From Hell's Heart



Sensors send signals announcing their discovery. Adrenaline pumps into Mansour ibn-Tarik, pilot of the Sword of Faith. He awakes from his drug-induced sleep. The Kuffar. The sensors have picked up an energy signature consistent with an armed Kuffar scout. Mansour will investigate.

A wave of his right hand retracts the solar sails used in sleep mode. Raising his left hand powers up the fusion engines. Eye blinks order the course correction. Sensor data flood into Mansour's awareness. He and the Sword of Faith are one.

The engines fire. Mansour wills the ship to move faster. The Sword of Faith is not pretty, certainly no Kuffar battle base, all gossamer and death. The Sword of Faith is a practical weapon, designed by the best engineers of the Union. It has one job and one job only -- to kill the Kuffar.

With a breath, Mansour expels FTL probes from the Sword of Faith's hull. They will spy out the area, make sure he isn't heading into a trap. They will provide the exact telemetry he will need for a clean, surgical strike. The probes' launch feels like flakes of burned skin sloughing off his body.

Mansour knows that sensation. He was on the bridge of the Sultan's Wrath when the Kuffar rammed it. Metal groaned against metal, clear plasteel shattered like glass. Methane and oxygen atmospheres met and ignited. The thrice-cursed Kuffar burned him alive.

There. A three dimensional display opens up in Mansour's mind. A wing of four Kuffar scouts, three ships escorting an injured comrade back to their mother ship. Mansour's fingers itch. It would be so simple to launch the missiles that would destroy them, but he knows that there is something bigger going on here. And he still fears a trap.

He used to not be so hesitant. He had flown his Union-issued dart with reckless abandon. The artificial skin had hardly set over his burns when he re-enlisted. The attack dart was an extension of his body. With it he stabbed down freighters and traders and privateers aiding the Kuffar cause. That crippled scout would have been a prize catch.

He didn't see the scout's three sister ships until it was too late. Rainbow lightning struck his ship. A bolt sheared off his right leg below the knee. He barely had time to eject in the life capsule before his dart exploded and he blacked out from the pain.

Now this is interesting. The probes show something big along the trajectories of the scouts. Unless the Kuffar have found a way to cloak a planet, the only thing Mansour knows to be that large is a capital class baseship.

He tightens the probe network. A Kuffar baseship can take on three Union battle cruisers. Fully armed with scouts and destroyers, it can bring a planet to its knees. Mansour knows. He was there at the fall of Yathrib.

He fully expected to be flying again as soon as his prosthetic leg was working. He did not expect to have problems with the prosthesis. He did not expect to be sent to Yathrib for rehab. He did not expect to fall in love.

Aliya was a nurse in the Union rehabilitation center. The holochannels were full of stories where the beautiful nurse pulls the handsome but war-shocked soldier out of his funk so they could make love and he could fly off and fight the Kuffar again. Propagandistic camel dung.
 
Aliya was a taskmaster, worse than any drill instructor Mansour ever had. When she said jump, Mansour jumped. When she said get your lazy bones out of bed and walk the therapy course again, Mansour did so. It was not until her yearly holiday took her away from the rehab center for two weeks that Mansour realized how he felt about her. He asked her to marry him the day she returned.

She turned him down. "Ask me when you can walk again."

Mansour applied himself to his rehabilitation with new vigor. With his doctor's approval, he began teaching classes at the planetary military academy. He no longer had problems interfacing with his prosthesis. And in a year, when he again asked Aliya to marry him, she said yes.

Those were the happiest years of Mansour's life. Aliya gave him a daughter. His cadets made him proud, winning many victories for the Union. A beautiful summer of three years. The night Aliya told him they were pregnant with their second child was the night the Kuffar attacked Yathrib.

His sensor web sees the baseship now. Against the stars its energy readings are iridescent, a shimmering globe of sails and honeycombed modules, a swarm of scouts and cruisers flying around it. Only the ships give a true sense of the gargantuan scale. Like ants on the surface of an orange, or fish swimming around a whale.

When he saw the baseship that night in Yathrib's sky, it was as if the planet had gained a third moon. Until that night, no Kuffar baseship had dared come so close to a planetary atmosphere. Mansour and Aliya both wondered at the new moon until it vomited forth its swarm of ships. Little black hornets with laser stingers of fire and death.

Mansour dragged his wife back into the house. It wasn't enough. By the time the Fifth Union Fleet arrived to push back the baseship, Yathrib was rubble and ashes. Mansour was rescued from the ruins of his home. His mind still played the city crashing down on his head.

A romantic would say that Mansour lost his heart that day. He would be wrong. Mansour did not lose his heart until two years later.

The computer simulations are not good. Mansour does not mind losing his life, but the sims do not predict enough enemy casualties to make his sacrifice worthwhile. A thought occurs to him. He programs parameters down the jack in his brainstem directly into the simulation program and waits for the computer's response.

The soldiers dragged him from under the house not knowing whether Mansour was alive or dead. The only limb unbroken was the prosthesis. He awoke from unconsciousness and screamed. Then came the pleasant blackness of the drugs.

When he woke again, he could feel nothing below the waist. A full flag admiral sat at his bedside. Mansour tried to rise to attention. The Admiral offered a wry smile.

"At ease, Lieutenant. How are you feeling?"

Mansour opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. The admiral took hold of Mansour's hand.

"They told me the narcotics would damage your voice. I would like you just to listen, then. I regret to inform you that your wife and child are dead."

Tears flowed from Mansour's eyes. He remembered now. He knew they were dead, wife and daughter and unborn child. He had watched them die, been powerless to do anything about their deaths.

"Kuffar." The word croaked out.

The admiral started at the word, or perhaps at the malice in Mansour's ruin of a voice. He recovered quickly and nodded. "I'm here to offer you a way to strike back at the enemy. A way for which you are uniquely qualified."

He explained a new class of ship the Union had on the design boards. The Sword of Faith would be the prototype. Mansour agreed to be its pilot before the Admiral finished speaking.

The Sword of Faith's computer does not like the data Mansour fed into it. He overrides the computer's objections. It can be done, if the piloting is one hundred percent accurate, and if the base assumptions are correct. But there are too many unforeseeable variables. Mansour calculates his course anyway and turns off the ship's safety protocols with a thought. The computer registers one final protest and hibernates.

Mansour is the ship now.

As he was designed to be. Instead of repairing his limbs in the hospital, the doctors removed them, including his prosthetic leg. In their place they grafted control servos, specialized prostheses through which Mansour could direct all ship functions. A spinal port would input ship data directly into Mansour's cerebral cortex.

His life as a pilot wedded with his months of therapy. Aliya had taught him that neurocontrol was a matter of will. All the doctors and engineers were amazed at how well he adjusted to the implants. They should not have been so surprised. His will was strong. The Kuffar had made it that way.

When the grafts had completely stabilized, they flew him to the shipyards. The pilot's couch cradled him like a womb. He slid his servo limbs into their sockets. The engineers connected him to the ship.

A burning white pleasure knocked Mansour unconscious. They broke the link and staged it up gradually the second time. It was like learning to walk again. It was like making love to a virgin, both partners learning the other's rhythms. It was like dancing, a complex of motions that would slay the enemy.

The engineers made their final adjustments, both to the ship and to Mansour. They plated the connectors with gold, cutting down response time even more. They unwound Mansour's intestines and replaced them with plasteel coils, freeing him from eating and excreting. They replaced his lungs with clear tubing, enabling him to work in near vacuum. Lastly they removed his heart, replacing it with a metal pump, black and unreflective as the Sword of Faith's hull.

Mansour is ready. All his other missions, all his other strikes were practice for this moment. If he brings down the baseship, the blow to Kuffar morale will be immense. That a single Union ship can defeat such a planetoid of death. Mansour will die a hero of the Union. Aliya will at last be avenged.

He takes one last look through the probes, as easy as focusing his eyes. He tenses the muscles that would control his legs, blinks open the controls to his ship's jump drive. A pause that a lifetime ago would have been a deep breath. Mansour jumps into hyperspace—

—right into the open space at the heart of the Kuffar baseship. Proximity klaxons sound. Mansour silences them with a thought. Through the ship's sensors he sees himself in the center of the baseship. Surrounded by engines and plasma nodes and units Mansour does not recognize.

Mansour clenches his hands. With his metal heart pounding, he throws every weapon his ship has at the baseship. A thunderstorm of laser bolts, a whirlwind of missiles.

The Sword of Faith spins, or perhaps it is Mansour's awareness, spinning as his brain struggles to keep up with the trajectory of every weapon.

Engines and plasma nodes explode in bursts of color. The blasts buffet the Sword of Faith. Mansour laughs, wills the ship to spin faster, wills more weapons to launch. He is a whirlwind of fire, he is a dervish with sword in either hand. Striking down his enemies with every stroke. Mansour laughs louder.

Support craft begin pouring from the baseship into its central core. Robotic drones deploy as mechanical barriers to sensitive systems. Unarmed shuttles fly as if to ram the Sword of Faith. Mansour evades them all, rocking as his ship hit a wreckage field or something else explodes.

At last the Kuffar get armed ships through to the core of the baseship. Mansour lets fly his last barrage of missiles. The first craft falls and the second, but the third dodges and keeps coming. Mansour cackles as he drains the laser batteries of power. The Sword of Faith shakes as concussion waves wash over it. Or is it Mansour's own trembling?

A last effort. Mansour reaches out to the heavens, and the Sword of Faith deploys its solar sails. Drones and debris crash through the unfurling foil wings. Mansour senses the panic in the scouts. They rush like ants, let loose their hornet stings.

With his final resolve, his metal heart racing, he touches the engines of the Sword of Faith. The thought of Aliya, of their daughter, of their unborn child. He reaches the controls of his ship's fusion engines.

And his world explodes in fire.