She killed my parents as they knelt to either side of me, as if their arms could shield me from evil. Two bullets. My family fell away from me and my world was shattered and I was thrown adrift, as lost in my mind as if I had truly been cast out into the void that lay beyond the metal hull. I did not see the blood or their bodies, for those few seconds where I was left bare on the floor with only the memory of touch on my arms were stripped away by the crumbling ground I stood on. My thoughts resumed when I looked up to the woman in the doorway, the light from behind her hiding her face in shadow. I raised a hand, trembling, and saw that there were drops of red on my fingers. Just pinpoints of color like I had pricked myself with a knife. My breath started to come fast, hysterical, and it was only a similar sound from the woman that stopped me from collapsing into a sort of madness. She drew in her own breath sharp, held it, and half-turned. I saw the light fall upon the profile of her face. There was a madness of her own in her eyes, not one of the necessary masks that evil must wear to take form in our minds, but it was a sort of hysteria that mirrored my own. She put her back to me, stooped, and set something on the ground by the wall. Then she walked away, and I watched her go with her back tight and hunched. Her shoulders trembled with every step.
I crawled forwards, trembling, to that which she had left behind. The ship's crew had lost the fight then, and the boarders had taken our ship. I didn't know how many passengers there were. I was a fourteen year-old girl and we were traveling to another world where they had need of my mother's specialization in biology. I didn't know why anyone else was on-board, perhaps the other children had told me, but I didn't care to remember. There was so much I didn't know and now I was alone in the cold metal hallway with my parents discarded in the room behind like ragdolls. I found the thin metal box, tucked up along the seam, and turned it over in my hands. It was light and small enough that it could be kept on someone's person at all times. It fit inside my two cupped hands. There was a biometric lock on it and I rubbed my thumb against it. The lock was broken and the box clicked open.
There was a journal inside. The binding looked to be some sort of synthesized leather, worn smooth by the oils of her fingers, and the paper had a plastic consistency. Handwriting was an odd thing in this era and I let the box fall to the floor and knelt there with the journal, carefully cracking it open to the first page. The letters were neat and precise, each line intersecting the ruling at right angles. I read the first few sentences without even realizing it.
'They will not be swayed. Our ship is dying and we need a new one – any ship. Out here in the void we can't be choosey, they say. It'll take all my authority to convince them to at least spare the children, and even then they'll only agree because of a fondness for me. It won't matter if they think me weak after this.'
I flipped to the next few pages. The writing was less precise here, as if the author was uncertain on how to form letters, having only seen them on the screens of our tablets and keypads. I continued to leaf through, watching the progression, snippets of words standing out in the blur. A bandit crew, friends dying off one by one in firefights with other ships, a lifetime lost in the void where fixed points are no longer fixed. No navigator to pull them free. Surviving off whatever came by, whatever they could steal. Close to the last entry I found I could not read any further for my eyes were clouded by tears.
I remained there, huddled on the ground, unwilling to look into the black room behind me until a knot of three men found me. They cursed among themselves and one nudged me in the back with his boot. More words. They did not like that this woman had insisted they leave the children alive. They did not know what to do with us now. Finally, they decided to take me along with them and let the woman sort it out. One grabbed my arm and pulled, but I remained where I was. It took two of them to force me to my feet and then I walked between them with the book clutched to my chest. They did not know what to do and so they remained silent until we reached the lounge where passengers whittled away the hours of boredom socializing with each other. The viewscreen that showed the exterior of the ship was up and displayed another ship bellied close to our own, connected by magnetic cables. Dully, I realized that this must mean they'd gained control of the ship's computers. It should have taken months and until then, the entire system would be locked down so that the ship would be inoperable.
I recognized a handful of the other children clustered in pairs or alone around the room. They all bore the same animal-terror wide eyes. The men left me there and vanished back along the hallways, searchign for any last surviving adults before they would be content that the ship was their own. I walked slowly, as if entranced, towards the viewscreen and stared at their ship. It had been altered with parts from other ships but the bulky oval remained visible – it too had been a passenger ship, before these scavengers took it. I wondered what sort of desperation was behind them, that they would etch out a life here in the void. It did things to people, it twisted our minds and our world into loops and eddies where fixed points were no longer fixed and a day was not just a day.
The woman had spoken to spare us. I hated her more for it. I opened the journal once more.
'Only three of the original group remain. They will not believe until they see it for themselves. Then, they will help me. We know this ship inside and out – every detail is etched into their minds, just as it is etched into mine.'
I try to look at the other pages. Someone is crying, softly. Everyone else is too stunned by the horror we have found ourselves in. I see that this woman lost her parents as well, in a similar attack, and was consigned to this life simply because she had no way out. She talks of fate, she curses it, she screams her hate of destiny in the precise lettering of each page. I wonder then, why she did this – any of this – and how someone could walk such a deliberate path and kill my parents.
I'm shaking now. I'm drawn to the first page once more, so out of place beside the ones that follow. I notice this time that it has been sealed in, that it was torn from another book and added to this one. It looks far older than the rest of the journal.
'In a way, I will be grateful when this day comes. I've lived with this hate for so long that it will be a relief to know my part, at least, has been played out. I'm not afraid. I've seen every second of this last moment and all I have to do is go through the steps that have already been written. This will be the first and last entry of this journal and I am glad for it.'
I turned. Something was pulling me forwards. We were in the void where things curled back on each other and straight lines meant nothing. I walked to the doorway and saw that in the hallway were two men standing guard over the children with rifles. One turned to look at me in disinterest. The other was watching the woman approaching down the hallway. He called to her and I found that my muscles locked tight as if encased in ice at her name. I knew it. I knew it so well. She stopped, looked at me and only me, and then raised her pistol and shot. The man closest to me pitched back and the other was too startled to react. She turned her wrist slightly and he too was thrown backwards by the bullet. Two shots, through the head. Just like my parents.
Then she told me: "Be strong."
And walked away. It took a moment before I could follow, the journal clutched so tightly in my hand that my fingers ached. I could not accept the reality that was unfolding before me. I ran until I saw the airlock ahead, where they had overrode the computer's lock and boarded, surprising the crew that they could get through the codes. But there were three among the crew that had known this ship their entire lives. They had grown up in it. We had grown up in it.
I slammed against the door, peering through the narrow pane of glass. The woman was securing explosives around the ring of the seal. I saw her look up, then she jerked, slumped forwards, and I saw a red flower bloom about her midsection. She shivered, once, and her hand moved. I was thrown back by the blast and the viewport turned white for a second before the void swallowed the explosion up. When I regained my feet, the remains of our ship was drifting away.
The biometric lock on the journal had not been broken. It worked, just as it always had, responding to a very specific gene sequence that denoted one individual and one individual only. I had – would – murder my own parents and condemn myself to a lonely exile lost in the void with the other forsaken stragglers that drifted across my path. I had raged against fate, about those events that were fixed even as time doubled back on itself in those strange eddies here in the dark, and in the end I would sucumb to its pull. Even knowing this, I could not stop hating this woman I would become. I hated her all the more for it, even, and knew why she had so serenely walked away in those few minutes leading up to her death.
After what seemed like an eternity, I stood. Be strong, she had said. There were about a dozen other children of all ages wondering what was going on and what we would do. I flipped the journal open to the second page and painfully struggled through the writing. My own penmanship. I didn't know how to hold a pen.
'The captain keeps a journal. He has some blank ones in his cabin. We're on our own for some time until someone figures out how to work the computers.'
I closed the book. I'd find his journal and pick one out. I'd remove the first page and paste it into the front. Then I would burn the rest of this journal. Perhaps, if I did not know how my life was to go, I would stand some chance of escaping its clutches. Perhaps I could alter my path, change its direction, avoid walking these steps that I knew would haunt my every moment. Perhaps fate was not immutable and that here in the void, things need not follow one after the other in such an order.
I stood and walked away, my thumb tucked inside to mark the place of my first and my last journal entry. In this, I was at least following the whims of fate. I wondered then, at just how much choice I actually had.