Erich swung his head towards the main screen fast enough to make himself feel as though he would pass out. Mary cried out as she held onto a few locks of his hair, her legs refusing to stay below her as she fought to right herself by his neck. Watching the image that represented the Voon ship, he saw the effects of the Blast Cannon. As the image listed to the side and began to drift slowly away from the Nidhog, Erich began to tremble. The sudden shaking of the Nidhog made it clear that his nemesis had also fired off another salvo before being struck. Pain was trumped by a spreading numbness throughout his body as his vision moved in and out of focus.
As the Nidhog grew dark again before regaining the emergency lighting, Erich watched as more sparks erupted from broken conduits. Crackling as the various systems and controls shorted out, the smell of burning insulation made the air all the more foul as it slowly grew still. The claxons ringing out in distorted tones of their former selves as even Orac began to stutter and repeat himself. The lights slowly came back to life in dim fashion as they fluctuated.
"In...Information…Life…Life…Life support is off line. Atmospheric gasses will no…no…no longer be cleansed of waste ele…ele…ele…elements. Suggest use of personal pressure suits until repairs can be effected. No…No…No…No further information." Too dazed to consider the urgent nature of the warning, Erich could taste the air growing rapidly fetid .
Lifting the stump of his left arm, he could see that the Blaster had shorn it off neatly and cauterized the wound. The blackened end looking like cooked meat as he tried to convince himself that it was his. Still feeling the phantom sensation of the fingers of his left hand with an odd hint of an itch on the palm he no longer possessed, he could taste his last meal trying desperately to work its way up his throat.
Walking carefully back to the center of the Bridge, he stared at the Command chair that now lay on its side. The metal supports that had once held it in place on the deck plating now torn on one side and bent at the other. The remains of his arm jutting out from under the chair was hard for him to fully comprehend. He knew it was his, but it simply seemed unreal. A few round globules of blood hanging in the air as the lack of gravity gave them a distinctly rounded shape.
"Orac. Status report," he mumbled as he caught himself trying to think of where he should sit now that his chair had been toppled. Overcome as his eye scanned the Bridge only to find the image of the corpses floating on various courses across the space to be all the more disconcerting. As his First Office listed off the damages, Erich heard the crackling of more wires and power feeds giving up their duties. As a small flame erupted on the surface of the weapons panel, he tried to follow what Orac was saying.
The screams that had been flooding the speakers were now dull sobs as his mind considered the well being of Christine and his sister. "What does it mean?" Mary asked repeatedly as she tried to follow Orac's report.
"Mean?" Erich answered in soft whisper.
"Yes. What does all that mean? Can we fix this ship?" she insisted as she clung to his hair.
"No. No my Mary. The Nidhog is dying," he replied in the softest of voices.
"Dying?" Mary whimpered as she watched the image of the Voon ship move a little faster across the main screen. "But we killed them. Right?" she asked with a faint tone of hope.
Turning his head back to the main screen, Erich could see that her hopes were exaggerated. "Damaged. Badly. But they will make repairs and continue their mission. We, however…We simply do not have the facilities to make the repairs we require. A place to land and effect repairs…Space dock…Anything." His admission sent shivers through both of their bodies.
Yanking at a handful of his hair as she tried to grip his shoulder with her booted feet, Mary offered Earth as a place to take refuge. "Too far. Maneuvering thrusters. All we have left," he answered disjointedly between labored gasps. Mary was not completely certain what that meant but she comprehended the gist. Where they were was where they would stay unless some miracle intervened. Still feeling the conviction of her renewed faith, she wondered what the Lord had in store for them.
As the flames slowly yielded to the fire suppression systems of the Nidhog, the smell hung all around them. Lights flickered and attempted to die only to grow dim before flaring back to tenuous life. The claxons faded as Erich told Orac to shut them off. Along with their call of disaster, the voices of Christine and her daughter were no longer carried by the ship's speakers.
"Orac. Keep the Dreadnought in range if you can," Erich's order was confirmed as the image of the Nidhog began moving in the same direction as that of the Voon ship.
"They won't give up Mary. Never. They will repair their ship and head for Earth. They never give up. Never. Never," his voice trailing off in a breathy shudder.
"Anything? Do we have anything we can fight them with? Anything at all?" she asked after jamming a foot under the epaulet at the right shoulder of his uniform.
Calling out for a list of those systems that were still functional on the Nidhog, Erich felt weak as Orac answered. Little more than the maneuvering thrusters and the Jump Drive remained. Even the environmental functions of the ship were so badly damaged that Orac made a point of insisting that the Nidhog would soon be uninhabitable. Erich considered having Orac fashion pressure suits for his Mary and the others but the idea was laughable. Not only were the machines required to make such things off line, attempting to teach his Mary and the other humans aboard how to make use of a pressure suit, a matter of some serious training at the academy, was simply not feasible.
Gently pressing his right cheek to her tiny body, Erich hated the words that came from his mouth. "We can try…ramming them." Unsure what damage the mass of the Nidhog could inflict upon the Voon ship, he felt Mary's body go stiff.
"Has it…has it come to that?" she asked in a soft whisper by his ear. Unable to bring himself to answer, Erich desperately began trying to think of anything that would not mean the deaths of his Mary and the others aboard the Nidhog.
"Fine. We send them to Hell," she spoke with an oddly assured tone.
"Hell." Erich answered weakly as he recalled the happy times he had spent discussing, among so many other things, their views on theology.
"Yes Erich. Hell. Suits them fine from what you have told me about what they are." Answering as she closed her eyes, Mary imagined that her God would see to her Erich as well as herself. In view of all that he was, surely his alien nature could not cloud the judgment to come.
Hearing Mary's words, Erich repeated the word in a hushed tone. "Hell."
Pulling herself along his cheek, her right foot still hooked under his shoulder board, Mary tried to see enough of his face to discern his thoughts. "What are you thinking?" she finally asked as trying to read his giant face was an act of almost comical futility at her size.
"Hell. I will send them to Hell," he hissed as his mind gripped the words of one of his instructors at the academy. When it was first discovered, the state of being that came to be known as "Slip Space", that existence between reality and nonexistence, had been called a form of damnation. A place apart from the Gods and isolated from all of creation.
The Jump Drive was one of the undamaged elements of the Nidhog and, if he could get close enough before activating it, the field it generated would drag some sizable portion of the other ship into that realm. If he could push the Nidhog to a point near the engines of the Dreadnought before they repaired their weapons, that should cause enough damage to destroy or permanently disable the Voon. Condemning them, at the very least, to drifting within the graveyard of the planet that had already suffered their evil.
But what of his Mary and the others? They did not deserve to be offered as sacrifices in this sad little battle. Inquiring about the status of the escape pods, Erich took solace in their still being operational. Moving slowly towards the hatch that led to the main walkway, Mary called out insistently as to what his intentions were. Keeping silent as he walked towards the Med Lab, her frustrated howls, demanding that he explain what he had decided to do, were ignored.
As Christine and Cat hung in the air, their eyes turned to Erich and screams filled the room. His bandage lifting as the lack of gravity tugged at its corner for all to see. His face revealed, even the child could not take comfort in his resemblance to her story book characters. The expressions on their tiny faces burning at his core as he stood before them. Licking his lips slowly before making his final announcement to his honored guests, sorrow fought to intertwine into his voice as he struggled to keep it firm.
"Please forgive me. But I can not allow civilians to remain aboard the Nidhog. We are currently engaged in battle and you simply have no place here." His voice catching as he raised his right hand to gently nudge them out of the room and into the central walkway. Tapping them gently, to float like insects on a pond, he moved them towards the hatches of the escape pods. Their wails of terror filling the empty corridors of the ship with every touch of his enormous fingertips. When at last he got to the hatch of the first pod and opened it, he carefully scooped up Cat and then Christine from out of the air and placed them inside one at a time. The screams and challenges as Christine tried to confront him with regards to his having handled her daughter, cutting deeply into his soul. "
You MONSTER! Leave her alone. LET US GO!" Christine shrieked as she tried to use the sheer will of her motherly instincts to drive off what she saw as a threat to her child.
"Fine. Send them home. They have no place here," Mary spoke as she gripped his hair tighter. Seeing his huge hand reach up to cup her carefully, she screamed. "No! I WILL NOT GO BACK! Don't you understand? You promised. YOU PROMISED!" her tears flowing as she kicked and pounded against his hand with her fists. Struggling to free herself from his fingers, she fought with all that she had to avoid her fate.
Setting her on the single couch that was now occupied by Christine and her child as well, he sealed the hatch and stared through the glass. His hand pressing slowly against the launch button, he watched as all those he cared about, shot into the void of space. The guidance systems were already programmed by Orac for Earth, and with any luck at all, they would arrive there safely.
Once the escape pod was too small to see clearly, he wiped the tear that ran along his right cheek and turned back to the Bridge. "Safe. They are safe. They will be safe," he repeated to himself as he entered the Bridge and confronted his crew who were still floating on odd paths across the room.
"This is it. There is no use lying to you all. The time has come to draw the line and defend this little world for the honor Eallair! Our families and friends may never know what became of us and Fleet may never arrive. But, I know this. What we do here and now will never be forgotten by our ancestors in the next world. Those humans, now on their way home, will sing our songs and remember our sacrifice for all time and we will live up to their dire needs! We give our lives for the only thing that could ever matter. Our sacred honor." His eye moving from each figure to the next as he tried to steel their nerves and give them some sense of why their sacrifice was so necessary.
"Orac. Bring us as close to the engines of that vessel as you can and prepare to engage the Jump Drive." Refusing to cry in the presence of his crew, Erich thought he could hear them begin to say his name. His eye moving to each as they came to stand upon the decking of the Bridge, even the old Skipper raised her hand in salute. Biting his lip as the pressure behind his eye grew, he bowed his head and thanked them for all they had done as the finest crew in the Fleet. Not even the gods could have asked for greater loyalty at this time.
Pushing the maneuvering thrusters to their limits, Orac proved once more that he was the finest First Officer that Fleet had ever produced. Staring at the main screen, Erich hoped his most trusted officer knew just how invaluable he had been and that all of their past differences meant nothing now. Wishing he could take a moment to make mention of that fact to Orac, Erich considered it unfair to lavish too much praise on one officer now that all aboard the Nidhog were about to meet their ends. "In the next life," Erich muttered under his breath as Orac performed his duties flawlessly.
The cold, dead engines of the Voon ship came into view as the image of the vessel grew on the screen. Erich began to see the grins on the faces of his crew. Their eyeless sockets staring unseeingly at him as he stood surrounded by them. Sorrow deeper than any he had ever known flooded into his mind as he saw the his crew and knew them to be dead. His pulse racing as he came to accept that he was now truly alone, his will shook.
"Orac. ORAC! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" he called out as shame welled up from within him.
"In… In… In…Information. Life Support is now…now…now below safe levels. Use of Cold Sleep chambers is suggested…" Hearing the voice of his most trusted friend and the finest First Officer in Fleet, Erich turned his head as the Cold Sleep kiosk drew forth from the far wall of the Bridge. Drawing a deep breath that would not sate his lungs, Erich gripped the stump of his left arm in his right hand and coughed.
"Is this. Is this wrong?" he asked quietly only to hear the voices of his crew rise up to comfort him. Even his little sister was smiling and clapping her hands happily as she sat on the weapons panel. "No it is not wrong," they called out as he walked toward the open chamber. "Sleep Erich. We will take care of the rest of this battle," the old Skipper smiling as she put her arm around the shoulder of his little sister.
"But the Jump Drive. What about the Jump Drive?" he asked, only to have Orac assure him in the softest tone, that he would see to it.
Laying in the Cold Sleep chamber, Erich felt the wires and tubes that would sustain his life, slip into his flesh and find their appointed areas. His mind reeling as Orac seemed to grow closer to him in the twilight of his senses.
"The jump drive. Move closer and separate it from the ship," a voice he could not discern, whispered in his thoughts. Giving the order to do so and to begin an escape vector, Erich could only think of one destination. "Home Orac. I want to go home. Earth," and with that his eye closed before the chamber grew frigid.
Mary sat silently as she fumbled with her Bible and the device that hung around her neck. Lifting her eyes to the screens at the front of the escape pod, she could see that the passenger was to be afforded a forward and rearward view.
"We are free! That monster. He let us GO!" Christine shouted out hoarsely as Cat clung to her.
"Shut up," Mary hissed as the other woman's eyes narrowed.
"You may want to be some pet for a deranged killer. But I am glad to be rid of him and his awful war!" Christine's words hung in Mary's mind as her anger seethed. The only thing keeping Mary from striking out physically, being the presence of the child.
"You are something else. You really are. His war ended with his race. He fights for us now. He fights for us alone and you can't even see that…" her voice low and dangerous as she regarded Christine with cold angry eyes. Watching the Nidhog approach the giant Dreadnaught, she heard Orac's voice call out a warning that she could only just comprehend.
"Information. Temp…Temp… Temporal stabilizers are off line. Jump Drive initiated…" Mary knew that "Temporal" had to do with time, duration, but could never have guessed its importance in interstellar travel that defied normal space. As a flash, far beyond anything she had ever seen before, took the pod, Christine and Cat began to scream. Hanging her head as she continued to ignore their cries, Mary whispered "Goodbye Erich," only to find herself tumbling as the pod was hit by a wave of motion.
Colors exploding into replications of herself, Christine, Cat and the pod as well, seemed to grow out of their very existence. Mary saw herself flying towards the control panel of the pod as her body was copied in every aspect of its own motion like a string of paper dolls. The voices of Christine and Cat becoming echoes as the woman's frantic question was repeated more times than Mary could count.
"What is happening!" the panicked shout of Christine warbled and echoed without end. Moving her eyes to the clear windows of the little pod, Mary could see the forward portions of the Nidhog racing by as, it too, elongated and left a trail of duplicates in its path. "Erich?" she asked breathlessly as all of her senses began to try to comprehend the madness.
Knowing that it should not be, could not be, in the face of the distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth being so vast, Mary's eyes grew wide as the little blue world advanced on them so rapidly. Gripping the straps of the huge couch, made for one of Erich's race, Mary could not make her confused thoughts form words within her own mind.
Claxons blared and lights on the various panels flashed warnings Mary could not read, causing her to wonder if she would be spared having to live her old life once more as death took them all. Flames shooting along the windows of the pod were soon replaced by clouds reaching out all around them. As Orac's voice warned them to brace for impact, Mary instinctively grabbed Cat and Christine as all three huddled for the comfort they could find on the giant couch. Water splashed across the clear window of the escape pod, becoming a prism as the small craft bobbed after returning to the surface. "All personnel are advised to exit the escape pod." Orac's voice called out as the hatch blew away from the side of the little round vessel. An inflatable boat, larger than any Mary had ever seen, sprang to life as water rushed into the pod.
Scrambling as she grabbed Cat's hand and Cat in turn seized upon her mother's, Mary pulled them over the side of the rubber boat and slithered towards the center. The sound of a small engine sputtering to life as the few instruments on the craft began to light up. "Landmass detected and locked in." the voice of Orac assured them through the Trans unit around Mary's neck.
Laying on the floor of the giant life raft, all three felt weak before their tribulations. The waves rising to lift the nose of the boat as it made its way towards the shore. Gripping the side of the raft, Mary lifted herself and could see only trees and a few figures standing to witness their arrival.
Once the boat landed, Mary climbed out. The rubber of the craft giving way under her body as she pulled Cat and then Christine over the side and onto dry land. The men who came to help looked unlike any Mary had ever known. While obviously human and of her own size, their clothes were leather and metal mixed with homespun cloth. The shouts she heard were strange and held no hint of any language she could recall.
Watching their benefactors gawk at the huge boat that had carried the three women to their shores, Mary was to discover that her old life would never haunt her again.
Of course, stories change so much over time and names become lost and garbled. Cat would come to be known by her middle name, Sarah, and many figures would take Christine's place on the "Boat with no oars", as the locals came to call it. However, Mary would be remembered and no one would ever see her as less than what she chose to make of herself.
Hearing the crackling static that came from the pendant around her neck, Mary whispered softly. "Can you hear me? Are you there Erich?" Having Orac answer that Erich was sleeping, she wept. In his dream filled slumber, Erich welcomed the mind of his First Officer into his own and began to replay the recordings that now included that of his Mary singing on the Bridge. Hearing her voice asking about him, his thoughts grew warm and happy within the timeless realm of the Cold Sleep chamber.
Mary would never know that what remained of the Nidhog had crashed to Earth at the northern pole to sink far beneath the ice or that Orac had already initiated repairs. But, hearing Orac and embracing her faith, she knew that one day, she would be reunited with Erich.
If not in this life, then the one to come.