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The Road To Hell
Topic Started: Jun 8 2009, 03:59 PM (242 Views)
Synthia Lyndon Heller

The Road To Hell


“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!”
- Hair


We went out scavenging steel again, this time from an abandoned warehouse near Fort Worth. Sheet steel and structural support beams, mostly free of rust. Once we get it fired up and retrieved from orbit, it will be used to finish the last of the top deck outer hull. The construction crew leader says they've brought up and repaired three more space suits from Russia, so they can send three more men out on the job. It's been twenty six years since we found her up there, and with any luck, she'll be ready for the trip by next summer.

Engine crews say they need about four more loads of nuclear fuel. The scouts have located three likely power plants, and retrieval teams are on their way to one of them now. Supplies have been arriving steady, on schedule. The permanent, stay on board crew is up to two thousand men. After the winter ends, we'll be moving people to the staging areas for orbital launch.

It seems hard to believe I've been working at this for over a quarter century. It took over a decade to get enough people qualified to get a shuttle out into orbit at all, and we've been doing steady construction and supply work on her for thirteen years. I was thirty when we started. I celebrated my fifty sixth just this summer. Out of the original exploratory team, only three are left. Myself, Johnson, and McBain. Edwards died of old age at 78 last fall. Jeffries had a heart attack four years ago. Rogers, Stephenson, Yee and Etheridge died in the shuttle explosion during the fourth launch. Just today, Clarice Fitzpatrick died from snakebites. Rattlesnakes that got into the warehouse and nested there. She didn't see them in the dark, and she was bitten too many times to be saved.

Every day, it seems, I hear news over the radio of something bad happening. One of the settlements in Georgia was struck by a killer influenza. Only forty six survivors out of three hundred and twelve. A dump where one of our teams was scavenging stainless steel and aluminum turned out to be full of drums of illegally disposed toxic waste. No survivors. My own youngest son was killed by a bear in the streets of Chicago.

I know none of us will ever see our destination. Once we launch, I will have sealed my fate; to die in space, on a ship. We don't have the equipment for cryosleep. People will live their lives and die on board, so their descendants can finally join with the others who left so long ago.

We, the descendants of those who were left behind, to scavenge in the ruins and leavings of an abandoned world, to find places to live in a world deemed to harsh and depleted for our race . . . we, whose generations have watched the earth slowly recover, in those patches that could recover; empty cities swallowed up by nature while our numbers dwindle . . . we, the last people of Earth, will finally rejoin the human race, on whatever worlds they found.

Assuming, of course, that they succeeded. We don't know, really. We just have to take it on faith. This much, we cannot allow ourselves to doubt, because it is our only hope. There are too few places to live on Earth, and they are hostile places, where life is scraped and scavenged and jury-rigged from whatever can be found, while the world waits for any opportunity to visit disaster, to kill with disease, hunger, poison, violence or any of an infinite slate of other woes.

This world may have been our cradle, but it no longer wants us here.

We need to leave.


*****************************************

Captain William Porter closed the battered diary; an old Esselte Pendaflex 300 page laboratory notebook with a hand sewn slipcover of oiled canvas, worn to a shiny patina. Each page was filled with writing in various pens and pencils, the well thumbed pages stuffed with loose, folded sheets, found scraps of documentation, dried, pressed leaves and flowers, photographs and mementos. A poorly developed Polaroid, probably from old, outdated film, sandwiched between the pages he had read, showed the late Clarice Fitzpatrick; long, grey streaked red hair tied back, hand sewn leather jacket over a ragged sweater, large safety goggles pushed up on her forehead, leaving a clean mask on her otherwise grimy face. Even in the poor image, she looked attractive and confident. She'd be gone now anyway, of course. The diary was his grandfather's, one of the numerous such notebooks he had filled in his life's work, and there were none from his generation left alive on board the Aquarius. Only the youngest, those who had been babies or small children when the ship left Earth, still remained. Only a tiny and dwindling minority whose feet had ever touched a planet's surface. His father had been born on the ship, and had died on it just two years ago. That made him the ship's third captain.

If their calculations were correct, he'd be the last.

The Aquarius had been a fleet repair dock ship; a gigantic construction with enclosable, pressurizable docking bays surrounding a huge, open belly. Massive engines clustered at the back of her turtle-like bulk, drove her through the blackness of space. She never could have landed intact, or taken off from Earth's surface had She been built there. Instead, she had been constructed in space, or at least mostly constructed, before the expense, construction time and stocking requirements became prohibitive, and she had been abandoned. Left behind. Plans for the Exodus modified to write her out of the picture. She languished there in lunar orbit until she was finally rediscovered. It took years for people to be able to train up the necessary skills and crank up the creaky remains of Earth's space capability to reach the old hulk. Her engines were cold, unfueled, her interior empty and exposed to space, her outer shell unfinished in places. Computers and electronic equipment sat in packing crates on the docking bay floors. Other shipments of equipment and supplies, assembled but never sent, had to be tracked down from old records, dug out of deserted government warehouses. Still, they had known, had believed down to their very souls, from the moment they had found her, that she could be completed. That she could take them away from the inhospitable Earth to rejoin the human race.

Aquarius hadn't been her original name. It was recorded in his grandfather's diary, along with a great wealth of other information about the ship. United Nations had been her intended name, but by the time she had flown, nations had been a thing of the past, and the one thing that had united the remaining people was the desire to leave.

Tucking the diary back into the drawer where he kept it, he exited his quarters and headed down the wide passageway, away from the bridge, towards the interior of the ship. The passageway sloped downwards, floor covered in synthetic matting with a non-slip surface of raised circles, walls the industrial light grey steel of an old naval ship, the overhead hung with tracks of lighting below a mass of exposed piping, wiring, and ductwork. Oval shaped doors with quick opening levers to release their leak-tight seals dotted the walls, along with structural beams, piping systems and other functional features. Stenciled arrows and number designations pointed the way to various parts of the massive ship. Two men in grey coveralls, streaked with grime and oil stains, passed by on a small electric cart, heavy tool boxes strapped down on the dirty wooden rear deck. Its motor whined off into the distance.

The passage intersected with an even wider passageway, six levels high, with five levels of steel grated catwalk lining it on either side. As wide as a four lane divided highway back on Earth, the passageway ran in a circle around the outside of the ring of repair docking bays that were clustered around the ship's open belly, between the docking bays and the facilities that served them and stored materials for them. Repair shops of all kinds, huge storage bays, offices, power generators, everything the designers had anticipated a fleet of spaceships might need. Only a fraction of the material and equipment had actually been brought on board before the abandonment, or afterwards. Heavy material handling cranes rode tracks that ran along the ceiling, lighter ones along the edges of the catwalks. The passageway was dim, not dark, but shadowed. Brighter lights were mounted at intervals, waiting idly to be needed, but there was simply no reason to consume the power. Aquarius wasn't serving any fleet, and even producing and maintaining those things that were needed on board only used a fraction of her intended capability. Much of the storage and repair shop space, as well as a third of the cavernous bays themselves had been repurposed to living quarters and other human spaces. Another third were used to produce food.

She might have been slacking off in her original fleet repair mission, but Aquarius was carrying far more people than intended.

Gigantic sliding doors, like an old aircraft hangar might have used, led into each bay from short spurs off the circular passageway. None of them had ever been opened during the long voyage. William walked a short ways down one of them to a more human scaled door that led into a hallway lined with doors to offices, bathrooms, storage closets and other appendages of the bay beyond. At the end of the hallway, a set of sliding doors set with thick plexiglass windows led into Docking Bay 3.

As the doors slid open, he was greeted by the fresh scent of earth, grass and leaves. Most of Docking Bay 3 was taken up by hydroponic gardens, but in the center of the bay, a square trench intended to house a large hydraulic lift that had never been installed had been filled in with soil, forming a low, small hill, on which grass and flowers grew. In the center of the grassy hill was a single three meter toyon shrub, bright with green leaves and small, white flowers. A familiar figure sat near the base of the toyon, (Which had been called Christmas berry and California holly back on Earth, as she once told him) her long hair shaded by a wide brimmed straw hat, wearing a neutral cotton sun dress. A faded blanket, in a Southwestern American pattern of muted earth tones, reds and blues was spread out on the ground, with a woven basket sitting in the center of it, covered with a white cloth. As he walked down an aisle through the hydroponics, a short, slender man with wire rimmed glasses and a patched, grease stained blue flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up and unbuttoned over a dingy white t-shirt and old brown denim jeans came out from around the other side of the shrub.

William took off his sage green summer weight nomex flight jacket and dropped it to the grass, the shiny silver captain's eagles glinting in the soft light. He bent down and untied his boots, taking them off and setting them aside, a balled up sock in each, and sat down crosslegged and barefooted in the grass.

The other man on the hill was Kenneth Blake, his best friend and confidant, though not his first officer. Command wasn't Kenneth Blake's skill, Blake was an intellectual, a researcher and philosopher. Some day, soon, if they were right, the people on Aquarius would arrive at their destination; the planets that had been terraformed by those who had left ahead of them. They would have to transition from a ship-based society to living among people who had developed a culture they knew nothing of. They'd have to start over again just as surely as their ancestors who had left Earth had been forced to.

If there was one man he trusted to advise him on how to direct the transition and the contact with the people of the new worlds when they arrived, it was Kenneth Blake.

The woman was named Skye. Skye Rain. It was her real name, and it fit her. Though born on a ship, having never breathed open air or touched ground aside from this small, planted plot, Skye Rain was a creature of earth and water. The sun shone in her light blue eyes, radiated from her pale, freckled skin. William was struck by how tragic it would have been had she been born among those who had lived and died on board, like his father, not only because they wouldn't have been together, but because she was meant to reach their destination, to live the rest of her days between earth and sky. She was a goddess, an Earth Mother, a daughter of nature.

She was the woman he loved more than life itself. The one he intended to raise a family with, but not here. Not on the ship. Her children would be born to fresh air and solid ground.

Though it had been planted before either of them had been born, he always thought of this tiny hill as her place. The one place on the ship that reflected her. As illogical as it seemed, it sometimes felt to him that had this place not already existed on board, she would have called it into being through her very nature.

“They still saying ten years?” asked Kenneth. Skye smiled and lifted the rough square of white cloth from the basket, removing an amber glass bottle and a cloth wrapped bundle. She unrolled the cloth, revealing three rough knives, their tangs wrapped in cloth tape, short blades like paring knives.

“That's the word.” said William. He looked over at Skye, laying a hand on her knee. “What do we got today?”

“Cucumbers.” she said, pulling a short, stubby one out of the basket. “Carrots, green onions, tomatoes and rhubarb. And . . .” she put the cucumber back into the basket and lifted the bottle. “Carrot wine.”

Back behind the toyon, on the other side of the small hill, Skye kept a small garden plot. Working the soil was one of her great pleasures in life, and being able to give her the means to do it was one of the chief reasons he woke up each day glad to be the ship's captain, even on the roughest days.

“Ten years.” said Kenneth. “I don't know . . . I wish I could be a bit more optimistic, but . . .”

“Ship'll make it, no problem.” said William. “And the data's good. I just can't see how we'll miss the mark.”

“It's not that.” said Kenneth. “I'm sure we'll get there, and everything. I'm even pretty sure we can manage our integration into . . . wherever it is people live now. It's just the long term future that's not so bright. I mean . . .”

He pounded the flat of his palm against the grassy earth.

“For most of human history, this was all people had. The ground beneath their feet . . . that was home, and it was the only place they could imagine living. It wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century that anyone even went to the moon . . . and all that time, they polluted, they squandered resources, they hunted species to extinction, believing . . . I mean knowing deep down, even if they turned out to be wrong, that they had nowhere else to go.”

He picked up one of the knives and a cucumber and began to cut it into slices.

“Now, they know that was wrong.” he said. “They know there was somewhere else to go, and they found it. So did they learn their lesson from losing Earth? Will they do things better this time, or did they really just learn that planets are disposable? Will they be better? I don't know . . . it really seems likely they'll be worse. Now that we've cut free from the cradle of our species, is our future to be interplanetary locusts? Just wasting and acquiring? And what if some of them have learned, and others haven't? What happens when the ones who used up their worlds start eyeing the ones who haven't yet? Will we live to see humans fighting interplanetary wars against each other?”

Skye raised the bottle to her lips and drank deeply.

“If they haven't learned,” she said, “we can be the ones to teach them. They left when things were going wrong. We come from the ones who stayed to see it. “

She speared a tomato slice with her knife and ate it, then licked the blade clean and pointed with it into the distance, sweeping a clockwise circle over her head.

“We are the children of Gaia” she said. “Of Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna. If the people on their new worlds have forgotten their mother, or if they never knew her, we can be the ones to remind them.”

William raised the bottle and drank, then set it down, his eyes wide, gasping for air.

“Wine?” he said “This stuff is a bit . . . strong for calling it that.”

“If you're going to drink, you should get drunk.” said Skye, picking up the bottle and taking another deep swallow. “You know me . . . never do anything halfway.”

“See, I'm not sure they'll listen to us.” said Kenneth. “Especially if we're saying things they find inconvenient. We'll be the outsiders there, especially at first. I mean . . . the Americans and the Chinese? A right bastard of a government that'll likely produce. Two of Earth's biggest consumer nations.”

“Will's a strong leader.” said Skye. “He's kept the ship together. He knows how to make people listen. If they've left her behind, we can bring Mother Earth home to her children again. We'll bring them a new age. The age of Aquarius.”

“That was supposed to have been back in the nineteen sixties.” said Kenneth. “Didn't exactly work out that way,”

“When messages aren't heard, or taken to heart, they come back around.” said Skye.

She picked up a carrot, slicing a bit off the tip. The blade nicked her thumb. She shook her head slightly and sucked the blood from the small cut.

“And if they won't listen . . .” she said, “we'll just have to speak louder, until they do.”

***********************************************

Later, during the night, or at least that portion of the ship's 24 hour clock set aside as night time William got up from bed to use the bathroom. He ran his fingers through his hair in the small polished metal mirror. Ten years. He'd be a little over fifty then, but that wasn't so old. Certainly not with the more advanced medicine and better living conditions the people of the Exodus likely had, advantages not known on Earth for generations. His back stung from the scratches across it. Skye Rain really was never the sort to do or feel anything halfway. She threw herself into everything as if it was going to be her last chance to do it. When they arrived at their destination, he had no doubt she'd be pregnant within days. She wanted children, but she had agreed, not on the ship.

”We'll find a place.” he thought. ”We'll find a place we can make a home, whether the rest of them out there have learned anything or not. We don't need them. We have what we need.”

************************************

“I know it's hard, but there's no way around it. I've run the tests, and they're conclusive.”

William pulled a metal chair over and sat in it, his hands clenching into fists, the air in the room shrinking down around him as if he had been ejected into the blackness beyond the walls. He wanted to take the chair and smash the machines, break it over the doctor's head, wipe every last shred of it all away. Doctor Ross was a good friend of his. It didn't change any of that.

“What . . .What does it really mean?”

“It's genetic.” the doctor said, from somewhere far away. “Rare now. It was more common, but over time, well, it's just not passed on much. As far as we know, it was probably a weapon. We don't know if it was used deliberately, or released by accident. It's not natural.”

He clicked the mouse on his computer, the old hard drive spinning up as a new screen of data appeared.

“There are three stages.” he said. The first can last for years. Not very efficient in a bioweapon, but maybe they were still working on that. First stage isn't much, really. People most likely don't even know they have anything serious. Maybe they get sick a bit more often than most, maybe they feel rundown sometimes, maybe not. It's unpredictable, and some argue there really isn't such a stage, but the disease is there. It's just gathering force. Second stage is when it gets serious. Weakened immune system, flu-like symptoms, fever, weakness. Wounds don't heal properly. That can last months, or just weeks. Third stage . . .”

He paused, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He took a deep breath and continued.

“Third stage is fatal. Immune system collapse, massive infection, discharge of blood, nerve damage, finally, irreversible brain damage, organ failure, and death. It's over in two or three days . . . at most. Longer than anyone would want that stage to last.”

“How did you even find it?” William asked.

“We wouldn't have looked, normally.” the doctor replied. “It's almost never seen anymore. Some thought it was gone. She asked for the test.”

“Why?” said William, shutting his eyes tightly, fighting back tears.

“She said she felt something was wrong. That she's felt it for some time now.”

A long silence descended. Finally William spoke again.

“How long does she have?”

“She's not in the second stage.” said the doctor. “Actually, she seems to have it under control. Given these test results, going by the progression of most cases, I'd say six, seven years . . . maybe a little longer, not much. Most who have it die in their teens or twenties. There's never been a recorded case of anyone having it past thirty six. Of course, that assumes it doesn't accelerate, but in her case, that isn't likely.”

“Isn't there anything that can be done?”

“There's no cure. There was talk of advanced genetic therapy, stem cells and the like, but medicine took a major hit after the Exodus and the Collapse. Research was abandoned. We've been treading water, just trying to avoid losing too much. We learned to recognize it after it appeared, learned to test for it, but then it went silent . . . and it was so rare. People were dying of influenza, malnutrition, waterborne diseases. . . I'm afraid the medical profession just wasn't up to it.”

“The people who left . . . the ones out there . . .” William looked up, , his hands shaking. “Their medical knowledge can't have stagnated like that. They've had time. They could isolate it . . .”

“I would imagine that's possible.” said the doctor. “But they aren't here, Will. And we won't be there for another nine years. We can't even talk to them.”

Silence descended again.

“She's strong, Will.” said the doctor. “And for now, she's apparently in good health, even though it's not really true. She'll need you, though. She'll need you to be there for her, to make the most of whatever time . . .”

“I understand you've done all you can.” said William. “If you could do more, you would. But you're right. The world failed her. It failed her before she was even born. Now, I have to be there to make up for it. I have to get her through this.”

“You probably don't think I understand, but I do, Will. I've seen a lot of death. We lose people. You know that. This ship . . . it's not an easy way to live. They didn't know, couldn't prepare for everything we'd need, and they were in such a hurry to get her underway. People learn to scrounge and improvise from the time they're children. My wife died three years ago. If I had been a doctor before the Exodus, I could have prevented it. I could have . . . but this is where we are. “

“Where we are is my ship.” said William. “MY ship. I don't give up. You've seen things from your end, but you haven't seen what I have to do to hold it all together. I guarantee you, there would be a lot more deaths on board if it wasn't being held together. No matter how hard it gets, I've never given up on getting these people to their new home, and I won't give up on Skye.”

“I'm afraid that won't be enough. It's time we don't have, not determination. We just can't . . . create time.”

”But we can use it better.” said William.

”We can get there on time . . . if we just go . . .”

Faster.

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Synthia Lyndon Heller

“This thing just isn't going to go any faster.” said Kenneth.

He shook his head, pacing across the small room. He took off his glasses and wiped a lens on the front of his shirt.

“I'm not an engineer, but I know the mechanics well enough to know that. I mean, we're going damn fast, Will. You know how far from Earth we are, how far we still have to go. We're out in space, in the middle of absolutely nothing. What we're already doing is staggering enough. The ship just doesn't have anything more to give.”

“But she does.” said William. “That's just the thing. She's got the power, if we let her use it.”

“We're running full power now.” said Kenneth. “The whole trip's been full power. We're not holding back anything.”

“We're holding back a lot.” said William. “The engines are heavily damped down by their containment shielding. The amount of power being put out to the drive isn't nearly the full amount we're generating. Aquarius could light up a dozen of Earth's biggest cities in their prime. If we shut down primary containment, we'll easily get there in half the time or less, and the drives are easily robust enough to handle it. This thing is massively overbuilt. She can handle everything we can give her.”

Kenneth had stopped pacing, staring intently.

“That's . . . I mean . . . Will, maybe Aquarius can handle running that hot, and yes, we'd arrive years ahead of schedule, but we'd arrive as glow-in-the-dark corpses. Taking out primary containment would flood so much radiation through the ship, we might as well just all cut our throats.”

“That's only true if we do nothing but remove containment.” said William. “I know that's suicide. That's where this comes in.”

Opening the top drawer of his desk, he pulled out a battered brown folder, tied shut with frayed string wrapped around a worn grommet. The surface of it was encrusted with the peeled off remains of stick on labels, and written across it in heavy, black ink was a string of letters and numbers.

G-37 XD116 ARD v4.1.1 rev6 test b 305

Unwinding the string, he pulled out a bundle of old, dog-eared papers, held together with a heavy clip. Red printing at the top marked the contents as TOP SECRET. A smaller heading and seal marked their origin as United States Army, pre-Exodus.

“Read this.” he said. “Then tell me we can't do it.”

Kenneth pulled a chair over to the front of the desk and began reading through the file. William sat and watched him read, his hands fidgeting and his eyes watching for reaction as his friend turned to pages he knew held critical, make or break portions of his plan. Watching for signs of approval and hope, or skeptical disbelief.

“We have everything we need to make it.” he said as Kenneth looked up from the pages. “It's genuine. Came out of one of the bases my grandfather helped search while they were prepping the ship. Every test says it works.”

The unwieldy string of characters, cooked up in some military research facility, all boiled down to what three letters said. ARD. Anti-radiation drug. Designed to allow soldiers safe access to hot spots caused by tac nukes on a theoretical battlefield, or the aftermath of a terror attack by nuclear blast, dirty bomb or power plant sabotage.

“It's not just a quick fix either.” he said. “It can provide long-term protection, increased resistance.”

“Did you read the side effects?” said Kenneth, flipping through the worn pages. “Side effects . . . Jesus . . . did they ever use this stuff? Would even the military have approved it?”

“Those effects are from heavy dosing for major hot spots.” said William. “We can move personnel to the bays farthest from the engines, rotate engineering personnel, have them wear suits. With all the bulkhead we can put between us and the rads, we won't need those heavy doses. The exposure we'd be looking at would be deadly over long term exposure, not acute exposure.”

“We don't have any long term studies.” said Kenneth. “No one ever took this stuff long term. We don't know what it will really do in terms of long-term health risk, and what we do know . . . Christ, the stuff gets in your genes. It's practically mutagenic. It's probably Teratogenic, knowing these kind of things.”

“Everything here says low dose exposure is safe.” said William. “And that's all we need.”

He reached across the desk and took his friend's hand, clasping it tightly.

“She's going to die, Ken.” he said. “If we don't do this, she's going to die, and die like a sick animal that any compassionate person would just shoot to put it down easy. I know there are more lives in this ship than just her. I'm the captain. I wouldn't do this if I thought it was going to kill us all . . . but I know she's important to you too. She's worth this minimal risk. Come on, Ken. None of us have any guarantees out here. If we can get to the people out there, and the medical knowledge and facilities that can save Skye, they can damn well deal with any complications this might cause. It's low dose. The risk is acceptable. Getting there sooner will benefit us all.”

“Do you believe that?” said Kenneth. “Or do you just want to?”

“I won't let her die in space.” said William. “Not if there's anything I can do. In the end, does it matter? You know the risk is worth it. I know you well enough to know it's worth it to you too.”

“But will it be worth it to the engineers? To the other officers? To the general population? You can't just do something like this on a whim. It'll take cooperation from everyone. How are you going to sell the risk to all of them? What if most everyone else decides it's safer to just wait the handful of extra years?”

“Leave that to me.” said William.

An old story had told of a commander who had assembled all his soldiers and burned their ships after arriving on enemy land. He wanted them to fight as if victory was the only possible outcome aside from death, so he took retreat off the table. It's amazing what people can do, what they can endure and survive when they have no choice.

He wouldn't have to convince them.

It would be far easier to just make it the only way.

*******************************************

. . . massive power surge caused the explosion and started the fire . . . probably a faulty relay or a short . . . bottom line is that we have no backups for the main regulators . . . backups were scheduled to be shifted into primary service within five years . . . very low probability the current main regulators will continue working through the remaining duration of the trip . . . probability of engine failure in six to eight years very high . . .

William sat alone at his desk, reading over the report from the chief engineering officer for the third time. As bad as it sounded, he knew the man was trying to be cautiously optimistic, hoping some solution could be found.

” 'Evening, captain. Taking a tour of the engine spaces? Yearly maintenance ought to be completed in two more days. Everything looks good so far.”

He wouldn't find one, and deep down, he certainly knew it. He just didn't want to fail the ship. Didn't want to give up hope. The engines would fail if they took nine years in transit. There was no fix for this. To end up dead in space after all the work of three generations, doomed to drift forever, no hope of reaching humanity . . . and just one or two short years from their goal, the promise of new worlds always lying just out of reach . . .

”We've got a good team back here. I'm sure it will all be just fine in the end.”

Unless they dropped primary containment and reached their goal while the regulators still held. The additional power wouldn't stress those particular critical parts any more than normal operation, and it would be the only way to make the trip within their operational life.

There would be debate, attempts to pin blame, argument, but in the end, there was only one way.

”These yearlies are a killer on the schedule, captain. I'll be glad to have them past us. I know Simmons' wife will be happy about it.”

He had put all the rest of them in his position. Only speed could prevent them from losing everything they hoped for. Speed only came one way, and with only one price. A price they'd all be willing to accept when faced with the alternative.

”Got that right, chief. She'd kill me if this PMS ran over our first anniversary.”

He turned once more to the last pages. The death reports.

Engineering Petty Officers Yardly, Simmons, Grant and Morrison. Engineering Chief Wilcox. All lost in the explosion when the hull was breached.

They had seen him leaving the area on their way in. If only their maintenance schedule had been running on time, but when did it ever? With the kind of work they had to do to keep Aquarius flying?

He wouldn't have had any valid excuse to order them away, and if he had, it would have been remembered. Would have been talked about. Why was the captain down there alone, no scheduled inspection? Why had he ordered an engineering maintenance crew away from the area just before the blast? Conspiracy theories started with less evidence, under less stressful situations.
”I'll authorize leave from duty for the whole maintenance crew when this is over. You deserve the rest.”

Curse their luck. Curse all their damned luck. Good men, and Grant, a good woman. Three months pregnant and still on duty. Damn it.

Skye would say the Universe demands payment for every act. You get nothing for free.

He closed the report, wiping his eyes.

”Rest easy, all of you. You deserve it.”

But sometimes, you just have to pay.

*******************************************

Aquarius flashed through space, her uncontained drives leaving a blazing trail behind her.

The bays nearest to the rad spewing engines had been evacuated, their walls lined with as much metal as possible where they faced populated sections. Heavy rad-suited engineers worked short rotations in the hottest zones, monitored constantly by the medical staff. The bay farthest from the engines had been converted into living quarters for those most vulnerable to the threat ; children, the elderly, women, who might be pregnant or decide they wanted to be.

The decision had been controversial, and there had been heated discussion, but in the end, it had been the only path open to them.

Computer controlled feeds fed carefully measured doses of the anti-radiation drug into the ship's food and water supply, without which, the men on the engines couldn't survive the duty through the length of the trip, even with their heavy suits.

Gradually, the sense of urgency and military-like alertness and rigorous duty began to fade into the normalcy of shipboard life. The clock still ticked in the back of everyone's mind, but people grew used to the different routines, the altered living arrangements, the increased monitoring. It was, after all, only for a few years. A few more years, and they'd arrive to rejoin the rest of humanity in whatever future they'd built away from the abandoned ruins of Earth. People had certainly endured worse for as long or longer, for lesser goals.

Life returned, as far as it could, to normal.

Aquarius screamed through space, speed unmatched by any humans who had ever travelled.

Nothing comes free.

***************************************

The music echoed in the huge bay, guitars chiming and spiraling, the bass rumbling a threatening undertow.
William walked through the hydroponics, emerging within sight of the small, blooming hill just as the drums kicked in, propelling the menacing intro onward.

Skye Rain stood at the crest of the hill, beneath the toyon shrub, as naked as she had been born. Her arms raised, she turned slowly clockwise, a long knife in one hand, a leafy cut branch in the other, long and slender like a magician's wand.

Oooh, a storm is threatening . . . My very life today . . . If I don't get some shelter . . . Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away . . .

As he approached the hill, she looked down and saw him. The knife flashed as she scribed a circle in the air in front of her.

War, children . . . it's just a shot away, It's just a shot away . . . War, children. . . it's just a shot away, It's just a shot away . . .

“Lord and Lady . . .” she said, “Earth, air, fire and water, pass this one within the boundaries of our sacred circle, and let it remain unbroken.”

Ooh, see the fire is sweepin' . . . Our very street today . . . Burns like a red coal carpet . . . Mad bull lost its way . . .”

“You know . . .” he said, stepping over the smoking incense burning in a crudely hammered copper brazier sitting on a flat piece of slate, and around the candles set into glass insulators, dripping white wax into the grass, “People come in here sometimes. It is part of the hydroponics and it gets maintenance workers.”

“I have no shame.” she said, smiling. “You know that. Shame is a weakness, and we were meant to be stronger than that. My way never made a demon of our bodies, or a sin of their natural inclinations.”

Rape, murder! It's just a shot away, It's just a shot away . . .

Something was wrong. He had known her long enough to see past her smile, to read the tension set into her body . . . and that music . . . why had she chosen it for this?

Rape, murder! It's just a shot away, It's just a shot away, Yeah yeahhhh . . .”

“Something is wrong.” she said, her smile fading. She could read his concern as well. “Something's changed.”

Ooooh the floods is threatening . . . My very life today . . . Gimme, gimme shelter . . . Or I'm gonna fade away . . .

“Something on the ship?” said William, reaching out and placing his hand on her shoulder.

“In everything.” she said. “In the ship, in all of us, in me . . .”

It's just a shot away

“I don't feel myself the way I used to. Something's shifted, changed somehow.”

It's just a shot away

“I felt in control, I felt in touch, in tune with my goddess self . . . now, I'm scared. I'm afraid I'll lose it.”

It's just a shot away

She pulled away from him,her eyes sweeping the green expanse of the hydroponics bay, her arms wrapping around herself as she shivered. William stepped forward, reaching for her, and as his hands touched her arms

she felt so hot, almost feverish

she spun around, her eyes wide and staring and he felt a sharp jab just below his breastbone. He looked down, and saw the long knife she still held, its hammered and filed point sticking needle-like into his skin, a spot of red staining the front of his shirt. A bite of pain pricked him as the blade quivered in her hands. He sought her eyes with his own, but she stared silently at the blood on his chest. It wasn't her fault, she hadn't done anything, he had just stepped into it. So clumsy, not looking first . . .

“Skye . . .”

It's just a shot away

She dropped the knife, her hands trembling.

“The athame isn't supposed to cut anything material.” she said, distantly. “Everything's gone wrong somehow.”

“Skye . . .”

Suddenly, she leaped forward, her hands grabbing his wrists, knocking him backwards with the force of her rush, sending them tumbling to the grass.

I tell you love, sister, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away . . .

“It's all wrong now.” she said, looking down at him, her eyes red and moist. “What is going to happen to us?”

It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away, kiss away, kiss away . . .

She lowered her head to his chest, blood streaking her cheek as her tears soaked into his shirt. The music fell silent as the song faded out, and then the next song began, all tribal drums, grunts and far off, echoing screams.

“We're lost.” she said.

Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste . . .

She held on tight as they lay in the grass, as if she was afraid it was all going to vanish around her.

“Aquarius is gone.”
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Synthia Lyndon Heller

William sat at his desk, the light from the desk lamp shining on the shining nickel plating
of the derringer, glinting over its gold engraving and nickel Tiffany grips, sitting nestled in green velvet in its gold inlaid rosewood presentation box. Four large cartridges were set nose down into holes in the case's form fitting insert, their primered bases reading “Federal” and “.44 Magnum.” It had been made by some old Earth company called “American Derringer”, a one-off luxury presentation model, special ordered for some general or politician as some kind of gift, retirement offering or bribe. Who really knew any more? All he knew was that at some point, his grandfather had taken it out of one of the military bases they had searched, and it had passed down to him along with all the rest of the things he had brought on with him. It clearly hadn't been made with the intent that it would ever be fired ; it would have been considered too valuable in pristine condition to put even a single round's wear on it, but it was equally obvious that it was still as deadly as any soldier's utilitarian weapon, if less comfortable and easy to shoot. Rounds that powerful in such a small gun, with those heavily engraved metal grips? The choice made a statement of power, not practicality.

Skye was sick. Feverish, weak with flu-like symptoms. He had left her, finally asleep, to come here once again. To sit and stare at the shining, impractical gun, his grandfather's journals spread out on the desk, littering the floor along with the cold plates of half-eaten food and the empty liquor bottles. His hair, once trimmed into a neat, almost military cut, had grown out, unkempt, his once clean-shaven face buried in an equally unkempt beard.

This shouldn't be happening. Not now.

Grimy fingers pulled the gun out of the case and opened the breech. Two of the heavy cartridges slid into the bores, and he snapped the gun closed, the twin barrels locking up solidly.

He had been feeling uneasy lately, as if he could hear the whispers following him Losing it. Unfit for command. What's wrong with him? I hear it's that girl of his, always a bit off, that one feel the cold gazes of the dead engineers in the darkness of his room at night while Skye slept fitfully beside him.

There should be more time. The doctor said she had more time than this.

The weight of the gun fell into the pocket of his flight jacket. Let them talk. None of them could captain the ship. None of them had the strength to do what had to be done.

Kenneth had been right. They were no better. People hadn't learned a thing. Only her. She was worth all of them. She could be the shining light, the one hope for the future. With her, he could lead them. He could make them better.

She had to live. It couldn't all be for nothing.

He clicked off the light. Afterimages danced before his eyes in the dark room, like the ethereal glint in the eyes of Petty Officer Grant's forever unborn child, the ghosts that haunted his dreams.

She had to live.

***************************************

“Jesus, Will.” said Doctor Ross, when he answered the knock at his door. “You look like hammered hell.”

And you've been drinking again the doctor's eyes said, as he walked past the him into the room. The door closed behind him. Let them talk. Only one thing mattered.

“She's stage two, isn't she.” he said, walking over to the table where a decanter of whiskey sat with a stack of old glasses. He lifted the decanter, pulling the stopper out and dropping it to the floor. The old alcohol burned on it's way down.

“Will, I don't think -”

“STAGE TWO!” he shouted, slamming the decanter back down on the table. “I wanted it to just be the damn flu, or one of those bugs that goes around sometimes, but she didn't get those.”

“Will . . .”

“THIS THING IS KILLING HER!” he shouted. He ran his fingers through his hair, composing himself.

“She should have had more time. You said six, seven years. We have that time now! We have more than that! Why is this happening now?”

“I don't know, Will.” said the doctor. “I stand by my tests. She had it under control. The disease was there, but it wasn't progressing.”

He paused a moment, shaking his head.

“Will, she says a lot of things, about spirits and the goddess and magic, but what really struck me the last time I saw her was that she said she could feel that something had changed in her. Changed on both a physical and spiritual level. People like her are often deeply in touch with their own bodies, their responses and feelings. They can know when something's wrong, and something is wrong. She should have had more time, it's just . . .”

“What? What's doing this?”
“I don't . . .” the doctor shook his head, stepping over to the table and picking up a glass.

“I can't be sure.” he said, pouring half a glass of the whiskey. “None of us really know for sure . . . the data isn't complete or medically conclusive . . .”

“What is it?”

“Will . . .”

“WHAT IS IT, DAMN IT, WHAT?”

“It's genetic, Will.” said the doctor. He lifted the glass and downed half the contents. “Her disease is genetic. I told you that before, and now, thanks to that explosion pushing us into this state of emergency, we're all being exposed to an experimental drug that the researchers knew had genetic side effects. I don't know what it might be doing, I don't have the facilities to do those kind of tests, even if I had ever learned that kind of medicine, but that's where I'd put my suspicions.”

William froze, a cold hand gripping his heart, as if time had simply stopped, leaving him there all alone.

No, it couldn't be that . . .

“Are you saying . . .” he choked out, his voice harsh and strangled. “Are you saying the damn DRUG caused this?”

“It was under control.” he said. “Now, it's not. The drug could have had some genetic effect that accelerated it, that allowed it to overcome her resistance. Hell, if I was wrong about the six to seven years, it was on the low end. I didn't want to raise your hopes too high.”

“I felt in control, I felt in touch, in tune with my goddess self . . . now, I'm scared. I'm afraid I'll lose it.”

William struck out, knocking the glass from the doctor's hand, the whiskey splashing on the wall as the glass rebounded and shattered against the floor.

“ARE YOU SAYING SHE COULD HAVE HAD MORE TIME?” he shouted. “THAT SHE MIGHT HAVE EVEN HAD THE WHOLE DAMN NINE YEARS OR MORE, SHE WAS STRONG ENOUGH ON HER OWN, AND YOU TOLD ME ONLY SIX OR SEVEN?”

“Will, it might have been . . . but I didn't want to . . .”

“RAISE MY GODDAMN HOPES?” William shouted, advancing angrily. “YOU LIED TO ME! YOU SAID SHE DIDN'T HAVE THAT TIME, AND I BELIEVED YOU! DON'T YOU SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO? IF YOU'D TOLD ME, I NEVER WOULD HAVE . . .”

”I killed her. He made me kill her. What a fool I was, believing in him. His kind made the disease in the first place.”

”She was radiant. A goddess in this world. Their poison never would have beaten her. If I had just seen, if I had known, if . . . if . . .”

“Made you do? What . . . Will, my god, you didn't . . .”

William closed his eyes, his fists clenching, and threw his head back and screamed.

Once.

The last time he ever would.

The world shifted around him. He could feel it turning and changing.

”No. I didn't kill her. They did. All of them. The ones who destroyed Earth and left us behind. The doctors and the scientists with their devil's tools and their poisons. They made this happen.”

“We never really had a chance, did we?” he said coldly. His eyes hardening.

The doctor never replied. His lips were just beginning to open when the nickel plated muzzles of the derringer shoved into his gut and one barrel fired, the .44 Magnum hollowpoint round blowing a bloody crater through his back, severing his spine and sending fragments of bone and shreds of tissue erupting against the wall in a spray of gore, the blast muffled into a hollow thump as the escaping propellant gases were muffled by the doctor's body, charring his shirt and flesh with powder burns. He choked spasmodically, his eyes rolling up as he fell backwards, crashing into the table, the decanter and glasses falling to the floor. Whiskey mingled with a river of blood as his head twitched, knocking against the floor, and then he was dead.

William dropped the smoking and bloody gun back into his pocket, ignoring the pain in his hand and wrist from the recoil. Walking calmly over to the door, he turned the lock and shut it behind him.

*********************************

William woke up in his office again, sitting at his desk, the light shining on the empty display case with its two remaining rounds. He wasn't sure when he had gone to sleep, or how he had gotten back there, or how much time had gone by since he had killed Doctor Ross. Someone might have found the body by now, though it seemed unlikely unless it had been quite a while. The doctor could stay in his room for quite some time before anyone would think it prudent to force the lock, and if they were going to do that, wouldn't they inform the captain first, that they thought something was wrong there?

He took the gun out of his pocket, the shiny nickel plated muzzles streaked with dried blood from the contact distance shot, and opened it up again, replacing the spent round with a fresh one from the case and pocketing the one spare. Then he got up and shut off the light again, heading for his quarters.

*************************************

When he reached his quarters, he was struck by the smell. Blood, and something beneath the blood, something . . . corrupt, something gone terribly wrong.

Skye lay in the bed, the covers in disarray around her, her nightgown streaked with blood and worse. She lifted her head weakly from the sweat soaked and blood dripped pillow, her reddened eyes sweeping the room and trying to focus on him before her head dropped back down again. Her hand raised weakly from her side, fingers twitching. There was a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth, the kind that seems romantic and even classy in old vampire movies, but not when it's the woman you love, lying in blood and sweat and the stink of disease.

William walked over to the bed in a daze. He sat down beside her, his hand caressing her fever hot skin. There was no mistaking it. Stage three. Terminal. The despoilers of Earth and their poisons had won. They had killed the goddess.

“It's stopped hurting.” she said, her hand weakly covering his. “I know that means the end is near. Pain is your body fighting for life, telling you what's wrong and what it needs. Mine has given up. It doesn't have anything more to say.”

“I wanted so much more for you.” he said. He felt as though he should be crying, but there just wasn't anything there. Like his body had just stopped hurting and given up as well.

He wiped the blood from her face with the sleeve of his jacket.

“I wanted to be a better man than this. I wanted to give you everything.”

“You are a good man.” she said, gazing up at him. “You're a strong man. I've never doubted your love, never wanted better. There are just some things you can't beat.”

She reached up and caressed his cheek, the sweat of her exertion dotting her fevered brow.

“I wish we could have walked out the door of this ship together.” she said. “I wish we could have had children and built a home and passed through all of the cycles of life together. I wish they had never spoiled our Mother Earth, never made us leave, never called down the curse that lies in our blood.”

She closed her eyes, a fresh drop of blood welling up in the corner of her mouth.

“I wish I was still all radiant and full of light and hope. I wish I could smile at tomorrow. I wish I was still beautiful and that I could make love to you at least one last time.”

“You are beautiful.” he said. “How could you ever not be?”

“I'm sweaty and bloody and I stink.” she said. “My body never causes me shame, even when it betrays me, but if I can tell, with my nose hardly working, it must be much worse for you.”

“I don't care.” he said, caressing her hair, wiping the sweat from her brow. “I don't care. Nothing could make you undesirable to me.”
Leaning down close to her, he brushed his lips against hers, kissing her softly. Her hand slid up behind his back to he neck as she weakly lifted from the bed, their lips melting together. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth, mingled with a tinge of something gone bad, infection, rot and spoilage, the disease that consumed her. The doctor had said it wasn't infectious, even in the final stage, but he wouldn't have stopped if it was as lethally catching as ebola. The tainted blood spilled from the corner of his mouth as he cupped and fondled her breast, feeling her leg rise beside him, brushing his thigh. Her eyes gazed up at him as they broke the kiss.

“The spirit is willing.” she said. “But the flesh is weak. I don't know if I can make my body go where our spirits are calling it to.”

“Then let me carry you.” he said.

William sat up on the bed and rose to his feet, walking around to the foot of the bed. Her eyes followed him in the semi-darkness. He sat down between her outstretched legs, stroking her thigh. He lifted the hem of her nightgown, the fabric peeling wetly from her inner thighs where it was soaked with dark, tainted blood. The smell of disease assaulted his senses.

I don't care. I don't care

His fingers traced along the curve of her leg.

“You're sweet.” she said softly, “but I don't really think . . .”

“Neither do I.” he said. “Not anymore. This isn't the time for thinking. Only being.”

Gently pushing her thighs apart, he lowered his face between them.

Blood and worse ran over his lips, tongue and chin. The disease, the sheer spoiled rot of it was a physical blow. A carcass. A sewer.

I don't care

Human limitations, fears and taboos are weaknesses. They get in our way. Our love is pure. Our bodies will not keep us apart. If she were a leper, a syphilitic, a rotting corpse, she would still be a radiant spirit.

His face pressed deeply between her thighs.

They will not make me reject her. I spit on their poisons. I drink their poison and laugh. I am more than human. More than them all.

We are divine. We are everything.

Her fingers stroked his head, lightly pushing at him. He lifted his face, streaked with blood as though he was a feeding predator, his beard matted with it, his eyes wild in the dark.

“I'm afraid those parts don't work anymore.” she said. “But I can still remember what it was you wanted for me to feel, and love you for wanting that for me, even now . . . but the thought is really all I need now. You don't have to do this.”

William pulled up the corner of the sheet and wiped the blood from his face. He rose, his hand slipping into his pocket as he walked back to the side of the bed and sat down beside her again.

“I love you, Skye Rain.” he said, slipping his hand beneath her back and lifting her towards him.

“I love you, William Porter.” she said.

Their lips met in a kiss. As they kissed he lowered her head back to the pillow. His other hand slipped beneath it.

“I will always love you.” he said.

He closed his eyes.

The pillow exploded, stuffing bursting from it as the derringer went off. Even somewhat muffled, the sound was a hammer blow.

There should have been tears, but there were none.

He lay there still, the echoes ringing in his ears.

Her fingers brushed his hair.

“You missed.” she said softly.

He rose from her, his eyes staring in shock.

“It's all right.” she said. “It's the right thing to do. I would have done it for you. Sometimes, death is the only love left to give.”

He lifted his hand from beneath the burst pillow, smoke rising from the blood streaked barrels. Skye reached up and took his hand, guiding the muzzle to her forehead.

“Skye . . .” he said.

“I can't hear you.” she whispered in the shadows. “But I don't need to. I know you love me, and you don't need to hide this from me. I'm going to die. It's better this way.”

“I love you.”

“Don't close your eyes.” she said. “You only have one more in there.”

The barrels touched her forehead.

The gun exploded again.

Neither of them closed their eyes.

Neither of them turned away.

*********************************

The electric cart sped along the passageway, it's motor whining along under the heavy load of electronic equipment in the trailer it pulled behind it. If anyone had looked closely at the load, they might have spotted something wrapped in a bloody sheet beneath it all, but no one did.

Odd behavior aside, he was still the captain.

And what was normal in these days anyway?



William left Skye's body on the hill, under her toyon shrub, along with all the equipment he had set up there. He had cleaned himself up before he left his quarters. It wouldn't have done for people to see their captain spattered with blood, bone fragments and gray matter. The deception only had to last for a short while. A mask of relative normalcy he had to wear until it was all prepared.

The cart and trailer made trip after trip to the storerooms, hauling scrap by the trailer load.

Finally, he arrived at the computer control center they had established in one of the hydroponics bays.

William called up the control screen, the one that monitored and controlled the flow of the anti-radiation drug into the food and water supply.

There were different controls for the various hydroponics bays. The most vulnerable to radiation damage, the women, children and elderly, had been getting their rations from the bay farthest from the engines. He isolated the controls to that bay, locking them at their current settings.

Kenneth had been right. Humanity would never change. They poisoned and they scavenged and they raped and they destroyed. Their stupid, short-sighted greed had killed Gaia, and then murdered the last breath of the goddess in Skye Rain. The people he transported would be no different. When the discipline of the ship was no longer needed, they would just be more locusts in the swarm. Ravaging more worlds until it was time to move on again. Time to strip another world's corpse for the materials to go forth and repeat their crimes.

Humanity didn't deserve a second chance. He wouldn't bring them reinforcements.

He would bring Gaia's wrath. He would bring the sword.

He activated the controls for the drug supply to the hydroponics bays that fed the male population, those at lowest risk.

Low dosages had looked safe, but high dosages, the dosages that would protect against serious acute exposure, had major side effects.

Rage. Psychotic, unfeeling rage. Permanent brain damage. Loss of all inhibition and self-preservation.

No military commander would use it that way. No one wanted rage-maddened berserkers, unable to stop killing.

Unless they never intended for the killing to stop.

Be the sword. Be her furies. Destroy the despoilers of Gaia, the murderers of the goddess Skye. Cleanse the universe of their poisons.

He turned the feed all the way up, dumping the entire supply into the bays.

Kill for her, until there is no more killing to do.

Then die.

***********************************

William walked through the gathering crowd in the passageway, all the men who had responded to their captain's orders to meet there. He could see the effects of the drug beginning to take hold. Fights breaking out, angry voices raised. He'd have to be quick. He only had a brief span in which to reach them, to set their course before they became uncontrollable.

“MEN!” he shouted, his voice amplified by the speakers he had set up there. “LISTEN TO ME! LISTEN TO ME NOW!”

The crowd pressed in around him, rumbling with anger, faces dark and hateful. Random screams of rage broke out from the pack.

“WE ARE THE MIGHTY ONES!” he shouted, picking up a steel pipe from the pile of scrap he had dumped there, swinging it like a weapon.

The crowd roared in approval.

“WE ARE THE KILLERS, THE PREDATOR, THE STORM AND THE FIRE! WE ARE THE AVENGERS OF OUR MURDERED GODDESS EARTH! LOOK AROUND YOU NOW! LOOK AROUND YOU!”

He pounded the makeshift club against the bulkhead, punctuating his words.

“THESE MEN AROUND YOU AND ALL THOSE LIKE THEM ARE YOUR BROTHERS! YOU ARE OF ONE MIND! ONE PURPOSE! AND THAT IS TO KILL! KILL! KILL EVERYONE ELSE! NEVER KILL YOUR BROTHERS! KILL EVERYONE ELSE!”

He pounded the wall. The crowd screamed.

“SAY IT!” he shouted, his voice raging. “WHAT MUST YOU NEVER DO?”

The crowd responded raggedly, without discipline, but soon fell into a roaring near-unison.

“NEVER KILL OUR BROTHERS!” they shouted back.

“WHO MUST YOU KILL?” he screamed.

The crowd roared.

“EVERYONE ELSE!”

“WILL YOU DO IT?” he roared. “WILL YOU KILL FOR OUR MURDERED GODDESS? WILL YOU BE HER SWORD AND HER WRATH?”

“YES!” came the reply, mixed with howls and shrieks of rage and hate.

“DO YOU HAVE THE STRENGTH?” he shouted. “DO YOU HAVE THE COURAGE? ARE YOU THE MIGHTY ONES?”

“YES!” they screamed back.

“WILL YOU KILL? WILLYOU KILL?”

The passageway filled with a deafening clamor of screaming and shouting.

William walked over to the control box that hung from one of the lower catwalks on a thick cable and took it in his hand, pressing a green button. Slowly, the huge hangar doors to the bay that housed the women, children and elderly began to open.

The crowd's shouting began to die down to a low rumble as they watched the doors.

William looked into the crowd, seeing Kenneth standing there, his face twisted with confused rage. He walked up to his friend, the crowd parting for him.

“Sorry, old friend.” he said, taking the wire-framed glasses from the man's face. “The universe no longer needs philosophy.”

He dropped the glasses and ground them under his boot. Then he handed his old friend the steel pipe.

“You don't need to see too well to use this.” he said. “Just get close.”

Kenneth's eyes glared into him, a beast trying to reason why it was a beast.

“What are we doing here?” he snarled. “Why? Why all this . . . RAGE?”

'Because.” said William. “Because we're alive.”

Kenneth stared, his eyes darting around. He knew. He knew it was the drug, but the knowledge was like fleeting glimpses of silvery fish swimming in an ocean of rage, and they were swimming ever deeper.

“Don't worry.” he said. “It won't always be that way.”

“Why?” said Kenneth, stepping back, staring at the pipe in his hands, the beast slacking its grip enough for one last question.

There were no answers any more.

“Don't think about it.” said William, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder. “Just be.”

The dark waters closed overhead.

Kenneth screamed, his eyes blazing with rage and hate.

William raised his fists in the air.

“WILL YOU KILL FOR HER?” he shouted.

The crowd roared. After a moment, he raised his fists, and they fell to a rumble again.

“Show me.” he said coldly. He pointed to the open bay doors. “Do it.”

The crowd roared and surged forward around him, some of them grabbing bits of scrap as weapons as they moved.

William walked away, down the passageway, and back to the hill where he had left Skye's body, along with all the surveillance equipment he had set up. Equipment that would allow him to monitor all parts of the ship through its existing camera system. He sealed himself in and he waited.

For three days, he stayed awake, dosing himself with stimulants and watching the monitors.

The men killed, but they did more than kill. They tortured. They raped. They cannibalized.

It only made sense. The primitives knew the best. They were closest to Gaia.

Cannibalism should be no taboo. Taboos were weakness.

I will lead them to the utter destruction of the human race. Then, when it is done, I will destroy them. And finally . . .

He stroked the blood-streaked derringer, with its one remaining bullet.

We will be together again.

But in the meantime, I need your strength. The strength off the avenging goddess . . . and the primitives knew how to take that strength.

For three days, he watched the carnage, and he did not sleep, but he ate.

By the time they had finished, Skye Rain's body was raw bones.

****************************************

“Excuse me, sir, we're picking up a very strange signal.”

The Alliance commander walked over to his communication officer's station, glancing at the monitor screen.

“What the devil is that?” he said.

“We can't bring it in any better. The source is garbled, but the computers have identified it from historical records as a transmission frequency used during the Exodus.”
“Who the hell would be using anything that old?” said the commander. “Where would they even find it in working order? Rob a museum?”

“We'll have visual on it within two minutes, commander.” said the comm officer.

The commander nodded and stood back waiting. Soon, the huge, patchwork hulled bulk of an enormous ship of some kind came into view.

“Good lord!” said the commander. “I've never seen anything like that class of ship before. What could it possibly be?”

“It's definitely not one of ours.” said the comm officer. “But who else would have the resources to build it?”

“No one.” said the commander. “Except maybe Blue Sun, and we'd know if they did.”

“It's hot.” said the comm officer. “Extreme radiation contamination, as if their drive containment failed. Engines are dead, but there's power on board, and life support.”

“Could anyone be alive on that thing?” said the commander.

“It's big enough there could be areas sufficiently shielded to allow for survivors.” said the comm officer. “If they haven't been there too long.”

The commander read over the screen, taking in the information on the derelict.

“We can take the rad levels in suits for the duration of a search operation.” he said. “Assemble shuttles. Armed shuttles, with boarding teams.”

Whatever the monstrosity was, they were going to find out.

**************************************

William sat on the hill, beneath the toyon shrub, beside the skeleton of Skye Rain, wired together and seated upon a throne of skulls, bones and scrap metal, the avenging goddess of death. He clicked on the blood streaked unit they had brought him, some kind of comm device.

They really are more advanced than we are. No matter. Ship's controls can only be made so different, at least for basic functions. The invaders comms had been disrupted by the interference he had rigged when they got deep enough, and now, the shuttles were theirs. His people had always been good at jury rigging and figuring out tech. It was a survival skill on their trip, and on the wasted Earth before that.

He fingered the bloody Alliance patch ripped from one of the invader's suits as he opened up communications. The captured shuttles should be within attacking range now.

He had thought of saying “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”, but it now seemed too pretentious, and more of an epitaph than humanity deserved.

The face of the Alliance commander appeared on the tiny screen.

“I'm the devil.” he said.”And I'm here to do the devil's business.”

His eyes glared out at them, framed by wild, long hair, an x-shaped scar carved into his forehead. The face of murder.

The shuttles attacked.



“Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.”
- Rolling Stones

“I'm the devil and I'm here to do the devil's business.”
- Charles “Tex” Watson, Manson Family, said to murder victim Wojciech Frykowski
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