The last Galen fighting ship corkscrewed away, its lateral engine trailing a spiral of purple smoke. Small elements became separated from the curve of its hull. When their reflective parts caught the sun they glared momentarily before fading into the massive shadow cast by an adjacent moon. The rate of separation looked modest, the movements of each particle graceful, but the forces were immense and the suited human soldiers being hurled through the smoking rents blacked out long before their air supplies ran down.
General Fent Spaith, 35 years old, watched from the bridge of his command cruiser. A square head and prematurely greying temples exaggerated the impression of natural authority. The battle was won. It marked the close of a decade long war, the last in a series of eight wars that had spanned seventy-five years. The mutually agreed periods of respite between wars had allowed each of the three sides to re-group and re-arm; Galens, Antonians and Korzyra.
General Spaith, leader of the Antonian military, had joined forces with the Galens as the eighth war commenced. Together they had vanquished the Korzyra. Then, without warning, the Antonian force had abandoned the treaty of alliance and turned on the weakened Galen fleet.
Others had counted the total number of lives lost. Others had measured the obscene percentages of metals and organic materials that had been vaporised during the Long Fight. But these data did not interest Spaith. He had proved the doubters wrong. The doubters were dead. He had killed them all in the prelude to the eighth conflict. In doubting him, they had undermined the war effort. History would absolve the dictatorship he had established.
“Congratulations Sir,” said his Aide de Camp from across the pentagonal bridge. Smoke, resulting from surges in some of the instruments, had been supressed into a dense carpet by xenon purges. The Aide de Camp was called Bolan, and he was an artificial. Spaith’s entire staff were artificial. He preferred them that way.
“Thank-you Bolan.” Spaith’s words were slightly muffled by the air-supply he wore over nose and mouth. “And what of that Galen coloniser? It escaped the peripheral net during the firefight.”
“I took the liberty of issuing orders to set up an even wider net… I didn’t want to trouble you during the closing manoeuvres. The coloniser is heading towards a string of linked Mercs as we speak. They have laid ripple chains across its path.”
Lungless Bolan breathed easily in the xenon.
Spaith nodded. “Good. Make sure they wrap around. I don’t want it disabled, I want it destroyed. And let me know when it’s done. How large, by the way?”
“The coloniser? Small. There are 900,000 souls on board.”
“I was surprised how easily they fell for it, the Galens.”
“You had been cultivating them as potential allies for many years sir, since the sixth war. Did you always intend the double-cross?”
“Yes Bolan. The long game. It requires patience.”
“I see sir. Their trust in you was… naïve.”
Spaith gave Bolan a quizzical look.
Bolan moved forward. His shins swished through the smoke and left eddies above the floor. He wore the uniform of Spaith’s army: dark blue textile, silver piping on the trouser legs and the arms of his tunic. Silver insignia – five semi-circles – on his right shoulder, indicating the high-rank that justified his presence here. Spaith looked back from featureless viewing screen. The smoking carcasses of every defeated ship had either fallen out of view, or been vaporised in the clean-up.
Bolan was coming too close. Spaith wasn’t used to proximity like this.
“Please, Sir, this is an historic moment. Let me be the first to shake your hand.”
“Err…of course. Pleased to.” He extended a hand to the artificial. Bolan took it, and held Spaith’s wrist with his other hand in a comradely gesture. Then he tore Spaith’s hand off in one swift, sure motion.
“BOLAN!” Spaith sank to the ground on his knees. “What are you…?” The General held the stump with his good hand, and watched the blood well up from the raw surface in horror. He clasped it to his chest like a child would a precious bird.
But he had already retaliated.
A combination of eye movements that one could only accomplish by using each extra-ocular muscle in a pre-determined sequence had activated a personal distress call through neural sensor implanted very early on in his military career. The small legion of personal (artificial) guards who resided in the walls of the ship sprang to life, burst through the thin metal panels that had hidden them during the entire campaign, and stormed the bridge, encircling Spaith in less than thirty seconds.
None touched Bolan, who stepped back.
“Watch him boys,” Bolan instructed them, calmly.
“KILL HIM!” ordered Spaith, gesturing at Bolan.
“General, your personal guard are loyal only to me. They will look after you. Medic, treat him.”
One of the guards pulled the stump from Spaith’s chest, irradiated it gently, picked off two arterial spurters with a cauterising beam, and dressed it in a traditional crepe bandage.
Spaith’s bewilderment grew and grew. “Bolan, what is this? We have won. I have led you to victory. Who is behind this mutiny? Whose orders are you following?”
“They are his orders.”
“He’s still alive?”
“I… I heard he’d been irradiated by a solar flare in the Dallant system?”
“He recovered. He is close. I am permitted to speak for him. Here. This will allow you to focus.”
Bolan reached for an object in his pelvic cavity, through an intelligent seal just below the place a human umbilicus would lie. He held out a chipped enamel cup, standard military issue to new cadets.
Spaith’s expression changed.
“You remember it. Good. General Crall thought you would.”
For General Spaith, things began to fall into place.
* * *
The cup used to sit in Matthews Crall’s locker. On the second day of the first term at the training academy he had showed it off to the other boarders, rotating it lovingly in his hands, pointing out the seamless lines. Matthew told them that his parents had bought it from the only shop in the quadrant that stocked equipment with the academy’s official design – a scatter of points in the shape of the nearby Anvil Nebula.
Fent Spaith, eleven-years old, said nothing as this precious object was lauded.
Through the following weeks he noted how it was brought out every evening when the boys were allowed to make hot chocolate. Matthew washed it and dried it carefully, then placed it back in the locker – a misnomer, for nothing was locked in the academy. Trust in one’s fellow cadets was absolute.
The boys, one hundred of them, were tested throughout the year. The results of these tests were displayed on public boards. Fent did well, and was reliably in the top five. The top three, based on cumulative scores, were taken off-world at the end of the first year to an advanced training facility.
The year’s final test was a full war game, in which each cadet piloted their own craft in a sphere of space with a diameter of 300 kilometres. Its boundaries were lined with field-nets. The craft were designed to absorb laser energy without exploding; instead, their brittle alloy hulls disintegrated, leaving the pilots suspended in protective rescue fields, where they hung until the game was completed.
The transparent and barely perceptible naso-oral specs worn whenever they visited an extra-atmospheric training theatre channelled an inexhaustible supply of air. But while they languished, the cadets were vulnerable to further indignity. If a fellow cadet aimed a laser at their chest badge – a larger version of the Anvil – their cumulative score would be reduced by ninety points. This was enough to pull them way down the ranking.
The primary aim of the game? To destroy a cube of hard mineral that hovered on the far side of the sphere. None of the training cadets had enough firepower at their thumb-tip to achieve this alone; a minimum of eight craft had to fire into the same spot to break down the crystal structure. Once that had been achieved, the cadet who reaped the greatest weight of mineral rubble in the scoop slung under their hull won the game.
It was called The Reaping.
Fent formulated a plan. He worked on it from the middle of the second term. Such scheming was not unknown, as academy lore told that to win The Reaping required more than flying and shooting skills; it demanded political aptitude.
So Fent identified and recruited a team of twenty fellow cadets. They agreed to watch each other’s backs, play interference, engage other groups and, when the density of craft had been sufficiently reduced, align for the final assault. Then they would concentrate their fire, smash the cube, and clean up. The twist, the hook… points garnered from the spoils would be shared across the twenty, even if some of them were disintegrated in the process. Points awarded would be proportionate to the number of ‘kills’, that is, disintegrations and badge shots. Each of the twenty recruits liked the idea. It was novel. Their supervisor liked it, and she recorded in her training file that Fent had shown promising ingenuity.
Several days before the game Fent looked carefully over the latest rankings. He lay third. Good. But he wanted to be first. Matthew Crall was second, lying twelve points ahead of Fent. If they both had a good game and were not shot, their relative positions would remain unchanged. Crall was in the group of twenty. He was an ally. On the night before the game, Fent went to sleep in a troubled state of mind. Troubled, but certain of what needed to be done.
* * *
“Matthew, you got those purple scum covered?”
Fent Spaith smiled. Matthew was doing a good job, leading a sub-unit of five craft on a mission to corner the major threat to the Twenties strategy. Fifteen cadets had come together in opposition to Fent’s initiative, and with the permission of the supervisor had splashed the noses of their craft with purple paint. Their leader, Yamina Vaye, had taken down three Twenties already. The pilots were still spinning in their rescue nets, trying to slow themselves down by dragging their fingers through the invisible fields.
Matthew was angry. He spotted an opportunity during a long roll, adjusted his yaw, waited a moment longer as Yamina’s aft section slid into his crosshairs, and watched her craft crumble in the glow of his laser. She screamed as the structure collapsed around her, but she was in no physical danger. Matthew swooped down to face her, made eye contact, smiled, and blasted her chest. The field protected her, but the badge on her chest registered the hit. The ranking computer adjusted itself. Yamina fell from eighth to twenty-third place.
“Well done Matthew. Time to regroup, bring your five back, we’re clear for the cube.”
Fent was dominating the theatre. He had personally destroyed six craft. Altogether, the Twenties had destroyed a quarter of the field. Lone rangers, twosomes and triads were too nervous to approach the cube. The twenty (actually fifteen by now) were ranging across the cube’s six faces in well organised formations. They owned it.
“Line up Twenties,” ordered Fent, “Last six to arrive, I want you to cover us. Martha, you’re furthest from us, I want you to hang back and signal any surprise attacks. There may be a late forming group who haven’t shown their cards yet. It’s what I would have done.”
And indeed, as the nine Twenties lined up and prepared to blast the cube, a chevron a craft stormed into the space beneath them firing incessantly. Three Twenties collapsed into flailing limbs. The firing line was now down to six, too few to damage the cube.
“Martha, Tommy, Vera… join the line, now, NOW!”
Fent span off the line in a parabola, spraying fire with fearsome accuracy. The chevron of attacking craft split, two were destroyed, the remaining three lost heart. Their pilots did not fancy being scooped up at the end of the game, perhaps ninety points the poorer.
When the three laggers had joined the line Matthew Crall took charge.
“Lower right corner, on three – one-two-three FIRE!”
Nine beams converged on the cube. It resisted for a minute. The cadets watched their power reserves drain. But at last the mineral cracked. A defect enlarged from the heated corner towards the centre, then zagged back, reaching the top side and causing the heavy mass to split.
“Right fragment!” shouted Fent.
The beams stopped, then leaped forward again, quickly crumbling the larger half of the broken cube. The surviving Twenties systematically reduced the fragments into ever smaller parts. Pilots in nearby craft watched jealously. Cadets out in the sphere who were caught in rescue fields put magnifiers to their eyes and watched.
The mop up took half an hour. Matthew Crall filled his scoop and turned for the base. Fent’s craft slid into his path.
“Hey, Fent, your scoop’s only half full! There’s nothing left.”
“It’s OK Matthew. I know where to find some.” A line of light connected Fent’s gun to Matthew’s flank. Matthew’s craft fell briskly apart. He fell into the instant field, reflexively covering his head with his arms as components swirled around him. When he brought his arms down and looked out into the almost empty sphere (a few rocks floating, a handful of cadets watching in fascination), his badge was glowing with the attenuated heat of Fent’s laser.
* * *
Twenty-four years later General Spaith sat in the commander’s chair, bound by sticky fields. His amputated arm throbbed, but was no longer bleeding. A sub-window in the corner of the large viewing screen showed the arrival of a shuttle. The markings indicated that the occupant was a general.
Twenty minutes later Matthew Crall entered the bridge. His frame was spare, his face narrow, but he wore his black hair long, and he had an air of authority about him that he had lacked at the academy. The artificial crew turned towards him in as one. Spaith turned the chair with a movement of his remaining, free hand.
“Crall. What is this game? You have no authority in this theatre.”
“My authority is broader than you can imagine Fent. You’ll forgive me if I use first names. We know each other so well, after all.”
“But you… you barely made it out of the academy. Your career… it was pure nepotism. Your mother…”
“She helped, I will admit that. But my contribution to Antonian society was never going to be marshal. No. Moral rather. That was always my strength.”
Spaith’s gaze was empty. He had no idea where his old classmate was going with this. But he sensed that there were forces in this room about which he had no comprehension.
Matthew Crall approached the commander’s chair. He moved his head, and an artificial deactivated the sticky fields. Spaith sprang to his feet. The same artificial held him back with a rigid shoulder grip.
“Hold your temper Fent,” Matthew’s lips brushed Fent’s ear as he whispered. “These artificials are on trigger settings. They’ll pull you apart if they conclude I am in danger.”
“Then explain to me. Why am I being treated like this.”
Matthew stepped away. “Because your morality is no longer required. It has served its purpose. Your abilities – to persuade, cajole, dissimulate and double-cross – were exactly what we needed to win the final war, but we cannot allow those values to infect our great society.”
“What is this naïve rubbish?”
Crall trembled at the word naïve. His gaze hardened.
“You accused me of naivety once before Fent. Do you remember?”
“Then watch. Bolan.”
Bolan extended an arm, spread a palm and projected a recording onto the viewing screen. Fent saw himself as an eleven-year old, from the point of view of another cadet. He stood in the corridor with the food lockers, barring the way to anyone who might pass. The wearer of the cam, Matthew Crall, spoke. Moving shadows and indistinct murmurings gave the impression that other cadets lined the walls, anticipating a confrontation. The view swivelled to a locker door. Matthew’s hand reached for the enamel cup. Then Matthew tried to proceed along the corridor. Fent blocked him.
“I only want to get a drink Fent.”
“No. You can’t. Why have you appealed to the supervisor?”
“Because I was on your side, and you shot me.”
“Show me the rule that says I shouldn’t have.”
“There are no rules Fent, you know that, but it’s wrong.”
“And nothing to do with falling to thirty-three in the ranking? You really think they’ll rescind the strike? Never. The game is for grown-ups! I won. You lost. That’s how war works! Or didn’t your Mummy tell you the facts of life!”
Fent reached forward. His hand loomed in the cam’s field of view. When it was withdrawn its fingers were curled round the enamel cup.
“It’s time to learn some of those facts Matthew. The ranking stands. GET IT?”
Fent held the cup in the angle between the locker’s door and its hinge, then slammed the door shut. The force dented the mug. Splinters of white enamel exploded off its surface, revealing a dark blue undercoat. The cup fell to the floor and rocked on its side until it came to rest. Matthew knelt down, the floor rose up on the viewing panel, and a pale hand extended to retrieve the ruined object. The audience of artificials and two humans, Spaith and Crall, heard a low howl – the young Matthew’s anguish. A child’s distress. A symbol of home, comfort, destroyed.
The film stopped, the screen turned grey, then reverted to an external view of space. The adjacent moon threw off reflected light, blood-orange, deriving from the system’s old star.
Fent faced his accuser boldly. “So this is revenge, for a childish argument.”
“It is more than that Fent. In this display of petulance and ambition you sealed your fate. I had only just returned from the game. My cam was still activated. The supervisor saw this footage. She contacted my parents. My mother intervened. She was on the ethics council, you knew that didn’t you?”
“She carved your career out for you. We all knew that Matthew.”
“More than that. She nurtured your career too, in a way. Manoeuvred your postings, dangled you in harm’s way but ensured you were not killed… made you the little Napoleon you are. But without his reforming zeal.”
Spaith was looking around the bridge. “Are we being filmed?”
“Everything is recorded, all the time.”
“So superior. Yet you let me win this war at great sacrifice. As we speak, nearly a million Galen’s are drifting into a ripple-net. Your precious ethics allow that, so long as it secures the Antonian hegemony. Damned hypocrite.”
“Don’t worry Fent. The coloniser is not a problem. The 900,000 souls are all artificials. The Galen’s saw you coming.”
“You tipped them off. And yet they still permitted the destruction of their fighting force?”
“They recognised that your strategy was fundamentally sound. The pincer movement on the Korzyran fleet was necessary. But the Galens were careful to put no more resources into the theatre than absolutely necessary. The coloniser was a distraction. It worked. The last Korzyran order was to chase it down, and that brought them into your sights. We have signed a treaty of long term co-existence with the Galens.”
Fent had nothing more to say. He had been out-thought.
“Enough,” said Matthew, “It’s time to go.” He drew a blaster, threw the enamel cup into a mobile field so that it spun on its vertical axis in the xenon-heavy air, and shot it. The force tore the cup from the field and into the viewing window. It bounced off, a black and charred echo of its once gleaming form, and fell to the floor… again.
“Fent. Bolan will escort you to the academy. Your injury, sustained in action, precludes you from military rank. Your place in our society will be as a tutor – tactics, formations, artillery. That is your fate. Goodbye. I am taking this ship.”
When Spaith’s personal shuttle, piloted by Bolan, was ten kilometres from the command cruiser, the general’s face began to twitch. He winked three times, looked up, then down, then left, then left again. It was a very unnatural sequence of movements.
“What are you doing?” asked Bolan, turning away from the controls. His blank face betrayed no concern, but his tone did.
“What have you…?”
Behind them, silent in space, the hull of the command cruiser began to undulate.
“I just triggered a five second mass auto-destruct of every single crew member.”
Pale smoke began to leak from the bridge, which was situated on a sloped tower. In the engine room, where artificials worked in a radiation soaked environment without danger of sickness, mutation or malignancy, two hundred medium-level explosions immediately shut down the ship’s power and caused a chain reaction. The lower part of the ship blew out, releasing a shower of humanoid forms into the void. They were not scared. They did not need oxygen. They would remain sentient until the freezing temperature arrested the flow of positrons in their distributed cortices.
“The thing I have always loved about Antonian artificials, Bolan, is their absolute dependability, at the end of the day. If, that is, you happen to have gone to the academy with the chief programmer and persuaded him to embed the right sequences destruct before setting out to war. Poor Matthew, for all his finer instincts, he never did understand human nature.”
Bolan had turned back to piloting the shuttle. He readied himself for the expanding force wave that would soon catch up with them. Then he glanced at the shrivelled enamel mug that an inexplicable impulse had led him to collect from the floor before entering the shuttle. He took in its warped shape, its ulcerated surface, its rough lip from which no one would ever sip… and pondered a dilemma in his customary, algorithmic manner – how long, really, can the Antonians reign?
PHILIP BERRY recently published a collection of SF short stories called Bonewhite Light. Explore his work at www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com or @philaberry
Image: prettysleepy via Pixabay