-Location not provided.
-Time not provided.
Ahem. TACT, are you sure this thing’s on? Good, good. I've been meaning to get my hands on one of these stupid recorders since we got back into Wing space, in case things get worse than they already are.
Now, first thing to note if you've found this message. Why, you ask, am I talking in your native language? Well, the short answer is magic, and you'll learn why that is eventually.
Second thing, what exactly is this recording for?
Well, to that, I answer: It's a story. My story. Alright... give me a moment, my memory isn't what it used to be, but it's still better than your average schlub. Ah... yes, where to begin?
-Aboard the ESS Homebound K-196. SRC 231211.
-Forty-nine hours after exiting the Omega system.
Call me Jackson.
Possibly the worst sound in the universe is someone angrily knocking on my door, desperate to tell me that something had gone wrong.
This is coming from a man who's listened to the scuttling of Ba-I parasites crawling around inside Alpha Station's walls, ripping and tearing their nasty little teeth into the wires and any other components they encountered. I've listened to the soul crushing silence of my superiors and peers as I tick off the names of men who recently died under my command. I've even had the displeasure of listening to the inane babbling of a madman holding a gun to my head, though in this galaxy, many have. I'm nothing special in that regard.
However, there's still nothing worse than the incessant thudding of fist on metal that comes when things haven't gone according to plan and I'm expected to fix it. Sometimes, and I won't lie, I wish I wasn't in charge. But that means some other moron gets the responsibility of not screwing up, and I can't trust anyone with that. There's also the power, of course; the insatiable lure of being the biggest and best, but I got over that a while ago.
I held my head in my hands, willing the noise to go away. Of course, it didn't, and only rose in intensity. I smacked my hands down on the desk in frustration, one landing on top of a holo-report I had been typing up, addressed to a Admiral Fenway and from a Captain Amber. It flickered and died, and the corners of my mouth twitched in frustration.
"What is it now?" I called out. Almost instantly the knocking stopped, making me smile for a split second. A worried voice called through the thick door which I'm so very thankful separates me from the rest of the crew.
"We're seven minutes to contact, Jackson." I straightened in my seat faster than I thought possible, but I'd always had good reflexes. "The rest of the crew wants answers and are quickly leaping to - Yes, I'll be right there, cadet - conclusions about the mission. I'd suggest you do something so we can all mentally prepare ourselves for this."
I thought for a moment, delving into past experiences where I'd had to do something like this, which was quite often. Why we never tell the lower ranks anything, I'll never understand. I was always the blunt admiral. If I was leading my fleet into a trap, I told them beforehand. If we were facing impossible odds, I gave a brilliant speech and we always came out on top. Yea, a speech. That would work. I imagined myself to be terrible at speeches, but sometimes you just have to make do.
"Round the crew up in the hangar-bay so I can have a few words with them. Keep the ship on autopilot," I said, rolling the chair back and standing to face the rest of the room.
All of my furniture was made from wood. Not the plastic rubbish they'll synthesize back on Sirius or in the Corumer systems, but real honest-to-God wood. Imported straight from Han Wavel at the expense of people I don't really care about. Yes, it's very self indulgent, but it reminds me of home. I get bored of all the spacey shiny stuff the rest of the galaxy seems to really dig.
I looked at the mirror placed beside my bed. It was a window, but I preferred not to look into empty nothingness, so I had set it to mirror-mode. I brushed my hand along my face, feeling the slight stubble. My hair was as scruffy and short as ever, just the way I liked it. As I reached my the top of forehead I could feel the telltale unevenness of fresh scars crisscrossing themselves. I hadn't had time to treat myself to a scar-treatment clinic since I had gotten them. If it weren't for the magic those clinics had in them, I'd probably be a pile of crumpled flesh.
Almost by instinct, my hand began fiddling with the five stars attached to my uniform. It was a grey uniform jacket, and the shoulders were black. Nothing really called any attention to myself other than those stars and the emblem sitting below them. Long ago I got used to the stares I received in public. My emblem - my rank, they were both legends. I wasn't necessarily a legend, but I sure deserved to be called one.
The large dark grey door slid aside with all the politeness of a servant when I walked up to it, timing my stride almost perfectly. I adore classic things like wooden desks and fencing, but sometimes the brilliance of science just deserves a good pat on the back. Too bad doors don't have backs.
To the side of the door a neatly dressed stick of a man saluted, smiling as one predator would smile to another. I nodded, grinning in return. "At ease, Art. I take it you already sent the message out with your datapad?" I asked.
"Yea, Jackson. Ship-wide so it'll come up on yours in a second," he responded, lowering his hand, "so I'll wait for you in the hangar."
I nodded at him before he left, and clicked at metal device wrapped around my wrist like an old-fashioned watch. The small screen blipped, revealing rows of message titles, one glowing a dull red. I tapped the 'x' next to it, and it disappeared. I began scrolling through the messages, absently looking at each of the titles; they were everything from "Han Wavel riots over Wing control finally put to rest" to "Kaiden survivors finally settling in after the disaster."
"TACT, online, please," I said, not looking away from my wrist. One of the many screens lined along the walls blipped to blackness, replaced by a single line with the words "Tactical Advice ConTributor" displayed in bold white text. I really hate the fact I don't know who made up the stupid names to some of these ship AI's. I'd love to smack them silly.
Ah, wait a moment. I was the guy who came up with TACT. Woops.
"TACT Online. What Do You Need, Sir?" it stated in the recognizably over-enunciated, cold, indifferent, high-pitched voice it had. I hated it, but it was so useful I couldn't afford to not have it aboard my ships. Specifically, my ships only. I actually had no idea if any of the other men in the Wing had their own AI or VI aboard, and I couldn't be bothered to ask. I made sure to keep it offline during most of the missions. Last-resort kind of stuff. It used a lot of energy, and despite the fact that this particular ship was designed to hold a lot of power in it, I didn't feel like being wasteful.
The monotone voice would go away eventually. This TACT was a newer model, so it had yet to develop any kind of personality. It would probably take a month or two.
"I need you to take control of the autopilot. If we get to the edge of the anomaly while I'm talking to the crew, stop the ship. Make sure we're out of range if the anomaly turns out to be something with ranged weaponry. I want to have a good visual of it either way."
"And don't call me sir, it's annoying."
"I hate you."
Sighing, I waved off the AI, who promptly disappeared from the screen. Two crew-members rushed past me, and I resisted the urge to order them to slow down. I spun on a dime and walked along the overly lit hallway that I knew so well.
I don't know what I think of spaceships. The idea that outside the hull is literally just empty space, in my opinion, is absolutely terrifying. Granted, we have such advanced technology that we could flit between the stars in mere minutes if we wanted to, though the energy costs are normally too high for such luxuries. I've fought enough battles to know the horrors of space, the uncertainty of it all, and the great risks. Most planets and factions were and still are too scared to put resources into space warfare. Why exactly that is, I definitely know.
It was a good thing, though. If every planet suddenly entered the galactic community with its own military, then we'd have a thousand more wars than we currently had. It's why groups like mine get hired. We protect people, or rather, planets and systems. In return, we get resources, pay, women, and sometimes entire cities. We, or at least the higher ranked like me, were consequently very well known in some circles. The galaxy's always changing though, and it appeared my little group wasn't doing so well with the changes. Bah, politics. Ruins everything.
My thoughts were interrupted as I entered the hangar, where my crew of ten were milling about and talking amongst each other. On the opposite side, a massive dark grey door stood, behind which laid an unforgiving nothingness. A large, bulky vehicle was attached to the ceiling, and the dropship took up most of the room on the pad. Apparently the engineers had been working on it, otherwise it would have been connected to the ceiling as well. Several crates were stacked in each corner, each strapped to the wall. I stood at the door, staring at my crew talking and ignoring me. That simply wouldn't do. I coughed into my hand, and mentally positioned myself to play the leader. Though, I couldn't help but glance over at the grounded dropship for a few moments. Let them have their fun.
The dropship was a recent model, nicknamed "The Fate" by myself and the crew. It was shaped like an overweight T, with good enough engines, armor, and a pair of plasma cannons at the front. It was designed specifically for the ship we resided in, and it was the first and probably last to be produced. That's how important this mission was.
"LINE UP!" I boomed, and the crew scrambled in front of me. They were
shoulder-to-shoulder by the time my voice faded. My congratulations to the Cadet Academy, you finally trained a group that can line up properly.
"I want a salute and a 'yes-sodding-sir'!" I yelled. Their hands snapped to the foreheads, and they sounded off in unison. I grinned, and winked at my right-hand-man, Art. His clean shaven face showed no emotion, but he blinked in recognition. "At ease, boys." Their hands lowered, and I clasped my hands together. The sound echoed throughout the hangar, the only other noise being the dull whirr of the engines resonating throughout the hull.
"Now," I said flatly, pacing a few meters away from the group, "we're about to enter an unknown anomaly. This thing has managed to somehow stay off our radar for decades, maybe even centuries, and the boys at Omega say it was by pure chance they caught it. One in a trillion billion whatever; the statistics don't matter. We found it, and we're going to investigate. How about I give you a little backstory on this thing?" I stopped, and turned to face them, hands wrapped around my back. I could tell by their cold gazes that they were only being professional, but I knew well enough what they were thinking: They had just graduated, and had been tossed instantly into a suicide mission. Someone high up must really hate them.
"We caught just a flicker of this thing last month, and no one has any idea how it hasn't been discovered. Because, guess what? This anomaly is about as big as a good sized solar system. Almost impossible to not miss in the last few years, but our boys say it's been sitting there since forever ago, so I believe them. We have absolutely no idea what it is, or what's in it. All we know is that it exists."
"As such, after some debating, I volunteered to investigate it myself. The good engineers at Kaiden Technologies offered up some ship designs, all of them capable of handling multiple threats. Thus, this wonderful thing we're currently standing in was built. Eee-ess-ess Homebound. Named it myself. Built to be a jack-’o-all-trades, the perfect vessel for this kind of thing. Naturally, I volunteered to captain it during this trip. Because I'm sure you've heard of my lust for adventure." I grinned wickedly, only increasing its size when a few of them glanced uneasily at each other. Art remained stoic; he was used to this. I had lied, of course, about Kaiden Technologies. It was well known that I was in command of the group, and that I had volunteered to investigate the anomaly the second the high-ranking council got word of it.
"I know you boys think this is a suicide mission, and it probably is, but you should also know something else...." I trailed off, forcing my expression into neutrality. I took another moment of pause for dramatic effect. "I'm an expert at surviving suicide missions. Proven fact. You boys were trained to be the best, because all cadets are. I bet you could survive this on your own, but I'll come, just in case." I chuckled with about as much humor as a dead skill cell could produce, and gestured at the vehicles in the room with a wide wave of my hand.
"We don't know what we'll find, but I know we can handle it. It might be nothing but an odd occurrence that we might be able to exploit, and it also might be a hidden armada preparing to wage war on the galaxy. It also might be just an alien race that happens to be in some sort of natural cloaking field. But we're still being prepared."
I spun around on one heel, facing the closed doorway out. "I'm an expert at getting things done, and getting out alive. We're invincible, but only if we work together," I said, walking through the large metal opening. Before it slid shut, I said one last thing. "Send a message to your families. Get back to your posts, ETA is one minute."
The only sound in the hallway was the patter of boots as the cadets rushed past me, and the only smell was soap. I hated soap. The downside of being in a smaller ship was that the washrooms always made the ship smell like the stuff. I hated it. TACT popped up on the screen next to me, and blipped from screen to screen as I walked down the hallways. Normally I would have waved him off, but it was crunch time.
"Sir. We Are Nearing The Anomaly. ETA Is Thirty Seconds. Powering Down The Engines As Requested."
"Shut up," I snapped, and the AI vanished from the screen just as I came to another door. With a sigh, I stepped forward, and the doors slid open to reveal the bridge. Several heavy monitors jutted from the walls, each with a cadet standing at the ready. In the middle of the room sat a chair, several holographic control panels floating around it. Beyond that was a depression, with stairs on either side of the chair. In the depression in the floor was a large control panel where Art sat, and on either side of him were two more panels with two more cadets.
In one swift movement, I waved away the holograms and sat in the chair. The holograms returned as soon as they thought the coast was clear.
The fancy controls or even the pilot's chair were certainly not the most imposing thing in the room. What stood out the most was the pitch black screen located at the front, standing out from the light grey of the rest of the ship. I stared at it from behind the blue holograms, and coughed violently into my fist.
"Alright, men. Let's make this snappy. Get in, hopefully find the source of this thing, and get out. No distractions, and be prepared to get shot at as soon as we enter," I tapped at an orange button on the controls, and stared at the black screen in front. "TACT?"
"TACT Is Online, Si-"
"Remove the blind, I want to see this thing for myself."
"Yes, Sir. I Would Advise Caution, Though. I Do Not Predict Positive Emotional Reaction Fro-"
"Do it already."
"Yes, Sir," TACT said, and vanished from the hologram display. In front, the black veil dissipated... only to be replaced by yet another blackness. In the distance, I could hear a few crewmembers gasp. Art turned to look at me, his eyebrows raised and a question on this edge of his lips.
"TACT, you sure this is visual?"
"Yes, Sir. I Am One-Hundred-Percent Certain The Blind Successfully-"
"So the stars are all missing. It's like some sort of crazy wall?"
"Firstly, how the hell did the boys at Omega not see this thing? And secondly, can we go into it? I know we've scanned it already. No good results."
"I Am Forty Percent Certain That Entering It Would Result In Our Destruction, I Would Advise-"
"Good odds! Alright, everyone brace. We're heading in." I paused, listening to the scuffling as various people buckled themselves into their seats. Art gave me a worried look, and I winked. He and I both knew how to roll the dice right, and the records had shown we were officially good luck charms. He certainly wasn't as experienced as I was, though. "TACT, hand me manual controls."
"Manual Controls Activated. Good Luck, Captain."
"Yea, yea," I muttered as two joysticks lifted up from either arm. I gripped them, feeling them warm up in my already hot hands. Without a second thought, I moved the right one forward, and the steady purr of the engines escalated into a roar. "Intercom on," I said, taking a pause to let the command activate. "Alright. I hope you all are settled in, because I have a good feeling about this, and we all know whenever I get a good feeling, something bad happens. Intercom off."
I glanced at a rapidly decreasing number on the controls, and grinned to myself. A low warning sounded as the number went into the thousands. I could feel the tension rising, and it threatened to burst by the time the number fell into the hundreds. The alarm turned into a scream for a brief second, and then there was a bright light, and a loud noise that sounded like exactly the opposite of silence.
For an instant, I was worried.
Fun fact, though: Technically, I should’ve died over eight thousand times.
Piece of cake.