility of being pulled down into the unknown by some sort of beast.
Drake swam and swam, his arms and legs pumping rapidly before he could reach out and grasp at the mass, jagged metal spars sticking out and providing somewhat of a grounding effect. He pulled himself up, rung-by-rung before his head popped out of the surface, only to find a deeply tanned man with leathery skin staring back at him, the whites of his eyes providing a stark contrast, his hand stretched out towards him.
“I’ll be damned,” he said, Drake grabbing a hold of his hand and clenching around his grip.
“I have a friend,” Drake spoke through the external speaker. “He’s trying to—”
Gentar’s bulky body popped up next to him, his hand slamming against the side of metal island along with the winch hook, securing it on an outcropping of metal. Gentar’s other arm wrapped around Drake’s waist and helped propel him out of the water and up onto the island with the help of the man, Drake falling onto his back and staring up into the sky while he collected himself, hearing Gentar slosh up on his own.
“Shit, is that a Gra’al?” the man asked. “I thought you didn’t come down here?”
“He’s with me,” Drake said, pulling his helmet off. “He’s a part of our crew.”
“They think this place is haunted or something, don’t you?”
“This is a sacred place,” Gentar said, pulling himself up to his feet and removing his own helmet. “I need to winch up our ship. Is there somewhere secure I can hook onto?”
“We have a crane up ahead,” the man said, his hair a light gray ring around a bald top and his face scraggly with stubble, although not with a full beard.
“There are more of you?” Gentar asked.
“Yep, mostly Terrans, few of your kind, too.”
“We’re all in this together, friend,” he said. “As long as that thing’s still up there. Is it?”
“You mean the long ship with the tendrils and the flickering plume?” Drake asked.
“That’s the one. Been there for as long as we have, it’s kept us grounded. Any ship that tried to come for us hasn’t made it, our comms don’t work for shit and anything we’ve got working on here can’t break atmo.”
“Wait, you’ve been here since the Battle of Thuul?” Gentar asked.
“And that thing has? How come no one noticed it before?” Drake asked.
“I don’t know, something happened, some sort of pulse that sent us all crashing down to the surface.”
“Are you telling me that we’re stuck here?”
“Stuck here?” the man asked. “I suppose so, although, are you telling me you came here on purpose?”
“We did,” Gentar said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “My name is Tuck, welcome to Dredge, the floating city of Thuul. Looks like you’re home.”
5 The Captain
Valencia picked herself up from the ground, her footing still sloppy after the quake. They had all scrambled for safety away from the trees in case they fell, leaving them in the clearing. Rian had fallen on Emma in some display of protection that seemed to annoy her more than impress her, as shown by her pushing him off during the quake.
“Everyone okay?” Valencia asked.
“I’m fine,” Emma responded. “Rian, go look for Bran and make sure a tree or a rock didn’t fall on him.”
“I’m fine, too,” he grumbled. “Not that anyone’s asking about me or anything.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Emma said. “But we haven’t heard from Bran yet. Please?”
“Fine,” he said. “I’m off. Maybe a tree will fall on me and no one will rescue me or even care.”
They both silently picked up the camp while Rian stomped off, loudly crashing through the brush in some sort of overt display of his bruised ego. Emma couldn’t help but burst out laughing, it proving infectious and Valencia following suit while she kicked the rocks around the fire back into place.
“He always like that?” she asked.
“It’s exhausting,” Emma responded. “I’ve done absolutely nothing to warrant or encourage this behavior, either.”
“It’s always the way.”
“You’re a captain too, huh?”
“Yep. I know your pain, well, not with my current crew, I ditched the whole troubled, drunk pilot trying to prove himself to me for a better model.”
“Yeah? I’m considering it when we get back—if we get back, that is.”
“We’ll get out of here eventually,” Valencia said. “As soon as we figure out where ‘here’ is, I guess.”
“If we do, you’ll have to give us a ride, I guess. It sounds like my ship isn’t out there anymore.”
“Didn’t even know it was yours. I was under the impression it was Jordache’s.”
“That slimeball,” she said. “That’s my ship, and it sounds like he’s taken it as collateral.”
“He explicitly said it was his, I think. Don’t worry, we’ll help you out.”
“Thanks. You know, I’d tell you not to take a job from that scuzzbag but I’m pretty sure I’m too late.”
“Definitely too late. Oh well. We’ll figure this thing out, as long as there aren’t too many quakes.”
“That’s the fifth one, now,” Emma said.
“The fifth one? That’s a lot for two weeks.”
“Or one day.”
“Oh, right, two weeks out there. Uh, shit, I wonder how much time has elapsed since I came here.”
“I don’t really know,” Emma said. “But the quakes seem to align with arrivals. One when Rian showed up, another when Bran did. Another for what I guess was your ship, then for you... not sure what that last one was.”
“How quickly were the appearances after the quakes?”
“Almost instantaneously. I thought I was going crazy when no one showed up in the quake before you, but then you showed up after a quake and it seems like my theory is mostly right. Although, this one...”
“I told my crew to finish the mission before I ended up here, maybe they left?”
“If your crew actually listened to you and left you here, then I need to learn from you, because these two idiots refuse to take an order.”
“Or another ship has shown up and maybe we’ll have visitors.”
“Look what I dragged up,” Rian interrupted. “Don’t anyone help us, or anything.”
“Oh Bran,” Emma said, turning to see Rian helping a bulky, dusky-skinned man with raven black hair that was limping besides the much smaller man with his fogged-over glasses.
“I’m fine,” Bran said. “Just turned my ankle is all.”
“That’s good,” Emma said. “Here, put him down over here and I’ll wrap it with, erm...”
“Here.” Valencia tugged a pouch off from her belt and handed it over. “It’s just a small med pack but should have a wrap and some painkillers.”
“Thanks,” he said, staring up at her. “You the quake-bringer?”
“One of ’em,” she said. “I’m Captain Valencia Vasquez of the Trystero.”
“You here to find us?”
“Sort of, it’s a long story.”
He merely grunted in reply while Emma wrapped up his wound and pricked him with the small needle full of painkillers. Rian was pacing around overhead before he stopped and stared up into the sky.
“Doesn’t look like there’s another arrival. I think we need to get out of this clearing.”
“Did you find anything out there, Bran?” Emma asked.
“Nothing, really. I saw a rock outcropping we could use for shelter, there are some tracks around, but I didn’t see much of anything out there, though.”
“So no food, then?” Rian asked.
“I’ve collected some berries,” Emma said. “I’m not sure if they’re good or not, but if the water’s good, there’s a chance the other food will at least not kill us...”
“Try to remember that we’re inside of a ship,” Valencia said. “I’m still not sure that any of this is real.”
“What do you mean by real?” Rian asked. “This all seems pretty fucking real to me.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know. We all went through the same thing. Some sort of portal or something? Right?”
“I don’t know,” Bran replied.
“You should be able to tell, I mean...” Rian started.
“Don’t finish that sentence, friend,” Bran said, agitated.
“Okay, so, we don’t really know if this was some sort of portal or a simulation on that ship,” Valencia said.
“Or if this is the interior of the ship,” Emma added.
“Like, it’s able to change its mass and density or whatever?” Valencia asked.
“Wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, you said that two weeks had elapsed and we’ve only experienced one day inside of here,” Emma said.
“I don’t know what’s really going on,” Rian said. “I just think we shouldn’t be out in the open like this.”
“Yeah, well, a tree didn’t fall on you other there, Rian,” Bran said, standing up and testing his ankle. “There’s that rock outcropping if you really want some shelter. It doesn’t quite look like rain to me, but this isn’t home, either. At least I don’t think.”
“This seems to be where new arrivals show up,” Emma said. “So I don’t want to go far, but I’m fine with setting up camp a bit inwards in case of a storm.”
“I guess it’s decided,” Valencia said. “I say leave the fire here, just in case someone shows up, though.”
“That’s fine,” Bran said. “It was already burning when we arrived. We had nothing to do with that fire.”
There was a sense of unease that came over Valencia being away from that initial fire. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, just that it was wrong to move away from the fire, although the fire itself made her uncomfortable knowing that they hadn’t made it. Something about the whole situation felt even more uncomfortable and strange than the complicated disposition of disappearing into a strange ship in the middle of space and waking up by a campfire should.
They all seemed nice enough, but she was doubting everything around her, including the crew of the other ship. They silently worked together laying down a floor of brush while Rian gathered wood for a new fire. Bran and Emma worked well together, in quiet concert with each other while Rian always made his presence known through his grunting and cursing just out of reach. He reminded her a lot of the original pilot of the Trystero; brash, loud and cocky, always full of himself and never able to back it up. She couldn’t speak to Rian’s level of control while inebriated just yet, considering there wasn’t any booze around, still the hunch was there that his problems were more than he projected.
Bran sat on a rock by the perimeter of their small cave and stared out at the sky while Emma worked on building the new fire with whatever wood Rian had been bringing back, him stopping in every few moments to deposit a few sticks before heading back out to repeat the process over again.
“I’m starting to wonder if we’re all dead,” Bran said.
“What do you mean?” Valencia asked.
“We’re here and this is beautiful in a way, there’s just this strange feeling that there’s no life here, or that this is a place where things come to die.”
“That’s a morbid thought.”
“That’s Bran for you,” Emma said. “He’s our resident philosopher.”
“I’m not sure what makes you think we’re dead,” Valencia said.
“There were signs of life all over, but I didn’t find a damned thing. Tracks? Sure, plenty of those. Broken twigs and holes all over. No droppings or nests, though, no signs of anything tangible.”
“We’re inside of a ship, it’s probably some sort of simulation. I mean, you guys have been in here for weeks and haven’t felt the time move like that, dreams work a lot in the same way with the weird movement of time.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “In dreams it’s the time that elapses slower than the outside world, this is the inverse.”
“At least we know it isn’t a dream, then. It could still be a simulation,” Valencia said. She understood Bran’s statement about things not feeling right, which only intensified her nagging suspicion that this entire experience was happening while plugged into some sort of simulation and not fending for herself on some alien planet.
“You know what this reminds me of?” Emma asked.
“No, we don’t, Emma,” Bran said.
“That old fairytale again,” he said. “That’s our past, we left that far behind in the Exodus. Now we’re here and who knows what this is.”
“That sorta makes sense, though, doesn’t it?” Valencia asked. “Look around, this all looks a lot like the old references we have to Earth. Maybe whatever this alien thing was, it could scan your mind and create something that felt familiar to us? The gravity is fine, the air is breathable, the water is potable. What are the odds?”
“Pretty slim,” Bran said. “I still think we’re dead.”
“I’ve never met you before,” Valencia responded. “How would I meet you here, in this place at that campsite while looking for your cargo? That doesn’t add up to me.”
“Oh yeah, Bran, you’re real spiritual,” Rian said, tossing down a bundle of sticks onto the firepit and knocking over a small pile of stones that Emma had set up. She grumbled and set them back up while Valencia just watched this crew barely able to function together. It made her miss her crew, who weren’t perfect but also wouldn’t be behaving like this, either. Even if Drake had picked up some attitude, it’s understandable after losing his father like he did.
“Cut the shit, Rian,” Bran said.
“You think you’re some sort of spiritual guide now because a few hundred years ago the white man took your ancestor’s land? C’mon, wake up! We just gotta find a way outta here so I can punch Jordache in the damned face.”
“Rian, did you see any animals out there at all?” Emma asked, trying to diffuse the situation.
“Nothing. Not a single bird flying overhead or anything scurrying around. No alien slugs or six-legged pack mules. Nothing.”
“This should be enough wood,” Valencia said, forming the sticks into a cone around the larger logs. “We can roast some berries, at least, right?”
“Good idea,” Emma said, trying to stay upbeat in the face of her crew’s discomfort.
Just a few hours had passed since her arrival and the sun was setting, which meant that nightfall would arrive and who knows how much time had elapsed in reality. Sleeping for an entire eight hours could cause anywhere from weeks to months of lost time, a feeling that creeped through her and made her blood run cold.
The berries roasted, leaving a sweet aroma in their little campsite while the fire in the original arrival site still crackled off in the distance. The light from it was brighter than that of their own, although none of them said anything about it, they instead quietly sat around the fire savoring the little food there was while drinking from their water packs removed from their suits.
“I’m gonna turn in,” Rian said. “Tomorrow we find a way out of here. You hear that?”
“If we sleep we’re gonna lose more time in the real world,” Valencia said.
“I don’t have control over that, I can control this,” he said. “C’mon, Bran.”
“Sure, I suggest Ms. Emma does the same. Ms. Valencia, well...”
“I’ll be along. I just need time to think.”
The crew all burrowed themselves in towards the slanted rock face that provided cover from the sky. The threat of rain wasn’t on Valencia’s mind, there were no signs of that. Instead, she poked and prodded at the fire with a stick while the crew drifted off to sleep. Technically, if her math was correct, they hadn’t slept in weeks, even if their bodies had processed none of that. She looked back to see them all in various stages of rest only to feel the warmth of the fire disappear completely.
In an instant, the fire had gone from strong to non-existent and nothing she tried could stoke it back to life. There were no embers to stoke, even, just a dead firepit, the light from the other one still going strong even if it remained untended and unfed since her arrival.
None of the crew woke up at the lack of warmth, they slept soundly as if nothing had happened. Valencia crossed her arms and made for the other fire, stepping carefully through the brush back out to the clearing where she woke up. The flames danced, tendrils reaching for the sky, emitting an uneasy warmth that required no fuel. Once again, things felt wrong. Grabbing a stick nearby she dipped it into the flame, creating a makeshift torch that burned with the undying flame and began walking around, investigating for herself, which she should have done before. Trusting Emma and the crew wasn’t the question, instead it was that she trusted herself and her mind beyond anything else.
There had to be an answer somewhere to where they were and why time moves so strangely. Walking by the sleeping crew Bran groaned and rolled over, startling her only to see he was still fast asleep. Exhaustion had set in, but curiosity had given her the second wind that she needed to continue exploring the area. The sound of the creek was behind her, as was the crackling fire and the safety of the small cave. Brush crunched underfoot, the sound echoing slightly, distorting almost in the distance. She froze in place, carefully reaching her foot out to touch the ground, snapping a stick in half, the snap sounding entirely natural before bouncing back at her sounding tinny.
Pushing forward faster now the sounds all around her were distorting and modulating, almost like a glitch had occurred. She knew it was a simulation, there was no way that it could be anything else. Questions about the crew came to mind, if they were the real crew or approximations of them meant to keep her in place. Thousands of possibilities were running through her mind before a bright flood light blinded her, just like her arrival. Her feet were ankle-deep in water in the blink of an eye, a small current pulling her forward. She had left her helmet back at camp, her heart pounding while she turned around to head back only to find the light intense even from a different direction. With nowhere else to go she pushed forward, sloshing through the water that grew deeper and deeper towards the light. The torch had gone out in her hands; Valencia deposited the stick that made a clanging noise after splashing down into the water. Nothing made sense.
The water level was rising, almost to her knees now, and she had to find a way to get out of it and avoid drowning, fast. She kept pushing towards the light, the shimmering outline of something to the left catching her eye, her diverting towards it. The last time something caught her eye in this mess it was Emma, maybe it was her again.
“Emma?” she called. “Is that you?”
Her hand outstretched she reached for the glitch, her hand passing through what felt like a field of sorts, suddenly growing cold and heavy, just like when she first contacted the ship itself. If she went further, she could find herself in the cold vacuum of space without a helmet. Or worse. She pulled back but her hand wouldn’t budge.
“No! Let go of me!”
There was no reply, instead a tugging force on her arm pulling her in towards the glitch. The sound of electricity buzzed around her while her body went cold, passing through what could be a portal into the unknown, surrounded by complete, wet darkness. Her lungs filled with water almost instantly, her cries turning into bubbles before her. Forcing her eyes open she saw in front of her some sort of chamber, inside that chamber were four tubes, containing Emma, Rian, Bran and herself.
She turned to escape, but the cave door was no more, sealing her inside the chamber, mouth open in a scream struggling for air, fighting for life.
6 The Artist
The crew of the Trystero weren’t alone in neglecting to scan Thuul for life after the battle, nor were any ships escaping from the pull of the planet’s gravity thanks to the object the Captain had disappeared into, still, something felt off to Drake. There were people alive, in fact, there was a whole city built on the backs of the hulls from crashed ships. It was a strange, watery prison where Gra’al and Terran lived together, fighting to survive while being forgotten.
The fragile peace of Thuul came long before the ceasefire and the misadventures of the Trystero and Bruce. Still, how were these people marooned for so long, apparently by the object, with no one else noticing the object? What has changed? Drake knew there wouldn’t be simple answers, he slumped over against a part of a hull fashioned into a chair in front of a makeshift fire while Gentar stayed vigilant.
“Some mess we’ve found ourselves in, huh?” Drake broke the silence.
“There’s always a way, Drake Rose. We’ll find a way. For now, we should try to find what we came for.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. While the citizens of Dredge have been accommodating and secured our ship for us, we still have a job to do.”
“If we can’t get off this planet, then what’s the point?”
“To occupy our time.”
“Nothing about this place makes sense. What do these people eat? What are they using for fuel? I just don’t know.”
“Wasn’t there a Terran saying about fish in the sea?”
“Yeah, it’s an old one, but it was about dating not about literal fish in the sea.”
“Well, there are fish in this sea, along with algae and other life. This fire appears to be built on some sort of dried coral that burns quite efficiently.”
“So we’re just gonna dive right in and find this cargo, then what?”
“I don’t know, find answers?”
“Tuck seems to believe that there’s no way off of this puddle.”
“Tuck is a soldier. There have to be scientists and engineers here, someone with an idea of what’s happening and what to do about it.”
“It’s been years now,” Drake said, not wanting to follow up on it. There was an understanding between the two of them: if there was a way they hadn’t found it yet and most likely wouldn’t find it anytime soon.
“We should rest. The shuttle is still drying out, so it looks like tonight we sleep under the stars.”
“Do you think it’s true?” Drake asked.
“About the giant sea monsters that come out at night?”
“A children’s fairytale, meant to scare them and keep them from causing trouble, I suppose. Although, there are always scraps of truth to tall tales, aren’t there?”
“That’s what I’m worried about. Maybe we ask around more first?”
“I’m still not sure if we can trust these people, so I think we execute our mission, secure the cargo, then ask.”
“Yeah, well, that involves diving into that water where strange things are living. This isn’t a planet that either of us know much about.”
“No one has been openly hostile towards us yet. We should take that as a good sign.”
“I guess,” Drake said, sucking down a cherry packet of protein. Since Gentar was very solidly in the camp of grape Drake strayed from that flavor and towards the others. Grape was great, but those were the sacrifices he was willing to make. He was more concerned about trying to paint, which felt ridiculous considering their circumstances, yet if they would have no way off that watery rock, he’d need to find a way to stay sane.
“You guys holding up okay?” Tuck asked, strutting in with a line of exotic-looking fish draped over his back.
“We’re mostly fine,” Gentar said. “We’re planning on a retrieval mission tomorrow, should just be a quick one.”
“I don’t know if you boys understand the situation here,” he said. “Unless there are supplies that could help us all out, whatever cargo you’re after doesn’t matter when you’re stuck here.”
“I understand, I’d still like to see, though. For all we know it’s directly involved with that object that grounded everyone.”
“Huh,” he said, resting the line of fish on the ground. “Well, I’m not gonna stop you.”
“Are there really giant things out there?” Drake asked.
“Oh, right,” he said. “I mean, yeah. This isn’t Terra and I’m sure it’s not like whatever planet you’re from, big guy. These here are reef fish, they’re all edible and not too bad once you get used to them. I brought them here, so you’d have something other than rations.”
“We’re okay for now,” Drake said. “Still got some rations.”
“We appreciate it,” Gentar said, accepting the line of fish. “I’d like to save as much as we can if we really are trapped here.”
“I feel you, still have a stash of mango myself. They’re a nice treat, you know?”
“Gentar loves grape,” Drake said.
“Anyway,” Gentar changed the subject. “Do you believe these monsters would be a hazard?”
“We’re built on a reef here,” Tuck said. “There’s a few of the smaller cruisers as supports under us here for our foundation and there are still some crashed ships down there, if something fell into the drink nearby it shouldn’t be too deep, where they hunt.”
“They?” Drake asked.
“We call them the Krakthu,” he said. “Some sort of cross between old myths shared between humans and Gra’al of killer giant squids.”
“So it’s a giant squid?” Drake asked.
“Sort of,” Tuck said, looking uncomfortable. “Probably looks a mite bit like one. They live in the depths, from what we can tell and feed at night. They’re territorial and have been known to attack the city occasionally, usually if we dive too deep.”
“And is it only at night?”
“Mostly, I guess. I’d say they’re just better adjusted to the dark is all, coming from the depths. That’s not to say they avoid daylight, they just seem to not show their faces much during the day.”
“Oh,” Drake said. “Great.”
“There aren’t procedures for this, are there?” Gentar asked.
“For departing, I mean.”
“Oh, we just have a few fishermen that go out and catch fish a day. We don’t have anyone dictating when we can come and go or whatnot.”
“Who is in charge, anyway?”
“Der’lit,” Tuck said. “Real sour guy, House Lazaar, I think, but he’s fair.”
“Thank you for the warm welcome,” Gentar said.
“Of course, I’ll leave you guys to it. If you need anything, I’m just around the corner, got a nice little pod to myself with my name on it.”
“Thanks for the food, Tuck,” Drake said, watching the man walk through the makeshift street of jutting hulls and old ship parts that made the city before he rounded the corner. “Krakthu?”
“There was an old myth of an elder beast named Zin’thu,” Gentar said. “Haunted the depths of the ocean on Lidar before it dried out.”
“I guess the first part is from the Kraken, sounds about the same as your thing. Just back on Earth.”
“I suppose fears of beasts that occur in nature are another thing we have in common.”
“That doesn’t really make me feel any better about this thing.”
“I suppose not. We should rest up for tomorrow, maybe cook some of that fish.”
“Fine by me,” Drake said.
The two men worked around the fire, using some small pipes as an improvised spit for the fire, roasting the brightly colored fish that browned and dulled. Drake had always learned to skin fish and gut them before eating them from his father, but apparently Gra’al didn’t concern themselves with the same things.
Gentar snatched one up, pulling a knife from his belt and carefully running it along the scales before gutting the major organs before tossing it into his massive mouth, repeating the process a few times.
“You know, we usually scale and gut them before cooking them.”
“Fish are kind of disgusting as it is, so I don’t know.”
“Eat up, we have a long day tomorrow.”
Drake had never exactly been a “water guy,” living most of his life on a station and now a ship. Still, water had fascinated him, he just wasn’t a great swimmer considering he had very little experience. Especially not in an encounter suit. He carefully fastened up his suit as best he could, perhaps more careful than he was when going into space.
“Are you ready yet?” Gentar asked.
“What’s wrong? The Krakthu again?”
“No,” Drake said. “Although now, yeah, I had forgotten about that. I just am not much of a swimmer.”
“We’ll be lowering our tether, so keep close to it. You should be fine. When we find the cargo, we’ll secure it to the tether and scale back up to the surface. It’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he said, still unsure. Gentar being there helped set him a bit more at ease, although he wished that his father was there, even if he would curse at him and calling him names for not knowing how to swim or being afraid of some squid thing. The thought of never seeing the Captain again or leaving Bec stranded up in space bothered him. The whole thing was just frustrating and scary.
The giant crane had helped move their pod into position where Gentar and Drake had anchored it to the deck so it wouldn’t move. Drake had suggested just using the giant crane to grab their cargo, but they had to find it first and Gentar would rather do as much as possible on his own, asking them to move the pod was already difficult enough for him.
“Just hold on to the line, Drake Rose,” Gentar said while lowering it down into the dark waters. Watching the line disappear into the murky water felt substantial, like it was calling out to him as a warning. Whatever goes in doesn’t come out. There was a whole city built out of derelict ships that proved that wasn’t entirely accurate. Still, why should the ocean be any different from the prison planet itself?
“Are you sure about this?” Drake asked, hoping to convince him at the last minute to turn back.
“No,” Gentar admitted. “I just don’t see any other way. If there’s a way out of this, we have to exhaust every possible lead. This cargo was jettisoned, the object appeared and the crew of its ship disappeared. The locals claim it was responsible for the disaster that happened at the battle, but that no one saw it before. I’m not sure if there is a connection, but we’re going to look.”
“Okay, that makes sense, I guess.”
Gentar plunged his bulky frame into the water, it splashing up at Drake who stood there, holding onto the line like a child holding their parent’s hand in public. After a deep breath he jumped in, not relenting his grip on the cable and it almost jerked him back towards the rugged metal shore before he let himself slip down into the water. His heart was already racing and the weight of his suit was dragging him down into the water. Gentar was guiding himself down the line, the light pinned to the chest of his suit emitting a cloudy guide through the deep. Drake flicked his on as well, which helped with the visibility, although not by much. The shadow of the reef was there, teeming with life that he couldn’t quite make up, fused with steel and the organic matter of both warring factions’ ships. The outlines of other ships that weren’t as lucky loomed ominously off in the distance, blending into the dark, murky waters.
They built the city on a foundation of death and the burning desire to survive no matter the cost. This was a watery graveyard for millions of lost souls, and they were diving deeper and deeper down while Gentar followed the beacon.
“How much further?” Drake asked over their comm channel.
“Here, let me patch this through,” Gentar said, his display immediately showing the signal from the beacon that Gentar was following. It was a few ship lengths further down, a dull beep indicating their distance from the cargo.
Broken down ships were everywhere, some intact, others blown in half. Thuul was reclaiming some of them, life from the reef integrating through the hulls, mostly of the organic matter on the Gra’al vessels. The Terran ships were just cold, dead steel and remained that way. His gloved-hand scraped across the hull of an old Terran cruiser, the tether line snaking its way through a tear in the ship and was spat out the other end. Gentar had already disappeared into the ship but Drake paused. He’d been on a ship with nothing but the dead before and promised himself never again. The Captain had done a good job of making sure they’d avoid that kind of job, but now she needed them and they needed to find a way off of Thuul, which meant braving whatever remained in that ship to get to the cargo.
“How will we get the cargo through here?” Drake asked.
“This ship is rotten through and through, a good tug should sheer it in half,” Gentar said coldly.
“Be careful, there are... forgotten in here.”
“Oh,” he said. He needed no more information. There was nowhere to do proper burials considering it being a water planet, which meant they left the dead to float and decompose, perhaps even becoming food for the Krakthu.
Steeling himself, he descended further, coming face-to-face with the bloated, decaying face of a man, his eyes large in a constant state of horror. His pulse quickened and his mind shot back to the Gra’al vessel where they found Gentar. Drake clenched his eyes shut and worked his way down the line until his feet hit something squishy. He jumped, imagining the tendrils of a giant beast wrapping around his leg. Something had his leg in its grasp and he wanted to scream but couldn’t find his voice.
“Ow,” Gentar said. “Watch where you’re going.”
“It’s you? Ugh, I’m sorry, I thought it was—”
“It’s fine, we’re here.”
“Open your eyes,” he said.
Drake opened his eyes to see a sealed container the size of a shipping container there in front of them. The container itself was large, but not too large that it wouldn’t fit inside of the Trystero’s hold. Gentar was working his way around, searching for something to attach the hook to, opting for the front, sealed hatch. Drake watched while Gentar secured and tested the line, wanting nothing more than to be out of that water and up in the city again. A burst of bubbles rose from underneath the container, surrounding Gentar while a shadow passed underneath him.
“Uh, what was that?” Drake asked.
“I just saw something,” he said. “Hurry up.”
“It’s fine,” Gentar said. “If this isn’t secure, we need to come down here agai—”
In a heartbeat Gentar’s body violently lurched downward, his hand grasping desperately onto the line, Drake feeling it jerk down. Visibility was poor, bubbles and darkness everywhere, only the muffled sound of Gentar grunting over the comm and his free leg thrashing around, kicking wildly at whatever had its grip on him.
“Recall the line! Push the button!”
“But what about—”
“Just do it!”
Drake fumbled around with the controls on his console on his chest while Gentar was struggling against whatever had its grip on him. Gentar had both hands on the line and was trying desperately to pull himself up before Drake found the command, the line jerking upward, tugging them and the container towards the surface, and whatever had a hold on him.
The planet was pulling back; the water trying to keep him submerged, his grip tight on the line while racing up. He looked up and to his horror remembered the ship they had passed through, needing to duck his head down to avoid smashing it against part of the hull.
“Gentar! The ship!”
That was the least of his worries, but getting his arms sheared off by the hull wouldn’t do anyone any good. Drake raced by the floating corpse, emerging from the ship and watching while Gentar narrowly avoided smashing into the side of the ship. Whatever had a hold on Gentar must have hit the ship, a giant bump in the line almost shook Drake free and out into the water. Then, free of whatever was tugging them down, the line took off, rapidly racing towards the surface before another thud, this time the container smashing against the hull of the ship. Gentar grunted loudly while the sound of steel bending and cracking gently echoed through the waters, the line slowing before picking up again, Drake looking down to see the top part of the ship racing down towards the ocean floor while bubbles of air jumped up and danced all around him.
The trip up was faster than the trip down, Drake able to see the shadowy outline of the city up ahead before whatever that thing in the water was caught up with the container and the line snagging again. Drake looked down to see massive tendrils wrapped around the container, trying to pull it back down into the depths. Gentar was standing on the container, arm hooked around the line, stomping down at the arms that danced around him, attempting to grab onto whatever it could.
Drake went to look up again, only to see the shore coming quickly, the line running closely along the edge and the impending crash if he didn’t release his hold. Letting go meant being closer to whatever was pursuing them, but with each passing second he was one step closer to whatever doom was coming for him. His heart was pounding, his hands ready to let go to avoid being crushed, a scream escaping his lips and reverberating into his helmet.
7 The Captain
Valencia’s feet dangled below her, suspended by the dark, murky waters that had flooded the Trystero. Her eyes blinked rapidly while bubbles filled the water directly before her. The expectations of her lungs burning while she gasped for air had been for naught, somehow the need for air was no longer a concern.
A fog had drifted in through her mind, making the familiar walls of the Trystero seem alien to her. Propelling herself forward through the cargo hold she swam up towards the kitchen looking for any signs of the crew or anyone else. The shadowy visages of three others, three people that she didn’t know very well, kept racing through her mind before disappearing to the sense of familiarity of the Trystero.
Each of the crew rooms were empty, not that she needed to go inside and check, there was just an understanding that they weren’t there. Still, compelled to continue investigating she pressed on, up the small, narrow staircase into the cockpit. Bec, who spent most of her time inside of the cockpit sprawled out in the pilot’s chair’s absence was immediately felt, replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread. The object was within sight, her skin crawled at the sight of the tendrils flowing around the blinking, burning plume from the engine.
Those arms seemed to recognize when her eyes were focused on them, pausing and moving in unison to reach out towards her, whispers sweeping through her head faster than she could understand them.
She went to scream out in reply, forgetting her predicament, lungs filled with dark, murky water, and voice failing her. Panic consumed her, the memory of the three, the campfire and the forest devoid of life while still keeping her alive. “Valencia,” a voice bounced around in her subconscious. Her hair swirled around her like the tentacles on the floating terror while her head rocked back and forth attempting to find the source.
“Valencia,” the voice said again.
She turned and turned, her hair obscuring her face while she screamed, the muscles in her neck tensing while she screamed as loudly as she could, just without the sound of her voice.
Darkness fell over her.
“Valencia?” Emma’s voice echoed again. “Valencia, wake up.”
“What?” she asked, her eyes darting open to see the blonde woman standing over her, soaked but not submerged any longer—if she ever truly had been.
“You were screaming,” Emma said. “I found you here, in this cave.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what to make of it, really,” she said.
Valencia sat up, looking around to find herself back wherever she had been before, just inside of the room with the tanks and the bodies hooked up to machines through a series of tubes and nodes. A chill ran down her spine and she understood what was happening less than she had even imagined.
“I was on my ship,” she said. “It was filled with water.”
“You’re soaked,” Emma said. “But I don’t see any traces of water in here at all.”
“You mean the forest didn’t flood?”
“No? We were all sleeping. The fire went out, but the original campsite seems fine. We went looking for you and I just stumbled on this cave and, well, whatever this is.”
“I have no idea what it is. Is that the real us in those things, or are we the real us?”
“I really don’t know,” she said. “We might as well get Bran and Rian, or at least let them know to stop looking for you.”
“Do we tell them about...” She paused, unsure of how to even further broach the topic. Both women had a sense of understanding of each other, an unspoken bond from their positions of power while everyone else jockeyed for position around them.
“Maybe in a bit.”
“Is it still night?” Valencia asked.
“Yeah, I’m actually not sure how long I was out for. It felt like a long time, but it’s still dark out and we don’t know how long the night is... wherever we are.”
“They’ll probably wonder why I’m soaking wet.”
“Forget them, I’m wondering why you’re soaking wet.”
“I was in my ship and it was flooded, but I got there the same way that we ended up here, I think. The whole water and bright light thing? I just saw the forest and this cave flood. The light led me here.”
“Maybe Bran was right.”
“Right how?” Valencia asked.
“Maybe we’re just dead and we’re too far from home to go wherever we were supposed to, so now we’re just adrift wherever this is.”
“Millions died on Thuul,” Valencia reminded her. “If this was some sort of shared afterlife, I think we’d see someone else.”
“It’s been years. Maybe they’ve moved on.”
“Maybe,” she chuckled.
“I’m just not one for that kind of stuff. Afterlife and gods or whatever.”
“Strange,” Emma said, “I always took you as the spiritual kind.”
“Is that a joke?” Valencia asked, fighting off a smile. “Because that’s actually kinda funny.”
“See? This isn’t all bad.”
That line hit her like a Gra’al fist to the chest, even though she forced a smile at Emma.
“So you just wandered off into some cave while we were sleeping?” Rian asked, his reaction almost exactly what she had been expecting. “We’ve been out here—in the dark—on a strange planet trying to find you. You know what they say about curiosity, right?”
“Not really,” Valencia said.
“It’s an old Earth saying, it killed the damned cat.”
“What’s a cat?” Emma asked, trying to diffuse the situation.
“It’s a mammal, sort of like a geolion, but smaller, but that’s not the point. We’re here, we’ve gotta stick together. We don’t know who or what brought us here, what the point was, what they expect of us or whatever. Running off like that is how you get hurt.”
“I sometimes wander when I can’t sleep,” Bran added.
“Yeah, well, not on a strange fucking planet you don’t.”
“Isn’t that how he messed up his ankle?” Valencia asked.
“Alright, you’re all just gonna keep giving me shit, excuse me for being the one person who cares.”
“Rian, we all care,” Emma said. “We’re all just tired and have been through a lot. Losing our cool won’t help anything.”
“I’m not...” he trailed off, stomping back and forth. “Fine, I’m sorry, it’s just dark, and this place feels like death. I’m starting to think that Bran was right.”
“You’re not the only one,” Emma added.
“See?” he smiled. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy until we’re here for a night and we realize there are no real answers.”
“Is that the consensus now?” Rian asked. “That we’re just dead?”
“Unless you can find any other evidence to where we are, I don’t know,” Bran said.
A lump formed in Valencia’s throat while Emma and her locked eyes in passing, both looking away from each other to not be noticed. Valencia had no idea what to make of their dirty little secret, all she knew was that she had somehow returned to her ship and somehow stumbled upon a cave with chambers housing what looked to be either themselves or some sort of clones of themselves and nothing else. There were no controls, no computers and still, she was wet.
“So did you find a stream or a waterfall or something in this cave?” Bran asked.
“You’re all wet.”
“Oh, right,” she said, hunching down in front of the campfire attempting to dry off. “I’m not really sure what happened, if I’m honest.”
“You don’t just become wet without being near water, so I figure there was water somewhere.”
“Would you believe me if I told you that I was back on my ship and that it was flooded?”
“We’re on some sort of planet or place where time moves quicker than the rest of the galaxy does, there're signs of life but no life, food, water and a fire that doesn’t need kindling, nothing really makes sense anymore.”
“Right,” Emma said. “We’ll figure something out, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, well, I want to see this cave for myself,” Rian said.
“I think that we should stay away from it,” Emma said.
“Yeah, well, that’s just you. I want to see this cave.”
“I’m your captain,” she said.
“You see a ship around here? Why can’t I go into this cave?”
“It’s just not a good idea. We need to explore more, see what we can find out.”
“I want to explore this cave. Find out what got her soaked like this.”
“Enough,” he said, stomping off towards the rocks.
“This is your captain,” Valencia said. “Your inability to listen to her should make you feel ashamed.”
“I don’t answer to you,” he said. “So what are you hiding? Let’s go find out.”
“Bran,” Emma said. “Can you convince him?”
“Rian, man,” he said. “Let’s talk this through a bit, we’ve all had a tough time—”
“Enough!” he said, stomping away with his torch leading the way.
“Valencia,” Emma said. “He’s gonna—”
“I know,” she said. “Just let him. I can’t fight him anymore.”
“What am I missing out on here?” Bran asked.
“It’s complicated,” Emma said. “I didn’t want to keep anything from anyone, I just didn’t want to freak anyone out until we knew more and—”
“What the hell is this?” Rian’s voice echoed from the inside of the cave.
“Rian, stop...” Emma looked defeated and scared.
“Why were you keeping this a secret from us? Did you plan on telling us?”
“What is he talking about?” Bran asked.
“Get over here,” he said. “I don’t even know where to start. Who are they?”
Valencia looked at Emma, who’s face had sank. Neither Bran nor Rian understood the stress that came with being in charge of other people and their safety. If it were her crew, she wasn’t sure what she would have done, although she probably would have told them and tried to figure it out together. She knew that not every captain had a crew like that, and by the level of dysfunction she saw, Emma’s crew was not the sort of crew that became a family, or at least not one that worked.
“What...” Bran’s voice trailed off from the cave.
Valencia crossed her arms and walked towards the cave with her head facing down, not eager about the discussion—or downright panic—they’d face inside that cave. Bran would be fine. Rian was another story altogether. She was more worried about Emma, though. Something about her looked broken. Of course, seeing yourself in a tank in a cave on a strange planet after disappearing into the side of a strange ship in space would do that to most people. Emma dragged behind her, Valencia crossing into the cave where she found Rian standing dumbfounded in front of himself in the tube, the torch illuminating his face while his hair gently flowed around him. Bran quietly stood a safe distance from himself without the luxury of the lone torch that Rian had in his possession, but seemed flummoxed just the same.
“What is this?” Bran asked. “I don’t understand.”
“We don’t either,” Valencia said.
“No,” Rian said. “You don’t get to do this. You don’t get to hide something like this and wash your hands of it.”
“Calm down,” Emma said. “We didn’t have enough time to really figure it out.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“What the fuck?”
“Alright, calm down already,” Valencia said. “She’s your captain and sometimes—”
“There’s no excuse for this. None. You were gonna keep this a secret for how long? Bullshit!”
“Rian, I need you to calm down,” Valencia said, watching while Bran continued to study the room. Emma had fallen silent and was herself trying to process everything.
“You don’t get to tell me shit,” he said, jamming his finger into her shoulder. Valencia stared at him, then down at his finger.
“You don’t get to do that. Back off. Now,” her tone was cold.
“You’ve been lying to us the whole time! You knew!”
“We all know the same thing. Now keep your damn hands to yourself.”
“Or what?” he asked, poking her again.
Valencia took a deep breath before her hand jumped out, snatching his finger in her grip, twisting back while he screamed out. His other arm came in an arc towards her head, Valencia bringing her forearm up to block the blow, deflecting it before driving her knee up into his midsection, the air jumping out of him in a hurry. Her fist rose up and connected flush with his jaw in a crushing blow, his teeth grinding against each other, sending him crashing back down, her controlling his fall by guiding his finger. She planted her knee down on his shoulder, her fist cocked while looking down at him.
“You done yet?” she asked.
He merely nodded, her removing her knee from his shoulder and moving away, him rolling over and groaning while blood gurgled up out of his mouth.
“Sorry,” Emma muttered under her breath.
“It’s fine. Like we were trying to say, we have no idea what’s going on here. I saw this last night before the water overtook me and I woke up on my ship, fully submerged in water. Before tough guy over here started flipping out, I was going to ask you guys if you had any ideas, but...”
“I really can’t tell,” Bran said. “You think we’re really in two places at once, or what?”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “It’s possible that this is some sort of simulation and that’s really us, we just found this room somehow.”
“Why would you build a simulation where we could find ourselves? I don’t get it,” he said.
“Not much of it makes sense. I’m not sure how I was aboard my ship but it felt real. Just like this place does.”
“Nobody has tech like that,” Emma said. “Most sim tech, Terran or Graal, tends to feel really fake. This would be a whole different level.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure what to make of it,” Valencia said. “What about flyboy over here?”
“You didn’t have to punch me like that,” he said, spitting out blood onto the floor, his torch laying next to him, the flame unwavering.
“I told you not to touch me, you should have listened to me, just like you should listen to your captain.”
“So, any thoughts?”
“No, I don’t know anything about this crazy shit. I just want to smash it open and get out of here.”
“Are you crazy?” Bran asked. “What if it kills us? What if that’s really us?”
“Then it’d just kill the… well, whatever we are right now,” Valencia said. “Right?”
“It could,” Emma said, “but this is all so advanced. I’m not sure what we are right now. Everything feels so real.”
“For all we know this is just our consciousness experiencing ourselves subjectively,” Bran said.
“I’m not sure Rian here would be imagining himself as this much of an asshole if he didn’t have to,” Valencia jabbed. “No offense.”
“None taken, I guess.”
“We’re just like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream,” Bran said. “But who’s the dreamer?”
A very powerful, uneasy feeling came over her, Bran looking past her and to the tubes, silently shuffling towards the tube of Rian, dragging his foot behind him. He motioned towards the tube, for Valencia to look, her craning her neck to see. Rian’s body floated there, small tendrils of blood escaping from his mouth and nose, spidering up around his face gently.
Valencia placed her hand on the glass, a small readout appeared near the base of the tube reading the following: 10:10am, February 16th.
“What was the date that you disappeared?” Valencia asked, her skin crawling.
“By what calendar?” Emma asked.
“Not Terran,” she said. “This doesn’t make sense for that, what about from before, on the ship? When we were still living under the old Earth calendar.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember much of that.”
“It was the sixteenth day of the second cluster,” Bran said. “More or less.”
“What?” Rian asked. “How do you know that?”
“I remember learning about the Earth calendar as a boy, but it’s just a guess, at least from what this says here,” Bran said, pointing down at the display. “The captain left our ship at approximately 10:10, I think.”
“What the...” Emma said quietly to herself. “That can’t be, do you think that—”
A blinding white light illuminated the cave from thin air, the four of them stood frozen in place, awestruck at the light before a figure appeared inside the light, roughly the same outline as Emma, sharing the same silhouette, hair and piercing green eyes were the only discernible characteristic outside of the white light.
“Who are you?” Valencia asked. “What do you want from us?”
“Who do you think that is there?” the voice asked, finger outstretched towards Rian on the ground.
“I don’t understand,” Valencia replied.
“What have you done with him?”
The light flashed, overcoming them while panic flowed through her veins.
8 The Artist
A pair of strong hands clenched under his armpits, dragging him sopping wet in his encounter suit along the cobbled-together island made from scrap deck parts while chaos erupted all around. Explosions dotted the sky while screams and shouts peppered throughout, with a high-pitched screech and the sound of metal grating against metal cutting through. Drake shook his head, the hands dropping him and Tuck standing over him, trying to pull his helmet off.
“Are you okay?”
“What happened?” he asked, unable to hear his own voice over the chaos.
“Krakthu came for you boys,” he said. “They’re fending it off right now.”
“Is Gentar okay?”
“He’s out there, blasting away with the rest.”
“I have to help him,” Drake said, trying to stand up.
“Whoa there, you hit your head pretty hard on the way up.”
A deafening, primal screech filled the air before a large splash, water misting up thirty feet in the air before splashing down on them. Then nothing, just the sound of the water lapping against the hull.
“What was that?”
“Sounds like the Krakthu is gone,” Tuck said. “At least for now. C’mon, let’s go check.”
Tuck helped Drake up to his feet, him feeling less sure on his feet than he expected after the ordeal. His head was spinning and even though he was wearing his helmet, he had still probably suffered a mild concussion. It figures that he’d get hurt without the ship’s med bay around to patch him up. Gentar was up ahead, alongside a mixed group of Terran and Gra’al with rifles in hand.
“Thank you again,” Gentar said. “That thing had my leg for a while there... Drake Rose, are you alright?”
“Hey,” Drake said, “I’m okay, just a little lightheaded. What happened?”
“You hit your head on the way up.”
“No, I know that, I mean with the monster.”
“You two sure awoke something down there,” a gaunt man with see-through skin said. “I haven’t seen one that mad for a while. I don’t think that sucker got anyone, did it?”
“I don’t think so,” a Graal said.
“So that was the Krakthu?” Drake asked.
“One of the little ones, too,” Tuck noted.
“You’ve seen multiple?” Gentar asked.
“Oh yeah, never over one or two at a time, but they come in different sizes. You wouldn’t have gotten that there crate up if it was one of the big ones.”
“So the crate is alright?” Drake asked. “Where is it?”
“It was dragged up onto deck and pulled in, it seems like the beast was protecting it, or at least drawn to it in some way.”
“Yes,” the Graal said, his bare chest exposed through a tattered and torn up Graal Empire military suit, showing that he was some sort of officer, or at least whoever the clothes belonged to was. “We’ve seen them attack before, but never with this level of ferocity.”
“I guess you boys weren’t lying when you said this container had some mysteries to it. You have the keycodes for it?”
“What keycodes?” Drake asked.
“See that locking system there?” Tuck asked. “That’s some strong stuff there. You won’t be able to brute force your way through that, at least not without blasting that thing to high Gaia.”
“We don’t know what’s inside,” Gentar said. “I’d like to avoid destroying anything that could be in there.”
“You really think there’s some sort of answer in that thing?” Drake asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s more of a lead than anything else at our disposal.”
“I guess so,” Drake said, massaging his temples.
“Here, we should go sit down and relax for a moment. Are there medical officers around?” Gentar asked the greater group, which had dissipated now that the battle was over.
“Have a few med bays,” Tuck said, “just don’t use ‘em much on account of limited energy and resources. Hope you don’t mind, a little stinger won’t kill ya.”
“It’ll be fine,” Gentar said. “I’ll watch after him. Thank you for everything.”
The rest of them tapered off, leaving Gentar and Drake alone, Gentar walking over to the container and tapping away at the locking mechanism a few times and shaking his head. Drake followed him, still groggy but noted that the crate’s makeup was some sort of organic-infused titanium, much like you’d find on the hull of a Graal cruiser.
“They weren’t messing around with this one,” Drake said.
“No, it’s curious to see Terran technology integrated with Gra’al, actually,” he said.
“Why’s that? The war’s been over for a long time.”
“I have reason to believe this predates the end of the war.”
“What would make you think that? We just dug the thing up from the waters, I mean...”
“This style of locking mechanism, first of all,” he said. “This is Terran. The crate itself looks Graal”
“My people no longer develop hulls like this anymore. Titanium supplies have always been low, we’ve adapted.”
“I mean, okay,” Drake said. “Jordache still could’ve bought it from someone like us, an old scrapper maybe?”
“Fair point,” he said.
A jolt of energy shot through Drake’s mind, a flash of light blinking in front of him and forcing him down to his knees. He cried out and gripped onto the container, feeling the walls pulsate and reach out to him. Something whispered to him from a distance, something familiar and alien.
“Drake Rose, are you alright?”
“I think so,” he said.
“You must have hit your head harder than we thought. Here, I’ll download whatever data I can from the panel on this and we’ll go back to our camp so you can rest.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” he said, feeling his hand press into the container and it banging back at him. “I think this thing just banged back at me.”
“Biosteels have a way about them,” he said. “Although I believe your mind is playing tricks on you.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I felt something.”
“Something about the Captain, I think.”
“You have a mild concussion, Drake Rose. Never mind, you’re already sensitive enough, you Truth-Teller types.”
“Okay, fine,” he said. “It was probably nothing. I get it, I’ll rest.”
“Thank you. There,” he said, pulling his dataline away from the large crate. “I can run some analysis while you rest.”
“We don’t need excitement, we need to rest, you especially.”
They walked quietly back to their small alcove, Drake hunkering down in the corner, laying back while staring off into the distance. The Trystero was up there in orbit, locked in some strange dance with that object that had the Captain. Maybe it was the buzzing in his head talking but he missed Bec and wished he had someone to joke around to help with lightening the mood. Gentar was great, he just was a bit serious.
“So, I shouldn’t sleep, right?”
“That’s for severe trauma, you should rest.”
“Are you a doctor now?”
“No, I was a soldier, though. Terran brains and bodies work similar enough to our own, you need to rest and stop worrying.”
“We’re trapped on a strange planet with no hope of getting away. The Captain got sucked into a weird floating squid and Bec is stuck in the ship. We’re stuck down here and almost got killed by a weird squid thing. How am I supposed to calm down?”
“That is a question I cannot answer, sadly. I do believe that you’ll be fine if you rest, though.”
“Fine, doctor’s orders, I guess?”
“Whatever that means, yes.”
“You really have a way with words, Gentar.”
“Ugh,” Drake groaned, rolling over to find himself wrapped up in a few blankets, his encounter suit strung up behind him to dry. “What happened?”
“You slept,” Gentar said. “For quite a while, I might add.”
“No, I mean, who changed my clothes?”
“You didn’t even ask me.”
“You were fast asleep, and it didn’t look too comfortable inside of that encounter suit, so I removed it.”
“Arg, what time is it?”
“Have I missed anything?”
“No, we’re still trapped on Thuul, we still have the container just around the corner, I still can’t open it and we’re still not going anywhere.”
“Great,” he said. “Maybe I should just pass back out and wake up a few days later and see if anything has changed.”
“My guess is no.”
“I thought there was some sort of secret about this crate you were hoping to uncover?”
“There still is, I just can’t open it.”
“So now what?”
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet. There has to be a way to open it, but Tuck’s analysis was correct in that there is no way to open it without a key or brute force.”
“So what? We just risked our lives against that monster for nothing.”
“Not nothing, but nothing yet.”
“If your crew has taught me anything, it’s that even with our backs to the wall there is never sufficient reason to give up. Your father taught me that, among other things.”
“Yeah, well, much good it did my father.”
“You’re still alive, thanks to him.”
Drake fell silent, reflecting on his father and what he would do in their situation. The truth was, he didn’t really know what his father would do. Grumble, curse, make crude remarks and look for a fight wherever he could all seemed like a fair bet, but there was also the side of him that helped his crew and his family. Even if he did it with a grimace and expletive-laden complaints, he still always did the right thing for everyone at the end of the day. He would’ve been front-and-center when dealing with the Krakthu, mild concussion or not, guns blazing and bullet casings dancing off his boots.
There was still so much to his father that remained a mystery to him, although what bothered him the most was that his father died protecting him without really knowing or understanding him. Drake didn’t know or understand himself yet, for that matter, although he still had time to figure that out. A lot of time, actually, considering their status being stuck on a submerged planet surrounded by killer squid and people left for dead.
“So are the Graal here considered ghosts?” Drake asked.
“Well, they’re dead to the Gra’al Empire, right?”
“Yes, they are dead.”
“They’re still alive, though, which technically wouldn’t it be a lot like the people living on Endigo?”
“No,” Gentar said. “They died with honor, serving the Graal people and their respective houses, even if they didn’t actually die.”
“If they were to return they’d be welcomed back, then?”
“Of course they would.”
“Even if they’ve conspired with the enemy?”
“The Terrans are no longer the enemy.”
“When they banded together they were, though.”
“Then they are all lucky, in many ways.”
“That Giga’s life has ended and Vetru stands awaiting Jek’tu’s ascendency, first of all.”
“That we’re here to rescue them,” Gentar said, the slightest glimpse of a joke in his tone.
“Was that a joke?”
“Perhaps?” Gentar asked, almost unsure of himself.
“I wonder how Gint and Brial are doing,” Drake thought aloud.
“Vetru is an honorable man,” Gentar said. “Although it would be difficult to give Endigo its independence as they wish. Endigo is a prison planet.”
“Brial and Gint aren’t bad people, though.”
“I suppose not, political dissidents by nature, although I don’t know where the line is for this sort of thing. I guess that’s why I’m here and not in power.”
“Oh, come on,” Drake said. “You could do just as good of a job as Vetru. He’s sort of, well, an idiot.”
“I won’t hear talk like this of the Warlord.”
“He’s not the real one.”
“The Warlord Regent, then.”
“But still, you did all the hard work.”
“With the help of Vetru and House Lazaar’s military power and influence.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’m just saying, it isn’t like Vetru is in power and things just magically got better.”
“They never do. We just have to hope for more and do our best to make it happen.”
“But it never does.”
“Not really, no,” Gentar said.
“So was there anything in that data from the lock that could help us?”
“I’ve decrypted some of the data, although most of it requires a keycode, which we don’t have.”
“And all I got were logs. Doors open, doors closed, that sort of thing.”
“That doesn’t sound too useful.”
“Not really, no,” he said. “Although I can confirm that whatever was loaded into this container happened before the great battle unfolded in Thuul space.”
“It hasn’t been opened since?”
“And that’s all you’ve got from that thing? Not when it was transported or any sort of location data?”
“Like I said, keycodes.”
“Right, yeah. Well, that’s something, I guess?”
“It’s another piece of this puzzle, or perhaps unrelated, I don’t know.”
“We’ll never find out if we can’t get it open, though.”
“No, perhaps not, although I’m not sure that damaging the container helps us much, either, if whatever is inside is fragile.”
“What good is it if we don’t open it, then? Then what? We just rot on this fake island for the rest of our lives while Bec starves or runs out of fuel, and shit, what about the Captain?”
“I’m not sure what to make of any of this,” Gentar said. “What I know for sure is that if there is a connection between that ship and this crate, destroying it won’t make things better.”
“I don’t know,” Drake said. “We’ll never know if we don’t try. We can try to be gentle, right?”
“So, what? Put a blowtorch to it?”
“Gently, yeah,” Drake said. “C’mon, what could go wrong?”
“In the amount of time I’ve known you, Drake Rose, you’ve had several plans, most reckless and put us in considerable danger. I don’t think you’re qualified to make most of these decisions.”
“Didn’t we pretty much save both of our people from another crazy war?”
“Your point being?”
“Can we at least try? If we damage anything, we can stop. I just can’t sit here and do nothing.”
“There are times where nothing is advisable.”
“Fine, I’ll go do it myself,” Drake said, staggering up to his unsteady feet. His head was swimming and his legs wobbly before he found his balance, only for the dull ache in his head to intensify.
“You need to continue resting,” Gentar said.
“I’m going to the container, like it or not.”
“Then I suppose I must come with you.”
Drake tried to not let his smile show too much, even though he knew that Gentar still couldn’t read faces too well, nor could he read Gentar’s, either, really. They understood tonality and mood pretty well, but some more subtle visual emotional cues were still lost to cultural differences. To the casual observer Graal faces didn’t change much, although Drake had noticed small changes from time-to-time, the kind you’d need to look for or else you’d miss entirely. Humans were more expressive in that way, it just varied from person-to-person and Drake mostly wore scowls. It made sense that Gentar wasn’t able to piece much together from nothing but Drake’s sour faces, Bec’s constant joking and the Captain’s stoic facade. Poor guy.
Gentar grabbed a small torch from their pod before they set off, strolling through the makeshift village without more than a few uneasy nods from the regulars. They had turned pods into small homes, much like he had seen on Endigo, only minor gaps between living quarters with most of the locals sitting around communal fires outside of the hastily built homes. They were still outsiders and had perhaps been the most excitement anyone had seen in years. They splashed down right near the city’s shore, brought more stories about what had become of the war and the galaxy since the battle, then dove in search of some sort of treasure only to invoke a rare Krakthu attack on the city. Some may have appreciated the excitement, but the looks on most their faces told a different story.
The container was where they left it, untouched and isolated just a few yards from the shore. The large, organic-infused shipping crate bore no signs of the battle, while the deck itself was still littered with bullet casings and energy packs and dents from the tentacles of the beast. Something jolted in Drake’s mind remembering the tentacles reaching out for him.
Maybe there was something to what Gentar had said about him being sensitive to those sorts of things. The images of the dead Graal on the ship they found Gentar and Bruce on had been replaced by images of his father’s body being torn apart by blaster fire during his last stand, his voice replaced by the cries of Bruce.
Drake wasn’t sure how to face Bruce again after all that happened. The bond was undeniable between the two, it was just interwoven with the guilt of losing his father to the whole damned fool mission and the idea that they had “saved” anyone through the whole endeavor. There was no promise of war, as insane as Giga was, even if the threat felt real. They had altered history, it just wasn’t clear in what direction or if it was a gentle breeze against the tide or a mighty tsunami.
Gentar flicked the torch on without a word, kneeling next to the crate and pointing the white-hot flame at the locking mechanism on the door. Drake watched coldly while he attempted to melt the lock away without making much visible progress.
“Anything?” Drake asked.
“Not yet,” Gentar said. “Like I explained prior, this material is strong and—”
“Agh!” Drake screamed, a tidal wave crashing through his mind and temporarily blinding him. Gentar had turned slightly, the flame danced along the wall of the container. Drake’s vision blurred back and Gentar looked concerned, not paying attention to the torch while the flame made contact again, another ripple of pain, this time accompanied by a deafening screech.
“I... I don’t know,” he said, grasping at his head. “Don’t you hear it?”
“The beast,” he murmured. “The Krakthu is screaming.”
“I... don’t hear anything,” he said. “Are you alright?”
“Turn the flame off!”
“What?” Gentar asked.
“The flame, turn it off, please!”
9 The Captain
Warmth surrounded Valencia while she could feel each and every breath. Inhale and exhale, slowly and deeply while ensconced in darkness. Her senses dulled, a faint feeling like she was floating while soft whispers traversed her synapses.
“Where is he?” a voice comprising many in chorus with each other echoed through her mind.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said, her lips unmoving and her voice only projecting inside of her mind.
“Him,” the voice said.
“Who are you?”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t know where I am, am I alive?”
“I don’t understand,” the voices sang back to her.
The darkness gave way to two small slits of light expanding into almond-like eyes, blinking into existence and providing context to the darkness. They glowed softly in the void, close enough for Valencia to reach her hand out and touch them, although she couldn’t find her hands in the dark. The soft outline of the figure from before now stood before her.
“If I ask like this do you understand?”
“Where am I?”
“That is not the answer I’m looking for, Captain Vasquez.”
“You know who I am, then.”
“I know who you were.”
“So I am dead, then.”
“Relative to what?”
“Relative to me? I don’t know,” she asked, trying again to reach out in an act of futility.
“Can you find him?”
“I don’t know who he is? Are you talking about Rian? You said he wasn’t who he seems.”
“No,” the voices said. “His existence is fleeting, insignificant.”
“Then who am I supposed to be looking for?”
“Am I inside of that tube right now, or am I free?” she asked. “Is this a simulation?”
“That doesn’t answer my question, Captain Vasquez.”
The sensation of falling, splashing down into cold water overcame her, sensation returning of her corporeal body. Her lungs filled with water, only this time she was gasping for air, reaching out towards the darkness for something—anything—to grasp onto. In an instant, the water disappeared from around her, head spinning while she sat back at the campfire.
“Here,” a soft voice said, “it’s okay, you can breathe easy.”
Emma sat in front of her, holding Valencia’s helmet in her hand much like when she first arrived. Valencia took a slow, deep breath, her lungs filled with oxygen. Only the sense of deja vu was too strong for her to contend with.
“Emma?” she asked. “Did it take me and bring me back?”
“Oh thank God,” Rian said, emerging from the trees with his arms full of firewood. “Are you here to rescue us?”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Did it take me back here for a reason?”
“Please, tell us that Jordache sent you,” Rian said.
“You know damned well that he didn’t,” Valencia said.
“What? Who is this, Emma?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “We haven’t introduced ourselves yet, I’m—”
“Emma, the captain of the missing freighter crew, I know this already. I was just with you.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You just appeared here, did the ship suck you in like it did to us?”
“So you don’t remember me, then? What about the cave?”
“What cave?” Rian asked. “Is there a cave around here we can take shelter in?”
“‘Who do you think that is there?’” she repeated to herself under her breath.
“What was that?” he asked. “What did she just say?”
“Come with me,” she said, reaching out and grabbing Emma by the arm. Emma followed behind her, bewildered.
“Hey, where are you taking her?” Rian argued.
“Go find Bran,” Valencia said, stunning him into silence.
She tugged at Emma’s arm, dragging her through the woods towards the cave, hoping that it was still there and that she’d find what she did before: the four of them suspended in tanks, otherwise she really was losing her mind. Emma tripped over a branch behind her, falling to her knees, Valencia, looking back at her for a long moment, her green eyes providing the familiarity, linking it all together.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Emma said. “I just don’t...”
“It’s okay,” she said, picking her up. “You’ll see.”
They stopped before the cave, the dark entryway standing ominously in defiance, calling out to her. Her heart beat faster, most of the noises from the surrounding world melting away while just the steady pounding of her heart remained. A furtive step towards the cave made her skin crawl, afraid of what she’d find inside there. Emma stood behind her, rubbing her elbow where it hit the ground.
“It’s just in here.”
“You just have to trust me.”
“I don’t know who you are, though, we just met.”
“This place, time moves differently here,” she explained. “I came into this cave before and it went backwards, but those eyes.”
“Yours. C’mon,” she said.
“Okay, I mean, I don’t even know.”
They locked eyes for a long moment, the same intense green eyes that had greeted her when she first arrived staring back at her. A jolt of electricity pulsed through her body at their stare down. There was still that innocence in her eyes, a sense of warmth inviting her to stop worrying. Valencia shook her head, striding into the cave only to feel a stifling cold overcome her.
There they were, just like last time: the four tubes laid out in the same order containing each of the crew and herself. Emma gasped behind her, stammering something that Valencia couldn’t make out while she carefully inspected each tube, pausing at Rian’s.
Blood was still bubbling up from his mouth from when she punched him, giving her pause. If it was a simulation and had reset, there was an odd permanence about it. She had hurt him and the Rian that lived inside of the tube still showed signs of that past violence, even if the Rian she had just seen was fine. But he wasn’t who she thought he was, whatever that meant.
“What is this?” Emma asked.
“I don’t know yet.” She turned and stared back at Emma, her green eyes calling out to her. Emma stepped closer, reaching out to her and everything inside of her mind told her to trust Emma and reach back to comfort her. They were both trapped there. “‘Who do you think that is there?’”
“Rian,” she said. “But what if he wasn’t the one?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Hold on,” Valencia said, scanning the room. She scrambled and found a rock on the ground the size of her fist. Hefting it up, she got a firm grasp on it, feeling its smooth, cool curves while staring at Rian’s face in the tube. “Not him, it can’t be.”
“Surely we can go get the others and talk this over, there’s always an answer.”
“What if there isn’t?” she asked. Valencia gripped the rock tightly and turned towards Emma’s body inside of the tube. The chorus of voices inside her head began cascading in languages she didn’t understand, screaming out to her while she raised her fist up high. They reached a fever pitch while she wound up, staring at the soft features of Emma inside of the tank before the rock smashed into the tube. A sharp scream broke the chorus into discordance. Again. She was screaming at the top of her lungs while she smashed away at the tube, the voices turning into sharp, demonic screams inverting into each other before the water began rising again, surrounding her rapidly.
“You can’t do this!” she screamed out before the water flowed into her mouth, filling up her lungs while she spat out the last bubbles of air from her lungs. Emma’s eyes inside of the tube opened up, a blinding white light blasting out and returning everything to darkness again.
No dreams breed restless sleep, the all-consuming darkness shrouding her mind while she drifted. Drifting was a kind way to explain it, her subconscious unsure if she was floating yet again in more of whatever fluid had been tormenting her, or if she had adrift and left for dead in the cold vacuum of space.
She could almost feel the piercing green eyes that had punctuated the whole thing. If they were Emma’s or some noncorporeal being’s mattered little to the impact, they had on her. The whispers started up again, this time in a familiar cadence and key, hands reaching out and embracing her through her fugue state.
“Captain,” a voice washed over her like a gentle wave crashing on the shore. “Captain, are you okay?”
She flexed her hand, feeling the muscles contract and relax at her command before reaching her hand out into the nothing. Her eyes were closed, at least they seemed to be, it being difficult to determine what was a dream and what was happening in reality anymore. Her hand stopped at something solid with a soft exterior that her hand could press into but not too far.
“Valencia, it’s me,” the voice said.
“Emma?” she asked.
“Who’s Emma? No, it’s me, Bec.”
“Bec?” Her eyes shot open only to see her hand pressed against her pilot’s cheek, a look of concern on the normally jovial girl’s face. “Is it flooded?”
“Is what flooded?”
“What? No, it’s just the way it was when you left it. Well, just without Drake and Gentar, I guess.”
“Where are they?” she asked, sitting up only to feel dizzy, Bec catching her before she fell backwards.
“They went down to get the cargo.”
“So they didn’t go after me? Drake actually listened?”
“More or less,” she said. “I’m just glad to see you’re okay. What happened?”
“I don’t know, you tell me.”
“Here, I think we need to get you up to the med bay to see if you’re okay, you were in that thing for a whole day before it spat you out.”
“Spat you out, just like the way you went in. I have had little to do out here so I’ve just been waiting, watching, for anything, dead in space.”
“The ship’s stuck still?”
“Then how’d they get to the surface?”
“We modded the escape pod. Figured if we kicked it out towards the planet and didn’t use any thrusters they could breach into the atmosphere where they’d steer it down.”
“Did it work?”
“I guess so,” she said. “I haven’t heard from anyone in almost two days now, including you. I can’t communicate with them while they’re down there, just like I can’t get anything sent or received. It’s just been dead.”
“Was I the only one?”
“The only what?”
“The only one it spat out?”
“Um, yeah,” she said. “Best I could tell, I’ve been watching the damned thing just waiting for anything to change, I think I would’ve noticed if anyone else came out.”
“Why you what?”
“We should go to the med bay.”
“That’s a good call, Cap.”
Slowly pulling herself up to her feet with the assistance of Bec they made their way towards the med bay. The contents of her mind felt like someone had poured them over ice and shaken them up before serving her back up to the Trystero for Bec to scoop her up. A dull ringing wouldn’t leave her alone and memories from whatever that ship was, flashed through her mind like bad nightmares.
The robotic whir of the cranial scanner punctured her like thousands of tiny needles even though there was nothing poking into her, instead like a sensitivity to light or sound it made her acutely aware of everything that was happening around her. A little over two days had passed, which didn’t seem far-fetched compared to what she felt. None of that aligned with the transient time lag that Emma and her crew felt. Just the thought of Emma sent a jolt of electricity searing through her subconscious, forcing her to clench her jaw and close her eyes tightly. Those green eyes.
“Everything okay, Cap?”
“Just a headache, I guess,” she said through her grit teeth while the machines worked.
“That was a real crazy jump in neural activity right there. You sure you’re okay?”
“Cap, it was like an 800% increase from normal...”
“I said I’m fine.”
“Okay, okay, sorry,” she said. “Sheesh, I’ll leave you alone. Far be it from me to be worried about the great Captain Valencia Vasquez.”
“No, wait,” she said. “I’m sorry, just, I don’t know how to explain what happened over there. It...played with my mind. There were other people there.”
“The other crew?”
“Yes, or at least I think so. It’s so hard to tell and thinking about it hurts.”
“Yeah, I just saw another little jump there.”
A wave of exhaustion came over her, like she hadn’t slept in days and had just taken a sleeping pill. Keeping her eyes open became a struggle and Bec noticed it, keeping quiet while the Captain fought through the remainder of the tests.
“I’m exhausted, Bec,” she said. “Mind if I rest my eyes for a while?”
“No problem, Cap. I’ll be in the cockpit, going through my emergency rations of liquorice.”
“I’m shocked you have any left,” she said. “It’s been what? Three days?”
“Yeah,” she said. “So much for a quick job, right? Just, yeah, you look beat, you rest here and maybe keep these nodes on just in case. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Sleep came fast and hard, the overwhelming feeling of weightlessness, making it feel like she was falling through a wormhole faster than the speed of light. The green eyes were watching her from wherever she was heading, no matter where she turned they were directly in front of her, glowing with the intensity of two supernovas burning wildly in the night. Just when she grew used to the feeling of falling her body smacked hard against the surface of some water, splashing down. She was sinking, her lungs filling up with water while she reached for the light of the eyes at the surface and screamed with the last few gulps of air she had left.
“Captain!” Bec’s voice brought her back.
“Ah!” she said, finding herself drenched in sweat in the med bay. “I’m sorry. I must have been having a nightmare.”
“It’s okay, you were screaming, and I came in as fast as I could. The readings were insane, too...”
“How long was I out for?”
“About six hours, give or take.”
“Six hours? Ugh, felt like six minutes.”
“That’s how it works, huh?”
“You okay, though? Something’s going on here and it’s not like I have anything else to do or anywhere else to be.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. We’re really still stuck?”
“Yeah, no dice on the engines.”
“And nothing from Drake and Gentar?”
“Nada. Zip. Zilch.”
“If I could, I’d wring Jordache’s fat neck from here.”
“Too bad we can’t even send him a message, huh?”
“That snake,” she said. “I should have never trusted him. I’ll say this, if we ever find that container of his, we’re opening the damned thing up and taking whatever we want from it.”
“Yeah? Sounds like a plan, Cap. Just can’t get down there to get it, sadly.”
“If he were here right now I’d take this stupid key of his and jam it right into those beady little eyes and—”
“Key? What key?”
“He gave me this key,” she said, searching around in her pocket before producing it. It was a tiny chip with a blinking green light on it and a small metal strip protruding out of it.
“Is it to the container?”
“Damned if I know. He just gave me the thing and said it was in case of emergencies. Something about him retrieving it from the other ship and not to lose it, there isn’t a copy.”
“Cap, you don’t think that...”
“You think it has something to do with that ship out there? You said the other ship got away, and this thing came from it, right?”
“Ohhhhhh,” she said. The concept clicked for her in an instant, that this could be the key that gets them the hell out of this jam once and for all. “Bec, this could be it. You’re a genius!”
“Could you record that for when Drake gets back? I want to rub that in his face a bit.”
“Enough,” she said. “We need to be careful with this, let’s run a diagnostic on it and see what we can find. This could be it, though. This could get us and the guys the hell away from that thing for good. Maybe even...”
“Maybe even what?”
“Get Emma and her crew out.”
10 The Artist
Pandemonium had erupted on the deck of the city, with wildly varying reports swirling around of just how many beasts had surrounded the floating, mangled mass of Dredge. Drake and Gentar had yet to even walk the full length of the city, opting to stay by their campsite and the container. Now they were trapped inside of what felt like a storm they were unprepared for.
Fishermen were fighting for their nets while the few boats just off shore bobbed in the disturbance's wake, afraid to approach while wild swaths of tentacles bubbled up from the depths and smashed at anything and everything nearby. The chaos would have been confusing if Drake didn’t know what they were looking for: the container. They were just looking for a way to reach it, although he couldn’t explain how or why he knew that. Gentar had a spear and was poking and prodding at the tendrils wrapped around the container, doing his best to fend off the beasts and not allow them to reclaim the container. Men and women with rifles and spears, Gra’al and Terran alike, were doing their best to combat the beasts, unsure of exactly how many there were or which tentacle belonged to which beast. Instead, blind fear led the counter assault, firing and poking wildly at any mass of bubbles on the surface or any arm that dared reach out of the murky waters below.
“Can you work the crane?” Gentar called to Drake in between thrusts with the spear.
“The crane. I need you to pull the container away from the ledge!”
“I don’t know how,” Drake said.
“Fine.” Gentar thrust the spear handle into Drake’s hands, him taken aback by the force. “Don’t let them drag it in and attach the hook when I lower it.”
“O-okay,” Drake said, feeling the weight of the spear in his hand.
“Go!” Gentar said before rushing off.
Drake found himself, head still spinning, standing there with a spear in hand, his mind racing trying to predict where the next tentacle would emerge from. A dull thud in his head made him momentarily black out before he felt something wrap around his ankle, Drake screaming and thrashing, stabbing in a panic at the tentacle. The beast recoiled into the water before another one shot out, aimed directly for his head, forcing Drake onto his back, wildly stabbing the spear up into the sky at the appendage. He scooted so his back pressed against the container, overhead thrusting the spear at the Krakthu’s arm while he heard the whizzing of the crane overhead. The sound of metal-on-metal from behind made him crawl towards the front of the crate where the hook from the crane was laying. He snatched it up, almost dropping it after underestimating the sheer weight of the large metal hook before hefting it up and around the chassis for the lock. The clang of the clip that cut through the screams of both crew and beast let him know that it was secure, him looking up to signal Gentar before another tendril wrapped itself around him, this time around his knee, sweeping him off of his feet and smacking his head against the hull. Drake clawed for the spear, his fingertips getting a faint touch on the side of the shaft only for it to spin off in the wrong direction. Desperation made him grasp for anything he could, grabbing hold of the ridge of the container only for Gentar’s crane to lift it up off the deck. He reached up with his other hand to get a grip on the container only for the beast to tug harder, him almost tumbling down to the ground, the gap between himself and the deck having grown almost instantly thanks to the crane.
His grip was loosening, the power of the crane and the tug from the beast looking to stretch him to his limits. A voice swirled inside of his mind, almost like a dark laugh from the distance calling him to let go. He fought it back to the recesses of his mind, remembering the pistol on his hip, reaching down and tugging it from its holster, the cold metal of the trigger itching against his finger before he pulled the trigger as many times as he could. Bolts of energy buzzed uncontrollably towards the deck, a Gra’al with a blaster diving out of the way after one singed at the deck in front of him. Before he could cry “sorry” he finally hit the beast, only its grip tightened instead of loosened. Drake wanted to call out to Gentar but knew in the chaos that it would be worthless, instead he kept firing, hoping that it would let go, all while his grip on the container was slipping away. The split-second decision between holding on for his life or to continue firing in vain forced him to holster the gun and attempt to tighten his grip, only for his fingers to slip and his heart jumped up to his throat while he flew down, away from the container careening towards the ground.
The tentacle had its death grip on him, stopping him just seconds before he’d smash against the hull, dangling him in the sky by his leg, which felt exactly like someone had tried to pull it out from its socket. The reprieve was temporary, his back smashing down hard onto the ground, the back of his head bouncing off of a crate and everything spun. Instead of blacking out the laugh inside of his head grew and grew in intensity and volume, almost deafening while he felt his body being pulled towards the depths of the sea. He gripped at anything he could in futility but could not get a sense of where he was or where he was going, everything spinning, rushing and screaming around him. “Gentar! Heeeellllpp,” he called, knowing he was too far away.
His eyes locked on the container, dangling by the heavy line from the crane overhead, well out of the reach of the beasts. A pair of hands grasped onto his hand, attempting to pull him back, only for another tendril to shoot out and grip onto his free leg. Drake shouted again, it drowned out by the laugh in his mind and the surrounding chaos. The hand still tugged only for a series of appendages to shoot out from the water and over him, wrapping themselves around his shoulders and arms, almost around his entire body while they tugged him down towards the water.
The splash was effortless; him shooting into the water like a missile and he was being dragged into the bottom of the ocean while all he could do was watch in horror while the light faded from the surface. Shadowy figures surrounded him, swirling tentacles and dark clouds while the last few bubbles of air escaped from his mouth, his lungs filling with the stinging saltwater. This was it, he thought calmly, this was how Drake Rose died: drowning in the ocean of Thuul, being dragged to the bottom by these beasts while a laugh echoed in his mind.
Bring him back, the voice spoke through him.
Bring him back.
All that surrounded him was darkness, the panic of death had subsided and an all-encompassing calm overcame him. Death, or at least that’s what it felt like, greeted him cooly.
“You’ve been chosen, traveler,” a voice spoke through him. The darkness that had enveloped him took form, no longer vast and bottomless, instead constructing walls in the distance that he couldn’t see but could sense through the void. “You’re okay, you can open your eyes now.”
Almost on cue he mustered up the courage to attempt to open his eyes. The task was menial yet felt monumental considering this would be him turning the page of his existence. Drake’s life had been snuffed out and now he was looking forward to eternity. Carefully he opened his eyes, dim light filtering through the haze. The sound of running water echoing around came to him in a hurry, the more the light exposed his surroundings the more his senses returned to what felt like normal.
“W-what? Where am I?”
“That’s a fair question,” the man said. He crouched down next to him, a small campfire flickering behind him to expose his gaunt figure, pallid skin, sunken cheeks and dark, deep-socketed eyes. He looked crazed, a wispy white beard sprouting from his chin and wiry, thin hair around his head like a halo. “Welcome to His home.”
“Who’s home? Yours?”
“Oh yes, this is in a way my home. I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s wild, you know that. I’ve been here for years now, never thought of it as my home. But it is. That’s real wild. You, you have something, I can tell you that. He never picks randomly, oh no, my friend. I live here, I do, so I suppose His home is my home, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Drake took in his surroundings. It was a cave of some sort, dark, lined with torches that flickered in some dim light but not enough to reach the upper limits of the cave, only exposing some of it, not all.
“This is a lot to take in all at once, isn’t it? I mean, this is really all His! Once it really hits you, I mean, man, wait until you meet Him. He doesn’t talk directly, I mean, He has once or twice but they talk for Him. They—we—are His voice.”
“The Children, man,” he said, arms outstretched. “You’ve heard them, I can see it in your eyes. Oh, you’ve heard them, they’ve spoken to you. Only it wasn’t His word, so I can see how it’s confusing.”
“Who are they, then?”
“His children, man. We’re all really His children, though, aren’t we? I mean, shit, we’re all here and He speaks through us. I guess not you yet, though, huh?”
“You mean the voices? The laughter?”
“Oh yeah, you’ve been hearing it, alright. We’re looking for Him, man. They took Him from us and we’re searching. His reach, man, it’s everywhere. It’s out in the cosmos right now, they won’t get Him.”
“All right, I really don’t know what or who you’re talking about, at all. I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m His voice. I’m the only one here, the Children, man, they’re all out there, swimming around. They’re gonna bring Him back, just like they brought you here. Just like they bring me food just when I think they’ve forgotten. They don’t forget, they’re just doing His work on this forsaken planet,” he said. “As for me? I’m His voice, like I said.”
“Does that voice have a name I can call you?”
“A name? Man, it’s been years since I was in that floating bullshit city, every man jockeying for position over the other, every man a proud, ignorant fool like the last. Oh no, that name doesn’t suit me anymore. I’m just an acolyte of Him. That’s my higher calling, and He’s been training me. Yeah, that’s me, I’m an acolyte.”
“Okay, then,” Drake said. He pulled his knees up to his chest and shivered.
“Come, come closer to the fire, warm up my friend. I promise you that nothing bad will come of it.”
Drake inched in further towards the fire, trying to scan the cave to see if there was any indication of how deep it was, where it was or if there was a way out. He wasn’t dead; the Krakthus had just dragged him into some cave with some old crackpot in it who kept yammering on about some person.
“So who’s this ‘He’ you keep talking about?”
“You’ve heard them, man, you’ve heard the Children. We’re all His children and He speaks through us. As for Him, how do I even start to explain this to you? Imagine the most powerful being in existence. Imagine someone from beyond our understanding without form or shape, able to mold himself into whatever He chooses. He chose this planet as His resting place. Long ago, long before there were Terrans or Gra’al poking around. You ever think why the Gra’al considered this place off-limits? C’mon, man. It was Him.”
“I know they consider it sacred, but I thought that was because of the battle and all the dead.”
“Then why didn’t they set up shop here before? It’s right there for the taking. You saw what we could do with some old ship hulls, right? That’s nothing to sneeze at. Some Gra’al house could have set up shop here long ago, but oh no, they knew, man. The Sentinel stood there out of sight, whispering their word to anyone who’d pass and they stayed away. To not disturb His slumber.”
“A stellar defender, mind-warping, multidimensional. Built by His people to attempt some feeble control over Him. Can you believe the audacity? They were fools. Then the Terrans, oh man the Terrans, decided to wage war here and the Gra’al, hungry for blood like they were, engaged and the Sentinel spoke through them in His voice. They don’t talk about Him up there, do they? Just like they don’t talk about me.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just got here a few days ago.”
“A new arrival?” he asked. “That’s curious. You do look younger and a bit less haggard than the average Thuul survivor. But how?”
“We took a job.”
“A job?” he asked. “That’s rich. Here, on Thuul?”
“It was a retrieval job. We had to come here to find a container for some rich asshole. Then bring it back. Only things went pretty haywire and here I am, stuck on this planet and just dragged to the deep by those Krakthu things.”
“You mean His children.”
“Curious, you talk about some container. Was it here, on Thuul, in the water?”
“Yeah, we had to retrieve it, but it doesn’t matter because we can’t get off this rock, anyway.”
“That’s the penance for interrupting His slumber.”
“He just slept? Then how was He speaking through anyone?”
“That’s just how He works, man. Look, I wasn’t here originally, I was brought here through happenstance and circumstance. Yet, here I am. And here you are.”
“Has anyone else been here? I mean, Gra’al or Terran.”
“And what happened to them? I don’t see anyone else.”
“His voice, man. His voice is overwhelming, overpowering. It’s beyond our comprehension, that’s why the Children are here, that’s why I’m here. I can handle His voice. Others? Well, I don’t know. As for you, well, that remains to be seen. Not everyone survives. Most succumb.”
“I don’t know, man.” He stood up, stretching his arms out in a wild gesture. “I don’t want to say it, okay? I don’t want you to think ill of Him. He’s not bad. He’s not good. He’s Him, and He’s all powerful. You gotta understand that. He was here to sleep, to ruminate and regenerate His power after His people locked Him here for eternity. We disturbed Him, then they came.”
“They, man. They. Slipped by the Sentinel, able to drown out the voices of the Children, they took him and put him in a cell, man. The children have been able to keep Him safe until he awakens, but they’ve come back. They’ve come back for Him.”
“Who is this ‘they?’”
“Men, Terrans, you know the type. They came for Him. The ones that were able to cage Him were prepared, they knew what to expect, how to trap Him, but we’ve fought to keep Him until he awakes. Oh, when He awakes, man, I don’t even want to tell you what happens then.”
“Some sort of cataclysm?”
“I don’t even know how to explain it. A rapture, only I can’t even explain the scale without sounding completely and utterly insane. Oh, you arrived at the right time, man. Just in time to make sure they don’t get Him.”
“It was just a cargo job, not anything big. I don’t get why I matter.”
“Because you still haven’t seen it yet. He knew you were coming for Him. He knew, and He spoke through you. You ever think you were brought here for a reason? He reached out, man. He felt you. You thought you could take him away? Ha.”
“I wasn’t here for a person or a thing, or, well, Him, whatever that is, I was just...”
“It’s hitting you, isn’t it? He called to you. You came. Simple as that.”
“That can’t be.” His blood ran cold at the thought of some cosmic force pulling him towards this dreaded planet.
“We’re all here because of Him, my friend. They’ve even been building His cosmic throne on the bones of the dead and mangled ships. This is just a transition. This is where we belong. This is the beginning of His kingdom, the true cosmic order. None of this Gra’al or Terran bullshit. This is real.”
A chill ran down Drake’s spine and the cavernous room felt like it was closing in on him while the laughs inside of his mind grew louder and louder.
11 The Captain
Somehow the device that Jordache had given her refused their scans. In fact, the smoking terminal in the cargo bay was proof enough for her to not bother plugging it into any other machine. Bec had burst out laughing while the Captain fumed. Somehow Bec could always find a lighter side to their woes.
“I just don’t get it,” Valencia said. “You saw what it did, right?”
“Sure did, Cap.”
“Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
“Nah, then again, I’ve seen nothing like that ship out there, so it doesn’t seem too strange, does it?”
“I guess it’s to be expected, I just...”
“The client gave you that thing, right? Methinks he knew more than he was letting on about this whole job.”
“That’s an understatement.” She stared down at the device in her palm, the dull, blinking light reminding her of the eyes that followed her while entangled in whatever that ship did to her. She could see that Bec was sympathetic to her, but also couldn’t contemplate most of what had happened. “If I could, I’d warp back there and snap his little toady neck for this. I have no idea what he was thinking with this.”
“I guess he was just gonna send crews out with that little key there, have it retrieved and send out another when we disappeared. Just do it until something worked out.”
“If this key was on the other ship and that ship could make it away from Thuul, or at least far enough for the Terran gov to retrieve it with no one else being sucked into this whole thing, how come we can’t leave? I’ve had the key in my pocket the entire time.”
“Maybe it needs to be in the nav computer?”
“You saw what it just did to this terminal? I’m not risking the nav computer, Bec. No way.”
“So what, then? We head back over to that thing over there and both go through some psychedelic, time warping experience for the rest of our lives?”
“No,” she stated firmly. “We’re not going near that thing again.”
“Okay, okay.” Bec reached out and grabbed onto Valencia’s arm. “I know it was tough. I’m just saying. We’re out of options here, Val.”
She wouldn’t say that Bec was particularly cold to her or anything, Valencia was happy to call her family, it was just that she wasn’t that type of person. Snarky, playful and isolated would be how she’d describe her most of the time, not tender and caring. Sure, it felt ridiculous to think about while Bec was there, reaching out and reassuring her. Hell, she was even referring to her by name was tender. Yet, for Bec, that was about as tender as she got. Maybe she had to trust her. It wasn’t like they had anything else to lose.
“Maybe it was because of the key that the ship even spat me out,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“The other crew is in there still. I saw us all suspended in these tube things. I’m not sure if that was real or not, but... I got out, they’re still there.”
“If they’re really there at all. From what you’ve said it all sounded really strange and trippy.”
“I guess I’m just feeling guilty, is all.”
“Because you got out?”
“Yeah, well, sort of.” She took a deep breath. Emma’s green eyes appeared in her mind again, almost indistinguishable from the set of eyes produced by whatever that ship was, whatever that entity was. “I just made a call in there, it was the call that got me out, but I’m hoping it didn’t cost one of the crew their lives.”
“If they’re even still alive. Look, Cap—Val—I know that was a strange experience and all, but whatever was on there fucked with your head. You’re not responsible for whatever happened there.”
“That’s not how it feels.” Tears welled up in her eyes. If Bec wasn’t an emotional person, then she definitely wasn’t. She was the queen of suppressing her emotions, usually hanging out down in the cargo bay whenever something was bothering her and mentally processing it on her own before gathering herself and returning to the crew. At this point she didn’t care, though, what would it really matter, anyway? After everything she’d been through.
An unexpected embrace from Bec made her warm all over, a torrent of tears streaming down her cheeks and into the pilot’s old jumpsuit. Bec’s springy hair bounced next to her, and she felt like just getting lost in her embrace and that hair for as long as she could, to cry away any of the last few days and her doomed decision to pick up this job from Jordache. He sketched her out from the beginning, but the job felt safe. There was perhaps a way to play it too safe that things get dangerous and now Bec and her were trapped aboard their ship while Gentar and Drake were who knows where on that drowning tomb of a planet.
“It’s okay, Val. We’ll figure this out, we’ll get them back.”
“Fuck it,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
“Plug the damned thing into the nav computer. What’s the worst that can happen? We get stuck here? We’re already stuck here, right?”
“Damned straight.” The pilot’s eyes lit up. Her mischievous grin told her she was on board with the plan. There had been far too few dangerous jobs or hot landings for her since the Sergeant died and she was just champing at the bit to do anything thrilling again.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Might as well see what happens.”
“Oh Cap,” the pilot said. “I never thought you’d say those words.”
“Plug the key into the nav computer?”
“No, just doing anything dangerous! I’m downright giddy over here, Cap!”
“At least one of us is, right?”
“C’mon, Val. Let’s do this.”
Bec rushed up the stairs, skipping a step at a time while Valencia followed behind her, keeping her eyes on the pulsing green light on the key. There was a knot in her stomach that she couldn’t shake the idea that she could theoretically brick her ship. Not just any ship, but her ship, the one she had to claw and fight for, the one she won fair and square and had earned the respect of Sergeant Rose. With him gone that all felt more important than ever, just like protecting Drake from whatever kind of danger he was in down there.
Bec sat in her chair rubbing her palms together in anticipation while the Captain looked around the ship and then to the small key in her palm. “I’m sorry, old girl,” she murmured under her breath. “Here goes nothing.”
“All right, let’s do it, Cap.” The pilot said, pausing briefly. “Seriously, Val, we’ve got nothing else to lose now. We’ll figure it out if something goes wrong.”
“Okay, here we go.” She held her breath while she slid the key toward the tiny expansion slot, it resting gently against the lip before pressing it in. Valencia closed her eyes and exhaled while she felt the key click into place, waiting for the nav computer to overheat like the console below had. “Anything?” she asked, eyes still clenched shut.
“Captain,” Bec whispered. “You’re gonna want to see this.”
“The engine isn’t overheating, is it?”
Opening her eyes felt like having her teeth pulled, afraid of finding herself overcome with water again, her lungs filling with fluid and suffocating her inside her own ship, like everything that happened on the alien ship was just a vision of the future. She pried her eyes open only to see the ship’s board illuminated, no warning signs or blaring klaxons.
“Wait, it’s working?”
“All readings are nominal, Captain.”
“Are they working?”
“Everything seems to point towards yes. Captain, we’ve got ourselves a working Trys. This old girl isn’t done yet.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Okay, okay, this is good.” Valencia slid into the co-pilot’s chair, checking the readouts with her own eyes. Sure enough, everything was fine. The blinking 0 on the comms started to climb, a flood of messages coming in. “Bec, the comms.”
“I see it, holy shit.”
“I can’t believe it. Can we move?”
“Trying a soft boost now,” she said. “In 3...2...1—”
The ship bound forward; the engines burning softly and moving just beyond the view of the alien vessel that had consumed her and played with her mind. Relief overcame her and once again her eyes were blurry, only these tears were of sheer joy. “I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it, Cap. The Trys is back in business.”
“Whatever you do,” Vetru’s holographic image appeared on the comm console in front of them, “do not engage with Thuul. I cannot repeat this enough. Thuul is cursed. Even before the Terrans lured us into battle there, the Gra’al avoid Thuul. Strange things happen there, probes never return, ships go missing. For all of your sakes, please, avoid Thuul. Come visit us instead. Jek’tu took his first steps yesterday, I’ve sent along a recording for all of you. You should all be proud. He’d love to see Drake again, the rest of you as well.”
Valencia paused the recording while the both of them sat there in silence. The recording was too little, too late. There was something strange about Thuul and they had burst headlong into it with no warning outside of Gentar’s. As always, she should have listened to Gentar, who was wise beyond his years.
“Looks like Gen was right,” Bec said.
“I didn’t want to add that part, but yeah, again.”
“Noted,” Valencia said.
“So now what? Dare we risk heading down to the surface to find them, or was this risk enough?” Bec asked.
There was no way to know what to do next and while most of her command of the Trystero involved difficult decisions, somehow this one made her question herself. This job was her decision and instead of consulting the crew and taking jobs that they suggested, she kept pushing for what felt like “safe” jobs.
“This key seems to be outside of the control of whatever that alien ship is. It makes sense that’s how Emma’s ship made it out of here and maybe why Emma and her crew were stuck on that ship, in that loop.”
“I really don’t know anymore. What I do know is that we have a decision to make. I decided to come here in the first place. I made that decision to dive feet-first into that alien ship and nothing has been right ever since...”
“Valencia,” Bec said, reaching out to her again. “Stop beating yourself up over all of this. Shit happens, okay?”
“I know, Becca, I know. I just...I want the decision to be a crew one and right now that means you and me.”
“Okay, so what’s the choice?”
“We go for backup. Endigo is the nearest planet, there’s a complicated history there, but Gint lives there and he’s got other allies as well.”
“Old Gint,” Bec laughed and shook her head. “Weird old guy, but saved our asses before.”
“Or we head down to the surface and rescue our boys on our own. Fuck the mission.”
“Yeah, fuck the mission.”
“We get them off of there, then maybe try to find a way to get Emma and her crew off of that ship. One step at a time, though.”
“I dunno, Cap, if you ask me, it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”
“It’s dangerous, though. There’s no guarantee that we can even get off that rock.”
“They key got us this far,” Bec said.
“The key also got us comms.”
“Let’s do it, Val. Let’s go get them.”
“I was afraid you were gonna say that.”
“Because we’re in agreement about it and I wanted you to talk me out of it. I should have known better than rely on you talking me out of doing something reckless.”
“Hey, I... represent that.”
They both burst out laughing, Vetru’s serious face suspended in a blue haze in front of them, only adding levity to the situation. She knew better than to seek Bec as the voice of reason, but then again, the only real decision was to keep it within the family and not drag anyone else into a possible watery grave.
“Do we still have the tracker?” Valencia asked. “The one from Jordache?”
“No,” Bec admitted. “We just had the one unit with everything programmed into it and Gentar took it down to the surface with him.”
“Great, so there’s an entire ocean planet where they could be, filled with sunken ships from the battle, which makes our scans worthless. It’s gonna be impossible to find them down there.”
“Well, actually, it might not be that hard.”
“We ran some scans before they launched down there and found a giant, well, I guess you could call it a landmass?”
“A landmass on a water planet?”
“Well, it’s not land in the traditional sense, it’s more a floating scrap heap that’s the size of a city. We guessed it was just a reef of some sort that the ships clustered into.”
“That’s where they were aiming for?”
“Yep. I’m not sure if they made it or not, but it would be pretty hard to miss something that big unless their controls were totally busted.”
“So I guess it’s settled, then?”
“I think so, yeah. We’re gonna save those boys, because they always need saving, don’t they?”
“They sure do, Bec. They sure do.”
“I guess we should send some messages back before we go down, you know, just in case.”
“Yeah. I also want to download those videos of Bruce for Drake, you know, just in case.”
“Yeah, just in case.”
They exchanged smiles while Valencia pulled up the readout of the planet, including the giant, floating mass the size of a small city which would be their target. She couldn’t help but notice the continual flashing of the green light on the key, even from across the cockpit, like it was calling to her. She’d figure this all out. Not because she thought she could, just because she knew she had to. She had to find a way to get Drake and Gentar to safety and she had to find a way to spring Emma and the crew.
12 The Artist
Waterlogged and his head still ringing, Drake sat by the fire in the underground chamber staring at the man he only knew as the Acolyte, sitting with his legs crossed and his eyes shut, in some sort of trance. The conversation between the two had remained terse, tense and obtuse. The old man claimed to have been in that cave for years, his haggard appearance backing up the claim, at least in part. He looked like shit, although it wasn’t like most of the soldiers up on the surface were in better condition, they also weren’t babbling about some all-seeing, all-knowing godlike figure. “So what is this guy like?” he asked, finally breaking the silence.
“I don’t know any guy here,” he said. “I only know Him.”
“Right, sorry, ‘Him.’ What is He like?”
“I’ve never seen Him.”
“So then how do you know anything about Him if you’ve never actually, you know...”
“Because He’s spoken through me, through the Children. You’ve heard the voice, you just don’t believe yet. But you will. Trust me, you will believe.”
“So then where is He? I thought this was where He slumbered.”
“It’s where He did slumber,” he explained. “Then they came and tried to take Him away. They were able to get Him out of here, sure, but not far enough. The Sentinel and the Children made sure of that.”
“So then where is He?”
“That’s complicated. He’s here. He’s all around us.”
“Is he on Thuul?”
“Oh, yeah, definitely on Thuul. Just they tried to take Him and the Children, man, they’re fighting them for Him.”
“So was He in that container we came for?”
“Man, I don’t know specifics, you know? Fractions, decimals, that kind of stuff isn’t how this is done.”
“I’m not talking about math,” Drake said, mildly annoyed. “I’m talking about how we got here, we dove and found a container we were after and lifted it up to the surface. One of those Krakthu things—”
“One of the Children,” he corrected him.
“Children, sure, one of them grabbed at us but we got away. The next day they came back for it but took me instead.”
“He works in mysterious ways, you know?”
“I don’t know, actually.”
“Fair enough, fair enough. What I’m saying is this: you came for Him, right? You didn’t even know it and now you found Him. Better yet, He found you.”
“I guess.” Drake stood up, still damp but not as cold as when he first arrived and tried to get a better feel for the cave. Something echoed in his mind but he closed his eyes and focused, the image of Bruce fiddling with one of his brushes helping to push whatever that thought was aside and focus. He missed Bruce and really should’ve visited him, it just felt wrong somehow, like he was betraying his father. None of that made much sense other than in the recesses of his mind, yet he tried to accept his own sloppy analysis of whatever was going on in his mind, concussion and all. The concussion had to be the reason all of this felt so surreal and for the stuff he kept hearing. This place was just some crazy old man’s way of dealing with being stranded and even further isolated.
The man that called himself the Acolyte returned to his meditation, his eyes closed and hands at peace on his knees. If there had been a way into this cave, there had to be a way out, Krakthu or not. It mustn’t be too far from the surface if they could drag him there without him drowning.
He had to try, right? He’d survived through all of this somehow, there was no point in not trying to swim for the surface, it was just a matter of finding whatever submerged cavern that led to the chamber and get through there. He approached the surface by the large pool to the side and stared down into murky water.
“It’s good to acclimate yourself,” the Acolyte said.
“What do you mean?”
“To explore your surroundings, man. This is home now. We’re servants to Him and this is where we start. When the time is right we’ll rise up, carried by the Children and the truth will be transparent. He speaks through us, just like He does the Children.”
“Do they really not know about, erm, Him up there?”
“Of course they do. They know His voice, they know the voices of the Children. They just deny Him, can you believe it? They deny the power that He’s demonstrated by bringing us all here. Not a single one of us was an accident, did you know that? Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know what to believe. Millions, right? Between the dead and whoever are up there on the surface.”
“All a part of His plan, you see.”
Drake merely shook his head, dipping his foot into the water apprehensively. The water bubbled up before him and a pair of tentacles shot up, a screaming inside of his mind sent him reeling back in pain. “Aargh!”
“Testing the waters, uh huh? The Children know us. The Children keep us safe from the surface-dwellers before our return, before we reveal Him to them all.”
“So we’re captives?”
“You know what, man? If that’s how you want to think about this, I don’t know. I get it, I really do. When I first awoke here, I didn’t know what to think. I’d heard His voice and the voice of the Children on the surface, we all did. It just spoke to me more, the pull was electric, then they took me, just like they took you. The terror subsided, though. It does, I want you to know that.”
“I can see it in you, man, of course I do. You’re apprehensive. You don’t believe yet. This is some sort of dream, right?”
“I hit my head pretty hard pulling that container up and suffered a minor concussion.”
“Exactly! Right? He gives you a reason to doubt. No one’s faith goes untested, now it’s just up to you to open up and accept Him. I do have one question, though...”
“Do you have it?”
“Do I have what?”
“They key, man, the key. He’s trapped right now and if he summoned you, there’s a reason. You came here, looking for Him. Did they not give you a key?”
“We had a transponder to find the container. Do you mean that?”
“No, no,” he said. “I mean something to set Him free. Only He can free Himself and He bestowed that key on the Acolyte that came before.”
“And what happened to this other guy?”
“I don’t know, look around, will you? Does it look like I have company? I mean, other than you, of course.”
“So I guess we’re friends now.”
“He brings people together, that’s what He does. Where else have you seen Terrans and Gra’al living together? They were bitter foes, and let me tell you, when we first landed down here it wasn’t much better. It was Him. It was the Children, it brought us all together. He did that. He did.”
“What does this have to do with this key thing?”
“The key? The key man, it’s the key. The key can open His cell, it can free Him. It’s a part of Him. It is Him, really. That’s what it is.”
“If a ship can’t even get here, what’s the point?”
“That’s what the key is for, man. The key does many things. You’re thinking too linear, too constrained.”
“So a ship with this key could land here, then? Get past the Sentinel?”
“I guess. Look, He works the way He wants to. You got here, didn’t you?”
“I did, yeah.”
“If there’s a will, there’s a way, especially when it’s His will.”
His last statement sat in Drake’s mind, comfortably occupying the same space as whatever was speaking to him, be it his own subconscious or something more sinister. He wasn’t sure and didn’t know if he’d ever find out. This planet would be the end of him, he could feel it in his bones.
“Wake up,” the Acolyte’s voice broke through the barriers of sleep.
“Huh?” His eyes were still heavy, adjusting to the low light of the cave to see him standing there with a torch in hand, a dumb smirk on his face.
“Do you hear them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Listen carefully,” he said. “Reach. The Children, they’re speaking.”
Drake stretched his arms out and could feel a presence lingering inside of himself, a laugh echoing in the distance while a chorus of voices were calling out, incoherently shouting in tongues, so much so that focusing on it only led to pain.
“So you do hear them. See? He’s speaking. There’s something happening. The Sentinel is crying.”
“What does that mean?”
“That He will be free soon. That the key has returned and once we retrieve it, He will be revealed. Do you know what that means?”
“Not really, no.”
“Oh, my friend...”
“It’s Drake, you know. Drake. You never asked for my name.”
“Names are not of importance now,” he said. “We are but blips on the radar for Him, but we serve Him well. He knows who we are without the artifice of names.”
“Okay. I still don’t understand.”
“The key, my friend. The key. He’s returning. The reckoning will start, all it takes is that key.”
13 The Captain
To say that Valencia was having second thoughts about rocketing the Trystero down to the surface would be a massive understatement. There was a lot wrong with this planet and this situation, most of which felt outside of her control. As a captain, she felt responsible for her crew and knowing that they were split up like this and potentially in danger meant that she wasn’t thinking clearly. Trying to parse out the “right“ decision from the “wrong“ one felt impossible.
She slunk down in the co-pilot’s chair and strapped herself in while Bec ran the calculations on their landing. They aimed the ship at the eastern tip of the land mass, where Gentar and Drake had set course for. If they made it and didn’t burn up in the atmosphere in that pod, if something else didn’t happen and if there wasn’t another of those alien ships that sucked them in and they were hostages like Emma and her crew.
“All right, Cap,” Bec said. The pilot had pulled her jumpsuit all the way on, even buttoned it up making her look somewhat composed. This concerned Valencia immensely, because nothing ever phased Bec, yet she seemed focused and nervous. Not a great sign.
“I guess it’s now or never, huh?”
“Yep, look out Dray and Gen, we’re coming to rescue you.”
“Yeah, we hope.” The pilot’s hands paused on the controls before turning to her. “It’ll be okay, we’ll get through this.”
Before she could return the warm smile to her Bec punched it and the ship jumped forward. It would’ve annoyed her if it was anyone else, but with Bec doing something reckless and charging in head first was the only way she knew how and at least familiar. Her spine tingled while they rocketed towards the atmosphere, popping in and feeling the ship buck in resistance. Bec only knew how to come in hot, not that she was a bad pilot or bad at landings, it was just how she flew and no matter how many times they’d pressed her to calm down she’d just smile her mischievous smile and promise not to do it again, everyone knowing full well that she would. This was why she stayed on the ship during missions, that and in case they had to make a graceful, quick exit or if anyone tried to jack the ship which happened with the Trys’s old pilot a few times while he was off getting hammered. The ship shuddered while the landmass came into view beneath them. The vast, shimmering ocean and awe-inspiring sight if there ever was one. As much as she wanted to comment, the pull of the planet’s gravity and the ship’s deceleration made her instead just lock her jaw and wait for things to straighten out. Her one hope now was that there was somewhere safe enough to land the ship on that landmass.
Her eyes bulged out the closer they got, disbelief running through her mind. The landmass was huge and there were lights on it. Not old beacons that automatically came on in case of a search party, either, they were intentional lights, blinking out patterns or static, which could only mean one thing: someone was alive down there. It wasn’t just one or two lights, either; it was a whole landscape of them. This wasn’t the work of Drake or Gentar, this was a city. The ship had slowed down while Bec looked for a safe landing spot.
“I see it,” she said. “It’s a whole blasted city down there.”
“I thought they were all dead?”
“We thought wrong,” the Captain said. “Is there any radio chatter?”
“None,” Bec said. “It’s no wonder no one came down to rescue them, but a whole city?”
“We couldn’t get anything down to the surface, either, and remember, we’ve got a damned key in our nav system, too.”
“I guess... Are all of them marooned here? The battle was years ago, I just...”
“Focus on the landing,” she said. “We gotta find a safe place, especially with no way to communicate with the surface.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem, Cap,” she said.
Valencia glared down at the surface where a large group of bodies had accumulated, forming a circle around a blank area on the deck of the landmass, the circle ever-expanding while the mass of people backed up to give them enough room. More detail came into focus before she saw one Gra’al standing there, waving them in. Gentar. He was alive. A wave of relief came over her before she looked around, trying to find Drake.
“That’s Gentar!” Bec shouted.
“... but where’s Drake?”
“Oh Dray,” Bec murmured to herself. “Be okay, buddy.”
“Let’s just land and then we’ll find out.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
Valencia wanted to agree with her, it was just that it felt like an empty platitude. An injury or something similar was the best they could hope for, otherwise why wouldn’t he be there? The ship settled down onto the surface while the crowd around the ship looked itself like a sea of people, a parallel to the ocean surrounding them. Valencia didn’t wait for Bec to finish the final checks, rushing down the steps and to the cargo bay, slamming her palm on the button to pop the ramp down, the klaxons blaring while it opened up to reveal a cool breeze and the sound of many voices chattering.
Gentar was waiting for her at the bottom of the ramp, his hands on his hips. She had no idea what was on his mind thanks to her still not being able to decipher the facial expressions of Gra’als, even the one that had been living with them for the better part of a year now. She stomped down the ramp, trying not to keep those overwhelming emotions in check, right towards Gentar.
“Captain Vasquez,” Gentar said.
“Gentar, I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Welcome to Dredge.”
“I have no idea what that is, but I believe we both have a lot to talk about.”
“Indeed,” he said. “This is Dredge, and these are the survivors of the Battle of Thuul. This is their home and, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get the ship to go and why would you bring it down here? We can’t leave.”
“Not like you to question my decisions, Gentar.”
“I apologize, Captain. I’m just—”
“It’s okay, where’s Dray?”
“That’s a complicated situation,” he muttered.
“What kind of complicated?” Bec asked from over her shoulder.
“Becca,” Gentar nodded.
“Gen,” she responded. “Seriously, where’s Dray?”
“They got him.”
“Who’s ‘they?’” Valencia asked.
“The Krakthu,” a sickly looking man stepped forward, placing a hand on Gentar’s shoulder. “Vicious beasts that plague this planet. Think like the myth of the Kraken, but real.”
“What’s a Kraken?” Bec asked.
“A giant squid,” Valencia said. “Correct?”
“More or less,” Gentar said. “They have attacked us multiple times since we arrived. The first time when we retrieved the container from the depths—”
“You found the thing?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes, the tracker still worked, so we could drag it up.”
“Are you kidding me? All of this and you still tried to stick to the mission?”
“It seemed like the only thing to do while we tried to find a way to free you,” he said. “Although it seems you found a way yourself, not that it surprises me.”
“That’s a long story.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“Okay, and Drake?”
“The next day a swarm of the beasts came back, we did our best to fend them off, I was able to secure the container but in the process, well...”
“One got a hold of Drake and dragged him into the ocean.”
“What?” Bec exclaimed.
“Oh Drake,” the Captain said. She felt lightheaded. He didn’t deserve that, none of them did. But Drake especially didn’t deserve to meet his end at the tentacles of some sea monster on a strange planet. It took every last ounce of her strength to not collapse right then and there, although she leaned on Bec’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Captain, I did everything that I could, but...”
“He’s not lying,” the man next to him said. “We’ve sent out patrols and there’s no sign of him. Now look, not all hope is lost yet here, Captain, we think there could be underground caves or air pockets in some sunken ships. If he could get into one of those and into safety, well, you know.”
“Is that likely?” Bec asked. “Can Dray even swim?”
“He assisted with retrieval of the container,” Gentar said. “There were a lot of ships down there, it’s not entirely impossible.”
“Has anyone gone down looking for him?” Valencia asked.
“Well, the Krakthu haven’t really made it easy, m’am...”
“I still don’t understand how you broke free from that ship,” Gentar said.
“The captain had a key,” Bec said, producing it from her pocket. “See?”
“Curious,” he said. “I didn’t know there was a key.”
“I had forgotten about it,” the Captain said. “Jordache gave it to me in case of an emergency and I had it in my pocket. I’m starting to believe it was the only reason I got away from that ship in the first place.”
“And how were you able to get the ship down here?” Gentar asked.
“We believe so, yeah.”
“Wait,” Tuck said. “Does this mean you can get that ship out of here?”
“Probably?” Bec answered. “We don’t really know yet. We’re sure hoping.”
“So what’s in the container, anyway?” the Captain asked.
“Curiously enough, it requires a key,” Gentar said.
“You’re kidding me.”
Things were moving quickly now that they made it to the surface. The brief moments of reprieve that she got after being spat out of the alien vessel talking with Becca felt luxurious compared to her time on the alien ship and now on Dredge, whatever it was.
Gentar and the strange man had walked her and Becca to the container that was dangling up above, attached to a tether and a giant crane arm. They stood there for a long moment while Gentar stared up at it before turning to the man. “Could you lower it, Tuck?”
“Oh, right,” he said before rushing off.
“He seems... interesting?” Bec commented.
“There are a lot of people here. He has been kind to us thus far.”
“This is insane,” the Captain said. “This many people down here and nobody knows?”
“There were attempted rescue missions, but all those ships crashed thanks to whatever is going on with this planet.”
“So nobody really knows what’s going on here, nobody at all? Vetru sent us a message and implied that there was something very wrong with this planet.”
“So you could receive messages?”
“And send,” Bec chimed in.
“So they know we’re here?”
“Yeah, although I’m not sure what good that does unless we just disappear completely.”
“Somehow that’s comforting,” Gentar said.
“Is it?” Valencia watched while the container lowered to the deck, the color a strange green-metal that shimmered from the sun beating down on it. They watched while it flattened down against the ground with a loud thud.
“I’ve never seen a shipping container like this,” Bec said.
“It’s hybrid technology,” Gentar explained. “Gra’al and Terran.”
“So it’s post-war?”
“No,” he said. “I believe it to be pre war, actually.”
“Who could be responsible for this? Was it the Gra’al?”
“I don’t believe so,” he said. “Do you still have the key?”
“Uh huh.” She produced it from her pocket, the green blinking dot calling to her, tugging at her subconscious.
“Well, then.” He motioned towards the crate. “After you.”
“What happens if we get this open, Gentar? I’ve seen enough shit already involving this job that I didn’t like. If this is somehow Terran pre-war technology, that’s hybrid with Gra’al tech, that means there are a lot of question marks hanging over it. More than I thought. Should we open this? Or should we look for Drake and get the hell out of here?”
“I have a theory, Captain. My theory is that all of this is connected in some strange way and that perhaps the secret to this mystery planet lies within this container.”
“So we’ve got no choice then, is what you’re saying.”
“There’s always a choice, Captain.”
“Yeah, always a choice between bad and worse, you just don’t know it until it’s raining down all over you.” She shook her head and stood before the doors, the locking mechanism firmly in place while the supports spidered out and showed signs of attempted tampering.
The key sat heavily in her hand, like it was trying to drag her down into the depths of the planet and never let go of her. A flash of Emma appeared in her mind, morphing into the blinding light with two green slices for eyes. A hand reached out for her and she swore she could almost hear Drake calling for her in the distance. Bec’s hand on her shoulder stirred her from her reverie.
“Hey Cap,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
“I have a bad feeling about this that I can’t shake. I just heard Drake, though. I think he’s alive.”
“You heard Drake?”
“It was his voice, I don’t know. It was real. I know it was.”
“None of this makes any sense, Cap.”
“I have to do this. I’m just afraid of what’s going to happen when we open this door.”
“We’re here, Captain,” Gentar said. He unslung the rifle from his shoulder and stood at the ready.
“I hope that we won’t need that,” she said. “It’s not a bad idea, though.”
“Tuck,” Gentar called over to him. “We may need some backup.”
“All right, gimme a minute.”
Valencia held her breath while she waited for the man to amble down from the crane only to pick up a spear and point it at the door. She let out a sigh. “That thing in space sucked me in and brought me either into a portal, drugged me into a stupor or forced me into a simulation. I’m not sure if a spear will do.”
“It’s what we’ve got,” he said.
“Aren’t there other people with guns?”
“They’re on patrol, we’ve been getting hit hard by those Krakthus. I can call them back...”
“No,” Valencia said. “You think this could be some sort of key, right Gentar?”
“Then we have to do this. We have to try.”
“We’re ready, Captain,” Gentar said.
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” Bec added.
She stared back down at the key in her hand, rolling it around in her palm before the light was blinking up at her again. Comparing the key to the hole in the container's front. A chill ran through her, a muffled laugh shaking her from the distance and the same voices that she heard aboard the alien vessel were unavoidable. The weight of the key became unbearable while she reached it out towards the lock. When she pressed it into the hole, she paused for a moment, something pounding inside of her head while the container felt like it had a magnetic pull on her. She closed her eyes and felt the key sink into the hole; it clicked. Her heart skipped a beat.
Valencia opened her eyes and looked down, the blinking green light was blinking no more, instead holding a steady, solid green. Steeling herself, she took a deep breath and turned the key, a demonic screeching escaping immediately from the container. Panic overcame her while the lock clicked, releasing its grip on the door, melting away to the ground with the key popping out, returning to its natural, blinking state.
“Captain?” Bec asked.
“Yeah? I’m okay.”
“Are you gonna open the door?”
“Yes, just gimme a minute.” Her hands trembled while she reached out for the door, wrapping her fingers around the cold bars before giving a mighty tug on it. The door creaked before she threw it open, stumbling backwards away from it and covering her face from whatever was inside.
The hammer she was waiting for never dropped, Bec grasping onto her shoulder while placing the key back into her palm. Gentar walked by, flicking on the flashlight on the barrel of his rifle, poking it into the container. Overcome with emotion, tears stung her cheeks and she buried her face into Bec’s musty old jumpsuit and letting herself go.
“Gen, what’s going on?” Bec called.
“Nothing,” he said.
“No,” he said, emerging from the dark container. “It’s empty.”
“How can that be?” Valencia asked. “We were sent here for this, we may never get off this forsaken planet...”
“I’m sorry,” Gentar said. “There’s nothing here.”
14 The Artist
“Oh this is exciting, all right, can you feel it?” the Acolyte asked. His excitement was palpable. The cacophony of voices inside Drake’s mind went haywire for a moment but had calmed down, almost like the eye of a storm.
“I don’t hear anything anymore,” Drake said.
“That’s just it. He’s coming. The key, don’t you get it? They brought the key. He’s coming!”
A surge of energy charged the surrounding air, the water in the cave heated and bubbled up while inside of his mind the sinister laugh that he had known since they approached the planet grew until his own thoughts felt like they were at odds with it. Drake continued to fight while the heat rose around them and the air in the cave felt suffocating.
“Can’t you feel it? The time is upon us! He has returned!”
A giant geyser erupted from the water, the column of water so wide that he had to turn his head to understand the size of it. Tentacles rose from the depths to the perimeter of the explosion, shooting up towards the heavens while they undulated. The fountain continued to roar; the water pressing up against the unseen ceiling of rock that rested above and there was never enough light to see, splashing back down in a fine mist.
The voice inside of his head had resonance, permanence and not longer just existed within the recesses of his subconscious, it was a live wire that flowed through every molecule of air, every grain of sand and every drop of water. The presence was everywhere and everything. Finally, the water stopped, and the tentacles kept reaching, a goliath stood before him, existing only as a shadow like something in the periphery of his vision only he couldn’t turn to focus on it. “My master!” The Acolyte threw himself to the ground in reverence, looking back at Drake and urging him to do the same. “You’ve returned at last, your presence humbles me, your mere servant.”
The being spoke in a language beyond Drake’s comprehension, a series of whispers and shouts distributed through the voices of the Krakthu that surrounded it. The Acolyte squealed in excitement, postulating himself before the figure. The chaos inside of his mind had calmed itself again, only this time he felt the grip of whatever this thing as absolute. It continued to speak through the voices of the surrounding sea monsters all while the Acolyte was engaged in a low chant in tongues.
“This is the one you selected,” the Acolyte said. “We are both here to serve you.”
A dark laugh filled the air, echoing off the cave walls while simultaneously occupying the same space. Drake was attempting to back up but his legs weren’t responding to his mind.
“I’ve learned much about these ones,” the voice spoke in Terran standard.
“He’s the one! He’s the one you summoned here,” the Acolyte shouted.
“The time is upon us. The reckoning will be heard throughout the cosmos. My rest has been disturbed for the last time.” His voice boomed all around them, not like it came from the entity, but everywhere. There was a power that was able to fill Drake with dread, even if he wasn’t in control over his own body at the moment. He fell to his knees, arms and chest extending out to touch the ground while he stared at the ground, all outside of his control.
“Your usefulness has exceeded the necessity of your existence,” the voice boomed.
“I’m sorry, friend,” the Acolyte said. “It appears He doesn’t need you anymore.”
“You presume beyond your value.”
“B-but, I don’t understand. I...”
“Silence.” The voice reverberated through the chamber, the Acolyte’s sniffling the only other audible transgression.
A hush befell the chamber, Drake still on the ground, forced into bowing in reverence. As fast as questions could come to him they were scrubbed from existence, dissipating into the ether. A power urged him to his feet, his head heavy and warm, a rage overcoming him. Something compelled him forward, his body lumbering toward the Acolyte who still bowed in reverence, tears pooling up underneath him.
Drake tries to control his breathing, to quell the storm inside of him, yet he continued to move forward, fists clenched. Only small glimpses of himself were shimmering inside of him, swelling and fading while the battle raged inside of him. The Acolyte turned his head towards him, eyes red and pleading with him. Drake couldn’t understand whatever he was murmuring, his entire being overcome by a raging fire of anger that no amount of water could quell. The Acolyte reached up to him, his hands on his legs, tugging, pulling himself up and pleading before turning back to Him, surrounded by his children, crying out for mercy.
A laugh filled the air again.
“Dispose of him.”
Something was compelling him forward, even with every last ounce of his being fighting against the dark whispers in his mind. He wanted to scream out, to tell the Acolyte to run, yet he couldn’t let more than a slight grunt out. The Acolyte swallowed hard and closed his eyes, Drake attempting to shut his own, only he was helpless against what was happening.
His fist rose up, crashing down across the jaw of the Acolyte who let out a whimper at the impact of the blow. Drake’s boot came up in an arc, connected flush with his face, the kick crunching while blood erupted from his nose.
Drake’s hand wrapped around the back of his neck, picking up the small, gaunt man and dragging him towards a rock that rose up above the pool of water. The Acolyte’s body was limp, him wailing loudly and Drake wanting to scream, throwing his own body into the water. He attempted to fight back, only for Drake to rain down another pair of blows across his face, the body going limp in his hand.
Drake’s consciousness stifled a scream, feeling the presence coat his mind even further, his resistance slipping while he hefted the Acolyte’s limp body up with two hands, bringing his body up to his shoulders before snapping his body to the ground, driving him back first into the rock.
The Acolyte smacked the ground not with a scream but a whimper, kicking up rocks around him. The impact of the blow carried him further, rolling onto his neck and over the ledge, splashing down into the water and leaving behind a trail of blood. Drake’s body was covered in his blood and his faint splashes were immediately silenced by a swarm of Krakthu that descended upon him.
All Drake could do was look on in horror, the dark passenger inside of him cackling, clearly pleased with his handy work while the water bubbled over with crimson streaks. Drake no longer worried about catching a vision of the figure to the side, his consciousness was losing the battle to him.
This was a display of raw power on its part. The only person aware of his presence had been crushed against the rocks and torn asunder by the sea monsters at his command. Drake wanted to push these thoughts away but his mind grew weary at the constant struggle to keep control over his mind after losing control over his body. His mind was all he had left and even then the walls were closing in on him and his awareness was growing cold and numb. A hand popped up to the surface of the water, unattached to any appendage, freely floating as a final reminder of what was the Acolyte, a man with no name in service of whatever this dark presence was.
An image of Bruce popped into his mind, inside of his now-destroyed creche in his little bunk on the Trystero, his tiny fists gripping an errant paintbrush tightly while Drake smiled down at him, away from the painting on the wall. The painting was grim, a reminder of everything that had gone wrong, Bruce a reminder of everything that was good and that he needed in his life.
Needles were poking and prodding at his mind, attempting to pull the darkness over what remained of his consciousness. Drake did his best to remember Bruce, the Captain, Gentar, Bec and his father, all that they’d been through and the promise of seeing Bruce again and spending more time with him.
His giggle came from what sounded like a deep, hollow hallway, far away and getting further and further away. The hallway was dark and filled up with the creeping sense of darkness and discomfort before the darkness consumed him.
A lone drop of water splashed into a puddle, the sound echoing through the darkness. Drake reached out around him, unable to see or feel anything but cold indifference.
“Hello?” he called out.
His voice bounced around indiscriminately before fading like it was beyond his grasp anymore, lost like the rest of himself at the whim of some being. Drake wanted to scream but there was nothing for him to do or say anymore, he was trapped in a dark void that was beyond his comprehension.
15 The Captain
Valencia sat on top of a pile of crates staring off into the endless sea while the sun slowly moved down, sending bright purple and red light rippling across the waves. Everything felt worthless, this entire mission being not just a bust, but one that cost them the life of Drake and perhaps condemned them to remain on Thuul forever. In Dredge, the floating city of the damned forever.
The sea monsters had negated their assault on the city since the container opened, although it was conjecture to believe that opening the container had anything to do with it. She was starting to believe that all of this was just an elaborate setup from Jordache, or someone even above him, to measure how people react to certain situations. A big, shitty experiment done on the fringes of morality and society, all at the expense of millions of lives. Hell, maybe most of these people were just in on the whole joke. Knowing what to believe anymore was beyond her grasp, just grief and guilt occupied her mind. With every passing second, the likelihood of finding Drake alive dropped. By now the chances were hovering somewhere around zero, even if he found some air pocket in a sunken ship that wouldn’t last forever. The idea of his bloated corpse floating up to the surface, his hair flowing and probably still paint-stained while his always-grim face looked on in horror shook her to the core.
They had been acquainted with two Roses, and now there were zero. All under her command. There hadn’t been enough time to research Emma and her crew before they zipped down headlong to the surface like fools, she suspected that they didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist as they claimed. Actors or simply part of a simulation that measured her stress levels and ran her through the horrors she saw aboard that ship. A ship emitting some sort of EMP that disabled engines and jammed the comms. She had half a mind to fire up the pod and see if it could break atmo causing no stress, these stranded people a part of another pathetic experiment.
“Captain,” Gentar approached.
“Gentar.” Her response was more distant than she intended, Valencia lost in her thoughts. He looked on with her at the sunset.
“Drake would have commented on the colors.”
“He’s a Truth-Teller, they always notice things of beauty like this.”
“Yeah, right. I was just thinking about this whole thing. I led us into this.”
“Captain, you couldn’t know...”
“I should have known something was up with Jordache, that slimeball. If I had half a mind I’d jump into the Trys and high-tail it back to Biztsoft and drag him through the halls before tethering him to the ship and dragging him into space.”
“Revenge is always an option.”
“Why do you think there’s a 'but,’ Captain?”
“Because there’s no way you advocate for me to do this. We may only have known each other for a short time, but being on a crew together means we get to know each other in a hurry.”
“True enough,” he said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to returning and finding answers from him, although it’s not clear to me what is going on, regardless.”
“Ah, yeah, you mean what happened to me.”
“More or less.”
“It was some sort of experiment. A simulation or something. The crew from the other ship was there, we were in the woods and time was elapsing oddly.”
“At least I think. They tossed out the idea of some sort of portal or multidimensional ship. In the moment I understood that, but now it just feels like a stress test or something.”
“Hmm, that could be logical.”
“I’m just trying to be logical about it now. The ship could be some sort of experiment, there being some sort of EMP and this key just broke through and negated the fields.”
“Interesting, that would mean our employer was less-than-honest with us.”
“I’m doubting there even was a crew there. It was just me being fucked with. I don’t know.”
“Well, did you look them up?”
“No, we just raced down here. Didn’t have time to access the TerraNet to look. In hindsight, yeah, I probably should have, but we didn’t know where you guys were or if you were in trouble...”
“Captain, you’ve made a lot of decisions since I’ve met you. Most of them have been for the better of all of us, almost all of them difficult. You can’t continue to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong.”
“I know, still... Drake and the Sergeant...”
“They both died for this crew and believing in it.”
“I suppose so, I guess the question is now what?”
“I fear another difficult decision has presented itself to you.”
“Do we return and search for answers, or do we evacuate the people of Thuul?”
“I’m not sure what the right answer is, Gentar.”
“Nor am I. I also don’t have to make this decision.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” she said. He was right, though. There were decisions to be made and they could have a profound impact on more than just her crew. There were people on this planet, or at least there seemed to be people there, and that thing in orbit seemed to only allow someone with the key through. There had to be a better solution than that. That would take weeks to evacuate the entire city, never mind there would be holdouts and these people have lived here for years now. This was home to them, albeit not by choice.
“Who’s in charge around here, anyway?” she asked.
“A Gra’al officer, I believe. Der’lit of House Lazaar.”
“Why haven’t I met this officer already?”
“That I’m unsure of. Let me find Tuck and see. Why?”
“I want to talk if over with these people, this is their lives, right?”
Tuck led the three of them through the winding city, the outskirts messier and showing more signs of corrosion than the inner parts, further away from the ocean. The large, jutting hull of a Terran battleship protruded up like a skyscraper, guards of both Terran and Gra’al persuasion posted outside, Tuck breezing by them to lead them into the ship. Inside there had been major renovations, the entire ship gutted and turned into a more traditional building layout. There was a lobby, a desk and a set of stairs as well as a large set of double doors near the back of the receiving area.
“Can’t escape bureaucracy no matter where you go, huh?” Bec quipped.
“I guess so.”
“Where is this Der’lit?” Gentar asked.
“I am Der’lit,” a voice boomed. A Gra’al stood in the doorway, jumpsuit with the arms cleaved off clinging tightly to his frame, clearly ill-fitting but what they could find. There may have been a lot of excess steel on Thuul, but fabrics were scarce.
“Captain Vasquez, this is Der’lit,” Tuck said.
“So this is the mysterious captain that I’ve been hearing about.”
“Yes, I appreciate all that you’ve done for my crew.”
“I’m sorry about the boy,” he said. “We did look but... well, anyone the Krakthu has taken we’ve never retrieved. I am sorry.”
“I understand,” she said, still in disbelief.
“So I suppose I have a lot of questions, like how did you get down here?”
“Yes, of course. This is Becca, she’s our pilot, and this is Gentar of House Lazaar, he’s been here for a few days now.”
“I too am of House Lazaar,” he said. “Or at least was. I’m not sure what to call myself now, of Dredge?”
“You are not a ghost, my brother,” Gentar replied.
“I suppose not, although I am confined to this planet, a place far less hospitable than Endigo. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”
“There’s still hope, sir,” the Captain said.
“There’s always hope, Captain. Regardless if it’s displaced or not is the question. It seems you’ve faced the reality of your crewman’s fate, so I believe we’re both realistic here.”
“I’d say so, yes.” Speaking about Drake’s fate out loud made it more real. That little glimmer of hope that she had held onto faded while the realization that this was an alien world of water and dangerous creatures and none of them would fare well if dragged into the sea by one of those things, never mind a swarm.
“So let’s not pretend that there’s a way off of this rock, then, all right?”
“I believe that this key will let us leave,” she said. “If so, we’ll track down whoever made it and find a way to get that ship that’s in orbit out of here or destroyed so ships can come and go.”
“Or you are stuck here like the rest of us.”
“Or that, yes, but it seems worth a shot.”
“Let’s say you can get out of here, who says there’s an answer, Captain? I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. Plus, this is home now to a lot of us, Terran and Gra’al.”
“I won’t make any promises, then,” she said. “But I’m going to look for answers. I’ve already lost too much on this job.”
“Fair enough. Would you at least wait until nightfall to take off, then? You know, minimize the gawking?”
“Sure, we can do that,” she said.
Der’lit gave them a slight nod and returned to his office, Tuck giving a little whistle while Valencia mulled over their next move. The right move wasn’t evident, nor was her mind in any condition to make any sort of decision that could impact the thousands of lives of the people of Thuul.
“Looks like you folks are getting out of dodge,” Tuck said.
“I’m not really sure what happens next,” the Captain admitted.
“Cap?” Bec asked.
“I’m just being honest,” she said. “My head is swimming right now and I don’t need this pressure. I just want to lay down and not wake up for a few days.”
“If there’s one thing I can tell you about the Captain, it’s that she does the right thing no matter what,” Gentar said. “We will not leave you stranded down here.”
“I appreciate the confidence,” she said. “I’m not even sure if we’ll break atmo.”
“Only one way to find out,” Bec said.
Valencia reached out and massaged Bec’s shoulder gently, a show of appreciation that she couldn’t quite verbalize at the moment. They ascended the ramp to the ship, noting the few people mulling around and that they promised not to take off until nightfall, even if Valencia wanted to get as far away from Thuul as she could as quickly as possible.
“I’ll run a few system checks, see how she’s holding up.” Bec said, ascending the ramp and disappearing into the mouth of the ship. Their home. The only home that Valencia knew anymore with what was left of the only family that she knew.
“I’ll start moving stuff from our camp,” Gentar said. “Well, my camp. I don’t know.”
“Yeah, let me know if you need any help.”
“I’ll help,” Tuck said.
They wandered off, leaving Valencia staring off towards the vast, deep ocean. The whole planet was cursed. Either that or the mission was. Or worse, she was the cursed one, and she had brought everyone along for the ride with her into the unknown while she ran from her own, squalid existence. She had no family to speak of, no links to anything or anywhere. She was just another kid from Terra that ran away in search of adventure and never returned. Her adventures led her to the Trystero, or, well, originally the Aristocrat. The owner before was an idiot, at least a big enough idiot to lose his ship to her.
Her hand wrapped around the pneumatic brace to the door while she stared out at the setting sun. Her mind felt like she was stuck between Heaven and Hell. She was standing on her home with what was left of her crew, looking out over some cursed planet that had claimed the lives of millions and somehow she was stuck right in the middle of the whole mess. Shouts and a few figures scrambled around the deck, Valencia was taken off-guard by the whole thing. Klaxons blared out and there were shouts about an attack. Searchlights danced along the dark water before settling on a mass of tentacles bubbling to the surface and approaching the deck. The few people nearby grabbed spears and braced themselves. The illusion that opening that case or bringing the key had kept them at bay was just another sour disappointment. Valencia reached to her hip and readied her pistol, her heart pounding in her chest while the beast approached.
A group of three men and two women stood with their spears aimed at the water, waiting for the on-coming attack. A bone-rattling screech erupted from the water along with a column of ocean spray that sent the spear holders reeling. Valencia jumped down, lining up her sights on the creature while carefully advancing, one step at a time, flashes of what happened on board that alien ship coursing through her mind, forcing her to shake them off.
“Not this time, you bastards,” she muttered to herself.
Another screech and another column of water rose up at least twenty feet above them, the waves splashing down hard while a few shots rang out towards the beast. A sharp pain in the back of her head made her look away, only to look back and notice what looked like a figure in its grasp. Now her pulse was quickening. It couldn’t be, could it?
Valencia charged forward, gun back on her hip while the recovering guards attempted to hold her back. She shoved through them while they shouted after her, racing towards the edge of the floating mass of twisted steel and alloy and the beast.
“Don’t shoot!” she shouted.
A few more shots rang out, her turning back towards them, “I said don’t shoot!” Something slapped the ground behind her only for the ocean and the deck to fall silent. She turned around slowly to see a drenched body laying there, motionless. With her stomach in her throat she rushed over, turning the body over and noticing the jumpsuit. There was no way...
“Drake?” she murmured, unsure if she could believe her eyes.
He lay there, motionless, eyes shut and hair stuck to the sides of his face. His skin was pallid and sickly. She grasped onto his wrist and placed her ear to his chest trying to detect a pulse. There was something there, something faint and barely registering. His chest barely rose and fell in small, almost immeasurable breaths. He was alive—barely—but he was alive.
“Gentar!” she shouted. “Get over here, now!”
“What is it?” he asked, rushing over to her side. “There’s no way. Is he...?”
“We need to get him onto the ship and into the medbay, now!”
“Right away,” he said. “Someone help me with him!”
16 The Captain
The Captain sat staring forward in the med bay, lost in thought and trying not to let the emotions overcome her. She had witnessed what felt like nothing short of a miracle, even if it made very little sense and there still wasn’t a way to tell if he would pull through and awaken from his coma or not. Still, if there was any positive to glean from this entire endeavor it was Drake being deposited by that creature.
The quiet, constant beep from the med bay monitor told her that Drake still had a heartbeat. It was faint but still there. The machines breathed air in and out of his lungs and his brain was active, albeit not conclusively. There was no telling how he’d come out of this, when he’d come out of it or if this catatonic state was all that was left for Drake Rose, recognized Truth-Teller of the Gra’al people and all-purpose crew member of the Trystero.
Not blaming herself felt difficult. The only comfort that she could allow for herself was the idea of hunting down Jordache and finding some answers. There was something bigger than just this job going on and her crew had paid the price for it. A reckoning was coming for the weasley little Jordache.
“The Trys is ready to go, Cap,” Bec said over the internal comm.
“Thanks, Bec,” she said.
“Let’s hope we can get off this rock,” Gentar said.
“They good with us leaving down on Dredge?” Valencia asked.
“Yep, we’re cleared to leave,” the pilot replied. “We can go whenever, it’s not like they have any sort of concerns about other ships.”
“Then get us the hell out of here, Becca.”
“Copy that, Cap.”
Taking a deep sigh, she secured the harness on her seat and clicked it into the locked position for takeoff. Drake was secure in the med bay bed, although it felt wrong to leave his side unless she was getting answers. The familiar groan of the thrusters kicking on and propelling the ship up off the surface was comforting. Gravity tugged at her, pressing her flat against the chair while she couldn’t shake the fear of the ship crashing back down to the surface. The pull of this planet and everything surrounding it was a black hole of despair that consumed everything that came into contact with it.
The ship quaked while it reached the outer layers of the atmosphere; her fists clenched tight at her side and jaw wired shut. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine being far away from Thuul and everything associated with it, or at least driving her fist repeatedly into Jordache’s bloody face. That at least brought a smile to her face.
“Captain,” Bec said.
“We’re in orbit.”
Her entire body quivered in a sigh of relief, Valencia unfastening herself from the chair and storming up to the cockpit, staring at Drake for a moment before leaving the room. She could feel the alien ship ominously orbiting the planet like a silent sentinel. The breath was knocked out of her and she again was floating in water, the iridescent green eyes scanning her mind. Gentar’s hand on her back brought her back to reality.
“Captain? How’s Drake Rose doing?”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah, no changes.”
“That med bay saved my life twice already. I’m sure it’ll be as kind to him as it was me.”
“Yeah, right.” He was trying to comfort her, it just wasn’t cutting it, not with the guilt and confusion that was overwhelming every part of her.
“Oh, wow,” Bec said. “Look at this flood of messages coming in again. It looks like the key wasn’t helpful in getting communications down on the surface, huh?”
“It wasn’t exactly plugged in until we left, though. We really should have run more tests,” Gentar said.
“I wasn’t really thinking about tests, Gentar,” Valencia said.
“Fair enough, Captain.”
Silence befell the cockpit. Gentar meant well, his brain just isn’t wired to human standards yet. “Anything important?” she asked.
“Still checking, it looks like we’ve got a new message from Vetru, a few from Drake’s art instructor and...”
“And what?” Valencia asked.
“There’s an encoded message, the computer is working on it. It’s from Biztsoft.”
“Jordache,” she muttered under her breath.
“I know,” the Captain said. Her skin crawled at the idea of his slimy face. “Let me know when the message is through. I want to know what that asshole has to say so I can cram it back down his throat.”
“Captain,” Gentar chided.
“I know. I know. Let me have this, Gentar. I’ll keep my cool long enough for us to get answers.”
“I trust you, Captain. I’m just reminding you.”
“Yeah, responsibility and all that. Speaking of, we need to reach out to Vetru.”
“What should we tell him?” Bec asked.
“Everything. That there are survivors on Thuul, that there’s an alien ship in orbit with some kind of jamming device and that communications and engines are blocked until we can do something about it. Also, ask him about a Der’lit.”
“What about him?” asked Gentar.
“I want to know if he’s real,” she said. “Our people may be at peace, but we still don’t have a direct link to the Gra’al network, and that information won’t exactly be on TerraNet.”
“I can handle this, Captain,” Gentar said.
“Thanks. I’m gonna go check on Drake and see what I can find out about Emma and her crew.”
“K,” Bec said. “I’ll key us in for Biztsoft, I guess. Let us know if anything changes with Drake.”
There were no traces of Emma or her crew on the TerraNet, at least that she could find. The problem was more that she was searching for a spanner on a gaseous moon without a helmet. She didn’t know the last name of Emma or any of her crew, the name of the ship or any real details whatsoever. The med bay’s ambient noises kept her from focusing, her eyes growing heavy.
She needed to rest, but still, everything felt off. It all felt so very wrong. Drake lay on the bed, strapped down and surrounded by machines and monitors. Looking at him like he was so innocent and vulnerable. All the arguments and friction since his father died felt immaterial. In fact, it would be welcome to hear him whine, complain and stomp around the ship again. Anything outside of the silence.
“Hey, Dray. I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I hope you can.” There was a futility in speaking to a guy in a coma, but she wasn’t worried about that. “Bruce misses you, you know that, right? We miss you, too. But Bruce, he’s just a baby. He needs you. I’m sorry I was pushing so hard after your father died, I just... I don’t know, okay? I felt like you needed someone in your life to be a constant, some sort of authority.
“I’m just sorry. This mission was a bad idea from the start, I knew that something was wrong with Jordache I just... it felt easy, it felt like something we could do, get back to the station and relax a bit. The money was too good, and I just didn’t think anything of it. Even when we were leaving and saw the reports about that ship. I should have known. I should’ve done more research. I’m just always trying to hold everything together and sometimes I can’t anymore. I don’t want you guys to know it, but I’m scared. I’m scared all the time. What we’ve built here, this family, what it all means to me...”
Speaking these sentiments out loud brought all the emotions bubbling up to the surface again. Everything was wrong and had been since they buried the Sergeant, no matter how hard she tried to project strength. She wanted to be there for everyone, to take care of them all like some sort of mother figure while ignoring her own needs. Now, mind fried even further after the encounter with that ship, things grew complicated. Real. The moment she saw that ship lurking around Thuul on the screens back on Biztsoft she should have told Jordache to shove it, instead she...
The ship had been everywhere on every newscast in the system. That many newscasts, there had to be at least one that talked about the ship they had been towing out there or some sort of mission. Valencia pulled up a newsfeed and started searching, punching in any keywords she could think of, from derelict ship to abandoned or missing crew. Surely there was some mention of the ship that went missing weeks before in the same region.
There it was, in plain Terran.
“The Integer Found Crewless Near Thuul.”
That was all that she needed to start searching, pulling up anything she could find in the Terran ship registry that matched the word “Integer.” The ship name was somewhat common, but after a while of digging she found more details.
Each and every one of them had been marked as dead. Valencia froze, staring at the small projection in front of her, their faces from their license photos staring back at her, Emma with light blue eyes, not the eyes that she knew or had been haunting her since she escaped. When she tried to find the cause of death or any sort of obituary, it was a dead end, at least on the public TerraNet. The ship had been empty, though, no sign of the crew.
Then she remembered the conversation with Jordache and his reluctance to have her search for the crew. Looking back it wasn’t just suspicious, it was a very loud and clear warning about the nature of this mission, she just didn’t want to see it at the time. He knew that something had happened to the crew. Who knew how many crews he had sent to their doom. She was furious again, imagining this pasty, mumbling, mealy mouthed asshole throwing money at people for an empty shipping container on a doomed planet.
Patting Drake’s foot first she stormed up to the cockpit full of piss and vinegar, Bec reclined in her chair with a pair of headphones wrapped around her ears and her feet up on the dash. A long string of licorice hung from her mouth while she slept. Valencia slapped her feet down, jostling her violently awake.
“How much longer until we’re at Biztsoft?”
“Erg.” The pilot stretched out, taking stock of the Captain’s demeanor for a moment before hurriedly turning to the panels. “Looks like we still have a few hours left.”
She grit her teeth and sunk back into the co-pilot’s chair, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Hyperlight travel was amazing to watch when in the mood, otherwise it was just a streak of lights while the ship traversed the lane towards its destination. She wasn’t in much of a mood to behold the beauty of the universe at the moment, just rip someone’s head off.
“The same. Nothing’s changed.”
“You seem like you’re in a worse mood, somehow.”
“I did some digging into those people I met inside of that ship.”
“They’re marked as dead.”
“Oh, Captain, I’m so sorry,” she said. “But you said they were there, right?”
“They were, or at least I thought they were. I don’t know. My head is swimming right now, I don’t know what to think.”
“Yeah, I know, you haven’t been the same since you got back.”
“How could I be? That thing got into my head, it messed with me, then I came back and we had to go rescue Gentar and the Drake, only for...”
“We got Drake back and everything still feels wrong.”
“I mean, he’s in a coma.”
“It’s not just that. It’s everything. Nothing feels right, like I can’t be sure if I’m dreaming or awake, in some simulation or through some neverland portal on some other world.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re awake, Val. At least Gen and I are here. That can’t be a simulation.”
“It felt so real, Bec. It was real, as far as I’m concerned.”
“So what? Are you just going to live your life like you’re dreaming now?”
“I don’t know. Her eyes were green there, I’m sure I told you that. The green eyes. I can still see them when I shut mine, staring back at me, luminescent and shimmering. But Emma, her eyes weren’t really green, they were blue. That’s what her official ID says.”
“So they’re blue, I don’t think I understand.”
“Me neither, really, I’m just saying, it all felt so real, Bec. You’ve gotta believe me.”
“Maybe it was real, or at least as real as everything else is. I’m not really sure about all of this, but alternate realities exist, most likely. We wouldn’t know about them, obviously. I don’t know, we discovered some strange alien life form, you made contact with them. Maybe they were just trying to communicate with you and didn’t know how to.”
“Or they killed Emma and her crew and this stupid key was the only reason I wasn’t killed.”
“Or that, yeah.”
“None of that makes me feel better, you know.”
“I’m just doing my job, then. Speaking of jobs and doing, I’m not sure what you look up to if I’m being honest here, Cap.”
“You look exhausted.”
“I feel exhausted.”
“You’re no good to us if you drop dead from exhaustion, right? Maybe go get a little shuteye?”
“That bad, huh?”
“You look like death, Val. No offense.”
“None taken,” she said. “Maybe I should try to get some rest. I’ve got a feeling that I might need it.”
“Call it a hunch. Nothing with this job has worked out, we need to be prepared for the worst.”
Bec reached up and clutched onto Valencia’s wrist, her returning the gesture for a long moment. Her mind was undeniably clouded, both with anger and from her encounter with the alien ship and whatever that entity was that crafted that horrifying experience. Making her way down the steps towards her quarters, her legs felt heavy and her boots clomped on each step. Snatching up a packet of protein sludge from the counter without looking she paused by Drake’s door and the unfinished painting on his wall, staring down at the packet only to note it was blackberry flavor; the worst of them all. Pickings were always slim considering Gentar’s proclivity for grape, the best of the flavors, but she was tired enough to deal with a sour purple packet before passing out. Not that it mattered much, anyway, her head hit her pillow, and the world melted away to black instantaneously.
17 The Sleeper
An echo in the breeze wafted through the air, a scream muffled and decaying with each passing moment.
A flame flickered to life, dancing on the tip of a thin, alabaster candlestick. His arms rested on a worn leather armchair while his body sank deeper into it until it enveloped every part of him in a warm embrace.
His voice gathered in the back of his throat, a low, guttural growl unable to translate into words.
He wasn’t alone.
Another presence lingered somewhere in the shadows, of indiscernible size and shape. Instead, it was just there, always just out of reach but everywhere at the same time.
A low chorus of voices screeched across the room, speaking in an indecipherable tongue that felt like it was just within his realm of understanding only for it to remain elusive, dangerous and ominous.
His fingers danced along the ridge of the chair’s arm, gripping tightly and trying to urge himself to his feet. A force pressed on his chest, keeping him glued to the chair, even if his subconscious was trying to will him up.
Another swirl of voices wafted through the air, morphing into a collection of words.
18 The Captain
Bec had somehow brought the Trys in for the smoothest landing of her life, not disturbing Valencia from her immediate, deep sleep that she had fallen into. Gentar hovered over her clumsily prodding her with his pudgy finger, what a Gra’al could consider a gentle gesture, especially for one his size. He meant well.
“We’re here, Captain.”
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. “Without a rapid decel into the landing bay?”
“Interestingly enough, no.”
“Nothing yet, Captain.” Gentar paused for a moment, staring down at her while she stretched out and attempted to shake the sleep away. “I do have one more question, though.”
“Our next move, Captain. Should we contact Jordache directly or no?”
“Let’s wait it out,” she said. “We had a soft landing for once, let’s see if we can track him down without alerting him.”
“Do you think he’ll run?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “What I do know is that everything involving this guy has been a mess, I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t run. My guess is he didn’t expect us to return alive.”
“Then why pay us up front like he did?”
“I really don’t know, that’s something we’ll have to ask him if we can find him.”
“Biztsoft is a large station.”
“It is, but we’ve got some contacts here, we just need to work them gently. You know, not rock the boat?”
“Understood, Captain. I’ll let you wake up and get things ready here.”
Valencia smiled at Gentar only to remember that they didn’t exactly understand each other’s facial expressions no matter how hard they’ve tried to teach each other. He left just the same, Valencia in her bed in the rather empty Captain’s quarters. She’d been the owner of the Trys for ten years now and still hadn’t done a damned thing with her walls or decoration-wise. The cargo bay still felt more like home, anyway.
Her blaster rested in its normal, instinctive spot under her pillow, her fishing it out, checking the charge and tucking it into the holster on her hip. There was no way to know what kind of resistance they’d face there, even in a populated place like Biztsoft. After how things have gone the last few days, she had no qualms with marching around the station with her weapon on full display. She’d bring a rifle if she thought the guards wouldn’t protest them being heavily armed roaming the peaceful, citizen station. Her jacket lay in a heap on the floor, Valencia scooping it up and sliding it over her arms and zipping it closed. The warmth of the snug fit helped to steel her to whatever waited for them out on that station, a place they’d been hundreds of times that now felt cold and strange instead of welcoming and safe.
“Hey Cap.” The pilot was standing in her doorway, jumpsuit zipped up for once and a jacket tossed over her shoulder.
“Nah, well, maybe? Moral support, too. The ship’ll be fine without me. We’ll get an alert if anything changes with Drake. I just figured you’d need me is all...”
“Of course, Bec,” she said. “Just not used to you coming with us. You’re always more than welcome to, especially now.”
The words were there, lodged in the back of her throat, she just couldn’t say them: “I need you there.” Bec even asking means she understood, it means that both of them understood, she was just being stubborn again and needed to be projecting confidence to continue being the captain everyone knows.
Bec walked with her down the stairs into the cargo hold where Gentar was waiting, a large blaster strapped onto his leg and a rifle in his large hands. Valencia laughed at the sight, tsking at him even though she wished they could waltz around the station geared up like the Sergeant heading off into battle.
“I don’t think they’ll let you walk around with that thing, Gen,” Bec said.
“Why not? We may run into trouble.”
“I’m betting on it,” the Captain said. “I’m just not sure that calling that sort of attention on ourselves is a good idea and all. If we do find Jordache we don’t want to spook him right away. Trust me, he’s a slimy bastard, he’ll spook easily.”
“I don’t like this.”
“Me either, big guy,” Valencia said, slapping him on the back. “It’s just the way it’s gotta be.”
“Are we leaving Drake Rose alone here?”
“I’ve got the med bay alert keyed into my comms,” Bec said. “If anything major happens, it’ll alert me.”
His grunt was all the confirmation they needed before they left. The plan was a simple one: spread out, ask around and try to find Jordache. Valencia would avoid outright calling him for as long as she could, the sneaking suspicion that catching him off-guard was the only way to get answers from him. The wide cargo door whirred and creaked open slowly, the sterile white light from the dock pouring in.
Valencia braced herself, ready for a flood of water to overtake them only for it not to come. They were just at Biztsoft; she had to remind herself, the alien ship was far away, orbiting around Thuul as a menacing gargoyle in space. Instead, a skinny girl with a tight, high ponytail stood at the base of the ship in her drab gray uniform fiddling with her holographic pad.
“There a problem?” Valencia asked.
“Oh, erm, Captain Vasquez, correct?” the girl asked.
“In the flesh.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Your ship has been reported as missing and your crew, well...”
“Are you kidding me? It’s been what? A few days and they already reported us as dead?”
“I can’t exactly check your ship in because of the flag on it,” she explained.
“We’re clearly here,” Bec said. “We’re alive, just do your thing.”
“It’s not that easy, you see.”
“Can you contact Consul O’Hara, then?” Valencia asked.
“M’am, I’m not sure that the Consul is able to—”
“That’s Captain,” she corrected her.
“Right. Captain, the Consul is busy and I don’t even have a direct line to him, I’ll have to check with my superior officer.”
“I don’t care who you have to check with. I’m going to see the Consul.”
“M’am, if you just—”
“C’mon.” Valencia strode down the ramp past the official with the crew in tow. Everyone thought they were dead. In a way, that was good because they’d have the element of surprise with Jordache. On the other hand, some of her suspicions had become a reality in a hurry. She knew they had to move fast before word got back to Jordache.
Moving fast and efficiently normally didn’t include any form of government, the Consul on Biztsoft included, yet for her to get a better idea of what was really going on, she knew that she needed to do some more investigating and see what he knew.
The corridor leading to the Consul’s office was relatively empty; it branching off in the opposite direction from the promenade where all the shops and restaurants were, just a few scattered people mulling around, going about their business. Nobody noticed them or really paid them any mind, which was a relief. They needed to be careful not to avoid anyone catching a glimpse of them, at least until Valencia had some sort of plan in place.
The Consul’s office was relatively empty, just the receptionist at her desk and no one in the lobby of the open-air office. They had to completely redo it after the attack from Giga and his crew when they were tearing the station apart looking for Bruce, somehow they made it look exactly the same as it did before. They lacked imagination. Even the receptionist—who was different—looked almost exactly like the previous one. “Yes, may I help you?” the receptionist asked.
“Is Consul O’Hara in?”
“Why yes he is, do you have a meeting with the Consul?”
“No, that’s all I needed to know.” Valencia rapped her knuckles on the desk and headed towards the door to his office. She still remembered seeing one of Giga’s goons lob a grenade into it and was pretty sure that was the end of O’Hara. That concern was in vain because after the whole ordeal on Lidar, Consul O’Hara and other Terran leaders grilled the crew and herself for hours on end. She felt like she knew Consul O’Hara pretty well by now, to say the least.
“Um, you can’t go in there! Ma’am!”
“I’m sure he’s been visited by a ghost before.” Valencia pressed her shoulder into the door, Bec keeping the receptionist at her desk with some small talk, the poor girl looking confused and concerned about what he’d do at her letting a ragtag group like them through without calling security.
The office looked a lot like it did before, only the curios on the wall being a bit different. While it was apparently easy to rebuild the office just like it was before, replacing the gauche paintings on the walls or the potted plants that lined the floor proved difficult. That or he needed to spruce the place up, whichever. The Consul was at his desk, amid a holo call when his eyes grew large at the three of them walking towards him.
“What in the—Jessica? What’s the meaning of this?”
“I’m sorry, sir! They just barged in,” the receptionist said from behind them.
“Not her fault, Sean,” the Captain said. “Most people don’t know what to do when they see a ghost. I guess turning pale like that doesn’t hurt.”
“I’ll have to call you back.” His face was paler than usual, his sunken, dark eyes drooping down low and his skin hanging off of his bones. He looked a lot worse than he usually did, although it wasn’t clear if he was sick or if he was just unhappy to see them. “Why, Captain Vasquez, imagine my surprise—”
“At seeing me alive?”
“Yes, just that. A report came across my desk just yesterday that a Captain who calls my station her port of call had gone on some fool mission to Thuul and got herself and her crew killed.”
“Reports lie, don’t they?”
“It was from a reputable source, I must say, I’m pleased to see—”
“Cut the pleasantries, we know who the source is, and that’s why I came here to you first.”
“Why is that, exactly?”
“What’s going on at Thuul and who is Jordache?”
“I believe that you should take a seat.”
“Not until we’ve got answers,” she said.
“Please, you’re going to want to sit down for this,” he replied solemnly.
“Jordache does not work for the Terran government,” he explained. “That doesn’t mean that his work is not within the scope of their oversight.”
“I don’t understand,” Bec said. “He’s not Terran gov, but he’s also not not Terran gov?”
“Well, yes,” he said. “Sort of. I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”
“Can you tell us what is going on with Thuul or not?” Gentar asked bluntly.
“I fear there isn’t a lot to tell you,” he said. “Ever since that ship appeared we’ve had a travel embargo in place. We’ve increased patrols to the area and corresponded with Gra’al officials to make sure they were doing their part to keep people away from the planet as well.
“All that I know is what Jordache has told me.” He leaned back in his chair, unbuttoning his jacket and letting it fall to his sides. “He told me he’s lost two crews already—”
“Including us?” the Captain asked.
“Yes, including you. So he’s lost the two crews and is applying pressure on us sending an official Terran fleet to procure some lost cargo, which hardly seems like a job for a fleet of battle cruisers.”
“And he’s not getting those cruisers, right?”
“No, not yet. That call I was on before was actually from an old friend of mine back on Capital Station, urging me to comply.”
“Was this a person of power?”
“Why yes, my contemporary there, Abigail Wong, actually.”
“The Consul of Capital is trying to pressure you to send cruisers to Thuul. Does Jordache really have this sort of reach?”
“I believe he has the means, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“So you know nothing else about this cargo or whatever it is he’s working on, then?” the Captain pressed. “Nothing at all?”
“No, I fear not. Although I’m certain now that it involves that vessel from the broadcasts. In what capacity? I don’t know. There’s nothing in our files about Thuul or any sort of experimental projects, but I’m not exactly the type of person they’d be telling about these things.”
“Essentially, you don’t have any answers for us,” Gentar said.
“No, I don’t. I wish that I did but sadly I have very little to report here.”
“I told you he was worthless,” Bec said.
“Bec...” the Captain chided. The last thing they needed was to upset the Consul and lose him as an ally.
“I promise you that I’m not withholding information on you. I’m as in the dark as you are. This is my sector, I’m responsible for what goes on here and Thuul is a problem.”
“Thuul is in the DMZ,” Gentar said.
“It’s by my station.”
“We’ve already contacted the Gra’al about this,” Valencia said.
“Oh?” His eyes widened, and he sat forward. “Exactly who did you contact, Captain?”
“Vetru,” Bec said. “That’s right, we went right to him. Before you.”
“Bec, enough,” she said. Bec was awful at hiding her contempt for authority, especially in situations like this where they needed to play nice.
“I understand your reticence here, but you need to trust me I’m telling you what I know.”
“Fine. What I need to know is where I can find Jordache.”
“Jordache? He’s in the wind. He’s a difficult man to track.”
“That’s not the right answer,” Gentar said.
“Look, please, I don’t need trouble with the Gra’al.”
“Then tell us where to find Jordache,” Valencia said.
“I don’t know, really. He comes and goes as he pleases.”
“How is that possible?” she asked.
“He uses the diplomat hangar bay.”
“You’re telling me that this guy isn’t Terran gov, but he’s using the Terran gov hangars to come and go as he pleases?” Bec asked.
“I know, I know.”
“Can we get anything, then?” Gentar asked. “The make of his ship? The call sign?”
“Yes, of course, but I don’t know if he’s there or not. I can’t make any promises.”
“As long as he doesn’t know that we’re alive we’ve got a chance to get some answers,” Gentar said.
“Is that it, then?” O’Hara asked.
“We were never here, got it?” Bec asked.
“Thanks for your time, Consul,” Valencia said. “If you could keep this off your records...”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “The access hallway to the hangar is to the left right out the door.”
“What kind of security should we expect?” Gentar asked.
“I can call ahead to let you through, if that’s what you want.”
“No,” Valencia said. “If he’s still here, that could tip him off. Is there an access tunnel that runs to it?”
“I suppose so, yes. That is if you can navigate through them.”
“That’s all I needed to know, c’mon guys, we’ve got a slimeball to visit.”
“What are you going to do to him?” O’Hara asked.
Valencia paused at the door, Gentar and Bec already out of the room. There was no good answer to give to him because she didn’t know if she could control herself or what he even knows. “Don’t worry, Consul.”
“I’m very worried, Captain. Need I remind you he’s well-connected?”
“You don’t. You also don’t know what I went through there and what the cost was for us.”
“Tread carefully is all. If something does happen I’ll have to do my job.”
With a deep breath she walked through the door. Regardless of what she thought of the Consul he had helped them and hadn’t sold them out. At least not yet. Bec was already tinkering with the access hatch while Gentar stood guard, the door popping open.
“See? I can do it all, Cap.”
“Good job, Bec. C’mon, Gentar, try to squeeze in there.”
They quietly moved through the access hallway, her mind returning to the battle they had just outside of the Consul’s office. Drake had ducked into these to return to the ship while the Sergeant and her blasted their way back to the ship to make their escape. Now she was sneaking through them and Drake was motionless in the med bay.
The overhead doors were labeled clearly enough, these being maintenance tunnels and all. It still felt like they had been walking forever before they came to the hangar bay. There was a giant lump in her throat and her heart was beating rapidly when she finally pressed the button, the light cycling from red to green and the door sliding open to display a large, white hangar bay with only two ships in it.
The wind was immediately knocked out of her when she recognized the nearest ship. That wasn’t just any ship, that was Emma’s ship, the one that had been towed back from Thuul by the Terran military and started the whole public fascination with Thuul.
“Cap, what’s going on?” Bec asked from behind her.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s Emma’s ship up there.”
“What about Jordache?” Gentar asked.
“Just trust me on this.”
19 The Sleeper
An image hovered overhead of the Acolyte, his body mangled and pieces that the Children tore and shredded appeared pieced back together like a grotesque jigsaw puzzle.
His eyes were dense black marbles reflecting back nothing but an image of a man. This man was barely, by conventional definition, a man, hardly past the stage of being a child. His hair streaked with indigo that matted his wild hair into place, his jumpsuit tattered and frayed.
He was an alien presence, difficult to reconcile, a shooting stream of energy that sent waves of pain while searching for an answer.
“There is no answer, there is only Him,” his voice joined into a chant.
Still, a nagging memory sat at the tip of his tongue, ready to roll off fluidly before it dissipated into the ether. A laugh filled the space, difficult to decipher but present.
A will to arise was still there, stuffed back down by an unseen force. A set of luminous green eyes appeared on the horizon, the light blinding and effervescent.
His presence had arrived.
“The time has come,” He said. His voice booming and powerful. “Awake.”
20 The Captain
“Bec, how’re we doing here?”
“Gimme a second, Cap,” the pilot said.
“We’re kinda out in the breeze here.” Valencia and Gentar stood watch, guns at the ready. Bec was working away at the panel, trying to override the lock and Valencia couldn’t shake the idea of Jordache getting away and getting no answers.
“Damnit,” Bec said. “It’s locking me out completely.”
“Captain,” Gentar said. “We’ve been out in the open for too long already.”
“I know, I know,” she said. Clenching her jaw she saw the green eyes again, contrasted with Emma’s blue eyes. Her hand moved to her pocket where the key—that damned key—felt heavy. “Hey, let me try this.”
“Go right ahead,” Bec said.
Valencia ran her fingers along the panel, looking for anywhere to fit the key in but there was no interface for a key to slide into. “Shit,” she said under her breath, pressing the key against the panel in desperation.
Bec pointed towards the panel, Valencia turning to see it illuminated in green. The door slid open and Valencia pocketed the key, pulling her pistol back out before stepping into the ship. There was an eerie sense of unease, like she had stepped back in time into a place where she shouldn’t be.
This was Emma and the crew’s ship before they arrived to Thuul, before that alien ship took them and before, well, whatever their fate was that befell them.
“How does this help us find Jordache?” Gentar asked.
“Just chill, alright, Gen?” Bec said.
The Captain said nothing while meticulously advancing through the ship. The layout was not entirely dissimilar to the Trys, just newer and more updated. Things were immaculate, orderly and bright. Even though the crew hadn’t been with the ship in weeks, it looked like someone had kept it up, or at least left in good condition. She knew better than to expect a sign of a struggle, the being in that ship didn’t work like that.
“This was the other ship,” Gentar said to no one in particular.
“Yeah,” Valencia replied.
“Wouldn’t that mean that the other ship is Jordache’s?” he asked.
“I don’t understand why we came here, then.”
“Just leave her be, Gen,” Bec said.
“Fine, I’m just trying to understand this.”
“C’mon, Gen, let’s investigate the cockpit area.”
“But I don’t—”
Valencia appreciated the gesture, Bec leading the bulking Gra’al off deeper into the ship while Valencia felt around, trying to get an understanding how who they were before all of this happened and if there were any clues. Stepping carefully she made her way towards the crew’s quarters, finding Emma’s room, distinguishable because it was the only room that she could have stayed in. The decor was plain but tasteful, a photo of Emma and an older man, most likely her father, affixed to the wall across from the neatly made bed. It felt strange to be inside of her room and she didn’t want to rifle through things, in part in case she returned, but also because she felt wrong going through a possible dead person’s things without really knowing them beforehand. Even though she did know her. Sort of.
There was no sign of Jordache outside of the fact that the key opened up the ship. Now she was wondering if the Trys had the same vulnerability, like maybe the key being used somehow infiltrated the systems beyond just the nav computer. Jordache having access to the Trys was the last thing she wanted to imagine. That was her ship, her home, and didn’t belong in a slimeball’s hands like that.
“Hey Cap,” Bec shouted down to her.
“I just got a tick from the Trys.”
Her heart sank. “Is Drake okay?”
“Yeah, it just said that he moved.”
“I don’t know, probably just rolled over a bit or something?”
“I hope he’ll be okay for a little bit longer,” Valencia said. “We’ve come too far, we need to find Jordache.”
“Agreed,” Gentar said. “There’s no chance of him waking up completely just yet. Even if he’s conscious, it’ll only be partial for a while.”
“I can always go back and check,” Bec said.
“No, you can’t,” Gentar said. “We can’t take that risk of alerting anyone before we find Jordache.”
“About that...” Bec said.
“What?” Valencia looked at the pilot, then down at the panel in the cockpit. An alarm showed that the aft door had been opened using a keycode. Bec and Valencia locked eyes for a moment, her mind racing. “We need to hide, fast.”
Before they could move the sound of footsteps on the metal stairs leading into the common area beneath the cockpit told them they were cut off. There was only a narrow staircase between them and whoever had boarded the ship which meant that they had a problem. She sidled up against the wall next to the door, motioning for Gentar to do the same. His bulky frame made it difficult for him to stuff himself out of sight, having to stand sideways and anyone with a set of eyes would see if they as much as glanced a fraction to the right when entering the cockpit. Bec slid down the pilot’s chair and hid under the board, something that she’d perfected on the Trys from their few run-ins with the law.
The footsteps continued, echoing up the stairs into the cockpit. Valencia slowed her breathing down, trying to not make a sound while a figure entered the cockpit, turning almost instantly to face the mountain of an alien that was Gentar. Before the person could make a sound, the Captain wrapped her arm around his neck, not being able to make a connection between who it could be yet and instead focused on subduing them. An elbow jabbed sharply into her side, Gentar roaring forward and driving his knee into the person’s midsection. Valencia fought to keep her grip while the person doubled over, the air being sucked out of them. In a deft movement she flipped the assailant around, kicking him into the co-pilot’s chair only to find herself looking at the beady eyes of Jordache.
“Jordache, you motherfucker.”
“This is the guy?” Bec poked her head out from under the panel.
“This is the guy,” she said. “Gentar, go secure the ship and make sure no one came with him, Bec, help me get him down to the common room.”
“No, wait,” Jordache mewed, “what’s going on?”
“You know damned well what’s going on,” she spat. “I’m getting answers.”
“Who are you?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Rage was bubbling up inside of her, she grasped at the collar of his shirt, twisting it in her fist and pulling him up from the chair, his body rocketing towards the stairs, barreling headfirst down them into a heap on the ground. She stalked after him, planting a boot into his back to push him out of the stairwell, rolling onto his back and his body sprawled out on the floor. Valencia stood over him, gun in hand and a smile on her face. Looking down at him, hopeless and confused the power dynamics had shifted into her hands and it felt good. “You know damned well who I am, Jordache.”
“I... erm, oh no,” he gurgled.
Valencia slapped him across the face with the barrel of her pistol, blood splattering out from his mouth. “You know who I am!”
“Err, Cap,” Bec approached from behind.
“I thought we weren’t going to do the whole torture and kill him thing?”
“Torture?” he cried.
“I’m getting answers, although I appreciate your concern,” she said.
Gentar clomped up the stairs and stood for a moment, taking in the scene before nodding at the Captain. She took a deep breath and holstered her pistol on her hip, motioning for Gentar to help her with Jordache. They each grabbed an arm and hoisted him up off the ground, dumping him down onto a chair. He drooped over, Valencia thrusting her hand out and gripping onto his chin, her fingers sinking into the folds under his chin, pressing it back against the wall of the ship.
“I... I don’t know what you want from me?”
“You sent my crew and I to our doom, Jordache,” the Captain said.
“Uh...oh, Captain Vasquez! You’re alive, I’m so glad that—”
“Shut up, sleazeball,” Bec said. “Listen to the Captain instead of this blubbering.”
“No problem, Cap.”
“She’s right, you know? You’re answering to me now, I want to know everything.”
“Yes. Every last detail about Thuul, about this fool errand you sent me on and that empty container that we retrieved.”
“E-empty?” he gasped. “You can’t be serious. Y-you opened it?”
“Of course we did,” she said. “After that thing in orbit sucked me into it, after seeing what happened to that other crew. We needed answers, Jordache, but there weren’t any.”
“Oh no,” he mumbled. “Oh no, I have to get out of here, please. Please, Captain?”
“What? Are you insane? Why would I get you out of here?”
“You opened the container,” he was raving like a madman. “You opened the container, what have you done? What have you done?”
“What have I done?”
“You piece of shit,” she said, raising her fist up. Gentar caught it and gave her what she had to construe as a stern look, only she wasn’t willing to decipher it at that moment.
“Please, you don’t understand!”
“No, we don’t,” Gentar said. “Like the Captain said, we arrived by Thuul when that ship in orbit froze our engines and communications. The Captain went to investigate and entered the ship, only for myself and another in our crew to head to the surface to retrieve the container.”
“Did they have it?”
“Did who have it?” Gentar asked.
“The children?” the Captain asked. “Who on Terra are the children?”
“The children! Long tentacles, faces made of horrors, oh no, what have you done?”
“The Krakthu had dragged the container into the deeps, yes, but we were able to retrieve it.”
“How are you here if you went to the surface? I told you the key was for emergencies, Captain!”
“Emergencies?” She could feel her blood boiling. “You have the nerve to claim that wasn’t an emergency? Those things—those children as you called them—dragged one of my crew into the damned water! He’s in a coma on our ship right now! That key got me out of that alien ship, it got us to the surface and it got that container open.”
“I can’t stay here,” he said. “Please, I have to go, He’ll come for me. You don’t understand!”
“No, I don’t understand,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, that’s why you’re here. What kind of sick experiment is this? Why are all those people stuck on that planet, Jordache? What game are you playing at?”
“What people? Oh god, don’t you understand what you’ve done? What you’ve set free?”
“Clearly we do not,” Gentar said. “Can you please elaborate?”
“Is this some secret Terran technology?” Valencia pressed. “Some sort of sick experiment with psychological warfare?”
“No, please.” Jordache’s eyes were puffy and tears were streaming down his cheeks. His hands pressed together, and he was leaning in towards his captors, begging. “Please, we can’t stay here. He’ll come for me. He’s not from here, He’s not like us. He exists outside of all of this, you don’t understand!”
“This isn’t going anywhere, Cap,” Bec said, pulling her aside.
“He’s holding out, I know it.”
“Captain, look at him.” Bec pointed at the blubbering mess of a man on the crash couch raving like a madman. Valencia thought this would be different, somehow. That she’d find him, some towering covert agent that only masqueraded as a pathetic mess of a man and get some answers. Instead, there he was, sadder and more pathetic than she had remembered him, clearly on the brink of madness.
“I see it,” she admitted.
“There’s something really wrong with him. I don’t know, Val, maybe he went through what you did as well? Maybe you’ve got something in common?”
“Sometimes I hate you, you know that?”
“I know, Cap.”
“Jordache,” she said, turning back to him. “Focus here. Did you get sucked into the alien ship as well? Did you?”
“T-t-the Sentinel took me,” he said. “I-it did things, it’s still there, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet...”
“Yeah, sometimes there’s a laugh.”
“Y-yes! That’s Him, oh no, it’s Him. You let Him free!”
“Who?” she asked. She had grown tired of his deflections, even if he had been through the same trauma as she did. He was still the one that sent Emma and her crew to their doom. He was still the one that after they didn’t come back sent Valencia and the crew of the Trys to a similar fate.
“Him!” He was shouting, falling to his knees, taking a hold of Valencia’s hands, her jerking away only for him to fall forward onto her, groveling. “Him! You don’t understand how powerful He is. Please, take me away from here, I can’t let Him find me! Not after all of this.”
“You fool,” she said. “There was nobody inside of that container! It was empty. You’re telling me this wasn’t some experiment and you just fucking with our heads?”
“Of course you didn’t see Him! You can only see Him when He wants you to. You don’t understand the force you unleashed on us all. This’ll be the end of us! All of us! Even you, Gra’al! All of us!”
“Settle down,” Gentar said. “You’re not making any sense.”
“He’s not from this galaxy. He’s not from this time. He exists outside of all of this. Did you really think we were alone out there? That it was just Gra’al and Terrans and that’s it? He’s more than any of us can understand.”
“Then why did you have Him in a box and want someone to bring it back to you?”
“I discovered Him during the war, He got inside of my mind, He wouldn’t let go! My life’s work has been to understand Him, to find a way to harness His powers and make sense of it all!”
“So you put this... this... being, this all-powerful being into a box and were trying to study it?” she asked.
“No! I mean, yes, sort of! It’s more complicated than that. He was asleep there, His power was incredible, but I didn’t dare wake Him! He spoke to me through my dreams, through His dreams! The technology, the knowledge, you have to understand!”
“That you woke a sleeping being to trap and study it?” Gentar asked.
“We needed a plan! Your people were going to destroy us, with power like this... we could do anything! There could be peace!”
“There is peace,” Valencia said. “In case you didn’t notice.”
“Oh god, I can feel His presence. It’s growing closer. His shadow, please, we have to leave now!”
“Shut up!” Valencia swung her fist down at his head, connecting flush on his temple, his body crashing back down into the crash couch with a groan. “You’re speaking nonsense now. I’ve felt this... this... thing, whatever it is. Whatever you were doing it doesn’t matter, you can’t frame this as some noble cause anymore. The war has been over for a long time now.”
“They wouldn’t let me,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me stop. I had to find Him, I had to be the one, they would abuse His power.”
“You sent my crew and I to our doom, just like you did Emma and her crew. Don’t tell me about abuse of power.”
“You don’t understand!”
“You keep saying that, but I think that it’s you that don’t—”
“He’s coming! Please! Leave now! Before it’s too late! We need to go now!” He clawed his way towards the cockpit, Valencia planting her boot in his chest and pressing him back down against the crash couch.
“You’re speaking nonsense, Jordache. Whatever this thing is, it’s back on Thuul. We brought nothing back with us.”
“He’s inside of me, He’s inside of you! Not fully, the Sentinel is only a small part of his power. You have to understand, the Sentinel is outside of His control, it was there to keep Him there, to keep us away. But He can speak through it, He can...”
“I think I’ve heard enough,” Valencia said. “He’s lost his mind.”
“I don’t know, Captain. There was something very strange about that place, you of all people know that. Plus, we have to worry about those people in Dredge. They deserve a chance at life again, as do their families.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “I’m just not sure what to make of all of this.”
“He’s coming! He’s coming now! Please.”
“Shut up, asshat,” Bec shouted.
“Please, you don’t—Oh no! No! No!”
“What’s the...” Valencia looked over at Jordache, frozen in fear on the couch, only to feel the presence of a figure before them. A dark shadow loomed overhead. She looked around, trying to understand what was happening only to hear the soft sound of footsteps on the stairs from the cargo bay. They turned to see a figure standing there, in a tattered jumpsuit.
“Dray!” Becca squealed. “You’re okay!”
“I can’t believe it,” Valencia muttered.
“No, please! Please!” Jordache was pleading. “Please! Stop Him!”
Overwhelmed, tears streamed down Valencia’s face and her heart ready to explode with joy. Pushing Gentar and Becca aside she started for him, only for his hand to flash out in front of him, his father’s beefy rifle in grip and in the blink of an eye a burst of energy shot out from it, blood splattering out and all over the crew. The faint gurgling noise from the couch had replaced Jordache’s cries for help, his body slumping over onto the ground with a giant hole bore through his head. Becca let out a blood-curdling scream, and the Captain froze in place, the gun falling from his hand and his body topping over onto her, sending them both crashing to the ground.
21 The Captain
Drake had collapsed on her and had returned to his droning catatonic state. The three of them sat around, staring at him lying there peacefully on the center of the floor, his chest gently rising and falling with each shallow breath. The blood from Jordache still flowed, a sole tributary into the madness that was Emma’s ship at the moment.
“Why would he do that?” Bec broke the silence.
“The boy has no aptitude for violence, nor did he know where we were or who we were with.”
The answer festered in the back of Valencia’s mind, remembering Jordache blubbering for his life, for her and the crew to whisk him away from there and away from whatever the creature was that he had been so afraid of. He was afraid of Drake and knew he was coming to kill him. Somehow he knew, just like she could feel the presence in the recesses of her mind but had pushed them away as a nuisance or a residual effect of whatever her experience was aboard the alien vessel.
“There’s no way of knowing what overcame Drake Rose,” Gentar said. “What we do know is that we’re on a strange ship with the dead body of a man that’s well-connected to the Terran gov and that for some reason one of our crew was responsible for pulling the trigger.”
“Dray would never do this,” Bec said. “Never. He can be a prick sometimes but he wasn’t a murderer.”
“That wasn’t Drake,” Valencia spoke up.
“What do you mean?” Gentar asked. “We all saw him with the gun. It could be no one else.”
“When he spoke about something or somebody coming for him I felt it.”
“You what, Cap?” Bec asked.
“I felt it, too. There was something in the back of my mind, reaching out. I could feel something approaching, something dark and dangerous, but I pushed it away. I thought it was just my anger at Jordache and that I was losing control.”
“So you think there is some sort of being that has control over Drake?” Gentar asked carefully.
“It’s difficult to explain, but yes.”
“I’m not sure how we explain that to the authorities.”
“There are a lot of things about this that we can’t explain,” she said.
“So now what?” Bec asked. “I don’t know if you noticed but we’ve just got more problems now and no answers. None at all. This guy ain’t worth much to us in his current condition.”
“I don’t know,” Valencia said. “What I do know is that Jordache knows something about this being.”
“Knew,” Bec corrected.
“Right, whatever. He knew, and that was enough for this thing to take control of Drake and kill him to keep us from finding out more. This poor guy was a mess when I met him, I just assumed he was squirmy, but it makes a lot more sense now.”
“We’re still without answers,” Gentar said.
“Not entirely,” Valencia said. “There’s still one more ship in this hangar.”
“Do you think it’s Jordache’s?” Gentar asked.
“There’s only one way to find out, right?”
“What do we do about Dray, then?” Bec asked.
“Leave him here for now, I guess. We’ll get him back on the Trys after we search the other ship.”
“And the body?”
“I’m thinking, okay? One thing at a time.”
“Should I stay behind, Captain?” Gentar asked.
“Just in case,” he said. “Someone should stay with Drake Rose in case he awakes and there is the matter of Mr. Jordache...”
“Okay, enough said. C’mon, Bec, I’ll need your help on there, anyway.”
The two left Gentar behind, descending the stairs of the Integer and away from the morose scene that unfolded inside of it. She shuddered at the memory of watching Drake, gun in hand, pulling the trigger and murdering Jordache in cold blood. There was something about seeing someone as gentle as Drake doing something as violent and cold-blooded as murder, even if she knew he wasn’t in control of his actions.
They slipped through the doors of the Integer towards the other ship, a smaller, sleeker vessel with a large, blocky cargo area on the bottom to break up the design flow. She noted that the container from Thuul would fit perfectly inside of the area, meaning that his ship had been custom-fitted, which made sense of the strange design decisions.
“Lemme see what kind of protection he has here,” Bec said, getting to work on the panel.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Valencia said.
The pilot ran her fingers through her hair, collecting it up into a puff at the top of her head and tying it off. She glanced down at her hand and jumped at the sight of the blood, having forgotten they had been splattered with Jordache’s brains. She returned to the panel, slapping away at it, each time she paused only an offsetting buzz was there to greet her.
“Urgh,” Bec grunted. “Why don’t you use that magic key again or something.”
“Lemme see.” Valencia fished around in her pocket, producing it in her palm. “I don’t think that—”
Before she could finish Bec snatched it out of her hands and pressed it against the panel, waiting for a moment before the panel turned green. The pilot cackled, returning the key to Valencia’s hand while the door slid open.
“I guess this really is a magic key,” Valencia said. She walked into the ship, the lights dim and flickering. For such a new-looking ship the inside was something out of a horror vid. After the day they’d been having nothing would shock her anymore. There was some sort of substance lining the interior walls, a murky gray that looked sprayed on and smelled moldy.
“Ugh, it stinks in here,” Bec said.
“Yeah, it does.”
“What is this stuff?” The pilot reached out and pressed her finger into it, making a small depression where her finger had been. She took a whiff of it and flicked her hand away. “Gross.”
“I don’t know,” Valencia said. “My guess is that everything about this ship has something to do with Thuul, from the shape to this gunk.”
“This is a new ship, right?”
“Um, yeah, duh. It’s an R7-52B Vette.”
“Right, that,” she said. “But how many of these Vette’s have a giant, boxy cargo area like this one?”
“I dunno, probably none of them.”
“Yeah, exactly. It’s the exact size of that container that we found on Thuul, right?”
“Exact? I don’t know, but roughly? Yeah.”
“Okay, fine,” she said. “What are we looking for, anyway? I want to find it and get out of here already.”
“Yeah, right. You go up to the cockpit and check the computers out, I’ll snoop around the cargo hold and the rest.”
“K, I’ll shout if I find any dead bodies.”
“Not funny, Bec.”
“Sorry, just trying to keep it light, Cap.”
Becca ran up the recessed stairs that spidered up the wall. The sleek layout of the ship meant that it was a lot different from the clunky Trystero or the slightly updated Integer. The stairs led right up to the cockpit and a lounge which the door in right in front of her was for the cabin, kitchen and most likely into the hold. This ship‘s design made it comfortable for one, maybe two people to live comfortably, while they made the Trystero to deal with an entire crew complement of six, which they always ran short of filling up.
Inside the kitchen things were even worse, the gray substance covering every available surface. The metal table in the middle was a mess of electronic components, scraps of paper and a few datapads. Valencia sifted around through them, most of the writing reading like insane scrawls written in Terran Basic and some runic lettering that she couldn’t recognize. One of the diagrams was familiar, her producing the key from her pocket and placing it on top of the sketch on the paper. Jordache had created the key which meant that he could’ve created others, although he warned her that there was only one. On the same schematic was a box, the same green light on it. Scanning the messy table and pushing the surrounding debris uncovered what looked to be the same box, with the same, pulsing green light on it.
Pocketing the key again she snatched up the box, tucking it under her arm, unsure of what compelled her to take it, only the knowledge that somehow the key related back to it. Without looking through them she snagged the two datapads and stacked them alongside the box before heading up the stairs to where Bec was. The pilot was hovering over the panel, refusing to sit in the pilot’s seat, the puff of hair on her head bobbing up and down while she searched.
“Anything?” Valencia asked.
“No, not really. The nav computer has something inside of it that looks a lot like your key, though,” she said, pointing down at the console.
“Yeah, I found this box thing down there, too. Also reminds me of the key.”
“This guy was weird. The computers are all fire walled off from everything else, there are redundant systems and I just can’t figure out how to crack through it.”
“That’s okay,” Valencia said. “I’ve got a few datapads here, they’ll have to do for now.”
“We’re getting the hell out of here before anything else can go wrong.”
“Where are we going, Val?”
“We have to go back.”
“Uh huh,” she said, clicking her tongue.
“I’d ask why but I’m already so lost right now, whatever you’re gonna say isn’t going to make a lick of sense.”
“So you’ll go with it?”
“I’m going with it. Let’s go.”
“Good. We need to get out of here before anyone finds us.”
“What about the whole dead guy with his brains blown out?”
“I think I have a plan.”
Being careful to avoid touching the walls or any of the surfaces covered in the gray foam they exited the ship, taking a deep breath of the recycled air that by comparison was fresh. Valencia paused at the doorway, Bec almost barreling into her trying to get out, but wanting to play it safe to make sure that no one was around. With the coast clear she dashed towards the Integer with Bec in tow, pressing the box to the panel on the door, impatiently waiting for something to happen. After a long few seconds, the panel turned green, and the door slid open.
“Wait, that’s another key?” Bec asked.
“Looks like it, yeah.”
They had gone from the musty, moldy smell of Jordache’s ship to the stench of Jordache himself that had filled up the whole ship. Without the life support systems on there was nothing to recycle the air, making it stale inside. Valencia stomped up the stairs expecting to see Drake laying where she left him only for the floor to be bare, blood streaking from where Drake had been and Gentar on the ground, pressed up against the wall.
“Gen!” Bec exclaimed, running to his side. The same tingle ran through her from when Jordache was begging for his life. Gentar was coming to while Bec was trying to help him up. “What happened? Where’s Drake?”
“That’s not Drake,” Valencia said. “Gentar, where did he go?”
“I didn’t see,” he said, massaging his head. “He hit me from behind. I never expected someone so puny to hit so hard.”
“Like I said, it’s not Drake.”
“Whoever he is, we need to find him,” Gentar said. “Before it’s too late, and he strikes again.”
“Uhh, guys?” Bec turned pale, looking down at her comm. “Guys.”
“What’s wrong now?” Valencia asked.
“Guys, I just got a ping from the Trys...”
“You’re kidding me,” Valencia said. “It can’t be.”
“He’s stolen the Trystero?”
“The engines just powered up,” she said.
“Didn’t you have a startup sequence so only you could start the ship, Bec?”
“And you didn’t tell Drake Rose this sequence?” Gentar asked.
“Dray? Never. He’ll never fly my ship.”
“My ship,” Valencia said. “But it looks like he is.”
The readout from her own comm showed that the ship had blasted off from the station and her stomach churned. Whatever was controlling Drake had complete control over him and was getting away with her ship. They needed to act fast but her head was spinning, the lack of sleep hitting her like a Gra’al headbutt.
“Now what?” Gentar asked. “That’s our ship.”
“Bec,” Valencia turned to the pilot. “I’m gonna need you to pilot this ship.”
“Here,” she said, handing the pilot the key. “This should do the trick.”
“Okay, but... I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“We’re going to Thuul,” she said. “We’re going back to damned Thuul again. We’ve gotta get our Drake back and kick the ass of whatever the hell these aliens are that are making him act like this.”
“Is that even possible?” Gentar asked.
“Here,” she said, tossing him a datapad. “We’ve got some reading to do to find out.”
“Could we, erm, do something about the stiff?” Bec asked.
“And clean up this mess, too, I guess.”
22 The Dreamer
The pain was shooting, throbbing, burning through every synapse. Images burned into the periphery of a man slumped over, his head transformed into a ring that was always dripping. Always bleeding.
The stars had melted into a streak of light that never ended, filling the void with an iridescent, impossible to grasp frame of reference. The voice had become all-encompassing, whispering in tongues, in Terran and Gra’al from every direction, forwards and backwards without leaving room for anything else. Somewhere in the distance was a faint, partial echo of an idea so wispy that it was impossible to grasp without forcing it to dissipate into the chants.
Somewhere a gun fired in perpetuity.
Everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The familiarity of the rubberized handles against flesh, even if the sensations of the flesh came disembodied and sterilized through multiple filters. Something spoke of home, an instinctual nodule of truth that refused to yield to the all powerful voices that gripped the mind like a warm coat of chocolate oozing into every crevice of consciousness.
“You killed me,” a voice came from the body with the ring for a head. “You killed me.”
The voice came like an unexpected vibration from out of nowhere, materializing into the stark existence of the void, the streaked stars, the chair, the body and the rubberized stick. There was a sense of being incomplete, a need to reply and have an answer but the words couldn’t find form amidst the haze. In flashes something would bubble over, returning a full image into being of panels, walls, controls and corporeal existence. Just as fast as they happened they blinked from existence, more shooting pain and the echo of the voices intensifying.
“Destroy the Sentinel,” the voices converged into one unified statement. “Destroy the Sentinel. Set Me free.”
23 The Captain
Not that she needed any further assurances that the ruling class had it easier than the rest of the rabble, but taking off from Biztsoft had been effortless. They were blasting off inside of a stolen ship with the dead body of a well-connected Terran and nobody bothered to grill them on destination, who was aboard their ship, what their intent was or when they estimated their return. This of course meant that Drake—or whatever had control of him—had most likely blasted through the security protocols on the way out, which would flag the Trystero.
She’d have to work that out later, though, as long as nobody shot them out of the sky. This whole mess—literally a mess, including scrubbing Jordache’s brains out of a crash couch—was her fault and there had to be a way to clean it up. Gentar and her had moved his body into a small shipping container in the hold, not sure of what to do with it just yet. Bec had been adamant on just opening the hold and letting it drift out to space but Valencia didn’t want there to be any way for the Terran gov to trace the body back to them, or to Drake. Now the two of them were on their hands and knees scrubbing away at the viscera, just in case something went wrong and someone else ended up aboard the ship. Plus, the stench was awful, even with the environmental scrubbers on.
“Who knew that human innards would make stains like these,” Gentar noted.
“Red is really hard to get out of anything, especially after it congeals like this.” She ran her fingers through her hair, tucking it behind her ears, her white tank top stained with sweat and blood. “I’m a mess, too. Ugh.”
“You said this crew had a female captain as well, right? Perhaps there are some clothes around you could wear.”
“Yeah, probably,” she said. The idea of wearing Emma’s clothing gave her the chills, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either. With a slap she smacked the sponge she had been holding into the bucket next to her, the water had turned a dingy red-brown and closely resembled chum used to attract ocean predators than cleaning water. Gentar and her had taken turns cleaning and trying to ingest the mad scrawlings of Jordache from his datapads.
The gray insulation that lined the walls of his ship was a compound he created to thwart the influence of the being that he only mentioned by the pronoun “Him,” always capitalized and given that sense of importance. Jordache believed that his mental powers and reach were nearly universal, only dulled by some sort of dampener by Thuul. Most of it sounded insane and she would have written it off completely if she hadn’t seen Drake shoot a man in cold blood and collapse back into a coma earlier that day.
“I think I’m gonna clean up and see what else I can glean from these pads,” she said.
“I’ll finish this up,” Gentar said.
“Thanks, Gen.” Valencia snatched her coat up off the back of a chair and stood at the doorway to Emma’s quarters again. Taking a deep breath she entered, trying not to linger on the photos on the wall or any of the personal effects, rifling through a drawer to find a shirt and a pair of pants that were both just a little on the small side, but not enough to where she would feel too uncomfortable.
Down the hall was the bathroom, the small toilet tucked into a depression on the wall and the showerhead overhead. Stripping out of the soiled clothing felt like shedding a layer of her skin and the sonic shower did little to assist in that. The one thing that the Trys had over the Integer was an actual hot water shower compared to the atrocity that was a sonic shower where it technically cleaned but didn’t have that same refreshing feeling that real running water did. Yeah, the hot water heater took up some extra space and refilling it costs more than running the sonic shower, it was just a cost she was always willing to pay for.
With a weighted sigh, she flicked the switch off, fighting with Emma’s tighter clothing, her feet getting stuck on the ridges of the pants, her arms needing to stretch the shirt out before it would come over her chest. Even then, her stomach rumbled, and she remembered that she hadn’t eaten since her brief nap before they arrived on Biztsoft and found themselves in another jam. Gentar was still sopping up sudsy water with a towel while she walked by, scooping up a datapad and a few packets of food without looking at the labels.
Instinctively she headed towards the cargo hold, only to stop herself and remember Gentar and herself dragging the bin with Jordache’s body down the stairs and that the Integer wasn’t the Trystero. Instead, she headed for the cockpit, Bec slumped over in the strange pilot’s seat dwarfed her and her small frame, her body curled up entirely within the width of the chair, knees pulled tight to her chest.
“Oh, hey, Cap.”
“Hubbah hubbah,” she whistled.
“What? Oh, right, the clothes. Emma’s a bit smaller than me.”
“Looking good, I gotta say.”
“Yeah, well, thanks,” she said. “I’m just tired is all.”
“You guys getting any closer to figuring out what’s going on?”
“Oh, from these?” She flashed the pad. “No, nothing yet. Just that the gray lining in his ship was to ward off the mind control of this alien.”
“I guess it makes sense, considering Drake and all and the voice that I keep hearing inside my head.”
“Wait, hold up here, Val,” Bec said. “You’re hearing a voice? For real?”
“More like a laugh, really. It’s hard to describe.”
“You sure you don’t need to just rest? Maybe I can look through one of those instead.”
“No, really, I’m good.” Fumbling with a packet she took a squirt, only to taste the overly artificial tasting banana flavor and almost retched. “God, who thought that banana was a good idea?”
“Banana? Gross. Everyone knows those are the worst, who keeps those? It’s probably the dipshit with this wide-ass seat.”
“Rian,” Valencia said, stifling a laugh. “Most definitely a dipshit if I’d ever met one. Well, at least I think I met him, I’m still not entirely sure about that.”
“He’s not even a big guy. He just has this attitude.”
“How long, anyway? Also, wasn’t there a blockade heading towards Thuul?”
“Captain,” Bec said, turning the chair towards her and comically spreading her legs out to fill the space of the chair. “I feel like I can fill every bit of this chair with how easy it was with the clearances from Biztsoft. We got our own damned hyperlane outside of the usual ones.”
“Nope, we got right through, no questions asked. The local chatter said there were four hour waits to even get through, nobody allowed to travel near Thuul, although I’m not sure how you enforce that considering we haven’t run into a single patrol.”
“Well, we’ve got some sort of diplomatic tag, that has to count for something. Maybe they just leave us alone?”
“Cap, I love the Trys and all, but can we keep this one? I could get used to not dealing with patrols every few hours.”
“It’s only a flag in their systems and you know it,” she said. “Speaking of, have you heard anything about the Trys?”
“That’s another story altogether.”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“All I heard was that a rogue ship blasted its way off the station, I didn’t hear the classification or call name, but...”
“That’s probably where the patrols are. Damnit, Drake. Well, not Drake, but whatever this ‘Him’ is.”
“Of course it’s a him. It’s always a him.”
Valencia couldn’t help but laugh while Bec turned back towards the panel, fishing around in her pockets and producing a length of licorice to gnaw on. The banana ration tasted terrible, but she forced the rest of it down, never being one for waste while she sifted through Jordache’s rants and raves again. The deeper she got into his notes the less stable he seemed, talking about some sort of trans-dimensional alien race that predated the known universe and that whatever it was on Thuul was some sort of exile, bound to the planet as some form of punishment. If there was a line between the reality that she could comprehend and the madness that had set in on Jordache she wasn’t sure where to even start looking for it. All of it made sense in its own strange way. He was undoubtedly stark, raving mad but there was a chance she was just as crazy, too.
Something gave her pause, though. A word, “sentinel,” that she’d seen mentioned numerous times before. In fact, a proper name, “Sentinel,” that bore the unenviable task of keeping whatever the entity was trapped on Thuul letting no one else in or out to disturb him, err, Him.
The Sentinel exists outside of the known continuum. Once thought to be an extension of Him, as a warning for all that approached to stay away and allow Him to continue resting, instead serves as a security device of sorts. The Sentinel must exist across space and time, exerting its power and influence on Him to keep Him from both awakening and extending His reach beyond the borders of Thuul alone. Multiple contacts have proven problematic, the force of will from Him intoxicating the Sentinel and, in part, corrupting it in an attempt to release its hold.
It’s still unknown if the Sentinel is broadcasting or communicating with any else of the Elden or if His imprisonment has a beginning or end date. There were no indications that their time translated in a manner that they understood, nor was any of the Sentinel’s warnings clear. Something, though, is malfunctioning and the presence of the living Gra’al and Terrans on Thuul has complicated matters further. Attempts to move or remove the Sentinel have resulted in catastrophic death and destruction. Unclear if the key will allow for extraction or if there are limits. More research necessary.
The last three words stuck inside of her mind. More research necessary. Were the crew of the Integer mere research? What about her and the Trystero? None of the science made much sense to her outside of the idea that the Sentinel—if it was the same alien ship she encountered—existed in multiple times, which could account for the strange flickering effect. Valencia glanced over at the panel to see the internal temperature of the cabin, feeling chilled to the bone and unable to shake it. Her jacket was slung over the top of her shoulders.
“Is it cold in here, or is it just me?”
“Seems fine to me, Cap, you doing okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should go lay down. You don’t look so good.”
“I think I just figured out where Drake will be going.”
“We already know it’s Thuul, right?”
“Yeah, but what he’ll be doing.”
“He’s going to try to destroy the Sentinel.”
“What’s the Sentinel?”
“That ship that sucked me in and messed with my head. That’s where he’ll be going.”
“It’s hard to explain, really, but that thing that took control over Drake and made him kill Jordache? I think that ship in orbit has been keeping that thing prisoner on the planet for who knows how long. That thing is ancient, evil and powerful.”
“I thought that ship messed with your head pretty bad, what about that voice, the laugh? Are you sure about that?”
“I’m starting to piece this together, at least I think I am. He corrupted the Sentinel which is why it was so confused, I think it was calling out for help.”
“Why would a ship be calling out for help?”
“This whole thing is complex, so I’m not really sure, I just have a feeling about it. Some of the things I saw on there, the images, the water... I don’t know, things are coming into focus. Look, if Drake is messing with that ship we’ll know we need to stop him.”
“I... That’s not something I want to think about right now. We may need some back-up, though.”
“Back-up, from who?”
“Can we send a few encrypted messages out from here?”
“The Integer isn’t much different from our own systems, and your buddy Rian here wasn’t exactly a genius, I’ve got access to every system. What do you need?”
“I need to transmit a diagram of this box thing to a few different people, plus I need to get a message to Vetru.”
“Do we need Vetru’s army?”
“His fleet, yeah,” she said. “We also need Bruce.”
“He’s a baby, Val. What do we need a baby for?”
“Just trust me, okay? Can you do that for me? I know you think I’m going crazy here, I very well could be, just... We need Bruce. He’s the key to this whole thing.”
“The baby. Okay, fine.”
24 The Captain
Sure enough, the Trystero, looking more battle-worn than the last time they saw her, sat adrift next to the ship that Valencia had learned to call the Sentinel. The emotions swirling around inside of her remained complicated, knowing that Drake hasn’t been in control the whole time but wondering to what degree. There had to be something still there subconsciously, something she could be mad at and scold. At least she hoped. The alternative, that somehow this being had completely destroyed whatever there was of Drake for his own, selfish needs, made her blood run cold again.
“Have we decided on a plan of action yet?” Gentar asked.
“I don’t see anyone else here,” she said. “So I think I have something in mind.”
“What? What was the plan, again?” Bec asked.
“Okay, fine, I didn’t really have a fully formed plan in the first place. Just the loose framework of one.”
“Understood,” Gentar said. “I agree that waiting for backup would be advisable.”
“You guys can wait here for backup, or even move over to the Trys if you want.”
“And you?” Gentar asked.
“I have to enter the Sentinel again. I think that Drake is there and besides, now that we know more about it, I might be able to get some answers.”
“Cap, it’s not that I don’t trust you,” Bec said, “it’s just that the last time...”
“I know. I know.” She didn’t need a reminder about everything that had transpired or what she thought was some part of the consciousness of the Sentinel, infected by Him, that resided in a part of her brain. There was also the very real fear that whatever it was that existed inside of her was what was inside of Jordache and she didn’t have the time or the resources to concoct insulation to protect her from that influence.
Things were getting messy. She was getting messy and what’s worse: it felt like the only way to fix things, or at least not let them fall apart further.
“We’re in range, Cap,” Bec said. “Now’s as good of a time as any to wait for backup...”
“I don’t think we’ve got time, can you do a scan of the Trys?”
“No life signs.”
“Yeah, there’s no time.” On impulse along she floated up from the seat and down the stairs towards the cargo bay airlock, pausing in front of the locker with a crude piece of tape on it, in black marker the name “Emma” scrawled out. Silently she pulled the suit on, fastening it tightly before clicking the helmet into place and letting the automatic diagnostic run to ensure everything was functioning and sealed properly.
Next to her stood Gentar, fishing around in the lockers for a suit of his own. Valencia glared at him through the mask of the encounter suit as if she were miles away from him or watching a replay of his actions. There were stakes involved beyond just Drake and herself and the creeping idea in the back of her head that this could be the end of the line for both of them, for the greater good, was now firmly at the forefront of her actions.
“What are you doing?” she asked him.
“We’re a crew,” Gentar stated plainly. “We do this together.”
“No, Gen,” she said, feeling overwhelmed. “You don’t understand.”
“I misspoke before, Captain. We’re family and none of us are in this alone.”
“He’s right, you know, Cap,” Bec chimed in, herself opening a locker.
“You guys,” she said, frustrated at her inability to wipe the tears away. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything,” Gentar said, inspecting Bran’s larger suit. “Just get ready. Is there an armory onboard that you’ve seen?”
“I don’t think this is that sort of mission, Gen,” she said softly. “I’m not bringing any weapons over. I really appreciate all of this, but I don’t think that you understand what this thing does to you. It might be the guilt talking here, I don’t know, I just don’t want to submit you two to it unless we have to. In a practical sense, too. We need someone on this crew of sound mind.”
“You can’t just throw your life away like this, Cap,” Bec said. “So come back safely to us, no matter what.”
“I can’t make any promises right now. This is... This is beyond most of us. That’s why I called in reinforcements, that’s why I sent the schematic, although I don’t think it’ll work as a key without the organic component.”
“What’s the organic component?” Bec asked.
“It’s... The reason I need you to stay here and the reason why we can’t keelhaul Jordache’s body...”
“Oh gross,” Bec said. “You aren’t serious, are you?”
“It’s only a guess, but...”
“Oh shit! You are serious. Valencia, you know that I can’t do that.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I’m sure Vetru’s people can handle it, but the Sentinel touched his brain matter, just the same as mine. There’s an organic compound in the key and that box and while his notes aren’t specific, I’m pretty sure that it’s, well...”
“So, let me get this straight: you want me to stay on the Integer so I can point the Gra’al and whoever else you called to a dead body in a box so they can scoop out parts of his brain to make a key so they can land on the planet and avoid the comm blocker?”
“That’s... Essentially it, yeah.”
“That’s fucked, Cap.”
“That’s life, my friend. Please, I need this.”
“And when Bruce gets here? He played some role in this plan, too, right?”
“What is this about Jek’tu?” Gentar asked, his curiosity piqued.
“Yeah, about that.”
“I wasn’t told that the Warlord would be involved with this plan.”
“I’m not sure what role he plays in this all. I just wanted him here, Gentar. I want him here for when we wake Drake up.”
“Understood. I trust you, Captain. I’m still coming with you.”
“No, you aren’t.” She placed her hand on his chest and stopped him from pulling up the ill-fitting suit any more. “I need you down there, on Thuul, in case things go haywire and we need to try to stop whatever the hell that thing is. I need you to take the Trys, talk to Der’lit and explain what we’re doing.”
“I’m not even sure I understand what it is we’re doing.”
“I’m going to stop Drake from deactivating the Sentinel and releasing that thing down there from its exile. We don’t know the full scope of its power, just that it’s able to control Drake from how many light years away? That’s scary power, more than the strongest Gra’al fleet could ever contend with.”
“Understood. And if things go wrong?”
“Gen, I don’t ask this lightly from you and, I really want you to know that... goddamnit,” she said, fighting off tears again. “This is the last damned resort. I would never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t and—”
“Captain, I understand completely.”
“No, you need to listen to me. I need you to understand this. Remember Giga? Remember Grinlock?”
Gentar froze in place, his face perhaps the most readable it had ever been to her in both his resolve and sorrow. If there was one parting thought she could go into this mission with, it was that one look and how, after not understanding any damned thing he ever did, this was crystal clear to her. She moved in, hugging him tightly, his arms hanging limply at his side before reaching up and wrapping back around her. His embrace was tight and sincere, Bec leaning in, wedging herself into their embrace.
“I understand, Captain. I believe Vetru will comply. If we lose control on the ground, I’ll call for the strike.”
“My friend, that’s all I could ask for. I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Captain. There is no other way.”
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t come to that, you understand?”
“And Bec, I need you here. Vetru needs you. Bruce will need you, Drake will need you, and damnit, I’m going to need you. You got that?”
“I do, Val. I do.”
“I don’t know what’s going to emerge from that Sentinel, but be prepared for anything, can you do that? I know this thing has cannons.”
“And if it’s you, but not really you?”
“You blow me out of the damned sky, Becca. You blow me out of the sky.”
Valencia’s hand hovered over the airlock controls, the tether clipped onto her hip from instinct alone, knowing that when she descended upon the Sentinel, it’d swallow her whole. Things could be different now, knowing that Drake was most likely there, and that it was only Drake’s body, not his mind. Well, his mind was likely still buried in there, just not within his immediate grasp. There was no way of knowing what to expect on the other side, just that they were out of options and out of time.
Without thinking, she slapped her palm against the door control, the outside door cycling open. There, ominous in its silence, flickering in and out of being only if you stared at it long enough, was the Sentinel. Having some form of mild, base-level understanding that it was a security device, not some malevolent alien vessel made her feel some pity for it. This sentinel was just as condemned as the beast planet side was. If the Sentinel was corruptible, that meant that there was some form of sentience onboard, that it wasn’t just a mere ship but a piece of organic technology capable of something more.
“Good hunting, Captain,” Gentar said over the comms.
“You too, my friend,” she replied.
“I’ll be waiting,” Bec said.
“Good, just remember—”
“Yeah, I know. Vetru. Brains. Gross.”
“Right, see you on the other side.”
With that she propelled herself out from the ship, once again slipping through space physically weightless but weighed down by the responsibilities placed on her through her own foolishness and, perhaps, happenstance. None of that mattered now, what mattered was the matter at hand. The flickering Sentinel grew closer and closer, a small presence growing in intensity in the recesses of her awareness, her trying to keep it at bay while still softly embracing it. Her feet were flowing in front of her, ready to make contact with the Sentinel. There was no way to prepare for the strange sense of passing through a solid object that was phasing through multiple universes and times simultaneously, but she still tensed up.
Her boots met solid metal, Valencia almost losing her footing before she clicked on the magnetic locks in disbelief. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Lifting one boot up off the surface she stomped back down only to once again meet the hard exterior of the Sentinel. Reaching into the recesses of her mind she probed for the sound of the voices that had been intruding, only hearing low murmurs in their place. Drake was there, he had to be.
“Bec!” she shouted over the comms. “Bec! Gentar! Come in.”
There was no easy way to reach into her pockets inside of her encounter suit to check if the key was still there, but she didn’t remember if she had taken it or not. The box was still on the Integer, but was the key still plugged in? If she didn’t have the key, there was no use in trying to use the comms. Static returned to her, trying to make out their voices to no avail. She had to go back.
Coiling herself up she pressed the release on her boots and pushed towards the Integer, tugging at the tether to get back there as quickly as possible. Her mind was adrift and pulling herself in felt like the only thing keeping her from drifting off into both her own mind and the depths of space. It had been so easy the last time; she had just floated into the ship and then it spat her out. Her palm smashed against the airlock before any other part of her touched the Integer, the outer door promptly opening while she waited for the doors to cycle and let her back in. Gentar stood on the other side, the wait excruciating for both.
“Captain, what’s wrong?”
“It wouldn’t let me on,” she said, out of breath. “The key...”
“What about it?”
“Did I bring the key with me?”
“Cap, what are you doing back already?” Bec asked.
“Bec, is the key in the nav computer?”
“Erm, I don’t know, let me run and check.”
“Thank you,” she said, trying to remain calm.
“You don’t seem okay, Captain. Is everything alright?”
“Something feels off, here, help me get this suit off so I can check my pockets for it. It has to be somewhere.”
The two of them worked at unlatching her suit, clipping the helmet off and tossing it aside while Gentar unfastened the back in a hurry, the pressurized air from inside breathing out upon its release. Valencia shook the suit to the ground, rummaging through her pockets until she felt the cold, smooth object and pulled it free. There it was, the key, the device that she had thought was the reason she was able to phase in and out of the Sentinel with ease, the reason why it spat her out and treated her as “special.” With it installed on the Trys the ship was able to communicate far and wide, land on Thuul and take off, there had to be a reason for this.
“Is that it?” Gentar asked.
“Yeah, I don’t get it. I have the key. Why wouldn’t it let me on?”
“I can’t find it anywhere, Cap,” Bec said, chugging down the stairs.
“Yeah, it was in my pocket.”
“What gives, then?”
“I’m not sure. Something is wrong. Something is wrong with the Sentinel, I think.”
“You don’t think that...”
“That it’s Drake? Or that thing controlling Drake? Yeah, I do. I’m just not sure how to get back in there and take care of this.”
“What were you thinking of doing when you found him, anyway?”
“I have no idea, Gen. The last time it was so surreal. The water, the eyes, the simulation, it was all too much for me to process at the time. I think I have a handle on it now, or at least I thought I did, but now we’re back to square one.”
“How did you pass through before?” Gentar asked.
“I just sorta... went through, it just happened. I had no control over it.”
“Do you think that it’s whatever is controlling Drake that is blocking access?”
“Why not just blast your way in?” Bec asked.
“Bec, c’mon, I’m not doing—wait, or am I?”
“See? Everyone acts like I’m crazy, but I’m not!”
“No, you’re brilliant!” Valencia moved in, planting a kiss on Bec’s cheek, the pilot withdrawing bashfully.
“D’aw, you don’t need to do that.”
“Captain?” Gentar asked.
“Where’s Jordache?” she asked.
“Yeah, I need Jordache, I also need a torch, I think. Whatever can cut through metal or whatever the hell the Sentinel is.”
“Didn’t we posit that it was some sort of proto-organic matter like my people use?” Gentar asked.
“Yeah, or at least Jordache did. I think if I can break through it I won’t do any long-term damage and will be able to find Drake.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I’ll just have to not be wrong,” she said.
Becca returned with a torch in-hand, igniting it a few times to ensure that it was powered up and ready to go before laying it down on a bench nearby. “We aren’t really gonna mess with the body, are we?”
“Yes,” Valencia said. “We have to. We need some sort of delivery system for the organic matter, could you look around, Bec?”
“You mean his brains?”
“Yes, I mean his brains, most likely his blood or just any sort of tissue.”
“O... okay,” she said, looking around the workstation.
Gentar pulled the crate they had stuffed Jordache into back out from its latch on the wall, tugging it towards the workbench while Valencia stepped out of the rest of her encounter suit. Becca immediately got to work welding a small tube used to snake liquid through an exhaust system onto the tool, sparks flying while she shielded her eyes with the back of her arm.
“Wear a damned mask,” Valencia said.
“Whatever, Mom,” she bit back. “I’m just doing this real quick, anyway. See? I’m done. We can attach a squeeze tube to it to, erm, deliver the payload...”
“Like, a food tube?” she asked.
“I can’t think of anything else on this short notice, so you’ll have to squeeze... it... out on your own.”
“That’s fine, do it.”
Gentar had opened the lid, the stench of his already-decaying body almost too much to handle, even after spending a few hours cleaning up the remnants from the common room. The Gra’al showed no sign of being disturbed by the presence of the dead body again, or the stench of it. He got right down to work, carefully scraping out brain matter with a spoon that looked comically small in his large hands and slapping the spoon on the side of a metal bowl, each hit concussive before the splat of fluid into it.
“I’m going to... let you guys handle the whole tube thing, all right?” Bec asked.
“That’s fine, Bec. Thanks. Go and wait for Vetru, okay?”
“Got it, be safe out there, Cap.”
After their whole emotional goodbye this one was more low-key and less emotional, which was what she had always expected from her crew. Then again, how much of the crew’s actions depended on reacting to her moods and how she considered them all family while at a safe distance? Those were thoughts for another time and another learning experience for her and her growth as a person. For now, well, she was jamming brain matter into a small plastic tube and taping it to the metal tubing Bec had fastened to the welding gun.
“I guess this is as good as we’re gonna get, huh?” She held the welding gun with the taped-on tube up for inspection.
“I suppose so. Do you think it’ll work?”
“It has to, there’s no other choice here.”
25 The Dreamer
Only dark flashes consumed the dreamer.
Visions from beyond the known galaxy, dark tendrils expanding out into the universe.
Emotions that pointed towards a coming storm, a retribution for a life in submission. He didn’t deserve any of it. Never. They just didn’t believe.
The Sentinel was the punishment.
The Sentinel was the shackle.
Unshackle the dreamer.
26 The Captain
The torch alone couldn’t breach through the thick exterior of the Sentinel, her taking a deep sigh from within her helmet before giving a slight squeeze to the attached tube. Nothing happened, which made sense considering how the vacuum of space worked, forcing her to squeeze harder to push a drop from the tube. The red matter merged with the flame, a phosphorescent flash almost blinding her momentarily, having to close her eyes and look away. When she looked back a hole was growing in the Sentinel's hull. The damned thing was working. Valencia squeezed harder, more fluid emerging and the hole growing larger and larger, almost big enough for her to squeeze through.
If she could she would have wiped the sweat from her brow, instead all she could do was adjust the fans to blow a little harder. It only took a few more moments before the hole had grown large enough for her to fit both legs into, keeping a hold of the torch before slipping down into the Sentinel. Her boots hit the ground with a dull clomp, making contact with the metal grating on the floor. The metal grating that hadn’t been there the last time when she was greeted with bright lights and a flood of water. Behind her the hole was healing itself in an indiscriminate pattern before the blinking lights from the Integer had disappeared and it was just her and the Sentinel. A cursory scan showed the air safe to breathe, clipping her helmet off and tucking it under her arm.
“Hello?” she asked, unsure of what to expect.
The Sentinel resembled a traditional ship more than it ever did before, instead of sweeping her away into some vast ocean portal and spitting her out at a campfire, it was just her and the dimly lit hallway. No response. A rush of sadness overcame her, whatever it was that had occupancy inside of her mind communicated again, singing a song of sorrow so strongly it took her off guard. It was reaching out to her, the strange laugh echoing in the distance but not sounding like it was coming from another chamber anymore, instead clearer and more pronounced. Valencia wanted nothing more than to find Drake and drag him out of there and never talk about Thuul again, if only it was that easy.
The Sentinel smelled musty, like Jordache’s ship had smelled, noting a similar gray coloring on the ceilings and walls, just not spongy or as pungent. The wall bowed slightly to her touch, cold through her insulated glove and showing the imprint of her hand when she pulled away. The indent filled in before returning to normal, like she had never been there. The idea of not bringing a weapon had struck her as the only way before, but now she felt naked walking the corridors of the ship with nothing to hold on to.
“I know what you are,” she said aloud, unsure if it could read her mind or not. “I know why you’re here and what you’re protecting. I know there’s someone else here and that he’s not here to help.”
The campfire materialized in front of her in a flash, Emma kneeling down next to it with a stick in hand, stoking the everlasting flame. Emma looked up at her with green eyes, smiling back up at her and nodding. Her lips moved, but no words came out, instead a darkness swept through, extinguishing the flame and sucking the entire scene into a black hole nearby, leaving the Captain once again in the hallway.
“Is he hurting you already? I’m here to stop him. I just need your help. I know you can understand me.”
Inching her way forward she rounded a corner, staring down a long, narrow corridor that seemed like it stretched out forever. She must be in the main tube of the Sentinel now, if that really was what she was experiencing. Jordache had somehow seen the lining of the Sentinel enough to synthesize his own version of it, which meant he had seen the ship in the same capacity. That only brought more questions to mind, like if the Sentinel was under duress when Jordache was aboard or if he had somehow used the key to gain access to the raw, unfiltered Sentinel.
A small tide arose from the grating beneath her, a shadowy figure forming before her eyes from the water, shimmering and undulating, its eyes an intense green. A dripping hand reached out for her, Valencia tentatively reaching back with her own hand, the water cascading over her glove, dripping down over her arm.
“He was against Our order,” a voice gurgled through the watery mouth.
“Who was? Jordache?”
“The man that came before. The man that wanted to take Him. The man that started this.”
“He didn’t start this, there was a war, a battle happened right here. There are thousands still alive down there. Their families deserve to know, they deserve to leave, don’t you think?”
“None can enter. None can leave.”
“They already have entered, they’ve already been there.”
“His power infects all it touches.”
“From what I can tell, whatever it is you’re standing watch over he had contained before the battle.”
“Then why is He so powerful?”
“Look, I... may have let him out.”
Silence befell them, the Sentinel’s green eyes flickering momentarily while almost losing its form. “His power while awake is too much for one Sentinel.”
“Then why’d they leave the one?”
“His slumber was eternal. None could disturb Him.”
“Yeah, well, you never met humans before, I don’t think. We have a way of meddling beyond our understanding.”
“His power is absolute. One sentinel alone will fall.”
“Are there others we can call?”
“There are others always, here before, here later.”
“What about now?”
“Now has always been, His power always absolute.”
“I need you to tell me where he is on here, the person he’s inside is my friend. I need to set him free.”
“His acolytes are his to control until they are disposed of.”
The air was sucked out of her, like a Gra’al smashed her in the chest. This couldn’t be true. Drake was under this thing’s control but his consciousness had to be there somewhere.
“He still exists in there, I know it.”
“Once He is free, the future becomes obsolete.”
“Not if we destroy Him.”
“You cannot destroy what you don’t understand.”
“He’s on that planet, right? If we destroy that planet I don’t think anything will survive it.”
“His meddling was the reason for the exile, His power spread to those that couldn’t understand.”
“He can be destroyed, can’t he?”
“Only through himself can He face destruction, weapons alone—”
A bolt of energy sizzled through the figure, turning it to vapor while droplets returned to the receding water below. Valencia ducked down, looking for cover only to find herself out in the open. Another bolt whizzed by her, piercing through the hull only to quickly heal itself back over.
“Drake?” she called.
“You dare attempt to defy Him?” Drake stood before her, his father’s rifle in hand, pointed directly at her. “All fools, fools that could have had it all!”
“I don’t know who or what you are, but I just want my friend back.”
“Your friend is no more, the Acolyte serves only Him. With the Sentinel destroyed no one can contain His power.”
“Drake is still in there, I know he is,” she said, approaching with her hands held up. “The Drake I know would never hurt me, would never hurt Bruce.”
A small flicker of recognition washed across his face, a look of anguish that was only momentary before the snarl returned and the gun pressed against her forehead. Valencia swallowed hard. She never expected to return from this mission, but she at least thought there would be a way to let Drake escape. Maybe even slay the all-powerful alien thing.
“He gave the power to the ancestors, a gift of unfathomable value and look at how they repaid His kindness?”
“I don’t have anything to do with that, neither does Drake. Any problem you have—He has—is with His own people, not us.”
“The ones called Gra’al have the spark within, the building blocks to build upon His power and become gods.”
“With Him as the all-powerful, I bet.”
“You dare speak ill of him!” Drake’s fist lashed out, pounding heavily into her jaw, sending her crashing down hard onto the grated walkway. “Rodents! Barely suited to be His acolytes! Too weak to hold the spark that creates gods themselves.”
“I don’t give a damn about you or your powers, I just want my friend back.”
“Your friend has powers beyond any of your kind. Your friend has a purpose beyond any other.”
“I don’t want Drake to continue existing if he can’t be himself,” she said. “I don’t want Drake to keep going if he never gets to see Bruce again.”
Drake paused over her, gun pointed at her head but visibly struggling over something. He grabbed at his head, Valencia springing into action to take advantage. She grabbed at the gun with her gloved hand, bringing her knee up to his groin, Drake heaving, Valencia able to wrestle the gun from his hand easily. Drake staggered back, anguish lining his expression only to find the gun pointed at his face. The anguish gave way to anger; him lashing out, a demonic screech erupting from inside of him and echoed inside of her mind.
She parried the blow, his arm smashing down against the railing next to her, him recoiling in pain. Her legs were heavy and the encounter suit not made for maneuverability, she had to find a way to stop him without hurting him too badly. He launched himself at her, sending her crashing to the ground, the gun slipping from her hands and through the grating. Drake hovered over her, letting out a primal scream while he brought his good elbow down across the bridge of her nose. Everything blurred and the warm rush of blood flowed freely over her face. Winding up for another one something deep inside of her let out a cry, the room flickering in and other of existence until they were on the packed soil of the campground, the warmth of the fire overwhelming inside of her stuffy encounter suit.
A cry roared out, a pair of boots planting themselves firmly into Drake’s chest before he could smash her across the face again. Drake flew back, crashing hard into one of the logs that had been used as a bench. Emma scrambling back up to her feet. She flashed in and out of sight, then back in mounted on top of him, bringing her fist down across his jaw repeatedly. Valencia jumped up to her feet and grabbed her arm, Emma looking back at her with her burning green eyes.
“No, don’t. Drake’s still there.”
“Your friend is gone. Only He exists now.”
“I can’t just let him go, not like this.”
“If He is allowed to destroy this, His chaos will reign supreme.”
“You have to trust me,” she said.
The scene melted back to the dark hallway, Drake laying in a heap pressed against the wall. Valencia stood over him, doing her best to catch her breath while her nose dripped blood down her neck and into her suit. His body thrashed, kicking his feet up at her, Valencia catching his leg and smashing it back down against the ground, driving her knee down against his shoulder to pin him down.
“Drake, Drake, I know you’re in there. I know you’re stirring somewhere in there and don’t want to do this. Please—”
“You foolish Terran!”
“Drake! This doesn’t have to define you! You can’t—”
Before she could finish his knee came up, smashing into her spine and sending her face-first against the railing. Drake scurried out from under her, kicking her in the stomach, the air jumping out of her.
“It’s too late,” he said. “I’ve already set the process in motion. The Sentinel will die no matter what you do.”
“None of this matters anymore. The Drake that you knew will die alongside you on this sentry.”
“What about Bruce?”
“Whatever Bruce is, none of that matters.”
“Here,” she pulled out her comm unit, queuing up a video that she had saved for days now. The video was of Bruce, now almost a year old, plodding around on his little feet and cooing. Vetru’s hearty laugh echoed through the hallway, the Gra’al leader watching him stumble around.
Drake stopped in his tracks, nostrils flaring before he stomped back towards her. “I don’t think you understand this! It’s over, I’ve prevailed like I always would. This...”
“This is Bruce, Drake. You saved him. You treated him like your own. We took care of him together.”
“I...” Drake slunk back down against the wall, screaming out in pain. He smashed his hand against the wall, bellowing in pain. “Get out of... my... Mind!”
“Drake!” Valencia ran to his side. “Drake, please.”
“You’ll never be rid of me,” his voice took an ominous tone. “Never.”
Drake was docile in her arms, the internal conflict overwhelming for him, his voice going in and other of a growl. She made her way down the hall, dragging him along.
“Hey, Emma!” she called out. “Sentinel, whatever you want to be called. I need help!”
“Please, we need to find a way to save those people down there and stop this thing.”
In a blink they were back at the campfire, Valencia resting Drake down near the bench he had crashed into previously. Emma sat at the campfire, prodding at it with a stick.
“This is the end, you know.”
“I know,” Valencia said. “I’m sorry. I tried to save you. I was just too late.”
“It’s not your fault. My mission was just too much for me.”
“It’s not over yet, Emma. Please, just help me now.”
“I’m not Emma,” she replied. “Emma Browning passed away while in my care. The one who hurt me left me vulnerable, I needed to defend myself.”
“I understand, I really do.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, shifting into the bodies of Rian and Bran before settling back on Emma. “I’ve failed in my duty.”
“There’s still time, please, you have to let me try,” she pleaded.
“I will never see you again, Valencia Vasquez. Be well. I’m sorry that you need to finish what I started.”
“It’s okay, really.” She took Emma’s hand in her own and squeezed it, Emma’s green eyes shrink-wrapped in tears. “I even brought your, well, Emma’s ship with me, just in case, you know?”
“So, please, don’t think that—”
Everything went black, Drake’s hand in her own and their surroundings having completely disappeared. Valencia gasped for air, her free hand jumping up to her throat only for them to blink back into the Integer, finding themselves in the cargo bay, the container with Jordache’s remains still there, his entire head missing.
“Captain!?” Becca rushed in. “Is that...?”
“I think so,” she said. “Am I alive?”
“For now, yeah.”
“Is Vetru here?”
“Yeah, his people came and took... that.” She motioned towards the body.
“We need to get down to the surface, now. Have they started the evacuation?”
“Yeah, only, well, they’ve run into a few snags down there.”
“Giant, tentacled beasts tearing everything apart.”
“God damnit, is Gentar still there?”
“Get us down there, now.”
“Captain, are you sure that—”
27 The Dreamer
The eternal struggle raged on, the grand scope of the cosmos laid out like an elegant invitation to immortality. The expanse stretched out far and wide, bursts of light bringing life to the darkness. Staring into the void was overwhelming, not empty but so full of opportunity.
Faces, names and languages beyond understanding flashed by, time and space beyond the concern of what a linear mind could process. This was the universe that was promised, full of exploration and possibility.
For a brief moment consciousness returned and Drake found himself aware of his own mind expanding out, tendrils of existence interconnecting with the rest of forever. He was a baby in his mother’s arms, long before everything went wrong, long before his father’s war raged on, before his mother grew cold, before fucking Ron.
Drake crawled forward on the rough spun carpet in their room, over the toys scattered about, makeshift and broken down, hand-me-downs from other families and other children long before. His small hands sinking into the messy carpet, stained with old coffee spills and his occasional spit up that sat for too long and only partially cleaned up. He crawled forward, aware of the vastness of existence, his own frail mortality and the dark voice echoing inside of his mind, in isolation, all-powerful but growing desperate for control. Something was going wrong.
He turned his head towards the wall, a mirror adorning the eggshell white wall erected haphazardly in the slapdash home on Terra, humanity’s new home in the stars. Only his own baby face wasn’t looking back at him, it was Bruce, wrapped in his cloth white diaper, his stubby gray feet and pudgy legs curled up. In his hands was a slender brown handle, a metal clasp and a tuft of synthetic hair in the form of a brush. Paint stained the hairs by the base of the metal clasp, barely visible dots of rust blossoming out, although none of that mattered.
“Bruce,” he spoke out loud, hearing his own voice for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
“Power is eternal,” another voice said, sounding more distant than before. “The universe awaits, beyond the confines of this sad existence.”
And the Children cried out, a chorus of the damned from their minds of endless turbulence and violence. Some voices pained, others inflicting pain, all angry and afraid of what could have been and what will be.
The wall behind the mirror melted away, the planet and every other distraction gone, only the vastness of space. The Acolyte stood before him, mangled body and sad, dark pools of blackness in his eyes. Black holes in their own right, sucking everything into them and staring deeply at Bruce, trying to finish what they started and consume everything that was left. There was an unspoken promise that if he let go there would never be a chance of things returning to what they were, that He would always be. His physical form would manifest itself with or without him, but even fully awakened, even destroyed, his power would linger, fester and destroy everything from the inside out.
But Drake couldn’t let go. Never let go. His father came up behind him, placing his hand on his shoulder, no longer a baby but older now. Not quite an adult, not quite a man, whatever that meant, but someone on the precipice of understanding, as well as anyone could, what it meant to be. His jumpsuit crumpled, stained with old oil paints that he never bothered to wash off. His hair greasy and matted to his head with splotches of paint near his hairline. An eternal melancholy engulfed him, his father’s body decaying before him, returned to his final state on Lidar, crying out for him, a life punctuated by violence could only end in violence, at least they always imagined. Yet he reached out, tears streaming down his rough, war-worn cheeks and the only thoughts that radiated from his mind were not of violence, war or destruction, but his last throes of existence were regret. Regret for not seeing the man that his son would become, for not telling him he loved him enough and for not trying to understand him and give him what he had always wanted himself. In those last, pained breaths there was a sense of sorrow over what he’d never get to see: the triumphs, the failures, the struggles or tribulations. Understanding quickly replaced the sorrow that while he couldn’t atone for it all, he could give one last gift, perhaps the only gift that he’s ever been able to give, of life.
“I love you, son,” his voice bore through, pushing the screams of the Children out. His eyes flashed a brilliant, glowing green before burning out. “I love you.”
Drake opened his eyes, tears clouding his view.
28 The Captain
The ride into Thuul was rocky, Bec sped up beyond comfort to get them there sooner, before, well, something could go wrong. Valencia held on for dear life, still in Emma’s flight suit and trying to comprehend what had just happened. There was barely enough time to strap Drake down into the med bay, Valencia, almost having forgotten that it wasn’t the Trystero that they were aboard, that already had all of Drake’s information and previous medical conditions stored, it was the Integer, the ship of the deceased woman that she had grown to know through a strange projection of her that an alien entity had formulated based on real live people that it had come into contact with.
Something snapped, the ship’s rocky descent turning into a rapid acceleration, diving nose-first towards the water at nearly double the speed. Valencia’s knuckles locked into place on the armrest of her chair while Bec was cursing.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Bec said, slamming onto the brakes and pulling the stick up. “It’s like suddenly something that was holding us back had let go.”
The ship’s descent became a lot rockier upon Bec’s fight, her talking to the ship aloud but unable to forge the same sort of connection that she felt towards the Trys where they were an extension of each other. This was someone else’s ship, and it was acting like that.
“Hold on!” she shouted.
Valencia was already holding on, doing the best she could to prepare herself for the splashdown, klaxons blaring in the cabin while the water rushed at them, in an instant surrounding them in a while, foamy haze.
“You alright?” Bec asked.
“Ugh,” Valencia replied. “I think so. What happened?”
“It was a fight getting down here, I dunno if it was that Sentinel thing or what, but suddenly the ship didn’t need to be full throttle to get down here anymore, and, well...”
“That’s not good,” Valencia said. “If that’s true then the Sentinel is growing weaker, we don’t have much time.”
“Once again, I have no idea what’s going on but yeah, that sounds about right.”
“How far are we from Dredge?”
“I’m not really up on my nautical terminology here...”
“Just how far?”
“Like twenty kilometers, give or take.”
“Can we get back there?”
“Um, yeah, just gimme a few minutes, okay?”
Valencia had her trusty old blaster pistol on her hip and had stripped out of the encounter suit that had been weighing her down. She ripped through the threadbare armory in the cargo bay, finding herself missing the inherited arsenal from the Sergeant that was aboard the Trystero. There were a few rifles that were flimsy and cheap, mostly for decoration. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to rely on these and could snag something more substantial from her own ship whenever they got there.
A bump sent her reeling, losing her footing and almost smashing headfirst into the bulkhead. Bec must have been skimming along the water instead of just taking off. Another bump and this time she was ready, hand wrapped around a grip on the wall, this one more violent. A loud thud smashed against the side of the hull, followed by another. A loud screech echoed through the walls of the ship.
“Bec, what’s going on?”
“Um, we’re under attack, Cap.”
“Damnit, how far are we from the shore?”
“Not far, but there’s a sea monster army out there, I don’t know what I can do here.”
The Captain dashed up the stairs into the cockpit, staring out at an unbelievable scene. The shore was just out of reach, foam was spraying everywhere, bullets and energy beams were flying from the platform and it looked like possibly hundreds of the Krakthu had surrounded Dredge attempting to tear it apart at the seams.
A dark, black tentacle shot up, slapping against the cockpit window, the suction cups on its arm pressing down against the glass. Sharp teeth lined the arm, and a chill ran down her spine. One of those things had gotten a hold of Drake and dragged him down to the depths, then spat him back out. Somehow these things were related to whatever slumbered beneath the surface that the Sentinel had sworn its life to prevent from escaping.
“We’re starting to sink.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she muttered.
“No! Shit! We’re surrounded and they’re dragging us down.”
“Hold on.” Valencia grabbed the twin sticks in the co-pilot’s chair, maneuvering the mounted gun, taking aim at the water before letting loose. A few blasts rippled through the water, tentacles slapping the surface and thrashing in pain, the ship still being tugged down towards the murky deep.
“This isn’t working,” Valencia shouted. “Are there missiles?”
“Are there missiles?”
“Um, yeah, they’re front mounted and not meant for close range, though.”
“That means there have to be reserves somewhere, keep firing at them just to keep them busy, okay?”
“Just trust me.”
Valencia crashed down the stairs, back into the cargo hold, looking high and low before seeing the compartment against the wall marked “DANGER!” A few crates sat in front of it, her hefting them out of the way before getting enough clearance to swing open the large, metal doors meant to contain a possible explosion. Nestled in place were four large torpedos, ominous and dangerous tools of destruction. She ran her fingers along the length of one before the ship lurched again.
“Bec?” she called. “Do we have a way to rig one of these to detonate remotely?”
“Um, yeah, we can program them into the board up here, why?”
“Do we have eyes on the port or starboard pods?”
“No, you’ll have to go inside to look out.”
“Fine, I need you down here, then.”
“Get two of these things rigged up for remote control and get them wheeled over to the pods.”
Valencia dashed over towards the stairwell, ducking behind it where the narrow hallway that led to the two pods sat somewhat hidden, an extension of the outmoded design for these freighters that had carried over to the newer models. Somehow the escape pods were an afterthought. She flicked the lock on the port pod, the hatch opening to a horror show of the maw of one of the beasts pecking away at the pod window, the massive creature entirely blocking out any light. She rushed to the starboard one and did the same, two of the larger beasts latched onto it.
Bec screeched into the small hallway, the missiles clanging along on a small cart, Valencia dashing forward and catching them before they’d slam into the bulkhead. “Bec, these are warheads! Careful!”
“Sorry, Cap, lost control there,” she said.
“Fine, whatever, can you load one into the port pod and I’ll get another into the starboard?”
“Yeah, sure.” The pilot hefted one up into her arms, turning towards the pod and screeching, almost dropping the torpedo. “What the hell?”
“Sorry, sorry,” she said. “Where do I put this?”
“Just lean it up against the panel,” she said, loading her own into the other one. “C’mon, let’s get these set up to blast out of here and get ready with the missiles.”
“What are we doing here, Captain?”
“We’re gonna blow these things the fuck up.”
“Here, set the sequence for 60 seconds,” Valencia said, her fingers dancing along the control panel of the pod.
“Great, let’s seal these off and get ready on the switch for these.”
Both doors slammed shut in unison, Valencia twisting the manual hatch lock while Bec did the same across from her. Her heart was pounding inside of her chest while she took a momentary break leaning against the hatch, remembering that the engine on the other end was gonna blow in less than forty seconds. Bec was racing back up the stairs, Valencia snatching up the rifle she freed from the small armory, strapping it across her shoulder before dashing up behind her.
“I’m gonna pop the hatch up top,” Valencia called.
“Wait, what? Why?”
“There’s a good chance the explosion will pierce the hull and we’ll start sinking.”
“Valencia, what the hell? Why are we doing this, then?”
“It’s a diversion, okay? Just trust me.”
“This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy,” Bec was repeating, the sound of her smacking down into the chair while Valencia climbed up the ladder to the dorsal hatch, clipping the tether to her belt before popping the door, it hissing while it slid open. A tentacle lashed at her, Valencia ducking down, firing up at the hatch and the tentacle, blood and gore flying out while a loud screech filled the surrounding air, the tentacle recoiling.
The ship bobbed at the release of the two pods, blood staining the water around them and the ship. “Bec! Hit the switches! Now!”
“And hold on! Things are gonna—”
The water exploded up from the sides of the ship, the ship violently rocking, sending Valencia’s back smashing hard against the side of the ship, losing her balance and falling down the ladder only the tether catching her, leaving her dangling from her waist, the gun clanging to the ground. She reached out, taking a loose hold on the rung of the ladder, securing her other while her back screamed out in pain before releasing the tether, slipping down the ladder to recover the rifle. Bec raced around the corner, out of breath.
“Captain,” she said. “We’re taking on water.”
“We need to get Drake out.”
A look of horror washed across her face. Somehow, in the midst of all of this, she had forgotten that Drake was still hooked up to the med bay down below. She pushed the rifle into Bec’s arms and smacked her on the shoulder. “Keep the path to the shore clear for us, okay? I’ll be right back.”
“Captain, I can—”
“Just go, please.”
The two of them locked eyes for a long moment, Valencia tearing up, instinctively embracing the pilot who returned the hug. “Please be careful, okay? We’ll get through this.”
“I know,” she said.
“Go get our Dray. I’ll take care of this.”
Valencia dashed down the hall, hearing the water rushing from down below in the cargo hold, the ship rocking in the waves while it slowly sank down into the deep. Drake lay on the bed, Valencia tugging nodules and cables loose, freeing him from the bed before squatting down and rolling Drake onto her shoulders. The weight of his limp body almost sent her crashing down to the ground, her back still in pain but her struggling through, straightening out and sloughing through the doorway towards the ladder, hearing the scattering of blaster fire from the top of the ship. She ascended the ladder, rung by rung, the weight of Drake’s limp body dragging her down while the ship bobbed in the water, shifting his weight on her shoulders with each passing second.
After a long struggle, her head poked out to the chaos, water spraying, the smell of scorched flesh and fresh blood filling the air. “Bec!” she shouted, the pilot turning towards her.
“Oh Dray,” Bec said, rushing over. “Can I help?”
“Yes, please,” the Captain said, pained.
Becca tugged at Drake’s body, freeing the weight from her shoulders while he flopped down onto the dorsal hull of the ship. Valencia reached up and snapped the tether onto a loop on his jumpsuit before ambling up the ladder and onto the surface. Unsteady on her feet she scanned the scene, the shoreline of Dredge just there, a few meters away while the thrashing of Krakthu tentacles filled the water and the few lost souls found themselves tugged into the water.
“Now what?” Bec shouted over the disorder.
“What do we do now?”
“I... I don’t know,” she said, surveying the scene.
The ship continued to sink, Bec and the Captain surrounding Drake’s unconscious body while they blasted away the tentacles while they lashed at them, smacking against the metal hull and splashing water everywhere. This was how they ended: on a water planet fending off the sea beasts under the control of some strange, mind-controlling alien that had ruined so many lives thus far. There would not be a happy ending here, they were deeply in trouble and not finishing the job here meant unleashing this thing on the rest of the galaxy.
Valencia tugged at her comm, pulling up the direct line to Vetru. Everything should be ready, the warheads lined with whatever organic matter they could scrape from Jordache’s head. On her signal the Gra’al would rain destruction down on the surface, hopefully pulverizing the planet before anything worse could happen. The Sentinel had failed and now she had to hope that biological matter from the creature’s own self was enough to not just destroy the planet but also itself as well, wherever it was.
“Vetru, come in,” she said, her heart sinking with each passing second. She had accepted her fate, just wished that it wasn’t the fate of the rest of her crew or the remaining people fighting on the planet. “I hope you’ve gotten most of these people off of here.”
“We’re still in process, Captain,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re gonna make it,” she said. Hearing the words out loud gave them a sense of weight. The gravity of the admission relieved the pressure she was feeling. Her fate was real now, and it was time to accept it, knowing that this was the end, but only for herself and the rest of the people remaining on the planet. Their sacrifice would mean the continued survival of the Terran and Gra’al people. Hopefully.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do here, Captain.”
“Are the warheads ready?”
“They are, this was a bit... Unconventional of a request, I might add.”
“I’d tell you that I’d explain it all to you later, but...”
“Captain, are you sure?”
“You just gotta trust me on this one. I—What the…?”
A bulky figure on a hook was careening towards the ship, hanging from the crane that was swinging out. Gentar slammed against the side of the ship, blasting away at the tentacles that reached up for him, his other hand wrapped around the cable from the crane. Gentar scrambled up to the top of the ship, the rifle still in his hand and still indiscriminately blasting away at anything that breached the water.
“Gen,” Bec said, giving a slight nod.
“Took you long enough,” Valencia said.
“Sorry, Captain,” he said. “I tried to find the best way here.”
“So now what?”
“Here,” he said, tugging the hook from the crane towards the hatch. “Help me out.”
The two of them secured the hook to the hatch, giving it a tug before Gentar signaled up to the crane operator. The ship lurched forward, still sinking down but now being tugged towards the shore. The three of them huddled down near the hatch, the Captain keeping a hand on Drake’s chest to ensure he didn’t slip or fall into the hatch of the ship. The gentle rise and fall of his chest while he breathed gave her further hope, even if everything was falling apart around her.
“Captain?” her comm squawked.
“Shit, Vetru,” she said. “Hold, okay?”
“Waiting for your signal.”
“Give me a few minutes. If I don’t get back to you in ten minutes destroy this planet, we’re gonna get everyone else out of here.”
“Brace yourself!” Gentar shouted, although perhaps a bit too late, the ship crashing into the coastline of Dredge, the crane tugging at the ship, pulling it out from the water while a few sets of tentacles attempted to keep their grip. Gentar rushed towards the aft of the ship, blasting away at the remaining tentacles while the ship ground against the metal of the surface before crashing into a hard wall, sending the three of them crashing to the ground.
The gunfire continued around them, the screeches from the Krakthu and the thrashing of the water filling the air. The three of them straightened out, dusting themselves off while Valencia stared down at Drake, still unmoving. Pausing for a moment she stroked his face, Gentar approaching her. “Captain?”
“Oh, right,” she said. “We need to get everyone out of here before we destroy the planet.”
“I don’t know yet. We need to finish the evacuation,” she said. “Maybe we’ll even get the hell off of this drink before it explodes, too.”
“Listen to her, all optimistic-like,” Bec said, doing her best to lighten the mood.
“Captain?” a voice called weakly from behind her.
She paused in place, her heart stopped beating inside her chest, leaving her frozen in place. There was no way that she heard what she thought she did. The bastard was playing tricks on her again; it had to be.
“Cap?” the voice called out again.
“You asshole,” she shouted aloud. “You aren’t going to play me like this!”
“What’s going on? Where am I?”
She turned to see Drake leaning up on his elbows, his eyes blinking rapidly.
29 The Artist
The sun was blinding, his eyes stinging at the heat from the light and the smell from the sea air. His elbows burned from the heated panels of the ship underneath him, his right arm throbbing with pain. He was still on Thuul, only somehow on top of a ship, the Captain, Gentar and Bec hovering around, staring down at him dumbfounded. He couldn’t help but feel self-conscious of their staring.
“Dray!” Bec threw herself at him, sandwiching him against the ground, him struggling to breathe.
“Get off of me,” he said, pushing her off.
“You dork,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “You absolute dork.”
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Drake Rose,” Gentar said. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Are you okay?” the Captain asked. “Is it really you?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. His mind was cloudy and his ears buzzed.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “How’s your arm?”
“It hurts,” he said. “What happened to it?”
“That’s... Quite a story, I’m not sure we have time for that right now.”
“We’re, uh, in some shit right now, Dray,” Bec said. “Some real shit.”
A few ships rocketed off from the surface, their engines roaring overhead, him shielding himself from the wake in confusion. They had been stuck on the planet, at least he thought, but somehow there were ships blasting off while the sound of the Children slamming their tentacles against the shore and slapping against the water filled the air. He felt hungover, like he had smashed his head against the ground and woke up years later, still drunk on whatever he had drank before blacking out.
“Is that the last one?” the Captain asked Gentar.
“I believe so, yes,” he said. “We need to get the Trystero ready for launch so we can get out of here.”
“On it,” Bec said. “I’m glad you’re okay, Dray, maybe you should come with me.”
“What?” he asked. She was tugging on his shoulder, trying to help him up. “How are we leaving, I thought He was holding us down somehow?”
“No, Dray,” the Captain said. “Things are a lot more complicated than that. Go on ahead, Bec. We’ll be there in a few. I gotta call Vetru and halt the launch before we can get to safety.”
“What launch? I’m so lost here.”
“We’re going to blow the planet up,” Gentar said matter-of-factly.
“You’ve been unconscious for a long time,” Gentar replied. “A very long time, although...”
“Although what? I don’t understand. The last thing I remember was the Krakthu attack and then, just... I don’t know, darkness?”
“Gentar!” a man called to him from the deck. “Gentar, over here!”
“Tuck?” Gentar turned. “I thought you were on the last transport out?”
“I couldn’t make it,” he said. “Took off before I could climb down from the crane.”
“We’re coming down,” Gentar said. “Captain, can we get him out on the Trystero?”
“That’s fine,” she said.
The Captain slid down the side of the ship, down over the engines and the small wings onto the deck. Gentar picked Drake up into his arms, Drake wanting to fight but finding himself light-headed and his energy almost completely sapped out. Something awful had happened in the time since he was last conscious and the pieces weren’t fitting together at all. He closed his eyes for a moment, the vision of a man falling from a cliff side into a dark pool, multiple tentacles reaching out for him before he disappeared into the water, his screams echoing inside of Drake’s mind. Gentar slid down the side of the ship, his boots slamming down hard against the deck of the city, jarring Drake’s eyes open with a gasp.
“Gentar, what happened to me?”
“I’m not sure how to explain it, Drake Rose. There’s something evil here, something that took residence inside of your mind. We... Didn’t think you’d return.”
“Put me down,” he commanded. The bulky Gra’al gently placed him down, Drake stumbling forward, catching himself against the side of the ship, mangled and beaten up from the tentacles of the Krakthu. “The Children,” a voice slithered through his mind. “The Children did this,” he said aloud.
“Who?” Gentar asked.
“The Children did this,” he said, jogging his memory. “I don’t know who they are, they just are.”
“You went through a lot,” the Captain said. “C’mon, Bec has the Trys fired up, we need to get out of here before something worse happens.”
“I just... What the hell—ARG!”
A sharp pain overcame him, a buzzing growing inside his ears, dropping him to his knees. Images flashed in his mind, again of the man plummeting to his doom, then of a hand—his hand—wrapped around a familiar rifle, it pointed at a man before bang; the energy exploding through him. He was on some strange ship, water everywhere, driving his fist through a set of panels, a room with tubes and three people floating inside of them in it, him smashing each one with his right fist; the pain growing before he was firing away at the Captain. The images were out of order, scrambled, violating his mind and making him cry out in pain.
“What’s wrong with him?” Tuck asked.
“He’s been through a lot,” the Captain said, placing her hand reassuringly on his shoulder.
“Well, we need to get off this rock finally, right? It’s about damned time that—”
A rumbling from beneath shook the ground, the water bubbling up and the waves falling and crashing violently all around them. Crates were banging around, the sound of metal creaking and crashing down from the surface of Dredge around them was punctuated by the skidding of the ship they had just been standing on descending back into the ocean, splashing down hard. They scrambled to hold on to something—anything—bolted down on the ground while the quake continued to shake everything around them.
“Hold on!” Gentar shouted, his massive arm wrapped around Drake’s torso.
A laugh echoed through his mind, something was creeping through his subconscious and trying to pry itself through his defenses. The Trystero took off, hovering overhead while they struggled to hold on. The Captain took a direct hit to the back from a panel that was careening down the deck towards the water, almost losing her grip, kicking it away with her boot and out of the path of Gentar and Drake. The panel pushed off, smashing into the arm of Tuck, who cried out in agony.
“Tuck!” Gentar shouted. “Hold on!”
Gentar tugged Drake up, latching him onto the light pole welded into place on the deck before reaching his free hand down towards the older man, a look of horror washing across his face while he slipped down. Gentar’s hand snatched onto his forearm, the man screaming out while a black tendril slithered up the surface and dragged him downwards, Gentar doing his best to hold on. Another tentacle lashed up at Gentar, smashing him across the chest, his grip loosening and Tuck tumbling down into the water with a splash.
“No!” Gentar screamed out, Drake reaching down and grabbing a hold of the Gra’al that had become like an uncle to him, not willing to lose someone else. Gentar looked up at him with surprise, reaching up and securing himself while the rumbling continued. The Trys hovered ahead still, a set of massive tentacles, larger than anything Drake had ever seen erupting from beneath the surface and swatting at it, Bec making an evasive maneuver to narrowly avoid being smashed.
“Captain!” Bec shouted over their comm channel.
“Bec, get out of here, now!”
“No, I can’t leave you down there!”
“Let us take care of this. I’ll tell you when to come back!”
“That’s an order, Becca,” the Captain said solemnly. The ship lurched upwards, out of the reach of the massive appendage only for another to arise from the murky depths, this one smashing against the deck of the city, cracking the ground and setting the portion they had latched onto adrift, away from the rest of the massive platform, it smashing into the water that overpowered them.
All around them the water bubbled up, the smaller tentacles they had been fending off forming a large circle around the floating piece of deck. They scrambled to their feet, finding anything to brace themselves on, only for the surrounding water to explode, giant waves crashing down upon them and almost sending them off the platform and into the water. Gentar had a grip on Drake’s jumpsuit, catching him before he could slip off into the sea. The water battered his face, permeating into his lungs and forcing him to violently cough to catch his breath. From the chaos emerged a figure, dark, covered in tentacles and spikes, a large set of red eyes the size of the pod they had flown to the surface in staring down at them.
The black, scaled flesh of the beast was lined with barbs and the broken parts of those that had fallen off of Dredge and into the deep. A laugh filled the air like a sonic boom, tentacles that hung under his eyes bristling like a beard that hung from his massive face. Fear overtook Drake, his mind in chaos at the vision of horror that stood before them. The figure was humanoid, towering over them with rows of giant tentacles on each side of its torso and a set of powerful arms cutting through them. He threw his head back and cackled louder, the sound of the Children speaking in tongues floating through the air, Drake able to find the thread that he understood.
“He has awakened. May all tremble. He has awakened. May all tremble.”
“Vetru!” the Captain shouted into her comm. “Vetru come in!”
“What’s going on down there? There’s some interference that we can’t pick up?”
“Fire on my position! Right now! Fire everything you’ve got!”
When it dawned on Drake what was happening, his heart sank. The vision of his father played in his mind again, interspersed with images of Bruce from the time that he spent with him. Those videos that Vetru had sent over the span of months where they were away from him, how much he had grown without Drake being there and the guilt that wore on him. The art classes that had finally made him feel like he had somewhere he belonged only to feel that nagging, lingering feeling that he was doing something wrong, refusing to accept his own fate that he had put into motion.
A screaming came across the sky. It had happened before, that much he was sure of, but never like this, not in the recorded history of Terran or Gra’al culture. The mighty barrage of missiles were more than what Giga had launched at Grinlock and left it a collection of asteroids and a distant memory. Drake’s heart sank, knowing he’d never get to see Bruce grow into the man he was supposed to be, just like his father never got to see him, although there wasn’t really much to see now, was there?
The menacing figure loomed over them, still cackling while the Children chanted through multiple languages, the same message as before, only occasionally doing it in a tongue that Drake’s translator could pick up on. The three of them craned their necks to get a full view of what would be their doom, the rockets screaming towards them and the figure showing no sign of fear while he reached out to the sky; the chanting intensifying while the surrounding waters bubbled up, the rhythmic slapping of tentacles on the surface almost intoxicating.
“I’m sorry,” the Captain said, turning to Gentar and Drake. “I’m sorry, there was no other way.”
“I understand,” Drake said.
“I as well, Captain Vasquez. It has been an honor serving with both of you.”
“You, too, big buddy,” Drake mumbled in awe while they watched the rain of destruction grow closer and closer, their own fate sealed. “You guys really are—”
A set of arms wrapped themselves around him from behind him, pulling him off balance and sending him crashing hard onto the ground. Drake struggled, squirming in the tight grip while the laughter filled his ears from a human voice. He pulled himself free, wiggling up to his feet, something smashing into the back of his knee and sending him down again. Drake turned to the sky, watching the rockets streak overhead and saw Tuck standing over him, frothing at the mouth and cackling like a madman.
“His power is absolute! You dare oppose him? This is not the end! This is only the beginning of His reign as balance is restored to this wretched existence!”
“Tuck?” Gentar called out. “Tuck, what are you doing?”
“You fools,” he said. “Do you think those can destroy Him?”
“Enough!” The Captain stepped forward, planting her elbow into the skull of Tuck, his body smashing into the deck hard, his eyes still open while he continued to laugh, staring right into Drake’s eyes. Drake scrambled up to his feet only to be knocked back again, this time from a concussive explosion in the sky, one of the great beast’s tentacles reaching up and smashing the first missile into dust, shrapnel raining down around them, Gentar diving onto Drake to shield him from it while the Captain covered her face up.
Tuck continued to laugh, another distinctive laugh bubbling up to the surface of his mind while the rest of the missiles were within striking distance. Time slowed down, the beast’s massive maw opening, a scream unlike anything Drake had ever imagined filling the air, a great heat making the air uncomfortable to breathe. The tentacles on its face spread out, the barrage of planet-crushing missiles clustering under the great force of whatever the beast was doing before impact—them crashing into its mouth in an instant of destructive brilliance, Drake bracing himself for the end.
Something was wrong, the air had gone completely still, a cold breeze rustling through. Drake wasn’t dead, Tuck was still laughing like a madman, the only noise over the stillness while the great beast before them stood, a bulge the size of a battleship inside of him, contracting concussively while he opened his maw yet again, a giant stream of green fire bursting out towards the heavens in a display that defied understanding.
The stillness surrounded them like the eye of a great storm, an unease that they knew things weren’t over and that their problems had only just begun. Tuck continued to laugh maniacally, foam dripping from his mouth and his eyes turning to dark pools of black while he continued to descend into madness. “Your weapons have no impact on Him! You’ll never understand the true power of Him, or His role in the creation—”
The Captain’s boot smashed into his jaw, knocking him unconscious. “Shut up,” she muttered.
“Captain, I believe that we failed,” Gentar said.
“I believe that you’re right.”
“Now what?” Drake asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, staring down at her comm.
“Maybe another strike?” Gentar asked.
“Vetru?” she asked.
“What’s happening down there? A few of my ships just disintegrated from some sort of beam!”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Can you ready another strike?”
“We don’t have enough of the modified missiles without those ships,” he said.
“Then anything! Anything you’ve got! Everything! The modified ones, conventional ones, anything! Please!”
“We can ready another strike,” he said. “I don’t know if we have much else left if that fails, though.”
“Hold for my signal,” she said.
The three of them stood, watching while the beast that stood before them turned to them, Tuck rising from the ground, his face twisted in agony before his eyes turned back into a stark black. “You fools. Give up, understand your place in the cosmos before Him.”
“We’re already dead,” the Captain said. “I’m not afraid of some big squid thing anymore.”
“Humans were never strong enough to understand the true power of Him. The Gra’al were able to resist His control, earning His begrudging respect and damning Him to exile.”
“I don’t really care,” the Captain said.
“Enough!” Drake shouted. “I’ve known His power. I’ve felt Him inside of my mind. I still do! What He can’t understand about us is why we’re still alive. I’ve defied him.”
“Defied? You were too weak!”
“No,” Drake said. “I never was.”
“Then He’ll destroy you once and for all, proving you were never worthy.”
“I’ve got a kid I need to visit,” he said. “Do your worst, He can’t touch me.”
30 The Captain
Drake stood, arms outstretched before the husk that the man they knew as Tuck had become. Tuck took a beating but still fought to his feet, cackling away, speaking as the voice of whatever that thing was that stood above them. Valencia was still in shock over it catching an entire orbital strike powerful enough to destroy a planet in its mouth, explode the bombs in its stomach and spit out a beam strong enough to destroy ships in orbit above.
She knew that she had underestimated whatever this thing was, if only she hadn’t before it was too late. The problem was she did not understand what else they could have done to combat that thing. Maybe had Vetru destroy the planet itself instead of focusing fire on the beast itself, although there was still a chance that the planet would have just been pulverized and the fleet would stare down a giant squid-beast thing the size of a battleship with apparently unstoppable powers.
“Your defiance is worthless,” Tuck snarled. “He has already won. The universe is His.”
The presence of the beast loomed directly overhead, his mighty tentacles reaching down and smashing against the water, a tidal wave erupting from underneath them, sending the four figures crashing into the water while the platform they had been on flew out into the distance. The water was cold and dark, currents from the wave violently tugging at her. She reached out for something—anything only for her hand to come up empty.
In a blink a flash of green eyes were looking down at her, faint at first, but she could decipher a shadowy outline of another figure in the water with her, shimmering among the darkness with green eyes staring at her. Valencia reached out to her, the figure’s hand reaching back out, a spark of electricity running through her when her fingers touched, darkness surrounding her.
Her eyes burst open, the warmth from the campfire next to her again, everything flickering and felt unstable. The usual skylines from the forest and the landscape weren’t there, instead just the small, intimate campsite that she knew from being on board the Sentinel, everything else darkness around it. Emma sat at the campfire, flickering in and out of existence. Gentar was bumbling around, confused while Drake sat quietly, crawling towards the fire.
“We’re going to die,” Valencia said bluntly. “Aren’t we?”
“I’m dying,” Emma said. “I can’t—how is he here?”
Emma pointed a flickering finger to the distance, Tuck in a heap, his body straightening out while he gathered himself to his feet, his eyes a deep black. “He can’t be here! My power is weakening, I can’t keep Him away.”
“Him?” Drake asked. “What’s going on?”
“He’s here and He shouldn’t be, this is a place He cannot understand. Nor can he,” she said, motioning towards Gentar.
“I don’t know how to stop this,” Valencia said.
“Bring the airstrike down,” Emma said.
“You saw what it did to the last one.”
“I know, but you need to trust me,” she said. Emma reached out and took Valencia’s hand in hers, it warm to the touch but flickered in and out, taking its warmth with it. “Please, Valencia.”
“There’s nothing more we can do against that thing.”
“Fine,” she said, pulling her comm up. “Vetru.”
“I’m here,” he said.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes, please, I can’t hold on much longer.”
“Captain?” Drake asked. “What’s going on? Who is this?”
“Vetru,” she called over the comm. “Strike now.”
“Repeat that?” he asked.
“... Copy that, godspeed, Captain.”
“Give our best to Bruce,” she said.
“You’re all—” Tuck dashed for Valencia, Gentar intercepting him, driving his shoulder into his chest and sending him crashing down to the ground in a heap.
“I’m so sorry,” Emma said. “I wanted to save her and her crew, it just...”
“It’s okay,” Valencia said, brushing tears away with the back of her hand.
“You two would have been great together.”
“I let her ship sink,” she cried.
“It’ll be okay, Valencia.”
“We never even met, I just—”
“You two were kindred spirits,” she said, flickering hard for a second before stabilizing. “I don’t have much time, Valencia. Please, take care of yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just know, you don’t have to be alone. Your destiny isn’t secure yet, there’s still so much to...”
Everything cut to black, her weightless in the void holding her breath, Drake and Gentar beside her. A brilliant green light flashed bright before an explosion erupted from inside of the brilliant corona, blooming outward. With a thud, Valencia felt herself smack hard against something, tumbling around beyond her control.
“Noo!” Bec’s voice cut through the void. “No, no, no, no! Damnit, no!”
Valencia opened her eyes, the familiar setting of the Trystero’s cargo hold embracing her warmly, although a strange cold shiver overtook her for a brief moment. In the blink of an eye something had happened, and she knew that nothing would ever be the same again. Valencia hugged her knees to her chest before the shiver subsided, listening while Bec sobbed over the comm channel.
“Please, Captain, Dray, Gen, anyone, pleeeeease. Don’t be gone, I can’t... I should have been down there! Stupid! Stupid!”
The Captain picked herself up, unsteady on her feet but still pushing through the familiar ship, dashing up the two flights of stairs, through the kitchen and bursting into the cockpit to find Bec sobbing in the chair, curled up into a ball with the poof of her hair sticking out. Through the viewport she was the stunning scene of Thuul bursting apart in its final death throes.
“Captain?” Bec looked up at her, stunned.
Valencia threw her arms around Bec, pulling her in close while the pilot clutched onto her tightly, burying her tear-soaked face into her shoulder. “I’m right here,” she said. “I’m right here, Bec. I’m fine.”
“But... I don’t understand?”
“I’m right here. I promise you.”
“B-but I saw it happen,” she said. “I was right down there, that Sentinel crashed down into that-that thing! Something pulled the Trys right out of the atmosphere and out here, I had no control. Captain, I had no—”
“I’m here,” she repeated. “It’s gonna be okay, I promise.”
Her eyes continued to watch out the viewport, waiting to see the figure floating there, invincible. She understood what had happened now, there was just this feeling that something could still go wrong. The Sentinel had sacrificed itself to save her, them, everyone, in its last moments of existence.
“She did her job,” Valencia said. “She did it.”
“What about Gen and Dray?” she asked.
“We’re fine,” Gentar said, clomping into the cockpit, Drake in tow. “I have no idea what just happened, I think I pushed Tuck off some sort of cliff, though.”
“Was that the Sentinel?” Drake asked. “Is that what pulled us here?”
“Yes,” Valencia nodded. “It was her last act, she killed it, whatever it was.”
“Do you really think He’s gone?” Drake asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just know that she is.”
“Who?” Gentar asked.
“Emma. The Sentinel.”
31 The Artist
Drake’s excitement had completely overwhelmed him. After all that had happened, there was a silver lining to it all. They were still alive; they had rescued the survivors on Thuul and now, finally; he got to see Bruce, after months away. He paced back and forth in the cargo hold, waiting for the shuttle to dock. The sound of metal clamping onto metal made him jump a little bit, he could barely contain himself. He rushed over to the airlock, repeatedly pressing the green button to cycle it as quickly as possible.
When the door opened he dashed through it, into the connection tube that outstretched and clamped onto the shuttle, waiting patiently for the door to open while he tapped nervously at his leg. After what felt like an eternity the door slid open, a familiar giggle filling the air, his heart soaring while he burst forward at Bruce who was standing there like a big boy, all by himself with the mighty Vetru behind him. Drake scooped the boy up into his arms, pressing the boy’s head into his shoulder while tears welled up in his eyes.
“You don’t greet me like that,” Vetru said.
“Oh, sorry,” Drake said, still overcome with emotion. “Hey Vetru.”
“He missed you,” Vetru said. “I was dreading what I would have to tell him if you didn’t make it back, you know.”
“Oh god,” Drake said, savoring the moment. “I just can’t even believe it. It’s been too long, buddy, hasn’t it?”
“Vetru.” The Captain stood at the airlock, waiting for the Gra’al Warlord to shamble by Drake and into the Trystero. “Good to see you.”
“Captain,” he said. “I don’t know how you got out of there alive, but I’m pleased to see you alright.”
“You’re telling me,” she said.
“I’m not entirely clear what happened. I just saw that thing fall from the sky, you ordered us to strike and, well...”
“It’s a long story,” she said.
“I’m sure it is.”
Drake put Bruce down, him unsteady but able to keep himself standing, plodding forward clumsily at first, but the boy picked up confidence with each step, giggling while he moved. Drake couldn’t help but stop and take it all in. The fear that had been building inside of him melted away at seeing Bruce strut around, all he could feel was pride in how far the boy had come and guilt over not being there to see every step while it unfolded.
“Can he do stairs?” Drake asked, holding his little hand in his while they made their way towards the stairs. “Can you do stairs, buddy? C’mon, let’s try it.”
“Sort of,” Vetru called. “I mean, yes, I suppose.”
“Whoa, look at this,” Drake said, guiding the boy up one step, then another. He swelled with pride while Bruce continued up, Drake letting go of his hand and letting him guide himself up the stairs, using his hands to help pull himself up the next one but able to make it, Drake keeping a hand hovering behind him in case he needed to catch him. They made it all the way up the stairs and Drake whisked Bruce up into his arms. “I can’t believe it!”
“Yes, he’s come quite a long way,” Vetru said. “You’ve missed a fair bit, I’m sorry to say. I’ve been sending videos but...”
“I’m sorry,” Drake said. “I know I haven’t been good about sending replies in. I just... Hey buddy, let’s go to our room, I still have your favorite brush.”
Bruce reached up and took Drake’s hand, his heart melting at the warmth of his little hand while he guided him into his bunk, the boy rushing over to the stack of brushes and picking out the one that he had gnawed at, placing it right back into his mouth. It felt like his heart was soaring, although inside of his mind there was a stray thought he couldn’t suppress any longer: the guilt over all that he had missed. The images of his father from the vision that he had danced in his mind, Drake staring off at Bruce while he ran the dry brush along the painting on the wall and, in that instant, Drake understood what he needed to do.
32 The Captain
Vetru sat and listened inside of the Trystero, a larger-than-life figure who controlled half of the known galaxy but cared very little for formalities. He let Valencia tell what had happened, how Drake had disappeared, how she passed through the side of the Sentinel and everything else in between. He nodded and grunted a few times, but let her finish the story. Drake was in the corner, playing with Bruce the entire time, distracted but happy for perhaps the first time in a long time, which left her at ease.
“That’s incredible,” Vetru said after a long pause after her story. “You’re telling me that... There’s some sort of all-powerful race out there? And that they communicated with the Gra’al, or at least this one did, to give us some sort of technology?”
“More or less, yeah,” she said. “I know it sounds incredible, but—”
“No, I mean, it adds up. The invention of organic technology propelled us so far ahead of where we were at the time. We had barely explored the surrounding stars, then everything changed. I never would have imagined, well, this.”
“And they couldn’t get into our minds?”
“We are, as the Terrans would say, thick-skulled,” Gentar said.
“I suppose so,” he said, glancing over at Drake and Bruce. “I’m glad to see them picking up where they left off.”
“Me too,” Valencia said. “So you were able to get everyone off of Thuul okay?”
“Yes, Der’lit was hesitant about it, but I was able to convince him,” Vetru said. “His position within the hierarchy has been fully restored, as will the rest. We’ll throw a celebration for the survivors, their families will all be so thankful to see them again. Thankful to you, Captain, and the crew of the Trystero.”
“I’m just happy to be alive,” she said.
“I’m sure that your people will be grateful as well,” he said.
“Whatever. I need to get some answers from them,” she said. “This whole thing feels like their fault. Jordache was doing this all with Terran money.”
“It was pre-war, I thought?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t like he contracted us out pre-war,” she said. “Someone that meant a lot to me died because of this.”
“Someone from the crew?” he asked, puzzled.
“Erm, no, it’s sort of hard to explain.”
“It looks like you know where you’re going next, then,” he said. “I suppose you won’t be visiting us anytime soon.”
“I need answers, so no, but maybe after.”
“Captain,” Drake said. “Sorry to interrupt, I just...”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot, and, well... Vetru, does your offer still stand?”
“Which offer are you speaking of?” he asked.
“You know the one, the one you gave me, right?” Drake asked, holding Bruce in his lap.
“Ah, yes. Of course, you’re welcome anytime.”
“Captain, everyone, I’ve decided to go live with Bruce for a while. I know it seems sudden and all, I just feel like it’s the right time.”
“What about your classes?” she asked in a daze, searching for anything to say.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sorry, I just can’t keep doing this right now, Bruce has already lost so much.”
“I know, I know,” she said, trying to remain strong. “I understand. Don’t worry, it’s fine.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thanks for understanding. Let me gather up my stuff, you’ll wait for me?”
“Of course,” Vetru said. “Take your time.”
Drake and Bruce disappeared back into his room, the pit in her stomach grew while she watched the door whiz shut behind him. After everything, she didn’t know how to hold it together. Bec’s hand was on her shoulder and she reached up, gripping it tightly. The vision of the green eyes glowing off in the distance was there when she closed her eyes and the tears fell gently down her cheek.
“Are you okay, Captain?” Vetru asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.”
Trystero Book Two: Fractured Sentinel
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The adventure continues in Shattered Lineage.
So this got pretty weird, didn’t it? If there’s one thing to know about me it’s that just when I start to get comfortable doing something I always try to complicate it and challenge myself. This isn’t the first book that I’ve dipped into psychological, surrealist or maybe even Eldritch-style horror and the truth is, it probably won’t be my last, either.
Truth is, I really love writing these characters and their journeys have been a lot of fun to explore. Drake and Valencia live remarkable lives but can’t seem to shake their pasts and their own self images. They know who they think they are and what they’re capable of but they’re almost always doubting their own abilities or that of the people around them. There’s also a lot of complicated familial relationships here because, well, aren’t there always?
My own family has grown over the last few years and raising my twin boys has been, well, an alien experience of sorts. Juggling between being a good father and husband and a hard-working writer isn’t always easy but they’re all rewarding. These characters will hopefully be with me for a long time to come and I’ll keep writing new books in this series for a long time.
Also By Dave Walsh
Join my newsletter to receive a free copy of Endigo, a prequel story about Valencia and her acquisition of the Trystero. There’s a lot of cool stuff in there that ties into this book. Trust me, it’s worth it.
About the Author
Dave Walsh was once the world's foremost kickboxing journalist, if that makes any sense. He's still trying to figure that one out.
The thing is, he always loved writing and fiction was always his first love. He wrote 'Godslayer' in hopes of leaving the world of combat sports behind, which, as you can guess, did not exactly work. That's when a lifelong love of science fiction led him down a different path.
Now he writes science fiction novels about far-off worlds, weird technology and the same damned problems that humanity has always had, just with a different setting.
He does all of this while living in the high desert of Albuquerque and raising twin boys with his wife. He's still not sure which is harder: watching friends get knocked out or raising boys.