by Nick Busse
Cadet Cyrsev’s visit was pleasant until it was murderous.
“Gloves,” I said absentmindedly. “You pullin’ weeds?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Cyrsev said.
He concealed his growing smile with an airtight mask, and it terrified me.
“Even in space, you think like a dirtsider. No service in the war. No sacrifice. I came here to give you a taste of what you missed, coward.”
I didn’t see the canister in his gloved hand until later, in my mind’s eye. That was the rolling sound on the floor I turned to face as he fled the room. Its blast caught me full in the face and chest, and its smell gave the old slaughterhouse a run for its money. I opened my mouth to holler at Cyrsev when the spores took hold.
The next few hours passed in a haze. Collapsed on the floor, I jerked at the knives of pain stabbing deep across my face and chest. I heard the sounding of general quarters: biological alarm, this is not a drill. The techs in enclosed lab suits came and kept me from scratching the ballooning pustules. One mercifully injected anesthesia, smothering the agony with dreamless sleep.
In quarantine, I escaped lucidity until it came time for the spinal taps. Daily they removed spinal fluid for testing and injected medication—both hurt the same. I recoiled from the doctors, whose faces morphed into grinning Cyrsevs ready to assault me again. I tried resistance, clinging to precious shreds of dignity, but as time passed I succumbed to exhaustion.
Once, I heard doors burst open and my fellow cadet Velodian calling out: “I know you have Tek in there! What’s happened to him? Let me see him!” The doctors applied more anesthesia as I heard the military police shuffle her away.
Cadet Cyrsev was never far from my dreams. Most nights I awoke in a cold sweat after dreaming of grinning officers clustered around him, saying they could not charge the firstborn of such an upstanding military family. Some nights they prosecuted my family for not having served. They cried guilty, and the spores pierced anew.
After some days I could speak, and the doctors told me I was hit with a bioweapon. They purged the disease but warned I would not look the same. One brought a mirror to my bed and showed me a sunken-eyed shell of a man: curly red hair turned to dry straw, skin a patchwork of scars and veins. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a person. When I saw it was me, tears flowed down the valleys of cracked skin.
The commandant himself strode to my hospital bed the next day, doing his best impression of a more personable version of himself.
“Cadet Tekera Koyiba. Of Manor Koyiba, yes? Sorghum farming, mostly for alcohol?”
“Keep a bottle of kaoliang around myself. Probably came straight from your old man. He serve in the war?”
The commandant screwed up his face, as if trying to comprehend. I saw in his expression traces of Cyrsev’s disgust. He cleared his throat.
“Cyrsev lost both parents to the genos. Last he saw them, they looked worse than you. Weren’t even human. He was rightly angry, but he went too far.”
He thumbed through a file labeled KOYIBA, T.
“You were a mechanic for the agri vehicles, sometimes a farmhand. That’s an unusual resume for a firstborn son.”
“My father was Master Koyiba’s second son, sir.”
“No inheritance, then. Makes sense you’d sign up for Auxilia. Seems you’re a good cadet on all accounts. High marks, good mechanical aptitude. Didn’t deserve to have this happen.”
The commandant leveled his gaze at me. His eyes ran over my scars, and for a long moment I lost him to the battlefields of his past.
“What Cadet Cyrsev did to you is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in my Auxilia. He will be put on the next ship home. Unfortunately, there will be no formal charges.”
My face fell, and the grinning officers from my nightmares resurfaced in my mind’s eye.
“That canister contained a genome-altering bioweapon from the enemy’s wartime stock. The Serid brains are studying them to develop better countermeasures than what you had to endure.”
I recalled the global transmission of the Throneguard himself after the war, frothing with rage, ordering anyone caught with geno weaponry to be executed by shipboard laser.
“There’s no need to bring around accusations of brigandry because of genuine research. The Auxilia is a faithful military branch of the Concordat. To that end, I would like to report that you sustained severe nitric acid burns while guiding fellow cadets to safety during a botched chemistry experiment. In light of your bravery, I would issue a letter of recommendation to join the crew of the trainer titan Daring.”
I sat up in bed despite the pain. Nobody joined the Astral Fleet without a tour on Daring. I opened my mouth to accept, but caught my withered face in a reflection.
“Sir, Cyrsev won’t be court martialed?”
“I hoped the academy had ironed out that ‘justice at all costs’ mentality your kind relishes,” the commandant said. “Cadet Cyrsev is banished. If you do your duty and protect the Auxilia from this unfortunate incident, you have a bright future. If you insist on a crusade, I’m afraid the Auxilia will not fight allegations while continuing your academy education.”
Velodian fumed at the foot of my bed, her face a paragon of righteous fury.
“Tek, you have to go public. My aunt is the best xenobiologist in the Seridian houses. She can prove you were exposed to geno weapons. They’ll haul Cyrsev in front of an anti-ship laser and destroy everyone who let this happen.”
“Vel, I’m the second son of a farming family. There’s no inheritance for me. Where do I go if not here?”
“Some things are bigger than us,” she said, gingerly stroking my disfigured cheek. “You can show them they can’t get away with treating families who didn’t fight like this. You can show them they’re not above the law, Tek.”
It was years ago that she last called me Tek. My new shipmates on Daring call me Ensign Scar.
Nick Busse lives in the great frontier republic of Michigan and has been writing short fiction
since 2009 as head writer for a number of SF multiplayer strategy games.
When not keeping an eye on the Canadians he can be found tending to his current
space opera at The-Fall.net.