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
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.
Hector said, without looking up from his notebook.
"Efficiency is at ninety-nine
and three-fourths percent, m'lord," the big man rumbled.
"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
"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,
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?"
"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."
"You would, you
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
"You'd best hope you
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,
"It's kind of you to
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"I remember," Sloan
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
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
"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,
"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.
The chef let out a sigh, and
"Where do you think you're
"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
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
Oh, dear God, Sloan
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
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.