“This is fucked up”, Jace said for about the dozenth time.
“Will you just sit the fuck down”? Llannaeia was quickly regretting joining him and Sergeant Runnell on the Rimor’s crew deck. Besides them, the marine’s bunk room was (understandably) deserted. Knowing what they did, rest was likely the last thing on the minds of the crew of the U.S.N Rimor.
“How can I sit down? How can anyone sit down knowing what we know”?
“Relax, Private. And do as your captain tells you”. Guhn was lounging in the bunk beside Llannaeia.
Jace huffed and puffed for a moment before doing as he was told, sitting down in the bunk opposite. He looked to be having a full-on breakdown. So much for being a brave space marine. “This is insane. They dragged us back from shore leave for this”?
“They can recall us from shore leave whenever they want. You know that”. Llannaeia’s patience with the private was wearing thin. Even with her hangover gone, his complaining was no less grating.
“Yeah, but the least they can do is tell us why we’re being called back, instead of letting us find out at the last minute we’ve been signed up for a fucking suicide mission”.
Llannaeia could have punched him. “They couldn’t let us know before. They couldn’t risk this getting out and back to the Imperium. You know what’ll happen if they find out about this. If that happens, we’re fucked”.
Jace threw his head but said no more. He knew there was nothing he could say. “I didn’t sign up for this shit”, he grumbled. “I didn’t sign up for risking my life in some unknown part of space”.
“You swore an oath, Private”, said Guhn. “Like we all did. We risk our lives on all the assignments they send us on. Why is this any different”?
“At least we usually know what the risks are. We’ve got intelligence and shit to tell us what we’re up against. Not this time. We’ve got no idea what we’re walking into here. Who knows what those… things will do when they see us in the middle of their space. They could blast us into space dust the second they see us”.
“Well at least it’ll be quick”, said Llannaeia
“That’s if they do that. They could take us alive. They might want to experiment on us. Or maybe’s they’ll throw us all into some kind of alien zoo. You’ve heard the stories. Those things are weird”.
Guhn leant forward. “Just be grateful you’re part of the crew selected for something like this. Out of all others, they chose us. You should be honoured to be a part of this”.
“No offence, Sarge, but that’s not the word I would use. More like fucking terrified”.
Llannaeia had had enough. “I’ve got to get the fuck out of here”. She gave neither of them time to stop her. By the time they heard her, she was already gone. She needed to get out of there. If she had to endure Jace’s bitching any longer, she was liable to kill him long before the Aq Quhn Ran Asten got anywhere near him.
There’d been a noticeable shift in the atmosphere aboard the Rimor. Llannaeia felt it as she walked its halls. There was an ominous feeling in the air, like she was walking through a mist made up of dark storm clouds. She saw it in the faces of her crewmates as she passed them. They were every bit as nervous as Jace. It would have been a shock to hear what the Captain had to say over the tannoy before they set off. It was a shock to hear the General say it. The air seemed to prickle, as if there was electricity flowing through it. The ship was quieter than usual, the silence a little louder than Llannaeia was used to. Everyone had the same face, the same uncertain eyes and aura of apprehension, except the robots, of course. They were as happy as ever. They would have walked into hell itself and still been smiling all the way. One even cornered Llannaeia, inquiring about the state of her hand and insisting on escorting her to the medical bay for treatment. She ended up having to agree, only to shoot away as soon as it turned its back. She wasn’t sure what to do with herself. Her mind buzzed with the thoughts of what they were doing and what might await. No way she’d be able to relax in this state. Walking the halls of the Rimor was what Llannaeia would do when she got like this, like back home before she joined the military. She used to enjoy walking the house at night when she couldn’t sleep. The Rimor offered far greater walking distance, one of the smallest classes of ship in the navy but vast nonetheless. It would take you days to travel every inch of it on foot. You had to use the tram system if you wanted to get anywhere quick. Llannaeia took it to the bridge. She wondered if anything was going on up there, and how much longer they would be in Warp Space for. She always liked to be at the bridge when they left it.
The bridge seemed the same as everywhere else, it too infected by the tension that gripped the decks below. It was usually gloomy here, nothing but the lights of the holo-computers to light the way. But now, with the glow of Warp Space streaming through the windows, it seemed like you were standing inside a blue spotlight. Even that wasn’t enough to lift the spirits of those caught in its current, their expressions as dark as deep space. The Captain was at his console and didn’t notice her come in. Just as well; she was in no mood for dealing with him either. She found out from Navigator Acell that they were due to exit Warp Space in the next few minutes. With that in mind, Llannaeia headed for the end of the bridge. She stopped between the two pilots, the best seat in the house for what was about to come.
“Exiting Warp Space in three . . . two . . . one”.
Llannaeia always found coming out of Warp Space to be an odd thing to observe. To suddenly reach the end of a seemingly never-ending tunnel of light only to be greeted by the darkness of deep space made it seem as though they’d travelled from one dimension to another. It was almost incomprehensible to her how they could be moving so fast one moment and then at what was a crawl in comparison the next without feeling a thing in between. She’d attempted to wrap her head around it many times, and every time failed. To even the galaxy’s most brilliant minds, so many things about Warp Space remained a mystery. Even its exact nature wasn’t fully understood, debate still raging as to whether or not it was a part of their own universe, a part of a different universe or a different universe in and of itself. Llannaeia preferred not to think of such things. It only made her head hurt.
With the bridge returned to its usual state, she detected the air of unease among its staff. They were now within Aq Quhn Ran Asten space, albeit not far from the fringes of their known territory, as was the plan. No one knew where the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld was, the foremost “experts” on the mysterious species only able to offer barely educated guesses with little evidence to back up their assumptions. Rather than waste time chasing all these up, the Rimor would cruise through their space, scanning for signals that might indicate a nearby populated world. Once one was found, they would make contact with the inhabitants and, from them, (hopefully) learn the location of their true destination. That is if they didn’t murder them on sight, a disturbingly plausible possibility.
There was silence aside from the blips and beeps of the instruments, a distinct lack of banter between the professional but laidback crew. Llannaeia understood their nervousness; she felt it herself. They were well and truly immersed in the unknown, doing something that most likely had never been attempted in the known history of the galaxy, with the very real possibility that they wouldn’t survive. She couldn’t blame anyone for being a little nervous.
“Anything yet, Acell”? asked the Captain.
“Nothing that looks artificial, Captain. A strong signal a couple hundred light years away but it’s probably just a black hole or a star going supernova. Apart from that, just the usual background noise”. Llannaeia was surprised. She would have thought, being in the territory of a species as widespread and advanced as the Aq Quhn Ran Asten, that they would be picking up signals from all over the place. The fact there was little more than silence made things seem even eerier than they already were.
She stood between Attaca and Keron though they were far too focused on piloting the ship to notice her staring out the front windshield at the blackness. Llannaeia tried to focus on the mission at hand though the constant thoughts of her sister made that all but impossible. She’d barely thought of anything else since their conversation in her quarters, and It hadn’t taken long to start hating herself for the things she’d said. Despite spending years trying to convince herself of it, Llannaeia had long since come to realize that the loss of their parents wasn’t her sister’s fault. She was so young when it happened, too young to understand or feel the same rage and grief she did. She’d spent half her life hating her little sister, or thinking she did. In truth, it wasn’t Iona she hated, but life itself. Iona didn’t kill their parents, the universe did. It forced them to leave their home and friends behind, took everything from them. They’d both suffered at the hands of this sick and twisted universe. It fucked them equally. Now all she had left was rage and misery, having wasted so many chances to set things right; and when the perfect opportunity fell into her lap, she threw it away. She truly was lost.
Her train of thought was interrupted by the clink, clink, clink of approaching footsteps. Llannaeia lowered her head and sighed, knowing only too well to whom they belonged. The captain of the Rimor soon appeared at her side. She didn’t say a word, and neither did he, both only staring out the front window in awkward silence. Llannaeia wished he would go away. She was in no mood for his bullshit.
“I’m sorry about earlier. I wasn’t thinking straight”.
“I think it would be best if we just pretend it didn’t happen”.
“I agree”. Llannaeia hoped that would be the end of the conversation, conscious of the pilots sitting inches away as well as the listening ears all around them. “How are you holding up”? Fucks sake.
“Why wouldn’t I be”?
“You know what we’re getting into here, don’t you”? The more he talked the angrier she felt.
Of course I do”.
“You’re not scared”?
“We’re all scared, Captain”. Llannaeia knew what he was doing. He was still trying to get close, trying to trick her into opening up. It wouldn’t work.
“Would it hurt you to show some kind of emotion”?
Llannaeia rounded on him, having finally had enough. “Obviously I didn’t make myself clear before”. She did her best to keep her voice down. “I don’t need your help and I certainly don’t need you as a friend. You are nothing to me except a work colleague and no matter how many times you try, that is never going to change. Not ever. Understand”? He said nothing, wearing only the same rock-like expression as before. “My job is to get the Chancellor to her destination and back, not take care of your fragile emotions. If you’re having reservations about honouring the oath you swore, I suggest you find someone else to whine to”.
She left him there, ignoring the looks from the crew as she made her way to the exit. Of course, they heard every word. It would be all over the ship soon enough. Llannaeia was rapidly approaching her wit’s end with the Captain but she wasn’t sure what more she could do about him. She’d already threatened to kill him and he still came crawling back. She could always take the issue to their superiors though that was far from ideal. She wasn’t keen on making more of her problems known to the rest of the military. The only consolation she could think of was the fact that their current mission carried with it a high risk of dying, meaning there was a good chance of the problem taking care of itself.
Llannaeia had almost reached the exit when the high-pitched siren stopped her in her tracks, the silence shattered. Red lights flashed and made it seem like the bridge, and everyone within had been bathed in blood. Electricity shot through the air. Llannaeia’s eyes bulged like moons as her heart rate skyrocketed. It could only mean one thing.
The Captain stormed to the nav-point, skin stained red. “What is it”?
“We’ve got a warp space opening about five hundred miles away, Captain”, Acell answered. On the map screens, a big red blip had appeared not far from their position
“A ship just left Warp Space, Captain”, announced another navigator. “Unknown signatures. It’s approaching fast. Looks like it’s moving to intercept”.
Llannaeia stepped up to the map screen. “It’s the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. It has to be”.
“But what kind of ship”? The Captain sounded flustered as the pressure mounted. The red lights and siren couldn’t have been helping.
“I don’t know, Captain”. The navigator typed frantically on his display. “But it’s big”.
“It’s got to be a warship”, Llannaeia said. “Nothing else would approach us at that speed”.
On the screen, the distance between the red blip and the blue that represented the Rimor was closing fast. “Three hundred miles and closing”.
“They’re going to attack us”.
“Should I give the command to move to battle stations, Captain”? Meridia asked.
“Nothing we’ve got would do a thing to them”! The Captain snapped, clearly feeling the heat. He went quiet, Llannaeia watching the wheels turn in his head. Despite his lack of people skills, Captain Senu Oross was a competent leader who always managed to make the right decision. She hoped that would continue.
“One hundred and fifty-miles, Captain”.
“Prepare to enter Warp space”, Oross commanded, just as Llannaeia was about to suggest the same.
“The drive isn’t fully charged yet, Captain”, Attaca called. “We risk blowing the core if we enter Warp Space now”.
“We’ve got no choice! Enter Warp Space now”!
“One hundred miles”.
They stood waiting with only the alarm to keep the silence at bay. Nothing happened: No light, no portal, nothing.
“Why aren’t we entering Warp Space, Attaca”?
“We’re trying, Captain”, Keron yelled back. “Nothing’s happening. The drive isn’t responding”.
“How can that be”?
“They must have hacked our systems”, said Lieutenant Commander Meridia. “We’re not going anywhere if they’ve got control of the warp drive”.
The pressure was finally getting to Llannaeia too. “They could power down the whole ship, turn off the gravity, life support, open the airlocks”.
“Another warp space opening a hundred and seventy-five miles away”, Acell called. Another red blip had appeared on the screen. “There’s a second vessel approaching us fast”.
“Great! Now there’s two of them”! exclaimed Meridia.
“Three! Another warp space opening a hundred miles away. Three unknown vessels approaching”.
The doors to the bridge opened and the Chancellor came striding in with her bodyguards. “What’s going on?! What’s that siren”?!
“The Aq Quhn Ran Asten have detected us, Madam Chancellor”, the Captain replied.
The Chancellor looked liked she wasn’t sure if she’d heard correctly. “How? I thought this ship was equipped so that wouldn’t happen”.
“Fifty miles and closing”!
“What are your orders, Captain”? Meridia asked.
The Captain stared at the three red blips, paralyzed by indecision. He had no idea what to do though Llannaeia couldn’t blame him for she had no idea either, save for one final option, one that would either save them, or all but guarantee their destruction.
She opened her mouth but he beat her to it. “Stand down”.
“Are you sure, Captain”? Meridia asked.
“We can’t run away and we can’t fight them”. He didn’t sound sure in the slightest. “This is our only option”.
“Captain, we’ve got several dozen smaller craft leaving the main ships”, a navigator nervously announced. On the map screens, a swarm of smaller dots were emerging from their larger hosts. “They’re headed straight for us”.
“They’ve got to be boarding craft”. Llannaeia wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried. If they wanted them dead, they could have blasted them into space dust without so much as lifting a finger. Going to the trouble of boarding could only mean they wanted them alive. What for, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know.
The Captain went to his console and hit the button for the loudspeaker. “This is the Captain. We have been detected by the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. Three warships are moving to intercept and there are multiple smaller craft approaching quickly. Everyone is to stand down and prepare to be boarded. Do not resist and do everything that our boarders say. Good luck everybody”.
He hit the button again and stepped away from the console. Nobody said a word, all waiting for the inevitable. Llannaeia saw the fear in the faces of her crewmates. She knew she should feel the same, but instead, she felt a strange kind of anticipation. She’d been wondering how their first encounter with the Aq Quhn Ran Asten would play out. She had so many questions: What they looked like, what they sounded like, how they would react to humans in their territory. In a few minutes, she’d have her answers. She caught the Captain’s eye. He was frightened, understandably so. Then Llannaeia looked to the Chancellor, standing close with her weight shifted to one leg and arms folded, a serious expression occupying her face. She seemed remarkably calm despite the siren, red lights, and impending doom. The Chancellor looked to her, and Llannaeia felt a spark inside.
On the map screens, the little red dots had converged on the big blue at the centre, like flies descending upon a carcass, engulfing it until it was barely visible. Some ominous rumblings reverberated through the bridge, Llannaeia certain of their origin. Something shot by at the edge of her vision. She looked to the nearest window but saw nothing but darkness. The siren ceased and they were left with only the strange sounds that were getting louder and more frequent. They continued as the moments ticked by, the next few minutes sluggish and unbearable. Then the doors opened.
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