ELUL 25, 5820
TORUS, SECTOR 98664, DATUM 11301
I hate my subconscious.
I don't believe in magic. I don't believe there's a spirit world that sends us messages or prophecies while we're sleeping. Our brains are complex, messy tangles of thoughts and memories, and when we go to sleep, they're still churning away, trying to make sense out of what we can't understand yet.
I'm sure there's a psychologically deducible reason for each of the things that show up in my dreams. What little girl didn't go through the I-want-a-pony stage while growing up? Okay, so maybe I was more into marine biology than most girls were. I still think it would be cool to have a half-pony, half-octopus creature to ride around the oceans.
So there I was, looking remarkably svelte in a bikini top and skintight leggings, astride my tentacled steed, lifting my trident high and preparing to skewer the malevolent kraken who threatened my peaceful kingdom, when the seas turned to blood and the skies began raining fire. I hate it when that happens.
I had just enough time to wonder if I, an amphibious denizen of the deep, and my mount would drown from being submerged in blood instead of water before huge black shapes descended from the sky on wings of ash. They screeched as they attacked, and the noise made it impossible to think. The deathbirds seemed to be crying in unison, with a steady, implacable rhythm.
I opened my eyes and saw a pink haze. Every few seconds, the pink turned red, and I heard the noise of the master alarm vibrating through the liquid in my Tank.
I've read that drowning and being buried alive are two of most people's greatest fears. I had what felt like an eternity to confront both those phobias. I lifted my arms as high as they would go--the Tank is not very tall, and I couldn't move my limbs very quickly through the perflubron or get a lot of momentum built up in the small space--and hammered against the top of the compartment.
I don't have a greatest fear. I have lots of equally dreadful medium-sized fears. And being stuck in that Tank, not knowing what was going on, having no control over anything--including, apparently, my own heart rate and breathing--this situation was hitting all the highlights.
Marvin appeared above me and moved his mouth. His hair was wet, his flight jumper rumpled and sticking to his damp body, and I couldn't hear a damn thing he was saying. I focused my strength and banged my forehead against the Tank lid until he looked down at me, then I glared at him. That's Rickford Group Sign Language for Stop being an idiot.
He mouthed something that might have been "sorry," then silenced the master alarm, grabbed a headset, and plugged it into the control panel on the side of my Tank.
"--still got five minutes on your warmup sequence," he said, his voice crackling as he jammed the audio jack forcefully into its receptacle. "Peter's in the cockpit already. Everyone else is, I don't know, three to six minutes behind you."
I couldn't speak or make any appreciable noise with the tube down my throat, so I banged my fists against the sides of the Tank, then spread my fingers and shook my palms from side to side. What the hell is happening?
Marvin nodded and said, "We've been hit. One of our main fuel tanks was ruptured. The autopilot's put us back on course, but it woke us up because we've now got no reserve fuel in case of another emergency. And if what hit us was debris from a shipwreck or an asteroid mine, there'll be more on the way. I'm trying to convince Peter to break radio silence so we can request long-range sensor data. Sorry, Natty, I need to get back."
He unplugged himself, leapt across the room, and disappeared through the forward hatch before I could attempt to sign anything else.
After the longest five minutes of my life waiting for the Tank to drain, I coughed out my breathing tube and shivered while pulling myself over to the locker holding my clothes. I toweled off my hair so it wasn't dripping, tied it back into a ponytail, then wiped off the rest of my body and put on a thermal garment. It was intended for use inside a pressure suit, where regulating body temperature could be tricky, but I knew that little bit of extra comfort would help me stay calm during a crisis. I pulled my flight suit on over the thermals and zipped it all the way up. Then I went to the cockpit.
True to his word, Marvin was still trying to talk Peter into breaking radio silence, even as they were patching together Gary's various short-range sensor readings into a better picture of what had hit us. They sat side by side, Marvin in the pilot's seat on the left, Peter in the co-pilot position on the right. The window in front of them showed nothing but blackness outside and reflections of the brightly lit control panels below. I grabbed the handholds on the backs of their seats, one arm on each side of the center console, and hovered between them.
"What am I doing?" I asked.
Marvin turned to look at me. "Breaking a tie."
Peter pointed a finger at Marvin. "This is not a democracy."
"And you're not a combat veteran," Marvin said, turning back.
Peter turned and fixed his gaze on Marvin. His eyes were hard and cold. "We are not breaking radio silence. We have orders."
"We are blind," Marvin said, then turned to me. "Whatever hit our fuel tank also took out our long-range sensors. We can't read nav beacons, we can't see if any other vessels are out there, and at this speed, we won't have enough time to react if we encounter any more debris."
My fingers tightened around the handholds on their chairs. I could feel the tension between them, and I wondered how long they would have continued sniping at each other before coming to blows. I also knew I had to defuse the situation before anyone else woke up. More people would just add more nervous energy to the system, making the fuse on this powderkeg burn even faster.
I pulled myself forward until my head was floating just between the two men.
"Peter," I said, "we're carrying an alien artifact that uses advanced technology. And it still works. I'm sure that, if we could talk to Othello, and we gave him a choice between safely delivering that artifact or maintaining radio silence, he'd pick option A."
"We're still on course," Peter said, not breaking his staring contest with Marvin. "We can extrapolate our position from computer data and gyro readings. Isn't that how you put us back on course?"
"There's going to be a lot of traffic when we drop back into the plane," Marvin said. He was talking about the ecliptic plane, a cartographic term for the flat disk within which the planets and asteroids orbit the Sun, and where most spacecraft travel. Navigation is easier in two dimensions than in three.
"We'll break radio silence when we get back into shipping lanes," Peter said.
"And what about any uncharted debris in the way?" Marvin asked. "Or some damn Torie who hasn't filed a flight plan?"
"He's got a point," I said.
Peter turned his gaze toward me, and I got a full dose of I didn't sign up for this shit.
"Maybe you've forgotten about that little incident we witnessed before leaving the Moon," Marvin said. "This whole place is now a war zone."
"I haven't forgotten," Peter said. "Don't exaggerate."
"They destroyed Europa Station!"
Before Peter could turn it into a shouting match, something impacted the front window. It was moving too fast for me to see more than a blur of white, but it left a spiderweb of cracks in the transparency. The thudding noise was still ringing in my ears as the alarm started sounding again.
"Status!" Peter said.
"We're okay." Marvin slapped at his console until the alarm stopped. "No breach. Window's repairing itself."
The cracks actually seemed to get smaller as I watched. I knew it was the window material expanding to fill the gaps, as it had been designed to do, but the effect was still magical. Our invisible shield. How long would it last?
"Peter," I said, and I didn't have to say anything else.
"Light it up, Marvin," he said, referring to the active scanners, which would send a wide spectrum of electromagnetic waves out in all directions, including radio packets to request navigation data from automated beacons and active radar to map any nearby objects.
"Natty," Marvin said, pointing to the navigator's station behind Peter.
"Got it," I said, pulling myself into the seat and strapping in.
The large screen in front of me showed a flat view of a sphere surrounding Gary. I put my hands on the touchpad strips on either side of the screen and moved my fingers, turning the view to get a better sense of where everything was in three dimensions. It wasn't as good as a hollow, but it was good enough.
"More debris coming," I said. "You see it?"
"Maneuvering," Marvin said, already punching flight controls.
"What's the debris compos--I mean, what is it? What materials?" Peter asked. I'd never seen him this flustered before.
I tapped at the sensor controls, overlaying the display with spectrographic analyses and asking the computer to interpret the data. "Jick. The thing that just hit us was part of a spacecraft. Ceramic, steel-crystal, water ice. Somebody's shooting up a military vessel."
"Can you see the ships?"
"Not yet," I said. Radar and radio only travel at lightspeed, and in an outer space battle, you don't need to be anywhere near your target. Smart captains send missiles instead of troops to do the dirty work whenever possible.
Something else started beeping on the main console. I turned my head, but couldn't see what was flashing before Peter silenced the alarm.
"You going to answer that?" Marvin asked.
"Just checking the I.F.F. and encryption," Peter said.
"Someone's hailing us?" I asked. It was surprising, but it made sense. Our radar had to bounce off an object and return to us before we could see it. Meanwhile, whoever we'd pinged would know exactly where we were in half that time.
The speakers above us crackled, and I heard a man's voice with a trace of an Eastern European accent. "Unidentified vessel, this is Captain Stalnaker of the U.N.S. Gilgamesh, engaged in battle operations near you. Be advised you are crossing into our fire zone."
The implication, of course, was that they wouldn't stop firing no matter where we were. He didn't sound happy.
"Gilgamesh, this is Gary Indiana," Peter said. "We are a Lunar vessel flying under U.N.I.A. authority and carrying precious cargo. Please hold your fire and recommend trajectory to avoid your sphere of influence."
"U.N.S. Gilgamesh," I read off the navigation screen. Our radar had finally bounced back. "Registry number D.P.U. 5773, destroyer class, polywell fusion plant, crew complement of four hundred." I didn't think I needed to list all their various weapons systems. "The Tories are circling Gilgamesh. They're ignoring us for the moment."
"Thanks, Natty," Peter said over his shoulder.
"Gary, Gilgamesh," said Captain Stalnaker. "We have no record of your vessel or flight plan."
"We are flying under U.N.I.A. authority," Peter repeated. "We report directly to Othello."
After a long silence, Stalnaker said, "You know I can't verify that."
"Then you'll just have to trust me."
"I'll trust your I.F.F.," Stalnaker said. "We are engaged with three Torie raiders. Looks like one of their missiles took out your starboard fuel tank. Can you still maneuver?"
"Affirmative," Peter said after Marvin nodded.
"What's your destination?"
"Straight line back to Luna."
Stalnaker asked for our heading, and Marvin rattled off some numbers, which Peter repeated into the radio.
"We'll do our best to draw them away from you," Stalnaker said.
"Thank you, Captain."
"If you have any spare cargo, you might want to dump it," Stalnaker said. "Best case, the Tories will think your ship broke up. Worst case, it'll act like chaff if any more stray missiles come your way."
"Will do." Peter turned to me and opened his mouth. I was already halfway down the ladder and out of the cockpit.
"What the hell is going on?" Lynn asked as I pushed off the ladder and into the midship compartment. It looked like she, Randall, and Erika had just emerged from their Tanks. They were all still soaking wet and shivering inside their towels.
"We flew right into a battle," I told them. "One U.N.S.F. destroyer, three Torie raiders. One of the Torie missiles took out our starboard fuel tank and long-range sensors."
They all started talking at once. I held up my hand to stop them. They didn't get the hint.
"Shut the jick up!" I shouted. They did, and I continued. "Marvin's getting us out of here. Peter's talking to the destroyer captain. The Tories don't know if they've killed us, and they're more concerned with the destroyer anyway. Lynn, Randall, you're with me. We're going to dump some cargo."
"What about me?" Erika asked.
"You're going up to the cockpit. Code a message to Othello, then take over navigation and help Peter and Marvin."
"Why are we dumping cargo?" Lynn asked.
"To make it look like our ship's breaking up," Randall said, getting into his flight suit.
"Won't they know it's a trick?" Lynn's voice was edging higher and higher. I knew I had to calm her down.
"The Tories know we're not a threat. They only shot at us to annoy U.N.S.F. Erika, they really need you in the cockpit," I said before she could contradict me. She gave me a look, and I glared at her. Don't be an idiot. She finished tugging on a t-shirt over her shorts and disappeared through the hatch to the cockpit.
"I don't want to die," Lynn said, hugging her arms around herself. "I don't want to die."
I moved over and put one hand on her shoulder, anchoring myself to the wall with my other hand. "We're going to be fine. The destroyer's taking care of the Tories. This is just a precaution. Just in case."
"Don't lie to me!" Her voice was like steam whistling out of an angry teapot. "This is either a worst-case-scenario last resort, or it's busy work to keep our minds off the fact that we're all going to die!"
I hoped Lynn would remember all those nights she'd gotten me home after I was too drunk to stand, carrying me roughly but always lovingly. We were best friends, after all. I was pretty sure she'd forgive me. And I was definitely sure I had to shut her up.
I lifted my hand from her shoulder and slapped her across the face. She emitted a single, short, sharp scream as she spun across the room and into Randall's arms. Small pink droplets separated from her wet skin and quivered in the air where she had been.
"Are you done now?" I asked.
Lynn looked at me and nodded.
Peter's face appeared on the wall vid between us. "Everything okay down there?"
"Yeah," I said, and stopped. I heard something murmuring in the background, something above the cockpit noise. It sounded like a woman's voice. It made me think of games played on cardboard mats with round plastic pieces and tinny music coming from a treehouse and a face I hadn't seen in years.
"Get her dressed and get down to the cargo bay," I told Randall, pointing at Lynn.
"Wait!" he said as I grabbed the ladder. "What are we supposed to dump?"
"Anything except the damn artifact," I said, and flew back into the cockpit.
The face on the ship-to-ship comm terminal was Sarah. She had cut her hair short, so it reached just below her ears and spread out on either side of her head. Her eyes were as big and brown as ever, even underneath that frown. The harsh lighting in her ship's cockpit made strange shadows on her face, emphasizing the tiny crease at the tip of her delicate nose. Sarah. My sister, the Torie.
"--will heave to and prepare to be boarded," she said, in the same husky voice that had tempted so many teenage boys into the backseat of her ground car, so many years ago. "I repeat, you are trespassing in Torie space and you will submit to our inspection."
"That would be more convincing if they hadn't shot at us first," Marvin said.
"They know we're still alive," Peter said to no one in particular.
"I can flare the engines," Marvin said. "Fake a flameout right before we dump the cargo. Might look like an explosion if we're far enough away."
"Coordinate it with--" Peter noticed me hovering behind him. "What are you doing here?"
"That's my sister," I said quietly.
"Sarah-Cohen Brandel Eves," I said. "My older sister."
"Your sister's a Torie?" Marvin said.
"Marvin," Peter said, "coordinate your burn with Randall and Lynn. You sent them to the cargo hold, right, Natty?"
"Yeah," I said.
Marvin swiveled his chair away. Sarah's warning repeated, a short video clip being broadcast on a loop. I wondered how long ago she had recorded it, how many other ships had seen it, how many of those had submitted to her demands, what had happened to those who had refused. Like we were about to. Peter put his hand on mine, and I realized I had leaned forward until I was touching the console.
"Do you want to talk to her?" Peter said quietly.
He was looking at me with those infinitely patient eyes of his. I hated it when he did that, because it meant that he thought the person he was addressing needed some kind of comfort. I hated that he was usually right.
I nodded. Peter moved aside, and I strapped myself into the co-pilot's seat. He worked the communication controls. A green light started blinking above the vid. I saw my own face in a small rectangle at the bottom left corner of the screen.
"Go ahead," Peter said.
What do you say to a sister you haven't seen in over a year, when your last conversation ended with her telling you to go to hell and you saying something even worse to her?
"Unidentified Torie vessel," I said, "This is loneboat Gary Indiana. We are a civilian vessel out of Luna. We have no quarrel with you, and we do not recognize your authority to conduct inspections in open space."
I looked over at Peter. He nodded, and his eyes looked more sad than patient now. I suddenly felt angry. I didn't want his pity.
"Natty?" said Sarah. "Holy jick, is that you? What the hell are you doing out here?"
The vid had switched to a live image. Her hair was tied back now, and there was a small silver ring in her left nostril. The same strange shadows played across her face, but now there was also a periodic wash of red down her right side from the alert indicators.
"It's me, Sarah," I said, forcing a smile. "Don't shoot."
"What are you doing out here?" she repeated.
"Would you believe I'm on vacation?"
Sarah sneered. "No."
There was a two-second delay between each of our responses, as long as it took for the radio waves to travel between our vessels and through our respective communication systems. It gave me plenty of time to realize that I had no idea what I wanted to say to her.
"Are you coming home for the High Holy Days?" I asked.
She gaped for a moment, then said, "Are you seriously asking me this in the middle of a space battle?"
I shrugged. "Mom wanted to know."
Sarah shook her head. "Tell your pilot to come to a full stop and prepare to be boarded."
"Not going to happen, Sarah."
"We're not letting a U.N. vessel through the blockade without an inspection."
Blockade? "How do you know I'm still with U.N.I.A.? Maybe I quit last year."
"Dammit, Natty, I can read your jicking I.F.F.!"
"You don't have the authority," I said. "And we've got a destroyer on our side."
"We have three ships," she said. "You can see that we're faster and more maneuverable than that U.N. hunk of junk. And you don't have enough fuel to outrun us."
"Yeah, speaking of fuel, is it Torie policy to always shoot first and ask questions later? Or are you just feeling trigger-happy today?"
"That was an accident," Sarah said, her face tightening. "We didn't know you were out there. The missile locked onto the wrong target."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Peter's head snap up. He looked toward me and put a finger to his lips. I curled the fingers of my left hand, out of sight of the comm camera, and made a thumbs-up.
Peter pulled himself over to Marvin, then to Erika, whispering to each of them. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I knew my part. I kept Sarah distracted.
"Let me guess," I said. "You're not in command."
"No, I'm not, so you don't get a free pass."
"Come on, Sarah," I said, "I'm sure you can get the captain's attention and talk him into it."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Maybe you're not in command," I said, "but I can't believe you're not in control."
Her eyes flicked to the side for a moment. "This is not a negotiation. Bring your loneboat to a full stop and prepare to be boarded."
"Come on, Sarah. I'm your sister."
"I'm a Torie," she said. "Sorry, sis, but that comes first."
"Of course it does," I said. "It's always something, isn't it? There's always some excuse, some guy, some cause, and it doesn't matter that we all know you'll abandon it next week. It's good enough for now, as long as it gets you off and gets you away."
She glared at me, and then the screen went black.
"Jick!" I said. Probably shouldn't have gone there.
"It's okay," Peter said, patting my shoulder. "Good work. We're almost ready."
"Ready for what? Are we running?" I asked.
"No," Peter said, with a sly smile. "We're changing sides."
Once again, I felt like the dummy in the room, sitting on the tiny jump seat that folded out from the wall and listening while Peter, Marvin, and Erika outlined their ingenious plan to escape the battle. I was glad they'd figured something out, but I still felt useless--doubly useless. I couldn't talk to my sister, and I couldn't help with the tech stuff.
I.F.F. stands for "Identification Friend or Foe." It's an automated challenge-and-response authentication system built into every U.N. spacecraft. The challenger--a space station, for example--radios an I.F.F. request to an unidentified vessel on approach. If that vessel is friendly, its transponder will receive the challenge signal, decrypt it, verify its authenticity, and respond with a similarly encrypted signal. The space station then decrypts and verifies that response. This way, each party confirms that the other one is friendly.
However, I.F.F. is not foolproof. A jammed signal, an out-of-date encryption key, or a misconfigured transponder can all result in an unverifiable challenge or response signal. So I.F.F. can positively identify friendly vessels, but it is unreliable for determining whether foes are actually foes or just malfunctions.
The Torie fleet which destroyed Europa Station took advantage of this detail. All U.N. stations depend on I.F.F., but failing an I.F.F. check does not automatically mean a vessel is hostile, and U.N.S.F. commanders cannot open fire without positive identification. That, and U.N.S.F.'s charter to assist any civilian vessels in need, allowed the Tories to get much closer than they should have.
Sarah had said that the Tories could read Gary's I.F.F. That meant they had a challenge unit--probably stolen from Europa or another station, or a black-market software clone--and they had programmed their missiles to lock onto targets that responded with a valid I.F.F. code. That meant their weapons would only target U.N. vessels--no Tories or civilians.
At least, that was Peter's conjecture, and Marvin and Captain Stalnaker both thought it was reasonable.
"That explains a lot," Stalnaker said. "Very well. We've marked your radar profile, Gary. The Tories can't fake that."
"Transponder is off," Marvin said, pressing buttons.
"We'll disable our own I.F.F. and then deal with these raiders," Stalnaker said. "You get the hell out of here, Gary."
"We're still going to try dumping our cargo," Marvin said. "You'll see an engine burn and a radio squawk just before we blow the airlock and change course."
I half-listened as Marvin coordinated with the destroyer, Peter directed Randall and Lynn over the intercom, and Erika kept an eye on the positions of the four other ships. Someone told me to strap into the jump seat, and I had the restraints in my hands when I realized what I needed to do.
"I'm going below," I said, pushing myself away from the wall. "Need some headache pills. I'll strap in down there."
"One minute," Marvin said.
I pushed myself down the ladder and strapped into the seat closest to the comm station in the mess area. I downloaded the frequency data from Sarah's previous transmission and started broadcasting on Gary's secondary antenna array.
It didn't matter if she wasn't listening. It only mattered that I spoke the words.
"Barukh atah Adonai," I said, "Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-hehiyanu v'kiy'manu v'higi'anu la-a'man ha-ze."
Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.
It wasn't a prayer, not to me, but it was still a ritual. It's what we say when we see someone we haven't seen for a long time--someone we've missed. It's how we give thanks for meeting them again. The mere recitation, the sounds of Hebrew being spoken, took me back to my childhood--when Sarah and I still played together, when we still smiled at each other, before I lost my faith and she rebelled against pretty much everything our family held dear.
I closed my eyes, and I could see her face. Not the angry, pierced, unforgiving face I had seen on the cockpit vid, but a different one. I saw the gentle, caring, happy girl who had let me sleep with her when I was scared of the monsters under my bed. I saw the tall, strong, graceful girl who had protected me from schoolyard bullies until she taught me how to fight. I saw my sister. I saw Sarah.
I kept the channel open, and I kept repeating the Shehehiyanu. I didn't notice I was crying until Randall and Lynn blew the airlock and Gary lurched and rolled, separating my tears from my face. I saw two drops splash against the ceiling before the main lights went out.
Marvin had killed power to all our primary systems, hoping to sell our possum act to the Tories. Inertia was carrying us away from the battle now. Once Gilgamesh dispatched the Tories, or Gary moved out of their sensor range--whichever came first--he would fire up the engines again and run all the way home.
I made sure the radio was dead, then covered my face with my hands and sobbed in the dark. I hoped Sarah had heard me. I hoped she had gotten the message. I didn't want her to die thinking she was alone and unloved.
Copyright © 2009 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.