Kaz took pictures of everything and everyone around him, even total strangers – all laughing, drinking and dancing – celebrating the peace. Strangers introduced themselves, or not, and toasted the talks; the more people they met, the more reasons to have another drink and laugh a bit more. Everyone was giddy with the prospect of peace and freedom so close. Rumor had it that the negotiations were going well. There was going to be peace for the first time. He’d never heard of there being no war. What would they do with themselves if they stopped fighting? But this moment, this possibility – he wanted to record every second.
The long, triangular spaceships were everywhere he looked – the eye of his camera allowing him to see the guns that bristled from every vantage point along their surface. The small, two-man, surface-to-space scouts and fighters were scattered everywhere, either resting on the ground or hovering in the atmosphere at any of a hundred different levels, and the cruisers that shipped thousands were very visible as they hung low above the atmosphere. Everyone waited for the outcome of the peace talks. They all kept an eye on the single earthbound complex in the center of the valley.
A runner came up with a sheaf of flimsies. “Aaitt’Kaz?”
Kaz waved and took pictures of him as he approached, and the runner danced a jig for the camera before handing Kaz one of the sheets from his file. Using a runner was an unusual occurrence, but what with all the ships gathered around, communications and single-man runabouts may have been curtailed.
Kaz glanced at the flimsy he’d been handed; he was being assigned to a new ship. “Where is it?” he called after the man as he danced off to find someone else.
“It just arrived.” The runner pointed to a ship now resting on the hill behind him; it had found one of the few patches of green grass. Each ship was keyed to the pilot’s orders and would have been simple to locate, but following a pointed finger was easier, and it gave Kaz a chance to take another picture of him.
Kaz looked up at the new ship with admiration; it was sleek, made for speed, though not defenseless by any means. He estimated it might hold a crew of ten, or even twenty if they were cozy, but the new design made it hard to tell; he’d have to see once he got inside. After adding its image to his growing collection, he panned his camera around, looking for more. He found a few, maybe twenty or more, but ships littered the horizon. It would be impossible to tell how many new ships there were without careful analysis of the crystal some other time, definitely, some other time. Right now, it was time for a beer, if he could find some still in a bottle.
Just as he turned to begin such a search, his sub-dermal receiver came to life. “Bad news, people; Ssark left the table. The talks have failed. Get to your ships; this is going to be bad.”
Stunned, all thoughts of a beer were wiped from his mind, shattered on a rock along with someone’s dropped bottle. “No!” Many of the gathered ships were beginning to shoot at each other already. People ran. At this range, it would be wholesale slaughter. Had it all been just a trap?
He ran for his new ship. He charged into the open hatch yelling, “Where is everyone?” He hoped the crew was close.
“Everyone is present and accounted for, Pilot Aaitt’Kaz,” replied the calm voice of the ship.
He slapped the panel that closed the hatch. “Ship wide. Everyone, buckle up. Gunners, prepare to return fire. Lift off in five…four,” as he counted, he vaulted into his seat, which automatically enfolded him with its padded arms and slid him to within reach of the controls. “…Three,” he flipped the array of switches; turning on force fields, gun ports, grav-plating. “…Two,” sensors, life-support and a number of other ship systems. “…One.” The controls came into his hands and he boosted hard, dodging lasers and solid rounds. His gunners returned fire smoothly, doing a fair job of keeping anyone off their tail and out of their immediate path. “Ship, enhance inertial dampers; we need to go faster. How are you doing back there, gunners?”
“Inertial dampers, enhanced,” said the ship.
He always found it amazing that the voices of these ships were so calm. None of the gunners answered, but they were all still shooting.
He kicked his thrusters and they leapt into high overdrive, whipping past the last of the cruisers in the upper atmosphere and into clear space. At least his little piece of it was clear enough at the moment. He allowed himself a moment to marvel at the maneuverability and speed of this new design. “Captain, what’re our orders? What’s our heading?” He waited for a response, but none came. “Captain. Captain? Ship, you said everyone was present and accounted for. Why can’t I talk to anyone?”
“I have fed your course into your navigation system, Pilot,” said the ship.
He glanced at the coordinates. It must be some kind of prearranged meeting place – somewhere to regroup. “Where is the rest of the crew, ship?” he asked again as he boosted onto the new course.
That is where his control ended.
“Ship, I’ve lost control.”
The ship began to accelerate beyond his parameters.
It went faster and faster.
It was running.
“Good night, Pilot Aaitt’Kaz; sweet dreams,” said the ship. Her voice sounding quite condescending just now, though nothing about it had changed, or ever would.
“What are you doing? Ship, explain.”
He didn’t know whether the ship replied or not. He didn’t know anything anymore.
The ship encased him and his seat in a force field, and then all other systems shut down. All that was left was speed.
Kaz dreamed; he dreamed of taking pictures, of people laughing and drinking, toasting the peace. He was taking pictures – lots of pictures.