GUARD DUTY

by John Dodd

It's the duty from hell, with no real redeeming features.

My name is Anastasia Draco, I pilot one of the guard ships just beyond the great wall, it is a lonely life, only the few crew that I have for company, and most of them treat me with the sort of reverence that only Necanthropes tend to earn on the land. I was posted here after a few indiscreet words with some of the council. They cannot take my commission, or my ship, and my house name allows me far more leeway than most other navigators can keep.

I am one of the last of House Draco, although it is a name synonymous with failure, the Preceptor has ordered that no-one shall take retribution for the sins of the past, even the council are not too anxious to dispute with his will, and so, for my transgressions, I am here, watching for something to return from the darkness.

I have been a Navigator for over ten years, I have seen many things in my time, been from one end of this universe to the other, fought in the pirate wars, and seen new stars being born and dying. This position holds the greatest rewards for those who can seek them out. However, being stuck here, patrolling the same set of co-ordinates over and over again, occasionally making some contact with the other patrol ships, there is no outlet for the frustration and boredom that permeates the atmosphere of my ship.

Speaking of my ship, allow me to introduce him. This ship is Pagan, named after a good friend of mine, a man I have known for many years, and who I see rarely now. I know that the ship is technically not alive, and that there is not reason for anyone to suspect that sentience can be attributed to these ships. However, I also know that my ship is alive, he lives and breathes with me, I can feel the sun on him, feel the solar waves as they flow over his hull, I know what he feels, I know when he hurts, and when he needs to feel my touch.

Sitting in the symbiotic chamber, I am aware of all things at the same time, I can feel the flux coursing through the wiring of Pagan, I keep him safe, and in return, he protects me and my crew.

Strange it is, sitting here, waiting for the nothing to suddenly burst into life. It never will of course, there is no chance of anything even vaguely coming back from whatever lies beyond that barrier. I sometimes feel the manic urge to go and fold beyond the barrier. I know it is expressly forbidden, but what are they going to do? Follow me in?

I smile at the thought for a second, after all, the evolution of my race began when someone did something they weren't supposed to. What would happen if something ever came back from beyond here, what if someone knows what lies beyond here, what if it's all a lie?

I shake my head, such thoughts are for the insane, what could they be hiding behind there that I haven't already seen? I finish my sweep and report in.

A brief whim takes me and I take out my cards, long outdated as a method of doing anything beyond lighthearted predictions of one of thousands of futures, they act as a focus for me when my thoughts wander to things I shouldn't be thinking about. I remember how strongly nathaniel believed in fate, and find myself wondering if there could be something in all this fate crap.

I lay out the cards before me, the old traditional three card spread. I turn the first card, this represents what troubles me. The card is a road leading to a crossroads, it's name is choice, I know what it means in basic terms, it is the eternal question of what if, it is the point that all the world is but a choosing ground. I know the dangers of reading too much into the cards, it is all too easy to make things sound as if they mean something to you personally, so I dismiss the first card as coincidence.

I turn the second card, this represents what will deal with my problem. I turn the card, it is a miniature star chart. The Card is the Universe, it represents infinity in all its myriad forms, it is the culmination of all things to form a greater pattern. In terms of meaning, it refers to the fact that all things have their place, and that each thing has to find its place before it will belong.

Intrigued now, I turn the third card, this defines what I should do to make the second card right. I turn the card, it is the Lord of Hosts, it signifies a strong decision maker and wise ruler of people. It means that sometimes, you must throw caution to the wind and make the decision that is right at the time.

I look down at the cards, rocking gently to and fro in the navigators hammock. I check the sensor array, there is nothing for three million miles in all directions. I pause for a second, then put the cards away, locking them carefully down in the nav-box.

The reading pulls at me for the rest of the day, there is nothing that I can think about other than the possibility that something is waiting for me beyond the barrier. I start along the same patrol route again, preparing for another quiet day at the barrier.

As I begin the patrol, the scanners suddenly go haywire, something is approaching, I send a request for clarification to Pagan.

"Tracking one object, four million miles within the barrier, approaching at atmosphere speed."

"Displacement in tons?" The command goes out a little more sharply than I intended, this is the first known contact from beyond the barrier, it's more than understandable if I'm a little freaked out at it.

"Five Hundred…"

I breathe a sigh of relief, whatever it is, it's not as big as Pagan, I should be able to handle it myself.

"…Thousand."

My heart stops, frozen by the sudden icy chill of fear running through me. I activate the primary communications array and begin sending emergency assistance requests. Throughout all of this, I do not engage the drive to flee the area, some morbid curiosity forbids me from running.

The thing gets closer, I can now sense it myself, like a shadow in space, It's huge, far larger than anything I've ever seen before, and its alive, don't ask me how I know that, I just do. I activate the main view screen, watching the barrier to see the thing approach. The viewscreen is clear, there's nothing there. I ask Pagan again to verify its existence.

"Object now two million miles and closing."

I lean forwards in my hammock, straining my own eyes even though I know how fruitless it is, if Pagan cannot see it, what chance have I?

And then I realise, the viewscreen is not clear, the object is there, it's just too large for me to see anything But the object. I look with new eyes at the object as the visual blurring fades and the ship comes into view. Battle scarred beyond all recognition, the ship rumbles forwards, it's hull pockmarked with the impact of meteors and scored by the claws of some huge creature.

Breathlessly I key in the Identify ship command, maybe it's something that was once known by SLA, at the same time, I send another request for help, and a message of greetings to the ship in every language I know

"This is Anastasia Draco, Wall Sentinel 3114, please identify yourselves."

The communicator crackles with static for a second, then a voice, deep and resonant, echoes out of the darkness.

"Draco?"

The view screen changes as the other ship overrides Pagans' security protocols with a casual elegance, an Ebon, young looking, with short cropped black hair and eyes like a sky on a stormy day. He looks intensely through the screen at me.

"No," he murmurs softly "the resemblance is a good one, but you are not her." As he speaks, the identifier clicks quietly and begins printing out the registry of the ship. I glance down as the ebon continues speaking.

"It is a shame really," the ebon muses, "that they cannot know about us yet."

I look at the printout.

Vehicle Registry 000001, commissioned 010 S.D. Ship Title……

"I am sorry for what I must do here, forgive me if you can." he continues, noticing that I am about to look back up again

SLA Industries Holocaust Class Foldship Yung.

I look up in time to see his eyes flare.


I wake some time later, I can't remember how long I've been out, I can still see things, creatures, demons, worlds where whole races are slaughtered to keep the rivers of blood flowing, and above that, those who I know are dead looking down at me, smiling from fleshless lips. It takes me a second to realise that I can't see, I reach up to remove the bandage from my eyes, I have to see what is going on.

A strong hand stops me.

"Annie."

I recognise that voice, Pagan, my oldest friend, is with me, just as he promised he would be. I let my hand rest in his.

"What happened?" I ask.

"You….." He hesitates, in all the time that I've known him, he's never done that "you were found six months ago, your ship adrift and badly damaged, your crew dead, you were brought back to mort, and I've been caring for you since."

I smile up at him "So when can I see you again?"

He hesitates again "I….."

My smile fades "What?"

"Are you sure you want me to tell you this?"

I know Nathaniel well enough to know that he is not one for melodramatics, I consider for a second, already beginning to guess what he's going to tell me.

"Tell me Nate, It can't be that bad can it?"

He sits down next to me, and takes my other hand "when you were found…." He sighs softly "you had torn out your eyes with your bare hands, and were screaming incoherently about the demons in the light." His hands hold mine gently but firmly as I involuntarily try to touch the missing eyes through the bandage.

"No" he whispers "believe me, you're not ready to do that."

"But I'm alright aren't I? The Demons are gone, aren't they?" I feel him tense up slightly again.

"No, they're not, you're currently on something called Cirilenia." he butchers the pronunciation of the word, but I know what he means, White Noise they call it in less educated circles, it keeps the dream demons at bay for those who are getting close.

A tear escapes one of my ruined eyes, I fall into his arms as the loss hits me like a hammer. I can hear him whispering meaningless nothings, words trying to heal the damage, to take away the pain.

And there, at the edge of my realisation, the demons crawl and slither, waiting for night to fall…….