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Story 3

Charles Walter

High Score is a futuristic tale of treachery and betrayal on a galactic scale. I won’t fault you if you find parallels between it and today's politics. I loved the virtual reality tie in and the state-of-the-art military situational wargaming. Top that off with organic teleportation, and you have a recipe for space opera mayhem of the highest order.

Charles Walter earned a doctorate in astronomy, then eschewed an academic career for the shiny lights of software engineering.  Since 2010 he has contributed to projects in air traffic management at NASA Ames Research Center and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife, two young sons, and mortgage.

High Score germinated from thoughts on fatherhood and appeasement.

-- Charles Walter

High Score

by Charles Walter

            “They destroyed the Earth, and the Prime Minister is going to apologize? Did I hear you right?” Roger Dixon shook his head violently with dramatic intent as he paced back and forth in the Admiral’s office. He didn’t believe what he’d heard. The last few years had been a challenge for him, and whenever he had thought, That’s it. That’s the height of stupidity. It all gets better from here, the universe worked extremely hard to prove him wrong.

            “Sit down, Roger,” Admiral Park said from behind his desk, glowering. “You just don’t understand politics. You never did. Otherwise, you might be behind this desk.”

            Eight years ago, Roger received his dream promotion to Captain and was awarded command of the light cruiser Kona, Tim Park as his XO. Tim was a Commander then, just three years younger. While Tim was competent and reliable, he lacked critical judgment, which Roger emphasized in the evaluations he sent to the upper brass. The Earth Federation didn’t need captains incapable of extrapolation.

            Now Roger was still a Captain, and shining on Tim’s lapel was his first star. If it were peacetime the brass would have already been hinting at his retirement, but it was war, and they needed him. He’d been in command of the heavy cruiser Dempsey for five years now and knew it inside and out.

            With the Earth ruined, the colonies now provided the political leadership, and Tim Park had hitched his wagon to a star, with Waluce Ivugu, the new Prime Minister. Roger never had been very interested in political machinations, and associated with the failed, old Earth leadership as he was, only necessity and some past miracles had kept him afloat.

            Roger ran the conversation back-and-forth in his head several times on the way back to his ship. They were docked at Star Base Gómez for standard repairs when he received orders from Admiral Park to immediately meet him inside. That was surprising because he hadn’t known Admiral Jusephus had left for a different command. As a new Admiral, Tim Park had undergone a complete hair regeneration. He hadn’t been that insecure about his thinning mane, but a political job required a political appearance. Only a politician would have conceived the Earth Federation’s new plan, and only a politician could have communicated it to him so earnestly. Park’s transformation was complete. Roger felt uneasy, and the antiseptic quality the starbase emanated didn’t help.

            The war had been going poorly for the Earth Federation. Before the sneak attack with the World Destroyer, Earth had held an undeniable edge in population, technology, and raw resources. Now, with four billion dead and civilian leadership decimated, they were drastically outnumbered and fighting a guerrilla-style retreat. The powers that be were war-weary and had decided to tack in a different direction. The new plan was to meet the Vena at a peace conference in neutral space.

            The term “peace conference” was merely a smokescreen as an agreement had already been reached through back channels. The Earth Federation sued for peace. In exchange for the end of hostilities and payment of an annual tribute to receive “protection” from the Vena, Earth gave the Altair and Capella colonies to the Vena, which would force the emigration of hundreds of thousands. In addition, the military was to disarm almost completely, and most egregiously, Prime Minister Ivugu was to universally broadcast an apology for Earth’s aggression, which had caused the war.

            The last bit was what stuck immovably in Roger’s craw: Earth’s aggression. The first several encounters with the Vena had all led to the destruction of unarmed Earth Federation cargo ships, killing civilians numbering in the thousands. When the source of the attacks was finally tracked back to the Vena homeworld, Earth discovered the Vena sphere of influence which consisted of other alien species paying tribute as a result of wars they didn’t start. They lived in fear due to semi-regular pogroms the resident peacekeepers conducted on their worlds, complete with explanations Roger felt laughable.

            He found it odd that there were several alien species within one hundred light-years of the Vena, while Earth had searched a much wider area and encountered only one other alien species, the Wedosta, which they promptly befriended. Roger’s distant ancestor had played an important role in that first contact, a source of pride for the family for the ensuing centuries.

            The Earth Federation was fortunate to maintain technological superiority over the Vena, who also had faster-than-light travel but did not have the Lewis Drive, which had been continually refined over the centuries to the point where improvements were rare and trivial. Any Earth Federation warship could reach a top speed twenty percent greater than the fastest Vena ship. Also, the World Destroyer, whose history was clouded in mystique and was classified at a level beyond Roger’s eyes, but which provided a deterrent force granting the military a sense of security. Many had sympathy for the enslaved races and sought to free them, but the government in power at the time did not want conflict, which in Roger’s viewpoint was the direct cause of what followed.

            As what so often happened in engineering when an incredible leap in technology is found, just the mere knowledge of its existence led competing researchers to leap what were once insurmountable hurdles. It was not long thereafter before intelligence learned the Vena had cracked the initial puzzle and were now on their way to building their own World Destroyer.

            The Earth Federation met with their leadership in extended negotiations and agreed to provide annual payments, trade concessions, other technological advances, and eventually even the Lewis Drive if the Vena would agree to abandon their research; subject to a group of human and Wedostan scientists inspecting them regularly.

            In practice, the inspections were announced well in advance, and the Vena became extraordinarily creative in their reasons to restrict the scope or call them off.


            The Dempsey was stationed in Sol’s asteroid belt in support of mining operations three years ago when contact with Earth disappeared. They wasted hours on the assumption that the error was in their communication equipment. Finally, Roger ordered an onscreen view of the Earth. As the captain of the nearest warship, he left immediately to confirm what they saw. The Lewis Drive cannot be used safely in the increased particle density environment of an inner solar system, so they had to travel conventionally, arriving at what remained of Earth a few weeks later.

            When they arrived, the atmosphere was completely opaque, and the orbital satellites had all been destroyed which left the planet without power or communication. No one to was left to complain. Roger’s science team estimated the entire population had perished within the first ten days. Over the next three years, other ships with more specialized equipment searched the planet and found thousands of survivors, those who had subsisted on private power sources separate from the satellites that beamed free and clean solar energy to Earth via microwave. They also had hermetically sealed bunkers. Once disdained by the general culture as conspiracy theorists, they had the last laugh as it was, but as the sole survivors of the attack, had no one to tell “I told you so.”


            Roger thought of all that happened as he approached the docking point, straightened his uniform, then announced himself to the soldier on duty before being permitted to board. As he walked down the familiar corridors, his heart rate and anger diminished, and an indescribable feeling of home overcame him. The Dempsey had been their home for the last five years, now their only home with the residence outside Tucson no longer habitable. He knew he needed to speak to his staff officers, but at the moment they were scattered throughout the station on a variety of missions, some personal. This wasn’t that urgent, since there would be more than enough time for them to contemplate their assignment as they journeyed to the conference. He placed a mandatory meeting on their schedules for late afternoon, but in the meantime, Roger needed some relaxation himself.

            He headed straight for the game room on the family deck. When he walked in, he saw the familiar fluorescent-green pants his eldest child usually wore at one of the consoles, a spherical game screen completely covering his head.

            The room had three rows with ten consoles each, but that afternoon as luck had it, the lone one available was to the boy’s left, so Roger sat down and carefully let the game screen lower over his head. A moment later he patched himself into his son’s game. His hearing and sight were disoriented for a few seconds, and then he found himself in the navigator position on the virtual Dempsey, not entirely unfamiliar due to his tour on the Dempsey’s sister ship Williams as a young lieutenant commander right before his marriage. Peter sat alertly in the captain’s chair, but did not notice the NPC navigator had been replaced, so Roger addressed him.

            “What’s the mission, Captain Dixon?”

            Peter turned and grinned shyly at him. “Oh. Hi, Dad. It’s Attack on Eridani. I just wiped out the fourth wave of Vena. It’s about to get really tough, so I’m glad to have your help. I didn’t expect you back so soon.”

            Roger shook his head theatrically. “Peter Clint Dixon, you should know by now to expect me when you see me. Don’t you already have eight of the top ten scores at this game?”

            Peter completed his schoolwork in the mornings faster than any child Roger had ever seen and spent far too much of his earned free time in the game room learning by trial and error, mostly error, how to be a ship captain just like his father and many ancestors. The boy’s ambition and drive filled Roger with pride, and he was honored the boy wanted to be like his old man, but still, at ten, Roger and his wife felt the boy needed some more well-rounded interests. Roger wasn’t looking forward to the arguments he knew were forthcoming.

            “You can always do better, Dad. Don’t you say that yourself?”

            It wasn’t the first time Peter had turned Roger’s own words against him. He felt aggravated, but also gratified to know he’d been heard. Since Peter had been two, it seemed as if he remembered everything his parents said, often to their dismay.

            The next hour they spent together helping defend the Eridani colonists, but then Roger decided it was time to switch roles. The Dempsey had the second edition of Attack on Eridani, which had been updated to be more lifelike and realistic, with the latest in politics and haptic feedback. A key change in the game involved the introduction of the Eridani wormhole. It had appeared without warning just two years before the Earth was destroyed, at which time the Earth Federation deprioritized basic research in favor of basic survival. Early experiments had discovered the wormhole led to the opposite end of the galaxy, far from any human-explored space, and just a hundred kiloclicks away from an empty but very habitable world. Fascinating from a scientific perspective, it was low priority to the game designers, who had yet to incorporate it.

            The game was meant to give the players the flavor of all aspects of being a starship captain, so he would spend as much time in communication with and evacuating the colonists as he did fighting the unending Vena hordes. Roger really wasn’t in the mood for rest though. He needed an immediate win, so he set off to achieve the high score and ignored any game aspect distracting him from that goal. He pulled out all the stops, and when his resources provided inadequate against the forces arrayed against him, he improvised. He sent out probes to the wormhole, equipping them with broadcasting devices to make them appear to be fleeing Earth Federation destroyers, something he knew the Vena could not help but follow. Once a game element reached the Klypin point at the center of the wormhole, it meant instant destruction. He easily took out a group of pursuing Vena destroyers with that tactic.

            “Dad,” Peter said. “You’re not playing in the spirit of the game. I keep having to put off the colony governor. He wants to know when help is coming.”

            “This is what I’m feeling, Peter. You’re of course welcome to leave the bridge.”

            Peter didn’t. Roger knew he was far too invested to go home. Once Roger was devoid of probes, he started equipping his fighters and sending them on one-way trajectories.

            “Dad, what kind of captain sends his fighters on Kamikaze missions?”

            “Peter, listen to me. War is hell, and when you sign up to fight, you sign up for anything and everything. Each fighter lost traded two human lives for hundreds of Vena. You think that’s something? Watch this.” He sent his evacuation fleet on the same vector and, having secured the high score plus an acceptable margin, went out in a blazing glory.

            “C’mon, son,” he said. “Let’s go home to get some lunch before I’m needed back at work.”

            Signing out, they headed home, navigating the labyrinth the family deck had come to resemble. Roger was pondering what he’d tell his crew when Peter disappeared. Roger muttered to himself something unseemly about the boy’s caution as he wended his way through the last corridor and entered their home among the stars. Peter was already seated between his mother and younger sister, several bites into his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

            “Dear,” Roger said to his wife. “He did it again.”

            Kristine Dixon removed the soiled burp cloth from her shoulder, stood up to her full five-foot-five inches, and towered over her young son. “Peter, what have we told you about transporting outside our quarters?”

            An abashed look formed over Peter’s jelly-stained face. “I know, Mom, but I was hungry, and Dad was cheating.”

            “I don’t care what you think your father may be doing,” she said. “You know very well it’s unsafe for you to show your gift. People won’t understand it. People get frightened by what they don’t understand, and it rarely turns out well.”

            Peter’s power had surprised them just after his ninth birthday. He and his parents had been eating dinner when little Maddie suddenly figured out how to remove herself from her built-in crib on the other side of the common area. Kristine screamed in anticipation of the little one taking a nasty spill when, in a blink, her big brother was there to catch her. Peter told them he didn’t understand how he was doing it initially, but soon he became skillful. His parents had made him promise to be careful and only teleport in safe places around family, but Roger guessed losing the high score annoyed Peter more than he’d let on. The Dixons weren’t a devout family, but Roger did believe a higher power was out there somewhere and aspects of the universe he’d never truly understand. Peter’s power must have a purpose beyond their understanding. It couldn’t have been simply an evolutionary advantage. Man with his technology left evolution behind a millennium ago.

            While he ate, Roger prepared for the staff meeting. The war had persisted through all five years he’d been in command, which had given greater latitude in crew choice. He knew he was a touch paranoid, which was often a source of exasperation for them (as well as the top brass), but that was what saved several ships at the Battle of the Leader Nebula. Having come through the other side of that fire largely unscathed had created a mutual intimacy among the staff which provided him the confidence to be honest with his feelings.

            “Look,” he had told Admiral Park earlier. “Make up an accident, a natural disaster, some story about the destruction of several ships we can hide as an insurance policy. You know they’re not going to keep their word. You know there won’t be peace. Where is it in their history? They have no need for it. If this is the end of humanity, shouldn’t we go down fighting?”

            “Roger, you are so unbelievably rigid. The only way we can truly have peace is to show them how committed we are to the concept. To arm for war merely ensures there will be one. I had hoped you would consider yourself lucky your ship was not on the decommission list. For old times’ sake I put my thumb on the scale of that decision, but if I hear any more of these insubordinate ideas from you, it can easily be changed. Dismissed, Captain!”

            Roger sat in the front of the command conference room, fidgeting as he watched them file in, all punctual, before he stood and cleared his throat to speak. He knew the tighter the information flow in any society the more rumors fly with great abandon, but they were receiving official confirmation for the first time that much of what they had heard was in fact true. They were losing ninety percent of their military capacity. Two-thirds of the ships in the fleet were scheduled to be decommissioned. Two of the five Earth Federation colonies were being evacuated and annexed. Yes, the Prime Minister was going to apologize for Earth Force’s aggressive and inciting behavior that was the root of the conflict.

            Roger gave the news dispassionately, as if reciting the daily weather. Not the weather of the Denebola’s capital, notorious for chaotic swings that made Denver look stable, no, as in Los Angeles. Capitulation was sunny and 72 degrees, every day.

            Then Roger looked at them individually. “We’ve served together for quite some time now, some of us for even longer than the five years I’ve skippered this boat. We’ve fought many battles and lost fewer of our friends to this war than anyone could have reasonably expected. We are family, and nothing you say here will leave this room. I believe the fate of humanity may be on the line, and I want each of you to feel free to share your thoughts on what is to come.” He pointed at Lieutenant Commander Richardson, the Chief Navigation Officer. “Tony?”

            One by one they spoke, some garrulously, some terse. He had chosen the order seemingly in an arbitrary manner, starting near the door and working his way around the oval table, but he’d known Richardson since Tony had been an earnest new Ensign under him on the Williams, and he knew the tone he would set.

            Tony’s parents and younger siblings had all been on Earth, and they hadn’t died quickly. A vision of what the poisoned air had done to those bodies arose in Roger’s head, which he immediately dismissed, a skill the present circumstances had taught him. Tony was all alone in the world now, and he wanted to fight.

            The others spoke as he expected, some with disbelief at how the politicians had sold them out, others not liking the concessions, but seeing no other alternative. Speaking last was Commander Gonzales, Chief Engineer. She was the last woman Roger had been involved with before he’d been assigned chaperone duties against his will. The occasion was a ball in Flagstaff to celebrate the one thousand year anniversary of the discovery of the Kuiper Belt by the ancestor of his charge, Kristine Jeong.

            He had broken up with Elena the next day, and over the years they had forged a strong friendship, enhanced when she and her new husband had both transferred onto his ship four years ago.

            “I don’t like this,” she said. “But it’s done, and the humans who live are getting what they asked for. Elections have consequences. You can deny it, Captain, but I know you have it in mind to buck this, somehow. It’s foolish and will get us all court-martialed at best.” She gazed at him deeply for ten seconds, then smiled sardonically. “You have my full support.”

            Later, when he had finally gotten Maddie down for the night, he sought out Peter, who was seated on his bed reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence.


            Guerrilla warfare, Roger thought. Well, that might be useful. Peter looked up with a curious expression. “Mind if I join you?” Roger asked, playfully tousling Peter’s thin, blonde hair.

            “Sure, Dad,” Peter said.

            “Look, I know you didn’t think I played the right way. I ignored my orders, for sure, and that’s something you shouldn’t do. But you know in the real world things aren’t always as cut and dried, and sometimes the rules need to be broken, right?”

            “Yes, Dad. I know what’s going on, what’s really going on. You don’t need to worry.”

            Roger chuckled at the boy’s confidence. “Even I don’t know what’s really going on, but you’re more knowledgeable than most, for sure.” Still, there was an impatience in Peter, a question unasked. “What is it, son?”

            “Are the Wedosta all dead?”

            “That’s the sort of question you know I can’t answer, as much as I might like to,” Roger said. The Wedosta were the first alien species humanity had encountered. They were smaller in number than the Earth Federation and less ambitious. They quickly got caught in the war’s crossfire, and with their survival threatened, the remnants of their society announced they were exiling themselves and cutting off communications. If they had succeeded, Roger didn’t honestly know, and such knowledge was above his purview as well. He knew why it was important to Peter. Their many times’ great-grandfather Clint piloted the first mission to the Wedosta homeworld. Merely seven humans had been there for man’s first contact with an alien species.

            “I know,” Peter said sadly. “I’d just like to help them if I could. I just wish I could be big and help you.”

            Roger smiled and touched the boy on the shoulder. “You help me by looking after your mother and baby sister.”

            “Do Dixons all serve?”

            “Pretty much. Most do in the military. Some serve other ways. You’ll find your way. Maybe you’ll make a first contact like Papa Clint.”

            “Or the first to shoot at a new species like he did,” Peter said, giggling.

            “You do know the official version of events described the encounter as self-defense.” That’s what the mission commander had written about the different nation-states they encountered. “They wouldn’t have made it home otherwise. Remember, Dixons don’t start fights. We finish them.”

            “But the ones he made friends with. They trusted us. They trusted us, and look what happened.”

            “I know, son. Life doesn’t always wrap up in a nice bow. Not all endings are happy. But that’s no excuse to stop trying.” He made a show of sniffing the air. “Now look, I know very well you didn’t shower tonight.” He held up a hand to preempt any protestations. “You take care of that, and I’ll come back in later to say good night.”


            Several months later the Earth Federation’s entire civilian leadership and fleet gathered outside the Eridani colony far enough away from the colony to travel to the agreed location in neutral space, several light-years away.

            Once they were underway, Roger gathered his crew together again. “There’s no turning back now. I’ve made official notice regarding those of you who object to this course of action, so your careers should be safe from retribution.” Then he turned and spoke to Elena Gonzales. “Commander, you’re certain you can pull this off?”

            “Yes, sir,” she said. “To be honest, I hope you’re wrong, but I don’t want to be caught unawares if you’re right.”

            “May God be with us,” he said. There was a saying that God takes care of children and fools. He wondered which humanity currently qualified as. All he knew deep down was the Vena did not believe in peace. They’d never obey any treaty not signed in humiliating defeat and enforced with regularity and vigor. The best case would have the Earth colonies reduced to slave plantations, but he knew what there was to be known about the other races under the Vena protection, and they hadn’t shamed the Vena anywhere near the degree the Earth Federation had. Retribution was likely to be swift and brutal, and sticking his head in the sand and dreaming of peace reminded him of when Peter was younger and would hold his breath to try to get his way.

            He smiled as he remembered the time Peter actually did turn blue. Roger was aggravated at the obstinacy but proud of the conviction, aware of its likely genetic source. He was prepared to show some conviction himself, but even with the fleet at top speed, it would take them two weeks to get there. It was enough time to talk himself out of it, which is why he had made sure to commit the staff to this course now.


            Two uneventful weeks later they were pulling out of Lewis Drive when the alarm klaxon shook the bridge. “Richardson, report,” Roger commanded.

            “We can’t slow down, Captain,” Richardson said.

            “Captain.” Gonzales’ voice came through the communicator. Roger leaned over and pressed a button. “Yes, Gonzales?”

            “Damage to the Lewis Drive circuitry, sir,” Gonzales said. “If I try to shut it off it could blow.”

            “Understood, Commander. What do you recommend?”

            “I could shut it down very slowly. We’d need to circle.”

            “Begin a standard racetrack holding pattern. I’ll notify command.” Yes, he would, and he would enjoy this. Their prescribed position was in the back row, due to the considerable time Roger had spent finagling, which would aid his argument. One missing ship in the back wouldn’t be noticed. He called the Admiral.

            “Yes, Captain Dixon?” Park asked.

            “Lewis Drive issues, sir. We’ll brake naturally and rejoin the formation,” Roger said officially. Nine hundred years later the technology still suffered the occasional gremlin.

            Park frowned. “After the conference, I’ll have a team of engineers run a full suite of diagnostics. You better hope they find something.” He looked down at his console. “At least you’re in the back. Maybe they won’t notice one missing ship.”

            “I hope so, Admiral.”

            The ship assumed a racetrack pattern, skirting the inner solar system where the increased particle density would slow the ship down. It wasn’t considered safe to turn the drive on or off there, but dedicated testing had demonstrated the proper system tweaks to slow gradually, rather than coming to a screeching and often fatal halt, as in the frontier era of faster-than-light travel. Official orders demanded that all offensive and defensive systems be disabled upon entry into conference formation, but Roger was all in. If peace was legit, he’d be retired the next day, with a pension if he was lucky.

            Otherwise, who knew? He’d gambled at the *, defying direct orders, which saved not only his ship but several others, including thousands of civilians. He trusted his instincts, and anyway his career trajectory before the war always led to retirement around now. It just wouldn’t be at the farm his family had owned in Southern Arizona for centuries. The younger officers would get a mark on their records and be able to resume their careers. Senior staff? Well, he’d recorded objections when requested.

            He handed the bridge command over to a junior officer and gathered with some of the senior crew to watch the peace conference broadcast. The entire Earth Force fleet representing Earth’s total destructive capacity was there, lined up in rows, defenseless. They watched the Prime Minister and the top ministers board the Vena flagship. Ivugu was young for his position, brimming with earnest idealism, which Roger envied, as misplaced as he occasionally found it, but Ivugu was a man of the colonies. The colonists held a political supermajority, which wanted peace at any cost, so they were willing to believe almost anything. Roger admired the man’s cool voice as Ivugu recited the various unprovoked aggressions which Earth Force had engaged in over the years, concluding the sole way for the galaxy to have peace would be for the Earth Federation to unilaterally disarm to show their commitment.

            The Dempsey was on a straight leg of the pattern, approaching the gathered ships at a bit below light speed, twenty minutes shy of the Lewis Drive shutting itself down.

            Roger’s head was down. He found himself praying, which he did infrequently. He wondered if God would discount his prayers. After all, he hadn’t always been a sincere penitent because he had doubts.

            “Look!” Richardson said, shaking Roger out of his reverie. The far wall of the conference room displayed a view of the fleet, now exploding cinematically in a series of chain reactions.

            How? The Vena chose the meeting place. Mines? The obviousness made Roger’s blood boil.

            “Captain, Admiral Park’s on Alpha Channel,” the Chief Communications Officer reported.

            “I’ll take it here.” Roger heard himself speak, although he seemed somewhat detached from his words. It felt like everything was unreal, as if this was a bad movie, and when he’d had enough, he could just turn it off and go hug his kids.

            Park’s face appeared on the screen, his carefully cultivated look marred by an open cut on his right cheek, dripping blood. “Roger, you were right. Get to Eridani. Save whomever you can. I’m sending you my parents’ address. If you can. I’m sorry. Do what you think is right.” The transmission went dead.

            “All hands to the bridge.” Roger rose to his feet and ran to the door. “Best course to Eridani at top speed.” He shut his eyes briefly and tried praying again. This time it felt sincere. He hoped God agreed.

            He counted to ten, breathed deeply, then resumed. “Commander Jacobsen, please meet me in my cabin. Richardson, you have the bridge.” He headed out before either could respond.

            “Take a seat,” Roger said, pointing to the row of three padded seats facing his desk. He thought back to when Admiral Park was his XO. Park was experienced in the role in contrast to Jacobsen, the one member of senior staff who had joined since Leader Nebula. Jacobsen was bright and hard-working, if not a little behind on the job’s social aspects. Roger had been guiding him through that deficiency and thought he’d be a fine captain one day. That day was now blurry in Roger’s present view. “We need to save what we can, Mikhail. What’s your recommendation?”

            Mikhail Jacobsen brushed a loose strand of hair and spoke confidently. “We’re the last Earth Force warship. We’re overwhelmingly outnumbered. The other colonies…” He stopped briefly and lowered his eyes. “They have no hope. We’ll get to Eridani three days before any likely pursuers. If we message them now, they can begin planetary evacuation to an uncolonized habitable world. We’ll pray it’s unknown to the Vena. We can escort the last stragglers.”

            “You have your orders, Mikhail,” Roger said. “Dismissed.” Roger waved his XO out of the room.


            Two weeks later they pulled out of Lewis Drive, a month away from the colony on Eridani. They settled into orbit around one of the outer planets on the other side of its sun, a hundred thousand kilometers from the wormhole. Before they could communicate with the colony the ship fell under fire, long shots, too far away to do damage.

            “Jacobsen?” Roger barked.

            “Sir, four destroyer class ships. They must have already been here.”

            “How much time, Commander?”

            “Seven minutes, sir. More if we run.”

            “Run then, towards the Klypin point.” Maybe there was enough time. “Mohammed,” he said to the communications officer. “Contact the planet, traditional methods.”

            “Sir, it will be forty minutes before we can receive a reply.”

            “Understood, Lieutenant Commander. Open a channel to the entire ship.”

            “It’s ready, sir.”

            “Attention. Attention. This is the captain. All civilians and non-combatant military are ordered to the lifeboats. Departure in fifteen minutes. This is not a drill.”

            He turned his attention to the bridge crew. “Jacobsen, you have the bridge. Anyone who wants to see their family off; you have five minutes,” he ordered. Then he left the bridge himself, quickening his gait as he headed toward family quarters in what he hoped was a dignified fashion.

            When he arrived, the door was already open. Kristine held a sleeping Maddie in her left arm, the other protectively around their son.

            “Dad,” said Peter. “Are we going to die?” His face indicated he thought it a foregone conclusion.

            “No, son,” said Roger. “Not if you’re on that lifeboat.”

            “Are you going to die?”

            He noticed his wife’s glare. They’d had many “discussions” regarding the maturity of their older child. Given the circumstances, he felt it appropriate to trust his own judgment. He leaned over and stroked the boy’s hair. “Maybe. I don’t want to, but if I have to die for all of you to live, it’s worth it.”

            “But I want to help,” the boy said plaintively.

            “You can help me by looking after your mother and sister.” He stood up and softly kissed his wife. “Kristine.”

            “I know who I married,” she said. “I’ve never regretted it. You do your job, then you join us. This isn’t goodbye.”

            He nodded, then looked at the sleeping face of their youngest child, making a memory. He kissed her forehead, then quickly hugged the others and returned to the bridge.

            “Jacobsen,” he said.


            “Proceed to the shuttle bay. You’re in charge of the evacuation. Get them through the Klypin Point, then veer starboard.”

            “But, sir?”

            “You have your orders. It’s not much for your first command, but I know you’ll do your best.”

            Ten minutes later the lifeboats launched, a minute before the first Vena ship closed within deadly range. It wasn’t the Dempsey’s first interstellar dance. They were outnumbered, but they had the greater skill and the bigger ship. Their exclusive liability was the need to maintain a proper defensive position to protect the lifeboats.

            Within half an hour they had destroyed two of the ships, but had nearly decimated their supply of Trudeau torpedoes, which would soon leave them entirely dependent on their laser defenses. No communication came from the planet.

            Realistically Roger hadn’t expected any, but the dead certainty hardened his resolve. “Save two Trudeau torpedoes,” he ordered.

            A shot rocked the ship, and Roger knew they’d been flanked. He wished to not have the lifeboat burden, but he knew their priorities. “Gonzales, report,” he said. No answer. Damn. Jacobsen was gone, so now no one on the bridge crew knew the lower decks better than he did. He turned command over to Richardson and raced to the elevator.

            When he reached engineering, he received a report that the third of four Vena ships had been destroyed, along with the Dempsey’s remaining fighter craft. Engineering was on fire, the primaries out of commission. Elena lay on the floor, blood flowing steadily from her lower abdomen. The rest was worse.

            He held her head gently, and somewhat instinctively she opened her eyes and looked at him. “Secondary engine,” she said as she died.

            He turned to the nearest console and operated on instinct and faint memories to start the secondary. He stood and watched, strapped to the hull, two, three, four minutes while explosions rocked the ship. Finally, it engaged, and he raced to the bridge.

            On return, he found the bridge empty. He looked and saw where there had been a hole in the hull to cause the depressurization, thirty degrees to starboard. The automated damage control system had repaired it, but too late. Roger sat in the command chair. He lowered his head, allowing it all to rush in. He was alone, he had failed, and humanity would surely perish. His consciousness filled with vivid memories: catching a Diamondback home run in the playoffs as a teenager, the way the light disappeared in Kristine’s hair the night they met, Peter lying helplessly on her tummy, his umbilical cord still attached as Roger’s hands shook too much to cut it, and the smile little Maddie gave him every day when he came off duty. Thankfully, it was almost over. Only a few minutes more before the remaining ship would finish him and then pick off the families at its leisure.

            Then a figure appeared on the bridge where there had been none.

            “Peter! What in the world?” Roger exclaimed.

            “It’s okay, Dad, no one but Mom saw me go,” Peter said, humoring the old man as if he were oblivious to the implications of his actions.

            “You teleported through empty space, son. Did you even know you could do that?”

            “I knew, Dad. I don’t know how. I just knew. You went silent. Mom was worried.”

            “Communications are down, son. If you thought your mother was worried, imagine what she’s feeling now. You did it once. Do it again. I told you, your job is to protect your mother and sister. I expect a future officer to follow orders.”

            “Dad.” Peter looked around the bridge, absorbing the scene slowly. “You’re all alone. You can’t do this by yourself. I’ll protect them. I’ll protect them with you. Let me help you.”

            Roger hated when the boy was right. No matter how he spun it, his son would share his fate. The lifeboats needed time to get to the Klypin Point, and there was no way he could maneuver and fire weapons with the necessary proficiency alone. “Ensign Dixon, man operations.”

            “Yes, sir,” Peter squeaked brightly as he sprinted to his station, a youthful spring in his steps.

            “Destroy that ship. I don’t care how. This isn’t a game. I’m engaging evasive maneuvers.”

            A quick and violent exchange of fire followed. They took additional damage, but the bridge held. Roger watched the ships exchange fire out of the corner of his eye. Standard orders of engagement required them to aim at engines to disable ships and minimize loss of life. Peter concentrated his fire on the bridge, and soon Roger saw a satisfying explosion.

            “Captain, Vena vessel is destroyed,” Peter said proudly.

            “Good work, Ensign, and good timing. We’re dead in the sky.” He paused, then executed his contingency plan. “Ensign, execute firing pattern Dixon Chi at the Klypin Point five minutes after they pass through.”

            “Dad, excuse me, Captain, if we destroy the Klypin Point, we’ll never see Mom and Maddie again.”

            “We can’t follow them, Ensign. If any colonists survive we can’t help either, and there will be a small fleet of Vena ships here in three days. If we do our job, it will be decades before the Vena discover where we sent them. Carry out your orders, Ensign!” No more risks, he thought.

            “Yes, sir,” Peter said, leaning over to execute the sequence. The ship’s lasers fired a complicated frequency-rotation sequence at the Klypin Point. For two minutes it did nothing, then the wormhole’s knotted sides began to unwind, thin, and extend, slowly covering the hole. After another seven minutes, the other side could no longer be seen.

            “Switching to manual.” No one had ever tried this technique, but the classified reports Roger had read detailing the simulations believed it would do what he intended. He needed to do this himself, otherwise Peter might feel guilt for years, even unwarranted.

            He aimed carefully and fired the remaining torpedoes. The wormhole started shaking, and after fifteen seconds winked out of existence. Roger sighed, closed his eyes, and thanked God. If Jacobsen had followed orders the lifeboats should be unaffected and free to the planet. In three weeks, they should land safely.

            “Lord, please watch over your children,” Roger prayed. “I think Mikhail is ready. Please give him the wisdom to protect all our families. If you would, let my daughter remember her father.”

            Then he remembered. “Ensign, has there been any word from the colony?”

            Peter quickly scanned the communication logs. “No, sir. Should there have been?”

            “I guess not.”

            “They’re gone, aren’t they?”


            “Captain, the other colonies?” Peter asked.

            “Likely. In any case they’re beyond our reach.” Roger felt heartless, but there was no purpose in denying reality. He watched as it sunk in. The boy retained his poise. He would have been a good officer one day.

            “Did this have to happen, sir?”

            “I’m afraid so, Ensign. The most dangerous force in the universe is people who need to believe something contrary to all evidence.”

            “We used to number eight billion. What can 250 people do?”

            “Whatever they can. They have no choice.”

            “They’re safe, but what about us? Can we fix the ship?” Peter asked. “Sir?” he added.

            “We might be able to restore some maneuverability before our friends arrive.”

            “Then what?”

            Roger walked over to his son, placing a hand on his left knee to address him. “What’s the high score, Peter?”

            Peter smiled and giggled. “Who knows? Let’s beat it.”



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