Commander Haught stood looking at the lifeless body on the ground. She had seen so much death, so many bodies strewn across floors. She sensed she was losing her ability to feel anything for anyone. Including herself. She wouldn’t let that happen. She had seen it in the eyes of others. Those sent to do their duty. Returning a shell. Emptied of their own life.
Doc tapped her on the shoulder.
“We need to go. This was never our mission. Come, before it’s too late.”
Doc was right. If they were to make it home they would need to leave this planet. She had to get away from this place. Anywhere than standing in front of the brutal consequences of her actions. Under her command.
“Gather the crew and survivors, I need a moment.”
Doc nodded. “Don’t be long.”
He understood Haught well enough to know she needed time by herself before returning to the ship. She waited until Doc was out of sight, one final look at the body before her. So young. Why was somebody this young fighting?
They had been on route to Gideon, their home planet, to pick up supplies. A distress signal was received one jump from their destination. A smaller vessel in the fleet had been ambushed. It made an emergency landing on the nearest habitable planet. Six crew members still alive, fifteen dead. A rebel group had them pinned in a clearing. No escape. They were running out of fuel for their weapons. No chance of departure, their vessel too damaged to break clear of the planet’s pull.
Haught had had to make a decision. Leave the six crew members to their fate. Rescue them. Doc warned her it would not be wise to attempt a rescue. If they too were ambushed there would be no one to rescue them. It could turn into a one way ticket to their own end. Haught nodded, agreeing with everything Doc was telling her. She went ahead with the rescue.
She checked no one was near. Turning, she forced her fingers down her throat to relieve herself of the sick feeling she carried into every fight. The senseless acts of cruelty against another. Her stomach empty, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, knowing this was the only way she could deal with the life she had been forced into. A career dictated by her family, without consent, without consideration of who she truly was. Who she wanted to be.
Ten more missions and she would be free. That was all. Ten more. Two more years if she was lucky. Three tops. Then she could escape the confines of what she was doing. Nothing, absolutely nothing would stop her from leaving the military. She had served her time. Done what was expected of her. Duty and honour. Some fucking honour. Kill for the sake of keeping another alive.
She yearned for freedom. Unencumbered. To explore alone. A role more suited to her temperament. Quiet, studious, curious. In awe of all things new. A planet hopper. Planet hoper. Searching across the galaxy. The colonisation of Mars kick-started the journey to the stars. Keplar 452, Luyten b, Gideon 9, all habitable. All capable of sustaining large colonies. Seeding the immediate galaxy with life beyond Earth. A confederation of five planets. Union. Their successful settlement paving the way for more planets. Humans doing their best in alien environments.
The year: 2415
Haught was coming to the end of her fourth mission escorting ore ships and their precious cargoes. A mission she hated. The ore ships a constant target for those who chose a different way to exist. Criminals in the eyes of the Union, stopping at nothing to pick off smaller ships. Their cargo extracted, parts stripped, crew taken. Sold, or killed if considered a burden. Life was cheap to many who roamed in search of profit. Scum who murdered her father. His life treated as worthless, at their disposal. Who was she to judge? She had had to do the same to her enemies. Wasted opportunities scattered across distant planets.
Her promotion to Commander came early. Too early, some considered. She would be the first to admit not being ready or willing for the responsibility. A reluctant leader, the name Haught and her father’s status moving her quickly through the ranks. First Officer Holliday had been assigned to her. Known as Doc, he was older, wiser, a surrogate father figure, if you like, added to the mix of crew to guide her in the transition into leadership. She resented his presence initially, yet knew she needed his guidance. The task of leading a crew made more difficult when it’s not something desired. A gradual acceptance of his counsel, as the two grew to understand each other.
Doc knew he had to let Haught find her own way. Too much direction and he would take from her the edge needed to run a ship effectively. Not always an easy task for him. He watched her make mistakes, her inability to trust others, to allow them to get close to her. Not a bad thing, especially as her role as Commander demanded a degree of detachment. The prickly shell she placed around herself easy for everyone else to see, except her. Her crew respected her, liked her even, most importantly, they trusted her. They had to.
Their lives lay in her hands.
…---… …---… …---…
“Recruit K74, are you paying attention?”
Cadet Earp snapped back into the room. Her daydreaming needed to be curtailed if she was to complete her training. A tendency to fixate on her instructor getting the better once more. Commander Lucado approached her training pod.
“Earp, you need to stay focused. Every part of your training is important.”
“Sorry, Commander. It won’t happen again.”
Cadet Waverly Earp, Recruit K74, desperately wanted to make it to a pulse ship. She had followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Wynonna, unable to decide for herself what she most wanted to do with her life. If there had been a career whose title was ‘being the most liked’ she would have grabbed it. A dreamer. In love with life. Popular. Too popular on occasions. Her ability to make friends effortlessly an irritation to her sister, secretly jealous of her easy charm.
Her family had been against her decision to enter the military, sensing this was not her true calling. Her father saw she was not as keen to fight as her sisters, preferring to sit for hours absorbed in the beauty of her world. And yet, they knew she had what it took to succeed. To be more than just a farmer on Keplar. Andherei born, an old tribe, she and her sisters were trained from an early age to be fighters. Feared by many. The quiet warriors. Those who chose a vow of silence at the age of thirty in deference to their Gods. Useful in battle, annoying if you wanted a conversation. Relying on hand gestures and their eyes. Their eyes. The Universe condensed. Natural lovers, if you met their gaze. Natural killers, if you met their hands.
Willa, her eldest sister was lost. In her absence, Wynonna became the hero figure to Waverly. Leaving to join the military when Waverly was still too young to fully understand her sister’s choice. Making her way up the ranks. Making a name for herself. The fighter. The one who wouldn’t back down from any confrontation. Not the way of Andherei. Wynonna’s way! Her fame, her notoriety in winning battles allowing her to rise to the position of Commander at the same age as Haught. Haught may have got her promotion through her family. Wynonna got hers through her fists.
Waverly was proud of her sister. In awe. The hero. The one everyone talked about. It gave her standing in the community. Something Waverly wanted most. If she could only step far enough beyond the long shadow cast by Wynonna surely everyone would see her. Love her.
Training took place on Gideon. It was a wrench for Waverly to leave her family. To leave the farm near the ocean where they lived. This would be her first time away. Away from everything she loved. She lay gazing at the stars one last time the night before departure, tears in her eyes. She wanted to go. She wanted to stay. She wanted both. She needed to make a decision. She would go. Give it everything she could. She would make new friends. See other worlds. So much to look forward to. She would be back some day. A Commander. A hero. Like her sister.
Training was hard. Months of studying. Months of flight simulation. Months of combat training. She made friends quickly. Cadet Chrissy Nedley her closest ally. Two underdogs seeking a better life for themselves. Chrissy helped Waverly with her simulations, Waverly taught Chrissy how to fight Andherei style. A quick, reflexive method, using the energy of an opponent to her advantage. Chrissy had never seen anyone fight like Waverly before. Most cadets stopped what they were doing when Waverly took to the combat floor against another cadet. Her ability to sense the moves of another before they had even made them remarkable to watch. A fierce grace few could outmanoeuvre.
She was nearing the end of her training. It was now a question of waiting to find out which ship would take her. Her first experience on board ship lasting three months. She would sit alongside a Commander, perfect her flying skills. She was already an excellent pilot. Her commission would begin after that period. In time she hoped to command her own ship, like her sister.
Chrissy placed her food tray beside Waverly’s in the dining area. “I’ve been selected. There’s a ship coming in tomorrow. This is it.”
Waverly smiled. “I haven’t heard anything yet. Are you nervous? I’m beginning to feel nervous. I mean, you’re right, this is it. We’re on our way.”
“A little. But, we’ve had so much training and I’m dying to get up there.”
“Don’t say that. You might curse your future.”
“What dying? Earp, it’s all part of what we do. Can’t take to the skies without the dies.”
“I try not to think about the dying part. There’s been an increase lately. Crews not coming back. I wish we didn’t have to fight.”
Chrissy laughed. “Never thought I’d hear an Andherei warrior say that. I figured you entered the world with a baby sword in your hands.”
“We’re quite peaceful underneath.”
“Right, OK. Tell that to the guy whose nose you broke yesterday in training.”
“He got in the way.”
“Of your fist. Come on, finish up. We need to be back at the simulators.”
Cadet Earp sat teasing her food, lost in thought once more. She would check later that day to see if she had been selected. Any day now. She would miss Nedley. They hoped to crew together one day. For now they needed to go their separate ways. Learn how to live on board a ship. Be useful.
….---… …---… …---…
Haught sat in the communal area, finishing her report on the rescue. It was all so clinical. This happened, then this happened. People died. Words. How could she convey what she’d seen, experienced in a small summary box.
“Commander Haught, report to Deck 5.” Her earpiece interrupted her thoughts.
Doc was talking to someone at Legion, central command, when she entered. “We’re making our stop for supplies. Six rescued. One dead in our crew. Give us co-ordinates for the next mission.”
Haught stood watching as Legion downloaded their point of engagement. A small colony, three jumps away. Six days travel. They would need additional supplies. She put her hand on Doc’s shoulder.
“That’s a long way out. Furthest we’ve been sent.”
“It’s where they’re hiding. Risky.”
“We keep going. We need to figure out what this rebel group are doing.”
“Agree. But, we take things slowly Haught. Each step thought through. Carefully.”
“Got it. No gut reaction.”
“Go rest. I’ll call you when we near Gideon.”
She needed to sleep. The fight to rescue the ambushed crew had been intense. Mostly on the ground in close combat. The hardest way to fight. In the air it took strategy. On the ground it took strength. Weapons take a soldier only so far into the fight. Even as an experienced fighter, Haught dreaded the point where fists took over. Victory dependent on her hands, or those of her opponent. Looking into the eyes of an enemy wondering who will live. Who will be the one to walk away? Who will be the one lying motionless on the ground?
Returning to her quarters she fell into her sleep pod, her mind replaying the rescue over and over. Had she done the right thing? Was Doc right? Should she have left the crew to their fate? No, she knew she had made the right call on this. To leave others stranded was beyond her capacity. Her mind fighting to forget. Fighting to find peace, any peace, with the consequences of her actions. Fighting to erase the faces of the dead. Fighting to stop the tears at the loss of one of her crew.
She had to sleep. She often relied on chemical assistance. An accepted part of life on board. Crew could partake in chemical cocktails to change a mood, help with sleep, help fight fatigue. Nicole knew she relied on the sleep potion more than most. It allowed her brain to switch off. Give her space from herself. Empty her mind of the pain she saw, the pain she inflicted, in fighting for the future of the Union.
Chemicals worked their way through her veins.