"You've been doing this for hours, Captain," Lieutenant Lianna Braun told him. "You need to eat."
"That's true," Captain Zelnick said in a dead voice, not looking up. He was sitting in his office on the Vindicator, mostly healed after only a few days in the starbase hospital. "I need to eat. As opposed to these people, who will never eat anything again." He pointed to a very long list of names, which was printed on a sheet of paper for some reason. Lianna didn't even know where he had found the paper, or how he had printed anything on it, but dismissed both questions.
"Captain - Rob." He still didn't look up. "This isn't healthy." Another pause. Zelnick said nothing, just staring at the flashing cursor on his computer screen. She sighed.
"How many?" she asked softly.
"Nine hundred and four," he answered after a moment. "Nine hundred. And four. It didn't add up so much at the time, I mean, it didn't seem like so many. This ship was a fucking garbage disposal, Lianna. Sometimes the blade kind, sometimes the laser kind. Take the people, stick them in the bunks, engage the power, and they're turned to fine paste that's just flushed away."
"Stop it," she told him.
"And that's not counting the Shofixti. Hundreds of those. Two hundred and fifty of them, lost, just against the Sa-Matra. The escape pod held only thirty. The defenses got some of them, but they knew it would happen anyway. They knew they were going to die, they went out there knowing. They do that, gladly give their lives for the species, and it's fine for them, I suppose...it's not, not fine, for me. They weren't just mindless drones programmed to throw away their lives, like those probes self-destructing. They were sentient - they were people, even if they weren't human. And I can only wonder how many volunteered only because they thought it was shameful and cowardly not to. Sometimes I think the universe would work better if we were all Spathi. If everyone was too damn afraid to fight..." he finally trailed off.
"And I tell myself, we had to have the reserves, we had to have multiple redundancy, we could not afford the risk of losing control in the face of the Sa-Matra's defenses, and the lives of billions of sentients on billions of worlds were at stake. But the fact is, there were at least a hundred of them still alive when that damned Precursor bomb went off. And I just sit here and wonder, how many Shofixti didn't have to die?"
"You said it yourself, Captain!" Lianna shouted, seizing him by the shoulders and turning him to face her. "Listen to me. You did what you had to do. We all did. We all decided this was what we had to do. Everyone agreed. You're trained in mathematics. Assess the expectation value. Assess the probabilities. Against the certain deaths of ten to the third power sentient beings, we balance probability P times deaths of ten to the tenth power, at least, sentient beings. It follows that the former is preferable unless P is less than ten to the negative seventh, so -"
"Damn you, Lianna, I can perform Fermi estimation myself, thank you very much!" Zelnick shouted. "Look at this one. Look at this," he commanded, jabbing at a screen. "Celia Lacure. Age twenty-nine, from France, medical technician. Medical technician. She was never supposed to be hauling uranium into a deathtrap lander in the middle of a lightning storm! She was never supposed to die on some godforsaken alien hellhole God knows how many light years from home, in a fucking storm!"
"I mean, what the fuck do I even write here? 'Miss Lacure made the ultimate sacrifice to free humanity by being hit by lightning'? And you know what the best part is? The best part? That was only a few weeks before we got the lightning protection from the Melnorme. I have the sensor logs from the pod - it's almost certain she would have survived if the lightning protection had been in place. Which we could have done all along, without waiting for the fucking Melnorme to pay us for chasing monsters halfway around planets, if we had thought of it. I'll tell you something though, it's a damn good thing for the Melnorme the Precursor computers wouldn't fire on them."
"She had a life," he went on after a few moments. "She had dreams, plans, probably loved someone up here or down there, or had. She had siblings, I know that from the dossiers. She had a million stories to tell, like everyone - I sound like a fucking Pkunk, don't I? - but it was all snuffed out by a damned bolt of lightning. Stopped her heart, and they couldn't get it started again."
"I never knew her," Zelnick said finally. "I never got to know the rank-and-file very well. Now I realize why - their life expectancies were precisely shit, so there was never time for me to."
"Captain, you need to take a break from this," Braun said firmly. She reached over to the display and pressed the power button. The picture vanished, leaving them facing a black void.
"There are hundreds of them," Zelnick went on, tone barely changing. "Lightning. Acid rain. Projectiles through the faceplate. Suit malfunctions. Broken necks. Lander malfunctions. Heatstroke. Vacuum exposure got five at once when a quake cracked the lander open on some airless moon and they didn't get their helmets on in time. All kinds of fatal injuries from attack by those giant monsters the Melnorme wanted. One man about my age somehow got mercury in his mouth when loading it onto a lander, turned out to be a lethal dose. And one science officer who is still completely insane after the Orz did God knows what to him - I'm not even sure he's in this...in here, mentally, if you understand me. And that's just the planetside fatalities. There's a much longer list for the space combat casualties."
"Should I call Talana?" Lianna asked.
"No! I mean, she doesn't understand. She saw I was depressed earlier, but her suggestion was a threesome for me - she thought you'd be good for that, actually."
Lieutenant Braun made incoherent noises for a few seconds. "Did - what - did you think - idea..." This was flattering in one way, disturbing in another, and definitely interesting...
"Well, I just told her I wasn't in the mood," Zelnick said, and Lianna snapped her thoughts back to her captain and friend's plight. "The point is, she doesn't know how many it was. I haven't told her. Partly because I didn't actually know until two days ago."
That actually made sense. Casualties had been dealt with individually, and remains had been returned to the station, so shipmates and station crew could both attend the memorials, which had occurred on practically every visit. The point was that Zelnick had no way to get a running tally, and hadn't really wanted to - he had said at some point he couldn't let it distract him then.
"And another thing," Zelnick snapped, sitting up straight. "Do you know how many Ilwrath and Thraddash are left alive? They concluded based on the transmission patterns that it's less than a thousand of each. Before that slaughter started - before I started it - there were millions, at least. I'm no better than the Kohr-Ah, exterminating sentient species because they find them dangerous and inconvenient. The Ilwrath and Thraddash were dangerous, so I got rid of them. How is that any different? Hmm? Did almost every single Ilwrath and Thraddash really deserve to be 'cleansed'?"
"You didn't do that -"
"My actions caused it, and you can't make a utilitarian argument in one case and deontologist one in the other. If you pick and choose ethics like that, they're meaningless."
"The Pkunk say we all reincarnate -"
"The Kohr-Ah said the same thing," Zelnick answered grimly. "They said we'd all reincarnate as Ur-Quan if they killed us, so they were really doing us a favor."
"Listen," Lianna said at last, "I'll tell you why it's different."
"Because we're having this discussion," she answered. "The Kohr-Ah, they didn't think twice. They had a rigid and certain moral code, which said that all not Ur-Quan was inferior and needed to be cleansed. They didn't question that, and they had neither regret nor mercy nor even pity. The very fact that you feel b - that you feel like this, the fact that you're doing this - that's what makes you, and humans in general, different from Ur-Quan."
Zelnick sighed. "Maybe you're right."
Another long silence. Finally, Zelnick got up, and began heading for the nearest galley, looking for something to eat.