Chapter 1: Onboarding

On a pier beside a still lake, Evelyn Betty and her mother, Carolyn, watched as the moon rose into the sky, casting a gentle light over the water’s surface. The cool air nipped at the reddening skin of their cheeks, numbing their fingers with its frigid grasp. Both bundled their thick coats and scarves closer to their body, determined to keep the chill away. Carolyn brought a hot chocolate thermos spiked with a touch of Bailey’s to provide them a little extra warmth.

“It’s a super blood harvest blue moon,” Carolyn mentioned, a smile playing on her lips as she pointed at the moon. “I told you it would be worth seeing. I read that this only happens once every thousand years.”

Evelyn nodded, her gaze turning from the moon to the shining cityscape of Yejin, the first nation on the planet Luna.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s not ours, no thanks to those damn commies,” Evelyn thought, her expression hinting at what she was thinking about.

Carolyn nudged Evelyn with her shoulder. “It’s beautiful, but it’s not ours, no thanks to those damn commies!” she said, chuckling softly at her own comment.

“Yeah.” Evelyn watched Luna’s face, and while it wasn’t a super blood heart moon, one of the most brilliant phases of the moon, she couldn’t deny its beauty. On a clear night, the cities of Yejin cast their glow across Luna’s surface, creating illuminated arcs to rise into the atmosphere.

“Evey-bee, there’s something I need to tell you.” Carolyn began, her words low and hesitant. She paused and took a breath before continuing.

“I’m going away for a while,” Evelyn thought as she snuggled closer to her mother. She rested her head on her mother’s shoulder, breathing in the scent of her hair. Her mother’s hair always had the best aroma, like sugar mixed with wildflowers.

“I’m going away for a while,” Carolyn continued. She rested her head against Evelyn’s. “I’ll be away for a long time, but we’ll still be able to talk, and we’ll see each other in real-time–”

“At first,” Evelyn added silently.

“At first,” Carolyn’s voice wavered, catching in her throat.

Carolyn continued, but Evelyn stopped listening; she’d heard her speech before. Instead, she closed her eyes and lost herself in the comforting sound of her mother’s voice. A tear rolled down her cheek as she clutched her mother’s hand around the warm thermos. Somehow, she knew this would be one of her last memories of her mother.

“…we should get going now, sweetie,” Carolyn said, stirring her from her thoughts.

“No,” Evelyn whispered, knowing her mother wouldn’t truly hear her. “I want to stay just a little longer–”

A soft hum filled her ears as her sense of self faded into the moon’s haunting pale blue glow. Evelyn held tightly onto her mother’s hand, forcing the memory of that moment to remain in her thoughts. The harder she tried to force herself to remain on the pier, the faster her memories dissipated. The hum grew forceful, vibrating the space around her as a wave of dread washed over her. She watched her mother slip away from her grasp, leaving only a void of darkness. Her sense of “self” dropped out of sync, clouding her mind and physical senses.

“Just a little longer.”

Voidsman, Third Class, Evelyn-Betty Walker drew in a sharp breath as she emerged from the Condition Blue state. The forced ejection from the Human Mind Register burned her mind with intense pain, causing her to chastise herself for lingering too long inside the simulation. The procedure would have been painless if she hadn’t fought it. She blamed Archer, the ship’s AI, for initiating that memory– the last recorded memory she created of her mother.

Although Archer wasn’t the worst HMR she had worked with, she still found his methods unsettling. Archer was more nurturing with the crew than the combat and navigational computers. Most AI that were conditioned in Pendleton treated their human hosts like mere processors. Walker appreciated being allowed to revisit her memories rather than being trapped in the empty void of nothingness, typical of older Human Mind Registers before the advent of organic-mechanical hybrid AI systems.

She waited for the plasticine to drain from her transit cell. The non-Newtonian fluid supported her during the high g-force maneuvers of the UNVC Sagittarius spaceship’s initial acceleration into slip-space. Each time it felt like an eternity before she could breathe fresh, recycled air again. The plasticine gurgled down the drain, allowing her to sit up in the cell.

Carefully she wiped the residual fluid from her eyes, looking around the room. For some reason, she always expected the room to look different. However, it was always the same cold, white room filled with transit cells. She glanced at the checklist operations pad attached to the cell nearest to her right arm. One by one, buttons on the operations pad turn green. The Human Interface ports along her spine and ribs released their magnetic hold as they turned green. Strangely, the final port on the base of her neck remained connected. She tapped the operations pad, noticing the last button on her checklist glowed yellow.

“VM3 Walker, I detected elevated leu-enkephalin endorphins from your pituitary gland moments after disconnection. Are you feeling alright?” Archer inquired within her mind.

Walker blinked several times, trying to clear her mind of the memory of her mother. “I’m fine, Archie. I held on a little too long.”

“Ah, I knew I picked a good memory for you. You have lots of neural pathways linked to that one. You must have been close to your maternal unit.”

“My mother, yes, I was.” Walker pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting back her headache. “Thanks, Archie. Can you release me now?”

“Certainly,” Archer replied through a speaker in her cell, disconnecting the final interface port from Walker’s brainstem. The door slid open with an electric hum, washing over her with frigid air. Shivering, she climbed out of her transit cell and observed her platoonmates cleaning, dressing, and waiting for the “all clear” announcement.

Lance Corporal Mendez appeared beside Walker’s cell, smiling smugly at her. “Hey, Doc! This isn’t as terrible as we thought, huh?” he said, handing her a white towel. “This felt more like a rough dream than a ride through a black hole.”

“Guess it’s easier to stay sane when you don’t have many thoughts to lose,” Lance Corporal Taylor teased as he emerged from the cell beside Walker’s.

“Oh, you want to play it that way, huh? At least my thoughts didn’t have me screaming in my cell like a little girl,” Mendez shot back, pointing at Lance Corporal Taylor with both index fingers. “I heard you loud and clear through the void, and man, oh, man! You have a pair of lungs on you.”

“Little girl, huh?” Lance Corporal Taylor stood in outrage, nearly slipping on the plasticine still covering his body.

Walker shook her head, trying not to laugh. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the two Lance Corporals torment each other. She understood it was their way of burning off steam.

“Hey, guys, I’m only a mechanic. I’m here to keep your Voidsuits and implants functioning correctly, so don’t come to me with your mental psychosis,” Walker teased. “Not when I have my own to deal with,” she continued under her breath.

Mendez nodded slowly, grinning devilishly. “I knew it. She’s losing her mind, too.”

“It was only a matter of time,” Taylor said. “Toss me a towel,” he requested, motioning to Mendez.

They continued their playful banter as they completed post-transit checks. No one would have suspected they were the Marines of the 6th Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Platoon, the way they carried on.

Walker completed dressing in her grey uniform coveralls as the UNVC Sagittarius ship’s yeoman approached her. “VM3, you’re needed in the officer’s mess. Lieutenant Marlo needs to see you before you report to your berth for muster.”

“I’ll head over in a minute,” Walker responded, not bothering to look up from lacing her boots.

“Wow, Doc,” Mendez sighed. “Have you ever had to muster with us mere mortals on a ship before?”

“Can’t say I have. What can I say? I’m special,” Walker replied, smirking. “Seriously, you guys should requisition a shrink to handle your post-HMR traumas. I don’t have the stomach for it.”

Walker hurried off towards the hallway, leaving her teammates in mid-rebuttal. She’d take any excuse to escape the hours of debriefings that followed their post-transit muster. She loved the balance between her green-side and black-side duties. One always offered an excuse to bypass something else she didn’t want to do for the other.

Lieutenant Marlo and Commander Debarr watched the Caleban before them. The crystal-like humanoid form hovered inches above the deck plates. The area they believed was its head kept shifting, mirroring the images of the two humans before it. The Lieutenant and the Commander were surprised and alarmed by the alien’s sudden appearance on their ship mid-transit to slip-space. But there wasn’t anything they could do to stop an alien created primarily of sentient energy from going wherever it pleased. There were protocols for dealing with the Caleban but seldom did one drop in to visit.

“I am here to record discontinuity,” the Caleban said, though it was difficult to determine if that’s what it meant to say. The Caleban’s words echoed around the room without a clear beginning or end. The way the words vibrated against the walls made it uncomfortable for the humans in the room to listen to it. In actuality, the alien didn’t precisely speak but vibrated the energy around it to create the illusion of speech, almost as if the words were forced into one’s mind.

“By discontinuity, do you mean going against the PSF’s wishes?” Lieutenant Marlo asked cautiously, trying to determine what the Caleban was referring to.

“Hidden interdependencies must remain connected. Discontinuity must be avoided,” the Caleban replied in overlaying words.

The two men exchanged confused glances, unsure what the Caleban meant. They’d both had experience with Calebans from previous missions and knew the aliens were honest. However, the Caleban had difficulty communicating with humans on a level they could understand.

“We have orders to conduct a recon mission in the Toliman system and remove any assets that might threaten Earth,” Lieutenant Marlo stated sternly, not about to deviate from his orders. “And will all honesty, if we have orders to crash the Sagittarius into a populated planet and detonate our Soliton Drive, could you stop us?”

“Employment stipulates non-interference,” the Caleban uttered. “Discontinuity will be recorded for the genesis of connectives.”

Commander Debarr nodded slowly, closing his eyes briefly as he fought back the ringing sensation in his ears. “So, if we do something you disapprove of, all you’ll do is report us, but you won’t stop us. I can live with that. How about you, Lieutenant?” he mentioned, motioning to Lieutenant Marlo.

The Caleban remained silent.

The balls of Lieutenant Marlo’s cheeks pulled his lips upwards into a mischievous grin. “I think you hit the nail on the head, Commander. With all due respect, the UNE sanctioned this mission, and the Facilitator had no objections. As with all missions, we’ll abide by the rules of warfare illustrated by the Pansapient Federation. We attempted to deal with this situation through direct warp-gate contact, but the Facilitator denied our request. This left us with no option but to take the long route.”

“The subject intersects,” the Caleban stated.

“Yes, the subject will intersect,” Lieutenant Marlo repeated, unsure what it meant by those words.

Three sharp knocks boomed against the officer’s mess hatch.

“Enter!” Commander Debarr called out.

VM3 Walker stepped into the room, pausing in surprise when she noticed the Caleban standing beside the two men. She quickly regained her demeanor, standing at attention with her hands behind her back. “VM3 Walker reporting as…” Walker’s voice trailed off as she watched the Caleban. “…ordered,” she finished.

The commotion in the berthing immediately stopped as forty-four marines, and Voidsmen paused what they were doing to look at Petty Officer Walker and her alien companion.

“What the heck is that?” One of the male Voidsmen questioned low to his comrade beside him as they were playing cards.

Walker watched the group of Voidsmen frozen in various positions, reading data slates, playing cards, wrestling, and lounging in the largest birthing. Each of their faces contorted into the same expression – a mix of horror, amusement, and curiosity all at the same time.

A typical Voidship was constructed of a compacted web of void-hardened compartments, with intermittent berthing areas scattered about, all shared among the crew. The area Walker was walking through served as a gymnasium, a berthing, and a common area. The room was positioned along the ship’s central axis and only usable for berthing during the two-year coasting phases of the mission due to the ship’s rate of acceleration. At all other times, the ship’s constant acceleration was known to cause irreparable damage to human internal organs and cause abnormalities in brain functions.

She cast her eyes downwards over a set of white railings encircling the center compartment. Below, several men and women watched her and the Caleban as if it was the first alien any of them had ever seen.

The Caleban hovered an inch off the deck plate, its body vibrating with cool shades of blue. Its shape almost resembled a human, constantly shifting to maintain its form. Walker didn’t want to stare, but she kept stealing glimpses as the alien attempted to create facial features - eyes, a nose, fingers, and even hair, the last of which it failed terribly at creating. As it scanned the room, it focused on all the humans present, attempting to mimic the facial patterns it saw. The more faces it scanned, the less recognizable it became. It was as if it was trying to imitate everyone’s face within the room.

“Attention on deck!” Walker barked as she stepped into the middle of the room.

Everyone in the room stood at attention, hearing Walker’s command. Moments later, Lieutenant Marlo, Commander Debarr, and Captain Casteel entered the room. The air grew thicker, and the Marines’ stature grew tauter, holding their rigid postures.

“Marines of the newly formed 6th Recon Battalion, 1st Platoon, welcome aboard the UNVC Sagittarius,” the captain announced, pausing before adding, “The Void Platoon.”

A few grunts emerged from the gathered Marines.

“I am Captain Robert Casteel; this is my XO, Commander Antoine Debarr. We are aware that this brief was not covered at your post-transit muster. However, a new situation has recently come to our attention during transit maneuvers. Ship’s crew, this requires your attention as well. This,” the captain said, gesturing toward the gently phasing alien, “…Caleban is visiting us. It is only an observer here on behalf of the PSF and will be spending the foreseeable future with us aboard the Sagittarius. It is here to observe, not interfere. You are not obligated to communicate with it unless you are comfortable doing so. However, do not, I repeat, do not let it interfere with your duties. We have a ten-year journey to the Toliman system ahead of us, and we’re facing incomplete and outdated information about what we will face when we arrive. I won’t lie. The next decade will be no walk through a virtual park. There will be grueling and demanding times ahead. This crew is comprised of the best engineers, scientists, and warriors our world has to offer. Carry out your orders, do your jobs, and watch each other’s backs.”

Commander Antoine Debarr stepped forward, addressing the crew. “The first acceleration phase will be four years. Everyone will be running HMR simulations on Toliman’s projected capabilities until then. We will compile the data we collect from your simulated battles to engineer more efficient equipment for you during our mission. Marines, get to know the Voidsmen you share a berth with. The engineers and scientists of the Sage Unit are on the same one-way mission as you, Marines. Consider them our extended family. Oorah?”

A chorus of “OORAH” and “Hooyah” erupted from the gathered crew. The choir of “Oorahs” was by far the loudest of the group.

“Attention on deck!” Shouted Lieutenant Marlo, snapping the room back to attention.

“They’re yours, Lieutenant,” Captain Casteel said as he and the first officer slipped out of the room.

Walker made her way toward her team. Behind her, she could feel the Caleban following her closely. Uneasy chatter slowly grew within the room, mainly about the Caleban. Walker approached a long lunch table where Mendez, Taylor, and a few others from her fire team sat. No one bothered to pay any attention to her. They were all preoccupied with watching the Caleban.

“Um, Doc,” Mendez started. “You do realize he, uh, she… it followed you over here.”

Walker glanced over her shoulder at the Caleban. “Yeah, I noticed. It’s going to be doing that until it decides to leave.”

“Does he talk?” Mendez asked, looking at the Caleban’s odd, fluctuating features.

“Yes, in a way. Feel free to talk to it. I don’t think it has a gender,” Walker replied flatly.

“Does it have a name?” Mendez asked.

Walker grimaced, unsure how to explain the situation. “Yes, well, sort of,” she replied, motioning to the Caleban. The Marines and the eavesdropping crew turned to the Caleban for answers.

“Hey, Caleban, what’s your name?” Taylor asked when Mendez said nothing.

“This connection is live on time. Emit no evil,” the Caleban intoned, causing everyone to hold their hands over their ears. The sound of the Calebans voice caused anyone not already eavesdropping to pay attention.

Taylor’s jaw gapped, his lips trying to form the right words. “Was … that a name? If so, what kind of name is that?” he questioned.

“That’s not its name,” Walker cut in. “It changes its designation every time you ask,” she explained dully, placing her forehead on the metal table they sat around. All other eyes turned back to the Caleban.

“What is your name?” Mendez asked.

The Caleban turned to Mendez and replied, “Appropriate node reference is never odd or even.”

“Is it its voice, or does nothing it says make any sense?” Mendez asked.

Corporal O’Brian stood, looking directly into the Caleban’s modulating face. “Caleban, what is your name?” he asked.

“Are we not drawn onward? We few drawn onward to a new era,” the Caleban replied.

Taylor snapped his fingers, turning to the Celeban. “Wait, I think I met this guy before. Didn’t I see you get kicked out of a bar on Mars a few years ago for–“

Walker cleared her throat. “Not a good time,” she grumbled low, knowing Taylor was about to make a joke at the Caleban’s expense.

“Caleban, what is your name?” another Marine asked from a bunk behind them.

The Caleban turned to the Marine, rocking its head to the left and right as if examining the man. “Nodal connection to Evil is the name of a foeman … as I live.”

Walker inhaled deeply, slowly releasing her frustration along with her breath. “This is going to be a long deployment,” she thought as her shipmates continued bombarding her new charge with questions.

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