A Short Story
A veteran who once worked to put down the rebellion of Earth comes face-to-face with her hidden demons.
OBJECTIVE MOSES ROSE
by Mallory Kelly
Three Potentials cheered, three Potentials frowned, and Kelt’s lips tightened into a thin line. She hushed them and directed them back to work. It wasn’t over yet.
Kelt walked up and down the dimly lit aisles. Each Potential sat a minimum of ten feet from the next, isolated. Isolation was practical for two reasons: when they reached their respective ships they would have no one on which to rely but themselves and accommodating their widely varying sizes prevented injury to the smaller ones by the larger and rowdy ones. The largest Potential was from Sector 9, the smallest from Sector 15, and the difference in their masses was equal to the median trainee from Sector 3 in whom Kelt took particular interest.
Sector 3 was Kelt’s home, or it had once felt that way to her. Not unlike the Earth that the Union was taming, Sector 3 consisted of seven lesser planets with consistent orbits and a common guiding star. Some of the Union Sectors were icy asteroids, some were artificial relocation complexes, but Sector 3’s planets were all swirls and shades of shadowy greens and turquoise blues, unlike the enormous desert planet with a population great enough it comprised all of Sector 9. Kelt and the Potential sharing her home world were not unlike the Earthens they watched; they stood on two feet and walked as an Earthen, though more fluidly. They had two muscular arms and hands more nimble than the Earthens; they could do more with fewer fingers. Truly the only distinguishing factor was a substantially shorter height, a flat face, and violet hair that complimented their rosy skin. Kelt was considered attractive, she knew, and she knew that the Sector 3 Potential thought her so. She was well practiced in dissuading such desire, particularly from students, more particularly from students sharing her gender. Kelt dissuaded everyone. How could she dare to share her life with someone else?
Kelt paused behind the largest Potential’s seat. She never could tell the gender of a Sector 9, so she simply said, “Potential.”
“Ma’am!” the Potential flinched at the loud voice coming from so small a source. He struggled up from the too-small desk, his rotund belly catching and shaking his screen.
Kelt gazed from his still shuttering screen to the super screen that reached ceiling to floor at the front of the pod.
“Products,” Kelt commanded. Why did they keep sending her Potentials from Sector 9?
The Sector 9 behemoth fumbled the controls with gritty fingers too fat for them and up came the work. Kelt stared up into his button black eyes for a few seconds until the Sector 9 gasped “oh!” and awkwardly stepped aside. Nimbly, Kelt’s slender fingers manipulated the controls and her quick eyes scanned the products, noting the same mistakes from yesterday. She left the screen and continued her glide along the aisle. Her smooth face did not betray that Sector 9 was going to receive yet another returned Potential tomorrow.
The Potential from Kelt’s own Sector 3 was next in line. Kelt’s face remained passive as she scrutinized the products, each as promising as the last. She turned to face the flushed Potential and asked, “Name?”
Kelt favored her with a nod and continued her walk.
Kelt turned back to the Sector 3, expressionless but unsurprised.
“Why… why?” Damir shook her head, “Why did we strike those… extra Earthens?” The soft blue reflection of the screen masked the violet of her eyes and grew large as they filled with fought tears.
“Assistant Director Pheten,” Kelt said while keeping Damir’s eye contact. A pearly-skinned and rather stretched looking figure raised his crinkled and ridged face casually from another Potential’s screen and strode to the center front of the room, a skeletal silhouette against the focused footage of upheaved dirt and darkening blood.
“Explain the Union decree concerning the lawful termination of unconfirmed targets during a finishing event,” Kelt recited, then slowly proceeded to the end of the aisle and up to the back row of unused seats.
Pheten assumed the authoritarian stance he found necessary at this point in every course. His well-oiled voice reached every corner of the pod. He detailed the doctrine, he urged the stakes, he punctuated each point with a dramatic pause followed by a whispered answer. His recitation was just as it had been when Kelt herself had sat before him as a Potential. When he’d finished, the three Potentials who had cheered before nodded emphatically, two others managed an accepting smile, but Damir of Sector 3 squinted her misty eyes at the shadowy back row, seeking for Kelt in the Director’s station. Damir did not nod and she did not smile.
When Kelt was a Potential she had cheered. Termination was what the Earthens deserved, all the Earthens.
Before she’d reached maturity, she had accompanied her father to the Earth’s capital. He was Sector 3’s ambassador of peace to the new and precious planet, and in her child’s eye, he had stood just as tall as the Earthen Dictator.
The Dictator was a kind Earthen. He had given Kelt and her father a pod with all glass sides from which she could watch but not be watched and from which she could pick out the capital’s shining marble monuments with white pillars, vast buildings where hundreds of Earthens must live there were so many windows. One they had walked by was lit up from the inside and she supposed a giant lived there, she had caught a glimpse of him sitting on a throne between the columns. He looked out on a long square pond. From the front window of their pod she could see the reflection of her new home in the pond. Their pod was stacked high on top of so many other pods Kelt hadn’t been able to count them all on her first ride up. She’d hoped for another chance to count, to see what sort of other ambassadors and Earthens lived in this fascinating pile of pods with her.
How the Earthens praised her! Exciting sounds called laughter would grate or tinkle from the backs of their throats whenever she performed her favorite dances at their feet, standing no higher than their knees. They would take her hands and place them against their warm palms to compare. The tips of her four fingers didn’t reach the roots of their five. Each one smelled different and such a variety of colors in their faces and eyes and hair she couldn’t imagine which one was most beautiful. They were all beautiful! She didn’t understand why, three days after they’d moved into the pod, her father had swept her up and back into their pod from the hallway she’d been exploring. She’d wandered out hoping to meet a new Earthen and see what color their eyes were. He had rushed her back down the hall with a bland smile that disappeared after he slammed the pod door. He shook her shoulders and put his face so close to her own that had they any Earthen noses they would have squashed painfully.
“Never. Never leave this pod,” he had whispered, tense, as though someone might hear. “The Earthens are dangerous. Never go outside, Kelt. Promise.”
Kelt had promised, and he had pressed her forehead tight against his. The following weeks she had watched the thousands of beetle bright motopods below, no bigger than her fingernail from the vantage of her window, rush and merge and stop so close without touching each other. How could they be dangerous? Each day she wondered and she doubted but never asked her father. Each morning he would look hard at her and lock the door of the pod behind him.
Kelt wasn’t locked in the day that her father died. She hadn’t been there to burn beside him, she hadn’t heard the blasts or inhaled the dust, she hadn’t felt the floor droop and the pod crumble. She hadn’t seen the glass crack and then erupt in a thousand jeweled sparkles, some orange and some red and some yellow as the flames eating up her Earthen home. They ate up her father.
Kelt had been with her mother in Sector 3 for her coming of age ceremony. Her uncle had arrived at the ceremony late, only in time to see her mother and sisters weave the feathery white and silver flowers into her long hair, now the deep shade of violet matching her eyes. He had stood with his head down and missed the dance. His head was still down when he turned on the screen in her mother’s home later. The images washed over Kelt and filled the cracks in her brain. At last, Kelt knew what her father had meant. She watched silently for hours, absent-mindedly shredding the flowers she’d been waiting so long for until her hair was tangled and empty. The crushed silver edges collected between her toes, tumbling and lying still in ruined heaps like the pods on the screen.
Never again. The entire Union had cried “never again”. Kelt cried “never again.” Termination was what they deserved. The day of Sector 3’s farewell ceremony for her father she volunteered as a Potential. May they burn as her father did.
Pheten’s rote briefing was a song so familiar it faded into the fabric of Kelt’s subconscious. It made her sick if she focused on his words. Instead, she watched Damir.
Damir was not watching him. Her quick fingers worked the controls of her screen, replaying, again and again, the minutes preceding the fireball. Kelt watched with her as the Target walked in the shop alone and out with companions. She watched as the three Earthens stopped suddenly and looked up. Her skill was fine-tuned so that she paused in time to see the streak of the missile, and Damir did not play past the fireball. She had never sat a live mission, yet she had been burdened. The twisted configuration of legs beside arms and the absence of a torso and uncertainty of whether that is the head or this is the head flash unexpectedly across the canopy of the mind. Whether it had happened to you in real time or not, once seen it could not be unseen.
Why did it always remind you just when the world seemed right? When the air is clear and the grass is soft and a ladybug crawls up your fingers, then your fingers become twisted legs and the ladybug is blood and the grass is a field on fire. There is no restitution great enough and no weight heavy enough to bury the ghosts, or the guilt.
In her day Kelt had been the prize of the Graduates. Not only was she the top performer by a mile, but she was fluent in the several languages of the Union. Though all Potentials learned the Common tongue, she was able to clasp her hands when speaking to a Sector 4 but knew to pound her fist when speaking to a Sector 12. With no small measure of confidence, she had boarded her first assigned ship standing taller than she looked.
“Controller Kelt!… Kelt?!” Commander Worswof had called as the great doors shut.
“Here!” she’d called, “Here!” but the slow-shifting boulders around her blocked her waving hand. Had she wrapped her arms around one of their legs her fingers wouldn’t have touched. Their skin was so like stone that she wondered if they truly needed the armor they carried. She gazed up at them as from the bottom of a valley. The slope of their shoulders and lack of any neck made the movement of their arms hard to determine and so it was with much surprise that one boulder, taking pity, plucked her up by the hair and set her before Worswof. Her eyes watering from the sting and finding herself suddenly not on the ground but on the Commander’s desk, she couldn’t find a word to say. No difference would have been made had she been able to stride up with confidence – she was a mouse to them all, and to Worswof most of all. He had requested the top Graduate, and by the time he learned it was a woman it was too late. She was on her way. His Fighters were elite, they were massive, they were disciplined, but they were all men. And would a woman direct them, him?
At first, they stepped lightly around her, initially from fear of squashing her flat but soon because they found when she looked at them it made them feel as though she would be the one to squash them. Some cowered, and slunk, and hung their heads, while some blushed and puffed and stood too close. The first group she ignored, the second she pitied. Neither group distracted her. They were her tools. They could make the Earthens burn.
Her second day aboard, a daring Fighter had informed her how good she smelled. Her silent eye turned up to him and waited as he paled and stammered to explain.
“And they’re all… at the gym, all the time, and they don’t shower, and you do, so it’s nice… to walk by…” he’d trailed. She smiled. He blushed, or so she assumed. The slate of his vast face turned nearly black.
“Build me a stand, would you?” she asked. He built her a throne.
Worswof didn’t like her at his eye level. He’d wander in and out of the pod on occasion and haphazardly shout a command to target elsewhere. Kelt would smile and delicately suggest otherwise. Somehow, she always made it his idea. Soon he stopped giving commands and started asking questions. After two weeks, she had control of all of his reconnaissance aircraft and he stopped making suggestions. He started sleeping in.
Mostly, she watched the same city, the same vehicles, the same streets. Occasionally their directive would take them out over acres of cattle. Kelt found cattle funny. They were thin brown oblongs from above but their shadows stretched with the Sun and betrayed a lumbering slowness and awkwardness to which she couldn’t relate. The Fighters moved much the same she realized, and they said the cattle were delicious. Kelt had her doubts. Their area of responsibility was far to the southwest of the capital, and the Targets thought themselves safe. Enemy heavy, their area went by the name of Lonestar. It was vast and wild and impossible to contain. Worswof had wanted to watch it all, to disrupt it all, to target and fix and finish each Earthen on their list. Kelt wanted one. Just one. The one who had made her father burn. When she climbed Worswof’s desk a month after her arrival he, too, had become just another tool to her.
“Him,” Kelt pointed to the pin in Lonestar’s upper corner on Commander Worswof’s map.
“Impossible,” he’d said.
Kelt tapped the spot and set the file on his desk.
“Him.” She repeated and returned to her stand.
Worswof picked up the file. MOSES ROSE the title said. OBJECTIVE MOSES ROSE.
Pheten had thought it a good idea to slow the pace for class the next day. The Potentials now numbered five, the sandy behemoth having been returned to Sector 9, and all five had proved adequacy. Kelt disagreed, and another simulation was run. She had to break them. Babes when the Lonestar Earthens had destroyed the Union Earth Quarters, they didn’t feel the boiling of “never again” under their skin as the first generation of Potentials had.
“Sector 6!” Kelt’s fingers slapped the back of the Potential’s screen and the Sector 6 yelped pathetically. “Are you awake?”
The Sector 6 mouthed stupidly but no words came out.
“Break!” Kelt called to Pheten, and the simulation paused. She grabbed the extendable pole she used to reach high on the screen. Reminding herself not to smack and dent the screen, she inhaled and collected her frustration.
“Rewind, 3 times speed,” she said in her typical even tone, and Pheten complied. The grayscale image of the compound jumped and rotated backward unnaturally with the reversed movement of the camera. The tip of Kelt’s pointer traced a barely perceptible dot as it floated from the central building to the gate, lingered a moment, then floated back through the central door. Pheten paused.
“Sector 6,” Kelt clasped her hands behind her back. “As it is your job, make the call, please.”
“One possible person exited the… central… structure and walked… south to the gate and…” the Sector 6’s mouth flapped wordlessly again. Kelt’s jaw clenched and her eyes didn’t blink as they pierced the Potential’s sweaty forehead. At last, she sighed and raised her hands to entreat the rest of the room.
“Anyone want to be a little more committal?” she asked. Damir from Sector 3 didn’t hesitate.
“Time 2354, one adult male from the central building walked to the gate on the southern wall and set a trap or an alarm then returned to the central building.” Her voice was clear from behind her screen. Clear, and angry.
“Correct, Sector 3,” Kelt said unsurprised. She stepped down and turned to face the screen. “Assistant Director Pheten, please move the feed to 0324. Let’s see what happens when we get sleepy, Sector 6.”
The gray compound on the screen jumped and reeled at super-speed until the clock stamped at the bottom of the screen read “03:24:11”. Pheten hit pause and waited.
Kelt closed her eyes and breathed deep. In the dark of her mind, she could still see the empty laundry line.
“Play,” she said. She didn’t watch, she didn’t need to. She saw it play out on the insides of her unwilling eyelids often enough. After a few moments of silence her still face, fluctuating gray in the light from the screen, became suddenly white hot as the compound erupted in rolling blasts. When the light faded back to gray, Kelt turned and silently ascended the stairs.
None of the Potentials cheered.
The reconnaissance had been poor that day, the weather poorer. To the Earthens that walked Lonestar’s dusty face the day was a blessing. Billowing bright clouds masked the heat of the midsummer Sun and silenced the familiar buzz of the assets that watched them. Most days they could look up and just make out the hovering specks. That day it was almost as though they were not at war.
“Negative, 3-4,” Kelt’s agitated voice crackled from her mic into her earpiece, “Return to target coordinates and scan NORTH west.”
“3-4 copies.” Their camera swirled forward to a puffing of clouds and an ugly streak of weak and icy blue. Clouds weren’t a problem in the skies of Sector 3. Kelt pressed her palms to her tired eyes and tried to remember. Their star didn’t burn so brutally as the Sun and the planets of Sector 3 couldn’t help but grow every shade of green on every available surface, all the time. The mists would rise and swirl and were never scorched away. The dewy moss silenced footsteps and new flowers bloomed from the sweet-smelling tendrils that laced the bodies of the trees. Lonestar was nothing but sand and scrub and cement. She looked up to find asset 3-4 scanning flat wasteland. How she hated it. A dot of red in all the sand jumped out and Kelt jumped to her mic button.
“3-4, center on keypad 7!” she said. They did. Between the smudges of irritating clouds, she watched the dot, and the smile spreading across her face was icy as the frown she’d worn at her father’s funeral.
She knew. She knew all there was to know. She knew his home, his truck, his favorite place to eat, his plans for that weekend, and when the weather was uncooperative and all that could be seen was a dot, she knew his stride. Kelt knew Moses Rose. Kelt would watch him burn.
On her stand surrounded by slow-moving boulders she stood, pointed, and called for Commander Worswof.
“Got him?” he asked.
“Red hat, stride, location,” she listed.
“We will not put our Fighters on the ground in north Lonestar based on a red hat,” the Commander of her Commander boomed, a particularly large boulder called Jilmud that loomed over Worswof’s shoulder and never looked at her. Kelt did not quail.
“Commander,” she continued, willing Worswof to return her eye contact, “This is him. Human intelligence places him here today and in the main compound tonight.” She wanted to add that she’d watched that red hat for 45 days and would know it sooner than she’d know her mother’s face, but she feared both a literal and figurative squash of his boot.
“Do not trust the Earthens intelligence,” Jilmud said to Worswof. Kelt’s jaw tightened but she was silent. Worswof cleared his throat with a dusty cough.
“I agree… with Controller Kelt,” he said, leaning into his Commander’s space. “Our human is well paid and has asked only that when we terminate Moses Rose we also terminate her spouse.”
“We have agreed to do it upon her signal,” Kelt added, “so that her children are absent. She gave the signal two hours ago.”
“That damn blanket?” he asked of Worswof. He wished that Controller Kelt had kept a desk below his eye level. “In this weather?”
“Sir,” Kelt said without moving her eyes from his averted face, “We were able to confirm that the blanket is white with a blue star through a brief break in the clouds. He will sleep inside the walls of her compound tonight. I do not expect a better chance.”
Jilmud’s eye darted to the clouds on the screen and then briefly to her.
“On your head be it,” was his final word to Worswof before he walked out, slamming the door.
Kelt sat in the dark of the upper row of the classroom with her head tilted to one side. She watched Damir. Pheten stood before the Potentials.
“Sector 4, what products would you send the Controller after this scenario, and in what order?”
The Sector 4 shrank in his chair.
“Anyone?” Pheten asked, scanning the Potentials’ puzzled faces. Kelt cleared her throat and pointed silently to Damir.
“Sector 3,” Pheten said.
“Raw video first,” Damir answered. “Battle damage stills, then battle damage video from a minute before to a minute after… blast.”
Pheten nodded and the hands of the Potentials flew to their controls.
For weeks Kelt had prepared. Nine assets they gave her to watch and to track. She knew Moses Rose and the men who followed him. Her shifts grew from 12 to 14 to 16 hours and she didn’t mind. In studying all the men, all the guilty, she observed also the innocents, and this made her hours of sleep shrink from 8 to 6 to 4. When her eyes closed she saw them, the children that rushed to their fathers in the fields carrying pails and tools. Her source as she hung laundry. Kelt had found it strange that the Earthen female had sought them out.
She was a rare sight to see. Not once had Kelt seen her outside the compound. Once a day she’d walk out into the heat of the Sun and Kelt would slide to the edge of her seat and squint and hope. Her faithful assets were also watching, and she knew what they’d say before they did: “One previously unobserved adult female exited the western door of the central building and began to hang laundry on the line in the southern corner. Raising count to 2 adult males, 1 adult female, 3 children.”
“Copy,” was all she’d return. They didn’t know that their day’s work was done with that one sight. Controllers held their intel close, their sources closer. The Eyes in the assets didn’t see the Earthen female’s face when they’d lie down to sleep. They didn’t see the children. They had orders to follow and obeyed the Controller they’d never met. She’d cheered in her previous tour as an Eyes, she’d followed orders. After all, the Controller knew, right? On reflection, she had never heard a Controller cheer.
The spouse hit the female once. Kelt had quickly clipped the footage and made a video which she examined over and over again. The Earthen male spoke to the female, gestured to her, and she’d stood still. He raised his arm and slapped her with the back of his wide hand. Her skull ricocheted off the open door beside her. She collapsed to her knees, and the Earthen male bent to her ear. Kelt wondered what he had said. He climbed onto his motorcycle and left a sheen of dust behind him. As it cleared, a speck of bright blue joined the female from just inside the door, and another larger speck of yellow. They raised her to her feet and helped her inside, though they stood half her height.
It had not been a hardship for Kelt to agree to the Earthen female’s terms that her spouse be terminated along with Moses Rose. Promising that the children would come to no harm was much harder.
But there was the blanket with the star hanging still on the laundry line. The preparations were brief. An undercurrent of anticipation and nervousness rolled through the boulders as they grouped and ungrouped, standing straight under the weight of their packs and helmets and guns, waiting for the word from Worswof.
Worswof waited for the word from Kelt. The mega screen was split into eight views. It made him dizzy to watch, but Kelt’s eyes combed each inch. He stood beside her.
“Controller Kelt?” He whispered.
She nodded. He swung his fist into the air. The boulders rumbled out the door and Kelt gnawed on her lip and forgot to blink.
Unsurprisingly, Damir was the first to throw her hand up and call “done!” Kelt beat Pheten to her desk and flipped unobservantly through the completed products.
“Why are you still here?” she whispered to Damir.
“… Ma’am?” Damir answered.
“It bothers you. I see it bothers you. Why don’t you leave?”
The corners of Damir’s violet eyes contracted slightly as they met Kelt’s. She pointed to the screen.
“Because you missed him.”
Kelt straightened her spine and ground her teeth. Damir did not back away.
“Because I missed him?” Kelt hissed. “What the hell do you think you know about it?”
Damir pulled up the video she’d clipped, the raw version meant to be blasted fast and hard to everyone in the chain of command. With a cold glance at Kelt, she pressed the unmute button on her screen and hit play.
“Bedrock 2-1, this is Lion 1-4, do you copy?” the static following Kelt’s rushed tone drew the attention of the other Potentials and they craned their necks to watch Damir’s station.
“2-1?” she had begged. “2-1! Return to Rally Point, gate is armed!”
The empty gray wasteland surrounding the compound was breaking at the edges as dozens of black dots advanced silently.
“Sending blind, gate is armed!” Kelt screamed.
The large black dots outlined the walls and stopped moving. Smaller black dots inside the compound darted across the screen, tossing barely perceptible weapons to one another. The blanket with the star was gone.
Three dots climbed the roof of the central building, one large, two small. They huddled close. The night was cold.
Static. On her Controller’s stand, Kelt had frozen, the cord of her headset twisted tightly through her fingers.
One of the biggest dots outside the walls reached the gate. Commander Worswof. Had he even turned his radio on?
The first flash of white with a melting silver star at the center was no bigger than the dot opening the gate, but each successive flash grew in size and heat until the screen hurt to watch. It was as though someone on the other side was stabbing a hot poker through the screen. All that was left were the white dancing stars; no building, no walls, no dots. They’d burned. They’d all burned.
When the video ended and the sound cut out, the silence of the room rushed into Kelt’s ears like sand. Assistant Director Pheten cleared his throat.
“Sector 3,” he barked. “Unless specifically requested by your Controller you will not disseminate a raw video containing the radio data. Is that clear?”
They’d all burned. Kelt backed away from Damir’s station and dropped backward onto the stairs.
“All but Moses Rose,” she whispered. “All but him.”
Commander Jilmud had found her with white hands still twisted in the cord. Her counterpart took her spot with the red of sleep still in his eyes. Jilmud had steered her through the portals of the ship to his office. When did the source remove the blanket? I don’t know. Can you confirm Moses Rose killed in action? I can’t. Count of the enemy killed in action? Four males… one female… two children…
Kelt hadn’t watched the next morning as Moses Rose preached in the field before a crowd of hundreds and claimed his godlike authority to rain vengeance on these invaders. Invincible savior! They’d called him. He blessed the sacrifice of the sacred dead at their feet and promised the rage of hell upon those who would kill women and children. They’d piled the bodies of the invaders, the boulder that thought she smelled good, the Commander that trusted her, and burned them. The Earthens pumped their fists high and vowed: “never again.”
Her mother had fished her commendation letter from the trash where Kelt had thrown it unopened. The Union pronounced her an exceptional asset and thanked her for protection of its citizens. Curious that among the statistics no mention was made of women or children. No, just an encouragement from Fighter Command that she rejoin them on their next rotation.
She burned the letter.
Assistant Director Pheten graduated Damir of Sector 3 at the top of the class on the same day that the Union Forces Commander pronounced in his yearly address that the province of Lonestar was a “lost cause.” Nevertheless, Damir volunteered and took her place among the ever-replaceable boulders. When she arrived she found that there was a perfectly sized stand waiting for her, though the Commander had wanted it removed.
He didn’t like the Controllers at his eye level.