The tank’s bubbles danced toward the surface, rustling the pilot’s short, white hair. Her head and torso – what little remained of her body – was bound to the ship by wires and tubes, splayed out from exposed nerve endings where her arms and legs had once been. Her chest expanded in simulated breathing, even though the bath surrounding her nourished every cell with oxygen and nutrients. Those eyes would stay closed for the rest of her remaining life, though they would see the universe in ways that no living human could.
Fingers touched the edge of her glass container, leaving rings of moisture that faded as the hand receded back. He wondered if she could sense him, standing there, both beside her and within her interstellar body. How much did she know? How far could her mind travel outside that cage? What kind of world and its sensations crossed her remaining neurons? The questions hadn’t pained him as much as the answers had.
As the door slid open, he wondered if she wanted him to leave, but no, her autonomy was just his wishful thinking.
“Mr. McCann,” the interloper said, breaking the solemn peace of this sanctum.
“Captain,” Richard McCann said, though he didn’t break his gaze upon her, the totem of flesh and starship.
The reflection of Captain Vasquez passed across the tank, warping around the pilot like a ghost, stopping once it reached Richard’s similarly stretched form. “We’re ready to disembark,” he said.
But Richard didn’t look away. His eyes only peered deeper into that tank as he tried to piece together how painful it might have been for each fiber optic node to merge with every nerve cluster. Had her mind been taken before or after?
“Captain,” Richard said, “was she a volunteer?”
“She was.” Captain Vasquez touched the tank, just as Richard had. “Anne had a condition that caused chronic pain. When nothing worked, she chose this option.”
“Good,” Richard said as a weight was lifted from his mind, partially. “Do you know what she sees in there?” he asked.
“I’ve been told it’s a forest, going on forever. She enjoyed the outdoors.”
“So, it’s heaven for her.”
“I hope so. We want to make her as comfortable as possible.”
As Richard turned toward the door, he said, “Makes her easier to control.”
The crew waited for them in the mess hall – a compartment only designed to feed five at a time. For the nine of them, it required all to stand. The Captain stood on a bench at the table to get their attention. “Alright. Everyone get enough sleep?” he said.
The roughneck crew all nodded, though some couldn’t hold back their groans. Fatigue shown a little under their eyes, but it wasn’t enough to get Richard worried. The only person who needed to be awake, as fully as she could be within her dream world, was Anne.
“Good enough.” Captain Vasquez then motioned for Richard to join him up on the bench, but he didn’t oblige. However, Vasquez didn’t lose his smile. “Well, I’ll turn it over to Mr. McCann here to go over the mission specifics.”
“Who is the astrogator?” Richard said as he scanned the room.
“Me,” replied a little Asian woman with arm-length tattoos.
Richard tossed the chip over to her, which was caught on the second grab from the air. “Search for that signature, but run a virus test on it first,” he said.
She glanced back to the Captain with a sneer. “We’re dealing with hot data?”
“Sensitive data,” Richard replied. He glanced across the crew again to read and remember their expressions – apprehension across the board, with one or two giving him the stink eye, all except the Captain. He and Richard had already parsed this deal.
“We’re searching for a particular ship,” Richard explained. “Each ship has subspace signature. Normally, that information is kept secret. I’ve purchased those secrets at a substantial cost to me. That means I’m heavily invested in the outcome of this mission, understand?”
“What’s to say the data isn’t fake?” one of the crew exclaimed. Richard couldn’t see who had said it.
“It could be, but I doubt it. In any case, if it’s fake, you all get paid to take me nowhere, so there’s no risk for you.”
“And what if it isn’t fake? What’s the risk then?” said the short man next to him. By the appearance of patches and burn marks across his jumpsuit, Richard figured he was in engineering. Engineers, well, good engineers, weren’t the kind of people to take risk likely.
“I don’t know,” Richard replied. To that, the crew released their sighs and murmurs.
“No one knows all the risks,” Captain Vasquez said. “Besides, for what we’re getting out of it, the risk is worth it. Trust me.”
And with that, all their protests ceased.
The Captain continued, “That being said, we’re packing a full armory.”
The crew seemed pleased by that.
Richard stepped forward to take all their glances again. “The ship we’re looking for shouldn’t be operational. It’s deadweight. Sorry to spoil the surprise.”
“If that’s the case,” replied the engineer, “then why hasn’t anyone snatched it yet?”
“The pilot went rogue and the whole craft, crew and all, was lost in space. Rescue wasn’t worth it apparently.”
“Until now,” Captain Vasquez added. “That being said, we’re still packing our gloves for this one. No reason not to. Any other questions?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” said the astrogator. “Why’d they just leave the hulk out there to drift? It has to be worth something.”
“It is, to me,” Richard answered. “Lots of times ships get lost. Bringing them back is more trouble that they’re worth. That seems to be the case here.”
“Seems to?” she said.
“Yes, seems to. That’s my conclusion based on my data.”
Captain Vasquez jumped from the bench, becoming shorter than the rest of his crew. “Alright, any other questions?” he asked as he made for the door. “Nope? Good. Get out of here and ready Anne for flight,” Captain Vasquez ordered.
Once on the bridge, the rest of the crew worked in perfect synchronicity to bring the ship out of its final prep. Reactors woke from their half-sleep, feeding the engines and quantum manipulators that would flow them to the stars. The world of the physical and the virtual dream that held Anne’s consciousness were merged together by the ship’s artificial intelligence and VR crew. Richard watched the two of them work with speed and precision at their consoles. They craned over readouts and graphs, making the most delicate of changes to the world of Anne’s dream. Despite the engineer working in a flurry to make the ship mobile, none of it would matter – astrogation, life support, weapons – if those two lost hold of the reigns.
“How’s everyone looking?” Captain Vasquez asked, though he was already flipping through his chair’s holograms to double-check their work.
“No bugs detected. Data stream good,” one of the two VR team replied.
“And no viruses on your data,” said the astrogator.
“Field manipulators good too.”
A click of the intercom brought a voice from engineering. “No problems here, boss.”
“Then it seems we’re ready to go,” Captain Vasquez said. He turned his head up from one of his displays. “Unless you have some reason to stop us, Mr. McCann.”
“I don’t,” Richard said.
“Okay then. Everyone in position. Let’s wake Anne and set a course. Astro, VR, link and synch a waypoint. Depart from the station now.”
From the ice-capped mountains above came a breeze so cold that it woke Anne from her sleep. Her eyes opened to the swaying of evergreens and beams of light searching the forest floor between their branches. As each ray passed over her skin, they left brief a tract of soothing heat that was all too quickly consumed by the mountain’s wind.
The writhing of warmth and cold made Anne relax beneath her tree. But just as she was to close her eyes again, the mountains breathed harder, chilling her skin and the muscle beneath, almost down to the bone.
“Wakey wakey, sunshine,” called the wasp. A little glowing insect made of light danced down from the trees and flew circles around her head. “Time to get up. Time to get up.”
“Where’re we going?” Anne said as she got to her feet.
“Out of the forest. Into a clearing. Not far.”
Anne smiled at the wasp. They were about to start another adventure across the infinite lands. “I’d like that,” she said.
“Then follow,” the wasp exclaimed as it flew off into the forest, leaving a golden trail suspended in the air behind it.
Anne started running.
Their ship, the Lightfoot, rode through a wave of force that bent time and space from their path.
“L1, L3, L4.”
Anne’s mind and the field manipulators across the ship produced an eddy that subverted the limitations of the universe. Richard couldn’t help but marvel at the loophole that mankind had discovered in God’s physics. It was barely understood, only enough to allow for flight faster and further than anything else in the known universe many times over.
“Keep her at L4,” Captain Vasquez ordered. “Do we have an exact waypoint yet, Roo?”
“It’s only in the neighborhood,” replied the astrogator.
Captain Vasquez glanced back at the outsider on his ship. “Mr. McCann, is there a chance this ship has moved from its last known coordinates?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to go chasing down buoys.”
“You get paid either way. Concerned you might get bored?” Richard quipped.
“Just making sure you get what you pay for,” Vasquez returned.
“Sir, I’ve been able to narrow the search around planet Nocturne. I’m also picking up recent resonance signatures. They match our target,” said astrogation.
Vasquez flipped up a holographic display and looked through the data himself. “Mr. McCann, I thought you said this ship was immobile.”
“I said I didn’t know. I said the pilot went rogue.”
Captain Vasquez collapsed the monitor into nothingness then turned his chair to fully meet him. “Rogue pilot. Still alive?”
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Richard replied.
Roo, the astrogator, started typing in a torrent across her keyboard, loud enough to bring them both out of their conversation. “Sir, I think I’ve found him just outside the fifth moon.”
Yet Captain Vasquez still stared at Richard. “Drop out of FTL. Let’s go in slow.”
“Over here, over here!” the wasp yelled as it bounced between two of the final trees, stopping Anne before she could go any further. Beyond the wasp’s golden wings was a blank, open prairie. The limitless horizon was broken only by one outcropping of rock, and before that rock was a strange black thing, something so different than anything Anne had seen before in her mystical forest.
“Slowly now,” the wasp said, but it did not fly ahead to guide her. These steps Anne would have to take on her own.
Even though she was out from the shade of the trees, the sun’s warmth was no longer there. The rays still touched her skin, but they didn’t bring the comfort like they had before. With each step, the glowing ball in the sky began to recede behind the mount in front of her, and behind that unknown mass which stood before it.
“Wait. Don’t get too close,” said the wasp.
“Scans, please,” Captain Vasquez commanded. “I want to know what we’re looking at.”
On the monitors, the fifth moon of Nocturne was a perfect silver ball, lined with glowing red veins of volcanic canyons. The perfect sphere had a blemish, however. A cloud of debris obscured much of the view as the Lightfoot entered a field of broken ships that orbited the moon.
Vasquez knelt forward in his chair, eyes darting around all the displays. Richard noticed the rest of the crew doing the same at their stations. “Report,” Vasquez ordered.
“Nothing so far,” replied astrogation.
“Announce any changes as they happen. Let’s start in slow.”
At first, the ship drifted in silence, but as the cloud began to envelop them, clangs and crashes reverberated through the walls. “Just debris,” Vasquez mumbled. For a moment, he craned his head up and ordered, “let’s get some cameras on ‘em.”
Multiple holographic screens blipped into existence, blinking from one piece of wreckage to another, looking for any designation on the former ships.
“Check for heat signatures and radiation,” Captain Vasquez said.
“Single point ahead,” astrogation replied. “I think it’s the ship we’re looking for.”
One of the displays froze on a piece of rotating debris. All the crew looked up to study those numbers. Even though Richard saw the same thing, none of it surprised him.
“Shit,” Vasquez whispered as he leaned back in his chair. “Navy.” He glanced up to Richard. “Mr. McCann, why would the Navy be here?”
“Was here,” he replied.
“Is there something you should be telling me?” Vasquez asked.
“I don’t know the whole story myself, Captain,” Richard said.
“Found it,” proclaimed astrogation.
The cameras zoomed in to a dark blue ship drifting in the field of junk. The Captain and crew stared at the image of the hulk amidst the panels of other ships and grains of dust. A wing appeared here, a turret there, but never the whole picture. Still, the Lightfoot continued its drift through the cloud, making the image clearer by the second.
It was only when the ship could finally be fully taken in that asterogation muttered, “Oh shit.”
“Full stop,” Captain Vasquez shouted. “Power down the reactor. Cut the lights.” He spun to glare at Richard. “It’s a Dreadnaught.” He glanced around the crew and met their eyes in return. “Shut everything down. Now! We’re going dark.”
All across the ship, the lights dimmed and the sounds of reactors fell silent. The flames of engines died and the quantum fields dissipated, leaving the Lightfoot as just a capsule of atmosphere floating in space.
“Wait, don’t go!” yelped the wasp.
Anne stopped mid-step, just as she had almost crossed the plains. Closer now to the shadowed figure, she could see that, whatever it was, it seemed to be made of metal, though not quite metal, and stone, though not really like stone. Its casing was like a statue, but somehow Anne sensed something lived inside. A heartbeat of crackling static sounded in her mind in uneven rhythm.
“Okay, let’s relax,” Richard said. “Has it moved?”
“No,” said one of the crewmen.
“Good. Now, before we get too excited, let’s run some scans on it first.”
“Mr. McCann,” Vasquez interrupted, “you said you were looking for tug or a utility ship. That’s a Navy fucking Dreadnaught.”
“I can see that, Captain,” he replied. Then, he looked across the room and said, “who’s the one scanning the area?”
“I am,” replied a large man with red hair, hunching over his station.
“Check for life signs,” Robert ordered. To Captain Vasquez, he said, “no sense in turning tail until we know it’s dangerous or not.”
“We should have known whether it was dangerous before we came all the way out here,” Vasquez yelled.
“Well, what do the scans say?” asked Richard.
“Engines are cold,” the technician said. “The reactor is in a power-save state.”
“What about life signs?”
The tech glanced back to the captain. “We’ll need to get closer.”
Vasquez paused a moment, staring at Richard. “Mr. McCann, why would the Navy leave one of their ships out here?”
“Pilot went rogue. That’s what I know.”
“See, this is why that’s hard to believe. No military would leave one of their best pieces of tech floating in space, unguarded.”
“It’s a mystery,” Richard said, “and I intend on finding the answer.”
“Not if we’re heading into the firing range of a Dreadnaught.”
“We don’t know if it’s functional anymore,” Richard replied. “What we’ve seen suggests that it isn’t. Why not go a little closer, just to make sure?”
Captain Vasquez looked past him to the man at the scanning terminal. “Any change?”
“No, sir. All quiet.”
“Fine,” Vasquez said. “Let’s go in, slow.”
“Be very quiet,” whispered the wasp. “It might be sleeping.”
Anne studied the ground with every step, making sure she didn’t accidently break a stick or step on dry leaves, lest it wake the golem ahead. Whoever or whatever stood before her was turned away to stare at the monument of stone beyond. As the form became clear, the covering of stone and metal held designations, symbols, that Anne couldn’t decipher. In the back of her mind, a word from a long time ago came to the surface, and she almost murmured it, though she stopped herself.
Soldier, she thought.
“Starting the scans, sir,” the technician announced. Two probes shot out from the Lightfoot and flew toward the Dreadnaught. Their wisps of flame twinkled in the distance as they corrected for a course around the ship. The technician bent over his readouts further to study the data that was coming in.
Richard McCann stood at his shoulder, just as intent on reading the data.
“Not reading any life signs,” said the technician.
“Dammit,” Richard murmured.
“Actually, I’m picking up one.”
“Who is it?” Richard asked.
“It’s in the dunk-tank, so I’m guessing it’s the pilot.”
“How is he?”
“Excuse me,” Captain Vasquez interrupted. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
“I’ve got biomass, but, like I said, no life signs.”
“They’re dead,” Richard said. “The pilot went rogue and killed them.” He stared at the screens as anxiety made his body sweat and his face flush. “Captain, we should dock with it immediately.”
“What?” Roo, the astrogator yelled.
“I can’t tell if the atmosphere is good or not,” added the technician, almost nose to his display.
“This was what we came here for. Do it,” Robert commanded, thereby ripping all the crew from their stations to stare at him.
“I’ll make the orders,” Vasquez replied. “Everyone, double-check everything for any kind of anomaly. Dennis, scan the ship again to make sure. Keep an eye on power consumption and resonance fields, if any. And keep Anne on a tight leash.”
“I think it’s okay,” whispered the wasp. “We can go forward.”
The sun was hanging just above the horizon, drowning everything in light the color of fire. Anne did take that first step, then another, creeping toward the figure before the mount. “Hello,” she murmured. “You okay?”
Something in her psyche told her that it was alive. Even in the dream, she could almost hear the thing breathing.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “Can you hear me?”
It let out no sound, or a recognizable scent. Sight alone and the intuition of her mind gave it a living presence in her dream world.
She reached forward to touch it, saying, “You okay?”
Then, the sound of gurgling stone made her stop. The arms and legs of the figure moved like a statue, slow, deliberate, without wasted energy. The sound of its joints reminded her of a long forgotten word – avalanche. The head and neck scraped across its outer casing as it turned to look at her.
“Oh shit,” the scanning technician said, bringing all attention on him. “Reactor’s powering up.” He drummed his fingers across the keyboard and cycled through the windows, blinking them in and out of existence. “Detecting resonance field,” he yelled.
All glanced up at the display above them to see the Dreadnaught’s lights shine into the darkness, then focus on them.
“Fucking…” The scanning technician spun to look at the captain. “Weapons online. Their weapons are online!”
“Power the deflector plates. Get us out of here,” Vasquez ordered.
“No, wait,” Richard screamed.
Did the weapon materialize out of the dream, or was it always there, unnoticed? Anne only wondered about this for a fraction of a second before she stared down the barrel of the figure’s automatic rifle.
Soldier, she thought.
“Run!” shouted the wasp just before it stung her and brought her out of her trance.
She turned as the sound of a magazine sliding into place broke the silence of her realm. Her legs carried her forward, but not fast enough for the wasp. “Faster, faster,” it cried.
The turrets across the Dreadnaught released a rain of red light that sheared the deflector plates off of the Lightfoot, sending the molten scales spinning off to join the rest of the graveyard. On the bridge, the crew braced themselves against the impacts that were beating the ship to pieces.
“Countermeasures,” Captain Vasquez screamed.
The Lightfoot released a barrage of missiles, which were all shot down within seconds. A stream of sand followed, but the opaque cloud wasn’t enough to disperse the torrent of laser fire coming from the Dreadnaught. More deflector plates bristled down the hull to concentrate to vulnerable areas, but they too were ripped off, clusters at a time.
“Get us out of here,” Vasquez ordered.
“Captain,” Robert protested, “open a com-link to the Dreadnaught.”
But Vasquez ignored him. “Why aren’t we going any faster?” he yelled.
“The Dreadnaught’s merging its resonance field with ours,” a crewmember replied. “I’m trying to break it with modulation.”
The ship bucked to the side as a compartment was released into space.
“Status?” Captain Vasquez yelled.
“Storage. We’re okay.”
“Well, if we can’t outrun it,” Vasquez said, “go for the rings of Nocturne. We’ll have to hide. Evasive maneuvers.”
“Captain, please, open a channel,” Richard pleaded.
Bullets rang out through the forest as Anne tried dodging between trees. She already had wounds across both of her arms. She was fortunate that her legs remained unharmed, but, even so, the figure was getting closer. The stone armor didn’t burden it through the forest. The branches and bushes merely warped around it without breaking.
Anne ducked behind one of the trees and searched her body for weapons. The stones for her slingshot had been spent. Only her bowie knife remained, but she knew trying to get in close would kill her. Fleeing was her only choice. The bark of the tree next her exploded as she sprinted further into the forest.
“Keep running,” the wasp yelled.
“Anything you can do?” Anne replied.
“Keep running,” was all it said.
Richard was sweating too. Yeah, he expected he’d find some kind of warship, but a Dreadnaught, a functioning Dreadnaught, and functioning without a crew, was beyond reason. It wasn’t supposed to be possible.
“Captain,” Richard cried out. “Captain, you have to open a channel. I need to talk with it.”
The ship shook again. “Fire in the engine room,” someone said.
The intercom clicked, followed by a churning of static and a faraway voice. “Captain, fire. I’m sealing the module.”
“Do it,” Captain Vasquez replied.
“Captain,” Richard repeated. “You have to listen to me. Open a channel to the ship.”
“What good’ll that do?” he exclaimed, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He turned to one of his crew. “Open a channel.” When he returned his gaze to Richard, he spoke without fear, only condemnation. “Whatever you’re doing better work.”
A chime sounded across the bridge amidst the shearing of the Lightfoot’s deflector plates.
“Danny,” Richard yelled. “Danny, can you hear me? It’s Richard.”
But the storm of laser fire didn’t cease. The Lightfoot dodged around the asteroids of Nocturne’s rings as the stream of lasers cascaded across them like a waterfall.
“Danny, stop. It’s me, Richie, your brother. I’m here, on the ship. You have to stop attacking.”
Anne held her bloody arms as she ducked under fallen trees and jumped over logs. Bullets whispered by her head before they met the trees around her, splintering the bark into the air. The figure, though large and heavy, was still only feet away and following just as fast. The wasp now stung her relentlessly, the poison needle forcing Anne to go faster even though her muscles screamed and tore under the strain.
“It’s not working,” said Captain Vasquez.
“There has to be some way to contact him,” Richard said. “If the pilot knows it’s me, he’ll stop attacking. I know he will.”
Another wave of force sent Richard stumbling across the floor. As he got up, he glanced around the room for anything that might trigger a solution in his mind. Then, he saw the VR and AI techs, working to keep Anne running forward.
Contacting the Dreadnaught through regular comms was useless. If Danny was trapped in his own world, just as Anne was, then there was no getting through the veil of their dream. But, there had been theories Richard had come across, though more like musings, about the nature of their dreams. Through Anne was tethered to the Lightfoot’s computers, and Daniel to the Dreadnaught’s, in the cosmic metaverse their dreams and psyche’s joined together in a mutual illusion created by the quantum fields they manipulated. What that world was could not be known to anyone but the pilots. But in that mystery remained a chance that perhaps a message could still be relayed.
When Richard returned to his feet, he yelled to the crew, “can we get a message to Anne?”
The ship buckled again, causing the air vents to silence. “Yes, we can,” the VR tech replied.
“It needs to be an exact message.”
Another burst of force made the lights flicker. Some of the monitors went out, but reappeared again with hazard warnings flashing red and orange.
“What is it?” the tech asked.
“Tell her that she needs to send a message to the Dreadnaught. She needs to tell him that Richard is here, and is about to die if he doesn’t stop.”
There was no end to the forest, as each tree and rock looked the same as the others in the miles before. Hills that went up eventually went down, only to go up again in a seemingly infinite loop. As the stress and panic seeped into Anne’s mind, she began to think of things that had been long forgotten. An infinite forest was not possible, nor was a talking wasp. What was this thing and why was it after her? As each bullet brought the fear of death, that fear brought reflection. The binds on her mind were slowly slipping away.
Even the wasp became transparent as its voice died to a whisper. “Anne,” it said. “You need to talk to him. Tell him his name is Danny. Tell him Richard is with you. He needs to know that Richard, is, here. If you die… he dies…” The wasp then disappeared from her reality.
But the bullets still showered the trees. There was no end to the barrage, nor the march of the man encased in stone.
Even as more of Anne’s long-dormant faculties returned, she couldn’t yet conceptualize a plan. The task before her seemed impossible, almost as if it wasn’t real.
A bullet pierced her side, sending her to the ground. She pawed at the dirt, scrambling to get behind a tree for cover. She held her stomach, then stared at the palms of her hands. The red coating of blood brought back memories she couldn’t entirely place. In the wind, she swore she could hear a voice say, “Resonance field collapsed.”
Anne panted and looked up at the trees. The wound at her side didn’t hurt, but she could feel every pulse of blood seeping out of her.
The sound of gunfire stopped, replaced by the stomping of feet through the ground. Deeper and closer each thud came until they started rounding the tree. Before Anne could even see him, she exclaimed, “Wait. Danny.”
The statue came into view, still holding that rifle. As the barrel raised, she pleaded with him. “Danny. Richard is here.”
He sighted his weapon.
“Your name is Danny. Remember. You are Danny,” Anne said. “Richard is with me. Don’t kill me or Richard dies too.”
The statue remained poised, staring down at her through the scope of his rifle.
“Danny, do you remember?” Anne asked.
Around them, the trees began to disintegrate into ash. The forest burned away, replaced by a barren, earthen battlefield as far as they could see. The ground was red and orange, like the surface of Mars at sunset. Scattered for miles were bodies clad in armor of all eras. Roman centurions lie atop Army Rangers, next to the remains of Samurai and Braves and Maasai warriors. In the distance, wooden trebuchets burned beside fallen fighter jets.
As Danny’s dreamscape merged with Anne’s, the end of his rifle fell. His shoulders eased from their stance, and he said, “Where is Richard?”
The fetters on her mind had fallen away. She knew, remembered, that this dimension was merely an illusion brought on by the cage around her body and mind. Though her cage had been accepted willingly, she could feel that Danny’s had not, given the state of his world.
“Richard is here, with us, within me,” she replied. “If you kill me, he’ll die too, so you have to trust me… Danny, ask yourself, how else would I know? I know because he told me.” She held her chest with bloody hands. “He’s here.”
Danny tossed the rifle to the ground. The armor around him began to fall apart, merging with the other featureless stones of the battlefield. The young man that stood before her seemed confused and miserable, as if he were a child that had wandered away and become lost here, in the realm of desolation.
“Where is he?” Danny asked. “I don’t see him.”
Anne held up her bloody hand. “If you promise not to hurt us, then I will take him to you.”
The ventilation across the bridge started again, purging the hot, reused air from the room and replacing it with a cool breeze that brought serenity to the crew. They were all at their stations, unmoving, as if waiting for the end to come. Every screen throughout the bridge was focused on the Dreadnaught that had suddenly halted its assault. Despite the Lightfoot remaining somewhat functional, the reactors were almost overheating and the protective plates had all been torn away.
“S-status?” Captain Vasquez murmured.
The response was slow in coming, though everyone had the same report: they were barely hanging on in every capacity.
“Why’d it stop?” asked astrogation.
“Reactor is still online, as are weapons,” replied the scanning technician.
“Anne must have gotten through,” Richard whispered.
Captain Vasquez could barely speak. “W-well, what do we do now?”
“We finish the deal.” Richard started toward the door, realizing that he did so on trembling legs. “Prepare to dock with the Dreadnaught.”
The Lightfoot limped to the Dreadnaught, its thrusters listless in pushing the hulk for the last remaining feet. Cross-ship connection was successful, as the umbilical had remained, miraculously, unharmed.
Richard McCann crossed the threshold between the ships. Upon opening the last hatch, he was met with the smell of decaying bodies. As he closed the door behind him, the funds of his bank account were depleted and sent to Captain Vasquez, per their deal. The credits would be of little use to him now. Hopefully, they would cover the repairs.
Pushing past grey bodies of the former Dreadnaught crew, Richard made it to the VR terminal and attached his computer display to the port. Richard had been correct in assuming that Danny would be alive. What he hadn’t foreseen was the type of ship the military had put him in. A Dreadnaught was not a realistic prediction, nor a prototype Dreadnaught which could function without a crew, at least for a time. It made sense why the military would leave this ship to rot: it was too dangerous to salvage with the pilot still alive, as they had learned from the deaths of their other ships. Richard guessed the Navy’s plan was to wait out the pilot’s life expectancy inside that tube and return for their ship on his expiration.
But what pushed Danny to go rogue in the first place would be locked within his mind. Richard, fortunately, had the means to find out.
Richard typed into the VR consul. Hey, Danny, you okay?
Anne flinched as Danny looked around their battlefield. “Did you hear that?” he said.
“Hear what?” Around them, there was only simulated wind.
“Someone said something.”
“Not me,” Anne said as she got to her feet. Despite her wounds, she, strangely, felt no ill will to this young man. He had put in this realm unwillingly, without knowing the nature of its existence. He was merely a child trapped in a nightmare, lashing out at whatever monsters he had seen. Anne limped away from the boy, hoping that one day he would find his forest – his serenity.