Friday, February 28, 2014

The Lies We Know

“Remember, you’re all going to die eventually. Might as well make it worthwhile.”

As pep talks went, the commander’s was down with the likes of “Let’s all get killed!” but he seemed convinced he had a point. The problem was, he didn’t. I knew he was wrong. My whole life proved him wrong.

Most people died eventually.

But life is all about probability and statistics. There are no absolutes. Even death, a penultimate absolute that claims 99.999999% of the population, isn’t truly an absolute. There’s always that .000001%. Me.

Everyone clamped their helmets tight shut against the vacuum of space. We were going into battle against overwhelming odds and we needed to make them underwhelming odds before the Kanfir ships reached the jump for the Euon Ri system.

Thirty-seven hours later I was the only survivor and the captured Kanfir flag ship was arguing with me.

“I cannot obey that order.”

“Kendla sentient ship! I don’t care what you think you can or cannot do, change course before we hit the sun!”

“I cannot obey that order. A senior line officer must enter the course change into the log book.”

I banged my head on the soft, somewhat gummy edge of the ship’s interface. “Is there a senior line officer left alive?”

“No.”

Didn’t think so. The Kanfir hadn’t anticipated our swarming their ships with soldiers in aerial jets meant for orbital station work. The barges had closed, we’d shot off across vacuum, and watched the empty barges burn behind us. It was a suicide mission. Sort of. Not for me, per se, but for everyone else. “Are there any junior officers left alive?”

I didn’t want to go into the sun, but this ship was the last one left with working navigation controls of some form. The Kanfir captain had burned the override interface before we took their control room, but the ship itself was alive. I didn’t know enough about the Kanfir to know if the ship was a species they’d caught and enslaved, or if they’d created these behemoths in some lab.

Whatever the creature’s history, it was bent on driving me to insanity.

“I can find no junior officers,” the ship reported sounding ever so slightly distressed.

“Go down the chain of command and let me know when you find someone who can be promoted to senior line officer in the event of catastrophic loss of life.”

“I have three thousand nine hundred and seventeen individuals who fit those parameters.”

“Is one of them alive?”

The ship was silent for a moment. “Yes.”

I looked up at the amber brown hull in surprise. “On this ship? Alive?”

“Yes.”

“Where?” I checked the charge on my gun. Still above thirty percent. Good enough for government work.

“Second Sergeant Bradford Rios is in temporary stasis in medical hold twenty-nine B,” the ship said.

“Is that the medical ward with a hole gaping into the vacuum of space?”

“Yes.” There was a cricket chirp and the ship added. “Should I focus repair energies on that ship section?”

Ten days until we hit the critical point of maneuvers and were too close to the sun to escape.

“Sure. Repair away. Let me know when I can go rescue the new commanding officer.”

Eight days later I had reached a wary understanding with the ship. It gave me correct information promptly, and I didn’t stab it with an electroblade. It’s an antique kind of like me. Illegal just about everywhere I’ve been, but they’re so rare that no one bothers to ask if you’re carrying one anymore. No sentient alive likes their flesh being sliced while electricity floods their system. It’s horribly painful, leaves scars that take decades to heal, and memories that never fade.

Ask me how I know.

“Moira?” the ship said as I heaved another oversized Kanfir body into the airlock I was using as a dumping ground. Whatever they’d been feeding these boys it was heavy in protein. Felin heavy bodies, all muscle and nice to look at, but pretty didn’t stop bullets.

I slammed my fist against the lock plate. “Yes?”

“Medical hold twenty-nine b is secured and air tight. Would you like me to begin recovery of Second Sergeant Bradford Rios?”

“Yes please.”

There was the cricket-like chirp I’d come to dread, it meant the ship had found something that was going to cause an argument. “Second Sergeant Bradford Rios is under stasis lock for another ninety-two years by the ship’s working calendar.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What for?”

“Treason, disobedience to a direct order, questioning a superior officer, blasphemy, violence, obstruction of justice, drunk or disorderly conduct, seventeen weapon’s infractions involving possession of a weapon or device of non-regulation origin, four weapon’s infractions involving discharge of a deadly weapon in a restricted area, fourteen weapon’s infractions involving failure to pass mandatory weapon’s inspections, and failure to complete a five kilometer run in under twenty minutes standard.”

“Sounds like a real gem,” I said. “Wake our boy up and let him know that he has been promoted to senior captain of the fleet.”

“Admiral,” the ship corrected. “I do not believe the Second Sergeant can obtain the rank of Admiral with these charges against him. It’s unprecedented.”

“Did you find another beating heart on this tugboat?”

“Only you.” The ship might just be a fleshy AI, but it made YOU sound like the foulest curse word in the galaxy.

“Well then, it’s me or your Boy Wonder for fleet admiral. Who would you rather answer to?”

“Beginning defrost sequence for Fleet Admiral Bradford Rios,” the ship said quickly. “Estimated conscious alertness in thirty-eight minutes.”

“Plenty of time.” I tidied up, dumped the bodies out the airlock, sorted the hand weapons I’d and other gewgaws I’d stripped off the dead, and wandered down to the newly restored medical bay.
I had to get myself one of these ships. Self-repairing battleship? Be still my cold heart! No matter how well built a ship was it eventually fell apart. Time destroyed things... most things. I’d watched cultures rise and fall. Empires that came and went in the blink of an eye. Sometimes really in the blink of an eye. Most revolutions don’t last more than a year or two, something historians forget because a year of anarchy always feels like an eternity.

The ship’s medical hold was a barracks style room with several dozen medical cots separated by membranous tissue the same amber gold as the rest of the ship’s interior. Before alpha battalion had punched a hole in the side there’d probably been blankets, hand-held medical scanners, the usual doctor paraphernalia... now there was a Kanfir man in a clean engineering sergeant’s uniform lying on a silver table. His lips were ever so slightly blue.

“He is alive still, right? You didn’t wake him up wrong?”

“The stasis chamber was below optimal temperature when the skitters retrieved the fleet admiral,” the ship replied, “but he is within recovery range.”

“Not brain dead?”

“There is a forty percent chance of brain damage with this procedure.”

Not that the ship or I were likely to notice unless the damage left him drooling. Rios hadn’t sounded like he was firing all the pistons up top to begin with.

“Do you have a blanket or anything? He looks cold.”

A cricket chirp. “Internal sensors cannot find anything similar to a blanket onboard. The stores room was completely destroyed as were the barracks.”

A lucky hit. We’d caught the Kanfir ground forces sleeping in their bunks while the zoomies swatted at space gnats. Fly boys couldn’t fight hand-to-hand like the infantry, not without a few drinks on them, and the loss of the entire infantry force of Kanfir in a single hit was more demoralizing than I’d expected.

“Fleet Admiral Bradford is waking,” the ship reported.

I turned to my new comrade at arms. Time to play nice.
***
Ford blinked his eyes at the harsh light. There was a little knick in the lamp cover. Either he’d been dragged out of stasis sleep on the Subtle Queen or someone else had put up a fight going down. Icy nightmares clung in his mind. Shadows tugged at him even now, the last of the stasis drugs burning out of his body he hoped. Stasis was hell.

“Wakey wakey, Admiral,” a sardonic female voice said.

He turned, expecting to see an on the majesty’s own medtechs, and instead saw a girl no more than twenty wearing blood red space armor and flipping a knife with a blade of lightening. Fleet had changed in the ninety-five years he’d spent tied in the shadows.

She winked at him. “How you feeling?”

Ford sat up slowly, the shadows tried to drag him down but he made it up. “Nauseous.”

“I hear that happens after stasis.”

He looked around the empty medical hold. “Doctor?”

The stranger shook her head. “Long story. Let’s focus on the positive things, okay? Like your promotion.”

Straight to her majesty’s own slave mine. Ford grunted and watched the woman sheath her knife.

“You are the new fleet admiral.” Her smile was cheerful and youthful, wholly at odds with her body language.

“I wouldn’t be promoted to anything in fleet unless everyone died, and even then it would be a long shot.”

She nodded. “Funny story that, I’ll tell you as we walk.”

Ford tried to stand. The floor felt alien under his socks. “I need boots.”

“What size?”

“Nine and three-quarters.”

“Do you mind if they have blood on them?” She looked perfectly serious.

“Why not get them from ship stores?”

She wrinkled her nose. “There’s a tiny problem with the ship stores.”

“Queenie?” Ford said, calling for the ship.

“Fleet Admiral Rios?” the Subtle Queen replied evenly in Her Majesty’s voice.

He shook his head. Hearing problems weren’t something he’d expected. “Queenie, may your humble penitent retrieve boots and gear from the ship’s stores?”

“Request denied,” the Queen said.

“The ship doesn’t have stores,” the girl added. “There’s a gaping hole where the blankets used to be.”

“And where are the Queen’s Men?” Ford asked.

“Dead.” The girl shrugged.

The cold shock rolled over him in a soft wave. It wasn’t wholly unexpected. Only total devastation would bring the fleet to need him as a soldier of any kind. “What happened to them?” Famine? Attack? Another internal coup between rival princesses?

“Me, mostly.” The girl smiled. “You can call me Moira.”

He stared at her childlike face. “You?”

“Like I said, long story. Now, let’s walk over to the control room so you can tell the ship to change course so we don’t run into the sun. Then we’ll have a nice long talk about astrochartography, political realities, and the chances of you living to see another meal. M’kay?”

Possibilities and theories free-wheeled through his mind until Ford caught hold of one reality.
“We’re diving into the sun?”

“Yes, and we have less than forty-eight hours to correct course before we’re stuck with our course. If you can’t get the ship to obey I’m going to need some time to find another way to reprogram this beast.”

“You can’t reprogram a celestial queen! She responds only to the voice of Her Majesty or the Queen’s Men who fight for her life and honor!”

Moira looked unmoved. “I know where the AI brain center is. Talk the ship into changing course, or your queen gets a lobotomy.”

Ford stared at her. “Are all women like you?”

“All the women you need to worry about.”

***

The former sergeant wasn’t happy with his sudden change of rank. His body language shifted as we walked down the deserted halls still splashed with dried blood. In the medical hold he’d been depressed but mostly relaxed, reacting slowly. The further we walked the tenser he became. Muscles bunched up in his shoulders raising them slightly. His fists curled. His stride became a defiant march past the field of battle now a week old.

“They’re all dead?”

“It was the Kanfir or the Euonians.” I shrugged. “That’s the thing about wars, people die.”

He shook his head. “It wasn’t war. Her Majesty’s children required new suns to graze near. The fleet was called, to search the star paths for the coming swarm.”

“Swarm? Like... insect swarm?”

The sergeant frowned at her. “Know you nothing of the Kanfir?”

“Hyper-violent male race with enslaved females kept locked on their home planet. You guys come in, kill everyone, and then abandon the systems you’ve destroyed.”

He stopped walked and stared.

“I’ve seen it done in Gretchuia and Rison. Don’t deny it. I saw the senate house of Dreul when you were done in the Gretchuia system. There was nothing left. Even the stones were dust.”

“Because Her Majesty ordered the place prepared for her brood!” he protested. “Her Majesty called. We cannot disobey her will.”

“You need a new government,” I said.

He shook his head violently this time. “No. No. You mistake me. Us. Her Majesty owns us. We are the Queen’s Men. We cannot disobey. Not we don’t think about disobeying, or we don’t want to disobey, or we all agree with Her Majesty. We cannot go against her. She is the Life Giver and the Life Taker. There is no way but hers. When she wishes to lay a clutch, we obey and clear land, and now her daughter’s seek to swarm, to take suns of their own. We obey or we die.”

“Or you obey and still die.” I smiled. “Looks like a lose-lose situation all around.” I led him to the control room. “Does this whole queen business mean I can’t take over the ship at all, ever?”

“The ship is the Subtle Queen. It is a piece of Her Majesty, and extension of her will and dominion.”

“I’m not actually hearing a no here.”

The sergeant stalked over to the control console and stared. “I was never trained for this.”

“No worries. I know what I’m doing.” I showed him how to call up the screen and set various coordinates.

“I should take us home,” he said.

I shook my head. “Bad idea. At home you still have a prison sentence to live out. Let’s go somewhere fun. Escinia is nice this time of year. Or the Sertian colonies, I hear they’re making great progress with the swamp plagues. We can go, find new jobs, loiter on a beach somewhere, make new friends... it’ll be great!”

He stared at her.

“These are not places I have ever heard of.”

“Again, no worries. When I was growing up I’d never heard of them either.” I gave him the coordinates to Sertian space. They were a disorganized group with multiple governments on each of their three settled planets and they promised to have an interesting future. It was a place a person could get lost in the tides of humanity.

The sergeant set the course reluctantly, then turned. “Where were you born? Far from here? On Dreul perhaps?”

“I was born in San Francisco on this cute little planet called Earth.”

He frowned. “That is an Elder Planet, one long forgotten, the Star Paths to it closed.”

“Well, I didn’t say I was born recently. I mean, when I was a kid the big excitement was that man had walked on the moon. Interstellar travel was a fiction then.” I snorted in amusement. “I thought driving eight hours to see my grandma on holidays was a big adventure because we crossed a desert.”

“But, you’re a child.” He held his hand near my head. “You’re not grown yet.”

I smiled. “I’m short. I’m not a kid.”

“You are still young.”

“Younger than the universe maybe, but not as young as I look.” I sat down in the first officer’s chair. “I visited Dreul when they were building the senate house. That was nearly three hundred years ago. I remember system was found by a probe from Xalian. It was all over the news for months. New world found! Habitable planet! Everyone was so excited and then there were arguments over whether the Xalian river gods approved of Dreul. Once they found the gold river it was fine. Obviously it was a heaven planet. People rioted for a chance to go. The murder rate sextupled overnight. Crazy times.”

Rios sat beside me in the captain’s chair. “You learned all this as a child?”

“I lived all that as an adult. An old woman. Very old.” I shrugged.

“You don’t look old.”

“Aging is the decay of telomeres. Your body stops replicating the cells correctly. Mutations take over. You fall apart. You die. I don’t. I have no cellular mutations.”

“That’s very strange.”

“Truly freakish,” I agreed.

“Impossible,” the ship chimed in. “There is no similar anomaly on record.”

I looked at the amber ceiling. “How many times was I shot during the initial assault on this vessel?”

“Nineteen direct hits recorded,” the ship answered petulantly.

“Do we need to have another talk about behaving?” I flipped open my electroknife.

There was a cricket chirp from the ship. “No.”

“Didn’t think so.”

I smiled for the Kanfir’s benefit. “Don’t worry about it. I’m a freak. I was born this way. I’d say I’d die this way, but, well, that’d be a lie.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Confession

There’s a knife on the table in front of me, and I don’t know why. It makes me think that maybe they’re here to sacrifice me after all, but jeans and a Dr Who t-shirt don’t really make for sacrificial clothes, so I don’t know what’s up with that.

I’ve been stuck in this room for five hours now – thank sanity they let me keep my watch, even though they took away my wallet, my phone, even my earrings and shoes – and I’ve no clue why they even brought me here.

At first I thought it was Tommy again – heaven knows they’ve hauled him in for questioning enough time, what with his ‘extra-curricular activities’. But last time I saw him he assured me he’d given up the dope for good, and I believe him, and anyway if this was just about him they wouldn’t have left me here to sweat for five hours alone with a ceremonial knife.

I have no freaking clue what they want me to do. I assume at some point they’ll come question me, but half an hour ago I heard loud noises, explosions I think, and it’s been silent ever since.

I want to know what’s going on. Surely they won’t mind if I just try the door, will they?

I ease myself up off my seat and inch towards the door. No doubt it’ll be locked – it should be locked – why wouldn’t it be locked? – if it’s not locked I am going to be so mad at myself for not trying the door sooner.

Of course, it isn’t locked. I’m an idiot. But not so much of an idiot that I leave the knife behind.

The creamy-sandy stone hallways are empty and silent. I’d expect that, in this part of the Council Chambers; the detention cells are hardly likely to be a bustling hub of activity, after all. But still. It’s deathly quiet. Even the servers that should be whirring in the walls are silent.

I pad around a corner, the worn stone smooth and cool to my bare feet, and jerk to a stop, slapping a hand over my mouth to hold back a scream.

It’s a body, blood-stained, dust-shrouded, in the uniform of a council guard. What could do this to a guard? They train for years to become the elite of the elite, and nothing can wipe them out, not even the mages.

Except.

Fear ripples through me, an icy cold hand on my shoulder and a plunging suddenness in my stomach. But it can’t be true. And they wouldn’t know, and they couldn’t have brought me here for that.

I swallow, my throat suddenly dry and my fingers around the handle of the knife suddenly clammy. If it is, I’m totally unprepared.

Unless they left a pencil lying around.

I move off and almost laugh at the stupidity of my own thoughts. Who leaves pencils lying around? Or pens, or even worse, permanent markers? The very thought sends ice and fire chasing each other down my limbs, first raw terror at the thought of such power, and second longing for the want of such power.

The fingers of my free hand twitch, and I remember the feel of slender wood between them, the scruff-frrrrrt of graphite on thick, creamy paper. My throat is tight and it’s hard to breathe. I close my eyes for a second, imagining a blank page, imagining control, imagining the images I need to bring my heart-rate down and flush away the adrenalin.

If I had some paper now, I could draw the most stupendous weapon, and then there’d be no need to fear.

But then there’s another corner, and around it another dust-shrouded body, which sets the fear loose from the cage in my heart to run rampant around my lungs. They can’t know. They can’t know.

More corners. More bodies. The dust thickens so I can hardly breathe, and there shouldn’t be dust here because this morning, five hours ago, I walked these passages and they were light and clean and full of people that bustled back and forth, going about their daily business with bright, sunny smiles and kind words.

But the dust. Only one thing could have caused so much dust.

Ahead I hear the snick-snick-snick of toenails on stone, and then a hoarse breath as though the dust itself could breathe. The trembling in my heart stills, though when I clasp the knife in both hands it slips, slick with fear-sweat.

My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and when I try to move it, I feel skin tear.

My skin will tear worse than that if I cannot fix what I have done.

Deep breath, shoulders straight, standing tall. I will fix this, or I will die trying.

I round the final corner and stumble. In the middle of the Council Chamber’s entry hall stands a monster, twelve feet tall and covered with bony studs the size of my fist and sharp, with a long tail like a herbivorous dinosaur might have had, and teeth like the bottom of the sea. But that’s not what made me stumble.

Further on, behind the monster that I drew, lies one last body. It’s small and frail, barely heavier than two baker’s sacks of flour. It’s a body I know well, a body I love, a body I swore to protect.

I hear a strange sound, and realise it’s the sound of my anguish, grief slipping out between gritted teeth for the sake of my broken baby sister. Twelve is far too young for anyone to die.

My monster sees me, roars, and charges.

Hurriedly I swipe the tears from my eyes, gulp in the air, say my prayers. The knife is clenched between my hands, and I will die for what I have done.

As the monster looms over me, I have a bizarre moment of calm, and all I can think is that I should have been more careful with the perspective. He was only supposed to be one foot tall.

At least I was smart enough to build in a failsafe. Or not stupid enough to leave one out, whichever way you’d rather.

The monster lunges at me, claws as long as my fingers outstretched. I dive beneath them, score the knife along the bony plates, and trace out a symbol on its inner thigh. It reaches between its legs and rakes my back, shredding shirt and muscle and skin.

I scream. That was my favourite shirt.

Half laughing, half sobbing, I fight to keep the knife from wavering. If I can just finish the pattern, I’ll find the place where the scales part, a tiny crevice just big enough for a knife – though it should have been a dinner knife, had the need ever arisen and I’d got my stupid perspective right.

It reaches for me again and my thigh bursts open. Blood spurts and I scream and scream, but then the knife reaches the parting of the scales, and I stab it in as far as it will go. Not quite buried to the hilt, but it’s the failsafe; it doesn’t matter.

For a moment I think I’ve failed, the failsafe didn’t work, the monster’s still alive – but then it roars loud enough to make my eardrums burst and I don’t know whether to clap my hands over them as the memory of pain fades with the burst, or to slip at the blood pumping from my leg.

Either way, I’m going to die for my sins.

Charcoaled dust rains down on me, ashy, the dust from the corpses, the dust from a pencil held greedily in unthinking hands.

I should have listened. A work of art is a confession. Best leave it to the priests.