ONE: DRAMATIS PERSONAE
Just outside Reading, England
The remains of an old propaganda poster, a flash of blue and red against the regulation grey of the Good Citizens' usual decor, flutters in the breeze. The letters A and N are just readable, its slogan - probably inspiring and catchy, specially designed by the spin doctors and focus groups - lost to the weather and to nature's decay. A small wagon, stuffed uncomfortably with new recruits and several worryingly large weapons, cruises past; a charity wagon, filled to the brim with food and several anxious-looking medics, shortly follows it. The Citizens own both.
Two men look out over the grey airfield, the patter of rain on the bunker roof punctuating the near-silence.
"Bloody weather," Stevesham says, to no-one in particular.
Robinson says nothing, seeming to mull this over, an a-cig hanging out of the corner of his mouth; the silence stretches, uncomfortably for Stevesham - his partner seems quite content to be silent, blowing coils of artificial smoke into the air between them.
"She still up there?" Stevesham asks eventually.
Robinson pauses, the a-cig halfway to his mouth, and then nods.
This is freedom.
The machine thrums and purrs underneath her, contented, and she smiles, pulling it into a slow ascension. She has a view straight into the clouds, the best seat in the house. She speeds up, shifting into the next gear, the sky whistling past her...
For a moment, in the place between the heavens and the ground, she's born anew, nothing but sky and machine and mind.
Robinson's a-cig is short, nearly burned to a stub, when a beaming Karen returns. He stands and extinguishes it, watching Stevesham walk to her and raise an eyebrow, waiting for the news.
"I've got it!" she cries, laughing. "Twenty-two C.P.H. Hit the airzone barrier and it didn't even move a lick. I've got the licence."
"And the ship," Stevesham adds, grinning, leaning past her to take in the brushed silver beauty of the Citizens' Montreal. "It's all yours."
Her gaze follows his. "Beauty, isn't she?"
He shrugs. "Not bad. Shiny, certainly."
There's a pause, and they look to Robinson expectantly, but he simply nods, says, "Not bad at all."
Robinson – or Fortitude Robinson, to give his full name - was born on a small farm just outside Idaho, though he is slow to speak of this. His parents were what he would call "good people" - if more than a little naïve. Naïve enough, in fact, not to understand what happens to boys named Fortitude at the average school, and why he spent twenty-two years trying to deny he had a first name. He isn't about to stop now.
Despite his parents' aspirations for him and his hallowed position of the firstborn, he left home at eighteen to join the Citizens. He said it was for his country. In actuality, it was to escape.
He left the farm a soft-spoken man of few words, good with a shotgun and addicted to a-cigs.
He figured it'd be enough.
As for Karen? Well, London, unless you're familiar with its busy streets and impatient crowds, can be a frightening place. Many say that its grey-orange skies are caused not by pollution but by the constant low-level road rage of its traffic-jammed populace; that the fury is palpable, choking.
This isn't true, of course, but Karen Gardner believed it for an awfully long time.
Once, Mayfair was the location of the rich and refined of London, a place of casually burned money and vacuous luxury. Then the Collapses came, each one worse than the last, the economy imploding under its own weight and greed. Now children play in the old, empty mansions, clambering over long-dead trees and crumbling walls, just as they did when Karen was a child.
Karen and her mother lived. Just. With the fumes and the squalor, it was a miracle. Most families like them lived on what they could, prayed that the Citizens would come round, offering charity - food, and, once in a blue moon, a place to stay. Even the Citizens' grey, blocky communal housing was better than where they were. The two of them were one of the few families who could say they had steady employment: Karen selling second-hand bicycles to the rich kids, her mother working at a chemical plant, coming home every night with red, raw hands. ("Second-hand" was, of course, code for stolen, but Karen pretended not to know. Easier that way. Safer.)
When the recruitment drive for the Citizens came around - she still remembers the posters, with the red and blue, the pointing finger and the motto of YOU can! - she didn't hesitate. She'd be assured of a roof over her head, and anything was better than the plant, the burned hands and the dead eyes.
Here, with the gunfire, the crashes and her comrades behind her, she almost feels safe.
He was... well, himself, until he joined the Citizens and became something shinier, newer, better.
Ask no questions, and you'll be told no lies. That's what Stevesham always says, anyway, with a hint of a laugh, but something in his eyes says he may not be speaking entirely in jest.
Meanwhile, in a small bedroom on the planet Tua, M'kul wakes up shaking, sweating and nauseous, the memories still flashing behind his eyelids every time he blinks. Gunfire, shouts, bodies... The room suddenly seems cramped, the shadows spreading and the walls closing in on him.
He blinks a few more times, fast and shocked, and rubs a fist against his eyelid, trying to remove the remaining sleep and all-too-familiar images. The sense of unease and the paranoia about the room fade, but his hands still aren't steady, and he pretends not to notice this as he climbs out of bed, padding down the dark corridor and slumping in front of the bathroom mirror. Green eyes, many times brighter than those of a human's, stare back at him from underneath shaggy, wheat-coloured hair; there are bags under his eyes, five o' clock shadow round his jaw, he's only half-dressed, and he...
He looks like ter'ni. Like something dragged in by the beasts.
He laughs, hollowly and bitterly, and it breaks the silence; the sound frightens him, and when he glances back in the mirror, his eyes are wild, less than sane. He shudders, turns away from the mirror and makes his way down to the kitchen he and Kerah share. He sticks his head in the fridge, searching for something vaguely edible.
A sound, almost inaudible, behind him – a soft, careful footstep.
Years of training die hard; he turns sharply, a hand automatically straying to his hip, searching for a weapon that isn't there. In front of him, illuminated only by the light of the fridge, Kerah watches the movement. She smiles tightly, her teeth white in the darkness, and nods. "Glad to see some things have stayed with you, ki'men."
He grits his teeth at the word, turning back to the fridge and shaking his head – it's a slight, subtle movement, and anyone who hadn't known him for years, who hadn't served with him, wouldn't spot it. He tenses at the hand on his shoulder, and she says softly to him, "You were the best. They need you. Your country needs you. Why do you deny it?"
He shakes his head again, refusing to look at her, and he feels her retreat, her silence almost... disappointed. "You can't hide away forever," she reminds him, as if he doesn't know already. "They will find you."
Another shake of the head, and he hears her slip away; when he's sure she's gone, he shuts the fridge door and collapses into a chair at the kitchen table, head in his hands. He's a ki'men, a soldier-scientist, one of the best, brightest and strongest of his race, called upon to defend his people, and he is pathetic. He runs a hand through his hair, letting out a breath that's more of a sigh, and lays his head on the table.
They will find you.
He needs to think this through. A sudden, worrying calm descends over him, every movement ceasing, and he listens to his breaths in the darkened kitchen, turning the options over in his head. Keep hiding, wait for the army to find him and call him back into service, or go for a proficiency test; let them observe him, try and win their favour, see if they can find him a small, voluntary role rather than front-line duty.
He looks up, glancing at the doorway where Kerah was just moments ago, and decides.
M'kul winces at the recoil of the pistol and the loudness he'd forgotten about, his hands trembling, worse than they have been in a long time. He doesn't know why he thought he could do something like this. He doesn't know why he thought he could hold a gun again. It was too soon, all of this is just too soon...
"Calm," Kerah says softly, placing a hand on his shoulder, and it's as much an order as a reassurance.
He nods, raises his hands to re-aim...
(Bullets. Blood. Lifeless eyes that he's seen many times before. The wet thud of another soldier's body hitting the mud behind him, and this time, when he turns around, he recognizes a friend.)
He can't, the tremor in his hands making it impossible, and he places the gun carefully on the table. Kerah opens her mouth to say something, but he just walks out of the room, quietly and calmly. When he is out of Kerah's view he allows a few tears to fall, and wipes them roughly away with a sleeve.
It's always too soon. He is well aware that he has failed the proficiency test, but he can't bring himself to care.
Kerah waits until her friend is out of the room, then looks to the two-way mirror, eyes hard. "Give him time," she says, though she receives no reply. "He can do it. He's cold enough. He's seen himself through worse than this."
The Medics' Delight, a med-ship orbiting Earth
Mel looks up as Aid comes into the room, pretending she hasn't had her face pressed to the cool desk, her palms on her ears. Too much light; too much sound from the hum of the equipment; too much sensory input from everything...
A low laugh escapes him, and he raises an eyebrow. "Long night?"
"Five patients, one amputation, and then countless vodka shots," she replies, letting out a small groan as she attempts to rub away the deep, seemingly eternal ache in her skull.
"And Helen and Steed think...?"
"I'm twenty-six. It's none of their business." She lets out another soft groan, looking at the desk and away from the horribly bright, stinging light of the bay. Ugh, it's like all the blood vessels her eyes are being burned slowly from the inside out. Then she adds, quietly and reluctantly, "They told me to stop killing my liver. And..." She points at him – or at least, her vague estimate of where he is - over her shoulder, sanctimoniously wagging her finger and doing an uncannily good Steed impression. "'And don't say you'll drink coffee. You're a Medic, you know coffee never works. Absolute urban legend, that, isn't it, Helen?'"
She hears a chair scrape (she grimaces at the sound) and Aid sits next to her; he throws an arm round the back of her chair and leans down until he's in her sight, resting his other hand on his knee. "We all worry about you, you know."
"Bugger off," she grunts into the table.
"Very ladylike." She can just hear his insufferably smug grin, and she reaches out a hand, not looking up. There's a creak as he obligingly leans forward, and she gently hits him across the head."Ow."
"Thanks," she mutters into the table, and then, "You deserved that."
"I know," he sighs. He exhales, slumping to lay his own head against the table in a gesture of solidarity, and they sit together in companionable silence; it's only broken when they hear Steed's call from across the room. "Aid! Melissa! Got a patient here!"
She opens her mouth to protest, to explain her current state, but Aid shakes his head. "I'll do it."
She smiles weakly at him - he returns it and then rushes from the room, long legs carrying him out of the door before she can blink.
The smile stays on her face as she listens to her best friend join the fray, calling symptoms, complicated Latin names that she's too befuddled to comprehend at the moment, and then the first panicked clamour of a new patient fades, the Medics settling into conversation as they find a treatment.
The smile fades when her father speaks."She's what?" Steed, normally so cool and professional in a crisis, has a sharp tone to his voice; he's frowning as if what Aid has just said to him is a surprise.
"Still hungover," Aid repeats, quietly and reluctantly.
Steed straightens, crosses his arms, grey hair falling into his eyes, the wrinkles at the corners of them deepening as they narrow. "She is a Medic. We are the elite. This is a bloody honour, Aidan, and I'm not having her treating it as if it's..." he shakes his head in frustration. "Nothing. Dear God, my daughter sometimes…"
"She's just… self-medicating," Aid says, but the defence is followed by a sigh. "Badly. It's a bad patch. She's seen herself through worse than this."
Mel frowns into the surface of her desk, the ache in her head surpassed by shame. She breathes out, watching the mist of condensation spread along the shining metal, and tries not to listen too hard to the rest of the conversation.