I was unconscious for how long… I had no idea. I had woken up to find myself in the hospital wing. I looked to the right to find Joseph sitting next to me…. No doubt, an unlikely visitor.

“So, Lt. Com. Sudhir Malhotra, you were planning to go out with a bang, eh? Die a hero in the most epic way possible?” Joseph asked, though for some odd reason the tone of sarcasm had vanished.

I got up to see Rizwan, Daljeet and Rooma looking at me with a smile. It was obvious, one person was missing.

“How long was I out?” I asked as I clutched my head in pain. Leave alone my head, my whole body was aching.

“A long time. 7 hours and 56 minutes to be precise. The others were celebrating the fantastic victory we had yesterday while here you were… knocked out.” Joseph answered.

“Where is Chandni?” I asked.

“She is mad at you, real mad. Like… if she gets to know that you are alive, she will come and put a bullet in your head for the crazy stunt you both performed back there.” Answered Rizwan with a sly smile.

“And you are happy about that? Well, you perform the duty of a brother then! Why not you put the bullet on my head? Make it easier for her!” I responded with sarcasm.

“Speak of the devil.” Joseph commented quietly, as Chandni entered the wing.

The others looked at each other, they quietly left the room deciding to allow a moment between Chandni and me. She sat down on the same seat Joseph was sitting on and looked at me. She wasn’t angry but she did look morose, enough to prove that she must have been weeping the whole time… waiting for me to regain consciousness.

I started, “I did what was needed to be done. I am sorry…”

I couldn’t complete my sentence for the very next moment, Chandni hugged me tightly and started to wail. I felt embarrassed as I looked around the wing, all the other patients, doctors and nurses were looking at us… most of them were smiling at us. I tried to calm her down.

“Whoa, whoa… easy girl. This is a hospital. Calm down, baby.” I said.

“Damn you, Sudhir. I knew it was risky but you still went ahead. You didn’t even tell us. Why do always keep silent about your plans? Do you disbelief us or what?” Chandni asked, she definitely had a point.

I still remember my days in training and I remember one of my trainers stating that communication was my biggest problem. It has been 9 years since then yet I believe I am still weak at it.

“Come on, Chandni. Why should I disbelief you people? Yeah… I mean, I should have told you but you would have stopped me from doing that.” I responded.

Chandni let go of me and then stared at me.

“You are the leader of our squad. Why should we stop you?” Chandni asked bewildered.

It was more than a question; it was a reality check for me. Of course, I am the leader of the squad. I am the one to take the final decision yet I am still supposed to… you know… communicate my ideas to my squad… and once again… I failed miserably at that.

Before I could explain myself, there was another visitor and definitely the one I was expecting.

“Bravery and foolishness are 2 different things… that is what my seniors used to say. You ask me, a man has got to do what is needed to be done… and you my boy, sure did something really brave but foolish.” It was Ambrose. He continued, “What’s more, you even made the foul mouthing Joseph listen to you and pull off that stunt. I don’t know whether I should be proud of you or spank you hard till it hurts.”

I could only hung my head in embarrassment.

“It had to be done. I hear people saying we won. The question is… what have we won? Did we find something?” I asked.

“It was a base alright. A lot of squads found documents or plans of what seems to be a space naval fleet. Looks like THE FIRE are up to something. Maybe, they are trying to build a naval fleet of their own to challenge the might of the WRDO and ISS. A lot of POTENTIALS have been rescued and sessions are going on to check and see how far they have been brainwashed against us. As for your squad, you already know who you found.” said Ambrose.

“Dr. Ijaz, he is the one who designed the AI for MOONRISER.” Chandni responded.

“Exactly, he went missing 6 months prior to the disappearance of the MOONRISER. We had tier one assets assigned to search for him but there was no trace of him. His family had no clue where he went. All they could share with us at that time was that it was just a normal day for them. Ijaz’s wife stated that he called her stating he would be late. That was the last time he called her.” Said Ambrose.

“And that was 15 years ago. He disappeared and then something happened to ISS MOONRISER. This can’t be a coincidence. It looks like Ijaz was kidnapped and must have been interrogated by THE FIRE to find all details of this ship. We should ask him, interrogate him, there is a lot he knows but… I don’t think he is in that mental condition to speak… leave alone reveal anything.” I said.

Ambrose had a file with him. He placed it in front of me and said, “Indeed, from the looks of it, he was not just interrogated. He was tortured, he was brought to a stage where he lost all his senses and then, kept in a vegetable status, where he might have revealed everything about MOONRISER. We had assigned an officer to him while he was being treated because every now and then, he would go into a mode… call it a self-realization mode… where he started talking about the ship, about his work and experience, about THE FIRE, his family… it’s like all his memories are coming back but they are in a non-linear format.

The officer did her best to write down everything that he said. This file contains all those details. I don’t think I need to explain that everything is bits and pieces… here and there… like a jigsaw puzzle but you will work this out.”

I opened the file and looked at the first page. The lines were definitely the words of a deranged man… but within those lines was the also the words of a man who was a guilty of something he shouldn’t have done. If my guess was right, Ijaz had the key to all the secret concerning to the disappearance of the ISS MOONRISER and in time, I will get to know it.

I was discharged from the wing and went back home with the file in hand. Even after my Mom and Chandni said to take rest and not think about work for a few days, I couldn’t as I spent that entire night studying the file. There were moments where I got emotional and then there were moments that made me burn with rage.

It took me time to solve the jigsaw puzzle, it was worth it for one thing was certain from Ijaz’s ‘monologue’ – THE FIRE was involved in the disappearance of the ship. The question was – how the hell did they plan that? A starship that size… it cannot disappear just like that. What we have with us is assumptions, we are assuming that the ship went through the chaotic asteroid belt and got destroyed. Or did it really? Did it really go through the belt? Was my Dad alive? After all these years, is it possible for someone to be alive without any supplies or resources?

My head started to ache again and I clutched it. It was a sign that I couldn’t take this anymore. I looked at the watch on my desk, it was 4 am and it will be morning soon. I had already been permitted to take a few days off due to my injury, so I decided to go to sleep. My batteries needed to be recharged. As I dropped on the bed, I had a look at my Dad’s watch that I always kept with me.

“Where have you gone off to? What happened 15 years ago? Will I ever get the answer to the all these questions?” I asked myself.

I kept looking at the watch. My dad had an unusual habit of leaving behind his watch with Mom and me before going on a mission. I remember my Mom asking him about this habit to which he replied, “I am leaving it behind with the hope that I will come back home to wear it again. I am a soldier and there is no guarantee for a soldier that he will return home… yet, I will definitely return to wear this watch again.”

It was a promise that was broken. I, then, remembered the last flight of ISS MOONRISER. It was the ship’s 15th anniversary flight and there was a celebration for it after which the ship would take to the skies again. I was there along with my Mom. My Dad before entering the ship looked at us and then showed his wrist indicating his watch. I had the watch in hand and waved at him indicating that we will wait for his return… but he never came back. 15 years had passed and here I was waiting to see my Dad return to wear his watch again.

Sleep caught up with me and before I was out, I was reminded of another thing that my Dad told me, “Whenever you need to find me… look at this watch and rest assured, you will be looking at me too.”

It was around 9 am in the morning when I suddenly woke up to the ringing of my mobile. It was Ambrose.

“How are you feeling, son?” He asked, though his voice sounded more enthusiastic than concerned.

“I am alright, Sir. Just a bit weak.” I replied.

“I know this will not be easy for you. It’s Ijaz, he wants to talk to you. He has made some interesting revelation but I will not be able to share it on this line. Rizwan is outside your house waiting for you in his car. You don’t have to put on your uniform, bring your access card and hurry up, it is important.” Said Ambrose.

I was feeling dazed, however, I somehow got up, washed my face and wore a formal wear. I grabbed my access card and ran out of my room much to my Mom’s surprise.

“Where are you going?” She asked.

“It is important. Don’t worry about me. I will be home soon enough.” I replied, as I ran out of the house and indeed, Rizwan was waiting for me in his car.

I got on to the passenger seat and Rizwan drove the car towards the ISS base. As I entered the base, an official came closer and asked me to follow her to the interrogation room. As we neared the room, I saw Ambrose who was going through his tab.

“Sudhir, I know you needed rest but this was important. I assume you would have already gone through the file by now.” Said Ambrose.

“There is no way I can lie about that, Sir. I went through the entire file. It took me a while to piece everything. He was kidnapped by THE FIRE, brutally tortured to the extent that he became deranged. I guess… that was their plan. They could have killed him off but they required his expertise… and that is why they kept him alive in a phase where he will do their bidding and not ask any questions.

He told them everything… everything about ISS MOONRISER. They had all details, an entire map of the ship. It was not the chaotic belt that destroyed the ship, it was something else. It must have been hijacked by the soldiers of THE FIRE and then…” I stopped at what I was saying due to a terrible thought that passed through my mind.

“It must be in the control of THE FIRE now. If that is what you want to say. Yeah, I had that thought too… for a long time.” Ambrose completed my sentence.

I stared at Ambrose and then looked away. That feeling of an asset being turned over to our enemy… it was more than just an asset; it was a powerful machine built for guaranteed victory against all odds. There were plans to build another one but building a ship that size required the budget and expertise of the finest people. The question is… why was another ship not built?

“Sir, it’s Ijaz… he is asking for Lt. Comm Sudhir. He says he will ‘share his thoughts’ only with him and nobody else.” Said an official.

“He is still deranged if I am not wrong.” Ambrose commented.

“I don’t think so. The doctors have done their job well. He seems to be getting a grip of the present and his surroundings… although, he has a lot of ‘thoughts’ that he is not willing to share with us.” the official replied.

“I will go see him. I will talk with him. Let us ‘pretend’ we are on duty and try to find answers to all the questions that have lingered on for 15 years.” I said as I walked towards the room where Ijaz was kept.

As I entered the room, I could see Ijaz murmuring to himself. I came closer to the table, grabbed a chair and sat in front of him. I kept the file in front and said, “Ijaz, I am here. You wanted to speak to me.”

Ijaz looked at me, he smiled though he was in tears.

“It is not the ship that is important, Sudhir. The ship is nothing but machine and weaponry. Like a huge house, that can house your family, friends, loved ones… it is not the ship that matters.” Ijaz started.

“He is going straight to the point. Sounds good for me, the more we talk business… the more we get a solution.” I thought to myself as I looked at the glass behind me, Ambrose and the other were definitely listening to the conversation.

“Sudhir, it is the AI. It is the AI that they are after. You see, the AI is unlike anything… it is not just a programming language designed to cater to the needs of ISS and program according to the way we want it to. It is an evolving AI, an AI that can think, analyze and formulate a solution that can benefit us… hell if it is, even turn the tide of war, of any war.

15 years of service, the AI was not sitting idle when the ship was idle. It was learning, slowly and steadily. Never question a man who has an experience of more than 15 years but what am I saying… it is an AI I am talking about and today, this AI is smarter and stronger than anyone.

You only need to ask what you want and the AI will answer. It is like going to a temple, speaking to God. They were trying to capture that AI but then… but then…” Ijaz became silent.

Things were starting to make sense. People only talk about the ship but the real secret was hidden within it. It was a confidential information that even I had no idea of yet it was definitely the reason why THE FIRE wanted to destroy it. However, were they trying to destroy the ship or control the ship… or maybe, control the AI.

“He is right, Sudhir. Indeed, it was the AI. it was the first of its kind. The scientists along with Ijaz were studying human emotions during the creation of the AI. I am not sure what they created but whatever it is… it was the most powerful thing ever created within ISS grounds.” Said Ambrose through our interlink.

I had to keep this conversation going. I had to say or ask something.

I started, “We are searching for that ship. I am searching for that ship. How do we find it? Is there any way we can access the AI? Anyway, we can contact that AI and find out its location?”

Ijaz was looking at something. I looked in that direction and my eyes fell on the watch I was wearing.

“Dhiren’s watch, what is it doing in your hands?” Ijaz asked.

“He gave it to me before going on a mission aboard the ISS MOONRISER. He always used to give it me before going. Sadly, it has been 15 years since his disappearance yet I live with the hope that he will return one day.” I answered.

Ijaz looked at me bewildered. He thought for a moment and then asked, “Before going on missions, what did he tell you? Is there anything he used to say before giving the watch to you?”

I was surprised by that question. I felt it was natural for someone, especially a Dad or a Mom to give an item out of pure affection and ask us to keep it as a parting gift or as a memory but here, Ijaz was actually asking about what my Dad used to say before leaving for a mission. I looked at the watch, I remembered those days when my Dad went on missions. He would always say… or promise that he would return to wear that watch again. Was that just a promise… or there was something else to it?

“He would hand me over the watch and tell me to protect it till he returned from service. He used to promise us that he would always return to wear the watch again and therefore to guard it, and not lose it. That is all he used to tell Mom and me.” I said, almost to myself.

Ijaz stretched out his hand and asked for the watch. I was hesitant at first.

“During the construction of the ship, your father asked me if it was possible to create a kind of a portable tracking system that could tell an individual where he or the ship was.  A tracking system was already been created for the ISS MOONRISER but your Dad wanted a personal one.

Your father explained that he wanted it for his family. He loved his family a lot and he wanted to give them a kind of memorabilia that also served the purpose of helping them know where he was if in case he disappeared. It was a strange request but considering we were good friends; I created this watch for him.

Give me the watch. I need to know something.” Ijaz explained and for the first time in my life, it dawned on me as to why my Dad always said to protect the watch.

The watch I was wearing… was it a portable tracking system for the ISS MOONRISER? Was I so close to getting an answer to a question that had haunted me and the others for 15 years? I gave the watch to Ijaz. The latter looked at it and turned it around. There was a pen on the table, he took it and with it opened the lid on the back of the watch.

I got up and had a look at the back of the watch. I was astounded, within the watch was a machinery which was unheard of in a watch. There was a green light that was blinking. Ijaz looked at me and said, “It is obvious your father never told you about this. If he would have, the ISS didn’t have to face so much disgrace. We could have found the ship as quickly as possible.”

I didn’t have any response to that. I was only looking at the green light that was blinking and asked, “What is the meaning of that? Why is the light blinking?”

“Before that, answer me… Sudhir, did you or did the ISS make any attempts to find the ship?” Ijaz countered my question.

“We tried but we couldn’t. The ship was said to enter a chaotic asteroid belt and may have been destroyed. We had no other option but to stop all possible attempts to retrieve the ship… or the remains.” I answered.

“Destroyed! Destroyed, you say! If it was destroyed then this light wouldn’t have been blinking. This indicates that the ship is still intact and in all these years, it has been untouched from the devils that tried to destroy it.” Ijaz said.

The information was enough to make Ambrose barge into the room. He took the chair, sat right next to Ijaz and started, “Ijaz, tell me. Where is that ship? How can we retrieve it? Help us, Ijaz… you know more than me that it can fall into the wrong hands. THE FIRE, they cannot have this… if they do, they will have it on our dead bodies.”

Ijaz looked at Ambrose and then at me. He then asked, “Where is the command center? Take me there. I have committed enough sins. This… this will be my penance. Take me to the command center.”

Ambrose led Ijaz to the command center and I followed them. Ijaz looked around and asked for the terminal that helped in tracking the location of the ISS ships. An officer directed Ijaz to the same and the latter had a look at it, took a cord and connected it to the watch. He typed a few keys and looked at the screen. We looked on as the terminal tracked the signal emitting from the watch. We were shocked as well as confused as the signal tracker did not go through the chaotic belt but around it towards a planet and stopped.

Ijaz looked at us and said, “ISS MOONRISER… it is not destroyed. It is still active. It had crash landed on that planet.”

There was silence for a few seconds as none of us were able to believe what we were seeing. This was followed by an applause and huge cheers among a lot of officers. I came closer to the screen and looked at where the tracker stopped.

“Are there any life signs? Any survivors?” I asked.

There was silence again. Indeed, that was the million-dollar question. Ijaz looked at me, there was concern in his face too. He clicked a few keys again and looked at the screen. We waited with baited breath.

“There are… there are no life signs. The entire crew… no one… no one survived.” Ijaz said and I could only look at the ground disheartened.

I walked out of the command center without speaking a word. Walking aimlessly, I reached the cafeteria and sat down on a seat. Tears trickled down, my Dad was dead, there were no survivors… what will I tell my Mom? We both lived with the believe that he will return but the truth was right in front.

I sat staring right in front when I felt someone touch my shoulder. I looked up and saw Chandni. Rizwan and Daljeet had also joined in, they all sat next to me. It was obvious Rizwan would have given them the news but not in entirety.

“Rizwan told us everything.” Said Chandni.

“They found the ship but there are no life signs. It looks like… looks like no one survived.” I said with a choked voice.

We were silent for some time and at this time, Daljeet had brought coffee for all of us.

“What am I going to tell my Mom? How will she react?” I asked.

It was evident no one had an answer to that. I wasn’t expecting them to give me an answer. It was not their burden… it was mine; it has always been mine to bear.

“What if… what if, we can go to the planet where the ship was found and bring it back? A lot of people are going to be happy. We do not know for sure if the crew is alive or dead. What if they have survived and escaped somewhere unknown?” Daljeet spoke up and we all stared at him.

Daljeet continued, “Sudhir, I understand about your Dad and all but look at the other side. Losing this ship was a disgrace for ISS but if we can bring that ship back, it will in itself be an answer to all that question. Come on, people… that ship is our legacy, the legacy of ISS. I don’t want to say this but… we may not be able to bring the crew back but we can bring that ship. Close the mouths of all those people who have and are still continuously embarrassing us and disgracing us with their foul mouths.”

For the first time ever, Daljeet was speaking sense. It is not bad to be emotional; it is natural… but Daljeet had a point. I got up from my seat and walked towards a giant window. I looked on as a passenger ship landed at the airport just across the ISS towers. My squad walked up to me.

“For 15 years, I was looking for an answer. My persistence at finding the answers were not in vain. Now is the chance, now is the chance to unveil everything that has been in the dark. We will bring that ship back. I will speak to Ambrose about this now. I am sure I will get the approval but we are not wasting time on this. Pack our stuffs, we leave the moment I get the approval.” I said as I sprinted towards the control room again.

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