Even when surrounded by people, we are always alone.
I have come to realize that, having spent the last few years of my life drifting in deep space, with just my ship and a few of my close friends to keep me company. There’s an old saying that claims that space is a very lonely place…which I do not doubt. Space is lonely. There’s something very powerful about the vast sky and space above, about how empty it all is, minus the dots that are stars and planets so far away in the distance.
I know that. My friends know that. And in the dim of the cabin, I have come to realize that this loneliness is what drives us. What brings us together.
Even as they sleep, they dream. They know…who they are: a family that has bonded in a way tighter than I could have ever hoped. They know who I am: the Phantom, the captain of this ship, who is an equal in every way to everyone else on board. And they know what they’re here for: to save the universe from being erased. Or, rather…my universe from being erased.
I know I am being selfish. We all are, sometime or another. But they stand by me, even in their sleep…even as they know that it is a dangerous task, filled with lies, deceit, and enemies…
…but I have come to realize now, if I am going to go through hell, I will have a family that follows me.
I am…happy. In a way that they all understand, even though I had never said a word. In a way that I can’t describe, that they know anyways. I am so happy that everything had worked.
It will not stay that way forever. Tomorrow, we keep traveling. We keep struggling to find our place, keep trying to outstep our boundaries. Tomorrow, this time…there’s a chance that this world will no longer exist. That we will no longer exist. That is why we sleep…to prepare for the new day. To face the world that is ever fleeting.
Still, right now, in this tranquil darkness…in this blissful loneliness…there is nothing more that I could want.
There is nothing more to wait for, but a memory.
“Good morning, Kiran.” She’d been in the lounge, staring off into space. I thought maybe she’d be up to some conversation.
Kiran turned around, took off the helmet that she always wore. She’d shown me her face before, of course, but it was still somewhat surprising to see – she’d claimed she was human once before, but she looked anything but. Her face was featureless, only two glowing, pupil-less yellow eyes, a tiny nose, a mouth that may have once had lips. And her skin was black with red cracks in it, always dissipating a willowed black smoke into the air, like a dying flame.
“Good morning, Captain.” She smiled, got up from the couch she was sitting on.
I couldn’t tell what species she was, least of all whether she was actually as human as she claimed to be. In fact, she looked like she was on the verge of falling apart. But her personality belied her frightening appearance, and to my relief, she had grown accustomed to being part of my crew and one of my friends.
“You don’t have to call me ‘Captain’, you know. We’re all friends here. If you’re comfortable here, feel free to call me ‘Phantom’.
“You are the captain of this ship…so you have earned the title of captain.” Her body stayed eerily still while she spoke. “I know that ‘Phantom’ is not your real name. It is a title that you have given yourself, or that someone else has given you. But the title of ‘Captain’ is far more respectful and a title of honor…and I do respect you. So you are still the captain…Captain.”
What was I to say? She was the only one on the ship that insisted on honorifics. Kiran always called me ‘Captain’, always referred to my crewmates as ‘Mr. Galius’, or ‘Ms. Thola’…perhaps it was due to the culture she was from, a culture that I didn’t really know.
“Alright, Kiran.” I nodded. “But know that we’re all equals here, we’re all friends. Don’t forget that.”
“Of course. This is all just a matter of respect. If I knew what your name was, Captain, I would refer to you by that name. But I do not, so I wish to refer to you with as much honor as possible.” She paused. “Ah, sorry for distracting you, Captain. Is there something you wanted to talk about?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay. I mean, this isn’t your world…and I wasn’t sure if -”
She laughed. “It’s fine. It’s not the first universe I’ve been to, nor will it be the last. This one’s pretty nice – at least the people aren’t tearing each other’s throats out. And space is a lot nicer in this world than it is in mine. This kind of space ship would fall apart in the deep space of the world I’m from.”
“Well, just know that you’ve become a very welcome face around here. Try not to be too much a stranger, okay? Some of the crew are concerned that you might be lonely.”
“I’m fine, but thanks for the concern. I’m used to being by myself, and the solitude is calming.”
“I understand. I’ll tell everyone that you’re okay.” I nodded again. “You’re from Earth, right?”
“An Earth on a different world.” I waited for Kiran to continue, but her voice drifted off, and she turned to look into the distance. The windows reflected the deep space we were in back at us, the distant stars.
“I’m kind of curious about what your universe is like. I don’t mean to pry, but I’ve never seen a…universe hopper like you.”
She laughed lightly, and the wisps of smoke evaporating from her head became thicker for a moment. “Maybe. But it’s a long story, for another time.”
“Alright.” I gave her one more nod, and bade farewell. She went back to staring out the window, unmoving.
“Yo, Phantom!” A voice broke into my cabin. “Can I crash?”
“Come in, Galius. What’s up?”
“Nothing. And that’s a problem.” The other man came in. Galius – my best friend since, well, forever – had been there when I decided to leave my home and buy a spaceship, stood by my side when I became a nomad trying to find a family. He became my first friend, and my first family. Even now, after having spent half his life on a space ship, he looked as energetic and youthful as ever – his head spikes were still sharp, his eyes still had a fire to them.
“How’s that a problem?” I asked innocently. “It means we’re not being shot at. And we have time to just sit and talk. It’s not relaxing?”
“It’s just a bit boring.” He shrugged. He fidgeted around, examined every corner of my cabin. For a Draconian, he was really wild sometimes – a stark contrast to the human Kiran I’d just talked to. “I mean, what’s the fun in just talking? I wanna blow stuff up.”
“Patience, Galius. Don’t go looking for trouble.” I turned up from my work, realized he’d scattered pretty much all the items on my desk. “Besides, I like the quiet. It’s nice to learn more about the crew.”
“Well, yeah. No question about that.” Galius put a hand on his head. “But, ah…no party animals on board. Kiran’s quiet beyond quiet, Veras scares me, and Thola’s a nervous train wreck. How can I even talk to them? I sometimes wonder if they’re all okay. Sometimes the whole crew looks like a party of depressives.”
“I think they’re fine. They’ll tell their stories when they’re comfortable with us, and with themselves. We are a family, Galius. You know that.”
“Yeah, of course.” He smirked. “A crazy, quiet, screwed-up family. The universe is screwed.”
“Hey, always stay optimistic, Galius. A little positivism goes a long way.” I’d abandoned any attempt at doing work by this point.
“Says you. Me? I’ve been in awkward conversation after awkward conversation. I feel like I’m gonna have to crawl into a hole at this point.”
“You’ve still got me.”
“I know, Phantom. But I gotta know the crew, you know? I mean, you seem to know everything about everyone, as if they just spill out their whole lives to you. And I can’t do anything except tell stupid jokes and horse around, maybe get a smile or two if I’m lucky. Do the others just like quiet brooding guys in helmets and bodysuits? Is it because I’m fat?”
“You’re not fat. And I don’t think it’s the helmet.” I tried not to laugh. “Maybe if you weren’t so obnoxious all the time you’d be able to actually hold conversation.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Well, whatever. At least I’m here, eh? Otherwise you’d all just go crazy in your quiet-ness. Even you, Phantom. Have you ever told the crew your story?”
“Not yet. There will be a time for that.”
“Yeah, yeah, you say that. Just like everyone else says that. But if they are your family, they deserve to know you, Phantom. Especially if the world’s gonna end.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Hello there, Phantom. You looking for something?” I’d been making my rounds around the ship, and found myself in front of the resident strategist, a former Equinox general known as Veras. At least he looked healthy, his green skin a nice glow, his mandibles buzzing around normally. He had a jovial light in his eyes, a rarity for the hardened Equinox.
“Not much. Which is why I’m here, actually. It’s been really quiet lately, thought I’d get in a little chat.”
“It’s always quiet before a storm, Phantom. Be careful.” Veras kept his voice terse.
“It’s okay to relax, Veras. This is our home.” I laughed, although it sounded rather hoarse. “And get to know the rest of the crew, too. We’re all family here.”
“Not sure how functional this family is,” he frowned. “I’m a bit worried. I don’t know how well we can work together if something bad happens.”
“If it’s about Kiran, don’t worry. She just likes her solitude.”
“Not Kiran. I can tell that she’s okay with everything.” Veras sighed. “It’s Thola I’m worried about. How she flits back and forth, how nervous she is all the time…I feel like she’s bottling something up inside, and that if she doesn’t let it out, the stress’s gonna kill her.” He laughed lightly. “Don’t tell anyone I said that, okay? I need to maintain my reputation.”
“Your reputation as the gentle giant? I don’t think that’s being threatened here.”
“Well, whatever. Just don’t let Galius know, then. He’ll spread crazy rumors or nicknames or jokes in no time flat. But check up on Thola for me, alright? I feel like she needs the companionship.”
“Thanks, Veras.” I turned, but paused for a second. If the world was going to end tomorrow, I had to say it. “You’re like a father to me. Thank you.”
“Hrrm…” He turned away. “I’m just trying to make sure your suicidally reckless tendencies don’t get you killed, you devil.”
“I can’t talk, not really, I mean, it’s not something…something I like to say.” Thola’s expression was inscrutable, as always…I felt guilty about it, but I couldn’t ever pick up her expression from her heavily bandaged face. I never thought to ask what the bandages were for until now. I somewhat regretted the fact that I brought them up.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that it hurts, sometimes, this…the fact that I have no face, no self, not any longer. Of course, it is my fault, entirely…I screwed up, so many times, so many times…but that means that I have to talk even more to show how I’m feeling, and I…”
“Slow down, Thola. I’m not going anywhere.”
Surprisingly, she put a hand on my helmet, obscured part of the visor. Through her sleeves, I could see that her arms were bandaged as well. Given how well asking about her face had gone…I decided not to press it.
“No, you are not…because this is your home…isn’t it?” Her voice softened to a whisper. “But..who…who, really, are you?”
“I am Phantom.”
“Oh, yes, Phantom. I know that, and don’t think for a second I am not grateful to you for giving me a home. I…I don’t have the right to even go through this…line, of q-questioning.”
“What is it, Thola?”
“I cannot show my face…because I was terrible, I messed up, I tore myself apart too much…too much for it to ever be seen again. I can’t show it because…because people will hate me.” She stammered, looked down at the ground.
“I don’t think I’ll hate you…but you don’t have to do anything for me. We all care about you, and the rest of us all the same.”
“I know, and I thank you. But…but that isn’t enough, is it, Phantom? For us to know each other? You want to know us, become our family…but you never…”
“Told us who you are. Why you….why you hide your face.”
Her hand slid across my visor, as if trying to find the edges and contours of my jaw. She stood up, pulled her hand away.
“I’m sorry…really, I am, Phantom. I don’t trust you, not yet. Not yet. I don’t know, why you call us your family. Because we are not, really…”
“You can be. If you want.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you even are. How can I tell you what happened to me if you can’t tell me your past? Sometimes old wounds should not be…ripped open.”
“…I understand, Thola. I’m sorry. But we’ll be ready someday…and when I am, I’ll tell you my story. That’s a promise, alright?”
I really didn’t know what I could say to her the next time we met.