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With a touch of the control panel, the door to the Mistrunner’s main computer room opened, sliding up into the ceiling in a smooth, nearly soundless movement. Half-limping, Amara entered that darkened hollow, her intrusion casting a thin slit of light into the Tartarian abyss. Nestled deep in the heart of the ship where it would be protected from all but the most extreme bursts of radiation or astral impacts, many of the essential systems in this part of the ship hadn’t been turned back on yet… the ship’s odd security lockdown procedures not allowing them to be reactivated save at the source. She felt like a child again, exploring the darkness of night with little more than a flashlight. The small sliver of light through the door wasn’t enough to uncover the location of the huge computer bank that she had come to inspect… it only made the room seem larger, casting it in odd shadows. Within that oily blackness, however, three sources of flickering light peered back at her with the blazing eyes of demons. One was crimson red, the other yellow, the last a menacing shade of white.
The injured Captain flipped the activator for the lights, then repeated the motion several times when they didn’t turn on and banish the darkness. She sighed and wearily cursed her own misfortune… physical overrides were as inactive as the digital ones. With only the pathetically weak flashlight on her wrist comm – designed to illuminate panels from mere inches away and not rooms from many meters – to guide her way, Amara stepped into the darkness.
The doors automatically closed behind her a few steps later, cutting off even that paltry light. Amara cursed again, more annoyed than frightened. Ambling forward, the dark-skinned woman felt for her surroundings with one outstretched hand, sending what light she could outward and guiding herself forward. The air was stale like that of a crypt, dusty and old. At least this room was devoid of those minute creaking and skittering noises that seemed to dominate most of the rest of the ship. How that made sense, she didn’t know… but Amara was no engineer. She was just glad that they were gone, because the chorus was starting to make her nervous. No space-worthy vessel should be able to so whisper to its inhabitants.
While stumbling around in the dark, a stark, glowing light suddenly materialized to her right! Jumping, and yelping to herself in pain as she foolishly put weight back on her wounds, Amara turned with wide eyes… only to see the light coalesce into the holographic image of Atalanta tapping her foot impatiently. “Captain, what is taking so long? You still need to install me into the Mistrunner’s mainframe if I am to take control over the entire ship!” that doll-sized apparition chirped as she hovered in the air.
Amara groaned, heading onward. “That’s what I’m doing,” she grunted.
“Please be attentive, this is most critical if we are to make it home,” the Exalted pressed.
Being treated like a child by one of the Exalted shouldn’t have bothered her so much… many of them had this kind of reputation, and Atalanta’s track record of being hard to work with was worse than average. Still, given the situation they had found themselves in, it was more than a little obnoxious to be so disrespected by some harebrained bundle of code that didn’t even have access to the wit to be creative about it at present. At least Atalanta’s natural shine from Amara’s wrist comm added some illumination to the room. She began looking for the enormous computer’s screen and keyboard but couldn’t find it anywhere at first. Eventually she discovered the console at knee-height by the side of the main terminal, so that it was positioned almost next to the wall. Black sighed. Now why the hell had they done that? These old apparatuses were so stupidly designed. Grunting with strain, she held onto her injured leg while lowering herself down onto both of her knees.
“Stay here,” the Captain ordered Atalanta. “I need some light.”
“That is not one of my functions, Captain,” Atalanta stated as her image disappeared and rematerialized right beside the Captain’s face, looking at her… and just so happening to provide exactly what she had ordered. “I don’t know what-” Her words abruptly cut off as she realized what the Captain had been getting at at last, far slower than her normal self would have. Amara rolled her eyes. That was the handheld-computer level of intellect at the moment, with minimal processing power. It was a strange sensation, to face down the Exalted heroine’s personality without any of her brains. On one hand, giving her access to another mainframe wasn’t going to stop her from hating Amara, but on the other, at least she wouldn’t be so incompetent at being a bitch. Eyebrows set oblique, Amara started typing at the keyboard, overjoyed to see that everything was still working. Their ideas of what qualified as a convenient place to put something aside, that was quality Terran engineering.
“Click there. Now there. And now activate that,” the hologram said, needlessly guiding her through the basic set up that Amara could have done in her sleep since she was sixteen. Hitting enter, Amara breathed out a sigh at the completion of her task, knowing that this would only mean that she got to see more of Atalanta. The screen darkened save for a primitive and slow-moving loading montage, rendering the nexus very much in darkness even accounting for the Exalted’s emerald light.
“It’s a loading screen,” Atalanta explained.
“Oh no, the tragedy,” Amara said, her voice flat. “Do you think it will be ok? Should I start hitting it with a hammer?”
“That is not necessary… that is never necessary,” Atalanta said, obviously unaware that she was being made fun of. Amara sighed. It took all satisfaction away if the Exalted couldn’t even realize that Amara found her ridiculous right now, and meant she was effectively just making fun of a simpleton. Several seconds later, her eyes narrowed, as if she had just finally realized she was being mocked. “That means that it will take a certain amount of time before I’m fully operational. I will now monitor the progress,” that tiny figure said, disappearing promptly.
Huffing out a breath through her nose, Amara leaned against the side of the mainframe while still sitting with both legs doubled under her. She wondered if the HEF had known how dismissive the Exalted was of her abilities when they assigned Atlanta to the colony ship. Did they agree with her? Or was it all really just one big mishap. Then again… she couldn’t help but think that maybe Atalanta had a point. Just thinking made her thoughts drift to those people still on board the Midgar-6… including Miranda. Over and over, she kept thinking of anything she could have done differently, ways that she could have perhaps gotten her ship free of the ambush, ways that she could have saved the colonists under her care. She could think of dozens of things she had done wrong with the damnable clarity of hindsight, but she wasn’t sure if any of them could have made a difference… she really just didn’t know. Amara was physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, emotionally exhausted… she really just wanted to shut her brain off and tell her body to stop working and heal… But all those people kept reappearing inside her skull like incessant flies. What was going to happen to them?
Based on what Miranda had told her, the answer seemed self-evident.
She gulped in anxiety. Somehow, she needed to save them. Somehow. Otherwise, she would never really escape back to Earth. The fates of those she had left behind would be something she would be mourning for the rest of her life… every time she closed her eyes, she would be back here, haunted and helpless by those she had failed. Somehow, she had to find a way. Amara had been taught to think positive at the Academy during troubled times such as these. She reflected on the fact that she’d been able to rescue at least two-fifths of the Midgar-6’s crew, a number that could just as easily have been none at all. She was especially relieved that Ri’she’a was among these escapees since, without that Sethis helmswoman, Amara feared that she would have lost her composure as an officer a long while ago. Likewise, the colonists themselves would also be safe for now, since she owned part of the password and was now out of harm’s way. How she would get them back, however, was another question entirely. Was it even possible for the Federation to wage war against such fantastical and warlike creatures, so far from home? Or maybe it was they whom would be put on the defensive? What sort of fleet did this Sarcand possess anyhow? Miranda had implied that he was young for a commander, which implied others… many more such ships, fleets of them, and this one had been an overwhelming force all on its own. How many other Warlords were there? Was there any tidbit of information that she could have overheard that could possibly have discerned this?
Truly, the Kthid and their war-based reproduction-system were foes utterly alien and inimical to mankind, as Miranda had explained. Unwillingly giving birth to one of them had to be as horrifying as being made an incubator by the Void Tracers, and her sister had experienced that three times now…
No matter where her thoughts drifted, they always returned to her sister. Resolutely, she shut that line of thinking off. She needed to consider the future. How could she explain this new threat to Starfleet upon arriving home? What words could she use? It all seemed so overwhelming. And how to tell them that Miranda-
She sighed as her thoughts returned to Miranda once again. All logic and rationality seemed to melt away inside her amid an upswirl of impulses and emotions. How could she qualify that encounter? What conclusions could she possibly draw from seeing the finest specimen of humanity, her very own sister, having been turned a slave and a traitor? Thoughts became a scorching crucible inside her mind. She tried to shut off that furnace, but no trick of meditation or self-discipline that she knew of would work. That red-haired heroine’s face just kept appearing and reappearing over-and-over again, drifting in and out of her thoughts. She badly did not want to think any longer… But it just kept happening. Wasn’t there any way to stop?
Black was still adrift with ruminations when Atalanta re-materialized beside her again. Somehow this startled the Captain even worse than the first time. Amara cursed and readjusted her seating, idly wondering if she could give the AI woman some kind of mildly irritating virus.
“Captain, I have something pertinent to your rank of office,” the hologram said without preamble.
Surprised by the directness, Amara took a moment to collect her thoughts. “What is it?” the red-haired woman replied.
“The Captain’s log.”
Aglow in near-darkness, Amara blinked. She had almost forgotten it. “What?” she said, stupidly. So fast?
“The log left behind by Captain Talia Icarus, recorded by her own hand and voice. Every Starfleet Captain is required to maintain one for record purposes. You’ve made one yourself, I hope you remember? I discovered its files while I was loading into the mainframe,” the glowing figurine said.
Amara was stunned. How could she have forgotten to search for those on her own accord? These records might finally divulge what had happened to this ship and her long-lost crew. Thoughts of Miranda were actually getting between her and what she needed to do. Without even thinking, she said, “Put them on.”
Atalanta vanished. The dark once again reigned supreme, save for whatever sliver of muted illumination came from that ancient screen. Amara could barely see the outlines of her own arms in front of her, she was so inundated in the darkness. Then the voice of Talia Icarus began to speak over her communicator. Her long-dead tenors filled the room, drowning out even the low humming of the mainframe. The ghost of a bygone Captain famous for both her daring and her insubordination began to speak, communicating the past with her spiritual successor from beyond her stellar tomb. Sitting alone in pervasive darkness, the exhausted Amara almost felt like she was floating through space as she listened to the whispers from the past, closing her eyes as the ethereal narration began…
“Those crusty old fools at the HEF will regret not heeding my words. Already I have discovered vistas, worlds, and anomalies undreamed of upon Earth. I have no doubt that embarking on this sidereal journey was an unbridled success waiting to happen, regulations be damned. Space exists to be explored… yet is unthinkably vast in its dimensions. By limiting our navigational routes to the closest lines and best understood systems along the sectors, mankind is hampering its own progress. Times of exploration require bold leaders, uncurbed heroines whose actions dare to define an era. Thankfully, I have finally found a benefactor who is sensible enough to agree with me in Dr Keye. The Admiralty would not listen to my requests, but they listened to hers.
“And so, I alone shall carry the torch of visionary exploration into the Darkness… to make Known what has never been Known, to Light what is Unlit, to See what is Unseen like the great pioneers of the ocean before me. I shall travel farther from Earth – many-times further – than any other human has done before me. I shall be a legend. And upon my return, with Maria Keye behind me, my future as one of the Exalted is merely a question of time.”
Amara rolled her eyes at the grandiose narration… but the longer it went on, the more she felt her skin crawling, a chill rippling its way over her body as she listened closely to this recording. There was something chilling about the authoritative modulation of Talia’s voice. Here was a woman who was already writing her own chapters in the history books, or so she’d thought. Though she supposed it made sense. Only a very… strongly opinionated… personality would have gotten herself stranded upon a mass of crushed ships like that for her fellow humans to discover a few centuries later.
“The Mistrunner is a peerless craft,” she continued, “and I’ve gathered around me the very best individuals that the Federation has to offer. Their mere presence aboard my ship confirms their mastery in navigation, astronomy, physics, and all the other sciences of spaceflight, not to mention undying loyalty. Foremost among them are my Security Officer Sarah McAllister, and the brilliant Sethis doctor Nu’al’eh… and of course, with her personal involvement in getting my mission approved, one of Keye’s personal trainees, Katerine Mori, is aboard to serve as my chief Science Officer. Starfleet may have called these plans madness… but we will show them. With me as their fearless leader, not even God himself would be able to stand in our path.
“The chief motivation for this daring trek is the discovery of sentient life. Save for the Sethis, humanity has thought the distant solar systems to be eerily empty of evolved consciousness. I — and my Science Officer Mori — know this to be an untruth. Our ability to detect civilization at about our level, however, is limited to only about 30 light years… any further than that, and we could easily miss the footprint and energy signature of a civilization just as vast as our own. In order to find them, we need to spread the net wider… and closer. The potential for other biological characters on the stage needs to be determined, uncovered, and characterized, so that we can find out if they are dangerous or potentially useful for mankind. I make this first Captain’s log in such an unorthodox manner because… well, I think we might have done it. I think we’ve finally found the Womb of Life.”
The Captain felt her eyebrows raise. Womb of Life? Amara wasn’t a scientist by trade, but she was highly educated anyway, and knowing a great deal about physics, chemistry, and biology was necessary for anyone who was planning to take command of a starship. What was she referring to? Could she have encountered the Kthid?
Alone in this tenebrous void, she kept on listening.
“For months, we scanned and descended upon uncultured rocks. These were magnificent in their beings, sporting lakes of sulfur, sand dunes the size of Earth’s Mount Everest, clouds formations that had frozen into still-hovering ice, of such rigidity that we could make landfall upon their bulk. And we found life. Plenty of life. Life on nearly every world… However, no sign of intelligence. Making Lilis wormholes as we went, we dove forward at maximum speed. For us it feels like only a few years have passed, but it has already been decades back on Earth as we quest forward, exploring ever further.”
Amara found herself nodding along. Those were the same jump points that Miranda had used to… She winced and turned her attention back to the recording and away from her sister.
“Yet now, while we were constructing the next of the Lilis wormholes in Wyx Eridani, Mori showed me the readings she had taken, and her calculations… I almost couldn’t believe it as I stared at those astrological charts. There appears to be a region of space, an entire sector up ahead that is… odd. It doesn’t rotate in time with the rest of the galactic spin, and from here we are picking up signs of all kinds of physical anomalies and radio emissions that might indicate intelligent habitation. These findings would have been impossible to discover at their distance from Earth, she claimed. To be truthful, despite my vast intellect I did not myself comprehend half of her technical explanations, but she is a genius after all… and the good scientist seemed greatly agitated, explaining these disturbances as some sort of ray-like emission, akin to starlight venturing through the nothingness of the void, touching and affecting everything it came into contact with. She explained that this was like discovering another fundamental force of nature. Even more intriguingly, this force appeared to possess a center, some nexus from where it originated. But that isn’t all…
“As we have traveled, we have found an increasing concentration of of amino acids and protein structures on the asteroids and comets we have used to gather resources… and they have been growing more dense at an accelerating rate. Combining this data with concentration numbers collected by other Elysium-class ships and collated by Dr Keye back on Earth, we were able to triangulate a likely origin point… and it appears that they are one and the same! The mystery of the origin of life is going to be solved by our voyage!
“The existence of such a potential discovery makes this entire voyage a categorical success. Having addressed the crew concerning these discoveries, I’ve decided to make a direct line towards this mysterious sector so to pierce its veil of knowledge. I have no doubt that what we will find will alter the history of mankind forever. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
The next segment in the journal began loading automatically after the briefest interim while Amara waited in stupefied silence. This was… this was incredible! The sheer plentiful abundance of life on nearly every planet with even remotely favorable conditions had long since led credence to the theory of Panspermia, and the origin of life beginning in space rather than in oceans had been the dominant theory of abiogenesis for centuries, no credible evidence had ever emerged as to where it might have begun to spread from. Finding such a source would have been incredible news… but despite it having apparently occurred before she was born, Amara had never heard about this. Why had they never reported this to Earth? And Wyx Eridani? She had studied the Mistrunner because of its effect on her, and her sister’s, life… That wasn’t a system on the ship’s reported course.
She looked over at the terminal… Atalanta’s loading-time was still in its early percentages as the second log entry began.
“Amazing!” Talia’s arrogant voice spoke. “The star systems in this cluster are so close together, improbably so! While there is enough of a margin for error in the data that Mori says that she can’t tell precisely which of the systems the strange rays coming from this sector are coming from, she is growing increasingly excited as we get closer and there is no measurable increase in signal strength or focus. She suspects they might be interminable… go nearly forever in whatever direction they are pointed. With every passing day, I become more certain we are approaching a new understanding of the underlying principles of the universe, of dark energy and its role in creation. The closer we get, the stronger our ability to detect them grows as they are clustered closer together, and the more astounding our discoveries become.
“On the very edge of what we have dubbed the Noctis sector, we happened upon a planet of nearly miraculous fertility. Not even on Set-3 did anyone find a world this lush. The entire globe was surrounded with verdant jungle, akin to what early astronomers imagined Venus would look like beneath its cloud-sheeted skies. Likewise, its atmosphere was rich with all the elements necessary for supporting life. In great excitement, we descended to the planet’s surface using our shuttles.”
She spoke with such hurried enthusiasms that the words nearly tumbled over one another. Yet the tone was still aggrandized, like those of a prophet or a glory-hounding conquistador instead of a science-minded Officer of the Human Exploratory Fleet. “With our feet upon this world, we found the terrain to possess a virtually unequaled fecundity, and there is unbelievable ecologic diversity. Our terrestrial rainforests — even in their pre-human prime — were nothing in comparison. The very soil itself seemed to pulsate with primordial vigor, this life energy throbbing outward into all the vegetation, lichen and tree analogs that we could find, not to mention the fauna. None of the many, many, many lifeforms we discovered on the world proved to be intelligent… yet even the sheer amount of life there was not the most disconcerting discovery we made upon this Edenic planet.”
For the first time during her narration, some sliver of hesitation seemed to have crept into the arrogant Captain’s voice. The pause was like that of a fanatic discovering an inconsistency or error in her own holy scripture.
“Coupled with its amazing fecundity, the lifeforms of this world also possessed a downright… insane appetite for rapine and destruction. Almost every insect, every reptile, every mammalian creatures we encountered seemed to be at war with one another, waging an insane battle of extinction. On Earth, we have predator and prey… lifeforms that subsist on solar energy, and those that try to steal it from them through consumption, and those that try to steal that from them. That has held true on most worlds that the HEF have found, more or less. Here, however… everything is a predator. As such, our crew was assailed by virtually every creature that could move, and many of the plants as well! From mammalian life and insects, down to vine-like lifeforms that hang off from trees like the one that nearly ate Katerine. Only an insanely rapid breeding process appeared to keep the bioforms from killing each other to extinction, yet I wondered how long it could be able to replenish their numbers. Mori seemed morbidly fascinated by this alien manifestation of Mother Nature, marveling and attempting to discover what evolutionary logic ruled it.
“One other curiosity to mention,” the Mistrunner’s former Captain remarked. “It appears that most forms of mating and reproduction on this world are as violent as the rest of their lifecycle. Many such attempts to mate that we found resulted in the deaths of one or both of the pair. It appears that, in order to combat this, several of the lifeforms developed some kind of… what Katerine referred to as a “parasitic reproduction system” that allowed them to use other races as a proxy for their mating. With this feature, much of their breeding was thus committed through its own kind of predation, sexual violation perpetrated against other species. It appears that on this Edenic version of hell, predators do not only hunt for prey, but mates as well. How this could have come to be, I do not know… but we’ve discovered increasing rates of sterility among some of the species that have not adapted this feature. It is unknown, however, which developed first. Katerine was so insistent on studying this phenomenon that I had to order Security Officer McAllister to literally drag her back to the shuttles, complaining all the way. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Within the darkness, Amara swallowed in sudden terror. She had been lost in the stellar-aged horror-story, but that last bit… that sounded too much like the Kthid for her liking. Was there a relationship between those primitive lifeforms and those space dragons? She suddenly, acutely, felt the darkness around her, her very soul feeling an urgent craving for light.
The next several logs were both fascinating and yet frustratingly uninteresting. The ship had proceeded further towards the nexus of the gravitational anomaly of the sector, towards their theorized source of both life and their strange energy rays. Talia narrated how while traveling, they had happened upon several worlds that seemed to have undergone recent mass extinctions, each within the last few hundred thousand years. Fossil evidence showed that these rocks had not long-ago been at least as fertile as that aforementioned monster-haunted death-world, and some of them actually showed traces of what might have been planet-spanning civilizations! Yet now, all life had been wiped from their surface. Based on observations from orbit noting the oxygen concentration, it seemed that even bacterial life had died out, leaving only water and rock behind. Talia mentioned how on some worlds there was evidence of nuclear war, or biological infection, or geological instability, but on many more there was no apparent cause for their apocalypse. On some, it seemed like their very inhabitants had wiped themselves out, possible through less-dramatic war than nuclear arms, or over-competition. Amara would have badly loved to learn more of these worlds, but it was evident from the distracted tone of her voice that the Captain was too focused on reaching that mysterious nexus of the Noctis sector to bother with investigating multiple planet-wide homicides. It frustrated Amara. How could she not need to know? How could she not look? Amara didn’t like where this was going.
Then, there seemed to have been a break in the logs. Corrupted files, perhaps. A few bits of sounds played like ghostly static in the darkness. Then, without warning, Amara’s predecessor returned, her voice appearing in medias res. For some unknowable reason, they had landed on some diminutive moon to investigate signs of lifeforms. This one was barren and rocky and dominated with deserts. Talia described it as a tomb, every vista showing signs of a similar recent extermination. This time, the Captain was narrating in mid-expedition, panting as she trekked through rugged terrain.
“That bastard,” she wheezed. “The monster took out three of my crew! I figured that with our lasrifles, they would be safe to approach. It attacked us more viciously than any Earth predator. Though the beast was clearly injured by our fusillade of gunfire, it managed to wade through the damage. Something happened when it ran at us, and most of the crew broke like children, running away screaming, and it changed right through them while a solid quarter of their Aegis fields and weapons malfunctioned. While doing so it even managed to capture Nu’al’eh, dragging the Sethis Doctor away screaming by the grip of its teeth! For whatever reason this hammerheaded freak would choose to do so, I do not know! I suspect it wishes a late-night snack, though I do not know why it did not simply kill her then. We are in process of mounting a rescue operation. McAllister managed to hit the devil with a tracking-device while it was escaping. I pray that it’s Nu’al’eh’s fate to survive long enough to be rescued!”
The recording ended. Amara thought herself able to hear something scurry on the other side of the wall that she was leaning against. The sudden noise made her jolt, looking backwards at the featureless barrier whose outline appeared nearly indistinguishable in the low light. She quickly dismissed it as a trick of the mind. The stories were getting to her. Amara resumed listening.
“We tracked the beast to its lair, deep in one of the caves. Nu’al’eh… was already dead. In truth — and I do not wish for this particular information to reach the Doctor’s relatives — she was worse than dead. This… eyeless abomination is apparently a parasitoid, reproducing by laying eggs in the bellies of its victims. We found her with an extended belly that had been busted open from the inside, exploding at the birth of those children inserted into her womb. They slithered around in her chest like worms or baby serpents, the Sethis woman’s face frozen at the moment of death to show us the extreme pain she must have felt as it happened. It was the most gruesome thing I have ever witnessed. Later, Katerine Mori informed me that a set of eggs had been inserted into her via an ovipositor, which then hatched. I torched those newborn atrocities in front of their half-dead parent. That disgusting hammerhead shrieked shrilly upon watching them burn,” Talia concluded with venomous acrimony. “Serves the monster right.”
Amara’s blood ran cold. Hammerhead? Eyeless? Lay eggs inside other living beings? Terror and electromagnetic interference? “No…” she whispered. The realization hit her with chest-numbing shock. Talia Icarus, alone in the Noctis sector and far away from mankind, had just run into Void Tracers! The ship’s mission, and its disappearance, had both taken place before the Night of Black Stars… they didn’t know. They didn’t know! Void Tracers were still an unknown hazard by then… For Talia Icarus and the crew of the Mistrunner, this was first contact! The intrepid adventuress had no idea what she was dealing with. She had been unimaginably lucky to have only stumbled into one. Normally, they would swarm anything biological approaching them like locusts.
Another log loaded. This time… Captain Icarus sounded uncharacteristically pensive and thoughtful.
“There has occurred a… dilemma… in my requirements as Officer aboard my ship,” she said quietly into her recording-device. “An act of high insubordination, actually. It concerns that fateful landing on the nearly-lifeless moon which was the subject of my last report, where the Sethis Doctor Nu’al’eh and three others perished. It now occurs to me that I had not even narrated the fate of that creature.
“Its injuries were clearly catching up with it.. The damage we dealt too extreme for it to survive, and while looking at it still caused a strange stirring of terror it was nowhere near as extreme as it had been earlier. After I torched its younglings, I ordered our Science Officer to dispose of the creature. To be truthful, I was eager to be away from the thing, so I walked out of that godforsaken cave before the order had even been completed… as did most of my crewmen, apparently.” Talia took a deep breath, sounding like she had been subjected to the Comedy of the Gods. “Now I learn that instead of killing the creature, Mori had it brought onboard. It’s currently chained onto an operational table in Nu’al’eh’s medical lab, which Katerine has since taken over for her experiments. It’s safely indisposed, so there is no risk of the beast suddenly springing loose and wreaking mayhem aboard the Mistrunner… I’ve inspected its bonds myself. We’ve taken to calling it a Hammerhead, on account of how its face protrudes sidewards akin to those terrestrial sharks, and ts similar ferocity.”
“Idiots!” Amara yelled, eyes wide with horror. Those fools… they had actually brought a Void Tracer onto their ship?
“Needless to say… this caused quite a stir among the crew. Many are in an outright uproar. Security Officer McAllister herself went berserk, forgetting the dignity of her uniform when she found out… She lunged at Katerine, wrestling the Scientist onto the floor and soundly beating the sense out of her, shouting that this was a defilement of Nu’al’eh’s memory. It didn’t end until I arrived at the scene and ordered the two to be separated. Bloodied and bruised, Mori still made a vehement defense of her actions as I inquired as to what was the meaning of this. She claimed that the Hammerhead was too unique to die. A creature as singularly dangerous as this needed to be studied and understood. Once humanity colonizes this part of the galaxy, we need to know that perilous wildlife we may be running into. Sarah wouldn’t have it. She and Nu’al’eh were close friends. Even as the scientist explained herself, she had to be stopped from lunging at her again.”
There was a pause in the recording. “…But I find I agree with my Science Officer. A unique encounter such as this one needs to be studied for posterity’s sake. I still loathe the abomination, but I’ve come to agree with Mori that it has a sort of… bestial charm. It’s downright fascinating how singularly focused the Hammerhead seems to be on eating and reproducing… when there is a woman in sight, it can scarcely take its eyes off of her. It’s a lifeform stripped to its simply biological essences and not a single extra thing.”
Amara abruptly remembered that Eve had mentioned finding dried blood on the bridge.
“Naturally, this puts me in a bit of a awkward place, as I had ordered the beast to be destroyed. I am forced to swallow my own pride for the betterment of mankind. Just this once, I’ll stomach this infraction on my authority as Captain and let her study the thing. So it’s been decided that Katerine will spend some time running tests on the monster. Sarah, however, practically went mad when I made my ruling. The Security Officer is unfit for her rank… She is not able to see things from an objective viewpoint. I may have to discipline her further if this continues. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Amara balled her hand into a fist, swallowed it, and then bit back a thousand curses. The next recording had apparently been produced the following day.
“Perhaps I have underestimated the following that Sarah had managed to acquire during our long journey,” the Captain began, an annoyed note in her voice. “Already, a sort of schism has formed among the crew, demarcated between those rational actors who support Mori and myself in regards to the Hammerhead, and those extremists who wish to see it burned, like the totalitarian governments of old Earth once burned books. Fools. The atmosphere during our meals has grown… tense. I spoke words of unity today, yet the malcontents wouldn’t listen. No matter. It won’t amount to anything. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Then, the following day.
“I visited our extraterrestrial guest today, and to my surprise, the beast recognized me! The moment I entered our late medics sickbay, it started snarling viciously and spilling out saliva as if overwhelmed with the lust to kill! My reason deserted me, and I almost ran screaming… there is something unnatural about it, almost like a psychic bow wave of horror that surrounds them. I had to leave the room for nearly fifteen minutes before I steeled myself to enter… thankfully, no one saw. As I at last entered and drew near, the beast exploded into a fit of movement, thrashing about so ferociously that Katerine was concerned that it would break free. It was all really quite exhilarating in hindsight… even as it was absolutely, mindbendingly terrifying in the moment. I can’t even begin to understand how Katerine can stay around the thing. No doubt it remembers that it was I who torched its younglings, exterminating its entire lineage… an impressive memory for such a stupid beast.”
The Captain chuckled. “This realization has only deepened my fondness for the disgusting thing. However, like with every pet, the owner must show who is in charge! Therefore — and to satiate the bloodlust of McAllister’s brand of rebels — I resolved to have the grotesque thing properly punished. I took a laser-scalpel from among Nu’al’eh’s equipment. The beast’s chitinous form was already quite pockmarked from all the laserblasts it took during its attack of us, but it was my pleasure to add to the ugliness further by slowly etching an big X into its forehead! The Hammerhead screamed so loudly that I think the whole ship overheard! I’m glad to report that it now seems to like me even more! Oh what magnificent beasts these monstrosities are! Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
“Talia… you idiot,” Amara whispered. Grimly, she awaited the next log.
The next report was a mere six sentences long. “This close, we’ve completed triangulation close enough that there can be no doubt that the area of space we are approaching is the nexus of the Noctis sector. It isn’t in a star system at all, but outside of them… and it seems to radiate energy in all directions. We’ve sent probes ahead, and by tomorrow we should receive readings back from them as we slowly fall into orbit around the gravitation anomaly… enough to study it. Already, the strangeness we’re discovering here is… breathtaking. Katerine will only call it the anomaly, but the crew had taken to calling it a Dark Star, and the name has stuck. Tomorrow, we will find out more. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
There was a long pause. Amara, tense with anticipation, couldn’t believe it. The recordings couldn’t end now!
Then, just as she was getting ready to call for Atalanta to seek more additional logs… the recordings began again.
“I would like to… apologize to posterity for my tardiness in these reports,” Talia gravely stated. “In truth, I had been intending to make my logs yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that… for months now. I can find no words. We’ve kept our velocity as intact as we can, orbiting the anomaly, but… the longer we remain in this system, the more and more I’m convinced that I and my crew and hovering in the presence of a higher… entity… than mankind.”
For some reason, that simple description alone unnerved Amara Black even more than the knowledge that a Void Tracer had once been aboard this ship. “This… Dark Star,” the Captain continued. “How does one describe it? Is it some ultra-natural lifeform or a fifth force of the Cosmos, as Mori first theorized it to be? It very much appears like a black hole to our sensors, indescribably small and yet massive, yet… yet it does not behave as one ought to. Energy radiates away from it, such a quantity of it that it fries almost any sensor suite we point in its direction, making it hard to get accurate readings. It is a… a dark, hollow void casting unlight out into the universe, emitting some fiendish rays whose quality we’ve yet to decipher, though Mori works on it night and day. I do not know why, but when gazing at it through what sensor readings we have managed to take, I feel…”
She sighed. “I feel more like I am in the presence of God than I do in the presence of Nature. It sounds mad, but there it is. It exudes something not found in any other energy known to man… I have no doubts that we have finally found the source of the strange radiation pulses. What finite lifeforms humanity seem when I stand here, in its presence.”
Talia Icarus had always been grandstanding and imperious, that much was plaintive for the modulation of her voice alone, but now she seemed strangely subdued… and perhaps more than a little wild around the corners of her voice. A little… mad. “Our readings have been sufficient to determine one thing all but conclusively, however… this is the source of life in this galaxy. Every single sample we’ve taken from anywhere nearby contains recognizable proteins and amino acid pairs… the same building blocks that lead to life on Earth. And that’s not all. There are… things… living in the void, here. The HEF is aware of some multi-cellular life feeding on waste around Earth’s orbital rings and cloud of habitats, but we had always assumed they had arisen on Earth, and our ships had carried them into orbit. Now… that isn’t clear. There is a full fledged ecosystem here of predator and prey, feeding on the energy of the radiation and then being consumed. Some very, very, large objects have been observed… and Mori believes them to be organics of some kind, something almost like whales feasting on the krill.
“We can’t be sure because we can’t get good readings… we dare not get closer,” she continued. “The radiation threatens to overwhelm shielding even at this distance, and even well shielded probes die before getting too much closer, but our sensors are picking up… something else… around the anomaly it. Something just this side of the Event Horizon, built into the Ergosphere. We have no known method for existing within that strange region of space-time… but there is something in there. Something that has become the almost-exclusive subject of Mori’s studies. It… I feel like it is alive. Like when I look at it, it is looking back.
“All among my crew are aware of similar feelings… Though not all handle the nearness of such a sublime anomaly as well as I or Katerine. As always, it’s the followers of my damned Security Officer that are causing the trouble. They urge a retreat towards home immediately, yet I hold steadfast. This is how history is made… and those histories will not look kindly upon their cowardice. This… anomaly, this… being… needs to be studied! We’ve bridged nearly a hundred lightyears from Earth, under the guidance of multiple Captain and crews, just to get this ship this far… and they would throw away all of that for some pathetic cowardice. I know inside my soul that what we are looking at here… its very essence holds all the secrets of the Cosmos, ready for us to discover!”
There was another long pause. Yet the log had not yet ended. From minute sounds, Amara could hear that Talia had moved somehow, perhaps laying down in her own bed as she completed the verbal report. She whispered the remaining sentences as if they were breezes of ethereal air.
“It is… older than light,” she said softly. “The Dark Star is coeval with darkness, and fear, and ignorance… with evil… but it is also the source of life. From it exudes timeless midnight… What could I possibly do or say when confronted with something that seems more ancient than our galaxy itself? I must know its secrets.” A long pause. “Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Talia Icarus had no doubt been correct in calling the Dark Star evil, by Amara’s estimation of her descriptions… Yet her emotional tone did not match that designation. The woman was speaking as if having encountered God instead of the Devil! The former Captain of this ship had clearly gone mad, that much was apparent. Yet… a nagging thought dug inside the huddling Captain’s mind. There was some detail she was missing…
When it hit her at last, she gasped. The Kthid! They had spoken of a Dark Star, mentioned it with the intonation of the religious. In that moment, she had dismissed the sayings as superstitious religion or flaws in translation… But with these records, it seemed unmistakable that these violent conquerors had some connection to, or at the very least knowledge of, the anomaly that Talia had found. So this was their God? Did they perhaps originate on a planet close to it?
On the next recording, it was clear that a lot of time had passed just from the tone of Talia’s voice. Her fanaticism had been muted with exhaustion and mental lassitude. Slowly, she began to speak again.
“Once again I… apologize for my infrequent reporting. I admit to having let… Katerine govern most of my decisions during the last weeks. She has been the most driven in uncovering the secrets of this evil bastion that we currently orbit. In these tapes, I’ve never truly given the proper respect to her singular brilliance within her scientific field. Her methods may be bold and unconventional, as when she brought the Hammerhead onboard my ship in stark defiance of my orders. Yet she has talents for solving even the most confounding of mysteries.
“The void itself around here teems with life. Those strange, whale-like organics occasionally expel something outward, and we were lucky enough to be on the course with one to investigate and… it was nothing like what we thought. It was enormous… almost like a moon, and filled with dead and consumed organic matter and living things feeding off it… along with the ruins of ships, satellites, and other signs of intelligence that the Dark Star has sucked into orbit and these monstrosities recycle, reconstituting the materials as new machines even as it fills them with new raw organic material. Life swarms around them as they are ejected on an escape orbit trajectory. From the specimens that we have collected, alongside X the Hammerhead, Katerine has confirmed for me that the weird, violent, parasitic biology we’ve collected samples of from several worlds now is the result of the Dark Sun’s influence. This… unlight… that the anomaly emits has some mutative effect that penetrates straight down to their genetic code of all living beings. It changes them. Guides their DNA along certain pathways. I don’t understand the science, but Katerine is sure of it… Over the generations, that radiation leads life towards the hyperaggression we’ve been witnesses to. The worlds awash in violence and rape, the maddening ferocity of lifeforms, some of the mass extinctions… we’re now studied some three dozen lifeforms in the area, and while they all seemed to have divergent sources of evolution, they all tended towards the same insane aggression. The Hammerhead too, Mori is certain, is a result of the Dark Star’s peculiar radiation.”
Amara steadied her nerves. This was critical. This was information could be some of the most important things she learned in this nightmare… Out there, suspended in the void, was some baleful force which was the progenitor of all her woe. If it had caused the raptors to be, then Amara had little issue with assuming with no further proof that it had birthed the Kthid as well. Luckily enough, it appeared that Talia Icarus had managed to avoid at least that draconic species’ notice. Equally important… unless she missed her guess, the Captain was describing the hulk that the Midgar-6 had crash landed on.
“We’ve been down onto that accumulated hulk, taking samples of the things living there. Most of them are already dying off from the weak atmosphere, showing that there are whole ecosystems living within those world-ship moons. Three more crew were lost during today’s landfall onto the hulk to get the final specimens. McAllister’s faction is having another one of their uproars. I’m tired of dealing with their incompetence. All this aforementioned knowledge has been withheld from the ears of everyone save Mori and a few others… diehard loyalists. The rest cannot be trusted. They demand an immediate return to Earth. Cowards,” Icarus said, ending the transmission without signing out.
Amara checked on Atalanta’s loading time. It was nearly completed. “Atalanta… How many more logs are there?” she asked.
“Three,” the AI responded without rematerializing, her voice chirping through the comm unit. “One is a video-file attached to an audio-log.”
Amara nodded. “Good. Should have time enough.”
The next log began in a rush. “Mutiny!” Talia croaked, sounding pained as if from a serious wound. “That bitch Sarah actually did it! She and the rest of the rebels stormed my quarters and took me prisoner. I was beaten and humiliated… treated far beneath the stature of a rank! Me! Me, whose groundbreaking discoveries will make me Exalted among the Exalted! Sarah herself took an opportunity to spit upon my face while barking delusions that Nu’al’eh and the others are dead because of me! Luckily, the mutineer’s ploy didn’t pan out.” There was a ferocious snarl in the Captain’s voice. “A lot of people are dead, now. I’ll admit that we’re running on a skeleton crew, but order has been restored and the surviving insurrectionists imprisoned. It was Katerine Mori who rallied the loyalists and retook control over the ship. I owe that woman a lot. It was particularly satisfying to get to kick the captured former security officer in her ribs myself. Mori has even given me an a perfect resolution to our little feud with the bitch…”
As her words drifted off, the video-recording activated. It was a diminutive screen that hovered in the air just before Amara’s visage. The red-haired woman promptly went wide-eyed upon spotting the first blurry image upon that crackling recording. She immediately identified X from his namesake scar and the struggling, screaming woman could be no other than Sarah McAllister the Security Officer!
“NOOOOO!!!!” she bellowed while fighting to prevent a fate worse than death.
The footage was filmed from behind some security window. X quickly overwhelmed the Earth-woman and pinned her body prone onto the featureless deck. Even in her limited experience with Void Tracers, Amara could recognize that this particular specimen was unusually large, profusely war-scarred even by their truculent standards, and driven insane with the need to breed. From this angle, one could discern how its ovipositor grew rigid and was aimed towards the struggling woman. Still squirming to get free, Sarah bled from many lacerations that had been formed when its fanged claws dug into her extremities.
Amara wanted to vomit. What was… what was she watching?! She wanted to stop it, but some sick need to know, some insane disbelief in reality kept her looking at the record. They couldn’t be really about to…
Amara knew what Void Tracers did. She knew. She had never seen a living one… but every woman born since the first encounter with the monsters had grown up with nightmares about them… and Icarus and Mori had elected to make their mutineer into a human sacrifice to further their studies!? Amara did not want to witness this. She averted eyes just as that phallic egg-layer stabbed through Sarah’s clothing and penetrated directly into her labia. The bellowing scream still rang so loudly that she thought her eardrums would burst. Those mad sadists even kept filming when the VT began to shove itself violently deeper inside of her!
“I was wrong to kill X’s younglings when we first met,” Talia said over the record, voice matter-of-fact. “They could have been excellent lab-rats to study how the species grows and develops, to observe the Dark Star’s mutations in action as they affect the development of infants. Oh well… live and learn. How lucky I am to have Sarah McAllister after all! Maybe the other imprisoned mutineers will be useful for if we need additional specimens?”
Amara cursed that damnable Captain to the darkest pits of hell… she was clearly a megalomaniac, but she had jumped beyond that to sheer monster with this!
Utterly blanketing Sarah’s body, X the Void Tracer lurched and slammed its lower-body forward, stuffing the Terran woman’s cunt full of its organ. In mid-rut, its serpentine tongue would slither out and caress the head of its sweat-drenched victim whose countenance already was looking like a death-mask. At least this beast’s evil was pure, caused by nothing more than evolutionary need and instinct. The evil of Katerine and Talia was born of ambition, cruelty, and insanity! The vaginal pummeling only grew more violent… Amara had heard that each VT impregnation could spawn 6-12 individuals. Before the video ended, she could hear Icarus speak again. “I killed all of its progeny. I wonder if X will grow fond of me now that I’ve restarted its entire lineage? Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner, private log, override A7DX9. Log end.”
Amara was immensely relieved to see the recording ended. This was a death-ship! The next log began before she had had a chance to collect herself after watching such shocking material.
“The ship has been quiet since the mutiny was… resolved,” Talia’s cold tones said, but Amara could hear the smile in her voice. “The young monsters are even uglier than their father, or mother as Katerine insists. Whatever. I expected that she would want to study them, but she had been distracted these last few days… she had kept delaying our meetings to discuss her findings, poised as if she were on the verge of a breakthrough. I don’t understand all of the science, but from what I’ve witnessed it concerns the Dark Star itself… I believe she might have made a fundamental discovery regarding its nature. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Breathing hard, Amara braced for what she felt sure would be further bad news… but she was still taken by surprise by the final log as it began.
“They’ve escaped!” Talia panted into the device, though it didn’t sound like she was running. “I’ve made it to the bridge, but those monsters broke out of containment in the medbay. I don’t know how, it should have been impossible… It must be Mori’s fault! That damnable cunt! I knew that she was no good from the very start! The effect that they have on both technology and inspiring terror is magnified in numbers… communicators in the ship are all but completely ineffective, wireless communications completely unreliable. Not only that, but the ship seems to be going into some kind of security lockdown… and I didn’t order it! Half the systems on this ship won’t obey my commands anymore… I needed to use a manual override to even get into the bridge, and I could hear the screams of the remaining crew before I sealed myself inside.”
Amara felt her blood chill. “Shit,” she whispered, her worst fears confirmed.
“The entire Mistrunner is swarming with adolescent Hammerheads! Damnit, X! I knew that I should have followed my initial instincts and had you killed! But all is not lost!” she rambled, sounding more insane than scared. “I have devised a plan to get myself home. It may be a long shot. But I suspect that it may work!
“We are still in the same orbit as before the mutiny, before taking the samples… alongside that massive planetoid that is bound on an escape trajectory. It won’t pass Earth, but by the calculations we did it will come within radio-telescope range of Set-3 eventually. The engines are still under my control… whatever lockdown is underway couldn’t disrupt that. I plan to make landfall on this planetoid and hitch a ride. The Mistrunner is equipped with several cryosleep pods in case of unmanageable catastrophes such as this… If I can make it to one of them, I intend to encase myself within and program the pod with programmed instructions to only awaken in case the Mistrunner is reactivated. Then the ship will enter a full shutdown and vent atmosphere, and we’ll see how these bastards like the void of space!”
She hesitated the barest moment before continuing. “I expect within about three centuries, the hulk will be detected by radio-signaling from Set-3. With a little luck, this space-hulk’s many unusual anomalies will lure in Terran scientists like moths to flame so to have it inspected. Having it scanned, they will discover my ship… Then I will be reawakened! It may take centuries, but I will live again!
“SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” Amara swore. There was worse news apparent than just having another insane Captain stumbling around this vessel. Void Tracers were famed for their ability to hibernate and survive a vacuum, a little fact that Talia’s so-called brilliant scientist seemingly hadn’t discovered! A few of them may still have survived!
They might still be on this ship!
“I will still be… one of the Exalted,” Talia voiced. “Captain Talia Icarus of the Mistrunner. Log end.”
Amara bolted upright. Stumbling through the darkness, she headed for the door, ignoring the pain in her leg and… it opened before she reached it. The woman’s heart leapt into her throat. She expected the appearance of snarling super-predators looking to both feed and breed! She reached for her sidearm and-
“Amara! Captain… Amara… I thought I told you to remain in bed!” Ri’she’a called.
The Captain panted with immense relief. Seeing that helmswoman’s petite face was a godsend after listening to so many real-life horror stories. How could she ever explain? “Ri’she’a, listen, we may have a serio—”
Before she could finish, the ceiling lamps suddenly blazed to life and flooded the nexus with blinding light. The sudden shift stung the Earth-woman’s eyes after so long in the darkness. Behind her, the mainframe made digital whines as it returned to full capacity. Barely a moment passed, just long enough for long dormant machinery to grind to life, and then Atalanta materialized behind them. Her face looked even more alarmed than Amara’s did!
“Captain! We’re in trouble!” she rushed out.
Amara didn’t hesitate. “How many of them?” she asked.
To her credit, the Exalted woman didn’t mince words or ask what she knew, and for once she didn’t give any lip. “Still getting an accurate count as systems come online. More than two hundred, so far,” Atalanta proclaimed.
“There can’t be that many…” Amara said, shaking head in disbelief. “We’d have seen then before now, surely… that can’t be right.”
“What!?” Ri’she’a yelped, eyes moving between the two women. “What are you talking about? Two hundred what, Amara?”
“Void Tracers…” Amara said softly, whispering in horror.
What the digitized woman did next needed no explanation. Her emerald-shining body vanished and was replaced with an azure-colored hologram. It showed a design outline of the Mistrunner, all of its various rooms and corridors sketched out… filling in more with every passing second as Atalanta brought up systems one after the other after the other, bringing the ship fully online. Alongside this, filling the ship, there were…
Bright red dots that required no explanation.
They were everywhere!
The was a huge cluster of them down below, near the engine machinery and the turbines… but there were dozens near even the bridge! Horror overwhelmed Amara as the fate of this ship’s crew became fatally clear. X the Hammerhead or its immediate spawn had bred with every single person in the crew, and so sired hundreds of children who had all survived their sojourn on the space-hulk, patiently waiting out the decades without prey in hibernation… while they waited for Amara to blithely bring a veritable fucking buffet to them! Filling the idle ship with atmosphere again, reawakening its systems, had brought them roaring back to life, awakening them from their slumber with a ravenous hunger and inhuman lust.
They were responsible for the disappearances, that much was clear… all the problems with the communicators could be traced to electromagnetic interference from their fields, but… how was this happening? Void Tracers were tenebrous and sneaky but how could such a myriad of them all have avoided detection?
“Oh my God…” Ri’she’a gawked, pointing.
“What!?” Amara asked.
“Amara, the sounds! They are inside the walls!”