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Space: the final frontier, the dreamer's backyard, humanity's last escape from extinction. What other shining sea of unmatched vastness can inspire such awe in the mind of man? How much closer can one get to the fabric of the heavens, to the glistening diamonds, to the lemon drops of star shine embedded in this inky quilt, these velvet depths? What possibility lies among the scattered stars, encircled by whirling planets unknown! How promising, how hopeful, how buoyant the gossamer streams of their distant light travelling inexorably to be caught by our dancing fingertips, to rouse, to delight, to inspire!
Onward soars Aquila, vessel painted in silver potential, fiery and streamlined bullet, streaking through the perpetual night sky, exultantly carting along in its metallic belly a nauseous crew whose stomachs seem to have been permanently molded to their spines. But look! Squint, and see just there, out the window gently shines a vermillion marble, and as hearts thunder and throats parch, rearranged organs are a small price to pay.
Festivity ensues, platonic kisses exchanged and virgin drinks clinked in an ersatz party, a grumbling ghost, a desperate imitation of a celebration in a shady bar back at home. But among this vital crew, sobriety must remain and drowsiness cannot be risked, so adieus are bid with reluctant embraces, and hangovers are merely dusty memories.
“Sleep well, Captain,” bids a young, brilliant fellow, nodding courteously at my side. His hair is sizzling ginger, his gaze inquisitive sage, and he has the makings of a commander.
“And you.” My terse reply spins unease in his pupils. “Don't let the bed bugs bite.” His anxiety the antiquated advice relieves, and he sprightly disappears with a final bow. A competent, towering man nears, his gaze following the tripping tyro, and with a smirk and a fold of his massive arms, “You scared him s***less,” is his cheekily spot-on observation. One stab of my dagger eyes and he is spinning into back flips at once, chuckling ruefully and coiling his mouth into an overturned parenthesis. “Sorry, Captain. Pardon my French.”
Encased in sturdy, pristine fabric, his brawny shoulder my closest comrade claps heartily. “Forget your meds again?” the wiry doctor inquires, arching an eyebrow good naturedly.
The towering man scoffs with a supercilious jerk of his thick neck, affronted. “On liftoff?”
Aquila's physician shrugs, rumpling his crewmate's closely snipped hair mischievously, and with a light air of insulting concern, notes soberly, “I wouldn't put it past you.”
“I second that motion,” interjects a hardy, poised officer with devious, cerulean eyes, and as if overcome by the placebo effect, her shoulders the towering man's arms encircle, drawing her into his and the wiry doctor's embrace. “Get to bed,” orders she derisively. The physician nods, and recommends to his colleague, “A second dose couldn't hurt.”
“If you say so, doctor.” The towering man shrugs his companions out from under his arms and with a sharp salute in our direction, he lopes with a lion's poise off to his bunk. Stragglers depart, and the night watch commences, a rosy sphere setting in the distance.
Day breaks with my ascension into the captain's quarters, a loudspeaker at my mouth, several dozen subordinates at my command, and the future of the human race in my palm. A vanguard in my own right, our voyage to the fiery globe continues mellifluously. Yet perfection is not feasible for humanity, and my world is soon doused in crimson alarms.
Chaos clutches Aquila in its rapacious hold, and as the defenseless ship convulses in distress, my crew scuttles around the main deck to locate the problem and save their lives. Impending doom has always been a powerful motivator, and without departing my post, the disaster is swiftly solved and health is restored to the relieved, recuperating ship. But our invincibility is nowhere near assured, and within minutes our vulnerability is revealed, our ephemeral natures placed in an ornate frame, a magnum opus painted in our own entrails. For with the inevitable blood-curdling shriek of discovery, a heap of human flesh is found in the bowels of the ship, stiff and scorched and permeated with the stench of electricity.
The news is utterly uncontainable, whizzing through Aquila as a swiftly evolving infection, causing foul, tacky halitosis in its victims' mouths, debilitating unease in their wary muscles, and compunction pains in their abdomens for daring to suspect an associate of murder. Mission control demands an audience with the entire crew at once, throwing invisible darts at my competence, establishing themselves as parents to unruly and incompetent children. They insist on our investigation of the technical difficulty's origin and its relation to the death. In denial, one may suppose, the possibility of murder they are careful not to mention, no, not to disprove it, or even to dismiss it as an absurd theory lacking any sort of proof.
The media is all too quick to snatch up absurd theories, sinking their putrid claws into rumors and grossly displaying juicy tidbits that are sure to torment the parties involved. Reporters are terrestrial demons that leech off of sorrow and secrecy and scandal. Understandably, mission control will do everything it can to deter these rabid vultures.
Later that evening, a mild sedative my handy closest companion prescribes with a flourish, which is promised to soothe the contusions on my pride and ease me into a peaceful slumber. Drowsily wrapped in covers, my stumbling words float through our otherwise tranquil cabin and my grouses he patiently hears as he serenely lies stretched out on the adjacent mattress.
“My God, but the mission has barely started and someone has already died on my watch.” Failure so early on stuffs my ears and pains my temples mercilessly.
“These things happen.” The walls and medication warp his voice, and assent hums from my lips noncommittally. “It was just an accident,” continues the wiry doctor distantly. “I examined him myself.”
A fleeting prayer flurries through my head, wishing for the safety of Aquila's remaining crew. Far too many previous missions have fallen prey to disaster and disappearance for comfort. “Imagine the irony if everyone going to colonize Mars winds up dead.” A groggy laugh spills out. Sleep must have claimed my now-silent companion, so I follow in his lead and fall unconscious.
The rosy fingertips of the sun worm their way through the uppermost windows of the ship, but far in the dank depths of Aquila, where hissing pipes and humming machines reside, the gloom is thick and viscous, virtually untouched by a single organic, warm photon. A whistle weaves its way through the stale air, a merry Christmas hymn to dispel nyctophobia, and the vocalist's companion chuckles, humming along blithely, ignorantly, pathetically. He is doing the universe a favor, truly, by preventing humanity from proliferating as such. He is assisting everything that exists outside of Earth, every natural, unsullied nebula, every clean, unpolluted planet, every pure, uncluttered square mile of lovely, delicious space. He has to do this, his soul be damned; there is no God, anyhow, the murderous atheist asserts. He went to medical school, and he will ensure that it is gentle and quick, relatively painless. Swiftly he strikes, lashing out so quickly that their cries do not have time to escape, and upstairs, I dream soundly, ignorant and unaware, but he will soon make me understand.
Mission control is horribly panicked, the crew is utterly petrified, and the media is quite pleased. Somewhere in the philosophical region lurking in the back of my head, I observe that the range of possible human reactions to the same situation will never cease to astound. However, the absolute terror of the situation renders the majority of my brain useless, and the irrational drive to survive is screeching its support of my permanent departure from this lethal, treacherous ship, regardless of the absolute hostility of my surroundings.
Once again, a panic has pervaded every facet of the crew, its intensity swelling tenfold. Mad with worry, clammy hands clutch others' elbows, and desperate souls seek their deity. Aquila is ordered to return home directly, and the young, brilliant crewmember wails, for he has just been bestowed the impossible task of turning this colossal craft around. The towering man sways into a seat adjacent to him, muttering about nausea, largely unnoticed, that is, until he drops to the floor, unconscious, and the young, brilliant crewmember screams.
Terror has contaminated nearly every mind, and my charm and oratory skills are tested as I reassure them of the towering man's survival, and more importantly, of their own. During my inspirational speech, the young, brilliant crewmember steals away stealthily to visit his debilitated roommate and my closest companion in Aquila's medical wing. In he bursts, wheezing and worried, stumbling over to the sweating, sallow body, whilst the wiry doctor watches in surprise, then irritation at the sudden intrusion.
“Who sent you here?” The doctor's nerves are audibly shattering, his sanity is visibly splintering, and he is trembling so violently that he can barely keep a hold on the syringe in his hand. Concern riddles the young man's brow.
“You don't look too good. Do you need to sit down?”
“Just let me work. Get out.”
The young man's gaze is drawn nervously to the needle point. “Maybe I should call one of the other doctors to help you, just to be careful.”
“No!” His temper supernovas, and the young, brilliant crewmember drops inert on the floor.
Relative, unstable calm has descended on Aquila, and it is a hardy, poised officer who breaks it with her sharp, cerulean eyes that first notice the young, brilliant crewmember's disappearance. Dreading the demise of our last chance at returning home alive, I order several underlings to scour every inch of the ship for the missing man, and assign the officer the task of checking in on my closest companion and his current patient, the towering man. Though they disperse with notable alacrity, their return isn't nearly as timely, and before long, I am grumbling as I take a shortcut to the medical wing, cursing these bumbling lummoxes who can't so much as locate one of our crewmembers, leaving me to do their tasks.
The atmosphere is electric and crackling, taut as a rubber band, coiled as an animal trap, and the silent sliding doors whir open as I step cautiously into the room and see … But, oh! No, it can't possibly be. But yes, it's true and terrible and terrifying and oh, dear God … A frozen, fragile officer with petrified, cerulean eyes has a gun pointed directly at her temple.
Bitter, bitter betrayal fills my mouth as if I have bitten my tongue, pungent and permanent, and my eyes insist on treating my closest comrade's maniacal face as an optical illusion, blinking and drifting in and out of focus, attempting to find a loophole that will reveal the truth. But, alas, the truth is as stark and frigid as the young, brilliant crewmember dead on the ground. He has played this perfectly, I must give him that, keeping his enemies as his closest friends. His victory invective is nearly at its end, and the words are jarring coming from his mouth.
“Look at you, standing there with your petty little hopes and dreams.” He spits at her feet. “And look at me! Look at what I have become, at what all humans are capable of becoming. We have to stop the madness, eliminate it before it spreads, before it infects the universe, before the filthy, squirming little maggots of our sin worm their way into every facet of life. We won't give up and we won't let these Martian colonies form, even if we have to die trying. Good-bye, my dear. It's truly been a pleasure working with you.” The safety clicks.
Adrenaline explodes into my veins, clouding all rational thought and breaking alliances. As if possessed or insane, I impulsively fling myself at the wiry doctor's turned back, wrangling the weapon from his grasp and eliciting a series of frantic, frightened curses. The officer is hysterically yelling, practically sobbing, but I find that I can barely hear her.
Without aiming or even consciously moving my quivering hands, the gun jerks upward to point directly at the center of the brow of my closest companion for the last half decade. The trigger my finger compresses, and the bullet screams as it is torn from the barrel, ripping through the thick air to bury itself deep in the scattered, sick mind of the wiry doctor.
My knees crumple under the absolute shock of this murder, this dear, beloved, deceased friend whose precious life I have just brutally sucked from his heart; surely, I am going to hell. An appreciative thank you Aquila breathes, nestling herself comfortably in the course to Mars, but I, her humble savior and captain, cannot stop the deluge of tears streaming down my face.
Our ship cruises softly through the modest region of space that is our beloved solar system, the ebony blackness of which can only be matched by the darkest of human hearts. Our sun illuminates our destination, a vibrant, scarlet blossom looming in the window, accepted by mission control after an abrupt end to the slaughter that plagued our ship. This dear, forgiving planet welcomes our species with an embrace as if we didn't intend, with our cruel, caustic hearts, our perpetually sinful nature, to exploit its meager resources! A Father Mars to our Mother Earth: these parents their depraved children have doomed.
A hardy, poised officer with intense, icy eyes approaches, places a somber hand on my arm, as of recently knowing whenever my thoughts grow dangerously, destructively dark, whenever my desire to live begins to slowly, lethally drain out the bottoms of my feet. Aquila's entire crew, minus five, waits tremulously, breath catching, hearts accelerating, and then we land with a shuddering thump on the vermillion marble that we shall now call home.