His chronometer beeped. Vendrian stared at the viewscreen image of the brown dwarf star. His thoughts pondered its existence. The wretched thing had died as soon as it was born. This stillborn mass never had the fuel to become a main sequence star. He looked at the graphs charting the decreasing infrared radiation from its core, where in time it would become as cold as a human corpse. There it would float in space, a dead monument to a capricious universe. It didn’t even have the decency to die properly, providing its ashes to birth new stars.
He took a pill from a case on his desk and swallowed it. The crippling headaches would erupt again and he needed to stave them off for just a little while longer. The time he had long awaited for would soon be upon them. His knees creaked, wracked from decades spent in ships and low gravity. The pain came, too, a gnawing feeling now, rather than the unceasing agony a few years back. A neurodegenerative disease, the doctors called it. The treatments failed and he was too adapted to space for DNA repair therapy, they had said. In ten years, perhaps less, he would be confined to a grav-chair and retired quietly to a nice country home on a quaint pastoral planet. Vendrian almost laughed. This old man, I am finally him, he thought.
He lingered at the image for a few moments more, and then shut the viewscreen off. The admiral sat down, surveying the mass of documents splayed on his desk: sign-offs for fleet maneuvers; requests for further briefings; and demands for explanations from Central Command. He thumbed at a sheet, causing it to rustle. He preferred working with paper. It had texture, feeling, solidness. He could not grasp electrons, couldn’t breathe in words written on a tiny font on a screen. His fingers and eyes traced the message on the sheet. An attempted counter-mutiny on the Solzhenitsyn. All conspirators shot dead. He had not been as careful as he thought. More blood on his hands.
He accessed his personal archives and pulled up a document hundreds of pages long. At the end, he added their names to the list. Vendrian sighed and closed his eyes. His thoughts turned towards the past. The first death he ever encountered was a disappearing blue dot on a tactical holo. A woman named Celia Williams flew one of the early-generation Hawking craft on a recon mission deep into Kenzenken territory. He recalled how as a green wing commander he held her arm for a few seconds longer than necessary as he wished her success on the mission. Thirty minutes after their departure, she and her wingmen reported multiple bogies closing in on them. A second later, nothing. Vendrian remembered that long eternity before the computer confirmed loss of vital signs and put the dull red cross mark over her status window. The captain ordered a full withdrawal as the computer assigned more cross marks, punctuated by the occasional screams. The grid jump left an energy wake strong enough to be detected light-years away, their intrusion a bright beacon of Republic perfidy. Pushed by their war hawks and tired of the constant meddling, the Kenzenken Coalition declared war five minutes later. Both sides thought it would be a short conflict.
As time went on, he sent more pilots to their deaths, so much that watching the cross marks was as routine as listening to the sounds on his chronometer. The war dragged back and forth, with planets lost and retaken like the balls in games of zero-g soccer. He memorized the growing list of pilot casualties every day. He sent messages to their families in the proper solemn tone, excluding how they had been cut in half by railgun fire or how they slowly suffocated as air leaked from their space suits. He wanted to see those families in person, but meeting them was not an efficient use of his time, Central said. No, they would learn of the deaths of their loved ones from the pale screens of home holos or work monitors.
As the war progressed, he somehow found love again, marrying a tactical officer he met on shore leave. She soon became pregnant and immediately resigned from her position. He used his growing influence to facilitate her exit. She went to an ocean world far from the front and gave birth to a brown-haired boy. In their all too infrequent and brief exchanges, he watched the boy become a sullen young man. Vendrian concealed his joy when his son told him that he would not join the military and would go elsewhere. In time, his wife and son both went somewhere far away. While he observed the tactical nuclear bombardment of a Kenzenken planet, she sent him a long sorrowful message announcing their separation. He hated her for running away. He hated himself more for not doing the same.
Vendrian soldiered on through the war’s interminable course, advancing to captain and eventually to admiral. His list of victories grew long. His list of casualties grew even longer. Recognizing the war’s toll, Command allowed him some respite for a few years to teach at the Academy. There, he sought out students to mentor. He knew not why. Perhaps he sought companions. Perhaps he wanted to do something other than end lives. Many of them died anyway. He decided Alan would be the last.
They needed him, and late in the war, he was again at the front, as empty as he was when he left it. There, he and the other admirals planned a grand operation, promising to end the war for good. They used the forest world of Haven as bait for a Kenzenken invasion. Civilian casualties were projected, but they determined that defeating the Kenzenkens was a more important consideration. There, the two foes would meet and have the final and climactic battle that both of them desperately wanted. A defeat would cripple the loser for decades. The Kenzenkens took the bait, and commenced invasion with a massive fleet. Much more massive than Intelligence predicted.
Thousands of ships on both sides entered combat in orbit over the planet. Even with multiple reinforcements, Vendrian could not break the Kenzenken formation. He sent wave after wave from every angle to no avail. The stubborn bastards refused to expose their flanks. He watched more red cross marks appear on the viewscreens. Finally, through some extreme stroke of luck, a single Hawking ship broke past every single point defense cannon and hypervelocity missile thrown at it and rammed the command ship’s bridge at full acceleration, killing all aboard and crippling the ship. With a significant chunk of their leadership dead along with ruinous losses, the backup Kenzenken admiral decided to surrender. The battle culminated in a Republic victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one, for Vendrien’s fleet was a fraction of its pre-battle size. The Republic had no means to counter-invade, and thus both sides settled into a cold war that lasted until the final peace treaty.
Vendrien returned to the Academy, exhausted and numb. That was when his disease revealed itself and the headaches and the pain grew agonizing. The students never noticed. They were disappointed that they missed the greatest battle of their generation. He envied their naiveté. One day, the whispers came to him. He thought himself mad and sought any means to quell them. However, nothing worked. They persisted in the back of his mind and drew him towards historical archives and top-secret databases. Was he searching for a secret weapon? Or some way to suppress the guilt? Even he did not really know why he rummaged through these ancient technological dustbins.
Eventually, he found a long forgotten report on a newly charted brown dwarf star. The author surmised that even though it radiated substantially less energy than other stars, its tesseract could connect to multiple star systems, some deep into Kenzenken space. However, the numerous anomalies around the brown dwarf had the potential to impair gridspace navigation severely, making travel dangerous. He chartered a secret expedition to the star. The voices told him to come alone. To the loud protestations of the crew, he took a shuttlecraft to the tesseract’s coordinates.
At first, when he arrived there, nothing happened. For hours, he waited in anticipation. He then figured that he needed to do something related to the grid and the only thing he thought of was the gridspace drive. When he activated it, he did not jump. He could not jump. The shuttle lay suspended between the real and the grid. A grinding noise came from behind him. He watched in panic as the shuttle bay doors opened of their own accord. But rather than being pulled into the void of space, a wondrous light filled the interior. Angelic, almost. He felt a presence there, inviting him in. He reached forward and something clasped his arm. It was not rough or hostile, but soft and caressing. It reminded him of Celia.
He found himself floating in a mountain lake, its warm waters flowing around his body. Feelings of joy and bliss overwhelmed him, almost like mania. As his rational mind rebelled, his mental defenses crumbled. He felt his fear and anxiety dissipate. The light bathed him, easing his aches and pain. The tightness behind his eyes faded, and for the first time in decades, he felt whole. Then he saw. He found himself holding his infant son and his body jolted as his wife’s arms wrapped around him. Soft rain tinkled on the outside windows of the pastoral home.
His vision shifted. The galaxy’s stars presented themselves to him. Billions, no, trillions of points of light flitted among the fields of stars like children hop-scotching on river rocks. Not knowing how, he realized they were human, filling the solar systems and the spaces between with their multitude. They sang a song that he could not understand, but it felt ancient and new. As they continued, he realized its message. It was an anthem of freedom, promising the end of pain and despair. And death.
The experience ended. He found himself back in the shuttle, its door sealed, and its gridspace drive silent. His vision blurred and he doubled over in pain, as everything came back at once. He lay on the ground in a cascade of agony. Beads of sweat formed on the back of his neck and soaked his uniform. He vomited on the metal floor. At the end of this torture, he heard the whispers again. They told him that salvation was coming. All he had to do was wait. With the memory of the light, he listened and waited until the man known as Vargas entered his office.
His chronometer beeped. Vendrian awoke with a start, greeted by his office again. Just nerves, he thought. He stood up. The hour had arrived.