Chapter 1

"Good Morning, Captain"

Captain woke from his deep sleep the moment the electrode sent its tiny jolt through his spine. The shock was just enough to counter the effects of his hibernation. The window of his sleep pod moaned as the pigment cells expanded and turned the glass opaque while a display materialized inches from Captain's eyes.

"Good morning Captain, the time is zero four hundred standard Union Time. The ship is now forty-eight hours from destination; deceleration has begun and we are no longer traveling at relativistic speeds." The computer's voice was flat and emotionless as it delivered the morning news. The hologram on the inside of the pod showed a bisected model of the ship, the sections were being checked off one by one as the power was switched on room by room, then it switched formats to show basic ship diagnostics, crew count, and inventory. "All systems are operating at Union efficiency and safety standards" The pod swung open, Captain lightly pushed off with his hands, and drifted leisurely into the hallway. Without looking, he stretched out a hand and caught a rail handle that zipped him down the hall. He let go and let his inertia carry him past the dozens of sleep pods and to the end of the hall where he drifted into the open hatch of the Gravity Lock. The hatch slid shut and spun into place as four handles extended from the floor and walls to match perfectly to Captain's reach. He slid his feet into the two on the floor, and grabbed the two on the walls and forced his heels on the ground. With a turn of the two wall handles, he felt his stomach drop down and the air pound down on his head. The first few steps out of the Gravity Lock were always the worst. Captain almost fell more than a few times as he stumbled his way out of the Lock and down the hallway to his quarters.

"Is Helmsman awake yet?" Captain asked.

"Senior Staff and bridge crew are being awoken now; fire teams will awake from hibernation in twenty-four hours" the computer's voice seemed to come from all directions at once, the illusion was incredibly convincing. It took a trained mind to sense the subtle difference between normal sound and the voice that the computer was beaming directly into Captain's brain. When he reached his quarters, he found his uniform neatly pressed and folded inside a plastic airtight bag. He quickly changed from his gray jumpsuit into his uniform. A short black tunic buttoned up with polished brass buttons, black dress pants, polished shin high black boots, and soft white gloves. Golden trim ran across the edges of the collar and shoulders of the tunic and along the fold lines of his pants. The Union crest was blazoned in gold on the right side of his chest, a traced image of earth surrounded by seven stars with a sword running from the north to south pole. Captain placed his visor hat on, a white hat with a black translucent visor and an old fashioned gold ship helm with seven spokes: the symbol of the rank of captain, on the front just above the visor. Captain gave himself a small stimulant to help him get his bearings. He then walked out into the hall, spun on his heels and marched down towards the bridge.

The bridge was a remarkable sight. It was a three story tall cube, the walls, ceiling, and floor all looked identical, including the presence of computer terminals, chairs, and even crew. A young navigator walked up to one of the walls and with a small grunt, kicked his right leg up to a ninety-degree angle, and marched straight up the wall to a terminal where he busied himself with calculating orbit projections and course corrections.

"Captain on the bridge" the computer announced, its voice had a faint layer of static as it came from several small speakers hidden throughout the bridge so all could hear. The crew all spun on their heels to face Captain and salute, many of whom had to twist their heads to get a good look at him as most of the crew was standing on the walls or ceiling, though such terms were relative in the room's multi-directional gravity environment.

"At ease!" Captain barked. His voice carried well in the cavernous room and sent crew members scrambling back to their seats. Some crew who were still rubbing sleep from their eyes were sent into a frenzy to find a way to look productive. Some went running up the walls like lizards in an effort to find an empty seat by a terminal or to look over a navigator's shoulder as if he were supervising the process of interstellar navigation. Captain found the idea of a navigator needing supervision amusing, but he let the charade continue. He was still too tired to care enough to make a fuss about it. The navigators were among his most favored crew. They never asked questions or made requests; they would follow any order without hesitation and perform any task to the best of their ability. The only problem was that the best of their ability was little more than calculating numbers and predicting what a line will intersect with five thousand light-years down the road. They had little to no mind outside of mathematics and some even needed help feeding themselves. Still, Captain could not help but admire their unquestioning loyalty and was always impressed at their mathematical prowess. One navigator who had yet to receive instructions was simply calculating pi and typing out the digits on a terminal with great speed, Captain had no doubt in his mind that if he was left alone the navigator would work until he starved to death, or became the first to discover the final digit in pi, whichever came first.

Captain looked at the large reclined chair propped up on a pedestal in the middle of the floor, it was empty and the consoles and displays around it were dark. That chair was the ship's helm, and the fact that Helmsman had yet to report for duty upset Captain, but did not surprise him. Helmsman 152-43 was one of the best in the 43rd Armada, and he knew it, it made him smug and lazy. He would not likely lift a finger unless the ship was in danger of running into something. Captain could do little against his behavior simply because he was the only helmsman on the ship and therefore the only one with the skill to send the kilometer long chunk of metal hurdling through space at speeds well past light speed and hit a target hundreds of light-years away or more. Captain scanned the bridge and quickly found helmsman asleep, floating in the middle of the room inside a giant hologram of the ship's destination planet. Calculations, minor course corrections and celestial bodies whose gravity was affecting the ship's course were all orbiting the hologram in the form of smaller projections that updated and changed shape and size to reflect their relation to the ship's approach, although it looked more like a giant mobile that Helmsman seemed to be using to help him sleep. Captain was not about to tolerate such blatant disregard for procedure any longer, especially after the fiasco with the Zernian Fire Slugs back on Argon II. He coiled up his leg muscles to resemble a frog and kicked off with his powerful legs, which were designed specifically to traverse rooms such as this one. He quickly made it past the six-foot grasp of the gravity field, flew directly into the hologram, which shattered and sent tiny crystalline light emitters cascading across the bridge like diamond rain, and rammed into Helmsman with great force. Helmsman went tumbling out of the hologram, sending another downpour of glowing sparks across the ceiling just before he landed face first on the deck. Captain, who had transferred most of his momentum to Helmsman, glided slowly out of the hole in the hologram and landed with grace not more than two meters away.

"What in theā€¦" Helmsman, who was now vary wide awake and clutching his face as a bruise was forming on his left cheek and he bled from a cut across the bridge of his nose, froze mid sentence when he saw the look on Captain's face. His face looked like a grotesque death mask. It seemed calm but somehow displayed a feeling of unbridled fury. If the ship had a replacement, Captain would have simply shot Helmsman without a second thought. Helmsman didn't want to press his luck twice, no mater how important he was. He jumped back to his chair without looking, ramming into a computer terminal and knocking down a navigator in the process.

The helm wrapped around him like a blanket of metal and plastic, securing his arms and legs to the seat. Even in his seat, he felt Captain's stare from above him like a red hot iron rod being jammed into his skull. It actually caused physical discomfort, but he dared not try to mach his gaze. He kept his eyes sealed shut until the crown was firmly in place on his head and his nervous system switched gears. His senses numbed to nothing and were replaced with the massive stream of data from all the ship's sensors. He saw nothing, but felt all around him. He felt the comet as it kissed the heat of the star. He felt the gas giant as it sang its eternal song over the radio; this one sang a lonely tune, like that of a lone whale. He felt the tingling of the micro-asteroids as they battered the hull like a light rain. Suddenly he felt at peace. This was why only he could pilot this ship, anyone else would be driven mad by this experience, but he was born for this job. He was made for it.

Captain waited until Helmsman was plugged into the ship before he released his projected hold over his mind. It was a captain's most effective skill. A captain could project an emotion to the mind of another; this was incredibly useful for boosting morale or maintaining proper order, as was the case this time. He could project any emotional feeling that the situation required, in this case fear, raw, pure fear. Captain hoped it wouldn't effect Helmsman's performance, but most of all he hoped it would teach him a lesson. Normally Captain used the emotion of pride to maintain control, pride of duty and of the Union, it was the reason why he always wore his dress uniform and not the more form-fitting jumpsuits and it proved much more effective than other emotions in the long run, but it never worked on Helmsman, so he would use fear. This skill was why only he was able to run this starship; he was made for this job.