Lily had never been to the HPA academy before. She had heard about it almost every day from her mother, and her many plans once she graduated from it, but this was the first time she had agreed to take Lily with her for a conference there.
The place was all polished metal with pulsing green lights, clean and brisk with an air conditioner. “It needs more color,” Lily thought, as they made their way through the main gates and into the large halls packed with students and officers.
“Keep up, Lily. And stop playing with your hair, it’s unbecoming,” said her mother, Helen. The grand admiral of the entire HPA fleet. A legend in this place, which everyone feared or respected. Usually both.
She had spent all morning brushing Lily’s hair and carefully arranging it into a neat braid. Lily didn’t care for it, she preferred to have her hair loose and free, but she had learned it was better not to argue with her mother. It never ended well for her.
“Can we see the spaceships? You promised we could!”
“After the conference, Lily. And I only promised to show you if you behaved. Keep your end of the deal, and I will keep mine.”
Even when she talked to her 12-year-old daughter, it was like she was conducting a hostage negotiation. Lily firmly believed she was incapable of switching off from her work.
“She will,” whispered her father, Liam. Covering his mouth as he mouthed the words so his wife wouldn’t spot it. She knew of course, and had it been anyone else they would have regretted it. But her mother had a soft spot when it came to her husband, and often allowed him to get away with dotting on their daughter.
“You spoil her too much,” she commented dryly as they passed a frightened pair of lieutenants, who nearly dropped their paperwork at the sight of the admiral.
Lily often preferred the company of her father, he spoiled her but also gave her more freedom. Often letting her dress and play as she liked. There had been several duels with breadsticks in their living room, with Lily being the victor every time.
In truth, her father raised her most of the time on his own. Her mother often spent entire days at the office or in space with the fleet. She rarely came home, and when she did, it was mostly to complain about her grades, her appearance, or anything that didn’t fit with her expectations of what her daughter should be like.
“Admiral! This way,” a young soldier motioned for us to follow her past a wooden door into the auditorium. A large room with hundreds of velvet chairs already filled to the brim with HPA officers and a few soldiers standing guard.
The soldier guided us to the front row, where we sat on the left corner with the best view of the stage. Lily felt incredibly out of place here, the only child in a military room, and suspected her father did as well, as one of the few men not in uniform. Everyone was talking and muttering until her mother climbed up and went to stand behind the podium.
The silence was immediate, and every head turned to look at her. Helen Baek took one look around the room with an air of absolute command, and Lily knew from the impassive silence and the nervous looks that every man and woman gathered both feared and respected her unconditionally.
“How much have we lost since we got here?" She asked with her face a mask of sadness all of a sudden.
“We lost our home first. Even though none of us were there for the offense, we all feel it to this day. We immigrated to the stars to find refuge, and when we did, we got attacked again. We lost again.” People around the room nodded their heads in agreement, sympathizing with her argument.
“Oh, yes, we know what it’s like to lose. We have done it often enough, but we learn from our mistakes. We learned to stand up for ourselves and say, ‘Not again!’” She pounded her fist loudly against the podium to emphasize her point, and a few cheers rang throughout the room.
She paused for a moment, and it seemed to pain her to get to the next part of her speech. “When I was only ten years old, my parents went on a trip to visit the ruins of Caldera. They had wanted to see them for a long time, despite the many warnings they received about how dangerous going outside the central planet could be.”
Lily could see that beyond the sadness, there was also a cold hard anger in her features and her voice, and she genuinely felt her mother’s pain at that moment, as did everyone else in the room.
“…their ship never made it to those ruins, it was brought down by a group of bounty hunters passing by. I always assumed someone had put a price on their head, that they took them away from me for a reason…but I later found out they weren’t even targets. No one had wanted them dead; they were simply in the way.”
She looked around the room, letting the words sink in before continuing. “That’s what we are for all these creatures, just something in their way. They don’t think we belong here. They don’t want us here. And they don’t mind swatting us aside when they feel like it...well, I say it’s our turn to hit them back.” Lily’s father straightened in his seat, looking uncomfortably at his wife.
“There has been a lot of conflict between the HPA and the rest of the planets in this system. They protested when we took Tovar, despite the unprovoked attacks we suffered from their citizens. They got upset when we expanded and took the empty worlds of Traeth and Zoobia, and they tried to limit us as we continued to grow. The Maltheans, above all, have tried to control us and remind us that THEY are the superpower in this system! That we should fear them! Well, I don’t fear them! Do you?!”
“NO!” yelled everyone in the auditorium.
“And we won’t! They will learn to fear us, and it will begin today!” She turned on the large holographic monitor behind her which showed a map of the entire Illio Azur system, with the worlds under the control of the HPA in green and the rest in red.
“We have been bullied long enough by these aliens simply because they do not want us here, but we’re not going to give them much of a choice anymore. Last night, the entire council met to decide on how best to proceed from here, and it was unanimously voted that we formally declare war on Malteah, and continue to expand our territory, starting with Mendax.”
The entire room burst into applause and cheers of approval, it was loud enough that it muffled Lily’s father's gasp of shock, and no one but her seemed to notice how horrified he looked at the news. Her mother on the other hand beamed at everyone’s reaction, waving a hand slowly in solidarity with every officer.
The holo-map showed everyone as a few tiny ships, representing the HPA fleet, moved from the Central Planet towards Mendax, and how this one turned green like the other planets under their control. The crowd loved it, but it didn’t sit right with Lily. She had grown up with stories about the HPA defending their borders from aliens, not invading others. And so far, the only argument to do so seemed to have been to prove they were not afraid of them, which didn’t seem like a good enough reason to attack anyone.
“I cannot believe you just did that,” said her father angrily, pacing around their living room a few hours later.
They had left immediately after the speech, with her father dragging her mother away from the other lieutenants, who could not stop congratulating her and talking about taking on the Mendax. Usually, Liam Baek was the most gentle and pleasant man you could hope for, which is why it unnerved Lily so much to see him so angry.
They drove back home in complete silence, neither of them even turning to look at one another. Lily sat in the back as quietly as a mouse, feeling nervous about the fight she knew would be coming as soon as they got home.
“You make it sound like it's my decision,” argued her mother, crossing her arms while leaning back on their sofa. “The whole council voted to declare war.”
“Yes, but you supported it. You helped organize it and turned the conversation towards it.” Countered Liam.
“We have depleted the resources of our world too fast, and Mendax has the largest deposits of pretty much everything we need to continue expanding. We’ll practically double our fleet overnight.” She continued as if she was explaining the most obvious thing and was surprised someone was having trouble with it.
“And why is so important to keep expanding? The Central Planet has become densely populated, yes, but we have barely begun to have people move to Tovar, and Traeth is practically empty except for some military bases. Why do we need to attack Malteah, or any other world for that matter?”
Helen Baek looked at her husband with something akin to pity, as if he was a child who could not understand a simple truth being explained to him, and Lily felt much like him at the moment. She paused to consider how best to respond, but she clearly was growing tired with his line of questioning. As the supreme commander of all military forces in the HPA, she was not used to people questioning her like this.
“Liam, I know you feel differently, but we cannot trust them. They have attacked and opposed us many times before. How many of us have suffered loss at their hands? We are simply going to ensure that never happens again.”
“By declaring war?” he said angrily.
“They are hardly going to submit on their own.” She replied coolly.
“Why should they? This is their system; we are the interlopers here.”
We came here for peace. To start over, and they have not welcomed us.”
“So that gives us the right to kill them?”
“We’re not going to kill them, just the ones that oppose us, and make it clear we are not to be messed with ever again.”
“You can’t make that decision! No one can!” said Liam, getting more and more agitated.
“Tell that to my parents.” said her mother, and her voice was stone cold now.
“Stop! Stop using that as an excuse!” shouted Lily’s father, burying his face in his hand. Even Lily could tell this was the end of the conversation.
Her mother looked at him with a mixture of rage and sadness, unsure about how to reply to her husband after such an outburst. Lily was sure that had an officer been the one to talk to her like that, she would have had him court-martialed and removed at once. She loved her father, Lily knew that, but that love was so very clearly at odds with her own hatred of those responsible for her grandparent’s dead, and everyone like them.
“We will talk no more about this.” She said with her full authority, a tone she had never used with him before. “I’m going to bed, maybe it's best if you spent the night down here.”
She left without another word, leaving Liam standing alone in the living room. He was still staring down at the floor, looking miserable and sad. Lily felt for him and wanted to go down and comfort him as he had with her many times, but she thought it might make him sadder to know she had seen them fighting.
As quietly as she sneaked out, Lily made her way back to her bedroom and back to bed. She lay there, unable to sleep, thinking about what they had said. It was hard to reconcile her mother’s words with the image she had of her and the HPA. Lily always thought of them as heroes, fighting to keep everyone safe from bad people, although she never thought that meant aliens only. Of course, she had never met any herself, so she had no way of knowing if it was true. Her mother certainly thought that, but not her father.
She knew she still wanted to join the HPA and fight the good fight like her mother, and maybe then, she would see for herself if she was right. One day, she thought, one day I’ll know.