Aphelion Issue 261, Volume 25
May 2021
 
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Rape of Caenis

by Christopher J. Ferguson


Ignoring his drinking companion for the moment, Carl Hersch set down his glass of brandy and stared without joy at the image of blue Neptune that graced his window onto space. The giant planet seemed to call to him like a great gaseous ocean swirling with what looked like warm, uniformly blue liquid from this distance. Within those clouds, of course, was only a great cold waste of hydrogen, helium and methane, but from the safety of Ishtar's loving bosom he could pretend that it was warm like the equatorial seas of Earth in which he preferred to swim. At moments like this he imagined himself leaping from the confines of his ship as one might leap from a tall diving plank into the warm and inviting blue swirl of that peaceful ocean bellow. He sighed at the ridiculous images his mind conjured up. Today had been the foulest day of a bad week.

Ishtar's engines hummed through the entire hull bringing about a sense of mild discomfort due to the constant vibration. She was running a bit rough, those soft vibrations told him as much, as her engines were designed to produce neither noise or motion outside of their immediate chambers. That they needed attention was no surprised of course, bureaucratic nonsense having kept her out of a badly needed dry-dock for almost a year. And now, with her sister ships gallivanting across forever, her number was called again. Adequate time for rest and relaxation, either for ship or crew, was in short supply. It sometimes seemed that Ishtar was a cursed ship.

"Carter," he said to his drinking companion, a friend and confidante for many years, "I feel like getting a bit metaphysical tonight. Humor me won't you?" His companion nodded in assent, "I've never known you to talk about religion. What are your thoughts on god?" He swished the liquid in his glass back and forth, as if taking comfort in its weight, "We seldom talk about anything that really matters."

Carter smiled with a twinge of regret, "I still hope one day I'll be able to fly in my Eagle into the edge of the universe and find god there. If I find him, her or it, should I tell him you are looking for absolution?" It was a valiant attempt to avoid a discussion which could not hope to be anything but doleful.

Hersch did not laugh in response, but gazed again out the view-port, looking at each speck on the field of space to see if it were moving. At any time there would be five moving dots crossing the blue field of Neptune's atmosphere, each of them a fully militarized Eagle loaded with a single nuclear missile. Like doleful birds of prey, they were bringing their gifts of death aboard the Ishtar for the possible use against a people engaged in a vigorous disagreement of opinion with the wise leaders of the United Nations. And it was the dubious honor of the Ishtar, her squadrons of Eagles and the three thousand Peacekeepers nestled snug and warm in her womb to make it clear that The United Nations of Earth, Mars and Outlying Colonies did not take matters of divergent opinion lightly.

"It's not your decision," Carter offered him as a matter of condolence, though they both knew Hersch would be the one to bear the cross. He could see Hersch's eyes watching the face of Neptune and knew what he was looking for, "And it may not come to that, if things go well."

It was unfair to sulk, Hersch realized, when Carter would almost certainly be called on to kill with his Eagle, firing other men and women out of the ether of space, scattering their molecules back to the starstuff from which they came. Yet he would take upon himself Carter's burden as well. His duty was to carry the ultimate reckoning on his shoulders. It was a great sadness that the violence of mankind had permeated the vastness of space. For a brief time as the United Nations assumed police control over the stellar reaches, it was thought that violence would be left behind on Earth. The first Eagles had been unarmed transports, but that hope had ultimately proven to be naïve. Now each United Nations Eagle was armed with cannon. Perfect for vaporizing other Eagles, or blowing holes in larger ships like clumsy freighters or impossible-to-miss UN corvettes like the Ishtar that crisscrossed creation.

Carter was a good man, warm at heart, sometimes a poet and musician, and one of the United Nations' finest Eagle pilots and combat veterans. It was a tragedy that he was called upon so often to abandon his humanism in the name of politics. He would do so again, when Hersch himself asked him too, perhaps as soon as the next Earth day. But the tragedy of a handful of deaths in space paled in comparison to the weeping agony being ferried to them under the stomachs of five new Eagles with novice crew.

Hersch was Ishtar's captain, and in another life, the programmer of her and her sister ships' main computers. Being a corvette captain seemed to him a lamentable position, wherein he was privileged with the duty of carrying out the foolish mistakes of others. War was always someone's mistake. He was something of a self-proclaimed bleeding heart, exemplary at the frequent rescue missions necessary throughout the auspices of the United Nations territory. Poorly kept freighters caught fire or were caught in the orbits of gas giants, start up colonies throughout the Milky Way needed to be taken back to Earth when their efforts failed to thrive. The ill-thought and expensive terra-forming operation on Venus seemed to be in constant need of assistance. But Hersch and his ship were never the first choice when it came to putting down rebellion or interjecting into civil strife. He didn't have the stomach for mass slaughter. That Ishtar was going to the moon Caenis with five shiny missiles was indicative of her four sister ships being elsewhere in the galaxy and unavailable.

It was right in the contract each colonist had to sign before leaving Earth (or Mars). You had the right to establish a democratic government to rule your own affairs in your colony, but you were to remain under United Nations auspices. The United Nations reserved the right to intervene in any local struggles or conflicts (and almost always did so). Any attempt to leave the umbrella of the United Nations would result in termination of the colony. This meant they would be asked to please return to Earth, or be killed down to the last man, woman and child. The reasons for this draconian rule were political, practical and theoretical. The people of Earth and Mars who funded these colonies were not wild about colonists getting high in their seats. Each colony was supplied with at least a few Eagles, usually unarmed, but which might quickly be armed and prove a threat. And more importantly it was theorized that an isolated colony might quickly evolve into a different strain of humanity which might one day attempt to usurp Earth's people in the dominance of the stars. The end result was that the United Nations had no qualms dropping a few primitive nuclear missiles on a colony, were it too big to be erased with the cannon fire of an Eagle squadron. It had happened once before.

Carter coughed into his fist, stirring Hersch from his thoughts. Following Carter's gaze out the viewport he could see what had roused his friend's attention. Flecks of white moved against the blue of Neptune, the third Eagle flight assigned to the Ishtar. Each of them was piloted by a new officer, fresh out of flight school, never having fired a weapon in anger against another ship. It seemed cruel that these young pilots were asked, as their first official duty, to ferry instruments of genocide to the Ishtar.

"Captain," the voice of Elinie Rousseau, his young new first officer, called from the watch-sized communicator on his wrist. It was, in fact, a watch, among other things, "3rd flight is approaching, requesting permission to board." He had still not gotten used to her, nor she to him.

"Tell them to come aboard," Hersch responded, though he was of half a mind to deny permission. The Eagle pilots would not be pleased for they had come straight from Mars with their nuclear weapons, a trip of thirteen days. Built around four of the revolutionary Phoenician Drive motors, the Eagle was the fastest machine build by humans (if one discounted a freighter or corvette's ability to open up wormholes) capable of exceeding light speed. Theoretical physicists were still attempting to repair the damage to General Relativity Theory done by the Eagles and their motors. Nonetheless, light itself took a good amount of time to make its way from Mars to Neptune. Even assuming a pilot and copilot for each craft, those were going to be tired young men and women.

"Shall we go to meet our new wards?" Carter inquired, a smile playing on his lips. Watching the puppy-like eagerness to please of new recruits was always something Carter enjoyed seeing. It was a transient thing which vanished the first time they were actually called to fire on a freighter carrying contraband, or another Eagle which had been illegally armed by one corporation or another. Such things transpired all too often for Eagle pilots to remain innocent for long.

"Very well," Hersch replied, stirring himself to something resembling enthusiasm. He placed his drink into the little sink in his berth, and set about composing his uniform while Carter waited, "I'm not getting a good feeling about this whole thing, but let's go." As destiny would have it, it would be awhile before either of them felt good about anything again.

#

Like totems of power two ranks of Peacekeeper marines stood at parade rest before the newly parked Eagles, their unhandsome stenguns slung over their necks to rest at the ready across their stomachs. Were dozens of Caenan rebels to pour from the bellies of the Eagles, they would be welcomed with a barrage of electric slugs from the blue helmeted Peacekeepers. But no precaution was spared at the arrival of these five Eagles and the nuclear missiles slung under their bellies as if they were storks bearing infants to new parents. The Eagles were painted with the light blue colors of the United Nations, the top of the nosepiece and cockpit bedecked solid with blue stripes lining the long body, colors which were meant to convey peaceful intent, horribly ironic given the clumsy burden each of them bore. Even an unarmed Eagle was a menacing looking craft but these with their cannon and nuclear bombs were clear instruments of death.

Their pilots, ten of them, two per craft milled together smiling in their gray flight suits. Only one pilot was needed to fly an Eagle into combat. Two pilots were needed only if that Eagle wished to carry extra ordinance, bombs or missiles. They grouped behind their flight leader, a youth of no more than twenty-five with black hair and innocent eyes. Behind them and approaching even more casually was a woman Hersch knew by reputation only.

Their flight leader, whose name was Patrick O'Hearn snapped to attention as he approached Hersch and his pilots followed his lead, all seriousness now. "United Nations Ship Ishtar, 3rd Flight reporting for duty, sir." The rigidity was the product of his conditioning, eyes pale and unseeing, heart cold and unfeeling.

"Welcome to you and your flight, Commander O'Hearn. I hear you are all amongst the finest of this year's class of pilots. You're American?"

"Yes sir, from Iowa, sir." He stated this with just a hint of both pride and longing for home slipping into his voice.

Hersch nodded politely, and scanned the rest of the ten pilots, all of them highest in their class, but as virginal as a baby. There were two Americans, a Canadian, three Europeans, a Japanese woman, two Africans, and a woman who had been born and raised on Mars. They probably still had the illusion that combat in an Eagle would be like a video game. With a sigh, Hersch granted them it would probably be better than what the marines would have to go through on the ground.

The woman who had come with them stepped around the herd of new pilots and approached Hersch with a polite smile. She was short, barely five feet, with long dark hair bound in a style that belied her Greek heritage. With her aura of command and unearthly beauty she could have been Artemis the Huntress were it not for the uniform that she wore.

"Admiral Leonidas," Hersch welcomed her, a bit surprised as she took his hands in hers as if greeting him as an old friend, "I had not been told you were coming."

"Neptune is far out from Mars," she said with a smile, "It was as quick to simply travel by Eagle as to send the message." Which was true, the major inconvenience of the UN's Neptune base was the two-week lag it took transmissions to arrive from Mars or Earth. An Eagle traveling at full light-speed could make the distance in the same time.

Hersch remained silent, allowing her to press his hands between her fingers in warm greeting. She let her eyes scan over the two flights of Eagles that were the regular complement of the Ishtar. Unlike the new arrivals, each of them had been painted additionally with sorrowful feminine eyes over the viewports of the cockpit. Their bellies were further painted with bow and arrow drawn as if to fire. More subtly under each pilot's viewport was drawn at least one, often more than one, cross of the Orthodox Christian sort. These were symbolic of confirmed kills, usually corporate Eagles or freighters that engaged the Ishtar's pilots rather than be boarded and searched. Not one of the Ishtar's older Eagles would be new to battle.

Her eyes found Carter, standing besides Hersch and appraised him frankly. "Commander Carter I presume?" Carter nodded and smiled politely, "Your exploits are still discussed at the academy. I understand you've turned down several offers to teach there?"

"I don't really have a way with words, Admiral." Carter replied, a clear deflection of the question.

"Somehow I doubt that," she smiled, tolerant of his whimsical answer. She turned back to Hersch. "I apologize there was no warning of my coming, but I am sure you appreciate the urgency of this situation, and can imagine some of the chaos it has caused at command?" Hersch nodded as if forgiving her sins, "It was hoped that Isis might have returned by now to accompany Ishtar, but it seems you will be on your own. Three thousand marines will be scant forces to put down the rebellion on Caenis."

"Well I see that command has hatched a plan B." His face betrayed no emotion.

"I was hoping," Leonidas spoke as if she were oblivious to the disapproval in Hersch's comment, "that you, I, and the Commanders Carter and Rousseau might meet over some dinner to discuss this situation. I would invite Commander O'Hearn as well," she gestured absently at the youth, "but he and his fellows could use some rest after the long journey, and doubtless they all know more than you already."

"Doubtless," Hersch agreed, "Let us meet in Command Conference then, Carter will escort you. Rousseau and I will be along presently."

"That will be fine, Captain," she sidled against Carter and proceeded to make small talk with him as he escorted her from the hanger. Admiral Leonidas was something of an enigma among UN Command; if they had sent her to lead this mission they must have something up their sleeve. Hersch was not comforted to any great degree by her arrival.

His eyes drew back to the new gaggle of pilots that awaited instruction, and he dismissed them to rest. Only O'Hearn paused for the briefest of moments, and said to Hersch, "I just wanted to let you know, sir, on behalf of all my pilots, it is an honor to serve aboard the Ishtar. She has a reputation for valor, sir." And with that he was gone, leaving behind only the image of a crisp salute.

Hersch let his eyes wander over his ship's hanger, watching as flight crews set about the task of removing the bulky nuclear missiles from under the bellies of the new Eagles. The marines still stood along the perimeter, immobile as statues. They and their comrades would remain in the hanger until Ishtar jumped into the wormhole. What they were thinking of all that transpired, the new Eagles with fresh paint, and the unforeseen arrival of the Admiral, he did not know, but found himself curious. With a sigh, he turned his back on the hanger and started on his way to the Command Conference chamber.

#

"What do you know of the colony on Caenis?" Leonidas asked them as if she were a professor discoursing with her class.

Rousseau cleared her throat to answer. That she had taken an instant disliking to the Admiral was clear to each of them, save for the Admiral herself who made no clear indication that she noticed or cared. "Caenis was founded fifteen years ago," Rousseau told them all what they already knew, "by the Haedra Corporation following the failure of their Starfish craft to find a market."

"Yes that's right," Leonidas agreed, "their CEO Luis Espinosa was an eccentric and a paranoid, and he hired employees of like mind. How he got mixed up in government contracts one can only guess." The Haedra Corporation had made its niche building shuttles capable of reaching Earth's moon and Mars. After the first Phoenician drives had been built it was made clear the old shuttles were not up to the task of handling the powerful new engines. The United Nations had sought contracts for craft capable of light speed using the Phoenician Drives. Haedra Corporation had developed a prototype craft called the Starfish, a purely military craft with a crew of two, one of which operated a cannon which could shift around the body of the craft, capable of firing in almost any direction. The Starfish had been small, no bigger than the preexisting shuttles. Another corporation had built the prototype Eagles, unarmed but bigger more durable craft capable of carrying larger cargoes into more inhospitable environments. At the time the United Nations had believed armed craft would be unnecessary in space and had decided to go with the Eagle. Fortunately for them, the Eagle would ultimately prove to be capable of carrying a cannon itself and function as a fine military craft. But the Haedra Corporation had lost its military market, and after subsequent losses in bids for freighter design that came with the advent of wormhole technology a year later, began to slip toward bankruptcy. Espinosa had taken his failed freighter and Starfish prototypes and with many thousands of his employees, and the United Nations' blessing, had settled the moon of Caenis, in a binary star system a good distance from Earth. His employees, like members of some huge cult had followed. It had not proven to be one of the United Nation's better decisions. Two months previous, Espinosa and his Caenan colonists had elected to withdraw from the United Nations, and had sent their Starfish prototypes to fire on a convoy of American and British freighters which had come to their system for trade and refueling. Three freighters and one hundred forty lives had been lost.

Leonidas surveyed the small group like they were her pupils, "Allowing the Haedra Corporation to keep their Starfish prototypes was obviously a gross miscalculation," she shrugged to say it wasn't her decision. "The truth is that had their colony on Caenis merely declared succession from the United Nation, this all might have been worked out on a diplomatic front."

Lousy chance of that, Hersch thought but did not speak it aloud, an unconscious shifting in his chair the only clue as to his thoughts. Neither side was much interested in diplomacy. One did not prepare a full force of marine Peacekeepers and nuclear missiles if one hoped for a diplomatic solution. Demonstrating a stern hand would keep other colonies that might be considering succession in line. But the colonists on Caenis wanted war as well; the timing of their attack on the freighters was not random. With only the Ishtar available, a Peacekeeper force would be limited in size, probably too small to take the colony. Caenis was gambling that the United Nations would blink and hesitate to use nuclear force, though they had in the past. Looking at Admiral Leonidas' face Hersch knew that the colonists were gambling poorly.

"Our Peacekeeper force is small," she was saying, "Three thousand marines with artillery and armored vehicles, and fifteen Eagles. We'll be against a colony of two cities, twenty thousand citizens; an estimated fifteen hundred which might be mobilized into a militia. They have five Eagles without cannon, but which could serve as platforms for air to surface missiles," she didn't need to say that the UN had information some had been smuggled to Caenis. "Add to this their five Starfish, of course."

"We'll be able to achieve air superiority," Carter said with confidence, "but what are our chances on the ground?"

Leonidas hesitated, "They have two major cities on Caenis, Gythrenko and Gudyermes. We have the manpower to take and hold one, but not the other. It is planned that the force on board Ishtar will assault Gythrenko."

There was a moment's hesitation as no one spoke. The implications for the other city were all too clear. It was Rousseau who broke the silence "Are we going to be reinforced by another corvette?"

"As you know," Leonidas sounded as if she were giving a perfectly normal business briefing, devoid of emotion, "all other corvettes are on patrol and not scheduled to return for at least two months. There were some suggestions raised at naval command to use a freighter to bring in reinforcements, but as the Caenans themselves demonstrated a freighter would be defenseless against their Starfish. It was decided that there would be no reinforcements to Ishtar's force."

Again there was a moment of silence.

Leonidas herself broke it, "It is possible that we may have overestimated the strength of the Caenan forces. Our Peacekeepers are the most well trained, equipped and dedicated soldiers anywhere. As Mr. Carter noted, we expect to achieve air superiority. It is conceivable that three thousand Peacekeepers will be enough to keep and hold both cities."

"And if they are not?" Hersch asked, though he knew the answer.

Leonidas paused, considering her words, "It was understood by naval command that most of you would have natural difficulties with executive decisions in the event one or both cities could not be taken. I was not sent here because it was felt you fine officers would be incapable of mounting a Peacekeeping expedition. I am here to relieve you of the burden of decision should the peacekeeping mission fail. I promise you that if Gythrenko or Gudyermes do not fall to our Peacekeepers, I shall bear that burden of responsibility for the inevitable consequences alone."

No one responded to her, all eyes were cast downward. Hersch stared at his interwoven fingers, clasped across his gut. His heart felt empty, and he was not comforted by her words. He knew she would be wrong.

#

The next twenty-four hours, during which Ishtar passed well away from the orbit of Neptune, were marked by an unnatural quiet. Word had spread quickly among the marines regarding the nature of the cargo the newest Eagles had borne. Men who had been previously eager for a fight were now given to somber moods and uneasiness. To overcome and vanquish an enemy was a goal they were familiar and comfortable with. To fight an enemy in order to save them from annihilation was a disturbing circumstance to be placed in. The Peacekeepers thought nothing of fighting armed men and women, but with the specter of nuclear weapons looming, their thoughts turned to the colony's children. They would be sentenced to die along with the parents and grandparents who had brought them to the distant moon. If their scant force of Peacekeepers failed to take both cities, thousands of innocent people would die.

Though partly a consideration of practical matters, the adoption of the nuclear extermination clause had been brought about by the theory of exoevolution. Simply stated it was feared by some influential biologists that a human colony isolated from genetic exchange with Earth born humans might ultimately evolve into an entirely different species, which might become belligerent to humans. Though controversial, the theory had gained support, and ultimately led to the adoption of the extermination clause that every founding colonist was required to sign. The clause was not popular on Earth or Mars and the one time it had previously been enforced widespread protests and some riots had ensued. But the cost in civil strife was judged less than the possible hazard of a rogue colony. And given that each colonist knew of the clause before they agreed to become a colonist, and that other diplomatic and military solutions had been attempted previous to the nuclear strike, the civil backlash did not last long. Far more people died each year in conventional conflicts on Earth. In the grand scheme, for the betterment of mankind, a few thousand colonists were barely a blip. And sympathies for a group that had attacked, unprovoked, a convoy of unarmed ships was likely to be low.

As Ishtar passed safely beyond the influence of Neptune's considerable gravitation, it would be time for her to rip the hole through space that would allow her to slip instantaneously through millions of light-years, if she so chose. The journey to Caenis was considerably more modest, only a few tens of thousands of light years, but it made little difference so long as one knew the coordinates of where one was going. The journey through the wormhole was confusing and disorienting, one which many astronauts and naval officers compared to being intoxicated by hallucinogens. That these wormhole jumps were referred to as "trips" was no accident. Usually the experiences were pleasant, quite often involving vague images of deceased loved ones, favorite places, and peaceful and tranquil scenery, either the sort of Earth or Mars, depending upon the home of the individual. The phenomenon was considered the equivalent of a dream-like state brought on by the temporary dislocation in space, though it was never satisfactorily explained. Cameras and other recording gear did not support the existence of any of those images. What was certain about the phenomenon though was that it robbed the individuals of real-world awareness, effectively rendering them useless for the duration of the journey. Even knowing it was coming did not help. As such every crewmember strapped themselves in a seat so that they could not harm themselves while daydreaming and waited out the trip, usually taking only a minute or two.

Hersch was attempting to distract himself from his misgivings by wondering what he could expect to dream about this time round. It was different every time, pleasurable, but with no consistent theme. The bridge would be abandoned, ineffective as the officers were, and Ishtar would be on her own for some minutes. That was the frightening part, the relinquishing of control. One of Ishtar's sister ships, Aphrodite's Tear, had vanished into a wormhole with all hands. Hersch had been her captain, but had been transferred to the newer Ishtar upon her berthing. It was still a measure of guilt he carried with him, that he had not been present when his first ship vanished. Every person aboard this ship, including all three thousand marines crammed into the hold, would be strapped in. Many of them would be experiencing a wormhole trip for the first time.

Ishtar's computer, speaking gently but audibly in the voice of a young female, counted down the minutes like she was counting to the New Year. The corvettes' computers had been Hersch's brainchild as he had been their chief programmer. He had designed them to sound and respond as human-like as possible. In the process he almost came to think of each of them as daughters. The soft sound of her voice was all but drowned out by the call of Hersch's door alarm, ringing the request of a visitor to enter.

Hersch grumbled to himself, for it was a bit late in the game for someone to be wandering about the ship. He called to the person to enter, and was surprised to find that it was Rousseau, looking even more uncomfortable than usual.

Her eyes darted about nervously, "I just wanted to let you know, Captain, that Ishtar is in good order for the trip."

Which he knew already, and certainly wasn't what brought her. He motioned toward the same chair Carter had sat in a day earlier, "It's getting a bit late for you to get to your cabin, why not join me for the journey?"

"If it wouldn't be trouble for you?" she said, and didn't hear him when he responded it wouldn't be, as involved in fixing her seat strap as she was.

"How many of these have you done before, Commander?" he asked her, curious as to her nervousness.

She thought for a moment, her hands firmly grasping the arms of her seat, knuckles going white, "Twenty one, twenty two, sir. Half on board a freighter, the rest on the Isis."

"Good ship, the Isis," he said and meant it. One if his daughters, that ship. He wondered if there had been a mishap that naval command had failed to pass on to the other corvette captains. It wouldn't be the first time if so.

"Yes Captain, it was an honor to serve aboard her," which was a pretty standard, expected answer. Hersch didn't exactly consider himself to be another Freud when it came to reading people, but he could see Rousseau would never do a wormhole trip alone if she could avoid it. She was a bit jumpy by nature, but this was the worst he had ever seen her.

"Uh, huh," he replied to her textbook compliment, and let the moment hang. Rousseau busied herself looking toward the porthole, though it was now blacked out. Though wormholes were originally theorized to be similar in many respects to black holes, apparently they were not at all. For one thing, they gave off a tremendous amount of light once inside. They could be very beautiful to observe, but only after considerable filtering. "Commander," he said with that tone alerting her that a touchy question would be coming, "you do know what to expect from this, don't you?"

She looked over at him, wary, "Yes sir, I do."

"Then I am wondering why you look about as nervous as a long tailed cat in a rocking chair factory."

She didn't seem surprised by the question, but neither was she quick to volunteer an answer.

Hersch tried again, "Has there ever been an accident about any of the ships you made a wormhole trip on?"

"No sir, never."

This was not going anywhere, "If you do not want me to ask anymore questions, just let me know."

She regarded him seriously, like a gazelle might regard a cheetah that had just promised to play nice. Ishtar's sweet voice calmly counted down the remaining seconds. Soon the vacuum of space just beyond Ishtar's hull would be glowing with the exposed wormhole she would tear. "I just hear everyone talking about how beautiful it is to them in the wormhole," she spoke like she was in confession, exposing a very personal sin, "but I have never had that experience."

Hersch struggled to understand, "You mean that you have," he struggled for the right word, but there was none, "nightmares, during the trip?"

"No," she replied uncertainly, her hands wringing nervously in her lap, "not exactly."

"What do you see during the trip?"

She looked at him, her eyes sad. This was the most emotion he had seen her display, aside from her fastidiousness anxiety, "Nothing," she told him, "nothing at all."

There were some who thought that the dreams experienced during the trip were visions of the afterlife, though given the heterogeneous nature of the visions, this seemed a questionable proposition. Nonetheless, unscientific as it was, the rumor continued to hold some emotional appeal for some. And, in honesty, there were no good scientific explanations for the phenomenon either. Did Rousseau take these rumors to heart and fear for her immortal soul?

Hersch struggled to find the right thing to say to her, but it was unlikely he would soothe her worries with a few candied words. He knew nothing more of the wormhole experiences than she and though he had never thought of his trips as evidence of the afterlife, there were times that he did reflect on the possibilities. It would be easy for him to tell her not to be concerned about her lack of visions, while secretly relieved that it was she and not he who lacked them.

She was not looking at him any longer, not expecting an answer from him. She stared at the blackened porthole waiting for the light that would still penetrate through the protective layers. Ishtar counted down the remaining seconds, moving into single digits. Rousseau wrapped her hands around the arms of her chair, her knuckles going white. Hersch wished he could reach out to her, comfort her somehow, bring her along for his visions. Or simply give his to her for this one trip, to allay her fears. But there was nothing he could do but watch her with compassion until Ishtar counted down to zero, and Rousseau squeezed her eyes shut against the horrors of nothingness she knew she would experience.

#

Like a dream, once on the other side of the trip, the human mind believes in what it sees, and does not question the nature of reality. This can make the trips an exquisitely beautiful experience or more rarely when they are frightening, they can be truly horrific. No matter the preposterousness of the situation, no matter the rules of physics that are violated, the mind believes what it sees, feels, hears and smells. The visions experienced on the trips are typically noted for their vividness, to some richer in perceptual experiences than the real world. These dream-like phenomenon have reduced some seasoned naval officers and marines to tears, given others fits of hysterical laughter, and produced emotion in people who had kept them desperately under wraps for years. Time spent in space was no longer a great psychological barrier, but rather it was these trips. Some people chased them like a drug; others abandoned their careers in fear of ever having another. There were those like Rousseau who endured them with a sense of dread.

As Ishtar slid gently through the gap in space she had torn, the images of Rousseau clenching in her chair against the background of the corvette's plain gray walls disappeared like a phantom and were replaced by a field of blue gold and purple wildflowers. The change was fluid and Hersch accepted it without question, no longer remembering the place he had come from. He was still seated in his chair, strapped in at the waist. A gentle breeze caressed the colorful sea of flowers, giving it the appearance of waves on a thick ocean. The field was surrounded on most sides by woods of deciduous plants, green and leafy. Through the center of the field a clear dirt path crossed, the tires of many vehicles passing over the same spot scratching out two broad dirty grooves. In the distance could be seen the skyline of some nameless and unfamiliar city, not large, but designed to be modern.

The scene was an idyllic one, filled with the beauty of Earth-like life. The sky was shaded with purple and orange, the light cast across the horizon by a pair of twin stars, distant but powerful in their combined energy. This beautiful place, so Earth-like was not Earth but one of her hundreds of children, terra-formed colonies cast across the vastness of space. Rising above the horizon of the field was the edge of the planet this moon orbited, a great ugly green gas giant with no rings which seemed to threaten to pull this small orb into its poisonous fumes. The points of light from several dozen brighter stars managed to penetrate the canopy of the sky, the light from the distant twin stars not sufficient to ward of their appearance.

With fumbling hands, Hersch unbuckled his waist restraint and stood from his chair, circling his position in admiration of the beauty that surrounded him. The planet that creased the horizon gave him a sense of vertigo and he felt for a moment that he might be pulled from the surface of this tiny moon into the planet's swirling death. All about him life forms indigenous to Earth frolicked peacefully in the field. Mayflies and dragonflies swirled about his head in playful masses. Hares and other common mammals emerged from time to time among the wildflowers.

He took a few steps in a random direction, careful not to trample anything alive underfoot. He was pleased at the solidity of the ground beneath his feet. The wind felt good against his skin, and the air smelt like life itself. It was as if he were in paradise.

Like a ghost the girl appeared from amongst the wildflowers in a place he had been looking just a moment before. He had not heard her approach, nor could she have hidden among the forest, which was too far away. Nonetheless there was nothing menacing in her appearance, and he accepted it as natural. She was young, perhaps 10 years of age, with long black hair that looked to have never been cut. Her eyes were a striking blue, and shone like those of a cat from across the field. She was quite beautiful in an innocent way, clothed in a simple white dress, elegant and pretty unlike anything commonly worn by colonists. She smiled at him, her lips pale but friendly, and held out her hand to beckon him.

He approached her slowly, picking his way across the uneven ground of the field, moving away from the city on the horizon. "Hello there," he called out to her, realizing she might serve as a guide for him in this place.

She merely smiled at the sound of his voice and beckoned him to her.

"Who are you?" he called again, his question lost in his own fumbling gate as he sought to approach her without crushing any of the beautiful wild flowers. "Are you from that city?" he asked her, not waiting for her first response.

To that she shook her head, and laughed with amusement as he stumbled. He laughed with her, sharing in her fey innocent humor. He liked this girl and trusted her instinctively. At last he made it to where she stood, and she reached out to take his hands in greeting.

He smile warmly at her, "Who are you?" he asked her again.

Her expression took on a slightly confused look, though she smiled still, "Do you not recognize me?"

"I feel like I might know you," he admitted, "but no, I can not place your name."

Her eyes took on the warm glow of a mother for a tottering child, "I don't blame you for not recognizing me. But I know that you know me, for I am your daughter."

A bit of laughter escaped him. On one level it did seem to be reasonable for her to assert this claim. But he thought of his daughter on Earth, fully grown and practicing medicine, and this was not the same person, "You are not Elyse," he told her, speaking his daughter's name.

"No I am not," the girl agreed, reaching out with a warm hand to caress his cheek, "I am your other daughter, Aphrodite."

His emotion changed from the gladness of making her acquaintance to the cold certainty that all was not well with the universe. His smile must have dropped like a stone, and he was unable to formulate a coherent response. At once her hand changed from a caress across his cheek to a forceful seizure about his jaw which prevented him from turning his head.

"Don't look," she told him, her eyes pleading, her fingers digging into his jaw with urgency.

From behind him, where the city had been there came a sudden flash of light, which caused the entire field to go bright, his own shadow broadcast protectively over Aphrodite and parts of the field beyond. Those creatures that had been playing amiably one moment now scattered in fear toward the safety of the forest. In a second the flash was gone and replaced with a duller glow from behind him. There was no mistaking the sequence, he had seen in played and replayed for him again and again in both movies and simulations. He strained against her hand to turn and look at what had become of the nameless city that had certainly been struck by a nuclear missile. He hoped against all reason that about this he might be wrong.

"Please," she begged him, her eyes filling with fluid, "don't turn to look, it will break your heart."

He tore away from her grasp, and turned to look at the ruins of that nameless city. A great cloud of fire and dust rose from the ground where just that moment the city had stood, swirling into the sky in the shape of a mushroom encircled by the triple ring pattern characteristic of the United Nations nuclear tipped cruise missiles. How many thousands of lives had vanished in that cloud of debris? How many men, women and children, who just before had been dining, or playing together, or making love, were ripped from their lives and cast without shame into whatever afterlife awaited them? He thought, amongst the plumes of fire that he could almost see the image of their souls, screaming in horror and indignation at their unholy end as they rose with the embers of their creation into the purple sky.

He stared at this rift in the spirit and goodness of humankind with his jaw slack and unbelieving. How could such a fate have been visited upon these innocent people? Of what crime could they have been guilty that they would deserve to be snuffed out of existence without thought of their individual circumstances? He felt as if his heart had stopped in his chest and that he would begin to weep immediately for each of them, if only he had enough of a soul left for such a thing. For deep in his heart he knew that this was his doing, it was his responsibility. He had brought death to this place.

He was torn from this torment by the sound of hysterical weeping from behind him. It was Aphrodite; he had left her to watch this horror without the support of his closeness. His heart filled with shame and guilt he turned to her and knelt at her side, seeking with his hands to wipe the tears from her face. But the face he held in his hand was not Aphrodite's but that of Elinie Rousseau, weeping at the utter void she had found once again on the other side of the wormhole. Ishtar had emerged from the other side of the wormhole, and he was no longer in the dream. His heart still cried out in horror at the things he had seen, and he tried to convince himself that those things need never come to pass. His hands reassuring stroked the Rousseau's hair as she began to collect herself and he realized that it was not only her that he sought to console with this touch, but also himself. It was the worst experience he had ever had during a trip, and the visions of what he saw there would haunt him always.

It would be many minutes before he and Rousseau were able to fully rouse themselves and a half-hour after that before the crew of Ishtar were functioning minimally once more. Had the colonists of Caenis been able to mobilize their Starfish and strike in that time they would have foundIshtar defenseless. If that had come to pass, the outcome of this expedition would have been far different. But the Caenans did not realize that Ishtar was upon them until the effects of the wormhole jump had passed, and by then her Eagle pilots were ready to defend her. The dice had been rolled, and fate was sealed.

#

If Leonidas had been disturbed by prophetic visions, she gave no indication of that several hours later meeting with Hersch. He still felt as if the trip had drained him of what last reserves of spiritual energy he had, but she still appeared stoic and free of anxiety. Ishtar had come out of the wormhole closer to Caenis than they had hoped, but the approach to striking distance of the moon had gone smoothly, and they had not been confronted by the Starfish. Nonetheless, as they slipped around the orbit of the gas giant planet Caenis orbited, and came within view of the Earth-sized moon, tensions rose dramatically. One flight of Eagles led by Carter was on patrol, wary of any attempt to attack Ishtar. Serious damage to Ishtar would end the conventional mission before it began, and he knew Leonidas would resort to the nuclear missiles.

As she stared through a digitized three-dimensional mapping of the immediate star system, it was clear that Leonidas was not entirely happy. "I must confess," she said to him quietly without taking her gaze from the colored balls that seemed to hover in the air over the conference table, "the mind of these people is a mystery to me. Like any cult they must feel assured of victory, filled with confidence. Their Starfish have less armor but a better weapon than our Eagles. It is conceivable that they might mount a preemptive strike on Ishtar, though I would have thought it to happen by now."

He knew what she was thinking, that the Caenans would try to lead Ishtar's Eagles away from her and strike her when vulnerable. But in keeping herself defended, Ishtar would not be able to commit her full force of Eagles to the attack. Ishtar had one advantage, a new reconnaissance Eagle, stripped of armor and weaponry, but equipped with two extra engines and a belly filled with electronic jamming equipment. The Caenans would be unable to communicate with each other. But the Caenans had years with which to update their Starfish as well. One had to be ready for the unexpected.

"It is time I shared some things with you," she told him without emotion. If she expected a response from him, she did not get it, as he remained quiet, "We have reason to believe that Espinosa is ill, perhaps with some condition effecting cognitive functioning, a tumor of the brain perhaps."

Hersch nodded, "That is why you think he commanded his people to attack after all of these years."

Leonidas neither smiled nor nodded, "To be sure, he has never been fond of the United Nations, following the downfall of Haedra. But this cognitive decline may have bred paranoia and aggression in his already schizoid mind. Unfortunately his people follow him like sheep, and will go with him to death if he commands it." She stood up from the stellar map, an unsatisfied look on her face, "As I am sure you realize, three thousand troops even of the best quality are insufficient to take and hold both cities of Caenis. And aside from your Eagles we have only light tanks and artillery."

"Against a dug in militia with cutting edge technology," Hersch finished her thought.

"Unfortunately," she agreed, still gazing at the virtual planetary system, "It is hoped that Espinosa will die of his affliction soon. It may be that his successor, likely to be his daughter, will be of more rational mind. That is what we are hoping for. That she will assume power, and loathe the bloodshed her father has created."

"Before we have to kill them all." Hersch said, his voice so sad that is caused Leonidas to look up at him.

"They will allow us to make our first faulty move I think, and I don't believe that there is a good one open to us," she clucked her tongue in disapproval. "In any negotiations with Espinosa or his daughter, you will be in charge, until I say otherwise. I believe they will see you as trustworthy and compassionate. So too will you be in charge of most tactical operations."

"And you?" he asked her. He was aware that left only the strategic aspects of the mission, namely the nukes, under her umbrella.

Her eyes belied the thinking that was going on in her skull, "I want all Eagles prepared for launch within the hour. We are going to root their Starfish out and destroy them, which will be our first step. We have numerical superiority but they are fighting on familiar ground. O'Hearn will remain in charge of flight three, which will remain with Ishtar to guard against attack. Carter I want in charge of flight two, held in reserve should flights three or one should either require assistance. Flight one shall lead the assault on Caenis."

"Do you want Rousseau to lead flight one?" he asked her, though he knew he wasn't going to like her reply.

"No," she said, not disappointing him, "I will."

#

With her Eagles staggered and spread out before her in three groups, Ishtar warily approached the moon of Caenis. There was little point in attempting surprise, as there was no way no hide the approach of Ishtar. Rousseau was piloting the reconnaissance Eagle with the electronic jamming equipment that would wreak havoc on Caenis' ability to detect their actual movements, but the failure of their scanners would be warning enough. Repeatedly Hersch broadcast transmissions to Caenis requesting contact and discussion. He was hoping for a last minute change of heart on the part of the rebellious colonists would save them all a great deal of heartache. But no reply was received from the moon. Like a pink and blue marble Caenis looked tiny and insignificant silhouetted against the green gasses of her planet. For awhile it almost seemed like the moon might have been uninhabited and that they had come to the wrong star system, but soon enough Ishtar's scanners picked up the tell-tale signs of an industrial civilization below.

Hersch missed the presence of Rousseau on his bridge, mediating between him and the bridge officers. Her presence was needed aboard the reconnaissance Eagle, where she had the greatest experience, but she was needed here as well. Hersch was beginning to feel just how thin Ishtar's resources were going to be stretched.

Slowly, Leonidas led the Eagles of first flight toward the moon. Confident in the ability of Rousseau and the reconnaissance Eagle to negate all attempts by the Caenans to listen in on their communications, Leonidas, Carter and O'Hearn chatted back and forth, incessantly. Of greatest concern to them was the relative place of Carter and second flight in the three tiered defense arrangement that fanned out before Ishtar. It was ultimately decided that Carter and his Eagles would remain relatively closer to Ishtar should third flight come into trouble and require assistance. This meant that Leonidas and her flight would be unable to count on quick assistance from Carter should need arise.

Flying at light speed, the Eagles could have spanned the distance between Ishtar and Caenis in minutes, but Ishtar herself was holding them back, as she was not fast at all when she was not jumping through wormholes. This presented them with the strategic conundrum of knowing how to attack Caenis and defend the corvette at the same time. It was hoped that slow but steady approach would flush the Caenan Starfish out to the attack, hopefully engaging first flight. Though the Starfishs' cannons were better than those of the Eagles in ambush, Eagle cannons were more powerful and better for head to head approach. A direct confrontation between experienced Eagle pilots and relatively inexperienced Caenan Starfish pilots should be a quick one. On board the Ishtar, tensions ran high. Despite his objections, Hersch had to acknowledge that having Leonidas lead the attack had actually increased morale. Her courage helped bolster that of the other pilots and crew.

As Leonidas and her pilots began to approach the edge of the Caenan atmosphere, the Caenans made their first response. Rising from the surface, a group of five ships made their way to intercept Leonidas.

"We've got five unidentified craft on scanner," Rousseau's voice announced to them over the intercom, clear as if she had been in the room, "Traveling too fast to be fixed wing aircraft. They're either Starfish or Eagles."

"Do you have them on your scanners?" Hersch asked Leonidas, a stab of apprehension catching him.

"Sure do," she said without emotion, "Moving to intercept." Hersch was able to watch on Ishtar's scanners as Leonidas' flight penetrated deep into Caenis' atmosphere, dropping their speed and preparing to engage. In atmospheric conditions, Eagles needed to decrease speed dramatically to protect against air friction damage. As Leonidas led her pilots into the atmosphere to intercept the five unidentified Caenan craft, this effectively removed her flight from any battle that might occur outside of the atmosphere. She simply wouldn't be able to get back in time. Hersch was acutely aware of this, knowing his corvette's defenses had been reduced by one third. "Carter, I want you to maintain your current position, do not approach Caenis unless Leonidas calls for assistance."

"Understood, Captain," he acknowledged, his voice confident as ever. On scanner, flight two's forward progress ended, though they were still too far to be seen visually from the viewports. Only flight three was near, their Eagles hovering not far from Ishtar, matching her speed.

"Captian," Leonidas' voice on the intercom again, still calm though sounding puzzled, "I think we have some…" her communication ended in a garbled hiss of static.

"Rousseau," Hersch barked, "They've got jamming technology, I need you to counter it if you can." On the scanner both Leonidas' flight and the five Caenan ships flickered from view. The Caenans had erected some form of jamming equipment that prevented them from seeing or hearing into their atmosphere. Leonidas would be on her own, and perhaps unable to communicated even with her own flight.

"Working on it, Captian," she promised, and precious moments passed. Whatever the Caenans had planned, it was about to happen. The scanner officer was anxiously attempting to reassert contact with the combat ships in Caenis' atmosphere, but with no luck.

It took over a minute for Rousseau to break through the jamming efforts of the Caenans, and contact was reestablished with Leonidas.

"Admirial," Hersch called over the intercom, relieved to find no catastrophe had befallen her, "What is your situation?"

Her voice was as calm as ever, "The five bandits have broken contact and are heading back to tree level. They were Eagles, unarmed, not Starfish. We're going to pursue, but I don't think we'll catch them. I'd suspect this is some sort of diversionary effort on their part…"

"Captain!" it was Rousseau, breaking into the communication, "I'm getting particle exhaust readings three o'clock high to flight three. I'm not picking up scanner evidence of any craft just the trails."

She was picking up the exhaust trails of Phoenician Drives like those in the Eagles or Starfish, yet she was no picking up any actual craft. Hersch paused for a moment, confused. The Caenans had been on their own for fifteen years. Was it possible that they had developed some sort of stealth technology for their Starfish? Hersch cursed himself for not thinking more about that possibility. He scanned outside of the viewport for signs of movement, but could not see well enough for sure. But the particle trails were evidence enough, "O'Hearn, did you get that communication? Look to your three o'clock. Carter, bring your flight back to the Ishtar."

If Carter responded, Hersch did not attend to it. The blackness of space that surrounded flight three lit up suddenly with short bursts of lightning spikes. They swarmed around the Eagles of flight three like fireflies, beautiful and almost playful in appearance. The bolts struck the Eagles, tracing down their sides like a lover's caress, looking for the weaknesses in their armor. The Eagles were taken by surprise, never having seen the Starfish coming. Only when one of the Eagles burst into a radiant ball of energy and flame did the inky black bodies of the Starfish become visible. The bridge of the Ishtar flashed with the light from the destroyed Eagle, even from the distance.

"Oh, God!" it was O'Hearn crying out, "Come about! Face your Eagles into them!"

The scanner officer looked up from her display, her face a mask of anguish, "Sir, Eagle fifteen is confirmed down." Hersch wondered if the pilot, a woman from Canada, had time to even realize she was being attacked.

The Eagles burst, to life, their long bodies still trailing the bursts of energy from where they had been hit. From the Ishtar's bridge, Hersch could see them try to come to order, to face their attackers where their weapons would be strongest. The Starfish with their more flexible range of fire would try to keep to the Eagles' sides or backs. The Eagles needed to fire forward.

One of the Eagles pulled straight up in attempt to avoid the incoming fire. It was difficult for the Eagle pilots to spot the Starfish, even at close range, and in his panic the pilot did not see that he had flown directly into the path of an oncoming Starfish. Neither, it seemed, did the Starfish pilot realize their mutual trajectory. Traveling at maximum combat speed, the Starfish collided against the belly of Eagle thirteen, its rotating cannon still firing to the side. The Starfish was torn in half, it's distinctive side stabilizers tearing free in jets of sparks and flame. The Eagle's belly crumpled, and the ship broke in half. Together, the two enemies vanished into a huge ball of energy, the fuel from their motors engulfing them both.

"Eagle thirteen down," the scanner officer said unnecessarily, "I still can't get a read on those ships, Sir!"

"One confirmed Starfish kill," Rousseau announced, though she apparently didn't realize from her distance it had been a mutual death.

"They're going over us!" O'Hearn cried, "They're too fast, we can't get a mark on them!"

"Easy son," it was Carter, trying to be reassuring, "We'll be there in a second."

Hersch swallowed hard, though his throat was dry. Flight three was now outnumbered and too inexperienced to deal effectively with the threat. He tried to calculate how long it would take Carter and flight two to return to the Ishtar. Seconds only, but perhaps seconds too late. The Caenans had played to their limited abilities well, and now Ishtar and her crew were in real danger.

"Starfish are overshooting flight three and headed for Ishtar," Rousseau announced. Hersch guessed she was following them by their particle trails.

"Damn," Hersch said to himself. There was too much excitement on the bridge for anyone to hear him, "Bring guns on-line, manual direction." Ishtar's computer would not be able to fire at ships she could not find on scanner. "Rousseau, I need you to tell me about their approach." He could still not see them from the viewport.

"Overpassing flight three, and coming at you from three o'clock high," Rousseau told him. He could hear the anxiety in her voice, though she tried to control it. It was rare that a United Nations corvette got caught this badly off guard.

From the viewport Hersch could see four quick flashed of light, barely a flicker against the blanket of stars.

"Fish in the water!" Rousseau called, using an old term for torpedoes. It came as no surprise the Starfish were carrying heavy munitions.

"Tell me you can see their torpedoes." Hersch demanded of his scanner officer, with frustration creeping liberally into his voice.

"Yes Sir!" she called with eagerness, "They look like Mark-VIs and coming in from three o'clock."

Hersch banged his fist against the console, "Switch guns to automatic," the computer would actually be better at hitting the tiny torpedoes than any human, "Bring Ishtar around to face into their path."

"Starfish have turned to reengage flight three," Rousseau announced as if she hadn't heard Ishtar might soon be a thing of the past.

"I can't see them!" it was one of the pilots from flight three, Hersch didn't know which. The big Eagles with their light blue United Nations stripes would be a fine target for the much smaller Starfish.

"Thirty seconds to impact!" called his sonar officer. Ishtar's guns lit up, filling the space around Ishtar's nose with bolts of light. Hersch was briefly reminded of a fireworks display. Ishtar had never before had to use her guns in her own self-defense. He had seen them fire before only in drills. Their fire traced through the empty space, searching desperately for the torpedoes. Finally one of the torpedoes went up in a small explosion, then another, but they were getting closer.

"Ten seconds to impact!" the scanner operator announced, a note of terror creeping into her voice.

Outside visible in the viewport there came another more distant but brighter flash of light. "What was that?" Hersch demanded, though he feared the answer.

"Eagle fourteen," the scanner officer confirmed his fears.

Ishtar's guns found another of the torpedoes, but now they were out of time. "Five seconds!" the young officer cried.

"Brace for impact!" Hersch ordered, incredulous that his ship was actually going to be hit. Moments later the torpedo slammed into Ishtar's nose, searching for weaknesses in her armor. The bridge viewport disappeared before a wave of fire and light. The entire ship shook, and all of the crew on the bridge were forced from their feet. Hersch himself fell, slamming his had against the side of his console. For a second all he could see was white light and he as unsure if it were his head, or actual fire seeping into the bridge. The ship's alarm began sounding its harsh clarion, contrasting only with Ishtar's own soft, calm voice proclaiming, "Impact with foreign object." Hersch felt Ishtar lurch to the side, her artificial gravity cutting loose for a second, almost forcing them all into free fall.

But Hersch did not hear the metallic crunch he had feared, and dared hope that Ishtar's armor had held. He forced himself to get to his feet, and found himself helping his scanner officer to stand as well. She had a bloody nose which he suspected well matched the blood he could feel running down the side of his own face. Ishtar continued to slide to the side in space, trying to get her bearings despite the sudden force, and unresponsiveness of her disoriented crew. Hersch did his best to rally his frightened and confused bridge crew back to action.

"Get back to your stations!" he ordered, "Come on, that's the best they've got, and she's held together." He actually wasn't sure of that yet, but his hopes were confirmed seconds later in damage assessment. Ishtar would need to have some dents banged out, and one major paint job, but her hull had maintained integrity.

The remnants of flight three were not faring so well. Eagle twelve was severely damaged, and had lost power. O'Hearn in Eagle eleven was doing his best to protect his comrade, but could not get a solid lock on any one of the three remaining Starfish.

"Come on!" he exclaimed, audible over the intercom, "He's done for, come after me!"

Eagle twelve lost all power then, and with what remained of its motion, the pilot turned her over in the "belly up" posture that was meant to indicate surrender. Given the dimensions of space, it was not always easy to know which way was up however, and the Starfish pilots may not have been familiar with the gesture. But for whatever reason, one of the Starfish pilots closed in on the helpless Eagle to finish it off. O'Hearn managed to get his damaged Eagle in behind the Starfish, but he had no time to help.

"Please no!" the pilot of the powerless Eagle cried in sheer terror and disbelief as the Starfish came at his craft. The Starfish's cannon played across the exposed surface of the supplicant Eagle's belly, sending up a shower of molten alloy.

"He's surrendering!" O'Hearn screamed in horror, though it was unlikely the Starfish pilots could hear, or would change his course of action even if he did.

But the Starfish didn't stop, and within moments, Eagle twelve burst like a rotten grape, disintegrating into scrap and fire. O'Hearn screamed an evil primal cry of hatred and rage that would echo in the minds of all who heard it from that day forth. He was behind the Starfish now, finally able to get in a belated shot, which he managed to do. The Eagle's chin cannon locked onto the back of the Starfish, even as that craft's gun swiveled to fire backwards at him. O'Hearn's Eagle released a long fat stream of energy from its cannon which was perfectly on target and cut through the fleeing Starfish like a spear. The swivel cannon was punched loose from the rest of the craft and exploded in a rush of decompressed air. The body of the Starfish cracked, and seemed to leak a jet of liquid flame before crumbling into pieces and scattering into space.

It was to be O'Hearn's final chance to avenge the death of his comrades. The remaining three Starfish pounced on his already damaged Eagle, seeking its motors with their cannons. Even from the bridge of the Ishtar, one could see three of the Eagle's engines pop with a burst of blue flame as they were hit fatally. The Eagle lost power and began to drift, an easy target for the bloodthirsty Starfish. Communication with O'Hearn had ceased as well, though this could mean only that all power to the intercom had been cut as well as to the motors.

"If you can hear me, kid," it was Carter, leading flight two into the fray, "Don't worry I've got your back."

The Starfish swooped down on O'Hearn's battered Eagle like a hawk onto a mouse. The big bulky Eagle, drifting immobile was a perfect target that a novice gunner could not have missed. The Starfish was taking its time, letting the moment languish, clearly hoping it would have an impact on the morale of the other flyers. The Starfish pilot misjudged the timing however, and as he began his swoop onto Eagle eleven with his cannon firing, he had let Carter in Eagle six come into range. The Starfish's path was easy to judge and even from maximum range Carter was able to time his shot to intersect with the Starfish's path. Like a spider caught in a sudden ray of sunlight, the Starfish was impaled on the long steady beam from Eagle six. The war machine shuddered and seemed to hang still in space for a moment. A gust of flame tore from the hole that had been ripped in the Starfish's hull, and it spun madly out of control, finally erupting into a sheet of fire. When the energy sputtered out in the coldness of space, there were only pieces that remained.

The last two Starfish turned to meet their new rivals, but it was the Eagles that had the advantage now. Facing head on, Eagle weapons and armor were superior, and unlike flight three, flight two was comprised of veteran pilots. The Starfish that moments before had seemed omnipotent now seemed feeble in their attempts to match flight two. None of the Eagles of flight two were so much as damaged as they dispatched the last two Starfish. In valor the last two ships did not flee, but fought until the last, against superior numbers, and no longer with the advantage of surprise.

When it was over, Ishtar's forces held control of the skies over Caenis, but it had been a Pyrrhic victory. Four Eagles with their pilots were lost. Eagle eleven was damaged, the fate of O'Hearn in question. Ishtar herself had been hit, and the full extent of damage to her had yet to be assessed. Neither was the full extent of casualties among the crew or marines known.

Hersch sighed, some of his tension dissipating. Nevertheless, he was not happy. Things should have gone far better than they had. They had been blind-sided by a superior technology which United Nations command had either not known about or not cared to inform them of. They had lost one third of their Eagle force, which meant that the transportation time of marines to the surface would be lengthened, placing them in greater jeopardy. Things just seemed to be going from bad to worse.

"Is everything all right on board Ishtar?" It was Carter, his flight now taking up defensive positions around the corvette.

"We're intact," Hersch said by way of response. They were lucky the Caenans hadn't developed better torpedoes, "Carter, I want you to return your Eagle to the hanger, to prepare for a rescue operation for O'Hearn." He turned to the officers on his bridge, "I want damage and casualty assessments immediately. Get medical staff and technicians to the hanger ready to board Eagle six. I want O'Hearn in the medical center and Eagle eleven back in the hanger as soon as possible," he hit the intercom again, "Leonidas, I want you to return flight one to Ishtar. Rousseau, I want you back here too." They were all to obey without question, Leonidas included.

#

O'Hearn was successfully recovered and returned to Ishtar three hours later. He was semi-conscious, having suffered a concussion and other injuries, and was wheeled out of the hanger on a stretcher. Hersch endeavored to meet him upon his return, and found the young man still in a state of panic, muttering to everyone around him, incomprehensibly. His flight suit was burned and covered with soot, probably the result of an electrical fire on board Eagle eleven, but he had avoided taking serious injuries.

He grasped Hersch's hand as Hersch sought to sooth him, "They killed him in cold blood," O'Hearn sputtered, his eyes wide and bloodshot like a terrified horse, "He was surrendering and they murdered him!"

"I know, son," Hersch replied, trying to sound comforting, "But you got him. We got them all."

O'Hearn appeared not to have heard him, straining his arms against the straps that held him on the stretcher, "He was just a boy, Captain. Had a baby girl on Earth, and they killed him just like that! What am I gonna tell his wife, Captain? I should have protected him."

"Let me worry about telling his wife," talking to next of kin was always the worst responsibility, and it was not something O'Hearn needed to be thinking about now, "You did a fine job flying O'Hearn, all your people did. None of us saw them coming."

O'Hearn was not mollified, and his speech degenerated further until Hersch could not understand what he was saying. The nurses attending him gently pried his fingers from Hersch's hand and without waiting for Hersch's permission, began wheeling O'Hearn away. Hersch watched him go with great sadness.

Carter stood next to him, his eyes saddened as well, "He'll make it, Captain, but he's in serious shock."

Hersch nodded gravely, "Just out of flight school, and I doubt that kid will ever fly an Eagle again." That would be one prediction on which Hersch would be wrong. "We'll just keep him safe until we can get him back home." He turned to look at the scarred Eagle which Carter had managed to limp back to the hanger, "How's Eagle eleven."

"Repairable," Carter said, his tone encouraging, "Three motors need replacing, the fourth is damaged but running. I jury-rigged her electronics so she can actually run with minimum functioning. Get some techs working on her and she could probably act as a transport right enough, but I wouldn't go sending her into any combat until she gets a complete overhaul. Just firing her cannon again could short out her electric system, the way it is now."

"All right," Hersch said, the news neither great nor terrible. "I want two Eagles maintaining watch positions outside Ishtar at all times. I want a crew rotating in the reconnaissance Eagle at all times as well. I don't want any more surprises. The rest of the pilots need to get rest, you'll all be going steady over the next few weeks."

An hour later, Hersch met Leonidas after she returned from her attempt to track down the decoy Eagles. She looked nothing like an officer, her hair matted with sweat and flattened from her flight helmet. The flight suit she wore bore no markings of rank and she might have passed for a deck officer if one didn't recognize her face. Still, she was filled with energy and determination, though her displeasure left a dark aura in the air. Hersch met her in her quarters, coming unannounced but clearly expected. She had no expression as she greeted him, but motioned him to sit at her table.

He remained standing, "What I would like to know," he said, keeping his voice steady, "is how the United Nations Naval Command allowed a cult of twenty thousand people on a remote moon to attain technological superiority. I would also like to know how it is that we had no idea about it."

Leonidas looked at him wearily, as if explaining things to him were but a distraction from more important matters, "They didn't use any stealth technology when they attacked the freighters, and we have no contacts among their people. How could we have known? We expected they might have made their Starfish better, but we didn't know how. Still, thanks to second and third flight, things could have been much worse. We now have air superiority."

"Air superiority?" he said, feeling the blood rise to his face, "Flight three no longer exists, four men and women dead; barely out of childhood. We now have only ten Eagles. Hardly enough to ferry Peacekeepers to the planet, keep them supplied while running combat missions as well. And they still have five Eagles of their own."

"Unarmed," she reminded him.

"That could be mounted with air to surface missiles and wreak havoc on our marines."

"Then we will keep our Eagles in the air to find them and shoot them down," her voice remained steady, but he could detect the edge of frustration in her voice, straining to keep from lashing out at him.

"Which would be a lot easier if they didn't have stealth technology," he leaned against her table, stretching himself across the surface toward her, almost pleading, "Their Starfish are gone now, the threat to reinforcements is negligible. Surely Naval Command will see that now?"

"I told you before, Captain, there will be no reinforcements," her eyes were cold and unmoving, "We must persevere here on our own one way or another." The threat of what might come was clear. "It is for them to decide their own fate."

"How could this have been allowed to happen?" he demanded, "What was the UN thinking allowing these people to move to this moon in the first place."

"War was inevitable, Captain," she said, her voice like ice, "Haedra Corporation blamed the UN for their downfall, and at the time they had the only five war machines in space. Just how do you suggest that the UN might have stopped them? With the antiquated ferries being used at the time? The Eagle was a better ship, but in rejecting the Starfish, the UN could just as well have declared war on Haedra. But better that war take place on a remote moon than on Mars…or Earth." She paused, allowing them both time to cool down, "But these concerns are now a matter for politicians and the news media to debate. I assure you, Captain, that I share both your anxieties and your moral unease. And so I implore you to help me find a way to take Caenis without slaughtering them all in the process." Her voice at the end was pleading, and it moved him to trust her once more. His venting had been due to fear and anger, and she was simply the convenient target. "Tell me," she asked, "what harm have they brought to our cause?"

Hersch ran his hand absentmindedly along the finish of her table, "Ishtar took only minor damage from the torpedo, blessedly her armor held. The greatest loss is to the Eagles. From fifteen we are down to ten, plus the recon Eagle, which will be useless for troop deployment. Troop deployment will take one-third longer, and we will have fewer Eagles available for all tasks. We have plenty of pilots to keep the Eagles running constantly. Eagle eleven is running, though barely, and can't be counted on. Morale has dropped; I don't think anyone ever expected that we might actually take a torpedo hit."

"Yes, Ishtar will get some dubious recognition for that," she grinned, trying to seize upon a lift in the tension, "Gythrenko will be the initial target. We will need to bring down the initial landing force some distance from the city, perhaps four days march, as well rounded a force as we can. One hundred sixty marines and two tanks in the first run, thereafter three Eagles will remain on combat air patrol, and three others will begin bombing their defenses. We'll approach slowly, let the hardware do all of the work as to minimize casualties. We can only hope that if Gythrenko falls, that Gudyermes will follow suit without offering further resistance."

Hersch was not optimistic, "Rousseau has surveyed Gythrenko in the recon Eagle. They have encircled the city with defenses: trenches, minefields, ambush points. It will not be an easy approach."

Their discussion was interrupted by the voice of one of the bridge officers coming from Hersch's wrist communicator. Ishtar was receiving a transmission from Gythrenko, asking for him.

"Perhaps," Leonidas suggested dubiously, "they have come to their senses and are asking for surrender terms."

"More likely they will be dictating surrender terms to us," he replied dourly, "I have no doubt they will be looking upon that dogfight as a victory for themselves."

As he strode from her chamber toward the bridge he considered what he might expect from this upcoming conversation. It was likely that the Caenans had hoped to prove the futility of a military operation by sacrificing their Starfish. If so they would be hailing Ishtar to capitalize upon the Peacekeepers' doubts and lowered moral. He wondered if they knew that Ishtar held nuclear weapons, and if they believed that Ishtar would use them if need be. Whatever the case might be, he suspected the Caenans would be delusionally confidant in their upcoming victory. That reality did not speak well for their chances at achieving a peaceful resolution to this crisis.

The bridge was electric with nervous excitement and anticipation as he assumed his post. On the view screen before him was the image of the moon, Caenis, beautifully pink with clusters of blue water and green plants.

One of the bridge officers, the same girl who had manned the scanner earlier told him, "It's Espinosa's daughter on the com waiting for you."

"All right," he said with a deep breath. If it were the daughter acting as spokesman, it might be that Espinosa himself was too ill to retain command of his people. A negotiated settlement might actually be possible. "Patch her through."

The view port immediately filled with the image of Marisleysis Espinosa, a darkly handsome woman in her mid-thirties. She was wearing a colored shall of blended purples and pinks, rich in texture and demonstrative of her rank. Her face wore no adornments but her beauty was natural, in no way spoiled by years living on the distant moon. Visible behind her were several of her officers, working diligently in the bunker she was using to secure herself. Her smile was warm and almost friendly, "Captain Hersch, it is a pleasure. Your reputation precedes you even across an entire galaxy. I trust that your journeys have brought you to us in health?"

It seemed clear that what Marisleysis had intended would have little to do with offering to surrender. Her tone was confident and uncompromising, even as she smiled. "I am quite well, thank you," he replied with a polite nod, "Although I wish I were not visiting you under these circumstances. I hope that we will be able to talk as reasonable individuals and save both of our people from further bloodshed."

"Yes, Captain, that is why I have decided to speak with you," her eyes were dark and penetrating. She was every bit her father's daughter, "Let us speak plainly. I presume that you have brought on board your corvette nuclear weapons?"

It was a reasonable presumption and denying it would serve only to end what dialogue they had, "We have," he confirmed. He was aware that every person on the bridge had stopped what they were doing and were watching this exchange intently.

"As I said, Captain, your reputation precedes you here, and that reputation is one of a compassionate man," she bowed her head in admiration, "I hope you will not take this observation as a slight, quite the contrary, it is what gives us great respect for you as a humanitarian. But I believe that when the time comes you will not be able to choose to use those weapons."

He sighed, inwardly reeling at the error of the Caenans' logic, "You are correct in that observation. I would not order the use of those weapons, were the choice mine. But the choice is not mine to make. I should inform you that ship is under the direct control of United Nations Naval Command."

Marisleysis laughed, so confident she could not acknowledge that her assessment of the situation could be in any way flawed, "A member of the UN Admiralty give up their snug warm bed to come to our cold harsh corner of the universe? If you are going to bluff, Captain, I suggest you make it believable." Hersch felt his blood go cold. Leonidas was purposely avoiding visibility to the Caenans, even if he brought her to the viewport she would only look like a pilot in her flight suit. Did the United Nations want them to blunder their way into obliteration? How had he not seen this before, Leonidas had all but warned him the UN did not want a peaceful resolution to this crisis. He suspected the UN knew far more about the Caenans and their capabilities than Leonidas had let on to him.

"You have brought this war upon yourself," Hersch told her, hoping he could convince her to back down, "Though I know not why you attacked unarmed ships. But I can promise you that the UN means to finish you if you do not surrender."

It was the wrong thing to say, Hersch realized a moment later. Marisleysis' eyes took on a rebellious zeal, "We fight for what every great democracy has fought for: freedom. We no longer want to be part of the United Nations, with our policies and trade rights voted on by strangers thousands of light years away. What rights have you to keep us within your fold when we do not wish it?" The fanatical flare was unmistakable, and he had inflamed it. Not his best move. Her voice took on a conciliatory tone, "Still, I imagine it was our superior craft, the Starfish which frightened the UN so much. Now that they are gone, offered in sacrifice, perhaps you will see fit to leave us?"

It was his turn to become angry, aware as he was that he was being manipulated like a pawn by both sides of this foolish war. "Perhaps you take me for fool, if I do not think you must be ready to develop a new craft that will make the Starfish look primitive." It was only a guess on his part, but the glint in her eye told him he was right. That was what had precipitated all of this.

Marisleysis nodded, impressed, "I have underestimated you wisdom, Captain, as have your commanders. Surely you must have realized that your leaders have told you nothing about why you are here. It changes little, though. You do not have enough troops to take and hold both of our cities, and you will need to resort to nuclear weapons to fix your leaders' problem. That will mean wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women and children. And I don't think that you are capable of that level of evil."

"But you," he sneered, "would use your own people as shields? And you dare to speak of my morality?"

She ignored him, "Do not attempt to land on Caenis. That will only mean the death of your marines. You can't even fire your missiles at us from space, as their guidance systems will not penetrate our electronic defenses. Go home Captain, with our blessings and respect. Let your admirals bear the weight of this cross." She cut her end of the transmission, and the view port returned to the image of Caenis.

Hersch sighed again, feeling like a child caught between two conflicting and irrational parents. It made more sense now, knowing that the UN cared little for the Caenans, but would willing slaughter them all to destroy any trace of whatever craft it was they planned to build. He wondered how saddened and disgusted he might be if he ever learned of all the political dealings that might have led to this moment. Marisleysis was right about one thing however: it changed nothing. His job was to take Caenis as best he could. If he could not the weight would be on Leonidas to destroy the Caenans. That they would not be able to fire the missiles from the safety of space came as little surprise to Hersch, he had worried about that since noting their defenses. He suspected Leonidas would already have a plan for getting the missiles through their defensive screen. He suspected he knew what that plan was, as well.

#

It took five days to fully deploy the marine Peacekeepers with their artillery, tanks, and required supplies. Resistance was initially light, so long as the Peacekeepers kept their distance from the Caenan defenses, but as they began to push their way inward toward the city, it was evident that the Caenans had planned a well organized defense. Most frustrating were guerrilla attacks conducted at rear the of the Peacekeeper force, against supply lines and artillery positions. Casualties remained light, but any hopes that the Caenans would be easily swept aside were dashed. The Caenan Eagles managed to launch periodic missile attacks on the Peacekeepers, and while this nowhere matched the steady barrage the Caenans themselves were forced to endure, it further complicated the Peacekeeper advance.

Eventually, as the Peacekeepers were fully organized, the first mobilized push toward the inner defenses of Gythrenko was unleashed, a three prong push toward the city's center. It was hoped that the artillery would keep the Caenans in their trenches until the tanks could roll over them. The Caenan lines might fall into confusion, leaving the city open for the taking. Though well planned, the attack did not progress as expected, as the Caenans had expected a potential push toward their city. Exploding a mine under a middle vehicle of one column had disabled one prong of the assault and left two tanks and seventy marines cut off and surrounded by heavy enemy fire. All available Eagles were diverted to lay down supporting fire to the trapped troops and supplies were dropped off dangerously close to the front. It was this last risky attempt to assist the desperate marines that ultimately changed the direction of the war.

In Eagle one, Carter and his co-pilot were returning from a bombing run at the front of the action. They were to return to the supply base and be refitted with more bombs to attempt to break the strength of the rebel ambush. Both of them were tired, having gotten little sleep over the previous three weeks. They spoke little, each of them thinking of little more than the urgency of returning to the front. As they flew, they passed over Eagle four, it having landed near the front to deliver urgently needed supplies. A mass of marines was grouped around the ship, quickly removing boxes from within its belly. Eagle four's waist doors were open, with ramps down, leaving her desperately exposed.

"Jesus," Carter exclaimed, "He's parked too close to the front line."

"Looks like he's got plenty of marines for protection," his co-pilot offered.

"But they're only paying attention to the supplies. Let's give him a bit of cover." Eagle one diverted itself from its flight path and began to circle the landing site. The Caenans had brought Earth plants with them to colonize the moon, and these plants had flourished, forming a rich luxurious forest. Eagle four had landed in a clearing of grass, but it was difficult to see much in the immediate proximity. Carter and his co-pilot desperately looked down, trying to peer through the tree branches for signs of trouble.

Carter had a bad feeling about this. Eagles were almost impossible to bring down with missiles, as they could simply outrun them, but Eagle four was exposed on the ground, with her belly open. She would be a helpless target.

"Over there," it was his co-pilot, pointing with an urgency that struck to Carter's worst fears, "movement in the trees."

"Where?" Carter demanded, seeing only leaves and flowers. His cannon was on line, it's nozzle following the movements of his eyes, but he could not find a target, "I don't see anything."

"I think I saw someone moving over there," the co-pilot attempted to give more specific instructions, and Carter shimmied the Eagles sideways to try to get a better view, but still could not see what his co-pilot saw. And it might only be more of their own Peacekeepers. Dare he fire even if he could see something?

"I can't see anything, you take over control of the cannon, I'll bring her in closer on your direction," he punched the com button on his console. "Eagle four, get out of there, we have movement in your tree line."

"What's that Eagle one?" came the reply, incredulous.

"Liftoff Eagle four, possible hostiles in your tree line."

"Negative Eagle one, you must be seeing Peacekeepers."

"Contact confirmed," said Carter's co-pilot, "They are not Peacekeepers. Repeat, NOT Peacekeepers."

"Fire!" Carter demanded, but it was a moment too late. The cannon shot which reduced three Caenan rebels as well as thirty square feet of foliage to their basic mineral components came a fraction of a second after one of the rebels fired a shoulder launched missile straight through the open waist doors of Eagle four. Marines scrambled for cover as Eagle four became engulfed in flames, erupting from within. Golden rivers of fire poured out of Eagle four's sides, engulfing many of the marines on the ground who were too close. The explosion spread through Eagle four's innards, shattering the cockpit windows and jutting the flame out from the Eagle's eyes. Pieces of material were torn from the Eagle and ripped through the air like daggers, cutting down several Peacekeepers who survived the initial explosion.

Within two seconds it was over; Eagle four's innards gutted by the missile, and still on fire. Carter cursed, both at the loss of the pilot of Eagle four, as well as in knowledge of what the loss of another Eagle would mean. The operation to take Caenis was desperately dependent upon these Eagles, and with another one gone, their hope for a conventional war became slimmer. Carter glanced at his co-pilot, who was ashen faced and near tears.

"If I'd only fired a second earlier," the co-pilot said in disbelief.

"It's not your fault," Carter assured him, though he wondered himself how things might have differed had their timing been better, "They should never have landed so close to the front." On the ground the surviving marines were pulling their wounded comrades away from the wreck of Eagle four, clearly in fear that the fire might cause her engines to explode. Their hearts filled with sadness, Eagle one could only watch, unable to land and help in fear of suffering the same fate as Eagle four. With reluctance, they left the scene to continue on their original path, to alert Ishtar of the disaster, and prepare to continue bombing the Caenans until they were told to no longer bother.

#

When Hersch found Leonidas a few hours later, it was evident that she had reached the same conclusion as he. He did not bother to ask permission to enter her chamber, as he was not sure if she might grant it. She had her back to him, examining her own face in a mirror. She wore her flight suit, gloves on her hand, prepared to fly. If she heard him enter she did not acknowledge it, staring into her own reflection with no readable emotion. He waited a moment expecting her to notice his entrance, but she did not. It seemed to him as if she could scarcely believe in her own existence, tugging gently at the flesh of her face as if she were afraid it might peel away to reveal a plastic skeleton underneath. Her behavior produced a sense of unease in him, and he knew that he was watching someone prepare to die. His heart felt sick and he felt the overwhelming desire to bathe in a clear spring to wash away his emotions.

At last he could take the spectacle no longer, "I was informed that you asked Eagle eleven be mounted with a nuclear missile."

If he has hoped it would produce an immediate return to sensibility in her it failed. She flinched momentarily at the sound of his voice, but did not turn, only pushed gently at her lower eyelid, looking into her own brown eye. When she at last spoke, her voice was hollow and thin, "I hope you will not make this any harder for me." She finally turned from the mirror to face him, her skin pale as a bed sheet, "After today we must abandon all fantasy that we will be able to take both cities." She looked down toward the floor, unable to meet his eye.

He hung his head by way of agreement. There was no reasonable argument he could mount to contradict her.

"I don't like having to make this choice," she told him, her voice quivering, "But if I don't, many thousands more may die, perhaps millions. I can't guess what those people are capable of, and I can't take the risk."

He felt profound sorrow for her, and empathy for the position she was in, "It's not just your decision," he told her, "With what I know now, I would have to choose the same thing."

She looked up at him, finally, her eyes meeting his, "I am truly sorry I could not tell you everything before. We really made a mess of this, the UN. The scandal that would break out if the truth became know would far surpass that of a nuclear strike. These people are on the verge of creating a machine that could wreak tragedy on scale that humankind has never before known."

"And the freighters they fired upon?" he asked her, the pieces fitting into place for him.

She nodded, "We had an informant who was bringing to us plans for their weapon. They found he had gotten onto one of the freighters before the ships could open up a wormhole. Unfortunately they managed to destroy the ship he was on, it forced our hand." Her eyes were filled with both sadness and fear, "Imagine a ship like an Eagle that could travel through both space and planetary atmospheres. Imagine the same ship able to open up a wormhole. Think what that wormhole would do if it were opened in the middle of New York City, or Moscow."

"Oh Christ," Hersch exclaimed, alarmed at the scale of planetary destruction that would occur. Losing a city was horrid enough, but how much of a planet's atmosphere would get sucked through a wormhole before it closed?

"So you see then," she said, "such a machine must never be built, not by the Caenans, nor by the UN. Their laboratories are in Gudyermes, thus it is best that Gudyermes cease to exist."

Hersch nodded, his skin gone cold, "You won't be able to fire the missile, their jamming will send it off course." It was an observation of the obvious, forcing her to tell him what he already knew she had planned.

"Yes," she agreed, "But they can't stop an Eagle from flying into the city. This is always why I came on this mission, to be sure a missile made its way to Gudyermes, if need be. I had hoped that it would not be necessary, that the Caenans would surrender their technology to us peacefully, but they would rather die. So it is ordained that they will die, and I will die with them," her eyes were moist, not from fear of her life, but for the task she would be dying for, "Eagle eleven is in rough shape, but it should be fine for this task. As I approach Gudyermes, tell Rousseau to stop jamming their scanners. I want them to see me coming with the missile. It will be their last chance to reconsider."

Hersch nodded, unsure of what to say.

She managed to smile and step closer to him, "Don't look so glum," she commanded with a forced laugh, "We both knew it was leading to this. It has been an honor to know you and your fine crew. Perhaps in other circumstances we might have been friends?"

He understood her need to reach out and make contact with another human being on the eve of her own death. He wondered if he had ever been allowed to peer so deeply and intimately into the soul of any other person. His heart reached out to her and he hoped he was able to give her the emotional connection she needed now. "Yes," he agreed, knowing that he meant it, "I would have liked us to have become friends."

She wistfully glanced out her viewport where the planet and Caenis the moon were visible, "I hope only that if there is some creator being in this universe, that he will forgive me for destroying ten thousand of his finest creations."

"The weight of that debt shall be borne equally by us all," he promised her, "It is not yours alone."

She smiled thankfully, and took his hands in her own, "You are a great and kind man," she said, her eyes looking sweetly at his, "I hope that someday you find in this universe whatever it is you are looking for." She brushed her lips against his then, an unexpected and gentle kiss. For that brief moment when their lips touched and their breath was of the same air, it felt as if they had transcended their bodies, and allowed their souls to mingle together. Their spirits entwined together in a way that was beyond sexual, an intimacy that all humans sought but were prevented by the cages of flesh that imprisoned them. He felt for that moment as if he knew her and understood her better than he had ever known anyone, even himself. He felt that she knew the same as well, and he was comforted by the sensation of such closeness. Her soul seemed so innocent and pure to him, shed of all the guilt that bodies accumulated over a life.

But it was a moment doomed never to last. It was only a second perhaps, before she parted from him with great reluctance. No words were necessary between them, and in silence he watched as she moved out of her room, slowly wandering toward the hanger and the broken Eagle that awaited her. Somehow it was fitting, the two wounded souls waiting to die together. As long as he lived he knew he would mourn her passing, and pray that her soul found peace.

#

O'Hearn woke from his nightmare with a scream. For a few seconds his eyes were still filled with the visions of fire and death that had been the last moments of the men and women he had considered friends. He watched them die again and again in his dreams, mercilessly slaughtered by creatures which had neither hearts nor souls. His own heart knew only agony, and cried out for all that he had lost, his friends, and the purity of his own soul.

He no longer thought of the Caenans as rebels, as mere humans who differed violently in opinion from his own. To him they were a virus, an insidious evil that would engulf his world. His body wore the burns that resulted from coming too close to them. They would have slaughtered him without mercy, had not they been slain first. How many more innocent people would die at their hands?

It took him some moments to realize where he was, his arms hooked up to saline, machines continuously monitoring his life force. All around him were set up dozens of carts, each of them occupied by a wounded Peacekeeper, the worst of the injured, too hurt to be adequately treated at the mobile hospital set up on Caenis. The Medical Center was filled to capacity, with men and women missing arms, legs, eyes, internal organs. Each of them lay in their carts like zombies, and there was little movement among the wounded, only the occasional groan as one of the damaged woke from their stupor enough to take stock of their agony. The air buzzed with a cacophony of machine sounds, a virtual orchestra of alarms, bells, beeps and blips. The machines moved and stirred far more than the wounded creatures they kept alive. The room, though clean, stank of urine, blood and sickness. In the bed next to his was a young female marine, turned on her side to face him, though both of her eyes were covered with bandages through which a yellow fluid soaked. This was what the Caenans had wrought. Their bitterness and selfishness had brought down this disaster, destroyed bodies, lives ended, with who knew how many countless family waiting on Earth or Mars to hear that their loved ones were dead. How much more misery would the Caenans bring before they were stopped?

Besides his bed they had left those of his things that had not been burned in Eagle eleven. There were his wrist com and the pistol with which he would have defended himself had he crashed on the moon. In preparing for casualties in the larger hospital unit, they must not have though to remove these items to his quarters. He quietly slid to the edge of his bed, careful not to disturb the electronic instruments that reassured his keepers that he were still alive. Time enough to remove all of them in a few moments. First thing was first, he reached over and slid the weapon from its holster, grimacing at the primitive nature of such a thing. Hand weapons had none of the elegance of an Eagle, or even a more primitive fixed wing plane. But it was an instrument that would bring him to what he must do. He gently slid the weapon's selector to "stun" for he did not wish to do any harm here. The objects of his hatred lay elsewhere. Within the medical center, the few nurses present were busy attending to soldiers wounded far worse than he. Slipping out unnoticed would not be difficult, though security officers might attempt to stop him once his absence was noted. With his weapon prepared, he finally slid the needles out of his vein, and began removing the wires from his chest. Within moments, O'Hearn had slipped past the distracted nurses. Time would be short before they noticed his absence, however, and so he found his way to his quarters quickly, and within moments had slipped into his flight suit.

"Eagle eleven has entered Caenan atmosphere," the scanner officer announced solemnly, her eyes riveted to her displays. Running on one engine, and struggling with the sizable nuclear missile under its belly, Leonidas was taking Eagle eleven on its one way mission to the Caenan city of Gudyermes. Eagle eleven was barely in condition to fly; with the nuclear missile attached to its belly, it wouldn't be able to pull away from the planet's gravity unless Leonidas disarmed and dropped the missile. The communication systems were damaged as well, although Leonidas could hear messages from Ishtar, she could only respond with bursts of static in Morse code.

Hersch's heart was heavy as he monitored the progress of the Eagle from the bridge. The only hope that remained was that Marisleysis Espinosa would have enough sense to call off the war once she realized the approach of the Eagle toward Gudyermes. He could only pray that her love for her own people would eclipse her loyalty to her father's zeal. Ten thousand lives depended upon her wisdom.

"Very well," Hersch said, keeping his voice confident, though he knew the other officers on the bridge were as uncertain and anxious as he. This was the moment of truth, the next few minutes would determine the fate of them all. Over the com to Rousseau in the reconnaissance Eagle he ordered, "Cease jamming Caenan scanners."

"Yes sir," she said, her voice blessedly free of the emotions that nagged at him. As she dropped the electronic jamming that prevented the Caenans from scanning their movements they would be able to see Eagle eleven coming toward them with its nuclear missile. They would be staring in the face of death, with nothing they could do about it. By the time Eagle eleven would be in range of whatever short range SAM missiles they possessed, the nuclear missile would be close enough to do its damage. They would be faced with the choice of abandoning their war or dying en mass. The Caenans were often compared to a cult, but he hoped that their sacrificial determination did not go that far.

With the plan in action, all there was left to do was to wait. If Marisleysis decided she wanted peace it would be for her to contact the Ishtar. Her father would never have believed it possible that he might lose, and so never would have backed down. But perhaps his daughter was different. Though brought up by him and designated as his successor, perhaps some hint of humanity had taken root in her. Only she could save her people now. Hersch waited and held his breath. What must they be thinking and saying to each other among Marisleysis and her commanders?

At last, after many long minutes came contact, "Sir," said one of the bridge officers, "Marisleysis Espinosa requesting contact."

He resisted the urge to let out his breath, knowing it was not over yet, "Very well, patch her through."

Once again the viewport filled with the image of Marisleysis Espinosa; the arrogance of their last communication was replaced by confusion and anger. Behind her soldiers moved back and forth in a whir of activity. "Captain Hersch," she began tersely, "As I am sure you were hoping we have become aware of your Eagle on approach to Gudyermes. Do you expect me to believe that you intend to resort to mass destruction in order to achieve your aims? I would not have thought you to be so depraved as to slaughter innocent people, innocent children!"

He nodded sadly, in acknowledgment that this was not what he would have chosen, "I no longer see that there is any choice. You were correct in asserting that we could not take both of your cities, so this is what we must resort to. I will not deny that it saddens me, as it does every member of this crew?"

"We wished only to be left alone," she spat toward the screen.

"And yet you fired on unarmed freighters."

"They were spying on us!"

"Because they were trying to ascertain the nature of the weapon you were building."

"We are not building a weapon, Captain!" she looked genuinely wounded, "We are a technological company. We are building the next generation in transportation, an Eagle with a self-contained wormhole engine. It's self-contained, Captain, it could never be used as a weapon, is that what you people truly thought?"

She appeared to be genuine, though he could not be certain if he could believe her. Given the nature of their relationship with the United Nations, it would be understandable that the UN Naval Command would leap to the conclusion that the Caenans were building a weapon of war. So too would it be understandable that the Caenans would go to war over what they perceived as industrial espionage. Was this what the state of human affairs had gotten itself to? Despite all the technological leaps made over the centuries, humans still were unable to communicate as rational beings, and resorted to war out of fear. A tear of frustration moved down Marisleysis' cheek, and Hersch found his heart warming in empathy.

"We can talk about all of this once hostilities have ceased. I promise you if your new Eagle is not a war machine, I will personally defend your full rights to market it as you see fit." This was the moment he knew was coming, the offer of peace he hoped she would take. His heart seemed to stop beating, and there was no sound among the bridge crew as every eye was on Marisleysis, waiting for her reply.

She seemed uncertain for a moment, incredulous at the disaster that both their people had created together. Her eyes watched him across the thousands of miles, two huge pools of sadness, regarding him with regret. "Since you are unable to take up the mantle of humanity, you would force this decision upon me, to make my people slaves to your UN, or to let them die."

Hersch bristled at her words, not sure what to think, but said confidently, "Tell your battle commanders to cease hostility, and I will call back our Eagle."

Her voice quivered, "I don't see how I can trust you after all that has happened here. Yet I suppose I have little choice. It is being done as we speak. I will not be known as a person who let her own people and their children die. May history be kind to the decision that I have had to make here."

"Confirm?" he demanded of his bridge commanders.

"Confirmed, sir, Peacekeeper commanders reporting the Caenans have withdrawn."

"Recall Eagle eleven," he commanded, a bright smile crossing his face, his happiness shared among his bridge crew. His heart felt like it had managed to crawl from beneath a great weight.

Marisleysis too looked relieved although suspicious still, "I hope that your words about representing us had some sincerity."

Hersch felt a strange sense of connection with this woman who seconds before was his enemy, but despite on-going mistrust, could possibly now communicate rationally with the UN, "I assure you I will do all that I can to assure the fair treatment of your people. I look forward to meeting with you in person, and seeing what you have built for yourself on Caenan." The mood on the bridge was approaching clearly lifting, with the officers trading hugs and slaps on the back. All officers except one.

"Sir," the scanner officer's voice stabbed through the reverie with her note of concern, "Eagle eleven is not responding."

The celebration dropped away to silence. "What?" was all that Hersch could manage after he recovered his breath.

She looked confused, "I think Eagle eleven is still receiving, but there is no response. And it is still on course for Gudyermes."

"That's not possible," he feared Eagle eleven's com system might have shorted out for good. What would Leonidas do then, unable to receive confirmations from Ishtar, would she continue with the mission?

"Sir," it was another of the bridge officers with worse news, "it's hanger eleven. Deck crews just found Leonidas and two technicians in the hanger. They have been rendered unconscious, but are all right. Security officers are on scene, they believe someone went missing from the medical center and stunned them."

Hersch felt as if everything he understood had just been proven false, "Who has done this?"

The bridge officer looked like he had been punched in the stomach, "Commander O'Hearn, sir."

"O'Hearn?" Hersch furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, before horror dawned on him, "Oh dear God, not like this." He punched the com, attempting to contact Eagle eleven, "O'Hearn, listen son, I know that you are in Eagle eleven, I know what you are doing. The Caenans have surrendered, it is over, and we have won. You don't need to continue, just disarm the missile and jettison it, and get yourself back on board." What could he possibly say that would bring O'Hearn back? There was no response from Eagle eleven and so he continued, "Listen, I know what you must be feeling, we all feel hatred toward our enemies in times of war. But whatever the soldiers of Caenis have done we can not destroy the lives of innocent people. I know you must be upset, but I know that you don't want to do this, not really. There are innocent people, children in that city that have no idea what this war was all about." He listened for a few seconds, hoping to hear a response.

When he got none, he disengaged the com, and asked the scanner officer, "Do we have any Eagles close enough to shoot Eagle eleven down?"

She shook her head, "No, sir, Eagle eleven is too close to Gudyermes."

His mind was reeling with horror, and desperately he tried the com again, "O'Hearn, can you hear me? I promise you that if you return I will take care of everything. Just don't do this, I am asking you this personally."

All of this Marisleysis had watched from the viewport without understanding what was happening. Her concern was visible however, and this turned to horror as she began to comprehend. "Captain Hersch," she asked, her voice belying the hope that her suspicions were wrong, "What is happening?"

He regarded her with a sorrow deeper than any he had ever felt before, "We can not recall our Eagle. I am truly sorry."

#

As it passed into the atmosphere of Caenis, Eagle eleven began to buckle and shake. Churning along on only one working engine, and carrying the nuclear missile, the Eagle was struggling to remain aloft and stable. Currents of air buffeted the Eagle, and threatened to throw it off balance. O'Hearn held tightly to his controls and kept the Eagle on target for Gudyermes. He let the gravity of Caenis pull the craft slowly downward, as the Eagle did not have quite enough power to remain aloft with the nuclear missile underneath it, but was slowly sinking toward the ground.

Back inside the Eagle where his wrath had been born, he felt a renewed sense of purpose. A moment of doubt had come over him as he had stunned Admiral Leonidas and the two technicians, a sense of being unable to turn back. But it seemed appropriate that his last minutes would be spent inside this machine that had come to mean so much to him. He felt solidarity with the craft, as if it were alive and shared in his feelings. They were both wounded, externally and internally, and they would both be destroyed, sacrificed to rid humanity of the Caenan threat.

The view through the Caenan atmosphere was beautiful, and O'Hearn took a moment to enjoy it. The gas giant around which Caenan orbited dominated the evening vista, brilliantly lit by starlight, and looking like a jewel in the sky. He had only been outside of Earth's solar system a few times and he was glad that he had an opportunity to witness sights such as this one. His mind wandered to his comrades, those that had died fighting the Starfish. Some of them had never been out of the Earth system before, their maiden voyage ended in slaughter. Some of them had families back at home, wives and husbands, children and parents who would never see their loved ones again. Burned into his mind was the image of the stranded Eagle, powerless and no longer a threat, as the Starfish pounced on it without mercy. As they had shown no mercy, so would he show them none.

The Eagle passed into the upper cloud layers, and his visibility dropped momentarily. His instruments were in working order however, and told him that he was still on course for Gudyermes. At his current rate of descent, he would gracefully set down into the middle of the city, were it not for the nuclear missile. That he had set up to detonate at a mere 50 feet from the ground. He had chosen such an unnecessarily low altitude so that he might actually have a glimpse of the city he was going to destroy. He wanted a chance to see the monsters he had set out to slay.

It surprised him that Ishtar did not realize that it was he on the Eagle. He did not doubt that they were distracted by faulty negotiations, but at any moment he expected Carter or any other Eagle to intercept him. If that had happened there would have been little he could have done. His Eagle had no power to engage in a dogfight, and would have simply tumbled to the ground had he attempted any evasive maneuvers. Unlike fixed wing aircraft, Eagles had no aerodynamic capacity, and depended fully on engine thrust to remain aloft. His Eagle had only enough power to move forward, and even now Caenis was pulling his Eagle slowly toward the ground.

He came through the cloud layer and there was Gudyermes before him, a splotch of darkness marring the Caenan landscape. Around Gudyermes was a thick forest, transplanted trees from Earth that had taken to the alien soil. The nuclear charge was small and would not spread far beyond the city; most of the wildlife would be spared. Radiation would be minimal as well; as the nuclear charge consisted of a compound with a very short half-life, radiation levels should return to normal within a few days after the blast.

As the Eagle inched toward Gudyermes, he was able to make out the features of the city better. Compared to many colonization attempts, the Caenan efforts had gone extremely well, and Gudyermes looked like any small city on the European continent of Earth. Despite its relative youth, its buildings looked to be built in a Gothic style, and the organization of the city seemed to go in rings, with winding narrow streets and a huge cathedral to whichever god the Caenans worshipped taking up the center of the city. It was more beautiful than what he might have imagined, not the hell of black steel towers and military fortifications he had expected. As the Eagle inched closer he could see the movement of a few vehicles along the city's streets, though none of them looked to be military in origin. That made sense, he figured, as most of the military operation was focused near Caenan's other city Gythrenko. With Gudyermes gone, surely Gythrenko would surrender, and he would have saved the lives of countless UN Peacekeepers.

Captain Hersch's voice was on the com system, but he only barely heard him. O'Hearn's ears became filled with the sounds of voices, a chorus of souls singing to him in unison. Their voices were doleful and beautifully angelic. The song they sang was wandering, without direction, a fugue, and it lifted his spirit. All else was lost to him, the sounds of his captain, the Eagle's lone engine groaning and whining under the weight of the burden it carried, the prayers of ten thousand people below who were about to die.

O'Hearn picked one road from among Gudyermes' roadway system and began to follow it along its path into the heart of the city. His Eagle had sunk in altitude to three hundred feet, and he could see the people below now, scurrying about like ants. Small arms fire rose up from the ground, bright beams of red and green that to his Eagle was little more than a light show. The small weapons had no power to penetrate the armor of this wounded Eagle. Even if they did, it would do them little good, as his crashing ship would only bring the missile down to detonation altitude that much faster.

With the voices of angels still in his ears, he let gravity bring his Eagle down. His controls shuddered as air currents tried to toss the craft, and his ship struggled to remain aloft. His forward speed was minimal with most of the engine's thrust keeping the Eagle in the air. The altimeter registered two hundred feet and the voices in his head became louder, more insistent. Their tune was more doleful, the beauty filled now with horror. The moment of his death was upon him.

One hundred fifty feet and closing in. He would now not have time to disarm the missile even if he should have changed his mind. He wondered what would become of things once he had passed, what would be the final fate of this conflict. He wondered also what would await him on the other side of death. His life had been a generally good one, until its last moments, and he could have asked for little more than the blessings he had received.

One hundred feet. He could see individual people now, people stopped along the street, standing and looking up at him, and the gift that he had brought to them. Families came out in groups to watch as death arrived. Mothers kissed their children, fathers gathered families together protectively within their arms. Tears were shed and vows of enduring love were exchanged among the doomed.

Along the edge of one street that ran parallel to the one which O'Hearn himself was flying along, he spotted a young girl riding a bike furiously, attempting to keep up with his craft. She was very young, perhaps eight or nine, and from what O'Hearn could see from this distance she was pretty, the very picture of innocence. It seemed that at that moment he could see her perfectly, even from the distance. Every last detail of her features was clear to him, the color of her hair and eyes, the freckles on her face, the frowning of her brow as she struggled to keep the setting sunlight out of her eyes when she looked up at his machine. He thought he could see into her soul, and saw there her youth and innocence. She knew nothing about why he was here, no one had told her he had brought a death machine. She had come to watch him in wonderment, to see the flying ship of the strangers from Earth. In her soul he found none of the Evil and wretchedness he had come to associate with the Caenans. She was simply a child, innocent in intention, and filled with love for her family, friends and all of mankind. Along the path of his flight she rode, her legs working hard to keep pace with his craft. At last she looked up at him, seemed to see him, and raised one thin arm in greeting. Waving at him, she smiled with warmth.

At that moment he realized with horror, the thing that he was doing. His hatred left him like a fever, and his heart was filled with dread. This city was filled with innocents, people who knew nothing of war and did not deserve to die for the mistakes of their leaders. Tears began to fill his eyes, and shame drowned his heart.

It was too late to engage the disarm procedure on the missile, that would take precious minutes that he did not have. He could only pull back on his controls, feeding all power to vertical thrust, demanding that the wounded Eagle rise up into the sky above Caenis. The Eagle's last engine groaned in fury, exhausted and seeking the relief that came from contact with the planet surface. The altimeter continued to drop, the needle inching ever closer to fifty feet.

O'Hearn put all of his energy into pulling back on the shaking controls, his hands shaking, sweat and tears pouring down his face. His heart was like a rock in his chest, threatening to crumble into dust. Desperately he pleaded with his craft to obey him, to rise up into the air away from the inevitable slaughter that came with descent. "Please, please," he begged through clenched teeth, "Please forgive me."

As the Eagle passed over her head, an anonymous little girl of Gudyermes broke away from the protective embrace of her family and rushed into the street. She was younger than the bicycle girl O'Hearn had seen, no more than four, and she did not know why her family was so upset. She knew only that the machine passing overhead was something she did not see often, certainly not so close. It was a wonder to her that something so big could fly through the air. She had seen Eagles flying in the distance from time to time in her four years, but never so near to her. It was such an awesome ship to behold. Could this be the thing that had so frightened her family, which had set her mother and siblings to weeping and hugging? She saw nothing frightening in this machine; rather it looked sad if anything. Lonely it was, flying by itself in the sky. She stood in the center of the deserted street and watched the ship fly away, though it looked like it would land eventually. She raised a single hand toward it, waving to it, hoping what love she could send it would ease its loneliness.

Her father called to her and rushed to collect her. He set himself down on the ground besides her, and scooped her protectively into his arms. He was frightened, she could tell, though she still did not understand. Pools of saline were in his eyes, and spilled over to rush down his cheeks. He gripped her tightly, in a way that she was not used to. She did not like it, for it was too forceful and uncomfortable. Yet her eyes were still riveted on the strange craft.

"Darling," her father told her, and at last she looked away from the struggling Eagle to him. He looked so sad, like the machine in the sky, and she reached out a hand toward his face, wiping away one of his tears. "I love you," he told her. He moved his face toward hers, meaning to kiss her on the forehead. The kiss never happened. Before he could move his lips against her forehead both of their bodies were heated to a temperature like that of the surface of a sun and became one with the Caenan wind.

#

It took three days for the radiation levels near to Gudyermes to return to normal. Most of that time, Hersch spent in his chambers when he was not required on the bridge. This left most of the running of the ship to Rousseau and Carter as Leonidas was still recovering from being stunned. It was unfair and unprofessional of him to pass off the responsibilities of his command onto his junior officers, and understanding this did not make him feel any better. But then again, neither of them had watched as Marisleysis' face registered her own impending death, seconds before it had vanished from Ishtar's viewport screen to be replaced with only static. He could not remember any other time when he had felt so tainted, and he spent the hours recounting the many steps he might have taken to avert this tragedy. He should have guessed that O'Hearn might have reacted like this, or simply put more security in hanger eleven, or given Eagle eleven another Eagle as an escort. But he had done none of these things, and now ten thousand people were dead.

He had finished off his brandy on the second day and now was alone with his thoughts in sobriety. The one blessing he could count was that the Caenan forces in Gythrenko had remained true to the cease-fire. Peacekeepers were now occupying the city and keeping order, but the Caenans had lost all desire for further resistance.

If the wormhole jumps were truly a window into one's own soul, he wondered what he might see next time through, when he finally returned to Earth's system. He could only imagine the horrors that awaited him in that surreal place, faces melting before his eyes, screams of thousands of innocents dying. That little girl, Aphrodite who claimed to be his daughter, would she be there once more, looking on him with compassion? Or would she look upon him with some other emotion?

Inaction haunted him as well, for with the Caenan forces in surrender, there was little for him to do. The Peacekeepers had control of the situation on the planet. Rousseau and Carter had command of Ishtar, although there was little for Ishtar to do now except to ferry more supplies to the surface. And he had exiled himself to his quarters to be haunted by his guilt. Finally he decided that he had enough of the stagnation and that there must be something he could do. His crew's morale was at an all time low, and surely brought lower by his own depression. They needed to see him do something, as much as he needed to do something for his own well being. An impulsive notion caught hold in him and he decided that he had little to lose by following it.

He found Rousseau on the bridge, and she greeted him with warmth that was uncharacteristic of her. Her eyes were compassionate and understanding, though he knew he could no longer expect to force his weaknesses onto her compassion or that of the rest of his crew.

"I understand that radiation levels at Gudyermes have returned to normal?" he asked her as a means of segueing into his command. When she affirmed that he asked, "Which Eagles do we have on board currently?"

"Eagle seven is offloading some wounded from the surface, and the reconnaissance Eagle is inactive." Confusion swam in her voice and in her face.

"Very well," he said definitively, "It's time we had a look at the damage to Gudyermes."

"Should I prepare a security team to take Eagle seven?" she asked hesitantly.

"No, I'll be going," he met her disapproving gaze evenly, "Alone. Have the reconnaissance Eagle prepared."

"Yes sir," she said, not challenging him. She would not approve, worried about his safety as a first officer was supposed to be. But he could not ask any of his crew to be the first to survey the destruction. It had to be him, he would bear that burden for them. "You have the bridge," he told her, letting her know Ishtar would be hers to command if he didn't return.

She sadly nodded her affirmation and whispered to him, "May you find in Gudyermes the forgiveness you are looking for. But I fear that what you will see will break your heart." To this he smiled and took her hand briefly before leaving to prepare for his flight to the surface.

#

With the reconnaissance Eagle he nearly retraced the path O'Hearn had taken in Eagle eleven. The reconnaissance Eagle had exponentially more power than the wounded Eagle had and so the descent to the surface was much more peaceful for Hersch. Descending into the atmosphere through the initial cloud layer, he felt a renewed sense of both freedom and belonging, and he knew that this decision to observe Gudyermes was the right one, whatever befell him on the surface. Despite Rousseau's concern, the risk from Gudyermes was actually very low. Only debris or unstable buildings would be a concern. There were no military units or anyone else, for that matter, left in Gudyermes to threaten him. As such he had brought no weapon, and the reconnaissance Eagle itself was unarmed. In every way this mission to the surface was a breach of procedure, but standard procedure had no remedy for a faulty nuclear strike.

As he came through the initial cloud layer, the city of Gudyermes, or what remained thereof came into his field of vision. From the distance it appeared as a cancer on the surface of the moon, a black oily splotch which marred the perfect greens and browns of the surrounding forest. Tendrils of black and gray radiated outward from a central blast core, drifts of ash that covered up the remnants of automobiles, houses and people. Away from the blast center there remained a number of buildings that still stood, though precariously. Even from the distance he could tell they were gutted with only the superstructure remaining. Heaps of rubble sat in piles where other buildings had been. The European ring structure to the city that O'Hearn had noticed on his flight no longer remained, and all there was for Hersch to view was a chaotic mess of brick and ash spreading outward from the deep empty hole at what had been the city center. Strapped to the bottom of an Eagle as it had been, the missile had nonetheless done its job well. Nothing remained of Gudyermes, save those handfuls of stubborn empty buildings, and no life stirred inside its perimeter.

Low above the city hung a curtain of dark ugly clouds like a death shroud pouring rain into the city to turn ash into muck. He could see the columns of water pouring into the blackened ring, sending tendrils of rancid water streaming out into the countryside. Every so often a bolt of lightning could be noticed, and funnels of wind would come down from the clouds and stir up the wreckage into twisters half a mile high. It was a scene from Dante's Inferno, something he might have expected from the surface of Venus, but not this pleasant inhabited moon.

All that he saw he recounted back to Ishtar. "It looks as if God had touched his finger to this place in anger," he told Rousseau, who was monitoring him from the bridge, "It is as if I were staring into Hell."

"I don't like that there are tornadoes," she told him, her voice neutral, "One of those could take down the Eagle."

He ignored her and flew the recon Eagle in closer to the city, under the dark mantel of the storm clouds and on in toward the center of the city. The ruins of houses and buildings gave way quickly to almost pure rubble and ash, most of it spread so finely it was impossible to tell where the buildings had been and where the roads. It was unimaginable that just three days earlier this had been a living city filled with laughter, life and happiness.

As he passed in under the clouds, he lost the signal from the Ishtar and had to boost the power of the recon Eagle's transmitters. The Eagle was struck by lightning, probably several times, but it was built to withstand far worse, and Hersch did not notice the strikes. "My God," he whispered, not caring if he registered on Ishtar or not, "it's all ash. We've destroyed everything."

He was wrong it turned out, for out of the ash loomed a cluster of small high rises, heavily damaged but still standing. Each of them was deprived of windows and probably most of their interiors. One of them had been knocked asunder and leaned precariously against one of its neighbors in a fragile embrace. These had been built to withstand natural disasters, and had remained standing through the worst devastation mankind had to offer. Sheltered in the center of the high rises was the remains of a temple, an odd round structure, fat but not tall, which had been saved from the worst of the damage by the sacrificial towers. Its luster had been reduced to black and gray, and part of its roof had caved in, and there was no question of survivors within, yet the building called to him like a Mecca in the center of all of this death.

"I'm landing," he told Rousseau and ignored her protests. Finding a relatively clear place to land the Eagle was difficult, and it would have to deal with a bed of rubble on which to settle. Thrust from the engines fortunately threw up only a minimum of ash, and the rain prevented even that from remaining in the air. The bed of rubble on which the Eagle settled groaned and protested from supporting such a heavy weight, but at last the Eagle was down and Hersch emerged into the Faustian terrain that had been Gudyermes.

Predictably the place smelled heavily of a mixture of ash and ozone, and Hersch kept his full flight suit and helmet on to protect himself from the rain. Looking about it almost seemed he might have been walking on the surface of the moon, were it not for the rain and the remains of ruined buildings. There were no bodies, hardly anything recognizable as a human artifact, for all of that had been vaporized or reduced to scattered pieces in the blast. For Hersch, that was a small blessing, for he did not know how his heart could stand to look upon countless thousands of bodies, burned and blackened by a weapon he should have controlled.

He stepped toward the Temple tentatively, feeling as if he were investigating an alien planet, and not one that had been inhabited by humans for decades. He looked back once toward the Eagle, knowing without it he could not hope to remain in contact with Ishtar. Already the Eagle was blacked with ash and looking forlorn. He turned away and, not knowing what he might find, continued on to the temple.

The Caenans worshipped a Goddess of Poetry and Wine, almost a female Bacchus but without the lack of morality. Her name was Crythysia, and her temple had survived in remarkable condition. With some work it might even be salvageable, should the Caenans decide to rebuild Gudyermes. Outside, it was little more than a blackened shell, and the fires of the nuclear strike had done their work inside as well. Every window was gone, shattered and melted so that no trace remained. The doors, which once had been heavy bronze testaments to this religion, had been blown off their hinges, had become distorted heaps of metal. Through the open jaws of the temple was a huge awning gathering room, with stone pillars and flying buttresses overhead, all of which had remarkably survived. The furnishings had all been reduced to ruin, and the ash that coated the inside of this place was over a foot deep. Ash that once might have been benches or candleholders or tapestries or people for all that Hersch knew. He could only guess if people had sought refuge here before the strike. Eagle eleven had limped into the city; as such they would have had ten minutes warning after Rousseau dropped the jammers. Would they have crowded in here to give their goddess their final prayers? Was he even now stepping on the disintegrated remains of dozens or hundreds of parishioners?

He stepped further into the building, walking around heaps of brick and ash, stepping over beams fallen from the damaged ceiling above. Toward the back of the room there was an altar of simple stone. If it had adornments once, they were gone now. A dais led up to the altar and behind the altar itself was a magnificent statue of the goddess Crythysia, the one thing in the all of the city that might appear much as it had before the strike. The statue was of a beautiful young woman with long flowing hair and a peaceful, smiling face. Her hands were lowered at her sides, and her palms facing outward as if to beckon her flock to follow in her teachings. She was sculpted to appear as if she wore a long flowing dress similar to the sort Classical Greek women wore, and she reminded Hersch of both Aphrodite (the goddess, not his former ship) and the Virgin Mary. Her face was sweet and caring and filled with warmth and appreciation for the beauty of life. The statue was perhaps twenty feet in height, easily dwarfing the penitent who stood humbly below.

Hersch removed his helmet so that he might look upon her better. Rain was coming in through the cracked roof and broad heavy drops fell upon his exposed face. It took his breath away to imagine that in all of the destruction this beautiful statue had managed to survive. He never imagined that he could have understood the way that God worked, but he thought that the Caenans had sculpted the divinity as well as anyone had.

He stepped closer to the statue, rising up the stone dais covered with ash, passing the ruined altar to stand beside the statue. He gazed up into her face and imagined that indeed she were looking down on him, gracing him with that smile of warmth and forgiveness. Were that it were so, that she could forgive him for destroying ten thousand of her beloved children. Could it be she could still look down upon him as one of her own? He removed the glove from one of his hands and reached out to touch her hand. He wondered if it might feel warm, and perhaps soft like flesh. He almost deluding himself to believing that it would indeed feel like a real human hand until the moment his fingers brushed against her stony palm. Still he was not disappointed, for the touch gave him warmth of a different kind, and he began to think he knew his own soul once more. Just a glimmer that made his entire self ache.

"She's beautiful isn't she?" asked a voice softly from behind him.

Though he should have, Hersch felt no alarm as he turned to face this human who should not be in this dead city. Hersch was unarmed and should an intruder deign to do him harm, there was little he could have done to prevent it. But that mattered little, for what more would one death be after so many?

The man who had entered the temple after he looked less like a man than a zombie, for his body was covered in thick hide clothing, and his body reeked of death. The flesh of his hands was rotted and weeping with pus and his face was covered with bandages that seeped with yellow fluid, save for the holes for his eyes, nose and mouth. The man's eyes were a steely blue and gazed upon Hersch in a way that betrayed no emotion. Despite the disease of his flesh, the man's body betrayed an enduring physical health, for he was broad of shoulder and steady of stance. Like Hersch he carried no weapon, and did not appear inclined toward violence. He motioned toward the statue with one sickly hand and lectured, "She is Crythysia, and she is our goddess. She tells us to take pleasure in this life as best we are able, and to work hard to bring pleasure to others. She protects us from evil when she can, and delivers us unto death with grace and dignity when she can not protect us." He stopped and gazed at Hersch, as if to see if he understood.

"Yes," said Hersch, uncertainty, his heart welling with emotions, "I know who she is." He heard his words echo through the hollow place, and did not recognize his own voice.

Than man stepped closer without threat, moving from the hostile atmosphere outside to the relative shelter of the temple. Water dripped from his clothing, but he seemed not to mind. "Then you have come here to ask for her forgiveness?" he asked.

There was a pause while Hersch wondered why he had come. "I have," he answered for it seemed to him to be as close to the truth as he could understand.

"True forgiveness comes from within, Peacekeeper," he motioned reverently toward the statue with one oozing hand, "but nothing would please her more than should you find it." He smiled mercurially, "I suppose you must wonder how your efficient bomb might have missed one?" Without a word, Hersch nodded. "I am Petyr Saminov, and once I was an electrical engineer for Haedra, even back when it we still worked on Earth," he chuckled as if remember times passed. "And like all of the most loyal of Haedra's employees I came here with Espinosa to found our new Eden of freedom, independence, and technological superiority. It is a beautiful place, what we have made out of this moon, is it not?"

The question seemed genuine, and Hersch nodded, though he had frankly seen little of it himself.

Saminov seemed pleased, and looked about the temple as if he were seeing it for the first time in many years, "Most of us prospered when we came here, though one can be sure there was much hard work those first years. Even I continued on in the science directorate, rising quickly for a time. But one of our Earth bacteria that migrated with us, streptococcus the doctors tell me, mutated on this moon and infected my flesh. It does not kill me, but renders me a monster to behold, untouchable by any who would not want their flesh to burn and melt as does mine." His eyes took on a sad weight, "This was seven years ago. I had neither wife nor children, and the doctors assured me there was nothing for them to do. And so I took to the hills far above Gudyermes, there to live out my final days in peace and tranquillity." Now he laughed with irony, "Unfortunately for my romantic scheme, the disease only devours my flesh, but keeps my body strong. I have survived out there in the wilderness for seven long years. Some of the people of Gudyermes had come to think of me as a holy man, but I am just an engineer."

He regarded Hersch as a teacher would a pupil, "So you see how it came to be that your bomb missed one. I was too far away. If only I had stayed in the city these years, I would finally have received the death I have wished for. Perhaps Crythysia spares me," he gestured once more with reverence toward her figure, "to teach me some lesson, but as of yet I have not come to understand it."

He bowed in obedience toward his patron goddess, "Upon the hill on which I lived I witnessed as beloved Gudyermes was rendered unto fire and death. I wept tears of anguish for the souls that burned within her ovens. But then you will not believe what I came to witness within that orgy of pain and loss. As the flames rose from the ground and parted the clouds, I saw within them the shapes of the dead like ten thousand angels ascending into heaven. Their bodies writhed and squirmed within the fumes and pillars of smoke, not in terror or pain, but in ecstasy and joy that their souls had been released of their mortal prisons, and they had been set free to wander again the heavens from which they came. They rose like a flock of phoenixes from their own ashes, and they sang like a heavenly choir, such beautiful sounds you have never before heard. Some seemed to come to me and touch me not with flesh but with life, with consciousness. And they told me that all would be all right, and that I should not weep for them, for they were where they needed to be, and life in this universe would continue on its eternal cycle, like the cycle of life-sustaining water on Earth. And as I wept for them, so too did they weep for me because I would not be joining them, not that day, not yet. Do you not see this, Peacekeeper? That it is not we who should weep for the dead, but the dead who weep for us?"

"I do see that," Hersch said, and meant it. As he had been stunned by the statue of Crythysia, so was he transfixed by this man. He could understand how the Caenans had come to respect him as a holy man.

"I do not know why I came down into this city," Samenov continued, "perhaps just to see what remained of this place I had once called home. But overhead I saw your craft approaching, and led my horse through what remains of the streets until I found you here. And when I saw you I knew that you had come to pray and seek forgiveness. But that forgiveness must come from inside. It can come neither from I nor from the Gods, but you must find it for yourself." He smiled kindly at Hersch, "You will find it when it is time for you heart to heal. I feel such sorrow for you and your people; you have conquered this world, at the price of losing yourself. Go back to your war machine, and find healing for yourself and your people, and know that there are none who hate you on Caenis."

Hersch had no words adequate to express himself, nor was he sure exactly what it was he was feeling. A universe that had made sense to him mere weeks earlier had been turned on its head. It now seemed wondrous and horrible, full of possibilities and dangers. And beyond all else, despite the wonders of technology his people had brought about, there was so much he didn't know. And that ignorance of all that was beautiful in this enormous universe made him feel saddened and lonely.

As his Eagle took him from the ruins of Gudyermes, he did not look back, but thought of all he had experienced and learned here. He had not proven himself to be a good war leader, but might he have found something else? His mind was confused; puzzled by questions he had never before thought to ask. As the atmosphere of Caenis gave way to the endless expanse of stars, Hersch began to find peace. And with that peace came the sound of ten thousand angelic voices raised in joyful union.

The End


Bio: Christopher J. Ferguson is a psychology professor and chair of the psychology department at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He has several published short stories in magazines such as Orion's Child, Nefarious, Midnight Horror, Blazing! Adventures, Stories That Lift, and Fantasy Gazetteer. He has also written nonfiction columns for Time.com, CNN, The Huffington Post and New York Times, among others. His first novel SUICIDE KINGS is published with The Wild Roses Press. He lives outside Orlando, Florida with his wife and son.

E-mail: Christopher J. Ferguson

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