A victim of the intrigues of power, Astrea finds herself marooned on a strange world...
|The Disposition of Astrea
The instruments would say that it had been a brief period, though to the lone occupant of the craft it seemed harrowing and endless; a heart-stopping ride where any moment could be her last. She’d put every ounce of training to use, employing every talent she’d ever possessed — and still she’d been unable to save herself, her ship. There had been time for one last frantic message home that she suspected went unheard, and then the planet was upon her, blue green and looming large.
The descent through the fire of the atmosphere had been her only chance to catch her breath and get her bearings before the ship emerged into the upper atmosphere.
As Astrea regained control of her ship, she chanced a look at the data being displayed on the monitors above the portal that was her only view of the planet below. There were masses of land and great waters, snowy ice caps and tropical forests. Pollution hung in the air, partially obscuring her view of the larger population centers. She typed a quick command on the keypad, watching as all manner of creatures, simple and more advanced, appeared on the monitors at her side, teeming forth from this strange world in unbridled abandon. She closed her eyes.
Help me, oh great and merciful Spirit. I surrender myself to your will.
It was then that she heard the transmissions that were being picked up by her communications system. Faceless voices relaying commands, curt responses that left her with impressions that were bits and pieces of the whole, fractured and ill fitted. They’d spotted her ship, her unexplained arrival rousing the planetary defenses, triggering a launch of interceptors whose mission was to bring her down, willingly or otherwise.
Sheer survival came to guide her then, and she used the superior technology at her command to accomplish careful, cunning maneuvers that allowed her to avoid the slower moving intercept force. Even damaged as it was, her ship still far outmatched theirs, and she used this to full advantage as she waited for the on-board computers to identify possible landing sites. Caught off guard as she’d intended, the pilots were left to marvel at the speed with which the ship had moved, for it seemed it had disappeared almost at once.
At last the computers made their selection, and she stared at the coordinates displayed on the screen, in that instant unsure. This one spot, in all this strange world, was her best chance and it had been selected by technology she barely understood and until that moment had taken blissfully for granted. Once on the ground there would be no hope of returning to the skies, for her fuel was nearly exhausted now. She bit her lip, offering one last, silent prayer for guidance before giving the command that would put the ship into its final descent. It was then that she saw a new group of fighters rising from the planet’s surface to meet her.
Ah, so there are more of you then.
"Unidentified craft, land or we will bring you down."
Her impression was swift and all-consuming… and she knew at once their ill intent should they succeed in taking her. Isolation. Dissection. The cold, clinical existence of a specimen. Setting her jaw determinedly, she took hold of the throttle, guiding the ship deftly through maneuvers she’d learned and perfected over countless missions. Now she would do them a last time and then… The thought chilled her, and she cast a quick eye to the instruments before firing the thrusters she would use to outrun them.
These ships, unlike those she’d encountered earlier, were faster and more maneuverable, the pilots well prepared for the evasive actions she took. Knowing she lacked the power for a prolonged encounter, she diverted all the ship’s resources to speed in one last ditch effort to outrun her pursuers. Nearly all of the ships fell behind at once, but a single one somehow seemed to dog her every move as she cut through the pitch-black sky. She had a fleeting impression of the intent, stern faced pilot as he pushed his ship to its limits in a determined attempt to keep up with hers. For an instant it seemed he would do it, but then her superior technology won out, and she was able to slip from his view, leaving nothing but traces of exhaust in the air.
"I’ve lost visual contact."
"Craft has dropped off our screen."
Determined to remain hidden from view, Astrea immediately diverted the dwindling resources of the ship to shielding it from their tracking devices, knowing she must leave no clue as to where she had gone. A quick glance at her power indicators told her time was slipping away, though she chanced to remain in the air just long enough to assure herself she’d succeeded in escaping them.
She listened to the commands and coordinates coming over the speakers, barked by impatient voices who knew well what they had seen. To a man each pilot and those on the ground would swear the same account. There had been a ship, piloted by a single being, and then nothing.
With power levels dropping fast, she guided her now sputtering ship toward the surface below. The onboard computers continued to produce reams of data, though her attention was focused solely on bringing the craft down safely on this strange, hostile world. Under the cloak of complete darkness it would take all her skills and a good measure of luck to find a place to land — and she thought at once of the unofficial contests she’d engaged in with the pilots of her squadron. It had been a chance to show her skills… to perfect her technique… to prove herself. Now she would need all that and more; and in desperation a part of her called upon these comrades as she battled to pilot the craft in an unknown darkness.
The ship came down in a flat open area, cold and alone in the dark of night. The foliage of the planet rose up a few hundred yards away — inky black scepters in a starlit sky. She’d been holding her breath, and realizing this, Astrea let it out in a rush, utterly amazed to be on the ground and in one piece. The night, her ally in remaining unseen, now kept her from getting a clear view of anything outside the ship. Primal and irrational, fear came to take hold of her, and she pulled her gaze from the blackness that suddenly seemed so sinister. The heavy silence was ever so slowly replaced by sounds, strange and rhythmic, broken only by the occasional hoot of something off in the darkness.
Her eyes moved purposefully over the interior of the cabin. Her drive for survival becoming all consuming now — beating back the panic that threatened to paralyze her. Forcing her mind to focus, she shifted her attention to the detailed information continuing to be displayed on the monitors at her side. She only had backup power now, but still it was enough to operate the onboard computers, which continued to stream data, overwhelming her resources as she struggled to assess her situation.
Where in all of Creation was she?
The events that brought her here, to this, raced in rapid succession through her numbed mind, and she cursed her own foolishness — too late realizing the trap that had been set for her. There had been no escape. Chisof had seen to that. She seethed with helpless fury at the cunning he’d used to convince her that secrecy was necessary… to leave at once, tell no one, make no log entry, file no flight plan. Though she knew Dion and the others would surely mount a search for her, there would be no clue to where she had gone — she would simply have vanished into the vastness of space. Without a trace. All the agony of recrimination rose up within her then, and she cried out her heartache, the terrible sound echoing overloud in the confines of the ship.
In the silence that followed the words of the Priestess present at her birth came back, calm and clear and full of an all-new meaning.
Gifts in abundance she will have
To this she will add her own
A mother’s power, a father’s daring
But alas through evil’s cunning her fate unknown
It had come to pass — no one would ever know what happened to her… a lasting mystery. The pain of it was overwhelming, and she was awash with regret at the mistakes she’d made… mistakes that had cost her home, family… everything. She’d ignored the impressions her senses were stubbornly putting forward, and now she was helpless to warn those she loved about the danger unknown in their midst. The thought of Chisof consoling her distraught and grieving parents sent a wave of pure fury through her, and she was in that moment consumed by her hatred.
Time passed unnoticed as she sat there, struggling to master emotions that were gripping and terrible. Impotent fury, bittersweet memories, the agony of loss, the unknown that stood yawning before her — all struggling to be heard over one overpowering realization — she was alone, totally, utterly and completely on her own. Alone to face whatever waited on this strange planet. There would be no rescue. No hope of seeing home or family again. A sob caught in her throat, and she did not bother to fight the onslaught of tears, great gasping sobs that took hold of her frail form and would not let go.
After a time it was her training that came to her aid, pushing aside emotion in favor of the practical matter of survival. She could almost hear the voices of the Academy Masters as they drilled the class.
Keep moving… Be watchful… Listen… Use every tool you have… Stay silent and hidden… Wait…
It was all she had to rely on now, and Astrea held fast to this. With careful, precise motions she collected the portable transmitter and small EVAC Kit from their places at her side. The onboard computer had downloaded all its data to a small, portable unit, and this too she took, setting it carefully inside the sturdy pack she’d retrieved from under the seat.
To this task she brought the inventiveness of her Academy classmates who’d taken great pleasure in reassembling the items onboard a regulation fighter into other useful objects. Their inventiveness had intrigued her, though she’d never understood the mechanics of it all. Still she was skilled enough to be able to manage renewable power and basic nourishment, weapons and instruments to sustain her for a time. And then… She shook the thought aside.
Making one final survey of the cabin, suddenly so familiar and so safe, Astrea’s gaze moved over the dials and levers that controlled the craft she knew so well… now silent, without power, useless. Like her, the ship would share an unknown fate, the best of its kind, lost on a foreign world, its story untold. She reached to touch the control pads, profoundly grateful for all the ship had been to her… almost a part of her. To the last it had served her well, and it was some time before she could press the release on the harness that had held her in place during the descent, rising slowly to her feet.
It was then that her gaze came to rest on the disk that contained the only family image they’d ever taken. Mother had insisted the image, and the small medallion hanging behind it, be installed on her ship. If you must do this Astrea, you will do it with your family at your side, and the protection of the Almighty Spirit. She reached to take hold of the disk, grateful beyond words to have this one, most precious thing from home. Their eyes stared sightlessly back at her, though she could hear their voices in the silence, all of them, as if they were here with her now.
Fight to live
Carry yourself with honor
Never desert your gifts
Believe in love
Slipping the disk carefully in to the chest pocket of her flight suit, Astrea’s gaze moved to the medallion. Her mother had put such faith in these things, yet she’d dismissed them as fanciful trinkets. The pendant glinted in the low light… beckoning and beautiful and she reached to take hold of it. If ever there was a time she was in need of protection, this surely was it, and she slipped the glistening chain over her head. Only because I know it would please you Mother.
Next came the pack at her feet, which she settled over one shoulder before reaching to open the weapons locker by the hatch. Enough for a small detachment to stage a quick expedition… still it was something, and she took hold of the holster gratefully, emptying the locker of its supply of rechargeable power cells. Strapping the single laser to her waist, she moved to stand before the control panel that would open the hatch. Out there was a strange world, with advanced creatures who had the resources to detain or destroy her. There would be no welcome here. And yet here she must remain for the rest of her existence. The weight of her solitude settled upon her.
She never knew how she managed to activate the latch, but all at once it was open, and the cool night air rushed in to meet her, startling her. She stood silent, staring out into the pitch-black night before taking her first steps into the new world that was to be her home.
She wandered for an unknown time through the darkness of this strange place, unseeing as visions of all she had known appeared before her eyes. She could see her father’s face… feel her mother’s touch… laugh in the palace garden… share the warmth of the people and places she’d loved, and would never see again. It was all so close… so close that she could almost touch them… almost. She moved onward through the night, clinging to the visions of home and family, uncaring in those moments what route she took, or the terrain over which she traveled.
Sometime later the darkness began to lift, the skies above taking on a pale, soft hue. All around her, the creatures of the planet began to stir. There were sounds too, unlike any she’d ever heard, beautiful and lilting through the early morning air. Soon the lone star she’d glimpsed on her hurried entry into the system would make its way above the horizon, and the cover of darkness would be gone. Astrea wondered at what she would see then, and she offered yet another silent prayer for the strength to face whatever the light might reveal.
At last the energy born of her strong emotions began to wane, and she paused to rest, setting the pack down on the ground before sinking to a low crouch, ready for what might come. Nothing did, and she relaxed after a few moments, reaching into the EVAC Kit for the refreshments stored there. She popped open the small cylinder of liquid, drinking deeply, her wary gaze moving from the lightening skies to the few possessions at her side. So strange that this was all she would ever have of home. Bits and pieces that somehow must be enough to sustain her.
Make use of every tool you have, for indeed one day they might be all you have.
So much of what Master Tigh had said at the Academy was what drove her now, and she was grateful for that. It was, in fact, only the training to which she’d dedicated herself that saved her, kept her going, automatically moving forward toward an unknown something that waited just beyond the next rise. Unbidden, the image of her crippled ship, just before it had vanished from existence rose to taunt her. There had been no other way, yet still she mourned this final, most cutting of losses. The craft had been so much a part of her, a part of her life, that it had been hard to be the one to destroy it.
Yet destroy it she must. Training and instinct told her this most emphatically, guiding her hand as she fired the single laser shot that would be the end of the craft. As she watched the ship be overtaken by the heat of the blast, she thought unexpectedly of her graduation from the Academy. She’d stood tall by her ship, decorated as befitted her new rank, reciting the oath of allegiance. It had been the first thing she’d ever done completely on her own, and it was only as she’d accepted her assignment that she revealed her true identity. There had been a stunned silence, startled whispers… and then her Father’s proud command. In that moment, anything was possible…
Astrea was pulled from the comforting moment most abruptly, pushed back by the intense heat of the burning ship. In the next instant it was gone, as if it had never been. She’d stood transfixed for a long moment, paralyzed by the strength of her emotions.
Marooned. She was marooned.
It was the unrelenting training of the service that once more came to aid her in those terrible, lonely moments. And so she turned her back on the site, putting her trust in the teaching of the Masters, grateful for the physical trials that had made endurance such a part of her being. Focusing her efforts on the demands of the hike, she had continued over the uneven terrain, her rapt gaze moving intently about, sensing, though not seeing, the many creatures who waited there. Their fear was greater than her own, and this knowledge gave her a much needed measure of confidence.
The sky overhead continued to lighten as Astrea slowly consumed the small bit of nourishment she allowed herself. The outlines of the foliage all around her reached up into the brightening skies, and she watched as more creatures began to stir, chattering to each other. There were all manner of sounds, some close by, others further away. The whole area seemed alive and vital… brimming with life. Two structures just beyond the shelter of the tree line were becoming visible as the deepest of the shadows lifted, and she wondered what they were. Dwellings perhaps?
A furtive movement just beyond where she sat brought Astrea’s attention from the structures. Her gaze moved over the area, catching sight of a small, fur-covered creature who moved purposefully through the low growing foliage. Resting a hand on her laser for reassurance, Astrea sat unmoving, watching as the graceful creature continued toward her, stopping abruptly and gazing directly at her. Proud and intelligent, it continued to observe her from a respectful distance, settling down on its haunches while its tail twitched every so often.
Wary and unsure, she kept a watchful eye on the animal while reaching for the portable scanner in the pack by her side. With a quick flip of a switch the machine went to work, displaying facts and figures across its small screen.
A silent moment passed as her eyes skipped over the data before moving back to the creature posed so regally before her. There was something beautiful about it… graceful and regal… compelling yet oddly reassuring… and she could not resist holding a hand out, a tentative gesture of greeting.
The animal rose up, slowly, cautiously moving forward to sniff her outstretched fingers. Here it remained, unmoving as it watched to see what she would do next. When she didn’t move, the creature dared to inch closer, butting a cool, pink nose against her hand. It was a gentle, friendly overture, and she found herself warmed, meeting the wide eyes and staring into them for a soundless moment. It was then that the small creature began to emit a strange sound, rhythmic and steady, rising to fill the space between them.
What are you, I wonder?
The creature gave no response, pacing back and forth before her so that she could more easily stroke its soft fur. A most pleasant exchange, and Astrea continued to run her hands through the soft tufts of hair as she followed the animal’s gaze, watching the light burst across the open field, bringing the structures she’d glimpsed earlier into full view.
One was a light colored building with two distinct levels above the ground, while the other was darker, with few openings. Both were well worn and in need of repair, though still habitable. Boundaries seemed to have been marked in the open area beyond, and a single flat surface led away from the buildings, pitted and full of holes, but useful all the same. She sent a questioning look to her fur-covered companion who had settled comfortably on her lap.
Home. That’s home.
The answer cut her, and she winced involuntarily before gazing once more toward the buildings visible through the thick trees. In the next moment a strange sound split the early morning air, and the fur-covered creature’s ears flickered, it’s head turning toward the field. Startled, Astrea reached at once for her weapon, though her companion seemed only mildly annoyed by her abrupt motion, stretching languidly. The sound came again, and this time the creature rose and stepped to the ground, stretching once more before taking a few tentative steps toward the field. Here it stopped, turning back toward the woman.
Astrea shook her head, In time perhaps. Not now.
Whether the creature understood her or not, it cast a last lingering look over its shoulder before disappearing the way it had come.
Daylight revealed a most unusual world to Astrea’s wide, watchful eyes. The lone star climbed steadily into the sky, slipping behind what the data collector told her were clusters of moisture in the lower atmosphere. Pale and fluffy, they were pleasant to look at, and she spent some time watching them as they raced across the sky. The air was agreeably warm, carrying a delightful scent that made her think unexpectedly of growing things. Insects, not unlike those of her home world, moved about, the humming they made mingling with the more melodious sounds that came all about her. It was peaceful here.
She sat unmoving, leaning against one of the ageless trees that rose up to touch the sky, one hand resting protectively on her pack as she closed her eyes, breathing deep and opening her mind to what lay all about her. Seeking… Searching… Asking… Listening… Motionless, she let her senses have full reign, putting the inborn gifts of her nature to work here and now. A sense of peace came upon her then, and she gave herself up to it, safe and protected, for the first time without fear.
This place was as all the land had once been, unspoiled and without the intrusion of civilization, the foliage and creatures of the wild left to grow unchecked. Wild and untamed, the wilderness had weathered the seasons, a peaceful, ordered world. Then one day the great foliage had begun to be cleared, and the creatures of the wild were driven back, ever back to a smaller parcel of what all had once been their home. Helpless before the encroaching onslaught, they watched the settlements take hold, knowing they could do nothing to stop them.
One by one and in pairs, the settlements continued to come, spreading through the Great Wilderness. Progress pushed people ever father across the land. More dwellings came, fields were cleared and roads were built, linking one place with another. In a generation’s time what had been for countless years untouched, was overrun by the heel of progress. Peace and quiet were no more, the pulse of modern living drowning out the ageless rhythm of life. Even the skies held strange machines, shiny and sleek, slicing through the air, somehow propelled forward until they disappeared on the horizon.
Astrea sat immobile, her breathing slow and even as she allowed the vibrations of this place to come to her, open to all that there was to know. It was, as Mother had always assured her, the truest form of communication, where lies fell away and nothing was held back. All was shared, here now, ready and waiting for its story to be told. She had merely to open her mind and listen.
Mediation brought her some measure of peace, and for a time replaced the tremendous sadness and nagging worries that fought to take her attention. She was alive and unhurt… with all the tools her training had given her… and the inborn gifts she’d too late come to appreciate… Somehow, this must be enough to make a life for herself.
When she opened her eyes again, the lone star had made steady progress toward the opposite horizon, signaling the end of the period of light. The air was distinctly cooler now, and she rose slowly to her feet, surveying the area with cautious, watchful eyes. She would need to find some shelter from the falling temperatures her instruments told her would come, and she slipped her pack up on her back, her free hand coming to rest on the weathered trunk of the tree she’d rested against.
Shelter. I must have shelter.
After a wordless moment Astrea turned and made her way through the thick wood, her progress slow and careful over the uneven ground. Guided by an unseen hand, she had neither the energy nor the will to fight the overwhelming urge to allow events to carry her along, bring her to the place where she should be. She could almost hear her mother’s triumph — at long last she’d come to appreciate the value of the gifts of her nature, to accept the role they must play in her life. It was the awakening her mother had longed for, but was fated never to see.
The realization unleashed a fresh wave of grief, and she bit her lip, angry at herself for the tears that seemed to arrive so unexpectedly now. Astrea wondered in that futile moment if she would ever recover from what had been done. Determined to master her own emotions, she focused her energies onto assessing the spot where she’d come to a stop. A slight clearing, bordered on all sides by towering trees, the space had a level, leaf strewn patch of ground and several large stones clustered together toward its center.
Yes, this would do nicely.
The shadows lengthened steadily as Astrea worked to create a makeshift camp. The hand-held monitor she’d retrieved from her pack continued to register the falling temperatures and she shivered, wondering how cold it would get. Her flight suit had been designed to offer some protection, but it could only do so much. Reaching for the laser strapped securely to her side, she sent a single shot into the pile of stones, super heating them to a glowing mass. Almost at once, a steady warmth dispelled the chill, and she replaced her weapon, well pleased with her solution.
With a measure of comfort, it was a simple matter to set up the few items she’d brought from the ship. Though these things represented only the most basic of the tools she’d always taken for granted, they were enough to afford her some comforts. She would rest comfortably, prepare what nourishment she had, and be able to watch the goings on around her. A few days of uninterrupted work would see her construct a receiver that would pick up any planet wide broadcasts. Protection would come from the fully charged laser at her side, and she reached to take hold of the weapon, a measure of reassurance coming over her.
When at last she had set up the site to her satisfaction and consumed the evening ration, Astrea turned her attention to the goings-on around the two structures she’d observed earlier. For a time she could see nothing, then, ever so slowly, light began to glow from within the smaller of the two, spilling out into the darkness of the yard. Warm… welcoming… it was home, beloved despite its appearance. An intense and paralyzing loneliness came to claim her then, and she tore her gaze away, burying her head in her hands as the tears came, yet again.
Sometime later, when the cover of darkness had once more come to claim the land, Astrea moved through the pitch-black night toward the open field. The buildings had long since grown dark, and the forest quieted as creatures settled for the night. Only then did she dare to head for the open field to get an unobstructed view of the night sky. Whether it was longing for home or her pilot’s heart, she needed to see the stars held twinkling by the infinite blackness of space…
Gazing up, she could almost imagine the stars cradling her ship as she sliced through the ever-expanding universe intent on the challenge of a new mission, secure in the knowledge that she’d be going home again… blissfully unaware of the terrible forces that could be brought to bear to destroy her. Lost and forlorn, she gazed longingly up at the starlit sky, as broken and alone as she’d ever been, calling out to those a world away.
I am here… do not forget me — as I shall keep you forever in my heart… always.