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A Hand of Captains

by David Barber

1. The Night-Captain’s Watch

The Night-Captain is roused from reverie by the faintest whiff of drive exhaust, a few extra atoms tainting the vacuum. Then it is gone. He nods slowly in recognition. The ship had crossed a trail.

Every c-ship carries a hand of captains and, by tradition, the Night-Captain is the oldest of them, staying awake while the crew dreams, resolute as faith can make flesh, deathless as medicine can made a man. In a millennia of starship voyaging, there have been infamous Titanics because of Night-Captains, but it makes no difference to the tradition; they stare into the void so we can look away.

Ten thousand seconds pass while the Night-Captain considers. He is a tortoise of a man, creeping down cold, silent corridors, convinced that all technology will fail one day.

The trail leads to a sun with planets. He has brought them safely this far. Now it is up to others.

2. The Go-Captain’s Watch

There are energy signatures and radio leakage from the planetary system ahead.

They see the Go-Captain’s expression harden. “Could be Jirt.” From the beginning, the Jirt had treated humans like roaches in a kitchen.

“Or maybe a forgotten generation-ship.” He says nothing that is not obvious, but everyone feels better when he says it.

“We could wait,” ventures the Night-Captain. The Night-Captain always favours waiting and watching.

“No, they might have seen our drive. If they were looking in the right place.” On waking, the Go-Captain instantly assumed command. Imagine a hero, genetically enhanced and trained to lead. The confident smile. That inner steel.

“What we need is facts.” He looks from face to face. “Scout pod stealthed like a rock,” he decides. “Rail-gun launch. Nothing to give us away.” He is the third iteration of their Go-Captain, and still they believe in him.

With a copy of his mind-state uploaded into the scout, the Go-Captain re-enters cold sleep. Long ago, he mistakenly shared the world with copies of himself, a tragedy involving betrayal by one of his clones. Never again.

They receive data-bursts as he drops through the system’s accretion disc; yes, Jirt infestations. He tumbles past nest after nest — coordinates attached — then on to the world huddled close to the red dwarf, a blurred glimpse of vast artefacts under construction, dense with deistic physics.

The messages stop. Somehow, the Jirt have spotted him and, closely pursued, he escapes capture by plunging into the sun.

3. The War-Captain’s Watch

The Greeks cheer their champion as he wheels his chariot in angry circles outside the gates of Ilium. Faces peer down from the cyclopean walls. “I am Achilles!” they hear him shout. “Who will fight me?”

A grinning archer notches an arrow. The champion springs to the ground and hurls a javelin just as the bowstring twangs. The arrow glances off his breastplate while the spear-point pierces the archer’s mouth, knocking him backwards from the wall.

Achilles tosses his helmet aside so his face might be remembered. And sees the hooded figure in the chariot. “Death,” he warns, “it is not time.”

The Dream-Captain beckons him. A few choose oblivion, waking as if they had just closed their eyes. Others live a life in their dreams, and the Dream-Captain oversees these worlds. “You must wake,” she says. “We have need of your skills.”

So they hide in the outskirts of the solar system while the Ship is ransacked to construct a battle fleet. The War-Captain is paranoid; his location must not be known even to other captains. Especially the other captains.

When they fall upon the Jirt nurseries, it is a system-wide extermination, begun with a trillion antimatter phages, and rail-gun slugs at near c. These Jirt are technological inferiors. The War-Captain knows the passing centuries have favoured him this time.

A weak-force pump, a new and unpredictable weapon, should have triggered a destructive solar flare. Perhaps prayers save the religious structure on the rocky world. Those responsible for failure flinch at the War-Captain’s rage. He is inside all their heads now. But of course he has a contingency plan. A year later, an asteroid smashes the planet to magma.

Still he urges them on. The crew feel the immense pressure of his will. They must scour the system until he is certain the last egg is torched.

War-Captains are bred to protect their ship, yet who would want the company of such a monster afterwards?

4. The Home-Captain’s Watch

This is Sahana Lal. Poor skin, crooked teeth, stooped like a cut flower. Most don’t even know her name.

“Her, you say?” She overhears diners at a nearby table. “That one, a Captain?”

She has requested to speak with the War-Captain, but he is busy.

Because of prejudice, the Home-Captain is the least of the captains. Those who chatter about such things believe her rank is tokenism, owed to the seething billions of naturals left behind on Earth.

Her ears are filled with the chattering of the crew in bars and queues and corridors. She hears them gloating over their victory, over foes who stood no real chance. Later, they cheer the asteroid strike against the Jirt cathedral. The Jirt have wiped human worlds before and can expect no mercy now. She listens in vain for a voice to contradict genocide.

The Third Law of Motion, her instructors taught. To move is to leave something behind. And they have travelled very far.

“I said, what do you want?”

She flinches. Sahana Lal is Home-Captain not because of her cleverness or bravery, but because she knows two secrets.

While she waits, she swallows drugs that cause her to shed a bespoke virus. It will trigger the self-destruct written into the genes of all War-Captains. They never guess how often they are betrayed by those they protect.

“What will we do now the war is over?” she begins, but something in his eyes halts her tongue.

“The war is not over.”

She has never believed the War-Captain would return to his dreamings. What predator prefers the cage?

In his turn, he wonders what authority a Home-Captain has, and what power they might have to enforce it. Paranoia begins to mutter inside his head.

Oh yes, she has his full attention now.

Still, she is only a natural, burdened with the defects that have been geneered out of starfolk. The War-Captain cannot imagine being afraid of her. In the same way, when they find his deliquescing corpse, no one suspects Sahana Lal.

And like all Home-Captains, she has her other secret. A code that wrecks the c-drive.

In the early days, some c-ships returned with crews too much changed, in ships capable of genocide. Too long in the dark, Home-Captains are warned.

She goes unnoticed amongst the crew, listening, and is sad to think there must be no going back. This slaughterhouse is where she will strand them. Perhaps in the struggle to adapt, they will change for the better.

This is what Home-Captains are for: protecting home.

Copyright © 2020 by David Barber

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