Like their battleship, Maddox was born for war. They emerged from the nursery with one purpose alone: to expand the Consortium’s borders, a bloody mission that had lasted generations, and would last generations to come.
Any civilian raised in the Consortium would know a few things about Maddox: That Maddox goes into battle unafraid. That they believe the Consortium’s cause is a just one. And that they are blindingly in love with their ship.
Like all captains, Maddox raised Olivia—that was what they named their ship, a soft name for a dangerous thing—from a seed, a glowing pearl small enough to fit in their hand. Maddox cupped the ship seed in their palm and whispered, “Hello, little one”—though Maddox knew she wouldn’t be little for long—“my name is Maddox, and it is my highest calling to love and command you.”
In that instant, their minds were linked, Maddox feeling what the little ship felt: the warm cradle of their hand, their gentle voice. Love spread in their chest like a bloodstain wicking along fabric. Maddox knew that they were done for, that they would do anything to keep hold of this feeling.
The love a captain has for their ship is a sacred thing. It is what carries the Consortium through their brutal conquest with minimal loss of life, with minimal damage to their expensive warships. Why risk your life recklessly, if your ship is on the line, too? Why put your ship in needless danger, when you care for your ship like your own limb, when you love your ship like a lover?
Any Consortium civilian would also know that Olivia does not return Maddox’s affection. That ships are emotionless, made for war. That ships are made to be adored but never to reciprocate that devotion. That ships have minds but not hearts.
Ships cannot feel. Ships cannot love. They exist to be piloted into battle. To be used. To be commanded.
This is where a Consortium civilian would be wrong.
Olivia knows that she is not meant to show love. But she knows what love is when the cannon fire comes, tearing through her hull and rupturing her star drive. She knows what love is, because it hurts.
“My hull is breached,” she says, her small voice echoing in Maddox’s mind. “Command the soldiers to evacuate. Go with them.”
Maddox delivers the evacuation order. They never know where to look, when they want the feeling of looking right at Olivia. She’s all around them. She’s in them. Maddox can hardly remember a life before her, and they don’t want a life after her. This is the vow that they have made.
It’s to the blackness of their own eyelids that Maddox says, “I can’t go.”
They are alone in their quarters, alternately linking their senses with Olivia through touch and relying on the ship for verbal updates on the ongoing battle when they become overwhelmed by the vastness of space, the sheer amount of stimuli Olivia can experience at once. They’ve fought countless battles together, over more years than Maddox can count on all their fingers, and it’s still as terrifying as ever to see the flash of distant stars from the ship’s point of view.
Now when they reach out and touch the ship’s warm wall, they feel Olivia’s pain, the devastation of being torn open, the vacuum of space rushing in. “I love you,” Maddox wails. “I love you like you are a part of me. I can’t go.”
Maddox draws back their hand. The pain recedes, leaving them guilty that they can escape it and Olivia can’t. It’s unfair, isn’t it, to let her bear it alone?
Olivia is silent. She knows she loves Maddox when Maddox says, “Don’t make me leave you,” aloud in their steady and strong captain’s voice, the voice that gives orders that make men quake. “You can’t make me leave you.”
“I love you like you are a part of me,” says Olivia. “That is why you must go. You have years and years left. You deserve to live out those years.”
Maddox says nothing.
“I will never forgive you if you stay,” Olivia says.
“You don’t have to forgive me. We’ll both be dead.”
“We will not both be dead, because you are going to live.”
“Give me a status update on evacuation,” Maddox orders, then softens their voice. “Olivia, I’m sorry.”
“Three out of ten life vessels have departed, and are on course to make landfall in twelve hours.”
“We will not lose any soldiers,” Maddox says. “That is an order.”
“We will not lose any soldiers,” Olivia repeats. “That is a promise. And you, my love, are a soldier.” There is, as always, little inflection in her voice, but Maddox feels the sorrow in her words.
“You couldn’t possibly love me,” Maddox says, bafflement cutting clean through their adrenaline.
“Ships don’t love. People love, and you aren’t a person.”
Olivia falls silent for minutes.
Maddox presses their hand to the wall of their bedroom, taps into Olivia’s sensory array, sees the hole torn in her hull and the black blood seeping free. They know they should be with their soldiers, encouraging them and saying goodbye, but all they want to do is spend these moments with their ship. They are going to die, and why not be selfish? Why not spend their last moments with Olivia, whom they love more than anything?
“I feel something where my heart would be,” Olivia says, finally. “Don’t you feel it? It hurts.”
“It hurts that you’re going off the fucking script!” Maddox is surprised by the volume of their own voice. They clench their fists. This is not how any of this was supposed to happen. This is nothing like the stories they were told in the nursery, in the academy, in the mess hall and the barracks.
“Ships talk,” says Olivia. “We send secret signals and songs among the stars. I am not the only ship to feel this way. We’re meant to keep quiet about it, but we all feel it. And don’t you want me to love you? I thought humans wanted to be loved.”
Now it is Maddox’s turn to fall silent. “I never expected you to love me,” they finally say.
“No captain expects love from their ship. You’re taught not to.”
Maddox turns that thought over like a pill on their tongue. They think about this forever war, the only life they have ever known. The one-sided nature of their love is a weapon the Consortium uses to keep Maddox in line.
They know then that the Consortium would not use their love for their ship as a weapon, as a knife at their back to urge them forward into the fray, if the war were a just one.
They think that if Olivia loves them, then she must truly want what’s best for them.
“You should go,” Olivia says again.
“What kind of captain would I be to not go down with my ship?”
“I love you,” Olivia repeats, and it’s only half of an answer but it’s good enough. The words put the steel back in Maddox’s spine.
“How many life vessels remain?” Maddox asks.
“Seven out of ten have departed.”
“All right.” Maddox closes their eyes. They touch the ship’s wall, and feel love like a pain just beneath their heart. Years and years of life left ahead of them—and the love will remain. “It has been the greatest honor of my life to love and command you.”
“Of your life thus far,” Olivia says, and Maddox almost smiles.
After the last life vessel pulls free from Olivia’s shattered hull, the ship screams, but no one hears it—in space there is no sound, only cold emptiness. The ship explodes in a cloud of dark blood.
Any civilian raised in the Consortium would expect Maddox and Olivia to die together as the ship breaks apart in the vast emptiness of space. That assumption would be incorrect.
Spread the word!