The Binding and the Ram

by D.G.P. Rector

They always looked sick when they came back. The Pilots had been augmented, trained, bred for this. But every sortie took something away from them, carved them up from the inside out. Plucked away at their souls.

Voros-3 was the first to fall, a muffled groan coming from inside his helmet. The boy lay on the deck, twitching, for a full ten seconds. A blueish substance leaked from beneath Voros’ helmet, flecked with red. He writhed and jerked, spewing the liquid on the deck around him.

The other Pilots watched dully as the crash team rushed out onto the deck, their uniforms crisp and white and clean. They were so tall compared to the Pilots, it was easy to forget they were the same age. Decanted five years ago at most.

Silently, the Chaplain prayed for her charge. She was on the observation deck, watching the Pilots return through a monitor. It was forbidden that she see them except at confession. She’d argued a long time with the Captain that remote observation would help her fulfill her duties, and at last he had relented. It didn’t make her job any easier.

Voros was stilled, his arms and legs bound by the strong hands of the crash team. One of them held a bag of silver liquid aloft, plugged into a port in Voros’ neck. They were inducing a coma, standard procedure. She made a note to ask Voros how he felt about that, if he lived.

The other Pilots watched as Voros was taken away. Their arms were limp, their legs bent. Exhausted but still standing. Eventually the deck officer came and collected their debriefing chips, pulling memory wafers from the backs of their helmets while the Pilots knelt in front of him. There was something horribly violent in the gesture. Then the Pilots shuffled off to their cells, and the deck was left empty.

She tapped on her console, conjuring up the debriefing when it was ready. There were charts of heart rates, levels of agitation, blood flow, pulse. Statistics on their machines, too: what damage each Pilot’s craft had received, fuel spent, rounds expended. Enemies killed.

The numbers meant little to her. She tapped over to the camera recordings. There was little enough to see in a void battle, but she watched anyway. Long periods of seemingly nothing, then bright lights moving against the stars in the background. Sudden explosions, beams of energy racing by. Missiles burning out and freezing in the blackness.

Every Pilot had a helmet cam, as well as the ones linked to the outside of their ships. She watched the battle unfold from the eyes of each of her charges. Their vision would twitch back and forth, moving so quickly she had to slow the playback down to understand what was going on. They were precise, faster than a drone could ever be. They moved before they needed to.

It was the little tremors she paid most attention to. Some of them would shake slightly when an enemy fusillade got too close. Small and suppressed, but still there: the tell-tale sign of fear.

She watched for an hour, going through each Pilot’s memory of the fight. They had all come back, thank God. She’d watched too many Pilots die, seen their last moments through their own eyes.

“Another successful sortie, no?”

The Chaplain flinched at the sound of the Captain’s voice. The Captain made no noise except when he wished to, his tabi boots scuffing the deck silently. He was a shadow in silver and black, face hard and skeletal beneath his officer’s cap.

The Chaplain rose from her chair, folding her hands behind her back. She was technically outside the chain of command, and wasn’t obliged to the same level of deference as the rest of the crew except on formal occasions. Still, testing the Captain’s patience was never a good idea.

“You should be proud,” he continued. “Theta squadron has the highest success rate of all the units on the Iphigenia. You’re the only thing they have that the other squadrons don’t.”

“I try my best to do right by them, sir.”

“Quite. You take your duties very seriously, don’t you? I’ve noted you spend more time with Theta squad than the rest of their support staff.”

“When they have spiritual needs, I tend to them. Sir.”

The Captain’s eyes flicked over to the viewing screen. She’d opened a separate file to jot notes down. Foolishly, she’d forgotten to close it when the Captain came in.

“I admire your thoroughness,” the Captain said. “But keep in mind your ultimate responsibility. Victory is the duty of everyone in the Fleet. Theta squadron is an important part of that duty, but it is not the whole of the war.”

“Of course not, Captain.”

“We are all war materiel, Chaplain. From the lowliest marines to the High Admirals, we are no different from missiles and mass rounds. We should never be wasted, but we must be used. Do you understand?”

“I believe I do, Captain.”

The Captain smiled thinly.

“Good. Because you know that if I found anyone in this crew hoarding materiel, refusing to use it against the enemy… I would have an obligation as an officer, and as a human being, to see that that person faced justice. No matter their rank, or their occupation.”

The Chaplain smiled back.

“We are fortunate, Captain, to have such a dedicated officer in command.”

“I’m glad you think so. I expect Theta squadron will be needing you soon, Chaplain. Why don’t you go and check on them?”


The Pilots were in their cradles, each curled into a fetal ball. Dozens of tubes ran into them, feeding them nutrients and drugs to keep them calm and healthy. She could not help but think they looked trapped, like each was cocooned in some horrible spider’s web.

The Med-Tech’s eyes were silver. Replaced after an accident years ago, they had an unnatural sheen. She stank of antiseptic like the rest of the Pilots’ Creche, but she was one of the few members of the support staff who would speak to the Chaplain openly. The Flight Colonel thought a Chaplain was a waste of resources, and much of the crew agreed.

“Voros-3 will be out for at least four more shifts,” the Med-Tech said. “Concussive force dislodged one of his augment lines. There was a fluid leak into his lungs.”

“Will he survive?”

The Med-Tech shrugged.

“We were able to drain most of it. It’s possible the strain on his heart might be too much, and with this generation there’s always a possibility of cascading brain failure. We’ve got him under observation, and all his combat data has been logged. If it happens, we’re not that far from the Echidna. We’ll need about thirty decants soon anyway.”

The Chaplain checked it over in her mind. Thirty? Really? Theta Squadron had lost three Pilots two sorties ago. The other squads must have been suffering, just like the Captain said. It was a small number compared to the marines and the ground forces, but she always felt the loss of the Pilots keenly.

“Has there been any unusual brain activity in any of them?” she asked.

The Med-Tech checked her data pad, brushing a gloved finger over chart after chart.

“Most are within normal trauma range. Hmm… Achera-14 had a spike in activity about an hour ago. Looks like nightmares. She was almost cooked at Pilum, trauma response was similar.”

“I’ll start with her then. Is she ready to be pulled out?”

The Med-Tech shrugged again.

“I mean, she can be. You know you don’t have to do this, right? I can increase her sedative load in a snap. Hell, we can cut the last few sorties from her active memory. Clinical trials have shown that works. Probably better than your little talks, even.”

The Chaplain allowed herself a sad smile.

“But if you did that, I’d be out of a job,” she said.


The confession cell was white and spartan. There was a chair for the Chaplain, a desk, and another chair for the Pilot. The only other adornment in the room was an abstract crucifix. The Chaplain had wanted something more detailed, but the Captain had forbidden it.

“Your presence here is at my discretion,” he had reminded her when she asked. “Many in the Fleet think you serve no purpose at all. I hope to never count myself among them.”

Achera-14 sat opposite her, staring down at the desk. Thin black hair fell down from her dome-like skull. The Chaplain could see blue veins beneath the girl’s pale, almost translucent skin. The Achera line was going into decline. Someone had told her there were ways of fixing that, but most decant lines were replaced after reaching a critical point. When this Achera died, the Chaplain might never see her somber face again.

“Would you like to join me in prayer?” she asked.

Achera shook her head.

“Do you mind if I do?”

Achera’s eyes flicked up for a moment, then back down. They were glassy, brown, and heavy-lidded. Always with a strange sheen, as if Achera was on the verge of tears.

“Quietly, please,” Achera said in a small voice.

The Chaplain folded her hands in front of her and whispered the Lord’s prayer. She tried to keep her voice barely audible, at a level even a Pilot couldn’t hear. When she finished and opened her eyes again, Achera was staring at her.

“I’ve been reading,” Achera said.


“Uh-huh. When I’m in the cradle, they let me connect to the ship’s library. Do they know what I read when I’m asleep?”

“I don’t know. I can ask the officers, when I next see them. Would you like that to be private?”

“I just don’t want them to make me stop. Is it one of the sins?”

The Chaplain smiled and shook her head.

“No, Achera, reading isn’t a sin.”

“It might be against the rules though.”

“Not everything that’s against the rules is a sin. And not every sin is against the rules.”

“Like killing,” Achera said. “Killing’s not against the rules, but it is a sin. When I get a kill on a sortie, it’s a sin.”

The Chaplain breathed in deeply. Fleet Doctrine wasn’t exactly theologically rigorous, but when she had agreed to be a Chaplain, she’d made peace with the fact that she was going to have to preach the way the Fleet wanted her to. That was a sin too, wasn’t it?

“Murder is a sin. Killing is not. Killing isn’t good, Achera, but sometimes it’s necessary. Murder is—”

“It’s when you take a life and you don’t have to,” Achera said. “But I don’t have to kill the people that I kill, do I?”

“You do. I wish it weren’t so, but you do. Otherwise, we’ll lose the war and… and we might all die.”

“I could die though, first. I could eject in the launch tube, then I would die, and I wouldn’t kill anyone. So I don’t have to kill people on sorties. I murder them.”

“Achera… do you think about that a lot? Do you think about hurting yourself?”

“Killing myself,” Achera corrected. “Only when I think about killing people on Sorties.”

“Achera, suicide is a terrible sin. Truly terrible.”


“Because God gave you this life. It is His great gift to you, and to us all. To throw that away, it’s a terrible insult, and a terrible waste. Please, if you ever have these thoughts, come to me and we can talk it out, alright?”

The Pilot stared at her, eyes blank, expressionless.

“God didn’t make me,” Achera said. “The Fleet did.”


“Do you think it’s been rendered combat ineffective?”

The Captain didn’t look up from her report as he spoke. They were in his ready room, cavernous compared to the tight corridors of the rest of the ship. Space was a luxury in the Fleet, and the five square meters reserved solely for the Captain was an ostentatious display of his authority. The Chaplain remembered her life on Whiteacre Colony, when she could look to the horizon and see nothing but trees and mountains and sky. She had thought the black void of space would be infinite, agoraphobic.

She was wrong. Space was small and cramped and tight. It was the smell of blood and disinfectant, of burning ozone and metal polish. It was the subtle wrongness of everything: recycled air that always seemed dirty, the humming of the gravity simulators beneath her feet, always feeling that if she lifted her legs too high, she would drift away.

The Captain cleared his throat. His time was precious. She’d waited silently through the entire briefing as his command staff debated what to do next. The Enemy had taken Sto-Odin station, and the Fleet was preparing a counterattack. Iphigenia would be part of a patrol near the border systems, meant to probe the Enemy’s lines and make sure they weren’t planning a multi-pronged assault. One of the tacticians had pulled up a list of systems, names on a blue holo-image. One of them belonged to her home.

“I don’t think they’re incapable of sortie, sir, but the rate of psychological deterioration is very high. I’ve noted suicidality expressed by three of the Pilots, the rest are showing greater signs of distress than normal.”

“How can you tell? They seemed normal in all their debriefs. Well, as ‘normal’ as Pilots get, at least.”

The Chaplain gritted her teeth. It was so easy for the crew to dismiss decants. She defied anyone to be ‘normal’ after what the Pilots had been through, how they had been raised.

“Sir, we’ve had forty-six sorties since we reached the front. Non-decanted crewmen show signs of mental degradation after half that—”

“Yes, yes, humans aren’t as resilient as Pilots, I know that, Chaplain. You’re certain they’re showing signs of a breakdown?”

She studied the Captain. He’d looked up from her report, his face expressionless. He was a ruthless man, one had to be to rise this high in the ranks of the Fleet. She could only guess at what he would decide to do if she told the whole truth.

“Some of them certainly are approaching that point, sir. They aren’t broken yet, though.”

“How many more sorties do you think we could get out of this batch? On average, I mean.”

“I think… I think they will remain a coherent force for, perhaps, four or five more missions. After that I can’t be certain, sir.”

The Captain smiled. His teeth were a polished onyx against his sallow skin. It was a very fashionable look in the Core, though she had never seen the Captain express interest in anything besides rising through the ranks and killing the Enemy.

“I’m glad to hear it, Chaplain. We’ve had intelligence of an enemy patrol near Garamant, but once we’ve cleared that system, we’re routed for Whiteacre. We’ll receive reinforcements and resupply from the Fleet there. I’ll put in a request for full rotation for Theta squad, per your observations.”

“Will I go with them?” she asked.

The Captain cocked his head to the side quizzically.

“I mean, on rotation,” she said quickly. “I’d like to keep observing them, sir. It’d probably speed their recovery if I was there to assist.”

The Captain inhaled through his nose. When he spoke, it was as if he were trying to explain something to a child.

“I often forget that you’ve only been with Iphigenia as long as Theta squad. You never received a full briefing on the Pilot program, did you?”

“I read my manuals, sir, and I was given an exemplary ranking in the specialized counseling course—”

“I’m sure you did. There are things that were above your clearance level at the time, and I suppose the nature of their rotation was one of them. I will be blunt with you, Chaplain: when Pilots rotate out, they are euthanized, dissected, and evaluated for the improvement of the program. Our medical team studies their combat records, as well as their physical status at the end of their deployment, and that data is used to improve the next round of decants.”

“That’s insane!” she snapped. “You’re going to kill them, after all they’ve done for us? For the Fleet?”

The Captain shook his head.

“Fleet command said this might be a problem. Spiritual advisers like you have a tendency to become too emotionally attached to the Pilots.”

“What in God’s name am I supposed to do? Not care? They’re children. You wanted me to help them, to tend to their souls, and now you’re telling me—”

“Lower. Your. Tone.”

The Captain had not raised his voice. His words were icy calm, and yet spoken in a way that instantly reminded the Chaplain of where she was. The Fleet did not brook insubordination, and it dealt with rebels as brutally as it dealt with the Enemy.

She straightened herself. She’d do the Pilots no good if she were dead. Fists clenched, she spoke again in an even tone, trying to match her superior.

“My apologies, sir. I forgot myself.”

“You did,” the Captain said. “But if it assuages your concerns, you should know that the Pilots feel no pain in the process. It is as efficient and humane as can be.”

“With respect, sir, I think it’s wasteful. If this is the Fleet’s policy, then I believe the Fleet is making a grave mistake.”


“Veteran Pilots could be extremely useful in the war effort. Their expertise could be used in training, and their example could improve morale, sir.”

“Any expertise they can bring is already accounted for in the transmission of their battle records, Chaplain. As for morale, I don’t see your point. You think they could be, what? A good example of what new Pilots have to look forward to?”

“Yes, sir. The Pilots aren’t machines. It’s not… they’re not the same as non-decants. But they have needs. All they do is fight, sleep, and die. They know it, sir. It’s no wonder so many break down.”

“So, we might be able to keep the next generation in the field longer if squads like Theta are allowed to ‘retire’?”

“In a sense, sir, yes.”

In truth, she had no idea, but she knew appealing to the Captain’s empathy would get her nowhere.

“And how do you picture their lives, after they’re no longer being deployed? Do you really think a Pilot can become a civilian? They’re combat precognitives, Chaplain. Not human beings. They’d have as much use in civilian life as a pulse cannon.”

“I believe it’s an issue that can be solved, sir. The rehabilitation of combatants is a centuries-old study. If we win, the Fleet will already be devoting resources to it for non-decants, so I don’t see why expanding those programs to include Pilots would be a problem, sir.”

“When,” the Captain growled.

It was the first time she had heard genuine anger in his voice.


“You said if we win, Chaplain.”

“I apologize, sir. When we win, I think helping the Pilots will be possible.”

The Captain stood up. Gloved hands clasped behind his back, he studied her. To her shame, the Chaplain flinched.

“Follow me,” the Captain said.

He strode out of the room, and the Chaplain followed reluctantly. He led her down several corridors and out onto a gantry. They were on one of the gunnery decks now. Below them, crewmen scurried back and forth around generators and forests of electrical cords. It was another of the few open spaces aboard the Iphigenia, dominated by heavy pulse cannons: huge, tower-like constructs that jutted through the hull and out into space.

The Captain looked down at the crew working below. They were high enough up that their forms were indistinct, more like scurrying insects than human beings.

“I’ve been reading your holy book,” the Captain said. “I downloaded engrams of several translations.”

“Everything I preach is in accordance with approved Fleet doctrine, sir.”

“I’m sure.”

The Captain leaned against the railing, fascinated by the crew’s movements. One of the capacitors had burned out. Crewmen were slowly unhooking it with the aid of robotic lifters, replacing the gigantic metal sphere with another one. As they worked, she could hear the distant echo of their chanted work-songs.

“Most of it is mythological nonsense,” the Captain said. “Tribal legends passed down, adapted and recollected into a broader corpus with no great plan. I have to admit, I was quite puzzled at how this silly little cult had grown so powerful on Old Earth. I know there are still a few billion believers spread out across the colonies, but it always seemed obvious to me that your faith had no inherent appeal. Still, the Fleet thinks it’s useful, so I tolerate it.”

The Chaplain remained silent. The Captain’s distaste for her belief wasn’t unusual. There were perhaps a few dozen people who shared her faith in a crew of thousands.

“I started to wonder,” the Captain continued, “at how you could be so effective in dealing with the Pilots. They’re quite intelligent beings, and you’re an intelligent woman. Why do these silly stories mean so much to you? Then I realized the solution is simple: they don’t. Rather, it’s the way in which they are communicated that matters. I don’t doubt that whoever first taught you about your faith was an exceptional person, were they not?”

“My parents were good people, sir,” she said.

“Of course they were. Your Bible, it’s a means of communication. It helps you frame the cosmos into something workable, something you can truly understand and discuss with others. That shared frame of reference creates coherence, whether among twelve people or twelve billion.”

“Not everyone of the Faith agrees, sir. Even now there are debates.”

The Captain waved his hand airily.

“Doctrinal nonsense is immaterial. Tell me, Chaplain, do you believe in miracles?”

“I do, sir.”

She was expecting more mockery, but the Captain smiled at her and nodded approvingly.

“So do I. The things I’ve seen! Thousand-to-one shots, battles won by a handful of green recruits, whole armadas destroyed by sudden solar storms… I don’t think you can live a life in the Fleet and not see a few miracles. Do you know the history of the Pilots?”

“I know what was in my training manual, sir.”

“I’m sure they elided over the most interesting details. The truth is that the first Pilots were not engineered, they were born. I was only an ensign when the first human precognitives were discovered. You would’ve been barely a toddler, I think, but in those days things were bad. The Enemy was driving us back on all fronts. Their mechanical intelligences are superior to our own, you see. They had fleets of craft that could move and think faster than any but those most highly augmented human beings.

“And then, in those darkest days, we found the precognitives. People who could see things moments before they happened, and act accordingly. Of course, the Fleet recruited as many as it could, and when they joined the war effort, we began to win again! We drove the enemy back wherever they reared their heads. In our hour of need, the greatest weapon was placed in our hands. What is that, if not a miracle?

“But of course, the story does not end there. Not every one of these gifted people was fit for combat, and each one lost was irreplaceable. So the Fleet took the most fit, and began the Pilot program. We artificially bred them, augmented them, created genetic dynasties of perfect precognitive warriors. What once was the random act of nature, or your benign God, if you prefer, was now solely the work of Man. It is the great pattern of human history.”

“I… see, sir.”

“Do you, Chaplain? Perhaps I’ve grown verbose. I shall put it more plainly.”

The Captain gestured to the pulse cannon below. The crew had finally locked in the capacitor, and a great cheer rose up among them as it hummed to life. The massive weapon glowed with a blue and baleful light, charged now with terrible purpose.

“Your God gave us thought and free will, and we harnessed the Atom. Your God gave us precognition, and we created the Pilots. Always, we have surpassed Him. Your God burned Sodom and Gomorrah—tell me, Chaplain, how many Gomorrahs do you think I have turned to ash?”

The Chaplain shook her head.

“I have no idea.”

The Captain smiled again, a cruel gleam in his eyes.

“There is not a number high enough. I give you a long leash, Chaplain. Do not make me regret it. You would not like my Judgment.”


The Navigator tolerated her presence, mostly. He was a large man, barely fitting into his Fleet-issue uniform. The sides of his head were shaved, and he had a valknut tattooed above his right temple, just below the interface port that linked him with the ship’s systems.

“So, what does the White Christ tell you will happen today?” the Navigator called mockingly as she joined him at his bench.

The galley itself was long and narrow, with two rows of benches cramped together around low tables. The officers had a better galley, but like the Navigator, she preferred this place. It was close to her quarters and her working space, and with all the crewmen babbling with each other it was easier to ignore the fact that no one spoke to her.

“I’m not a prophet,” the Chaplain said wearily. “God doesn’t tell me what will happen next.”

She opened her ration canister. Lucky day, they were being fed some kind of legume soup. She tapped a few flakes of spice into the soup and stirred it.

“Hmmph. White Christ doesn’t seem much use, then,” the Navigator said between bites of his own meal.

He had learned that term somewhere, and used it incessantly. Neo-Odinics were slightly more tolerated in the Fleet than the various surviving denominations of Christianity, and the Navigator was always quick to needle her about her faith. She couldn’t blame him, exactly. From her point of view, it was just a way of protecting himself. As if he was saying: Go for her, not me! I’m one of the good ones.

“Have the charts come in?” she asked nonchalantly as she took a bite of her meal.

“Ya,” the Navigator replied. “Going through some gentle waves, then we’ll meet up with Echidna. Give it five weeks, maybe.”

“How gentle?”

The Navigator shrugged.

“Enemy took Sto-Odin, they can slip in and out where they please in this sector now. I was them, I’d lay up near Garamant, use the twin suns to mask their signature. And lucky us, that’s just where we’re headed.”

“So you think we’ll come under attack?”

The Navigator laughed and gave her a light punch in the shoulder.

“Relax, Christling. I’m sure your god will protect us. Just make sure the Pilots are good and ready, no? If not, well, I guess we shall all meet again in Hel.”

The Chaplain laughed, more to please the Navigator than because she shared his particular brand of fatalism. She noted as he re-sealed his canister that the tattoo on his thick palm was starting to fade. It was one of the first things she’d noticed when she met him: aside from the valknut, he had a sword tattooed on the inside of each of his hands. A sort of magical insurance, she supposed.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the Echidna,” she said. “We’ll probably get some leave, won’t we?”

“Ya, maybe. I hear Whiteacre isn’t a terrible place to visit. Always hated dirtside, though. Feels like your bones will break.”

“Whiteacre’s very beautiful,” she said. “Not a lot of people around. Open. It used to be so far from the front, we barely even knew there was a war.”

“Huh. Must’ve been nice. Santander changed hands four times before I was ten. Always knew I’d be part of the war.”

“So you’ve seen the Enemy up close?”

He shrugged.

“Few times.”

“What… what do they look like?”

“What you’d expect,” he said. “Honestly, they didn’t bother us much when they had the system. I think I saw them loading a troop transport on the station once, but I can’t really remember.”

“You never talked to one of them, did you?”

The Navigator sneered.

“If you’re trying for that ‘other cheek’ nonsense, it won’t work, Christling,” the Navigator said. “War’s been going on longer than we’ve been alive. It’s like the vids say, this war is only going to end one way.”

“With the total victory of our glorious Fleet,” the Chaplain recited sarcastically, a phrase that had been drilled into her since she was a child.

The Navigator shook his head.

“No,” he said. “When every bastard one of us on both sides is in Hel.”


The Chaplain sat in her quarters, batting the problem back and forth. She had written and redrafted her proposal a dozen times. It was a formalized appeal based on what she’d told the Captain earlier, trying to get the Fleet to change its policy towards the Pilots. She had culled data from dozens of sources to make her appeal as rational as possible.

Yet, in the end she always wound up scrawling the same thing across the bottom of the tablet.


She sighed. It didn’t matter. The Fleet had been feeding human beings into a meat grinder for close to a century now. Every single one of the Admirals had someone that had died in this conflict. You could not wage this war without a heart of stone.

The Chaplain sat back. What was she arguing for, anyway? Even if the Pilots weren’t culled, they’d just be cycled back in. She thought about what the Navigator had said, his blunt heathen cynicism gnawing at her. The war would only end when both the Fleet and the Enemy were all dead.

She didn’t believe that, not truly. Human history was full of occasions where bitter enemies made peace. The history of Earth itself was nothing if not long annals of horrific bloodshed, and yet there had always been times of truce and unity. They’d made it to the stars, after all. How much harder could it be to find common ground with the Enemy?

She sighed. Contemplating this was a useless distraction. She barely had the ear of the Captain, ruler of one ship in a fleet of thousands. There was a nation’s worth of subordinates between even the Captain and the distant, lofty High Admiral’s council.

Render unto Caesar, she thought. Christ had not marched to Rome at the head of an army, nor had he cast down the tyrants of the Han, or gone to every cold and burning corner of the world and forced every bloody warlord to yield. He had changed the world with small acts, not grand ones. Heal the sick, care for the needy. And, when it was called for, upend the odd table.

They were five weeks from their rendezvous with Echidna. Five weeks to prepare. Five weeks to tie her scourge.


“Cross training?” the Captain said.

“Yes. I believe it’s time for me to contribute more to Iphigenia's success than I have in the past. I only really see to the Pilots, so I have a fair amount of idle time. I thought perhaps I could learn to be a technician’s assistant while we’re in transit.”

“Hmm,” the Captain murmured. “You’ve never expressed such a desire before.”

She straightened up, trying to look like a model officer.

“After our recent discussions of the Pilots, I reevaluated some things, sir. You were, of course, right. The Pilots are under my purview and I will continue to support them spiritually, but they and I are part of a much greater effort. I need to devote myself fully to the goal of Total Victory.”

The Captain glanced up at her.

“Permission granted, Chaplain,” he said. “I’ll see that you’re given access to the necessary training materials. Hmm. Total Victory, indeed. After all, God wills it.”

Those last words were said in a tone somewhere between mocking and sincere. She kept her cool, and crisply saluted the Captain.

“God wills it,” the Chaplain repeated.


Long range scans had detected enemy warships along their path. It would be at least a few days relative before there was even a chance of an engagement, but the Chaplain had petitioned the Captain for the right to hear confession from her Pilots, and he had acquiesced in his usual dismissive way.

She talked to each of the Pilots in Theta Squadron that would hear her, praying for them as much as with them. Only a handful ever actually joined her in prayer, and she suspected they did so out of obligation rather than faith. All that mattered was that they trusted her, and would be ready when the time came.

Voros-3 was the last one. He had recovered well from his episode, physically. Mentally he was somehow emptier than usual. He looked at her with glassy eyes as she spoke.

“You know that I care for you, Voros,” the Chaplain said. “Body, mind, and soul, I want what’s best for you.”

“Have I failed?” Voros asked with that absent, dreamy quality so many of the Pilots had.


“My performance is within the average expectations,” he said. “I see it going down though. I see zeroes sometimes.”


Voros nodded.

“Evaluation screen. I get flashes of it, like when I’m on sortie. I see a zero next to my name.”

The Chaplain fought down a brief surge of panic. The Pilots had evaluations after every mission, their performance coalesced into numeric code. She had no idea what the methodology was, but she knew that a zero indicated a dead Pilot.

“That’s impossible, Voros. You should only be able to precognate near-future events, and only in the fighter. Perhaps you were dreaming?”

Voros shook his head.

“I get flashes off sortie. All of us do.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone about this?”

“No one ever asked.”

“These flashes show a zero next to your name?”

“Yes,” Voros said. “Not just mine. I see the squad listing. Zeroes all the way down.”

“My God.”

“Have I done something wrong?”

“No,” the Chaplain said. “You haven’t done anything wrong at all.”

She finished taking Voros’ confession and sent him back to his stasis cradle. She would have to work much faster.


Every waking hour she was not with the Pilots, she divided between working furiously at her training and filling in the details of her plan. She surreptitiously downloaded deck plans for the Iphigenia and what was known of the Echidna. She chatted with the docking technicians, learning the ins and outs of ship-to-ship transport. She had even managed to get a few dozen hours in the small craft simulator by playing to the Navigator’s pride. He had fancied himself something of a hand as a freighter crewman before joining the Fleet, and so eagerly accepted her wager that she could score a higher proficiency than him.

“You’ll never beat my record, Christling,” the Navigator had boasted. “I’m station-born. Dirtsiders don’t stand a chance in the cockpit ’gainst us.”

He was quite right at first, and she was happy to give him her alcohol ration tickets in exchange for simulated flight after flight. By the time they had confirmed a contact with the enemy, she was just about certain she could have shaved ten seconds off his best record.

She arrived at the briefing room with the other staff officers. The Captain was already pointing out details in the glowing holo map, running projections of assault plans against a pair of Enemy vessels.

“We will be within maximum effective range in two hours,” the Captain said. “Scans indicate that these are Light Cruisers: formidable, but not beyond Iphigenia’s capability. Gunnery, I want three missile flights the moment we have hard lock on them. We’ll go dark the second the third flight is away, and launch squadrons as a screen against any counter-fire. Once we’ve ascertained the effectiveness of fire, we will burn hard for the cruisers, and take them with pulse shot.”

“A knife fight then, sir?” the Gunnery Chief asked.

“Precisely,” the Captain replied. “Iphigenia’s Pilots are some of the best in the Fleet. They’ll destroy any drones or missiles coming our way, and the survivors will continue to cover us as we close with the Enemy. With luck, we will finish this engagement within twenty-four hours.”

He intended to use the Pilots as human shields. It wasn’t unusual, that was part of the Pilots’ duties. Without them, the ship itself could easily be destroyed. Yet, the Chaplain couldn’t help but think of Voros’ vision of a wall of zeroes next to the names of every Pilot in the squadron.

She raised her hand.

“With respect, sir, would it be possible to break contact and wait for the Echidna?” she asked. “Even light cruisers could do significant damage. It would be a great waste if we took a beating, sir.”

“I appreciate your concern, Chaplain, but leave tactical concerns to the other officers. Flight Colonel, you believe our Pilots are more than capable of protecting Iphigenia, no?”

The Flight Colonel was a stocky woman, head shaved beneath her officer’s cap. Technically, the Pilots were all under her purview, but she only interacted with them by giving remote commands. She and the Chaplain had exchanged perhaps a dozen words in the time she’d been aboard the ship.

“All squadrons are in good condition,” the Flight Colonel said. “Theta squadron seems exceptionally motivated, sir. The Chaplain’s done her job.”

“There, you see?” the Captain said. “No need to worry, Chaplain. Our Pilots will fight ferociously, as shall we all in the name of Total Victory.”

“Total Victory!” the officers barked.

The Chaplain was only a half second behind them.


She watched the Pilots filing onto the deck, small, lanky bodies in armored flight suits. Their helmets were locked in place by their attendants, and each of them was hoisted up into the cockpit of a fighter. They were too small to climb up on their own.

She watched from her console screens, checking in on each of the Pilots as they performed their final checks. There was a shudder that reverberated through the ship as the last missile volley was launched. Even at their incredible speed, it would be a good ten minutes before the missiles came close to their targets.

The signal light went red in each Pilot’s screen. Time for launch.

The quiet chatter she had heard over the comm-line died off. There was no pre-combat banter among them, but they did speak, confirming readings, making sure they and their machines were ready.

Then the launch code was given, the engines burned, and the Pilots were shot out into the dark. A moment later, the ship’s systems went dark too. Everything cut to minimal power, to make them as difficult as possible to detect. The Chaplain crossed herself, and prayed.


She watched the Echidna approach at its stately pace through one of the viewing screens. It would be a day before she came within range of long-distance docking. She shut the viewing screen off, and decided to take one last look around the upper decks.

The mood on Iphigenia had relaxed remarkably. Their skirmish at Garamant had taken its toll, but the crew had weathered it well. She had given last rites to six crewmen who had it listed in their preferences, though she had never spoken to any of them personally. That was barely a fraction of the dead Iphigenia had sustained. As she walked the corridors, she wondered how much blood had been scrubbed from the decks over the decades.

The Pilots were all safely stowed in their cradles. They had survived the battle, not a single one coming back with a scratch. When the Echidna arrived, they would be sent over to be slaughtered and replaced.

She thought about Voros’ vision of the wall of zeroes. She had assumed it meant their next sortie would be a disaster, but of course it was more than that. It didn’t take a precognitive to know that Voros had seen their culling.

She made one last stop outside the Pilots’ Creche, attaching a small device outside the door. It would look like an inert piece of metal to scans, and since the ship was undergoing all manner of repairs right now, she doubted any crewman would give it a second glance. Her plan was in place. Soon, she and her charges would be free, or they would be dead.


That final evening shift came on swiftly. She watched the cargo haulers as they docked with Iphigenia, their crews spilling out loads of ammunition, repair parts, and the odd crate of engine room moonshine. She had obtained a copy of the manifest schedule from the Quartermaster’s assistant, convincing the young officer that this was all part of her enthusiastic cross-training. Her father had explained to her once the concept of the “zeal of the converted”, and she played to that with all her heart.

She had selected a small Loader, a cargo tug, for her purposes. Strong, compact, and unsubtle, she knew its controls would be easy enough to manage. It had been left in one of the upper docking bays, not too far from Theta squadron’s Creche.

They were near the center of the system now. At a hard burn, she could reach Whiteacre before anyone even noticed the Loader was gone. It was one among hundreds after all, part of the swarm of minor vessels that kept the Fleet running. Men like the Captain were thorough, but they weren’t omniscient. And once she reached Whiteacre…

She would figure that out when she got there.

When she finally finished her day’s work, she made a show of announcing to the other staff officers that she was turning in early. None cared, as the occasion of the docking had afforded each of them some leave. Transports would begin taking officers down to Whiteacre soon, another piece of cover she hoped to take advantage of in her escape. Iphigenia would disperse her crew in waves, with only a quarter of its thousands of crewmen on duty at any given time over the next few days. This was her chance.

In her quarters, she changed clothes, switching from the Chaplain’s uniform to a worker’s coverall. She packed rations in a satchel, a stunner, a scanner and tracking beacon. Geared up, she sat in front of her console for what would hopefully be the last time.

The first step was simple. Using stolen codes, she patched herself into the ship’s internal security cameras. The Creche was being monitored by only a handful of Technicians. It was a simple process to replace the live feed with an older recording of the Technicians at work. It wouldn’t pass serious scrutiny, but she was gambling there would be few people interested in monitoring the cameras.

She switched off the console, and headed out the door. The corridors were quiet at this time of night, nearly deserted. She kept her head down, hair swept up under a technical worker’s cap. The few crewmen she passed took no notice of her, though her legs were stiff with fear.

She was at the Creche before too long. Standing outside the main entrance, she tapped a command into the small device she had planted earlier. Instantly, it triggered the Creche’s suppression systems. She had worked out the program carefully, cutting the room’s alarm signal from the rest of Iphigenia’s security system, but still filling the room with tranquilizer gas. Mutiny was a constant fear among the Fleet, and every major workstation could deploy potent, silent, countermeasures with a simple command. She’d heard rumors of everything from inflammatories to nerve agents, but when she slid open the door to the Creche she was relieved to find the Technicians slumped over at their stations, fast asleep.

One by one she opened each of the Pilots’ cradles and helped them to their feet. Faces still damp with suspension fluid, they looked at her without blinking. Hurriedly, she tried to explain her plan.

“We have to leave,” the Chaplain said. “Quickly. Do precisely as I say, when I say it. Don’t speak to or even look at anyone else. Is that clear?”

Achera-14 blinked at her.

“You are in command?” Achera asked.


“Why are the Med-Techs sleeping?”

“That isn’t important. Please, we have to hurry, just follow my orders and everything will be fine.”

“What is our mission objective?” Achera asked.

“Follow me. Your mission is to follow me. Understood?”

“Confirm,” the Pilots said as one, voices eerily synchronized.

She led them into the hall, twenty small, lanky figures in white following her. They did not look about or chatter, as children would, only followed with quiet obedience. No matter how long she had spent with them, there was something deeply chilling to her in that.

They rounded a corner, and she found herself face to face with the Navigator. He stared at her, then saw the Pilots round the corner. They stood mute for a moment. The Chaplain quietly placed her hand on the stunner at her belt.

“Didn’t think you had it in you, Christling.”

“Step away,” the Chaplain said. “Don’t make me—”

The Navigator laughed, raising his hands. She saw the swords etched on his palms. There was no mirth in his voice when he spoke, and in his eyes she saw a strange earnestness.

“I was just down Passway Thirty-Eight. It’s empty. You should take that, if it’ll get you where you’re going. I can buy you ten minutes. I’ll tell the security team you surprised me and headed for engineering.”

Slowly, the Chaplain released her grip on the stunner.

“Why are you helping me?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders.

“I think your faith is a joke,” he said as his eyes wandered across the Pilots huddled behind her. “But that doesn’t mean I think what the Fleet is doing is right.”

“Thank you,” she said.

The Navigator shrugged again.

“See you in Hel,” he said.

She punched him lightly in the shoulder as she passed.

“Not if I see you first,” she said.


The Navigator was as good as his word. She did not see a single soul about, and at last she reached the docking bay. The Loader was waiting for her, unattended. Its cabin and cargo hold could easily fit her and twenty others. They stopped, and each of the Pilots hurriedly secured their suits. With helmets in place, they’d be safe for the duration of the trip to Whiteacre.

Her hands would not stop shaking as she crossed the open expanse, heading for the Loader. She was a dozen strides from it when she heard the Captain’s calm, crisp voice call out.

“I don’t know whether to be disappointed in your arrogance or impressed by your ambition,” he said, striding out into the open, accompanied by a quartet of marines in full battle gear. “Internal Security suggested your little cross-training charade was part of some greater scheme. I had faith even you couldn’t believe such a hopeless effort would actually work, but even I am wrong from time to time. How you convinced a good officer like our Navigator to go along with it is beyond me. Perhaps he’ll tell me, once he’s done being interrogated. You know, he nearly crippled one of our marines when he realized we knew he was lying?”

The Chaplain put herself between the marine’s guns and the Pilots.

“This was all my idea,” she said quickly. “The Pilots had nothing to do with this.”

“Of course they didn’t. They’re decants, Chaplain. They couldn’t even conceive of escape, let alone want it.”

“I acted alone. The Navigator only happened on us by chance. I am ready to make a full confession, if you guarantee his and the Pilots’ safety.”

The Captain shook his head.

“I don’t need your confession. I have every piece of evidence right here to have you summarily executed, and the Navigator will spend the rest of his life on a penal colony. Shameful really, after I had been looking forward to giving you a little surprise. You see Chaplain, I’ve taken some of the lessons of your Bible to heart. I thought perhaps I could use it to better communicate with you. We could enact a little story together. I would, of course, play the Lord, and you Abraham, and these your twenty Isaacs.”

“Abraham didn’t kill Isaac,” the Chaplain said through gritted teeth.

“I know. But he was willing to bring him to the top of the mountain, to bind him, and to have faith. God rewarded him, didn’t He? But you, my faithless Abraham, have forced my hand.”

The Captain sighed.

“I would be within rights to finish this here and now, but you made a good point earlier about wastefulness. In the end, like the Lord, I am merciful. I give you my blessing to go in peace with your children, Chaplain. But first I must show you something.”

The Captain strode to a pile of black crates nearby. He brushed a gloved hand over the surface of one, then pressed a key in the side. With a hiss, it opened.

“You didn’t even notice them, did you?” he asked as he reached inside. “I suppose that’s the point. We have nearly a hundred aboard already, with more on the way.”

He pulled up a small, metallic object shaped like an urn. Dozens of cables were connected to it, each with a grotesque, wet sheen that made them look like viscera. The Captain held it up to the light. In the side, there was a small viewing port. She could see something floating in a filmy red fluid.

“The newest model of Pilot,” the Captain said. “Reduced to isolated grey matter and a condensed nervous system, integrated with advanced combat cybernetics. Their failure rate is much lower than conventional decants, and they have the added advantage of being unlikely to stir reactions like yours in their handlers. A Ram, to replace Isaac.”

“That’s obscene,” she whispered. “They’re still alive in there, aren’t they? It’s no different from the Pilots, all you’ve done is hacked them down, made them—”

“More efficient,” the Captain interjected. “They sleep. They wake. They fight. And they sleep again. In the end, it is a more merciful existence than we gave the Pilots.”

“Someday,” the Chaplain said, “all of this will end, and there will be an accounting for people like you.”

“I’m sure of it,” the Captain replied blandly. “You and Theta Squadron are officially registered as Killed In Action, and my report on this matter will be secret. Take the ship and go. Eke out what existence you can. But remember that the Fleet is watching. If we ever have need of you, or reexamine our judgment… just look for the pillar of fire. That will be us.”


On Whiteacre she found a place hidden in the hills, not far from where she grew up. There, along with the Pilots, she built a small compound. There were cabins for each of her charges, and a chapel with earthen walls and a scrap metal roof.

At first the chapel was just for her. Over the years, some of the Pilots came to her, and then a few people from the settlements nearby, where she would barter for supplies and ask the news. Her congregation never exceeded two score, but it was more than she had ever preached to aboard the Iphigenia.

The war went on. Some days she heard the Enemy had near crippled the Fleet, other times that the Fleet was burning the Enemy’s homeworld from orbit. No matter what was said, it kept going.

Every night, she said a prayer for the crew of the Iphigenia. For the ones who did wickedness out of ignorance, like the Med-Tech, and for cynics, like the Navigator whose heart had no room for hope until the end. In spite of everything, she prayed for the Captain, a man so inundated with death that he saw a burning world and thought it the best work in all Creation.

Some days, she had no hope. What had she accomplished, after all? It was the Captain’s amusement with her little rebellion that had spared her, no feat of her own. His threatened return hung over her head, even on the most peaceful days.

Yet, she remembered why she had done it. Whatever happened, the Captain would heap no dead children on her conscience.

When Jesus was crucified, it must have looked like all was lost. But the Caesars fell, and their legions crumbled. Empires became dust, but the Lord remained. Faith, her faith, endured.

In the end, the Captain was a small, proud man who could see in God only an inferior version of himself and his own ideals. But perhaps that pride was why God had brought them together. A less arrogant man would never have let her escape with the Pilots.

Someday, it would end. Someday, the Captain and the High Admirals, and their twins among the Enemy would be forced to see what they had done. Someday no one would ever think of making the Pilots, or treating them as the Fleet had.

Someday, God willing, there would be peace.

D.G.P. Rector is a Pacific Northwest based author of S.F. and Fantasy. He has a background in theatre and also works as a dramaturge for playwrights in Seattle and across the U.S. His work has been featured in Analog, Mysterion, Shrapnel, and the air and nothingness press anthology The Librarian. You can find more of his work at, on Facebook @DGPRectorAuthor, and on Twitter @DgpRector.

“The Binding and the Ram” by D.G.P. Rector. Copyright © 2023 by D.G.P. Rector.

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  1. Truly engaging story! The atmosphere is foreboding, the characters are realistic, and the worldbuilding is excellent. One beautiful aspect is the analogy of Christ changing the world with small battles!


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