White Knight Rising

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by InkWren, Jan 24, 2015.

  1. [BCOLOR=transparent]They had chosen only the best. A diverse crew of brilliant minds and exception skills - and her. One young but ordinary woman. That's what the propaganda promised.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Sarah Millson stood among her crew mates on the platform surrounded by flags and microphones. Press talked over one another trying to get their questions answered. It made one’s head hurt, but the Director of the Frontier Diagnostics & Mining was an old pro and filtered out good questions from bad. His voice was just the right balance of intellectual precision and excited explorer to fuel the imaginations of all who listened.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Director Mitchum, is Ms. Millson truly ready to handle the rigors of deep space travel?”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]“Sarah is more than ready. She is a full fledged member of this expedition. One ordinary woman who will be given the chance to touch the stars. Her place on board Frontier's Way is what sets this expedition apart. I believe in the human spirit to explore, to learn, to handle any challenge with ingenuity. Sarah represents that spirit. One ordinary woman will touch the stars.”[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Voices rose once again. Officer DeClan clapped Sarah on the back and she couldn’t help smiling. She wanted nothing more than to get on with the it. The massive ship stood behind them, ready and waiting. She had never dreamed when she had entered the funding lottery that she would be the winner.[/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Many had called the lottery a stunt, a hail Mary pass by a losing corporation to beat their greatest rival to a corner of uncharted space that promised material riches. But, the ordinary men and women who had taken part in the lottery felt differently. The colonies had grown crowded. People wanted to believe they could build a new life. It was the mineral rush of the 22nd century. They had been the backers of this grand enterprise and when the Frontier's Way left the atmosphere, one of them would be on board. [/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]Sarah would be on board. She’d had to pass general health and education questions, and she’d managed it. She’d learned the basics of the Frontier's Way systems. She’d been assigned duties of her own. While the rest of the crew kept detailed logs, her personal journal was published daily for avid fans and naysayers to discuss. As they had moved closer to the launch date, the numbers of viewers had reached billions. People all over the colonies were listening to her impressions of this adventure. [/BCOLOR]

    [BCOLOR=transparent]The space program had become the career of the future again all thanks to one brown haired, green eyed middle child who had never made it beyond Basic Ed. Thanks to her logs, every ordinary man, woman and child in the colonies would be an pioneer aboard Frontier's Way.[/BCOLOR]
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  2. "Are you fucking serious?" The grimace on the young man's face said it all, all the incredulity and disgust as one hand ran through his short blonde hair, spiking it up in all crazy directions as he eyeballed the holo screen hanging near the ceiling of the station's gym.

    "Now they're making our lives a goddamned reality vid show? What. The. Hell!?" He shook his head, rolled those baby blue eyes and growled. Though his eyes never left the holo screen, his strong, thick hands remained beneath the bar of the weights the man beneath him was bench pressing.

    "Fucking PR stunt - and it'll be a damned shame to see that ass floating in zero space, frozen and doing no one a goddamned bit of good anymore. Civilians... " The guy looked like he really wanted to spit on the gym floor, then his face screwed up like he thought better of the idea, and just snarled instead. "They got no goddamned bus - "

    "Dan... " The deep voice was low, not much louder than the soft whirring of the prosthetic joints of his right arm and left hand, but full of steel. The man's dark gaze glanced up past the bar he gripped to his spotter, only a single furrowed eyebrow marring the rather mild, almost serene expression on his face beneath a thin sheen of sweat.

    "Shit!" Dan's eyes widened, and then he winced when he realized he just kept digging that hole deeper. He must have damned lost his mind, talking "Sorry, Preach."

    "S'all right," the man said as he lowered the weights back to his chest, made a mental count of "12," exhaling as he straightened his arms again. John Paul D'Angelo - Preacher to the Colonial Marines who remembered him best, J.P. to the rest of his friends and "Sir" to the rest of the Evangeline's crew - let the bar fall back into the brackets with a loud metallic clang. People sometimes wondered why the guy still stuck to his workout regimen, when he'd been fitted with the very best prosthetics the Huang-Evans Corp had, replacing the conspicuously missing right arm and left hand. He could crush steel bars like those old-fashioned tin cans if he liked (and if he was a drinker or a womanizer, it would have probably been a hell of a bar trick, impressing the ladies). What most people forgot though, was all the human flesh that remained; simply plain, mortal, fallible human flesh beneath the scars that criss-crossed the right side of his chest and shoulder, up his neck and the stump of where a real ear had once been. There was a plain prosthetic there now - nothing special, just a color and texture match so his hearing wasn't too badly affected.

    And he'd heard the news feed, just like Dan had, and hadn't liked it any better. He wrapped his hands around the bar bell above, pulled himself to sitting so he could watch the same screen the former USCM Ensign Daniel Harrigan had.

    He shook his head slowly, sighing his disapproval as he grabbed the gym towel, wiping at his muscular neck. She really was a pretty woman - Dan had the rights of it, even if he could have said as much without being so crude. J.P. found everything to like in those bright green eyes, full of untold worlds of innocence and excitement that couldn't be diminished by light years of distance between the Argo space station and her pissant little colony world.

    It really was a shame, she was going to wind up dead. And all because of a Hail Mary of a publicity stunt by a corporation that was going to be belly up by the end of the year.
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  3. Sarah stood in her quarters looking out the small window and the expanse of stars beyond. Her fingers fiddled with the collar at her throat. The device had taken some getting used to. Every member of the crew was fitted with one. It kept a record of their vitals, but her slender band was fitted with a camera and microphone.

    Powered by the Sarah's own electromagnetic energy, the device kept a record of her day. People could log in and watch the world through her eyes at any time, day or night. The device only powering down when she slept. She was a shy person by nature and it had taken some time to get used to the fact that people might be watching everyone through her eyes.

    That feeling had faded and she was becoming accustomed to her routine. She would make her rounds daily; visiting each area of the ship and chatting with members of the crew. Then in the evenings, she would log in and write in her journal which was also open access to readers. They could leave comments and questions for her, and she did her best to answer them.

    {td}JOURNAL LOG{/td}
    I am tired tonight and missing my Dad. He would have loved the views from the observation deck where I spend so much of my time. The Horse-head Nebula was breathtaking. It seemed like a living thing. A sentinel watching us as we passed into uncharted territory.

    I can't explain how I feel knowing that we have stepped across a threshold into the unknown. It's terrifying and thrilling all at once. I feel so small. Among these stars. Among the crew. Most of them are friendly but far too busy with keeping our ship running smoothly to have me underfoot.

    Officer DeClan and I have begun to share the midday meal together. It is a relief to have made a friend. In that way the ship is not much different than Basic Ed. It took weeks before I made friends with Jenni Hillstrop during first year. Officer DeClan, Anne, insisted that I be her friend. How could I say no?

    She told me what she misses most is the smell of grass. It got me to thinking about what I missed. I have to say, I haven't had time to miss anything yet. Well, I take that back. I miss my books. I have the digital copies but I miss the feel of the pages in my hands. I wanted to bring them but was told it was wiser to keep such antiques safe at home as space was limited. I miss them though.{/td}
    {td}END LOG{/td}
    Sarah closed the screen, knowing the entry would be read soon by friends, family, fans and trolls. She sighed. She wasn't in the mood for trolls or gossip, but if she failed to log in and respond, Commander Hughes would have her in his quarters again to chastise and impress on her how valuable the viewers were, as he stared alternately between the recording collar and her chest. The man gave her the creeps. So, it was trolls light years away, or Handsy Hughes.

    Decision made, she opened and read the first inquiry.

    {td}INQUIRY LOG{/td}
    {td}2 of 314 answered{/td}
    {td}Hey, Sarah. can't wait to see you and DeClan make out! ~TeamDeClanFan231{/td}
    {td}Dear 231, Anne and I are just friends. She is quited happily engaged to a fine man on her home colony.{/td}
    {td}Wow! You are so lucky! I wish I could have seen the Nebula as you crossed the frontier line. You are so cool. PS. Sorry about the dumb name. My mom picked it. Call me FrontierFlyer! ~ AJF2091{/td}
    {td}Dear Flyer, It really was amazing, even if I got in trouble with Lt. Douglas for getting my fingerprints all over the glass!{/td}

    Slowly, she worked her way through each message until she was done and her bunk called her name.
    #3 InkWren, Jan 27, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2015
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  4. There seemed to be no escape from her, the Colonial Sweetheart, the darling of every 'common man' in the known universe. Even her name shouted a wholesome purity to the very heavens - Sarah Millson. How very ordinary. How absolutely, positively and unrelentingly every day and touchable. Her face was displayed on every screen in every common area of the Argo on a regular basis throughout the day. Talking heads chatted about her on news shows at least a few times a day, everything from her favorite foods (and the to the fashion trends she inspired with her collar camera and space suit chic, to any possible romantic liaisons aboard the ship.

    It was silly. It was really kind of annoying and trite and, in all likelihood, not a little condescending, but that really didn't matter. All the worlds simply could not get enough of her. Even here on one of the Huang-Evans Corp. flag stations, no one could get from one end of the common areas to the other without a screen-full of Sarah Millson to keep them company for a few minutes, reminding them of all the wonderful possibilities that remained in the universe if the freckled, fresh-faced Sarah could journey to the stars! And all these dreams are brought to you by Frontier Diagnostics & Mining, spearheading mankind's reach for the stars...

    J.P. had said a prayer for her, that night and every night since he saw those thoughtful, innocent green eyes. Whatever she was, it wasn't the silicone, plasticized creature the media was turning her into, the wide-eyed, two-dimensional waif of a lucky girl done right by the universe. John Paul shrugged imperceptibly as he strode the crowded space station hallways, the throngs thinning the further he got from the central public areas to the hangars proper, and then to the ship bays in particular.

    Unavoidable as Sarah Millson the Colonial Sweetheart was in the Argo's heart, John Paul's still skipped a beat as he peered over the metal railing of the stair leading down to the bay as the sleek, subtle lines of the Evangeline came into view. She was truly a beautiful ship, this deep space explorer, and there was no man who loved her more than her Captain. She could be outfitted to carry a crew of five for up to three months in the harshest environments a hateful universe could spit at them. The Evangeline was every inch as deadly and brutal as the far corners of the void she was especially designed to explore by the most brilliant and experienced minds available to the ever-reaching Huang-Evans Corp.

    His footsteps clanged on the metallic treads as he stalked down the stairs, Amidst all the cords and tubes and pipes that snaked to and from his ship, John Paul realized one of the engineering hatches was open, and he wondered who'd be down here. Today was shore leave time for his small crew - there was no need for anyone to be here for maintenance. John Paul peered into the hatch, and grinned as he saw the top of a familiar tow-head and the face of his PDA screen where he lay in the hatch's maintenance tunnel.

    "Dan, what in the world are you doing?"

    Dan's bright blue eyes went wide with genuine surprise, and his pale skin flushed a rather spectacular and brilliant red all the way up to the roots of his short, pale blonde hair. He craned his neck backward, mouth working as if he were trying to find just the right words - any of which would do, so long as they weren't the truth. "Nothing Preach, just taking a quick break, you know," he stammered artlessly, setting the PDA beside him - screen-side down - as he snatched up the soldering iron beside him. "Just remembered I wanted to look at securing the life support modules... You know... Before I forgot and... Yeah... "

    "Oh, good call," John Paul said mildly, nodding and smiling as he turned from the maintenance shaft, a quick wave for Dan to carry on. He strode to the ramp leading into the Evangeline's belly, pretending to his dying day he hadn't seen the face of Sarah Millson on Dan's PDA screen, alongside the now-familiar logo of her Q&A fan site.
  5. Sarah went to her room the evening to read and answer over 200 messages. Her only other option had been an evening in the company of the Captain, who she found more and more detestable with each passing day. Anne had her hands full with a flu outbreak, and so she had excused herself from the Captain's lecherous company to spend her evening alone.

    The sterility of her quarters had evolved during the past few weeks into a true home away from home. Curtains made from discarded tarps hung at the wide window. Pillows made from recycled rags and t shirts turned her bunk into a festive daybed. A sketch of Anne done on her treasured supply of paper graced one wall. And on the desk beside her stood a plastic bottle artfully turned into a flower pot complete with delicate bean sprouts.

    She settled in and checked her inquiries. A name popped out at her. Evangeline's Flyboy. Evangeline was her grandmother's name and so she opened the inquiry trusting to serendipity to make it interesting. His question brought a tear to her eye. For several moments, she simply sat there staring at the screen, losing herself in time and memory.

    Her father's face, laughing in the darkness as he pointed to the stars.

    "One day, Boo, we'll make it off this rock and back into the stars. There's worlds on worlds still waiting to be touched by the hand of man."

    "Or a girl, Daddy. A girl can touch the stars too...can't she?"

    "Oh yes, my angel, it is where your kind came from. Bright and pure, teaching us boys how to behave."

    "Someday, I'll go catch a star and bring it home to you and Mommy."

    "If anyone can, it's my very own girl. Now sleep. I have to get to work. I'll see you in the morning."

    She had forgotten that night. The night her father had done his job, saved his fellow miners lives, but lost his own in a deep dark hole in the ground.

    Watchers back in the colonies would hear the sob that caught in her throat but not for another few hours. Broadcasts took time to reach the relay stations. Meanwhile, she pressed her lips together and sent an answer.

    {td}INQUIRY LOG{/td}
    {td}1 of 287 answered{/td}
    Hello Sarah, I know you get this a lot, but I think it's really brave of you what you're doing.

    Space travel isn't for the faint of heart. I've been watching your bio and keeping up with your journal, but I guess I missed it somewhere. Why did *you* want to go to on the mission.

    I know you are the "ordinary girl" but is that why you entered the lotto?{/td}
    Hello Flyboy, I answered you first tonight because your name caught my eye. Evangeline was my grandmother's name. She made the most amazing cookies.

    As for why I entered the lotto and came on this mission. I did it for my dad. He was a miner on Colony 14-W. He dreamed his whole life of getting the chance to go into space and travel to new worlds.

    I promised him a star. That's why I came.{/td}
    She finished answering the messages that made it through the filters; wishing for the hundredth time in so many weeks that the filters would remove more of the gossip and foolishness. Closing her eyes she drifted into dreams about her father.

    JOURNAL LOG{/td}
    I had a nightmare for the first time since we left Argo Station. The Frontier was being chased by something we couldn't see. It howled in the dark, and hissed from the shadows. Everyone was terrified. Even the ship trembled, it was so afraid.

    I woke up in a cold sweat. I feel achy and on edge. It's probably just the flu. Funny how we can travel through the stars, but a cold can still knock us flat. I really don't want to get sick. I hate being sick.

    Wish you were here, Nana. I could use some of your special soup.{/td}
    {td}END LOG{/td}
  6. John Paul scowled, and shook his head, teeth bared in disgust. A shower... There wasn't anything he wouldn't give for a shower right now, and he stalked back to his corporate barracks for just that reason. Any number of the Argo's permanent crew waved at the Preacher as he passed, with varying levels of consternation when he passed them by without so much as a nod, as if he didn't even see them there.

    He really hadn't.

    What a fool. He'd been so happy to see her, so ridiculously, embarrassingly happy to see those dark, knowing eyes and that smile like a sweet upturned bow. Vin had been his co-pilot, a former Colonial Marine herself, but for that one day he thanked his good Lord in Heaven, that she hadn't been at his side. She'd had a weekend of shore leave, and the co-pilot who had been with him that day, Ed Garner, died screaming as he was roasted alive not feet away from where J.P. sat - but they landed that bird. Ed lost his life, John Paul lost his right arm, his left hand, and the sanctity of his skin. J. P. never tarnished Ed's memory with even a moment's complaint. The man was a hero.

    Wasn't Ed's fault, that John Paul was an idiot.

    He missed his childhood home, missed having a door that would slam with a satisfying *crack* behind him. There was something seriously anticlimactic about trying to shove the sliding door that opened and closed so obediently, with nothing more than a gentle whisper.

    Vin had played him. Again. Yeah - again. He'd spent months in the hospital, rehabbing, his burn-scarred skin healing with an agonizing slowness over what was left of his right shoulder. The scars obliterated all but the left angel wing tattoo across his shoulders, the Crusader's cross over his heart and the sleeve of Bible verses down his the remainder of his left arm, and it wasn't until he was contacted by the Huang-Evans Corp. CM Veteran's Outreach Program that he'd had any hope of something like a life again.

    By that time, he'd let Vin go. He couldn't do it to her, saddle her with a cripple. She'd seemed so reluctant at the time, but there was no way J.P. didn't catch that small breath of relief there too. He forgave her for it. He really couldn't blame her... Not really...

    But she'd come back to him - well, at the very least, she'd found him again, and for a precious few minutes, John Paul had been as happy as he'd been in... In... God alone knew how long...

    The call had that strange, tinny resonance and fraction of a second time delay that these communications always did when coming from light years away. J.P. was shocked, but it didn't take long for that familiar old feeling to wash over him, and in minutes it was as if they'd never been apart. The conversation - banal. So banal, with Vin asking after John Paul's crew, the Evangeline - catching up. Just catching up, until J.P. asked about hers...

    "Actually John Paul, that's why I'm calling... "

    She was a corporate spy. A goddamned corporate spy for the Huang-Evans Corp., planted aboard the Frontier for the love of heaven! The ongoing saga of Sarah Millson was proving far too interesting, far too lucrative and engrossing for the Corporation to just let it be, leave it alone and just let the flash-in-the-pan be. And when the shit hit the fan in deep space - as it most certainly, inevitably would - then the hero crew of the Evaneline would be ready and able to come pull their collective fat out of the fire...

    And of course Vin could think of no one she would rather have riding in, her knight in shining armor...

    J.P. winced, and slammed his fist an inch deep into the solid steel wall of his barracks room.
  7. Anne gave Sarah a nudge of warning. The motion rocked her out of her private thoughts just in time to see what the elbow in her ribs had been for.

    "Hey, mind if I join you?" The dark haired woman who had been a last minute replacement for their co-pilot flashed her most winning smile and sat down without waiting for an answer.

    Anne did nothing to hide her dislike as she replied sardonically. "Oh, by all means. Do have a seat." Sarah managed not to smile. Neither of them liked the woman much, but Sarah wasn't quite as bold in showing it as her friend. She hide her face behind a mug of herbal tea which Anne assured her would ease the dull headache that throbbed like the Frontier's engines.

    Vin was undaunted by Anne's tone and returned the insincere welcome with an equally insincere smile. Spreading her napkin in her lap, she began to delicately dissect and pierce bits of her Nutrigel patty with her fork. Sarah couldn't help wrinkling her nose. Nutrigel patties came in different flavours and were packed with proteins, carbs and vitamins in a spongy, semi-gelatinous patty. They had received many nicknames. Nutrigunk, cowpies, spongeblobs and snotburgers, just to name a few. The sausage and egg blob Vin was eating with apparent relish was one of Sarah's least favorite.

    "I read your journal entry this morning. So sorry to hear about your nightmare. I do hope it isn't the flu." Her dark brown eyes shifted to Anne's face with an almost accusatory smirk. "It's incredible how quickly our mini-pandemic spread. I do hope you have been able to get it under control at last."

    Anne wasn't the kind of woman to abandon her friends in uncomfortable situations, but she'd already been warned that if she couldn't control herself in the co-pilot's company for a third time, she would be sent to the brig for conduct unbecoming for 3 cycles. Her patients couldn't afford to have he locked away.

    "I believe I have it under control. And Sarah just has a headache. We all get those." Anne looked pointedly at Vin and she in turn pretended not to catch the innuendo, simply returning to her meal which would be tough as boot leather if she wasn't quick. Sarah's friend cast her an apologetic look before disappearing toward the medical by.

    Taking up her tea cup once more, Sarah echoed Anne's reassurance. "Yes, just a headache. Thanks for your concern."

    Vin nodded. Then glancing left and right, leaned in. "Your dream. The sounds you described. They weren't a dream. Last night at 01:24, we suffered engine failure. It only lasted a moment."

    Sarah blinked. She had no idea why this woman was telling her this. The almost forgotten dream returned and she could remember the sounds. So wild and violent, grinding and lurching with a high pitching keening whine crying through it all. Engines shouldn't sound like that.

    Another thought suddenly struck her and she pressed her hand to the collar at her throat. Vin quickly shook her head. "I'm jamming the signal. You have to listen to me. I'll explain everything but not here. I'll come to your quarters at curfew. In the meantime, tell no one what I just told you. Not even your friend, the doctor. All our lives depend on it."
  8. "This isn't on you, Preacher."

    Dan looked up at him, startling blue eyes full of sincerity. It was a trust J.P. didn't honestly believe he deserved right now. Sure, he nodded as he clapped the man's shoulder with his hand, smiling grimly as if he agreed with his pilot's assessment of this entire cluster - but that didn't mean he could look him in the eye.

    "Yeah Dan, I know... " J.P. said absently, without the least conviction. He freed his arm gently from Dan's erstwhile grip and moved back toward the command console of the Evangeline. John Paul had been up front with his entire crew about the nature of their sojourn this time out, leaving out only the reason for the bent steal beam in his barracks. That part didn't matter, he told himself. Not really.

    This wasn't going to be about data gathering and instrument readings - not this time out. There would be no new star charting, no planetary scans or any of the multitude of specialized, insanely dangerous and time consuming tasks that deep space exploration called for on any given day in the void, the kind of work only the genuinely insane or the obsessed truly loved. Out there, for a time, they were far more than simply employees of the largest interstellar corporation in existence, more than just very tiny cogs in a vast machine that hired them to go stake out new mineral rights. Out there, they were pilgrims, reverent supplicants before a vast universe that still unfolded its secrets for those who searched - or even, on occasion, gods. Deep space was the refuge of the men of the Evangeline. It was their home...

    But not this time. This time, they're jaunt out to the furthest edges of known space would be in the name of one of the grandest P.R. stunts ever devised by the Huang-Evans Corporation. A P.R. stunt to save a P.R. stunt: and don't think the irony of that got past John Paul for even a second, and rankled him to his core.

    Of all his crew, John Paul had been most surprised by Dan's decidedly mild reaction to the news of their destination, all things considered. Not a single obscenity, no scowl - nada. Just a resigned shrug of his shoulders that brought back the flash of a forum header on a certain PDA...

    Too bad the rest of his crew was not near so sanguine.

    'Yeah sure, a paycheck's a paycheck, but what the hell Cap'n? Are you sure it's not just a ruse to get a better snoop-around on the Evangeline? Don't you worry, I'll be doing full sweeps for bugs, mics, trackers - all of it, before we take off. I'm all over it sir. You got nothin' too worry about - them black-suited types may have us by the balls on this one sir, but that don't mean we gotta go down and take it without a fight - not even a reach-around. Gotta make 'em work for it all, right? Seamus MacElroy's got yer back, Cap'n, you'll see... '

    There was one in every crowd, somewhere, and the friendly, smiling face of the Evangeline's mechanical officer was John Paul's very own tin foil hat-wearing shipboard conspiracy theorist. How in the world the man reconciled working for the Huang-Evans Corporation with his gut-deep and ever-present paranoid tendencies, he'd never know. But there wasn't a man in the known universe who could make this ship sing like Mac could. And if John Paul was going to be honest? He was pretty damned sure the Evangeline loved Mac back just as much, ounce-for-ounce.

    His science officer actually cursed. Adisa Kumbukami was, by nature, a man of few words - spoken at least. In all his life, John Paul had never met a man so brilliant as Adi, whose dark, stoic face reminded him of nothing so much as a church icon, inscrutable and enigmatic. Only to add to the man's mystery, was John Paul's conviction that Adisa's true language was mathematics. Ask the man a question about a blue star? And you were guaranteed to be regaled with enough equations and suppositions and variables to make your head explode. That Adi's had not yet was only testament to the man's towering genius...

    But when Adi cursed, a single word but said with conviction, John Paul got just a glimpse of the depths of this man's rage, seeing his true love deterred for nonsense.

    Although in truth, John Paul realized he genuinely preferred Adi's reaction to Feng's. He just barely ducked from the path of a hammer that whistled past his head and buried itself in the drywall of the barracks room. Yes, he realized Feng probably wasn't really trying to kill him - after all, Feng Mai never missed. Not ever, and that was exactly why he was hired on as the Evangeline's security officer and weapons specialist.

    That didn't mean John Paul was particularly fond of near-death experiences.

    He settled himself into the captain's chair, strapped himself in as his hands ran over the console at his side, punching in the coordinates of their last viable skip. John Paul was not only the Captain, but the Navigator of the Evangeline as well, with the responsibility of seeing his crew not to where they truly wished to be, but to a mockery of their true mission.

    "Take us out of docking Dan, to skip distance," John Paul ordered. Words that had passed his lips countless times were bitter bile on his tongue today.
  9. Such cryptic words would rattle anyone, and Sarah was rattled. Gathering her things she slipped from the mess hall and made for the Med Bay. She didn't trust Vin, but surely if her words were true, Anne would have said something when Sarah had visited that morning about her headache.

    Hurrying down the corridor, lost in anxious thought, she ran into someone. The cloying scent of cologne burned her nostrils. A warning that came too late for her to escape the ship's captain.

    "Why, if it isn't Miss Millson. Just the person I was looking for." Captain Hughes hand ran up and down her arm as if steadying her after their collision. "Do step into my office."

    She tried to slip free of his grip but his long white fingers dug into her arm. "Actually, I am still not feeling very well. I was on my way to see Anne. Officer DeClan." She had caught the raised brow of warning. Captain Hughes didn't approve of the crew referring to one another by their first names.

    "I am sure it can wait a few minutes." He was stronger than he seemed and Sarah found herself being very nearly dragged from the corridor into his quarters. The front room was his office and conference room where the ranking officers delivered reports and from which the Captain made all his reports to his superiors back home.

    The door slid shut and Sarah wrenched her arm free, though she knew his fingers had left a bruise. "What is it that you wanted, Sir?" She did her best to keep her distance in the confines of the cabin. As he turned his back and moved to a cabinet in the corner, she moved so the conference table was between them.

    Ice chimed as he dropped cubes into two tumblers. "I read you had a rather bad night. Bad dreams of monsters attacking our noble vessel?"

    "It was only a dream, Captain." Vin's words echoed back at her. *The engines failed.*

    He poured something over the ice and turned to her. His predatory gaze noted where she stood and a lechorous smile flashed across his features. Reaching across the table, he offered her one of the tumblers. "Have you ever had Scotch? Not your Synth Scotch, but the real thing. Its extremely difficult to get."

    Sarah took the glass and lifted it to her lips. She caught the heady scent. It was strong. But she had smelled stronger, been raised on stronger. Captain Hughes lifted his glass and took a sip; challenge burning in his eyes. Something in Sarah broke free, and she lifted the glass in salute.

    "Cheers." She drank the glass dry in one long slow savoring pull, till only ice remained to rattle like bones when she set the glass down. It was a rare thing for viewers to see Sarah herself, but the mirror that lined the wall to make the room seem bigger caught her actions.

    "It reminds me of the moonshine from back home. Thanks." She turned to leave. "If that's all you wanted to share, then I think I'll go ahead and pay Officer DeClan that visit."

    The look on the captain's face with Sarah's reflection behind him as she downed his cherished whiskey like an Argon ductsweeper would go viral in minutes of the broadcast reaching the colonies. He closed his mouth with snap of his teeth.

    "I haven't dismissed you yet, Miss Millson." He moved to block her exit. Sarah felt the Scotch burning in her belly, giving her courage to keep her chin up as he invaded her personal space. "While I understand we are not responsible for our dreams, I must remind you that sharing anything that might leave our loyal viewers with even imagined doubts about the safety of this vessel and their cherished representative is ill-advised. Your entry was removed and I, as your captain...and friend, would ask you to be more careful in the future."

    "Of course, Sir. I would never want the people back home to even dream anything bad might happen to our fine ship. Engine failure for instance. That would give all of us nightmares, wouldn't it, Sir?"

    He was towering over her now, like a spindly limbed praying mantis with a head that was far too big for his skinny neck. His mouth spread into a wide smile. "Of course it would. I've had dreadful dreams about people I hold dear being accidentally jettisoned from their cabins while they sleep, but I wouldn't want you losing sleep because I put the idea in your head."

    Vin hadn't lied. Something had happened with the engines in the night. And the Captain was warning her. No, threatening her to keep her mouth shut about it. "I once dreamed of castrating you and wearing your jewels as earrings." Moving quickly to the side, she slipped past him and made it to the door. Looking back, she spoke at the door slid open. "Don't worry though, Captain. I'm sure your balls are as safe as our engines."

    Slipping out before he could respond, she hurried back toward her own quarters. Once safe inside, she slid down the wall and sat trembling. She was afraid that the adventure of a lifetime had just dissolved into a fight for survival.
    #9 InkWren, Feb 2, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2015
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  10. For the first time in his life, John Paul was watching a reality show. It wasn't the most comfortable of experiences, sitting there on an upturned crate in the Evangeline's cargo bay, leaning over the tiny PDA screen he cradled in both hands. All of this, while Danny lurked over one shoulder, and Seamus over the other, resembling nothing so much as a pair of vultures - or maybe the shoulder angel and the shoulder devil?

    "Son of a bitch... " Danny hissed, followed immediately by another useless apology to J.P., his deep blue eyes narrowed with fury as the teensy, tiny form of Sarah Millson was framed in a box in the corner, smiling sweetly - something she was assuredly not doing while the smarmy Captain berated her for... Something. The Evangeline was on the edge of known space, just barely within the reception range of the Frontier's ongoing broadcast. The video was fuzzy at best, but even at this resolution waves of lip-curling oiliness rolled off the guy. The audio was even worse, and even John Paul was tempted to curse in frustration, for all they could not hear of this latest broadcast.

    Seamus did it for him. "Damn! See? SEE!? Didn't I tell you Cap'n?" The mechanical officer was just warming up to the rant that J.P. could feel coming , like thunderheads before a storm. He used the wrench in his hand like a baton, suddenly waving it up over his head with a snarl. "Haven't I been telling you for years - get a company man up in a position of power, and he just loses it! You make a guy a captain - "

    John Paul's dark eyes rolled up toward Seamus, a soft sigh through his nose all that was needful to see Seamus' harangue thankfully, blessedly curtailed. "Well present company 'cepted, of course... " J.P. just rolled his eyes for a moment, his attention back on the screen, irritably scrolling the feed back one more time, praying that something might come in clearer that neither he nor Danny nor Seamus had caught before. The proverbial exercise in futility, but with not a damned thing better to do out here in the void but wait, and wait, and hope and pray and wait some more? What else was he supposed to do?

    Something had hit the fan on the Frontier, and John Paul suddenly realized one way or another, Vin had gotten to Sarah. She was being cagey about it, whatever Vin had done, and John Paul found he respected that spirit just a little, refusing to be cowed. Vin had always been bold, brazen and fearless - it was in her nature. John Paul suspected in her very DNA. And he was relieved to see the young woman with her now, had at least a little of that fire in her gut too.

    That didn't lessen the worry though. Not even a little.
  11. More than once as she paced her room waiting for Vin to arrive and finally explain herself, Sarah almost called Anne, but every time something stopped her. It wasn't Vin's cryptic warning; it was the look on the captain's face as he threatened her life. Questions teemed in her mind like worrisome little piranhas, devouring her half-hearted reassurances that it was all just some big misunderstanding. Or, maybe a prank by some of the bored crewmen.

    When the comm at her door buzzed, she jumped but was quick to answer. "Enter."

    The door obeyed her verbal command and opened to permit her visitor to step inside. Vin smiled and held her finger to her lips as the door slid closed. Removing a small device from the bag she carried, she set it on Sarah's desk and pressed a button. THere was a strange hum for a moment, then seeming satisfied, Vin spoke as she looked around.

    "This is very homey." Her smile was sincere and at another time Sarah might have been flattered. All she could do was shrug within the comfort of the sweater from her mother and murmur a whispered "thanks".

    "It's all right. We can speak normally, but we should be quick about it. It won't take long before the signal failure is noticed." Vin swept her loong dark hair over her shoulder and motioned to the desk chair. "May I?"

    "Of course." Sarah untangled the protective cross of her arms to motion to it, only to cross them again and wait.

    "Sarah, please. Sit down."

    "I feel more comfortable standing," she replied stubbornly.

    Vin tried to smile. "I'm sorry. I know this has been hard for you."

    Sarah interupted. "A woman who joined our crew at the last minute, whose never made any attempt to get to know any of us, suddenly strolls up to my table and informs me that our ship suffered some sort of engine failure and then informs me that I shouldn't *say* anything to anyone because lives depend on it? Or, or maybe you are apologizing for Captain Hughes who drug me into his conference room to warn me about that danger of my journaling a bad dream."

    Sarah dropped her arms and clenched her fists. "Why should engine trouble be such a matter of colonial secrecy. If we are in trouble, shouldn't people know? Not just the crew! The people back home. How are we going to get help if we don't tell anyone?"

    She recalled that cryptic warning from the captain and her blood ran cold. "What the hell is going on?"

    Vin was silent for a moment, hiding a secret smile. Oh, yes. Sarah was young. Impressionable. A shy dreamer. But Vin saw the fighter beneath her lumpy sweater. Some of her fear relaxed its grip on her heart.

    "Frontier Diagnositcs and Mining is in direct competition with Huang-Evans. I work for H-E."

    "So you're a spy?" There was disbelief and annoyance in Sarah's tone, but Vin nodded patiently.

    "Yes, I am a spy. Frankly, until Frontier opened the lottery to fund this project, H-E wasn't concerned."

    Sarah snorted. "Oh, so little David started picking up stones and Goliath decided he needed to take notice? God, why does H-E have to its hands in everything? God forbid we find something out here and claim colonist's rights without H-E to supervise us!"

    Vin held up her hand. "We don't have time to discuss the ethics of corporate business." The tall Asian woman rose, moving to the window. The secrets she lived with on a daily basis were growing heavy and uncomfortable. "There's a reason this sector of space has gone uncharted. Something Frontier D&M has chosen to ignore. Why?" Her dark almond shaped eyes focused on Sarah's confused and angry features. "Because they are going under. Not because H-E did anything to them. Because they are greedy. Lazy. And impatient. And have been for several generations."

    Vin glanced at her wrist unit and sighed in frustration at the rapidly vanishing seconds.

    "Look, there's something out here. I'm not sure what it is. No one really does. But when the last expedition into this sector over a hundred years returned with a barely operational ship and broken minds, our forefathers had the sense to know some promises of wealth and expansion were just not worth the risk!"

    Sarah felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise at Vin's words. Shaking herself free of the feeling, she frowned. "If there's something dangerous out here and our engines are failing, then we should tell the captain and turn around!"

    Vin laughed bitterly. "Of course we should. It's the only right thing to do. But if we do, the captain will skuttle this vessel with all hands on board. Including their shining star, Sarah Millson. One sweet, brave girl who died a tragic death because she believed in the power of ordinary people and took to the stars."

    Sarah's stomach turned at the prediction. "But....but why? Why on earth would they do that?!" In the back of her mind, she knew the answer. She had learned as a child that there were companies out there who were so driven by greed and arrogance, they would risk the lives of the men and women who worked for them just for the chance to get their hands on more wealth, more power that much faster. It didn't matter if men like her father died in the process.

    She sat down hard on the edge of her bed as Vin answered.

    "Because martyrs make money. Martyrs inspire. Martyrs make people fearless. They'll make a fortune. Build new ships and new crews and shake their fist at whatever is lurking out here. For power. And money. And fame."

    "So, if I tell people in my journal that something is wrong, Frontier will secretly destroy the ship and get fat off the drama of the crew's death. But if I don't say anything, we keep going and either the ship fails on its own or is destroyed by some *thing* that is so terrifying we've avoided colonizing this sector for generations, and the company still makes a fortune."

    The truth was Sarah was an optimist. She believed in the good in people and had an almost limitless well of hope. That well sprung up now in the face of greed and fear. "But, maybe we'll get get home safe. Maybe the ship won't fail. The engine trouble might have been a one time thing."

    Before Vin could answer, the ship lurked, shuddered and fell silent. No alarms sounded. No messages came over the comm. One heartbeat. Two. Suddenly, she ship shook so violently, it threw both women to the floor. Vin scrambled for the jamming device and switched it off as the ship stilled again.

    "God, JP, you better have the pedal to the metal."

    Sarah didn't have time to ask her what she was talking about. The door of her quarters had opened and Anne, pale faced with blood trickling from cut on her forehead, stood framed there.
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  12. Vega6XLE729 was a yellow sun, a rather mediocre-sized star that was absolutely unremarkable in most every way. Five 'officially' unnamed planets orbited this star, though Feng in all his imaginative glory got dibs on this system: Yi, Er, San, Si and Wu. One, Two, Three, Four and Five respectively. So maybe imagination wasn't exactly Feng's strong suit, but that really didn't matter. In all respects, Vega's system was utterly unworthy of notice in a universe filled with wonders and brilliance -

    - On any other day, but this one.

    The Evangeline maintained its orbit just above the gravitational pull of Er, the one planet in the system that likely held some form of life, and the possibility of a breathable atmosphere. It was the green that gave it away, covering all the land notable land masses, replete with the possibility of chlorophyll or something very like it - at least, that's what Adi believed possible. And if Er were located any other place but here, in the reddest of the red Barrier zones, it might even make a tantalizing site for colonization. No doubt, that's exactly what Frontier had in mind, with a stop skip and a lovely photo op planned over the unnamed [for any but those aboard the Evangeline] planet.

    And these were the coordinates Vin had forwarded.

    John Paul sighed impatiently, grimacing behind the lenses that actually provided him with a 360 degree, three dimensional view of the void all around them, populated now by the golden Vega and the verdantly glowing Er. It took some getting used to, these lenses. On the exterior, they were not much more than a pair of unwieldy and rather ugly work glasses that wrapped entirely about the head. The portion over the eyes though, was completely black - there was no light allowed in to distract from the view. Exquisitely delicate sensors at the back were what truly did all the work of 'seeing,' directing signals from the Evangeline's hypersensitive tracking systems directly into the occipital lobe, the brain translating these currents into an impossible panorama in the mind's eye, all from the ship's point of view, despite the slight waver of the Evangeline's shields.

    Here in the Vega system, shields were an absolute must. There was no name really, for what it was that all the deep space exploration ships feared, out here in the Barrier zones. That it was an intelligent force, was debatable. That it was lethal though? That fact was not even in question. They called it "the Darkness," and screw whoever the hell thought it was pretty damned unimaginative for a name. The Darkness summed up all that was ever seen, ever known - and unknown - about whatever the hell it was that was never seen by a single living man, but left nothing behind but shredded ship parts floating in the cold void, beyond certain well-mapped lines in space.

    These shields were not for the exploration ships' protection. Whatever was in the Darkness, whatever the hell it actually was, it became obvious quickly that there was no man made way to challenge its devastation.

    No, the shields were not for protection. They were camouflage.

    Danny was wearing the other pair of lenses, two sets of preternaturally optimized eyeballs to ensure that whenever the Frontier finally jumped out of skip, there would be zero chance of missing them. A tense hush had fallen over the Evangeline's crew, even John Paul's sigh far too loud in his ears -

    He sat up straight in the Captain's chair with a gasp. "Danny?"

    "Yeah Preach, I see her."

    The Frontier materialized some kilometers away, in a further orbit from Er due to its greater mass. And she was not in a good way at all. Explosions in space - they were never what science fiction movies made them out to be. There was no air in space, so no massive noise carried on sound waves, nor pyrotechnics beyond whatever combustible gas might be escaping. But for the men who saw with the eyes of the Evangeline, the silent explosion was no less horrifying as bits of what was obviously engine began to hurtle in all directions from what was left of one of her starboard engines.

    "Fuck," Danny breathed. John Paul didn't have a thing to say about his pilot's curse - he was thinking the exact same thing.

    John Paul yanked off the lenses, blinking swiftly as he leapt to his feet, hitting the com link in his ear. "Feng, ready the transports - "

    And then, not 200 km from where he sat, space began to devour itself. It would have been difficult to see or describe, but if Danny had any less intestinal fortitude, he might have lost all kinds of bladder control. Unblinking stars suddenly wavered, spiraling inward into something that was a mockery of the void, a darkness that twisted like a throat into a deep ebony blackness that just went on and on and on, eternally hungry...

    "PREACH! IT'S HERE!" he shouted heedlessly through the coms. The undeniable terror in his voice said every last thing that needed to be said, about what the hell "it" truly was. "Some 200 clicks and closing!"
  13. The Frontier was a relic with a shiny new paint job as its primary upgrade. Skip distances and speeds had increased exponentially since it was christened, but Frontier Diagnostics and Mining could not, would not afford better. What had taken the Evangeline a few days under full power, had taken weeks for the Frontier.

    Solar recharges ate up hours between skips. Skip distances had to be shorter to ensure the integrity of the aging shielding. The captain pushed his crew to cut corners in safety protocols, go further on less power. Each transmission from Frontier's home offices urged haste. Whispers of compromised security and H-E spies aboard ship bent on sabotage and slipping secrets to their superiors. Frontier D & M was nothing if not paranoid. Greed and desperation could do that to a company.

    And now, all that greed and haste and paranoia was converging to create the next great tragedy in Colonial history. Anne stood, trembling. "The ship...it..." In response to her unfinished diagnosis, alarms began to scream, and the hull began to groan. Vin scrambled to her feet. "Sarah, come on. We have to hurry!"

    All plans of keeping her true identity was forgotten. A veteran on space travel, the pilot knew when things had gone to shit. Sarah managed to gain her feet and rushed to Anne's side, to catch the woman before she fell. Vin lent her support, keeping one hand free to punch buttons on her jamming device. Together the three women raced as fast as their injured companion allowed for.

    "Vin-387 to the Evangline. Come in Evangeline." They were shoved from behind as two of the scientists rushed to reach the safety of the life pods as the ship continued to disintegrate around them. "Goddammit, JP. I need you!"

    As Sarah managed to right herself and her sagging friend whose blood left a stain in their wake, something drew her gaze back down the long causeway that housed the sleeping quarters. She saw the fire and sparks of damaged equipment she expected and then the impending doom vanished into nothingness. Somehow, the sudden rushing blackness that ate its way closer was more terrifying than cataclysm of the ship's death.

    A crewman appeared from a side passage and looked back for a moment at that gaping nothingness. One moment he was there, screaming. Then, he was gone. Sarah caught her breathe and forced her feet to move. "Come on, Anne. Stay awake. Help me. It's coming."

    Vin didn't look back. She could sense the danger and it terrified her. Rounding a bend, the trio collided with the surviving crew. Each one was activating the closest pods, fighting over them in their panic. Vin swore as they fought their way to the further pods, but it was this that would save their lives.

    At the far end were three pods forgotten by the rest of the crew. Working quickly, gasping for breath as the danger advanced unseen but felt on the most primal level, they managed to get Anne into a pod and activate it. "The Evangeline will find us. I promise. Go!" Sarah scrambled into the next and hit the big red button that would hurl her after her friend into space.
  14. Captain and Security Officer sprinted down the Evangeline's corridor to the shuttle bays, Feng's lithe body pulling ahead just as the path split, starboard and port, John Paul taking the latter. The man sometimes known as ‘Preacher’ had been praying a lot these last few days, waiting cloaked in space, hovering quietly over Er. He’d been praying for guidance, for hope, for a steady heart and a ready hand, but most of all, he’d been praying for mercy. He still was, even as he shoved both legs into his pilot’s suit while running, felt the inaudible click of his boots snapping into place over his calves as he launched himself past the shuttle threshold.

    The deep space explorer was equipped with two shuttles, each large enough to hold upwards of fifteen passengers, or seven standard escape pods. The Frontier's escape pods were certainly 'standard,' and the transport shuttles themselves had been readied for days now, their own smaller cargo bays emptied, maximizing any and all space for living, breathing people so Feng and John Paul could ferry over the crew of the Frontier in a few quick trips. The best case scenario? Everyone disembarked the Frontier, spent a few cramped, probably uncomfortable days in the Evangeline, and then landed back in blessedly safe known human space – a little weary, a little filthier, but alive and whole. The Huang-Evans Corporation took a little bow before a grateful humanity, Frontier ate a lot of crow in front of the same – not exactly a win/win scenario, but at least everyone still got to breathe.

    But this? This was no best case. Not even close. This was front row seats to a very special circle of Hell.

    John Paul might never know if it was the explosion of the Frontier’s engine that attracted the Darkness, or simply its reentry into normal space, or even if It had simply been lurking in this one spot all along – that suddenly no longer mattered. Adi swiped at his eyes, incredulous as he peered over Dan’s shoulder at the impossible twisting void of nothingness that seemed to be swallowing the Frontier bit by bit. He knew this was no black hole aberration – no gravity well, no event horizon, and this… This thing was in motion, closing the distance between itself and the Frontier slowly but inexorably, ripping the crippled ship apart bit by relentless bit, as if the curious fingers of an unspeakably dark and hideous child were toying with an insect. Adi ensured every moment of this was recorded on the Evangeline’s systems for later analysis, but right in this moment he could not tear his eyes from the horrific sight. Nothing but an abiding horror resided on the man’s dark, handsome face.

    Feng’s shuttle left the Evangeline’s dock seconds before John Paul’s, banking from the ship’s starboard and rocketing toward the spreading debris that had once been the Frontier. John Paul was right behind him, and what he finally rocked him to his soul, cold, cruel shock punching the breath out of him at his first true sight of the Darkness.

    The Frontier had been almost entirely… Consumed. There was no other word for it, and only a precious few escape pods had ejected from the doomed ship before it disappeared down the maw of complete and utter blackness. John Paul’s sense of urgency just ratcheted up to a screaming, gut-ripping degree: the Evangeline’s shields went down when the shuttles were released. She was a sitting duck now.

    Four pods. There were only four pods left they could snatch from the void. The shuttle transports veered from one another as Feng and John Paul separated instinctively, no conversation needed between them: Feng might be faster, but the Captain was the better pilot – he’d take the ‘low hanging fruit’ furthest from danger while John Paul raced for the two pods closest to impenetrable darkness that seemed to swallow the stars all around it.

    Impossible calculations of speed and trajectory were made in seconds in the minds of the two pilots, magnetic tractor beams snatching the first pods from the void, depositing them into the bays before locking them into position, keeping them completely closed until the transports docked again. It rather defeated the point after all, if the rescued panicked, popped open the pod door and found themselves taking a walk in endless vacuum.

    The second pod was the shuttle’s undoing. Space is not truly nothingness. Space is filled with x-rays and gamma rays and all sorts of photons and radiation junk and clutter that normally mean nothing to ships inured to the true hardships, especially ships like the Evangeline, the deep space explorers. Nothing prepared the shuttle’s sensors for the sudden non-existence of all that truly made up outer space. No radiation, no kind of rays or photon emissions of any sort – simply… Nothing. And that nothingness was hungry, and it would be filled.

    John Paul was no stranger to terror – no soldier was. Courage has not a damn thing to do with not feeling fear. It has everything to do with the choices made while every instinct is screaming "RUN!" The deepest darkness he had ever known, one he could never imagine existed, spread before his disbelieving, uncomprehending eyes in every direction. John Paul looked away, his gaze returning to his controls, to his screens and his job here. He wondered if anyone could look into something like that for long, and remain completely sane. He banked the shuttle transport just so, connecting the magnetic force of the tractor beam to the side of the pod, reeling it in like some strange fish, just like the first -

    The magnetic field attaching the second pod suddenly ceased to exist. Warning sirens screamed through the shuttle, wailing that something had been broken irreparably in the docking bay. The entire tractor beam array was ripped from its moorings like a child’s loose tooth from its bloody gums. John Paul knew that last pod had been sucked into the starless void, and he prayed. He prayed for that lost soul in the pod, even as it disappeared into the Darkness. He prayed for forgiveness as he abandoned the pod to whatever awaited it on the other side of that no-thing, reversing the shuttle in a hard retreat.

    God how he prayed as the shuttle shuddered and groaned in protest, the sound of metal screaming in his ears as he poured full thrusters away from the maw. The injured transport hurtled from the certainty of death in a cold and never-ending nothingness, but not toward safety. It was far too late for the transport to correct course and rendezvous with the Evangeline, the blue-green surface of Er already looming far too large on his screen shields. Something about the Scylla and Charybdis flashed through his head from his high school days as he closed the cargo bay against the vacuum of space, and let the shuttle transport have her head as she raced for the planet surface, just ahead of the Darkness.

    John Paul opened his mic. “Evangeline, this shuttle’s going down over Er. Did the SO make it back?”

    “Holy shit Preacher… Yeah, Feng’s back with two of the pods.” Danny might be the best pilot John Paul had ever known, but he’d taken to civilian life with a vengeance, and didn’t even pretend to keep anything like a military bearing any more. That was Danny’s prerogative though – keeping his people alive was the Captain’s.

    “Return navigation coordinates have been already been input – Harrigan, you have command. This is my last standing order: get out of here. Now.”

    John Paul could almost picture in his mind’s eye, the protest written in big bold letters all over his pilot’s face. “No… Wait! There’s time – we can make it to your position – “

    “You’re good Danny, but not that good.” His pilot would never know John Paul’s rueful smile, nor the unending gratitude that lit his dark eyes in these moments. “If I slow down to a docking velocity, I’m dead. And then you’re dead. It’s not happening. Get out of here. Go.”

    “Preach, I got this – “

    “DAMN IT ALL DAN! GO!he snarled furiously into the mic,Get my people and my ship the fuck out of here! A shocked split-second passed and no more - John Paul didn’t have another breath to waste, or a moment to spare for his pilot’s indecision. He switched off the mic and the coms – he didn’t want Dan or Adi or Seamus to hear anything if he wasn’t strong enough to keep himself together when the shuttle went down.

    But he also didn’t hear Dan’s last, strained words for him either: “No man left behind, brother. Semper fi…

    The Evangeline was no rattling heap-of-junk death trap like the Frontier had once been. She was sleek and beautiful and damned fast, and she hit skip space ahead of the Darkness, just as the shuttle hit Er’s atmosphere. John Paul watched with mild detachment as the shielding on the shuttle’s nose heated to a bright red and then a white hot brilliance. The transport shuttle was rated for atmospheric entry, but sure the hell not crash landings. The first whisperings of panic hissed that there was nothing rated for that…

    If John Paul did not have his eternal and abiding faith, and someone else to live for in that cargo bay? He’d probably have thrown up his prosthetic limbs and wept like a child in a corner of the cockpit until they hit Er’s surface, his terror ended with a pyrotechnic explosion likely never seen on this planet. He wanted to. He really, really wanted to, because John Paul had been here before. He’d lost one of his best friends, parts of his body and his skin, his home in the Colonial Marines and even eventually the woman he loved. Once the Evangeline hit skip space, all he had left was his life…

    … And the one in the bay.

    There was one more reason to live, a living person in the bay inside that pod. John Paul’s prosthetic hands never once shook with the fear of the man, but his mind stilled nonetheless as his pilot’s eyes searched the terrain below for anything resembling a proper landing strip. Thankfully, it looked like they were over land, hurtling toward a canopy of trees – or at least, whatever passed for trees or tree-like on Er. Unfortunately, that meant not a single damned thing good for the possibility of a landing strip on such a terrain.
    #14 Muirgen, Feb 16, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2015
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  15. Sarah barely had time to strap in before the pod was vomited from the dying ship. The portholes that ringed the pod gave her spinning flashes of the silent chaos outside. Each captured moment etched itself in her memory and spun them around like balls in BINGO wheel. While her emotions were caught in that confusing maelstrom, her instincts took over.

    One hand settled around the joystick to begin the fight to stabilize her craft and flee from the monster outside. Fingers trembling with fear and the adrenaline she needed to survive closed around the dangling headset. She managed to drag it around her neck just as she watched another pod get swallowed by the blackness.

    She screamed in terror and hatred of that thing that would be taking her with the rest of the Frontier's doomed crew. Sweat caught the flashing lights on her pod's consoles and painted her face for war. She managed to steady the tailspin and catch her first steady glimpse of the unfolding drama. She watched in horror as a nearby pod was swallowed up. Praying first that it wasn't Anne and then with an edge of guilt, that it wouldn't get her too.

    Shoving the joystick forward, she limped like a wounded thing to escape a force too inevitable. That's when she saw it. There was a ship. A glowing gleaming angel in the darkness. Her voice sounded hollow in the small space as if the Darkness were swallowing up her words before it took the rest of her. "Can anyone hear me?" Something yanked her pod sideways and for a moment, she thought the Darkness had caught up with her, but it was clear she was being drug away from that unending black abyss.

    She strained against her restraints to keep the ship in sight and watched as a smaller vessel disappeared inside it. Hope blossomed before her pod was closed inside another craft. They were rescued. Any moment she would be safe on board that shining ship and the Darkness would be behind them.

    The pod slid across the bay floor, spinning like a firecracker out of control as her thrusters burned before slamming her into the wall. She let go of the joystick and shut down the thrusters. The ride only got rougher, shaking her so hard it made her teeth chatter. Clutching the mic on her headset, she spoke. "Can you hear me?"
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  16. He could, he did, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do at the moment for the voice in the bay. He heard the high, soft tones of a female, his heart leaping for just a moment at the thought Vin might be on board, might have made if off the Frontier, but it was... Not her. It was not her, but the sound of that voice was sustenance to him now, shoring up his flagging courage, giving him that one last reason he needed to keep steady and straight. One hand relinquished the controls just long enough to tap the switches that would restart emergency power in the bay, to re-initiate the magnetic relays that would hold her pod steady and in place. Whoever she was, her pod should be latching into the bay dock now, should have a slightly easier ride - he could only pray - as the shuttle hurtled over the tree canopy of one of Er's uncharted forests.

    "Batten down, Miss." His voice was tight, strained, even to his own ears over the comm. "This is going to be... Rough."

    John Paul didn't say another word, all his concentration devoted to simply living through these next few minutes - if for no other reason than to be sure she did, the woman behind that soft, frightened voice in the bay. The cockpit was filled with the hissing scrape of the branches on the shuttle underside, and then the scream of super-heated ceramic tiles ripping from the metal hull as the protective layer of the shuttle's underbelly were shorn away and lost to the snarl of vegetation below. He threw the thrusters in reverse, doing his damndest to slow the velocity to somewhere slightly less than hellbent, to a speed that wouldn't turn this ship to tiny fiery fragments they instant they hit ground.

    Blue skies disappeared from his screen, darkened and faded to a primordial dappled green that morphed to mottled, earthy browns as the shuttle plunged through the canopy and into the forest proper. The shuttle shuddered, rocked, and then careened as trunk after trunk of alien tree sheared away pieces of the ship, like a giant, malicious child with a very large knife, slicing away pieces of a helpless animal. John Paul growled, snarled his defiance as first one wing of the shuttle, and then the other, exploded with the engines. Every last light on his control array screamed at him now, but he'd already committed what control he had of this shuttle to a single, almost straight causeway through what might have been a meadow, but was in no way large enough to act as a true runway. It was all he had though, as good as it got - the rest was in the hands of a God he prayed would be merciful today.

    There was no changing course now. The mangled body of the shuttle lunged into the all-too-small clearing, enormous waves of dirt and rock thrown sky high as it tore a trail through the earth. The shuttle reeled as only one set of landing thrusters opened from the hatches, upending the precarious balance her desperate pilot had done all he could to keep. John Paul cursed under his breath, the controls nearly ripped from his prosthetic hands. What was left of the broken ship spun viciously in a wide arc, and then lost all semblence of control. He felt the shuttle stagger beneath him, shaking and then lurching too far to his right to keep it anything like upright...

    The entire body of the shuttle flipped, once, and then again, and again, over and over like a log rolled downhill until it finally slammed into a barricade of alien tree trunks. The deafening crunch of wood and torn metal sent small creatures for miles scurrying to safe haven, but the tree dam held.

    No such thing could be said for the shuttle. Its body was snapped in half, exposing both cockpit and bay to the elements - friendly or mortally dangerous - of Er. But they had landed, at least. They were on the planet's surface, and not disintegrated into bloody bits of shrapnel. John Paul should have taken comfort in this fact, that goodness and mercy - however slight - followed him to this strange new world.

    He might have, if he weren't unconscious and still strapped in and hanging at a precarious angle in the pilot's chair, a mass of blood fallen like a livid scarlet veil over his slack face.
    #16 Muirgen, Feb 26, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2015
  17. Sarah heard the voice at the other end and the strain in his words, but she flew to obey. The pod locked in place and yet she could still feel the speed and tremor of the vessel that had rescued her. In moments, it didn't matter that the pod was firmly locked in place. It couldn't when the rest of her world was tumbling. She had a split second to brace herself and then everything was spinning and careening wildly as she had been when the pod jettisoned. Somehow this time was worse and had to clench her teeth to keep from screaming.

    It all came to as sudden a stop as it had begun and remarkably, she found herself only sitting at a slight angle. Out her portholes, she caught the fires and sparks of the torn asunder vessel and beyond it, the strange trees of an alien planet. "Can you hear me?" She forced shaking fingers to tear her harness free and toggled her comm, and listened breathlessly for a voice to answer. None came. Panic flooded her bloodstream with adrenaline.

    "Oh, you better not be dead. You hear me. You aren't dead. I am gonna crawl out of this pod and come find you. And if you are dead...I'll....I'll do...something." As she filled the dead air around her with the sound of her own voice, she checked the atmosphere readouts on the tiny monitor. Thankfully, such systems had been standard even back in the day when her antiquated pod was designed. Maneuvering in the cramped quarters, she managed to tear open the panel that held a small Taz-Pistol, a stubby but very sharp knife and a first aid kit. There was another panel which should contain emergency rations and shelter, but she had to find out if her guardian angel had survived his rescue attempt first.

    "I'm coming to find you."

    Ignoring the wild shaking of her fingers, she tossed the worthless comm aside and released the hatch. The scent of boggy air and ozone from the venting systems crawled into the space and made her cough. She clipped the knife's sheath to her belt and then did the same with the gun, before taking a steadying gulp of thick air and shoving the hatch open. Drawing the gun, she poked her head out and seeing no living danger, she ducked back in and grabbed the first aid kit.

    Sliding down the rounded side of her pod, her boots sank into the black ooze, and she couldn't help the grimace of displeasure at the putrid stink that rose up to meet her. The front half of the craft lay several dozen feet away across more of the oozing black mud and debris. She moved carefully, trying to keep out of the water. One never knew what might be living in such places. Needing both hands, she tugged the neck of her jumpsuit open enough to stuff the kit inside and the gun back in its hostler and kept moving.

    Carefully, step by cautious step she made her way across the swamp and called out again as she began to climb into the front section which lay upside down with its nose raised out of the water. "Can you hear me? I'm coming for you. Just hold on." She was gasping for breath and slick with sweat when she finally managed to figure out how to climb into the twisted cockpit. Blood dripped with oil as she caught sight of her unconscious saviour.

    "Oh, god. Ok, hold on. Just hold on." Scrambling across the ceiling which now acted as the floor, she managed to get in underneath the pilot and gently took his slack face in her hands. He was warm and she could feel the faint stirring of breath. A sob caught in her throat as she felt along the harness for the release.

    "I really hope your neck's not broken, because I am gonna have to drop you. I'm sorry. I'll be as gentle as I can." Finding the release, she repositioned herself as best she could to give his weight something soft to land on. It was hot work and there was barely enough room for the both of them, but she found if she knelt and cradled his head in one arm, she could release the harness and gravity would do the rest.

    Taking a deep breathe, she snapped the release and felt all 200 pounds plus of him fall onto her smaller and considerably lighter frame. She fell back, smacking her head into a jutting piece of the console which unleashed an uncustomary string of profanity from her lips. Thankfully, she had managed to keep him from falling on his head, but now she was pinned under him.

    Squirming and swearing, she vented her pent up emotions as she wriggled free. "Some goddamn rescue. There was a perfectly....oof....good ship out there...ugh....I saw it. But no, you had to...good god, you're heavy!...you had bring us down here...ouch!...into a fucking swamp...full of who knows what kinds of creepy...." She managed to get free, only to slip on dripping fluids and land on her backside. "Dammit! Wake up...I am not doing this all by myself. You are too fucking heavy." Some random broken part found its way into her hand and she threw it out angrily.

    "God, you should have rescued Anne! She's a doctor." The jumpsuit was yanked open exposing her tanktop and the air felt parginally cooler, so she tossed the kit down beside her wounded companion and tugged her arms free and knotted the sleeves around her waist. "But....you are stuck with me. So if you die, don't come haunting me, cause there's only so much shit I know."

    Sarah was no genius, but she was young and bright and had learned the Basic Field Med course that was one of the requirements to actually take part in the expedition. So, focusing on finding what was bleeding she set to work. The kit was opened, bandages and sterile wipes were retrieved. Then her nimble fingers were tugged the bloodstained jumpsuit open.

    "God, you're...you're a cyber." Her finger ran along the seam where his augmentation met his natural, though scarred flesh. The wound that had been so determined to leak all over her and the cockpit was a deep gash on the remains of his shoulder just below his neck. She flinched and hissed at the now only oozing injury, before taking a deep breath. "Ok, here's the deal. I'm gonna use FleshMesh, which I am told hurts like hell, but I have a feeling you know that...So...I'd really like you to open your eyes and tell me everything is gonna be ok, but you might want to just...wait a few minutes."

    Closing her eyes, she gave herself a little pep talk. "You are Sarah Millson. You are just an ordinary girl, but even the ordinary can be extraordinary in outerspace. Or on an alien planet. In a swamp. All alone. Almost. Ok, I can do thing." She opened her eyes and got to work. In the back of her mind, she knew she needed to conserve every scrap of the tiny kit, so she was careful as a person can be in a situation like the one she found herself in.

    She mixed only what she knew would be enough, barely enough to knit his tissue back together. The substance was a bright neon green color which allowed the medic to see where it had already been applied. Carefully, she cleaned the would as best she could and smeared the FleshMend in place, drawing the open wound closed with her fingers and holding the blood slick skin for a full ten count. By the time she was finished, she was in tears. Sobs left her gasping for air as she injected the site with a cocktail syringe of painkiller and penicillin.

    Exhaustion hit her like an express shuttle bound for the pleasure moons of Alargon 4. Weeping, she tossed the used syringe into the water below and lay her head on the Preacher's chest and curled into a weary fetal position as she began to nod off. In spite of what she had been through. In spite of the dangers they now faced. In spite of the horrors of the day, she fell asleep.
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  18. The one and only thing John Paul knew for sure as he stirred, was he was not in Heaven. Wherever the hell he was - and it wasn't THE Hell, the Preacher felt confident - this was definitely not Heaven. Sure, maybe he didn't have any firsthand experience of his own, but nothing in the Old or New Testament prepared him for a Heaven that stunk like something between an unwashed armpit, dirty dishwater and week-old banana peels, and Heaven sure shouldn't hurt this bad either.

    He groaned softly under his breath, lip curling into a pained snarl as he shifted no more than an inch or two along a surface that was very, very cold and very, very hard. Every last muscle in his body - straight to his toe muscles, he would have sworn - ached like he'd gotten the most thorough beating of his lifetime. And if that weren't enough joy to round out any man's awakening, there was the unmistakable, burning sting of FleshMesh somewhere between his shoulder and his neck...

    Wait. Just... Wait... What the... ? FleshMesh!?

    John Paul started where he lay, mouth falling open, dark eyes wide as the entirety of all that happened slammed into him with the force of a meteor: the exploding engine and then the devouring of the Frontier in the Darkness, racing to the shuttles with Feng, the insane race to save even one of the pods and not be pulled into oblivion. He lifted one arm painfully toward his head, a prosthetic hand wiping at his face. There was... Oh God, there was a race to Er, the Evangeline gone into skip space... Safe... God he prayed she was safe with Danny and his crew...

    And then a crash, one more crash landing - damn, his life seemed defined by crashes... A soft, frightened voice in the back, in the one pod he could save. He'd told her to batten down... John Paul's eyes focused in the grey filtered light on his palm as he pulled it back, glaring at the dark maroon flecks of blood he'd wiped from his face. His eyes traveled upward, to the remains of... John Paul blinked again. That was... That was his pilot chair! The remains of sunlight told him the shuttle had been breached, even if they had 'landed,' and the burning green line of FleshMesh told him someone somewhere had cared enough to patch him up - and get him out of the pilot's chair in the first place, if the dangling restraints meant anything. The bearer of that gentle voice had survived, toughed out the aftermath of the crash and, apparently, managed to patch together his torn up body - but where had she gone?

    They had just survived a crash landing on an unpopulated planet, and were likely the only two humans for thousands of light years in any direction - they had a hell of a lot more to worry about now, than nursing the guttering flame of the torch he still hopelessly dragged behind him wherever he went in the universe. John Paul grimaced, winced, and moved to sit up because that was at least forward motion, in the vertical direction - but there was a weight on his chest. A soft, warm weight. A weight that still smelled vaguely... Nice. A soft whiff of jasmine that was definitely not armpit or dishwater or rotten bananas wafted toward his nostrils,and he smiled at such a blessed relief.

    She hadn't gone far it seemed, this woman with the dark brown hair, and she wasn't Vin. John Paul had known she wouldn't be, and it just wasn't a fact they needed to dwell on right now. There was the whole matter of 'surviving long enough to maybe be rescued someday from an unknown and potentially hostile planet' to consider first.

    "Hello... Miss?" he said softly, wrapping his arm lightly about her shoulders where she lay, doing his best not to frighten her or, God forbid, hurt her further if she were injured. "Miss, are you all right?"
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  19. A voice, low and male intruded on the hasty dream her exhausted mind had thrown together to spare her a moment or two of the nightmare that was her waking life. Anne's laughing face faded and the scene of peaceful stars and camaraderie to the dull throb of battered bones and the stench of swamp and crash. She curled tighter for a moment, trying to shield herself from reality, but the whooshing of a heartbeat and that low scratchy voice tugged her back.

    She lifted her head from her patient's chest and blinked down at his face. "Sorry. Yes...yes I am alright." She couldn't bring herself to complain about the burns from the harness and the overall ache when the man who had saved her life was staring up at her with a bloody face and the livid green "scar" of her efforts at first aid.

    "Are you alright?" She flushed at the foolishness of the question as soon as the words were out of her mouth. "I mean, can you move...everything?" She straightened up a bit more in the confined space and ran light fingers over him as her eyes jumped back and forth from hands to face, though her expression soon shifted from one of concern to remembered terror to guilt. It wasn't fair that this stranger covered in scars and blood was hurt again, all because of her.

    Something in the debris hissed and popped like a soggy firecracker and made her jump. One hand lay on his left thigh and the over over his heart and in spite of the heat, her fingers were cold. She tore her gaze from his face and looked out on the alien world on which night was moving fast. She was afraid of the coming darkness and it showed in the furrow of her brows and press of her full lips. The shock of the experience was wearing off and she didn't know how to defend herself from the rising panic.
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  20. John Paul propped himself up on his elbows as the young woman sat up, almost instantly missing the soft smell of jasmine as the stink of Er swamp overwhelmed his senses. His dark eyes narrowed in the gathering gloom, watching her ever-changing and animated features by the dimming light of a gathering sunset. So his passenger had been Sarah then, Sarah Millson, and he smiled at the thought of how unspeakably jealous Danny would be right now, to be in this spot - well, except for the ship crash on an uninhabited planet that smelled like the unwashed bodies of a thousand teenage kids' shoved into a steam bath.

    He listened quietly as she spoke, wondering at the differences a broadcast voice could make, versus the sound of meeting in person. John Paul decided that for all the rising worry in her voice [well-founded, and certainly justified], he rather preferred the genuinely warm directness of her true voice, and he smiled.

    True, the smile faltered just a bit when she ran her hands all over his body, as if doing some medical inventory all over again though he could feel the sting of FleshMesh at his shoulder. But no matter - she was probably just brimming over with nervous, terrified energy. After all, everything about Sarah read as sincere - frightened, exhausted and probably still sore from the crash - but sincere nonetheless. She wasn't the groping kind.

    Well, until she was...

    John Paul sat straight up, the popping of some live electrical cable startling him too - but not simply for the unexpected noise. He worried for the water and electrical conduction and the possibility of a fatal shock - definitely not the same shock as when her little iceberg hands fell on his chest and the unsuspecting meat of his thigh!

    "WHOA!" John Paul jumped, yelped in a most genuinely unmanly way - and then couldn't help the laughter as he took the chilly hand that had been his chest between his own. He had no natural warmth in his prosthetic hands, but there was a facsimile of synthetic nerve endings there, hot and cold, pressure and even pain that he could disable when he needed. But a touch was a touch, and his was strong, and steady and commanding as he gently rubbed the soft skin there.

    "Your hands... A little chilly there Sarah," he said with a laugh as he continued to smile. John Paul had been a Colonial Marine for some of the best years of his adult life - he knew very well what panic looked and felt like, and he pitched his voice comfortingly, steadily, as he would to a green young Private about to get his first taste of combat.

    "Yes, yes I'm fine - you did a great job with the FleshMesh." John Paul honestly couldn't see the wound considering where it was, but he was conscious and breathing - she had to have done something right! "You kept your head straight while I was unconscious, you got me out - thank you for that Sarah" There was nothing but sincerity in his voice.

    "Night's coming though, and I've never been on this planet before." Even if there was no natural body heat in his hands, friction alone should help warm her up at least, return the circulation and cut through the chill, he hoped. Still, he lifted her hand, cupped between his, to his lips. A long, slow and warm breath traveled over her skin before he returned his hands, and hers, to his lap. "While there's still sunlight, I'm going to gather up the shuttle's emergency supplies, and maybe see about a fire for tonight - well, if everything we find isn't waterlogged. Would you like that?"

    The list of worries they had yet to face were legion, but sometimes when there is nothing left for any mere mortal to do in the face of the great dark unknown? The simpler things, the doable things, can still build flagging confidence - and sometimes even coax a hint of cheer that was as essential to survival as air, water, food and shelter. He hoped she might smile, even a little. "And I'm John Paul - or J.P. if you like."
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