Beyond the Red Door

II

Though I am unbred and unqualified to make such a judgment, I think that Marcus' lungs are filling with fluid. I am given to believe this because his breath rattles, and he grimaces when he draws breath. I have made what little comfort I can for him here, daubing his face with chemical cold packs. It is so little, but I feel welx in it – welx from no duty at all.

Marcus has bid me, though, to finish the tale that I started, so that anyone who finds us might be warned. And for all our sakes, I will. I will write until my eyes are darkened and I am too feeble to move a pen. Someone must know what awaits out there, beyond the stars.

The ship we set out upon was the Bloodlash, our people being not thoroughly imaginative in our nomenclature. There were doubtless a thousand other Bloodlashes off on their own duties throughout the galaxies, but we were given this one. It could hardly be called a ship, really, for onboard there were only the bridge and the cargo hold as places hospitable to a body. The rest of the space was taken up by the immense ion drives and stealth equipment. The Bloodlash did its job of reconnaissance and infiltration well enough, I suppose, but there was certainly no room for ten aboard. Science Team, all three of them looking so alike that I thought they must be clones, took up the Bridge by themselves with a single soldier standing guard. The remaining six of us, four workers and two soldiers, huddled together in a tiny, unoccupied corner of the cargo hold, which had not been unloaded before our boarding. Among towers of titanium alloy containers with strange, alien script scrawled upon them, we waited. The cargo containers were stacked high, filled with Lords only knew what, and they filtered most of the dim light of the hold. At first, we waited in silence under the shadowy light, listening only to the alternately excitable or agitated chatter of Science Team that filtered down the bolt hole from the bridge to the hold. Soon, though, the time stretched into hours, and even I, a worker bred for monotony, began to feel the pull of ennui.

But a worker does not speak out of turn. Much as I yearned to break the silence, I was bound by the chains of caste to remain silent until spoken to. To my great fear and astonishment, I was. One of the soldier units wearing a powered exoskeleton approached me and the other workers quite suddenly (it was not intentional, but by pure instinct we found ourselves separated according to our class).

"Worker, we are all bored," he said. I do not know why he turned to me specifically, but I would likely not be alive now if he had not. "There is no good in sitting here in the dark with nothing to say. Surely you know of some story that could entertain us?"

"What are you doing, idiot? Get back over here and shut up," the other soldier hissed.

"Then you would choose boredom? How absurd." The soldier did not quite grin, but we all could feel his mirth and good humour. In just a moment, the hierarchy among us six had been broken down. I do not know if the same passed between the soldier and my fellow workers, but he had called me comrade without even a word. It would bring me great welx to grant his request.

I sang. It is an old song, one that is quite literally in the hearts of the People, written into our very genes so that we do not forget. I sang of arms and blood, the days when all the People were soldiers, at war with one another and strange beings from beyond the sky. Chieftans rose and fell by my words, living and dying by the sword.

The others in the hold said nothing; the three workers aside from myself turned their heads so that they might not be obliged to look at me. But the soldiers looked on appreciatively, perhaps even with astonishment. The one who had asked me to sing even widened his eyes in pleasure, which was virtually his only feature that we could see under his fearsome exoskeleton.

I had reached the end of the first canto when one of the Science Team creatures peevishly stuck its head down the bolt hole and ordered silence. The order to still my voice was of higher priority than the order to sing, so I stopped at once. It mattered little. My body was fairly aglow with welx, and the soldiers nodded at me, wordlessly accepting me as one of their own.

Time passed, perhaps a whole cycle or more, if time has any meaning out there in that dark sea. No one spoke or dared move too much due to the harsh and angry edit. Science Team were not known for their merciful dealings with underlings, so no one wanted to chance their ire. Meanwhile, our leaders chattered on above, undisturbed.

It would be difficult to describe what happened next without resorting to profane poetry. Quite suddenly, it seemed to me that a profound feeling of sickness, a burning fever and a chill so intense it was painful all at once had passed over me. Following this disconcerting sensation was a feeling like being made liquid and forced through a wall of stone, a feeling which was in its way more sickening than the sickness. I do not know how long these sensations lasted, for while they went on I was conscious of nothing outside my own skin.

Then, all passed into darkness. The lights of the hold, never bright, were all at once snuffed out. This was a most fearful thing, since those lights were powered by the auxiliary feedback from the ship's ion drive. If the lights had failed, it meant that drive, and all power on the ship, had also failed.

We were adrift.