Congratulations on making it to the final chapters! I am posting the final chapter and epilogue at the same time.
Nalia awoke to the gentle chirp of her chronometer. She stirred, deactivating the alarm with a wave of her hand. She lay in the bed, feeling the spartan and smooth sheets over her. A moment passed as her eyes stared upwards. The ceiling stared down at her, its blank stare uncomprehending. A nearby lamp emitted an orange-white light to ease her awakening. Nalia gripped the sheets. She could not quite face the day yet. Too many crushing burdens. Too much reality. She listened to the hum of the ship. It minutely adjusted the nitrogen levels in the air, keeping it perfectly climate-controlled to allow the human crew some comfort. She licked her dried lips. She would need to get up. Nalia sighed.
Summoning up her reservoir of will, she slid toward the edge of the small, firm, and uncomfortable bed. I may be an admiral, she thought, but I don’t have any of the perks. It couldn’t be helped, especially with the lack of materials throughout the fleet. And how long would they have to conserve their resources? Weeks? Months? Years? Millenia? She pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. She needed to focus on their present concerns.
Standing up, she felt her nightwear hanging snug around her body. Her hands combed through the tangle hair. She groaned. Even with all of their advanced technology, it still took her an inordinately long time to get ready. Nalia went into the washroom, sonic-showered for a few minutes, and activated a hair-styling device. She put an automatic toothbrush in her mouth and watched her hair turn into something presentable. After she finished, she changed into her old uniform. Grasping around in her pockets, she found the admiral’s star, which she pinned over her right chest.
The computer on her desk beeped to alert her of a recent message. Probably one of the thousand daily routine requests that crossed her eyes. She had not imagined an admiral’s work to be so tedious. Perhaps that was the real reason why she had been promoted. Nalia waved her hands in front of her face, checking for the hundredth time to see if it was all a dream. It wasn’t. The computer beeped again and Nalia forced herself to sit down on the hard and flat office chair. She really needed to change the message notification system.
Her fingers found the screen activation button. Pale light filled the room. The message was a reminder that today was the start of the official Remembrance week. Most people in the fleet would use the time to say goodbye to the loved ones left behind through their respective cultural rituals. Damn, she thought, we’re really doing this. She had wanted to put it off as long as possible, but the Provisional Council insisted that it would improve morale.
Nalia turned off the screen and opened a nearby drawer. Inside, a holo-emitter lit up. The movement must have activated it. The figures of three people appeared: Alan with his small smile; Mihaela bowing with a flourish; and Nalia herself standing next to them. She closed her eyes as an unexpected memory unearthed itself.
Early in her career at the Naval Academy, she attended a faculty party at the Martian Training School. It was an insignificant event. They were moving all of their important institutions outside of the Solar System. Government. Science. And military. The old worlds were too archaic. But still, she needed… wanted… to go these things. Her family insisted that she show her face to the important people in the Republic. She just needed to get away from her studies. What they didn’t tell her was that these things were dreadfully boring. So since she didn’t know anyone, Nalia hung out at the bar.
After waiting there a couple of minutes, a dark-haired, green-eyed woman approached and started arguing with the bartender about the purity of his whiskey. She shoved a drink towards Nalia and asked how it tasted. Knowing nothing about it, she put it to her mouth. With one drop, she tasted one of the foulest things in existence. It was all she could do not to spit it out. She finally said it tasted all right. The woman threw up her hands and ranted how no one appreciated the ‘greatest invention of the human race’ anymore. Then something about an ancient Earth nation-state called Kentucky and forgetting their roots. Nalia could not follow her train of thought at all.
No. Why was she remembering now? Not ready, she thought. Her hands pushed the drawer and it closed with a soft click. She stood up and headed out the door.
The hallways were quieter than usual. The hectic first weeks had been chaotic. After the last ship arrived from the Gate, they found themselves in an unknown galaxy. The Gate quickly collapsed behind them. There was no going back. Not that they were in any condition to do so. Multiple military and civilian ships bore damage from the battle, and some required scuttling. Almost immediately, the squabbling began. They needed to organize themselves. New leadership was required. How long would their supplies last? How would they ration themselves? Colonel Miyashiro ordered a fleet-wide communications blackout to impose order. The remnants of the Republic were not happy, but Nalia backed him. The reorganization was a long and difficult process, especially as she tried to learn her new responsibilities.
However, things were not all bad. Her immediate family made it through the Gate intact, much to her relief. A Provisional Council of senior government officials and civilian ship captains soon formed. President Haines had prepared them well. Kenichi quickly organized the Kenzenkens with little trouble. Yes, it was Kenichi now. He insisted that she call him by his first name. As humanity had just gone through a change, so must their traditions. She smiled at the thought of working with him, something that would have been impossible a few years ago. Already, talk began on how the two peoples would integrate. They needed to. The Republic ships barely had enough supplies to sustain themselves. Fortunately, with proper rationing, there was enough in the Izanami’s stores to last the entire combined fleet hundreds of years. They had already lasted two months wandering their new surroundings.
Nalia shook her head. She, Kenichi, and a few select ship captains now protected two hundred thousand souls, far away from their homes. If there were any homes left. She walked near an ensign reading something on his datapad. The ensign gave a sharp salute, which Nalia returned. Her footsteps echoed on the carpeted floor as she continued on her way. New regulations would be needed, she thought. No more wasting time with useless symbolic gestures. Kenichi was right. The old ways were too inefficient now in their situation. An involuntary laugh escaped her mouth. She could not believe she had all this power in her hands. It would be comical if it wasn’t so real. Nalia entered an elevator and set her destination to the bridge.
Inside, it was even quieter than in the hallways. Computer beeps and trills punctuated the room, but otherwise, nothing else made a sound. Drevin sat at his station, poring over status update reports coming through the channel frequencies. When he heard her approach, he stood up and saluted.
She saluted in return. “As you were, officer,” she ordered. He relaxed and sat down again.
“It’s a surprise to see you here, admiral,” he said. “I thought you’d be down there with the others.”
“I decided to take a walk. Clear my mind, first,” she answered. “And, just for today, please, let’s leave the formalities. I don’t want to think about it.
Drevin gave her a slight smile. His back pushed against his chair. “Yeah, maybe we deserve a break. Still, though, I can’t believe we’re doing this so soon.” He rubbed his hands together.
“We would have had to do it eventually. Best get it out of the way early and prepare for the days ahead of us.” Nalia stared at a screen playing visuals from the Yasothon’s external cameras. A blue moon, desolate and empty, greeted her. She paused. “Why are you still here, Marc?” she asked.
“I…I don’t know if I can face it yet,” he said in a voice a notch above a whisper. She looked back at him. His eyes were downcast.
“Did anyone close to you make it?”
He shook his head. “No, not a one. I check the survivor list every day. I know that the computers are still IDing and processing, but I don’t think I’ll find anything.” He closed his eyes and brought his hands to his face. Nalia noticed a tiny rip on one of his uniform shirtsleeves.
She took a step toward him and laid a hand on his arm. “I know it’s not much comfort, but keep that hope alive. If they are gone, then savor their memories,” she said.
His hands fell from his face and he opened his eyes again. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, a little more confident.
“Good luck, I’ll leave you to your work.” Nalia turned around and headed to her chair. Her former chair now, she reminded herself. A new person would need to become captain. Drevin had already given her a list of candidates. His name was among them. No, she thought, this was not her seat anymore. Still, she needed to feel it all one last time. The console activated as she sat down.
“Computer,” she ordered. “Prep a shuttle. Personal. Have it ready in fifteen minutes.” A thought came to her. “Oh, and send an invitation to Colonel Miyashiro to meet me down there.” The computer chirped its confirmation. She surveyed the empty terminal stations. Her eyes fell upon the blue moon again. It would be the first marker of humanity’s presence in the new galaxy. They would need to give it a name. Perhaps if there were any philosophers left, they could call it something meaningful. The ship’s computer chirped again, telling her that a shuttle was ready. The captain’s chair creaked as she stood up. Walking to the shuttle, the memory came again.
“I’m going to find the purest version of whiskey on this planet,” Mihaela declared. Of course, there was only one city on Mars, so this task didn’t seem difficult at all. “Want to join me?” she asked. Not having anything else to do, Nalia agreed. “We need a man to join us. Don’t want any interruptions from lovesick drunks,” she also said. They grabbed a guy sitting by himself in one of the corner rooms. Nalia recognized him as the quietest student in the class. He looked utterly terrified. They spent too much effort trying to understand him since he stammered so much. She found him not overwhelmingly handsome, but he was clean-cut and she could tell his dark eyes contained an inner fire. It was not hard for them to convince him, as a musician started playing a yawn-inducing minimalist piece.
As the evening turned to night, they went all over the city. For the entire night, they searched for that mythical alcohol. Nalia must have spent every last bit of her satoshis. They got Alan to open up a bit. Well, after he vomited on her shoes. They never did find the perfect whiskey the woman was looking for. Nalia almost slapped her when she suggested that they go to Earth.
And what of Earth? Did it meet the same fate as the rest of the human worlds? She felt a strange longing for the planet, even though she had never been born there. The memory and the feeling faded. It didn’t matter. Her friends were gone and she was too far from humanity’s former home.
Once in the shuttle, unrecognizable constellations greeted her on the external view as it left the hangar. Nalia changed the view to the moon they orbited. Thousands of ships cast shadows on its bare surface. She noted the closeness of the formation and their numerous shapes and sizes. There were giant bricks with engines attached, large spherical habitats connected by tubes, rings within rings, and the cylindrical designs of the warships.
A message notification appeared on the viewscreen. The flashing red light reflected off her white space suit. She opened the message. It was from Colonel Miyashiro, telling her that he had received her message and was heading towards their agreed-upon coordinates. The shuttle entered the thin, wispy atmosphere.
On the surface of the unknown moon, Nalia surprised herself by not collapsing before the two metal poles. Her rhythmic breathing echoed throughout her space suit as she reached her hand towards the graves. She watched the names on the metal plates coalesce in her vision. When they became clear, she stared beyond them, attempting to avoid both the happiness and the pain. The thoughts did not stop. She remembered their nervous trips to the galactic core. She remembered Alan’s near-worship of Admiral Vendrian. She remembered Mihaela’s fear of stagnation, of staying in one place forever. In her mind’s eye, she saw their spirits moving at the speed of light away from her. She was too exhausted to cry, but the thoughts continued like a rushing river.
A presence approached behind her. Kenichi stood still, a silent sentinel to her grief. “How did all of this happen?” she subvocalized on their private comm channel.
He did not answer her. Perhaps he was too preoccupied with burying his dead. Perhaps she did not want to know the answer. She felt a pang of guilt. The catastrophe affected everyone, not just her. What was her pain, compared to the thousands who also lost the ones dearest to them? Even the presence of her family seemed a lone candle, insufficient in the void of their collective loss.
Her thoughts turned toward the future. Would they ever return home? What was home exactly? Could they rebuild? If they rebuilt, would they make the same mistakes again? Or would they find a new existence?
“Have you said goodbye to Admiral Atranas?” The leader of the Kenzenken remnants asked in a gentle tone.
“Yes.” She looked at the stars, trying to find answers.
Her gaze fell towards the horizon, noting the thousands of poles, some decorated, some not, filling the valley before her. Crowds of people brought more out and set them in the moon’s crust.
“Colonel Miyashiro… Kenichi. You mind if I tell you something?”
She felt a low-gravity weight press on her shoulder plate. Kenichi’s soft and lilted accent came through their shared connection: “Of course not. Go ahead.”
She gathered her thoughts, and then pressed on. She told him of the memory of meeting her friends for the first time. She spoke of their hopes and dreams as they watched the stars from a grassy hill. She spoke of an unseen bond that united the three. Now it was gone, the absence too sudden for her to handle.
Nalia grew silent.
After a few seconds, Kenichi replied. “This Mihaela, she sounded like a special person.”
“I never acknowledged it, but she was.”
“I’m sorry. I know they meant a lot to you.”
She could not think of anything more to say.
Around them, the landscape continued filling with the grave markers. Scattered groups of people either stood in silence or gave eulogies for their lost. In orbit, up above the almost nonexistent atmosphere, the Yasothon watched over them in its own vigil. The rest of the fleet, pinpricks of light in the void, both Kenzenken and Republic, waited along with it. In that moment, history began anew.