Sergeant Stephen Balance was about to commit mutiny, an act which he had never before considered possible.
It was not in his nature. You received you orders and carried them out; leave the second-guessing to officers and civilians. Yet for once, Balance was troubled to find himself hesitant to complete a mission, contemplating disobedience and rebellion. His orders were clear, precise. Even easy.
But they were wrong.
It wasn’t fear. The battered hulk of the enemy spacecraft before him was as devoid of risk as it was – almost – of life. His visor showed heat and radiation levels both WNL – potentially deadly to the naked skin, but no danger in combat gear. Balance wondered how much exposure his target faced. The wreckage spun uncontrollably in zero-G, whirling in three axes like the spinning top of a forgotten god. Balance programmed his inertial thrusters to match, and soon the enemy ship appeared motionless to him, while the stars and the battle further away appeared to spin uncontrollably. He ignored this.
Dozens of holes fractured the hull of the ship, offering multiple points of invasion. Balance chose one at random and accelerated closer, landing deftly. The interior was as dark as an undersea ship until Balance flicked on his shoulder lamps and set them to broad illumination.
The inside of the ship appeared cancerous; collapsed walkways and girders made a labyrinth of formerly navigable areas. Charred and twisted metal left no clue to the original shape of distorted chambers, and the bulkheads that had survived were cracked in more intricate patterns than any spider web. Corpses floated in senseless poses, oblivious to collisions with other debris. The remaining oxygen within the ship’s BioField – which was gradually collapsing – allowed tiny, stubborn fires to burn. The control consoles that still received power sparked and sputtered, as if the ship was coughing its last breaths.
Balance scanned his readout while maneuvering deeper into the craft, moving from handhold to makeshift handhold like some man-sized space crab. His display reduced the chaos to simple data:
Weapons firing: Zero. Armed mines: Zero. Temperature: 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Life support was intact, but slowly leaking; the BioField had fewer breaches than the hull, but had been breached all the same. Air pressure and oxygen were both WNL, though the Grav Drive had been destroyed.
Living beings: One.
What were the chances of that?
Captain Herschel screamed over the com line. “Balance!”
“Do you have the target?”
“No, sir.” Not a lie. Not yet.
“Get it done.” Herschel did not scream at subordinates like a drill sergeant in a movie; he was deliberate and methodical. A good CO. He was like the stern father whose silence told you more than his lectures. Everyone hated to disappoint him.
“Yes, sir,” Balance said, swallowing hard. He was still undecided, but even the thought of disobedience made his throat turn dry.
Balance used his navigational tracker to ping the remaining life form and zero closer. He arrived within minutes. There, in what used to be the dining room of a C-class cruiser, floated an infant boy, whimpering softly, garments loose about it in zero-G.
Quickly, so he wouldn’t be tempted to second-guess himself, Balance thumbed his arm cannon live and fired a harmless blast against the bulkhead behind him. If he was being monitored now – or the records were reviewed later – the readings would show that he had fired.
He opened his com-line. “Target destroyed, sir,” he reported, then muted both his input and output. He left all channels open; jamming or interference would generate suspicion. Technically, he was still receiving, but he could no longer his commander instructing him to return. What sentiment would accompany the order? Congratulations? Apology? Sympathy? Balance didn’t want to know.
The baby floated unharmed before him, staring quietly, curious rather than agitated by the blast.
“Let’s go,” Balance said, as if addressing a squad-mate. He grasped the baby firmly by the arm and began to move.
He made his way to the exterior of the ship, more gingerly now with an infant in one arm. At the breach he paused, perched like a sailor on the rim of a ship. His personal inertia still matched the wrecked craft, and space, planet, and battle spun wildly in all directions, making everything beyond appear a senseless blur. His navigational display presented a clearer picture:
The sad remnants of a once proud resistance huddled twenty-four klicks from Balance’s position. They were pinned down on four sides by Dominion forces, whose mop-up operation was by now almost casual.
In a direction Balance chose to consider “down” was the planet Kronos, sixty-eight thousand kilometers away. Balance’s combat gear contained basic planetary re-entry barrier – for emergencies only. Except that it was configured for exactly one soldier, not a soldier and infant.
Now Balance did hesitate, in full contemplation of the mutiny he was about to perform. Though just twenty-seven years old, serving the Dominion military was the only career he knew. He was not qualified for anything but following orders and killing enemy forces – not even, or rather, especially not life on the run.
At the moment, he still had options. It wasn’t too late. He could destroy the infant as he’d reported he’d done, and return to his ship. He would continue to enjoy his reputation as the unit’s golden boy, at least among the infantry grunts, the reputation which had earned him this particular mission in the first place. The threat would be neutralized. Retirement was possible in six more years. It would be folly to throw that all away. Worse; it would be insanity.
Balance regarded the baby with a stern eye, daring it to piss him off just now while he held its life in his hands. But the child held Balance’s life in its hands, too, though it didn’t know it. The baby boy gurgled just then, though Balance couldn’t hear it acoustically, his external pickups delivered the sound straight to his helmet speakers. With his radio muted, the noise was startlingly prominent.
What good would it be to live as the Dominion’s star soldier if Balance had to remember a moment that made him sick for the rest of life? He tried to convince himself that the baby was an enemy like any other. A threat to be neutralized. A future soldier. A future commander, even. A leader of rebellions and uprisings, a tyrant who would cause infinite harm and suffering to millions. This vision of the future was exactly why Balance had been ordered to infanticide.
But he couldn’t make himself believe it. Or decided that even if he could, it wouldn’t matter. All the justification in the world wouldn’t compensate Balance for the memory of doing the deed. This child was not a destroyer of worlds. The biggest threat it offered so far was the stench of a soiled diaper.
How had the baby survived on a ship where everyone else had died? It defied both logic and probability. Though he tried to dismiss it coincidental, defying that degree of strange providence made Balance as uncomfortable as the thought of child-murder itself did.
No, he would not do this deed. Returning to his unit was not an option.
But what else could he do? Refuge with the resistance would be ill-advised; traitors were held in contempt in every era, even by the faction they served. Balance would not be welcomed, despite his willingness to turncoat.
That left flight as the sole course of action. Life on the run, pursued by the Dominion, constantly looking over his shoulder. Starting with a mad descent to the planet Kronos.
Sergeant Balance thumbed on a localized life bubble, enough warmth, air, and protection from basic debris and radiation to keep him and the child both safe for five square meters in every direction. Using surplus straps from different parts of his suit, Balance fashioned a makeshift harness and strapped the baby to his chest as he would some fragile piece of cargo.
When he was satisfied, Balance thumbed on his personal stealth generator, bending light around himself and his newly adopted companion. It would not fool real scanners, of course, but so long as nobody was looking for him – he had a little time yet – it would provide an extra edge. Now invisible to the naked eye, he jumped from the wreck, firing thrusters while computing a decaying orbit for atmospheric entry.
Hopefully nobody was watching for combat suit energy signatures, or his flight would be short indeed.
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