Word got around fast.
Despite being holed up in one of the poky trade cruisers towards the rear of the fleet, Tal Ahem heard the news within an hour of impact.
An attack. An actual, honest-to-goodness attack from Purpura-VI.
“Clotias in Accounts told me that Purpura sent a dozen destroyers,” Reedle Spalt said to Tal over the wall of their adjoining cubicles. “But some of the others reckon there weren’t any ships, that it was a missile attack. Anyway, whatever it was took out three shields and impaled the windscreen of a lookout. No fatalities.” She glanced upwards and placed two of her tentacle-tips upon her chest. “Thank the purple grass.”
Reedle had never spoken a single word to Tal before. His face refused to settle on an appropriate expression. He imagined Reedle’s long arms around him, her beak nibbling at his neck. “So what happens now?”
“You used to be military, didn’t you?”
“A long time ago.” If she knew that, did she know about the circumstances of his leaving?
“I guess it’s enough to warrant a counter-offensive. They say there are ruptures on the surface of Purpura that indicate the use of heavy weapons. So we’ll retaliate. And it’ll break my heart.” With that, Reedle’s perfect face disappeared from view.
Others would fret about a counter-attack, too. Wariness of Purpura-VI, the dwarf planet around which the fleet orbited, had turned to fondness. Perhaps pop culture was the cause. Like everyone, Tal watched the quasi-documentaries that speculated about life on the surface of the planet, invisible from the fleet due to a troposphere thick with cumulonimbus. He read the novels detailing Purpura’s imagined past. He sang the songs. On Purpura, when the storm clouds pass / We’ll stroll through fields of purple grass.
It’ll break my heart. Bombing Purpura-VI was one thing, but Reedle’s disappointment was too much to bear. Tal left his cubicle before the shift bell rang. His breasts had become painfully full.
At the crèche he found his son, Polok, wailing and scrabbling at the gate with all eight arms. Tal hoisted him up but Polok, still inconsolable, batted at the side of his head. Tal relented and fed him, perched in an undignified pose on a corridor bench.
Back in his quarters he had to shout into the communicator to block out Polok’s howls. He jammed a tentacle-tip into one ear.
“Sylea! You know that favour you owe me?”
Major Sylea Eyrie’s laugh sounded strained. “Seriously? After what I put you through, we’re balancing it out with a ‘favour’? I tell you, I always fell for pushovers.”
“I heard about the missiles. Please. Tell me what you know.” It wasn’t much to ask in recompense for Tal’s accidental impregnation. A dishonourable discharge, six months of painful pregnancy, then saddled with an infant that hated his guts.
He scribbled notes as Sylea described the missiles. An average of three-point-five metres in length. Serrated at one extreme, heat-smoothed at the business end. Primarily silicon. Traces of organic matter. Soil.
Tal chewed the tip of one tentacle. He knew Command well. They were impulsive and trigger-happy, the lot of them. But if they bombed Purpura-VI, what would have been the point of the two-year mission, the long wait for the storms to pass? No purple grass. No new home. Reedle’s broken heart.
Polok shrieked again. He hurled a plastic toy cephalopod at Tal and snarled.
With shaking tentacles, Tal logged into his terminal and cashed in his supply of credits. A one-way transit. All or nothing.
“Who the hell let you back in here?” General Fulch said.
Tal panted, unable to speak. Polok had resisted being bundled into the pram and they had almost missed the transit capsule. Once they had arrived at Command, Tal’s old ID lanyard had got him only so far. He had dashed helter-skelter through the maze of corridors, flinging the pram before him, to avoid the sentries.
“Sir,” Tal gasped, finally. “I beg you. Don’t approve the attack.”
Fulch frowned. “It’s cut-and-dried. We now know that the Purpura-VI natives are hostile. Get back to your office ship, ex-Corporal Ahem.”
Tal shook his head, his tendrils vibrating with anxiety. “You’ve got it wrong! They weren’t missiles at all. Just rock, sir, still with soil traces on them. Direct from the planet’s surface. One hundred percent natural.”
Fulch waved an arm in a dismissive gesture. “I know all that. What does it matter? An attack is an attack.”
Tal found reserves of confidence now that there could be no turning back. “I don’t think those rocks were launched by natives, sir. If there are even any natives.”
“Nonsense. We may not be able to see them, but they’re down there. The evidence is absolutely clear.”
“But sir, those ruptures on the surface. Why would the natives break up their own planet?”
“Who the hell cares?” Fulch tried to push past Tal.
But Tal was certain. The rupturing was too self-destructive to be deliberate. Furthermore, the missiles hadn’t been designed. They had simply been the nearest objects to hand, so to speak.
“I’m something of an expert,” he said. “In fact, I see this sort of behaviour every day.” He tried to ignore Fulch’s incredulity. “We know Purpura’s a young planet, sir, don’t we? Well. Maybe it’s even younger than we thought. And—” Tal braced himself. “—sentient.”
He stretched himself to his full height on his longest arms. “General Fulch. I think Purpura-VI is teething.”
Fulch froze mid-step. “That’s insane.”
From within his pram, Polok gave a long, fractured howl.
“Purpura’s behaviour, sir, it’s just what infants do,” Tal said.
Fulch narrowed his eyes at Tal, then bent to look into the pram. Abruptly, he pulled back his head as it was struck by a plastic cephalopod.
Tim Major lives in Oxford, UK. His love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids. His novella, Carus & Mitch, was published by Omnium Gatherum in February 2015. His short stories have featured in Interzone, Perihelion and the Infinite Science Fiction anthology, among others. He blogs about writing and reading at Cosy Catastrophes.
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