Five years before Alan’s encounter with the Inari, the class of 2551 graduated from the Naval Academy.
Nalia Sargire walked with her head up through the evening crowd spread throughout the atrium. Scents from plants genetically engineered to enhance moods wafted through her nostrils. The air above the entertainment dome burst with fireworks, adding to the already numerous city lights of Silesias, capital of the Earth Republic. People crowded around her, congratulating her on a wonderful valedictorian speech. As she said her thanks, she smiled at a black-haired brown-eyed young man, standing slightly apart from the crowd, holding some unknown variant of a vodka martini. He smiled back. She knew Alan hated gatherings. It bothered her a little. He could easily adjust his artificial pilot organ to send calming neurotransmitters, but she figured he preferred to stay natural. Golden light from the ceiling lights poured down on her hand as she smoothed her uniform tunic. She glanced up and observed the green fusion trails among the destroyers of the Republican Fifth Fleet orbiting thousands of kilometers above them. Her class would be among them soon, scattered to defend and spread the ideals of the galaxy’s only known democracy.
She slipped away as the congratulations died down and went to the open bar on a nearby veranda. As she attempted to get the attention of the bartender, an older man with a white beard and blue-black dress uniform of a high-ranking Naval official sat on a stool beside her. She immediately saluted. He extended his hand. She shook it. He laughed, the sound ringing from his mouth filled with mirth. Admiral Vendrian could be counted on to put people at ease.
“Oh Nalia! Thank God you were chosen valedictorian. Anyone else would have blabbered endlessly about how this class was destined to do great things and honor their fellow humans and blah blah blah. But no, you decided to talk about your one-night stand with the Galactic Politics professor! How’s that for interstellar relations?” Vandrian laughed again, threatening to spread spittle all over the bar.
Nalia blushed. She meant to illustrate the importance of learning from your mistakes with her story. Mistakes so egregious that she almost lost her position at the Academy. It was also a lie. She had accepted the blame to cover for her then fiancé, who actually was sleeping with the Interstellar Politics professor. She remembered that naïve young girl, barely out of her teens, trying to please a man that cared more about himself than her. He was long gone, though. The last she heard, he took a role as a starship captain, performing important reconnaissance missions for the Navy. It would be too late and too perilous now to tell the truth.
“Sir. I’m glad you liked it. I think I meant it to be somewhat more serious, however.”
Vandrian’s mouth turned into a half-smirk. “Yes, yes, your enemies teach you the greatest lessons and your greatest enemy is yourself and all that guff. Although I prefer my enemies in the void of space rather than in my head.” He paused, probably still contemplating her speech. “We certainly need more people of your disposition in the Republic Navy. Too many focused on proper protocols rather than their personalities.” His expression grew more serious. “And we do need you. We’ve lost too many good people already.” He paused and thumbed the drink in his hand. “By the way, do you know where you’ll be stationed?”
“I will be on the Yasothon, sir.”
“Ah, a fine vessel. Highly decorated. Seen far more than its fair share of combat. Of course, you’ll be doing mostly diplomatic work. The old girl’s seen enough already. But she can handle herself in a fight.” As he talked, a woman in an official looking suit and escorted by two elegantly dressed guards tapped him on the shoulder.
Nalia saluted. “Madame President.” It wasn’t every day that someone got to see the sharp-nosed leader of the Earth Republic. But the leadership of the galaxy’s only free government needed to replenish its forces, as the Kenzenken war dragged to its 30th year.
The president nodded. “Lieutenant. Interesting speech you had there. A subject that is not very common during these sort of proceedings. It took me a while to process it, but you made your point in a quite unique manner.” She paused. “I’ll have to mention to Senator Sargire that he has a fine daughter. I’d like to have a chat sometimes, but I’m afraid I’ll have to occupy the admiral’s time for a moment.”
The admiral glanced at Nalia, and she thought she saw his eyes roll. “Guess the war waits for no one, eh? Alright, Madame President, let’s head to the gardens and talk about what else troubles the galaxy. I hope it’s not those Neo Jesuits on Las Madras, they can be so troublesome.” He stroked his chin, as if deep in thought. “Ah! I almost forgot. Nalia, if you find Alan, tell him that I’ve written his commendation letter.”
They left. Nalia smoothed her uniform again and she realized that she had not gotten her drink. She hoped that neither of the two had noticed the rapid beating of her heart. The noise of the crowd grew quieter as families took their pictures and everyone moved off to their private niches. Her own family planned to take her to the fanciest restaurant in the Orion belt later in the evening. It was a perk of being the daughter of one of the most influential politicians in the Senate. However, she wasn’t quite ready to leave. She finally got the attention of the bartender and, with a non-alcoholic drink, stepped into a nearby annex.
A group of cadets surrounded a woman with sparkling green eyes telling a story about some acrobatics in Jupiter’s atmosphere. She jumped about and motioned her arms in grand motions, making an almost comical figure for the junior classmen. Mihaela, (or was it Michael now?) looked like she had a few too many drinks. Nalia couldn’t tell if she was transitioning yet. She found the whole affair odd. Of course, she knew that attitudes were changing. In addition to being the capital of the Earth Republic, Silesias stood at the center of the Human Augmentation movement. Mihaela had been one of the many that indulged in expansive and even drastic alterations of their bodies. Some would say they were even evolving. Others called them abominations. The debate still raged, even after fifty years, though there had been no major adverse effects with this fad. Some people did appear to enjoy doing it a little too much, however.
Nalia could see she was not going to get Mihaela’s attention anytime soon, so she looked around for anyone else.
“Of course the daughter of a Senator gets to be valedictorian and gets a prestigious position on a famous ship,” a classmate behind her whispered in a low voice. Nalia decided not to confront her.
She found Alan sitting on an antigravity couch, staring off into the sky. She wondered what he was thinking. Being one of the highest scoring pilots in the Academy meant he would probably see combat soon. He didn’t seem much of an ace pilot like in the holovids. Too quiet. Too thoughtful. She knew he originally came from one of the newly colonized worlds on the frontier, next to the mysterious and foreboding Ramanujan Expanse. Curious, none of his family appeared to be here. But she had not pried. She knew he didn’t like to talk about where he came from. He saw her approaching and stood up from the couch.
“Your girlfriend looks like she’s going to get mobbed soon.” She sidled up to him and gave him a firm squeeze on the shoulder.
Alan’s mouth slightly curved upward and his eyes locked at the ground. “Boyfriend. Said he’s going to transition in three months. Wants to call him by his proper gender for now. Who knows, maybe for the next couple weeks?”
Nalia chuckled. Those two were like fire and ice. Mihaela, who once dived straight into magma in a level one environmental suit. Alan who would prefer to be trapped in a metal box in space rather than go into a crowded restaurant. “I’m sure he cares more about what you call him in bed.” Alan’s cheeks flushed.
Their conversation paused. They looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. He rubbed his elbow. “Say, Nalia. I’m sure going to miss you. You’re going off to bring peace to the universe, and I’ll probably be stuck flying glorified school buses.”
She sighed. Alan could also be slightly overdramatic. “Oh, it’s not going to be forever. We still have FTL communications, and with your skills, I’d bet you’d rack up that R and R time quickly.” True, they hadn’t seen each other much since the instructors selected him to go to the pilot program and she into the leadership ranks. She wondered how they’d become such fast friends. Perhaps his country planet manner attracted her and she wanted to protect it from elite snobbery. “Alan, where will you be heading?”
Alan looked off at an orbiting Oklahoma-class dreadnaught. “Well, they’re going to send me to the front. Cygnus I think. There’s rumors that the Zenks are going to try an offensive to break the stalemate. Stubborn bastards.”
Nalia nodded. She had read all she could on the Kenzenken Coalition. They were similar and yet so different to the Earth Republic. For example, they relied mainly on long-range railguns for their heavy firepower compared to the particle weapons that the Navy used. Their ships exceeded their counterparts in the Republic mass-for-mass. Their culture blended a curious mix of the anachronistic and the modern. In battles, they engaged in elaborate rituals and recited poetry before blasting holes in your reactors. She knew that they styled themselves on old Earth nations from the Asian continent. The settlers from that place had been one of the first to venture out to distant stars when the gridspace drive became available for commercial use. FTL communications back then was nonexistent, making it impossible for one entity to administrate multiple star systems. Eventually, the outer colonies broke apart and allied in opposition to the central Earth government. For a time, they separated in peace. Unfortunately, expansionist fever broke among the Coalition government, which turned into open war when the amount of habitable worlds dwindled. She wondered what her role would be. The war had been in a stalemate so long that the Kenzenkens had started making overtures for a peace deal. She’d participate in the Yasothon’s negotiations with them once all were ready. For now, they kept the peace with the other inhabitants of the galaxy.
She snapped out of her thoughts and followed Alan’s gaze to the dreadnaught. It hung in the atmosphere, looking like a giant cylinder connected to a ring of tubes. A piece of art it was not. “Be careful out there. We don’t know what could happen.”
“Don’t worry about me. I bet I could fly circles around them.” He grinned. He almost convinced her. The guy seemed born to be in space. He scored in the top percentile for the space flight simulations. Nalia still had trouble grasping all the movements and trajectories required in the three or more dimensions out there. But she could also tell he was putting on a brave front as he repeatedly drank his martini and tapped his feet.
A light, but energetic lilt came from the atrium behind them. Looked like the orchestra was moving in. She grabbed his hand and started tugging him towards the music. An idea popped into her head.
“Come with me! It isn’t like we’ll get this chance ever again!”
His brow furrowed. “Oh, I don’t know about that…”
“Mihaela’s not going to care! Look, she’s way too busy telling some newbie about choking on Jovian gas.”
“I’m not sure…” The man could be so exasperating sometimes. Living on a frontier world really didn’t prepare you for the finer niceties of the universe. That’s also why she liked him. He wasn’t an arrogant prick like so many people in the Core Worlds.
She kept on pulling and he eventually stopped resisting. They took their place on the marble dance floor. Nalia had to stifle laughter. He looked like he was going to vomit. Ok, maybe it was a bit crowded there and most people couldn’t dance to save their lives. She stepped out of the way of a particularly clumsy couple, a man in a dark tuxedo and a women in a silver dress whose dance resembled a fight. As Alan stumbled onto the floor, she grabbed his shoulder and his arm in a graceful flourish. After a while, they got used to the rhythm and the evening blurred by in a flurry of movement. The stars twinkled as the rest of Fifth Fleet glided into orbit.