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After he had reached the last line, Gromov took his time to inspect pictures, accompanying the interview. No matter how hard he kept staring at the grinning pilots, they were all strangers to him, perhaps except for Anezska Kurowska, Heinrich Schubert, and Captain Chi, whose first name Gromov had never learned.

Poor Akane! She wanted to attend the concert. Now she is even missing in these photos.

With regret, Gromov dropped the magazine onto his thighs. At least, Chi and Jamal survived, he pondered. I wonder who the other drifters were? In irrational raise of hope, he remembered Akane and Andrey. Could they be amongst them? No, that would be impossible as they had stopped transmitting before they collided with the target, fulfilling the role of human torpedos that Colonel Steiner had assigned to them.

"No, that's not correct!" Gromov realized suddenly. He issued the order to taran the last Q-Field carrier, so he was to blame. Too bad, he could not believe in the artificial immortality like Steiner did when he had been sending crews to their deaths.

To shake off the unbearable guilt, Gromov lifted his eyes to the Committee, waiting in silence.

"What do you say, Captain?" asked Mrs. Jaques with genuine interest. "How does it feel to become a national hero?"

Her question, no matter how utterly inappropriate it sounded to Gromov, lacked irony. That lady acted like a commoner meeting a celebrity.

"Do you want to know how the success has changed my life?" he snickered, showing handcuffs. Thankful to that tactless mummy, he could save mourning for later, for carefully cultivated anger was the proper response when dealing with them.

Take the initiative, Gromov reminded himself. Don't let them possess the game!

"Mrs. Deputy," he said finally. "Now that you have failed to handle that disaster, shall we proceed to negotiation? Would you hear out my terms?"

“What negotiation and terms are you talking about, Captain?”

To be frank, Gromov could not figure that woman out. No sane person would let him familiarize himself with that article. After having spent a month in isolation, the prisoner, unaware of external circumstances, would be an easier bite to chew. But after revealing so much, Mrs. Jaques had given up on that advantage, supplying the antagonist with ammo.

Gromov wonder about many questions: Was the execution an option if the enraged citizens already had their hero? Which incompetent idiot allowed Miriam B to bash Space Forces? Are they investigating that bizarre leakage of information?

Compared to these people, even Colonel Steiner would prevail in intellectual capacity. No incompetence could explain such a catastrophe if not for inner enemies.

“What negotiation and terms are you talking about, Captain?” Mrs. Jaques repeated curiously.

Not answering, Gromov silently watched Space Marshall as if challenging him to speak up. But the officer just waved his hand, keeping a poker face on. Finally, Gromov made his mind.

“To amend the predicament Space Forces got into, you need my cooperation. Why would you have established this Special Committee in the first place, if not for manipulating me into an agreement to your demands? Oh please, do not interrupt me, madame Deputy, you will like my proposal.”

“Captain! Just restrain your paranoia. We are all…”

“…friends here, I know,” Gromov nodded wryly. “This is my point exactly. In friendly fashion, what about settling things down to waste time no more? Right? Shortly, we can do the following: as soon as your Committee let me go, you can arrange a happening. For gathered journalists there, I clearly and firmly proclaim anything you’ll write for me. I can even condemn that preposterous #OneForOne movement. Consequently, you will prepare my quitting papers, and I will disappear from Space Forces for good.”

“This is too much!

Dropping mask of indifference, the Space Marshall jumped to his feet.

Gromov frowned. “What, sir? I am trying to help you here. Even if you gave me the rope to hang myself, my suicide would only pour the oil into the fire.”

Space Marshall gasped: “I was not suggesting you kill yourself.”

“No? But this would be one of the viable alternatives, you know. Certainly causing less humbug than a public martial court. But they would suspect you from an unofficial murder.”

“Captain, do you really take us for such cynical monsters?”

“Do I need to answer that? Shall we pretend we are all friends here instead? I am just offering an honest analysis, all in good faith, that you need to release the hassle you got into. Is there something wrong with my suggestion?”

“Forget your suggestion. Did you really consider your own suicide as a viable alternative?”

“Of course. Why so shocked? You had had to think of it but refused the notion under the assumption I would not be cooperating on this, with my precious existence on stake, weren’t you?”

“But this your life we are talking about,” Mrs. Jaques stepped in, airing absolute disapproval. “You cannot throw it away just on a whim.”

“It is the very same life you did threaten to take. Remember, your lawyers concluded as much.”

“But, I would never …”

“I guess so. You were bluffing, never meant any harm. Does it trouble you taking lives into the calculation, madam? Why is it? Space Forces sacrifice pawns all the time. Now it is even easier. A deceased soldier equals a revived soldier.”

“But you have no backup, and still taking your life so lightly. I am appalled! Sorry to say it, but you sound like some kind of sociopath to me.”

Gromov rolled his eyes inwardly. People like Mrs. Jaques tend to dwell on insignificant details as if one’s state of mind or personal conviction played any role here. Gromov was able to see himself as a unit, the part of the bigger scheme. At the same time, she insisted on her undeniable importance for the Universe. And what was the worst, she built all her judgments on a fundamentally wrong premise.

“Sociopathy, by definition, is characterized by long-term disregard of the rights of the others,” Gromov explained. “I would call it selfishness unrestrained by fear of punishment. As you have observed, I do not fear death, which makes me invulnerable against your threats.”

“I was not …”

“Fortunately for you, madam,” continued Gromov, not minding her, “I am putting the benefit of the majority over the benefit of the minority. Thus, if my measly me is to be sacrificed in favor of Space Forces, I am at least willing to take it into account. Which makes me the true opposite of sociopath, I believe.”

Before unconvinced Mrs. Jaques, residing in sheer disagreement, could contradict him, the Space Marshall meddled in.

“We digressed,” he barked and then continued in a softer tone. “All I wanted to say was you went too far. We appreciate your proposal, but we do not ask you to leave Space Forces. In fact, the detainment you were in was intended to protect you before you can go back to the Dolzana base. We certainly cannot afford to lose pilots of your caliber, Captain Gromov. You may think we are dastardly plotting bastards, but trust me, one of our goals was to save your career together with your life. That was the very purpose of this Special Committee.”

Even though the Space Marshall seemed honest and Mrs. Jaques nodded approvingly, Gromov shook his head. “Thank you, sir. I had decided to left Space Forces before the Summit, so don’t stress it. Or perhaps your colleague has some say on this.”

To distract the Marshall’s attention and out of plain malevolence, Gromov pointed at the last member of the Committee, the one who had not spoken a word so far. It was a young man with an astonishing haircut, shaped into curly strands coiled around his skull, resembling so an ancient marble statue.

With every passing minute, he had been losing more interest in Captain Gromov’s affair, yawning ostensively and inspecting massive golden watches on his hand. Finally, when the boredom became too insufferable, he covered a small tablet behind a case folder and begun browsing the Internet.

The moment Gromov turned the attention of the others to him, the young man dug something fascinating, since he kept reading a page after page steadily and attentively.

It took long thirty seconds before he realized the resentful glare from Mrs. Jaques. Carefully hiding the tablet under the left palm, he asked with the bright expression: “Is something the matter?”

“Son, Captain Gromov wanted to know your opinion,” said Space Marshall disapprovingly.

“Captain Gromov?”

“Here I am,” snickered Gromov and showed his handcuffed hands once again. “The doomed man, you are here to rescue from clutches of death. Supposedly, your new friend.”

The young clerk observed him carefully. Having not found any sense in what the Captain had said, he turned his attention to Mrs. Jaques and asked her: “What do you need me to agree with?”

“Oh, Jeremy, this is so disrespectful! Captain Gromov gave us a very appealing proposal. Were you not listening?”

“Sorry, Catherine, I suffer from a very short attention span. That’s my diagnosis, you know.”

“I know, Jeremy, but still… The life of this brave man is at stake. Isn’t it worth of little discomfort?”

Jeremy, far from being ashamed, just nodded to Gromov and explained to him, “I am sorry, sir. I am really not able to stay focused for more than a few minutes.”

“You…!”

While the Space Marshall’s face was reddening to deep purple shade, Gromov’s mood significantly improved.

“No need to apologize, Jeremy,” he chuckled. “It is common sense that being mentally challenged cannot prevent you from working for the Ministry. We should never discriminate people because of incompetency, do you agree?”

Poor Jeremy, misled by Gromov’s cheerful expression, agreed heartily. “It is not my fault, really. Ten minutes is maximum for me. After that, I’ll get such terrible unsufferable headaches. By any chance, do you suffer from migraines, sir?”

“Nope. Compared to you, I am a lucky man.”

“So envy of you, sir,” Jeremy retorted with no trait of irony. “Every time I feel like dying. I am lying in my bed, all curtains closed, and wondering why I have to go through such unbearable pains. This is why I started to have faith in reincarnation. Do you believe in karma, sir?”

“Enough!”

On the verge of its patience, the Space Marshall stood up abruptly, letting her chair fall in a rumble.

“I believe,” he continued with clenched fists, “we shall not provide Captain Gromov with another excuse for further mockery, no matter how deserved it seems. As for your proposal, Captain, we have no trouble accepting it. Allow me to remind you that you didn’t need to resign on your career in Space Forces. But if you insist, I personally will see to giving you all compensation you deserve. Are we in accord, Mrs. Deputy?”

“Most certainly.”

Standing up, Mrs. Jaques flashed the last white-teethed mummy smile Gromov’s direction and proceeded to him. In cumbersome fashion, she tried to shake one of his hand, pretending there were no handcuffs, and then she left, followed by Jeremy, who patted the prisoner on the shoulder, having given him a small visit card, while whispering confidentially: “Here you are, sir. I cannot recommend that guy sufficiently. He can definitely help you out with your problem.”

“Thank you. What is it? I don’t need a lawyer.”

Gromov, slightly embarrassed for misjudging the young clerk, examined the card.

It read:

JOSHUA CARTWRIGHT

THE BARBERSHOP

DARE TO BE HANDSOME

Before Jeremy went through the door, he showed at his statue-like haircut.

“This was his handiwork,” he uttered. “Your hair is a mess, sir. Go for it!”

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About the author

Pavel Morava

Bio: Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.

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