As he exited the inner planet transport Edan noticed The Academy Director, and his right shoulder jerked awkwardly as he caught himself halfway through the automatic salute. As Judicial Mugwump of the System, he did not need to salute anymore. He acknowledged the Director’s salute to him with a stiff nod. Hard to do. He was not used yet to acknowledging deference, especially from men who had once been his superiors.
“Welcome back to Earth,” the Director said, adding with a grin, “sir.”
Edan frowned at him. “Not the time, Director.”
“I know,” the Director said, sobering, “but it’s still odd to see you in that uniform.” The Director gestured to the long, black robe and white wig that Edan was made to wear as Judicial Mugwump, bygones of an ancient Earth tradition, returned to favor when the planet had begun to long for its traditional ways, when the galaxy’s problems had come knocking and had overwhelmed the more narrow-minded and planetist of the earthlings. Edan couldn’t tell if the Director meant to compliment the uniform or scoff at it.
He decided it didn’t matter. He himself was still afforded the respect due his rank by the Director. If the Director believed that the outfit was ridiculous, he shared Edan’s opinion.
“Where are they?” Edan asked.
“This way.” The Director turned, and together their heels clicked over the checkered floor. Edan snuck glances at the familiar corridors, the locked doors with their plaques proclaiming “Lab 13,” “Dr. Holofernes Richards,” or “Broom Closet.” Little had changed. The academy was still sterile and white. Cadets still paced the halls in their crisp uniforms. One or two young men and women passed, joking, wearing jeans and t-shirts. The band names on the fronts of those off-duty had changed, and so had their manners towards him. Now he was saluted instead of being greeted with jovial cries, shouts for his ruling in petty arguments, or fist bumps.
Edan accepted these salutes reluctantly, missing the camaraderie he had once shared with those at the academy. Judicial Mugwump was a lonely position by definition.
The Director led him down into the bowels of the academy, where they passed fewer and fewer until they were alone.
Edan thought about making small chat with the Director, but what would he say?
Then ahead he saw the two armed guards standing as still and straight as ancient jamb statues outside of a doorway.
“They’re in there,” the Director said needlessly. “Take the guards with you.”
“One,” Edan agreed reluctantly. He didn’t know what he’d find on the other side, and caution was not uncalled for, but he’d also found that trust begat trust and brute force, anger.
“Be careful,” the Director said, touching Edan’s shoulder briefly.
Edan nodded and walked forward alone. The guards had heard their exchange. One detached herself from the wall. She unlocked the door and handed her companion the keys. She held the door for Edan, who marched in ahead of her.
The room beyond was dark. What light there was came from around the door, which was shut behind them, leaving only the small square of barred light from its minute window.
Then the guardswoman hit a button that drowned the room in florescent light. The prisoners hissed and recoiled.
Edan looked into the cell.
“But they’re just children!” he cried.
“Rebels,” the guardswoman corrected him crisply. “They came in here with jerry-built explosives. The elder has already admitted that their intention was to destroy the academy, though with the amount of powder they’d collected, they’d have destroyed no more than a few rooms, even including what would have been done through the post-explosion fire.”
Edan knelt by the bars behind which the children crouched. They wore ragged clothes, heavily patched, black. The elder, a girl with lank hair, was about thirteen. The boy was younger, maybe ten, more likely nine. He nestled against the girl. The cuffs in which they had been placed had rubbed raw the skin around their wrists. Shackles around their ankles kept them crouched. “Is this true?” he asked them.
“Yes,” the girl answered gruffly.
She looked straight at him with bright green eyes. Red had gathered at their rims, whether from lack of sleep or tears, but she looked no less fierce for it. “To take down the system. Because you all sit here in your castle, and you let refuse like us die in the streets without batting an eyelash.”
“Do you know who I am?” Edan asked.
“Another one of the Great One’s dogs.”
“I’m Judicial Mugwump of the System. Do you know what that means?”
“You’re a fancy dog.”
“I’m charged with impartial judgment, and not just for this planet, for all the planets in Solar System G2V 1090.”
“Then tell me that you think the Great One’s a good man.”
“I believe he is,” Edan confessed, looking down.
“Then you’re not impartial. Or you’re dense. Or both. How can you say that while he carts away the best and brings them here then leaves the rest of us to rot?”
“He does take some of us off the streets, though.”
“And the rest of us just have to accept our fate?”
“Convince me,” Edan challenged. “Your fate now rests in my hands. I have to decide whether to charge you, with what, and what your sentence will be.”
The girl scoffed, “Any sentence you deliver will be better than the one I’d be living in otherwise. Starvation is not a way to die. Have you heard toddlers crying, their stomachs hollow, and seen what mothers will do to try and feed them? I’ve watched mothers slit the throats of newborns to give them a quick death. I’ve watched them nervously cook up a man’s corpse in a stew to disguise the taste of decay.”
“I’ve seen these things,” Edan confessed quietly.
“And forgotten them, then,” the girl accused, “forgotten us, like all you Elite. You’ve joined them,” she said. “I fight them. Do your worst, dog. I will still be better than you.”
Thus ends my homage to every YA dystopian sci-fi ever.