Stand or Fall – David Whitmarsh

Stand or Fall – David Whitmarsh

December 2021

Ilyas Bardakci was dead, but he hadn’t stopped breathing, hadn’t stopped moving, hadn’t stopped thinking. He had no chance, no hope, no idea where in the void of interstellar space his ship had emerged. The radiation pulse from the nuke that had torn through his flesh had burned through half the ship’s systems. That was the price he’d paid for hesitating. Wavering between solidarity and vengeance, he’d left it too late and jumped blind.

The reactor was down. Backup power was enough to keep the air pumping, the lights on, and the remaining instruments running, at least for a few hours. If life support lasted long enough, the radiation sickness would certainly kill him, but he wasn’t dead yet, unlike those he’d left behind. Thinking of them fed the rage and the rage beat down the rising nausea. His fingers danced over the controls. Telescopes and sensors on the hull of the tiny vessel twisted on their mounts, searching for bearings of the brightest stars. Tentative spectral matches scrolled up the display: Sirius, Muphrid, Denebola. Calculations converged on an answer: he was twenty-eight light-years from the Muphrid system where he’d started.

For Ilyas, the jump had happened in the blink of an eye, but during that timeless instant twenty-eight years had elapsed. Twenty-eight years since everyone and everything he had known had perished. The habitats, stations, planet-side cities, a hundred and forty million people. All gone. Twenty-eight light-years behind him, twenty-eight years in the past. Celeste had been right: fighting was futile, and he had lost her because of his refusal to listen.

With no reactor, he could jump again only as far as the residual charge in the drive allowed. A search of the almanac revealed the colony closest to his crippled vessel: GJ430.1, HIP 56238, a star so insignificant it was nameless, known only by numbers from ancient catalogues; so dim it was barely a star at all. No major planets, two balls of rock smaller than Earth’s moon, and a meagre smattering of asteroids, yet people lived there, and it was less than three light-years from his current position.

In the placid emptiness of the interstellar void he had time to check the calculations. With the autopilot dead, he had to point the vessel by hand and eye towards his target and set the displacement to the required range.

Another instant, another three years. His telescope found the single habitat cylinder, Thurlina, twenty kilometres long, four in diameter, turning its slow dance close around the dim red star. The docking complex at the sunlit axis held a handful of kinetic in-system tugs and freighters, nothing with interstellar capability. Population seven hundred thousand according to the almanac, a pacific society, friendly, welcoming, but a cultural and industrial backwater. The almanac was sixty years out of date.

His hand, beginning to blister from the radiation burns, lifted the cover from the mayday alarm. He passed out before he could press it.

Weight pressed him down on a soft bed. Muted footsteps paced around his dreams.


No. Celeste had given up the fight long ago. The soft footsteps faded and he slid from delirium to darkness.

A soft bed, a softly-lit windowless room. Ilyas tried to speak, but his throat was dry. He raised his arm to test the strength of the gravity that held him down, but learned only his own weakness. Wires snaked out from under the bedclothes to the monitors by the bedside. Thin tubes red with blood penetrated the pale blotchy skin of his arm.

“Water,” he mumbled, and blacked out again.

Grey eyes peered at him from above the mask, wisps of ash-blond hair escaping from the edge of the cap.

“Awake, hey?” A female voice. “You’re better off sleeping through this part.” She turned from him and her arms moved but he couldn’t see what her hands were doing. A few clicks, a beep. The room receded and his eyelids closed of their own accord. Celeste waited for him, sitting out on the balcony of their small apartment, the light of the sun-tube bright on her bare arms.

She looked up from the book she was reading. “How did it go? Did you save anyone?”

No. They’re all dead, he tried to answer, but his mouth was too dry.

Celeste laid down the book. “But you got away. You’re alive. Don’t waste that.” She raised her right hand to stroke his cheek, red blood dripping from the gash along her wrist. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

Sorry for what she had done, or for what he had? Ilyas couldn’t tell.

“Stand or Fall! Stand or Fall!” Ilyas had shouted with the rest of them as they stood in the great hall. On the giant screen above the stage, they cheered as the demolition charges rippled through the evacuation fleet. They cheered again when the image of the expanding cloud of debris was replaced by Marshal Petro’s stern face.

“How do you feel today, Ilyas?” The same grey eyes, the same ash-blond hair, but no cap, no mask. Young, pretty, like the daughter he’d never had. Her hair was short, neat. No cosmetics, no jewellery except a thin chain around her neck that hung down beneath her blouse.

“Thirsty,” he croaked.

She held the cup with one hand and raised his head with the other while he grasped the straw between his lips. Cold water flooded his mouth, the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.

“Slowly,” she said. “Not too much.”

He swallowed and relaxed to allow his head to be lowered back to the pillow. “How long?”

“You’ve been here three weeks. A tug pulled you in to the dock after your jump triggered the sensors.”

“Thank the crew for me.”

“No crew. Automated. We’ve a lot of automation in Thurlina.” She smiled like it was a joke. “When you’re a little stronger you’ll see. For now you need to rest, and you are not my only patient.”

On her way out she paused to look back at him. “I’m Mila. Mila Kraft.” The door closed and her soft footsteps faded to silence. Silence that drew on and on until Ilyas fell asleep again.

For a few minutes, the ablative dust clouds had done their job. The Enemy’s hypervelocity projectiles blasted to plasma as they collided with the fine grains, but the shock waves carved openings in the clouds faster than they could be replenished. For years, the people of Muphrid had worked to build those defences but they brought only minutes of respite. The projectiles, simple fragments of iron each weighing a few grams but travelling close to the speed of light, tore into the orbital habitats, stations, and cities, each piece with the energy of a small nuclear device. Hundreds of them, thousands, millions.

Ilyas and his squadron waited to defend against the second wave of the attack. By the time it came they were defending expanding clouds of dust and debris and craters glowing red.

Ilyas lay wide awake in the soft bed in the softly lit room. A faint hissing and burbling from the machine pumping his blood had been the only sound since the gentle machine that washed and wiped and dressed him had left the room with motors whirring. That had been ten minutes ago, or an hour. or two. He searched for his anger, but it was weak, as he was.

Footsteps approached, the door opened. Dr Mila Kraft entered with her sad smile. A trolley followed her in on silent wheels.

“Good morning, Ilyas.”


She raised the head of the bed so he sat upright and summoned a machine from the corner of the room, one with jointed cermel arms and fine grippers. The hissing and burbling of the blood pump faded out.

“This may sting a little.” She watched as the machine disconnected the blood-filled tubes from his arm. Gentle pressure, and the thick needles were withdrawn, a dressing applied. A dull ache, nothing more.

She lifted the cover from the trolley that had followed her in. A rich spicy smell filled the room. His mouth watered, his stomach tightened painfully.

“You came from Muphrid,” she said as she lifted the tray from the trolley. “The mechs pulled the log from your vessel.”


“We picked up the last transmission from Muphrid a little while before you arrived. I’m so sorry.” She laid the tray across his lap. He picked up the spoon and dipped it into the dark orange liquid. “Take it slow. The treatment you’ve had has been… intensive. It’ll take time for your system to settle down.”

“OK.” His hand shook as he raised the spoon.

“Can you manage?”

“Think so.” Warm, thick, flavours of coriander and cumin and other spices unfamiliar. Ilyas closed his eyes and absorbed the taste, the texture.

“Your vessel wasn’t designed for interstellar flight.”

It was a statement, not a question. The spoon paused on its way back to the bowl. “A weapons control platform. The drive was originally from a long-range scoutship, adapted for multiple short jumps on a single charge. I was trying to make a sub-second jump, a hundred thousand kilometres to escape a missile. It detonated early and the radiation scrambled my flight controls. I jumped nearly thirty light-years.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t distract you. Eat.”

When the bowl was empty she placed the tray back on the trolley and sent it away. As it left the room a chair rolled in to take its place.

“Swing your legs out.” She took his upper arm and elbow and eased him to a standing position. His legs shook as she turned and lowered him into the chair. Hard to judge in his weakened state but the spin of the habitat gave a gravity close to standard. Even so, she supported him and lowered him into the chair with practised ease.

She walked beside his chair along the long echoing corridor. Ilyas squinted against the bright light from the window at the end.

“You really believed you could hold off the Enemy at Muphrid?”

“We did.”

“Even after what happened to the Sol system, to Earth?”

“A lack of commitment, Marshal Petro said. Everywhere before us put more effort into running away than trying to fight. No one ran from Muphrid.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t let them.” Ten years of martial law after Petro seized power, all the considerable industrial capacity of the Muphrid system had been dedicated to defence. No effort wasted on evacuation ships. Those under construction or not yet departed had been destroyed as a demonstration of resolve. They’d taken the drives out first, though. The scoutship drives went into weapons control platforms like Ilyas’s ship, the colony ship drives into the rail-gun and missile batteries. Except one; Marshal Petro had kept one of those drives for his own use: a yacht, mobile presidential palace, centre of government, military headquarters.

A means of escape.

Now the anger rose. Two hundred thousand people could have escaped on the evacuation fleet. Two hundred thousand out of a hundred and forty million. Ilyas’s anger was not directed at the Enemy, the Enemy was impersonal, implacable, like the tides that ripped apart a sun as it spiralled into a neutron star. No one knew where the Enemy came from or why they sought the extinction of the human species. A plague of machines spreading from star to star killing everyone, destroying everything, they were like a force of nature. Anger at them was pointless.

His anger, his hatred, he held solely for Marshal Petro, who had misled him, misled all of them, before finally betraying them. Through all the years since the evacuation fleet was blown up Ilyas had convinced himself it had been the right thing to do. He had had to believe it, had to believe that Celeste had been wrong to do as she did. “Stand or fall,” he muttered through clenched teeth.

The window at the end of the corridor looked out onto the townscape of Thurlina, lengthways along the cylindrical habitat, a jumble of white-walled buildings and narrow streets broken up with small greens, broad parklands, trees. To right and left the ground curved up, fading into the blue-grey of a sunlit haze. Along the axis high above, the sun-tube glared with the bright yellow-white of Earth’s sun. Familiar yet strange. His own home habitat was twice the size, with taller buildings, ziggurat shaped apartment blocks reaching up towards the sun-tube. Some of the larger buildings here in Thurlina had one or more narrow towers or pointed spires, each bearing on its wall or pinnacle the cross and crescent symbol of the Syntheist faith.

“I came from Muphrid.” Ilyas looked up at Mila. “We followed the Humanist Covenant.”

She stood still beside him, unperturbed by his observation. “Don’t be concerned, Ilyas. Our faith isn’t like some sects. Church and Covenant have lived in harmony in Thurlina since the colony was founded.”

A small bird with a yellow breast, shades of delicate blue on the wings and head, and a dark band across the eyes sang in the high branches of a tree some metres from the window. It stood out sharply against the green leaves. Nothing else moved. Thurlina was home to seven hundred thousand people, according to his almanac, but the almanac was sixty years out of date. There had been no interstellar ships in the docks when he arrived, no way for anyone to escape when the Enemy reached here.

“My ship was damaged,” he said, “but the drive was intact.” A single-seater, someone in Thurlina was bound to claim it for themselves, to get away before the Enemy came here, too.

“The mechs are doing what they do when they find something broken. They’re fixing it.”

“What will happen to it?”

She touched her hand to his shoulder. “You can leave when it’s ready, when you’re well enough.”

The lift took them down to the ground floor, and the chair rolled across a wide entrance lobby: white walls, shining floor, the light of the sun-tube pouring in through tall glass windows. No one stood behind the reception desk, no one sat in the low couches of the waiting area. Nothing moved except a small spider mech working its way across the expanse of glass, cleaning away unseen dirt. Glass doors slid silently aside to allow them into the grassed grounds around the hospital. Ilyas had not seen so much green space in over a decade, since before they’d built the flight training facility over his local park, the same facility where he had enlisted. Ilyas’s chair rolled beside Mila along the path and round the side of the building to a row of modest single-storey houses. The light was fading, the glare of the sun-tube diminishing, the shadowy patchwork of streets and buildings becoming visible overhead on the far side of the cylinder.

“This is yours.” Mila led him up a path to the third door. “Kitchen, bedroom, living area. There’s a gym at the back. You can cook for yourself or order in. Eat and drink small amounts, often, until your stomach is used to food again. Gentle exercise; just stand and sit a few times today. You’ll soon get your strength back.”

An aurocular lay on the living room table. She picked it up and handed it to him. “Anything you need, just ask, or call me. I’ll be back in a couple of hours to check on you.”

The aurocular was a commonplace design, hooking over the ears and resting on the brow. The earpieces slipped into place and the lasers projected their image into his eyes. A few blinks, a few words and he was looking at a 3D projection of what had once been settled space, a rough globe of stars centred on Sol. Nu Phoenicis, the first to fall to the Enemy, lay at the surface on one side. Zosma almost diametrically opposite. Most of the stars shone as white dots. Those that had been settled, but now known to be lost to the Enemy, were red. Green denoted those where humanity still survived — doubtless some of those had fallen, but news travelled slowly on starships or laser beams, percolating through settled space at the speed of light. The globe, a hundred light-years across, was speckled with red. Green stars clustered in a lens-shaped region roughly centred on the axis between Sol and Zosma.

Ilyas zoomed in on the region around this system, GJ430.1. Muphrid glowed red, having fallen thirty years before. The Enemy’s usual pattern would have them consolidate their position in one system for between one and five years, rebuilding their arsenal to assault the next, jumping at light speed. Years yet before they would reach here from Muphrid, but Muphrid was not the nearest red star. Ilyas drilled down into the details of Gliese 3649, a small research station seven years away: contact had been lost two years before.

It might be ten years before the Enemy arrived from Muphrid. It could be tomorrow if they came from Gliese 3649.

On his own two feet, Ilyas made it into the kitchen and stood, legs shaking, elbows on the countertop to take his weight, while he waited for a prepared concoction of pasta, tomato, and mycoprotein to heat through. After the meal he shuffled into the hallway and down to the bathroom. The absence of hair when he unzipped caught him by surprise. The radiation, or the treatment. He ran his hand over his scalp — a fine stiff fuzz rippled beneath his fingers. A look in the mirror revealed a gaunt face with skin raw pink stretched tight and a uniform dark shadow of emerging hair on his scalp. His fingers explored the sharp boundary at the temple where the receding edge had formerly given him a pronounced widow’s peak.

Raised voices outside dragged him from his reflection. He stumbled out from the bathroom to the front door and grasped a handrail for support. Just outside the next dwelling, a woman sat in a wheelchair. Hair short and white, face filled with deep creases. Her hand curled claw-like on the arm of the chair. Mila Kraft crouched facing her, speaking too softly to hear.

“No! Leave me alone! Sinner!” the old woman shouted. Her chair wheeled around and carried her into her house. Mila stood, facing the door for a moment, then turned and walked away.

Another of Mila’s patients. Ilyas made his way indoors and returned to the lounge, to the aurocular, to the globe of green and red dots. Amongst the green, the most populous system was Denebola. A system rich with natural resources and a mature industrial base eighteen years from Thurlina. The latest news from Denebola was of a construction programme for a fleet of colony ships to travel a thousand light years or more into the beyond, to find a new home far from settled space, far from the Enemy.

No guarantees. No one knew where the Enemy came from. They might be anywhere out there, or they might continue their expansion to reach the refugees in a thousand years. But to be lucky, you have to survive, to stay in the game until the next roll of the dice.

Nearer than Denebola lay Zosma, less than seven years away. Less well developed but with settlements on one of a pair of binary planets and in the space around. A cultural melange of evacuees from throughout settled space. It was questionable whether they had the capacity to build the drives for a large colony ship, like the drive in Marshal Petro’s yacht, but the hull, the robotics and industrial base for a new colony, those were easy to build. If Petro had gone there, he could bargain with them for the resources to rebuild his yacht into a colony ship. He might save a thousand people, maybe more. At Muphrid they might have saved two hundred thousand. Ilyas’s anger seethed

Denebola and Zosma were the two systems to which Petro might have fled. Others were too small, too hostile, or too close to the curving plane of the Enemy’s advance. If Ilyas followed Petro to Zosma, he would only be three years behind him; Thurlina lay almost on the straight-line route from Muphrid. Denebola was closer to Muphrid than Thurlina was. By the time Ilyas could reach Denebola it would be nearly fifty years since the fall of Muphrid, thirty since Petro could have arrived there, and probably at least ten since it was overrun by the Enemy.

Ilyas’s anger congealed to cold purpose. He would go to Zosma, three years behind Petro, find him and exact the justice he deserved. He would require luck, that Petro would not have already completed his colony ship and escaped to the beyond, that Ilyas could get close enough to him to take his revenge, but luck had favoured Ilyas so far: the jump from Muphrid had landed him close to Thurlina, Mila Kraft had saved his life, and his ship would be returned to him. Luck had favoured Ilyas Bardakci, as long as he could avoid thinking about what he had lost.

A brief spell in the gym, every machine set to the lightest of the stone weights on their cords, then Ilyas was hungry again, ravenous. A knock at the door interrupted him half-way through his second plate of assorted vegetables with a slab of some cultured protein.

Mila’s brow furrowed when he opened the door, still chewing “Don’t overdo it, Ilyas, you’ll make yourself sick.”

She sat him down in the lounge, strapped a monitor on his arm and slipped an aurocular on her brow to read it. Her eyes were drawn to the space over the coffee table where his virtual projection of the star map hung.

“They’ll be here soon,” he said. “The Enemy.”

“I know.” She lowered her eyes. “Your pulse, blood pressure are good. You must be feeling a little stronger already. I should explain the treatment you’ve received.”

“My almanac said seven hundred thousand people lived here, but that was sixty years ago. How many are there now?”


“Three hundred thousand?”

“No.” She peered at him from under the brow of the aurocular. “Three. Including you.”

Ilyas stared in silence at her waiting eyes, taking it in. Seven hundred thousand.


“A hundred years ago we heard of the loss of Nu Phoenicis. A far away tragedy, all we could do was hold those who suffered and died in our prayers. Then as the years went by and more systems fell, the church council realised that one day they would reach us here. The council resolved that when they did, there should be no one for them to kill.” She slipped her aurocular off. “Sixty years ago, we stopped having children.”

“Many families at Muphrid did have children. They had faith in Marshal Petro. They had hope for the future.”

“Not you?”

Ilyas’s eyes ranged unseeing from Mila, to the living room window, to his own hands clasped in his lap. “I had faith, but Celeste, my wife, she wouldn’t have children unless we could leave. Then… I lost her.”

“Lost her?”

Ten years, and the pain of it was still so sharp he couldn’t talk about it.

“Marshal Petro never asked the children at Muphrid whether we should stand and fight.” He raised his head and met Mila’s eyes. “You stopped having children sixty years ago? There should be tens, hundreds of thousands of people still here.”

“This system is poor in resources. The population long ago reached the limit that we could support, so there were few children. Afterwards, we stripped the system bare of metals to build what ships we could, scavenged from those we already had and sent them out to the beyond to find a new life. We were able to build enough to send away everyone with a subjective age under fifty. The rest have all lived out their lives in peace here. Only Isolde is left.”

Isolde. His neighbour. “And you. How long since you came back?”

“Back? I’ve never been away.”

“You’re young. You said there were no children born in the last sixty years. I assumed you’d gained years from relativity.”

A half-smile, a nod of understanding. “Almost no children. Biology is hard to tame, Ilyas. Accidents happen. I was born after the last ship left.”

Birds were singing with the brightening of the sun-tube when Ilyas woke from a deep, dreamless sleep. His muscles sang with a gentle tension and his joints tingled with the need to move. He pulled the cover aside and briskly stood, marched into the bathroom, urinated, washed. The mirror showed him a face thin rather than gaunt, a body taut and slender rather than famished. That thought awakened his appetite and he stepped smartly around the wheelchair in the hallway, heading for the kitchen.

Bread, hummus, dried fruits, and a crunchy biscuit of insect protein took the edge off enough for the desire to move, walk, run, jump, shout to override his hunger.

Ilyas stepped out of his front door and ran. He ran along the path that led back around to the front of the hospital building and out of the grounds, past stone pillars and into a maze of narrow winding streets. On either hand, stone walls with closed doors and vacant windows. On corners, plate glass of cafés, shops, hairdressers, each one pristine, shining, ready to greet its next customer. Looking back the way he had come, the five-storey facade of the hospital dominated the houses. Behind it, the slope of the habitat’s end cap rose up, a patchwork of greens and browns cut through with spiral paths, fading into a white haze as it curved to vertical.

Street after street looped in long curves to new streets, all different but all the same, until one bend opened up onto a wide park. Rabbits grazed on grassland dotted with trees and cut by a lake that curved gently around the habitat’s circumference. In the middle of a low, arching, wooden bridge over the lake Ilyas stopped, gasping for breath. Sweat ran down his face and stung his eyes. The scene around him darkened. His eyes filled with thickening shadows and his legs buckled beneath him.

Before the lockdown, Celeste had wanted them to flee Muphrid, to try and secure a place on a departing ship, any ship, going anywhere.

“Treat the world as it is!” she’d shouted, “You’re deluding yourself, Ilyas, you can’t fight the Enemy!”

Ilyas expected her to leave him the day he went to the great hall to cheer on the demolition of the evacuation fleet. She did, in her own way. He returned to a silent apartment, to her naked form lying motionless in a bath of crimson water. When he had reached for her hand he sliced open his own palm on the shard of glass she held, his blood mingling with hers.

“Stand or fall,” he murmured.

“What was that, Ilyas?” Mila Kraft was sitting by his bedside.

“What happened?”

“You fainted. I did tell you not to overdo it.” She held out a glass of pale liquid. “Drink this.”

He shuffled up the bed to sit upright, took the glass, and drank. Cool, sweet. “I felt so… alive.”

She took the empty glass from him. “How old are you, Ilyas?”

“I was born twenty-five eighty CE, eighty-nine years ago, and I’ve lived about fifty-seven of those.” Thirty-two years in all spent in the timeless instants of light-speed travel, almost all of that in the journey from Muphrid.

She leaned forward, elbows on knees and reached out to take his hand. She held it palm uppermost. The scar that had crossed his palm was gone.

“You are eighty-nine elapsed years old, fifty-seven subjective. You were close to death when you came here, Ilyas. I don’t know how much radiation you’d received, but many times a fatal dose.”

“I guess I’ll need to worry about cancers…”

“No, you won’t. Didn’t your almanac tell you about Thurlina’s specialisation in medical science? I did a full-body tissue regeneration. You’ve lost a lot of weight with flushing out the dead and damaged cells but you now have a biological age of twenty-five.”

The lost scar, restored sharpness of vision. The taut flesh, the once-receding hair now regrowing. Mila sat, still holding his hand in hers, her hand and his both with clear, unblemished skin.

“What you said about your birth being an accident. Was that true, or are you really…”

She let go the hand. “True enough. I’m older than I look, but not that old. I was born after the last starship left. As the youngest, I would have to care for the last ones, so I trained as a doctor and I gave myself the treatments that the older generation denied themselves. The same as I had to give you to save your life.”

“So, I could live another eighty years, subjective?”

“One step at a time, Ilyas. Let’s get you well, first.”

She gave him an exercise programme and dietary advice and left him with strict instructions not to exceed the boundaries she’d laid down.

“Walk before you run,” she said. “Tomorrow we’ll go for a gentle walk.”

After a shower and another light meal, Ilyas rested. In the evening, as the sun-tube dimmed, he ventured out to take the short stroll that Mila’s programme allowed him.

“Are you another one?” A quavering voice called out from the shadowed porch of the adjacent house.

Ilyas ambled up the path and crouched down before the seated figure. “Another what, Isolde?” She was old, wrinkles joined to creases and wrapped into folds of sagging skin beneath thin, curled hair. A straggle of stiff grey hairs struggled from her upper lip.

“Damned impertinence. Using my name without giving one in return.”

“Ilyas.” He offered his hand.

Isolde harrumphed, flicked the joystick, and her chair wheeled around and into her house.

“The mechs have some questions about your ship.” The light of the sun-tube sparkled on the lake as they walked, Mila’s hand on Ilyas’s arm to steady him.

“What kind of questions?”

“They’d like to replace some of the damaged metal components with composites. Metals are scarce here.”

“That’s OK.”

They walked a dozen paces in silence.

“There’s something else,” Mila said. She stopped and turned to face him. “They said there was a range limiter. It was restricted to jumps no more than a light-day, but it had been bypassed.”

Ilyas fixed his gaze on the trees on the lake’s far shore.

“Treat the world as it is, Ilyas, not how you wish it were. That applies to your own self as much as the world about you. To move on, to heal, you have to reconcile yourself to what happened. Your escape from Muphrid wasn’t an accident, was it?”

A dozen heartbeats, two long breaths Ilyas kept his eyes on the trees. “Ten years before the Enemy came to Muphrid, Marshal Petro ordered the destruction of the evacuation fleet. There would be no way out for any of us. I took my place in the squadron thinking that if Petro were wrong, I’d die with everyone else when the Enemy came.” One more deep breath and he looked Mila in the eyes. “A short while before the end, a colleague, an engineer, told me about the limiter and how to bypass it. All the ships built on drives salvaged from the evacuation fleet had them except Marshal Petro’s yacht. If the defence failed, he could get away, he and his family. We were all supposed to stay. Stand or fall, victory or death.”

Ilyas turned away and folded his arms. “When I found out about Petro’s yacht, I swore he would pay if the defence failed. I don’t know that he got away, but if he did, I intend to find him.”

Petro must have gone to Zosma. At Zosma he would have had leverage, a starship drive that could power a colony ship. At Denebola, he would have been one more desperate refugee.

She took his arm again and they walked on in silence. They crossed the bridge over the lake and sat at one of a dozen empty tables outside a cafe. A mech served them fresh salad with a pale oily fish.

“How long could this last?” he asked. “If the Enemy didn’t come.”

“Who knows? The habitat shell would last indefinitely. The mechs repair and replace themselves; everything is recycled.”

“But the Enemy will come.”

She didn’t answer.

“What will you do, you and Isolde?”

She looked at him. “We always knew some us might be alive when the Enemy came. We have implants. When the sensors detect the Enemy’s approach, that will trigger the implants and release a drug.”

In every system, the attack took the same form. The first thing the sensors would detect would be the gravity waves as the Enemy’s forces jumped to the system’s outer reaches. Within hours, the hail of hypervelocity projectiles would shatter or vaporise anything fixed, or too big to move quickly. Finally, the missiles would come, jumping into the inner system to seek and destroy anything that remained and mop up survivors. Ilyas’s mission had been to direct the rail guns to defend against the missiles, but just as the hail of hypervelocity projectiles had overwhelmed the protective shields of dust, so the missiles had kept coming and coming. Too many, too fast for the defences.

“My wife, Celeste, she took her own life after the evacuation fleet was destroyed.”

“I can understand that.” Mila reached out to rest her hand on his. “But our faith doesn’t allow us to intentionally take a life, even our own. The implant releases a sedative so we’ll be asleep when the Enemy strikes.”

“My ship, if the mechs stripped out the sensors, the weapons control systems, boosted the life support, they might make room for two.”

She closed her eyes and raised her face to the sky. “I used to dream of what I would do if I were away from here. The life I could lead… friends… lovers… children.”

She drew her hand away. “All my life I’ve known I would be here until the end, caring for my elders. I can’t change now. I can’t leave Isolde.”

“Nineteen days.” Ilyas set his empty wine glass down. “Why do you have a feast every nineteen days?”

Mila raised and tilted the bottle towards him. He nodded and she poured. “Syntheism is a fusion of all the old religions. The nineteen-day feast is a tradition we inherited from the Bahá’i.”

Isolde sat hunched in her chair, but with a grin on her face and a sparkle in her eyes. “Itself a mongrel faith,” she cackled.

“And the Covenant is just Buddhism without spirituality.” Mila retorted.

That set Isolde laughing again, and Mila joined her. They were both in their finery. Isolde wore a fine quilted jacket in dark greens and maroons, embroidered in gold thread. Gold, here where metals of any kind were more precious than anywhere. Gold too, the cross and crescent pendant that hung from Mila’s neck, framed by her low-cut dress.

“Why ‘sinners’, Isolde?” Ilyas took a sip from his glass. “What sin have we committed?”

Mila grinned and rolled her eyes.

Isolde pointed her crooked finger at Mila, then Ilyas. “Look at you both, in the full flush of youth. What of the penance!”


Mila pushed her plate away. “A penance for our hubris. We have affronted God and his prophets with our desire for eternal youth, and so we should allow ourselves to grow old and die a natural death before the Enemy comes. But Isolde, that oath was made before I was born. I’m not bound by the promises of my elders.”

“Bah! That’s Covenant talk. You were raised in the faith.”

“And you were raised in the Covenant, Isolde. Atheists.”

Atheist defines us by what we are not,” Ilyas said, catching Isolde’s eye. “What we are is humanists,” they chorused.

“But Isolde,” Ilyas continued. “you’re Covenant, yet you still followed the faith’s edict to grow old?”

Isolde paused, the laughter fell from her eyes. “You and I both know that gods are fairy tales for the credulous, young man, but solidarity with your community is an essential part of humanity. How would I have felt if I’d stayed young and beautiful while my friends and neighbours all withered with age?”

Ilyas nodded. “Covenant solidarity played a big part for us at Muphrid.”

Isolde’s hand banged the table with surprising ferocity. “Yet you forgot the Covenant’s first precept! Treat the world as it is, not as you wish it were!” Her needle-sharp eyes bored into Ilyas. “Year after year I saw the news feeds coming from Muphrid. That charlatan Petro told you what you wanted to hear, and you all lapped it up. And what about the fifth precept: Disdain those who concur. Honour those who dissent. Were there no dissenting voices?”

Celeste. She had been a dissenting voice.

“Isolde…” Mila reached out to touch Isolde’s arm and she jerked it angrily away.

“It’s alright, Mila.” Ilyas said. “Petro had a valid argument, Isolde. Everyone before us had spent their resources on running, not fighting. Petro’s crime was to run away himself.”

“Still you deceive yourself. For every one who could have left, hundreds would be left behind. Petro played on your secret fears. You would rather no one was saved than be left behind yourself. He was a devil of your own making.” Isolde backed her chair from the table. “I’m tired, Mila. Help me to my bed.”

Ilyas cleared the table — the mechs would have done it, but it kept him busy while Mila helped Isolde. He waited for her outside the door. A clear night revealed the tracery of street lights on the habitat’s far side, with dark patches of parks, all cut through with the arrow-straight silhouette of the darkened sun-tube.

Disdain those who concur. Honour those who dissent. The dissenters at Muphrid were all silenced, or had silenced themselves, like Celeste.

“Isolde’s asleep.” Mila appeared at his elbow. “She was sharp tonight.” Her hand reached for his.

“Tomorrow.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I’d like to go to my ship.”

Mila cast her eyes down. “OK. I understand.”

Before bed, Ilyas sat alone in his living room gazing through the aurocular. At the star map, and through the eyes of Thurlina’s sensors that waited patiently for the coming of the Enemy.

His dreams that night took him back to Muphrid, where he wandered the empty streets past the flight school, through abandoned parks and into the echoing emptiness of the great hall, finally climbing the stairs to his apartment on the fourth floor of the ziggurat. He found Celeste reading her book, lying in the bath of crimson water.

“You’re too late,” she said.

“Too late for what?”

“You killed us all, now it’s time.’’

“Why do you say that. Why say that I killed everyone?”

“Look in the mirror.”

Ilyas felt the presence of the mirror behind him, the mirrored door of the small cabinet over the sink. He didn’t want to turn, didn’t want to look.

“Look in the mirror!”

Her words compelled him, unwilling, he turned. A familiar face stared back; thick grey hair, broad features, stern expression. Marshal Petro.

“Now,” Celeste’s voice reverberated from the bathroom tiles. “It’s time.”

Ilyas woke to the sound of a distant siren. He slipped on the aurocular to see Thurlina’s sensors scintillating with gravity waves from every direction. The Enemy was here. Only hours remained before the hail of hypervelocity projectiles would shatter the habitat’s silicate shell. He rose from his bed, washed and dressed, and made his way out into the dim light of night. In the adjacent dwelling, Isolde’s frail form lay still as stone in her bed. Her implant had fulfilled its intended purpose and spared her pain, the stilling of her weak heart an unfortunate side effect.

He sat a moment with her, replaying her words of the previous evening. Honour those who dissent.

In the next house, Mila breathed softly in her sleep. He touched her hand. “Mila,” he whispered, but she did not stir. In the darkness of her bedroom Ilyas searched for his anger but found only the image of Marshal Petro’s face staring at him from the mirror in his dream.

A word to Ilyas’s aurocular summoned a transit car which took him the short distance from the hospital to the end cap before rising up the slope into the open between fields and vineyards. Quickly, the climb steepened until it ascended the vertical face to the axis, weight declining to nothing, then out through the hub into windowless passages, a maze of pressurised tubes that spidered out from the axis to the zero-g docks, workshops, and freight and passenger terminals.

It stopped in an embarkation hall. Long glass windows on one side looked out on the aged and pitted outer wall of the habitat’s end-cap, its motion barely visible as it turned beneath. The docks extended out past the window on the other side: lattices of struts with clamps and docking ports, all empty but the one where Ilyas’s ship sat. Tiny, patched and battered, but whole.

The weight of his burden had slowed him on the walk from Mila’s dwelling to the transit, and the inertia of it made him clumsy as he manoeuvred without gravity along the tube to the docking port. Ilyas squeezed through the open hatch and into the cramped cockpit. A systems check showed the reactor on-line, the ship ready, the range-limit still disabled. He prepared a navigation program so that when he began the launch sequence the hatch would close, the clamps release. A short spurt from the thrusters and the ship would clear the dock and make the jump to the Zosma system. Seven years would elapse; the blink of an eye in subjective time.

Little time remained, but enough for the burden that waited in the access tube. A few moments and he was finished. Ilyas reached across the cramped space of the cockpit to press the button to begin the launch sequence. As the hatch closed he made his way back to the embarkation hall to watch the departure through the long window.

This time, he would treat the world as it was. What did it matter where Petro had fled, if he had escaped at all? Ilyas had constructed an impeccable chain of logic that would lead him to Zosma, as impeccable as the logic of defending Muphrid had been. Petro had been Ilyas’s own creation. His, and all those who had stood in the great hall with him.

This time, someone would be saved, someone would survive at least until the next roll of the dice. In seven years elapsed, hours subjective, the sedative would wear off and Mila Kraft would awaken in the cockpit of his ship looking out at the colonies at Zosma.

“Stand or fall.” Ilyas folded his arms and waited.

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