Small puffs of smoke rose from the target, tiny, smoldering holes near the centers as the source. Simultaneously with a warning tone from the speakers in the room, the lights changed. All the men and women put their guns down.

“Good,” a lieutenant took note of their progress, “recruits, I hope none of you will ever need the next practice sheets.”

He pressed a button and the images at the end of the shooting range changed imto the shape of what had become known as a Harpy. “Lieutenant Shepherd?”

“Miss Kharkova?” Gant slowly strode to her. “Are we truly going to face these creatures, sir?”

“Who knows? We would like to have you prepared in case we ever do meet them.” He pressed a button on his tablet. Again a tune sounded, lights changed.

With silence as their companion the recruits started shooting the targets, after a while the targets changed again, and turned human shaped. Gant Shepherd told them again that he hoped they’d never need the practice, but that they ought to be ready.

 

“I fired guns before.” Dana sighed sitting down in the locker room with her female colleagues. “This is entirely different.”

“You don’t say?” Julia Hopes, her bunkmate sat down as well.

“Most disturbing is the lack of recoil. With a real gun you felt the destructive force you unleashed upon your target. In your fingers, palm, wrist, lower and upper arm, ellbow. There was a loud noise, letting you know that destructiveness has been unleashed. With these ray guns, nothing. No noise, no recoil, no smell.”

“No re-aiming.” Julia noted an advantage with a wink and a smile. “Besides, there is a little recoil when you fire the darts, and a hiss!”

Dismissing that notion with a hiss of her own Dana Kharkova got up, finished changing.

She stopped at the door on her way out. “Are you going to see him?”

“Nah I’m good.”

 

A plain white ceiling greeted him. Every year he was woken for a brief moment. A week, people flocked to hear his soothing words and his insight on things.

Afterwards he was returned to the cryogenic chamber for the rest of the year. “It is early this year.” He sighed before anyone could greet him.

“How did you know?” A nurse approached the table.

“I have seen that ceiling now every year since we left earth. The computer simulates seasons in the lighting. This is earlier than the last times.”

Returning his benign smile the nurse still felt uneasy. “It’s Earth.” She needed not to say any more than that for him to understand. Presumably all life on earth had already died from intense radation from the neutron star, but now it was being torn apart. If anyone or anything had survived in some bunker, now it would die for sure.

“You are the great Rhama, unifying various religions and philosophies. We need your solace ahead of time.”

He nodded, brought up a hand to his greying beard. “Just give me some time to get my bearings again. Yes?”

After discovering the neutron star and its course that would annihilate earth, various sects and cults seceded from various religions. Christianity, Moslems, Jews and Buddhists had brought in their philosophies and surprisingly it had culminated in the new religion. Although most factions held on to their original traditions, all accepted his counsel, and that of his predecessors.

Stretching he decided to proceed with the wake up protocol, put forth my medical experts and his own experience.

In the mirror he checked his face for wrinkles he was not familiar with, noticed his beard had not gotten too grey yet. He scratched the shaved head of his, hair had regrown since the last time he had shaved it two years earlier. I don’t want that back again. He remembered his thick black curls, reaching for a razor.

 

“Transport of visitors from the Kismet is due in ten minutes.” Lieutenant Shepherd called his recruits to order. “You’ll act as a representative force, I want to see your best sides.” In his voice every one heard his plea, for them to be the best class possible. He disliked the fact he had to substitute for their instructor, but the recruits thought he did an excellent job.

Since the diplomatic visit to the Destiny there had been only two transports from the Kismet, none of people flocking to see the Rhama. Only now had the Sheiks given in to the pressure of their people.

“Alright, line up!” Gant barked, with relief in his eyes did he see Kaleb Johnson. The instructor he temporarily replaced. Still somewhat pale the man reached the group standing to the sides of the entrance.

He looked the recruits over, nodded with a satisfied look, then assumed position next to Gant. “You could reasign to this job.” He mumbled.

“I’ll take my chances in security, thank you.” Hissing the doors opened and visitors poured through the opening. They were lead by a young man and his wife, both in nobler garments than the others. “That is a prince.” Kaleb whispered.

“I figured as much.” Seemingly annoyed Gant hissed back.

Prince Shamim stopped a few paces past Gant and Kaleb, with their eyes fixed at the door where the visitors had come from, neither one had taken notice of the Admiral arriving.

“Admiral.” Shamim smiled benignly. “It is a great pleasure to be back on your ship.”

“Prince Shamim,” the Admiral bowed slightly. “it is always a pleasure to have you here. I did not know you were a follower of the Rhama?”

A smile twitched in the cornersnof his mouth. “There are many things you do not know about me.” Pausing he turned to his wife. “This is my lovely wife.”

Again the Admiral indicated a bow, but soon lead the guests of honor away.

 

“Why aren’t they letting any negotiations be conducted by the Rhama?” Dana approached Gant, ringing of cutlery and dishes filled the dining hall. “Because he isn’t meant to interfere with these worldly matters.” Wishing he had taken up his friends request to join him in that club on gamma ring, rather than dining with the recruits Gant replied with a passive aggressive tone. “One thing that the founders of his religion agreed upon was that faith shouldn’t interfere with life. From the Rhama you will never hear any comment about contraception, diet or prayer times.” Or homosexuality. “When you feel uncomfortable with something, avoid it if possible. Quite a reasonable religion if you ask me.” He returned to his normal demeanour.

When was the last time he actually had gone out? He didn’t remember.

Somewhat satisfied with the reply she got Dana sat down comfortably, beginning to eat. “I was curious sir.” Annoyed over the fact that she spoke while chewing, Gant looked up from his plate. “When my training is over, could you write me a letter of recommendation so I could get into security?”

“Once you are there, let me know and we’ll talk.” He smiled. “We could talk now, sir.”

Feeling her stare on him like fire Gant put his fork down. “You can’t charm me. I’m not interested,” he paused, looking around, “in women.”

Blushing Dana too put the fork down. “Forgive me. It was inappropriate of me in any case. I can understand if you’re going to report me.”

Winking at her, Gant told her without words that he wouldn’t report her.

 

“If you give us a list of your requirements, I am certain that we can arrange something.” Smiling at the prince, Pryia began to understand that his visit to the Destiny wasn’t purely a spiritual journey. “Thank you Admiral, since our ship was originally designed to be only a short term accommodation we lack certain requirements to maintain functionality for another two generations. The fusion power is another problem, the Kismet was designed to be powered with Antimatter, with a much higher output, systems had to be redesigned, but in some cases these modifications and refits were forgotten, or not followed up thoroughly enough.” Unlike at his first visit, the prince seemed much more settled, but a man can change in a year.

Pryia stopped at the double winged door. “In a few years we won’t be able to handle as many guests from your ship, prince. Children currently living with their parents will move out and occupy these quarters. Eventually the Rhama himself will have to find other accommodations.”

As the doors slid open the prince recognised the bald, black man with the greying beard sitting in the center as the Rhama. Quickly he called for his wife, together they entered and greeted the Rhama. Hissing the doors closed behind them, leaving Pryia in the hallway.

Intent on waiting for the Prince she paced through the corridor, until her glasses in her pocket began vibrating. “Yes?” She put them on.

“The supply carriers from Ericsson will be in range within a few hours. Thought you’d welcome an update on that.”

“Thank you Stanley.” She sighed glancing to the door. “I’ll join you for reigning them in.” Determined she began to turn away, strutting she stopped after a few meters. “Tell his majesty that I had to attend important matters, but that I will join him at dinner.” One of the few attaches to the Prince nodded, but otherwise kept his stern expression.

 

In silence the cylindrical object was caught in the tethering, jerked as inertial forces tore at it, but after some moments of jerking, it was ready to be hauled aboard the Destiny. “What have the probes from Ericsson prepared for us?” Pryia reached for her tablet, as the inventory of the transport was transmitted from the carrier. “Ma’am? There must be an error in the systems, most of those materials aren’t what we had the drones mine for us. In this transport there are mostly silicates.”

Pryia raised an eyebrow over Stanley’s comment. “To make computers you need silicates, and our ordered materials will be in the next transports” her voice faded during the last word. “That is the shipping list for all the transports?”

“Told you.” Stanley smirked over his tablet. Both studied the list in detail.

“Weird, but only the numbers don’t add up. There probably had been a glitch in the software, it is sad, but we can upgrade our computers to no end.” Disappointment in her voice Pryia put the tablet down. She went over to Stanley’s desk and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Pryia!” He hissed, his tone implored her to stay. “Isn’t it also possible that there had been sabotage?” Whispering as not to unsettle their colleagues in the command centre Stanley pointed at his tablet. A note he had opened read three words: Kismet or Linkers?

Pryia pushed her eyebrows to form one dark bar above her eyes. “It is, but I’d rather hope for a glitch than a saboteur.” She whispered. “Investigate that glitch.” Louder than before.

“Aye Ma’am.”

 

For what seemed like ages the Rhama held audiences. “Welcome back,” for a moment the Rhama looked Dana in the eyes, “Dana. Right?”

She nodded. With a smile on his lips the Rhama looked her from head to to toe and back. “I can remember the last times, for me it was last week and the weeks before that. If I couldn’t remember that, I’d be worried.” He shifted on his cushions. “What brings you to me?”

“Fear.” She sat down on the cushions in front of him, they were now on eye level.

“Because Earth will perish?” His calm voice soothed her mind, even the dreadful demise of earth was not so frightening from his mouth.

“Of closure to be exact. There is this new trend,” she paused. How would she describe the brain implants to the Rhama?

“Of having a chip implanted in your brain, bringing you close to all the others who have it?” Stunned, but still soothed, Dana nodded. “As I understand it, this would bring you closer to the others, but at the risk of losing yourself. Losing yourself is never the answer, it is the problem. Don’t be afraid. If you take strength from within yourself you can withstand the temptation. You are never alone.”

A smile found its way on her lips. The Rhama also knew that she was afraid to be alone, just by looking at her. “How old are you?”

“Twenty.”

Again the Rhama looked her straight in the eyes. “Do not be afraid to be alone, or to be close to someone, you know where you come from, that is all you need to know where you are going. Just never let go of the most important person in your life, the only one responsible to make you happy, yourself!” He smiled.

“I understand, thank you, Rhama.” Dana rose from the cushions, bowed and left. “How is your mother?” Dana stopped in front of the door. “We do not speak anymore since I stopped going to church with her, or at all.”

“Why did you stop?” Slowly turning around she saw the worry in the old man’s eyes. “You could say that I have lost faith in god.” Slowly returning to the cushions she felt as if her mother was talking to her. “If god was really there, he wouldn’t fling a neutron star towards earth. It is not like he just wanted to wipe out mankind, but all of his creation. I however believe in the philosophy, the divine inside us. Hence my being here.” For a moment she looked into the dark eyes of the Rhama, she knew what her mother would say in that moment. “We are being tested, as we are allowed to move on!”

But the Rhama didn’t say any of the sorts. With a benign smile he nodded, closing his eyes. Again she thanked him and left.

“Is that answer enough for you?” The Rhama turned to a curtained off area behind him. Lucia Kharkova stepped through the curtains. “She doesn’t mean bad, she is a good child. Now, see past what disturbs you, and forgive her.”

Tears in her eyes the older woman nodded, turned back into the room behind the curtains, from where she could use another exit to leave without Dana knowing.

 

Hundreds of people roamed the hallways and corridors on the alpha ring outside the Rhama’s audience quarters. They would even camp there, while the Rhama rested for the night, Pryia knew. She glossed over the still images from the surveillance cameras released to the news station. Never had she thought that the impending destruction of earth would move her that much, she found herself longing for a few minutes in his presence. Her glasses beeped.

“Enable speaker.” She sighed turning down the volume on the news. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you after your shift ended.” Stanley’s voice sounded as sorry as his words implored. “No problem. What is it Stanley?”

“May I come in?” Suddenly finding a smile on her lips Pryia blushed and looked around. It was clean enough to let her first officer in, but was it clean enough to let Stanley enter? She decided it was. “Please do.”

Her door opened, revealing Stanley outside. He looked terribly tired, his uniform had wrinkles, the first buttons on his shirt were open. “I was going through,” he paused, surprised he looked around. “Your quarters are smaller than I anticipated.”

“They originally meant for the Admiral to have a bigger one, but since I am not married yet, I didn’t need the bigger ones, and took this one.” Besides I am afraid the other one isn’t as secure. “What brings my first officer here, or is this unofficial?”

For a moment Pryia thought to see a hint of a blush on Stanley’s cheeks. “Sadly I bring work.” He handed her his tablet computer. “It seemed as a software glitch at first, but then I noticed that the checksum of the transmission was off. So I assumed the glitch was on our end, but this ain’t no glitch.”

Reading through the lines on the display Pryia had to dig up her knowledge of these matters, as she was more tasked with politics and tactics lately. “Who did it?”

“That’s the disturbing part, there is no trace of an ID, who ever did it was an expert.” Concerned he took a seat on the couch chair, Pryia sank to her bed, lowering the tablet. “Digitally Enhanced?”

“Could be, they appear to be everywhere. I’ll task chief Lapierre with finding out more about them first thing in the morning.” He rubbed his face, realised that he had sat down without leave, got up again.

“Care to stay for dinner?” Stunned by the sudden and unexpected invitation Stanley took a breath, found no immediate reply, exhaled again.

“A simple yes or no would do.” She rose herself, handed him the tablet. “Just remember it would be polite to accept the invitation of your superior officer.” Winking she turned to the cupboard, after opening it, she produced dried food and water. “Of course I would like to,” she turned around, reaching for his face, laying her index finger on his lips. “Relax Stanley, it’s not official.”

Again there was the hint of a blush on his cheeks. “In that case, Pryia, I would very much like to dine with you.”

 

Dana stood next to the freshly opened transport from Ericsson. Her thoughts however were not with the huge rocket shaped object and its contents, although the Admiral was very much concerned for it. Extra security personnel was commanded to guard it, as the suspicion of sabotage or theft was uttered.

A mere month before her training was over she and her comrades had been sent to guard it. “Until everything is stored you will stay here and guard this thing and all that spills out of it, understood?” Lieutenant Kaleb Johnson, not related to Commander Stanley Johnson, had barked to his recruits. Despite him still looking rather sickly, he had not lost any of his intimidating skills as drill instructor.

Taking half the recruits with him, to be posted along the transport routes, Kaleb took off, Dana was among those to guard the transport.

“You’re in a seldomly good mood?” Julia noted after their superiors had all gone. “My mother contacted me, tomorrow I will have lunch with her.”

Smiles were exchanged before both again looked around with stern expressions. After all they had a job to do. “So what do you think? About the reason for us being here.”

Letting her gaze wander through the large room Dana did not reply immediately. “I think either the Kismet or an unknown faction. I’m not even ruling out Harpys.”

“Attention all decks, at 1800hours there will be a special cast on the news channel, followed by a five minute sermon from the Rhama. Counseling sessions are available outside normal ruster the next few days.” After the announcement silence filled the cargo room. Workers and security personnel stared blankly off into space, all knew what that meant.

Earth’s final destruction.

“Or the linkers.” Dana sighed, pacing around the room, slowly duty continued again.

 

“Viewer discretion is adviced. The following images are a computer simulation of the events taking place at the current time, we will be bringing images based on sensor data as soon as it is available. Do not watch unless prepared for what follows.”

Oceans of brown-blue waste, brown landmasses. Not resembling at all the planet they all had left behind, Earth began to bulge, moments later the surface began to tear open, red glowing magma poured out, caught in the gravitational pull of the approaching neutron star. Chunks of the surface, magma, vapor of the dead water waste that once had been ocean, it all began to break away from earth, as the planet was torn apart. Soon most of the chunks were indistinguishable, it all looked like rock and lava, as it floated away from where earth was into a spiraling disk around the star.

Cuddled against against Stanley, Pryia watched, tears rolled down her cheeks. They had decided to keep their relationship a secret for the time being, which didn’t keep them from spending their time off-duty together. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“About?” From his voice she could tell had been crying too. “How were we so lucky to get away from earth in order to escape certain doom?”

“You may contribute it to luck or fate, in either case we should count our blessings and carry on. For us there is a long journey ahead, a journey our children will continue, in order for our grandchildren to arrive at the destination. A destination that is in and of itself an adventurous journey.”

Beautifully said. “Our blessings?” Pryia glanced over to his eyes, only centimetres from hers.

“We have the cultural inheritances of the entire human race, we have each other. There is music, poetry, literature, art. We have children’s laughter, joy and sadness, dispair and fulfilment, hate and most importantly, love. These blessings.”

“Commander Johnson,” she sat up, “I never knew you were a philosopher.” Leaning in for a kiss she nibbled his lower lip first.

 

Tired, but at the same time fulfilled, the Rhama sat on his bed. The bed that would then retract into his cryogenic chamber. A series of devices was attached to his skin monitoring his vital signs, as medication flowed down an IV to prepare him for the year long slumber. As the years before he sat with a tablet computer in his hands reading up on current evets he hadn’t been able to catch up on his first day. One day of thawing, one day of freezing, five days in between the two for counselling.

Classified reports on the Harpys and the weird trend of implanting with brain chips had been made available to him, the Admiral had seen to that. She wanted the Rhama to have a full insight on the state of things, after all he also sent messages to the other ships, they were generalised, but still helpful to the crews of Explorer and Horizon.

“I sure hope they get the Harpy threat under control.” By the drag of his tongue he realised how much the medications already affected him. With a nod Pryia stepped closer. “As do I, and I hope they can make it with as little bloodshed on either side as possible.”

The Rhama looked into her eyes, for a long moment he said nothing. “You are worried about what you call the linkers, or as they are referred to in the reports, Digitally Enhanced Humans?”

Again Pryia nodded. She looked at the devices hooked up to the religious leader. It seemed like an enviable alternative to fighting all that hardship, going to sleep and waking up a year later for a few days, just to go back to sleep afterwards. Detaches one somewhat from the difficulties faced by the rest. “You will manage. Those people out there, they are a fine crew, and they will manage.”

“I have every bit of confidence in this ship and its crew, I don’t doubt that we will manage the difficulties ahead of us. It’s just a particularly rough bit that will await us there and then. I fear that it might tear the crew apart.”

Again the Rhama shook his head. “Look.” He pointed at the screen in hia hands. Based on sensor telemetry the computer had rendered an actual depiction of earth’s final moments.

“That is where you come from. Were we all came from. But it isn’t over! We are here. Earth is here. There is plenty of soil, water and plants here, that originally was part of earth. Earth is here!” He pointed at his heart. “Where ever we go, we are home as long as we carry that with us what made earth our home.” He let his hand sink from his chest, it became heavier as he spoke. “And it binds us together. No matter how difficult times might become between you and the linkers, we are one people. Connected by far more than technology. Don’t let your differences tempt you to take drastic measures, they are of your kin.” His tongue had gotten quite heavy, but he smiled, slowly the weight pulled on his eyelids.

“I will take your words to heart. I shall treat them kindly when it comes down to it.” Certain that the difficulties would boil down to a conflict she did not say “if”.

Smiling the Rhama doze off.

 

“It’s an important day for me. You should come.” Dana stared at the tired eyes of her mother. “I’ll be there child.” Lucia Kharkova gave in to her daughter’s urging. “It is after all what makes you happy.”

Delighted Dana smiled, kissing her mother on the cheek for good bye. She left her parents’ quarters on the beta ring and headed to the tube.

To her surprise she found Gant inside the cab that arrived. “Sir.” She greeted him, taking a seat, since they would go through zero G segments on their return voyage to the barracks. “Tomorrow’s the big day, huh?” He finally broke the silende as the weight lifted from their bodies. “Aye sir. Finally the training is over, I already have requested for  transfer to security. They said a letter of recommendation would be helpful.”

Amused smiling, Gant weighed his weightless head. “I’ll see what I can draft up.” He winked.

Career paths after the basic training in the security forces was a fork in the road. Gant had the luck of signing on before these changes were made. Formerly a shipwide security force was split into the military police, the rings own policing forces and lastly military. The latter were added once the Harpy threat was made known from Horizon.

“But be warned, if push comes to shove, it’ll be a jurisdictional disaster.” He sighed.

Next week I’ll definitely join the folks in that club on gamma. Gravity returned to normal once the cab was caught in the right siphon.

“Are your parents going to attend?” Still a few moments away from their destination, Gant wanted to break the silence.

“My mother will, father died two months ago. Doctors said it was a sudden shock of sorts.” Nodding Gant got up from his seat once the straps were open, as did Dana. “My condolences.” He lowered his voice.

“Thank you, but he died with a smile on his lips. Almost triumphant. Perhaps because he had managed to die outside earth.”

The doors opened and released them into the hallways of the sub alpha ring. “Well, I’ll contact you as soon as I have finished that recommendation.” he broke away from her side, striding down to his quarters, and the dining room where he frequently had his food.

 

Prince Shamim remained on the Destiny with his wife and entourage while the other visitors from the Kismet returned to their ship.

Bored he strode through the central gardens on the alpha ring. Fascinated by the diverse plant life he had slowed his pace. Surrounded by advisers he hadn’t had time to do this during his last visit, but now he only had a close friend at his side, while his wife walked with a friend and some entourage a few paces back.

“Enjoying the gardens?” Pryia approached them from a different path. The fields and gardens were mostly fenced off, there was almost no lawn, but knee high plants, as lawn consumed too much water and provided little in return. “Yes, very much.” Shamim gestured around them. “It is a wonderful gift of nature you have here. We have a garden too, but it is a small, cramped place. Stuffed with fruit trees and bushes. Oxygen is produced by algae, as is almost all our food. We are forced to live a Vegan lifestyle, as we don’t have your laboratory capabilities to make meat from stem cells.” Mentally he added that they lacked bovine stem cells from which they could make meat that was allowed to consume even if Destiny was going to hand them the knowledge and technology.

“It is a wonderful garden, and a great substitute for open skies and frsh air, but only a  substitute nome the less.” She pointed at the trees. “Every few nights there is simulated rainfall, turbines produce winds, but during these events access to the gardens is restricted, safety reasons.”

“You miss wind, and rain. Understandably. But be thankful for this garden. It could be worse.” Shamim winked. He looked at the trees, the space between them. “I stayed behind for more reasons than just to admire your gardens, Admiral.”

Looking at the plants in the distance herself Pryia made an agreeing sound. “I figured as much, Prince.”

With a wave of his hand he sent his friend off. “As you might have figured as well, we don’t have a lot to offer for trade.” Noticng the others on the path behind them he picked up speed to stay out of earshot. “We need supplies from you. Materials from Ericsson, food, perhaps even fruit. But most of all, your implants. Think of it as humanitarian aid.”

Pryia felt stunned, all the other items had been on the table during the negotiations, but the implants hadn’t.

“You see, in my culture it is customary to have many children, and while we know that with our limited resources we can’t sustain an ever growing population, but how should we avoid it? Birth control and contraception need constant manufacturing, and resources. The implants however,”

Pryia raised her hand and nodded. Actually glad for the surplus of materials needed to manufacture the implants, she slowed their pace again. “I understand. I will make sure you receive them.” A smile appeared on the Prince’s lips.

I just hope that this is all the surplus materials are needed for. “But we need to keep this a secret, if the people of the Kismet found out, they might reject it.” Shamim hissed before the others from his group caught up to them.

“It will be handled discreetly.”

 

Standing guard outside the storage for the minerals brought in from Ericsson, Dana was furious, although Gant had written the recommendation, it still had to be taken under consideration. Julia stood on the other side of the door, looking rather happy wih their assignment. “It was a great ceremony, wasn’t it?” For two weeks she always brought up their ceremony at the end of their training.

“Yes. It was.” Annoyed with going over the topic once again, Dana let her words out in a deep sigh. Moments passed and Julia did not go over the festivties again. Perhaps she had finally noticed how annoying it was for Dana and the others from their class. Still Dana dared to glance over to Julia. Stunned the other young woman sat on the ground twitching silently from the charged dart in her neck.

Immediately Dana jumped to her, but halfway across the width of the door she felt the sudden sting of a dart, followed by the searing pain of the charge robbing her of her senses.

 

Agony infused darkness took control of her.

As it lifted, the door to the storage room was broken into, Julia sat next to her, both had soiled themselves. Disturbed Dana reached for her glasses. “Security breach, storage compartment 29 sub alpha was broken into.” She breathed more than she could speak. Only moments later the first guards appeared, closely followed by the Admiral and her first officer.

 

“They are up to something.” Pryia whispered to Stanley after they looked around in the storage room, noticing the stolen materials were mostly compounds used for the production of computer parts and chip implants.

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