By Vincent L. Cleaver
Our home port back then was Friday Landing, in Marley, an ice-ball on the edge of interstellar space, falling ever so slowly in-system, to a tiny, distant red dwarf of no consequence. Shadow Fleet had a major base with a civilian support community and a liberty town for the troops.
It's not there anymore, but back then it held 7300 souls and it was home, in as much as a bunch of ragged-ass spacers, grifters and scavengers such as we had a home. Plenty of graves, or cenotaphs, rather; everybody I know recycles. Can't abide the thought of being dead forever, myself. Even the Christian Sects allow as how God'll gather them up all metaphorical-like; not so much with the literal.
We had a plaque prepared for Captain Black that homecoming, just in case, but she pulled through; she always does. We waited for the word at a little pub, 'The Star and Spanner', which served ship's lightning and fruit juice, and had fresh-grilled meat, if you didn't ask too closely about where it had come from. My personal favorite rumor was medical waste, but I found out later that it was a black market deal with SF Chandlers and Provisioners. I stuck to the mycoprotein and kaff. Our new recruit, Sean, had himself something called a 'Mudder's Milk', a cocoa with a shot of lightning and fortified with finely minced tilapia roe, myco and rabbit-livers, plus more ships' lightning, apparently. Bleh! It lit him up and shortly he was quoting 'The Jabberwocky' and daring the Big Three to come knocking on our door... right in front of three A-teams off of the heavy cruiser, SFV Revenge!
But the Sheila’s took a shine to Sean; what those power-suit Lizzies wanted with him, I shudder to think... He amused The Brethren as well. I will never understand how the fighting orders work in Shadow Fleet; I suppose that it all might be a sign of divine intervention, or something with brimstone-tinged laughter. God's Best and The Devil's Own would never throw down on each other, not when there are Jabberwocky and Tommyknockers and Bigbees, Oh My!
But the aliens who had tried to wipe us humans out three centuries back didn't seem to hear Sean, and they didn't find Friday Landing until much later. I believe it was TK, not that it matters much. Dead is dead, and we were alive and kicking that night. Some of us were feeling no pain!
I'd had enough right quick, and wandered out of there with Allison, our back-up pilot and bot-wrangler. She'd been the one to get the Cap'n back to Freya, while Duce and I kept the bushwhackers busy eating hot photons and catching fragmentation from my home-made grenades. A little misunderstanding sorted out to my satisfaction, if'n the Cap'n pulled through... and if'n she didn't, then they wasn't going to enjoy round two, not one little bit. No one messes with Freya, except SF, and them, they walk soft, mostly. We've done things for the Spooks and the Spocks that are whispered about late in dark cycle.
The spinning hamster-cages of the habitats, plural, buried under the ice, were all about the size of small ships or old-style apartment buildings. This was the oldest one, and badly in need of a spin-down and re-balance, it wobbled so. The commons had a big old apple tree, under which were a beggar, burned and mutilated and with just the one remaining arm, plus, on the far side, a crazy-man ranting at the passers-by. I dropped the one-armed man a few chits, and he blessed me in the name of some dead god; poor bastard. The ranter saw us and perked up.
"Let go your rage, your horror! Let go of your loss and your shame! Peace is the answer!"
He had more to say along those lines, but I wasn't listening. Allison was very quiet, and sat on the steps of the stairs leading up to the next ring of the habitat. I sat down next to her and realized that she was crying.
"What's the damage, ship-mate? Care to lighten the load?"
Allison was looking at the mural on the other side of the stairway, a scene from one of the worlds that the Bigbees had attacked, intertwined with a scene of a hidden colony being destroyed by Jabberwocky. The first was an open cityscape, familiar to us only by the ruins we had visited, one time or another, with Bigbee Leviathans in the sky, blasting buildings, ending lives. In the second scene, airborne JW power-suits were tearing open the aerostat of a habitat, an oxy-nitrogen bubble for Venus-like worlds, raining landscape and hapless people onto a hellish world below. I was trying to place the planet, because most of the cloud-habitats I know of are in the atmo of low-density gas-giants, loitering around the lower end of disposable space elevator ribbons. There were maybe a dozen possibilities. Just because the Big Three are so good at finding and killing, didn't mean that we apes aren't far better at surviving, spreading out, hiding, and building new lives for ourselves. There are ten times as many settlements and three times as many people as there were in my grandfathers' time, and that geometric progression had been going on for centuries. There are humans across this entire galactic arm now. Maybe, somewhere, they live in peace.
I wonder what that's like.
"I'm alive today, because a Bigbee didn't kill me..." Allison said. I was familiar with her background, an orphan like the whole damn species. Then I ran what she'd said past once more.
"I know, the Bigbees didn't kill you with the rest of your folks-"
"No, Mike, this was later, during my time with Shadow Fleet, before I got traded to Freya."
You were in SF for life, or until you died; at least that was how the joke went. I knew a lot of people who had gotten out, but the first hitch was seven years, no exceptions. Well, there was our own Allison, but 'Freya' is like an extension of SF, in some ways; and not, in others.
"So tell me, or don't, your choice." I didn't have to wait very long.
"We were clearing out a base that had been hit, I don't know if it was the Big Three or bandits, but then a Leviathan showed up, blew up our ship and started looking for any survivors... we hid, and kept moving around. No weapons, we abandoned them because of the power cell signatures. But... they finally cornered us in the tunnels after a day or so. I saw a chance to sneak around, and then we ran into one of the Bigbee soldiers-"
She was looking out at the crazy, ranting man, spouting his crazy talk. Some of God's Best had come by and given him a bowl of soup from the pub, and he shut up long enough to eat. They ministered to the cripple, too, and I wondered how they felt about the endless war, really. Had God sent the Big Three as a scourge, and this, too, would pass? Could any perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful entity, justify that? Or was God really a just a capricious, blood-thirsty monster, and humanity was created in his image after all. Some people thought that maybe the Big Three were not so vicious and inscrutable, that they had good reason to practice genocide.
I don't know; maybe.
"That soldier saw us, and she let us go. I- I can't get past that. The same aliens I've hated all my life, maybe they are just as tired of this as we are? Do you think- would you spare a Bigbee, or a TK or a-"
"No." I pointed at the mural, at the falling bodies. "Not ever."
"Buck up, ship-mate. Figure on how-" and that's when I heard the choking sounds. God's Best had moved on and the ranter had started up again. The cripple had crept up on him, had dragged himself over, and had reached up to grab the crazy man by the throat.
I stood up and I watched.
Allison ran to them, pulled the cripple off of the ranting man. "Mike, help me! He's dying!"
I treated the crazy man for a crushed larynx, did a tracheotomy with my multitool. I only did it because a ship-mate wanted me to help, and not because he was worth saving. He would have died if I'd stayed frozen where I was, but now he'll be mercifully quiet for a while. Just that, plus we found that Captain Anastasia Black was stable and awake at the base medbay, when we brought not-ranter in.
Small favors from an absentee God, huh?
I sat with Anastasia, took her hand and held it, while Allison stayed with her 'kitten'. Doctor Kay looked my
Ana was a mess. I'd been relieved when she made it back to the ship and onto life-support, and, well, surprised that she'd made it back to Friday Landing at all. But she will surprise you. It's not a good idea to bet against her... Medbay was growing her a new heart and left lung. Probably ribs, too. I did glance at her chart long enough to earn a glared from the Doc.
"I expected you to be hovering..." the woman in the bed commented.
"Doc Kay ran me out before for being a nuisance..." I looked down into Ana's open eyes. She was drowsy, but the eyes were sharp as ever. "Besides, somebody had to ride herd on the crew..."
"Sure thing, 'Dad'."
"Right back at you, 'Mom'." Doc Kay was looking and I nodded. Ana turned her head, indicating the crazy man, Kay and Allison.
"What's the damage?"
"Ship, or do you mean the stray? Freya's fine. That idiot over there was spouting 'peace and love' in the commons. Somebody tried to shut him up."
"Somebody, not you?"
She watched my face for a while. "If, and I do stress the word; if the Big Three sued for peace tomorrow, no strings attached, just no more attacks on our ships and settlements, forever, could you leave it be?"
I shrugged. "Not gonna happen, so... sure. I'd put down my blaster and take up writing haikus and nerf-herding..."
She laughed, in a little pain, but better. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up in an unaccustomed smile. But then she shook her head.
"You only want to kill them, any and all of them. Not safe. And you don't think we're any better than they are..."
"Remember how you got in here? Anyway, as for them, it comes to this; we can't live together with them in the same galaxy." I paused, but I just had to say it. "In another couple of centuries, it'll be the 'Big Four...'"
"What about Allison, or Doctor Kornbluth?"
"We do have some saints among the sinners; we drag them down more than they lift us up..."
"This is such depressing talk, in recovery," Ana mused.
"You might want to revisit all of this, old son. The Jabberwocky are in a bad way, and they are suing for peace. I heard from Sky Marshall Miles, before we went out on this last little thing, that the 73rd SF may be deployed to protect their homeworld..."
"If they need us to protect their homeworld, then it's too little, too late."
"Agreed, but maybe we're wrong... what we can't afford, Mike, is dissension. We can't have a civil war over the subject. We need to do this, if not for them, then for us."
"Whatever..." What the Big Three know about themselves, and us, and all the other species with any potential at all, is that we are killers. We want our enemies dead.
"We need all the good will we can get, 'pure heart' aside. The other species need to see us do this, need to see us not being the fourth 'Hunter of Dawn' species. You get me?"
"I get you- 'Make friends, end enemies; survive, adapt, overcome!'"
"Damn straight! Now, let me get back to sleep..." and she was already there.
"You got it, Sis."
Pax by Vincent Cleaver / Science Fiction have rating 2.9 out of 5 / Based on40 votes