FORCE CANTRITHOR


Prologue


An insistent beeping dragged Jack Hamilton up from the depths of sleep. He rolled over and took a breath, listening to the sound for a moment. Then he connected with a thought.

An information stream activated in his skull. The voice of one of his pilots came through crystal clear into the audio-processing center of his brain, along with the noise of local audio traffic. It felt like stepping straight out of an isolated bedroom onto a busy street.

“Something’s going wrong. We’re drifting off course, or at least the navigation system thinks we are. I’ve corrected twice now, but it’s still happening.”

“All right, gimme a sec,” groaned Hamilton.

He brought up several virtual windows in his mind, allowing them to take over his visual input. The windows were set up to display navigational information for his mining ship, the Yilerade. He could not help taking a quick look at the long-range traffic information to check for any encroachment of the Vothriles on the frontier system.

No sign of Vothriles or he’d have told me already.

At the moment, the navigational display showed the Yilerade undergoing a hundredth of a g of acceleration, despite the indication that the drives were completely shut down. Hamilton knew this was more than an annoying malfunction. It could be dangerous to drift uncontrolled in the asteroid field. There were collision avoidance systems that would have to be defeated before the Yilerade came to serious harm, but Hamilton didn’t want to take any chances.

“All right, Ian, get everybody into their suits until we figure out what the hell is going on.”

“Yes, sir.”

For just a moment he considered monitoring the situation from his quarters. Everything was accessible through his link, so there was no need to move. Then he decided to make a personal appearance since it was such an odd situation.

Hamilton activated the lights with a thought. He rolled out of his safety webbing. Once standing, he flicked the hood on the back of his neck over his head, so that the clear fabric window of the garment was over his face. As he fastened the seal at his neck, the material over his face automatically hardened into a clear faceplate. The suit was not rated for industrial tasks, but it would save his life if the ship depressurized. He bypassed his shower tube and headed out his door.

The bridge of the Yilerade looked like a lounge where all the furniture had melted into the floor. Even though the crew could link into and operate almost all of the ship’s systems from anywhere in or around the ship, people still tended to work better as a team when they were assembled together incarnate. Some captains thought it was an archaic tradition and didn’t use the bridge at all. The tiny crew of the Yilerade, seven people in all, used the bridge just to remind themselves that they weren’t completely alone in the depths of space. Sometimes Hamilton wondered if it wasn’t just apelike instinct that drew them together to bask in the company of the others. The bridge offered one other benefit: it was the safest place on the ship. A separate bulkhead wrapped the bridge where it sat in the center of the vessel.

Ian Carver, Hamilton’s second in command, sat in his space suit with his eyes closed. He opened them as he heard Hamilton approach and nodded to him.

“I was going to have a maintenance robot look over the nav system’s hardware and see if it’s on the fritz, but we have visual confirmation relative to some of the larger asteroids that we really are moving out of line. And I have Jones tethered outside; he’s confirmed that none of our propulsion systems are active.”

Hamilton chose a seat and strapped himself in. He called up a command window arrangement in his virtual interface. It showed him everyone was awake and checking on ship’s systems.

“What’s with the system’s power drain? It’s higher than I’ve seen it in a while.”

“Working on that one, sir,” came back the worried voice of the Yilerade’s systems tech. “I’ve checked isolated parts of the ship’s electronics. Everything is exhibiting a higher load than it should. Even my diagnostic tools.”

Now Hamilton was fully awake. Something was happening to them that his people couldn’t begin to explain.

What the hell is going on? This situation could turn dangerous unless we figure out what’s happening fast.

“Ian, let’s change our thinking on this one,” Hamilton suggested. “Let everyone else keep looking for an internal problem. I think you and I should start searching for an external cause to this.”

“Natural or artificial?” Carver looked questioningly at Hamilton. “Do you think Belt would do something like this?”

The second in command was referring to the company that was in competition with the independents in exploiting the unique asteroid belt of the Cantrithor system. Belt Development Industries had three or four ships in the fields, but Hamilton didn’t believe that they would stoop to direct interference, not when the business was booming and there was plenty of work for everyone. The metal required to set up a new colony in this system was enormous, and the need would go on for decades to come. Between that and the war effort, they would all be better served by cooperation.

Besides, out here on the frontier, with the Vothrile threat so close, everyone knew they could use more friends nearby. Terrans had to watch one another’s backs this far out.

“No. They wouldn’t. Let’s just start with our drift. What, if anything, are we drifting toward? What are we drifting away from?”

“We can check—”

Carver’s reply was cut short by a terrible vibration and structural roar. The entire ship shook violently and the main lights cut out. The darkness lasted only a second, then emergency lights flickered to life.

Screams echoed through Hamilton’s PV channels.

“Oh shit.”

“How could we hit a rock?” demanded Hamilton.

“No way, we weren’t even close.” Carver sealed his suit and opened a comm link to the ship’s net to talk indirectly. Hamilton did the same.

“Guys, there’s something wrong out here, really wrong,” said the tremulous voice of the engineer outside. Before Hamilton could respond, he felt another tremor go through the ship. A drive tech cried out, “Hull breach! Hull breach, we’re coming apart!”

Hamilton’s suit popped tight. The air had evacuated from the chamber. He felt a vibration through the floor. The entire ship was coming apart. Hamilton felt his weight leave him as several loose items floated away off their perches. Half the local services shown in his link went away.

Silence reigned in his natural ears. The lack of noise was actually alarming. It meant he was losing control of everything. He still heard the transmissions of the crew through his link, working on damage control all over the ship.

We must have hit an asteroid. No. It must be a Vothrile attack.

Jones sent a feed of the view from the Yilerade’s forward visual wavelength sensors. A maelstrom of rotating debris and light moved in towards the Yilerade, less than ten thousand kilometers out. The debris were actually intricate constructs, he realized. They gleamed like crystal or metal. Hamilton thought he could see two distinct rotating systems, but he was on the verge of panic now.

...I’m going to die here call for help they’ll never make it in time...

The main space presence in the Cantrithor system was the tachyon receiver base, set up in a stable orbit well away from the planetary gravity wells. The TRB was the only contact with the outside universe and the core systems occupied by humans.

Hamilton opened a sublight connection with his mind’s eye interface. Dispensing with the verbal protocols, he began to transmit to the TRB.

“This is the Yilerade. We’re under attack!”

The deck moved relative to Hamilton, rose up, though he remained weightless. Then the bridge crumpled around him, became smaller. He pushed off with his arms and then his feet as he drifted within the shifting surfaces. Holes opened up showing other parts of the ship. Debris and crew members flew all around. Something inside Hamilton became detached as he watched it all: something so horrible couldn’t occur in silence. It must be an illusion.

“One moment Yilerade, we’re receiving a flurry of distress calls,” came the response. “Know that we have your position and we’ll scramble help right away.”

Then the bridge reversed its collapse and expanded, but now the walls, ceiling, and floor were no longer attached to each other. He heard crew members yelling on link channels, at first in simple alarm and anger, then crying out in panic. Someone’s suit had broken open. The unfortunate person spiraled away in distress.

Something big entered the expanding space that had been the bridge. The thing oscillated like a giant fractal, so tenuous that Hamilton thought it might be an artifact of damage to his link, until it coalesced into an eight-faced diamond the size of a land car, rotating mere meters before him. Beams of light shot out at all angles from the glowing silver shape, cutting into the walls and slicing up everything they touched.

Hamilton realized in a second that he could hear it despite the vacuum outside his suit. Buzzing. Sizzling.

“What the—”

A sharp pain pierced Hamilton’s eyes. At the same time, he felt a burning across the front of his body like a fresh sunburn still being baked by the sun.

“What the hell is that thing?” asked Hamilton in shock, but there was no one left to answer.


Chapter 1

The vastness of space hid the thin needle-shaped ships. Dozens of them hid out there, tiny black specks blending into darkness. Each one floated stealthily, waiting to unleash its arsenal of destruction upon the enemy.

If only they could find the enemy. Before the enemy found them.

Emil searched the void hurriedly yet efficiently. The other emmer on duty, Emris, also sought the Vothriles. But the Vothriles had hidden themselves well. Their emmer technology was improving, slowly catching up to the Terrans’. The Terrans had learned to sense and create EM fields at a distance using their capital ships’ massive effectors, though at tremendous energy cost. Emil could influence radiation at any frequency, limited only by power expenditure.

“Probe launch. Give me four of them, random forward spread,” transmitted Commodore Samuelsson on the officers’ channel. Emil heard the voice, then he peeked in on his superior. The man sat in an armored room with his weapons officers at the center of the flagship Excalibur. Samuelsson was tall with blond-gray hair and a gaunt face.

The officers were tense. They waited on Emil.

Emil knew Samuelsson well. The fleet was in good hands with this man, the master designer of the Terrans’ fleet tactics. Samuelsson had once described space fleet combat as “a hundred men with pistols and laser pointers searching for each other in a pitch-black coliseum”. The same tools used to reveal the enemy all too often revealed yourself.

The handful of probes moved slowly out from the task force, taking up random positions nearby.

Emil felt the weight of responsibility on him. A nagging fatigue threatened the edges of his concentration. He kept working.

“The capacitors are full. Emil, stand ready. Weapons, stand ready. Give me a flash.”

The probes sent out a powerful signal. The wavefront moved out, lighting up a few ships of the enemy with reflected radiation. Others were protected, screened out by countermeasures. But some had been found.

The enemy reaction traveled back at the speed of light. The drones exploded one by one a few seconds later, killed by Vothrile energy weapons. The light and debris from their destruction emanated in all directions until it became insignificant. Ships of the Terran fleet struck out at the targets that had been spotted. First the capital ships and energy rich gunboats hit them with high-energy weapons. Later, rafts of missiles launched from the smaller Terran ships would arrive, searching for more. Some of the enemy flickered and died. Emil hid the flagship skillfully. He canceled out energy leakage that traveled in directions other than toward the particular targets it tried to destroy. The smaller Terran ships were on their own. Even with all the energy from the massive power plants on the capital ship, he didn’t have enough to screen everyone.

A smaller, well-screened round of counter fire came in from Vothrile ships, destroying a few of the Terran destroyers and missile boats. Emil spotted two more enemy vessels despite their countermeasures, but Samuelsson did not want to fire just for those tiny prizes. If he was going to risk detection, he would do it for a larger group of targets.

Once again, there was only the silent black void. Emil reached out with his mind and felt for disturbances in space. At first, his hands were tied: the flagship’s weapons had to recharge. As the capacitors filled, more energy came back into play for his mission, as his role was critical. In fact, the sole reason flagships still existed was because only a large ship could house the many reactors required to feed the energy-hungry emmers the power they needed to do their job. The flagships provided an electromagnetic umbrella to hide and protect the fleet and to find the ships of the enemy. They also provided the punch of high-energy weapons rather than the racks upon racks of missiles carried by the smaller ships. Samuelsson’s doctrine held that the capital ships must be hidden, protected, so that they could fulfill their role for the whole fleet.

Emil started to use energy to change the field in the ether. If it responded as he expected, it meant what he saw matched reality: empty space. If it failed to respond perfectly, to the right field strength at the right time, then Emil would have a clue that something might be hidden there: maybe a ship, maybe a drone, maybe nothing. It could be a ruse. Maybe the other side was throwing off fields in the same volume ever so slightly. But Emil had to look.

Suddenly five pings moved across space in expanding hemispheres toward the Terran fleet.

Directional sensor sweep!

Emil quickly measured the expanding spheres of radiation and canceled them out. He was fast. Only one of the pings made it to the edge of the Terran fleet’s sparse formation, reflecting from a few missileboats there. The ships that had been lit up began aggressive evasion maneuvers. Emil watched for several ticks. If the Vothriles fired, he wanted to watch for clues. Nothing showed up.

Looks like they decided to save their energy weapons. There could still be missiles incoming.

Emil verified the source of the pings: Vothrile probes. Not from the ships themselves. He put the probes up on the tactical.

Crusader, take them out,” ordered Samuelsson. “Emil, coordinate targeting with the gunboat and cover their salvo.”

Emil kept the probe’s location updated on the tactical. He could see them with the EM pods, tiny as they were, now that he knew exactly where to look. The gunboat gave Emil a fire clock. He watched it and budgeted energy to hide the source of the attack. Right now, the Vothrile probes might be recharging, preparing for another ping. Probes were tiny, expendable, and so did not have much power capacity. If the Crusader acted quickly, the Vothriles would have to expend more probes to keep searching.

The moment arrived. The Crusader released five blasts of energy at the probes Emil tracked. Seconds ticked by while the energy moved outwards. Emil waited for the result.

“Three probes dead,” Emil said. “Two blasts countered.”

Samuelsson swore.

He sees they’re getting better, too.

But the locations of the probes were clues to the location of their source ships. Terrible clues, but still clues. He added the locations of the ships they had already spotted to his model. If he assumed the Vothriles launched the probes as the engagement began, gave them a random spread, used a prudent speed, it gave him a search zone. A very large zone. There were too many variables, and the probes had probably made multiple course corrections to arrive at their zigzagged stations between the fleets. Emil altered the field in sub-volumes of the vast zone, checking for anomalies. It took a lot of energy. He greedily used up everything the Excalibur’s reactors could give him.

He found something. A small complexity in the electric field. It was so tenuous at first he thought he might only be imagining it. He adjusted the field again. The pods allowed instant sampling and action at a distance: this breakthrough had fundamentally altered space warfare. The emmers themselves had been the next breakthrough, because it was a black art to hide your ships and find the enemy’s.

Once he examined that flaw and looked everywhere nearby, he found others exactly like it.

Those ships are all the same type. I can see the disposition of that part of their fleet.

Emil immediately put the new information into the views monitored by Samuelsson and his weapons officers.

“Prepare to strike,” Samuelsson’s order went through. A list of firing ships came through to Emil together with a screen priority. The priority list told Emil how much energy to use to wipe out the evidence of ships firing, to prevent them from being spotted as a result of their strike. The flagship was at the top of the list. As usual, the energy budget wouldn’t go far beyond insuring the safety of the flagship. Of fifty-four ships preparing to fire, Emil would only be able to screen the flagship and perhaps seven others. The rest would be at the mercy of the enemy.

Thirty seconds later the fire sequence activated, setting into motion a deadly series of events. The flagship and three gunboats launched a salvo of high-energy weapons. The missile corvettes that formed the bulk of the fleet launched their missiles again. The wave of missiles prompted an active emission from several Vothrile probes, lighting up many of the Terran ships outside Emil’s protective umbrella.

A large fraction of the hidden Vothrile fleet returned fire on the corvettes Emil couldn’t screen. The corvettes jinked and accelerated, trying to move quickly to avoid incoming energy bursts. A few seconds later, the counter fire started to come in. First five corvettes lit up, struck by energy weapons. The rest of the fleet stopped making course corrections immediately after: now it was time to hunker low and hide from the incoming missiles.

But something else had caught Emil’s attention. The sudden exchange of fire had given him a burst of clues. The Vothriles hadn’t perfectly screened a large ship’s high-energy strike.

I can see it. A capital ship. Maybe the only one they’ve got.

The weapons had just fired. Emil’s energy dropped as the greedy capacitors sucked energy from the reactors, leaving him with only a bit to work with.

Emil acted on instinct. The power in the capacitors dropped to zero as he stole it. At the same time, many light-seconds out, the field changed. Emil created a sharp, energetic burst of radiation, aiming directly at the enemy ship he had detected. If it was a ruse, he had just delayed the Excalibur’s capacitor recharge. If it was real, he could disable a Vothrile capital ship.

A few seconds later, he was rewarded by the bloom of an explosion as the light reached the Excalibur.

“Malfunction!” warned the weapons officers. “Anomaly!”

“No. I did that. I spotted an enemy capital ship and destroyed it,” Emil announced.

Samuelsson, the commodore, was on that same channel. “Good work,” the commodore said calmly.

Emil felt the fear and irritation of the other officers. Samuelsson accepted it; Emil saw the commodore experienced only relief.

Vothrile missiles started to connect with corvettes. Emil could hear the ships dying. He could feel them. Their fields snapped and popped then whimpered.

“It’s time to clean up. Go active. All ships, go active scan,” Samuelsson ordered.

The commodore was taking a risk. He bet that only a few of the Vothrile ships had survived. If it was a trick, for instance if two Vothrile battle groups had joined up for this fight, then a large number of the enemy was still out there and would quickly strike back with devastating effect.

They lit up another half-dozen ships. The Vothrile vessels were dumping the last of their missiles and accelerating away in all directions. High-energy weapons arced out, slicing them up. The task force wouldn’t waste any missiles now that the battle was won.

Emil drooped a bit. His mind was sluggish. The pressure had been enormous.

I succeeded once more. He suppressed the companion thought, but what about next time? He refused to let the words for the second part sound out in his mind, but they were still there. They had become a recurring, sick feeling that threatened to drag him down.

“We did it,” Emil sent to Emris.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it,” Emris said.

“What?”

“Emmon is doing more good, I think.”

“Emmon’s not doing anything. He’s sick. Right?” Emil asked.

“He asked me not to say. He said you should handle things, here. We have other tasks.”

“What could be more important than fighting the Vothriles?”

“I think it’s not worth so much power, here. More can be done elsewhere.”

“I’m not following you,” Emil said. “Emmon is lost.”

“Can you handle this on your own?” Emris asked. “I may leave for a while.”

“You would leave me? The fleet needs both of us. Samuelsson would never let you leave.”

“I think you can protect the fleet,” Emris said. “Let me look.”

Then Emil felt something new. A ripple in his mind. It was Emris.

He’s looking into me. How is that possible?

“What can you see? What can you tell about me?” Emil asked. There was a long pause.

“Oh, I’m back here. But I can’t talk now. The doctor is putting me to sleep,” Emris said.

“What did you see?”

No answer came.


Chapter 2


The commodore is having a nightmare again.

Emil looked into the brain of his superior officer, Commodore Samuelsson. The twisted nest of electrical impulses resisted interpretation for long moments. Then Emil caught it, focused in, understood it. It had taken a lot of practice and observation to read the man.

In the commodore’s mind, the metal walls of a ship pressed in around him. His lungs labored to pull in the heavy stale air. He found himself in the cramped space of a ship’s control center. Things were not as they should be. The control center Samuelsson saw held at least a dozen men. It was too small. They were crammed into the tiny space, squirming for room and air.

“Why are there so many men in here?” the dream Samuelsson asked.

“So many have died,” someone answered.

“We have a confirmation from the Excalibur, at least ten Vothrile contacts closing to combat range,” one of the men said.

“Why are there so many men on this ship?” Samuelsson said again, with rising panic. He shook the man next to him, trying to get an answer. He looked up and saw that he held a shriveled corpse in a uniform.

“First salvo, configured to the flagship’s reference,” a weapons officer announced.

Samuelsson saw the fleet disposition in his mental display, a ghostly overlay of his own vision. The anchoring points for displays on the walls of the tiny room were obscured by the press of men so he left it to float across his field of vision. Despite his commands, the display wandered aimlessly, then anchored onto the corpse next to him, lacing thin green lines across the sweat-stained uniform and desiccated skin of the dead face. The stench of rotting flesh threatened to bring bile to his mouth.

“I can’t see what’s happening,” Samuelsson said. “I can’t see! What’s the charge level on our heavies?”

“This is a destroyer,” a man whispered from nearby. An elbow dug itself into his ribs as someone fought for more room.

The question referred to the heavy beam weapons of a capital ship. The whisper gave an answer, since destroyers were smaller, cheaper ships that didn’t have the reactors that could operate powerful beam weapons.

“We’re accelerating to a new picket position toward the Vothriles,” a voice told him from out of the press of bodies.

“This is Commodore Samuelsson. I’m taking command here!”

“This isn’t your flagship,” a crewman called out in the heavy air. A tooth fell out of the man’s mouth, dropping from dried gray gums, long dead.

“We’ve integrated point defenses with the Excalibur screen,” someone reported.

“I can’t see the display. Clear the way. Clear me an anchor point. I can’t see the display!” Samuelsson ranted. Sweat dripped down his face and he struggled to breathe. The stench was stifling in the air. Emil experienced the dread with his superior, though Samuelsson had no idea Emil was there, if the commodore even realized he was in a nightmare.

Excalibur’s heavies have scored two kills,” someone said.

“Vothrile salvos are incoming,” another said. “The flagship is heavily targeted.”

“Reading seven weapons tracking our position,” someone added. “Forty-five seconds out.”

“Point defenses, reallocate to local fire,” Samuelsson ordered.

“Belay that. Evasive. Keep all point defenses committed to the flagship. She’s been spotted!”

“The flagship is the center of the fleet,” several voices droned, as if reading a formal oath. “The flagship coordinates fire to saturate local point defenses. The flagship can power an umbrella of electromagnetic countermeasures. The flagship…”

“Not all of them! We’ll die!” Samuelsson cried out. “Give us a fighting chance, for god’s sake!”

“Who are you?” a voice demanded. A dozen other voices echoed the question. “What are you? Who are you?”

“I’m Commodore Samuelsson! Reconfigure the point defenses, we have incoming missiles!”

“Well, you’re not on one of your big fat battleships anymore, Commodore,” the man snarled the rank like a dirty word. “This is a destroyer. We allocate our arsenal to protect the real assets, remember?”

“We’re going to die! How can we do this?” Samuelsson called out.

“We’re already dead, Commodore,” the corpse told him. “You killed us, now it’s your turn!”

“Reallocate the point defenses! We can’t do this!”

“You’re a destroyer grunt now! Your life is forfeit!”

“No, we can’t do this!” Samuelsson saw red smattered across the green of the display that slid sickly over the dead man’s uniform. “They’re almost here! They’re here!”

“We’re just a destroyer. Our lives are forfeit.”

“The new destroyers are robotic,” Samuelsson said. The excuse sounded hollow. “All the new destroyers have only three crewmen each.”

“Only three, that’s not bad. However, I’m still dead. How about you, Jack?”

“I’m still dead, too,” a voice answered.

“Magnus?”

“Yep, me too. Still dead,” the corpse next to Samuelsson agreed. Emil saw the suffocating, panicked state of the commodore as he tossed in his sleep.

Proximity alarms sounded on the overcrowded bridge.

“Point defense! Point defense!” Samuelsson cried out.

The impact flashed like a bolt of lightning. Emil felt it in his head, though he doubted it was as shocking to him as to Samuelsson. The commodore shot up out of his bunk, awake at last. He shook for a moment, trying to return to full lucidity. Sweat coated his cold, clammy skin.

His dreams aren’t like the others, Emil noted. They dream of hot couplings in cramped bunks, desperate escapes of the flesh. Ways to forget the war. He dreams of men screaming, trapped in metal prisons, sent to their deaths.

The commodore had awakened. He sat up, holding his head in his hands.

He cannot forget.

“Damn. Damn,” Samuelsson breathed. “Access personal log.”

A connection opened through Samuelsson’s link. Emil was there, listening in to every word.

“Personal log activated,” a female voice announced.

He took a deep breath.

“I just had another nightmare. About the destroyer crews.”

“Related to your origination of the grand strategy?”

Emil remembered the first battles with the Vothriles, when the United Nations Space Force fleet had been top-heavy, composed of too many larger ships that turned out to be too expensive in a conflict where a single unintercepted weapon could vaporize any target. Since that time, most of the fleet production capacity had been devoted to producing smaller ships, fast missile carriers with various antimissile systems and much fewer heavies.

“Yes. It was a bunch of dead men, men I caused to die, forcing me to experience the same fate.”

“We’ve discussed this before. But most likely some part of you has not accepted this sacrifice as justified,” the log personality told him.

“No shit. I live with that. Is there any way to stop the dreams?”

“You did the right thing,” the voice told him. “You must accept that. The fate of the human race is at stake. The new fleet paradigm of a single capital element with a lot of energy for the emmers to coordinate a large group of smaller, cheaper ships has met with considerable success in recent battles. You cannot expect to fight a war without loss of life.”

“I do accept that. Why do I still have the nightmares?”

“You know intellectually that this is war. It’s not you killing people, it’s the enemy. The Vothriles killed all those people, not you. You must internalize that.”

“You’ve already told me that. It isn’t that simple. I can’t accept something because a goddamn program tells me it’s okay.”

“Then you must find someone you respect and discuss this matter with them.”

“There aren’t many people I know left…the friends I have are unavailable for casual conversation.”

There was a pause.

“Then I will coordinate with the medical staff to prescribe you a dream preventive.”

“Very well…that’s acceptable.”

The commodore is a very practical man, Emil thought. We’re lucky to have him in command.


***


Emil saw space extending to infinity all around him. The huge EM field of the planet below was a large, dull, spherical field, simple and childish.

He focused in to examine his ship, the Excalibur. On the ship, millions and millions of tiny computer chips, power cables, and people were shaking and stirring the ether with their constant chatterings. He could feel the same thing on their sister ship, the Valiant, not far away.

“How are you doing today?”

The voice brought Emil back out of his mental interface with the EM pods. He blinked, bringing Doctor Lokan into focus. The doctor had black hair combed straight back, close to his skull, a prominent nose, and a small mustache. They had found an empty room near the medical bay to chat incarnate. Given Emil’s status as the ship’s emmer, and Dr. Lokan’s position as his psych tech, Emil knew the question wasn’t a polite formality.

Emil glanced to his left. A human-size golden centipede sat next to him, gently cleaning its face with a small pair of flexible mouthparts protruding from between its mandibles. Emil had decided to call it Phreck, which was a good alien-sounding name. Phreck didn’t seem to be listening, but Emil knew he always heard everything but liked to pretend he didn’t care. Dr. Lokan couldn’t see or hear Phreck, of that Emil was certain. The logical conclusion was that Phreck wasn’t real, and so he hadn’t mentioned the giant centipede creature specifically.

“I feel tired,” Emil told him. “I’m having a hard time…still seeing some funny stuff now and then.”

“I understand. But I think you’re learning to deal with it. You can handle it, knowing that it’s supposed to happen?”

Emil took a deep breath. The ceiling disappeared, allowing him see two crewmen above them working on an air filtration system. He couldn’t hear them, but they appeared suspended in space above.

“Actually I had a few questions for you along those lines,” Emil said.

“Sure, I’d be glad to help. That’s my job.”

“He lies,” clacked Phreck in his buzzing voice.

“Yes…yes, I’ve heard you say that before,” Emil said, taking a slightly more aggressive stance. “That you’d like to help. But sometimes it seems you’re not being up front with me.”

“In what way?”

“I made a list…”

Emil interfaced with his personal data cache and brought up the file in his mind. It was empty, completely devoid of information. Yet he still remembered the questions, so he didn’t skip a beat.

“First of all, I was wondering about that body in the sick bay. In that room beyond the main area, where the doctors won’t let me go.”

“This is a military ship. We’re not allowed to go wherever we want. We all have duties, a job, and clearances that let us do our job. Do you think they would let me into the reactor rooms? Into the turret of one of our beam weapons?”

“So who died?”

“How do you know about it?” Lokan deflected.

“How is that relevant to you telling me whose body it is?”

“One of the techs was out cleaning a sensor bulb and ripped his suit.”

“He’s lying,” said Phreck. Emil said nothing.

“There’s an investigation underway, so no one’s supposed to know,” Dr. Lokan continued. “Now, how did you find out about it?”

Emil glanced up through the transparent ceiling. The two men had finished with the filter and moved away.

“Well, my emmer skills are getting better…”

“Yes?”

“And, well, as you know, light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.”

“I understand that. But how did you know about the corpse?”

Lokan didn’t get it. He thought Emil digressed.

“I’ve been able to affect EM fields in other situations now. I can sample fields across great distances, but also locally.”

“Is that affect or effect? Because you affect the fields with the effectors, that’s what an emmer does,” Phreck said.

“Like fields here within the ship,” Emil went on. “So I see things. I mean besides the things that aren’t there. I see things in parts of the ship I’m not.”

Now Dr. Lokan lost his relaxed sort of look that the psych doctors always put on. He became visibly concerned.

“So you saw a body and asked about it, that seems quite natural,” he said. Emil could tell he was thinking furiously behind his calm facade. “I thought maybe you had hacked into some computer systems.”

“Actually I wanted to see what you would tell me. You see I was talking to Emmon the other day, and he said that he walked out the airlock and died, but then a day later he woke back up. As if it hadn’t happened.”

Emmon was an emmer for the other capital ship in the task force, the Valiant. Emmon didn’t do anything anymore, he was lost in his own thoughts most of the time. Thoughts that didn’t seem pleasant, from what he’d said. Emil and Emris were the only ones left on duty. They were both tired and walking the edge, after having been out on patrol for seven long months without reprieve.

“Emmon is in the same boat…he suffers from the same symptoms you do,” Lokan stammered.

“And Emris?”

“He’s holding it together,” Dr. Lokan said bravely. “And he has friends here just like you that can help. We all depend on each other out here, you know.”

“He’s lying,” Phreck declared again. This time Phreck snapped his mandibles audibly, as if contemplating biting Lokan’s head clean off.

“I know,” Emil said.

“The crew seems very appreciative of your performance in the battle,” Dr. Lokan said.

Emil took a peek at the dozens of messages he’d received. People from several ships had sent him messages since the fight, thanking him for his role.

“Yes, but it’s kind of unusual for a lieutenant to get fan mail from his task force. Unheard of, I think.”

“Really? Like what?”

Emil opened one and read it to Lokan.

“Emil, that was a great job in the fight. I’m so happy you managed to take out the Vothrile flagship for us. You really saved a lot of us today. Thanks, Lieutenant Jerrold Jones, Weapons Officer, Valiant.”

“Well, that’s not exactly fan mail,” Lokan said. “It’s just an honest expression of thanks for saving lives,” Dr. Lokan said. “So I think it is normal. Heroes get thanked for saving people all the time. The crew appreciates your special talents, and what you’ve gone through to use them for our benefit.”

“They’re scared you’re going to lose it like the others,” Phreck said. “It’s not kindness. They’re just trying to save their own asses.”

“I wonder if the messages are sincere,” Emil said. “You know, since they were prompted by Commodore Samuelsson.”

“Whatever gave you that idea? Did someone plant that idea in your head?” Dr. Lokan said.

Emil referred to another message he had seen go by. A message that hadn’t been sent to him. It was from Samuelsson, asking several officers and enlisted to support Emil and thank him for his part in the ongoing fight against the Vothriles. It was also frank enough to mention that the commodore didn’t think they would be getting more emmers anytime soon.

“Word is, there was a message from the commodore,” Emil said.

“Well. If that’s true, what does it change? I know that people are all glad you’re with us. You saved us again, and you’re only getting better, while the task force gets smaller and smaller. People might be afraid to say it to you directly, since they don’t know you personally. Samuelsson may have just made it clear they are allowed to message you about it if they want.”

“But no one messages the weapons officers when they get a good hit, right? Or a damage control guy who keeps a fire from breaking out.”

“They get the thanks directly from their teammates. And those jobs are largely done by computers. Your job is more global to the task force. No one sees what you do directly. They only hear about it from people like the commodore, and then of course they want to thank you.”

“Okay. That’s nice I guess, pretending like I’m one of the normal crew who did a good job.”

“Don’t you feel like you’re a part of the crew? You’re not the only one with problems, you know. Some people have physical ailments, others mental. We try to help everyone.”

“Are you helping Samuelsson with his nightmares?”

Lokan blinked. “It’s not really fair for me to talk to you about other people’s issues. We should focus on you, here.”

“Everyone gets to know about your problem,” Phreck noted.

“Well, yes, but…”

“But what?”

“I’m nothing like the rest of you, officers or enlisted.”

“You’re in the same boat, so to speak, as all of us. A fight for survival against the Vothriles.”

“No one else sees things like I do. Except maybe in dreams. They all feel…afraid. And they think about sex all the time, too, when they’re not afraid.”

“Not everyone is sexually charged around here. But on average, yes, the space force personnel do have a strong drive for that. We select for strong, aggressive, healthy people. And of course, link technology has supercharged human sexuality by making it possible to share and combine the pleasure of partners. Nothing there. I think things will get better for you, Emil, especially as you continue to get better at finding the enemy.”

“Instilling a positive outlook,” Phreck said. “Do you feel positive?”

Emil did not answer.



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