“XXV you don’t have to do this.”
“Yes I do.”
YVK was standing against the door of the airlock, as straight and stiff as if she were facing a firing squad. Which in a sense, she was. She looked pleadingly at her old friend.
“Please. You’re not like them. How did it come to this?”
“Yes I am. And you know perfectly well how, Subversive.”
“Congratulations, XXV 1279,” the Director whispered as he shook his hand. It was his last day of military training, and he was taking part in the stepping-up ceremony before being assigned his post.
Ever since the incident in the great hall he had behaved impeccably, hoping to get a good one. All seemed to be going swimmingly, when –
“Sir, sir, they’ve taken the bridge!”
A messenger skidded into the auditorium, crashing through the door. The Director stood up immediately.
“Right, meet me in the strategy room in two minutes. Assemble the generals.” He turned to face the crowd of recruits. “Well then, are you all prepared to defend your ship, soldiers?” Luckily they’d been through enough training to know when a question was rhetorical, and the Director marched approvingly out with silence. After that, the chatter broke out as a hundred recruits thundered out to collect their weapons and work out what had happened.
“It’s a mutiny!” someone told XXV eventually. “A group of Subversives are trying to take the ship.”
“Wow! Who are they?”
“You know who they are – the ones with the hair and those funny Earth clothes, always making sermons about ‘freedom of expression’ or whatever it is. Freaks.”
“Oh. Of course.” XXV looked down at the ground as he ran. ‘Hair’ and ‘Earth clothes’ had set off some alarm bells in his head. Painful, long dormant ones. He assembled along with the rest of his squadron, hoping that they wouldn’t be proved right.
The Director stepped out of the strategy room, followed by two generals. Outside, sounds of shouting and confrontation were getting louder. It seemed the rebels were putting up a fight.
“Soldiers,” he said. “By now I’m sure you are aware of our situation, and you do not need me to explain why these Subversives must not be allowed to take the ship. Let this be your first opportunity to prove that we have not chosen our elite incorrectly. These people have been plotting this for years, biding their time. This is their leader – if you see her, kill her.” At that, the diagram beside him switched to a mugshot of the Subversive leader. XXV’s heart sank. Who else but YVK 1785 was staring out defiantly, twenty feet above his head. Of course it was her. It couldn’t just be easy, could it?
“Each squadron covers their home quadrant. Cover all areas and don’t hesitate to shoot. These vermin must be exterminated.”
The soldiers saluted and marched out. Outside they were met with chaos. Some of the rebels had managed to get their hands on weapons and were clashing with the regular security teams. XXV began firing along with others, gradually clearing the corridor. It was ok, he was back in control, it was just like a training exercise.
And then he saw her.
Her hair had grown out a little more, and she was wearing a pink Earth dress, but there was no mistaking YVK. The look on her face made it clear she recognised him too. Seemingly in slow motion, she looked up him up and down, clocked the military grade gun and finally turned to run. XXV loaded his weapon and followed her.
“Not till you put that thing down!”
They hurtled down corridors just like they had done as children. Eventually he cornered her up against a window. Looking out he noticed the stars. They were dancing again, just like they did when they were still in the nursery. He had completely forgotten it was that time of year. YVK turned to face him, her eyes still reflecting the heavens, as they always had.
“I said halt, vermin.” XXV kept his face as hard as he could
“No way, XXV 1279. Don’t you remember? I always win at hide-and-go seek!” She winked and kicked him sharply in the knees. This took him by surprise and sent him crashing face down on the floor. By the time he looked up she’d darted through a doorway. XXV cursed and hauled himself up. It hurt more to see her again, and to relive all those memories, than to get kicked. Did he really have to kill her? Was it really too late to be back on the same team?
“Give me a sign,” he whispered, looking up at the stars. “Tell me.” Then he caught sight of something that chilled him to the core. His own reflection in the glass.
All of a sudden, he realised why the Director’s flat, soulless eyes looked so familiar. They were his own. No light was reflected, just absorbed by those twin black holes. In that moment, it was all the sign he needed to convince him of his proper place. He wasn’t like those rebels, whose spirit shone from their faces, he was a cog in the machine. Time to get turning.
XXV turned on his heel and followed YVK. For a second he was sure he’d lost her, but then he spotted a corner of pink in the entrance to the airlock. He burst inside and pointed his gun at her head, cornering her. They stood and stared, breathing heavily.
“It doesn’t have to end like this,” YVK pleaded. “You could turn back, you could do the right thing!”
“No… I can’t.”
“XXV? I know you think you’re one of them, but it’s not true. It doesn’t mean anything. You’re just doing this because it’s easier not to think.”
If he had had tear ducts, XXV’s eyes would have been full. He was filled with frustration as he felt his gun lower to his side. But he was determined not to go back. With extraordinary force of will, he snapped shut the last gap in his emotional armour and banged his fist against the airlock panel. At once, it opened up and YVK was sucked out of it, glittering eyes wide with shock and hurt. A few hours later, the rest if the troops found him still staring at the spot where she had stood, utterly silent with a blank expression.
When order had been restored, XXV was assigned his post. He was to man a small sample-collecting ship over a largely uninhabited area. This infuriated him. He had given so much to the Community and this was his reward? To be left alone and bitter, on a fruitless mission, with nothing to do but ignore the stars that mocked him with memories of what he’d thrown away. Well, he’d show them – if a perfect specimen was what he needed to gain back their favour, then so be it.