Now, Acassa, why don’t you tell me what happened? I do have the clearance to hear your story, if that’s what you’re wondering. I couldn’t get in here without it, now could I?
No, that’s not it. It’s just that no one’s ever asked before.
Well, I’m to be your physician from here on out, and I like to get to know my patients.
You do know why I’m here, right? Why I’m not free, or dead?
Then I suppose. It’s a long story, but I have all the time to tell it. I served on the battlestation Opterys, at the height of the war...
Every day, when I woke up, I wondered how I managed to get myself to this place. It’s nothing I ever wanted, nothing like the dreams I had growing up on the farms outside Immintis. I never minded the hard work under the cool red sun, because I could always imagine myself light-years away, at the helm of a starship, seeking out strange vistas, inscrutable aliens, and foods grown under distant stars. I never deceived myself that it was my own starship, of course, but I yearned to be a pilot and my heart already sailed through the blackness of space, and so it was natural that from my earliest days, I dreamt of joining the Fleet.
That was the dream. The reality was my thin mattress on a cold metal frame that folded into the wall to make room to slip past the five other soldiers that shared the narrow cabin. I got up before the rest, so I had first crack at the toilet that jutted out of the bare wall and then the washbasin that crowded against it, with its drain that sucked the water that rinsed away the last vestiges of treasured sleep down into the bowels of the station. The roar of the drain was more effective than any alarm clock, and I was pelted by sleepy expletives and sometimes a discarded boot.
I stumbled out into the common room, a nice term for a chamber shared by thirty soldiers with seating for ten, if you counted the flat steel top of the atmospheric unit. One of the servers was already there, a div from the hydroponics farm, laying out the breakfast tins on the table. “Good morning, Acassa,” she called to me with a gratingly cheery smile. “Hope you had a great night. Yours is right there. Freshest melon on the station.” She was always like that. I reminded myself that civilians fought for the right to work up there. They gave everything for the chance to support the war effort. Sometimes I wondered if she had a name.
Everyone fought for the right to be there, the most exclusive club in the system. Ever since the war had broken out five years before, joining the Fleet had been the ambition of every able body, clamouring for the chance to defend the planet, to fight for freedom, to destroy the hated Dimorrans. We were the elite, launching the massive battlecruisers with their thousand-strong fighter escorts, keeping the enemy from approaching the surface of Meinlop. They never got as close as two hundred fifty thousand kilometres. We were that good.
I took my tin and slipped out without a word. It’s not like there was anywhere else better to eat; the cramped corridors were more of the same. I existed in my cabin and at my post, and I ate at either. Everywhere else was in-between, or nowhere. I lived on a Fleet station floating in space, and hadn’t seen a star, not even our sun, in nearly a year.
Windows, you see, were neither economic, defensive, nor strategic. Neither were wide hallways, so I’d gotten used to brushing shoulders as I passed my comrades. The only people who saw the stars were the gunners manning the particle cannons and rail gun turrets that made this mass of metal a steel porcupine, and the fighter pilots.
I never brushed shoulders with a pilot. They were the cream of the crop, real heroes of the war, and they made sure you knew it. They strutted down the hallways and I plastered myself against the shocking cold metal wall to let them pass, clutching my breakfast to my chest. It was worse for me, a midshipman just a few months out of training, but even the officers deferred to them. The fighters were the meat of the war, the impenetrable wall that the waves of Dimorrans broke against. You’d think the battlecruisers were the planet’s main defence, and you’d be wrong. Slow to move, slow to react, to change directions, they’re useless in a three-dimensional battle, against an enemy that could come from any direction. They were designed to house and launch quick and nimble fighters that could dodge in and out of enemy fire and descend on a star fortress like a swarm of locusts and leave it a twisted mass of metal. Their pilots required insight, reflexes, snap thinking, and machine empathy.
And that’s where I failed.
Not your fault, they said. One in seven hundred thousand Meinlopans were born psi-deaf and I happened to be the lucky one, a convergence of recessive genes that made me unable to connect with the psi-circuits that integrated fighter pilots with their ships. Making flight intuitive, they were a must for high-agility combat. Other than that, they said, you’re a natural. Surprised you don’t have wings. They offered me personnel transport duty: slower ships that didn’t require empathic connection.
I couldn’t stomach it.
I was born to soar among the stars, to fly far and wide and see breathtaking vistas under alien suns. They wanted me to creep along the same paths every day, planet to station and back again, delivering others to my dream. I couldn’t do it. I told them no.
Well, your maths and language scores are high. How does cryptography strike you? I said yes. At that point, they could have offered me shoveller on a garbage scow and I’d’ve said yes. I no longer cared.
Cryptography’s a respectable specialty. We kept communications secure and snatched Dimorran secrets from under their noses. We were arguably as effective in the war as the fighters themselves. We just weren’t flashy. No one noticed our work. We couldn’t carve notches into our cabin doors for every ship we brought down or every Dimorran we killed, and so we were pushed aside as the pilots pass.
I peeled myself from the wall and trudged up the corridor with my head up and my eyes straight ahead. Though I was one of a hundred thousand servicemen on the station and I couldn’t find a broom cupboard where I could be alone and unobserved, I was always to keep alert and radiate a sense of purpose. Shows the enemy you’re competent and dangerous, they said. They also said our uniforms were grey so we would melt into the shadows of the steel walls if we were ever boarded. It wasn’t my place to reconcile the two.
The civilian support staff didn’t have the luxury of camouflage. Deep blue was their colour, more numerous than the greys, and the corridors at shift change reminded me of summer storms whipping the vast lake by which Immintis laid into seething foam. The only long wavelengths I ever saw were alarms, which was why my eyes snapped to the man in pastel motley, striding along with a cluster of ranking officers. From what I could hear, he was dictating a clever strategy for an offensive against one of the Dimorran moonbases. Turning backward on my heel, I flattened against the wall, snapping a salute as they approached. As he passed, though he continued to pontificate, the man appraised me, then looked me in the eye. For a moment, I thought I saw, hidden behind his steel blues, a hint of entreaty, of desperation. Another moment, and the officers were gone.
I continued on my daily path to the Crypt, the tiny chamber buried beneath the main bridge where I spent most of my waking hours pouring over transforms of waveforms across all frequencies. I’ve no idea who came up with the cute name, but I found it to be apt: the work was deathly silent, broken only by key taps. Slipping behind the chairs bolted to the steel floor, I tapped Jore on the shoulder and jerked my head toward the door. He nodded and wrapped up his work as I stood behind him and gulped down my breakfast. The melon really was fresh and cool.
The moment Jore stepped away from the chair, I slid into it, slipped the headphones over my ears, and started work, the last bites of my breakfast left as snacks for the next eight hours. Breaks other than meals were forbidden; you never knew when the next second of seemingly random static might hold the key to the enemy’s battle plan. Everyone worked with such zeal, rarely even looking up, hoping to discover the chink in the armor that we could exploit to destroy Dimorra once and for all.
Everyone except me.
I didn’t see the point. Sure, we were at war with them and they’d destroy us in an instant if they could, and I’d joined up, dedicated myself to the cause. I simply never felt the ravening hatred for them that everyone else professed. I was never convinced that they were all so terrible as that. They had started the war five years before with a surprise attack that had devastated the main space shipyard on the sixth moon and it snowballed from there, but before that? They couldn’t be all bad. Weren’t they human just like us? I remember, as a teen, pleading with my parents for holiday at the film studio park in Chelmad, Dimorra’s largest metropolis. Of course, I’d the ulterior motive of flying in the interplanetary ferry, but I wouldn’t have said no to catching glimpses of the Dimorran glitterati. Ultimately, the trip was too expensive and we never went, but what happened to that world? What happened to our world?
It didn’t do to ponder such things. It distracted me, decreased my efficiency, endangered the war effort. I applied myself, my nose two inches from the screen that flickered in time with the crackling static in my ears. Concentrating on work made the minutes slip past, and those minutes turned into hours, into days, into weeks, and more. Months had passed, and I knew that my years would go the same way, devoted to finding new opportunities to kill.
Lunch was the only extended interruption allowed: fifteen minutes of relative freedom, during which a cadet would man your station. I didn’t waste a moment, jumping out of my chair and rushing for the door without even acknowledging my replacement. I’d learned that my lunch was the last of the day shift and it coincided with the closing of the nearest canteen. A few seconds hesitation could mean starving for the rest of the day, something I’d done too often. I pushed past a trio of technicians working on the lines that carried encrypted data from our consoles to Command, then leapt up the ladder to the sub-level below the bridge and dashed off down the more well-lit of the two corridors that branched from that spot. Sure enough, at the end, a hand was pulling the closing screen down over the counter.
“Hold up, there,” I cried, and descent stopped. An inquisitive face appeared in the small gap between the screen and the counter, blue eyes sparkling as they beheld me.
“Oh, hi, Acassa!” It was the breakfast girl, What’s-Her-Name. “You’re just in time.”
“My rations,” I demanded. It wasn’t worth any effort to coddle these people.
“Sure,” she replied, her grin wide and bright, and she turned to the screen beside her. “Let me just mark you down.” Without asking me for it, she thumbed my public ID into the tracking system. “There we go. One lunch, coming right up.” She grabbed a tin out of the cabinet behind her, then hesitated, picking at one of its corners. “Mind if I join you? My break’s right now, too, and it’d be nice to have someone to talk to.” She must have sensed my rejection, because before I could answer, she pulled another tin from under the counter and held it up, wheedling, “There’s another ration in it for you. Miloner - you know him, in engineering - he got called back just as he got his, and he gave it to me and ran off. He never even touched it.”
It was the only thing that could have tempted me. A ration was enough food to work on, but not enough for comfort. I snatched both boxes from her hands. “Yeah. Whatever.” Tucking one in a pocket, I waited only long enough for her to lock up the canteen, and as soon as she emerged from the door, I turned and strode off.
She was beside me in an instant, bouncing along. “Just us girls,” she beamed. I headed toward my usual lunch spot, a stub of a dead-end corridor that sported a ladder into the maintenance tunnels, and she followed, babbling all the way. “It must be exciting working on decoding the enemy transmissions. You must get to see some pretty juicy stuff. Not that I’m asking what they are,” she added when I glared at her. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. My crops really don’t listen to anything I tell them. Story of my life. I’ve got this friend. I’ve known him for a while now and I don’t think he hears a word I say. You’re probably not listening either. But that’s fine. I’m used to it.” Her bright giggle was both annoying and engaging.
I leant against the wall and tore my tin open, tucking the main packet under my arm as I stuffed the rest into my pockets. There were more comfortable places to eat, but that would mean a longer walk, wasting more of my precious free time, and rubbing elbows with… well, with people such as this one. Bending my head over my pasty, I concentrated on blocking her out as much as I could.
“So where are you from?” She pulled an apple out of her tin and took a huge bite of it as she waited for me to reply. When she finally realised I wasn’t going to answer, she swallowed her mouthful. “I’m from a long ways away. Farther than you think, actually. All this has been quite a shock, the war and this station and all the metal. And all the soldiers ordering me around. Do you think we’ll ever be able to negotiate a peace?”
The question, conversational and cheery, hit me like a club on the side of my head, and I choked on my food. The suggestion of peace with the Dimorrans was treason, grounds for immediate court-martial, dismissal, and possibly execution. I glared at her as I coughed, and her eyes were hard and sharp. She knew what she’d said.
“Keep your voice down!” I hissed. “How dare you involve me in your insurrectionist agenda! You’re a Dimorran spy.”
“You don’t believe that.” There was nothing about her of the dreamy bimbo she’d appeared to be. “You know something’s wrong, don’t you? You feel it, deep down. This war is wrong. There’s no reason to be fighting. It all came out of nowhere and it’s escalated and you can’t figure out why you’re trying to wipe each other out.”
I knew my duty. I drew myself up and recited, “I am a proud Meinlopan and I will not tolerate Dimorran lies and propaganda. We will destroy Dimorra. We will be victorious.”
“Those aren’t your words,” she insisted. “You’re toeing the line because you’re a soldier and you have to, but you don’t believe it. You don’t feel it, Acassa.”
“You don’t know a thing about me,” I sneered. “I am loyal to my planet.”
“I didn’t say you weren’t. But you don’t hate the Dimorrans. You don’t feel that burning hatred that everyone else does. You can’t, because you’re psi-deaf.” She grinned her triumph as my face fell, a bright, pleased smile that infuriated me. “You can’t hear the overwhelming pressure to destroy them, can you? That’s why none of this makes sense to you.”
I whirled away, unnerved by her words, and buried my face against the wall, my lunch forgotten in my hands. She implied that my people whipping themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust for nothing, that the war itself was out of our control.
“If it helps,” she murmured, “I’m just like you. I can’t hear it either.”
I spun back. “Even if what you say is true,” I hissed, “even if we don’t see the point of this war, what does it matter? Two of us can’t stop a war between two planets. All you’ve done is told me that our people, our family and friends, they’re locked in their own hatred and careening toward mutual destruction.”
“But they’re not!” she exclaimed. “It’s not their fault. They’re being made to do this.”
I paused, puzzled. “Made? What do you mean?”
“None of this is natural. They’re being coerced. The Dimorrans, too. You see,” and for the first time, she looked both ways down the corridor to check for eavesdroppers, then lowered her voice, “there’ve been devices planted all over your planet and Dimorra, too, and even on these battlestations, and they’re emitting a… Well, the Doctor calls it a psychic coercion. It’s making everyone hate the other side.”
That was utter nonsense, and I crossed my arms and shook my head. “Bollocks! Who would do such a thing? Who could do it?”
“We think it’s the Relliferans.”
Rellifer. The other inhabited planet in our system. Both Meinlop and Dimorr had always maintained good relations with them. Of course, Meinlop and Dimorr had also maintained good relations with each other, but that was irrelevant now. Rellifer had offered to arbitrate when the war broke out. We’d rejected the offer. So had the Dimorrans.
I rolled my eyes. “Right.” The girl could not have mistaken the sarcasm in my drawl. “Why would the Relliferans do such a thing?”
“Who stands to gain two valuable planets when you wipe each other out?” she asked. “Or builds a humanitarian reputation when your refugees flee to find a new home?”
I found myself believing her, just a tiny bit. Not that I thought that the Relliferans would do such a thing, force us to go to war, to try to genocide each other. They’re just people, you know? Just like us. I didn’t think they would do it; it’s just that I thought they might. “And you’re saying they’ve done this to two whole planets? How could they do something on such a scale?”
She shrugged. “Millions of tourist visits plus a few spies planted in the government and military…”
“You’ve no proof,” I pointed out.
The girl rooted in a pocket of her jumpsuit and pulled out a small device, which she handed to me. It looked like every other computer component I’d ever seen, and I rolled my eyes at her.
I turned it over in my hand and found that one panel had obviously been bent back at one point then re-closed. Forcing it open, I found myself staring at a tiny amorphous blob nestled among the electronics, wires plunged into it connecting it to the rest of the circuitry. Its surface roiled with slick greens and purples, though a poke revealed that it was hard and smooth, like a cabochon gem.
“What is it?”
“A psychic circuit. The Doctor said that it can be programmed to transmit emotion, and this one radiates hatred and fear.” She pointed two golden circles on the surface of the device. “That’s where the power connects up. I found this planted in the engine room at the back of the ship.”
My stomach flipped over and I thrust the box back into her hands. “Why are you telling me this?” I hissed at her. “Do you like making this war seem more pointless than it already is?”
“I’m telling you this because you can stop it.”
Crossing my arms across my chest, I glared at her. “That’s a bit of an ask.”
“Think about it.” She held the device out in her open palm. “If you stopped these things from affecting everybody here and told them what happened, they can destroy them on the planet and tell the Dimorrans that they should do the same. Once the influence is gone, I’m sure your peoples will negotiate a peace.”
I wasn’t convinced. “Really. Destroying one bit of metal will turn everyone around.”
With a shrug, she grinned sheepishly at me. “Well, yeah, it’ll take a little time, but the Doctor said that once that’s gone, everyone will recover.”
“Then have at it, you and your friend.” I stuffed the forgotten last piece of my pasty into my mouth and turned away to head back to my post.
“You’re the only person who can,” she called, a little too loudly. “You aren’t affected by them.”
I spun back and spat, “Neither are you.”
“That’s true, but the last one is in Strategic Command.”
Which I had the security clearance to enter, and she didn’t. I leant in to her and stabbed her shoulder with a finger. “This is treason, you know,” I hissed, “using my security clearance to get into command and destroy military property. I’ll be court-martialed. Just who are you? How do you know all of this?”
For the first time, she faltered, her eyes brimming with fear and worry. “My name is Peri. Peri Brown. I came here with the Doctor, to visit. He said your planet was peaceful, but we found that you were at war, and he figured out what happened.”
“And why can’t he take care of it himself?” I growled. “Why do I have to risk everything?”
“Because he’s psychic, too. More than your people are.” She danced from foot to foot and hugged at herself, all for her concern for her friend. “He fought really hard against it, but he couldn’t hold out forever. He lasted long enough to figure out where the devices on this ship were, and now he’s…” She gulped, and I thought for a moment that she was going to cry. “Now he wants to fight the Dimorrans like everyone else. He’s helping the generals strategize.”
I nodded. “I saw him. He’s the man who isn’t in uniform, isn’t he?”
A little of Peri’s good humour returned. “That’s the most tactful description of him I’ve ever heard. But don’t let his appearance fool you. He’s really smart.”
“He sounds like a strategic benefit to our side. Anyone who could figure this all out. It’s time I got back to my station.” I turned away again, but this time, Peri grabbed my arm to stop me from leaving.
“Acassa, you’ve got to do this,” she pleaded. “Your worlds are going to destroy each other and billions of people are going to die if you don’t disable that transmitter.”
I yanked my arm out of her grasp. “And my life will be over if I do! Because you don’t know what happens to people like me. If I’m lucky, I’ll be dishonourably discharged and grounded forever. More likely, I’ll be branded a traitor and publicly executed, and my family will be shamed and despised. I’d be going on your word and a bauble you might have gotten from a cereal box, and you don’t even know that this’ll succeed.”
“The Doctor says it’ll work, and if he says so, it’s true.” I glared at her. She must have realized that I wouldn’t put my faith in someone I didn’t know, for she urged me, “Isn’t any chance at peace worth the risk? You’ll be ending the biggest war ever. You’ll be a hero.”
A hero. Could I be a hero, like the fighter pilots, strutting down the corridor sweeping all before them? No. To be like them, first I’d have to make the decision, take the chance, make the stand. I couldn’t. I knew I would never take that risk. “I’m not a hero,” I told her. “I’m just a soldier. I’m not even that. I don’t fight. I don’t fly. I don’t win battles, or even lose them. I just sit in my little room, deep in the ship, safest place ever, listening to static. You’re asking the wrong person.”
I strode away, smashing the food tin in my hand as I fought to keep an even keel. I ignored Peri’s whimpers of, “You can’t! The war! You’ve got to stop it!” floating behind me. That was the moment in which I realised that though I was clever, dextrous, and skilled, I could never fly, because I was too scared to let my feet leave the ground. I returned to my station ashamed, and despondent that I would forever be locked in the Crypt.
It was eight days later when I managed to crack the Dimorrans latest high-intelligence cypher, just in time to decode a complex exchange between their high command and one of their deep operatives, detailing a plan to infiltrate and sabotage a munitions factory in Telbo. They calculated that the explosion would take out the entire city of four million, so stopping them was of the utmost importance. I received a summons for a briefing on the circumstances and timing of the messages, and dashed up there at once, striding through the corridors like a pilot. For once, my purpose superseded all others.
Strategic Command was no different than anywhere else on the ship: a cramped room of metal walls, just large enough for the computer displays that fed all of the data on the war to the admiral and his counsel and a conference table at which to work. As soon as I entered, questions about the cypher, the saboteur’s messages and phrasing, and the accuracy of the translation flew at me. I caught them all with deft ease, confident in my work and my skill. When they exhausted my understanding of the plot, they ordered me to remain in the room as a consultant, then turned to confer with each other about what to do: foiling the scheme would be easy enough, but they argued over how to turn it to best political advantage.
As I listened to the discussion, I scanned the room. Though the coercion device was of a different design than the one Peri had shown me, I spotted it right off: an extension on the side of one of the consoles that technically shouldn’t have been there but was plausible enough not to draw attention. It was just a bit of plain metal, but it seemed to pulse at me, daring me to lift a finger against it and damn my own future at the same time. I averted my eyes and returned my attention to my commanders.
A few minutes later, the admiral called me over to consult on where we thought the spy was located. “Yes, sir,” I replied and walked around the table to indicate important locations on the map of Telbo. “We have a good idea of his location, gleaned from the contents of the messages. In specific, he mentions surveillance of the factory entrance, which can only be viewed from here without being seen himself.” The officers argued among themselves about the validity of that claim, leaving me to stand silently behind them.
I glanced down at my uniform and reached up to buff off a smudge on my silver rank insignia. Being accepted into the Fleet was no easy task and this piece of metal had brought much honour to my family. It was true that I hadn’t achieved my goals, that I was no closer to the stars than I had been on the farm, but I served my planet and protected my people. What greater good is there?
But as I listened to the strategists plotting to prevent the eradication of an entire city, I wondered, What is the purpose of my life if the people I serve and protect are gone? And it wasn’t as if my life was worth much. My dreams had been dashed and my world was a metal box. I might as well try to put myself to some good use.
I still remember exactly what the admiral was saying as I slipped my disruptor out of its holster. We’ll have snipers trained on that position within the hour. I turned on the spot and placed the barrel against the cool metal of the device as he puffed his chest out and declared, Our excellent cryptographers have saved the lives of four million people.
I pulled the trigger.
The metal twisted and blossomed open, disgorging a puff of glittering dust. Every person in the room clapped their hands to their heads and cringed, and some cried out in pain - every person except me. As deaf as I was to the hatred it spewed, so I was to its final screech. As the weapon was snatched from my hand and bruising fingers closed around my arms, I stared at the wreck hanging from the side of the machine. It filled my vision as they dragged me from the room.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
That’s why I’m here. The court-martial was swift; it doesn’t take long when you commit your offense in front of the full staff of senior officers. They didn’t believe me when I told them what the thing was and why I had done it. They barely listened. I was to be an example of what happens to a traitor who is brash enough to sabotage equipment during a strategic meeting about sabotage. Execution was the first and only penalty to be levied.
The Doctor fought for me. He must have thrown off the coercion as soon as the device was destroyed, for I saw him as they escorted me to the brig. His eyes shining with the relief of a man granted a reprieve from the gallows, he nodded a silent promise of assistance, as I had done him. He strode into my trial, and the officers paid him the utmost respect, a civilian at a military court. He spoke well, railed against the injustice of condemning a person who committed the crime of trying to stop a war, but he was unable to make them understand what I had tried to do. We cannot tolerate a traitor, even one backed by a supporter such as you, they said, and after a bit more bluster, he left with his head bowed.
Maybe two months later, I saw the first bit of evidence that Peri had been correct: two guards discussing the merits of Dimorran cuisine as they did their hourly inspection of the brig. It had been five years since I’d last heard anyone say anything positive about our neighbours, and I smiled. It hadn’t been all for nought, and it was spreading. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone took my testimony seriously and did something about it.
It’s been over two years since then. The admiral came to my cell - I don’t know when; I lost track of the days a long time ago. He issued me a formal pardon and apology, and saluted my deed, then informed me that I’d remain here indefinitely. The government could not admit publicly that they’d condemned and incarcerated the woman who’d ended the war, after all. Quite embarrassing, a bad political move. Jore would get the credit of being the war’s hero - the peace’s hero, really - and I’d quietly disappear. They moved me to this comfortable living space and they provide me with all I need, except freedom and dignity, it seems. Outside these walls, I’m still a traitor, long since executed. They afforded me one small consolation: they said I’d been brainwashed by the enemy and ordered to attack Strategic Command. That way, my family didn’t carry the stigma of treason by association.
Me brainwashed. Oh, the irony.
I’m highly classified. I didn’t have the security clearance back then to see myself now. No one does. The only people I see are those like you, the physicians who make sure I’m still healthy and haven’t tried to slit my wrists with a dull fork. No one else knows I exist. No one knows what really happened. No one appreciates what I did. I’ve been forgotten.
Yes, about that. It took me a while to get back to you. Got caught up in a trial of my own, actually. And then, well, it's been a bit of a to-do, getting in here. But here I am, finally, as I promised. You're not unappreciated, and certainly not forgotten. Come along now, Acassa. You've languished here too long. My friend Ace is outside, ready to create a distraction, by which she means some loud noises and a bit of flying debris, so that we can get you out of here. It's time for you to get on with your life. It’s time to fly amongst those stars.