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Lies and Silence


Lestari
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Within the foreboding immensity of a high rise corporate building that lay on the horizon of the Tikal capital of Guatemala City, the individual once known as Alejandra Valverde sighed.

 

She cast her gaze out through the window of her office, beheld the vast purview offered by the wide expanse of the glass barrier, surveyed the endless skyline of the Tikal capital. She had, of course, come here once before, during a time she refused now to contemplate for fear of evoking wilfully the restless demons that kept her awake through the agonisingly endless nights despite her best efforts. And yet still, it was quite a sight to be witness to-- Para, and the nation it had later become in the form of Amazonia... had never achieved this level of glory, no matter its status as the eldest nation of South and Latin America. She could have pondered why-- what had gone wrong, what conditions had denied Amazonia this same magnitude, quality of life, the granduer and brilliance that Tikal had produced in a fraction of the longevity of Para itself. But... no. To consider that would indeed have been to welcome those very same demons she had only just refused to bait with such idle musings. Para and Amazonia were both dead and gone, left to the dust in the pages of the annals of history... and Alejandra Valverde too was dead and gone.

 

She examined her face in the reflective glass of the window-- and it was not the face of Alejandra Valverde. The individual looking back to her was Alex Martinez-- an immigrant from the former SAO territories of Colombia who had worked in the employ of the South American Organisation as a military police officer until the fiasco with Bolivia led Tianxia to contest the SAO's oversight of the protectorate. At that point, Martinez, disillusioned with what had become of the organisation she had served in the interests of a united and peaceful South America, left, seeking new horizons and finding them northwards in the form of Tikal. There, however, she was targeted by a Tikal nationalist mafia-- many immigrants from South America and elsewhere were at risk of falling prey to xenophobic crime elements, and for that reason, many of them depended on the services of facial reconstruction specialists who used Tikal's incredible prowess with technologies of all sorts to reshape the face of an individual in such a manner as to make then unrecognisable to the criminal organisations that were pursuing them. Alex Martinez was one such immigrant who had employed those services, and, now safe from the nationalist mafia elements that had once sought to make an example of her, she had gone into the weapons and security business: now, an indeterminate amount of time since her arrival in Tikal, she sat at the helm of the modest corporation of Excoriari Security, the company which she had seen from its humble origins to its current... well, it could hardly be called prosperity. But for a new company, Excoriari Security was certainly enjoying a consistent, reliable business return, and for all intents and purposes, Alex Martinez was a testament to the ability of a lowly immigrant to come to a new nation, be reborn in whole, and prosper in their new home.

 

All lies. Lies and silence.

 

And so, in her lonesome little office at the peak of Excoriari Security's headquarters, Alex sighed, exhaling smoke before raising the cigarette in her hand back up to her thin, pale lips. Alex Martinez was who she was now... and yet, Alejandra Valverde wouldn't stay in her grave. She wouldn't permit Alex Martinez a moment of peace, refused to cease plaguing her as she sought to carve out her own little niche in her new home. No matter where she looked. Even now, as she gazed out onto the majestic horizon of the Tikal capital, she was looking far beyond that skyline, far beyond the high rise buildings that kissed the sky itself, far past the glory and prosperity of Tikal into an older, darker land-- an older, darker time. The sights and sounds that now coursed through her mind were not the sights and sounds of this moment. And the questions she asked herself now were not of this place and time-- the names she recalled no longer relevant to Alex Martinez.. And yet still, those names plagued her-- those questions she yet asked of herself.

"Where are you now, Isabel?" The words left her lips softly, almost wistfully.

 

Silence was her answer. Lies, and silence.

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  • 2 weeks later...

And around her, the world continued to change.

 

For one, Tikal scientists had managed to get a goddamn space colony goin'. Sure, they call the damn thing a station, but let's not bullshit here. If it's the kinda shit even George Lucas woulda been trepidatious as to the possibility of it, it's a colony. Not to imply Alex was all too excited about it-- space had always been... er, well, more the premier's gig than her own. She still recalled with vivid clarity the childlike enthusiasm and reverent awe with which Isabel-- er, Vieira-- spoke of the universe beyond this tiny little rock upon which the humble entirety of the human saga had played out, esteemed to be considered so much as the merest of specks before the majesty and mysterious might of the universe. Under different circumstances, she had in the past noted in a voice that only vaguely betrayed the regret it bore, she could have foregone the military life in favour of pursuing that passion for the unknown, but then, she had also lamented that in the end, it would have been pointless. From the very first, Isabel Vieira had always known the military was what she was-- it was in her bones and in her flesh. And as she had pointed out to her niece before, you couldn't change the nature of something. You could sculpt a stone into a new form, fashion it into a veneer of something else, but at its base, it was still stone, and there was no changing that.

 

Is the world so black and white? Alex's gaze fell from the reports she had been idly perusing, a wistful tinge polluting her dark green eyes. Were people so set in their ways-- doomed to their own inherent essences, mired in the agony of inevitability? And if so... was Alex Martinez in turn, then, destined to forever be haunted by the phantasms that Alex Valverde had provoked? Was her quest for new meaning and new direction condemned to failure from the very onset? Her thin, pale lips curled down into a bitter frown as she found herself failing to produce viable answers to these quandaries.

 

It was precisely for this reason that Alex had deliberately avoided the simple act of questioning throughout her life. Moulding herself into an individual of action had been as much a conscious effort as it had been a product of her environment and upbringing: individuals of action suffered least in life, after all. Questions of right and wrong, truth and illusion, certainty and crippling uncertainty, these were all things they remained blissfully free of, content to live in the moment and act on impulse in lieu of miring themselves in doubt. It was a carefree existence-- it had been throughout her life, even amidst the gravity of the military officer lifestyle: her most significant concerns had always been those of the moment. Pondering what lay ahead and what now languished in the annals of the past had never been her lot in life. An individual of action indeed-- well, she had been.

 

And yet here she was now. Plagued by questions to whom she could surrender no answers. Crippling uncertainty. Caught between the sorrows of the past and the ambiguity of the future. Capable only of making guesses. Knowing only one thing for certain.

 

How disgusting, she concluded, one's base nature is. Disgusting, and eternal.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Holy.

 

Fucking.

 

Shit.

 

Okay, okay, Alex had to explain before she got ahead of herself. There was a perfectly good reason for why she was currently hurtling around her office in her rolling chair like a ten year old kid who'd just found out school had been cancelled that day. No, no, really, there was an entirely acceptable explanation for why she was damn near just about singin' the praises to the high heavens. Seriously, there was an absolutely functional rationale behind her decision to tell the dude who'd come up to her office to give her an update or some shit to fuck off so she could continue rejoicing in the sanctity of her own office. The hell could he've had to say anyway? Motherfucker coulda just sent me an electronic update or whatever and avoid interrupting my dance of joy. Well, anyway, that wasn't the point. The point was, she had an incredibly valid reason to be dancing for joy. And that reason:

 

Big. Fucking. Robots. Of death.

 

The fuck with space, man-- this shit right here? This was why she'd come to Tikal. Okay, so it wasn't like she'd known they were gonna start building goddamn murderbots, but... well shit, it was only a matter of time, right? At a certain point, the kickass factor simply overpowered all that dumb shit like 'completely impractical' or 'scientifically unfeasible'. And if anybody could make it practical or feasible, then it was sure as hell Tikal.

 

But she was getting ahead of herself here. After all, she only knew about it because Excoriari Security was an up and coming arms dealer and PMC with more than a couple contacts in Tikal military brass. Wasn't like they were gonna hand her one here and now. They probably wouldn't have working prototypes for years-- and it was wholly possible Alex herself would never get to fuck shit up in one of them. Not unless she... shit, fuck if she knew, stole one from a military base or some shit. Which, frankly, she absolutely wasn't averse to attempting. If you're gonna die, might as well spend your last moments going balls out, zero fucks given in a big machine of death, right?

... well, shit, it made sense to Alex.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Look at what you've done.

Look at what's become of South America. Would this have happened if Pará-- if the Hierarchy-- had lived on? We were the last great pillar of the South American Organisation-- our downfall in turn signalled the downfall of that great safeguard of peace and prosperity. It decayed, became a pale mimicry of what it had once been-- no, more accurately, South America as a whole became a pale mimicry of what it had once been. And it all started the second you destroyed the Hierarchy. Perhaps it's egotistical of me, but the timetables line up too evenly for it to be a matter of mere happenstance: if not for what you ignited, if not for the actions you took in pursuit of an obsolete sense of morality... it would all be different. South America would not have sunk to the depths of ignominious desolation it now suffers... if not for your treachery.

 

And why? Because I did what had to be done? Because I refused to flush the lives of my people down the toilet in the name of some pointless, anachronistic code of ethics? Did you really think military action would have made a difference-- a single !@#$@#$ difference? Tell me. I need to know what you were thinking-- what the $%&@ could possibly have been going through your mind when you single-handedly delivered ruination unto the sovereign nation I sacrificed so much of myself to bring to fruition.

 

And I thought you were committed to that nation. When I chose you to be the executor of my will and vision, it was because I had truly believed if there was anybody whose dedication to Pará was irrevocable and unshakeable, if there was anybody willing to dedicate everything that they were to the people of our country, if there was anybody I was convinced had poured the totality of their being into Pará and would always wish to contribute more... it was you.

 

You will never know the tribulations we endured in order to make Pará possible. Of the Holy American Civil War you remember only the vaguest intimations of fire and brimstone-- faded, distant, far-flung recollections of its horrors and its tragedies. Oh yes-- you can claim to have lived through it, and you did. And I can never deny what you lost-- what I took from you, though it had to be taken. But the fact that after it had chewed you up and spat you back out you could lay claim to some semblance of morality is a testament to how little you truly suffered as a consequence of that dreadful farce. What it took from you was only that which existed beyond you to begin with: what we lost was something more. What it stripped us of was something too deeply ingrained, something buried deep beneath the superficial layers of skin, flesh, muscle and bone. It tore that straight out of us, and in doing so forced us to come face to face with reality as it is, rather than reality as we would like it to be, painted with happy images of morality and justice.

 

That's exactly why there had been a time when you could close your eyes and still be free, because there were no demons that lurked beyond the recesses of perception, waiting to seize upon you in a moment of vulnerability. But then, I suspect you know now exactly what that feels like, don't you? You know that agony now. Just like the old Civil War granted me the harrowing benediction of truth-- except that it was your own doing.

 

Or perhaps you're still convinced of your own righteousness. I can't know-- it's been years since I last spoke to you in any fashion, much less of right and wrong, and of justice. Perhaps I never again will see you. I'm getting old, after all-- and so are you. Our days are numbered, and it's wholly possible the time will never come that we hear the sound of one another's voices again, that we may never have the opportunity to come to terms with what happened. I can only wonder-- can you possibly listen to the news, read the reports, look at a map and see what has become of the continent we both wished so strongly to elevate to prosperity, and tell me you still think what you did was right?

 

 

 

 

 

Oh holy fuck yes.

 

Okay, okay, okay. She had to maintain a business-like pretense. She was here because Excoriari Security had been entrusted with the protection of the facility she was currently striding through at a calm, composed pace. It would simply not do for the kingpin of the company that had been hired to act as security to go 'round giggling like a vaguely mentally disturbed schoolchild with a notebook detailing the various increasingly gruesome deaths they would subject their maths teacher to. Look, she'd been bored that day, okay? When you've already got your mind set on going into the military as a life career and you've spent all day listening to Slayer and Death, maths doesn't do you a whole lotta good and you get a little... uh, creative in your boredom.

 

Not the fucking point.

 

Right here, in this very facility which Alex Martinez had been tasked with overseeing the security of, weapons of war unlike any the battlefield had seen before were in the works. Weapons that would irrevocably alter what warfare meant, what it looked like, what it was in its very nature, were at this very moment being meticulously designed, manufactured, and tested.

And Alex totally got front seat tickets to the whole affair. How fuckin' lucky can a person get? As auspicious benedictions went, this was rivaled perhaps only by that time she'd found a first press copy of Death's Reign in Terror tape, fully functional and undamaged. And lemme tell ya, for the unenlightened amongst all bearing witness to this writing: that's one hell of a benediction.

 

Anyway-- granted, she was only here to oversee security. It was hands off as far as the mobile suits themselves were concerned. But hey, that alone was still about as magnanimous a blessing as she coulda hoped for: they weren't handin' out invitations to everybody and their goddamn mum to come 'n look at the big cool robots of death. Outside high-ranking military personnel, and maybe a select few engineers who could probably divide two ten digit numbers in their head in roughly the same amount of time it took Alex to remember what eight times four was, she was pretty sure nobody was gettin' a shot at piloting one of those motherfuckers. And she couldn't deny that sucked all kinds of ass. I mean, who among you mere mortals can possibly claim you wouldn't piss yourself in sheer, uncontrollable exhilaration at the mere prospect of fucking shit up in a goddamn murderbot?

 

But hey-- she was just the security dude. Her position here was already tenuous. It wasn't like they were gonna let her take part in the testing, only to be wowed by her quick learning and ability to swiftly pick up the basics of piloting, earning her the opportunity to become a full-time component of the mobile suit testing.

Well, probably not, anyway.

Edited by dotCom
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  • 1 month later...

Fernanda Kaneda wasn't the 'war never changes' type.

 

You saw it in all the movies-- all the books, video games, comics, so on and so forth. You always had the one scene with the grizzled old veteran, the decrepit old fuck who's seen and done shit that woulda put a lesser soldier in the asylum for the rest of their life, looks off to the horizon (bonus points if they're smoking a cigarette, if it's a sunset, or if it's on a grey, lachrymose beach), and remarks, in a gruff voice tinged with equal parts sorrow, resignation, and disgust, "War... never changes." Presumably, they've just been called back into service after years of a civilian's life-- an old superior, or perhaps a past colleague who shared their traumas, contacts them, breaking years of an unspoken vow to silence. Something's come up-- something only the veteran can fight. An old foe has returned-- that's a popular one. An enemy of bygone years whom all believed defeated by our aging hero reveals themselves to be alive and gathering strength anew to retaliate and secure vengeance, and only the veteran can stand between the villain and the downfall of... well, something appropriately dramatic, like global civilisation, or humanity, or some shit like that. The old friend calls the veteran up, but the vet's reluctant-- they've left that lifestyle. They're not a soldier anymore, and they won't ever be again. But the old friend knows them too well. They both know the veteran will be a soldier 'til the day they die. They argue briefly. The old friend pleads, but the veteran is resolute. But something's up. The veteran knows it. They press the old friend for information, and they relent. The veteran's estranged kid is in the employ of the villain. The veteran is silent. It's been too long, but the love and the pain is still there. Uneasy, the old friend reluctantly asks if the veteran's still there. They are. The veteran grunts something short and to the point-- "I'm in." And then they hang up. They sit down. They sigh. They don't want to do this. They left this life behind. But the world keeps dragging them back into what once was-- what should never again be.

 

They're too old for this shit.

 

Well... okay, Kaneda couldn't deny that she [I]was[/I] indeed standing on a cold, grey beach-- strolling along it, more accurately. But there wasn't a setting sun to be seen amidst the ashen clouds that dominated the sky, she had quit smoking several years back, and she [I]was[/I] done with that life. She wasn't that person anymore.

 

Her hands were shoved into the pockets of her pants pensively, the soles of her boots crunching against the gravel and shingle of the shore as she idly wandered  along the beach, her eyes tracing along the cerulean waters of the Atlantic as it gently lapped away at the shore. Long had it been since she had commanded immense, majestic vessels of death and militant expurgation on that eternal azure expanse-- since it had been hers to make of it a battlefield, an arena for the folly of humanity to play out a drama of war and politics. These days, her sea was as it should have been: beyond her mere human dominance. Presenting itself as a sublime but recondite domain, a majesty for her to appreciate, to behold with admiration and worship, but never again to strive to conquer. And she was content as such. She was not and would never again be a soldier.

 

In a sense, though, she couldn't help an aggravating awareness biting at her as she asserted that truth-- [I]I've thought those same words once before.[/I] But this time it was different. Kaneda had seen two nations to which she had committed her blood, sweat, and love collapse, ripped to shreds by brutal civil war in which she herself had had a hand. She was done being a soldier.

 

Because war did change. It was a shifting concept, lacking substance and foundation, a tool, the nature of which shifted with the years as new methods of conducting it were brought to bear. It was people that didn't change. She could not feel embittered against 'war', as if it were some tangible force upon which she could heap her vehemence and her loathing for what it had done to her and to her home nations-- only the people who had ignited those wars. Faces, voices, names-- individuals now long gone. And she could not deny that more than once she had found herself wondering where Alejandra Valverde and Isabel Vieira had vanished to-- what fate had befallen them, they whose irreconcilable clash over matters of ethics and right and wrong had been the catalyst of a war that had burnt to the ground all that they had taken of themselves, they who had disappeared and in doing so buried the same conflict they had provoked.

 

And Kaneda had been caught up in the midst of the whole affair-- torn between the idealistic vision of a united, prosperous South America that Valverde claimed the premier had lost sight of, and Isabel herself, her old comrade, the soldier alongside whom Kaneda had fought and struggled to dismantle the excesses and despotism of the old Holy American Empire. Ultimately, Kaneda had sworn her loyalties to the cause the people of Para themselves had swollen up in uprising in favour of-- she had aligned herself with Isabel against Valverde, bitterly refusing to entertain the parallels between the civil war that was brewing and that which had wreaked havoc upon what had once been the HAE. She had hoped she could in some manner expedite the inevitable-- either by urging the two belligerents to seek options that would result in the least consequent loss of life, or, failing that, by ending the war militarily as swiftly and decisively as possible. And it hadn't worked. She'd been a fool. All she'd done was lend her hand to yet another destructive, wasteful, pointless, envenomed conflict.

 

The former admiral shook her head in disgust.

 

A cool sigh of a breeze gently swept along the beach, ruffling through the dark, fading bristles of Kaneda's greying hair. The evening was fast approaching, though the sun had already been superceded by the clouds that massed over the horizon and cast their wistful grey unto the world beneath them. Little disturbed the hushed sonance of the waves softly lapping away but for the intermittent warbles of the seagulls overhead drifting listlessly with the wind; not far in the distance, further inland, the village that had served as Kaneda's home since the war had dissipated sat silent witness to the timelessness of the sea. It was for that very reason that she had come here, weary, miserable, beset with loss and disconsolate ennui. There was nothing farther from the life of vast, proud navies, sprawling cities, and militant authority that had once characterised Fernanda Kaneda than this. This wasn't a soldier's domain. This was as good a place as any to wile away the last years of her life, whatever few she had left in her.

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  • 2 months later...

So this really was who she was now.

It was a quiet, unassuming revelation-- a blunt epiphany, edgeless and aimless, simply there. Like sinking into sleep at last after a long, restless night. And it had been a long and restless night-- a night years and years long, wiled away in the company of pale, muted nightmares and cold memories. Waking dreams of a past suffered by someone that was not her-- not anymore-- of a childhood spent seeking refuge from hellfire and toxic gas amidst rubble and corpses, of anger and agony and the struggle to define the purpose of a life that felt so lacking in the wake of loss and death. Of finding that purpose, or perhaps merely a facsimile of it, in the service of the very entity that had caused that cowering child's fear and suffering, of indulging in the wraith of bitter, envenomed savagery that the war that had been her childhood had either instilled within her, or merely provoked from its resting place. Of stumbling upon, through this callous profession, a semblance of idealism and ethics that now rang hollow and dejected, and of lending her hand in the rise of a nation built upon those ideals-- of the joy of having found, at last, a real, tangible purpose-- not a mere aspiration to one, no pallid imitation, but a reason to be, something strange and alien and sweet. And dreams of... of failure. Of collapse. Of a war no different from the one that had birthed her. Of the ash-smudged, barren faces of thousands of children, their blank eyes burned into tearlessness, their hearts choked and suffocated by poison gas, their souls stripped of meaning. Destined, perhaps, to become just like her.

 

They were dreams that had once pervaded every fibre of her identity-- whatever torn, shredded carcass was left of it-- a hematic miasma of despondent remorse and defeated, directionless anger, a bitter haze as helpless as it was pointed. She had gone years, it felt, refusing to let her eyes fall shut for fear that those old ghosts of dust and dried, faded blood would become all that she could see-- that she would never open her eyes again, and that she would deserve just such a fate. She would be reduced to the husk she knew she had every reason to be, burned up and wasted, void of being: could she have asked, could she have really believed she had the right to ask, to be spared that? How could she possibly believe she had a right to forget?

 

And yet Alejandra Valverde no longer fought to preserve herself. Her ash-choked, bitter, miserable voice no longer spoke words of recrimination and self-loathing. Her hard, insensate stare no longer reflected across years and endless miles through the pensive glass of the window that looked out upon Guatemala City to gaze in hateful spite upon the thing she had become. At long last, her hands, tearing away with tenacious malice and vindictive resentment at the name and artifice of Alex Martinez, had retreated into some sullen corner of that identity-- and then, somehow, she had departed altogether. As though she realised she had lost the last war she would ever fight, that she could no longer drag Alex Martinez back down the years to the burning, hollowed-out carcass of the capital city, to the arid highlands where she had first held a gun in her hands and shot someone to death because it was her duty to do so, to the dusty, endless plains of Rondonia where she had stood upon Paraense soil for the last time in her life, wondering where she could possibly go-- calling out for some direction in her life only to be answered by the wordless whisper of the breeze rustling through the plains, continuing on in all directions for an unbearable eternity.

 

She was gone. Alex no longer tormented herself with those memories.

 

A cold sweat seized upon her as the reality of it hit her in full. She leaned forward, pressing the palms of her hands against the bannister that ran along the wide glass wall, opening up the entirety of Guatemala City in the throes of night to gaze upon her shame and despair. It's not right. It's not fair. I don't have this right. I shouldn't... I shouldn't be forgetting. I shouldn't be letting myself be this happy...

 

"Alex?"

 

A sharp, ragged breath indicated the former Paraense Executor's shock-- she'd forgotten that she was not alone, and the soft, lilting voice, tinged with the lingering vestiges of sleep, reminded her as much as did the gentle hands that encircled her waist, as much as did the body that pressed against her from behind or the familiar lips that brushed against the skin of her bare ear.

"What's the matter?" Izel whispered, her fingers reaching up to trace along the hard contours of Alex's cheek. She hadn't realised the tears that had wrenched themselves out of her eyes and almost languidly crawled down the rough-edged canvas of her mien until Izel gently wiped them aside, but once she was made aware of them, she wasted no time in reaching up her own fist to rub away at her eyes and remorselessly quash any lingering residue of her despair. "It's nothing," she grunted in as gruff and unreadable a voice as ever. "Go back to bed."

 

"I wake up to find you standing hunched over the bannister trembling and sweating like a child after a showing of Friday the 13th, tears running down your cheeks looking as forsaken as a puppy adrift in a river, and you expect me to believe it's nothing?" Izel's brow was raised sceptically, but her words, stark and honest though they were, had been delivered in a sympathetic voice. Her hands reached up to grasp Alex's arms and turn her toward herself, and though the slight Tikalese engineer and liaison was no match for the towering ex-soldier, Alex reluctantly allowed herself to face her; even still, she almost flinched as Izel met her resolutely inscrutable gaze with her own piercing stare. Now it couldn't be said that Alex didn't enjoy Izel's... er, company, so to speak, but if there was one thing Alex was pretty sure she could do without, it was Izel's way of looking at you like she knew exactly what you were feeling.

Alex supposed she should have felt comforted by it, but it really only made it all harder.

"I'm your liaison to Okawara's division, after all," Izel added with a small, sardonic smile, her words heavy with irony. "I'm obligated to report any potential emotional or psychological obstacles that might interfere with your work."

Alex couldn't help it-- she burst into a peal of rough, ashen laughter. "And what?" she parried in amusement. "How do you suppose they'll react once you tell them you know this only because you happened to be in my bedroom at one o clock at night?"

"I'm sure I can think of a reason. We engineer types may well be able to calculate numbers you don't even know exist, but we still tend to be quite oblivious when it comes to the deeper meaning of words." They shared a brief moment of laughter, but any hope that Izel might let go of the subject that had led them on this pleasant little tangent was dashed as her laughter fell silent and she fixed Alex with another knowing glance. "Now, enough deflection. Tell me, what so troubles my security liaison as to provoke tears, of all things? And here I would have wagered you had long since frightened your tear ducts into compliance with your will through sheer grit and resolve."

 

Alex frowned-- as much because Izel was pressing her to spill her woes as because she realised she really, really did want to do just that. Izel was the first person in years Alex had felt any real personal connection to, though their... er, personal liaison had been initiated through purely physical attraction. She hadn't trusted anybody in a long time, and the fact that she did now, that she did trust Izel... she couldn't help but feel that inexorable urge to divulge those pent-up secrets that were known to no living person, no one who could connect CEO Alex Martinez with Executor Alejandra Valverde.

 

But she couldn't succumb to it.

 

At least, not yet.

 

"Someday, Izel, I'll hopefully be in a place that I can tell you. But I'm not at that place now."

The sincerity of it-- neither a deflection nor a dodge but a real, honest answer-- seemed to satisfy Izel. Or at least, she understood what Alex meant: she nodded her head silently, and stepped away from where the security officer stood leaned back against the bannister, making her way back to the bed. She had just clambered onto the sheets before, as though stricken by an afterthought, she turned her head, and cast an impish smirk Alex's way.

"Coming?"

 

 

 

EDIT: CO-POST WITH LYNNETH FROM THE TIKAL NEWS AND OCCURRENCES THREAD, 10 JANUARY 2014

 

The message from two days ago had been a little sudden, but less than an hour after its arrival, the entire facility was informed: Princess Ik'nal would visit in two days. That being now, the VTOL currently descending onto one of the facility's two helicopter/VTOL platforms. Once landed, several of the Princess' personal Guard exited the craft, taking up positions close-by. Of course, within the facility, Excoriari Security would provide protection, but the Guards apparently didn't deem the Helipad to be in the company's current umbrella of protection. Perhaps half a minute after the Guard, the Princess stepped out of the VTOL, looking towards the building.

Once the Princess made the transition from outside the facility to within, she was immediately guided to her destination by a fairly sizeable escort of security specialists - it paid to be careful, after all. The CEO of the security firm herself awaited the princess' arrival within her own personal office, nestled not too deep amidst the facility's austere hallways and compartments, elbow leaning on the surface of her desk, face rested against the knuckles of her hand. This was to be Alex's second encounter with Princess Ik'nal - or rather, Alex Martinez's first, even if she remembered with perfect clarity Alejandra Valverde's own meeting with the princess under wildly disparate circumstances.

She'd had procedures done to signficantly alter her appearance since then, naturally - she was still six foot five and built like an MMA champion, that sure as hell hadn't changed, but one was hard-pressed to extricate Alex Valverde from the artificially produced features that now graced her face, if 'graced' were the appropriate term for so sharp-edged a mien.

Didn't matter. Nothing of Valverde remained in Martinez for Ik'nal to recognise, even if she had for one reason or another felt it prudent to commit to memory the minutiae of the former Executor's person.

"CEO Martinez, I presume?" The Princess still was the same as all those years ago. The exact same, in fact - it looked as if she hadn't aged even a day. Considering that the meeting between her and Valverde had been just over six years ago, one might think it curious.

Regardless, she was there now, intending to inspect the facility. "I'm glad to finally meet you. I've heard quite a few things about you and your company. Is there anything you'd like to talk about before we get to the inspection of the facility proper?"

"That's me," Alex affirmed with a nod as the familiar form of the Princess appeared within her office - er, too $%&@in' familiar. Looked like she hadn't aged a damn day. Some freaky-ass !@#$ - even Alex, her features having been deliberately moulded and reshaped by Tikal specialists, was not immune to the passage of time. New lines creased her pointed mien every day, and an army of fading grey was beginning to spearhead the conquest of age amidst the wiry bristles of her short black hair. Ik'nal, though? For all intents and purposes, Alex Valverde mighta met her for the first time just yesterday.

"There's not much to discuss," the former marine and head of state turned businessperson remarked straightforwardly with a shrug as she stood up from her desk and stepped toward Ik'nal. "Little of note's gone on - no security breaches, that's for sure. We run a tight ship - as I'm sure you'll see as we get underway with the inspection."

The Princess nodded with a smile. "It's good to hear that you're taking your duties so seriously. Now, let us proceed. I'm to meet with Chief Researcher Kunio Okawara next, I believe? If you would be so kind as to bring me to him?" Of course, the Princess knew where he'd likely be. She had seen the plans for the facility and watched it being built, so she knew where to go. But she had to admit that she was a little curious about the CEO, an immigrant originating from Colombia, to the best of her knowledge.

And Martinez was responsible for security, so she had the duty to escort the Princess whether or not the ruler wanted it. Both knew this of course, but appearances were a Thing too, and best upheld.

Alex merely nodded. "Right this way," she commented simply, motioning for the Princess to follow her. She had to admit, she hadn't meant for it to come about as such - that she would develop a reputation, in Excoriari Security and by proxy in the research facility that was employing its finest troops and coordinators, as Matter-of-Fact Martinez, which was, despite its nature as possibly the most uncool title in the history of nicknames, nevertheless quite accurate. Initially, in her first years acclimating to Tikal and getting Excoriari off the ground, still wrestling as she was even now with the psychological and emotional fallout of the civil war, it had been unconscious - she had not intentionally adopted a demeanour of straightforward, terse, almost aloof behaviour, but it became something quite characteristic of her, and even once she had realised that, she'd figured... Well, maybe this was who Alex Martinez was. If Alex Valverde had been the hot-headed, angry, idealistic soldier, why not let Alex Martinez be a blunt, forthright, business-oriented CEO?

With the Princess close in tow, Alex led her along toward Chief Researcher Okawara's office - in keeping with her reputation, she proffered no unnecessary conversation, and guided Ik'nal to Okawara's domain swiftly and efficiently. "This is it," she remarked with a nod, as they approached the door to the office in question. Time for the squint-speak, I'm guessin'. Hu-$%&@in'-zzah.

"Thank you, Miss Martinez." Moments later, Shana'Kin entered the room which was less an office and more a workshop. Okawara was a very hands-on researcher, directly helping the engineers working under him during their daily labour whenever he could. Over time, the clean office had thus been transformed, now containing workbenches, unfinished prototypes of various deviced that undoubtedly were parts of some sort for the various Mobile Suits, and many other things. The characteristic smell of welding still wafted through the room and though not visible from the door, the metal of a workpiece was still glowing faintly red from work that the scientist-engineer had done very recently.

Right now, however, he was poring over the report of a younger associate scientist, taking a few moments before noting the new arrivals. He turned, his expression immediately turning from a frown to a genuine smile. "Your Highness! Most welcome be your Light in our humble workspace, most welcome. Please, have a-..." He interrupted himself, looking around. There were no chairs to be had; no empty ones, at least. "Um. Well, I very much hope you do not mind standing. I tend to treat chairs as smaller tables."

The Princess merely nodded, a small smile on her face. "Do not worry, Kunio. I will try not to take up too much of your time. I know how valuable it is to you."

"Thank you, Princess. Now, the MSX-03. As far as I'm concerned, it already is a pinnacle of engineering, if not the highest one. We've of course solved many of the issues with joints, and the new AMBAC system works wonders in keeping the machine upright under most circumstances. I'm confident that we will be able to build the fourth prototype according to your instructions and have it reach the required 17 metres of height. The suit may be a little difficult to pilot while we work out the kinks, but by the time the proper suit is complete we'll have everything worked out. It's likely we'll be able to implement programmable computers as well, permitting pilots to save some preferred maneuvers that would take too much time to do manually. There are, however, some problems with the armament. We're currently working on both 90 and 120 mm rapidfire guns, but neither I nor my colleagues are making any headway in adapting standard tank mechanisms to the rate of fire that is desired. Quite simply, we're stumped in this one case."

Yep. Squint-speak.

Once the head researcher got done with flipping the most massive !@#$ since Alex had found out about the mobile suit project about being in the Princess' presence, he got on to the business of filling her in on the minutiae of the project's progression. The CEO of Excoriari Security took it upon herself about that point to let her mind drift just a little bit - after all, Alex's own gig extended only as far as security went: the details of the project she was tasked with securing were none of her enterprise, and she was generally kept fairly out of the loop on anything that wasn't pertinent to security.

Which sucked, but !@#$, it wasn't like she could expect to just be picked outta the $%&@in' blue to be one of the experimental pilots.

"We're currently working on both 90 and 120 mm rapidfire guns, but neither I nor my colleagues are making any headway in adapting standard tank mechanisms, to the rate of fire that is desired. Quite simply, we're stumped in this one case..."

Alex tuned back into the conversation more or less just in time, it seemed. Adapting standard tank mechanisms? Alex's brow furrowed-- the $%&@ kinda sense did that make? And then, a hint of old Alex Valverde peeking through the cold, hard steel carapace of Alex Martinez, she blurted out, "Why don't you just treat them as scaled-up small arms rifles instead of full-on tank mechanisms? That'd probably be easier to adapt than looking at it like a tank and not a rifle."

Both Okawara and the Princess turned her head when Martinez opened her mouth and made sounds emerge from it. Sounds that, to the researcher's surprise, made an embarassing amount of sense. He finally found some words after staring for a few moments. "I, what. A rifle? Of course! Of course, that, how could we have been so stupid? Thank you, Miss Martinez, for your excellent contribution." He then turned to Ik'nal, "Highness, you must forgive me, but I have to get a team on this. We'll probably have to start from scratch, but if it's as workable as I -think- it will be, we're going to have a working prototype by the time the first MSX-04 is complete."

The Princess tilted her head with a hint of a smirk. "Of course, Kunio. I'll be waiting for your next report." But by then, the researcher already had scurried off to his desk, searching for a phone to call the people working on the weaponry into his office.

The Princess rolled her eyes and left the office with Alex in tow. "That turned out to be more interesting than I thought. Now, Miss Martinez. If I may, I'd like to ask you a few questions."

Alex scratched at the short bristles of her greying hair as Okawara reacted in such a fashion as she damn near thought she'd just revolutionised science forever. Wasn't long, though, before Ik'nal apparently decided she had a bone to pick with Alex - which briefly elicited a flicker of panic in the businessperson that was none too easily dismissed. When you were living an artificial life constructed from the ground up, you tended to be wary of questions - and so, as the two emerged from Okawara's office, it was with no small hint of trepidation that Alex ventured, "... yeah?"

"Nothing serious, I assure you. I merely would like to know what led you to accept the contract in protecting this facility, and what you think about the project. Be as general or detailed as you like."

Well, that was a bit of an odd question. Alex raised an eyebrow, torn between bafflement at the nature of the query and some sense of relief that it wasn't anything to do with her identity, before she ventured a cautious responce that was wholly in keeping with her own persona. "It was a lucrative contract."

"I see." She nodded. "And what of the project itself? What do you think about it?"

"Big scary robots of death? $%&@ yes."

... !@#$. There went Alejandra Valverde again - Alex damn near wanted to punch herself, except she knew her strength well enough to know full well how much that woulda hurt. She merely scratched the back of her neck irascibly, waiting for Ik'nal to stammer something the lines of 'AAAAAAALRIGHTY THEN' and then head off for the rest of the inspection.

The Lunar ruler raised an eyebrow. "I had not expected such an enthusiastic response, to be quite honest. Then again, that very thing is one of the factors that brought me to sponsor this project." Suddenly, she smiled, almost deviously. "Hmm. Perhaps I could arrange something for you, Miss Martinez. Right now I'm not quite sure what, but perhaps you have an idea of what you'd like to do?"

Hold the $%&@ up.

Alex stared at Ik'nal briefly, and though she had the mighty urge to venture in a deadpan 'You $%&@in' with me here?', she fortuitously managed to avoid giving Valverde the reins on that one. Instead, she forced her features and temperament to conform to the dispassionate, down-to-earth demeanour of Alex Martinez, her mien hardening into solemnity. "Arrange, eh..." she mused, before adding, "I operated a lot of tanks and other military vehicles as a soldier back in Colombia - used to be able to sit in the cockpit of a brand new vehicle and know exactly what to do with it from the get-go." She glanced back to Ik'nal, maintaining an impassive expression, before finishing simply, "Bet one of these machines you've got here wouldn't be much different."

"Well, how about I take you up on that bet? I'll speak with Okawara later, see about getting you placed on the test pilot list for the MSX-04, and you show us just how much truth there is behind you claim? If you do well, who knows what there might be in for you. What do you say?"

...

"I would find that agreeable," Alex replied calmly.

"Excellent. I'll try to have everything arranged by tomorrow. For now, I believe we should continue the inspection."

With the matter settled, the Princess continued on the tour through the facility, speaking with some of the researchers and engineers. The two watched a test of the MSX-03 as it walked around in the underground testing area, but little else of note happened. A few hours later, the Princess left the facility the same way she'd arrived, via VTOL. The issue of getting Martinez a place in the prototype piloting program was of course settled - the CEO would be permitted to help with testing once a prototype was constructed.

All in all the Princess considered the visit a good, productive one. She had a good feeling about the project.

Edited by dotCom
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  • 4 weeks later...

EDIT: This section is a co-post between myself and Lynneth from Tikal's news thread, posted originally 27 March 2014. It is being edited on top of the original post I did here on 25 May 2014, which will come after it-- just to avoid any confusion. Okawara is, suffice to say, Lynneth's character.

 

Today had been a reasonably relaxed day for Chief Engineer Kunio Okawara. Until now. For the rest of the day, the latest MS prototype had to be tested, and as it turned out, the Head of Security had been chosen for this duty. Alexandra Martinez was the type of person Okawara didn't like at all, but could respect a little, if only for her willingness to challenge his supreme 'rule' over the majority of the facility's proceedings. Though he was dwarfed by her, there were many people taller than his 5 foot tall frame, and he had a reputation of complete unflappability.

When Martinez strode into his office, he turned towards her with barely any sort of expression, the HoS matching him perfectly in return. Things were discussed quickly, despite plenty of insults flying both ways. Martinez was to test the MSX-04 suit and Okawara was to instruct her both for safety and during the actual testing. Further insults were exchanged and once the woman had read the suit's instruction and safety manual, and gloated some about contributing to the weaponry, the Okawara proceeded to the testing hangar, Head of Security in tow.

The hangar's size was not the overwhelming immensity seen in passenger aircraft hangars, but this one was quite large nevertheless. The ceiling was at least 35 metres above the ground and the room probably was 80 by 140 metres, slightly larger than an association football pitch. In it, engineers and other workers were almost feverishly constructing three machines of death-bringing. A fourth had been completed already, standing at approximately 17 metres in height.

Underlining her fascination with the machine of destruction, Martinez refrained entirely from making and jabs at the Engineer while he explained what the machine was and that he'd be expecting proper marks of use at the end of the day, among other things. Upon the him mentioning a suit, she asked with some trepidation, "Suit?"

He answered quickly, having expected the question, "Suit, yes. To properly pilot, a proper suit must be worn. As Mobile Suits are intended for both ground and aether warfare, they are sealed like any spacecraft. In case of a breach, we don't want the pilot to die, however, and so you'll have to be wearing something that'll keep you alive, yet is comfortable enough to be worn even in the heat of battle. The design wasn't easy to make, but we came up with something. Come on now."

In his element of schooling people on what he and his team were capable of doing, Okawara almost mellowed out a little. Moments later, the two were in a locker room, with an ugly, yellow suit hanging off a clothes hook.

"No complaining about the colour, you can get that customised later. I think pink or baby blue might fit you. Anyway, I'll be leaving you to it. You get into that, then come back out when you're done and we talk big robots."

Martinez for her part stared for a time at the suit. For what it was worth, she was anything but the type who lent herself well to distinguishing between colours. Aquamarine and teal? Blue. Crimson and maroon? Red. Sable and jet? Wait, the hell, who even decided there actually needed to be multiple shades of black? But this suit? This suit, she knew right away: that !@#$ was puce goddamn yellow. There was pretty much no other word that encapsulated just how goddamn disgusting that shade of yellow was: it was the yellow of a toilet-ful of vomit after a night of heavy drinking, without question.

Okay, I think I just disgusted myself way more than the actual suit did.

But she was certainly loathe to give Okawara the satisfaction of actually indicating discontent with the suit, so she merely reached out and pulled it off the hook - resisting the urge to lift it with two fingers as though picking at a dissected toad.

Soon enough, she emerged from the locker room. "Flattering choice of attire," she deadpanned as she emerged.

"Only the best for you, Ms. Martinez. Only the best." Okawara looked at her for a few moments, then nodded with satisfaction that the suit fit her well enough. He waved her to follow and finally approached the completed MSX-04. Currently, its torso was open, a stepladder leaned against the behemoth in order to let the pilot climb up.

"Before you get in," he said as he pulled an electronic notepad from a pocket, "we'll have to go over a short list of things. Personally I feel they're bull because if any restricted you from piloting this thing, you wouldn't be standing here. Now then: Are you sick, pregnant, infected with any resistant germ, STD, do you have skeletal problems of any sorts, muscular or other physical problems, do you go into therapy for psychological problems of any kind, ..." He stopped, scrolling the list for a few moments. "I'll just tick 'no' in every goddamn case. I can't be arsed to go through this entire damn list." He shook his head in disgust, the looked back up at Alex. "Get in the MS, Martinez. Time to do applied science."

Who knew Kunio Okawara and Alex Martinez would ever actually agree on anything?

"'Pregnant' ain't a state of bein' I intend to ever end up in," the security entrepreneur assured with a raised eyebrow as Okawara unceremoniously dispensed of the list, much to Alex's own satisfaction. STDs? Also not a problem."

 

Anyway, big machine of death time.

Or, uh... 'applied science' time. "When you put it that way, it sounds more like a chore," Alex grunted, before clambering onto the ladder that was to bear her unto her destiny.

"Oh, you're expecting fun, aren't you?" He stared up, watching her enter the cockpit. "You're expecting I'll let you rampage around the base with that thing, eh? Well, too bad for you, but we're going to test that damn thing's actual functions first. Let me just get to safety, I don't want your fat arse to stomp me dead."

With these words, the chief researcher absconded into a corner of the hangar containing a command centre. This room not only looked down into the hangar, but also outside into the underground area - or rather arena - that had been prepared for the testing. While getting herself ready in the suit, Alex would notice that the entire thing was kept relatively sparse but comfortable. Upon sitting in the pilot's chair and getting herself strapped in, Okawara's voice sounded from the internal speaker. "Right. Once you're safely strapped into your seat, there'll be a red, green, yellow and blue button at your 2 o'clock. Yellow and blue close and open the cockpit. Red kills the engine, green starts it and begins the suit's booting process. Once you're comfortable, if that's even possible for you, press the yellow button to seal yourself in. Then green to get the damn thing going. Booting shouldn't take too long, we tested that often enough already. While that's happening, you can look around a little and get yourself acquainted with the controls. The armrests contain haptic holographic displays. You'll be steering the whole thing with those. You'll also notice that your feet are a bit hard to move, that's working as designed. Once the EVA's voice blabbers about the suit being online, you can try taking your first steps. Do that by turning towards the big hangar door and walking to but not through it."

"You can't stop me havin' fun, king of the squints though you may be," Alex, undaunted, tossed back down to Okawara as the distance between them increased with every step up the ladder. As she neared the top, she paused to glance down but refrained from adding anything. She was done for now.

As Okawara departed for some distant compartment of the hangar from which to observe the proceedings, Alex settled herself down in the pilot's chair, and hardly hesitated in taking account of her surroundings. Pretty spartan, all things considered-- certainly nothin' altogether showy, which suited Alex just fine. She was still acclimating herself to the nature of her new toy - er, the weapon of mass destruction with which she had been entrusted - when Okawara's voice filtered through the comm system of the cockpit: apparently, the head researcher had decided her brief respite from his droning had gone on long enough. Alas, she lamented as he began to speak anew. As they say. All that's good's gotta end somewhere.

With little fanfare was it that Alex went about as instructed; she managed to strap herself in without snapping the restraints, albeit none too comfortably, sealed down the hatch of the cockpit, and then fired the machine up. She couldn't help a grin, there in the sanctity of the cockpit, as the mobile suit hummed to life, and the computer intoned that the system was online: But as the good of yesterday comes to pass, some more good arrives to supplant it. Man, she was just profound as all hell today.

"Turn, 'n walk..." Deftly navigating the aforementioned displays on the armrests of the pilot's chair, Alex felt the suit follow her command and turn around until it faced the hangar door. Damn, I'm already havin' fun, she mused wryly. Suck on that, Okawara. And then she leaned a foot against the pedal on the floor, urging the mobile suit forth: it wrenched forward a little haphazardly, but failed to topple over or kill anybody, and continued as such until at last she brought it to a grinding halt in front of the door.

"Well done, well done. Now." With an almighty groan, the heavy hangar doors began opening. Through the near-360° view that now encapsulated Alex, she could see that the doors were thick and cumbersome, probably more than enough to stop a tactical nuke, let alone a rampaging mobile suit.

"For the record, you don't have much in the way of armour - yet. We slapped some steel plates and minor composite armour on for the later combat testing, but seeing as those won't be the explodey kind of ammo, that should be enough. The proper suit will be fit with a special concoction of ours that'll work far better than any common tank armour. Expensive as hell though until we mass-produce it. Anyways. Walk around a little, get used to the thing. It's a bit cumbersome right now, but that shouldn't be worse than you lugging your hugeness around all day. When you're comfortable, try running for a minute or two, see how the suit manoeuvres in those conditions. With a bit of luck it'll work better than a Zeppelin with damaged engines. Once you've done that, we'll get to checking your sensors over and everything, among other things."

Too busy with the suit, Alex began to test the suit's mobility thoroughly. Somewhat carefully at first, simply walking, turning and so on before slamming the pedal down and making the giant machine surge forwards, its various components, electronics, and mechanisms working to propel it onward in a fashion that guaranteed it didn't just end up faceplanting to the ground ignominiously. It did a couple laps around the breadth of the expanse, and then gradually slowed to a stop at the centre. "Yep, it can move," she intoned dryly by way of report.

Okawara meanwhile kept his attention - unseen by her - on the suit's sensors measuring every last part that might possibly fail. "Good, good. No problems on this end either, the joints are holding up quite well, it seems." He then went over a quick list of things that were working. All business. He didn't want to get distracted by banter while working on one of the most important projects of his life, that much was obvious.

It turned out, by Martinez's reckoning, that the controls responded well. Tight. Neither too loose nor too inflexible.

A few moments after voicing his approval, Okawara had to scold an aide to write everything that was said down, claiming voice to be too unreliable. Chances were, he just wanted to punish the poor kid.

He then instructed Martinez to activate her sensors, starting at 20% power and going up by 10% every 30 seconds until she reached 80%. In the meantime, technicians would come in to have a look at the power plant in order to ensure that it was working in peak conditions and wouldn't explode suddenly. Not that it would. The power plant was engineered to shut down in case of a critical failure.

Okawara then inquired in regards to comfort within the suit, at the same time looking at some data sets, waiting for the pilot's answer.

"It's a smidge cramped," she remarked, in the same sort of tone you'd adopt when saying 'yeah, this amputated limb hurts just a bit', or 'yeah, this big machine of death is kinda cool, I guess'. Figuring that was that on that particular front, she went ahead with the sensors, though she had to resist the urge to make like she was about to step on the technicians approaching to check up on the suit... which was really only partially because she might've killed 'em doin' that. Mostly, it was just 'cause she figured if she did that !@#$ Okawara would flip his !@#$, all 'YOU FEEBLE-MINDED NEANDERTHAL, GET AWAY FROM MY PRECIOUS DEATHBOT'. If it all went from there like it did in the movies, then presumably she would proceed to suddenly discover her own innate piloting genius, slaughter her way through the base, break out of the facility, and then head out into space to create a faction of what were pretty much no more than space Nazis led by some blonde !@#$ with a dumb mask and paedophiliac tendencies. Because hey, Gundam references, right?

If it all went from there like it did in reality, she'd probably just get killed.

Okawara was the kind of man who might stash anti-tank weaponry under his pillow 'just in case' as if he was wary of his creations gaining sentience and trying to murder him messily. Though it was very likely that there was a kill-switch that could for the time being be activated from the outside, trapping Alex inside a metal coffin. An awesome-looking coffin.

"Good. We'll have to make the seat somewhat modular then, to adjust for different pilot sizes and builds." Outside, the techs were just finishing their work on the reactor. "Reactor's good too if a bit underpowered perhaps, and the feedback from the sensors looks reasonable, though there's some things we'll have to adjust. Nothing interesting for you, but useful for the grunts who'll have to take this beauty into battle some day. Now, Ms Martinez. There should be a hatch opening nearby the hangar entrance. Take from it an experimental 120 millimetre Type 4 machine gun. Drum-fed, 100 rounds per drum.

"Be aware that this is one of very few fully loaded drum mags we have right now, so be careful and don't fire randomly. Get acquainted with the gun. When that's done, fire single rounds at the targets that we set up on the far end of the test area, from any distance you feel comfortable with. Maximum range probably is 1500 metres or so until we tweak it. When that's done, fire small bursts at the targets and try reloading. Then give a report on how it feels. If there's any problems with jamming, you'll have to take another gun from the hatch."

From there on, the testing went by far too quickly, almost like a blur that she barely noticed. Okawara's checklist grew in checkmarks. First was to fire single rounds at designated targets, then burst-fire. She'd also have to reload at least once during the testing. Afterwards, whether or not the gun had jammed, technicians looked at the weapon and the MS' joints to check everything to make sure it would keep working.

Next, the suit's ability to be programmed for certain manoeuvres - macros - would be tested, resulting in some debugging and software adjustments. Fairly boring for Martinez. Afterwards however, she'd have to dodge simulated attacks, even using the suit's rocket engines in the process for greater agility, though greater strain on the structure as well. It passed, however, and other tests in 'combat situations' were done. Among these were simply popping in and out of cover or recovery when the suit was struck while running. Accompanying quick limb replacement was balance with one to two limbs blown off and the suit's ability to work under such conditions.

Afterwards, the combat section followed, with Martinez first kicking a tank out of her way, then pushing against a 'hostile' MS to force it off-balance. For this, one of the unfinished MS had to serve as stand-in, though the test was successful and the unmanned suit unharmed. Last came quick armour repair/replacement, then the pilot having to deal with defectors or hijackers, and damaged IFFs.

All in all, the MSX-04 performed admirably with Martinez's piloting and Okawara's instructions. In the following weeks, the evaluation would lead to the suit being deemed almost fit for mass production. Some further development would be needed, but only very little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I'm beginning to think you enjoy that thing's company more than mine."

 

Izel was waiting for Alex as she extricated her bulk from the confines of the cockpit and clambered down the stairs to the hangar floor. Though her voice was not absent a healthy helping of exaggerated hurt, and her mouth was pulled back in a pout, the twinkling in her eyes belied the facetious nature of the complaint. Alex yanked off her pilot's helmet as she descended to Izel's level, unveiling a smirk carved across her hard-edged features. "I like you 'n all, Izel," she retorted with a no less facetious disdain. "But frankly, ya ain't no custom-built death robot."

 

"Oof." Izel placed a hand against her chest as though profoundly wounded, though she couldn't help but reciprocate the grin herself. "That stings, Madame Martinez, really it does-- but I know better than to vie for Alex Martinez's affections against a twenty meter tall war machine. I guess this means we're gonna have to cancel our celebration plans, eh? I'm loathe you deprive you of your custom-built death robot for too long."

"Celebration plans?" Alex queried blankly as she and Izel headed toward the locker rooms so that Alex could change outta this incredibly unflattering pilot suit (she had her own mobile suit but still ended up shacked up with the puce yellow pilot get-up-- what a $%&@in' kick). Izel's grin grew ever wider, the way it often did whenever she was about to spring something on Alex, the way it had back when she'd first broken her the news on getting her own custom machine of death. "This is a big deal, after all," she declared auspiciously, taking it upon herself to dance ahead of Alex and execute a brief little pirouette, as if to underline the gravity of the situation. "Not everybody gets a custom Zaku, you know-- least of all a private contractor of all things. It's a milestone-- I'd be most remiss to neglect in rejoicing the occasion with my... uh...." The grin took on an impish tinge as she turned back to face Alex. "Security liaison."

 

"Well, I reckon in that case, I can be convinced to be pulled away from my custom-built death robot, if only for a little while. I suppose you've got an idea as to how we're to celebrate?"

"An idea?" A light, tinkling laugh emerged from Izel's lips like the gentle jingle of windchimes amidst a soft breeze. "Oh, I've got more than an idea-- I've got-- are you ready for this?-- an evening reservation for two this Saturday at the one and only Rose River." The Tikalese engineer stopped short and struck an exultant pose, not unlike that of a champion who has just slain the mighty dragon, apparently under the impression her lover was supposed to be profoundly awe-struck by this revelation.

 

Alex blinked.

 

Her triumph utterly deflating before the indomitable might of Alex's sheer obliviousness, Izel gave an exasperated breath. "It's only the most prestigious, illustrious, eminent, respected, all those sorts of adjectives, restaurant in all of Tikal! Ultra-rich business execs and foreign heads of state come from around the world in hopes of snagging just an appetiser, much less an actual table, much less a full meal. Most people would have to reserve a good fifteen years in advance to manage a table for two in the evening on a weekend, and in a private room no less, but what can I say?" She gave a faux-modest shrug of her slender little shoulders that was utterly betrayed by the proud grin etched across her face. "Yours truly does have more than a few strings at her command."

 

"Sounds pretty highfalutin," Alex observed dryly. "And you went through all this trouble for me? I'm touched, Dr. Mérida."

 

Izel snorted. "For you? The food's gonna be divine whether or not you're there, my dear. I just don't want people staring at me eating all by my lonesome."

 

"Ah-- well, I am humbled, in that case." Alex set her helmet down on one of the benches outside the locker room, and grabbed a bottle of water that had been sitting there waiting for her; she leaned against the door of the locker room, arms crossed across her broad, strongly-built chest, and took a quick sip of water, before venturing, "But tell me, good doctor, since you've thought this out so thoroughly; just what are you gonna say to that old berk Okawara when he wants to know why you intend to take a weekend evening off instead of spending it here with your face buried in a microscope, or in a pile of paperwork?"

"Oh, that'll be easy," Izel said shortly. "I'm gonna tell him exactly what we're doing."

Alex almost choked on a second gulp of water, and was bent over hacking and coughing like a plague victim for a good ten minutes before she resurfaced with red teary eyes and ragged breaths. "You're gonna what?"

 

"I'm gonna tell him exactly what we're doing," Izel repeated. "Is your hearing being negatively impacted by your mobile suit? I can run some tests, if you'd like."

"Very... funny..." Alex managed to get out, before taking another heaving breath and wiping at her eyes. "Seriously though-- you're... just gonna tell him? About our... uh..."

"'Personal liaison'."

"Our 'personal liaison', yes. About everything?"

 

"Well, yeah. It's not like he's gonna have my head for maintaining a romantic relationship, you know, other than maybe a few snipes at my choice in partner. We Tikalese tend to be pretty sensible about these things-- and anyway, having my kind of authority does have its perks, too." She gave Alex a strange look. "Was security work for the SAO back in Colombia really so regimented?"

"Uh... yeah, it was pretty unforgiving," Alex grunted, scratching at the back of her head briefly. "So, uh, when do you plan on breaking the news to Okawara, exactly?"

"Right about..." Izel pulled up the sleeve of her shirt and glanced down at her wrist theatrically, before nodding sagely and finishing, "Right now 'o clock or thereabouts. Be back soon!" And with that final little singsong farewell, she went dancing off, and when Alex sputtered out a little "w-wait a sec--!", she merely tossed her head back, called out "Try and get yourself in a nice suit by Saturday!" and was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

[this section is also a co-post between myself (Izel) and Lynneth (Okawara)]

 

Admittedly, it had been a purely impulsive decision-- Izel hadn't actually intended to do it then and there right up until a little voice in the back of her head had decided 'eh, $%&@ it, why not?' But it was a sensible opportunity in retrospect; Dr. Okawara had little work to do with the Zakus these days, and though it couldn't be said he wasn't busy (he was the kinda guy who deliberately went out of his way to make !@#$ for himself to do when he didn't have any work to occupy himself with), he certainly had five minutes to clear this up. And so Izel hesitated little in striding right up to the door of his office, knocking twice, and announcing, "It's Dr. Mérida! May I come in?"
 

Okawara was, in that current moment, busy staring at some older design plans for the Zaku. The plans had been discarded months ago as completely unfeasible, but he figured that staring a bit longer at them might help him figure out whether there were usable bits and pieces within. But his pondering was cut short when Izel Mérida knocked oh so rudely on the metal door, the sound way too loud for the Chief Engineer's liking. But that way, he wouldn't miss anyone knocking. So it couldn't be helped. Okawara sighed, put the papers to the side and adjusted himself in his chair. "Yes, come in. Unless it's about the microwave incident last week, we've dealt with the paperwork already."

 

"No no, nothing about that," Izel reported merrily as she marched on in. "Although some of the researchers are wondering rather earnestly when we'll be getting a replacement. You'd be surprised how many of these poor folks subsist primarily on a diet of microwaved pizza bites."

She clicked shut the door behind her, and approached Okawara's desk as primly and confidently as ever, smiling brightly. "No, I'm here to let you know that I'll be unavailable the evening and night of this coming Saturday, for I'll be at the Rose River with Miss Martinez, with whom I have been maintaining a romantic relationship for the past-- oh, what's it now-- seven or eight months."

 

Okawara had been listening intently. Until the key words 'Martinez' and 'romantic' were uttered. Those brought his train of thought not just to a stop, but derailed it violently, throwing its mental mass into the part of his brain that produced coherent sentences, resulting in a catastrophe with hundreds of imaginary passengers.

 

Visibly, he frowned in an attempt to buy time for the damage to be repaired. Then he leaned back in his chair, left on the armrest while raising the right hand to his head, index and middle finger landing on the temple, thumb on the cheek, the other two fingers standing free. Then the right landed on its armrest and he tilted his head. For a few moments, his chin moved as if he tried to say something. He took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly and leaned forward again, hands on the desk. "Izel. Would, would you mind, ah. Repeating that last bit? With Security Executive Alex Martinez?"

"No prob, Doc," Izel chirped. "I'm dating her."

 

"You're not !@#$ting me, are you? No pranks, no jokes? Completely goddamn serious?" Okawara was incredulous. This wasn't possible. Not Martinez. He would have to find out who had murdered and replaced her, and slowly torture them to find out the why. Maybe.

 

"Aw, c'mon now, Okawara," Izel replied, delighted and amused by the head researcher's absolute inability to come to terms with what he'd just heard. "I pull one or two innocent little pranks, and now I can't shake the accusations." She failed to help a chuckle, but somehow, she did manage to grow a little more serious-- which, in terms of Izel Mérida, meant her ubiquitous smile grew just a smidge less impish. "But I'm completely goddamn serious indeed, Kunio," she assured him. "Alex Martinez and I are in a relationship. Have been for almost a year now."

 

He leaned back once more, left hand against his forehead, slow enough that it didn't make much of a sound. "Okay. Okay. Just let me reassemble my worldview real quick. I need to come to terms with that Nea-... Person. With that person managing to find someone they fancy. And who fancies them back. Who also happens to be one of my best underlings. Ugh." He closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. A deep breath in and out, and he looked at Mérida, his old demeanour surfacing once more. "Alright. So the impossible happened." He took another deep breath, though this one resulted in a sigh. "Right. Standard procedure. Don't give out any secrets, don't let yourself be manipulated in any way, et cetera, you know it. Don't let it interfere with work. Next, and less standard: the week after your date I'll be docking your pay temporarily for not telling me earlier about it and the relationship. Once that week's over, I'm giving you a full week off, on triple pay to spend some time with that goddamn hulk. Oughta do both of you good. Is there anything else you need?"

 

"Nope!" Izel lilted brightly, and turned on her heel to make for the door. She opened it and stepped out, but stopped short briefly to stick her head back into the office. "Thanks kindly, Kunio," she finished sincerely. And then, with no further chitchat, she was gone. She had a date to prepare for, after all.

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"For the last fucking time, Alex." Izel crossed her arms across her chest and glared resolutely at the door to Excoriari Security CEO Alex Martinez's apartment. "I'm not going to laugh. Now for the love of the eternal sun and the radiant moon and all that lays witness to their glorious light, will you come the fuck out already?"

"No," grunted a stiff voice from behind the door. "This is bullshit. I look ridiculous. And I feel like an elephant stuffed into a tracksuit made for something that isn't a goddamn elephant. I have a bunch of other shit I could wear that not only looks vastly superior, but also has the additional benefit of not making me feel like I'm being suffocated every second I'm wearing it--"

"You can't go to the Rose fucking River wearing a pair of jeans, your filthy boots-- I don't even wanna know how many bodily fluids and types of dirt and mud those poor things have seen in service to you-- and a shirt that's still adorned with a bit of last night's beer," Izel retorted hotly. There was a brief silence, and then Alex stuffily replied, "Look, I forget to do the laundry just one time--"

"You're wearing the suit," Izel stated shortly.

 

There was an audible sigh from the other side of the door-- the sort of sigh that says more than a million words could, given all those words are likely to be variations of a diverse menagerie of profanities. And then, slowly, arduously, with all the reluctance of a great hero who knows she's going to her doom with the awareness that it must be done, because the only other fate involves her door being battered down by a fed-up Tikalese engineer, Alex opened the door, and stepped out.

 

And then Izel tried and distinctly failed to suppress a giggle.

"You lying little--!" Izel couldn't help herself; she burst out into peals of open, hearty laughter as Alex, a hapless smile tugging at her own lips, grabbed the little scientist and gently wrestled her into a sort of mock-headlock. "I submit, I submit!" Izel managed to get out between fits of cackling, and she smoothed her coat and skirt down as Alex mercifully released her before looking back up to Alex with a contrite smile. "That was cruel of me." But she had to admit, Alex really did look completely out of her element in that suit-- like one of those dogs whose owners have stuffed them into some kind of shirt, and you can just see in their expression that they're just thinking 'what the fuck is this shit, owner, do I look like a fucking doll to you, are we playing fucking dress up here, you crazy-ass fucktard, I'm not gonna put up with your shit'. But she pulled it off, for what it was worth; she wasn't lookin' too shabby at all, though the suit was very clearly from some budget rental place-- the shoes failed to obscure the fact that they hadn't been shined since the days of the Holy American Empire, and the tie...

 

Izel's brow furrowed. "What's happened to your tie?"

"Ah!" Alex immediately raised a hand to stifle any possibility of further discourse on that subject. "I'll not budge an inch on that front. That damn thing felt like I was being constantly, slowly strangled by a really weak midget-- I dunno how you can stand it every work day."

"Oh, alright, I'll let the tie go," Izel chuckled, before stepping back and raising her arms outward. "So, how do I look?" She even did a little pirouette so Alex could see it from all angles-- the cobalt blue, thin-fabric trench coat, the cotton lace pencil skirt, the dark blue leggings leading down to a pair of what were either eldritch abominations from beyond time and space that could shatter an ankle with but a single step, or stiletto heels. But Alex hardly even noticed any of that; she had eyes only for the dense curls that fluttered through the air as Izel turned, and the dark, smooth skin of her face, perhaps lightly adorned by make up or perhaps not at all, and the heavy-lidded, black-rimmed eyes that met Alex's expectantly. "Well?"

"I think," Alex decided slowly. "that your 'radiant moon' better step aside, 'cause you look about ready to outshine it entirely."

An unabashed grin pulled at Izel's lips. "Why, Alex-- that's blasphemy." But Alex merely shrugged her broad shoulders. "I've always said it ain't true love if you're not willing to blaspheme for each other."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, Izel made Alex promise not to make any remarks like that in public-- "People take their commitment to our leaders very seriously," she pointed out firmly. "And I would rather not be thrown out of the restaurant because you can't help but... uh, express your true love." Alex had groused under her breath about it the whole way there, muttering lowly about 'entire goddamn nation of fuckin' rocket scientists, no clue how you all managed to end up also being religious fundamentalists, woulda figured if there was any place on this god-forsaken rock of a planet that woulda turned out a bastion of atheism...' Mysteriously enough, this earned her nothing much more than a slap upside the head for her trouble.

 

She reigned it in once they arrived at the restaurant, though-- partially because yes, it would have been vastly preferable if they didn't have their celebration cut unceremoniously short 'cause everybody here was a flaming religious fanatic, and partially because she was too taken aback to continue. "You weren't kiddin'," she grunted as they were ushered into the restaurant by one of the valets, who stepped away to fetch one of the servers to take the pair to their reserved table. "This is high-class shit. I mean-- look, they've even got an actual piano player. Playing an actual piano. If that don't scream high class, I dunno what does."

 

"Sometimes, Alex, I think you must have grown up in a nuclear wasteland," Izel shot back snidely. "Next thing we know you'll be exclaiming 'Edible food! Why, this place ain't just high class, it's downright astronomical class!'"

 

"Hey, I'm a fish outta water here, okay?"

"More of a whale out of water."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "Am I at least a killer whale? Nobody fucks with killer whales."

"Alright, a killer whale out of water, then." Izel smirked, and placed her small hand in the crook of Alex's elbow. "Don't worry, my beloved, hapless orca. I'll guide you through the vagaries of upper crust society." She nodded as one of the servers, dressed every bit as crisply as Alex and looking a damn sight more comfortable about it than she did, approached them, a familiar smile upon his face. "Good evening, Dr. Mérida-- you look absolutely lovely tonight. And..." He turned to face Alex, and to his credit, he managed to restrain the urge to wince at how woefully, how neglectfully she wore that poor suit of hers. "You must be Alex Martinez," he continued, succeeding in maintaining a cordial tone that was only further challenged when Alex replied with, "Uh. Yeah. I must be." Izel next to her looked about ready to die (less from embarrassment and more from sheer amusement), but she too managed to maintain a politely subdued pretense until the server, exchanging a little small talk with Izel and occasionally directing an innocuous remark Alex's way, led them to their table-- a private booth nestled safely away from the bulk of the rest of the none too sparsely populated restaurant. And then, once he'd left, Izel turned to face Alex, and permitted the grin that was just dying to surface cross her lips. "'Uh, yeah, I must be'?" she repeated in great mirth.

"Hey, I didn't expect the dude to actually talk to me," Alex retorted defensively. "I don't go to a restaurant to make small talk and introduce myself, I go there to eat and then leave with nothing more said than my order and 'check'."

 

"And to think I defend you whenever Okawara grouses about 'that damn Neanderthal'," Izel mused wryly.

 

"I for one take it as a compliment. I dunno if you know this or not, but the Neanderthals had much larger brains than humans do, so really, Okawara's sayin' I'm smarter than he is."

Izel almost choked on the glass of ice water that had been set before her just before the server had gone off to fetch their first course. "Alex, that's not how...." But she seemed to reconsider, and instead, she merely smiled sweetly. "Yeah, how 'bout those Neanderthals, eh?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so the evening continued.

 

Their conversation meandered as all the best conversations do-- from the brain size of Neanderthals to books they'd been reading recently, to the mobile suit project, to the very thing they were celebrating in the first place, to global politics, to the recent murmurings of a rogue state in its embryonic form coalescing in Baja California, to Rawlsian justice theory, to, inevitably-- as the final course of the night arrived-- Alex's taste in music.

 

Or, as Izel preferred to call it, 'that ear-shattering noise you call music'.

 

"And the names!" Izel shook her head ruefully. "How any sane, self-respecting person can listen to bands called Napalm Death or Suffocation, I'll never know."

"Now, whatever happened to the old saying 'don't judge a book by its cover'?" Alex ventured slyly, meriting only a flatly unamused look from Izel. "When the book has chapters with titles like Bathe in Entrails and A Skull Full of Maggots, you're damn right I can judge it by its cover."

"Hey, watch it," Alex warned. "Cannibal Corpse is a classic."

 

"No," Izel countered swiftly. "Kinda Blue is a classic. Sidewinder is a classic. Led Zeppelin II is a classic. Mysterious Traveler is a classic. Scream Bloody Gore? Not a goddamn classic."

 

"I lament that you are unable to see past your own prejudices against heavy music to realise the technical intricacies and musical worth inherent to extreme metal," Alex maligned, as though deeply, personally wounded by Izel's animosity to her favourite genre of music, provoking a chuckle from her lover. "All the technical intricacies and musical worth in the world won't make having to hear this noise for the rest of my life any better!"

"Well," Alex began firmly. "We'll just have to work our way toward ha-- wait, wha--" Her brain, despite according to Okawara being significantly larger than that of a human, immediately shut down as she sputtered uselessly for a little while, and it was several minutes (and many encouraging repetitions of 'breath, Alex, breathe!' from a clearly rather amused Izel) before she could get her bearings together enough to stammer, "Wait, what the-- what d'you mean the rest of your life?"

"Oh, relax, Alex. That was just my way of turning the conversation fluidly toward our relationship. I love talking about bands called Dying Fetus and Aborted as much as the next sane person, but I think I'd rather talk about us, wouldn't you?"

"Well, gimme a little warnin' next time you wanna talk about us, will ya?" Alex grunted crossly. "I'm gettin' old, Izel. My heart can't take that shit anymore."

 

Izel smiled calmly. "Would it be so terrible, though? To spend the rest of our lives together, that is. I don't know about you, but at this point I can safely say that I do love you, and right now I can't really picture my life with you out of it."

Alex frowned. "Is it typical to be talking about this kinda shit one year into a relationship?" she uttered dubiously, provoking a shrug of Izel's slender shoulders. "Truth be told, this is the first serious relationship I've ever really been in," Izel confessed. "Before now, I was always concerned first and foremost with work. Before that, with school. Before that... well, you get the picture. I was always too busy to really commit to anything more than fleeting, one-off flings for stress relief. But this... well, this is hardly fleeting, is it?"

"Well, shit, I don't know," Alex grunted. "You think I know anything more about this relationship shit than you do? You might as well be Casa-goddamn-nova next to me."
 

"Well aren't we a spectacle?" Izel grinned. "Two romantically handicapped people trying to fumble and grope their way through a relationship." Unfortunately, she spared little time for this brief delve into jest, and she grew serious again-- and this time, it was her turn to sputter and stammer. "But really, I... your horrid taste in music aside, I... don't think I would terribly mind spending whatever's left of my life with you. I mean, you're the one person who can take my mind off my work-- shit, you're the one person I enjoy being with more than I enjoy working, which is a first. If that doesn't say 'meant to be' then I don't know what does."

Alex was silent for a moment-- and it seemed that she was struggling to think of a meaningful responce. And yet, when she opened her mouth to speak, all that came out was "This is really cliche, you know that?"

 

Izel smirked. "We're goin' pretty heavy on the cheese here, I realise."

 

"And how. This little tangent's cheesier than provolone."

 

"Oh, it is-- almost as cheesy as you deflecting the subject with humour to try and mask just how uncomfortable you are with it." There was a knowing glint to Izel's dark eyes as she leaned in toward Alex. "I've learned this much about you, Alex-- that you intensely fear talking about yourself, whether it be your feelings or your history. But whether you like it or not, this relationship is no longer purely physical. At some point, you're gonna have to be honest with yourself and with me about what we are to each other."

"Well, it's obvious, ain't it? Clearly I love you and you love me and we satisfy each other on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level, producing a happy, flourishing relationship that I for one see no reason to end any time soon. Rest of our lives? Maybe. I ain't gettin' any younger-- hell, it won't be long before I'm half a century old, and I'd prefer to be as happy as I can be when that day comes. And if 'happy as I can be' means being with you, then that's the way it is. I've hardly lived the healthiest lifestyle and I don't have the benefit of having grown up with your science-fiction-esque Tikalese healthcare standards, so for all I know, the rest of my life is just a handful of years. Even then, I'll be happy-- not because I get to spend them piloting a big machine of death, not because I get to spend them in a new home with a new life far, far away from the one I sought to escape from, but because I get to spend them with you. That's what we are to each other."

Izel stared as though she'd never seen Alex before in her life, and Alex leaned back in her chair, finished off the last of her water, and shot back, "What? Even I can be melodramatic when I feel like it."

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  • 2 months later...

"I just can't believe you would do something like this to me, Izel."
 

Alex's steps were like the pounding footfalls of Godzilla itself, lumbering off towards Tokyo to unleash its boundless wrath upon the fragile pretense of a civilisation humanity had erected in a thinly-veiled allegory for nuclear war. Hell, nuclear war was probably too soft a term for what the steady, vehement beat of the soles of her boots against the polished linoleum floor was soon to augur. This was... this was fuckin' global catastrophe just waitin' to happen right here. Apocalypse. Armageddon. Annihilation. Lots of synonyms for 'lots of fucked up shit' that Alex Martinez was just plain too pissed off to think of right now.

 

Izel followed closely behind her, and the comparative lightness of her footfalls belied the magnitude of her own discontent. "And I just can't believe you're making such a fuss over it," she fired back, struggling to maintain some semblance of gravitas-- which was difficult when you were scurrying to keep up with the long-legged stride of someone about a foot taller than you.

 

"You shoulda known this would make me upset," Alex growled, refusing to look over her shoulder as she led them along down the hallway, passing by each numbered door until at last they came upon the one that, for the past month or so, had served as their mutual living quarters-- a needlessly verbose means of saying that yes, they'd moved in together.

 

It was not, thus far, proving to be the most perspicacious of decisions.

 

"Look," Izel retorted angrily, before nearly colliding with Alex's broad back as her lover stopped short abruptly at apartment 76-- home sweet home. As Alex shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket and rifled about for the keys, Izel recovered her momentum, and finished, "It didn't seem like that big a deal, okay? I was just looking around."

"Yeah well, see, that's the fuckin' thing!" Alex unlocked the door and all but hurled it open, stomping off into what would normally have been the welcoming tranquility of their new apartment. "You think that just 'cause my home is your home, my shit is also your shit and you can fuck with it however you like!" She yanked her arms out of the confines of her jacket's sleeves one by one as she led them out into the living room, all but lobbing the poor thing off at the wall as though it had done her some truly unforgivable injustice in the past. It landed with a thunk against the vast window that sprawled across the far wall of the living room, permitting an open view of Guatemala City beneath the dusky vigil of the moon and the stars, a peace, a quietude that the apartment at that moment was sorely wanting for.

"Okay-- first of all," Izel matched Alex's fury calculatedly, ensuring she achieved the proper degree of violent hand motions and spittle-to-words ratio to stay toe to toe with the angry titan. She reached a hand out and grabbed Alex's arm, slender fingers clutching at the thick muscle of the former soldier's bicep, and though Alex could have effortlessly shaken her off and gone along her merry way, she merely turned her head sharply to meet Izel's bitter glare. "First of all, this is my home that's now your home, and don't you dare be so quick to forget it. And second of all, again-- I think this is just a little bit of a fucking overreaction, don't you?"

 

"An overreaction?" Alex snarled incredulously, as though she'd never heard anything quite so ridiculous. She turned on her heel, and marched off furiously toward the shelves that lined the walls of the living room, packed to the brim with CDs, and yanked one out of its space before stomping back over to Izel and all but shoving it in her face. "An overreaction? You know Killing On Adrenaline is my favourite Dying Fetus album! It goes first! You do not just take it out and then put it back in after fucking Grotesque Impalement like it's the inferior album!"

Izel pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, closed her eyes, and tried to imagine she was on a nice cool beach somewhere, feeling nice and relaxed, perhaps with a chilled cocktail in one hand and a good book in the other, and not wracked by the urge to strangle any living thing within grasp of her hands. "Well," she managed to grind out between gritted teeth. "You didn't mention that you stacked your CDs not only in alphabetical order, but also in order of favourite album."

 

"Oh, don't give me that bullshit," Alex dismissed the excuse with a callous wave of her hand as she stepped away from Izel and went over to shove the CD back where it belonged (not after goddamn Grotesque Impalement, I'll have you fucking know). "You should've just left it alone. I don't know why you'd even fuck around with my CDs in the first place."

"Well, clearly," Izel began, her voice so heavy with sarcasm it was a wonder each word didn't sink to the ground with the weight of it. "I was doing it deliberately, because I knew you'd flip a shit so massive you'd have thought I'd personally murdered your mother and then punted your kitten out the window for good measure, just to spite you."

The glare Alex shot her way could have withered the petals off a rose. "Real clever."
 

"Yeah, y'know what..." Izel shook her head and turned away. "I'm just gonna head off to bed. Once you've chilled the fuck out and aren't about to ruin our entire relationship over a goddamn CD, you can join me-- or just sleep on the couch. It doesn't make much difference to me." Alex scowled as Izel squared her shoulders and marched off toward the bedroom, but she raised neither voice nor hand to stop her-- merely watched as she left the living room and then winced as she heard the door slam behind her. With nowhere to go-- or perhaps, for lack of will to sustain it any longer-- all that rage simply dissipated, like vapour over a pot of boiling water, and Alex sighed as she walked away from the shelf, CD still in hand, and sank down onto the couch. She rubbed the palm of her hand over her eyes, and then glanced down at the CD in her hands.

 

Izel had said she'd only taken it out and hadn't opened it or looked inside the case. Perhaps it was for the better she hadn't.... or perhaps Alex found herself wishing she had. Alex cracked it open, and tugged the liner notes out of the case, a small corner of something jammed in between the pages peeking out from it. She pulled the photograph out, gingerly-- it was old, after all, quite old by now-- and looked down at the image of her face-- her true face, her natural face, the one she no longer wore-- smiling beside that of Isabel Vieira.

 

How long ago had this been-- fifteen years? Twenty? Her aunt had been about as old as she was now when this picture had been taken-- in the days before the Hierarchy, before Isabel had forsaken the ideals of democracy and cooperation she had once striven so ardently to uphold throughout South America in favour of cynicism and self-preservation. Those had been the days before everything had begun to go to shit-- just a little after Isabel had established Para, in pursuit of a vision of a land that would act as an example to all of South America, a land that would lead the continent to an age of prosperity and unity. It showed: her aunt's smile was genuine-- one might have almost been compelled to say naive in a certain sense-- and Alex... Alejandra wore a reluctant sort of smile, a grudging but honest upturn of the corners of her lips. The day this picture had been taken, Alejandra Valverde had been promoted to captain and put in command of Para's first and foremost unit of marines; she remembered how she'd felt that day, a motley amalgamation of confidence and uncertainty, as much triumph in the accomplishment as anxiety in it. But she remembered it had also been much easier back in those days, because back then she'd been a creature of impulse, of action.

 

It had been simpler, but then, she'd also never been happy back then. The things it took to be happy were never simple, after all-- love, companionship, family, those sorts of things. The soldier in the photograph in her hands knew nothing of those things, and she was content to remain as such.

 

Wholly, blissfully, fatally ignorant of all the things she would soon come to see, and feel, and do, and run away from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The light had been put out, the book set down shut upon the nightstand when Izel heard the bedroom door crack open timidly, almost ashamedly, and then close shut again in much the same manner-- but she was not asleep. Nevertheless, she didn't budge a muscle, not until Alex sheepishly ventured, "Uh... Izel?"

Wearily, the Tikalese engineer willed herself to pull up to a sitting position-- blearily rubbing the tinges of otherwise unattainable sleep from her eyes, she reached over, and clicked the light on, illuminating Alex's downcast, repentant features. "You chilled out now?"

"Just a little bit," Alex answered dryly, before nodding her head toward the bed. "May I?" Izel raised a tired eyebrow, but merely managed a shrug of her slender shoulders, and Alex trundled over, lowering herself down to a sitting position on the edge of the mattress with a small grunt.

 

Izel looked at her-- a towering testament of might and muscle, of the human body's defiance in the face of time and aging-- and couldn't help but feel like she'd never seen the woman look so thin and worn down. Her face was turned away from her at that moment, hunched over as though recovering from a war wound, but the silence was ruminative, the sort of silence entertained by somebody wrestling with their words, struggling to make sense of them, struggling to speak. Izel gave her that time, and it was a moment before she finally spoke up, voice hoarse and dry.

 

"I'm gonna get real sappy here, okay? Don't laugh at me or nothin'."

"I'll try and restrain myself," Izel returned, managing a wry smile, and Alex returned the expression herself, though it was fleeting.

 

"Look, I... before I met you, I don't think I was ever really happy. When I was growing up, an entire continent was being ripped to shreds by war, and I learned at a very early age that nobody could stay in this world forever. No child should ever have to come to terms with mortality when they're still in the single digits of age, but, well..." She shrugged her broad shoulders listlessly, and sighed. "I came to the conclusion that it wasn't worth being attached to anybody for fear of losing them, so instead, I found other avenues of making myself feel alive-- the very thing that took so much from me as a kid. War, violence, destruction-- I hurled myself headlong into it and didn't look back. Why should I have? This made me feel... well, at all, and that was something precious and important, something to be nurtured, something that couldn't be taken away from me. Violence was a language I could understand, a language I'd been fluent in from the very beginning. And more importantly, it was simple."

 

She ran her tongue across her dry lips. "I guess after fifty years of living my life that way, the loneliness just got to be too much, especially after I had to leave South America entirely and carve out a new life for myself here. I'm not a soldier anymore: I can't take solace in senseless, meaningless violence. I mean... I'm gettin' old, Izel. I don't have too many years left in me. I suppose maybe there was some part of me that didn't want to spend those last few years the way I'd spent the decades that had come before them-- alone, unhappy, angry, and without purpose to boot."

"Well then..." Izel reached a hand out and gestured vaguely towards the bedroom door. "What's with all this senseless rage about a misplaced CD?"

 

Alex merely shrugged her shoulders. "I ain't no psychotherapist, that's for sure. But maybe... I dunno. Maybe there's another part of me that still clings to the convictions of my youth-- that still fears that happiness. Maybe that part of me is trying to sabotage what we've built for ourselves, if only to escape the crippling dilemma of love versus loneliness."

"Hedgehog's dilemma," Izel spoke up suddenly. Alex turned back to cast a quizzical glance at her, and she explained, "The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer came up with it as a means of explaining why people fear intimacy. It's because people are like hedgehogs, huddling together to escape the cold around them with one another's warmth. But hedgehogs can't come too close to one another without pricking each other with their spines-- and so they must choose between the certainty of solitude and the pinprick pain of intimacy."
 

Alex frowned. "See, this is why I can't fuckin' stand philosophers. They can never just say what's on their mind-- people are scared of intimacy, but they're also scared of loneliness. They gotta start pullin' animals outta the goddamn zoo to make shit more complicated than it's gotta be."

 

"Well, of course they do," Izel answered with a smile. "If philosophers just gave people the straight sell with no fancy talk, they'd never make any money. People don't pay philosophers to actually figure out why things are the way they are-- they just pay 'em to spout off some vaguely meaningful shit so that they can look real highbrow when they repeat it to their friends and pretend they have the slightest clue what it all means."

"Didn't know people paid philosophers at all."

 

At that, Izel even gave a dry little chuckle. "You'd be surprised. Even here in Tikal, if you can at least do a good job of acting like what you're saying has the vaguest semblance of relevance, you can make a living."

 

"Well, shit, maybe I oughta reconsider my career," Alex mused. "I'm great at pretending I know what I'm talking about."

 

"And also at changing the subject." Izel pulled herself up onto her knees and clambered over to where Alex sat, wrapping her slender arms gently around her neck from behind. Her chest against Alex's broad back, she felt the former soldier's breath grow sharp and quick. "Since you have so little patience for needless overcomplication... why overcomplicate it? Just ask yourself this: are you happy with me?"

Alex's brow furrowed. "Well, I mean, what exactly--?"

"No needless overcomplication. Are you happy with me?"

"Well," Alex grunted. "Yeah."

 

"Happier than you were before?"

"Well," Alex grunted again. "Yeah."

 

"Well then..." Izel leaned her head down, and rested her chin against the crook of Alex's shoulder. "Let your fears be at ease. Because I ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon-- that much, I can promise you with certainty."

In spite of herself, Alex couldn't help a smile. "How can you promise anything like that with certainty?"

"I'm a scientist, Alex," Izel answered confidently. "A scientist makes no assertion unless they are 100% positive that it's true."

"Oh yeah?" Alex retorted sardonically. "Well, oh mighty and pragmatic scientist, where are your case studies, your theoretical proofs, your experimental verification that has been retested and reexamined by third parties and confirmed independently? It's very unscientific to go with your gut feelings, you know."

Izel merely smirked as she ran her hands down along the contours of Alex's arm muscles gently. "What can I say?" she whispered softly. "I guess when it comes to you, I'm just not a very good scientist."

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"Christina? Chr-- Christina!"

This was all wrong. This couldn't be right. She was an officer's child. This shouldn't have been happening to her-- this shouldn't have been happening to anybody.

 

They'd said that the war... that the war wouldn't make it this far west. That everybody here would be safe. She'd seen the reports on TV-- they all had, every child in her class-- of the ruination the rebels had wreaked across this once proud and glorious empire, of the scenes of mass carnage and devastation, of the corpses of São Paulo, Santiago, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, great cities reduced to rubble and ash. And who amongst those little children, watching with as much horror as awe, as much dread as fascination, had not found themselves unable to sleep at night, for fear that Cartagena would be the next to fall? Who among their number had not trembled at the prospect of awakening to fire and brimstone, or perhaps to never waking up again at all? They had been told time and time again that the rebels would never reach Colombia, that their war would peter out in the southeast and the empire would be united anew. But then, they had also said before that that the rebels would never make it into Brazil-- before that, that the rebels would never be able to fight on equal terms with the Imperial Army, that they would never be a threat to the divine might of the Emperor-- before that, that the rebels did not exist at all...

 

They had said many things. And Alejandra Valverde knew now that she should have known better than to believe each and every lie.

 

She called out her best friend's name once again, and could barely hear her own voice over the din of distant gunfire throughout the city and cannons from the ships at sea. The soldiers were coming-- she threw herself to the side of the street, into the battered husks of buildings, into the rubble. The violent pounding of her heart in her chest, like a jackhammer struggling to break free of the skin, felt as though it had muted her senses-- her vision swam before her very eyes, and she could not shake the insistent ringing in her ears, vying with the thrashing refrain of her own heartbeat and the harmonies of war all around her. She didn't know where she was running-- she was scrambling across rubble and shattered brick, crunching chunks of broken glass beneath her shoes, coughing and wheezing on smoke-choked air. She knew only that she was running. Only that she was looking.

 

Of course, none of them had taken it seriously when the evacuation had begun and Mr. Meirelles had begun ushering his students from the classroom. Why would they have? Everybody-- the teachers, the parents, the military, the news reporters-- everybody had told them the rebels would never make it this far out west. They'd told them that they were safe, spared the utter annihilation the rest of the continent had been subjected to, and they had clung to that promise even when they heard the unmistakable report of cannons at sea, the augur of the battle's onset. They decided it had to have been something else-- that this was a drill, that the gunfire was perhaps even the imperial navy simulating the sounds of war. They'd made a game of it. They'd been laughing and playing. Somehow-- Alejandra could no longer recall how-- she had managed to find a reason to continue deceiving herself. She was good at that, she realised-- right up until a stray shell had exploded in the very centre of the school, out where the evacuating students had been miming the firing of a gun in time with the cannon shots, and Mr. Meirelles, struggling to coerce his students into obedience, had vanished into the blaze, life snuffed out in a single flash of flame and fury.

 

Alejandra had found herself unable to see or to hear in the moments following the explosion, and so she did not know if those students who yet retained command of those senses had ground to a halt, fallen sharply silent in horror as the reality of the situation dawned upon them, or if they had immediately been seized in the maws of panic. The smile on her lips had not even vanished by the time Mr. Meirelles and the students unfortunate enough to be too near to him had been killed-- Christina's little jokes and jibes as they walked alongside one another and played about as best friends do still fresh in her ears even as all other sounds were conquered by a senseless ringing. She remembered somebody's hand-- Christina's-- clutching at her own, remembered both of them blindly and deafly stumbling away from the scene so jarringly wrenched from mirth into despair, and she remembered feeling the ground shake with another impact, remembered her feet leaving the ground, her fingers, despite her best efforts, losing their grip on the sweaty palm of Christina's hand, remembered hitting the ground a second later. And she remembered the white that dominated her vision slowly fading into reality, the ringing in her ears gradually abating just a little bit, pain wrenching at every fibre of her body-- forcing herself to clamber up to her feet and finding her best friend gone, replaced by corpses strewn about the street, broken husks of buildings, people fleeing frantically in all directions.

 

And then the soldiers.

 

I have to find Christina, she swore once again, stumbling through the scattered remnants of brick and mortar, prowling through the wreckage of homes and townhouses in hopes of avoiding the troops that swarmed the main sections of the streets. Find her, and then... and then get out of here. Go somewhere. Go anywhere but here. Another artillery strike reduced one of the buildings across the road to dust, and Alejandra stumbled at the sudden explosion, a jagged outcropping of steel-- a chunk of this former house's skeleton, all that remained of its substance-- catching her arm as she fell. Its cleft point dug into the flesh of her arm, carved a deep gash for her to remember it by, and she clamped her hand down over the wound and forced herself to choke down a cry of pain. It was nothing, nothing compared to all the nicks and cuts, bruises and contusions she was long since armoured in. Nothing compared to what she'd seen happen to others.

 

And so she staggered, and stumbled, and crawled-- hating the rebels every moment for so suddenly, so jarringly, so simply crushing her life underfoot. Every time she heard a tank or an armoured vehicle growl its way up the streets like a predator on the hunt for its prey, every time she caught through the gunfire and the violence and the shock the sound of boots marching, every time the artillery shells struck too close to home, she ground to a halt, and stood there frozen, skin crawling with sweat and blood, fearing the furious beating of her heart alone would betray her. She wasn't sure if they were rebels or imperials-- and at this point, she was not willing to risk either.

 

But it was for naught in the end. Even as she squirmed and wriggled amidst the ash and the filth of the devastation, she heard the whistle of an impending artillery shell-- closer than any of the ones before. And before she could admit a gasp, some utterance of horror, it struck. She was flung from the rubble, hurled out into the street in a billowing cloud of dust, and she hit the ground amidst shattered chunks of glass and concrete. Their pinprick agony met numb skin, however-- exhaustion, sheer exhaustion, overwhelmed the nine year old girl's nerves, and for the moment, the pain was gone. She lay there for a moment, unable to feel the cold of the ground or the slivers of glass digging into her cheek, unable to even gasp in breath, before she saw a small canister come clattering down beside her. It came to rest just before her eyes-- numbers, letters, arranged in a code she didn't understand, nothing except for the Imperial emblem amidst it all.

 

Alejandra clambered up to her feet, and at last sucked in a heaving breath of air, only to find the air that filtered into her nose and mouth... wasn't right. She stared down at the canister at her feet, but her eyes were already beginning to sting and water as she registered the hissing sound emanating from it. G... gas? she thought numbly through the incipient waves of nausea as they took hold of her, wrenching at her little body. It didn't make sense-- why would they use-- ? She heard voices-- unfamiliar voices, soldiers' voices, loathsome voices-- but found she couldn't turn her head toward them. Her body, she found, was giving up on her: it could do no more, nothing but sink to the ground again, eyes burning, hacking and coughing up the bile rising in her throat. She struggled to lift her eyes upward, and was met with the approaching barrel of a gun trained upon her, the callous mien of a gas mask behind it. Through the film of pain and tears, she could barely make out the Imperial emblem adorning the soldier's shoulders. And behind them, there were others, and none of them...

 

They weren't going to save her. She, an officer's child, and they were... they were going to... ?

 

She couldn't bear consciousness any longer. Her vision began to go blank, even as, just before she blacked out, the soldier in the gas mask also collapsed to the ground, the blank stare of the mask's eyes meeting her own fading gaze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next she opened her eyes-- or at least, the next she could recall the sharp pang of consciousness-- it was to a peace and tranquility that was worlds away from burning, bleeding, dying Cartagena.

 

She felt beneath her the soft cushion of a mattress, the thin materiel of a hospital gown against her skin and an IV drip feeding into the veins of her arm. The warmth of sunlight streaming through the window beside her draped across her battered, ashen body like the protective aegis of an angel-- and she could hear birdsong, sweet and serene and utterly naive, wafting through the glass from the other side. Alejandra blinked, mind yet weary and overwhelmed by the pressure of consciousness, and heaved a breath to begin pulling herself up to a sitting position.

 

"I would keep still if I were you. You endured quite an ordeal, after all."

The hard rasp of the voice was familiar-- very immediately familiar-- and Alejandra's gaze immediately darted upward. There she stood, towering over her: Isabel Moraes Vieira. She was unmistakable, from the steel gaze of her eyes and the hard contours of her face, which had always brought to Alejandra's mind a weathered but resolute stone statue, to the breadth of her shoulders and the immensity of her stature. Alejandra's breath caught in her throat. This woman, her father had stressed, was the enemy-- she was a traitor, an agent of deceit and betrayal working in concert with others no different from her to rend to pieces this immortal empire which the holy Emperor had carved out of South America. This woman was wicked. Untrustworthy. The enemy.

 

"A-- Auntie?" Alejandra breathed.

 

"Oh, good-- you can still recognise a familiar face," Isabel returned dryly. She crossed her arms across her broad chest, and raised an eyebrow as Alejandra glanced around her, at this unfamiliar hospital she'd awoken in, and slowly, almost suspiciously ventured, "... where am I?"

"You're in Pará," came the curt answer. Pará, the nexus of the rebels. "I had you brought back here after you were found in the streets of Cartagena in the wake of a nerve gas attack." Isabel fell silent briefly, and Alejandra's gaze flitted back to her just long enough for her to catch some glimpse of a fleeting, foreign sentiment in her expression before it swiftly settled back into the sternness Alejandra had long since come to expect of her aunt. "Frankly, it was impressive enough that you survived at all, but the doctors are telling me you're expected to make a full recovery, which damn near borders on the miraculous."

 

The meaning of it, of course, meant little to a nine year old child who was happy only to have made it out alive, albeit into the enemy's hands. Although... Her brow knotted in vexation. Something was gnawing at the fringes of her mind, something tugging her back to whatever hollowed out carcass of a city Cartagena had been reduced to...

 

"Christina!" Alejandra almost leapt out of bed, and Isabel reacted instantly-- firmly but gently, preventing the girl from overexerting herself with her hand against her chest. Helpless to do anything but settle back into her bed, Alejandra breathed, "Christina-- I was-- I was trying to find her... is she... is she okay?"

Isabel's expression did not shift the slightest, but she did turn away from Alejandra and toward one of the other officers, someone Alejandra couldn't see-- a subordinate, perhaps, or a colleague, Alejandra didn't know and it didn't matter. "Say, Kaneda," she grunted. "Can you check to see if there were any bodies from the Rafael Núñez school shelling that were identified as a... uh, Christina?"

"Sure," a cool, almost inexplicably easygoing voice replied. There was a moment's silence-- perhaps as Kaneda rifled through files, or scanned for them on a computer-- before she added, this time with what Alejandra firmly decided to be the appropriate level of gravity, "Uh, no. There's a Christina Martinez registered at that school, but she's among three students whose fate remains unconfirmed."

 

"Thanks." Isabel turned back to Alejandra, and scowled; she was about as good at comforting a child in distress as a particularly aggressive rhinoceros, but she felt she had to make at least some vague degree of effort. "I'm... sorry," she managed at last through grit teeth. "Our soldiers are scouring the city for refugees and missing civilians as we speak. We will find her, one way or another."

Alejandra sank back into her bed, feeling her eyes burning again-- and this time, not from nerve gas or the dust of a collapsing building. "She was like a sister to me," she said glumly. "She is a sister to me." She didn't know what to do with this grief, with this uncertainty, and so she searched for some familiar means of dealing with it, and arrived at one in short order. Her lips formed a thin, angry line, and she shot a venomous glare up at her aunt, who returned it with a raised eyebrow. "This is your fault," she snapped miserably. "If you and your rebels hadn't attacked our city, we'd... we'd be alright. They'd... They..." She trailed off into a wordless sigh. She didn't have the energy to sustain that sort of vehemence, and instead, her expression eased back into one of resigned unhappiness once again. "They said you would never make it to Cartagena..."

Her aunt made a noise torn somewhere between irritation and wryness. "And I imagine they also said we'd never make it to Pará, either?" When Alejandra didn't answer, she growled, "Here. Look at me." She said the words the way she would have given a command to her troops, and it worked: Alejandra was powerless to stop herself looking up and meeting her aunt's inexorable gaze.

"They lied to you. They've lied to everybody. They always have. They don't care about you, or Christina, or anybody else-- all they've ever cared about, the Emperor and the slavish lackeys that cling to his every word in hopes of currying favour and prestige, is their own power. Justice means nothing to them. Rights mean nothing to them. Lives mean nothing to them."

Alejandra found herself trembling with an indignant, callow rage. "You're the liar!" she snarled, some semblance of that tired but sincere fury taking hold of her once again-- but Isabel interjected before she could stoke those flames any further. "Am I?" Perhaps she was being harsh-- but then, it took this sort of bluntness to divorce an incipient stooge of the state from their propaganda-derived convictions, even one as young as her niece. "The Empire has been bombing its own cities to force us into compromising strategic positions since the war began. We've only ever attacked military and tactical positions of our own volition, but in targeting its own citizens in order to draw us into an engagement, they've been able to paint us as the aggressors. They will gladly sacrifice their own peoples' lives, the very citizens who worship the Emperor as a god incarnate, if it means inflicting more casualties against us." She leaned down toward Alejandra, meeting her fuming, childish glare with her own brutally honest eyes. "Do you understand what I'm saying? The Empire has lied to you. They have abused your trust. They are, more than anybody, responsible for what has happened-- throughout the continent, in Cartagena, and to you."

 

It was too much for the child. Alejandra buried her face in her hands, as though concealing some inexcusable shame from Isabel-- she did not cry, but perhaps that was merely because she was too exhausted to do that. Isabel gazed down at her, and couldn't help some twinge of sympathy; it was easy to distance herself from it, to look up Alejandra, child though she may have been, as merely a zealot who needed to be torn away from the Empire's propaganda even if she had to be yanked off it kicking and screaming. But had she not been much the same, once upon a time-- and had it not been just as difficult, perhaps even more difficult than Alejandra could ever know, to come to terms with the reality of the nation she had once venerated?

 

Her mouth pulled taut. No-- it was best to be blunt about these things, as it was to be about most things. Nothing good would come of prolonging this suffering.

 

She prepared to turn away and at least give the child some time to herself-- she merited at least that little bit-- but she had not taken a step before she was given pause by a muffled sound from Alejandra's hands.

 

"What?"

Alejandra dropped her hands, revealing a miserable but tearless face. "I said... my father would never serve a country like that. He's a good soldier. A good person."

 

Isabel bit her lip. "Alejandra..." She would have liked nothing more than to be able to leave this for another day, to hold off on the inevitable just a little while longer-- but it had already been this long, and the Empire had clearly never bothered to tell the child. And... and there was no use prolonging that suffering, either. Not for Alejandra, and not for Isabel herself.

 

"Your father died before the battle for Cartagena."

 

Dead. Another dead... dead, and gone.

 

Perhaps if she had not already lost so much since that first shell had struck in the middle of the schoolyard-- if she had not already endured so much since then-- Alejandra would have had it in her to... to say something. To do something. To shed a tear. But it felt as though the nerve gas had burned from her eyes all the tears she would ever have had to offer, as though every fragment of glass and metal that had embedded itself into her flesh had stung until her nerves would feel no more pain. She had only this strange, sudden emptiness in the pit of her stomach, as though something had been pulled out of her own body, and she could feel its absence in her very gut.

 

It wasn't that she had particularly loved her father-- that he had ever really been there at all, much less that he had been important to her as a person, as an individual. It was merely the knowledge that she had lost another person-- first her mother, and then her sister, and now her father. It was knowing that now, Alejandra Valverde had nobody-- she was completely, utterly, terribly alone in the world.

 

Nobody but her aunt. Her father's sister. The enemy. The traitor. The person who had in the span of five minutes torn down every certainty, every conviction, every reality she had ever known.

She was all she had.

 

Perhaps that was why, as Isabel turned again to leave, already halfway to the door of the clinic, Alejandra reached out to her one last time in desperation. "Wait, I--" She needed somebody, even if it was the hard-hearted soldier who turned once again at her beck, expression cold and motionless. And she also needed to be assured that she wouldn't lose even more.

 

"Tell me-- tell me that..." The little girl swallowed anxiously, her mouth quivering in fear and in lamentation, and finally, desperately finished, "Tell me that the war won't come back here again. That I won't see any more of it ever again."

Alejandra knew she must have imagined the minute shift in her aunt's expression as she registered the plea-- as much as she must have imagined how Isabel herself swallowed as if in uncertainty, something Alejandra had never seen in the woman. And then, it was gone. "No," Isabel returned shortly and finally. "I will not." And then she turned away one last time, with no intention of turning back.

 

She could not and would not make a promise that she knew would be reduced to rubble time and time again before the year was out. She would not tell Alejandra Valverde that her experience with the horrors of war was over when they both knew it was anything but.

Edited by dotCom
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Sanguine red against cobalt blue-- two legions in battle, locked in a bitter war of attrition from which only one could emerge the victor, the other to suffer the indignity of defeat, the humiliation of being proven inferior-- to say nothing of the casualties. It was in the eyes of each warrior at the scene of the carnage: neither was willing to offer quarter any more than the other was willing to accept it. This was to the death-- in the name of pride, in the name of honour, in the name of dignity, they fought, knowing not whether they would see the rising of the sun over the horizon come the next morning.

 

In other words, it was your average game of youth football on a lazy Saturday Paráense afternoon.

 

Isabel observed the course of the skirmish closely, acutely aware that the eyes of the spectators spent more time trained on her than they did on the game their children were playing-- but it was to be expected, really. South America had known peace only four years now; the war, the faces and names associated with it, was a fresh wound in the collective consciousness of the continent. Isabel felt no doubt that the time would be long in the coming before she could step foot in public without suffering at the very least the unwelcoming gawking of the masses, but for the moment, she could pretend that inconvenience was of no consequence to her. After all, General Vieira was a busy woman; directing the military campaigns of the rebels had given way to directing the recuperation, the recovery, the rebirth of an entire continent. But she had the time to come and watch her niece play a game of football, for just one moment before the world found yet another thing to tear her away from home and family in order to attend to the vagaries of continental politics: she'd be damned if she was going to let herself fall prey to the distraction of prying eyes, or a particularly... let's say loquacious colleague.

 

Actually, fuck that. Let's say chattier than a goddamn telemarketer. Oh well, Isabel reasoned, as she heard her colleague speak up yet again: there was a reason to this day she enjoyed Fernanda Kaneda's company despite her irksomely friendly inclinations, after all. She wasn't sure what it was, but she assumed it existed.

 

"I gotta say, your kid's a hell of a player, Izzie," the admiral remarked, her eyes tracing along after one particular figure in red as it sprinted up the length of the pitch, the ball close in tow. Alejandra was every bit as conspicuous amongst the players on the field as Isabel, fairly detached though she may have been from the bulk of them, was amongst the throngs of people gathered on either side of the pitch, some seated in plastic or fold-out chairs brought along for the occasion and others merely standing (it was a middle school football game in the wake of reconstruction, for fuck sake, they didn't exactly have a stadium at their disposal). She had not been a particularly imposing child, no more than her father had been a particularly imposing adult, but Isabel was fond of joking with an acidic mordancy that after she had more or less adopted the orphaned child, Alejandra had begun to absorb some of her own stature. She was head and shoulders over the other players in the pitch, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, and it was perhaps that presence that had endowed her with such an aggressive playing style. "My niece," Isabel corrected as Alejandra sent the ball rocketing into the cobalt-clothed team's goal with a violent kick, before shrugging and adding, "I guess she's alright. I don't know the damnedest thing about football, since you know I don't really give a shit about it, so I just assume whoever can kick the ball the hardest is probably the best player." Alejandra, far down the field, turned and looked off at Isabel, a wide-brimming grin splitting her callow features, and Isabel returned the expression unabashedly with a call of "Good shot!"

"Don't really give a shit about football?" Kaneda's voice took on a sardonic hint of admonishment. "Best watch yourself there, general. You may be a hero to these people, but the vaguest hint of a slight against the almighty institution of football and any self-respecting Brazilian won't hesitate to have your head for it. But this..." She nodded her head over toward where cheering teammates, their jubilance in the wake of their latest goal mingling with the applause of spectating parents and guardians, massed around Alejandra. "This is talent right here. The religiously zealous football fan in me would weep if she were not planning to make a career out of this."

Isabel snorted. "Weep away. The stupid little runt plans on becoming a goddamn soldier."

 

She had not meant the words to come out so bitter, so... so, for lack of a better word, disgusted, but she found she had worn her vehemence just a little too openly than she should have. And of course, far be it for Kaneda to fail to notice, much less neglect to breach the subject. "You disagree with her intentions?"

"Hey, you mind?" Isabel grunted, gesturing with a lackadaisical wave of her hand toward the pitch. "I'm tryin' to watch this shit, not have a fuckin' heart to heart with a sailor who loves to hear herself talk." The venom in her words seemed to suffice in quelling Kaneda's curiosity, but the admiral had done the damage-- now Isabel couldn't disentangle herself from the brambles of that bitterness, couldn't just drop a subject that had come up time and time again between herself and Alejandra only to result in resentment and recrimination on both their parts. Normally, when that happened, Isabel had avenues of dispelling all that pent-up frustration with her niece and her professed choice of career: lift some weights, beat the ever-loving shit out of a punching bag, do something generally violent and physically intense. Unfortunately, short of charging into the field and murdering every middle schooler present, she really didn't have any such option available (though she also couldn't say the fantasy wasn't just a little invigorating-- look, they're middle schoolers, and all middle schoolers are basically mini Hitlers, so they've probably got it coming anyway). Her sole option was off-loading all that discontent on Kaneda-- which, shit, Kaneda had probably been planning from the very beginning. And she laments that Alejandra's opting for the wrong career, the general scoffed. Fuckin' sailor shoulda been a psychologist or some shit.

 

With something between a sigh and a grumble of irritation, Isabel turned her head to her colleague, and then tried to convince herself she had only imagined that vague, fleeting hint of triumph to that irksomely beatific little half-smile that appeared to be all but congenital to Kaneda's features. "Of course I disagree with her intentions," she growled in a low voice. "I became a soldier because I had no other option. And I remained a soldier even after had other options. because it was all I knew. But she does have options. She doesn't need to do that to herself."

Kaneda's smile took on a certain ruminative quality, and when she spoke, it was slowly, deliberately. "Perhaps," she answered, in the sort of voice that one supposed a zookeeper might use toward a lion whose patience is already long since withered. "She wants to become a soldier for the same reason you remain one."
 

Isabel's brow knotted. "Elabourate," she grunted. Kaneda merely shrugged her shoulders, and Isabel expected a flippant answer, in the admiral's typical manner. But she saw Kaneda's smile diminish just a little bit, take on a hint of sad reminiscence, and when she spoke, her voice was soft and stripped of its omnipresent gaiety. "We were poor, disenfranchised kids," she murmured. "We had no money, no education, no prospects, nowhere to go-- the military was our only way out. But we didn't grow up in war. We didn't know war until long since after we'd made a career out of the military and war became all we know. But she..." Kaneda nodded toward the field, and Isabel diverted her gaze to see Alejandra mid-play, violently shouldering a cobalt player out of her way in her ruthless drive to the objective. "It's already all she knows. It's planted that same seed in her soul. Why do you think she gravitates towards aggressive activities like competitive sports and martial arts?"

 

"Don't be ridiculous," Isabel dismissed the contention with a scowl. "She's a fuckin' kid. Of course she likes that sort of thing." Her gaze narrowed on Alejandra as her niece aimed a kick at the enemy goalpost that fired off with the force of a gunshot. "War took everything from her. It makes no sense that she would want to make a living out of it."

 

"But it did give her something good even after everything it had taken," Kaneda pointed out. "It gave her you. Just like it gave you her."

"I'm sure she'd rather have kept her parents than have gotten me," Isabel fired back sardonically, but Kaneda merely smiled again. "You don't think she's happier with you than she was before? And that you aren't happier with her than you were before?"

Isabel crossed her arms across her broad chest, as though hoping to shield herself from the onslaught of Kaneda's discerning conversation. Nevertheless, she found herself offering a sincere answer-- something she had not even really permitted herself on the rare occasion that she felt comfortable even considering the subject at all. She shot another glance toward Kaneda, and the admiral's features softened sympathetically. They had known one another since they'd been children, ever since ten year old Kaneda had moved from the Brazilian coast to the slumland of São Paulo-- and in that cutthroat environment of dust and blood, she and Isabel had met. Isabel's recollections of those days were etched into the very scars that lined the rough-hewn contours of her mien-- jagged, faded lines that recalled days of dust and dirt, faces in monochrome and voices faint and gnarled as the voice of God itself these days seemed. She had clung to the urge to rise and pull herself out of the muck then, but she had little of that vehemence left in her now-- she had now, recalling those years, only a silent, timeless wistfulness. A quiet reminiscence-- something contemplative, something not absent of melancholy, something almost forlorn. It was a coarse anamnesis. It was a bitter regret. It was months becoming years, and years becoming eternities. It was faces pressed against a chain link fence between now and the shade of yesterday, cast by blushing leaves swaying in the breeze-- torn between was and is, begging the same old questions.

 

From one's self. Only from one's self... Only for yourself. Everything was different now, of course, but in the end... nothing seemed to change, and only Kaneda had been there to see it all for herself.

 

As people to dump all her woes and issues on went, she supposed she could have done worse than Fernanda.

 

"She's got nobody and I've got nobody," Isabel answered quietly. "When I first took her in... she didn't trust me. I think she even hated me a little bit-- not because I was supposed to be the enemy, but because like every other adult in her life, I was never really there. It's taken me this long to tear down that precedent, and now..." A vague shadow of a smile, unsullied by sarcasm or wryness, tugged at the corners of her lips. "Now, after I come back home after a month of the same old mind-numbingly dull logistics and business around the continent, she's right at the door waiting with dinner ready and all sorts of stories to tell me about what happened while I was gone. Hell, she even asks me to tell her about all the boring shit I did while I was gone, even though I know none of it makes the damnedest whit of sense to her. And I never see her happier than when she knows I'm gonna be able to watch one of her games."

"To be honest, Izzie," Kaneda couldn't help but interject, any more than she could help the warmth of the grin on her face. "I don't think I ever see you happier than when you know you're gonna be able to watch one of her games, either."

 

"Why would it be any other way? I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to see that smile she wears after every goal if you paid me for it."

"And it's perfectly natural that you would find yourself unable to even consider the idea that someday, you might not see that smile any more."

Isabel glanced back at Kaneda, eyebrow raised and smile fading. "The hell do you mean?"

Kaneda shrugged her shoulders. "Y'know, for somebody who lambasts me about overcomplicating things, you sure do love to do just that. I mean, you love the kid more than even you realise, it's obvious. And I think in the end the real reason you hate the idea of her becoming a soldier isn't just that you find your own profession despicable, or that you feel she is indignifying herself in practising the trade that took so much from her-- it's that you simply can't stand the idea that someday she will have to leave you."

 

Isabel frowned, and more than a little of that old acid returned to her voice as she retorted, "Well, thanks for the free psychoanalysis, Freud. Next you'll be tellin' me my decision to become a soldier was actually a result of a deep-seated sexual desire for my own mother or some shit." Kaneda merely chuckled. "I'll also have to determine where your nigh-obsessive need to change the subject whenever it gets personal comes from, and whether it's hereditary. Really though..." Her eyes lost just a hint of their light-heartedness. "You'll have to let go of her someday. The fact you find it so difficult, though... that's what makes you a better parent than you realise you are."

 

But the final whistle had already begun to ring out by the time Kaneda's words drew to a close-- sanguine had emerged victorious once again, and the kids, Alejandra prime amongst them, coagulated into one another in a heap of joy and success before clambering back up to their cleat-clad feet and hurtling off towards pride-filled guardians. Alejandra came sprinting off at Isabel, and the general found herself reflecting the very same smile etched across the kid's features-- she could share this joy, even if she knew better than to call herself any sort of parent to Alejandra, much less a good one.

 

She would not indignify Alejandra by calling herself her parent when she had been the one to pull the trigger that had orphaned her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"... and he's always nitpicking every little thing I do to take points off! If I misplace a single comma, I get a whole grade taken off-- and god forbid I'm writing a literary assessment and accidentally spell someone's name wrong. Next thing I know I'm in this @$#hole's office getting a lecture about how I'm everything that's wrong with modern literature."

"This is Mr. Roussef, right?" Isabel returned absent-mindedly as she set her plate down on the dinner table, Alejandra close in tow toting along her own. They bore with them as they emerged from the backyard of Isabel's home the scent of the grill, as well as of the food in their hands-- steak marinated in a rich sauce of parsley, garlic, peppers, and red wine vinegar. Alejandra had many reasons to enjoy living with her aunt, but she'd have been lying if she'd said her cooking was not high on the list. "The teacher you tried to start a petition to fire because 'his massive nose is intensely distracting and is not conducive to an appropriate academic environment'?"

 

"... well, it's a pretty grotesquely huge nose," Alejandra grumbled as she walked to the other side of the small circular dining room table and set her plate down on the table mat there. "I mean, you've never had to sit in a class for an hour and a half trying to take a test with that abomination right there in front of you." She gave a theatrical little shudder, not unlike a soldier recalling the horrors of the battlefield, eliciting a hearty laugh from Isabel as she set down the assorted cutlery, as well as a glass of water for Alejandra and a beer for herself, and took her seat. "As long as you're doin' well and bringin' home good marks, that's what's important," Isabel replied, watching Alejandra take her seat as well before she leaned forward almost dangerously. "And you are bringing home good marks, I expect."
 

"Of course!" Alejandra declared, utterly unfased as she began cutting into her steak. "Just yesterday I got a ten on one of my maths exams. I can even show it to you after dinner if you don't believe me."

"No no, I believe you," Isabel said with a smile, leaning back in her seat. "Well done. I'm glad that attempting to keep your grades up so you can apply for the Youth Army Reserve is doing you some good."

 

All of a sudden, Alejandra was very much fased. She damn near choked on her cut of steak, and had to grab her cup of water and down its contents just so she could sputter a baffled, "Wh-- you-- how-- ?"

"Believe it or not, Alejandra, I am not that much of an idiot." Isabel made a show of pausing to calmly dig her fork into her steak, saw off a modest bite of beef, and place it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully, before she finished, "Out of nowhere, you're suddenly deeply vested in earning at least 8s in all your classes, you practised day in and day out until you could manage a sub-three minute thousand meter run, and I'm pretty sure I caught you trying on berets one time-- and by the way, you might as well not bother, 'cause I had to wear one of those Youth Army Reserve berets when I was a kid too and believe me you're gonna look goofy as hell in it no matter what you do."

 

"So--" Alejandra stared at her with eyes reddened from nearly choking to death on steak just a moment prior, before hesitantly venturing, "... you're not mad at me, are you?"

 

Isabel shrugged her broad shoulders, setting her fork and knife down for a moment and meeting her niece's uncertain gaze with a calculatedly dispassionate one. "I am a little bit, really-- but looking at it rationally, I didn't offer you much choice except to keep it secret from me. This is an issue we've butted heads over for quite a while now, after all."

 

Alejandra's gaze took on a sceptical tinge. "You're not just gonna say no and then tell me to go do yardwork and go to bed without dinner if I argue?"

 

"The yard looks pretty nice as it is, though if you'd like to go make it look nicer I certainly won't dispute that choice."

"Not the point!" Alejandra fired back, though she couldn't help a quirk at the corners of her lips. But Isabel had already decided to get serious again, and she leaned forward towards her niece. "I do not want you to be a soldier," she told her flatly. Alejandra opened her mouth to speak up, but Isabel merely shook her head. "Listen to me and then I'll listen to you. I do not want you to be a soldier. But I've been... imposing my will against your own, without hearing you out, and that's not right of me, as your... as your guardian, to do."

Alejandra raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. "What brought upon this change of heart?"

"Talkin' with a childhood friend about old times tends to put you in the right place for thinkin' of things from another perspective," Isabel mused. "And yeah, sure-- I wasn't lyin' when I said I don't want you to go into the military because I feel you won't be happy there, or because I feel you can do better things. In the end, above all, I like havin' you here, Alejandra. I like comin' back home after who knows how many weeks in Colombia slummin' it in administration duties to find you there with a hot meal and stories about everything I missed at the ready. I like offering to help you with your homework when I can tell you're strugglin' and hearin' you proudly retort that you don't need it, only to have you come back to me grumblin' about how mathematics is out to get you. Hell, I even like hearin' you complain about your teacher's big nose. You've grown into an intelligent, strong kid, and you're clearly going to grow into an intelligent, strong woman. And, well, it's tough to come to terms with the fact that I will have to let you go someday, sooner or later. But I also gotta understand that it's not just my happiness we're talkin' about here. Your happiness is pretty damn important too, and I've been neglectin' that. So now that you've heard me out... I wanna hear you out."

Alejandra gawked. "Did all that actually just come outta your mouth?" she breathed, as though half certain Isabel would respond with 'actually no it didn't, I'm actually from an alien race that intends to enslave the entire human population by taking control of uptight aunts and listening to the concerns of their teenaged nieces, so anyway as you were saying'. Bafflingly enough, Isabel didn't respond with that. She merely smiled, and added, "But make no mistake-- I'm still unequivocally against you throwin' your life into the hands of the military. I just want to hear you tell me exactly why it is you want to do that." Alejandra began to answer, and Isabel quickly interjected, "And no bull$@#!. I'm givin' you honesty, so I expect honesty in return. Try 'n get any shit over me and I will have you out doin' yardwork every day 'til you're of age. Understand?"

 

Alejandra was quick to nod in understanding. "No bull$@#!," she confirmed, before launching immediately into a decisive explanation. "I admire you, Isabel. I admire your strength-- physical and moral-- I admire your firmness, and I admire your discipline. I want to... I want to be somebody like you when I'm older-- somebody you can be proud of, somebody you can be happy to call your child. And if that means enlisting in the military, starting straight from the Youth Reserve... then that's what I'm gonna do."

She met her aunt's gaze firmly and uncompromisingly. Isabel scratched at her chin, reached for her beer, took a quick gulp, set it down, and grunted, "Go do yardwork."

 

"What?" Alejandra blurted out. "But-- that was honesty!"

"Of a very superficial sort. It's the truth, but only the bare surface of it. I'm askin' you to buff my car and you're comin' at it with a wet paper towel and tryin' to pass it off as the same thing. So go do yardwork."

 

Disappointed but to be frank on the whole unsurprised, Isabel returned to her food, expecting to see Alejandra in her peripherals standing up from the table and trudging off to do as she'd been told. Instead...

"Look."

Isabel glanced back up, but Alejandra's eyes were downcast, refusing to meet hers. She chewed away that last bite, swallowed, and in her silence conveyed her open ear.

"I... " Alejandra's voice was uncharacteristically anxious. "Even now, when I go to bed and close my eyes, it's all I see. Things I haven't seen with my actual eyes since the war ended. Buildings burning, homes collapsing, bodies in the streets, soldiers marching in armour and gas masks... It's all still there. And I still can't make sense of it. I can't understand why people would do that to each other. When I'm on the football field playing a game, or when I'm in the ring sparring with somebody, I feel like I can... well, not that I can understand it. But that it doesn't matter. That I can just bury those memories in raw energy, that I can channel it all into aggression and let it out that way."

She fell silent, and Isabel waited for her to speak up-- but it seemed she was wrestling with herself to try and put her own thoughts in order. What could Isabel really say at that moment anyway? She had feared exactly this: that Alejandra would tell her that the root of her professed intentions lay in the traumas of the past, in precisely the things that Isabel... could not fix. How could she? She had not emerged from the war unscathed either-- nobody had-- but... well, she was a soldier. She knew how to destroy another human being, knew it down to a science, and she knew how to lead human beings into destroying other human beings-- hell, she even knew a thing or two of first aid-- but of healing a human being's emotional wounds she knew not the first thing.

 

"... and the military?" she asked, forcing the harsh rasp of her voice into something approaching tenderness. "Where does that come into it?"

 

"Because that isn't enough. It's not enough to just submerge it all in the intense reality of a spar or a football game-- not enough to try and eject it all through physical force. I just..." She bit her lip, and raised her gaze at last to meet Isabel's, revealing hard-set, tearless eyes and the firm line of her mouth. "I need to know that when I lay there choking on poison gas, watching a soldier in a gas mask point their gun at me with intent to kill... that I wasn't seeing the true face of humanity that day."

 

 

 

 

 

 

The evening had come creeping inch by inch, minute by minute, into the early hours of the night, and overhead, the stars had already emerged from the thick veil of blackness. This was a sight Isabel often missed: off in the sprawling industrial powerhouses to the west and the south-- Medellin, São Paulo, the like-- one's purview of the stars had long since been snatched away by pollution, by the dense shroud of human muck that lingered in the sky between her eyes and beyond. Back home in Pará, though... well, Pará had always been the Holy American Empire's backyard, a quiet little sanctum far removed from the urban sprawl that characterised much of the rest of the continent, and though that had deprived it of many of the comforts afforded to the upper crust of Imperial society elsewhere... well, at least they had retained this.

 

She turned her gaze down from the sky, and took another drag of the cigarette in one hand, bottle of beer in the other-- her select vices for tonight. She sat out on the steps to the porch of her home (she'd often considered getting a chair out there, but refused on the principle that goddammit she wasn't at that 'chair out on the front porch' age yet), and thought of her niece, back in the house, holed up in her room. Perhaps she was doing homework, or listening to music-- or maybe, just like Isabel (although without the cigarettes and alcohol if she knew what was good for her, you could be damn sure), she was simply thinking. Reflecting. Introspectin'. That kinda shit.

 

They had agreed that Alejandra would seek the help that Isabel, as grudging as she was to admit it, simply could not offer her-- all she could do was be there for the kid, something she hadn't been for the first nine years of Alejandra's life. And if she pursued therapy, then... then, Isabel had forced herself to allow, she could apply for the Youth Army Reserve: Isabel would sign off on it herself. In a sense, she was hoping the therapy would disavow Alejandra of any urge to throw her lot in with the military, but even if it didn't... well, so long as the kid didn't take those images of death and devastation with her to her grave, then it would be enough for Isabel.

 

She won't bear that cross all her life, the general vowed-- a silent compact between two soldiers, one present, the other long gone. Not the way we did.

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It was never going to be easy.

 

Alejandra had to remind herself of that as she took in yet another weary breath. She felt as though in the past month, a dozen years had come to rest squarely upon her shoulders; she felt the weight of every one, illusory though it may have been, in her bones, in her muscles, in her joints, in her very soul. She hadn't slept a minute in almost a week, and it showed as much in the dark rings that laid siege to the well-worn brown of her eyes as in the burdensome nature of her motions. Even as she walked, navigating each winding, twisted hall of the Capital Building in Amazonia, headed for the exit from the seat of Para's government, it was as though weights had been slung to each of her arms and legs, and all the sinewy muscle of her limbs could not prevent the hint of sluggishness in her movements. These were not weights she could overcome simply by carrying them until her muscles had adapted to them.

 

But this responsibility... it was never going to be easy leading an entire nation. And it was never going to be easy to choose between what she knew to be right and what would have been simpler. And it was not a decision she had ever thought she would have to make-- not with the lives of her country and her people resting upon the outcome-- not when she had first come to newly independent Para, when Isabel, the venerated leader of a newborn nation, had summoned her into that nation's service. It had been years since they had seen each other at the time: Alejandra had been twenty nine at the time, a soldier in the Lunar Republic's service, one of many who had chosen to remain behind in South America after the Republic's leadership and the bulk of its citizenship made the decision to migrate into space. She'd missed her aunt in that interval, lamented that she had little opportunity between the logistics of the migration and, before that, the war with the Commonwealth-- but Isabel had had more than enough on her own plate, what with the business of carving out an independent nation from of a wartorn continent. Their reunion had been a happy one-- a loving one. On that day, when Isabel herself had come to collect Alejandra from the airport, they had set business and official affairs aside for another day, and instead wiled away the evening out in the countryside, catching up on the time since they'd last met. Less a matter of a soldier swearing their service to their premier, and more of a child returning to the embrace of the woman who had took her in and raised her as her own.

 

That was the way it had been. That was the way it should have been. It shouldn't have been this. Alejandra should not have been forcing herself to go and see her troops bring her aunt-- Isabel Vieira, the premier of this nation they had both willingly surrendered so much of themselves to chisel and hack out of the war and ruin of South America's sordid past-- back to her in handcuffs.

 

But that was the responsibility she had found upon her shoulders, and if she had to bear it, then... then so be it; Alejandra had learned to value what was right over what would be easy, over what would have made her happier. Isabel herself had taught her that, and now she knew the fruits of her efforts. There was this last door now between herself and something she would never be able to forgive herself for seeing, and she knew better than to try and fool herself into thinking she could make it all go away by simply turning around and never opening that door. There was no hesitation in her motions as she reached her hand out, no sweat left in her palms as her fingers wrapped around the cold metal of the handle, no uncertainty as she twisted it, and then, slowly, mechanically, extended her arm, the door swinging open along with it.

 

Soldiers lined either side of the steps leading up to the building; jet fighters shrieked through the air overhead, their characteristic hell-scream periodically overwhelming the constant rumble of helicopters in the air and tanks grinding through the streets of the capital city. And further down the steps, massed in vast throngs that seemed to devour up the once vibrant roadway that cut through the heart of Amazonia, division upon division of troops were marching in formation, an army religiously preparing for the war nobody had declared but everybody knew in their very bones was impending.

 

With all that surrounded Alejandra on all sides, she may have been forgiven for in the very first heartbeat failing to see what was right before her eyes, but she never could have missed the sight of her aunt, surrounded and led by armed soldiers, hands cuffed behind her back, the hard contours of her face drawn back into an expression of callous, silent, vehement dignity. And Isabel did not fail to notice when Alejandra emerged at last from the sanctity of the Capital Building. Their eyes met, and Alejandra suppressed the wave of nausea that immediately wracked at her guts. It was hard to see what she knew she had to see in those eyes-- a traitor, a liar, an enemy. She kept seeing that tired but genuine smile that had graced her aunt's face every time she scored the game's winning goal and turned to find Isabel among the spectators-- kept seeing somebody she had learned was not a traitor, not an enemy, somebody she respected, somebody she loved-- flashes, spurts, memories of a weary old soldier who had struggled to save a child from the ravenous flames of war, and all its agony, and all its trauma.

 

Struggled, and failed.

 

She swallowed, and forced her gaze to remain steady and unremitting as the soldiers led Isabel up the steps and to her. Her aunt returned the gaze coldly, head held high and silent; she could have spoken first, could have spat all her anger and betrayal and hurt into Alejandra's face, but she would not indignify herself so. Not before these soldiers, not before her niece, and not before herself. Alejandra would have to speak first, and she did. "Premier--" Her voice wavered and stumbled on the first word, and she cleared her throat, forcing herself into composure anew. "Premier Vieira. You have been placed under arrest for acting in defiance of the principles upon which this nation was founded."

 

Alejandra almost felt she imagined the vague hint of an upturn at her aunt's lips-- the shadow of a cruel smirk. An alien expression, alien to her, and not absent a wisp of deeply buried hurt. "When I founded this nation," she answered icily, a sense of proud fatalism clinging to every word. "My sole vow was that I would do what it took to keep its people safe. Will you now tell me I have failed-- you who would place your own flesh and blood in handcuffs knowing the turmoil you are welcoming upon this nation in doing so?"

 

In spite of herself, Alejandra found herself returning the words-- felt her lips moving as though some foreign impulse had compelled them, her own voice emerging from her throat as though at the beck of another. "You are not the person you were when you built this nation with your own two hands. You've made yourself out as a deity to these people-- deliberately encouraged them to see you as such, as a figure of legend and myth. You changed, Isabel. You came to believe you knew better than anybody what was good for these people-- and from there... it was easy to believe it was just, it was moral for you to claim absolute power in pursuit of that. And you saw to it that when you did that, the people would simply hand it over to you on a silver platter."

 

Something shifted in Isabel's expression-- but it was not a motion Alejandra could recognise. "Every individual has their own personal moral arbiter-- be it God, be it science, be it a mere human of flesh and blood. A nation lacking that accomplishes nothing-- it remains static, mired in its own indecision and uncertainty. I gave this nation certainty and strength in that certainty. And if I must present myself as a figure beyond flesh, beyond reproach, beyond question, in order to guarantee that certainty and strength, then I will."

Alejandra's jaw set firmly. The face before her seemed to grow in every passing second and with every word, borne upon that same old smoke-tarred rasp of a voice, as alien as it was terribly, achingly, piercingly familiar. "Nobody-- human or god-- should think themselves above morality and reality," she all but whispered, finding each word almost harrowing to speak. "The last time our people learned that, civil war rocked the entirety of the continent, and I... I lost everything I had. Everything but you. And now, thirty years later, you are taking that from me as well."

 

She could not help the sorrow in her voice, nor the pain in her eyes, the anguish that for just a flicker of a second, the blink of an eye or the beating of a weary heart, she imagined she saw reflected in her aunt's face. But it was gone just as quickly as it had become, and that face became something unfamiliar once again, and Alejandra knew better than to entertain the far-flung hope that perhaps this would all be settled now, that things could change, that things could be right. She forced herself to turn away, from Isabel, from the soldiers, from the capital city of a nation on the verge of violent, vehement civil war, and walked away.

 

It was never going to be easy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dilapidation and ruin-- that was all that remained, here and throughout Para. But the war had not come here; its decay owed not to war, to the march of soldiers' boots trampling soil and root and tanks' treads crushing flowers beneath their unremitting rhythm, but to the ceaseless assault of time, to the one army whose advance could never be impeded. And Alejandra had seen no dearth of devastation in the past year, since the war had ignited and the whole of the nation had gone up in flames-- but somehow, this was... this was hardest of all to see.

She reached a hand out and placed it against the chipped wood of the door, the paint long since peeled and shredded, and remembered days that she would come sprinting up these steps after suffering through another day of slaving away at marks and papers, come bursting through this door and into her room to grab her cleats and a ball so she could go meet some of the kids from school out on the football field for a skirmish. Those kids were gone now-- if they were still alive, then they were Alejandra's age now, somewhere that was not here, perhaps fighting in the war-- her war. It was strange to think, in a detached sense that even Alejandra found unsettling, that children she had once played mock war against on the pitch were now out on the battlefield dying in a conflict she herself had brought about.

 

But... it couldn't have been avoided. Not the conflict and not the deaths that had followed.

 

Her hand slid down along the splintered surface of the wood, down to the doorknob, and the door gave a wearied groan as she twisted it open, like an aging soldier being called back into service after years of rest. She felt a cough hacking up from her throat almost immediately-- the air was thick with dust let loose by the breeze admitted through the open door. She choked it down, however, and stepped forward, the floor of the porch beneath her boots creaking as she stepped into the house of her childhood. It had been ten years since this house, as with the rest of the neighbourhood, had seen any habitation: in that time, everybody here had migrated into the cities, rural citizens becoming urban workers as the nation of Para industrialised and became an urban centre for the entire continent. That decade-long lack of life showed: it showed in the state of disrepair she saw here, in the emptiness and the void left behind by valued items long since removed from it and placed in what had then been Isabel's new residence in the capital building, in the cobwebs and the dust and the sigh of the breeze through the doorway. The living room, the little corridors that led off into the bedroom, into the kitchen, into Isabel's old study-- the one Alex had never been allowed into, though that had really sufficed little in preventing her from finding her way into it one way or another anyhow-- all of it decrepit, dust-coated, withered.

 

It's a hell of a sad sight...

 

"... ain't it."

 

Alejandra hadn't realised another voice had finished her thought, had spoken her thought aloud, until it was too late-- she wheeled around, only to feel an impact like an eighteen-wheeler slamming into her at full speed. The instincts of a soldier took hold immediately, without thought or device, and she recovered instantly from the disorienting blow, stepping back into a defensive posture and raising her hands to face her assailant.

 

Isabel had changed since she had escaped one year ago, since the Paraense armed forces had fractured along lines of personal loyalty and half of the army, its veterans, those who had fought alongside and under her during the Holy American War, had defected and sworn their fealty to the premier. Her hair had gone grey, the lines laying siege to her eyes and her thin lips had grown deeper-- but her stature seemed now in this moment greater, mightier, more insurmountably titanic than she ever had seemed to Alejandra in her youth when she had idolised and admired her. She seemed as much a figure of deific authority as she appeared the very image of deterioration.

 

And the bitterness in the thin line of her mouth and the weary vehemence in her eyes minced no meat about what she now saw when she looked at Alejandra.

 

"I suspected you would come back," she rasped, each word emerging from the pit of her mouth like a cadaverous breath from a freshly exhumed casket, the cold black of her eyes binding Alejandra's gaze to her own. "Neither of us can disentangle herself from her yesterdays, can we?"

 

Alejandra's lips pulled taut and cold. "We are not alike," she spat-- but the hatred and the vitriol of those four words was not enough. It seized control of her impulses, of her nerves and her thoughts, and launched her forward, springing at Isabel on the toe of her boot in an attack at once violently uncontrolled and calculatedly precise. Her aunt deflected her outstretched fist with her forearm, and returned the gesture in kind, aiming a second blow to Alejandra's face. But she would not be caught off guard this time; she grabbed Isabel's arm, and wrenched it into her grip behind Isabel's back, attempting to wrestle the larger woman into submission. Isabel shook off each attempt as though Alejandra were a child tugging at the fur of a bear, and in a single fluid motion bent over and hurled her niece over her back, slamming her into the floor.

"You hate what you are because you know you will always see my ghost over your shoulder-- because you will always take comfort in that," Isabel growled, leering over the former executor of Para with her hands clenched around her collar. Alejandra tore those hands from her shirt and forced her aunt off of her, scrambling back up to her feet and hurling herself at her again. "I will never be the thing you've become!" she snarled, throwing one punch, and then another, and then a third; Isabel deflected the first and the second, but the third caught her in her gut, and she narrowly averted the impulse to bowl over. Alejandra did not relent in her assault, and brought her knee to bear in a devastating blow to Isabel's midsection, sending the aging premier staggering back into the wall. She attempted to follow up on the blow, but Isabel was quick to recover, and surged forward, slamming her shoulder into Alejandra in a motion that forced the younger soldier into the defensive as they continued to trade vicious blows.

 

"Don't do us both the mockery of pretending this animosity has anything to do with anything that's happened in the past ten years." Her words were delivered in as guttural a rasp as ever, but the sentiment behind them was cold, calm, composed-- as placid as the waters of an old, forlorn creek. "You did not tear apart all that I destroyed myself to create, ruin the nation that I gave myself heart and soul to, for any !@#$%^&* about what I 'became'." There should have been hatred in each word-- she would have been right to inject every syllable with the fury and the heartache she felt for the person who had betrayed her, who had ripped up thirty years of faith and trust and security and left it to scatter meaninglessly in the wind-- but there was none. Not for the woman, the child, who had wrenched her right back into the years of the Holy American War, when she herself, when they had both, lost more than could be said in mere words or in mere violence.

 

"Well then," Alejandra spat back in her aunt's face as she weaved to the side to avoid an incoming blow and then grabbed the second, planting each foot down against the floor firmly and standing her ground as they grappled against one another. "Perhaps you'd like to explain my own motives to me? Or why you're so damn convinced of your own omniscience?"

"Because..." With a single wrenching motion of unexpected strength, Isabel broke the grapple down, shattered it, and brought Alejandra down to the ground, following her in turn. Alejandra lay there for just the briefest flash of a second, gazing up at her aunt, towering over her, just before the first blow came crashing down and battered in the bridge of her nose. "I do know you better than you do." A second; blood came spurting from Alejandra's demolished nose. "Because I knew you from the very day you were just a scared little child clinging to me for lack of anybody else to cling to..." Again and again-- Alejandra's vision went blank, her face numbing itself frantically to the onslaught of each fist it took, and all she could do was hear each word slam into her harder than the blows could ever have aspired to. "Because I raised you from that scared little kid into the soldier you became." Alejandra felt her consciousness beginning to fracture and fragment beneath the assault, felt herself beginning to fade blow by blow. "And I know that in the end, you never truly forgave me for letting you become a soldier... for letting you lose again and again... for letting you die again and again..."

Alejandra felt Isabel's immensity lift from her torso as she stood, felt hands, stronger than the sixty years that she knew were weighing at them, lift her up from the floor, until her boots were hanging in the air and she could feel her aunt's breath against her face as she spoke the final, gut-wrenching blow.

 

"And you failed to realise that I never forgave myself for it, either."

 

And Isabel brought her forehead down against where the smouldering ruins of Alejandra's nose sat stark against the brutalised carcass of her face, and for a moment, Alejandra felt everything around her vanish, the hands around her collar, the floor that cradled her body as Isabel let it fall to the ground, the dust that yet hung in the air and the blood that coated her hands and stung in her eyes before that sensation also went numb.

 

She was going to die-- for the last time, at last. She was dead. She had lost. The finality of it gave her just the vaguest trace of satisfaction, if there was even such a thing left for her to feel, if she wasn't already too dead to experience that, even as she felt herself plummeting down, sinking into herself, vanishing at last--

 

But she wasn't dead. She was being dragged back up, felt sensation beginning to return to her-- at first, the sound of her own heartbeat, sluggish and exhausted and yet unquestionable in its tenacity, and then the cold floor beneath her, and then the agony that devoured up every nerve in her body as each one emerged from its delve into the insensate, the inorganic, into death. And then, the sounds of the world around her-- at first an absolute stillness, a silence so much more real than that of a final demise, and then, "Are you still breathing?"
 

Alejandra blinked the blood from her eyes, the sightless black slowly succumbing to reality-- a sanguine-tinged blur that became the ceiling of her home-- of a home, of whatever broken husk remained of a home. She struggled to lift her head from the floor, but she couldn't budge a muscle-- she was too weak, too exhausted, too sick of it all. And she didn't have to: she felt the same hands that had lifted her into the air and then dropped her corpse back down to the ground seize upon her again, but she didn't leave the ground as her aunt dragged her over to the far wall of the house. She felt Isabel pull her up into a sitting position, felt her prop her up against the wall and kneel on one knee before her, and then blinked as Isabel's face came into focus in front of her eyes.

 

She tried to say something, something even she didn't understand, but could offer up only heaving breaths, breaths that clung to newfound life with the desperation of a newborn child.

 

There was a blankness, a lack, a silence etched into the contours of Isabel's mien-- it was difficult to see, difficult to even try seeing what may have lain behind that emptiness. But when she spoke, her voice bore with it the thread of regret that Alejandra couldn't see in her eyes-- the culmination of thirty years of love, trust, betrayal, and wretched hate. "Every soldier," she almost seemed to whisper. "has a battle that they will never win-- their own personal war, one they will lose, time and time again, until they learn it's no longer worth bothering to try and fight it. And if we are but two soldiers who cannot stop fighting the wars of days nobody but us remembers, then I will not stand to let an entire nation suffer for it. A soldier should fight her own wars."

 

"I--" Alejandra struggled to force the syllable out of her lips, but the rest of it was devoured by the blood and the bile in her throat. It didn't matter: Isabel had clambered back up to her boots again, and Alejandra couldn't raise her head to look up at her now. "From this day on," she growled, an aire of finality following close on every word. "I will vanish. Perhaps forever. And if you never see me again-- if not a single person who was once a citizen of Para should ever see or know me again-- then I'll be satisfied to know that I have found somewhere to lose my battle one last time, and surrender to it for good. It's your choice to do the same or not-- just remember this. In the end, you will never be able to protect everybody you want to protect. Whether it's an entire continent or just a single person who means more to you than every last soul on this god-forsaken continent, you will lose them to the things you cannot foresee, the things you cannot protect them from. Bear that close to heart when you try and flee from yourself."

 

Alejandra felt her mastery of her own muscles and nerves beginning to return to her, and she sucked in a heaving, blood-encrusted breath before lifting her head up to look at her aunt one last time. But Isabel's back was already turned to her-- she was watching her walk away from her, the way she had time and time again as a child when Isabel would leave home to conduct her business in Colombia or in Venezuela or in some other place that seemed unimaginably far away to a kid on the cusp of her teenage years. Only this time, Isabel really was going unimaginably far away, and she wouldn't be coming back, and Alejandra didn't know if she'd ever want her to.

 

And as Isabel stepped out from the old house, and clicked shut the door behind her, leaving only the dust-strewn sunlight streaming in from filth-encrusted windows, Alejandra made the decision to vanish as well.

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  • 3 weeks later...

"I'm serious!" And yet even as she asserted the solemnity of her words, Izel was unable to restrain peals of tinkling laughter. There was certainly nothing somber about the spring in the Tikalese engineer's step as she followed Alex along the course of the hallway to the elevator that was destined to bear them down to the mobile suit bay for another day of testing. "As the sun and the moon are my witness, I tell you no lies."

 

Alex gave a snort as she stopped at the elevator and reached an arm out to punch the elevator button. "Not even the sun and the moon and everything in between is gonna make me believe that after almost two years of hearing you complain about how atrocious my taste in music is, all of a sudden you've begun to actually enjoy it."

"Whoa there!" Izel interjected as though Alex had uttered some direly offensive blasphemy against her very religion. "Let's make no mistake here, it's not like I've become an ardent fan of any of the crazy ass death black whatever metal you listen to. Just... I'm beginning to see the actual musical value of some of it. Just some of it!" she repeated quickly, even as Alex opened her mouth to get another swift barb in. "The ones that actually sound like music and not a bunch of people throwing their instruments down a staircase while the singer records the sounds of their bowel movements and calls it vocals."

"I always did love your vivid imagination for description," Alex put in idly as the elevator arrived, and they both stepped onto it.

 

"Anyway," Izel continued on over Alex's off-hand interjection as the latter pressed the button of the floor they were destined for and the elevator rumbled to life anew. "I don't mind the less abrasive ones. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple-- even some of that Judas Priest stuff you've shown me--"

 

"Hold up," Alex interrupted once again, casting a wide-brimming grin down toward her lover beside her. "You mean to tell me I've been dating a Judas Priest fan all this time... and neither of us realised it?"

 

Izel shrugged her slender shoulders, and returned the grin with that wry little half-smile of hers. "Fate's just full of surprises, isn't it?"

 

Alex opened her mouth to respond, the grin still pulling wide the corners of her lips-- something about 'hell, at this rate, it won't be long 'til we unearth your inner Dying Fetus fan!'. But the breath died before it ever emerged, submerged beneath an unexpected wave of nausea that came upon Alex without warning and without fanfare. She reached a hand out to brace against the wall of the elevator and steady herself as she found her legs suddenly none too reliable, and sucked in a heaving breath of air. There was something strange about the taste of the air-- something impure about it, something familiarly deathly amidst the oxygen.

 

"Alex?" She heard Izel's voice as though she were speaking to Alex from years and years away, as though muffled and distorted into a paralysed, insentient whisper by the dense murk of time-- the arm Izel reached out a concerned hand to rest upon may as well have been anybody else's. "I--" Alex blinked as her eyes began to burn, as though singed by staring into the radiance of the sun too long, accompanied by another, stronger surge of nausea.

 

Some part of her knew that this couldn't be right, that this was nothing but a memory, but it was all here again-- the burning in her eyes, the nausea that wracked her guts, the bile in her throat-- she could even feel the gash in her arm and the shards of glass digging into the flesh of her cheek, the heat of flame and devastation all around and the sensation of her body lying on the cusp of being unable to take any more. And then-- and then the numbness, the exhaustion, the deadness of worn out nerves unwilling and unable to endure.

 

But it wasn't right. This was just a memory. Nothing but a memory.

 

And yet the acidic slurry of stomach fluids suffocating her airway didn't feel illusory. It felt every bit as real as it had that day, just as did the smoke in the air and the heat of the flames and the numbness of her skin. That there was no gas-masked face of death before her, only Izel Mérida furiously demanding the dispatch of a facility medical team as the palms of her hands wandered along Alex's broiling hot skin, witness to her shame, to her sorrow and pain-- that made no difference.

 

In the end, she was still losing. Still dying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next she opened her eyes-- or at least, the next she could recall the sharp pang of consciousness-- it was to a peace and tranquility that was worlds away from that memory of burning, bleeding, dying Cartagena.

 

She felt beneath her the soft cushion of a mattress, the thin materiel of a hospital gown against her skin and an IV drip feeding into the veins of her arm. The warmth of sunlight streaming through the window beside her draped across her time-worn body like the protective aegis of an angel-- and she could hear birdsong, sweet and serene and utterly naive, wafting through the glass from the other side. Alex blinked, mind yet weary and overwhelmed by the pressure of consciousness, and heaved a breath to begin pulling herself up to a sitting position.

 

"I would keep still if I were you. You endured quite an ordeal, after all."

 

The wryness in Izel's voice could not conceal the lingering vestiges of fear and worry etched into the tired lines of her face and in the weary brown of her eyes. It was an alien sight to Alex-- so much so that she briefly forgot the dull ache throbbing throughout her body in place of the numbness of the memory. She had never seen Izel worried-- or at least, she had never seen the engineer wear her worry so freely, even if it was not a willing openness. She vaguely managed to recall Izel's reaction to her collapse-- the swiftness of her aid, the desperation of her hands, forced into some semblance of efficiency, as they meandered across the breadth of Alex's body, searching out something, anything to determine the source of the ailment-- and felt, through the simmering ache that singed the ends of her nerves, a surge of affection for her.

 

She couldn't make that affection show through the exhaustion of her voice, however. "What... what happened?" she rasped, even though she had a haunting suspicion that she knew the answer to that very question better than Izel could ever have offered. Nevertheless, the Tikalese engineer answered, "As far as we're aware-- and we tend to be pretty aware about these things-- it appears to be psychosomatic in nature."

 

"Little words, Izel," Alex couldn't help but tiredly jive. "I'm even less of a medical doctor right now than I usually am."

Izel smiled. "Alright-- little words, then. Put simply, stress. It can take a sledgehammer to the pillars that hold your psyche up, put you in a vulnerable state of mind-- and, if the stress is brought on by dwelling on the past, it can shore up memories that are... less than pleasant to recall."

"Memories?" Alex didn't know why she feigned the confusion in her voice, but she knew it wouldn't be any good when Izel crossed her arms across her chest. "Don't play the fool with me, please, Alex. I know you were growing up in Colombia during the Holy American Civil War-- and I know the Empire was no stranger to defaulting to chemical warfare to subjugate the masses."

 

Alex seemed to almost sink back into herself, and Izel's expression immediately softened into contrition. "I-- I'm sorry," she almost stumbled over her own words, and Alex felt her wrap her slender fingers around the rough skin of her larger hand. "I shouldn't have brought it up. You need rest, and time to recover. You don't need me to drag you back down that road."

 

"Oh, quit babblin', will you?" Alex interjected wearily, though there was a hint of a smile to her lips as she squeezed Izel's hand in her own. Izel returned the expression a little uncertainly, and then leaned down, her soft lips pressing gently against the warm skin of Alex's forehead. "Let's take a vacation," she whispered. "Just you 'n me, go somewhere far away from here."

 

Alex's brow knotted in vexation. "But the project--"

"The hell with the project. We've given it our due, I think we've earned a moment to ourselves."

 

Alex stared up at Izel as the engineer pulled up from her, unable to help a smile at Alex's bafflement. "Okay, so granted, I might as well have a doctorate in workaholism," she admitted wryly. "But I think you need this-- we both do. A time to be free of the weight of work, of the past, of the shackles of gravity."

"Free of gravity?" Alex couldn't help but muse in puzzlement. "Okay, now you've piqued my curiosity. Just where were you thinking we were gonna be vacationing, the moon?"

 

"Don't be silly, Alex," Izel dismissed with a little chuckle, before finishing, "No, lunar colonies are hardly an efficient use of our resources. I was thinking we could take a vacation up in one of our nearer space colonies-- get away from the drudgery and the stresses of life here on earth, if only for a few days."

 

"Space?" Alex murmured dubiously. "Izel, I can barely make sense of my own !@#$ on plain old earth, and you wanna take me up to $%&@in' space?"

Izel smirked. "What can I say? I think you'll find your experience rather out of this world."

 

Alex stared at her in horror. "Oh no. Not the space puns. Anything but the space puns."

"What? The cost may be astronomical, but I think we can handle it."

"Please. I'm beggin' ya."

"Hell, I even know this hairdresser from the old Lunar Empire who used to work on the moon, and to this day, whenever I hit him up for a hair cut--"

"No. Please no. Don't do this, Izel."

"-- he-clipse it!"

 

"Alright, alright!" Alex acquiesced in abject defeat, wincing as though she'd been subjected to tortures beyond the scope of even the most Lovecraftian of imaginations. "I surrender. I'll come to space with you. Just... no more puns. Please."

 

Izel smiled almost sickeningly sweetly. "Puns, Alex?" she repeated innocently. "Why, I never. But you know me. Sometimes I space out and I just say things without even thinking!"

The glare Alex shot up at her grinning lover could have withered the skin from stone, if not for the fact that she was helpless to reciprocate that smile in full.

 

She would always have this. Even if those memories would never just be memories... she could always take solace in this.

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  • 2 weeks later...

You could probably fill an entire book with quotes about nothing but how small the world really is, when you come to realise the sheer scope of the universe around it. Indeed, the late Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist of whom Dr. Izel Mérida was rather fond, had written an entire book, Pale Blue Dot, discussing the gradual shift of humanity's place in the universe as its comprehension of science and the world around it evolved: from center of the universe, around which the sun and all celestial bodies revolved, to little more than a pale blue dot, relegated to the orbit of a rather nondescript star out somewhere on the fringes of a galaxy that wasn't especially interesting all on its own. Suffice to say, those old quotes did not need repeating: everybody knew by now the humility of their consummately mundane place in the universe.

 

And yet, Alex had to admit, when you had a view of the entire planet right outside your window, it was hard not to stare.

 

The translucent pane of the window that devoured the entire far wall of the bedroom allotted for Izel Mérida and Alex Martinez drew the former soldier's gaze like a moth to light; she stood before it, watching a lonely little planet of rock and water languidly rotating on its axis, host to all the tragedy and triumph of the human experience. Behind her, Izel lay nestled amidst the gentle embrace of soft bedsheets, the dense curls of her hair restrained (however fleetingly) into the confines of a bun. She was still sleeping-- or at least, as far as Alex was aware, she was still sleeping; on second thought, Alex shot a quick glance back Izel's way. It would have been just like the impish little engineer to lie there watching Alex stare off into space (literally, actually), and probably snickering under her breath all the while-- but no, Izel was on her side, her back to Alex, the slender curve of her shoulder into her arm and body rising and falling gently with each dozing breath. She allowed a smile as she admired her lover's sleeping form, before turning her eyes back again to Earth.

 

Below her-- or perhaps more accurately, far, far before her-- lay South America, the skin of the face the planet turned to meet her gaze. Ten years ago, that had been home. Ten years ago, that had been many things to her: her ward, to protect and defend; her dominion, to rule and to safeguard; her battlefield, to conquer and take. But a lot had changed since then-- South America was no longer any of that, not to her, and... and she was not the same person who had lived and died, again and again, on that tiny little continent. Alex Martinez gazed down upon it, and no longer felt the burden of its weight upon her shoulders, not the way Alejandra Valverde had.

 

She really had become... this. This skin. This face. This name. Alex Martinez had formed memories all her own, memories that belonged to her alone and were not shared with the sullen spectre of her predecessor; she had come to love another, perhaps the only other person she'd ever truly loved other than the aunt who, for all she knew, was long since dead and gone forever. She had carved out a new life and a new identity for herself... and for the first time since she had consciously realised that, she did not feel guilty about it. She did not feel guilty for being liberated from Alejandra Valverde's umbrage at long last-- did not feel guilty for being able to say that this was who she was, and that was no longer who she was, and never would be again.

 

But if that's the case... should I feel even still that I'm lying to Izel? That devilish fiend of a woman-- whom Alex couldn't possibly deny she loved more than all the sappy rom-com cliches in the world could ever describe-- she knew nothing of the person Alex had used to be. Was that wrong? If this truly was who Alex was now, then surely it was not a sin for Izel to remain ignorant of things that were no longer relevant-- and if it was, then it was merely a sin of omission, not so much an obfuscation of reality so much as a validation of it. And yet somehow, Alex felt that if she really did love Izel, if she really did intend on spending the rest of her life with the jaunty Tikalese scientist (and she did-- you'd better fuckin' believe she intended on it), then it would only have been right to tell her.

 

The thin line of Alex's mouth pulled taut into a scowl. Gee, wonder how that conversation will go down, she mused scathingly, rebuking herself as one might a petulant child. 'Hey, Izel, see the entire northeastern chunk of South America down there? I used to rule that right up until I embroiled an entire nation in a massive civil war that ended with me escaping into Tikal under the guise of a Colombian security officer and eventually becoming an entrepreneur and mobile suit pilot. Anyway, while we're sharing, got any secrets you wanna get off your chest?'

 

Somehow, she really didn't see that working out too well.

 

So the question, then, was... well, if she wasn't going to tell Izel now, would she always feel like she was lying to her? Would she even be right to think she was? Was it really such a bad thing to simply let herself sink wholly into the person she was now, let Alejandra Valverde die once and for all, and--

 

"SWEET FUCKING JESUS ON A--"

Alex leapt about ten feet into the air as she felt something touch her shoulder, only to wheel around and find herself face to face with a smirking Izel. "Fuckin' hell, Izel," she breathed, placing a dramatic hand to her chest as though fearing her heart might have been about to burst out of her breast from the shock. "What've I told you about sneakin' up on me?

 

"I dunno what you've told me, but I've certainly learned that you come up with increasingly amusing profanities to bellow out whenever I do it," Izel retorted cheekily. "Speaking of which, what's Jesus on in this particular one? I won't be able to sleep until I find out, y'know."

 

"Won't be able to sleep?" Alex fired back. "I've been up for a good hour now watchin' you lie there sleepin' the kinda sleep even the dead would be in envy of. I don't think you're in danger of insomnia any time soon."

 

Izel smiled tiredly, and shrugged her shoulders as she reached back and extricated the hairband from her hair, releasing the thick mane of curls the little elastic band had only barely succeeded in curtailing; they cascaded about her shoulders, down to the small of her back, irrepressible and ebullient in their refusal to be quelled. She stepped forward to stand beside Alex, and for a moment, they merely existed, side by side, looking out through the window onto Earth-- Izel stood a full foot and some shorter than Alex, and her slender, shapely physique paled beside the immensity of the former soldier beside her, but in that moment, perhaps more than in any other before then, there was no sense of larger and smaller, no sense of one greater than the other; in that moment, they were more than ever before two equal halves of a whole.

 

"Put that way," Izel murmured softly with a wry smile. "It sounds almost intolerably cliched."

Alex glanced down towards her with a raised eyebrow. "Whatever the voices are telling you, let me just make it clear right now that I will get the fuck off this station if this turns into some 'The Shining-- In Space!' shit."

 

"All work and no play makes Izel a dull girl," the engineer intoned in a drab monotone, and Alex admitted a dry little chuckle. "You almost make a better Jack Nicholson than I'm comfortable with, but I don't think you're in any danger of becoming 'no play' any time soon either."

"Hey, who knows?" Izel countered. "People change."

So they do... or is it that people don't change, they merely become different people entirely? Maybe there was no difference. Alex turned her gaze back down towards the face of South America, and couldn't help but breath in a wistful sigh at the prospect.

 

Izel did not fail to take note of it. "Something's on your mind," she ventured-- somewhere between a question and a statement, lingering in that ominous grey area. Alex merely shrugged, eyes locked on the image of the earth as it spun about idly beneath her gaze. Reluctantly, she added, "... just life. Life, and people who are here, and people who are long gone."

 

"What do you mean?"

"I guess... I dunno. Looking at the planet now, from out here in orbit... you kinda come to terms with the fragility of human life. This is where we live. Until you Tikalese came along, it was the only place we lived. The whole of the human experience is limited to this single rock drifting listlessly through space, every single person's life playing out in one particular place in one particular moment. Kinda makes you realise just how fleeting you and everything you hold dear really is, I suppose."

Izel smiled. "Funny how just lookin' at the damn rock'll turn anybody into a philosopher, ain't it?" Alex laughed again. "Yeah, I'm just a modern-day Socrates, aren't I? Gimme a little more time by this window and the next thing you know I'll be tellin' you the meaning of life and saying simple things in needlessly complex ways in order to flaunt my sagaci--"

"Hey, Alex."

Alex blinked at the interjection, glancing down to meet her lover's gaze beside her and finding that certain all too familiar impish quality in Izel's heavy-lidded brown eyes. "Yeah?"

"Quit rantin' and marry me, will ya?"

 

Alex imagined there must have been something profoundly amusing about her immediate reaction to the words, because Izel's face split into a helpless grin even as Alex's brain came hurtling down into the depths of a full system shut down. Indeed, Izel pressed her hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle the giggles that came tumbling from her lips, and she had to all but plead with Alex, "Look, I know all the functions up here--" She leaned up to gently tap Alex's head with her index finger, prompting no shift in expression or responce from the stricken ex-soldier. "-- have just hit critical mass, but at least wipe that expression off your face, eh? You look like Kunio Okawara himself just proposed marriage to you and not your girlfriend of two years."

 

The little jibe seemed to do its work in bringing Alex back down to earth (figuratively speaking, anyway)-- she drew back the slack-jawed astonishment of her mouth into a thin, uneasy smile, though she still couldn't help stumbling over the words a bit as she returned fire, "Well, I-- I gotta admit, I kinda doubt even that old fuck would have proposed on a whim in his pajamas, for what that's worth."
 

Izel's smile took on a certain knowing hue to it. "Would you have preferred I stuff myself into some dress worth more than the gross domestic product of the entirety of Japan, dump half the budget of the mobile suit project on a ring with enough diamonds on it to serve as a deadly weapon, and spend lavish amounts of money taking you out to some restaurant where you've gotta reserve fifteen years in advance?" Alex opened her mouth to admit defeat on that point, but Izel silenced her with a single motion, stepping forward until she was all but face to chest with Alex, reaching her hands up to rest upon Alex's broad shoulders. "In love, nothing is eternal but the beating of two hearts entwined," she murmured, gazing up at Alex as one of her hands drifted down along the contours of her shoulder, long slender fingers tracing down until her palm pressed against the hard muscle of Alex's left breast, feeling the frantic pounding of her heart. "We-- this strange and indescribably beautiful passion we share-- were born of impulse. Don't you remember the first night we spent together? We didn't think about it. We didn't talk about it. Neither of us planned it. It was what felt right at that single moment, and we simply did what felt right-- that night, and the night after that, and every night from then on. And right now, it feels right just to tell you that I want to be with you."

Her hand fell from Alex's chest, and pulled back to rest against her own. "I want the whole thing," she whispered; Alex thought she could see the thin glaze of tears sheathing the overcast brown of her dark eyes, the wry joviality so congenital to those eyes nowhere to be seen-- only the sincerity of open, honest, overwhelming, ardent want. "A wife, a quiet home somewhere secluded to have all to ourselves, your name beside mine, children-- but above all, I want this thing that we have to last forever. The completely fanciful back-and-forth banter, the little jokes we pass back and forth just because we can, the fun we have simply being with one another... I want that to last to the very end. And if someday my breath forsakes me and it comes my time to discover just what the deal is with this 'other side' business that people love to wax poetic about so damn much, then... well then, I want the last thing I ever hear to be your voice, telling me just one last joke."

 

Alex felt her own eyes moistening, unable to help as the film of tears betrayed the weight of Izel's words; she bit her lip, and reached a hand up to rub away the tears. "Shit, Izel," she managed to get out shakily. "You sure know how to lay on the sap, don't you?"

Izel smiled almost contritely. "Even I can set aside the jokes for some good old-fashioned maudlin mushiness when I'm properly motivated to do so. And I know you can too, so..." She wrapped her arms around the thick trunk of Alex's torso, pressing skin against skin and heartbeat against heartbeat. "How about it?" she whispered. "Will you make me Dr. Izel Mérida-Martinez?"

 

Alex's strong arms drew tight around Izel as she pulled her lover up into them, holding her close, their faces so close they could feel the breath of the other against their skin. "There is nobody in the world I would rather do that for than you," she promised softly, pressing her forehead against Izel's gently, just before her brow suddenly furrowed and she pulled away, a look of deep thought flitting across her features. "Well, I guess that goes without saying, actually," she mused. "I mean, I don't think there are even any other Dr. Izel Méridas in the world to begin with, so my options on that front are kinda limited."

Izel smirked. "Shut up and kiss me, you dolt," she teased tenderly. And Alex did-- because it was what felt right, what she knew to be right-- what she knew would always be right, no matter how uncertain all other things seemed.

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  • 1 month later...

"I just don't see what's so abhorrent about a name like Christina. I mean, it's simple, it's elegant, it's pleasant to the ears and the eyes-- and if the kid ever decides she doesn't like it, there's plenty of nicknames you can get outta it."

"Because, Alex..." Izel's voice bore no dearth of exasperation with her persistent fiancee, but there was a smile plastered across her face as she glanced over her shoulder to meet Alex's eyes. They walked, one behind the other, along the normally solemn corridors of the research facility-- though solemnity had been in rather short supply throughout these halls as of late. It wasn't merely their own irrepressible jubilance that had bestowed life anew upon an otherwise austere realm of cold, hard science; for all their best efforts, it was long since common knowledge throughout the facility that the doorplate that read Dr. Izel Mérida would soon be exchanged for one that read Dr. Izel Mérida-Martinez, and it turns out, earnestly though they may struggle to come off as cold and professional as possible, even the haughtiest of squints will wax downright starry-eyed if supplied with a properly mushy love story. And, well, the romance of the ingenious engineer of war and the mysterious ex-soldier was nothing if not properly mushy.
 

"How do you expect a kid with a name like 'Christina' to fare in Tikal?" Izel continued as she and Alex turned another corner-- nearly ran into a pair of passing researchers who had to stop and gush their congratulations all over the happy couple yet again before permitting them to continue on their way. "It's just not a name you come across in this country. I don't want the poor kid to grow up dealing with being bullied just because of her name."

 

Alex gave a good-natured snort. "Wait, you wanted to give our kid five names... but Christina Mérida-Martinez is a little much for you?"
 

"What? Having several names is typical around here--"

 

"Mitexi Vesari Az'raus Ai Mérida-Martinez," Alex interjected in a deadpan. "You want to give our kid a name with more weird words in it than goddamn Finnegans Wake."

 

"Hey, there's nothing weird about Mitexi!" Izel fired back. "Mitexi is a beautiful name-- a strong name. It means 'born beneath the sacred moonlight'." They stopped before their destination-- the elevator that led from the upper levels of the facility down to the ground floor, the hangar where all mobile suit testing and experimentation was conducted-- and Alex leaned back against the wall, facing Izel as the smaller woman tapped the ground level button. "That's just it. You don't just want our kid to have five names-- you want her to have five names that spell out an entire goddamn paragraph in your old language! You think she's gonna be bullied for being Christina Mérida-Martinez? Just wait til she's in school and the teacher calls out for 'Born Beneath the Sacred Moonlight, Mighty of Mind and Body and Spirit, Heir to the Glory of the Sun Itself, Child of Starlight and Stardust... Mérida-Martinez'."
 

Izel merely offered up a sweet little smile. "Aw, you remembered the entire thing."

"Ain't like I had a choice, is it? You only reminded me of it about a thousand times."

As the elevator doors silently slinked apart, betraying the compartment within, Izel gave a tinkling little chuckle. "Well, you better get used to it, my dearest wife-to-be. You'll be hearin' it a lot henceforth."

Alex donned a resolutely facetious sort of scowl as she followed Izel into the elevator, the lift whirring into life anew as the engineer briskly keyed in for the ground floor. "I thought marriage was all about compromise," she groused, before her features split into a wry smile as Izel glanced up over her shoulder to mirror the expression smugly. "Don't you complain on me now," she returned mercurially, as Alex reached her arms out to wrap around the smaller woman-- not so much protectively, but lovingly, equally-- and pull her softly close. "You knew what you were getting going into this."

It was Alex's turn to chuckle now-- once a noise that emerged grating and uncertain from her lips, as though she were clumsily navigating the nuances of an alien language, it spilled from her lips natural as the flow of water now, and every bit as buoyant. "Yes," she answered quietly. "Yes I did."

 

 

 

 

 

"Alright, Dr. Mérida-Marti-- er, Dr Mérida. Please run the usual diagnostics regarding the YMS-09's powerplant and be sure to save the data for future analysis."
 

Over the shoulder of Head Researcher Kunio Okawara, Alex restrained the smile that threatened to overwhelm her lips. It must have tormented the notoriously uptight scientist so terribly-- to be in charge of an office where the talk of the upcoming wedding was so ubiquitous even he was beginning to slip up on it.
 

Oh well. He'd live with it in the smattering of weeks that lay between today and the date of the wedding. Of course, Okawara wouldn't be in attendance: nobody would be. Neither of them had a great many friends; their work was an unforgiving one, and it did not allow much for the vagaries of a social life except for the vibrant one they entertained between one another. Izel did not have family-- she'd been the only child of a single mother who had passed away before Alex had ever met her fiancee-- and as for Alex... well, suffice to say, she hadn't known what it was like to have a family in years, perhaps in decades.
 

Family... she'd have one of those again very soon. She and Izel would move out to the seaside of Quintana Roo, away from the hustle and bustle of the city life-- Izel would continue doing work of a more theoretical nature from home, and Alex could easily manage Excoriari Security from there as well. And whether their daughter came into the world named Christina or Mitexi, she would always have two parents to dote on her and coddle her and fret over her and infuriate her with their fawning-- would always know that no matter what, hell, whether she liked it or not, she would always have two loving adults in her life, who would never leave her, would never drop her, would never walk away from her.

It would be different from the way Alex had grown up. She would make sure of that.
 

"All readings appear to be stable at standby." The intonation of Izel's voice drew Alex from her musings. Through the transparent materiel of the window that admitted a view of the hangar beneath them to her, to Okawara, to the researchers collected behind them, she could see the immense machine of war Izel had been entrusted with-- it was a prototype, one that boasted brand new systems of unprecedented complexity, and so the task of putting it through its paces was Izel's this time and not Alex's. A monitor was propped up on the desk in front of Okawara, feeding back to the cockpit camera in the mobile suit; Izel, the resolute curls of her hair reluctantly forced into a bun of composure, clothed in a standard piloting suit, was visible on the screen, that omnipresent little smile tugging at her lips as she flicked switches and manipulated the intricate machinery around her. Alex smirked, and leaned in a bit to drawl, "This is the drudgery I get to look forward to every day. And you ask why I dread coming to work."

 

"Speak for yourself!" Izel retorted earnestly as she flicked one last switch and then turned to face the cockpit camera with a wide-brimming grin. "I'm in the very heart of the most advanced piece of technology in the world. Drudgery? You do our work a disservice, executive officer Martinez."

 

"Perhaps you can reserve your usual banter for after the important business at hand." Alex could almost feel the scowl through the back of Okawara's head like heat simmering from a frying pan, and she and Izel shared a wry little glance. "Will do, chief," Izel nodded, glancing down at the controls again. "Alright, moment of truth, everybody. Time to kick this thing outta standby."
 

Alex was not involved in the science behind the mobile suit project insofar as doing the math and designing the various components went-- she was only there to test out the fruits of that labour, and so the tension in the air around her was not her own to experience. Still, she could appreciate the squints' anticipation: this was a new powerplant type they hadn't used before, one Izel had personally overseen the development of, and they were all anxious to see it work. There was a sharp intake of breath all around as Izel pressed the button and the machine whirred to life, the mono-eye sensor embedded in its head flickering to neon consciousness-- and then the data began to flow across the screen beneath the feed from the cockpit, blue and green crests rising up a little bit and then falling again. There was only about a second's silence as the researchers took stock of the results, and then they erupted into enthusiasm.
 

Alex smiled. Evidently, it worked.

 

Izel beamed up at her through the cockpit camera, soaking in the researchers' jubilance-- even Okawara seemed a little less foul-tempered than usual as he grunted, "The data seems to check out so far." Alex leaned in again, and added, "Guess all those hours you spent pacing around and muttering equations to yourself while I was tryin' to get some goddamn sleep finally paid off, eh?"

 

"Consider your lost sleep vindicated at last," Izel retorted with a chuckle, shaking her head ruefully. She seemed on the precipice of saying more, but something on the display of her control interface caught her attention first-- her smile began to die away as, back in the control room, the green and blue arches were overtaken by jagged sanguine spikes in the flow of the lines, surging upwards to heights unprecedented. Alex's brow knotted as she opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn't even begin to put words in sequence before three things happened in quick succession: Okawara betrayed a sharp intake of breath; Izel murmured 'oh' and her hands darted out to frantically click buttons and flick switches; and then, in the blink of an eye, her image in the feed to the camera cockpit vanished, replaced by a blinding, simmering white.

 

Through the window of the office, Alex saw the YMS-09 die-- watched its mono-eye sensor fade into blackness as internal fires devoured its heart and soul, the feed silent and sightless.

 

Just like that.

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The noontime sun nestled high overhead in the skies above the town of Puerto Morales, in Quintana Roo; it had banished the morning clouds from its domain, and now reigned supreme. Its radiance warmed the naked skin and muscle of Alex Martinez's arms as she strode along the modest little town's main street, paper bags stuffed with groceries hoisted along in either hand-- illuminated the sixty five years scrawled into the lines of her face and dyed in grey hues into the extinct blackness of her hair. Time and time again as she made her way through the lively throngs of townsfolk out and about on a Saturday noon, she paused to exchange greetings and affable small talk with some familiar faces and some unfamiliar ones, too: she was no small figure in Puerto Morales' rather humble social scene, after all, what with her reputation as a former mobile suit test pilot and businesswoman, and she had made a point of doing her part to 'give back to the community', so to speak, by putting some of her none too modest fortunes to use funding Puerto Morales' police and fire department, schools, and clinics. It had taken some getting used to-- she had never lived in a place where people both recognised her on sight and also felt comfortable simply approaching her in the streets-- but it was not at all an inconvenience. She'd been here years, and she would have been lying if she claimed she didn't still enjoy those little snatches of conversation with the townspeople.

 

Eventually, however, as she stepped from the main thoroughfare of the town onto the path leading up to the coastal hillside, the number of people she encountered thinned until she was crossing up the grassy knolls with not another human being in sight. Out here, the scent of the sea breeze that was ever present back in town was stronger than ever, accompanied by the subtle tune of waves quietly lapping at a beach that was only just out of sight. As she crossed one more cresting hillside, it came into view-- the coast of Quintana Roo, the rolling tide gently rolling along flaxen sands, a handful of sailboats discernible on the horizon out in the distance. Families out enjoying the warmth of the day out on the ocean, presumably: it made for quite a picturesque scene, particularly with the little house that sat on the hillside overlooking it-- demure and yet carrying itself with a sort of self-made grandeur, only fitting of the home Alex had built with her own two hands.

 

She paced up along the pristine wooden steps that led to the door, and set one of the paper bags down beside her before reaching her hand out to open the door. Her fingers had only just closed around the knob, however, before it twisted open of its own volition, and Alex withdrew her hand as the door admitted her to her home-- and, of course, to...

 

"Oh, you brought food!"

The instincts of a soldier were no match for the quick hand of a hungry teenager, and one of the bags of groceries was out of Alex's grasp like a fly snatched up with the flick of a frog's tongue. The girl who now claimed ownership of the bag rifled through it greedily, only to glance back up at Alex with a flicker of sorrow crossing her features. "You didn't get the cookies?" she ventured, as though profoundly hurt by this grievous betrayal. Alex smiled knowingly, before delving a hand into the bag still clutched in her other hand and withdrawing a small package of chocolate chip cookies. The girl licked her lips avariciously, and stepped forward to accept the package from Alex's hands, but the older woman merely pulled it back further out of reach. "Not so fast. You know the rules. You're going to eat a full, healthy lunch before you start punishing your body with this trash."

The girl frowned. "But mama--"

"Mitexi Christina Mérida-Martinez!" Alex declared right over the protest, and the girl recoiled at her full name as though struck with the full force of a whip, though Alex was still smiling. "Why'd you have t'name me somethin' all convoluted like that, anyway?" her daughter grumbled glumly, abashedly clawing her fingers through the brambles of her curling brown hair, and Alex gave a chuckle. "You think that's convoluted? Kid, you oughta be on bended knee kissin' my feet considering the catastrophe of a name I saved you from. Now, I don't wanna hear another word on the subject. You'll have to pay the price of healthy eating before I let you indulge your sweet tooth."

"Oh, alright," Mitexi admitted defeat, sighing forlornly as she turned away, as though she were a knight forsworn to the service of a tyrannical monarch, bent to do their bidding. Alex shook her head ruefully and couldn't help another amused chuckle as she followed her daughter on into the house, kicking the door shut with the heel of her boot.

 

The internal organs of the house were not unlike its skin-- simple in its furnishing, but elegant nonetheless; nobody who lived under this roof had ever been much for garish decor, after all. She strode into the kitchen after Mitexi, and they set both the bags of groceries down on the granite countertop before going their separate ways-- Mitexi to her bedroom, presumably to go about her usual daily routine of homework and appropriately loud music (Alex had perhaps known no prouder moment than the one in which Mitexi had admitted, as a wee child, having taken a liking to her mother's outlandish music). And Alex? She, for her part, made for her own bedroom, across the hall from Mitexi's, only to be met with a sight that had not stopped being as beautiful as the first time she had beheld it in the twenty years since.

 

Izel stood in the doorway, smiling at Alex-- or at least, wringing the muscles of her lips into as much of an approximation of such an expression as she could. The accident had failed to kill her, or even truly incapacitate her-- Alex felt that owed as much to Izel's own irrepressible drive as to the miracles of Tikalese medicine-- but it had left its mark; Tikal's doctors could not spare her face or her body the scar tissue the disaster had engraved permanently into her skin, the lines of age inextricable from the twisting scars that devoured her face. Of course, it hadn't matter to Alex at the time, and it still didn't-- she'd only been happy to have Izel, happy her love had lived at all, could not have cared less the state of her skin...

 

And she still didn't.

 

"Cookies again, my dear?" she poked at the other woman, as she saw the door to Mitexi's room click shut over Alex's shoulder. "You spoil the poor girl rotten, you really do-- almost as rotten as her teeth will be if this keeps up!"

"Hey," Alex returned in a pretence of defensiveness, holding up her hands. "What can I say? My kid gets what she wants. If that means I spoil her, so be it."

 

Izel threw her head back, and laughed, a melodious, tinkling sound. "And to think," she teased wryly, stepping back to admit Alex into their bedroom. "You thought I'd be the one to spoil our child. How the tables turn in just thirteen years."

 

The sunlight streamed through the open curtains of the window on the far wall, overlooking the seashore-- here, too, the sound of the ocean waves was inescapable-- a contented rhythm, almost illusory in its carefree fulfilment. The walls were lined with bookcases-- shelves stacked with both Alex's and Izel's reading materiel, complex physics manuals and novels alike and intermingled-- but otherwise, as with the rest of the house, the bedroom boasted little in the way of ostentatious furnishing. Alex's CDs, cassettes, and vinyls, along with laptops and-- of course-- the music system Alex had personally installed were all in the living room, leaving the bedroom with only the bed and two nightstands on either side of it to show for itself. Photographs framed and propped up on the nightstands recounted the events of the seventeen years they'd been together-- a picture of the entire family on vacation in Maratha, another from the day they had adopted Mitexi-- the oldest one, an image of Alex and Izel on that day almost twenty years ago that they had gone out together to celebrate Alex's becoming a pilot, Izel smiling vibrantly at the camera, Alex mirroring the expression with the distinct impression she was completely out of her element but sincere in her unpractised happiness. They'd been a lot younger then, but then, nothing had really changed since then-- and Alex liked it that way.

 

She felt Izel's arms snake around her torso, her body pressed against her from behind. "What's the matter?" she whispered, warm breath against Alex's ear. "Reminiscing about the Izel of yore, from back when my face didn't look like the cover of one of your weird death metal albums?"

 

Alex knew her wife was merely joking, but she couldn't help her impulsive reaction-- she wheeled around, an expression of shock engraved into her angular features as she said indignantly, "What? Of course not! Why would you even--" She trailed off sharply, and Izel merely shook her head and chuckled. "Relax, Alex! It's a joke." But she sighed, and her smile took on a certain contrite flavour. "I apologise though. I shouldn't poke fun at you like that."

 

Alex turned away from her, gaze flitting back down to the image of her wife's unscarred mien. "When the accident happened," she began slowly, recalling the horror she'd felt as she watched the video feed to the YMS-09's cockpit go hazy white and the mobile suit, down in the hangar, simply die. "I was... I thought you were dead. I thought it was all over. When they pulled you out of the wreckage and said they had a shot at saving your life, I... I didn't care about anything else. All I wanted, all I needed, was for you to be alive."

For a moment, Izel was silent behind her, and Alex almost turned back to see if she was even still there. But just before the-- admittedly ridiculous-- impulse took hold of her, she felt Izel's hand on her shoulder, pulling her gently, and she turned-- first her head over her shoulder, and then her body, to face the smaller woman.

"I know," Izel whispered. "I know it was hard." The scars of her face could not obscure the amalgamation of sorrow and lingering regret, but nor could it restrain the little smile that soon emerged in their stead. "But it doesn't matter. I am alive. I'm here, with you. Always will be. Everything's the way it should be. Everything's right."

The way she said it, Alex couldn't help but smile herself. The way it should be. Everything. Everything was right.

 

Are you still breathing?

 

But-- something... no, something wasn't right. Everything wasn't right. Alex's brow furrowed as she felt a knot of uncertainty, of doubt, woven into the very fabric of everything around her, just out of sight but too close to be out of mind.

 

Every soldier has a battle that they will never win. Their own personal war, one they will lose, time and time again, until they learn it's no longer worth bothering to try and fight it.

 

Izel had glimpsed the sudden, strange twinge of disorientation, and reached a hand up to gently touch the rough skin of her wife's face. "Alex?" she asked, and the ex-soldier seemed almost to recoil-- as much from her voice as from her touch. The single word-- her own name-- it felt as though it had been called across a distance of years and miles, faint and distant; the touch of Izel's skin against her own suddenly thin and almost muted. She knew that everything wasn't right. Nothing was right. It was wrong, all wrong, all of it...

"What's the matter?" the voice emerged from Izel's lips, a sound as though submerged beneath water, and Alex stepped back, feeling the world around her twisting and churning in a chimerical haze of nausea. She reached a hand out to steady herself against the wall, but it passed through the surface and left only ripples in its wake. "I-- I don't--" Alex stumbled over her own words-- they emerged stark against the un-reality of the world around her, as though they were the only thing she could cling to. "This isn't..."

This isn't the way it's supposed to be. This isn't the way it is. Izel isn't here. I'm not here. None of it is.

 

Then lose your battle, one last time. Surrender to it.

 

"You shouldn't be here, Izel," Alex whispered, feeling every word that came from her mouth wrenching in her gut. "They never pulled you out of the mobile suit. They... there was nothing left to pull out--" Her voice broke as she restrained a gasp, tears welling in her eyes and blurring an already hazy vision of an already hazy illusion. Izel took a step towards her, and reached a hand out. "Alex--"

"Don't touch me-- !" she urged desperately, struggling to hold onto the dying vestiges of the illusion, but it was too late: Izel's hand passed through the skin, the muscle and tissue of Alex's chest, and in that moment, the spark was lit. Izel's skin began to bubble and crack, and she stumbled back, twisting in agony as reality forcibly invaded un-reality. "No!" Alex cried out, and the single exclamation seemed only to surge out from her being, violently wrenching the delusion out of itself, wrenching Alex out of this, her last true haven. The flames burning from within Izel, like the fatalistic blaze of a funeral pyre, grew realer and realer, until they were burning from the very sockets of her eyes, cremating all that Alex had left of her--

 

Just remember this. In the end, you will never be able to protect everybody you want to protect. Whether it's an entire continent or just a single person who means more to you than every last soul on this god-forsaken continent, you will lose them to the things you cannot foresee, the things you cannot protect them from.

 

Bear that close to heart when you try and flee from yourself.

 

Alex lunged desperately at Izel's burning carcass one last time, hands hopelessly clutching at the memory of her beloved. But it was for naught-- only ever for naught. Her hands passed through Izel, and she sank down after them, her entire being, and the world around her, collapsing into blackness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rain tapped away a dreary rhythm against the window of Alex's bedroom. The glass barrier warded off the pollution of the outside world-- the sound of cars drifting across water-slicked streets, honking horns and the occasional spat of sirens-- and left her apartment a stark, silent place. Silent but for the sordid drumbeat of the rain.

 

It was a miserable morning in Guatemala City.

 

Alex lay back in bed, staring up at the ceiling over her head. She wasn't sure if she'd even gotten up from this bed in the two days since she'd come home from the research facility alone, much less left the apartment-- but she'd have to today. Today, Izel's memorial service would be held, and her memory would be put to rest for lack of a body to put to rest.

 

She knew it could have been worse-- far worse. The defect that ultimately betrayed itself in the powerplant of the prototype mobile suit could very easily have wiped out everybody in the hangar, perhaps the entire facility; it had been Izel's quick thinking, her reflexes, her instinct that had avoided a catastrophe. She had wasted no breath on a final farewell or on last words to her beloved: she'd had the presence of mind to eschew such fleeting comforts in favour of, in the blink of an eye she had to do it, reining back the powerplant's output until it would merely overload, melt into the internal anatomy of the mobile suit and the cockpit, rather than explode. She had guaranteed the only person to die that day would be herself.

 

And yet somehow, it wouldn't have made a damn whit of difference to Alex if every last person in that facility, herself included, had been extinguished in the blaze. What difference could it have made? In the end, she had lost. As she always would, in the end, she had lost.

 

I should have known better. Should have known better than to fight this same old battle again. I should have known better.

 

 

 

 

 

By evening, the rain had cleared up, leaving in its wake only downcast clouds as evidence of its passing. The grass underfoot yet clung to the vestiges of the morning downpour, and Alex's boots sank into the moistened soil of the National Memorial Cemetery-- where the memories of Tikal's most esteemed individuals, from scientists and researchers to politicians and leaders, were immortalised, whether or not their bodies lay beneath the headstone. Izel's did not; there had been nothing left to inter beneath the slab of marble that commemorated her life and death.

 

The stark white stele was one amongst hundreds, perhaps thousands strewn throughout the cemetery-- all once the greatest minds and voices in the strange chorus that was the nation of Tikal, now reduced to an endless sea of ivory. Several had elabourate markings-- family crests, Alex might have supposed if she had been of a mind to care for guessing at all, or maybe something relevant to their work. Izel's boasted no such garishness: hers was merely her name, her date of birth and death, and an epitaph. Dr. Izel Mérida. 28 April, 1963 - 28 November, 2014. Well, this was fun. Let's do it again some time, shall we?

 

In spite of herself, Alex couldn't help a sad smile as she gazed down at the epitaph Izel had in no uncertain terms reserved for herself. It was such an... such an Izel thing to put on a gravestone-- even now, reading it there on the stele that marked her beloved's demise, Alex could imagine Izel saying the words with a wry smile and a little wink to top it off. Somehow, it comforted her even as it reminded her that she would never hear that voice nor see that smile again.

 

There was nobody here to witness her private sorrow-- the memorial had ended not long ago, and those who had been in attendance, colleagues and coworkers, had departed. And so there was no shame in the tears that silently crossed the defiantly solemn contours of her cheekbones, pallid against the dark skin as they trickled from her eyes one by one. There would have been no shame even if she'd had tears to offer during the memorial service-- not now that she stood before the grave of the woman who was supposed to be her wife, the woman who was supposed to be the mother of their child, the woman who was supposed to spend her life with Alex, have a family, have a home at last...

 

"I suppose in the end, no matter what we do, our most ardent hopes and dreams are never certain."

 

That Alex did not turn at the beck of the voice owed to an instinctual refusal to believe that voice could possibly be here-- how could it be, here and now? But there was no mistaking it: though a decade that felt like a century stretched between the chasm of now and the last time she had heard it, time alone, in all its might and decaying majesty, could not expunge this voice from her memory. And she knew better now than to reject reality, no matter how strange and harrowing it seemed.

 

She steeled herself for it, and yet when she wheeled around to face the speaker, it still felt like a punch to the gut.

 

Isabel Vieira had somehow managed to shrug off the weight of the years in a way that seemed unnatural-- she was seventy three now, and yet she stood every bit as tall and indomitable as Alex remembered she'd seemed when Alex had been just a frightened little child, gazing up in awe and respect at what appeared to her to be the epitome of a soldier. A canvas duster clung tightly to her broad shoulders, extending down the breadth of her body to her boots, old and stained with time and travel, as though it had taken all the punishment of the years that Isabel herself had evaded. The lines and creases of her face looked no different from when Alex had seen her last, through blood-smeared, barely-conscious eyes-- nor did the gaze of calculating intent with which Isabel returned Alex's shocked stare.

 

Hers were the eyes of a predator, and some part of Alex briefly feared that she was here to settle previously unfinished scores. But then, as unexpectedly as Isabel had appeared here, the older woman's gaze softened, and her thin lips twitched into the vaguest semblance of a smile as she stepped towards Alex. "I realise my presence here may not be welcome," she said cautiously as she approached, Alex's eyes warily following her with each step. "It's been a long time. You've moved on. Found a new home. A new name, a new face..." She stood just in front of Alex now, returning her uncertain, semi-stunned gaze placidly. "New memories. In short, a new life. It's nothing to be ashamed of. If anything... I envy it. It's something I haven't been able to do myself."

 

Alex had not imagined the flicker of sorrow that flitted through Isabel's heterochromatic eyes-- one forest green, the other mottled brown-- though for as long as Alex could remember, it had never been like Isabel Vieira to so freely bare her sentiments to others. Still she could speak no words, offer no answer-- she was still coming to grips with the idea that Isabel could even be here at all, that she had found Alex after all these years, come to her in the advent of her loss, still reeling mentally from the shock. Isabel must have realised that, because that ghost of a smile seemed to manifest in the flesh at last, a certain knowing glint to her mismatched gaze. "I'm not here to try and fit myself into the framework of your new life-- not now that it has been so violently shifted. I would not do you that indignity. I came here today, if only for today, because I felt it was time, because..."

It was Isabel's turn to be taken aback as she trailed off, only for Alex to interject dryly, abruptly--

"I've missed you."

 

She had been Alex's aunt, her mentor, her sole remaining blood relative-- her parent, her premier, her traitor, her enemy. There had been a time that Isabel had been all Alex had had, and it seemed only right that now, when Alex once again had nothing, had no one, Isabel should be here. The older woman smiled. "Yes. I suppose in the end, that's it."

 

The smile did not abate, but it took on a certain solemn twinge. "Ten years will change a soldier no matter how old she is, Alejandra. I thought at sixty years old, I knew all there was to know, held all the cards-- and since then, I have had to come to terms with just how wrong I was, and with the consequences of my conceit. I've had to come face to face with the ultimate, awful reality-- that none of us is made of stone, that none of us can claim a base, immutable nature. We can take comfort in no such illusion, no matter the guise it goes under: human nature, God, fate, but ultimately... They're all just things we use to rationalise the uncertainty of our own lives. Because we don't even really know ourselves, or what we'll become, and it disturbs us."

 

She gave a sudden, dry laugh, and shook her head ruefully. "But now I'm just being a pedantic old fuck-- forgive an aging fool her brief spells of pseudo-thoughtful rambling. I'm not here to subject you to that."

 

"Why have you come here?" There was no hostility, veiled or otherwise, to the question-- it simply stumbled out of Alex's lips before she could stop herself, but Isabel took it in her stride. "It wasn't easy. Alex Martinez is a very difficult woman to track down when your starting point is a different face and a different name that no longer exists. But I had to find you-- to see you again. Because the things we said and did... cannot be unsaid or undone. But we have a score to settle, and it isn't one to be settled in blood and bullets, even if that may well be the only language we're both fluent in." She looked Alex squarely in the eye, and finished, "I want to settle it with you, to put things to rest and release us both. Not as an aunt and a niece, or as a premier and her executor, but merely as two former soldiers for whom the battlefield no longer has any place. Two wolves who have grown too old for the hunt."

 

She reached her hand out to rest upon Alex's shoulder, strong fingers squeezing slightly, almost protectively. "I want you to stop fighting memories," she said. "I know what this means for you-- to love and to lose. And I know the person you used to be will feel she has lost her war, has lost all she is, has nothing left." And then she pulled Alex closer to her, and wrapped her other arm around the smaller woman's broad shoulders, feeling Alex go tense in her arms. "I want you to leave the wars of our yesteryears to the grave where they belong. To rebuild, rather than retreat from a scorched earth, and live life anew-- not as a soldier, not as a wolf, but as Alex Martinez-- as the face and the name you have become. No more battles. No more losing. No more surrendering. Only living."

 

In the arms of her guardian, in the embrace of the aegis she had not had since childhood and had needed for almost as long, Alejandra Valverde died at last, and dissolved into nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

When Alex opened her eyes, she stood alone.

 

The sun had begun to sink over the horizon of Guatemala City, and in its wake, it painted the sky in vast swathes of red and orange and yellow, the whole of the expanse overhead devoured up by the sinking star's farewell blaze. The evening whip-poor-wills had emerged, betrayed by their distinct, lilting call, carried on the breeze that sighed through the leaves and the boughs of the woods. For the first time that day-- for the first time, somehow, in as long as Alex could remember-- the sky was clear, untarnished by the presence of clouds that augured the inevitability of rain.

 

The entirety of the world-- all possibilities and all destinies-- seem to rest within the scope of her own vision. She had no direction, but then, she was not in waste or want of one. She knelt down beside the headstone that aspired to mark the final resting place of Izel's memory, and silently pressed her lips against the cool white stone. And then she returned to her feet, and turned from the gravestone, and walked away-- from the grave, from the cemetery, from her memories, from her battles, from Tikal, from Alejandra Valverde.

 

She walked away, and didn't look back.

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