19th in Love
By Gerard Mulligan
HE MET THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Rosanna Dagamac in his first body. He was just one of the new batch of men and women, all fresh faced from the ship’s casks, who crowded the port tunnel leading from the gestation ship to the Juventas transport hub hanging at a low elevation above the planet of the same name. As with all the pre-conditioned combatants, he was now fully prepared and excited to move out to the latest flare up with the MEC Alliance. In addition to outlining the recruits’ rapid natal history from embryo to fully mature combat soldier, the artificial memory inserts insured his total loyalty and enthusiasm for the coming war.
Rosanna had been waiting at the port tunnel with her mother who was serving as the Medical Officer on-board the Juventas and wanted to get an early look at the new batch before they underwent their medical scans. Bored by the delay as the gestation ship completed its lengthy docking procedures, Rosanna had wandered off from her mother’s side and was taken by surprise by the sudden rush of people as the port tunnel opened. They spilled onto the ship surrounding her. He came across her, alone and crying, standing in the middle of a river of green fatigued chatting and laughing soldiers. He stopped and bent down on one knee.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“I’m lost,” she replied choking out each word.
“What’s your name?”
“Anna ... Rosanna.”
“Someone as young as you must be a Natural. Is your mother or father around here?”
“My mammy is.”
“Will we find her together?”
He picked her up and lifted her into the air. She saw her mother’s group at the side of the tunnel and pointed in that direction. He cut a path through the other soldiers and deposited Rosanna at the foot of her mother.
“Madam, I think I found something of yours,” he said.
“Thank you,” her mother replied surprised that one of the new batch was even talking to her. “Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Line, Private Line.”
“Well, thank you again, Private Line.”
“No problem, now you stay close to your mother from now on,” he said looking down at Rosanna who stared back open-mouthed.
“I will, are you going to fight the meccys?”
“The MEC, I sure am.”
“Are you afraid of the meccys?”
“Me, no, not at all, even if they kill me, I’ll get back in the fight soon enough,” he said throwing a glance up at Rosanna’s mother.
“Will we win?”
“We sure will.”
His name was then shouted from the crowd behind him.
“Well, I have to move on, it was nice to meet you Rosanna.”
He walked away leaving Rosanna standing by her mother staring up at his back as he was lost among the mass of men and women.
They met again the next time he was passing through the Juventas. Rosanna was spending her last few days aboard before she began her first year of Medical Training and was sipping a juice with some of her friends on the promenade when he walked by. The ship was filled with new batches moving forward and the remnants of old detachments moving back to re-group and re-equip. She spotted him, leading a group of men along the promenade, and slipped off her seat to walk over to him.
“Rank Officer Line.”
He stopped and turned. She only came up to his chest and had to look up. He was the same age, still young and muscled, as she remembered him, although as she took in his face, she saw the same aloof stare in his eyes as all the adults on the Juventas now wore.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Do you remember me?”
“We met eight years ago here on ship. I was only a girl then.”
“That’s great. Listen cadet, I have to get on.”
“I followed your career. This is your 6th body. You have been killed five times in the line of duty and have been awarded three times for valiant service. You have fought in every new sector against the MEC.”
“And the war is still going on, cadet, and I have to get to a briefing for our next mission. The MECs aren’t going to kill themselves.”
He smiled and turned away from her. She looked at him walking away for a second time, shrugged and went back to her friends.
Rosanna ordered a drink as she sat down at the counter. She ignored the hustle and noise of the officer’s deck around her as she went through the list of casualties on the slate reader. This close to the front, the fighting was intense. Every planet, every moon, every stray piece of rock was being fought over. The fleet was constantly stretched, transporting men and equipment while being on continuous watch against the miniature self-guided nuclear projectiles that were deployed by both sides in their attempts to destroy positions which had fallen to the enemy. The brutality of the fighting was evident in the lengthening lists of wounded and dead. Orders had been sent out to all medical personnel that, where possible, the wounded were to be patched up rather than receive new bodies, in order to free up the sector’s gestation ships for the dead.
“You’ve gotten bigger,” a man said at her side.
She looked up from the screen.
“I said you’ve gotten bigger.”
“Is that a chat-up line, sir?”
“So this time you don’t remember me, Senate Officer Line.”
“Line, I mean Senate Officer Line, is that you? I remember you of course.”
“Can I join you?”
She nodded at the bar attendant who immediately brought a drink to the most senior officer on the deck.
“So, Senate Officer, this is kind of embarrassing, I used to have a massive crush on you.”
“Really, don’t worry it ... what was it ... fifteen years ago?”
“Probably, how have you been?” she asked.
“Still fighting, and you’ve done well,” he said tapping the cuff of her coat. “Medical Officer, what’s your specialisation?”
“Well, something that is probably of great interest to you, the gestation process.”
“Really, any new advancements I should know about? This is my 10th body and the way this war is going, I might need number eleven soon enough.”
“It looks great. You look as if you haven’t aged a day since I was a girl, where, well, I’m getting older.”
“The body may not be older, but I feel older,” he said. “How’s your mother?”
“She was killed when they hit the Juventas.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“Yes, it was difficult, but it’s difficult for everyone. I’m not the only one suffering,” she said, dipping the slate reader to show the lists of names. “We are working all out to keep the gestation ships running at full capacity. I have to admit, we’re starting to miss some people.”
“I’ve seen the reports. Some of the poor bastards are getting killed on planets where the atmosphere is stopping the Dead Signal from being picked up. I heard though that they are working on an improved OCC to counter it,” he said, tapping the right side of his head which contained the Organic Communication Component that, on his death, sent out a light recording signal of his entire life up to that point to the nearest gestation ship so his memories and learning could be added to his new body.
“No, I don’t mean that. The light recording almost always get through, except on the odd planet here and there. But we don’t have enough gestation ships, casks and pretty much every type of supply to keep up with demand. Some of the light signals are being saved and not put into new bodies.”
“Really, I haven’t heard that. I will look into it,” he said.
“Is it true they are thinking of sending Naturals to the front?” she asked.
“Where did you hear that?”
“The rumour mill.”
“Well, I cannot comment on rumours,” he said.
“But sending a Natural into combat, someone dying and not coming back, it’s strange to think about it.”
“We all die for good at some point,” he pointed out.
“But, I mean, using Naturals. Is the military front really that bad? I heard that the MEC are wiping out any settlements they conquer—men, women and children—is that true?”
“Whatever you have been told is the truth,” he said with a wink.
“So it is that bad,” she said, smiling to release the tension.
“Are you shipping out soon?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Tomorrow, and you?”
“They are actually waiting for me to board at this very moment. Being a Senate Officer Line with his own ship has some advantages, though, so I think I have time for one more drink.”
Line stepped through the hole that his men had blasted in the wall of debris that blocked off the last section of the ship. Inside, the survivors of the attack looked up through the smoke as the soldiers and medics spread out. Line stopped one of the medics passing by.
“There is a Senior Medical Officer Dagamac serving on the ship, see if she is here with the survivors.”
“Yes sir, Vice-Admiral.”
Line moved further down the corridor. The tired and anxious men and women around him were mostly the civilian and medical staff. The officers had stayed on the bridge to pilot the ship away from the main MEC attack and pump the last of the oxygen to this small section where the survivors had clustered. The attack in this sector had taken everyone by surprise and showed that the enemy was getting bolder. It also showed him that their own tactics of strategic scorched-earth retreats, wiping clean whole planets in the process, was failing to hold them. They constantly had to move their fleets all the time just to meet the MEC attacks, wearing out the ships and their crews, and sooner or later they would reach a tipping point where the MEC Alliance would have the upper hand.
“Sir, over here.”
He walked over to where the medic was kneeling over a woman whom, despite the years since their last meetings, he recognized. She was lying against the bulkhead and had a bleeding cut above her eye, although she seemed to be fully aware of the situation as she chatted to the guard. He bent down and held her hand.
“Officer Dagamac, Rosanna, you’re alive.”
She brushed the silver hair matted with blood from off her face and looked up at him.
“Line, is that you?”
“Literally the same,” she said. “What number are you at now?”
“I hope so, I may look the same on the outside, I may still look young, but I’m getting a bit tired of being killed all the time. I’m getting too old for dying so much,” he said.
She smiled at his forced wit.
“Well, stop putting yourself in front of the MEC so much.”
“I’ll remember that, how are you?”
“I’m fine other having to put up with these MEC attacks getting in the way of my research all the time.”
They both laughed but then she started coughing.
“Sir, we need to get her over to the medical ship straightaway,” the medic said. “She has internal bleeding.”
“OK, let’s get you out of here Rosanna.”
Between them, they helped her up. A carrier was brought and she was laid down flat. Line held her hand as she got comfortable.
“Rosanna, I have to stay here with the ship and scout for any other ships which may have escaped the MEC attack. We will get you and the others to the nearest hospital ship back with the core fleet. When we’re finished here, I will see you there.”
“Thanks, Line,” she replied.
Line nodded and the medic led the floating carrier down the corridor. Line turned and began directing orders at the men to hurry. The MEC were almost certainly looking for survivors from the battle, as well, and he had no wish to be on a floating dead wreck if they did.
The sun sat low in the sky. Line walked on the path cut through the jungle and overlaid with reflective camouflage to the central building. He disliked being on the planet, he disliked feeling the ground beneath him, and he disliked the sounds of the planet. He missed being on-board his command ship waiting above with the rest of the fleet, walking the metal corridors and hearing the gentle hum of its operations. He was looking forward to finishing this meeting and getting back.
The guard at the entrance to the squat building saluted at his approach and showed him to the door. It opened onto a lower reception area where a small mill of doctors and scientists were passing the time. Most were clustered in groups chatting among themselves. An elderly woman, spotting him step through the door, detached herself from her companion and walked over, limping on a cane.
“Admiral Line, what a great pleasure,” she said.
“Dr. Dagamac, I was hoping to run into you.”
“You ordered me to the conference.”
“You’re a civilian now, doctor. You were cordially invited, not ordered,” Line corrected. “Besides, we need you here. We need our greatest minds here, at our blackest time. So how have you been?”
“Still getting older, unlike you. I have developed a deep emotional attachment to my stick. I wonder Admiral if you would be so kind as to help me get some water,” she said taking his arm and, holding on to him, led him away from the main group across the room to where they were out of earshot of the others. “So, what is this all about? You gathered the greatest minds here, taking people away from their vital work and put a huge sign up for the MEC to come and attack. Now, you may be in a young man’s body but I knew you have got an old head on it, so why take the risk?”
“Believe me Rosanna, more than anyone, I am aware of the dangers.”
“Then why take the risk?”
“We’re losing this war,” Line said.
“That’s common knowledge, despite what the endless propaganda would have us believe. But still, the military situation is manageable. Somehow, we’ve held out for the last seventy years. We’ve always managed to stop the MEC.”
“We’ve been in retreat now for years. The MEC continue to advance everywhere and we can’t stop them. That’s the truth,” he said. “The end is coming. The last great strongholds of our resistance, the last few planet systems we still hold, are under constant attack by the MEC, including this one. We can’t hold out much longer.”
“It’s that bad?”
“And the conference?”
“We have a new strategy.”
“To win the war?”
“To lose the war,” Line said. “We need an exit.”
“An exit?” she asked switching hands on her cane. “How?”
“We’ve run low on all major resources. We’ve stopped the gestation process. We’re all Naturals now. This is my 18th body and it will be my last. We are saving our remaining supplies for one last great gestation far away from MEC. We’ve spent months selecting the finest people left to us and getting them to this planet. We picked fighters and thinkers.”
“And you’re going to kill them yourself, pick up their Dead Signals and ...”
“Get them out of here. We’re building a new type of ship right here in the dock above the planet,” Line said pointing upwards. “It will be our most up-to-date ship, light, no weapons. It’s not a fighting ship. It will be just speed, pure speed. It’s the first and last of its type. I am thinking of calling it the Juventas Reborn. The Dead Signals will be stored on-board along with the remaining gestation supplies and casks.”
“And where is it going?” she asked.
“We will pick a path that should hopefully get us through the MEC lines and allow us to get away. Then, we just keep going. This will be the furthest we have ever gone. We’re talking about huge distances, huge times. We don’t know what is out there. That’s why we need you and your people. The gestation process will have to be started, the Dead Signals stored, and then stopped. The new bodies will only be constructed once the ship arrives at its final destination wherever that is. Whatever planet the ship decides is suitable. It needs an entirely new science to get it right. There’s only one chance of doing it right. It will need you—you’re the best in your field—to lead these people.”
“That’s the plan?”
“That’s the only plan,” he paused, letting her think over their conversation. “I’m sorry, by the way, about not keeping my promise,” he then added.
“To come see you on the hospital planet, we got called away to deal with a MEC intrusion after the medical ship left.”
“I know, that’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’ll lead the project, I’ll get it done.”
She left to return to the group. Line called over his second and gave him the go-ahead to get everyone inside to begin the conference.
“Sir, the second ship is firing.” the officer shouted, looking up from his station.
Line felt the floor of the command shudder under the impact of the incoming projectiles.
“Keep the target on the first ship, the closer one,” he said. “Order the last of the fleet to form up in front of our sector. Protect the Reborn at all costs until her engines are fired for a start. Where did the damn MEC come from? Are there any more out there?”
The officer shifted over and ran through the information flooding in from every ship positioned around the dock.
“Sir, there’s at least another fifty ships out there. It’s a massive attack. There could be more. It’s difficult to get an exact count. They have a lot of smaller outboard ships that are confusing the scanners.”
“Is there any design in their movements?”
“They’re all coming straight for the dock ... they’re ignoring the ships sent out as a distraction ... they’re going straight for the dock.”
“They know something valuable is here. Is the Reborn ready?”
“The engines are lit up and should be ready soon. Dr. Dagamac has loaded the last of her supplies. She and her staff are on-board.”
“Keep firing, we have to give them as much cover as possible. Order the Reborn away the moment she is ready.”
Line turned from the officer to the screen above his head. The first MEC ship, under constant fire from the dock guns, had burst open and split in two at its mid-section. As the back of the ship drifted away, the front section continued on towards the dock through the dense fire which stripped away its outer shell but was unable to turn its course. It hit the upper levels of the dock which crumbled under the impact and collapsed downwards. The entire command shook, throwing the two men to the floor.
“Sir, the dock has been pushed out of its orbit. It is starting to fall towards the planet. It will suffer total disintegration in a matter of minutes. I have lost control of the weapons.” The officer pulled himself up to his station which blared with warning from all points of the dock structure.
“She was hit by one of dock arms.” The officer checked the ship nestled in the lower embrace of the dock. “But is still in one piece. The captain has begun to cut the lines to the dock. The Reborn will be ready to fire up the engines any moment now.”
“Good, order the fleet to remain where they are. If they attempt to come back to rescue us they’ll leave a gap in the defence circle around the dock. Tell them to break off and scatter once the Reborn has left the dock. Order all remaining dock crew to head for the Reborn. Tell the captain we’re coming but she is not to wait for anyone. She is to leave the moment she is ready. Let’s move.”
Line stepped down from his command post, the walls around him beginning to buckle under the weight of the falling structure above, and headed for the exit behind his officer. The dock was almost empty of crew. He had steadily ordered all the non-essential crew off to serve in the fleet ships as the Juventas Reborn had grown under the span of the dock until she was completed. The two men reached the central stairway which formed the spine of the dock and began to climb downwards to the lower bay where Reborn was waiting. They fell and slipped as the metal structure around them, their home for last few months, creaked and groaned as it died. They arrived at the connecting embarkation tunnel leading to the ship’s higher entrance point. Some of the other dock crew had reached the ship ahead of them and were hurrying into the interior. A guard and Dr. Dagamac, waiting at the end of the embarkation tunnel standing inside the door of the ship, spotted them and waved at them to hurry. As they neared the entrance, the corridor around them vibrated and the walls began to come apart. The officer, running ahead, slipped just before the entrance. Line stopped and pulled the man back onto his feet. As they steadied themselves, the floor swayed under their feet and Line pushed the officer towards the entrance. A section of the roof came down and a jagged metal edge plunged deep into Line’s shoulder. He fell forward onto his knees and collapsed onto the floor. The officer and the guard rushed back, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into the Reborn. As the door closed behind them, the ship trembled as she fell away from the dock and the engines fired. Helped by the guard, Dr. Dagamac knelt by him.
“So, Rosanna,” he said spitting up blood. “It seems that you could well outlive me after all.”
“Hold on now, Line, hold on,” she replied through her tears.
He awoke from his sleep in the comforting warm, clear liquid of the gestation cask. He instinctively reached for the operation panel which floated near his right hand. He pressed the release and the liquid quickly drained away through a lower opening. He sank down with the liquid until he was left kneeling on the floor of the cask. Once empty, the two doors to the cask opened outwards. He stood, supporting himself on his new legs, shook his head and stepped out from the cask. The air was cold outside the cask and he reached out to the robe lying on the stand nearby. He pulled it on over his new body. The room looked like the previous 18 gestation rooms except it was much smaller and there was a series of wires spread out across the floor where equipment had been rigged up in a hurry. There were another five casks in the room, all empty with their doors open. He pulled the robe closer around him and headed for the exit.
As the doors swung open, the bright exterior light blinded him and he had to hold his hand up to his eyes. He retreated a little back in the room and waited until his new sight had adjusted to the intensity of the light. As the scene in front of him dimmed, he saw that he was looking out over a flat square of dark red earth lined with a number of metal building frames built, he could tell by the ship markings, from the different sections of the Juventas Reborn. Four large purple coloured trees had been left growing in the square, reaching for the azure sky above.
A young woman, whom he recognized immediately as a young version of Rosanna, was standing in the middle of the square surrounded by a small group of people to whom she was given instructions. There were a few more people scattered around the square carrying tools and equipment. All of them were intent on their work. They were all also the same age as himself and, he guessed, were cask born. Not wanting to interrupt, he waited in the doorway until she was finished and the group broke up as each went about their given task at hand. He then walked across the square under the warm sunlight.
“Dr. Dagamac, you look different,” he said coming up to her.
“I feel different,” she said turning with a smile. “The cask is finished. We left you alone ... your records showed you liked to be alone in the first few minutes.”
“Thank you, but why am I here at all? There were exactly enough casks for the stored Dead Signals. Why did you bring me back as well?”
“The Reborn came under heavy MEC fire as we left the dock. You can see the burn marks on the buildings around us. And the power to some of the storage units was cut. Some of the Dead Signals were too degraded to be used so we started bringing back some of the crew from the Reborn and the docks. They all lived out their lives on the Reborn, died natural deaths but stored their signals as they died. We’ve brought back quite a few.”
“But not all?”
“No, sadly not. We were forced to decide, the ones with the most skills we need the most here in Town Reborn.”
“We called it in honour of the ship.”
“Where exactly is it?”
“The ship recorded every detail, you can look over it later, but just say that we are very, very far away from the MEC.”
“You’ve been busy,” he said, opening his arms to take in the buildings around them.
“You like it?”
“It’s a start. I’m glad you like it because all the casks and gestation supplies are used up. We left you to last. I hope you don’t mind. I thought you would want us to bring back as many of your men as possible before you. You are the last one of the last batch, probably ever.”
“So this really is my last body,” Line said. “This is where we will live out our lives.”
“It is perfect,” he said. “Thank you for bringing me back one last time.”
“Well, I have to admit, I also missed you a little. It did not seem like a new start without you here.”
“And now at least I have the chance to do the one thing I should have done in at least one of my previous lives,” he said, reaching out and pulling her close.
“What was that?” she asked.
He leaned down and kissed her.
Gerard Mulligan has previously published in “Flash Fiction International,” “Out of the Gutter Online,” and “Potomac Journal.” He was a runner-up in a 2013 competition held by the London School of Liberal Arts. He lives in Ireland.