The Earth’s light made the hull fragments opalescent, like broken shards of sky. The Hu Jintao’s remains hung silently in the vacuum of space.

As I approached the wreck, I saw a tiny shadow move on a piece of debris. A drone, I thought. There shouldn’t have been one here, though. The radiation vomiting from the Hu Jintao had been enough to dissuade wreck-divers such as myself for the last fifty years.

I froze, and inertia carried me. A mile-long filament tethered me to my shuttle. With the suit’s rebreathing system, I’d have up to twelve hours to explore the wreck. Not that I might actually have that much time. If the drone had spotted me, I was dead.

I watched the shadow against the wreck’s tightly-formed debris field, orbiting the still-intact aft section. Unlike other drones protecting historical sites, this shadow didn’t sit like a fat spider waiting for divers, only to rocket to life when it sensed you. Instead, it danced lightly from one scorched piece of tungsten plating to another.

And it was coming towards me.

It takes oxygen to fire a bullet. On either wrist I had sealed-system gun barrels, each capable of firing a single round.

I knew enough to wait until it was on me before attempting a shot. As North America’s pocked surface turned beneath me, I asked myself–not for the first time–why I was doing this.

I wasn’t here to steal. My family being connected to the Party, I didn’t need the money.

But I’d been fascinated with the war since preparatory school, and had developed a certain fondness for the defeated that my parents considered unhealthy.

“You wouldn’t like them so much had you known any,” my mother had said. “They were coarse and vulgar.”

“They sound rather refreshing compared to our enforced decorum.”

“Refreshing? They attacked us. Killed all those men on that ship.”

“Yes, all ten of them,” I’d said. “In return, we killed millions.”

“Well, they shouldn’t have started it. And you shouldn’t be so fascinated with them.”

“Why be so concerned? Really, mother. It’s as harmless as a Roman collecting Carthaginian pottery.”

The fact that I was hanging five thousand kilometers above the Earth probably meant I’d overstated my hobby’s harmlessness. Being in my forties now, I’d found that that which isn’t earned is cherished least. The coin that bought my private shuttle could easily have belonged to another family, had they been as sycophantic as ours to the Party. Why not risk it?

The shadow was close now, and I readied to fire. It was only as the floating piece of metal it crouched on turned into the light that I saw what it was.

A kitten.

It took a moment to realize I wasn’t insane.

I laughed. “You were someone’s pet, I take it?” The Siamese couldn’t hear me of course, but it turned its head as if it understood. Some fur had been burned from its belly, and steel glinted underneath. Except for that, it was in perfect condition. An incredibly rare find.

I re-fired my jets, adjusting my approach to the Hu Jintao’s aft. The kitten followed, expertly bounding debris.

“Be careful,” I warned. Its paws must have been magnetized. Still, one wrong step and it would have slipped into the void. It didn’t seem bothered by this. It would have been easy to dismiss the confidence with which it moved as the actions of an unfeeling machine. But it would have been programmed to behave like a real cat – same responses, same intuitions. Its grace here, then, came from decades of practice.

It wasn’t hard to understand why men had brought robotic pets aboard dreadnaughts like the Hu Jintao. They were massive ships with only ten-man crews to service the nuclear warheads. Dealing with the same people every day during a two-year patrol, who wouldn’t want a pet – preferably one that didn’t consume oxygen, food, or water – to break the monotony? It was nice to have a companion out here. Especially in the days before believable women could be fabricated…

I approached the aft section. There was a ragged break where the ship’s forward section had been, as if it were a toy broken by a petulant child. I was going to enter on one of the exposed decks, but my new friend skipped ahead of me, angling towards what I saw was a blown airlock.

No telling how stable the exposed decks would be. The airlock being a safer entry point, and an easy one given its open inner and outer doors, I followed the kitten inside.

To my surprise, a light flickered in the airlock. The ship’s damaged core was still generating some power.

As I undid my propulsion harness, the kitten rubbed itself against my legs. Turning on my heavysuit’s exterior lights, I knelt to look at it more closely. Ling, its collar read. Evidently, this was a female.

“I’m Zihao,” I introduced myself, and again the kitten turned its head in mock understanding.

“Well, I suppose I’m the guest in your home. Would you be good enough to show me around?”

With that she turned and walked into the ship’s passageway. I followed slowly, Ling’s perceptiveness suddenly making me nervous.

Everyone knew the war had started with the USS Wasp destroying the Hu Jintao. But at university, I’d heard other theories.

“Why do you think they’ve never arranged tours of the Hu Jintao?” one classmate had feverishly asked.

“Because of the radiation,” I’d said.

“The rad count around Washington is high, too, and they still run tours there.”

“A big difference between tours on the ground, and those in orbit.”

“Except that they do run tours of other wrecks,” he’d said. “Yet not to the most important one. A cynic might wonder if there’s something they don’t want us to see.”

I’d thought of him as a friend, but one can never be certain if such complaints against the State are genuine, or a trap.
“What wouldn’t they want seen?” I’d asked mildly.

“Did you know that most of the mechanical pets on that ship were manufactured in America?”

“No, actually.” My friend’s war trivia obsession eclipsed even my own. “Why would that be important?”

“What proof do we have that Wasp was even there? The way the Hu Jintao broke up, it’s impossible to tell if it was an external or internal explosion.”

“I’m not following you.”

He’d grown agitated. “What if the Hu Jintao wasn’t fired upon? What if one of those American-made pets had been secretly fitted with explosives? Can you imagine the political fallout for having let so obvious a ploy aboard a warship?”

The theory had seemed far-fetched twenty-five years ago in a Beijing dormitory. But ideas can be like a cancer, metastasizing over time. The fact that my friend had eventually been arrested merely strengthened the idea’s grip on me.

What was the wreck hiding?

My suit had several cameras in it, constantly recording. Good to document any historical evidence I may find; but also, alas, proof of my crime. If I found anything, I’d never be able to reveal it.

If one person knows the truth, is that enough? Probably not, but it’s a start.

Following Ling, it occurred to me her fuel cells had to be incredibly efficient to still be running. She’d been built to last.

Like military hardware? I wondered if there wasn’t some tiny nuclear device beneath her realistic pelt, waiting to again wage war for a country long dead.

I kept my wrist-guns primed even though it was hard to think of Ling as a weapon while she bounded weightlessly down the corridor, from floor to wall to ceiling. Of course, landmines don’t advertise themselves, either.

Another corridor turned, and I screamed as I saw a corpse floating in my path.

His uniform was perfectly preserved, but when the ship lost atmosphere his eyes had exploded. Seeing him made me ashamed of my sympathy for his American murderers.

It took more time than I care to admit, finding the courage to move past the body. I didn’t look at the corpse when I finally began walking again, but apologized as I brushed past him.

Ling waited for me. “Was he your owner?” I asked quietly. She turned away at the question, as if not wanting me to record her sad reaction.

As we continued to walk, my onboard computer noted the location of crew quarters, storage areas, and machine rooms. The ship’s bridge was destroyed along with the forward section, so it was an open question whether I’d find anything significant.

Suddenly, Ling stopped, turned towards a sealed door, and began pawing at it.

“What’s in there?” I asked. According to the placard, it was the captain’s quarters. The door was sealed.

Attached to my leg were some wreck-diving tools. I pulled out the (inevitably) most useful of these: the crowbar.

Forcing it into the seal, my suit’s servos amplified my strength, and I managed to rend open the door.

No corpse inside, mercifully. The room’s emergency lights glowed dimly. Ling skipped inside, jumped onto a computer console, then turned and again looked at me.

“You want me to look at that?” Her mouth moved as if meowing.

I knelt in front of the computer. Touching a key, the monitor lit up. No need for a password. It had been on all this time.

The captain’s computer? An absolute goldmine. I ran a wire into the CPU and began downloading its contents into my suit. As I did, I saw an icon that read “Internal Logs.” Clicking on it brought up video from inside the ship.

I hadn’t seen any cameras in the hallways, but I knew from life at home how expertly surveillance can be hidden. And wouldn’t it make sense they’d want the captain to always monitor his tiny crew?

Ling nuzzled at my hand, as if to press me forward. It looked like the system had been archiving right up to the moment the ship was destroyed. I loaded video of the bridge’s last moments.

The bridge looked surprisingly calm, the men having no idea of the hand history was about to play them. I could even see some of their pets milling beside their stations, though Ling wasn’t among them.

Then there was a communique from Earth. “Open silo doors,” Beijing had ordered.

The crew looked frightened. The captain radioed back, “We have not received missile launch codes.”

Agonizing seconds later, the response came: “Do not launch. Merely open silo doors.”

“We’re in plain sight of the USS Wasp,” the captain had replied. “We’re almost over North America – they’ll think we’re preparing our warheads and fire on us.”

“That is the mission.”

It had taken the threat of the men’s families being murdered for the captain to open the doors.

Less than a minute later, a crewman screams that Wasp is firing on them, just before the video goes dead.

I turned to Ling. “You led me to this. Why?”

She gave me that knowing head-tilt again. Then she rolled over, showing me the exposed metal of her damaged belly.

I never learned English, so wasn’t sure what the letters said. But they looked like this: