I was floating in darkness, but the globe cupped between my hands gave off a faint blue glow. No, it was not a globe at all, but the Earth itself in miniature. Clouds twisted slowly as I watched, following the currents of the wind. In between them I could just barely make out patches of green land and churning oceans.
I leaned forward, trying to get a better view of what was going on in the world below. Just as I brought my face close, a stream of spiders came boiling up out of the tiny planet's atmosphere- big, hairy, and all the colors of the rainbow. In an instant they were all over me, biting at my hands and arms. I jerked backwards, the world slipping from my grasp.
There was a sound like glass shattering and the blue glow died away at once. I flailed wildly in the resulting blackness, trying to shake the spiders off me and slapping at the tingling sensations all over my body where I imagined their bristly legs brushing over my flesh.
"Now you've gone and done it, Cull!"
I looked for that voice's owner, recognizing the familiar, scolding tone.
For a moment, I could see nothing. Then his form blazed with a pure white light, a fluorescent bulb in the shape of a man. I turned away from his brilliant figure, taking advantage of his unexpected illumination to ensure that my clothes were free of spiders.
"You were our last hope, and now look at what you've done! Pathetic!"
I felt my spine straighten as my defiant streak took over in response to his words. Authority and I had never really gotten along. I lifted my eyes back towards him. Fortunately, his aura had dimmed to a mild saintly glow and I could now look upon him without discomfort.
Well over six feet with flowing blond hair, mile-wide shoulders, and a body formed from chiseled muscle; Lucas looked enough like a god already. An elemental force of personality and will, an unmistakable leader of men, a personification of things all far beyond my ability to achieve. The shining white aura struck me as pure overkill and, quite frankly, a bit tacky.
"Don't go blaming me," I snarled, my anger rising suddenly. "Just because you screwed up and got yourself killed. Maybe if you and Hawkes had trusted us with a few more of your little secrets, it wouldn't have left us so clueless when you were gone."
Lucas shook his head sadly. When he spoke it was as if he hadn't heard my words.
"You turned on each other," he said. "How could you? I told you how much each one of you mattered!"
My hands balled into fists at my side.
"That wasn't my fault, it was self-defense!" I shouted. "In fact, you were the one who supported that homicidal maniac all along. I sure hope Dmitri was some kind of master of deception, because if he's indicative of your overall ability to judge our character then who knows what kind of flaws the rest of us are hiding."
"Don't flatter yourself, Jason," sneered Lucas back at me. "When have you ever managed to hide your flaws?"
I opened my mouth to respond, but before I could speak I found myself alone in my quarters. I looked down at my crumpled sheets and sighed.
"Wonderful," I said aloud to myself. "Even with Lucas dead I still can't get in the last word."
For some reason, the image of him shaking his head sadly stuck with me for a long time.
* * *
My name is Jason Cull.
I'm the captain of mankind's only known interstellar starship, the Freedom, and the fate of the Earth lies in my hands. Overdramatic, I know, but apparently that's the way my subconscious rolls.
I certainly wasn't supposed to be the boss. In fact, even though it feels like a different lifetime, it wasn't chronologically so long ago that I was a mere cadet training to be a fighter pilot at the Grath Academy in Boston, Massachusetts. Given a couple of weeks, I would have been fighting for the big ugly spiders.
The night after finals, my friends and I were jumped at a bar by some goons that Lucas and his boss Hawkes must have hired. They burned the place to the ground, leaving behind corpses dressed like me, my roommate Robbie, and my beloved Eve. Fortunately, our real bodies were wrapped in carpets and carted off to the Resistance's underground complex in a cleaning van, still alive. We would learn later that they'd chosen to recruit us because our backgrounds made us the most likely to be sympathetic to their cause.
What about the other friends who had been with us - Biff, Takahashi, and class goldenboy Charles Oberman? Were they killed for real, or had they survived and gone back to the academy? Lucas had never told me. There was so much that we didn't know.
It was hard not to blame Lucas for that, but it obviously wasn't entirely his fault. Whatever plans that he and Hawkes had been hatching, had been shattered and scrambled when the Grath located the complex and attacked it. We had been running a training simulation on the Freedom at the time, and Lucas took off with us on board, probably more to keep the ship from enemy hands than to save our sorry skins. We weren't the crew he had wanted with him, just the one that happened to be there.
Even so, maybe Lucas would have eventually whipped us into shape and shared with us everything he knew, but no sooner did we set out on our mission to free Earth, than we met with disaster. Lucas and the Resistance had located a planet believed to house a base of aliens who were known to be taking part in the war against the Grath. We traveled there and landed a team to make contact with them, hoping to somehow barter a deal where we would offer our services in exchange for help in knocking the Grath off Earth once and for all.
When we arrived on the planet we realized, too late, that it wasn't an enemy colony at all, but a Grath prison camp. Seeing us as a means to finally escape, the feral Delphians killed Lucas in an attempt to steal our ship. Four of us had left the Freedom on that first mission, but only two of us returned, and we barely made it back alive.
I don't remember exactly how it was that they decided to put me in charge. I think they held the vote while I was still unconscious in my hospital bed, and I won because I was the only one who didn't get to refuse.
Now all I had to do was figure out what we were supposed to do next.
Once it became clear that further attempts at sleep were pointless, I dressed quickly and returned to the bridge, even though it wasn't time for me to go on duty. We hadn't had enough crew members aboard to run two full shifts when we had made our emergency launch, and losing Lucas and Dmitri hadn't helped matters any. I'd set up a schedule where a science officer, a weapons officer, an engineer, and a helmsman were on the bridge at all times, with someone serving as the acting captain. The fighters were left unmanned unless they were in use.
There were eight of us on board, so that allowed everyone enough rest. I broke things into four six-hour shifts, but I rotated them by having people occasionally pull twelve hours at a time. I did this for a number of reasons but primarily because I wanted everyone to try and work together, rather than thinking of themselves as part of one squad or another, and also partly because I wanted it to be possible for me to catch up with everyone off-shift. I couldn't see things running smoothly if I never talked to my second-in-command, Victor Rodriguez, because he was always stuck running the night shift. This way, we had around half of our breaks together, and I had a chance to feel other people out, to get a general impression of their morale or to have them offer opinions they were only willing to voice one-on-one.
The idea had come out of discussions with the others, and I had promptly stolen it as my own since it sounded sensible. I continued to make minor adjustments to the schedule but stuck with it as a system because, overall, it appeared to be working. Making things up on the fly had become my main pastime these days. During training, Lucas had always set the day's schedule for us, so I had no idea how a real military ship was supposed to be run.
When I arrived on the bridge, Julia Lange--a slim, blonde stick of a girl composed mainly of scathing sarcasm--was seated at her favorite spot behind the science console. She was the acting captain for the current shift. She greeted my early arrival with a look of mild surprise sparkling in her green eyes.
"Good morning, Captain," she said, her tone carefully neutral. "To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?"
Let's face it, for me an on-time arrival would have been unusual enough. Being ahead of schedule was a great rarity and reason enough for someone to stand up and take notice. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a touch of disapproval in her eyes as she sat regarding me. I had a hard time reading Julia these days. Of course, she had only been mockingly obedient to anyone but Lucas at the best of times. Perhaps she was just concerned that I had arrived early to observe her performance, but I worried that there might be more to it beyond that.
"Nothing exciting, I'm afraid," I answered her honestly. "Couldn't sleep is all."
Julia had been one of the cadets who had trained under Dmitri for years, and I suspected that she would have been at least as accepting of his leadership as my own. Victor and I had come clean about Dmitri's death to the rest of the crew. I couldn't see basing my leadership on a lie and succeeding in the long run. Still, I worried that Julia might resent me for his death and even doubt that he had truly attacked me. It had certainly seemed unbelievable to me at the time. Hopefully, it was just my guilty conscience talking.
The blonde was hardly one to hide her true thoughts, but, ever since her boyfriend Trent had been left behind for dead when we fled the complex, she'd been a lot more reserved. Who the hell am I kidding? I don't have the faintest idea what sort of depression she's dealing with. We've all had a lot of reasons to be scared out of our wits.
I wasn't going to waste time worrying about possible candidates for a mutiny when I didn't want to be captain in the first place.
"Heavy lies the head..." she offered wistfully.
"Don't I know it."
I considered the other members of the bridge crew.
Norman Schultz, known affectionately (or so we told him) as 'Noron', was a scrawny little guy with innumerable freckles and squirrelly brown hair that seemed to defy combing. Norman had actually been one of the first people to befriend me when I joined the Resistance, mainly because, like me and my friends, he was an outcast who no one else really liked. I'd since grown to respect Norman immensely. He had literally helped build the ship surrounding us. I was beginning to suspect that he sometimes took extra shifts at the engineering station or crawled through the Freedom's innards with a wrench in hand when I wasn't looking. He often mentioned how he felt more at home there, than in the crew quarters.
This morning's weapon officer was Dwayne Towers - tall, dark, and bad-ass. I wasn't at all certain that Lucas had regarded Dwayne very highly, but the two of us had shown some chemistry in the later training sessions, and Lucas was trying him out when the Grath attack hit. Either way, I was glad to have him aboard. He was someone I sincerely trusted to haul my rear out of trouble if we ended up waist-deep in muck on some alien world with tentacled horrors out to get us.
Rounding out this unit was my best friend, Robert Morrow. He was technically this shift's helmsman, but he was seated at the navigation computer since the ship wasn't currently in motion.
Robbie was from Boston Irish stock and had been a big help in helping me settle into my new surroundings when I had first joined the academy. There wasn't very much distinguishing about his appearance - he had black hair, brown eyes, and was about average height with an average build. Huh, I guess I must love him for his personality.
Comparing Robbie to the other crew members was a bit unfair, however. The guy was simply not cut out to be a warrior. He had only enlisted in the academy in the first place because he knew it would shame his parents terribly if he had refused. He had always hated the Grath for the suffering that they had caused his friends and family and was, no doubt, much happier now that he was working for the Resistance. I didn't doubt that he'd still find a way to be a key contributor to our mission. He was smart and loyal, and simply his friendship and his sense of humor would probably go a long way to keep me from jumping out the airlock of our little floating box.
I looked them all over, rubbing my chin, and trying to give the impression that I was pondering something meaningful, then turned back to Julia.
"Why don't I relieve you early? You've been pulling your double. I'm sure you could use the rest and I'm awake already anyhow."
"Are you certain, Captain?" she asked, raising an eyebrow skeptically, as if she thought I might be putting her on.
I shrugged. "That's an option, not an order. If you'd prefer to stay on until later, feel free."
Julia gracefully slid from her seat. "It's all yours, sir," she said with an ironic smirk. "Enjoy."
I nodded to her as she saluted, then settled myself in at the science console as she made her way from the bridge. I wasn't particularly proficient with these instruments, but I tried to keep myself, at least, competent at each of the roles onboard the ship. It was something that we all did. Lucas hadn't been sure what to do with all of us at the time, so he had been trying us out in different positions. I hoped to keep that up during our downtime, figuring that the flexibility would serve us well in the long run.
I did a quick scan of the radar and spectroscopic input, but saw nothing threatening or unusual. The Freedom was currently safely parked at a cache that the Resistance had created more or less in the middle of interstellar nowhere as a place to regroup and resupply. The location was tagged on our navigation computer with the campy title of 'Sherwood Forest'.
We had returned here immediately following the botched mission to the penal colony as the crew waited for me to recover from my wounds and decide what to do next. I hadn't had much luck with the latter part of that equation. Our goal was still the same as it was when we had set out with Lucas - to make contact with the Bettarians and try to enlist their assistance in freeing the Earth from the rule of the Grath.
The problem was that although there were hundreds of star system coordinates saved in the memory of the Freedom's computers, we had no idea which ones were more likely to harbor Bettarian activity. Frustrating matters even further, several of the coordinates were encrypted, and Lucas hadn't planned ahead far enough to share the passwords to access them. And you just know those are the really good ones.
Without any kind of guidance, searching for the Bettarians was like looking for a needle in a haystack the size of the known universe. We had ventured forth from Sherwood Forest on a couple of occasions already, only to find lifeless solar systems awaiting us.
"Don't suppose you guys have had any luck finding the magic numbers?"
Robbie and Norman had volunteered to work on sorting through the lists of coordinates and attempting to crack the codes. Norman was the resident computer whiz, and Robbie seemed to have a bit of knack for navigation. The two of them were constantly puzzling over the systems on file in their free time and their idle moments on duty, trying to determine where in the galaxy they might lay and why the Resistance might have considered them of interest. Hopefully, breaking into the encrypted files wouldn't be necessary.
The computer had stored a notated map of the system containing the penal colony. I held out hope that some other promising location would be similarly mapped out but not password protected so that we'd even know where we were going beforehand. That's probably too much to ask for.
"No golden ticket yet, I'm afraid," answered Robbie with a dopey smile.
I knew he must be working on the puzzle at his station as we spoke.
"Only lots of lovely numbers between zero and nine," agreed Norman with a nod. "I see them dancing in my sleep."
"Well, don't burn yourselves out," I advised them. "Why don't you two give me your best guess, then take a day or two off from it and come back at it fresh."
I figured it was about time that we made another sortie. People were beginning to get antsy just waiting around, and the baseline level of bickering had been increasing lately.
This started the two of them arguing over the relative merits of different coordinates, so I tuned them out for a moment and turned to the other member of my bridge crew.
"How about you, Dwayne, how are you holding up?"
The large man shrugged his broad shoulders. "I'm another day older and no worse the wear," he answered in a deep baritone.
Dwayne was something of a strong, silent type.
Robbie and Norman reached, not an agreement, but a point in their argument where they wanted an outside opinion. Robbie linked the liquid crystal display built into the forward facing windows to the screen on his console. A map of the Milky Way galaxy partially obscured the view outside.
"We're here," he said as one of the stars changed to a red color. He touched his screen with a stylus and another star on the display turned blue. "We know that the Earth is here, of course."
"And that's pretty much the extent of our knowledge," grumbled Norman.
"No, well, yes," continued Robbie, giving Norman a sour look. "But I think we can try to make some educated guesses from there."
"If that's what you want to call stabbing in the dark," sneered Norman. "There's a lot more guessing than education involved."
"Look," countered Robbie, exasperated, "the captain asked us for a suggestion. I'm sorry if I'm going to give him one, rather than sitting here mute in the grips of analysis paralysis."
"Guys!" I interjected. "Just get on with it! Have they been this bad the whole time?" I muttered to Dwayne as an aside.
"Hell, no! They're much too afraid of Julia."
Wonderful. At least I don't have to worry about maintaining my illusion of authority.
"As my esteemed colleague has mentioned," said Robbie with a sniff in Norman's direction, "it should be noted that I am basing this primarily upon conjecture. With the limited number of hard facts at our disposal, we have to try and use our knowledge of the Resistance to infer information that we don't have direct access to."
You know what happens when you assume...
"For example, we can imagine that the most promising or most dangerous files are the ones that we're locked out of. We're also limited by the fact that we don't know where the Bettarian's empire originated, or where the Grath homeworlds are." He ran his free hand through his dark hair nervously. "We do know a few simple facts. Wherever the Bettarians are, they've attacked the Grath in such a way that they've driven them towards the Earth. So, in theory, we don't want to make too short a jump or we'll end up somewhere within the Grath zone of control. We want to overshoot them and either end up in the war zone or, as I would prefer, somewhere completely controlled by the Bettarians.
"Now, if I were the Resistance," he paused here to give Norman a sharp look but the engineer glanced sideways at me and kept his mouth shut, "and I were creating a safe point like Sherwood Forest, I'd instinctively place it on the 'other side' of the Earth from the Grath."
A large arc of stars around Sherwood Forest turned a dull gray. At the same time a band of stars on the opposite side of the Earth turned yellow so that it was surrounded by a two-tone sphere.
Norman made a snorting sound. Robbie ignored him, enjoying his chance to give a lecture.
"Admittedly, this part of the simulation is just wishful thinking," conceded Robbie. "Even if my assumption is correct, we don't have enough data to estimate how far from Earth the Grath systems are or how many star systems they control."
The Grath had been notoriously tight-lipped about sharing any information pertaining to themselves during our academy classes. Our alien anatomy lessons taught us the location of the vital organs of a half a dozen different races we might encounter, but I couldn't even say for sure that the Grath had vital organs.
"When we flew our two earlier missions, I was already acting partially on this theory," said Robbie, as he grayed out a couple of stars in between Earth and the yellow section. "I'm assuming my concept of the vastness of space was off, and we actually undershot the Grath." He shrugged. "But there's no reason to say for sure that's true. Those might have both been worthless systems right in the middle of Grath or Bettarian space that just happened to be unguarded or useless for military purposes for whatever reason."
"Or the initial assumption might be entirely incorrect, and Sherwood Forest's location is completely unrelated to the location of the Grath and simply deemed safe by the Resistance for reasons that we are unaware of," pointed out Norman. "Not to mention that the Bettarian's conquest of the Grath's original world doesn't mean the two have to share a border of stars. With interstellar craft, they could be waging war from billions of light years away in any direction."
Robbie rolled his eyes. "Granted, but I think I've made the limitations inherent in my planning abundantly clear."
Fortunately, I knew the two were only arguing good-naturedly and held no real animosity towards each other. Neither of them are mean enough at heart to hold a good grudge.
"What do you think, Captain?"
Everyone's attention turned to me. It was annoying how often that happened these days.
"It's better than anything I'd be able to come up with," I said, instantly wishing I'd held my tongue and waited for a more professional turn of phrase to occur to me. "I'm guessing that you've found some coordinates on the other side of that patch of yellow?"
Robbie nodded. "Aye, sir. Right you are."
One of the white stars on the other side of supposed Grath space turned red and a line from our position to our goal stretched slowly between them.
"Well, start working on plotting the course if you haven't already," I told him. "Who's the other one running a double shift? Schultz?"
Norman nodded in assent.
"Go and grab your replacement and tell them I've ordered him or her to take your station early. Dwayne, you might as well do the same," I instructed. "In four hours, I'm going to call all hands on deck. We're heading out again to give Robbie's best guess a try. I know it'll be a short rest, but I want you somewhat fresh, just in case it turns out to be more interesting than our last couple of tries."
They rushed off excitedly. Even the stoic Dwayne was unable to hide his eagerness to end the waiting. I just hoped they were careful what they wished for.