by B.J. Baye
The alert sirens sounded through the ship. The lights turned red, and crew began to fill the halls as they all rushed to get to their posts.
The corridors of Earth Battleship Excalibur were cramped, barely enough room for two people side-by-side, and smelled of sweat and grease. Despite the crowding, Captain Edmund Ashburton walked through the chaos calmly and easily. He was taller and broader than the average crew-member, but junior crew slipped sideways past him or waited in corners for him to pass before moving on.
He stopped by the door labeled with an exclamation point in a triangle. He pressed his thumb to a fingerprint scanner, which opened the door, and stepped inside.
Inside the room, the environment was entirely different. Here there were no sirens, no red lights, and no chaos. Instead, there was a single chair surrounded by displays showing the status of every system on the ship. Captain Ashburton sat down, reading a display to his right, showing the status of the engines: the inter-system drive was ramping up to activation, just as he’d planned. Smaller windows on the display showed warnings that overrides were not responding, and that the ship was still docked to Earth Station. If the Excalibur jumped while attached, it would tear apart the station. This gave him the perfect excuse to do what he needed to do. In a few minutes, he’d be alone and in control of the ship.
“Control, this is Ashburton,” he said. “I’m in Emergency Control. There’s no way to shut it down. Evacuate the ship, I’ll use automation to pilot the ship away from dock before it jumps.”
An uncontrolled inter-system jump was the fear of every naval officer. It could fling them anywhere in time and space. When it happened to the first inter-system prototype, a century earlier, the ship had been found in a mountain in the Himalayas, with signs that it has been buried for over a million years.
Ashburton smiled as the evacuation alarms went off. The smile vanished as Lieutenant Stephen Danvers appeared on the monitor in front of him. He was young, barely twenty-five, but he had been the ship’s first officer since the last battle with the Jivati six months earlier. He’d been a lifesaver since that same battle had left Ashburton with a concussion that had given him frequent headaches ever since. He was the one person Ashburton wanted to make sure made it off the ship in one piece.
“Sir, evacuation is underway. We’re preparing an escape pod for your use, five meters down the hall, aft of Emergency Control,” Danvers said.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Ashburton said, even as he began powering up the main drive and activating the automation systems. “How long do we need to finish the evacuation?”
“Two minutes. That should give you another ten to get out of range.”
“Excellent, thank you. You’ve done your duty, now get yourself out. Computer, initiate undocking sequence in one minute, fifty seconds.”
There was a high-pitched tone, and a screen to his left displayed a countdown.
Once again, Ashburton smiled. Everything was going exactly to plan.
Right on schedule, the ship vibrated as it decoupled from the dock. Thrusters fired to bring it away from the station. Ashburton brought up a navigation screen and then punched in a course to the autopilot that would take them out of orbit. The deck hummed as the main drive came to life, slowly pushing them away from Earth.
The Excalibur was the largest battleship in the Earth navy, and also the oldest. Newer ships could peel out of orbit in seconds with their grav-engines, but it’d take the Excalibur minutes.
With a tap to a touch-screen to his right, he had the computer eject the lifeboat that had been saved for him. Tapping another screen filled the radio frequencies with static, as if there’d been another malfunction.
While the Excalibur had a quantum communication system, allowing instant communication with Earth from anywhere in the universe, escape pods didn’t have any such systems. They wouldn’t expect him to still be on the ship, so they wouldn’t think to try to contact him here.
Down on Earth, the news networks would likely be scrambling to air the breaking story of the Excalibur, just two weeks away from official retirement, suffering such a critical error so close to the populated station. Ashburton wished he could tune in, but his static was blocking those channels as well.
The ship broke orbit less than a minute before the inter-system drive would activate itself. He had just moments to enter the code that gave him control again, and program a destination.
Passing through the hole in reality created by the engines felt like being turned end over end, inside out, and sideways all at once. Fortunately it lasted only a split second.
When it was over he sat back and sighed in relief. It was over. He did it. There was no going back now. The rest would be easy, he thought to himself. At least until he got to where he was going.
That thought was dashed a moment later, as Lieutenant Danvers’ face once again appeared on the center monitor. “Are you all right, Captain? It looks like we only ended up a jump away from home.”
“What are you doing on board, Lieutenant? I thought I ordered everybody to evacuate?” Ashburton’s head was starting to throb as he thought of the implications. Even before Danvers could answer, Ashburton started activating security measures through the ship. All command functions would be limited to Emergency Control, and the door locked. He’d be locked in a small room for his final cruise, but the Lieutenant couldn’t stop him.
“I know you’ve been suffering headaches since your concussion in the last battle, sir. I had to stay to make sure I could complete the maneuver if one crippled you,” Danvers said. “When you didn’t eject, I had to double-check we were far enough out of orbit. I waited too long, sir, I’m sorry.”
Ashburton swore under his breath. This was the last thing he needed. “There’s still a transport shuttle, it can’t jump but it has enough supplies to last two or three weeks. Enough time to last until search parties come.”
“Sir,” said Danvers, “I don’t understand. All systems are showing functional. We can just jump back home once the engines are charged again.”
Rubbing his temples in a vain attempt to make his headache go away, Ashburton closed his eyes as he said, “We’re not going back. If you stay on the ship, you’ll die. It’ll take fifteen minutes to charge the inter-system drive again. You have that long to leave the ship. Our next jump takes us into Jivati territory. There is no coming back from there.”
Danvers’ eyes were wide and he was gaping when Ashburton looked back up at the screen. Eventually, the Lieutenant spoke, “You… You’re a traitor?”
“Absolutely not! I’m going to end this war once and for all,” Ashburton said, his head pounding more in echo of his outrage.
“But, sir, the war is over already.”
“No it isn’t. I’ve been fighting the Jivati for twenty years, I know them. They consider us barbarians. They think we don’t deserve our planet for the damage we’ve done to it. There’s no way there’d be peace without some formal declaration, and some message to lord their superiority over us. Just because they stopped attacking us doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to peace. It just means they’re building up for a strike. I’m going to strike now, before they can.”
Ashburton was thankful for Danvers’ stunned silence. It gave some time for his headache to calm down. Finally, he did answer, “What do you plan to do?”
For a moment, he said nothing, but he had to try to convince Danvers to leave while he could. If it took the truth, so be it. “I’m going to take Excalibur into their atmosphere, dump and ignite our fuel. We’ll be destroyed, but their atmosphere will be burned away. It’ll kill all of them.”
Once again, Danvers was silent in shock. After about a minute he said, “They’ll destroy us before we get even close to their planet.”
“Maybe. That’s a chance I’m willing to take.” Ashburton glanced at the engine display, then said, “You, however, don’t need to. You still have a few minutes to get on that shuttle.”
Danvers’ face was hardening as he shook his head and said, “No. I can’t let you do this, sir. I can’t let you kill millions, or even billions, of innocents.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Ashburton said, before disconnecting the signal.
Locked in a now silent room, Ashburton closed his eyes. His headache started to drain away while he waited for the engines to be ready for the next jump.
Having set the computer to alert him when the time came for the jump, Ashburton didn’t even open his eyes again until he heard that alert tone. So, he was quite shocked when he opened his eyes not to the final countdown of the jump, but to a display showing that the engine was in a diagnostic cycle.
He sat up from his slumped position, and his fingers flew on the controls as he started working to override. What could Danvers have been thinking? This would only delay him a few minutes.
Ashburton’s mind filled with thoughts about what Danvers could hope to gain by just few minutes delay. Danvers was among the best programmers in the crew, but it would take even him longer than a few minutes to regain control of the ship. Unless…
He jumped out of his seat, and slammed his hand on the door control. It took a moment for the computer to override the lock, but as soon as the door was open, he was out in the corridor again. Even then, he barely made it out in time, as the Emergency Control room was ejected into space. There was a great rush of wind as the air in the corridor sped towards the void, and Ashburton had to hook his arm through hand-railing to keep from being blown out the hole in the second it took for the door to close behind him. Even then, he felt like his arm was being pulled out as he held on. Once he was safe, he leaned against the handrail for a moment to catch his breath.
Since Emergency Control could be used to control the entire ship, security safeguards automatically ejected it in the case of hostile takeover. An expert like Danvers could have easily convinced the computer that just such a situation had happened.
Once Ashburton had caught his breath, he started walking towards Control. Walking through the empty halls and up empty stairways, the only sound he heard was his own footsteps, which echoed loudly through the small metal corridors.
Ashburton stopped first in the Central Armory to pick up a side arm and a clip of ammo. Here he was as silent as he could manage. The Armory was immediately below Control, so that the command crew had access to weapons in an emergency. There wasn’t even a door separating them, just a stairway. Holding his weapon ready, and his breath, he carefully climbed the steps that led up to Control.
Lieutenant Danvers was ready for him, and a bullet ricocheted off the railing just by Ashburton’s head. He ducked by instinct, then raised himself to fire back, aiming high. Danvers ducked, and Ashburton took the chance to run for cover, ducking behind the drone control console. It was, unlike the console that Danvers hid behind, unnecessary for the battle he planned. The automation systems were unable to control the drones in combat, so he had no use for them without a crew.
There was no yelling of insults or negotiations as they continued to exchange fire. They were both professional soldiers, both committed to their causes.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself. Ashburton was down to one bullet, and he knew Danvers had to be low too. Danvers fired off one last suppressive round before he made a dash for the armory stairs. Ashburton stood and caught Danvers in the belly. The Lieutenant fell to the ground just short of the stairs.
For a moment, there was silence. Ashburton pulled a first aid kit from the wall, stepping to Danvers’ side to begin applying a field dressing. “Why did you make me do that? I told you to leave. I gave you every chance to get off this ship alive.”
“I couldn’t let you do it,” Danvers said through gritted teeth, flinching as Ashburton tied on the field dressing to cover the bleeding wound. “Why would you go so far? Why are you risking your legacy?”
Slapping a morphine patch on the Lieutenant’s shoulder, Ashburton said, “My daughter’s dead. That’s the only legacy that matters, and it’s already gone. I don’t care if history sees me as a butcher, I’ll sacrifice my legacy so no other father has to lose a child to a Jivati attack.”
“What about the Jivati children?”
Ignoring Danvers, Ashburton stood and moved back over to the computer control console, canceled the diagnostic and activated the jump.
Once his senses cleared, he looked to the tactical display, which showed a holographic map of the system with spheres radiating out from the ship’s position at one-light-minute intervals. As the ship could only see visible light, the farther something was from the ship, the more out of date its conditional and positional information would be. However, other than the automated mining station in the asteroid belt, there was no Jivati activity in the system.
“See, they’re not even defending the system,” said Lieutenant Danvers, who had managed to get himself into a sitting position. “This obviously is a real peace. There’s no need for you to do this.”
“No. It doesn’t make sense. They know our language, they never hesitated to contact us before when threatening us, why would they start a peace without contacting us? Without declaring it?”
“I don’t know, why not ask them? Instead of going in on the attack, approach them diplomatically. Tell them that you want this peace to work, that you’re here to formalize it. The Council won’t be mad if you succeed, they’d have done the same thing by now except they don’t want to risk another war. You’re doing that anyway, so why not try before you sacrifice yourself and the ship?”
“The Council are cowards, everybody from the rank of Captain up has been saying we don’t believe this is a real peace, but this war is unpopular. They’d rather just accept that it’s over than risk votes by sending someone to check what’s really going on.”
His last speech had taken just about everything Lieutenant Danvers had left in him, so now all he managed was, “You’ll know now.”
Ashburton didn’t argue anymore, letting the Lieutenant rest.
Controlling the ship from here was a lot harder than in Emergency Control. What he could do from one seat there, he had to run all over the Control Deck to do here.
Two more jumps took him through Jivati systems, but both times were like the first: no activity. It was like the Jivati had just abandoned these systems.
Finally, he activated the jump into the Jivati system. What the sensors showed shocked him.
The tactical display was full of contacts. So full, in fact, it took the computer a full minute to update with ship identifications. Even then, most remained unidentified. “Well, it seems the Jivati are facing an invader of their own.”
Lieutenant Danvers seemed barely conscious now, but he nonetheless tried to pull himself straighter to look at the display. “Who are they?”
Ashburton pressed a button to switch to a visual display. There was a large ship between them and the battle, which looked like a giant wasp nest with spines. It was a ship he recognized from old stories. “Harvesters.”
Before encountering the Jivati, Earth had founded a colony in the Gliese 581 system. Two decades later the colony disappeared, and so did every trace of biological material on what was once a lush planet. A satellite that survived the attack had recorded an image of that ship. It had never been seen again. The news had called them Harvesters, as they had seemed to harvest every trace of life on the planet.
“There’s other ways… Of creating peace… Besides murdering innocents,” Danvers said weakly.
Ashburton stared at the image a moment longer, then turned to say something to Danvers, only to find the Lieutenant unconscious.
Switching back to tactical, he spent a few minutes watching the battle. One after another, Jivati ships were winking out. If he left well enough alone, the Jivati would be dead anyway. There was no need for him to do anything.
Except for the Harvesters. He was in a position to strike at their ship from behind. If he struck, though, he’d be helping those who killed his daughter.
Lieutenant Danvers’ words echoed in his head. Peace was what he was truly after, not revenge. At least, that had been what he had been telling himself.
Finally, he made up his mind. He brought the ship to full thrust towards the Harvester ship the moment the transmission arrived. Running over to the tactical console, he launched forward missiles and powered up the cannons.
He watched the display as the missiles hit and, as expected, some of the smaller Harvester ships veered off from the Jivati and started towards him. “Now I have your attention,” he said under his breath. Glancing back to the display, he set the cannons on intercept mode. They would target anything, missile or ship, that strayed too close.
In a normal battle, with a full crew, the Excalibur could likely hold its own against a small fleet. With just automation systems, however, his options were limited. Letting the computer defend the ship, he focused his attention on the attack. As he got closer he started launching Base Busters, high-yield missiles designed for use against planetary targets. They were too slow for use against a normal ship, but the Harvester hive didn’t move, and made a perfect target.
Excalibur rocked as the smaller Harvester ships began their attack run, but Ashburton paid no attention. Instead, he watched a visual display as the Base Busters impacted the enemy ship. A bright flash filled the display, but when it cleared, he saw that it had only cracked the surface. There was an opening, but he needed something much more powerful. He didn’t have enough missiles to eat away at it at that rate.
He looked over to Danvers and saw that the Lieutenant was no longer even breathing. He sighed, and closed his eyes a moment before saying, “I suppose I came here expecting to die for peace.”
Opening his eyes again, he set the forward missiles to auto fire, and then stepped over to the navigation console and pushed the engines past their safeties. Once he felt the vibration of the engines as they reached maximum power, he returned to the communications console, and typed a command to transmit a complete record of the events since he stole the ship back to Earth via the quantum communicator.
The lights flickered as the Harvesters increased their attacks to try to stop him. It was too late.
Ashburton sat down on the floor next to Lieutenant Danvers as he watched the Harvester ship get closer and closer. He felt another headache coming on. At least he wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore. “You were right, Stephen. This is a better way to make peace.”
A century later, humanity and Jivati had spread among the stars in a great alliance capable of defending itself against any known outside threat. Once every local year every planet in the alliance, whether human or Jivati celebrated the peace by paying tribute to Captain Ashburton, Lieutenant Danvers, and the Excalibur by watching the Jivati recording of Excalibur ramming and destroying the Harvester hive.
The truth of Captain Ashburton’s original plan, and what had transpired before his message to the Jivati, was lost deep in a data vault on Earth.