By Charlie Fish
The room was small. There were two mould chairs, and a table with a drink dispenser and various fidget toys. On the wall, instead of the usual starnet comms panel, hung Ancelador’s doctorate in psychiatry from Mare Nebulum University.
He closed the pressure-tight door, and ran his fingers around the frames of the mould chairs, under the table, along the edges of the walls. He searched for several minutes before he was satisfied. As far as he could tell, there were no microphones, no cameras, no comms; no connection at all with the rest of the ship.
“Ship,” he commanded. “Captain Stellapluvia. Can you hear me?”
“Emergency. Hull breach. Loss of cabin pressure. Emergency, emergency. Doctor Ancelador reporting.”
No response. Thank goodness. On reflection, that would have been in very bad taste if Stellapluvia had heard it, given the ship’s history.
Ancelador was pleased with the therapy room; it was restrained, comfortable, and most importantly private, as he had requested. It needed a few personal touches – a video wall with calming images, some muliebrisoma scent perhaps, ultrasonic music to soothe the patients – but it was an excellent start.
The room tipped, and Ancelador staggered backwards into the door. The ship was accelerating. He pulled himself into one of the mould chairs, which automatically adjusted around him, and waited for the dampers to kick in.
He looked at the empty chair opposite. As ship psychiatrist, he was responsible for the mental wellbeing of the 3,240 men, women, machines and hybrids on board. Which was a joke, because they were all insane or they wouldn’t be here. They were all trapped in this graphene bullet of a ship for an indeterminate amount of time, headed for an indeterminate location, clinging to some vague fantasy of frontier colonisation that had an indeterminate chance of success. Only the most broken minds would volunteer themselves for such folly. Not least Ancelador himself.
Ancelador was leaving behind the person he cared most about in the universe. Mvelindor, who had loved him. Mvelindor, who would never forgive him. And now he was giving Mvelindor some space – many light-years of space. Was this bravery or cowardice?
He punched up a light sedative from the drink dispenser and downed it, trying to slow his breathing.
After that first day when he’d been shown to his therapy room, it took Ancelador two days to find it again. There were miles of corridors, and he could never seem to find the same room twice. He was tempted to tie a piece of string to a door and unravel it as he went along.
He did find a pool, a music room, a haze room, several themed bars, two mess halls, various sport halls, an impressive holo-library, and the chemical garden. Hard to believe this had once been a warship – it felt more like a pleasure cruiser. It was as if the ship’s history had been aggressively erased. At least there was plenty to keep a few thousand wannabe colonists occupied for a few months. Or years.
A chill whipped up Ancelador’s spine.
The twelve most senior members of the crew were obliged to book a psychotherapy session once a week – the first appointments were tomorrow. But, so far, no one else had booked, so Ancelador was at leisure. He drifted towards one of the bars, intending to get radically drunk.
The first bar he found was a congress lounge, furnished with beds and harnesses and one-way mirrors. A man and an android were entangled on a plinth, carrying out an impressive feat of sexual athleticism that earned them a smattering of applause from the wasted onlookers. Ancelador thought of Mvelindor, felt sick, and left sharply.
The next bar he found styled itself as an Officers’ Club, which was much more his speed. Muted lighting, inoffensive music, bench-style seating. He sat next to a heavily modified human – the man was covered in catlike fur, had cranial implants and tools for fingers.
“Hey, where’d you get that skin?” the man asked. Ancelador was surprised to be asked such a direct question before he’d even settled in his seat.
“Born with it.”
“Not an enhancement? That’s disappointing. I’d love to get me some skin like that. Never seen anything like it. So black it’s blue.”
The man had an unusual accent that Ancelador could not place. Ancelador started to punch up a drink, but the man stopped him.
“Wait, try this.” The man punched up two neon pink drinks that steamed, like dry ice.
The two of them clinked glasses and drank. It was like inhaling a nuke wrapped in silk. Ancelador tried to say something; nothing came but a tight gasp.
The man laughed, and sipped his own drink. “I’m Refeliodor.”
“Refeliodor? You’re a senior officer, aren’t you?”
“Chief Hyperspace Engineer.”
“We have an appointment tomorrow.”
“You’re the psychiatrist?”
Refeliodor laughed again. “Great to meet you.”
Ancelador tilted his head. “Hey, you can explain something to me. Now that we have this magical hyperspace engine, can’t we just go anywhere we want, like that?” He snapped his fingers.
“The hyperspace drive lets us travel through a higher spatial dimension, but we still have to travel.”
“I don’t get it.”
Refeliodor punched up another pair of pink drinks. He grabbed a napkin, and leaned forward, excited. “Imagine this napkin is our universe, a hundred billion light-years across.” His right pinkie had been surgically replaced by a pen; he used it to draw a line from one end of the napkin to the other. “If we could only travel in two dimensions, it would take an unimaginably long time to journey even a fraction of the distance. Even with warp bubbles, faster than light, it would take a billion years.”
“Exactly. But if you can access the next spatial dimension, you realise the universe is actually shaped like this.” He crumpled up the napkin into a ball, and pierced his pen-finger through the middle. “Now we can travel right through. On the scale of our napkin, it’s still a really long way, but now…” He laid the napkin out flat again; it had little holes across it at irregular intervals.
“Every step we take flings us into a new part of the universe.”
“Right,” Refeliodor grinned. “And from our lower-dimensional perspective it looks like we disappear from one part of space and appear hundreds or millions of light-years away. The problem is, we can’t really see the higher dimensions, so it’s pretty hard to map. But we can start at our home system, point ourselves in a certain direction on the higher-dimensional axis, and we’ll always end up in the same place. And we can come back the same way.”
“So we don’t know where we’re going.”
“Well, we don’t know where we’ll end up, but we know our trajectory. Better still, we can keep secret exactly which way we’re going. So, if we find a habitable system, or rare minerals, or alien tech, we’ll be able to set up an exclusive trade route.”
“If we find something. That’s a big if.”
Refeliodor shrugged. “Space is big.”
Which makes it all the more ridiculous that we fought for such a tiny corner of it, thought Ancelador.
By the end of his first week on board, Ancelador had counselled all the senior officers, and a handful of other passengers. Most had typical mental hang-ups. Depression, anxiety, corporeal detachment disorder, digital dissociative disorder, post-traumatic stress, space shrink. Unsurprisingly, the ruinous war still clouded their souls.
The Chief of Security had the worst case of corporeal detachment disorder he had ever seen. Ancelador was baffled how many people transferred their consciousnesses into android bodies without considering the psychological consequences. This poor guy was suffering everything from phantom limb pain to severe asomatognosia. At least, now that he had an ageless body, he had a few hundred years to work it out.
Refeliodor, the Chief Hyperspace Engineer, seemed to be the only sane one among them. Ancelador couldn’t help but suspect he was hiding something. But the man was so damn personable he hadn’t yet managed to dig any deeper.
The one senior crew member Ancelador had not yet seen was the captain herself, Stellapluvia. He waited for her in his therapy room, wringing his fingers. Her legend preceded her; but he must not allow his curiosity to distract his professional judgment.
She had led the Doradus System’s greatest fleet to victory, against impossible odds. In this very ship. A devastatingly expensive victory, so many hundreds of thousands of lives and minds lost, but she had done it. Landed on the Melnick fortress planet, and stolen the secret of hyperspace technology. She had been two people then, the woman Stellador, and the ship’s mind Pluvia Ignis. When the Melnicks surrendered, she returned as a single amalgamated consciousness – a new mind in Stellador’s body.
She had returned augmented, but somehow damaged. She had spurned publicity, refused medals and honours, become a recluse; and ended up here – captaining the shell of the Pluvia Ignis into unknown deep space. What had happened to her on that fortress planet?
The pressure-tight door opened, making Ancelador jump.
“Oh, you startled –”
The rest of his words disappeared. He smelled her at the same time he saw her. A heady scent, pine, musk, like a rainswept Doradan ever-forest. Like home. She wore a traditional rock-wrap with a thick scarf that hid half her face, emphasising her chilling sea-green eyes. Across her left cheekbone, a ragged scar that intimated a thousand stories. Ancelador wanted to run his thumb along it and tell her everything would be ok.
Those eyes. They analysed Ancelador with ruthless efficiency; a dozen saccades, and he felt as if his deepest self had been exposed. Those arctic eyes gave nothing away, and he reminded himself he was dealing with a sophisticated military intellect. Her mind was both human and machine; combined, enhanced, doubled.
“Captain Stellapluvia,” said Ancelador. “Welcome.”
She shut the door behind her and walked into the room. Ancelador gathered himself and sat in one of the mould chairs, gesturing to Stellapluvia to sit in the other. She did so, precisely, sparely.
There was silence between them for some moments. Ancelador wore his warmest expression, professional empathy, inviting her to feel at ease and talk when she was ready. Her expression was inscrutable, half-hidden by the thick scarf.
He sensed she would not talk first. He sensed his usual approach would not work here. She would not respond to the subtle emotional manipulations he employed, with infinite gentleness, to tease out even the most bitterly guarded secrets. He needed a more direct approach. She was smarter than him, and they both knew it.
Ancelador’s expression hardened. “Thank you for providing me with a truly private room,” he said. “Confidentiality is paramount.”
“Essential.” Her voice was shockingly small. Almost meek. “But very hard to guarantee.”
With calculated deliberation, she unwrapped her scarf. As each layer unwound, she was revealed. Her chiselled nose. Her pale lips. Her fragile neck. She bundled the scarf in her lap in a curiously childish way, and leaned forward with an earnestness that made Ancelador’s heart skip – awe, or panic, he could not tell.
She spoke again. “Why are you here, Dr Ancelador? What are you running from?”
Mvelindor’s face appeared unbidden in Ancelador’s consciousness. He controlled his expression, swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat. “These sessions are not about me, Captain.”
“Who counsels the counsellor?”
Ancelador bit the inside of his cheek. “We –” he hesitated. How did she provoke him so easily? “The war was hard on all of us.”
She sat back. Nodded. She had been open, but now, suddenly, her wall was up again. Ancelador was just beginning to process the situation, and she had already reached her conclusion. He felt dizzy.
She hastily wrapped the scarf back around her face. “I believe you’ve met the Chief Hyperspace Engineer. Have a look at his personnel file before you see him again.”
And she left.
Ancelador stared at the door from which she had just departed, trying to make sense of what had happened. What had she said? Confidentiality was hard to guarantee? Why had she wanted to know about him? Was it a defence mechanism? Did she somehow already know his terrible secret? But how could she? And why mention Refeliodor?
He felt lost, utterly outgunned.
He slept fitfully that night, running over the brief conversation in his head, again and again.
Ancelador met Refeliodor in the Officers’ Club every evening. They chatted like old friends, about their likes and dislikes, about ship’s gossip, about space, about work, about how they were keeping themselves entertained on the ship. But, he noticed, never about the past. That would have to wait for the therapy room.
At the back of his mind was Stellapluvia’s bizarre suggestion to look at Refeliodor’s personnel file. For days, he resisted. But when it was nearly time for their weekly psychotherapy session, he found a quiet corner of the holo-library and read through all of the senior officers’ files.
He read Stellapluvia’s file with particular interest. Stellador was born on Arcadia, the fourth Doradan planet. She had distinguished herself at an early age in the protracted Magellanic War, years before Ancelador was even born. She had advised on the construction of the Pluvia Ignis, the first of a new class of warship designed for speed and stealth. The Pluvia Ignis was endowed with a cutting-edge machine intelligence, and when its sentience had achieved self-potentiation, it had selected Stellador as its human captain. Together they had fought in several notable battles, ultimately being promoted to General Ovidor’s second-in-command. Their final battle was for the Melnick fortress planet, about which the file’s information was brief and bland. The battle was a Doradan victory. The Pluvia Ignis had been partially destroyed, and its consciousness had been merged with Stellador’s. The rest of the file was redacted, marked “Captain’s eyes only”.
Ancelador saved Refeliodor’s file for last. But when he looked, he found nothing. He searched again, convinced he had missed something, but Refeliodor simply had no personnel file. He was listed on the crew roster as “Chief Hyperspace Engineer”, but there was none of the usual biographical information – it was as if the entire file had been redacted.
Ancelador closed the files, and chewed a fingernail.
Later that day, his therapy session with Refeliodor started straightforwardly enough. Refeliodor bustled into the room and they greeted each other by pressing foreheads together – Refeliodor’s catlike fur felt pleasant against Ancelador’s skin.
“Hey, doc,” grinned Refeliodor, plunging into the mould chair. He opened with a characteristically direct question, in his unplaceable accent. “How the hell do you do your job, anyway?”
Ancelador sat down. “What do you mean?”
“Like, someone sits down here, and they’re clearly not right in the head, although they’ll deny it to their grave. What do you do about it?”
“Support, scrutinise, scramble, section.”
“There are four approaches to psychotherapy,” Ancelador explained. “Support, which is giving someone the tools to look after themselves, teaching them resilience, building self-esteem, and so on. Scrutinise, which is to dig into their past to better understand whatever may have damaged them, and face it head-on. Scramble, which is to fill them with drugs.”
“And section, which is to give up on them entirely.”
Ancelador made a non-committal grunt.
Refeliodor laughed. “I like the sound of scramble.”
“Most people don’t need any help with that one.”
“Well, what are we doing today, doc? Support or scrutinise?”
“That’s up to you, Refeliodor. Although, there is one thing I would like to ask you, if I may.”
“Why is your personnel file blank?”
Refeliodor’s bright expression didn’t change, but suddenly he was making an effort to maintain it. “That’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, Ancelador, since we’ve become friends. This conversation is confidential, correct?”
“My name’s not really Refeliodor.” A moment’s hesitation, but only a moment. “It’s Din-har Ix Habiyan Taranto A.”
“You’re Melnick?” Ancelador realised he had failed to control his expression, and tried to neutralise it, but knew it was too late, and so let his sincere reaction play out.
“How –” Ancelador started, but cut himself short.
“Hyperspace tech is entirely new to the Doradus System. No Doradans have sufficient expertise. I was asked to join the crew. Without me, your hyperspace drive would be extremely dangerous. At least until the rest of the engineers get up to speed.”
That explained his quirky accent – it was not native, but learned. Ancelador closed his jaw. “I can understand why you’re being discreet about your background. There are people out there who would lynch you.”
Refeliodor sighed. “Melnick civilisation is, unfortunately, often misunderstood in the Doradan culture.”
“Thank you for trusting me.”
Refeliodor brightened up again. “It’s a pleasure to be able to talk to someone.”
For the next hour, Refeliodor spoke animatedly about his home planet. Ancelador had believed himself smart enough to know that the endless anti-Melnick propaganda was exaggerated, but one by one, the veil was drawn away from his unconscious prejudices. Refeliodor painted a picture of the Melnicks as compassionate, cultured, innovating, wise. Ancelador could feel their passion for understanding, their pride in their achievements, their love for their home system.
The session ended all too quickly, and Ancelador regretted that the next time he saw Refeliodor, they would not be able to talk freely. They touched foreheads affectionately.
“Thank you,” Refeliodor said, as he left Ancelador alone in the room.
The next day was his second weekly session with Stellapluvia. As he waited for her to arrive, Ancelador’s heartbeat betrayed him. He could not calm himself. He tried to self-analyse – what was he feeling?
Dread. What was it about this woman that triggered him so?
She entered and sat without ceremony. Her scent, her eyes, her clockwork energy – Ancelador closed his eyes for a moment and forced himself to focus.
“Good afternoon, Captain,” he said.
“Thank you for making time for me. It’s very important, I believe, to make time to talk. Do you agree?”
She did not respond, only looked at him, unwavering, half her face hidden behind the thick scarf.
“This is a safe space,” he said, reassuring. “There’s nothing right or wrong you can say. Anything you do say will be kept in the strictest confidence.”
She remained silent.
“Perhaps you’d like to talk about how you came to be on this ship?” It was the perfect question – he’d prepared it in advance. It was intentionally ambiguous; she could take it to mean how she ended up on this mission, or she could talk about her more distant past, when she’d been both a woman and a machine mind.
But she did neither. “We’re being followed,” she said.
“What?” blurted Ancelador. He had heard her clearly, despite her diminutive voice, but what she said was so unexpected he needed to hear it again.
“We’re being followed. This information must not leave this room. The Chief of Security reported a heat signature last week, and it’s trailing us. Almost certainly a cloaked ship. But it shouldn’t be possible. Our bearing is highly confidential. The only explanation is that somebody on board leaked it. A traitor.”
So much at once. Ancelador waited for his words to catch up with his brain. “W-why are you telling me?”
“Only three people on this ship know our bearing. Me, the Chief Navigator, and the Chief Hyperspace Engineer. You already know whom I suspect. You have… unusual access to him. See what you can find out.”
“Show me what you’re made of, Dr Ancelador.” She nodded without breaking eye contact, then got up and left.
Had she really just asked him to spy on Refeliodor? Several minutes passed before Ancelador trusted himself to stand.
The nights with Refeliodor in the Officers’ Club did not flow as freely as they had done before. Ancelador felt guilty. He was worried that Refeliodor would assume Ancelador’s prejudices against Melnicks had tainted their relationship. Nevertheless, after a few days, Ancelador avoided the Officers’ Club, preferring to spend time alone, trying to work through his mixed feelings.
Closer and closer crept the time when he would see Refeliodor in the therapy room again for the weekly appointment – and the day after, Stellapluvia. For the first, he could hardly wait. The second filled him with angst.
Could Refeliodor be a traitor? Had Ancelador been so naïve, to be transported by Refeliodor’s halcyon description of his home world? Refeliodor wasn’t even the man’s real name. But he was a friend, Ancelador trusted him, felt it in his bones – wanted to feel it, but did he feel it, really? And what did it mean that the ship was being followed? By whom? With what intent? Why had Captain Stellapluvia burdened him with that frightening knowledge? What did she expect of him? He was terrified of disappointing her. Ancelador’s internal world stormed so violently that, by comparison, the content of his days seemed insipid, irrelevant.
At last, the day came. Ancelador arrived in the therapy room an hour early for Refeliodor’s appointment. He was so agitated, he found himself unable to call on any of his self-calming techniques. He resorted to playing frantically with the fidget toys.
When Refeliodor arrived, Ancelador did not hide his emotion. He leapt out of his seat and hugged the man, then stepped back, professionally embarrassed. Refeliodor had not returned the hug.
The two men sat awkwardly. Refeliodor made brief eye contact, then looked at the floor. “I’m glad for the hearty greeting, friend.”
“I’m…” Ancelador floundered. “Usually, I must control my emotions inside the therapy room, and be free outside. I’m not used to it being the other way around.”
“I thought you might hate me. I deserve it.”
“No.” Ancelador was earnest. “You had no choice, you had to withhold the truth about your background – no hard feelings.”
“You don’t understand. There’s more.”
Ancelador tried to say something tactful, encouraging, but it stuck unformed in his throat.
Refeliodor held his furry head in his hands. “I’ve been going round and round in my head, angry at myself for having accepted this assignment. I believed it would be some kind of atonement – but I’m a charlatan. If I have to pretend to be someone else, how can my apology be sincere? How can my forgiveness?”
Ancelador trod carefully. “Forgiveness… for what?”
Refeliodor did not answer immediately. He seemed to be trying to control his breathing. “We were at war.”
Ancelador swallowed hard. “Yes. That’s part of us. But we can choose what to make of it.”
“You’ve got to see it from our perspective. We never wanted to fight. We were happy in our little sector of the Magellanic Cloud. But the Doradans wouldn’t leave us alone. Your politicians, your General Ovidor, wanted our worlds, our technology. We would happily have shared, but you were intent on conquest. Not you, I mean, sorry, but…”
“Go on,” coaxed Ancelador.
“A show of force. That’s what was planned. The only language the Doradans would understand. We found a planet in the Melnick Sector that we could reach with our hyperspace drive, and we led you to it.”
“The fortress planet.”
“But it was a trap. You arrived with your fleet, assuming you had us outnumbered.” He trailed off.
Ancelador was silent, trying to understand the implications.
Refeliodor looked up, his eyes wet. “I’m sorry. It was me. I suggested the whole despicable plan. And then so many of your people were killed.”
Ancelador felt strangely calm. “We knew,” he said.
“What? You knew the fortress planet was a decoy?”
“No.” he admitted. “But we knew it was a trap. We knew our forces would be decimated. There was glory in fighting anyway. I was a fleet psychiatrist, clearing thousands of soldiers as mentally fit for combat. I knew I was sending most of them to their deaths. They knew it too.”
“It’s part of who we are, Refeliodor. And now we can choose what to make of it.”
Refeliodor sighed. “Now I’m stuck on this ship. When I volunteered, I thought there was something poetic about serving on the ship that had led my enemy in battle. It felt pleasingly… circular. A karmic route to redemption.”
“And now, I don’t know. Maybe this is apt penance, or maybe it’s just another thoughtless waste.”
“You feel guilty.”
Refeliodor did not respond, his eyes downcast. Ancelador left him to his thoughts, trying not to let his own distract him. But he could not help feeling angry at Refeliodor, or whatever his name was. He dared claim responsibility for a hundred thousand Doradan deaths?
Ancelador closed his eyes for a moment, reminding himself of his job. He was psychiatrist, not judge. He should feel pity, not rage. He liked Refeliodor. Refeliodor was a good person. He felt it intuitively – yet he doubted it. The two opposing judgments roiled in his gut, failing to reconcile, like water and oil.
Captain Stellapluvia’s warning resurfaced in Ancelador’s mind. What else might Refeliodor feel guilty about? What else was he holding back?
Ancelador put on his mask of professional empathy. “Please, keep talking. Tell me everything that’s on your mind.”
Ancelador cancelled the rest of his appointments that day, feigning sickness. He stayed in his therapy room, alone, mashing one of the fidget toys. He punched up a light sedative, but did not drink it, wishing to keep a clear head.
He was ashamed that he had allowed a patient to make him so emotional. He tried to detach himself. He reminded himself that Refeliodor was an engineer, not a general. The man could have no more responsibility for the battle than Ancelador himself had by clearing soldiers as fit for combat. Refeliodor was as broken as any of them aboard this ship, and deserved the same comradeship and care.
But something remained in Ancelador’s mind like a splinter. Something was not right about Refeliodor. About what he’d said. Ancelador knew he must put those feelings aside if he wanted to continue his relationship with Refeliodor, whether as psychiatrist or friend. But the feeling would not be denied.
That night, his dreams plumbed morbid depths. But it was not Refeliodor that his imagination conjured, nor Stellapluvia. Instead, his troubled thoughts expressed themselves in the face of Mvelindor. Mvelindor, who had loved him. Mvelindor, who would never forgive him. Mvelindor appeared, not righteously angry, but crushingly disappointed.
Ancelador woke feeling exhausted. One by one, all his troubled thoughts re-entered his mind. His friend, Refeliodor, was not whom he seemed. The ship’s trajectory had been betrayed. Captain Stellapluvia wanted Ancelador to act the spy. And she was coming to see him today.
He conducted his morning appointments mechanically, trying so hard not to think about his troubles, that all he could do was think about his troubles. Before he was ready, Captain Stellapluvia was at his door.
“You’re early,” said Ancelador.
Captain Stellapluvia closed the door behind her and sat. Her intoxicating smell. Her baleful eyes. The storied scar on her cheek. Her expression was unreadable, obscured by her scarf. “The situation has escalated,” she said, with disquieting mildness.
“The ship pursuing us is armed and dangerous. I need information, Dr Ancelador. Did you question the Chief Hyperspace Engineer?” Her eyes never broke contact. Once again, Ancelador was derailed by her pace, her bluntness.
“He told me everything,” he said, before he’d had a chance to leaven his response.
“And what did you discover?”
The splinter itched in Ancelador’s mind. But which was greater, his duty to his captain, or his duty to his patient? He attempted a weak deflection. “Captain Stellapluvia, we’re not here to talk about Refeliodor. We’re here to talk about you.”
“You know something important,” she said. “I can see it in your face.”
Ancelador touched his face, and immediately scolded himself – how did this woman so effortlessly upset his balance? He felt an irresistible compulsion to confess all to Stellapluvia. The turbulence of his thoughts had been causing him sleepless nights and wakeless days. He needed to talk to someone, and here was the one person on the ship that could undoubtedly read people better than him. She, alone in the universe, could help him. She had said it herself. Who counsels the counsellor?
“Refeliodor is…” he started – but then he thought of Mvelindor. The last and only time he had abused the trust invested in him.
No. Not again.
He put his hand to his mouth, needing the physical pressure to stop himself from talking.
Stellapluvia’s malevolent eyes sparkled. “You have to tell me. Damn your professional confidentiality. This is an existential threat.”
Ancelador’s hand remained over his mouth.
“If you don’t tell me what you know,” she admonished, “you are answerable for the consequences. Your secrets will be useless when we’re both dead.”
There was a terrible silence between them. Wars were won and lost. Civilisations grew and fell. Stars coalesced and fulminated. Ancelador shook his head. He would not make the same mistake.
“No,” he said, his voice cracking.
He felt sure the captain would leave, and he’d be disgraced. Or worse. But she stayed. Her gaze did not waver, though her intensity ebbed.
Slowly, she unwrapped her scarf. Her lips were thin. Her bone structure angular. Her neck gangly. Brittle.
She bundled the scarf on her lap. Twirled a tassel around her finger.
One corner of her lips twisted. “Forgive my deception.”
“We’re not being chased.”
“Oh.” Ancelador tried to process this. “And… Refeliodor?” he asked.
“I don’t know what he told you. I don’t want to know. But he can be trusted. I selected him for my crew, personally.”
“You were testing me.”
She nodded. “Confidentiality is hard to guarantee.”
Only when his muscles relaxed did Ancelador realise how tense they had been. He leaned back in his chair, feeling weary. He was astonished at how childlike and unthreatening Stellapluvia suddenly appeared. Her posture was softer. Her eyes unfocussed, as if she was lost in thought.
“General Ovidor knew it was a suicide mission,” she said.
Ancelador felt a beatific serenity, safe as a womb.
She continued. “He asked me to lead hundreds of thousands of loyal soldiers to their deaths.”
“It was impossible. How did you get through?” he asked, indulging his curiosity. “How did you make it onto the fortress planet?”
Stellapluvia shook her head. “We didn’t win the war. We lost. It was a devastating defeat. I spent hundreds of thousands of lives to crash-land on that planet, and it was barren.”
“It was a decoy,” Ancelador said, matter-of-fact.
Ancelador was shocked to see tears running from her eyes. “They baited us to a system that they could reach with their hyperspace drive. We thought we were fighting an army, but we were fighting an empire. They kept appearing, out of nowhere. Blinking into existence and blasting us to pieces. The Pluvia Ignis was hit. We crash landed on the fortress planet. The ship’s mind was badly damaged. The only way I could save it was to merge with it. It was unconscionably painful. The ship’s mind had been dying, and suddenly we were combined – it was the most existentially terrifying disorientation. It was like becoming a savant with brain damage.”
Ancelador realised what had been bothering him. The splinter in his mind. “But you were victorious. If the planet was barren, how did you steal the hyperspace drive?”
“The Melnicks didn’t surrender, that’s propaganda. We surrendered. In secret, we signed a peace treaty. Basically, they gave us hyperspace technology, and we promised to leave them alone. They were happy to give us the tech if it meant we took our dreams of conquest as far away from them as possible. Then, to make sure we couldn’t abuse our advantage, they offered the same treaty to every other faction in the Magellanic Cloud. We ended the Magellanic War – not by winning, but by sacrificing ourselves.”
Ancelador leaned forward. “You carry a heavy burden.”
Stellapluvia locked eyes with him again, and he felt molten. “As do we all,” she said.
“Tell me –”
“No, Ancelador,” she interrupted. “You tell me. Trust is made whole only when returned.”
“I – I… served in that battle,” he said. “I was doing psychiatric evaluations, declaring them fit for combat, on the unspoken understanding that everyone was to be declared fit for combat. The best I could do was to help these men and women and machines prepare themselves. Accept their fate. Thousands upon thousands being sent to their deaths.”
“That must have been difficult for you,” soothed Stellapluvia.
“There was only one person I declared unfit. He was sent to an asylum. He’ll never forgive me. I thought it better for him to hate me and live, than love me and die.”
Stellapluvia put her hand on his, and he broke down into tears. Crying, with abandon, for the first time since he’d banished his sweet Mvelindor. He did not stop for several minutes, and even when he could have stopped, he let his feelings flow out, gratefully.
Stellapluvia’s voice was comfortingly quiet. “Now we’re bound by each other’s secrets. Each of us the counsellor, each of us the counselled.”
Ancelador wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Thank you, Captain.”
That evening, Ancelador sought out Refeliodor. The two of them drank and talked and laughed until the small hours of the morning, as if they had been childhood friends.
About the author: Charlie Fish is the founder and editor of www.fictionontheweb.co.uk, which has published over 1,500 short stories since 1996. His own short stories have been published internationally, including by the British Library, East of the Web, and Mechanics Institute Review. He is also screenwriter of award-winning short films such as The Man Who Married Himself.
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