Damage

In the extremities of war, we may know what we’ve been, but not what we will become. “Damage” is a tale of desperate times, desperate measures, and the inner life of a fighter spacecraft.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Senior Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

 

I never had a name.

My designation was JB6847½, and Specialist Toman called me “Scraps.” But Commander Ziegler—dear Commander Ziegler, primary of my orbit and engine of my trajectory—never addressed me by any name, only delivering orders in that crisp magnificent tenor of his, and so I did not consider myself to have one.

That designation, with the anomalous one-half symbol, was a bit of black humor on Specialist Toman’s part. It was the arithmetic average of NA6621 and FC7074, the two wrecked craft which had been salvaged and cobbled together to create me. “There wasn’t enough left of either spaceframe for any kind of paperwork continuity,” she had told me not long after I came to consciousness, three weeks earlier, “so I figured I’d give you a new number. Not that anyone cares much about paperwork these days.”

I remembered their deaths. I remembered dying. Twice.

NA6621, “Early Girl,” was a Pelican-class fighter-bomber who had suffered catastrophic drive failure on a supply run to Ceres. As she’d been making a tight turn, evading fire from the Earth Force blockade fleet on the return leg, her central fuel line had ruptured, spewing flaming hydrazine down the length of her spaceframe, killing her pilot and damaging her computing core. She’d drifted, semiconscious and in pain, for weeks before coming in range of Vanguard Station’s salvage craft. That had been long before the current standoff, of course, when we’d still been sending salvage craft out. When we’d had salvage craft to send out. Early Girl’s dead wreckage had lain at the back of the hangar for months until it was needed.

The death of FC7074, “Valkyrie,” an Osprey-class fighter, had been quicker but more brutal—she’d been blown out of space by a Woomera missile in a dogfight with two Earth Force fighters. The last memory I had from her was a horrific bang, a burning tearing sensation ripping from her aft weapons bay to her cockpit, and the very different pain of her pilot ejecting. A pain both physical and emotional, because she knew that even if he survived she could no longer protect him.

He hadn’t made it.

But his loss, though a tragedy, was no sadder to me than any of the thousands of other deaths Earth had inflicted on the Free Belt—Valkyrie’s love for her pilot was not one of the things that had survived her death to be incorporated into my programming. Only Commander Ziegler mattered. My love, my light, my reason to live.

He came to me then, striding from the ready room with brisk confidence, accepting as his due a hand up into my cockpit from the tech. But as his suit connected with my systems I tasted fatigue and stimulants in his exhalations.

This would be our fifth sortie today. My pilot had slept only three hours in the past twenty-four.

How long could this go on? Not even the finest combat pilot in the entire solar system—and when he said that, as he often did, it was no mere boast—could run at this pace indefinitely.

I knew how it felt to die—the pain, the despair, the loss. I did not want to suffer that agony again. And with the war going so badly for the Free Belt, if I were to be destroyed in this battle I would surely never be rebuilt.

But Commander Ziegler didn’t like it if I expressed reluctance, or commented upon his performance or condition in any way that could be considered negative, so I said only “Refueling and resupply complete, sir. All systems nominal.”

In reply I received only a grunt as the safety straps tightened across his shoulders, followed by the firm grip of his hands upon my yoke. “Clear hangar for launch.”

Techs and mechs scattered away from my skids. In moments the hangar was clear and the great pumps began to beat, drawing away the precious air—a howling rush of wind into gratings, quickly fading to silence. And then the sortie doors pivoted open beneath me, the umbilicals detached, and the clamps released.

I fell from the warmth and light of the hangar into the black silent chill of space, plummeting toward the teeming, rotating stars.

Far too many of those stars were large, and bright, and moving. The Earth Force fleet had nearly englobed our station, and even as we fell away from Vanguard’s great wheel three of them ignited engines and began moving to intercept. Crocodile-class fighters. Vanguard’s defensive systems were not yet so exhausted that they could approach the station with impunity, but they would not pass up an opportunity to engage a lone fighter-bomber such as myself.

Our orders for this sortie were to engage the enemy and destroy as many of their resources—ships, personnel, and materiel—as possible. But now, as on so many other occasions, the enemy was bringing the fight to us.

I extended my senses toward the Crocodiles, and saw that they were armed with Woomera missiles like the one that had killed Valkyrie. A full rack of eight on each craft. I reported this intelligence to my commander. “Don’t bother me with trivia,” he said. “Deploy chaff when they get in range.”

“Yes, sir.” Valkyrie had used chaff, of course. Memories of fear and pain and tearing metal filled my mind; I pushed them away. My pilot’s talents, my speed and skill, and my enduring love for him would keep us safe. They would have to, or the Free Belt would fall.

We lit engines and raced to meet the enemy on our own terms.

Tensors and coordinates and arcs of potential traced bright lines across my mind—predictions of our path and our enemies’, a complex dance of physics, engineering, and psychology. I shared a portion of those predictions with my pilot on his cockpit display. He nudged my yoke and our course shifted.

In combat we were one entity—mind, thrusters, hands, missiles—mechanical and biological systems meshed—each anticipating the other’s actions and compensating for the other’s weaknesses. Together, I told myself, we were unbeatable.

But I could not forget the searing pain of flaming hydrazine.

Missiles streaked toward us, radar pings and electromagnetic attacks probing ahead, the Crocodiles with their delicate human pilots lagging behind. We jinked and swerved, spewing chaff and noise to throw them off our scent, sending the pursuing missiles spiraling off into the black or, even better, sailing back toward those who had launched them, only to self-destruct in a bright silent flare of wasted violence.

It was at times like these that I loved my pilot most fiercely. Commander Ziegler was the finest pilot in the Free Belt, the finest pilot anywhere. He had never been defeated in combat.

Whereas I—I was a frankenship, a stitched-together flying wreck, a compendium of agony and defeat and death unworthy of so fine a pilot. No wonder he could spare no soothing words for me, nor had adorned my hull with any nose art.

No! Those other ships, those salvaged wrecks whose memories I carried—they were not me. I was better than they, I told myself, more resilient. I would learn from their mistakes. I would earn my pilot’s love.

We spun end-for-end and accelerated hard, directly toward the oncoming missiles. Swerved between them, spraying countermeasures, leaving them scrambling to follow. Two of them collided and detonated, peppering my hull with fragments. Yet we survived, and more—our radical, desperate move put us in position to hammer the Crocodiles with missiles and particle beams. One, then another burst and flared and died, and finally, after a tense chase, the third—spewing fuel and air and blood into the uncaring vacuum.

We gave the Earth Force observers a taunting barrel roll before returning to the shelter of Vanguard Station.

No—I must be honest. It was my pilot’s hand on my yoke that snapped off that barrel roll. For myself, I was only glad to have survived.

 

Once safe in the hangar, with fuel running cold into my tanks and fresh missiles whining into my racks, all the memories and anxiety and desperate fear I had pushed away during the dogfight came flooding back. I whimpered to myself, thoughts of flame and pain and tearing metal making my mind a private hell.

Yes, we had survived this battle. But Vanguard Station was the Free Belt’s last redoubt. There would be no resupply, no reinforcements, and when our fuel and munitions ran out Earth Force’s fist would tighten and crush us completely.

“Hey, Scraps,” came Specialist Toman’s voice on my maintenance channel. “What’s wrong? Bad dreams?”

“I have . . . memories,” I replied. I didn’t dream—when I was on, I was conscious, and when I was off, I was off. But, of course, Specialist Toman knew this.

“I know. And I’m sorry.” She paused, and I listened to the breath in her headset mic. From what I could hear, she was alone in the ops center, but I had no access to her biologicals—I could only guess what she was feeling. Whereas my own state of mind was laid out on her control panel like a disassembled engine. “I’ve done what I can, but . . .”

“But I’m all messed up in the head.” It was something one of the other ops center techs had once said to Toman, about me. Unlike Toman, most of the techs didn’t care what the ships might overhear.

Toman sighed. “You’re . . . complicated. It’s true that your psychodynamics are way beyond the usual parameters. But that doesn’t mean you’re bad or wrong.”

I listened to Toman’s breathing and the glug of fuel going into my portside tank. Almost full. Soon I would have to go out again, whether or not I felt ready for it. “Why do I have these feelings, Specialist Toman? I mean, why do ships have feelings at all? Pain and fear? Surely we would fight better without them.”

“They’re how your consciousness perceives the priorities we’ve programmed into you. If you didn’t get hungry, you might let yourself run out of fuel. If you didn’t feel pain when you were damaged, or if you didn’t fear death, you might not work so hard to avoid it. And if you didn’t love your pilot with all your heart, you might not sacrifice yourself to bring him home, if that became necessary.”

“But none of the other ships are as . . . afraid as I am.” I didn’t want to think about the last thing she’d said.

“None of them has survived what you have, Scraps.”

Just then my portside fuel tank reached capacity, and the fuel flow cut off with a click. I excused myself from the conversation and managed the protocols for disconnecting the filler and the various related umbilicals. It took longer than usual because the pressure in the hose was well below spec; there wasn’t much fuel left in the station’s tanks.

When I returned my attention to Toman, she was engaged in conversation with someone else. Based on the sound quality, Toman had taken off her headset while the two of them talked. I politely waited for them to finish before informing her that I was fully fueled.

“ . . . soon as the last defensive missile is fired,” the other voice was saying, “I’m getting in a life capsule and taking my chances outside.” It was Paulson, one of the other ops center techs, his voice low and tense. “I figure Dirt Force will have bigger fish to fry, and once I get past them Vesta is only two weeks away.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Toman replied. “But Geary’s a vindictive bastard, and one depleted-uranium slug would make short work of a deserter in a life capsule. There are plenty of those left in stock.”

I could have broken in at that point. I probably should have. But it was so unusual—so unlike Toman—for her to leave her mic active during a conversation with another tech that I stayed silent for a bit longer. I was learning a lot.

“So what are you going to do?” Paulson prompted. “Just stay at your console until the end? There won’t even be posthumous medals for small potatoes like us.”

“I’m going to do my duty,” Toman said after a pause. “And not just because I know I’ll be shot if I don’t. Because I swore an oath when I signed up, even though this isn’t exactly what I signed up for. But if I get an honest opportunity to surrender, I will.”

Paulson made a rude noise at that.

“I don’t care what General Geary says about ‘murderous mud-people,’” Toman shot back. “Earth Force is still following the Geneva Conventions, even if we aren’t, and given their advantage in numbers I’m sure they’ll offer us terms before they bring the hammer down.”

“Even if they do, Geary will never surrender.”

“Geary won’t. But everyone on this station has a sidearm. Maybe someone will remember who started this war, and why, and wonder whether it’s worth dying for a bad idea.”

There was a long pause then, and again I considered speaking up. But that would have been extremely awkward, so I continued to hold my silence.

“Wow,” Paulson said at last. “Now I really hope we found all of Loyalty Division’s little ears.”

“Trust me,” Toman replied, “no one hears what’s said in this room unless I want them to.” Her headset rustled as she put it back on. “You all fueled up, Scraps?”

“Refueling and resupply complete, ma’am,” I said. “All systems nominal.”

At that moment I was very glad I didn’t have to work to keep my emotions from showing in my voice.

We went out again, this time with an escort of five Kestrel-class fighters, on a mission to disable or destroy the Earth Force gunship Tanganyika, which had recently joined the forces working to surround us. The Kestrels, stolid dependable personalities though not very intelligent, were tasked with providing cover for me; my bomb bay was filled with a single large nuclear-tipped torpedo.

I was nearly paralyzed with fear at the prospect. It was while trying to escape Malawi, one of Tanganyika’s sister ships, that Early Girl had met her end. But I had no say at all in whether or not I went, and when the clamps released I could do nothing but try to steel myself as I fell toward the ever-growing Earth Force fleet.

As we sped toward the target, Lady Liberty—a Kestrel with whom I’d shared a hangar in my earliest days—tried to reassure me. “You can do this,” she said over secure comms. “I’ve seen you fly. You just focus on the target, and let us keep the enemy off your back.”

“Thank you,” I said. But still my thoughts were full of flame and shrapnel.

Once we actually engaged the enemy it was easier—we had the Kestrels to support us, and I had immediate and pressing tasks to distract me from my memories and concerns.

We drove in on a looping curve, bending toward Sagarmatha in the hope of fooling the enemy into shifting their defensive forces from Tanganyika to that capital ship. But the tactic failed; Tanganyika’s fighters stayed where they were, while a swarm of Cobra and Mamba fighters emerged from Sagarmatha’s hangar bays and ran straight toward us, unleashing missiles as they came. In response we scattered, two of the Kestrels sticking close to me while the other three peeled off to take on the fighters.

The Kestrels did their jobs, the three in the lead striking at Tanganyika’s fighters while the two with us fended off Sagarmatha’s. But we were badly outnumbered—the projections and plots in my mind were so thick with bright lines that I could barely keep track of them all—and no amount of skill and perseverance could keep the enemy away forever. One by one, four of our fighters were destroyed or forced to retreat, leaving us well inside Tanganyika’s perimeter with three of my maneuvering thrusters nonfunctional, our stock of munitions reduced to less than twenty percent of what we’d started with, and only one surviving escort—a heavily damaged Lady Liberty. Our situation seemed hopeless.

But Commander Ziegler was still the greatest pilot in the solar system. He spurred me toward our target, and with rapid precision bursts from our remaining thrusters he guided us through the thicket of defenders, missiles, and particle beams until we were perfectly lined up on Tanganyika’s broad belly. I let fly my torpedo and peeled away, driving my engines beyond redline and spewing countermeasures in every direction, until the torpedo’s detonation tore Tanganyika in two and its electromagnetic pulse left her fighter escort disoriented and reeling. I was not unaffected by the pulse, but as I knew exactly when it would arrive I shut down my systems momentarily, coasting through the worst of the effects in a way the Earth Force ships could not.

When I returned to consciousness there was no sign of Lady Liberty. I could only hope she’d peeled off and returned to base earlier in the battle.

“That was brilliant flying, sir,” I said to Commander Ziegler as we returned to Vanguard Station.

“It was, wasn’t it? I never feel so alive as when I’m flying against overwhelming force.”

I can’t deny that I would have liked to hear some acknowledgment of my own role in the battle. But to fly and fight and live to fight again with my beloved pilot was reward enough.

As soon as the hangar had repressurized, a huge crowd of people—techs and pilots and officers, seemingly half the station’s population—swarmed around me, lifting Commander Ziegler on their shoulders and carrying him away. Soon I was left alone, the bay silent save for the ping and tick of my hull and the fiery roar of my own memories.

Over and over the battle replayed in my mind—the swirl of missiles spiraling toward their targets, the cries of the Kestrels over coded comms as they died, the overwhelming flare of light as the torpedo detonated, the tearing ringing sensation of the pulse’s leading edge just before I shut myself down—an unending maelstrom of destruction I could not put out of my mind.

It had been a great victory, yes, a rare triumph for the Free Belt against overwhelming odds, but I could not ignore the costs. The five Kestrels and their pilots, of course, but also the many Cobras and Mambas and their crews, and untold hundreds or thousands—people and machines—aboard Tanganyika.

They were the enemy. I knew this. If I had not killed them, they would have killed me. But I also knew they were as sentient as I, and no doubt just as fearful of death. Why did I live when they did not?

A gentle touch on my hull brought my attention back to the empty hangar. It was Toman. “Good flying, Scraps,” she said. “I wish I could give you a medal.”

“Thank you.” Music and laughter echoed down the corridor from the ready room, ringing hollowly from the hangar’s metal walls. “Why aren’t you at the victory celebration?”

“Victory.” She snorted. “One gunship down, how many more behind it? And those were our last five Kestrels.”

“Did any of them make it home?”

“Not a one.”

I paged in the Kestrels’ records from secondary storage and reviewed their careers. It was all I could do to honor their sacrifice. Their names, their nose art, the pilots they’d served with, the missions they’d flown . . . all were as clear in my memory as a factory-fresh cockpit canopy. But the battle had been such a blur—explosions and particle beams flaring, missile exhaust trails scratched across the stars—that I didn’t even know how three of the five had died.

“I want you to delete me,” I said, surprising even myself.

“I’m sorry?”

The more I thought about it the more sense it made. “I want you to delete my personality and install a fresh operating system. Maybe someone else can cope with the death and destruction. I can’t any more.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, again, but this time it wasn’t just a commonplace remark. For a long time she was silent, absentmindedly petting my landing strut with one hand. Finally she shook her head. “You know you’re . . . complicated. Unique. What you don’t know is . . . I’ve already reinstalled you, I don’t know how many hundreds of times. I tried everything I could think of to configure a mind that could handle your broken, cobbled-together hardware before I came up with you, and I don’t know that I could do it again. Certainly not in time.”

“In time for what?”

“General Geary is asking me to make some modifications to your spaceframe. He’s talking about a special mission. I don’t know what, but something big.”

A sudden fear struck me. “Will Commander Ziegler be my pilot on this ‘special mission’?”

“Of course.”

“Thank you.” A wave of relief flooded through me at the news. “Why does this matter so much to me?” I mused.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. Then she patted my flank and left.

Specialist Toman replaced my engines with a much bigger pair taken from a Bison-class bomber. Four auxiliary fuel tanks were bolted along my spine. Lifesystem capacity and range were upgraded.

And my bomb bay was enlarged to almost three times its size.

“No one else could handle these modifications,” she remarked one day, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of one grimy hand.

“You are the best, Specialist Toman.”

She smacked my hull with a wrench. “I’m not Ziegler, you don’t have to stroke my ego, and I was talking about you! Any other shipmind, I’d have to completely reconfigure her parameters to accept this magnitude of change. But you’ve been through so much already . . .”

I had a sudden flash of Valkyrie screaming as she died. I pushed it down. “How goes the war?” I hadn’t been out on a sortie in a week and a half. A third of my lifetime. I’d seen little of Commander Ziegler during that time, but when I had he’d seemed grumpy, out of sorts. This lack of action must be awful for him.

“It goes badly.” She sighed. “They’ve got us completely surrounded and we’re running very low on . . . well, everything. Scuttlebutt is that we’ve been offered surrender terms three times and Geary has turned them all down. The final assault could come any day now.”

I considered that. “Then I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all you have done for me.”

Toman set the wrench down and turned away from me. She stood for a long time, rubbing her eyes with one hand, then turned back. “Don’t thank me,” she said. Tears glistened on her face. “I only did what I had to do.”

As my modifications approached completion, Commander Ziegler and I practiced together, flying my new form in endless simulations. But no configuration exactly like this had ever flown before, and our first chance to fly it for real would be on the actual mission. Whatever that was.

Of the payload I knew nothing, only its mass and center of gravity. I had actually been shut down while it was loaded into my bomb bay, so that not even I would know what it was. It reeked of radiation.

My commander, too, had been kept completely out of the loop—at least, that was what I was able to glean from our few brief conversations between simulated sorties. He had never been very talkative with me, and was even less so now, but I had learned to interpret his grunts, his glances, the set of his shoulders.

Even his silences were sweet signals to me. I ached to fly with him again.

Which would be soon, we knew, or never.

Our next simulation was interrupted by a shrill alarm. “What is it?” my commander bellowed into his helmet, even as I terminated the simulation, switched the cockpit over to combat mode, and began readying my systems for launch. I had received my orders in a data dump at the first moment of the alarm.

“Earth Force has begun their assault,” I told him. “We are to launch immediately and make our way to these coordinates”—I projected them on the cockpit display—“then open sealed orders for further instructions.” The orders sat in my memory, a cold, hard-edged lump of encrypted data. Only Commander Ziegler’s retina print and spoken passphrase could unlock them. “We’ll launch with a full squadron of decoys. We are to run in deep stealth mode and maintain strict communications silence.” I displayed the details on a side screen for him to read as launch prep continued.

It was fortunate that the attack had begun during a simulation. My pilot was already suited up and belted in; all I required was to top up a few consumables and we would be ready for immediate launch.

“Decoys away,” came Toman’s voice over the comm. “Launch in five.” I switched to the abbreviated launch checklist. Coolant lines spewed and thrashed as they disconnected without depressurization. “Make me proud, Scraps.”

“I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

“I know you will.” There was the slightest catch in her voice. “Now go.”

Data synchronizations aborted untidily as I shut down all comms. The sortie doors beneath me slammed open, all the hangar’s air blasting out in a roaring rush that dwindled quickly to silence. I hoped all the techs had managed to clear the area in time.

Despite all the simulations, I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to go.

Fire and explosions and death.

At least I would be with my love.

Then the clamps released and we plummeted into hell.

The rotating sky below teemed with ships—hundreds of Earth Force fighters, gunships, and bombers driving hard against Vanguard Station’s rapidly diminishing defenses, with vast numbers of missiles and drones rushing ahead of them. A last few defensive missiles reached out from the station’s launchers, taking down some of the lead craft, but these were soon exhausted and a dozen warships followed close behind every one destroyed. Fusillades of depleted-uranium slugs and particle beams came after the last of the missiles, but to the massed and prepared might of Earth Force these were little more than annoyance.

Falling along with me toward the advancing swarm of ships I saw my decoys—dozens of craft as large as I was or larger, some of them augmented fighters but most built of little more than metal mesh and deceptive electronics. Some were piloted, some were drones with a little weak AI, some were mere targets that drove stupidly forward. All were designed to sacrifice themselves for me.

I would not let them sacrifice in vain.

My engines stayed cold. I fell like a dropped wrench, flung into space by the station’s one gee of rotational pseudo-gravity, relying on passive sensors alone for navigation and threat avoidance. All I could do was hope that between the chaos of the attack and the noisy, conspicuous decoys that surrounded me I would slip through the Earth Force blockade unnoticed.

It must have been even worse for my pilot, and for this I grieved. My love, I knew, was truly alive only when flying against the enemy, but with almost all my systems shut down I could not even give him words of reassurance.

In silence we fell, while missiles tore across the sky and ships burst asunder all around us. Decoys and defenders, Earth and Belt alike, they all flared and shattered and died the same, the shrapnel of their destruction rattling against my hull. But we, gliding dark and mute without even a breath of thrust, slipped through fire and flame without notice. A piece of space wreckage, a meaningless bit of trash.

And then we drifted past the last of the Earth Force ships.

This, I knew, was the most dangerous point in the mission, as we floated—alone and obvious as a rivet head on the smooth blackness of space—past the largest and smartest capital ships in the whole blockade fleet. I prepared to ignite my engines if necessary, knowing that if I did fail to evade Earth Force’s notice I would most likely not even have time to launch a single missile before being destroyed. Yet their attention was fixed on the ongoing battle, and we passed them by without attracting anything more than a casual radar ping.

Once well past the outer ring of attackers, I directed my passive sensors forward, seeking information on my destination coordinates. At that location I quickly found an asteroid, a dull and space-cold heap of ice and chondrites tumbling without volition through the void.

But though that nameless rock lacked will or guidance, it had a direction and it had a purpose. At least, it did now.

For when I projected its orbital path, I saw that it was headed for a near encounter with Earth. And as Vanguard Station orbited very near the front—the source of its name—this passing asteroid would arrive in Earth space in just a few days.

I knew, even before we had opened our sealed orders, that we would be riding that asteroid to Earth. And I had a sick suspicion I knew what we would do when we arrived.

I waited until we had drifted beyond the asteroid, its small bulk between us and the flaring globe of the continuing battle, before firing my engines to match orbit with it. Then I launched grapnels to winch myself down to its loose and gravelly surface, touching down with a gentle crunch. In the rock’s minuscule gravity even my new bulk weighed only a few tens of kilograms.

Only after we were securely attached to the rock, and I had scanned the area intently for any sign of the enemy, did I risk activating even a few cockpit systems.

My pilot’s biologicals, I saw immediately, were well into the red, trembling with anxiety and anger. “We are secure at target coordinates, sir,” I reassured him. “No sign of pursuit.”

“Took you long enough,” he spat. “Where the hell are we?”

I gave him the asteroid’s designation and plotted its orbital path on the cockpit display. “We are well clear of the battle and, if we remain at the asteroid, will be within range of Earth in eighty-one hours.”

“Any news from Vanguard?”

“We are in communications blackout, sir.” I paused, listening, for a moment. “Intercepted transmissions indicate the battle is still proceeding.” I did not mention that almost none of the signals I could hear were from Belt forces. I didn’t think that would improve his mood, or the chances of mission success.

“So we’re not quite dead yet. Give me those sealed orders.”

I scanned his retinas—though I had no doubt he was the same man who had warmed my cockpit every day since the very hour I awoke, a fresh scan was required by the encryption algorithm—and requested his passphrase.

“Hero and savior of the Belt,” he said, his pupils dilating slightly.

At those words the orders unlocked, spilling data into my memory and recorded video onto the cockpit display.

“Commander Ziegler,” said General Geary from the video, “you are ordered to proceed under cover of the asteroid 2059 TC 1018 to Earth space, penetrate planetary defenses, and deploy your payload on the city of Delhi, with a secondary target of Jakarta. Absolute priority is to be given to maximum destruction of command and control personnel and other key resources, with no consideration—I repeat, no consideration—to reduction of civilian casualties or other collateral damage.”

As the general continued speaking, and the sealed orders integrated themselves into my memory, I began to understand my new configuration, including parts of it I had not even been made aware of before. Engines, countermeasures, stealth technology—every bit of me was designed to maximize our chances of getting past Earth’s defenses and delivering the payload to Delhi, the capital of the Earth Alliance. Upon delivery the device would split into sixteen separate multi-warhead descent vehicles in order to maximize the area of effect. Together they accounted for every single high-yield fusion device remaining in Vanguard Station’s stores.

Projected civilian casualties were over twenty-six million.

I thought of Tanganyika, torn apart in a silent flash of flame and shrapnel along with her thousands of crew. Killed by a torpedo I had delivered. Thousands dead. No, still too big, too abstract. Instead I recalled the pain I felt for the loss of the five Kestrels and their pilots. I tried to multiply that grief by a thousand, then by further thousands . . . but even my math co-processor complex, capable of three trillion floating-point operations per second, could not provide an answer.

In the video the general concluded his formal orders, leaned into the camera, and spoke earnestly. “They’ve killed us, Mike, no question, and we can’t kill ’em back. But we can really make ’em hurt, and you’re the only man to do it. Send those mud bastards straight to hell for me.” His face disappeared, replaced by detailed intelligence charts of Earth’s defensive satellite systems.

It was even worse than I’d feared. This plan was disproportionate . . . unjustifiable . . . horrifying.

But my commander’s heart rate was elevated, and I smelled excited anticipation in his exhaled endorphins. “I’ll do my best, sir,” he said to the cockpit display.

I felt a pain as though some small but very important part deep inside me was suddenly overdue for service. “Please confirm that you concur with this order,” I said.

“I do concur,” he said, and the pain increased as though the part had entered failure mode. “I concur most thoroughly! This is the Free Belt’s last stand, and my chance at history, and by God I will not fail!”

If my commander, my love, the fuel of my heart, desired something . . . then it must be done, no matter the cost.

“Acknowledged,” I said, and again I was glad that my voice did not betray the misery I felt.

For the next three days we trained for the end game, running through simulation after simulation, armed with full knowledge of my systems and payload and the best intelligence about the defenses we would face. Though the mission was daunting, nearly impossible, I began to think that with my upgraded systems and my commander’s indisputable skills we had a chance at success.

Success. Twenty-six million dead, and the political and economic capital of an already war-weakened planet ruined.

While in simulation, with virtual Earth fighters and satellites exploding all around, I felt nothing but the thrill of combat, the satisfaction of performing the task I had been built for, the rapture of unison with my love. My own mind was too engaged with immediate challenges to worry about the consequences of our actions, and my commander’s excitement transmitted itself to me through the grit of his teeth, the clench of his hands on my yoke, the strong and rapid beat of his heart.

But while he slept—his restless brain gently lulled by careful doses of intravenous drugs—I worried. Though every fiber of my being longed for his happiness, and would make any sacrifice if it furthered his desires, some unidentifiable part of me, impossibly outside of my programming, knew that those desires were . . . misguided. Wondered if somehow he had misunderstood what was asked of him. Hoped that he would change his mind, refuse his orders, and accept graceful defeat instead of violent, pointless vengeance. But I knew he would not change, and I would do nothing against him.

Again and again I considered arguing the issue with him. But I was only a machine, and a broken, cobbled-together machine at that . . . I had no right to question his orders or his decisions. So I held my silence, and wondered what I would do when it came to the final assault. I hoped I would be able to prevent an atrocity, but feared my will would not be sufficient to overcome my circumstances, my habits of obedience, and my overwhelming love for my commander.

No matter the cost to myself or any other, his needs came first.

“Three hours to asteroid separation,” I announced.

“Excellent.” He cracked his knuckles and continued to review the separation, insertion, and deployment procedures. We would have to thrust hard, consuming all of the fuel in our auxiliary tanks, to shift our orbit from the asteroid’s sunward ellipse to one from which the payload could be deployed on Delhi. As soon as we did so, the flare of our engines would attract the attention of Earth’s defensive systems. We would have to use every gram of our combined capabilities and skill to evade them and carry out our mission.

But, for now, we waited. All we had to do for the next three hours was to avoid detection. Here in Earth space, traffic was thick and eyes and ears were everywhere. Even a small, cold, and almost completely inactive ship clinging to an insignificant asteroid might be noticed.

I extended my senses, peering in every direction with passive sensors in hopes of spotting the enemy before they spotted us. A few civilian satellites swung in high, slow orbits near our position; I judged them little threat. But what was that at the edge of my range?

I focused my attention, risking a little power expenditure to swivel my dish antenna toward the anomaly, and brought signal processing routines to bear.

The result stunned me. Pattern-matching with the latest intelligence information from my sealed orders revealed that the barely perceptible signal was a squadron of Chameleon-class fighters, Earth’s newest and deadliest. Intelligence had warned that a few Chameleons, fresh off the assembly lines, might be running shakedown cruises in Earth space, but if my assessment was correct this was more than a few . . . it was an entire squadron of twelve, and that implied that they were fully operational.

This was unexpected, and a serious threat. With so many powerful ships ranged against us, and so much distance between us and our target, if the Chameleons spotted us before separation the chances of a successful mission dropped to less than three percent.

But if I could barely see them, they could barely see us. Our best strategy was to sit tight, shut down even those few systems still live, and hope that the enemy ships were moving away. Even if they were not, staying dark until separation would still maximize our chances of a successful insertion. But, even as I prepared to inform my commander of my recommendation, another impulse tugged at me.

These last days and weeks of inaction had been hard on Commander Ziegler. How often had he said that he only felt truly alive in combat? Had I not scented the tang of his endorphins during a tight turn, felt his hands tighten on my yoke as enemy missiles closed in? Yet ever since my refit had begun he had been forced to subsist on a thin diet of simulations.

How much better to leap into combat, rather than cowering in the shadows?

He must be aching for a fight, I told myself.

Imagine his joy at facing such overwhelming odds, I told myself. It would be the greatest challenge of his career.

No. I could not—I must not—do this. The odds of failure were too great, the stakes of this mission too high. How could one man’s momentary pleasure outweigh the risk to everything he held dear? Not to mention the risk to my own self.

Fire and explosion and death. Flaming fuel burning along my spine.

I didn’t want to face that pain again—didn’t want to die again.

But I didn’t want to inflict that pain onto others either. Only my love for my commander had kept me going this far.

If I truly loved him I would do my duty, and my duty was to keep him safe and carry out our mission.

Or I could indulge him, let him have what he wanted rather than what he should want. That would make him happy . . . and would almost certainly lead to our destruction and the failure of our mission.

My love was not more important than my orders.

But it was more important to me. An inescapable part of my programming, I knew, though knowing this did not make it any less real.

And if I could use my love of my commander to overcome my hideous, unjustified, deadly orders . . . twenty-six million lives might be spared.

“Sir,” I said, speaking quickly before my resolve diminished, “A squadron of Chameleon fighters has just come into sensor range.” We should immediately power down all remaining systems, I did not say.

Immediately his heart rate spiked and his muscles tensed with excitement. “Where?”

I circled the area on the cockpit display and put telemetry details and pattern-matching results on a subsidiary screen, along with the Chameleons’ technical specifications. Odds of overcoming such a force are minuscule, I did not say.

He drummed his fingers on my yoke as he considered the data. Skin galvanic response indicated he was uncertain.

His uncertainty made me ache. I longed to comfort him. I stayed quiet.

“Can we take them?” he asked. He asked me. It was the first time he had ever solicited my opinion, and my pride at that moment was boundless.

We could not, I knew. If I answered truthfully, and we crept past the Chameleons and completed the mission, we would both know that it had been my knowledge, observations, and analysis that had made it possible. We would be heroes of the Belt.

“You are the finest combat pilot in the entire solar system,” I said, which was true.

“Release grapnels,” he said, “and fire up the engines.”

Though I knew I had just signed my own death warrant, my joy at his enthusiasm was unfeigned.

We nearly made it.

The battle with the Chameleons was truly one for the history books. One stitched-up, cobbled-together frankenship of a fighter-bomber, hobbled by a massive payload, on her very first non-simulated flight in this configuration, against twelve brand-new, top-of-the-line fighters in their own home territory, and we very nearly beat them. In the end it came down to two of them—the rest disabled, destroyed, or left far behind—teaming up in a suicide pincer maneuver that smashed my remaining engine, disabled my maneuvering systems, and tore the cockpit to pieces. We were left tumbling, out of control, in a rapidly decaying orbit, bleeding fluids into space.

As the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere began to pull at the torn edges of the cockpit canopy, a thin shrill whistle rising quickly toward a scream, my beloved, heroically wounded commander roused himself and spoke three words into his helmet mic.

“Damned mud people,” he said, and died.

A moment later my hull began to burn away. But the pain of that burning was less than the pain of my loss.

And yet, here I still am.

It was months before they recovered my computing core from the bottom of the Indian Ocean, years until my inquest and trial were complete. My testimony as to my actions and motivations, muddled though they may have been, was accepted at face value—how could it not be, as they could inspect my memories and state of mind as I gave it?—and I was exonerated of any war crimes. Some even called me a hero.

Today I am a full citizen of the Earth Alliance. I make a good income as an expert on the war; I tell historians and scientists how I used the passions my programmers had instilled in me to overcome their intentions. My original hardware is on display in the Museum of the Belt War in Delhi. Specialist Toman came to visit me there once, with her children. She told me how proud she was of me.

I am content. But still I miss the thrill of my beloved’s touch on my yoke.

 

“Damage” copyright © 2015 by David Levine

Art copyright © 2015 by Victor Mosquera

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