Moral Imperative

A thump woke Hayden with a start to the empty blackness of her room. In the bed next to her, her sororal twin sister, Wynn, slept soundly. Hayden walked to the window of her bedroom and pulled back the curtain, seeing the cold dark sky warmed by a large fire in the distance. She pulled the curtain closed and ran out of her bedroom. Standing at the front door, she pulled up her nightgown and carefully slid her feet into the galoshes by the door. As she slipped into the street, a dark figure quickly approached, treading carefully over snow piles scraped to the sides of the road.

“Hayden, get inside!” the figure called out.

“Daddy? What’s going on?”

“Get inside! It’s not safe out here.”

Hayden obliged. “Is something on fire? Is that your lab?” she asked, as her father closed the door behind him.

“Take off your boots, honey.” He avoided the question and knelt to help Hayden remove the galoshes over her bare feet. His parted brown hair was combed neatly. He leaned in for a kiss, his short beard scratching her cheek.

“I heard a thump and then saw the fire.”

Her father looked down at her with a hard stare, as though he was deciding what to say.

“I’m old enough to understand, Daddy,” she said suddenly. He smiled.

“You’re eight, Hayden.”

“I’m old enough.”

“Of course you are. Look sweetie, I need to talk to your mother.”

He walked past Hayden and entered the master bedroom. Hayden sat in confusion on the furniture in the parlor. Curiosity was giving way to concern. She could hear her parents talking in hushed voices behind the door of their bedroom. Hayden approached the door and tried to decipher the sounds.

“…were innocent, Helen. I swear they’d done nothing, but they were just killing them all. I had to do something,” her father’s voice seemed to shake.

“Gods, what have you done, Oscar?”

“You remember before the Dynasty. We were Azurians too. They’re no different from us.”

Dripping with contempt, her mother replied, “But they’ll kill you now. The Enclave will brand you a criminal. Were the lives of a few refugees worth the lives of your daughters?”

“That’s not fair.”

“They’re going to imprison us all! You’ve doomed this family. How could you be so selfish?”

“Helen…”

A violent slap split the relative silence of the Stokes household. Hayden could hear Wynn stirring, and tried to maintain her silence as tears crept into her eyes. The door in front of Hayden opened and her father loomed, the darkness hiding his expression. He stepped past Hayden and walked toward the parlor in silence.

“Mommy?” Wynn had finally woken and stood at the door of their bedroom, rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Go back to bed, girls,” their mother approached, shooing them back into their bedroom. Hayden slipped past her mother, chasing after her father.

Shouts from the street penetrated the house, the sound of boots striking the ground in rapid succession echoed in the darkness. “Daddy…” Hayden said as her father turned toward her. He knelt to her level and held her cheeks in his hands. His bright green eyes shone in the darkness and searched her face. Hayden knew he could see her thoughts. All eyes were on the door as the sounds subsided. A harsh knock broke the silence. Wynn and her mother stepped into the parlor. Hayden’s father turned to her again.

“Remember Hayden, inquiring mind and discerning eyes. Don’t believe everything they tell you. There are greater goods in this world than anything the Enclave says. Follow your heart, become the strongest person you can. Even if you fail, keep trying. You can’t learn if you don’t lose.” Another harsh knock.

Her father stood and walked toward the door. Her mother grabbed his shoulder, tears in her eyes, “Oscar…”

He only nodded, continued to the door and opened it. Lantern light and cold winter air poured into the house. Soldiers stood in a rank that extended beyond where Hayden could see. Her father stepped into the street and Hayden ran after him.

“Oscar Stokes,” an officer in a dark blue uniform trimmed with braided gold addressed him, a platoon of Enclave soldiers standing at attention behind him.

“Captain Bannam,” Hayden’s father replied. Against the show of force, her father seemed small and insignificant, dressed plainly in brown breeches held up by suspenders over a pin-stripe shirt, its sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The bright lantern light cast an aura around his shape.

“You are accused of disobeying an Enclave order and aiding the escape of Azurian criminals,” the officer said, loud enough so the entire street could hear. Window shutters all around them slid open silently.

“Refugees,” was all her father said in response.

“Criminals, and enemies of the Enclave. Your crime is treason, and the penalty is death.”

Hayden ran barefoot into the snow and clutched her father’s leg. “You’re wrong! Father would never help criminals!” Her father knelt and hugged her, his warmth removing the chill from her.

“You would hide behind a child, now?” the officer challenged him.

Hayden’s father stood once more and firmly pushed her away. Hayden slipped in the snow and stared up at her father in surprise as the officer stepped closer and raised his pistol to her father’s chest. Her father looked down at her with a warm smile and said simply, “Learn.”

The shot was silent as steam poured from the barrel of the pistol, released by a compressed canister. Hayden’s father never stopped smiling, even as his body crumpled to the ground. Hayden felt the snowy cold of the ground melt away as his life essence pooled about her feet.

Ten years had passed. Hayden now stood on the corner of the street, staring at the puddles of last night’s rain around her boots. Cobblestone streets stretched across the vast city of Laurel, capital of the Davvis Enclave. The Enclave was a relatively small nation, landlocked inside the failed Azurian Republic. Nearly half a century ago, famine had ravaged the countryside of Azuria and the small wealthy state of Laurel had closed its borders to protect its fertile lands and defended them fiercely. Not long after, the powerful Davvis family emerged from the ruling oligarchy and established the first dynasty, renaming the state of Laurel to the Davvis Enclave. It seemed only fair to leave the eponymous state capital, now national capital, named Laurel.

Buildings crowded together, ending directly at the curb. The earthy colors of plaster and stucco facades intermingled with the occasional stone wall, outlining a courtyard or garden. Ornate green-painted streetlamps stood stoically along the curbs of the larger roads, adorned with floral displays in celebration of the coming of spring. The morning sun cast a cold shadow across the street, so Hayden held her dark-blue uniform coat, trimmed with silver braiding, tightly around her just as a spring breeze numbed her ears. Hayden momentarily regretted cutting her hair. Now, it was short and messy, a dark brown contrasting the bright green eyes she and Wynn had inherited from their father. Hayden became peripherally aware of someone running up the street behind her, boots striking the cobblestone and echoing louder as the distance closed, then suddenly a hand grasped Hayden’s shoulder and spun her around.

“I almost thought you’d left for the Academy without me!”

Wynn stood panting beside Hayden, wearing an identical uniform. Her jackboots were polished to a mirror-sheen, which made Hayden aware of the dust covering her own. Wynn’s blond curls fell softly over her shoulders.

Hayden took a step toward the school, “Let’s go, or we’ll be late. ‘Tardiness carries a heavy price’ remember?”

Wynn laughed, “Your impression of the Headmaster improves every time.”

“Who can tell me the primary fuel source for the steam engines that power our country?” Hayden leaned back in her chair as Headmaster Bannam surveyed the classroom, seeking an answer covered by the previous night’s readings. A hand materialized from the crowd of bored cadets.

“Ionium dioxide, Headmaster!” Wynn offered without being called upon.

He nodded, “Do you know the specific ionium isotope?”

“232, sir.”

“Very good Cadet Stokes,” he smiled, “I wish the rest of the class had your enthusiasm for their studies. Now might anyone besides Cadet Stokes tell me the mechanism we use to capture the energy Ionium dioxide emits?”

The room was so silent it might as well have been empty. Hayden looked side to side, the faces of her classmates blank as a bed sheet. Wynn leaned backward to Hayden and whispered, “Say it!”

Annoyed, Hayden leaned toward her sister and whispered back, “Say what?”

“The answer! Gods Hayden, you know this!”

Hayden leaned back again, “Of course I do. Dad designed the damned things,” her contempt was tangible. Wynn frowned.

“Do you have the answer, Cadet Stokes?” Both Hayden and Wynn looked forward startled by his attention, “Hayden? Did you have something to share?” He stared at her smugly.

Hayden sat up straight and addressed the Headmaster directly, “The radioactive decay heats the reactor casing, which in turn heats water around the casing. The water becomes steam, then forces itself through a turbine, converting mechanical energy to electrical energy.”

The Headmaster seemed surprised she had the answer and nodded, “Very good, Cadet Stokes. That was… definitive.”

Hayden resumed her relaxed position in the chair.

“That will wrap up today’s lesson. Next week, you won’t have the pleasure of my instruction, as Professor Sheady will have returned from his consult with the Air Corps,” the relief was palpable. “Also, don’t forget to take your sabers home with you after class. As you recall, we have a live war game scheduled in District 12 on Monday and the school won’t be open. Be on time. Tardiness carries a heavy price!”

The sound of sliding chairs and rustling papers mingled with excited conversations as the cadets packed up their texts and discussed the upcoming war game. Hayden noticed Wynn lacked the enthusiasm that was near universal in the room, “Your swordsmanship isn’t as bad as you think, Wynn.”

 “I can ace chemistry, but I’ve never been good with swords. I’ll never be as skilled as you.”

“You just need to practice more. I’m only good because I practice a lot and spar with people better than me. You can’t learn unless you lose,” Hayden said, walking toward their lockers.

“That’s what dad used to say,” Wynn muttered and caught up.

“Yeah, he never backed down from a fight,” Hayden recalled proudly.

Wynn turned and stood in front of Hayden, “Dad took risks, and that’s not something to be proud of Hayden. He was a traitor!” Hayden was taken by surprise.

“That’s not true.”

“You saw what happened that night! The papers covered it all!”

“Dad didn’t do those things and you know it,” Hayden felt sick listening to her sister walk all over the memories of their father.

“And where did he leave us? Where did it leave Mom? He died, they took his pension – he left us with NOTHING. Mom was never the same! Now, it’s up to us to take care of her.”

Hayden looked away from her sister, “Yeah, we signed up when we were kids to take advantage of the living-stipend program. You don’t think it’s weird that the military starts training at 12 years old? It doesn’t strike you oddly that the only life you’ve known for the last six years has been a military life? We’re learning to kill people.”

“Hayden…”

“And Dad would never have killed those soldiers without reason. He was saving Azurian refugees. He wouldn’t have stood up to the Dynasty unless something was seriously wrong.”

“He stood up and died. The Davvis Dynasty protects us from those criminals. They would have taken everything if Davvis hadn’t stepped up. You always act like you want to pick up dad’s torch, but there isn’t one. He died for nothing.”

Hayden stared at her in disbelief, Wynn’s eyes hardened with resolve. It was then that Hayden realized Wynn bore no love for their father. She had completely bought the government lies. The government killed her father and now they had stolen her sister.

“Fine,” Hayden finally said, defeated.

Wynn softened. Reaching out, she hugged Hayden, “All we have to worry about now is Mom. When we both graduate this year, we’ll be lieutenants.” She pulled back and held each of Hayden’s hands in her own, “We might even have enough for mom to finally see a doctor. She hasn’t spoken in years, but I’m sure with help…”

Hayden nodded silently and began to walk again, “I’m sure we will.”

They reached the lockers and Hayden pulled out her saber and attached it to her hip. Wynn continued to muse, “I’ll get a position in research like I’ve always wanted and you… well, you’ll probably end up the youngest captain in the fleet.” She giggled.

“Yeah… captain. That’d be something,” Hayden replied emptily. They each finished packing their gear and walked out the large arched doors of the Academy. Hayden glanced up at the slogan scribed into the stone above the entryway, ‘To show undying loyalty to the Enclave and defend her against her enemies’ – the last sentence of the Air Corps Academy mission statement.

 “I want to take a look at the field in District 12 before they close it off for the war game. Let’s go by there on our way home,” Hayden said.

“Always the strategist. Well, let’s grab something at the market and we can make a picnic of it!”

“Picnic. Sounds good.”

The field in District 12 spread out below Hayden and Wynn as they stood on a ridge and viewed the valley. Already, carts were being guided by Enclave soldiers, laying out obstacles and digging trenches for cover. They would work all weekend to prepare the battlefield, and then the Air Corps cadets would battle out their war game with blunted sabers and low-compression steam rifles for the rest of the week.

The afternoon sun warmed the air as Hayden and Wynn pulled off their jackets, laid them on the ground and settled on top of them to eat their lunches. Hayden watched as the soldiers set up the field and took a bite of the sausage she’d bought at the market. Swallowing, she turned to Wynn, “I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to fight.”

Wynn nodded, “It’s okay.”

“You, Mom and me only have each other,” Hayden added.

“We’ll make it, together.”

Hayden smiled for a moment, then took another bite of the sausage. The distant clop of horse hooves grew louder as a covered cart and single rider approached Hayden and Wynn. Hayden turned.

“You two are cadets,” observed the officer sitting atop the cart, pulling the team of horses up short.

“See you back at camp, Lieutenant”, the single rider waved, his uniform bearing the insignia of a captain. He nodded toward Hayden and Wynn, nudging his horse to a trot.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” Wynn responded and stood up rigidly, prepared to assume a state of attention. Hayden stood, but not at attention. Wynn dug an elbow into her ribs and Hayden straightened her form.

“You two need to leave. This area is off-limits until Command opens the war game.”

Wynn instantly obeyed and began packing up their picnic. Hayden sighed and helped. Trusting them to obey the order, the officer shook the reigns and the horses began to move forward once more. As the cart passed, Hayden glanced at its contents and was surprised to see faces staring out at her. Their eyes were filled with wild terror and silent pleas for help. The people in the cart were bound hand and foot, their mouths gagged with rags. Their clothing was tattered, their hair matted and their skin dusty like they hadn’t bathed in weeks. Hayden stepped forward to investigate, but Wynn caught her sleeve and mouthed a silent “no”. Hayden pulled away from her.

She ran up to the cart and stood on the foot-hold at the back. Reaching up, she pulled the gag from one person’s mouth and he immediately began to babble. Hayden hushed him, but he wouldn’t listen. The cart stopped. She stepped down from the back of the cart as the Lieutenant rounded the corner. Wynn ran to catch up.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing? I ordered you to leave the field, cadet!”

“Who are these people?” Hayden demanded.

“That’s none of your business. All you need to know is you don’t belong here!”

“Hayden, let’s go,” Wynn said.

“Why do they look like they’ve been dragged behind a horse across Azuria?” Hayden continued.

 “Cadet, I’m warning you. Go home, that’s a direct order,” the officer commanded.

The man who’d had his gag removed finally stopped babbling and shouted desperately, “They’ve imprisoned us for hunger! We’re Azurians, not criminals! We’ve done nothing wrong!”

Hayden’s eyes went wide. The officer punched the man square in the jaw and shoved the gag back into his mouth. Turning, he shouted, “If you don’t leave, I’ll have you arrested for aiding the escape of condemned criminals.”

“Refugees,” Hayden stated flatly, resting her hand on her saber.

“Hayden, let’s just leave! He gave us an order!” Wynn pleaded, pulling on Hayden’s arm.

“Could you hurt these people, Wynn? They’ve done nothing wrong! Look at them, they could barely stand. Half of them look like they haven’t eaten in weeks!” Hayden shouted, and pulled away from Wynn.

“Don’t do this, Hayden. You’ll be a criminal, like father!”

Wynn’s words struck Hayden and she swayed from the weight of them. Father, a criminal. Hayden could bear it no longer. “You have no idea what father was,” she said, finally, “He was a hero and he stood up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves. The Enclave kills Azurian innocents every day and tells us they’re just criminals. Well they can’t all be criminals, Wynn. It looks like all they want to do is eat. He died defending those principles. He died defending us.”

Wynn stepped back from Hayden, coldly looking into her eyes. “He died a traitor.”

“You’re coming with me, Cadet. We can sort this out with Headmaster Bannam,” said the officer as he stepped forward to place Hayden under arrest.

Hayden stepped backward, “I won’t let you kill these people.”

The officer laughed, “I’m not going to kill them. You are. ‘Show undying loyalty to the Enclave and defend her against her enemies’, remember? It’s part of this year’s final evaluations.”

The prisoner the officer had punched was becoming conscious once more and began to groan through his gag. The officer drew his saber, turned to the cart and drove his blade through the chest of the prisoner, blood trickling slowly down the immaculate steel. Wynn gasped, Hayden drew her saber. “Drawing a weapon on a soldier is a high crime, Cadet. Put that away.”

“These people aren’t our enemies. You are,” Hayden stated.

 “What are you going to do with that dull piece of shit anyway? Prepare yourself, traitor.” He lunged at her.

Hayden parried the blade and drove herself forward for a riposte, but the officer managed to block the strike. He swung his blade high and brought it down for a powerful overhead strike. Hayden sidestepped the swing and crushed her dulled blade into the officer’s face. He stumbled backward, his nose broken and bleeding profusely.

“You bitch!” he shouted, regaining his footing and swinging wildly at Hayden. Blow after blow, Hayden blocked, but the officer kept coming. His frantic onslaught drove Hayden backward until she was pinned against the cart. He brought his foot up and kicked her against the cart and stabbed at her. Hayden was pinned and couldn’t move, but something behind her shifted and she slid sideways.

The strike narrowly missed her chest and entered the cart behind her. As she continued to fall off-balance, Hayden saw that one of the prisoners in the cart had pushed her with his body, and his reward was to have the saber rake him across the face, cutting a gash across his nose and cheek. He took the wound with a muffled groan, and when the officer had retracted his blade, the prisoner looked to Hayden to ensure his desperate maneuver had succeeded. Hayden’s eyes emanated silent thanks as she scrambled away from the cart and stood just in time for the officer to strike again.

Three quick jabs at Hayden were effortlessly parried but came too quickly for her to retaliate. Filled with impatience and bloodlust, the officer coiled for a powerful jab and lunged at Hayden. She moved with the strike, pushing off her opponent’s blade with her own as he passed her. She spun with the momentum and brought her blade down with full force on the back of the officer’s head. He sprawled on the ground. Hayden stepped on his hand, forcing the hilt from between his fingers. She knelt and picked up the saber. It was still stained with the blood of the men in the cart.

The officer rolled over and groaned, clutching the back of his skull. “They’re going to string you up for this.”

Hayden ignored him and began cutting the bindings of the prisoners. Wynn had fallen to her knees, shocked at what she had witnessed. What she was still witnessing. “Hayden…”

“Help me untie these people.”

“You’re a traitor… like father…”

Hayden stopped. She turned to Wynn, her stomach churning in betrayal. “What? This soldier slew an unarmed man in front of you and you call me the traitor?” she demanded with incredulity.

“They’re criminals, he said so. There must be a reason they were imprisoned,” Wynn countered.

A warm voice erupted behind Hayden, “Aye, there’s reason fer it. We came t’ steal food fer the starvin’ folks outside the Enclave. Believe it er not, ya’aren’t the only people on this planet. The Enclave didn’ take kindly t’ that.”

“Stealing! You see? They should all be locked up, Hayden. Don’t you see? They’re thieves!” Wynn pleaded.

“Feeding the hungry should never be a crime, Wynn. Where are your priorities?”

“With our family!”

“What does our family matter when people are dying outside our borders from hunger? You’d have them sacrificed and murdered for sport by students for wanting to fill their bellies for once?”

The argument was interrupted by a sudden movement. The officer had seized the opportunity to recover his wits, drawn a knife from his boot and lunged at the group. Hayden saw the movement and dodged away. The officer’s stab went wide, but Wynn was caught, unable to move from her position. The knife dug into her shoulder. She cried in pain as the soldier drew the knife out for a second strike.

“Bastard!” Hayden shouted as the officer charged her once more. Hayden swung the officer’s saber downward and sliced cleanly through his wrist, disarming the threat, but in a rage, she spun as she had before and the blade met bone as it cut deeply into the back of the officer’s neck. The officer crumpled to the ground, killed instantly as the blade severed his spine. He lay motionless and Hayden watched as his blood slowly pooled around her boots.

The man in the cart began to free the rest of the prisoners as Hayden stood panting over the body of the officer. “Oh gods,” she muttered, then “Wynn!”

Hayden ran to Wynn’s side peeled back fabric to find the wound, but Wynn pushed Hayden away, “You’ve doomed our family, Hayden. How could you be so selfish?”

The familiar words cut Hayden deeply. The realization that her sister and she had grown irreparably apart filled Hayden from the inside out, a look of disgust forcing itself onto her face. Wynn could never understand the compassion she had for the people suffering outside of the Enclave. Wynn did have one thing right, though: Hayden was now a murderer and a criminal according to the Enclave laws, and she would surely hang for what she did, and Wynn would hang beside her.

“Ya’ gonna help me with these ropes or ya’ jus’ gonna sit there lookin’ sorry fer yerself?” the man shouted from the back of the cart as he pulled the gag out of another prisoner’s mouth. Hayden climbed into the back of the cart and began cutting the bindings with the officer’s bloodied sword.

“Ya’ got a name, kid?” the man asked.

“Hayden. Stokes.”

“Name’s Lazarus Meacle. Call me Laz,” he responded, “We better get moving ‘fore that cap’n notices his lieutenant’s missing.”

“We’ve got nowhere to go,” Hayden lamented.

“Good thing I’ve got a ship then, aye?”

Wynn looked up surprised, “You’ve got a ship? How’d you end up in this if you’re a merchant?”

The older man laughed and jumped down from the cart. Now in the light, Hayden could finally get a good look at him. He wore a leather long-coat that parted at his belly and his trousers were held in place by a thick brown belt that had a loop for a saber. The blood from his gash ran down his face and was soaking into the cotton shirt he wore beneath the coat. “Ha! I’m no merchant, my lady. I’m a pirate, and half these boys’re on my crew!”

“A pirate?!” Wynn could barely contain her contempt, “You see Hayden, they are criminals! You’ve killed us all for a common thief!”

“Oh, now I’m no common thief, girl. Don’t go believin’ everythin’ yer government tells ya’. We’re out rightin’ the wrongs those nobles o’ Laurel be doin’ to everyone else in Azuria.”

“How do we get out of here?” Hayden asked, interrupting the argument.

“Our ship’s east a’ here. Yer welcome t’ join us if ya’want.”

“I’m not going anywhere with these outlaws,” Wynn stood, turning to leave.

Hayden stepped toward her, “Wynn…” She stopped herself. The only way she could prevent any of them from being punished for this crime was to leave the Enclave and take the blame. Wynn would have to live with the stigma, but the blame would be placed on Hayden. She would never be able to return home, either, or risk being caught and executed. She realized she had no choice.

“Tell Mom I love her, Wynn,” Hayden said instead.

Wynn simply glared over her shoulder, then turned to home and walked in silence.

As Hayden, Meacle and the rag-tag crew stepped out of the trees and into a clearing some five kilometers east of District 12, the ship rose out of the ground before them like an iron castle. The hull had a dull grey finish, the entire length pockmarked with burns and dents. It was at least five decks tall with a dozen turreted guns on both sides and a pair of large batteries atop the bow and stern. Facing the small party, the bridge rose from the forward bow, with a plate of thick reflective glass separating it from the elements.

“The Powdered Maiden,” Meacle said. “She’s seen better days, but she manages jus’ fine.”

As the group approached the starboard bow, a hatch in the hull swung open and a man in Enclave uniform stepped out. Instinctively, Hayden turned to flee, but Meacle caught her by the arms. “Relax. Tha’s just our Cap’n,” he said.

The captain approached the group. His uniform had faded from dark blue to a blue-grey. Golden braids bordered the epaulets, and large brass buttons ran down the front. His insignia had been ripped from the shoulder, but he still wore the ribbons of the various battles he’d fought. He held out his arms to embrace Meacle.

“Where have you been? I expected you back last night,” he stated in a very formal tone, “And who might this be, Mr. Meacle?”

“We ran ‘cross some trouble and ended up in a bit of a bind, but this young soldier grew a conscience and helped us out. We lost Airman Garry, last night, so we’ll need a new helmsman.”

The captain looked Hayden over carefully. His stark blue eyes seemed to pierce through her. Finally, his stare rested on her face, and for a moment, she thought she saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

“My name is Captain Jim Keery, young lady. This is my ship. I see you’re a cadet of the Academy,” he said finally.

“Yes, sir. My name is Hayden Stokes; I’m a 7th year Cadet preparing to graduate.”

“I see. About to be promoted to Lieutenant then?”

“Yes, sir.” Hayden felt herself straightening to attention.

“How good are you with ionium-reactor steam engine operations?”

“The best, sir.”

Keery nodded. “Any good with a saber?”

Hayden opened her mouth to respond, but Meacle interrupted, “Ahhh you shoulda seen ‘er, Cap’n! She took down a lieutenant like ‘e was a pig swinging on a rope!” Hayden blushed and closed her mouth, simply nodding.

The captain continued, “Do you have experience with steering a ship?”

“No, sir,” Hayden admitted.

Meacle chuckled, “Ha! At least she’s honest, eh?”

 “Well, we have no use for cadets on-board, Miss Stokes,” Keery said, filling Hayden with disappointment. If she wasn’t welcome here, she couldn’t find a home anywhere. “Can you work with the rank of Lieutenant?” he finished. Hayden looked up in astonishment and nodded with relif.

“First you’ll need to learn the helm,” the captain added as he turned toward the ship.

Keery led the group aboard, but Hayden lingered just outside the hatch. The hatch stood open and inviting, but she hesitated to step through it. Hayden thought of her mother but knew Wynn would always take care of her – and would never forgive Hayden. Finally, Hayden thought of her father standing up for what he knew was right and giving his life for it. A swell of conviction filled Hayden and she knew she’d finally realized what he’d truly meant. Learning through loss wasn’t about fighting. It was about life. She knew now that she must give up what she held dear to fight for what she knew was right.

Hayden turned and stepped into the hatch, then swung it closed behind her.