I wasn’t the hero. But I had to act like one.

The squadron leader watched helplessly as the over-sized Malaesian fleet ripped through their carefully planned formation.  Moving quickly, she gave orders over the comm even as she grasped her ship’s controls.  As she turned, her squadron turned with her, cycling around in a tight spin to join up with the other ships in their group.  She quickly focused in on the situation. Their group was barely holding up their side of the battle; for the fifth time already, the alien squadrons had broken up their formation.  They had lost one valuable ships already and several more were severely damaged.  And with so few ships, every ship counted.  She looked forward to where the rest of their group was and gritted her teeth as she moved her ship forward to join them.

Lieutenant Corson’s voice came crackling in over the comm.  “Change of strategy,” he said as she glanced outside to see his ship cycling back around toward the Malaesian mass.  There was a wave of static.  “They’re ripping us apart.  We need to regroup.”  She brought her squadron around to meet up with the others as Corson’s squadron raced to try to meet up as well.  “We need–”  There was a note of hesitation in his voice.  “We need to-”  Suddenly, his voice broke off.  Horrified, she looked up to see, across the black void of space, the mass of Malaesian ships slam into his small squadron.  Shots were ringing out as she watched dismayed.  If Corson–the Hero of the Empire was killed…  If the plan utterly failed…  

Corson didn’t know what he was doing.

And if he didn’t do anything now, everyone would be massacred.

She paused for a moment, on the brink of making a decision, before resolving herself.  She had to save his face.  “New orders from Lieutenant Corson,” she barked out over the static-filled comm.  “We need to regroup behind the rest of the other fleets.  We can’t lose any more men.  We need…  We need to retreat.”

***

“Choose the example,” General Archibald Plorman said.  He shifted his large mass as he turned to look toward me.  We stood in the bridge of the ship, the translucent walls providing a clear view of the black void of space behind and before us.

“Excuse me, sir?”  My heart chilled.

“Choose one man from among them,” General Plorman said.  He slammed his pasty-white, sweaty hand on the desk.  “I want you to choose one soldier to be an example to the rest of them and send them off to be punished in the labor camps.”

My mouth went dry.  “One man, General?  But I don’t know who-”

“I want you to choose one soldier, Lieutenant Corson,” General Plorman said, turning to gaze out the window.  “Your division’s desertion had serious repercussions and cost us the battle.  The Empire’s rules are quite clear about desertion, not to mention deception, especially after the Valmore Disaster.  If we can’t identify guilt, we must make an example.”

“Which should I choose?” I said, hoping that the general wouldn’t notice how pale my face was.

“No, Lieutenant Corson, Hero of the Empire,” General Plorman said softly.  He slowly turned around, and I thought I could see something in his eyes.  “I know that you don’t want to do it, but rules are rules, and it is the job of the lieutenant to choose the soldiers. ”

“But-”

“That’s an order, Corson.”

***

I quickly jogged through the corridors of the Alpha Ship and made a sharp turn to move into the dormitories, a knot in my stomach.  I had to find her; I had to talk to her.  We were one of the few squadrons that got our own rooms, thanks to being one of the Elite.  I jogged down the hall, until I slowed down to a stop at her door and knocked, waiting for a response.

After a few nerve-racking moments, the door opened.  “Annika,” I quickly said.

“Oh, hey,” Annika said, looking confused.  “What-”

“Not here,” I said, slipping into the room.  I shut the door behind me as I glanced around the room before turning to look at her.

“What’s wrong?” Annika asked.  “You look awful.”

“It’s bad,” I said, sitting down on her bed.  “I was just talking with Plorman.”

“What about?”

“He’s decided how he’s going to punish our division for deserting,” I said slowly.  I paused.

Annika pursed her lips.  “We just got back from the attack an hour ago; he’s going to lay down a punishment this quickly?”

“He says we need to,” I said.  “But we couldn’t figure out who deserted first.”

“Why not?”

“There was too much static, and our other sensors were damaged in the attack.  So he said I have to choose one pilot to send to the labor camps as an example.”

Annika winced.  “Who will you send?”

“I don’t know,” I groaned.  “I–I’m caught!  I have to choose one of my friends to send to…  to that.”

“I suppose I could possibly hel-”

“No, Annika,” I said.  “This is my responsibility—my duty.  I…  I don’t want to send an innocent person there, but…”  I pursed my lips.  “You know, what I really need to do is figure out who gave the order, but that’s impossible.”  Annika opened her mouth briefly before snapping it shut, and I noticed something in her eyes.

I looked at her quizzically.  “What-” I began

“No–it’s nothing,” she said.

“You…  you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

“I…  You…  you don’t know who deserted first, do-”

“No,” she quickly said, seemingly on the defensive.  “Of course I don’t, Matt.  For all the time we’ve been together, you’d think that I wouldn’t tell-”

“No, no,” I said, pacing.  “I just wanted to make sure—I’m sorry-”

“It’s okay,” she said, although she still had the defensive tone in her voice.  “Just, look, if it wasn’t for the plan you picked-”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Annika rubbed her ear.  “Oh—oh, I don’t know.  Look, it’s just that, well, maybe whoever deserted did so because they thought your battle plan would lead to disaster. Just, leave, okay?  I need some time to myself.”

***

I flipped the page to stare at the names on the list of the sixteen members of Squadron B6.  One of them.  I had to choose one of them to send off to the labor camps. I tried to avoid looking at Annika’s name.  The cold feeling inside of me was back.  No amount of excuses could remove the truth.  I knew.  I knew she had something to do with it.  But I couldn’t just send her to the labor camps.  Especially if she was right that my plan was at fault.

I pursed my lips.  If there was anything my dad drilled into me it was duty.  That was the only thing he ever cared about.  And with all the weight on my shoulders as the so-called Hero of the Empire…  But no—I loved her—I couldn’t do that to her.  I gripped the list and tore it in half, staring angrily at the names.  I couldn’t do it to her.  But who else?

I bit my lip.

***

“Lieutenant Corson, Hero of the Empire!”  Mike, Annika’s brother and my best friend in the ranks, ran up to me as I tried to march down the corridor toward the mess hall, where I would have to break the devastating news.

“Hi, Mike,” I said.  “Don’t call me a hero.”

“What are you doing?”

“I have an announcement to make,” I said.

“What?” Mike asked.  “Some new battle plans?  And why don’t you like me calling you-”

“You know I hate that term,” I snapped.

“But why, Matt?  I mean, if I did what you did-”

“I’m no hero,” I said.  “At least not the type of hero the Empire claims I am.  You know that all of this glory is just because of my dad’s political manipulations.  I don’t deserve it.”

“But-”

“Just watch,” I snapped.  I pushed open the door to the mess hall and entered.  Upon my arrival, all the men instantly stood, saluting me.

“All hail the Hero of the Empire!” a man shouted, and they all gave a yell of approval.  No other lieutenant had ever gotten that response before.  I swallowed back a growing lump in my throat.

“Thanks,” I said weakly.  “I…” words failed me and I halted.  “I have received orders from General Plorman,” I finally said.  “He said, His orders are, I…”  I closed my eyes for a moment before reopening them.  “Because of Squadron B6’s desertion during the last battle, General Plorman has given orders that…”  I licked my lips.  “One soldier will be chosen to be shipped off to the labor camps as an example for all.  The name will be given tomorrow.”

Stunned silence reigned in the hall.  And the Hero of the Empire made an expeditious exit before the yelling began.

***

“It’s come out?” I asked, somewhat dumbfounded.

“I’m sorry, Matt.”

I turned on my heel and stared at a wall, feeling nearly broken inside.  “What am I going to do?  Picking one man was hard enough.  But now they all know that I’m the one who’s in charge of who is shipped off.   There’s no right answer here.  Because I—no—I don’t know who did it.”

“Matt,” Mike said, a strange look in his eye.  “What do you mean by that?”

I stared down at the ground.  “You don’t want to know.”

“I don’t?”

“Look,” I said, and I sighed.  “It’s just, I don’t know.  It’s just when I talked to a person-”

“Talked to whom?”

“I don’t know—I’m probably wrong.  But I got the feeling-”

“Talked to whom, Matt?”

“Well, I’m probably wrong, so I don’t want to-”

“Matt.”

“It’s just that Annika had a strange answer when I asked her about it.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked, a bit harshly.

“I don’t even know what I mean,” I said, exasperated.  “It’s just, I want to believe her, but I mean-”

“She’s my sister—she’s your girlfriend—and you don’t trust her?” Mike asked.

“Well, I want to believe her, but-”

“For goodness sakes, Matt,” Mike exclaimed.  “Haven’t you seen how loyal she has been to you?  Ever since joining the fleet we’ve stuck together through plenty a hardship.  Do you really think she would lie about this?”

“Do you think that she would tell the truth if she did desert first?”

Mike shook his head as if to do away with the question.  “That doesn’t matter,” he snapped.  “After all we’ve been through together, you’re just going to do this to her?  After going through months of being ignored by everyone else—months of sticking close together no matter what the difficulty—after all we’ve trusted each other, you’ll just pull out?”

I winced as I worried about what Mike would do.  When he got angry, well, I generally tried not to be around him; he would often say things that he didn’t mean.  “I didn’t say that, Mike,” I said, backpedaling.  “I don’t know what to think.  I want to believe her, but-”

“Here’s the deal, Matt—you need to get out of this mess.  And if your only other option is to rat out Annika, then tell General Plorman that you can’t take the responsibility anymore.”  And for all that I disagreed with his reasons, I agreed with his conclusion.

***

“Ah, Corson—it’s good to see you again.”

“Same, General, sir,” I responded.  “Look, I need to ask you something.”

“Ask away, Lieutenant,” Plorman responded as he ate his lunch.  I was the only lieutenant that he was able to act casually around, thanks to my early friendship with him upon joining the army.

“I need you to release me of my duty concerning my squadron’s desertion.”

General Plorman stared at me for a few moments before speaking.  “Why?”

“I don’t want the responsibility,” I said.  “I—I can’t choose one innocent man to go to the labor camps.  And I can’t deal with everyone else getting angry at me for picking that one man.”

Plorman’s gaze hardened.  “It’s your duty, Corson.”

“But, General,” I exclaimed.  “You know me.  Why-”

“The rules are quite clear,” Plorman snapped.

“You could take the responsibility instead,” I begged.  “I mean, the rules allow for that, so couldn’t you-”

“Lieutenant Corson!” Plorman snapped, standing up from his chair.  “You weren’t the first hero in this war.  And between the two of us, we know well enough what dirty tricks your father pulled to catapult your fluke victory into a cause of official heroship!” He slowly exhaled.  “Look, Corson.  You do not need me to tell you that you are not prepared for this position.  The Empire’s decision to make you a hero could very well ruin your career, because you just aren’t ready for this type of responsibility yet.  We both know this.  And the incident this morning is just one example of this.  Am I right?”

I pursed my lips.  “I…  yes…”

Plorman nodded, but continued with a firm voice.  “You are a novice at this, Corson.  And so you need to get this hammered into you now.  You are serving in the Imperial Star Fleet.  This is where you have to take up your own mantle of responsibility and become a man.  And you need to start by choosing the man now.  We’ll discuss your illegal relationship another day.”  My head popped up.  He knew about that?

“Yes,” Plorman said, reading my expression.  “Of course I have known about that.  When you were wing-mates, that was one thing.  Upon your sudden promotion, it’s another.  But that will be dealt with later.  Right now you have a duty to fulfill.  And I don’t expect you to come back here again until you’ve chosen your man.”

***

I stared once again at the list of names in front of me and slowly held it up, whispering each of their names.  Jesse.  Mike.  Raquel.  Norman.  My squadron and… my friends.  I stared at the list and wondered for a moment what it would be like to be innocent of the matter and to be sent to the labor camp anyways by one of my buddies.  Especially if he knew for sure who had actually done it.  I closed my eyes for a moment and slowly let the paper fall.

I slowly opened my eyes and my gaze fell on a bulletin on my desk.  An old announcement for my commencement ceremony for being the new Hero of the Empire.  The title ill-given.  I slowly picked it up and held it over the list of names.  A hero.  That was what I was?  I shook my head.  No.  I wasn’t the hero. But I had to act like one.

***

It was the shouting that I first heard when I neared Annika’s room.  Fearing the worst, I burst in.  The sight of a furious Annika was enough to get my boiling blood ready to attack the other person before I realized it was her brother.  Her brother?

“What’s going on?” I asked, cutting off whatever Mike was about to say.

“Nothing,” Annika quickly said, staring at Mike.  “Nothing.”

Mike was silent so I spoke.  “Really?” I asked.  “I mean-”

“There’s nothing wrong, Matt,” Annika said.  “Now if you could-”

“No, there is something wrong,” Mike said.  “Annika.”

“There’s nothing wrong,” Annika said.

“Do you want to tell him, or shall I?” Mike asked.  Annika froze, and then said nothing.

“Tell me what?” I demanded.

Mike paused, staring at Annika for a few moments, before turning again to look at me.  “Annika lied to you,” Mike stated bluntly.  “She wasn’t oblivious to the desertion.”

I felt a sinking feeling deep inside.  “But-”

“I knew what had happened when I talked to you, no matter how much I tried to protest it,” Mike said.  “So I came here.”  He glanced at Annika again and, seeing her upset face, collapsed in a chair.  “I-”  He said nothing for a few moments.  “Well, if she won’t tell you, I will.  She was the first to desert.”

My defenses for not choosing Annika were ripped apart. “But—but you defended her: you said-”

“Sometimes when I’m angry, I say things that I later reject,” Mike stated sharply.  “And after thinking about it more—I can’t let one of my friends be sentenced to the camps for her error.  Even if she’s my sister. It—look, it’s just wrong.  And so I came here to figure out the truth.”  He glanced at Annika.  “Which I now have.”

“Look, it was an accident,” Annika interjected.  “I panicked and I messed up, okay Matt?  It was a mistake and I tried to recover but at that point it was too late.  It won’t happen again.  I love you, Matt.”

“Stop it,” Mike said, and he stood up to stare at Annika.  “Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“You know what,” Mike snapped.  “You’re doing that manipulative thing again.”

“I am not,” Annika snapped.  “Look, the plan was failing and I had to do something to keep you alive, Matt.  I did this to save you.  If I didn’t-”

“Look—stop your manipulating and listen here!” Mike interrupted.  “Listen—the two of you are blinded to each other’s faults by your love.  You’re the one who refused to tell Matthew the truth about this issue, Annika.  You’re the one trying to hide from your due reward for your misconduct.”

“Like you said,” Annika said.  “When you’re angry you say things you later regret.  Can we just settle down here first and-”

“I love you, Annika,” Mike said.  “But because I’m your brother I know your faults.  You’ll lie, deceive, steal, and use other people for your own agenda.  And, and-”  Mike shook his head angrily and then stared at me.  “Fight it out between you as you wish, but Matt—if you want to know why Squadron B6 deserted, look no further than her.  And if you decide to send an innocent pilot to the labor camps instead-”  He paused, wrestling with emotions.  “-Well go ahead and act the hero then.”  And with that, Mike stormed out.

I watched him leave and then turned and stared at Annika.  She avoided my gaze.  “Is,” I asked.  “Is what he said-”

“I,” Annika started, and then she said nothing as everything seemed to fall to pieces.  We stood there awkwardly for several minutes before I spoke.

“I, I love you Annika,” I said.  “But-”  I paused, trying to think of what to say.

“I love you, Matt,” Annika whispered.  She turned her back to me.  “Look, you-” Her voice broke.  “You know when he is angry he says things, you know that his claims about me using you were ridiculous, I-”  And then she stopped.  “I only deserted because your plan would have gotten us all killed.  You were trapped by the Malaesian fleet and you didn’t know what to do.  If not for what I did, your reputation as a hero would have been tarnished by a stunning loss.  If, if you have something against me-”  Her voice again broke and she was silent.  I stood there for several minutes without her saying anything.

I swallowed and then closed my eyes.  All my instincts told me not to do it.  I would just go through the agony of choosing someone and deal with the consequences later.  Mike was just angry—he would change his mind later.  If it was my fault that she deserted, how could I condemn her to death?  If my plan was wrong-

I paused, and swallowed.  Because despite all of that, I couldn’t escape what I knew to be true in my heart. I swallowed.  I knew who had deserted.  I remembered what Plorman said.  I remembered my men in the dining hall.  And I knew what I had to do.

“I love you, Annika,” I whispered bitterly.  And then I left the room.