The opening of Trust A Few by E.M. Swift-Hook.
“You have no idea what you are letting yourself in for. How can you?”
Commodore Vane shook his head as he spoke, it was beyond understatement and beyond belief. The soldier’s green eyes were fixed on a point some distance behind the Commodore’s left shoulder. Their colour, so brilliant, Vane suspected genetic enhancement and their focus had been unwavering since he entered the room.
“I think I do, sir.”
He stood in a formal parade-ground stance, as ordered by the scowling Legionary Sergeant who had escorted him in and now lurked by the door. Vane had made a conscious choice not to relax him from the rigid posture. He never did with the conscripts. He glanced back at the remote screen he had called up, its contents invisible to anyone else.
“Amnesia,” he read the word aloud and looked back at the soldier. “Total amnesia?”
“Total retrograde amnesia, sir,”
The Sergeant, a big, broad-shouldered man called Hynas, stood almost a head taller than his charge who was not much more than average height, and the ever-present scowl changed to a sneer at the words. Vane ignored him.
“And do you know why?”
“Due to an unknown trauma immediately prior to my arrest, sir.”
“Prior to, not during?”
The way most of his men were brought in to begin their military career in his Legion it would not have surprised him in the slightest to find the injury had been inflicted at that point.
“I see.” Vane wondered if he truly did, the implications here were so disturbing. “You have no knowledge or memory of anything before your arrest?”
“And that means you have no direct knowledge or experience of what life is like outside the Legion?”
“No, sir. I do not.”
“Then how can you know you want to leave us, soldier?”
He noticed a slight hesitation then.
“I have no direct personal knowledge, sir, but I have researched a great deal about it.”
Which, he supposed, explained the hesitation. But the idea of researching the complexities of everyday life with zero experience of it, stretched his credulity. Vane tried to keep that disbelief from his voice.
“Yes, sir. I have talked to other people in my unit and accessed information through the Lattice.”
Everyday life as filtered through the minds of violent criminals and a military tactical data provider. The Commodore shook his head but let the naivety pass. His job was to confirm that this man met the criteria required and was fit to be released. In fact, it had been made very clear to Vane he should do whatever was needed to speed the process and allow as little questioning as possible.
But this man was no ordinary ex-criminal.
Once – and for many years – his name topped ‘most wanted’ lists throughout the Central worlds and the broader Coalition: the Protectorates and Independent worlds. In Vane’s circle, this man’s name used to be a household word for mindless destruction – the bogeyman of ultimate evil.
Vane found it a curious experience to meet the man behind the myth, but it also made the responsibility heavier, weighing up all the factors to consider if he should be discharged. Vane prided himself on his thorough professionalism and had no intention of giving in to any pressure over a decision of such significance.
That thought made him glance across to where a holofacade wall concealed a watcher from the other two men in the room. The reclined chair, slouched body and movement of the head suggested listening to music, or watching a show on a VR screen, rather than focusing on the interview. But perhaps not, for fingers lifted in a brief acknowledgement. The Commodore ignored the wave and looked back to study his own screens, checking the notes he had been given on Revid.
“Well you passed your orientation course without any problem and have been declared no danger to civilians.”
No danger. A bureaucratic joke even a military man such as the Commodore could appreciate. All the Special Legion were more than just dangerous. All serving a sentence for extremes of violent crime. A sentence that included enforced invasive surgery, implants, and drugs to enhance their capabilities. The brutal training regimens and suicidal military missions were sweetened by the promise of freedom after five years spotless service – a promise almost never fulfilled. In the eight years he had spent co-opted as commander of the Special Legion, perhaps a dozen other men had stood before Vane for discharge approval. Of those, less than half walked out as free citizens. He was not willing to risk any of the monsters he commanded back onto the streets without a very high threshold of evidence to demonstrate they were indeed ‘no danger to civilians’.
Vane nursed no illusions about the fate of those conscripted to serve under him. For the vast majority, joining the Specials meant nothing more than a deferred death sentence. His troops served with an average life expectancy of just under two years. Most died very quickly, either on active service or were killed in the gruelling training. Others fell afoul of their own violent recreational activities or failed to sustain the psychological strength needed and committed suicide. Some died in brawls or were murdered by their comrades. Yet it remained a truism whenever a dirty job needed doing anywhere in the Coalition’s sphere of influence, the Specials were first on the ground, often ahead of the AI mechs. Vane took pride from that. He heard the troops did too.
Ironically, it meant, to be standing here, this soldier could only be the toughest kind: a man who could survive and even thrive in such an environment.To date, those few up before him for release, fell into one of two categories: those who were ruthless and brutal in pursuit of their self-preservation, and those who were high functioning socially, surviving as much through their ability to engage with others as by their own prowess. He thought of them as the ‘Lone Wolves’ and the ‘Socialites’. The ones he passed fit to leave were of the latter type. Yet so far this man seemed to defy both categories and until he could fit him into one or the other it would be difficult to make a call.
He looked back from the screens to the man himself.
“How do you feel about becoming a civilian?”
The green eyes showed no expression.
“I have been informed it can be very rewarding, sir. I see it as an opportunity to serve the community of the Coalition and the chance for my own self-development and personal fulfilment – sir.”
Lines from a manual. The last individual he cleared for release, which must be over a year ago, said much the same: words any ex-criminal would have engraved into their psyche before being passed fit to rejoin society.
“You were arrested for perpetrating numerous acts of terrorism against the Coalition. How do you feel about that now?”
From beyond the holofacade, Vane noticed the lounging figure stir and pull the chair upright, leaning forward with sudden interest, staring a little to the side where, no doubt, screens were showing selected close-up angles and readings taken from the Lattice. But from Vane’s own perspective, there was little reaction to see. The soldier’s face remained impassive as he spoke:
“Although I acknowledge my guilt in many terrible crimes against humanity, due to my amnesia I have no memory of committing them. The Coalition is a just and compassionate association of free, democratic people. I cannot understand why I would ever have wished to commit such heinous acts.”
It sounded rehearsed, not at all the language of a ranker in the Legion and Vane noticed a frown forming on the face of the observer as their fingers moved, recording notes. The Commodore, feeling himself as much observed in this as Revid, pressed the point.
“Do you understand the nature of the crimes you committed?”
“I do, sir.”
The burly Sergeant Hynas standing behind Revid, had been glaring in silent protest for some time. Now he cleared his throat. Vane suppressed a momentary irritation and nodded his permission for the man to speak.
“With respect, sir, this man has been wired to the Lattice for the last five years, he has no real idea of what anything means except obeying orders and killing. He’s just a killer,” the Sergeant said, spitting the word, “and all he did before his arrest were killing, so it’s natural he would see nothing wrong with it now. I don’t care what the neurocologists say about it, I know this man and that’s the simple truth. That’s why it’s taken them so long to even consider clearing him for discharge, sir.”
For the first time since the interview began, Vane saw a spark of animation in Revid’s eyes. The fixed gaze shifted to meet his own, it’s intensity disconcerting.
“Permission to speak, sir.”
“He’s a – ”
Vane silenced the protesting Sergeant with a curt gesture.
“Permission granted, soldier.”
“Sergeant Hynas is under the impression I am unable to judge the moral difference between unjust murder and just warfare, between mindless terrorism and the well-considered use of force. I would like it to be on my record I am very much aware of the difference between the two. I made a public statement renouncing my previous criminal activities, some years ago, activities for which I have the deepest disgust.” It was his longest speech so far and for once his tone held a bite of emotion. Vane felt very sure Sergeant Hynas had been tormenting this man for a long time. “I have been given numerous additional tests to ascertain this and despite my application being rejected and returned for review four times, each time I have been cleared for release. I would like to vindicate the wisdom of the Coalition’s system of justice, offer service to the community as a civilian and take this chance to recommence my life. Sir.”
Vane sat still for a moment, shocked into silence. He had never heard any of his Legionaries speak like that. Coming from the mouth of the scarred, adapted creature before him, with an ugly direct brain-linked data port visible behind one ear, the incongruity of it left him feeling profoundly unsettled. The language sounded far from anything heard in the ranks and this did not seem like a well-rehearsed speech, which made it increasingly difficult to line up such fluent expression with the idea of total amnesia.
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