Don't give me a reason to sell my soul, she should have said.
Instead, she just stared at the man on the screen in front of her, the man with his long, drooping skin, tired eyes, haggard face and balding head. He was hardly the admiral we had once known. She said "I don't have any desire to do it," and then quickly, "but I'll follow my orders, if you give them to me."
There was fright in her eyes. She gripped the edges of the captain's chair and bit her cheek, fighting off inevitable tears. But not here. She couldn't cry now. People relied on her to be strong. What people she wasn’t sure, but someone, somewhere, surely. She had to believe that.
"Those are your orders," the man said, sinking heavily into his chair. "I trust you'll carry them out."
She snapped off communications with ill-hid despair. Her blonde hair, thin and almost colorless, hung around her face like a fallen halo, fading with every sin. Her lips were tight, her cheeks drawn, and her eyes stared out of bruised skin at nothing. For just one moment, I thought she was going to tell us to turn around. To go back home. For just one second, I thought she was the same woman she had been when she took command.
"You heard him," she said, hopelessly. "Set a course for the Finley Anomaly."
No one was the same anymore.
The Finley Anomaly was something worse than an anomaly. Not just unspecified, not just unknown, but something entirely worse. It was where all of this had started, the very reason everything had gone to hell. The RNS Finley had discovered it a decade and a half ago, when Earth was just a memory and after humanity had spread across the galaxy with broken hopes of finding someone else to share our loneliness. We found out, pretty quickly, that space is very, very, empty.
And then the Finley found the station.
It hung around the star 86ZZ9-RXY, and it was most certainly not natural. It was metal, complicated arms and discs, and even thought it was dark and no longer in use, it was proof of intelligent life that wasn't human. It was a godsend.
The Finley found it, and it immediately sent the message to the nearest planet. From there, the news spread at a light year a second. It was a sensation. But good news, it seems, is rare. The Finley burned. No one really knows why, no one really knows how, but the security footage that flew over the nets was gruesome.
If it had ended there we wouldn’t be on this mission. The station followed our messages, burrowed inside our networks and found tinder where it should have found hope.
And now everything was gone - whole planets in flame, fleets lying derelict in open space with nothing but blackness to keep them company. I wasn't really sure, but I didn't think there were any other ships left. That was why Admiral Carlhart had given us the mission. We were the last of the last. The beacon, but I didn't know for who. I didn't know if anyone was left to follow us out of the dark. I couldn’t even know if we were going to get out of it.
The captain left the bridge as soon as she gave the order. She disappeared into the lift and left the ship with her number one, Nikolai Orbzechev. I left my post and told him I would be back, and then I took the lift down to Deck 13; the captain's quarters.
It was a simple, small ship. I stepped out of the lift into the short hallway, took the three steps necessary to reach her door, and I knocked.
She lay on her bed beside me, staring at the ceiling. She said nothing for a long time, the life that had appeared in her cheeks fading away as the moment slipped. She sat up, and moved to the edge of the bed. Her feet dangled off for a moment and then met the security of the carpet, but she didn't get to her feet.
I slid beside her and set one hand gently on the small of her naked back. She buried her head in her hands.
"You hate me," she said.
"No," I insisted. "I don't."
There was silence, so I said again, "I don't hate you."
"I do," she said, and she got to her feet. She dressed in silence and without glancing back at me. She froze halfway between straightening her jacket and leaving it rumpled, staring at her tired face in the mirror, caught by it like a thread on a splinter. She didn’t bother with the jacket when she finally opened the door. She left, her hair in thick strands and her face just as taut and bruised as it ever had been.
I sat on her bed and tried to think. I had been trying to help her, but had I? What had I done?
I sat at my position on the bridge on the approach, and the Captain sat in hers, silent. She watched the station on the screen for a while, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Nothing ever did.
"It's a graveyard," she said, as her eyes caught on something in the corner of the screen.
I looked up from my station, and there it was: the carcass of the RNS Finley. It was a blackened hulk, its shape bent and warped, but it was still there. She ordered an approach, and as we neared the empty shell bodies came into view - stretched across empty space in lines where the hull had split.
"They're in line," the Captain mused, voice soft. "Like there's something to wait for."
I looked up at her, wondering if she even knew what she was saying. She was tired. She hadn't slept in days, I guessed, and now here she was, talking about how those dead people were waiting for something. They weren't waiting. They were nothing. Not even memories, now - just blackened, unidentifiable bodies. They weren't even human.
Finally the ship turned to face the station again, and the Captain gave the order to open up communications. Before they opened, she said "We're all going to die here."
Solemnly. Quietly. Inevitably - she said it like a fact, and I was pretty sure she was right. This was a graveyard, not an embassy.
Communications opened, and a voice came over the air - slow and sweet - the voice of a woman. "Hello?" she said. "Who's calling?"
"My name is Arrenne, Captain of the RNS Glacier. We are here to negotiate a peace." I could tell it hurt her to say that. Her pride, but something else, too. Her heart. Just saying that made her already pale skin lose its color. Like her blood had stopped pumping.
There was silence for a long time. Arrenne stared at the black screen and waited for the voice to come back, to ask 'what terms?' or say 'no'. But there was nothing.
"There is no peace," the Captain said, staring, mouth parted, like she had just figured something out. "Look at what we did," she said, a ghost speaking instead of her.
I didn't know what she was talking about, but suddenly the screen lit up, and there sat a girl of no more than eight, looking perplexed and angry - her brown hair was kept out of her face in a ponytail, her eyes were green. "I told you to go away," she said. "A long time ago."
She sounded older than she should. Her mouth was moving, but she wasn't the one talking.
"You're not going to let us go," Arrenne said, futilely.
"On the contrary," the girl said, face tipped forward and eyes staring hard into the Captain’s. "I am going to let you go. I have been trying to let you go for fifteen years, but you keep coming back."
Arrenne looked about the bridge in a panic. "Go back to the Finley," she ordered. "Go back!"
The navigator scrambled over the controls, and our ship turned back, lights illuminating the charred hulk. "Look," she said. "There!"
She pointed, and the helmsman shifted the ship to the right. There was something there, farther off in the black, away from the charred bodies and the tortured shell of the Finley. Another blackened hulk, further from the station, was lit up. Another ship, sent here to stop the inevitable. Another carcass.
But that wasn't the end. There was another ship beyond it, and another beyond it, blackened to the point of invisibility against the void of space, frozen in their failed attempts at escape.
Eyes wide, a calm arrested the Captain. She laughed. "And here I thought," she said, "that this was the end."
And the Glacier lit up like a candle, from back to front, bodies flinging across the cabin in disarray.
The Captain never gave the order to shoot back, or to level shields. She just sat at her chair, gripping the arms tight, with a deranged smile on her face.
Don't give me a reason to sell my soul, came the voice over the air. I don't have any desire to do it, but I'll follow my orders, if you give them to me.