Kaja walked along the corridor and found her way to the bridge. The STS Cuauhtēmallān was the first faster than light ship ever created that had been verified to work. It had been designed and flew under the flag of Guatemala. Mexico also had an FTL ship under construction, but the Cuauhtēmallān was the only currently active ship actually flying missions.
Guatemala had not been an obvious choice for figuring out a working FTL drive first, as most had expected the United States, Europe, China or Japan to take that credit. But something had given them an edge, and nobody was really sure what that was.
Kaja was new to the crew, who were mostly Guatemalan, and as a Swede, she was the first non-Latinx to actually gain access to this new technology.
"Welcome aboard, miss Nyquist," a man in a captain's uniform said as she entered the bridge. "I'm captain Ixchel, and I'll show you to your station," he said with a warm smile, which bared his teeth. Kaja saw that his incisors were shaped oddly, and his front teeth had small emeralds embedded in them.
She would be the navigator, based on her experience discovering previously unknown planetary objects, and had been tagged as a replacement of a former navigator who had quit -- without any further cause or reason given. She'd not been looking for a new assignment, but when the opportunity had come across her desk, she had had no choice but to go for it.
Experiencing FTL travel, on a ship that had already made an impressive number of short FTL jumps, was an opportunity she simply could not pass up.
Captain Ixchen walked towards a console near the front of the bridge and held out his hand to show that this was where she was expected to sit.
"We received information about the type of system you've worked with before and have re-calibrated our systems to work similarly. You'll find it's very recognizable to your usual work flow."
"Thank you," Kaja said as she walked towards the station and sat down to see what it was like. The captain had not exaggerated. It was a lot like the systems she had used in her previous position, and she found her way rather quickly. "This will do just fine, captain," she said with a smile.
He nodded and turned around. He walked towards the central seat that was obviously his and he sat down.
He hit a button and spoke.
"Everybody, we're ready to embark. Our destination is Ran -- Epsilon Eridani -- and we'll be arriving there shortly. Every station is to be manned."
He turned his gaze towards Kaja.
"The course was plotted before you arrived. You don't have to do much at this point, but your efforts will be appreciated once we get to the Ran system."
He flipped a switch and hit the same button again.
"Start the ritual," he said with a confident smile on his face.
Kaja looked backwards, confused. Ritual?
The ship shook. Nothing much seemed to happen. Kaja turned her gaze forwards, to the big screen used as if it was a window aimed forwards. The bridge was located deep within the ship, guarded from all sides by multiple levels and corridors of strengthened material, but it needed to feel like a forward station.
Suddenly the view turned from darkness with dotted light sources to a confusing view of lines that didn't seem to move, but moved, all at the same time. Kaja shook her head, closed her eyes, and then looked out again. It messed with her mind, like a blind spot you couldn't avoid.
"You'll get used to it," the person in the next station over said. "I'm Aapo, second navigator," he said calmly with a faint smile. "Just don't look at it for now, it'll be over in a few minutes."
Kaja nodded and looked at her console instead.
The ship shook again. Kaja looked up and saw that they had dropped out of FTL travel. In front of them was Epsilon Eridani, an orange star much younger than Sol, Earth's own star.
She looked back at captain Ixchen, who was about ready to announce again,
"We've arrived. Time to start mapping the system. Analysts, do your jobs," he said. He saw that Kaja was looking at him. "Questions, miss Nyquist?"
"Yes, actually," she said.
"Then follow me," he said, as he got up and turned around.
She got up and followed him. He led her to the back of the bridge, seemingly used as a conference room.
"Sit down, please," he said as he grabbed a carafe of water.
She did so. He poured her a glass.
"I'm sure you're confused," he said, as he sat down across from her.
"You mentioned a ritual?"
"I did, indeed," he said, looking away. "What I'm about to tell you should stay between us. I don't mean on the Cuauhtēmallān, everyone else on the crew knows, but outside of it. When we return. It's... You've signed the non-disclosure agreement, yes?"
She had. It had been very unspecific about what she was supposed to be quiet about, but it was clear that it was very serious that she would.
"I have," she said.
"Good. As you may know, the ship is named after the Mayan word for Guatemala."
"Ah, no, I hadn't really connected the two."
"Cuauhtēmallān - Guatemalan. Similar, no?"
"They are, now that you point it out," she said, looking a bit confused. She was a little disappointed in herself that she hadn't seen the obvious.
"So, my name is Ixchen, also a Mayan name."
"Okay," she said.
"The pattern here is that almost all of us have Mayan heritage. The crew here is mostly like that."
She didn't feel like saying okay again just to be a part of the conversation, so she chose to nod and otherwise stay quiet.
"Have you ever wondered why it was, that the central American countries figured out FTL first?"
"I have, yes," she said, taking in a big gulp of water.
"What's the pattern, miss Nyquist?" he said with a knowing smile.
She considered his question. The answer was obvious -- he'd basically already told her.
"Indeed, Mayan culture is the pattern."
"How? How does that relate to faster than light travel?"
He held up the carafe above her now empty glass. She nodded and he filled it.
"Mayan culture is known to have performed, well, certain rituals. In the past. To appease the gods."
She nodded, knowing what he was referring to.
"And while obviously we feel that it's irrational to just say that's all we are -- it turns out there was an aspect of it that we missed."
"And that is...?" she said, warily. A feeling of discomfort was creeping up her neck.
"That they were right. The gods were appeased. They were pleased. And it kept the Mayan people much safer than they had themselves expected. A lot of it was nothing more than a guess, really, at the time."
She swallowed, but not water. It was an involuntary swallow of surprise and fear.
"You see, human sacrifice is frowned upon, but there are aspects of it that a lot of people simply don't understand. The ones who operate our FTL drive? They are ritualists."
"Those versed in the ways of sacrifice."
"Okay, so, wait. What you're saying is that this ship runs off of human sacrifice?"
"Oh, no! Not at all, it runs on nuclear power, mostly."
"Yes. Only the FTL drive does, in fact, take human sacrifice to run."
She fell silent, her mouth agape. It took her a few seconds to gather her thoughts, and the captain simply sat there, quietly waiting for her to do so.
"You kill humans, and suddenly we're at Epsilon Eridani?"
"Yes, exactly. We kill a human, and we're light years away from where we started. Sometimes it takes two, but that's been rare. We've only needed to do that once."
"FTL runs on human sacrifice," she said matter-of-factly, looking away disturbed.
"It does. We don't fully understand how, but it's been reliable so far."
"Reliable..." Kaja said, not sure how to respond anymore.
She finished her glass of water and held it out for it to be refilled again.
"This is a lot to take in," she eventually said.
"I understand that. I have scheduled a meeting between you and our Chief Ritualist. She can explain the details to you better than I can. But I wanted to give you an overview of the situation before you really get started on the Cuauhtēmallān."
"I understand. Since we're already at Epsilon, I assume there's at least one more human sacrifice needed to get back?"
"There will be at least one more sacrifice, yes," captain Ixchen said.
"Then after that, I request I will be relieved of duty immediately," she said.
Captain Ixchen sighed.
"Just like the last navigator," he said dejectedly, as he leaned back.
"What happened to the last navigator, anyway?" Kaja asked.
"No matter," the captain said coolly. "That's not your concern. Just report to the Chief Ritualist as soon as possible," he said.
After mapping the Ran system, the Cuauhtēmallān made its way back, but Kaja did not.
Progress takes sacrifices sometimes.