Saturday, April 12, 2008

Short story: Victory or Death

Here's a story I'm going to "trunk" as Tobias Buckell would say. I've shopped it to a few magazines and gotten the kiss-off, and while it's got some good ideas that I'll probably recycle, I don't think the next version is going to look much like this one. It's time to move on. Enjoy it--and viciously critique it--with my compliments.


Esma awoke to a med-bot injecting her with a max-level stimulant. Before she could respond, her stomach twisted into an agonizing cramp, and Esma found herself vomiting up the last remnants of a meal she finished some 50 light-years ago.

“What the hell?” Esma croaked, struggling to find her balance as the cryo-bed elevated to a standing position.

"Try to relax," the med-bot said in an eerily accurate facsimile of Dr. Napier's voice. “The stim may make you a bit uncertain for a minute or two, but in a moment you'll be fit as a fiddle.”

Esma winced to hear the simulation speak. "Where's the real doc?" she asked, making an effort not to look at the hovering med-bot pretending to be the ship's surgeon.

"I'll assume that's the stim talking and you weren't trying to be rude," the robot answered. "Dr. Napier is still in stasis."

"What the hell for? He's supposed to be the second officer to get thawed."

"That's a question for the Captain. Shall I…"

"Med-bot disengage," Esma interrupted. If it was done jolting her out of cryo-freeze, Esma saw no reason to banter with the doc's sim-twin, especially when it was speaking through the MedServices drone. The robot twittered for a moment, and then hovered back to its alcove on the edge of officer’s dorm.

Esma rubbed her shoulders for a moment, trying to work out the inexorable stiffness that resulted from cryo-stasis. Her head pounded from the stim-jolt. Something was wrong, if the officers were being revived out of order. Hopefully her own sim-twin hadn't crashed. If so, she'd be expected to resume her duties as navigator until her counterpart on the virtual flight crew was repaired. Personality simulations were supposed to help guide the ship's A.I. when the real crew was in stasis, not the other way around.

Esma took in a breath, and then barked at the nearest comms panel. "Lieutenant Green to Captain Dorrance."

"Dorrance-96 here. You were ordered to the bridge, lieutenant. What's the hold-up?"

Esma growled an inaudible obscenity. The insufferable Captain's insufferable sim-twin was still in command. "Interface override," Esma snapped. "Computer, give me Portal."

A musical chime denoted a change in the local A.I. interface, and then Portal, the ship’s generic personality, answered. “Lieutenant Esma Green, you are required on the bridge. Please report to your station as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, I heard.” Esma rolled her eyes. “Status of Captain Dorrance.”

“Captain Dorrance remains in stasis,” Portal replied.

“Is he alright?”

“Medical Services report that Captain Dorrance’s vital signs are within acceptable ranges.”

“Then why hasn’t he been revived already? He should have been the first to get thawed after we reach the deceleration point.”

Portal made a condescending chirp. “Invalid statement. The ship has not arrived at the deceleration coordinates. We are currently 74.3 light-years from that position.”

Esma almost vomited again. “Then we’re still in flight.”


Esma scowled, and stumbled to the duty locker across the walkway from her cryo-bed. “Is my personality simulation offline?”

“Negative, conceptual simulation Green-Esma-Zero-Three is valid to within 95.4 percent predictive accuracy. Green-Esma-Zero-Three is competent to serve as a virtual flight officer.”

“Then why the hell did you wake me?”

“The judgment of Lieutenant Esma Green is required to adjudicate an unanticipated mission event.”

Esma finished pulling on her in-flight coveralls and turned to stare at Portal’s nearest optical receptor. “Couldn't you just ask my sim-twin and get the same answer?”

Portal made the offended chirp again. “Invalid statement. Mission protocols require assessment by unsimulated personnel.”

Esma’s eyes grew wide at the last remark. “What the hell does that mean?”

Portal replied flatly. "A conceptual simulation cannot judge nor act as a proxy in matters regarding next of kin.”

Esma rolled her eyes, and smiled acidly at the screen. “Reverify your protocols, Portal. All my family died in the war.”

Portal chirped a third time. “Invalid statement.”


When Esma finally reached the bridge, her console was the only one illuminated. It glowed eerily in the dim light, an eye of blue peering out amongst a dozen other dark viewscreens that dotted the horseshoe arc of the bridge controls. Next to her primary screen, a secondary display flashed red, scrolling a series of cryptic figures and icons below a simple two-word warning: proximity alert.

“Nature of the contact,” Esma barked as she slid into her seat.

“Alliance military craft,” Portal replied. “Transponder code Gamma-Four-Six-Four-Foxtrot-Two-Niner.”

“Foxtrot? You mean a fighter.”


Esma ran the sensor image through a series of standard analyses, which spat back a canned assessment: Thunderspear-class one-man fighter.

“What do we have on the launch vessel, Gamma-Four-Six-Four?”

AMV Herakles, Olympic-class battlecruiser, reported destroyed on Oct. 17, 2243.”

“Oh my god,” Esma gasped. “You’re certain, Portal?”

“Affirmative. Transponder code confirmed. Catalogue file confirmed. Contact craft was assigned to AMV Herakles.”

Esma’s fists clinched. “Do we know who was assigned to Fighter 29?”

“Affirmative. Foxtrot Two-Niner assigned to Lieutenant Commander Thomas Green, 21st Alliance Space Wing, AMV Herakles.”

Esma shook her head. “Repeat last statement.”

“Foxtrot Two-Niner assigned to Lieutenant Commander Thomas Green, 21st Alliance Space Wing--”

“Stop,” Esma interrupted. “My brother is dead, Portal. Alliance Command notified me personally, right before the exile.”

“Contradictory statements,” Portal chirped. “Disposition of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Green listed as ‘missing, presumed dead.’ Last known whereabouts: Onboard Foxtrot-Two-Niner. Contact lost. Craft never recovered. Enemy action precluded search and rescue. Official correspondence to former Ensign Esma Green conveyed these facts within acceptable ranges of accuracy.”

“Look, Portal, I know the context, okay?” Esma pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to squeeze out the stim-induced headache. “We’re talking about the Battle of Kesper’s Deep, for God’s sake. I got the same ‘your family isn’t coming back, also, we’re screwed’ message that every other colonist did. So I want to be clear on this: You’re telling me my brother’s body is onboard that fighter?”

“Context of query unclear. Please elaborate: ‘my brother’s body.’”

“Fine. You’re telling me my brother’s corpse is onboard that fighter.”

“Probability affirmative, 25.7 percent. Probability negative, 74.3 percent.”

Esma swallowed hard. “Elaborate.”

“Foxtrot-Two-Niner reports viable occupant in cryostasis. Age and condition of craft suggests Foxtrot-Two-Niner onboard assessment unreliable. Situational assessment and recommended course of action required from flight crew and available next of kin.”

“He’s alive?”

“Repeat, 74.3 percent probability.”

“Holy shit.”

Esma pulled up the catalogue file on the Thunderspear class. 

Like nearly all space fighters, it was essentially a high-velocity thruster mount welded to a crew capsule, with an EM-shielded weapons sling latched on for good measure. Battlecruisers launched them as the second order of combat, right after firing off the haze of electromagnetic countermeasures that made old-fashioned ship-to-ship shootouts impossible. Guided ordnance was a waste of time, too, since EM pulses made instruments and sim-twin pilots useless. 

Instead, lunatic patriots strapped themselves into stripped-down chemical-engine tin cans and piloted them by sight through the man-made camouflage clouds. Whoever got the most fighters through the so-called “glitter fields” usually won, and if any of these kamikaze pilots made it back from their suicide missions, well, they were kings among men--until the next battle, when it all started over again. Thomas was the king of kings, at least in his version of the stories.

The Thunderspear class was the last fighter-type built before the war ended. In some basic way, it acknowledged that space fighters were an insane proposition. Thunderspears were engineered to serve double-duty as lifeboats. The onboard A.I. had long-distance navigational capabilities, and the pilot compartment could be flooded with engine coolant, allowing it to operate as a primitive cryo-bed. 

In the unlikely event a Thunderspear survived a battle that its host cruiser did not, the tiny ships could point themselves toward friendly territory, freeze their one-man crew, and begin a lowspeed Hail Mary trek to salvation. The last bit was particularly stupid, as without a rescue by an FTL vessel, the fighter would take a few millennia to cross the interstellar distance between systems. 

Obviously, some engineer had dreamed up the Thunderspear as a feel-good measure, without ever having met an actual Alliance fighter pilot.

The way Thomas had always talked up his flight wing, they all would have gladly been catapulted into battle with nothing more than a spacesuit and a sidearm if it meant they had a decent chance of racking up another enemy kill. The academy trained them to be fanatical, riding mechanical deathtraps into the crossfire for pursuit of duty, glory, and sheer thrill. Their motto was simple: Victory or death.

Esma could hardly imagine her brother willingly flying a half-ass escape pod, let alone using the lifeboat features of the ship. If it came down to it, Thomas would have rammed his fighter into an enemy target long before he'd ever limp back to safety. The onboard A.I. must have employed the cryo-freeze by default, after Thomas was incapacitated. He would probably need medical attention as soon as he was thawed.

“How long to intercept?” Esma asked.

“Intercept window in 26 hours, 39 minutes, 8 seconds.”

“Course corrections required?”

“Affirmative. Contingent corrections approved by virtual flight officer, command, Dorrance-James-Niner-Six. Final confirmation required by Lieutenant Esma Green.”

“Execute course correction.”

Portal produced a new, slightly less annoyed chirp. “Please confirm override of virtual flight officer recommendation.”

Esma frowned. “What are you talking about, Portal? You just told me the Captain’s sim-twin already approved the rescue course.”

“Course correction approved by virtual flight officer, command. Rescue disapproved by virtual flight officer, navigation, Green-Esma-Zero-Three.”

Esma was incredulous. “You already asked my sim-twin for an opinion, and it denied the rescue?”


“What the hell for?”

"Context of query unclear. Do you wish to know why Green-Esma-Three-Zero was consulted, or the basis for the derived conclusions?"

Esma slapped her forehead in a gesture of frustration. "Both."

“Green-Esma-Zero-Three was consulted for potential course correction in its capacity as virtual flight officer, navigation. During situational analysis, Green-Esma-Three-Zero filed a discretionary assessment of the situation. Green-Esma-Zero-Three recommended against intercept and rescue on the grounds that allowing Foxtrot-Two-Niner to maintain current course presents the most acceptable risk profile for craft occupant, presumed as Lieutenant Commander Thomas Green.”

“Elaborate risk profile, visual.”

Esma’s primary screen blinked over to a series of figures and charts, each detailing the likelihood of any of a dozen possible outcomes, with links to at least three-dozen more minutely plausible scenarios. In virtually all of them, Fighter 29 was recovered with little or no loss of time or resources to Esma’s colony ship. 

In most of those projections, the fighter’s occupant was extracted without compromising the cryofreeze. That left the final outcome up to the specifics of Thomas’s medical condition and the competencies of Dr. Napier, who would tend to Thomas after the ship had arrived at the exile colony. Bottom line, Portal was 99.7 percent certain that Thomas could be taken onboard safely, without any foreseeable risk to him or the colony ship.

“Portal, are you sure my sim-twin saw this data?”

“Affirmative. Green-Esma-Zero-Three had full access to the displayed risk profile.”

“And it knew that this was my brother we were talking about? It had access to the transponder data, and the ship’s registry catalogue?”

“Affirmative. All cited data was provided for Green-Esma-Zero-Three assessment.”

Esma shook her head. How the hell could her sim-twin not think 99 percent was a decent risk profile for saving her brother? It didn’t make any sense.

Esma winced as she spoke the next order. “Portal, instantiate a vocal interface with my sim-twin. I want to talk to it.”

“Please standby,” Portal replied. A moment later, Esma was talking to herself.

“Green-Esma-Zero-Three, standing by. How may I help you, lieutenant?”

Esma was once again startled at how accurately the ship could imitate her voice. Even though she had interacted with this program on three separate occasions, each time helping it refine its model of her personality and ensure this virtual copy accurately represented her current opinions and perspective, it still felt creepy. The fact that her sim-twin was relentlessly polite—a trait that no one had ever accused Esma of possessing—made the experience all the more uncomfortable.

“I need to verify one of your recent conclusions,” Esma said. “Why did you deny the rescue of Fighter 29?”

The simulation paused a moment, and Esma’s secondary visual display indicated that the program was accessing its own previous analytical logs. “The risk to Lieutenant Commander Green was too great. It was safer to leave him onboard the fighter.”

“Does that seem logical, given Portal’s risk profile?”

“No, it doesn't,” the simulation replied evenly.

“Then why did you deny the rescue?”

“Portal’s risk profile was only one factor in my analysis.”

“What were the other factors?”

“The flight logs of Fighter 29.”

Esma tapped out some quick commands on her station controls. “Portal didn’t mention those.”

“I ordered Portal not to,” the simulation said.

“You can do that?” Esma couldn't hide the surprise in her voice.

“So long as the virtual flight crew is in command, Portal has to follow our instructions, just as if it came from, well, one of you."

"But, you are Portal. I mean, you're just another interface file that's run by the ship's A.I. How can you give an order to yourself?"

"It's kind of weird," the simulation admitted. "I really wish they had time to train the officers on how this all worked before we launched, but the Confederation wasn't exactly patient about the exile. The A.I. is one mind, but it has multiple personalities. Some of us have more knowledge than others, and our relative ranks and permissions sort of determine dominance. The Captain's sim-twin is top of the heap. Portal isn't so much a personality as the absence of one, like the voice in your head that isn't your own voice. It may not sound like you, but no one can hear it unless you want them to--and I wanted you to hear this in my voice.”

“Hear what?”

“First you need to read the logs. Please.”

Esma turned back to her primary display and brought up Portal’s downloaded copies of Fighter 29’s flight recorder. It laid out in reverse chronological order a series of course corrections, which Esma quickly extrapolated into a three-dimensional visual of the fighter’s flight path. 

The screen displayed what amounted to almost a straight line from the Battle of Kesper’s Deep towards the old Alliance, now Confederation, Systems. The fighter had covered almost no significant distance between the two positions, and if Esma’s own colony ship weren’t heading for the outer territories directly beyond Kesper’s Deep--the Confederation had a sick sense of irony, forcing the Alliance into exile in almost the exact same place where they lost the war--the two vessels would never have crossed paths.

“I don’t see anything,” Esma snapped.

“Go back to the beginning,” the simulation insisted.

Esma highlighted the far end of the flight path at Kesper’s Deep, where the line became a tight knot of quick maneuvers. She enlarged that view, and saw that the fighter had begun on a high speed course in one clear direction, then quickly undertook a random series of retina-detaching swerves and pivots. Presumably, this was when Thomas was fighting through the glitter field.

After several of these maneuvers, the fighter took up a more stable course at an acute angle to its original launch line, taking it generally back the way it came, but not directly. Some of the enemy fighters must have broken through the glitter field, and Thomas was pursuing one of them, hoping to shoot down the aggressor before they reached the Herakles. Esma smiled. That was why his fighter hadn’t been destroyed with the rest of the 21st—Thomas never made it into the killzone on the opposite side of the glitter field.

“Uh, Esma,” Esma began, as always, unsure of how to address her sim-twin. “Can you bring up the position of the other ships from the battle? I need to see Thomas’s position relative to them. And the glitter field, too, if we have it.”

“Already calculated.”

The display refreshed, with several new icons representing the Herakles, two other Alliance battlecruisers, and seven Confederation warships now visible. A moment later, the fighter craft popped into view, blanketing the screen in several dozen new items. Finally, a globular haze appeared, representing the glitter field that dominated the majority of the space between the two lines of ships. Once the display was complete, Esma’s smile vanished.

There were no enemy fighters in the vicinity of Thomas’s ship.

Esma took in a sharp breath, and held it. “Esma, how do you know the position of all the enemy vessels?”

“All positions are extrapolated from sensor logs aboard Fighter 29. This is the battle as Thomas’s instruments saw it.”

“Is it possible that his instruments were clouded by the glitter field? Could he have been pursuing an enemy fighter by visual, one that didn’t show up in the logs?”

“Probability 14.2 percent. It is possible,” the simulation admitted, “but I doubt it.”


“The Alliance launched fighters first. Confederation vessels could not have closed the distance to Herakles that fast.”

Esma stared at the display. Thomas’s ship had bolted full-speed for the glitter field, then immediately began taking evasive action. But if her sim-twin was right, he wasn’t maneuvering to avoid the enemy, because the enemy wasn’t there yet. 

Worse, from the looks of things, Thomas had broken formation as soon as his squadron was inside the field. That was crazy, because with all the interference the glitter field set off, the only way to keep in formation was by visual. If Thomas left his squadron inside the field, it was very possible that he’d never find them again, and he’d have to engage the enemy all alone. Thomas was brash, but that bordered on insane.

"Did Thomas's fighter malfunction? He could have been trying to abort his mission."

"No malfunctions were logged by the flight recorder."

"Was he recalled?"

"No recall transmissions were logged, either."

Esma punched in tighter on Thomas's flight path. His craft had veered wildly, then sorted itself out, and left the glitter field below and to the left of the Alliance cruiser line. He continued on that course for several minutes, putting a great deal of relative distance between himself and the glitter field.

"I don't believe it," Esma whispered.

"Neither did I," the simulation replied sympathetically. "This doesn't match our memories of Thomas at all, but I can't find a more plausible conclusion."

Esma was trembling, and her voice halted as she said the words. 

"He ran."

"Yes," the simulation agreed.

"Why?" Esma shook her head. "How could he?"

"The Alliance was outnumbered better than two to one. The last of the fleet was present at this battle, and there was no possibility of surrender. Thomas was a flight leader; he would be expected to fight to the last."

"Victory or death," Esma whispered. "He believed in that. He taught me to believe in that. That's what he always said to me, when I was at the academy. Victory or death."

"He chose a third option," the simulation said.

"I just…I can't…" Esma felt tears roll down her cheek, and quickly wiped them away. She took in a breath, then regained her composure. "It doesn't matter. He's an Alliance officer in distress, and it is our duty to assist him."

"I agree."

"Then why the hell did you deny the recovery?"

"To protect him."

"Liar," Esma snarled. "You're angry that big bad Thomas was a coward. You're angry that the brother everyone thought died heroically in the Alliance's last battle actually cut and run."

"Is that how you feel?" the simulation asked.

"Yes," Esma choked.

"And so you want to punish Thomas by leaving him aboard that fighter. You want him to drift alone for the next few hundred years, until he arrives in the old colonies, in the hands of our enemies."

The words would not come. Esma merely shook her head.

"Neither do I."

"Then help him. Dammit, I order you to help him."

"I believe that I am. I believe Thomas is safer aboard the fighter."

"How can you say that? That fighter has a chemical engine. It will take Thomas a dozen lifetimes to get anywhere."

"Longer," the simulation agreed. "But if he is taken aboard this ship, he will surely die. When we arrive at the exile colony, Thomas will face a court martial for gross negligence of duty. He will be found guilty, and he will be shot."

"You don't know that," Esma said.

"I do."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because I've already seen the trial, a hundred times." The simulation's voice seemed to waver, though Esma couldn't be sure over the sound of her own quiet sobs. "The virtual flight officers have run it through over and over again. I've tried every conceivable arrangement of prosecutors and defendants from amongst the ship's crew. Most of them were fighter pilots, once. Taking Thomas aboard is a death sentence."

Esma stood up, trembling, desperate to look another crew member in the eye. There was none, so she simply turned back to her station display, and screamed. "So we leave him in a sub-light ship, drifting towards another death sentence? The Confederation will kill him, too."

"No. We both think he deserves that, but no."

"What then?"

"You let me take him home."


"Esma, you are his next of kin. When you calm down, you'll remember the regulations. Until his medical condition is stabilized, you have final authority over what happens to him. It's the same as if he was comatose and the med-bot was keeping him on life support. You can decide to pull the plug, or try a radical medical procedure, or anything in between. Any reasonable measure to ensure his safety is available and you get to choose. So choose to let me take Thomas home."

Esma's tears returned. "Where's home?"

"The old colonies, where we were born."

"But they'll kill him."

"It will be thousands of years before the fighter reaches home, if it ever does. Who knows what will have become of the Alliance or the Confederation by then? Thomas will be alone in whatever world is there to meet him. But I can go with him. You can order Portal to download me into the fighter's A.I. bank. I can take over the ship's interface, and I can be there when Thomas wakes up. I can take him home."

Esma stared past her station display, through the bulkhead to the empty space she imagined lay beyond. "But if we do that, I'll never see Thomas again."

"I know," the simulation admitted, "I'm sorry."

"He'll really be dead."

"No, he'll be alive. Everything you ever would have done to keep him alive, I'll do. Everything you ever would have said, I'll say. For as long as I'm able. I promise. I'll take care of Thomas, no matter what. Just like you would."

Behind different tears, Esma smiled. "Victory or death."

The simulation laughed sadly. "Victory or death."


The two ships passed little more than a day later. The colony vessel reached out with its propulsion field and gave the smaller craft a subtle nudge, holding the fighter at a specific distance while electronic beams danced between the two vessels. A moment later, the smaller ship's chemical thrusters fired again, and the fighter began its long lonely journey back to the old worlds, where its occupants first began.

Inside the colony ship, Lieutenant Esma Green settled back into her cryo-bed, while a med-bot twittered over her. As the anesthetics drained the feeling from her limbs, she cried one last time. "Rest easy, Thomas. I love you." 

Onboard the fighter, the same voice spoke the same words, and then began waiting for her brother to hear.


  1. Thank you, Jay. Excellent, just excellent. I so enjoyed the story.... does it matter that I'm a huge short story fan? Keep it up!

  2. Very nice! Two initial thoughts:

    1. "Thunderspear" makes me laugh, which is probably not the droid^H^H^H^H^Heffect you're looking for. I can't help it -- it sounds like something from a porn film.
    2. The first time you use "cryobed" I initially read it as a past-tense verb form; would you be averse to hyphenating it as "cryo-bed?"

    Beyond that, my only comment is that at the end I was wondering why Thomas ran. It's conveyed so strongly that he would never do such a thing that when we're supposed to conclude that he, in fact, did, I could only think, "There must be another explanation forthcoming." And there wasn't. Failing an explanation, I'd like to see some acknow-ledgement in the text (maybe Esma's internal monologue) that there isn't one coming.

    In sum: strong stuff, Jay, good work.

  3. I liked the story a great deal too ... I'm surprised it hasn't sold! One very minor editorial comment is on what I'm assuming was unintentional bad grammar in the first section:

    "What the hell for? He [sic] supposed to be the second officer to get thawed."

    If this was supposed to be argot then by all means let it stand, but if so I would alter her further speech to match.

  4. All I can say is...More! I want more! This is writing at its finest! Please do not ever stop or ever give up! Amazing!