Posted by E.S. Wynn Wednesday, May 18, 2011
It was three AM when Imalda found Tessa alone in the officer’s mess, face in her hands. Hunched over an untouched drink, her Ultima Thila uniform stripped of tags, brass and rank insignia, Tessa looked broken, the shadow of an officer, a husk discarded in the name of a cause, an ideal. Sure, she had her life, her freedom, a free ticket to any world she wanted to settle on, and a modest-sized check from the military to help her start her new life, but she’d lost everything else she’d ever had, ever loved. She didn’t blame Izzy for breaking things off, for choosing her career over their relationship, couldn’t blame Phoebe, Cordova, Stone or any of the others for becoming suddenly distant, uncertain about how to act around her, what to say, what not to say. She was someone wholly different from the Tessa they had all known, someone trapped in a past as painfully perfect as she remembered it being.
“Tough breaks, Major.”
Tessa glanced up, caught the older woman’s eyes. In her own timeline, she’d met the Chief Marshall of the Ixion Condottieri years before at Izzy’s funeral, but this time around would be Imalda’s first. Tessa’s eyes dropped back to the table. With mottled and burnt skin traced by lines of brushed steel, hair as sharp as chrome bristles, and a thick leather eyepatch emblazoned with a leering jolly roger that bit into her scarred features, the Chief Marshall was a person whose face was hard to forget.
“Former Major.” Tessa managed, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Her hand dropped loosely to her drink, tapped out a quick, absent beat. “Thanks to the gratitude of our enlightened Commonwealth’s completely unbiased public policy.”
“Laws are harsh on constructs, but that’s the price paid for genetic security.” Imalda said, gesturing at the seat. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Yeah, actually.” Tessa looked up, fixed the older woman with a sharp stare. “I do mind.”
“Fine.” Imalda’s hands came together behind her back. “I’ve always been partial to standing, anyway.”
“Can I do something for you,” Tessa shot back suddenly, anger jumping across her features. “or did you just come down here because you forgot what the people you killed during the war looked like?”
“Centauri wasn’t a war.” Imalda said levelly. “It was a police action.”
“History is written by the victors.” Tessa shook her head. “From where I’m sitting, it was a war. A war for survival that the oppressors won and the oppressed keep losing.”
Imalda’s features darkened at the edges. “Call it whatever you want, Eisenherz. It ended decades before you were even born.”
“Yeah.” Tessa scoffed, turned back to her drink. “Tell that to the lawmakers.”
“Look, Eisenherz,” Imalda leaned over suddenly, brought herself eye to eye with the other woman, gnarled hands flat on the table. “I didn’t come down here to debate social policy with you or take your shit. I came down here because I’ve seen your combat record, I’m vaguely impressed, and I’ve got an empty rig in my squadron that needs a warm body to fill it.”
Tessa met the other woman’s stare levelly. “Even if that ‘warm body’ is a GMO freak?”
“Like I said,” Imalda eyed her carefully. “The police action was over fifty years ago.”
“So just like that, huh?” Tessa asked, eyes flicking as she leaned back, folded her arms. “Forgive and forget?”
“You never forget.” Imalda’s stare smouldered as she stood upright again, eyes dark and steely. “Besides, you got anything more spectacular planned?”
“Oh. . . yeah.” Tessa managed, sarcasm crawling through her voice as she looked away again. “I’ll probably catch a transport out to a farm world and sign up to work on a plantation with my own kind.” She made a vague gesture. “Y’know, the simple life. Chains, a drafty shack, campfire songs.”
“No it isn’t.” Tessa shook her head, tone dark, cut with a darker depression. She rubbed at her face, sighed.
“There aren’t many jobs in the civilian fleet for pilots with GMO ancestry.” Imalda managed, the steel edge in her voice softening. “A plantation might be the only other choice you have besides taking me up on my offer.” She shrugged. “But then, maybe you’ll get lucky and some brass or CEO will get a wild hare up his ass and decide the fact that you’re from the future makes you valuable enough to hunt down and turn into a lab rat.”
“I’m not from the future.” Tessa said softly.
“Spare me.” The Grand Marshall made a vague gesture. “I have connections. I know what’s going on.” Tessa looked up again, met the other woman’s eyes blankly. “Look, Eisenherz. All I’m saying is that I’m offering you a way out, a new ship to serve on, and a chance to keep flying.” She shrugged. “The seat’s yours if you want it. The Karkadann breaks from the fleet tomorrow at twelve hundred hours, so you have until then to pack up your gear, stow your demons and report to the primary overhead umbilical.”
“Sounds so easy when you put it that way.” Tessa managed.
“It’s the only part of working for the Ixion Condottieri that is.” Imalda smiled briefly, turned away. Tessa’s eyes milled across her drink as the Grand Marshall crossed the room, made for the door.
Imalda turned back, gave Tessa a level stare. The other woman smiled softly, letting the pause linger as she picked up her drink, swirled it.
“What does Mac think of all this?”
A grin played across the Grand Marshall’s face, stuck.
“How do you think I got your files?” She turned toward the door again. “It was his idea.”
And then she was gone, leaving Tessa alone again in the officers’ mess, her own grin spreading slowly across her face. Glancing down at her glass, she reached into the breast pocket of her uniform and wrapped her fist around something that stood in her mind as the emblem of a choice, the first step down the path to a future whose door was still open to her, a path that lay waiting, ready to be walked.
Holding her fist out in front of her, she looked at it for a moment before her fingers uncurled, opened, leaving only the three little pills the doctor had given her rolling in her palm.
I came back here to save lives. Not to end them.
Looking up, her eyes caught on a poster tacked to the wall at the far end of the mess, a simple silicon image of a Seindrive II Ignus burning hard through the brilliantly colored atmosphere of some nameless gas giant, the word “FLY” flickering beneath it. Smiling, Tessa closed her hand again, held it over her glass and dropped the pills into her drink.
A better world.
Standing, she crossed the room, splashed the untouched drink into the recycler, heard the pills clink against glass on their way out.
- - -