Hey! We've shifted the viewpoint further back, to the final main character.Warning: Timeline subject to change. Beware.
Without further ado:
Loop I Bubble. Peace System. Equality Colony.
The world was on fire.
Hazel was running as fast as her augmented body could carry her. She'd sprung for body augmentation after saving up enough of her pay, laboring day in and day out at the colony's administration center, slaving away at her desk work. She'd installed augments purely for enjoyment. There wasn't as much to do out here on the frontier as the virtual reality vids would lead one to believe, and she'd taken up "extreme hiking" as a way to kill time when she wasn't slotted for hours on the VR machines.
Never did she think her thrill money would save her life. One minute she was in virtual space, chatting it up with Mont and Nog, having fun and blasting alien ships in a historical simulation game of the Retribution Wars. Then, everything had gone black. Then white and her ears rang with thunder and then red as everything around her went up in flames. She managed to kick the hatch of the VR pod open and bolted out of the Media Center, as it burned down around her.
She wanted to save other people, but everywhere she looked, there were crushed bodies and mangled metal. So she ran out into the night and thanked whatever part of her genetic tree had made her a thrill seeker by nature, as her twice-fast limbs and augmented eyes let her run past flying debris and leap over immolated infrastructure.
She was scrambling now over a nanofabricator used for creating specialty equipment. Half of it was crushed under the rubble of a nearby shed. Hazel still had no idea what was happening, but she suddenly remembered the scenario in her historical sim. Invasion. We're under attack? There was more thunder in the distance, but looking up not a cloud was in the sky. Lights danced back and forth under the stars, and her thoughts were confirmed as one light swooped low and spit fire on a part of town a few miles away.
Her thoughts were racing. Running with abandon, she was more than a mile from where she'd started, but she couldn't keep running forever. Sure, the charging station in the VR pod had replenished most of the battery that her arms and legs fed on, but they'd last another few hours at most. She struggled to remember those annoying town hall meetings where they warned them of the dangers on the frontier. Suddenly they seemed a lot more important than the handheld game she'd been playing at the time.
Town Hall? No, that was in the open and likely blown to shreds by now. Emergencies, emergencies. What to do in an emergency? She went down the list in her head. Police are pointless, it's an alien incursion. Disaster teams are probably already moving. Civilians are to make their way to the shelters as quickly as they are able and wait for further instructions.
Glad to recall something, Hazel abruptly turned down a side road and stopped dead as a scream pierced the night. It dawned on her that the shelters were meant to protect people in the case of a natural disaster. A determined enemy would likely locate them and, if unable to pry their way in, bomb them from orbit, depending on what they were after. Humanity had run into alien races on numerous occasions since the times before the Retribution Wars, but the lessons learned were hard won and not easily forgotten.
Gathering in one place to die was definitely a bad idea and there were no weapons in the shelter. The best thing to do was disperse, hope the invaders were after technology or resources and hide out in the wilderness until help arrived from the Sidereal Defense Fleet. It was the best chance of survival after armed resistance, and clearly Equality's militia were not doing very well against whoever this race was.
She could easily escape by herself, but Hazel had not come to this world alone or of her own volition. She had to find her parents and her younger siblings. Her parents didn't do VR sims and her siblings were too young to be slotted for much sim time, so they should all be at home. leaping up onto a nearby roof, she looked out over the fire and smoke.
More lights were chasing each other, the sky illuminated whenever stray weapon's fire was too close. Much of Equality was burning, buildings lay in ruins, shouts and screams and the constant staccato of weapons discharge and explosions echoed in the once clear night. Her heart sank as she looked in the direction of her neighborhood. Nothing could be made out clearly, smoke billowed out from the residential area in every direction. Not stopping to consider further, she hopped down and ran, quickly cutting onto a back street that should take her directly to her house.
When Hazel arrived on what was left of her street, it was all she could do not to collapse. She wasn't tired, her augments hadn't drained a quarter of their reserves, but her anxiety had risen to a crescendo as she had made her way here.
Vehicles were demolished, and homes had burnt down or were completely gone. And then there were the body parts. She had found precious few bodies, and no one she knew directly, but body parts had littered her route. She would have stopped to throw up but her mind kept flashing to little Jake and Annie, her younger brother and sister. Stopping would have reduced her chances of finding them alive and rescuing them, so she fought her revulsion and continued on.
But now all that was forgotten. Her house... indeed almost her entire neighborhood was gone. She felt her knees hit the ground but couldn't bring herself to stand back up as the tears streamed down her face.
"Hazy!" a familiar voice called out to her. She gasped a bit and looked up and to her left as its owner came into view. Her friend, Jillian Price, called Egg by her closest friends. They'd spent as many waking hours as they could together, especially in the virtual reality chambers. Both of them had moved to Equality as part of an immigrant wave when their local government introduced more sanctions on media imports, and her parents decided that the shrinking economic pie was as good an excuse as any to take their family on a little adventure. That had been years ago when Hazel was still a teenager, and she and Jillian had met on the transit shuttle, both sullen teens eager to rebel against their parents who had dragged them away from the civilized world to live in a backwater.
"Hazy you're alive! I wasn't sure I'd find you. Are you alright? You don't look injured." Egg's words came out in a rush and her dark red hair was clinging to her face from sweat. Hazy managed to stand as the other woman helped her to her feet. "I don't.. " Hazy couldn't seem to find the words. "Have you seen my parents, Egg? Have you seen Jake or Annie? There's nothing... there's no one here." She swallowed as she tried to collect her thoughts.
Egg shook her head vigorously. "You're the first living soul I know that I've met. I had just finished my shift and.." A loud clap and yet another scream. "Nevermind! We can chat later. We've got to get out of here!" Egg cried as she took off running. Hazy, lingering a moment and staring at the ashes that were once her home, turned and followed. She caught up with ease, as Egg hadn't augmented herself in the same manner, and she picked her up as she came alongside. "What are you doing?!" she all but shrieked.
"I'm faster than you and my limbs won't tire. Argue about it later!" She stopped half a second to allow Egg to ride piggy-back and then took off again. Buildings blurred by as she made her way to the edge of town. "Where are we going? The shelter's the other way!" Egg yelled.
"The shelter is a death trap!" They were both yelling. "Keep your voice down." she said more quietly, "I think it's an invasion or a raiding force. We need to stay hidden. If they're here to kill us for trespassing in their space, going to the shelter is like waiting to be executed. Even if they're not, they're clearly leveling structures. I don't know what they want, but hiding seems like the best idea to me. Remember Emilio?" She was trying to get Egg to calm down with a reference to one of their favorite generals from their games. "He split his forces and hid, attacking from different directions at different intervals, using superior speed to buy time till reinforcements arrived at the front."
Hazy felt Egg nodd into her shoulder. "Right. Split up and hide. But surely you're not thinking of fighting? They've got weapons Hazy!"
"Keep your voice down!" Hazy hissed. They were past the outskirts of the settlement. Much of the noise was fading away as she leapt between foliage, trying to keep low and make as little noise as possible. When she guessed they were at least a couple of miles away, she stopped and checked the charge on her battery. Down to about half. Lowering Egg to the ground, she took a look around. With augmented eyes, her night vision picked up nothing but forest and critters. "I think we're out of immediate danger. We should walk from here to conserve energy."
Egg fumbled a bit. Even with a clear sky, there was no moon and it was much more difficult for her to see. "How long do we hide? And will you be alright without charging?" Egg asked. Hazy took her by the arm so she could guide her through the brush. "I should be alright for a few hours, as long as I don't overexert the motors, and I'll shut them down once we get far enough away." But how far away was that? She was uncertain, and while the augments came with a solar charger it would by no means be as effective as plugging in. "As for how long we hide...," she continued "We hide until we can be certain they've left."
"And what if they don't leave Hazy? What do we do if they stick around? Do we just play fugitive for the rest of our lives until we're cornered and killed?" Egg was starting to sound panicked.
"Relax, Egg." said Hazy, sounding and feeling much calmer than she expected. "Sooner or later the SDF will show up and once they do, these bastards will wish they'd never set foot on our world."
Kibitzer wished he could yawn. There were some things you didn't realize you missed until you were uploaded to a mainframe, and Kibitzer decided that yawning was one of them. It gave you a way to say "I'm bored!" without having to complain outright. Of course, there was no one to complain to. He was zipping through tangential space, having left the Century system a few days before. Thankfully in a few minutes, he'd translate back to real space so he could begin his patrol route.
Command seemed to enjoy sending him to incredibly remote areas to do recon or check up on frontier worlds. He didn't mind the latter; it was always interesting to talk with the locals or see how the different cultures in Greater Humanity were diverging. Coming back from his last patrol he'd entered into the junction system, Vertical, some 3 days before their annual reenactment of the Battle of Tau Ceti. As a junction system, Vertical had an enormous Tangential Gate, and as such, tended to be rather well off, even by the standards of most of Greater Humanity. It was a lot of fun, watching one of the old battles that was a pivotal moment of human history, played out in actual space rather than over a VR simulator. But alas, he couldn't linger long. Duty called, and as an operator of the Sidereal Defense Fleet, Kibitzer had his orders.
Normally, due to his rank, he was given a very general set of instructions with a set time frame and then left to his own devices. New operators would be forced to follow under the wing of an established operator. This was a mentor of sorts, who would guide them in the basics while they became accustomed to their duties. Thinking back on those days, Kibitzer would have shuddered, but his current physical form was that of a starship hurtling through extradimensional space. Shuddering was not advised.
He pinged the shipboard clock again as he ran through his systems checks. His nanomanufacturing units were fully functional and charged. They were onboard, state of the art facilities that allowed him to make most of what he'd require should an emergency arise. Human nanotechnology had become quite refined since the early days of colonizing the stars, and it was a common fact that no other race humanity had encountered in their centuries of spacefaring came close to it.
Sensor checks were normal, engine checks were normal. Kibitzer pinged each of his Aide Scripts, incredibly complex algorithms that helped the endless data coming from all parts of the ship make sense to the uploaded human mind. While aides weren't true AI, they were necessary to much of human society's day to day activities. This was especially true for operators of the Fleet. Information overload in the middle of a battle could spell certain demise should the mind become overwhelmed.
Real-Space translation, imminent. TelAn, his sensor aide announced. TelAn was programmed to be polite, though it's tone often came across as cold or indifferent. Kibitzer accessed his external sensor network directly, watching for signs of irregularities as he returned to the dimension he called home.
The stars came into sudden view as the deep indigo of tangential evaporated. Kibitzer couldn't appreciate it from his current perspective, but he knew that the translation of a ship was an eerie thing to watch. An irregularly shaped, indigo-blue chasm formed in the vacuum of space, and Kibitzer seemed to "bubble" out of nothingness, like fizz suddenly gaining solid form. He turned his attention to checking his position, but even as he confirmed his location, a message came from TelAn.
"Priority Alert, sir; the Equality colonial distress beacon is active. It appears they are under attack from an Enemy Unknown."
Crap. Not exactly what he was expecting, but this was the frontier. Still, to translate to the outskirts of a system as it was being attacked was either incredibly fortuitous or extremely bad luck. In this case Kibitzer hoped it was good fortune.
"All speed to Equality colony. Has the militia been able to send information on the invaders?"
"Retrieving now. One visual file is available for viewing, apparently of the enemy fleet's approach to planetary orbit, and subsequent dispatch of atmospheric interceptors. Direct link to visual feed activating-"
Kibitzer watched the fledgling colony's plight as he raced in-system at full acceleration.
Egg and Hazy made their way along the well worn path. Hazy was against it, but Egg complained of exhaustion, so in order to travel faster the older of the two had relented. Now they were moving at a much better pace, toward the foot of a nearby mountain. They had stopped to rest a bit, but when they saw lights moving toward them in the distance, fear had motivated a renewed effort at escape. Hazy had to admit she truly had no idea where she was going or what to do at this point.
Her augmentation batteries were holding up better than Egg's natural legs, but she had slowed down to keep stride with the younger woman, who was struggling a bit. Over her shoulder, she could see that their pursuers had appeared to gain ground. She turned to whisper to Egg. "Either they're incredibly fast or they're driving." The low rumbling sound coming from behind them suggested the latter.
Egg nodded but did not look back. Her pace quickened a bit. "Great," she said sarcastically. "It sounds like an old land tank."
Her friend was trying to make a best guess from all the VR games the two had played. They had very little knowledge to go on. "I can't see any reason they'd come out this far, unless they're tracking us. There's no sign of ...well, anything out here." Egg whispered.
Hazy's blonde hair flickered with what little light there was, even in the moonless night as she shook her head. She wasn't sure if her red-headed friend wanted her opinion or not on the matter, but she gave it anyway. "They're probably following the path like we are. We should go back to the-" but Egg waved a hand to cut her off. "Fine." Her tone suggested mounting frustration "Fine." she said more calmly.
Leaving the trail and slipping into the brush, they continued on, for several more minutes in silence. They had gained some elevation, and they could look down and see their pursuers in the distance. "I can't make them out from here. There are just creepy bobbing lights. You're sure they're not other people?" asked Egg.
The shake of her companion's head was almost imperceptible in the darkness. "No." Her voice was full of dread. "No, they are definitely not human. I've never seen anything human move like that." She turned to head up the mountain. "We should keep going. Those things seem pretty awkward. I don't think they can climb."
"I don't even know if I can climb." Again that tone of annoyance. "I should have saved for augmentations like you did. How much charge do you have left?" There was a pleading quality to her friend's voice. Hazy knew she must be tired. Hell, she was tired, and her augments were battery powered. They'd been on the run all night with only a brief stop for rest. Even with their enhanced stamina due to nanomedics, they'd been pressed to keep moving.
Hazy looked back again, "They're on some kind of tri-wheeled vehicle, I think." She hoped her change of topic wasn't too obvious. Thinking about how tired they both were would not help. "It's hard to tell how many limbs they have from this distance, but some of them have spread out around it. It almost looks like they're waddling. Whatever they are, they're certainly not pretty."
Her eyes could see more than she was letting on, but she didn't want Egg to panic any further. The creatures weren't nightmarish, but they had too many limbs for comfort and no distinguishable head. The worst parts were what looked like wings. She'd seen them stretch and flap a bit, but none of them had flown. Yet, she thought. Hazy really hoped they couldn't. Her only plan had been to climb the mountain, hoping that the advantage of higher ground would let her pick out a path to elude their pursuers. But with Egg's legs reaching their limit, Hazy would have to carry them both and she was certain that she couldn't manage that for more than another half-hour at most. Then she'd be dead weight, and too heavy to carry. She could carry her friend for a few minutes. Maybe Egg regain some energy and she could avoid burning out the precious battery.
She stooped down and Egg crawled on. Rising she moved just a bit faster, hoping to put some distance between them and the raiders. After a few minutes, she sat Egg on a nearby outcropping, and looked back down. It hadn't worked. Their leaving the path had momentarily stalled the group chasing them, but they appeared to have picked back up whatever trail it was the two women had left behind and were quite determinedly making their way up the mountainside. "Hell," she said without thinking, and then covered her mouth too late as Egg looked up at her, wide-eyed.
"Still coming, aren't they?" Egg closed her eyes. A deep breath followed and then she looked over to Hazy, who had a sinking feeling in her chest. "We should split up here." The words came out deliberately, with only a hint of fear. "I'm slowing you down, Hazy. We'll both have a better chance of surviving if we force them to follow two different tracks. Maybe they'll split up or maybe they'll only follow one of us or-"
"Stop, just stop it Jillian." She only ever called Egg 'Jillian' when she was annoyed. Though what she was annoyed at currently, she could not say. "I'm not going to leave you here. I'm faster, you're slower and if we split up they'll almost certainly catch up to you. I am not letting you sacrifice yourself for me, so just stop it."
"So what, you want us to both die?" Egg hissed. Tears streamed out of her eyes. "Hazy, I'm not suicidal but I don't want to watch you die either. There's no other way. Not unless we fight and I'm pretty sure they're armed and we're not."
"That's not entirely true." Hazy had been considering this option for a while. Fighting back. She did have augmented limbs. If she could catch them by surprise she could maybe take one or two of them out. But the aliens had no head that she could see, and what looked to be six or seven (was that last limb some sort of prehensile tail?) limbs with two bat-like wings. The problem was she wasn't sure how to disable or kill one, if she was going to brawl with them. What if they didn't die easily? Also, held by two of the foremost limbs was definitely a weapon that looked to be some sort of cannon. She wanted to say 'gun', but the mouth of it was too wide. How did they even see to fire? It was a lot less dark in these predawn hours, but her eyes weren't making out enough details.
"Hazy, fast as you are, you can't outrun projectiles, and whatever these things are, they certainly know weaponry. Look at what they did to the town. Fighting back here is suicide, even with your augments. No, we have only one option left." Egg looked back down the mountainside and stood up. The sinking feeling in Hazy's chest was suddenly replaced with a rising energy that brought her to her feet as well.
"No Egg, don't. We've made it this far together. If we can hold out a little longer, they may give up and go back." She was lying through her teeth but she couldn't think of what else to say. Should she hold Egg down? She thought she might be able to do so without hurting her, but it would waste both their energy to get into a scuffle. The aliens were still drawing closer. She was beginning to make out what must be eyes, by her best guess. Four sets, centered in a stub of what must be the head. They had no neck.
They were too close. They had to get away from here before they were seen, if they hadn't been already. Hazy turned to look up the mountainside for a route that they could take. "Egg come on let's-" but when she looked back, her best friend was running down the mountain to her left. Hazy nearly forgot herself but bit back a scream.
Egg somehow managed to not trip as she made her rapid descent, and was almost concealed by foliage. Could this work? Hazy couldn't decide if to follow her friend or climb, but those things were now way too close for comfort. Flattening herself as best she could, she made her decision and crawled upward, trying to stay hidden in the brush. If she moved too fast, she might give away her location.
Hardly daring to breathe, she kept climbing as quietly as she could. Half-convinced she was going to be caught, she didn't look back to check over her shoulder until she heard a sudden cry.
Hazy stopped cold. It had come from far down, probably at the foot of the mountain, in the direction that Egg had run. She didn't even realize that she had turned to look but she wished she hadn't. She couldn't see that far, and the forest made it impossible to see clearly, but the alien light closest to her had stopped climbing and was now working it's way downward.
There was a small circle of weaving lights, clearly closing in on something. Tears were streaming down her face. She couldn't see Egg but she did hear another yell as one light stopped and wavered. Then there was the clap of a weapon being fired, a shriek, and then silence. The glowing little balls had formed a small circle as if inspecting something. Hazel nearly threw up, but instead she turned and climbed, even as the self-loathing began to rise inside her.
She climbed. Egg was dead. She scrambled through the hardy, weedy plants Equality's colonists had seeded onto this world. Egg was dead and it was her fault. She made her way to the summit, no longer looking back, unsure if she cared at this moment if she lived or died.
Jillian Price, quite possibly the only soul that she had known was still alive on this rock, was now dead. Somehow she managed not to sob as she cleared another outcropping of rock, turned and sat down at the top of the mountain. She couldn't remember it's name.
Her parents were probably dead. Her brother and sister were likely dead as well. Hazy was almost certain of it when she laid eyes on the scarred and ashen crater that had been her home. But then Egg had been there. Egg had gotten her up. Egg had reminded her she was still alive. And now she too, was gone.
The sky was slowly growing brighter, as if to mock her situation. She looked down, only to see that her pursuers had resumed their upward crawl. Well, that was fine. She didn't deserve to live anyway.
When Jillian had said "split up" a small part of her had wavered. Like Emilio, huh? When Jillian had gotten to her feet, she hadn't instantly grabbed her. She had let her go. Hazy wavered and let her friend sacrifice herself. For nothing it seemed. The little bastards seemed determined to kill her anyway.
Rage, unheralded, took hold of the young woman, but as she got to her feet there was an immense crack of thunder, a sonic boom that shook her to her bones. Everything stopped moving. Her head turned slowly, as if some invisible force beckoned her gaze, and she looked up at the sky.
A single light, brilliant and blue-white and glowing like a falling star, was tearing down toward her. She was half convinced it would collide with her, when it suddenly slowed, and several smaller lights broke off. Those continued to head in her direction as the main light, close enough now to be distinguishable, turned toward the main settlement of Equality. It's a ship, she thought, even as she heard the retrorockets of the combat drones landing on the mountain side. The alien raiders were turning to meet them but Hazy didn't even spare them a glance. She could see other ships now, racing upward toward the newcomer, but a light flared out and they disintegrated before her eyes. A crackling sound made her look down, and a color-shifting, almost skeletal, humanoid drone stepped into view. It turned toward her and a voice as human as her own spoke out from it. "Ma'am are you alright? I got here as fast as I could. You're safe now." On a tiny plate of the chest were the letters "SDF". The Sidereal Defense Fleet had arrived.
The surviving colonists had been gathered together by the SDF operator, and they were very few in number. Out of a colony of thousands, only dozens remained, and they looked at each other as though they were surrounded by strangers. In many cases they were. Few survivors knew each other, and only a couple of shattered families remained. However, as thorough as the invading force had been, the solitary operator whom providence had sent their way had been even more so.
No alien vessels had escaped. No alien vehicles remained intact. The colonists learned that some sort of large interstellar craft carrying a force of several hundred alien personnel had been decimated in orbit. As things stood, there were several hundred combat drones prowling around the surrounding forests, but their rescuer assured them that there was no sign of intelligent life that was not human.
Even so, Kibitzer had taken it upon himself to begin construction of an evacuation ship, and had begun the construction of a temporary Tangential Launch Platform. Once the survivors were aboard the vessel, he would send them back to the closest gate with a datalog detailing what had taken place. SDF refugee administration would see to their needs from there.
"I would take all of you back myself, but this situation bears further investigation" the lanky operator said. He was currently talking to all of them from a basic diplomatic ensemble. It was a kind of artificial humanoid body that was meant to allow the people he'd rescued to feel more at ease. It looked human, though the movement was a bit uncanny and Kibitzer never blinked. However, Hazy supposed it was probably less disturbing than talking to one of the skeletal drones or a disembodied voice. The operator continued. "After you're all safely on your way, I'll be heading to the next closest colonies to ensure they haven't fallen victim to the same kind of assault."
"Wait a minute," interjected a young man. He still had the look of someone being chased, even as he sat on the temporary foam lounger he had been provided with. "I thought only Greater Humanity had access to faster than light travel."
"Yes, this is true, to the best of the Fleet's knowledge, we are the only species to have become capable of travel that circumvents the lightspeed barrier" Kibitzer replied. "However, it is extremely safe to say that the SDF is not all-knowing, and so we cannot dismiss the idea that some other species that we've yet to encounter could have developed the same or similar technology." He paused a moment, as if considering. Then he said "There are also other deployment patterns that could make a species a threat, even with standard interstellar drive technology. As such, it's my job to thoroughly investigate this matter, in order to make sure that this was an isolated incident and not part of some much greater threat."
The young man who had piped up went a bit wide-eyed at this answer, but said nothing further. Kibitzer moved on. "It would be in all of your best interests to gather what things you think you can find that you may want to keep. Chances are you won't be coming back to this colony any time soon. Tomorrow I'll brief you all on what to expect during and after your trip, but you should get some rest, if you can."
With that he said nothing more, turning to stare at something off in the distance while the assembly slowly dissolved. Hazy waited, until she was the last to remain. For a while, she stood there watching him in silence, until he noticed her staring and turned to face her.
"Etheridge. Hazel Etheridge. You can just call me Hazy." She tried to sound nonchalant, but she wasn't sure it worked. Kibitzers unblinking eyes stared at her. She was looking at a....what were operators exactly? Some kind of being she supposed. She was looking at a being that had single handedly destroyed an entire marauding force.
Which brought her to her question. "Did you really just happen to show up as we were under attack? The timing seems mighty convenient."
For the first time since she'd seen him speak, Kibitzer made a very human like expression. First a smirk, then a light snort and then "I can see why you would think that, but believe me, I'm as shocked as you are at the coincidence. Make no mistake, I was told I'd be on a routine patrol." He paused, as though considering something, but then said nothing further on the topic.
"Was there something else?" he asked.
The next question was harder for her to ask, but she felt compelled to. "What happened to our colony... it doesn't make sense. I don't mean these aliens showing up out of the blue. No one can account for that, I suppose." She shook her head but forged on. "What I really want to know is, what happened to our planetary militia? Even considering they're not frontline troops I expected to see some sort of significant resistance."
"Ah." Kibitzer's head tilted up, and he stared at the sky, not meeting her eyes. "That". The operator looked distinctly uncomfortable, but Hazy waited for him to answer her question.
He sighed and sat down. Despite his form, he managed to make the gesture look almost organic. "Please sit." Hazy's brow furrowed as she sat on a foam lounger facing him. Kibitzer appeared to take a deep breath. Does that body even need to breathe? Hazy thought.
"When I initially entered real-space on the edge of your system, I picked up the distress beacon from your colony. Additionally, your planetary militia had broadcasted footage of the raider carrier closing on your orbit. The only man on watch duty, a Captain Nells I believe, asked planetary command for instructions and told them to sound the alarm. However.... they gave none of the former and didn't do the latter." He had been staring at the ground as he spoke but now he looked up at her. "They just sat there." The look on his face was unmistakable. Extreme disgust.
"When eventually the alien ships started pouring out of the main carrier," he continued, "I suppose it must have finally dawned on them to do something." His voice had gotten quieter. "I managed to piece together some details from what was left of your colony's data recorders. A whole lot of communications went out, but mainly there were more people asking questions than giving directions. Eventually it looks like most of the militia tried to make a break for it in various ships and vehicles. One or two tried to fight, but they were overwhelmed through sheer numbers."
He stopped talking to stare at Hazy, who now was sitting with her mouth open in shock. No one had fought? No one had raised the alarm? They all just tried to save themselves?
Just like you, a small voice in her head said. She instantly closed her eyes and shuddered. It was an effort not to vomit. She couldn't bring herself to open her eyes and she sat there hugging herself for a moment. When a hand rested on her shoulder, she nearly jumped. Looking up, she saw Kibitzer standing there, looking at her with pity. No she thought. Don't pity me. I'm scum. I'm no better than the bastards that tried to leave as all to the wolves. But she didn't move away.
"What..." Hazy cleared her throat. "Did any of the militia make it?"
"No." Kibitzer replied. "The raiders seemed to have prioritized their escape vehicles and destroyed every last one. However, they were military personnel and they abandoned their duty to their populace. You however are a civilian. You weren't trained for this. I'm sure there were some terrible moments where you had to make some difficult decisions to survive."
He took his hand off his shoulder and moved a few steps away. "That said, you have survived. You can leave this place, feeling guilt or remorse or anger or whatever it is you decide you should feel. You can wallow in it, if that's what suits you." He looked skyward. "But, more importantly, you can learn from what has happened. You can learn from this and change yourself for the better."
"Change myself?" Hazy almost laughed. "How would I do that? I have nothing left. I have no one left. I don't even know what I should live for." This time she couldn't quite contain her emotions. Tears started to flow.
Then Kibitzer spoke. "Come with me." He started walking toward the ship that he'd landed in the nearby clearing. Hazy stared after him a moment, and then quickly got up, following in his wake. As they got closer, she suddenly realized this was the ship that had brought him here. It was almost pristine, finely curved and quite a bit larger than an orbital shuttle. Walking into its shadow, she felt a strange vibration in the air, and a soft glow emanated from the spacecraft's skin.
The operator stopped at what looked to be a smooth wall in the side of his vehicle, and a small door opened up. Hazy was suddenly hesitant to follow. "Are you afraid?" He asked, almost smiling wryly. "If it helps, I could point out that tricking you into following me here would probably require more work than simply knocking you out." She laughed despite herself. It was a horrible joke but he did have a point. He had single-handedly stopped an invasion. Why trouble himself to act civilized if he didn't need to?
She stepped inside and noticed that somehow this part of the vessel was cut off from the rest. It was a room the size of a large closet, with a single foam lounger in the center. Kibitzer stood off to the side. "Please sit. I apologize for the accommodations, but protocol dictates that I can't show you anything related to how this vessel functions." He sounded like he was reciting it from memory. All things considered, it's probable that he was reciting it directly from shipboard memory.
As Hazy sat, she felt the lounger instantly grow warm. "Please relax. Close your eyes." Uncertain as to what exactly was about to happen and feeling more than a little nervous, she did as she was told. Kibitzer droned on. "Picture the most important people in your life. Picture them smiling, waving at you, or perhaps gathered around for a birthday or some important event in your past."
Hazy pictured Jake and Annie, her younger siblings and her parents. They'd all been gathered around for a picnic some years ago, after they'd first arrived here on this world. Much of the time she had trouble getting along with her mother and father after they had marooned her here, but it had been a nice day. Jake and Annie were bright and bubbly, laughing with abandon and chasing each other around. It was one of her fondest memories.
"Alright, Hazy. You can open your eyes now." She did, rubbing her face to dry her eyes when she noticed Kibitzer's outstretched hand. On his palm was a small black rhombus, a little larger than her thumbnail.
She took it from him, a bewildered expression on her face. "I have a sister, not much younger than you," he said to her as he motioned for her to squeeze it. When she did, her heart stopped. Projected in thin air were the smiling faces of her family, just as she remembered them the day of that picnic. "I would hate for her to forget what it was like to have a family."
It was all Hazy could do not to hug him. She stared again at the projection. "I don't know what you'll do from here on Hazy, but I do hope you'll try to remember the good as well as the bad." But as Kibitzer finished the sentence, only one thought came to her.
"How do I become like you?"
"You're sure about this?" the operator asked. He looked a bit distraught.
"Yes. Absolutely." the young woman replied. The other refugees had already boarded the shuttle.
"You realize that this isn't a simple life. You have to follow procedure. There are regulations. There are ranks. You'll have orders." He almost sounded like he was trying to warn her off.
"Yes, I understand. But you did say that the Fleet needs more operators to patrol our borders." She was adamant. If she became an operator, if she gained the kind of power that Kibitzer had, she could prevent what had transpired here from happening somewhere else. She could keep other families, like the one she had lost, safe.
She could make a difference.
Kibitzer sighed. "I feel like you have some weird ideas in your head right now, and I feel like I'm to blame." His speech had become more and more informal as they'd talked all last night. "But I won't stop you. You'll have time to change your mind later, if you decide it's not for you."
Hazy chuckled a bit at this. She hoped he'd forgive himself for whatever imagined wrong-doing, because she certainly didn't think he was at fault for anything at all.
"Well, you should get going. I wouldn't want the rest of your shipmates to refuse to talk to you after holding them up."
Hazy took a step forward. "Thank you Kibitzer. For saving my life. And.." she closed the gap, unsure of herself, but determined, and gave him a hug. "For helping me find a new one." She stepped away, and giggled a bit at the look of confusion on his face.
"Huh." Kibitzer looked thoughtful. "I hope the next planet I visit has some pretty young women to rescue as well."
Hazy made a face at him and he laughed. "Well if you do join the fleet, I guess we'll be seeing each other again some day."
"Yeah." She replied. "See you around." She turned and made for the shuttle. With every step she could feel a sense of purpose she had never felt before grow inside her. Her heart didn't feel any lighter, but it wasn't getting any heavier either.
Kibitzer watched her figure vanish as the door closed behind her. He would have stayed to watch the shuttle take off, but his encounter with that young woman reminded him of something he had forgotten. Something more important than the orders of the Fleet itself.
Something worth fighting for.
Updated: June 04, 2015, 03:35:13 pm
Query: How long did it take you guys to read this?