Captain's log, ship's date 223/187.3: the Bonaventure has been dispatched to search for a missing survey ship in the ZSC-6594 system. I hope they're still spaceborne; landing on any of the planets there would be like rappelling down into the crater of an active volcano. Which is of course exactly the kind of thing scientists love to do.
"Realspace in 3... 2... 1..."
One moment there was little on the main screen apart from a living nothingness the human brain refused to make sense of. Then the universe rushed in out of nowhere to reassert its rightful place around the ship with a satisfying "plop". Or rather, that's the sound it would have made if ships coming out of hyper made any sound at all, Captain Stewart reflected wryly.
She straightened up in her chair at the center of the bridge to look around: a tall, bony woman with white hair that fell straight to the shoulders of her dark blue jumpsuit. At the various consoles, her command crew was doing the same -- all but one, who was busy holding onto a grab bar while being rather green in the face. Not her natural skin color, either. Somehow, the ship's first officer was never near a chair when the realspace alarm rang.
"May I interest you in a seat belt, Number One?"
"No need to rub it in, Ma'am," retorted the younger woman, glaring at her comrades who were trying and failing to hide snickers.
"Duly noted. Status?"
"All clear, ma'am." The tactical officer's voice was a little shaky, as every time she addressed him directly. "We're roughly ten light minutes out from the local star. Systems are nominal. Sensor sweep initiated... No threatening objects for now."
"Calculating our relative speed. It will take a moment." He was just as young as his comrade -- too young for his position. But he did his best, and with pride at that.
"Transmit burn parameters to Engineering when you're done. Comms?"
"Frequency scan, if you please. Once we light our torch, it will be harder to hear certain signals from out there."
And that would have to do, mused the captain. They could hardly be called a military. More like a bunch of children playing soldier, and she was too old to play mother hen. But she didn't resent her orders: their toys were all too real, and could easily hurt the wrong people. Besides, for a space fleet built up from scratch in a mere decade, they were doing better than her grouchy side cared to admit.
She stood and paced the deck plates a little to stretch her old bones. The main screen showed an ocean of stars -- so still right now that they might as well have been painted on. Patience, she told herself. Patience. You have an example to give.
The tell-tale flare of another ship dropping out of hyper lit up the eternal night directly in front of them.
It was big, a slab of metal six hundred meters long, one hundred wide and fifty thick, with maybe ten times the Bonaventure's internal volume. They had a good look at the structure as the heavy cruiser overshot it and flipped around to decelerate, like a great mechanical shark swimming around a cage: the cluster of ion drives at one end; lights shining through the external latticework, between haphazardly mounted armor plating; a bewildering array of devices at what passed for the prow.
Stewart watched quietly as her second in command leaned forward to see better. "Are they aliens?"
At the tactical station, lieutenant Jensen ran his hand through his wispy beard, pale white fingers mixing with nearly invisible blond hairs. "It doesn't match any known design, human or not."
"In any event, they're in no hurry to get anywhere with those engines." commented Vlasic from the helm, perfect teeth glittering against his tanned skin.
"Or else they expect to be in deep space for a long time," the captain chided mildly.
"Well, what do we do?" First Officer De La Pena put her hands on her hips, somehow managing to make the standard-issue jumpsuit look slutty. "Do we hail them? Shoot at them? What?"
Stewart turned to her. "I'd say ignore them and go on with our mission, but they might know something."
"Assuming they have something to say. They're rather quiet."
The captain looked at the screen again. The alien ship had been floating there for a while now, not even bothering to maneuver. The commander had a point. What they didn't have was a standard procedure for such situations.
"Ma'am, they're hailing us." Al-Madina's round face expressed even more confusion than usual. "On a dozen frequencies and protocols at once."
The old woman suppressed an urge to facepalm. "Well, pick one, Ensign, and let's hear what they have to say."
The bridge speakers came to life in a deafening cacophony of voices, which slowly coalesced into an intelligible chorus.
"We Are The Collective. You Will Join Us. Do Not Fight. It Will Be Easier."
She cast her second-in-command a helpless look. "This is Captain Olivia Stewart of the Asendowian spaceship Bonaventure. Who am I talking to, exactly?"
Again the cacophony, more subdued this time. Then, "We Are The Collective. Join Us. You Will Understand."
"Friendly, aren't they?" muttered De La Pena.
"What if we don't want to?" There, thought Stewart. Don't let them think we're pushovers. Bonaventure's primary mission is to show the flag after all.
The voices in the chorus changed abruptly. "We Are Wasting Time. Do Not Resist."
And the ship lurched.
It wasn't a big motion, of course, and the inertial dampeners caught up immediately. But she knew what that meant before Jensen open his mouth. "Tractor beam. They're pulling us to them."
"Shields up!" De La Pena was all business all of a sudden. "Thrusters!" added the captain.
A moment passed. "Ineffective," reported Jensen. "We're barely slowing," confirmed Vlasic.
"Shoot their emitters," the captain and first officer said at the same time. They exchanged another look.
"I can't, Ma'am. Weapons are cold."
"The comm lasers aren't." Al-Madina grinned at the tactical officer. "Transferring controls now."
Jensen returned the grin. "Thank you, Fikri. Firing."
Small explosions peppered the flat front of the other ship, and the Bonaventure lurched again as its thrusters became effective.
De La Pena breathed a sigh of relief. "Er, good work, Jensen." Then to the older woman: "Tell me we didn't just start a war with aliens."
Stewart just stared at her.
"Ma'am, they're hailing us again."
"Maybe not, Number One. Put us thr..."
The lights on the bridge dimmed. Off to one side, almost unnoticed, the air twisted and solidified into a humanoid shape.
It was a being of indeterminate gender, body shape broken up by the many cybernetic accessories covering it, connected by criss-crossing cables. They stood there for just a few seconds, watching the bridge crew inscrutably through a high-tech eyepiece, before walking to one of the unoccupied consoles in the back with an oddly stiff gait. The console sprang to life with an overview of the ship's internal network.
"Oh no, you don't," growled De La Pena. Before anyone else could react, she was aiming her sidearm. The twin laser beams struck the console. It flashed bright with the excess electricity, then died. Undaunted, the intruder moved to the next console and started over.
"What happened?!" asked the first officer, hysteria creeping into her voice. "Did I miss?"
"It's a hologram! They've cracked the bridge systems." The captain's voice shook everyone out. "Jensen. Fire again."
He did. Nothing happened. "No use, Ma'am. They've raised shields."
"I can't cut them off," complained Al-Madina.
On the main screen, exposed power conduits on the hostile vessel still glowed hot from the earlier hits. There was a series of smaller explosions and electrical arcs, and its entire front side went dark. The bridge lights promptly came back on, the hologram simply vanishing.
Stewart very nearly jumped out of her skin as the interphone chimed.
/Von Schmiede here./ The voice at the other end sounded just like her owner looked: big, strong and no-nonsense, yet still clearly female. /Captain, if you want access to the computers down in Engineering, you can just ask for a user account. No need to try and get in through the back door./
The captain chortled, nervous tension leaking out of her. "Sorry, Chief, we had a break-in attempt. Is everything all right down there?"
/We pulled the plug as soon as we noticed the attack./
"Very well. For what it's worth, we seem to be safe right now."
/Thank you, Captain. Engineering out./
They stood looking at each other blankly for a while.
"So, should we go to red alert?" De La Pena asked innocently.
On the main screen, the alien ship got smaller and smaller as the Bonaventure continued accelerating away from it. Now they could see the extend of the damage their initial salvo had caused: the entire front third of the cuboid was in darkness.
"I think you can kill those thrusters now, Mr. Vlasic. How long until we can go hyper again?"
"Three minutes now, Ma'am."
"Excellent. As soon as you can, perform a micro-jump. One light year or so, right past them. Then we turn around and head home before they can figure out where we went."
Vlasic nodded. One light year was the approximate range at which a hyperdrive-equipped ship could instantly detect another entering or leaving realspace.
"What about the, er, the missing ship?"
"We can't exactly look for them with a hostile right next to us, Number One. Maybe once we can come back in force."
One minute elapsed. Then another.
"Captain, they're hailing us again."
What. "Don't pick up, Ensign. No way I'm letting them into our systems again."
"It's only analog radio, on a tight beam."
Sigh. "Let's hear it. If you think it's safe."
The young man fiddled with a series of knobs and sliders. The voice in the speakers had a hiss and echo, as if coming from very far away.
/This is Commander Areiotis of the research ship Curious. We know someone's out there. Please respond./
"Captain Stewart of the Bonaventure here. We've been looking for you, Commander."
/Thank the gods you're here./ Cheers could be heard in the background. /I don't suppose you can spare a shuttle?/
The signal was getting weaker. "Reverse thrust, Vlasic," the captain whispered. "Let's not drift any farther." Louder, she added, "It depends, Commander. What's your status?"
/They've been ignoring us for the most part. A most peculiar behavior, Captain. Like worker drones. Seemingly more interested in the Curious, what little is left of it./
"Wait, who are 'they'?"
/We don't know. They took us aboard after our ship was crippled by asteroid impacts. Third planet here has a highly unusual ring system./
"Where are you now?"
/Hiding in the corridors around the hangar bay. Captain, we're wasting time. Right now they're distracted with repairs, but they're quick./
"How many of you?"
/Eleven. Captain, please hurry. I don't know how much longer we can last./
"Very well. Bonaventure out." She thought for a few seconds, then keyed the intercom, while everyone else watched her in silence. "Barracks?"
/Major Barett here./
"Heads up, Major. Looks like we're going to need your marines on this mission after all."
There is no such thing as stealth in space, but being inconspicuous definitely helps. Unlike the cruiser's quasi-organic shapes, the shuttle was all angles, coated in anti-radar and with clever heat sinks that concentrated emissions in specific directions. Having leviters instead of jets helped as well, and speed compensated for the lack of shields. At least in theory.
Halfway along the troop compartment, Barett did his best to look confident. At thirty-three, he was on the young side for his rank, but older than everyone else under his command, and most importantly experienced with exactly the kind of situation they were going into.
"She's going to have your skin for coming along, you know," said the young woman next to him with a thin smile.
"Reading my thoughts, sarge? Well, better her than the zombie robots."
"You don't think I can handle this myself?"
"I know you can. This is for my own peace of mind. Besides, you know what a mess we're in."
She nodded. Due to a rushed launch, the Bonaventure only had three companies of marines -- half her nominal complement. As for officers... One was in sickbay, the other in the brig, and Barett was pulling double duty for 3rd Company. Against all regulations, of course.
That was his chance to shine. To prove he wasn't just some wash-out in a parody of a military force.
Then the docking alarm sounded, and everything became a blur.
"Go, go, go! Fan out, and keep your eyes open!"
Barett was panicking. They were already three decks down from the top, and the stairs had been in a different place every time. Worse, the decks were perpendicular to the cuboid's long axis instead of parallel to it. Who builds their ships like that? He considered launching another recon drone, but the first two had been hijacked in seconds, forcing them to destroy their own gear. At least the shields and docking port had worked as expected, letting them slip in without special measures.
Far out in front, the sergeant froze as she passed by a doorway, then crept cautiously backwards. He knew what it was before making his way past everyone else.
They were sitting in a long narrow room with desks on both sides, staring straight ahead at blank walls while their hands twitched, fingers plugged into chorded keyboards, seemingly oblivious to the thirty or so armed and armored marines sneaking right past them. Robot zombies indeed, thought Barett. He couldn't be sure in the low light, but some of them had horns, fur, animal ears or all of them at the same time.
They weren't aliens, that much was certain. But they weren't human anymore, either. Not by his reckoning. On the other hand, he was beginning to see how the missing researchers had managed to escape capture so far. Maybe their luck would hold on the way out as well.
He let everyone else file past him until he was back at his place in the rearguard. A nerve-wracking experience with those... creatures so close to him. The corridor branched more; machinery was coming to life in the distance. They passed by several more darkened doorways, gradually getting used to the small noises inside.
Until someone tumbled out of one.
"Hold your fire!" Barett snapped at his nearest men. His strangled voice echoed endlessly into the distance. Oh crap.
"Don't shoot! It's us!"
One by one, a dozen people in tattered jumpsuits bubbled out into the corridor, piling up at the doorway impatiently. Two of them were being half-carried by their peers.
"I'm Areiotis," one of them informed Barett. The civilian commander was a stout man with a handlebar mustache and ugly bags under his eyes. "I assume you're the cavalry?"
They were halfway back to the stairs when lights started coming on around them.
"Great, we're late." The sergeant clutched her submachine gun as if an attack was imminent.
"This way." Areiotis pointed down a side corridor. "It's a shortcut."
"It's not on my inertial map. Are you sure?"
He cast her an "are you serious?" look.
They shifted formation accordingly. Half the platoon was in front, half in the back, and a few were helping the injured walk, to relieve their exhausted crewmates. It still felt like a crawl.
"We still have a chance," puffed Areiotis. "These are service decks. It's mostly just maintenance crews that come here. Of course, now with the repairs..."
He stopped short at the sight of a massive door barring their way.
"That wasn't here before..." remarked one of his men.
Barett was the first to recover. "Smith, Jones, cut the hinges. Sarge, any movement behind us?"
"Good. Get ready to run as soon as the way is..."
There was a bone-shaking report as the door fell onto the floor. Then an alarm started.
Nobody needed any more encouragement to break into a sprint.
Metal walls flashed around them as they moved from gloom to bright light and back. More doors closed and opened at random. A deep rumble was raising through the deck plates. Barett was sure he could hear wheels and propellers closing in. One more turn, and they were at the stairs. But so were multiple half-human shapes walking stiffly towards them from another direction.
"Smoke grenades!" ordered the sergeant. She started shoving people up the steps indiscriminately. Barett was already at the top, making sure they didn't trip on each other. "Incoming!" somebody shouted, and he drew his sidearm almost without thinking. The pair of beams hit one of the aliens squarely in the chest, electronics sparking out as they collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Half a dozen marines followed suit, and soon the higher deck was littered with bodies. They ran through the maze in a long, disheveled file, electrolasers lancing out every which way as more of the humanoids converged on them.
Until, one by one, they stopped falling down.
At first it looked like the occasional miss in the heat of battle, but by the time the second flight of stairs was in sight, Barett could tell that his targets now had armor plates and helmets. At least none of them was shooting back. He switched tactics and started blasting the control panel of any door that wasn't along the escape route. That just left those coming from behind...
He saw a previously dead elevator moving, and knew it was too late.
"Permission to use lethal force, sir!" yelled the sergeant while they raced to the top deck three steps at a time. One of the soldiers in front passed her a flashbang; she pulled the pin and rolled it down the stairs.
Barett waited for the echo to die down before answering. "Wanna see them pissed off for real?" He paused. "Permission granted. If all else fails."
"Yes, sir." She kept running. The top deck hallways were narrow and cramped, pipes and cabinets marking the distances between sealed hatches. It only made the trip seem longer. More time for worries.
"Come on, where are they?" Areiotis mumbled nervously. They were passing by numerous side passages, all deserted.
"Maybe we scared them off, sir?" suggested the soldier next to him.
The civilian commander snerked and dragged himself onwards.
"Don't worry, sir, we'll get you home safely. The docking port room is right behind the..."
They turned the corner. It was crawling with the cuboid's crew.
"Shoot to kill!" The sergeant was first to follow her own order, her SMG releasing a shower of red-hot sparks that blurred into an almost continuous stream. The Collective drones backed off under the onslaught, their armor denting and buckling visibly with the impacts. Several other marines followed suit, and she turned to help Barett guide everyone else up the ladder and into the airlock overhead. For a long moment, it seemed like they were going to make it.
A ball of electricity floated leisurely into the room and burst, sending half of the remaining marines to the floor, the rest scrambling for cover into the corridor from which they'd come. A side door opened, admitting three tall, bulky humanoids with extra features to their armor. The one in the middle had some sort of cannon slung under his raised arm.
"You Are In Blatant Violation Of The Rules," he declared.
"Stop Right Now." intoned the one on the right.
"Or Else." chanted the last one after a brief hesitation. Newly encouraged, other aliens advanced again from their hiding places.
Barett looked on in stunned horror. "Oh no," he mouthed, fingering his weapon. "Oh no you don't!" he roared, dashing across the room to fire point blank at the lead alien. The creature staggered backwards, either too stunned or too close to return fire, and the rest of Barett's men cheered as they surged forward again, keeping their would-be captors at bay with sheer ferocity while they took refuge inside the shuttle. Only then did Barett become aware of the inhumanly strong arms holding him from behind. He kicked savagely, blood going to his head. From somewhere far away, the sergeant was calling his name. Then everything was bathed in blinding light.
Outside, an awakened cuboid threatened to swallow the shuttle, sucking it into the gaping maw of an open hangar bay. Then the Bonaventure's guns came to life, hurling pillars of light at the strange ship. The first hit made its shields flare up, lights flickering mad on the hull underneath. The second caused licks of flame to dissipate harmlessly way above the flat surface. A third salvo fizzled out, the relativistic particle stream wasting itself against suddenly impenetrable shields.
The shuttle reached safety. There was a brief moment of frozenness, then the cruiser wrapped itself in a mantle of light and left normal space-time behind.
Captain's Log, supplemental: The Bonaventure is returning home with its mission accomplished, but a missing crewmember. I keep telling myself that it's a good tradeoff, that he knew the risks and went in anyway. But we've all been together for such a short time... it's hard not to blame myself.
Oh, did I mention there's a new threat in our sector of space?
"We had clues that something was out there, of course. But not enough evidence to alert the fleet, until now."
Admiral Benson spoke with a fatherly voice. An average-looking man, with gray hair that was beginning to thin, he sat at a busy desk, fingers steepled. Behind him, narrow windows opened onto the panorama of a planet, some thirty thousand kilometers away. Most of the surface was reddish-brown, apart from the green and blue directly under the space station.
"So you're going to mount an expedition as soon as possible?" asked Stewart. She was sitting very straight across from the admiral, trying to keep a neutral tone. At her right, De La Pena was pouting. The seat on her left should have been Barett's; instead, Jensen fidgeted in it, looking too small for his dress uniform.
"With you and what fleet, Olivia? We're stretched thin as it is."
"We could sneak back in a smaller ship, grab the Major and get out," De La Pena offered. She looked at everyone else's faces and deflated. "It worked the first time..."
At length, the Admiral chuckled quietly. "I appreciate your loyalty, Lieutenant. Rest assured that we're doing everything in our power. Patrols have been increased. Every ship that could be recalled is on its way here."
"How many, Greg?" Stewart interrupted him.
Benson eyed her uncomfortably. "That's on a need to know... All right, five of them. Indomitable, Stormfront, California, Hóng Lóng and Piri Reis."
She frowned. The heaviest of them was half the size of the Bonaventure.
Jensen coughed. "Sir, if I may..."
"Speak up, young man."
"If we wait to be better prepared, they will be as well. And who knows what they'll do to Sam... Barett by then."
De La Pena nodded emphatically, and even Stewart allowed herself a smile. The admiral watched all of them carefully before lifting his hands off the desk.
"Olivia, no. No! There are too many unknowns. I don't like leaving a man behind either, but..." He got up. "Take a shore leave. All of you. Please. You'll be the first to know if anything changes."
They hesitated for a moment, then stood as one. There was little else to be said.
Barett's mind slowly made its way out of a thick fog. He vaguely remembered being dragged through passageways, sat on chairs and prodded with instruments, while bright lights dazzled him. What a strange dream, his brain said in a moment of lucidity, and why had he slept on a bench in the common area?
He sat upright so fast that all the blood drained from his head, leaving him utterly confused for what seemed like another eternity. This was a hard bench under him all right, set against the wall of a small, bare waiting room with doors on all sides. Two of them, once his legs stopped wobbling, turned out to lead into a laundry room and locker room, respectively, and for a moment he hoped this might just be some forgotten corner of the Bonaventure, illogical as it sounded. So he was feeling something not unlike relief when he opened the third door.
The hallway seemed to have no end at first, a gloomy space lined with sleeping capsules on both sides, three deep. Barett took a faltering step in, then another. There was a doorway far ahead after all; if he could reach it...
One by one he noticed the many pairs of eyes trained on him from various heights. A third step, and thin pale bodies slithered halfway out of capsules along the walls, ready to cut him off. He backed away with a shudder.
Time passed slowly in the empty room, and he didn't have any of his gear, not even a watch. At some point he mustered enough courage to try the last door, and it turned out to conceal a bathroom. That instantly reminded him of how much he needed just such a facility. The fixtures were even suitable for him. There must have been other humans aboard the cuboid.
Someone else was in the room when he came back.
From up close and in a good light, the Collective drone was less alien than he expected: just a teenager, in fact, skin too white except for the dark lines framing his shaved head like seams on a doll. His body was encased in a powered frame which also held his electronics together. So they weren't implanted after all.
"Hi," he said unexpectedly. "You must be Barett. Welcome to the Collective."
He extended a hand as he said that, and the marine avoided it like a poisonous snake, falling into a fighting stance.
"Who are you people? What do you want from me?!"
The teenager blinked a few times, and his shoulders sank. "Why are you being so hostile? I was only trying to help."
Barett stared at him furiously. Slowly, he let his arms down. "Am I a prisoner?"
The answer started with an odd finger gesture, as if typing a complex key combination. "I... guess? Sort of? We weren't going to hold you, but your ship left."
"Can you blame them? You were trying to get us all."
"We were trying to stop you from causing more damage!"
"Us? You attacked first!"
The teenager shifted awkwardly. "That... was a script kiddie. We get enthusiastic."
A hundred and one thoughts raced through Barett's mind and scattered like rabbits. "So... what now?"
That gesture again. "Good question. Come with me." They boy pivoted on one leg and ambled into an adjacent room. A locker opened up, and he backed into it, his powerframe plugging into awaiting outlets. It snapped open, allowing him to wiggle free. On his own, he was shorter than Barett, frail body showing through almost transparent fatigues. He motioned for the marine to follow; they went through more doors before ending up in a small cafeteria. It was empty.
"We don't know what to do with you," he confessed while they waited on a replicator. "We're of a mind to just space you."
"We?" Barett looked around nervously at the other Collective, well, people filing into the room, a silent procession. None of them cast more than a glance his way, or each other's, as they stared into their own eyepieces.
"Don't worry, this section is on your side." The boy grabbed his tray and made his way to a table.
The marine followed, grinning uncertainly. "That's a relief... sorry, I didn't get your name."
Another strange gesture. "Oops, I forgot you can't see it. I'm L-four-M-three."
"Your name is Lame? Seriously?"
"Well, I sort of am." The teenager started shoveling food in his mouth, with a perfectly straight face.
"I'll just call you L-four." Barett rummaged into the pile of whatever was on his plate. It smelled better than military rations. "And... thanks for the warning. Do I get to face my accusers?"
L-four nodded, eating heartily. "If you join us, you'll be able to speak up for yourself."
"So that's my choice? Assimilation or death?" His hunger evaporated as quickly as it had come.
"You make it sound like it's the end of the world. What do you think we'll do, absorb your consciousness into a hive mind?"
The thought had crossed Barett's mind. "Ah... I'll think about it."
From hundreds of kilometers below, the dark side of the planet was staring back at her with a fiery eye: the city of Asendow proper. Stewart turned away from the porthole to sit at her portable console again. It was easy to lose oneself in work when the officers' mess was so empty and quiet.
She hardly paid attention when the door opened and closed again. It wasn't until the newcomer tapped on the back of her screen that she took her hands off the keyboard to stretch. "Oh, hello, doctor."
"Refill?" asked the doctor, offering a mostly full coffee pot. She was a tomboyish woman, or maybe a feminine boy, with short raven-black hair and oblique eyes.
"Yes, thank you."
The doctor made a show of filling both their cups. "You haven't gone dirtside with everyone else, Captain."
"Too much paperwork. What's your excuse?"
"Some of the skeleton crew were due for their checkups. Now be honest with me. What's the matter?"
Stewart gave the doctor a crooked smile. "You know me too well. That's what I get for being chummy with my subordinates."
She sipped from her cup before continuing. "All right. I've been reviewing recent unexplained incidents in our stellar neighborhood."
"Looking for clues, detective?"
"Indeed. Remember eight megaseconds ago, when a deep space listening outpost vanished without a trace, buildings and all?"
"Uh-huh. The Helians just about went to war over it."
"Right, and for once I can't blame them. But then, three megaseconds ago the same thing happened to a New Anthean border patrol."
"And now the Curious."
"Exactly. I'll spare you a look at the map: the Collective is coming from the other side of the galaxy."
The doctor boggled. "But nobody has returned from there in centuries."
"Until ten years ago."
"Until ten years ago," Stewart repeated more forcefully, "and we're still not ready for what we saw then."
She lifted the cup to her lips, and the doctor mirrored the motion. Neither of them said a thing until the interphone buzzed.
/Captain Stewart, please report to the bridge. I repeat, captain to the bridge./
Barett lay awake in a sleeping capsule, lost in the depths of the Collective's network.
"You can use my neighbor's capsule for now," L-four had told him. "She's still in sickbay after your incursion."
He'd tried to visit and apologize, but the young woman had turned her back on him and hadn't moved until he left the room. Other were more friendly, but only L-four would talk to him.
"Face time is for sex," had said the teenager consolingly. "Take this."
The eyepiece turned out to project an array of virtual monitors in his field of view. At first it seemed hopeless to keep up with all of them, conversation threads weaving themselves through centuries of media, and simulated worlds competing with views from the ship's sensors. He never knew when it became second nature to him.
"How do you get any real work done?" he'd asked L-four.
"We make it interesting."
Besides, there wasn't that much work to be done, apart from repairs. In fact there were people on board who weren't allowed to touch anything important. Barett ached to do something useful, but didn't want to be accused of fraternizing with the enemy once -- if -- he was going to escape. He doubted his chances. Other abductees had been on the cuboid for months. Then again, if he'd been from the Democratic Republics of Helia, he wouldn't have been in any hurry to return home, either.
A few days later, he was given write access.
Oh, there was no formal interrogation. The Collective didn't even have officers, or officials. Instead, it had administrators and moderators: at the same time an aristocracy and the most humble of civil servants. Not that Barett had much of a head for politics.
They listened. He lived. Time passed.
From the ground, all you could see was six bright stars receding into the evening sky. But if anyone could have trailed the formation from up close, they would have been treated to a grand sight: the Bonaventure atop a pillar of fire, preceded by the smaller Hóng Lóng and Piri Reis, while the three frigates made up the rearguard. A handful of newly reactivated destroyers formed a protective screen way ahead, while a dozen corvettes flanked the fleet above and below. The pride of our young nation, thought Benson. He sat in his command center aboard the Bonaventure, staring at the holographic projection above the central console. It was a force to be reckoned with... yet only half the tonnage their enemies could field with a single vessel.
"We're approaching weapons range, sir. Half a million klicks and closing." his aide said.
"Thank you, Richard." The admiral hit a button in front of him. "All ships, stand by for turnover."
They could see it on telescopes after a while: a box cut out from the darkness of deep space, spewing a torrent of ionized gas that could strip the armor right off an unshielded warship. The cuboid was braking for orbital insertion. In other words, thought Benson, they're coming for us. And I can't let them turn us all into mechanical ants.
The holographic display zoomed in, numbers dancing around multicolored vectors. He pressed the button again.
"All ships, turnover on my mark. Three. Two. One..."
On the command bridge, Vlasic's fingers moved with calm assurance through the sequence that would bring the ship about. Cut the torch drive; fire maneuvering thrusters; counter the rotation at just the right time. A computer could do it with more precision... too much in fact. You don't want to be that predictable in a fight.
They couldn't hear the other ships reporting readiness, but they also couldn't fail to see it on their sensors. Another order, and Jensen began to bring the weapons online. The thrill he felt every time had a bitter edge now. On one level, he ached for a rematch. But shooting at a comrade had never been in the job description.
In the immensity of space, the fleet crawled towards the invisible limit where the battle could start.
"Incoming broadcast." Al-Madina's announcement made De La Pena start, and for once she wasn't the only one. "I can replay it through a sandboxed environment."
"Notify Admiral Benson."
/I heard, Captain./ They both made sure to be formal in public. /Put us through; I want to hear them for myself./
Another image grew over the starfield on the main screen: a room like the inside of a data center, where a few Collective drones stood still facing the camera. De La Pena gasped. Front and center was Barett, his left arm and half his head covered in electronics, connecting cables clasped by a shoulder pad.
"My name is Shamus Barett. The Collective have asked me to speak for them. We made a mistake. There's no need to fight. If you could all come over here..."
He trailed off and turned from side to side as other voices raised from outside the frame. "We Are Wasting Time. Your Hierarchies Are Evil. We Will Teach You Collectivity. Do Not Resist."
On the bridge of the Bonaventure, everyone exchanged confused looks.
/This is Admiral Benson aboard the ASC Bonaventure. We want to avoid a fight. Can you.../
"They can't hear you, Admiral," Al-Madina chimed in. "There's no upload channel."
On the screen, Barett became increasingly agitated. A keen ear might have heard him say, "Guys, guys, no. Let me..." right before the transmission ended.
Benson's voice through the interphone betrayed puzzlement. /What do you make of that, Captain? You know your crew better than I do./
"I don't think he was speaking freely." Stewart sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "Have you seen his eyes and posture?"
"Not to mention all the crap he was wearing," added De La Pena.
/Would you say they're aiming to lure us into a trap?/
"I... guess?" Stewart answered hesitantly. "It's like talking to aliens."
/We have little time to make a decision, Captain. Do we give them the benefit of.../
The admiral was cut off by another faint voice in the background. "This is D-13, we're under attack! I repeat..." It became garbled before turning to silence. On the bridge displays, a destroyer spearheading the formation changed its identification from "friend" to "foe" then back again before changing to a neutral color, followed by a second. Just like that, it was on.
When they told Barett he was going home, he whooped with joy, hopping along the running track that circled Deck 50 -- one of the few places on the cuboid where that wasn't a major faux pas.
His second reaction was to double over with worry, which is how L-four found him in the nearby hydroponic gardens. The boy was learning to appreciate his company.
"They'll shoot on sight," the marine told him. "You guys will have to be more subtle about it."
"A brick to the face is subtle," countered the teen. "Your compatriots didn't listen to us anyway. But maybe they'll listen to you."
Barett doubted that, but played along. The Collective was well within his homeworld's radio envelope by now, and he was often called upon to clarify the finer points of various broadcasts. It was a bumpy ride, but they were beginning to understand each other. Or so it seemed.
Missiles aren't normally much good in a space battle. At typical engagement ranges, by the time your railgun shell crosses the distance, the enemy ship has had all the time in the world to disintegrate it, or simply move out of the way. But when you factor in the relative speed between two ships racing towards each other, the equation changes. So when the surviving destroyers unleashed their rain of iron, more than a few projectiles impacted the cuboid's shields, making them flash and flicker, while the massive ship's engines sputtered. The destroyers fired two more salvoes, each less effective as point defense adapted to the new threat. Then they were already screaming past the invader, too fast for any response. By then Hóng Lóng and Piri Reis were close enough, and the space separating them from the cuboid was filled with a glittering web of c-beams.
At last, the Collective retaliated.
A whole armor plate on its flat side lit up with a myriad shiny dots. One couldn't see the laser beams in a vacuum, but there was no mistaking the miniature sun that flourished on the flank of Piri Reis before a geyser of vaporized metal erupted from the spot, the cruiser spinning out of control. Then the cuboid pivoted on its long axis, exposing its broad side, and fired from two emplacements at once. As many explosions rocked the Hóng Lóng before fifty thousand tons of warship went dark.
On the bridge of the Bonaventure, everyone watched in horror.
"It went right through their shields!" De La Pena stated the obvious.
"Fascinating," said Jensen. "Those are phased array lasers operating in the visible spectrum. It's inefficient, but each individual beam..."
"Shut up, Jensen!" Stewart and her first officer snapped in tandem.
Behind them, Indomitable, Stormfront and California closed ranks, their fusion jets putting on a light show as they touched the cuboid's ion stream. It also made their glancing shots ineffective, but at least it seemed to keep the three frigates safe from return fire. More lights bloomed around the battlefield: the corvette escort was deploying decoys. From a safe distance, the surviving destroyers were taking potshots at the relatively unprotected top side of the cuboid.
"Vlasic, keep us pointed straight at them. And push us away. Let's not give them any more of a target." Outwardly, Stewart was all business. "Jensen, can you do something to the shields that would stop their weapons?"
"No, Ma'am. I'm sorry. Shields don't work that way. But a plasma cloud should scatter those lasers just fine."
"It will also disperse our c-beams," mused the captain. "Not that they're doing much good. What else can we shoot at them?"
Jensen stroked his beard. "A nuke, slowly enough to bypass the shields. With all the debris and jamming, it might just work."
"Make it so."
There was a tense silence on the bridge while he started hitting keys.
"Jensen, belay that order."
Everyone stared at De La Pena as if she'd gone mad. She held her ground.
"If we can send a nuke down their throats, we can also send a shuttle."
"Number One... Fran... Be reasonable. You think there's an officer on this ship who hasn't dreamed of rescuing Barett?"
"We're wasting time here..." Jensen called softly.
"Now you sound just like them, Jensen." De La Pena pointed a finger at the cuboid, tiny on the main screen despite magnification.
"How would you even locate him?" asked Vlasic.
"I can hack my way into the Collective's network," explained Al-Madina. "Their intrusion left traces."
"You can?" Stewart sounded pleased. "Now that would be more effective than a nuke."
The ensign nodded. "But I'd have to be there on the shuttle."
In his command center, Admiral Benson was running out of options. At least distance was an effective defense against those lasers, but his ships were still taking damage faster than the cuboid, especially now that the big guns were out of the action. And soon they would be in range of the large orbital city that was Asendow's gate to space -- the polity's livelihood. Which would mean they had failed.
He jumped at the chime of the interphone. "Yes?"
/Stewart here. Admiral, we have an idea./
The cuboid's hangar doors had taken a hit and were stuck halfway open. They parked the shuttle on top of them, eschewing the docking port. Only a squad of marines emerged this time, wearing light armor on top of skinsuits, and full-sized Gauss carbines. Artificial gravity was turned off, the energy likely redirected to better uses, and they floated down smoothly under the light tug of the giant ship's engines. There it was, suspended by huge cranes: the research vessel Curious, cause of all their problems, and also their early warning. It was all but shorn in half, ruptured conduits hanging out of an unsightly gap, all inert. An insectile robot appeared in the opening and pointed its camera stalks at the intruders, only to scurry out of sight the moment a gun was pointed at it.
"Hold your fire, private. It's just a machine."
"Yes, sarge. Sorry, sarge."
She patted the boy's shoulder. "We're all tense, son."
They were regrouping on the hangar floor when Al-Madina's voice crackled into her helmet. /I've located him. Seven decks down from your position. Beaming you the map now./
"Seven?! We barely made it across three decks last time."
/Take the elevator closest to you. I'll make sure nobody will notice./
And if you fail, we'll be trapped like rats, she thought. Oh well, it's not like we have a better plan.
The elevator crossed deck after empty deck on the way down, or at least they seemed so in the red emergency lighting. Now and then, the rumble of distant impacts made them take aim, but no targets presented themselves. The sergeant was sweating by the time the cage stopped, and she was seeing things where her HUD indicated just empty air.
"We've got your back, sarge," one of her men said.
"Thank you, Corporal. Quickly now. Our luck can only hold so far."
Corridors were wider down here, connecting spacious machine shops, pump rooms and walk-in circuit racks into a maze that promised more threats the further they went unhindered.
"Come on," she whispered, "where is everyone?"
That's when she saw them, peeling off from the background of hot pipes like infrared ghosts to surround her marines. Too many, she thought, pointing her gun from one armored body to another. And where's...
Barett was there, too, standing awkwardly not three meters from her. He didn't flinch when she held him at gunpoint.
"Take him and go," said the Collective drone next to him. "Hurry."
She didn't question her good luck as she dragged Barett away by the arm without meeting any resistance. More humanoid shapes were coming towards the squad in the dark. They ran for the elevator without a second thought.
Outside, gunfire was dying down as one by one the Asendowian ships took one hit too many. The Collective was parking itself close to the orbital city already, lights going mad all over the gridwork of towers. Too late, the admiral told himself in the silence of his command center. I should have ordered that nuclear strike.
But is it really any better to go down with your enemy?
"How is he, doc?"
The sick bay was abuzz with activity -- somehow, the cuboid had managed a few good shots at the Bonaventure anyway. Human and robot nurses alike milled about under the doctor's direction. It took her a good moment to acknowledge the question.
"Incoherent, Captain. Withdrawal symptoms from being taken off the Collective's network."
Stewart followed the doctor to a particular bed in the far corner of the room. Barett was lying there with unfocused eyes, left hand twitching now and then as if reaching for a keyboard that wasn't there.
"I didn't dare remove his headpiece yet. Who knows what they did to his brain."
The captain nodded absently. "Major! Major, can you hear me?"
He failed to react at first, then grabbed her wrist with a lightning fast motion, squeezing hard enough to make her wince.
"What are they doing?" he rasped.
She swallowed. "They're taking control of the city's network. There's widespread panic. How do we stop them, Major?"
"Let me talk to them."
"That's too dangerous. Tell me what to do."
His grip tightened. "You don't get it. I've been there."
Out there, not a thousand kilometers away, Stewart's home was descending into chaos. She took a long, hard look at Barett and reached for the interphone.
In orbit, lights were coming back all over the cuboid even as they were going out in the city. Somewhere, a freighter was running away at full burn, sending a pointless distress signal. Further out, inert warships drifted.
Then space wavered and twisted around the cuboid. A million tons of steel passed through an invisible door and were gone.
Visitors from a score of worlds walked the grand concourse at the heart of the orbital city. Many of them reminded the officers from Bonaventure of the Collective. In their differences, people were more alike than they sometimes cared to admit.
They were sitting on a bench half-hidden by ornamental plants, drinks in their hands: De La Pena's a fizzy swirl of colors, Barett's a subdued blue-green.
"So, I hear you're cleared for duty again," she said.
He nodded. "It will be good to get back on the ship. Civvies itch all over."
"You don't sound so convinced."
"Did I ever thank you for getting me back?"
"Don't change the subject, Sam."
He chuckled. "All right. I grew up believing nothing ever gets done unless there's someone at the top to give the order."
"Well... It's kind of true."
"Is it? We were defeated by a bunch of kids organized around a computer network."
"You've said that before, but I don't understand how it's possible."
"Think about it. How many of our allies sent a warship to help us?"
"None," he repeated. "And any of them could be next. Whereas in the Collective, they bicker among each other all the time, but sooner or later they all end up pulling more or less in the same direction."
"That doesn't give them the right to force their way of life on everyone else."
"No, no it doesn't. And if they come again, I won't hesitate to shoot."
He grinned. "You're a clever girl. It's not the chain of command that gives us strength, but the trust we place in each other."
They got up and wandered off into the crowd, shoulders touching.
Felix Pleșoianu Bucharest, 19 December 2014
Collectivity by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.