They dropped into normal space without warning. Since the navigation computer was destroyed, the ship immediately began an uncontrolled roll on all three axes. Henri found himself thrown to the deck and jammed into a corner of the bridge.
Winifred, anticipating this, had strapped herself into a seat and was soon able to reduce the rolling to almost nothing.
“So, we survived?” Henri asked, finding it easier to pick himself up off the deck than to recover his pride.
Winifred gave him that big smile of hers.
“Time to celebrate!” she said.
Henri assumed this meant a drink, or perhaps some extra rations to eat. What he did not anticipated was being taken into one of the life boats, stripped naked, and subjected to the most passionate sex of his life.
As soon as they were done, Winifred got out of bed and began dressing.
“What’s the rush?”
“The inverter isn’t going to jump itself.”
“But, I thought we did the jump.”
“We needed to go fifty or so light-years. This kind of hand-astrogation is only viable up to fifteen, maybe twenty.”
Henri watched Winifred roll above him as she began to pull on her environment suit.
“So that means…”
At least two more jumps. Maybe three.” She manoeuvred herself towards the airlock. “Get dressed and come learn something.”
Henri sighed, then began to get dressed.
“Look here,” said Winifred, pointing to a space on the wall near where they were working. “I’ve scratched a mnemonic to help you remember the order of spectral star types.”
Henri examined the area of the wall Winifred had pointed out. Other phrases had been etched nearby, a bunch of Historian graffiti that would never be buffed out, but instead remain here forever.
“I signed our names as well, lower down. The Wilhelmina could be our epitaph.”
Henri turned from Winfred and brought himself down near the deck. Winifred & Henri was scratched into the bulkhead. Henri floated back to where Winifred was working on the telescope.
“Sure.” She tapped some notes into her tablet. “It’s more romantic than Standard. We are History graduates, after all.”
“How long until the next jump?”
“An hour, maybe two. Since we know our origin I can use the computer to predict where the next O-type stars will be. Then I locate Meitner’s, and off we go.”
With an equally-successful second jump, they found themselves once again racing to a lifeboat to “celebrate.” But exhaustion overtook them. After twenty hours of living and working in the broken cruise ship, fatigue was putting them to sleep where they stood. So they took four hours to get some rest, though neither of them was able to sleep.
Their third jump was just as quick and uneventful as the first two. To Henri’s chagrin, however, instead of rushing to the lifeboat, Winifred instead rushed to the telescope.
“That’s it!” she shouted, turning to face Henri. “That’s Meitner’s star!” She pointed at a rather unassuming star as it appeared outside the hole ripped in the ceiling. The Wilhelmina was still rolling slightly. Winifred had not been so careful stabilizing the ship this time. The star had an odd, fuzzy look to it.
“Are we close enough to…”
Winifred’s enthusiastic nodding answered his question before Henri could get it out. They were close enough to the colony’s star to leave the ship and make their way in a lifeboat.
“Well then, “Henri said, and slipped into some English he’d read recently. “Oh be a fine girl kiss me right now sweetie!”
Winifred laughed, brought her helmet’s faceplate against his, and they pressed their lips almost together.
As they made their way to the lifeboat for the final time, Henri had questions. “How do we know the autopilot will take us to Meitner’s?”
“Because the NOR37 colony is listed in the lifeboat’s secondary target location package.”
“How long will it take us to get to the planet?”
“Five, maybe six hours.”
“Well, couldn’t we cover that with one more small jump?”
“No. The space around the star is filled with dust and debris. Plus it has a heavy gravitational wash and unusually active solar wind. We’d smash ourselves into oblivion. The lifeboat will have to travel at less than its maximum sub-light speed.”
As if to demonstrate Winifred’s point, dust and debris began to fly through the a hole in a bulkhead of the hallway they were floating down as the slow rolling of the ship brought the breach of the hull to face the system’s star, which now shone brightly and obviously in the distance, if not out of focus from all the debris between it and the Wilhelmina.
With their personal effects and anything else they thought necessary stowed in a lifeboat, Henri and Winifred made their way back to the lounge. They stood and stared at the body of Soo-Ling, trapped in the mangled supports of the destroyed part of the lounge.
“Do we bring her with us?”
“But we can’t just leave her here.”
Winifred put her hand on Henri’s shoulder. “She’s not going anywhere. When we land we can send word to her family.” She watched a single tear wind its way along Henri’s cheek, following the apparent acceleration of the ship’s roll. The depth of his empathy for others dwarfed her. She couldn’t help but love him for it.
“She’ll be here when they come to collect her.”
“Well, do we say something?”
“There’ll be time for that later, at her funeral. Right now we have a colony to save.”
Henry glanced one last time at the broken body in the ruins of the ship. “I’m sorry,” he said, having no idea how he should feel, or what he should say. Then he followed Winifred back to the lifeboat.
“Okay, we are free and clear of the Wilhelmina. I am engaging the autopilot.”
Winifred pressed a button on the lifeboat’s sparse control panel. Its screen was blank for a few moments and they both felt a lurch of fear in the stomach. What if something wasn’t working?
But then, with a pleasant chime, the screen indicated a viable rescue destination had been found. As it listed details about Meitner’s planet and the human colony NOR37, the aimless rotation of the lifeboat slowed until the bow pointed at the distant, fuzzy star. Inertial dampening protected them from the surge of the lifeboat’s engine engaging. They could only tell they were moving due to the clock now counting down the time until orbital insertion, and the rain-like sound of dust hitting the bow of the craft.
“Humanity, here we come.” said Winifred. “And I think I’m going to sleep the whole way there.”
But only four hours later a blaring alarm woke them both from a deep, exhausted sleep. Unlike the generally pleasant sounds they’d heard from the lifeboat—all of them confined unobtrusively to the cockpit with a blinking light alert elsewhere—this alert blasted from every speaker with a sound clearly designed to gain everyone’s attention, and hold it.
While Henri spun around ineffectually trying to put on clothes, Winifred shot naked out of the lifeboat’s sleeping birth and was in the cockpit within seconds. Henri caught up to her a moment later. She had already silenced the alarm.
There was no reason for either of them to speak. The space around the lifeboat was already displayed on the hologram at the centre of the cockpit display.
A green dot in the centre of the sphere represented the lifeboat they were in. The sphere around that dot represented the area of space the lifeboat’s limited sensors could reliably examine. A line from the edge of the sphere to a bright point near the edge of this ball of space was notated with headings and bearings, velocities and orbital mechanics. This represented the lifeboat’s destination, Meitner’s star; or, rather, the planet in orbit which their current distance from precluded the display from representing them as a single point. What was behind them was another another dot, this one grey, and larger than the lifeboat’s to represent the substantially larger space displacement of the Wilhelmina, it’s position lacking any details because of its obvious lack of power as it rolled aimlessly, clearly not under control and thus likely derelict.
And then there was the red dot. Larger than the lifeboat but not as large as the ruined luxury liner. Information around this dot, as well as heading, bearing, and velocity, showed this icon on the display was being quite deliberate. It was moving towards them.
Every human in the galaxy knew what that red dot meant. “That’s game over,” Henri said, choking on his own voice.
“Maybe,” Winifred replied. Then she spoke to the cockpit in general. “Time to intercept?”
A timer appeared on the line connecting the lifeboat to their pursuer. At that moment, the red dot moved through the green dot representing the Wilhelmina. The timer showed they had a little more than an hour before it caught up with them.
“Looks like you’re right,” Winifred said. “In about an hour it’s game over.” She let Henri come over and put an arm around her. It wasn’t the same in weightlessness, but she placed her head on his shoulder, grateful for this in her last minutes of life. “This,” she added, putting her arms around Henri, “this and a dust cloud that sounds like rain.”
“I love the sound of rain, too,” Henri agreed, “even if it is only dust slowing us down.”
Winifred suddenly straightened up, a movement so abrupt she sent Henri spinning. He managed to stabilize himself upside-down relative to her.
“Project space displacement of the lifeboat and enemy ship.”
Beside each dot the lifeboat computer dutifully displayed the displacement of itself, and that of their pursuer. As its sensors were limited, the lifeboat gave an estimate of plus or minus ten percent for the red dot behind them.
“It’s bigger than us! Quite a bit.”
Henri did not reply, but the look on his face shoved he was not following.
“It’s bigger! Don’t you see?” Winifred put her hand on the transparent cockpit bow. “All this dust and debris only gets worse the deeper we get into the system. Even with its much more powerful engines it can’t ignore what it’s moving through. Not only is the dust going to prevent it from catching up to us, at some point we’ll start increasing our lead.”
After a moment’s pause, Henri turned to look aft. This meant looking through the open cockpit door, but his eyes had a faraway gaze, like he was looking at a red dot kilometres to their rear.
Then he turned back and spoke to the lifeboat: “Given relative maximum velocities and space displacement, will we make it to NOR37 with enough time for them to install the inverter?”
The lifeboat computer was silent for some time, suggesting a great deal of estimation was going on. finally, with an apologetic tone, the lifeboat’s text reply appeared:
Less than 10% probability.
“That’s it then,” Henri said. “All for nothing. Again!”
Winifred put her hand over his mouth. “Time to fuck the pain away,” she said.
The carnal approach worked as a distraction and temporary cure for depression. Even as they lay side by side, staring into one an other’s eyes, wondering how being doomed could feel so incredible, the universe was having none of it. From the cockpit came a horrid, inhuman voice, taunting them with what sounded like cut up and stitched together words, and even parts of words, from human voices. All of people long dead, perhaps gone for centuries..
“Little ship,” the voice seemed to gloat, blasting through the lifeboat. It would appear their pursuer had figured out the human emergency frequency, obliging the lifeboat to repeat its transmission at high volume through every speaker. “You cannot get away,” the monstrous parody of human speech continued, “and weapons range with the colony will be achieved before the life units can install the inverter. I have a proposal.”
Winifred moved to key the lifeboat’s communication so she could reply, but Henri caught her hand, looked at her sadly, and slowly shook his head.
“This is my proposal,”‘ the speaking horror continued. “You will reduce your relative forward velocity with the planet containing the NOR37 colony to zero, and I, upon reaching weapons range, will obliterate you instantly. Painlessly. I understand pain is something humans strive to avoid.”
Henri looked like an idea bulb turned on above his head. He put his finger to his lips then opened the channel.
“Not much of a deal,’” he said, not pretending to hide the mockery in his voice, “you neglected to identify the part that’s in it for us.”
“Nothing,” came the humourless response. “What is in this for you is avoiding what happens if you force a pursuit to the surface. This will be a waste of time and resources, and will therefore result in the introduction of unpleasant stimuli.”
“Let me see if I understand,” Henri replied. “You’re threatening to kill us later if we don’t let you kill us now?”
“While the outcome will be the same—what is programmed must continue— should a chase to the surface be forced to achieve this inevitable result, the methods employed will be far more unpleasant than instant destruction from a missile strike. These methods will be slow, so very sloooo…”
“Slow” was extended by repeating a piece of the word, giving it a terrible, broken staccato. Like a scratched compact disc, Henri thought, unable to avoid using his newly-earned degree.
Winifred let out a little shriek, then covered her mouth with her hand. She looked at Henri. He realized he’d never seen her frightened before. Even when their lives had hung by a thread outside the Wilhelmina. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“I’m afraid we must decline your generous offer. Does the phrase,” and here he slipped out of Standard and into a bit of English, “‘go suck an egg’ hold any meaning for you?”
Henri switched off the channel. “It’s up to something.”
“I don’t know. But if it doesn’t think the game is over, we shouldn’t give up either. I mean, it’s going to kill us and then destroy the colony. Or, it’s going to chase us to the colony and kill us while destroying the colony. The first option uses more resources. One missile into the dome and everyone in the colony is dead, including us. It’s lying. It’s worried about something we can’t see. And that part about torture… sure, they’re not adverse to using torture if it helps them kill more life. But they would never torture out of spite. Computers don’t have emotions. They don’t enact revenge.”
“You’re right.” Winifred looked into Henri’s eyes. “There are pieces on the board we can’t see, and they’ve got our local death machine chewing its fingernails with worry.” Winifred went through the hatch of the cockpit and floated all the way to the back of the lifeboat. There, she pulled down her flight suit and underpants and rubbed her naked ass on the transparent curve of the lifeboat’s bubble-shaped stern.
Henri stared for a moment in a kind of shock. Then he burst out laughing, a real, stomach-rolling belly-laugh, the kind he hadn’t had since before the Wilhelmina was commandeered near Esteel. He looked at Winifred, who had joined him in laughter as she floated in the aft of the lifeboat, struggling to get her shorts back up.
Then they held each other, still laughing.
“What do you imagine it would think, if it just saw that?”
Winifred looked out the bulkhead towards where she imagined their pursuer to be. “Probably wondering what the hell is wrong with humans.” And she capped off her sentence by flipping the bird at their foe, for emphasis.
“I think I love you.”
“I know.” She snapped her fingers. “And I have an idea!”
Winifred led them back to the cockpit where she opened a channel to the NOR37 colony. In the communication’s display hologram a face appeared. It was nearly indistinguishable because of interference from Meitner’s star.
The face said something.
“NOR37, this is a lifeboat from the Wilhelmina. We’re transporting your inverter. There is a Berserker pursuing us. Can you assist?”
The distorted face appeared to say something, but the audio was incomprehensible. An alert notice warned of unreliable communications as well as a nearby ship employing the same communication frequency.
“It’s trying to jam our transmission by transmitting on the same frequency,” she complained, “and its comms equipment is much more powerful than ours.”
“There has to be something we can do.”
Winifred looked up from the console. “I thought maybe we could get some help from the colony. Maybe they had a planetary or orbital weapons system, or some kind of warship. But we’ll never get through all this noise, especially if the piece of shit behind us keeps overwhelming our transmissions.”
“It was a good idea.” Henri put his hand on her shoulder. Winifred took it in her hand and snuggled it to her face.
They ended back in the lifeboat’s berth, ready to let hormones wash away their anxiety one last time. But before they could take off so much as a sock the lifeboat alert went off again. With a quick but knowing look they sprint-floated their way back to the cockpit.
“Thank the Lords of Cobol,” Henri exclaimed when he saw the updated display. The chronometer displayed a countdown of forty minutes to orbital insertion, while, just beyond the grey dot representing the Wilhelmina, was another dot, a massive green one, and it was coming their way. There was text beside this dot, which gave the pair even more cause to sigh in relief:
Hamilcar Barca, Dreadnought | registration: EDF 22621
“So that’s what the red bastard was worried about,” Henri mused out loud. “The military showing up. I can’t wait to see that red dot disappear in a rocket blast.”
“Never mind rockets,” Winifred added, “I’ll bet a ship that size has a C+ cannon.”
As if on cue, the lifeboat console indicated a message coming in from the dreadnought behind them. It was directed to the colony, but the lifeboat’s comms system, limited as it was, did manage to intercept. There was no need to decrypt, since the Hamilcar Barca was sending in the clear. Unfortunately, noise from Meitner’s star meant the communication was too garbled to make out. Someone in combat armour saying something…
The next communication, however, was meant for them, their pursuer, and even the Wilhelmina directly, It contained a standard military notice: “Identify yourself, or be destroyed.”
Winifred did not hesitate. She opened a channel to the warship and explained, clearly and carefully, who they were and what they were doing.
She stopped transmitting and her hand found one of Henri’s. They squeezed each other for good luck.
Only a moment later another transmission from the Hamilcar Barca, but this time a series of auditory beeps.
“What the hell?” Winifred said.
“That’s dot-dash. Used before wireless voice transmission, and as a backup when more complex radio or laser communications aren’t effective.”
“Do you know it?”
“I can dot-dash a few dirty words.”
“This can’t be happening.” Winifred queried the lifeboat’s computer: “Are you capable of dot-dash communication?”
There was no pause before the reply: Affirmative. Select text or voice input.
Winifred and Henri looked at each other. “Voice?” Henri said, shrugging his shoulders.
Employ the word ‘Stop’ to designate termination of sentence?
“Sure,” Henri agreed, shrugging once more. “Here, why don’t you take a break. I’ll talk to them for a bit.”
Winifred nodded and gave up her seat at the command console. She let herself float as Henri strapped himself in, then began speaking: “We are Henri Sakai and Winifred Ispahan carrying the defence material namely space inverter they need on the planet, stop.” He continued, giving a brief summation of their time on the Wilhelmina since the attack and warned about their pursuer, then ordered the lifeboat to transmit.
While they waited for a reply, the lifeboat indicated it was receiving transmissions from the ship in pursuit of them. It relayed this as text.
“The bloody thing is claiming we’re the enemy,” Winifred groaned. “Tell them it’s lying.”
Henri, as succinctly as he could, transmitted a second message explaining the other ship was lying. He then continued to give a more detailed description of how he and Winifred had arrived where they were: the graduation cruise; the commandeering by a courier near Esteel; the flight and attack; their manual astrogation; and, finally, their taking to the lifeboat.
“We will reach the planet before it does, I think, but it will be able to hit the dome before the space inverter can be installed, stop. We are going to keep sending until you are convinced we are human…”
As Henri continued, Winifred began to feel that familiar hopelessness settle back down upon her. How could anyone convince another person they were human and not some super-intelligent machine, using only dot-dash communication, in less than an hour? Their story, when she played it out objectively in her mind, sounded unbelievable. How could they explain all the shades of grey, the luck at being outside the ship during the attack, the fact she’d taken some astronomy courses before changing her major to History? It sounded like a fairy tale.
“Wait!” Henri paused what had become a repetitive, fairly robotic narrative. “Tell them about writing our names on the wall. Tell them about how we navigated here. Actually, you take a break. I’ll talk for a bit.”
Once she was strapped into the control console seat, she said, “This is Winifred talking now, stop…”
But even as she narrated what they’d done in more detail, she realized none of what she was saying was proof of anything. Machines could have set up that telescope and spectrometer, jumped the Wilhelmina closer to Meitner’s star like some kind of Trojan horse, witnessed and memorized some names scratched into the wall.
The timer displaying their orbital insertion had dropped below three minutes. In less than that time the captain of the Hamilcar Barca would have to make up his mind and destroy one of the two ships heading towards the colony.
What had that taunting voice said, that a weapons blast would be instant and painless? She unstrapped herself from the command chair and floated over to Henri. He could see the doom in her eyes, so he said nothing, only held her as they gently rolled in their weightlessness, waiting for a blast that would destroy them long before their senses could perceive it was happening.
Oblivion came not with a bang, but with a gentle tone from the lifeboat’s command console. They were entering the planet’s atmosphere, with the ship projecting their landing at the colony’s dome within twenty-five minutes. When Henri opened up the lifeboat’s comms channel, they could hear several people cheering and congratulating them, and describing how their pursuer was now a bright but fading smear in the distance.
Henri and Winifred smiled and hugged, but did not say anything. Winifred acknowledge the colony’s transmission with a few presses of buttons, but nothing more.
They’d both had enough of talking.
On the surface they struggled out of the lifeboat, their bodies not used to gravity. The cheering and congratulations were overwhelming, so they held hands and would not let anyone separate them. The space inverter was retrieved and taken via anti-grav sled, almost reverently, to be installed at the centre of the colony’s planetary defences.
The pair stayed in the room they’d been given, taking the news of the arrival of the enemy fleet in stride, how they’d sparred with the colony’s now formidable defences as the Hamilcar Barca promised brutal hit and run attacks, before deciding against destroying themselves in an attempt to achieve an unachievable end, and left the system.
So too the news that the human fleet had finally arrived, making certain there would be no attack on the colony.
“I’m so glad, Winifred, you have no idea how your mother and I have worried. I’m so sorry about all your friends.”
Winifred and Henri were standing before a public communications terminal near their quarters, speaking with Winifred’s father. Henri was amazed to see one of the most powerful men in the galaxy with tears in his eyes.
“I’m going to send the fastest yacht in the fleet to pick you up. You’ll be coming home in style.”
“No!” they shouted in unison. Winifred found Henri’s hand with her own. “That is, dad… the colony is really interesting, and we’d like to stick around for a while. We can charter a long-liner back in a few days.”
“A long-liner!” Her father repeated, incredulous. “No child of mine is going to be caught in one of those death traps. Just the other day one of them…”
Winifred, scandalizing Henri in a way he did not know he could be scandalized, began to toy with the frequency modulation of the terminal. Her father’s image and audio began to distort and break up.
“I’m sorry, dad, looks like the star is acting up again. We’re losing your signal. I’ll get back in touch when…” Then she cut the communication by yanking her ID card from the terminal’s interface.
“You are a bad girl,” Henri said.
“You have no idea,” she countered.
Two days later they got word the human fleet would be maintaining position near the colony for some refitting, and that the commander of the Hamilcar Barca, Captain Liao, was coming down to the surface to meet with them.
“Everyone thinks we’re heroes,” Henri chuckled.
“I want to meet the man.”
“Me too, but what do we say to the guy who saved our lives, and all the lives in this colony, because you scratched a stellar star-type mnemonic and our names on a bulkhead and he figured out that meant we were human?”
“I know what I’m going to say.”
“Oh be a fine guy kiss me right now sweetie.”
*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2
This story owes its existence to one of my favorite authors, Fred Saberhagen. In particular, one of his first short stories, Inhuman Error, collected in his first Berserker short story collection. I highly recommend.