The first trade ships returning to Caucasus from the oasis planet Awkar were the slowest, and thus the last to arrive. Over the centuries, as their technology advanced, the thin-noses discovered the secret to immediate interstellar travel. A ‘backdoor bypassing the middle passage’ white elites called it, snickering behind closed doors. While elder package ships crept back through the dark in real time, bearing back with them a then-much needed labor source, unbeknownst to them, others had already leapt back and forth between the planets a hundred times over. Those intrepid slavers’ sacrifice, leaving behind all they had known, their families passing into memory, was rendered a needless loss.
So anachronistic were these ships that they could not even receive transmissions notifying them of these changes. They continued, laboring under false pretenses: what they did mattered. Their lives were not a waste.
But perhaps the tide of these changes rippled out into the black, as the thin-nosed pale-face Luke Collingwood—captain of the tradeship Zong—watched his dark cargo slumber, wondering if all he had lost was worth the price. Sensing, somehow, that it was not. He drank, and toasted his wife, Amarose, who by his calculations had passed at least one hundred and fifty years hence.
“I do this for you, my love. For our children’s children’s great grand-children, so that they may be born into a world able to sustain our way of life.” How hollow those words felt now. He tasted the foul blood on them. When he closed his eyes, he saw the cost he had paid for Caucasus. Not just in family lost, but in the toll to his soul. He closed his eyes and saw the jungles burning, families weeping as he dragged away their fathers, their mothers, their sons. The unseeing eyes of those who resisted too much to be taken. Standing before the sleeping men and women—he had seen too much of their suffering to disregard their humanity—he wondered if they dreamed. If they dreamed, was it of the family they had lost? The strange land to which they were taken.
Watching them, still, frozen, packed together, naked, by the hundreds in close quarters—nose to nose, back to back—he hoped their dreams were pleasant ones. The hell they woke to when they returned would be far beyond anything they experienced before the journey.
“The evil we do to survive,” He mumbled, drinking deeply of the mess-hall’s provided liquor. It was cheap stuff, but effective. The burn it left in his throat soon spread to his whole body. He almost forgot while in its throes that by now everyone he had ever known had passed long ago.
A sudden flashing red light accompanied the high-pitched klaxon whining in his ear, signaling the end of his year. His watch was over. Time to wake the XO. He sighed and left the poor Awkarans to their slumber, such brittle peace between the violences his people would visit on them. The first of the heart, the next of the body and the soul. He turned reluctantly away from the only lives he’d known the past five cycles (each of the thirty in his crew took their turn manning the ship as it once again crossed the galaxy, largely to ensure the black bodies they carried did not spoil) and went back, passed the bridge to the other chambers.
In the halls he hunched over, even though the ceilings cleared his six-foot frame by several inches. The corridors were so narrow. Stainless steels walls contracted in on him, like the ship breathed and he passed through its lungs that threatened to crush him. He knew it was all in his mind, an effect of loneliness. And he looked forward to updating Magda, his second in command, on the little that had happened on his latest watch. Their journey was almost over, he knew. The prospect of returning ‘home’ was one he met with excitement… but also a great deal of trepidation. Would he recognize the planet they returned to? Would they still even need all his crew had sacrificed to attain? Would the Caucasus civilization even remain?
Entering a domed room, the Captain approached the distant wall lined with thirty inset crèches. Each contained a fellow traveler similarly lost in a future they would not recognize. He walked up to the first pod, containing a slumbering red-haired woman with fair skin and thin, blue lips. Magda. His heart soared to see her, and flew even higher at the thought he will see her again soon. These were the closest people to family left to him, those who had shed blood—and spilled it—right alongside him. He pressed a few buttons, and the light on her monitor turns from red to green. Her chamber decompresses, air hisses out from within as the door slides open. She stumbles forward into his arms, before standing on wobbly legs and saluting, unembarrassed by her nakedness.
Magda, a forty year old lifer, lithe and muscular with salt and pepper in her hair and deep-set emerald eyes. She stood at attention and barked: “Magda Reish reporting for duty sir!”
“At ease, XO,” He smiled, and tossed her the chrome jumpsuit he brought along for the awakening. “Get dressed, I’ll brief you, we’ll eat and then the bridge is yours.”
In the mess, they sat together in a room built to house far more. Automated nourishing paste spit from a fountain in the wall onto their plates. It was gray and had the consistency of oatmeal left out too long in the sun, but Magda wolfed it down like it was the most delicious meal she had ever tasted. Luke knew, after thirty years sleeping in a frozen chamber, one developed quite the appetite. As she ate, he gave his report.
“Nothing new soldier. The Awkarans sleep well and we remain on schedule. Due to arrive three months into your coming term. As we approach orbit, you’ll wake the rest of us as we agreed. We all want to see together what awaits us. What message we receive when we make our hail.”
Magda merely nodded, not willing to interrupt her meal with a vocal response.
“Em, I-” Luke abandoned the formal report, using the name Magda kept for only her closest friends. Frankly he wasn’t sure he still qualified. Over the last century she was one of the two humans he saw awake, and then only for five-ten minutes. Now, their time as it was grew short, and when next they saw each other everything would already be changed, their lives set as they returned home.
She didn’t let him finish, stopping her meal long enough to grab his hand and squeeze in the affirmative. “Me too Captain, me too…”
She smiled, a crooked, stained thing. But still it burned brighter than the sun… at least when compared to the blood-drenched dawns he remembered.
“Well,” He rose, blushing, “Perhaps I better get back to bed. It’s been a long, dark day.”
She did not make to follow him at first, sitting with her hands wrapped around a mug of overcooked coffee. “Sir?” She started hesitantly, “Permission to speak freely?”
Looking up, her emerald eyes met his misty ones. “Was it worth it? What we’ve done? All that we’ve lost and taken?”
Captain Collingwood sighed, pausing only slightly to consider his response. “A hundred years ago, I’d have said yes. But now…”
“But now?” Magda prodded.
“I, I don’t see that anything separates us from them.” He jerked his head back towards the cryogenic cargo hold. “And if that’s the case…”
“How can we justify what we did?” She finished the thought for him.
For a few minutes, they sat in silence in the mess-hall. In a room, for all its threadbare charm, that suddenly felt much cooler than the subzero chambers—home to their dreamless nights.