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Major, ‘Flack’ Baxter was widely believed to be the greatest hero who had ever lived. He had overseen the defence of Titan, almost single-handedly repelled the invasion of Mars, then personally led the final assault on Trappist three. Now, after almost fifteen years travelling across space, Baxter was finally returning home
If there was ever a man who deserved a parade in his honour, it was Baxter, and as president of the united colonies, it fell to Chancellor Lorrimer to organise it. Lorrimer’s enthusiasm for the task was endless, even though, for the past few weeks, he had worked tirelessly to arrange every detail. To him, it was a labour of love, having grown up listening to the tales of Baxter’s heroics.
The chancellor, like most people, idolised Baxter. Statues and pictures of the great war hero now adorned every settlement, of every human colony. Such was the extent of his fame that numerous films had been made about his deeds and Flack Baxter action figures were the treasured possessions of almost every child.
Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to line the streets to welcome home the returning hero, but it was Lorrimer’s honour, to be the first. He, along with a handful of aides and dignitaries, made up the small welcoming party at Kuipers spaceport. Barely able to contain his excitement, Lorrimer stood anxiously on the landing pad, scanning the sky for signs of Baxter’s shuttle.
“Is my tie straight, Mason?” he nervously asked his assistant.
“It’s about as straight as it was the last time you asked,” replied Mason, sarcastically.
“Do you think we should wait on the other side of the landing pad?” Lorrimer continued, having not heard a word of Mason reply, “Would that make it easier for him when he comes down the steps?”
“We’re fine where we are,” said Mason, “Try to stop fussing, will you? Just relax and enjoy the moment.”
“How can I relax?” snapped the chancellor, “I’m about to become the first person to welcome Flack Baxter back to earth…I just want to be sure that everything is perfect.”
“We’ve checked, and triple checked everything…now, stop worrying about it!”
Before Mason had finished speaking, Lorrimer caught sight of the shuttles jets, glowing through the clouds, above. Pointing up at the approaching craft, he excitedly began bouncing from foot to foot.
“He’s here!” he called out, his voice a clear octave higher than normal.
The delta shaped craft roared rapidly downwards, until, a few seconds later, it was directly over their heads. It hovered above them, momentarily, before slowly descending and gently touching down on the landing pad. Lorrimer watched with anticipation as its hatch slowly hissed open and a set of metal steps automatically unfurled to the ground.
Seconds later, the unmistakable figure of Flack Baxter, appeared in the doorway. He was dressed in the white ceremonial uniform of the orbital infantry, adorned with as many medals and ribbons as his broad chest could carry. His cropped blonde hair, his square jaw and his piercing blue eyes were instantly recognisable from the countless news clips and pictures that Lorrimer had seen of him.
A stern faced female officer then appeared by his side. She began waving at the welcoming committee, simultaneously leaning in towards Baxter and whispering something in his ear. A broad grin instantly appeared on the major’s face as he too, began waving enthusiastically at Lorrimer’s party.
The female officer then whispered to Baxter a second time, before taking his arm and leading him carefully down the steps. Another officer, whose frame was larger even than that of Baxter, then emerged from the shuttles hatch, slowly following behind.
As the three approached, Lorrimer extended his hand towards the major. However, instead of returning the gesture, Baxter, just stood there, smiling back at him. A second later, the female officer grabbed his hand and shook it, as if the gesture had been intended for her.
“Chancellor Lorrimer, I presume?” She said confidently, “Captain Gillian Rogers, three hundred and third, Orbital infantry. I am Major Baxter’s aide.”
“P-pleased to meet you, Captain,” said Lorrimer, somewhat perturbed by the major’s reluctance to shake his hand, “and may I be the first to say, ‘welcome home’.
“Thank you, chancellor, it’s good to be back.”
“I have to say Major,” said lorrimer, turning back to Baxter, “that it’s a tremendous honour to meet you…”
Baxter did not reply.
“There are thousands of people lining the parade route, it looks like most of the population have turned up to see you,” the chancellor chuckled nervously.
Again, there was no response.
“Well, we don’t want to keep them all waiting then, do we?” Rogers interjected.
“Lieutenant Willis, be so good as to show the Major to his car, will you?” she then said, turning to the other officer.
The chancellor watched as Willis took the major by the arm, then carefully led down to steps of the landing pad, to the waiting motorcade. Lorrimer noticed, as the two men walked away, that the major was a little unsteady on his feet, seemingly lacking in co-ordination. This fact, when added to Baxter’s slightly odd behaviour, was starting to make him a little uneasy.
“Is he alright?” the chancellor asked Rogers with concern.
“He’s fine,” Captain Rogers assured him, “It’s just the after effects of the cryo-sleep…it can sometimes take days to fully recover.”
“I see…” said Lorrimer, “though it doesn’t seem to have affected you too badly.”
“Th-that’s right,” she replied, “But I’ve had a little longer to recover…it’s common practice for a small number of the crew to be woken early…to oversee the rest of the crew as they come out of cryosleep.”
“Of course,” said Lorrimer, “how silly of me.”
The chancellor then gestured towards the steps of the landing pad, “After you, Captain.”
Rogers then made her way down to the motorcade, follow by Lorrimer, Mason and the rest of the welcoming party. A line of four open-top limousines waited for them, together with a police escort consisting of two squad cars and six motorcycles. Rogers joined Baxter and Willis in the leading car, with Lorrimer and his group getting in the following vehicles.
As soon as the main gates of the base opened, the convoy was greeted by a cacophony of cheers and whistles from the thousands of people who lined the road outside. As the crowds caught sight Baxter’s limousine, the roar that erupted from them was almost deafening. The scene was the same for the next ten miles, until they reached the outskirts of the city.
Whilst the reception they had so far received had been impressive, the welcome that awaited them in Amsterdam itself, was nothing short of overwhelming. The streets were awash with ticker tape, ribbons and flowers, which rained down from every window. From the pavements to the rooftops, every possible vantage point had been taken, with people eager to catch even the merest glimpse of their hero.
The convoy slowly wound its way through the packed city streets, accompanied by rapturous chorus of cheers and applause, until it reached the steps to the presidential palace. Once the vehicles had drawn to a halt, a waiting military struck up a rousing rendition of, ‘Beyond the Stars’; the Orbital infantry anthem.
Chancellor Lorrimer, flanked closely by Mason, emerged from his limousine looking particularly pleased with himself. Every aspect of the parade had been executed perfectly and, from what he could tell, Baxter seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. At no point, on their journey, had Lorrimer seen the major stop smiling or waving.
The stone staircase of the palace had been adorned with a red carpet which was flanked by a mix of royal guests, politicians, and generals, all of whom began applauding enthusiastically as Baxter stepped out of his vehicle. At first, the major appeared a little overawed by the reception, as he stood with an expression of confusion etched upon his face. His grin soon returned, however, when Captain Rogers placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered reassuringly, in his ear, once again.
Once Baxter’s party and the rest of the dignitaries had gathered, Mason ushered them up the steps and through the great palatial doors. The grand entrance hall was decked out with ribbons and, at the top of the palace staircase, a huge portrait of the major had been hung on the wall, just as the chancellor had instructed. However, as they made their way up to the first floor, it seemed to Lorrimer, that Baxter barely noticed it.
Mason then led the group through a set of double doors and into a large, lavishly decorated reception room. On one side of the room, a row of glass doors separated them from the palace balcony; on the other, a large buffet table had been prepared. Inside the door, a further group of dignitaries from the united colonies were waiting in line to greet the Major personally.
To everyones shock, Baxter ignored them all, as he instead barged his way past them and made a bee-line for the buffet table. Once there, he began to grab up handfuls of canapés and stuff them into his mouth with all the grace of a ravenous chimp.
Lorrimer stared in shock as the major continued to greedily, and noisily, fill his face.
“I am sorry,” Rogers said before anyone had chance to remark, “But the major hasn’t eaten any real solids since he came out of cryo-sleep. I’m afraid his hunger has got the better of him.”
“I’ll say,” remarked Mason dryly.
“Cryo-sleep does tend to make one ravenous,” laughed Lorrimer nervously, in an attempt to placate the disgruntled guests.
“You must be hungry too, Captain,” said Lorrimer turning to Rogers, “there will, of course be a formal dinner and presentation in a couple of hours, but until then, please help yourself… we have a good fifteen minutes, or so, until we are due out on the balcony, where the Major can give his speech.”
“Ah,” said Rogers, in a manner which suggested she was about to throw a spanner in the works, “I’m not sure that is such a good idea, Chancellor.”
“Nonsense,” replied Lorrimer, “the crowd are expecting it.”
“Of course,” said Rogers, “it’s just that the major has been experiencing some numbness in his lips, making his speech a little slurred. You’re right though, the people are expecting it. I dare say that most of them will just think that he has had one too many drinks.”
Lorrrimer took a moment to consider rogers statement. Having Baxter slur his way through a speech that would be broadcast around the world probably wasn’t a good idea. The last thing that he wanted was for anything to tarnish Baxter’s image or, for that matter, his own.
“You may have a point,” he said finally, “maybe a speech is not such a good idea after all…unless you could say a few words on his behalf.”
“It would be my pleasure.” smiled the captain.
Once Mason had retrieved them both a drink, Lorrimer and Rogers made their way over to one of several chaise lounges that formed a square in the centre of the room. The chancellor sat down silently and sipped his drink, still somewhat perplexed by Baxter’s behaviour. Whilst the after effects of stasis would explain why the major had been so reluctant to speak, other aspects of the major’s behaviour that were downright odd. His movements still seemed uncoordinated…clumsy even. And then there was the weird, vacant grin, which was constantly etched on his face…
A number of explanations raced through Lorrimer’s mind. Maybe Baxter had received a head wound during the final battle. Or maybe the long campaign that the major had fought had taken a huge toll on him psychologically.
As the chancellor mulled over the potential causes of Baxter’s strange behaviour, his attention was drawn by a commotion at the buffet table, behind him. He turned to see Baxter standing at the end of the table holding a large silver punch bowl in his hands. To Lorrimer’s astonishment, as well as everyone else’s, Baxter then stuck his face straight into to bowl and noisily started slurping up its contents. Lorrimer looked on in stunned silence as he gradually reached the conclusion that Major Baxter, the man he had idolised for much of his life, was, in actual fact, a complete fool.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” he said, turning to Rogers, “and don’t give me any baloney about recovering from cryosleep, Captain…I’ve been in deep-space myself, and whilst I did experience a bit of dizziness and nausea for a couple of days, a no point did it make me forget basic, bloody, table manners!”
“Nothing is wrong with him,” replied Rogers flippantly, “he has always been like this.”
“But…but Flack Baxter is supposed to be the greatest hero who ever lived…the man who saved humanity…this,” he said pointing at Baxter, “is little more than a gibbering imbecile.”
His gaze returned to the major, who now appeared to have the empty bowl stuck on his head, and was now trying frantically to free himself. He then turned back to Rogers with an expression of someone who had just been proven correct. Rogers said nothing for a moment, as if she were wrestling with her conscience.
Finally, she replied in little more than a whisper, “What I am about to tell you is still confidential, so you didn’t hear this from me…understand?”
Lorrimer nodded earnestly in response.
“Major Flack Baxter,” she began gravely, “was killed on the second day of the defence of Titan.”
“But that’s impossible,” scoffed the chancellor, “Baxter fought on Mars…and on Trappist-three, I’ve seen news reels…the photographs…And if Baxter is dead, who the hell is this? His twin brother?”
“In a manner of speaking…yes,” Rogers replied, “one of them, at least.”
“One of them?”
“Yes…there’s been thousands over the years.”
Rogers paused for a moment as she glanced back over at Baxter, once again. The Major, having given up trying to remove the punch-bowl, was now blindly stumbling around the room, bumping into the walls and bashing into the furniture.
“For God’s sake, Lieutenant” she said called over to Willis, “go and bloody give him a hand, will you.”
Willis duly obliged, rushing over to the Major and guiding him to his seat. He then went about trying to free the major’s head from its self-imposed incarceration.
“The original Baxter was the perfect soldier,” Rogers continued, turning back to Lorrimer, “He was strong, smart and fearless, which was exactly the reason he was enlisted into the ‘Operation Russian Doll’.”
“Russian Doll? The human cloning project?”
“The very same.”
“But it was shutdown…banned under colonial law.” protested Lorrimer.
“Precisely the reason high command kept it under wraps.” Said Rogers, “When the Trappist armada was first detected, we were short of ground troops…woefully short, so High command took the decisions to relax the laws on human cloning. They took our best and brightest soldiers and began to make genetic copies of them. By the time the war had started in earnest, we had over two hundred Flack Baxter’s, as well as thousands of clones of other troops.”
Rogers paused momentarily, and looked around to confirm that none of the other guest were eavesdropping. Her concern, however, was unfounded, as everyone’s attention was still firmly fixed on Baxter’s antics.
“But as the war continued, and the casualties mounted,” She continued, “we realised that we still didn’t have enough men. The Baxter clones had been, by far, the most effective, and so the entire programme was concentrated on creating more copies of him…thousands of them. By the time High Command realised that the attack on Titan was a deception, and the main Trappist force was headed to Mars, they began to step-up the Russian Doll programme, dramatically. They created a new generation of Baxters and sent them straight into battle, retaining just enough of them to provide genetic material for the following generation.”
“They made copies of a copy?” asked Lorrimer.
“Exactly,” Rogers replied, “They kept repeating the process, again and again, until we had tens of thousands of them in reserve…eleven generations, in total. But after the first few weeks of the defence of Mars, they began to encounter some…problems.”
“What sort of problems?”
“Soon after the fourth generation was sent into battle,” continued the captain, “there was a serious decrease in the clones’ combat effectiveness. Then, with each new generation, there appeared to be a steady decline in both intelligence and co-ordination.”
Rogers paused as she took a sip from her glass, “But by generation eight they were becoming a liability. And generation eleven’s…like this one…can barely find their arse with both hands. By the time, we had driven the invaders back to Trappist-three, the Baxters were little more than cannon-fodder. The only strategic purpose they served in the final battles was to act as distractions, so that our A.I. strikes teams stood a better chance.”
“Christ,” remarked Lorrimer, “that’s awful…how many of them survived?”
“Barely a dozen,” Rogers replied coldly, “and most of them died just a few days after the war finished.”
“Shuttle accident” explained Rogers, “as they were leaving Trappist three. Apparently one of the silly buggers got lost on the way to the restroom, and somehow managed to open an airlock. Only five of them survived…then we lost another two after we met up with the fleet.”
“What happened to them?”
“It was as we were preparing to put them into cryo-sleep…in the shower block.” said rogers, “as unbelievable as it sounds, one of them died when he mistakenly picked up a large bore plasma pistol instead of a hair dryer, the other choked to death whilst attempting to eat a bar of soap.”
The captain emptied her glass before continuing, “There’s only three of them left now. We left the other two in cryosleep…for their own protection.”
Lorrimer said nothing, but shook his head in disbelief.
“Of course, through all of this, the propaganda machine has been in full flow,” Said Rogers, “crediting all the clones’ heroics to just one man, and creating a legend in the process.”
“But, it’s all just a fabrication…a lie,” Said the chancellor, “There’ll be hell to pay when the Colonial council find out.”
“Which is exactly why we need to keep this quiet,” said Rogers, “Just think of it as a necessary evil. Besides, what good would it do if it were to get out.”
“But it’s my duty, as president of the council,” said Lorrimer, “there has been a serious breach of colonial law.”
The Captain nodded reluctantly.
“Of course, you must do want you think is best…I just hope the public can get over the disappointment of finding out that their hero is-” Rogers paused as she nodded in Baxter’s direction, “a total bloody idiot.”
Lorrimer turned once again, to see that Baxter had risen from his seat and was now blindly, and unsuccessfully, swinging punches at Willis, in the mistaken belief that the young Lieutenant was trying to attack him. As he watched the major flail around the room, he was overcome by a sense of crushing disappointment. He had lost his hero, and it was not a feeling that he particularly, wanted to share.
“I understand,” he said, finally, “you don’t have to worry about me, Captain…I won’t breathe a word about it.”
“That’s the spirit, Chancellor” said Rogers, a smile returning to her face.
The noise from outside was becoming noticeably louder, as the massive crowd gathered there, started to become impatient. Lorrimer could hear the chant of, ‘We want Flack, we want Flack’, began to resonate with ever increasing volume.”
“It sounds to me, Chancellor, as if the crowds are eager to see the returning hero” said Rogers, as she stood up and started to straighten her uniform, “now, if we can just find some way of getting that bowl off his head…”