by Brett J. Talley
Paul Ryder cut his aft thrusters, allowing his inertia to carry him the final few clicks to the waiting carrier. He watched as it rotated slowly in space, the centrifugal force creating the illusion of artificial gravity for those within. The sunlight seemed to dance across its speckled surface as it spun, and Ryder felt a sudden sadness that he would never see the Unity like that again.
“This is Unity, Colonel Ryder, calling in,” a voice crackled across the comm system. “Shall I engage the ALS, sir?”
“That’s alright, Unity. I think I’ll bring her in manually.”
There was a pause on the other side of the system before the voice returned. “Copy that, sir. We’ll stand by for further instructions.”
Ryder chuckled to himself at the surprise in the comm operator’s voice. Since the automated system had been installed, he couldn’t remember anyone attempting a manual landing. It probably didn’t help that he was flying a Phantom, Europa Ship Lines prototype and the most advanced fighter ever designed. No doubt the Republic would have not appreciated his taking chances with its latest toy. But his first landing had been manual, and he figured this was his last chance to do it again. So why not?
He angled his ship until the Unity sat directly in front of him. He waited till the right moment, firing his aft landing thrusters, just long enough to start his fighter spinning at precisely the same rate as the carrier. But it had been too long, and he was rusty. A microsecond burst from the starboard side though, and he was perfect. The two ships were now spinning together, though to his eyes Unity appeared to be sitting in perfect stillness.
There was nothing to do now but wait. Wait and watch as his momentum carried him forward and the great ship grew larger, until finally it blotted out the blackness beyond. The landing bay was directly in front of him, and he felt the familiar electric tingle caress his skin as the ship passed through the magnetic field that separated the workers within from the vacuum of space without. He engaged his landing thrusters, bringing the ship down until it gently clanged against the metal pad below. He was back.
He terminated the flight assistance system and disconnected his HUD. As his feet clanked down on the titanium deck, he saw Moira standing in front of her Raptor. The grin on her face said she was happy to see him. As he walked over to her, she suddenly turned stoic, throwing up her crispest salute. He returned it with a frown.
“Colonel Ryder, good to have you back, sir.”
“A successful mission, I see,” she said, looking back at the Phantom. “Perhaps you can debrief me on your trip?”
Ryder grinned. “Perhaps.”
Two hours later, she was in his arms, her red hair spreading out across his chest. He rubbed her tan shoulder absentmindedly, thinking back to how they had met. She was much younger than he, a prodigy he had been assigned to develop. They had not meant to fall in love, but such things rarely follow according to plan.
“How was Europa?” she murmured sleepily.
“Very different than I remember it.”
“Oh, that’s good. The assimilation was successful then?”
“It was,” he said simply. But he didn’t know how good it was. He thought back to the last time he had visited Europa. Twenty-five years it had been, back when Jupiter’s moon was one of the last remaining independent colonies. They had called it New Vegas, after the old American pleasure city. Europa had been an adventure in those days. Wild, corrupt, criminal. And free. It wasn’t any of those things anymore.
The Republic had captured it ten years before. He had led one of the squadrons responsible for destroying Europa’s meager air defenses. He had carried out his orders, of course, secure in the belief that the Europan government had authorized terrorist strikes against the Republican trade fleets that ran between Saturn and Mars. Now he wondered.
Education and Assimilation facilities had been installed on Europa immediately. Of course, they consisted of only one activity – the implementation of Slavic Modulators in each Europan colonist. Their behavior could then be monitored and controlled. Europa was now as orderly as any city on Earth. Its people woke up at their assigned time, went to their assigned jobs, came home to their assigned mates.
“Do you remember,” he asked, “when they removed your implant?”
It was a perk of military service, and the main reason he would never leave it. The Modulators were deactivated and removed on the first day of duty. No doubt the leadership of the Republic would have preferred to abandon that practice, but the Admirals would never allow it.
“Of course I remember it,” she said, looking up at him. “It was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had.”
He would have described it the same way. He had joined the military for the reason they all had. Testing had determined an increased aptitude for leadership, superior hand-eye coordination, response time, the rest. He had “chosen” to be a pilot in that he was told to do so and never would have thought – or had the capacity, really – to resist. When the technicians came to remove his Modulator, he had not felt excitement or anticipation or fear. In fact, he didn’t remember feeling much of anything before that day, before that moment.
It had been a transcendent experience, a rush of emotions he had never known. The Bliss, they called it. It took him a full three days to recover, to learn how to handle an uncontrolled life. No, he would never leave the fleet. No one ever did. You couldn’t go back, not after feeling that.
“Do you ever think,” he said, “that maybe everyone should experience it?”
She looked up at him, grinning. Then the grin faded when she realized this was no joke.
“Well, why not?”
“Why not?” she said, pulling herself up on to her elbows. “They could never handle it, Paul.”
“We handle it.”
“Yeah, after years of training, of military discipline, we do. And you and I both have seen that there are plenty of guys who don’t. And beside, you know how it used to be, the chaos, the death. Before the Republic brought order. There are no wars now. No crime. People don’t drink themselves to death. They don’t throw away their future on drugs or gambling or things they don’t need. No, what we have now is better.”
“So you would go back?” he asked. She didn’t have to answer the question. Instead, she just laid her head back on his chest. He knew everything she said was true. Thousands of years of bloody history had confirmed that mankind was incompatible with freedom. Or maybe that wasn’t true. Not precisely at least. It was just a question of what price he was willing to pay. In death, in disease. In poverty and crime. But he knew something else, too. He knew that Moira would never go back. Neither would he. And no matter what she said, he knew that the everyone should be able to make the same choice they had.
* * *
“She’s a beautiful ship, Colonel Ryder.”
“Why thank you, Captain Quinn.”
Twenty-four hours had passed. Ryder was back in the Phantom, with Moira on his wing in what had been the state-of-the-art Raptor class fighter. The Phantom was to replace it, designed to defeat the handful of rebels that still maintained bases in the outer solar system. Their days were numbered, Ryder knew, Phantom or no. The Assimilation War was over when Europa fell. But the Republic would brook no dissent; assimilation must be total. When the Phantom was fully online, the final assault would begin. Republican fleets would scour every rock, every hiding place. Burn them clean if necessary. Ryder had been chosen to lead the mission. And so he had also been chosen to put the Phantom through its first full test. He had every intention of giving it a shakedown cruise for the ages.
His munitions officer had not questioned him when he ordered that the Phantom be equipped with a full compliment of neutronium bombs. Such a request was highly unusual for a non-combat mission. But Ryder had reached a position where his orders were obeyed without objection, particularly with the Phantom in its final test phase. Moira of course didn’t know. He hoped he could keep it that way, till the last second.
The Unity was on an inner planet patrol. Its course had brought it as close to the sun as any ever would. Ryder didn’t figure he would get this chance again. He could see the thousands, no millions, of automated defense satellites that seemed to hover around the sun like flies buzzing around a corpse. The Icarus Defense Network protected the most precious of all the Republic’s treasures. He could see it, too.
The Dyson’s Sphere, man’s greatest technological achievement. A vast array of satellites, deployed around the sun to capture every last bit of energy it could provide. No other source could power Republican society. And so it was of critical importance that it be protected. The attack satellites would destroy anything that came within range, no questions asked. Only Republican ships were immune. Only Republican ships could come in range of the Dyson’s Sphere.
“Stay on course, Moira. I’m going to see what this baby can do.”
“You got it, Colonel.”
Ryder steered the Phantom towards the ring of attack satellites. Even though he knew he was safe, he couldn’t help but feel a shiver trickle down his spine as he passed within range. The guns locked on him briefly, but his nav computer sent the required codes, and soon they had resumed their standby position. He hit his afterburners, and pointed his ship directly at the main power transference coupling of the Sphere.
He had considered for some time what strategy to take, what the Republic’s weakest point might be. Attacking the Sphere itself was impractical. It was massive, and whatever damage he might do was unlikely to even cause a blip on the Republic’s radar. No, he had to be precise, and he had to be effective. It was unlikely that anyone would ever have this opportunity again. But the answer had presented itself with little study. The power transference coupling was the Sphere’s most critical structure. It shimmered like a great, diamond ring, glowing blue from the collected energy of each satellite that made up the Dyson’s Sphere. It fed the concentrated laser beams that delivered power to orbital collectors at every Republican colony. Damage the coupling, and the power could not be delivered. Every colony would go dark. And with them, twenty-five billion Slavic Modulators. In one instant, every human being would awaken, every one would know what it meant to be free. There would be no going back then. He had no doubt the Republic had contingency measures, but they could supplement the energy from the Dyson’s Sphere only. They could never replace it. So even if it took only a few weeks to fix the Sphere, the Republic would never again exercise control over its people.
He could see the power coupling growing larger every second. He was close now, and at this speed he would reach it in a matter of minutes. It was then that a klaxon sounded.
“Warning!” his computer said, “Missile Lock Detected!”
He brought up his rear display. It was Moira.
“Paul,” she said, over the comm system, “Paul, what are you doing?” He could hear the tears in her voice.
“Moira, you’ve got a missile lock on me. I’m starting to get worried,” he said with a laugh, trying to sound as relaxed as possible.
“I’m disobeying orders already, Paul. I’m supposed to shoot you down. They know about the neutronium, and your course is taking you directly to the Sphere. You’re going to try and destroy it, aren’t you? Paul, please turn back. Why would you do this?”
Ryder looked up at his distance gauge. He was still several minutes from his target. Even in the Phantom, he couldn’t hope to outrun Moira, and he knew from many simulated experiences that she was the better pilot. She could stop him now if she wanted, oh so close to his goal.
“Moira,” he said, “I want you to listen to me. They deserve what we have, Moira. They deserve it, no matter what the price. It’s the only thing anyone really deserves. The simple right to choose, and to live with those consequences, even if that means a shorter, poorer life. You were right before. A lot of people did die in the past. But many of them gave their lives willingly, trying to stop others from taking that right to chose away from them. I’ve lived free for thirty years. The twenty before that, I was a slave. And no matter what you do now, no matter what you choose, I’m going to die free. Let me give that gift to everyone.”
Moira was sobbing now. He could hear it through the comm. And then she fired her missiles. He closed his eyes then, knowing that the end was here. His last words were ones he had meant to give for many years. “I love you, Moira,” he said.
He heard the explosions, bracing himself for death. But a second passed, and death didn’t come. He looked up to see that the power coupling’s shield generator was on fire. His eyes went to the missile lock light. It was off. She had missed on purpose, or perhaps she had simply hit the very thing she was aiming for. He smiled and punched his afterburners. One click and he armed the bombs lodged in the belly of the Phantom. Then he lit a fire that entire worlds did see, one that, for good or ill, would never be put out.
Originally published November 2010 in the Absent Willow Review.