“The Red Ship" by Marc Miller
Aboard CM Kugganzir above
Gvur 2302 Karrksinarka C886400–8 Ni Ga
I awoke to the sounds of impacts (was it missiles?) and the sizzle of comm static. I dispensed with my normal response process and spoke, "Who is in command?"
"I am Captain Lagash, Agent. We are cruiser Kugganzir. We have an Edict 97 situation, but scrubbing has not resolved it."
"Why was I not awakened earlier?"
"This is, in fact, your second awakening. You ordered the first scrubbing from our sister, Shamash."
"Bring her up on comms."
"That's the problem, Agent. Shamash was destroyed five minutes ago."
I decided that more information was needed. I opened my eyes, "Situation report."
Through the transpex, I caught the flash of a gigantic black spike, hurtling towards us. Three seconds later, Kugganzir shuddered with impact.
There was no Rule for this, but I long ago learned that any action is preferable to inaction. “Break off! Take us out of the attack zone.”
A Marine guided my hand to a grab bar. “The compensators at higher accelerations are iffy.” Even as he spoke, I felt hesitations jerk me briefly in random directions.
I felt, in my other hand, a paper note, which I raised and read.
“He likes a flight jacket with Agent on the back.
Two frontarms with lethal and non-lethal options.
My name is ______.”
The blank was completed with a scribbled “Shugili.” My leather sleeve implied flight jacket, and so I assumed that Agent was written across my shoulder blades. On my chest were red and yellow grips. I imagined my host, aided by some capable yeoperson, reading that note, making nervous preparations, and then inserting my wafer in his jack.
“Captain Lagash, tell me where we are?”
He responded with a standard four-point who-where-why-how situation report in brief phrases. “Our squadron is three Legend-class cruisers reinforced with two Battle-Siege pairs from the Vargr locals.
“In the Karrksinarka system, about 40 parsecs beyond the border, generally coreward. This is Vargr-dominated space: scatters of constantly changing petty empires.”
“We’re on a joint anti-piracy patrol. We found the local mining colony on a satellite of the ringed gas giant. Everyone there was dead of some plague.
“Plague activates an agent, even out here, and you ordered the base scrubbed as a Quarantine step. We were doing that from orbit when the pirate fleet swarmed out of the gas giant ring. Emping first, and then ramming with those big black spikes.”
“Have they followed us?”
A rating at a console spoke, “No, sir. Some few smaller ships are still at Shamash. Their largest is dreadnought-size. Uncharacteristically red, rather than black. They are all moving back toward the ring. We’re not seeing any comm traffic.”
“Then bring us to stationary. Captain, what about our companions?”
“Per protocol, they have moved with us. They are similarly unpursued.” He gestured at a screen with circles and arcs and points of light.
So, we were safe for the moment. “Captain, it strikes me that command of this squadron has fallen to you?”
“Yes. I have assumed that responsibility with the loss of Shamash. Commodore Appray was my friend as well as my superior.”
“Then let’s call you Commodore.” Rule 3 and Rule 5.
“Commodore, we have also omitted some required formalities. Tell me who is Emperor?”
“Zhakirov sits on the Iridium Throne.”
Confirming I would use the male pronouns. I turned to face the bridge crew; gestured to the Marine sergeant. He shouted an “Ears Up!” and heads turned to me.
“I am Agent Shugili of the Quarantine. My authority is Imperial Edict 97. I speak with the voice of the Emperor himself, and he wants us to handle this situation.”
The Commodore responded with “We all serve the Emperor.” He suggested that we move to the Chart Room. Once there, a server provided beverages while I asked questions.
“Who was the Agent on Shamash? What were his instructions? Do we even know?”
Lagash said that we knew little beyond our basic scrub instructions; the loss of Shamash was completely unexpected. No one had seen a need to mirror routine bridge planning conversations to the rest of the squadron.
I needed to know a lot more before I could make any decisions. “Get me the Ship’s Troops commander.”
Within minutes, the Marine Force Commander presented herself. I showed her my wafer: withdrew it from the nape of my neck, let her turn it in her fingers. When she handed it back to me, I returned it to its jack, and gave instructions. “There’s a dead Agent in the wreck of Shamash. Someone can show you what he looked like. I need his body. Failing that, his wafer like mine.”
A spacer knocked and stepped in without waiting. “Captain, we have a problem.” I waved the Force Commander away and we returned to the bridge.
Comm screens showed two canids—the sophont Vargr of this region—clearly on different ships, arguing with growls and spits while a crawler translated with text below. They both looked the same to me: grey fur around long snouts and black eyes. One had a bright red neck device; the other a scar above his eye. I labeled them Red and Scar, sufficient for my current purposes.
I watched for a few beats. I knew Vargr small group hierarchies were stable until disturbed; then a new leader emerges based on dominance. They had accepted Commodore Appray, but Lagash was an unknown; I was a double unknown. Neither was prepared to accept Lagash as Commodore, although they also did not agree on which of them should assume the role. These rival captains were evenly matched and their snarling could continue for some time. Much was for show to their crews; ultimately, they would meet for some sort of duel.
I looked around, found the weapons console and its operator, and spoke briefly. The gunner apparently understood Vargr hierarchies as well, and set about touching tabs and speaking to loaders at a turret.
“Commodore, please insert me into this conversation.” He gestured, and I started talking. The rivals shifted their attention to me.
“We have important work to complete, and your dispute disrupts our progress. Commodore Lagash commands our ships for the good of the overall mission, and at the direction of the Emperor.” Somewhere, on our end or theirs, my words were translated.
Scar spat words in a growling Anglic. “He is your emperor, not ours. He is months distant and you are guests in . . .”
The bridges for both Scar and Red flashed alarm lights and blared alarm sounds, and both turned their attention to local displays.
One of our screens showed an exterior tracking schematic. Two torpedo symbols streaked from us to them, evading snakes of anti-missile beams that were clearly ineffective. “Show time to impact.” Digits in a corner enlarged and counted down 5-4-3-2, and at 1 bridge illumination flickered on both viewscreens. Red winced. Scar stood unmoved.
I directed my attention to Scar. “The next ones won’t be dummy warheads. We have more important business than to argue about precedence.”
Scar submitted without submitting. “For now.” I complimented him on his composure under fire, and he visibly softened, “You have damaged my forward tanks.”
“We shall repair them better than before. For my first shot, I targeted a nonessential component.
“We have plans to make. Come join us on Kugganzir. We can discuss our next steps. Invite your companion commander as well.”
I turned to an officer. “Find out their names, ranks, whatever else we know. And what they eat.”
I was suddenly tired and asked where I could refresh myself. The Commodore walked me to guest quarters near his own suite. “Why am I tired? It has been less than an hour.”
“Lieutenant Shugili has been directing operations for two watches. When we needed a wafer jack, he volunteered. It is his fatigue you feel.”
“I understand. I want to see the Marines as soon as they return.” I shrugged off my jacket, dropped my chestplate and frontarms to the floor, and fell to the bed. My last awakening had been a false alarm, followed by weeks of routine patrol. Awakening to this was jarring. I slept.
Consciousness returned with a knock at the door, followed by a shouted, “The Marines are back.” I roused, rearmed myself, and stepped into the corridor.
The Marine Force Commander was waiting as I stepped to the bridge; she looked tired. She waited until I called her over. “Were you successful?”
“Yes, sir.” She extended a hand. In her palm a transparent envelope held a wafer smeared with blood. “I apologize, sir. Snith cut it out of a crushed skull. I was uncertain if cleaning would in some way damage it.”
“Yes.” I took the envelope and began to examine it. She made that unique Marine salute gripping the pistol holstered on her armored chest. I absentmindedly did the same to dismiss her as I turned to a yeoperson. “Rinse this with clear water; return with it immediately.”
I recalled Rule 5. “Force Commander.” She stopped and turned. “You and your force have done well. Tell your Marines that the Emperor himself is pleased with your work today.” Someone told me later that four Marines died in the operation.
By this time, yeoperson and wafer had returned, and I needed to remember everything it held. I looked at his nameplate. “Commodore, please assign Spacer Draan as my aide. I need perhaps an hour in quarters. Draan, come with me.”
We talked as we walked. I gave basic instructions about food, communications, gatekeeping. He seemed to understand; I hoped he understood.
In my quarters, I cautioned him to watch and not interfere; I would ask for help as I needed it. I removed my wafer, and inserted the new one. Knowing what to expect did not reduce the piercing pain throughout my brain. There was an accompanying brightness through closed eyes and screaming in my ears. Suddenly the events on Shamash were memories that had always been there. Draan stood silent as I suffered. At last, I started to feel better, and I made plans, instructed Draan, and then slept.
That evening, Commodore Lagash and his senior officers entertained me and the two invited Vargr. I insisted that Draan attend as well. This was not a time for planning or coordination, but rather our own cultural convention to establish and reinforce hierarchies. One element was the after-dinner stories.
Tale-telling is a tradition in ward rooms. Each story has entertainment value, but it also says something about the teller.
Lagash told of a tense encounter with a Zhodani patrol ship along our mutual border. A local distress call forced them to cooperate to save several locals. Lagash believed that he and his opponent had each gained a grudging respect for the other.
Scar told of a puphood escapade, filled with evasion and trickery, stealing fruits from a farmer’s field. It nicely showcased his ability to direct and lead others. In the end, they found the fruits post-season and now sour. His companion commander Red was silent.
I invited Draan to tell a story, and he was pleased to be asked.
“This ship, Kugganzir, is named for the very old Vilani legend of a powerful hero who held off an invading army at a narrow bridge. My homeworld is Ilelish and we have a parallel legend of the Ghost Fleet. It goes something like this.
“Long ago, when starfaring was new, the Empire sent a fleet to punish Ilelish for building its own ships instead of buying them from Vland. This was First Empire, thousands of years ago; it’s not about today. Anyway, when the imperial punitive fleet massed for its final assault, the mysterious Ghost Fleet flashed out of nowhere and destroyed them all. For several centuries after, Ilelish built its own fleets on the Ghost Fleet pattern. Then the empire finally came in and absorbed us. It’s all just an obscure part of very old history. It’s not even a morality tale, because ultimately, Ilelish lost. So what’s the point?
“The Ghost Fleet pattern is a hierarchy of tapered cylinders: fighters, escorts, frigates, and battles; all dead nonreflective black. They emp to disable their targets, then attack with missiles and kinetics, and the big ones ram.
“If we weren’t more than a year away from Ilelish, as well as on the far side of the Great Rift, I would say that we are attacked by a legendary Ilelish Ghost Fleet.”
Draan was gratified by the appreciative laughter.
I chose to make a speech rather than tell a story, both for hierarchic dominance, and to reflect my mission.
“There are more wonders in this universe than we can imagine. There’s a sort-of stasis bubble on a world in Deneb sector that reaches a thousand kilometers above the surface. It slows time by the cube root of 73. The people who made its generator have been dead for a million years.
"There are more dangers in this universe than we can imagine. I have seen slugs that take over men’s minds, and stars that explode for no reason we can discern.
"And yet, the arrow of progress is ever forward. Our Empire is the greatest interstellar community in history, embracing the diversity of a thousand sophont species working together for the greater good of all, to exploit the universe’s wonders and avoid the universe’s dangers. We are rightly proud of our past, and for what the future holds.”
I raised my cup, and the others raised theirs. “To the Emperor.”
The officers echoed my sentiments. Scar and Red elected to not participate. For some reason, Draan didn’t either.
After dinner, I met with Scar in a common area, in sight of others but isolated enough that we could converse. I asked, and Scar pronounced his name to me. Daellvoztillakug. I repeated it slowly: Dal Voz Tilla Kug. I repeated his slight correction: Dayel Voz Tilla Kug and he indicated that I was now correct. I repeated the syllables enough to embed them in my memory.
“Daell is my rank. Voz is my male parent. Tilla is my female parent. Kug is my personal identifier. Daellvoztillakug. We pronounce it as one multi-syllabic. Daellvoztillakug.”
He turned his attention to me. “So explain to me your name structure.”
“Yes, mine is more complex than it appears. This host is Agent Arc Shugili.”
“You wear the triple sunburst of naval Lieutenant. That isn’t part of your name?”
Hierarchy is important to them, I thought. Even now, he is expressing an attempt at dominance. “It’s optional. Agent is a rank outside of the normal structure, an exception. Arc is the personal name. Shugili is the male parent name, and by extension, his male parent, and then his male parent. Theoretically, it extends back for hundreds of generations.”
“All of that refers to this physical body.” I now emphasized my personal pronoun. “ ‘I’ am Jonathan Bland. Personal name Jonathan; male parent name Bland.”
I’ll express some dominance here myself, I thought. “I am entitled to prefix ‘Sir’ to my name, granted by the Emperor himself.”
I reached back, withdrew my wafer, and displayed it between my fingers. I found myself telling this non-Human more than I would be comfortable telling my Human comrades.
“A skill wafer,” he said.
“Yes, but also not. It’s a variant of the technology, in many ways obsolete, in other ways more powerful. This contains the Jonathan Bland personality. Insert it in a host—like Arc Shugili—and my Bland personality takes over. In about a month, Bland evaporates and Shugili reappears, generally unaffected. The Bland memories of this period are retained on the wafer. The next time it is used in a different host, I will remember meeting you, this conversation, and everything about this particular mission.”
“Rrrr.” Daellvoztillakug puzzled through the logic. “You remember the previous mission, and the one before that.”
“Yes, in a long stutter of awakenings that reach back several centuries.”
“You are immortal?”
“Long-lived would be a better term. It’s very confused in my own memories. There are several hundred wafers with me on them. From time-to-time, they are synchronized, consolidated. Each contains the compiled memories of the Jonathan Bland personality since the beginning of the project. It helps to address subsequent instances of similar crises. I am very experienced at addressing crises.”
“My political leader would adopt this technology to live forever. Your emperor must already use this to reign in secret I think.”
“Fortunately, no.” At least, I thought that was the case. “Each instance lasts only a few weeks. I am dependent on crew to activate me. I am dependent on the power of naval regulations for people to obey me.”
The other conditions lurked in the corners of this mind: my host had to be male and genetically Human, and never more than once in a specific host. Perhaps there were others. Or exceptions. These were details not important to this conversation.
“Would you obey your political leader in an ever-changing body? Or perhaps simply discard his wafer at an opportune time?”
Daellvoztillakug crooked an ear in some sort of body language that I assumed was assent.
At the end of the evening, I invited Daellvoztillakug to participate in an expedition to the Red Ship. I believe he took it as a challenge, and accepted. I left it to the Marines to specify equipment and details.
Boarding the Red Ship in the Gas Giant Ring
Gvur 2302 Karrksinarka C886400–8 Ni Ga
The next day, we approached the Red Ship in three assault shuttles. I sent a duplicate of my wafer in a volunteer: Draan.
We were starting blind. Deep scanners showed only layered homogeneity behind that initial hull wall: densities “consistent with” hydrocarbon polymers, whatever that means. For that matter, it was densities consistent with water. Was it really hydrocarbon?
Our assault shuttles accelerated toward the target. The technology was mature. Full acceleration, and at some point partial deceleration. Our gravitics slowed us from the speed of a rifle bullet to the speed of a pistol bullet, and in the last ten seconds to zero. Compensators handled the G forces; if they didn’t, we would be a jelly of broken bones and flesh.
Our three shuttles slammed into the red hull simultaneously. Directed explosions ruptured the surface, blast doors opened, and sections dashed inside. Was I expecting an interior void?
We emerged into a sea of fluid. Darkness through which our beams probed. My point of view shifted. The inner surface of the hull became my down, and that inner hull surface curved away left and right, and much less so fore and aft. Two man-heights above us was a ceiling. Around us were filaments: finger-width, arm-width, body-width, stretching from our floor to that ceiling. Free-floating rods, black hulls in miniature hung motionless, or in swarms with apparent purpose.
The fluid resisted us, but the powered assist in our suits brute-forced us where we wanted to go. A Marine clambered up a filament to the ceiling, touched it with a parcel, and it parted. I felt a shock wave crash over me through the fluid. His comm told us it was the same above as here.
A different voice on a different comm gave a warning, alerting us to flashes of light from aft: a cacophony of strobes converging on someone. He narrated rods prodding gently, like curious eels, and then with alarm told us one had prodded his headlight more forcefully, extinguishing it. A leader told him to pull back. Telltales for his suit went dead as black rods turned their flashing lights toward the main group.
Two distinct battles began. The Marines in their maroon battle dress responded with precision. Needles of fire hit individual rods that simply stopped to hang motionless in the fluid. More rods appeared from the darkness, strobing as they advanced, and the Marines escalated to burners that boiled the fluid and incinerated their targets. The rods were surprisingly agile in their response.
The Vargr were more agitated. Their lasers traced dashes of bright as they sliced black rods. I observed that their beams were apparently color-coded for some sort of tactical control.
Someone gave a command across all channels to extinguish visible lights and implement natural light intensification. Suddenly, we were in darkest of night, punctuated by black rod flashes and our own weapons bursts. Some filaments flowed with an eerie light.
The rods now concentrated on our weapon discharges, which was suicidal for some, but not all. Several troop indicators on my visual overlay changed from live to out-of-action and I decided that we knew enough. I touched the tab that sounded recall, and turned myself to that hole in the hull that led to our assault shuttle.
Blocking my path was a mass of black rods. The one before my faceplate showed dead-on a mouth rimmed by shiny black grains. Another attached itself to my arm; yet another to my leg. Directly before my eyes, I saw how those grains worked as they rotated to abrade my helmet transpex. I manipulated my burner without success, abandoned it for my combat knife to slice that eater to motionlessness. Instants later, simultaneous pain in my arm and leg was accompanied by a rush of foul-smelling fluid. My memories ended at that point.
Aboard CM Kugganzir above
Gvur 2302 Karrksinarka C886400–8 Ni Ga
At long last, some of them returned. Daellvoztillakug. The Marine Force Commander. Not Red. Not most of the rest. Not Draan, and thus not me.
Sensops retrieved recordings and images from the shuttle. That data, after processing, would be information, and with interpretation, intelligence. I sought out Daellvoztillakug and a bypass directly to experience.
He approached with a limp, which I ignored. When he saw me, he immediately offered my raw, blood-covered wafer. I took it and raced off to my quarters. Daellvoztillakug followed.
I removed mine. Inserted the new. The pain was intense, and my knees buckled. He reached to support me, and I waved him away. Leaned on a chair and raised myself up.
This wasn’t memories flooding back. They were already there; had always been there. I could call up the dark chamber of the Red Ship. The ever-present fluid. The filaments. The shiny black rods and their strobing. The chaos of energy beams, burners, and lasers. The pain of leg and arm, and the horrible mouth of abrading teeth. And then nothing.
I had another piece of the puzzle. These Black Hulls are organic. I couldn’t say if they were intelligent, but they clearly grew. What biology was it that scaled a single pattern across of spectrum of sizes from finger to dreadnought? Where were they from? Why were they here? Those were clearly questions for another time.
But now, I had a decision to make. Were these things a threat beyond this system? We eliminated Hot Plague on Vland millennia ago with vaccines and sanitation. We preserved tigers despite the occasional Human casualty.
I decided. At my authorization, we unlocked the nukes and remotely implanted them on the Red Ship. Staff made calculations and promised me that it would be utterly vaporized.
Aboard CM Kugganzir above
Gvur 2302 Karrksinarka C886400–8 Ni Ga
We were at a lull in our activities, and something had been nagging at the back of my mind. “Where is our physical report? How was it sent off?”
My new aide looked at a rating, who tapped a screen and showed it to him. “It would be on the hangar deck, at outgoing. To be transshipped once we return to Imperial territory.”
“Let’s go see.”
We walked the length of the ship, ultimately arriving at the hangar deck tucked between our two massive maneuver drive outputs. To one side was a small office and accounting console.
There were basic introductions. “This is Freightmaster Masic.”
He saluted and I returned it. I saw an older man, his uniform marked with the various bits of cloth and metal that said he was dependable, loyal, and had avoided trouble across his twenty-five years in service.
I started right in. “You have a shipment containing our report. Is it here?”
“I have many shipments. I am certain that it is.”
I told him my concern. “Some time ago, I sent a similar shipment, and when last I checked it had not arrived.”
If I were not an officer, he would have been patronizing, or dismissive. Traces of condescension showed through. “Transit times are counted in months or years. You must allow enough time.”
“It has been more than a century.”
He accepted the illogic of my statement without comment, but something in his attitude changed.
“You say a similar shipment? How similar?” Even as he spoke, his fingers touched tabs and made selections on a screen.
“Quite. Similar contents. I prepared it myself.”
He was now looking at details on a display. “Similarly addressed?”
“Identically, to a repository on Reference.”
“I see your problem. Your metadata is extremely detailed.”
“I take great pride in a detailed metadata. It helps ensure the material is properly cataloged.”
“Your specific metadata shares too much. I see at least three flagged entries and a prohibited string.”
“The Suerrat word Nurikreh triggers an alert; it’s Anglic equivalent Ghost Fleet does as well. I don’t know why it flags Emp, but it does. Finally, you use Niikiik Luur three times, and that glows red as a prohibited phrase.
“Your parcel is addressed to the archives on Reference. It will almost certainly be diverted to the restricted archives annex on Vland without any Human intervention. In all probability, it will be stored in the same section as your previous shipment.
“I can edit your metadata. Actually, we should start over so the deleted phrases don’t show up in the audit trail. If we clean the text, and with travel times, it should deliver to your specified destination in about twelve months.”
I told him no. “Leave it. Perhaps someday, I can find them both. It would be helpful if they are together.”
That night, as I fell asleep, I contemplated my coming evaporation. I had already spent one of my many lifetimes searching for that lost shipment, and now sheer chance had given me the answer. What other pieces of the puzzle was I missing?
Copyright © 2020 Marc Miller
“The Red Ship,” is set within the world of Marc Miller’s November book Agent of the Imperium. Legendary game designer Miller is one of the founding partners of the Game Designers Workshop, and one of the original designers of the best-selling Traveller science fiction role playing game. He is the recipient of many game design awards, and has written many short stories and novellas set within his gaming universe.