Three Months Ago, on Garna the Star Carrier
Vivra’s stomach burned. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. She was curled into a ball on a single-sized bed in her officer’s cabin, locked inside—without food. The only thing keeping her alive was the water she drank from her private bathroom faucet.
The light Federation blanket under which she lay did nothing to keep her warm. The star ship’s heat had been lowered to prevent the spread of disease. A safety and health protocol she knew, but vehemently objected to now that she was experiencing it. She hated being cold.
Garna’s Captain Mosel had initiated a ship-wide quarantine when hundreds of Federation employees contracted a disease from a neighboring planet called Eldon. Those infected generally had approximately seventeen hours from contraction until they bled from their eyes.
Even if Vivra lived to be hundreds of years old, she would never forget the look of the dead, eyeless faces surrounded by puddles of their own blood. Or the rot…the stinging scent of decayed humanoid flesh, emanating throughout the air-tight spaceship.
It had been weeks since the captain announced the quarantine.
Weeks with no idea of what was going on with the rest of the ship or the Federation universe. The spacecraft’s quantum system was offline. The quantum system gave the star carrier the ability to communicate with everyone outside the ship—on other planets, and across the universe.
Cutting communication was not on any protocol list, and Vivra found it highly frustrating that she couldn’t call for help. The only person she knew who had the authority to do so was the captain.
But again, he had not sent a ship-wide broadcast since his last message. Vivra didn’t want to assume that he had died, but the lack of communication supported her belief.
The onboard system communication was very much online, however.
Pulling the lightweight blanket off her head, she peered up at the mounted black screen on her adjacent wall. No more than five feet away, she saw her cabin neighbor’s face on the video call.
Clalls’ silver-white hair was cut asymmetrically on top and shaved around the sides. His narrow face was pointed down, his gaze focused on his Terran word puzzle book, a pen held slightly above the pages. “Do you know a four-letter word for fat in bird feeders?” Clalls asked.
Clalls was Garna’s Communication Officer, and the only other person she had contact with. She had no idea if anyone else was alive, and it made Vivra internally winced thinking the last person who would see her alive was a male she had despised for years.
“What the hell is a bird feeder?” he mumbled to himself, and Vivra had to admit that she wondered that, too.
Clalls brought the end of the pen to his mouth, his lips parted slightly to expose his two-inch-long, pointed teeth. They were thick and a little discolored. Between the top and bottom teeth, Clalls clicked the pen up and down.
The echo of the click-click-click made Vivra sigh. Clalls had to know how annoying he was, didn’t he? In all the time they had been quarantined, he’d gone through several puzzles. And he asked each question out loud as if she were working with him to find the answers.
She wasn’t. She didn’t care for Terran word puzzles.
“I don’t know.” Pulling the blanket back over her head, she inadvertently shivered, desperate to get warm.
“Okay then, what about a nine-letter word for a tough time?”
Vivra was living that mystical nine-letter word.
“If you don’t shut up, I’m going to kill you…when and if we get out of our cabins.”
“So…that’s a no to the bird feeder and the nine-letter word for a tough time?” With a dramatic breath, he said, “Fine, I’ll figure it out myself.”
Under the blanket, she said, “Figure out how to get me food, and I’ll help you with your stupid puzzles.”
“I need a nine-letter word,” Clalls said curtly.
Despite herself, she almost smiled. Had she finally irritated the irritator?
Slithering out of the covers, she leaned back against the wall and tucked in her knees before re-wrapping herself in the thin fabric the Federation called a blanket. Now, she had a straight line of sight to the screen and her neighbor.
Clalls was not wrapped in anything, but he was wearing several layers of clothing. She could tell because his slim shoulders and arms looked swollen and disproportionately large.
“Do you think we’re the last ones alive?”
Instead of answering, Clalls kept staring at his coveted word puzzle, tapping its cream-colored pages with his purple ink pen.
Several minutes ticked by. Vivra knew Clalls had heard her, but he was actively ignoring her question. And if their time together were anything to go by, he wouldn’t answer her until she answered him.
He was a hybrid. His pale white skin was distinctly Yunkin. His long and abnormal teeth were characteristics of a Night Demon, and even though he may have been other races, he was labeled a Night Demon more often than not because of his teeth. He acted more Demon as well. Night Demons never gave until they received. Or at least Clalls never did.
Until the quarantine, Vivra hadn’t realized the lengths that Clalls would go to in order to get what he wanted. Now, he was the only living being she had contact with. The forced interaction gave her insight into his personality and the officer’s little quirks.
Such as ignoring her when she didn’t play along. It was both an admirable and annoying trait.
She decided to answer. “Difficult is a nine-letter word.”
Clalls blinked, and his black eyes with their yellow irises stared at her through the video call. The shrewdness of those eyes gave anyone who looked at them pause, and a warning.
Proceed with caution.
The corners of his lips curled up until small creases formed at the sides of his eyes. “Knew you had it in you.”
Back to his puzzle, he meticulously flicked the pen as he notated the word. His staccato voice answered casually, “No. We’re not the only ones alive on this ship.”
What? Vivra leaned towards the screen. “Who’s still alive?”
Clalls pursed his lips as he shrugged. “What’s a three-letter word for a dog with a wrinkly face?”
Vivra was sure she’d have to kill Clalls. Out of principle if nothing else. Was he really ignoring her question? One that was far more important than something about an alien pet.
Her temper provoked, she folded her arms in protest against his ridiculous question.
Does he really want to know the answer, or is he faking to get me to play?
Vivra didn’t think on that too long. He was likely telling the truth. The Demon had an uncanny ability for hacking into other people’s private systems.
Five and a half years ago, he’d shared intimate details of her private files with Captain Mosel. After a debriefing, the captain had asked her a few questions about why she’d chosen to join the Federation—questions she’d answered vaguely. Clalls had made it a point to clarify the details that she’d skimmed over.
At the time, she’d lost her temper, but now, his hacking could calm her nerves. Answers always made her feel better. Questions drove her crazy.
She had no idea what a wrinkly dog was called, and if the creature had an ugly face, it would probably give her nightmares. But…sacrifices must be made.
Grabbing her Minky pad from the floor, she ran a quick search of the onboard archives. Skimming pictures of Terran dogs was kind of interesting. A series of colors and builds, but all four-legged and furry. Her finger kept pushing the images up and up…
Where are the wrinkly-faced ones?
A small, four-legged mongrel with short, tan fur and a black face. Its eyes were round, and its nose was flat. Disgusting. “Pug,” she called out. For some reason, she couldn’t terminate the search result. Her finger hovered over the exit button. “Actually, it’s almost cute…in an ugly kind of way.”
She heard Clalls snicker. She peered up to watch him write down the word. He said, “You’d be amazed how often I hear that.”
Vivra knew that he wasn’t talking about the dog, but she pretended he was. Turning the Minky pad around, she showed him the image.
When he looked at it, his lips curled back. “How can that thing even breathe?”
She turned the Minky back around. “We can always order one and see for ourselves. And if it becomes a bother, we can give it to the cooks. I’m sure with the right sauce, it will taste fine,” she lied. She’d always wanted a pet. But saying so would make her look…wistful. Bolarks weren’t thoughtful or prone to silly dreams. They were practical to the point of being critical—at least to some.
“I’m never going to understand you. And it’s not because you’re a Bolark. Or female.”
Exiting the search and placing the Minky on the bed, Vivra silently took in his compliment. “It’s like this…so long as I’m fed, warm, and left to do my job on my terms, I’m similar to a relbrener.” A Bolark plant that was temperamental and hard to maintain. It needed specific food, water, and light to bloom into a beautiful, breathtaking flower that emitted a hypnotic scent that calmed the nerves and heightened mental creativity. If it was not cared for, however…well, it corrupted any living thing around it.
Clalls sat back and folded his arms over his chest, leaving the book to fall off his lap. “That…actually makes sense.”
Vivra nodded thoughtfully. “I know.” She used to have a relbrener when she was younger. Keeping it alive was difficult, and she’d almost killed it several times. Her parents had assumed she would fail like the other children her age, but Vivra had refused to let it die.
In full disclosure, she may have paid the city’s local gardener’s son to help her out a time or two, but the lesson was keeping the flower alive, her parents hadn’t stipulated that she couldn’t get help.
“I wish I had something to drink.” Much like her plant…plain water was not enough to satisfy her thirst.
Clalls picked up the book and set it on the nightstand. “Is your water faucet broken?”
She shook her head.
“Then you’re fine. So long as you have water, you’ll stay alive.”
Beside Clalls, his Minky pad started blinking bright orange, followed by an alarm chirp. Grabbing the black electronic device, the officer swiped his hand over the top, letting it scan his handprint.
“What is it?” Vivra heard herself asking.
His fingers tapped the screen quickly. When he stopped, Vivra couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening.
She stood up and repeated her question. Clalls still didn’t answer.
There was a subtle shaking of the ship’s walls. Arms out just in case, Vivra was glad she had done it when a follow-up shake occurred. “What the hell was that?”
Clalls cursed, his long teeth exposed in a menacing snarl. “The Federation cleaners have arrived.” He kept his eyes on the screen but he spoke to her. “And they aren’t wearing bio-suits.”
The disease. It was in the air, or maybe it was transferred through touch, regardless, it quickly passed from person to person.
“They’re going to die.” Her eyes cut to the vents in her room. Within, were special-grade filters she’d bought because she hated the smell of recycled air. It clarified everything from nano-contaminants to pollen.
“I’m trying to alert the Federation captain, but the quantum communication is still out.” Clalls cursed and then held up his pad as if he wanted to throw it. “This can’t be happening.” He kept cursing. A few minutes later—and to her horror—she heard a voice in the hall on the other side of the door.
“Hello. Anyone else here?”
She watched Clalls drop his Minky and roar out, “Stop pulling the crew from their rooms! You’re going to kill them.”
The voice in the hallway spoke back, “We are trying to save you.”
“Not by exposing us to an unknown disease. Now get off my ship and tell your captain to send in a containment crew with bio-suits. Bag a few bodies for testing and burn the rest. In other words, adhere to quarantine protocol safety regulation 0414.”
A small bout of silence followed, then the stranger said, “Are you Captain Mosel?”
Vivra watched Clalls on the screen, even though she could hear him through the walls. “No. He’s dead. And if you don’t hurry, you’re going to be dead, too.”
The other male responded. “How are you still alive when the rest of the ship is dead?”
Vivra couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Stop stalling, and stop invading the rooms!” She couldn’t imagine living all this time, only to have help come at the end and stupidly expose them to the disease, killing them anyway.
Stupid, stupid beings.
“I’m trying to understand what happened. Calm down.”
No, she would not calm down! She was pissed, starving, and her bones were chilled. “You stupid tarq. Don’t you get it! You’re already dead. You’ve touched the bodies, you’ve been contaminated. Your eyes are going to melt out of your colorless face. And the rest of your crew will suffer the same. You have exactly seventeen hours, and then you’ll be just another body suffocating on your own blood. Now, you try to calm down knowing your life is over.”
There was silence, and then she heard someone running.
Clalls was looking at the Minky screen. His head was slightly tilted as he leaned against the wall, arms crossed, looking more relaxed than before. “Should have asked you to talk to him from the start. You have an exceptional ability to repel males.”
Vivra rolled her eyes. “Do you think he will send in a containment crew?”
“I think so. But that will only be the beginning. Soon, thousands of needles will be prodding us, trying to figure out why we survived an airborne virus.”
Cryptic. But also, true. Vivra decided to ignore the vision of being poked with thousands of sharp objects and focused on the end result. And the question: why was she alive when so many others had died? “What happens after they clean the ship?”
Clalls pushed off the wall. He looked two sizes thicker with all the clothes he was wearing. It was a little hard to take him seriously when he looked like a larva.
“We will get a new captain, a new crew, and we will start again.”
“Start again?” she repeated, hoping he would elaborate.
Clalls huffed then let himself fall back into his chair. Plucking up the pen from the floor and the book from the nightstand, he thumbed through the pages. Vivra assumed he wasn’t going to answer her question. But then she heard him whisper, “Garna is the biggest ship in the Federation. They will have this ship operable as soon as possible.”
As soon as possible came a lot sooner than Vivra had thought it would. The survivors on the Garna numbered thirty-six. The ship had been cleaned, and all organic material was destroyed.
The ship was then restocked with nutrient bars, bagged food, water pouches, and sanitized units. Plus, new filters, bio-hazard suits, and containment and lifepods.
The new captain arrived hours before the first shipment of food rations. While Vivra was in her logistics office stuffing her face, she received a personal request from the ship’s new weapons and tactical officer, Commander Pax. For a case of whiskey. He added the following note: I’m a Demon. It’s that, or I drink fresh blood.
Vivra disregarded the new Demon’s comment about drinking fresh blood. Everything she knew about Demons said they craved sweets, not blood. Snorting at the screen, she promptly denied the request and resumed filling her stomach with much coveted bula pasta, straight from the warmed package.