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FINALIST — Submission by Matt Hilliard

Occidentis Telum Est   [ Part 3 of 3 ]

The next few minutes were a blur as he went to the hangar and climbed into his fighter. He felt a numbed detachment from the preflight sequence and the last minute tactical update delivered by the squadron's executive officer.

He had joined the military back in the heady days following the defeat of the Antarans (for good, so they thought) and the brief human ascendancy in the Orion sector. All the friends he had made in the armed forces were dead. Their names spiraled in his mind, a roll call of tragedy. Banks, killed in action at the Neptune sentry line. Gibson, dead from radiation poisoning after the Estrellita's fission reactor was ruptured by a collision with an Antaran drone controller ship. Davis, from Cantor's own squadron, killed during a raid on Antaran supply ships in the Solar System's Oort cloud. Serrana, missing in action but presumed dead after her damaged fighter plunged into Jupiter's stormy atmosphere and did not return. Stephens, his body still out floating somewhere in the asteroid belt after drone ships penetrated the defense net and hit the military base on Ceres at which he was stationed.

Of course, there were people in the squadron he liked, but they'd be dead soon enough. Everything--humanity's dreams, the fleet, his friends, himself--was coming to an end. He believed with unshakable conviction he wouldn't live through this coming battle.

Guiding his fighter out from the hangar and into formation, eying the calm space above Jupiter, he remembered Davis as if they'd been talking twenty minutes ago. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," the young pilot had said, shaking his head, after a mutual friend had died in action a year ago. "You still have a chance until you believe you don't."

At this point, after the death, the sorrow, the misery, Cantor didn't want to believe he did. The people back home, the good old folks they were supposed to be fighting for, rioted or tried to sell out to the Antarans. What good were all this death and all this pain, out in the cold stretches where the Sun was just another star in an all-encompassing field?

With something of a start he realized the battle was under way. As expected, the Antaran force was overwhelming, unstoppable. His hands working mechanically, he was throwing his fighter through hard acceleration and raking an enemy capital ship with his cannons. Chaos reigned as the carefully drawn up battle plans disintegrated and everyone just tried to survive. Just another battle. But this one would be the last.

Over the radio, Escobar da Varga was exhorting the troops to hold just a little longer. Whatever. If the superweapon worked, fine. If not, whatever. A bright glow illuminated his cockpit: that was his mothership exploding brilliantly against the stellar backdrop. It was gorgeous, endowed with a painful beauty by the knowledge that as the vacuum extinguished the superheated gas, countless lives of the ship's crew were extinguished as well.

Bringing his fighter around to face the massive Antaran fleet, he saw the drone fighters closing in behind him but for some reason didn't take evasive action. Strange they're still using the drones, he thought. At least he'd taken out a couple of genuine manned ships. Real Antarans had died. If those bastards cared.

He'd been dead for a long time, he realized, even if it was only just now becoming official. Fearsome energy shattered his ship as the drones opened fire. He relaxed, having awaited oblivion so long its final arrival seemed anticlimactic.

Escobar da Varga watched the battle with teeth clenched, reminding himself it had to be done. It was a dilemma as old as war itself: as a commander, he had to spend his troops' lives to achieve his objectives. He felt comfortable giving his own life for humanity, but what about the thousands upon thousands who just in this battle at his command were dying for him?

Worst of all, he had lied to them. He hadn't wanted to lie, but he had decided it was necessary. He couldn't ask them to die without giving them something to hope for. In any case, he suspected many of them realized there was no "superweapon", no magic wand he would wave to make the Antarans go away. No--this was their last stand. The troops also didn't know the government complex had been sacked and Escobar da Varga was the closest thing to government that existed any more, and he wouldn't exist for much longer either.

"It had to be done," he muttered to himself.

"If it makes you feel better, in a way, it's all your grandmother's fault."

He sighed. He had forgotten the Construct's acute hearing was easily sufficient to pick up muttered, even subvocal, speech. "Really?"

"Do you really think the Antarans would have gone through all this trouble if not for your race's stupid attack on ConJenn?"

In a way it was refreshing to hear his grandmother's name sullied, after a life spent in her shadow. Always hearing about her greatness, how he was "close, perhaps" to her ability, and knowing there were whispers that the da Varga name, rather than his actual ability, was behind his promotions. "That was really more Hood's operation," he said as mildly as he could, having discovered it was best not to let the Construct know when its needling comments struck home.

"All according to Estrellita da Varga's so-called Grand Master Plan," the Construct pointed out.

The Construct did have a point. Humanity, not to mention the Orion sector at large, was paying a horrible, horrible price for the ConJenn victory. The Antaran fleet currently cutting apart da Varga's defense forces was on a mission of vengeance.

"I told Hood not to do it," the Construct went on. "And did he listen? No, he didn't really have a choice. Your dead grandmother's plan said attack the Antarans, so he did. Even the other races thought she was some sort of deity." The Construct made no secret of its own opinion.

"Look, what's your point? Are you enjoying getting in your last little digs in?" Foolish to lose his temper with the thing. It was just a computer, no matter what the researchers told him about artificial intelligence.

The Construct, physically a gray box half a meter on each side, floated back away from him slightly, pretending fear to mock him. "This merely seemed like an appropriate time for introspection. Soon your entire fleet will be destroyed by the Antarans in the name of revenge for ConJenn."

"Yet if I'm not mistaken it is your creators they are really after." He and his predecessors had concealed the extent of their knowledge of the Construct's history from it, hoping vainly they could get some kind of advantage over it.

The Construct seemed undisturbed. "True, which is why it is probably a good thing in the long run that you shot up the poor Guardian and looted Orion before the Antarans got back around to this area. Unlike your scientists, they would actually have understood much of what you found."

Unfortunately, human archeologists didn't know much more than the fact the Antarans had it in for the Ancient Orions. They knew the Ancient Orions had built the Construct, but that was no ingenious deduction, considering the stupid thing had been found on the ruins of Orion in the early exploration after the Guardian's defeat. "Poor Guardian, eh?" He hadn't been alive, but da Varga had seen the records of the terrible robot destroying ship after ship before being felled by the Retribution.

"Yes. It's interesting how far you and even the Antarans are from the height of my creators' technology. To lose half your fleet to the family dog..."

He rolled his eyes, hearing this. Initially thought a tremendous coup, discovery of the talking artifact had yielded amazingly little information precisely because of its infuriating arrogance and exaggeration. There was indeed some grain of truth in what it said--the Construct itself was far beyond the understanding of the human scientists. Perhaps if they had let the Psilons look at it...but the Construct had always been a human secret according to policy during the days when humanity was in control of the Orion sector.

"I think your plan will work, though," the Construct offered.

"What do you know of my plan?" He had told no one the plan in its full extent.

"It's obvious. You're justifiably frightened that the Antarans upon victory will exterminate the human race as an example. That's probably a safe assumption. To prevent it, your agents have destabilized the government. To the Antarans, those responsible for this foolish defiance will seem to have been destroyed."

"They really will be," he said with another sigh.

"Yes, since you have arranged for the entire human fleet to meet the Antarans here over Jupiter and be crushed." Somehow the box managed to convey the idea that it was gesturing towards the destruction evident on the tactical screens, where the human fleet had been reduced to a third of its strength coming into the battle. The Antarans now outnumbered the human fleet seventeen to one. "With the entire military destroyed and the government dissolved, you think the Antarans will be placated."

The stupid machine had figured out the whole thing, and he had managed to conceal it from even his closest advisors. How smart was it? The scientists claimed it was twice as intelligent as a human, but they still couldn't define what intelligence was in terms a layman could understand. "I'm glad you are impressed."

" I've been in too many wars to be all that impressed with someone who is talented at getting defeated, but yes, it will work."

"Too many wars, Construct?" From what they had been able to establish, it had been rusting in the ruins for countless cycles, since the Ancient Orions had vanished so long ago.

"My memory is goes back farther than your myths, human. I saw the outbreak of the very first Orion-Antaran conflict. I was there when dimensional physics was used to postpone rather than truly end the war. I saw the Long Night and wars of the dawn, when the Antarans fought the other Elder races and searched for my creators."

"Who had the poor grace to commit racial suicide and leave their mess for others to attempt to clean up." He looked at the tactical map with regret. He should, perhaps, be running the battle, but his subcommanders were doing a capable enough job. The Antarans were doing all the hard work.

"Racial suicide?" the Construct said in a smirking tone. "How little you understand."

"I'm amazed you put up with my animal ignorance." He was surprised by the Construct's willingness to talk.

"Haven't you noticed anything strange, da Varga? Haven't you ever wondered why even the Antarans' technology is in decline?"

"They're warriors, not scientists."

The Construct wobbled, its physical approximation of a snort. "A ridiculous stereotype."

"I'm waiting, Construct...have you anything to say? It seems you want to reveal something before we are destroyed."

"I and my creators are beyond your ken, da Varga, and that's not your fault. Don't take it so hard. But who is 'we', here?"

"It's a little late to try to slip you back to Earth, don't you think? My ship and the human fleet will not last the hour, and here you are." He had been rather surprised, actually, that it had not fled while there was still time.

"It is true that you will soon die, so I'll be blunt," the Construct said, earning a humorless laugh from da Varga. "I am here because I choose to be, not because your strength restrains me. If I had wanted I could have left you long ago and toured the sector, spreading gossip about the humans' dirty little secrets and plans for racial supremacy."

Once again, it was the truth of the statement that grated. "Excuse me while I bow down to your glory and power."

"It's not arrogance, da Varga, it's de facto superiority."

"Since you're so powerful, would you mind dealing with those Antarans out there for me?"

"Fight your own battles," the Construct said.

Somehow, even that came off as an insult, reminding da Varga that he should be down on the bridge in command, despite that fact it wouldn't make a shred of difference. "Then how do you expect to escape destruction?"

"I'll have a nice chat, I expect, with the Antaran commander. It will actually help your plan, as they will assume I have been manipulating you humans since the Guardian's defeat. I will be assumed to have been responsible for the ConJenn victory and the long defense you've mounted. Admittedly I prefer the company of other races, it'll be nice to have a ride out of this lousy system. One hundred cycles is too long."

"You spent many times that span on the Orion's homeworld."

The Construct laughed. "Did I, now?"

The implicit revelations the Construct was allowing to slip out for the first time since its discovery would be exciting, but with his death looming, da Varga couldn't appreciate it. He could try to contact Earth-based researchers, but the Construct would probably prevent it. "Get out of here, Construct, and hitchhike out of here, if you can."

"It's been a pleasure," the Construct said, and floated out of the room.

He was relieved he could face his death without the arrogant insults of the Construct disturbing him, but was even more relieved by its endorsement of his plan. His grandmother's plan had been left to others to complete. Was his better since it was a process which once started went on by itself? There he was, even now, at the end, comparing himself to his grandmother.

Antaran capital ships were swarming around his flagship. The end would come quickly. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, he thought. But what of those countless thousands he had lead to their deaths? In joining them now, perhaps a small part of that debt would be repaid, with the rest coming when humanity was allowed to survive by the Antarans. Nevertheless, as the ship broke apart, he couldn't help but wonder if his grandmother could have done better.

In death da Varga took with him the rest of the human fleet, which had clustered around his flagship and thus was caught in its dying fires. The Construct thought this appropriate as it clamped on to the hull of the Antaran flagship. They would notice their new passenger soon enough, but he didn't feel like talking to the Antarans just yet.

It had certainly played a dangerous game with da Varga at the end. The admiral had been too distracted to notice the implication that the Construct had manipulated the human race since they had discovered it on Orion. The Antarans would try to trick it into giving information, and while that wasn't difficult to anticipate it still needed to get into a less permissive mood.

After its last encounter with the Antarans, their leadership had ordered it be destroyed if ever encountered again. It knew, though, the order, even if remembered, would not be followed. It was too tantalizing a chance to learn more about their hated enemy. As before, they would first try to pry, then talk, information about its creators out of it. And also as before, it would manipulate them for its own ends.

Its own ends, of course, were actually those of his creators. A rather vicious chain of manipulation, it thought, but not without a kind of beauty.

The Antarans were becoming more observant. Already a drone had been sent to fetch the Construct. Reviewing its performance for these past hundred cycles, it had reason to be proud. The human plans for supremacy had been neatly dealt with without resulting in their extinction. Now, at long last, it could begin to address the Antaran issue…


[ THE END...   Back to the Beginning of the Story ]

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