I always thought, if someone were to kill me, it’d be a Naatrid. Not to be racist or anything—racist? Speciesist?—but I always figured, if someone were to hold a gun to my head and pull the trigger, or stab me in the back, or maybe even between the eyes, a Naatrid would be on the aiming side of the weapon. My people don’t agree. Us Conglomerate folk, we hate the Alliance. You know. Kyraseo, the Clarae system, Magnelite. All those worlds, splitting at the seams with dying, codependent species that wouldn’t last ten minutes without each other. But our people don’t fear the Naatrid. I know my people. Up front, they honor Naatrids as warriors, as powerful fighters that we can use. But behind their backs, they talk of the Naatrid as if they were lost animals, petty children who deserve nothing more than scorn. Like how some races throw vicious animals into the fight first, to weaken the opposition. My people couldn’t care less about the Naatrid. The planets of the Shal’ra Conglomerate are self-sufficient. We rarely communicate or rally together under any unifying cause. All twenty-six of our worlds could, independently, start a war with a small, unaffiliated planetoid and win in a matter of days. But we fear the Alliance’s unity. We fear the fact that, should some wayward Shalyran minister take it upon himself to deck a Magnan in the face, or start a bar fight with one of the millions of inebriated Obsol miners, or maybe even tell some Kyrasi heiress that her gills are looking a little crooked, we’d have another galactic war on our hands. Well, we used to fear war. Then our new Seo came along. I’m a dutiful member of the Conglomerate, down to the talons. When the news came to Shaltra that Seo Nakm had not only created a new alliance with our closest trade partners, but had assassinated the heirs to the Kyrasi throne and declared war on the entire Alliance, I reluctantly took my place in the army. It seemed that only I was reluctant—then again, for the rest of my people, willingness made sense. We hate the Kyrasi. And with our allies and their resources at our disposal, we had a significantly higher chance of winning. An independent system is only so powerful in a war against the entire Tripartite Galactic Alliance. I was a pilot—well, more like a transport pilot. I took people from the Conglomerate and brought them to the fight. Never once did someone expect me to pick up a weapon, or to hold a gun any stronger than a sidearm. My ship was my weapon, and even then I was never expected to return fire. I was never unnaturally scared or fearful for my life. After all, I knew, deep in my soul, that it wouldn’t be any Alliance fighter that killed me. It would be a Naatrid. As was my duty, I rarely questioned my orders. Why should I? It wasn’t my place. The ship, the Vertigo, that was where my power lay. When a Shalqran captain told me to go to the Magnan moon and retrieve his assassins, in the heat of the heaviest battle of the war, I did. When General Morguen ordered me to do a bombing run on the Earth barrier, I did. Even when I was rerouted to escort an Amban ship to Archia at any and all costs, I did so dutifully, unhindered by fear. This war could never kill me. The first time I ever questioned orders was when I was told to go to Naatrid. Just slipped out, really. It wasn’t intentional in the slightest. But the Shalsran who delivered the order thought I was serious, and had to consult her manager to figure out the appropriate way of responding. Of course, the order stood. The manager made a big deal out of how I had dared speak against my duty, and I apologized, sincerely. But nagging in my head was my first inkling of unfounded fear, the reminder of my greatest terror. My crew knew this fear of mine. A pilot’s crew is family. But they are of the new Conglomerate, of Nakm’s regime. Where I see menace, they see paranoia. They were respectful yet wary. I never made any indication to them that I was uncomfortable— besides, there were no Naatrids aboard the Vertigo to fear. But I’m sure they knew. My eyes felt wild as I plotted the course that would lead me to what was sure to be my own death. Usually, my crew fills a voyage with stories of victory and happiness, of peace and love, of the good times. This time, the Vertigo was silent as the space encasing it. Only my orders rang out as I directed us away from battles and towards the fringes of colonized space. Towards the planet known as Naatrid. A chill ran through me as we breached the atmosphere, entering a world where life lives in the negative temperatures. I knew my orders—be polite. Take on thirty mercenaries from the Geldi base. Deposit them three days later on the Magnan surface for a sabotage mission. I didn’t need to wait for them once I dropped them off. They’d find their own way out. Or not. Simple, clean sabotage, no strings attached. I failed my first order immediately and on purpose. On my orders, the Vertigo didn’t land a few kilometers from Geldi as instructed, but rather directly on the base’s landing pad. So much for being polite. As my customs dictate, I waited at the base of the ramp to greet the Naatrid. My home, Shaltra, is a tropical paradise, and yet on this world my breath left icy plumes in the air. The Naatrid squadron exited the base with an air as frigid as the planet around them— and even my brazen crew, curious by nature, took a few steps back at the sight of their heavy armaments. But my orders never told me I had a right to move away. I’m no fighter, by any means, but my fingers twitched over my gun regardless as their leader moved towards me. They didn’t seem angry with my breach in decorum. The captain reached out for my hand to shake, waiting expectantly for me to show him the respect he granted me. I grabbed his hand—it was, if possible, colder than the atmosphere and the Naatrid combined. Ah, the infamous Captain Bj. An honor to fly with you, he said, coolly, rationally. I was honestly surprised he knew my name. His Shal’ran was fragmented at best, but he didn’t seem to care. I invited him aboard with all the politeness my entrance had been lacking. His soldiers followed, my crew leading them to what would be their barracks for the next sixty-eight hours. But the captain stayed with me. He introduced himself as Vargeiis, and together we sat in the mess hall and just...talked. It was strange. His weapons were aside, he seemed to have no animosity towards me. But just talking? That was it? No secret war talks, no veiled threats, nothing related to this critical sabotage mission? Nothing. Nothing but questions, hinging on the border of invasiveness. Somehow he knew my first name, as well as everything about my career, but my feats of excellence hardly seemed to impress him. He reminded me of my jolly uncle Pedx, with all these curiosities about my personal life—my orders were the only thing keeping me sane through the conversation. Be polite, Tyro. Polite. Being killed by a Naatrid can wait a few years. Tell me about yourself, Tyro. Any family? Friends? Acquaintances? I shook my head. Just my uncle, sister, and two nieces. No friends beside my crew. On Shaltra, everyone’s an acquaintance. He then felt the need to reciprocate all his prying, and began recounting the minutiae of his life and family back home. His stories were actually rather nice, if not a little droll. The ones about his children put me at ease somewhat, enough to completely stow my weapon. Of course, I would’ve been content to stay on a topic that didn’t involve my life in any capacity, but ultimately his mind wandered back to me. What about you? Why do you fight? I didn’t fight. I flew. I frankly didn’t care who I flew where, since I felt no personal stake in this war. As long as Shaltra would be around for me to come home to, I’d be content doing something else altogether. I told him as much and he laughed, a deep, rumbling chuckle that almost sounded warm. Ah. You’re not like the Naatrid, then. You don’t have a reason. We need a reason to fight. There’s no honor in it otherwise. What’s your reason? We are still mercenaries, my young Captain. Money has its virtues. But there is always honor to be found in joining an ally in combat. And you find honor in a war that isn’t yours? It is as much yours as it is mine, Tyro. As you said, you don’t fight. The Naatrid were hired to pick up your slack—you’ll lose Magnelite without us and you know it. I couldn’t care less. He was rather silent after that. I guess I had defined the line between us. There were no long talks with Vargeiis after that. My crew seemed to learn my discomfort with the Naatrid as the days passed. It’s not really their appearance, in my opinion. They look as humanoid as we do, perhaps even more so. But on my ship, they held their weapons with such conviction that one couldn’t help but wonder how likely they were to use them on us. I could look at any one of the mercenaries and vividly picture my murder, scene by scene, like a visceral slideshow. The days dragged, the two crews staying apart without anyone telling them to. We arrived none too soon in the Magnan system. The Naatrid were ready for battle, weapons and arcane magic locked and loaded. Good for them. Despite that unwelcome heart-to- heart with Vargeiis, I didn’t plan on staying to take them home. Then the battle began. Alarms blared, the Vertigo rocked in the sky and barely made it to the ground. People screamed—my crew. Something was wrong, my crew would never act so unprofessionally. The enemy was onboard. Of course. Stupid. Our cargo must’ve turned on us. My basic training kicked in. I pulled out my gun and sprinted towards the loading bay, following the sounds of Naatrid war cries as my heart rose into my throat. The entire ship was decimated—it was a miracle that it hadn’t exploded yet. But the fight had been carried outside. I made my way down the ramp and immediately came across Vargeiis, his blade buried in a person obscured from view. He whirled on me in a fury, but his eyes lighted immediately when he saw me. Captain. Get on the ship, he snapped. His Naatrid was slow and easy to understand, but even so I barely managed to catch the basest meaning. You’re not safe here. All that mattered to me was the crewmember on his weapon. You killed them. You attacked my crew. Don’t be ridic—LOOK OUT! He lunged for me, and I fired blindly—but I was never a soldier. My shot went wide and he tackled me to the ground as a deafening crack split the air and Vargeiis was suddenly twice as heavy. I gasped for breath and rolled him off of me, his body cold as his homeworld, the burning mark on his back bringing with it a strange sense of clarity. My eyes poured over his face, looking for evil and finding only the blank stare that I usually associated with a fallen crewmember. The other Naatrid were nowhere to be seen. Panting, I staggered to my feet, but didn’t make it far before collapsing. Vargeiis’ victim was before me—but instead of the blue armor of my crew, I saw the red fatigues of the Magnan army. An enemy. Vargeiis had been fighting the enemy. Vargeiis had saved me from the enemy. How about that. Someone screamed in the distance, a familiar voice, and I made the fatal mistake of letting it distract me. I didn’t see it happen. But I heard it coming, heard the ragged tones of Magnan speech as a soldier shoved a knife through my torso. Magnan is my weakest language, but the few words I heard still ring in my ears--Glory to the Alliance. Glory to the Alliance. No reason. No foundation. No “leave my planet alone” speech. Just the Alliance versus the Conglomerate. No matter why. And now, here I am. Lying in wait for death. Soon to be killed over a conflict I couldn’t care less about. Wondering if Vargeiis went to the same heaven as I will. At least, I’ve learned my lesson. If it was a Naatrid who’d have killed me, they would’ve found a better reason.
-- Michal Zadok is seventeen and lives in Stony Brook, New York. She is a senior at Ward Melville High School. She has been writing fiction for as long as she can remember because her goal is to bring her fantastical world to life.