Authors: David Kristoph
“Seventy tonnes underweight, like the other,” Hyken said. The other man nodded. “I couldn’t detect any hidden weapon systems on the last one, but believe me they’re there. Don’t trust the Praetari for a second or it will bite you in the ass. You want to do the honors?”
Alard frowned at the instruments. “The missile bays are empty.”
“Shit,” Hyken muttered, swiveling his chair to another terminal. The Sentinel remained concealed by using as little power as possible; tasks that were automatic on most ships had to be initiated manually, when their safety was certain. That included reloading the missiles, which he’d forgotten to do.
I would have done it immediately, if that boy hadn’t come up here asking about my family
. His fingers danced across the instruments.
“Ship’s turning toward us,” Alard said, alarm creeping into his voice. “We’ll be in range of standard beams in forty-five seconds, if they’re armed like you think.”
Hyken glanced back to the screen and saw that he was right. “It’s just a coincidence that they’re flying this way. They’ve no way to detect our ship.”
“Unless they have a Kalari scanner,” Alard said, “then they’d see us just fine. Forty seconds.”
“First missile’s done, second one loading.” He stared at the computer’s blinking light, and muttered a silent prayer to the Emperor.
Alard tapped his foot nervously. “Should I cut on the engine, in case we need to move?”
“It won’t be ready in time. And I wouldn’t want to reveal the Sentinel, even if it were.” The missiles would announce their presence, but their engine would make them an easy target, scanner or otherwise.
Another alarm sounded, more urgent than the first. “Twenty seconds, Hyken.”
Hyken bit his lip. The second missile bay still flashed yellow, but should have changed to green by now. Two missiles were recommended against that class of freighter, but one might do the job. The ship in the window grew larger with every second. He could make out features with the naked eye; a yellow snake was painted on its side. His finger hovered over the button.
The button clicked beneath his finger and the floor shuddered once again. A single streak of light raced away from the Sentinel. Both pilots held their breath. A yellow ball burst to life in front of them. Hyken held up a hand to shield his eyes. It was gone as quickly as it appeared. The false image from the light danced across his vision as he blinked.
“Mostly destroyed, but lots of debris incoming,” Alard said, his voice still thick with concern. He pulled the harness over his shoulder and clicked the straps into place.
Hyken was already strapped-in, but tightened his harness anyways. They waited.
Nothing happened for a long moment. Then vibrations nudged the ship. There was a clang of metal on metal. Most of the debris was small, tiny spinning shards silhouetted against the yellow planet below. They pelted the Sentinel like rain, a steady, harmless shower. Eventually the tumult stopped, and only then did Hyken relax. He let out a deep breath and grinned over at his co-pilot. “I bet you’re awake now, if the coffee didn’t do the job!”
Alard ignored him, still squinting out the window. Hyken followed his gaze and saw it too; there was another silhouette out there, shapeless and spinning toward them. Neither man moved, their eyes transfixed on the object. It hit the window softly, scraping against the glass and nearly coming to a stop. The cockpit hardly gave off any light, but it was enough for them to see. The object had no arms or legs, but its head was intact, brown eyes staring lifelessly. Its mouth twisted in a silent scream.
Alard jerked away from the body, unstrapping his harness and jumping to the back of the small cockpit. Something close to pain painted his face, and though his mouth was open and moving no words came out. Hyken forced himself to chuckle. “First time seeing a body, eh?”
He pulled his eyes from the window to look at Hyken. His voice was barely more than a whisper. “That’s a child.”
“Is it?” He squinted and saw that Alard was right. “Man or child, they all die just the same.”
The co-pilot returned to his seat. He tapped the keys of his computer.
“What are you doing?” Hyken asked him, but he didn’t respond. “Don’t bother, it’s not worth the energy.”
Numbers flashed across the screen. Alard swiped a finger to move through the data. Finally he found what he wanted, his finger freezing in the air. Slowly he leaned back in his chair. He turned to Hyken. “Thirty-eight. We just killed thirty-eight people.”
Hyken snorted. “The sensor must be wrong. Those freighters aren’t meant to hold more than a crew of four.”
The boy flicked a switch, and spotlights bathed the area with light. Dozens of bodies tumbled through space in front of the ship. Several were obviously men, but more were the smaller frames of women or children. Most floated peacefully now, but one or two still twitched and spasmed in the unapologetic vacuum of space.
Alard gasped, but Hyken only blinked. “Huh. They must have refitted the ship to carry passengers instead of cargo.”
Alard’s face twisted in pain. “They were just trying to flee.”
“They were trying to get through to harass the Exodus Fleet.” Hyken unclasped his harness and stood. “My shift’s done. Reload the missile bay, so we don’t have to see all of this next time.” He strode from the cockpit, leaving Alard to stare out the window alone.
Outside the Sentinel the bodies floated, cold and broken.
Hyken’s body knew exactly when to wake, disabling the wake-up alarm from the screen next to his bed before it triggered. He rose to stretch, both outstretched arms nearly touching the walls of his narrow room. Three crisp, white uniforms hung on pegs. He changed into one before exiting into the hallway.
The Sentinel was only as large as it needed to be, with two separate sleeping bunks and a common room in addition to the cockpit. One long hallway that ran along the ship like a spine connected it all, with the cockpit at one end and the common room at the other. A ladder in the middle of the hallway led to the small airlock above. Hyken reached the back of the ship in ten long steps, the door sliding open at his approach.
The common room was crammed with functionality: a food station that dispensed meals at regular intervals; an armory wall with two bio guns and various bits of lightweight armor; an exercise station, next to the cleanliness room. Hyken relieved himself in the latter, and then stepped into the exercise station. Presently it was a completely empty corner, white and pristine, until he made a selection from the wall computer. A cycling machine rose from the floor, stopping at just the right height.
The screen in front of the machine guided his effort as he pedaled, until his heart rate reached the required level. He breathed heavily but did not sweat; perspiration had long since been removed in the genetics of Melisao humans. He glanced out a small window that showed the yellow planet they orbited. He wondered if the Praetari still perspired. Praetar was settled millennia ago, so there were thousands of years where the two people evolved separately.
They probably do perspire
, Hyken decided. Everything on Praetar was dirty; it was easy to picture grime sticking to their sweaty skin.
He pedaled dutifully for 30 minutes until the computer beeped. The machine disappeared into the floor, leaving him standing on wobbly feet. His muscles ached from the effort. Endurance or physical strength training were required every day, but it was easier when Hyken was younger. At least it felt that way.
He pulled one leg up behind him to stretch. It didn’t bother him much; physical strength wasn’t as important for a Sentinel pilot as it was for a soldier or peacekeeper down on the surface. But it still made him feel old. Like Saria, the red giant at the center of their system, it was a reminder that everything eventually died.
After precisely ten minutes of stretching he went to the food station. It was nothing more than a box-shaped indentation in the wall, with three holes from which food dispensed. From the computer screen he selected coffee, and for a few moments there was a soft hum. Finally from one hole slid a pouch, made of a transparent material that showed the dark liquid within.
He unfastened the end and took a pull, letting the bitter taste wash around in his mouth. It took his mind back to Melis, to the small home on the bit of land his father once owned. He allowed himself to savor the memory for only a moment before shaking it from his head.
It’ll all be gone soon, in my lifetime or the next
. There was no use focusing on it, not when there was much to do in the future. They had to look forward.
He would need to make preparations for his sons to leave. The Exodus Fleet was already preparing to leave the system, and the next wave of evacuations would begin after Hyken’s tour. Cairne and Jon would get priority on the second fleet, because of Hyken’s service. The Emperor blessed those who proved their loyalty.
He thought of the freighters trying to slip past the blockade. The Praetari used children as weapons, he knew. A child could reach places an adult could not, and even a small vest of explosives could kill hundreds. What if they reached the Exodus Fleet, dense with civilians?
Maybe I should pull up the training videos
, he thought. That would help Alard remember the importance of their mission.
Saria was now visible in the common room window. Filters in the glass allowed him to look directly at the red giant without danger. It looked angry, more than usual. Flares of plasma swirled away from its surface, curling back inward in impossible arcs, pulled by the magnetic field. The surface itself shimmered like half-molten glass. It certainly looked like it was dying.
It wouldn’t happen all at once, he knew. Stars burned by fusing hydrogen into helium. Most hydrogen was gone from Saria’s core, and it was burning what was left in the outer shell, causing the star to slowly expand, over millions of years, until all the fuel was depleted. This expansion would destroy Melis, which orbited closer to the star than the other planets. Once the hydrogen was depleted the star would collapse, eventually becoming dense and hot enough to fuse helium instead.
But by then the Empire would be long gone. Melis was already a few hundred or thousand years from being uninhabitable, and the Emperor didn’t want to wait any longer. There were lush, fertile systems only a few light years away, with primitive biology that could be easily discarded.
Hyken trusted the Emperor’s judgement, both in the exodus and siege of Praetar. The Exodus Fleet must be protected. The Melisao Empire had to survive. They had to look forward.
With half his coffee gone he turned back to the station to select a meal. Their options were limited, but he didn’t mind. When he was younger he was bitter toward the Praetari, who he assumed ate far better fare on the planet’s surface than he did in orbit, but in his age he almost prefered the waxy, artificial food that was standard on Sentinel-class ships. There was a paralysis in having too many options, he’d found. Life was simpler when you didn’t need to make such mundane decisions.
His finger froze before touching the computer. Both pilots were listed on the screen, with the number of meals they needed to consume during their shift. Hyken frowned at the screen before exiting the common room.
The cockpit door opened at his motion, giving Hyken a view of the yellow planet through the window. Alard sat in his chair, watching a video on the computer. There was the Emperor’s face, solemn and determined as he spoke. “...will lead the way from the system, paving our path to a new Empire. Though our star becomes unstable, we will not. We must look forward.”
Hyken recognized the speech from a few years before, when the first preparations were made to leave the system.
Alard didn’t look up at his entrance, so Hyken sat in the other chair. Only when the video ended did he speak. “It’s good to reaffirm yourself with the Emperor’s words. I find myself doing it occasionally, when my shift grows long and boring.”
The boy only nodded, not taking his eyes from the now blank screen. Outside the cockpit window an electroid moved, still cleaning debris and remains away from the ship. Hyken watched the human-shaped robot move silently through space to the other side of the ship before disappearing out of view.
“You missed your last two meals,” Hyken finally said.