[Author's note: This didn't turn out the way I expected at the start. It's a little different from things I've done before, and I'm not even sure it's erotic, but I'm still happy with it. Fair warning: it's a little dark, though nothing especially gruesome. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!] Homecoming by Benny Mon Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. What was that noise? It was irritating, infuriating, and it forced Mara’s mind to coalesce, forced her to pull herself out of the deep, dark fog that almost ten years of stasis had plunged her into. She struggled to move her limbs, atrophied after years of stillness, and opened her eyes cautiously, still blinded by the low, ambient lights of the Messiah. She’d never been in stasis before--no one on her planet had been--and so she couldn’t have known that waking up was horrible. It must have been like being born: thrust into the world all at once, Mara felt like crying. But the world wouldn’t wait. Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. Eeeeeee--. It was the sound of the ship’s reveille sequence. It was supposed to be annoying, Mara realized, to help her wake up. “Are you awake, Captain?” It was the smooth, masculine voice of the vessel’s AI, piped through the wall’s speakers. The beeping stopped. “Mmmh,” groaned Mara. Her vocal chords were dry and irritated. Her stasis pod opened automatically, scattering the warm mist that had filled the pod. A long, multi-jointed robot arm reached down from the ceiling and delivered a bottle to her lips. She drank carefully and felt cool, refreshing water coat her mouth and her throat. “I will require an affirmative response from you, Captain.” “Ugh...I’m awake.” She sounded like a stone frog speaking its first words. “Very good.” An automated wheelchair rolled up in front of Mara’s pod, and the ceiling’s arm lifted her and eased her into it. “We entered the solar system two terrestrial days ago, at which point I began the reveille sequence for your pod. It will still be several months before you arrive on Earth, which will give you plenty of time to regain your strength and to wake up your crew. You will regain lost motor function over the coming days and weeks. In the meantime I will continue to monitor our progress and update you regularly. The vessel’s hull is intact, radiation shields are at 100%, and fuel levels are at 28%. Fuel levels required to complete this journey are 12%.” “Thank you,” Mara croaked. She suddenly felt silly thanking the AI--it was, after all, not sentient, but rather extremely skilled at pattern recognition and well-trained in the cadences of human speech. It was amazing the thing didn’t sound more archaic, having been designed well over a century earlier, but apparently language on the planet Juno hadn’t changed much since the Messiah had arrived there from Earth so long ago. Mara, however, had changed a lot in the last 10 years. She realized it as she rolled in front of a reflective wall in one hallway, seeing her withered body slumped in the wheelchair, barely able to sit up. She’d never been big, of course, always short, but before the Messiah she had been strong. Not always--she had almost starved as a child--but her time in the military had given her training and regular access to food. She was always proud of that, and now it had been taken away from her. She hoped it would be worth it. The following weeks were consumed with intensive physical fitness to rejuvenate Mara’s idled body. With little else to do, she make quick progress, helped along by a mildly flavored nutritional paste that served as the only nourishment on the ship. That had been a military innovation back on Juno, or maybe Earth originally, a light-weight, nutrition-dense food substitute that soldiers carried with them on long expeditions. A sign of everything she wanted to leave behind, still following her all the way back to Earth. Honestly, though, she’d expected a harder time escaping signs of the past. She’d figured stasis would be filled with strange, endless, traumatic dreams that she wouldn’t be able to wake up from. But she didn’t remember dreaming at all. All she could recall were the days and weeks of the early journey, before she and the crew had entered their years-long sleep--and it was taking time for even that much to return to her. Once she’d made enough progress, she was able to wake up the rest of her crew. Weeks of solitary, repetitive physical strain--to say nothing of years of sleep--had stoked her craving for company. One by one, she raised them from their rest: Abraham, the Messiah’s chief (and only) engineer; Dorit, Mara’s first mate; and Rachel, who filled in the rest of the vessel’s roles as best she could. They were just as cranky as Mara, just as disappointed by the paste, but a little more patient with the rehab, as they had people to talk to. “So where are we now?” asked Rachel one day. The tallest of the crew, she was gripping handrails and walking on a treadmill immersed in a water tank a little too short for her. Better than nothing, Mara figured. She was least worried about Rachel’s recovery. Abraham and Dorit rested in their wheelchairs, absently gripping tubes of forgotten paste. “Between Uranus’ and Saturn’s orbit,” Mara answered. “But the first planet we’ll actually pass by is Jupiter, and we’re going to use its gravity to slingshot to earth without spending too much fuel.” “I just wish I could see something,” said Dorit, gazing out into the dark. Poor Dorit--she had always been so vital, even plump in the toughest of times, but stasis seemed to have taken a real toll on her. She was emaciated, her eyes sunken and tired. She couldn’t seem to shake it. In other ways, though, she still looked young. The past decade has seen no sun to scorch her skin, no traumas to damage her joints. “Once we get closer,” Mara said, “the sun will look brighter than the other stars. I think we’ll even be able to see Earth from Jupiter. A little blue dot, that’s all, but if we know where to look, we’ll see it.” She stood up herself and walked over to the window at the far edge of the room, staring out into the star-speckled void. It was so easy to say things the AI told her. She projected confidence. But she didn’t actually know what they were heading for. “Captain?” It was the AI. “Yes? I didn’t expect any news.” “Captain, the Messiah has been hailed by an unknown vessel.” A greener soldier would have flown into a panic at this moment, but old habits kicked in immediately. “Open communications.” A tiny bing! confirmed the opening. “My name is Captain Mara Nathans. My crew and I are on a peaceful mission from Juno to reestablish contact with Earth. We mean you no harm.” There was silence, long enough to trouble Mara’s resolve, until someone spoke. “Captain Nathans.” It was a woman’s voice, low and a little husky but feminine even so. “My name is Eva Brahimi. I am the UN Special Envoy to the Jovian Moons. We’ve taken operational control of your vessel and will be boarding it immediately. We ask your full cooperation in this process.” “What?” Mara snapped. “Messiah, I command you to disengage and pull away from the unknown vessel.” “Impossible,” said the AI, smooth and implacable as ever. “The vessel has taken full control of all Messiah systems.” Mara limped out of the room, ignoring the anxious questions of her crew and a cramp in her still-weak calf, and pulled a rifle and a bullet-proof vest from the ship’s armory. The Messiah’s long-distance communication capabilities had been junked decades ago, so she’d had no chance of contacting Earth before arriving. She was always going to have to take a chance, unsure how she’d be received. She’d always known that, but this was the moment of truth, and she couldn’t leave anything to chance. She didn’t want a fight, but she didn’t know what Eva Brahimi wanted. She came back into the room to calm her crew, and they all watched the vessel approach, many times the size of the Messiah, which was directed into the massive ship’s loading bay. Mara couldn’t dissuade anyone from following her to the rear loading bay of their own vessel, so they sat beside her in their wheelchairs as she surveyed the bay’s huge door from behind a barrier. The door finally opened, each massive panel sliding to either side, revealing a tall figure obscured by a group of several soldiers, their rifles aimed. “I don’t want to fight,” said Mara. She stepped out slowly from behind the barriers hands up, her trigger finger peeled away from the trigger as her rifle pointed harmlessly at the ceiling. “I just want to talk--” “She’s got a gun!” yelled one of the soldiers, and before she could speak Mara felt something penetrate her upper arm. Her eyes fluttered, and she fell, resisting vainly as she slipped once again back into the featureless void.