ALL THAT BEDEVILS US

A ship of the enemy appeared at the node carrying its cargo of death in a ring amidships, engines at full power, bearing down on a half-wrecked and helpless space station. Twin curved horns on its prow spouted hellfire, burning a path through the ships trying to defend that station while its inhabitants tried to evacuate the doomed facility. In a moment, the ring around the enemy carrier would spin, releasing the Faceless pods, the terror weapon of the enemy. No one who encountered the contents of those pods lived to tell of it. Once they were loose, the battle was over and lost.

The memories were two years old, but still they poisoned the sleep of Jan Costa, transformed during the quiet night into the worst sort of nightmare. The nightmarish repetition of an event that had been all too real; a memory he could not escape.

“Target that carrier!” Costa shouted. “Anyone in range, whatever you’ve got! Hit that bastard! Hit it now!”

The disaster unfolded in the dreamtime just as it had in real life. Nothing could be altered. There was no escape. The dream never changed a single detail of what Costa remembered. That was the true nightmare, knowing he relived the past, knowing what was going to happen, and being helpless to change the events of the dark dream.

From the growing field of incandescent gas, debris, and dying ships in the path of the Faceless carrier, no answer came. There was no one in range, no one who could take on the enemy and prevent it from launching the deadly cargo that would defeat them. No one returned fire.

Then one ship moved. One badly damaged cruiser suddenly fired its main engines and launched itself at the carrier. Accelerating at a rate that would kill anyone not safely secured, the cruiser closed with the enemy. It never fired a shot. It didn’t need to. The ship itself was the weapon.

All too real, the unalterable past, relived in a black dream.

She was aboard, was likely at the helm, and knew damned well what she was doing. Costa wanted to shout, to scream, to reverse his open order to throw whatever was available at the enemy. For she was doing just that, throwing what the broken ship had left — itself. All Costa could do was sit in his command station aboard a frigate too far away to help, and watch her carry out his orders as she always had, without question or hesitation.

The ships collided…

Costa awoke then, as he always did, with her name a shout that followed him into the waking world.

“Pauline!”

She was dead. Two years — and yet the nightmare persisted as only a bad dream from the real world could.

They had made plans, albeit loose ones. A foolish thing to do in wartime, but all too Human a thing as well. An embrace of hope against desperate odds, in a war they seemed about to lose. For others that hope had been fulfilled when the miraculous victory came, against those odds. But not for Pauline. Not for Jan Costa, once — and briefly — an Admiral in the Republic Defense Force.

God! He rolled over and set his bare feet on the carpeted floor surrounding the bed. How much longer will it be this way?

The answer was another question. How long will she be dead?

“God! And they want me to live forever?” Costa muttered aloud. He shook his head and grimaced. “This is no feckin way to start the morning.”

The room slowly brightened with the start of a new day. Ship’s dawn and perfectly natural to a man who had lived his life on stations and aboard ships. Costa plodded to the bathroom of his sparsely furnished and unadorned quarters. His intention was to avoid the mirror, but it was opposite the door as he entered and already activated. The grim, clamped-down look on his face was as obvious as the gray in his short hair. So far age hadn’t softened the body much, but he could tell he hadn’t been working out as much as he should. “Kill the feckin mirror, will you?” he grumbled, and the rectangle of wall reverted to generic bathroom white. With a grunt that had nothing to do with satisfaction, he stepped into the shower and let it hit him with steaming hot water, just as he liked it. Costa lingered longer than normal, and stepped out only when the shipmind intruded on his hot water meditations.

“Shall I have breakfast sent up?” it asked in a mild, pleasant voice.

“No, don’t bother,” he replied, stepping out and grabbing a towel from the rack. “I need to get out of here and be around other people. But thanks.”

“Most welcome.”

“Not that you aren’t good company, of course.”

“That is appreciated. And you need not be concerned for my feelings. After all, anywhere you go aboard the Caroline Herschel, I will be there.”

“Funny how quickly I got used to that,” Costa replied.

“Perhaps a tribute to my accommodating nature.”

“I certainly have no complaints in that regard,” Costa said. “In case I haven’t made that plain in the past.”

“I do appreciate knowing that.”

Costa dried himself, then considered the clothing in his wardrobe, a mix of styles from both the Commonwealth and the Republic, and chose the latter with its more formal cut. The white shirt buttoned tightly around the throat and the dark blue jacket — technically unnecessary, since the climate of the probeship was set to mimic early summer on Old Earth — was both snug and severe by Commonwealth standards. Slacks, also dark blue, and black shoes; all he needed was a gold stripe down the sleeves and an insignia of rank, and he would be back in uniform.

It always looked right to him, especially when something important was about to happen. It was the look in which he felt most himself, and comfortable. In a way, Rory is right. I never really left the RDF.

He had done so two years before, officially, following their unlikely victory against the Faceless, an enemy bent on the complete destruction of Humanity, along with any species that stood with them. An implacable, mysterious enemy, finally defeated in a short but brutal and costly war to end all wars. War to end all wars — Costa was sure he’d heard that phrase before. It had the feel of history to it, and he wondered if whoever had said it first had really been so naïve as to believe it. Costa had seen two wars, one with the Leyra’an, as unjust a conflict as any in history, and then the desperate all-out fight for survival against the Faceless. He made Admiral of the Republic Defense Force at the very end of that second war, for his defense of the God’s Gift star system, capital of the Human Republic. For Costa it was at the time an empty honor, lost as he was in his grief, but it was in his record all the same, courtesy of no less than the President of the Republic.

Calling the mirror back into existence, he tugged the jacket straight, and felt a moment of regret that he had left the RDF. Costa had retired once before, and taken over management of a star station out on the frontier. While he and a few fellow retirees had been out there, the Commonwealth had rediscovered the splinter of Humanity to which Costa belonged — the Republic. The Commonwealth brought an end to the Leyra’an war just in time for the Faceless to invade, sending Costa and his people into a desperate retreat from the frontier. They would have died out there had the nonhuman T’lack not appeared at the same time and joined the fight on the side of Humanity. Called back to service, Costa had served with a will, and rediscovered something of himself that had been lost in that retirement.

The death of Pauline, his long-time friend and then lover, had soured him on the idea of service. It had not changed his need for a sense of purpose. His current circumstances had filled that gap very well.

“Get a move on,” he muttered to himself when he realized he’d just been staring at himself and ruminating. He left the apartment and strode down the corridor to the nearest stairwell, ignoring the nearby lift. The exertion of walking down eight flights of stairs lifted the sooty pall of nightmare that threatened to haunt his mood for the day. At ground level he stepped out onto the inner surface of the probeship.

He couldn’t help himself. Even after a year aboard the Caroline Herschel, the enormity of the vessel forced Costa to pause and look up and around. The apartment complex around him was a collection of cubes and rectangles, painted pastel green, blue and brown. They were tall, looming over him with ivy clinging to their corners, and yet were dwarfed to insignificance by the vastness of the space in which they were built. Commonwealth probeships were traveling space habitats, used by the Commonwealth Survey to lead the way to new star systems and begin the process of assessment that led to colonization. They were pocket worlds, capable of actually being colonies, should they become stranded. Not all the expeditions sent out into the interstellar void were successful. Some vanished, diverted by points of mass missed by robotic probes, and were never heard from again. On the chance that those ships survived, they would be able to establish new settlements and wait for civilization to catch up.

It was curiously like the founding of the Republic, though that had been no accident. Costa’s ancestors had fled the Commonwealth hundreds of years before. He had studied the histories, considered the politics involved, the desire to preserve an economic system that had ceased to have relevance, and was sure he would never truly understand any of it. The Republic had grown for more than two hundred years before the Commonwealth caught up to it. And found it at war with the first nonhuman intelligent species ever encountered by Humanity.

The Republic had surely not made a fine first impression when the story behind that war became known.

A world rose up and around him, but that in itself was not unusual in his experience. That so much of it was seen from a great hazy distance was what took his breath away. We don’t build on this scale in the Republic. We don’t even think on this scale. God, she would have loved this place! This inverted world, called in a monumental understatement a “ship,” would have left her speechless with wonder.

“Ship,” he muttered, shaking his head. “I’ll never get used to this.”

Posted August 20, 2022 by underdesertstars

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