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Chapter 3: Coda
Hector was dumbfounded. He and Giuseppe had been spending time in the simulation room, spending time with their new Martian friends when a stern faced academy sergeant entered the room. The sergeant called Veronica and Hector to the administration building. The walk was brisk and quiet, they were ushered through the milling crowds of students enjoying their morning. He and Veronica kept exchanging glances, trying to decipher the meaning of the summons. Passers by that recognized the pair gave them confused glances. When they entered the administration hall, a large two story command center, they were stopped for a moment. Hector recognized a few instructors and waved to them, but they turned and averted his gaze. They were ushered by the sergeant into a room neither had seen in their time at the academy.
It was arranged like a tribunal court room, and the headmasters of each of the wards sat above the central podium the two were instructed to stand at. Each of the ward headmasters were poring over documents and didn't really pay much attention to their arrival. The students behind them however, did.
"Ah...excuse me...Sirs?" Hector began, but his headmaster looked up from his paper with an annoyed expression. Hector heard snickering behind him quickly reigned in his curiosity and resumed his silent standby until his ward headmaster finished observing his materials. Headmaster Martin was an older dark skinned man with extremely wrinkled skin, appointed for his service as an astronaut. Headmaster Martin risked his life to test each of the iterations of the spaceships flown today. The headmaster cleared his throat.
"Welcome council, and welcome, students. We are here on a very solemn occasion. This very rarely happens at a UEC academy, and we want the student body to benefit from the knowledge of what happens when rules are broken." Headmaster Martin said, giving Hector a look of disappointment as he finished. Hector and Veronica noticed the students sitting quietly behind them.
Hector's jaw dropped in disbelief. He hadn't gotten into any fights, he adhered to the simulator room rules. He hadn't broken any rules at all! Veronica looked at Hector sharply. She didn't look too sure of what was happening either, but being very new to the academy she had been looking to him to guide her away from breaking rules. She wondered if she was being singled out as a Martian, but then why was Hector there as well?
"I hold in my hand the UEC exams for a one 'Hector Haines' and 'Veronica Voight', the two that stand before us today." The Headmaster continued, holding the two printed tests between his fingers. "Exams that are not to be taken lightly. Exams that help determine your rank among the standards of technical proficiency and morality that this academy is respected for."
Now Hector was as puzzled as ever. He heard the murmur of voices behind him and tugged at his collar. His exams? He hadn't thought much about them after he handed them in, it wasn't anything controversial-nothing to be reprimanded over. Veronica as well, who had less time to study for the exams, used her first hand knowledge and practical experience on Mars to breeze through the exams. She felt very confident in her ability to pass. Luca proclaimed that he had easily passed as well, although that may have been his Martian Bravado.
Headmaster Martin paused, looking amongst the students. "Both of these exams were taken at the same time, and have been meticulously analyzed. The results prove they are identical, down to the last detail, to the answer key reported stolen the week before the date of the exam. Every mark, every blemish, each with the same wrong answer to deflect suspicion. As we investigated, we discovered that these students have been meeting regularly, many times alone, or with more presumed Martian collaborators. An anonymous tip was received the day of the exam implicating students Haines and Voight in a conspiracy to sell the stolen answers to the Martian student body."
Hector and Veronica both cried out in protest, in outrage. They were ignored, their voices were drowned out by the murmurs of the students behind them. The court sergeants quieted the tribunal. The headmaster continued. "This tribunal had a hard time believing an Earthborn would sell out the integrity of the academy, especially with an academy alumni in his family. But we have evidence that sadly confirms it. We are deeply disappointed by the facts revealed by the council, and even more disappointed in our new Martian students. This kind of subversion is unheard of on the UEC Academy, Earth. For these violations and without the evidence of the mastermind of the conspiracy, the council has decided to expel students Haines and Voight from the academy, and bar them from UEC service."
His words were a hammer that smashed their composure into a million pieces upon the courtroom. The students, some Martian, gathered behind them all yelled in protest and anger. The court sergeant ushered Hector and Veronica out and each were taken to their dorm to gather their things. Hector thought of his mother and father, and what they would think of him. A pit grew in his stomach as the dream of flying in space seemed to launch away from his grasp. Veronica had angry tears in the corners of her eyes, she always thought she was too stubborn to fall. She didn't know what came next. Would they send her home? She never planned for this, and every time she closed her eyes, she whispered to her father, asking him why this was happening to her.
Neither Hector nor Veronica received more information on their trial than that. Refusing to face his parents, and with no friends to help and support him he stopped believing in others. Hector went into seclusion. He did realize his dream of space travel though, when he found work for a local smuggling ring. He refused anything more illegal than bringing exotic supplies and spirits to the remote UEC outposts and colonies. Hector tolerated the company, and saved up to buy his own ship. He broke ties with the ring, hoping to live the comfortable and safe life of an independent small-time smuggler. Veronica remained determined to reach space as well, but she became a political pawn for the anti-Martian movement. They called her a cheating rat, and the news comms were in a firestorm of heated debate over the Martian Enrollment program. She felt humiliated and tried to avoid the attention by applying to become a commercial freighter. Contracted by the UEC, but not directly associated, she tried her best to fly within the lines and prove the stereotypes wrong. Both were running from their past, avoiding the questions they would never get answers to. Who cheated on whom?
It was many months later that they saw each other again, on Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede. Hector had just dropped off a shipment of luxury goods for the colonies. Wine and spirits, extra antibiotics and stimulants, and other commodities that aren't included in the UEC rations allowances. He was enjoying the atmosphere of the UEC's newest burgeoning colony. The credits were in his account and his ship was ready to go, but the Ganymede colony had become his biggest source of business, and he was looking for a new client. However distracted he was he would never forget that beautiful red hair, or that scar.
"V-Veronica!" He called out awkwardly.
She almost didn't recognize Hector without that pale grey-green uniform and the bold blue UEC logo. He looked seedy in his civvy combat armor and coat. She had just finished the dropoff of food and water to the Ganymede Colony council and was about to return to her shift for a break before takeoff. She slipped into the open bar where he was sitting and sat in the chair opposite him.
"Hector... I..." Veronica started. She had so many thoughts she wanted to share with him, so many thoughts of him she couldn't share.
Hector took a sip of his drink. "I can't believe you're here, what fortunate timing!" He began, looking at her work uniform. "Good for you for finding a job, you're an amazing pilot..." The memories overwhelmed him like a rising tide.
"Thank you...but listen, Hector. I want you to know I never cheated on that exam. I never got the chance to talk to you before they took me away. I sat near you, but I would never-"
"I know. I hope you know I never cheated on you. I never stole any answer key, and I wouldn't sell them if I did. I don't know what happened, at least for now there is no way to find out. But I won't stop looking. Anyways, I suppose it's all in the past..."
Veronica felt warmth surge through her as she found the answer to a long asked question. "Oh Hector, I knew you never needed to cheat. I'm here as a transport pilot, yes. What are you doing now, still flying? What are you doing on Ganymede?"
"Ah- well I'm flying I just bought a new ship a few months ago. I'm ah, looking for courier work on the colonies." Hector sidestepped. His bottle sat next to two glasses, one his. He poured a shot in the other and pushed it towards her.
Veronica drew it to her lips and tossed it back. "Well, if Solbay is ever hiring new pilots I'll send your name their way if you like. I'd love to stay but I am on duty. Here..." She scribbled down her comms address. "Feel free to contact me, we should catch up!"
Hector smiled. "Thanks, Veronica. You'll have to tell me someday what has happened to Luca and his sisters, and I'll tell you all I know about Giuseppe. You know, I missed you."
"You too, Hector, thanks for the drink. Take care of yourself, OK?" She said. Her eyes warmed on him a moment, and then she turned to leave.
Hector finished another shot and thought more about the red headed Martian. "It's a small system..." He thought to himself, chuckling aloud. He returned to his ship and began the pre-flight checklist. His engines roared to life and bluish white fire erupted as he undocked from the colony.
His brow furrowed. All the ships around him were behaving very erratically. He banked left hard, barely avoiding the ship behind from rear ending him. "HEY!" He yelled, but looking over to the console he saw his comms were off. Ships all around him were blasting away from the colony, none seemed to be following Ganymede protocol. He flipped the comm channel on to shout at the jerk that cut in front of him and he heard hundreds of frantic overlapping hails, too many. "What the...-" He pulled Veronica's comms address from his pocket and punched it in. "Veronica? Solbay freighter, do you read?"
"Hector? What are you- you've got to get off Ganymede, NOW!"
"Veronica, what's going on?" Hector asked, priming his overdrive and plotting a course.
"We don't know from here, but Hector...It's Earth... something is attacking Earth and shortly after the emergency broadcast, the Earth comms have gone silent..."
"WHAT?" Hector screamed. His mind immediately went to his parents. He swallowed his fear and boosted away from Ganymede, hoping his family was OK.
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