Copyright @ 1987 C.K. Haun
The "incoming message" signal chimed as I was deeply immersed in the latest journal from the Institute for Immunology. I usually like to keep up while I'm out on patrol, and this issue certainly had some interesting ideas floating around in it, some even seemed to hint at `the truth'. The latest series of episodes on Alpha III and Breeders Sanctuary had given some smart boys at the Institute much to chew on, and I'd have to look at it again later to see what needed to be done, if Vector Control hadn't already handled it.
But for now, I swiveled my padded chair to the command console and pressed the blinking green stud. The message screen cleared, and the usual ident code for Vector Control scrolled up, then the flashing action code ident. It waited for me to press the `recording' stud on the console, which I did with a sigh, then the rest of the message rolled on up and away. Orders really, which I had been waiting for since I had finished up the Outpost job. After I read the preliminary code-ins I glanced up at the mirror I had hung over the forward view screen. Sometimes on these long patrols you forget what is what and who you are so I had hung the mirror as a constant reminder. And there I was still, the same narrow shoulders and big head, in front the thin face. A woman on Aquitaine once called it a hungry face, but I learned from her it wasn't a hunger other people can help me with. Of course the eyes, and the eyes looked haunted. Sounds melodramatic, but reading messages like this will haunt anyone, I tell myself. What choice did I have? Either read the message or stare at what I had become, and I am not sure which is worse. So I looked at the screen again.
It looked like a bad one. After seven years and thirty two missions I can see the signs, and these signs glowed like a holographic warning. Planet name Twilight, in the sixth Federation Quadrant. I whistled at the screen when I saw the 6HX action code Vector Control had assigned. 6HX is trouble and super-sensitive to the Federation, planetwide instead of localized. Control and suffering in equally large amounts, control from the Vector pilot, suffering from the people of Twilight.
After the message finished and I had sent my "received and acting" confirmation I turned back to my library terminal and punched up Twilight. Twilight was 4.8 parsecs from where I now sat, my ship told me, about two days travel.
I coded it into the navigation set and pressed the go key, then looked at the library screen and quickly closed my eyes, ignoring what I had asked for. Too soon, too soon, I turned my chair instead, got up and moved to the other compartment in my ship.
Living quarters it's called in the flight manual, a combination bedroom, kitchen, exercise room, and sanitary facilities depending on what you want sticking out of the walls at any time. The living and working quarters on Vector ships are tiny, the ship's major bulk being in the drive section and the mission storage tanks carried. It doesn't bother me, it has all I could want. Now I wanted sleep, but I knew I couldn't get there for awhile, so I dialed up exercise. My treadmill cage extended from the wall and I climbed inside and started to run. Step step step and don't think don't think don't think I worked myself into a moving trance. Legs pumping, lungs making more noise than I could think through, watching the irregularities in the wheel pass by again and again.
Came out of it hours later when the pain from my legs broke through my self denial, and I kinda slid out of the cage bump onto the floor. I stretched to reach the room control panel (couldn't stand now if my sanity depended on it) and dialed the treadmill away and the bed out. I climbed in and slept.
I woke ten hours later, hobbled into the control room. The Twilight information was still on the screen, the only thing that had changed was the ETA to Twilight, and that read thirty five hours. So I stared down to face the inevitable and read what information the ship had.
Twilight had been having some troubles during the last 10 years. The Federation had been taxing them pretty heavily (so it says in Twilight's public records, newspapers and broadcasts, which I had on file) and they decided to go the solo route, drop out of the Federation and make their own treaties with the other Human planets, build their own credit system and government.
And that's great, but even the other-space drive doesn't make space travel cheap, and trading is expensive. Also the planets have to work it just right, have a real special product to sell. If it isn't truly unique, you're not going to ship it fifty light years away, the planet your selling it to can make it themselves. The only sure things are rare drug plants, the heaviest metals, and artworks. Other merchandise is too risky to go into on a lark or without some fine computers and analysists. Dealing in planetary resources is as far removed from standard economic theory as redecorating a room is from designing a city .
That's why the Federation exists, and why most planets belong. The Fed can spend the time and computer resources to chart the trends of a galaxy, and direct it's member planets to the right deals. And if the Fed makes a profit, and gains a certain level of control over those who it guides, all the better for the influenced parties. No one in the Federation of Planets was going hungry, and economic spawned war was almost impossible.
But Twilight had given up that guidance, and that freedom from economic pressure. Chauvanism and some upper level paranoia had gotten the best of the planetary government. Too many folks in power had gotten the mega-greed bug at the same time, and the general public was easy to sway with promises of greatness. The sheild was gone, and Twilight quickly learned that the rest of the planets didn't share their vision of independent wealth. Very few would trade with a rebel, their visions all included the omnipotent insight of the Fed's computers. That led to the current troubles, the logical outgrowth of economic depression. Twilight's government had changed over the past ten years from the Federation Planetary Govenor and a benevolent bureauocracy to something akin to a planetwide captitalistic nobility. Social services were breaking down, civil liberties had taken their traditional powder, and these idiots were actually thinking of going raiding on other planets.
All this I absorbed during my transit, reading library material and some current background included with my orders notification. Nothing for me there really, I just like to know about the planet I've been ordered to. The important stuff for me took a little longer for the library to sort out, but was just as depressing. Medical care on Twilight had at one time been as good as anywhere in the Federation, but the hard times of the last few years had hit the medical profession as much as any other. Pharmaceutical were getting rarer and rarer, no imports and Twilight had to eliminate many secondary industries to increase the amount of people producing food and basics necessities. Doctors then of course took a loss in prestige as the people found that without the medicine the doctors were just men after all, doing their damnedest perhaps, but trying and healing aren't the same. Hospitals also lost ground, as the beds began to fill up with those who used to be cured overnight with wonder drugs, and the less seriously ill just were sick and stayed at home.
The trends I had seen before, and I grimaced at my mirror. I could guess the outcome, and it would make my job easier, but I didn't have to be happy about it. Though I'm not strictly a doctor and don't feel myself bound by the Hippocratic oath, suffering still bothers me.
One more sleep period and me and my trusty ship pull into the Twilight system, and I have to go to work. Most of the work is simple and automatic, my surveillance computer logs and taps all major communication links on the planet, my security computer analyzes and protects the ship from any prying eyes or beams from planet- bound defenses, and my nav computer takes us on a sightseeing tour of the world from 16 kicks up, after I've unlocked the mission console and enterd the 6HX code. Easy to do even though Twilight has only been out of the Federation for ten years and the state of the art in detection has not advanced much. Fed doesn't like to think about Vector Control much, nor people like me in our Vector ships, so we have developed our own cloaking gear the Fed doesn't know about and doesn't want to know about. Even if Twilight has all the latest Fed gear, they won't see or hear me.
My various computers, having done their work, put themselves in idle and let the human element of the team (still me) take my place in the action. A position which consists mostly of watching and evaluating, something I'm very good at. The streams of data from the surface showed a planet a little less well off than I expected. The public airwaves had narrowed down to just two government owned channels, and one of these channels was almost completely columns and columns of numbers. How many tires produced, how many acres of land now reaping harvests, how many glorious worker babies born every day, all interspersed with periodic trumpets and announcements of new and hardworking peoples triumph's. The other channel was almost useless to me, `news' reports and morality plays, just pure pap doled out to the people to keep them entertained and full of governmental lies that were as transparent as tissue. But the data channel was raw grist for me, in almost perfect form. I only needed to instruct the library to pick out some of the figures, compile them, and give me an update every three hours.
While the computer worked, I started a metaform sculpture. A small one this time, as I didn't think the job would take too long. Most Vector ship pilots have an artistic hobby we take with us, art allows us to work out some emotions inherent in the job. After a few years Vector ship pilots also get very good, my sculpture is well know in some circles, and Vector Control takes care of distributing it for us. Some critics even call it a whole new school of art, and the thinking public appreciates it, once they get past the initial shock.
On the third day, while I was working through the tactile impressions (it was going to be a single tear, in solid plastics and subsonics) my update screen showed some action. Nothing that the planetside government would notice yet, but they didn't have my knowledge or experience. Production in urban areas was down fractionally, hospital admissions were up slightly, and there had been a great deal more than usual activity on the medical computer networks. Seeing this, I increased my sampling rate and instructed the computer to prepare updates for me every hour. I also told the machine to start checking the other government channel for certain keywords. Then for me back to waiting and creating, inspiration comes strong as a job comes to term.
Five days and the government could not ignore the signs. Production was way down, the farms were affected, and the hospitals had identified the problem. In its isolation, Twilight had developed a new plague.
The announcement was made on the entertainment channel, and I shuddered as the spokeswoman described the symptoms to the world. You'd know you had it when your stomach started cramping severely and your temperature rose above 102. Report to the hospital for treatment and evaluation, because whatever this bug was, it wasn't the flu. The new plague destroyed the lining of the patient's stomach, allowing the digestive acids to start digesting the stomach muscles and anything else. Intravenous feedings were needed, since the sufferer could not of course eat any food with any positive effect. She didn't say that the intravenous feedings helped for maybe two hours, since once the bug had destroyed the stomach the poor sod was usually dead in a day.
And no, there seems to be no cure, the doctors are stumped though they are doing their patriotic damnedest to find one. Yes, it is highly contagious (maybe, the government person wasn't real specific, probably because no-one had told her, too busy working to find a cure. Figuring out cause comes when people stop dropping dead in hordes) so immediately a whole new set of travel restrictions goes into effect. The announcement ended with the sound of a brass band and shot of Twilight's flag, with a very deep male voice-over telling everyone to be calm and support the great efforts of the government to help Twilight, with everyone's support Twilight will be the greatest planet in the Galaxy, etc.
I switched off, as governmental pep-talks make my brain hurt, even though I am a government employee. Anyway I needed more specific information than the propaganda could give me, times were getting critical and I had to be alert. I moved back to the all-data station (still propaganda, but it takes more brains to corrupt numbers, and most totalitarian states eliminate that kind of brain). Current figures gave me an estimated two and a half percent of the population affected. Read as two and a half percent already dead but still breathing. The rate of infection about three percent per day. I also estimated that I'd have to wait two more days, so I turned back to the sculpture, inspiration coming stronger and stronger.
Another sleep period. Awake again and the current planentside report showed marked deterioration. The production figures now could do me no good, as people were staying away from work to avoid the sickness, not because they had it. Of course the government resented the people caring about their own safety and was exhorting them to do their Twilightian duty and come in to work.
But the other channel was showing things that you knew they didn't really want to show. The dull dramas and predictable comedies were being replaced by news. I'm sure the news was only being broadcast to scare the common folks back into doing what the leaders wanted, but it had the reverse effect and told me a great deal.
Film pieces on the factories closed down, long shots of drab idle machinery under sheet steel roofs. Empty shelves in a market, with a plea for drivers to come to their trucks. An exterior shot of a railway station in the heart of the manufacturing district deserted in the morning sun, and maybe that bundle in the corner is a sufferer? Yes, it moves to vomit blood and the camera quickly shuts off. Then a government Morale Officer lecturing the folk on the evils of liquor in times like these, backing his talk is a scene from last night of hundreds of drunks brawling outside a state liquor store.
I sit now transfixed in front of my communications screen, taking in all the information they dole out. Coffee is at my hand always, and the chair spits a cigarette every time I reach for one. Vector Control designs ships for these times.
I see one commentator stricken on the air. He is speaking of the plans for the great battle fleet Twilight is preparing, how in the spring the vast ships will leap forth to wrest wealth, food and medicine from those who betrayed Twilight. Suddenly pain twists the muscles of his face and he folds forward, blood and vomitus can be seen dripping between his knees. The cameraman doesn't know what to do, keeps the camera trained on the speaker, as his body falls forward onto the floor thump, then the screen is blank for five minutes. The picture resumes with a replay of last year's Dedication College graduation ceremony, where all the identical young people, the first to be completely molded by this government, march forward to meet the bright new dawn.
But this doesn't last, another six hours and everyone on the planet has seen at least one person stricken by the disease, reaction from the ground up begins. A news report, real news not tailored lies, comes on describing an attack on a hospital in a small city. The folks took up what they could swing and went seeking the doctors who had betrayed them, and attacking the faceless hospital that could not give comfort. The result is every doctor and nurse dead, the building burned, and many civilians injuring themselves by dosing themselves with drugs they had stolen from the dispensary in vain hope of healing through ignorance.
Another two hours and the signal fails. I tense in my chair and thumb a switch for a stimulant, hoping that this is what I have been waiting for. It's not, but damned close, the announcer comes back on the air to inform us that the main transmitter has been sabotaged by enemies of the people, the city of Rosburg is now under interdict as revolutionary. I relax slightly but keep the stim tab in my hand, the time is soon.
Then it comes, four hours later, seven days into my mission. A haggard young man steps in front of the camera, accompanied by a woman aiming an automatic rifle at someone off camera. The young man stumbles over his words, not used to speaking his feelings aloud, and tells the viewers that the government is fallen, the old leaders have been shot. He rambles on and on about a new hope and beginning, how we tried and failed to be a rock alone, but now we must rejoin humanity. He concludes that a call is now being sent out to the Federation asking for reinstatement and pardon, and above all help in our troubles.
I still don't move, much as I need to, but I have my orders. Then my subspace radio chimes and I hear the message sent to the Fed requesting help. I gulp down the stimulant tablet and go into action.
I unlock the mission console again and press the serum button. I know that on the hull of my ship 25 aerosol nozzles have stuck their stubby noses out of the skin of the ship. I call up the max coverage orbit pattern from the nav computer that we recorded on arrival, and authorize execution. As the ship drops down to 16 kilometers above the surface I check the contents of my storage tanks, condition of pumps, and verify the viability of the solution. Then at 16 klicks I hit the spray button, and the pumps begin to whine.
The ship hunts and turns, following the contours of the land as I deliver the antidote to the virus released in the initial passes my ship made. I don't bother with spraying over the sea, and the heavily populated areas get more coverage than the farms, but don't worry, we've worked this out to a cold science. Eight hours later my tanks empty and my job done I enter a departure path and go, off again into the cold of deep space. By tomorrow the major outbreaks of the plague will stop, and ten hours from now a Fed medical ship will land to take care of the areas I couldn't reach and also help those already afflicted.
This of course will endear the Federation to the people of Twilight, the revolt and independence will be forgotten, and the rest of the civilized galaxy will not have to fear the pirate ships of Twilight. And it didn't take the Federation in warships to control Twilight, breeding resentment and bulletshot death. No, Twilight asked for help and got help from a benevolent peaceloving community of Man. Only a few people will know what happened. The Federation Council which saw danger in Twilight's future actions and passed it to the secret hands of Vector Control, The order giver in Vector Control who chose me and directed me to drop a carefully tailored present to the Twilightians, and me. Me me me.
The vector. I am the vector. I killed all those people and they didn't even know they were being murdered. I sat in the sky watching them bleed their lives away through agony torn mouths, and did nothing until they came begging for help and forgiveness. In training and after our first two missions (if we last) the psyc branch drums into our heads how we are the humane answer to war, how our giving a city a cold or a planet death stops the ancient human thirst for war and destruction from resurfacing, we are great people doing a godlike task.
But I'm not great nor a god. I sit and shake my head and say yes yes I have save the lives of billions, and I must believe it somewhere inside me or I'd give it up. But I'm not great, but I'm not a god, and today I've killed seven million people. I reach out my hand to the sculpture now finished, and holding the tear I weep, uncomforted.