Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Fiction

Talus Slope
by Joseph Green

Who Benefits From War?
by Hayden Trenholm

Those Magnificent Stars
by Clare L. Deming

A Soldier Undreams
by Bret Carter

Eating Disorder
by Len Dawson

My Shaigetz
by Marcy Arlin

Two Timing
by Rik Hunik

To Dance With the Girls of Ios-5
by Ted Blasche

Articles

Psychology and Science Fiction
by Ann Gimpel, Ph.D.

Get Up and Go Somewhen
by J. Richard Jacobs

In Time For Evolution
by Eric M. Jones


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Who Benefits From War?

By Hayden Trenholm

WHATEVER HIT REAGAN station had hit it hard. A data slam or something worse. The lights flickered, then stabilized. Dana Thurkow gritted her teeth and began a systems’ check.

Three calls rattled the comm implanted behind her right ear, all priority. She blinked the display into view and grunted her relief when it lit up. Let Turner handle the first one, she thought, shunting the call to her 2IC. He deals with Skunks better than me. A man of few words but sudden and certain actions.

She beamed a more details needed message to Engineering—more to buy time than because she wanted one of their techno-babble explanations.

When the Captain calls, you answer.

“Thurkow here.”

“Lieutenant, what the hell is going on down there?” Captain Mason’s voice was mellow but the swearing was unusual. “The bridge is in the dark.”

“Still investigating, sir. I’ll comm you as soon as I have more data.”

“I mean literally. Lights and consoles are all out. Ventilation, too, so don’t suggest candles.”

The last time someone had lit a candle with the systems down a pocket of waste gas had killed two crew, including Captain Alvarez, which was why she was Chief of Operations, instead of on the Bridge. Acting Chief, she thought with a tinge of bitterness, until the Captain confirmed her promotion or, more likely, found someone he considered better suited to the job.

“I’ll get someone on that, sir, but Engineering’s in an uproar, so it may take awhile.”

“Then why don’t you head down there and see if you can speed things along. It’s why we pay you the big bucks.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but nobody’s been paid for ...”

“A little joke, Lieutenant. You do remember humor?”

“Yes, sir, if you say so sir.”

“I’d like to hear your views on why Alliance has gotten so...” Mason paused, searching for the right word, “... precise in their attacks. Be open to the possibilities and be diplomatic.”

“Aren’t I always?” she said but the Captain had already signed off. Dana swore softly under her breath and pulled her harness loose. She slipped out of the operations chair and kicked expertly against the console. It had taken her weeks to get her ZG legs but after nearly a year in Earth orbit she was a pro. She glided to the lock on the far side of the room. The panel was green but that didn’t mean much. The Alliance had gotten pretty sophisticated with their viruses lately. For all she knew there was nothing on the other side of the door but hard vacuum. Though if they had breached as deep as ops, the station would be pretty much finished anyway.

No guts, no glorious flag draped coffin. She thumbed the lock. The door groaned and slid three quarters open before grinding to a halt. The air on the far side, if not fresh, was at least breathable. She kicked off the door, partly to propel herself down the passageway and partly in frustration over its faulty servos. The door responded by sliding silently shut behind her.

The main passageway was surprisingly quiet, given the hit they had just taken. Virtual only, she thought, as she passed one of the few crews actively working on repairs. Lights on emergency but no hull breaches. The Alliance usually followed a data slam with real missiles. Perimeter must have knocked them out before they broke Earth’s atmosphere. Or else the worst was yet to come.

It was a long drop to Engineering at the bottom end of the dumbbell shaped station. Of course, the engineers all claimed to be at the top of the station with command, as usual, bringing up the rear. Dana wondered if that qualified as humor in the Captain’s books?

Truth be told, Dana would give a lot to see what was included in the Captain’s books. Especially the chapter labeled Dana Thurkow. What would it take to earn his trust?

Not that she really trusted him. Mason was like a spider in a web, weaving plots within plots. He ran the station from the bridge, seldom leaving it except for a few hours of sleep every cycle. He ate at his post, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by senior officers, feeding him information along with his rations. Rumor had it that his chair was plumbed so he didn’t even have to get up to go to the head.

He was an obsessive compulsive enigma but a competent one and Reagan Station would have fallen long ago if it weren’t for his level-headed insight and knack for off-the-wall fixes. Even Engineering respected him and the Skunks practically adored him.

And why wouldn’t they? Mason had moved them out of the exposed outer pods into shielded crew habitat within a few days of taking command. “People come first—whether they were born Union or came to us as refugees,” he had said.

Dana had kept her counsel. You can take the Skunk out of the Alliance but you can’t take the Alliance out of the Skunk.

The labs had been moved into the pods instead and, although a few experiments had been lost in subsequent attacks, the death toll had fallen off dramatically. The science team had grumbled but since nearly half of them were Skunks anyway, it soon died down.

Dana didn’t understand why Union allowed Skunks on the station in the first place —too many opportunities for sabotage as far as she was concerned. But senior staff, let alone Union central command on Earth, seldom asked her advice on such matters, and when they did, never heeded it. “Let the events determine your opinions, Dana,” Mason had said in a rare private moment, “Not your opinions, the events.”

Someday, they’d see she was right—that Skunks shouldn’t be allowed into Union, never mind into space. Of course, by then we’ll all be dead. If only she could catch one red-handed, before the damage was done, she could prove herself worthy of promotion. And get the Skunks off Reagan once and for all.

She pushed that happy thought out of her mind as she approached the nexus where the corridors joining the two halves of the station proper and the four pods came together. It was a high traffic area and one didn’t sail through without pausing. Especially not when half the lights were out. She grabbed a stanchion and peered around the dimly lit sphere.

“Hey, you! What the hell are you doing there?”

“Pardon?” The slight figure in civilian coveralls turned from a darkened panel, screwdriver still in hand.

“I said—what the hell are you doing there? We’re in a lockdown. No authorized personnel should be abroad, especially not ...” Dana paused.

“Skunks?”

“I was going to say civilians,” sneered Dana, “but a skunk by any other name ...”

“Stinks as much?” The man smiled, his teeth shining in his dark face. “Very good. And when I come up with a clever retort, they will say I rose to the occasion.”

Dana grunted. She never could follow Skunks. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Yes,” the man nodded, as if she had said something profound. “The explanation is simplicity itself. I have an experiment running in this pod—a delicate one—and I wanted to check on it after the attack. But the hatch is sealed.” He waved delicately at the panel as if that excused everything.

“And how do you know the pod is still there? The indicators have failed. It might be open space on the other side or an Alliance jihadist waiting to eat your face.” Dana bellowed the last three words and grinned in satisfaction when the man jumped, not much but enough to send him drifting away from the wall and into the nexus, where he flailed helplessly.

She slapped her wrist comm. “Turner, I got a pick up for you in the nexus. Some skunk named,” she glanced at the patch on his chest, “Ali Kahn. Take him back to his quarters and make him stay there until the all clear. Use whatever measures you deem appropriate.”

“On it,” replied Turner. A veritable torrent for the Sargeant.

She pushed off toward Engineering, resisting the urge to kick Kahn on the way by.

***

Chief Engineer Amanda Kiernander met her at the main hatch, arms crossed and jaw locked in a parody of a smile. Dana floated in the corridor facing her.

“Don’t shoot the messenger, Chief,” said Dana. “We’re all on the same side.”

Kiernander grunted but gave her a grudging nod.

“You could have saved yourself a trip,” said Kiernander. “We’re doing all we can down here, so unless ...”

Her words were cut off by the sudden blaring of the red alert klaxon. Seconds later the walls of the corridor shuddered and groaned. Dana gasped as a shock wave rippled along the length of the station, passing through her body like a shiver. A second smaller shock hit moments later and a dozen smaller alarms began to chime softly from within engineering.

For a moment it was as if time stood still. Dana realized she was holding her breath, waiting to see if it would be her last. She exhaled noisily and grinned hard when Kiernander did the same a few seconds later. Not surprising after her experience on Thatcher.

Kiernander forced a short sharp laugh and shook herself like a dog. “That’s my girl,” she said, patting the station wall. But she looked worried. Distracted.

“That was close,” said Dana.

“Too close,” said Kiernander, almost to herself. She glanced at Dana. “EM pulse probably just took out every unshielded system on the station. Nothing critical will go down but science is going to be screaming when they see what it’s done to their precious experiments.” Kiernander was really smiling now. Engineering and Science were in constant competition for resources and bragging rights as to who was doing the real work aboard the station, as if Reagan Station wasn’t first and foremost a military operation, Union’s last bulwark against Alliance’s superior numbers. Like the rest, too busy playing their political games to see the truth.

Dana thought of the skunk she had caught trying to break into one of the pods. “Do you know a sk— scientist called Ali Kahn?” Kiernander didn’t share her view of skunks. There was no point in aggravating her before Dana could complete her report to Captain Mason.

“Little guy, big smile, likes to quote Shakespeare?”

“Wouldn’t know about the last but it sounds like him. Dark.”

Kiernander scrunched her brows as if she had never noted the man’s skin tone before. “He’s new. A bright light from the Alliance who came over the wall during a conference in ... somewhere in neutral Africa. Claims to understand quantum physics.”

Like a lot of engineers, Kiernander took a “can’t live without it, let’s not talk about it” attitude towards quantum mechanics.

“I met him a couple of times at one of the Captain’s socials. If he wasn’t so married I’d have given him a try.”

Dana suppressed a shudder. “Is his wife on station?”

“She didn’t make it out.”

“Then he’s probably not still married. You know how Alliance treats defectors.”

Kiernander shrugged the way she always did when Dana tried to talk politics.

“You need something or is this a social call, Lieutenant?”

Kiernander was now blocking the entrance to Engineering, making it clear that military, or at least Dana Thurkow, weren’t currently welcome in her domain. Captain Mason was both the military commander and the civilian administrator of Reagan Station. While Mason was Kiernander’s senior, she wasn’t military and pretty much ran Engineering as she liked unless Mason gave her specific instructions to the contrary. Already the youngest Chief Engineer in the fleet, the woman’s ambitions knew no bounds. Mess hall rumor had it that Kiernander was furious when she was passed over for the civilian command, though she would assume that post if something ever happened to Mason. Maybe that was the reason the Captain left her alone except in extreme circumstances. Oil on troubled waters. Or maybe it was more complex still. Union politics were never simple; Reagan’s command structure was no exception.

“Captain wants to know when systems will be restored on the Bridge.”

“You’re behind the times, Lieutenant Thurkow. Priority systems have been up for at least a minute.”

“I didn’t get that comm,” Dana fiddled with the control studs in her right earlobe.

“I’d be surprised if you did. Personal comms aren’t shielded,” said Kiernander. “Besides, the fact we’re still alive is message enough. Captain put weapons command on manual about an hour ago.”

“I’d think I’d know if ...”

Kiernander blushed and glanced around. “It was coded for Chiefs only but I guess, since you’re acting head of Ops ...” She hesitated and motioned Dana closer.

“There was a glitch in the tracking and targeting routines. Nothing serious but everything was running a few microseconds slow.”

A few microseconds was all it took for a missile traveling at twelve klicks a second to slip past perimeter defenses. Dana felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her side.

Mason had sent her to Engineering to speed essential repairs and to assess Alliance’s new-found precision. Yet he hadn’t bothered to tell her about running the weapons system from the bridge. What game was he playing?

“Didn’t the Captain trust your people to ...?”

Kiernander bristled. “Captain’s prerogative. Trust has nothing to do with it. He felt it was better to take my computers off-line rather than try to fix them on the fly. His instincts are legendary for a reason. We still hadn’t found the bug when the virus slam hit us.”

“Sometimes I think Mason is a magician.”

“I’m sure of it. The Captain is pursuing his own lines and he’ll come to his own conclusions,” said Kiernander, no longer smiling. “So if there’s nothing else ...”

Kiernander pulled herself through the hatch without turning.

“Chief?”

Kiernander sighed. “What is it now, lieutenant?”

“Any thoughts on what caused the computer problem? Software doesn’t just suddenly go bad.”

“Since when? Software is like a bowl of fruit. Let it sit long enough and it’s bound to develop bugs. But no, not like that.”

“A virus then?”

“No, nothing inserted, it was more like...” Kiernander puased. “If the computer was a person, you might say she was distracted. Attending to some other task instead of the one assigned.” She flashed Dana a hard grin. “You know, like playing solitaire when she was supposed to be doing inventory.” Kiernander turned away.

It was Dana’s turn to blush. Some mistakes are never forgotten. Skunk-loving bitch, mouthed Dana. Kiernander’s dig was meant to end the conversation but Dana wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. She had instincts too.

“But what would cause that?”

Kiernander shrugged and looked back over her shoulder. “Nothing malicious, I’m sure.” She hesitated as if considering the truth of that statement and then added, carefully. “My best guess? Unauthorized use of the main coreLaPine. Someone was working a major program and needed a little extra processing power.”

“But who?”

Kiernander turned away again and for a moment, Dana thought she wasn’t going to answer. Then she nodded and said, her voice flat. “Go ask LaPine. Engineering’s problems aren’t that complex.” Kiernander pulled herself the rest of the way through the hatch and closed the door behind her.

***

Dr. Auguste LaPine’s office was just off the central corridor, in the permanently weightless part of the station. Although Reagan no longer rotated along its central axis for tactical reasons, old habits die hard and LaPine had never transferred his workspace to the pods. In gravity, LaPine was a cripple, having gained a Medal of Honor and lost both his legs in the fiasco that had led to the destruction of Thatcher station seven years before, but in ZG, he was almost graceful, the way a seal, or more precisely a whale, was graceful in the ocean.

Dana had almost reached his quarters when the chip in her jaw buzzed. Personal comms might not be shielded but the military back-ups every officer received along with their commission were. The Captain’s voice sounded distant and gravelly.

“Why aren’t you back at ops, Lieutenant?”

“Just checking a few loose ends.” Not quite a lie. At a stretch she was still trying to answer his question.

The Captain paused. “Proceed. Report when you’re done.”

Mason always was generous with his allocations of rope.

LaPine looked up from his screen and gave Dana a small tight smile when she tapped at the open hatch to his office.

“Entrez, ma cherie. My door is always open to a pretty girl.” LaPine called every woman on station cherie and every man, comrade, being both French and Communist. “What can I do for you?”

If anyone had a reason to hate Skunks, it had to be LaPine, thought Dana. He’d lost his brother and his legs when the Alliance sneak attacked Thatcher under cover of peace talks back on Earth. Rumors —there were no end of those on Reagan—told of a long recuperation that was as much mental as physical.

But you could never be sure with intellectuals. They operated on different standards than ordinary people. Better to keep her inquiries vague until she knew more—especially since she wasn’t authorized to make inquiries at all. The Captain had asked her to find out when systems would be restored, not why they were down in the first place.

“I’m preparing a report on systems’ allocation,” said Dana. That much at least was true. There were always fights between military and civilian users and it was her job to prepare weekly recommendations that balanced the needs of the war with the demands of politicians back home that life go on as normal.

“I submitted my requests at 1200 hours yesterday, as per regulations.” LaPine shifted from behind his work station, filling the space in front of it. “Is there a problem?”

He leaned in closer; his face filling her vision. She could smell the faint musk of his sweat and feel the warmth of sweet breath on her skin. Dana fought competing urges to jerk away or move closer herself. The man was still striking despite his weight and the ravages of war, cobalt blue eyes beneath a broad brow and a mass of still dark hair. Something about the lines around his mouth and the beard he wore to hide the scars on his chin and neck moved her in ways she didn’t understand or particularly like.

Dana broke eye contact first, glancing down at her palmtop, as if checking her notes. “Details. Captain Mason wants a more detailed report on major users. He’s asked all Chiefs to provide more information on individual projects. Didn’t you get the memo?” A lie if told boldly enough sometimes worked.

LaPine shifted away, suddenly interested in a magnetic chess board set up beside his workscreen. “I’m behind in my paperwork,” he mumbled.

Sometimes you get lucky, thought Dana. Press your advantage. “I know you must be busy. Trying to maintain a research program amid all these disruptions must be difficult enough without having to fight Engineering for computer time.”

“Kiernander is an old and worthy foe.” LaPine said, moving closer to the chess board, considering the next move. He gave an elaborate shrug as if shifting the weight of the world from one shoulder to the other. “One does what the circumstances allow. But, really, does the Captain have to burden me with ever more reports and forms? I take what is given and manage as best I can. Do you ever hear us complain?”

Only daily, thought Dana. “Maybe if you let me see your internal files, I could take some of that off your hands?”

“A most generous offer, ma cherie, but I could hardly allow the military to ... become too engaged in civilian matters. Union politics being what they are. Now, if you were interested in a more personal engagement?” LaPine smiled, showing teeth this time, and glanced toward his sleeping quarters.

“A most generous offer,” Dana smiled back, “but the Captain discourages fraternization.” Not a lie exactly; Mason operated on the ancient maxim of don’t ask, don’t tell, discretion being better part of ardor as far as he was concerned.

“Perhaps in another life.” LaPine moved back to his workstation, conversation concluded.

“Though he doesn’t forbid it.” Damn it, Dana thought, what game are you playing? Is getting a promotion more important than your self-respect? No, but catching a Skunk might be.

LaPine looked at her and lifted one eyebrow.

“If I could somehow satisfy his needs,” said Dana, “for information, that is.”

“You might satisfy my needs as well?”

“If you could just tell me who is working on projects that require unusual amounts of processing time or memory?”

LaPine paused, as if weighing his responsibilities as head of Science with his personal desires. “It’s an easy enough question, I suppose. Only two projects require major CPU usage at this time. Pierre Alvarez in astrophysics and our new quantum mechanic, Muhammad Ali Kahn.”

***

Turner was still waiting outside Kahn’s cabin. He nodded at Dana as she approached and then jerked his head at the closed door to indicate Kahn’s continued presence.

“Captain was looking for you.”

Looking for me but practicing radio silence. Mason swam in deep waters. Was this a test or a trial or something else altogether?

Dana nodded at Kahn’s door. “Did he give you any trouble, Sergeant?”

Turner shook his head and grinned. The low light of station night glinted off the gems set in his teeth—one for each of the five campaigns he had fought in the long war with Alliance. “A talker,” he said as if that explained it all.

Sergeant Turner was a thirty-year man, assigned to space duty after losing his left foot and part of his left arm during the Korean expedition. Unlike LaPine he had opted for prostheses and chose to wear minimum uniform to show off the gleaming chrome attachments and the dozens of battle tattoos and brands that covered his still lithe body. Dana had no doubt where Turner’s loyalties lay and had fought to have him transferred to ops after his initial assignment in security had cratered due to inappropriate use of force. Mason finally agreed. “Turner’s seen more than he says and he’s definitely more than the sum of his parts.” Another example of the Captain’s humor? Or something more. “Use him wisely,” the Captain had added. Is that what Mason wanted from her? Wisdom.

She gestured for Turner to unlock the hatch. “Keep your sidearm handy. I don’t think he’s dangerous. But we may have to lean on him.”

Kahn was perched in front of his work station but turned when they entered. He made no effort to blank his screen but Dana could make no sense of the formulas that covered it. Could be code, she thought.

“Muhammad Ali Kahn, I have some questions for you.”

“Thou com’st in such a questionable state, that I will speak to thee.”

“Cut the crap,” grumbled Turner, his hand resting lightly on his holster.

“Consider it cut,” said Kahn, “What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”

“You can own up to what you’re doing with the ship’s computers.”

“There is no mystery there. My research plan is on file with Doctor LaPine.”

“I read it,” said Dana, consulting her palmtop. “String Theory Applications for the Interdimensional Transfer of Zero Prime Energy.”

“Precisely.”

“Dr. LaPine says you’re trying to build a perpetual motion machine.”

Kahn smiled softly. “Auguste is a fellow of infinite jest. That is, he likes to joke about infinity.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“No insult intended but you wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“Very well, string theory tells us that the universe, that is, our universe, began as a twenty-dimensional structure. Of course, after a few nanoseconds, nine of those dimensions collapsed ...”

“Of course,” grunted Turner. He gave Dana a meaningful look. She nodded. Turner would know when to act.

“... leaving our current eleven-dimensional space to expand and develop as we have observed. Some theorists postulate that the original big bang—a long oscillation from the quantum flux in a vacuum—could be recreated, leading to baby universes. My thinking is that if we could maintain a quantum linkage to that oscillation, a very high energy event, we could transfer energy from it to our own universe. This would, of course, essentially abort the new universe, but since there is always the risk of a linked proto-universe expanding to replace our own space-time continuum, this might not be such a bad ... ”

Turner’s hand around Kahn’s throat cut off further explanation. “Like I said—a talker.”

“Maybe you could put it in simple English—so a couple of dumb soldiers could understand.” Dana signaled Turner to relax his hold.

Kahn opened his mouth, coughed, waved his hand weakly in front of his face. Turner handed him a bulb of water and the scientist drank eagerly.

“I’m building a perpetual motion machine?”

“Funny guy,” murmured Turner, tightening his grip. Kahn’s eyes widened in fear.

“Not the explanation we’re looking for, Kahn. Don’t do any permanent damage, Sergeant,” said Dana. “At least not until we hear his confession.”

Turner released Kahn’s neck and moved to the far wall. He took his taser from its holster and examined it idly. He made show of setting it to maximum force. Kahn coughed again and rubbed at the emerging bruises on this throat. He took another drink of water. Sweat had beaded on his brow and his skin had gone grey. He licked his lips and glanced at Turner.

“Not motion but energy. Perpetual energy. Not free, of course, that’s nonsense, but borrowed. To be paid back during the heat death of the universe. It will come a few seconds earlier but what ...”

Dana held up her hand. “Unlimited energy from ...? Proto-universes. Sounds like a weapon to me. Drop one of those on a Union city and bang, no more city.”

Kahn drew himself up. “This is not an inquiry but an inquisition. You have come looking for a villain and now you have found him. Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind. Replace Union with Alliance and who is guilty then?”

“So it is a weapon.”

“No, no, and no!” Kahn was sweating heavily now despite the cool. “A proto-universe, used like that, would destroy everything. Everything! I want an end to the war but not like that.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Dana said. “You want to end the war by sabotaging Reagan station, by destroying the last bastion against an all out Alliance attack.”

Kahn blinked hard. “You think I have somehow compromised the Station?” He leaned away from Dana and his gaze flicked from side to side as if looking for a way out of this suddenly dangerous place.

“Haven’t you?” Dana’s heart was pounding against her ribs. This is it, she thought, this is the evidence I need to finally kick these goddamn Skunks off the station once and for all.

Kahn laughed. It started as a snort and turned into a giggle and then a roar.

“What’s so damn funny?” Dana asked. She and Turner exchanged glances. The big man shrugged and looked away, suddenly seeming, what, uncomfortable? Afraid? She had put both their careers in jeopardy. She had no real evidence, nothing to take to the Captain if Kahn complained. If this little worm went to Mason, what could she say in her defense? Nothing but suspicion and the certainty that someone, somehow was compromising the station.

Kahn regained control of himself. “I’m sorry. Really. But for you to accuse me—who has lost everything, my position, my home, my family, my ... my wife. All in the cause of peace. If I didn’t laugh, I would cry.” Kahn’s voice broke and Dana thought he actually would cry. He continued more softly. “Why me? I have nothing to do with the running of this station. There are dozens of more likely candidates.”

“You’re the biggest computer user on the station. You were caught trying to get into a pod during a lockdown.”

Kahn’s skin darkened and he mumbled something Dana couldn’t quite hear.

“What?”

“I couldn’t remember if I turned the coffee pot off when I left the lab. They make a terrible mess if they explode.”

“Coffee pot! I’m talking about computer usage!” Dana could see it all slipping away. Her mouth went dry and she clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking.

“I use the computer. I don’t program it. I may be a quantum mechanic but I couldn’t even fix a vacuum pump, let alone hack the military CPU. They are two separate machines. You do know that, don’t you?”

She did know that. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?

Kahn went on. “And the firewalls between them—Kiernander says her systems are unbeatable.”

One last stab in the dark. “But how else could you end the war if you’re not helping one side win it?”

“By letting them both win.” Kahn shook his head. “Why do you think Alliance and Union fight?”

“I can’t speak for Alliance—but we fight for freedom.”

“Straight out of the recruitment manual,” said Kahn. “But really? You fight for this.” He held up the drinking bulb. “Water and energy. Neither has enough. But of course, to fight over the last scraps of a dying earth is so uncivilized. So animal. So the politicians and the priests dress it up with whatever rhetoric best fits their mouths.”

“That’s exactly the kind of dirty thinking I’d expect from a skunk. You have no understanding of real values.” She may have been wrong about the computers but she knew she was right about Skunks.

Kahn sighed.

Turner lowered his weapon. Dana looked at him.

“Don’t know where you grew up, Lieutenant, but things turned pretty sour where I lived after everything got scarce. No money and nothing to buy even if you had the cash. Then I went to Africa and found I’d been living in the lap of luxury. You could buy anything—or anyone—for a liter of clean water. I didn’t learn a lot in the army but I didn’t get these battle marks with my eyes closed. The world ain’t painted in black and white. Mister Kahn has a point.”

It was the longest speech she had heard Turner make in nine months of working together. Dana shook her head. She tried to deny it but the words lodged in her throat. They tasted of gall; they tasted of honey. Everything Dana knew had been turned on its side. Was this wisdom or betrayal?

All her certainties had been turned into questions and one question burned brighter than the rest. Who benefits?

Who benefits if Reagan station falls? No one. Alliance would be free to launch its final attack. In Union, the diplomats and politicians against all-out war would be swept aside by the demands of a pre-emptive strike. Without Reagan station, no-one could win a war and no-one could stop it. Both sides had to know that. Without Reagan station ...

“The attacks are fake.” The words slipped from her lips like a sigh, an expiation.

“I always thought so,” said Kahn.

“And Thatcher?”

“Alliance always denied responsibility for that,” said Kahn. “They do not always lie, you know.”

Who benefits from the destruction of Thatcher station? Who benefits from the constant threats to Reagan?

“Who could establish a link between two computers, cut through unbreakable firewalls?” Dana asked.

“It would take a top notch programmer or a cyberneticist. Before he was head of science, LaPine was,” Kahn stopped, as if unwilling to say more.

“LaPine was on Thatcher Station,” said Dana.

“Yes,” said Kahn sadly, “yes, he was.”

***

The attacks may have been faked—data slams and explosions triggered from Reagan itself—but the deaths had been real enough. People saw what they wanted to see. Everyone knew Alliance was launching against Reagan so when people died it was easy to know who to blame. Dana shuddered to think what kind of person could put their personal needs, their personal ambitions, ahead of the lives of their comrades.

LaPine owed everything—his position as head of science, his status as a war hero, everything—to the destruction of Thatcher Station. Why not augment his status by playing the same game here?

Dana gestured for Turner and Kahn to hang back as she approached LaPine’s quarters. He might be half expecting her after her vague and uneasy promise of an hour before. Maybe she could ...

Something was wrong. There was a smell, medicinal, sweet. The hatch light showed green and Dana pushed it open without signaling.

LaPine’s face hung a few inches from the opening, his cobalt eyes wide and staring. A few bubbles of spit hung in the air in front of his open mouth. Dana touched his face, repulsed and moved all at once. His skin was still warm despite the chill of Station night. Dead a few minutes at most.

She gestured for the others to approach. Kahn moaned and retched slightly. Dana sent him for the doctor even though she knew no one could help the Head of Science now. She owed Kahn an apology but now was not the time.

“He must have figured we were on to him.” She plucked a needle from LaPine’s hip and handed it to Turner.

“Fasklin.” Turner grimaced. “I’ve used it for phantom pain. A dose this size, you’d be dead in seconds.”

Let events determine your opinions.

“Computer’s running,” said Turner.

“Military protocols,” said Dana. “I guess we better report this to the Captain.” What would Mason make of this? What could he make of it? He had appointed LaPine. He had elevated a traitor in their midst. His career ended with LaPine’s death.

Dana looked around the dead man’s quarters, seeking some clue as to what motive might have driven him to betray them all.

No. It felt wrong. Her instincts had been wrong about skunks ... about refugees ... but they weren’t wrong now. All the evidence pointed at LaPine, all nicely arranged as if on a blueprint.

The white king from LaPine’s chess set floated across her field of vision. She looked at the board. None of the other pieces were disturbed. With his dying gesture, LaPine had pointed elsewhere.

An old and worthy foe, he had called her. Then Kahn’s voice—they are two separate machines.

“Call the Captain now. And alert Security, Turner. Code One.”

“Lieutenant?”

“This wasn’t suicide. It was murder.”

“Murder? But ...”

“Kiernander. Kiernander was second assistant Engineer on Thatcher. Kiernander built the systems, built the firewalls. She assumes command if the Captain falls. Who benefits, Turner?”

Turner nodded slowly. “She does.” infinity

Hayden Trenholm has published over 15 short stories in magazines such as “Talebones,” “On Spec,” “Neo-Opsis” and “Challenging Destiny,” among others. He won the Prix Aurora Prize in 2008 and again in 2011 for Best Short Form. He was nominated for Best Long Form Fiction in 2009 for “Defining Diana,” the first in the Steele Chronicles trilogy, published by Bundoran Press.

 

 

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