Against his better judgment, Commander Fransk let Lieutenant Petrulch, his replacement-to-be, lead the raid against the Seragandan home world. On the bridge of the massive warship, Fransk could see Petrulch smile, just a little bit. Oh yes, letting him sit in the commander’s chair had been a mistake. He sighed. It wasn’t as if he could have avoided it. It had been almost criminal how long Fransk had kept Petrulch from leading a raid. And no matter how much he wished he hadn’t caved, Fransk could hardly stop the mission now.
So Fransk could do nothing but watch from an outof-the-way corner of the bridge as Petrulch pulled the ship out from hyperspace into orbit and, without warning, launched every single one of his fighters towards the Seragandan capital city.
It looked like a war documentary one that was supposed to inspire horror and disgust in the audience. The shining white city stretches all the way to the horizon, when small black shapes descend from the picturesque clouds. The camera zooms in, two hundred tiny, ugly fighters swarm around the cold majesty of the blocky superstructures of the city. A flash. The ground beneath a single building the size of Paris disappears in a flash of steam, letting the mass of concrete and marble fracture grind itself to dust as it fell to the bottom of the sinkhole. A second flash, a third. A laser cutting through a several-mile-high tower, an axe-wielding woodsman yelling, “Timber!” as the tower crushed even more of the city. The previously empty streets were black and purple with fleeing Seragandans, all perfectly reconstructed in the myriad holograms and screens filling the warship’s bridge, down to the last screaming infant.
For a moment, Fransk was able to see fleeing Seragandans as shearing stone exposed hallways and dining halls and malls. He groaned. Of course the suburbs would be the first to fall. Petrulch probably designed it that way. Already Seragandans were busy pulling their family’s corpses from the rubble even as the city collapsed around them. They were a stomach-churning cross between an octopus and a slug, but their humanitarianism was famous, even in a chronically humanitarian galaxy. Frank had found that funny, once.
Three more superstructures were similarly destroyed in quick succession, before the fighters (Fransk was amazed he’d never noticed how disturbingly hornet-like they looked from a distance) regrouped and turned towards the center of the city. Please, don’t do that Petrulch, Fransk thought. The Seragandans were known for two things: their selflessness and their possession one of the very few space elevators in existence. The mile-thick cord of carbon nanotubes stretched all the way up to their tiny moon, pushed into geosynchronous orbit above the city.
The elevator snapped like a child’s toy, right in the middle. And that half was still enough to wrap around the entire world two times, a snake with its head cut off. A full half of the continents were covered in city, the elevator could hardly miss. The force of the its fall was enough to crack the fragile, recovering southern ice cap, massive fissures stretching to the ocean appearing without warning. The second time the elevator fell, Fransk could see some of the fissures split, visibly pushing pie slices of ice towards the continents. He could imagine easily enough the tsunami, rushing up the world at over a hundred miles per hour, completely submerging islands and wiping clean the coastlines of any Seragandan legacy. Fransk was thankful none of the holograms were focused on the coastal cities.
It was only now that Petrulch, flush with victory in the commander’s chair, hailed the Seragandan government. The slime coating their bodies was noticeably quivering, even through the vidcam.
Calmly, though his hands were shaking, Petrulch said, “I would like to know how you made your space elevator.”
Distressed sounds came through the vidcam, but nothing coherent enough for the translator to pick up.
“I’m sorry. You’re not coming through very well,” Petrulch said. His hands had stopped shaking. The ground beneath another superstructure evaporated.
A grey Seragandan stepped in front of the throng of representatives. “Stop! Yes, yes, we will send you the blueprints right away. Of course, yes, yes. Please, leave us!”
“But of course.” Petrulch said, glancing over at the communications officer. The officer nodded, the blueprints had been downloaded. “We will take our leave presently.”
The fighters docked back on the warship, not a single scratch on them. It’s over now, sighed Fransk with relief. The warship’s engines fired, and it began its stately acceleration.
And slowed down again, hovering over the other side of the now-loose Seragandan moon, trailing behind the broken, but still attached, space elevator like a spider with seven of its legs picked off. Petrulch gave the order to turn on the headlight-esque force beams. The moon shuddered as it moved out of its orbit. The beams turned off; only the tiniest push was necessary for this. Caught in the planet’s gravity, the moon accelerated downwards, picking up speed as it wrapped around the doomed world like a ball in a funnel.
It slammed into the side of the planet, cracking the crust, red lines of magma scattering over the world. Then the dust thrown up by the impact mercifully hid the death of a civilization from the warship, once again accelerating to hyperspace speeds.
“What the hell was that!” Fransk yelled at Petrulch as soon as he relinquished the commander’s chair.
Petrulch looked panicked for a moment before he realized who was speaking to him. Coldly, he asked, “Did I do something wrong… sir?”
“You did everything wrong!”
“But I acquired the space-elevator technology.”
Fransk came within inches of lifting Petrulch off the ground by his collar. He growled, “You don’t get it, boy. You violated one of our primary objectives – to avoid casualties.”
Confused, and concerned, Petrulch said, “There were no casualties.”
“Civilian casualties! You killed every Seragandan in existence!”
A scoff, half in relief. “An alien’s death hardly qualifies as a casualty.”
“It bloody well does, as far as the galaxy’s concerned.”
“Ah,” Petrulch said, smiling, the smug bastard. “You are concerned about politics again, Commander.”
“Lieutenant!” Fransk barked. “You are confined to your quarters until we reach Earth.”
“Very good, sir,” Petrulch said as he left the bridge. Of course, everyone was staring daggers at Fransk. Commander, that was unwarranted. How dare he shout at Petrulch like that? The mission went perfectly. This commander… I can’t wait until I’m reassigned.
Fransk ground his teeth – he couldn’t do anything to Petrulch, and the whole crew knew it. Earth law did not define aliens as people, and unless Petrulch wasted resources in his wholesale destruction of the Seragandans, he officially had done nothing wrong.
The commander stormed off the bridge and made a marching loop around the outer corridors of his ship. Round and round the grey circles go. Where do they stop? Why, never. Or until the ship explodes.
The crew had long learned to get out of the way of Fransk’s pacing. Blindly stalking down the halls, he thought, Petrulch, succeed me? I refuse to let that happen. Refuse. Never.
Not to someone who goes into the Seragandans guns blazing, completely disregarding the fact that he is attacking something millennia more advanced than humanity. Not when he could have offered to not destroy the Seragandan planet if they gave us the elevator technology. At this point humanity has a bad enough reputation they’d probably hand it over, no hesitation.
Not to someone who can’t see how easily any one of them could crush Earth, given time. So what if no one in the entire galaxy had seen war before? The Irians had already tested a weapon that makes entire stars go nova. Why wouldn’t they use it on us?
But no. “That’s a rumor, Commander.”
“They’re harmless, Commander.”
“Why do you bother negotiating with them, Commander?”
Petrulch had said all of that to Fransk at one point, hadn’t he.
A petty officer had walked into Fransk and was floundering around in apology. Fransk barely saw him, and didn’t slow down for a moment.
Every ambitious man in the navy has an inversely proportional amount of sense, he practically screamed in his head. Not that I had been much better, he thought bitterly, swallowing that patriotic crap they pushed on you since primary school.
The walk hadn’t helped Fransk’s mood at all. He stopped by Petrulch’s room, momentarily thinking of kicking the door down and yelling truth into his head. Instead, he walked stiffly to his own room and collapsed in a chair. The blue darkness felt wonderful, in stark contrast to the flashing, hectic lights of the bridge. He rubbed his eyes.
“Can I retire to Earth in good conscience, when I know destruction could come at any moment?” he said to his empty room.
His computer chimed in response. Fransk half opened his eyes. He shouldn’t be getting messages so soon after a mission. Pulling himself out of the recesses of his chair, he opened the heavily encrypted file on his computer. Fransk scanned it with a growing horror. Earth Military Headquarters had apparently set up a hidden Evaluator in his ship “as part of a new program to allow young blood to rise to greater heights and glory,” meaning someone, probably a Petrulch crony on Petrulch’s orders, had complained to Headquarters that Fransk was holding Petrulch back unfairly. And the Evaluator’s conclusion was that Petrulch deserved a promotion – several, in fact. To Rear Admiral. Two levels of superiority above Fransk’s Commander. Almost as a footnote they offered heartfelt congratulations on Fransk’s upcoming retirement, and, in light of his successful military record, encouraged him to retire as soon as he returned to Earth.
That boy… a Rear Admiral. Fransk could not understand. Petrulch had a remarkable military mindset, yes, but no sense of any larger picture. He would blindly follow orders to attack even human settlements, in the same totality as he seemed to view all his conquests with. And when he started giving orders, recreating the massacre of the Seragandans hundreds at a time, even the most placid of aliens would turn red with rage. The dark of his room was no longer comforting. Fransk could see a thousand tiny, fracturing globes in an alien memorial for the dead, the last worlds to be claimed by the humans before they were finally stopped.
Fransk sat on the edge of his chair and slouched forward, rubbing his eyes again. Petrulch must not be promoted. There was no doubt on that. No matter how many lieutenants were just like him in the fleet, stopping even one from ascendancy counted. How, though, to stop it? The safest way would be killing him. Fransk slouched forward more. But the man did not really deserve to die. Frame him for some crime? No, that would be next to impossible with that Evaluator around. Merely keeping the declaration of promotion secret would work only until they reached Earth. Maybe they should never reach Earth at all, just float out there in the cosmos until they reached a rural, peaceful human colony, and drop Petrulch off there as a gift of good will. The crew would mutiny long before then. Even arranging an accident wouldn’t be enough. A Rear Admiral hardly needs both arms, even if he decided to forgo a mechanical replacement.
Fransk had progressed to rubbing his temples. Must the man die then? Fransk thought of eighteen-year-old, baby-faced Petrulch when he joined Fransk’s ship. If that person was promoted, he would surely incite the Irians, if not more, to use extinction-level weapons against Earth. Would killing him then save ten-billion-fold more lives? Could he be seen as avenging those millions of Seragandans? Fransk had no family to return to, no one to celebrate his heroic career or be shamed by his last act. This could be his unspoken gift to humanity, even if they would condemn him for it.
Fransk had stopped rubbing his temples. He did not like this conclusion. There is another resolution, surely.
Fransk, red-eyed, back in that damned bright commander’s seat. He took a deep breath, opened his mouth, lost confidence, breathed out. He breathed in again and said over the intercom, “Lieutenant Petrulch, report to the bridge immediately.” He rubbed his eyes. He was actually going to do this, murder a man in cold blood. No other way, he thought, no other way.
Petrulch walked in. “Yes sir?” Was that a grin? Was he expecting his promotion?
It felt odd watching a dead man walking – some mixture of pity and morbid curiosity. “For your earlier disrespect towards your superior, you are demoted to Third Petty Officer until we reach Earth, at which time you will be re-evaluated. As part of your new duties you are to conduct a regular generator check, and report back.” The generator room was kept in perfect vacuum and practically absolute zero, and the check was tedious enough that it could be seen as a petty power trip by a sadistic superior officer. It had been depressingly easy to tamper just a little with the suits so that they read all green, even when there were obstructions in the air recyclers and the batteries were dry.
Wait ten minutes. Look busy. What is he doing now? Is he still blissfully unaware, or has he long been cold on the ground? Or is he dying this very moment, gasping out curses to the technicians. But Petrulch was a smart man. He may very well connect the dots before he dies. Would he suspect before? No, surely, Fransk thought, I’ve done nothing that suspicious yet. Plots and counterplots and murders, Fransk shoved it all out of his head as forcefully as he could. I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.
Wait thirty minutes. He’s clearly dead by now, but engine checks take hours. Fransk can’t send anyone to check up on him without calling suspicion to himself. Petrulch’ll just have to wait a bit longer in the cold. It was remarkably quiet on the bridge, and dim.
Wait hours. Excuse yourself to take a walk around the ship. Stop by the generator room door. Maybe he’s still alive, Fransk thought. Maybe I can save him. Stop with your hand on the handle, finish your walk and imprison yourself in the bridge once more.
Ask the engineer how long engine checks normally take. Wait some more. Express concern over Petrulch. Admit you were being petty, say you’re going to check on him yourself.
Fransk suited up - the one in the corner that he had spared from his sabotage – and walked into the circular generator room. The glowing blue core in the middle made the light crisp, but dreamy; there was no body to be found. He circled the room three times, and there was no body. Why would there not be a body? He had murdered Petrulch already. His body should be here. Walk around three more times, where’s the body, body, body. It didn’t show up. It got harder to lift each foot, blood felt like lead, draining down to his legs. Had he double checked already, was he sure there was no body? Double check. Surely he missed it. It should be right there. Fransk fell on the ground – it was strangely comfortable.
There was a small maintenance window near the ceiling of the generator room through which Petrulch watched Fransk stumble around in the sabotaged suit. The man had honestly thought that no one had seem him walk about in the middle of the night, that no one had heard him bang around for hours in the engine room.
It feels strange, Petrulch thought, watching a dead man walking.