Copyright @ J.C. Bell, 2003
All rights reserved
Registered 2003 @ Library of Congress
For the children, may they be immortal.
"I've spent ages searching for answers . . . for truth. I had lost everything, learned nothing. Finally my quest ended. Finally I understood . . ."
--ADROS, Elven Forefather
I will not fail . . .
The thought of it kept her going, made her strong -- stronger than they ever could have imagined her to be.
Rose petals drifted to the earth. Tumbling to the grass, their crimson forms decayed the moment they landed on the bed of blades. The surrounding forest groaned, shrinking back in horror as the woman yanked petal after petal from the rose. Gnarled. Ancient. The elder oaks loomed over the woman, attempting to be menacing, but betraying their true emotions with the trembling of their limbs.
This is my reality. My world to create.
She felt the rose dying in her hand. With every petal she destroyed its agony echoed in her soul. She wove her bond tighter, becoming one with the rose as it fell into death.
The rose had a voice and from her lips it screamed . . .
. . . Darkness. Nothing but darkness. The closer I get the more it keeps me at bay.
Would she ever be strong enough?
She awoke in a world of dust, sitting with her legs crossed on a parched and cracked land. The world around her was filled with heat and with wind, illuminated by a pair of suns that nearly covered the entire western sky. All that she saw, all that she could see, was a flat wasteland of dust.
H'Aleron, the planet was called. One of the first to fall to the Plague and former home of the once thriving civilization known as the Makii -- a race thought to be immortals, masters of life and death. It was here that the Plague was made, created by the Makii.
The Dead Gods, She thought, looking upon their ruined world in disgust.
By the position of the planet’s suns, she judged it to be midday. Oribus hung at its peak. Its orange rays enough to char her flesh without a constant halo of power to protect her. Meanwhile, the Blue Wife was rising on the horizon, a distant sun -- more light than heat. When alone, the Blue Wife turned the world to ice. Daily, the sudden changes in temperature birthed demon winds of sand and ice that have long since washed away even the largest of H'Aleron's monuments -- natural or hand-made.
In her journeys, she had found that all of the fallen worlds shared this fate. The Plague's hunger for life proved insatiable and highly adaptable, infecting all life forms on a cellular level. After running its course, nothing is left.
H'Aleron may have been the first to fall, but not the last. The Makii drained the life from their mother-world then moved on, and on, and on . . .
Every world they left behind became a lifeless shell, its people slaves for their army. She had traveled to hundreds of the Forsaken Worlds, hoping to revive a small part of any one of them, but she always found her way back to H'Aleron -- the most lifeless one of all. Many said these dead lands would never revive, but she found the impossibility of the task a fitting lesson, the suffering of failure and death granted her a knowledge that seemed to come hand in hand in this hell. Just to dwell here took every bit of her focus and discipline, but she had not only survived, but thrived. And she had done so alone for quite some time.
Then he came.
It had been ages since last they met, but she recognized his presence immediately. Among the Elder Gods, he was unique.
'Your skill has grown considerably, Alana,' the newcomer thought, materializing behind her.
Motionless, she took a moment before sending her reply, absorbing him with her mind.
The old form, she thought, not the least bit surprised at his choice.
One of his many bodies, the old form was actually a mimicry of the flesh in which he was born; humanoid standing no more than five feet tall and hefty, lugging a rotund potbelly. His eyes were brown and bulging on his face. Deep set in thick rings of black, his eyes appeared even larger than they actually were, seemingly filling the entire upper portion of his face. His thin, pale lips looked more like a pair of scars than a mouth. Practically bald, the man had only two patches of brown hair, one on each side of his head. His pants hung loose at his hips, but at the knees his legs were covered in strips of white cloth, which tightly wound their way down his shins and ankles. Clasped around his neck, a mossy, green cape draped over his bulbous stomach. Interwoven in the fabric; hundreds of silver, cup shaped bells jingled on his belly as he walked toward her.
Wherever he stepped seedlings burst from the dusty earth, instantly blooming into white flowers.
'Yes, Anon. I've learned much during my exile,' she replied, rising to her feet without moving a single muscle. As he took shape in her mind, she couldn't help but remember how it once was -- undoubtedly his intention -- and felt suddenly at ease. 'Yet, after all this time I still feel a failure.'
'Thus far we have all failed,' the man said soothingly, his thin lips stretching into a grin as he continued to approach her. 'You know I am sorry for this, your exile, but we had to question your loyalty.'
Though it suddenly welled inside her, she stifled her rage, hiding her true thoughts and emotions from the mind of the other.
'Loyalty? It was my heart that you questioned,' she thought, lowering her face to the ground, focusing her attention on the winding pattern of cracks below. 'You believed my emotions misplaced, my actions misjudged. What I failed to believe was the depths of the Plague. I underestimated the darkness, and for that I gladly suffer. If only I could change the past . . .'
'Unfortunately, all that we have is the future,' sadness coated his thoughts.
Ages ago she had been deemed worthy by the Elder Gods to be a Savior, one who traveled to the dying worlds collecting the Chosen Ones, the children of the gods. It was they who would grow to one day recreate what the Plague destroyed.
'And me? What of my future?' she cautiously asked, knowing that in light of her dishonor she dare not hope for much. She had failed the Elder Gods on the elven world, Ki'minsyllessil, disobeying their orders to return with the Children, choosing instead to lead them into battle against the undead. The elven race had been so promising; immune to the Plague and virtually immortal. It wasn't until the Plague swept them all away that she finally understood the depths of the darkness. No matter how courageously the elves had fought to defend their world, the undead continued to advance. In the end, her efforts resulted in defeat, and the work of the gods was lost upon that world, their every last progeny taken by the Plague.
The elves. Pupils of white within a pool of gray. An entire race decimated. After the passing of ages she could still see the eyes and knew that their white pupils would be burned into her mind for all time.
'You can join us anytime,' he wearily replied, shaking his head. 'You know that, Alana. The real question is are you ready?'
Will I ever be? she reflected, choosing to save the thought for her mind alone. Adros . . . What have I done to you?
'Despite our best plans, best efforts, the worlds continue dying. We have all failed, and lost that which we love. We need you back, Alana. We are the final hope. Without us, all will perish, it is inevitable. Every Child matters.'
For a time their minds were blank, as desolate as their surroundings. It was believed that only by combining the efforts of thousands could the Plague be undone. Every child they saved brought them closer to that goal and the hope that one day their ability to recreate could counterbalance what the Plague destroyed.
Despite her many failures, her time alone had taught her only one thing.
I will not stand back and watch as another world falls into darkness.
The Elders were wrong.
'I'm sorry. I cannot return. I no longer believe in your cause.'
'I'm sorry to hear that.'
He was beside her, had placed his hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and found his wide eyes staring up at her.
'Perhaps, with more time you will remember why you once believed, once cared, once joined to fight in our cause,' he said.
His eyes, massive pools of brown. She fell into them -- had never been able to look at them without being drawn in.
She remembered when she had first seen them. Instead of falling, she had been flying. A child, fragile and drowning in a world of darkness. She remembered how she swam like mad toward those brown orbs, how they had shined upon her -- a binary sunrise on the horizon of her dark world.
Among the Elders, Anon was rumored to be the most ancient of all, and that he lived before the Plague, back when the worlds were one. Even in those days he devoted his power to children, traveling the worlds not as a Savior but a Merri-man. Though condemned by his brethren of the time -- for they deemed such displays beneath them -- he was somewhat of a celebrity among the worlds. His performances had been legendary, though no living being had the fortune to see him perform, herself included. Before the Plague, he brought joy to countless children. After the Plague, he had saved but a handful from death. One of which was Alana.
'For you, I will consider it.'
He held her hand.
'Thank you, Alana. And know, that regardless of your decision I will not be, nor have I ever been, disappointed in you.'
Her hand was empty, her thoughts all her own. Anon was gone. A garden of white petals erupted from where he had stood. Her surroundings remained as empty as ever, but she no longer felt alone.
'Is she ready then?'
'And her loyalty, will she betray us once more?'
'I count on it.'
'But will she succeed, Anon? Will she be able to stand against the darkness?'
Anon felt doubt in the thoughts of the other, could see her fear festering like gangrene of the mind.
A strange lapse for an Elder, Anon thought. Strange, but perhaps justified. We have but one world left, one chance.
'Who better than her. After all, she is the only one of us to have ever done so before.'
"Merrick . . ."
The man's wrinkled hand disappeared as he placed it on Merrick's back, enveloped by his thick wool cape.
"You must learn to let go," the man continued, his voice worn, weary and scraping its way through his throat. "We've done what we can here."
Adel had never encountered a Healer as powerful in the Singularity as Merrick. Young, unskilled in anatomy and a slow learner when it came to herbal and biological healing, but even so, time after time Adel stepped aside, his own knowledge and power defeated, only to watch as his young student performed miracles.
Like most Healers, Adel was an outcast of the Order of Magi. Too weak to become more than an apprentice mage, they deemed him unfit and sent him from the High Tower after what was only a short stay. Immediately he was drawn to the Healers, finding in them the perfect mixture of Singularity and knowledge, both of which always balanced and limited by mortality. Adel could sidestep what the Order considered his limitation by increasing his knowledge of biological and chemical healing, and when his knowledge failed, the Singularity was always there to work its little wonders. Because of this, Adel had grown to become one of the Seventh World's most respected and requested Healers.
Merrick on the other hand, had never bothered to enter the Order. All Merrick ever wanted was to be a Healer. Without knowledge, he could stop infections, heal the crippled, give the blind back their sight, but what he attempted now . . . only knowledge could deal with such things.
"Merrick, some things are simply not meant to be. You must learn this if you wish to become a Healer. You must learn this and you must let them go. Sometimes all we can offer them is freedom from their pain."
Kneeling in a pool of blood, his body heaving from exhaustion Merrick coldly replied, "No. This is different, I can feel it. I don't know why, Adel, I just know this baby cannot die. He must live."
He slowly arose, positioning himself once more before the table. In front of him, droplets of blood continued to fall, pooling on the floor. His body engulfed in flames of blue, Merrick pried her legs apart. Already they had grown stiff, fighting to contain the last bit of life within her dead flesh. The flames found him, a dim thumping surrounded in silence. The flames cradled him, gave him warmth as they pulled him free. It took all of Merrick's energy to free him . . . even more to give him life.
Merrick saved him. Collapsing to the floor his life became a shadow, a dream, alien and unfamiliar as it followed him down into oblivion. His pain and every living emotion ceased to be.
With a sudden wail, his pain began.
They watched him. Always they watched. They were at the conception, spent the days at her side as he grew within. Anxiously they watched as he came to be, born of a dead womb.
A voice spoke in a broken whisper, like dead leaves blowing in the wind, "Our gifts to the Merrick proved sufficient."
"We knew they would," replied the other, his words tinged with regret.
"I only hope the boy child will prove as sufficient."
"Of course he will."
"I envy your certainty, Anon. The Plague has evolved beyond our control, what makes you think this creation will be different, that this one can be contained?"
"I am certain he cannot," Anon replied to the being. "In the end there will be only Him."
"Then our time is done?"
Anon sensed excitement growing from the Dead God.
"He will take you back to the Maker, back to His ways. All things must end. The best we can ever hope for is a new beginning."
The creature, once so powerful and feared it dominated the universe, now shriveled into itself, a pile of shadows and dust.
"Yes, Anon. Death . . . I see the truth of it now."
In centuries there had been none like him. A Black Mage, a true Gatekeeper. Possibly even a god. Was there no limit to his power and potential? He certainly thought not, and meant to test that belief. What better way to do so than a journey through the Black Door? He had already confirmed his ability to control the Rift, and now with two hundred of his most loyal soldiers he would enter it – to the dead with the Keeper and his archaic laws. If the Plague was real, he would send it running back through the Black Door and return home a hero. The Keeper himself would have no choice but to bow before him.
Until then, secrecy was a must. The Council would condemn him to death for the mere ability to open the Rift. But for daring to enter it, the entire Seventh World would rise against him.
His troops gathered in formation near the stairway of stacked circular stones leading up to the Rift – a haze of blue flames muffled the crunch of steel boots on dry bones, and clattering plate mail. The cover of night and the shadow of Lock Core did the rest, hiding them from prying eyes. Though typically none but tourists ever visited the wall, and at this hour the wall was sure to be empty -- never was it guarded. If there was some army of horrors within the Rift, the great wall would be all but useless to stop them. The man was determined to prove to everyone that only he had that power.
A wave of blue flames surged from his fingertips, blending with the utter blackness of the Rift. Soon the flames and darkness coalesced, spiraling outward into what seemed like oblivion. The outline of the Rift began to throb, pulsating like a beating heart.
Behind him, his army began their march. They moved in perfect formation; patient, calm, confident in their leader’s power and the glory they were soon to find under his command. Wolf helms hid their faces while their dark armor blended with the night. Those at the head of the procession gazed forward through crossbow sights, their fingers caressing the triggers as they strode toward the gaping black slit hanging in the air. They hesitated but an instant at the dark threshold then, continuing their march they were consumed within the pool of black.
Though their comrades vanished before them, those who followed never faltered their steps. Walking with swords and shields raised before them, they entered the swirling, pulsing hole ten by ten until their black robed leader was the last man left. Then, surrounded in flames of blue, he too disappeared into the Rift . . .
Together they died and were reborn in a world of darkness and bitter cold. Only with his eyes of blue fire could he see the blackened trunk before them, so thick and massive its girth filled the horizon. So tall it vanished in the clouds.
Only he could see it come alive -- the black roots seeping from the earth, ensnaring the boots of the soldiers who were blind to its existence. By the time his soldiers discovered its presence -- felt it crawling up their flesh -- it was too late. Within moments the entire army was consumed.
His blue flames held the darkness at bay, allowing those who could, to flee back to the Rift, to the safety of the Seventh World. His power and barrier of blue flames fading against the onslaught, the man in black was forced to abandon the rest of the soldiers to the darkness. With his last bit of strength he turned, preparing to dive back into the Rift. Before his feet left the soil of the forsaken world, a single strand of black shot toward him, curling around his ankle as he leapt.
And then . . . there was fire. Burning him from the inside out. And a voice . . .
'My seed shall grow upon this land.'
Along with the handful of soldiers he saved, he collapsed on the soil of the Seventh World. Lying at the foot of the Rift they were burned alive by flames of black. Every trace of life forever scorched from their flesh.
First, he felt consumed with the shame of failure. What a fool he had been to think himself invincible.
Then, as his soldiers lay screaming around him, LeCynic began to laugh, for the darkness seeped into his blood, filling him with true power -- immortality. Now, he truly was invincible.
He stormed down the steel corridors, furious for having been awakened – and so rudely at that. Red lights flashed around him, hounding him every step he took. They only tracked him, coming to life the moment he drew near, and then disappearing the moment he left – ensuring he couldn’t ignore the warning no matter where he went. He knew the only way to stop them was to go to their source.
Worse yet, was the siren. Even if he somehow could outrun the red lights, the siren echoed through every nook and cranny of the entire ship. He had stuffed his ears with strips of his uniform to endure his trip, but even with the sound muffled, he wondered if he could keep his sanity long enough to reach his destination.
The polished steel walls seemed like a maze, but he knew them well – probably too well. He navigated his way with ease, every little nick and scratch a landmark.
He took a shortcut through the stasis chamber, making a quick inspection of the many cylindrical tubes lining the chamber walls. He was satisfied to note that only one in ten of the tubes displayed readings beyond optimal parameters – none were malfunctioning. One tube in particular drew his immediate concern, but again, all vital signs were normal, stasis systems ideal. His small fingers cleared a trail of dust from her tube, revealing the angelic face within. She seemed all but lifeless within her glass canister, like a doll on display – her oxygen deprived skin porcelain white, and her bright blue eyes, sparkling, multifaceted gems. All he knew was her name, for like all the others, it was etched in her stasis tube’s glass – XF601 – GEMINI. As he often did, he fantasized what it would be like to actually meet her, to learn the real identity behind those blue eyes. But as always, he resigned himself to the fact that they would never meet, and he would have to be content loving the woman he iMagined her to be. He gave her one last look of longing, and then moved on.
He neared the end of the chamber, where the empty tubes were stacked, then paused once more. He turned, his own gem-like eyes falling on one of the empty tube’s transcriptions.
XM591 – RAPHEAL
He stared at the writing as if lost, his mind drifting to another life.
The siren brought him back.
His head starting to ache from the constant blaring, he continued on.
He thanked the old Gods, when at last he reached his destination. The doorway was larger than those he had passed, and opened into a vast, dome-shaped chamber – the walls all made of the same polished steel as the corridors. The chamber door was half open -- a scrap of bent metal jammed in its track. He looked at the doorway and grunted, remembering how he fought for a full standard day to pry the door open the last time it was shut. His “repair” wasn’t very sophisticated, but it had lasted for over three standard years.
He stomped into the room, growing angrier. In his sleep he had been free of this ship -- its steel walls and malfunctioning equipment. In his sleep there had only been peace. All he wanted was to fall back into it. To forget he ever stepped foot into this place, maybe dream of his long lost life.
“Why in the dead did you wake me?” He asked of the empty room, screaming to be heard above the wailing siren.
The siren stopped, silence was his only reply.
He hoped the ship wasn’t simply having one of its moments. Sometimes he wondered if it felt as lonely as he did.
One could say the ship was sentient, artificially intelligent (though he was reluctant to credit it with the intelligent part). Among his people, it was a highly prized piece of tech, which they had stolen from a distant alien world. Once the language barrier had been overcome, the ship was virtually self-sufficient, and operated on voice command alone.
It named itself Argos.
Now its communication was limited to a Delphinian program that interpreted its data then projected it onto a common holo-screen -- in the rare occasions when the holo-screen was actually functioning, which, at the moment it wasn’t.
The being put his hands on the wall. Glowing buttons appeared wherever his fingers met the smooth steel. His fingers were thin and tiny, and danced rapidly on the console. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach many of the buttons, his full height no greater than four standard feet.
Unable to initiate the monitor manually, he switched his strategy; forming his hand into a fist, he tried pounding the blinking symbols into submission. Receiving little more than bruised knuckles for his efforts, he gave up on the console and dropped to the floor, his little fingers brushing through the dust until there was a sudden “Click”, and a section of the metal floor levitated upward. It hovered before him as though weightless, then he pushed the panel away and dove headfirst into the pit of multicolored wires and blinking lights.
A geyser of sparks soon filled the maintenance shaft and the ship's monitor flickered to life.
A crackle of energy, followed by more sparks, and the monitor brightened and expanded, the words upon it stretching horizontally to unrecognizable dimensions. Gradually, the image stabilized. Though the words remained unreadable; scrolling down the screen faster than any living eye could read. After some grumbling from below the bridge, the list slowed, becoming comprehensible at last.
“There, should give me a little time,” the being said, before scampering back out of the maintenance shaft.
He moved quick, freeing his small form from the tangle of wires, and scrambling to a stand. A pair of emerald green eyes darted to the monitor. The eyes were even facetted like gems and sparkled in the dim light of the console.
Line after line beginning with the word WARNING, slid down the screen, detailing the ship's major hull defects -- which may as well have been a cabin by cabin breakdown of the ship's exterior, for it appeared that every exterior room had either been lost to the vacuum of space or soon would be.
Not that he wasn't aware of every last crack in the ship -- having patched most of them himself. Those he couldn't repair had been sealed off to the extremes of space by welding the cabin doors shut, leaving the rooms forsaken.
After a structural illustration of the entire ship came into view -- the elliptical exterior highlighted in blinking red lights -- the hull report faded off screen, immediately followed by a status update for the life-support systems. The only words to follow were -- Status unknown. In order to keep the crew alive over all the years the Captain in Transit had cannibalized non-essential systems, turning the life-support into a mass of rerouted wires and cables, their functions no longer recognizable by the ship's own diagnostics.
"Come on, Argos," he declared, his voice gruff, his vocal chords stiff from lack of use. "Tell me something I don’t know."
Growling, his eyes flaring in anger, the being deleted any internal ship readings as soon as they appeared, no matter how insistently they flashed "WARNING". He had long since learned to stop jumping any time he read "failure this" or "danger that". Having kept the ancient vessel moving through space the last seventeen standard years, he knew there was little the computer could tell him about the ship that he didn't already know. The majority of the warnings he had already dealt with to the best of his abilities -- and dwindling resources. Those beyond repair simply had to be ignored or avoided. As long as the ship continued to move through space, and its cargo (living or otherwise) remained safe, the barrage of warning lights didn't faze him one bit. It all appeared to be standard stuff, certainly nothing worth waking for.
“What gives, Argos? You have something to say then spit it out.”
The reports switched to the external sensors, and the probes.
The first thing he noticed was the abundance of new data, and the lack of a correlating time frame.
“Argos, exactly how long have I been sleeping?”
Part of his job as Captain in Transit was to observe external readings once every ten-day. What he saw now was enough data to span over three such time periods.
Argos sent him another warning –
It suddenly made sense.
His last ship repair had been a warning he couldn't ignore. The ship transported a number of dangerous items, one of which required a constant supply of energy to keep its destructive power contained. The barrier field had been on the verge of failure, requiring him to reroute numerous other systems to keep the field maintained – which was no easy task, considering the limited functioning systems, and jumble of power feeds sprouting from the ship's core in a seemingly random manner. One of the functioning systems that he happened to reroute had been the ship's internal chronometer, which -- in his exhaustion -- he forgot to reset.
In his seemingly endless drifting through the void of space, time itself seemed to lose meaning without the ship's internal clock to dictate its passing. The ship's clock was the only thing that kept him grounded to life, allowed him to maintain a daily schedule in an environment where stars abounded but never rose nor set, merely faded from his view-screen.
Normally, to keep sane, he liked a vigorous day that emphasized discipline by way of extreme fitness. The routine served dual purposes. First, it kept him healthy and physically fit in an otherwise stagnant environment. Second, it kept his senses sharp, alive, giving him something to focus on even if it was physical pain.
He couldn't remember his last session of physical fitness, of which his scrawny arms and legs would attest. He mostly remembered wandering the ship. No specific memories, just visions of a nightmarish maze of recurring steel corridors. At one point he felt so familiar with the maze he began to think he could even escape it. He must have wandered for days before he came to the realization that he truly did know the way out, and that it couldn't be found in any of the ship's twisting corridors. He wasn't even sure how much of his wandering had been done while awake or dreaming but finally he simply gave up. There was only one way off of Argos. He rested his head on the smooth steel floor and finally found peace.
Then he was awakened by Argos.
Even when the ship's clock was functioning, the being didn't know exactly how long it had been since the fleet disbanded and he had entered hibersleep.
He only knew that there had been seventy-five Captains in Transit before him – a fact he knew well, having counted the empty hiberpods on numerous occasions.
The burden of Captain in Transit was his until death. At which time the seventy-seventh captain would awake from their slumber to suffer the burdens of a decaying ship and fruitless mission. Should they fail to find safe harbor for their cargo, the cycle would continue until the tenth generation, failing at long last with the death of the final captain in that rotation.
Perhaps his entire race would die at that time. In all his long hours of wandering through the computer's memory, the last recorded contact with another member of the fleet had been over a hundred standard years ago. Even that hadn't been much of a contact, merely a drifting vessel with its warning signal blaring through the galaxies. The Captain in Transit who had come upon it, confirmed the warning transmission was Makiian, then detonated it the moment he came into range.
Where the rest of the fleet ended up was anyone’s guess. When they disbanded, the ships set out in opposite directions throughout the universe. He doubted much of the fleet remained any longer. Considering the troubles he had dealt with in his rotation alone, it wouldn't surprise him if Argos was the only one left. Space travel was dangerous enough without every world being filled with the undead plague.
Smallings. Half-men. His people were known by many names throughout the worlds. But to themselves they would always be known as Delphinians, or in the shorter form -- Delphins. Named for their fallen home-world, Delphi.
His people had always been builders and inventors, their nimble fingers and sharp minds had birthed some of the greatest technological advancements in the universe. But after the Mage-lords conquered the worlds, technology itself became banned. His people became hunted, their technology threatened with destruction. Forced to abandon their home-world to the Mage-lords, they no longer had a planet but a fleet. Space became their new home.
They may have been great inventors, but after the Age of War they were even better pirates. While all other races forfeited their technologies, his kind continued to thrive in theirs, traveling the stars in the old way. Though slower than the Gate, they moved invisible to even the Mage-lords. They never stayed on solid land for more time than it took to fill their hulls, then, before the Mage-lords stormed through the Gate their fleet was well beyond the power of their so-called Oneness.
The elders used to talk of a time when the planets were ripe for plunder and a single Captain could see a hundred conquests in a lifetime. Now, after reading through the logs of his predecessors, there hadn't been a living planet in well over two hundred standard years. The Plague had seen an end to all plunder, sweeping through the planets at a rapidly accelerating rate.
In the beginning, the Fleet had fared better than the worlds, being untethered to the Rift like the rest of the races. But even his race of drifters had not been immune. The first time they encountered the Makiian Virus, many ships were lost before comprehension set in. Once they figured out that even their weapons were no match for this dark version of the Oneness, they quarantined the infected ships then fired upon them.
For a time they sought to study the virus with their technology. But even their greatest scientists were baffled, for it was birthed by the Oneness, something his people typically fled from, not studied. In their arrogance they had always thought their own science was the superior path, and therefore had never bothered to study the Oneness.
Because it was so highly contagious and foreign to them, all thoughts of studying the virus were abandoned. Any contact forbidden. Infected worlds could not be set upon, to do so was an act of war against the fleet. Many ships were lost in the beginning, before they knew what to scan for.
But eventually they adapted to the growing evil, even formed a sort of plan to combat it. Once more his people focused on technology, marauding the living planets and taking their secret reserves of ancient weapons and occasional ships. With the Mage-lords focused on shielding themselves from the horrors of the Rift, the Delphinians were free to plunder unopposed.
Their plan was to steal their weapons then leave the planets to rot. If the Plague ever found them in space, they would have an arsenal of weapons capable of sending it back into the Rift forever.
The years passed and the planets died, meanwhile lacking supplies (either bought or stolen) from the worlds, the fleet fell into ruin. Having nothing in their hoard of weapons capable of battling the ravages of time, they had to face the plague, or sit and die.
The Delphinians decided they would find a living world and make a stand.
That was the day the Captain in Transit went into hibersleep, and his mission began.
Many years later he awoke, and found himself in charge of a ruined ship and a mission on the brink of failure.
During his reign as acting captain he devoted a great deal of time studying the weapons in his hull. Unfortunately, the technology behind the weapons was ancient and alien, and for the most part, beyond his understanding. As for finding worlds, so far he had found thousands of them, all infected.
Because of these failures, perhaps a part of him had never wanted to restart the ship's chronometer. Maybe he had finally accepted the fact that he was lost, and his time was running out. All the blood and sweat that he put into his stringent routine and ship repairs had been for naught, and that his days as Captain in Transit would end as inglorious as his predecessors -- as would the poor bastards that had to follow him.
"Fine, will you let me go back to sleep if I fix the chronometer?”
The siren blared to life again, louder than ever. Every inch of the chamber walls were flashing red.
“Argos, enough,” he pleaded, falling to his knees. “Just tell me what you want.”
As suddenly as the alarm started, it stopped. The external readings reappeared, beginning with the probes -- there remained three that yet transmitted a signal, though all of which were but faintly detected. As it was so fond of doing, Argos also sent him a warning: Core power failing in probes 541, 783, and 777. Requesting immediate send-back for core restructuring. Communication loss imminent.
The Captain in Transit knew better. He had already set a limit to their search perimeter. Their signal was as powerful as it would ever get, as long as he kept them close they shouldn't wander off.
"Wait a minute. What happened to probe 363?"
Argos responded by redisplayed the previous warning.
"Fine," the Delphin growled. "Just get on with the one's we got."
Terrestrial Probe 541 --
Habitable zone binary system.
Atmosphere -- 40 parts methane, 18 parts diacetylene . . . ammonia . . . hydrogen sulfide. . .
He had seen enough. Probe 541 faded off screen.
The next probe -- 783 -- sent a similar reading; Habitable zone, toxic atmosphere, vegetation nil, weather unstable, etc . . . More all too familiar data.
He expected nothing less from the final probe.
777 . . .
. . . habitable zone.
. . . oxygen rich.
. . . weather stable.
Life-forms. . .
. . . multiple readings.
The Captain’s thin, stick-like legs nearly crumpled beneath him.
“What of the Plague?” He begged of the ship, his gruff baritone voice strangely out of place in his seemingly adolescent frame.
. . . Makiian virus - 0%.
He recovered himself, his fingers once more flying on the control panel.
97,483.397 light years.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Argos?" he roared. "Set a course."
The star-chart of Argos’ course appeared on screen, already plotted and engaged.
“What’s the problem then?”
Gravdrive 59% efficiency.
With that amount of power, neither him, nor those who followed, would live to see the planet. He no longer felt the need for sleep. He finally had a real means of escape from his ship. His emerald eyes lingered on the screen a moment longer to make sure it wasn’t just a dream, and then he dove back into the maintenance shaft where he knew he would spend his next ten-day in the ship's bowels, feeding as much power as possible to the gravdrive.
Shortly after he left, another warning appeared.
. . . Makiian virus - .001% . . . .002% . . . .004%
It continued to grow exponentially, until there was a growl and flicker of sparks.
Then screen flickered and went blank once more.
Argos tried to access its emergency faculties, but they were nowhere to be found. The Captain in Transit had already rerouted all emergency power to the gravdrive. Electric currents flared in the ancient computer’s brain as it attempted to scream a warning. But lacking a connection to the physical world, it was a warning only Argos could hear.