Chapter one: Saaga

“In the pale morning, he will call my name. When the sun falls, and the ground moves beneath me He will carry me to the stars. When my body shatters and the demons of fear tear with long claws into the my heart, He will make me anew. He will call me to his bulwarks in the four starred heavens, He has built for me a tower of black stone. He has armed me with shining arms. In the twilight, and the wilderness he has marked a path. In the desert he has made a spring. In the midst of war, he has brought me peace. He has fed the weak, he has thrown down the oppressor and hung a banner from the city gates. Praise him.”

            A dead man‘s hands look no different from a living man‘s. The fingers curl inward, cupping softly onto air, fingertips touching, nails manicured, palm creased and all that ashen shade of pallor, like the hands of a marble statue. The tendons fasten to the phalanges like ropes around pulleys and the skin stretches tight enough that, on a thin man, it doesn’t sag, or lose the form of life. An engineered bundle of tiny bones and white threads, stitching knuckles to palm, to carpus, to phalanges. A perfect machine, so elegantly balanced that even after death, the chords in the wrist and the palms and the forearms, will still pull the fingers inward, so very like a living thing, to wrap around the world, to touch.

             The feet will lose their weight bearing architecture, the stomach slumps, or bloats, the thighs bow under gravity’s cruel weight on flaccid meat, the genitals shrivel and the features lose all expression, eyes glazed to a dry finish like eggshells, skin, hanging down in folded ridges, lips pulled flat against teeth. And who would say, this stiff, bloated thing once caught the light of heaven in its eyes? So different is he from the living, in every part of his empty shell, every member of this corpse is cadaverous, hollow and cold. Every part of him dies, every cell, deprived of oxygen, will toxify and self destruct. Every organ will cease to perform its required function. Every muscle will fall slack, everything changes, except for the hands, which just stop moving.      

Saaga Fleischer did not have a problem with killing. In most cases she rather enjoyed it; the struggle, the knife, the blood, the tremble in the limbs as they went slack, the rush of power, adrenaline fueled rage, and then...

She breathed slowly, looking down upon the corpse at her feet. 

She had never been troubled by the dead. There was no pain in the grave, no suffering when the fight had passed. The dead held no allegiance. Corpses stacked like wood in shallow sandy pits, slack and pale or brown with blood, or black with carbon cracked and reeking in the sun. The dead feel no hurt, ask for no pity, inspire no pathos, the dead do not scream. 

The corpse was wearing strange clothes, his face was shaven and the hair on his head was unnaturally dark. There had been a woman too. She had rounded hips and a shrill voice, she had disappeared screaming.

Who were these people? Saaga thought she knew.

 When she shot him she was positive.

 Saaga leaned over him, watching the slick, red smear of blood dripping from above the black hair. He was unlike anyone she had ever seen, so red and dark and short… only a bit like the Mutrrhi.  

She cast her eyes around the room, it was cold, the spare, green and white electrical lights  reflected in chrome tabletops and strange machinery. The shattered wreckage of her plane lay half overturned, dominating the already cramped space with its shattered bulk. The wings and the tail had been sawn through by some strange device which left the bare edges of sheet metal softly glowing. One bisected engine hung above her head, leaking bits of wire and sparking into the shadowy ceiling.

The ground shook. Throwing Saaga to her knees, one hand, thrust forward to catch herself found its way to the dead man’s belly which trembled and undulated under the sudden impact.

But Mutrrhi were troglodytes, backwards, worshiping their little statues high on the mountains, watching the four red lights in the sky, star counters, waiting for some revelation from on high.   

They did not make gleaming labs, or flashes of light like a nuclear bomb. They did not shave. They did not saw through the cockpits of planes, or shine terrible hot lights into her eyes, they did not strike her down in the hour of her victory. They did not take prisoners.

There had been something on her radar. Too fast for a missile, too small for a plane, shaped without any thought to aerodynamics. The bursts of plasma had exploded through the windows, making her scramble for a breathing mask as the cockpit depressurized. She had never seen anything quite as beautiful.

Trembling fingers touched the cold steel floor. It had all happened in an inexplicable rush. Seventeen hours into the mission, high above enemy territory, the height of technological advancement tucked into the belly of the plane like it was pregnant. Pregnant with fire.

And then she was crashing. Into the wide desert, crawling with enemy combatants.

Then nothing.

Had she been taken prisoner? Snatched from the sky?

Stimulants raced through her brain, chattering along her nerves, pulling her pupils tight like the light of battle in her eyes.

Is this how it feels then?

A metallic grinding shook the room, massive machinery working in the depths far below her.

BOOM

BOOM

BOOM

BOOM

Saaga reached out to grab a hold of anything, but instead of falling forward she felt a lightness fill her limbs.

The corpse lifted from the ground.

Saaga took in one deep, shuttering breath, her gun suddenly in the air before her, shaking slightly. But he just hung there, one foot still resting lazily on the chrome floor. She went to stand up and felt her body lifted. 

Someone had turned off the gravity.

“Where am I?” she whispered, her feet tipping forward. And who did I just murder?  Panic flooded tight in her chest.

Four red lights in the sky, they talked about the lights in the sky. In the churches and the hospitals, in the darkness of her own thoughts, curled against the bodies of others for warmth in the desert night. Wounded in the sand and the dust, coughing up blood, the aching rattling in her lungs, at the edge of death, tortured, imprisoned, raped, beaten, broken, and numb, she had prayed to the lights in the sky.

Saaga’s eyes snapped open, feeling the gentle pressure of a structural beam at her back.

The legends spoke of men in heaven, the place where you flew, where they would go when they were… 

Saaga breathed, once, twice, her heartbeat hammering inside her skull.

Which is when the gas in the air became dense enough for her to taste.

She came to, sort of.

Assessing her body she counted several important details.

She was bound in hard steel. At the wrists and… she tried to move her feet and discovered they were free, just the wrists then. She smiled a bit, stupid.

Her gun was gone, bit obvious. But… she turned her ankle experimentally, the knife in her ankle holster was still there, amateurs.

Two voices echoed across one another, there was anger and fear and little else she could understand. The language was yappy and nasal, and broken by sobs.  

Saaga opened her eyes and the light was terrible. She quickly closed them, flinching.

And then the woman’s voice was close to her, Saaga could feel her spittle misting on her lips. Something struck her, and her face went sharply to the left. She sighed heavily, she had been here before.

Saaga opened her eyes slowly, letting her pupils contract, blinking. The round bottomed woman was being held by the wrist by an older man with a mustache and a wrathful glance in Saaga’s direction. She suspected that whatever they had put into the air supply had been nullified by the stimulant she had taken fourteen hours into her mission. Her captors had not had time to run a chemical analysis. They must think she was still drugged. Perfect.

He said something unintelligible and angry. One beefy hand clutched a pipe on what had been the ceiling, the other held his companion in place.

Saaga watched her, patient for the moment the round woman calmed down and looked at her, she knew she could destroy people with her eyes. A thousand light-years away, they focused on a tiny light which no one else could see. She had seen wives and men and children shy away, afraid of whatever grisly memory that blank stare concealed. She had seen, and done things, the bare reflection of which would drive this round, high pitched woman mad.

The squeaky woman’s lips twitched, her eyes were bright with tears. She looked at Saaga for a long moment in silence, muttering as if in secrecy to her companion. After a while, he released her and she came up to her captive with a kind smile.

These people were NOT professionals.

Saaga felt her hand on her shoulder, soft, motherly tones.

And then her neck was between Saaga’s thighs. She took advantage of the negative gravity to force her body against the wall, twisting and pulling with her knees at the space between her jaw and her clavicles, closing the joint tight around her windpipe.

“Unlock the shackles.” she hissed, and he did not understand her words.

He hesitated, stumbling back, hastily tapping on a computer on the wall immediately to her left.

She felt the drowsy rush of relaxants in her blood. They weren’t very effective. She could feel the woman’s long nails clawing desperately at her skin, incapable of making any sound to accompany the gaping scream in her mouth.

“RELEASE ME!” she lunged forward violently. Twisting hard so that the other woman’s  whole body jerked and twitched, just a bit more pressure and the vertebra would slide apart.

The man stepped back, drawing a weapon, he was speaking slowly, trying to make her understand. Saaga’s head shifted to the side, birdlike and vicious, her eyes burned like chips of glacier.

The tense, deadly tableaux lasted for only a few seconds.

She kicked the woman’s now limp body up, with a crunch, propelling her through the air and into her companion‘s groping arms. With a violently graceful kick, she cracked the glowing screen he had used to control the drugs being pumped into her body. To her immense relief, the cuffs loosened, so that when the man with the gun caught his injured companion, she was able to wiggle her bony hands out of the cuffs.

She made quick work of the remaining… she didn’t know what to call these people…

Mutrrhi?

They sure squealed like Mutrrhi when they died.

Her weapons were floating in a mesh container. She wouldn’t need the flight helmet, but the pistol was safely stowed in her thigh holster, she rummaged through the pockets of the vest retrieving another knife, a radio and a small package of dry brick shaped field rations. Which she stashed in one of the big pockets in her pants. 

Automatic hydraulics opened the only door when she approached. Saaga pressed her body into the wall peering around the corner, her pistol cocked and raised in both hands beside one ear. A clean hallway, paneled with brushed steel ran about twenty feet ahead of her, at the end of it was a large, reinforced iris.

She used painted red rungs to guide her body up, towards the round aperture.

The room was dominated by a twenty foot window which she did not realize was actually an electronic screen.

She was in space.

The endless, endless stars bored into her, glittering against a nearly perfect field of darkness. Standing up in violent magenta slashes, arching across the void, pillars of gas loomed all around the ship. And the silence was bottomless.

 A weak voice came from the dais which held a swiveling command chair.

Looking down Saaga saw the curled body of a girl, younger than herself, facing the window, white hands clinging to the side of the chair.    

Saaga didn’t answer, the girl was not a threat.

She came closer, the girl spoke again. But looking up at Saaga she understood that communication was impossible between the two of them.

Saaga sighed. Debating whether to keep her alive. She might be useful but with the obvious language barrier… Saaga quietly drew her knife holding it against her forearm. But before she  could make another move the girl’s body trembled, she let go of the chair, eyes closing and her whole body going stiff.

She wasn’t breathing.

That solved that problem.

The radio crackled when she activated it.

“Command this is unit seventeen Agra one, do you read.“

Tshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshstshtshtshtshtshtshts

 Her hair hung weightless before her eyes, shining white in front of oblivion. “Come in command,“ she spoke into the radio. “This is Colonel Fleischer, do you read?“

Tshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshstshtshtshtshtshtshts

She took a deep breath, reaching out a hand towards the command chair. She was shaking uncontrollably, as fear, adrenaline and drugs mingled in her guts her stomach seized and she attempted to aim away from the control console. Standard issue field rations and the bitter aftertaste of pills.

She watched calmly as a swarm of nanites consumed her vomit like flies, and with no direction to fall, she closed her eyes and fainted.  

When she finally awoke after untold hours of unconsciousness she discovered that she was not in her bunk at the Coriolus air force base at all. The air was stale, her mouth was slick with saliva and her body ached. The lack of gravity did little to alleviate the pain in her limbs she felt red burn marks beginning to rise around where her skin showed through the flight helmet.

She was alone with the stars.

“Command this is Colonel Saaga Fleischer, unit seventeen Agra, the first republic fighter wing.”

tshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshtshstshtshtshtshtshtshts,

“I’m hoping someone’s getting this, I don’t know where I am.” she wanted to say more but…

She frowned out the wide window which arched across the front of the ship. Saaga could not tell if they were moving, the little lights hung still against the infinite black.

She found herself thinking of god, slowly she removed the little red book from her pocket, the icon on the front had been copied from one of the old books.

“Lights in the sky.” she muttered, a shadow falling across her brilliant blue eyes. “You lying pigs.” She wanted to cry and scream, the years of fighting and killing, the national pride, the prayers in the dead of night, when she was young, or sad, or when she lay wounded in a fallow field under the pale grey sky. She had looked up to those four red stars. But now… she laid one thin hand across her stomach. She became suddenly aware of the weightless mass of her gun in her hand.

“They’ll think I’m a hero,” she wondered out loud to the quiet stars.  

            Feeling a bit stronger she maneuvered herself to a station with a large screen, there were no buttons. Gingerly Saaga touched the still black surface and an animated three dimensional abstract form appeared before her, covered in writing which seemed to her to be high Celestial, the mysterious and ancient tongue of the holy books.  She wasted little time bemoaning her lack of attention to language study in her youth and attempted to translate the text set before her. The one word she immediately recognized was some declension of the noun “writing”. She poked this experimentally and it opened a  page of text with several brightly colored boxes off to the right, she tapped the first of these.  

             “Were starving,” a thin voice crackled from the speakers. “It’s so cold, send rescue, please, if you can hear us…” static took over for a moment, “day three hundred and four, this is Patrick Hoss, signing off.”

Hoss, first in the line of patriarchs.

She clutched the back of the command console, wanting so badly to fall. Pushing off she hung against the ceiling, a vain attempt to put space between herself and the Abyss. It wasn’t silent, but the creaky ambiance of the ship seemed to stand out against the background void. Every sound was an interruption, breaking the silence which had always been, and would fall for another long eternity behind her. The arching pink bands of plasma rotated slowly into view, and far, far away, like a grain of sand against a mighty whirlpool, hung Neasparata, but she did not recognize her home world, slipping away into oblivion.

“And now I’m alone,” she whispered to the stars, the cold, silent stars, burning holes into the void.

Suddenly a claxon sounded from the front of the ship, a button was flashing red, without a moment’s hesitation she slapped it.

The ship lurched, for a moment she could feel inertia push her feet against the ground and then the nebula spun out of sight, something rumbled in the belly of the ship, engines.

She would die in this steel tomb.

The silence of dead space pressed into her, and the dark hours rolled on without sun or custom to measure them. At some point she found the lavatory and vomited, she lay across the cool bowl of the vacuum toilet for a long time, consciousness ebbing away, coming back in a sudden blaze of pain. Handfuls of fine white hair pulled free from her scalp.

How long had she been there? How long could she keep herself alive? And why did she shoot the bastard?

A selfish kind of regret plagued her thoughts as she buckled herself into the command chair.

The dead girl was propped in the seat to her right. She had shown no signs of either life or rot. A puzzle which would have intrigued her, had she had the strength to care. The field rations were still in her pocket, but she was too nauseous to eat.

She weakly picked at the hardened blisters which had erupted across her cheek. And pressing one hand into the soft fabric at her gut, closed her eyes tight.

With a flash of light, and a silent shockwave, space was rent open. The roaring, shaking hole gushed radiation into void and with a stillness that fell into silent space, closed.

In its place a ship hung, lazily spinning on the sea of vacuum, reflecting the stars, gleaming clean and black and cold.  

The infinity key was dwarfed beside the sinuous mass of the other ship. With a slow, deliberate grace, she was drawn into the outstretching arms of the larger vessel, green lasers traced around every contour, scanning, measuring.

The radio crackled, and a high whine cut through the stagnant air. 

Saaga didn’t move.

It came through again, a strange pattern of whining, clicking music.

She opened her eyes a crack, but lacked the energy to move, or to respond, her brow wrinkled very slightly as her eyes shifted up to the view screen.

Hallucinating, she thought, won’t be long now.

She closed her eyes, tight, willing the images to go away, not wanting to see the strange, looming face which stared coldly from the monitor.

If she could only sleep, sleep until radiation, and starvation and cold killed her.

Sleep through the end.

Her head tilted to the side, breathing short, one white hand still pressed her sidearm into her lap, the other tucked securely under the flight harness.

She hated the feeling of freefall. 

Saaga heard the barest memory of footsteps.

Footsteps? What was it about footsteps which made her so uncomfortable? Was it the fact that she was completely alone, or the fact that feet wouldn’t fall in space? 

The footsteps were soon accompanied by voices which she did not understand speaking a hurried language filled with clicks, music and phlegm.

With a violent motion she unhooked the restraint and drew her weapon. Kicking up towards the ceiling. She was shaking with the effort of movement, her every joint and muscle screamed out at her.

There were five of them, dark, robotic forms, bristling all over with steel and rivets. They watched her, exchanging chattering strings of phonemes, clacking, rustling, whining laughter.

 She let the gun hover at the closest one’s chest. He smiled with dark lips.

Even at her peak physical condition she could not have dodged the attack. The gun was torn from her hands just as she fired. Lightning fast hands like biting steel coils seized her wrists, holding her immobile in the air.

The bullet had struck one of her attackers in the shoulder, he did not bleed, or even seem to register the damage.

The face which leered down at her was black with gleaming white teeth and long ropes of hair. Some kind of device was riveted to his skull and his cheekbone, the sinister green lens which covered his eye gleamed in the starlight.

 He made a low note in his chest, resonating with clicks and alien vowels. Saaga kicked and fought as hard as she could but her captors only laughed, they did not yield the slightest weakness to her twisting, blistered wrists.

She watched in horror as the skin in his hand parted neatly, his finger folded back and was replaced with a vicious looking syringe. Lovingly he caressed her straining, white neck.

“Please don’t, please, please,” she cringed away from him as much as was possible but could do nothing to stop the cruel barb from sticking in her flesh,

He picked her up, smiling with the enthusiasm of an artist.  Her body was slight in his arms, thin strands of white hair hung about her face. She was showing the grim marks of late stage radiation sickness. She stank and her arms were thin like winter branches. Her skin was pearly white and etched all over with pink burns.

“It’s all right,” he spoke to her gently, a kind, telepathic intrusion which brushed aside language barriers in exchange for a common morphology of emotion and significance, “I just want your brain.”   

 


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