She sighs, not for the first time that day, and certainly not for the last. She surveys the dark command panels on the bridge, casting wistful glances at the empty chairs where her proud crew held theirs posts until the very last, when she finally felt no choice but to issue the order to abandon ship.
“To hell with it,” she says, and heaves herself to her feet. She doffs her captain’s hat and tosses it onto her now-vacant seat with a casual flip of her wrist. She pauses at the hatch, considers taking a last look at place of duty, then steps over the threshold and takes the lift down to into the bowels of the ship.
“Life’s not static,” she says, slipping her helmet on. The bulky fibreglass and plastic protector muffles her voice. “It’s ever-changing. The moment we occupy now is a universe of differences apart from the one we just left. If you can’t respect that reality, you won’t get far. You’ll stagnate. You’ll rot.” She runs her naked fingers around the ring that seals her suit and, satisfied that there are no obvious breaks in the gasket, pressurizes herself. There’s a moment of equalization, where she closes her sinuses and puffs out her cheeks, then the soft hiss of cycling gasses whispers in her ears.
“Thousands of years ago, on an island nation, there was an era of conflict characterized by warriors who engaged in mortal hand-to-hand combat with blades of folded steel. Those warriors held a strict code of discipline close to their hearts, one that allowed them to live every moment as though it was their last. They had a prescient awareness of their own deaths, and it was that understanding that allowed them to perform great feats of heroism.” She stamps her heavy boots, first the left, then the right, testing their magnetic grip on the steel plating underfoot. She looks at the gloves that hang from a cheap, pink plastic hook and sighs. “There’d be no wielding a sword with those things on,” she says, and slips her hands into them. “But then again, our swords have a different form now.”
A tiny red light at the edge of her helmet’s visor flashes green, then dims, signalling that she is ready for the toxic environment beyond the airlock. She bangs a balled fist on an oversized button built into the bulkhead, and the harsh white fluorescent of the chamber falls into a darkness so heavy it’s as though a velvet cloth has been thrown over her head. A moment later, yellow warning lights begin to spin, and their whirling arcs whip the shadows into unintelligible shapes.
“Caution,” a pre-recorded voice intones, “outer doors are opening.”
There’s a whoosh like a jet engine igniting, and the wall in front of her falls away with a dull bang, becoming a short gangway that lets her walk down into the dim cavern of the hangar bay. She doesn’t concern herself with the distant thump of explosions, nor the long row of dormant war machines that squat in various states of repair on the stained metal floor. To her right, an abandoned mobile artillery platform, its tank treads unlinked and splayed like flattened earthworms beneath the heavy rollers, its long guns hanging in limp impotence. Opposite that a transport platform, the sigil of its assigned squadron still visible under the grey smudge of a scorch mark. Everything in disarray, nothing working. She sighs again. “No, our swords have far more moving parts, and require way more maintenance to perform well. For every advancement we’ve made, it seems we’ve retreated equally far into dependence.”
A low rumble echoes, and she braces herself against a support pillar. Moments later the entire place shakes from side to side, metallic clangs ringing out as loose tools fly free and rocket off of unseen surfaces. Somewhere, a heavy bang signals a hydraulic lift giving way and dumping its mechanical patient to the deck. The shaking subsides, and she resumes her magnetized walk.
“At around the same time that our honorable, sword-slinging knights were cutting their place into history, a far more barbaric race of fighters were dominating the plains of the western mainland. They were raiders—much like the enemies banging at our doors today. Brutal scavengers who depended on the looting of civilizations more industrious than their own for survival. It’s remarkable how good at war a culture can get when it doesn’t waste resources on things like agriculture, education, and infrastructure.” Even in the shadowy gloom of the hangar she can clearly identify which of the machines littering the bay were made by her people’s hands. They stand in stark contrast to the cruel, barbed forms of the captured enemy crafts collapsed next to them. Unlike many of her compatriots, who have dismissed their foes as crude and savage, she has envied them their tools and methods. The efficiency and brutality with which the alien marauders have battled their way across the stars has been breathtaking, and it’s only just recently that humanity has managed to put up the first vestiges of a defense.
“Those ancient civilizations that fell under the blades of the continental hordes were little more than grain before the scythe,” she says, stopping to run a hand along a black spine that protrudes from the hull of what she assumes is a scout skiff. The exact purpose of each enemy vessel they’ve encountered has remained a mystery. They fly in no identifiable formations, give no indications as to their intent, and even the smallest of ships engages in the largest of battles. “They only stopped because their leaders grew intoxicated with power, and their empire had become so vast it was unmanageable. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, does it?” she asks, patting the spine. She sighs, and moves on.
At the far end of the hangar, in a pool of yellow cast by a swaying spotlight, her sword awaits. It is the last functional weapon available; all the other launch areas are nothing more than empty blast-marked squares that saw their brave pilots leave hours before. She had fought with this decision for that long before finally making up her mind, dismissing the ancient rule with a frustrated wave of a half-drunk arm, leaving her place at her captain’s chair and making her way down here. “Such a waste,” she says, standing before the imposing bulk of her craft. “Or at least, it would’ve been. But tradition be damned, am I right?” The weapon gives no answer; it waits in monolithic silence for her to ascend its ladder and give it life.
She climbs, one thick hand over the other, up the imposing breast of the beast. She passes a crude stencil of a broken skull, her squadron’s insignia, and she wonders how many of them are still out there, still breathing, still working their machines against a foe that knows neither mercy nor compassion, and lives for nothing but the endless destruction and enslavement of civilizations not its own.
Higher still she climbs, past another stencil that reads ADM C. SIN, the remainder of the name scraped off long ago by a lancing gouge that had very nearly killed her. There’d been no time, and seemingly no need, to repair it. She grins to herself. “Sin’s good enough. Maybe that’s what we’re all being punished for now, so there’d be irony aplenty in that.” Her grin opens into a laugh, hollow and joyless, as she pulls herself into the cockpit. The wide leather command seat engloves her and, sensing her presence, activates the other systems. A pale blue light emanates from recessed panels, illuminating banks of switches and display screens. Most of these are redundant, put in place should the primary control methods fail. In all her years of piloting that’s only happened once, and in the terrifying panic of that moment she had all but forgotten how to operate the craft manually. “Doubt I’d remember now,” she says, slapping the button that closes the outer hatch. There’s a moment of vacuous silence as the life support kicks in, then a readout on the console tells her it’s safe to remove her helmet. Even so, she waits another few minutes, minutes she doesn’t really have to spend but spends them anyway, out of old habit. Only then does she release the seals around her neck and pull the covering from her head. The air in the cockpit is stale, infused with faint undertones of burnt tobacco. It’s been years since she last smoked in here, longer since any pilot had been officially permitted such a luxury, and she’s filled with the desire for a cigarette. If there are any on board, she thinks, they’re sealed away in someone’s personal footlocker, and that might as well be on the other side of the solar system now. She hangs the helmet from an overhead clip and starts through her pre-flight checklist, her fingers moving with automatic mindlessness over the panels. She notices that her hands are shaking, and stops to look at them, amazed at the uncontrollable tremors. She flexes her fingers, balls them into fists, and longs even harder for that cigarette. She blows a deep exhale out through her nose and resumes her duties.
“When we signed on for this we never knew how bad it would get,” she says, her voice now coming cool and natural in the open air of the cockpit. “I’d credit the recruiters with that, they did their jobs well. No one wanted to be afraid. The fear sucked, and then along came the military with the promise of beating the terror into submission. All you had to do was join up, train up, and get out here.” She snorts, and shakes her head. “No one said that most of us would die.”
All of the critical readouts report green. There’s plenty of ammunition in the various launchers and cannons that stud the hull of the craft. She takes a deep breath and reaches under the seat for a lever. It’s still there, where it’s always been, waiting for her to pull it once more. She never thought she would, right up to the moment where she abandoned her place on the bridge, and she takes a second to marvel at the path she’s taken. Then she yanks on the lever, and the console before her splits in two, each half arcing away to reveal a pair of goggles and four padded openings, one for each limb. The command chair slides her forward and raises her arms and legs, and a brace inflates behind her neck to position her in relative comfort. She slides into the waiting apparatus, her human half of the puzzle neatly mating with the mechanical. The goggles slip on to her face with the customary moment of terrifying claustrophobia before filling her eyes with light, and then she’s standing on the deck of the hangar, a towering giant eye assembled from the armored cameras that cover the skin of her weapon. She makes to stand, and the controls adapt to her movement, assisting and cushioning, straightening her out as her virtual field of vision rises even higher on titanic pneumatic legs. She takes a tentative step, then another, and pivots to face the massive bay doors that she’d ordered sealed that morning, after sending the last of her brave pilots to face certain death. Her finger caresses the radio button, tempted to press it, but she’s scared that all she’ll hear is silence—or worse: screams. So instead she activates the one that will open the door to space. There’s a long and terrible moment of grinding gears, and she thinks for half a second that maybe the mechanism has been damaged in the battle, and that this is as far as she’ll get, suited up and ready for war but held back by a broken door, and she wants to laugh, she wants to cry, she wants to scream into the nightmare face of her enemy. Then there’s a blinding flash of light as the door parts, cracking down its center and revealing the reflected blue-green of the planet below. She’s overwhelmed with melancholy, and a longing deeper than any she may have had for a cigarette. With a dull epiphany she knows that, no matter what comes next, she’s going home. Then the sudden bright of the outside subsides, and she becomes aware of lancing particle fire filling the space just beyond the doors, the swirling maelstrom of thousands of craft colliding in mortal combat, the life-and-death struggle that’s been going on for all of her adult memory and has led to now—a hair’s breadth from mother Earth. She grits her teeth and engages the thrusters, raising her sword to the vacuum.
“This is Charlotte Sinclair,” she growls, “rear admiral and acting captain of the carrier Olympia, signing off.” She bows her head, whispers a little prayer, and launches herself into the fray.