“Prelude To Battle”
by Gwendolyn Clare
Her image flashed a Cheshire smile, white teeth standing out against the brown curve of her lips, and Felix hit the pause button. He leaned forward to scrutinize the projection. There, around the eyes… was it fear that kept them open a little too wide? Forget about launching a thousand ships; here was the face that sunk a thousand ships. With a smile like that, he found it hard to believe, but this was the woman who lost the War.
Felix had never developed a taste for military history. He preferred to study the peacetime visionaries of science and technology, feeling that if they looked forward in time, and he looked backward, their gazes might meet somewhere in between. This synergy of foresight and hindsight had drawn him to the study of history. He felt only disdain for the War, and disdain for her, at least before he saw the recordings.
Leaning against the doorframe of his advisor’s office, Felix wished he were taller so that he could loom with a more acute sense of impatience. After another minute of animated vidphone conversation, professor Sarah Margulis put her hand on the desk—outside the camera’s field of view—and motioned for him to come in.
Sarah’s office was furnished in the neo-Bauhaus style, a clean, industrial aesthetic with a nod to materials science. Felix sat himself in one of the sleek, minimalist chairs across the desk from Sarah.
She hit a button to end the call, then let out an exasperated sigh. “I swear, some administrators think obstruction is part of the job description. Anyway, what’s on your mind?”
“I found something interesting.” Felix felt suddenly nervous about sharing his discovery. “It started with Zimmerman, but, well… it’s about the War.”
Hannes Zimmerman, the focal figure of his thesis, was as far from a military officer as Felix could get: originally a software engineer, Zimmerman was among the first people to collaborate with the Schranmari after the War. He later turned to a life of diplomacy, becoming a critical figure in interspecies relations, and it was for this work in particular that Felix admired him.
“Before he transferred to Oxford-on-Juno, Zimmerman spent a couple years in the Shelton School of Analysis at Kobaine University.”
Sarah shrugged. “Haven’t heard of it.”
“That’s because the Shelton School is ranked seventy-third. But back in the sixties, when Zimmerman was there, it regularly ranked in the top five programs. Their ranking dropped dramatically in the early eighties, after it was publicized that guess who got her degree there.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I’ll bite. Who?”
“Joslyn Crowley.” Even as the name rolled off his tongue, he could hardly believe what he said. The supposedly incompetent military analyst who was responsible for losing the War had been a classmate of Felix’s personal hero.
Now Sarah raised both her eyebrows. “Crowley… as in the Joslyn Crowley? Posterchild-for-the-price-of-ineptitude Crowley?”
“The one and only,” he said, relishing Sarah’s incredulity a little. “They were there at the same time. They took courses together, Sarah—in a top-ranking program. Hell, they probably went out for beers together!”
“That’s like the set-up for a bad joke: Crowley and Zimmerman walk into a bar…” But Sarah didn’t look like she was about to laugh. She frowned, instead; Felix always thought of the furrows on her brow as her “thinking lines.”
“I’ve been rolling it over in my head all night. How could someone that smart, that well educated, have failed so miserably at the single task she was trained to perform?”
Sarah nodded slowly. “She couldn’t have.”
“Not unless she meant to,” said Felix.
“My thumbs are getting sore from all the twiddling,” her image said. “Everyone’s feeling real edgy. Richardson got Salazar all riled up again. I had to pull him off; I thought he was going to make meat pies out of Richardson’s face. After the medics got them both cleaned up, you know what Chase said to him? He said, ‘No more fights, Sal. I need your hands fully functional.'”
She laughed. “I mean, who says something like that?” Then she pretended to respond, “Yes, sir! Fingers operating at full capacity, sir!” and she snapped a salute, her full lips pursing together. Only the playful squint of her dark eyes gave away her mockery.
“There’s not much for me and Sal to be doing anyway, since we’re still too far out. We should have some preliminary data to analyze in a few days. I wish I could tell you something definite; I get the feeling from Chase that the Admiral’s very confident, so that’s good.
“Anyway, I hope you’re not worrying too much, and I miss you and I love you. Later, Adam!” And she blew a kiss.
Her face disappeared, replaced by glowing red lettering. Transmission sent 23/12/78, received 9/01/79. End transmission.
Felix tapped his writing stylus against the arm of his desk chair. On the one hand, she didn’t have much respect for authority, but on the other, she had a sense of humor. He wondered if traitors usually had a sense of humor.
One. The Schranmari are vaguely humanoid. In the sense that they are vertebrates with limbs and a brain and whatnot. In the old recordings, they looked pasty, hairless, and ominously tall. Some famous reporter coined the phrase “grotesquely graceful” to describe their gestures and their gait. Their vocal apparatus is so different that Humans must rely on a translation module to communicate with them.
Two. They appeared to have attained a roughly comparable level of technological advancement, which came as a surprise. Apparently, most people had assumed that when Humans finally encountered another sentient race, they would be either vastly superior, or still bashing large predators with wooden clubs. Instead, they also had a small network of colonized worlds, held together by limited interstellar travel. After the war was lost, a belief came into fashion that the Schranmari must have been technologically superior, after all.
Three. There was considerable debate in the academic community regarding the assignment of blame for the conflict. Apparently, the Schranmari claimed that they perceived the ample Human militaries as an implicit sign of hostility, and outfitted their first contact vessels accordingly. When a flotilla of well-armed, unidentified vessels crossed into Human space, the militaries reacted predictably and blew them up. At the time, it must have felt inevitable.
Felix scribbled “Fewer—> enemy ships?” on his tablet.
“Anyway, can’t talk for long—we’ve got new stats coming in all the time, Sal and I are up to our ears!—but I just wanted to let you know. Love you!”
Transmission sent 27/12/78, received 15/01/79. End transmission.
Talking too fast, interrupting herself. Felix smirked. She was actually enjoying this prelude to battle.
Felix moved on to reading biographies of Crowley and her shipmates. The following week, he asked another graduate student to run his Tuesday lector section. He ignored a few disgruntled vidmails from his girlfriend and a reminder about rapidly-approaching grant proposal deadlines from Sarah. His Thursday lector section he cancelled altogether.
To his surprise, he found several early scholarly works hinting that Crowley may have deliberately botched her analysis. This theory never became popular, perhaps because no one managed to propose a plausible motive. She could have been bribed, but the Schranmari victory meant the near-complete destruction of the Human fleet, and Felix couldn’t imagine what sort of bribe would benefit a dead woman. And how could she have secretly communicated with them?
He had been focusing on the Crowley research for nearly two weeks when his on-again, off-again girlfriend decided it was time to be off again. He quickly phased through anger and denial before deciding that the breakup was for the best. After all, he didn’t have time for contemporary women—the dead ones were giving him enough trouble.
Crowley’s ghost was leading him in circles. He turned off the tablet screen, dropped the writing stylus, and watched as it leisurely rolled off the opposite side of his old, beat-up desk. He curled up in the too-large desk chair and closed his eyes against a migraine looming on the horizon.
“All right,” he said to the tablet, “run a reference cross-check for any mentions of primary resources that I haven’t already looked at.” With his eyes still closed, he added, “And put on some Robert Johnson.”
I got a kindhearted woman, do anything in this world for me, but these evil-hearted women, man, they will not let me be. Felix liked the twangy acoustic guitar and dark lyrics. And he liked the idea of some centuries-gone musician, the details of his life utterly forgotten, speaking across a gulf of time with rhythm and passion that could not die.
The volume dropped and the tablet reported, “Top result: a reference to Nakada Military Archives, cited as a personal communication with a General A.D. Miller.”
“Crowley’s got a file in the Archives?” He grabbed the edge of his desk to pull himself closer, since his heels barely scraped the floor when he sat upright in the oversized chair. “Well, call up Nakada!”
There was the usual pause for an interplanetary connection before a synthesized female voice greeted him. “Welcome to the Nakada Military Archives. How may I help you?”
“I’d like to view all files listed under the name Joslyn Crowley.”
“All requested files are classified as ‘permission only.’ Would you like to complete an application for permission?”
He sat back in his chair, considering. “How long does it take to process applications, and what’s the success rate?”
“The average processing time is eight months, twenty-two days. Zero point two percent of requests are granted.”
That didn’t sound promising. “No, thanks. End call.”
The caffeine was wearing off and the sleep deprivation setting in, so Felix took a hot shower and crawled into bed. He was out cold as soon as his head hit the pillow.
He woke up hours later to the sound of insistent beeping. As soon as he cracked open an eyelid, the tablet announced, “Incoming priority vidmail.”
The projector on the opposite side of the room displayed a still-frame of Sarah. He sat up, grabbed the remote, and hit play.
“Hey, Felix. I just got word from the chair that they’re planning to rescind your assistantship if you don’t get back on track.” Sarah leaned in, resting her elbows on her knees, and a hint of a smile quirked the corners of her thin lips. “This thing you’re working on? It’s hot. But don’t worry, I’ve got your back, so stick with it.”
Felix grinned. If someone didn’t want him looking into the archives, it meant there was something to look for there.
“The good news,” she said, “is that Sal and I have been keeping busy, which keeps him away from the booze and fistfights. I was concerned that he’d be off his game after the stress of waiting, but he’s golden. Not as good as me, of course.” She grinned as if it were an old joke.
Felix wrote “cocky” on his tablet, deleted it, and wrote “confident” instead.
Meanwhile, the Joslyn recording launched straight into the bad news. “Their fleet’s flying in a tight arrowshaft formation to obscure the number of ships they have. Tricky, but they’re going to wear out their pilots before they even get in range, if they keep it up. And we’ve tallied them, anyway.” She said, without blinking, “We’re slightly outnumbered.”
She hadn’t looked away from the camera, not once. She was overcompensating—to hide that she was lying. But what for? Testing to see if the Schranmari could decrypt the messages? Felix thought it would be easier to screen outgoing communications for sensitive information. He only half-heard the rest of her message, absorbed as he was with puzzle of what she hadn’t said.
Transmission sent 31/12/78, received 21/01/79. End transmission.
He closed his eyelids and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. He wanted to believe that it was a coincidence, but the stony feeling in his gut told him it wasn’t. Without Sarah to defend him, his assistantship was probably already gone.
Perhaps they—whoever they were—thought that destroying Sarah’s career and cutting off his resources would deter him from pursuing the Crowley problem. Just the opposite. He called up the Nakada Archives again, this time with a different strategy.
“Give me a list of all the civilians who have accessed any portion of the Crowley files.”
“Negative. That information is classified.”
Felix thought for a moment. “What about a list of all the civilians who have applied for access to the Crowley files, but were denied?”
“Request acknowledged. Compiling report.”
Felix smirked, marveling at the single-mindedness of bureaucracy. By this time, he knew the name of every scholar who had ever written about Joslyn Crowley, and now he knew the name of every Crowley scholar who had been denied access to the records. All he had to do was fill in the negative space.
Felix got the impression that most people must have looked incompetent next to Joslyn. She went on with her message, relaying some anecdotes from the crew lounge and an update on the ongoing feud between Salazar and Richardson. Nothing unusual.
But at the end of the message, she made a casual addition. “Oh, and the Schranmari fleet spread out to a standard scatter yesterday.”
Suddenly, Felix was on the edge of his seat, lunging for the remote. Had he seen that right?
He played it again: “Oh, and the Schranmari fleet spread out into a standard scatter yesterday.” Yes! There, at the end, her eyes squinted a little, the corner of her mouth twitched ever so slightly—a private smile, meant just for Adam. “Anyhow, there’s plenty of work waiting for me, so I should get back to it. Miss you!”
Transmission sent 04/01/79, received 27/01/79. End transmission.
She hadn’t known that her fleet was slightly outnumbered. She guessed, and then she bluffed the Schranmari into dropping out of formation so she could get her final tally. It would be days before the enemy ships passed within maximum targeting range, and she had already started fighting.
Her tactics were phenomenal, but why go through all the trouble of tricking your enemy, if you’re planning to betray your own side? Felix rubbed his face with his hands. For every piece of the puzzle he collected, there were another two pieces he hadn’t known he was missing.
The vidphone image of Dr. Nasser smoothed his salt-and-pepper mustache, then folded his hands to rest them on the edge of his desk. “So, you are interested in the Crowley file of the Nakada Archives. What is it that you want to know?”
“Everything. Do you know what’s in the file?”
He nodded. “A collection of personal transmissions from Joslyn Crowley to her fiancé, Adam, sent en route during the War.”
Felix’s pulse quickened. “Do you have a copy of them?”
The older man looked away from the camera, focusing his attention on something out of view. “I am forwarding them to you now. But I would advise you to keep this information to yourself, unless you welcome the idea of pursuing a career in lawn care or waste disposal management. If you try to publish this, you can kiss your academic standing goodbye.”
Felix snorted. “Too late for that.”
“Trust me.” Nasser’s tone became grave. “They will erase you. They are very good at protecting their interests.”
“Whose interests? Admiral Sokov, Captain Chase… all the high-ranking officers died in battle.”
Nasser smiled slightly. “Ah, yes, but the man who assigned Sokov to command the battle is still in office. And it is not the file itself, it is what the file suggests about those who archived it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You will see.” He shrugged. “Or you will not see, and then you can count yourself lucky to walk away with your career intact.”
Felix frowned. “I don’t understand. If you think it’s such a bad idea for me to watch the transmissions, why are you sending them to me?”
“Because I am fifty-eight years old, discredited, and soon to be forgotten.” Nasser grinned like a fox. “How can I pass up the chance that you might find a way to expose them?”
“A victory’s still possible, depending on their weapons payload, but heavy losses on both sides are inevitable.”
Then, seamlessly, she said, “Thank you, Adam. I know you’ve always felt bad, not having a way to help me, but you’re helping me now just by being there.
Something was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. She had sent short messages before, but usually out of excitement. Then, he looked at the time stamp:
Transmission sent 10/01/79, received 07/02/79. End transmission.
Felix frowned. As the fleet went farther away, the lag time between sending and receiving increased. The ships were well beyond the last of the hopgates, traveling with comparative slowness through real space. Relaying messages through the hopgates was a matter of seconds, but crossing the ever-lengthening distance of real space took longer and longer.
Even so, messages sent every four days should have arrived approximately six days apart. He checked the timestamp on the previous transmission, and sure enough, Joslyn had sent this message two days late.
Something had happened that week, something she wasn’t talking about. What did she mean, “helping me now just by being there”? With a delay time of almost a month between transmitting and receiving, it seemed implausible to lend any real emotional support. Perhaps she had already agreed to commit treason for the Schranmari; perhaps she already knew she was going to die. It was the last message, though the fleet wasn’t destroyed for another week after that.
He played the final transmission over and over again, searching for the key—the overlooked detail that, once noticed, would make everything fall into place. Nasser had found it. And, eventually, so did he.
“Heavy losses on both sides are inevitable.” Two seconds of silence. “Thank you, Adam.”
Felix played the segment again and watched her ribcage. She had paused, ever so slightly, but she hadn’t inhaled. The editing was seamless, but whoever had doctored the file, they had forgotten to let her breathe.
There had been more, he was sure of it now. Whatever they had covered up, exposing it would be his ticket back into academia. It might even get Sarah her professorship back, he thought with a pang of guilt.
He needed to find an original copy—he needed to find Adam.
Felix instructed the tablet to search through his collected literature for references to Adam. But the last name of Crowley’s fiancé didn’t appear anywhere.
He compiled a list of 56 Adams who attended, taught, or worked at Kobaine University anytime between ’66 and ’70. He cross-checked the list with marriage records and eliminated the 22 Adams who were married prior to ’79. Of the 34 eligible Adams who remained, none were registered in the Shelton School of Analysis.
Felix dug for any clues about how Joslyn might have met her Adam. He reconstructed the layouts of her apartment complexes and the weekly schedules of her extracurriculars, always searching for the Adam in the equation. Then, from the student health clinic records, he learned that she had fractured her fibula in an interdepartmental coed rugby tournament.
The Social Science Department’s rugby team had one Adam that year.
He found a current address. He sent vidmails. No response. What more could he do?
His old research subject, Zimmerman, came to mind. In his thesis, Felix posited that Zimmerman had succeeded as a diplomat largely because he was so impulsive. He hadn’t hidden behind a desk; he had blindly injected himself into Schranmari society, trusting in his own ability to navigate the unknown. Felix knew what Zimmerman would do: he would get up out of his chair, and track down Adam in person.
Felix booked a hopgate trip to Alsace Nouveau.
The transit time was short, mere hours to and from the respective hopgates on the departure and arrival planets. Even so, he was surprised that he didn’t lose his nerve.
Felix leaned into the buzzer, as if throwing his body weight into the doorframe might elicit a faster response. He bounced on his heels, but not from the cold — the local winter didn’t bother him. It was the answer to his question, taunting him from behind the locked door, that made him twitch like a nervous animal.
The speaker mounted on the door crackled, “What do you want?” The com screen above the speaker stayed blank.
“Adam? Adam Nussbaum?” Felix blindly addressed the security camera. “I sent you a vidmail last week, I was hoping to ask–”
“A vidmail or three, you mean. I thought I recognized that face from somewhere. Got nothing to say to you, boy, so scram.”
Felix could feel his only chance sliding between his fingers. “Did she do it on purpose?” His voice edged towards a yell, breath clouding the frigid air around his face. “I have to know! Did she mean for us to lose?”
The speaker gave off the smallest crackle, a sound like tissue paper crumbling, and fell silent.
Felix balled his fists inside his coat pockets, waiting with agonizing impatience. “Sir?” Adam didn’t answer. “Are you there? Sir?”
Felix heard the soft clicking of locks, and the door swung slowly open.
Adam filled the doorway. He was a bear of a man. Even at his age, he looked like someone who should be working the bellows in a medieval forge. Standing before him, Felix felt quite short and scrawny and frail—all of which he was, but he had never much minded until just now.
“How did you know?” Adam growled.
“I—I didn’t.” Felix swallowed hard. “I suspected, though. It was her degree from the Shelton School that tipped me off…”
Adam turned away and lumbered down the front hall of the house. “Well?” he called over his shoulder, “Stop standing there on the stoop like a lost cat, boy.”
Felix darted in and closed the door.
He caught up to Adam in the living room, which looked as if it had been well lived-in half a century ago but hadn’t seen much use in recent years. Adam owned a substantial collection of hardcopy books, but the shelves bore a thick coat of dust. Amber lighting added to the museum-like atmosphere.
Adam motioned Felix toward an old couch, but remained standing himself.
Felix sat gingerly on the edge of the couch and tapped his fingers against his knees, feeling awkward. “So, you knew?” Adam nodded. “But you didn’t tell anybody?”
Adam paced aimlessly for a minute, as if he might discover the right words scrawled on the floorboards. “Is it better to succeed at treachery than fail at loyalty?” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Do you still have the original messages?”
Adam gave him a sharp look. “Even before the defeat hit the news, they came to confiscate her transmissions. Only made one trip. They took their hats off and offered their condolences, and then they confiscated the originals. Good thing I had already made a back-up copy.” He paused again. “Would you like to see it for yourself?”
Felix took a deep breath. “Yes. Absolutely.”
Adam loaded a memory card into the projector and sat down in a sagging armchair. He wrapped a patchwork quilt around his shoulders, and suddenly he seemed old and weary, and fragile despite his bulk. The quilt had a pattern of peacock feathers, the iridescent blues and greens now faded, the seams fraying between the patches.
Adam skipped through the first several entries. “Here are the ones you came for,” he said, and pressed play.
Joslyn’s familiar face appeared, tired and distraught.
“How can I find words for what I’ve got to say? There are none.” She sighed. “Perhaps, from the beginning…
“A victory’s still possible, depending on their weapons payload, but heavy losses on both sides are inevitable. And I’ve been running some… broader simulations. Over and over again. Given the known political climate on our side, and assuming they possess equivalent stealth technology…” She pursed her lips, as if hesitant to continue. “It’ll start when they accidentally sink an armed civilian vessel. Then we’ll be the first ones to intentionally nuke civilians, probably a mining station on a moon, some target that supplies essential materials to the Schranmari military. It’ll escalate from there.”
She paused, looked away, and took a long breath before continuing. “Thirteen to seventeen inhabited planets. If we win this battle, that’s how many worlds will be annihilated before somebody wins the war. I have tried, I have really tried, and I can’t get it below thirteen.” She looked up, directly into the recorder, her lower lip quivering as if it were her failure that had condemned billions of people on both sides.
“I’m telling you this because I’m hoping that their analysts will intercept the message. I can’t try to contact them directly without the higher-ups finding out, and I need more time before taking this to the Admiral, I need more time…”
She zoned out for a moment before turning her attention back to the recorder. “Thank you, Adam,” she said. “I know you’ve always felt bad, not having a way to help me, but you’re helping me now just by being there.” The corners of her lips twitched, an ironic smile tempered with doubt. “Maybe, if we’re lucky, you’ll go down as the only man in history to stop a war and save thirteen worlds by receiving his mail.
Transmission sent 10/01/79, received 07/02/79. End transmission.
“I’m recording this a day early; I figured you wouldn’t mind.” She smiled jokingly. “I managed to open a secure line of communication with their chief analyst. Salazar’s been translating for me. If he hadn’t gotten his hands on a good module, I don’t know what I would’ve done.
“Anyway, the news is good and bad. Reischk—he’s their analyst—has confirmed my predictions.” She heaved a sigh. “On the plus side, there’s now an expert in each fleet who’s ready to testify that our victory here would catalyze thirteen Armageddons. Assuming, of course, that the Schranmari aren’t playing me, which only seems likely if I’ve vastly overestimated their payload. Which I haven’t.”
The stress was showing around her eyes, all the little muscles knotting together.
“Still,” she said, shaking her head, “I just don’t know. Can I trust him? Can I trust myself? It’s my job to figure out what the battle costs; it’s not supposed to be my job to decide if the cost’s too high. I don’t know what to do. I wish you were here to be my compass, my constellation, my west wind! I’m thinking of you, always.”
Transmission sent 13/01/79, received 11/02/79. End transmission.
“Well, I found out how annoying you have to be for them to give you the choice between getting back to your station and spending the evening in the brig.” Joslyn tried to grin, but mostly failed. “Because we’re in a position of slight disadvantage, the Admiral’s refused to initiate an armistice. I suppose he’s afraid it’ll turn out too much like a surrender. He’s willing, at least, to leave a channel open, in the event that the Schranmari want to propose a ceasefire.
“I guess Richardson was right about Sal and me, after all.” She shrugged unapologetically. “We’re not ‘real soldiers.’ When I signed up, I could justify it to myself; a fast war’s better than a slow war, right? And I could make that happen. But a war that’s over before it ever really begins? That’d be the best of all.
“I needed you to know, in case—well, in case things don’t work out. I needed you to know so you can tell people, tell them that this isn’t what I wanted.” She paused, pressing her lips together while she considered what to say. “Sal and I have agreed. If Reischk doesn’t come through for us, we’re prepared to do whatever we have to…”
The look in her eyes told Felix that one fleet—and her own life—was a good trade for thirteen worlds.
Her image took a deep breath and blew it out. “I love you and I miss you, hon. Wish us luck.”
Transmission sent 15/01/79, received 14/02/79. End transmission.
The projector went blank. That was the final message.
Felix blinked, surfacing slowly from the depths of time and finding, to his mild surprise, that a familiar world surrounded him. Adam, who was still immersed in memory, said nothing. Felix imagined him as a young man, wrapped in a quilt still vivid and new. Perhaps Adam had sat entrenched in the same armchair all those years ago, waiting beside a lover who was a dozen light-years and four weeks away.
Adam hadn’t released the vidmails because that would be the last nail in Joslyn’s coffin, and then he’d have to reconcile his brilliant, breathing Joslyn with history’s long-dead one. Adam hadn’t released the vidmails because he was still waiting.
Felix understood it, now — some part of himself was waiting for her, too. The girl with the Cheshire smile, the traitor and the heroine, the girl who would never come home.
He rose from the couch and, slowly, knelt beside Adam’s chair. His thin fingers wrapped around the older man’s massive paw, and he gave it a gentle squeeze. “I think it’s time for people to hear Joslyn’s side of the story. Don’t you?”
Adam’s hand trembled. “Yes,” he said. “It’s time.”
Gwendolyn Clare has a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, and is currently working to add another acronym to her collection. Away from the laboratory, she enjoys practicing martial arts, adopting feral cats, and writing speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, the Warrior Wisewoman 3 anthology, Flash Fiction Online, and Bull Spec. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com
Story © 2010 Gwendolyn Clare. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish