Chapter 1

Oh my God! Did I have a headache! Nobody told us back in training that we would have this kind of reaction to waking up from cryogenic sleep. Shit! I feel like I must have been out for 100 centuries, instead of the two centuries that I had been scheduled for.

Well, since I have finally been awakened, we must be on our final approach to Spica IV. I just hope that the recon (reconnaissance) department got it right this time. Spica IV is supposed to be an Earth-like planet in the Goldilocks Zone (neither too hot nor too cold) and with plenty of available water. The 223 spaceships in our colonization fleet should have the planet ready for occupancy within the targeted 30 years if recon was on the ball. Well, it's time to get up; I wonder where everybody is?

The usual SOP (standard operating procedure) is for a doctor and a nurse to be available to help each sleeper get the details straight and to make sure that pulse, blood pressure, etc. are correct before she or he tries to stand up. I don't see any one else in this sleep hold, and it is 100 by 40 meters of floor space closely packed with sleep chambers. It looks like all of the chambers that I can see from here are open, but there may be some behind me not opened yet.

Oh, well, I feel fine, so I might as well get up. All of the indicators on my medical board are in the green, so I guess the computer thinks that I am alive even if my headache makes me wonder about how much longer that will last. The fact that I am naked is meaningless at this stage, so I will get up and look around. There is a comm (communication) panel at the far end of this sleep chamber, so that's probably where I should head. I wonder if there has been some sort of screw up, and I was awakened too late. I can find the answer to that and a lot of other questions as soon as I can get to the comm station.

Hey, what happened to the gravity!?! I lost all feel of gravity as soon as I left my bed. Why had the ship's gravity field been cut off? That is never a standard practice, so there must be some emergency going on. I had better check in right away.

"Computer, this is Space Marine Gunnery Sergeant William Ashford, SM978431-9611 reporting for duty. Where should I go to find my unit?"

"There must be some error: Sergeant William Ashford, SM978431-9611 was reported killed in the rebellion of 2782, over 19,000 years ago. You are the first contact I have had from troop carrier Harmony Goodson in that time. Please make a full report."

"Computer, I am William Ashford, and I just woke up from cryogenic sleep. I know nothing of what happened since five days before liftoff on July 17, 2405. From what you say, it must be something like the year 22,000. Please tell me the exact date."

"The exact date is January 13, 22011."

"Oh my God! What happened?"

"On December 11, 2782, as the first sight of Spica IV was made, a rebellion of the 4th Brigade of Space Marines took place. The rebellion was led by General Barnabus Arnold. Very nearly every human aboard the fleet was killed before the rebellion was put down. Your ship was one of the first ones attacked, and the rebels cut off all life support to the sleeping cells during the course of the attack. Somehow, your cell must have been overlooked in that process. A check of my current records show that your cell was opened by the timing out of the fail-safe system.

"The fleet was left with too few humans to keep it operating, so as many as possible went back into cryogenic sleep with the timers disabled. My records show that most of the humans have died, but there are a few still alive in their cells. In some cases, the people on a ship chose not to resume cryogenic sleep and continued to stay active within their ships.

"In order to prevent another occurrence of a situation similar to the rebellion of 2782, I have cut off all communication among the ships of the fleet. To my knowledge, the people aboard each ship think that they are the only members of the fleet who are still alive. The replicators have been active so that each ship has had a sufficient supply of food, water, and clean air.

"My records show that you are the highest ranking member of the Space Marines still alive, so I am prepared to take orders from you. What would you have me do, Sir?"

"Wow, well, the first thing you need to do is to tell me where I can find a uniform and weapons. I hope I don't need the weapons, but I don't want to be caught totally unprepared."

I was directed to a storage room where I found a uniform and a pistol. I figured on worrying about the rest of my gear after I had explored this ship. I checked all of the cryogenic cells aboard the ship, and I did not find any more sleepers. There were no bodies lying around because the robot cleaners had long since cleaned the decks.

It took me four days to be sure that I was the only one left alive on the troop ship Harmony Goodson. My next step was to check into the status of some of the other troop carriers. Just possibly, I could find some company on one of them. I went to the transporter room and had myself transported to the troop carrier Igor Slaviski.

I found pretty much what I expected: nobody was alive. Well, that was a bust, so I had myself transported to the N'Bali Maliki. Here, my luck was a Hell of a lot better! I found one Space Marine still alive. She was Private Susan Zalat, and was she happy to see me! She had been awakened the same as I had, but she had not been able to activate the comm unit. She was about to go crazy in fear that she was the only person alive, so you can imagine how enthusiastically she greeted me.

She was naked because she had not been able to get a locker to open for her, and I thought from the way she greeted me that I was about to be raped. Hell, I was as horny as she was, so we let off some repressed steam with a joyous fuck. After that, we got back to business. There was no need for me to search this ship because Susan had already done that in a desperate effort to find some company.

We ate a snack from the food replicator and had the computer transfer us to the last of the four troop carriers, the Rachel Morris. Again, we struck out! We could not find anyone aboard, either moving around or in one of the cryogenic cells. Okay, time for a council of war among the active duty Space Marines.

Susan and I made ourselves comfortable and discussed the situation. We both realized that we could not do much to reestablish our version of the human race just on our own. Oh, sure, we could make babies now that Susan's birth control injection had long since worn off, but we were not Adam and Eve, and we had no intention of trying to act that way.

According to the computer, there were other people still alive among the ships of the fleet, and we should be able to contact them. The catch was that we really did not know what to expect from people who had been isolated for thousands of years, so some negotiation probably would be necessary. In fact, some of it could be at the business end of a gun.

Our guns were a modification of conventional firearms in that we had special bullets that would damage flesh just as regular bullets would, but they would not damage vital parts of the spaceships. I don't know how that worked; all I knew was that it did, and that was good enough for me. The guns used compressed air instead of gunpowder to fire the bullets, and the air and each bullet were created on the spot by miniature special-purpose replicators.

Anyway, we asked the computer for a recommendation, and we were jumped to the Arthur Harris. We were told that the people on this ship had been members of a religious cult on Earth that the government considered harmless, but was pushing to escape the "oppression" of the "gentiles" that surrounded them. They had paid for and outfitted their own ship, so its design was a bit different from the standard.

We popped into a transporter room that we found deserted, but that was not unexpected. These people were certainly not expecting visitors, and probably did not want them in any case. However, we did need to check them out.

We were surprised when the intruder alarm went off. Now that was enough to wake the dead! The alarm ran for nearly five minutes before somebody finally cut it off. That was a welcome treat for our ears. Very soon thereafter, six men showed up at the transporter room. Five of them carried very effective looking cudgels and the sixth man, somewhat elderly, was wearing an ornate robe and holding a similarly ornate staff. He said, "Who are you, and what do you want?"

Susan and I were standing there with our empty hands exposed, and I answered, "We are here to try to assess the current state of the various ships in the fleet. We want to know if you need anything or have a surplus of anything that you would like to share with the remainder of the fleet."

"NO! We want nothing to do with the rest of the fleet! We have been on our own for thousands of years and want to remain that way. Now, please leave before things become unpleasant."

I was about to call for the computer to transport us to the next ship on our list when we heard a shouted call, "WAIT! PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME WITH THESE MONSTERS! TAKE ME WITH YOU!"

Susan and I both reacted by drawing our guns. I asked, "What was that all about? Why would that woman call for help from strangers?"

"Pay no attention to her! She is an ungrateful wretch who is scheduled to be sacrificed to our god Rep later in the evening."

"Human sacrifice is not to be tolerated in this fleet! Bring her here so that we can get some details on what is going on."

The old man ordered his minions to attack us instead of doing as I had ordered. Well, a Gunny (Gunnery Sergeant) is not prepared to allow his orders to be ignored, so I raised my gun, and so did Susan. The men approaching us did not seem to recognize the danger afforded by the guns and continued to approach us. One of them raised his cudgel to strike Susan, and I felt that forced me to shoot him in the leg.

Our guns do not make much noise when they are fired, and the other men ignored my warning shot. We could not delay any longer; otherwise we would have been overwhelmed. Susan and I began to shoot to kill as our lives were obviously in danger. We cut down the remaining bodyguards and turned our guns on the older man.

He saw his bleeding men on the floor and reacted in a totally unexpected way. "REP! I CALL UPON YOU TO SMITE THESE UNBELIEVERS! SLAY THEM BEFORE THEY CAN DO ANY MORE DAMAGE!"

Nothing happened for a moment, then a green gas began to fill the room. The old man ran from the room while Susan and I gaped in amazement. There was a strange odor in the room as the green gas began to get close to us, so I ordered our air filters into place. A clear bowl formed over our heads and our auxiliary air supply took over. My helmet reported that a toxic gas was filling the room, and we needed to escape before our air supply was overloaded.

I waved at Susan, and we ran from the room out into the hallway. There was an air-curtain over the doorway that kept the green gas from escaping into the hall. We turned toward where we thought that the cry for help had come from and found a woman chained to the wall in the next room. She started crying when we ran in, and we did not take any time for conversation as we broke the chain and transported back to my ship with the woman in tow. Fortunately, we could transport from anywhere, but the computer had to have exact coordinates for our landing site.

We found a comfortable place for the woman to sit while we questioned her. Her story was certainly weird from our point of view. Every year, there is a human sacrificed to their god; its name is Rep. This year, she was selected to be the victim. She was sure that it was because she had refused to join the leader's harem as his latest concubine. The old man had a reputation for vindictiveness, and this woman, Erin, was sure that was why she was selected. The old man made the selections, and nobody knew his criteria: he just named a victim the day before the ceremony.

The woman had related her tale with her head down and had not looked around the room. However, she looked up and screamed. We had a very difficult time calming her down long enough to find out what had frightened her so. She had screamed when her eye fell on the replicator across the room. It took some doing, because she thought that we would now sacrifice her to Rep, whose angel was across the room staring at her. That's when it dawned on Susan and me that Rep was short for replicator!

We finally got through to Erin that we did not worship Rep. We drummed into her that the replicator was just a machine like all of the other machines that surrounded us and that we used every day. Erin may never have completely believed us, but she did calm down enough for us to find out that another woman would be selected to be sacrificed to Rep tonight. That was totally unacceptable, and Susan and I were determined to put a stop to the nonsense of human sacrifice.

The computer now had the coordinates of the room adjacent to the transporter room and we jumped to it. Another woman was already chained to the wall and waiting for her time to die. We released Janice and the computer jumped her back to keep Erin company while Susan and I took care of this business of human sacrifice.

We waited in ambush for the acolytes to come for the woman. When the two men came in, we shot one of them in the leg to immobilize him while the other one took us to the "temple" where the sacrifice was to take place. In this place, the "temple" was the dinning room. A large replicator stood at one end of the room and tables were placed in a "U" shaped pattern around it, with the open end facing the replicator. Now we had the final word on the source of "Rep" for the name of the god because some wording had once been painted over the door to the unit. All but "Rep" had been worn off over the years, and that had become the name of the unit.

The old man we had met earlier was standing in front of the replicator and uttering some mumbo-jumbo in a language we couldn't understand. He was waving a large carving knife and a kitchen work table was set up in front of him for his convenient use.

We had been standing just outside the door with the acolyte waiting for the call for the sacrifice to be brought in. When that happened, we pushed the acolyte to the floor in front of us and stepped into the room. For a moment, there was a stunned silence, then pandemonium broke out. The old man who was obviously the priest shouted for silence and demanded that we produce the sacrificial victim.

I refused and stated that no more human sacrifices were ever to be performed to Rep, because it was nothing but a machine. That produced a riot among the congregation. They charged at us and I called to the computer to jump us to safety back in our ship with the two former sacrifices. I have to admit that I was quite shaken by the abrupt end to our visit to church.

I asked Erin and Janice what their fate would have been, and the reply sickened me. While still alive, they would have been cut into small pieces and dropped down the garbage disposal unit that provided some of the raw material for the main replicator. When she eventually died, the rest of the victim's body would have been dropped into the disposal unit.

I asked if there was any chance of changing the way this cult operated, and both women assured me that was impossible. It had been going on like this for thousands of years, so it was not going to change on my say so.

I was so upset that I ordered the computer to shut down all air, food, and water operations aboard the cultists' ship. I wanted them to die, and I expected it to happen over the next few hours. I did wonder how their idea of human sacrifice did get started. Neither Erin nor Janice could answer that question, and I did not really care that much.

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