by Derrick Boden
I've dreamed of the stars for as long as I can remember.
As a child back in Kanhor, Sai and I would sneak Papa's boat from beneath the tarp late at night and push out onto the lake. During post-monsoon season the sky was always crisp and clear. We could see thousands of stars. The broad swath of our own galaxy was like fresh lassi, the stars like specks of glowing coriander. When we reached the middle of the lake, we pulled in our paddles and waited for the water to grow still. We lay on our bellies and peered over the side. The surface was a giant mirror. We drifted through the stars, just me and Sai on our tiny boat. I spread my arms like wings, and pretended I was flying through the cosmos.
'Someday I'm going to fly a spaceship,' I said one night.
The monsoons had just pushed the heavy, stale air out of the valley, and everything felt fresh and new again. The spindly fingers of the mangroves dipped into the water along the shore, where tree frogs creaked out a dissonant symphony.
'I'm going to be an astronaut.'
Sai hit me on the head. 'Silly Arjun. They don't call them astronauts anymore. There's a war going on up there. The only way to fly a spaceship now is to be a fighter pilot.'
I traced patterns in the water with my finger, sending ripples through the galaxy. I imagined fleets of tiny ships darting through the asteroid belt, my fingertips grazing the clouds of Jupiter, my feet surfing the rings of Saturn. The rush of the stars all around me.
'Then I'll be a fighter pilot.'
I struggle to focus on the mug in my shaking hands. Steam slips past my face, a phenomenon I remember once finding pleasant. Now it just makes it hard to see.
It's my brother's voice. He sits across from me in the hospital's discharge room, but I can't look at him. In the eyes of others, I see only death. I want to remember Sai's face the way it looked before I left Earth. Happy. Innocent.
'Please, say something.'
I open my mouth, but cannot formulate words. I cannot remember what language to use. I let my jaw hang, to see if words will produce themselves. They do not.
Sai pushes a tablet computer across the table. The screen shows two tickets, direct flights to Earth. One has his name, the other mine.
I shiver, clutch the mug closer. I want to tell Sai that I love him. That I owe my life to my memories of him. That I cried out for him in the fury of battle, begging for him to take me home. But it's too late. I cannot go home. I cannot show my face to my family after what I've done. The shame of sitting before my brother is already too much to bear.
I shake my head, hope that Sai will understand.
'Arjun.' His voice is strained. 'What happened out there?'
I forget my promise to myself and look into my brother's eyes. Pressure builds against my scalp, where the neural bridge used to rest.
The cockpit is hot, and reeks of my own sweat. There's no telling how many days I've been flying, nor how many remain before my next stop. My fleet of drones flits silently through the debris of the spent battle like flies through a corpse field. My analytics engine churns through a torrent of data. Where there should be chaos, I identify a pattern.
An ambush. I deploy my squadrons, dial up a battle plan so creative it can only have originated from a human brain. My brain, although I have no memory of designing the plan. My movements are subtle and quick. Explosions erupt around me, silent and blinding. My conscious mind is taxed from the constant interaction with my ship and the fleet. My body is fooled into thinking I'm asleep. In the thick of the battle, I dream. I dream of conspiracy and deceit, of cryptic messages and clandestine politics. I dream of an end to the war, the settling of battleships onto the ground like locusts after a gorging feast. Yet still the battle rages before my eyes. I cannot separate dream from reality.
The battle is won. I've pissed myself again, but my suit will take care of that.
'I'm sorry,' Sai says.
I break from his gaze. The mug has slipped from my hands, lies shattered on the floor. Others in the room are watching me. My pants are dry, at least.
'I shouldn't have asked,' he says. 'I thought… well, they released you today. When they called me to pick you up, I thought they meant you'd recovered.'
There is no recovering from what I've done. There is only the passage of time.
I stand, push the tablet back to Sai. I want to apologise, but I cannot find the words. I turn to walk away. He grabs my wrist. His fingers are cool against my hot skin.
I cannot fight my own brother. I have already failed him enough. But I cannot go with him, either. So I just stand there.
Eventually, his grip slackens and his hand falls away. The moment I lose contact I wish he were still holding on. I cannot remember a better feeling than his touch.
'Where will you go?' he says.
I have no answer, but I cannot handle the shame of facing him for another moment. I walk outside into the space station.
The doctors call my condition neural hyperextension. Command calls it the Franklin Line, after the first pilot to survive long enough to experience it. Most pilots call it burnout. Whatever the name, onset never takes more than five years of piloting a meteor-class fighter. I made it four, and most people consider me lucky. I don't agree.
The doctors say it's caused by a combination of sensory overload, repetitive probabilistic derivations, and the constant taxation of the conscious mind. Civilian groups have called for shortened tours of duty to give pilots a better chance at life after battle, but as long as the war's casualties keep mounting command will keep flying their pilots until they burn out.
Rehab is a joke. There's no cure for burnout, so the Coalition is content with locking us up in a hospital on Mars Orbital for the requisite year. They run tests, feed us drugs, and eventually send us packing.
My hard soles echo through the military wing of Mars Orbital. Artificial gravity is spinning at point-eight gees. Heavy. Coalition flags hang draped along the sides of the hall, reminding us who we're fighting for, but not why.
The stark halls of the military wing give way to the civilian sector. Adverts demand my attention with flashing strobes and imploring voices. The benefits of the latest shaving technology. A lifetime of decadence onboard an Infinity Cruiser. Our duty to our government in this time of war. The sensory overload is so extreme I have to focus on my toes to keep from falling over. Peddlers and vagrants bump me from all sides. Hands probe for my wallet and phone. I want to apologise for having neither, but I'm not sure they'll understand.
A commotion draws my attention. Men and women lock arms in a line in front of a recruitment centre. They wear black and chant in unison, 'Every bullet is a war crime.'
I approach with hesitance. I have things to tell them, things that might help. The communications I intercepted in the First Kirkwood Gap. Admiral Renault's secret pact with the mining corporations. The slaughter of innocents on Europa Two. I want to tell them that both sides are to blame. That peace could be brokered in a day, if either government saw profit in it.
I don't say a word. Not because I cannot formulate them, although that is true. I don't try, because I cannot trust my own memories. Flying with a neural bridge is like dreaming. I drift between conscious and subconscious thought a hundred times a minute. More than once I've returned from a mission, sweating and spent and relieved that the war is finally over, only to discover that no such thing has happened. I fought, I killed, yet the war rages on.
One of the men notices my pilot's coat. His face contorts, an expression twisted between pity and anger. I stumble backward. It is my actions he is protesting.
Amplified voices drown out the protesters. A wave of military police sweeps through with plastic shields and billy clubs. The protesters scramble, hurling insults yet unable to inspire any action beyond more conflict.
I walk away.
Soon I pass from the promenade into a quieter zone. Junk shops and electronics hawkers give way to upscale boutiques selling Outer Colony wares. Gems from Castillo. Early settler relics from Europa and Titan. Even some Rescinder currency, for sale at collector's rates. 'Outside and Free,' the greasy paper proclaims, beneath the face of the first Rescinder president.
If it were only that simple.
The schism between the Coalition and the Rescinders began long before I was born, though it only came to blows thirty years ago. The Outer Colonies were too far away to answer to a central government, the Rescinders said. They needed their own rules, befit for their own societies. But that was only half the truth. The other half was about money, as it so often is. Precious resources, corporate levies, government taxes. It was the same war that had been fought a hundred times before, and that would be fought a hundred times again.
My back straightens and my heels click together. My chin elevates, gaze locked on a point in the distance.
'Sir, it's an honour.'
The voice is loud and youthful. A cluster of recruits stands at attention. They must have me confused with someone else.
The boy in the front salutes. He smiles, although I can't imagine what might be funny. From his lapel hangs the emblem of the Meteor Squadron. My mouth goes dry. I wish I hadn't dropped my mug.
'Sir, I'm graduating from Academy next week.'
The words are an assault.
Mother and Sai are standing before me outside the Academy, trying not to look too sad as I try not to look too excited in my recruit blues. 'We're very proud of you,' Sai says. Mother can only nod because if she tries to talk she'll start crying. I don't understand why that is, but someday I will. They don't understand why I want to fly, and probably never will. They think it's about fighting, or pride, or being the youngest son. It's really just about flying. Touching the stars. Grazing the clouds of Jupiter and surfing the rings of Saturn.
I couldn't have been more misguided.
The recruits are watching me. I open my mouth to talk.
'Just ground crew,' he says. 'But I'm still excited.'
My muscles ease. Ground crew. Smart kid.
'I'm sorry to stop you, sir. I noticed your coat and your stripes, and I just had to thank you for everything you've done. You're a real hero, sir.'
I'm sweating beneath my clothes. It's as hot as a cockpit in here. My scalp itches where the neural bridge clung, day after endless day. I drift through the stars like I did through our lake back home. But the lassi of the Milky Way has turned sour, and those specks of light aren't coriander seeds. They're explosions.
The recruits are watching me. Their faces are so innocent. I want to drop to my knees and beg for absolution. I clench my jaw, hoping my mouth will remember the words, or learn new ones better suited for the gravity of my wrongdoing. If every bullet is a war crime, I am a war criminal a million times over.
My lips part. Words croak out.
Wrinkles form on the boy's forehead. His cheeks pucker as if he's eaten bitter melon. His friends shuffle their feet and cast nervous glances at one another. Eventually, they all turn and hustle away. I must've chosen the wrong words.
Angry shouts echo from around the corner, where a sign reads 'Port Authority.' I move to investigate.
Down the causeway, a gaggle of civilians has formed a circle around a procession. Military police escort a carbon fibre cage toward the spaceport, keeping the onlookers at arm's reach. The civilians shout and curse. Spit sprays from their lips. Some throw fruit and half-empty cans of beer.
As I draw nearer I spot the captive. She sits chained in the centre of the cage, wild gaze sweeping the crowd. Pulp drips from her gaunt face. A Rescinder military coat hangs from her wiry frame. The stripes of the Europa Aerospace Brigade blaze parallel trails from shoulder to collar. She's a pilot.
The shouts grow louder as the procession approaches the spaceport. A handful of civilians are prodding the front of the cage with brooms, and the military police have moved to intercept them. I slip through the crowd and up to the back of the cage.
The bars are cold against my hands. The pilot turns to face me. Her eyes are a deep blue, like uncut Callisto sapphires. I can't look away. A fog of silence descends over me. She leans forward and presses her forehead against the bars. Her lips move.
'I saw—' Hesitation. '—war's end. Is it true?'
I shiver, shake my head.
She closes her eyes. I'm afraid they won't open again, but they do.
'I saw—' She swallows. '—myself kill. Thousands. Was it real?'
'I don't know.'
'Did I fight you? In the belt.'
'Maybe.' I shake my head. 'I only saw my own face.'
Her expression darkens.
I can't look away. She's too short for an Outer Colonist. An American, maybe. The Rescinders have recruited many from the Coalition states, these past years. In her eyes I don't see death. I wonder why that is.
'When you fly,' I say. 'Do you dream?'
She nods. 'Montana forests. Snow crunching under bare feet. Sun warming my face. Sister at my side.' She draws in a breath. 'Also, death. Deceit. Murder. I … don't know which is real.'
'I fear—' A shudder racks her body. 'I've killed so many of your people.'
She studies my face. 'What do you dream?'
'A boat. Drifting across a lake, near Mumbai. Stars above, stars below.'
'Is it real?'
'I think so. But I can't go back now.'
Her breath is hot against my hands. Her lips tremble. 'Is there room for another, in your boat? I will share your burden.'
Shouts descend from all sides. Hands grapple my arms and wrench me from the cage. I struggle to maintain eye contact, but the men are too strong. I have but a moment left.
'Yes,' I say. 'There is room in my boat.'
The crowd rushes around me. The cage disappears through a portal. Soon I'm standing alone in the centre of the concourse.
I draw a finger to my mouth. Did I speak? Or was I dreaming again? I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the pilot, but she is gone. She will be returned to Earth, where she will be tried for treason and executed. The Coalition executes each prisoner in isolation, so they will not die amongst comrades. She will be given a chance to speak before the tribunal, but even if she is capable of speech her voice will never reach public ears. Her sister in Montana will never hear her words, just as Sai and Mother will never hear mine. The other pilots will remain silent, locked inside the prisons of their minds. The war will rage for time eternal.
Against the wall, the night sky hangs on a massive real-time display, adjusted for the rotation of the orbital to keep the projection stationary. I trace the path of the Milky Way with an outstretched hand, imagining ripples extending from my fingertips. I feel Sai at my side in the boat. The shame of being in his presence is still strong, but now it feels different. Necessary. I must learn to live with this shame, not for my own sake but for the sake of the others. My allies, my victims, my enemies. If we are to see the end of war, I must learn to speak again.
My feet are moving. I don't know what time it is, nor if I'm already too late. The spaceport opens before me, a bustling terminal of reunions and farewells. I weave through the crowd as quickly as I can. My muscles burn, weak from years of cockpit atrophy. My breath is short.
I spot Sai at the gate but my legs give out and I collapse. Shouts echo around me. I struggle to my feet, but I lose track of him amidst the crowd. I push through a line of people and see him boarding the breezeway. I shout but the words catch in my throat.
He pauses with his hand on the railing and turns. He sees me. In a flash he's by my side, supporting my weak body. Just like he's always done.
I look him in the eyes. I don't see death, at least for the moment. He opens his mouth to speak but I put a hand to his lips.
'I'm ready.' My voice is raw, but I know I've found the right words. 'I'm ready to go home.'
Derrick Boden's fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion. He is a writer, a software developer, a traveler, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans home, although he's lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by three cats. Find him at derrickboden.com.
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