“Of course we’re all going to die.” Landrik Nol understood his demise was out there waiting for him. “Everyone dies, and in this universe it happens sooner than later.”
His companion Bem glanced unsteadily across the empty cups on the commissary table. The man’s mouth moved to speak. He made no words, so Landrik continued.
“Better to die running toward the fight than away, right?” Although, no one really knew what the fight was going to look like. They only understood that once they boarded the Stargazer for the Sigma Mission, they were on a one-way ticket to a war unlike any other, and the enemy might just be sitting next to you.
Tears welled in Bem’s eyes. Apparently, the Golian bitter wine didn’t live up to its reputation and make him any braver.
“I never should’ve set foot on the Stargazer,” he said, running a hand over his bald head.
The floor shook and the ceiling rattled. Some of the other people in the commissary looked about nervously, while others just continued eating and drinking.
Bem stood. “This ship is going to kill us before we even get to the fight.”
Landrik slid the half-full carafe of wine toward him. “Relax, we’ve been feeling those tremors since the beginning.”
“Because they fast-tracked the Sigma Mission before they knew what they were dealing with and now we’re flying through space on untested tech.” Bem hissed low as he gripped the edges of the table to lean close. “Tech that they don’t understand because it came from somewhere they don’t even know.”
“It’s gotten us this far.” Landrik lifted the carafe and shook it to indicate how much more remained to drink.
Bem slowly sat back down and Landrik eyed the others watching them. Yes, the Stargazer had seemed like it might crack apart from the beginning, but that might’ve had more to do with the people riding it than whatever was powering the ship. Besides the military crew, the occupants of the ship looked like mercenaries, scholars, heretics, warriors, tech-heads, and zealots. No one was to be trusted.
Landrik poured more wine for them both. “You got a knife on your belt?”
“And one in my boot.”
“Ion blaster?” Landrik’s was always charged and ready in his shoulder holster.
“And I know how to use it.”
“Kill or be killed.” Landrik lifted his cup. Bem acknowledged the toast and they drank together.
The ship shook again, more violently than ever. Empty cups clattered to the floor. The lights flickered. Several ceiling panels swung loose until they caught on their safety cables. Everyone in the commissary bolted from their seats and rushed for the exits.
Not that there was anywhere safe to go. Every doorway and hallway just led to another part of the questionable ship that blasted through deep space. After a few moments the people slowed and settled back into the wary truce on the dimly lit decks.
Most of the people here were strangers. For weeks of this voyage, conversations had merely skimmed the surface. Anything deeper might reveal that the traveler next to you was, in fact, your mortal enemy. Even Bem was mostly a mystery to Landrik.
“That’s death…” Bem whispered, walking toward a long observation port in the wall.
Landrik stared out with him, hand instinctually moving toward the handle of his ion blaster. What good was a pistol against something that could consume worlds?
“The Rift,” Landrik heard his own voice echoing back to him from the observation glass. In the vast space, a solar system spun. But something unnatural twisted with it. Tendrils of green-black light stretched from the darkness and pierced into the planets and star. Wherever these tendrils touched, the area was transformed into jagged pixels. Anything organic was replaced with segmented pieces of color and light. The Rift digitized everything it touched.
Landrik swallowed hard against rising fear. They had arrived at the war.
“I’ve seen that color before,” Bem said through a clenched jaw. “That green.”
“From the exhaust vents of the ship.” Landrik had always wondered just what energy was used to power the Stargazer. But how were they able to harness the power of the Rift for their purposes? Or maybe it was controlling them.
“It’s on you!” Bem shoved a hard forearm across Landrik’s chest and sprung back.
Landrik threw an arm out to catch himself on a wall. He was about to draw his pistol on Bem when a chill tightened through him. Landrik’s outstretched hand crackled with thin tendrils the same color as the Rift that consumed the worlds in the distance.
He slammed his fist into the wall, but the tendrils only swirled faster. The other people on the deck shouted and Landrik expected to see them all aiming their weapons at him. But each of them was also twisted in a panic of their own as the glowing tendrils snapped about their bodies.
Bem scurried backwards on the floor, horror twisting his face. He kicked and kicked while the light swept up his legs and gathered at his throat. The tendrils collected into a design on his skin and remained there like a glowing tattoo.
The tendrils on Landrik organized into an insiginia that hovered over his left shoulder. No matter how he moved, it remained there.
Bem got to his feet and stared at his tattooed reflection in the observation glass. When his gaze moved to Landrik, his eyes were hard. The fear was gone. And his palm rested on the grip of his ion blaster.
The others on the deck also poised with their weapons at the ready. Some of them had the same tattoo as Bem. Landrik saw many travelers with the insignia he wore. Still more of the people had a different design on their forehead, like an arcane religious symbol.
Something about being this close to the Rift had activated the energy around the travelers. Each separate design acted as a Sigil to define the wearer.
Bem backed toward a group of travelers with his tattoo. Several people with Landrik’s insignia gathered around him. Those with the Sigil on their foreheads formed another group.
Far outside the Stargazer, the Rift consumed a solar system. Inside the ship, the travelers had formed Alliances, and each group watched the other, waiting to see who would make the first move.
The battle lines were drawn.
“Kill or be killed.” Landrik saluted Bem one last time before the war started.