5 Hollow Victory

The canopy opened and bright light assailed his eyes. Zeke tried to sit up but was overcome with fatigue. The techs stood by at first but slowly bent down to assist him to a sitting position. When it was clear he wasn't going to be able to get up, even with the assistance of the suit, they finally reached down to help him.

"I just need a minute to clear my head," he told them. When he tried to get up, he fell out of the cockpit onto the walkway between the simulators.

"Take this damn helmet off," he told them, "I can't see anything!"

When they did, he noticed the grim expressions on their faces.

"What's wrong?" he asked the nearest. "Did something happen?"

"You're due at the mission debriefing," was his only answer. The two techs each grabbed an arm and helped him down the walkway.

He returned to the room where he had donned the suit. It was opened and he felt the cool air on the now sweat-soaked white garment he'd worn under the suit. He struggled to lift himself out of the suit. Assistance was noticeably slow in coming.

He was guided into a room where he saw General Yalt talking in a low voice to a captain.

The techs helped him, none too gently, into a chair near the front of the room, letting him drop the last few inches. The general gave them a sharp look, but said nothing.

"You're dismissed," the general told the techs and turned to look at Zeke.

After the techs left, Zeke asked, "What is going on? I'm assuming most people are not treated this way at the end of this sim?"

"Most people," he replied in an unexpectedly quiet voice, "do not complete the mission with the results you did." He added, "And they are able to get to the debriefing under their own power."

"Was needing help a sign of weakness?" Zeke countered.

"No, not at all," the general replied, "but as you can see, it afforded them the opportunity to express some...displeasure."

Zeke's confusion deepened. "Why?"

The general paused for a moment to form his reply.

"Although you have become a popular figure with the universal gratitude for your actions in defending this planet and saving countless lives, you are still an outsider. Doing something that no Anyari has succeeded at in a hundred years of attempts has set you apart, and emphasized your differences."

"Yesterday I was treated like a hero. Today I'm what... too full of myself for completing the 'mission'?"

"It is not a reasonable thing, but I can tell you that even I, who am as grateful as any, and as hopeful that you will have something to teach us, can feel a touch of resentment that all our best efforts were exceeded in a single attempt by someone totally unfamiliar with us, our history, or our technology."

"You know," Zeke responded, "I realize that luck was the biggest part of this. I did not plan the whole thing, or even think I had a chance at succeeding."

"I know that luck is always a factor, but I suspect you had an intuition that your plan would work. Did you not?" the general asked.

"We have an expression on Earth. We call it 'being in the zone'. It is when you are intently focused on a goal, and everything you do seems to be the right thing. So yes, in that sense, I guess you are right."

"Because of your celebrity, many people were 'watching' your mission. That is standard practice, anyone on the facility can connect and view them live, or replay them when desired.

"When it became apparent you were going to try something new, word quickly got around the base. Almost every non-essential activity on the base stopped and most view screens displayed your mission. That is unusual, but not unheard of, when it appears someone is doing well, or more rarely, when it appears someone has a chance of being successful."

"So not only am I unpopular, I am unpopular with pretty much everyone in the facility?"

The general smiled, "I would not worry. Before long, the video of your mission will spread around the planet and you will reach new heights of unpopularity."

Zeke sighed, "Will this affect my training or my chances of completing the training here?"

"Except for the additional stress and challenge this places upon you? No. It will not. I will make sure of that."

"OK," Zeke said, finally. "What next?"

"You spent a long time at more than three gravities, and I can see you're feeling the effects. You may have some injuries and you definitely need rest. You will spend tonight in the infirmary and rejoin your flight in a day or two. There are still basic introductory classes scheduled, so you will not miss very much. Maybe things will die down a bit by then."

"Generals don't usually conduct this debriefing. Do they?" Zeke asked.

"No," he answered, "and this hasn't really been a debriefing. You will have a chance to describe and explain your actions for the benefit of all the other trainees. Not just the trainees, I would imagine, but every pilot in the Service."

"I can't wait," Zeke said and started to smile, but even that hurt and the smile turned to a grimace.

"Medical personnel are waiting outside to take you to the infirmary."

"Thank you," Zeke said reflexively.

"No Zeke," General Yalt responded. "Thank you. I may be the only one to say it, but I will add 'Congratulations!'"

With that, he opened the door and someone entered with something that resembled a cross between a Segway and a wheelchair. He was helped up and into it and wheeled out the door.

In the hallway, outside the simulation room, the reactions of the other people walking past was split between those who stared at him, usually with some measure of anger or resentment, and the rest who studiously ignored him.

Thankfully, they were alone in the elevator. He couldn't see the attendant behind him and neither of them spoke.

They exited on the main level and he was wheeled into the medical facility.

Within was a hallway with rooms on either side. Most doors were open and he could see a few were occupied by other patients.

A young woman, who seemed entirely too young to be either a nurse or a doctor, waited in the room they entered.

"I'm Elenne. I'll be examining and treating you," she said brightly.

With the attendant's help, he stood up and made his way to an examining table. He was still clad in the soaked undergarments.

"That much time at high acceleration has probably strained some muscles. There could be some vascular or neurological damage, too. How do you feel?"

"Sore, weak, tired, and more than a little dizzy," he answered. "You may be the only one in the facility who's not giving me dirty looks. Why is that?"

"You are my patient and I take my responsibility for your welfare seriously. I'm not that familiar with, or interested in, the 'mission'. And I haven't forgotten that I, and many others, might not be here if not for you."

She examined him with both her hands and eyes. Some type of scanner was wheeled in and she used it to continue the examination.

"You have some strained muscles in your neck and back, not unexpected after what you went through. I will give you something to make you a little more comfortable. A little therapy tomorrow and you will be back with your flight the day after."

"Great," Zeke said without enthusiasm.

She placed a small device against his arm and he felt a prick. As she left, she smiled at him, telling him she'd be back to see him in the morning.

Within a few moments, Zeke started to relax and the soreness seemed to melt away. In a few minutes he drifted into a peaceful slumber, the excitement and trials of the day only a memory.

Zeke woke with Elenne sitting in a chair next to his bed.

"Doctors on Earth don't normally have time to wait for their patients to wake up," he said.

"Not many patients in the infirmary and most of them can be cared for by the robotic and skilled nurses.

"And," she added, "none of the other patients saved the world."

"Saving the world," he replied with a hint of sarcasm, "is somewhat overrated."

With that, he noticed that she was attractive, almost startlingly so. Her hair was brown and styled in a way that would not have been unusual on Earth.

"You seem a little young for a doctor---compared to what I'm used to, anyway. Most do not finish their training until their late twenties."

"I don't know about your system," she answered, "but here, we progress through different grades. We care for patients after as little as a half year of training. Education continues as we work, and the curriculum is varied depending on need and ability. I'm a physician, third grade, the first where we work with little supervision, except for the automated systems."

"I am," she continued with another smile, "only a few years older than you."

"That makes you," he asked, returning her smile, "a reasonable romantic target?"

"It may be the drugs in your system talking," she replied, "but since you're one of the most sought after young men on the planet, including, it is rumored by...," but she didn't continue the thought. "Anyway, I have you pretty much to myself for the next few days. I don't mind you thinking that I am."

The medications had evidently lowered his inhibitions, but even so, he felt his face flush at her response.

"It's not considered improper to become involved with a patient?" he asked, hoping that Anyar customs were different from those he knew.

"If you were seriously injured or ill, and I was going to treat you for an extended period it would be. And even our culture has some gender bias. If our positions were reversed, it might be frowned upon.

"I like to think," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "that most of your flight mates would feel lucky to be flirting with me."

The heat in his face would not go away, but her smile eased his discomfort.

Her tone turned a bit more serious, but remained pleasant and friendly. "It is time I asked how you're feeling this morning."

"Much better than I expected," he answered. "My muscles seem a little rubbery, but not painful."

"They have been strained and weakened. The medication has done its job in relieving your discomfort, but we'll start turning it down. We'll have you out of bed this afternoon."

"How am I doing?" he asked. "When can I return to training? I don't want to fall behind."

She told him not to worry and left him with a comm pad. "You can learn anything that doesn't require grasping a joystick or turning a wrench. Anybody who can save the world," she winked, "should be able to figure it out."

Left in the room by himself, he realized it was the first time he'd been alone since arriving on Anyar. Perhaps it was heightened by the drugs, but it seemed as if everything up to now had occurred in a dreamlike whirlwind and it had dropped him here, alone, in this quiet room, with nothing but his thoughts.

The bed he sat in was roughly similar to what he'd expect on Earth. It was subtly different, wider with sheets that were as soft as cotton, but thicker. The room had pastel colored, warmly textured walls.

He took the time to assimilate what had happened to him. He was no longer an "invisible" boy in a small rural high school. If he could believe what he'd been told, he was a hero and somehow desirable to the young women here.

He didn't know if they all would be as forward with their availability as she was. Nor did he know what to think about his "hero" status, and if Elenne would be disappointed with the "real" him that it appeared she might get to know.

A moment of trepidation at that thought chilled him. Then, he thought that just maybe he was up to the challenge... of Elenne, of the training, and for the moment, he allowed himself to consider Enne. He wasn't sure if he really had an interest in her, or if it was his pride wanting to best the fawning young men who surrounded her.

He drifted off to sleep and was woken by Elenne, Dr. Elenne, he thought.

"Time to get you up and moving," she commanded and took hold of his wrist and under his arm to help him sit up.

His muscles protested. It wasn't agony, but he felt a twinge with every move.

She folded back the sheets and he swung his legs off the side of the bed. She put light shoes on his feet and fastened them. His arms ached as he pushed himself forward and even his feet were tender as he put his weight on them.

"I'll help you up. Just in case you have trouble standing and keeping your balance." She slipped an arm around his waist and steadied him as he stood.

"How are you?" she asked.

"OK, I do this all the time," he joked.

"We've given you something to repair the damage to your muscles and other tissues. The soreness, however, will take another day or two to go away."

She guided him to the door. Soon he felt more stable and his stride became more confident.

Her arm, he noticed, stayed around his waist as they went out of the room and down the hall.

They turned into a room with several pieces of equipment. One was clearly a treadmill but recessed into the floor so that the moving surface was level with the floor. She guided him to it and had him wait as she attached some type of sensors to various places on his body, including inside his thighs, somewhat higher up than he expected.

"Here we go," she said, and the treadmill started moving.

Gradually it sped up to a brisk walk. The discomfort in his legs eased after a few minutes, but his arms, holding on to the rails, still hurt.

After several minutes, he was able to walk without having to focus and he noticed Elenne looking at him with a wry smile.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," was her answer.

After what seemed like an hour, but was only ten minutes by the clock on the wall, she pressed a button and the treadmill slowed. He was damp from the exertion.

"A hot shower," she said, "and you can rest."

He didn't really need her help now, but her hand still held his upper arm. Her grasp was gentler as she guided him to a large communal shower, like locker rooms back on Earth.

She left to get him a towel and clean clothes. He removed the light cotton pants and shirt. The warm water eased more of the aches.

When he turned off the water, he looked around to see that she had evidently been watching him. "I know that your people aren't as private as I'm used to, but do you always watch your patients shower?"

"I wanted to see if Earth men were different," she said with a smile. It hadn't occurred to him to be embarrassed, and she didn't seem to be disappointed with the way he looked.

He used the towel she handed him to dry himself and quickly, but not too quickly, put on the clean clothes.

She again held his upper arm as they returned to his room.

"You are still healing, but you're fine otherwise. I'll keep you in here until tomorrow; then you can go back on limited duty," she told him as he eased gingerly down on the bed.

She bent over to help him and their faces were close. Somehow he wasn't surprised when their lips met.

She left without saying a word.

He was suddenly drowsy and was asleep within a few minutes.

Some hours later he awoke as she entered the room.

"Was that a dream?" he asked. "With the drugs and everything..."

She answered with a smile.


"I don't know," she said hesitantly. "Maybe it is because you are very famous and I've had you all to myself. Maybe I just like you for who you are. Maybe both."

She went on, "That went too far. I could get in trouble, if someone found out that while under my care..."

"And who," he smiled, "would be foolish enough to tell anyone?"

That brought a trace of shyness to the smile on her face; her confident demeanor returned.

She held a small device against his arm and he felt something between a prick and a tickle.

"This will continue to speed your healing. Tomorrow you won't be one hundred percent, but you should have no trouble returning to your flight."

She was close again and he leaned toward her. She placed a finger on his lips. "Not...now," she said with a smile.

He did feel much better the next morning. He could see bruising all over his body, even his face when he looked in a mirror in the bathroom.

Elenne brought his breakfast on a tray.

"You normally do that, or am I getting special treatment?" he said with a smile.

"I guess you'll just have to wonder, won't you?" she responded.

His cadet uniform was folded on his bed. "I'll leave, this time," she smiled, "while you dress."

As soon as he was finished, the door opened and Yipt stood waiting.

"Cadet Tilor," he said. "I see you have had some excitement."

Zeke couldn't detect a trace of a smile, but something in his voice hinted at amusement.

"Our definitions of excitement differ in some respects." Zeke felt he could get away with the answer.

"Please accompany me, and we will return to the flight."

As they walked, Yipt spoke, "Your injuries could have been serious. I am told you have recovered enough to continue training, but if you have any physical effects, do not hesitate to tell me. There is a time for physical toughness, but that time is not yet here."

He looked at Zeke who responded simply, "I understand."

"You understand," Yipt continued, "that your achievement has not been appreciated by all? General Yalt spoke with you?"

Zeke nodded and Yipt went on, "A flight should become a close-knit unit. Cooperation and trust are critical, but that may be difficult now."

"Should I apologize?" Zeke asked. Yipt's surprise slipped past his impassive mask.

"Your achievement is one for the generations. There is anger and discontent, yes, but there is also hope.

"The former," he continued, "will fade, but the latter will grow."

"I am not some kind of hero," Zeke protested. "Or a savior, either."

Yipt smiled again. "'Hero' can be defined in many ways, as can 'savior'." His face became serious.

As they approached the barracks, Yipt made a final comment, "The decision was made before the mission to appoint you flight leader. The flight has already been so informed."

"Is that the normal practice?" Zeke asked.

"Normal practice does not apply in these circumstances," was Yipt's cryptic reply.

At the entrance, Yipt stopped and looked into his eyes, "You know that your duties would not have been easy before--they will be even more difficult now?"

Zeke could think of no reply so he simply nodded.

"It is time for dinner, march your flight there and back. I will be back in the morning to accompany you to training. For the first several weeks, much of your training will be as a group. After that, you'll each have individualized training regimens and schedules, although you will continue to be quartered here and attend most classes together."

With that, he left Zeke standing at the barracks entrance, hesitant to step in and confront the hostility he knew awaited him.

He waited before entering--afraid---then anger stirred within him.

"What a bunch of jerks," he said to himself. "I've risked far more for them than they have for me, and proven myself more than they may ever have a chance to do!"

With that, he stepped into the barracks. His flight mates stood and sat around the room casually. They looked up when he entered and he saw, almost without exception, their faces harden. He immediately ordered the flight into formation in the hall and followed them through the door. The Anyari habit of conformity helped him this time.

They marched down the corridor and Zeke dismissed them. He would have chosen to sit alone at a table, but by the time he'd gotten his meal tray, there was not an empty table, so he chose the table that had only a single person.

He sat at the table for a minute in silence, then asked, "You are Sephen?"

"Yes," he said, "and you are the great Zik!"

He said it with just a hint of sarcasm. Zeke had expected something more. The anger he'd worked himself into earlier had cooled.

"Is that what you all think?"

"What they think? Yes," he responded.


"I won't say that I don't feel some resentment. My score on the 'mission' would have been the highest in the flight, and the highest in more than a year--if it weren't for you, that is."

"Do you think I should apologize? I don't intend to. Would you?"

His eyes widened with surprise. "No, I would not," he answered.

"Why?" Zeke asked. "I don't understand. I was treated courteously before."

Sephen stopped eating and looked at Zeke. "All of us that aspire to join the military dream of being the first ever to complete 'the mission'. You come from a planet with archaic technology. Without the games and simulations that occupy much of our free time, and on the first time, you best us all and stole that dream."

"I have not pretended that it was anything but luck," Zeke countered.

"It was not luck," Sephen replied, some emotion leaking into his voice. "I've seen the simulations and analyses. You were virtually assured of completing the mission as soon as you convinced the MI to exceed the acceleration limits and changed course to use the moon to block the Rogue's sensors. You might have suffered more losses, might have been destroyed yourself, but the mission would have been a success as long as reasonable decisions were made from that point."

"But I had the knowledge that everything that had been tried before had failed!" Zeke shot back.

"And we didn't? We haven't studied the mission for generations?" Sephen replied with frustration and a trace of envy in his voice. "Every group, most especially Berhlende, knew what the success of the mission was worth! They all lost their lives, but more importantly, they did not succeed! The colony on Mecran was wiped out because those generators weren't delivered."

Zeke looked at Sephen intently. "Just what is it you think this makes me? Do you think I can work miracles whenever they're needed? The next time I may fail. The next time I might be the worst in the flight!"

Sephen thought a moment before answering. "Yes, you might," he answered. "But then again, you might not."

With that, Zeke noticed that most of the other cadets had finished and were waiting in the hall. They got up and he followed Sephen to the waiting formation.

Back in the barracks, he checked his messages. There was a short one from a Danil, expressing his pride and confidence in him. It was from before the latest events. Zeke had learned to operate the console by himself. He entered a short reply.

By now you've seen that I've been extraordinarily lucky. I'm not very popular around here, all of the sudden. But as long as you're still on my side, I'll be OK.


To his surprise, he had a longer one from Enne. She'd hardly noticed his existence before. Her supposed interest in him was, he'd assumed, a rumor she'd probably started herself. Annoyed, he couldn't think of a response, so he sent none.

He checked the schedule for tomorrow. Military history, regulations, and protocol in the morning. Fighter familiarization and the use of the comms in the afternoon.

Before long the lights dimmed momentarily. He went to his bunk, removed his uniform and hung it in the locker. He got into bed and was asleep before the lights went out.