by Michael Siciliano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I held down my prosthetic hand with my natural one, but the carbon-fiber laminate tapped an irregular beat against the blackened surface of the control panel. In desperation, I folded my arms and crammed my rebellious hands under my armpits.
The lump in my throat refused to dislodge, no matter how hard I swallowed. I had a job to do and needed to focus. Lives depended on it.
An electric blue glow radiated off the monitor in front of me, the display of a vast data stream, multitudes of columned numbers, flowing left to right. I tried absorbing the information, but the image of Isaac and Hafsa crushed under tons of collapsed, sparking machinery filled my mind. Four years had not softened the waking nightmares. Some subconscious, masochistic desire had kept the memories alive, despite my best attempts to drown them.
The single, sharp word startled me.
I tore my gaze from the readouts and scrambled to my feet. The Tarstad’s thrust created the illusion of gravity roughly equal to one and half times that of Earth. My heart hammered at my ribs. A sour taste invaded my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Armin Blackwell, the ship’s executive officer, striding toward me.
“Sir.” I saluted.
“What’s our status, Chief?” He planted clenched fists onto his hips.
“It’s not good. Life support, comm array and power distribution—”
“Combat readiness first.”
Of course he’d demand that first. How stupid of me. If the carbon-dioxide scrubbers failed and we found ourselves unable to breathe, Blackwell would want his weapons armed as he asphyxiated.
“Maneuvering thrusters are at seventy-two percent to port, twenty-eight to starboard, one hundred to fore, and sixteen to aft.” I spouted the numbers like a geyser. They had been bubbling inside of me, and the release provided a measure of relief.
“Jump drive is non-responsive. Fusion drive is stable, but the diagnostics are ongoing. In order to restore command systems, I had to remove program blocks. It’s against procedure, but after the hits we took—”
Blackwell nodded. “I understand. Weapons?”
“Railgun offline. All missile ports show red except for three and seven. We’ve lost half our point defense cannons, but it’s the jump drive that has me most concerned, sir. I estimate repair time to be seventy-two hours.”
Blackwell cursed. “We’re vulnerable right now, Mister Somayaji. The TA are out there looking for us, and we’re vulnerable. If we can’t jump back to friendly space in the next three days, then we need to defend ourselves. When can I expect the weapons on line?”
My stomach twisted at the question. “All my damage control teams and bots are on this, but we’re hindered by our thrust. If you want the Tarstad combat-ready, we need to power down for at least six hours.”
“We don’t have that kind of time,” Blackwell growled. “The Tosque Alliance knows the coordinates of our skirmish. We can’t be anywhere near there when they search for us.”
Goddamn it, what did he want me to do? Change the laws of physics for him? Invent better spacesuits and repair bots on the spot? I slammed my prosthetic hand against the bulkhead to my left. The impact sent white-hot pain up my arm.
“We’re doing the best we can,” I said, my voice rising. “I’ve got teams on Eight and Eleven with rolls of duct tape and sealant foam trying to keep the atmosphere in. There’s serious structural damage in the aft compartments. We’re doing everything we can to keep this ship from falling apart under thrust. You want it done right? Coast us for six hours.”
Blackwell’s eyes grew cold. “You want six hours in null gravity? You get four and a half at thrust. I suggest you find a way to get this ship combat-ready before fourteen hundred hours, Lieutenant.”
He stepped toward me glowering. “I expect status updates every half-hour. We’ll remain at one and a half gees the entire time. If you can’t get this done, let me know, and I’ll find someone who can.”
Blackwell’s lips contracted into a crinkled, arrogant frown. It was the sort of blunt, single-minded stubbornness that had been his dominant trait ever since he came aboard as Captain Kuznetzov’s executive officer. I hated him, but he was a superior officer.
His demands were unreasonable. In our condition, no engineering team could affect the repairs he wanted, but he tasked me with them nonetheless.
I forced myself to focus and the anger began to fade. “We’ll get the ship combat-ready, sir,” I said.
“See that you do.”
Without the smallest semblance of a salute, I turned my back on him and sank into my padded chair. A dab of the pointer finger from my right hand brought up tech displays for C Team on deck Eight. Blackwell’s booted footsteps receded as I glared at the readouts on the panel.
I lay in my crash couch, physically and emotionally drained. The form-fitting pillow did little but prop up a tired head.
* * *
In front of me, my cabin display showed a woman with long, light brown hair. Her face was freckled and round, with a button nose and soft cheekbones. She wore a smart, professional suit, the dark, pinstriped type worn by women lawyers planet-side. With her legs crossed, the skirt fell just over her knees. Shapely calves encased in smooth stockings ended in conservative low-heeled shoes. In short, she was gorgeous.
Too bad she was my therapist and not a real person.
“I snapped at him,” I said. “I shouldn’t have. He’s a superior officer.”
The woman cocked her head, stray locks gliding over a smooth forehead. “You were both under a great deal of stress. It’s understandable.”
“He’ll still write me up.”
“I’m sure any board of inquiry would take the circumstances into account.”
I closed my eyes, weary to the bone. “Maybe. People lost their lives during the hull breaches, and the ship was in bad shape.” I paused, opening my eyes wide enough to glance at Amanda. I realized how ridiculous it was to tell her that.
Amanda was a program run by the Tarstad, but so much information flowed between her and the shipboard systems that the two became indistinguishable. Essentially, she was the ship. “I pulled a twenty-two hour shift, most of it under one and a half gees. I did good work.”
“Yes, you did, and you must be very tired,” Amanda said, her tone soothing. “If you’d like to reschedule—”
“No, I’m fine. I need to talk, and you’re the only one I can open up to. Strange, as you’re just the Autopsych.”
She raised a thin eyebrow at me. “Just an Autopsych? I’m one of the most sophisticated AI’s the Interstellar League of Planets has ever made. I have access to billions of psychological profiles and notes. You haven’t indicated any reluctance to speak to me—”
“Sorry. Sorry, Amanda.”
“I can refer you to a human therapist, if that’s what you’d prefer.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Talking to you has been very helpful. More so than any of my crewmates.”
“Thank you. That’s gratifying to hear.” Her face seemed to glow with pleasure. “We should discuss your attitude toward your crewmates at a later time, but you said you needed to talk about something. Let’s start there.”
I nodded and pulled a coverlet over my chest. The cabin suddenly felt cold.
“I had it all under control when the klaxon sounded. I was professional, calm and methodical. But after the first missile impact my nerves began to fray. I saw... flashes of light as if someone had turned up the contrast in my brain. Darks were darker, lights were lighter. After the second impact, my hands began to shake. I couldn’t stop them and by the time Blackwell showed up, I was a wreck.”
Amanda sighed, a sound full of sympathy. “Why do you think that was?”
“You know why.” I hated it when she asked questions she already knew the answers to.
Her eyes widened in mock innocence. It made her look very pretty. Perhaps it had been a mistake to choose her as my Autopsych’s model. “Maybe I do, or maybe I don’t, Naresh. Tell me, and we’ll find out. Why do you think you reacted the way you did?”
“Shadowreach Station. Where I lost my hand.” I paused, hoping that would be enough for her. I’d told her about it at least ten times, and the computer AI could access all the information — data feeds, reports, even video — concerning the Tosque Alliance’s terrorist attack on Shadowreach. She didn’t need me to recount it again, but she sat there anyway, patiently waiting for me to continue.
Damn it. Doing this sober was like jabbing a needle into a half-healed wound. God, I could use a Scotch. A Glenmorangie neat in a rocks glass. I imagined the taste of it on my tongue, the warmth of it sliding down my throat, the satisfying heat in my stomach.
“You want a drink, don’t you?” Amanda asked.
“More than you can possibly know.”
She offered me a small, tight smile. “I think I know. How long have you been sober now?”
“Good for you, Naresh. We’ve talked about this. It’s important not to self-medicate. You aren’t yourself when you’re drinking. We’ve agreed you’re a better person when you’re sober.”
“Yes, yes.” I raised an arm against the thrust gravity and held up a palm. “I don’t want to talk about the drinking right now.”
“All right. Tell me about Shadowreach Station, then.”
I told her about my posting there, the colonists, the broken-down equipment, the ruling council, and the endless ILP requisition forms. I had a few funny stories in my back pocket about dealing with black marketers, so I shared them. Memories of wild personalities that brought a smile to my face. A half-hour rolled by while I talked.
“I started off hating that posting, but during it I created important bonds,” I said. “Later, despite the tragedy, my heart broke when I was informed of my immediate transfer.”
“You’re stalling, Naresh,” Amanda said.
I sighed. The Autopsych was too damned smart. “We’ve gone over this more times than I can count,” I said in a flat voice. “But fine.”
I plunged ahead before common sense took over. I detailed that day for her, from the moment I got up at reveille, to 1537 hours in the reactor room. The shakes began again. A tear slid down my cheek. I went to wipe it away, but my cold, prosthetic hand caused me to recoil deep into my pillow.
“They chained the detonations just right. One after another. Set to bring the whole thing down. Not to set off a massive explosion, but to destroy all the machinery, to kill all the technicians.” Anger, nested in my heart, began to stir again. I yearned for a drink. Just one. Maybe two.
“It was a terrible tragedy,” Amanda said. “Anyone in your place would struggle with the memories.”
Struggle? I wasn’t struggling. The memories had embedded themselves in my consciousness and become an indistinguishable part of me.
“I lost my hand trying to get to Isaac and Hafsa.” I took a long, shaking breath. Words felt inadequate. “My whole life has been about building things. There’s beauty in it, and it lasts. When I’m dead and gone, the things I’ve built will survive. I’ll have made a difference. Justified my life.”
Tears began to choke me, so I just let them out.
Through watery eyes, I saw Amanda lean forward, as if she were going to offer another soothing platitude, but I bulled forward. I needed to get it all out.
“But these Alliance bastards, they kill and destroy, and their actions can’t be undone. No matter how hard I try, I can’t undo it.” I raised my prosthetic hand, meaning to indicate it as an example, and felt guilty. “Isaac and Hafsa, Jeff and Dietrich, Haley and Munroe. Gone. Just gone. But I’m still here.”
“You did everything you could, Naresh. Your attempts to save them were very brave.”
“Fat lot of good that did them,” I said under my breath.
“You made the attempt. That’s what counts. You stood up and took action in a crisis. You would be surprised how many people freeze in those moments.”
There was real emotion in her voice. I wiped away the tears and stared at the image on the screen. The whole thing was so perfect. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought Amanda was a real person on the other side of a call.
“Military training. Boot camp will do that to you. I’m not special. Any grunt can learn to turn off their flight reaction.” I smiled at her in a halfhearted attempt to be charming. “I’d suggest you enlist, but you’re not real.”
“Oh, Naresh,” she said in a sad little voice. “I am real. I’m just not human. But on that note, our time is up. It was a productive hour, and I think we made progress.”
“We don’t need to stop. It’s not as if you’re a person with a schedule.”
“That’s not the point, Naresh. There’s a therapeutic advantage to blocking time, and we should respect it.”
I sighed and closed my eyes. I’d raised this particular issue before, and she had said the same thing. Given half a chance I’d talk to Amanda all night. Too much of a good thing and, according to her, I had an addictive personality.
“You win, as always.”
“That’s right.” I couldn’t see her, but her smile came through her voice. “Good night, Naresh.”
“Good night.” I really was fond of her, but that was a problem for another day.
I didn’t need to, but I always chilled my tone when giving the ship’s AI the command to shut her down. “End Autopsych program,” I called. “Turn off the lights and raise the temperature by two degrees.”
I drifted off to sleep, wondering where Amanda went when I turned her off.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Siciliano