Don't give me a reason to sell my soul, she should have said.
Instead, she 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 she bit her cheek, fighting off inevitable tears. But not here. She couldn't do it now.
"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 were drawn, and her eyes stared out of bruised skin into nothingness. 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 woman she was 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 this had started. The RNS Finley had discovered it a decade and a half ago, when Earth was just a memory and when Humanity had spread across the galaxy with broken hopes of finding someone else. We found out, pretty quickly, that space is very, very, empty.
And then we found the station.
It hung around 86ZZ9-RXY, and it was most certainly not natural. It was metal, complicated arms and discs, and even thought it was dark and not in use, it was proof of intelligent life that wasn't human.
The Finley found it, and it sent the message to the nearest planet, and from there news spread at a light year a second. But good news, it seems, is rare. The Finley burned. No one really knows why, but the security footage that flew over the nets was gruesome.
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. I think that's why Admiral Carlhart gave us the mission. I think we're 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 didn't know if we were going to get out.
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 and 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 slowly. Her feet dangled off for a moment and then met the security of the carpet, but she didn't get to her feet.
I moved 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, stared at her tired face in the mirror a moment, and then left, leaving her hair in thick strands and her face just as taut and tired as ever.
I sat on her bed and tried to think. I had thought I was helping her, but was 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 and for a while, seemed to wait for something to happen. Nothing did. Nothing ever did.
"It's a graveyard," she said, eyes caught on something in the corner of the screen.
I looked up, and there it was: the carcass of the RNS Finley. It was blackened, its shape bent and warped, but still there. She ordered an approach, and as we neared the empty hulk 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.
The ship turned back to the station, 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 heart had stopped.
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 it 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 - brown hair kept out of her face in a ponytail, eyes 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 Arrenne'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 near 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 her 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 ship dead.
But that wasn't the end. There was another ship beyond it, and another beyond it, blackened to the point of invisibility against the black 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 this 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.