“Wake up, Harry,” she said but waking up was the last thing he felt like doing.
He was hung-over. He was more hung-over than he’d ever been. His head felt like a rat was living inside it, a rat that couldn’t stop running around, a rat that couldn’t stop scratching.
“Why did you let me drink?” Harry asked her.
He didn’t open his eyes. There might be more rats living in his head. If he opened his eyes they might wake up and start running around and scratching too.
“I couldn’t stop you,” she said.
He wanted to open his eyes and see her. He imagined her as she had looked last night when he stepped into engine room. It was warm, heat radiating from the slumbering engine. The warmth was good. They had so little power left lately that they couldn’t chance heating the rest of the ship. She had found a towel and draped it over one of the power consoles. Lord knows where she found the whisky and the wine glasses. He had never drunk whisky from a wine glass before. Maybe that was why he got so drunk. Drinking whisky from a wine glass was bound to cause problems. And that’s why he kissed her. That and the dress she wore. He’d never seen her in a dress before, not even when they were in the Academy together, not even at the Christmas Ball or the Graduation Celebration. But last night she was there smiling at him in a lilac dress, her red hair loose. She was even wearing make-up: not much, just very dark eyeliner and a little lipstick.
“Come on, wake up,” she said.
He clutched at his head. He wanted to shake his head hard, shake the damn rats out of it.
“Kiss me and I’ll get up,” he said, still not opening his eyes.
He heard her sigh.
“Harry,” she said. He thought she might not kiss him but then he could sense her body lowering towards him. Then her lips were on his forehead. When her lips moved away he opened his eyes.
The ship was called The Maelstrom. When it was assigned to the fleet it was recorded as a Modified Transporter. That pretty much meant that it was a run of the mill transporter vessel, the ones used to ship crews between space stations and battle ships, but some fool had welded a blast canon to the hull. When it was a transporter it was designated as the El Paso because that was where its first captain was born. When the war started and the El Paso’s first captain was dead, when it was part of the Vengeful Fleet as they called that last suicidal attack on the Fell, its new captain renamed her. He was a Norwegian and he liked words like Maelstrom.
Harry was just a pilot then and Tab was still only a navigation officer on the Byzantium. Now there were only the two of them. No Norwegian captain going on about krakens and Ragnarok. No Vengeful Fleet. No Byzantium. No earth. Just Fell-4429.
“Are you sure about this?” Tab asked for the tenth time that morning.
His head was still throbbing.
“Is there any more whisky?” he asked but she only smiled.
He was sat in the captain’s flight chair now and Tab was responsible for navigation, the engines and weapons all rolled into one. All Harry had to do was pilot the ship.
A one way trip. That’s how he explained the plan to her.
He had brought up satellite details of the Fell fleet.
“See there,” he had said, pointing to a large flashing blip on the screen. She had nodded.
“That’s their Master Cruiser, right. If we can destroy it then they’ll be at least wounded. It might give the others more time.”
“What others?” she had asked.
“There must be others.” He always said that. There must be others. If he said it enough times he might start believing it.
“How do we destroy a ship that big?” she asked. She was right to ask. Their blast canon would barely make a dent in the shields of a Fell interceptor.
But he had a plan.
As the rat ran around his head and the Maelstrom moved slowly out of the shadow of Mars he wanted her to tell him to turn around. He wanted her to tell him that they could go away, that the earth was dead, that what they were doing was foolish, that they could live. He wanted her to say those words but he knew shouldn’t wouldn’t.
“Are you ready?” she asked him.
“I wish I wasn’t,” he said.
His hand was shaking. He groped along the arm of his flight chair for the controls. One press of a button and they would be hurtling towards the Fell fleet. They would be detected almost immediately and, just like when the Vengeful Fleet had hurtled out of Mars’ shadow, they would be set upon by interceptors. They would be lucky to make it within firing distance of the Fell Master Cruiser.
But if they could somehow get close enough then his plan might work. It was simple. Fly full pelt at the Master Cruiser, eject the engine with its fission reactor, fire the blast canon, ignite the engine’s fission reactor, destroy the Master Cruiser, destroy the Maelstrom. Die.
As his finger pressed down and the Maelstrom did its usual lurching spasm before its boosters kicked in, he remembered the first time he saw Tab Ellis. They were fifteen. They were both cadets in the Air-Sea-Land Force. They both wanted to join the Fleet someday. They were in a lesson when the news broke. They were on a train speeding towards London when the news came that New York had been bombed. He remembered Tab crying. He remembered holding her. How many times had he held her in all the years they’d known each other and yet yesterday was the first time they had kissed.
He stood up from the flight chair. The viewer showed the Fell fleet getting closer and closer, their spherical cruisers looming nearer. Shard-like interceptors were darting at them. The Maelstrom’s hull was taking fire.
“Tab,” he said to get her attention because she was focused on the diagnostics screen. He could see the figures himself; the shields were failing, life support was failing, the engine was failing.
She turned towards him and he put his hand out to her. She took it and without a word she stood and they kissed.
The Maelstrom shuddered. He could smell burning. He put his head against hers and her hair smelled of oil and too many days without washing. He loved the smell of her hair.
“I love you, Tab,” he said.
She was crying.
He reached past her and tapped the console. He glanced back to the viewer. Somehow they had made it to within firing distance of the Master Cruiser. It was a miracle. It was the tiniest miracle in the universe. The Maelstrom jerked to a halt as the engine was ejected. He kissed her again and tapped the console. The blast cannon fired. The light that came then was brighter and hotter than any sun.
The Maelstrom disintegrated into a million pieces.
In Grand Lord Atraydias’ private chambers on board the Fell Mater Cruiser he was awoken by an aide.
“Sire,” said the aide. This aide had a high pitched, squeaky voice that annoyed the Grand Lord.
“What is it, Kartern?”
Kartern knelt beside the Grand Lord’s bed. The three naked Talgredu girls in the Grand Lord’s bed didn’t wake.
“The last of the human fleet has been destroyed,” announced Kartern.
Atraydias yawned. He rolled on to his side and took the goblet of Hat-Had wine. The wine was thick, blue and far too sweet but he was thirsty and drained every drop.
“What do you mean, Kartern,” said the Grand Lord, his hand groping one of the Talgredu’s breasts. “I thought we’d dealt with their fleet already.”
Later that day Grand Lord Atraydias reported the same information to his seven fellow Grand Lords. The news was met with a murmur of satisfaction before Grand Lord Urruyeal brought up the issue of the terraforming problems in Fell-4429’s southern hemisphere.