Earth, the seventh colony.
Before recorded time.
Cassiopeia dropped out of hyperspace just above the little blue planet. The silver ship’s sentient computer started her scans of the surface, gathering atmospheric readings and searching for an appropriate location to touch down, her seven crew members still suspended in their sleep capsules.
When a suitable landing site had finally been acquired and all surface readings reported optimal ranges, Cassiopeia initiated the awakening sequence for the mission commander.
Lights flickered inside the capsule as the air pressure adjusted to match that of the ship’s interior. The opaque shielding became translucent revealing the sleeping figure within, her naked flesh paler than it had been when she had first entered. A myriad of tubes and wires slowly retracted from her body and slid back into the inner workings of the capsule. The Commander took her first unassisted breath in years, although to her it felt like she was just waking from a long slumber. Millions of synapses fired in her brain. Neurotransmitters brought her from the foggy depths of dreaming to the cold reality of the present.
Cassiopeia spoke to her in an etherial disembodied voice. “Mission Commander Ona, we have arrived at our destination and are currently in orbit.”
Ambriel Ona kept her eyes closed as she considered the voice speaking to her. The last wispy trails of a glorious dream retreated from her memory. Arcadia was all she could remember.
The air temperature changed slightly and the pressure was noticeably different than before. The etherial voice spoke to her again. “Commander Ona, we have arrived at our destination. I have a mission protocol directive to relay from Arcadia.”
Arcadia? So it was more than a dream. It was a real place. Ambriel’s memories came back to her in waves, overpowering waves, almost too much to process at once. She spoke her first words aloud through a dry mouth, not recognizing her own voice. “Remind me of our destination.”
“The seventh colony, Commander. Third planet from this system’s star.”
Ambriel tried to move her arms. They responded as if under water, tingling back to life.
“Your vitals are returning to normal, but it may take a few minutes for you to regain complete control of your extremities. Exercise caution when attempting to sit up.”
She opened her eyes to slits. Her pupils constricted. Cassiopeia adjusted the cabin lights.
“Thank you, Cass,” Ambriel said.
“You are welcome, Commander. It is good to see your memory is functioning properly.”
Ambriel took her time pulling herself up. She cautiously dropped her legs over the side of the capsule, noticing her pale flesh for the first time, and the length of her dark hair. Hadn’t it been shorter?
A drawer slid open beneath her feet. “Your clothes, Commander.”
The jumpsuit was the color of her eyes, sapphire, and also a designation of her rank in the Order of the Seraph. She was Mission Commander, but not the ship’s Captain.
The floor was cold and hard. She balanced herself against the capsule before bending down to retrieve her uniform. She slid it over her lean frame thinking it must have fit better before their journey began. She was about to ask Cassiopeia a question as she zipped up her suit when it constricted around her. “Cass--”
“Don’t be alarmed, Commander, the suit is pressurized to regulate your circulation. You’ve been suspended for quite some time, and the gravity of this planet is slightly less than that of Arcadia,” Cassiopeia explained.
Ambriel remembered as much as soon as Cassiopeia spoke the words. Her memories were beginning to fall into the right order. She returned to her unasked question. “Cass, why am I the first to be awakened? Protocol dictates you awaken and brief the Captain before all other crew members.”
“Ordinarily that would be the case, however, I have received a mission protocol directive from Minister Raziel. Shall I play it for you now?”
She knew a message from Raziel was not something to take lightly. The Minister was the most trusted assistant to the Gods, and leader of the Order of Dominions, and as such he spoke with the full authority of Arcadia behind him. “Yes, project it here.”
The light in the cabin flickered for an instant before the towering form of Raziel stood before her. Even as a recorded holographic figure he was intimidating. Garbed in his ceremonial white robes, he stared down at her through eyes nearly as dark as his skin. His voice, normally booming and commanding, was now low and hushed as though he was addressing a co-conspirator. “Commander Ona, Daughter of Arcadia, I come to you with an urgent message from the Council.”
His presence was so life-like that she answered him instinctively. “What is it, Minister?”
“The Council believes there to be traitors among your crew.” His voice became even quieter. “After your departure from Arcadia, certain things came to light that suggest several among you may be planning to subvert your directive for their own means.” The figure of Raziel looked behind him and then returned his focus to Ambriel. “The uncovering of this conspiracy has recently led to Harahel being cast out of Arcadia. He has taken a number of comrades with him and even now they stand against us.”
She tried to comprehend what Raziel was telling her, but it just didn’t make sense. Harahel was of the highest order and most respected General in the Arcadian Army. His allegiance to the Council had always been unwavering.
Raziel interrupted her thoughts. “We are still uncertain as to the loyalties of all of the members of your crew as well as that of the other colony ships, which is why this message is only being transmitted to you, Ona, trusted servant and right hand of the Gods.” His figure bowed to her. “As such, we have installed a safety override into the Eye aboard Cassiopeia. She will impart instructions on how and when you are to initiate protocol Innova in the event of treasonous actions undertaken by any member of your crew. In the meantime, you will proceed with your original mission protocols and disseminate nothing of this message to anyone.”
Raziel stood up straight, appearing even taller than before, and placed his right fist over his chest. “The Gods are with you Ona. In all things may you prevail.”
The figure of Raziel flickered, then vanished, leaving her alone with an assault of confused thoughts and emotions. Surely nobody in her crew would have it in their hearts to betray the Gods, she thought. She found it difficult to even fathom such a thing. What was there to gain after all? Their status in their respective orders made them revered, and they lived in the presence of the Gods, surrounded by the majestic beauty of the eternal city, Arcadia.
Still reeling from this new revelation, her subconscious attempted to return to the practicalities of the mission. “Cass, begin waking the others. I’ll need the Captain to confirm your landing site and to prepare the ship. I’ll awake our cargo myself.”
“Apologies, Commander, but I need you to report to the Chamber of the Eye for uplink.”
Ambriel steadied herself against the capsule once more. “Uplink? What for?”
“Your neural link to the Eye needs to be recalibrated so that you may initiate protocol Innova if the need arises.”
“What do you know of protocol Innova?”
“Nothing. The protocol source is contained within a sector of the Eye to which I have no access.”
Ambriel took a few cautious steps to the next capsule. It was the Captain’s, Belial Eris, like Raziel he belonged to the Order of Dominions. She placed a hand on the cool smooth surface as though attempting to make contact with him, to read the thoughts in his dreams. Surely he could not be involved in this treason. “Why do you not have access, Cass?”
“It is a safety measure designed to ensure that no crew member can extract this sensitive information from me.” Cassiopeia opened the door to the cabin. “In fact, after you have achieved uplink, I am instructed not to mention or discuss even the name Innova with you or anyone else aboard. Please proceed to the Chamber of the Eye.”
“Can you at least give me a status update on the rest of the crew first?” She let her hand slide down from Belial’s capsule.
“Very well, Commander. Please standby” Several lights blinked in succession at the foot of each of the six unopened capsules in the cabin. “Crew status report. Eris, Belial, Captain, all vitals within normal range. Erebus, Gadriel, Navigator, all vitals in normal range. Acantha, Azrael, Engineer, all vitals in acceptable range--”
“What do you mean by acceptable?”
“There is no cause for concern, Commander. Engineer Acantha’s vitals are acceptable. His blood pressure is slightly elevated. I am monitoring the situation and have already taken steps to return his readings to a more optimal range.”
Ambriel stepped over to Azrael’s capsule. It was still opaque like the others and cool to the touch. “What is the cause of this elevated reading?” Could he be a conspirator? Was he worried or anxious even in sleep?
“There are a number of factors that could result in elevated readings, not the least of which is the protracted suspension you’ve all endured. In fact, I’ve made numerous adjustments to body chemistry for all of the crew to keep readings in acceptable ranges...with the exception of you, Commander.”
“With the exception of me?”
“Affirmative. Your system has regulated itself without intervention for the duration of the journey.”
She had always been strong, but she still found it strange that the rest of the crew had required some level of intervention while she had not. “Please continue with your report, Cass.”
“Certainly, Commander. Callas, Archon, Guardian, all vitals within normal range.”
Ambriel watched the lights on Archon’s capsule flicker. He was the youngest of the Order of the Cherub to receive such a commission. Unlike most of the others, including herself, he had jumped at the chance to leave Arcadia and explore the far reaches of the galaxy. She had taken him under her wing during training for their mission, and had quickly come to think of him as a younger brother.
Cassiopeia continued. “Ione, Lailah, Translator, all vitals within normal range.”
Lailah was the only other female aboard the Cassiopeia with the exception of the stock they’d brought with them to populate the planet. For a translator, Ambriel didn’t think she spoke much, but perhaps the capacity to listen was the most useful skill for one in such a line of work.
“Praxis, Duma, Planetary Emissary, all vitals within normal range.”
Emissary Praxis was the only member of her crew that she wasn’t very well acquainted with. He had been a latecomer to their mission. Even now she wondered about his allegiances. “Thank you, Cass. I’ll meet you in the chamber as soon as I get my boots on.”