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by Cora Buhlert
Copyright © 2018 by Cora Buhlert
All rights reserved.
Cover image © Grandfailure, Dreamstime
Pegasus Pulp Publications
In Love and War
For eighty-eight years, the galaxy has been torn apart by the endless war between the Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds.
Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov are soldiers on opposing sides of that war. They meet, fall in love and decide to go on the run together.
Pursued by both the Empire and the Republic, they struggle to stay alive and free and prove that their love is stronger than the war…
I. Rescue Mission
In his office, Captain Brian Mayhew stared at the screen, at the logo of the Republic of United Planets. The urgent message from the Admiralty that had preceded the logo had concluded a minute ago, but Mayhew still could not look away.
Brian Mayhew was thirty-three years old, recently promoted to captain of the Republican light cruiser Fearless Explorer. He’d joined the military at eighteen and had faithfully served the Republic for fifteen years. He’d followed every order, never doubted the importance of his missions, never questioned his superiors. Until today. Until this message from the Admiralty.
Mayhew switched off the screen and got up. He walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a shot of whiskey, the good stuff, imported from MacLane. He didn’t pour a whole lot, just enough to cover the bottom of the glass about a finger high. Enough to grant him courage and resolve, but not enough to get him drunk. After all, he still had a job to do.
For whatever else had happened, he was still an officer of the Republic. He’d still sworn an oath to serve and protect its people. He still had a duty to save lives. He still had a mission, even if it wasn’t quite the mission his superiors had just given him.
Mayhew downed the whiskey in a single draft. He already knew what he was going to do, had known ever since he’d received the message. But he couldn’t do it alone. For though he might be in command now, he still wanted — no, needed — the approval of his people.
He returned to his desk and pressed the ship-com button. “This is the captain speaking. Set course for Jagellowsk. All senior officers, report to my office at once.”
Barely five minutes later, they were all assembled in the small conference room adjoining the captain’s office.
It was, Brian Mayhew reflected, the first time he’d ever used this conference room. When his predecessor, Captain Anatol Nikiyan, had given him a tour of the Fearless Explorer, Mayhew had frowned at the conference room, since it seemed such an extravagant waste of space.
“What’s it for?” he’d asked Captain Nikiyan, “Why can’t I talk to my officers on the bridge or in the mess or in my office? What do I need a conference room for?”
Captain Nikiyan had shot him a thoughtful look. “You’ll see. Sooner or later, you’ll see. Though for your sake, I hope it’s later rather than sooner.”
How right the old man had been.
Once everybody had arrived, Mayhew took his seat at the head of the table and looked around.
To his left, his long legs stretched out under the table, set Commander Gregory Owusu, chief of engineering. Wiry, dark-skinned, handsome, with close-cropped hair. Detail-oriented to the point of pedantry in the engine room and easy going outside it.
Next to Greg sat Doctor Anna Kim, chief medical officer. Short, plump, pleasant, with a dark bob and a no-nonsense manner with patients.
Opposite Anna lounged Commander Erol Yilmaz, chief of security. Muscular, handsome, with lightly tanned skin, black hair and a pencil thin moustache. Absolutely professional on the job and a hopeless flirt and ladies man off duty.
At his right, finally, stood Commander Natalya Shepkova. Tall, red hair, pale skin, striking features a little too sharp to be beautiful. This would be particularly hard on Natalya, Mayhew realised. After all, she hailed from Jagellowsk.
They all looked at him expectantly, so Mayhew took a deep breath and began.
“I just received an urgent message from the Admiralty, ordering us to head for Jagellowsk at once.”
Greg nodded thoughtfully. “So that’s why we changed course.”
“I will now replay that message for you. However, nothing contained in said message must ever leave this room. Is that clear?”
They all nodded as one.
“My lips are sealed, sir.”
Mayhew continue, “I have to warn you, you’ll probably find the contents of this message distressing. I did.”
He turned to Natalya who was still standing by his side.
“You’ll probably want to sit down, Natalya.”
“It’s okay, Captain. I can stand.”
“Sit down, Commander,” Mayhew said, not unkindly, “That’s an order.”
Natalya sat down, clearly irritated. Good. Cause if Natalya was angry at him, those emotions might be strong enough to drown out the grief and horror she was bound to feel.
“All right, so here is the message.”
Mayhew pressed a button and the recording started.
The logo of the Republic of United Planets appeared, followed by the logo of the Admiralty and finally by a “Top Secret” warning that threatened dire consequences in case of a breach.
He was theoretically in breach, Mayhew reflected. He also found that he didn’t give a damn.
After the parade of logos, the face of Admiral Cossy appeared, all harsh angles down to the bar-shaped moustache.
The Admiral nodded at the camera.
“…I don’t know how familiar you are with the Overkill project…”
The answer was, “Not a whole lot beyond whispers and rumours”.
Greg Owusu, on the other hand, clearly was familiar with the project. “So Overkill is real,” he mumbled to himself.
The Admiral continued, grim-faced as ever. “…but the short version is, yes, Overkill exists and yes, initial tests have been successful…”
Anna Kim raised her hand. “Excuse me, Captain, but what precisely is Overkill?”
“It’s a seismic planet killer weapon,” Greg replied, “So far believed to be strictly theoretical. But I guess it’s not quite so theoretical anymore.”
“But wouldn’t developing a planet killer weapon violate the Accords of Logabirum?” Anna asked.
“Yeah, but since when has that ever stopped anybody?” Greg countered.
Mayhew shushed them both.
On the screen, Admiral Cossy continued, “Unfortunately, our tests of the Overkill weapon proved to be a bit more successful than we anticipated…”
The Admiral shifted his gaze, looking at something off screen, almost as if he were too ashamed and couldn’t meet their gaze. And he damn well should be.
“For it turns out that after the Overkill prototype was fired up for initial testing at the Kosiolkovsky Laboratory on Jagellowsk…”
“Wait a minute, they’re testing that thing on Jagellowsk?” Greg exploded, “An inhabited world of several billion people?”
“Two,” Natalya said, her face even paler than usual, “Two billion.”
“They’re testing a fucking planet killer weapon on a world of two billion people,” Greg repeated, “What are they, fucking insane?” His already dark skin turned even darker, as blood rushed to his cheeks. “I beg your pardon, Captain, but…”
“It’s all right, Chief,” Mayhew said, “I share your feelings about this, though with somewhat fewer expletives.”
“Ahem, could we leave the ethics debate for later?” Erol interrupted, “Cause I’d really like to hear what Old Coss has to say.”
Mayhew was pretty sure that he didn’t, that none of them really wanted to here what the Admiral had to say. But they had to, and so Mayhew shushed them all with a glare, while on the screen, Admiral Cossy got to the point.
“…it could no longer be deactivated. So far, all attempts to shut down the Overkill prototype have failed…”
“What do they mean, they can’t shut it down?” Greg demanded, “Don’t tell me the bloody thing is functional and active on an inhabited world.”
“Currently, the prototype is executing its original programming and seismically destabilising the target planet…”
“What?” Greg exploded, while Natalya grew even paler than before.
“…which in this case unfortunately happens to be the Republican core world of Jagellowsk…”
“They’ve turned that damned thing lose on one of our own worlds and now they can’t switch it off?” Greg exclaimed in pure fury.
“That’s certainly a whole new level of bureaucratic incompetence,” Erol remarked.
Mayhew cast a worried glance at Natalya who had turned positively grey and looked as if she was on the verge of passing out. Luckily, Anna had noticed as well and rushed to her side.
“Nat, are you all right?”
Anna reached for Natalya’s hand, a simple gesture of support that also happened to allow her to check the pulse. Mayhew nodded at Anna, a silent acknowledgement of her efforts.
On the screen, Admiral Cossy continued, his face grim. “The scientists at the Kosiolkovsky Lab are still trying to shut down the prototype, of course, but unless we get extraordinarily lucky, Overkill will reach criticality in approximately twelve hours…”
“What does that mean, �reach criticality’?” Natalya wanted to know. Her voice was faint, but her eyes were clear and alert.
“Nat, you should lie down,” Anna whispered to her. She turned to Mayhew, “Captain, Commander Shepkova is unwell. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t hear this.”
Natalya shook her off. “I’m fine, Anna.”
She looked around the table, her eyes — green like the sea on Turvalok — glancing from one face to the other. “What does �reach criticality’ mean?” she demanded, “What will happen?”
It was Greg who answered. “The planet will suffer increasingly severe quakes, until it finally breaks apart,” he said, dark eyes flashing with anger, “That’s what Overkill is, a seismic planet killer weapon. And those fucking geniuses at Kosiolkovsky Lab turned it lose on one of our own worlds.”
Part of Mayhew expected that Natalya would collapse, but she was still an officer of the Republic and made of stronger stuff than that. And so she just nodded, perfectly calm. “I see.” Her eyes met Mayhew’s. “So what do we do now, Captain?”
Admiral Cossy answered in his stead. “I herewith order the Fearless Explorer to proceed to Jagellowsk at once to assist with the evacuation efforts. Once there, you will land at Kosiolkovsky Lab and evacuate the staff, before aiding the civilian evacuation efforts…”
The Admiral’s face turned ever sterner, a sharp crease forming between his harsh eyebrows.
“Now we know that Overkill works, it is absolutely imperative that we preserve that knowledge at all costs. This could be the weapon that decides the war…”
Admiral Cossy turned his glare directly at the camera.
“And Captain, you will not breathe even a single word of this conversation to any member of your crew, is that understood? As far as anybody else is concerned, the sudden seismic destabilisation of Jagellowsk is due to unknown causes.”
The Admiral paused, as if there was something he had forgotten.
“Good bye, Captain. And good luck. The fate of the Republic rests in your hands.”
The Admiral’s face vanished, replaced by the Republican logo.
For a few seconds, everybody around the table stared at the screen in numb, silent horror. And once again, it was Greg who spoke first.
“We’re not really going to evacuate those bastards at Kosiolkovsky Lab, are we, Captain? Cause whatever Old Coss says, as far as I’m concerned they’re war criminals.”
“If we take aboard anybody who was involved with this project, I will personally evacuate them right out of the nearest airlock, Captain,” Natalya said. Her face had taken on its usual colour again with an extra flush of anger added. “Those bastards are destroying my homeworld, my people. And if we’re really going to rescue them, you’d best lock me in the brig or I swear, they’ll never reach their destination alive.”
“You can lock me in the brig right along with Nat,” Greg added, “Cause if you don’t, I swear I’ll wring the necks of every single one of those bastards myself.”
“If you want to confine Commander Shepkova and Commander Owusu to the brig, then I will see to it,” Erol piped in, “However, I can’t promise you that my people will adequately guard them, Captain.”
It looked as if Mayhew had a full blown mutiny on his hands. And he didn’t even mind.
“Calm down, everybody,” he said, his voice rising above the various heated tempers in the conference room, “I have no more intention of rescuing the scientists responsible for this clusterfuck than any of you.”
“So we do what, ignore the order?” Erol asked.
“Not to mention that we already set course for Jagellowsk,” Greg added.
“Of course, we set course for Jagellowsk,” Mayhew said, “After all, there are people there who need our help.”
“And the scientists…?” Anna asked.
“The scientists might need our help, but they’re very low on my list of people to save, behind pretty much every other person on Jagellowsk.”
“So you propose that we leave the scientists to their fate and instead assist with the civilian evacuation efforts?” Natalya asked.
“So how do we explain this to the Admiralty?” Natalya continued, “After all, you… all of us would be refusing a direct order from the Admiralty. That’s the sort of thing that could get us all court-martialled.”
Mayhew turned to his second-in-command, looked her directly in the eye. “Do you care?”
“No, Captain. I just thought you did. After all, you have a family to support…”
“And that’s precisely why I will not rescue the people who managed to condemn an entire world to death. Because how could I ever look my wife and daughter in the eye again, if I did.”
Mayhew rose to his feet and looked from officer to officer, from person to person.
“However, this is not a decision I can make on my own. After all, this is the sort of insubordination that could cost us all our careers. Therefore, it’s only fair that we all decide. So who’s in favour of following Admiral Cossy’s order and rescuing the scientists?”
Not a single hand went up.
“And who’s in favour of assisting with the civilian evacuation efforts and saving as many people as we can?”
All hands went up, Natalya’s, Greg’s, Erol’s and — after a split second of hesitation — even Anna’s.
Mayhew held up his own hand. “All right, so the decision is unanimous. We ignore the Admiralty’s order and aid the civilian evacuation instead.”
“And how are we going to explain this?” Natalya wanted to know.
It was, Mayhew reflected, a good question.
Of course, every captain in the Republican fleet had a certain amount of discretion, if they felt that an order would put their ship at an undue risk. And landing on a planet on the verge of breaking apart certainly counted as an undue risk.
He turned to Greg. “The Overkill device works via creating seismic disturbances of increasing strength, right?”
Greg nodded grimly. “Until the planet breaks apart.”
“And I assume the seismic disturbances will be stronger the closer you get to the Overkill device?”
“Well, I’m not sure…” Greg hedged. “Until five minutes ago, I assumed that Overkill was purely theoretical. But yes, it would make sense for it to work that way.”
“All right, then we have our excuse,” Mayhew said, “We couldn’t land near the… — what was the name of that lab again?”
“Kosiolkovsky Laboratory,” Natalya supplied, “Once considered one of our finest scientific institutes.”
“We couldn’t land near Kosiolkovsky Lab…” Mayhew even managed to pull off the pronunciation halfway correctly. “…without putting the ship at risk, because the seismic disturbances were too great. So with great regrets…” He formed air quotes with his hands, even though the sarcasm dripping from the words should have made his point on its own. “…we had to abandon the scientists to their fate and decided to assist with the civilian evacuation efforts instead.”
“And you honestly think they’ll buy that excuse?” Anna wanted to know, “After all, we’re not the only ship headed to Jagellowsk. What if one of the others contradicts us?”
“As captain of the Fearless Explorer, my foremost duty is to ensure the safety of my ship and my crew at my sole discretion. If any other captain in the fleet wants to land at the lab and rescue the scientists, then they’re welcome to. Though I doubt that any self-respecting captain would risk their ship for the killers of our own people.”
He looked around the table again.
“So we’re all in agreement?”
“Then let’s get to work.” Mayhew turned to his first officer. “Natalya, I’ll need your knowledge and your experience regarding Jagellowsk, so we can select the landing site with the greatest chance of quickly evacuating as many civilians as possible.”
Natalya nodded with nigh mechanical calm.
He turned to the chief engineer. “Greg, I need you to calculate how many people we can safely carry. I don’t care about comfort, we’ll cram every square centimetre of the ship full of people, if possible. And if there’s any equipment we can ditch to fit in more evacuees, then do it.”
Greg saluted. “On it, Captain.”
He turned to his chief medical officer.
“Anna, we’ll be dealing with a whole lot of traumatised and possibly injured people, so I want all medical personnel on duty and the infirmary ready to receive injured civilians.”
Anna nodded. “Of course, Captain. Though we might also have to set up mobile treatment teams for the less urgent cases, since I doubt the infirmary can hold all casualties.”
“Excellent thinking, Anna. Get on it.”
Mayhew turned to his security chief. “Erol, I need your people to maintain order during the evacuation, especially since there is a chance we might be overrun by desperate civilians. However, I don’t want any trigger happy jarheads on guard duty. Make sure your people know they’re dealing with terrified and traumatised civilians.”
Erol saluted. “Will do, sir.”
Mayhew looked around the table once more, his throat tightening with pride. He had a good crew, maybe the best to be found in the Republic. And today, they would do what they had been trained to do, namely save lives.
“So now we’ve clarified everything, return to your stations and prepare to take on evacuees.”
His gaze settled on Natalya and his expression softened. “Commander Shepkova, with me, please.”
Half an hour later, Mayhew was sitting behind his desk again with Natalya in the second chair and a three-dimensional hologram of Jagellowsk hovering in the space between them.
It was a beautiful world, Mayhew noted, a world of deep blue oceans, fertile green land and snow-capped mountains. When the original colonists to come here from Old Earth had first seen it on the viewscreens of their generation ship, they would have considered themselves very fortunate indeed to have arrived on world so perfectly suited to human life.
And now all that was about to end. A world of two billion people about to be snuffed out, just because someone had made a fatal mistake.
Mayhew threw a sideways glance at Natalya. She was holding up well, better than he would under the circumstances. But he could see the strain on her face, the horror and the unshed tears in her eyes.
“Do you still have family on Jagellowsk?” he asked.
Her parents were dead, killed in a shuttle crash five years ago, that much he knew. But there might still be others.
“Of course,” Natalya replied, “Aunts, uncles, cousins, old friends from school…”
“If there’s anybody you want to…”