The knife clattered on the street’s permacrete surface. Blood seeped into the ground around him. Alan rushed to the woman’s side and attempted to close the wounds on her wrists. The rising sun reflected off her dull, listless eyes. He had not expected this. When she had run up to him and shouted at him in a language he did not understand, he had prepared to wave her off and walk away. She collapsed to the ground, still repeating the same words over and over. He gripped her arms, attempting to staunch the bleeding. Her clothes ripped as he attempted to steady her. He noticed that they were the type that the social services provided to people in need. Like refugees, he realized.
“Help!” he cried. “She needs medical attention!”
Nearby passersby stopped and gawked at the scene. He heard their whispers and saw them pointing at him. They called him “murderer” and “butcher” in hushed tones. The others must have recognized him, perhaps from the news reports or from the endless protests outside his dormitory. Alan felt his cheeks flush and his head pound. This would not do, a higher brain function told him. If he did nothing, he could suffer serious emotional damage, so Alan did the first thing that came to his mind. He activated the pilot’s gland. Immediately, the feelings of guilt, terror, and resentment relegated themselves to the depths of his mind. As his passions faded into the background, his focused reason formulated a strategy for helping the woman.
“Dammit! Someone get an ambulance!” he shouted, although his cry did not give much force. He hoped for sympathetic passersby that could contact emergency services. More people stopped and looked at them. The crowd grew larger and the murmurs grew louder. The woman’s blood poured down his arms. It stained his uniform and painted it a crimson color. She kept on saying the same phrase over and over. Alan strained to understand. He could not.
“Please step aside, sir.” A black and white aerial drone shaped like a pyramid hovered over them. Alan let go of the woman and set her down on the ground. He watched as the drone extended a thin arm from within its chassis. It injected her upper arm with a coagulant. The bleeding stopped. Alan relaxed his shoulders as the drone scanned her body. He felt the eyes of the crowd upon him. The woman continued to murmur.
“What language is that?” he asked.
“It is a dialect unique to a region on Po Tai, a planet at the edge of Kenzenken territory,” the drone replied in a measured tone. Alan gazed at her eyes. They looked at nothing, as if they were no longer needed.
“What is she saying?”
“She is repeating the words: ‘You killed my husband and son. You killed my husband and son’.”
Alan stared at the reflection of the sun off a far-away skyscraper. He struggled to come up with a reply, but his mind told him that any would be useless now. He could do nothing else.
“Will she be all right?” he finally asked.
“We will take her to the nearest medical center where she will receive a psychiatric evaluation and further medical treatment.”
The crowd around them grew larger. A number recorded him and took pictures of his blood-stained clothes on their datapads. A group of young men and women started walking towards him, their expressions filled with contempt. One carried a large metal bar. Bloodlusted by the war but born too late to participate, they had been unable to find an outlet for their over-stimulated minds when it ended. But now, with a socially sanctioned target in front of them, they found their opportunity. They did not get it. The drone emitted a high frequency burst that caused Alan and most of the people around him to cover their ears.
“For your safety, please step away, citizens,” it announced. The ones who moved forward stared at it for an agonizing second, and then moved back into the crowd. A large vehicle soared in above them, casting a long shadow over the crowd. People backed away as it landed nearby. Alan noticed that it was not the ambulance.
The floating bot hovered towards the vehicle. “Pilot Alan Vuong,” it said in a slightly different voice. A blue light flashed from an aperture on the drone. “Admiral Yuri Vendrian requires your presence at HQ.” The doors on the landed vehicle opened.
Alan’s heart fell. He had avoided the admiral ever since the Inari incident. He could not face him. But this had to be important. It was not often that the military remote commandeered a civilian drone and certainly not just for polite invitations. He thought about walking out, but he saw the angry faces of the crowd surrounding him. They would not let him go. There was only one way out. His hands dropped to his side and he stepped into the vehicle. The woman continued repeating her words as the vehicle rose towards the air.
The chronometer on his arm beeped, its shrill noise shaking him out of his thoughts and leading him back to the lobby at Navy Headquarters. Alan felt the walls close around him. He endlessly replayed the scenarios that would occur in the next few hours, all of them disastrous. He could not stop picturing the sight of the bloody woman from this morning. Other thoughts formed in his head. The past few days and months had been a cavalcade of stern-faced officers interrogating him, of ceaseless calls from the press, of protestors swarming around his home. He dared not look at the holoscreen playing in the well-kept and well-lighted room. The last time he deigned to follow the news, the Kenzenken diplomat was demanding an immediate extradition for the perpetrator of the Inari’s destruction. The Republicans were even worse. President Haines stated that he had acted stupidly and called for a full investigation. Countless messages to his communications inbox accused him of psychopathy. They told him that he was all that was wrong with humanity. Others called him a glory hound wanting to reignite the war. He hadn’t replied. No one wanted to listen to his explanations, least of all the people around him. It seemed that they were far more outraged at this incident than at the entire war. At least the military offered him free therapy, as if the guilt would be washed away with a few sweet words and heart-to-heart talks. Alan didn’t bother. Navy therapists weren’t known for their competence.
He breathed in deeply for a long few seconds and breathed out for the same amount of time. Around him, the lobby of Admiral Vendrian’s office was empty except for the young man at the reception desk. In his gut, he knew that this would be it. The admiral would throw him to the wolves. The Republic could not afford another incident, not after their losses. He tried to reason with himself. If they had wanted to, they could have easily gotten rid of him. He hadn’t seen the evidence but Alpha… Pilot Jensen swore that he would back him up. His lawyer assured him that he had followed all proper protocols. They couldn’t hurt him. But then again, nine hundred souls had been lost in the reactor explosion. No one would easily forgive that. And Michael. He still did not know why he was on the ship. No answer came.
“Pilot Vuong, the admiral is ready to see you now.” Alan nodded at the receptionist. He stood up and adjusted his uniform. He noticed his reflection on the glass table in front of him. Dark circles rimmed his eyes. His pale skin shocked him. The half-assed attempt at shaving ruined the rest of his face. Walking through the hallways, the thickly carpeted floor appeared to grow longer and longer and darker and darker. The area was as quiet as the void of space. Alan wondered where the rest of the office staff had gone.
As he approached the admiral’s office, the doors shifted open. Out stepped a man, someone he didn’t know. The man glanced at him. Alan suppressed an involuntary shudder. He could not read the man’s expression. The man wore a black and green suit. His gelled grey hair shined off the ceiling lights. His teeth gleamed a perfect white. No imperfections dotted the smooth, wrinkleless face. Life-extension treatments. Technologies to rejuvenate youth had only recently been discovered, and of course, it was only available to a few select people. A neatly trimmed beard rounded out the rest of his appearance. They passed each other, the man now giving him his full gaze. Alan imagined himself naked and vulnerable under that stare. They passed each other. He turned his gaze to Vendrian sitting at his desk, electronically signing his LED screen. He walked through the doors and they closed behind him.
Alan stood at attention, staring intently at a painting of an ancient starship docked at an equally ancient stardock orbiting Earth. He had seen it before but had never given it much attention. He focused on it. Five seconds passed. Vendrian was still signing the documents. Alan could tell he was angry. The admiral usually made you wait when he was displeased. The avuncular act that he showed in public was just that, an act.
“That’s the Argos. You know its history.” Yes, he knew. The first colony ship created after the discovery and creation of the gridspace drive four hundred years ago. Humanity’s first journey to another star. Its trip began in disaster. Just disappeared from existence. All crew assumed lost. It set back space exploration by decades. The admiral looked up, rubbed his white beard, and stared sharply at him. “At ease. Take a seat, Pilot.”
Alan sat down on one of the black-cushioned chairs facing the admiral’s desk. The admiral steepled his white-gloved hands together and tilted his head upward to regard the ceiling. “You know, when I first took you in, you were one of our most promising students. Flight scores near the top percentiles. Well above average grasp of tactical maneuvers. Maybe your essays could have used some work. But you were well on your way to a distinguished career.” The old man shook his head. “Now this mess.” The admiral tapped his desk. “I had to get your ass out of the fire this morning. You should be grateful.”
Alan started. The way the admiral enunciated the last sentence seemed especially venomous. This was unlike him. He thought he knew the admiral well. In his time at the Academy, the man had decided to take him under his wing and of course, Alan leaped at the chance. Getting in good with the admiral would be a wonderful start to his career. It had been wonderful. They worked on countless projects together. He helped write a chapter on gridspace’s time dilation effects on realspace and how to use it to boost a ship’s acceleration. After graduation, the admiral was the first to send him off to his new assignment at the front.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, not knowing how else to respond.
The admiral stood up, turned around and stared out at the scarlet horizon. Alan noticed the man looked as exhausted as he was. “You have no idea how much trouble you caused. You want to know how? It’s because the war isn’t over. Not truly over. The armistice was just a temporary stopgap, a desperate effort by the Kenzenken Coalition to prevent their civil war from breaking out. We were supposed to keep a lid on things until everything smoothed out. It happened anyway.” The admiral turned to him. “Ah, you seem surprised, Pilot. Well, you need to brush up on your intelligence reports. We always knew the Zenks were at best a loose confederation between worlds, but we didn’t know how fragile that alliance was. Since we didn’t want the war to begin anew, we signed the armistice. God knows we couldn’t afford even more destruction. We enraged a few member states, but they have been quiet for now.” Vendrian paused.
Staring at the fixed swirling patterns on the admiral’s desk, Alan took a breath. “Sir, I didn’t know. I apologize.”
The older man regarded him for a moment, almost appearing to stare past him. Then he nodded and sat down. “Why are you here, Alan?” he asked.
“Why did you join in the fight? Why put your own life at risk?”
Alan thought a moment. “It was my duty, sir.”
“Duty!” the admiral laughed. “Do you even understand that duty?” He wiped his mouth. “Let me tell you the real reason. You know the difference between us and the Kenzenken Coalition?” he began. “They pretend to have a unifying focus on freedom and honor, but all they are united on is their hatred of us. It’s because we have something that they will never have. Institutions. Institutions forged by centuries of humanity’s finest minds, born out of the ancient UN. Institutions that created the means and will to dominate the stars. Their entire culture is a farce. What do you know about their supposed history, Alan?”
Alan wondered about the direction of this conversation. “I know that they were a group of outer planets unhappy with the old Earth government. They broke away over a dispute about mining rights.”
“They broke away because three mega-corporations told the local governments to. Kentaro. Zenith. Kenneth-Starbridge.” The admiral spat those three names out. “They funded the initial breakaway. They would create new markets free from the heavy hand of Earth. When the corporations started failing, they integrated themselves into the Coalition government. Those vaunted ceremonies they have? They were derived from corporate exercises to lift employee morale. As they grew, they began preaching that their way was better. All lies, of course.” He jabbed a finger out towards Alan. “That’s why you fought. You inherently understood that our way of life was superior. You fought to defend it against one based on petulance and profit.”
“I see.” Alan replied.
“It pains me that we have to kowtow to their sensitivities. The softness of our politicians and our populace is appalling. I sometimes wonder if the Earth Republic is worth defending anymore.”
A chill went up Alan’s spine. What the admiral was saying was akin to blasphemy. “Sir?” he ventured.
Vendrian pinched the bridge of his nose. “I told you all this so you would understand what I’ll you next.” He took a breath. “I’ve got some good news for you. There will be no tribunal. The committee and I have pored over all the evidence. That ship should not have been there. You followed the law to the letter and did the best you could.”
Alan felt his hands relax. He felt elated. He would be vindicated! He wouldn’t have to endure the angry stares, the shouting epithets from the protestors, the sad-faced children standing behind the Kenzenken ambassador and—
“But we still have this situation. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but the Zenks want your head. Hell, I think our peace activists want it even more. The government wants you to disappear until this cools down, son. And I’m afraid I have to agree.”
The beginnings of a pounding headache threatened to overtake Alan. He gripped the armrest of his chair tightly and asked, “W-wait, so what’s going happen to me?”
The admiral sighed. “As of this moment, you are discharged from the Republic Navy. You’re going to be grounded. All flight privileges are revoked indefinitely. I still think you have some talent left, so I’ve recommended you a job at the Carnarvon outpost near the Ramanujan Expanse. You’ll be doing space traffic control. Don’t give me that look, it won’t be that bad.” The admiral rubbed his chin. “Isn’t that where you’re from originally? You’ll be home again.”
Alan’s heart beat loudly. The “job offer” was akin to exile. The admiral effectively ended his career. Nobody went to that area. There was nothing for him there. He would spend the rest of his days twiddling his thumbs at a desk. He couldn’t go home like this. The humiliation, the disappointment. It would be unbearable. “But I’m innocent. You said so yourself! I did nothing wrong! Please sir, please tell them they’re making a mistake!”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Discussion on this matter is closed. I’m letting you go. You will pack your things and leave tomorrow morning.”
“You can’t do this to me!” Alan felt a hot flash on his cheeks. “Please,” his voice almost a sob, “I gave up everything to get here. I have nothing else. YOU CAN’T FUCKING DO THIS TO ME!” He almost gasped, realizing his error.
“Pilot.” The admiral’s voice came out in a clipped cold tone. “Stand down. Don’t give me a reason to throw you in the brig.” He stared to the side for a moment. “You know, I expected more from you. You’re a smart boy. You should realize that sometimes you have to make sacrifices.” The admiral stroked his beard again. “I think you should use this time to reflect on your duty to the Republic. Truly reflect on it. And realize that you must work with what is given to you, not with what you desire.” The admiral looked back at him. His expression was blank. “We’re done now. You are dismissed.”
“Y-yes, sir.” Alan got up and half-heartedly saluted. The rest of the day passed in a blur. He couldn’t remember when he left HQ, but soon enough, he found himself back in his apartment room. The window outside showed a lighted cityscape in the darkness. He sat down on the floor and cradled his knees. He couldn’t cry. No, to do that would be to lose control. Over and over in his mind, he replayed the conversation in his head, mulling over the words he should have said. He hadn’t felt like this since Michael had disappeared. He had almost been over that until the Inari.
Tears streamed down his face. “They left me. They all left me,” he whispered.