We were the last of the pure race. A straggling group of humans traveling among the stars, looking for a place to call home. We never settled on any of the terraformed planets- like so many of our species- though it wasn’t for lack of space. Every week The Winged Herald reported over the wireless that a new moon or dwarf planet had been transformed into a habitable environment for the heartbreakingly finite number of human refugees.
I used to dream about what life would be like in those colonies. A life that mimicked Earth’s old routines before everything went nuclear: school, farming, government. What would it be like to wake to the warm light of a star shining through my bedroom window, signaling the day? Or to dig my fingers into the wet soil and plant foods that would grow in an array of colors more brilliant than the nebulas?
I would never know. I was destined to life in the cold recesses of space, born aboard the Cassiopeia, a pure human daughter to pure human parents, amidst a quickly changing hybridized universe. The longer some spent on the terraformed planets, the more distinct the changes. At first, they were just tiny genetic differences: the spread of an uncommon eye color, the offspring of an entire colony given to albinism. But as the terraform settled and each celestial body became comfortable in its new skin, the mutations grew more drastic.
The farther out humanity traveled, the more they changed, until there were whole settlements of human and humanoid species building entirely new societies, evolving into all new life forms. Humans, who in winter months grew hair along their bodies like animal pelts, meant to keep them warm only to shed it come spring. Or those whose toes and fingers became webbed and who developed scaled gills along their temples, allowing them to breathe underwater. People who could shed entire layers of skin, like snakes, and be reborn with the fresh bodies of their youth. They were abominations, Mother said, and we were not to mix with them if we were to retain our purity.
The Cassiopeia became known as the ship harboring that human cult. Small family groups lived on board, each carefully screened, able to trace their line far back to a specific person on Earth long before the War. We ate together, played together, grew from infancy to childhood, then again to young adulthood, side by side. We read and studied and took on responsibilities aboard the ship. And most importantly, we married among our own kind to preserve what was left of our species.
Mother, with her strong opinions and clear vision, became the well known -and often hated-face of the Movement for Human Purity. As such, I remained subject to the infinite dark of space, biding my time until Finn and I married and I became what every other woman on Cassiopeia was expected to be: mother to the dying race.
That is, until the backlash. Until the colonies tired of hearing Mother preach about the superiority of a pure race on the wireless. Until their complaints became a slow, boiling anger that spilled over into violence.
We suffered our first attack at a fueling station on Aethiop. Suffice it to say, we never saw it coming. How could we, when the day had been so warm and pleasant? I’d stood on the landing dock and watched over the bustling crowd, excited to catch a glimpse of how the others lived. Raiders from Nereida came upon us all at once, weapons drawn; angry, snarling faces flushed red as they cursed our ignorance. Their skin shimmered in that silvery pearlescent way I’d only ever read about, and I’d stood frozen, unable to move, when one turned to the side and her flowing long hair moved to reveal tiny, glittering scales along her skin. Several of our crew died that day at the hand of their sharpened, clamshell blades. But that’s not what I remember most.
What I remember is their singing. Like the recordings Mother sometimes played of sea beasts called whales. Or the ambient sounds of waves splashing on a shore. Seven of them, in unison, crying out – a song so achingly beautiful, it brought bloodied tears to my eyes.
Two crew members begged for death at their feet, like worshippers might beg of their gods. One turned his blaster on himself and fired.
When our pilot finally got us in the air, we were practically past the atmosphere before we were able to kick the remaining Neireids from the open ship bay and shut the door. Later, in the safety of deep space, Mother chided my weakness.
My doubts grew. Perhaps we were wrong. Perhaps purity was not worth the blood we shed that day.
The days following the ambush were a strained attempt at normal. Men and women went about their business as before, some even managing a smile or a laugh to counteract those who haunted the corridors, aimless, with bloodshot eyes. The comfort of their routine was not enough. It did not help them forget. How could it? There were reminders everywhere. Empty seats, unclaimed laundry, orphaned children.
After Aethiop, refueling became nearly impossible. Despite Mother’s ethical dilemma, we often smuggled fuel, or bought from any black-market ship willing to sell to us. Human or not.
Soon, the blacklisting spread to include food, medical supplies, clothing, toiletries, all more and more difficult to acquire. Landing on any planet generally guaranteed a riot of some sort, and when it became obvious that things weren’t going to blow over, life on the ship changed to accommodate. We rationed freeze-dried foodstuffs, showered on a rotating schedule using an allotted amount of soap or shampoo. When those ran low, we used the ChemWash, and sprayed down only when absolutely necessary. Along with lessons on Earth’s history and piloting Cassiopeia, I learned to fire a blast gun and carry a dagger strapped to my thigh.
The only thing that made the days bearable were the reports over the wireless, as the Herald narrated the heroic tales of a certain Serus and his exploits against the Goruns, humans badly mutated by Earth’s excessive radiation, aboard the Medusa. His bravery was a light in a time of so much darkness and we often huddled around the communicator after supper to listen in.
My young mind conjured up fantasies of my own rescue, of being taken far away from my ship and its many restrictions. For a short time, it felt like we’d forgotten the horrid things we’d seen. All that existed was an eternity of night and stars.
We traveled, each day exactly like the one before. We rationed. We lived, best as we could, given our circumstances. And we listened; Serus’ adventures the only taste of life outside our ship.
Until the night Cydon’s troops arrived.
The blow was sudden. Cassiopeia quaked like we were pushing through an asteroid field. I’d been sitting by the bay window, looking out into the starry night, when I saw the blast. It looked oddly like a burning sun, but the bright red and orange burned against the metal sides of our ship.
Shouts became unintelligible dribble in the distance. People ran toward me and past me in chaotic panic. When the fighters boarded, there were no questions, no demands.
There was only revenge.
They killed in the name of the Neireids. Friends, family, children who I’d known since their birth fell all around me, slow, as though we moved in zero gravity.
“I demand to see the Commander of this ship,” Cydon shouted, but I stood frozen, unable to utter a single word. Mother appeared at the doorway across the corridor, panting. Her eyes glazed over the moment she caught sight of the countless bodies littering the floor.
“Andi!” she choked out. The sound was a gurgled plea.
Arms were suddenly around my neck. I could see their webbed fingers out of the corner of my eye.
“Are you the Commander?” Cydon asked, drawing closer, his large, muscular frame sending a menacing shadow across the floor. I smelled salt on his skin, the pungent mixture of algae, water and sodium that permeated the air on his planet and lingered deep in his sea-foam colored beard.
“Release her,” she said, holding up her hands, creeping toward us. “Your quarrel is with me.”
His voice was a grovely mix of space dust and tumbling rocks. “My quarrel is with anyone ignorant enough to live aboard your ship and follow your bigoted ways.”
“She does not share my beliefs.”
I tensed. My hands pushed down on his arm hard, but I was still struggling, still gasping for air. Hearing Mother say those words left something strange and hollow in my stomach. There were equal parts guilt and relief.
It was not that I did not love my mother; I simply struggled to understand the very extreme nature of her beliefs when my heart so violently craved daybreak and my skin itched for a sense of gravity to keep me pinned onto the ground.
Was this wrong? Did I betray the very essence of my nature by doubting?
“She is aboard your ship and so she is culpable.”
“Because she is too young to leave.” Mother’s gaze met mine. Her sadness darkened the usually vibrant cerulean of her eyes. “I always expected she would, someday.”
“You’re fond of her,” he whispered, his arm slacking just enough from around my neck. I sucked in a breath. “Good. She is the one we will take.”
He threw me backward into the arms of his warriors. They grasped me from every side, holding me back with enough force to make me cry out in pain.
“Now you will understand the Neireids pain. You will have to live with knowing that your hatred is the cause of this innocent’s death. Bite your tongue, Commander, or next time we will return for you.”
My Mother’s howls were the final sound I heard before the deafening emptiness of space roared into the open shuttle door and they tossed me aboard their rusted, metallic ship.
I can’t say how long I stayed there, aboard their ship, coming in and out of consciousness. All I remember is the sound of something cracking when my head hit the wall of my tiny prison. Everything else was a blurred ring of sounds that played in constant loop. Chatter, swearing, laughter, victory. Familiar sounds. Sounds of life aboard a space craft. I found a strange kind of comfort in it.
Days must have passed, though in space time is much harder to gauge. My lips cracked, my throat was constantly aflame. They gave me only enough water to keep me alive. “There’s a worse punishment coming for you,” one of the female guards snarled at me. I didn’t doubt it.
“It’s a shame,” I thought I heard Cydon say in one of my more lucid moments. “She might have grown to be an Ally.” Then: “Prep the ship. We’re nearing the storm.”
I heard its yowl before I saw it. A terrifying sound, chaotic, like the asteroids and space dust had all crashed into the heart of a black hole and were being stirred in a blender. It woke me from a dreamless sleep. We rocked as though riding a rough sea.
“Grab her.” Hands were around my arms at once, marking me with bruising fingers. And suddenly, after days of lethargic existence, everything became utterly, painfully clear.
“No!” I shouted, though the sound ripped at my throat. My head throbbed. The room spun. “Please, please don’t. Have mercy!”
“An eye for an eye,” someone said as they tied me with rope.
I couldn’t stop shaking. Every childhood nightmare was coming to life at once. I looked out the galley window and saw the giant beast, Ketos, swimming alongside us, among the debris of a giant space storm. He slithered, moving as our hands often had, left to right. So many scary stories. So many late night tales. And here it was, the space serpent we all feared, waiting and eager to eat me alive.
“Strap her to the seat and shoot the buggy out the air shaft.” Cydon looked me in the eyes and I startled. My arms and legs slacked. In the brilliant, clear grey of his eyes I saw the endless ocean, the infinite life of the sea, of his people. And I knew. They were right. I had to die. Someone had to pay for the all the bloodshed spilled between us.
I nodded, just barely, but his brows furrowed. “May the gods be with you,” he said gently and closed the hatch to my tiny craft. It drowned out all sound. I was truly, completely alone.
The room cleared. The warning buzzer sounded small and far away. A red light flashed and then I was moving, propelled backward, fast, so fast, away from them, away from everything; dumped from their ship only to land wobbling, floating in deep space.
They didn’t wait to finish me. The air around me shook before they disappeared in a beam of light, jumping out of radius. Now it was just me. The serpent and I, trapped in the storm.
I struggled to release from my binds so I could take control of the buggy and fly myself away. But the serpent was more agile, experienced at swimming through the wreckage of the storm.
And it was hungry. I could see it in its feral eyes.
How long since it had its last meal? Since a poor crew lost their way into this place and became its supper?
I stared out at the consuming darkness of space. The monster waited, patiently biding its time, swimming back and forth, its large black eyes fixed on mine. The debris between us was thinning. Rocks and metal waste floating – slow, slow, slowly – past. Clearing a path to my destruction.
It was coming.
It started toward me. Slow at first, purposeful. But it gained speed.
Its mouth opened. Its sharp teeth were larger than the body of my buggy.
It was close. So close.
I stopped struggling and closed my eyes. Time stopped.
I could hear it: the dense silence of space, my shaky breath. I could see the endlessness of it all: planets moving in orbit, the stars and nebula, so grand in their majesty, born into eternity and dying in a violent glorious splendor. And us, the last of the pure race. So insignificant next to it all.
I braced for impact, tightening my fists. The buggy rocked. My head threw back in the seat as I spun, a slow dizzying circle.
Crackle. Like electricity. “Is anyone there?” My heart stopped. Surely, I was dreaming. “Is there anyone on board the pod?” The voice was loud and harsh in the thick silence. “Do you need help?”
My eyes shot open. I couldn’t see clearly in the confusion. A sleek gunship hovered in my eye-line. I stared at the pilot, frozen. I’d been expecting the merciless cold of the universe to embrace me. But here he was, his eyes all warmth and fire. He smiled.
I sat ramrod straight. “This is Captain Serus, aboard the Titan. Can you hear me?” he asked.
It was surreal, hearing that voice. A voice I had heard so many times over The Winged Herald. The hero of the stars.
I nodded, hysterical, my body flailing.”Yes!” I shouted. I looked around desperate to find a button, attempting to elbow or kick the communicator on. “I can hear you! I’m here!” Something like hope rose within me.
“Hang on. I’m pulling you on board.” He adjusted his ship, the side of his cockpit clearly dented. He’d blocked the beast’s path.
“The beast!” I shouted, looking frantically around. I spotted its severed head, floating gently along the debris, laser burns along its edge.
I couldn’t breathe. The relief that washed made me limp. I closed my eyes to stop my head from spinning.
The hiss of the airlocks drew me back. The warmth of his hands as the pod door opened and he undid my restraints.
“Thank you,” I whispered falling into his arms, powerless against the sobs that wrecked me. “Thank you.”
He held me gently, but his hug was firm, comforting. The grounding thing I needed to remind me this was real.
“It’s no problem,” he said, his breath warm against my hair. I could hear him smile. “I was just passing through.”