Till Death Do Us Part

by Frej Wasastjerna



         "And I love you, Juanita." Chas Tomonaga kissed Juanita one last time and then switched off his body-illusion circuits. Now it was time to return to the real world, since the battle would soon begin.

         He and Juanita had been running their personality modules at a speed-up factor of 1, that is, at normal "protoplasmic" speed, while they were making love, to avoid being bothered by transmission lag over the two hundred kilometers between them. Now he switched to a speed-up of 64 to have time to take stock of the situation in the minutes remaining before the fleet, currently slowing down at maximum deceleration from its near-lightspeed transit through interstellar space, reached its assigned positions.

         He looked around, reveling in the clarity of vision and all-around field of view of his telescopes. Nearby -- that is, within a few hundred thousand kilometers -- were the other ships of his flotilla, all of them operating at maximum stealth. Even knowing exactly where they were, he still found them very difficult to see, except whenever a laser beam carrying a message to him flashed briefly. Only now and then did one of the ships alert one of his optical sensors by occulting a star. Even his infrared telescopes showed nothing, as the ships had cooled their surfaces to liquid helium temperatures. Even at perfect mass balance, enabling the ships to maneuver by relying only on the forces between their positive and negative mass components, with no need to use fusion engines, they couldn't maintain that stealth indefinitely, since there was always some waste heat to get rid of and their supply of helium was limited, as was the maximum temperature to which they could heat the helium without bursting the tanks. But for an attacker, knowing approximately when the battle would begin, even temporary stealth was useful.

         Farther out were other flotillas of combat ships and, approaching at a relative speed close to that of light now that the ships had slowed down to mere hundreds of kilometers per second, came the main force of the attack: the rammer missiles. The light rammer missiles, also using negamass drives like the combat ships, were equally hard to detect, apart from the slight gamma radiation as they plowed their way through the not quite perfect vacuum.

         The heavy rammer missiles were another matter. After more than a millennium of using inversion drives, nobody had yet found a way of completely masking the raging energy released when positive mass turned negative. They were now running at minimum power, but couldn't be shut down completely so long as one wanted the drive cores to stay compacted, so the asteroid-sized missiles were glowing dull red, doppler-shifted into glaring white in those cases where they were approaching almost head-on.


         The planet Delpav III, also known as Burden, had been inhabited by a non-technological sentient species that humans called snakaroos. A few centuries ago, somebody had sterilized that planet with six inversion bombs. Fortuitously -- or maybe it wasn't so fortuitous, some people had their doubts -- a gamma telescope in the Taucet system happened to be trained in the right direction to observe that, which gave humankind a warning that out there was somebody or something with both the will and ability to exterminate all life on a planet in an instant.

         The guilty party had turned out to be a six-legged centauroid species. Their name for themselves was almost pronounceable for humans and was approximated as 'iagyhs'. Their technical level was remarkably close to that of mankind, and they regarded all other intelligent life as dangerous vermin.

         Thanks to the observation of the sterilization of Delpav III, mankind was alerted and ready when the iagyhs smashed the human-colonized system of Epsindi, and counterattacks were launched on systems where giant space telescopes had revealed hints of an iagyh presence.

         It had been realized from the beginning by both sides that invading an enemy-held planetary system had little chance of success, since the defender had the advantage of both greater resources than any invading fleet could have and time to use those resources, as the invader traversed the void between stars at sub-light speeds. On the other hand, destroying a system was relatively easy. One only needed rammer missiles, heavy missiles for full-sized planets and large moons, light missiles for smaller targets. With the missiles moving at speeds near that of light, the defender got little advance warning, so  countermeasures were rarely successful.

         Consequently the war had become extremely destructive, with planets rendered uninhabitable, large moons smashed into asteroids and smaller objects vaporized in one system after another on both sides. Nonetheless the rubble left after such an attack wasn't completely useless, so every attack was accompanied by transports to recolonize what could still be used. To escort the transports, and to destroy anything the rammer missiles had missed, there were warships like the one to whose electronic brain Chas's personality had been transferred.


         While Chas was looking around, a rammer missile had struck the nearest planet, a beautiful blue-white globe much like Old Earth had been. The drive core of the missile, trillions of tons of extremely compressed matter moving at a relativistic speed, had penetrated deep inside the planet, its densely packed atomic nuclei shoving the much sparser nuclei of ordinary solid matter aside in collisions violent enough to break up the nuclei themselves. Finally, several thousand kilometres deep within the planet, the drive core had heated up enough due to these collisions to explode, creating a shock wave that would, in an hour or so, blow much of the planet's surface into space and transform the rest into incandescent magma. So far nothing of this could be seen, though. The only sign that something had happened was the blazing plume of plasma emerging from the impact point, breathtakingly beautiful if you could somehow ignore the fact that it signified the destruction of an inhabited planet.

         Then another heavy rammer missile struck that planet's only moon, to which Chas's flotilla was assigned. There was really nothing a defender could do to stop these massive missiles, arriving hard on the heels of the light revealing their approach. However, it was clear that the iagyhs had prepared for this eventuality. Apparently the missiles had been detected while approaching. Even before the impact Chas's telescopes showed movement on the moon's surface, and when he increased the magnification to investigate this movement, he saw hatches opening in the surface and ships emerging from those hatches.

         Though these defending ships couldn't prevent the destruction of the planets and moons targeted by heavy rammer missiles and the smaller objects targeted by light ones, they would still try to destroy any space fleet trying to occupy whatever hadn't been destroyed.

         Initially the attackers would have the advantage. Plainly the defenders were well prepared, for their ships were utterly black in the infrared as well as the visible part of the spectrum, being cooled down like the attackers. They were also accelerating hard without showing the plasma glare of a fusion drive. Obviously they too, like the attackers, had zero net mass. However, the fact that they were silhouetted against the surface of the moon from which they were taking off put them at a disadvantage, making them clearly visible to the attackers.

         To take advantage of this visibility, Commodore István Lux, commanding the flotilla of which Chas was a part, ordered the flotilla to fire all its long-range missiles, targeting them at the enemy ships now visible.

         Chas switched to a speed-up factor of 256 and complied with the order to launch missiles. All over the rear of his hull, hatches opened to let out the missiles, nega-mass driven like the ships themselves so that launching them involved no mass change. The missiles floated out, unfolded the structures intended to permit a certain degree of movement of the negative masses with respect to the positive-mass components to compensate for any imperfections in the mass balance or any surface forces such as radiation pressure, and set off towards their targets.

         The stealth advantage currently held by the human ships would be only temporary, though. Presumably other iagyh ships were launching from the other side of the moon, and they were thus out of sight and would soon emerge undetected, stalking the human ships like they themselves would be stalked. If the human planners had known about this enemy tactic in advance, they might have ordered the attacking force to envelop the planets and moons in the target system before the rammer missiles hit, ensuring that at least some ships would have been in a position to see all enemy ships silhouetted against the surface. However, this tactic was new and unanticipated. In most previous battles the enemy ships had already been in space when the attack hit, so that they wouldn't be silhouetted against any nearby objects, but that way most of them would be relatively warm and thus detectable to sensitive infrared telescopes.

         Suddenly Chas felt a powerful radar beam, probably coming from the surface of the target moon. This was an unwelcome development. Although the human ships were stealthed against radar both by the use of radar- absorbent materials and by shape, a really powerful beam like this one might still give echoes detectable at considerable distances in all directions.

         And in this case it apparently was powerful enough to detect some of the human ships. Several ships were promptly hit as  neutral particle beam projectors down on the moon's surface opened fire. However, the damage inflicted by the beams was minor, since the human ships had their heavily armored bows facing the surface. Armor intended to protect the ships as they swept through the interstellar gas near lightspeed could withstand the beams for a while, but the beams did upset the mass balance of the ships they hit by boiling off some positive mass, and they also caused the ships they hit to glow with heat, making them easy targets for other weapons.

         Chas wasn't hit himself, but to his dismay he noticed that Juanita was hit. But he didn't have time to think much about that at the moment, for Lux ordered his flotilla to retarget half of the already launched long-distance missiles against the surface installations that had now revealed themselves. Chas was busy for some seconds deciding which missiles to retarget and then sending the required messages to them by laser beam.

         Then the enemy surface batteries switched targets as their radars detected the approaching missiles, in spite of their stealth. The beam weapons of the iagyh ships also opened fire on these missiles, and many missiles disappeared in bursts of gamma rays as they were damaged by beams and lost confinement of the anti-matter in their warheads. The resulting fireworks were spectacularly beautiful when one could see gamma-rays, as Chas could.

         The other missiles pressed on, though. Soon some of the explosions came from missiles making contact with enemy ships and destroying them, and slightly later the same fate befell the enemy surface batteries. Before long all visible iagyh ships and surface installations had been destroyed. The missiles that had been launched by the iagyh ships were silhouetted against the surface, making them easy targets for the beams of the human flotilla, so none of them reached their targets.

         Now Lux issued an order for the fringes of his flotilla to pull back, turning the disc formation into something more like a cone, and to face outwards, in the directions from which the next attack would probably come.


         The human ships that had been hit by beams were no longer glowing in the visible range but were still bright in the near infrared. They were trying to regain mass balance by ejecting pips of negative mass and then fine-tuning the balance by jettisoning positive-mass ballast, mostly helium, which they first routed through cooling channels in the bow armor, thereby also cooling that. Those ships that had not been hit were beginning to become faintly visible in the far infrared, as the heat from their fusion reactors, which had briefly run at full power to provide energy for their beam weapons, was spreading to their skins.

         Then the next iagyh attack struck, before the regrouping had been completed. The usual tactic in space combat was to open fire with missiles and reserving one's beam weapons for defense against enemy missiles or for close combat, but this time the first indication of an attack came in the form of neutral particle beams hitting a number of already damaged human ships. And this time the beams didn't hit from dead ahead, so they went through the thin skin on the sides of the ships, inflicting real damage -- and one of the targets was Juanita! Chas watched in shock as a beam hit Juanita right in her fusion engine. She transmitted an emergency message, broadcasting it rather than transmitting it on laser beams to just a few friendly ships.

         "Unit 164320, Juanita Moreno, to flotilla 16: I have lost fusion power and mass balance. Will try to cope."

         If Chas had had any hair, it would have stood on end, or so he felt. Lost both mass balance and fusion power! That meant that she couldn't move, nor could she fire beam weapons since the emergency power from her fuel cells was inadequate for that -- in short, she was helpless to cope with the oncoming enemies. "Will try to cope" -- that was nothing but an attempt to present a brave face to a hopeless situation. She needed help, and fast!

         Not waiting for orders from Lux, Chas accelerated towards Juanita as fast as he could. He switched on all his radars, heedless of the fact that he thereby revealed his own position to all enemies within hundreds of thousands of kilometers, and as soon as he could detect some of the enemy missiles streaking toward Juanita, he opened fire on them with his beam weapons. At the same time he launched his short-range missiles in the general direction of the enemy, leaving the actual targeting until later. Juanita also launched hers. These missiles had little scope for relative movement between positive- and negative-mass components, limiting their range under conditions of imperfect mass balance or under the influence of surface forces, but otherwise they were similar to the long-range missiles, with nega-mass propulsion and warheads containing a few grams of anti-matter. Being smaller and simpler in shape than the long-range missiles, they were even stealthier.

         Soon he detected enemy ships in addition to the missiles and began transmitting targeting orders to his own missiles by laser beams. To enable him to do this while at the same time figuring out the most effective way to defend Juanita against enemy missiles, he raised his speed-up factor to 8192. But that gave him more time to perceive the horror of the situation, as it became clear that there was no way he could stop all the missiles aimed at Juanita, and the other human ships nearby were busy defending themselves.

         After many seconds of objective time he was so worn out with his efforts to do the impossible and with his fear on Juanita's behalf that he had to go to sleep, otherwise he would soon have been unable to think straight. To get this sleep over with as fast as possible, he went to maximum speed-up, a factor of 1048576.

         One of the advantages of having an electronic brain rather than a protoplasmic one was that he could go to sleep when necessary, regardless of how he felt. Rather than staying awake with worry until sheer exhaustion put him to sleep, he lost consciousness at once and woke up refreshed some thirty milliseconds later.

         Refreshed but not happy. Instead of waking up out of a nightmare he had woken back into one. Finally acknowledging that no amount of thinking could salvage a hopeless situation, he settled back to a speed-up of 256, so it felt like less than an hour before an enemy missile

finally hit Juanita and turned her into an explosively expanding ball of plasma.

         Just before that happened, she sent him a message by laser beam. As the ions and electrons that, a fraction of a second ago, had been Juanita swept past him, he read the message.

         "Unit 164320 to unit 164221: Goodbye, Chas my beloved. Always remember I loved you.


"Unfeeling, the stars witness my death.
But hotter than the fire in their innards
Burns my love for you, my darling.
May that truth always be with you."


         For a moment grief overwhelmed Chas, then it congealed into a rage colder than liquid helium. He switched to a speed-up factor of 1048576, effectively freezing the battle, while he considered how to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy.

         Having decided what tactics to use, he applied lateral acceleration to change his velocity vector so that it would take him where the biggest concentration of enemy ships appeared to be. He then switched to a speed-up factor of 1024 and began broadcasting information on the location of all the enemy ships he could detect, so that other human ships could target them. He also had time to plan carefully how to use his missiles to inflict maximum destruction, transmit the required orders to them, target enemy missiles with his own beams and decide what evasive action to take, to try to avoid the enemy missiles as long as possible.

         It was soon clear that there was no way he could avoid destruction, there were just too many enemy missiles approaching him. That didn't bother him in the least, on the contrary he relished the thought. He didn't want to carry on without Juanita. To be sure, there was one drawback: When he was destroyed himself, he could no longer inflict further damage on the enemy. But his own missiles had already destroyed two iagyh ships and would destroy more, even without his guidance.

         The seconds crept by slowly. Whenever his fusion reactor, operating at emergency power, had produced enough energy for a shot with a neutral particle beam, he fired at one of those missiles that were in a position to score a direct hit on him, maneuvering as best he could to minimize the number of such missiles. In between he found time to take an occasional look at the nearby planet, where the shock wave spreading from the entry point of the rammer missile was already visible, though it would still take most of an hour for the main shock wave, that from the explosion in the center of the planet, to reach the surface and render it uninhabitable. However, he relished the knowledge that, some time after he himself had been destroyed, that would happen. A large number of iagyhs, maybe hundreds of millions, would accompany Juanita into oblivion. Splendid!


         Ultimately it was one of those missiles that weren't in position to hit him directly that spelled his end. It had had the wrong velocity vector at the outset and, though it accelerated as hard as it could to correct that, when it went sweeping past him it was 273 metres distant at closest approach.

         But that was enough. At the instant of closest approach, the antimatter containment system in the missile reversed its operation so that several grams of antimatter hit the normal matter forming the structure of the missile, and an intense flood of gamma rays and X-rays tore into Chas. The field coils in his fusion reactor promptly overheated, shutting down the reactor, and both the oxygen tanks in his fuel cells and the back-up batteries exploded. The superconducting induction coils used for short-term power storage also overheated, then melted and blew apart as the magnetic field in them tried to maintain the current. There was no longer any power available for his brain, and his consciousness vanished.




         "Sit down." Commodore Lux waved at the chair in front of him, and Chas gingerly lowered himself into it. He stroked the seat, still unused to actually being in a real body, not just having some circuits to give him the illusion of one when he wanted that.

         "Sir, I'm a bit confused," he said. "It's not just disorientation at finding myself back in a flesh body. I understand this much: Although our bodies were destroyed by the scanning process needed to transfer our personalities into shipbrains, the research project to find a way of reconstructing these bodies on the basis of the recorded information was successful. So that explains why I now have a flesh body, but how come I remember the battle? Wasn't my shipbrain destroyed?"

         "No, not quite. After the battle a severely damaged but not vaporized human warship was found drifting in space, a derelict without power but with its brain still intact. That was you. You were picked up and the brain was detached and returned here, then, when your body was reconstructed, the memories from that brain were fed into your protoplasmic brain.

         "So, thanks to that, you know something about what I'll talk about. Strictly speaking, you were guilty of insubordination, charging off on your own without orders. I could court-martial you for that.

         "But let's not be hasty. Let's see what the consequences of your act were."

         Lux pressed a couple of buttons and gestured for Chas to swivel his chair to face in the opposite direction, towards a big holotank. In this tank an image appeared, showing, in yellow, the moon near which they had fought, with the approaching disc formation of the human fleet in blue and the iagyhs emerging to meet them in red.

         "As you see, after we had destroyed the first wave of the iagyh attack against us, the remainder tried to enfilade us. They didn't quite succeed."

         In the tank the blue formation was changing from a disc to a cone. This was happening rather slowly, though, and the cone was still quite shallow when the red forces drew close.

         "We hadn't really achieved a good cone formation when they hit us, though, so we were at a slight disadvantage. And look here."

         A cursor blinked in a particularly dense clump of red dots.

         "Rather than hitting us equally from all directions, they had concentrated much of their force here. Although I think we would ultimately have won anyway, with this local superiority here they could have hurt us rather badly.

         "However, at that time you went charging right into their midst like a mad bull."

         A blinking blue dot was moving into the red clump.

         "You provided us with valuable targeting information. And that wasn't all. In their efforts to deal with you, the iagyhs here got a bit disorganized. The fighting was quite heavy, but in the end we won this battle, and our casualties were lighter than I think they would have been if you hadn't disrupted the enemy Schwerpunkt.

         "So, your stunt helped us. Consequently you get a medal, not a court-martial. In fact, I think we should consider making charges like this a standard tactic," Lux said with a grin.

         "However," he went on, "there's one thing that puzzles me. Why did you do that?"

         "Unit 164320 was in trouble--that was Juanita Moreno. And I loved her."

         "Ah. A personal matter--I see." Lux frowned. "We really shouldn't let personal considerations interfere with our tactics. Still, in this case it did more good than harm. I suppose we were lucky in that respect, and I'll just accept that luck rather than punish your lack of discipline."

         "Sir, what really happened to unit 164320? Did we recover anything from her?" Chas asked, though, as he immediately realized, he should have known that the answer had to be no. After all, he had seen Juanita turned to plasma by a direct hit.

         After a moment Lux confirmed this. "No, there was nothing left of her. Of course, she'll now be alive in her flesh body, but she'll have no memories of the battle."

         No memories of the battle--nor of the voyage preceding it. That meant that she would also have no memories of him, since they hadn't met before that voyage.


         That evening Chas had a problem. He had managed to locate Juanita, call her and get her to agree to a date with him. But, as he waited outside the restaurant where they had agreed to meet, he was still considering the question he had been pondering ever since she agreed: What do you say to a woman whom you have loved and who has loved you--and who has never heard of you before?