The elevator opened up into a cavern so large I couldn’t see the far wall. Part of what was blocking my view of the other wall was a starship. I didn’t know how I could know that based on the limited section of it that I could see, but inside, I knew. There was an army of men and women in white lab coats scurrying around the ship like ants around their queen. I looked up toward the ceiling, but there didn’t seem to be one. The walls rose straight up until the darkness swallowed everything. The ship didn’t look like any ship I had ever seen before. It wasn’t that it was so alien that I couldn’t have imagined it, but it was just so… different.
I loved science fiction, both books and movies, though I hadn’t been allowed to see any of the scarier adult versions. I thought I had an idea of what every ship ever conceived of would or could look like. This one didn’t resemble a rocket, the old NASA space shuttles, nor even the Terran Navy’s almost uncountable variations in ships. It didn’t look like any of the Kai ships I had seen on the news and in documentaries.
As I walked along the new yellow line in the floor that began to glow once we stepped out of the elevator, I tried to figure out where the cockpit was, where the engines were, where the airlock for letting crew members in and out could possibly be on the massive vessel before me. The ship looked like a giant, slightly flattened egg with a polished silver outer hull that returned weird images of us as we walked by it. The reflective surface made me think of a funhouse mirror in the way that it distorted every shape it captured. Twice as we continued toward wherever Mom and the yellow line led us, I noticed that some of the reflections would simply wink out, almost as if we had become vampires for a few seconds.
The lights in the underground hangar were incredibly bright, but the ship’s surface seemed to soak up most of it. The contradiction made my brain hurt, as somehow the ship ate the light, yet it returned enough for me to giggle at the weird reflections (and a couple of faces I made until Mom cleared her throat). By the time we reached a corridor that led away from the hangar, my neck ached from staring at the strange spacecraft. Most of the ache was from me trying to look up, hoping not only to see the nose of the ship, but to see a single blemish, a single seam anywhere along its lines.
The more I thought about it, I doubted it had even been a ship. None of the workers in lab coats acknowledged our presence when we passed through the hangar, but I was sure if I hadn’t talked myself out of running over to the edge and touching the smooth, silvery hull, they would have sounded a deafening alarm that would bring dozens of soldiers running with their plasma rifles pointed at me.
We arrived at another door a few minutes later, one that was a normal size and made out of wood. It looked out of place in this concrete and steel underground base, or hangar, or wherever we were. Mom slid her card into the slot next to the door. The red glow from the slot turned green and the door opened. I nervously peeked inside, suddenly afraid of what might be waiting, possibly hiding behind the door. Mom laughed and tugged on my hand. I immediately chided myself for being a scared little baby.
The interior of the room matched the wooden door perfectly, but was the complete opposite of everything I’d seen since we arrived at the base. Thick, dark blue carpet covered the floor and the walls were lined with polished wood shelves. Every single shelf I could see bowing under the weight of too many books. In fact, there were so many books that they lay in piles on the floor, the tables, and the huge desk in the center of the room. The only time I had seen so much paper was at the Capitol Library, and most of those books were sealed under airtight glass.
Behind the desk was a window that took up almost the entire wall. I could see Daedalus Prime in the distance along with the Harridan Mountains to the east of the capital. My brain felt confused once again as I wondered how it was possible when I was sure we were a kilometer, maybe a hundred kilometers under the mountain. My mother came to attention and saluted the man behind the desk, who finally noticed we had entered the office. He stood up, gave a snappy salute in return, then looked at me and grinned.
“Heya, Denny,” he said, “glad you didn’t get lost in the maze out there.”
“Dad!” I cried out with excitement, forgetting that I was a big boy of twelve years instead of the little kid that I’d outgrown.
I ran to him as he came around the desk and he swept me up in his arms. Mom joined us in a group hug, and we held each other for a long time. I was happy because I barely saw my father anymore, and though my mother worked at the same base, she only got a little more time with him than I did. My father gave us both one last squeeze then extracted himself, waving toward a high-backed chair in front of the desk.
“Just move those books onto the floor,” he said to me while clearing another chair for my mother.
Once we were seated, he returned to his chair behind the desk, all traces of joy gone from his face. My dad was a pretty serious guy, and had to be because he was a Rear Admiral in the Terran Navy, but I had never seen the look he now had on his face. I kept returning my gaze to the big window behind him, afraid that his expression might be directed at me. My imagination ran wild for another moment as I imagined I had done something so terrible that my mother brought me to a base deep underground so she could help my father experiment on me, or maybe use some kind of new mind control device on me so I would be a better kid.
My father noticed my eyes locked on the window and laughed, explaining that it wasn’t real. The window was simply a giant holographic screen that could show any 3D image he fed into it. I tried to raise one eyebrow, something he and my mother were masters of, but I could only get both to go up at once. They laughed, and I felt my face turn red, as I had seen the result of my attempts before in various pictures that they’d taken.
Dad picked up a remote from the desk, pushed a button, and Daedalus Prime was replaced by Paris, a city back on Earth. I knew it because of the giant tower that was prominent in the scene, but also because the sky was a strange blue color, not the faint pink of Daedalus-IV. A hypersonic jet appeared on one edge of the screen, quickly racing across the sky, leaving triple contrails behind it that began as razor-thin white lines and expanded into fluffy ropes until they disappeared.
“I’m glad you made it, Lara,” my father said, turning his attention back to my mother. “Things are happening fast, and we don’t know if and when the uh… you know… will hit the fan. Admiral Karlsson sent me the alert via the secure Wire, and I called you the instant I got off the horn with him. I didn’t want you to be trapped in the city when… it happens.” My father looked away for a moment, his eyes dark, full of anger. “There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell anyone else is going to make it out. We’re not even sure our plan is going to work.”
“I thought we had more time,” my mother said with a sigh. “COMSTAT showed us projections that said they weren’t going to be here for another three years.”
“COMSTAT might be full of nerds, and they might have programmed the AI to predict just about anything, but the Kai play by their own rules.”
I sat still, silent, understanding almost nothing of their conversation. I knew who the Kai were, and I new what computers and nerds were, but beyond that, it sounded like they were talking in another language. The worrying part was that even though I didn’t really know what they were talking about, I knew it was something that both angered and frightened them.
Mom was a Captain in the Navy, and if she was afraid, I was probably going to be terrified. She had been an ace fighter jock before becoming a combat flight instructor. The attic at our house had boxes full of her insignias, holopics of her squad mates, more medals than even my father had pinned to the chest of his uniform, and at least twenty certificates or licenses that announced her expertise with various fighters and bombers and their weapons systems. I became confused and excited when I found them, quickly forgetting the guilt I’d initially felt about snooping around in my mother’s private things.
When I asked my mom about it, she looked sad for a few seconds before telling me it was a long time ago, then avoided talking about it by taking me out for dinner to my favorite restaurant. When I asked my dad, he told me the only reason Mom was no longer an active combat pilot was because she was so skilled that the Navy needed her to train the next generations of pilots, and the Navy had deemed it too risky to allow someone as special as Captain Lara Shaw to continue getting shot at by the enemy.
I never questioned it until Dya Guzman told me one day during baseball practice that she’d overheard her parents talking about my mom. Dya searched my mom on the Wire after hearing she’d almost died in a fleet battle. Dya looked like she was about to explode, and after she gave me the Wire link to the story she’d read, I could understand why.
Mom had initially been one of sixteen thousand casualties at The Battle of Janus, six hundred light years coreward from Daedalus. I remember crying while I read the article, Dya holding on to me while crying again as well. My mother’s Wyvern starfighter was disabled by a Kai Anti-Ship Defense cannon on a strafing pass. A second blast from the ASD cut her fighter in two, taking half of her left foot. I felt my own breath catch in my throat reading about how she nearly died of explosive decompression before her flight suit sealed.
My left foot began to ache as the article described how the instant freezing of her exposed flesh had saved her life, keeping her from bleeding to death inside of her suit. I had a hard time imagining the trade-off of losing a foot, possibly even an entire leg, or dying in space with a chaotic battle raging around me. When I came to the video file embedded in the article, I paused it at least ten times. My mother’s voice was strong at the beginning as she described how the engagement had started like all others, then suddenly turned into a slaughter when the Kai dropped a second fleet three light seconds above the human fleet. Her voice became softer, more distant as she talked about the panic, the fear, the knowledge that very few of the Terran Navy ships would be able to escape the massacre.
I’d never heard my mother cry before watching her interview. It frightened me to listen to her voice, to watch her face as she broke down completely and had to stop several times before continuing. She’d been attempting to knock out the a Kai battleship’s rear engines when a Kai destroyer’s ASD put her out of the fight, then almost out of her life. Her voice became a whisper, cold even, as she described the panic, the fear, the sheer terror that she wouldn’t die instantly, instead floating along in the debris cloud for days, maybe even a week if her suit’s water recycler held out, waiting for the Kai to send out their drones to eliminate any survivors.
Her voice began to grow strong again as she talked about how a shadow darkened her world for a few minutes. It turned out to be the TCN Carver, a heavy cruiser crippled early in the fight by a direct hit to its engineering deck. My mother explained how she didn’t know why she decided she needed to get to the ship other than it was better to die trying to live than waiting for the end to come. It took her almost sixteen hours using the remaining reserves of her flight seat’s maneuvering propellant to get near the cruiser, and she’d had to use all but fifteen minutes of her oxygen reserves by exhausting it into space to make the final few kilometers.
Captain Shaw entered the Carver through a massive crater in its outer hull and guided herself along to the bridge. I heard the spark of strength—or willpower, or whatever it was that my mother was made of—in her voice when she talked about her surprise that there were survivors inside. The ship’s captain and XO were dead along with all of the first and second watch, and most of the third. The engineering team was decimated, yet an Ensign named Manuel Hora had rounded up two other survivors and were busy trying to bring one of the Carver’s backup reactors online.
My mother spent the next four hours dragging fibrewire down corridors, soldering circuit boards, and turning wrenches in zero gravity to help get the reactor up and running. All this while nearly passing out from the pain of her frozen, mangled left foot and the occasional impacts from other wrecks and stray munitions that rocked the dead cruiser. My mother broke down again while describing how a drifting battleship had collided with the Carver, and how Ensign Hora had been killed less than two meters from her when a bulkhead collapsed on top of him while they fished wiring through the decking to the remaining reactor. The way she talked, it almost sounded as if Mom and the ensign had been husband and wife, but I’m sure it was Hora’s loss that hurt the most out of all who died.
Ensign Hora was able to get officers above his rank to listen and obey his orders, including my mother. Because of his leadership, Mom was able to help the crew finish repairing the ship enough to get its FTL drive spun up, then took over command of the Carver and ordered the remaining officers to take up positions in the bridge’s CiC. With no firepower, almost no maneuvering power, and less than a quarter of the Carver’s tactical systems still functional, she managed align the cruiser to a set of emergency coordinates and blindly jumped the ship to safety six light months away.
It took the TCN Carver almost three weeks to limp home to TS-41 in the Trident system, but for the last half of the journey they had an escort of fifty capital ships. Fleet Admiral Collins tried to get Mom and the other survivors to abandon the ship and make the trip home in comfort, but to a man, the crew of the Carver refused. She at least let the medics board the Carver and treat the wounded, including herself, but couldn’t be talked into shuttling back to the TCN Socrates, one of the fleet’s Medicorps ships. She eventually relented, and by the time the Carver docked at TS-41 with less than fifty survivors (out of a full crew of twelve hundred), my mother was already in a hibernation pod.
The doctors at Nomantis—the closest planet with a military surgical trauma unit—saved her life but not her leg, amputating it halfway between the knee and ankle. Mom and Dad had always explained away her prosthetic replacement as the result of a training accident. My father arrived a week later and told her that she’d been retired from combat flight duties. They fought about it for weeks until she finally gave in, thanks to the nightmares that began to plague her. I was only two years old at the time and remembered none of it. My entire life, I’d never heard my parents fight. Even during the rare arguments they had, I can’t remember either ever raising their voices.
My father… I didn’t know exactly what my father did. He never talked about it, wasn’t allowed to, not even to his family. Mom knew, of course. You can’t be married to someone for that long without knowing almost everything about each other. But I wondered if my mother knew exactly what her husband did. Dad was Navy, but I had only seen him wear an actual uniform a few times. During rare events where he had to dress up, I always marveled at the incredible number of ribbons, medals, and other insignias on his chest. I asked him once if it was hard to walk around with all that weight attached to his shirt. He gave me a serious look and said the weight of the actual items was nothing. It was the weight of the memories attached to each that was sometimes too heavy.
My father was around a lot when I was younger, but when I turned five, the war with the Kai ramped up after the aliens eliminated The Seven. I saw him maybe once every two weeks after that. I made up tons of adventures in my mind about where my dad went and what he did. More than a few involved a massive underground bunker just like the one we were in. It felt funny to have one of my imaginary adventures come true.
The few times I’d asked him what he did and where he went, he would always grin and say, “Top Secret stuff.” I never pressed for more of an answer after he explained what “Top Secret” meant and why it was important to keep such secrets—even from those he loved as much as me and Mom. It made the stories I created in my head become even more imaginative, especially after I was allowed to use the “adult” Wire for my accelerated schooling.
I’d told my mother some of the stories during our times alone. She would smile or laugh and encourage me to write them down or record a narration of them with my comm. She also told me the events I placed my father in were far more interesting than reality, even if she didn’t know exactly what his job really was. I didn’t know at the time that it was my mother, Captain Shaw, who had lived some of the very adventures my overactive imagination came up with.
The day Dya gave me the Wire link to Mom’s story sort of destroyed my entire world. A lot of it had to do with finding out just how much terror and suffering my mother had gone through in her life. Some of it was the shock of her (or my father) never hinting about it. I’d spent many of my vacation days with Mom at the Naval spaceport and even a few at the orbital shipyards. Until I heard the real story, I would have bet my life that her job was the most boring, most mind-numbing torture that could have ever been created as a punishment. But I never once saw her students or fellow officers show my mother any deference beyond her rank. Or maybe I did but never paid attention to it because of my complete and utter boredom (or my comm unit, which could easily keep a young child occupied for days).
Combat flight instruction tended to be hour upon hour of her lecturing to a group of pilots. The simulation training was even more boring, but that’s mostly because I never got to sit inside the virtual cockpits and dogfight with her students. I didn’t even bother to watch their training on the external monitors after the first few minutes, as it was more of my mother showing them how to do a single maneuver over and over until everyone was an expert at it. Not fun things like shooting aliens or dropping into an atmosphere to land a platoon of Terran Marines. Things like “vector at such and such angle with x-amount of thrust” and the like. From what I could tell, the fighters didn’t even handle as well as the ones I flew in my favorite video games.
I decided that if I had to go through all that just to get a chance to shoot at an alien, I’d rather go so crazy that I threw up until I fell over dead. Even the training with enemy targets and zero-G maneuvering—should a pilot ever have to eject—was boring enough that by the end of the first day, I was cranky and demanded to go home. Mom found creative ways for me to stay occupied, which was better than the daycare facility she’d taken me to after my meltdown and tantrum. That place was not only boring, but it was scary. The two men and three women who ran it treated us like we were green recruits at Marine basic training.
“Have you told Dennis yet?” Dad asked.
No,” my mother said, looking both sorry and sad at me. “I lost my temper with him this morning, and I shouldn’t have.”
She reached out to grip my hand. I wanted to leap from my chair into hers so she could wrap her arms around me. Instead, I stayed seated, hoping that the expression on my face was one of forgiveness.
“Denny, you aren’t mad at me, are you?” she asked, giving my hand a squeeze before laying her palm against my cheek.
“No, Mom,” I answered. “Just scared. I don’t know what’s going on.”
My parents exchanged a look. I was good at reading their expressions, but they had some kind of secret communication system I still hadn’t figured out. My mom and dad always seemed to know what each other was thinking, and like I said, I can’t remember them arguing but a couple of times—and that hadn’t happened for at least five years. They were nothing like Billy Harrington’s parents, who communicated by shouting at each other, and when that didn’t work, throwing things at each other.
“Well,” Dad said, leaning back in his chair, locking his fingers together and resting his hands in his lap. Where do I start?”
“I’m not a kid anymore, Dad,” I said, puffing out my chest and using my best adult tone.
“You certainly aren’t,” he said, chuckling. He gave Mom a look, to which she nodded, then turned back to me. “Dennis, what I’m going to tell you cannot leave this room. Ever. Under any circumstance. This is your first True Responsibility. This is Top Secret stuff. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said, trying to keep my voice from revealing too much excitement.
I’d been told for the last couple of years about when it would be time for me to start accepting True Responsibilities. To other kids, it was finally getting to use the power tools, driving the planting machines, or even babysitting their younger siblings. I’d imagined that my first True Responsibility would be like that, which was probably boring to adults, but to a twelve year old, it was important and special.
“Well,” he continued, “the reality is that it won’t ever leave this room because where we go from here is… let’s just say it won’t be getting back to the citizens of Daedalus Prime or the rest of the planet.”