Almost a year before...
Ahead of him, much too far ahead, across the wide tarmac of the landing field, was the smallish bulk of the spaceship he intended to steal. Behind him, he hoped, were the dozen or so other teens he had led on this foolish endeavor. And, behind them, the sound of gunfire told him, were the guards.
Garon risked a look backwards. Yup. Rebel troops were pouring out onto the field and starting to fire. He was probably a good 100 meters away from them, and another 50 from his goal, but his companions were strung out way too much ... hopelessly exposed. A girl, barely known to him, screamed, her head exploding in fire as she fell forward, body rolling once before coming to rest in a twitching heap. The boy behind slid to his knees beside her, pistol drawn. He return fire on her killers, left hand trying in vain to find some sign of life.
"Damn it," Garon growled, turning his head back forward, increasing his speed. "I said no stopping!" They were outnumbered, outgunned, and their only chance was nobody expecting someone to be this stupid.
Thirty meters ... twenty. He was almost there. The open hatchway of the hopefully empty scout ship beckoned. Another scream behind him, male this time. Probably that idiot who stopped ... what was his name? Nathon? Just because someone you love was now gone ... Garon stopped that line of thought.
He was there.
Turning 180 degrees, he threw himself back first into the hard hull of the ship, just to the right of the hatchway. His pistol drawn, with no further thought he fired past his companions at the soldiers. If he could at least keep their heads down ... The next teen to reach the ship was Blake, who slammed himself to the left of the door, dropping to his knees firing as the other kids passed by into safety. Troopers who had been standing in the open jumped for cover, which for no reason made Garon happy.
A week ago, he could have been them.
There had been 14, all told, on this foolish attempt at freedom. Former soldiers, from both sides, none over 16. You joined early, or were drafted into worse. Garon had never liked the killing. Some did, he knew, like that psycho Lessa. He, however, just wanted to get out of here. Every planet couldn't be like this.
Five ... four ... they were almost all through. To his shock Garon saw Nathon run by, holding his right arm. Well, what did you know ... The last girl passed. Blake jumped through the doorway, Garon turning to do the same.
He was dead before even taking a step.
The hatch slammed shut, leaving most of Garon outside. Blake looked at what had made it through, straightening up and holstering his gun.
Turning, he ran towards the bridge.
Emotions got you killed. Emotions got others killed. You can deal with all that once the day is done. In the here and the now, you just can't care.
Or so Blake had been told often enough by his officers. Frankly, he'd never believed a word of it, which was why he was here. Still, putting off crying was sound advice, and he tried to follow it as he quickly made his way down the main passageway. Helpful signs pointed the way to the bridge, and figuring the Rebels weren't sneaky enough to lie about such things on their own ships Blake followed them to the chaos that was the bridge.
"We're in, why aren't we flying?!" He yelled, finding an empty seat and strapping in. One dead body lay on the floor, a woman with long red hair, head now bent at an unnatural angle. Everyone ignored her with practiced ease as they tried to figure out the controls. One girl, pure white skin contrasting with her black Federation uniform, had taken over the command chair and was furiously working.
"We're try-ing! Nathon, smash that!" Jill pointed to a control panel, the boy quickly drawing his gun to blast it. Systems and screens which had been resisting use became active, the main engines rumbling to life.
"Everyone strap in! Craig, launch whenever you can!" Those not at the navigation controls dove for seats. Others, seeing there weren't enough, ran off the bridge to try and find their own. The ship trembled ... then started to lift off.
He ... he'd made it. They'd made it. Blake couldn't believe it. He'd done it. He was free. A life of misery, years of pain. There was screaming around him, but he was too shocked to join in. They'd done it.
A small beeping sound started from the console next to Blake, All other sound, apart from the engines, suddenly stopped. Turning to Jill, Blake asked, "What's that?"
" ... a missile."
From the hilltop, it looked like a third moon, the explosion briefly lighting up the night sky. Such pretty colors for a moment of evil destruction. Then again, to Don, the difference between good and evil, ugliness and beauty, had been getting fainter of late. He took one more look down at the spaceport spreading out at the foot of the hill, then, turning, walked back into the trees and the path.
Kine was waiting, leaning against a tree practicing his "I'm too cool for this crowd but don't know it" look. The sixteen year old figured he should have one, just on the off chance it came in useful once they got off this shit hole of a planet. He wasn't sure what was out there, but if he and his sister were going to be real kids again they'd best be ready.
He heard faint footsteps, right hand near his pistol as Don walked out of the darkness. Silently, Kine pushed off from the tree and fell in behind their fearless leader.
The difference between them was stark. Don was short, even for 14. Thin, with short brown hair, you really wouldn't give him a second look in a crowd. Until, that is, you saw his eyes. Then you found a reason to not give him a third look. Kine, on the other hand, had the cut of a natural leader. Large for his almost 17 years, it was all muscle and lean power. His dirty blond hair and blue eyes combined with rugged features to make a face girls loved and men trusted. Put him in a uniform, as he was now with it's dark blue Federation colorings, and you had instant officer material.
Too bad Kine had no desire to lead anybody.
He was a follower. He knew it, and was in no way ashamed of the fact. Oh, sure, give him command of a small unit and he'd do his best to lead them to victory, coming up with tactics sure to confound the enemy and keep everyone possible alive. But, large scale strategy? Actually being RESPONSIBLE for the lives of other not within earshot? Oh, hell no. He wanted someone above him. Someone he respected, someone to point him in a direction and give him goals. That for the past week this position had come to be filled by the runt Don amused him to no end.
It was probably the massacre at NuHavon that had started the exodus. The war had turned especially nasty when that city fell. Young conscripts, who hadn't wanted to be there anyway, started to fall away from the armies in twos and threes. There had been a rumor that the space port recently captured by the Rebels was under defended, so small bands of kids began moving in that direction, slowly combining, forming either mobs or units. The mobs didn't tend to last long. Kine had deserted with little sister Amanda, joining a group of mostly Fed soldiers with Garon. Before long they ran into a large group of Rebels. One group had food, the other water. Need united them.
That's when the fun started. The usual suspects had tried to get control, Garon among them. At the evening councils around the camp fire, they'd talk the big talk, outline ambitious plans, fantasies that would make them all safe and rich. Nobody believed a word of it. If such things could move them, they'd still be fighting for either freedom (Rebs) or justice (Feds) in the war. But, there, on the edge of the firelight, in a battered Rebel uniform, was Don. After the others tired of playing leader, the boy would make suggestions that just ... made SENSE. Sense that kept them safe. Finally, one evening, Kine decided to act on one of these. A quick raid on a farm. It went so well, the next evening he sat next to Don, supporting him. This mostly consisted of nodding a lot, with the occasional disgusted look no one wanted aimed their way. Within days, the coup was complete. Don ran the show, even if he didn't seem to be all that happy with the idea. Those who didn't like it left, either to make their own way or, as had been the case with Garon that evening, to try and show they could do things better.
Kine now saw the folly in that.
"So," Kine cheerfully asked the back of Don's head, "What do we do now?"
"We go back to camp." Don stepped over a small log, which Kine's larger gait didn't even notice.
"Then sleep I suppose. I was thinking longer term here."
"Oh, no sleep. We have plans to make."
"And you're not going to tell me, are you?"
"You just like hearing the collective gasps in wonderment at your ideas."
Don turned to him, his slight smile not at all reassuring in the moonlight.
Lessa's head turned towards the trees, hand on her pistol. She tensed, waited ... then relaxed as Kine and Don entered the clearing. Sitting on one of the logs placed around the evening fire in this small depression in the hills, her mind went back to contemplating her situation. Despite the crowding, over thirty kids circled around the fire, she was alone, log bench empty apart from her. A few months ago, when her reputation as a blood thirsty killer had been more than earned, she would have been, if not happy, then content to be treated like this. People were a pain to be avoided. But, now...
The young girl stretched. She had liked being feared. There had only been one attempted rape since that battle, by a guy who also fancied himself a ruthless killer. He probably figured her exploits were foreplay. His official cause of death had been listed as "choked on his own penis", although it didn't say how that had happened. Lessa wondered if the family thought he had managed to do it to himself, and took comfort in being impressed by that feat. Times change, though. Now ... she wanted the killing to stop. She wanted friends. She wanted ... to be a girl.
Part of her laughed. She ignored it. Ignored the Other, as she considered it. It was time to move beyond what she had been.
Lessa looked down at herself. Here she was, sixteen, trim body, nice firm breasts and long nicely formed arms and legs, and she still covered it all up with green and brown military fatigues. Others were slowly discarding their uniforms, although replacements were hard to find, but this outfit still defined her. To even take off the jacket and wear just a tight sleeveless shirt, unless she was doing hard labor, was unthinkable. She wasn't Shelly.
The thought of her one friend caused Lessa to glance that way. Shelly was still making out with Rich, those crowding them on the bench laughing and making comments. Maybe Lessa should become a slut. It seemed like so much more fun.
Movement again caught her eye. Kine and Don had made it to the opening in the benches at the head of the camp. As she always did with those who tried to control her, Lessa sized the two males up. Kine was ... well, hunky she guessed, if you were into that kind of thing. Her eyes easily slid off of him, to the shorter boy. Don always held himself as if he was only part way there, as if most of his attention was off doing more important things. Lessa noticed he missed nothing, though. He didn't talk much, but those eyes ... she sometimes found herself just staring, wondering what was behind them. That some might find this ... unsettling never crossed her mind.
Not that's she'd care.
"OK, listen up!" Kine shouted, trying to get their attention. Good luck with that, Lessa thought, glancing around. They were in a party mood.
"No!" came a young girl's voice, and Lessa placed it with the much too bubbly Amanda. The blond pigtailed girl was sitting with a couple of the other pre-teens, and they all made cat calls back at her older brother. Kine good naturally gave them his middle finger, then cried out again for silence. When it didn't happen, he shrugged and looked down at Don. Don just sighed, considered, and stepped forward.
"That explosion you heard," he said, loudly, cutting through the din, "was Garon."
"So, wait..." It was Rich, disengaging himself from Shelly. "Garon..."
"They made it to a ship, and it was shot down."
A soft voice gave a sobbing "no!", which Lessa placed with a girl she'd seen often with Garon over the past few days. Well, what had the fool expected? If she though he would escape, she would have gone with him. Some people just needed to accept reality...
"I didn't want this to happen," Don went on, looking over the crowd. Kine stood a step behind him with his arms folded. "But, in a way his sacrifice could give us our freedom. In an hour, we're going to go steal a ship!"
"What?!?" Half the kids were on their feet, protesting. Don stood his ground, waiting for them to quiet. The oldest in the group, the dark skinned Sean, took a step forward and motioned for the others to quiet as he elected himself their spokesman.
"Pardon me, mister leader sir, but wasn't Garon using your plan? And don't we now know it has a mild flaw or two?"
Don gave a brief chuckle, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Well, yes, he did use my plan. And he did get to a ship. But," Don added, looking up at Sean, "he took the wrong one. We want the cruiser."
Sean again held his hands out to motion the others to silence. The kids were coming to realize they were seeing yet another power struggle. One that might actually matter.
"A cruiser? Really? And we're suppose to pilot that with less than three dozen?"
"I admit it was a better idea when we had over four dozen, but we can still do it. We have the skills, and once in space it'll make surviving that much easier."
Don looked over the crowd, hands held out in almost a pleading gesture.
"Look, this is our one shot. They won't be expecting a second bunch of waifs from the hills to come charging in, and they can't have repaired any of the damage Garon caused. They'll be tired and not as alert. We either do this now, or we forget about leaving this shit hole of a battlefield and just go off and try and find someplace to hide. Are you willing to fight to be free from war?"
Don looked out over the landing field.
His blood boiled. They had left the bodies.
Well, did he prefer them to be out there now cleaning the place up? Be happy they had left that poor girl out there in the middle of the pad. In fact, be happy about everything so far. It seemed rumors about the poor condition of this place had been true. Only one guard on the opening in the fence Garon had made, and here they were, almost to the ship with no one dead. Good times.
Now, the ship he wanted was ... ah, there. Off to the side. Large, imposing, streamlined, hopefully fully refitted but not yet crewed ... maybe two hundred meters away with no cover.
Don briefly reached up to touch the locket now hanging inside his shirt, then turned to Kine. The blond was looking unconcerned. His sister next to him, though, had started to hold his hand, her uniform now looking more like a play costume than something earned in combat.
"OK, here's the plan. You stay here with five others and provide cover. Once the first of us gets half way, you follow. If you see any Rebels..."
"Fire in panic and scream like a little girl."
"Right." Don smiled. He liked this guy.
Kine pointed to four others to join him and Amanda, moving to cover. Don looked around once more, raised his hand ... dropping it as he started running.
Within seconds, most of the others had passed him.
Don cursed his body. Why wasn't he growing. He had hardly grown at all since Cyn ... no, no time for that. Don increased speed, focusing on what lay ahead. Let's see, who was in front ... naturally, it was Lessa. She was a freak of nature. A freak with a gun, the worse kind. Or the best, if she was on your side. Maybe Kine can seduce her.
He was starting to tire. The physical part of soldiering had often been more dangerous to him than the enemy. He did have surprising reserves, though, which had saved him more than once. The sight of Lessa reaching the ship hatch, followed by others, gave Don a renewed burst of energy. He buckled down. Right. Left. Right. Another right as he stumbled a bit but managed to keep his feet. Then, he was at the docking cradle, the hatch in front of him. Standing to the right of it, gun drawn, was Lessa. Her untamed brown hair flowed down just past her shoulders, framing a face that was alive with excitement. Don stumbled to the other side of the door, collapsing against it and trying to catch his breath. Looking back across the field he saw the rearguard coming up, but was too tired to worry about how pitiful he looked. Especially next to that amazon over there.
Kine ran past, giving Don a nod. As the last kid went in, Don and Lessa slipped inside behind them. Lessa hit the controls, the outer hatch slamming shut.
They were in.
The change in Lessa, as the two of them stood in the airlock, was immediate. She holstered her gun, one of three he saw strapped to her body, and let out a huge breath. She almost appeared to get smaller, eyes losing that gleam. She closed them, seeming to try and compose herself. Eyes opening, Lessa looked over at Don and gave a small, sweet smile. In that moment, she almost reminded him of...
Don pushed off from the wall, heading further into the ship. Lessa stood there a few moments longer, still emotionally decompressing. Finally, she just shook her head and followed.
Don walked onto the bridge, pausing for a moment to take it all in. The plans didn't prepare you for the reality. It was big, for one. Three stories tall, he had entered into the middle of the first level. Looking behind him he saw stairs leading up and two levels of control stations, the top with a command chair in the center. Kine sat there at the moment, kids frantically running around him. Turning to his front, Don's eyes focused on the feature that dominated the bridge- the Nav Sphere. Ringed on the bottom by more control stations, this three story tall hologram would, once they were in space, show the location of everything within sensor range. For now it just showed nothing.
Turning, Don made his way up to the command level. There was constant yelling back and forth, but it seemed to him to be calm and controlled. He'd see if that lasted.
The blond swiveled his chair, stopping it facing Don. He ran a sweaty hand through his hair.
"Five dead crew, only one minor injury for us. Just secured the engine room a few moments ago, so everything should be coming online. Amanda!" He yelled down to the second level, where his sister sat at the navigation station. "What's the hold up!" The girl replied by hold up a middle finger. Kine sat back and nodded, as if this in fact told him everything. Amanda's middle finger was suddenly replaced by two raised fists.
"Got it!!!" The ship suddenly rumbled, chairs quickly filled as those that could strapped in.
"Anti-grav online. Will stabilize at half g once out of the atmosphere."
"Sensors online. Displaying exterior on screen." The huge curved front wall of the bridge flickered into life, showing the space port and the mountains beyond. Suddenly it began to move downward, as...
Quickening every second, the ground receded. In moments, they could see the entire base beneath them. Then the valley. Then mountains.
Everyone was standing, cheering, hugging, kissing...
Don, ignored, made his way over to one of the consoles. Reaching over the shoulder of the boy sitting there, he hit a few buttons. Tracking markings appeared on the bridge screen, followed by a a computerized voice.
The bridge was silent. Watching, they saw a faint trail lead down towards their launching point, replaced by a flash of light. The view changed as the sensors zoomed out, a mushroom cloud rising out of the valley. Slowly, almost turning as one, they looked at Don. He looked back, calm.
"NOW, we are free."