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The Captain of the Caledonia

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“There’s something wrong,” his wife said without preamble, fixing him with a cool gaze.

Andy looked up from his coffee. “Wrong with what?” He knew she didn’t mean their, or anyone’s, relationship. Lydia wouldn’t waste her words on such things. He absent-mindedly admired the fall of auburn hair sweeping her shoulders.

“With the ship.”

Andy put down his mug. “With Caledonia? What’s wrong with her?”

“Didn’t you notice how erratically she was moving during the last battle?”

Andy shook his head. “I was Outside, remember?” He smiled a little at the thought. Nothing matched the exhilaration of fighter combat, tumbling and dancing through the vacuum. And Myungsun Ban in her fighter beside him, pulling off her crazy daredevil stunts.

“During the battle, starboard shield four went down for 3.4 seconds, for no apparent reason. Last week, a maintenance party was nearly trapped outside. In the past month, the courses laid in have been off by small but significant amounts. We would have gone straight into a gas giant if Caledonia hadn’t noticed and made corrections.”

Andy listened, appalled. “Sabotage?”

“I’m afraid it may be worse.”

“What’s worse than Alliance spies getting that sort of access to our systems?”

“That it isn’t the enemy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We – I have information,” Lydia said carefully, “that this may be the work of one individual. That person needs to be stopped, but we cannot act openly.”

“Why don’t you just report it to the Captain?” Lydia always made things more complicated than they had to be.

“And if the Captain knows, and hasn’t stopped it?”

Andy felt a chill down his spine and rolled his shoulders to get rid of the feeling. When you went out for a battle, you always knew you might not come back. But if you made it through, the ship would be there to welcome you. That was a rock-solid certainty. This was new and treacherous territory.

“Think about it,” Lydia advised. “But don’t mention it to anyone for now. Especially not Fighter-Pilot Ban.”

“Why not Myungsun?” Andy demanded indignantly, leaning forward in his seat.

“She is an excellent pilot,” Lydia said in her usual calm and precise tone, “but she has never been cautious. And she is unquestioningly loyal to the higher command.”

Andy tried to disentangle this. He hated politics, and having to remember what you could say to who. As long as the life support stayed on and the fighters kept flying, what did it all matter? He shook his head impatiently. “What do you want me to do?”

Lydia looked like she was about to reply, but at that moment the alarm sounded – the shrill WHOOP, WHOOP that meant enemy fighters sighted. “I’ll be back later,” he promised her, snatching his flight jacket from the hook without looking, his thoughts already running ahead into the clean silent vastness of space.

Macbeth and Ban met in the fighter bay after the battle, both of them high on adrenalin and grinning like lunatics. Ban had already pulled out the pins that held her hair coiled out of the way during combat, and her braid swung with her motions like a living thing. They clasped hands.

“I see you survived another one, you old fox—”

“No thanks to you. You pilot like a Downsider. You’re going to lose the Glamis doing that one of these days—”

“Not as long as you have my back, you crazy woman –”

Laughing, they reached the airlock side by side. Ban pressed the button to open it. Nothing happened. Reflexively, she pressed it again. The door remained closed. “Is it stuck?”

“Here, let me try.” Andy shouldered her out of the way, uneasily remembering what Lydia had said about malfunctions.

Ban rolled her eyes. “You think it’s going to open for you because it likes you better?”

The monitor beside the door flickered to life, displaying words. MACBETH MACBETH MACBETH. Only his name, three times. Andy stared. “What the—”

The scanner whirred, then focused on him. MACBETH NEEDED AS CAPTAIN. The glowing letters seemed to hang in the air. “What does that mean?” Andy demanded. “Tell me!” The screen faded to black.

Beside him, Myungsun was equally fascinated. “Anything to say to me, mysterious one?” The scanner whirred over her face. BAN, MYUNGSUN. COMMANDER OF FIGHTER-PILOTS.

“What?” Ban’s lips pursed disbelievingly. She jammed the button again. And then the airlock opened under her hand so suddenly that she nearly lost her balance. She recovered herself and strode through. “Len! What the hell was that about?”

Andy glanced back at the monitor screen. It was blank and silent. But he was certain he had not imagined the words.

He caught up with Myungsun to find her cornering the engineer on duty. “That kind of prank isn’t funny, Len, and you know it!”

The lanky engineer spread his hands in denial. “I didn’t do anything. Truly, Myungsun.”

After a moment she nodded grudgingly. “Can you find out who did?”

Len rubbed the graying hair on his temples. “That shouldn’t be possible. No one should be able to override that channel except for the Captain. Andy, you saw it also?”

Myungsun narrowed her eyes. “If you think I’m making it up—”

Andy put a calming hand on her shoulder. “I saw it too, Len. And the airlock was stuck – it wouldn’t open.”

Len nodded distractedly, already thinking about the problem. They left him muttering at his console.

Myungsun strode rapidly down the corridor, her long black braid thumping against her back. Andy lengthened his stride to catch up. “Myungsun, wait. About those messages—”

She stopped and turned to face him, her head tilted. “Someone certainly thinks you have potential,” she said lightly. “Captain Macbeth?”

Andy laughed uneasily. “It’s nonsense. A Captain is for life – everyone knows that. And what about you? Commander Ban?”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind –”

The comm whistled, summoning them to report to the Captain.

Captain Duncan awaited them on the bridge. Andy could not help feeling a twinge of awe whenever he saw the Captain, grave and commanding, the headset of his rapport with Caledonia woven through his grey hair. A forest of silver cables and sensors surrounded him, marked with flickering green and amber lights. He acknowledged their salutes. “Ban, Macbeth. Well done out there today.”

“Thank you, sir.” Myungsun received the Captain’s praise confidently, while Andy tried not to fidget.

“Unfortunately,” the Captain continued, “Commander Donelson’s fighter was hit today, and the Commander was injured. He’ll be all right, but he needs a month or two to recuperate. I can’t leave his position vacant for that long.” His gaze turned to Myungsun. “Fighter-Pilot Ban. Can you take over for him?”

Myungsun was clearly surprised, but she took it in stride. “Yes, sir.”

The Captain nodded, and his eyes grew distant. “Good. Caledonia speaks very highly of your abilities.”

Andy’s mind raced. To have the strange prediction fulfilled so soon – Could it come true for him, too? He glanced covetously at the Captain’s headset. Only a chosen Captain could navigate a liveship – and only the ship could choose the Captain. And then, symbiosis – Andy surreptitiously touched the ship’s wall, faintly warm under his hand. He fancied he could feel the thrumming of the great engines. To be Captain of a ship like Caledonia! He would give his right arm for an opportunity like that. Wrapped in his own thoughts, Andy barely heard the remainder of the exchange about Myungsun’s new duties. He came back to himself only when the Captain dismissed both of them.

Tired as he was, Macbeth could not rest when he returned to the quarters he shared with Lydia. He told her of his strange experience in the docking bay, his words tumbling over one another. “It said ‘Captain Macbeth.’ I’m certain.” He paced back and forth, too full of restless energy to sit still.

“All the better,” Lydia said. “You will understand the rest of what I have to say. We have to kill the Captain.”

Andy stopped abruptly. “Explain,” he said quietly.

She sighed deeply. “I’ve been talking with Rossi in Engineering. The problems with the ship – they’ve been caused by the Captain. I don’t know why. Perhaps something has gone wrong with his symbiosis – perhaps it’s his age – The important thing is that a ship at war cannot afford mistakes. Another moment of inattention in the next battle, or a problem with life support that Caledonia doesn’t catch in time – Andrew, he could kill all of us. And a Captain cannot be replaced or removed, except by death. At least, there’s no way that I know of. High Command might know, but they’re too far away. We have to handle this ourselves.”

After a long moment, Andy asked slowly, “But how can we possibly do it? The security –”

“It wouldn’t be possible, except that we have an important ally: Caledonia herself. Andrew, a ship is programmed to protect her Captain, but also her crew. She can’t act against him directly, but she realizes that he is putting us all in danger. The ship won’t act against us.”

Macbeth stood outside the door to the bridge. Only a few more seconds for the sleeping gas to clear, he told himself. The brief time seemed to stretch on forever, rubbing his nerves raw. Finally, Lydia spoke through the comm link in his ear. "It's safe now. Go." Macbeth swallowed and gripped his gun more tightly. It felt clammy in his grasp. Be bloody, bold and resolute – He stepped through the door. The few crew members on duty in the dead watch of the night lay scattered on the floor, as if seized by the witch’s spell in a fairytale.

As promised, Captain Duncan was unconscious, his head lolling back against the piloting chair. It seemed wrong, Macbeth thought, for the old man to be seen with such an undignified sprawl of limbs. He crossed to the chair and stopped. The Captain’s eyes were closed, but wouldn’t Caledonia see? If the ship herself turned against him –

Lydia’s voice spoke in his ear, making him jump. “Have you done it yet?”

“In a minute,” he replied distractedly. The gun was in his hand, but he hesitated. He had killed many times in the heat of battle, but never like this. To kill a sleeping old man – An old man who could destroy Caledonia and kill us all, he reminded himself. It had to be done. A single green light blinked on Duncan’s headset like a watching eye. It unnerved him. Feeling foolish, he covered the light with one hand and raised the gun with the other.

“What are you doing?”

Macbeth whirled. Myungsun Ban stood framed in the entrance. There was a fraction of a second before surprise turned to certainty and she reached for her weapon -- His hand seemed to move without conscious volition. A beam of blue light cracked from his gun. Myungsun’s eyes opened very wide and then she slid to the ground, crumpled in a heap.

“What is it? What’s happening?” Lydia demanded over the comm.

Macbeth swallowed. “Myungsun. She – I shot her.”

“Is she dead?”

“I think so. I – yes.”

“Good. Then take care of Duncan. Quickly.” Her voice held unusual sharpness. Maybe the strain was getting to her, too. Still numb from what he had seen, Andy placed the gun to Duncan’s head and fired.

“It’s done,” he reported.

“Good. Then put the guns I gave you in the crew members’ hands. ”

His brain felt sluggish. He was already at the door, reluctant to turn back toward that place of death and Myungsun's still form. “I forgot about that part. Does it matter?”

“Follow the plan!” Lydia said fiercely. “The confusion will buy us time." It was a moment before he could make himself move back into the room. He braced himself and obeyed, arranging the tableau of the sleeping and the dead.

Macbeth watched on his viewscreen as Duffaut, Caledonia’s executive officer, stood before the Captain’s empty chair and prepared to address the ship. Caledonia could see and hear her anywhere, of course, but the formality of the occasion demanded that she place herself here, at the ship’s heart. Her voice and image were transmitted throughout the ship, so all could see and hear the choice of the next Captain, who would command Caledonia until death or the ship’s dissolution. Her brown face was solemn as she addressed the living ship. “I, Martine Duffaut, Executive Officer of the liveship Caledonia, testify that Captain Duncan died today at 0400 hours. The senior officers have submitted their recommendations for the next Captain, but the final choice is yours. Tell us, Caledonia: who must be your next Captain?”

From the nest of sensors surrounding the Captain's chair, a scanner whirred and focused on Duffaut, its light playing over her face. EXECUTIVE OFFICER DUFFAUT, MARTINE. ACKNOWLEDGED. CAPTAIN NEEDED. SEARCHING RECORDS.

Macbeth smiled with anticipation. He was already dressed in his formal uniform. He was a little disappointed that Lydia was not with him at this moment, but she had some last details to finish up. She had promised to meet him on the bridge later.

The Caledonia’s main viewscreen came alight. Macbeth held his breath. This was the moment he had waited for all his life. MACBETH, the screen flashed. His smile widened. And then, impossibly: LYDIA.

He stood disbelieving. “What—“ His voice cracked. He seized his gun and bolted for the bridge, not waiting for the formal words of confirmation.

His pulse hammered in his ears as he ran. The ship's corridors were strangely empty; everyone would be riveted to their viewscreens, waiting for the ship's choice. Let them have something else to watch. Macbeth smiled grimly.

Again, he was at the bridge doors with his gun gripped in his hand. There could be no hesitation this time. Macbeth burst onto the bridge and pointed his gun at Lydia. “Nobody move!” His voice was harsh in his own ears. Duffaut took a step and stopped reluctantly, her face grim. Lydia, seated in the Captain’s chair and draped in Caledonia’s branching wires, only looked at him coolly. The forest of mechanical arms stirred like a live thing and reached toward him. One of the side viewscreens lit, and Macbeth was suddenly face-to-face with Myungsun Ban. No, not her – only a flat image. He silently screamed at himself to move but could not break free from his paralysis so long as Myungsun’s accusing gaze held him. When two of the security guards disarmed him and fastened his hands behind his back, Macbeth did not try to resist.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Duffaut said quietly.

Lydia gave a brief shake of her head. “Do your duty.” Macbeth heard a hint of regret in her tone, but also finality.

Duffaut turned to face Macbeth, and there was no sympathy in her eyes now. “Lieutenant Andrew Macbeth. You are under arrest for mutiny and murder.” She jerked her head at the guards. “Take him away.”

He turned his head back for a final look at Lydia before the bridge doors closed on her forever, and saw her sitting upright in the Captain’s chair, her head crowned with silver like a queen.