by Mark R. Brand

The hope of mankind crawled forth as the armies of old, marching on their bellies.

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It was Thanksgiving in the starbase at the edge of the known universe. The meal had been brought forth from their great frozen freighter parked in high orbit around the airless, low-gravity world. It was the time of kings, and the time of the great war between human and Nadd. Even under the ever-present hum of mass drives that reverberated atonally through the artificial atmosphere of their habitat capsule, the old traditions were maintained. They gave thanks to the lethal fleet they had mustered in the skies above them, colossal intergalactic war galleons that cast conical, wedge-shaped shadows across the planet's surface. None of them would ever see the air or water of Earth again unless this war was won.

The old man that shambled down the plexi-steel hallway had been steward to three generations of harried, wartime Medieran kings. He was like a piece of beloved furniture, leaned upon so often that the marks of his family's weight were pressed indelibly into him. His body was feeble now, but his eyes missed nothing.

Brought aboard the desperate expedition by King Hector's father, Luther Mediera I, the steward had seen to the establishment of provisions on their new and likely final home. The Brisbane system, of which Brisbane Alpha was the only marginally-habitable planetary body, contained enough raw materials in the form of metallic ore, volatile gasses, and carbon-reactive compounds to realize King Luther's vision: a grand and unstoppable fleet of warships. Corvettes and Reavers that could outmaneuver anything fielded by the Nadd. Super-destroyers that would blot out the starlight and visit death on their enemies. The conception and construction of the shipyards to build them had taken the lifetime of King Luther to realize. He left to his son Hector the final task of completing the fleet and annihilating the Nadd forever.

All these worries were of less pressing concern to the old man. These pups that navigated the stars in search of the Nadd's home world knew only numbers and ranges, figures and projections. Old King Luther had been a man of ideas, of vision. He had been a man the steward could respect. The steward was a man old enough to remember the old ways. His was the business of tenor and omen, and he was no less calculating and precise in his preparation of Thanksgiving dinner than the young physicists even now tuning the fusion weapons that would rend the Nadd from existence.

* * *

The king emerged from his private bedchamber promptly as the distant star Brisbane broke the planetary horizon. Cold, filtered light from the blue dwarf illuminated the hallway. Hector Mediera had forsaken his father's original shield-hardened quarters for a habitat pod that sat on the planet's surface. There was little danger of attack and the cycles of light and darkness exactly every sixteen Earth-hours made his daily routine more comfortable. Along with Hector's other advisors and retainers, the steward waited patiently for his turn. The gravity-well generators were tuned only to provide enough faux-gravity to prevent loss of bone density and muscle atrophy; nevertheless, the steward could feel it pulling uncomfortably on his aging spine. The others, younger and having never known the pull of Earth beneath their feet, bounded effortlessly across the floor as though they had springs in their heels.

The first man to step lightly up to the king was the star-admiral. He was a tall, regal man of distantly high birth. A feed of position telemetry reflected dully across his cheek where his implant projected the data onto his non-dominant left retina. Next came the engineering liaison and subsequently the Weaponeer. Even this far from home, some non-military personnel had come along for the journey. The Creatrix Superior followed with the sagging breasts and belly of a woman who had given birth to many healthy boys in the name of conquest. She spoke for the Creatrices Collective, the living engines of man's promulgation throughout the universe. They hobbled happily through the halls of the maternal wing of the starbase, cooing war lullabies to their swollen wombs.

The last staff member in line stood out from the rest. He was a massive, broad-shouldered man with thick muscled arms and legs. His bones were genetically thickened at the skull, sternum, pelvis, and scapulae and reinforced with surgically-implanted steel mesh to protect his vital organs. His ribs were spring steel belted carbon fiber that retracted visibly every time he took a breath to allow his conditioned lungs to expand. This was General Jurgis Ira, commander of the king's Ground and Space Soldiery.

The KGSS were bred from birth to withstand drastic changes in fighting environment. Their enhanced skeletons allowed for extreme variance of pressure and gravity, deflecting collisions and all but the most vicious and precise weaponry without difficulty. They lived in a separate pod with artificial gravity heavier than Earth, to make them proficient fighters even under acceleration forces. They fought with long, curved hooks that doubled as tools to move about the delicate interior of Nadd vessels in null gravity. The steward knew that Inert-gas pistols were trained as well, but their use was discouraged. These men were bred for the visceral kill; the safest method aboard ship when the vacuum of space and explosive decompression could wipe out the careless user of a wayward projectile or un-controlled propellant gasses. Jurgis's trachea grated a bit when he breathed.

"Commander?" King Hector said, without looking up from his notebook.

"Efficiency is at ninety-nine and three-fourths percent, m'lord," the big man rumbled.

"Training injuries?"

"Minor ones only. Emergent efficacy is at one hundred percent."

The King nodded, and the commander whirled silently to leave. With Jurgis gone, the room seemed to grow.

"Good morning, Sloan."

"Good morning, sire," the steward said.

"How is my dinner coming?"

"The kitchens are preparing it as we speak."

"Did you find any turkey?"

"I'm afraid it's ham, sire."

The king frowned.

"We brought hundreds…"

"All were accounted for."


"I agree, sire."

"Well, we'll just have to do ham, I guess. Have you at least found some potatoes?"

"There is good news on that front. Some of the Creatrices have been growing vegetables in their hydroponic pods. We'll have fresh potatoes."

"Grown in human feces."

Sloan nodded. "As well as composted food wastes. The Creatrix Majora who oversees the cultivation says the soil compares favorably. The nitrogen titrate from the air purifiers makes for a very rich medium."


"I can cancel it if…"

"No, that's all right. I've never had fresh potatoes before. Have you tasted them?"

"I have."


"Better than you'd think."

"All right then."

"Will there be anything else my lord?"

"Not right now, Sloan."

"Very good, sire."

* * *

For sixty years Sloan the Steward had served Thanksgiving dinner to the Medieran kings. Their table was modest at first, and strictly utilitarian. With time, the morale of the expeditionary group, marooned as they were a lifetime of light-years from home, became the commodity of their rule. King Luther I had been pragmatic about the holiday, allowing only a variance of work-time and ration allowance to the men to soothe the stress of their frantic race to build his war-fleet. As months and years passed, this stance softened. The first generation had left Earth with King Luther and made the time-dilating trans-galactic journey cocooned in one-way autostasis, the likes of which would not be re-created without further decades of harvesting the raw materials to fuel a reverse-trip. In any case, their return would be to a planet that had moved on for centuries without them, if indeed it still existed at all.

Sloan knew he would never see it. He was nearing his seventy-ninth birthday and even if they mauled the homeworld of the Nadd this very evening, it might be decades still before they could climb into the icy mechanical grip of their stasis tubes for a hundred years of dreams and nightmares. For the younger men, though, there were yet promises of sleeping once more under the azure sky and porcelain moon.

This was the sentiment in any case. It was all most of them could wrap their heads around. When they made the return trip, they would arrive home millions of years after they had left, and even the sentient supercomputers they had brought with them could not predict what lay in the now-future. The thinking machines with many times the calculation ability of the human brain chewed on the infinitude of variables for centuries and could still not unravel the constellation of evolutionary and cosmological interdependencies.

They all knew this, after a fashion, but the mind is a small thing and given to cleverness rather than vastness of scope. For the captain and Creatrix, the engineer and steward, the soldier and king, theirs was the hoped-for reward of a time without war in a place without fear. For them, faith was the coin with which they bought their renewed sense of purpose.

In the meantime, there was work and there was Thanksgiving. Hector's son, Prince Luther II, was a known lover of turkey. The boy, who was twenty-seven Brisbane years (approximately twenty Earth standard years) old, would blatantly disobey convention and propriety and mash his turkey together with the potatoes, stuffing, and reconstituted biscuits, smothering the mess in a dollop of gravy that gave the illusion he was eating an amorphous meal of slop. Sloan had resisted demonstrating this way of eating to him, it being his own personal favorite as well, but the boy had somehow figured it out on his own. Sloan was quite fond of the young Prince, and he found himself seeing in the boy the echo of friends long-dead from Earth.

The staff and a select group of outstanding servants and common soldiers were invited to the meal now, and some rationing restrictions put into place by Luther I had been relaxed. Now even the common soldier could be guaranteed a treat from the stockpile brought across the stars in the food freighter. Thousands of turkeys, millions of kilograms of powdered instant mashed potato. The hope of mankind crawled forth as the armies of old, marching on their bellies. For sixty years, they brought pause to their work and gave thanks to the war-mothers, the weaponeers, to the starpilots, to their purpose, and to their king.

And this year, they had run out of turkey.

"How did this happen?" the steward growled at the royal head chef. The man, whose name was Mehul, challenged the margins of the descriptive "grossly" when applied to how overweight he was. The nominal gravity that made things like stir-frying a meal an exercise in manual dexterity tended to enhance rather than reduce the significance of him. The man would walk and flow at the same time, a blob of belly fat reverberating around his midsection as he walked.

"I don't know, sir."

"Do not play with me."

"I wouldn't."

"You would, you poxy bastard."

The chef was silent. Sloan knew that the man had nothing to do with the shortage. He had mentally calculated years ago how long the turkey supply would last in the face of the allowances made by King Hector. He had guessed to within two years the correct date of when their stockpile would expire.

"Can you at least cook the ham?"

"Yessir," Mehul responded promptly.

"You'd best hope you can."

Sloan hobbled away on his cane, feeling his neck creak as the vertebrae shifted uncomfortably under his aging skeletal muscles. He would never see Earth again in his reckoning, and if he did, the gravity alone would probably kill him.

* * *

"You worry overmuch, Sloan."

"It's kind of you to say so."

"You're getting too old to put yourself through this every year."

The steward smirked and gave the Creatrix Superior a sidelong glance. She was in the neighborhood of seventy herself, and had only given up her once-every-two-year birthing schedule when her womb was so patched and scarred that a zygote failed to implant in it. Her body was a loose collection of well-loved mother flesh that her layered robes calculatingly failed to quite cover. He struggled with this concept of woman each and every time he saw her, but decided invariably that there was something noble and fitting of it. He even thought often that she was beautiful.

Conscious of his meaning, she smiled warmly. This was a woman who had given thirty-two sons to the war, and to whom immeasurable understanding came as naturally as breathing. Sloan found it quite impossible to be near her and not recall the sweet lullaby of his own mother so many years on.

"Food is important," he sighed, eventually, his head sagging. They sat in the common room of the maternity wing, a place lit by natural cycles of sun and moon to encourage healthy ripeness of the warmothers within.

"Of course it is…" she said, reaching out a slender-fingered hand and gently rubbing the back of his scalp. Her hand soothed in a practiced way and he felt his problems recede despite himself.

"It has meaning within meaning."

She smiled and nodded, her fingertips loosening a knot at the top of his neck. He turned and lay with his head on her lap. Her belly was round and soft.

"Arcturus Epsilon wasn't your fault. It was Luther's if it was anyone's. No one expected the Nadd to have spies."

Little was known about the Nadd, as their communication was garbled and what was intercepted was non-visual in nature. They might be as different from humans as lions were to fish, or they could just as easily be identical and evolved in parallel on the other side of the universe. Their spacecraft were hulking and alien, but their technology was familiar. When the attack on Earth had happened and the survivors had torn across the galaxy warning other colonies and settled planets, they had picked up signals immediately on all the familiar channels.

Radio, laser, burst, and spectrograph transmissions reached them broadcast across every frequency. The Nadd's hissing, atonal speech stepped on the clarity of their distress calls and warning transmissions. As they fled and heard the terrified call-backs from colonies too distant or ill-equipped to flee, Sloan remembered the garbled and alien battle language interrupting with ominous overtones.

At Arcturus Epsilon, having only traversed the first small sliver of space they would eventually cross, the Nadd fell on them during a hastily-prepared Thanksgiving meal as they refueled. Many ships were lost and only the sacrifice of King Luther I's flagship, Manifest Destiny, provided enough cover for them to escape. On a routine check of transmission logs, several anomalies were discovered and traced to a communications officer aboard the commissary freighter. Unfortunately, the spy was pre-warned by his labor representative that he was to be questioned. The officer excused himself to the wardrobe compartment for a change of clothes and shot himself in the heart with a gas pistol.

"I can't imagine you don't believe in luck."

Her fingernails scratched his hairline gently.

"Oh, I believe in luck," she said. "I'm quite familiar with good luck, bad luck and every sort of middling luck between. But a meal is just a meal. I know."

He supposed she did. He closed his eyes and once more mentally counted the necessary components. Reconstituted cranberries, freeze-dried corn, the flour and salt from their individual freighter silos…

* * *

"You do know what this means, don't you?"

Sloan glanced past the king at the loading gantries where the cobalt-isotope weapons were being painstakingly secured on shuttles to ferry them to the waiting warships.

"I can only hope, sire."

"When I was six years old I watched them sear North America. It was like looking at a computer map. The whole eastern seaboard lit up like a child's toy and the clouds came up so fast that we couldn't see what happened. It was like a magic trick. I remember thinking it looked fake. I wanted to see how they did it. I was so impressed."

"I remember," Sloan said, evenly.

The king stared out the transparent walls of his quarters' bubble skin. The steward thought his stare was fixed far further than the men in bright orange pressure suits gingerly shuffling the doomsday bombs back and forth.

Brisbane Alpha had been chosen specifically through ultra long-distance spectrum analysis for its abundance of radiological elements. The weapons they loaded aboard the warships were harder than hard, creating matter reactions that could disassociate the particulate structure of their targets, tearing them violently from existence and replacing their mass with wave upon wave of kill-spectrum ionizing radiation. These were the very thing that so many centuries of civilization had carefully controlled.

"It wasn't until later that I realized it meant I couldn't ever go home."

"I think some of us still haven't realized that."

"Heh," the king said, shortly.

"You might, someday. The projections say—"

"The projections are wrong," Hector said, finally pulling his gaze away from the transteel. He palmed a switch that opaqued the ceiling and walls. They were suddenly alone and back within the close interior of his solar.

Sloan frowned. He knew better than to argue. Old Luther had been like this at times as well. Eventually they would all come to peace with it in their own way. None of them knew for certain if Earth had survived the attack. There were other colonies on other habitable carbon-rich planets, but none had the capital "H" status in their minds. To the men and women of the war fleet, home was Earth, and only Earth. Those old enough to remember seeing the attack with their own eyes had lost a tiny fraction of their vision even through the spectrum filters. Most had seen only the playback.

Their mission had taken them light-centuries from Earth, and long-wave EM spectrography had determined that as recently as eighty million relativistic years ago, the atmosphere of the blue planet had reverted to primordial compounds in preparation for restarting the carbon cycle. It was shortly after this that they had exceeded the maximum range of their equipment. Their mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, children… anyone on the planet the day that the Nadd found Earth were eighty million years in their graves, spinning through the solar system on a barren ball of rock. The initial searing had ignited the atmosphere, cremating North America as fast as the flames could spread. Some people had undoubtedly survived only to freeze and starve in the ash-night that followed.

"What will you do when this is over?"

The king shrugged. Too long had they traveled together for false pretense. It was something unnerving to see a king in a moment of indecisiveness, Sloan decided. For a moment, he felt wrong to have asked.

"I'll decide when I'm finished watching Nadd Alpha burn, I suppose."

Sloan nodded. It was as much as he expected.

* * *

They gave thanks.

* * *

"What do you mean he yelled at you?"

"He said it wasn't done. It was done."

"Look at me, shitheel," Sloan snapped, using a word from his youth that came bleating from his mouth like the admonition of a mountain goat. He rapped the man's left hand with his cane, the reduced gravity softening the sting.

"I've been head chef for fifteen god-damned years, don't tell me how to do my job."

"You listen to me, you bag of ass," Sloan pulled himself up to his full height, which allowed him very nearly to stare at the massive neck-wattle of the chef. "They give me no amount of blame, even for things I have no control over. If you've ruined this day because you couldn't cook a ham—"

"I followed the recipe to the letter—"

"Did you taste it?"

"Of course I tasted it."


"It was a little dry and chewy, but what ham isn't?"

"Oh, to hell with you. This is Thanksgiving dinner, not the mess hall."

"And we're out of turkey, I know…"

"It didn't occur to you that when they didn't eat it…"

"The king ate it." The chef held up his hands.


"The king ate it."

Sloan held the chef's weakling eyes for a moment to make sure it was true.

"You're lucky."

The chef let out a sigh, and started forward.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"To the toilet, you old bastard. Now get out of my way."

A shove was not a shove in point-four gravity, but it was still a shove. Sloan let him go.

Perhaps things weren't so bad after all. He quietly cycled the door to the solar chamber and anteroom that the king and his son used for Thanksgiving dinner and he immediately saw the picked-over meal. Pink ham on the bone like a grotesque thigh-muscle lay sliced in fat-coated stacks at one end of the table. The trimmings of a generous meal sat beside the meat in bowls they had brought across the stars. He took a closer look. The textures looked adequate, the coloring consistent with correct preparation. The meal had gone cold, which was a poor sign. Otherwise, all seemed well. The two men, king and prince, were seated in their chairs in front of the large viewscreen that displayed a never-ending ticker of data from the fleet effort. Manifests and troop assignments and readiness statistics scrolled by as they dozed with a broached liter of hydroponic vodka half empty on the table between them.

Sloan walked back to his quarters through the kitchen pod. Perhaps there was room in the lexicon of mankind's hope for a ham dinner on Thanksgiving after all. He stopped to turn out the lights and noticed a faint glow from the rear of the galley pod. The washroom door was cracked open, and some light spilled from within. In the luminescence of the kitchen Sloan hobbled across the steri-floor and reached for the switch to douse the light. The door swung open gently under his hand.

The head chef sat motionless on the chemical toilet, dead eyes staring over a mouth frozen in a rictus of pain.

Sloan reached for his throat to the guard-keyed panic button there. He touched it and immediately turned back in the direction of the king's quarters. He could hear the alarm go off an instant later, first distant and then growing as he covered the length of the kitchen as quickly as his old legs could carry him. He lost his cane along the way and took to using his hands to half-pull himself across the room from island to island, from stove to refrigeration unit. When he again crossed into the solar he could hear the approach of armed men.

He reached the king first and put a hand on Hector's shoulder, jostling him gently out of sleep. The man didn't respond. Sloan shook him harder, this time higher at the neck. He held his hand deeply against the artery there. There was no pulse. He whirled to look at the prince, who slept with his head cocked at an unnaturally limp angle and from whose mouth trailed a stain of blood and vomit.

Oh, dear God, Sloan thought.

On the viewscreen before him he could see images of Nadd warships appearing from deep space amidst their fleet. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands. They were like the ones that had originally bombarded Earth but nimbler, faster, more deadly. Arcs of coherent light sparked across the vacuum and cut through their mighty super-destroyers. Cameras mounted on the hulls of their own warships broadcast to his screen the vivid detail of their destruction, and an ominous silence ensued as their humming mass drives winked out of existence in cold, blinding fusion blossoms.

Sloan reached across the dead king's chair to the control panel and hit a switch. The ceiling of the solar pod retracted, bathing the room in the darkness of deep space and the points of light that flashed above them from horizon to horizon as the Nadd tore the fleet apart. It was the twinkle of sunlight on a million molecules of water from beneath the ocean's surface. He watched their last hope die. The men in their warships trained for decades to visit death on the Nadd were extinguished casually like so many fragile candle flames. He could hear the klaxon sound full alarm in the back of his consciousness, but it was a far away thing.

He sat, then, as the Nadd warships took position to bombard Brisbane Alpha's surface, and fixed himself a plate of the hateful ham. He could taste the acrid wrongness of it, and the poison beneath. The sky was fire spots in his blackness. He closed his eyes, wishing for a bit more gravy.




Copyright © 2009 Mark R. Brand

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Mark R. Brand has been writing sci-fi and speculative sociological fiction for approximately fifteen years, and is a native of northern NY. Highlights of his work include the critically well-received Red Ivy Afternoon, his second novel, which received the Bronze medal in the 2007 Independent Publishing Awards. Also, he has written a number of short stories that have appeared in print in Silverthought: Ignition and Alien Light: A Science Fiction Anthology, as well as being featured regularly on Upcoming works include the 2009 Silverthought collection Thank You, Death Robot, and his third novel, The Damnation of Memory. Mark lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.

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