Alan watched from the observation deck as a large yellow loader brought the stealth device to the Vĩnh Viễn. The cavernous hanger echoed with the shouts of the maintenance crew and the clanking of machinery. Various repair drones moved about, like spherical jellyfish, committed to their tasks in preset algorithms. The smell of oil and burning metal assailed his nose. He rubbed his hands against the handrail, feeling its smooth surface. Multiple boots banging against the metal floor interrupted his thoughts. He turned toward the noise, seeing Colonel Miyashiro approaching with his attached security detail. Alan’s lips pursed.
The young fleet commander faced his black-clad guards and motioned them away. They stepped back and idled at the rear of the deck, standing straight as posts. Miyashiro walked toward him, his gait and clean uniform reminding Alan of the holovids portraying the lives of aristocrats from Earth’s old history. His eyes never left him; Alan felt his blood pressure rise. He slowed down his breathing. The man came unsmiling, but did not appear to have any hostile intent.
When the colonel stopped before him, he took off his cap, bowed once, and then extended his hand. “Mr. Vuong, I must apologize for my impertinent remarks earlier. It was unworthy of me. I realized that when I saw Sargire’s trust in you,” he said. His eyes locked onto Alan’s like a point defense laser on an incoming missile.
Alan regarded him a moment. His consternation did not dissipate. He willed his implanted gland to secrete calming neurotransmitters. Examining him closer, the man was much younger than he thought. He also looked like a pompous ass. Alan wondered whether he was part of Kenzenken royalty. He stared at the hand a little longer, and then shrugged. He firmly grasped it and shook. “Apology accepted, sir,” he murmured, not quite believing that he was going through with this.
“Call me Kenichi.” The young man dropped his hand. He stood next to Alan and glanced at the Vĩnh Viễn. He pointed a gloved hand at it. “You know, those ships gave us a hell of a time during the war. We called them yak-killers.” When Alan raised his eyebrows, he responded, “Giant winged insects. In the ancient Earth days, their venom was known to kill large mammals such as yaks. A perfect metaphor for this craft.” Seeing Alan still confused, he continued on. “Yaks were large bovine mammals living in the Himalayan mountain ranges. Believed to have gone extinct during the ecosystem collapse. Rumor has it that we have some DNA samples for them in storage.”
Alan also looked at the arrowhead-shaped ship. In space battles, it played the part of a gnat, albeit one with a very deadly bite. It did show more presence than the surrounding humans, though. “Yes, that’s what they were designed for, precision strikes on large enemy vessels, using the firepower on their small frames to fell giant beasts,” he said.
Kenichi laughed. “Sounds about right. We always dreaded those IFF markers.”
“Although yours weren’t too bad either.”
The other man lips curled up. A few moments passed. The shriek of machine tools filled the silence. Alan relaxed his shoulders. This was the first time he had spoken face-to-face with a Kenzenken. To his surprise, he started hoping it wouldn’t be the last. Sure, the battle trainers emphasized that the enemy were humans, too. But it was hard to keep that in mind when all that you knew of them was as a red dot on your tactical screen.
Kenichi cleared his throat. “I wanted a chance to explain myself. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No need,” Alan said. “You have a right to be angry. It’s only human.” He pulled at a chin hair, but it remained in place. “If I could go back… I would undo it. Every time I think about it, I remember that engine exploding. The debris moving outwards. Innocent people being blasted into particles. I dream about it sometimes.” Alan closed his eyes, the memory of the incident threatening to overwhelm him.
He felt a hand clap on his shoulder. In surprise, he looked toward the young colonel. The man’s face displayed warmness and compassion. “And would you? Make a different decision?” Kenichi asked. “If we ruminate too long on the past, if we let it occupy our thoughts, we would never move forward. You were a different person back then. You will never be him again. That was may not be again. Now you can choose to be a better person. For you, it’s time to make the decision. To rise… or fall.” His face tightened. Kenichi’s gazed pierced him.
“Admiral Vendrien said we could stop the cycle of destruction forever. What if he’s right? What if a reset, with all our knowledge intact and perfect understanding of one another, was possible? What if something could help us never again hurt others? What if we can know everything with perfect clarity? Should we take it?” Alan wondered aloud.
Kenichi pondered the question. “Your scenario sounds like a prison. We would be little more than slaves to our memory. Are we just simple animals, following instinct without thought? We are capable of so much more. But it requires growth. How could the human race ever learn from its mistakes if it never fails? We are not children hiding behind their mother’s skirts.”
“And what if we fall… over and over and over again… until we wipe ourselves out of existence?”
Kenichi let go of his shoulder and gave him a wry smile. “Then that will be that. And I will weep at this great tragedy. I’m more optimistic about our chances, however. We have the capacity to change. For example, our ancestors hurt the Earth in a profound way, but now we bring her back to life.”
Alan thought of the massive terraforming project he and Michael saw on their visit to Earth. Vast atmospheric processor facilities. Networks of water purification plants. Massive machines breaking down the ruins of dust and metal. One of the few gestures of cooperation between the Republic and the Coalition before war broke out. With the end of the war, both sides resurrected it, perhaps in a futile gesture. The current generation would never see its fruits. Nor their grandchildren’s generation. Nor their grandchildren’s grandchildren’s generation.
He watched the hangar crew place the breaching pod on the ship. It attached with a loud bang. “We’re learning some harsh and expensive lessons.”
“Those are the only ones we will remember.” Kenichi paused. “If you and Nalia are right, this will truly be greatest test that humanity has ever faced.” His hands swept over the sight of the Vĩnh Viễn. “You are on a dangerous and perhaps foolhardy mission. I hope you and Nalia will return. We will need you to guide us in this perilous hour.”
“That’s a tall order. I can barely guide myself. Besides, you don’t even know me.” Alan leaned back against the metal railing.
The admiral put on his cap. “One knows more through your actions than through random talk.” He paused. “I hope you don’t mind if I give you some advice. I learned it from an old friend, the same one who taught me about failing.”
Alan thought he could hear sorrow in the man’s voice. “I don’t mind,” he said.
“When you feel yourself losing control, when everything conspires to throw you off, stop. Still your mind and become aware of the source of that instability. Gather within all that ails you, your doubts, fears, anger, and frustrations, and place them around that source. Then let all of it go. Free your mind from it. Then you will know what do.” Kenichi’s chronometer beeped and he gave it an annoyed look. “I must go. I have another meeting with Admiral Atranas. Good luck, pilot.” He gestured toward his guards and they left. Alan stood on the catwalk and stared at the ceiling, thinking of the trials to come.
The Vĩnh Viễn raised itself slowly off the hangar floor, its vertical thrusters scorching its surface. Alan eased it out of the hold and watched on the visuals as the hangar turned into a field of stars. He sighed. He had only practiced a few hours in the sims, trying to remember the right maneuvers for their journey. He hoped it would be enough. He heard Nalia’s soft breathing besides him and felt the weight of the marine complement behind them. Their leader, a hard-nosed man with a salt-and-pepper beard, greeted him with a grunt before ordering his troops into the breaching module. They also gave him and Nalia impact rifles. When Alan felt the weight of the rifle, he wondered how such a light object could have so much destructive power. Tones and chirps indicated that the ship was at full readiness. He opened and closed his fist, testing the flexibility of his gloves and his new vacuum flightsuit. The Nomex-9 materials comforted him like a warm blanket. God, it was good to wear proper clothing again.
“We’ve got the coordinates,” said Nalia, transmitting her information to his screen. “Fleet Intelligence believes that the First Fleet has stopped at this position here, near a brown dwarf star. Nothing special at all about it. No weird energy readings, no tesseracts detected. For all we know, it’s just a random spot in space.”
Alan noted the fleet’s position on the map. They were far, but they would make it in good time. “We’ll need to do one FTL jump out of sensor range. Then we go STL the rest of the way.” He took a breath through his nose. “Let’s do it,” he announced. The implanted gland secreted the amphetamine into his nervous system as he accelerated the ship to full impulse. The Vĩnh Viễn rumbled as it achieved maximum thrust.
He heard Nalia snap the seat restraints over herself. He did the same. “I’ll never know how you people get used to this,” she said, before gasping as the g-forces hit her. Alan felt them too, but had enough of the stimulants in his system to focus on their next steps.
They prepared to jump into the grid. There was no tesseract nearby, but the navigational computer assured them that they would reach their destination with a 98% probability. He thought of the 2% chance of failure as the grid surrounded them and the portal opened. He blinked once and they were in realspace again, safe and at the promised coordinates. One never quite got used traveling vast interstellar distances as easily as passing through a door. It just felt wrong.
He activated the program for the stealth device. A flurry of Kenzenken calligraphy greeted him. The computer automatically translated it to Republic standard, albeit with a few quirks here and there. Documentation for the device also appeared on the computer screen. He did not care for the random poetry in the help files.
“Activating stealth field,” he said. A strange, almost alien hum emanated from the bulkhead. He didn’t quite understand how it worked, but it seemed to be doing the job. The stealth program icon indicated that it was working as intended. No one would detect them unless they actively looked for them with a full sensor suite at close range.
He slowed the thrust and decelerated to a manageable speed. His finger traced their trajectory on his screen. Everything appeared in order. “Deactivating engines,” he said, flicking the engine shutoff switch. The rumble in the ship disappeared. “Turning off all non-essential systems,” he said, pushing more buttons on his console. The lights all went out, before a fluorescent blue replaced them.
“I hope he’s in the mood to talk,” Nalia said.
“Oh, we’re going to hear plenty of that. The man probably worships the sound of his own voice,” Alan answered.
The journey continued on for a half hour. He stared at their trajectory, wondering when the fleet would appear on sensors. The green indicator for the Vĩnh Viễn showed that it was still on the right course. In a second, the computer answered his question, when hundreds of red indicators appeared around them. They were in the fleet. Although it was unlikely that anyone in the First Fleet could hear them, no one dared say a word. An icon revealing the admiral’s flagship, the Leif Eriksson, indicated that the ship was on the far side of the star. Alan knew that the vessel bristled with communication and sensor modules, powerful enough to coordinate fleets across entire star systems. He prayed the stealth device would fool it.
Alan angled the ship with low-energy thrusters so that they would face away from the ship. A drop of sweat rolled down the back of his neck as he went through the fine adjustments. They approached it. Soon enough, the Vĩnh Viễn was close enough that someone on the flagship would be able to see them on external cameras. They came closer at a rapid speed. Ten seconds until they passed. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Alan activated the magnetic cables. They shot over the small distance to attach to the Eriksson’s hull. The cables pulled them closer to the ship, assisted by the powerful magnets on the breaching module. A quiet thud greeted them as the Vĩnh Viễn attached to the flagship. The squad leaders shouted orders as the marines prepared to cut an opening through the hull. It took a while, but their high-powered laser cutter created an opening. A squad went through, jumping with dull thuds on the flagship’s floor. The second squad prepared to do the same. Their leader motioned for them to follow. Alan and Nalia took off their safety harnesses and headed into the breaching area.