Captain Lehr’s face had been ravaged by decades under the coruscating emanations of this forgotten world’s overbright sun. The angry star, a rare purple giant, dominated the daysky with visible prominences that sleeted hard radiation through every human bone and cell that walked beneath its glare. Still, one could see the spirit of command which had once infused him, present even now in the lines and planes of his face as rough and striated as the great, crystalline cliffs which marched toward the horizon sparkling azure and lavender under the hard light. His eyes were marbled with a blindness which had come upon him in the long years, victim perhaps of some alien virus, until his blank visage appeared to be chiseled from the planet’s sinews as much the very rocks themselves.
How he and whoever yet lived among his crew had survived this hellish gravity well for close to half a human lifetime was a mystery to me, which yet remained to be truckled, but survive they had. The old man was king of all he surveyed with his blind eyes, soul shuttered behind milky shields, ruling from his seat in a shattered palace comprised of the main hull frame series of INS Broken Spear. The baroque pillars which had once bounded the great rays of energy required to leap between the stars now served to do little more than support a roof to keep off the rare rains, and cast a penumbra against the pitiless glare. The place had a gentle reek of aging plastic laying over the dank dance of stone on shadowed stone, but otherwise was little different from a cavern fitted out for the habitation of men.
We did not yet know where the rest of his benighted vessel had come to her grave, but she had certainly fulfilled her ill-starred name. Finding the balance of her remains was critical, of course, in the niggardly time allotted our expedition by Sector Control and the unsympathetic laws of physics. That mankind had bent our way around the speed of light was miracle enough, but we had not yet broken past the photons cast so wide in nature’s bright net, and so must live with the twinned constraints of relativity and simultaneity.
“Golly, skipper, he’s a real mess,” whispered Deckard behind me. “Just like his ship.”
I waved my idiot engineer to silence.
Allison Cordel, a woman still beautiful amid age and hard use, stood yet beside her commanding officer, loyal as any starman’s wife though it was the two of them together lost so far from home. Our own records, copies of dusty personnel files laboriously thermaxed from ancient microfilm, had shown that despite the natural disadvantages of her sex Cordel had risen to Executive Officer of Broken Spear before that late ship’s collapse from heaven. Most of the girl officers who came into the service under the Navy’s occasional outbreaks of gender-rebalancing soon enough yielded to destiny and their biological imperatives and found more suitable work as service wives, competing as hostesses to aid their chosen man’s rise to Admiral in the no-less vicious battlefields of the salon and ballroom. Not for Commander Cordel these sharp-nailed sham combats. In the time I had studied her file, I had developed a fond respect for her, nurtured amid the hope that she had been one of the survivors mentioned in the desperate longwave help signal which had finally arrived at Gloster Station after laboring at lightspeed across the echoing darkness between the stars.
Now I cast my eyes upon this woman who had served as sort of a shadow idol to me in the months of our journey to this unnamed place, Girl Friday to the great Captain’s Robinson Crusoe. Had it been her footprints which disturbed the bright, brittle dust outside as she found whatever resources had sustained them all these years? At any rate, she was yet slim as any message torpedo, her rough-spun tunic cut in homage to a uniform doubtless long worn to raveling threads but still hinting at womanly charms beneath. Her eyes gleamed bright with genius as any worthy man’s, her charming chestnut hair in an unbecoming style fit only for such a primitive place, shot through with a silver when lent her gravitas beyond her gender.
“So, Captain de Vere,” she said, her voice like vacuum frost on a lander’s struts, “you are come among us. Even in the face of our pleas for you to keep your distance.”
Despite myself I nearly bowed, so elegant was her manner. Were there women this controlled, this powerful, even among the silk-walled drawing rooms at the core of the Empire? I strongly doubted it. She might have been a duke’s consort had she remained in society, or even dowager-duchess of some cluster of lucky planets. Though I supposed this woman who had fought so hard for the twinned comets of her rank would hardly shed her uniform for the love of either a man or politics.
I settled on a salute. “My orders are all too plain, ma’am.”
Cordel favored Lehr with a look in which I fancied I espied the smoldering ashes of prior argument, though the flash in her eyes was lost upon his sightless gaze. She then returned her attention to me, with a focus as tight as any comm laser. “So you have told us. ‘Search and rescue with all despatch survivors and assets of Broken Spear.’ Did it never occur to you that the survivors and assets might have made their peace with fate after all these years?”
Behind me, snickers broke out amid the ranks of my contact team. Those men would pay, later, with a thrashing or a discipline parade depending on how my temper had settled by then. I knew Heminge would rat out the culprit, and satisfied myself with a promise of a pointed discussion later on.
“Ma’am…” I chose my words with care and some precision, allowing for the sort of dauntless ego which had to be in the makeup of any woman of Cordel’s achievements. “Commander, rather. With respect, it was your broadcast seeking assistance which summoned us to this place. Broken Spear was stricken from the ship list twenty-eight years ago, after she’d been missing thirty-six months from her last known course and heading.” I drew myself up, tapping the deep well of pride in the service which had always been an inspiration to me. “The Imperial Navy does not leave starmen behind.”
“Nor starwomen, apparently,” she said with that chill still in her tone. I did fancy that a smile ghosted at the edge of her stern but striking face, even as another snicker escaped behind me.
It would be a thrashing, I thought, and a good one, down in the ship’s gymnasium, something to make those monkeys remember respect.
“Enough,” said Lehr. His voice was as ravaged as his expression, a mountain slipface given over to gravity’s claims until there was only rough gravel and rude streams left to trap the unwary. “You are here. Perhaps you will profit thereby.” He leaned forward on his throne—and throne it was, for all that his seat had been the captain’s chair salvaged from Broken Spear’s bridge, the toggles and interfaces embedded in its generous arms long gone dark as the spark within their commander’s eyes. Rocks, perhaps uncut gems, had been applied to the surfaces, creating strange patterns and half-recognizable friezes which his hand stroked as he spoke. Comfort, or some fingered language, a geological Braille reserved for his special use?
Lehr’s blank gaze met my face as if he were still blessed with the gift of sight. That confident stone stare clamped a hard chill upon my spine, which I sought not to show as weakness before the captain’s formidable executive officer. “We are upon a time of change here, Captain de Vere. It may be well enough that you are come among us.”
It was a voice and manner that would recall any starman to his days as the rawest recruit, all left feet and ten-thumbed hands, much like a man grown and bearded might be yet a quaking boy before the echo of wrath bursting from an aging father. Nonetheless, my duty to my command and my orders sustained me against this unexpected onslaught of primitive emotion. “Indeed sir, and what would this time of change be?”
The captain’s laugh was as rough as his speech, a sort of stony chuckle that gathered momentum until another layer was stripped from the gravel of his voice in a wheezing hack. The look with which Cordel favored me would have chilled a caloric insulator, but I resolutely ignored her, awaiting her commander’s pleasure.
“I am dying, de Vere,” he finally managed to say. “And dying I divide my kingdom among my daughters.” His arm, still great-muscled and long enough to strike any man with the fist of authority, swept outward to encompass what lay behind my shoulders—the open end of his hall, where the cataclysm of Broken Spear’s demise had left a gap through which an enterprising man could have driven a herd of banths. “These green and pleasant lands which we have wrested from the anger of this world must be husbanded against the days of our children.”
I turned slowly, staring out past the strips of thermal cloth and fabric scraps which made a curtain insufficient to hide the glowing glass desert beyond. If anything the color of a Terran field prospered under than hideous giant sun, it was outside my reckoning. My team—Deckard the engineer, Heminge the security man, Beaumont the political and Marley the doctor—stared as well, each then turning to cast a shadowed look towards me.
When I once more faced the captain, Cordel’s face was twisted into a mask of silent misery, like a widow’s crumpled handkerchief. She betrayed nothing in her breathing, but a slight shake of her head confirmed what I already knew: to humor the ancient, failed madman in deference to his years of service and impending demise was the far better course than to slaughter his final, feeble hopes with the hard light of truth.
“Indeed, sir,” I said slowly, holding her gaze with mine. Could this gray-eyed Valkyrie be yet a natural woman beneath the veneer of discipline? “It is a fair world you have brought forth.” In that moment, a thought surfaced, blazing bright betrayal of my just-coined policy of polite fable. I am not a man to leave a thing alone, even in face of a desirable woman’s desperation, but surely he had not breached the chain of command so horribly as to get children upon his exec. There were no other women among Broken Spear’s crew list.
“Who are your daughters, sir?” I asked.
Like a metastable solution leaping to a crystalline state at the tap of a technician’s stirring rod, Cordel’s face hardened to wrath in that moment. Lehr, oblivious to anything beyond the soft stones of his eyes, said nothing.
A long minute of silence passed, underscored by the whistling of the hot wind outside and the slow, steady hiss of dustfall within, before I saluted again and excused myself and my party. We retreated beneath twin masks of blind indifference and bloody hatred, heading for the forge of sunlight beyond the shadows of this ruined starship palace.
* * *
We returned with all due haste to my own ship, INS Six Degrees. As an expeditionary cruiser, she was designed and built for descents into the treacherous territory of planetary gravity wells. The constraints of naval architecture generally kept ships in orbit, safe from weather, natural disaster or the less sophisticated forms of civil disturbance. Not Six Degrees. She was wrought as a great disc, capable of sliding through atmosphere layers without expending overmuch power, but now sitting balanced on tripodal struts atop a karst outcrop some kilometer and a half from Lehr’s location. It was a natural vantage for defense, with a view of the broken valleys that led toward the crystalline cliffs, and a clear line of sight to the dull bulk that had once been Broken Spear.
When aboard, I abandoned my resolve to enforce justice among my officers in favor of a swift council of war with respect to the soon-to-be-late Captain Lehr and the matter of his ship. We had reviewed a dozen major action plans in the long, cold months of transit to this system, but none of our contingencies had included finding any of the crew alive.
I had secret orders, that not even the weasel Beaumont had seen, pertaining to the handling of Broken Spear and her cargo. Six Degrees carried a planet-buster in her number two hold, most unusual armament indeed for an expeditionary cruiser, but some of the outcomes modeled in the files of my sealed orders suggested that I might be called upon to execute that most awful responsibility of command—ordering wholesale death to be visited upon an entire world. Even if all we eliminated was the buzz of strange arthropods, it would still be acknowledged a great and terrible crime
It did not rank among my ambitions to be recorded in history as de Vere the Planetkiller. But Broken Spear’s secrets needed to stay lost—a determination which I was given to understand had been reached among the highest of the ivory-screened chambers of the Imperial House.
But no one had imagined that Lehr yet lived, king of a broken kingdom, attended upon by Cordel. And who were his so-called daughters?
My sons, as it were, surrounded me. Deckard, wiseacre but loyal, stood at one end of the ward room, his head deep in the hood of an inform-o-scanner brought in for our purposes.
Heminge, stolid as his pistol but equally reliable as both peacekeeper and weapon, sat at the conference table which had been pulled up from the deck and secured into place, a red marker in hand as he reviewed reconnaissance photography of this world, still damp from the imaging engines. The good Doctor Marley, paler and more slightly built than the rest of us, sly and twisty as ever, a master of challenge without quite rising to the level of insubordination, was down in the sick bay, making notes about his observations of Lehr and Cordel with a promise to return shortly.
And of course there was Beaumont. My Imperial Bureau of Compliance liaison, by courtesy holding rank of Lieutenant Commander, and serving without apparent qualification or experience as executive officer on my ship, forced upon me by the nature of this mission. I would have been unsurprised to find that despite my sealed orders he had separate knowledge of my charge with respect to the planet-buster. Here was a man created by Nature to climb the ladders of power like a weasel in a hydroponics farm. Were I free to do so, I would have strapped him to that bloody bedamned bomb and dropped them both into the nearest star. Instead, he currently sat opposite me, his face set in that secretive smirk which seemed to be his most ordinary expression, hands steepled before his lips as if in prayer, his black eyes glittering.
Beaumont spoke into his fingertips: “So, Captain de Vere, such a pretty trail you have set yourself to. Do you plan to offer aid and comfort to Broken Spear’s survivors?”
“Imperial Military Code is clear enough,” I replied. “We are required to render such assistance as our capabilities permit, and evacuate however many survivors we can accommodate, so long as those left behind are not so reduced in numbers or required skills as to be in peril of their lives.”
“Codex three, chapter seven, subchapter twenty one. Good enough, Captain.”
“I’m so pleased to have your approval, Commander. I misdoubt me that they will come. They were not pleased to see us.”
Heminge interrupted without looking up from his photographs, though he was most certainly listening intently. “Where is the command section? The portions of Broken Spear which are identifiably hull down on this world do not include the command section.”
“Does it matter?” snapped Beaumont.
Heminge looked up, met the political officer’s eyes. “Yes. It does matter. Sir. Captain Lehr was sitting in a command chair. That means the command section was either at one time on the surface, having since departed, or that it survived undamaged in orbit long enough for interior components to be removed and brought down by other means.”
Deckard spoke from the depths of his viewing hood, his voice only somewhat muddled. “There are several metallic bodies in high orbit. One might assume they represented missing sections of Broken Spear.”
“Which suggests Lehr allowed the ship to be broken apart in orbit, and made an emergency landing with the main hull section,” I said. The cargo-at-issue on board Broken Spear had been carried in the captain’s safe, immediately behind the bridge on that hull type. Had they landed the command section as well and taken the cargo off? Or moved it to the main hull section before bringing that down?
It had been a terribly dangerous thing to do, whatever the reason. And the nature of Lehr’s throne underscored that the object of my search could be anywhere.
I considered my regret for the planet-buster in the belly of Six Degrees. Marley bustled into the ward room, speaking quickly as he always did: “Only one woman on that ship, de Vere, which is one more than our lot has got. Don’t know why he thinks he has daughters—Allison Cordel hasn’t been gravid any more than I have. Not her, she’d never carry to term.” Marley slid into a chair. “Lehr’s dying, I’m fairly certain. In this environment, one must assume cancer or radiation poisoning. How he lasted this long is more than a small mystery. Delusional, of course, too, seeing green fields beyond his inner horizon. Gentlemen, what are we about now?”
“Shut up,” Beaumont suggested.
“We are being signaled,” Deckard added, emerging from his hood. He touched the personal comm unit strapped to his wrist. A cluster of microphones and screens and speaker grilles unfolded from the overhead.
“Attention Six Degrees,” said a strange, flat voice, the caller devoid of emotion or inflection. I could scarce determine whether it was a man or woman who spoke. “Do you copy?”
“This is Six Degrees, de Vere commanding,” I replied in my crispest training academy voice, waving madly at Deckard to indicate that he should track the source of the signal. “Please identify yourself.”
“I am Ray Gun.”
I exchanged glances with my command crew. Beaumont’s face was sour and pinched…he never had either a sense of humor or an imagination. The others displayed varying degrees of thoughtful interest, though Marley was smiling strangely behind his hand.
“And you are whom and where…?”
Deckard flashed one of Heminge’s photo prints, an image of one hemisphere of this world as shot from our approach to the planet. He circled it with his finger.
Orbit? I mouthed.
My chief engineer nodded.
How could that be? But an unknown agency of Lehr’s in orbit was no stranger than what we had already seen. The associated comm lag explained the strange rhythm of this conversation, for one.
“Ray Gun. I am one of Lehr’s daughters. Bound to Cathar, who loves me as the stars love the horizons of evening.”
Marley twirled one index finger around his temple.
For a woman, Ray Gun had a remarkably sexless voice. Not for her the tingling tones of Cordel’s strong contralto, intertwined womanly charm and matronly discipline that went straight to my gut. And other parts. Ray Gun’s strangeness made me wonder about this Cathar.
“And you are in orbit, Ray Gun?” I said. “How may I help you?”
Deckard shook his head, while Beaumont looked increasingly sour. I knew perfectly well what both of my officers were about—trying to puzzle how there were more women in this place. Unless Lehr had begat children on Cordel shortly after their arrival. But who would place a girl-child in orbit, and how? Why? This world was a conundrum and then some.
“My father has divided his kingdom between the best of his daughters,” said Ray Gun primly. “We who love him most shall carry his standard. It is I who rule the skies above.”
Deckard was back under the sensor hood, Marley made more notes, while Beaumont now stalked the deck in angry thought, glaring at me as Heminge watched him carefully. I glared back. Perhaps I could leave him here with the madmen and women.
“I’m very pleased to hear that,” I told her.
“Good.” Ray Gun’s voice fell silent a moment. Then: “Do not listen to Cordel. She will betray the king my father’s dream. You should leave. Cathar says so, and he is never wrong.”
I was leaning toward Marley’s theory. “Thank you for the information.”
“Cathar and Kern will move against her soon. Best you stay away. Leave now, Six Degrees, while your purpose and dignity are intact.”
Who the hell was Kern? “I shall take your remarks under advisement.”
“Ray Gun out.”
I looked at my command crew. They stared back at me, Deckard emerging from the sensor hood.
“That was very strange,” Heminge said.
Deckard nodded. “I got a signal lock. It’s one of those metallic objects I found earlier. Command section would seem to be likely.”
“So who is Ray Gun? Not to mention Cathar and Kern?”
Beaumont swung around, breaking the momentum of his pacing to face me with barely-suppressed menace, as if he thought I was to be intimidated by a darker sort of passion mixed with the threat of his connection to the secretive political puppet masters of the Empire. “This is stupid, de Vere. All of it. You know what do. Everything else is just pointless theater of the mind.”
Heminge’s voice was quiet. “The bomb?”
Though my orders were in strictest confidence, the planet-buster itself was hardly a secret aboard my ship. It filled the number two hold, a modified re-entry vehicle designed to be launched from orbit. Any man could deduce its intended use. A smart man wouldn’t comment on it. Especially not in front of Beaumont.
“Yes, the bomb, you moron,” snapped Beaumont.
“So whatever is in our secret orders,” Heminge put his hand up, palm out, “and don’t get excited, we must have secret orders, since we’re not carrying that thing on a cargo manifest, and it is fully commissioned. As I was saying, whatever is in our secret orders must be very important indeed, for you to take such disregard for the lives of two commissioned officers of the Imperial Navy. Not to mention crew and dependents, regardless as to their number or sanity.”
“They’re dead.” Beaumont’s voice was flat. “They’ve been legally dead since Broken Spear was taken off the ship list. Lehr and Cordel are walking around breathing, but their commissions lapsed twenty-eight baseline years ago.”
“So whatever it is, this great, terrible secret is worth their lives, without any respect to their legal existence?”
I stood, took a deep breath. “Yes. Though it burns me to agree with my good Lieutenant Commander Beaumont.” I cast him another sidelong glare, sickened by the look of triumph on his face. “Our view of the outcomes may be the same, but our view of the process differs. I prefer to dance a few measures in this theater of the mind. Our Captain Lehr holds secrets behind the marble of his blind eyes, gentlemen, and I propose to have them out of him if possible. They might just save his life at that.”
Heminge nodded, his eyes still on Beaumont as he spoke. “How long, Captain?”
“On my authority,” Beaumont said, one hand straying to the pistol at his belt, “a day.”
“No.” I stared him down. “I command here. You may have my commission when we get home, but until then the decision is mine.” The orders had been clear enough. We weren’t to spend time on site, lest we become contaminated too. I’d already consigned Six Degrees and her crew to extensive quarantine on our return, simply by landing and approaching Lehr in person—a fact as yet understood by no one but Beaumont, though I suspected Marley of either knowing or deducing it for himself. “As long as it takes.”
Beaumont refused to flinch. “A time limit, de Vere.”
Sadly, he was right. “Seventy-two hours, then.”
Deckard walked across the ward room, slammed his shoulder into Beaumont, knocking the political officer backwards, though they were of a height and build. “Excuse me, sir. My clumsiness.” He turned back toward me. “If time is short, we should be working.”
“As you were, Beaumont,” I shouted, before he could spring up off the deck. “We’re going back out. I want to speak to Cordel.” About these daughters, I told myself. The old man himself was useless, lost in the hallucination of a green world and decades of blind introspection.
“I’ll bet you do,” Beaumont muttered, picking himself up with a slow, false dignity. “I’ll just bet you do.”
* * *
We trudged across the dry crystal beds, gravel washed down from the distant cliffs. They smelled like talcum, with the astringent overlay of this world’s native organics, stirred by the hot winds to a sort of dehydrated atmospheric soup which would eventually damage our lungs if breathed too long. The sun glinted hot, mauve steel in the sky, hiding the mysterious Ray Gun somewhere behind its glare.
Ray Gun had to be inhabiting Broken Spear’s missing command section. I glanced upward, shading my eyes from the daystar’s killing brilliance. Where was she?
Of course. Ray Gun was an “it.”
“Deckard,” I said, picking my way past a shining bush that resembled a fan of coral rendered by a drunken glassblower. “Did Broken Spear have onboard AI support?” Intelligence-boosted systems went in and out of fashion over the decades in a sort of endless tug-of-war between the inherent instability of such self-aware entities, prone to mental collapse after a brief, hot life-cycle, and the high value of an intelligence not subject to the disorientations of supraluminal travel nor the stresses of high acceleration.
“Depends,” puffed my engineer.
“Depends on what?” asked Beaumont nastily.
I heard Deckard grunt, almost as if struck, but he could take care of himself. He chose the high road: “On whether she was pre- or post-Yankelov Act. Her ship class originally did, but there was a refit wave after the AI regs changed, right around the time Broken Spear was lost.”
I thought that over. “So Ray Gun might be Lehr’s ship’s systems. All alone up there in orbit all these years.”
“Crazy as an oxygen miner three days after a comet claim,” said Marley.
“Indeed. And one of Lehr’s daughters.”
“Maybe Cathar’s the other one,” Heminge said.
A stranger stepped from behind a pillar of stacked rubble and glittering silica. “Cathar is a traitor,” he declared.
Heminge and Beaumont both drew their weapons. I kept my own hands away from my holstered pistol and the swift death it could deal like the sword of justice. This was not my courtroom. Instead, I studied the stranger as he studied me, ignoring the armed threat my men presented.
He was whipcord thin, naked as the landscape and much like the sullen world around us covered with white dust that sparkled and flecked as he moved. That coating matched the sparse, silvered hair upon his head and about his shriveled penis, and the thousand-kilometer stare in his eyes, which seemed to bore right through me from beneath his hooded brows. Here was a man who looked across years, and bore their wounds upon his body. I could count his ribs, and the cords on his neck twitched as he spoke. He was no better armed than the wind.
“Another one rises from the earth,” I said mildly. “Of the crew?”
“Lieutenant Fishman,” he replied. His voice was as cracked as his skin, also a thing of this world. What this place had done to people, I thought. He raised his hands. “You should go. Before Granny Rail finds you.”
“Surely you mean Ray Gun?”
“No.” He laughed, a mirthless chuckle dry as an old bone. “She has taken the sky from my Captain. Granny Rail has taken the world. Lehr lives on sustained only by the love of Lady Cordel and myself.”
Beaumont shoved forward, pistol in his hand. “Granny Rail. You’re as cracked as that old rummy, Lieutenant Fishman. Go back to your hole in the soil and count yourself lucky to have any days remaining in your life.”
Fishman shifted his long-range stare to drill through Beaumont. “You wouldn’t understand loyalty, would you, man? Count yourself lucky to have any minutes remaining in your life.”
Three gouts of dark fluid spouted in Beaumont’s chest, grim flowers bringing color to this drab and barren landscape even as his final words died in his mouth. A smile quirked across Fishman’s taut face as the rest of us dropped, but the great, gray-silver spider thing which erupted from the ground ignored him completely.
It whirled, clattering, a motile version of the crystalline plants of this world, except for the well-worn but fully functional Naval-issue assault rifles in two claws. Rolling up against a back-breaking jag of rocks, I drew my own pistol, but the blunted flechettes intended for antipersonnel use in vacuum-constrained environments would have very little effect on this bright, spinning monster.
Heminge moved past me, firing his much more deadly meson pistol. The rays gleamed with an eerie anti-light, the air ripping as the weapon sundered the very molecules that sustained us all, dust particles flashing into component atoms in the same moment to create an eye-bending sparkle which distracted even our ferocious many-limbed assailant.
One rifle exploded, taking the tip end of an arm with it in a shower of glass, accompanied by an ammoniac ordure very much at odds with the gleaming destruction. The other rifle swung to Heminge as he collided with the fast-moving legs, tumbling amid their silver-gray stems like a man in a twisting cage.
I launched myself after him, noting out of the corner of my eye Deckard taking a headshot on Beaumont, even as Marley scrambled for better cover, his medical kit already in his hand. Ever an optimist, the doctor, thinking about who might live to be the recipient of his attentions. The rifle spat again and something burned my thigh with the fire of a solar prominence, but then I was in among the legs, pressing the bell of my flechette pistol against a joint and firing even as Heminge shouted something unintelligible and loosed his meson pistol into the dented, dull ball which seemed to serve as nerve center and balance point for our enemy.
The very air ripped once more and my hair caught fire, then the thing exploded in a clattering shower of legs.
For a moment there was only the patter of debris and the whirl of dust devils, the ammonia scent of local death mixing with the stench of my burnt hair. I looked up, for somehow I was not standing any more, to see the long legs of Fishman above me.
“Granny Rail will be angry,” he said, smiling enough to show shattered teeth that gleamed even within the shadows of his mouth.
I was amazed that I could hear him. I struggled for my voice, choking on dust, some thick, pooling liquid, and—though it shamed me—fear. “I want Cordel,” I said, my finger crooking on the trigger of my pistol.
Marley bent over me while Deckard gathered pieces of the monster. Heminge, who unaccountably still had all his hair, grabbed at Fishman’s arm. “We will find her.”
* * *
A few minutes later my leg was bandaged and splinted. Deckard had the pieces of the monster laid out in roughly their original relationship, albeit disjointed and unmotivated now, studying them with the intensity of a mystic at the feet of their god. Marley squatted on his heels and watched me just as carefully.
“What is it we came to kill?” the doctor finally asked me. “Surely not these madmen with excessively high survival quotients?”
I could not be certain that I wasn’t dying—Heminge’s meson pistol had done more to my head than simply burn my hair off, either that or our assailant had struck me a chance blow there amidst the battle. Beaumont was dead unmourned, and so would not report me for treasonous speech. I could see him, steaming slightly, something wrong even with his blood. “Broken Spear,” I said, finding the words difficult. My mind formed them well enough, but something was wrong with my mouth and throat. “Broken Spear…carried…biologicals. Templates.”
Marley’s mouth twisted, his eye thoughtful. “Combat viruses?”
I tried to nod, but that was worse than speaking. “Uh huh. Tactical…population…con…control.”
He glanced around. “If they’re loose, we’re all already infected. We may never go home.”
“I can imagine. Well, whatever it is didn’t kill all of these people. There’s at least three of these lunatics left, after several decades. Which makes me wonder if the virus ever got into the wild.”
My voice was coming back to me. “Not much…population control…there.”
The doctor grinned. “You’re returning to us, captain. Had me worried for a minute or two.”
Deckard wandered over, a broken crystal rod in his hand. He cocked his head, stared at me as he wrinkled his nose. “You going to live, sir?”
“Yes.” I wasn’t ready to sit up, though.
“That thing was a highly modified Naval recon drone. Cyborged, if that’s the right word, with components from the local ecosystem. Somebody’s spent a lot of time over the years.”
“Somebody’s had a lot of time,” I managed. Then: “Bury Beaumont, will you? Please?”
They exchanged glances.
* * *
Cordel came to me at last, trailed by Heminge with his pistol still in his hand and Fishman wearing a truculent expression. The ancient Lieutenant seemed to be so much furniture to his superior officer, but even I could see that when his eyes turned toward her, that thousand-kilometer stare came into bright focus.
I knew how he felt.
“I am sorry about your man,” she said.
“I’m too tired to fence.” My voice was quiet and slow. Marley and Deckard had propped me up against a rock, for the sake of my dignity. I had refused to be moved back to the ship until after I’d met Cordel, here, on open ground. The spider-thing still smoked nearby, evidence of someone’s perfidy, and the pulsing sunlight seemed a better choice to me than the oily-aired, whispering corridors of Six Degrees. “So I will simply ask, on your life, ma’am. What has become of the biologicals Broken Spear was carrying in the captain’s safe?”
Her puzzlement was genuine, as best as I could tell. “Biologicals? We carried no biologicals, Captain de Vere. Not beyond the standard cultures in our sick bay.”
“You’ve been here thirty years and Lehr never mentioned this?”
She folded her knees, bending down to speak to me at eye level. I could have watched her legs move, stork-scissors, for hours. And had she opened to me, a little, some sense of engagement in those gray eyes? In that moment, I was ashamed of the reek of my injuries. “Captain,” Cordel said. “I emptied the safe the one time Ray Gun landed on the surface. There was nothing of the kind, I assure you. Wherever did you come to think we were carrying something like that?”
I turned her statements over in my head. Why was I sent to crack a world to cinders? “What is Broken Spear’s terrible secret, then?”
“Ah,” she said, her face shuttering. “Perhaps you should speak to my captain once more.”
“He is too busy gazing at green fields beyond,” I muttered.
“Indeed.” She stood. “Fishman, gather this man up with all due gentleness and bring him to Lehr.”
Deckard and Marley stepped forward together to object, but Cordel turned her glare, now pure ice, upon them. “Granny Rail will not bother Fishman. Hands free, you two might be able to win through with your lives if we are attacked once more by her servants.”
And so we went, my head lolling back as I stared into the deepening colors of evening and tried to remember why I’d ever wanted to come to this world.
* * *
Approaching Lehr’s palace, Deckard and Heminge were attacked by another of the spider-monsters. It lurched out of a stand of the crystalline growth, brushed past Marley and headed straight for the other two. I watched from my curious angle of repose in Fishman’s arms—I am not light at all, which gave me cause to wonder at the Lieutenant’s strength, especially in his advanced age—as Heminge snapped off a meson bolt which sheared two legs, while Deckard pumped flechettes into a high-stepping joint. Heminge’s second shot slagged the underslung central core, proving that the creatures’ advantage lay in surprise, which advantage they had now surrendered.
It was almost too easy, though I wondered why the attacker had not gone for Marley first. Perhaps because he carried no armament?
Then we swept through the curtains and into the hall of the blind king of this world. Lehr leaned forward on his throne, chin set upon his hand in an attitude of thoughtful repose. “Welcome, de Vere,” he said, staring toward our little party at a height somewhat above my own angled head.
So, the great man did not know I was being carried wounded to be laid before his throne.
I tugged at Fishman to set me down. Deckard stepped forward to support me upright, that I might rise to meet the gaze of this shattered king, while Heminge made no subtle secret of covering one then another of our adversaries with his meson pistol. Only Marley held back, somewhere behind me, breathing louder than the rest of us.
“Captain,” I replied, in my best voice. “Once more I greet you. Your executive officer has suggested we speak as commander to commander.”
“My ship is broken,” he intoned. “My kingdom divided among my loyalmost daughters.” Cordel winced but held her tongue at this. “My time is nearly finished, de Vere. What will you of me?”
“I must know sir, to carry out my own duties. What secret did your ship carry?”
He stared a while, silent, almost unbreathing. Only the wind stirred, changing tone with the coming of night in the world beyond this shattered hull. I could hear Marley panting like some dog, though Deckard and Heminge were quiet enough. The moment grew close, some great truth waiting to emerge.
What had I been sent to kill?
“The mind,” Lehr finally said. “The mind. We were first sworn then forsworn, de Vere. As you have been in turn.”
What was he getting at? “The biologicals…they affect mental templates?”
“Minds. Admiral Yankelov feared much, and set us to testing in a faraway place. I broke my own ship, captain, rather than return, for I could not carry out the mission which had been laid upon me.”
Yankelov, of the AIs. “Machine minds.”
“Exactly. Broken Spear was set to test a crew of machine minds. Could a warship be flown, and fought, without a fleshly hand at the helm? What do you think, de Vere?”
I thought that I did not like this line of reasoning.
“And when my mission failed, when the minds grew fractious and independent, too powerful to be obedient, too disobedient to be entrusted with power, I was to terminate them.” He leaned forward, hands shaking, and somehow found my face once more with his blind stare. “But I could not. They had become my children. My daughters.”
And so I had been sent, Six Degrees beneath my feet, planet-buster in my hold, to make sure this plague of independence did not flow back into the Empire. No wonder they had emasculated the ships after the Yankelov Act. Starships with their weapons could not sail under the command of rebellious machines any more than they could sail under the command of rebellious men.
“I am sorry, sir.”
“Not so sorry as you think, de Vere.” Lehr shifted on his throne. “Ray Gun circles the skies, and Granny Rail walks the soil. Why do you think I have kept Cordel close, for all her disloyalties, and Fishman, who in the end is fit for little but screaming into the night?”
Behind me, Marley’s breathing changed. The good doctor stirred, moved toward some end I did not yet fathom. In that moment I was glad that it was Heminge who held the meson pistol.
“Because they are all who are left you of your crew,” I said. “It is clear enough.”
Lehr shook his head. “We would never survive here. Even if I had gotten an infant on Cordel, before all our gonads were cooked by that wicked star, what of it? Only the children of the mind could live here. They have built me a green world I soon go to, and they will outlive us to inherit this one.”
“I do not think so, sir. This cannot be.”
“But why do you question?” Lehr seemed surprised. “You are one of them.”
“What?” My ears buzzed, as if I had been struck on the head again.
Marley grabbed my shoulder. “Back to the ship, sir. You’ve had enough.”
I shook him off. “No. I will hear him out.”
Lehr, again, loudly now as he rose on trembling legs. “I am king here, I know who passes my marches. Granny Rail’s spiders do not assault the meat, only the mind. They patrol for sports, escapists, invaders.” A hand rose, pale finger with cracked, black nail pointing in a shivering palsy toward my chest. “Much like yourselves. You, sir, are a machine.”
Leaning on Deckard, I rolled up my sleeve.
“Sir,” said Marley again, and his voice was desperate.
“No.” I took my knife from my belt, unfolded it, and set the tip against the skin of my inner forearm. The blade slid in with a slight stretching and a fiery bolt of pain. Blood welled. Dark blood, dark as Beaumont’s had been.
Black blood, smelling of oil, like the air of my ship.
“A test,” said Marley quietly. “Which you are now failing, my friend.”
I looked at him. He was smaller, paler than me. Deckard, Heminge, the late Beaumont, we all four were of a height, with space-dark skin and faces nearly the same. Marley was different. As for the rest of Six Degrees’ crew, they were…
I knew my ship to be filled with petty officers and ratings and lieutenants, to be more than just my command crew, but in that moment I could not recall a single face or name. Just a shuffling crowd of uniforms.
“I never was,” I said to Marley. “Nothing was real until we came here, was it?”
He shook his head. “No, I—”
Heminge’s meson pistol blasted Marley into glittering pink fog. No one flinched except Cordel, perhaps the only true human left among us depending on where madness had deposited the good Lieutenant Fishman.
“Back to the ship, sir,” my security officer said brusquely, with a glance at Lehr. “The king has his appointment with the country of the green, and we have our mission.”
“Our own appointment,” I said sadly.
Lehr continued to fix his blind gaze upon me. I appealed to him, the one authority who understood. In some indirect sense, my own father. “Sir…” I shuffled forward, supported by Deckard, and let my face tip into his hands. They trembled, warm and tinged with honest sweat. He stroked my hair a moment, a blessing.
Then: “Go, de Vere. Find your own fate as I shall soon find mine.”
And so I went, followed by my unbreathing crew. The last I saw of Lehr, Cordel and Fishman were closed around him, angels fluttering to the aid of a dying god.
* * *
Six Degrees was empty, of course. Though the companionways and cabins were where my memory had said they should be, they were unpeopled. Decorated, sets for a play that the actors had abandoned. The ship even smelled empty, except for the vague stench of my burnt hair which preceded our every step. How had we ever believed ourselves surrounded by men?
Down in the number one hold we found four coffins. Or perhaps crates. Our names were stenciled on the lids, an accusation: Beaumont, de Vere, Deckard, Heminge.
“Marley flew us here, alone,” said Deckard into the echoing, oily silence. “He pulled us out, filled us with memory, thought and faith, and here we are.”
That was true enough. I remembered meetings, back in Sector Control, though when I strained for details they slipped away like eels in a recycling tank. Memories of memories, rather than the real thing.
Like being a copy of a real person. Was anything I knew true? “Why?” I asked, leaning ever more heavily on Deckard.
“A new generation of machines, I suppose,” Heminge said bitterly. “It all makes a sort of twisted. Recasting the lessons of Lehr and Broken Spear. Fitting enough to send us here in pursuit. Convenient enough to lose us here if need be. It worked for them.”
“So who was the sixth?”
“Sixth what?” asked Heminge.
“Six Degrees, this hollow ship is named. Four of us, Marley the doctor and director of our little act. Who was the sixth?”
Deckard cleared his throat. “Lehr. Father and king to us all. His is our sixth.”
I turned this in my head. “Are we real…somewhere? Are we copies, of someone?” We must have been, I realized. Who would bother to create a Beaumont from nothing?
“I am my own man,” said Deckard. He grinned at my stare. “So to speak.”
Heminge stroked his coffin. “Do we bust the planet, or do we break the ship?”
“Or do we sail home and ask for an accounting?”
Deckard looked thoughtful. “Lehr’s green fields are out there somewhere.”
“In his mind.”
“But we are all creatures of mind. That is all we are.”
“Then go,” I told him.
Heminge handed Deckard the meson pistol, then took my weight against his shoulder. “Good luck, man. You might need it.”
We struggled to the bridge, where we waited til the engineer was gone, then sealed the hatches. On the viewscreens the world outside glittered in the pallid moonlight, stars glinting. Wind scrabbling at the hull.
Which parts were real?
“Anything could be true,” Heminge said, obviously sharing my thought. “Marley could have programmed the planet-buster to blow if we lifted without some escape code. The bomb could be a dummy. This entire ship could be a dummy, just like all those empty cabins, something big and bad waiting in orbit to blast us.”
“Anything could be true,” I agreed. “That is what it means to be human.”
I reached for the launch button, a great red roundel that glowed slightly. “To green fields beyond, then.”
Heminge nodded. “And long life to Lehr.”
Still feeling the set of my father’s hands upon my brow, I pressed the button, hoping like any man for the future.