Mythaxis

The Trumpets of Jericho


Martin M. Clark


“We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf"
George Orwell

“Burn them!”

I looked up, alerted by the obvious stress in Captain Memphre’s voice. He stood at the forward view screen, silhouetted against the blue-green planet, gripping the guard rail so tight his knuckles had turned white. The south pole of Jetter lay beneath us – a planet home to some nine-hundred thousand unsuspecting colonists.

Use of the stellar convertor had to be authorised by two senior officers. However Commander Lutyens was in an induced coma – being treated for Taig Parasites – and Sub-Commander Devon was on compassionate leave following the sudden death of his wife. By rights we should have returned to Cathay Station to take on replacements, but the Admiralty were keen to see their new toy in action. That left me, a mere lieutenant, as acting Executive Officer aboard the experimental terraformer Vulcan.

I was known as a man who obeyed orders, who followed the chain of command. Without hesitation I moved to the control console and placed my right palm on the recognition scanner, causing the access panel to retract. Rotating the revealed T-piece handle through one-eighty degrees engaged the pre-ignition sequence.

Memphre strode towards me, his voice distorted by fury. “I said burn them, Keppler! Burn them now!” He slapped his hand down on the second recognition panel.

“Warning, thermostellar primer system is now operational.”

“Awaiting full power, sir.” I was conscious of the other bridge personnel staring at me, but no-one said anything. My board went green. “Capacitors charged. Firing in three, two, one…” I pulled the T-piece down and pushed home. A cobalt-blue beam lanced from our bow, causing the view screen to polarize. It seemed to take an eternity as Jetter wasn’t an ideal target for conversion, but in reality it was less than a minute. The beam shut down, leaving a black after-image on my retinas.

“Energisation cycle complete, Captain.”

He made no reply, staring at the pink hue now spreading through the ionosphere. We had only a few moments to get clear but he seemed lost in his own private world.

I raised my voice slightly. “Helm, full astern.”

“Helm answering full astern, sir.” Banks sounded relieved to be receiving orders from someone, anyone.

I cleared my throat. “Captain Memphre?” He continued to ignore me. The planet began to glow, changing from pink to pearl-white. “Captain, I must protect the bridge against the anticipated radiation surge.” Still he stood there, quivering, like a statue hewn from anguish. I brought down the heavy view-port blast shields, shutting out the rapidly increasing glare.

Abruptly Memphre turned on his heel and hurried from the bridge. His face was pinched, as if in great pain, and there were obvious sweat stains soiling his uniform. After the door closed behind him no one spoke for a long moment.

I stood and walked over to the command chair, but did not sit down. “As senior officer present I will take the con. Miss King, kindly note this in the log. Also inform Medical that the Captain is, ah, indisposed and that Commander Lutyens must be revived immediately.”

“Sir.”

The Captain hadn’t explained why we’d altered course to Jetter and no-one on board had questioned his decision. Everyone knew him to be a loyal and dependable officer, if a tad staid. Although his fitness for command had to be questioned I knew the other officers would accept only Lutyens as his replacement.

My fingers tapped out a two-two rhythm on the chair back. “Mister Harris. Sensor readings?”

“Stellar ignition confirmed, Lieutenant.” Sub-Lieutenant Harris didn’t sound at all happy. “This is now officially a binary star system and everyone on the former planet is dead.”

I nodded, betraying no emotion. “Any survivors elsewhere?”

“None detected. There was no asteroid mining, no outposts on other planets or Jetter’s moons. It was a world of no strategic value.”

“Are we clear of the estimated corona?”

Harris shrugged. “Probably, but it hardly matters. You do realise our careers are finished? You do realise we’ve just murdered nine-hundred thousand people?”

I ignored him. “Navigation, I want the nearest uninhabited location from where we can re-establish contact with the Admiralty.”

“Sir, I have the next scheduled waypoint still queued up. A type-seven asteroid, flight time five hours.”

“Lay in the co-ordinates. Helm, get us out of here immediately your board is green.”

“Alignment….complete. Jumping to hyperspace in three, two, one…”

I experienced that all-too-familiar nausea as Vulcan exited the real universe. I sat down, although the command chair made me feel awkward, an imposter. No one spoke. I busied myself tidying up a few security loose ends until the end of watch, when Reynolds relieved me. He appeared hesitant, almost fearful of assuming command, so I guessed word of what had happened had already spread throughout the ship.

I retreated to my cabin, threw myself down on the bulk fully clothed, and slept.

Seven hours later I arose, showered, shaved and donned a fresh uniform. Silence greeted me as I entered the Wardroom, and none of my fellow officers would look me in the eye. To spare them any embarrassment I sat alone as the orderly served me breakfast. I tried to tune out the background murmur of conversation in case my name cropped up, instead concentrating on my pad and the schedule of forthcoming tasks.

A shadow fell across my table and I looked up to see Master Sergeant Deluca and two Marines, all sporting sidearms. He saluted. “Lieutenant Keppler, Acting-Captain Lutyens wishes to see you in his quarters. That would be immediately, sir.”

I dapped my lips with a napkin and stood. “Of course, Top, I understand.”

Deluca led the way with the two Marines following close behind. Although the title ‘Acting-Captain’ indicated events had moved ahead while I’d been asleep, the situation caused me no concern. The Marines remained on guard outside the Captain’s quarters while Deluca knocked and ushered me inside.

Lutyens had installed himself behind Memphre’s antique wooden desk, which had been swept clear of all personal items and mementos. The acting-captain looked ghastly. Taig Parasites produced a form of unbearable neuralgia which required the patient to be placed in an induced coma. Quite how Lutyens had become infected remained a mystery. He was clearly still suffering; the right side of his body twitched spasmodically despite the line of derms plastered to his jugular. The man was mainlining painkillers and I wondered how badly they’d affected his judgment.

Both Deluca and I stopped the regulation three paces in front of his desk and saluted. Lutyens ignored the formalities. “Captain Memphre is dead. He shot himself in the shower.” His eyes flicked to the restroom door and back to me. “Medical can’t tell if he suffered some kind of mental breakdown or was exposed to a psychotropic drug. It hardly matters now.”

I cleared my throat. “Sir, I-”

“Silence!” Lutyens wiped his mouth with a hand that trembled. “I’ve been in communication with the Admiralty and they’ve placed me in temporary command. Needless to say our terraforming mission has been aborted and we’re returning to Cathay Station under escort once the cruiser Pericles joins us. Consider yourself under arrest, Keppler. You’ll be confined to quarters for the remainder of the voyage, pending formal charges.”

“Charges, sir?”

Lutyens had never liked me and managed a thin-lipped smile despite his obvious pain. “Obeying an illegal order. Crimes against humanity. For starters.”

“Sir, with respect, neither of those offences are recognised as such by the Naval Judiciary.”

Silence! Good God, man, this ship wiped out almost a million colonists, an entire planet. Didn’t you realise Captain Memphre had taken leave of his senses?”

I drew myself up. “Sir, I was following the direct orders of my superior officer.”

“You’re a bloody martinet, Keppler, a mere functionary, but that won’t save you.” He sat back. “You’ve no friends on board as far as I’m aware, so don’t expect anyone to speak up on your behalf.”

“Very well, sir, but I look forward to standing before a court-martial and defending myself against-”

The Acting-Captain cut me off. “A court-martial? Do you really think the Admiralty want the embarrassment of a trial? As least Memphre had the good sense to kill himself, and I’m sure you’ll also do the decent thing before we reach port. That’s a prediction by the way, not just my hopeful expectation. Master Sergeant-”

I took a deep breath. “Computer. Voiceprint identification, Keppler, Michael. Authentication code, The Trumpets of Jericho.”

Lutyens laughed, although the gesture made him wince. “Oh, very well, make a formal statement. Although you must realise that only those parts which fit our version of events will ever be heard.”

“Computer, execute protocol Keppler-zero-zero-zero.”

Lutyens frowned at me. His eyes narrowed. “Sergeant!”

I heard the schlick as Deluca drew his weapon from its holster, but he was far too slow. The surveillance points in each corner also sported laser projectors. They were programmed – in extremis - to target everyone in the room apart from the senior officer present. My protocol activated the room defenses and gave me the rank of acting Commodore – for the brief interval it would take Vulcan to contact the Admiralty and have my appointment denied.

The room was filled by a silent blizzard of neon-blue bolts. Although the lasers were designed to incapacitate rather than kill, Deluca was hit in the eye and fell to the floor, dead from neurostatic shock. Lutyens was struck on the tongue, leaving it a slab of burnt and useless flesh. He jerked and writhed in his chair, hit multiple times. I lifted Deluca’s fallen weapon and shot the Acting-Captain in the head.

Biometric analysis detected no remaining potential threat to me and the defensive system shut down. It had taken only a few seconds. The air tasted of ozone and burnt meat. No one came to investigate the shot so perhaps the Marines had been briefed to expect my possible on-the-spot ‘suicide’ using Deluca’s gun. I remembered to breathe.

I pushed Lutyens aside and took his place behind the desk. He was still logged in, giving me full access to all primary systems, but I didn’t have long before the next routine biometric user check. I accessed the crew roster, deleting everyone from both the Identify Friend or Foe and facial recognition systems. Everyone, that is, apart from myself. Finally I knelt down behind the desk, gun aimed at the door.

Klaxons. An automated voice repeating; “Alert, alert. The ship has been boarded. Secure all stations against intruders…”

Vulcan responded like a human body fighting an infection – the antibodies being pop-up deck guns and a shoal of micro-drones. The ship had become a deathtrap for the enemy, and that now meant everyone other than myself.

I heard muted gunfire and the door opened to reveal a worried-looking Marine. His face didn’t have time to register surprise before I shot him in the chest. He coughed, pitched forward onto the deck, and lay still. The other Marine had his back to me, covering the corridor. He spun round – only to be cut down from behind by projectile fire.

Three micro-drones wafted into the room and began their sweep. A pencil-thin surveillance beam flickered over my face – and moved on. I sat on the floor, my back to the desk, and waited until they’d checked out the living quarters and left. Actually I gave myself a good ten minutes before leaving and making my way along corridors now littered with bodies. My former ship-mates, colleagues and fellow officers – but no friends, as Lutyens had pointed out.

Back on the bridge the ship acknowledged me as the senior officer left aboard. It sat there, docile - although if I hadn’t been acting XO Vulcan would have scuttled herself when crew numbers dropped below critical. Apparently the Admiralty were a great believer in rank, if not personality.

After cancelling the alert I ordered the maintenance crawlers to begin collecting bodies and stacking them in the airlocks. I knew enough of the navigation systems to find another asteroid waypoint, this one well off the military thoroughfares and used only by occasional commercial traffic. Vulcan jumped – and I finally allowed myself leave to be violently sick.

Real space.

A chunk of rock making its way in a lazy spiral through the interstellar void. A datum point amidst countless others in the vast Galactic pseudo-orrery that humanity used to chart a course across the heavens. I was in the gap between stars, overlooked even by God.

Vulcan rotated slowly, ejecting bodies towards the asteroid as each airlock came to bear. The minimal gravity field surrounding the rock would draw the dead into orbit. Better to be part of a constellation of corpses than drift forever through the loneliness of space.

Call me sentimental.

The ship was in stealth mode, with manual overrides to prevent it re-establishing connection with NavyNet. All passive sensors indicated that I was alone, the only living thing for ten parsecs. The thrill of what I’d achieved made me laugh out loud.

I directed the main antenna towards an abandoned mining colony in the Henderson Drift system. Occasionally optimistic scavengers passed through there on the off-chance of finding something that others had overlooked. Which is to say the presence of a ship wouldn’t register as noteworthy, even to Naval Intelligence. I transmitted a micro-burst carrier wave –and waited.

And waited.

“Communication established. Audio-only selected.”

A woman’s voice; mature, throaty with an undercurrent of amusement. “Well?”

“This is Keppler. Our plan worked perfectly.”

I lay on a sun-lounger, wearing only wraparound sunglasses and an easy smile. The naturalist retreat on Helios was an exclusive resort, deep within the core systems. A secondary news feed in my peripheral vision reported that a fifth corporation had paid the ‘Vulcan extortionists’ an undisclosed sum to leave them alone, but I was happy enough with my one-time payment from the original hijacking.

The Admiralty were still playing hardball, refusing to deal with terrorists. However they’d been unable to prevent the loss of a further two frontier planets despite a full mobilization. Military spending across known space was through the roof, which I suspected was the real motive behind this whole affair. Those who’d invested in defence industries prior to the ‘Jetter Incident’ had made a killing.

A shadow fell across me; a tall blond man wearing baggy beach shorts. He carried a gun in his pocket and didn’t seem pleased to see me. Despite my clean getaway and new identity I’d been half-expecting this – a visit from either my former confederates or Naval black ops. The only real security was death so I’d shelled out a small fortune for clone insurance, complete with real-time updates. The prospect of experiencing my own murder made me shiver with anticipation.

The man smiled, although not with his eyes. “Really, Michael, lying out all day in the sun like this?” He drew a Tesla pistol, the glowing blue coil indicating it was fully charged, “You’re liable to get burned.”

Uplink terminated…

© Martin M. Clark 2017 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 10:50 Thu 24 Aug 2017
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