I tried to raise a single eyebrow again, as this was certainly different than any of the True Responsibilities I’d imagined.
“Hey, good one!” he said with a laugh, and it even made my mom chuckle. “You almost got it.” He changed back to Serious Dad. “Denny, you don’t pay much attention to the news, do you?”
“Not really,” I answered.
Adult news was usually boring unless it had footage from one of the colony worlds under attack, or an important space battle (but those were typically labeled “disasters”). Mom never let me watch any of those news stories, and had done her best to firewall my comm so I couldn’t pull grisly details (and pictures or video) from the Wire. I knew why she didn’t want me to watch them, at least I thought I did, and it had to do with her own experiences in combat.
Mostly, the news always sounded like a bunch of voices all talking at once. Today in blah blah blah, this bad thing happened, a lot more bad stuff happened, here’s the weather and then sports. I did my best to tune it out, but because of my accelerated schooling, thanks to both of my parents being officers in the military, I knew a lot more than most of my peers about what was happening in the galaxy.
I didn’t seek out the news that most adults paid attention to, but I didn’t ignore it either. A lot of the stuff going on around the galaxy made no sense to me for a long time, but I’d learned a lot of “context” (a concept I still struggled with) which made connections between people, places, and events easier to understand. Ever since I found out about Mom and what happened to her at Janus, I paid more attention than ever to any news that entered the small bubble of my world.
“Well,” my father said, “I’ll try not to bore you too much then. You know about the Kai, right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Come on, Denny. You know how I feel about that.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said, looking down at my shoes. For some reason he hated being called “sir” and forbade me to do it even though he encouraged my use of “sir” and “ma’am” that my teachers were sticklers about.
“It’s okay. Anyway, do you know anything about the Hanura and The Seven?”
“Yeah. The Seven were defeated five years ago, and the Hanura fell eight years before that.”
Both of my parents raised their eyebrows in surprise at my answer. My mother opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, nodding at my father to go on.
“Okay, good. And you know about the Coalition’s defeat at Akbar and Junai?”
“Rose Fleet was defeated in an action in the Akbar system by a superior Kai capital fleet, and the Junai system fell six months later without a fight as almost the entire population had already been evacuated.”
“That sounds like it came directly out of a news link on the Wire,” my father said, narrowing his eyes at me.
“Dad, I’m doing well in History, remember?” I asked, forgetting for a moment that he and I barely saw each other anymore, and I wasn’t sure how much of my life Mom told him in the short times they were together. I didn’t think my life was anywhere near interesting enough to bore him when they both really wanted to snuggle and talk about adult things.
“Right. I’m sorry, Den. Your mom tells me important things like that, and I remember, I honestly do, but I guess I keep forgetting that you’re learning adult stuff already.” He narrowed his eyes again and leaned forward. “You haven’t hacked the filter on your comm, have you? Your mom has all of that stuff restricted for a reason.”
“No, Dad,” I said, deciding to let them know how much I knew about the world. It was minuscule compared to their knowledge, no doubt, but I yearned for my father to keep talking to me like an adult. “I know about a lot of stuff because of school. But I also know some stuff, like what happened to Mom at Janus, because other people know about it, and they know I’m her son.”
My mother’s face seemed to slide into a muddy torrent of emotion. I thought she would strike me for a moment, something neither she nor my father had ever done.
“Who told you about that?” she asked in a whisper.
“Dya Guzman showed me the link one day,” I answered, wishing now that I had never mentioned it. I could tell my mother was reliving some kind of painful memory. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said as tears slide down my cheeks. I left my chair and climbed into her lap, feeling like I was four years old again even though I was nearly as tall as her. “I’m sorry. She just showed me after hearing her parents talk about it. She thought I knew.”
“How much do you know?” Dad asked, his voice soft, his face looking torn between keeping the conversation on track and coming around the desk to hug both of us.
“I saw the really long article on KaiMark, then watched the documentary.”
“I see,” he said, looking down at his desk for a moment before leaning back.
“Is that why I’m not allowed to see any of the news stories and we never talk about what you did before becoming a flight instructor?” I asked my mom, pulling away from her neck to look in her eyes.
She stared at me for a few moments, then kissed me on the cheek.
“I didn’t want you to grow up thinking about it. It messed me up for a long time, and whenever I see pictures or video of the Kai or footage from a battle, it triggers severe anxiety in me.” She paused to see if I knew what anxiety meant, then continued when I nodded my head. “Your father and I fought like wild animals for a while after I came home. He pulled my combat authorization and grounded me.”
I looked over at my father, but could only see half of his face. He refused to look at either of us. I saw a flash of hatred pass over my mom’s features before she gave him a lopsided grin.
“It still hurts,” Dad said, finally looking at us. “I did it because I didn’t want to lose you, and I didn’t want you”—he pierced me with his intense gaze—“to grow up without a mother.
“I don’t remember you guys ever fighting,” I said.
“That’s a good thing,” Mom said, squeezing me with another hug. I could feel my almost-teenage self suddenly uncomfortable, as if ashamed that I’d allowed the five year old in me to take over. “I didn’t want you to see me fall apart, and your father and I did our best to help me come to terms with it before you got old enough to understand that your mom was maybe a bit crazy.”
“A bit?” my father asked, raising a single eyebrow perfectly. He lowered it, then raised the other and looked at me, making me giggle. “Your mother was the most gung-ho combat pilot I’ve ever met. She tried to sneak her way into a fleet operation when she was five months pregnant with you.”
“Really?” I asked, though after all I’d read and watched about her, it didn’t surprise me as much as they must have thought it would.
“I wasn’t actually going to dogfight anything,” Mom said, a frown forming on her lips. “I just thought maybe they needed one extra Wyvern, you know, an extra set of eyes, doing light patrol close to home where it was safe.”
“Woman!” my father cried out. “Amber Fleet was heading into E-134!”
I gave my mom a puzzled look. I had no idea what E-134 was. Mom smiled and winked at me.
“E-134 was also known as Highland Park,” she said.
I was surprised after all. Highland Park was one of the rare battles where the Coalition could claim victory. I knew why my father had been upset. The Terran Marines dropped five divisions on the planet, the only planet in the entire system, and wiped the Kai out completely. Three days later, a Kai capital fleet translated into the system with almost twice as many ships as the humans. According to my History teacher, it was maybe the one time the Kai had ever been surprised. The aliens engaged near the planet, only to find Ochre and Cyan fleets translating nearly on top of them.
Even with three full capital fleets, the Coalition barely held the system. The losses were so heavy that some refused to call it a victory, while others used it as propaganda. It took me a while to learn exactly what propaganda was, but when I did, it made sense. The humans lost seventy percent of their fleet, while the Kai escaped with only five capital ships, all heavily damaged. Less than a week later, the Kai returned with a fleet twice the size as their original, but by then the humans had abandoned the system.
“Anyway,” my father said, leaning back in his chair once again, “we’re getting off track. We’ll talk about your mom’s adventures in space some other time. Just know the reason we didn’t tell you isn’t because we didn’t think you could handle it. We just wanted to wait until you were older, though we should have known something like that couldn’t be hidden forever.”
“I’m not mad,” I said, receiving a pinch from my mother. I kissed her on the cheek and went back to my own chair.
“That’s good. Now, the defeats at Akbar and Junai are significant because of their proximity to Daedalus. Junai is only sixty-three light years from us, which means the Kai could arrive at any moment. Today is that moment.”
I forgot to breathe as I looked from my mother to my father. The Kai were coming. Already here, according to my father.
“We received alerts from the navigation beacons that a Kai scout unit has crossed into the heliosphere, which is why your mom woke you in a panic and rushed you here.”
“We expect the Wire to go dead at any minute,” my mom said, her face once again full of dark emotions, though I thought I could detect her desire to jump into a fighter and take part in the coming fight. “Their fleet will most likely translate in-system within the next four hours. Depending on where they spin down, we’ll have anywhere from a few hours to a few days before it gets ugly.”
“We’re expecting them to drop in fairly close,” my father said. I was confused by my sudden rush of emotions until I realized it was pride that both were talking to me as if I were an adult—even one of their fellow officers. “I doubt we’ll get more than eight hours warning before the defense networks are engaged.”
“Is the Navy sending reinforcements?” I asked, daydreaming about a massive space battle that might take place near the planet.
I stared at my father, unable to believe what he had just said. I felt the soft touch of my mother’s fingers wrapping around my hand.
“The Coalition doesn’t have the numbers to repel what the Kai are predicted to bring. Daedalus is on its own, other than the orbital defenses and the small Home System fleet the planetary government keeps.”
“They’re going to let the Kai slaughter us?” I asked, feeling as if I wouldn’t be able to help myself from crying.
I hated the shame that filled me, as only moments ago I had been full of pride that I was being treated like an equal. I held my tears in, telling myself that if I wanted to be treated like an adult and told adult things, I had to act like an adult when those things turned out to be terrible.
“Dennis,” my father said with a sigh, “I don’t know if you’re old enough to understand what I’m about to tell you, but maybe one day you will. The Terran Coalition is losing the war. Losing it badly now that The Seven are gone, though a lot of us believe we were losing it even when the Hanura and The Seven were both still around. Because of our location, and because of other engagements around the Spur, now that the Kai no longer have to split their fleets between two or three enemies, we’re considered expendable. Do you know what that means?”
“Not really,” I said, afraid of what he was going to tell me.
“It means that the Coalition has deemed Daedalus an acceptable loss. That it’s better to let the Kai take this system and kill everyone before moving on than to lose more of the fleet fighting to keep it. The Coalition is recalling most of the fleets, having them fall back to the inner regions to be able to put up a better defense. It’s easier to consolidate our forces and ring them around a smaller area of space than to have them spread all over the Spur.
“Now, the worst part of this is that I and Admiral Nuygen have been instructed to allow it to happen without alerting the citizens of the Daedalus system. I’ve talked to Admiral Nuygen already, and both of us have been literally sick to our stomachs. This is also part of the reason we’ve kept you from certain areas of the Wire. A twelve year old boy shouldn’t have to think about a billion and a half of his fellow citizens perishing, and a twelve year old boy especially shouldn’t have to know that it was the result of a decision made on a planet far away from here.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What are we going to do? Are we going to die?”
I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. They burst from my eyes, along with the sobs from my throat, the hitching of my chest causing them to leave crazy streaks as they slid down my face. My mother immediately came to me, sitting on the edge of my chair while wrapping me in her arms. I felt my father’s two powerful arms add to it. I tried my best to just cry a little, but I couldn’t help regressing back to when I was three.
“Shhh,” my mother whispered in my ear. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay!” I shrieked, wincing at the sound of my own voice. “We’re going to die!”
I felt my father’s fingers grab my jaw in an iron grip, though he was careful to not squeeze hard enough to hurt me. He turned my face to his.
“Listen to me, Denny,” he said, his voice strong, calm, commanding. “We’re not going to die. Not today, anyway.”
“He’s right,” Mom said, using her sleeve to wipe away the wetness on my cheeks. “Do you remember when we got off the elevator?”
“Yuh-yuh-yes,” I blubbered, doing everything I could to be a big boy. The thought of being treated like a child seemed blissful if these were the kind of things adults talked about, yet I didn’t want to go back to being a child ever again.
“Do you know what it is?” my father asked.
“Good one,” my father said with a grin and a wink.
It made me feel better, but only a little at first until I realized I’d somehow forgotten all about the strange silvery ship.
“It doesn’t look like a ship,” I said.
“You’re right about that,” he replied. “It’s a special kind of ship.”
“Special in that it is going to hopefully get us off this planet before the Kai lock it down completely.”