Look to the Stars

By Virtex

" Mankind will not remain on Earth forever, but in its quest for light and space will at first timidly penetrate beyond the confines of the atmosphere, and later will conquer for itself all the space near the Sun."
-Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky

Space: So dark...so quiet...so beautiful. From the blinding white light of the Sun, to the mountains of pure methane ice of Pluto. From the scorching crater filled surface of Mercury to the smooth, cool clouds of Uranus and Neptune. And then there were the icy rings and cloud bands of Saturn, the massive bulk of the brightly colored Jupiter.

To him, Earth was ugly. Now almost completely covered in cities, the original beauty of Earth's completely unique life was endangered. You couldn't find a calm, untouched lake or forest without seeing some trace of human beings. He always tried to imagine what Earth was like before humans evolved and ruined it all. He saw rolling plains; huge forests; clear, clean oceans and rivers; animals frolicking in their natural habitats...

But that was no more. Humans had proved themselves to be the most destructive virus in the solar system, spreading across their own planet until there wasn't any room left, then moving out into space. The Moon. Mars. The Asteroid Belt. Saturn's rings. These were all main areas of infection. Technology had even been developed to be able to explore Pluto, Venus, and Mercury-meaning it would only be a certain amount of time before they were infected too.

Of course, with colonization came struggle. It was a fact throughout history that colonies were trouble. Since the early exploration of Earth, the power of owning colony was a center of conflict. The people of Earth thought they could solve this problem by uniting to form the International Republic of Earth and therefore making the colonies belong to everyone. But, as history proved once again, there would be people who disagreed. These same people became pirates, terrorists, or mercenaries, working for aristocrats that were against the I.R.E. back on Earth.

These intergalactic thugs sabotaged, raided and captured any ships belonging to the I.R.E. Army. Sometimes these ships were transporting civilians to the colonies, sometimes they were shipping cargo. Most of the time the civilians and crew were murdered brutally: launched into space without protection, sent on an escape pod into the Great Red Spot, or even pumped out through the engine backwash. The cargo was always stolen, on occasions destroyed. It was not some gigantic interplanetary war that the human populous and government had to deal with, it was a series of small guerrilla battles between bloodthirsty criminals and the I.R.E.A.

At first, this was no big deal. It did create a fear amongst the transportation officers and civilians moving to or from the colonies. Yet, it did not cause mass hysteria for the IREA trained its soldiers very well to handle the situations. There were very little a time when anyone was killed except the terrorists, at least that was what the military told the public. Whether or not it was true, it kept the citizens moving to the colonies. Until the 004 Incident.

When a large group of extremely well organized and trained terrorists seized Asteroid Belt Colony 004, a major halfway point between the Outer Edge Colonies and Earth, things changed. They held the colony for two and a half years, fending off three Special Forces attacks. For that whole time, trade with the Outer Edge Colonies was limited. No one was allowed to be shipped there, either. Entire populations of colonies nearly starved. The Special Forces accomplished breaking into 004 a fourth time and a huge gunfight ensued. As the battle raged, other members slipped the hostages out two at a time in escape pods. When the terrorists found this out, they nuked the colony, killing hundreds and themselves. The person behind the attack was never revealed.

As a result of the incident, the IREA searched for the smartest and the strongest young people in the solar system and immediately drafted them into the army. It was hungry for the bodies of thousands of people, stealing away the geniuses and strong men at the youngest ages possible. The ages ranged from 13-25. The ones still in school would attend classes during the six month training course and during R and R.

The IREA would not let The 004 Incident occur again. But the disaster seemed to raise the standards of the raids on interplanetary ships. Within six months of the disaster at 004, fifty civilians and nineteen pilots were slaughtered aboard transports. The IREA intensified its training and soon had patrols of Special Forces soldiers deployed all over the solar system.

This intensified training ruined the lives of many young people. It ended some. Children once innocent and happy returned home cold and angry. The problem of stopping the raids wasn't solved either. The IREA may have just destroyed its future.

He stared out the window of the ship, taking one last glimpse of the beautiful and extraordinary view of Jupiter. The first time he had arrived out of Hyperspace and looked at the humongous planet, it brought tears to his eyes. He had never seen anything near as beautiful on Earth. Saturn was just as, if not more, admirable than Jupiter. He had gotten a closer look at the rings and bands than any human on his homeworld as they docked at the military training base. He found himself resenting the trip back to Earth for the Christmas holidays. He didn't want to leave the cold, silent darkness of space to visit some smog infested rock. Not to say he didn't want to stay at the harsh environments of the base.

He was only 14 and he had already helped stop two pirate raids on military transports. He was only 14 and he had already killed three people. He was only 14 and he had already seen the effects of a rail gun, watched a boy die in training, and seen a close-up view of all the planets.

The IREA was transforming him into a monster, and he knew it. He also knew he couldn't stop it. He had happened to be smarter than a lot of people in his school and so they took him away. They took him away and put him in a cocoon to begin metamorphosis into a cold hearted killer. He didn't like or want to kill people. He had always believed that there was a way to stop everything without violence. But when he emerged from that cocoon, he didn't care. You could talk your way out or shoot your way out. It didn't matter to him. Nothing mattered anymore, not even his own life. The pilot could miscalculate reentry and he could burn up in the atmosphere, but he didn't care. He wouldn't care if every other soldier but him had someone at the landing pad to greet them.

The IREA had taken everything from him. His caring, his home, even his name. All he had now was his intelligence and his memories of a sweet, innocent life before the training. He quietly sighed and sunk down in his seat, changing his gaze to the white ceiling of the ship.

He could feel a bit of his humanity coming back to him as he began remembering his Earth years. You weren't supposed to care about the fact that life would never be the same. And most of the time, he didn't. But now, when they were five thousand kilometers away from Saturn and the God-awful base, he started feeling again. Just a little. It was a small, warm spot on his frozen heart. It was better than nothing.

He remembered the days of completing all his homework before he got home from school, and how afterwards he could just lounge in the hammock in his front yard, watching the leaves on the few remaining trees drift downward. In a way, those leaves resembled his life. When they budded and grew into young leaves, they were warm and new. But as time passed on they changed. They became old and dry. Eventually, they separated from the tree and spiraled for the ground. He was spiraling closer and closer to the emotionless, dead, dirt.

He remembered the pure, just, innocence of life before the metamorphosis. Nothing bad ever really happened. He felt loved and the world radiated warmth. Three months into training his perspective had whipped around. Life was not innocent. Everything was cold, and when something bad could happen, it did.

" Passengers, please fasten your harnesses and prepare for Hyperspace. We will be making the jump in two minutes." Came a voice over the intercom.

He pulled the harness down over his shoulders, snapping it into place. The bulky harness covered his whole upper body, and included a helmet with special instruments that monitored brain wave activity to make sure nobody had a nervous breakdown before the jump, among other reasons. It had happened before. He had been extremely nervous before his first jump, which was a normal thing. Some people just couldn't handle it. He didn't mind jumping now. It was part of a routine to him.

" Thirty seconds."

" Jumping" was the term used for the change a ship and its passengers underwent when they were made into pure light energy. That was the only way humans had discovered to travel at light speed. There was a special converter inside each ship that transformed all matter within a 200 meter radius into light. The light was controlled, though, set for a certain destination. Many said that the transfer from matter to energy was the most thrilling experience you could ever imagine. That was not the same with soldiers. Jumping was an everyday thing to them as they patrolled their assigned areas.

He could hear a slight ringing noise seconds before he felt his body dematerialized. Time didn't seem to pass. It was as if he blinked and in one second he had de-and re- materialized from one place to another. The view of Jupiter was gone, and now a blue and gray Earth lay outside the window.

" We have been traveling approximately two hours in light energy. We will be landing in New York City, Earth in about an hour."

He looked out at the Earth and felt disgusted, resentful. This was the origin of the human virus, and what a hellhole it was. Smog and acid rain. Melting ice caps. A filthy water system. He didn't know how humans could thrive on this piece of trash.

It was snowing when they skidded down on the runway in New York. He could already see a crowd of people waiting for them. He almost smiled when he thought about how surprised they would be when they learned that their innocent little kid had become a murderer.

That wouldn't be the case for him. Halfway through his training, he had received a letter that his parents were killed in a car accident and his uncle would take care of him on R and R leaves. He wasn't shocked or sad, they wouldn't let him be. He despised his alcoholic uncle, and therefore he felt angry. Anger was the only emotion they would let him feel. He didn't want his uncle to be there at the landing party. Who would he stay with? Nobody. He would probably check into a hotel. Military citizens were allowed five free nights at a hotel on each of their leaves. He could just keep checking into different hotels.

They lifted their harnesses and pulled their duffel bags from the overhead compartments, filing out of the space shuttle silently. The crowd cheered for their heroes as they made their way off ship and into real gravity. Luckily, they were trained on how to adjust to different gravitational pulls. Families were reunited, friends together. He stood alone at the edge of the crowd, watching the snowflakes fall and trying to spot his uncle.

He peered upwards to the sky, already wishing he could be back out there in the void. The clouds were dark, unnaturally gray, probably from thick smog. Even some of the snowflakes came down grayish. A gray flake landed on his warm forehead, melting. He let the water run, feeling a slight burning sensation. It was an acid snowflake. The contaminated water flowed into his right eye, the burning becoming ten times worse on the hardly protected membrane. He didn't rub it or blink vigorously. He blinked once, and a single tear rolled down his cheek.

He slipped on some sunglasses to hide his eyes and keep any more acid out of them. Picking up his duffel bag, he scanned the crowd one more time for his uncle and started to leave.

" Oh Chance!" A female voice cried out. A familiar one. Then he felt a soft, loving embrace. She wrapped her arms around him, burying her cheek into his chest and the fluffy material of his overcoat. He hadn't been called that name in a year and a half.

Chance looked down at the pretty girl hugging him. Her hair was long and brown, her body slender and curving. A few warm tears penetrated into the coat. He knew this girl, didn't he? Yes he did. He had loved her once.

He could only smooth her hair and stare down at this one girl that he figured had most surely forgotten about him. The last person he expected to care, if there were any in the first place.

Love...He had almost lost the meaning of it. He remembered that he had felt it once. It was a great thing, but he knew his heart had long been incapable of feeling it. IREA had stolen another thing away. Chance wanted to love her again, just as she was loving him now, but he couldn't feel anything in is heart. Another stage in the metamorphosis.

" Th...Thorn?" Was all he could stutter.

" Chance, I missed you so much! I thought about you the whole time." Thorn brought her face up from his chest and gazed into his shades. He saw her big, gray-blue eyes for the first time in eighteen months. He wanted to feel love again. He wanted to so badly, yet he knew that the IREA had ripped it from his heart, replacing it with cold instinct and strategy tactics.

" I...I missed you too." Why was he stuttering? A proper gentleman and a soldier did not stutter.

" I heard about your parents. I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

He nodded.

" My parents wouldn't let me come here, but I did anyway. I have been waiting forever to see you."

Her arms moved up so they were draped around his neck. " Where are you going to stay?"

" My uncle's." He replied, lying.

" Are you okay? You seem...depressed."

" Can we talk?"

" Okay."

They began walking down the street, and he remembered how she would take his hand wherever they walked. " Listen, Thorn. I've changed. The IREA is turning kids how I used to be into horrible killing things."

Thorn looked at him intently, her eyes already foreshadowing sadness.

" It's terrible. They...they strip us of our feelings and make us kill without remorse. We can't even think about home. They've brainwashed me, basically."

" Oh my God...Chance..."

He stopped her. " My name isn't Chance anymore. I don't have a name."

" No way. They can't take away your name!"

" Yes, they can. They call me SF-0014. I have no name, I am just a number."

" Are you serious? But...but..."

He knew the truth would come hard to her. " They train us so that we feel no more, not even happiness, sadness, or...love..."

She was silent for a long time. He could already see tears welling up in her beautiful eyes. " Like machines."

" Yeah. Except machines don't hate their lives." SF-0014 observed the snowflakes whirling around them in the biting December wind. " I don't know how to say this, but, I really have just lost my will to live. I can't feel anymore. I only feel bitterness and anger. There is no joy, no love. I can't go back, either."

" Why?" Her voice was wavering. She was on the verge of crying.

" I just can't. I want to...I think. I don't know. I'm not sure of anything anymore."

" Why do they do this? I can't understand!"

" They want the perfect soldier." He was shocked at the sudden bitterness in his voice. " So they have to remove him of all emotional attachments." He hated them for that. They knew that perfect, no matter what it was, was not attainable.

" Oh Ch..." She kept herself from saying his former name, and turned her head away before too many tears could stream down her cheeks.

SF-0014 wanted his heart to break at the sight of her crying. He hated himself for not being sad. He hated the stupid, acid drenched, smog filled rock they called Earth; the God damned IREA; and most of all, his pathetic existence. He wanted to take out his .40 rail gun right there and shoot himself. His hands shook and he grabbed his thigh to resist the urge.

" I'm sorry Thorn." He said he was, but he couldn't feel bad for her. " I wish I could be in love with you again."

" What did anybody do to deserve this?" She said between sobs.

It was the same question he had asked many times as his own innocence was shattered into a million pieces a year ago. He never found an answer.

" Look, I don't think you want to talk to me anymore. I don't want you to talk to me anymore, for your own sake. I'm really, really sorry Thorn." He couldn't take it anymore. He raged at himself inside, and ran down the snow covered streets as fast as he could. He had to get away. He pined to be back in front of Saturn, with the great view of his favorite planet from the window of his bunk. He wanted to look at the giant Jupiter again, see it up close in all its glory.

He ran and ran, rushing past groups of normal people who hadn't been drained by the IREA. He didn't know where he was going. He seemed to be running for hours.

Finally, he made it to an old café he used to go to when he was Chance. It seemed like a comfortable reminder of his old life, one that couldn't react to him. He stepped in, panting. The place hadn't changed much. Walking up to the counter, he ordered two cinnamon rolls, something he hadn't had in a long time.

SF-0014 sat down and began eating, still wishing to be on a space shuttle back to Saturn. That was where he belonged. Deep space, where no living creature except the scum he killed would be crushed by his emptiness.

He began to reconsider his decision of abandoning Thorn. If he wanted to be in love with her, he had to keep talking to her. Maybe there was some way she could thaw his heart, whether or not that would be good for him in the army. If he wanted his old life back, Thorn would be his key.

But, when he had been standing there watching her cry and feeling nothing, he had taken another step in hating himself. He just had to be somewhere else at that moment, somewhere where he could think. He promised that he would come back to Thorn, if she didn't come to him.

He didn't want to stay on Earth, though. Having his old life would mean living on Earth. Unless he could persuade her to join him out in space.

Then the thought occurred that the military wouldn't let him do this. He couldn't have feelings. He couldn't be normal. He couldn't even have his life back, for Christ's sake! He wasn't even supposed to feel as much as he was now. He scorned himself for even thinking such thoughts, " You're in the International Republic of Earth Army, the best and brightest soldiers in the universe. You have no feelings. You have no compassion, no love, no joy. A true soldier does not feel those things."

SF-0014 was torn. Parted of him wanted to be human, and the other part was obeying orders. There would be no win-win situation to this, he had to choose which one it would be. There was also a third option: No life at all.

He considered that one the most. It was a solution to all his problems. Suicide was a normal thing among soldiers under the age of 18. 15% of all teenagers entered into the trainee program killed themselves before the end of the rigorous six months of training. Another 30% committed suicide before their first five missions.

That was what he was destined to be. A statistic. He was already just a number. He didn't care.

The 14 year old reached into his holster, his hand gripping the cold steel of the .40 rail pistol. Not too long ago he had used that very same pistol to kill a pirate. It seemed to fit his hands perfectly, and the grip and weight were none too familiar. He decided not to kill himself right there in the café. He had a promise to keep. He would give himself one more try at life. One more quick try, probably in vain.

Snapping the holster of the amazing weapon shut, he finished the last of his cinnamon rolls. The rail pistol truly was an amazing weapon. It had been developed hundreds of years ago, and perfected over the ages. When it had first shown up, it was a giant thing only fitted on the most secret of projects. Military scientists managed to shrink it down more and more as time passed on. The magnetic mechanism it used to launch a bullet out at extremely high speeds was the main problem of making it more compact. Somehow, the scientists eventually got it to a hand-held size.

The small bell above the door of the café rang as another customer stepped in out of the cold. He glanced up to see that it was Thorn.

" How'd you find me here?"

" I knew it was the place we always used to go to." She sniffled. " Please, Chance, I don't care what your name isn't, I'm still going to call you Chance...why did you run away?"

" I had to get away. I couldn't stand there and watch you cry, all the while feeling nothing."

She sat down, sighing sadly. " Do you still...love me?"

" I want to. I want to so badly. But they won't let me, and I can't seem to let myself be in love."

" What have they done to you? You're not the same person I was falling for a year and a half ago. You used to be sweet and sensitive. You used to smile."

" Believe me, Thorn. I would if I could. The IREA has made me into a monster, like I told you. I don't want to...but part of me does. I'm being pulled two ways. I just don't think I can revert back to being like that. My militarized brain won't let me."

" Listen to what you're saying! You're telling me that you can't be human because your brain won't let you!"

" Yes, I am. This is what the government does to people. It destroys them."

" I don't understand why you can't just quit the IREA and become human again."

" For one, it is almost a habit, not feeling. And two, if I quit, I would be hanged for desertion."

She sighed again. " I miss our old life...when we were in love. I miss your cute smile, and your warm arm around my shoulders. I miss walking home from school with you, laying in the hammock...I just wish things weren't so complicated and..."

" You wish things weren't so complicated and that they weren't lost of innocence, I know. You're lucky, Thorn. You'll lose your innocence at a later age, and easily, too. I lost my innocence relatively young by watching horrible, terrible things, and realizing that I would never be the same."

She was silent. He thought she was going to cry again. She didn't. They just stared at each other intently, both trying to think of what to say next.

" I'm...sorry. I don't know, Chance. You don't even seem like the same person anymore. It was like somebody cloned your dark side and sent it to Earth."

" I should be the one that's sorry, Thorn. I came here against my own will. You were expecting to see me, for me to still be human, but I ruined it all for you. I broke your heart and in turn felt nothing."

" It wasn't your fault." She whispered, almost childlike. He realized that she really was still innocent, unscathed by the real world in her comfortable life on Earth. He pitied the poor girl. At the same time he envied her. Innocence was a precious thing, more valuable than gold, and it only lasted for so long.

At that moment, the bell rang twice. Two scantily clad men stalked into the café, one trudging for the counter. The other stayed back by the door, looking awfully suspicious.

SF-0014 gripped his .40. There was something wrong about these two.

Suddenly, the one at the entrance snatched up Thorn and put his rail pistol to her temple. The other waved his piece in the face of the cashier.

" Put all your money in the bag and this little girl survives!"

SF-0014 knew that robbery was a common thing on Earth, especially in New York City. In the past five years since The 004 Incident, it had escalated.

Thorn snatched the arm of the thug holding her and tried desperately to get free. He elbowed her hard in the stomach.

" Stop moving you little bitch!"

Thorn's eyes pleaded with Chance to do something. He would, too, at the right time.

He watched carefully as the panicked cashier dumped money from the drawer into the bag. Robber #1 was concentrating on her, not bothering with the customers. Robber #2 was right in front of the door, scanning the whole place.

SF-0014 noted the patterns of eye movements of #2, shooting glances at #1 every couple seconds. He waited for the exact right moment.

Now.

There was a loud POP!, and then a strange zipping noise. #2 took the extremely fast bullet in the temple. His brain mass repainted the window next to him and splattered on Thorn, who screamed. Locked in the thug's hold, she slowly slid to the ground with him.

" What the?!" #1 whipped around, just to see 0014's gun aimed at him. He ducked and rolled, a buzzing bullet hitting the wall where his head would've been.

SF-0014 fired a second time, missed. #1 stood and opened up. Not at 0014, though.

Six magnetized bullets hit Thorn's torso with sickening thuds, the glass behind her shattering. A split second later, her murderer lay dead on the ground, fragments of his skull surrounding him.

SF-0014 lowered his pistol and holstered it with a ragged sigh. Oh God. Thorn. He had only seen someone he had actually known die once. And that was during training.

Chance, as he was once called, knelt next to her pathetic body, sobbing. He was feeling something major now. Loss. He had failed his job as a soldier to protect the innocent. He had also failed to save the one person who cared the most about him, and maybe his only savior to having emotions again.

He had really loved her. He knew it now.

A small crowd gathered around him as he rested his head on her bleeding torso and wept. He didn't care. He had lost his only hope, his only love. She had died thinking that he didn't love her.

In minutes there was a news crew there to interview the shocked customers, and to attempt to interview him, the hero of the day. He covered the camera with his hand and sprinted out the door, determined never to see Earth again.

" Are you refueled?"

" Yeah, why?"

" I'm going back with you."

" What? You just landed here for the holidays."

" I don't want to be here. I have no one to stay with." SF-0014 flashed the pilot his soldier's ID.

" Fine, fine. Where are you stationed?"

" Saturn Base 0789."

The shuttle left fifteen minutes later, entering Hyperspace an hour later. SF-0014 almost felt relieved to be back out in space. That was where he deserved to be, floating around in the Solar System.

" Stop the ship."

" Why?"

" Stop the ship now." He placed the rail pistol to the pilot's forehead.

The shuttle slowed to a halt. The pilot noticed the young trooper climbing into a space suit.

" What are you doing?"

" Leaving. Open the cargo bay."

The pilot didn't want to be threatened with the gun again, so he did as he was told. There was a mechanical sliding noise coming from the deck below.

" You know that thing only has an hour of air in it."

" Yes, I know." SF-0014 disappeared to the lower decks. A few minutes afterward the cargo door closed.

Chance was finally there. He drifted freely, the looming mass of Jupiter before him. He couldn't even see the whole planet, but he could see the beautiful colored bands and that was all that mattered. Never had he been this close to the planet. He drank it all in with his eyes, feeling microscopic compared to the incomprehensible size of Jupiter. Tears streamed freely down his cheeks, just as they had the first time he saw it. He had forty-five minutes left to live, and he was going to spend the entire time admiring this amazing gas giant. He was happy.