The datascreen filled with static, then flickered, lines of ash and crimson. A hissing white noise filtered through the earphones.
The machine beeped softly at me as the screen cleared and filled with text, amber on black.
I reached into my jacket pocket and fingered the datatape within, the tape I had held onto for
> Welcome to the Planetary Historical Database.
Please insert a datatape now.
> If you would like to search for a specific datatape, please indicate your desire to the officer on duty.
I hestitated for a moment, not entirely sure why I was doing this. I had lived the events described on this tape, and still awoke sometimes with nightmares. The face.. and his voice.
Robotic, soulless, and inhuman, the voice would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Yet I had been hiding long enough. For almost twenty years I had refused to contemplate the war, stubbornly insisting that it no longer mattered to me. I almost managed to convince myself of this, but the truth is that I would never really believe my own lies. The war, and my part in it, had forever altered who I was, had shaped what I had become.
I turned my gaze away from the screen and out the window. The condensation of fog created rivulets of water on the glass and blurred the view beyond, softened outlines of buildings and grey morning mist.
The computer, noting my inattention, beeped at me once more. I swivelled back to it, drew in a breath, and inserted the datatape into the slot. The computer clicked and a green light beneath the slot announced that the information was being scanned and decrypted.
Sweat began to form around the electrodes strapped to my forehead.
I tapped my fingers on the desk without any particular rhythm, and waited.
Waited to relive history.
Metaspace is a funny thing. By completely immersing the viewer in the computer-generated environment, one can easily lose track of where one really is. I remember an old professor of mine telling me that something like one-fourth of the population were physically unable handle it, and in the early days of experimental metaspace, those people - unaware of their inability to cope with the sensory inputs - would convulse with seizures when they attemped immersion.
Nowadays, brainwave scans are as common as viral immunizations, and a lot cheaper. Anyone who wishes to use a metaspace immmersion consoles must submit to retinal scans; their identities are matched to the information in the Interplanetary Congressional Database, where every citizen's brainwave patterns are stored. The ICD computer allows or rejects potential users of immersion consoles.
There is, of course, always a subculture that gets off on twisting the system. Forged brainwave patterns are submitted to the ICD so that certain types can use the consoles for a quick high. It's almost beyond belief that people are willing to permanently alter their minds for nothing, but there they are, and the government is still unsure as to what - if anything - can be done about it. The pathetic and feeble social programs in place have drawn strong comparisons to the so-called "War on Drugs" that was so prevalent throughout the late 20th century, and are equally as ineffective now as they were then, only now, the battle isn't against chemicals, which went out of popularity so long ago, crude as they were. Now we're talking total brain meltdown to those who can't handle immersion but do it anyway, a complete loss of judgement and sense of self. The abusers end up babbling to themselves, hallucinating, and staring into inner ancient dreams, forever oblivious to the world around them.
The datatape stopped whirring, and the screen informed me that the decryption was complete.
I pressed the panel, closed my eyes, and sat back in my chair. The immersion console fed its virtual world down the wires in a stream of electronic noise, to the 'trodes on my forehead; in my mind, the base electronic world formed, blue neon gridwork.
I had lived through the events I was about to view, but this time I was not to partake in them. I was merely a passive observer.
The computer clicked once more. The show was about to start.
The inky black of intersteller void, punctuated erraticlly by starlight and nebulae.
The virtual viewpoint slipped across the panorama, holding above a starcraft that drifted slowly, lazily. Its sensor ports were open, conducting routine sweeps of the area.
Of course I recognized the craft. That ship - the IPS Concord - was once captained by a person I once thought I knew very well: myself.
The viewpoint descended, towards the bridge of the craft, and suddenly I was inside. I could see the crew going about their business as my virtual point of view panned about the interior, but it finally fixed on the figure in the center seat.
I looked good in that seat, I thought. I looked young.
A baritone voice from the metaspace console interupted that thought. "The year was AD 2101," it informed me. "War was beginning."
In the command chair, I swivelled about towards the science officer on duty and asked him for the results of the sensor sweep. I sipped my coffee as he brought the report over to me, which didn't tell me much; in deep space, the most interesting thing you may encounter is likely to be nothing more than a hydrogen atom.
This had been going on for weeks, as we charted the sector. I found myself wishing for something, anything, to break the mind-numbing tedium. We had received an update several days ago to maintain alert status as the Council's negotiations with the Rigellians were breaking down and war loomed on the horizon like a storm front. The crew, therefore, was tense and alert, but there was no outlet for the tension's dissapation. Our mission in this sector, therefore, was nerve-rackingly dull.
My thought track was broken by a brief rumble that seemed to shake the entire ship. My coffee cup clattered off my chair and plummeted to the deck, breaking cleanly in twain.
I turned to the ship's engineer. "What happen ?" I demanded of him.
Eyes wide with terror, he faced me and dispelled the news: "Someone set up us the bomb."
What was the old Earth saying? Be careful what you wish for..
Before I had a chance to mentally berate myself for wanting a break from the monotony, the lieutenant at the communications station touched his earpiece and a quizzical expression played across his sharp features. "Sir," he said, "we get signal."
"What!" I shouted at him.
The lieutenant's eyes glazed over slightly as he listened to the incoming communique, that distinct look people get when listening to something nobody else can hear. "Main screen turn on," he informed me, flipping the appropriate switch.
The forward viewscreen, which had been displaying mostly empty space, suddenly came to life. The figure on the screen had a smooth and lethal appearance, distinguished but not kind. The helmsman inhaled sharply as he connected a name to the face.
And who wouldn't? We knew the face well, as did every officer of the IPF, had it drilled into us daily by a bombardment of news reports and military updates. The man in question would only respond to his Enlightened Name, given to him before his rise to power by the religious sect that controlled his world: Cats.
"It's you !!" I said with a mixture of trepidation and awe.
Cats smiled briefly, sharp and immaculate teeth glinting harshly in the dim lighting aboard his ship. A small metallic object was visible on the side of his neck; the Voice Modulation Device he used when speaking, which caused him to appear even more soulless than he already was. The VMD's smooth and mechanical voice was always calm, meticulous.. and utterly terrifying.
"How are you, gentlemen !!" he sneered, "all your base are belong to us."
It wasn't possible, I told myself. That Cats could have taken control of every Interplanetary Federation outpost was inconceivable.. yet what would he gain by lying to me?
"You are on your way to destruction," he continued, and looking around the bridge of my craft, his words appeared to be more than an idle threat. The smoke was slowly clearing, swept away by bulkhead fans, but several computer screens were cracked, others pulsing cryptic error messeges. The damage control screen was littered with blood-red markers all along the ventral axis of the ship. It appeared that Cats' bomb had literally torn away the hull in that section.
"What you say !!" I said. Inadequate as it was, that was the only thing that occured to me, still stunned as I was by what was transpiring.
Cats - apparently unwilling to explain himself further - cut me off. "You have no chance to survive," he informed me, "make your time." He leaned back slightly in his seat, looking immensely amused and satisfied with himself, and cackled. The VMD provided an electronic simulacrum of laughter: "Ha ha ha ha.."
The screen froze for a brief moment, and then clicked back to the forward view of the starfield in front of us. I rose from the command chair and tugged on my uniform nervously. I felt dizzy; my thought processes were at a crawl, my vision blurred.
"Sir," said the helmsman, "are you alright, sir?"
I rubbed my temples and tried to think.
Back in realtime, I signalled the immersion console to pause. I found myself rubbing my temples here, as well. In general, metaspace never bothered me, but this particular immersion was hitting me much harder than I expected. I couldn't fault the console, though; it was the content of the tape that was getting to me. Watching myself make the same naive mistakes that I had dwelt on for two decades later, helpless to change anything..
But I knew I had to finish this, to see it through to the end, if for no other reason than to finally lay my own crushing fear to rest.
I swallowed, hard, and signalled the console to resume.
All eyes were on me, as the bridge crew waited for my orders.
I mentally ran down the facts: The Concord was crippled, perhaps beyond repair. Cats had successfully usurped control our outposts, and was moving into attack position. There were no other ally ships within range, and our engines were inoperative.
I had only one option.
I drew in a sharp breath, and addressed the helm. "Take off every 'zig'," I heard myself say, voice dark and heavy.
The helmsman, a green ensign on his first assignment, blinked in the smoky air of the ruined bridge, perhaps uncertain of his ability to execute my command.
"You know what you doing," I tried to reassure him. "Move 'zig'."
He nodded his understanding and turned his attention to his task. His fingers danced along the control panel, fumbled a bit, and continued.
Far below decks, I felt more than heard the ship buckle slightly with the recoil of the launch.
"For great justice," I whispered to myself, and then my vision turned hazy, white..
The metaspace immersion ended and the datatape clicked out of its slot. The screen before me
helpfully asked if I would like to search for another tape, blinking cursor at the ready.
I had done it. They said I couldn't face it again.
I had proven them wrong.
The feeling was exuberant, yet somehow anticlimatic. I had watched myself lose again, but I had a sense of liberation at last.
Outside, rain was beginning to fall, evaporating in the dry heat before it hit the ground. Such ghost rains were rare, but not unheard of.
I took the tape from its slot and placed it safely back in the zippered pocket of my
There is a force that drives us to our destiny, no matter how we try to shape it. There are some who will bow before that force, and submit weakly to it. There are some who will try to run from it.
And some - I now counted among them - who met it head-on and laughed in its face.
I laughed until tears streamed down my greying face, and stepped outside to challenge the days ahead.