The information to which you refer is mine and mine alone. Parole is an impossibility, even with a man of your influence backing it.
StarShare is the property of no single nation of Earth. It is outside your realm of control. Do not, for one second, believe I would fall for such a silly pretense.
Aside from that point, I believe helping you would not be in my best interest. Or, for that matter-- the best interest of humanity.
A lunch tray met the table with a commotion of sharp, metallic annoyance. Jeffrey Russell looked to his right, just as his friend sat down. Erik gave a slight glance as he settled into his seat, then another as the irritation on Russell’s face registered.
“What?” asked Erik, in inflated, faked, surprise.
Russell was sometimes amazed at the genuine stupidity of his friends. No, not so much that—but rather their carefree acceptance of it.
“Is it really necessary to make so much noise?” asked Russell.
Immediately after his comment, Sal and Brian, sitting across the table, looked at each other with an assured glare. As if they had rehearsed, the trio, Erik included, broke out into a melodic clamor which shot through the cafeteria. Of course, they had rehearsed, since outbursts such as this one were not beyond the scope of their normal activities.
Here they were-- Three new graduates of
“Okay, you’ve made your point.”
The song quickly turned to hysterical laughter and the noise from the trays died down.
Russell let out a long sigh, trying his best to ignore the harsh stares from others in the cafeteria.
“Jeff, you can lighten up now. We’re out,” said Brian, who leaned back and interlocked his hands, cupping the back of his head.
Russell had been more uptight than usual lately. Perhaps the thought of finding his place in society, away from the safe shelter that school provided, terrified him.
“Actually, after that display, I’m sure there will be a public outcry on the quality of doctors coming from Darnelli. Our degrees are probably quite meaningless now,” replied Russell, who loosened a bit as the rest of the cafeteria went back to business.
Sal was quick to reply.
“You know,” he said matter-of-factly, “That’s fine with me. If this doesn’t work out, I’ve still got contacts in trade. You know, my grandfather was…”
“…one of the original Traders,” finished Erik, in an exaggerated monotone.
“We’ve heard you a million times, Sal. And no, we still don’t believe you,” Brian added, before Sal could reply.
“Isn’t anything honorable about being a Trader, anyway,” said Erik.
“Nothing honorable?” asked Sal, stupefied.
Sal stood up, nearly knocking his chair over, with his six-foot-two figure looming over Erik’s spot at the table. His hands moved with amazing dexterity as he grabbed the tray, leaving Erik’s fork stabbing at a bare table.
Russell thought this to be strange. Had Sal been planning this? Certainly, this argument had occurred before between these two.
Determined to stick to inaction, Erik nonchalantly replied, “Well, are you going to give it back or what?”
“Give it back? How appropriate that you use that phrase,” Sal shot back, a flame of pride backing his words.
“This,” he said as he picked up a small plastic bowl of diced potatoes off the tray, “is not Origin.”
He threw it into a trash receptacle with impressive accuracy.
“Ham? Everybody knows ham isn’t Origin.”
A slice of meat landed next to the trash can, sliding about a meter before it settled next to a startled woman’s foot. Perhaps the potatoes were just luck.
Erik broke his plan of inaction by grabbing for the tray; a method he found particularly ineffective from a seated position. After disposing of Erik’s dessert, Sal gently set the tray back in its original place.
“What? You need my spoon to throw the apple sauce?” asked Erik, looking up from his near-empty tray.
Sal sat down and wiped his hands with a napkin.
“Why would I toss that? Apples are Origin. It was the one food on your tray that you would’ve still been able to eat, had it not been for men like my grandfather.”
“And this is the point you wasted my meal on?” asked Erik.
“My point is that you would’ve been living as people did 500 years ago without the Traders. Show a little respect when you speak of them.”
Erik inhaled deeply, readying himself to let his anger out.
“Once again,” Russell interceded, “we’ve attracted the attention of the whole room. Could we just eat like normal people now?”
The conversation died for several minutes, and the four men sat in silence. Russell received a few knowing glances from Brian, who shifted uncomfortably under the hostility that still hung in the air.
After satisfying his hunger, Russell surrendered his fork and checked his surroundings. The four graduates were seated in a large, dimly-lit cafeteria. To them, it was just past the middle of the day. To the transit center, however, it was a much younger version of the next day. Russell shuddered to think of how he would eventually have to settle into a different planetary day cycle. He looked down at his near-empty tray, disappointed that the cafeteria was only serving breakfast, thereby forcing him to skip a lunch and a dinner. He wondered if Vehera, his destination, held a third breakfast for him upon arrival.
Had he sat in the next cafeteria section, he would have had an excellent view of the dark side of Aethra. Russell wondered just how beautiful it looked every time he lifted his gaze to meet the six inches of impenetrable alloy which blocked his view. He thought of questioning Erik on his table choice, but then realized his friend had probably been bothered enough already.
Before their meal, they had all planned to watch the Aethran Sun peak past the shadowed, elegant curve of the planet, illuminating its subtle oceans and vast continents. It was to be their last experience together, before they said their farewells and shipped off to their respective ventures.
Remembering their agreement, Russell turned and looked towards the expansive window which overlooked the adjacent section of the cafeteria. Earlier, they had walked past it, but not with time enough to appreciate the view. A few men, women and children were now starting to gather near it.
“It’s time. Let’s grab a good spot,” said Russell.
“Already? Dawn isn’t for another 40 minutes or so,” said Brian, shifting his glasses and checking his wristwatch.
Russell stood and disposed of his tray. Despite Brian’s objection, the others would follow.
No light shone on the small crowd through the window, yet they all seemed dumbfounded by the sight outside. Russell’s curiosity strengthened as he walked forward, through the cafeteria’s central partition. Could he be missing out on some stellar phenomenon?
A woman ran towards the group to answer a shout from her husband. Russell, anxious to see the exciting sight, focused on the woman’s initial reaction, as though he were getting a preview of his own. As he closed in, he noticed her face relaxed into a look of confusion. What could it possibly be? Just a few more steps and he would have his answer.
Finally, he reached a position where he could see out the window. Nothing out of the ordinary. Clusters of tiny lights dotted the planet, as though attempting to continue the star field which it blocked. It was an impressive sight, to be sure, but not the awe-inspiring sight he expected. What drove the odd cloud of emotion that surrounded the group?
Before Russell could register his next thought, the image through the window brightened in intensity and contrast. For just a moment, he registered it as the Aethran Sun peaking past the planet, triggering the natural instinct that caused his eyes to narrow harshly.
He found himself completely in darkness, staring at a planet surrounded by stars that were all too bright. Among them, he saw something new, something curious. A select few stars burned with the slightest hint of cerulean. In that dreadful moment, Russell felt his emotions fall in line with the apprehension and fear of the crowd around him.
They were not stars, but ships, their ominous formation standing opposite the planet.
A surge of murmurs pulsed through the crowd, followed by statements of fright and questions of confusion. An impossible force, composed of emotion more than bodies, propelled Russell to his left. Panic had taken only seconds to sink in, and now gripped the entire group, who were instinctually driven through the darkness, away from the danger that the window foretold.
Just as he felt himself succumbing to the wall of flailing arms and muffled shouts, the auxiliary lights switched on, bathing the room in a dull red.
Senses restored, the inhabitants of the cafeteria seemed to freeze. Whether this action was from relief of their danger or shame of their panic, Russell could not tell.
A prerecorded voice echoed the emergency procedures on the intercom overhead, but the message fell on indifferent ears.
Looking back towards the table, Jeffrey found that, of his friends, only Brian was now in his section of the cafeteria, with the other section slowly being closed off by a blast door. Sal and Erik ran forward, but chose not to chance the diminishing gap between the heavy partition and the floor. They vanished from sight as the new wall joined with the floor, emitting a low hiss as it vented pressure.
Questions raced through Russell’s mind. Had there been a breach in the station’s structure? Certainly, there had been no impact in the cafeteria. He wondered if the station’s systems were advanced enough to cushion such a blow.
Brian slowly approached, taking in the environment in his usual, curious manner.
“What’s happened?” he asked, not expecting much of an answer from his friend.
Russell provided one anyway. “There’s a formation of capital ships out there. I think they’re UTF.”
The last word caught in his throat, as though fear willed him not to say it. Brian’s pale skin softened under the odd lighting, while his short, dark hair seemed to fade into the environment behind him. This lent an odd feeling to his facial expressions, amplifying his apprehensiveness. Russell wondered if the lighting had the same effect on his dark, brown skin. Most likely, he thought, it made his expressions harder to read.
“UTF? Here? Aethra is neutral in all this,” said Brian, with the last statement directed inward, drifting off into another thoughtful silence.
Russell noticed their conversation was not unique among the crowd. Hushed tones shot theories back and forth, concerns passing from group to group, amplifying in measure every time they were overheard. Russell hoped something, or someone, would intervene.
Someone did. A short man with a slightly round body cleared his throat loudly in an effort to draw attention. He removed his hat, exposing a predominantly bald head. His beady brown eyes glared in the lighting, giving him a grave look. He spoke loudly and simply.
“Please, everybody, just relax. The transit center has shifted to an emergency mode. We’re perfectly safe for the moment. We just need to sit and wait for the officials.”
Authority was in his words, but not in his stance. Small squeaks escaped his shoes as he shifted his weight from leg to leg. A man shouted, above nothing more than the barely audible shoes, from the corner of the room opposite the speaker.
“Who are you?”
The speaker responded, “My name is Jan. I’ve lived half my life in space. I know these things.”
“Are we safe here?” a woman asked, again with more volume than necessary.
Struggling to find her face in the crowd, Jan replied, “It looks like the ships are making a blockade. We would’ve seen something more had it been an attack.”
He was wrong. Russell could see that the specks of light, now brighter and sharper, were shifting position. They were a pack of wolves, seeking out the best formation before leaping to attack their prey.
None of it made sense. Aethra, the least populated system, had no standing military. Neo-Galactic Militia ships rarely patrolled the system, although it was generally understood that Aethra was their domain. A meager line of defensive platforms surrounded the planet, the only NGM outposts in the system. One Terran ship alone would be a match for them, nothing to be said of the approaching fleet.
Snapping from his reverie, Russell caught the end of another question from the crowd.
Jan answered, “I was in the UTF, up until about five years ago. Their tactics, strategies—I’m fairly familiar with them. In this case, it would only make sense to blockade Aethra. It’s what they did with Phoenis not too many years ago.”
Silence hung over the room for a second, as Jan’s status changed from informant to infiltrator. The worst of discrimination on Aethra had been reserved for immigrants from the core worlds.
Hateful comments germinated throughout the crowd. Hush whispers grew into bold comments, fueled by the hatred and confusion of the crowd.
In a long minute, the room turned from tension to anger, directed at the innocent man. Russell noticed Jan’s beady eyes dancing around the room, alerting the man to his plight. As he opened his mouth to address the situation, the smallest flicker of light poured through the window.
A paralysis set upon the crowd. Identical thoughts ran through different minds, all with the same reluctant conclusion.
“They’re attacking,” stated a young voice in the crowd, in a simplicity which trampled the severity of the situation.
A light show filled only a meager portion of the large window. Through the softened, red glow of the room, the group saw the intricate dance carried out hundreds of kilometers away. The small, glittering orbs had no specific pattern about them, only a random chaos. Blinking in and out of existence, they danced between shadow and light. Eyes widened as fiery flashes of light punctuated the show, briefly outshining their companions before fading into nothingness.
Russell surveyed his surroundings. It seemed that, among the group, he was the only one who not transfixed on the window. Jan, he noticed, had moved towards the opposite wall, sacrificing his viewing position for a position of relative safety. Russell became conscious of Brian’s presence, sitting on a bench behind him. Joining his friend, he sat with hands clasped and head low.
Defeat permeated the room.
* * *
A half hour passed before another word was said, aside from the hushed comforts given to the sobbing women of the crowd.
“What the hell is happening now?” cried a man, his voice tinged with a desperate madness.
Russell looked up, towards the window. Over the past half hour, the lights gained in size and clairty. Now, the larger ones of the group held the intimidating, unmistakable shape of Neo Terran capital ships. A peculiarity surrounded this particular moment in time, however; the vibrant show had become a somber procession of dull outlines.
They had lost. Aethra’s space-based resistance no longer remained.
“It looks like the battle is done,” said Russell, infecting his audience with a grim mood.
“What happens now?” asked a woman, her cheeks covered with trails of ruined eye makeup.
A man, who had been examining the locked doors for the better part of twenty minutes, spoke up.
“He knows,” said the man, indicating a corner of the room.
Russell’s eyes drifted lazily along the path indicated by the man’s index finger. Jan, once again the target of the group’s attention, fidgeted in apprehension.
“I was—look, I mean—I was wrong. I can’t possibly predict what they’ll do at this point,” said Jan. “I honestly hope they leave.”
To Jan’s great relief, the crowd’s attention once again directed itself at the window, jarred by a new happening in the space-based drama.
“That—” said a man, failing to form his thoughts into words.
Again, Russell looked toward the window. His jaw lowered in amazement as he saw the first nuclear detonation in Aethran history.
A vibrant blast on the surface of the dark continent beneath them echoed through their hearts. Moments later, a formation of small objects ejected from the ships, as though following a martyr, destined for annihilation. Flashes of destruction followed after one another, each meeting the planet with the same surge of light, each compounding the feeling of dread within Russell.
The utter power of the presentation drowned in the complete lack of sound, both within the room and without. Russell could hear nothing but the sound of his own breath, finally remembering to exhale.
All at once, the room exploded with emotion. Letting out a soft moan, an elderly woman collapsed to the floor. Dull thuds came across through the blast door, delivering a message of desperation. A young man, forehead against the wall, whimpered and slipped down to his knees.
Russell’s perception of time faded away in a torrent of emotion. Seconds, minutes, and hours drifted by-- flooded by-- all the same.
An argument erupted. Russell tuned it out, staring at Aethra. A crescent of light ate away the darkened brim of the planet, illuminating the rich, blue atmosphere and smothering the luminosity of the orbital bombardment. He compared the situation to his prior plan, longing for the simpler scenario.
A chilling discord snapped him out of his remiss drift through space. Across the room, Jan’s arms were restrained by two men, his face disfigured in an expression of pain. A second punch echoed through the room, followed by a suppressed shout from the assaulted man.
Gathering his thoughts, Russell looked towards Brian, who had remained wordless until now.
“He needs help,” said Brian, his eyes seeking confirmation from Russell.
Russell looked back towards Jan.
Russell and Brian simultaneously jumped to their feet, running towards the attackers. Russell’s sheer mass and velocity took down the man on the left, freeing Jan’s right arm. He roughly grabbed at the man’s collar, readying a punch.
A sharp blow landed at the base of Russell’s skull. As he turned to address the other attacker, stars poured into his field of vision. He tried to say something, but it only came out as a low groan, trailing into nothing.
* * *
Russell awoke to an extremely bright room. His eyes tried to defy the bright ceiling, but retreated behind their lids.
“This one’s awake,” said a feminine voice.
Blinking his eyes, Russell saw a shape move towards him, joining the other.
“You okay?” asked the shape, revealing itself to be a man with a surly voice.
Russell’s eyes found focus, quickly closing again under the dazzling ceiling lights.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I-”
Before he could finish his external thought, the man and woman rose and walked away. After all, they were probably busy.
It was this thought that brought the unending magnitude of the situation back on the shoulders of Jeffrey Russell. Images of his friends, Aethra, that ex-soldier—what was his name? Details flooded into his head as though he were remembering a bad dream. Could it be just that? The momentary hope faded as the murmurs and general noise of the room flooded his ears.
Russell sat up, not quite finding a comfortable distribution of weight against the hard flooring. He had been placed near the wall in a different section of the facility. None of the spectators from earlier occupied this new room. Aching, Russell got to his feet. A dull pressure pulsed against the back of his head. He felt genuinely terrible, and not because of his physical ailments.
A familiar face distinguished itself among the crowd. Jan. The name returned to him with the face, or perhaps with the lack of disorientation. Regardless, he walked forward, wanting to meet the man he had rushed to help.
Before Russell could cross the room, Jan entered what appeared to be an airlock, accompanied by a diversified group of men. The twin doors slid together abruptly, contrasting greatly with the arduously slow blast door which had sealed off his section of the cafeteria. How different the transit center was now.
A desk manned by two tall men—one, Russell noticed, missing an arm—stood in front of the door that Jan had passed through. Dashes of paper lined the desk, which, upon closer examination, appeared to be only a table draped in black cloth. The two men hastily tried to sort the mess, never seeming to make progress. Looking up, the lankier man noticed Russell’s inquisitive stare.
“Here to sign up?” he asked.
Russell felt a surge of realization as he noticed the embroidered red logo on the man’s shirt. Before he could muster an answer, the militia soldier had pushed the packet of paper into Russell’s hands.
Curiously, he searched through the last few pages. He found the names he searched for—Erik, Brian, Sal. Russell noted the signing times as well as the current time. They had apparently waited several hours, probably for him to wake up, before they boarded a shuttle. He wondered if he would ever see them again.
“Buddy,” said the soldier, “you there?”
Russell’s mind roused from its deep thought. The soldier noticed the attention.
“Look,” he said, “We got a shuttle heading out right now. You better hurry, unless you’re in a mood to wait a couple hours.”
Russell flashed a courteous smile, laid the paper on the table, and signed his name on the next available line.