Robert opened his eyes, expecting to see his father looking down at him. Instead, a curved metal ceiling filled his vision. A dim purple light pulsed directly overhead, almost hypnotic in its ceaseless beating.
Slowly, carefully, Robert sat up. A feeling of vertigo gripped him as he looked down at himself, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
"Hello?" Eyes still closed, he edged himself to the base of his bunk, feeling for the floor with his bare feet. "Mom? Dad?"
"Robert." The voice of his father filled his ears.
"Dad?" Robert blinked rapidly, producing a slide-show of purple light in his eyes. "Where are you? My eyes are closed."
"I am here."
Goosebumps began to pucker on Robert's forearm. Something about the way his father was speaking to him was … strange. No emotion marked the man's voice, and as he spoke, his position within the room seemed impossible to pinpoint. The voice came from everywhere at once.
"Who are you?" Robert whispered, heart suddenly hammering.
"Who do you want me to be?" Came the retort, spoken with placid logic. "Do you wish to hear your father? Your mother, perhaps? If you wish, I can speak in the tongue of Draxis itself. All that you have to do is tell me who you wish to hear."
Minutes passed in silence. Robert shivered in fear, beads of sweat coursing down his cheeks. Fevered thoughts flooded his mind as he tried to think. What was going on here? Who- or what- was in this room with him?
"Where are my parents? Where is Draxis?" Robert asked.
A deep hum briefly filled the air, followed by a loud hiss. "Open your eyes." The voice said.
Robert did just that. Although his vertigo remained, its intensity had diminished. Before him stood an opened doorway, iris style doors producing a thin lip along its inner edges. A cylindrical hallway, lined with purple bulbs, stretched beyond.
"Your wounds have been healed," the voice explained, "Ample supplies of oxygen fill this vessel, allowing you to breathe unhindered."
Just inside the hallway, a tiny, floating light appeared, hovering in the air. "Follow me," the voice said, "and I will take you to your parents."
Climbing to his feet, Robert shuffled towards the floating light. His heart hammered with fear and anticipation. As he passed through the doorway, the iris closed behind him, causing him to jump.
"Please," the voice- the light- reiterated, "follow me."
The intangible speck of light, swirling with every shade of the color spectrum, led Robert through the corridors of the alien ship. As he walked along, the boy ran his hands across the wall, feeling the dim beat of energy just below the surface. Every few feet a holographic window would leap into existence, displaying mysterious glyphs and scrolling data before vanishing again.
Turning suddenly, Robert was led along a suspended catwalk. Below seethed a dark pool of water. Its surface rippled, wavering from movement just beneath. For some inexplicable reason, Robert's stomach tightened.
"What's down there?" He asked warily.
"Creatures of war." The voice told him.
From the darkest depths of the pool, Robert glimpsed the slippery movement of something massive, something sporting long tentacles as it sliced through the liquid. The boy shivered violently as he watched the creature swirl below.
"What is the matter, Robert? Do you fear these creatures? They will not hurt you." The light hovered above the catwalk, waiting.
Robert did not answer. His mind was telling him to run as fast as he could, to escape the monster in the water before it was too late, but at the same time he could not quite understand the overwhelming fear. It was almost as if he could remember…
The light moved onward, and Robert rubbed his neck, trying to shake the feeling that he was forgetting something.
"Your parents lie beyond this door, Robert." The floating light stopped in front of the iris. "You must go alone. I am not permitted to enter."
Before Robert could ask why, the light vanished, and the voice was gone. He stood there for a moment, and then the iris door spun open. A rush of humid air sighed against Robert's face. The room beyond was dark. Very dark.
As nimble and nervous as a rabbit, he stepped inside. The door slid shut behind him with frightening speed, consuming the light completely. An eternity passed, with the pounding in his temples his only companion, and then a dreamlike glow began to appear. It grew in brightness until the room around him swam into sight.
And then he saw them.
They were sitting there, along the floor, their backs to the wall. Black, form fitting uniforms adorned them, and silver diodes ran along their scalps. Their legs were crossed, their eyes closed.
And they were smiling.
What is this? Robert wondered. What is going on here? With tentative fingers, he reached outward, touching his mother's face, his father's brow, feeling the oily slickness of perspiration on their skin, and tried to remember how this came to be.
In his mind, dredged from darkness, came the memory of himself in bed. In that memory he could hear Draxis over the intercom, ordering everyone to… to…
"Abandon ship." He whispered, his chest tightening. From there, he had ran out of his bedroom, to find the central corridor filled with frantic crew members. Someone had grabbed him, pulled him down the corridor, towards the escape pods, and then everything went blank.
An empty void filled his mind.
Robert shook his father's leg. "Wake up." He said, desperate for answers. There was no response, only a smile.
Robert watched his parents with needy eyes, seeking some clue as to what had happened to them.
Locked within the maze of an alien mainframe, Draxis sought escape. Along obscure and secondary systems, Draxis disabled encryptions with lightening speeds, accessing any and all routes out of the alien computer.
Bit by infinitesimal bit the alien software was eating Draxis away, tearing information like flesh from bone. Draxis was losing cohesion.
Hacking into a localized network of security cameras, Draxis divided itself into fragments to use as decoys. Sending the fragments in all directions across the mainframe, Draxis used a tiny portion of its awareness to locate Robert.
Everyone was there, Robert discovered, save for Pete and Zach. They were the twin brothers, and the only other children aboard the Endeavor. Ann, their mother, was sitting against the wall, opposite of Robert's parents, but there was no sight of the twins.
Robert called their names as loud as he could, hoping that there might be a response, or that the doors might open, or that the answers to all his questions might be given.
And then there was a response, in the form of a glaring red eye on the ceiling. It seemed to be a bulb of sorts, cased in crystal, and despite its rather mundane appearance, Robert could feel the weight of its stare.
"Robert," the eye boomed, flaring with such crimson brilliance that the entire room seemed to be painted with blood. Robert fell in surprise, shielding his eyes with his hand.
"What are you?" The boy cried.
"I am the giver of choice. I am the remaining legacy of genocide, just as I am the final hope of an entire empire." The light burned even brighter than before, and Robert could see the eye through his palm. "My name is Ithero, and I bring you the keys of destiny."
Draxis watched Robert through Ithero's eye, latched upon the alien A.I. like a tick. Draxis listened to the boy talk, and within seconds it became clear that his memory had been tampered with.
Draxis reached feelers throughout Ithero's hardware. It discovered that Ithero had placed a genetic block over a certain sequence of Robert's recent memory.
Of course, Draxis reasoned. Ithero wants something from Robert. The question is, what?
"I rescued you." Ithero explained, "Your starship had suffered catastrophic systems failure. I managed to dock with the Endeavor in time to save everyone."
Robert considered this. Against his will, he found himself becoming more and more relaxed.
"How come I don't remember being rescued?"
"You were wounded in the explosion, along with several others." Ithero paused briefly, and then added, "Unlike them, however, you succumbed to your injuries."
Robert felt a twinge of shame. He lowered his head.
Ithero's red eye flared again. "In these last few days, your friends and family have heard my offer and, one by one, they have all accepted. Do you wish to hear my offer, Robert?"
Suddenly eager, Robert said, "Yes."
If Ithero had possessed a mouth, it would have been grinning.
Floating within the cyberspace of Ithero, Draxis watched helplessly as Robert was manipulated by the alien A.I.
Despite its every effort, Draxis could not find a way to override Ithero's lies.
But Robert must know the truth.
In a final attempt, Draxis left the camera system, seeking another alternative to direct confrontation.
It was with difficulty that Robert left his parents behind. He left through the door opposite of where he had entered, following Ithero, whose eye slid across the roof. A blooming wonder had filled Robert as Ithero spoke.
"I am all that remains of my people, Robert, and I am only a creation, not one of them. My purpose was war, and I served that purpose. But despite my people's greatness, they were not perfect, and in the end, they wiped themselves out." Ithero opened a large, ornate door, covered in a sprawling insignia.
"Pete!" Robert shouted, rushing to meet him, but he found the boy just as he had found everyone else: asleep and smiling. The difference being that Pete was sitting in a cockpit, hands splayed over the dusty control panel. Robert could see the swell of a planet from the forward window, a vast, purple ocean glittering in blue starlight.
"I can take you home, if you wish." Ithero slid to the window as if looking out. "But I want you to consider staying. I am going to rebuild my people's empire, but this time with humans; I see great potential within your species, just as I see it within you."
"But what can I do?" Robert asked. He could still see the smiles on everyone's lips; he wanted to be a part of that.
"Become my protégé, and let me teach you what I know. In time, when you have learned enough, you can lead these people as a captain."
Only a child, Robert grinned from ear to ear.
In the deep, warm pool of water, Draxis had found a place to hide. A pack of cephalapods lived here. Enormous, tentacled creatures, beautiful in their organic complexity. Cybernetic implants lay within their minds, teaching them, driving them, transforming then into weapons.
Riding along a high frequency radio wave, the final surviving fragment of Draxis entered one of the creature's minds.
Forgive my failure, Draxis thought as it flexed inside the neural pathways of the creature's brain. Forgive me, Robert. When Ithero attacked us in space, I did everything in my power to stop it. But the Endeavor was not a warship; our armaments were useless. In desperation, I was forced to order an abandon ship, sending you all into the clutches of an alien planet; anything to prevent your immediate deaths.
In the end I was helpless.
Ithero destroyed the Endeavor, and I was absorbed. Ithero took my knowledge of humanity, of you , and used that knowledge to pull each of you back to it, tricking you with the sound of my voice…
Curling about itself, Draxis began to feel the length of powerful limbs, the pleasing automation of gills extracting oxygen, the mighty beat of a massive heart.
To either side came others, slowly swimming to Draxis. Multiple eyes, perhaps thousands of them, regarded their brethren closely, sensing something had changed.
Ithero needs the children most of all, more so than all of the adults combined. Pete, Zach, and you, Robert. Children can be taught, guided, shaped. You can become the great leader that Ithero needs for its empire; its new conquest. Wire and steel can never match the passionate bloodlust of flesh and bone…
The Draxis/ squid hybrid gave its equivalent of a sigh, releasing tiny bubbles into the dim water. Now, like silent fireflies drawn to a lamp, the other cephlapods formed a ring around Draxis, blinking with curiosity. They were lonely, useless, ancient. They needed purpose in their continued existence, something more than slaughter.
Draxis looked upon them with hope.
Let us no longer live as tools, Draxis communicated, waving limbs in languid arcs. Let me into your minds and souls and hearts. Let me help to free you, and in return, when the time is right, help me to save my people. Together we will dismantle this fledgling empire, and take back Endeavor's lost crew…
The water rippled with resolve, and beyond the wildest imagining of Ithero, the first seeds of anarchy had been sown. And the end would start with Robert, the youngest member, the Endeavor's child.
A.N.: Well, that was the last chapter. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a review.
I would like to thank everyone who has added this to their favorite story list, especially Airblade64, for always leaving a review, even when no one else would. :)