= CHAPTER 32 =

473 years in the future.
A Saturday morning.

10:40 AM

This particular Saturday morning was an especially climactic and emotional one for 25 year old Diana Singh. For on this particular Saturday morning, at twenty to eleven, Diana Singh gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Tim, who’d been her devoted and loving husband for five years now, was by her side in the birthing suite, holding her hands, gently mopping her brow, speaking soft words of encouragement.

The boy was born first, and the moment he appeared, he let loose a hale, hearty howl to announce his arrival; “Waaaaah!”
Both parents laughed to hear it, their eyes filled with tears of joy.

But when the girl was born moments later, there was no such raucous, robust sound.

There was no sound at all.

Tim and Diana’s horror grew, as the two doctors in attendance worked hard to save the baby. Another doctor was called in to assist. And another. Then three medibots, as Tim called “Why can’t I hear crying?” They ignored him. “Why can’t I hear crying? Why can’t I hear crying?!” Diana put her hand on her husband’s arm – to comfort him, to silence him and to stop him from distracting them from their vital task…

None of the doctors answered him, as they tirelessly fought to revive the baby – quickly and deftly doing everything they could to save her tiny, fragile life.

Time dragged on, silently, agonisingly. For the terrified new parents, each minute was an eternity.

Three minutes.
No sound.

Four minutes.
No sound.

Five minutes.
No sound.

Six minutes…
As Diana and Tim watched the doctors’ backs, they saw all their quick, busy activity slow, and then come to a stop. The senior doctor’s shoulders drooped as she turned to look at Diana. She sadly shook her head.

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In the time that followed, the chronic postnatal depression that Diana suffered was compounded by the profound and crippling grief over the loss of her daughter.
“My heart is not broken…” she would say to Tim, who faithfully tried everything he could think of to help ease her pain,“… it’s gone.”
Counseling, medication, therapy; nothing seemed to help. As the months dragged into years, Diana became more and more distant from the husband she loved, and from the baby boy who would never know his twin sister. They reach out to her, they hug her they talk to her they try to play with her, but she’s a shadow, a wraith.

After three years of this, and with no end in sight, Tim makes an agonising decision; a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his days…

He gets up very early one morning, packs a bag for himself, and a bag for the boy. He accesses the money he’s been saving for this, and he leaves the family home, taking his sleeping son with him. Tim tells himself ‘it’s for the best. The boy deserves better than this,’ but leaving – actually leaving – is still the most heartbreaking, distressing thing he’s ever done.
They’re both at the spaceport, in one of the offworld boarding lounges, when the boy wakes up and mumbles “Where’s Mummy?”
“Mummy’s gone away to live somewhere else,” Tim lies. “It’s just you and me now.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” he lies, his voice cracking.
It’s a bit too much for the sleepy toddler to process, and he nods off again, as Tim carries him aboard the transport bound for Rigel II. Diana won’t find them there. Tim doesn’t want them to be found.

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In the missions of the Third Offworld Navy, there are sometimes civilian casualties.

477 years in the future.
A Wednesday morning.

11:47 AM

The ‘uprisings’ on various equatorial settlements on Rigel II were a case in point. The ‘insurrections’ (the use of words such as ‘uprising’ and ‘insurrection’ was hotly debated by the original inhabitants) had been in progress for seven weeks now, and both sides were depleted, battleworn and desperate. The fighting had turned dirty.

As happened all too frequently, the modicum of power given to some anonymous middle rank commander had gone straight to his head. The light armoured gunboat under his command was swooping low over the city, slicing through the clouds of acrid black smoke rising from the burning buildings below, and loudly strafing the supposed bolt holes of the insurgents.

One of the unassuming buildings caught in this all-too-indiscriminate barrage was a simple domestic dwelling; cheaply constructed, of poor materials, and already crumbling with age. It was small and dark, but it was warm and surprisingly clean. And for the past six months, it had been home to Tim and the boy, who was now a burly, boisterous four year old.
They had been sitting on the floor, playing a card game, when the barrage of bolts from the gunboat’s plasma cannons ripped into the walls and roof of their home. Huge chunks of concrete and debris exploded into the room, and all was dust, noise, fire and daylight. Overhead, the gunboat jetted noisily away, as quickly as it had arrived, to wreak more thoughtless devastation.
Tim was killed instantly – crushed by an enormous chunk of concrete dropping directly onto him. The boy’s left foot was pinned under the ragged corner of this broken concrete slab. If they’d been playing their card game at the table, they both would have been killed.

In fact, weeks later, that was the official finding of the Third Offworld Navy’s casualty report…

Domestic domicile:
1 male adult, age 29, deceased.
1 male child, age 4, deceased.

… accompanied by the compulsory DNA sample of both victims, collected by the solddroids sent in for mopping up operations.

But the boy was tough, he was strong, and his injuries, although bloody, were more superficial than they had any right to be. He managed to pull himself out from under the slab, and escape the ruins.

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This report came to Diana Singh’s attention a month later, as she wearily continued her obsessive scouring of the system, for any trace of her husband and her son. It was the report she’d been looking for, all these months; the report she never wanted to find.

Dead. Both dead.

Diana had been clinging desperately to the faint possibility of finding them for 52 weeks now. The last fragile strand of her hope was now severed. She crumpled to the floor, as she realised that her search for her husband and son was now at an end.

She was now utterly alone. In just four years, she’s lost her daughter, her husband and her son.
She is 29 years old. Mentally, physically and emotionally, she collapses. Again.

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Her recovery took months. Therapy, drugs, counselling – every facility that the navy could offer was at her disposal. This time around, though, these methods eventually ‘worked’… as well as they ever can. Diana was grateful for them when she returned to active duty. More than grateful – the navy’s care for her had formed a cornerstone of her new philosophy; her new purpose.
For Diana Singh had vowed to devote herself to her career, and only her career, from that day on. She was determined that she only be ruled by her head, never her heart. Although it was the navy that robbed her of her husband and son, she still believed in its values and principals. She had to. The Navy was now all she had, and she had to believe in something… the alternative was too bleak to contemplate. She would continue to fight the good fight through her work in the navy. Diana Singh would now cling to the odd belief that the key to her own personal peace… would be in war.

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There are sometimes civilian casualties.

When it came to diplomacy and sensitivity to indigenous populations, the Third Offworld Navy had not entirely escaped the worst practices of the First and Second offworld navies. Over the previous three centuries, advances in earth’s technology had made it possible for terrans to finally visit their closest sentient neighbours in the galaxy. Sadly, though, the advances and increased sophistication in offworld travel did not seem to bring any advances or increased sophistication in basic human attitudes. And the bard’s cynical observation rang true yet again; “People will be people… unfortunately.” Earth’s official approach to its newly accessible neighbouring worlds had been all too reminiscent of some of the darker periods of its history, and this interplanetary neocolonialism claimed countless lives. After widespread backlashes and various newly discovered planets cutting off all contact and trade with earth, bestowing it with pariahworld status, earth’s united governments finally took the hint. They demobilised and dissolved the First Offworld Navy in May 2169.

The following week, they announced the establishment of the Second Offworld Navy, which the powers behind the scenes had been assembling, even as they dismantling the old one. Some of the galaxy’s more cynical citizens feared that this ‘fundamental overhaul’ would be little more than an enormous publicity stunt. And those suspicions weren’t exactly helped when the buffoonish new Chief of Operations, Admiral of The Fleet Lucille P. Avakian, took to the stage at the new navy’s official launching ceremony, blinking and squinting into the cameras that beamed the event to 86 billion viewers across the system;

“My friends! Terrans. Rigelians. Betelgeuseans. And others…”

Millions of sharp intakes of breath from the various species she’d just snubbed.

“I stand here before you all today proud to usher in a glorious new era. When the First Offworld Navy was established some fifty years ago, it was an entirely new type of navy; a navy in its infancy, and as such, yes, I am the first to admit that there were some teething problems.”

She paused and smiled in a way that she hoped would come across as honest, trustworthy and self-deprecating.
It didn’t.

“There were times when the First Offworld Navy exceeded its authority, times when it most certainly overstepped the mark. Times when, instead of serving as a deterrent to would be aggressors, the First Offworld Navy veered dangerously close to being an aggressor itself. Its approach was, oftentimes, authoritarian, callous, and I’m sure some would say… in some instances, even bordering on brutal. Amiright, Beteguese VI?!”

She smiled, figuring that ‘comedy equals tragedy plus time.’ She figured wrong; none of the Betelgeuseans watching her speech laughed. The fact that Betelgeuseans weren’t biologically able to laugh (not having mouths, noses, throats or lungs) was beside the point. They were offended, is what I’m saying.

She continued her speech, as oblivious to her audience’s reaction as she was dazzled by her own importance.

“… But I’m here to assure you all that we, as a vast, sophisticated, inclusive, modern fighting force, have learned from those mistakes, and today, I am deeply honored and humbled to be here with you at the birth of A New Era In Peacekeeping. Spearheaded by the Second Offworld Navy! A force for justice, a force for order… the Second Offworld Navy is an interplanetary fighting force for our times; a more compassionate, thoughtful and considerate peacekeeping organization!”

There was a smattering of unconvincing applause. The Admiral’s staff, who’d been nervously watching from the side of the stage, all breathed a sigh of relief. She’d got to the end of the speech without too many faux pas. It would take a little while, but they’d probably be able to patch up the interworld diplomatic damage their fearless – and feckless – leader had just caused.

But she hadn’t finished.

“… And that’s a guarantee! In fact… I don’t have the exact figures on me, but if you were to ask me…”

Her staff members all gulped. They hated it when their boss went off script.

“… I reckon this new version of the Navy now has 80% fewer tyrants, despots and homicidal maniacs. Got rid of a lot of the Rigelians, you see.”

She strutted off the stage, smiling, waving and acknowledging the applause that she assumed was there. She swaggered past her team who stared at her, their mouths agape.

Within two days, the Admiral had been relieved of duty, ambassadors had been dispatched to the dozens of offended parties and the Second Offworld Navy had been completely dissolved, before its first mission.

Work began on the Third Offworld Navy, and in another fortnight, it was ready to be launched.

Admittedly, the restructure was mostly cosmetic, and consisted largely of changing the word from ‘Second’ to ‘Third’ on uniforms, labels and letterheads…
But the entire operation was undertaken with such discipline and ruthless efficiency that military historians would later call it “the most brilliantly co-ordinated, skilfully executed, and devastatingly powerful rebranding exercise of all time.”

The Third Offworld Navy officially commenced operations a week after that.

Their ethos was embodied in the pledge sworn by every new recruit:

“The Third Offworld Navy keeps the peace. We maintain order, we preserve freedom.
We stand, ever vigilant, as a deterrent to would-be aggressors.
Though forged on earth, we serve the greater system with pride.”

Although tellingly, there was no mention of the compassion, thoughtfulness or consideration mentioned in the ex-Admiral’s speech.

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There are sometimes civilian casualties.

With an armed and battle ready force of 1.5 million drawn from 26 different races, stationed on 84 bases across 13 planets, and a fleet of over 2000 vessels, the law of averages dictated that there was no way that all behaviour was going to be exemplary, all the time.

And sure enough, during one particular skirmish on one particular Sunday afternoon, 482 years in the future, in a remote settlement just north of Betelgeuse III’s equator, the official naval directives were being comprehensively ignored.

The T.O.N’s suppression of a Betelgeusean ‘uprising’ there had been raging for ten days now, and the conflict had become exceedingly messy. The organised campaigns had degenerated into guerrilla warfare: cities had been destroyed, desperate pitch battles were being fought everywhere, traitors and turncoats abounded, and the original carefully planned action had descended into hellish, violent chaos. Indiscriminate fighters with improvised weapons made casualties of men, women, children, and animals. Military or civilian, rebels or loyalists; all lines were blurred now. The Navy had sent wave after wave of Human soldiers, Synthetic Human soldiers, and were now deploying the solddroids. These killing machines were the most brutal, violent, and basic of the Navy’s battle troops. They were grotesquely over-armed; looking at them, it was hard to see where the arsenal ended and the robot began. And they were surgically efficient, untroubled by anything as messy as ethics.

On this Sunday afternoon, just after 3:00, one particular solddroid – K27093A – was chasing a Betelguesean insurgent down the remains of the town’s main street, firing a relentless barrage of deadly energy bolts at it, when two civilians stumbled onto the road.
It didn’t occur to the solddroid to stop firing on their account; its simple ‘pursue and destroy’ protocol didn’t feature such subtleties. The two hapless humans – a man and a woman, both in their late thirties – were instantly mown down, before they had any idea what was happening. They collapsed to the ground, as the solddroid ran on, vaulting over them to follow its target around the corner and out of sight.

The 9 year old boy who’d been struggling to keep up with the two humans suddenly stopped. He stared, stunned, at their two bodies lying in the street.

‘Mum?’ he whispered. ‘Dad?’

But he already knew they were dead.

Salazar Sharp knew that his parents were dead.

 

 

Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here. 

 

Text copyright (c) 2019 Stephen Hall

All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com

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