near the main spaceport, d'enchia
323 Common, 20th B'matapur:
His knock on the door was answered by an elderly fem who greeted him with an uneasy look. "Yes?" she asked. "What do you want, First Degree?"
He gave her a courteous formal ear twitch as he mentally compared her to the intelligence file he reviewed that morning. She was still attractive in a stately way, despite the years. It was hard to credit all the adventures they'd been through: their record read like an action thriller, which might explain her pensive expression. This wasn't going to be easy, so he tried to be as polite as possible. "I need to speak with him, nn'etd, if I may. It's an important matter."
"Very well," she said after a moment, and held the door open for him reluctantly.
Their grotto was comfortable, if basic: the sort of place a senior 'Dark Grays' Elder and his bondmate would receive after a distinguished career. It was in a comfortable nest close enough to d'enchia's spaceport that they could hear the shuttles take off. Unlike most such grottos, theirs was crowded with human artifacts brought back from earth over the years. His t'plk'asira, embossed with enough honors to raise an eye ridge, was hung opposite the door between a large map of earth and another of the Ic'nichi and human spheres of space. Below that was a bookshelf filled with human volumes. They gave the place a wild, exotic air strangely out of synch with such a mundane setting.
"He is in his study," she said. "Would you care for some refreshment?"
"You are kind, nn'etd, but I am on duty."
"C'traBenla?" a voice came from behind one of the doors around the the room. "Who is it?"
She gave him a glum look, then turned. "It's for you, love." She obviously wasn't pleased, not that he could blame her.
One of the doors opened, and he was confronted by a bulky, elderly mal who considered him with some surprise and no enthusiasm.
"Ki-Eldest I'eiBida?" He gave the elder a crisp formal tail wave. "First Degree B'monTrea, sir, Fleet Intelligence. I have been instructed to ask you to come to the 'Dark Grays' circle."
He was positively dismayed. "Is it that bad?"
"I'eiBida? Do you have to?" she asked, plaintively. He gave her a guilty look. "Nothing good has ever come of fooling with those humans."
He offered her a humorless smile. "I can think of one good thing, at least." They met at the Ic'nichi embassy on earth, fifty-three years ago.
"If you please, sir, will you come to the circle? I have a car waiting."
He shook his head sadly, although he had probably been expecting this visit. "I'm retired. I've been out of the herd for five years now. What good can I do at this late date?"
B'monTrea hesitated; he knew how the Ki-Eldest felt about this. Best get it over with. "Something's come up, sir," he said, simply. "We're reactivating him."
She reacted with a gasp of dismay, and retreated into the kitchen. I'eiBida studied him glumly for a long moment, then replied with a pungent human expletive.
"Hey, peewee, wake up."
His head jerked up. The first thing he focussed on was a Master Chief Petty Officer standing over him. His first reaction was anger. He'd always been sensitive about his height—he was a half-head shorter than the next larger recruit, who was no giant himself—and after being harassed and shoved around like cattle since six AM, his temper finally snapped.
"Hey, yourself. Don't call me that."
The Chief's frown was like an approaching thunderstorm. "What'd you say, boy?"
Shit, his temper did it again. It's never easy being the runt, and like a lot of little men, he had developed a hard edge in his seventeen years. He'd already backed down one big lug in this herd of recruits by his sheer uncomplicated willingness to take on all comers. Yeah, but a Master Chief Petty Officer was something else entirely, and this one was a hulking brute with hard eyes. He'd probably spend his tour in the brig after he got out of the hospital, but he couldn't back down now; not and hold on to the self-respect he'd earned in a hundred schoolyard scrapes. Too late to do anything but follow through.
"I said don't call me that, Chief." He clambered to his feet, back against the cement block wall as the boots on either side scuttled away from ground zero. "That's impolite. And the name isn't 'boy'. It's MacKenna, Brian A."
§"Interesting." The lizard-like Ic'nichi Learnéd pondered the two, who were paused momentarily in a tense tableau-a-deus so he could study the scene in more detail. "Most interesting. Not only the difference in authority levels, but in physical size as well." He glanced curiously at the old human standing next to him. "He must weigh twice what your earlier self did."
"I was a rash young punk back then," the old human muttered.
"Your name is 'Shitbird', mister!" the Chief snarled. "I'll wipe you off my ass and flush you down, you give me any back-talk!"
The kid matched him eye to cold unblinking eye. "The name is MacKenna. Brian A. Sir."
It had been a long time since this Chief took sass from anyone under the rank of Captain. He glowered at the kid standing before him who...rank or no, size or no, this kid was calmly prepared to whip his ass or die trying. He could see it in his eyes. It was a look he hadn't seen much of in recent years, and he'd been in long enough to know true gilt when he saw it. He sure as hell hadn't seen much of it around here lately: the war was not going well, and even the Navy was drafting now. The recruiting staff at the Cleveland Naval Reserve district headquarters were entirely 'administrative duty': hollow-eyed men with shaking hands, missing limbs, and other less obvious problems. The look in this kid's eyes was like a chill wind which took the breath away and warned of storms on the horizon.
The ice broke after a long, tense moment. "Yeah, well, maybe so." The Chief pondered the youngster, and in spite of himself he was impressed. "I'll give you a word of advice, kid," he said confidentially. "You got a set of stones on you. You learn to keep it tight, and you'll go far in this-here Navy."
§"This directed dreaming is something," the old man said, bitterly. "I'm not enjoying this, you know."
"This is the last of your memories, Brian, so this will all be over soon."
"As if that's a comfort."
They watched in silence as the young Brian MacKenna endured an endless day of Navy hurry-up-and-wait while he was examined and inoculated, formed and filed, indexed and cross referenced, subjected to a perfunctory security screen, and finally loaded on a bus with fifty-four fellow sufferers bound for Boot at Great Lakes. As they left, late that evening, he faded into an exhausted sleep.
§"Is that it?" the old man asked after the scene around them froze.
Learnéd P'demDren turned and considered him for a moment before answering. "Yes, that was the last. Unfortunately, the technology wasn't all that good back then. The original recording left a lot to be desired, and we have no way to fill in the gaps. Everything prior to this is nothing more than vague impressions and isolated bits."
"I needed to go through all this again?" They had politely argued this matter back and forth for months.
"I'm sorry Brian, but we had to rebuild your psyche as near to the original as possible in order to gain the same results. Regretfully, that meant reliving your long and unpleasant life, but the process should be done now."
It was all old news, not that it made this any easier. Mac was still bemused and slightly horrified to learn that he died forty earth years ago, and existed now only as a recording of his memories. At times, he felt like a ghost in a haunted castle, doomed never to rest for his sins.
"Seventy-five years of bloodshed," he muttered. "God." He pondered the scene: the Cleveland Naval Reserve Center in the mid-21st century, now somewhere under Lake Erie after the city was nuked during the Collapse. "Why did I have to come here again?" He gave P'demDren a bleak, hostile look. "This ain't natural. Nothing good can come of it."
"You might feel more confident if you cast off this virtual image, and adopt that of your new body."
Mac turned on him bitterly. "Hey, this is me. This is how I looked when I died, and it's all I have left to cling to. Allow me that much."
P'demDren watched him silently for a long moment. Mac knew he regretted all this, what they had to do, why he had to suffer; the Ic'nichi were that human at least—or perhaps 'nonhuman' was the better word. "All I can say, Brian, is we had to do this," he said at last. "I wish it wasn't so painful for you."
Mac brooded silently for a bit, withdrawing into himself to tune it all out, if possible. In a way it was his own damned fault. A man's actions—a man's karma—bear on his soul unto the Hour of his Judgement. Sometimes, if a man is truly, horrifically unlucky, the weight of his sins will follow him beyond the grave. Seventy-five years of bloodshed: seventy-five years of combat experience all through the Collapse, and beyond. Humanity's greatest soldier. A Goddamned statistical fluke who threw dice with Death and beat the odds so many times that the dice kept rolling Snake Eyes even after he died of old age. The weight of his sins.
"Yeah. Life's a bitch, ain't it?"
"T'hell with it. Shut this damned thing off."
As usual, he felt a brief disorientation when they switched off the virtual reality system. He pulled off the eye piece, and lay on the hard doctor's table for some time staring listlessly at the cloudscape ceiling tiles. As usual, his eyes ached, and he had a sinus headache. As usual, he was so depleted and emotionally drained that he just didn't care any more. The Ic'nichi technicians removed the bulky helmet, and he eventually got up the gumption to rub his eyes and run his fingers through his close-cropped hair to scratch his scalp.
"So how was it, Brian?" I'eiBida asked.
Mac sat up with an effort and stared vacantly at him for a moment. His return from the dead landed him in some sort of top secret Ic'nichi lab; typical of any hospital, really, with pale green walls and hospital furniture and medical instruments with glowing lights and squiggly lines marching across their screens. I'eiBida stood out among all the Ic'nichi Learnéds and military types attending him: clearly in command, expecting and getting the deference of military and civilians alike. Mac shook his head, bemused: I'eiBida was a junior staff officer last he remembered; now he wore enough hash that the other 'Dark Grays' kept a wary distance from him. The uniform was a bit tight in spots.
"I'll manage. I always do." He clambered to his feet and stretched to get the stiffness out of his back. Part of that was laying on that damned table all day; part of it was the constant low-level tension he endured from being caught up in this preposterous fix. He relaxed with a sigh, and looked down at I'eiBida. He still wasn't used to standing 195 centimeters tall, or with how small the Ic'nichi seemed. "So now what?"
"I understand this completes your formal restoration." I'eiBida examined him closely. "How do you feel? Any mental confusion? Disorientation?"
Mac pondered that. "No. I feel fine."
"No memory gaps?"
"No." More's the pity. "But I itch like hell."
That was another thing he had become used to over the last three months. From what I'eiBida told him of their plans, he was to infiltrate earth after apparently being a fugitive for some time. They limited him right from the start to one shower a week, and he wore the same clothes day and night since he awoke. He could smell himself, he was greasy, and his skin was raw with jock itch.
He rubbed his chin absently; his beard was almost long enough to groom. "So where do we go from here?"
"Assuming the Learnéds will sign off on your treatment, we can proceed with your briefings." I'eiBida turned expectantly to the three Ic'nichi physichs who oversaw his rebirth, and to Doctor Eddington, who advised them on human biochemistry.
"We'll want to run another standard series, but based on results thus far, I expect he should be finished shortly." Eddington was an elderly black human with thinning snowy hair and an odd accent: East African, Mac had learned. He heard Eddington worked with him before, not that he, Mac, remembered. He might have had something to do with recording his memories before he...died. For some reason, he shied away from knowing; some things are better left buried, even if the ghost isn't allowed to.
Several grueling hours of psychological screening later, and Eddington pronounced the verdict. "He appears to have absorbed the last input, and is reintegrated in all respects."
"As near as you can figure, anyway," Mac grumbled. This mind recording gimmick was a wild-ass blue sky project if ever there was one. He had little confidence in their understanding what they wrought.
"As near as we can figure," Eddington allowed. "The recent advances in stabilization are working better than we hoped."
Mac answered with a resigned sigh. "Wonderful. So can I take a shower now?"
"I'm afraid not, Brian," I'eiBida said. "If things go according to plan, you will be committed within the next two days. You need to maintain appearances, so to speak."
"Yeah." Appearances: like someone on the run, sleeping under bridges and cadging food wherever he could for months. "That's another thing. It's about time you filled me in on this plan of yours."
I'eiBida studied him for a long moment. "Yes, Brian, it is. Please forgive me for not briefing you sooner, but we were worried about how the details would affect your reintegration."
That had the insane logic of most secret rationalizations. "Well now they're done with their voodoo, and I need to know, so you need to 'fess up, pronto."
I'eiBida hesitated and looked around cautiously. "Walk with me, Brian."
They left the others in the lab, and headed down the corridor leading to his quarters. It had the same antiseptic hospital feeling as the lab, with polished tile floor and drop ceiling and landscape art on the walls, except being designed for the horizontal Ic'nichi. He long since got in the habit of walking slightly bent over. The mix of the familiar and the alien was hallucinatory at times, and added a creepy feeling to his constant angst.
"You people seem a lot more paranoid than what I remember," Mac complained after bumping his head on a light fixture for the third time. "Why can't you just tell me back there?"
"We have a security breach. The 6th Office planted a mouse somewhere on the Staff, so we have to be ultra-cautious."
"Hence that bullshit about interfering with my rebirth?"
"Partly, although it was a genuine concern." I'eiBida paused and looked at him. "Tomorrow we'll have the first of your briefings. The situation is deteriorating, so now that you have completed the reintegration, we need to start you galloping on the problem. You'll know all the ugly details then."
Mac considered that with no enthusiasm. "Its been forty years now. Haven't you learned how to get along without me yet?"
I'eiBida seemed to feel guilty at that. Mac knew he was pained by all this too. "We have a unique problem this time, Brian. This is one only you can deal with."
Mac's angst finally overflowed. "Why should I care?"
"Because of who you are, Brian," I'eiBida said, softly. "Lives are at stake, and you can't refuse to help and live with yourself afterward."
He was right, damn him. "Why me? Why did you have to bring me back? Haven't I paid my dues in full?"
"I'm sorry, Brian. I would have opposed that recording at the time, but I was still nobody back then. The Staff felt your skills were an asset which should be preserved for future need, and there was this new technology for them to play with." He hesitated, seeing the anger and bitterness in the large human's snout. "If it means anything, we wouldn't have brought you back except we face a crisis. And you can rest assured I have the grunt to see you get a fair shake this time."
Mac gave him a sharp look. "This time?"
I'eiBida hesitated, caught by his momentary slip. "We...brought you back once before, twenty years ago," he admitted at last. "A human colony was under attack. You were able to contact the aliens, and talked them out of destroying earth and d'enchia both."
Mac's eyebrow crept up. "That bad, huh?"
"It's fair to say you prevented the extermination of both races. You felt at the time that it made up for the horrors of your former life."
Mac shuddered. "I'eiBida, nothing can make up for that." There was a painful silence, then he asked, "What happened last time, afterward?"
I'eiBida hesitated for a moment, then turned away. "The...transfer technique wasn't perfected at the time. The transplant eventually failed."
Mac understood the implications, all too well. "So what about this time?"
"We believe we have the method perfected."
I'eiBida turned to him again. "All we can do is hope. For what it's worth, once this is over, you will be well provided for. I made sure your future will be secure."
"I don't give a flying purple damn about the future! It's my past I'm worried about. Do you think I want to live with that lifetime again?"
"I don't pretend I understand what you went through, Brian. We simply aren't as violent as you humans, nor have we gone through anything like your Collapse. All I can do is whatever I can to help you cope with those memories. You have my promise."
Mac looked at him silently. "Well, thank you for that, anyway," he said at last.
His quarters was a single room with a restroom annex. The furnishings and fixtures were human, except there was no sink, and the shower stall was locked. The door was not locked, but two 'Dark Grays' stood watch outside around the clock, and escorted him wherever he went. Once they were safely in his room, I'eiBida laid it down: short, sweet, and to the point.
"I think you can see why we are so obsessed with security now," I'eiBida said. "Someone at Fleet Staff has been turned, and leaked the recording to the 6th Office."
"God, what a bunch of screw-ups," Mac grumbled.
"We are still trying to figure out how they managed that. There has just been the one copy all this time, and it was among our most closely guarded secrets. But the big concern is what this will do to the balance of power between the two races."
"Uh huh. And you figure this is bad enough to bring me back from the dead, not to mention you out of retirement?"
"You know better than anyone how much your skill and experience can affect the balance of power. Intelligence figured if the humans have a copy of you, we will need one as well to restore the balance."
"But you don't agree?"
"Having two of you will only ramp up the intensity of any conflict. Our overriding goal is to prevent a war between d'enchia and earth. Neutralizing their recording is the key to reducing the possibility of a conflict, and the intensity of one if it does come. That should be our strategy."
'Neutralizing'. Mac sighed inwardly; his old counterpart picked up a lot from the humans over the years. Still, he was right. Points to I'eiBida. "You must need a wheel barrow to carry your balls in." His plan was brilliant; insanely brilliant; the sort of finesse move which would cripple the opposition if it worked, or get them all killed if it didn't. Which it would be was a toss-up.
"It's the only chance I can see to short-circuit the Alliance's war plans." I'eiBida paused and studied Mac's features. "What do you think?"
Mac settled on the bed and eyed him skeptically. "You really think this will solve all our problems?"
"I don't know, Brian," I'eiBida said, honestly. "But we have to do something, and the 6th Office is the source of the contagion, so to speak. You'll understand Fleet Intel's paranoia after your first briefing tomorrow."
Mac gave him a hard look. "Damned spooks and their cloak-and-dagger games." The itch in his scalp got the better of him, and he scratched vigorously. There were traces of dandruff and blood under his fingernails. "Why the hell did you get mixed up with those clowns, anyway? You were a good soldier once."
I'eiBida sighed. "It was inevitable I guess, with my experience at the embassy. I was Flag Fleet Ops, in line to become Eldest 'Dark Grays', but they transferred me to the 'spooks' eighteen years ago because I was needed there."
Knowing as he did how the military mind worked, Mac saw the untold story behind that: I'eiBida screwed up somewhere, but he was too useful to dump, so they shuffled him off to a position out of the chain of command. Perhaps it had to do with the last time they 'reactivated' him; he felt a twinge of guilt over that.
"I don't know if your plan would keep earth from starting a war," he said at last, gently. "But it could make it a lot less painful."
I'eiBida shook off his funk. "They will certainly be disconcerted by losing their copy of the recording, and intimidated by our ability to make more copies of you."
His unique one-and-only life was being turned into a production commodity, which wasn't comforting. "Perhaps. It could help, anyway."
There was another uncomfortable silence, then I'eiBida changed the subject. "Have you reviewed your persona today, Brian?"
"Fer cryin' out loud, I know it all, already."
"Colonel Alvarez, the head of 6th Office special operations, has been diagnosed as clinically paranoid. If you make any slip which arouses his suspicion, it could go badly for you."
Mac studied the history, speech patterns, and mannerisms of his body's former occupant for over a month now. They must have watched his alter-ego for some time; video-taping him, monitoring his phone calls to record his voice, taking careful note of every habit and every little gesture, and drilling them into him relentlessly. Methodical, Ic'nichi Intelligence. Mac sometimes felt like his reborn persona was a blend of the two.
"Reinhart Krauss, born in Dresden, age forty-seven..."
That damned German accent; I'eiBida hounded him about it right from the beginning. It seemed preposterous for them to school him in human dialect, but Ic'nichi speech ran six times faster than human; their linguists had the ear for the most subtle detail, and drilled him day and night.
"Reinhart Krauss, born in Dresden, age sieben-und-vierzig," he said in resignation. "Former citizen of zee Kingdom of Altmark, now forcibly 'rationalized' into zee Bavarian Confederacy." He gave I'eiBida a disgruntled look. "I haff a price on my head from zee old homevolk. You could haff picked a better lab rat."
"How much? The reward."
"Fifty thousand Kroner, for treason against Bavaria."
"Anyway, I'm a field op for the 6th Office..."
Mac sighed. "I am der feld operatif working under zee cover of a trade representative."
"Hearing rumors is..."
"Stepping in it."
"And solid news is..."
"Mixed race humans are..."
"Sausages." Mac held up his hands. "Enough, I'eiBida. Give it a rest, huh?"
By rights, after what he'd been through lately, Mac should have crawled into bed, pulled the covers over his head, and slept like a baby. But he was too wired and distraught to sleep, so he wandered out into the central courtyard of the top security research center where he was 'reborn' a scant three months ago. It was late: they put in long days. Two of the moons were visible through scattered clouds, and as he watched, he could see the faint lights of orbiting starships passing overhead. There was a moist feel to the air, like it might rain later, blending with the aroma of flowering plants: tart for native species, sweet for earthly transplants. The place was decorated with flagstone walks, trees, and colorful bushes around an ornate fountain. There was a small gazebo with a wrought iron table and some human and Ic'nichi chairs in a plaza next the fountain: a pleasant place all round, especially now in the cool of the evening.
He stood staring at the fountain without really seeing it as he brooded over the bizarre twist of fate which put him in this fix. He'd paid his dues back when he was alive—God, did he pay his dues!—but that wasn't good enough, it seemed. It didn't take a military genius to see he was their quick-fix, their easy out to cope with problems which would otherwise require thought and sweat and bloodshed. What was worse, there was no way out, not even dying, again. They brought him back before, and for all he could see they'd bring him back over and over whenever they needed a Superhero to hold their friggin' hands. There are some things worse than dying: living with the past was one of them.
Eventually his nicotine craving got to him. He absent-mindedly dug a half empty pack of cigs out of his pocket, scraped the self-lighting end of one on the side of the pack, and stood staring at nothing while the smoke wreathed around him. As comforting as it was, it was disturbingly alien as well. He never smoked a day in his life; was a holy terror about it back when he captained the SSN Seattle, and later when he was in charge of Space Fleet. And here he was, a weed junkie, complete with the chronic cough and the raspy voice and the cravings which got to be overwhelming at times. And it all seemed so natural; a jarring reminder that he was a ghost haunting the living corpse of a human spy.
"Well, Admiral, I see you are up late." It was Eddington, who had shed his white lab coat for a colorful East African native garb which disguised his stoop-shouldered posture and made him seem more like a native elder than a fugitive endocrinologist.
Mac gave him a hostile look. "Checking up on me, doc?"
"No." Eddington settled against one of the gazebo posts, and considered him. "Actually, I thought you could use a sympathetic ear about now."
"God, you have no idea..."
"If it helps, your reawakening was a lot easier this time. The first time was rough."
Mac drew on his cig, and stared at him. "No, doc, the memories are rough. Being alive is rough."
"I read a lot about your career. I don't suppose you are thrilled to be alive again."
"You think?" Mac took another hit, tossed his cig in the fountain, and slumped on one of the wrought iron chairs.
"Things on earth are not good these days. The Alliance has mutated into a nightmare. War is brewing." Eddington gestured vaguely to the heavens. "You must have noticed all the ships in orbit. Both sides are arming feverishly."
Mac watched absently as a glittering array of lights—one of the orbital shipyards—passed majestically overhead. There were other lights moving silently against the background of stars. Ships and orbital weapons platforms: d'enchia was being turned into an armed camp.
"It'll be bad."
"Yes, Admiral, it will. I'm no military man, but from what I'eiBida told me, a war between our two races will leave both in ruins."
Mac watched the silent show with deep misgivings. "Yeah, it will, if we're lucky."
Another cluster of lights was passing overhead. As they watched, one of those lights blossomed and began drifting away from the rest: a starship leaving orbit.
Mac turned to him. "What good can I do? I'm just one man, and my skills must be out of date by now."
Eddington sighed. "I don't pretend to know these things, but Fleet Intelligence thinks you can help, and I'eiBida agrees. I trust his instincts in this."
"For that matter, aren't we in the wrong place? As much as I like the Ic'nichi, we belong to the human race. That's where our loyalty should lie. We should be on earth trying to deal with this from inside, not helping them with their war plans."
"I'm afraid that is not a realistic option for either of us, so we have to improvise as best we can." Eddington pondered him somberly for a long moment. "Sometimes loyalty means charting your own course, even if it seems like the wrong course to many. I did that long ago, when we reactivated you the first time."
"And you wound up in exile for it."
"I did. I don't regret it, since it gave you the chance to save both species."
Mac pondered that. "And now I get the chance to do it again? What are we facing that the 'Dark Grays' can't handle?"
"It's...complicated." Eddington shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not being mysterious on you, Admiral. They'll fill you in tomorrow, and it will be easier to accept that way."
"That's no comfort."
It wasn't. His rebirth in the body of a top human agent was ominous. This mission would be deep penetration; a dangerous, desperation play. He was used to being expendable for the greater good; had been since Boot Camp over a century—Jeez, it was over a century—ago. But not knowing why always rankled him. He understood the need for compartmentation, but he never did like it. What did they expect from him?
And who was this Colonel Alvarez, diagnosed as clinically paranoid, and what was the 6th Office? According to memory, there was a 5th Office, but it was disbanded years ago when he commanded Space Fleet. Were they reconstituted as an interstellar covert action arm of the Alliance Protective Agency? He was no spook, had always despised the cloak-and-dagger commandoes for their idiotic games and their obsession with secrecy. Somehow he got the feeling he was ill-equipped for what they had in mind. Somehow, the gut feeling said he wouldn't live through it.
"At least you can take comfort knowing we wouldn't have done this lightly. We need you, Admiral."
He looked askance at Eddington. "Yeah, that's the hell of it. Nothing succeeds like success."
"Screw it. I'm for bed."
...Con, sonar, still nothing, sir."
The dream came again, like it did so many nights: his darkest nightmare rising from the past to haunt his sleep. He clung convulsively to the periscope handles, watching in horror as the enormity of his failure swept through him like a chill wind. The glow was well beyond the horizon, but the dim red lights in the con were overwhelmed by the blinding glare which came down through the periscope from above. He managed to click a filter in place, but the glow was still painfully bright. The light faded as he watched; faded and rose into the air; a vast white pall over the city they were guarding. As he watched, another white light burst beyond the horizon, growing and rising like an obscene parody of dawn.
"Singapore, sir?" their Kiwi Number One asked.
'What a waste,' was his first rational thought. 'What a miserable, senseless waste.' A third burst of light joined the prior two. His hands trembled.
"Con, sonar. We're getting something now, sir."
"Oh, dear God..." Greg Baker, the Third Lieutenant—one of his—muttered. They could hear the rumble through the hull from eighty klicks away.
'Thirty million defenseless refugees, for no good reason.' And it was his fault. He was tired, his crew was tired, the boat was tired. All he did was succumb to a moment of weakness, sent them off to the northeast into deep water where they could go deep and get some rest. All he did was let down their guard for a moment, leaving the threat axis to the north open. A fourth burst of light appeared. It was sickening. Whoever did this intended to destroy all life on the island. Thirty million people...
"Con, sonar, I'm getting something off to the west. It's a long way off, but it sounds like a small warship."
That hit him hard. His decision to move into deeper water left them out of position. If he'd stayed on the ball, patrolling the threat axis down from China, they would have been waiting right there for the intruder. Those thirty million refugees would have lived. He failed them. He failed in his duty.
"Con, sonar. The computer says that warship is a Taiwanese frigate."
A guided missile frigate: one of the few serviceable warships in the Asian Theater, in the hands of one of the factions slaughtering each other on the Chinese mainland...or fleeing to some imagined safe haven...like Singapore... Their deaths were his fault. Thirty million of them. He slacked off, took a course out into deep water so they could have a quiet watch for once...
"Sir?" The scope had been up a long time now. Number One was getting anxious...
...he awoke, and lay staring at the bedside clock. His bedding was soaked with sweat, his heart pounded, and he was crying. The horror came back as waking reality, and he wept bitterly as the magnitude of his failure overwhelmed him. In some quiet corner of his mind, he knew he should have gotten over it after all this time. He lived with his shame for years while he commanded Space Fleet there in Singapore during the Contact Crisis. He should have gotten past it. But he hadn't. He hadn't.
Eventually he was cried out, again, and lay in a fetal curl staring at the wall. It wasn't over. It would never be over. He would go on paying his dues time after time, living with the memories and the nightmares down through the centuries.
"...Lives are at stake. You can't refuse to help and live with yourself afterward..."
The weight of his sins. He bitterly cursed his fate; the Ic'nichi; his own uncompromising sense of duty; that tough seventeen year old kid. Couldn't they have left well enough alone?
"...Lives are at stake. You can't refuse to help and live with yourself afterward..."
"Shit," he muttered.
He finally drifted off to sleep again. Mercifully, the dream didn't return.