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Family and Duty

Daniel J Roozen

    Screams echoed inside her head. They frantically called out her name: “Ariel! Ariel!” The thought that there was something wrong flittered by on the edge of her consciousness. There must be a good reason why they were calling out to her, but she felt so drowsy. She fought to keep her eyelids open and breathe naturally; she couldn’t breathe. Something important must be going on, and she had an uncontrollable urge to laugh, but her mind could no longer make sense of it. As her eyelids dropped and she drifted off to sleep she wondered why her legs were above her head.
    Ariel awoke with a start and immediately snapped into an upright position. Her mind was barraged by a flood of images. She was only 24, yet Captain of her own starship, a small smugglers’ frigate. She was on a scavenging operation with her team; it was them who called to her.
    But now she was somewhere else entirely. She turned to let her feet dangle off the bench. Her hands were strapped together in electronic bracelets. She was a prisoner, but of whom? The room was very white, too white. Next to the bench sat a metallic table, bolted to the floor, she noticed. The table stretched across the short room to another bench along the opposite wall.
    The events leading up to her capture were starting to come back to her.

    “Ariel, get back to the ship immediately,” Harley’s voice came over the comms.
    “Can it wait a minute, Harley?” she protested. “We’re almost in.” Ariel was on a damaged and abandoned starship. She had been hacking the combination to the derelict’s safe box.
    “No. Now, Ariel,” Harley demanded. “Somehow they got through our radar grid. There’s no time.”

    The door to her white room opened. She noted his uniform, a silver and black close-cut jump suit with a belt and angled shoulder pads, but it took a full five seconds before she registered his face.
    “Uncle Marcus?” Her surprise, and more than a touch of disgust, was fairly evident in her voice.
    “Good evening, Ariel.” He sat on the bench across from her and folded his hands.
    “You were promoted to the Interplanetary Division?” He was only a local officer of the Coalition Guard back at the station before she escaped.
    “I was promoted just after you—” He left it unsaid. “Apparently they don’t hold a man accountable for his family’s mistakes. Four years and I got my own command, this ship.” His voice was almost cheery. Uncle Marcus had a way about him; even when he was angry he sounded somewhat chipper.
    “Congratulations,” she said dryly.
    “What are you doing out here, Ariel?” he demanded, shifting to his fatherly demeanor, the way he would subconsciously hunch his shoulders to try to make up for his small stature. “I didn’t raise you to be a thief.”

    Ariel dropped her computer tablet and ran for the breach in the ship’s hull, the quick exit back to her ship. ‘Running’ in her space suit meant putting one foot in front of the other in a slow walk, fighting against the magnetic constrictors in her boots which held her safely on the hull of the derelict, rather than risk floating in the vastness of cold space. With Harley screaming in her headset, she decided to forgo safety. She kicked hard as she turned off the magnetic constrictors in her boots.

    Ariel shook the memory from her head, long auburn locks flipping in her face, determined to stay in the here and now with her Uncle. “You raised me to survive, Marcus. That’s what I was doing.”
    Marcus sighed heavily and hung his head. “Did you do it, Ariel? Did you really kill those people?”
    She narrowed her eyes, trying to judge her Uncle again. She hadn’t seen him for seven years. What would he do if she said yes? Family, or duty? Where was the line drawn? “I don’t remember,” she finally answered.
    “Ariel,” he said in a breath.
    “I couldn’t have,” she snapped quickly. “Don’t you think I’ve gone over that night a thousand times in my mind? There is no way I would have done that.” But she could still remember the bodies, their soulless eyes staring back up at her.
    “Ariel, why were you in that room?” Marcus said again. “Traces of your DNA were found all over the gun; no one else touched it. What other explanation could there be?”
    “I don’t remember,” she said again, even more forcefully.

    “The ship just appeared out of nowhere,” Harley said. “We have to make a jump two minutes ago.”
    “I’m coming as fast as I can,” Ariel said. She was floating towards the breach now; it still felt far too slow. She could see her ship between the jagged lines of the breach, blocking out the stars. “It’s too late. Go without me.”
    “But Ariel—”
    “Don’t argue, just go. I’ll meet up with you.”
    “Take care, Ariel.” The comms clicked off when he finished. Her ship was gone.

    She sobbed in front of her Uncle, muttering, “I don’t remember. I don’t remember.” Three faces stared back at her, their eyes completely dead. That’s what always haunted her: their eyes. It was her fault. She remembered the gun in her hand. But how could she have done it?
    A thought came to her as Marcus sat there, watching her, judging her. ‘Did you really kill those people?’ She looked up at Marcus, forcing back the tears and examining his face with her own judging eyes. “Are you going to kill me now, Marcus?”
    Marcus’ mouth dropped open, appalled, before he quickly forced it shut. “It saddens me that you would think I was capable of that,” he said, but that was the galaxy they lived in now. He thought she was capable of murder when the evidence hinted at it, so surely he was capable of fulfilling his duty as Captain in the Coalition Guard and executing a known felon. He thought, she thought. The Coalition was tearing them apart, or was it her fault? She cursed herself, wishing she could remember.
    “No,” he said finally, answering her question. “That’s actually the part that confuses me. These orders don’t make any sense.”
    Ariel furrowed her brow. “What are you going to do to me, Uncle Marcus?”
    Marcus laughed, a crazy sort of laugh. “Nothing,” he said with a shrug. He motioned to an unseen observer with his eyes and the door to the white room slid open again. “You’re just going to go to sleep for a while.” A medic dressed all in white walked in carrying a short syringe. “I’m sorry, Ariel. I have orders.”
    He also didn’t raise her to take this kind of thing lying down. Ariel hefted her feet underneath her and jumped up on the bench. Even as she stood, she twisted, catching the medic’s chest with her right foot. “Ariel,” Marcus cried out, but he didn’t have much time to react. As the medic fell back, he dropped the syringe on the table. She scooped it up with both hands and in the same motion flung it like a dart at Marcus. “Ariel,” he said again, then sighed as he fell asleep.
    The medic held his hands up as if in defense. Ignoring him, Ariel stepped over the medic and into the hallway. She looked right, then left, frantically searching for a way out. She didn’t need an airlock or a ship. Her ship was out there somewhere. She just had to contact Harley.
    Hearing voices from the right, Ariel ran left. This was a Coalition ship, probably a corvette or larger. She thought through the layout and picked up the pace. Just as she began hearing more voices from ahead she noticed a series of escape pods along the wall. She dove in and kicked the round red button next to the pod’s door.
    The escape pod door slid down and a split second later she was hurtling away from the ship at the speed of sound, the pod’s internal pressure system compensating to keep her from harm at the sudden acceleration. She scanned the controls and, both hands still tied together, activated the pod’s communication. “Harley? Harley, are you out there?”
    The response came quickly. “It’s so good to hear your voice. How did you escape so quickly? No matter. We’ve got your location now. We’ll pick you up and get out of here before they can slap a tracking beacon on us.”

    Ariel’s leg caught on the edge of the hull as she floated out of the derelict. Her body was in a tumble as she drifted into open space. The Coalition Corvette slid by slowly, coming from the direction she considered ‘down’, long and imposing in its green and black hues. She made the right call, she soon realized, telling Harley and the crew to leave.
    The faces stared at her. In her free fall through open space she was brought back to the moment that started it all. Three bodies, faces frozen in horror, with those dead eyes staring up at her. Her mind pushed back, searching to fill that empty space where she couldn’t recall, but there was nothing. She knew it was because of her, though, that they died.
    She felt a small sting in her abdomen. The Corvette must have shot something at her. Harley’s voice came back in her head, screaming her name over and over. Ariel thought she should respond, but really couldn’t work up the motivation. She just wanted to fall asleep. And in the last moments before the darkness overwhelmed her she started to laugh.

    When Marcus came to he found himself in the sickbay of his ship. His First Officer, Treven, was there waiting for him. Marcus didn’t even ask; he knew Ariel had escaped. “Did it work?”
    Treven nodded. “We’re tracking her now. She reunited with her crew about ten minutes after she escaped. In under eight hours their ship’s engines should absorb the tracking solution and it will become permanent.”
    “Good, good.”
    “So what do we do, sir?”
    Marcus drew in a breath. “We follow our orders. Head in the other direction and continue to track her.”
    “Do you think she did it?”
    Marcus shook his head. “I wish I knew. What would you do, if it was your daughter?”
    “It’s a fine line you are walking, sir, between family and duty,” Treven said. “But family is the highest duty.”

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