My head is pounding. Nausea erupts in the pit of my stomach. The room is vibrating when I open my eyes, brain bouncing off the walls of my skull like a rattle being shaken by a child.
I hear the voice, but my eyes are seeing only white. I don’t know if the light is coming from the room or this is what blind people see all the time.
I always thought it would have been blackness, like space.
I’m fairly sure that I’m alive because I can feel myself lying on some kind of bed. My muscles are throbbing with fatigue, the skin raw where straps must have clasped my arms and legs during my sleep.
“Mr. Mendoza, can you hear me?”
The high-pitched voice pierces my ears and sends another wave of nausea cascading upon me. It’s the voice of a small child, probably a boy aged ten or eleven. Why is a kid talking to me? I clench my eyes hard to moisten them and then force them open again, willing the room around me to start making sense.
“Mr. Mendoza, I am Doctor Cheema. You are on the Ironsides. Can you hear me?”
“Stop fucking talking.”
My voice comes out gravely and harsh, partly because that was my intention and partly because my throat is dry. At least my eyes are starting to focus and colors other than bright white are making their way into my brain. I decide to hurry the situation along and get on my feet.
As I swing my legs off the right side toward the sound of the voice, I can make out three figures standing beside me. The closest has to be the doctor who was rudely using my ear drums as a bull horn. He is the smallest person in the room and only a miniature version of a human could produce that voice. I squint at him for a few seconds until other features start to make sense.
Small light-skinned man. No razor stubble, unknown whether it is due to recent shave or hormone deficiency. Thin waist, small shoulders. Chest cavity would cave with a hard punch in a fight. Easy kill. Adam’s apple present: was born a man. Unfortunate.
The person to his right is a tall dark-skinned man wearing a highly decorated dress uniform with shiny medals that I’m sure he likes to show off. His shaved hair has the appearance of a new recruit at boot camp, the only hint at his age are the gray hairs mixing in with the black. He’s the man in charge. I could tell by his posture, the brass on his shoulders showing the rank of Commander just provides official confirmation.
A young woman with bronze skin stands near the foot of my bed. She has a pretty face and nice complexion. Perhaps a little thick for my taste, but I’d make the exception. Her broad shoulders give her the appearance of a broodmare. I wonder if she is offering rides this afternoon.
“Sergeant Mendoza, I am Commander Prendable. What’s the last thing you remember?”
So, the dark one speaks.
I give the room a quick survey. Five meters by six meters. Beige walls, white sheets, chrome bedrails. Standard fleet-issued med-bay.
As my eyes drift back over the woman, I let them linger on her a little longer than necessary. Her black wavy hair is matted and she is clearly not wearing any makeup, but I trust she cleans up well. I throw a wink at her for good measure.
I wonder if that’s her natural skin tone, or she just came back from leave?
The Commander puts some bass in his voice this time to ensure that I understand who is in charge.
“Killing monsters. Watching my men die. Being blown into space. You know, your average day.”
A large smile spreads across Prendable’s face. Well, that’s unsettling.
There is a bit of insubordination in my voice. I’m special operations. The man standing in front of me may run this ship, but he is not like me. I should be debriefed by an officer who went through the same selection process that I did, not someone who earned rank by merely outliving everyone else.
“Do you remember anything else after that?” The doctor has found his child-like voice again.
As I turn to look at the half-man, my nausea returns again. I don’t know if it is from the effects of whatever happened to me or if my body is rejecting the fact that the universe wasted a perfectly good pair of testicles by giving them to this doctor. He has the look of an oily hairless rodent. I imagine he has advanced his career by backstabbing and gossiping about others instead of his own accomplishments. He deserves my contempt.
“Nothing at all? Did you have any unusual dreams?”
“Now that you mention it, there was one dream I remember. It involved blonde twins.”
The doctor is visibly insulted. That pleases me.
Prendable, still with the smile plastered on his face, decides to take charge. “Sergeant, do you remember what happened the day we were attacked?”
“I believe that I can recall that information, yes…sir.” We both know the intention behind my delayed acknowledgment of his status.
“May I please have a moment alone with Mendoza?” The Commander asks without really asking. The doctor looks reluctant, but turns to leave anyway.
The curvy beauty begins to walk away but the Commander stops her, “You can stay Ms. Alvarez.”
She looks surprised that she was given permission to remain. I’m not complaining, I’d rather not have to be left alone with the Commander until I’m back in fighting shape. Just in case we actually get in a fight.
“Alvarez, please inform the Sergeant as to his current medical status.”
“Uh… yes, sir. Mr. Mendoza, you have apparently been in a coma for over three weeks. You were found floating in space with some significant injuries including three cracked ribs, a broken right femur, a bruised larynx, and a collapsed left lung. When the rescue team recovered you, you were already suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning due to the exhaustion of your air supply. It’s unclear if any brain damage occurred, but judging by your current disposition, it is safe to say it would be minimal, at best.”
“I wasn’t the smartest person to begin with, Doc.”
I say this with my most charming smile, but she doesn’t reciprocate. She looks as uncomfortable as I feel. I’m confident we’d get along better if the Commander would fuck off.
“Oh, I’m not a doctor. I’m just a field medic.”
“Mendoza,” The Commander says, interrupting our pleasant conversation. “I feel compelled to inform you that your sleep hasn’t exactly been left undisturbed.”
“I don’t understand.”
Wait…did he touch me when I was unconscious?
“I’m sure you are familiar with the Executive Counsel.”
“They have been conducting a group of hearings in the hopes of understanding what happened on the day of the attack.”
“Did they find out anything useful?”
“Only what we already know. We were attacked by a Ralgoth war vessel. We managed to destroy the ship but not before they were able to get a boarding party on both Portway and the Ironsides.”
The smell of gun powder attacks my nostrils, screams of my brothers echo in my ears. Ralgoths in shadows. Mutilated bodies of fellow soldiers.
“I remember that part. They killed a lot of good soldiers, but we gave them hell.”
“Everyone in your attack team died, yet you managed to survive.”
Prendable is stating things that he obviously knows to be true. Is he accusing me of something?
“I was lucky.”
“You were resourceful.”
“I guess I’m what my training made me.”
“Be that as it may, your decision to blow a hole in the side of Portway station had an unfortunate consequence.”
How did he know I fired the grenade launcher? I know he expects me to ask him to clarify. I decide to sit silent until he gets the hint.
“By destroying an outer bulkhead, you didn’t just vent that compartment to space. The explosion caused a runaway reaction that went through the power conduits behind that wall and overloaded the station’s reactor, causing a cascade through the engineering skeleton of the entire station. Portway was destroyed.”
I don’t say anything. It was never my intention to destroy the whole station. But how could he even know what happened? There was no one left alive at that point. Was there a recording device somewhere in engineering? The med bay suddenly feels like an interrogation room. My body repositions itself on the bed involuntarily.
Sit up straighter. Clear your throat. You need to be smarter about these responses.
“Sergeant, I didn’t come to accuse you of anything. In fact, I’m on your side. I am here to inform you that the Executive Council is bringing four-hundred and thirty-seven counts of second-degree murder against you. The punishment will be death, if they find you guilty.”
Disbelief, then confusion, then anger take me on a ride of emotions. Murder? I’m a Marine in special operations. I am the hand of god. Murder is what they pay me to do.
“There is one other important thing that I need to mention.”
Great. This commander is just full of good news.
“I know everything that you experienced that day, because I experienced it through your memories.”
“What?!?” What the hell is he talking about?
“There is a device developed by the Hycains that allows someone’s memories to be streamed and projected for everyone to witness. It goes beyond just watching a screen. We know the emotions you felt, the smells and sensations that came your way, even the aches and pains from your training. We all lived that day in your body. I don’t know how it works or why the Council even agreed to use it, but the procedure was done while you were unconscious.”
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“Granted. Speak your mind, soldier.”
“You’re telling me you all let some strange aliens snoop around in my head while I was asleep? What the hell happened to this chain of command?”
Prendable bristled as the incredulity in my voice rose during that last question.
“I didn’t do anything, soldier.” Prendable seems defensive. “The Executive Council made that decision without me.”
“I never consented to having my memories downloaded or uploaded or whatever the fuck you are talking about. I don’t remember them going over that little loss of privacy during any briefings.”
“You are correct. That’s why I think we have a strong case to have your testimony invalidated. On top of that, this was the first time the technology has ever been used on a human. I need to know whether or not the damn thing is even accurate. I’m willing to help you, but I need you to think back and remember everything that happened that day, the day of the Portway Incident.”