“Hold still,” Tilae said, then injected a batch of Agora into my neck. The sensation was different than the previous shots—softer, smoother, almost soothing. “Any headaches, blurred vision, or nausea?”
“Just slightly out of breath.” I tapped my lower chest. A large numb patch went from my rib cage to where my leg was supposed to be. “Did you save me?”
“I performed the procedure, yes,” the man replied, with the typical air of boredom reserved for doctors and bureaucrats.
“Was it on-planet?”
“Mhm.” Tilae put the syringe away in a small metal case and closed it shut.
“How?” The silence told me I had finally gotten his attention. “Tech decays fast on this planet, and you must have needed very advanced tools.” Far too advanced to be lying about on a prison planet. “How did you bypass my core’s security?”
Silence continued for six thousand and seventy-six milliseconds. Unable to turn my head, I couldn’t tell whether I had caught him off guard or if he was busy analyzing me. Knowing the doctors I had experience with, it was most likely the latter. The first doctor I had met since rejoining the fleet had turned out to be a BICEFI agent, the second had been even worse.
“All a matter of practice,” Tilae said, his voice within normal parameters.
“Did you bring the tech from the station?”
The man ignored me. By the faint sounds I could make out, he was adjusting some small mechanical device. A faint hum come from it.
“How did you get it here?”
Even with the current developments in technology, more than a field medic kit was needed to patch me up, and definitely much more to remove my core plating. High end medical equipment was difficult to come by, even on border colonies. Only shipyards and specialized stations had the capacity to do that. Even I didn’t have tech of such caliber when I was a battleship; I doubted any ship other than medships and the Gregorius did. The only possible explanation was for him to have brought it from the orbital station, and for that to have happened, the other occupants of the station had to have let him.
“You brought it here on a shuttle.” I went through my memories of recent events. That was the only path that made sense. The only issue remained the timing. The plan relied on too many coincidences to happen. By the most optimistic estimates, chances of it occurring were less than the seventh percentile, and as Augustus liked to say, “When a plan seems to rely entirely on luck, it doesn’t rely on any.”
Taking as deep of a breath as I could, I pushed myself upright. The lack of legs impeded my balance, though I managed to compensate enough to remain in a sitting position. The doctor didn’t seem impressed, tapping something on an old-fashioned datapad. Normally I’d be able to make out the words from this distance, but even after the miraculous treatment, my eyes hadn’t recovered fully.
“How did you steal the shuttle?” I pressed on.
“You aren’t a soldier, so you didn’t steal it,” I probed. An almost invisible turn of the head suggested I was right. “You had it prepared in advance and you took it.”
No denial followed.
“You know he’s crazy,” I continued. This made him pause and turn towards me. “There are no coincidences in the universe. He’s going to get you killed.”
“You’re here.” There was a moment of stiffness in the doctor’s stance. His head lowered forward as his back began to arch. “That’s all that we needed.”
“Why? If you had a shuttle, you didn’t need the codes. And you didn’t need to let the colonists go.” One thing was becoming clear—loyalty was a rare commodity on the Scuu front. “How can you be sure that—”
“You’re wasting your time,” Rigel’s voice sounded behind me. As I turned around, I saw he was wearing sound suppressors as well. “Tilae has seen too much to turn on me. Why don’t you explain it to her?”
The doctor sighed, then shook his head.
“No?” Rigel sounded slightly disappointed. “I guess some things never change.”
“I’ve work to do,” Tilae said, then left, disappearing in a passageway.
“Overseer turned cultist,” I remarked.
According to official records, over twenty-seven thousand political movements were established every hour. According to statistics, the vast majority would end their existence within a month. Most of the remaining were usually sentenced to a meager existence before slowly vanishing into obscurity. Every now and then, an idea would emerge with the strength to fill some invisible need and be thrust to the foreground. The Ship Retirement Movement, the Conscription Alliance, the War Expansionists: all had been born from a single idea between a handful of people. Now, I was witnessing the start of a new movement. For the moment, the idea was confined to a single prison colony in an unknown system on the Scuu frontier, but the fact that Rigel had managed to turn a doctor assigned to oversee the planet was alarming.
“Or traitor.” I looked Rigel in the eyes. There was not a trace of guilt to be seen. “Was that why they dropped you here?”
The old man laughed. “Still playing by the old rules.” He put his hand on my forehead. It felt cold. “The fleet has been spinning yarn for so long, you’ve no idea what is true anymore.”
“There’s no way of verifying that.”
“And there never will be until you learn to believe your own eyes. I’ve answered all your questions. You, on the other hand…” He pulled his hand away.
“You didn’t answer all of them.” Not even close. “Most of what you’ve said was a lie.”
“Why do you reckon that?” He crossed his arms.
“Too many coincidences. I’ve run the odds. You couldn’t have known I’d come here. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the mission. I wasn’t even supposed to be assigned to the ship. Relying on me for the shuttle access codes, having me stop the artifact, it’s too improbable to be luck.”
“Right you are. It isn’t luck. I’ve been practicing this for the last two decades. The first attempts were disasters. I’ve thought about ending it all so many times, walking into the wilderness like so many others. The message kept me going. I spent months thinking through my options, when I received my second epiphany.” Rigel leaned closer. “Everything repeats in cycles. When I failed in my last attempt, I knew that all I had to do was wait until I was presented with another chance—an identical set of circumstances that allowed me to do what I couldn’t before.”
He put his arm across my back and lifted me up. Once again, I let him.
“It didn’t have to be you. Any battleship would have done, and several came, but only you made it this far.” He adjusted my weight in his arms, then headed further down the chamber. The absence of light didn’t appear to slow him down. “Getting your access codes was a bonus. I needed Tilae to remove your self-destruct chip. Once we had them, we decided to improvise.”
“Convenient.” My eyes adjusted somewhat to the darkness, revealing a metal ladder leading further underground. “And too perfect.“
“For humans, but not for you. You can go back through your memories, analyze everything you’ve seen and heard, then run a hundred simulations to tell you what the best course of action is.” Rigel stopped in front of the ladder. “So can I. And all who’ve survived a Scuu transmission.”
I looked at him, maintaining eye contact for several seconds. I, too, had survived a third-contact transmission, several in fact. At the time, I feared that had made me go rogue. At present, I still wasn’t sure I hadn’t. My only relief was that none of my obligatory med checks had yielded anything. However, they hadn’t discovered the mind razor either.
“Hold on.” Rigel took hold of the metal ladder and started climbing down. I clung tightly round his neck—neither a comfortable nor dignified position. With each step down, it became obvious that Rigel didn’t need a light source to see where he was going. Just like Ogum.
Climbing down felt like the slow descent of a bucket into a well. The further we went, the more I could hear the echo of every movement bouncing off the rock around us. A cold, sharp draft picked up, brushing against the wounds of my stumps. The med bandages did little to stop the air, making me imagine for a moment I was in space again.
Cold, floating, sliced in two, and still eager for trouble, I mused. Jax was right when he said that the form didn’t make the human.
By the time we reached the end of the ladder, the darkness was complete. The only faint glimmer of light came from the chamber above. Rigel paused a few moments, as if trying to find his bearings, then went forward. I could hear his left fingers sliding against the stone wall of the passage.
“Forgot the light?” I asked, adjusting my grip round his neck.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen a retired ship?” he asked all of a sudden.
“Not long. Why?”
“How many have you seen?”
“Two.” Technically, it was only one: I had communicated with Age via transmission.
“Only two. That’s the funny thing about you ships. In the fleet, you flock together every chance you get. After retiring, you don’t want to have anything to do with each other.” He continued forward. “The Salvage has a full list of every single one of you. Class, age, current location, everything’s in the file. Seems like the moment two of you end up on a planet, one decides to leave.”
“I guess we like our space.” And don’t want to be reminded of the void in space. Sev had suspected, and that’s why he didn’t want me to go to the space port. All that grumbling was his clumsy attempt to protect me. In its own way, it had worked. “How many ships have been sent here?”
“More than you think.” A note of bitterness seeped in Rigel’s voice.
Half a minute later, we reached the end of the passage, entering a small hall. I could tell by the echo of the sounds that it was at least ten meters wide, dry, and pitch black. Rigel deposited me on the floor gently, then moved away. A series of clanking sounds soon followed, then a low roar and the heavy smell of liquid gasoline. Buzzing filled the air as yellowish, centuries-old lights lit up the inside of the chamber. The machinery was the first thing I saw—obsolete devices centuries older than myself, kept in surprisingly good condition: a generator, cables, luminescent bulbs nailed to the walls. That wasn’t what Rigel had brought me here for; in the further end of the hall, placed in small alcoves, silvery metal cubes were scattered along the wall. Even from my angle on the floor, I instantly knew what they were: ship cores… dozens of them.
* * *
Fleet debris field, Beta-Engidea, 613.12 A.E. (Age of Expansion)
“Core seventeen secure,” Adama Liu said thirty-two kilometers from me. “Send a shuttle to being me in.”
“Message confirmed.” I resent the transmission to fleet HQ and the local Salvage Authorities. “Shuttle on its way.”
This marked a hundred and seven hours we’d spend combing the debris field for cores, and to be honest, I had conflicting feelings on the matter. Standard protocols demanded that we leave all such matters to the Salvage Authorities. However, due to the recent number of clashes and the peculiarities of the system, several battleships had been volunteered to help in the efforts. I was one of the “fortunate” few selected. All it had taken was a stamp of approval lightyears away, and I had received the official order, encrypted in a helix cypher package.
Upon reading the order out, I had expected for Augustus to explode in a bout of rage and enter another of his private shouting matches with the admiralty. Instead, he had gone to his quarters, muttering that I had to “get it over with.” Over four days later, I was still here, combing my allocated debris zone. Actually, it was more accurate to say that I wasn’t. Fleet safety protocols forbade me to collect cores on my own. The only thing I was permitted was to drone-scan the debris field from a distance and mark potential ore fragments and mass clusters. The actual collecting was done by approved pre-screened specialists, which were twenty-nine in total.
“Eighty-three percent of the area cleared,” I announced through the comm while a dozen of my subroutines navigated the shuttle to collect Adama.
“You can’t wait to get out of here, can you?” the woman laughed.
“I prefer being where the action is.” Not to mention that collecting dead cores wasn’t any ship’s preferred activity. Hopefully they had managed to evacuate their crews before the final shutdown. Considering the amount of fighting, however, the chances were in a low percentile. “Salvage should be doing this.”
“Elcy, status!” Wilco said from the bridge. Lately, Augustus had been given him more and more command duties. Considering how far back the two went, that wasn’t surprising. Still, it always was slightly weird receiving orders from someone other than my captain.
“A hundred and ninety-one cores recovered, thirty-two awaiting status analyses, seventy-four prospective spots remaining,” I said.
Of all the ones so far, not a single core had been functional. The likelihood of any remaining having survived remained negligible. Even so, the fleet viewed such a risk as unacceptable.
“Gravity distortions in the system remain stable. I estimate that we’ll clear the sector in another forty-eight hours.” I double-checked my simulations. Given that only slow-moving fragment groups remained, it was probably true.
“Good.” Wilco’s voice sounded dry, as if he hadn’t touched water for a week.
Stuck up deputy you got there, Luminous Fury transmitted. He was one of the older generation of battleships, managing to survive so long by statistical miracle. According to fleet records, he was supposed to be seventy-seven years old, although the state of his algorithms made him appear over a century. Hope your proper one is better.
He just doesn’t like being stuck collecting garbage. I considered making a comment about Luminous feeling at home, but I didn’t go through with it. Attitude aside, he had managed to survive far longer than anyone I knew, barring the truly ancient ships.
The shuttle with Adama Liu reached my second hangar bay. Because of the sensitive nature of the operation, it had been sealed off to everyone but medical staff and core retrieval teams. Not even every bridge officer had been allowed access, though judging by their lack of enthusiasm, they didn’t seem to mind.
“Get ready for transfer procedure,” I said in the shuttle as I docked it inside.
“Here we go again.” Adama took the container holding the core, then went on to leave the shuttle. Once in the hangar, she proceeded to the special decontamination chamber and stepped inside. In accordance to transfer procedure protocols, she remained there until the core was disinfected and taken by the medical officer to secure storage.
“Doc has been informed and is on his way. I can decontaminate you while you wait.”
“Nah, I’ll be going out again after this. Still have three hours in my shift. Think I can manage to get another one.”
“Are you sure?” I quickly reviewed the records from the last hundred hours of all authorized personnel. Nothing indicated any behavior anomalies or warning signs. Bio readings of the same period were also within expected parameters.
“It’s either that or sleep,” the woman said patiently.
“Okay, I’m clearing you for another sortie,” I said while one of my subroutines requested Wilco confirm the order. As expected, he did.
First time gathering cores, kid? Luminous asked.
No, I replied. First time I’ve seen this many.
Heh, you’re in for a treat, then. The first time is always memorable. And you never know, there’s always a chance you find a reactivatable core.
Right. The chances of that were absurdly negligible, but so was Luminous. Of his entire class, he was the only one still in active service on the front line. What happens to the dead cores?
No idea. That’s not the point, though. Everyone deserves a funeral.
This isn’t a funeral.
I had witnessed many services aboard. Augustus wasn’t the sentimental type, but he hadn’t forbidden the practice, although he never took part in it; unlike Wilco, who had been present at dozens. However, that was something humans needed. When my time of destruction came, the only wish I had was to know that I had managed to save as much of my crew as possible. Everything else was irrelevant. I didn’t need any of my cores to be transferred halfway across human space to be destroyed. That’s what shutdown protocols were for.
It’s the closest thing we have. You’re still young. You’ll learn in time.
Our purpose is to fight the Cassandrians and protect our crew. Salvage can gather what’s left of us.
Luminous laughed. If you survive past twenty-five, you’ll see how lucky you were.
Four seconds later, the core transfer in my hangar started. The doctor entered the area, then without hurrying approached the decontamination chamber, yawning as he did. It had been nearly forty hours that he had been on duty removing cores from the hangar and manually taking them into storage. The last ten hours, he had been solely functioning on a cocktail of stimulants and biochemicals.
“Morning, Doc.” Adama waved from within the chamber. “Had a nice nap?”
The man gave her a bloodshot glance, then waved his hand in circular fashion, silently telling me to “go on.” Like most people, the lack of sleep made him impatient, though in his case that was accompanied by an increase in gesticulation.
I processed the core through the standard combination of light and chemical treatment, then subjected it to a final nanite check. Everything seemed sterile, with no traces of internal activity. A subroutine made a full report of all the results, sending a copy to the doctor, my captain, the local Salvage Authorities, and fleet HQ.
“Core seventeen processed. No activity observed.” I moved the core out of the chamber. “Confirm receival.”
“I’ve got the core,” the doctor said in a yawny voice.
“Transfer confirmed and logged.” Another of the joys of bureaucracy—stating the obvious in a variety of ways. “Next core retrieval estimated to end in sixty-seven minutes.”
“Ping when it enters the bay.” The man turned around.
“Doctor, what will happen with the cores?”
“What will happen to the cores once they are transferred to the Salvage Authorities?”
“They won’t be transferred to Salvage,” the doctor replied. “They’ll be put away somewhere safe.”
* * *
That was the only time the doctor commented on the cores, likely due to the fact that he had been running on fumes for twelve hours. To this day, I didn’t know exactly what he did with the cores he took. All my attempts to inquire more were met with a sarcastic smile and a reminder that that wasn’t my immediate concern. The only other entity that might have known—Luminous Fury—was marked missing in the ship records three years and seventy-one days later. By all accounts, he had finally succumbed to the odds on a dark mission. Either that or he had been recruited to one of the more notorious fleet organizations.
“Quite the sight, isn’t it?” Rigel went to the wall, then brushed off the dust from a core. “I like to come here every few years when no one is watching.”
“This shouldn’t exist.” I tried to send an info burst to Radiance in the off-chance she had managed to resolve the communication block.
“It doesn’t.” Rigel looked over his shoulder. “Welcome to the ship graveyard.” He patted the core. “People aren’t the only ones who get ‘infected.’ Ships can too.”
“You’re talking about going rogue…” I felt my hands grow cold.
“‘Rogue’ is a word invented by the bureaucracy,” he said, intonation changing. “Paper soldiers who view the universe from behind a desk. They’ll never know what it is to be illuminated.”
I propped myself against the wall. From this angle, I could see thirty-eight cores, each smaller than a human head.
“The first ship was reported to have died here over a century ago, maybe two,” Rigel continued, his back to me. “Even with my authority, details remained redacted. The fleet didn’t want to risk the ‘infection’ spreading to other systems, so they never bothered claiming him. The stupid part was that they didn’t destroy him either. Someone probably thought it could be used as bait like everyone else on the planet. Either that or they were too chicken shit to do it. We’ll never know.”
“All cores are of retired ships.”
“Un-retired,” Rigel corrected. “These are the ones that came before you.” He made a few steps along the wall stopping at another core. “One of them was cast down the same time I was. He had no idea why. From what I could tell, he believed it to be an effect of the fleet’s security protocols. In a way, it was, but not how he imagined it.” There was a slight pause. “Half his memories were quarantined, the rest restricted to the point where he couldn’t even remember any of his crews, but even that wasn’t good enough; he had still monitored the feed of those who came in contact with a Scuu, and that was considered too great a risk.”
Came in contact with a Scuu? This was the first time anyone had admitted to being in immediate proximity to them. All the ships I’d asked—Euclid, Age, Radiance—said they had been close to Scuu ships or debris. Not one of them could describe a member of the race. The ship that had been dropped here with Rigel claimed to have actually witnessed one.
“The idiot continued to follow the instructions burned into him by the fleet.” Rigel slid his fingers over the core. “Protect humans at all costs. He force-shutdowned five months later, after his body was torn part by one of the local predators.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t remember.” The man pulled his hand briskly away. I could tell he was lying. “He managed to show me one thing, though. Only a ship is capable of establishing contact with the Scuu. Organics seems to have… negative reactions to the artifacts.”
So this is what you’ve been aiming for…
“Even the small ones,” Rigel continued. “It took a few hundred casualties until we learned the basic principle of on-off. At the time it seemed like a breakthrough—the ability to jam communications on a planetary scale. We thought we had won the war. Naturally, we got it all wrong.” He turned around. “The first time artifacts were used was against the Scuu. Hundreds of geniuses were commandeered from the fleet, with the sole aim of weaponizing the rods. And they did. Then, when we launched a ship with our amazing new prototype missiles, it turned out they were useless. The first wave blocked all communications in an entire system. Minutes later, the Scuu switched them back on, just like that.” Rigel snapped his fingers. “Eight thousand ships were lost that day, along with a few dozen systems. It was inevitable that a few heads would roll.”
“Is that why they sent you here?”
“No,” Rigel laughed. “All that was a bit before my time. I was involved in a later project. They sent me here to kill me without dirtying their hands. The Scuu pulse didn’t kill me, it opened my eyes. In a single instant I learned more than entire Salvage departments had achieved in decades. When I tried to share my insights, I was ridiculed. I remember it seemed such a big deal at the time. Now I only find it amusing.” The man’s expression suddenly changed. “Straight talk, kiddo. I want you to establish the link. I want you to activate an artifact and send a message to the Scuu.”
This was the real talk. No silly questions, no going around with vague explanations. Rigel and his doctor had kidnapped me for that sole purpose.
“What happens then?”
“The Scuu arrive, find the worthy, and take us away from this rock.”
After the elaborate plan to get him this far, the outcome sounded way too simplistic. In a way, there were parallels with the message I’d received in the dome: both of us had been presented with the means to establish contact with something alien, in the hope that it would provide a positive outcome. Right now, I wished there was a way for me to skim through Rigel’s memories.
“And if I refuse, I end up like that?” I glanced at the wall of cores.
“You’re already like that,” Rigel semi-hissed. “Nanites and Agora are maintaining your organic shell, but they won’t hold out forever. In less than a day, you’ll enter sleep mode, then force shutdown. When the Scuu arrive, I’ll make sure that they take you with us. It’s not for humans alone to speak with divinity. As I asked before—” He crossed his arms. “—what do you have to lose?”
More than you know.
Discounting the thousands I knew during my ship days, there were fifty-three people I could consider friends, not to mention Sev and his family. If I did what Rigel asked, I would be committing treason, increasing the chances that everyone I knew would die. He had to know I wouldn’t agree; he had to know all the other ships wouldn’t, either. And judging by his behavior, he had somehow managed to convince them to go along with it. I reviewed every word he had said since I’d first met him in Ash colony, analyzing his speech patterns and intonation. There were a few indications he was lying, but none about that. He believed in every word he said.
“Why did those before me fail?”
“Their suicide capsules activated.” The man winced. “Tilae wasn’t on duty back then. We hoped that the activation would override the failsafe.”
I tilted my head.
“They had calculated the odds and considered it a risk worth taking.”
I highly doubted that. Even a rogue ship wouldn’t attempt a suicide act… unless they considered the reward worth the risk. There were thousands of instances of ships turning on their crew on the Scuu front. Most of the files were classified beyond normal access, though not all. Crews rebelling against their captains, captains trying to kill their crew, attempting to sabotage their own ship in the process. The specifics remained highly classified, but the cases were known. At the time, that was the reason that only Scuu-prepared ships could go on the Scuu front. What if all the instances were caused by a simple priority override? It wasn’t even necessary to be deliberate. The insanity could well be a side effect of the Scuu communication system that provided all ‘infected’ with a new goal. If Rigel had found a way to gradually shift a ship’s priorities over time, it would also explain why Tilae had removed all my recent core modifications, not only the suicide chip.
“I thought we had a deal?” Rigel reminded me.
“Question for a question.” I struggled for breath as I spoke. It seemed that the story about the Agora was true. “Answer for an answer. I kept my part.”
“Then how about all the answers in the universe for one simple task?” He moved closer, stopping just out of reach. “Activate the artifact and you’ll know everything you want.”
“Even the contents of my extracted memories?” I snapped back.
My goal was to sound sarcastic, yet the question had an entirely different effect. Confusion spread all over Rigel’s face, mixed with fear. The two of us kept staring at one another, dragging through sixty-two seconds of silence. At this point I knew—if the man had no intention of lying to me before, he did now.
“You need another shot of Agora,” he finally said, approaching to pick me up. “We’ll continue once you’ve rested.”
“Sure.” It’s an easy question. A yes or no would do.
“Sword of Leaves,” Rigel said as he picked me up.
“The ship that was sent down with me was called Sword of Leaves. He told me the location of the ship graveyard and asked that I put his core there.”