[ORION, WHERE BONES GROW]

This was supposed to turn into a neat religious-themed space tale. Obviously that didn’t happen because the first few pages I wrote were absolutely awful. I don’t even recommend reading this. Abandoned. 2,124 words.

The emptiness of the void is most troubling upon waking. I shake my head and rub the last traces of Space Goo from my shaved head before hurling the linen at my feet. My back is crooked and my elbows touch knee. A pool of smartgel runs through the tinctured floor plates and becomes oxygen to breathe. A sure miracle of humankind which distorts one reality into something entirely different, ready to be consumed and re-purposed as something else.

“Wake up, shithead,” grunts the man next to me. I turn my gaze to him with a frown. My best friend has forgotten my name, which, given the circumstances of his cognition, is not altogether surprising. I don’t remember his name either, even if I won’t admit as much.

“Our shift starts in an hour. Shake off the sleep.”

“Is that all we get? An hour?”

“It’s what it says right here.” He hands me a laminate with four bolded statements, all in black with red outline. It’s irritating, like they expect we’ve lost our minds in the decades since we’ve been awake. Has it been that long? I can’t remember.

  1. Stay calm. You have just awoken from an extended sleep and are likely to be disoriented. An officer of the medical team will be in presently to assist with your mental conditioning.
  2. Do not attempt to stand up before being examined by either an officer of the medical team or by a Zansan unit. This is for your own health. Your shift will begin in an hour, at which time you will be physically stimulated and can function as normal.
  3. Do not attempt to consume any fluids or solids, as your endocrine system must pair with your dulled brain activity before it can safely process new nutrients.
  4. Please refrain from extended speech as this may result in unintentional negative relationship interfacing and/or a breach of the previous three guidelines.

The fourth point amuses me. I suppose forgetting the name of someone close to you could produce a conflict, although I doubt very much my ability to “negatively interface” a fist with someone’s face. And besides, I’m not the type. I’m a survivor not a soldier. I work in navigation and I’m not even a primary navigator either. Just another redundancy.

A man in a white one-piece slithers through a sliding reciprocal door and takes stock of the four of us individually, weighing our worth in his esteemed opinion. At least that’s what it seems he is doing. I could certainly find myself interfacing negatively with the snide set of his jaw and nose or his graying eyebrows furled over black eyes.

“Gentlemen, ladies, my name is Doctor Göte. I’m here to get you up to speed with our mission, to flush your systems safely, and to prepare you for your shift, which will last approximately six months. You will be expected to adhere to….”

—–

I’m positioned at my station at the back of the bridge, facing a large screen which projects activity in front of our craft visually. The first experiments with physical viewscreens at this velocity had proven non-viable to both humans and machines, much to the regret of those poor souls who functioned as living testbeds. Such is the risk of being a pioneer.

The captain and his second sit abreast in two large chairs which bristle with command screens and can rotate freely from side-to-side or all the way around, although the need to address the lower lieutenants back here is rare and generally a bad experience for those involved. Two structural engineers face the left wall at equally-expansive setups and another two life support technicians flank them towards me. The four of them are like a battery of sophisticated human thought evolution, whose brainpower could almost equate to that of a Zansan if it were being repaired for logic processor malfunctions. Mirroring them on the opposite side of the captain and his second are two physicians monitoring the status of all life capsules, and two Zansans doing more or less the same thing albeit at an increased efficiency.

A row of eight consoles—without any sort of fancy rotating seat mechanisms—are stretched behind the captain and his flanking subordinates like a rank of archaic musketeers preparing to fix bayonets. Four of us are navigation specialists—two primary and two redundancies. Two are security contractors whose purpose remains a mystery to me, given that ninety-nine percent of all lifeforms on board are in a sleep so deep it’s more equatable with a coma. The remaining two human crew are general engineers whose task is overwatch on everyone else and who report directly to the captain’s second should anyone not be doing their job properly.

Redundancy is further supported by a host of Zansans beneath the floor who are hive-minded with a selection of sensing devices and controller inputs, should us meatbags fail ever-so-spectacularly all at the same time. I’d read in my training documentation that it had, actually, happened before, and the resulting mess of human bits was viewed as “valuable testing information for the advancement of artificial intelligence.”

My best friend possesses my identical rank and function and is currently queuing a series of upcoming course corrections, matching them at random with his own calculations. It’s what I should be doing, but instead my eyes are fixed on the short-range viewfinder. “Short-range” is of course a misnomer given the light-minutes accounted within its scope, but the terminology stuck through the evolution of technology to ever-increasing distances.

There’s an anomaly dead ahead, sixteen light-minutes before our next virtual correction buoy. I’m about to kick it up to a Zansan for further analysis, but Santha calls out for the captain’s attention before I can.

“Captain, anomaly ahead. Fifteen-point-eight light-minutes from the next buoy.”

I squint my eyes nervously as the captain swivels his array of screens around to face my area, but his gaze doesn’t even cross mine.

“Please be more specific, Santha.”

Santha grimaces and begins to run a complicated series of sensory functions through her console. I do the same with a hint of irritation in my fingers. I don’t exactly want to be stuck as a redundancy for the entire voyage.

“Unclear, captain. Incredible amounts of electrical output from a diameter about twice our ship. It’s scrambling our arrays pretty good.”

“Is it avoidable?”

“Negative, sir,” reports my best friend. “Our velocity is too great to decelerate safely.”

The captain turns to his right and examines the backs of the structural engineers. “Zlatan, is there any way to override the safety limits within the next fifteen light-minutes and not break apart?”

The tall Swedish man furiously cycles through his algorithms before he shakes his head and looks behind him to the captain.

“Impossible. We would disintegrate if we aborted now.”

“Shit,” announces the captain.

In any case, the next forty-five seconds are spent with the crew frantically trying to alter our course while the captain grinds his teeth as if missing a cigar or straw shoot. I sit calmly. Any sort of electrical disturbance is purely within the constraints of our shielding. It’s not like the guys back on Earth would send two hundred thousand of us out into the Great Beyond without enough metal plates to withstand some simple lightning. If that’s even what it is.

I’m not a scientist, but “electrical anomalies in space” seem to be skeptically outside of what is quote-unquote possible in areas without electrons, and thus I’m convinced it’s all a misunderstanding. I might be thinking something else had I alerted the captain first, but that’s debatable. Then again, I’m still not a scientist and most certainly not a psychologist, so that deliberation is purely theoretical.

We hit the anomaly at a speed which shouldn’t be quote-unquote possible and pass through it in three seconds. No big deal, like I figured. I look down at my console to run redundancies on our upcoming course alteration, but before I can actually think, I hear the sound of lightning. And it’s close.

“What the fuck!” yells the captain, and before my eyes are properly situated I hear the crashing of screens which hadn’t been cycled out of the path of said captain.

Standing before aforementioned captain is a figure clad in coal-black armor holding a metal spear with a sparkling, gemlike tip and whose sword scabbard grazes the dull white floor paneling. The captain’s sentiment echoes around the bridge with varying levels of volume and pitch, followed by the sounds of many screens crashing and cracking.

By the time my mouth closes and I’m fully standing, I’ve determined that the captain has shit himself. Standing next to the personified anachronism he looks to be a child, and the shaking of his spine could be measured in centimeters or with a seismograph.

And then everything is silent. No one is moving. I’m not about to begin a trend.

“You are not meant to be here.”

The figure speaks with a rumbling baritone, the kind of voice you don’t second-guess or ignore. The kind of voice one would objectively associate with a two-and-a-half-meter armored man who appears in deep space out of an electrical anomaly. Cliched, almost. I’m disappointed at once.

“I-I’m sorry?” the captain responds after ten seconds.

“You are not meant to be here.”

“I d-don’t know what you mean.”

“Sacra Lex has a purpose for you and it is not here. This place is not for you.”

The captain, however immediately his tough façade might have become lost, is not a stupid individual. When a Space Knight explains that you are somewhere you shouldn’t, it’s probably a good idea to vacate the area in expeditious fashion.

“I will turn the ship around.”

“You have written yourself out of Sacra Lex. It is too late.”

“Ten minutes. Ten minutes! I can turn us around in ten minutes.” The captain gestures back to his navigational team, expecting us to magically conjure a backwards course. Shit doesn’t work like that, sir.

“I am not present to produce intellectual contest, homo adorans.”

The armored figure raises his left arm, the one grasping a two-meter spear, and extends it at the captain. The spear impales his chest, right at the heart, and continues out of his ribcage, puncturing his back.

His earlier sentiment is repeated en masse. The two security contractors sprint at the figure, but what they hope to accomplish is beyond my current mental capacity. Most of us are running for the hissing bridge door, although that seems relatively pointless given the expanse of hallway and then nothing beyond. Living quarters splinter off towards the end, but otherwise there’s nothing except a hatch into the freezing chambers for the civilians.

Right as I make it to the sliding door I turn and see the figure with his sword out, stabbing and beheading anyone not fast or agile enough to escape. Instead of continuing down the empty passage, I crouch behind the first hibernation vat immediately outside the bridge. I can still see the corner of the controls from here, but my attention is primarily focused on the amount of screams and ripping and crunching emanating from that area.

I glance down to make sure my feet aren’t too obvious, and by the time my eyes incline to normal there are four identical gigantic armor-clad figures walking speedily from the bridge. Both of the physicians had tripped over their own feet and are scrambling away on all fours. The one lagging slightly behind is stabbed and impaled by a spear and subsequently beheaded, and the one in front is lanced through the knees before being impaled and beheaded by a different figure altogether. Some of the blood splashes at my shoes and I cringe.

But I should be safe, unless one of the multiplying figures turns or otherwise inspects my alcove. As I think this, a head rolls past, still blinking. It’s my best friend’s head. Our eyes meet but of course he has no way to stop the cyclical nature of his motion and our connection is fleeting. I’ve heard that a brain remains alive for twenty seconds or more after being severed. Judging by the way his eyes followed mine for that barest moment, I’d have to agree.

A figure stops at the refrigeration chamber I’m hiding beside, opens it by thrusting his spear into the control mechanism, then gestures his spear inside before making a swiping motion with his other arm—the one with a sword. He reaches in, withdraws the head, and tosses it behind him. He moves away from the bridge and me before repeating the process with the next vat, and the next, and the next.

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