The world exploded into agony as Mengyao woke up. With a groan, he moved to shield his eyes from the pounding light of the ship’s fluorescents, mentally cursing hangovers and his complete lack of resolve to not be suckered into drinking contests: it was, after all, the only thing to do on this do-nothing guard-duty mission. Lt. Huang Caiyun, his direct subordinate, was probably responsible for his current pain: she could drink him under the table any day of the week, and routinely took advantage of his boredom to remind him of that fact.
It was by the failure of the second lethargic attempt to throw an arm across his eyes that Mengyao realized that not only was he sleeping on a cold steel floor, but that his arms were restrained. By the third, much more frantic, attempt to move at all he had attracted the attention of his fellow soldiers, as he heard the concerned shout of Jinhai, one of the Corporals.
“He’s awake! Captain, hold on, you shouldn’t be moving like that. The medic was saying you probably have a concussion. Hell, he thought that we’d be lucky if you woke up at all.”
“Well, we’re already lucky, so what’s the harm in pushing it,” He managed to roll into a sitting position despite the protests of his pounding head. “Now where is he, so I can hear it myself, and will you explain what the hell is going on, Corporal?”
Despite his blurred vision, he saw the Corporal exchange a worried look with two of the nearest soldiers. “You were awake when it happened, Captain, you took a blow to the head. The medic, they pulled him out of here about an hour ago with the other doctors, but he said you’d probably remember quickly if you woke up. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Alright, alright, hold on.” He racked his brain, trying to recall the last flashes of memory before everything went black. “Let’s see, I was talking to Lt. Huang about something important, and that’s when I went out. But what was I talking to her about? Something I’d seen…” He tried to shift his wrists, but to no avail, and gave up for the moment at seeing the heavy-duty zip ties restraining the rest of the Chinese vessel’s military detail, or at least a good portion of it.
“Shit, did those E-Democratic fucks actually board us? But this isn’t anywhere near all of our soldiers… Wait, no, we thought it was Europa Pact at first, but I saw them dragging an officer away. The Europeans or the Russians would have just come in shooting. A mutiny? Who the hell could have-“
Mengyao’s eyes darted around the large, emptied-out storage room and took note of who as there. It was immediately apparent who comprised the bulk of the missing, and his eyes narrowed as he put two and two together. “Those no good, kimchi-eating bangzi
,” he hissed. “Of course they would turn on us at a time like this. Probably fucking sold us out to the Eurasians or the Interplaneteriál first chance they got.”
Yes, that was it. They’d been trying to fight off what had seemed like a boarding party out of nowhere from one of the European or Russian ships, but they were too non-uniform to be soldiers- lancers maybe?
The foreigners had hit them hard and fast, but they didn’t have the numbers, and even just being a captain, he could say for sure they were about to go down hard. Just as they prepared to shut the raid down is when things got weird, though. He had spotted two men -Chinese, armed civilians- dragging off one of his fellow officers. He’d turned to inform Lt. Huang, and doing so was the last thing he remembered before blacking out.
He turned to Jinhai, “Alright, Corporal. Now that I remember what I saw, you need to fill me in on what I didn’t. This isn’t nearly all of our troops, even excluding the Koreans. Were they still fighting? Did the Lieutenant get the word out to the other units? Was she alright?”
He was about to get an answer when the door swung open behind him and the Corporal’s eyes went wide in fear. Trying in vain to turn around and see for himself, he was only half shocked at being roughly pulled up by the arms, turned around, and dropped back onto the floor. “Worried about me? That’s sweet,” a familiar voice cooed as a hand reached under his chin, lifting his gaze upward.
Leaving him face to face with Lt. Huang Caiyun.
“But you should be worrying about you.”
“What the hell is the meaning of this, Lieutenant?” Mengyao yelled at her as she turned and stepped out of the room, her two helpers -also Chinese by their uniforms- picking him up and dragging him down the hallway after her.
She laughed, that annoying fucking giggle she made every time she’d beaten him at something and he was two moves ahead of knowing it, “Captain, now, actually. Someone had to do your job after you were relieved of command, after all.”
He glared at the back of her head, “Alright, then, *Captain*. Care explaining what the fuck you’re doing working for these traitorous dogs and foreigners?”
“Heh. Traitors? The way I -and most of your former Comrades- see it, we’re just supporting the only way anyone is going to survive out here. After all, isn’t it our superiors who bicker over whether to land or start spacing us ‘nonessential personnel’ while our supplies dwindle? A week longer and the Colonel would have assumed control himself and spaced all of them just to conserve food and water, then move against his rivals in the fleet, really I’m a bit surprised that you can really find the time to harbor such anger at our Korean comrades in light of the pressing issues, Mengyao.”
Finally, the four soldiers reached an office, his
office, and Caiyun once again turned to face him, leaning back against his desk as her henchmen dropped him into a small chair. “A little disappointed, too. I thought maybe you’d be smart enough to see the light: with some reeducation, we might even have a future together. But I suppose Major Ran was right- some people are just incapable of being saved.”
He groaned, rolling his head to the side, “Gee, that’s really interesting, Caiyun. Maybe, if you’re done warming my desk with your fat ass, though, you’ll actually answer my question instead of reading me your manifesto.”
“Oh, dear sweet Mengyao. The Major might be my superior, and she might have the unit’s loyalty, but it is not for her that the people of the ship fight. We, and these lancers, serve a far greater cause. Here, I still think you’re a smart enough man, so I’ll give you clues: Who was it that hung the ‘dirty laundry’ of the Europeans out to dry? Who was it that crushed the headquarters of the Federal Commercial Bank of Yinghou, the shining jewel in the crown of those we fight for while our families are made their slaves, like it was costume jewelry?”
He stared at her in horror, “No...”
She smiled that sick, knowing smile, leaning forward to look into his eyes, “Who pierced the heart and broke the spirits of more fascists than any fedayeen’s rifle? Who smothered the wives and children of Whitecliff in a misty shroud of mercy?
Mengyao’s shock turned into blind rage and he spit in her eye, screaming between curses and frenzied attempts to break his restraints, as she calmly leaned back and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping off her face, “You’re lying! No, you’re insane! She can’t be here, she can’t. She was broadcasting from the Jovians when the gate collapsed!”
“You know, if I had supported the Colonel’s petty little coup, I’d probably be able to kill you for that. But the Burned Woman does not permit such mindless violence. In a way I suppose we should be glad for that…boundless defiance of yours. After all, we wouldn’t want the press thinking you had been tortured into submission.”
He stared at her, exhausted from his outburst, “…Press?”
That fucking grin, again, “Oh yes. Like I said, the Burned Woman does not allow mindless violence. Where there is injustice she demands action. She wishes for justice to be done here, so that we may begin again. We will oblige, and we will show our fellow castaways the People’s Justice.”
An analog clock, a local-made souvenir from some port of call on Mars, began to chime the hour.
“Do you hear that? It’s almost time for your court-martial, Captain Hua Mengyao.”
By all accounts, the trials seemed fairly mundane to Mengyao. He’d been expecting a show trial but, if not much more fair than an average trial in China, it seemed no more staged. He waited in a dock with other officers, the Colonel first among them, their trial to serve as an example and warning to those soldiers who had opposed the mutiny.
To their right sat a jury of soldiers and ship’s crew, Korean as well as Chinese; but despite all being mutineers, a number of his fellow officers were declared “salvageable”, and capable of being reintegrated into the mutineers’ crew, following an unspecified “rehabilitation”. He couldn’t help but sneer. Each officer, as well as Mengyao included when his time came, was even allowed to voice a limited defense to their supposed crime. Each was, of course, confronted by their supposed friends, condemning their crimes and urging them to repent.
He had already been sedated for repeated outbursts by the time Caiyun came out to put on a show of begging him to throw himself on the Burned Woman’s justice and the People’s Mercy, but he had enough strength to make his contempt clear, and wasn’t surprised when the jury sentenced him to death. He was perfectly fine with the verdict: he’d rather be shot like a rabid dog than roll over like an obedient one for maniacs and traitors.
“I want to be bitter at our commanders,” she said, staring up at the cameras and microphones broadcasting to every screen and speaker on the ship. “I want to hate them for the things they did. But I can’t do that. We can’t do that. If we do that, then we allow them escape through the things we did and the evils allowed their crooked system to push us into. I told myself ‘how can you condemn your superior? You were fine with doing those things he asked of you, even if they were against the law and even if they were wrong’.”
She turned to look at him, feigning shame, “But I didn’t really want to do those things. Having supplies horded, having men beaten to protect my superiors’ black market? Being desperate enough to do such things because your nation has made you into a disposable warrior is not ‘wanting’, brothers and sisters! Neither is doing these things because you fear what will happen if you do not.”
She made a show of shuddering and looking away in fear…or disgust, “Because someone with power to make your life hell wants these things from you, and may simply get frustrated and take them if denied.”
His skin crawled. Certainly part of what she said was true. They’d taken part in the trade of illicit goods, which had only grown more lucrative and necessary as it became clear that they were cut off from earth and their supplies were dwindling. Hell, he wouldn’t deny to himself that he’d felt there could be something between them, especially after being stranded out here: the Lieutenant was a married woman, but it wasn’t like they were ever going home. He had no illusions that most of his “peers” on the jury saw him as particularly virtuous, either, especially after Caiyun’s testimony.
He sighed. Fuck it, he’d rather be shot like a rabid dog than roll over like an obedient one for maniacs and traitors. So, with what little ability to control his muscles he could manage, he contorted his face into a sneer, not just at Caiyun but every traitor on the ship, and snarled out the first curse that came to him.
Hua Mengyao sat on his knees on a hard steel floor, packed into a large room with his fellow officers and soldiers. If the broadcasts by that Korean bitch that had led the mutiny, Major Ran, were to be believed then the trials were over and a surprising amount of his fellow soldiers were being reeducated instead of executed like him. He had been trying to make peace with his approaching death, whenever it would come. At the least, he knew how he was going to go: they all did.
After all, every soldier there recognized an airlock when they saw one.
Several hours after external transmissions from a Chinese medium ship and three American small ships cut out (resuming only long enough to transmit a short, coded, radio burst in Russian and French translated as “All objectives complete. Ships secured,” and touching off an hours long standoff between the Eurasia Pact and Trans-Pacific Partnership fleets), the tension had been broken by the announcement of the Greater Movement’s uprising. Mere minutes passed before, amid the fury of fleet communication, a single smiling face flooded civilian and military channels across the fleets.
A young Asian woman, dressed in a uniform cleanly stripped of all rank indication and insignia save a nameplate, stared into the camera.
“Greetings, fellow members of the Prometheus Expedition. My fellow exiles by chance.”
She pointed to her nameplate, “My former superiors in the Chinese fleet no doubt recognize me from their databases as Major Ran Seul-ki of the Korean Federal Forces Marine Corps, devoted daughter of the puppet government in Pyongyang. Your various state security representatives may know me better as Comrade Baek of the Korean Liberation Organization.”
“Today I speak to you as merely Herald Ran Seul-ki, speaker for the Burned Woman. For it is not only the oppressed and exploited Korean people that we seek to liberate, but all of humanity, and to protect the people of this new world from the appetites of the so-called “Big Four.”
A series of still images and videos interrupted the video feed: military officers meeting with NAU and Eurasian businessmen, shipping containers packed with illicit drugs, signed memos detailing emergency procedures for executing nonessential personnel to conserve rations.
The “Herald’s” voice continued on as these and more were shown, “The people of this ship and more rose up as one when confronted with the short-sighted hypocrisy and evil of their so-called superiors. Shielded by their own virtue and the aid of the Burned Woman –the aid she offers to all those oppressed by and tired of greed and hate- they put an end to the madness.”
“Resistance implies something to resist, of course: it is unfortunate fact that not all can see the path to enlightenment, to salvation. A number of men and women unfortunately went to their graves still blinded by the lies of governments built on rape and greed, and we mourn the loss of what may have been. Of those captured resisting the will of the people, they were tried fairly by their peers, and the complete footage of their trials is now being distributed for all your people to see. Unlike them, we have nothing to hide.”
Finally, the Herald’s face returned to the screen, “Of those tried, many are capable of seeing the error of their ways and are now being reeducated so that their sins might not be repeated and they may be welcomed back by their friends with open arms. Some have been deemed incapable of reform, but only through the fault of their superiors: these unfortunate souls remain in our care, their medical needs seen to and provided with the same emergency rationed food as all other inhabitants of their ship. Despite the fact that the Burned Woman’s mercy would only be used against us by the merchants of hate, we are not opposed to negotiations for their release, though they will be kept safe regardless.”
The image feed was once again interrupted, this time by still photos, switching between four ships, “We wish to congratulate the Revolutionary Front for Salvation and Liberty on their successful uprising, and inform the rest of the Prometheus Expedition of the state of matters- your restraint in not blowing up one other at the first hint of treachery is, as always, commendable.
The Burned Woman walks among you, and her followers now have command of four ships: the former Chinese medium vessel now known as the King in Yellow, and the former NAU small vessels known as the Friend of Man and Beast Alike, Haute Tropique, and La Montaña Sagrada. It would be unwise to attempt to capture or destroy them as, in either case, the volume of debris from even small ships traveling at such a speed would be very troublesome
, wouldn’t it?”
“Finally, on the subject of the 67 individuals: officers, soldiers, businessmen, and others who were either deemed both responsible and incapable of repenting for their crimes or who feigned remorse in hopes of acting as spies or saboteurs, they have been dealt with in the manner fitting all those who threaten humanity’s future and that of these newly discovered sentient beings: an efficient execution and a respectful disposal.”
The feed returned a final time to the smiling face of the Herald, “Many will see this message as a threat, indeed it is a threat to the status quo, but it is only in the warped perception of ideologies born from enslavement and greed that, because we speak frankly, we are zealots.”
“No, this is a message of hope for you, my brothers and sisters. We are stuck here, so far from those we love. There are those who wish to despoil this new world and its inhabitants to serve the agendas of nations that, for now, we are dead to, and ought to be dead to us. But you can ignore those agendas. Ignore those who push them and begin again.”
The image feed cut out, followed by the Herald’s words.
“There is only one second chance in life, friends. Make the most of it.”