by J.C. Shaner
A revision of my first chapter
"We now commit the body of Colonel Xander Roth, killed in the line of duty to the Earth. We are gathered here today to witness the union with the land he served for so long. Gone are his armor and his sword, his peerless vigilance at an end. What we commit to the Earth is a man at peace, a man whose life shall be remembered long after his death. In the year of our Emperor 2153, we lay his servant to rest."
The minister went on to provide brief summaries of Xander Roth's career, though none of this information was new to the young man sitting closest to the casket. Josiah Roth sat straight in his chair with his blue eyes fixed on the glossy wood that now encased his father. His coat was finely pressed. His clean shaven head caught a frigid breeze, though he remained still. One hand lay still on his left knee while the other held one corner of a folded flag. He supported it in unison with his mother on its other side. Together they listened to the chaplain finish his description of Xander Roth's many years of service to the Empire, and silence swept over them as the speech concluded.
During the ceremony, Josiah caught several officers looking his way. They averted their gaze as soon as his eyes fell upon them. He was certain they were sizing him up; he was twenty years old, two years above the minimum age required to join the Imperial Military. Many of the officers in attendance were no doubt wondering if he would follow in his father's footsteps. Yet while they wondered, Josiah was sure. He had been sure of his future before his father's death. As a Commander in the Imperial Scientific Service, Xander Roth traveled to sectors of space that had not yet been explored. He commanded a small fleet that colonized these undiscovered sectors, setting up military outposts to sustain future Imperial expeditions. While technically military operations, the Imperial Scientific Service was armed only in the event of an encounter with pirate vessels or any unknown enemy spacecraft. In the event of indigineous life discovered on a planet meant to be terraformed, a select few Imperial commanders would review the situation and form a plan of action.
Josiah's father was frequently sent by the Emperor's decree into situations where a planet was found to be resource-rich, though populated by an indigineous species. Often the planet would be placed under survellance, monitored from afar in order to judge the species' chances for long term survival. Studies were performed by anthropologic experts in the Scientific Service to determine whether or not Imperial interference would prove damaging. In rare cases, Emperor Shieng himself would contact the science fleet while they were observing with personal inquiries or input. More often than not, however, Xander Roth had the final say in whether or not the planet would be touched by Imperial ships. It was shortly after his survey team had deemed a planet named Uulian free of intelligent life forms 'accessible' that everything had gone wrong.
Before Josiah could play through the report in his head again, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and saw his mother standing beside him, and he realized that he should have stood up a moment ago. In a swift, curt motion, he rose and straightened his dress jacket. In silence, his father's coffin was lowered into the ground, no sound audible save for the pristine machinery finishing its task. The four mechanical arms that had been attached to the coffin slowly swung aside, and every soldier in attendance raised a salute. Roth felt distant from the scene, removed from the remains of his father. Once the grave was closed, his father would become one of many beneath the ground in the burial grounds. Yet Josiah pushed that sentiment to the back of his mind; it was time for him to speak. He was expected to say his finals words to his father. While the crowd was pure military composure and no one stared, Josiah knew all attention was fixed on him. Stoically, he spoke the verse he had had memorized for the decade since his father taught it to him.
"Into the dark of space, light is sent. A sword unto evil, a shield unto innocence. While my days are numbered, I count them not. While my enemies amass, I hate them not. For The Emperor's will is unity, all who desire shall be equal in his embrace. Fear, rage, envy begone, for the mission of harmony is mine."
Members of the crowd bowed their heads in silence. Josiah, too, bowed for a time, then kneeled before the open dirt. He looked to the elaborate watch on his left wrist, contemplating it before removing it. He held it for a moment before gently laying it atop the coffin. As he did so, the disconnect he felt earlier was made complete. He was carrying out his final interaction with his father.
"It's yours now, dad," he whispered. "You wouldn't want me wasting time counting the time until we see each other again."
As he stood, he caught his mother looking sideways towards him, as opposed to straight ahead like the rest of the crowd. His gesture, and perhaps his words, had not gone unnoticed by her. Josiah rejoined the crowd and let others close to his father step forward briefly to say a few words. Most were fellow servicemen who had crewed under Xander Roth, sharing stories of his peerless quality as a captain in the Imperial Fleet. So many of the stories sounded the same: He was a great man, an honor to serve under, et cetera. Josiah didn't doubt the authenticity of the statements, but they all sounded rehersed and impersonal nonetheless. They lacked the quality of true knowing. They lacked the understanding that Josiah possessed.
No one recounted the months of training sessions learning foreign languages, classes Josiah had requested from an early age. Xander made himself available to cover every aspect of Josiah's studies, from the dialect of the human tribes of the Outer Reaches to understanding the hisses and clicks of the reptilian Saurra. No one recalled Xander teaching an adolescent Josiah the fine points of swordsmanship, despite frequently being across the galaxy and on the other side of a holo terminal. They hadn't shaped Josiah's brutish, impatient sword strokes into true finesse. No one but Josiah had Xander beside them as they experienced the heavy, bold taste of their first Penumbra Blue at midnight of their eighteenth birthday. These were the true memories of Xander, the core of who he was.
The last officer had spoken of Xander, and now the service was officially over. Josiah released a deep breath, realizing that he had been keeping his breathing calm and quiet throughout the whole ceremony. But it was done now; now was the time for relief. The crowd slowly drifted apart, and as attendees parted Josiah remained. He noticed an elegant, perfumed scent nearby and turned to see his mother looking fondly towards him. Josiah's piercing blue eyes has been inherited from her. Her hair had become a regal shade of silver over the last few years, though she wore it well tied into a bun. She was vibrant, despite small wrinkles having emerged, beginning to show her advancement in years. She glanced for a moment back at the coffin before she spoke.
"He would be proud of the man you've become, Josiah. He has taught you much about the galaxy, but you've learned so much more on your own. He would say that there is a universe full of possibilities ahead for you. That fate is of your choosing."
"He certainly had a profound way with words." Josiah returned. "But you sound as if you don't entirely agree."
"In some ways, I do not." his mother began. "Every man in attendance here today was no doubt waiting to hear you announce your entry into the Imperial Military Academy to follow in his footsteps."
"Seeing how this is my father's funeral and not some public talk forum, I decided to refrain from heavy oration. And I haven't made up my mind yet whether or not I'll enter."
"And you should not be pressured to decide, son. That is my point. All of these men will expect a certain thing from you, and you must decide only for yourself where you will choose to go. Just because a clear path is laid before you doesn't mean that that is the sole path you must walk. It can often be advantageous to tread the path one least expects to find you on. I learned that the hard way in the diplomatic service. Everyone sees you, sees where you come from, and expects that you live your life by that same image. But that can't be how you go on. Even if you do follow the path laid bare, do it for yourself, and not for them."
"I understand that. I know they want me to join, to see me aboard a ship named after father's. But whatever choices I make today, tomorrow, or in the future beyond that, they will be mine, and I will own them."
"That son, is all your father would expect." his mother said with finality, before kissing him gently on the head. "And it seems you have a lingering guest," she added before walking slowy away.
Josiah turned, expecting another captain or admiral, but was greeted by the sight of familiar face of lesser rank. He watched the tall, lean man as he approached, noting the disheveled state of both is slick black hair and his now untucked uniform shirt. The man had removed his standard issue uniform cufflinks and rolled his sleeves up sloppily. From anyone not a friend, this would merit harsh criticism.
"Well, an enlisted man lurks among the officers," Josiah began.
"Up to no good, for sure," Arn Hammond responded. The two embraced, then pulled away while Josiah inspected Hammond's uniform.
"Shameful cufflinks, a tilted beret, and boots completely devoid of shine. I should have you court marshalled at once!"
The two chuckled briefly before the mood once more became somber.
"I know that look," Hammond said, breaking the silence.
"Which look? I don't have a look," Roth protested.
"You most assuredly do. And it gives away everything you're trying to keep down. I can see the anger, the agitation."
"And how do you expect me to feel?" Roth inquired, bordering on directing some of that anger at his friend.
"No different, for now. But that's where it all went wrong, you know. In the galaxy before. Both before and after the corporate dissolusions of government, before and after all the rich people left and started putting price tags on the galaxy. There were people being furious at other people and refusing to let go. Even the Tribal Wars, the Terran Blockade, and every calamity since can be traced to that same seething rage that you've got right now."
"Again, how else am I supposed to feel? What else is anyone who's had someone taken from them supposed to go through?"
"You're missing my point. Everyone goes through it, yes. Everyone has emotions. Even the Emperor."
"This is the same man that emerged from one of the Far Reach planets and brought order to everyone and their uncle's tribes with his mysticism."
"You're putting me to sleep, Arn. Is there a point to the cautionary tales and anecdotes?"
"I'm sure he was a fine captain, and an inspiration to his crew," Hammond began. "It would have been an honor to serve under him as my first assignment." Josiah started to tune out the words he had heard almost a dozen times before earlier today. "And," Hammond began again "I found some information regarding the matter you asked me about. But you're not going to like it. As soon as I read it, I knew how you'd react."
Josiah's attention was regained.
Hammond looked around, making sure there were no others within earshot. "I have some information about the ambush."
"Spill it," Josiah said, not sharing Hammond's caution.
Hammond pulled a small holo pad off his belt, turned it on, and swiped the screen to a specific image. It was a navigation chart displaying several hyperspace routes. "And?" Josiah asked. "We already know from the ship's log that it was on its way to a routine mineral survey when it was pulled out of hyperspace unexpectedly."
"Yes, but here's what the ship's log didn't show," Hammond responded, tapping the picture some more. "The ship was too busy charting a new hyperspace course that its computer never properly logged where the ship was. The data was all corrupted. But I had a friend of mine reconstruct it, and he found the exact location on the map. Recognize this orbit?"
Josiah took the holo pad and studied the map, noting the only large body orbiting the system's sun. "Ravek Station," he uttered.
"Correct. A way station for pirates, bounty hunters, slavers, and you know who."
"Chrome Command," Josiah said, heart beating rapidly.
As the Empire had expanded far beyond Earth's nearby systems, there were many in Imperial High Command that did not take kindly to a slow, cautious expansion. Many urged for more military emphasis and agressive expansion, as opposed to the docile, more scientific approach. Many did not think that their Empire should have to wait before putting boots on the ground, nor feel any remorse about interfering with any indigenous life they encountered on occupied worlds. They wanted to steamroll anything in their path, clung fervently to their Manifest Destiny philosophy. As tensions grew, so too did the number of open displays of rebellion. Shouting matches in conferences rooms--some of which Josiah's father had tried applying a voice of reason to--escalated into violence, and before long the divide became irreprable.
At the end of a mandatory military counsel session, three officers drew firearms and fired upon those in what they deemed an opposing faction. These three officers were found to be members of the military splinter cell, outraged commanders who demanded more military presence in expansion projects. After that attack, dozens more high ranking officers fled from Imperial Space, pushing their stolen military vessels out into regions not yet surveyed or colonized by the Empire. There they sunk into piracy, slave trading, and attacking any other unaffiliated ships that passed near them. It was rumored that many of the renegade officers grafted cybernetic implants into themselves. They had dubbed themselves the Chrome Command, and maintained a standing threat of obliterating any and all attempts to get in their way.
"This has to be their handiwork," Hammond said. "It has their name written all over it; the ruthless attacks, heavy damage to any ships not blown apart, and even the hyperspace pull. All tactics they've been known to use."
"But why attack the Corsellion? Why attack my father's survey team?"
"They must have gotten too close. Before they jump, one of the Command ships must have picked up their signature. Then they probably set up the net, and during the jump, the Corsellion got pulled out."
"Are you sure this information is accurate? The official reports said it was a pirate ambush during the actual mineral survey, not that they were pulled out of hyperspace before they even got there."
"The Engineer that fixed up this report had apparently seen others, and I trust the guy. He's a Qu'ar that had practically built the Military Academy's security system from the ground up, so he knows his way around. And he was just as curious to find out what had really happened."
"How many ships were there? The official report said there were almost a dozen."
Hammond hesitated, looking at the ground. He realized he was about to give Josiah hard news. "The datamined files said that only one Chrome Command ship was recorded, and the station before it was attacked too. But they couldn't determine the specifications because the ship was so heavily modified, but it picked up only one signature."
Josiah suddenly felt uneasy, and gripped a nearby fence railing. One ship. His father's vessel had been annihilated by only one enemy ship. He realized Hammond's hand was on his shoulder, and he straightened himself.
"Can you send those reports to my personal terminal? I want to look over them. I want to know it all. How they did it, why, and where that ship is now."
"But Josiah, you can't just-"
"Can you send it, or can't you?"
"Yes, I can. But it will take time to make sure it's secure. I'll do whatever I can to help. But I can't afford to have anyone else at the Academy find out that I've been digging through their classified reports. I'll lose my assignment and be discharged before I've even gotten to serve."
Josiah felt a pang of guilt. It was only a week ago that he had asked Hammond to look into any hidden files he could find, since he had been newly assigned to the security division of a newly completed orbital station. Hammond didn't have to stick his neck out, but did anyway. He and Josiah had been friends since childhood. But Hammond was right. He had his own honorable post, and Josiah had no right to ask him to compromise that.
"No...no, don't bother sending it. And delete whatever records you have from that terminal. We can't risk you getting into trouble for it, and you've done enough for me already."
"I'm sorry, Jo. I know this is important to you, and I know it must be hard hearing that the circumstances were covered up."
"Yes and no. I know why they did it. I guess they didn't want it getting out that the Chrome Command was still a threat. But me. They lied, kept it from me." he repeated with angered emphasis. "What else in the Intelligence division keeping? What else is out there?"
Hammond didn't know what to say, but the question was rhetorical. He and Josiah stood at the fence, looking out at the massive, glistening buildings of Collonade City. It was the capital of Fortress Earth, the center of Imperial civilization. And to Josiah, it felt like a destination.
"I should go," Hammond said to Josiah. "I have a couple more days in the city before I go back to assignment, so we can meet up later. But Jo," he implored. "Don't start anything. Don't let this burn you up. That's what I meant by saying how prevalent all that anger and rage is. It will exist with or without you, but don't light that fire. You can't add to it. I looked into this because I wanted to help you get closure. I know it must be hard, but you can't get burnt up by hating them. What Chrome Command did was monstrous, but every monster loses sooner or later. It's in their nature. So don't let that fire burn."
Hammond walked off, and his final words echoed in Josiah's head. There he remained, not releasing his tense grip on the railing for many minutes on end. His grip would be no different if his hands were around the individual necks of any and all responsible for his father's death. If he ever found them, he couldn't guarantee he would be able to control himself. They had taken his father. Thieves, murderers, pirates with no cause. They had obliterated the Corsellian and were probably laughing about it somewhere. Some seedy den on hedonism, rolling in their ill-gotten gains. And he was left with a gaping hole in his life, with tumultuous, blood-pumpig rage. His hand beginning to cramp and sweat, Josiah finally let go. He turned, walking towards a considerably thinned crowd of what guests remained. After he spotted his mother, but before he could approach her, a tall, well-muscled admiral stepped in his path.
"Mister Roth, Admiral Hangrin" the admiral said, saluting.
Josiah saluted back, slightly confused. "No need to salute, sir. I haven't submitted any application to the Military Academy, and even if I did, I'm fairly certain I would be outranked here."
Hangrin chuckled. "That would mostly likely be so, young mister Roth. A young man such as yourself could achieve something truly great in our ranks. He may even be able to forego any dull, standard application process." Roth stopped moving, realizing that Hangrin was looking at him very expectantly. "You could choose to excel in whatever field you might choose, as your father did. Would there be any particular area of service you might be interested in?"
Josiah though for only a brief moment as a great wheel in his mind was set into motion. He looked back to Admiral Hangrin, meeting his gaze.
"I was thinking something along the lines of Imperial Intelligence."
And as Admiral Hangrin went on about Josiah being a good fit for his personal unit, Hammond's words echoed through Josiah's head once more. Don't let the fire burn.