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Part Three: The Mission

Journey Home 

Chapter 37

Flight Plan:  Instruction 4b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 2

Location:  The far side of Andromeda 

      I won’t bother describing the crew discussion that took place on the night of the failed surgery.  It was basically just a repeat of all that was said in the conversation immediately following the incident.  Jack and Jason pronounced their scepticism of David’s story, Arnold re-iterated that there was nothing they could do about it, Maria was devastated, Ronald was still in shock, and Lauren was silent.  There were no suggestions about how to stop deaths among crewmembers, other than Arnold’s own that he should abandon his by-the-book principles and focus more on getting everyone to survive this mission rather than what regular STAR protocol said was necessary to get everyone to survive other missions.  Not a single person on the crew objected to this.

      The rest of the Deep Rendezvous instruction went without incident as the ship reached the opposite end of Andromeda and the computer indicated that they’d once again passed the orbit line of the furthest star from the galactic core.  Lauren carried out the first step of Instruction 4 flawlessly, and oriented with the Milky Way’s galactic core with as much precision as she’d done with Andromeda; only this time, the flight plan called for them to get dangerously close to the black hole near the centre of the galaxy.

      On the second day of the 85-day thrusting period that would take them halfway back to the Milky Way, Jason expressed his desire to “escape from reality” again.  Lauren concurred, and this time Arnold didn’t put up much of a fight.  At this point, he himself was getting ready to take a few hits of stig, but he refrained for obvious reasons.  David announced he didn’t want any, as if anyone would have approved of letting him have some anyway.  And Ronald couldn’t have any even if he’d wanted, because on the night after the surgery he’d come down with the deadly disease.

      Jack Peskie, however, decided that since all the work was basically over, there would be no harm in him taking a pill.  He told everyone that he’d smoked a lot of marijuana back in High School, and after receiving a few sarcastic “big surprise” remarks, it was decided that he would join in this time.  And so on the second day of Instruction 4d, four Andromeda crewmembers, Jason, Jack, Maria, and Lauren, once again made history by becoming the first people to trip on acid in another galaxy.

      Of the three sheets containing nine pills each, only one was opened, with five pills missing.  That left four pills on one sheet, but Jason indicated he’d like to take two this time.  Jack also expressed his desire to take more than one, assuring Arnold he could handle it, and Lauren figured she might as well.  When Maria looked at him, Arnold asked her if she thought she had enough control over her emotions to handle two, and she honestly told him she didn’t.  She actually doubted she could even handle one, but to her, any reality, heaven or hell, would be better than what she was experiencing right now.

      Jason took his first pill, let it dissolve on his tongue, and swallowed the liquid it left.  While the others finished their first, he took out the second sheet, and let more of the acid creep into his brain.  Jack and Lauren followed his lead, and then they sat back, and waited for the world underneath reality to reach them. 

      The Jimi Hendrix Experience blasted from the speakers as Jason and Jack sat in front row seats in the cockpit and admired the “Purple Haze” all around them in Andromeda.  Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me.  Help me, Jason asked.  Jack was gone.  He was lost in his own universe.  Even Jason’s cries of “Help me” spoken through the mouth of the great left-handed guitarist himself wouldn’t reach him.

      What was the Love all about?  Jason couldn’t figure out if it was fixed permanently in Lauren, or if it was just floating on the great spiral of consciousness.  With three dimensions of thought, how could anything be fixed?  Reality must be fluid.  It has to.  That’s the only way.  Sitting at his computer, writing every idea that came to him, the writer tried to decipher what was behind his own mind.

      In Maria’s new world, everything must have been a blur.  How could there be any reality other than the reality that had already come to pass?  With no friend, with no sex, what was a woman like Maria to do?  Turning to evil would be the natural conclusion, although simple willpower to control her own perception would have overcome that, but not Maria.  Lily was dead.  Although Lily was trying to talk to her, she couldn’t hear because she wouldn’t.  The path was right there, no need to look around for another.

      And what was Lauren thinking?  Was Lauren thinking about death, and what lay beyond for Lily, Elliot, Mark, Craig, and soon Ronald?  As the wind whispered “Mary” what could happen?  What did it mean?  Who was Mary?  Was she waiting there?  Only questions surrounded Lauren’s beautiful head, wherever it was located in the room.  It didn’t matter.  Andromeda had a way of making distance non-existent.  There was no Time either.  Only ideas, floating aimlessly through the void.

      But as a writer, it was Jason’s duty to grab those ideas and tie them to the first dimension, and to examine them to see if they made sense or if they were just drops of water in an endless river of floating random consciousness.  The objective was forgotten, but a simple grasp to the emotion he had chosen long ago would bring it back.  “I’m creeping back to life,” sang Jason, “my nervous system all awry; I’m wearing the inside out.”

      So more were dead.  More who knew.  Elliot knew, and he was gone.  Ronald had found out, and he would soon die, hopefully taking the secret to the grave.  Jack had known for a long time.  Would he be next?  Was his influence that great over the paths of others?  Did others have a soul?

      Jack was still in the cockpit, lost in the meaning behind Jimi’s seemingly meaningless voice.  What was it about this man?  Did it matter?  I heard you shot your lady down, shot her down, shot her down...dead.  Who shot my lady down?  Somebody had shot a lady down.

      Maria’s tortured soul in the other room could only focus on this.  Lily was dead.  She was one of three women on the crew, the first of them to die.  Did that mean there would be more?

      Holy shit, thought Jason.  What if  Lauren couldn’t die.  She was immortal.  Lauren, as she sat there completely lost in her own thoughts, she wouldn’t die because that wasn’t what she was supposed to do.  Both she and Jason were struggling to find some kind of way out of here, but that didn’t necessarily mean Leaving.

      But what if that was written?  How would that change everything?  Holy shit, if Lauren died, there would be absolutely jack shit left for Jason to go on breathing.  How long had he gone on with no direction at all but the Watchtower that was Lauren?  But all light bulbs burn out eventually.  Lily was a light for Elliot, and although Elliot was extinguished before her, her light had gone out.  Smashed, quite suddenly.  What if the same force that had smashed Lily’s bulb decided to smash Lauren’s?

      How would it feel for Jason to wake up in the morning with that one string of hope missing?  It was so thin he could hardly see it anyway, but what if he could no longer feel it because he Knew it was gone?  It was what pulled him out of bed.  He couldn’t survive without it.  It kept him eating.  Without that hope, he would probably not even be writing.

      There was Arnold.  Sitting in the corner of the room, watching the meaninglessness take place right in front of him.  To the others, hours had gone by, but Arnold knew the True time.  It had only been forty minutes.  Whatever had been going on in the minds of the crewmembers would be going on for more and more hours.

      But this was not the true lost feeling.  Jason’s fingers continued to pound out sentences on the keys with quite a grip on reality...on the situation.  This was disorientation.  Was it because of the Nature of the drug, or the nature of the space-time he found himself in?  This was Andromeda.  Perhaps in Andromeda, it was always the morning after...

      David O’Brian read from a pornography magazine he’d brought along.  It didn’t matter what it was.  The man was reading the articles.  What was written in there?  Was there anything important, or something that could tell him about the True nature of sexuality in Man, or Woman?  Or was he just killing time?  Occasionally, glances over the tops of pages containing pictures of unnaturally natural women indicated that his interests lay somewhere else.

      But none of that seemed to matter.  Death, nature vs. nurture, the Nature of reality.  None of it mattered while Lauren was still as Mortal as the parents that conceived her.  Jason’s mind spun with the gruesome possibilities.  He felt as the spaceship collided with a star and burnt everyone to a crisp.  Lauren would go first, and in that millionth of a second where the plasma burnt her poor innocent body to a crisp without having fully reached Jason, his soul would leave before his body even gave up.

      Aaaaooww.  The thought of Lauren’s face; its final expression before certain death gave Jason chills like he’d never experienced.  What if that happened, and he still hadn’t told her how he’d felt?  He would carry that emotion with him for the rest of eternity.  But why was that a bad thing?  It was emotion, so it must be good no matter what connotation it supposedly held in the mind, made of mere flesh anyway?

      Yet now his mind wouldn’t allow him that openness.  Perhaps he’d found that final push to the next level of the spiral.  Perhaps he was going frazy.  Frazy being a new variation of finsanity.

      No, this was just milking it.  Manic depression.  Jack.  Jack came from the cockpit as if Jason’s vibes were enough to pull him away from his own world of thought.  Perhaps Jack had been travelling, whether through the space around him or the space in his own mind, Jason couldn’t tell.  All he knew was that it was comforting to have somebody who Knew, whether or not they understood.

      Ronald knew.  He lay on his bed, in the same pain that Lily and Elliot had felt through their last few weeks.  Only his death was inevitable.  The final medic.  The final of the crewmembers who may be able to figure out what the mysterious disease supposedly was.  Jack knew.  Jack knew because Jason knew, and Jack could take a step back.  He saw David at his magazine, completely lost in the Perfect sanity of dimension 1.  Concentration of 1 goal, heading towards the nonexistent centre of the spiral rather than the nonexistent surface.

      Jason couldn’t figure out if there actually was an Infinite point or not.  Was there a state of mind in which everything could be seen, or was that an infinite possibility?  Would the mind always have to settle for less?  Or could the soul always see everything, which is why in the 1st dimension, all is finite but in search of the infinite, yet on the 3rd dimension, all is infinite, with the 2nd dimension concentrated on the finite.  Or would you have to reach omnipresence through some other method besides thought?  You would have to alter consciousness, but was it possible to alter it enough where your mind no longer functioned and your soul was free to grasp the concept of infinity and to Know all?  Or would you need to die before that could happen?  Surely True Enlightenment could reach you before your body expires.  If you had to wait for Death, that would be an Absolute, and if you Understood infinity, you would know the Only Absolute is that there are No Absolutes.

      Jack nodded at Jason.  Of course, that was all that was needed.  Jason was longing to freak out with his Love for Lauren.  He needed to Feel that once again.  He needed justification to Capitalise things.  But that was not his True passion.  That was why he capitalised Truth.  Yet Love was also capitalised as long as he referred to True Love.  The “T” is inferred by the “L” or perhaps it was the other way around.  Which is the Goal?  Is it Truth, or Love?  Or are they synonymous in that Great Singularity at the Centre of the universe?

      Wait, Lauren’s eyes.  There she was, and she was looking in his direction.  No she wasn’t.  She was sitting on the floor with her back against a bed and her eyes closed, riding the illusionary motion.  Only acceleration could be felt, and the ship was not accelerating, but Jason had done it enough times to tell that Lauren was definitely in that state of false motion.

      The sudden desire to get closer to her came.  Foxy lady, here I come, baby.  Coming to get you.  You look so good.

      No!  That’s not what it was about.  But look at how beautiful she is.  Surely it would be no harm to just get a little closer.  Arnold wasn’t paying attention.  And even if he was, who gave a shit?  This is my reality anyway, Jason thought.  Jack shook his head.  Perhaps he didn’t really understand.

      Jason knelt down beside Lauren.  She was so close.  He put his face right next to hers.  Her skin was not as perfect as it seemed from a distance, but now, with all the imperfections perfectly visible, its reality made it even more beautiful than his mind’s imagination could ever have.  Her perfect hair, blonde and medium-length, pressed against the bed as she lay there, still unaware of his presence.  He watched the air slowly pass in and out of her nose, her tiny stomach inflating and deflating just like she would be doing if she were asleep, and in an entirely separate consciousness.  Where was she now?  If only Jason could always be where she was.  If only he could see her eyes.

      Jack put his hand on his shoulder, but Jason’s sudden movement caused Lauren to open her eyes.  What now?  Was this as if he had been caught, or was it just another hallucination?  Lauren’s bright brown eyes stared straight ahead, then without the slightest head-movement, they darted over and pierced themselves directly into Jason’s eyes of blue.  But although his natural reaction had been to turn away, Jason instead tried to study them.  They were the windows to the Soul; perhaps they could give him some answers as to what lay within the soul he had been focussed on for so long?

      But the brown was too bright to reveal what lay beneath the black.  All that Jason’s blue eyes could was the layer of pain masking all her emotions which lay just below the surface on Jason, but deep within Lauren and off limits to all those to whom she would never reveal herself to.  Which is why Jason’s examination didn’t bother her.  For all she cared, it might not even be happening, because she might not even exist.

      Jason figured if he knew it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t.  He was still sitting on his chair at the computer, and if he could get back to his chair and convince himself that this never happened...but Jack’s hand was still on his shoulder, grounding him to this very reality he’d placed himself in, and the gentle shaking reminded him there was no need to regret.  All this was illusion no matter where or when your perception would indicate.

      So Jason simply removed Jack’s hand with his mind and lay back against the same bed that Lauren was against, and gave his mind a new perception, one he hadn’t written, and for awhile managed to convince himself that it wasn’t reality that shaped perception, but an interchange, and if he could truly use his position next to Lauren to perceive that Reality was the two of them together, then he could wake up and find this was the Truth all along, and he wouldn’t have to face Another Moment Alone.

      Or maybe that was the point of all this bullshit anyway?  Maybe it was all just a trick of denial that made his mind obsessed with this one idea—that life is an illusion and thus everything that sucks is only one experience out of infinity—therefore because nothing matters, anything can be accepted once documented, and then more room could be made for another reality.  There was no battle between science and fiction if the two were combined, and both came straight from the source.

      And if you were at that source, in that Singularity where All and Nothing existed, that Great Vortex between space and time, where only Life had Meaning, then there would Truly be no reason to worry.  And if that was Satan’s way, you were Evil.  But if you were Enlightened, you would understand Satan and Evil don’t exist, and black water is the same as clear water because it’s all emptiness and only the emotions you perceive are real.  And if true perception comes from the Soul and not your Mind, then there is no set Divine Moral Code deciding what is Right and what is Wrong.

      The Tree of Knowledge is the deception, not the serpent.  The serpent makes you believe that God is God because he understands the knowledge of Good and Evil, but he paints God as a human by feeding on human ignorance and the nature of what we are, the deliberate mistake.  The Truth, is that God possesses the Knowledge of Good and Evil because they are merely manifestations of the great 1, the point of Infinity where there is no dark side of the moon because it’s all dark.  The Truth is that there is No Difference, and when you start making discriminations, you pull yourself further to the 1st dimension and further from the Truth.  But why is that negative?

      In the end, what is the true difference between good and evil?  Is atheism evil, or is faith?  Is it paganism, or organised religion that’s evil?  Is heresy evil, or is persecution?  It depends on what side of the fence you’re on.  The fence that you create, and that nobody can seem to get past.  You can hop from one side or the other, but the Wall is to strong, and there is hardly any force that will be able to make you understand that the Fence is an illusion too, and there is no Wall.  You have a “natural” tendency to distinguish differences, classify and set up divisions because that is the Original Sin: to place limitations.  But to overcome that is to understand all is one and one are all.  But to know that is to be a rock and not to roll.

      So Jason floated on understanding and hallucination as Jimi sung about Freedom and Arnold misunderstood.  Jack stood by idly, Lauren enjoyed experience, Maria howled silently in frustration, Ronald kept searching for the angel he knew would never come, and David completely forgot the existence of squares.  Surely reality is just a straight line.  To look around for other possibilities is a waste.  Or is it a waste to only look at one?  Of course, the answer is neither.

      Who is the protagonist?  Who is the antagonist?  Where is the plot, when is the climax?  Is this acceptable writing?  Do I make use of the Delete key?  Does any of it make any difference if I write ideas, or if I merely write words?  Ideas can be formed from anything, so why tie them to the 1st dimension and to a story?  Is it fact or fiction, or is there any difference?  Is this virtual reality, or is reality virtual by nature?  Are all these merely euphemisms, or are they wise remarks?

      Why does more understanding only seem to bring more questions?

      Ah, but then time comes back to existence.  It has a tendency to do that when an instrument of measurement is tapped.  Come back tomorrow.  There is still more to go.  In all of that, no time has gone by at all.  Perhaps it should be released for now, and instead of trying to answer all of these questions, to merely enjoy sensation.

      And perhaps that is where the answer lies.  In abandoning plot; abandoning whatever lies beneath, to just suspend disbelief and accept whatever emotion comes.  Accept whatever is projected, and focus on what is sensed because that is the only True reality.  To End but Understand may be the ultimate Peace of Mind.  And isn’t that what the Search is all about?

      Then it may be already over.  And it could be whenever you decide.  But why not stick around and experience some more?  There will always be more to experience. 

Chapter  38

Flight Plan:  Instruction 4b-Thrust, 70 dps, Day 9

Location:  The far side of Andromeda 

      “Dogs” was the Pink Floyd song coming from the computer’s speakers when Maria once again voiced her sexual frustration during one of the periods when the crew (or what was left of it) hung around the living quarters doing nothing.  Lying on the floor with his legs 30° in the air, Jason hoped this conversation would be over soon.

      “I need to get off somehow,” Maria groaned.  “I can’t take this for much longer.”

      Jack put down his book and watched as David rose from the bed where he’d apparently just been pretending to sleep.  This should be interesting, he thought.

      “I’m sorry, Maria,” said Ronald weakly from his bed, “but if I fuck you, you’re gonna get this disease and die too.  Not to mention the fact that I probably won’t be able to do any good.”

      “I realise that, Ronald,” said Maria.  “And soon you’ll be dead and then who can I fuck?”

      Jason would have liked to put in a rude comment, but he wasn’t the kind of person who deliberately created conflicts.  At least not any he would be involved in.   
So instead of saying it, he just thought it, and laughed inside himself so hard that he could hardly bear the pain in his abdominal muscles and almost dropped his legs.

      “I’ll take care of that problem for you,” said David with that same despicable smile he’d been wearing far too often in the recent parts of the mission.

      “Not in your life,” Maria told the man she [correctly] assumed was responsible for Lily’s death.  “You couldn’t find a pig who’d be willing to fuck you.”

      Another even worse comment came to Jason’s mind, but somehow it came to Jack’s first, and the communications man didn’t seem to care about offending anyone.  “Maybe a pig wouldn’t fuck David,” said Jack, “but I’m sure you would.”

      “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Maria shouted.

      “Well, I’m not gonna fuck you and neither is Jason,” Jack explained.  “Arnold is taken, and Ronald is out of the question.  That leaves David.”

      “I wouldn’t fuck David for all the money in the universe,” Maria asserted.

      Jack laughed.  “I’ll bet you all the money in the universe that you’ll be banging David by the end of the week.”

      “Jack!” Ronald attempted to shout.  They all thought he was going to chastise him, but he said, “I want in on this.  I’ll bet that she’s with David before I even die.”

      “Now there’s a bet,” said David.  “If he wins, he goes to his death bed with the last laugh.  If he doesn’t, he’s dead so it doesn’t matter.”

      “Exactly.  I want to know who thinks she can resist,” Ronald asked.  He then proceeded to violently cough for several seconds.

      “I already told you she can’t do it,” said Jack.  “What do you think, Jason?”

      “I’m gonna have to plead the fifth here, Jack,” said Jason as he put his legs down and relaxed from his daily exercise.

      “I think we all know what that means,” Jack laughed.  “Arnold is in the cockpit with Lauren, but we know they probably wouldn’t take part in this.  So David, I think it’s safe to say we’re all on your side for once.”

      David’s sinister smile turned into an even more sinister laugh.  “Hah!  None of you bastards are on my side,” he said.  “Or else you wouldn’t have made this bet in the first place.  You know damn well that once I get Maria in the bathroom with me, you’ll only look down on her for sinking to my level.”

      “How long did it take you to figure that out?” asked Jack, not bothering to go easy on the sarcasm.  “Your powers of perception astound me.  Have you thought about going into psychology as a profession?”  Jack then began to laugh hysterically.

      “Fuck off,” David told him, and began walking towards the bathroom to relieve himself.

      “Dr. O’Brian, anger management counsellor,” Jack said through his own laughter.  David just ignored him and walked away.

      “You people are all a bunch of animals,” said Maria.  “I can’t believe you would think I’d subject myself to having sex with that piece of slime.”

      “Maria,” said Ronald, now talking from another part of himself.  “You’re not a bad person, you just don’t have a fucking clue.  You have no fucking clue.”

      “So is there a bet or not?” Jack asked now that everyone had seemed to forget what they were talking about.

      “No bet,” said Ronald.  “I’d just like to hear what she says once she starts having sex with David.  It’ll be a nice bit of amusement before I die.” 

      While Maria was expressing her frustrations in the living quarters, Arnold was expressing his own frustrations to Lauren in the cockpit.

      “I’d forgotten how much I needed it,” he was saying.

      “You don’t need it,” Lauren answered.  “People can live their entire lives celibate.  But still that doesn’t mean you should.”

      “It just feels so wrong though,” Arnold continued.  “I mean, I just left my wife only a half a year ago, and I’ve still got a daughter to think about...”

      “Arnold,” Lauren stopped him.  “There’s nothing wrong with it.  You’ve been feeling way too much guilt for one man to handle these past few weeks.  Don’t ruin what could be a wonderful experience by projecting your own guilt onto it.”

      Arnold sat back and stared out the window in silence for what seemed like a long period of time.  No matter how he looked at it, it just seemed like the wrong thing to do somehow.  He’d condemned it before among other crewmembers; now those crewmembers were either dead, dying, or practically widowed.  Maybe someone would feel jealous.

      No, now he was just thinking of random reasons against it.  Nobody would be jealous, and even if they were, they wouldn’t say anything about it, and that was what Arnold was really worried about.  He was worried now that if any more of his crew’s approval went down, he might be remembered as the idiot who botched the Andromeda mission rather than the hero who completed it.  And he didn’t want his daughter to grow up having to be embarrassed by who her father was.

      “If any harm comes of it, it’ll all be in my head, right?” he asked Lauren for reassurance.

      Lauren hesitated momentarily before she answered.  “Probably.  But if there is a risk, it’s incredibly small, and nothing to be too preoccupied about.  Some people will just have to deal with it.”

      Arnold didn’t ask, partially because he thought he knew what she was talking about, and partially because he was tired of talking.  “Divine Commander” or not, he was still subject to the same human temptations as every other man, and he’d been told by Jason on past occasions that to deny natural human urges is to defy humanity, (although he had added that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

      Perhaps that was what Arnold needed.  To just be human again for a while. 

      Jason was sitting at the computer re-reading some of his writing, and listening to The Division Bell when Arnold and Lauren came back from the cockpit at the same time.  As far as he could consciously remember, that hadn’t happened before on the mission, so he turned around to see what was going on.

      “David, man the cockpit,” Arnold said, and when David left the living quarters with merely a curious look in his eyes, Jason watched Arnold open the bathroom door and let Lauren through.  Then he followed in behind her.

      For a moment, his head went blank.  The meaning of this occurrence simply didn’t register in his mind.

      “What just happened?” asked Ronald.  Lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling, he had not been able to see it, but due to the sudden silence of everyone in the room, he knew something had happened.

      Jack Peskie was looking directly at Jason the entire time.  “Arnold and Lauren,” he told Ronald while still keeping an eye on Jason, “they’re in the bathroom together.” “Well I’ll be damned,” said Ronald.

      No, it couldn’t be.  The look in Jack’s eyes told him that this was reality.  Arnold and Lauren had not gone into the bathroom—the only room on the spaceship that locked from the inside—to brush their teeth together.

      “Shit,” Ronald exclaimed as if he’d just realised something, “Jason!”

      A moment of panic now leapt upon Jason.  Ronald knew, and there was no reason for him to keep it a secret anymore unless he respected Jason.  And although Maria was currently the only person in the room who didn’t know, if she found out it wouldn’t stay a secret for much longer.  Jason wasn’t prepared to deal with that awkwardness for the rest of the mission.  “Ronald!” he shouted.  “What?” he quickly lowered the tone of his voice so as not to arouse any suspicion by Maria.

      “Well, don’t you...” Ronald stopped in the middle of his sentence as Jack gently kicked his bed.  “...oh, nothing.  I just thought of something I needed to remind you about but I remembered I already told you.”

      Jason saw that Maria was paying attention, but thanks to Ronald’s quick thinking, not very much attention.  “Oh yeah, the thing about saving the MedScan data recordings from the surgery.  I took care of it.”  That actually had happened, so Jason figured it would be safe to use it to divert Maria’s attention.

      He looked at the ship supervisor, engulfed in her romance novel, completely clueless.  The only thing that might have been suspicious about that exchange was how after such a significant thing like the commander and the pilot entering the bathroom together, Ronald had suddenly brought up saving MedScan data.  But looking at her, it was clear that Maria had no idea.

      Jason looked at Jack again, but all he was offered was a shrug of sympathy.  Sure, Jack understood psychology and how Jason’s mind would be reacting to this, but that wasn’t the same as understanding Jason.  Elliot had actually understood him, and was able to empathise.  Now there was nobody left who could empathise, except perhaps Lauren herself, but that would defeat the entire purpose, now wouldn’t it?

      And then dreadful things invaded the brain of Jason Floyd.  Like a shockwave from a thousand miles away, the images suddenly hit him of what was currently going on in the bathroom right now.  As Jason began to imagine it, the torturing feeling he had grew deeper and stronger.  Anger and jealousy, guilt and frustration, Love.  Jason wanted to go to the kitchen, just a few metres away, pick up the knife, and either jam it straight through his heart or just slice his wrists open.

      Horrible insane images flooded into his mind, but he remained fixated in his seat, too overwhelmed by his own emotions to act on them.  Instead, he dealt with them in the only way he could. 

      As soon as the bathroom door closed behind them, Lauren began to have second thoughts.  She’d encouraged Arnold to do this because she wanted to help him, but she hadn’t thought of herself, and how difficult it would be.  In her entire life, Lauren had been through many sexual experiences, but they were never enjoyable.  Whether she was forced to let her father have his way with her, or be beaten into submission by her psychotic boyfriends, she had no pleasant memories of sex.

      Arnold took his shirt off and removed his pants before he even noticed that Lauren was acting strangely.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

      “Nothing,” said Lauren.

      “Okay,” Arnold said, not understanding that “nothing” actually meant “a whole lot of suppressed shit I’ve been hiding all my life.”

      Lauren reminded herself once again that Arnold was different from the rest of those men, and she removed her shirt and pants so they were both wearing only undergarments.

      Arnold took a moment to examine her body.  He’d never seen so much of it before, and he was in awe of its perfection.  Her skin was the smoothest he’d ever seen, with just the right amount of paleness in its tones.  She was very thin, but her hips just slightly widened to the perfect shape.  Her breasts weren’t large, but very firm and beautiful.  Arnold took off his underwear, revealing his erection, and expected Lauren to remove hers.

      But she didn’t.  She just stood there, not looking at Arnold but somewhere off into space.  She was very shy, so she was probably sexually timid as well.  Arnold pressed his body against hers and kissed her.  As she lost her tongue inside his mouth, Lauren seemed to give up some of her resistance, but just as it happened, she quickly broke away and stepped back.

      Now Arnold could clearly see that she was upset.  “Lauren, is something the matter?  Honestly.”

      Lauren wanted to tell him.  She wanted so badly to release her inner baggage to this man and trust him.  She did trust him, or at least she thought she did.  Trust had become a near impossibility with her, but she ached to trust Arnold.  She knew she loved him, and it was incredibly frustrating for her not to be able to overcome her own emotional boundaries.  So could she tell him the truth?  No, this was definitely not the time to tell this man, naked and aroused, about her past traumatic sexual experiences.

      “No, well...” she began.  “It’s just...this bathroom seems kind of uncomfortable.”

      With only a split second of thought, Arnold opened the shower and started the water running.  “Let’s take a shower,” he said.

      This idea seemed to break Lauren out of her trance.  “The shower?  I’ve never done anything like that before.”

      “I used to do it all the time with Ellen,” Arnold explained, only hesitating slightly before mentioning his former wife.  “What temperature do you take your showers in?”

      Lauren slowly took off the rest of her clothing, and stepped into the shower.  She typed in the warm temperature she was used to, and pressed the button that activated the main showerhead.

      He joined her in the stall, and closed the door behind them, as if anyone could look inside anyway.  The warm water gently caressed his skin, and he soaked himself in it until not one part of his body was completely dry.  He then took Lauren’s soft arms and guided her body to do the same.

      With his blue eyes he took another look at the beauty before him.  Then he stood with his stomach against her back, holding her around her waist and letting the stream of water droplets fall between them.  Slowly he raised his arms to her breasts and began caressing them as gently as the water itself.  He closed his eyes and just lost himself in how perfect she was to the touch as well as to the eye.

      Lauren was amazed by the experience.  Sex had never been this...soothing.  It had always been such an aggressive act of getting pleasure.  But this was an endeavour into the exploration of the combined sexuality of the two of them.  As the hands on her breasts began to explore the rest of her body, Lauren almost melted with the thought of how this man must perceive her.  He treated her as if she were as valuable as a diamond, while everyone else had treated her like a rusty hammer.  While they merely used her for a quick bang, this man was examining every aspect of her body and simply relishing its beauty.

      As she turned around, she found that the face before her was barely recognisable.  Who was this man whom she had thought she had figured out?  He was revealing a whole new side of himself, abandoning thought and just letting himself experience every single emotion that he could possibly be feeling.

      Then he just stared at her for several moments.  He looked at her wet skin from her toes to her face, but stopped on her eyes.  He stared into her brown eyes as she stared into his, and they knew exactly what was going on.  They had finally reached that deeper connection.  All they had to do was forget that they were two separate beings, and remember their souls were actually one.

      He didn’t remove his deep gaze from her, but with his hands he explored her face.  Such a perfect face.  The perfect face, because it was the only face that existence had currently shaped for her.  Her perfect lips, resting between her two perfect cheeks.  His fingers moved upward.  Caressing her perfect nose.  Then he inched closer as his hands reached around to the back of her head and held her soft, wet hair, stroking it.  Her perfect hair like strands of gold.  Then finally, they came and gently rubbed her perfect eyebrows.  For a very strange reason, Lauren had never felt an emotion as powerful as then, as with this simple act he combined truth and sensation.  Her eyes had never shone brighter than they did at that moment.  Perhaps he closed his eyes because they blinded him, or simply because he’d found what he had been searching for.

      When Arnold opened his eyes, he seemed disoriented.  He looked around, and turned back to her, his brown eyes meeting hers.  “How would you feel about lowering the water temperature?  I’m addicted to cold showers, and I think it might be pretty sensual.  My wife never agreed to do it, so I’ve never tried it.”

      Lauren eyed him curiously.  Something was different.  Perhaps it was because thought was once again thrown back into the mix, where for the previous eternally lasting moments, it had been nothing but emotion.  “Okay,” she said.

      Arnold turned around and set the temperature just above what he usually took his showers in.  Instantly, the warm water gave way as the cold hard droplets landed on their bodies.  She began to shiver, but Arnold held her closer and rubbed her body quickly to create some heat through friction and ease the shock he had become so accustomed to.

      Then, without even looking, he took her head and kissed her once again.  She was freezing, but at the same time very excited.  She couldn’t tell if she enjoyed the cold or the kiss, but she was definitely feeling something, and although it wasn’t the comfortably numb feeling it had been a few moments ago, it was strong, and therefore worth it.

      She stepped back with Arnold until she was leaning against the far wall of the shower, and they continued to kiss almost as if it were a way of fighting the cold; powerful despite it’s futility.  It was at this point she felt Arnold enter inside of her, and begin to thrust.

      Lauren didn’t know for how long that passion lasted, but when it was over and the water had been turned off and their bodies cleaned, she felt satisfied with what had happened.  She had been frozen into thought, and because of the natural pleasure that came along with it; the thought that had frozen inside of her was a positive one.

      If she had allowed herself to think any deeper, she would have understood that there were two men in that shower; one that loved her and one that fucked her.  Yet her own chosen nature caused her to prefer the latter, and accept that she was merely a shadow of the former. 

      David was waiting for them as they stepped out of the bathroom together.  He was waiting on the nearest bed, with that same disgusting smirk on his face.

      “How was he?” he asked Lauren.  She ignored him, but that didn’t phase David.  “Oh, you’re too tired to answer, huh?  Yeah, I figured he’d be the kind to have the other person do all the work.”

      “Fuck you, David,” Lauren said.

      This caught him off guard, because he hadn’t seen this side of her, and didn’t know it existed.  He wasn’t even aware that the woman had more than one side.  “Well, excuse me.  I’m just trying to make some friendly conversation.”

      “David,” Arnold said, “why don’t you just stop minding other people’s business and concentrate on your own?”

      “Oh, I’m sorry,” David retorted, the blatantly false apology stuffed with spite.  “I didn’t know you were so sensitive about Lauren’s business.”

      “Will you shut the fuck up?” Jason asked, still sitting at the computer seat, nearly shaking with bottled rage that he was struggling so hard to keep from exploding on either Arnold or David.

      “Maybe you should mind your own business, asshole,” David suggested.  “I’m just disgusted at the hypocrisy of our Divine Commander here.”

      Maria looked up from her book, David’s comments re-igniting some of the bitterness inside of her.  “I know, right?” she remarked.

      “I’m sorry Arnold, but you’re just a goddamn hypocrite,” said David.  “And you, Lauren, to just be blinded to his ignorance...well frankly I have to say I just lost any respect for you I might have had.”

      Now that someone was openly harassing Lauren verbally, Maria figured it would be safe to join it.  “She doesn’t have a clue,” she said.  “She’s just some self-centred bitch who thinks she’s better than everyone.  That’s why she fucked Captain Assfuck over there.”

      David laughed with pleasure as Lauren rolled her eyes in an odd combination of apathy and hostility.  “You are a slut,” said David.  “Fucking the commander to raise your status or something.  That’s pretty damn slutty.”

      Maria stood up just so she could point a finger straight in Lauren’s face.  “I’m sick of you and this act of superiority you’re putting on.  Arnold goes and fucks everything up by letting five people die, and you just keep telling him it’s not his fault.  What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

      Jason had to turn away and find some form of instant meditation to keep from exploding right then and there.  Lauren was just staring into space while the two biggest assholes on the crew chewed her up and Arnold did nothing to defend her.  He probably just couldn’t think of a way to do it that wouldn’t violate protocol.

      “So, Lauren,” David said, “did he really make you take it up the ass?  How did it feel?”

      “I’m sure she enjoyed it,” Maria said.

      “We’re definitely on the same wavelength, Maria,” said David.  “I don’t suppose you’d like to fuck me now?”

      Maria froze for two instants.  The first, extremely short instant consisted of her considering how pathetic it would be if she went and fucked David just after she’d said she never would.  The second instant, which she focussed much more on, dealt with her remembering her own sexual needs and deciding it didn’t matter what the rest of the crew thought anyway.  “Sure,” she said.

      And so David and Maria went to the bathroom together.  “Jesus Christ,” Jack said.  “That was damn quick.”  Ronald broke into hysterics.

      Arnold and Lauren didn’t stick around long enough to listen to Maria’s loud and obnoxious cries as David fucked her harder than she’d ever been fucked before.  I will refrain from description on this one, good reader.  To have vomit induced against your will would not be pleasant, and I think you deserve a small gesture of goodwill just for reading this far anyway.  Besides, I’m not sure I’d be able to contain my own nausea while trying to write about it.

      While it’s okay to state something blatantly on occasion, I do believe there are instances when a few hints are all that is required, and certain things are better left unsaid. 

Chapter 39

Flight Plan: Instruction 4b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 15

Location: Light-years near the closer edge of Andromeda 

      How would he do it?  Everyone hated the man anyway; if he just killed him out in the open for everyone to see, surely the rest of the crew would stand by him and make up a lie to tell to tell STAR during the next communication.  Arnold, however, might not be willing to obstruct justice so blatantly.  He’d lied about the nature of the deaths of Mark and Craig, but in that case, both the victim and the killer were beyond the justice system of this world.  If Jason killed David, Arnold may not be able to spare Jason’s as he’d done Mark’s reputation.

      But how else could he do it?  There was no question in Jason’s mind that David deserved to die.  The insults that he’d delivered to Lauren a week ago were still fresh in his mind, bouncing around his eardrum in the form of piercing echoes.  It wasn’t the insults themselves that angered Jason to the point of murderous rage, it was the idea that he had to sit there and take them just as she had.  He needed to be able to defend her, but she wasn’t his to defend.  He had felt as though someone had him restrained against his will while we watched the Love of his life being brutally raped.

      The more he thought, the more his anger clouded his insight.  The most beautiful piece of flesh ever to emerge into existence was constantly being dangled in front of him, but just far enough out of reach to make it useless to grab for it.  As he listened to the Smashing Pumpkins, the blood in his veins boiled with rage.  He wanted her so badly; he’d wanted her for a ridiculous amount of years, and he could never have her.  He was constantly doomed to have that emptiness inside of him.

      “Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and god is empty, just like me,” Jason sang along with the lyrics.

      “Jason, you and I need to talk,” Jack Peskie said, walking over to him.

      “No we don’t,” Jason said.

      “Yes we do,” Jack insisted.  “Why don’t we use Arnold’s office?”

      Although Jason greatly desired to talk and get some of the bullshit off his chest, he really didn’t want to.  But at this moment, his desire got the better of him.  “Fine,” he said.

      A few moments later, Jack sat behind Arnold’s desk with Jason in front of it, as if this was some sort of extremely bizarre job interview.

      “It’s quite obvious to those of us who know your position,” Jack began, “that you haven’t been acting too healthy over the past few days, ever since Arnold and Lauren began...consummating.”

      “That’s not what’s been bothering me,” said Jason.

      “Yes it is,” Jack stated.  “You’re telling yourself it’s David’s insults at Lauren, and that may be part of it, but the majority of your rage is stemming from your jealousy.  You’re just pointing it in the easiest direction, and that’s at the man who’s already the villain.”

      “Arnold hasn’t done anything wrong,” Jason said.  “I’m not gonna lie and say I’m not extremely jealous, but it’s not Arnold’s fault that he loves Lauren too, and that she loves him back.”

      “Oh, Jason,” said Jack.  “For such an intelligent human being, you say the most predictable things sometimes.”

      Jason allowed himself a heavy sigh, then slouched back in his chair.  “Well, I’m right about it anyway.”

      “Not in your mind,” Jack said.  “You’re perfectly right to the rest of us, and it’s true.  Arnold didn’t do anything wrong when it comes to Lauren.  All of us know that, even David.  He just attacks Arnold for whatever he can.  But even though you know it in your mind, you don’t feel it.”

      “Well, congratulations, Jack,” said Jason.  “Your ability to state the obvious surpasses that of mortal men.  Now that you’ve told me everything I already know, would you like to go for the grand finale and tell me what David thinks of Arnold?”

      “Ooh, that’s a tough one,” Jack said, playing along with Jason’s sarcasm.  “That man is almost impossible to read.”

      “So, what point are you trying to make exactly?” asked Jason.

      “You’re very angry,” Jack explained.  “I’m merely giving you an opportunity to take some of that anger out on me.”

      “So you’re trying to provoke me into exploding at you?” Jason asked.

      “Well, it looks like you’ve just stolen my state-the-obvious trophy,” Jack exclaimed.  “Would you like to try for the sarcasm medal?”

      Jason just shook his head and tried to figure out what, if anything, he could gain from this conversation.  “You think if I killed David, I’d get in trouble?” he asked.

      “Not until we get home,” said Jack.  “Until then, you’d probably be punished in a manner as if you’d assassinated Hitler.”

      “I think I’m gonna do it,” said Jason.

      “No, you won’t,” Jack told him as if he’d just watched a video of the future and knew everything that would happen for a fact.  “First of all, you’re not a murderer, and second of all, you wouldn’t do Arnold that much of a favour.”

      “What are you talking about?  It has nothing to do with Arnold,” Jason protested.

      Jack laughed.  “Of course not, it’s about Lauren.  Sorry, Jason, but you don’t read yourself as well as those around you.  Right now, David is the only one standing between Arnold and the woman you love.  You’re not gonna get rid of that.”

      “I’m flattered at how much credit you give me,” Jason remarked.

      “And the sarcasm medal goes to...” Jack joked.

      Jason rolled his eyes and acted as though he had more pressing affairs to attend to.  “Jack, are you gonna say anything to make me feel better, or are you just gonna wait until I explode at you?”

      “It depends on how effective you want your therapy to be,” Jack explained.  “I can give you some bullshit statement that’ll make you reconsider things and feel better for a little while but not last for more than a day.  Or, I can provoke you into losing control, and the suppressed rage you let go of can be lost permanently.”

      “Well, seeing as how I’m in love with my rage,” Jason said, “I’ll take the quick fix at this point.  Exploding at you just wouldn’t be satisfying enough.  I like you too much.”

      “You like me too much?” Jack asked in surprise.  “I was unaware of that.”

      “Not as good at reading people as you think?” Jason said, for the first time gaining the upper hand in a conversation with the communications man.  “You’re an ass, to me, but you’re interesting company, and you’re sincere.  That’s all I care about.”

      “Well, if sincerity is what you want,” Jack said, “then I think you should keep your rage nice and suppressed, then take it all out on David at the most inappropriate moment possible.  I wanted to give you a chance to avoid that because if you do, you’ll be in deep shit.  But to be honest, I’d pay quite a hefty sum to see David’s reaction when all of your bullshit erupts and comes flying straight at his fat fucking head.”

      Jason laughed an evil yet honest laugh.  He then got up and made his way back towards the office door.  “Well, Jack, that was all I wanted to hear,” he said, and left Jack alone in the room to contemplate just how he’d allowed Jason to beat him at his own game. 

      On the morning of the sixteenth day of Instruction 4b of the flight plan, Maria commented about Ronald sleeping later than usual.  Arnold went in for a closer look, and after ordering Jack to get a MedScan working and to check on him, it was determined that Ronald’s heart had failed while he’d been asleep, and was now officially dead.

      “Well, that’s six gone and six remaining,” Arnold said.  Although this moment has been anticipated for weeks, it still took a fair amount of air from Arnold’s lungs when it finally became a reality.  He had lost half his crew.  In Andromeda itself, he’d lost four different astronauts in four different ways.  Although three contracted the disease, one died by suicide, one by freak accident, one by failed surgery, but only one from the strange disease itself.  Arnold had lost more crewmembers in the past couple months than he had in his entire career combined.

      “What should we do with the body?” Jack asked.

      Arnold stood silently, considering this question.

      “Well, should it go in the back with Lily and Craig, or should we release it through the garbage chute?”

      “Release it through the chute,” David said.  “We don’t want to risk keeping that diseased corpse in here any longer than we have to.”

      “Are you still awake?” Jack asked.

      “Hey, I’ll sleep when I want to,” David said from his bed.  “There’s no medics left to tell me to take my pills.”

      “Those pills are meant to keep you on a strict sleeping schedule,” Arnold said.  “Keep taking them.”

      “Fine,” David said.  “But you should still get rid of the body completely.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not too comfortable having that thing here with me.”

      “What about Lily’s body?” Arnold asked.  “She had the disease, and you weren’t calling for her body to be tossed out the chute.”

      Jack answered the question himself.  “Lily’s body was free of the disease, remember?  All the bad blood cells were gone.  Ronald only got it because he wasn’t immune yet.  But his body is all the evidence that remains of this disease.  When we get back, STAR can study it and maybe find out what it really is.”

      “Does it really matter?” David shouted from his bed.

      “Of course it does!” Jack shouted at him.  “If we’re ever gonna come back to this galaxy, I think we should have some way of knowing whether or not we have to worry about some mysterious epidemic taking more lives.”

      “Well, I think we’ve got millions of years to worry about that,” David said.  “But right now I’m most concerned about getting home, and keeping my own ass alive.  You can risk your life for the purposes of science, but stay the hell away from me.  With the way our luck has been going so far on this mission, I wouldn’t even want to take the smallest risk of that disease still being contagious post-mortem.”

      Jack said nothing, because he knew that comment reached Arnold.  “He’s got a point,” the commander said.  “And as much as it goes against every fibre in my body to just dispose of what could be the only remaining piece of evidence to clue STAR into the true nature of this disease, I’ve got to consider my priorities.  At this point, it’s what it should have been all along, and that’s living long enough to get back and see my daughter again.”

      “Arnold, I understand your reservations, but you have to consider others...” Jack began.

      “I’m sorry, Jack, but my instinct tells me to keep the body,” Arnold explained.  “And if pretty much every instinct I’ve had on this mission so far is wrong, perhaps it’s safer to go against it.  Wrap the body in a blanket and release it through the garbage chute.” 

      David smiled at his ingenious manipulation of the commander as he sat at the ship’s controls that night while the rest of the crew slept.  Now there was no evidence remaining that could incriminate him in the deaths of the crewmembers that had contracted the disease.  Luckily, he was able to take care of all four medics, whether directly or indirectly, and now there was nobody on the ship qualified to figure out that the cause of the disease was a simple poison made from the materials in the medical kits.

      But now, David faced another problem, and that was getting rid of the other five astronauts he presently shared the spaceship with.  Although the odds were slightly more even than they had been, especially now with Maria on his side, he didn’t want to risk a direct murderous rampage.  Lauren was no threat, but he didn’t think Maria would be enough of an ally to take on Arnold, Jack, and Jason at the same time.  Besides, after seeing David’s true colours, he couldn’t be sure Maria wouldn’t turn back against him.

      Yet there was no other opportunity for freak accidents.  He couldn’t give the disease to anyone else, because nobody had come into contact with Ronald while he had it, and it wouldn’t be believable that another person who had not picked up the disease from Andromeda the entire time would suddenly come down with it just two days before they left.  He could give everyone the disease but himself, but the problem still remained that they would all figure it out once they saw that David was the only one without it.

      No, the only option was to go for a direct approach, but wait for the perfect opportunity.  As of now, David didn’t know what that opportunity would be; whether it would be while the crew slept, or during a period of communication, or during one specific part of the mission.  But he didn’t have to figure everything out now.  Enough freak accidents were happening that David might just get lucky and have a couple more people randomly die.

      The mission was only halfway over, so there was still plenty of time for David to wait for another opportunity to reveal itself.  And once he found what that was, he would take advantage.  But it would be foolish to just jump to action prematurely when a more favourable circumstance might eventually come to pass.

      But there was another reason behind David’s decision to hold off on the killing for awhile, one which he did not want to admit to himself.  It was clear that once he made his move he would have to kill everybody but himself, and he didn’t feel like being alone on the ship for six months with absolutely no human contact.  As much as he hated these people, venting his anger at them was a release for David, and he shuddered at the thought of spending so many lonely days without anyone to provoke.  And now that he was getting laid regularly…why rush to ruin that?

      But one thing was certain; eventually they would all have to die, including Maria.  Once she discovered that he was a murderer, she’d know he was responsible for Lily’s death, and then he would be beyond any point of possible forgiveness.  And even if her sex-drive overcame her moral outrage, the bitch wouldn’t be able to keep her mouth shut once they returned to Earth, and the story would undoubtedly leak.  Besides, David wasn’t too fond of her anyway.  He enjoyed fucking her, and the fact that she was so easy to manipulate, but placed no value on her company.

      And so David decided to just sit back and wait for the opportunity to present itself.  Meanwhile, he would have his fun pushing the buttons of the other crewmembers.  He was like a tiger, playing with his prey before pouncing.  But there was no doubt in his mind that he would pounce as soon as the right moment arrived. 

Chapter 40

Flight Plan: Instruction 4b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 31

Location: Light-years outside the closer edge of Andromeda 

      Passing out of the Andromeda galaxy had not been as inspiring an experience as Arnold had imagined it.  Once the haze cleared away, the Milky Way could for the first time be seen through the cockpit window, and from that distance, it appeared only as a small patch of fuzzy light, it’s bluish tint still too dim to make out.  When the computer beeped to signify that the ship had once again passed the orbit line of the furthest star from the Andromedan core, little more was felt than the mind-set that the work was over, and it was time to go home.

      After that, things went on as usual, or at least as what had become usual with half the crew gone.  The routines were still the same, in regards to exercising, reading, and every other activity to keep the astronauts occupied.  On top of that, there were the daily routines of showering, eating, laundry, and of course, sex.

      Arnold and Lauren would “make love” to each other every few days, while David and Maria would “fuck the shit” out of each other at least twice a day, usually more.  Maria even adopted David’s nocturnal schedule and the two of them would go at it while the rest of them tried to sleep.

      “The more he fucks her, the worse she gets,” Jack said one evening when the two of them were in the bathroom “waking each other up.”

      “What do you mean?” Jason asked.  The two of them had the living quarters to themselves most of the time, and they would frequently talk about whatever came to each other’s minds.

      “I’m not saying Maria isn’t naturally a bitch,” Jack explained, “or that she hasn’t acted like one during this whole mission.  I’m just saying it seems like David is making it worse.”

      “He’s screwing his hatred right into her?” Jason offered.

      “I guess you can say that,” said Jack.  “You haven’t noticed how rude she’s been to everyone lately?”

      “Yeah, but she’s always been like that.”  Jason then sighed, and said, “but I don’t like talking behind other people’s backs.”

      “That’s because you do enough thinking about people behind their backs,” said Jack, “that you don’t need to compensate by talking about it.”

      Jason gave him a sceptical look.  “Is that genuine psychology?” he asked.

      “No, that’s just bullshit,” Jack admitted, “but seriously.  Whether you want to say anything or not, she has been acting a lot more hostile, especially towards Lauren.”

      “I blame David for that,” said Jason.

      “That’s exactly what I mean,” Jack concluded. 

      “Oh god, that was the best it’s ever been,” Maria told David in the bathroom as he dismounted her.  “What did you think?”

      David forced out a laugh.  “It was a fine fucking.  Who’d of thought you’d be so good at it?”

      “I’ve had a lot of practice,” said Maria.

      As David put his clothes back on and threw water on his face, he brought up the common topic that he and Maria had shared since they’d hooked up.  “I’ll bet you’re ten times better than Lauren,” he said.  “Not only has she probably had almost no practice at all, but she’s getting it from our Divine Assfucker now.”

      “I still can’t believe the nerve of that bitch,” Maria said, always glad for the opportunity to chastise the pilot.  It was something Lily hadn’t let her do freely.

      “You should give her a piece of your mind,” David said, throwing his shirt back on and wiping his face with a towel.

      “I do every time I see her,” Maria said.

      “No, you should really just go at her,” David said.  “It’s obvious she doesn’t care what you say to her.  As long as the rest of the crew is on her side, she can still feel superior to you.”

      Maria considered this last remark.  “You know, you’re right,” she said.

      “Of course I’m right,” David commented.

      “I should bitch-slap her,” Maria pondered.  “I could take her so easily...”

      “Yeah, then you’ll show her who’s the superior woman,” David said.

      “But what about Arnold?” Maria asked.  “I don’t want to get kicked off the crew.”

      “Hah!” David said, knowing that as soon as he got the chance, Arnold would be a non-issue.  Of course, by then, Maria herself would be dead.  “He didn’t kick you off when you attacked me.  He certainly can’t kick you off now.  That would be the most blatant display of favouritism in the history of STAR.”

      “You’re absolutely right,” Maria said with an evil smirk.

      “Of course I’m right,” David repeated.  “I’m always right.  Don’t you know that yet?”

      “Since you’re always right, you tell me.  Do I know yet?” Maria asked.

      “Maria, baby, you don’t have a clue.”  David laughed and left the bathroom.

      Maria took it as a joke, and chuckled as she followed him out. 

      Okay, so now we’re building up to something.  You can probably smell it.  Nothing major has happened for awhile, so of course there’s gonna be some mad shit going down soon enough.  I’d like to tell you you’re wrong, and that my writing isn’t that predictable, but unfortunately, it is.  Some shit will go down by the end of this chapter, and I don’t think any of it will surprise you.

      But I could be wrong.  After all, I know what happens.  I even know how the book ends!  Yup, believe it or not, I’m not just making all this up as I go along, because God knows it would be incredibly easy to pull this kind of story directly out of your ass.  I’ll have you know I pulled it out of my ass a long time ago, and now I’m just trying to make it smell good.

      I’m sure you appreciated that image.  But seriously, for all I know, you could be shocked at what happens.  I was pretty shocked when it came out of my ass...

      Do me a favour and consider that last sentence, and how it just exemplifies the true quintessence of the artistry of a writer of modern literature.  Now forget you ever read such a sentence. 

      The two of them hadn’t been out of the bathroom for five minutes when Arnold and Lauren came back into the living quarters.  Maria wasted no time in getting down to the business that had been laid out for her.

      “So Lauren,” she began, “when was the last time you examined your ass to make sure none of Arnold’s dick bacteria is stuck up there?”

      Okay, that was just about the worst comment of dialog I’ve had to write so far.  What is it with all this “ass” imagery tonight?  I hope you’re not planning to eat dinner anytime soon, because I apologise in advance if you are.

      But it definitely did the trick.  Lauren couldn’t conceal her reaction to that one, especially when David burst into a fit of laughter.  She dropped her jaw and her face went red.  She stepped forward right at Maria, and challenged her, “Just what the fuck is your problem?” she asked in the most aggressive voice anyone had ever heard her use.

      You’re my fucking problem,” said Maria, and without warning she swung her open palm and slapped Lauren in the face so hard that the sound made Maria’s eardrums hurt.

      There was a microscopically short period of shock that immediately followed the assault, but in an instant, Lauren leapt at her attacker, and the two women broke into a fit of strangling each other.

      Everyone’s reaction was different.  Jack just placed himself as far away as he could.  Jason leapt to his feet and tried to grasp just one thought as they swam around his head while he drowned in confusion.  David continued to laugh, although now he was in such a fit of hysterics that he couldn’t even breathe.  Arnold went with his natural reaction; to protect his woman.  He grabbed Maria and tossed her aside, then took Lauren in his arms.

      “Now just what in god’s name was that about?” Arnold shouted in Maria’s direction.

      “Is your bitch bleeding?” Maria asked from the floor, where she was presently regaining her strength.

      Arnold examined Lauren’s face, and found that her nose was in fact bleeding.  This made David even more excited.

      “Ha ha!” he laughed.  “That’ll teach that whore exactly who dominates physically around here!”

      At that instant, Jason’s racing mind froze.  It had found one thought to hold on to.  From deep inside, he was able to find one predominant emotion that had been with him the entire time, and once he found it, he found he couldn’t escape it.  That emotion was anger, and he’d been holding onto it for so long that he’d practically forgotten he was even capable of feeling it.  Now, he didn’t just feel it, but he felt the entire force of it, and he knew this time it wasn’t going to let him go.  An entire life’s worth of bullshit, decades of Loving the same soul who never Loved him back, and now this bastard was insulting her in the worst way.  He’d fed Maria his hate, and Maria had made her bleed.  It was as bad as if he’d attacked her himself.  And at that instant, Jason Floyd gave in to his natural instincts, and leapt at David O’Brian like a rabid wolf pouncing on its prey.

      The right fist came crashing into David’s left cheek before the pilot even knew what was happening, and his evil smile was torn immediately from his face.  David doubled over and spit blood on the floor.  His own blood.  On the floor.  It was at this point that David abandoned thought as well.  The sight of blood, a phobia of his, and his own blood no less, spilled by some weakling computer nerd who had a whole lot of nerve...

      David took no time at all with his counter-attack.  He faked out Jason with his left, and socked him in the jaw with his right, but Jason was too furious to even notice if this was painful.

      Arnold thought for a second about jumping in and breaking up the fight, but when Jason grabbed David’s left fist and bit into it hard enough to spill blood, the commander realised he might not want to get involved just yet.  The rest of the crew just froze, completely stunned by the spectacle unravelling before them.

      David slammed Jason in the stomach, but was surprised to find that it was tighter than he’d imagined.  All those leg-lifts had given Jason strong abdominal muscles, and he barely even felt David’s fist as it landed on them.

      But Jason was too furious to be proud.  He grabbed David’s neck and proceeded to strangle him, but his grip wasn’t tight enough, and David tossed him off.  When Jason came back to attack again, David surprised him by kicking him square in the kneecaps with as much force as was possible.  When Jason doubled over, David brought both his fists crashing down on the back of his head, and just as quickly as he’d begun the fight, Jason collapsed to the ground in defeat.

      David just stood over him for a moment, breathing heavily.  He then turned around to face Arnold and Lauren, staring blankly at the injured man on the floor.  “I think Mr. Floyd has some problems,” David told Arnold as if he were giving friendly advice.  “You might want to consider giving him some medication, or a lobotomy.”

      But of course, David underestimated the scope of Jason’s “problems”, which far outweighed any physical damage that had been done to him.  He leapt up from the ground with so much speed that it led others to believe he may only have been faking it.  He put David into a headlock with his right arm, and proceeded to punch David in the face with his left fist.

      “You don’t give up, do you?” David shouted and he threw a voluntary spasm strong enough to toss Jason off of him once again.

      “You have no fucking idea,” said Jason through his own panting for air.  He then made a dash straight for David, who quickly put up his arms in defence.  But Jason grabbed his arms and spread them apart, giving David a head-butt that was equally painful to both of them, but the pain in Jason’s aching skull was negligible next to the growing anxiety in his mind as to what consequences this fight would yield.

      David screamed in agony and grabbed his forehead, leaving Jason open to concentrate all of his rage into the right fist and slam it so hard into David’s stomach that air he had breathed years ago came flooding back out of him.  The arm-lifts had given Jason strength he hadn’t realised he had.  As David bent over to struggle for breath, Jason leapt on top of him, and pinned him stomach-down on the floor.

      “Why the fuck did you make me do this?” Jason screamed as he grabbed a fistful of hair from the back of David’s head, and lifted it high above the ground.  David tried to muster enough strength to counter what he knew was coming, but he couldn’t even manage the air it would take to scream in protest.  Jason slammed David’s head into the floor, and the sound of the pilot’s jaw cracking gave him the first sense of anger release he’d felt in years.  He then picked up David’s head again, and did the same thing, knocking David out of consciousness.  Finally, one last time he raised the head of David’s unconscious body and thrust it onto the hard, metallic floor with a force nearly equal to his own internal anger.

      And then, it was over.  The living quarters were silent except for Jason’s panting.  Upon closer inspection, it could be seen that he was also crying.

      As his first teardrop fell and splattered onto the back of David’s neck, Jason rose and stood in silence, staring at the results of his anger.  Just like that.  A sudden snap, and there was a man, beaten half to death, unconscious and bleeding on the floor.  It was only a matter of time before somebody asked the question.

      “Why?”  It was Arnold.  “Why did you just do that?”

      Jason knew it was over.  There was no way he could continue on with this secret.  The reason was obvious to everyone, even if Arnold wasn’t quite perceptive enough to fully comprehend it.  But there was nothing satisfactory Jason could say now, other than the truth.  He lifted his head, and moved his eyes past Arnold, until they looked directly into Lauren’s.  “Because I Love you,” he said.  “Lauren, I Love you.”

      The most uncomfortable silence known to Mankind in the history of uncomfortable silences ensued.  So much doubt and confusion polluted the air that it was hard for anyone to hold onto a discernable thought.  But the spotlight was on Lauren now.  It was finally her turn to react.  They all waited for it.  Jack, curious only to finally know for sure what she thought; Arnold, shocked beyond belief that he’d been dating the woman his friend Loved for so long without even knowing it; and Jason, who’d been awaiting and dreading this confrontation for as long as he could remember.

      Lauren did him the favour of not taking an eternity to speak the truth.  “I know,” she said.

      This pierced Jason so hard that he didn’t know if he could handle the statement that would inevitably follow.  But he had to hear it.  He’d been through enough pain, and figured that once a house has already been dropped on you, it would make no difference to throw on a building.

      “I’ve known for a long time,” Lauren continued.  “And I think you’re a nice guy, but I just don’t like you.  I’m not attracted to you, and I never have been or will be.  I’m sorry, but we’ll just never be together.”

      Jason was wrong.  The building did make a difference.  A whole hell of a difference, and by god, it hurt.  Already, the pain he was feeling was the worst it had been since his mother died, and it hadn’t even really hit him yet.  The whole thing just seemed like it should be a bad dream he was going to wake up from soon, a fantasy that he could just shake out of his head and forget about.  But now he’d reached the point of know return, once again.

      He stood in silence as the emotion ate away at his mind like acid, and then he collapsed on the floor, descending further into what he hoped to god was just an illusion, but he knew it wasn’t.  Reality wasn’t real, but this was. 

Chapter 41

Flight Plan:  Instruction 4c- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Halfway between Andromeda and the Milky Way 

      And when the lamb opened the seventh seal, darkness covered the sky.  If Jason was the lamb, the seventh seal was the Revelation of his secret.  And once this event occurred, a certain sense of darkness did seem to dominate the thoughts of the entire crew.  So if you thought it was bad before, and this book was depressing you to the point of nausea, you haven’t even contemplated the half of it.

      David kept quiet, which was the only seemingly good thing.  However, if any crewmember besides Jack bothered to look any deeper into David’s psyche, they would have known this quietness was actually a terrible thing.  David had been beaten.  He’d been insulted and beaten within an inch of his life, and now there was nothing left to do but plot and plan the inevitable massacre of his fellow crewmembers.

      Maria still fucked him, although she had to admit she was a little more than afraid of him now.  Still, she needed to get off somehow, and David was the only one putting out.  But the sex was no longer fun and loud.  It was practically silent, and felt more like an order of business than an act of pleasure.  David’s thrusts were more violent than they had been before, but Maria said nothing.

      Even the relationship between Arnold and Lauren turned slightly sour, partly due to what happened to Jason after the Revelation, and partly due to Arnold’s own doubts and fears.  Arnold was slightly disturbed by the fact that Lauren had never said anything to him about Jason, even though she knew the whole time that by dating her, Arnold was making his friend jealous without even knowing it.  If he’d known, Arnold thought, he might have been able to do something instead of let it get so bad.  At the same time, just the idea that there was someone else on the crew who loved his woman turned on his own natural sense of jealousy, and he paid close attention to the way Lauren looked at the man who’d “secretly” Loved her.

      Only Lauren, it seemed, did not change drastically in her behaviour.  Beforehand, she only acted withdrawn and depressed.  Now, she acted slightly more withdrawn and slightly more depressed.  She’d refrained from confronting Jason for several reasons.  One, she knew she couldn’t tell him anything he wanted to hear and didn’t want to have to hurt him.  Also, she was slightly afraid of him, and the intensity with which he dealt with his emotion.  She sunk a little lower because her assumptions had been correct.

      Jack watched with a sense of artificial indifference.  He tried to make a wisecrack every now and then, but seldom received more than a bitter chuckle.  He tried to play psychologist, but nobody wanted to hear it.  He knew what was going through everyone’s head, but there was nothing he could do about it but observe, as if he were watching a case study unravel before his eyes.  He told himself that the darkness didn’t reach him, but he knew inside that it did, and the only way he could stand to face his own pain was to distract himself with the pain of others.

      But he couldn’t reach Jason.  Nobody could.  Jason was gone and on another plane of thought entirely.  After Lauren had revealed the truth to him, and Hope was ripped from his soul and sent flying out the garbage chute, he lost half of who he was.  He’d been carrying it for so long that it wasn’t just a part of him, it was his very identity.  His Love for Lauren, and his Hope that eventually something might have the possibility of perhaps in the distant future maybe happening, had become who he was.  He lost himself when he lost his hope, and so he ceased to speak to anyone, or eat anything.

      And so this was the situation when the Andromeda went through the slowing-down procedures again to make the next transmission to Earth.  It was obvious to everybody that nobody was going to enjoy this.

      In the cockpit, when Lauren announced that they had reached one second per second right at the beginning of the window for communications, nobody moved for a while.  They stared at the Milky Way, which was now much bigger in the window but still little more than a spiral-shaped patch of bluish light.

      After taking note of the date, September 22, 3,849,997, Arnold made a slight rumination.  “It’s odd when you think about it,” he said, “but the light we’re seeing from the Milky Way is over a million years old when it gets here, yet we’re about to speak to the human beings back on Earth who are currently there.  So technically we’ll be looking at a galaxy where the people who we’re talking to haven’t even been born yet.”

      It was a shot in the dark.  Jason wouldn’t break his silence for something like that, although Arnold knew there was a response in his mind.  Jack spoke for him.  “If you believe that time is constant,” Jack said.  “According to the theories of Einstein, time itself is different wherever you go.  When we communicate with Earth, even though the communication is instantaneous, we may be communicating with an instant that took place a million years ago, and we’ve already flown past it.”

      “Dammit, Jack, you’re even more confusing than Jason,” Arnold said.

      “I don’t really understand it myself,” said Jack.  “But I’m sure by the time we get back to Earth, we’ll have caught up with time.”

      Arnold shook his head and sighed.  “So let’s just get this damn transmission over with, whatever dimension of time we may be transmitting to.”

      Jack didn’t bother explaining the difference between dimensions and time.  The six astronauts rose from their seats and went back to the living quarters.  Jack went through the basic procedures, and soon enough, they were talking to Lance Jones, a communications man for the STAR Corporation mission control.  Apparently, the C.E.O. was too busy to be bothered with them.

      “I’m ready for your report whenever you want to give it, Commander Juciper,” said Jones.

      “I don’t really want to give it at all,” said Arnold.  “But I might as well.  It’s my duty to inform STAR that four members of my crew lost their lives in Andromeda, and now only half of the original twelve remain.”

      “Which crewmembers?” asked Jones.

      “Our Medical Officers Todd Blankens and Lily Zaw, and our Surgeons Elliot Larken and Ronald Stark.”  Arnold bit his own lip at the thought.

      “So you have no medical personnel aboard your ship?” asked Jones for clarification.

      “That’s correct,” Arnold said.  “I believe you have records of a mysterious illness contracted by Lily Zaw that we transmitted to you through Morse code upon entering Andromeda.  Elliot Larken caught the disease and sacrificed himself so that Ronald Stark could perform heart surgery to save Zaw, but the operation was a failure.  Zaw died during the operation, and Stark caught the disease and died several weeks later.  Todd Blankens died because of a freak accident during our Extra-Vehicular Activity. We lost track of him and believe he was sucked into the black hole at the centre of that galaxy.”

      “This is all very shocking information, Commander Juciper,” said Jones, although he didn’t sound the least bit shocked at all.  “I hope you realise that you are held accountable for anything that goes wrong during this mission.  Upon your return, if we find that any one of these catastrophes was not unavoidable, you could lose your job.”

      Every crewmember including David looked at their commander.  He was making himself a sacrificial lamb.  He could easily have mentioned that it was David’s sudden manoeuvre that caused the surgery to fail.  He didn’t even have to tell the truth about Todd’s death.  Why was he doing this?

      “Don’t worry,” said Arnold.  “I don’t plan on keeping this job once I get back anyway.  This mission has given me enough time in space to last a lifetime.”

       There was silence through the speakers for a moment.  Perhaps Jones was trying to contemplate how it was possible to go through even one week of life without journeying into space.

      “Well, Commander, thank you for the report,” Jones finally said.  “We will entrust you with command at least until the next transmission.  As of now, we have no reason to believe that you are responsible for any of the tragedies that have plagued your crew throughout this mission.”  He may have been reading something.  “Our hearts go out to you, and we wish you the best of luck for the remainder of your duration in deep space.”

      “Thank you, Mr. Jones,” said Arnold.  “I can’t express how much that means to me.”  Because it really means nothing at all, he thought. 

      STAR had practically nothing to say about events going on in the Milky Way since the time of the last transmission.  It seemed that the only interesting thing that had gone on was that the race for expansion was over, and now every solar system with habitable satellites was colonised.  Only the Procyon and Altair systems, where the extra-terrestrial creatures lived, were left alone.

      That night, Arnold attempted a crew discussion to discuss this sense of depression that had overtaken the crew, and to see if there was anything at all that could be done about it.

      “You won’t find a quick fix, Arnold,” said Jack.  “We’ve all got our problems, and their roots are deep inside of us.  You won’t be able to unearth any of them through anything short of miracle.”

      “Well, it might help if we all knew what was troubling us,” Arnold said.

      “I think it’s obvious that the answer is you,” said David.

      “David, that may be your case, but I don’t think it’s true for everyone,” Arnold defended.

      “No, David’s right,” said Maria.  “You’re everyone’s problem.  I don’t like you and David hates you.  And I think it’s obvious that Jason isn’t your biggest fan anymore, and all you seem to do with Jack is disagree with him.  As far as Lauren goes, there’s no difference between the two of you in my mind.”

      “You know, Maria,” Jack said, “even with the huge amount of ignorance in that comment, I still believe that’s the most intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”

      “Fuck off, Jack,” said Maria.

      “Good comeback!” said Jack, with toxic levels of sarcasm.  “And you thought of it right off the top of your head!”

      “Nobody asked for your input,” David said to Jack.

      “I did,” Arnold said.  “Look, right now I’d like to put aside the hostile feelings I know the two of you have towards me, and focus on Jason.  If he keeps on like this, he won’t last much longer.”

      And indeed Jason was a lot weaker.  They looked at him, sitting against a bed in the corner with his arms wrapped around his knees, staring in silence out into space.  He showed no visible sign of emotion and made no indication that he was aware of what was going on around him.  It was as if he was in some sort of self-induced coma.

      But they didn’t realise what was really going on in his mind.  Oh, he could hear everything they were saying.  He was paying close attention, and he comprehended what was said better than some of those doing the talking.  But his mind was at the same time in a completely different universe.

      Jason’s mind was now drifting in and out of the past, and towards imagined futures and past occurrences.  While concentrating on the crew discussion going on, he was also at his house on Long Island, just receiving the news that his mother had died in a car accident.  He then jumped forward to High School, when he first saw Lauren.  The next instant, he was eating his aunt’s leftovers as she told him what a worthless sack of shit he was, and how God hated him.

      “I can’t imagine he’s become like this just because of me,” Arnold said.

      “Believe it, asshole,” said David.  “I don’t like him any more than you do, but it’s because of you he’s gone crazy.  And it’s because of you he attacked me.”

      “And beat the shit out of you,” Jack put in.  “But Arnold, it’s not completely because of you.  I can pretty much guarantee you that.  I have an idea as to what Jason’s problem is, but it might not be the kind of thing to discuss during a juncture like this.”

      “It’s Lauren?” Arnold asked.

      Lauren spoke up.  “No.  His problems stretch far beyond me.  I’m just the one he chose to project all his emotion on to.”

      That tiny nail of truth seemed to crack through Jason’s skull just as the crew looked over to him, and he betrayed himself with a slight wince.

      “Exactly,” said Jack.  “But we don’t know what his real problems are.  All we know is he projects them onto Lauren, and subsequently all of his emotions are tied to her in a bizarre psychological way.  Whatever these emotions are, and wherever they come from is the issue.  But again, I don’t think I want to be discussing this during this meeting.”

      “Fine,” Arnold said.  “Then the meeting is over.”  He dismissed the other crewmembers, and took Jack back into his office.

      “So what’s his problem?” Arnold asked.

      Jack sat behind the desk and leaned back with his feet propped up on the edge.  “I believe it’s a mild case of a disorder similar to that of dissociative identity.”

      “Um...yeah,” Arnold said.

      “You’ve never heard of dissociative identity disorder?” Jack asked with a hint of surprise.

      “No,” Arnold said.  “Should I have?”

      “Multiple personalities?” Jack offered.

      Arnold was clearly confused.  “Wait, you mean Jason has multiple personalities?”

      “No,” said Jack, “that’s just the worst cases of dissociative identity.  Jason’s problem is similar but not the same.”

      “Could you please just explain this to me like I’m in High School?” Arnold pleaded.

      “Of course,” said Jack.  “We all dissociate.  Everyone does it; it’s a natural function of the human mind.  We act differently in different situations.  When we look back on certain events, we differentiate between who we were during that event and who we are now.  It’s dissociative identity.  In some cases, it just goes to the extreme.”

      “What does this have to do with Jason?” asked Arnold.

      “I’m getting to that.  And please raise your hand if you have a question,” Jack said, imitating his High School psychology teacher.  “I hope you’re taking notes, because this will be on the quiz.”

      “Jack, I didn’t literally mean...”

      “I know I know,” said Jack.  “Just trying to lighten the mood.  I apologise.  Anyway, sometimes this dissociation function can be taken to extreme, when a person differentiates between another part of his or herself so intensely that they actually split up and put memory barriers between their identities.  With one identity, they will do something horrible, and then when they have another, they will actually have no recollection whatsoever of what they did while they were under the other identity.”

      “You’re losing me,” said Arnold.

      “Billy and Bob are the same person,” Jack explained.  “Billy rapes his girlfriend, and is so disgusted with himself that he becomes Bob, who is not Billy, and therefore did not rape anyone.  When Billy goes up to his girlfriend and she runs away from him, Bob is confused because he didn’t rape anybody.  He doesn’t even remember the experience.  If you measured his brain patterns and made him take a lie detector test, he’d be telling the truth when he says he didn’t rape his girlfriend, because Bob didn’t.  But if he becomes Billy again, he’ll remember, but he won’t remember anything Bob did.  The same person, two identities.”

      “And Jason...”

      “I think it works in reverse with Jason, like it does in most cases.  Instead of him being the one to inflict harm, he was the one to whom the harm was done,” Jack said.  “I think he had a traumatic childhood because he never mentions anything that happened to him before High School.  I think in High School, he found a new identity by falling in love with Lauren.”

      “Hold on, fuck!” Arnold exclaimed.  “You’re not saying...”

      “I’ll tell you what I’m saying,” Jack said, beginning to lose patience with Arnold’s interruptions.  “He lost more than Lauren when she told him the truth.  He lost the identity he’d been living under for so many years.  Sure, it’s not a true case of dissociative identity disorder.  I don’t think he ever forgot what happened to him as a child, whatever it was, but he never had to deal with it when he was the man in love with Lauren.”

      A long pause from Jack indicated that Arnold was now free to talk.  “So are you saying he doesn’t love Lauren anymore?”

      “Not at all,” said Jack.  “But his hope is gone, and that’s what kept him going.  It was that tiny shred of hope that allowed him to keep his mind focussed on Lauren and not all the other bullshit inside of him.  When that disappeared, it opened the floodgates, and now he’s dealing with everything that happened to him before he met Lauren.  Before High School.”

      “That’s the most ingenious thing I’ve ever heard, Jack,” said Arnold.

      “Actually, it’s probably just bullshit.  The field of psychology seems to change week to week.  And we’ve been gone a few thousand centuries.”  Jack offered a tiny smirk.

      “So what can I do about it?” asked Arnold.

      “No idea,” said Jack.  “I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.  After all, my job is just to talk through a microphone, not cure all the deep-seated psychological problems of my fellow crewmembers.”

      Arnold took a deep, frustrated breath.  “If he dies, I’m never gonna stop blaming myself.  We were friends.”

      “Not anymore,” said Jack.  “Your friendship ended the moment he saw you noticing Lauren in the same way he did.  You were stealing his identity.”

      “Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do about it?” Arnold yelled, now reaching the point of anger.  “Am I just supposed to give Lauren up, give her an order to go fuck him or something?”

      “First of all, no, and second of all, he doesn’t want to fuck her,” said Jack.  “He just wants to be with her.  I guess he just wants her to love him back.”

      “Well, I can’t order her to love somebody,” Arnold protested.

      “And nobody is saying you can,” said Jack.  “But I don’t think anything’s gonna get better until his situation with Lauren comes to some sort of resolution.  But you never know.  His will might not be as strong as I think.  People get hungry.  If he breaks down enough to eat something, everything else might break down as well.”

      “So I should just give it more time?” Arnold asked.

      “Yeah,” Jack said.  “Just not too much more time, or he’s libel to die of starvation, or just completely lose his mind.” 

Chapter 42

Flight Plan: Instruction 4d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 11

Location: Millions of light-years outside the Milky Way 

      The days went by as Arnold “gave it more time” but Jason didn’t budge from his mental position.  When someone would speak to him, he would mostly just stare off into space as if he couldn’t hear them.  There were rare occasions when he would look someone in the eye but give no indication otherwise that he was listening.  He sat against his bed most of the time, moving only to go to sleep and shower in the morning, as well as go to the kitchen for some water, or to the cockpit for a change of scenery.

      But eventually, he became so weak that he lost the strength to do anything but get up and go to bed.  He even stopped drinking water because going to the kitchen was too much of a strain.  He just sat in his world of silence, in another dimension of space and time entirely.  His eyes fixed on nothing that could be seen by other crewmembers.  Their only guess was that he was looking somewhere beyond, either to a distant memory or some obscure fantasy.  But there was no way to tell.

      Jack brought him some water, and he took it without looking at him, drank it, and placed the empty cup down next to him.  “What?” Jack asked, “I don’t get a ‘thank you’?”

      Jason closed his eyes, and if Jack didn’t know any better, he’d say that Jason had fallen asleep.

      “Oh, I guess there’s no reason to be grateful, right?” Jack continued.  “After all, the water is just keeping you alive, and why should you appreciate that?”

      No response at all from Jason.

      “If I got you some food, I suppose you wouldn’t eat it?” Jack asked.  Without waiting for the lack of response, he continued.  “I guess not, seeing as how you’ve refused all the other meals we’ve brought you.  But it was Arnold who brought those, right?  And he’s the reason for your distress.”

      Jason gave the faintest sign of what might have appeared to be him beginning to shake his head, but then choosing not to.

      “You know, without you speaking, there’s really nobody for me to talk to around here,” said Jack.  “It’s quite boring, really.  I might just have to kill David just to give the rest of us something to talk about.”

      Jason opened his eyes, but made no other movement.

      “This is a fascinating dialog,” said Jack.  “Don’t you think so?  Blink once for yes and twice for no.”

      Jason merely closed his eyes again.

      “I see,” said Jack, and then decided to switch gears.  “All right, Jason, what the fuck are we supposed to do to bring you out of this?  I know David and Maria are perfectly willing to watch you starve to death, although David may be disappointed he didn’t get to kill you himself, but I for one don’t want to be the one to shove your lifeless carcass out the garbage chute.”

      Finally, Jack got a reaction, as Jason opened his eyes and looked at him.

      “Come on, Jason,” Jack said with all genuine sympathy.  “You don’t have to talk to any of us; just eat something, for god’s sake.”

      Jason turned away and closed his eyes once again.

      “All right,” Jack said, “I give up.  Just go ahead and die.  Then we all get to feel guilty about your death and carry it with us for the rest of our lives.  And that’s what you want, isn’t it?  This is just your sick, bizarre way of revenge, right?  Well, I hope you’ll be very content adding to Lauren’s suffering when you’re dead.”

      Jack walked away before he could see Jason open his eyes and shake his fist in rage before he pounded it into the floor. 

      “Well, I’m all out of ideas,” said Arnold.  “We can’t force him to eat, and we don’t have any medics or anyone who might know how to sedate him and put him on a life-support system just to keep him alive for the rest of the mission.  So we’ll just have to add him to the casualty list.”

      “Or we could try talking to him,” said Jack.

      “Are you fucking joking with me?” Arnold asked, not making the slightest effort to mask his frustration.  “We’ve all tried that.  Nothing works.  He can’t be reached.”

      “We haven’t all tried it,” Jack said.  “Maria and David have tried insulting him out of it, but he doesn’t react.  I’ve used all the psychology I can, and he won’t listen to you.  But Lauren hasn’t said a thing to him.”

      “I’m not gonna put this on her shoulders,” Arnold insisted.

      “I’m not telling you to do that,” said Jack.  “I’m only saying that I think the only one who can reach him is the person upon whom he built his identity, and whose stripping away of hope caused him to lose it.”

      Arnold sighed.  “How is Lauren gonna know what to say?” he asked.

      “Hey, I don’t even know what to say,” Jack said, “and I don’t even think he knows what he wants to be said.  But I’m convinced that the only one who can reach him now is Lauren.”

      “So you want me to give her the responsibility?” Arnold asked.  “What if she fails?  I care about her too much to make her live with the guilt she would feel if she fails and he ends up dying.”

      “All right then,” Jack said.  “If avoiding guilt means more to you than saving a life, do what you want.  I’m just telling you the only option left.  If you don’t want to take it, we can all watch him die.”

      Arnold Juciper was beaten, yet again.  He was getting tired of this.  It seemed everyone knew exactly how to run his mission but him.  All he wanted was for the whole damned thing to be over.  He wanted to see Rachael again.  He wished he’d never left.

      “Fine,” Arnold said.  “I’ll go into the cockpit and tell Lauren the idea, but if she doesn’t want to do it, then...”

      “...then Jason might as well die anyway,” Jack finished. 

      A few minutes later, after explaining the situation to Lauren, Arnold came out of the cockpit and stood over Jason.  “Jason,” he said.  “I’m giving you cockpit privileges with Lauren.   You can go in there, and she’ll talk to you if you want.  If not, you can stay here, but I’ll leave you alone for as long as you need.”

      Without a sound or change of facial expression, Jason rose from the floor and slowly made his way to the cockpit, holding onto the beds and walls to keep his limp body from collapsing to the ground.  He found his way through the cockpit, and saw Lauren sitting at her seat, turned around and facing the entrance, waiting for him.

      Using the seats for support, Jason managed to get to Arnold’s seat, and then he fell back into the chair, resuming his blank stare.  The Milky-Way was getting fairly large in the window, and individual stars could be made out through the bluish haze.  The spiral-shape was clear, and there were even several nebulae to add to the colour of the galaxy.

      Lauren was just as much at a loss as he was.  She had no idea what to say to this man; she didn’t even know what to think of him.  The fact of the matter was that he scared her more than a little, especially with his recent behaviour.  But she had to do something, and she wasn’t going to be able to help the situation at all just by staring blankly with him.  “Hey,” she said.

      Jason didn’t respond.

      “To be honest,” Lauren said, “I don’t have any clue what to say, or what you want me to say.  I think I already explained about my feelings for you.”

      Jason hinted at a nod, but made no movement with his eyes.

      Lauren allowed herself a deep sigh.  “Life sucks, doesn’t it?”

      Now Jason nodded quite clearly, but still kept his eyes fixed on the void before him.

      “I don’t know what you’re expecting,” she said.  “We all need different things.  If you need me, then there’s nothing I can do about it.  I don’t even know what I need.  I thought it was escape.”

      Jason turned his head, and looked Lauren in the eyes, but she couldn’t read his meaning.  Perhaps he was just surprised that her statement seemed to indicate an opening up of some sort on her part.  Either way it made her very uncomfortable, but she continued to speak.

      “I’m sure you’ve got your problems,” she continued, “and believe me, I’ve had mine.  But I found out that no matter what you do, they’ll never go away.  Even if you can somehow get beyond them, they’ll be with you forever.  I guess you just have to figure out how to cope with them without hurting yourself.”

      Jason moved his hands to the areas of his arms where he’d cut his skin so often.

      “That’s not good,” Lauren said, understanding exactly what he was doing and feeling slightly sickened by it.  “Hurting yourself only hurts other people.  It’s kind of a selfish act.”

      Jason nodded again.

      “So what’s the difference between that and what you’re doing now?” asked Lauren.  “Starving yourself?  I guess you just figure you’re not worth feeding.”

      Another nod, but this was accompanied by a strong look in the eyes.

      “Don’t worry, I know all about it,” Lauren said.  “I did the same thing for the same reason.  But you can’t become what other people made you.  You have to rise above that and realise it was all bullshit, and they were the ones with problems.”

      Jason took a deep breath, and continued to look her in the eyes.

      Lauren looked away, and stared straight ahead of her.  Jason did the same, and a short moment of mutual silence took place.  Lauren was terrified that the next thing she said would cause Jason to leap out of his seat and try to rape her.  She wanted nothing more than to end this conversation and forget that Jason ever existed.  Did he actually expect that she would be able to help him?  Out of her own frustration, she said, “you’re never gonna get better if you don’t say anything.”

      Lauren decided that she was finished.  This situation was way too creepy for her and brought back all sorts of terrible memories about the last time she was with a man who made her uncomfortable and afraid.

      But now Jason opened his mouth, and the first sound he’d made in weeks came out of him, in the form of soft singing.  “Look at him now.  He’s paler somehow, but he’s coming around.  He’s starting to choke.  It’s been so long since he spoke.  Well, he can have the words right from my mouth.”

      Lauren hadn’t heard Jason’s voice in weeks, and at the sudden and unexpected sound of it she almost jumped out of her chair.  But now that she’d broken down the barrier, she had to keep talking to him.  “Pink Floyd?” she asked.

      “Of course,” Jason answered.

      There was no hint of malice in his tone, so Lauren became a little calmer.  “What from?” she asked.

      The Division Bell,” he responded.  “Wearing the Inside Out.”

      “Is that your theme song or something?” she asked, trying to sound as emotionally neutral as possible.  This was not a challenge for her.

      “Not really, it just sort of became that during this mission,” Jason answered.  “Sometimes it’s easier to put your thoughts into words when they’ve already been written out for you.”

      “Yeah,” said Lauren, her sense of relief growing with each instant.  He didn’t seem so scary now, and it was easier to talk to him.  “That’s why I love punk.  Even though they don’t necessarily sing about my exact problems, the emotion is the same.  The anger and the whole ‘fuck it’ attitude.”

      “Pink Floyd has a lot of that too,” said Jason.

      “I know,” Lauren said, “I like The Wall.”  She’d only listened to the whole album once, but she figured it was fair to say that she liked it.

      “It was The Wall that got me into Pink Floyd in the first place,” said Jason.  “It was the first music I ever heard that actually spoke to me, and I could feel it with every part of my soul.”

      Lauren now completely forgot her fears and focussed purely on the topic of conversation.  “You identified with the concept?” she asked.

      “The emotion,” said Jason.  “There were some vague similarities with the concept.  I never knew my father.  My mother...that’s a different situation entirely.  But all the bullshit I had to deal with during school and my childhood...I definitely understood what it meant to build a Wall.”

      “And you’re still behind it?” asked Lauren, for the first time feeling a bit of understanding for this man she’d feared for so long.

      “It’s too high,” said Jason.  “I can’t break free.”

      “And the worms are eating into your brain?” Lauren quoted, pleased with herself for remembering the lyrics to this song which was played so frequently on the radio during her youth.

      Jason was clearly moved that she knew the lyrics, and this shifted his thoughts to her.  “What was it like with you?” Jason asked.

      Lauren didn’t want to talk about herself.  “That’s for me to deal with,” she said.  “I can tell you it’s about my parents, my father in particular, but everyone has to deal with their own problems.  You need to worry about yourself.”

      Jason took another deep sigh.  “That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.  I’m such a self-centred bastard.  All I do is care about my own happiness, and I don’t realise when I hurt other people.”

      “But that’s what you need to do,” said Lauren, surprised at the feeling of sympathy that was rising inside of her.  “You shouldn’t care about what other people think.  You need to focus on yourself.”

      “But that doesn’t work,” Jason insisted.  “I’ve been living like that since as long as I can remember, and it just doesn’t work.  I focus on myself, and all I end up with is more isolation.”

      “You’re looking at the world’s leading expert in isolation,” said Lauren.  “But a long time ago I realised I had to stop caring about everyone else.  Especially my parents.  As soon as I could, I left them behind and went out to do what I wanted to do, and not what anyone else told me I should want to do.”

      “My aunt never told me I should do anything but die at a young age and rot in hell,” Jason said.

      Lauren let some of her newfound sympathy show.  “I know the feeling.  They hammer your own worthlessness into you until you believe it.  Because you were an accident.”

      “Exactly,” said Jason.  “And that’s why God hates you.  He never wanted you.  And that’s why he killed your mother.”

      “Your aunt sounds like a really swell person,” said Lauren.

      “I’ll bet she and your father would get along,” said Jason.

      For the first time during their conversation, Lauren smiled at him.  “Well thank god they’re dead now.  I really have no idea what happened to them after I left, but at least now I can rest assured they’re gone and long forgotten.”

      “Amen to that,” said Jason.

      “I was a ‘victim’ of God too,” Lauren continued, “but in the opposite sense.  If it weren’t for the falseness in organised religion, I would never have been born.”

      “Forbidden abortion?” asked Jason.

      “Exactly,” said Lauren.  “Apparently, my grandmother was a religious nut.  And if it weren’t for her, my mother wouldn’t even have married my fucking father.  Things could have turned out a lot better.”  Lauren was shocked at herself.  Just a moment ago she had been scared to death of this man, but now she was actually opening up to him.

      “You’ve got to wonder sometimes,” said Jason.  “With all that God stands for, if he’s really such a good ideal for the world to have.”

      “But you don’t believe in God,” Lauren reminded him.  “God is just pure emotion.  Love, right?”

      “Exactly,” said Jason.  “But even that can seem to be a cruel God sometimes.”

      “I know,” Lauren agreed.  “But unfortunately, there’s not much anyone can do about that.”  She was aware that he was now thinking of her again, and she was unnerved to find in herself a slight feeling of regret.  “I wish I could help the way I feel, but I can’t,” she offered him.

      In spite of her gentle tone, Jason was now reminded of the brutal truth that had been hurting him so badly in the first place.  “Yeah,” he said with a painful sigh.

      Lauren could only think of one thing to say.  “You don’t need me to be happy.” “But I need someone,” Jason said.

      “That’s not true,” Lauren told him.  “All you need is yourself.  I’m sure you’ve heard it a billion times, but only you can make yourself happy.”  She paused for a minute.  “But I know how hard it is.  Just knowing you’re the only one who can help yourself doesn’t make doing it any easier.”

      “It’s the hardest thing of all,” said Jason.  “Achieving peace of mind is the ultimate goal, and thus the hardest to maintain.”

      “You seem to have worked pretty hard on it,” Lauren said.

      “I have,” Jason reflected.  “I certainly fucking have.  I drew up a whole philosophy based on it.”

      “Yet you’re not happy,” said Lauren.

      “There’s a difference between happiness and peace of mind.  I could be content in my misery,” Jason admitted.  “It’s just that sometimes that gets tiring, and it hardly seems worth it.”

      “That’s because it’s not,” Lauren explained.  “It’s not worth it to just be content with depression.  And I know what you mean because I do the same thing, but I’m trying to change it.  And part of that is to realise that it can change, but you’re the only one who can change it.”  Lauren realised that she was giving this advice just as much to herself as she was to Jason.  Then she took a deep breath and continued, speaking from the bottom of her heart.  “Even if you never get there, you have to at least try.  You’ll never reach the point where you’re always happy, but as long as you’re reaching for it and not giving up hope, that’s what matters.”

      “But there is no hope,” Jason said, the pain now right on the surface.  He couldn’t believe he was saying this to Lauren herself.  “I finally learned that.  It will never get better.  There’s just no Hope.”

      “There’s always hope,” said Lauren, “even when there’s none.”

      Jason breathed a heavy sigh.  “That’s so true.  But I wish it wasn’t.  Hope just tortures you.  It builds you up and builds you up, but it always drops you eventually, and when you fall, you fall hard.  All hope is a lie.”

      “Only if you choose to lie to yourself,” Lauren said.  “You could have easily figured out I knew about you.  I’m sure you could tell I wasn’t interested in you.  But you didn’t let go of that hope until you were forced to.”

      “And even now...” Jason began.

      “...even now some of it is still there lingering.  Well, that doesn’t ever go away,” said Lauren.  “But you need to find something new.  That hope will always be there, but you need to put it in a new direction or you’ll never get anywhere.  Don’t worry so much about what I think of you.  To tell you the truth before we had this talk I was scared to death of you.  But now that you’ve finally opened up and just told me truthfully how you feel, I realise that I had no reason to be afraid.  You just have a hard time dealing with your emotions.  I understand that completely.  I’m sorry I never gave you a chance, but you were intimidating to me.  But I’ve always thought you were a kind, intelligent person.  And I have a lot of respect for you.  You have a lot of potential, and you definitely don’t need me.”  She stopped, because she could see that Jason was on the verge of tears.

      He seemed to have trouble finding a response, but after a moment he gave one.  “What you just said means more to me than you can imagine.  Thank you so much.”

      “Don’t mention it,” Lauren said, but the lump forming in her own throat prevented her from saying anything else.  She had misjudged him, and it pained her to think that if they could have only had this conversation years ago, things might have turned out differently.

      They sat in silence for awhile, looking at each other and contemplating what it meant to Love someone.  Finally Lauren broke the silence.  “So are you gonna start eating now?” she asked.

      “Yeah,” said Jason.  “I’ll live.”

      “Not for me?” asked Lauren.  “For you?”

      Jason closed his eyes and looked away.  He didn’t want to respond to this question.  He had never heard Lauren speak from the heart like that, and now that he’d seen so deeply inside her he couldn’t help but Love her even more.  He gave a half-nod and changed the subject.  “I don’t how comfortable I’m going to be talking to Arnold,” he said.

      “Then don’t,” she said.  “You can’t just push your feelings aside.  They’ll always remain there somewhere.  He might not like it, but you shouldn’t care what he thinks.”

      “You love him?” Jason asked.

      Lauren looked directly into Jason’s eyes, and said in all honesty, “Yes.”

      Jason nodded, and continued to nod.  She’d been completely honest with him.  What more could he ask for?  She really was perfect in every way.  And now this conversation had to end, with him just as alone as when it began.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay.”  He stood up, ready to leave.

      “Don’t hurt yourself over me,” said Lauren.  “Please, I can’t handle it.”

      “All right,” Jason said.  “I’m sorry for anything I’ve done to you.  I never meant to scare you or make you uncomfortable.”

      “I understand that now,” she said.

      Jason nodded, smiled, and gave her one last look before walking away, back to his isolation.  Lauren watched him as he left, wondering if things would be different now.  And as she turned back to look at the galaxy outside the window, now fully populated with life, she realised that there was no question about it.  For better or worse, nothing would ever be the same again. 

Chapter 43

Flight Plan: Instruction 4d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 47

Location: Millions of light-years outside the Milky Way 

      “Sometimes I wish I was gay,” Jason said to Jack one day while they were in the living quarters alone.  “Then I remember I’m not attracted to men.”

      Jack laughed.  “Yeah, it’s kind of a catch-22.  You want to be gay so you don’t have to be straight, but you can’t be gay because you’re straight.  There’s no way out, really.”

      The sounds of David and Maria having sex were coming from the bathroom, and for some reason, Jason’s mind was polluted with the thoughts of his own sexuality.

      “But sometimes I think that sex between two women would be more pleasurable than sex between a man and a woman,” Jason said.

      “What do you mean, ‘would be’?” Jack asked.  “Don’t you find inter-gender sex pleasurable?”

      “Um...” Jason began.

      “Oh, Jason!” Jack exclaimed in enthusiastic pity, “you’re not a virgin are you?”

      “Kind of,” Jason answered.

      “What the hell does that mean?” Jack asked.

      “Yeah, actually.  Complete fucking virgin.  Never had sex in my life.  Never even saw a woman with her clothes off.”

      “You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Jack.

      “I wish I was,” Jason replied.

      “Why?” asked Jack.

      “Pretty simple.  I don’t want casual meaningless sex, but women aren’t interested in dating me.” Jason said.

      “That’s pathetic,” Jack responded in good humour.

      “I know, but what can you do?” said Jason.

      “Still,” Jack said, in mild shock from Jason’s revelation, “it’s gotta suck having a penis and not being able to use it.”

      “It sucks having one anyway,” said Jason.  “I never asked for one.  I’d rather be a woman having sex with a woman.”

      At this, Jack sat forward with even more interest.  “Ah, so you’re a Maf.”

      “What the hell is a ‘Maf’?” Jason asked.

      “I’ve always believed that there are more than two genders,” said Jack, “because there are more than two sexual preferences.  There are those who prefer inter-gender sex, who can be either male or female.  I call the males Migs and the females Figs.  Then there are those who prefer same-sex relations.  Men who prefer sex with men are Mams, and women who prefer sex with women are Fefs.  But sexual preference is not dependent on whether a person is male or female.  A man can naturally prefer lesbian sex, and a woman can naturally prefer male homosexual sex.  Those women are Fems, and those men are Mafs, but on the surface they’re just heterosexuals.  And then there are those cases where a man wants to be a woman having sex with a man, the Mips, and where a woman wants to be a man having sex with a woman, the Fips, but on the surface those people are just homosexuals.  But it’s not just hetero and homo.  There are eight different types of people.  Eight different passions.  You are a Maf, because you’re a man whose natural sexual inclination is between two females.  To put it crudely, you’re a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body, making you heterosexual by technicality.”

      Jason listened with maximum interest as Jack gave his speech.  “Jack Peskie, you are brilliant,” he said.  “I think you just answered a whole lot of fucking questions I’ve had since childhood.  Everything seems to make a lot more sense now.”

      “Yeah, but it still sucks for you,” said Jack.  “Sex-change operations have never been flawless.  But who knows, in the year five million, they may be able to do it perfectly.”

      “I’d make one ugly-ass female,” said Jason.

      “And you think plastic surgery wouldn’t have advanced as well?” asked Jack with a note of playful sarcasm.

      At that time, Arnold came back from the cockpit to get his dinner.  “Hey, Jason, how’s it going?” he asked without much enthusiasm.

      Jason just ignored the commander as he’d been doing for weeks.  There was no real reason for it.  Jason didn’t really hate the man.  It was true he didn’t like him at all anymore, but his anger was actually more about the emotions Arnold caused him to feel rather than Arnold himself.  He simply couldn’t face him.

      “All right then,” said Arnold, rolling his eyes at the childish behaviour of his computer guy.

      David and Maria left the bathroom together, both sweating with pleasure.

      “There’s the Fem and the Mam right now,” said Jack.

      Jason translated in his mind, and laughed to himself.  They were a man and a woman who had just engaged in male homosexual sex.  It was just a cryptic way to throw the same insult at Maria and David that they had thrown at Arnold and Lauren.

      “What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Maria.

      “Nothing you’d understand,” said Jack.

      “Hey,” Arnold called from the kitchen area.  “Could we please not start again with the bickering?”

      “I didn’t start it this time,” said David defensively.  “This asshole just doesn’t know how to keep his fucking mouth shut.”

      “You know, David,” said Jack in all seriousness, “maybe Arnold’s right.  I’m actually not in the mood right now anyway.”

      It could have been a peaceful evening, but just then Lauren walked into the living quarters to get her dinner.  Now all six crewmembers were together with no business to take care of, and Arnold knew that was always a catalyst for trouble.

      “Speaking of being ‘in the mood’,” Maria said.  “Here comes the whore right now.”

      “Hey, Maria,” said Jason.  “If you’re so obsessed with whores, maybe you should try looking in a mirror every now and then.”  Jason had taken to insulting the other crewmembers, but only when they attacked Lauren.  There was no reason for him to keep it bottled in any longer.

      “Jason!” Arnold called.  “I appreciate it, but let’s not start having another battle of insults.”

      “Oh, Jason,” Maria said, completely ignoring Arnold, “did I insult your precious Lauren?  Oh, I’m so sorry, Jason.”  The tone was of a very over-done mocking quality.  “But don’t worry, maybe if you keep standing up for her, you can shove your dick up her ass as well.”

      Jason bolted from the floor, and he would have pounced on Maria in rage if Jack hadn’t held him back.

      David broke into another fit of hysterics.  “Watch out, Maria,” he said.  “This one’s feisty.  Probably hasn’t been laid in decades, if ever.  All that sexual frustration can be a dangerous ally.”

      “Is that why he kicked your ass, you motherfucker?” Jack challenged, still holding Jason back.  But he looked like he was about ready to let go and just start an all-out rumble right then and there.

      David just completely ignored the comment.  As far as his ass-kicking went, he was basically in denial about the whole incident.

      Maria, however, continued to play around.  “Jason, Jason, Jason,” she said.  “When was the last time you masturbated?  Probably thinking of Lauren the whole time I bet.  Have you ever asked for her consent?”

      As this point, Jason had had it, but he wasn’t prepared to brawl.  He threw down Jack’s arms, and backed away.  “Fuck it,” he said.  “This is just stupid fucking bullshit.  And for your information, I have never thought about Lauren while doing that.”

      Lauren made a curious expression, but said nothing.  The thought had never occurred to her that Jason might think about her in his sexual fantasies, but now that she knew he didn’t...there were mixed feelings.

      “Why not?” Arnold asked before catching himself.  “But...”

      “...because,” Jason interrupted before Arnold could save himself, “I have too much respect for her to think of her in that way.”

      “You just broke your vow of silence towards Arnold,” said Jack.  “Congratulations.”

      “Wait just a cotton fuckin’ second,” said David, his curiosity peaked.  “What do you mean you ‘don’t think of her in that way’?  You don’t think about her sexually?”

      Jason was lost in a combination of enjoying the attention and wanting to explode with frustration.  “I’m a fucking psycho, okay!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to have sex with her, I just want...ah!  How did I get into this?”

      “So you wouldn’t have sex with her?” Arnold asked, now completely abandoning his judgment based on the fact that Lauren was right there.  But that seemed to be the general way everyone was handling this.  Lauren just looked on, betraying very little interest whatsoever, although she was actually quite full of a strange, nervous intrigue.

      “No, I’m not saying that,” said Jason.  “I’m just saying that you don’t stay focussed on one person in your mind for decades simply because you think it’d be nice to bang them.”

      “So what the fuck do you want?” asked David.  What else are women for? he thought.

      Jason knew the answer.  He wanted her to Love him, but he wasn’t going to say that right there in front of everybody.  “I just want some goddamn...empathy,” he said, and sat back on the ground, withdrawing from the conversation.

      David wasn’t finished with this whole discussion.  “So, Lauren, I’m curious.  Exactly why is it that you won’t fuck our friend Jason here?”

      Jason wanted to tear David apart limb from limb, but instead he just sat on the floor with his eyes shut, hoping he wouldn’t hear anything that would drive him to want to shove himself out the garbage chute.

      Lauren returned David’s gaze with an evil stare.  There was no answer to that question, and Lauren knew it.  “You’re a fucking asshole, David,” she said.  “You need to figure out a better way to treat people.”

      “Look who’s talking, bitch!” Maria shouted.

      “And you...” Lauren turned to Maria.  “Just what the fuck is your problem, anyway?”

      “My problem,” said Maria, “is people like you.”

      “So why don’t you just ignore me?” asked Lauren.  “I don’t talk to you because I don’t like you and I know the feeling is mutual.  So why do you have to constantly harass me?”

      Maria had no answer to that question, so she just started shouting obscenities at Lauren.

      I’ll tell you,” said Jack, standing up and seeming as though he was preparing to make a speech.  “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with both of ‘em.  Maria here is a spoiled bitch who’s used to getting what she wants, and she feels threatened by people who don’t want what she wants.  She’s also quite naïve and doesn’t like it when things aren’t simple enough for her to understand.  And she doesn’t understand Lauren at all, and misinterprets her quietness as pompousness.

      “This is just plain stupid, of course.  Only a complete fool could mistake timidity for arrogance.  But she got the idea in her head, and because she’s also stubborn, even after she realised deep down that Lauren was not who she thought she was, she refused to accept it consciously, because she can never admit she’s wrong about someone.  Unless that someone can offer her sex, as was the case with David.

      “David is a completely different story.  He feels alone and isolated because that’s where he wants to be.  He doesn’t realise that if he just stopped acting like such an ass, and treated people with a little respect, they might show him a little respect in turn.  But David doesn’t want that.  He’s the villain, and that’s the way he likes it.  That’s the way it was in his early life as I understand, and that’s what he reverted to once all that bullshit with Betelgeuse XII happened.

      “If he wasn’t so ignorant, he’d put it behind him, but he can’t accept that some things are nobody’s fault, and what happened with the Betelgeuse mission was nobody’s fault at all.  An intelligent person would realise that, get over it, and move on, but an intelligent person David is not.  He’s got it lodged in his thick skull that all acts that harm him cannot go unpunished, even though it would solve everything if he could just forgive and forget.  But forgiveness is impossible for the ignorant, and David is ignorance personified.

      “And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, Migs, Figs, and Mafs,” Jack concluded, “is why Maria and David are assholes.”

      Jason applauded, and Lauren smiled.  Arnold just stood waiting for their reaction, but Maria and David were silent for quite some time.  He’d hit it on the button all right, with no sugarcoating at all, and he definitely seemed to have made an effort to make it hurt, because it did.  No amount of petty insults can scar as deeply as having all your personal flaws pointed out to you with complete accuracy.

      Maria, however, couldn’t help but say something in her defence, and since she had none, the only alternative was to begin a shouting match.  Maria started screaming at Jack, and then all verbal chaos broke loose.  Arnold shouted at Maria to calm down, then David shouted at Arnold to shut up, then Jack at the two of them, and finally even Jason was shouting random obscenities just for the hell of it.

      The shouting continued for a good two and a half minutes until Arnold realised he’d lost all order and panicked.  “People, people!” he shouted and banged a spoon on the counter until everyone was quiet.  The commander was clearly frustrated, and it looked as though he was about to do something drastic out of frustration.  “This can’t be happening anymore!” he shouted.  “All we do is argue.  We’re not gonna get through the rest of this mission with everyone jumping down each others’ throats!”

      Arnold looked around, and gave the only solution he could think of.  “As of now I’m issuing an order of silence that will last one week.  Nobody is to talk to anyone else at all.  I don’t want to hear a word from anybody on this ship for seven days.  Maybe by then things will cool down and we can act like civilised people again.”

      “Um...Arnold,” Jack began, “that’s not really such a good idea...”

      “Well, I don’t give a shit!” Arnold shouted.  “I can’t just sit back and do nothing.  This has gone far enough.  I’ve tried nothing and it doesn’t work.  This is at least something.”

      “But by its very nature, silence will...” Jack tried to plead, but Arnold hushed him up before he could reason with him.

      “Your orders are to remain in perfect silence for seven days.  If anyone violates this order, I’ll add an extra week, and we’ll keep going as long as we have to.  I don’t like having to treat you like children, but that’s the only option you’ve left me with.  And I know I’m just as guilty as you, so I have to follow this order as well.  I don’t want to hear any objections.  There will be silence as soon as I finish this sentence.”

      The crewmembers just looked around at one another.  The consensus was actually not a negative one.  At this point, just about everybody could use a little peace and quiet, especially after that episode.  Only Jack was not happy with the order, because he knew how damaging something like that could be.  Yet, there was still a part of him that wanted to enjoy the quiet, and also the part of him that was simply motivated by curiosity as to what madness this would bring about. 

Chapter 44

Flight Plan: Instruction 4d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 52

Location: Light-years outside the edge of the Milky Way 

      Silence must be heard, according to Enigma, from their album The Screen Behind The Mirror.  Jason had this song in his head throughout the entire week of silence, except when he kept himself from losing track of his own thoughts by playing other albums in his head from memory.

      On the first day, Jack had gone up to Jason at the computer with a few R.E.M. albums and indicated that he requested they be played.  Arnold saw this and by picking up the music discs and shaking his head, he made it clear that the silent period meant absolute silence.  Jack would have told Arnold just how unhealthy that could be, but that would have been impossible, because...well, for obvious reasons.

      For the first couple of days, the crewmembers went about their regular schedules, but after that, routine began to fall apart.  It was going through the routines in silence—Arnold taking his cold shower, Jason doing his exercises, David and Maria fucking each other—that showed them just how dull their lives really were.

      This was what they did.  There was so little variety in their lives that they didn’t even need to speak a word in order to do the same things they’d been doing day in and day out for months.  David and Maria could be in separate rooms, but they’d both arrive in the bathroom at the same time for their daily intercourse.  Pleasurable or not, it was kind of depressing to them.

      Jason saw this as the crew reverting back to man’s natural state.  A solid routine of eating, sleeping, and fucking that comes practically by instinct.  There were no words spoken, because no words were needed.  Instead, hidden thoughts and desires became more visible.  That, of course, is the flaw in evolution.  When each animal can think about their own thoughts, they are bound to think about those of others.  Therefore, there cannot be a society of Conscious beings without words.

      The philosophy aside, the only thing that changed from day to day was the size of the Milky Way through the cockpit window, but even that changed so subtly that it was hard for anyone to look at it for extended periods of time.  Arnold would find himself staring at the galaxy, still beautiful beyond description when seen from the outside, yet also incredibly aggravating due to their slowness in approach.  When the only thing that can possibly change is what’s outside the window, it’s very frustrating to stare at the window and see nothing changing.

      The rest of the crew felt the same way.  So after the third day, all of them spent their entire day in the living quarters, with only a short minute for the pilot to enter the cockpit and make sure everything was still running smoothly.  By the fourth day, even this task was abandoned, and the six crewmembers including Arnold merely rolled out of bed, propped themselves on the floor up against the bed, and stared, moving only to obtain that one necessary meal in order to appease the tantalising rumble of their stomachs that dominated the mind.

      On the fifth day, nobody moved at all.  They just rolled out of bed and sat still for twelve hours, barely moving anything but their eyes.  Their eyes; which scanned all of the other people in the room, reading each other during the brief periods in which they met.

      Jack observed and analysed.  The social lines had clearly been drawn.  Three distinct alliances had become of the crew.  Arnold and Lauren loved and supported each other, and theirs was definitely the strongest mental bond on the ship.  David and Maria were allied only to have someone else to look out for them, but neither really cared for the other.  Maria held onto David because David defended her, and David held onto Maria for the same reason, although Jack suspected that he would betray her at the first chance he got.  Jason only looked to Jack with friendly eyes.  He had nothing but contempt for the rest of them, with the exception of Lauren, to whom he only felt Love, only now it was a hopeless Love.  So Jack was allied with Jason, despite the relative weakness of their bond.  Neither needed each other, but theirs was a matter of trust and respect.  The two of them were the only pair on the crew who had some basic understanding of one another.

      Lauren glanced around slowly and seemingly in waves.  She would roll her glance over towards Arnold, observing every centimetre of air along the way, and fix on him until he turned towards her and their eyes met for some reassurance that they were together, despite the absence of all forms of communication.  She’d then gently peer towards Jason, and look upon him with ironic sympathy in that she felt bad for him, but couldn’t do anything to make him better.  He would occasionally greet her glance, swallow hard, and then look away as he’d trained himself to do and now could not break the habit even though his secret was out.  Finally she’d find herself glancing in Maria’s direction.  The ship supervisor was the one who stared at her the most, with eyes always filled with anger, both because she hated Lauren and because she knew she was wrong to hate her.

      David’s eyes behaved in a manner to the complete opposite.  His darted quickly from one side of the room to the other.  He examined much more than just the other crewmembers, but when he did look at another crewmember, he stared at them for a long time and built his hatred even more in his head.  Jason, the cocksucker, looking at him as if he was superior just because he’d caught him off guard...well, who’s gonna be laughing when David kills him?  Certainly David will, while Arnold and Lauren remain only to scream.  Arnold.  David would look Arnold up and down, as if scanning for weaknesses.  He didn’t have an exact plan yet, but when he made his move he wanted to be absolutely prepared.  When his eyes met Arnold’s though, he would lock on with a glare, never turning them away, not even blinking until Arnold was too frightened to continue the staring contest.  David even counted his victories as if it were a game.  So far he was undefeated. 

      About halfway through the sixth day, Jack Peskie set off a semi-catastrophic chain of events.  It didn’t happen all at once.  It just seemed to start on its own, and then rapidly blew itself out of proportion just as soon as it got the chance.  He simply found himself tapping the floor beside him with his fingernails, until he found a rhythm, and added his other hand to the mix.

      It might not have gone any farther than that had Jason not joined in, and begun to play the floor like bongo drums with his palms.  His rhythm added perfectly to Jack’s, and soon, they had a pretty good riff going.  Arnold glared at Jack, but Jack didn’t even look at him.

      David liked the distress he saw in Arnold’s eyes, and joined in by tapping the floor with his knuckles along with the beat, and the duet became a trio.  Naturally, Maria joined in once David had, and because she lacked originality, she merely copied Jack’s method of using her fingernails, and made it a quartet.

      Arnold was now becoming very agitated, because this was most certainly not silence, but he was very conflicted.  It was quite clear that nobody enjoyed this silent period and none of them would have ever agreed to it had they imagined it would have gone like this.  But now they merely refrained from saying anything out of the fear Arnold would carry through on his order to make them go another week, and out of pride for not wanting to be the one to break the code of silence first.  Arnold hated it too, but he knew that he couldn’t stop it, because that would be admitting he’d made a mistake with an order, and then none of his orders could be taken seriously again.  So although he actually enjoyed the little riff that was going on, he knew he couldn’t allow it, but also knew that stopping it wouldn’t be easy, and he lacked the energy to try.

      Once Maria joined in, Jack stood up and went into the kitchen area.  To make up for the temporary loss of one percussion piece, Lauren began to snap her fingers to the beat, although she kept her eyes closed and made no indication that this was funny to her as it was to the rest of them.  When Arnold saw this, and when Jack started pounding on the counter with a couple of spoons, he knew something had to be done.

      Arnold stood up and stamped his foot on the floor.  Out of respect for him, Lauren stopped snapping her fingers.  The rest of them didn’t react.  Arnold ran to the kitchen and violently grabbed the spoons from Jack’s hands.  But as soon as he did, Jason was with them in the kitchen area, beginning to add a little fork accompaniment.

      As Arnold grabbed the forks from Jason’s hands, Jack went back to the drawer and pulled out more silverware.  David and Maria were enjoying the scene from back at the beds, and they pounded even harder until the vibrations in the floor could be felt all the way across the room.

      Within a minute, Arnold had grabbed more silverware than he could hold, and when he dropped it to the floor, Jack dove down, picked up the spoons he’d originally had, and began playing again.  But when Arnold came at him this time, he’d had enough of that kind of treatment, and he began to play the spoons on Arnold’s forehead, which naturally, the commander didn’t enjoy.

      Arnold was now extremely frustrated beyond all possible control.  He grabbed Jack’s arms and tossed them aside, just before he felt more spoons being played on the back of his head.  Without thinking, Arnold clenched his fist, swung around, and nailed Jason in the left cheekbone.

      As the spoons dropped to the floor, all other sounds ceased.  Jason staggered back a few steps, rubbing his left cheek and trying to assess the damage that may have been done.  As he looked up at the commander, all the rage came back to him.  He wanted to lunge at Arnold and do the same thing to him that he’d done to David.  If Arnold had not looked so sorry about what he’d done.

      Indeed, Arnold was incredibly sorry about it, and not merely because he was concerned that he might have hurt Jason, but because he had just broken Rule #1 of being a commander.  He had now committed the same act for which he’d thrown Mark off the crew at the beginning of the mission, the consequences of which were all but forgotten.  That rule was obviously no longer being enforced, but he was still horrified at having broken it.  And what could he do now?  He didn’t want Jason to hate him, but how could he expect him not to now that he’d physically assaulted him?  Should he speak and apologise, break the code of silence?

      Arnold didn’t break the code of silence, and when Jason realised he wasn’t going to, this ignited a new rage inside of him.  The commander had just broken the most sacred rule in the book, and he was still more concerned about not breaking his own stupid rule he’d imposed upon them.  The look he gave Arnold was more chilling than anything Arnold had ever seen, and Arnold’s face staring back at him also changed.  It went from one of apology to one of contempt.  Arnold was angry that Jason was angry with him.

      Jack took Jason by the shoulder, and common sense flowed back through his veins.  The two men walked back to the living quarters to resume their positions and lifeless silence.  Lauren’s face showed nothing, but her eyes clearly betrayed that she was horrified.  The others were just shocked.

      But nobody was more shocked than Arnold, who still couldn’t believe his own actions.  He had just hit one of his own crewmembers.  A commander does not hit a member of his own crew.  There was only one other commander in the history of STAR up until the time they departed who had hit one of his crewmembers, and it had resulted in him getting suspended and demoted to pilot.  His name was David O’Brian, and he was currently staring at Arnold with a look of murderous lust that froze Arnold’s heart in mid-beat. 

      That’s right Arnold, thought David.  I know exactly what it means.  You hit a crewmember.  As soon as STAR finds out, you’ll have to go through the same shit as I did, and justice will finally have be done.  Of course, that’s only if you survive the mission, which I’ll make sure you don’t.  Because really, the scales can never be truly balanced.  After all, you went to Betelgeuse XII, you commanded the Andromeda, and you didn’t lose everything just when you needed it most.  The only way justice can truly be accomplished is with you dead, and me alive.

      Arnold knew that these were David’s thoughts.  After a week of silence spent with the same people, it wasn’t difficult to read their minds.  Don’t think I don’t know what you’re planning, Arnold thought back in response.  You want to kill me, don’t you?  It’s no big surprise.  You tried to do just that before on the space shuttle even if it meant taking you down with me.  But I don’t think you’re brave enough to do it, and I don’t think you possess the strength or the wit that it would take to murder another human being.  I’m more worried about Jason right now.

      And Jason knew this just as the rest of them did.  Arnold, you fucking bastard, he thought.  What do you take me for?  You steal my woman, you insult me, you physically assault me...what’s next?  Are you going to kill me?  Because believe me, I would enjoy it.  I would enjoy it very much to see the look on your face just as you strangle the last bit of breath out of me—the horror of the realisation that you just took a life, and by taking one you now owe one.  You can kill me, but you’ll be dead forever after that.  I’ll live in the dark part of your mind, and my insanity will become yours.  That’s what haunting is, and I’ll haunt you so intensely that Lauren and even your own daughter would run away from you.

      So, Jack thought.  It’s Arnold versus Jason, and Lauren versus Maria.  I guess that leaves David to me.  He’s been eying me this whole time because I know what’s going on in his head, and I know his weakness.  He’ll kill me first if he can, but I’ll be prepared.  I won’t let him.

      On that day, the Andromeda passed into the Milky Way once again, and the one-week period of silence ended, with each crewmember much less sane than they had been a week earlier. 

Chapter 45

Flight Plan: Instruction 4d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 59

Location: Light-years inside the Milky Way 

      They’re not very articulate in their thoughts, are they?  Well, can you blame them?  There was no articulation going on at all, so naturally their thoughts would sound almost childish and stupid to anyone reading them on paper.  And of course, you have to factor in my inability to write well.  But unless you’re an editor or a reviewer, you’ve probably put that past you by now.

      Incidentally, if you are a reviewer, you may want to warn the potential readers out there that this book is nothing but, “...a pitiful and tedious waste of time; a childish piece of self-indulgence that neither captivates the spirit nor entertains the mind.”  (The preceding quote comes from me, by the way, in my own review of this book.)

      Well, to put self-indulgence aside for awhile, the next week of the mission must be described in detail, because it’s during this week that it all comes together and everything that’s been building up finally explodes in, “ of the most irrational and disappointing climaxes in the entire genre of science-fiction.”  But enough about my book.  That’s not what this book is about, at least not on the simplest level.  There are important matters at hand, such as the drug situation.

      Twelve of the stig pills had already been used up, leaving only slightly more than half of the original twenty-seven.  After the one-week period of silence, everyone on board wanted a portion of the remaining sixteen pills, although all of them knew that taking hallucinogenic drugs at this point was probably a bad idea.

      Yet reality seemed to be crumbling around them anyway, and even Arnold needed some kind of escape from the ensuing madness.  As Elliot had once said, it would allow you to escape reality, but you couldn’t tell whether the reality you escaped to would be heaven or hell.  At this point, Arnold was willing to take the risk.

      “Sixteen divided by six means at least two for each of us,” Arnold said, “and four of us can have three.  Who here is willing to take only two?  I know I am, considering the fact that I’ve never done this before.”

      “I’ll only take two,” Maria offered.

      “Me too,” said Jack.  “I don’t want any more than two.”

      “I was hoping to limit David and myself to two,” said Arnold.

      “Fuck,” said David, “I’m not gonna take more than two of ‘em anyway.”

      Arnold cocked his eyebrow, trying to maintain his grasp on the math.  “So who’s willing to take three?” he asked, and saw that Jason and Lauren were indeed the only two crewmembers willing to go more than twice the distance to the unknown.

      “So if the four of us will take two,” Arnold said, “and the two of you take three, that still leaves two pills.  I don’t know if anyone should take four of these things at the same time.  But I don’t want to leave just two lying around here for the six of us to fight over some other time.”

      “I don’t want more than three,” said Lauren.  “I was tripping hard enough with two, and I think I can go one more, but nothing higher than that.”

      Arnold nodded slowly, as if there were some hidden meaning to this.  “Well, then...”

      Jason interrupted as he turned to him.  “Just give me the rest then,” he said.

      Arnold looked into the computer man’s eyes, still as though he were trying to decipher something in the tone of the speaker’s voice.  “That’s five pills,” said Arnold.  “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?”

      Jason didn’t answer, but merely blinked slowly enough for Arnold to figure out his meaning.

      “Okay then,” said the commander slowly.  “We’ll each have two, Lauren will have three, and Jason will have…five.  Then they’ll all be gone.”

      Nobody said anything.  Arnold just took the pills from the sheets and handed them out to the crewmembers.  Nobody had the slightest idea what to expect. 

      Arnold sees the tiles of the floor change shapes as they move to the music coming from the computers.  The Greatest Hits of The Doors is on a repeat cycle, and Jason has not changed the disc since he put it in.  As he hears Jim Morrison singing about lighting his fire, Arnold says, “How many times have we heard this song so far?”

      Jason answers: “Four-hundred and twenty.”

      “Has it been that long already?” Arnold asks.

      Jack sees parts of Arnold’s face detach and float around its surface.  “If math were capable to you in your state of mind, you’d realise even playing one six minute song four hundred and twenty times in a row would take about two days.  To be on the four hundred twentieth cycle of this one music disc would mean it’s been at least two weeks since we started tripping.”

      “It hasn’t been?” Arnold asks.

      “How do you do that fucking math?” asks David, who sees the colours in the room flashing between red, orange, and bright white.  “I can’t even remember who I am.”

      “Maybe that’s a good thing,” says Jack, who now closes his eyes and begins to see numbers dancing around his head, the time that the music has been playing, multiplied by the length of the disc, and the average temperature of the surface of the sun...Jack forgets what he was trying to think about, or if he was even trying to think at all.

      Lauren sees nothing but the beauty of the world all around her.  The walls, floor, and ceiling swirl around in an endless spiral, and Lauren is amidst it all.  The beautiful flashing colours, lighting her fire.  She hears the meaning beneath the music, and it fades into silence.

      But Maria sees nothing good.  Maria hears the voice inside her head that has been calling her for the past several months, a cry for help.  Someone was left behind.  Maria’s tortured mind cannot identify the voice, nor does it want to.

      Jason’s mind sings along.  People are strange when you’re a stranger.  Faces are ugly when you’re alone.  But what is he singing to?  He can’t remember for more than a second, because reality has left him at the last crossroads.  He is hitchhiking now, on a long-since deserted road, and it doesn’t seem like any vehicle will be pulling beside him any time soon.

      Arnold hears his daughter calling, and it puts him into a blissful state of ecstasy, until David gets up and begins to lick the walls.  Rachael’s cries turn to shouts of distress and pain. Arnold can’t save her though.  He is in another reality now; he’s been there for longer than he can remember, and there is no indication that there is any way out of there.

      The flashing lights in David’s mind have subsided, but now red liquid begins to creep up from the floors.  David begins to tremble with fear as a pool of his own blood begins to spread from the far end of the floor like molasses.  Before it reaches him, David jumps up and runs away from this flowing puddle of death, but now it begins to seep from the walls.  Suddenly, a switch flickers in David’s mind, and the blood is no longer death but life.  It instantly becomes of the utmost importance for David to consume this life, or he may lose his own.  He walks to the wall and licks the red liquid.

      Jason pays no attention to David’s licking of the bare swirling colours at the edge of the universe.  There is no ship anymore to protect Jason.  He is floating in infinite nothingness, because reality collapsed an eternity ago.  Just an ethereal melody through the Doors of perception reach through, and there is only colour, no up or down.  No artificial gravity, apart from what exists in his mind.  He feels it pulling him in different directions, and grabs onto what may be a solid piece of the non-reality around him as he is pulled in every direction.

      Jack sees Jason clutching to the leg of a bed, extending his body in other random directions as though he is being pulled by some invisible force.  He hears a cry from his son across the lengths of space and time, and there is nobody around to tell him it isn’t real.  He knows it isn’t, but as far as anyone else on the ship is concerned, there are six different realities taking place at the same instant, and there is no true reality being perceived.

      The terror of hearing his son cry is overpowered by the much closer shouting of Maria, sitting on the floor and clutching her knees, crying out Lily’s name.  Jack walks across the floor to the woman in distress, hoping to God that he can find the strength to help her though this hell.  He doesn’t like the woman, but no one deserves the terror she appears to be going through.  “What is it?” he asks, and puts his hand on her shoulder.

      Instantly, Jack sees Maria raise her head and jerk it back towards him; but not Maria—a hideous monster with a snout full of sharp teeth and deep black sockets with no eyes.  Jack shouts in terror and backs away from this demon.  He sees the others staring at him, their faces also mutating into disgusting patterns.  The only shelters are the tunnels just above and behind him.  Jack hides himself in the air ducts behind the kitchen area, closes his eyes and hopes to remain there until his mind recovers from the horror.

      The screams continue to taunt Maria until they take on the sound of pounding.  Maria listens in horror.  The pounding gets louder and louder, and Maria can soon identify the source—it is coming from the cockpit.  Maria jumps to her feet and runs to the cockpit, searching for the source of the pounding.  She looks to every corner, then finally upwards, and sees through the top of the cockpit window Lily herself.  The dead medical officer is outside the window, pounding to get inside, shouting, “we want Jim Morrison...we want Jim Morrison...we want in side want inside again...” Maria lets out a blood-curdling shriek as Lily melts into a liquid and slips off of the cockpit window into nothingness.

      The scream from the cockpit brings Lauren’s mind back to the living quarters she’d been in the entire time, and she watches Maria dive into her bed and hide in her covers, still hearing the shouts of her dead friend, but doing all she can to block it from her mind.

      Lauren leaves for the cockpit, and sees the Milky Way spiralling around in the endless circle of stars and gas clouds.  She leaves her body for a moment and finds herself outside the ship, travelling at super-light speeds around the spiral herself.  But as the sound of shrieking comes from behind her, it occurs to her that the galaxy she is revolving around is not a spiral but a whirlpool, and she is about to be sucked down the centre into oblivion.  It is Lauren’s turn to scream in terror, the trip instantly turning from ultimate bliss to ultimate horror.

      From his place in non-existence, Jason is shaken into an awareness that something is wrong with the one he Loves—that she is in mortal distress.  Still in nothingness, he uses only the sound of her voice to guide him towards her, and while making his way towards the sound he sees a flash of light in the form of Arnold rush by him.

      When he spots Lauren, twirling through the void of flashing colour, Jason already sees her in his arms, but it is not Arnold who is clutching her.  The skin of her rescuer is red, and flames sprout from his furry body, sharp teeth lining the evil smile of the man who was in command of the ship: Satan himself.

      Arnold does not see that he has become the prince of darkness in Jason’s eyes, but only that his computer man seems to be losing it.  He gives soothing words to Lauren, and holds his hand out to Jason to get him to calm down.

      But to Jason the soothing words are evil shouts of laughter coming from the hideous beast, and the outstretched hand sends bolts of electricity through him like fire, burning his soul as it is branded with the 666 and becomes the property of the Devil just as his aunt had always told him it was.

      Lauren’s horror only intensifies as she sees Jason hit the ground and writhe in pain as though being electrically shocked by something that isn’t there.  “Whiteridersinthesunsetoftimewhirlthroughelectricflamesfromthedarkcavesintheclouds!” she shouts at a speed so that nobody can understand her.  She doesn’t know why she spoke, what she said, or whether anything came out of her mouth, but the distortion of her own meaning seeps beyond the words and to her surroundings until she too cannot distinguish which way gravity is pulling her.  She clutches her seat in the front row of the cockpit and holds on as tightly as her strength allows.

      Arnold hears Jason shout, “Kicks don’t the my what’s before I flames know happen, house to get gonna up shit I want but goes in!”  He watches the man continue to writhe in pain, but stands dumbfounded without any clue what to do.

      So he says, “This time kings and horses beyond horizons of steel blue flames caress the souls of white picket fences.”

      Inside the living quarters, David has hopped on top of Maria who lies beneath her covers, hiding from the unreal.  David licks the blood off the sheets, and the more he licks, the more comes from it.  This will keep him occupied all night, just as hiding will become Maria’s soul action.  In the revolving air tubes, Jack has himself situated, slowly revolving so that gravity is never in the same direction for more than an instant, and this keeps his mind from focussing, although he still hears the shrieks of the demons who pursue him.

      And in the cockpit, Lauren clutches to her chair, Arnold stands perfectly still, and Jason shakes uncontrollably on the floor.  This is how they will stay until the morning, when five of them will regain some of their former mental capacity, while Jason shall remain lost in insanity’s endless clutches. 

      Four days later was the last day before the ship’s next communication with Earth.  While none of them were quite right in the head, Jason was completely gone.  He ate, he slept, and he spoke, but with no sense of order or consistency.  The things he said were what drove the rest of the crew to frustration.  What he said was perfectly coherent, but it made no sense at all when one tried to make sense of it.

      “An electrically charged singularity could make time flow backwards,” he was saying to no one in particular.

      “I don’t know what to do with him,” said Arnold.  “Is he completely gone, or is there anything anything we can do to bring him back?”  For some reason, Arnold had begun to say words twice without even realising it while speaking.

      Jack Peskie had lost his ability to read between the lines of dialog.  “Where shall we bring him back to, sir?”

      “No, Jack Jack,” said Arnold.  “Can we make him sane again?”

      “Ah, but was he ever sane in the first place?” Jack asked.

      “You people are all fucking insane,” shouted David, who was currently on top of Maria, fucking her in plain view of everyone in the living quarters.  It just didn’t seem to be necessary to use the bathroom for sex anymore.  They couldn’t remember why they’d been using it in the first place.

      “You’re the one fucking, David,” said Jack.

      “Jack!” Arnold shouted.  “You’re not listening listening to me!  Can you bring Jason out of his insanity?”

      Jack shook his head vigorously, and tried to remember that he did in fact know exactly what Arnold was trying to say.  “I can’t do a damn thing.  Remember how Lauren made him not crazy before.  Maybe she can do it again.”

      Arnold nodded.  “I’ll go to the cockpit cockpit.”  Then he stopped.  “Or...”

      “Or what?” asked Jack.

      “Maybe we should just send Jason in,” Arnold suggested.  “Jason!” he shouted.

      Looking up from his intense studying of his own fingernails, Jason said, “A rose with a name like Peter would make a good chariot.”

      “It most certainly would, Jason,” said Jack.

      Arnold ignored him.  “Go to the cockpit and talk talk to Lauren.”

      “Lauren!” Jason shouted, the only word he could ever seem to recognise anymore in the speech of others.  “To enter a room blindfolded cleans liquid laundry.”

      The creepy thing was, he didn’t say these things in a strange voice.  He spoke articulately, as if he was actually making legitimate conversation.  The others had decided the only possibility was that he was actually saying something completely different, but his brain switched the words as he spoke them.

      But Jason rose and went into the cockpit, finding Lauren seated where he’d found her so many times before throughout the mission.  Only now, she wasn’t simply staring into space, she was staring at it.  Perfectly still, as though she were a wild animal keeping an eye out for a predator, trying not to give herself away through movement.

      Jason sat behind her, and she turned around.  “Jason,” she said.  “Are you feeling okay?”

      Jason just stared into her eyes. His mind brought him into the present, and all his focus was on the beauty of the face in front of him.  It was a crime, it seemed, that so much of the universe’s natural beauty could be concentrated into one woman’s face.  Jason shouted with the agony of emptiness, yet his face remained completely and totally expressionless.

      “Jason,” said Lauren, “I don’t know what happened to you, but I think you should just listen to me right now.”

      “The fountain on the cliff rocks with the beat of the drums,” Jason stated very matter-of-factly.

      Lauren didn’t even bother.  Of all the crewmembers, she could probably think the most clearly, only her sense of touch and sight was rather messed up.  She still had flashbacks and hallucinations, and her body would occasionally go completely numb and she would space out.  But now, she was feeling perfectly all right.  “Jason, you need to just stop and think about what’s really happening.”

      Jason saw a small hint of caring in Lauren’s eyes, and this tore him up.  He shut his eyes tightly, gritted his teeth, and began to hyperventilate.

      “Jason!” she shouted.  “Jason, nothing is wrong!”  Lauren had no idea what to do.  She didn’t even know how to feel about him.  Now, she felt partially responsible for him losing his mind, and she didn’t know how to handle it.  “Jason, I don’t know what I can do!”

      For a second, Jason froze and his face returned back to normal.  Then a bit of light crept into his mind, showing him the fact that the way he was acting was now hurting Lauren.  This caused him more distress than he cared to feel, and his face returned to its state of agony as he began to shout and claw at it with his fingernails.

      Lauren was out of ideas.  All she knew was that she couldn’t handle it anymore, and she got up and left the cockpit.

      “Any luck?” Arnold asked her as he saw her entering the living quarters.

      “It’s hopeless,” said Lauren in defeat.  Her voice even choked a little, betraying the fact that she cared.  If Jason had heard that, it would not have been a good thing.

      “Then I’m I’m going in,” said Arnold.

      “I wouldn’t do that,” Jack warned him.

      “I’ve got no choice,” Arnold said, and disappeared into the cockpit himself.  He found Jason, his head buried in the back of Lauren’s seat, pulling out individual strands of his own hair.

      Taking a deep breath and knowing he had to show compassion, Arnold went over and sat next to the man.  “Jason,” he said.  “Look, I realise things things seem pretty bad for you right now, but if you’re willing to put it past you and just get back back to normal...”

      “Grading tests,” Jason said, very emotionally, as he turned to Arnold, “makes a dishwasher’s landing on solar surfaces vivid.”

      Arnold opened his mouth in an attempt to respond, but there was not a damn thing that came to his mind. “Look,” he finally said.  “I’m gonna be honest honest with you.  I can’t stand to see you like this.  We were friends once, and now you’re some crazy psychopath who probably probably wants to kill me, but I can understand.  You love the woman I’m with.  It’s hard.  But you can’t let it affect affect you this much.”

      “Strangers flying on nitrogenous substances pack their bags with plutonium, but hardware stores are a thing of the past,” Jason said in a pleading tone of voice.

      Arnold lost his patience.  “What the fuck are you talking talking about?!” he shouted.  “Nitrogenous substances?  Hardware stores?  Do you even know what you’re saying?”

      Jason was about to answer him, but Arnold spoke before he had the chance.  “I don’t have the patience patience to deal with this bullshit,” he said while rising from the seat.  “If you want to be crazy, be fucking crazy.  Just just don’t get in the way of this mission.  We’re getting home home, and nobody is gonna fuck that up!”

      “Lauren!” Jason shouted and let out a high-pitched shriek.

      Arnold clenched his teeth, biting back his desire to punch the man in the jaw again.  He wanted to punch him for his insanity.  Punch him for the confusion he was causing.  Punch him for all the guilt he was making Arnold go through.  But the cause was lost, and Jason’s situation was hopeless.

      As Arnold stormed angrily out of the cockpit, the entire ship could hear Jason screaming, “I Love Lauren!  I Love Lauren!  Fuck all!  I Fucking Love!  Lauren!”

      There was no question about it.  Jason was gone. 

Chapter 46

Flight Plan:  Instruction 4e- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Within one light-year of the centre of the Milky Way 

      This was the most dangerous leg of the mission.  The Andromeda was hurtling towards the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy at such fantastic speeds that any slight mistake could cause the ship to be engulfed before the crew even could even know what was happening to them.  Lauren slowed the ship down very cautiously, until they were merely travelling the speed of light, and reached the one second per second goal at a safe distance from the galactic core, at least three days away from reaching it.

      Through the cockpit window, millions of stars, very densely packed together shone with unbelievable brilliance, but the black hole was still too far for any traces to be seen.  The accretion disc of all the stardust being sucked into the hole would not be seen until mere moments before the space-lock system was to be activated, and the ship to become immune to the inconceivable gravity.

      It was December 30, 4,927,038, time to communicate with Earth once again, and Jack made quick work of establishing a connection.  “STAR, this is the Andromeda, do you copy?”

      Arnold, David, Lauren, and Maria stood around him, waiting for the response.  Jason was curled into a corner somewhere.  A bit of nervousness came upon them as STAR did not respond immediately as it had done on every previous occasion.

      “Um, STAR, this is Andromeda, you copy us, or what?” asked Jack.

      “Jack!” Arnold shouted.

      “What?” Jack protested, but at that moment the response came.

      Andromeda, this is STAR, we copy you,” said the voice.

      After a short sigh of relief, Jack spoke again.  “And whom do we have the pleasure of speaking with?”

      “This is STAR,” said the voice.

      “Pleased to meet you, Star,” said Jack.

      “Jack!” Arnold shouted again.

      “What are you so paranoid about?” Jack asked Arnold without turning the microphone off.

      “Excuse me?” came the voice from STAR.  “Am I to understand that this is the first time you have established communication with us here at STAR?”

      “No,” said Jack.  “It was a joke.  I was asking for your name.”

      The connection was silent for a moment, apparently because whomever they were speaking to was talking to someone else.

      “What the hell is he doing?” David asked.

      “Who the fuck knows?” said Jack.  “Maybe they have to ask permission to give their names now.”

      “My name is George Smith,” said the voice.  “I am a communications specialist for mission control at the STAR Corporation.”

      “What a coinkidink,” said Jack.  “So am I.  Do you do anything else?”

      Arnold didn’t even bother to raise his voice again.  He just stood in silence as he waited for Smith to respond.

      “May we have the report from your commander at this time?” Smith requested.

      “Only if you say the magic word,” said Jack.

      Another slight hesitation.  “I’m sorry,” said Smith.  “I don’t copy.”

      “Just ask me nicely and I’ll let you talk to the commander,” said Jack.

      “Jack, just give me me the damn microphone,” said Arnold.

      Jack handed him the communicator.  “Jesus,” he said.  “I was just trying to get him to use some manners.”

      “STAR, this is Commander Arnold Juciper of the Andromeda,” said Arnold.  “I have only only a very brief report.”

      “Watch the double-wording, Arnold,” said Maria.  “They might think you’re strange.”

      “What double-double-wording?” asked Arnold.  He was unaware of his new speech impediment.  He was also unaware that the microphone was on.

      “I’m sorry,” said Smith again.  “I didn’t copy that last statement.  The computer is reading an error.”

      “Computers can read?” Jack said to himself.  “What technology!”

      Apparently, everything being said was automatically being logged into a computer, and it failed to interpret the purpose of the repetition of the word “only.”

      “I said said I have only a brief report,” Arnold stated again.

      “The computer is still registering an error,” said Smith.  “It wants to know why some words are being repeated.”

      Arnold was tired, confused, and not prepared to deal with the scrutiny of STAR’s computers.  “Why don’t you tell the computer computer to shut up and let me give my goddamn report report?”

      “I’m sorry?” said Smith.  “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

      “This guy’s a real fucking genius,” said Jack.  “Communications specialist!  He can’t even recognise a little speech impediment.”

      “Look,” said Arnold.  “We’ve got six crewmembers remaining, no problems with the ship, and only slight mental health defects defects of the man in charge of our computers.  That’s my my report.”

      For several seconds, there was no response.  “Mental health defects?” Smith repeated.  “Hold on one minute.”

      Arnold shook his head, realising now that he had a pounding headache.  “Jack,” he said.  “I don’t have a clue clue what this guy wants from me.”

      “He wants what the computer wants,” said Jack.  “Here, I’ll finish this goddamn transmission and then we won’t have to talk to him again until we need our bearings for the return trajectory to the solar system.”

      Andromeda,” said Smith, “STAR requests information as to the nature of these mental health defects you speak of.”

      Jack sighed heavily.  “Look, Mr. Smith, we’ve told you what you needed to know, now get off our back, please.”

      “I’m sorry?” Smith said again.  “I don’t copy.  What do you mean by the phrase, ‘get off our back’?”

      Jack smacked the microphone onto the floor.  “Jason Floyd has gone cuckoo.  And since ‘cuckoo’ probably won’t register on your damn computers, I’ll explain with a quote from him.  ‘Flying toasters from heaven will wreak havoc on the octopi in the coffee.’  Now tell me how that registers!”

      This time, no response came for almost an entire minute.  When the transmission was opened again, it was a new voice.  “Andromeda, this is Kevin Johnson, the head of mission control at the STAR Corporation.  Could you please repeat your last statement?”

      Arnold began to get a very uneasy feeling, but his headache was now pounding, and he knew there was nothing he could do but wait and hope the transmission ended without a massive investigation being opened.  He knew that STAR could tell something was not quite right in the way the crew of the Andromeda was speaking to them, but he hoped they could overlook it and just keep the records for the next group of STAR employees to deal with a million years later.

      Jack was now extremely frustrated.  He didn’t know who or what he was dealing with, or what they wanted from him.  “I said, ‘Cheese grows faster in the morning when pelicans catch nitrous-oxide in their fucking congressmen!’”

      Once again, there was no response as it seemed a group of people in the STAR mission control room were now probably gathered around trying to get the computer to interpret.  Finally, it did come.  “Could you please repeat that statement one more time.”

      “George Washington,” Jack spoke slowly, emphasizing every word, “found slugs hidden below nebulae with dripping liquid monkey shit!”

      Arnold’s brain pounded so loudly that he scarcely heard the nonsense coming from Jack Peskie’s mouth.

      But now there was no delay in response.  “Andromeda,” said Johnson, “the computer has come up with only one analysis, and that is label your mission C-2IB.”

      “And what the fuck may I ask is that?” Jack shouted contemptuously.

      Arnold didn’t know what it meant, but he could guess from the sound of it that it wasn’t good.

      “We have no choice but to label your mission a failure due to loss of mental capacity to carry out the remaining mission objectives,” Johnson informed them.  “We must now resort to Contingency 2IB, and cease communications from this point forward.”

      WHAT!!?” Jack shouted.  “We’re not fucking crazy!  You can’t cut off communications!  How the fuck are we supposed to get back?”

      “The Andromeda is no longer a responsibility of the STAR Corporation,” said Johnson.  “We will give you no further instruction, and will not expect to hear from you again.  What you choose to do is up to you, but you may not land at any human facilities that do not accept C-2IB classified ships.”

      “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!!!?” Jack shouted.  The rest of the crew, with the exception of Jason, was in shock.  Arnold was now nearly paralysed with the pain in his skull.

      “This transmission can serve no further purpose.  This is STAR signing out.”  And with that, the communication was lost.  The Andromeda was on its own. 

      Arnold Juciper couldn’t make sense of what had happened.  C-2IB?  He’d never heard of that before.  It must have been some sort of policy that STAR developed long after the Andromeda had departed.  But regardless of when it was instituted, they were now a victim of it.  The mission was labelled a failure.  STAR would not help them any further.  The mission was a failure.  Arnold may not see Rachael again.  The mission had failed.

      Without thinking, the commander lunged at his stupefied communications man, and held his neck with his trembling, frustrated hands.  “You ignorant fuck!  What did you do!?  I give you the microphone and you lose the fucking mission!  We go through all this bullshit, people dying, killing themselves, going insane, and YOU manage to blow the entire fucking mission in a matter of seconds!!!”  Nobody noticed, but it was at this point that Arnold lost his minor speech defect.

      Jack grabbed Arnold’s wrists and tried to pry himself loose.  David and Maria watched in amazement, too stupefied by what had just taken place to be amused.  Jack couldn’t pry Arnold’s hands from his neck.  Lauren grabbed Arnold around his waist and pulled.

      When Arnold felt her arms around him, his sanity returned, and he backed off, his head still throbbing uncontrollably, now trying to face what he’d just done.  “Oh my God, Jack,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so damn sorry.”

      Jack backed away and proceeded to regain his breath.  “It’s okay, Arnold,” he said.  “I’m just as...dumbfounded as you are.  I can’t believe they...could do that.”

      “I just...I can’t believe it,” Arnold said.  “I’m so sorry.”

      Jack walked over to the man and gave him a hug.  “It’s all right, man...I understand.”

      “Well, isn’t that cute?” David said in his most mocking tone of voice.  “The two faggots have made up after a fight.”

      Maria just turned to him and eyed him curiously.  This was the most devastating thing imaginable to happen to the mission, and David was still mocking his fellow crewmembers.  What was wrong with him?

      “David, you fucking...” Jack began, but he couldn’t think of a harsh enough word.

      “Why don’t you just fight each other to the death?” David offered.  “Stop pretending to get along and just kill each other already.”

      “David!” Arnold shouted from behind his pounding skull.  “I’ll fucking kill you if you don’t shut up!”

      “What’s this?” David asked.  “Are you threatening me?”

      “You’re damn fucking right I’m threatening you,” said Arnold.  “Now get out of my sight before I strangle you to death like I almost did to Jack.  Only I don’t think anyone’s gonna stop me.”

      “Well,” David said perfectly calmly, “I would, but I don’t really want to.”

      “David!” Arnold shouted again.  “I’m ordering you to leave us alone!”

      Now David smiled with such a fierceness that it made even Maria cringe.  “What’s this?” he asked to himself.  “Arnold Juciper is issuing me an order?  Under what authority?  If I’m not mistaken, the mission is over.  It’s a failure.  And it seems to me that you’ve got no authority anymore to issue any orders.  As far as STAR is concerned, we’re a bunch of loonies in a tin can!  They don’t give a shit what happens to us, so if you want to direct orders at me, you can do it till your fucking face turns blue, but I ain’t gonna follow ‘em.  Oh, and if you want to kick me off the crew, go ahead, because there is no crew anymore.  Oh, and why don’t you just fucking fire me while you’re at it!  Because guess what, jackass, it doesn’t matter anymore!

      Arnold just stared at his pilot and trembled, knowing that everything the man said was true, but not wanting to fully grasp the implications.  Nothing had changed physically, but now the six human beings on board the Andromeda had been cut off from the rest of humanity.  They were alone in the universe, no longer with rules and procedures but with anarchy and chaos.

      “Arnold,” said Jack.  “Let this motherfucker do what he wants, but as long as I’m on this ship, I’m at your command.  Give me an order, and I’ll gladly follow it.  We may not be at the mercy of STAR anymore, but we’re still in a spaceship, and we still need a course of action.  Just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it, even if David won’t.”

      “I’m with you, Arnold,” said Lauren.  “You’ve got a pilot and a communications man.  We can still get home.”

      They looked at Maria, who looked more scared and alone than anyone could ever remember seeing her.  “I don’t like it, but I’m with you too,” she said.  “I just wanna get home.  I don’t care how, but I’m not about to jump ship.”

      David now broke into hysterics.  “Fine!” he shouted.  “All of you morons just keep polishing the brass on the Titanic.  It’s all going down, baby!”  The former pilot broke into a fit of laughter that took him into the bathroom and sealed the door shut behind him.  They could still hear him laughing as he masturbated. 

      The four crewmembers that were still capable and willing to continue the mission sat in their appropriate seats in the cockpit.  Jason sat on the floor in the back, and David read a magazine back in the living quarters.

      Lauren was slowly applying reverse thrust to slow the ship’s forward velocity towards the galactic core.  It was the third day of the coasting period, and it was time to carry out the space lock near the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.  And it sent shivers down her spine as the accretion disc appeared and grew in size, a mass of bright particles from stars flowing in an endless whirlpool into the massive pitch-black sphere that marked the exact centre of the galaxy.  Thousands of times the mass of the sun, the black hole had gravity that light could not escape even at the distance of the Earth from the sun.  The event horizon was larger in radius than even that massive, multi-million kilometre distance.

      Lauren put the final burn in to slow the ship to the lowest speed it would be travelling before she initiated the space-lock system, which was a series of patches on the exterior of the ship that would lock the vessel at a constant position relative to the black hole, and hold it in place.

      “Jack,” said Arnold.  “This is gonna be one hell of a choke.  Get Jason in a seat and strap him down tightly.  Warn David, too.  Not because I don’t want to see him splattered on the front wall of the living quarters, but because I don’t want to have to clean it up.”

      In less than a minute, all six crewmembers were strapped into their seats so tightly that they could hardly breathe.  Outside the window, the black hole crept closer.  Once it covered half of the area of the cockpit window, it was Lauren’s cue to press the space-lock button.  The instant she did this, the ship’s velocity went from thousands of kilometres per second to zero centimetres per second.  The wind was knocked out of all six astronauts, and had they not been strapped in as tightly as was humanly possible, they would have all flown out through the cockpit window and down into the black hole.  The object was the most chilling sight any of them had every laid eyes on.

      Once the air began to re-enter her lungs, Lauren used the computer to identify the Solar System from all of the billions of dots on the radar, and she oriented the ship with it, so the black hole could no longer be seen through the cockpit window.  The massive singularity was now to the left of the ship, and out of sight.  But definitely not out of mind. 

Chapter 47

Flight Plan:  Instruction 4f- Space Lock, Galactic Core, Day 1

Location:  The Black Hole at the core of the Milky Way galaxy 

      Well, the stage is set, and the band is about ready to begin, I think.  No...not quite yet.  Well, this will afford me the opportunity to remind...

      Dark Side Of The Moon was playing from the computer’s speakers.  Jack had put on the album because the crew had been left Floydless since Jason’s descent into insanity, and Jack could think of no music more appropriate than Pink Floyd’s #1 selling album of all time.

      I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years, I’ve been over the edge for yonks.  Working me buns off for bands.  I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad like the most of us are.  Very hard to explain why you’re mad, even if you are not mad.

      Arnold Juciper sat at the computer, playing solitaire to pass the time and take his mind off the unthinkable situation that the crewmembers found themselves in.  As he played, Lauren Samalc gave him a back massage to help relieve some of his stress, and it certainly did the trick.  Arnold was lost in the peace of mind that no matter what happened, he had a woman who loved him dearly.  Thanks to all the bullshit that had gone on, in less than a year Arnold had become closer to Lauren than he’d been with his wife after many years. 

      Live for today, gone tomorrow, that’s me.

      Lauren felt the same way: that she had finally found a man who cared about her, and for the first time in her life, she loved somebody who loved her in return.  As she stood massaging the back of the man that had become her world, she realised just how little anything in life mattered compared to love.  Even life itself is less valuable than love.

      And I am not frightened of dying.  Any time will do, I don’t mind.  Why should I be frightened of dying?  There’s no reason for it; you’ve got to go sometime.  I never said I was frightened of dying.

      Jack Peskie just sat next to the communications box, taking apart the microphone and putting it back together to pass the time.  He’d had just about enough of the mission and everything to do with it—especially the people.  His friend Jason was as good as gone, and he’d lost almost all respect he may have had initially for Arnold, although he still valued the commander as a friend.  He couldn’t remember ever speaking two words to Lauren, and the other two were...well...he preferred not to even think about them.

      I was in the right, yes, absolutely in the right.  I certainly was in the right.  I was just telling him he couldn’t get into number two, and he kept yelling and screaming and telling him why he wasn’t coming on freely.  It came as a heavy blow, but we sorted the matter out.  I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time.  That geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.  Why does anyone do anything?  I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time.

      Maria Wendall was just as lost as the rest of them.  She was sitting on the floor against her bed, attempting to read but failing to be able to focus on the words.  Everything was so confusing, and she couldn’t be sure who her friends were anymore.  Anyone who had actually liked her was dead, and most of the remaining people hated her.  And now, after betraying David by going along with Arnold, even he didn’t talk to her anymore.  He was perfectly content to pleasure himself, and Maria’s frustration could only continue to grow.

      So like, if you give ‘em a quick, short, sharp, shock, he won’t do it again.  Dig it?  I mean, he got off lightly because I would have given him a thrashing.  It was only a difference of opinion, really.  I mean, good manners don’t cost nothing, do they?  Eh?

      Sitting silently next to the door of the bathroom was David O’Brian, just as crazy as Jason, but maintaining an outward appearance of sanity.  The mission was a failure, and he planned to take advantage.  The plan cooking in his head was perfect.  He would slaughter the crew the second he had the chance, and dispose of the bodies right then and there for the black hole to tear apart any evidence.  It would then only be a matter of re-contacting STAR, telling them there was a malfunction in the garbage chute that sucked out all the crewmembers but him, and making sure they could tell that he was perfectly sane.  They would remove the C-2IB classification and guide him home to the hero’s welcome that he deserved.  It was perfect, and that night he would strike.  While they were all asleep, he would claim his first victims by slitting their throats, and save Lauren and Arnold for last so he could make them squirm and beg for their lives.  After ten long months of putting up with all of the fucking bullshit, justice was finally about to be served.

      I can’t think of anything to say, except...I think it’s marvellous.

      And Jason Floyd lay on his bed, clutching the yearbook photograph of Lauren from High School, studying it as he’d done so many times before.  It was just a series of tiny dots imprinted on a piece of paper to assemble an image resembling Lauren’s face, but the resemblance was enough.  Jason held onto it as if it were his mind, which he was quite aware he’d lost.  He’d lost Lauren as well, although she was never his to lose.  But then, neither was his mind.

      There is no dark side of the moon, really.  Matter of fact, it’s all dark.

      The album repeated itself, and the scene in the living quarters remained exactly the same until “The Great Gig In The Sky” came on.  It was at this point that Jack noticed the anomaly in the wall.

      “What’s that?” he asked, indicating the left wall of the living quarters, the one that faced the black hole.

      Arnold shut down the computer to go take a look.  Indeed, there was something odd going on.  The wall seemed to be changing shape, taking on a slight indentation, which would then disappear, and re-appear again only larger.  This was not happening on the opposite wall.

      “Maria,” Arnold called.  “You’re the ship supervisor.  Do you have any idea what this is?”

      Maria rose from her position on the floor and went in for a closer look at the wall.  “I have no idea,” she told him, and moved right up against it to examine the strange phenomenon.  “The wall is only a few centimetres thick, but there isn’t any force strong enough to bend it.”  She placed her hand on the area of the indentation and pressed harder, thinking that perhaps the gravity of a black hole might be strong enough to cause the wall to bend.

      She didn’t get the chance to say this, though.  Just as she pressed into the wall with her hand, it ripped open, and Maria was sucked straight out into the void before anyone knew what was happening, plummeting down to the massive black hole less than a million kilometres below.

      The scene changed instantly from one of bored depression to mass hysteria.  There was now a gaping hole in the left side of the Andromeda, stretching from five centimetres from the floor to five from the top, and almost equally wide.  The hole was large enough for two of the beds to fit through.

      Before I describe exactly what happened in these moments of sheer terror, I must briefly explain the physics behind the situation.  On a spaceship with a constant atmosphere, any opening would cause the vacuum of space to suck the air and anything else out of the ship instantly.  However, the Andromeda did not have a fixed atmosphere.  More air was constantly being generated in the engine room, and the rate at which the air was produced increased to compensate for the rate at which it was being lost.  Therefore, when the ship was ripped open, the atmosphere began to generate at its maximum speed, which minimized the sucking effect almost completely.

      As far as gravity went, the artificial gravity system was still intact, so the floor was still the main force pulling them down, even though the black hole had an unimaginably greater mass.  However, the system of electromagnetic manipulation that confined the artificial gravity was now out of whack, so the force of the black hole pulled on anything in the line of fire from where the opening in the ship was.  Just seconds after the ship ripped open, blankets, bags, and anything in the path of the gravity’s force that was not fully secured in place was sucked out of the ship.  Only Maria had been unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire at the instant the wall ripped away, and it cost her her life.

      The first thoughts to flash through everyone’s minds were lost before they could even grasp hold of them.  By amazing coincidence, the wall ripped away just as “The Great Gig In The Sky” picked up into the fast-paced, orgasmic shrieking of the vocal improvisation, which blasting at full volume only compounded the chaos and confusion of the events taking place.

      Arnold had the notion to bolt for the cockpit and fly the ship away as fast as he could, but he knew he couldn’t do that in the state it was in.  Lauren had the same idea, but like Arnold she was on the other side of the line of fire, and would have to pass through the massive river of gravity in order to reach the cockpit.  Jack’s mind was completely blank, petrified by the implications of what had just happened, and ready to accept death, which appeared to be the inevitable fate at this point.  David’s thoughts were elsewhere, and he could only grasp one possibility: strike now or strike never.

      Leaping across the line of fire, David rushed for the kitchen area before anyone could comprehend what he was doing.  He grabbed the largest knife from the drawer and made a lunge for Arnold.

      Through the cries coming from the music and the cries of his own confusion, Jack suddenly regained his ability to think, and he immediately recognised what David was planning to do.  Jack knew that David had been planning this for some time, and in the back of his mind the thought that David’s attack would come now or never occurred to him as well.  He leapt right after David across the line of fire, leaving only Jason on the other side, who merely stood in the corner oblivious to the reality of the situation.  Just before David could dive onto Arnold and plant the knife into his chest, Jack tackled the crazed pilot.

      “Get off me, you fucking shit!” David shouted, and thrust out from under Jack.

      “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Jack shouted back, grabbing for the pilot as he stood up.

      “I’m killing you all!” shouted David, waving the knife in Jack’s face as he rose.  “But now I’m not sure how far I’ll get so I’ve got to take down Arnold first.”

      Arnold now stood by the computer, horrified beyond the point of thinking clearly.  Lauren had his arms around him, holding as tightly as she could as though her love alone was a force strong enough to save him.

      Jack’s eyes ignited with rage, and ignoring the butcher’s knife in his face, he lunged towards David again and grabbed him.  The two men struggled with each other, each trying to take the other down, but after only a moment David managed to take the knife and slash the side of Jack’s torso with it.

      Feeling all the strength drain from his body, Jack Peskie collapsed to the floor, just as the climax of the song died away and the loud shrieks slowed to a gentle, desperate cry.

      As David examined Jack to make sure the communications man no longer posed an immediate threat, Arnold grabbed the knife out of his hands and tossed it into the line of fire, where it was sucked out into space and down into the black hole that was wreaking havoc on the ship as all of this took place.

      Lauren dared not interfere, and Jason was too far-gone in all respects.  Jack watched helplessly from the floor, bleeding from his side and unable to muster the strength to get up and help Arnold fight David.

      And the two men fought each other viciously.  Each one was stricken with panic, fully aware that this could very well be the last moments of their lives.  And their hatred for each other was strong, surpassing even the massive force of the black hole just waiting to suck more air out of the ship than it could compensate for.  David wanted Arnold dead so badly that nothing else mattered.  He no longer cared if he went down as well, but he couldn’t die without watching Arnold go first.

      David punched Arnold in the gut at the moment the commander tossed the knife, and as Arnold doubled over, he brought down his other fist on the back of his skull.  “Take that, you fucking sonofabitch piece of shit asshole!” he shouted.  “You ruined my life, and now I’m gonna take yours!”

      “You fucking shit!” Arnold yelled as he hit the floor, and rolled backwards into the computer, knocking the music disc out of place.  “Any Colour You Like” came blasting through the speakers as Arnold reached out to grab onto one of David’s legs and pull the pilot out from under himself.  “You killed the rest of them, too, didn’t you?”

      David crashed to the ground, but slapped Arnold in the face an instant later.  “You’re damn fucking right I did!” he shouted.  “That disease was mine!  It wasn’t contagious.  I was injecting it into all of them while you slept.  And I purposefully knocked the ship off course during the operation so that Lily would die!”  Although it was all over, David couldn’t resist letting everyone know what an evil genius he was.

      It was just as Jack had suspected, and more rage built inside of the wounded man than he knew how to deal with.  If he could only draw enough breathe enough to shout an obscenity at the man, let alone help Arnold kill him.

      But Arnold’s anger was now even greater.  The mission’s falling apart was David’s fault all along.  If it weren’t for David, half the crew might still be alive.  Elliot wouldn’t have had to die.  Lily would certainly still be alive, and Ronald as well.  And all this time, he’d been telling Arnold it was all his fault, to the point where he actually believed it.  That was too much for the commander.

      With vengeance in his heart, Arnold Juciper leapt to his feet and kicked David in the head with as much force as he could muster.  Unfortunately it wasn’t nearly enough, and David rose and lunged forward, but Arnold grabbed him by the throat and attempted to toss him into the line of fire.  But David was too strong, and he added to the force of Arnold’s toss, causing both men to fly right behind a bed that was dead in the path of the black hole’s gravity.

      Jack shouted something to Lauren, and she ran to get the MMU backpacks to serve as a weapon to help Arnold knock David out.  The two men were now using the bed as a barrier to block them from the gravity sucking them out of the ship.  They dared not risk getting up, so they merely punched and strangled each other, hoping the other would run out of energy before they did.

      Lauren tossed a the MMU backpacks into the line of fire, but Arnold couldn’t catch them as they all flew past the bed and were sucked out of the ship.  David let out a howl and jumped up to try and grab one, but he jumped too high and the gravity knocked him on top of the bed where there was no protection from the black hole’s force, yet he used Arnold’s left arm to hold on.

      Arnold’s arm couldn’t take much of that, and he knew it was liable to snap off at any moment.  “Get off my fucking ship!” he shouted, and used his right hand to punch David square in the nose.

      David’s grip on Arnold’s arm weakened, and he let go, now at the mercy of the black hole’s gravity.  But before he was completely helpless, he smashed his left fist into Arnold’s right temple, and took hold of the commander by the neck.  Knowing his next move was suicidal, he leapt up and yanked Arnold over the bed with him.

      Now David’s only thought was that he would die with his main goal accomplished: to kill Arnold.  As he lost his grip on the commander’s neck and flew backwards out the ship, he felt confident that Arnold would follow right behind him.  “I’ll see you in Hell, ass-fucker!” he shouted as the black hole pulled him free of the Andromeda’s clutches and into the void.  Instantly the blasting music gave way to absolute silence.  The last thing David saw happen on the inside of the ship was Arnold grabbing hold of the ledge at the bottom of where the tear in the ship was.  He never saw what happened next.

      The only thought in his mind as he turned to face the massive black hole was that he did not see Arnold die.  He had failed.  And now there were no plans left to hatch.  There was nothing left to hope for.  The Andromeda was gone, and there was none of its air left to breathe.

      David only hoped that he would suffocate long before he reached the event horizon of the black hole, but at the rate the massive black sphere was growing, it seemed that even this final hope would go unfulfilled.  The accretion disc spun faster and grew thinner as David fell closer and closer to the singularity.  All that matter had been sucked into the hole a long time ago, but due to the black hole’s light-bending properties, it could still be seen.  David was about to join that mass of particles in eternal orbit, although in actuality the particles that made up his body would be condensed into a singular point at the exact centre of the black hole.

      The giant black sphere was growing ever larger, and the illusionary particles were disappearing.  The event horizon now looked like a horizon, the light from the stars ending at one solid line below which everything was blacker than the darkest section of space.  As he plummeted further towards the singularity, his life began to flash before his eyes.

      His childhood, growing up in the shadow of his brother.  The death of his friend, which caused him to go into the career of astronautics.  His quick rise to success in the STAR Administration.  His lovely wife and son.  His even quicker descent into anger.  Losing his prestige.  Losing his family.  Losing everything that ever meant anything to him.  And now, finally losing his life.

      David looked below him and saw only black, and around him the absence of the accretion disc indicated that he had past the event horizon, and was now inside the black hole.  He could see all the light from the stars above him as it was sucked in never to emerge again, but he couldn’t see anything below him, because the light that reflected off anything inside could not bounce back upwards.  Because David could not see any part of his body that was below his eyes, he could no longer see his body.  He tried to pull his arms above his eyes just so he could be sure he still existed, but the gravity was too strong now.

      He hadn’t breathed in over two minutes, but he was too terrified to pass out.  Now, he felt the immense gravitational forces stretching him, pulling at his feet a million times harder than they pulled at his head.  He was close to the centre now, and he was being ripped apart, molecule-by-molecule.  If there was any air, he would have screamed in pain, but there was nothing to do now but wait until he was stretched so thin that the particles of his brain could no longer communicate with each other and he would die.

      He’d lead an awful life, and he regretted every single fucking moment of it.  If he could have gone back in time and killed his mother before she’d had him, he would have.  Nothing was worse than the emotional pain he’d gone through in his life, and nothing was worse than the physical pain through which it ended.  But fate is merciful, and all massive objects have a core.  David O’Brian was dead just a few seconds before every particle in what had been his body slammed into the single point at the centre of the black hole, and for the rest of its existence, the Milky Way would revolve around him. 

       Back on the Andromeda, things were far from over.  As “Brain Damage” taunted him from the computer’s speakers, Arnold Juciper clutched for dear life onto the ledge, but his aching arms couldn’t help him endure against the black hole’s gravity for any length of time.  Jack lay helpless on the floor of the kitchen area, and Lauren knew there was nothing she could do.

      Only Jason, who was still standing petrified in the corner, could think of something.  But it was only an idea that bounced out of his head as quickly as it came in, along with all of the other insane ideas that were running through his mind.  Let him die.  Kill yourself.  Save him.  Kill him.  Let him die.  Kill yourself.  And so on.

      Clenching his fists, he felt his palm close on a piece of paper that he crushed.  Taking it out, he saw that it was the photo of Lauren he’d been holding onto the entire time.  And looking up from it, he saw the actual Lauren, standing next to the opening in the spaceship, crying hysterically over the man she was about to lose.

      And all of a sudden, something in Jason’s mind snapped back into place.  There was poor Lauren, who knew nothing of Love other than what she received from Arnold, and now fate was about to take that away from her.  Jason Loved Lauren so much that he felt every ounce of pain and panic that ran through her soul at that moment.  Forty thousand Arnolds, with all their quantity of Love, could not make up Jason’s sum.  And for that reason, Jason had to save him.

      He didn’t say a word as he leapt for the compartment under his bed and dug out the electronic rope.  He tore the end of the rope from the box and manually tied it to the leg of one of the beds in the line of fire.  A quick assessment of Arnold’s situation indicated that now with only one hand left clinging to the ledge, Arnold would not be able to grab the rope, much less have the strength to climb it.  With one last look at Arnold, Jason pressed the button that released the rope from the box, and leapt out of the spaceship, just as the song “Eclipse” began.

      He flew past Arnold, both his hands clinging to the box and praying that he could hold on once the slack ran out. Fifty meters of rope ended, and now Jason was being tugged at by the gravity of the black hole, the electronic rope being blown about by all of the atmosphere escaping from the ship.  He was now in absolute silence, only a faint hum coming from the air being sucked out of the ship.  He looked up just in time to see Arnold’s last ounce of strength give out, and knew that this was the moment of truth.

      Arnold fell forty-nine meters, picking up incredible amounts of velocity every second he fell, but Jason was right there to catch him.  He grabbed Arnold by the waist, and hoisted him onto his shoulder.  Then, pressing the button on the box that took in the slack, he let the box eat up the rope again, pulling himself and Arnold back towards the spaceship.

      As they crept closer and closer to the opening, the escaping air brought the distorted lyrics of “Eclipse” to their ears, the sound becoming crisper and crisper as they approached the ship.  It was the most surreal thing Jason had ever heard, and it triggered his mind to examining just how inconceivable his present situation was.  There was nothing real about it.  The word “surreal” could barely describe it.  He must still be crazy, or at least just dreaming.  Had he just leapt out of the spaceship into the gravity of a black hole?  Had he just caught a man plummeting into an object that not even light can escape the gravity of?  Was he still alive?  What force in the universe could possibly make such a travesty of the laws of physics possible?  He knew these actions were purely motivated by Love, but was Love really stronger than the forces that controlled the universe?

      “…all…give…borrow…create, and all…do and all that you say...and all that you…everyone you meet…”

      They reached the ledge, and Jason used whatever super-human strength he had left to push the body of Arnold back into the spaceship, and into Lauren’s loving arms.

      It was then that the box snapped off, and Jason had only a split second to grab the ledge with his left hand before being snatched into the black hole just as David and Maria had been.  But seeing Arnold in Lauren’s hands drained whatever remainder of will the man had left inside of him, and without thinking, he let go of the ledge.

      “…that is now…all that is gone…to come…under the sun…”

      Yet some other force was at work, and he found two strong hands holding onto his wrist, guiding them to the severed rope that ended just inside the spaceship.  These were Jack Peskie’s hands, and after making sure Jason’s were firmly gripping the rope, they let go and grabbed onto the other end.  In this way, Jack pulled Jason back into the spaceship, and Lauren put Arnold down for a moment to grab Jason and pull him out of the line of fire.

      “…but the sun is eclipse by the moon.”

      And so as the final heartbeats from Dark Side Of The Moon died away, the four remaining crewmembers collapsed on the floor to find their breath, try to comprehend everything that had just happened, and try to figure out what needed to happen next. 

Chapter 48

Flight Plan:  Instruction 5b- Thrust, 60 dps, Day 2

Location:  Many light-years from the Solar System 

      That, ladies and gentlemen, was the climax.  That’s what it was all building up to, so I hope you enjoyed it.  Perhaps it was rather predictable, but I’m only telling it the way it happened.  I can’t go around and change crucial stuff just because I want it all to end badly.  Most things in life do end badly, but that doesn’t mean there are no happy endings.  Besides, it’s not over yet, and even when the book is finished, the ending is more of a bittersweet symphony than a “happily ever after”.

      So the crew of the Andromeda was on their way home, without missing a beat in the flight plan.  A few matters of business had to be taken care of, but it wasn’t much of a problem.  Ironically, with only four people on the ship, things got done a lot easier and with a lot less argument.

      Once the immediate danger was over after the ship had been ripped open, Jason had taken a seat at the computer to get an overall look at the situation.  What they found was that if the hole in the ship wasn’t repaired within thirty minutes, the air being generated by the engine room would not be enough to compensate for the air being sucked from the ship, and the crew would suffocate.  Immediately, they had jumped on the situation, using spare floorboards and a welding gun to seal the hole shut.

      But that hadn’t been the only problem.  The black hole’s gravity was strong enough to rip the docking port from its socket, as well as the Lander, which was bad news if the crew ever wanted to get out of the ship.  Even the EVA suits were gone, having all been sucked out during the struggle.  But these were matters that could be dealt with later.

      The most important concern had been to contact STAR and warn them about the dangerous situation so that Rachael’s ship and the others would know not to get too close to the black hole before initiating space lock.  They knew that getting STAR to return their transmission was going to be a big problem though.

      So once the hole was sealed, Jack took the microphone and the communications box, and attempted to contact Earth.  “STAR, this is the Andromeda, do you read?”  He repeated this four or five times before it became apparent that they were not going to answer.

      “Try putting out a mayday,” Arnold suggested.

      So Jack opened a general broadcast, and shouted “Mayday mayday mayday,” into the microphone.  Immediately, a response came.

      “This is STAR outpost Z-21XL4,” a female voice said.  “You are travelling in civilian restricted space.  Please identify yourself.”

      “This is the STAR-Explorer Andromeda,” Jack said.  “We’re space-locked a few million kilometres from this black hole and our ship was ripped open.  We need a connection to STAR so we can warn them about the other Andromeda ships.”

      The female voice was silent for a moment.  “Your I.D. checks out, but it says your ship has been classified C-2IB.”

      “Yeah,” said Jack.  “We’re aware of that.  We just need to warn STAR about a fallacy in the flight plan trajectories of the Andromeda missions.  The ships are supposed to stop too close to the black hole, and they’ll get ripped open.”

      “What you speak of is impossible,” said the female voice.  “The Z-21XL4 outpost monitors all ships in the vicinity of the galactic core, and no ship equipped with a space-lock system has ever had a problem.”

      “Maybe not in your lifetime,” said Jack, “but our ship is the first spaceship ever to have the space-lock system installed.  You guys have had four million years to perfect it.”

      “Hold on a moment,” the voice said, and it returned in less than a minute.  “Yes, the computer indicates that the very early space-lock systems were installed only in patches attached to the ships and not in the metal of the ship itself.  The patches were not affected by gravity, but the ship itself was, and in instances of extremely strong gravity, the ships were known to rip open, usually through thin portions of the wall between the space-lock patches.”

      “Yes!” said Jack, “that’s exactly what happened!  Now if you would be so kind as to give us a connection with the STAR building back on Earth, we can tell them to warn the other spaceships on the Andromeda missions.”

      “Wait just a minute while I process your request,” said the woman.  “Normally, we aren’t supposed to grant any such requests to C-2IB ships, but I believe this falls under a special circumstance.”

      “Thank you very much,” Jack said sincerely.  He turned to Arnold.  “Wow, at least one of these people can actually think for themselves.  If she just relied on the computer to be her brain, the rest of the ships would be as fucked as we almost were.”

      “I’ve sent an emergency message to the STAR Mission Control room in Tallahassee,” the voice said again.  “They should be willing to hear your transmission now.”

      “I can’t tell you how grateful we are,” said Jack.  “May we have the pleasure of knowing to whom we’re speaking?”

      “Certainly.  My name is Jessica Michaels.  And I presume I’m talking to Jack Peskie?” Jessica asked.

      “That’s right,” said Jack.  “Well, thanks for all your help, Jess.”

      “That’s my job,” she said.  “Good luck with the rest of your mission.”

      And that was it for her.  “Jessica,” Lauren repeated, turning to Arnold.  “That’s a nice name.”

      Jack was feeling better already, now that he’d finally had the chance to talk to a non-crewmember whom he could actually respect.  He turned on the crystal-transmission system once again, and said, “STAR, this is the Andromeda, do you read?”

      “C-2IB classified ship Andromeda, this is STAR,” came the voice that Jack recognised as the communications man George Smith.  “You have been given special authorisation to communicate with us.”

      “Well, don’t we feel special?” said Jack.  “Listen, Smith, we got a problem.  In fact, we’ve got several.  First of all, our ship was ripped open by the black hole at the galactic core because of a faulty space-lock system that you never bothered to mention to any of us.  Second, we lost two other crewmembers so now we’re down to four.  Third, our docking port and Lander have been sucked into oblivion as well.  And...oh yeah...we’re fucking C-2IB, so WE CAN’T DO A GODDAMN THING ABOUT ANY OF IT!!!”

      “The computer has registered your report, Mr. Peskie, but it requests more information about what you refer to as a ‘faulty space-lock system.’”

      Swallowing his urge to slam the microphone on the floor again, Jack explained very calmly just exactly what the problem with the space-lock system was.

      “Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” said Smith.  “Kevin Johnson would now like to speak with you.”

      “What a privilege.” Jack mumbled under his breath.

      Andromeda, this is Kevin Johnson,” said the head of STAR Mission Control.  “Your report has caused the computer to automatically re-examine its data regarding your mission.  The computer analyses every aspect of every ship and crew that contacts us, and the last time you spoke to us, it flashed us a warning that caused us to label you C-2IB.  However, the computer now tells us that there is no sign of mental illness in your speaking, so we may remove your C-2IB status.  Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience.”

      Arnold breathed the deepest sigh of relief he’d ever taken.  Jack only felt patronized.  “Oh gee, it’s no big deal.  Only a couple of people died, but nobody liked them anyway.”

      “Don’t push it, Jack,” said Arnold.

      “I was telling the truth,” Jack responded.

      Johnson continued to speak.  “STAR will continue to monitor your progress in the mission, and the generation of workers that is here upon your return will help you get safely back to Earth.  Over and out.” 

      And so that had taken care of just about all of the remaining external problems in the ship.  There were still internal matters though, and on the second day of the instruction of the flight plan that would have them establish Solar orbit, Arnold brought up the thing that had most been bothering him.

      The four of them were situated in the living quarters, and it was a couple of hours before they were to go to sleep.  “So, Jason, this has been bothering me,” Arnold said.

      “What has?” asked Jason.

      “Why did you save my life at the black hole?” asked Arnold.  “I mean, you certainly didn’t have to.  I know you weren’t too fond of me, and for all I know you still aren’t.  And quite honestly, I can’t say I blame you.  I have to admit I’ve been kind of an asshole for this whole mission.”

      “Yeah, well that’s kind of understandable too,” said Jason.  “Look at all the bullshit you had to put up with.”

      “Thanks for understanding, but I can still think of a million reasons why you could have let me die instead of saving me,” said Arnold.  “It’s not like anyone would have blamed you for not trying.  You were crazy.”

      “That I was, and still am,” said Jason.  “I’ve been crazy since I was a young child.  I’m just better at hiding it sometimes.  Those few weeks I was in the same mental state I’m always in.  I just wasn’t bothering to hide it, to try and make the effort to think coherently.  When I saw that you were about to die, my mind snapped back into place and I realised I needed to think to be able to save you.”

      “But that still doesn’t answer my question,” said Arnold.  “Why?  Why did you bother?”

      Jason didn’t care that Lauren was right there.  When he gave up hope, he gave up almost everything else as well, including his predisposition to monitor everything he said around her.  “I did it for Lauren, obviously.  Quite frankly, I couldn’t have cared less if you were sucked into that black hole.  I don’t think you deserved it, but to be honest in my mind it wouldn’t be worth risking my own life to save yours.  It sounds like a shitty thing to say, but it’s honest.  If it were just you, I would have continued to stand there until you lost all your strength and were sucked away.

      “But when I saw Lauren standing there, crying just tore me up inside.  She cares about you so much.  I wish to fucking hell she could care about me like that, but if I were to die, I don’t think it would mean that much to her.  But she loves you, and if there’s one thing I know it’s the feeling you get when you can’t have the one you Love.  Elliot knew it.  I know it.  And I couldn’t bear the thought of letting Lauren know it.

      “I didn’t do it to impress you,” Jason said to Lauren.  “I wasn’t fully expecting to succeed anyway.  When pitting myself against a black hole, I knew the odds were very much not in my favour.  But I would rather die than have to watch Lauren suffer through the same fucking pain I feel, because there’s nothing worse in the universe.  So many people think they know what Love is, and they think they know the hurt when they can’t have it or they lose it, but actual True Love is so fucking few people are actually capable of feeling it.  Lauren can feel it, I confirmed that during our first conversation all those weeks ago.  Because she can feel things so deeply she would experience the pain of losing love very deeply, and there’s no worse feeling in existence, because once there’s no hope left for Love, there’s no hope left at all.

      “I’m sorry to ramble on like this, and I don’t mean to make you feel guilty or anything, but you asked,” he said to Arnold.  “I just wanted you to know that if it weren’t for Lauren, you’d be dead right now, because I wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t love you.  So you owe your life to her and not me.”

      When Jason finished his speech, Lauren got up and walked over to where he sat.  When she got close enough, Jason could see that there were tears in her eyes.  She held her arms outstretched, and like a magnet, Jason flung himself into them.  This was the first time she’d ever had intimate contact with him.  The emotion was too strong, but Jason couldn’t get enough of it.  He lost himself in her embrace, knowing that it would inevitably end but there was no way in hell he was going to be the one to end it.  He would be content to stay that way and hold her in his arms forever and ever—that was all he ever really had wanted anyway.

      But when the hug ended, Lauren brought Jason’s face down to hers and very gently kissed him on the cheek, just next to his mouth so that a tiny portion of his lips came into contact with hers.  If there was any greater feeling of ecstasy, Jason didn’t know of any drug in the world that could produce it.

      Yet at the same time, it was a crippling emotion.  It was too powerful, and it was anything but the ideal Jason had been striving for.  Whether she could hug him or not, she still wasn’t his.  Whether she kissed him or not, Jason was still alone.  Now he was just left with a tiny taste of what he knew he could never have.

      “Thank you,” said Lauren.  “I really wish I could Love you, but we both know it doesn’t work that way.”

      Like a storm travelling at the speed of light, the pain of the Truth engulfed Jason yet again.  Before breaking down completely, he managed to escape to the cockpit, and plant himself in one of the seats in the front row.  He broke into a fit of intense crying, tears gushing from his eyes and snot congesting in his nose, but he made so sounds at all.  He just clutched himself and let it all pour out.

      As he stared out the window, his entire history with Lauren went through a playback in his mind.  Or rather, his history without Lauren.  He’d been living as half a person for his entire life.  Deep inside, he knew he wouldn’t be able to function with another half even if he could have one.  But that didn’t mean he also didn’t need a soul-mate to Love him.

      Jason did not fall back into insanity, at least not in the same way he had done before.  He was through keeping everything bottled inside.  All the anger and bullshit flowed out through his tear ducts, washing away all the pain and negative emotion.  The echo of what Lauren had just said to him still rang in his mind, a bittersweet symphony indeed.  I wish I could Love you, but...  Those words said it all.

      “And with these words, I can see clear through the clouds that covered me,” sang Jason.  “Just give it time, then speak my name.  Now we can hear ourselves again.”

      Just as he wiped the last tears from his eyes, Jason glanced out the window to watch a star explode off in the distance.  It had just been a red dot a moment before, but an instant later, it was the brightest object in the entire galaxy.  In the blink of an eye, it became more brilliant than anything around it for millions of light-years, and the light of its nova would continue to expand outward forever for anyone to see who might care to look.

      For some reason, seeing this reached Jason more profoundly than any other natural sight he’d ever seen.  He didn’t know the name of the star or anything about it.  He didn’t know if it had had planets, if there had been human colonies there at any point in time...yet now it consumed his thoughts.  That star had been burning for billions of years, and just moments ago its life ended in a death that would light up the sky of a distant planet at nighttime.  The ancients called this a nova because stars that were previously too faint could be seen when they exploded, and appeared to be “new stars” (which is what “nova” means) in the sky until they faded away.

      And in that instant, it all made perfect sense to Jason.  It was all a microcosm.  A representation of everything that makes up the universe.  If a single star is a metaphor for a lifetime, then a galaxy, which contains hundreds of billions of stars, is a metaphor for billions of lifetimes.  Yet it’s all connected, because without space, there could be no life, and without time, life could not progress from beginning to end and off on to infinity.  And without life, there would be no one to witness these things, no one to appreciate the beauty of any particular instant in time.  The star itself may not be alive, but as long as there were living creatures to experience it, it had emotional significance, and that’s what made it real.

      Lauren was a nova, and by admiring her light he was giving her life.  Her flash of light had not expanded very far yet, but by appreciating and experiencing it he could make it go on forever, so that there would always be someplace in the universe that the light from Lauren’s nova still existed.  By Loving Lauren, he was making her immortal. 

Chapter 49

Flight Plan:  5c- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  The outer fringes of the Solar System 

      For Lauren, as well as the rest of the crew, the final slowing-down procedure was an emotional one.  They had travelled further than any human being to ever live, and now they were coming back.  The earth had travelled around the sun more times during their lives than any other people, and now, after slowing to real-time once again, they knew it would only complete a few more orbits before they passed on.

      Or so they thought.

      But I won’t concern you with the adventures that the survivors of the first Andromeda mission would face during later periods of their life.  This story deals only with the particular mission to the Andromeda galaxy—the events leading up to it, the people who were a part of it, and what happened along the way.  Everything that happened afterwards is part of another, much grander tale.

      For now, at least, it appeared that things were winding down.  As the time-scale reading hit one second per second, the four remaining Andromeda crewmembers knew the adventure was over.  They were returning once again to the planet where they were born, and in Arnold’s case, never planned to leave again.

      Lauren was feeling light-headed, as if she was just waking up from a dream.  She was just now beginning to grasp the magnitude of her accomplishment.  As the first-string pilot, she had almost single-handedly flown a tin can to another galaxy and back again.  And she had brought the ship back exactly on schedule.  To anyone who hadn’t known what had gone on inside the ship, the mission would look as though it had been a spectacular success.

      But there was much more to Lauren’s internal dizziness than the sense of how much space she’d just covered.  When she first began the mission, she was depressed and alone, just as she’d been for her entire life.  Now, returning, she had two men to whom she meant the world; she was in a loving relationship, and had made at least two other extremely valuable friends.  Again, anyone looking at her situation externally might believe that she was on top of the world.  Yet despite all this, there was still a feeling of emptiness inside of her that she couldn’t understand.  She thought the hole had been filled by Arnold, but she could still feel it.  Perhaps it was something deeper.

      As for Arnold, he couldn’t feel any better.  The intergalactic mission had ended.  He had successfully commanded the most ambitious project ever taken on by mankind, and it was, to him, a success.  The only emptiness he felt was that he’d left with twelve souls, and returned with only a third of that amount.

      But internally, he was feeling extremely well.  Not only did he have a woman whom he loved and who loved him back, but he had a daughter who was at this moment on her way in this direction.  He’d gone for a year without seeing her, and now all he would have to do was wait for another year and he would see her again.  This year, however, was not going to be nearly as stressful or difficult to survive as the past year had been.  He’d come within an inch of death; fallen unbound towards a black hole, and been rescued.  Regardless of the motives of his rescuer, he was alive, and life was his to enjoy.

      Jason was once again in another world; only this time it wasn’t one of insanity, but of clarity.  Jason understood the rhyme and reason behind the universe, and he knew the part he had to play in it.  When he left, he was lonely and depressed.  Returning, he was still lonely and depressed, only now he had peace of mind.  If all anyone had to do to achieve piece of mind was to travel to another galaxy, Jason thought, it would be too easy.

      So what had changed in him?  Externally, he was the same.  Internally, he wasn’t much different either.  The pain inside of him had not disappeared; the only difference was that now it had a direction, a purpose.

      Jack was static.  He had remained an observer throughout the mission, and that was how he stayed.  On the outside, Jack was still the same sarcastic, psychological person he’d been before the mission began.  And his outside reflected what was within.  To Jack, returning to normal time only felt like returning to a place he never left.

      But it wouldn’t be fair to say he hadn’t changed at all.  He changed in the way a professor of psychology might change after completing an experiment through which his hypothesis was proven correct.

      Now, it was time for Jack to establish communication with STAR once and for all.  The people he would be contacting now would be the same people that would be on Earth when they returned.  This would be the most important transmission since the final words exchanged between the Andromeda and mission control just before the ship’s departure.

      “STAR, this is the Andromeda, do you read?” said Jack, with a certain sense of finality to the words.

      Sure enough, mission control responded instantaneously.  “Andromeda, this is STAR, we read you loud and clear!”

      The words were spoken clearly and very enthusiastically.  Jack wondered why he’d been expecting something else.  This was not just a “give us your report” transmission.  This was a “welcome back” transmission.

      “Glad to see the human race is still around,” said Jack.  “And whom are we speaking to?”

      “I am the C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation,” said the voice from mission control.  “My name is Brian Davis.  It is an honour to welcome you back to the Solar System,” said Davis, “and congratulate you on a job well done.”

      “Thank you very much, Mr. Davis,” said Jack.  “I’ll put the commander on now.”

      He handed the microphone to Arnold.  “It’s a pleasure to speak to you, Mr. Davis,” said Arnold.  “It’s good to be back.”

      “Mr. Juciper, the entire human race is listening to this broadcast,” said Brian Davis.  “Would you be so kind as to say a few words before we close the open broadcast and you give us your report?  The galaxy has been waiting for five million years to hear from you.”

      Arnold Juciper smiled.  For some reason he, like Jack, had been downplaying this in his mind.  The other transmissions had begun to seem only like mere formalities, but this was clearly of an incredibly high level of importance.  Arnold was slightly embarrassed that he hadn’t prepared a speech, but he was sure he could bullshit a few words of inspiration.

      “People of the Milky Way, our sister galaxy is no longer out of reach,” he said.  “I, along with a crew of some of the finest astronauts ever to belong to the STAR Administration...”

      “Corporation,” Davis corrected.

      “Excuse me, the STAR Corporation,” Arnold continued.  “Have flown five million light-years to see what only a handful of human beings can ever claim to have seen.  Hopefully, soon enough we’ll go back, find stars with planets, and begin to colonise the new galaxy.  I believe this to be the everlasting goal of the human race—to go out and explore, and to see every centimetre of God’s creation.”

      “Every centimetre in the universe, you mean,” Davis corrected again.

      Arnold didn’t know why his last comment constituted correction, but he continued anyway.  “We’ve had some unfortunate incidents over the course of our flight.  One of our pilots had a breakdown, and through his treachery and a few unfortunate accidents, we had the misfortune of losing eight members of our crew, including him.  But I don’t believe we could have made this accomplishment without the help of every single member of our crew, the only exceptions being David O’Brian, who tried to sabotage the mission.  Yet I believe certain other individuals, namely Elliot Larken and Ronald Stark, as well as Lily Zaw, Todd Blankens, Craig Malls, and even Maria Wendall were essential in doing their part for this mission.

      “I return now with myself, Lauren Samalc, Jack Peskie, and Jason Floyd.  I can safely say that without them, the mission would most certainly have been a failure.  I owe my life to Jason Floyd, and we owe our success to Lauren Samalc.  But without Jack Peskie, I don’t think any of us would have been sane enough to appreciate it.

      “We’ve travelled longer and further into space than anybody who has ever lived before us.  Now, I think we’re all about ready to finish our mission.  All I have to say is it’s great to be back.”

      Arnold could almost hear the applause through the vacuum of space.  What he did hear was the applause of the three other crewmembers.

      “That’s some excellent bullshit, Arnold,” said Jack.

      “Thank you very much,” Arnold responded.

      “And that about does it,” said Brian Davis from mission control.  “The broadcast is closed, and now you just have a private connection.  Are you ready to give your report?”

      “I have nothing to report,” said Arnold.  “We’ve had absolutely no incidents since the last time we spoke with you.”

      “I can not tell you how relieved we are to hear that,” said Davis.  “Based on the luck you have had, we were all taking bets as to whether or not some last-minute tragedy might have befallen you.”

      The crew laughed.  “Well,” said Arnold, “The mission isn’t over yet.”

      “It certainly is not,” said Davis.  “Just be careful not to fly too close to the sun on your way in.” 

      A few moments later, the Andromeda crew was being told about the current galactic situation, and what kind of world they were now returning to.

      “The year is 5,211,292,” said Brian Davis, “and today is the 19th of November.  You will return to Earth orbit on November 28th, making the time of your mission exactly 5,207,870 years and 199 days.  You have been gone an awfully long time, but to you, it has only been 360 days.”

      “Trust me,” said Arnold, “it feels like the full five million.”

      “I am sure it does,” said Davis.  “When you left, hardly half the local-group of stars was colonised.  Now, every celestial body in the galaxy that is feasible to habitate has at least one human colony on it.  There are planets terra-formed specifically for agriculture, some specifically for industry and business, and even a few small moons that are purely for recreation.  We have even got several moons and asteroids on which only prisons exist.  And there is still much more space on the colonised planets in which to expand human territory in this galaxy alone.  To put it simply, we may have colonised everything possible, but we are still not crowded.

      “Each planet has its own individual government to handle its own internal affairs, but STAR organises the whole system.  The responsibilities of the governments are merely to make sure the planet and its moons are serving their purpose in the galactic society.  STAR Security is the police and military for the entire galaxy, with planetary police only serving to make sure nothing gets in the way of STAR’s will.  Our responsibilities have grown quite a lot larger than what they used to be.  We are no longer a company for scientific exploration, but for the organisation of the entire human race.”

      Nobody on the ship really knew what to make of any of this.  It sounded almost frightening, but if the system worked, they couldn’t complain.  There was probably no wars or turmoil, so why question it?  Only Jack could see the underlying problem, but now was not the time for him to address these things. 

      “As far as you are all concerned, your homes have been preserved and are ready for you to sleep in on the day you arrive.  STAR will install all the latest technologies at your request once you are situated, free of charge.  You will also be given operations to catch your bodies up with the artificial evolution, which will allow you to breathe and hear in space, as well as be immune to ultraviolet radiation.

      “Should you request to stay at STAR, the only positions we have available are for transport pilots.  You can become space-cabbies, shuttle-drivers, tour-guides...whatever you request.  However, should you decide to retire, as it is my understanding that these are your intentions, you will have to purchase your own spacecraft should you desire to travel outside of Earth.

      “That is all there is to tell you for now.  If there is anything we left out, or any questions you would like to ask, feel free to do so.”

      Arnold looked at the other crewmembers.  Jack pointed above him, indicating the situation they had due to the damaged ship.  “Uh, yes,” said Arnold.  “We’ve got a damaged docking port and no lander, so docking with Ring Station 4 as was in the original flight plan will be impossible.  We need to request an alternative method for getting out of the ship and back to Earth.”

      “Well,” said Brian Davis.  “You will just have to land here.”

      “But that’s not possible,” said Arnold.  “This is an interstellar ship.  There is no landing gear.”

      “You can land in the water,” said Davis.

      “But then the ship will sink,” said Arnold.

      “It can be recovered,” Davis assured him.

      “Still, that’s a bit risky,” said Arnold.  “Could you just send some people over with lasers to cut the ship open and bring us to Ring 4 manually?”

      “We could do that,” said Davis, “but I understand you have no Manned Manoeuvring Units anymore, and since you are still unable to breathe in space, doing that would be quite impossible.”

      “You could bring some MMUs over,” said Arnold.

      “Mr. Juciper, we have not manufactured a Manned Manoeuvring Unit for over a million years.  There is no need to, and I do not see the need to waste the time and energy digging up ancient plans and constructing them when you could easily just land your ship in the water of the Tallahassee coast,” Davis seemed to be losing his kind demeanour.

      “But, that’s extremely risky.  Five million years ago, STAR would never take that kind of risk...” Arnold began.

      Mr. Juciper!” Davis now yelled.  “Do not argue with me any further.  You will follow the new flight plan as I have given it to you, and the instruction is to land your ship in the water.  I am sure your pilot can do that.  Is that clear?”

      Arnold was taken aback, but Davis’s tone clearly indicated that he was not a man who liked to be argued with.  “Yes, Mr. Davis, I understand.”

      “Very well,” said Davis.  “Then this transmission has no further purpose until you reach solar orbit.  It is good to have you back.”

      “Thank you, sir,” said Arnold.  And that was that.

      The crew sat in silence for a moment, and then brushed the last part of the odd transmission out of their minds.  They were back, and contrary to their fears when they had departed, they weren’t alone.

      But one thing was clear now:  Arnold was no longer the supreme commander of their world. 

Chapter 50

Flight Plan:  Instruction 5c- Orbit, Destination: Sun, Day 1

Location:  3 radii from the surface of the sun 

      “He is standing on the threshold, caught it fiery anger.  And hurled into the furnace, he’ll curse the place.  He is torn in all directions and still the screen in flickering, waiting for the flames to break,” Jason sang quietly.

      The four of them were in the living quarters, having their last “crew discussion” if it could be called that.  Only a few hours ago, Lauren had done her first “real piloting” with the Andromeda by establishing a secure orbit around the sun, inside Mercury’s orbit, three times the length from the surface of the sun as its radius.

      “So have we all learned valuable life lessons?” asked Jack.

      “I certainly have,” said Arnold.  “I learned that sometimes you have to bend the rules in order to make them work.”

      “I think,” said Lauren, “that you learned some rules don’t apply in every situation.  I actually think that rules are useless, and they only apply to the situation they’re given in.  Nothing can work all the time.  You can’t play baseball by soccer rules.”

      “Yeah, but some rules do apply all the time,” said Arnold.  “Thou shalt not kill.  Those kinds of natural truths.”

      “I don’t believe that either,” said Lauren.  “I think there’s a time to kill.”

      “Like when?” asked Arnold.

      “Like when someone is suffering,” Lauren explained.  “Sometimes people are in so much pain that to kill them would be doing them a favour.”

      “I don’t believe that,” said Arnold.  “I don’t think anybody should take anyone else’s life, even if asked to.  I don’t believe anyone should be able to take their own life either.”

      “And I have a tremendous amount of respect for your opinion,” said Lauren, “but I disagree.”

      “So that’s our stance on euthanasia,” said Jack.  “But I’m talking about more than simple ethical issues.  Have we learned something about the human race?”

      “Absolutely,” said Jason.

      “Me too,” Jack said.  “Actually, I just confirmed my opinion that humans are individually good, but in groups they suck.”

      Jason looked at the communications man as if he were a father looking at his naïve son.  “I learned why that is,” he said.  “Do you know?”

      “I actually have no idea,” said Jack.  “But I’m dying to hear your theory.”

      “Well, the way I see it,” said Jason, “all human beings are identical.  Not to other human beings, but to the human race.”

      “What are you talking about?” asked Jack.

      “You know what a collective consciousness is, right?” asked Jason.

      “Yeah,” answered Jack.  “Like a mob mentality.  When people cease to think individually and start thinking as a group.”

      “Well, I don’t think there’s any difference in the will of a group than the will of an individual mind.  It’s just a collection of wills, and everyone’s will is the same.”

      “That can’t be true,” said Jack.  “Mobs full of people who would never even hurt anybody have been known to kill.”

      “That’s because of diffusion of responsibility,” said Jason.  “An individual person may never kill anyone because they will be solely responsible.  But if you’re part of a group of people that kills someone, it wasn’t you, it was the group.  But you’re just as guilty.”

      “I agree with you there,” said Jack.  “But I still think you’re wrong about humans being identical to the human race.”

      “I think what he’s trying to say,” Lauren put in, “is that a collective consciousness is the same consciousness as an individual’s.”

      “Exactly,” said Jason.  “I think that even though there are many different types of people, there are many different sides to one person.  In a group of people, you may have the nerd, the bully, the wise-ass, the coward, the artist, and on and on.  But in one person, you also have a nerd, a bully, a wise-ass, a coward, an artist, and every other type of thing imaginable.  When we put ourselves into a group, we merely blow these things into larger proportions, so instead of all these traits being fractions of a person, they make up fractions of a group, and they could be whole people, or even whole sub-groups of people.  That’s the way it is in the human race.  Every human being, I believe, is a microcosm of the entire human race, just as every group of humans is a microcosm also.”

      “That’s fascinating,” said Jack.  “But then why is it that individually, people are really good, but when you put them in groups, they all become assholes?”

      “Because individually, a person’s will is his own,” Jason answered.  “And it is basic human nature to follow your own will.  It’s mentally impossible for a human being to commit a truly selfless act.”

      “I’ll agree with you there too,” said Jack.

      “And it’s the same with groups,” Jason continued.  “If it’s human nature to do things only for yourself, then it’s also the nature of groups to do things only for the benefit of the group.  What pisses people off is that it’s a paradox, because simply by doing something for the good of a group, you’re also not being completely selfish and doing things just for you.”

      “I don’t buy any of that,” said Arnold.  “I don’t think humans are really that bad at heart.”

      “I’m not saying that,” Jason said.  “I don’t think human beings are bad.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing things simply to make yourself happy.  If everybody just lived for themselves, the world would be a better place.”

      “But isn’t that the problem?” asked Arnold.  “Everyone only concerned with themselves and not about the well-being of others?”

      “That’s not a problem, it’s an unavoidable fact,” said Jason.  “It’s like gravity.  Some can call gravity a problem, but it’s just nature.  The desire to make yourself happy is nature.  To look at it purely scientifically, it’s evolution.  Imagine a species whose members were more concerned about each other than themselves.  They would never eat anything, insisting that every other member of their species eat instead.  They would never reproduce, wanting to allow other members of their species do that instead.  Any truly selfless creature could never survive in nature.  The only reason it causes problems is because we don’t know how to handle it.  Gravity can kill people, but it also makes life itself possible.”

      “Holy shit,” said Jack.  “Holy fucking shit.  I never thought of it that way.  Yet somehow, I’m still depressed about it.”

      “If there’s one thing I know,” said Jason, “it’s that understanding the universe doesn’t make you like it any more.” 

      Have you got it yet?  Have you picked up on all the hidden messages and deeper meanings behind everything in this book?  If you can get every metaphor, then you have to be one brilliant person, because I can’t even get them all, and I’m writing the damn thing.  I just recently figured out what the whole story means.

      It all has a purpose, you know.  Everything does, whether or not the person is aware of it or not.  Some people write crap that even they assume is meaningless, but I assure you, there’s meaning wherever you can find it.  Sometimes it’s intentional, and a lot of times it isn’t.

      So why am I writing all this to you?  Why, as an author, do I address the reader in my writing?  Is it because I’m insecure, and want you to approve of me so I try to reach you on the most basic level?  Is it because I’m trying to be unique and have a bold new writing style?  Or is it because this speaks to something on a deeper level?

      Perhaps there is something more to these passages in which I break from the story and write directly to you.  I’ll tell you right now that there is.  I didn’t figure it out for a while, though, but that’s the way it always works.

      I promise you, there is nothing brilliant about this book, as I’m sure most of the critics out there have already decided. But then you can look at any work of art and say there is no brilliance to it either.  You can also look at a piece of trash that is clearly not art and say it’s brilliant.  Meaning is wherever you put it.

      So this book could just be a meaningless piece of garbage to you, and my self-commentary just a stupid trick, or it could all be part of something larger.  Perhaps you were meant to read this book right now, at this specific point in your life because it’s supposed to change something.  Perhaps you needed to hear its message.

      What message is that, you ask?  Well, that’s for you to decide, obviously. 

      The tiny bright dot against the black veil of space grew ever larger in the window, until it filled the view.  As clichéd as it was, it was a sight for sore eyes.  With its vast blue oceans, it’s green and brown land formations, and white clouds; the Earth was just about the most beautiful thing any of the crewmembers had ever seen.  Andromeda may have been incredible due to its newness, but as another famous cliché goes, “there’s no place like home.”

      And it was Home that the four astronauts were looking at now, their beloved home planet, looking exactly as it had done when they left it five millions years ago.  Apparently, technology had reached the point where terra-forming techniques could be used to not just reshape, but also preserve shape in planets, and by stopping the flow of Earth’s platelets, the human race had managed to freeze the surface of the planet just as they liked it.  Five million years, and the only difference was that the Atlantic was a few centimetres wider, the Rockies were a few centimetres taller, and the Appalachians just a few centimetres shorter.

      The Florida peninsula was still there; still right where it had been when the astronauts took off from it all those millennia ago.  It had seemed like a million years, but gazing at the Earth just as they had left it, it now felt to the crewmembers as though they’d left only yesterday. 

Chapter 51

Time:  11:00 November 28, 5211292, Universal Time

Place:  3 radii above the Earth 

      “STAR, this is the Andromeda,” Jack spoke into the communicator in the cockpit.  “We are in position and request the ‘go’ for landing.”

      The voice from mission control responded, giving them permission to take the ship into the atmosphere, ironically another place it had never been before.

      Lauren cancelled the orbital velocity, and let the ship begin a freefall, straight down towards the Tallahassee coastline, where she would gently plop the ship into the water at a swimming distance from the shoreline.  This was it.  In a few moments, they would be looking out of the window at a blue sky.

      A tear ran down Arnold’s cheek as his home planet got larger and larger and covered the entire window.  For the first time ever, no stars could be seen from the cockpit of the Andromeda.  Something about that reached him.  He was not planning to go into space again.  From now on, the only stars he would ever see would be through a thick, light-polluted atmosphere.

      And through the atmosphere the ship went.  Lauren turned the ship 180° until they were facing vertically to the sky, which was now taking on some colour.  She hit full thrust, and the ship immediately began decelerating.  Had they been in the space shuttle, they would have burned up and died, and even with temperature-proof metal, the force of the thrust would not be enough to keep them from slamming into the ocean with enough force to kill them all instantly.

      But this spaceship had a lot of power, and the velocity was slowed down just enough as the back end dipped beneath the waves, and the landing was complete just as Lauren lowered the pitch so that the floor was in the water, and the ceiling faced the sky.

      Instantly, water began entering the engine room, which was the only section of the ship with a non-sealed opening into space.  The ocean made its way through the tubes, and began flooding everything.  The four crewmembers had their bags sealed in plastic to keep the water from ruining anything electronic such as music discs.  The hatch to the docking port was open, so that once the entire ship was under water, they could swim up and out to the surface.

      Arnold took one last look through the cockpit window.  He’d seen so much through there.  This ship had been through a lot, and for the most part, it did exactly what it was supposed to.  There was only a slight deviation in the flight plan when David knocked the ship off course in order to kill Lily in Andromeda, and of course the frame had been ripped open by the black hole at the core of the Milky Way, but other than that, the ship did exactly what it was meant to do.

      All four of them would miss it.  For the most important year of their lives, it had been their Home.  And as the final metre filled with sea-water, their feet left the ground of artificial gravity and they swam up through the docking port and out into the sunlight.

      Arnold reached the top first, then Lauren, then Jack, and then Jason.  “Well,” said Arnold, spitting some water out of his mouth as he treaded the ocean, “I guess we’re officially back.”

      “I guess so,” said Jack.

      “It’s kind of sad, though,” Lauren pointed out.  “That ship is basically ruined.”

      “Davis said he’d retrieve it,” Arnold said.  “They’ll fix whatever damage the ocean might do to it.  That thing belongs in a museum.”

      “Here’s to that,” said Jason.  “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a bag full of shit strapped to my neck, and I’ll like to start swimming back to shore.”

      The four astronauts looked back toward the shoreline.  There was the STAR building, exactly as they remembered it, and crowded around was a huge mass of people, gathering for the “Welcome Home” celebration.  It was about two hundred meters away.

      “I knew I should have packed my fins and snorkel,” said Jack.  “Sure, it wasn’t supposed to be a diving trip, but you never know.  You just don’t plan for things like this.”

      The crew had a good laugh, and they set off for the long, tiring swim back to dry land.  On the way, Jason ran out of strength, and Lauren helped pull him in.

      “You don’t have to do this,” said Jason.  “I’ll just float for awhile and meet you back on shore.”

      “It’s the least I can do for a friend, Jason,” she said.

      As she pulled him along, he sang the last verse of his song.  “I’m holding out for the day when all the clouds have blown away.  I’m with you now, can speak your name.  Now we can hear ourselves again.”

      “Beautiful,” said Lauren.  “Those words are just beautiful.”

      Not as beautiful as you, thought Jason. 

      “Ladies and gentlemen,” Brian Davis announced.  “The first of the four Andromeda ships has returned, and with it, four astronauts who deserve more congratulations than we can possibly give.”

      There must have been at least ten thousand people on the STAR field, facing the tiny podium that only the C.E.O. and four astronauts stood on.  None of them could remember any fuss this big ever being made over the successful completion of a mission back in the time before they’d left.

      “Five million years ago,” Davis continued to give his speech, “These brave individuals embarked on a journey that they knew would take them away from everyone and everything they knew and held dear.  We do not even know the full details of what went on yet, but we can tell based only on what we know that their experience was not the best of times.  So in addition to congratulating these individuals, we must commemorate those who lost their lives for this cause.

      “Most of this crew did not make it, but before you stand the four who did.  This would not have been possible were it not for the superb skills of Commander Arnold Juciper.  It is my privilege now to award Commander Juciper this STAR medal of honour, and present him with his pay check, fully adjusted for inflation, as well as overtime and a nice fat retirement bonus tacked on.”

      The crowd erupted in the loudest cheering Arnold had ever heard, and he could not fight back the lump in his throat as he shook Davis’s hand and took his medal.  He couldn’t help thinking that yes, it had been hell, but it had been worth it.  His father would have been so damn proud.

      “And of course, Mr. Juciper would not be standing here today if it were not for the extreme bravery displayed by the man who operated the ship’s computer, Mr. Jason Floyd.  In addition to his payment, it is my pleasure to award him the STAR medal of honour as well.”

      Jason Floyd had never been clapped for in his life, and this was now almost too much to handle.  A medal of honour.  Quite impressive for a child of Satan who should never have been born in the first place, he thought.

      “And how could I forget the communications man?” Davis continued.  “Mr. Jack Peskie, I understand, was also essential to the success of the mission, both through his knowledge of psychology and acts of bravery.  During the unfortunate black-hole incident, he helped to save Jason’s life, and it was he who contacted STAR to warn the other ships of the danger, which undoubtedly saved more lives.  In paying him, he shall also receive the medal of honour.”

      Jack was ecstatic.  “I love you all!” he shouted to the crowd, knowing that nobody could hear him.  “I just can’t explain how happy I am that it’s finally over!”  He’d been an observer for a year.  Jack was about ready to get his own life.  He just wished to God his son could be here to watch this.  But inside, he knew his son was watching him from heaven, and he allowed himself to bask in his moment of ecstasy.

      “And last but not least, we must reward the pilot.  I can honestly say that in the five million years since she has been away, this company has not found a pilot with half as much skill as Lauren Samalc.  Her talent for precision was unmatched by any other pilot on any of the other Andromeda mission, and deserves special recognition.  She also helped to save Jason’s life during the tragedy at the black hole.  Making it complete, I will give her the medal of honour in addition to her payment as well.”

      Lauren could not remember any time in her life where she had cried tears of happiness, but now she welcomed them with extreme pleasure.  She took the medal, and her thoughts echoed Jack’s words: she was so happy that it was finally over.  She knew she’d achieved something greater than anyone had ever expected of her, but more importantly, she was no longer a slave to her past.  All those who ruined her were gone, and now, the only people in the world who knew her were people who cared about her deeply.  She couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

      “I am sure the astronauts are very tired, so let us give them one final round of applause and let them get back to their homes, which I am sure they will be glad to return to after five million years,” said Brian Davis.  “Arnold, Lauren, Jack, Jason, on behalf of the STAR Corporation, congratulations, and thank you for a job well done.”

      All four crewmembers were crying hysterically now as the applause drowned out all of their thoughts.  It was over.  It was a success.  Now it was time to go home. 

Epilogue: Millennium 5211 

      Arnold Juciper stood at the runway outside the STAR building, blocking the noise of the crowd from his thoughts.  It had been exactly one year since he’d returned, and it had flown by so quickly that it made his year on the Andromeda seem like it had occupied more than half his life.  He was now waiting for the shuttle from Ring Station 4 to land, carrying all twelve crewmembers from the Andromeda II and his daughter back to Earth.

      The dot appeared in the sky, and the roaring cheers erupted once again.  It grew in size until its shuttle-shape could clearly be made out, and then it made its touchdown.  The spacecraft rolled to the end of the runway, right to where Arnold was standing.

      His palms were sweating rivers as the hatch opened, and the commander popped his head out.  The cheering erupted from the crowd, although it was not nearly as loud as it had been the previous year.  There were far less people who cared about the return of the second Andromeda mission than the first.

      Arnold watched with his heart in his throat as the first six crewmembers left the shuttle and descended to the ground.  They each shook his hand and moved towards the podium to which a path had been cleared for them.  But then, the seventh head was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.

      Rachael spotted him immediately, and her face lit up with a smile so wide that it seemed like her face was about to pop off.  “Dad!” she yelled, and ran down from the shuttle, travelling at what seemed like super-light speeds to collide with her father in an impact that left craters of love all over Arnold’s soul.

      “God, I missed you so much,” said Arnold.  “God, I’m so happy to see you again.  I love you so much, Rachael.”

      “I love you too, Dad,” Rachael said, her father still squeezing all the air out of her.

      After a good two minutes of the most passionate father-daughter hug in the history of mankind, re-united after five million years, Rachael let go, and noticed the woman standing next to her father.  “Who’s this?” she asked.

      “This is your new step-mother Lauren,” said Arnold.

      “It’s great to finally meet you,” said Lauren.  “You’re all Arnold talks about.”

      She held out her hand, and Rachael shook it, and then went in to give her new mother a hug.  Then she stepped back and turned to her father.  “This was the pilot on your ship, right?  Lauren Samalc?”

      “Yup,” said Arnold.  “I hope you like her, because we’re all gonna be living together now.”

      “So you think you can just walk out on Mom and replace her the second I get back?” Rachael asked in a very harsh manner.

      “Shut up,” Arnold said playfully.

      Rachael laughed.  “I’m glad you’re happy, Dad.  And I think it’s awesome that my new mom is the best pilot in the history of STAR.”

      “I’m glad,” said Arnold.

      “Thank you,” said Lauren.  “I thought this would be weird, but...”

      “Don’t worry about it,” said Rachael.  “My Dad could have been standing here with the Devil himself and it wouldn’t have ruined this moment.”

      Lauren didn’t quite know how to take that, but she decided it would be best not to be insulted.  “It’s good to love life, I suppose.”

      “Rachael, it’s great to have you back,” said Arnold.

      And that was the reunion.  In the years that followed, the three of them lived very peacefully.  You might even be able to say that they all lived “happily ever after” if it weren’t for a few very important unforeseen events still yet to come.  But that’s another story for another time. 

      The Andromeda spaceship was never retrieved and restored as Brian Davis had promised he would do.  He didn’t see it as very “cost-efficient.”  So the ship remained at the bottom of the Atlantic for the rest of the lives of any of its former crew.  It would become a large attraction for divers, though, who could actually swim inside and into the engine room where they would find the bones of the crewmembers who’d died and been left there and not taken out.

      It had only served one mission, and it had been badly bruised along the way, but the Andromeda was still the oldest ship around, having served for five million years.  It was also never disassembled like the other three ships, so for a long time to come it would be known as the oldest and longest-lasting spaceship ever built by mankind.

      As Jason had said, it had served its purpose, and done exactly what it had been meant to do. 

      Jack Peskie was not finished with space by any means.  Very shortly after returning to Earth, he left it, and bought himself a spaceship to become a privateer.  He didn’t leave the Solar System though, because he figured he was done travelling at super-light speeds.  During his adventures, he crossed paths with a woman named Rebecca, and the two fell in love, got married, and had a son.  They took up a permanent residence in Tallahassee, but they still managed to travel quite a bit.  Life had become exactly as Jack had always wanted it to be.  Of all the survivors of the original Andromeda mission, his was to be the happiest of endings. 

      As for Jason Floyd, there was no such thing as a happy ending.  He never could quite find his place in the world, even after returning, and focussing solely on his writing.  But he still maintained close friendships with Jack, as well as Arnold and Lauren, whom he lived quite close to and visited very frequently.

      But there was an emptiness inside Jason that he knew would never be filled because it couldn’t.  The emptiness was a part of him, and while it was painful, Jason could appreciate its purpose, and why it was necessary.  To say that he enjoyed his life after the Andromeda mission would be a false statement, but he certainly found a direction for it, and the peace of mind he was looking for.

      It came after he finished his first book.  The book was a memoir describing all of his experiences with Love and the pain it brought him.  He described the entire adventure, poured his heart and soul into it, yet there was still something wrong.  The publishing companies never picked up the original manuscript.  Actually, Jason never even sent it to a publishing company, because he knew it could never be published.  He found a solution though.

      What Jason did was to re-write the entire story, turning it into a symbolic work of fiction, specifically science fiction.  He created characters to represent certain types of people he’d known during his experiences, as well as characters that represented actual people, such as the woman he Loved.  He even created a character to represent himself, although he kept the narrative in 3rd person the entire time.

      It took him a year to write the book, and when it was done, it was a blend of science fiction, psychology, and philosophy that contained so many hidden meanings and metaphors that even he couldn’t make sense of them all.  Eventually, the book was published, and the title he gave it was the name of the character he’d created to represent his own self: the Andromeda. 


It has been my theory throughout writing this novel that Love = Inspiration, and Anger = Motivation.  I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge those who gave me either of these.  First of all, I must thank my family.  Second of all, I should acknowledge a few science-fiction writers from whom I borrowed either ideas or aspects of my writing style:  Stephen R. Donaldson (The Gap Series), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five, Galápagos), and Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) are the three that I consider main influences.  Thirdly, I need to thank the ladies in my life.  Kristine Olson, for showing me through the doors of perception.  Lars Schweidenback, for actually reading the book.  To those I’ve loved, Lauren Schwartz, Sara A. Morton, and Aimee L. Carmella.  Fourthly, I should thank “Warofthebunny” Corey Cox for being a genius and a friend, but more importantly hating my books enough to make me want to re-write them.  Finally, I’d like to partially dedicate this book to the memory of Valerie A. Persinko, one of the finest human beings to ever live and have her life cut short.  And last but not least, I must thank Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason, and Syd Barrett for their contribution to the world: Pink Floyd, which basically makes life worth living.  And finally, I should acknowledge Anthony Moore, who wrote the lyrics to what became the theme song for this book, “Wearing The Inside Out”.