All was darkness. And it was empty … so very empty. Deuce expected that, and the sensation of floating added to his disorientation. Darkness and emptiness was all that space had to offer, except for the occasional colliding asteroid or lethal radiation … wait a minute. He was breathing. That shouldn’t be possible.
In fact, the last he recalled, breathing had required effort….
No, he wasn’t floating. He was lying on a bed. And he was becoming aware of funny but familiar smells. Ah yes, a medical ward. And then his memory flooded with images of the battle where he was wounded.
They could still be in danger–
His eyes snapped open, and the light, although soft, caused him to squint. He started raising one hand to shade them – except he couldn’t.
“At ease, soldier.” A familiar male voice he hadn’t heard in weeks offered more consolation than the words. “Kyla said you might wake up ready to fight.”
The speaker leaned into his field of vision, and Zeke’s gray-streaked beard didn’t conceal his grin.
“Where…?” Deuce’s voice came out in a squeak, which seemed to make him more conscious of the sore tightness in his chest.
“You’re safely onboard the Ascension. And you’ve been here for three days. Kyla kept you sedated all this time so your lungs would have more time to heal before she took you off the respirator. Yet again, your genetic engineering helped you survive something that would’ve killed anybody else.”
He appreciated Zeke’s thoroughness, but then his memory dredged up a crackling voice transmitted from the com patch he wore in battle. A ship had gone down during launch.
“Ita?” He wished his voice didn’t sound so pathetic. “Which ship?”
“Oh, you don’t have to go far to find Ita.” Zeke started removing the restraints from his wrists. “She’s here on the Ascension. Good thing, too. Told us about the bomb that needed to be removed from your chest while Kyla was patching your lungs. Imagine the fracas that would’ve caused if we’d just stumbled upon it!”
Ita was safe. There was no more implanted bomb. But his relief was transitory.
“Rest of the fleet?”
Zeke’s demeanor grew somber. “We lost two ships. One was taken down during takeoff, and the other was destroyed by a hunter satellite before our drones could take them out.”
Deuce closed his eyes again. Thousands of lives lost on the cusp of freedom. That did leave them with ten interstellar ships and over thirty thousand persons … a mere fragment of humanity. And most of them found out only three or four days ago they would be spending the rest of their lives in space.
Them … and generations after them.
“I regret I’ve got another bit of bad news.”
His eyes opened, and Zeke continued.
“Oswald passed away.”
That statement was like a bolt from the blue, and Deuce stared at him. Oswald was quite elderly, but the last he’d heard, his other mentor had been doing well. “How?”
“Old age, it would seem. Right as the evacuation was beginning. Ita managed to arrange being with him, so that’s been a comfort for her. But I figured it would be good for you to know before she swings by to check up on you.”
“She should be getting off duty in a couple of hours.”
“I see you’ve turned him loose already.” Kyla stepped beside her husband and locked her gaze on Deuce. “But how do you feel?”
He tapped his chest. “Achy.”
“That’s all?” She smirked. “Having you for a patient makes me look like a blessed genius. You know, once you’re recovered, we might ask for a closer look at your DNA.”
Between Zeke filling him in on more details and Kyla updating his medical condition, he lost all track of time. When Ita walked into the ward, he was sitting up on the edge of the bed, and the smile that sprang to his lips was too spontaneous to suppress.
He did manage to keep from cracking a grin when she smiled back as she approached. “Well, I see our peace and quiet has come to an end.”
“You have an odd definition of peace and quiet.” His voice was slightly stronger, although Kyla had warned him not to push anything that involved breathing … which meant everything.
“I see Zeke has informed you of what’s transpired since evacuation.”
He nodded as his smile evaporated. “He also told me about your grandfather. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged, although a glimmer flashed in her green eyes. “Thank you. I at least got to be with him when he passed, and his last words will stay with me forever. He was at peace. He even smiled as he said, ‘Don’t be afraid. We are surrounded by light.’”
Those words seemed to soak themselves into his psyche as well, determined to become as permanent for him as for her. “I suppose I’d expect him to say something like that.”
“He asked about you.”
“He wondered if I’d blasted you yet.” She tilted her head slightly. “I told him that was no longer on my to-do list. So, Kyla says you can walk around as long as you keep it to a saunter. Want to see a little more of the ship?”
“Might as well start learning my way around.”
“Most people are still learning their way.” She grasped his arm to help keep him steady as he stood. “You can imagine the culture shock going on right now. And not everybody’s thrilled about taking up permanent residence on a spaceship.”
Although he didn’t need her assistance, Deuce was glad she continued to offer it. “That’s perfectly understandable, considering you’re looking at one of them.”
“You’re still nervous about space? After all you’ve been through?”
“Colliding asteroids. Lethal radiation.”
Ita smiled and squeezed on his arm as they strolled to the ward’s exit. “I suspect you’ll get over it.”
As long as she was around, he was sure he would….
They discussed the challenges ahead for the ragtag remnant as they passed through the conduit-lined hallways. Other pedestrians were sparse but representative of the occupants, ranging from singles to whole families. She led him to a narrow, dim room that was little more than a corridor itself, but its oval windows caused his heart to flutter.
“Storage and observatory,” she announced. “One of the few places you can see the stars for real, instead of on a view screen. This seems like a good first step to getting you acclimated.”
He stood at one window and she at the one beside it, and the clarity of the constellations scattered around them did strike him with a sense of awe. He glanced toward Ita and noted the slight part in her lips as she gazed into the depths of the universe.
His attention drew back to the stars that pierced through what seemed eternal night. Each was a point of light, and each shined on, defying the empty darkness that couldn’t overcome them. He wondered if Ita was also thinking of Oswald’s last words.
No matter what lay in store, no matter how much darkness overshadowed them, there was no need to fear. They would always be surrounded by light.
Woo-hoo! Final installment! This month the prompt word for #BlogBattle was Fragment, and the stories are rolling in. Check out the other entries because you sure don’t want to miss out!
If you just discovered this novella, you can find the whole serialization HERE, although there is one caveat: An e-book will be available for free once I get it formatted, and it will include a bonus chapter. This chapter is longer than the others (around 4000 words) and contains what I call the heart of the story. The print version on Amazon will be as cheap as I can get it. When will it be ready? Hopefully, soon: I promise to keep you updated.