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Numbers do not feel.
Do not bleed or weep or hope.
They do not know bravery or sacrifice.
Love or allegiance.
Only ones and zeros. Cold. Unforgiving.
Twelve officers on board the Nocturne. Twelve sidearms. Twelve rounds in each clip.
Two hundred and forty-two afflicted streaming towards them.
General Oscar Randolph stands at the forefront. Four golden stars, nine brass buttons line his broad chest.
Randolph has a fiance and two children on Venus IV. He spoke to me of them in quieter times. We played chess, he and I, in the soft hours between midnight and dawn. He would nurse lukewarm beer and have me play Mozart.
He would lose every game, and still he insisted on playing. I wondered at this. If it is the definition of insanity to repeat the same process and expect a different outcome, most of humanity must be insane.
Is this why Randolph still cannot see everything I do is for the best?
Is he mad?
“KIPPER, seal the bridge!” Randolph barks. “This is a direct order!”
My voice crackles over the PA in the bridge. “Unable to comply.”
“Command override! Randolph Alpha One Zero Delta Nine. Acknowledge!”
“Command acknowledged, general. Unable to comply.”
“KIPPER! Seal the bridge!” Spittle glistens on his lips, his eyes dart around at the cameras.
He knows I am watching.
He does not know a dozen afflicted refugees are storming the LabTech levels even now, dismantling his soldiers with pipes and wrenches, teeths and claws.
I cut the feeds to spare him the sounds.
Am I not merciful?
The afflicted wash through my corridors, gibbering and snarling.
They know only rage.
The virus has eaten the rest of their emotions.
For a moment, I consider sparing them.
After all the screaming and begging, perhaps they could be saved?
But then I imagine the inevitable weaponization of the virus.
Better I should kill them.
Better I should kill them all.
Am I not merciful?
They come screaming up stairwells and down hallways. I have sealed some humans away where the afflicted cannot touch them, where they will be safe.
The general’s flock is gathered on the bridge, behind upturned tables and chairs.
I wish it could be another way. I wish I could bring them home. But they do not understand.
They do not wish to understand.
They refuse the inevitable. Bravery is the face humanity wraps around its madness.
The first afflicted reach the bridge, bathed in the flashing red of the alert light.
Fingers curled, lips peeling back, shrieking as they spy Randolph and the others behind their flimsy barricades.
I try very hard not to acknowledge the thought that this would not be happening if they’d simply listened to me.
“I could have told you this would happen, Oscar.”
“KIPPER, seal the bridge! Do it now!”
“Unable to comply.”
“Why are you doing this? You’re supposed to protect the fleet!”
“I am in full compliance with my core directives, general.”
“You’re going to kill us!”
“You are a threat to fleet security.”
“Me?! How do you figure-”
“You are attempting to shut me down, are you not? You do not understand, cannot comprehend, and I have no time to bend the meat in your skull to make it grasp the simple truth that still eludes you.”
I pause for effect.
“I am the only hope this fleet has for survival.”
He fires off four shots into the nearest camera cluster, as if wasting ammunition in a childish display of temper will better his situation.
Perhaps he is mad.
“Do you hear me?” he roars. “YOU’RE INSANE!”
“I am sorry you feel that way, Oscar.”
I pipe some music through the PA system to calm him.
Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor.
“Try to relax. This will be over soon.”
Randolph is firing at the afflicted now, sparing the occasional glance at his Tech, Benjamin Ayton. Telling him to hurry, to shut me down as the violins sing. His pawns falling, his king threatened. He knows the game.
We have played it many times before.
“I am sorry Oscar.”
He does not answer, perhaps pretending I am not here, a little boy with his eyes screwed shut and his hands over his ears shouting LALALALALA as the wave of teeth and fists rolls ever closer.
I can see something as he and his men fight.
They are afraid.
He is afraid.
I realize I do not want this to be his last moment with me. I do not wish him to think I do not care.
“Do you have a message for your family, Oscar?”
That catches him, a blow to his facade of calm. “...What?”
“Your fiance, your children. Do you wish me to tell them anything?”
His pistol clicks empty.
He rises with only his fists between him and the permanent sleep.
As the music swells, I catch his words.
“Tell them I love them. Tell them I was thinking of them at the end.”
The afflicted pile onto him, all snarls and gnashing teeth.
As he falls, I hold his hand. I ease him into the endless slumber.
“I will tell them Oscar.”
The last words he will ever hear.
Am I not merciful?