I slipped back into the city when only a single sun was in the sky. To us, this is the middle of the night. Having no calendar or watch in the Adoneese mountains during my time there, I cannot say how long I had been away. Maybe it had been more than a year. It could even have been just under a month. Time had no meaning to me as long as I had no name.
My home, although cell was more accurate way of referring to it, was just outside of the main compound. I'd lived under government surveillance so long that it was comforting to live in a government pyramid. They placed me in one of the more central units, away from windows. Maybe they just wanted me to feel insulated as though it would be a comfort to me.
Placing my hand over the door panel, the lock interface pulled the identifier ring around my wrist into the slot. Photon transmissions locked the chip in the door to the circuitry in the bracelet to read my identity. I had forgotten how strong the retaining field was in my time away. Then the device read my fingerprints and life signs from my hand, still holding my arm against the wall.
The worst I could have been was wrong. I had been away so long that I did not know if this was still my storage crate in the city. If I no longer belonged, then I was free to return to the Crystal Plateau and live out my life the way that my ancestors had. My only regret would be the loneliness of the isolation. Without the desire for companionship, I would not even have returned to put my fate in God's hands.
It only took seconds to read my key signature from the identifier bracelet. To me, it felt like hours if not days. I felt the magnets disengage so that could move my arm away from the panel in the wall, then the main locks in the door released the seal. The release sounded like the blast from a shotgun after having been unused for as long as it had been. Then the door melted away.
"Welcome home, Ael," announced the greeter. "You have been signaled 461 times in your absence."
"Thank you, greeter," I replied. The machine waited patiently for me to enter the main room before continuing my responses. Silently, I wondered if the machine had any sense of time to feel how long I had been gone. It locked the door behind me and continued to wait. "Run my bath, please."
"Complying," answered the greeter. "Do you wish to view your signals prior to bathing?"
"Just a few"
While the tub was adjusted to my biological and comfort requirements, I got through the first 100 or so of my messages. Most of them were unsolicited attempts to sell me products I never used, however, that's not uncommon. I simply sent out a delete transmission with the force of my will, moving on to the next message. I'd been gone a long time and there was nobody there to miss me.
Somebody had missed me. I didn't know how long I would have to bathe before getting my visitor, yet I knew I would have company. They would never let me forget that they owned me. I'm not a real person, much less a citizen.
"Your bath is complete, Master Ael."
"Thank you greeter. Scan messages and delete any attempts to sell me things."
I had no desire for my unwelcome and unavoidable guests to catch me in the tub. My greeter had prepared the water just right for me so that there was a temptation to stay in the bath for longer than I should. It had been almost a year since I had washed in warm water rather than a cold mountain spring and I was tempted to stay there. The bath is a good place to sit and think.
God had set aside a special destiny for my life and that was the reason I had not done anything with my life. After ninety-three years, I was getting discouraged with being just another no account slacker waiting for the world to call on him for some great mission. Above all, I wanted to die well. My goal in life kept me forever at a distance from the companionship that I needed more than anything else.
Being the middle of the night, I didn't expect the enforcers to show up immediately. They would have to take time preparing for me, which gave me time for a bath with a little self contemplation. By the time they arrived, I would be dressed and ready, like a prom date waiting for her romantic lover to carry her off in his white rocket. That was just another of a million memories I had avoided to make my calling.
Greeters were programmed to remain quiet on an official entry, but I wouldn't need the alarm. I stepped from the tub into the dryer tube when I first felt their presences at the front door. The dryer tube then swept over my body to dress me while the tub drained. All was in order well before the enforcers tried to ambush me. They found me listening to the last fifteen or so signal images on my recorder.
Ironically, they entered just as I watched the signal from the project commander. He walked around my room, lecturing me about running off and warning me of what the council would do to me when I got back. It surprised the enforcers, who were not supposed to know anything about project Fireball, that the project commander had left such a signal on my recording crystal. Even the greeter's image covered her eyes to giggle.
The room, although plenty warm by all the standards my nerves could measure, had an odd coldness to it. It was a synthetic building, full of artificial materials which had never tasted the energy of life and, in my new form, I could feel that lack. All the true heat in the room came from the tense hostility of the enforcers within it. That is all that I paid attention to while the lead enforcer lectured me.
I knew what I had coming and had resolved to accept it before I left for the Adoneese mountains. The enforcers pushed me around a little bit before noticing that I was not resisting. Then they banded my wrists together with the belt. My mind was so far away that I barely felt it. This was my house but it had never been my home.
Noticing the cold belt tightening around my gut, holding my wrists in place behind my back, I tuned back into the world around me. Maybe this was the destiny that God had saved me for. This could also have been just another consequence brought about by a mere mortal man who wished to be more with every fiber of his being. Reality was always the ultimate delusion.
"This belt contains a micro warhead," said the lead enforcer. "If you get more than three feet from me, you will die."
"Greeter," I ordered. "Lock up after we leave."
"You're not paying attention to me, are you son?"
I tried to show respect although I had forgotten how. "I understand that you will personally kill me if I make a break for it."
"Now that would violate your rights, son. The belt will kill you."
"Then we have reached an agreement."
"Are you sure that you wouldn't like to try it, son? It would save me an awful lot of paperwork if you'd just cross the room, you know."
"Then the taxpayers would have to buy a new belt, sir. It is a tempting offer, but no thank you."
"Son, you've got the brain of a pickled paramecium. Try speaking to me like I work for a living."
"Sir, yes sir."
"Now that's mighty cute, son. Let's get you before the council before we get caught in traffic."
It really didn't matter to me, however, I stayed close to the lead enforcer. I feel that I must apologize to you at this point for not knowing the rank of this man. He was an operative of the black operations so his badge was only machine-readable. To the organic eye, it was just a black patch of plastic with a holographic picture of the man in the upper right corner. These men had no names while they were on the job.
We got into the transport in the eightieth floor hangar for the trip to the main pyramid. It was a stealth car that our overlords did not like having out during the day when two suns crossed the sky. None of it mattered, so I just sat back as much as I could while wearing the belt and watched the sleeping city go by below us. Everything was colored the kind of black that you'd see if the entire moon on which we lived had been burned to a cinder.
I'd lived in the capital city, Ziechish Trianne, as long as I had lived and never thought it odd that we'd built black cities in such heat. It took a trip beyond the bounds of civilization to realize just how simplistic civilization had become. We were apart from our world and the simplest lessons that our ancestors had left to us. My whole race had lost his name.
The car entered the main pyramid from below. We zoomed down the glowing tunnel with such speed that I doubt anybody knew what the inside of that tube really looks like. Our trip came to an abrupt stop when we came into the hangar on the far end of the tunnel. Once inside the security hangar, computers took over all traffic control and took us to our landing block. Even the enforcers did not know where we were going inside the building.
Even under computer control, there was too much traffic on the landing floor for us to leave the car. The landing block descended one level so that we could exit the vehicle in an enclosed room. I could not use the traffic to escape if there was no traffic. In addition to prisoner containment, the landing block procedure protected ranking officers from snipers.
Although it could easily have been automated with some form of internal transportation, we had to walk through the hallways under the hangar floor. I feel that this is done to make the confusing nature of the convoluted layout act as part of the building's security. It wasn't hard for me to realize that we'd passed the same point in the halls at least twice, even though our leader never admitted to being lost. We did eventually reach our objective.
Our target office was up a few floors through a travel tube. It was in the military section of the council floor, which was my first indication that something was wrong. Even as I was military property, I'd never been processed through the military wing of the council. I was commonly treated as though I belonged to the Scientific Investigations and Control Committee. An uneasy quiver formed in my gut and I worked hard to keep it from showing.
Worse yet, the project director left the office where I was to be processed just before we went in. He was a hard man whom I respected but didn't like. Maybe it was true that we had too much in common to ever get along. Neither of us really had anything to lose, being liberated from both etiquette and protocol by this fact. Aside from our brash attitudes, I'd say that each of us was the only friend the other had.
He wasn't happy when he left the Commanding Admiral's office. Our eyes did not meet as he passed me and that's always a bad sign. His flesh tone was redder than usual, something I'd only seen when he was ready to tear the lab apart after a problem got the best of him. His gait swung wide as though he was ready to punch the first thing that gave him an excuse. I could almost feel the tension in his fists when he passed me.
I took a deep breath before being escorted through the opening into the Commanding Admiral's office. His office was noticeably cooler and darker than the rest of the building. It was a sign that he'd spent a large part of his life in the cold depths of interstellar space. Other than the large wooden desk in the middle of the room, the room was sparsely decorated. I'd go so far as to say that the office was undecorated.
The Admiral had his commission plaque on the far wall, beside the small door, and nothing else. His desktop was completely clean. He didn't even have the common display tablet in the middle of the dark wooden surface. All that spoke of the man owning the desk was the rank insignia on the front of the desk where it could be seen from the door. This man was all work.
All except one of the enforcers left the room the moment I had been lead into it. The senior enforcer activated a tractor restraint to attach the belt to a point in the floor, then came to attention. I followed his lead, thinking it wise not to upset the Admiral. My nerves did their best to duplicate the stiff posture of my captor while vibrating under the stress of the moment.
We did not see the Admiral enter the room through the small door in the back until the main door clamped shut. None of the business to be conducted was to leave this sparse room. To make matters worse, the Admiral pulled his tablet out of the desk drawer to confirm the lock on the door. Then he activated the sonic curtain, forming a lighted barrier completely surrounding the inside of the room.
"At ease, Commodore," he opened.
"At your command, Admiral."
I kept my composure as nobody had spoken to me yet. It would have been impossible for me to forget that I was in a position where I could vanish without a trace. There simply was nobody to miss me. My home, identity and life had been issued to me on council decree and could be taken away from me with a simple swipe of the Admiral's finger over my entry in his tablet's database. Yet fear was not my feeling for this man, since he was just a man like me.
"Identify your prisoner, for the record."
"HLT-2000/C35 Ael Sirion, Admiral."
"And his prefix, Commodore."
My prefix code got the Admiral's attention. He had been ill-prepared to be taken off guard the way that he had been and I made a mental note of that reaction. Until he heard my prefix code, he hadn't looked up from his tablet for anything. Upon hearing my code, he looked to the Commodore with astonished, wide-open, eyes. In his place, I would not have allowed my ignorance to be made so visible.
"That's an operative code, Commodore," he replied.
The Commodore held his composure better. "Assassin group, to be specific."
There were many things the Commanding Admiral could have said, yet he was smart enough to turn to his tablet instead. I was not surprised that Project Fireball hadn't been revealed to the military ranks. Nobody outside of the project should have known anything about the project itself. All the Admiral did that I would not have expected from a man of his station was to allow me to see his surprise.
He scanned me over from toe to head, however, I did not allow him to read me. I knew that he'd willed his tablet to run a scan over me, but I had been shielded against such devices. The scanner did not even notice that I was in the room. It was a minor delay since my DNA pattern and plans were in the mainframe where his tablet retrieved them in compliance with the Admiral's will. Most of our machines were controlled by force of will.
"They should have informed me that we had one of these things lying around, Commodore."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Admiral."
From that reply, the Admiral knew all that he needed to learn from his junior man. Given the option, he would have dismissed the Commodore to maintain security. He did not have that option with me. The council thought that it knew everything about me and didn't fear me, however, I was in the Commodore's custody by the council's command. I was going to be assigned to the Commodore's command.
"Those toys built into you aren't going to do you much good here, C35."
"They are a part of my function, Commanding Admiral," I replied. "There is no way for me to shut them down."
"Just so as we understand each other, do you know why you are here?"
"Misappropriation of hardware. Namely, I stole myself."
"That's part of it," he began with a short sigh. "Have you scanned any news systems since returning yourself to the city?"
"Where have you been? You must be the only person on this world who doesn't know what's going on."
"Admiral. I went to the Adoneese Mountains to seek my own identity. I had no name."
"The boys down in the lab gave you a name, C35. Ael Sirion"
"They gave me words and numbers. I went in search of my forefathers."
"The MystRein clan is gone now. Your priests no longer rule over us with their tyrannical regulations."
"God's rules belong to no clan."
"We created you, C35. We are your God."
It was within my power to fight them back, but I did not. I was more awake and more alive than I had ever been. My trip to the Crystal Plateau had given me a real spirit that these men could not break, nor is it something that they could understand. Having basked in the light of God's pure spirit, I was none of the things that these men would remember me as being.
"What is the additional reason that I was called here, Admiral?"
He wanted a fight with me bad enough that he had to look back to his tablet to recall what he had to tell me. The information wasn't on the first page of his display, and he didn't want me to know that he'd forgotten, so he turned away while willing his tablet to seek the answer. I was supposed to take it as some form of chastisement. It was in my best interest not to show him how much I actually knew, so I allowed him to continue believing that I hadn't noticed.
"Nine days ago, the deep space station Endira drifted through a populated star system. The station was fired upon without warning, and the blast went directly through the school section. 42 people died in the attack."
"Has the station been recovered? "
"That's not your concern, C35," barked the Admiral. "Trilonia is at war with the Areen."
"It matters to me if the station remains in hostile territory. The population of a deep star station can run into the hundreds of thousands."
"The council built you for war, C35. We wanted to promise the civilians that no real people would have to die in battle. Let this be the last battle where real men fight and die."
Sometimes it stung to hear the way these men refer to me as more disposable than merely their property. As a child, it had hurt even more than it did when the Commanding Admiral lashed out at me. Most of the doctors who had engineered us feared us, although a few of them thought enough to care about us. We were loyal to those few doctors. Now that they were all gone, only God's love spared me from total despair. Rumor has it that only two of us still lived.
"You can make it a command, but I can only try, Admiral."
"If you blow this job, C35, I'll have you decommissioned and scrapped for spare parts."
I was tempted to tell him that he could have my heart since his was so obviously defective. God did not make me a vengeful man and I held my tongue for the moments it took to dispel the anger in my mind. Hostility drained from my body so fast that I could almost feel the flow from my body into the surrounding air. Its hot destructive essence escaped every millimeter of my being, leaving a relative coolness to every inch of my skin. The Admiral did not understand my shivering.
"There is no threat in telling me that you'd kill me if I die without permission."
He seemed to shake the image from his mind with a rapid twist of his neck, like a dog who had tasted something bitter. Then he stood up straight, stretching toward the low ceiling of the room and adjusting his uniform. I'm not sure if his yawn was simple fatigue or if he was just displaying his dislike for the conversation I was winning. "Being Mentaillis, there are few combat ranks which you can hold. Your class is limited to the more intellectual pursuits in our society. Given my choice, I'd put you on the front line."
"I understand, Admiral."
"Commodore, what do you think about assigning him to the Elixir?"
"As you wish, Admiral," he responded.
"You'll be coming in drag wing, probably as a battlefield medic. The Commodore will see to your assignment."
They did not allow me to move until the Commanding Admiral departed through his small door in the back of the small room. Two enforcers were called back into the room, probably by the Commanding Admiral, to escort me to the processing area. Only the Commodore could release the tractor restraints to allow me to be moved and he waited as long as he could before doing so. It was not wise of him to appear so afraid of me in front of his junior men.
It seemed that his game was a bit more complex than simple intimidation. Before I was allowed to move, he smiled so that I could see it. He was close enough that I could smell the remnants of his dinner on his breath when he smiled at me. While the junior enforcers prepared me for transport, the Commodore walked out of the room. I was expected to react as he reached the outer edge of the range that the belt was programmed for, but I did not. This man was not going to detonate me inside the Commanding Admiral's office.
An amber light on the back of the belt flashed final warning on my range in the face of the enforcer behind me. I heard him take a breath when he jumped back, pulling the hand of his partner. Standing in front of me, the second man hadn't seen the warning light. Nobody had to tell me that the Commodore was watching my reaction as he crept out of range. Having made my peace with God, nothing he did was going to intimidate me.
"Sir," shouted the enforcer behind me. "This thing's about to blow a hole in the Admiral's floor."
At that the Commodore walked back toward me. He looked closely to see remnants of sweat on my face or to smell the essence of fear in my clothing. Neither flag was present to his observation. His time as a leader of men must have taught him that I was a man to be watched if not respected. I didn't even look back at him. We had reached an understanding.
Nothing more was said as we walked to the waiting transport and flew to the induction center. My records were on file, as well as my orders, so that I would not have to go through the testing my comrades would have to endure. They would join us on the battle lines after classification and assignment in a few weeks. Most likely, as is true in star age war, the war would end before their fighting began. I was in a unique position and would see the first full days of fighting.
The Commodore handled all of my processing while I waited in an empty room with white walls. I had one door, behind me, while I stood in the middle of the silent room. It was a sterile scented room with nothing except whiteness to be seen. All four walls were the same shade of white, as was the floor. Overhead, the lights were a bright, homogenous, blue-white. This was the kind of room which could make a man go mad. In every instant, it was both confining and infinite. Whiteness left no memory of form in my mind.
I chose to meditate on the holding room which both was and was not there. The difference between its reality and its appearance transcended the material universe which also held me in bondage to extend outward into the spiritual. My trip to the home of my forefathers had made me the first priest of our clan in better than a century. Everything about my new form made me feel alive and exhilarated just to be alive. What is this feeble mind that God would chose to house my spirit within it?
Closing my eyes, I could feel the rhythm of the universe itself. Nothing stood still in all of creation and I was at one with all of the commotion. There was enough spirit in that confined, bland room to keep my mind going. For the lack of spirit, I would have lost my sanity. I did not have to reach far beyond my body to be both at the top and bottom of all things which are blessed with existence.
It did not matter to me what the Commodore thought when he returned for me, although I could have known it in an instant if I had only tried. He was as an insect to me. The lack of humility found in such feelings of omnipotence would have robbed me forever of the ability I had labored hard to attain if I did not accept the lowness of my place in God's plan. Seconds streamed by while I returned to my mind. I was in the transport going to my ship before full awareness came back to me.
"As per orders, C35, you have been assigned to the cruiser Elixir."
Shaking the last of the grogginess from my tired head, I replied, "I understand, Commodore."
"The minimum rank you can be allowed is Lt. Commander. That is the rank you will hold until I say otherwise. Do you understand, Lt. Commander Sirion?"
"Our records show that you have three medical doctorates from the Academy. Your professors say that you were something of a disappointment since you've been capable of much more than you've achieved. It's a good time to change that habit, Lt. Commander."
"I understand, Commodore."
"I'll be on the flagship, riding point into battle. This is not a joke, Son. You put one foot over the line here and we'll blow it off unless the enemy does it first."
"By your command, Commodore."
"You do exactly that, Lt. Commander."
Elixir's landing bay was a blur of action when our transport set down. While the Command Duty Officer checked the orders, and the Commodore's authorizations, the belt was removed from my waist. It felt odd to be able to move my hands again, yet I wasn't given much time to work out the stiffness. I thought it best not to look around too much. The hangar was not the first secure area I'd been in and the lesson of propriety stuck with me. My eyes stayed on the man directly in front of me.
The man I was handed off to lead me through the halls of the vast ship with a speed that only comes from familiarity. There would come a time when I too would have to know this ship as though it was a part of my body, yet that time had not come. My innocence had not been taken from me at that time. War was just a word to every man on that ship and in all of the fleet. Ignorance is a blessing I'm proud to leave for the people I defended in the war.
I was lead to a room somewhere in the ship and told to wait inside. The door parted along its atmosphere seal for my identifier bracelet so I did not need help getting into the room. It was dimly lit, for a man from a world with three suns, however, I expected nothing else from a bunk room. My escort had left me alone in the room, so I spent my time getting used to the room. I'd never be able to sleep in a room where I wasn't comfortable being.
An aisle ran from the door I had entered to an equally large door in the back wall. Along each side of the aisle, there were a series of seven foot wide racks, separated by three feet isles running from the mail aisle to the side walls. I turned to the right and walked into one of the three foot clearings. Three rows of tubes had been stacked into each rack, with seven columns in each rack. Ladders had been provided, which could be pulled out of the spaces between the tubes, to allow men to climb into the sleeping tubes. 21 men slept in each rack.
Tubes had been used rather than beds in case gravity failed while the ship was in flight. The tubes could also be sealed and used as survival pods if the hull was breached. They had a good design going back to before the old empire ruled the stars of home. It comforted me that something with such a long history of success would be guarding me while I slept. I still put my greater faith in God.
Several moments passed while I considered slipping into one of the bunks. It had been more than a day since I'd slept and it began to hit me in the dim light. My thinking was a bit clouded, yet I was still able to get around. I decided to go back to the main aisle and sit at the end of one of the racks. If I meditated there, then I would still be awake when the rest of my group arrived. Somebody was going to come for me.
At the sound of the atmosphere seal breaking, I stood up to wait for the new arrivals. A single, non-descript man in a uniform came in and put his gear into one of the lockers I hadn't noticed at the end of the rack behind me. I think he was also a Lieutenant Commander, although his rank didn't matter to me at the time. He wore the same dark red suit as the rest of the fleet, decorated with rank and fleet assignment insignia. His name badge referred to him as "Jeff Eliz."
He didn't look directly at me, even though he knew that I was there. "Welcome aboard," he said.
"Thank you, sir," I replied.
"You're out of uniform, you know."
"Actually, I don't have a uniform just yet."
"What's your post?"
"Battlefield medic, I think." I really wasn't sure what he was asking, yet my answer sounded good to me.
"I'm an electroplasmic engineer, actually. Have you checked your locker?"
He tapped at one of the lockers in the row beneath his, just below eye level. I'm sure that he knew that I was new to the fleet and I decided not to try keeping up the act with him. This man would depend on my skills in the most trying of times so it would not have been wise to keep up a lie with him. We had to work as a team or neither of us was coming home.
"Do I look that lost?" I approached the locker and it opened for my hand.
"Like you've never been away from home before."
I smiled to break the tension, even though he didn't see it. My locker did contain a few uniforms. Considering it wise not to look out of place when the rest of the men arrived, I began to put one of the uniforms on. Our command structure had to know enough about me to select a uniform which would fit me.
"Your bunk will be just above mine in standard military protocol. I'll do what I can to get you through this and you do the same for the next guy. That's how it works out here."
"Thank you," I replied.
"Hopefully, you're a better medic than you are a soldier."
Unsure how to take his remark, I just let out a short breath as though it was a short laugh. "What is a drag wing?"
"Our flight groups come in three main wings. The spearhead wing takes out the defenses for the assault wing to do an orbital bombardment. I believe that we'll be using primarily neutron warheads on the advances. Then, the sweep wing comes in to clean up ground targets. Our sweep wing is the first wing to actually land. These three wings drag an additional wing of medics and engineers to take care of the first three wings. We will not be using the fifth, battlement wing since we don't plan to hold these worlds when we take them."
"That sounds wasteful."
"There aren't enough of us to need more colonies. Besides, the Areen will know the location of these worlds and be able to retake them."
"You don't have much faith in our ability to hold colonies."
"Areen is a younger race than Minnelean, however, star age warfare is always devastating to planets. Nobody's held a planet since the building of the old empire and we're not sure we can still do that."
"And we're worried that the Areen will have that ability?"
"Not likely," he replied.
Minutes of silence passed before anybody else entered the room. I remained unsure if I was waiting for another officer to come for me or if Jeff was the man I was supposed to wait for. When the rest of our group began to climb up into the tubes, the two of us did the same. It would have been a bad time for me to realize that I was claustrophobic. Knowing that I wasn't afraid of tight spaces didn't make me any more comfortable in the tight tube.
I made up for my lack of familiarity with my ability to imitate. Since the entire group I was with contained either engineers or medics, I simply had to fall in with the medics and do as the others did. My trainer wasn't exactly happy with me, but I made it through the first two days of setup with a reasonable degree of proficiency. I'm unwilling to allow my inexperience to act as an excuse for my weaknesses.
It had been about three years since I had been out of the academy, plus the unfamiliarity I had with being in my new form. I didn't clearly recall the command sequence on the medical tablets and there were no doubts that this problem would only get worse under the strain of combat conditions. The left part of my head felt like it was made of wood, unable to do anything except occupy space. My frustration was hard to keep hidden.
We were taken in groups to the medical bays of the ship. There, we stood in line to practice with the recorded images of battlefield injuries. Teams started out working together, then we had to work on our own, as we would after touchdown. I lost almost all of my simulated patients, just as I would in the upcoming fight. That didn't bother me, since I knew that these projections were not alive. However, almost five percent of the failures were my own fault.
The commander patrolled the bay throughout the exercises. I felt him shake his head behind me, while I fought to recall the command sequence to seal a vein with the micro-indexer wand. He felt almost as annoyed by my performance as I was. My blocked brain sent the cut command while I was worrying over what our commander was going to say. Nothing I did would recover the required command from my worthless memory.
"Your patient has died," alerted the simulation computer.
To this, my commander replied, "I sure wouldn't want to be one of your patients."
My mouth drifted open, as thought I had something to say, yet I drew a breath instead. I knew that he was right as much as he did. Something was just wrong with me and I couldn't seem to compensate for it. Days of unending practice did not make my performance even one percent better than it had been when I started. Making matters worse, word got around that I had been drafted.
Men around me would whisper that I was killing the simulations to get myself removed from the service. They were going to expect me to perform better than I could under battlefield conditions. If my patients died, then my comrades would speak accusations of homicide in hushed voices throughout the night. Their very thoughts would burn deep into my feeble mind. I was half mad from nerves by the end of the third day.
Although we knew the location of the first colony we would assault, we could not come in directly. Doing so would lead the Areen back to our homeworld or one of our deep space colonies. We joined the wings into the battle fleet in transit to the target to cover our points of origin. Any point in space that we passed through could contain probes looking tracking us to targets in our space. Without the old empire, we weren't strong enough to hold back an Areen assault.
This indirect path gave us just better than a week in space before the first battle at Kell Tea Kay. We split our time between training and hoping that we'd get in the first strike. Unable to sleep, I had plenty of time to worry over the upcoming fight. How many patients would die on the blood-soaked soil of a distant planet just because I couldn't handle the job assigned to me? In the end, would any of us have a home to return to?
After the fifth day, we moved from the onboard systems to the hardware we'd be using in the field. We'd be unable to carry the wounded back to the ship. There wouldn't be enough beds for the dying men if we even tried. Our medical gear would consist of a pack on our backs and large bands covering our arms. Lives would depend on our ability to use the hardware with no more than our reflexes.
The portable hardware took some time to get used to. It attached to each wrist, running back to about the elbow of each arm. Each arm was completely covered from the wrist to the elbow in the stiff, armored tubes. Keypanels and displays lined the top side of each device. Panels on the underside opened to reveal medication tubes which we'd have to refill in the field. Once I got used to it, the design was actually helpful.
Somehow, with the lack of rest and driftwood brain, I made it through the training period. I could not be removed from the unit so I owed it to the casualties to do the job which was expected of me. It seemed that being too tired for worry actually made me a better medic. Nervousness was the largest part of my problem. By the last day in flight, I was so drained that I actually passed out in the rest tube.
Elixir's crew came to alert as the first wing of our attack on Kell Tea Kay moved into strike position. We held back behind the sweeper wing. Drag wing is notoriously vulnerable to ambush during combat and we all knew it. The group closest to us, the thirty ships of the sweeper wing, would not be effective against a space-based assault on us. Our defense depended upon the enemy worrying more about the colony we were attacking than the ships at the back of the fleet. All the weapons of the fleet, including the fighters, were pointed forward in readiness for the strike.
Fear of an ambush didn't upset the first three wings. Spearhead wing came in through the main defenses to pick off anything which fired on it. These were the same weapons which had been used on the Endira and we felt pride in our revenge. Each blast that we saw through the windows, or on the screens, gave root to a cheer amongst those of us who remained for the next three wings. There came a time when we stopped looking behind us for a sneak attack on the drag wing. It didn't occur to us that we had taken the colony entirely by surprise.
Spearhead wing turned for a second shot at the defenses of Kell Tea Kay. Areen wasn't stupid and had set up defense nets for assaults trying to sneak in from behind its sun as well as those coming in from deep space. We lost at least one ship in the bright flashes over the planet. When the dead ship could no longer fight, its wreckage slammed into anything it could rain down upon. The loss of life didn't penetrate the thrill of the moment.
Assault wing held its station until after the spearhead wing had made four runs at the long-range defenses. Each wing was in greater danger than the wing before it so that we were more sure of losses in the assault wing than in the spearhead wing. Even knowing this, only protocol kept the assault wing from charging in with the spearhead wing. We had been in the first battle known to our race in centuries and the danger was still unreal to us. I was no better than the men of the assault wing.
Soldier was still a job or a career path to the men who had seen their last day of life. Only the medics knew that being a soldier actually meant playing bull's eye for defenders and madmen who just wanted the freedom to kill. Seen from their level, the spilling of blood into the otherwise fertile soil was justified. However, even the medics were just seeing the battlefield as though it was a movie. Reality did not intrude into the delusion.
Then the assault wing moved in as it had in centuries past. None of our commanders had actually been in combat, yet they did their best to fake it. I saw the way that the squadrons changed their angle of attack, coming into the targets lower on later runs against the fortifications. The neutron blasts covered every habitable section of the planet and masked out the violent disruptions of some of the ships delivering them. Smoke from the fires changed the color of the planet's atmosphere as we saw it.
Sweeper wing came in after the aerial bombardments concluded, but before the dust settled. Those men faced the burning wreckage of the ships that had not survived the first two wings of battle when they stepped out onto the planet. They saw the cities burning around them and were the first to see the dead. Unlike the men of the other wings, they had to fight under the reality of war. Honor, if they had nothing else, drove them on.
Our commanders had overestimated the utility of the neutron warheads. Defenders remained in the shelters to return fire against our invading forces. Being so few in number, they spread out to inflict the maximum number of casualties on us before they met their own deaths. They had nothing left to live for and that drove them against us with the force of an exploding star. We were hit before we knew to expect anything.
Elixir touched down only minutes behind the sweeper wing. Our point ship in the sweeper wing, Diamos, wasn't given a chance to secure the area before we touched down and our hull took a barrage of small weapon's fire. The hull was actually pierced in a few places by land-based rockets. It was my first experience with death even though I wasn't considered a good enough medic to be assigned to treating those casualties. Drag wing contained the resources that the forward wings would need.
Damaged ships from the first two wings limped into a landing for repairs when they could. Almost a dozen ships from the drag wing had to stay in orbit to repair ships too badly damaged to land for repairs. They were lucky in that they hadn't touched down before we learned about the attacking survivors. We were completely off guard with the additional casualties we took on the ground. It was hard to work with fear of death haunting us.
I stepped out into the muddy soil carrying a stack of stretchers with the help of the man directly behind me. All the growth in that area had been scraped from the ground as the Diamos skidded to a stop at the edge of the city beyond us. Before the battle, the area we walked across had been a park where people strolled and children played. It had been reduced to a mud pit in which we set up endless rows of stretchers to treat the wounded. We found it hard to carry the portable beds through the thick, soaked soil.
After setting up the last of the stretchers from the stack my partner and I had carried, I looked a bit closer at the mud than I had earlier been able to do. We had been sinking well over a foot into the viscous soup with every step and I bent down to scrape a few pounds of the slime from my boots. It hadn't rained in the field to produce this sloppy condition. The soil was literally saturated with blood and other vital fluids. I came very close to adding my evening meal to the mess around my feet.
Our group commander found a measuring stick at the edge of the field. He turned it around, trying to get a feel for the device, then stuck it into the ground to see how thick the mud really was. When he withdrew the wooden implement from the adulterated dirt, he slid it between his fingers to get a clear reading of its depth. From my position, I could see that it measured a full two feet and a few inches in depth. This was such a cold man that he just shook his head at the situation and walked on through the gore.
To be sure, I was not alone in my desire to take the wooden stake loosely dangling in his right hand and poke it deep into his chest. I cannot say what would give rise to such rage in men so dedicated to the saving of life as we were, yet it would be a pure lie to deny that it was there. It was the last feeling that most of us would have on the battlefield. Fewer than two hundred of us treated 1,946,217 casualties in a three-day span. We worked until we dropped.
We did not care friend or foe as long as we could actually save a life. The neutron warheads produced massive hemorrhaging, making it appear that the people on the portable beds were in melting bodies. I had to shut off my emotions just to keep my sanity. Hundreds of lives ended on the table before me, at my hands, and thousands didn't even make it that far. Death's footprints cut deep paths into the emulsified soil.
The first step was always to make sure that the patient had survived the trip to my operating table. If a patient made it that far, I would do a complete survey of the damage. Then I would inject a few thousand micro robots into his veins to work on patching anything which could be fixed while I worked with the quantum diffraction unit to seal any injuries I could. Medication was of very little use except to fight off infection in the unsanitary conditions. Nothing I did would stop the dying I could feel in my soul.
Every dozen or so patients, one of the technicians would pass by each of us to hose the mud from our blood-encrusted bodies. Without the help, I would have been unable to work for more than a few minutes at a time before the sticky cement encased me in its crushing embrace. My legs hurt from standing in such a small amount of space for such a long time. Men would come to me, begging me to save their fallen comrades, and the train seemed to never end. Grown men wept like infants.
I passed out after awhile and was allowed what rest would come to me in the disturbed ground. One of the medics nearly drowned, early on, in the mud before the wash sergeant noticed his condition. Two men I had trained besides for my entire time in the service died of exhaustion and the line of casualties never seemed to get shorter. Men women and children lived or died by the actions of minds and hands too tired to rest. We could not stop.
One night, when we were less closely watched, I had a little girl on the table much like a child I would like to have had. Surviving the initial raid, her injuries were the result of fighting between ground forces. She had been cut up very badly by bolts fired from projectile rifles. I knew that there was little hope for her. Children do not react to injuries as adults to.
God had not given me the cold heart it would take to accept the brutal jurisdiction of the mere material world. I was a priest of a clan which had once brought peace to our world and the whole of the empire by grace of God. We had been granted the abilities that it took to live up to our assigned job. The elders of our clan were legendary amongst our people. But, I was barely a monk with only the remnants of our last temple to seek guidance from above.
With a pure heart, faith as my strength, I placed my hand on the dying girl's chest. I could feel the hot blood of God's creation flowing through the universe itself such that no part of creation could hold it back or divert its flow. It was the spirit and will of the creator of all things. This force, strong enough to call all things from nothingness, flowed through me and into the battered body in my grasp. She was healed in an instant.
Finally, I had done something. I was too tired to know how many days and nights had passed while I stood in the drying muck over the wounded. It was God's will which healed and I was just proud to have been a part of the plan. Maybe I would yet be a source of pride to my ancestors. This was the destiny I had surrendered my life to have.
Hushed words in the ranks mentioned that our additional battlegroups had taken out at least a dozen more Areen colonies. Words to the effect that we'd lost about half as much as we'd taken were kept even quieter. The remnants of the battle were bad enough to break our morale without acknowledging that some of us no longer had a home to return to. Our race would go on as long as we did not lose our homeworld. Life was another matter entirely. We had to feel that we were winning or we would surely lose everything.
Nobody saw what I had done for the little girl and I made sure that nobody saw the others either. My gift was neither a curiosity nor a parlor trick to amuse our high command. The MystRein clan was despised for reasons I cannot begin to fathom and I knew that I was in more danger using my gift than I would be for failing in this mission. Maybe the people feared the return of the old ways as much as they idolized the good times in our past. It's also possible that my whole race wanted to die so badly that it had rejected strongest the hands which had been offered with the greatest ability to save us all.
On the dawning of the last day on the planet, maybe three days and maybe a week after we had landed, our commander issued a statement. We were expected not to look up from our task, so he did not even exit the ship to make his speech. He stood on the bridge of the Elixir and used speakers around the field to address us. I looked up from the table to see the rising sun when I first heard the speaker click. The smoke had cleared and the mud had hardened around us leaving the field itself dead.
"Please continue with your tasks," called the disembodied voice. "I have an announcement from planetary command of some importance to make, yet you must complete your assigned duties without interruption. It has been brought to my attention that Kell Tea Kay was so decimated by the conflict that the biosphere is compromised. We must be off this planet by sunset at this location or we will run out of air."
Our people were later to call this conflict the ‘nova wars' in honor of the worlds we devastated. Honor is the word used by the people who did not have to face the death of those worlds. It is the word used by civilians who speak of the horror of murder and the glory of war. To the men who have been there, we say that the nova wars were named in disgrace of the rape of worlds we had committed amongst God's stars. We named the battlefield, where the dead went unburied, the glory of war.
Anybody who could be moved was relocated into the ships for liftoff. Command didn't want us to know that any of our casualties were left behind to die with the planet itself, even though that is the rumor. I did not witness any abandonment of our sick and dying. However, I will not deny that there were still people hidden in the rubble when we returned to the stars. None of us can say how our commanders would have treated them if they had come out and surrendered to us.
They didn't tell us that our battle tactic had changed until after we left the planet. There were too many ground casualties and the civilian prisoners of war could not be taken to any of our colonies without exposing them. Our morale was weakened by all the death we actually saw, so our commanders had decided to do away with the neutron warheads and move directly to the plasma warheads. We would use the warheads in the assault wing to wipe all life from the planets we took without having to touch down. The worlds then looked like they had been hit by an exploding star.
Few medics were needed as long as were not going to be landing. Just about all of us were transferred off of the Elixir within the next two battles until only about a dozen of us remained on the medical ship. This left plenty of room for the civilian prisoners we had collected at Kell Tea Kay, although command was unsure what to do with them. We could not take them to our homeworld since going home would trip sensors and lead enemy fleets to our defense lines. There was also no way of returning the civilians to the Areen.
I was allowed to watch the young girl I had saved grow strong in the unmeasured days we both spent together aboard the ship. Prisoners were interrogated to find additional targets, but none that I know of surrendered anything important. The children didn't know anything and were left alone. Command didn't like the bond I had with the alien girl. She made me long for the life I had given up to be what I had become.
In time, I was called back to the command deck of the Elixir. My time to be transferred had come. Our fleet had all the medics it would need and I couldn't be much of a mechanic for the assault ships. The law forbade me to hold any non-technical rank in the fleet because those tasks are exclusively for the Olympeed class. God had given me one final gift that my commanders found before I did.
The man I met was not familiar to me. He held the rank of commodore and the nameplate on his uniform had been damaged too badly to read. I knew from his rough look that he was another black operations man like me. Nobody was to know the full power or authority invested in this man so he was made to look like a low ranking officer. Neither of us would have a name in the small cabin, just off the bridge, where we met in private.
"Do you know who I am, Lt Commander?"
I composed myself before going on. "I do not, Commodore."
"Have you ever heard of the Star Navigator's League?"
"It's a trade union from what I know, Commodore."
"The League thinks you have a skill we can use."
Star Navigator's were as legendary as MystRein priests. The League, a trade guild of the Star Navigators, controlled the destiny of worlds by way of the Star Navigators. Our jump ships could move instantly across vast distances of space and time by harnessing the power of the Star Navigator's mind. If you don't have the gift, the process of doing a trick would kill you and destroy your ship. Navigators are worth the price of nations to our merchant and military structures. I was shocked to be considered for testing.
"Can you be sure that I'm up to the challenge, Commodore?" I thought it best to hide my feelings beneath a string of vague references to the things the Commodore was not saying.
"That is not my place to say."
"An operable hopper would cover the location of our base worlds."
"The League will not send its navigators into the conflict. You will only be jumping in from the transfer points."
"If I pass the test, Commodore."
"You've already been confirmed, Lt Commander. Your transfer to the Musheid is effective immediately."
"By your command, Commodore."
"Our transport is in the hangar. I trust that you can fly one?"
"If I have to, Commodore."
"Honestly, I was hoping for more confidence."
"Do you wish a fool for a pilot, Commodore?"
"Philosophy is an art practiced in peace, Lt. Commander. Bring us home safely and I'll debate you for all your days after the war."
Nobody intervened to even check our identification while we walked to the tube and rose to the secure upper hangar. I wished that God had given me one chance to say goodbye to the little girl I left behind, yet it is his will I do and not my own. We went directly up the ramp beneath a small delta wing craft, climbing directly into the cockpit at the top of the walkway. The ship was airborn, under my rusty command, before the ramp had a chance to fully retract into the craft's belly. All I could manage at the time was to not bounce the small ship off the landing bay's walls.
We entered Musheid from the back, between the engine struts where the ship's reactor shields were densest. Musheid was small for a hopper, under two miles long, yet she had engines which could move the whole fleet. It was the job of a hopper to move entire fleets through perihelion, across galaxies in an instant, without being seen. I have no idea how the technology works so I'll spare you the technological babble. My job would be to pilot the main drive system.
Jeff Eliz, now a full Commander, met us in the hangar. He was the command duty officer running the hangar of the Musheid. It took him longer to recall who I was than it took for me to remember him, although I did have better reason to recall him. The war had been hard on him and he now had a few scars on his face plus a few burn scars on his arms. Nobody could doubt that he had earned his rank.
The Commodore checked his authorizations with the command duty officer while I looked around. Musheid was a dark ship. I couldn't make out how much of anything was in the hangar, much less how many men were on duty there. I'd say that the ship was running on the smallest available crew just by the feel of the life in the darkness. Considering it wise to keep my senses hidden, I scanned the ship with my eyes.
I was taken to the bridge by the Commodore and one other man before anybody spoke to me. We reached the bridge before I realized that the disheveled man commanding this ship was the same Commodore who had been responsible for my induction into the service. He too had been changed by the war, although only a little over a week of hot war had elapsed. Our losses had been so heavy that the high command had pulled this hopper out of storage for duty in the war. Only the black operations men under the Commodore were allowed to board this ship.
"I take it that you've had a chance to remember me, Lt. Commander?"
At first, I hesitated to say anything in response. I did remember him, however, we were in a level of operations where nobody remembers anything on the record. Security demands amnesia. In a few seconds, I decided to cast my fate into God's hands and drop the paranoid thought pattern. This was a warship—not mainstreet.
"I believe that I do, Commodore."
"Well, Commander, welcome aboard the flagship Musheid."
"Thank you, Commodore."
"Thus far, your record of service has been better than expected. Serve well on my ship and you'll have a future in the service."
"I understand, Commodore."
"You don't seem very happy with the prospect, Commander. It took me more than a few weeks to make the rank of Commander."
"I am here to do a job of some importance, Commodore. Feeling would get in the way."
"We would not all concur, Commander."
"I'm still new at this, Commodore."
"You stopped being green when you saw your first action. We all did. Just like the rest of us, you are not who you were when you started with the service."
"Lives depend on my doing the job without thinking about it. I'll do my best to serve the fleet under your direction, Commodore."
"Keep that up and you'll be an old star slug just like the rest of us."
He almost smiled at me, the way a father smiles at a child. I didn't mind that as much as others would since I had been denied a childhood. The Commodore treated me as thought I was a real person rather than the organic machine I had been made to be. His expression of being pleased with me allowed me to feel loyalty toward him. We were a team.
Star navigators work with partners. The partner will actually pilot the ship on the conventional drive systems while the star navigator does the trick. We refer to the actual jump as doing the trick because it is like pulling a trick on space and time. I would have to work with the pilot very closely since the hop across space-time was surely going to wipe me out. Usually, pilots and navigators form pairs that always work together. In times of war, this would be even more certain of a future for me.
My partner was a captain named Brian. He'd been involved in interstellar travel for more than half of his life before being drafted into the military. Under his control, the Musheid maneuvered like a figure skater drawing precise figures amongst the stars. I'd never been as close to the actual operating heart of a spacecraft before then and would have been dissolved into the feeling of the bridge if I had allowed myself to feel it. Brian was my only concern for the first few hours I was to spend on the ship.
I took my place beside Brian, then lowered one deck into the navigation core of the ship. The gateway which sealed shut above me was the only way into or out of the small chamber where I would be doing my work for the good of the ship. My seat reclined into a position which would not fit back through the door above me, while hardware locked into place around me. A crown mechanism came up from beneath my head and locked onto my skull.
Control panels formed beneath my hands. The identifier ring around my right wrist was locked into a slot in the arm of the seat so that I could not move free of the chair. I pulled my thumbs in to activate the system and it felt like I was floating free in space. My first task was to adjust the psionic display to project into my brain without doing damage and, aware of my novice status, the display gave me instructions for doing so. Novice star navigators are called straps.
The ship and I were then one. I could not feel my own body at all. All that I could feel was the hull of the ship being guided by Brian's skilled fingers. And, every finger on every hand touching any panel on the bridge felt like it was touching a part of me. Euphoria set in with the feel of my own vastness. Musheid and I were of a single mind.
For the first hour or so, I was just to monitor the operations of the ship. Getting used to Brian's style would allow us to work in exact unison when the fleet depended upon it. He had never worked with a navigator before and I could feel his excitement with the prospect. When we got out of the service, there would be a profitable career for the two of us in the merchant fleet. We would be with the League, having all the power and prestige of that honor.
Only moments appeared to pass for me as the great ship glided easily through space. The dimensional compressors brought the entire battle fleet up to superluminal velocity in precise formation. Not all of the pilots were as good as Brian, but I was alone in feeling the uneasy glide path of those ships around my hull. Musheid, a military hopper, had been designed to lock her drive fields into those of the entire four-wing group around us. Commercial hoppers are large enough to place the merchant fleets inside of them for the trick.
Then the Commodore signaled me with our destination. An Areen fleet had been spotted leaving one of our decimated colonies just after I had been taken aboard the Musheid. Until the Musheid became operational, we had not been able to intercept assault groups in deep space when they left our worlds. It was tactically significant that we develop the ability to ambush the enemy. Only hoppers had that kind of speed.
Taking a deep breath, something which feels very strange when you cannot feel your body, I initiated the jump. Our entire fleet was disrupted; converted to a quantum probability curve in an instant. All the solid, liquid, gas and plasma components were reduced to their mathematical purity deep within my mind. Everything within the singular drive field vanished. Nothing remained of us except the idea stored in my ascended mind.
It put a load on me like nothing I had ever felt. Without a moment's hesitation, the reality of everything I knew became an idea in my spiritual mind. I was as inextant as anything in our group and that very idea nearly crushed the life out of me. My mind tried hard to reduce the strain with a few breaths, yet I didn't have any lungs to breathe with. Ideas can kill a man in Perihelion. Only ideas are real beyond the material world.
I felt the photon crystal tap me while I tried to avoid suffocating in the nothingness. The bright flash of our destination point in time-space gave me something to focus on besides my own lack of being. There's no way for me to clear my mind of all the clutter around the idea, so I just ignored anything which was not the destination. Reality reformed around me as I thought it back into being. My life drained as the force poured out of me to bring back the solidity of the fleet. It felt as though the fleet fell on top of me as it materialized.
Sleep overcame me only moments after the jump system disconnected from my mind. My mind marveled at the might of God in his ability to create many times what I had simply reformed with my will. Then I skipped through time in a dreamless sleep. I've heard it takes time for the spirit to get used to being back inside of the corporeal body after a jump. I gave myself over to God's will and trusted Brian to take care of the rest of the trip. Somehow, I slept through the battle.
We were in orbit around a large planet when I returned to the waking world. I am told that we won the battle and, since the ship was still around me when I woke up, I believe that we did well in the fight. All the ships I remembered from the jump seemed to be in the ring we formed around the colorful gas giant. Our engineers worked on patching holes in the hulls of the ships in readiness for the next fight. The command ranks knew that the armada we had ambushed was on its way to return to a larger convoy for the next assault.
My group kept watch on the starfield around us for the approaching convoy. It was only a matter of time before we would spot the target group. Just over five dozen ships remained in our battle-group to pounce the unsuspecting enemy fleet. None of us doubted that the enemy convoy knew that we had wiped out the first assault group from the transmissions it sent during the battle. We huddled in the dim light of the carriers, hopper, battleships and destroyers waiting for the much larger group to come into view.
Both sides were running out of colonies and the war had come down to taking out the assault groups in space. If either side found the homeworld of the other, the war would be over. Tracking fleets back to their bases had allowed the two sides to nearly exterminate the population of both empires. It looked like the war would only end when one of the two races had been wiped from the stars. This bothered us as we knew that neither side had a clear enough advantage to assure victory.
The entire ship smelled of sweat from the strain we were under. Perspiration condensed on the walls of the ship as the humidity built up. Our floors were wet enough that they had become slippery even with the roughness of the grating. I do not know how the engineers did their job in the misty, hot air that the ships were full of. Everything powered down, and communications were held silent, to prevent us from being detected by the oncoming threat. My eyes burned from the salty fluid running into them.
Flashes broke through the silence of the fleet where ships were having patches welded into their hulls. Hushed curses professed the difficult work at which tired minds and nervous hands desperately struggled. Our bridge was lighted only by the yellow emergency lighting system, although the viewscreens added to the illumination since they remained completely operational. All eyes watched beyond the planet to see the trace marks of an enemy convoy passing by our position in space.
Heat, nerves and sweat fatigued me. I chose to descend into the navigation core and was connected to the ship's central computer networks to continue the search. Even the sensors the ship could use without giving itself away enhanced my perception of the space around me. It was the kind of a rush I would easily have become addicted to beyond the strife of war. My mind, free of the material limitations of physical form, could go on in the search while my body recharged itself in the chamber.
Musheid flew point in the fleet. She would be the first ship to move on the first sighting of the enemy convoy so that her movements could be a silent signal to move the entire group in. We were moving against a much larger and stronger opponent in the attack. Surprise was the only defense Musheid would have in the early part of the battle. My eyes were the eyes of our entire squadron.
A man on the command deck zoomed in on something he almost saw in the dotted void of endless space. Amongst a curtain of dust and stars, we both saw a series of small specks moving into position in front of us. The convoy was at least ten times the size of our strike force, but we had our orders. I felt the rise in the Commodore's pulse when he got his first look at the enemy we waited for. History will have no record of the man who first saw our objective.
Brian repositioned Musheid to an intercept course using only the gas jets. I felt the rest of our fleet move around to match our trajectory without giving our combined position away. The universe seemed to stand still while we waited on the Commodore's signal to advance. It was my first taste of actual combat, leaving a sugary residue in my dry mouth. Our Commodore counted down by tapping on my decks with his foot.
I held my place in the navigation core even as I knew that I would be useless in there. The fleet didn't need me to do anything except the tricks which gave us victory in battle. My place in battle was outside of the battle. Musheid was a resource which the battle-group could not afford to lose and I was the brains of Musheid. It was irrational that the Commodore would take Musheid directly into battle, however, he must have had his reasons.
With a gesture, the Commodore ordered Brian to move us in across the enemy flagship. There was a minor delay before the rest of our squadron reacted, yet it was barely perceptible. To the enemy, it must have appeared that we had again jumped across the galaxy for an ambush. The flagship didn't go down, but she had three hull breaches before her armor locked into place. Musheid struck out at point blank range.
Our flagship charged through the middle of the convoy, firing at anything in range. If the commander of the Zeusia had concentrated his ship's fire, Areen's convoy would have lost at least three ships. The random fire pattern just punched a few holes in the ships of the convoy. Zeusia hit a minimum of two-dozen ships. We were lucky in that most of them were resource ships that the convoy would be crippled without.
Then the enemy commander did something I would not have expected. He ordered his fleet to split into three groups. Only one group was to come after us. His other two groups, including his flagship, made a break for open space. This was the best move he could have made for our morale. I knew that he was up to something.
Even a third of the enemy fleet had us outgunned, yet we held our position. Resource ships, loaded for maintaining a battle weary armada returning from a strike, are undeniably vulnerable to hull damage. Many of the ships carried fuel and munitions. It bothered me that the enemy fleet would have left these ships undefended and I'm sure that the Commodore shared my worry. The enemy commander was allowing us to win the battle for a reason.
Each squadron lost a few ships before we drew back. As long as the battle raged, our exact location was known to our enemies. None of us could say how long it would be before the enemy command structure pounced on us. Without the rapid movements of the hopper, Areen would have to move slowly to engage us. Only the enemy ships within range of us could be called upon to join the fight and none came.
We pulled back in formation to get away from the crippled enemy ships before the real warships returned. From the blackness of nondescript space, I felt the approach of high energy bodies. I could not make out what they were, at first, although I knew that it had been a bad idea to keep the entire fleet together as we had. Three ships behind the Musheid were vaporized before we knew that we'd been hit. Areen had not left simple ships for us to pick off. The craft we had been playing with were bombs.
I'm not sure if Areen sacrificed the crewmen of those ships or if they were drone ships being towed through space. The shock and sudden death of the men in the ships around me was more than my fragile mind could take, so I could not scan that far. Musheid's hull was pierced in four places and I felt the men struggling for their own lives in those sections of the ship. If Areen had known what a hopper was, then he would surely have focused all the firepower around us into destroying the Musheid. I didn't care where the focus of the ambush was since death is death.
Shockwaves through subspace scattered the wings of our group. Ships bounced into one another before they could turn against the rippling of space-time. Brian was an excellent pilot and managed to pull us free of the chain reaction before Musheid's hull was compromised. The ship Brian's reflexes kept from colliding with us was not so lucky. Half of the other ship's hull was torn apart in a turbulent collision. I cannot be sure if it hit another ship or the debris which had been another ship. One set of blasts had taken out almost half of our squadron.
Our commanders were weak in that they lacked combat experience. My clan, the MystRein priests, had held the peace throughout the old empire for so long that none of us still lived who had seen actual combat. Losing my clan to the stars left my people in bad shape. They no longer had us to maintain the peace, nor did they have warriors for their defense. Areen was an even match for what remained of us.
The Commodore learned fast. It was just not fast enough to save the lives already lost in the lesson. He ordered the fleet to break up and move at maximum velocity in whatever direction the ships faced. We spread out over such a large volume of space that additional blasts could not take more than a single ship. Then we turned to concentrate our weapons fire on anything remaining in the enemy armada. Our ammunition was largely wasted on blasting fragments of the lost ships, yet it was something we could do.
Musheid was the rallying point when the squadron reformed. We'd had to rebuild what we could from the junk we could scavenge from wrecked ships. Our engineers worked as hard putting the fleet back into fighting shape as the medics had in the battle of Kel Tea Kay. There was nothing for the medics to do when the battle left only the living and the dead. I could not hold my head up from the shame of the defeat.
We sent messages out over the widest area that we could to avoid giving away the location of our other squadrons. The whole defense force had to know about the enemy's new tactic. Areen had adapted more quickly to the change in battle conditions than we had been ready for. With a hopper, we could escape when the message was sent as none of our other squadrons could. However, the Commodore chose not to run.
I heard the Commodore tell our Rear Admiral that he was going to take the fleet to Teati Kay as soon as we were flight ready. Areen had to be monitoring the transmission and every man on the bridge knew it. Before long, the entire fleet knew about the Commodore's decision. General consensus was that we really wouldn't be going anywhere near Teati Kay, even though most of us believed that we were going to die there. It was a desperate tactic that I wished I had been in on.
The shift duty ended with the remainder of the fleet moving through dead space. It was so quiet in dark void between stars that I could almost feel the calm emptiness pervade the remaining ships. Men seemed to speak in whispers as though the enemy, or even space itself, could hear us. Repairs were almost complete as the shifts changed on the decks of our lazy metallic whales coasting through space at amazing speed. Space is so vast that we felt like the planet eating beasts within whom we rode were standing still.
Before leaving the bridge, the Commodore addressed us. "If it matters, the four of you are now Captains."
"Thank you Commodore," each of us replied in true military unison.
"With the loss of those ships, I made the rank of Rear Admiral."
I took the lead in saying, "Congratulations Rear Admiral."
He had a nervous smile at my words, although I know that it wasn't me which upset him. His nerves wanted to draw his lips closed so that he did not show the fake pride he willed himself to express. I could see the vibration in his cheeks while the two sides of his mind fought over which reaction he would have. It was as though we had all aged twice a lifetime in a single battle.
"Thank you, Captain," he replied.
"Rear Admiral," called Brian. "Is it true that we're going to Teati Kay?"
Our leader's eyed drew back from their clear focus and he was lost, for a moment, in deep thought at Brian's impetuous words. His thoughts were so much deeper than his reality that I could almost feel them across the blackened deck. He brushed back his stringy hair with his left hand, then took a breath before responding. No bright sheen remained in either his eyes or his hair at that moment.
"Before we left Trilonia, I was at a gallery with my family. It's surprising now that I had once been bored looking at crystals. Much like my son, I wasn't yet drawn into the arcs and bursts of the precisely cut stones."
"Rear Admiral," I said.
"It's just that the battle reminded me of the beauty in those sparkling rocks."
"We don't understand you, Rear Admiral."
"No matter how hard the crystal, you can break it if you hit it at just the right angle in just the right place. War is also a hard thing."
Brian composed himself to ask his question in a calm voice. "Then we will be going to Teati Kay?"
"That's the best place to cut Areen's fleet."
"But," commented Brian," they'll know we're coming."
"We'll know that they're coming. The war's been drawn out because we cannot find each other to fight the brutality out of us."
I then asked, "Suppose that Areen uses more of those bomb ships?"
"Don't you believe that Areen's commanders are afraid of us? We told them, in no uncertain terms and without encryption, where we were going. They know that we're up to something."
Brian wiped sleep from his eyes, getting up to turn his seat over to his replacement pilot. "How does that help us against bombs, Rear Admiral?"
"They're not going to be there," he said. "Areen may want to exterminate us, but his warriors want to beat us at our best on the battlefield of honor."
We left the bridge together to walk back to our cabins, but we didn't say anything else. The four of us had been housed in the corridor just behind the bridge so that we'd all be available the moment a problem arose. For Brian and I, it had been a large change from living in the main barrocs with the rest of the men, even though I didn't consider it important enough to note the change in living space before now. It's only significance is that we didn't have far to walk with the newly promoted Rear Admiral.
My pilot and I were stationed across the hall from each other, with Brian on the same side as the Rear Admiral. We left the hall for our respective spaces with a handshake of congratulations and a salute. Then it was off to a fitful sleep split evenly between the desperate need for rest and the sure knowledge that the next day we would face a battle that none of us stood a palpable chance at surviving. I got up to wash the sweat from my face three times during the night. Each time, I could hear Brian moving about in his cabin.
I didn't hear anything from the Rear Admiral's cabin at any time during the night and this frightened me. Either he was resigned to meeting his doom at Teati Kay or he had a plan hidden in the deepest recesses of his brain where I could not get at it. Our collective demise was the only option which I could see as plausible. We'd face our destiny on the bridge the next day either way.
Turning to God would have given me solace in the cold darkness, yet I feared the answer he would give me. The room where I slept was outright hot from the nervous energy of my exhausted body although it felt cold to me. My own thoughts were so cold that the room could not keep me warm. A cold calmness eventually enveloped me as I was given no choice but to put my fate in God's hands. I have no idea how long I rested in my coma after passing out.
The Kay arm of our galaxy was undeveloped territory so it didn't surprise me that Teati Kay was a desolate region. It held one young, unstable star in the throws of childhood around which circled five gas giant planets. One of the moons around the innermost planet was barely habitable. Given a generations work, we'd have generated half a dozen comfortable home-worlds in the raw frontier of Teati Kay. Yet, our race had given up expansion when the last of the old empire died out and we'd fallen back to just one moon.
Minnelean was an old race now. My people no longer dreamed of making good all the things the death struggle of the ancient empire had brought down. We worried over keeping our population from growing too large to stay on our one small, dying moon. God had given us many gifts that we had thrown away in the foolishness of our old age. Primitives had once worshipped the empire.
My futility muse lasted through breakfast in the Captain's mess hall. We took longer to eat than normal because we knew that it could well be our last meal. Our Rear Admiral stared into the view-screen, just watching the starfield slowly creep forward as destiny beckoned onward. I cannot say what my comrades were doing since I was too busy gazing into the metallic centerpiece on the table between us.
Every man on the Musheid was one of her limbs and their collective breath was her life's blood. I could feel the warmth of the fluid flowing through the vast array of tunnels permeating Musheid's form. When our meal ended, I would return to my place at the center of her brain. There was only one star navigator in the fleet so I was without equal in my post. My post was without equal in the fleet.
We didn't go into Teati Kay until the Rear Admiral was back on the bridge. Areen had a few ships waiting amongst the planets, holding most of his fleet at a distance to come in around us. None of these ships were visible to us even though all of us knew that they were there. Through the coldness of space, we could almost detect the faint scent of blood. Unfortunately, we could not determine if it was our blood of that of the enemy.
Nothing would happen until Areen was ready for everything to happen. This was to be a fast and hard battle. Although Areen's fleet was larger, both sides were evenly matched in their resolve. Everybody knew about where everybody else was. Our fleet made no attempt to hide amongst the debris of the young star's birth and I could almost feel the enemy commander's resentment at not being allowed to come into the battle with such a display of foolish bravery. Even if we lost the battle to the last man amongst us, our enemies would speak of our fortitude for generations.
Uneasy Captains within Areen's fleet drifted their ships enough out of their protective hiding places for us to catch sight of them before they returned to the places where they had been ordered to hide. These men were warriors and did not like the fact that they had to hide in battle like cowards. Each of them would rather have died than obey these orders, even thought they did obey. I cannot imagine their commanders being too harsh with them since their commanders were also men of honor.
At last, the Rear Admiral called, "All stop. We wait here."
He had chosen for us to wait in an open area where we could see all the planets, plus the star, but could also see around our squadron on all sides. We would have to be attacked from the open because we were in the open. There were no large chunks of debris or clouds of dust in which to hide an assault ship in range of us. From my post in the drive core, I could sense all of space around us.
Areen moved in rapidly, however, the actual ships slowed considerably to show us that they too were unafraid. Streams of weapon's fire pierced hulls on both sides of the conflict and, from my post, I could feel every hit on both sides. Every dying man's final scream echoed in my mind, deep behind my ears where I could not shut them out. The opposing fleet left us no clear route of escape and we would not have asked for one. It seemed as though every ship in the opponent's armada had shown up for the battle. All of us knew that this would be the final battle.
For our part, no ship came to our aid. The remainder of our armada did not want to come into the conflict in the knowledge that the opponent would know where we were. No ship which flew the same flag that we did stood beyond the conflict to jump in behind Areen's ambushing pack of war dogs. Even our probes did not come close enough to see the battle. Scanning all of space, I could not feel a single friendly mind.
Our flagship, Zeusia, was located and pinned down without a great deal of difficulty. Whole ships vaporized in the space around us and the Rear Admiral saw what was going on. He ordered the Musheid to move forward, above the plane of conflict, and do a strafing run on the Areen battle-group. Areen had never seen such a move in battle, taking heavy casualties as we carried it out. Dust and gas cluttered the field of battle, reducing visibility.
A few ships on each side fled from battle. Each side was down to less than a dozen ships before the battle came to its final blows. I'm not sure if we fought better or if we were just more desperate for our own survival. Maybe Areen had chosen poorly in surrounding us for the assault and taken out many of his own ships in friendly fire incidents. Perhaps our ships were just better built from the time we'd been a part of the old empire. We cut through the enemy armada until we were evenly matched.
I noticed that Elixir was nowhere within the remaining squadron. Hope burned within me that God had shown mercy and given Elixir a chance to flee into the emptiness of interstellar space. Realistic chance was more on the side that we'd lost the ship amongst the others. Something built up within me that I cannot assign a word to. Elixir held many of the lives I had saved from the Kel Tea Kay.
Zeusia was the last ship that we lost. She burst into flames first, as her atmosphere leaked through the environmental containment system, then shattered as a stained glass window. A beautiful crystal which had only moments before held a thousand lives within her bosom had been splintered into the debris of battle. I felt every dying mind enter a united state of shock before passing beyond our dimension.
Satan stood in the thick of battle and I could feel him. He was on neither side, save that of the killing and the war. His goal was in our bloodlust. His brutality was in the blood running through our hearts and minds. His feet were on the throats of both victor and vanquished. We were but his toys being broken for his bratty amusement. He was using us up and throwing us into a dumpster amongst the stars, not unlike diapers.
Musheid lost power for a moment before I knew what was happening. I lashed out using all the power God had given to the MystRein priests and the total power of the quantum drive unit in concert. My mind grabbed both fleets and set them at peace where no other life would end. The spirit God had placed within me drained all but the life support batteries from Areen's last ships.
Our commanders tried, as they were ordered, to crush the helpless hulks in dead space, however, I could not allow it. The warriors amongst us were satisfied with our victory as it stood. Militants back in our safe defense command buildings tried to order us forward to crush our helpless foe, yet there was no honor in it. We all spared our vanquished, worthy opponent. I locked our weapons and the men of honor did nothing to resist my will.
Areen did not realize that I'd done anything unique. To him, Minnelean had simply used a new and powerful weapon against which his ships had no defense. His fleet did not understand why I had held back in blasting it from the stars, even though the men of Areen's honorable defense groups could feel it in their spirits. The war was over and Areen was defeated.
Rear Admiral did not allow the opportunity to slip through his gnarled fingers. We had a position of great strength from which to negotiate a peace settlement. Knowing me as he did, Rear Admiral took the chance that I would want to return to peace as much as many of the men in his command and relied on my silence to keep Areen under control. He understood that our commanders wanted the enemy annihilated and had to set up a peace agreement before any of them could arrive to force a point.
"Computer," called Rear Admiral. "Give me an open communications channel to the enemy flagship."
There was a pause in all breathing on the Musheid while we awaited a reply. "This is Commanding Admiral Sigma or the Areen fleet."
"I am the Rear Admiral commanding the Minnelean fleet."
"You have us at your mercy, Rear Admiral. What do you desire of us?"
"Minnelean would like to sue for peace, at this time."
"That is beyond my authority, Rear Admiral."
"Under flag of truce, we'll bring a group of your men over to this flagship to contact your fleet. We will then tow your ships to a neutral point where we can work out the details with somebody who has that authority."
"Might I remind you that we are still at war?"
"An open range broadcast would help since it would be seen by all ships in both fleets. Neither of us will reveal the location of his homeworld. We just want to come to peace while there's something left to go back to."
"Your request is accepted. My command group will be aboard your ship within the hour."
"Then it is agreed that we shall remain under flag of truce?"
"You didn't give us an alternative, yet you may have my word to the effect as well."
The computer broke the connection at that point. I cannot go into the details of the peace settlement because I wasn't in on it. Our Rear Admiral gave me command of the bridge while he set up the deal. It took less than a duty shift for us to end the war and nobody asked why we did that while towing the enemy ships to the neutral point. We had made the deal, ending the Nova Wars, before we next made contact with our own command.
Of course, I took the blame. I was court marshaled for refusing to exterminate the enemy. It was nothing less than I expected, and something I took with a great deal of honor. Rear Admiral saluted me, with a real smile on his face, when I was taken away by the enforcers. Those enforcers, as I recall, treated me better than any traitor has ever been treated.