Uneasy quiet hung over the room.
“Isaac,” Judith whispered, “can we build ion cannons of our own?”
Isaac rubbed his head a little harder. It didn’t help.
“The technology is simple,” he said, “and the nebula is full of ionized gas. We’d have an endless supply of ammunition.”
“Could you build two for each ship?” Judith asked. “And two more for each bulk freighter?”
Isaac exhaled slowly. “Yes,” he admitted. “I could.”
The council meeting went on with Timothy and Judith discussing strategy. Isaac didn’t listen. He was busy remembering Talie’s final question. The one thing she had let slip. One hint. One clue. “You don’t like war,” she’d said, “so how far would you go to stop it?”
“I don’t understand,” Isaac had replied, trying hard not to look at the camera.
Talie smirked. Her violet eyes fluttered. “Would you betray the Community—betray your high priestess—to stop the war?”
The council broke up. Timothy headed for the shuttle bay to return to the St. Augustine. Paul had his own work to do. Judith sat down beside Isaac, who had not moved or spoken once after agreeing to build the weapons.
“I’m sorry,” Judith said.
Isaac didn’t answer.
“You know what’s funny about this war?”
Try as he might, Isaac couldn’t think of anything.
“The Hykonians are a deeply religious people,” Judith said. “They worship the Twin Gods of Matter and Energy, the sons of the Supreme God of the Universe, and they believe all scientific knowledge is divine revelation of God’s true nature. If we could talk to them, we might find we have a lot in common.”
By the time Isaac opened his eyes and stood up to leave, Judith was long gone. Only Magdalene had stayed. She sat in the same place, in the same position as before, but to Isaac she looked less like someone traumatized and more like someone deep in thought.
* * *
Time continued at its accelerated rate. The fleet that bore Isaac’s name entered the Orion Nebula, as did the Hykonians. They both passed through it, circled around it, and attacked each other over and over again while waiting for life-bearing planets to form.
The Hykonians destroyed two more ships before Isaac’s ion cannons destroyed any of theirs. As the Community celebrated its first victory, Isaac retreated to the observation deck. Alone, he watched the alien vessel drift through space, its hull ripped open, its crew dead. In the dense clouds of the nebula, it quickly disintegrated.
Soon, Isaac’s birthday would be thousands of years in the past. He’d spent his entire adult life fighting wars, first for the Earth Empire and now for the Community, but as a junior technician in the Space Force he’d never had to kill. His hands had remained unstained, his heart unspoiled. Back then, he’d only repaired minor glitches. Now he built weapons.
Officially, Isaac remained in command, but High Priest Timothy made all the important military decisions. Judith held prayer services in support of the war effort, and Father Paul—Paul had been promoted—shuttled from ship to ship preaching that God’s anger was stirred against the Hykonians, and the Community would deliver God’s vengeance upon them.
Isaac built weapons for these people.
* * *
Judith and Paul began holding Sunday services together, like they’d become a team. Isaac hid in the back of the chapel, where the candlelight couldn’t reach him, listening to Father Paul’s sermon.
“Hykonians have two eyes, two hands, and two legs, but they are nothing like us,” Paul told the enraptured congregation. “We humans have skeletons. We have a spine. Red blood flows through our veins. But their bodies are supported by vesicles of viscous fluid. They bleed gooey, white slime. They are invertebrates, as lowly as all invertebrates in God’s sight, and God shall squash them beneath His holy fist!”
Led by Judith, the people chanted, “Amen! Amen! Amen!”
After church, Isaac went about his routine tour of the ship. He climbed down a ladder to the Faith’s lowest deck and inspected the ion cannons. They were crude machines, cobbled together from whatever spare parts had been available. Wires and cables sprawled around them like intestines spilled over the deck. Isaac had expected these weapons to short-circuit, overload, or otherwise malfunction in their first salvo. Miraculously, in battle after battle, they still functioned without a fault.
Isaac pulled a micro-adjustment laser from his pocket. He’d begun to feel he’d chosen the wrong biblical name. Rather than Isaac, a willing sacrifice to God, he should have called himself Judas.
It would be so easy to make the ion cannons malfunction. If he simply reversed the electrical charge of the generator, the ammunition would de-ionize. Or he could cause the cannon to backfire. No one would be harmed. Ion cannons only damaged electrical systems, so when they backfired they destroyed nothing but themselves. Or he could reprogram the targeting computers so that every shot would miss.
Isaac tried not to think these subversive thoughts. He wanted the war to end, but he didn’t want to be a traitor. Yet had Talie not asked how he thought history would remember him? Had she not then asked if he would betray the Community to end the war?
Isaac opened the cannon’s main generator. All the wiring appeared to be in order. All those delicate circuits, all those fragile semiconductors, they seemed fine. It would take only one minor adjustment.
Isaac heard voices on the walkway above him, and like a thief caught in the act, he ducked into cover.
“Did you hear about the Hope?” one voice said.
“They’re on maneuvers,” the other answered. “Trying to outflank the enemy in Barnard’s Loop.”
“They didn’t get that far.”
“The Hykonians destroyed them?”
“Not exactly. The Hope’s magnetic field collapsed, but the pilot managed to stop the ship before any serious damage was done.”
“Praise God. So they’re safe?”
Isaac cowered beneath the cannon’s intake pipes, knowing full well he was above suspicion yet feeling guilty for what he’d nearly done. He recognized the voices: Matthew and Tobit. When this voyage began—it seemed so long ago—was even longer in reality—they’d volunteered to help repair the bulk freighters. They’d proven to be diligent workers. Now they were among the thousands of people Isaac had almost betrayed.
“The Hope couldn’t get started again,” Matthew said. “Either the engines failed or the inertia compensators overloaded in the sudden deceleration. Whatever happened, they couldn’t return to time dilated flight.”
“How long ago did this happen?” Tobit asked.
“Twelve hours, our time.”
“They’ve all aged to death by now. Has the Commodore heard? I think he and Mother Magdalene were friends.”
“The Commodore doesn’t talk much to other people,” Matthew said. “I think his only friend is God.”
The pair fell silent. They stood at the top of the ladder, and when Isaac peered out from his hiding spot he saw their backs turned.
“Either way,” Tobit said, “this is sad news. Magdalene was promoted to priestess last week. She just moved her quarters to the Hope a few days ago. Now she’s dead.”
The two technicians moved on, leaving Isaac behind in the shadow of the ion cannon. He and Magdalene hadn’t quite been friends, but he’d liked her. When she prayed for the dead, she offered prayers for the slain Hykonians too. She’d been the only member of the clergy to do so. How Paul had grumbled over that! Now that the Hykonians had killed her, would they offer prayers for her soul?
Isaac put his micro-adjustment tool away and climbed back to the upper level. He would not sabotage the Community’s only defenses. He would not be the traitor Talie Tappler hinted he’d become.
Yet over the coming millennia, Isaac’s brain kept thinking, finding every weakness and vulnerability. With his toolkit, he could create a thousand minor glitches to frustrate the war effort. With his security password, he could shut down any system on any ship in the fleet. Temptations surrounded him, but Isaac resisted. He remained loyal to the Community, at least in action if not in mind or heart.
* * *
Isaac awoke in the middle of the night. He saw nothing and heard nothing, yet the air tingled with warning: an unwelcome presence had entered the room. Isaac’s right hand reached for the toolkit by his bed, grabbing a laser welder, while his left hit the light switch.
It was her. Talie Tappler. Sitting in one of the folding chairs in his quarters.
“Is this Part Three?” Isaac asked.
Talie giggled. “No.”
Isaac shook his head. “What do you want?”
She giggled again. Isaac wondered if this were a younger, less experienced version of the woman who’d plagued him through his exile. She was a time traveler. There was no reason her visits had to follow chronological order. Talie’s shy smile reminded Isaac of a teenage girl looking for trouble, not a professional journalist working on a story.
“This is embarrassing,” Talie said, blushing scarlet. “I’m here to apologize.”
Isaac stared at her. The welder hummed in his hand, ready to melt something. He kept it aimed at the blonde intruder’s head.