by Frej Wasastjerna


     At the moment, the Lars Levi Laestadius was hovering between cloud layers. Most people would have considered the view more eerie than beautiful. What was left of the light of Epsindi, after it had been attenuated by distance and filtered by the upper cloud layers, was a dim green, hardly enough to read by. The clouds below the Laestadius would have looked brownish red if somebody had bothered to shine a searchlight on them, but in this illumination they appeared dark umber.

     Iivari Vartiainen, captain of the Laestadius since she was commissioned fifty-seven years ago by the calendar of Mudball – nearly eighteen Terran years, slightly more than one local year – had long since got used to the view, but when it was new to him, he had often thought that it looked as if they were underwater. And in a way that was appropriate. Even at this altitude, the atmosphere of Elli, the sixth planet of Epsilon Indi, was denser than that of any terrestrial planet yet discovered.

     Denser, and better to hide in.

     That was the whole point of Project Phoenix, so when the alarm Iivari had hoped never to hear finally sounded, he was not surprised. Dismayed, yes; heartsick, certainly; surprised, no.

     He was already sitting in his chair on the bridge, so he only had to strap himself in. He told his implant to quit playing Svensson’s psalm “Lead Thy Flock to Verdant Meadows” and to relay incoming messages to him instead.

     “Observation Station 1633 reports that Mudball has been struck by a heavy rammer missile, estimated location near Port Gautama,” was the first message. The last part of it was pretty irrelevant, he thought. Well, maybe not entirely. A few people living far from the point of impact might have time to board spaceships and get away before the shockwave turned the whole planet into glowing magma. Would that do them any good? Maybe not; if the Iagyhs were finally attacking, their missiles would presumably be followed by warships with the task of destroying every spaceship and space colony they found. On the other hand, the Epsindi system had been feverishly building a space navy for more than a century. Which side would win? Nobody could tell in advance, which was why a small part of the system’s resources had been devoted to keeping a few thousand people alive, waiting for a human counterattack from some other system while hiding in the best hiding places this system offered: the atmospheres of jovian planets.

     It wasn’t quite time yet to start diving into the deeper layers of Elli’s atmosphere, out of reach of both daylight and radio messages. A single report from a single observation station could conceivably be a mistake. However, he ordered the shipbrain to check that everybody else was also strapped in, then tried to calm down.

     As the minutes flowed by, it became clear that the original report was no mistake. Other stations confirmed that Mudball had been hit, then reports began coming in of hits on other planets and satellites: Thor, Hugin, Munin... then of oneills being obliterated, most of them with names he didn’t recognize – who could memorize the names of millions of space colonies?

     This was unmistakably an attack. He ordered the shipbrain to divert the exhaust heat from the fusion reactors to the atmosphere rather than the gasbags, and to start cooling the gasbags.

     A pity to lose a beautiful planet, he thought. Mudball might have an unattractive name.  Nonetheless it had seas, albeit small, and to him it would always stand for Epsindi glittering on windswept water, for balmy breezes filling the sail of the Vaeltaja and the feel of the tiller in his hand, for basking on the beach with Katja and little Matti.

     Then he felt ashamed of himself for thinking of the planet before the fifty billion people that would die there or had already done so.

     As the hydrogen in the gasbags cooled and contracted, the Laestadius sank ever closer to the dark clouds looming below. Finally they swept up, past the diamond wall of the gondola, and Iivari wondered when, if ever, he would see daylight again. The dim green glow they had just left was a sorry excuse for daylight, but he still wouldn’t like depending exclusively on artificial light.

     But then, he shouldn’t complain. The way things were going according to the radio messages he was still receiving, nearly two hundred billion humans would soon be unable to see any light in this world – of course, in Heaven there would be plenty of light, so he was told. The thought made him shudder, however. How could God permit slaughter like this?

     No, it wasn’t his business to question God’s Will. “May Thy Will happen, not mine,” he muttered. Still, why?

     The unanswerable question kept running through his mind as the Laestadius sank lower and lower, to depths where radio messages could no longer be received and enemy radar couldn’t find them. It was almost pitch dark on the bridge, so he told the shipbrain to switch on the lights on the bridge.

     The light didn’t make things any easier to bear – if anything, the opposite. He could see his control console, which he generally didn’t bother using, preferring to communicate with the shipbrain through his implant. He could see the aluminum railing he had so often grasped as he had stood looking out at the cloudscapes that had been all the scenery he had seen for the last fifty-seven years.And that was almost all. Beyond the clear diamond, there was just fog, revealed by the light as slowly varying shades of red, brown and orange. Occasionally there were gaps in the clouds. They registered as dead black.

     He felt a touch of claustrophobia. He slapped that down and imagined himself closing and dogging a hatch to keep it down. He couldn’t afford panic at the thought that he might have to live for many years without a proper outside view.


     Strategic analysis teams consisting of both humans and high-grade AIs had concluded that bombarding jovian planets was a waste of resources, better used for other purposes. Even a heavy rammer missile wouldn’t have much effect on a jovian, and, while it would be possible to send light rammer missiles into its atmosphere, it would take enormous numbers of missiles to make sure of eliminating any airships that might be hiding there, if they were hardened against shockwaves.

     Of course the Iagyh strategic planners wouldn’t have read the reports in which those conclusions were laid out, Iivari knew. But nonetheless, when, two and a quarter hours after the dive into darkness had begun, Mirja Pihala requested permission to unstrap and go to the head, he granted it. If the Iagyhs intended to bombard Elli, wouldn’t their missiles have hit already? And Mirja was in the late stages of pregnancy, so she had to empty her bladder rather frequently.

     The Laestadius was approaching her minimum safe altitude. Going below that would mean risking that the diamond walls of the gondola might collapse under the pressure of the atmosphere outside, so Iivari told the shipbrain to stop cooling the gasbags and gradually start heating them instead.

     He gazed out at the thick, soupy atmosphere. It was a bit creepy, knowing that if the walls were weaker than they were supposed to be, that dark orange mess out there would flatten him so quickly that he would be dead before he had time to feel anything. Of course the Laestadius had made a test dive to her minimum safe altitude, under control of the shipbrain alone, before anybody was allowed aboard.

     Suddenly the Devil’s fist slammed down on the Laestadius, or so it felt. She jerked downward so abruptly that Iivari’s head would have slammed into the deck above if he hadn’t been strapped in. As it was, the jerk hurt his neck.

     “What was that?” he asked the shipbrain.

     “A shockwave hit us from above,” it answered. “I estimate that it must have been caused by one or more light rammer missiles hitting the atmosphere. Do you want a damage report?”

     “Yes, of course.”

     “There appears to be no fatal damage to the ship. The top surface of the hull has buckled inward over most of its length, but the gasbags appear to be intact. The gondola remains airtight, and the shipbrain, fusion reactors and engines are also intact. The structure connecting the hull and gondola has been damaged¼” The shipbrain sent an image into Iivari’s brain, showing the hull listing to port and the gondola to starboard, with the part in between bent at about thirty degrees. Only then did Iivari notice that gravity was pulling him towards the side of the seat.

     That damage could be repaired, however. The shipbrain went on itemizing the damage, but none of it was very serious. Even the new ship now under construction, attached to the lowest part of the Laestadius, could be repaired.

     “Now I’m beginning to get information on the crew status,” the shipbrain interrupted itself before it had reached the end of the list. “Two babies, Johanna Julin and Mika Jalonen, have suffered broken necks. Both were strapped in, but the jolt was too much for their necks even so. Their parents are asking permission to unstrap and take these children to the sickbay.”

     “Permission is granted to their fathers to do so,” Iivari answered. “If they can do it alone, I don’t want to risk the mothers too. What about the rest of the crew?”

     “Otherwise there appear to be only non-fatal, easily curable injuries. I haven’t been able to contact Mirja Pihala, though. There’s no camera in the ladies’ head, and she doesn’t answer her implant. Her husband Taavetti asks for permission to go to the ladies’ head and see what has happened to her.”

     “Granted,” Iivari answered at once. Then, unable to resist the temptation any longer, he asked, “What about my own family?”

     “Katja, Matti, Marja, Alvari, Mika and Eija are OK. Hilkka has a stress headache and Voitto has a sore neck from the jerk when the shockwave hit us, but both will recover if nothing unexpected happens.”

     Iivari sighed with relief. Then Taavetti contacted him through the implant. “The only cubicle in the ladies’ head that isn’t empty is locked.”

     “Is there a key that fits that lock?” Iivari thought at the shipbrain.

     “Yes,” the shipbrain answered. “I’ll tell Taavetti where to find it.”

     Iivari noticed that his fists were clenched and beginning to hurt. He unclenched them and tried to relax, leaning his head backward and stretching his arms.

     Then he heard Taavetti’s voice again, this time with a trace of panic. “The door to the cupboard with the keys is jammed!”

     “Try to pry it open,” Iivari answered. “Kaarlo Anttila and Mikael Karjalainen, do you hear me?”

     “Yes,” both answered through their implants.

     “Go to the ladies’ head and try to break open the door of the locked cubicle there. Mirja Pihala is probably in there and injured. Hurry!”

     “Yes,” both said again. Through his implant Iivari sensed that both were already moving.

     “What’s the situation with the injured babies?” he asked the shipbrain.

     “Both of them are in the sickbay and undergoing nanosurgery. I can’t give a definite prognosis yet, but I expect both to recover.”

     At least that sounded good, but Iivari was still worried about Mirja. He felt tempted to bite his nails but desisted. It wouldn’t do any good, and it might conceivably harm morale if somebody saw that the captain’s nails were chewed.

     “I’ve got the key,” Taavetti announced. Iivari asked the shipbrain to show him Taavetti’s position. The shipbrain fed a schematic of the gondola into Iivari’s brain with a stick figure representing Taavetti. Soon Taavetti reached the locked cubicle and unlocked it.

     “Yes, I’m afraid her neck looks broken,” Mikael Karjalainen reported. “We’ll get her to sickbay as quickly as possible.”

     Iivari followed the progress of the three men and Mirja in the same way he had just followed Taavetti. As the party reached the sickbay, it occurred to him that he was feeling pain in his hands.

     His nails were digging into his palms again.

     Once again Iivari tried to relax. To distract himself from worrying, he began going through the details of the damage to the Laestadius and how the shipbrain proposed to repair it. That helped, and he was in fact fully immersed in technical problems when the shipbrain interrupted itself: “Do you want a report on the health of Johanna Julin, Mika Jalonen and Mirja Pihala?”


     “Both babies will recover. They reached sickbay in time for nanosurgery to be effective. However, Mirja Pihala’s brain had already suffered severe damage from oxygen deprivation by the time she reached sickbay, and this damage is beyond the capability of nanosurgery to repair. Her fetus can’t be saved either. It would be possible to keep Mrs. Pihala alive, but she would not be able to regain consciousness. I recommend that she be allowed to die, and her husband concurs.”

     ‘Her husband concurs?’ Iivari thought. What a terrible decision that must have been for Taavetti! “I authorize that,” he said tonelessly. Then he buried his face in his hands. He had failed Mirja, and she was now dead.

     Of course, one could ask how much one life meant compared with the two hundred billion other people who must have died in the attack. But this was a death for which he personally bore some responsibility.

     True, he couldn’t have required people to stay strapped in indefinitely. When some hours had passed after the first missile impacts without any attacks directed against Elli, so far as he knew, it was natural to think that there would be none, especially when strategic theorists considered such attacks wasteful.

     That shock wave must have been caused by light rammer missiles hitting the atmosphere of Elli, but why had it been delayed?

     Iivari gasped as he thought of a possible explanation.

     “From what direction did the attack come?” he asked the implant.

     “The exact direction cannot be pinpointed on the basis of the data available to me, but that data is consistent with the assumption that the attack came from a direction somewhere near that of Zeta Tucanae.”

     “Was Zeta Tucanae above or below the horizon from our location when the attack began?” (To be sure, the horizon was strictly a theoretical construct in this soupy atmosphere, but the implant would understand his meaning.)


     “And at the time the shockwave hit us?”

     “At that time, Zeta Tucanae was above the horizon and had been so for about half an hour.”

     That had to be the reason. True, light rammer missiles were capable of following curved trajectories, but then they would either hit much less hard or their travel time would be much  longer. The logical thing to do, if you intended to attack jovian planets at all, was to let the missiles fly almost straight and time their arrivals so that some missiles would hit every part of the planet, except for whatever region near one pole or the other never faced in the direction from which they came.

     He hit his right knee with his fist. Like an idiot, he had neglected to take that into account. And now Mirja was dead because of his stupidity.


     “I commend to Thee the souls of Mirja Ingrid Pihala and her unborn baby,” Iivari ended the service. Then he pushed the button that sent Mirja’s body into the recycler.

     While light elements were plentiful in the atmosphere outside, the heavier elements in a human body, in particular calcium and iron, were not to be wasted. Of course the Laestadius carried substantial supplies of all necessary elements that couldn’t be obtained from the atmosphere, but nobody knew how long the Laestadius would have to remain in hiding or how many new humans would be born in that time. The need to conserve heavy elements overrode the respect due a dead body. The regulations of Project Phoenix were emphatic on that point, for all that those who had written the regulations were deeply religious.

     Tears were quietly flowing down Taavetti Pihala’s cheeks as he stood there, holding his and Mirja’s youngest living child in his arms while the other six stood beside him. Iivari put his hand on Taavetti’s shoulder and whispered “I’m sorry”. Taavetti just nodded. That quiet acceptance was almost worse than if he had openly blamed Iivari for his wife’s death; this way Iivari did the blaming himself.

     There was one small consolation. Killing Mirja must have cost the Iagyhs a lot of negamass. On the other hand, the fact that they were willing to spend that on bombarding a planet that might have been uninhabited for all they knew suggested that they had a lot of resources and were willing to spend them ruthlessly. That did not bode well, Iivari thought with a small shiver.


     More than three Mudball years passed quietly but tensely. Then one night Iivari was woken simultaneously by his implant and the alarm klaxon.

     “I’m picking up sound pulses that I estimate to come from an active sonar,” the shipbrain told Iivari, while he still rubbed his eyes. “They are growing rapidly in intensity, suggesting that the source is in the convergence zone. They do not match the frequencies used by human ships, nor do they contain the IFF codes I would expect of a human ship. They probably come from an enemy airship. I recommend dropping the Juhani Raattamaa.

     “Huh?” Iivari muttered, still not fully awake.

     Rather than waste time on words, the implant sent into his brain an image: sound waves emanating from a strange airship, refracted upwards by the deeper, hotter layers of the atmosphere and gathering in the convergence zone, reflected very weakly by the hull of the Laestadius, which was mostly covered by sound-absorbent tiles, but much more strongly from the still unfinished ship dangling beneath. Along with this came the realization that the signal strength was probably sufficient for the enemy ship to register these echoes.

     The phenomenon of the convergence zone made life much more difficult for anyone trying to hide in the atmosphere of Elli. If sound traveled in straight lines, it would attenuate smoothly with distance, and anyone using active sonar would be noticed by his prey and evaded long before he came close enough to detect any echo, just as he would be if he used radar at one of those wavelengths which could penetrate this soupy atmosphere slightly. However,  acoustic signals were strong in the convergence zone and then dropped very rapidly to undetectability outside that zone. That way a hunter could patrol the atmosphere using active sonar, with neither party aware of the other until they were within each other’s convergence zones, and then suddenly both would become aware of the other’s presence.

     That was what had happened now. “Yes, drop the Raattamaa,” Iivari agreed. Losing the results of several years’ work was distressing, but there was a hope that, without the  Raattamaa, the Laestadius herself might remain undetected.

     “Do you authorize a missile launch?” the implant asked.

     “Wait a little,” Iivari answered. He needed to think.

     There were other human airships in the atmosphere of Elli. Only sixteen others, and in this huge atmosphere they might well float for centuries without encountering each other. Each of them was supposed to stay in its own part of the atmosphere, but it had been realized right from the beginning that this was a meaningless order. Much too deep in the atmosphere to receive light or radio signals from outside, nowhere near deep enough to be able to detect what little there was in the way of surface landmarks on Elli, the ships had no way of knowing their positions once the unavoidable buildup of errors had swamped the data from their inertial navigation systems.

     Thus, if the Laestadius encountered another ship, there was a possibility that it might be human. And Iivari had enough deaths on his conscience already, he didn’t want to actively kill any humans.

     However, as he thought over what the implant had said, it was clear that this was unlikely to be a human ship. If a human ship used active sonar for some reason, it was supposed to encode an Identification-Friend-or-Foe signal in its sonar pulses, and the implant had said that there was no such signal, and the frequency was wrong too.

     “Go ahead and launch,” Iivari said. This order was immediately followed by a roar from the missile’s booster rocket, then from its ramjet.

     "May I activate the short-range lidar?" the shipbrain asked.

      The short-range lidar used a wavelength that faded to undetectability within a few kilometers, so it wouldn't give away their position to the known enemy. There was, however, the possibility that some enemy might lurk nearby. The question was, was it more important to avoid that risk or to detect incoming missiles in time for countermeasures? Relying only on sound to detect incoming missiles wouldn't work at all for supersonic missiles and would provide only a very brief warning of fast subsonic ones.

     "Go ahead and activate it," he said.

     Then he had to wait. “Please strap in,” the implant said. “The rest of the crew has already done so.” Iivari ran to the bridge, where he was supposed to be in case of combat, and strapped himself into his chair. Then the implant continued, “Incoming missile detected.”

     “Activate a decoy!”

     “Activated.” Iivari couldn’t hear it, but he knew a hatch had popped open and released a decoy intended to mimic the acoustic and electromagnetic signature of the Laestadius.

     Then the implant added, “The incoming missile seems to be passing below us. I estimate it’s heading towards the Raattamaa. I recommend full speed ahead to get out of the danger zone when it hits.”

     “Yes,” Iivari said. There was an audible thrum and a slight surge of acceleration as the propellers of the Laestadius began spinning at maximum speed.

     They didn't get far before the clouds around them blazed with light coming from below, and a couple of seconds later a powerful shock wave hit the Laestadius from below.

     Iivari's butt hurt from the seat slamming into it, but otherwise he was OK. "Give me a damage report," he told the shipbrain.

     "Only minor damage to the ship. All crew members are strapped in, and nobody seems to have suffered serious injuries, though there are some sprains, nosebleeds and other minor injuries. However, I estimate that they may have received a radiation dose approaching two sieverts, so I recommend injecting anti-radiation nanites as soon as this combat is finished."

     "Was that a nuclear explosion?"

     "Yes. From the radiation spectrum I estimate that it was an anti-matter warhead, probably with a few hundred milligrams of antimatter. We would have been totally destroyed if it had hit us; fortunately the enemy missile homed on the Juhani Raattamaa instead."

     An anti-matter warhead? That option had been considered for the Laestadius's missiles but rejected as too unsafe. Either the enemy had superior anti-matter storage technology or he cared less about safety than humans did.

     Just as Iivari was thinking that, another flash lit the clouds somewhere ahead.

     "That was probably our missile," the shipbrain said. "This time the spectrum of the radiation indicates a combination of an uranium warhead and anti-matter. What happened was probably that our warhead touched off the warheads of the enemy's own missiles. The explosion was even more powerful than that of the enemy missile that hit the Juhani Raattamaa, but thanks to the shielding effect of the atmosphere we got only a few millisieverts this time. However, we'll still get a strong shock wave, so brace yourself."

     Iivari grabbed the arms of his chair and held on. "How long do we have until it hits?" he asked.

     "I estimate fifty-five seconds from now -- mark. Fifty-four, fifty-three,..."

     Just as the countdown reached one, it felt as if a giant horse had kicked the Laestadius in the bow. Iivari's safety harness saved him from slamming into the console in front of him, but his head whipped forward and then back, slamming into the padding of his headrest.

     "Ouch," he muttered. "Damage report!"

     "Again, no serious damage to the ship. As for the crew, wait a second... again, no indication of serious injuries, though everybody should undergo a medical examination. I recommend that you permit the crew to unstrap and proceed to sickbay..."

     "No! First we have to check that the enemy ship really was destroyed, that they weren't saved by some fluke similar to what saved us."

     "The explosion of enemy warheads indicates that the enemy ship itself must have been hit."

     "Probably yes, but how do we know that there weren't several of them? We've got to investigate."

     "Very well. Do I have permission to use active sonar?"

     Iivari had to think about that for some seconds. "No," he answered. "If there are still enemy ships out there, they may think we were destroyed. We don't want to reveal that we weren't. We head towards the enemy's location and listen passively."

     The shipbrain complied, and the Laestadius moved quietly to the location where the enemy had been hit, listening for any suspicious noises. While that was going on, the shipbrain delivered a complete damage report to Iivari. Several crew members reported various pains and aches, but all were alive and conscious. The damage to the ship itself was also mostly minor, though the fact that one of the hydroponic tanks had broken loose and been drained meant that they would have to go on short rations and endure stuffy air for a while.

     Five minutes after they had reached the location where the enemy ship had blown up Iivari asked, "I take it that you haven't heard anything suspicious?"

     "Not a thing."

     "Okay, make a sweep with active sonar then."

     For the first time since the test cruises of the Laestadius Iivari heard the clicks of her active sonar. He waited with bated breath, then, as the shipbrain reported, "Nothing detected," he sighed with relief.

     "All right, let the crew proceed to sickbay for medical tests and anti-rad injections," he said. "You take care of the details, but I'll go last." He was too tired mentally to want the strain of deciding in which order people should be examined.

     It was probably a good thing that we had the Juhani Raattamaa and then dropped her, he thought. That fooled the enemy missile and saved us. Still, losing the Raattamaa meant that there would be less space for population growth than had been planned. He would probably have to ask the crew to have fewer children. And that was a matter where he couldn't give orders, for all that he was the captain. He would need permission from the Elders before he could make a request like that, since it ran counter to religious dogma...


     "How long will it take us to build a new ship?" Juha Hellsten asked. The Ship's Council had gathered around a table in the conference room above the bridge, and Iivari had just told the five Elders about the need to limit population growth.

     "About twenty years," Iivari answered.

     "That long? I suppose you mean Mudball years?"


     "Why does it take so long?"

     "The limiting factor is the capacity of the processing plant we use to extract carbon from the atmosphere. It takes a lot of carbon to build a ship of this size, and the designers expected that we wouldn't need to build a ship in less than forty-five years, the estimated doubling time of our population. They did provide some extra capacity as a safety margin, but it will still take us a minimum of twenty years to collect enough carbon."

     "Could we build another processing plant?"

     "Yes, I suppose so."

     "How long would it take?"

     "I don't know."

     "About three Mudball years to build another processing plant of similar capacity," the shipbrain interjected. "That would, however, leave me with less reserve buoyancy than I ought to have according to regulations, though not quite so little that we would be in danger of sinking unless I lose a couple of gasbags. It would also change my shape, seriously increasing the strength of any sonar echoes reflected from my hull and thus making me easier for enemies to detect. Finally it would mean an additional drain on my power reserves. There are already so many people aboard me that I have to devote a large part of the maximum sustainable power of my reactors to the life support system. It would be just barely possible to run the life support system for the present crew, both processing plants and all other essentials without exceeding the maximum allowed long-term load for the reactors, but there wouldn't be much of a margin."

     "Could you add an extra reactor or two?" Erik Rantanen asked.

     "Not both that and a new processing plant. I don't have enough buoyancy."

     "It seems to me that we'll have to manage with the reactors and processing plant we have now," Chairman Lauri Viitala said. "Anyway, twenty years isn't all that long, about one fifth of a generation."

     "Still, it's long enough for a lot of babies to be born to a crew consisting mainly of young adults," Iivari pointed out. "And the load on our life support system is approaching its maximum capacity, so we need to slow down our childbearing, preferably stop it altogether until we've finished the next ship."

     "That would be contrary to God's word," Risto Saarinen rumbled. "He commanded us to be fruitful and multiply. He will provide."

     The green walls of the conference room were supposed to be soothing. They didn't really help, and anyway Iivari closed his eyes in exasperation. He drew a deep breath before opening his eyes and answering, "God helps those who help themselves."

     That cliché didn't make any impression on Saarinen. Viitala put it better. "Risto, you used to be a farmer, didn't you?"

     "Yes, what of that?"

     "Did you ever skip sowing and tell yourself that God would provide?"

     Ultimately Saarinen let himself be persuaded to accept birth control as a temporary -- repeat, temporary -- emergency measure. He even agreed to let the ship's manufacturing facilities start producing condoms, once they had figured out how.


     Sheet lightning flashed. For a moment the clouds beyond the clear air currently surrounding the Laestadius were visible, then darkness covered them again and the only illumination came from the lights in the ceiling.

     It was Sunday morning, at least according to the ship's calendar. What day it was in what time zone back on Earth, or even on Mudball, Iivari didn't know or care. All that mattered was that the whole crew had congregated for the morning service, except for the babies and the women who were minding them.

     Mika Kuha, the chaplain, had decided not to opaque the outside wall of the ship's chapel. Before the sermon he had said something about the thunderstorm serving as an example of God's might, but Iivari was not very impressed. Compared with the power that both he and the enemy had unleashed in the battle some eleven weeks ago, the lightning bolts were puny. True, if one of them hit the Laestadius and somehow missed the lightning conductors, it could do some damage, but it would hardly be fatal.

     The thunderstorm was a nice spectacle, though. Iivari had always enjoyed watching thunderstorms, and he relished this one too. Unfortunately it distracted his attention from the sermon. He tried to listen to it like a good Christian should, but Kuha's platitudes bored him.

     Now Kuha was winding up his sermon with a few -- or not so few -- words about God's power. Can't He go ahead and use that power, Iivari thought, hopefully in our favor? Or is he on the side of the iagyhs?

     Then he kicked himself mentally for thoughts unbecoming a Christian. May Thy Will happen, not mine, he thought -- not entirely sincerely, he couldn't help that. It would be so much nicer if God would intervene and stop the iagyhs -- even more so if he would already have done that.

     'Nicer', he thought, what a feeble word for saving a couple of hundred billion lives -- and that was just human lives, not counting all the animals on Mudball and in all the oneills. Well, presumably they were in Heaven now.

     He tried, not very successfully, to persuade himself that it all had to be part of a Divine Plan.

     Kuha finally finished his sermon, then the crew began to sing God's Name Is Known in Judah Land. To atone for his doubts Iivari sang loudly, making a couple of people near him wince.

     They had got as far as "And dead is the war trumpet's sound" when a powerful flash dazzled them all for a moment, and, an instant later, a bang shook the ship.

     A good thing our electronics are hardened against electromagnetic pulses, Iivari thought. "Shipbrain, is everything OK?" he asked through his implant.

     "Yes, except that a few babies woke up and are crying," the shipbrain answered.

     Some of the crew members had kept on singing, unperturbed by the lightning and thunder. Iivari listened to find out where they were in the hymn, then noticed that they had reached the end.

     Silence fell for a moment, then Iivari heard a sound he hadn't expected -- giggling.

     It was a nervous, even panicky giggle. Iivari looked around to find its source.

     Right behind him stood Taavetti Pihala, showing his teeth in a rictus of fear, gripping the hands of two of his children. Those two were crying, "Daddy, let go!", but he showed no sign of noticing anything. His other children were also beginning to cry.

     Iivari tried to detach Taavetti's hands from his children, first gently, then when that didn't help, he rapped out, "Let go!", at the same time prying Taavetti's left hand loose, then his right.

     That worked. Then he grasped Taavetti's left shoulder with his right hand and guided him to the sickbay. He laid Taavetti down on one of the beds and asked the shipbrain to inject a sedative. One of the manipulator arms in the ceiling descended and injected something right through the clothes covering Taavetti's left elbow, and after a few seconds he relaxed. Soon afterwards he was snoring peacefully.

     Iivari leaned backwards and took a deep breath. Now this, he thought. Wasn't it enough that he had to cope with enemy attacks, dangerous weather and a life support system close to being overloaded? Did he have to deal with nervous breakdowns in the crew too?

     "Shipbrain," he thought, "what about Taavetti's children? Is somebody taking care of them?"

     "Yes," his implant answered. "Jukka Pekkarinen, Eija Laitinen and Marja Yli-Aho are trying to calm them down, pretty successfully."

     "Good." At least that was OK. He couldn't really blame Taavetti.

     They might encounter another enemy ship at any time, without advance warning. And they might not be as fortunate as last time. That knowledge was a burden even on him, and some people weren't blessed with his phlegmatic temperament and with a job that gave them the illusion of having some control over their situation -- even he, the captain, had little more than an illusion of control, he realized that. In a battle he could fight, but there was no guarantee that he would win. And, in any case, it was really the shipbrain that controlled the ship, especially now that it had standing orders not to wait for him if decisions had to be made quickly.


     Iivari happened to be on the bridge the next time sonar signals were picked up. He was watching Treachery on Miranda, a historical drama set in the twenty-fourth century, when the shipbrain cut off the download and alerted him. "The signature matches that of our preceding encounter with an enemy," it added. "I ask authorization to launch a missile, sound the alarm and drop the Milla Clementsdotter."

     "Go ahead and launch the missile," Iivari answered promptly. "As for dropping the Milla Clementsdotter -- OK, do that too." Damn it! Again, eleven Mudball years' worth of work lost!  Still, it was necessary. Dropping the Raattamaa had saved them last time, and maybe dropping the Milla would save them now. As for the alarm... There had been several other nervous breakdowns since Taavetti suffered one eleven years ago. It would be nice if the crew never would find out that they had been in danger again. Still, that probably wasn't possible, and in any case they had to strap in. "Yes, sound the alarm," he said.

     "Should I also go to maximum speed to get as far from the Milla Clementsdotter as possible?"

     On one hand, putting as much distance between themselves and the Milla was important to minimize damage to the Laestadius from any missiles hitting the Milla; on the other hand, at maximum speed the propellers of the Laestadius made a lot of noise and would give away her presence and position if the enemy didn't know it already, and the Milla would sink fast even in this thick atmosphere. "Use maximum silent speed," Iivari decided.

     There was only a faint surge of acceleration as the Laestadius sped forward, and the thrum of the propellers remained just barely audible. "Turning in the direction of the enemy to present our minimum sonar cross section," the shipbrain announced. "May I activate the short-range lidar?"


     "Low-frequency radio signal detected," the shipbrain said. "Estimate that the enemy is communicating with other enemy ships nearby. Two incoming missiles detected, one appears to be heading for the Milla Clementsdotter, the other for us. Activating point defense gun..."

     There was a ripping sound as the point defense gun fired. "Missed... missile is evading," the shipbrain announced. The gun was still firing. Suddenly a stupendous flash seared Iivari's eyes. A few seconds later his safety harness jerked him backward so hard it felt as if his neck almost broke.

     He couldn't see anything. He was still alive, though, so the missile must have detonated before it hit. Fortunately he didn't need to see to communicate with the shipbrain.

     "Damage report!" he ordered the shipbrain.

     "Shipbrain damaged," came the answer in a voice different from the one the shipbrain normally used. "Decision center inactivated, captain required to make all decisions. Sensory functions damaged..."

     "Activate first backup shipbrain!"

     "First backup shipbrain does not respond."

     Another shockwave slammed into the Laestadius, this time from below and weaker than the first. Was that a hit on the Milla, Iivari wondered. "Activate second backup shipbrain," he ordered.

     Again a new voice: "What do you want, master? What do you want, master..."

     It went on and on. That was definitely not the way it should have reacted. "Return control to primary shipbrain, deactivate second backup shipbrain!"

     There was a funny smell -- ammonia! The outer wall of the bridge was probably leaking, though the leak had to be a small one, otherwise he would be dead by now. Then he noticed that the harness was still pressing his chest, as if the Laestadius was decelerating hard -- or floating nose down.

     "Gas cell integrity report!" he snapped.

     "Gas cell 1 destroyed, cells 2 through 5 intact."

     So that was it. No wonder they were nose down. "Maximum heating to cells 2 and 3, upward full rudder!"

     Slowly the ship began to right itself. A dull boom told Iivari that something had happened far off. The smell of ammonia was growing distressingly strong. He had to get away from the bridge and hope that the rest of the gondola was intact -- especially his suite just below the bridge! That's where his family was...

     He unstrapped himself carefully with his right hand, holding on to the armrest with his left. Planting both feet as firmly on the sloping deck as he could and holding on to both armrests, he stood up. Then he let go of the right armrest and carefully turned around, taking hold of the seat back with his right hand, then his left. Holding on with his left hand, he began to grope for the rear bulkhead of the bridge with his right hand.

     He had to pull himself forward before he could reach the bulkhead, then he found it. He slid his right hand to the right and found the door handle, then pressed it down to open the door.

     It didn't open.

     He tugged at it. It remained shut.

     It must have warped, he thought. Will I be trapped here and poisoned by the gases leaking in?

     Letting go of the seat, he braced his left hand against the bulkhead, then yanked as hard as he could with his right hand.

     The door flew open and he staggered backward, but he held on to the door handle. Then he pulled himself up towards the door and went through it. He had to pull hard to close the door but eventually he managed to tug it shut.

     He groped his way along the corridor between the primary and first backup shipbrains, then to the stairs and down to the deck below. He found the door of his suite and opened it without trouble.

     He had to close it at once. He doubled over, coughing uncontrollably from the ammonia that had welled out of his suite. Had his family got out or had they all been poisoned? Please, God, let them be alive, he thought.

     There wasn't time to look for them, though. He had to ensure the ship's survival above all. Otherwise they would all die.

     According to regulations, he should strap in somewhere, but that had to wait a little longer. "Shipbrain, is there any evidence of what happened to the enemy ship," he asked between coughs. The ammonia was dispersing, he could already almost breathe normally.

     "There was an explosion in that area soon after we were damaged. Sixty-nine seconds ago my sensors registered gamma radiation characteristic of fission products."

     So the enemy might have been hit. "Were there indications of an antimatter explosion in the same place?"


     Very likely the enemy ship had been destroyed, then. But there were probably others nearby, why else would the enemy have transmitted a radio signal?

     "Is our forward sonar operational?"


     "Can you repair it?"

     "Contraindicated. My module for control of repairs is damaged and cannot be trusted to do its job correctly."

     It would be up to the crew, then, to try to repair things. But that would take time; now he had to concentrate on the immediate danger. "Is the aft sonar operational?"


     "Steer port and keep circling in that direction, speed eight meters per second."

     The sound of the propellers faded into inaudibility as the Laestadius slowed down and began circling to let the aft sonar sweep through all directions.

     Now he could start looking for a place to strap in. The suites just aft of his own -- those were the Hellstens on the port side, the Viitala family on the starboard side. Hmm... the Hellstens had only six children, so they should have a few spare bunks.

     His fingers found a door on the port side of the corridor. He knocked. "Come in," somebody shouted.

     He opened the door and entered. "Captain, what's happened?" Juha Hellsten asked. "After that big blow, the shipbrain went silent on us. And is there something wrong with you?" At the same time the shipbrain said something.

     Iivari held up his hand. "Please be quiet. Shipbrain, repeat."

     "Active sonar signals detected, some of them coded," the shipbrain said.

     "Can you decode them?"


     "Do they seem to be of human origin?"

     "I can't tell, part of my code library has been wiped."

     Oh hell, now he didn't know whether the other ship was human or enemy. "Do the uncoded signals resemble those the enemy used or or human active sonar?"

     "They are identical with those of the enemy."

     All right, he had to settle for that. "Launch a missile in the direction of their source."

     The usual roar, then the shipbrain announced, "Missile launched. Incoming missile detected."

     "Activate point defense gun."

     "Activating... Point defense gun cannot train, cannot engage target."

     Now you tell me, Iivari thought. "From which direction is the enemy missile coming?"

     "Bearing 303 degrees."

     "What is our current course? Show me the tactical display!"

     "194 degrees." The implant fed a tactical display right into the visual center of Iivari's brain, so he could see the incoming missile approaching the Laestadius from the starboard quarter.

     "In what direction is the point defense gun pointing?"

     "1.6 degrees port."

     There wasn't time to turn the whole ship to bring the point defense gun to bear. And there wasn't anything else he could think of that might help.

     God, to Thee we commend our souls, he thought. He didn't say it aloud, since he didn't want to alarm the Hellstens any more than they were already alarmed from hearing his half of the conversation with the shipbrain. Soon he and the rest of the crew would find out whether there really was an afterlife.

     On the tactical display, the incoming missile was two kilometers distant... one and a half... one... half a kilometer...

     The antimatter warhead vaporized the Lars Levi Laestadius and everyone on board.