The gas flowing into John Seven’s lungs brought with it several lifetimes of yesterdays and the warm intensity of those memories dragged him deeply into the distant past. Rhonda’s face surfaced in his mind, her eyes as wide as the galaxy he traveled in search of her.
How many centuries ago?
Holding hands... and then above them, Luna’s sky darkening as they dropped en masse; an interstellar locust cloud. Stunned into silence, John and Rhonda staring upward... a bat-like creature the size of a house unfurling its wings with a rapid snap. The force of air expelled by the gesture knocking both to the ground and separating the lover’s hands.
A mad scramble for cover beneath the crawler, but Rhonda is too slow. The creature leaps forward, almost angelic in its grace, and pulls Rhonda into its membranous folds, tight and clear inner wings closing over her. Imprisoning her. And then... gone. The warmth of her touch only a chiseled memory.
John’s stomach churned and though he had vowed to himself that he would last longer this time he ended the session prematurely — he did not have the strength to battle ancient memories. John Seven wiped at his teary eyes as he pulled the spongy memory-mask away from his mouth, a whiff of ozone and jasmine tickling his nostrils. He undid the chair straps and floated to the door. With a resigned shrug, he returned to his duties as captain, one of only a handful who knew how close they were to finishing the mission.
* * *
The Vigilant was a Lewis-class interplanetary research vessel, unsuited for long-range interstellar travel but modified for its current quest. The engines drew their power from a nuclear reactor, permitting the starship to move into deepest space. When the Swarm had struck, humankind had been taking its first baby steps into space, beginning to reach for the stars but unable to grasp them. The original John had never considered the implications of boldly pursuing his stolen bride. He had, if ship gossip were to be believed, stolen the Vigilant for his mad quest.
Six spherical ‘stations’, each connected to Engineering’s bulky, square body by way of access tunnels (or pencil-tubes as the crew called them) housed the various operations of the Vigilant. Centuries of space flight had battered the spheres but Engineering kept them functional. The sphere’s technical specializations had long ago turned social and now represented a loose caste system. John Seven stared out one of Engineering’s portholes at the vastness of space sliding past him.
“You look lost, sir.”
John Seven turned to Chung Six, surprised to see the old man at an instrument panel, his fingers not as deft as those of his replacement. The younger Chung manned the chief engineer’s console above them.
“You’re retired Chung.”
“I still do my duty, sir. It’s not my fault that the medicals misdiagnosed me!” He tugged at his beard and glared upwards, his voice lowered, “He might be young but he has no experience, I’ll tell you.”
“But he will learn,” John Seven said, amazed at how tenaciously the elder Chung clung to life, “And you will rest well knowing that you leave the Vigilant in good hands. Remember: ‘We are all born empty and must be filled.’” He forced himself to keep his eyes locked with Chung’s.
“Yes sir, but by my Original I just wish he would catch on faster, you know?”
John Seven smiled slightly. Did not all fathers expect perfection from their sons? But that was the crux; none of them were fathers or sons. What did that make them then? If John Original could see what his single-mindedness had created... would it have stopped him? The bastard probably wouldn’t have cared.
With a nod John Seven turned and propelled himself to the bridge by way of the handrails that lined the foremost pencil-tube. Sweat dotted his brow, the journey took less than five minutes but it bothered him more than usual today. He had never walked on a planet but at times, usually after a disturbing memory session, he felt weighed down by the cramped confines of his starship.
He heard the shouting long before he reached the bridge.
“You can’t replace me!” Tammy’s voice. Her long blond ponytail floated straight above her like an exclamation point as she turned in her bucket chair and shouted angrily at John’s second in command. Portwell Seven was clean-shaven and large; an imposing figure, both in height and thickness. He stood in front of the captain’s chair atop the upper level of the bridge and barked harshly at Tammy. As John floated to the commander’s level he saw that Hastings Eight, all nine years of himself and dressed in the gray robe of a communication’s officer, was hovering in front of Tammy, his feet tucked under a metal u-bracket to keep from drifting away. His hands he held pressed against his sides.
“What is going on -- [End of Preview.]