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Universe

By

Kem Stone 

Book II: Treason 

Part One – Return 

Chapter 1

0900 Hours, March 14, 5131084

The Far Side of the Milky-Way 

      The bright orange star’s reflection in the oceans of the planet below was an awe inspiring sight.  As Captain Warden Alexander of STAR Security stared at the world 100 kilometres beneath him from the cockpit of the command vessel, he could not help but once again feel that familiar twinge of regret that always seemed to take hold of him before this sort of mission.  For billions of years this planet had had no master other than the powerful and enigmatic forces of nature, its geological and biological features winding their own course through the slow and miraculous process of evolution.  Now its time was at an end.  Once this mission was completed, it would no longer be a natural world, but another piece of territory in the STAR Corporation’s vast interstellar empire.

      “It is almost a shame,” Captain Alexander said to his First Officer sitting beside him, the only other person in the command vessel.

      “How so?” replied Commander Clive Hector, who was busy checking the radar to make sure the troops in the fighter-ships behind them were gathering into the proper formation.

      “I do not have the right words to explain myself,” said Alexander, “but there is a quality in worlds untouched by mankind that we destroy each time we subject them to terra-forming.  I can not help but feel a sense of regret, as though something valuable is being lost.”

      “If a world has no value for STAR, it has no value at all,” Hector replied, still checking his read-outs.  “The same is true for all things.”

      “You are right, of course,” said Alexander, and continued his ruminations in silence.  On the planet’s horizon ahead, a snow-capped mountain range between two of the planet’s largest continents came into view.  Those mountains, at least, would survive the process.

      “The troops are in position,” Hector reported.  “We await your order.”

      “Tell them to begin their descent on my mark,” Alexander ordered, and Hector input the message into the computer and transmitted it to the 201 single-person ships flying behind them in a V-formation.  A few seconds later, Alexander gave the order and Hector pressed the button which signalled the troops to break orbit and descend to the outermost layer of the planet’s atmosphere below.

      “Adjust our pitch to ninety degrees,” Alexander ordered, and Hector input the command to their own vessel’s computer to turn the spacecraft until it faced the planet directly.  Against the backdrop of swirling clouds and an island-spattered ocean, Alexander watched the fighter ships grow smaller through the window as they approached the outer layer of the planet’s atmosphere.

      “That could be Earth itself,” said Alexander, marvelling at how similar this planet looked to the world from which the human race had originated.

      “I must take your word for it,” said Hector.  “I have never seen Earth with my own eyes.  But with the exception of the atmosphere’s composition this planet is nearly identical to Earth in every category.”

      “I have only had the privilege of visiting Earth once,” said Alexander, “and I could not imagine anything closer to paradise.  It is hard to believe that we once came close to reducing the entire world to a wasteland.”

      “It was not ‘we’ who did that,” said Hector.  “The human race that nearly brought itself to extinction pre-dates the STAR Corporation.  In my mind, that makes them an entirely different species.”

      “In many ways it was,” said Alexander.  “But those were our ancestors.  That is important to remember.”

      “If you will forgive my candour, Captain, I do not feel such things have any importance.”  For the first time, Hector turned to face Alexander.  “History is nothing more than trivia.  Interesting, perhaps, but essentially irrelevant.”

      “That may be, Commander,” said Alexander thoughtfully.  “That may very well be.”

      The two men sat silently for the next few moments as the fighters fixed themselves at the designated altitude and corrected any minor breaks in the formation that had appeared during the descent.  In a moment, the voice of Major William Spender came through the speakers in the command vessel.  “We are in formation and ready to begin, Commander,” he said.  “We are awaiting your orders.”

      “On my mark,” said Alexander, and Hector input the proper command.  Alexander took one last look at the world below him as the ships passed the coast-line and flew over the mountain range.  One more word and the multi-billion year natural history of yet another planet would come to an end.  “Now.”

      Alexander watched as streams of gas began to pour out from behind the spacecrafts below, obliterating the planet’s natural atmosphere and transforming it to the specific blend of nitrogen and oxygen that is most suitable for human life.  It was now official: the planet no longer belonged to Nature.  From now until the end of time, it would belong to the STAR Corporation.

      As soon as the troops had passed the mountain range, another message came through the command vessel’s speakers.  “Commander, some of my men are reporting strange formations on the ground,” said Major Spender.

      Alexander breathed a heavy sigh.  He had been expecting this message, but it had come much sooner than usual.

      “Now I see them too,” the major continued.  “They definitely look like…like geometric patterns.  Wow!  I can hardly believe my eyes.  They look like roads and buildings!  Commander, I have no idea how this happened but STAR must have missed this.  There is intelligence here!  No question about it!”

      Hector turned to Alexander with a piercing look in his eyes, curious as to how his captain would respond to this.

      “Commander,” Spender’s voice continued, “my men are very confused.  There was not supposed to be intelligent life here.  I recommend an immediate abort.  I await your reply.”

      Hector asked the captain, “Well?”

      Alexander just shook his head.

      “Understood,” said Hector, his tone betraying no hint of how he felt.  Alexander had been ordered to keep him in the dark about this as well.

      “Commander,” Spender continued.  “Not to be anxious but the sooner you issue the abort order the sooner we can stop this.”

      “There will be no abort order,” Hector spoke into the communications panel.  “You will continue with the mission as planned.”

      “I am sorry?” Spender was confused.  “Could you please repeat that?”

      “You are not to abort,” Hector repeated.  “You will continue the mission.”

      “But…” the major was clearly bewildered.  “You can not be serious!  There are intelligent beings here!  If we continue the mission they will no longer be able to breathe their own atmosphere!  They will all be dead within minutes!”

      “That is understood,” said Hector through his teeth, forcefully enunciating each word.  “Your objections are noted.  But your orders are to continue the mission as instructed.”

      “This is madness!” shouted Spender.  “I demand to speak to Captain Alexander!”

      “Major, you do not have the authority to…” Hector began, but Alexander switched off his com-panel and indicated that he would handle it.  Clearly, Major Spender had been the wrong choice to lead the troops on this kind of mission.  He had no way of knowing it, but his career was already over.  Alexander felt nothing but pity for the man, remembering the first time he had learned the truth about these terra-forming campaigns.

      “Major Spender, this is Captain Alexander,” he said.  “I appreciate your objections but we must not forget the primary purpose of the chain of command.  This mission clashes with your conscience, and I understand that.  Believe me, I understand that more than you know.  However, you can not trust yourself to know what is right and wrong in a situation of this kind.  You have been told only what STAR has chosen to tell you.  You do not have enough information to decide that the purpose of this mission is unjust or unnecessary.  STAR has all of the information, and is therefore the only entity qualified to make such determinations.  STAR has decided to clear this planet of its native population.  Your duty is not to ask why.  Your duty is to follow your orders.  Do you understand me?”

      There was silence.  Hector was looking at the captain with a curious expression.

      “Do you understand me, major?” Alexander repeated.

      “I understand,” Spender replied, “but I just do not know how I am going to live with myself from this day on.”

      “You will live as STAR tells you to live,” said Alexander.  Or you will die as they tell you to die.  “Remember that you are nothing.  STAR has been in control of humanity for over five million years.  You are one human being among millions of billions.  You have less than half a century of experience and have seen only the smallest fraction of the territory that STAR controls.  Are you really so audacious as to believe that your judgment, the judgment of one insignificant piece of human flesh means anything when weighed against the sheer incomprehensible magnitude of the power and wisdom that belongs to STAR?  What can you possibly know of right and wrong that STAR does not know?  You have no authority on such matters.  STAR is the sole and final authority.  The rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the judgment of STAR alone and goes no further.  STAR has determined that this must be done, and it is therefore unquestionably right to do so.  Your feelings, my feelings, the feelings of the troops—these are all irrelevant.  Do you understand?  Or do you believe your ethics to be superior to those of STAR?”

      There was a brief pause before Spender finally replied.  “Of course not, Captain.  I was completely out of line and I apologise.  Of course this must be done.  Thank you.”

      Alexander turned to Hector, who was staring at his captain with a look of sheer admiration.  “Beautifully put, if I may say so, Captain,” said Hector.  “I was unaware that you could be so eloquent.”

      “You do not seem the least bit troubled by the truth about our mission,” said Alexander, trying to ignore that all-too-familiar sick feeling in his stomach.

      “It is as you say,” said Hector.  “STAR is the sole and final authority.  It is not my place to be troubled by what it decides to do.”

      Warden Alexander did not speak except to issue orders for the rest of the mission.  He tried not to think about the billions of unknown persons on that world below him, gasping for air and clutching their loved ones in unspeakable terror as their entire civilization was choked to death.  Alexander had managed to convince Major Spender to surrender his personal feelings in submission to STAR’s authority.  Yet he could not tell anyone, most especially his First Officer, the truth: that in speaking those words he had not been trying to convince Spender of anything—those words had been directed at himself. 
 

Chapter 2

1500 Hours, March 14, 5131084

Romband Mobile Command Base 

      Once the planet’s atmosphere had been completely converted and the mission was finished, Warden Alexander and his First Officer Clive Hector returned to the command base to report to the admiral for debriefing.  The Mobile Command Base, or MCB, was the largest vessel in STAR’s arsenal capable of interstellar travel.  The base consisted of two spheres of unequal size, the smaller containing the bridge and living quarters for high-ranking officers, while the larger was home to thousands of soldiers and docking bays for their ships.  Together the spheres contained approximately 100 cubic kilometres, the size of an average city.  A giant ring attached to the back of the larger sphere, about 10 kilometres in diameter, generated the massive amounts of energy needed to propel the base to the speed of light and bend the rate of time distortion using the technology discovered in the fourth millennium by STAR’s most famous scientist, Arthur Romband, for whom this particular base was named.

      After docking their command vessel in one of the bays on the upper half of the smaller sphere, Alexander and Hector silently made their way through the corridors to the front of the sphere where the admiral was waiting for them on the bridge.  Admiral Sterling Claymore, a towering figure with a head of thick, snow-white hair, stood in the centre of the busy room staring out of the cockpit window at a close-up projection of the planet with its new atmosphere.  About two dozen bridge officers were also present, each manning their stations which monitored every aspect of the base, from the functioning of its computer systems to the identities and locations of every person aboard.  When he heard the sliding door to the bridge open behind him, Admiral Claymore turned to the Captain and his First Officer and greeted them with a blank expression and a nod.

      Silently he led them to the door of the command briefing room, which was accessible only from the bridge.  Aside from the computer panels lining the walls, this room consisted only of a long table made to look like polished wood, and two dozen chairs fixed to the floor around it.  The admiral took the centre seat of the long end of the table while Alexander and Hector sat beside each other on the opposite side.  Once they were all seated, the admiral began.

      “Congratulations, Captain,” said Claymore.  “You have successfully overseen the completion of another very important mission.  It will take several weeks to completely dispose of the remaining biological material, but the planet is now ours for the taking.  You have served STAR well.”

      “Thank you, Admiral,” Alexander responded formally.

      “Commander,” Claymore now turned to Hector, “your service is duly noted as well.  I listened to the recording of what took place at the beginning of the mission.  You maintained your composure perfectly once the true nature of the mission became clear to you.  You have demonstrated your quality.  STAR recognizes your service and you can expect that more trust and responsibility will be placed on you in the future.  Congratulations.”

      “Thank you, Admiral,” Hector replied with a small trace of pride in his voice.

      “Alexander,” Claymore continued, turning back to the captain, “your words to the major were spoken like a true STAR Officer.  I am recommending another commendation be placed on your record.”

      “Admiral,” Alexander began, “if I may say a few words in defence of Major Spender…”

      “Please do not, Captain,” Claymore cut him off.  “Your loyalty to the officers who serve under you is an admirable quality, but we both know what must happen to the major and neither you nor I have the discretion to alter it.  Any words you speak on his behalf will be only to your detriment.”

      “Forgive me, Admiral,” Alexander pressed, “but I do not believe his transgression was serious enough to warrant a discharge.  He was only caught by surprise, but he ultimately chose to follow orders.”

      “We have only you to thank for that, Captain,” said Claymore.  “But unfortunately the major has demonstrated a propensity to question orders, and we both know that STAR can not tolerate any insubordination, no matter how small the transgression or negligible the consequences.  Today it was only a minor hesitation.  Tomorrow it could be treason.  STAR will not allow anyone who questions a direct order to serve as a ranking officer in its Security Forces.  There are millions of fully qualified individuals who are ready and able to replace him.”

      “He gets no second chance?” Alexander asked.

      “STAR does not need to offer second chances,” said Claymore.  “Now I must warn you again that you are jeopardizing your own career by even speaking to me of this.  I do not feel that you are doing any more than defending a subordinate officer.  Should I have any reason to believe that you are questioning the fairness of STAR Security policy, I would have no choice but to send the recording of this debriefing to the general.  If this conversation ends now, it stays between us.”

      Alexander looked into the eyes of the admiral, careful not to show his true emotions. Though he could not be sure, he thought he perceived that Admiral Claymore regretted this just as deeply as he did.  But they were both in the service of the highest authority, and their personal feelings were completely irrelevant.  “Of course, Admiral,” said Alexander, and for the sake of the recording he added:  “I only wished to be certain that I could not intervene on the major’s behalf, considering the slightness of his transgression.  But STAR Security policy is quite proper not to tolerate any insubordination, no matter how small or inconsequential.”

      “We understand each other then,” said Claymore.  “If there is nothing else, you are dismissed.  I would like to inform you however that you will both be receiving new orders shortly.  You are not needed for the clean-up operations here and STAR is in need of two outstanding officers for a mission of great importance.  I of course can not reveal the mission to you until the orders are formally sent, but I wanted to give you time to prepare.  You will probably be departing within twenty-four hours.”

      “Thank you, Admiral,” Alexander and Hector said simultaneously.  Claymore remained seated while they rose from their seats and left the room.  As they walked through the door, they noticed Major Spender waiting outside accompanied by a Base Security guard.  They were careful not to acknowledge his presence. 

      William Spender knew he was in trouble.  As he entered the briefing room and the door slid shut behind him, he froze in fear at the look in the admiral’s eyes.

      “Sit down,” Claymore ordered him, but Spender could hardly move.  The admiral repeated the order, and Spender took the seat opposite him.

      For a moment there was only silence, as Spender endured Claymore’s piercing gaze.  It was as though the admiral was trying to see past his eyes to read the very thoughts in his brain.  Finally, he said, “do you understand the nature of your transgression?”

      “Yes, sir,” Spender answered, finding it difficult to squeeze out the words.

      “Do you understand the severity of your transgression?” asked Claymore.

      “Yes, sir,” Spender repeated.

      “I do not believe you do,” said Claymore.  “Please explain why what you did was wrong.”

      Spender cleared his throat, and began the speech he had been practicing since that morning when the incident had taken place.  “I questioned a direct order.  I ignored the chain of command.  When I learned that the planet was inhabited, I…”

      “I did not ask you to explain why you did what you did,” the admiral interrupted.  “I have only asked you to explain why what you did was wrong.”

      “Of course, sir,” said Spender, now more nervous than before.  “As a STAR Security Officer it is my duty to follow orders without question or hesitation.  I am provided only with the information that STAR finds it necessary to provide me with.  I do not have the authority to question the purpose or the wisdom of the orders I am given.  My only duty is to obey orders unconditionally, and I neglected my duty.”

      “That is all correct and obvious,” said Claymore.  “But can you explain why STAR asks you to obey orders unconditionally?”

      “Because, sir,” Spender continued, “if officers hesitated every time a questionable order was received, the system would collapse.”

      “Really?” asked Claymore.  “Do you perceive STAR to be that vulnerable?”

      “Well, no sir.”  Now Spender was confused.  What did the admiral want him to say?  “But things would slow down.”

      “And what does that imply?” asked Claymore.  “What happens if one officer ‘slows things down’ for STAR?”

      With that prompt, Spender understood.  This went right back to his first days of training.  “If one officer hinders the will of STAR in any way, that officer removes a small amount of power from the hands of STAR and takes it into his own.  STAR cannot function without total and absolute power, and without STAR, humanity could not function.  By hindering STAR I hinder humanity.  I become a traitor to my own people.”

      “Precisely,” said Claymore, and the admiral was silent again, staring into the eyes of the major, searching for some kind of answer that could not be given in words.  Suddenly he reached under the table, and Spender heard a soft clicking sound.  “I have turned the recorder off,” said Claymore.  “You may speak freely.”

      Spender felt no relief at this, but instead his anxiety reached its peak.  “What will happen to me, Uncle?”

      “You know what has to happen,” said Claymore.  “I can not express to you how much this pains me.  I am grateful only that my sister is no longer alive to know what became of her son.  I gave you a chance and you failed.”

      “I am so sorry, Uncle,” said Spender.  “But it took me by surprise!  I had no idea that planet was inhabited by intelligent life!  You have to understand…”

      “I do understand,” said Claymore sternly.  “There is not a high ranking officer on this station who does not understand.  But we keep our emotions to ourselves.  Why could you not do the same?”

      “If you had told me,” said Spender.  “If you had just warned me ahead of time…”

      “And risked the same fate that you now face?” challenged Claymore.  “No, I had no choice but to hope that when the time came you would handle yourself properly.  But you failed to live up to the standards of a STAR Security Officer.  And now…” Claymore reached into his shirt pocket and removed a small plastic container, “…we must both accept the consequences.”

      Spender could not believe his eyes as his uncle placed the container on the table before him.  He felt a terror unlike any he had ever felt before.  How could this be happening?  He expected to be punished, but not so severely.

      “I am afraid I can not let you leave this room alive,” said Claymore.  “Now open the package and take the capsule into your hand.”

      “Uncle, you can not be serious!” Spender shouted.  “Surely what I did does not warrant execution!”

      “Open the package!” Claymore shouted.  “Do you hesitate to follow orders again?”

      Spender promptly fumbled with the container and removed the small black capsule.

      “There is one more question I need to ask you,” said Claymore, “not for STAR but for me.  Listen to me very carefully because I must have an honest answer.  Bear in mind that you will die no matter what answer you give, so tell me the truth.  Do you believe that what you did was wrong?”

      Spender did not even think about the question.  “Yes, yes I know it was wrong!  I should never have questioned an order!  I should never have taken any of STAR’s power into my own hands!  I was wrong!  I am nothing!  Please do not make me do this!  Discharge me and I will go live on some remote world and you will never hear from me again.  Just please…please, I do not want to die!”

      Claymore was silent again, staring at his nephew with disgust and contempt.  “Place the capsule in your mouth,” Claymore ordered.

      “Please…” Spender began, but the look on his uncle’s face made it clear that no mercy would be given him.  With a deep breath, he placed the capsule in his mouth, and held it between his teeth.

      “Good,” said the admiral.  “Now when I give you the order, you will bite the capsule immediately.  You will not hesitate.  You will not beg for mercy.  You will do as instructed, and in so doing regain at least a shred of the honour that you have lost.  Do you understand?”

      A tear rolled down Spender’s cheek.  He nodded.

      “Good,” said the admiral.  “Now I am going to tell you something that I have never told anyone before.  Listen carefully.”  Claymore rose to his feet and walked around the table to stand right beside his nephew.  He kneeled down and spoke very softly, directly into his ear.  “What the STAR Corporation does on these terra-forming missions is wrong.”

      Spender’s eyes widened, and he turned his head to face his uncle.

      “Do not look at me!” shouted Claymore.  “Stare straight ahead and only listen to what I have to say.  I gave you a chance to speak freely.  You knew you were going to die either way.  You could have stood by your principles.  You could have insisted that you were right to question the orders that you were given and that STAR had no right to destroy the life on that planet.  I would have been proud of you.  You have always had a good heart, and when you wanted a position as a ranking STAR Security Officer I pulled the strings for you, hoping that when the time came for you to learn the truth about what goes on, your head would be strong enough to overcome your heart.  Unfortunately it did not, but that is nothing to be ashamed of.  I often wish that I had the strength to question my orders when I was told to continue my first mission of genocide.  I would have been executed, but at least I would have kept my honour.  You could have kept yours.  You could have died with a dignity that I sacrificed long ago and which I will never be able to recover.  Instead you abandon the voice inside of you that tells you what you did was wrong, and you submit completely to authority and beg for mercy.  You are a disgrace.  I lack the words to express just how deeply ashamed I am of you.”

      Tears were now pouring from Spender’s eyes—his uncle’s words were agonising to endure.  He had been a failure in life by all measures.

      “A man must have principles,” Claymore continued.  “Without principles he is nothing more than a beast.  You could have chosen STAR’s principles, or you could have rejected them and stood by your own.  Instead you have abandoned all principles and concerned yourself only with the preservation of your life.  You do not deserve your life.  Even so, I would grant you mercy if I could.  As pathetic as you are, I can not help but love you.  I have loved you since I held you in my arms when you were a baby.  If the choice were mine, I would spare you.  But STAR can not afford to keep you alive, and I can not afford to defy the will of STAR. Not without abandoning the principles I have chosen.  Now bite the capsule.”

      Spender began to turn his head, but his uncle slapped him.

      “Do not turn to face me until you have carried out my order!” Claymore shouted.  “Now bite the capsule!”

      Spender took a deep breath, then closed his teeth on the poisonous pill.  Instantly, the most toxic combination of chemicals known to man seeped into the skin of his mouth and began to circulate through his bloodstream.  He immediately felt dizzy, light-headed, and another odd feeling—the strangest sensation he had ever known.  He was simultaneously terrified and completely at peace.  There was nothing he could do now any longer.  In his life he had made all the wrong decisions, and now he was paying for it.  He would no longer have to make any decisions again.

      “You may look at me now, William,” said Claymore.

      As he felt his consciousness slipping away, Spender turned to face his uncle, shocked to see that his eyes were wet, and the expression on his face was not one of contempt at all, but one of love.

      “Goodbye,” he said.

      Spender began to smile.  His uncle placed his hand on his shoulder, and Spender saw his entire life flash before him.  He had worshipped his uncle, followed him into the service, and ultimately disappointed him in every possible way.  He thought that if he had to do it all over again, he would have broken the chain of command and ordered his troops to abort before completing the mission.  In his final instant of consciousness, Spender understood that his death was just, and he accepted his fate as the darkness swallowed him. 
 

Chapter 3

1540 Hours, March 14, 5131084

Romband Mobile Command Base 

      When Warden Alexander entered his living quarters, the first sensation he experienced was panic.  There, lying unconscious on the sofa in her underwear with her legs sprawled apart, was his 16-year-old half-sister Vanessa.  From the appearance of things his first reaction was that she had been drugged and raped by a disgruntled soldier who somehow managed to break into his quarters.  It was not uncommon for soldiers to engage in devious behaviour immediately following a mission like the one that had just taken place.  Many were simply unable to handle the knowledge that they had just flown thousands of light-years across the galaxy to participate in a planetary genocide, and in their disillusionment rejected all previously held codes of conduct to embrace whatever dark impulses they had been suppressing all along.

      But Vanessa quickly stirred from her position, and smiled at Alexander as she opened her eyes.  “I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

      “You really frightened me,” said Alexander, breathing a sigh of relief.

      Vanessa laughed and sat up on the sofa, reaching for her shirt and pants that were lying under the table beside her.  “How did the mission go?” she asked.

      “It was as successful as usual,” Alexander answered, unable to tell her the truth of the matter.  If he ever told her, a civilian, what these missions were really for, he would be signing her death warrant.  He had no choice but to keep her in the dark, as strongly as he wished to confide in her.

      Vanessa had been his only true life-long companion.  His father, also a captain with STAR Security, had done as the company encourages its officers to do upon reaching a certain age, and bore a child by a female volunteer whom he never saw again once she had successfully given birth.  When Warden was born, his father had fulfilled his duty to provide the company with an heir who would take his place upon retirement, but he desired that his son have a friend while growing up, as he was often away from the station leading soldiers in terra-forming campaigns, and having been very lonely as a child did not want his son to suffer the same experience.  When Warden was three years old, his father took another female volunteer and had a daughter.  The two of them looked nothing alike, and those who did not know them would never have guessed that the two were brother and sister.  Their mothers were of opposite skin colours, so while Warden was very dark brown like his father, Vanessa was a light shade of bronze.  By all accounts she was stunningly beautiful, and this made Warden nervous, as he often caught soldiers looking at her with craving in their eyes.

      When Warden turned 16, his father had been granted a temporary leave from his duties, and dropped his son off on a planet with one of the best STAR Security Academies in the galaxy.  Rather than wait five years on the planet for his son to complete the training, his father rented an interstellar privateer vessel and with Vanessa, blasted away at super-light speeds, thus distorting their aging while Warden aged normally.  He returned only minutes later by his own perception, while Warden had aged five years and completed his training.  In a matter of minutes, the thirteen-year old Vanessa had gone from having a brother only three years older than her to having a brother nearly ten years older than her.  The following year, when his father left the station permanently to settle on a planet and retire, Vanessa had accompanied him while Warden remained on the station.  She returned in a matter of days while another ten years had gone by for her brother.  Now their biological ages were 16 and 36 respectively, though having grown up together they felt just as close as if they were the same age.

      Though she had last seen her father only two years before by her own perception, he had now been dead for millennia, as the Romband Mobile Command Base would frequently blast across the galaxy at super-light speeds to any newly discovered planets of interest.  Losing massive amounts of time was simply one of the sacrifices that STAR Security officers had to make.  An officer could not visit a planet and expect to find anyone he had met still alive on that planet when he returned after an interstellar campaign.  Unless his family travelled with him, he could have no family.  Nearly every soldier who signed up for STAR Security had to permanently leave behind everyone they had ever known, as only moments into their first campaign all of their loved ones moving at a normal rate of time would be dead.  It was for this reason that Vanessa was reluctant to go into a training Academy, as STAR made no accommodations to keep siblings together as they did for parents and their children, and Vanessa did not wish to leave her brother.

      Families that remained on stations like the RMCB earned a semi-divine status as generations would span many centuries.  Warden’s father, for instance, had been born in the year 4360819, and though he had only served until reaching the biological age of 75 (about half the normal human lifespan), he had retired in the year 5112943.  The first Alexander to serve as a STAR Security officer was Warden’s great-grandfather, who had been born in 2417322 on Earth.  Thus the Alexanders had been loyal servants of the STAR Corporation for slightly over half the time the company had been in existence, which Warden was extremely proud of.

      “How long will it be until you can take me down to the planet and we can have a look?” asked Vanessa.  The two of them had made it a tradition to visit every new planet for a few hours once all of the terra-forming work had been done and before the station left for a new destination.

      “We will be unable to do that this time,” said Warden.  “The admiral has told me I am being issued new orders.  I should receive them any moment, but we must begin packing now.  We will probably be leaving the station tomorrow morning.”

      “Tomorrow?” Vanessa exclaimed.  “I haven’t left the station in years.  You haven’t left in decades!”

      “That is right,” said Warden.  “I have not left this station since I first came aboard as an officer.  But this is a good sign for my career.  When an officer is given a mission that separates him from his command station it usually means an advancement is close at hand.  In a few years I may be an admiral.”

      “Aren’t you gonna be sad to leave everyone behind?” asked Vanessa.

      Warden smiled, not at the question but at the manner in which his sister had asked it.  He had been trained to speak in a formal manner at all times, though he occasionally lapsed into colloquialisms when talking to his sister, whose casual manner of speaking he often found refreshing.  “No, I am not sad.  Why should I be?  The only person on this station I care about is you, and you are coming with me.  Besides, I am quite ready for a new type of mission.”

      “Terra-forming isn’t as fun as it used to be?” asked Vanessa.

      “You can put it that way if you like,” said Warden.  Just then, a beeping noise and a flashing light from the communications panel in the back of the room indicated that someone was trying to open a channel to him.  “That must be the admiral.  These are probably my orders.”

      “Well, you’d better not keep him waiting,” said Vanessa, and she rose from the sofa to make her way towards her bed chamber to begin packing.

      Warden walked into his bed chamber and turned on the intercom.  “This is Captain Alexander,” he said as he sat on the edge of his bed.

      “Captain Alexander, this is Admiral Claymore,” the admiral’s voice came through the speaker.  Although the technology to speak through video was readily available and had been since ancient times, most people preferred voice-only communication for various reasons.  For instance, having a camera in one’s bed-chamber that would switch on whenever a communications channel opened was an unappealing prospect to most people, including STAR officers.  “I have been given your assignment, and I believe you will be pleased.”

      “That sounds like good news,” said Alexander with a smile.  “I could use some good news.”

      “I expected you could,” said Claymore.  “You have heard of the Andromeda mission, I presume?”

      For reasons he did not quite understand, a chill ran down Alexander’s back at the mention of this mission.  “Of course I have, sir.  You are speaking of the mission launched in the year 3422 by the early STAR Corporation, just a century or two after the discovery of interstellar travel?”

      “Yes,” the admiral replied.  “It is the only mission to our closest neighbouring galaxy that has yet been launched by STAR, and it is returning now.  It will arrive at the galactic core in approximately 40,000 years.  As luck would have it, our command base is currently about 40,000 light-years from the core.  Your mission is to rendezvous with the spacecraft and escort it back to the Solar system.”

      Alexander could hardly believe his ears.  This was beyond good news.  It was the best assignment he had ever been given.  Not only would he have the privilege of returning to humanity’s system of origin and of seeing Earth again, but he would be taking part in the most famous reconnaissance mission in the history of STAR.  For generations upon generations, millions of years, indeed most of human history, children had learned about the mission led by Commander Arnold Juciper and his crew of 11 astronauts to be the first human beings to enter another major galaxy.  Only one year would pass by their own perception, but they would be travelling farther through space and time than anyone had ever gone.  It was nothing short of awe-inspiring to think about.

      “Our C.E.O. is concerned about the threat of domestic terrorism,” Claymore continued.  “Should a pirate manage to destroy the Andromeda spacecraft before it completes its mission, it will do much damage to the reputation of the STAR Corporation.  We now stand poised to declare the end of one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, but should this mission fail it will be another five million years before we have another chance.”

      STAR never launched another mission to Andromeda after the first.  The official explanation was that they were confident this mission would succeed, and therefore no other was necessary until the crew returned and plans could be drawn for a follow-up campaign.  Yet a follow-up campaign could have been launched three million years beforehand when the ship had reached Andromeda and reported back to STAR from inside. The truth was no great secret—though STAR would never acknowledge it, the mission had been launched in 3422 as a publicity stunt to generate more enthusiasm for the then financially-struggling corporation.  It was not until the next millennium that STAR gained official control over all space traffic and thus became the de facto government of all humanity, its power increasing with each new extra-terrestrial colony it founded.  Its current goal was to occupy the entire Milky-Way galaxy.  Expanding beyond that—creating another branch of its empire over two million light years away—was just not practical.  In all likelihood, there would never be a follow-up campaign.

      “You are not to communicate with the crew,” Claymore told him.  “You are merely to follow at a safe distance and keep an eye out for any privateer vessels that approach too closely.  You must warn them to remain outside a one light-year radius of the Andromeda or be destroyed.  If they do not heed the warning, you will destroy them.  As you know, the Andromeda was built in a different time-period and has no weapons to defend itself from attack.  You will serve as its protection until the moment it docks with Ring Station 4 in Earth orbit and the mission is complete.  Do you understand this assignment?”

      “I do, Admiral,” said Alexander, “and thank you.”

      “You must be pleased,” said Claymore.  “The return of the Andromeda will be a landmark event in human history.  This mission will define your career.  If completed successfully, a promotion is almost guaranteed.”

      “I understand, sir,” said Alexander, now grinning widely.  “Thank you again.”

      “You will meet Commander Hector at docking bay A12-46 at 0800 hours,” said Claymore.  “I assume you will be taking your sister along with you.  There will be plenty of room on your spacecraft, which not including your first officer will consist of only the necessary staff of five auxiliary officers.  Further details will be provided to you once you are on board.  Understood?”

      “Understood,” said Alexander, and the channel was closed.  Immediately, Vanessa poked her head into his bed-chamber with a grin on her face even wider than his.  She had been listening to the entire transmission and was clearly more excited than she had ever been in her life.  So was Warden.  He leapt from his bed and embraced her as she screamed with joy.  This assignment was more than a good opportunity—it was a dream come true. 

      At 1600 Hours, Admiral Claymore had to report to the Rally Room to perform the most horrible of his duties.  Every officer who had participated in the terra-forming mission had to report directly to this large auditorium immediately after docking.  For the past two hours they had been sitting in this room discussing among themselves what they had done.  Several had left the auditorium and were promptly apprehended, sedated, and returned to the room.  The prevailing mood was one of great anger.  Though several soldiers insisted that STAR knew what it was doing and that the civilization they had destroyed that day must have been a threat to humanity, most of these young men were sickened by what they had been forced to do.  Their anger at STAR was only kept in check by the guilt they felt over their own complicity.  It would have been suicide to break ranks and attempt to flee, but that did not mitigate their shame.

      Claymore walked onto the stage in the room accompanied by four armed bodyguards, and the noise halted instantly as he stepped up to the podium.  This would be the first time since the conclusion of the mission that they had been addressed by a superior.  “I would first like to congratulate all of you on your success today,” said Claymore, despising himself with every familiar word he spoke.  “You have served STAR well, and you should be proud.”

      “Fuck STAR!” one soldier shouted from the back of the room.  A few others cheered in agreement.

      “You should be proud not of what you have done specifically,” Claymore continued as guards from the back of the room approached the soldier who had shouted the treasonous words, “but that you have remained true to the oath of loyalty you swore to the STAR Corporation when you enlisted as military officers.  Today you have proved your loyalty, and for it STAR is eternally grateful.”

      “That’s bullshit!” the same soldier shouted.  “STAR doesn’t give a shit about us or our loyalty!  STAR is evil!  STAR is…” the soldier was interrupted by the guards, who grabbed him and injected him with a drug that induced catatonia.  He went limp but remained conscious as the guards placed him back in his seat.  He was now a prisoner in his own body.

      “STAR is grateful,” Claymore continued, “because without brave men like you who are willing to do whatever it takes to advance the ends of humanity, there would be no humanity.  The human race is as strong and powerful as it is today because it has people like you to fight for it.”

      “How many others have to die for the sake of STAR’s power?” another soldier shouted, but this time nobody raised their voices in agreement.  The guards promptly put him down, and there were no more disturbances.

      “For over five million years the STAR Corporation has spread the human species across the galaxy,” Claymore spoke, struggling to believe in his own words.  He had always believed them before.  But having executed his own nephew just one hour ago, this was now extremely difficult.  “We occupy every habitable world in our own spiral arm and are now well on our way to claiming the other.  In just a few million years every single planet in the galaxy will be ours.  The human race will be indestructible, because no threat to its sovereignty over this galaxy will remain.  Though the civilization we destroyed today had not yet advanced into space, in only a few thousand years it could have grown into a real threat to STAR and more lives would have been lost in trying to neutralise them.  You must understand that.  You have saved lives.  You have acted in the best interest of your own species.

      “The universe is indifferent to the survival of our species, as we learned long ago during the third millennium, when our own ignorance nearly wiped us out.  But we emerged from near destruction and became united.  The STAR Corporation, when it discovered the key to interstellar travel, gave us the ability to expand beyond our own system, colonize new worlds, and thus ensure human survival even beyond the destruction of our home planet.  New worlds with necessary resources were discovered, and technologies to transform inhospitable worlds into earth-like planets were eventually developed.  We have now spread so far that almost nothing threatens our survival.  Humanity will endure for as long as this universe endures, and possibly beyond that as well, should we continue to expand our knowledge.

      “But our numbers alone are not sufficient to ensure our survival.  It is our unity that is necessary.  The primary objective of the STAR Corporation is not expansion but maintaining through its own power the unified cooperation of every inhabited world in the galaxy.  Should there be any split among us, any dissenting world, any planetary government opposed to the sovereignty of STAR, everything is jeopardized.  Civil war may not annihilate us, but it could weaken us, so that any emerging enemy from an unexplored corner of the galaxy could rise up and destroy us.  The threat of internal dissidence is therefore far more serious than the threat of external force.  This is the reason the true nature of your mission was kept secret from you, and why it must be kept secret from the public awareness forever.”

      Claymore sighed heavily.  He looked into the soldiers’ eyes, many of whom he knew were more than ready to believe him, to accept what they had done and to carry the terrible secret with them forever.  “STAR would entrust most of you, without hesitation, to speak no word of what you have done today to anyone for the remainder of your lives.  However…” Claymore could almost feel the silent gasp in the soldiers’ minds, “the only way to guarantee the prevention of a leak is to eliminate all low-ranking officers with the knowledge of what went on.  I will leave you now, and the doors will be sealed.  In a few moments this room will be filled with nitrogen, providing all of you with a quick, painless death.”  The room instantly erupted in shouts of terror and defiance.  A few soldiers broke from their seats and began to rush the stage, but were quickly neutralized by the guards who shot them with poisoned darts rendering them catatonic.

      “It is my duty to sincerely apologise to all of you on behalf of STAR,” Claymore shouted above the frenzy.  “I have tried to make you understand why this is necessary.  I hope that you will accept your fate with pride and honour.  I salute you.  Good-bye.”  And with that, the admiral rushed off the stage accompanied by his bodyguards, who remained behind while he left the room.

      The Base Security guards knew beforehand what was going to happen.  They were ready and willing to die for STAR, as were many of the soldiers in the room.  Those who were not yelled and screamed, but it was to no avail.  The vents in the room hissed loudly as nitrogen poured into the auditorium.  Slowly but surely the noise died down as a peaceful, euphoric feeling induced by the gas took hold.

      One of the soldiers in the back of the room turned to the soldier beside him, a friend with whom he had enlisted only two years beforehand.  “We have done our duty,” he said.  “This is how they thank us.”

      Just on the verge of slipping into unconsciousness and death, his friend tilted his head so that their eyes could meet one last time, and said, “We did the same thing to all those people on that planet this morning.  This is what we deserve.”

      In less than five minutes, the room was silent and lifeless.  Two hundred and twenty-five dead bodies slumped in chairs or sprawled across the floor.  Humanity’s latest sacrifice to its god. 
 

Chapter 4

0800 Hours, March 15, 5131084

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      Four base guards accompanied Warden and Vanessa Alexander to the docking bay where their ship was waiting, along with Clive Hector who had arrived a moment before them.  As soon as they arrived, the entrance ramp to the relatively small ship slid open and the crew stood in the entrance, standing at attention to greet their new commanding officer.  Their previous commanding officer stepped forward to greet them as they made their way up the ramp.

      “Captain Alexander, it is an honour,” he said as he held out his hand.  “Welcome to the Athena.  I am Sergeant Frank Lipton, the former captain of this ship.”

      “It is my honour to meet you, captain,” Alexander smiled and shook his hand.  “This is my First Officer Clive Hector,” he said, and the two of them shook hands.

      Lipton turned to the crewmembers standing in the entry-way and began to introduce them from left to right.  “This is Communications Officer Harold Acker, Navigations Officer Soren Marcum, Data Officer Donald Pirkins, Weapons Officer Samuel Greggs, and Engineer Roland Hatch.  All of these officers have served on this ship longer than I have, and this has been my assignment for the last five ship years, so you will find that they are all quite familiar with the ship and their duties.”

      Alexander could not help but notice that with the exception of Greggs, the Weapons Officer, all of the men were looking at his sister.  He had expected as much, but it did not make him any less uneasy.  STAR Security Vessels, especially those on the Far Side of the Milky-Way, tended to be very lonely places which in addition to patrolling a single star system for years on end would often be ordered light-years away to new star systems, and there were seldom any changes in the crew roster.  Serving aboard such a ship was one of the most common, yet least desirable positions a STAR Security Officer could be assigned to.

      “They have all been briefed on the mission objective,” Lipton continued, clearly excited to begin working at his new post, “so you will not need to explain things.  I have been ordered to fill you in on some of the details.  You will arrive at the galactic core several years after the Andromeda is scheduled to depart, so you will not catch up with them until they have already flown several hundred light-years towards Solar.  The ship that has been assigned to escort them to the core will therefore remain on guard until you arrive within one light-year and relieve them.  You are to match the time-scale of the Andromeda and identify and neutralise any threats to them until their mission has been officially completed.  Finally, I have been told to re-iterate that you are not to communicate with Andromeda’s crewmembers.”

      Alexander nodded as these instructions were given, but was puzzled by this last order.  He had not given it much thought when Admiral Claymore had told him the previous day, but the order not to communicate with the crew of the Andromeda struck him as odd.  “Do you know why that is?” he asked.

      “I am sorry?” asked Lipton.

      “Why we are not to communicate with them?” Alexander clarified.

      “I did not ask,” said Lipton, in a defensive tone of voice.  It had been an inappropriate question.  STAR Officers were never supposed to ask for the reasons behind their orders.

      “Of course,” said Alexander.  “Thank you very much.  Is there anything else?”

      “That is all,” said Lipton.

      “Then you are officially relieved of this post,” said Alexander.  “You may report to Admiral Claymore on the bridge immediately.  Good luck.”

      “And good luck to you, Captain,” said Lipton, and he walked to the bottom of the ramp where the base guards assembled around him to escort him to the bridge.

      Alexander turned to his new crew.  “I am your new commanding officer, Warden Alexander.  My First Officer Clive Hector is second-in-command, and you will treat his orders as my orders.  I know many captains insist on doing all business through their executive officer, but I do not work this way.  If you have any concerns, you may bring them directly to me, though I would still prefer you speak to Officer Hector if I am busy.

      “And this is my sister, Vanessa Alexander,” Warden spoke more firmly now.  “She is not to be bothered for any reason.  If she has a problem with any one of you, then I have a problem with you.  Is that understood?”

      “Yes, sir,” the five officers responded in unison.

      “Very well,” Alexander finished.  “Then I believe we have completed our introductions.  I want all crew in the cockpit now to begin departure procedures.  Which of you is the ranking officer?”

      Although all five officers shared the same rank, one was always designated as the “ranking” officer to signify who would be in charge should the actual commanding officer be incapacitated.  The designation was always made by the captain, and had nothing to do with the selected officer’s specialty.  In this case, it was Weapons Officer Samuel Greggs who stepped forward.

      “Very well,” said Alexander.  “Officer Greggs, you lead the way.”

      “Yes, sir,” said Greggs as he turned and began walking towards the cockpit.  Warden, Vanessa, Clive Hector, and the four other officers followed behind him. Though it would only seem like a few months to them, these eight people would be spending the next 80,000 years together. 

      The cockpit of the Athena was relatively small and dark.  There were two seats in the front facing the window for the Captain and Navigations Officer, and four spaced throughout at the different computers used by each of the four remaining officers.  Two additional seats for the two extra passengers had been installed behind the front seats, which were now occupied by Clive Hector and Vanessa Alexander.  Warden Alexander sat in the front-left seat with Soren Marcum beside him at the ship’s controls.  A few feet behind him and to the left sat Harold Acker at the communications console, who had just secured their departure clearance.

      The outer hatch for the docking bay slid open to reveal the void of space and the newly terra-formed planet several thousand kilometres below.  Once Alexander gave the order, Officer Marcum took the controls and de-magnetized the Athena’s docking clamps.  The air having already escaped from the docking bay, the ship was not forced out by the suction but remained steady until Marcum applied a slight amount of forward thrust.  The Athena slid out of the docking bay and into space.  After a few moments it had drifted far enough from the Command Station to be given clearance to power-up the main thrusters, and Marcum blasted the ship to a safe distance from the station and the planet, both of which would be light-years away in just a few minutes.

      They would be travelling at what was commonly referred to as “super-light speed” though this term was something of a misnomer.  The method of interstellar travel that Arthur Romband discovered in the fourth millennium had more to do with the perceived rate of passing time than with the actual velocity a ship travelled.  The laws of physics, as Albert Einstein had discovered in the twentieth century, did not permit any physical object to travel beyond C, the variable Einstein used in his equation E = mc² to designate the speed of light.  To even reach C, an object would have to have infinite mass, so interstellar spacecraft would always travel at merely a fraction of C, between 99 and 100%.  The higher the quality of the interstellar drive, the closer to C it could come, but it could never be reached.  Thus for even the fastest ships, it would still take slightly over one year to travel one light-year.

      Yet Romband discovered that once these incredible velocities were reached (which was done through a process of gathering energy from light and space-dust and unleashing it through thermo-nuclear fusion) a spacecraft would be travelling along the curvature of space-time in a very unique manner.  The rate of passing time could be increased or decreased with just a slight tweaking of the energy output of the interstellar engines.  Should the output be increased only slightly, the relativity of time would be distorted in such a way that for every second that passed on the ship, two seconds would pass for the rest of the universe.  Increasing the output farther could make a minute, an hour, even an entire day pass for every second that passed on the spacecraft.  Romband’s engine was capable of accelerating a ship to a time-distortion rate of about 70 days per second, which was the speed at which the Andromeda spaceship had flown for the majority of its intergalactic reconnaissance mission and the maximum speed that most human spaceships could travel.  At this rate of time-distortion, the entire galaxy could be crossed in a few months, though one year would still pass for every light-year travelled.

      But about three million years after this discovery was made, a new technology was developed which completely abolished the time-distortion limit.  A new type of engine was designed whereby the output could be increased, theoretically, to infinity.  This technology, called Infinite-Capacity Thrust (or ICT), made it possible for a spacecraft to travel instantaneously from any part of the universe to any other.  But because the same amount of time would pass for the rest of the universe, the ability to travel faster than 70 days per second was rarely used.  Such technology was priceless, and also highly dangerous.  If any human being could blast one million light years away at any instant, the potential for chaos increased enormously.  A terrorist group could attack a planet and be a billion light-years away a moment later, and though they could be chased, anyone chasing them would have to let billions of years pass in the blink of an eye, with no guarantee of a friendly greeting upon their return.  Therefore the technology was highly guarded, and only STAR Security Vessels were authorized to have the technology.

      Even with ICT, only a fraction of its full potential had ever been put to use.  While there were undoubtedly a few brave STAR Officers who had decided to defect and use their ships to fly across the universe, this happened only rarely and these individuals were obviously never heard from again.  Anyone who had blasted away moving beyond a few thousand years per second (by which it would still take several hours to traverse the enormous distances between galaxies) had only done so a few seconds ago by their own perception, and none had even been travelling long enough to reach the next galaxy.  There was simply no need for STAR to venture outside the Milky-Way and thus a rate of 100 years per second was about the fastest a ship usually went.  This was the maximum speed of the Romband Mobile Command Station as it ventured from one new star system to another.  And this was the speed at which the Athena would travel to the galactic core before slowing down to match the time-scale of the Andromeda, which could not go beyond 70 days per second.

      Soren Marcum used the Navigation computer to orient the Athena with the core of the Milky-Way galaxy, set the time-scale to 100 days per second, and made ready to press the button that would begin the thrust.  Warden Alexander made sure he had a “go” from each of the other officers in the cockpit, then authorized Marcum to begin the thrust.  The engine began blasting immediately, and the ship doubled, tripled, quadrupled its speed in only seconds.  In less than a minute enough energy had been released to bring the ship within 99% of the speed of light, and the time-distortion drive began to kick in.  Several seconds passed by for every second on the station they had left, and soon it was minutes, then hours, and days.  Finally, the ICT took over and soon weeks, months, and years began to pass for every second that ticked by on the ship.  The Athena was moving at exactly 99.987% of C and at a rate of 100 years per second only five minutes after the thrust had begun, and was flying by hundreds of stars every minute.  Everyone that the eight people aboard had ever known was already dead by the time the first words were spoken.

      “It’s beautiful,” said Vanessa, staring at the incredible scene in the cockpit window.  They were moving from the outer-edge of the galaxy to its core, so the stars became more densely packed together as they flew.  The thin band of light that was the disc of the Milky-Way in the sky grew thicker and more fluid as they flew.  Stars flying around one another at speeds so fast that they looked like solid ellipses spiralling through space emerged from this band of light and zipped past the Athena almost faster than they could be perceived.  No matter how many times he beheld it, Warden Alexander was always captivated with wonder whenever travelling at these incomprehensible speeds.

      Soon enough, the ship was close enough to the core to begin decelerating, which consisted only of slowing the time-distortion rate, rather than altering the actual velocity by very much.  Once the black hole at the centre of the Milky-Way had been passed by a few light-years, Marcum had slowed the ship to 70 days per second and began working on spotting the Andromeda which he calculated would be within 10 light-years of their current position.  Had the Andromeda been built recently, the ship’s telescope could have found it and tracked it automatically, as all ships built by STAR for the past five million years were equipped with devices that allowed them to be tracked to anywhere in the universe by any ship with a telescope.  The ship that had escorted the Andromeda from the edge of the Milky-Way to the galactic core had been built with a tracking device, but Alexander had not been given this ship’s identification number which would have allowed them to spot it.  This information had been withheld for obvious security reasons, just as the identification number of the Athena would be kept secret for the duration of this mission, thus making it much more difficult for any potential threats to find and destroy the Andromeda.

      Yet Marcum needed only to point the telescope directly at the Solar System and lock on to the object which was closest to their direct line-of-sight.  The Andromeda was travelling directly from the galactic core to the Solar System and would therefore be somewhere on that straight line.  As it happened, two ships within one light year of each other were directly between the Athena and the Solar System, one of which was a STAR Security Vessel and the other was a Reconnaissance Vessel of the obsolete Explorer model.  This was the ship they were looking for—the only human ship that had ever seen the inside of another galaxy. The officers on the Athena, along with Warden and Vanessa, cheered when the positive identification was made.

      Because the Athena’s engines were more powerful than those of the Andromeda, it was travelling a few decimal places closer to C, and was thus able to catch up to the Andromeda fairly quickly.  Once they were within one light-year of their target, the communications panel lit up, signalling that another ship was opening a channel to them.  This was the first escort ship, which they could communicate with now that they were travelling at the same time-scale rate.

      Harold Acker opened the channel and acknowledged the message.  “This is STAR Security Vessel H9-623,” the voice said through the loudspeaker.  Their identification number was no longer a secret now, and it no longer needed to be.  “Requesting permission from a Captain Warden Alexander to break escort duty.”

      Alexander did not need to turn to the communications panel for his voice to carry through the channel.  He remained seated as he answered.  “I would like a report from your captain.”

      A moment later, another voice came through the speaker.  “This is Major Peter O’Malley, temporary captain of this vessel.  There have been no external incidents thus far, although I can not speak for the situation inside the ship.”

      “You have been monitoring the crew?” asked Alexander, still thinking of his orders not to communicate with them.  Apparently this did not preclude their escort from using their telescopes to look inside the ship.  STAR’s telescopes allowed for observation of any object from any point along an invisible beam that could be directed at any known object in the universe, but they could also peel back layers of solid objects by ignoring the light reflected off of them and picking up the data from the light underneath.  In this way, STAR could not only look at any ship in its arsenal, but it could also look inside.  But although the observation beam could transcend all boundaries of space, it had no effect on time, so the observed object would only appear as it was when the light reflecting from it had left the object.  If the Athena turned around and pointed its telescope at the Command Base it had just left, it would see it as it was when they had left and not as it was now, 40,000 years later.

      “We have monitored the inside of their ship from time to time,” Major O’Malley continued.  “These are very strange specimens.  Certainly not of the same quality as STAR Officers today, but I suppose that is to be expected as they originate from a different time.  Yet I am certain that not all of their behaviour can be accounted for simply by virtue of their time-period of origin.”

      “Can you tell me specifically what sort of behaviour you are speaking of, Major?” asked Alexander.

      “Well, as you know, only seven of the original thirteen crewmembers made it back to the Milky-Way,” O’Malley said.  “Clearly there was a great deal of animosity among them, as on several occasions they were fighting amongst themselves.  The Computer Officer, Jason Floyd, seemed to go completely insane and nearly beat one of the pilots, David O’Brian to death.  For most of the time in which we observed them, Officer Floyd was sitting silently in the corner of the ship’s living corners.  Commander Arnold Juciper is clearly in a romantic relationship with the other pilot, Lauren Samalc, and David O’Brian regularly engaged in sexual intercourse with the Engineer Maria Wendall, right out in the open in the middle of the living quarters. 

      “Yet the major incident happened only several days ago, and although I am certain the entire galaxy is aware of it by now, you have been travelling too quickly to receive the news.  The Andromeda’s flight-plan called for the ship to spend three days in orbit of the black hole at the galactic core, and it established its orbit too close.  The gravitational force of the black hole ripped a hole in the ship’s left wall, and two more astronauts were lost—Maria Wendall and David O’Brian.  The incident took place very quickly and we did not observe it while it happened, but in his last transmission to STAR before beginning the homeward thrust, Commander Juciper revealed that O’Brian had tried to kill him just after the hull was breached, probably thinking he could murder his fellow officers, throw them into the black hole and claim their deaths were accidental.  Instead, Juciper over-powered him and threw him out, almost falling out himself had it not been for Jason Floyd, who apparently recovered from his state of temporary insanity just in time to save his commander’s life.  It must have been an incredible scene.  You can imagine how upset we were that we had not been watching as it took place.”

      Alexander had no idea what to make of this information, other than to strengthen an opinion that was already quite common in the galaxy—that the mission to Andromeda had been ill-conceived from the very start.  The fact that half of the crewmembers had died under suspicious circumstances even before the ship had begun its return trajectory was enough to give everyone doubts. Many believed that putting twelve people together for an entire year on a ship that was designed for crewmembers to share a single living quarters for only several weeks (the average length of a reconnaissance mission in the early fourth millennium) was a recipe for disaster, especially when these people were from a more primitive time-period.

      “The most interesting development to come out of this,” O’Malley continued, “is that O’Brian may have been responsible for some of the deaths that occurred in Andromeda.  For the past two million years we believed that an unknown disease claimed three of the crewmembers’ lives, but Commander Juciper now believes that it was poison, that O’Brian had been planning to sabotage the mission all along.  Forgive my commentary, but it is all rather fascinating.”

      “It certainly is,” said Alexander, marvelling at the new information.  It had been common knowledge throughout the Milky-Way for millions of years that a strange disease had taken the lives of three astronauts in Andromeda, which had led to no shortage of speculation among scientists that human physiology was somehow vulnerable to something in other galaxies, though what this could possibly be was a mystery.  The Andromeda’s artificial atmosphere had been the same throughout the mission, and Andromeda itself was made up of the same basic elements as the Milky-Way: mostly empty void.  There was speculation about invisible dark matter that passes through ordinary matter and takes on slightly different properties in different areas of the universe.  Human physiology had evolved to be compatible with the Milky-Way’s dark matter but was perhaps was incompatible with the dark matter prevalent in other galaxies.  Millions of years of scholarly debate had all revolved around what may now turn out to be a lie by one psychologically unstable astronaut.

      “If you will permit me to speak frankly, I am rather sorry to be handing this mission over to you,” said O’Malley.  “I hope that my future assignments will keep me travelling fast enough to live until the end of this mission.  The return of the astronauts is sure to be a very interesting time for this galaxy.”

      Alexander almost smiled.  “You have not communicated with them?”

      “We were ordered not to,” said O’Malley.

      “Were you told why you could not speak to them?” asked Alexander.

      “Of course not,” O’Malley’s said in a much different tone.  “I would never question an order.”

      “Of course,” said Alexander, sorry he had asked but figuring it had been worth a shot.  O’Malley’s speech had been much less guarded than Alexander was used to from STAR Officers, but this was probably only due to his excitement from speaking about what must have been an extremely interesting mission.  “Is there anything else we should know?”

      “If STAR permitted I would have liked to have met with you personally, Captain Alexander,” O’Malley said in his friendlier voice.  “I could talk for hours about the things we have witnessed on the Andromeda but it is all superfluous information as far as your orders are concerned.  You must look out for external threats only.  Although based on what I have seen I would calculate that the odds of mission failure are far more likely to come from inside the ship.”

      “In that case, STAR thanks you for your service and you are relieved,” said Alexander.  “Good luck on your next assignment.”

      “And good luck to you, Captain,” said O’Malley.  “And assuming all goes well, congratulations.”

      Alexander smiled.  O’Malley was clearly annoyed to have to hand this mission over to another STAR Officer.  Alexander would be a hero when it was finished, and O’Malley completely forgotten for the part he played.  Yet he was certain that the major still felt privileged enough to have participated in history for his part.  He had been lucky enough to be close to the part of the Milky-Way where the Andromeda entered on its return trajectory, and for that he had been given the opportunity to be its escort for awhile.  Alexander could tell that he would be bragging about it for the remainder of his life.

      Once O’Malley’s ship was gone and the Athena had positioned itself one light-year ahead of the Andromeda, there was nothing left to do but wait for another two months as both ships approached the Solar system.  Alexander rose from his seat and ordered Officer Greggs to show him and Vanessa to their quarters, leaving Hector in charge of the cockpit.  They had already gone more than half the distance that they were required to travel, but their mission had only just begun. 
 

Chapter 5

1300 Hours Ship-Time, Day 03

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      The cockpit of a STAR Security Vessel is manned by two officers at all times, working in overlapping 8-hour rotations.  The captain or first officer was to be in the cockpit from 1200-2000 hours, navigations from 1600-0, engineering from 2000-0400, computers from 0-0800, communications from 0400-1200, and weapons from 0800-1600.  Warden Alexander had agreed to split the captain’s shift with Clive Hector, with Alexander taking 1200-1600 and Hector from 1600-2000.  There was almost nothing that needed to be done on these cockpit shifts, just as there was almost nothing to be done during off-duty hours.  In the cockpit one merely had to run diagnostics checks on the systems under his supervision (the computer officer checked the computers, the weapons officer checked the weapons, and so on) and spend the rest of the time simply keeping an eye out for trouble.  Should trouble be detected, the entire crew was to be alerted and ordered to the cockpit.  So far, there had been no incidents.  A STAR Security Officer, above almost everything else, had to adjust to living in constant boredom.

      Alexander spent most of his shift pointing the ship’s telescope at the Andromeda and peeking inside.  Things did not seem to be as interesting as Major O’Malley had indicated, though life on the Andromeda must have calmed down significantly after the death of David O’Brian, if Commander Juciper’s accusations were true that he had been an instigator of violence.  Most of the time, Alexander found Commander Juciper sitting beside the remaining pilot, Lauren Samalc, in the cockpit, staring out of the window and talking or occasionally kissing and fondling.  Computer Officer Jason Floyd and Communications Officer Jack Peskie talked frequently in the living quarters, now eerily empty after so many deaths had taken place.  Of the thirteen beds in the giant room, eight had been stripped bare.

      The fact that thirteen people had been forced to sleep in the same room for over a year, Alexander was sure, certainly accounted for most of the problems that had occurred during their mission.  When STAR launched them on the voyage in 3422, it seemed, they had given almost no thought to what life on board would actually be like.  Rather than spend the money to build a bigger ship with separate quarters for each astronaut, they had used the standard Explorer model reconnaissance ship, figuring it was capable of doing the job and if a crew could put up with sharing a small space for a month, they could probably do so for a year.  Apparently they had been mistaken.

      The only two private areas in the ship were the bathroom and the commander’s office, the latter of which was usually occupied by Arnold Juciper’s daughter, Rachael, who spent nearly all of her time reading at the computer.  When STAR was selecting a crew for the mission, they wanted Arnold Juciper, who had been the son of one of their prominent astronauts as well as a company hero in his own right both for solving a crisis during a rendezvous with Proxima Centauri and being the first to command a mission to Barnard’s Star, only the second star system after Centauri to be explored by humans.  Public sentiment demanded that an already celebrated astronaut be given the honour of “first man in Andromeda” but Juciper had not wanted to blast five million years into the future and lose his family forever, as much as the idea of the mission had captivated him.  He finally agreed to serve as the ship’s commander on the condition that his daughter Rachael be allowed to come along as a passenger.  His wife Ellen had never left the Earth and had no desire to, so they left her behind.  Now Juciper had begun a romantic relationship with the pilot, so when he returned he would still have a family, something all of the other STAR astronauts had been forced to sacrifice.

      Alexander had always been fascinated by the story of the Andromeda mission, one of the few chapters of human history that had been going on throughout his entire life.  The legendary astronauts who had once been only names and pictures on the data-web were now living, breathing people who he could look at with his telescope.  These people were not gods but mere human beings who happened to travel far and fast enough to endure in the universe far longer than any other human being ever had.  In spite of their incredible accomplishment, they were ordinary people, no older or wiser than Alexander.  When they had left on their mission, they had no way of knowing the human race would still be around when they returned.  They must have been greatly relieved to find that the STAR Corporation still existed and that they would be given a hero’s welcome when the mission was over.  Not only that, but very few major technological breakthroughs had been made on the small-scale during their departure.  Although humanity was a much larger force than it was when they left, ordinary planetary life was not much different, so they would probably not have a very difficult time re-assimilating, assuming the mission had not made them all insane.

      An incoming transmission on the communication console interrupted Alexander’s ruminations, and he turned to Harold Acker to find out where it was coming from.  “This is a pre-recorded video message,” the Communications Officer informed him.  “It is marked confidential, for the captain’s eyes only.  Would you like me to transfer the message to the computer in your quarters, sir?”

      “That will not be necessary,” Alexander replied.  “You may leave the cockpit for a moment.  I will raise you on the ship’s intercom once I have finished hearing the message.”

      Acker thanked the captain and left the cockpit, leaving Alexander alone.  The video message was transferred to the computer screen directly in front of him, and Alexander waited until he was alone before playing the message.

      All communication with spacecraft travelling at super-light speed had to be done through pre-recorded messages due to the time distortion.  If a person stationed on a planet tried to talk in real time to a person travelling at 1 minute per second, the message would come through so quickly as to be incomprehensible.  Conversely, if the person travelling at 1 minute per second tried to communicate in real time with a stationary person, it would take hours for even one word to be completed.  Only spacecraft travelling at the same time-scale could directly communicate with one another.  Distance, however, was not a factor, as even back in the fourth millennium the technology for instantaneous communication had existed.  As early as the twentieth century it was discovered that certain subatomic particles generated by the smashing of atoms in an accelerator always formed in pairs.  Each of these special particles would have a “sister” particle that would spin in the same direction as the original particle, regardless of the distance between them.  The quantum principles that allowed this to work were still a mystery, but by building machines to measure the spin, register its direction as either a 1 or a 0, and manipulate the spin so that information could be sent from one particle to the other, humans gained the capability of instantly communicating with one another over any distance.  This was one of the major keys to STAR’s ability to effectively control such a wide interstellar empire.

      “Captain Warden Alexander,” the image of a man in a suit seated at a large desk in front of a glass wall, beyond which was a large field covered in runways and hangars, flashed on the screen when Alexander began the message.  Alexander recognized the image—it was the field just outside of STAR Headquarters on the Florida peninsula of the planet Earth, and the office was that of the C.E.O. of the corporation.  “This is a message from Brian Davis, the current C.E.O. of STAR.  We have chosen to deliver this message to you personally because we believe your mission to be of the utmost importance.”

      Alexander was almost shocked that the man in charge of the entire STAR Corporation had recorded a message to send directly to him.  He was also surprised by how small and ordinary the man looked, considering the unbelievable amount of power he held.  He could not be sure whether this Brian Davis was the same Brian Davis who had been the acting C.E.O. while he was still aboard the Romband Mobile Command Base, or a descendant of his.  The length of time a person served as a C.E.O. varied anywhere from a few years to several millennia, depending on how often he or she travelled at super-light speeds.  Some C.E.O.s wanted to stay in power for long periods of time, and would travel frequently so as to remain in control of the company for a long enough time to see real progress made.  However, because anyone travelling at super-light speeds could not be reached except by those travelling at the same time-scale, someone with equal authority always had to be stationed on Earth at STAR Headquarters in case any quick decisions needed to be made.  It was therefore always a matter of some confusion as to who was in charge of STAR at any given time.  STAR had had hundreds of C.E.O.s since the company was formed, but tens of thousands of acting C.E.O.s, many of whom never even spoke with the real C.E.O. during their term.  Brian Davis had been the name of the acting C.E.O. during Alexander’s last terra-forming mission, and although it was entirely possible that he had become the actual C.E.O. and gone travelling for the past 40,000 years, it was far more likely that this was a descendant of that person, or a completely unrelated individual with the same common name.

      “You are aware of how important the Andromeda mission is to the STAR Corporation,” Brian Davis continued, “so you will understand our decision to travel at super-light speed until their spacecraft reaches the Solar system. We plan to meet with you personally once your mission is complete.  Your service record is outstanding, as is the record of your ancestors’ service for the past two and a half million years, which is why you were chosen for this mission.

      “There are two reasons we have chosen to transmit this message to you before we depart and communication between us becomes impossible.  The first is to warn you of a possible threat to the Andromeda from a group called Ursa Major.  Although they formed after your departure from the RMCB, this is one of the oldest dissident groups currently still operating in this galaxy, having managed to elude us for the past twenty-five thousand years.  They will be eliminated, but these dissidents are far more sophisticated than most and we may not be able to find and infiltrate them for another ten to fifty-thousand years.  In the mean-time our intelligence has indicated that they are planning to attack the Andromeda with a stolen STAR Security Vessel, so do not hesitate to fire on any ship that approaches you, even if it is one of our own.  They have only one vessel, however, so destroying them should be easy for a captain of your calibre.  Their most frequent area of operation is directly between your position and Solar, so expect the attack to come from ahead of you.

      “You may share this information with your crew, and use it as you see fit.  The next bit of information is top secret.  Your former commanding officer, Admiral Sterling Claymore, has been missing and unaccounted for since the day of your departure.  We assume he is following you, though for what reasons we can not be certain.  We suspect him of treasonous intent, and therefore you are ordered to report to us if you encounter him.  RMCB records indicate the only missing ship from that day as STAR Interstellar Fighter Vessel F98-417, though the admiral certainly has the clearance to alter this identification number and therefore can not be easily located.  If you encounter him, you are to disable his ship and capture him so that he can be interrogated.  If this proves impossible, you are to have him destroyed, even if you must break communications silence and call upon nearby security vessels to give pursuit.  You, however, are not to abandon your own mission objective for any reason.  The knowledge that one of our most trusted officials is AWOL must not be widespread, for reasons that require no explanation.

      “Do not attempt to reply to this message.  By the time you receive this transmission we will be travelling in a ship that will be undetectable by radar or telescope.  We will rendezvous with you at the edge of Solar on the day you are scheduled to arrive. Until then, we wish you good luck.”

      Alexander did not know what to make of the message.  It was extremely rare for the C.E.O. to directly communicate with any STAR Officer outside of his immediate circle, so the message certainly underscored this mission’s importance.  Yet the information regarding the terrorist group Ursa Major could have been delivered by anyone from STAR Intelligence, and though the startling bit about Admiral Claymore’s disappearance was of a much more sensitive nature, the C.E.O. did not need to personally deliver that either.  There was only one reason Alexander could think of as to why Davis would have recorded the message himself: he wanted to.

      Alexander now believed that this was the same Brian Davis who had been the C.E.O. before his current mission.  He was likely an ambitious man—a trait shared by almost all STAR C.E.O.s—who greatly desired to be an active part of human history.  He had probably been extending his term deliberately all these years just to be around when the Andromeda returned from its mission, which would bring him much attention and make him the most famous C.E.O. of the last two million years.  He did not have a subordinate send the information because he wanted to do it himself—to have his face on the highly important transmission.  If the intelligence he had delivered was correct and it resulted in the thwarting of a terrorist attack on the Andromeda, that part of the message would undoubtedly be recovered and fed to the press, so that Davis himself could take credit for the mission’s success.  This would in turn build support for any other plans he might wish to pursue as C.E.O., though Alexander could only speculate as to what those might be.  Perhaps Davis planned to launch another campaign to Andromeda and finally begin expanding the human empire beyond the Milky-Way.

      Alexander called Acker back to the cockpit, and spent the remainder of the day pulling up information from the data-web to learn as much as possible about Ursa Major, as well as Brian Davis. 

      The following night, at 2100 hours, Vanessa Alexander left her cramped quarters to head to the cockpit and play with the ship’s telescope.  Having grown up in a STAR Security family, she was quite accustomed to boredom, though there was far less to do on a small security vessel than there had been on the mobile command base, where she could at least spend time in the recreation areas with other young relatives of officers.  She had always spent most of her time reading and watching entertainment programmes from the data-web, but she did like to wander around occasionally and mingle with other people.  On the Athena, however, there was almost nowhere to wander and very few people with whom to mingle.

      The cockpit was occupied by the pilot, Soren Marcum, and the engineer, Roland Hatch.  Both men looked at her when she entered, and she acknowledged them with a smile before sitting in one of the two seats in the front and accessing the telescope’s controls.  She had the computer locate the nearest inhabited planet and pointed the observation beam directly at it.  Because they were travelling so quickly, the planet appeared to be spinning on its axis nearly a hundred times every second, so in order to observe a single point she had to record the image for .01 seconds and then play the video in slow-motion, locking on to one patch of ground as it made the journey from horizon to horizon.  Vanessa was able to zoom in even after the recording had been made, as the telescope picked up far more data than a simple camera could, allowing her to view any part of the planet in her line of sight to any resolution.

      Vanessa would start by zooming in on a city and speeding up the playback, watching the automobiles racing around and the people, like tiny insects, rushing around from one place to another, going about their tiny business on their tiny insignificant planet.  Curious about these ordinary people and their ordinary lives, Vanessa would occasionally zoom in on just one of them and follow him or her around for awhile, trying to imagine what he or she was thinking.  These people had not been alive the day beforehand, and by the time Vanessa had recorded and watched them on the playback, they were already dead.  They would never know that for a few minutes of their short little lives, they were being watched by a girl in a spaceship light-years away, who would not even see them until after they had died.  And yet everyone was aware of the technology, so every person knew that there was a chance that at any given moment someone with a telescope could be watching them.  The odds of that were just so infinitesimally small that only the most paranoid of people were genuinely bothered by it.

      “Would you mind if I showed you my home planet?” the engineer, Roland Hatch, said to Vanessa from his seat on the right side of the cockpit.

      “Where is it?” she asked.

      “It is back on the far side,” Hatch answered.  “It is actually the moon of a large gas planet of five Jupiter masses.  The moon itself is of two Earth masses, and before terra-forming there was no life there at all.”

      “Two Earth masses, huh?” Vanessa responded as Hatch got up and took the seat next to her.  “You must be very strong.”

      “That is the advantage of growing up on a world with heavy gravity,” said Hatch, and he took the telescope’s controls and pointed it back in the direction from where they had come.  Soon Vanessa was looking at a beautiful gas giant with magnificent rings, with a large moon swinging into view directly in front of it.  The moon had been terra-formed to look like Earth, though it was covered mostly in land rather than oceans.

      “That is Titania Forty-Nine,” said Hatch.  Because the moon was spinning around the planet several times a second, Hatch had to record it for a fraction of a second and zoom in further as Vanessa had done with the previous world.  Soon they were looking at a city, which Hatch identified as his place of birth, and finally at the building in which he had grown up.  “I have not been there in over a hundred thousand years,” he said, “and yet the building is still there.  I do not expect to ever go back, but it is comforting to know how little things change over the years.  Preventing major change is the greatest thing that STAR does for humanity, in my opinion.”

      “Doesn’t matter to me,” said Vanessa.  “I never lived on a planet, and nothing ever changes on a space station.”

      “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” Hatch asked her all of a sudden.

      Vanessa was caught off-guard by the question, but it seemed harmless enough.  “Not really,” she answered.  “When I was a kid I just hung out with my brother.  I’m still really young so he doesn’t like me hanging around with men.”

      “You are not young,” said Hatch, ignoring the screen altogether now and staring at Vanessa’s face.  “You are older than most women in the galaxy.  And far more beautiful.”

      Now Vanessa was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.  “Thanks,” was all she could think to say in response.

      “Have you ever been kissed?” Hatch asked.

      “No, but I don’t really want…” Vanessa was interrupted by Hatch grabbing her head and thrusting his tongue into her mouth.  She tried to pull away but he had a firm hold on her and she did not want to hit him out of the fear that he may become violent.  Right now he was clearly just releasing a great deal of sexual tension that must have been building for many years.  It seemed as though he had never kissed a woman before.

      “Stop that, Hatch!” Soren Marcum shouted when he saw what was happening.  Hatch did not stop immediately, but waited until Marcum’s hand was on his shoulder to pull his tongue out of Vanessa’s mouth.

      “You can have more of that whenever you want,” Hatch said to her with a wild look in his eyes.

      Vanessa was too stunned to know what to say or think.  Luckily Marcum seemed to really want to help her.  “You had better leave her alone,” he told Hatch.  “You do not want to make an enemy of the captain.  And besides, this girl does not deserve to be the target of your sexual frustration.”

      “Fuck you, Marcum!” Hatch shouted.  “I am not frustrated!  I see a thing of beauty and I do with it what is appropriate.  Women are supposed to be kissed.”

      “Not this woman,” said Marcum.  “If you do not respect her, you should expect to be discharged.”

      Hatch ignored him and turned back to Vanessa.  “You would not tell your brother of this, would you?  You liked that, did you not?  Tell Officer Marcum to mind his own fucking business!”

      “No,” said Vanessa, standing up.  “No, that was disgusting and if you ever try that again I will tell my brother.”

      A crazed look came into Hatch’s eyes.  “But that was a kiss!” he shouted.  “Women like to be kissed!  How can you say it was disgusting?”

      “You do not understand women, Hatch,” said Marcum, then turning back to Vanessa, he said, “Allow me to apologise on Roland’s behalf.  The only women he has known are the prostitutes he meets on shore leave.”

      “That’s okay,” said Vanessa, realising that she had grossly underestimated the effect that her mere presence could have on some men.  “Just…just don’t do it again.”  Not wanting to spend another second in that position, she quickly turned and left the cockpit, leaving Marcum to explain to Hatch why what he had done was wrong. 

      It did not take long for Warden Alexander to find important information regarding his two areas of inquiry.  Most interesting to Alexander was the fact that his family’s history brushed against that of the C.E.O. Brian Davis, and Alexander himself had even met Davis’s great-great-grandfather long ago, during his first and only trip to Earth.  Martin Davis had been the Chief General of STAR Security while Warden’s father Gil Alexander had served as a captain under Admiral Joseph Buckland, who took command of the Romband Mobile Command Base after the vessel had been temporarily out of service for upgrades and renovations.  Martin Davis had presided over a ceremony granting Admiral Buckland command of the station while Captain Gil Alexander, then Buckland’s First officer, stood at his side.  Warden was only 8 years old at the time, but he vaguely remembered standing in the hallway of STAR Headquarters afterwards while Davis discussed something with Buckland and his father.  Vanessa had been there too, but she was only 5 and probably had no memory of the event.

      The Davis family had been rotating in and out of control of the STAR Corporation for hundreds of generations, dating all the way back to the launch of the Andromeda mission when Robert Davis, a mere engineer working for mission control, played a crucial role in averting a catastrophe that would have ended the mission before it began.  Robert Davis became the C.E.O. when Michael Romband, who had authorised the launch of the Andromeda mission and without whom there would have been no such mission, stepped down.  From that point forward the history of STAR and the history of the Davis family became permanently intertwined.

      Martin Davis took the C.E.O. position from a Calvin Montgomery after the latter died of a rare illness.  Six generations of Montgomeries had occupied the position before that, each handing off the power to a son, daughter, niece, or nephew upon stepping down.  Yet they had control for a relatively short period of time, as only one of them handed over power to a line of acting C.E.O.s while she took advantage of her position to travel around the galaxy at super-light speeds and essentially go sight-seeing.  The rest remained dutifully Earth-bound, running STAR exclusively from its headquarters and keeping the power within their family.  But Calvin died too quickly to name a successor, and Martin Davis took over by default, as the second most powerful person in the company.  Martin wasted no time in handing things over to his own son, but only as an acting C.E.O. while he travelled.  Three generations passed by until Brian Davis gave up his position as acting C.E.O. to fly off and meet Martin, with whom he travelled until the latter’s death a few years later.  When Martin died, he gave Brian the position of actual C.E.O. and although this had happened tens of thousands of years ago, Brian was still in control today due to his frequent interstellar journeys.

      Far more interesting than any of this, however, was the history of the terrorist group Ursa Major.  Because it was a subversive organization, information was difficult to come by.  Nothing about them could be found on the public data-web, but Alexander’s level of clearance with STAR Security allowed him to access some information that would not be available to the general public.  The group had actually formed as an anti-terra-forming organisation, just one among many civilian-led protest groups that believed the human empire was large enough and that STAR should leave some areas of the galaxy to nature.  They simply published articles and held conferences on planets all across the galaxy to advance their philosophy, and though STAR did not support them these activities did not constitute a threat, as most humans disagreed with them anyway.

      Things changed almost overnight, however, when the leaders of the organisation were approached by STAR Security Sergeant Daniel Carwood, a defector from the Lampert Mobile Command Station who had managed to escape after taking part in a terra-forming campaign on an inhabited world, just like Warden Alexander’s last mission.  Carwood would have been euthanized at the debriefing session along with the rest of his company but he must have been in the good graces of some higher-up officer at the station because he managed to escape and take his information to the one group he knew would be willing to listen to him: Ursa Major.

      Rather than go public with the information, Ursa Major immediately transformed from a Nature Advocacy group to a radical militant terrorist organisation, performing guerrilla attacks on STAR Command Stations during attempted terra-forming missions, forcing the ships to defend the base rather than carry out their mission of altering the planet.  The leaders of the group must have figured that they could do more good by actually trying to stop these missions themselves than by spreading the word that STAR commits genocide.  Alexander understood why, as this group had only the word of a traitor to go on, and STAR would quickly deny the claims and have every member of the organisation executed for treason.  Instead, the group actively tried to stop these genocides, though in the end they could accomplish little more than slowing down the juggernaut.  Every planet that the group had temporarily saved was now under STAR’s dominion, and Ursa Major had not been active for over 30,000 years.

      Alexander found it odd that a group like this would even go after the Andromeda, as they seemed to be fighting against the destruction of innocent life. To kill five astronauts who came from a time-period long before genocidal terra-forming and who could know nothing about it seemed inconsistent with their core values.  Still, destroying the Andromeda would be a blow to STAR in any case, and they must have figured that any harm to STAR was a good thing.  They probably also believed that this mission represented some sort of ambition on the part of STAR to expand its empire beyond the Milky-Way, which they would certainly be opposed to.  Simply explaining to them the reasons why this kind of expansion was not on STAR’s agenda, Alexander figured, would probably not convince them.

      Warden was almost finished reading his fifth classified document on Ursa Major when Vanessa entered their quarters and slipped immediately into bed.  “Is everything all right?” he asked her, knowing from her body language that she was upset.

      “Yeah,” she answered, curling into a fetal position under the covers and facing the wall opposite Warden.  “I’m just really tired, that’s all.”

      “You know I do not believe you,” said Warden.

      “I know,” said Vanessa.  “But I don’t want to talk about it.”

      Anger leapt into Warden’s mind, which went immediately to the worst conclusion.  “Did one of these officers try anything with you?”

      Vanessa was silent for a second, then she answered, “No, I just miss my friends back on Romband.  It sucks to think they’re all dead now.”

      “I see,” said Warden.  “Well, that is certainly a legitimate reason to be depressed.  I was just remembering our trip to Earth this evening.  I had a few very good friends on our first command base, before our father was called to transfer with Buckland.  But this is the life we live.  You know people for a short period of time and then you never see them again.”

      “I know,” said Vanessa, yawning.  “It’s still sad.”

      Warden switched off his computer and dimmed the lights in the room before crawling into bed beside his sister.  He felt strange sleeping next to her, but the small ship could not accommodate more than six living quarters, and the quarters themselves were too small to fit more than one bed.  But he pushed that feeling away as he drifted off to sleep, knowing she would be safe as long as she was only sharing a bed with him and not someone else. 
 

Chapter 6

1200 Hours Ship-Time, Day 05

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      Vanessa Alexander was eating her lunch in the ship’s kitchen just after her brother left for cockpit duty when she had her next encounter with Roland Hatch.  She had just prepared a bowl of soup and was sitting at the table to eat it when the engineer entered the room.  It was a small space with only a few refrigerators, storage cabinets, and a counter with devices for food preparation such as the one that Vanessa had used to stir and heat her soup in a matter of seconds.  Hatch only glanced at Vanessa on his way in before walking straight past her to one of the refrigerators to pull out some synthetic meat with which to make a sandwich.

      Vanessa was intimidated by the man, but she had resolved long ago never to let her actions be dictated by fear, so rather than follow her instinct and leave the room, she remained seated at the table.  There were still several weeks to go on this mission and she wasn’t going to spend them hiding from the ship’s crew.

      Once Hatch had finished making his sandwich, he sat down at the table opposite Vanessa, took one bite, and stared at her face while he chewed.  Once he had swallowed his mouthful, he said, “I must thank you for keeping yesterday’s little incident between us to yourself.”

      “Don’t mention it,” Vanessa replied cautiously.  “The last officer who tried to make a move on me got discharged.  As much of a creep as he was, I still feel kind of guilty for ruining his life.  I don’t want to do that to anyone else.”

      “So you are admirable on top of everything else,” said Hatch, who was completely ignoring his sandwich and staring ominously at Vanessa.

      “Please,” said Vanessa, raising another spoonful of soup to her mouth, “don’t compliment me.”

      “But you ought to be complimented!” The volume of Hatch’s voice shot up so quickly that Vanessa nearly leapt out of her seat.  The same wild look from the previous evening flashed into his eyes.  “You are unbelievably attractive.”

      Vanessa pushed her bowl of soup to the side and returned Hatch’s gaze with a stare of her own, attempting to convey her seriousness.  “Listen, I understand that you don’t get to see women very often, but I’m the worst possible person for you to direct your emotions…”

      “You are completely wrong!” Hatch shouted again.  “You are the best woman for me to love.  The only other women I have known since becoming an officer are prostitutes.  They sell their bodies for money, and their bodies are not great anyway.  You have such a lovely, smooth, slender young body…if you would just let me touch it I could make you feel so good.”

      Vanessa could feel her stomach tying itself into a knot.  She sat petrified, desperately trying to maintain her stern stare to hide how intimidated she was.

      “Would you please let me touch it?” Hatch asked softly, leaning in closer to her.  “Come on, it is not fair for you to have such a treasure between your legs and not to share it.  Please…”

      “Okay, that’s enough,” Vanessa stood up and walked towards the door, but in a move so fast that she couldn’t avoid it, Hatch grabbed her left leg as she tried to walk by, stopping her for just enough time to stand up right behind her and wrap her neck in his right arm.

      Now Vanessa was truly terrified.  She couldn’t move, she could barely breathe, and she could feel Hatch’s rock solid penis pressing against her buttocks.  He brought his left hand back around her leg and began massaging her crotch from underneath.  Too terrified to scream, she threw up, and all of the soup she had just eaten poured down over Hatch’s arm.  Hatch didn’t miss a beat, and he yanked her pants down below her waist.  He was now so overwhelmed by his urge that not a thought about the possible consequences of his actions entered into his mind.  He pulled down his own pants and was just about to bend Vanessa over and shove himself inside her when Soren Marcum wandered into the room.

      The Navigations Officer was completely dumbstruck by what he saw, but it took only a split second for him to leap around Hatch and wrap the engineer’s neck into his own arms.  Hatch let go, and Vanessa collapsed to the floor in hysterics while he struggled to free himself from Marcum’s choke-hold.  But Marcum had a strong grip, and while Hatch managed to give him a few bruises with his left arm, his strength quickly dissipated and he lost consciousness.

      Once Hatch was incapacitated, Marcum immediately leapt to the floor where Vanessa was lying curled into a fetal position in a puddle of her own puke.  Marcum gently helped her pull her pants back around her waist, then let her throw her arms around him and bury her head into his shoulder.  “It’s okay,” he repeated until she began to calm down.  “He won’t hurt you again.  I’ll make sure of it.”

      “Please don’t tell my brother,” were the first coherent words she spoke. 

      Marcum brought Vanessa back to her quarters, which were now empty because her brother was on cockpit duty.  Without a word, she curled herself under the covers of the bed and buried her face in her pillow.  But when Marcum attempted to turn around and leave, she pleaded with him to stay.  He remained with her for the next three hours, sitting silently beside her as she struggled to stop the endless mental re-play of Hatch’s attack.  Marcum tried to help out by talking about other things, telling her stories about his life and the most interesting adventures he’d had so far on the Athena.  Vanessa didn’t say a word, but when it came time for Marcum to leave for his cockpit shit, she begged him not to go.  He tried to explain to her that under normal circumstances he would not even dream of leaving but he had no choice and would be discharged if he deliberately missed a shift, but Vanessa would not accept it.  Finally, he reminded her that her brother’s shift ended when his shift began, and that if he did not leave Warden would find him there with her and he would have no choice but to tell him what happened.  Vanessa accepted this and told him to go.

      But when Marcum got to the cockpit, he found that Clive Hector, whose shift began at the same time as his, was engaged in conversation with Alexander, who had no intention of leaving any time soon.  Alexander told him that he was going to stay a little while longer, so Marcum could leave and return when he was summoned.  Marcum thanked him and went immediately back to Vanessa.

      Alexander was explaining the transmission from Brian Davis to Hector, who processed all of the information with no visible reaction.  He did not say anything about the disappearance of Admiral Claymore, but he told Hector everything he had discovered about Ursa Major during the course of his research.  “Does this make any sense to you?” Alexander asked.  “Why would a group devoted to ending the destruction of innocent life attempt to destroy the Andromeda?”

      “You are asking me for my opinion,” Hector said in reply, “but my opinion on this matter is completely irrelevant.”

      “I am asking for it anyway,” said Alexander.

      “Terrorists are not like ordinary human beings,” Hector began.  “They have some mental defect that prevents them from understanding themselves as existing within the social hierarchy.  They see themselves as separate from, and most often superior to, the rest of humanity.  As such they have no regard for human life, and they react to their self-imposed ostracism by violently lashing out against the system that allows their own existence.  They are a plague, a disease that spreads by convincing others that they are in the right while the rest of society is in the wrong, and they find any excuse to damage STAR.  This group Ursa Major has used the issue of terra-forming as their excuse to target human civilisation.  It is appropriate that they hold primitive life in a higher regard than human life, and thus go after STAR soldiers for the sake of the vermin who inhabit ‘natural’ worlds.  Any sentimental feelings they may have for these inferior life-forms are merely secondary to their primary impulse, which is to destroy all that is good and right in the universe.  It may appear to be inconsistent with their philosophy to destroy the Andromeda and its crew of innocent human beings, but it is not at all inconsistent with their nature.  The crewmembers of the Andromeda are humans—humans who not only work for STAR but who are important to the company—and their lives are therefore not merely acceptable but appropriate targets for their violence.”

      “So you think that their revolutionary agenda is just an excuse for them to fly around the galaxy and blow things up?” asked Alexander.

      “You say this as though you find the idea absurd,” said Hector.  “It is only my opinion, of course, but I would wager that nearly any STAR Officer you ask will believe just as I do.”

      “I do not find your reasoning absurd at all,” said Alexander.  “In fact it is quite probable that you are correct.  I just find it hard to accept that so many people would sacrifice their lives for no purpose at all other than blind destruction.”

      “These are social deviants,” said Hector.  “It is in their nature.  Perhaps it is impossible for good men like us to comprehend it completely, but there is a dark side to human nature that manifests itself so strongly in some persons that it overwhelms the mind.  These people live not for the sake of life but for death and destruction.  As STAR Officers, we devote our lives to principles of order, while they live only to create chaos.”

      “It seems that if chaos were their only objective, they would not need the issue of terra-forming to justify their actions,” Alexander argued.  “They could create far more fear and chaos by destroying things at random with no stated purpose at all.”

      “They may believe they have a higher purpose,” said Hector.  “This is what makes them so dangerous.  The illusion of purpose is what separates the rogues and pirates from the organised groups like Ursa Major.  Some principle, whatever it may be, is always a necessary requisite to the success of a terrorist group.  Without a common vision, the band disintegrates and the rebellion fails.  It is the same law of natural selection that dictates the structure of all life in the universe.  Organisations without a stated objective fall apart, while those with a clear principle endure, thrive, and continue to recruit new members.  Ursa Major is only a threat now because its stand against terra-forming has been an effective rallying call throughout the centuries.”

      “I agree with all of that,” said Alexander, “but if the purpose—or even the illusion of purpose—is so central to the success of the group, would it not be counter-productive for them to go after the Andromeda, which has no connection to terra-forming at all?”

      “It could be that by taking credit for the destruction of the most high-profile mission in the history of STAR, Ursa Major hopes to prove itself a worthy adversary to STAR and boost its recruiting potential to overwhelming proportions,” Hector explained.  “Should they succeed every delinquent in the galaxy with an urge toward chaos will be lining up to join them.  As for the purpose, they can claim that by destroying the Andromeda they have forced STAR to postpone any plans to colonise our neighbour galaxy for millions of years.”

      “I thought about that too, but any intelligent person understands why STAR would never try to expand into Andromeda.  A separate branch of STAR two and half million light-years away would be an entirely separate organisation—a potential competitor.  If a terrorist group really wanted to damage STAR, they would try to convince the C.E.O. to start expanding beyond the Milky-Way.”

      “You and I both understand that logic,” said Hector, “but a terrorist would not think that way.  Really, I am surprised by the forcefulness of your doubts regarding this matter.  If I may be so bold, I should point out that you are coming dangerously close to questioning our orders.  It would be prudent of you to remember that our mission objective remains the same regardless of your opinion or mine.  These doubts you have, even if well-founded, are completely irrelevant.”

      For a brief second, Warden Alexander felt a slight sensation of hostility towards his first officer.  He had merely wanted to clear a few things up in his mind before proceeding with the mission, but his right-hand man seemed to find such an endeavour inappropriate, even trivial.  “You are probably right about everything, Clive,” Alexander said, deliberately using his first name.  “All I know is that occasionally I get a feeling that I am missing something—some essential piece of the puzzle—and this is one of those times.  I simply want to consider everything carefully so as to prevent any possible surprises.”

      “That is quite admirable, Captain,” Hector replied, careful to call his commanding officer by his title and not his name.  “But I have served under you long enough to know that even if we are hit with a surprise, you will be able to handle it effectively.  I have never met an officer more capable of thinking on his feet than you, sir.”

      Alexander did not know what he disliked more—being criticised by his subordinates or being praised by them.  He merely shrugged off the compliment and told Hector to contact Soren Marcum and inform him that it was time to begin his shift.  He then left the cockpit and made his way back towards his quarters.  He passed Marcum along the way, but it was not until he reached the room that it struck him as odd that the navigations officer would be walking from this direction when his quarters were on the other side of the ship. 
 

Chapter 7

1530 Hours Ship-Time, Day 10

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      “Do you think it’s safe to move around the ship now, even when Hatch is off-duty?” Vanessa asked Soren Marcum, who was lying in the bed next to her.  “Or do you think he’d still try to come after me?”

      “Honestly, I do not know,” Marcum replied, holding her a little tighter as he felt her momentarily tense up.  “But these four hours are his only real opportunity, and he knows I’m always here with you.  He may be a brute, but he is a smart man.  I think he understands when a situation is hopeless.”

      “I hope you’re right,” said Vanessa, and slid closer to Marcum so that her back was pressed against his side.  In the days since she’d been attacked by Roland Hatch and Marcum had been there to comfort her, she’d grown quite attached to the Navigations Officer.  Every day, during the four-hour period in which her brother had cockpit-duty, he would come to her room and they would lie in bed together.  He never made any sexual advances because while there was clearly an intimacy developing between them, both knew that it could never be acted on.

        “Why does a person like that join STAR anyway?” Vanessa asked.  “If he’s so starved for sex he should have stayed a civilian.”

      “I do not believe he had ever had sex before joining STAR,” Marcum replied.  “He had no way of knowing that he would eventually find himself starved for it.  I imagine he joined for the same reasons as most of us.”

      “Why did you join?” asked Vanessa.

      “There were many reasons,” said Marcum.  “I think primarily it was the urge to see what was out there.  You were born into a life of interstellar travel, so you do not understand what it is like for those of us born planet-bound.  We grow up knowing that we live out our lives on one tiny world among hundreds of thousands in an enormously vast galaxy.  Some of us are perfectly content to stay were we are.  Then there are those of us such as myself who want to see as much of the universe as we possibly can.”

      “I can understand that,” said Vanessa.  “Every time I watch an inhabited planet on a telescope recording I always wonder about those people.  They’re just like these tiny little bugs crawling around on a rock, spinning around in circles and living and dying in just a blink of an eye.  Does it bother them how insignificant they are?”

      “That is a perfect way to put it,” said Marcum, “and it is at the heart of the reason why I, and I believe why most of us join STAR.  Planet-bound life is completely insignificant.  Each world has its own institutions and everybody finds a role to play in their own local area.  But they are essentially just cogs in a machine that is itself nothing more than a cog in a bigger machine.  Of course I understand that as a STAR Officer I am also merely a cog in a machine, but STAR is not just a machine, it is the machine.  It is the system upon which all other systems depend, and I am an integral part of it.  It makes me feel far more significant than I would otherwise.”

      “But is that feeling really worth all the loneliness and boredom?” asked Vanessa.  “At least planet-bound people don’t have to spend months at a time patrolling empty space and never interacting with anyone other than a handful of crewmembers.”

      Marcum laughed.  “Now you have touched on another reason I joined STAR, one that is not quite so common.  I enjoy the solitude.  I have never been very fond of people in general, though I would not be able to say exactly why.  I have just always felt different from them.  Perhaps it is a part of this desire to be more significant.  I just want to be something more than human.  And somehow, living out my life in space provides me with that feeling.  In fact there is something about empty space itself that I find very…fulfilling, if such a word can be used.  Honestly I am not sure how to describe it.  It is a quality without a word.”

      “I think I know what you mean,” said Vanessa.  “It’s like the feeling you get when you just stare out of a cockpit window at the stars.  You feel like…like all of infinity is right there before you, and that you’re not only a part of it but it’s a part of you.  Like it’s inside of you, making you more than what you are.”

      “Beautifully put,” said Marcum.  “That is exactly what I had in mind.  For some reason, staring at the stars from the surface of a planet simply does not have the same effect.  It is as though an atmosphere cuts you off from it—from whatever it is.  But when you are out in the void, even within the confines of a spaceship, you can still experience this feeling of…transcendence I suppose.”

      “So the loneliness doesn’t bother you?” asked Vanessa.  “You really don’t ever feel the desire for a friend or someone to love?”

      Marcum did not reply.  He merely sat in silence, either contemplating the question or debating how to answer.

      “Soren?” Vanessa prodded him.  “Did you hear me?”

      “Yes,” he replied.  “It is just that before now I would have not even hesitated to say no, that I never feel such desires.  Now I am afraid things have changed.”

      Vanessa slid away from him slightly and tilted around to look at him directly.  “What are you saying?”

      Marcum sighed deeply.  “You are the first person I have ever…felt a connection to,” he said.  “I will treasure this brief time we spend together very deeply, but I am afraid that when it is over, I will feel an emptiness that I have never felt before.”

      Vanessa sat up now, wrapping her knees in her arms and trying to determine how she felt about this.  She had not previously considered the long-term effects of this temporary friendship.

      “I am so sorry,” Marcum said, also sitting up and gently putting his hands on her a shoulders.  “I did not mean to make you uncomfortable.  I thought it was obvious that I am fond of you.”

      “It’s not that,” said Vanessa.  “Of course I knew that.  And I’m fond of you too.  Very fond.  But if I’ve done anything that’s going to hurt you…”

      “Do not be silly,” Marcum reassured her.  “You are wonderful to even have such a concern.”

      “But you were perfectly content and now you’re going to have to miss me for the rest of your life,” she said.  “I’ve known so many people that are now dead and gone while I keep flying around the galaxy…it hurts to miss people.  Now you’ll have to feel that too.  I shouldn’t have done this to you…”

      “Oh, Vanessa, it is absurd that you blame yourself for such a thing.”  Marcum leaned inward to give her a soft kiss on the neck.  “To have to miss you is such a small price to pay for having known you.”

      Vanessa turned to look Marcum directly in the eyes.  That was the kindest thing anyone had ever said to her.  Without a thought as to the consequences, driven only by a momentary impulse, she grabbed his head and kissed him passionately for several seconds.  When it was over she instantly got up and told him to leave.  “My brother’s shift is almost ending.  You’d better go.”

      Marcum was speechless.  He had never been kissed before.  Too many thoughts were racing through his mind at once, but he would have to deal with these thoughts on his own for at least another twenty hours.  Without a word, he slipped out of Vanessa’s chambers and quickly made his way back to his own to prepare for his cockpit shift. 

      When Roland Hatch entered the cockpit four hours later to relieve Clive Hector, he found that Soren Marcum did not so much as look at him this time.  The two of them had barely spoken a word to each other for the last five days in spite of sharing four hours of cockpit duty, though they had at least been acknowledging one another’s presence.  Apparently that was no longer so.  Hatch allowed himself an evil glance in Marcum’s direction, which the Navigations Officer may or may not have read out of the corner of his eye, then sat down at his station across the small room to run his daily systems check.

      Hatch knew that Marcum had been spending four hours each day with the Alexander girl, though he did not know what they were doing.  Naturally, he imagined they were fucking, and this made him extraordinarily jealous.  He even contemplated informing the Captain about this affair, which would undoubtedly result in Marcum’s discharge.  Yet he knew that if he revealed this secret Marcum and the girl would tell Alexander of his incredibly stupid and impulsive attack, which would probably result in something far worse than a discharge.  No, Marcum held the upper hand in this situation in every way, and it made Hatch furious.

      Since that magnificent cunt had come aboard, Hatch could think of nothing else.  There was just nothing else to think about.  He had been serving on this wretched ship for nearly ten years, and the last woman to be aboard was a 70-year-old Data Officer who had no interest in Hatch or any other man for that matter.  Not that her presence didn’t constantly weigh on his mind at the time, but that desire could hardly compare to what he currently felt.  The girl was easily the most sexually attractive thing he had ever seen, including on land, and the fact that he could not have her was literally driving him mad.

      He had to have her.  A desire this strong could simply not go unfulfilled, and it only grew stronger each day.  Even masturbating several times a day, thinking about the brief moment he had touched her ass, only seemed to augment his feelings of lust.  Every minute of every hour he spent imagining himself beating her, penetrating her, strangling her.  How dare she refuse him so coldly?  All he wanted to do was give her pleasure.  She had to understand what she did to him.  Yet she gave no thought at all to his feelings.

      Yes, she deserved to be raped.  He would take her, beat her, strangle her to the edge of death while fucking her and just when she was about to slip away he would let her go, let her recover, and then do it again.  He would…Hatch had to stop himself.  He was already hard again.  These thoughts were getting him nowhere.  He could make these visions a reality, but he needed a plan.

      Obviously he would not be able to do anything to her with the Captain or even any of the crewmembers around.  He would have to kill every one of them, engage the ship’s ICT and blast out of the galaxy.  That would not be nearly as difficult as it seemed.  Each crewmember had his own private quarters, and as long as he did it quietly he could slip from room to room and eliminate them one by one.  The hardest part would be obtaining a laser pistol, as the only two aboard belonged to the captain and the weapons officer.  But a swift knife to the throat would bring either one of them down, and then he could simply take care of the rest one at a time.  It would be easy.

      Of course, STAR would come after him.  Mutiny was not uncommon, but no mutiny went without pursuit.  Naturally, the ICT complicated the issue, as mutinous ships often blasted out of the galaxy at many thousands of years per second, but STAR would always send a ship after it that was capable of travelling slightly closer to C.  It might take hundreds of millions of years, but the escapees would all be brought to justice eventually.  There were at least hundreds, possibly thousands of ships right now speeding out of the Milky Way with other STAR Security vessels behind them, each filled with a crew just like the one aboard the Athena, furious at having been ordered away from the galaxy for a mission that could easily take far longer than the time STAR had even been in existence to complete.  There was almost nothing STAR hated more than mutiny.

      But a mutineer could live a very long life indeed provided his vessel was fast enough, and the Athena was one of the fastest.  Any ship that STAR might send after it would only be able to travel a few thousandths of a decimal place closer to C, so Hatch might even be able to spend several years with the girl before they caught up with him.  An early death would be a price well worth paying for that pleasure.

      Yet there was one small caveat which prevented Hatch from acting right away.  This was currently a Priority 1 mission.  A simple mutiny was bad enough, but one that resulted in the failure of a Priority 1 mission was the worst kind of treason.  STAR might devote one or possibly even two ships to go after one mutineer, but they would devote all of their resources to pursue a traitor.  And this mission in particular would be the worst mission imaginable to ruin.  If he killed everyone on board and blasted away, thus depriving the Andromeda of an escort, and then the Andromeda was attacked and destroyed, he would instantly become the most infamous man in the galaxy—the traitor who caused the failure of the most ambitious mission that mankind had ever embarked upon.  A man who let his own lust cause STAR’s first mission from Earth to Andromeda and back to fail just before the end.

      No, he wouldn’t even reach the edge of the galaxy if he did that.  Every ship between this position and the edge would be sent after him, and he would be stopped dead in his path.  They wouldn’t simply destroy the ship, either.  They would disable it, board it, and take him prisoner.  They would then parade him through the streets of Earth in front of an angry mob, torture him publicly for all to see, then send him to the worst of the worst prison colonies in the galaxy—the place where they send all the traitors—to live out the rest of his life, which they would make sure would last a very long time, in unspeakable suffering.

      Clearly, Hatch could do nothing until the mission was already guaranteed to succeed, and with this warning of a possible attack by Ursa Major, there was no such guarantee.  He would just have to wait until the attempt was made, and then regardless of the outcome he would make his move.  It would then be nothing more than the mutiny of one insignificant STAR Security Vessel, and the girl would be his to torture and play with for a very long time.  This is what he intended to do.  It’s what he had to do.  As his mind slipped back into the violent fantasy, he understood that even if he let her go, the fantasy would remain and torture him for the rest of his life.  It’s better she be tortured, he thought. 

      The following day, Marcum did not appear in Vanessa’s quarters at the usual time.  Concerned, Vanessa risked venturing outside and made her way to his quarters and pressed the buzzer outside of his door.  It slid open, and she walked inside to find Marcum sitting on his bed and reading something from the monitor of his personal computer on the wall.  Other than the bed and the computer, the only other thing in the room was a storage bin for clothes and personal items.  It was smaller than the Captain’s quarters but not by much.

      “Hi Soren,” she said nervously.  “Don’t you want to come lie with me today?”

      Marcum looked up at her and breathed a heavy sigh.  “I can not do that anymore,” he said.

      “Why not?” Vanessa asked.

      “You know why,” said Marcum, and turned back to his screen.

      “No, I don’t” Vanessa insisted, and walked right up to the edge of his bed, demanding his attention.  “It is because I kissed you?”

      “Yes, but it is more than that,” said Marcum.  “I feel as though I may be falling in love with you.  I can not let that happen.  It would be too painful when you leave.”

      Vanessa blinked.  “What happened to knowing me being worth the price of losing me?”

      Soren Marcum looked directly into her eyes.  “It is different now.  If it were merely a friendship, that would be one thing.  But the desire for something more is too strong, and if you will forgive me for saying so, I believe you desire it as well.  I feel bad enough hiding our friendship from your brother, but I have done so because I thought it was doing more good than harm, and that any anger your brother might feel if he found out would not be justified.  But if I were to go any further with you, his anger would be justified.  I would be betraying him, and therefore betraying my duty to STAR.”

      “STAR never ordered you not to make love to me,” Vanessa said.  “And my brother’s orders were only not to ‘bother’ me.  And you wouldn’t be bothering me at all.  I want you to.”

      Marcum was silent for a moment.  Every rationalisation he had made over the last twenty hours to avoid seeing Vanessa again was crumbling away, falling victim to his overwhelming desire.  “Have you ever done it before?” he asked.

      “No, but I know I’m ready,” said Vanessa.  “And I want it to be with you.”

      “I can not take your innocence from you,” Marcum said.

      “Who better than you?” Vanessa pressed him.  “You’re innocent yourself.  We’d be taking it from each other.  And why not?  After this week we’ll never see each other again.  But I’m falling in love with you now and you said you’re falling in love with me.  How often are we going to have this opportunity?  With your career, you’ll probably never get a chance like this again.  Do you honestly believe that if you don’t make love to me now, you won’t regret it for the rest of your life?”

      Vanessa’s words were all the persuasion Marcum needed.  He suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her on top of him.  She kissed him even more forcefully than the day before, and he caressed her body with the kind of gentle passion she had always imagined the touch of her first lover would be like.

      But this lasted only a few seconds.  Instantly, yellow lights began to flash and an alarm sounded.  Warden Alexander’s voice boomed through the ship’s speaker.  “All crew to the cockpit.  The Andromeda is under attack.” 
 

Chapter 8

1200 Hours Ship-Time, Day 11

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      When Warden Alexander entered the cockpit several minutes earlier to relieve communications officer Harold Acker, he already had a strange feeling that something was about to happen.  The Andromeda was just now slightly more than half-way home from the galactic core, which is exactly the time Alexander would choose strike if he were leading Ursa Major.  The ship had been travelling long enough without incident for any escort to develop a false sense of security—a slight drop-off in vigilance due to the belief that the ship might make it back without incident—yet it was still far enough away from the Solar System to gain extra protection from the high levels of security concentration in that region.  If these terrorists were as clever as Alexander believed them to be, the strike would come either today or tomorrow.

      And so the first thing he did when he arrived in the cockpit, after greeting Weapons Officer Samuel Greggs, was check the ship’s radar to see if any vessels were approaching.  The ship’s automatic radar could only measure out to 1 light-year, but by manually sending out a stronger signal by using the same technology that allowed for instantaneous communication, a STAR Security vessel could pick up any small object within a 5 light-year radius.  Should any ship penetrate this radius, it would only take one minute to arrive within firing distance of the Andromeda at their current time-scale rate of 30 days per second.  Should the automatic radar be relied on, that window would be reduced to 12 seconds.  But as long as they picked up the signal within the window, they could extend their preparation time by as long as they desired simply by reducing the time-scale.

      Nothing appeared on Alexander’s original scan, but he maintained his vigilance and sent out a signal once every minute.  The radar would pick up a few stray rocks here and there, but nothing with a density consistent with that of a STAR-manufactured space vessel.  But it was only on his fifth scan that the radar did pick up an object with the appropriate density, and Alexander immediately ordered Greggs to point the ship’s telescope at the object and take a look.  Indeed, it was a STAR Security Vessel stripped of its tracking device, as any stolen ship would be, and it was heading directly towards the Andromeda.

      “Open the internal communications channel,” Alexander ordered, and Greggs immediately complied.  “All crew to the cockpit,” he announced.  “The Andromeda is under attack.”

      He then ordered Greggs to reduce the time-scale to 1 day per second, thus extending the time it would take for the attacking vessel to come within firing range by 24 minutes, at least by their perception.  There was no way to tell what time-scale the attackers were currently using, but Alexander knew that in any kind of open fire-fight, any ship travelling at a faster rate of time than 1 second per second was at a fatal disadvantage, as the strike would come faster than could be perceived.  The Athena would have to reduce to a “real-time” rate by the time the attacker arrived, although there was no need to do so at this point and extend the wait to a period of several years.  Cutting the rate at just the right time was the key to any successful escort mission.

      The first to arrive at the cockpit was Harold Acker, the communications officer who had just left several minutes ago, followed by Alexander’s first officer Clive Hector.  Then came the engineer Roland Hatch and the data officer Donald Pirkins.  Navigations officer Soren Marcum was the last crewmember to arrive, followed only seconds later by a very flustered Vanessa.  Alexander figured that she had probably just been startled by his announcement.  She had never been involved in any kind of dangerous situation like this before.

      As everyone took their appropriate seats, Alexander quickly explained the situation.  “We have what appears to be a stolen STAR Security Vessel on a direct approach to the Andromeda from the 2 o’clock position.  Our current time-scale gives us 22 minutes before it reaches firing range.  Navigations, I want you to position us directly between the Andromeda and the attacking vessel, at a distance of 20 kilometres, and cut our scale to real-time two minutes before the attacker reaches firing range.”

      “Yes, sir,” said Soren Marcum.

      “Weapons, I want our lasers locked on the weapons of the approaching vessel and fired the moment it is possible.  If we can render them powerless without completely destroying them, they might be able to provide valuable intelligence to STAR regarding their organisation.  Assuming they value their lives over their secrets.”

      “Understood, sir,” said Samuel Greggs.

      “Communications, I want you to send a message to the ship asking them to identify themselves and warning them that they will be attacked if they come any closer.  If they do not reply, we can confirm that they are in fact hostile.  Make it a pre-recorded message so as to give no indication of our time-scale.”

      “Yes, sir,” said Harold Acker, and immediately began recording the message.

      “Engineering and Data, just keep your eyes on the systems at all times and be prepared to deal with any damage or malfunction that may occur.”

      “Yes, sir,” both Roland Hatch and Donald Pirkins said simultaneously.

      And that was it.  Alexander merely stared out of the cockpit window at the empty area of space from which the attackers were approaching.  Marcum had placed the Athena directly between them and the Andromeda, far enough to keep a safe distance but close enough to give them a few extra chances to strike should their first shot miss the attackers.  Acker’s message went without a reply, so their intentions were now certain, but Alexander could not shake the feeling that he was missing something.  By all indications, the attackers had no chance of success.  They were heading directly into the Athena’s hands.  Even if they managed to dodge the Athena’s first shot, they would not be able to escape a second or third, and it would be incredibly stupid of them to count on their ability to outmanoeuvre a top-of-the-line STAR Security vessel specifically chosen to safeguard the most important mission in STAR’s history.  No, if Ursa Major was as clever as Alexander believed them to be, there was no way their attack would be as fatally simple as this.

      A new thought occurred to him.  “Data, can you tell me the attacking vessel’s actual velocity?”

      Donald Pirkins sent out the appropriate signal to take the measurement.  “Point nine eight five,” he announced.  This meant that the approaching vessel was travelling at 99.985% of the speed of light, two thousandths of a decimal place slower than the Athena, a rather significant difference at such high speeds.

      “Raise an image of the ship,” Alexander said, and Pirkins brought a close-up image from the telescope of the attacking vessel to the main monitor.

      “Engineering, can you discern what model it is?” Alexander asked.

      Roland Hatch studied the screen for a brief moment.  “It is not one I am familiar with, so it must have come out within the last sixty-thousand years,” he said.  “I will check the databases.”

      Alexander waited for a brief moment as Hatch used his computer to look through every model of STAR Security Vessel that had been built in the last 60,000 years as they had been travelling at super-light speeds.  This was a simple task, as a new model only came out once about every 10,000 years.  “It is the XRG-79J,” said Hatch.  “Two generations newer than the Athena.”

      “And what is its maximum speed?” Alexander asked.

      “Point night eight nine,” said Hatch.

      Alexander’s suspicions were confirmed.  The attacking vessel was moving slower than its maximum capability.  There could only be one reason for that.

      “Navigations, prepare to change our position,” he ordered.  “First, cut our distance from the Andromeda to four kilometres, and eject an empty escape pod.  Then swing us behind to the eight o’clock position at the same distance we are at currently.”

      “What is it?” Clive Hector asked.  “Why are we changing position?”

      Only the first officer was allowed to question his captain.  Many captains, Alexander included, actually encouraged this due to the value of an additional perspective when making command decisions.  Alexander explained, “They have another ship.”

      “But the briefing from STAR did not indicate a second stolen ship,” said Hector.

      “Obviously they were unaware,” said Alexander.  “But the only reason the approaching vessel would be travelling slower than their maximum capability would be to lure us to the front while an even faster ship comes at the Andromeda from behind.  Data, send out a signal and check.”

      Pirkins sent out a radar signal to scan their current five light-year radius, but no new ships appeared.

      “Are you certain about this?” asked Hector.  “Perhaps the interstellar drive of the attackers has been damaged.”

      “That is a possibility,” said Alexander, “but the presence of another ship is a much more likely possibility.  From what I have learned about Ursa Major, they would not perform such a direct and simple attack, especially with a damaged ship.  They aim to complete their task, not martyr themselves.”

      “The pod has been ejected,” Marcum announced.  “Now heading to the 8 o’clock position.”

      Alexander acknowledged him, debated something in his head for a moment, and then gave another order, “Communications, send a message to the Andromeda to slow to one day per second and await further instructions.”

      Acker did not comply, and Hector nearly rose from his seat.  “Captain!” he shouted.  “We are under direct orders not to communicate with the Andromeda under any circumstances!”

      “I am aware of that,” said Alexander, not particularly appreciating his first officer’s “additional perspective” at the moment.  “It is a completely nonsensical order for an escort mission.  The escort must be able to co-ordinate the defensive strategy with the ship it is defending.  It may not be entirely necessary with only one attacker, but with more than one attacker it becomes absolutely essential.”

      “But in this case we have been specifically ordered not to do so,” Hector continued to protest.

      “Then in this case we have been given conflicting orders,” Alexander snapped.  “Either we follow the ridiculous order not to communicate with the Andromeda and fail to fulfil our order to protect the ship, or we ignore the non-communication order and succeed in our primary task.  It is a question of priorities.”

      “But the non-communication order may actually be more important,” Hector continued.  “STAR did not give any indication of priorities.”

      “Exactly,” said Alexander.  “STAR did not give any indications of anything, so I have to operate according to assumptions.  I assume that whatever reason may exist for the non-communication order, it is less important that the primary objective of safeguarding the ship.  I assume that when STAR issued that order, they were operating under an assumption of their own—that only one ship had been stolen and that therefore only one ship would attack.  Had they known of a second ship, I assume they would have rescinded that order.”

      “But you do not even know if there is a second ship!” Hector exclaimed.  “You are making too many assumptions!”

      “We will see,” Alexander said, and cut off any further discussion.  “Your objection is noted.  If anyone else would like to express their objections for the record, feel free to do so.  If I am wrong, I will of course take full responsibility.  But I am not wrong.”  Nobody raised their voices.  “Acker, send that message.”

      Marcum then announced, “We are twenty kilometres from the Andromeda at the eight o’clock position and holding.”

      “Send out another signal,” Alexander told Perkins, and the Data officer complied.

      This time, another ship did show up on the scan.  “You were correct, sir,” Perkins said.  “It is another XRG-79J, and it is travelling at its full potential speed.  It will reach firing range at exactly the same time as the other attacker.”

      Alexander did not even bother to look at Hector, let alone say “I told you so.”  At that moment, an unfamiliar voice sounded over the cockpit speakers.

      “Hey there,” it said.  “This is Jack Peskie of the Andromeda.  What’s up?”

      Alexander took the microphone from Acker and made his reply.  “Mr. Peskie, this is Captain Warden Alexander of the STAR Security Vessel Athena, under orders to escort you safely back to the Solar System.  I must inform you that your ship is under attack.”

      “Well, shit,” said Peskie.  “You know, I just woke up and to be honest I’m really not in the mood for any space battles today.  In fact, I’m afraid we left all our proton torpedoes at home.”

      Was this person joking?  Alexander went on.  “In about four minutes, you must reduce your time-scale to real-time and prepare to make evasive manoeuvres.”

      “Whoah!” Peskie exclaimed.  “Slow down, buddy.  Four minutes!  That’s not much of a warning.  And here’s a question for you: if you’re charged with protecting us, why haven’t we met before?  You’ve been flying alongside us for days and you didn’t even introduce yourselves?  That’s kind of creepy, man.”

      Alexander could hardly believe this person.  Did he not realise what a serious situation he was in?

      “What did you say your ship was named?” Peskie asked.  “Athena?  I can’t believe it’s been five million years and we’re still naming shit after figures from Greek mythology.”

      Alexander was about to ask what Greek mythology was, but thought better of it.  “Let me speak to your commander.”

      “This is Commander Arnold Juciper,” a new voice came over the speaker.  “Did I just hear correctly?  We’re being attacked?”

      “Yes,” said Alexander.  “Two ships piloted by terrorists are closing in on your position with intent to destroy you.  Get everyone to your cockpit, or at least your pilot, and keep this channel open.”

      “Just a moment,” said Juciper.  “I’ve got to wake her up…Lauren!” he called, and the link was cut.

      The cockpit of the Athena was silent as everyone contemplated what they had just heard.  The “heroes” of the Andromeda mission had spoken only to a select few individuals over the course of their five-million-year-long journey, during periodic points of slowing down to real-time and re-establishing contact with STAR Headquarters to give progress reports.  They were now among an elite handful of human beings ever to hear their voices, but this was a strange privilege indeed as these were clearly not heroes but rather surprisingly unprofessional people from what must have been a rather backwards time in human history.

      Finally, Juciper’s voice returned.  “Okay, we’re all in the cockpit and prepared to do what we have to.  But I’ve got to admit, I’m a little surprised nobody told us we were being escorted.  A little bit more of a warning would have been nice.”

      Alexander made a conscious effort not to express his agreement with that sentiment.  “Do not worry, Commander,” he said.  “You are in the best possible hands.  Now listen carefully.  The two attackers are approaching from opposite ends, one at 2 o’clock and the other at 8.  We are holding the 8 o’clock position, and have placed an empty ejection pod directly between you and the ship at 2.  When this ship fires, you should be able to see the explosion from the right side of your cockpit window.  At that moment you must change course before the ship can fire a second shot.  Pitch downward 30 degrees and yaw 20 degrees to the right.  By the time their second shot misses you, we will hopefully have them engaged, but be prepared to continue evading as necessary.”

      “Understood,” said Juciper.  “Do we know who is attacking us and why?”

      “There is no time to explain,” said Alexander.  “We must reduce to real-time in exactly six seconds and prepare for battle.  Four…three…two…now.”

      As planned, Marcum disengaged the time-scale at exactly the same time as the Andromeda, leaving just two minutes before the attackers entered firing range.  Like most fire-fights in open space, Alexander expected that this would happen extremely quickly.  There was not much manoeuvring or fancy flying to be done—just firing and evasion.  The ship that had the more accurate aim and the more effective evasion would prevail, and usually in less than one minute.

      “Weapons, fire the instant the target comes into range,” Alexander ordered.  “Navigation, at the same instant I want you to evade in a mirror formation to the Andromeda—30 degrees upward and 20 to the right.  Data, keep a scope pointed at the Andromeda and announce what happens there.”

      “Yes, sir,” said Marcum.  The attacking ship could now be seen as a point of light through the cockpit window.  Too far away to see details, but close enough for a laser beam to do some damage with a direct hit.

      It happened suddenly.  A signal from the computer indicated that they were now in firing range.  Greggs let a laser beam fly an instant before Marcum swung the ship away from an approaching beam which then just missed them.  Pirkins reported, “The ejection pod has been destroyed and the Andromeda has altered course.”

      Alexander kept his eye on the light from the attacking ship, which was evading downward and to the right.  “Andromeda,” Alexander spoke to them over the open channel, “When the next shot is fired, yaw 40 degrees to the left.  Navigations, 40 to the right.”

      Another burst of laser fire from the attacking ships, both missing their targets.  “Weapons, fire at one-quarter-impulse to the bottom right of the target.  Then immediately fire at full impulse 10 degrees upward and 10 degrees left.”

      Greggs let a small burst of laser fire miss the attacker on their lower left.  As Alexander expected, they reacted immediately by pulling up and to the right, putting them directly in the line of fire of the second, more powerful shot.

      “Direct hit!” Greggs announced as the explosion flashed in the window.  “Target destroyed.”

      “The Andromeda has altered course and evaded another strike,” Pirkins reported.

      Andromeda, pitch down a hard 90 degrees!” Alexander shouted.  “Navigations, yaw 180 and pitch downward 45.  Weapons, aim below the target and fire as soon as you can.”

      The Athena swung around to face the first ship, which was now pointing itself downwards to take aim at the Andromeda.  Greggs fired a shot directly in their path, forcing them to pull upward and head directly towards the Athena.  “Now aim at their weapons and fire at low impulse.  I want to neutralise them if we can.”

      The attacker was so close that the shape of their ship could be seen.  Greggs let out a small burst of fire directly at the attacker’s laser cannon, and an instant later a small explosion indicated that they had hit their target.  “Direct hit,” Greggs confirmed.  “Enemy weapons neutralised.”

      Alexander didn’t skip a beat.  “Navigations, bring us around to their backside as quick as you can and swing around.  Weapons, prepare to fire on their engines.”

      This had to be done fast, as the enemy would attempt to escape the moment they confirmed that their weapons had been destroyed.  Marcum thrusted forward with a burst of acceleration that brought the Athena directly under the attacker, and then swung around, giving Greggs a perfect shot at the engines just as they began to initiate full thrust.  There was another explosion, then he confirmed, “Direct hit.  Enemy is completely neutralised.”

      The cockpit of the Athena erupted in a brief round of cheering, while Alexander just smiled quietly.  As professional as these people were, their adrenaline had surged significantly in the last couple of minutes and they could not help but feel a primal thrill at such a clean and decisive victory.  As their lives consisted of little more than dull monotony, it was moments like these that they lived for.

      Andromeda, you can rest easy,” Alexander announced.  “The attack is over.  Get yourself back on course.”

      “Holy shit, that was intense,” came Jack Peskie’s voice.  “It happened kind of fast, though.  I must admit, I expected my first space battle to last longer, with a lot more red lights flashing, equipment randomly exploding, and people saying things like, ‘shield strength is now at forty percent,’ and whatnot.  That was kind of dull.”

      “I think what Jack means to say,” Arnold Juciper’s voice now came through the speaker, “is that we’re very grateful.  Thank you.”

      “You are welcome,” said Alexander.  “But I was only carrying out my orders.  It is STAR to whom you owe your gratitude.”

      “We’ll keep that in mind,” said Juciper.

      “Now I must break communication with you and deal with these attackers,” said Alexander.  “Do not attempt to re-open communications with us again.”

      “Why not?” asked Juciper.

      “Those are my orders,” Alexander replied.  “But I do hope to have the opportunity to meet you in person when this is over.”

      “I’d like that, Captain,” said Juciper.  “Till then, I guess.”

      “Until then,” Alexander said.  “Goodbye.”

      He then turned back to Acker.  “Open a channel to the attacker now.”  When it was open, he said, “This is Captain Warden Alexander of the STAR Security Vessel F twelve dash five thirteen Athena.  Identify yourselves.”

      There was no answer.  “Identify yourselves,” Alexander repeated.  “You are hereby under arrest.  Prepare to be boarded and taken into custody.”

      Suddenly, the sound of laughter came over the speakers.  Then a voice said, “You are a fool, Alexander.”

      Alexander wasn’t fazed.  “To whom am I speaking?” he asked.

      “A friend,” said the voice.  “Say hello to the C.E.O. for me.”

      Before Alexander could respond to the odd message, a giant explosion tore through the attacker’s vessel, completely vaporising it.  This was not unexpected, though Alexander had hoped to avoid it for the sake of gaining intelligence as an added bonus to the successful mission.

      After a brief silence, he turned around to face his first officer.  “What do you suppose that last message meant?”

      “How can anyone know?” Clive Hector replied.  “He was a terrorist.”

      “Indeed,” said Alexander, then issued his final order.  “Navigations, bring us back to our original position, speed, and time-scale.  Then you and everyone else are dismissed, unless you are scheduled for cockpit duty.”

      Once the cockpit cleared only Alexander, Greggs, and Vanessa remained.  Vanessa, who had been smiling at her brother the entire time, leapt into his arms to hug him tightly.  “You are so awesome,” she said to him.  “STAR picked the right guy for the job.”

      “Yes they did,” said Alexander, allowing himself some pride.

      When he took his seat, Vanessa remained beside him and stayed with him for his whole shift.  There was nowhere else she wanted to be.  Warden was glad to have her with him.  No commendation or promotion by STAR could ever mean as much to him as her appreciation. 
 

Chapter 9

2000 Hours Ship-Time, Day 11

STAR Security Vessel F12-513 Athena 

      Roland Hatch was ready.  It had only been four hours since the attack, and the mission had nine days left until completion, but he could not wait any longer.  Sitting in the cockpit during the attack with the girl so close by had made concentration nearly impossible.  He wanted her so badly, and he could not wait one more night without at last being able to penetrate her.

      Now was the perfect time to strike anyway.  The crew would be off their guards, expecting to cruise through the remaining nine days of the mission without incident.  Without any further threats to the Andromeda, his crime would simply be mutiny rather than treason, so he would be able to escape and live for several more years before any vessel sent after him could catch up.

      Hatch had almost begun killing people as soon as he was dismissed from the cockpit.  He had to kill Greggs or Alexander in order to get a gun, which would then make the rest of his job much easier.  He took the sharpest tool from his engineering kit, a long thin metal spike, and almost went out after Greggs right away.  After witnessing the brilliance of Warden Alexander in battle, Hatch decided that he could not risk going after the man without the advantage a gun would provide.  Even with a gun, he knew, it was a huge risk to go after Alexander.  There was no guarantee he could successfully pull off a complete mutiny.

      And so he decided that he would wait until his cockpit shift and kill Soren Marcum first.  He hated Marcum more than anyone, and even if he was killed in his attempt he would at least have the satisfaction of killing the man who had stopped him from taking the girl and then took her for himself.  He was the only one who really deserved to die…it was unfortunate that he would have to kill the rest of them as well, but it was the only way.  Nothing mattered more than quenching this desire.

      “How many times have you fucked her?” Hatch suddenly called to Marcum from across the cockpit.  It was the first time he had spoken any words aloud to Marcum in days.

      “None,” Marcum answered, without even turning around.  “Not that it concerns you at all.”

      “It does concern me,” said Hatch.  “I have never had a virgin before.  If you are not lying, that will make it that much better.”

      Now Marcum swung around and faced Hatch directly.  “Why did you join STAR?” he asked.  “If you are so obsessed with sex, why not just resign and live on a planet where women are plentiful?”

      “Well, I did not join STAR to spend ten years on a Security Vessel patrolling the far side,” answered Hatch.  “I expected my career to have advanced quite significantly by this point.”

      “Only people with connections advance in this organisation,” said Marcum, and turned back around to face his monitor.

      “I know that now,” said Hatch.  “I would have appreciated being told this before I joined.  But now that I am here, I can not go back to planetary life.”

      “Why not?” asked Marcum, still with his back to Hatch.

      “How can anyone go back?” Hatch replied.  “After spending tens of thousands of years flying through interstellar space, watching these planets spinning away on the scopes with all of the little insects running around living their insignificant lives, how could anyone actually choose to go back to that?  It may be lonely up here, but at least we have some measure of significance.  At least there is some small degree of power, even though it is but a tiny fraction of the total power of STAR.  We just exercised that power and saved the Andromeda from attack.  We are a significant part of human history now.  Could you really give that up?”

      Now Marcum turned around again, his expression now free of contempt.  “No, I could not.  We have more in common than it would seem.  But you must figure out your priorities and make a decision.  You can either have a brief life of insignificance that is nonetheless filled with pleasure, or you can have a long, relatively significant life filled with unquenchable desire.”

      Or I can have both, Hatch thought.  “I suppose you are right,” he said.  “I probably should resign.  This business with the Alexander girl has taught me something.  Some impulses are just too strong to resist.”

      Marcum was surprised to hear Hatch admit this, but he was undoubtedly sympathetic.  “Well, Roland, I must admit I have misjudged you.  If you can accept that about yourself, you are a bigger man than I thought.”

      “Thank you, Soren,” Hatch said with a tone of such sincerity that he nearly believed himself.  “You know, I believe I have misjudged you as well.  I always believed that you thought yourself superior to me.”

      “I have never thought so,” said Marcum.  “I am sorry if I made such an impression.”

      “All is forgiven,” said Hatch.  He then stood up and put out his hand.  “Let us agree to put this animosity behind us.”

      Eager to do just that, Marcum stood up and walked over to Hatch.  The two men shook hands and looked each other in the eyes.  But when Marcum tried to pull his hand away, Hatch did not let go, and with his other hand he slid the spike out of his pocket and thrust it straight towards Marcum’s neck.

      But somehow Marcum was ready for it.  Hatch’s eyes must have revealed the lack of sincerity that his tone of voice had concealed.  Marcum grabbed Hatch’s wrist and pushed the spike away.  Hatch broke the handshake and punched Marcum hard in the jaw.  When Marcum let go of Hatch’s wrist, Hatch thrust the spike into the side of Marcum’s belly, then tripped him as he doubled over, pulling the spike out as he fell to the ground.

      Hatch leapt on top of Marcum and again took aim at Marcum’s neck, but Marcum again grabbed his wrist with both hands and pushed it away.  But Hatch put both his hands on the spike now and tried to drive it through Marcum’s ribcage and into his heart.  Marcum push back with all of his strength, but Hatch had the advantage. Marcum had to work against gravity, while Hatch merely pressed downward while his muscles remembered their old strength from his early life on a planet with heavy gravity.  In just a few seconds, Hatch had penetrated the skin and shoved it through Marcum’s chest.

      Marcum’s eyes bulged as he gasped, his body jerked around for a moment, then became still.

      Hatch suddenly felt an overwhelmingly anxiety.  He had just killed a man.  He had contributed to many killings while working for STAR Security, but they were always in another spaceship and it was always someone else firing the weapon.  Now he had actually done it himself, and he had looked into the eyes of his victim.  He had expected to feel a deep sense of satisfaction—he loathed Marcum—but instead there was only horror.

      And yet there was no turning back now.  If this was discovered before he could obtain a gun and kill the rest of the crew, he would be caught and executed.  Hatch yanked the spike out of Marcum’s chest and ran out of the cockpit.  From here on out, it was either total mutiny or death. 

      Hatch pressed the buzzer on the outside of the door of Weapons Officer Samuel Greggs.  A few seconds later, the door swung open, Hatch’s blood-covered uniform startling Greggs to the point of pure shock.  “Hatch!  What happened?”

      “You have to let me in,” Hatch shouted in a panic.  “He is after me!”

      “Who is after you?” Greggs asked.

      “I can explain but please let me in before he gets here!” Hatch continued to shout.

      Greggs was too confused and startled to think anything through.  He stepped aside and let Hatch enter the room, then turned to close the door.

      As soon as he turned back around to face Hatch, the engineer shoved a long metal spike straight into his throat.  “I am sorry for this,” said Hatch, as blood began pouring from his victim’s mouth.

      Greggs collapsed to the floor, dead within seconds.  Hatch rushed to the storage bin and opened the cabinet where he kept the LC-400, one of the most powerful laser pistols manufactured by STAR.  On its medium setting, one shot anywhere to a human body would cause immediate death.  On its highest setting, it could take out a small spacecraft.  Hatch set it to medium and stepped back into the hallway.

      His immediate panic had now given way to pure adrenaline, and as he raced down the hallway to the next room with the pistol in his hand, he began to think that he just might pull this off.

      “Attention…” a voice came over the ship’s speaker.  It was weak and struggling to speak.

      Suddenly Hatch felt as though all of his blood was drained from his body.  It could not be…

      “Hatch is…rogue…” the struggling voice continued.  It was definitely Marcum.  “He is…probably….after Vanessa…stop him!”

      Just then the door to Harold Acker’s quarters swung open, as the Communications Officer poked his head outside to see what was going on.  Hatch aimed and fired, and Acker went down before he could see what hit him. 

      “Oh no!” Vanessa screamed when she heard Marcum’s announcement.  Her worst fear was coming to pass.

      Her brother, who was sitting next to her on their bed and reading from the computer monitor, sprang to his feet immediately.  “What is going on?” he yelled at her.

      “How should I know?” Vanessa protested.

      “Officer Marcum just said that Hatch is coming after you,” Warden shouted as he ran around the bed to pick up his laser pistol.  “Why would he be after you?”

      Vanessa had no idea what to say.  She just stared blankly at her brother, trying to figure out how much she should tell him.

      “Answer me!” Warden shouted as he picked up the pistol and set it to medium.

      “He tried to rape me!” Vanessa blurted.  “Soren stopped him.  He’s had his eyes on me the whole mission, but Soren’s kept him away.”

      Warden’s eyes betrayed his level of anger, but it was now tempered by fear.  “So you and Marcum…” he began, but then shook his head and ran to the door.  “Now is not the time.  I can not believe you would keep this from me…we will discuss this later.  I have to go stop Hatch.”

      Vanessa leapt out of the bed and grabbed her brother by the shoulders.  “Don’t go out there!” she pleaded.  “He’s coming after me!  Just stay in here and shoot him as soon as he opens the door!”

      “And in the mean-time let him kill every other member of the crew?” Warden challenged.  “Sorry, but I must go.  You stay right here with the door locked, do you understand?”

      Vanessa thought for a second.  “You’ll go to the cockpit first?” she asked.  “Make sure Soren is okay?”

      “I will go to Greggs’s quarters first,” said Warden.  “That is where the other gun is.  I have to make sure Hatch does not get it.  Now stay here!”

      And with that, Warden Alexander took off down the corridor.  Vanessa waited until he rounded the corner, and then rushed off towards the cockpit. 

      Soren Marcum was lying on the cockpit floor, coughing up blood, and clutching the wound in his chest.  He had known as soon as Hatch tripped him to the floor that he would not be able to over-power the engineer.  The only way to save himself and thereby warn the ship would be to pretend to die.  When Hatch was trying to press the spike through his ribcage, Marcum was able to slightly guide it away from his heart, so the object missed the vital organ and merely punctured his lung.  In spite of the adrenaline, Marcum had somehow had the presence of mind to perfectly fake his death throes, and as soon as he went limp, Hatch had raced off in a panic just as Marcum had hoped.  He then had to drag himself across the cockpit to the communications console, open the right channel and make his announcement.  Following that, he collapsed back on the floor and waited, hoping to stay alive long enough to learn that Hatch had been stopped and Vanessa was safe.

      But Vanessa entered the cockpit only a minute later, and screamed when she saw him lying on the floor in that condition.  Marcum tried to shout, but only erupted in a fit of blood-spewing coughing.  Vanessa rushed over to him and clutched his head in her arms.

      “What…are…you doing?” Marcum managed to say.  “Get…back to…quarters…”

      “I had to make sure you’re okay,” Vanessa said, beginning to cry.  It was clear that his chances of survival were low.

      “Does not…matter…” Marcum said.  “Hatch will…be back…”

      Suddenly Vanessa screamed, as Hatch had indeed re-entered the cockpit to finish Marcum off.  “How fucking perfect…” he said as he raised the gun and pointed it.

      “Don’t!” Vanessa shouted.

      Hatch pulled the trigger.  Vanessa jumped on top of Marcum to guard his body.  The laser struck her in the back.  She rolled over onto the floor, dead.

      Fuck!” Hatch shouted.  “Oh fucking fuck…oh no!  Shit!  Fuck!”  Another shot was fired, and Hatch dropped dead in his place, revealing Warden Alexander, pistol raised, behind him. 

      When Warden saw his sister lying on the floor beside Marcum, he dropped the pistol and rushed across the room to her.  “Oh no!  Oh no, this did not…she can not…this is not…” he babbled, a feeling of absolute horror overwhelming him as he held his dead sister, unable to process a single thought.  This had happened far too quickly.  One minute he had been basking in the joy of his success that day, his sister by his side.  The next he was sitting in a puddle of blood, holding her dead body in his arms.

      Not her blood.  Marcum’s blood.  After a moment, Warden turned his attention to the navigations officer.  “You,” he said.  “You are responsible for this.”

      Marcum was just staring blankly off into space, waiting to die.  He did not seem to realise that Warden was speaking to him.

      “Marcum!” he shouted.  “Answer me!”

      Suddenly Marcum stirred to life.  He turned his head in Warden’s direction, and met his eyes.  “I am…so sorry.”

      “Sorry!” Warden shouted, rising to his feet.  “My sister is dead and you are fucking sorry!?”

      Warden walked over to Hatch’s dead body, picked it up by the head and smashed the skull against the cockpit floor.  He then stood up and repeatedly stomped on it, but his rage would not subside.  He only wished he had tortured Hatch before he killed him.

      He turned his attention back to Marcum, who had taken his dead sister’s hand and placed it on his face.  His eyes were closed and Alexander could tell he was also in agony.  But this only made him angrier.  He had no right.

      “You piece of shit!” he yelled at Marcum.  “You and her…she was…you took advantage of her!”

      “She…wanted…” Marcum began, but gave up before offering any explanation.  It did not seem to matter to him.

      “You took advantage of a young girl, my sister, and you hid this from me!” Warden continued shouting.  “You fucking knew that that son of a bitch had attacked her and you said nothing to me!  I could have had him discharged by now!  I could have killed the fuck!  Instead my sister is dead!  She is fucking dead and you are to blame!”

      Warden knelt down and grabbed Marcum by the neck.  “You are…right…” he said.  “Kill…me.”

      Somehow, this admission of guilt only filled Warden with more rage.  He punched the navigations officer in the face with as much force as he could muster.  Bones cracked.  He punched Marcum again.  Teeth flew.  Marcum made no protest.  He did not scream or cry out.  He seemed eager to die.  In a blind rage, Warden leap to his feet and began stomping on Marcum’s head just as he had done to Hatch, until there was nothing but a puddle of blood and bits of skull and brains smattered across the floor.

      Finally, Warden Alexander collapsed back to the ground, lied down beside his sister’s body, put his arm around her, and wept. 
 

End of Part One