Nebuchadnezzar

In space, war takes on a new dimension, and every battle is fraught with unimaginable dangers. For those whose bodies are destroyed in that crucible, death needn’t be the end though. Technology can preserve a body, a mind, a fighting spirit – but does it preserve the human being who once wielded these things?

Nebuchadnezzar is a stand-alone short story set in the universe of The Four Quadrants.

When I tell people I was at Nebuchadnezzar, they look impressed. The Battle of Nebuchadnezzar was a glorious victory. The Battle of Nebuchadnezzar was where heroes were made. The names of the men and women who fought in the Battle of Nebuchadnezzar have gone down in history and will never be forgotten. That’s what the nodes say, and I won’t argue with that version of events – after all, I didn’t see most of it, did I? – but for me Nebuchadnezzar means something very different. It casts a long shadow over my life. Nebuchadnezzar was where I was born. Nebuchadnezzar was where I died.

I was an ordinary officer once. Born planetside, on one of the moons of Corinthia Prime, signed up to Spacefleet before I turned seventeen, fast-tracked to the Academy thanks to a few fortuitous connections, found my place in the galaxy. I was top of my class in marksmanship and personal combat tactics, excelling in atmospheric drop and boarding simulations. That got me a berth as part of the crew of a frigate named The Gladius assigned to patrol the Western Crescent, all the way from Ulysses to Rhodan-Xennar, a two-year route. It was a plum assignment with great opportunities for advancement. Most of the crew were from my system or one of its neighbours and I got on well with most of them. The captain, a genial woman named Oppar, especially. I’d prefer to have secured promotion by merit alone, and I believe I earned what I received, but being on the right side of your CO never hurts. I was made second-lieutenant within the year and given command of one of the landing battalions. Most of the fighting we did was in space, and to be honest it’s not what you’d call fighting, just chasing pirates and rebels through dust clouds and turning their reclaimed vessels over to the local authorities. But I enjoyed it. I felt positive about the future. But a lucky shot from a corsair cutter’s ion cannon on the fringes of the Tarrik system changed the course of my life forever. Our shields collapsed, we took heavy damage to the engines and we were adrift, as good as lost with all hands. Luckily we’d given as good as we got and The Gladius’s weapons crews did us proud, even though it cost many of their own lives. The corsair was crippled too and they couldn’t finish the job, and so we survived. It was a hard few weeks, huddling together on a dying ship as the atmosphere leaked out and our supplies dwindled, but eventually a cruiser arrived to shuttle us out of the wreck. I remember standing in a crowded craft, staring out of the windows as the ship that had been my home for over a year was left behind us, just a darker shadow against the black of space. The command crew were all dead, and I was one of the few officers to survive the incident. I like to think that being part of the crew of a vessel lost in an inconsequential skirmish didn’t count against me in the future, but I can’t swear that that was so. In either case, the influence I’d carved out was gone, and the trajectory of my career was never the same.

My next assignment put me on board The Valkyrie, an enormous Titan-class cruiser. There, I was one junior officer amongst hundreds, and one crewman amongst thousands. Opportunities to distinguish myself were few and far between, but I did my duty and served with as much distinction as my relatively diminished station allowed. My experience and specialties made me a natural fit to command another ground battalion, but the chances of deployment into a combat situation were significantly reduced given the overall fighting strength we could muster. There were a lot of drills, and a lot of grub-work, which is to say, something anyone with a working pair of arms could have done. Being an Academy graduate didn’t count for much in the bowels of The Valkyrie, and I learned to do what was asked of me without complaint. If I was to be treated as little more than a rating, I would be the best rating on my shift, if not the entire ship, or for that matter the fleet. I spent three years carving out a reputation for myself as a competent, if not exceptional, officer, and looked for every opportunity I could to advance my station. I had friends, enemies, lovers, and everything you’d expect, but I wasn’t truly engaged. I wanted more, and I made no secret of that around my superiors. Maybe that was my undoing.

Being so low in the hierarchy on board, I of course wasn’t party to all of the details of events leading up to Nebuchadnezzar. I knew only what was filtered down through the officers above me, and what I could pick up from those nodes to which naval personnel were allowed access on assignment. I know a lot more now, about the fanatics and their Threefold God, the way their jihad swept across their system and threatened the stability of the entire Western Crescent. They preyed on shipping lanes and seized merchant craft which they converted into crude warships. It was a brutal reign of terror that encompassed a dozen worlds, but all we knew as we prepared for battle was that there was an enemy out there, and it was our duty to bring them to heel in the name of the Free Planets.

Our battle group consisted of three combined patrols from across the sector, comprising in total seven capital ships and almost a score of escort squadrons. The Valkyrie, as one of the most powerful ships in the field, led one of the attack wings as we took up position in orbit of the gas giant Nebuchadnezzar V. That was where the enemy flotilla was massing, an immense swarm of mismatched ships of various sizes and armament grades, united only by their zealotry. Their commander, whoever they may have been, obviously had some talent though, for they’d made the best of their numbers and position, deploying fighter wings and ensuring their frigates and destroyers were supporting the handful of cruisers they had. However, our Titan-class was powerful enough to bore a hole through a planet’s bedrock in one volley, and we had little fear that we might be overwhelmed, no matter how numerous the foe. In that, we were proved correct, and our commanders conducted the engagement with efficiency and skill. But no battle is without cost.

My command was assigned to aid the damage control teams in the starboard drive section, an arduous but necessary duty. The Valkyrie, as the lead ship in the wing, was under heavy fire. Our shields were largely intact, but power was being diverted to weapons and the integrity fields which meant localised failures. We were evacuating a depressurising compartment in one of the outer sections when a close-range torpedo blast tore a hole in the hull. The containment fields slammed into place in less than a microsecond and any further damage was averted, but I and three of my crew were in the affected section, sealed off from the rest of the ship. I felt alarm course through me, but I remembered my training and kept my head. We all wore armour and pressure masks with a limited air supply. All we had to do was find one of the refuge cells and await a lull in the fighting which would allow the containment fields to be manually reconfigured so we could be rescued. We struggled through exploding conduits and plasma fires, me taking the rear. There was still atmosphere around us, but as we rounded a corner, I caught sight of the breach itself, and it left me speechless with horror. All the simulations in the world can’t prepare a man for the experience of seeing the unfiltered vacuum of space. The magnetic fields flickered in place, keeping us safe for the time being, but the black was visible through the blue-white haze, and I could see the glowing curve of the enormous gas giant above us. Out there, enemy ships trailed lines of guttering plasma fire across the sky as they were drawn into the orbit of the Jovian monster. The sheer immensity of it stunned me.

“Sir?” Hafford, one of my subordinates tugged at the sleeve of my uniform.

My hesitation was costly, but I couldn’t know that then. “Yes…yes, keep going. That way.” She nodded and ran. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the rent in the hull. I didn’t see the ship that fired the shot. I don’t even know what weapon it was. The first I knew was the blaze of light that engulfed us.

“Sir!”

I turned and stared at my crew. Hafford’s eyes were wide with terror. “Go!” I screamed. There was something in me, some sense of duty that even raw panic couldn’t smother, that made me order them to run while I held the line, although it couldn’t possibly do any good. I think, perhaps, I imagined how heroic this moment would seem to my superiors. Spacefleet lore is filled with stories of junior officers putting their lives on the line for their crew or their commanders and earning glory and swift promotion to the upper echelons of command. At least, if they survived. There was nothing noble about this though. My sacrifice saved no lives. I could have reached the refuge cell as easily as Hafford and the others, but instead I waited, and faced the tempest of fire that now washed over me. The hull flew apart, the emergency shielding overwhelmed almost instantly. Plasma erupted from all directions and the shuddering impact threw me back against a bulkhead. Alarms blazed all around. The impact shattered my pressure mask and I felt the breath leave my lungs, crystallising before my eyes. By strange fortune, I was positioned in such a way that the venting atmosphere that ripped free everything in the compartment only pressed me further into the bulkhead, and so I was transfixed like that, a fly in amber as the universe collapsed around me. I watched helplessly as ice crawled its way across every surface, and even my own body. I could feel the agonising chill in my extremities, but in moments it turned into searing heat as my flesh burnt. I had no breath to scream. Without the filter from my mask or even the meagre protection of a magnetic field, the light from the twin suns of Nebuchadnezzar that now came into view as The Valkyrie banked hard to port, overwhelmed my optic nerves even as the ice crystals formed on my eyes. I was blind, paralysed and utterly alone. It was the death all spacefarers fear but at the very least it was swift, and I could only surrender to its peaceful embrace.

It was not to be my end though. The battle was won, the jihadists scattered to the void and the planets they had overrun retaken by Spacefleet landing battalions. I would have led one of those, and perhaps have won the glory I so craved. Another bitter irony I only appreciated much later. Power to the damaged section where I had been trapped was restored only minutes after the shot that had doomed me, and I was pulled in from the cold. My heart had stopped and my brain was starved of oxygen. By all medical definitions, I was dead, and yet the cold of the vacuum had preserved me and my organs remained intact. It was possible, if unlikely, that I might still be revived. Why I was chosen, when thousands of others who were gravely wounded at the Battle of Nebuchadnezzar were left to die of their wounds is a question I have never been able to satisfactorily answer. Perhaps it was to do with my record and my training, but I can’t reconcile that with the speed with which the decision must have been made. There were no records of the moments following my rescue, and no witnesses I might now question; I can only piece together conclusions from the few facts I have, and those I reach give me little comfort.

I survived, though some might not be comfortable naming it so. A hospital ship – I don’t know its name – took the wounded deeper into Free Planets space and from there I was transferred to a facility on Dorvishal, a rocky world in distant orbit of the cold stars of the Ferrick Cluster. I wouldn’t regain consciousness for many months, and by then the countless procedures were all but completed. Little was left of the man I’d been. All four limbs were lost, and anything I could spare was likewise amputated. Much of my digestive system, my reproductive organs, now-useless eyes, the majority of my lungs and ribcage, and so on: a terrifying litany of loss. My brain was damaged too of course, but evidently enough of it was intact to make everything else they did to my carcass worthwhile. I had known people with bionic organs before. It wasn’t so uncommon in the lower ranks of Spacefleet, especially within landing battalions, for veterans to have a replacement eye, or finger, or even a whole limb. I knew too of officers (and even civilians from certain systems) with quite advanced wetware, that allowed them to mentally interface with a computer, though there is I believe some instinct common to all humans that makes us recoil from such things. The modifications wrought on me went beyond anything I had ever imagined was possible though. All that I had lost was replaced in one fashion or another. My arms and legs, my shattered pelvis and torso, my eyes, my seared lungs, even the ruined sections of my brain were crudely ripped out and replaced with artificial engrams. I did not know where the machine ended and the man began.

But that was in my future. When I awoke, I was as paralysed as I had been in the accident, and had no idea of where I was or how I’d come to be there. I was scared and alone. I wondered if the jihadists had been right after all about the life beyond death – was this some divine punishment? A doctor appeared and told me everything in a cold, dispassionate tone. He was military, but I didn’t recognise the division indicated by his collar. He told me in no uncertain terms that my service was still required by Spacefleet, and that I had a long and difficult road ahead of me. Rehabilitation would not be swift, but instead tortuous and demanding as I learned to use my new body. If I failed, those components that still might be useful would be reclaimed and used on some more suitable specimen. What would be my fate in that instance he did not disclose.

“If all goes well,” he told me with only the faintest ghost of a smile, “you’ll be a marine one day. The best of the best.”

That was when it all became clear to me. That was when I knew where my destiny lay.

I learned, over the painful months that followed, that a Spacefleet marine is never recruited in the conventional sense. No living man or woman would willingly subject themselves to the procedures required to craft such an elite soldier, for it means a supreme physical and mental sacrifice, and so only those personnel who were both suitable for the corps and whose injuries put them beyond hope of conventional recovery, were selected. The choice before me was a stark one: to embrace the training and the torment it would entail, or surrender myself to oblivion. I’d been given a second chance at life. No one except myself would force me to take it. I made the only decision I could, which was the first challenge of my new life.

I died at Nebuchadnezzar. I know that. It’s literally true: my heart stopped, the electric signals in my brain ceased transmission, my body was inert, saved from the first stages of necrosis only by the deadly cold of the vacuum. But there is a deeper meaning to it too. The man I’d been was left behind in that battle. His physical form was discarded, and from the wreckage a new soldier was crafted. A Spacefleet marine: a bionic blend of evolution and technology, a member of the most powerful personal combat force in the galaxy. The prosthetics that saved my life were only the beginning of my journey. Over the next three years, I was further modified. My skeleton was reinforced, my senses were enhanced and even my brain was altered, both chemically and electronically, to change my behavioural responses to stimuli. Fear, doubt and free-will were excised and replaced with software that heightened my aggression and will to survive. I was bonded to my unit by training and unique psycho-linguistic coding that made us all, in a neurological sense, closer than monozygotic twins. We acted as one, linked by a single, unbreakable will, and a sense of duty that transcended any of our personal foibles.

I was born at Nebuchadnezzar. The man I became did not exist before that fateful day. I discarded who I’d been, all my connections to comrades, friends, even family. My old life had been destroyed, and from its ashes an indefatigable servant of order had been brought into being. And I told myself, because the thread of my memory was largely intact, that I was still me, that I was still the man I’d been, if not physically then at least spiritually. I don’t know if that’s true anymore though. I’ve served the marine corps for over three decades now, though I’ve been sent across the Four Quadrants and beyond so extensively and been subject to such extended periods of relativistic travel that calculating the true passage of time from my own frame of reference is a bewildering exercise, best left to cloned lawyers specialising in such things. How many combat hours have I logged? I can only assume it’s in the thousands now. Marines don’t take leave like regular servicemen. We stand apart from the rest of humanity, and can never go among them as equals again. Every battle has a cost, just like at Nebuchadnezzar, and I’ve accumulated injuries by the hundred. Each time, the medics patch me up like a damaged skimmer, replacing wholesale my damaged mechanical components, and further encroaching on what biological tissue remains to me, grafting new cultured flesh to old, fitting bionic organs that are more efficient than those I had before and reprogramming my hybrid brain to destroy any harmful memories. I don’t remember the faces of the enemies I’ve killed, but I remember the tactics they used and the lessons I learned from my mistakes. The names of classified warzones are edited out of my mind when I’m debriefed, and anything not of immediate use is ruthlessly purged. When a member of my unit dies, they’re forgotten, except in as much as what was theirs – their parts, their very being – is redistributed and absorbed by the whole. My wetware is a conglomerate of components that once nestled in the crania of my comrades. Which memories are mine, and which theirs? There’s no way for me to tell.

To the best of my knowledge, I was once Second-Lieutenant Tarris, F Shift, Third Combat Detachment, FPS The Valkyrie, born on Corinthia Prime. Now I am Captain Tarris, CO Red Company, IV Regiment, Western Quadrant Spacefleet Marine Corps, born at the Battle of Nebuchadnezzar. I could not swear to you they are the same man, or even tell you what such a concept really means.

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