Liam Hogan

September 15, 2023

“So you get to Alteron first,” the grease monkey said, yanking the straps that held me securely within the needle-nosed fighter, “which means you‘ll land last.”

“Huh? Wait, what?”

She smiled. Short haired, freckles—or oil splatters? Kind of cute, though insanely young. And all over me, at the moment, though purely from a professional perspective.

“Weren‘t paying attention during briefing, were you, flyboy?”

I bristled and probably blushed. She waved it away.

“Don‘t worry, it happens, ‘specially for virgins.”

I didn‘t think I could get any redder.

“The Goliath has only just begun her descent,” she went on. “Turned ass over tit, engines towards our destination, slowing us down. You‘re in the first wave of fighters—the shock wave. And once we kick you overboard, you‘re NOT slowing.

“Meaning you‘ll hit Alteron traveling at something like thirty thousand kilometers a second. Initial reports suggest Alteron‘s defense system extends maybe thirty-five k-klicks—as far out as geostat. So your war will be over in just over two seconds from first contact.”

I knew all that. Knew the targeting systems would have already selected things for my missiles to hit. And for ‘missiles‘ read chunks of depleted uranium—when you‘re traveling at a tenth of c you are the missile. Best we could do is give them a little nudge so they fanned out onto the right trajectory, though like the drones that preceded me, I‘d be beaming back valuable intel for the next, somewhat slower, more precise wave.

I was there, as human pilot, because tactical AIs had calculated we gave a small but appreciable advantage in making any final decisions when there were a lot of targets in the sector. The squadron had trained hard for this. For our month of complete and utter boredom, speeding along on near-starvation rations, muscles wasting away in zero-g and tubes going places it wouldn‘t be polite to mention, followed by about an hour of final approach planning, and then weapons hot and heavy and blam!

I still didn‘t get it, the landing last bit. Maybe I was the monkey, like those dumb animals first sent into space in the way-back-when.

“So you exit the battle stage right, and you‘re still going thirty thousand kilometers an hour,” she patiently explained. “Heading away from Alteron.”

“Oh.” The penny finally dropped. “And then I start decelerating?”

She laughed. Actually laughed. “You see any fuel tanks on this heap of junk?”

I had to admit I didn‘t. I squinted at the area above her left breast, trying to read the name badge without appearing to lech.

“You and you alone, in the tiny support pod which is this cockpit, will get thrown out and back from your speeding fighter at as many G as you can handle and flyby the fifth planet, the gas giant, close enough to shoot turkeys, all to put you into an extreme elliptical orbit, still heading away. Then you go to sleep, gravity does its thing and the Goliath mops up. We come pick you up on your way back into the inner system. Assuming,” she went on, the pink tip of her tongue poking out as she checked my life support stats, “I‘ve cinched the straps tight enough and you‘re not instant Jello.”

She looked me in the eye. Scanned them, searching for something, perhaps. Nodded. “Don‘t worry, all that stuff is automatic which is why you haven‘t had to do it in the simulator over and over. You‘ll be fine. Just better hope the war is a short one and you don‘t have to go around twice.”

I blinked and she laughed again.

Joking. Long as you don‘t hit anything on the way through. Your relative speed means even if that anything is stood still it‘s still going to... ah, no point in getting all graphic. But if you get to the deep sleep stage, you‘re golden. Unless we actually lose the war,” she chuckled, as if that was an impossibility, “we‘ll be picking you flyby heroes up and for you it‘ll be like an hour has gone by.”

I finally twigged what the most important question was. “And for the Goliath? How long for you?”

She smiled. “‘Bout twelve years. The age gap between us won‘t exist any more. I might even outrank you.” She looked me up and down, trussed as I was, the neck and head brace meaning I couldn‘t look anywhere else except those steady hazel eyes. “You can maybe buy me a drink, for rescuing your ass?”

I smiled. “I‘d be delighted, Lieutenant Elena Rodriguez.”

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Captain Mackensie moseyed over while the prepped fighter was being wheeled toward the carrier deck.

“You do your usual thing, Roddy?”

She watched the needle jet exit the cavernous hanger before turning to her boss. “If you mean give him a reason to live, then yes.”

“And how many fighters have you dispatched these last two weeks?”

She reddened. “Eighteen.”

“Going to be a full dance card.”

She turned on the captain, a flash of anger in her eyes, but only for a moment. War was hell, and she—they—were only doing what was necessary. “The other engineers, they tell the truth?”

It was his turn to look sheepish. “Don‘t suppose they do. What did you make it? Twelve years?”

“Long enough to be remarkable, short enough not to scare the bejesus out of them. Don‘t suppose we‘d get many volunteers if they knew.”

“You‘d be surprised.” The captain shook his head. “We keep ‘em separate from the grunts, but we‘ve got some veterans on this mission.”

“Oh? How many times?”

“Five, one of them. This‘ll be their number six.”

“Six rides on the ol‘ merry-go-round? Is he some sort of dinosaur?”

She. And yes. But she says she‘s getting to see the Universe—change. Always something new and interesting to wake up to. Plus, she outlives all her exes.”

Six times two centuries… A twelve hundred-year-old soldier? Roddy shuddered. It didn‘t bear thinking about.

Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He‘s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars‘ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London.

“Merry-Go-Round” is original to Bullet Points.