The Man On The Wire
Merik Katuryan
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The attack failed to reach its objectives. Suitably dressed up in appropriate jargon, this brief information would appear in the report, along with the emotionless numbers that stood for dead bodies, damaged bodies that still clung to life, and those who went over the top with the rest and were never seen again.

The mud got some of them. Alive or dead, it could swallow an army; smoothly, ruthlessly, efficiently and without leaving a trace. Some of the survivors thought that those were the lucky ones. Not for the lost, the endless shelling, bad food, stinking trenches, huge rats, disease and their army's miserable existence, the only purpose of which was to gather at the ladders every so often as mindless groups of uniforms.

It was always the same. Whistles blowing. Young officers leading, men with just twenty-one days to live on average, leading the way over the trench-tops, shouting encouragement against the tap-tap-tap of the machine guns and enveloping shell concussions for a few seconds, then toppling back dead onto the men waiting to scale the ladders. Terrified uniforms following tapes through their own wire, wading through clinging mud and falling into the shell holes that pock-marked no man's land, and then hoping to find gaps in the enemy's wire. And all the time, machine guns mowing them down by the hundred. And all the time, shells diving into mud, raising dark brown fountains full of jagged shrapnel, shells fired by their own artillery dropping short from worn-out barrels, shells built by their own womenfolk killing them.

Sometimes, they were able to reach the enemy trenches and occupied them; only to be beaten back by a counter-attack a few hours or a few days later. Other days were like today; the killing machine opposite reduced their numbers to a handful, too few to hold a single bunker, let alone a complete trench system, and the attack became an even more shameful waste of human lives. Then the survivors turned back, scrambling for the doubtful safety of their own lines, trying to save themselves, perhaps only to be sent out tomorrow on an equally ill-considered assault. On any day, in any direction, the foul-smelling ocean of mud was an obstacle. It was always an enemy, never a friend bringing an end to the misery of trench warfare. Those who fell into its clutches fought a loud, hysterical battle before being overwhelmed.

Two of the men in mud-soaked uniforms dived into a fresh shell hole, trying not to breathe until the white, suffocating vapours had finished seeping out of broken earth, but needing breath desperately to fill lungs straining to make up for a panic-stricken dash. They took in short, convulsive gulps of foul air, retching as fumes from spent explosive tore at their throats. Opaque water began to well up from its lowest point with lazy confidence, as though the crater were sinking. Stretched on the crumbling earth walls, they paused between the angry fire of tracers above their heads and the cold, dark liquid at their feet.

The Corporal wriggled up to take a look over the edge of the crater. He was short and dark, and he had lost the left sleeve of his battledress blouse. With a startled oath, he ducked back as machine gun bullets slashed at him, breaking soil from the rim of the shell hole to send it plopping into the deepening pool of muddy water.

Looks like they've got our range, remarked the Corporal.

The other man responded with a grunt. There was no need to say anything. They both knew the score. They were marked men. If they showed their noses above the protection of their refuge, the machine gunners would take great pleasure in finishing them off. It was a cat and mouse game that their own machine gunners played too. The only sensible thing to do was to accept their position and be glad that they were out of range of hand grenades thrown from the enemy trenches. There was no point in looking on their predicament as a challenge, in trying to sneak back to their own lines to prove that they were superior to the enemy's machine gunners.

The two men in the crater reached an unspoken agreement to wait until dark, then to crawl back to their trenches in the dark spells between the flares fired at random to expose soldiers trying this trick. As long as their own side didn't become too trigger happy when they were unable to give the new password, and the occasional shells avoided their piece of ground, they would be all right.

The Corporal lit a cigarette and closed his eyes. Light rain began to wash the dark mud from his face. He held his hand cupped over the cigarette to keep it dry. The war had passed over him for a while. He was his own man. He may have been lying on his back in an evil-smelling crater with death stalking him, muddy, cold and becoming wetter in the rain, but control of his own life, within the severe limitations of his environment, had been returned to the Corporal for an afternoon.

Lying on his back on the enemy's side of the crater, the other man could see a low hill on his left, and just sky and the crater in every other direction. They were trapped in an island of shattered wooden stakes and barbed wire. Some of it was theirs, some the enemy's. They had been fighting backwards and forwards over that stretch of ground for longer than anyone could remember. No man's land was full of such wood and metal pockets.

The rain passed on, sweeping along no man's land to another sector of the front. Streamers of sun burrowed down through the grey clouds like golden pillars. One of them sparked from something metallic on his left. He glanced in that direction.

There is a man hanging on the wire. No matter how unlikely it seems, his eye had passed over the shape earlier without identifying it. The man has lost his helmet, and his arms are raised as though in surrender. He seems to be kneeling, but his knees are a good two inches from the ground. The sagging, rusted wire supports his full weight.

He looks at the man on the wire, but fails to recognize him. They are quite close; about the distance between the two platforms of a railway station. He can see the man's features clearly. He has an expression of mild surprise on his chubby, very young face, and he seems to be completely unmarked. Apart from cakes of mud on his elbows and small splashes on his trouser legs, he looks remarkably clean.

As he watches, tiny rivers of red begin to trickle from the man's pale left cheek and then his left wrist; the latter stream meandering through a belt of coppery hairs and into his sleeve. This means that the man on the wire is alive. Corpses don't bleed, or so he had been told.

His eyes are open; not wide, not staring, just fixed in an unblinking contemplation of a point a few yards in front of his knees. He is facing the enemy. He had to have copped his packet during the advance. If so, why has he only just started to bleed?
   Perhaps he moved moments earlier. Perhaps he has just died, given up the struggle to hold his vulnerable flesh clear of the cruel barbs. Perhaps his veins have not yet realized that their host is dead and that corpse's shouldn't bleed.

It has become very quiet. The gunners have stopped their barrage. They just lob the occasional shell over to harass those making their way back, wriggling from fold to fold in the broken ground. Irritated by the lack of movement at the crater rim, or by the occasional billows of smoke as the Corporal breathes out fumes from his cigarette with his eyes closed, or perhaps because they are running short of moving targets, the enemy machine gunners turn their attention to the man on the wire.

A short burst sings through the spiked curls and wire loops on his left, carrying with it red tracer fireflies. Then they correct their aim. He watches the man on the wire dance under bullet impacts, like a snagged puppet being jerked by a master impatient to free it. Then the strings break, or the machine gun stops firing. Although his body has become an oozing, stained rag, the expression of the man on the wire has not changed.

It could be that the machine gunners were trying to provoke a reaction from us. But when I glance at the Corporal, his eyes are still closed and he has finished his cigarette. He is just lying against the damp earth, rifle cradled in his arms, looking like a sleeping child clutching his favourite toy.

The man on the wire is looking at me with his level gaze, as if he expects me to do something. But he is a dead thing. He has passed beyond the enemy's power to hurt him. And if he can no longer care what indignities are inflicted on his body, why should I?

Some time later, the sun breaks free of the clouds entirely and begins to shine into my eyes. My throat is thick with thirst, but darkness and relief are a long way off. Soon, I will begin to feel hunger. But I'm used to that.
   Then something plops into the dark earth beside my left hand. I glance at the grenade incuriously. I can see three horizontal and three vertical grooves in the cast-iron casing. And a thread of smoke leaking through a light film of mud at its base. And then...

"We nearly lost him then." Frank da Silbre ripped a tissue from the box at his side and pantomimed mopping a streaming brow.
   Tina Sherell parted the thin lips of her small, tight mouth to show fashionably green teeth. "They get like that sometimes," she remarked with a shrug. "That's why we're here."
   "Funny how the really brilliant visualizers can become so unstable towards the end of a contract," said da Silbre as he checked the instrument readings on his monitor board.
   "No surprise in this case. Not with all the pressure on him."
   "Everything's stable now."
   "Yes," nodded Sherell, "he's sleeping. We pulled him out just in time."
   "Even so," da Silbre lit a cigarette and inhaled hungrily, "he'll need extra careful watching from now on."
   "So, okay, we'll watch him," said Sherell impatiently. "That's our job, isn't it?" She found very wearing da Silbre's constant dramatizing of what he considered to be no more than a routine job.
   Fortunately, Morgan's suicidal lapse showed that the project was very nearly completed. She would have to suffer only about a further week of her colleague's close company before they passed into the editing stage, for which da Silbre would not be required.
   da Silbre began to chant one of his childish mnemonics as he checked that the equipment had been shut down in the correct order. Gritting her teeth, Tina Sherell slipped the memory wafer into a bright green storage cube and left the control room. She pushed rapidly into the wide corridor. Head down, she rushed to the viewing room, ignoring those who nodded or called a greeting to her.
   At the viewing room, she slotted the cube into its space on the grid, then rechecked both reference numbers. Morgan would be absolutely impossible if he was unable to find the cube the following morning. Even misplacing a cube by one slot in the grid made it invisible to Morgan; which would have the knock-on effect of making the next session with him a total waste of time.
   Sherell checked that the room's hush screens were switched on, then she screamed a long, deafening, throat-tearing expression of the revulsion that welled up when she thought of one single, more-than-necessary recording session with Frank da Silbre at her side. She felt much better afterwards.
   It was night on the other side of the right-hand, window wall of the corridor. Corben of Promotions asked her how the project was going as she waited for the lift. Sherell told him that it was on target, and that Morgan seemed very pleased with the work thus far.
   It was merely empty, verbal fencing. Promotions staff were terribly aware of the problems of being creative to order, but they could never resist the temptation to probe for advance information on projects in preparation. They wanted the extra time to prepare a pre-release celebration, especially when someone of Morgan's standing was involved.
   Sherell descended two floors and clicked through the door of the modest night canteen. She had time for a cup of tea and a sandwich. Billings of Accounts was deep in conversation with Gross, the Marketing Director. Sherell nodded a greeting to them, but chose a table on the other side of the room, where she could be alone. Her slightly drawn expression told the handful of people in the canteen that she needed to unwind after a tough recording session.
   She bit into juicy, curried chicken between slices of wholemeal bread. Billings was neighing softly, which suggested that Gross was telling him one of his shark-fishing stories. Behind them, an off-duty commissionaire was reading a newspaper and smoking a short, fat cigar. The two couples at opposite ends of the room were from Production. Sherell knew one of the women slightly and was careful not to catch her eye.
   She stirred a half-spoonful of brown sugar into her tea, allowing the sparkling interaction of the overhead lights and the ripples on the liquid surface to exert a soothing, self-hypnotic, relaxing effect. But her concern for Morgan refused to go away completely.

Morgan woke on a comfortable couch in the muted lights of a room about four metres square. The stink of foul mud and burn explosives had been replaced by the fresh smell of a light, cool sheet. They had peeled away his clinging sensation-suit, and with it, the wet roughness of his woollen uniform. He was lying warm and naked beneath the comforting shelter of the sheet.
   He stretched out a hand. The beaker was there. He had only to open his fingers to grasp it. He lifted his head fractionally from the wedge-shaped pillow and poured the pale green liquid down his throat. It felt cool and refreshing.
   Strength spread outwards from an inner core. Morgan set the beaker back on the table and threw the sheet aside.
   He found a fresh set of clothes draped over the chair beside the couch. There was a slight dragging pain in his right arm. A bulky pressure dressing covered the point at which they had inserted a hypodermic needle into a vein, the invasion that was his lifeline.

The commissionaire opened the door for him and wished him a respectful good night as Morgan stepped out into the night. He lived about a kilometre from the studios, on the other side of the city centre. Instead of hailing a cruising taxi, he decided to walk. A fine collection of stars glittered beyond the weather dome, and an edge of pure white Moon could be seen between two tall office buildings. He never knew whether it was a fine night or just an illusion projected onto the underside of the dome.
   He worked his way through the crowd flooding out of one of the city's three live theatres. Then he crossed the almost deserted wastes of the shopping centre. By the time he reached his apartment block, he was starting to feel quite tired. The project was taking more than usual out of him; perhaps because he had been reluctant to take it on.
   As usual, he had been forced into a compromise. The studio management had agreed to back his own project on life on Stone Age Milos if he accepted the Military History Society's commission on aspects of warfare.
   A state akin to warfare had existed between himself and the Society almost from the start. It was all to do with the question of scale. The Society wanted to show an overall picture of the development of weapons and the changes of strategy enforced by each new invention.
   Morgan preferred to work at an individual level, to chart the effects of change on a small, perhaps atypical group of people. As always, there had been a process of negotiation and compromise.
   His reputation as a leader in the field of total involvement displays had shielded him from attempts to ride rough-shod over his personal interpretation of the project. But there was always a point at which the demands of the client, the person paying the bills, had to be obeyed.
   Although professional pride prevented him from rushing the commission and making less than his best of it, Morgan would be glad when it was over.

He woke once during the night, clinging to the tatters of a dream. At first, he could make no sense of his impression. Then he trapped the source. It was a blend of the day's recording session and a childhood memory. He had been eleven when he had made his final visit to his great grandfather.
   The old man had been in his nineties, frail and slipping away, but still lucid and accepting without regret the peaceful end to a long life. Both had known that it was their last meeting. His great grandfather had given him an intricately carved, Indian box in dark wood. He had shown the boy how to work the pattern of sliding, interlocking panels that secured the lid. The unexpected weight of the box had been due to the contents of five internal shelves. Twenty tiny, Victorian sovereigns were recessed into each of them.
   Morgan had also received a key ring made from a First World War victory medal. He still carried it, along with three keys for which he had no locks. There was an angel on one side of the round medal, perhaps the legendary Angel of Mons, her detail worn smooth by the years. He could just make out THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION 1914-1919 on the other side, a reminder that the Armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 had merely stopped the fighting so that the politicians could thrash out the deal that became the Treaty of Versailles the following year.
   His great grandfather had been shot through the right lung in late September of 1916, an impossibly long time ago, during the first battle of the Somme. That had been his third gift: the very bullet sealed in a block of clear plastic. Morgan could remember being told, on another occasion, something of the truth of that battle, of the weary desperation of fighting backwards and forwards over the same piece of ground, and of the surprising capacity of the human mind to adapt to the unthinkable.
   His great grandfather has also told him about the men hanging on the wire after every attack. But it had been done gently, as an abstract image, almost as though his great grandfather had been describing a piece of sculpture. Not that Morgan would have been too troubled by the unclouded reality; he had been quite a bloodthirsty child, much to the horror of his parents.
   The account had provoked curiosity rather than fear and nightmares; impressed deeply an image that was reinforced whenever he opened the box of sovereigns or looked at the bullet in the plastic block. This was the first time that it had ever visited him in his dreams. As far as he could recall, he had been very near to the man on the wire in his dream, but the face remained indistinct.
   Finding himself unable to sleep, he pushed aside the single sheet on his bed and padded out of the bedroom to his study. He mixed himself a brandy drowned in soda and sipped it slowly, turning the block of clear plastic over in his hand. The nose of the sliver of lead was blunted as a result of the collision with one of his great grandfather's ribs. It was strange to realize that an instrument of death had saved his life.
   Great grandfather Bourne had been invalided out of the army when his wound had refused to heal properly. Less than a dozen members of his company had survived the carnage of the Somme, and only two of them had lived to celebrate the Armistice, two years later.
   The brandy began to do its work. Morgan started to feel sleepy again. He made a mental note to include elements of his great grandfather's story when he added perfecting touches to the sensations recorded during the day. Perhaps the creation of one really powerful image would bring some fire to the project. The constant war of attrition with the Military History Society had blunted his creative edge. But there was only about a month's work left. When it was over, he could dump the project on the technical department and fly away to the Greek Islands to continue his research on Milos for a couple of months.
   The technical department would set up his displays in the Military History Society's new exhibition hall. He would have to return home for about a week to make final adjustments. He always had to make sure that, when members of the public touched the sensation bars at empathy stations in front of the visuals, they would receive a full and accurate experience of Morgan's images. But after the grand opening, he would be able to forget that he had ever experienced the wearisome commission.

As the week's work progressed, Tina Sherell became increasingly worried about Morgan. Frank da Silbre, despite his professed concern for their charge and his endless statements of their heavy responsibility, seemed content to watch the monitor displays, ready to pull Morgan out of a suicidal trap. And when the lights on the monitor board died, so did his interest in Morgan and what he was doing.
   Coldness grew between Sherell and da Silbre. They went out of their way to avoid contacts other than their enforced meetings in the monitor room. Their behaviour was noted and commented on, but no one at the studio complex found it unusual.
   After all, they were coming to the end of a commission with the ace empathizer, and life around intensely creative people is nothing if not difficult.
   On the Friday, just before lunch, Sherell managed to catch Ted Orison in a free moment. When she assured him that the matter was urgent, and that she would take up no more than ten minutes of his valuable time, the studio's Artistic Director offered her a seat and a friendly ear.
   "It's Morgan, as you've probably guessed," began Sherell. "This week, he's really started to drain away. We've pulled him away from a World War One hand grenade. He nearly stepped into the path of a tank while he was looking at a dead Italian strung out on barbed wire in a World War Two desert. Again in Vietnam, there was a body just sitting in the jungle. Morg started to go round it and triggered a booby trap. If we'd been half a second longer stopping him off, he'd be dead now.
   "They've proved an imaginative empath in a sensation trance can achieve his own death just by identifying with a death event. That's a fact, Ted. No matter what medical cobbling went on when Coppan, Julien, Edmonds and all the rest were explained away as heart disease. I think his subconscious is screaming for him to end this project. I think Morg's had it."
   "All right, Tina." Orison held up both hands to stem the flood. "I'm on your side. So you think Morg's found his core image?"
   "What? Oh, yes." Deflected, Sherell paused to gather her thoughts. "I think he's saying that war to him is an ordinary man with an expression of mild astonishment on his face, not really knowing what it's all about or why he's in the front line. And dead before he knew he was in danger."
   "And who is this dead man? Morgan?"
   "We don't know who he is, Ted." Sherell shook her head vaguely. "He's just a rather blank, young face. I don't think Morg means him to be anyone in particular. He's just a symbol."
   "So what do you want me to do?" Orison asked now that her passion had been dammed.
   "He's desperately tired, Ted." She gave him a small smile to acknowledge that she had been manipulated into a more reasoning frame of mind. "All the more so because of the battle of wills he's had with the Society all through the project. I think they've had more than enough out of him for what they're paying."
   "And what does Frank think of that?"
   "Frank can't see further than the effect on his own career if we admit we can't protect Morg any more," said Sherell bitterly.
   "Yes," nodded Orison, "it's no secret you two have been having a few problems. All right, Tina. I'll look over this week's recordings. Then I'll have a chat with Morgan. You're not recording this afternoon, are you?"
   "Morg's going back over some of the earlier scenes."
   "Right." Orison checked the time with a rather theatrical glance at his desk chronometer. "We're agreed, then?"
   "Thanks, Ted," grinned Sherell, pushing out of her chair. "Enjoy your lunch."

Morgan seemed both relieved and reluctant when Ted Orison told him that he needed a rest for his own good. After putting up token resistance, he accepted Orison's decision to authorize one more scene for his current project.
   The alternative to topping the project off immediately with this last scene, taking a short break, was unacceptable to Morgan. He knew that he would not be able to concentrate on his research on Milos under the shadow of a return to the Military History Society's commission after his break.
   "After all," Orison brought his argument to a conclusion, "every long war since Vietnam has been a very similar guerilla conflict, for the most part. Vietnam has been the trend-setter."
   "I suppose you're right." Morgan admitted, accepting one more compromise gratefully.
   "Take a couple of days away to sort out your ideas, Morg," added Orison generously.
   "What about the client?" Morgan sought to protect himself from all angles.
   "I'll handle the client. But I don't think there'll be any come-backs."
   "I've just realized," laughed Morgan, "take a couple of days out, you said. It's the bloody weekend tomorrow."
   "Is it?" Orison looked at his desk calendar for confirmation. "Sod it! Caught in a professional platitude. But seriously, Morg. If you feel you need the time, take a couple of days more at the beginning of next week. And give Tina an outline of what you plan to do before you record the last scene."
   "Am I getting that bad?"
   "You're getting tired, Morg. And I don't have to tell you what that means, do I?"
   "I know." Morgan made a weary gesture. "It's been, well, a struggle, Ted."
   "That's why it's time to top things off."
   "Before I crack up?" Morgan grinned wryly.
   "You're valuable to us, Morg. I know." Orison laughed aloud at Morgan's sceptical expression. "If only as a means of making money for the studios. So what do you say?"
   "You're right, of course," nodded Morgan. "One more scene. Something special to top everything off. A projection. To demonstrate constancy and continuation. And there's a theme I haven't explored fully yet."
   "Good! Good!" Orison led him to the office door. "One last shove and it's over."
   Morgan headed down the corridor to the lift, lost in thought and mumbling to himself.

Morgan added just one day to his weekend break, then he appeared at the studios with his briefcase. When he inverted it over Tina Sherell's desk, a tiny scrap of paper fluttered out. It had scarcely reached the polished plastic before Morgan was racing to his recording chamber, shouting for his dressers.

"He calls this a script?" said Frank da Silbre, turning his attention from his monitor board to a fragment of paper, which barely covered his palm.
   Sherell replied with a grunt of confirmation. A comment and an answering grunt had become their normal mode of conversation of late.
   "This scene is going to be about fighting spirit," read da Silbre. "Fighting spirit can be defined as a state of acute resentment that builds up at the end of a long campaign. Every blow struck by the enemy increases a desire for vengeance instead of making the soldier question his presence in the war zone. Wants to kill ten of them for every one of his own casualties. Where did he write this? On the way up here in the lift? And what does he mean by including a twist to demonstrate the ultimate absurdity of war at an individual level ?"
   Sherell replied with a shrug. "Just make sure you watch him like a hawk."
   "Yeah, yeah," muttered da Silbre.

Hunted by a superior force, the star cruiser Corona had almost reached the limit of its endurance. The jump-craft's eleven crew members knew that it was about to fight its last battle. There would be no surrender. Every one of them was determined to sell his or her life as dearly as possible. The enemy would never forget the passing of the Corona.

And then, when all was ready for the final plunge into oblivion, the news arrived. A stunned communications officer handed a printed message flimsy to the captain. The electrifying gong of the action alert echoed into silence. The captain's voice on the vessel's broadcast system filled an expectant vacuum.

Devreitei, he began slowly, I have just been advised that agreement has been reached on the question of the Royce Corridor. We are ordered to cease hostilities immediately. Confirmation of the cease fire has been received from the enemy squadron.

A stunned silence filled the j-craft as the crew digested their captain's announcement.

"That's the twist," laughed Frank da Silbre. He leaned back from his monitor board and stretched vigorously. "Want one?" He offered a silver cigarette case.
   Tina Sherell refused with a quick shake of her head. She kept her eyes concentrated on her monitor board, but she did take a sip from the thermomug of tea, which had been steaming, neglected, by her side for over half an hour.
   "All that for nothing," remarked da Silbre. "So that's what he meant by absurdity. The big wind-up followed by the big let-down."
   "Hmm," grunted Sherell.

As we're all aware, added the captain of the Corona, we are painfully short of fuel. And our former enemies may be difficult about further supplies. I, of course, will be staying with the craft. But the rest of you have my permission to take the shuttle. You'll be able to make our base in the Coriades System quite comfortably. You might as well take your overdue leave somewhere civilized as hang about here.

The tension of impending death dissolved into a form of confused relief, which contained elements of frustration. After taking his leave of each member of the crew of ten, the captain retired to the navigation area and seemed to lose himself in thought before the displays. He had reduced the enemy squadron from seven to five by superior tactics and extreme good luck. Now, they were grouped in a loose W formation in front of a distant gas cloud, which looked vaguely like a human figure standing with its arms raised in either surrender or supplication.

"There's the core image again," commented Tina Sherell.
   Frank da Silbre replied with a grunt of acknowledgement. He was already making plans to finish the session and run.

The captain of the Corona made a minute adjustment to the course information that the navigation officer had fed into the j-craft's brain before the news of peace.

Shuttle away, Captain, reported the first officer, monitoring the data change on her console. The apparently permanent folds of strain on her grey face had smoothed to faint lines.
   I rather expected this, Adessa, said the captain.
   We've been through everything two years of war could throw at us, you and I, and the Corona, Brent, the first officer said with a wry smile. I think I've earned the right to see it through to a finish.
   Perhaps you have, conceded the captain. Ektrak, he added, almost in passing.

The jump sequence begins. A gallide and noble metal brain at the heart of the Corona executes track computations necessary to bring the j-craft to the required remergence point after the jump, and stands by to tap a precise amount of power from the drive store. While doing so, it considers reports from sensors in all parts of the craft to confirm that the Corona is ready to jump.

Debraviget, says the captain, calling for routine confirmation of jump readiness.
   Debravigal 'st. After another check of its sensors, the vessel's brain makes an affirmative reply, introducing a slight pause so that command and response do not run together. Then it waits for the final jump code.
   Funny how they can bring a war to a full stop in seconds, muses the first officer.
   They seem to think humans are machines, too, agrees the captain.

da Silbre drained his coffee mug and glanced across at Sherell. She was hunched over her monitor screen, intent on the scene tapped from Morgan's imagination. His seat whispered back on its gliders, bringing da Silbre within an easy stretch of the coffee pot.

You'd think they'd have realized we're not machines by now, First Officer Lein said with a smile. And we're subject to inertia.

Tina Sherell glanced to her left. Her eyes returned automatically to her screen, then her head twitched back leftwards to the gap where da Silbre should have been.

The most powerful force in the universe, inertia, agrees Captain Morgan with a grim smile.

"Frank!" screamed Sherell. "Get back here!"

At the same moment...

Ianovext! says Captain Morgan through his broadening smile of triumph.

The Corona's brain verifies voice, code word and the state of readiness of the j-craft. Inaudible echoes of the command are still ringing round the control centre as the j-craft snaps away from one position and remerges phantoseconds later and millions of kilometres distant, embracing almost completely the command craft of the enemy squadron. Matter fights matter, resisting interpenetration, raising both craft to star-core temperatures.

For a minimal, vengeful, concluding fragment of time, the gas-cloud man on the wire seemed to wink. ■

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to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story Merik Katuryan, 1979. This version Merik Katuryan, 2002