Starlit Maiden

Officer Claymore watched from her hiding place as the grotesque feline creature cracked open her captain’s skull and gnawed out his tongue. Fits of laughter bubbled up as the old phrase ‘Cat got your tongue’ came to mind. Her companions shot her deadly looks. She regained her composure and aimed her ancient JC100 at the animal.  The shot would do little but singe the creature, but the noise would draw hundreds more into the blast zone.
The portal that brought the creatures to her world still belched up a few artifacts from the Wide Horizon crew that originally opened it. However, after half a century, it mostly spit out ever-evolving versions of a cat.  The first ones were small like the house cats that   accompanied the Wide Horizon crews into deep space. Soon enough they grew in size and aggressiveness until squads were needed to keep them at bay.
Claymore pulled the rusted trigger. The JC100 chugged before letting out a fiery shot.
“Damn!” she said as the shot sailed over the cat’s head and directly into the portal.  The cat paused in its consumption of the captain and sniffed the air.
Claymore flattened herself back into the crew’s hiding place.
The cat pounced, barely missing her foot. The animal hissed angrily and paced until it was joined by its kin. The felines fought over the captain’s carcass, wounding and killing each other.
“Now!” Claymore whispered to their bomber. The man gave her the thumbs-up and squeezed the detonator.

Claymore watched the devastation unfold with awe. The detonation was beautiful. A bright orange dome unfurled overhead and a deep boom rattled the shelter. The animals shimmered then dissolved into mounds of ash.
“Gotcha!” the bomber exclaimed as the light began to fade.
“Good job, Flash,” Claymore said and looked down at her tracker. “There’s no sign of life on…”
“Shit!” Flash screamed. Claymore looked up to see purple light spilling from the portal.
“What’s going on?” she cried.
“Who cares?” Flash said as he and the others climbed out of the shelter. “Bitch, let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“The shelter is safer!” she screamed as they ran off.  Her words were cut off by the roar of the flames. Claymore hunkered down in the shelter and braced for the burn. She heard the agonizing screams of her crew, but the shelter held.
The roar faded and only the purple glow remained.
“Flash?” she called as she got to her feet. The area was clear of all debris. She hoisted herself out of the shelter and called again, “Flash!”
There was nothing but the slow pulse of the portal.
“It’s reversed!” Claymore gaped. The ragged infrastructure of a Wide Horizon ship was on the other side of the opening. She hesitated. No one knew why the crew had activated the portal from so far away. They did not survive to make it through and their message was lost in the flurry of distress signals from the Wide Horizon fleet.
“It is my duty to secure this zone,” she told herself. Then she took a deep breath and stepped through the portal.

Claymore looked around. She was somewhere in the cargo hold of the ship. To her surprise, the interior of the Wide Horizon ship was pristine and bright. A blast mark from the JC100 marred the white beams overhead, but grew fainter by the moment.  The roars and cries of the feline colony drifted through the hold, but there was no other sign of life.
“Self-cleaning,” she whispered to herself as she unholstered her fire arm. The Wide Horizon ships were closed, self-sustaining systems designed to travel for centuries without exterior supplies or maintenance.
Claymore swept the space again before she knelt down to inspect portal projector. The ship’s crest and name, Starlit Maiden, were emblazoned on the projector. Like the rest of the ship, it was as shiny and clean as the day it was manufactured. It offered no clue as to the fate of the Starlit Maiden‘s crew.
Claymore studied the calibrations then turned the projector off. It was streamlined and designed to be portable. She lifted the device with ease and clipped it to her belt.  There was one sure place to get the real story on the Starlit Maiden: the captain’s log.
“Map,” she said aloud. A 3D hologram of the ship appeared before her.  Thousands of tiny blue dots swarmed through the hologram including one that rested inches from the red dot that represented her.
“Suppress all non human life,” Claymore said. Moments later, the blue dots dimmed.  She crept over to the nearest cat and found it sound asleep. Satisfied that she was safe, she commanded, “Take me to the bridge.”

Claymore followed the hologram through the silent ship, carefully stepping over heaps of sleeping felines. As she journeyed, she studied each area she passed and found no indications of stress or struggle. She was not foolish enough to believe the crew of the Starlit Maiden had escaped whatever caused them to activate the portal, but she found a fair bit of hope in the fact ship was still intact and nothing but cats and junk had ever come to her world.
“Sergeant Kilandra Claymore entering the bridge,” the ship’s mainframe computer announced as the rudimentary scanner over the threshold read the chip embedded behind her left ear.
Claymore was impressed. She made a beeline for the captain’s chair, but stopped short. She had mistakenly believed the Starlit Maiden was drifting about in space. Instead, the bridge’s  panoramic windows showed a small clearing surrounded by thick woods.
“Where is this?” Claymore asked. The tree species were unfamiliar.  The ship did not answer. She frowned and continued her quest for the captain’s log.
“Ah!” she exclaimed as the Maiden gave up her first clue.  The plastic casing that protected the emergency protocol panel was gone and the ‘hostile engagement’ button pressed.
“Access captain’s log,” Claymore said, hoping the system would recognize her as the most senior officer present.
“Please enter pass code,”   The ship asked.
“Well that solves one mystery,” She said. The pass code was a secret Wide Horizon fail safe to keep non-crew members from taking over a ship.
“Sergeant Claymore.”
Kilandra turned and let out a yelp.

“Please remain clam, Sergeant,” a feline got up off the floor and stood on his hind legs. “We will not harm you.”
“How can you talk!” Claymore backed away from the cat. She stared in horror as the other animals began to stir out of their faint.
“What do you mean?” the cat let out a snigger. “Cats developed the ability to talk tens of  thousands of  years ago.”
“No,” Claymore shook her head, “The Starlit Maiden has only been gone seventy years.”
“Preposterous!” the cat stopped laughing. “It is bad enough that you blasted your way thorough the portal and used the ship against us. You mustn’t insult us with such talk.”
“I’m not insulting you,” Claymore’s voice grew hoarse. She swallowed the sugary warmth rising in her throat. “Where I’m from, this ship was declared lost, along with the rest of the Wide Horizon fleet, fifty years ago. The portal opened around the same time and the only thing that ever came through was cats.”
“If you’ve seen us,” the cat was confused, “then why are you surprised I can talk.”
“They never spoke,” Claymore decided against the truth. She swallowed hard. The sweetness in her saliva was increasingly cloying.
“So many lost,” the feline looked sad, as if he knew the full story.
“What happened to the crew of this ship?” Claymore asked, trying to blink away the sudden cloudiness in her eyes.
“Ah, yes,” the cat narrowed his eyes. “Had you not knocked us out, we could have warned you that this planet is inhabited by imperceptible microorganisms that feed on DNA.”
“What!” Claymore gurgled. She coughed and blood spewed from her nose and mouth.
“The ship’s systems don’t detect them and cannot filter them out of the air,” the cat sat in the captain’s chair and watched her. “But surely you can taste the sweetness of your own body breaking down?”
Claymore clattered to the floor, grasping at the projector on her belt. Her bloody hands shook as she launched the portal.
“We felines are immune,” the cat purred, “But you will be dead before the portal opens on earth.”