“Sir, I am not receiving the appropriate reply protocol from them.”

I sigh, as usual. She’s a newbie, I know, but seriously? In our situation I don’t think there’s any sort of doubt. Screw reply protocols. There’s people in danger out there. I suppose that’s what I’m paid for, to make the tough decisions. They seem so easy at times.

“Tartan, they’re five minutes away from the gravity pull. It doesn’t matter the protocol, we have visual confirmation. Press the button. That’s an order.”

Tartan doesn’t look like much. She’s skinny, twenty-something, barely out of cadet academy. Well, if anything, I was much more than that at her age. I know why she’s here in the Kokeshi. The admiral thinks she’s got leadership potential. So far, I have seen none. She’s been fumbling with simple things.

“But commander, with all due respect, I can’t, not without the right protocol. It could be a trap.”

I have to do everything around this freaking starship. So I press the damn button.

Starship Bebek is now trapped by the Kokeshi’s tractor beam, and there’s no way Kurabo V’s gravity will suck it to its deadly atmosphere. They would have no chance to survive down there. Honestly, Tartan... I know, I can’t say things like this out loud. I try to be the nice commander but it’s hard. Even if I don’t want to be the ship’s bitchy boss. 

Ensign Tartan and the others are looking at me as if I’ve kicked a puppy into oblivion. Silly people. Don’t they know I’m used to this? They hate my decisions, I know, but I’m usually right, so in the end it all works out. And they can just suck it. It’s not like I care, not internally anyway. On the outside I pretend to. I have to pretend, it’s part of being in command. It was the same story when we encountered that abandoned ship halfway between Earth and Santra. 

“Commander Toro, the Bebek is finishing its coupling. We’ll have the air seal in fifteen minutes. Are you sure I should approve it?”

That’s Lieutenant Araujo. Not only he’s my second-in-command, but he’s probably one of the few I have any respect for, and the one that keeps the ship together. He’s popular among the crew. A forty-something with the face of a baby, and an eternal smile on his face. He’s the political one, always trying to make people understand where I’m coming from, where I’m aiming at. I’m just the bossy lady at the helm of the ship. We make a good team. 

“Araujo, if you’re against it, just say it already,” I say. He knows, he knows me. My decisions may be rough, but they’re usually sound in the end. I trust him to know that, and to let me know if I’m screwing up monumentally. 

We graduated together from the academy. I went on to command school, while he specialized in scientific analysis. We ended up together on the Kokeshi after Santra. When we were converted to explorer ship.

“I’m not against it, sir. But you know they were eerily close to the warped field, right? Anything could have happened to them. I would recommend a cautious approach.”

“I know, I know. Our sensors show they didn’t go as far as others have, anyway. And it’s the Bebek. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

His face was sour. You think he’d get used to me, but he always seemed frustrated by my decisions. He knew what this meant. “It’s the Bebek.” Probably the only person in the whole fleet that did. 

Oh, the Santra mission. I remember it so well. So far, my biggest moment of glory. It was what took us from a mere patrol ship to explorer vessel, much to the disgust of the admiral. Even if I have no definitive proof, I have this gut feeling that Admiral Vanelli did not think a woman could helm an explorer ship. What do I care, he’s a jerk anyway.

But the Santra mission was amazing. We were just there, doing our regular perimeter patrol, checking in on the entry points to Earth. We were a simple ship. All we could do was warn the fleet in case we detected something. We had no weapons. And still, we surrendered the Lotharians and sent them packing back to their galaxy. My orders to the crew seemed completely insane at the time. But they worked, didn’t they? 

Did I want the Kokeshi, my very first commission, to be an explorer vessel? Hell, no. I wanted it to be a battlestar. I dreamed of making the Kokeshi into a battlestar. Having the proton cannons and those adorably destructive photon torpedoes attached to the hull. I wanted it to become the next Matryoshka. I have a picture of the Matryoshka beside my bed, and one day I’ll get us there. But I’ll take explorer for now. At least we get to travel around. Doing rounds was driving me crazy with boredom, and I was hitting the bottle way too often. I’m not doing that anymore. Not all the time, anyway. Plus, I get to work with Araujo. So, all in all, a win.

I know what he’s afraid of. The Bebek has been close to the warped field of Kurabo V, even if it didn’t penetrate it. There’s a few differences about this dirty little planet. It’s the venus flytrap of planets. Not only the atmosphere is unlivable and will instantly burn humans worse than a beginner chef would burn a piece of sirloin, it also has a protective warped field around it that attracts metal like nothing you’ve seen before. Magnetic doesn’t even begin to describe it. And if you get to escape, the field has already wrapped any bodies that came in contact and changed them. How they’re changed depends. We’ve seen a ship’s crew overrun with bleeding diarrhea and instant rust of the hull, another one where people had their eyes erased from their faces, but the ship was untouched. Few ships have gone into the warped field, and even fewer have returned. For obvious reasons, we try to prevent this from happening. The Bebek hasn’t gone into it. They were close, but not in there. So, no harm done. Probably.

“Sir, you’d better be at the docking point when they open the doors. You know how the landing crew can be.”

Araujo was always reminding me of the terrible choices I’ve had for crew. I didn’t pick them, well, not most of them. They were assigned to me when we were a patrol ship, and most had just remained. I trust them as far as I can throw them. And I’m very weak, when it comes to physical feats. I’m fast, but I’m weak.

“Alright, I’d better get there before they start. I’m going down. You have the bridge, lieutenant. Tartan, you’re coming with me. You may learn a few things from this.”

We get into the traveler box that will take us to the docking bay. It’s a tedious 92-second journey, and I can tell Tartan is nervous. 

“Tartan, it’ll be okay. They haven’t been into the warped field.” I’m just casually throwing information out there, trying to be reassuring. I know that’s what she’s thinking. That’s what everyone is thinking. “They’ll be all good.”

Her pose is very stiff, as it should be, given I’m the highest ranked officer on the ship, but I feel sorry for her. I’ve been an ensign before. I’ve been afraid. It’s just been a long time since I’ve felt like that. I can’t relate anymore. 

“Sir, permission to speak.”

“Go on.”

“They haven’t responded to our communication requests, and they haven’t sent the correct recognition protocols so far. Don’t you think this is something to worry about?”

Oh, Tartan... you’re so young. What has she seen so far? This is her first mission aboard the Kokeshi. Before this I believe she was on a freighter, doing cellurion runs from Pitharia. I try to remember what my immediate crew has been up to. I try to be a good boss. Without Araujo I’d probably be screwed. He’s the one feeding me all the important info.

“Tartan, I’ll be honest. Yes, I’m a bit worried. But they’re our brothers, the Bebek was there when we needed them. They broke the Code to help us out of the Reshkesh galaxy. We need to be there for them.” 

Her eyes grew three times. “Oh, that was the Bebek? And it really happened? Wow, I heard about that rescue so many times in the academy. It felt like mythology.”

“It actually happened. It was this very ship you’re standing on. If I remember well, we were trying to acquire a few samples of...”

I would continue, but the traveller reached our destination. “I’ll tell you another time, remind me. I’ll tell you the real story.”

She smiles at me and we both leave the traveller. These little moment are what made them trust me, even if not blindingly. To be honest, who wants blind trust? I’d rather have them second guessing me. Makes it even more fun when it turns out I’m right.

We reach the deck, and Tartan approaches the chief docker. I hate her guts, so it’s better that she’s doing the liaising. 

“Ensign Tartan reporting from the bridge, along with the commander.”

The whole crew on deck salutes me. I love that.

“You’re just in time, commander,” says Sergeant Kamil. I just can’t stand her. I don’t even know exactly why. “We’re about to open the doors.” Of all these people, she’s one of the few that never second guesses my orders. Maybe that’s why I dislike her. That’s a dumb approach to authority.

“Okay, proceed.”

She gives some orders around, buttons are pressed, and commands are inputted into the interface. Things start to happen.

The Bebek is a first-response battleship. Maybe the third-highest rank in our convoluted and bureaucratic ship hierarchy. They have hand weapons and a few simple cannons. They’re the warning shot type of ship, they couldn’t face real battle. They hold the fort until a fighter or a battlestar comes along. The Bebek was brave enough to save our skin when we got into trouble at the border of the Reshkesh galaxy. They didn’t have to save us. The Code is clear: if you cross the boundary, you’re on your own. Still, Commander Atavicius risked his ship and crew to get us out of there with our samples. Our mission was critical, but surely another ship could have completed it without leaving our own galaxy. With this rescue I think I’m even with Atavicius. And I need him to acknowledge that. One of the reasons why we are here right now.

The hangar is spacious, but dimly lit. Whoever designed this thing never set foot inside it. The lighting is hung all the way up on the ceiling, which is maybe 60-feet high, making the use of focus lights essential. There are huge viewing windows all over, and you can see the stars all around. I like to come here after curfew, when there’s only minimal crew and I can be left alone near one of the viewing windows. They’re so huge you feel like you’re out there. I once saw a comet. It was magnificent. I try to remember it when I’m feeling down.

The Bebek now is fully docked and the doors are opening. I hear some whispering around me, and I can tell that Tartan has been spreading the Reshkesh story all over. How come no one knows it was the Bebek? How come this is news to them? Wasn’t it all over the news down there on Earth? I’ve no idea, I don’t follow Earth news. I’ve been up here for ten years now and have no intention of ever going back to that dump.

A cloud of white smoke fills the door of the air seal. It’s a decontamination mist. Not my idea, but Araujo’s. If left to me, I’d simply go there and welcome the crew. But he rather have me back out here in the platform, overseeing the operation. I feel for the Bebek crew. They must be in dire need of a friendly face, not a chem spray.

What the hell? Who’s screaming? “Tartan, what the hell is going on?”

A freaked out ensign comes up to the platform. “Sir, it’s the Bebek crew! They’ve killed a crewman! They have their photonic pistols and they’re shooting.”

“That can’t be right.” I quickly go down the stairs. This is silly. They didn’t come close enough to the warped field! “Warn the bridge, Tartan. Have them run an analysis.”

Even if we’re just an explorer ship, I don’t go around without my freezing gun. You just have to be prepared. I insisted with the Command Center that all officials on the ship should have one, but no, that’s dangerous! They’ll shoot themselves! Then why go through all the trouble of training officers? Just give them clipboards and have them wander inside spaceships and drink coffee. 

I approach the cloudy door, and before it dissipates completely I see a head. Just the head. Severed from the body. Yuck. Don’t know this one, poor fellow.

I dive behind some supply parcels and wait. The screams are continuous, and I can hear the low key zapping of the photonic pistols. My crew cannot defend itself properly. Except for their knowledge of martial arts, they’re screwed. My freezing gun can’t do much against one of those pistols either. But we work with what we’ve got. I’m glad I decided to make a bun of my hair this morning. I would hate to have a ponytail slapping me in the face in a fight. 

The mist dies down, at last, and I see that hell has broken loose on the hangar. The crew is running, trying to hide and get out of the way. Some are fighting back as they can, while the Bebek’s crew is walking towards them, shooting continuously. With my freezing gun I can take down a few of them. They’ll be stuck for a while. They all seem entranced. They don’t look at anyone, they just march ahead and shoot. Fuck, I know, I should be there, dying among them. But if I die, then we’ll have no shot at making it home. I know I’m the only one with enough guts to get us out of this situation. The bridge has been warned, but I don’t see what good that’ll do, other than have us wait for a battleship of some sort. Araujo has the other freezing gun. We could only get permission for two onboard. We’re supposed to be analyzing organic matter, after all. 

I take down one high ranking officer. As long as they don’t see me, I’m good. I can keep on putting them out of combat, at least. Won’t last forever, but maybe enough so that a battleship can come by. Meanwhile, my crew is dying by the dozen.

Before I think of it, I hear the whirring of the door hinges. Someone was smart enough to undo the air seal and lock the most of the Bebek’s crew back on their ship. Their crew is much larger than ours. If we can contain them to their ship we might just have a shot. I see one of my corporal’s disarm one of theirs with a kung fu blow to the stomach. It seems like it deactivated the zombie crewman. They didn’t count on that, apparently. It was smart to require this sort of training. They can forbid the weapons, but they cannot prevent me from turning my own crew into weapons.

“Tartan, are you there? This is Toro.” I call her on my communicator. Let’s see those fabled leadership skills.

“Sir, where are you, are you safe?”

“I’m doing my best with the freezing gun. Now that the door is closed we might have a chance.”

Some purple photonic rays fly two feet above my head. They found me. Gotta run.

“They’ve spotted me. I’m gonna make them suffer for it. Listen to me. I saw a corporal take down one of them with a blow to the stomach. Looks like that’s their weak spot. Find a way to reach Araujo, have him relay this to the crew communicator. We may be able to disable these bastards.”

Her brief “Aye, sir.” is all I need for now. I can see two crew members coming after me. They’re not even running, they’re just, very resolutely, walking. They’re more like zombies. The shooting is not so resolute. Perhaps, deep down, they’re still the crew and they are trying hard to miss the shots. I don’t know. No matter why, I’m still alive and that’s a lot. I take cover behind a wall, dividing two transporter ship bays. I shoot without even looking, and I hear the heavy thump of a body dropping to the floor. The photonic piston glides towards me and I catch it with my foot just in time to freeze the other bastard. Now we’re in business.

Those years in the circus before joining the fleet are working in my favor now. And my mom said it would be a waste of time... I can climb these cold metal walls like a monkey, from stud to stud. I find myself at the top of the walls, and with a few steps I can be at the platform on the opposite side from where I was before. From there, I can think of something.

That’s when I see him. Atavicius. He’s climbed the stairs to the platform. He hasn’t seen me yet. I need to tightrope my way on this wall to get there. He looks exactly the same. If they’ve become zombies, they’re the most pleasant ones I’ve ever seen.

I waited so long to meet him again, and this is how it goes down. Me doing my best to save my crew, him doing his best to kill every last one of them. His white hair is still the same as I remember from last time. And his hard face has only gotten more serious. He’s got a big scar above his left eyebrow now. It’s healed, but you can tell it’s recent. I was secretly hoping he was locked in the Bebek with the remainder of their crew.

For a moment my mind wanders. I remember the week after Reshkesh. The moment we met became a permanent mark in my life. He entered the sickbay to see me, the young and promising captain of the Kokeshi. He wanted to meet me, see how the crew was doing, possibly scream at me for doing such a half-assed maneuver that took us outside the galaxy. I thought I was okay, but the doctor insisted on having exams done, so I obliged. I was looking disheveled and certainly not command-worthy when he walked in, all pose and dignity, with his cold eyes and perfect hair. I understood love at first sight right there and then. And so did he, even if it took him three years to confess it to me.

The week after the rescue, I was ordered to take some recreation time and, for the first time, I didn’t complain. He invited himself to my trip, making it pleasant to be away from my ship. We went to Santra’s capital, Takamine. It was that or Earth, and I had vowed never to set foot on Earth again. He was allergic to thyme, which is the base of the Santranian cuisine, something he found out the hard way. The first two days were spent at the local hospital, having healing fluids put into his bloodstream and me by his side, telling stories from the academy. He was older, his stories were sadder, more deaths, more disasters. He had been in the Great War, I had only just started my military career. There was a youthful naiveté to my stories, he said, good for recovery, took his mind of all illness. After that, our rec leave was spent having sex and eating Santranian delicacies. The ones that didn’t have thyme, of course.

I was never the caring type. My parents were always worried for me, because I was so detached from the rest of humanity. I didn’t have much empathy. I felt sorry for the human race, if anything. I never fell in love, or wanted a dog or cat. Thankfully, I didn’t turn into a serial killer, as plenty of psychologists feared. This flaw of character is what made me a good commander, I think, and what made me a sort of lone wolf. But Piers Atavicius changed that. He made me care. He made me fall in love. And I got nothing in return, for the most part of it. But it was still worth it, if only for the learning experience.

“Sir, Araujo here. Listen to this.”

“Did you relay the info to the crew? They’re dying down here. I don’t see anyone even trying to fight them properly.”

“Sir, listen! We’ve done some hover sensor analysis on the Bebek’s crew and we found something. They seem to be all part of a hive mind.”

“No wonder they look like zombies.”

“We’ve traced the source of the hive mind, the controlling entity. Apparently, it’s commander Atavicius. We cannot locate him precisely, or confirm this. Their ship is playing a number on our sensors.”

I can’t even begin to explain to Araujo that he’s right here, maybe ten feet away from me. In my line of sight. I could take him with the freezing gun right now. If I wanted to. The freezing ray wouldn’t be enough to break up the hive connection, though, if that’s what’s going on. I’d need something... stronger.

“Sir, do you copy? We must find Atavicius. We must take him down. We can spare hundreds if this theory is correct.”

But if it isn’t, then Piers is gone. 

“Copy that, number one. I’ll track him down. Toro out.”

I have to do it. It may not be guaranteed, but is our best bet. Down at the deck the fight goes on and my crew is falling. Anyone dying from now on is on me. I could get this over with in seconds. 

But my hands won’t budge. I’m usually a shoot first, ask later kind of person, but right now... right now. It’s Piers.

I step lightly the length of the wall. One foot in front of the other. The noise camouflages my steps. Oh, crap, he saw me. I have only three more steps to go. Better to face him than die falling down a wall. I run the last part.

He’s looking at me. As if nothing is happening. As if he doesn’t have a pistol pointed at my head. He’s not angry, not sad, not anything. He’s looking at me with the same inscrutable expression he’s always had. I could never tell what he was thinking. I can’t tell now. And I still can’t bring myself to shoot him.

Why isn’t he shooting me? He’s aiming, but he’s not taking a shot. I could duck some shots, I’m fast enough. But he’s not even trying!

Piers eyes are dark, as dark as the blood being splashed down there. It’s my duty to take him out, even if the theory might prove wrong and everyone dies all the same. I have the knowledge. If I don’t use it, it’s my fault. But he won’t react.

“Piers...” I say silently. The word barely leaves my lips, it doesn’t even travel to him. We’re still a bit far from each other. He could read my lips, if he’s able to do so. “Why won’t you shoot?”

I can’t bring myself to attack first. I have my hand on the pistol on my waist now. At least that. But it’s Piers. How am I supposed to kill the only man that has ever made me feel anything remotely similar to what love must be? How am I supposed to let him leave my life? 

I look at him, straight in the eyes. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I swear I saw a flicker of recognition. He’s in there. He’s trapped in there, in his own freaking body. “Piers!” I scream this time. His name raised over the ruckus happening at our feet. Like a cry for help, to someone who cannot answer. Maybe I can save him, maybe there’s a way to fix this, to end this nightmare without shooting him. He is in there.

He’s stuck. He doesn’t walk towards me. He doesn’t shoot. His pistol is still pointed at me. I can see little beads of sweat running down his forehead. He is resisting the commands his mind wants him to carry. He doesn’t want to kill me because I’m me.

“Piers! Talk to me! I know you’re in there! I can help you!”

No response. He still has the same stance. The look in his eyes is different. I can tell now that it wasn’t just imagination. He sees me. From his prison he sees me. He can’t do anything about it, but he sees me. I’m afraid that if I approach him, he won’t be able to hold off any longer. I don’t want to kill him, and I don’t want to be killed either.

I’m frozen. I don’t want to make any sudden moves and destroy this moment. Right now, I feel loved. His resistance is the strongest love he has ever shown me, in all these years. If either of us move, it’ll be gone. I can’t do it. I can’t end this moment. And yet, I need to. Those people down there don’t deserve the fate I’m giving them. They feel love, they have families, they care. They deserve to be able to keep feeling these things. And right now, I’m the monster robbing them of everything. For what? For a man who I can’t reach anymore. Piers made it clear that whatever it was that we had had, it was over. He said it years ago. I just wanted to confront him one last time. Touch him one last time before accepting that I could never have it again.

I slowly pull the pistol from my waist. It’s like a ballet movement. I carefully trace the path from my bellybutton to my breast with the tip of the barrel, then extend my arm gradually until it’s parallel with the floor, the pistol pointing directly at him. Through all this ordeal he didn’t move an inch. His eyes are glued to mine. Nothing changed in the world for two seconds.

I can see some guys from my crew coming up the stairs to our platform. There’s not much time left. The need is clear: Atavicius must be taken out. It’s quite possible that even he knows it and that’s why he’s trying to resist the urge to take me down.

I look at the sergeant that’s heading the group. They’re on my 10 o’clock. I look at him and he understands. Finally, someone I can communicate with. He gives the silent signal for his team to stand their position. I got this. It’s my duty.

My finger is on the button-trigger. The rubbery feel of it is comfortable. I always wanted to be allowed one of these. I thought it would make me feel in charge. I never felt less able to command. All the power I felt from handling this gun trickled down my heart and brain when I realized what my task was. It’s probably locked in there, with Piers’ consciousness. I can’t retrieve it. I can only destroy it.

I’m still looking at him. His eyes are welling up, and I can see some veins popping red. I am not doing him any favors by holding off on what I should have done minutes ago. This is torture. He’s giving me a chance at life and I’m torturing him. I press the button-trigger. 

The purple ray zaps through the distance that separates our bodies. He’s hit. He falls to the floor. It’s over. 

Everywhere on the deck I hear bodies dropping. Araujo was right. Their minds were linked to Atavicius’. Soon they’ll regain their free will. Atavicius’ sacrifice saved at least 300 crew members. His blood spilled all over the platform saved them. 

I drop the damn pistol on the pool of blood that seeping close to me now. I hate that thing. It robbed me of the only human connection I’ve ever had.    

Tartan comes to my side. I’m breathing heavily and I’m covered in sweat. I was so focused on Piers that I didn’t realize how my body was responding to the situation. I can’t feel my legs anymore, my heart is about to explode, or so it seems. She leads a team to take me to sickbay and I can hear her distributing orders to scared deck staff. At last I see her do something of worth. Maybe the admiral was right, after all.