From the cliffs towering over the bay, one would have seen nothing but a slowly moving dot, and, briefly, Balkan saw her that way. Despite the distance, he knew it was Johanna. The desire moving her toward him and her unique lightness clearly identified her. As she approached, Balkan could not hear her calling his name; the incessant lashing of the waves overwhelmed her voice.
His longing to have her back in his arms prevailed over every other thought. All the rest—questions, doubts, and wonder—could wait. There would be plenty of time for such things, after.
Only a narrow strip of land now stood between the huge basaltic cliff wall and the encroaching flood tide, and Balkan sensed a looming danger, a break in the placid beauty of his vision. As the sea drew nearer, he feared there’d be no time to greet the woman he loved as he wanted to . . . with a long kiss of utter abandonment.
In a clear sky, the light from the two suns shone at its maximum intensity of the day. Balkan had no doubt they were in the Darlan binary system, one of the most dreaded worlds in the galaxy, one haunted by every sort of pirate, raider, and dealer, the sorts of people among whom he had come to manhood and with whom he’d learned to live more than comfortably.
But he couldn’t understand how Johanna, born on a totally different world, now found herself down there, free and lonely in this hell of a place. They’d said farewell to each other a few weeks before, but she must have changed her mind and sought him out, running a big risk to join him. Therefore, she must still love him, as he loved her. And that was more than enough: damn the tides, the volcanoes, and the raiders attacking the planet. As he always did, he would find a way to help her—even to take advantage of the situation for their mutual benefit, to bring the two of them together again.
Johanna was only a few hundred meters away when Balkan saw the beast. A giant eagle-like bird, high in the sky, banked and dove straight toward the woman on the beach. Balkan, stunned, doubted his own eyes. So far as he’d known, there were no animals of any kind on Darlan IV, except barbarous human beings.
However, he vividly remembered the stories his grandfather had told him when he was a child, tales of rapacious condor-like birds ravaging villages already plundered by the powerful Lords in the farthest systems of the Empire, before the birth of the League of Planets. Still, he’d never suspected that such creatures still lived and certainly not on this lost world.
Balkan drew his gun. He hoped to reach her ahead of the diving bird. But when he strove to run, gravity exerted an intolerable degree of force, and he feared that he would arrive too late. Now that he’d finally found her, he could not let that happen. He tried to shoot, but heard only a useless click: the weapon wasn’t working. After another try, he flung the gun to the sand, fell to his knees, closed his eyes, and released from his lungs a desperate, inhuman shout.
* * *
“Balkan! Wake up! Damn it, wake up, please, Balkan!”
He opened his eyes.
A hologram of Afrika hovered above him, staring worriedly down at his prostrate form. She’d probably tried to shake him awake—in vain.
“They should make holograms capable of touching people,” he told her groggily, pulling free of the terror of his nightmare.
“Obviously, you weren’t sleeping well,” Afrika’s hologram said.
“Hardly, dear Afrika. If only you could touch me when you need to wake me.”
The hologram smiled.
Balkan stood. He was almost naked, and Afrika lowered her eyes while he put on his trousers and a shirt.
Although only an imperfect tridimensional image, her hologram conveyed all the beauty of the woman. In fact, the owner of that perfect body was millions of miles away from his spaceship, just as she was from all the other vessels with which she remained in continual contact. And so Afrika could wear any sort of clothing that she wished without having to face the inevitable consequences of her choice.
The short, teasing dress that she now wore met the approval of the Commanders of the Fleet, because research suggested that keeping its males under continuous sexual stimulus increased the aggressiveness of the Terminators, making them more industrious and productive.
But this stimulus, at least in the case of Afrika, had exactly the opposite effect on Balkan, who, when he spoke to her, remembered how much he loved life. Indeed, every time he beheld her, even as a hologram, he understood again that the visionary promise of a lovely woman was the most exquisite boon that existence could deliver to a man. This realization often helped him forget the reason why he was there, allowing him to dream of freely setting forth on the first available hyper-luminal ship to reach that superb black woman, a descendant of the ancient stocks first selected for the pleasure houses of the farthest systems. He’d ask her to watch with him the sun sinking in the western ocean of his own planet. This notion deceived him into believing that he could still live like a man destined to love a woman of his own kind and perhaps to father children . . . rather than merely to traverse the universe wiping out other human beings.
With difficulty, he halted the whirl of his thoughts.
“Did the target move?” He hoped for a negative answer that would cancel or delay the duty she wished him to perform.
“Your target today is Starsat 44, a permanent weather station orbiting a planet not far from here.”
He grimaced. “You know how I feel, do you?” He didn’t care that all their talks were being recorded. As long as he accomplished his duties, the Fleet Command had no interest in his intimate feelings.
“All I know is that you must carry out your mission, Commander Kasparov.”
“It’s a bad sign when you address me by my rank and surname, Afrika.”
She nodded. “I suppose it is.”
“Do they have defense systems?”
Of course not, he rebuked himself. Why would they have weapons on a weather station? You don’t need weapons to study oceans, storms, and winds, damn you!
“I’d like to be able to say otherwise,” Afrika said. “The need to fight and defend yourself would help you do your job more easily.”
“In any case, it wouldn’t be me in need of defense.”
Hierarchically, Afrika was not his superior. But she was a Coordinator, one whose instructions he was supposed to obey and enact.
The Coordinators of the Fleet determined the outcome of almost any action.. They were supposed to visualize the plan of an attack on several dimensions in space and time, keeping in mind the positions of dozens of starships in different star systems, monitoring enemy movements, foreseeing responses and giving timely instructions to every ship of the Fleet. To do that, it wasn’t required to think in a rational way. It was more a matter of instinct and intuition, a non-rational mental approach that took into account unpredictable variables and allowed prompt and effective reactions. In a word, the task required an odd sort of fantasy.
Long ago, the Fleet had discovered that women were more adept at such activities than men. Afrika was such a woman. And she was trained to deal with the psychological obstacles—ethical scruples and feelings of guilt—of the ship Commanders whose duties she helped coordinate. The so-called Terminators often fell victim to scruples and guilt feelings. Afrika was supposed to detect these and drive them from their minds, but with some officers she no longer even tried.
Balkan, for example, was different.
He was not a novice, but every time he had to undertake a mission, he might as well have been. He simply couldn’t get used to killing, and Afrika knew it. She and this man were much more alike than either thought. As their names implied, they were both descendants of native Terrans.
“Afrika . . .”
“Wouldn’t you like to know what I was dreaming of?”
“No. Don’t think about it now. I’m sending you your target’s coordinates. End of communication, Commander.”
Her hologram vanished—long legs, slender neck, deep black eyes, and all.
* * *
Balkan measured the distance remaining to his target and estimated that he would reach firing position within two hours.
If any of his comrades had been there in his stead, the mission would go much more smoothly. Once he reached the maximum firing distance, a good Terminator would take aim, lock in on the target, and fire just the right number of disintegration warheads to destroy it.
A veteran would take it out while having a cup of coffee or finishing a meal.
An explosion would brighten in deep space, its residual light would soon dim, and fragments of the target would fly outward on separate journeys to nowhere at all. A few days later, if scavengers didn’t arrive before them, Collectors from the League would show up to retrieve the corpses.
Balkan thought that the worst job: collecting mutilated bodies from space. He recalled what a Collector had once told him: among horribly disfigured male and female corpses, one normally found a few still whole and undamaged, free of any parasitical infestation of Insects.
At least two or three in a hundred, he had claimed.
Nobody understood why the Insects spared some bodies . . . perhaps because they didn’t always need to enter the human system to take control; sometimes, just to possess its mind was more than enough. In fact, maybe that was the cleanest, most effective way to control human beings, and maybe one day, if mankind lost the war, that would be the main way of infestation . . . perhaps the only one.
After all, there was no doubt that the insects were telepathic. Several researchers believed that they had no individual identity, that they were a living collective organized as many branches of a number of lower central intelligences. Only God knew how many such intelligences existed, but given that the League had fought this war for decades and that the aliens had infested dozens of allied systems and planets, it was alleged to be an incredibly high number.
Although different from all his comrades, even Balkan did essentially what they did—fired his shots in the dark, destroyed his target, and escaped to his next mission. He was a professional killer, just like them.
But the way he did it differed considerably.
Unlike other Terminators, he never refused to communicate with the infested ship he must destroy. If any of its occupants tried to contact him, he hit the switch and talked with them. And, to beg for mercy, they almost always tried to contact him.
He did not merely take pity on them, he firmly believed that he owed his potential victims a listening ear.
The other Terminators did not have this problem: when they reached their targets, they had already mentally disintegrated their victims. As soon as they did so, the actual elimination of infested human beings became an obvious result of the action, the simplest and most natural step of an intellectual fait accompli. And to kill with that coldness, they had to have already killed their own humanity.
Balkan needed to preserve his humanity, and he believed that the only way to do that was to look his victims in their eyes—to talk with them, to listen to and promise to fulfill their pleas, reporting messages to their wives, husbands, sons, friends, lovers, or parents.
And this self-resolve made it all terribly more difficult.
To kill the insect-infested passed among his fellow warriors as an act of extreme love, but Balkan perceived it as a murder: premeditated, reiterated, wicked, and guilt-inducing murder.
If a man must kill another, he thought, he must do so looking into the eyes of his victim, feeling the other’s death as at least partly his own. That way, victims survive in our memories and preserve our humanity. I will murder, but I will remain a human being, or so I hope.
Commander Balkan Kasparov had had dozens of these last-minute talks with his victims, and Fleet Command knew about and tolerated them as a weird ritual that he liked to observe with them. What the Command didn’t know was that over the last ten years he had spent most of his off-duty time traveling through the Galaxy to keep his promises and to carry heartfelt final messages to the loved ones of those he had dutifully slain. During every journey, he sought to recover a piece of his humanity with a mother’s gratitude, a father’s wistful hug, a child’s silent tear. Sometimes he was even able to tell those people that he deserved their blame, that he had pushed the button. Most didn’t care. Most saw the earnestness of his regret and forgave him.
For Balkan, these trips did not only expiate his sins, they allowed him to sidestep madness.
That day, his mission was one of the most difficult that he’d ever had to face: the termination of a defenseless weather station now stationary in its orbit. His ship’s sensors confirmed the contamination of the target and detected six human beings aboard. All six, according to his ship’s telemetry, seemed calm, displaying no trace of panic or disorder. Balkan realized that the infestation was not far along; hence, they still maintained control of a partial kind of both their bodies and their will.
Balkan activated the countdown for missile launch. Once he had done so, he could by no means interrupt the Termination procedure.
The timer displayed ten minutes and started to count.
His shipboard speakers crackled loudly, and an image from the interior of Starsat 44 appeared on the main screen: a grinning child, waving good-bye.
Bastards, thought Balkan. This won’t help you!
Off-screen, an adult voice spoke: “Would you move to 3D communication, please?”
“I can’t. My ship is now in battle configuration. I’m sorry. I can’t even show you my face. But I’ll listen to you. I’ll listen to all of you.”
“Please show yourself, sir,” the voice said. “We don’t have much time left.”
The profile of an old man appeared. Undoubtedly the chief meteorologist of the station, he wore a gown. At first glance, he did not show any signs of the infestation of his person, but when he turned his head disclosing his face full-on, Balkan could see the blue hue under his skin, an infallible identifier of the presence of the parasite.
The warning signal INSEKTA flashed on screen every time the sensors detected alien contamination in the faces or figures of those on the weather station.
The meteorologist looked stunned, almost absent. He tried to talk Balkan out of destroying them. Balkan asked the man’s name and offered to carry his final message to anyone he wished to send it.
“I am Vren Hissanian, and I curse you!
Balkan bowed his head.
“May the Gods punish you for your crime!” Vren cried. “The only person I love is beside me now.”
A woman about the same age as the man appeared onscreen. The presence of the Insect in her body revealed itself more dramatically.
“We wish harm on you, the League, and your damn Fleet!” Vren said. “There are other solutions than killing us all! There must be!”
Tears streamed down the woman’s face . . . black tears, a consequence of the alien metabolism of the parasite.
“Unfortunately,” Balkan answered, “none that I know of.” He asked again if any of them wished to send a message through him. He swore he would do his best to let the recipients hear it from him in person.
A young meteorologist appeared onscreen.
This man explained to Balkan how to find his parents and pleaded with him to tell them that he had died in battle. As he spoke, he showed his left arm, a cylindrical mass of rotten flesh. Balkan reassured him that we would do as he asked.
The young man thanked him. He said that he was not angry with the Commander, because he knew what the League used to do to Terminators who refused to carry out its orders.
Then a young woman occupied Balkan’s screen. She couldn’t speak, for her mind was almost entirely under control of the parasite. He focused on her eye and enlarged the frame to identify her. The INSEKTA signal blinked furiously.
Balkan then asked the computer connected to the League net to provide him with the names of her known relatives. He read them aloud slowly, one by one. She listened to this catalogue, and when he reached her brother’s name, she nodded.
Finally, the last of the six persons aboard the weather station appeared onscreen. It took seconds for the image to emerge, endlessly small fractions of time during which an optical signal left his retinas to start its run toward his cortex. Instants that expanded, taking him into a frozen space out of the time flow, a place suspended between past and future, a limbo from which dignity and the life spirit had simply vanished, defeated by an unnamed monster, a devil that Balkan couldn’t avoid facing.
It was her.
Johanna was staring at him, her hate for the hangman in him buried under a cold awareness of her looming death.
Balkan knew that she couldn’t see him, but he still felt her gaze upon him and lifted his hands to hide his face.
Then he decided to switch his camera on and let himself be seen, but in the very next moment withdrew his hand.
I can’t let her see me. I can’t show her who is killing her. It would be like killing her twice.
He then turned off the audio connection, leaned forward, and wept.
How can I do this? I can’t, I can’t . . . I just can’t!
“I can’t do this!” he shouted with all the strength left in his lungs. The echo of this scream filled the whole ship, shaking it with terror and rage, then rebounded and pierced his body as if it were a virulent parasite.
When Balkan looked up, she was still there, staring blindly ahead, as silent as an eroded monument.
He lacked the courage to switch the audio connection back on. She would hear his voice, would see him even without her eyes, would feel his presence, would love him and then hate him, and at length slay his image inside herself.
But that would be all right—damned right, even—because he deserved to die if he accepted her death, if he destroyed the only good thing in his life. Why, why was all this happening to him? What an infamous mission! What an unbearable sacrifice! And they should have known! How could they not know Johanna was aboard this weather station? How, for God’s almighty sake, could the all-powerful League ignore that fact?
Balkan understood. He had known it all along.
He was the claws of the eagle that he’d seen in his nightmare. And no weapon could protect Johanna. No one could help her while she ran on the beach, shouting his name to the sea.
* * *
Balkan glanced at the timer display: three minutes remained. He had no power to halt the procedure, but, impotent as he was, he switched the audio channel on.
Johanna was calling. “Commander, can you hear me?”
Balkan held his tongue.
“Commander, I accept your offer to convey a message on my behalf. Find Balkan Kasparov on Beta III. Tell him I have never loved anyone in my life more than I loved him. Tell him that we had no chance to be together again, and that is my fault . . . even if there was nothing that I could do to reunite us. Tell him that the time has come for him to start living his life. Thank you, Commander.”
Balkan reached for the screen as if to save her—Johanna—from the hell to which the League had consigned her.
Two minutes later, a blistering light filled his eyes.
The eagle reached its prey, and Balkan fell forward, senseless.
The evening tide reached his body; unfeeling waves lifted it and pushed it toward the rocks.
The planet’s second sun was setting.
Soon, the Collectors would come.