2237-09-07 - Dustoff

Every soldier has a story about how they wound up where they are. This is part of Ines Correa's.

Date: 2237-09-07

Location: Leonis, Argyros Naval Air Base

Related Scenes: None

Plot: None

Scene Number: 592

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She'll never like the taste of recycled air, but after a while just the act of disliking it gave her a kind of visceral pleasure. It meant she wasn't surface-tied anymore.

Forget waking and sleeping, hungry or full, hot or cold -- after the Uprising there were only two opposing states that mattered to her anymore: on the ground, or in the air. Achieving escape velocity from the surface somehow meant getting that same distance from everything that had happened, as though hitting stratosphere and being able to look down through the tilt of her canopy at the beautiful, terrible, war-torn surface of Leonis could give her the same kind of distance from the ruin of her life. Distance enough to disguise the damage, paint some picture of its geography as continuous and lasting. Like someday, none of this would matter. Time and inevitability would sweep the shards of everything broken under the rug. On a cosmic scale, none of this had any meaning at all.


Oppressive, furnace heat. Hot in the summers already, now fed like an oven by rubbish fires that wouldn't go out, burning unchecked through streets that used to be like arbors. Oily black smoke hangs thick in Montseny. Three days in and she's dark as tar asphalt from crown to toe, a monochrome smear huddled in the filthy corner of a gutted building with only her eyes to pick her out from the rest of the debris -- wide as saucers, pale like sea glass, listening to heavy metal footsteps grating over chunks of ruptured concrete on the other side of the wall. Heart racing, loud like a drum. They'll hear it. How do they not hear it? Hours she waits there and listens to them going about their unfathomable business, a bundle of motionless cramps, to terrified to retreat.


They'd started a betting pool for when she'd wash out.

Nobody made any effort to hide that, and most of the bets were humiliating. Low, fast. Her first friend in basic training -- an affable, ruddy-faced blond built like a truck, who blushed brick red to the tips of his ears when he swore -- did her the bashful, apologetic kindness of putting his cubits on ten weeks out. It was the most charitable guess by an Aerilon country mile.

In those early days, on the days when she was sure her body would give out on her for the punishment it was being made to endure, that bet was all that kept her in the saddle. Gentle, doofy, well-meaning the way that he was, she bristled at the thought of him losing his bet to one of those hot-shots standing on the sidelines, waiting with wolf grins to see whether this time, having fallen down, she'd bother to get back up again. It wasn't safe to feel a lot of things then, but she let herself have that. The spite. A tiny, tight little flame of fury, not for herself but for some kid who bet against her, because he did it with a grace note of faith in her, however slim.


Better at moving in the darkness now. Limping from a fall two days ago, traversing the interior of a burnt-out block of flats. Something had fallen through the ceiling of the unit above, punched a hole in the floor of the kitchen she was searching and left the wood ragged like broken teeth, planks angled like seesaws. Shouldn't have chanced it, but two weeks in she was desperate for food and water. For the first time in her life she's at odds with her own body, a thing she once preened and took pride in. Biology, she finally understands, is weakness. The cratered pit of her home, infested with genocidal machines that took it with shocking, nightmarish ease, only underlines what she's learning first-hand. Exhaustion impairs judgement. Reflexes are dulled by exposure and adrenal fatigue. She hasn't slept in days and sees fleeting shadows in the corners of her eyes all the time.

One of them has her by the throat before she understands what's happening. Dirty fingers curled into her mouth, enough to make her gag. Trying to strip the backpack from her shoulders, yanking hard. Everything she needs to survive, and that barely. And whatever else they might want, whatever that might be; not that there's time to think about it and not that it would matter anyway because desperate human beings are like cornered animals and the only safe answer to anything anymore is violence.

Small and frail she will never understand how it happens, gravity barrel-rolled, the world looping around to put her on top of a writhing mass of muscle and protest she pins with her knees by the shoulders. Try as she might later she won't be able to recall where the chunk of cement came from either, rebar jutting at odd angles, or where she found the strength to use it. In the moment it's only swirling chaos that finally coalesces around a white notch bright as a star in the dim shadows and the realization, as cognition returns, that it's a tooth. One tooth gleaming from within the general confusion of what was only moments ago someone's skull.

She's sick then, and even as her stomach turns inside-out her lone, dispassionate thought is that these are calories she can't afford to lose.


At the single counseling session she'd attended after being coughed up on the shores of civilization again there had been a lot of talk about her 'recovery,' but she can't remember one of those ever happening, either. There had been mostly bad days, then gradually fewer until any given day was a tossup, until finally there were less bad than good. Not, she thought, because time heals all wounds but because grief is simply too exhausting to sustain. She hadn't recovered anything along the way.

Not until basic.

Still more bad days than good back then, a lot of which ended with her laying face-down in the dirt, sweaty, nausea-pale from trying to keep up with people fitter and tougher than she'd ever been. They all seemed to know which way they were going, and be looking forward to getting there. She felt like roadkill on the side of their highway. She scrabbled up over walls and labored beneath heavy loads of equipment and panted, verging on heatstroke, through endless exercises. Someone had finally asked, frustrated during a team exercise that she was struggling to keep pace with: 'What are you even doing here?' She'd only been able to stare, lacking any answer at all. She was too tired to try to explain the bet to them, and no longer sure most of the time why that had even mattered in the first place.

When did it change? She can't remember that, either. A wash of days painted in broad strokes of aching muscle and sleep deprivation slowly yields in her memory to greater clarity, like the sun had risen again on her life and there was enough light to see by. The spite she relied on to keep her engines running only burned that much brighter when she was encouraged to give up, give in, when any of the dates from the pool loomed large, but that, like everything else, also changed. Somewhere along the line antagonism turned into surprise, surprise into amusement, amusement into encouragement. By the end -- three months, only three! -- the same people who bet on her inevitable failure were the ones most proud of her success. She didn't wash out.

Her friend got his cubits, too.


Everyone milling, packing, rowdy. They'd survived. In less than twelve hours they're all moving on. Some will fly, some will sail, some will march. Most will never see one another again. She's sitting on a fence, and there's somebody beside her.
"It only gets harder from here, Sunshine."
"I know."
"No, you don't. But you're gonna get to find out." Strong hand on her shoulder, squeezing.
Horror, then, at the way she feels her nose tingle, her eyes prick with heat. No way, no goddamn way is she doing that. Eventually, when the danger passes: "I still don't know if I'm cut out for this. What if I get there and frak it all up?"
Arch-browed silence from the man next to her, a toothpick rolled from one side of his mouth to the other. He isn't looking at her when he answers. "'Course you are. Lower than low and one foot in the grave, and you found a way to push on through. Weren't pretty -- " Amused, that, " -- but it doesn't haveta be."
"Not for any kind of good reason, though. Not because of honor, or patriotism, or -- " Her stomach flutters. She confesses. "Just spite, honestly. It was just spite."
"Hah." A sound like metal on stone. "Don't matter how the fire starts, Correa. Just that it burns a thing to ashes."


Argyros Naval Air Station is unlovely. There's a lot of brown, a lot of blocky white pre-fabs perfectly uniform in every way. Military, so obviously. Out by the hangars, watching Vipers achieve escape velocity, she keeps her eyes to the sky.

Last night she dreamt, curled up in a real, honest-to-god bed, about the tooth. Nightmares come on the regular, but she hasn't had that one for months. Like an omen. Stress, probably. Leaving her squad, thrust into new circumstances, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. And not enough flying. Not enough escape velocity, not enough distance between she and the rest of it, viewed through the ballistics glass of an aircraft canopy.

Sitting there though, she wonders for the first time since the Uprising whether take-offs with the Wolves will be more about what she's flying toward, and less about what she's leaving behind. Suspects that this is maybe so.

Sometimes you're the rock, and sometimes you're the tooth. Sometimes you're the kindling, and sometimes -- if you're good, and lucky, and brimming with spite -- you get to be the flame.


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