1 Vessel of the Elephant God

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."

- Douglas Adams

7TH SEPTEMBER 2460 (EARTH GREGORIAN CALENDAR)

GAMMA SERPENTIS SYSTEM (UNCLAIMED FRONTIER TERRITORIES, 36 LIGHT-YEARS FROM EARTH)

It was desolate, another metal husk that had strayed far from its home into the void. The hull was battered, the underside somehow ripped off, former defence turrets were littered across the sides of the structure, and those once massive engines seemingly became unrecognisable to a glancer's eye. Hell, the white paint etched onto the surface somehow disfigured within the starred abyss, almost making it entirely unintelligible to read. Wasn't in English, well not in anything containing the latin alphabet at all. It appeared to have been a starship of an Asian nation, either south or south-east.

Two figures in bronze-coated space suits, with the flags of their birth nation one their arms, the Commonwealth of Great Britain, cracked open one of the airlocks, and let themselves inside. Their magnet boots activated, sticking to the cold, metallic floor, allowing them to mimic a stroll across the ship. Both were armed with some Russian Military-Grade assault rifles, custom-made for cosmic use. Though there didn't seem to be a point in using them, this place appeared to have been dead for over a century. But you could never be too careful in space, could you?

There lacked any light sources, obviously. Other than the directing from the figures' helmet torches, yet all there were were flocks of floating crates and equipment.

One of the figures, Nolan Kumar, shined his torch upon about every surface of his immediate surroundings. He stepped around, just after lowering the settings of the magnetic force upon his boots, gently pushing a few crates out of the way. His breath was probably the only thing he could hear at that moment, almost the same with his thoughts. Though, despite involving himself in voidwork for the past month, the suit always had new ways to make him uncomfortable. Moving around was the only way he could repel it.

A strange shape had appeared on the corner of his right eye, he turned his head, gazing at the uniquely molded silhouette. He properly shone his light onto it. "Jesus Christ!" He cried, a bit of static, well, hopefully it was static, followed on over the comms. As what floated before him was the mummified husk of a dead crewman. The skin had been clearly burned from unfiltered cosmic radiation, sort of like something from a papier-mâché, and the once brown jumpsuit had somehow been torn upon death.

The other figure, whose name was Catrin Bridge, almost carelessly grabbed the female corpse, examining the body like a scrappy forensics personnel.

"What the hell are you doing?" Nolan asked over his suit's radio. A disgusted look was expressed behind his visor.

"Confirming we're on the right ship."

"Massive starship in the middle of nowhere? Yeah that sounds like we're in the right place."

"We could be wrong, it's happened before. This uniform look familiar to you?" Catrin asked.

"Why are you asking me?" She held the corpse closer to him, its bare eyes staring into his soul. "Jesus Christ, not so close, will you?!"

Catrin pointed to the name-tag, which wasn't following the latin alphabet, its style was quite similar to the title of the starship on the hull's surface. "Look, this is Gujarati, isn't it?"

"Y-yeah." He stepped back, regaining his personal space. "At least... I think it is?"

"I thought you could speak Gujarati." She raised an eyebrow. That was what he spoke to his relatives in every now and then, right?

"Doesn't mean I can bloody read it! I grew up in Birmingham, it's all just weird squiggles to me!"

Another voice, bit more cheery, joined in on the conversation. "I can translate it, if you want." That was DAVE, the AI of the Artemis which was currently hovering half a kilometre from the wreckage, caught in another orbit.

A translation appeared on their helmets' hud, 'Sonnel Mohan Doshi', it said. Underneath appeared to have been a barcode, still readable. A few details were added into their huds, looked as if she was an engineer for the New Gujarat Republic, last assigned to the exploration ship, NGIN Ganesha.

"Right, this is the place," Catrin stated, throwing Sonnel's corpse out the way, accidentally ripping her arm off.

Another voice from the Artemis appeared over the radio. "Away team, First Officer Bryce here, calling from the Artemis."

"You know you don't exactly have to be so formal? We know it's you, you're the only Aussie on the ship." One of the things he loved on the Artemis, was that he could keep it casual with even the two senior officers on board. Not exactly as efficient, but to Avery and Bryce (mostly), it made the Artemis a more welcoming environment.

THE ARTEMIS

Avery Devon, the American captain of the Artemis, sat down next to Bryce in the cockpit. "How's everything been going up here?"

"They're finally on board." Bryce then glared at what was in Avery's hand. "Are you having a pot noodle? Hold on, are those my leftovers?!"

"Oh, sorry. Didn't realise it was yours."

"It literally had my name on it!"

He held out the pot, stabbed by a pair of disposable chopsticks, with a salty smell almost getting into his nostrils. "You can have it if you want."

Bryce felt like having a rant at the captain here and there but at this point he just stopped caring. He just reminded him not to spill any soup on the controls, hoping the nearest planet had a takeaway there, and went back to the comms. "Sorry about that, you mind saying your status report?"

"We're inside the ship. Loads of dead bodies here," Catrin reported. "Reminds me of that- oh God, what was it called? It was a European Colony... New Innsbruck."

"What happened there?" Nolan asked.

"Zorak forces decimated the colony. No human left alive there," Bryce said. "Used to go there back when we were hired to do a couple striarium runs. Nice town, nice people. Look, you mind continuing on with the mission?"

"Remind me what we're looking for?" said Nolan, hesitantly pushing another corpse put of the way.

"Oh, just information," DAVE reminded. "Nothing James Bond critical. But this is the only starship that has mapped this system, according to the U.N. Offered quite a good sum for it, plus we'd be contributing to the mining and war efforts." Nolan disagreed. To him, all they would be doing would be providing a bunch of rocks to feed the Terran industrial beasts.

Bryce paused for a second. "Yeah, what DAVE said. Now, you can't get this data without power. Catrin, you need to head to the power room or whatever it's called, and turn on the backup power. Nolan, you need to be in the bridge when the power comes back on. There you can install DAVE into the system, in which he can download the maps. Out."

The three nodded, and they continued on through the ship.

They were prepared, standing outside of the infirmary, armed to the brink with household weaponry, and standing in a defensive position.

Knives, forks, spray cans, a silenced semi-automatic handgun with two magazines, anything the two crewmen could find around them to prepare for the beast that terrorised their haven of recovery.

Nia Kamau, the young engineer holding the kitchen knife, placed her hand on the door handle, ready to pull upon command. She glared up to Doctor Williams, holding the handgun.

"Listen Nia, this is gonna be a dangerous assignment," the doctor told her in her rough voice, just after fixing a silencer onto her handgun. "We might not make it out alive."

Nia scoffed. "I grew up on goddamn Anubis. It's more of a challenge there to get out of your mother's womb alive."

"All right. Charging in in three, two o-"

"What in the galaxy are you two doing?" Both of them aborted the attack, and turned their heads behind. Ryan, the captain's son, stood there in confusion.

"There's a station-rat skittering around in the infirmary," the doctor told him, as slight racketing soon followed. "Must've snuck on board whilst we were refuelling."

"Okay? Why do you have a gun?"

"The rat got into the cocaine stash," Nia said.

"I'm sorry?!"

"It's her's." She gestured her head to the doctor. "By the way, don't tell your dad."

"About the rat, the drugs, or the gun in her hand?"

"Hundred credits," the doctor offered, dodging his question.

Well, Ryan didn't exactly care about the doctor's habits in the first place. That didn't stop him from taking advantage of the situation. "Two-hundred."

"Oh for- fine!"

"What about me?" DAVE asked. "I can literally see everything on this ship."

"Goddammit," the doctor muttered.

"Nah, nah, I'm just messing with you. Honestly don't care what you do as long as it doesn't compromise the whole starship."

Jesus Christ, Ryan expected better of DAVE. That newbie, Nolan, often joked he was Skynet Lite, but this was probably the lowest this AI could go. Not like any of them wanted to exterminate humanity (compared to half the android community), the long term mattered more to their kind.

The doctor turned back to Nia. "Right then, three, two, one. Go!"

Nia pulled open the door, Williams raised her gun, and both of them immediately stepped in. Their eyes swiftly scanned the whole area, through the tipped over equipment, the torn papers, the scratched silver machinery, it had to be somewhere.

A tiny yet hyper chitter sounded from the far left corner. The doctor fired without hesitation, its rate of fire inflicting insignificant noise that thankfully couldn't be heard from around theonly to have just destroyed a rack of filled test tubes, thankfully not filled with any harmful chemicals.

Upon the cabinets it came again, and the doctor took another attempt, only to fail once more as a few more holes were entrenched into the cabinet doors.

"Seriously, why the gun?" Ryan asked. "It's just a rat."

"Ryan, I've been wandering the universe before your Dad could even speak," the doctor remarked. "So trust me when I say it's absolutely necessary to use a gun when fighting a rat high on cocaine."

"You're fine with this, Nia?"

"I just really hate rats," the engineer harshly responded, though a hint of excitement was clear in her tone. "So as long as those little bastards are dead, I don't really mind. Sorry about the language."

"I'm thirteen, I've got better things to worry about that some curse words."

Her eyes suddenly jerked to the corner on their left. "Up there!"

Doctor Williams fired the remnants of her magazine straight at it, just missing each time she fired. "Goddammit. Reloading!" She cried.

Nia pulled out her sprays, both coated in mustard yellow, and marked with a void-black skull in the centre. "Covering!"

A thick mist, as grand as a fog, was released into the open from their alloyed prison. Overtaking the makeup of elements within the air. Yet that rabid pest immunised itself to its toxic effects. It leaped straight through onto the heart monitor, remaining in a defensive bearing. Its blood-red eyes almost began to foam as it gazed onto its attackers, the fur seemed to have embraced the appearance of the abyss, and its minuscule yet razor-sharp claws were just itching for a counter attack.

"Oh for f- come at me you lit-" The rat didn't hesitate to comply, as it pounced straight into the engineer's frizzled hair. "Holy shit! Get it off me! The basha is in my hair!"

It clawed and scratched everywhere deep into her scalp, merely rendering a collection of scars inevitable. Nia staggered around, knocking blood packs off the table, bumping her head into the cabinet, it still held onto her when she fell onto the floor, as if the rat was controlling her body into harm for mere amusement.

Doctor Williams thankfully smacked it to the counter. "You all right?"

"Ow! Shit! Shit!" She put pressure onto the wounds bleeding from her head. "Kill that little shit for me, will you?!"

The rat counter attacked by leaping onto the doctor's hair this time. But, despite her age, she ripped it out of her hair, only to get bit right on the finger, in which she swung it onto the wall above the counter.

It ran a sweatless marathon all through the counter, knocking over the smaller equipment, and making a large mess on the floor. The doctor had already loaded another magazine. This time, she decided to take a more patient approach. She positioned her eye to the sights, trying to follow the rat around.

Come on, come on, stay still, stay still. Ah hah! She had it in her sights, right in the open too. The doctor placed her finger on the trigger.

Pfew.

It was finally dead. No wait, never mind, she missed.

Pfew.

Okay, now it was dead.

"Mission complete," she stated.

"What the hell did I just watch?" DAVE asked.

"I honestly have no clue," said Ryan, before a high pitched noise managed to reach his eardrums. "Uhhh, does anybody hear that?"

The noise soon became more noticeable. The doctor turned to the captain's son. "Ryan, be a dear and get the assault rifle, will you?"

It wasn't exactly as large as it was perceived outside, the bridge would have taken less than a few minutes to arrive in if it weren't for all the ruins. Had to have been a crew of about sixty-seventy personnel judging by the amount of bunked quarters. Though their corpses preferred zero-gravity over an actual resting place.

Catrin already split off, moving into the power room. She wasn't exactly an engineer, that was more Nia's job, but she was off doing some stuff on the Artemis.

Nolan, on the other hand, decided to explore a bit, descending further into the mass grave of the Ganesha, have a bit of a nose about the crew's quarters and such.

Looked as if a few kept their faith. A poster of one of the Hindu gods was still placed up in one of the rooms, looked to have been almost the exact same as the one he remembered at his Nan's old house. There was even a small metal Mandir, a structure (either large or small) Hindus usually prayed to, in one of the rooms. The dead body of whomever took care of it floating in the corner, with their hands clutched in an eternal prayer. He wasn't exactly religious, quite far from it, but it did would've filled him with quite a bit of nostalgia if it weren't for the fact he was in a zero-gravity cemetery.

"So, wasn't Ganesha the Elephant God?" Catrin asked Nolan over the radio, as her friend still strolled through the corridors.

"Yeah. Son of lord Shiva. Said to remove obstacles and provide good luck." Like that ever helped the crew.

"Right. Why was he an elephant?"

"From what I've seen from those low-budget shows my nan watches, his dad chopped off his head when he was a kid-"

"I'm sorry, what? To his own CHILD?!"

"Yeah. He didn't know he was his kid at the time."

"Did or didn't know, murdering a kid is messed up!"

"Where was I? Oh yeah, some stuff happened, the villagers I think sewn an elephant's head onto his corpse."

"Wait, does that work?"

"Dunno. I'll try it with you later with Carrie." Carrie, of course, was their Doctor.

"Make me a dog. Always wanted to proclaim myself as the Dog God."

"The hell?"

"That sounded a lot better in my head."

He passed by the small mess hall, seemed they still had loads of rations left over; chapatis, curry, bit of vindaloo, though space wasn't exactly kind on them. Even a bottle of wine too, only the liquid seemed to have dissipated in its vacuum breach. Shame, would've been nice to drink hundred-year-old wine.

A few more corpses floated hear and there, the AI's automatic translations constantly flooded the visor. Some appeared to have died interesting ways, some trinkets still held in hand, two bodies were still tightly hugging too after all this time, looked to have been a man too clutching onto a small, physical picture in hand. Not really a thing anyone would expect to see with humanity being so socially digitalised. He respectfully brought him down, and flashed his light on the surprisingly low quality picture. It was a smiling girl, possibly in her toddler years, carried up by her father. A note was written on the side in print, translating to 'My Little Princess'.

He silently stared at the picture for another few seconds, his almost mesmerised expression pondering his surroundings. People die every day. You saw it on the news, from your friends, in the movies or tv shows, on the death count online that was somehow still up and running. But not everybody thought too much on it. In this weirdly endless, cold universe we lived in, our deaths were just another drop in the bucket to everyone. But actually seeing the husk that once had a life like this had him thinking about the lives the rest of the corpses on the ship once led; their relationships, their ups and downs, the times in the pub or whatever they had in New Gujarat, everyone had one hell of a story to tell. We're just all so caught up in our own shit to even care.

DAVE noticed Nolan's stance. "Nolan? Mate, you all right?"

"What?" Nolan finally took his eyes off the picture.

"You zoned out there for a bit."

"Sorry. Dunno why that- DAVE, what d'you think killed them?" He asked, pretending the last ten seconds didn't happen.

"Life support failure, most likely. Maybe as a result of an asteroid impact? Happens all the time." The AI said.

Well that was concerning, but Nolan didn't think much on it.

"Are we gonna scavenge this place?"

"The tech's over a hundred years old. It ain't worth much on the market to anyone, if you're wondering." Maybe resources? Nolan was about to ask. But this was a time where resources could easily be ripped out of asteroids or mined to death on some unwanted habitable worlds. You could buy things like this over the internet if one so wished.

"What about the bodies? Shouldn't we at least recover them?"

"There's sixty personnel on this ship, and I don't have the scavenging drones needed nor the will to be asked. We're a scavenging ship. Not a morgue."

"What about the family members?"

"The close ones are either all either dead or in their one-hundreds in which, judging by the state of New Gujarat's NHS, they're most likely mentally pruned vegetables."

"DAVE-"

"No. James Cameron didn't bother with recovering the bodies when he visited the Titanic."

"Who?"

"The guy who directed Titanic. Doesn't matter. My point here is: no."

And the conversation stopped there.

All of a sudden, Nolan's surroundings rendered his torch obsolete, as Catrin had already brought the backup power back on, brightening up most of the remaining hallways.

"Right, we're set. Nolan, you in the bridge yet?" Catrin said over the radio.

"Sorry, yeah." He ended the conversation with DAVE, who seemed to have one the quick argument. "On my way."

Nolan arrived at the door to the bridge, fired a couple rounds into the lock of the door, and let himself inside.

The bridge looked like the rest of the ship, yet only with a lit up set of controls semi-circling the front. DAVE managed to connect himself to the starship's central computer from Nolan's suit, making his way through the obsolete security.

"Jesus Christ, what was that system they were using? Windows XP?" He joked, just reaching the second layer of security parameters. He had expected to encounter one of those robotic AIs all ships used to have back then, or retards as his kind called them.

"What are you on about?"

"I thought you had a GCSE in Internet History, Nolan. Look, this is gonna take me a bit longer. The code's in a bit of a mess compared to modern sequences, and there's quite a few more security parameters."

"Can't be that incompatible can it?"

"Well, these computers were damaged in whatever it was that wrecked the ship. So yeah."

Catrin finally arrived. "We set?"

"In a bit. DAVE's still doing whatever he needs to do," Nolan said. He radioed in to the Artemis. "On our way back."

"Hang on," DAVE said. Bloody hell, what now? "T-there's nothing here! THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HERE!"

"Umm, Ave? I'm picking up a ship about... seventeen kilometres from here," Bryce said.

"What? Is it human?"

"Hang on, let me put it on screen." A holographic display appeared right on the window, and zoomed in onto the other ship, seemingly coated to camouflage into the abyss, with its lights illusioned into the stars. It was roughly blade-shaped, with its spiked outer hull in a constant spinning state. Plasma cannons were identifiable upon both sides, some protecting the extra engines that added to its speed.

"Damn it, it's a Zorak ship."

"Is it military?"

"No, pirate. Military vessels don't travel alone, they like the numbers. Arm the torpedos!" Avery turned to the comms in a hurry. "DAVE, did you download the intel yet?!"

"No. There's a problem... there's no data."

Avery cursed under his breath. Goddammit, it was a trap. "Bryce, tell the away team to evacuate."

Bryce nodded, and notified them on the comms.

"Sorry, evacuate?" Nolan asked.

"Bloody Zorak pirate vessel nearing our location," Bryce reported. "Get back here as soon as poss- hold on. Jesus Christ, raising the deflectors!"

A burning blue beam sliced along the void, just passing the wreckage. The two rushed over to the windows, seeing no damage inflicted upon the main hull of the Artemis. At least they assumed there was no damage, since it remained half a kilometre away.

"Scratch that, stay where you are. You're safer there. Out."

Nolan looked at Catrin, growing a worried look behind his face, hoping she would know what to do now. Yet despite having more experience than her friend, Catrin's thoughts were barren; a wasteland of absolute piss-all.