“This sucks!” exclaimed Bogan as he slammed his helmet on the table and dropped his flight suit on the floor in a heap. He slumped into a chair in the dining hall, worn-out from a long day. The rating, which had looked so good on his record, had bought him a long day of repair work outside the ship.
“What are you whining about,” Aurora asked. “I spent all day crawling through air vents.”
Talya also looked haggard as she gulped down her long awaited meal. She would enjoy real food for as long as it lasted. After that it was condensed rations.
She paused between mouthfuls only long enough to ask, “Is there any word on when we can get underway?”
Aurora didn’t sound optimistic when she answered, “Another ten to fifteen days.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing we’re way out here,” Bogan stated as he reached for a portion off Talya’s plate. He jerked his hand back when a knife was swiped at it.
“Dead in space, we’d be easy prey.”
“A little closer would’ve been nice,” Aurora remarked.
“This is actually a blessing,” Talya said.
“How do you figure that?”
“We’re free and clear, and we’re outfitted for a colony.”
“Then we end up fighting this war all over again when they catch up with us,” responded Aurora. “What makes you think they won’t come looking for us?”
Talya glanced up from her plate. “They aren’t looking for us because we’re dead.”
“And if we go back,” added Bogan, “we’ll really be dead. There’s nothing back there for us. Out here, we could find some virgin world, start over, start living instead of dying. You’d two like that, wouldn’t you?”
The idea had a bit of appeal to Talya. Even with all of her hatred and bitterness the dream of someday being a normal person, living, loving, having children that weren’t simply recruits, still lurked somewhere in her dreams. The notion wrestled with the vision of the Krix home world in flames. For Aurora, any concept of a life without pain and death was beyond her.
The discussion faded as Sands approached the table with a tray of food. He’d noticed how the huddled figures sat back and were awkwardly quiet as he took a seat among them.
Not expecting a truthful response he asked, “What’s up?”
Aurora bluntly stated, “We’re discussing whether we should go back or not.” That was Aurora, blunt.
The others look annoyed with her, while Sands felt sort of perplexed. The subject seemed to be avoiding him in general conversation. It was pretty much assumed what his opinion would be. The Earth members of the crew fell in line with one choice, while the Aultrians were divided on the issue. Sands was almost offended at the assumption that his opinion would be preconceived by his place of birth.
“Well,” Sands said slowly. “I’m from Earth; of course I think that we should go back. We need to go back. But, I’m not foolish. I know how dangerous it would be. But then we have a greater responsibility here.”
Talya was a bit confused. “So what do you want?”
“The long-range scanners are back up,” Sands explained. “We could put a colony down in one of the nearby systems. There’s a couple of systems with possible planets close by. Then the ship can go with a minimal crew.”
“And leave a raw colony undefended?” stated Talya. “We don’t know who might live in this sector. There are more enemies out there than just the Krix.”
“We can leave some of the squadron.”
“You’d have to leave the entire squadron,” said Aurora, “and all of its support equipment. Hell, this damn ship is under staffed as is. You want to make a trip like that with even less of a crew?”
“I’ll fly this thing myself if I have to,” Sands admitted.
“I’m sure you would,” Aurora responded. “But do you have any idea how long it would take to set up a base? Even if we can get underway again, it could be over a cycle before you get there.”
“I can’t live without knowing. It’s eating holes in my guts. I haven’t slept in days.”
Bogan asked, “Why don’t they just send a signal back? It’ll take a while, but we can find out what happened.”
“It’ll expose our position,” stated Talya. “They’ll come after us.”
“So we move,” Bogan said, “turn around and keep going until this thing falls apart.”
“No,” Aurora declared, “with what little resources we have left, it’s all or nothing. We all go back, or we all run.”
Sands looked at Talya. “And you of course are all for the New World, right?”
“Are you kidding? We should’ve never stopped at Earth in the first place. If it were up to me, we’ve grabbed up our people and as much fuel and supplies as we could carry and kept going.”
“And leave seven billion people to be slaughtered?”
Talya had no qualms about speaking her mind. She was not only Aultrian, she was Numarrian, and not only Numarrian but an Ott girl. Before the loss of Aultra Ott had been a very rich, influential, and powerful clan. She wore her clan pin proudly, an O with crossed swords. The Earthers just didn’t seem to understand that.
“You have your own ships. I’ll bet your leaders already have plans to evacuate.”
“Oh, without a doubt, and I think we know what people are going to be on those ships, the rich.
“But you guys got all the big freighters and the firepower. That’s why you want Earth people on their own ships. So you can ditch ’em as soon as you leave.”
“I don’t advocate that,” Talya stated with conviction. “I’m a separatist, not a complete racist like your media portrays us.
“Your media already opening criticizes us for wanting to preserve our heritage. They label us as one of your hate groups.”
“Nobody says you can’t live as you want.”
“Oh yes they do,” she said emphatically. “Plenty of your religious leaders openly speak against us. They call us immoral for having open families. My clan, Ott, specifically has been mentioned. I don’t know what a Mafia is, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.”
“It’s not. And that’s irresponsible. However, the United States, like Aultra I might point out, has freedom of speech. Aside from whether or not I agree with them, I will fight to preserve their right to say it.”
“But these religious leaders have clout, people believe what they say, no matter how far from the truth it is. Even some of your political leaders criticize us for our way of life.”
“Who did that?”
“Your secretary of state said, just last month, that Aultrians would eventually have to conform to the laws of the United States.”
“Those people are living in the US. It’s not unreasonable to expect them to conform to the laws.”
“Like the laws against polygamy? I’m from Ott, a very old clan steeped in tradition. My father had five wives and two husbands.”
“Yeah, he gay?”
“What difference does that make? That’s another thing, you people hate your own let alone us. What’s it going to be like in a hundred cycles?
“If I could throw a switch right now and turn off the Krix, it would still be the end of Aultra. There’s just not enough of us. Our culture will be gobbled up by you barbarians. Just like your Native Americans, we’d be a shell of a once great people. Even if we could return to Aultra, there’s not more than fifteen-thousand of us at best. If we could return to Aultra, your people would be right behind us wanting to establish colonies. Think they’d adopt our ways? No, they’d want things their own way. Once again, there’d eventually be more of you than us.”
“There’s people that want to join your culture and ways,” Sands said. “I’ve been thinking about it myself.”
“Oh, we’ve had plenty of Earthers wanting to join Ott. They think it’s some commune where they can have orgies with all these women all the time and the rest of us will just support them. They think we’re just some society where a man can have six wives sucking his dick every night.
“We’re a little more than that.”
Aurora scoffed at that. “Ott’s a fucking cult.”
“Oh,” Talya countered, “there’s the voice of authority there. What do you know about family? Or anything else other than your own bitter little self.”
“I had a family, alright,” Aurora snarled. “I was human once.”
Talya fell quiet at that. She realized they were moving into forbidden terrain for arguing. There were boundaries that even she wouldn’t cross.
Sands broke the awkward moment with, “Hey, we’re not perfect, but neither are you.”
“I never said we better than you,” said Talya. “I said we’re different. Your people don’t like different. They like conformists.
“Don’t break the rules, get alone, don’t speak out, and always have the latest and newest. Earth could never handle the level of freedom Aultra had.”
“What? A world where casual sex is like a handshake and true relationships are practically extinct? Sure we could. A place where all drugs are legal and you can blow your mind apart and legally kill yourself. What’s the addiction rate there?”
“I said we weren’t perfect. Every society has their issues.
“As you know, most of us can’t get pregnant without help. Your US government going to help us with that?”
“You did that to yourselves. Didn’t you think there’d be a price to pay for screwing with your genetics and extending your life span? What’s the birth rate among you guys? Seventy-five percent female?”
“Yeah, and you Earthers can’t stand that we live to over a hundred fifty. It’s not that we haven’t offered it to you, your governments don’t want you to have it. Only certain people.”
“Yeah, I know that. Just the fuckin’ rich. Not us regular people.”
“Excuse me, Sands,” Aurora interrupted, “didn’t you have it done?”
He groaned at that. “Of course I did. You think I’d have a shit of a chance of getting it on Earth. I owe it to any children I might have.”
“How noble of you.”
“Look,” Sands continued, “there’s plenty of room for mutual acceptance here.”
“No there isn’t,” Talya argued. “Earthers will never accept us as we are. Especially my culture, Numarrian.”
“I think if you just give it some time. There are already Aultrians integrating into our society, by choice. Most people will accept you if you let us. Our people are already inter-marrying.”
“Yeah, the damn Nationalist. But you have no problem with them, they’re more like you.”
“I just don’t think trying to isolate yourselves, hide from reality, is very realist. Come on now, you asked what it’s gonna be like in a hundred cycles? There’s no way our cultures aren’t going to blend at some point.”
“Sands, you know as well as I they aren’t going to ‘blend’. Our culture well fade into yours. Especially mine. It’s only been three cycles since we lost Aultra and it’s already happening. How can you not see my point of view? You’re black, look what happened to your people.”
“There’s no ‘my people’, I’m an American.”
Talya stood and gathered up her dishes. “Really? Tell that to those other Americans over there, those white Americans.”
Back in her small private closet of a room, Aurora thought about where Sterett was as she poured a drink from her stash of whisky. It hadn’t been hidden in some secret compartment, but merely stowed in a cabinet with the rest of the case. What would they do if they found it? Ground her? Not likely.
After filling her small square glass with the warm brown liquid, she placed the bottle out of sight behind a lamp on the nightstand. Unsnapping the buckle on her weapon belt, she hung the big gun on the head post of the bed and sat on the hard mattress.
How easy it would be to join Sterett. The biggest thing preventing that option was the fear of the world she might be reborn into. That’s if she came back at all. Her childhood faith was long gone; it was now just wishful thinking. How had she come to this?
After sucking down the bitter drink, she reached for the bottle again. It had come from Earth and she was unable to read label. In an act of defiance, she’d refused to learn how to read the local language; they should have been learning Aultrian.
Instead of the bottle, her hand found her sidearm. Without thinking she pulled it from the holster and sat staring at it. The power pack was mostly full and the firing chamber charged. All she had to do was snap off the safety and change the selector from stun to fire, which her thumb did all on its own.
Maybe the next world wouldn’t be so bad. After all, she’d be going one way or another; it was just a matter of time. What did it matter when?
Aurora put the barrel to her temple, just to see how it felt. Then a thought occurred to her. She should lower the penetration setting so the round wouldn’t pierce the wall and hit someone else.
A figure appeared at her door that she’d nonchalantly left open. Bogan stood in the doorway not saying a word. She glanced back at him then coldly snapped, “What?”
“Not interrupting, am I?”
“Actually, you are.” She lowered the gun, looked at it a moment, then put it away.
“Sterett,” he uttered.
The look on his face, the pain in his eyes, she knew it. With a nod she invited him in. He sat on a stool across from her while she found another, different shaped, glass and filled it for him.
“You should be use to this by now,” she said softly. “We should be use to it.”
Bogan gulped down most of his drink. Then stared down into the glass and the different hues of the liquid that remained. “He was one of us. He was so strong. I never thought I’d out last him.”
A tear slipped from the big man’s eye and was quickly wiped away. He couldn’t believe how bad he felt about that one man dying. Not after all he’d already lost.
“I know.” She reached over and refilled his glass, then her own.
“We know what’s gonna happen, so we try not to get attached to people.” She shook her head slightly, “We’ve been together so long, been through so much. I can’t seem to stop them from getting in.”
“Ya know what I want,” Bogan’s voice became bitter. “I wanna live long enough to kill one of them, not just their machines, one of them.”
He pulled his weapon from its holster and shook it in the air as his tone became more and more angry. “I’d walk up to it, whatever the hell it is, and say, ‘this is what it’s like.’ Blow the damn thing all over the wall.”
Aurora half smiled with the thought.
“Or better yet,” he continued. “Bring in its whole family and everyone its ever known, blow ‘em all away. This is how it feels, this is what‘s it like.”
“That’s if they have feelings,” Aurora said.
“The old man was right, we should’ve taken this ship and rammed down their throats while we had the chance.”
“Yanex is too consumed by his anger, and so are you.”
“You’re not angry?”
“I’m not anything.”
Bogan looked up. “It’s all I have left, hate.”
Row after row, the lifeless forms lined the forward portion of the starboard landing-bay (launch-bay four). Each body was wrapped in gray cloth, like a mummy. Material for coffins were better used elsewhere, the living took priority. The only difference between them was a small name plate and rank insignia. Other than that, they were all the same. Death treated them equally, even if life had not.
Yanex knelt over one of the bodies and placed his hand on a colonel badge, the name Tellious was on it.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the man he had worked so closely with, a man he barely knew.
“For all of you,” he called out for people around to hear. It was a last chance to say good-bye before the remains were swept into space to drift among the stars.
Slowly, the General walked each row. He spoke briefly with the crewmembers that were there. He was hard pressed to come up with comforting words for his people. In fact, he received more than he gave out. A pat on the shoulder or hug was all he was capable of; any more would have broken him.
Captain Ratoe met him by the transport doors. “The first tests look good, sir,” Ratoe reported. “We should be able to get underway in another twelve days.”
Yanex stood a moment in silence as Ratoe awaited a response. With a heavy sigh he finally stated, “Plot a course back to Earth, best speed.”
Yanex placed a hand on Ratoe’s shoulder. “One way or another, we have to know.”