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On the Other Side of the Glass

by Matthew Lee


Published by Matthew Lee at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Matthew Lee


See my Smashwords page at https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/EightRooks


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Nobody took much notice of Maggie, before. Except the cross around her neck. She was small and quiet. She did her job down in engineering, she was good, got things done, never complained – but people still picked up on the cross.

You didn't see many of them, out here. Hard line churches didn't like believers out on the frontier, and they were the only church most people knew, these days. God's children weren't up there among the stars, far as they were concerned.

All that bluster aside, churches still lobbied the big space corporations, but we were with Cirrus and they made a point of being above taking money like that. Which was all well and good, but some people took it on themselves to make sure Maggie knew.

She never snapped, whatever it was they said. Just stood there while they raved at her, called her a backwards, reactionary, stuck-up little bitch and worse besides. Waited 'til they walked away, shrugged and moved on.

None of it was true, as far as I could tell. She came to Brooks and McConnachie's fifth anniversary, had a few drinks with both of the guys along with everyone else, smiled, looked happy enough. Never told 'em they were sinners.

She didn't like to argue for no reason, but she didn't hold with men explaining what she already knew. She spent her time planetside going hiking, or visiting family. Never heard anything about her preaching.

But the cross was enough for some people to get mad.



"You could just take it off," I said to her.

We both had some downtime between shifts, and I'd asked her if she wanted a drink. The Aspen bar along the north axle was pretty much empty this time of day.

"No." She shook her head and gazed out the viewport by our table, watching the stars. "It was a present. Meant a lot to me. And it's not that bad."

"I couldn't take it." I shrugged. "When Jamie got up in your face – I mean, Jesus, Mags, he –" I coloured. "Sorry –"

"No worries." She smiled.

"He spat on you –"

"It came off." She sighed. "And they got him on camera. A week off and no pay. It's not much of a –"

"Cross to bear?" I offered.

"Oh no you didn't –" She rolled her eyes. "But yeah."

"Still pretty brave."

"Not really." She bit her lip. "It's not like I... nah. Never mind. But thanks. I appreciate the compliment."



We hung out again, a few more times after that. Then more when we got assigned together. Never seemed like it was gonna amount to anything more than being friends, but I didn't mind. Something about her still interested me. That quiet. That confidence.

There was a lot on our minds, out here. Free worlds didn't like the corps. The Alliance were especially unhappy about corporation colonists creeping on what they saw as their territory, and Linton V was half an hour from one of their big jumpgates.

(You could jump anywhere you wanted, at least in theory, but it had a habit of doing nasty things to people, or systems without expensive shielding, if a warship popped up right next door. And no-one wanted to drift off course and come out of subspace inside a planet.)

Alliance threatened us all the time. Any further encroachment will be met with massive retaliation, galactic hegemony of the capitalist elite cannot remain unchallenged, blah blah blah. A lot of it was just background noise; it hadn't come to anything in twenty years.

We still had to act like it might, though.



"You don't like it?" Tucker looked across at Maggie as he strapped himself in, squeezing the belts round his gut.

"It's not –" She shrugged absently, checking his console. "Bible doesn't really tell us to do that –"

"We’re just spreading the word, I reckon." Tucker smoothed his thinning hair back and reached for his helmet. "No? ‘Free’." He snorted. "Free to shit their guts out, more like. I hear half of 'em out there don't even have clean water. Gotta tell people corps ain't that bad –"

"Cut the chatter." Lindsey was pacing up and down the walkway overhead. Senior staff didn't tend to show up if there was an actual situation in progress – there weren't enough of them to be everywhere at once – but they liked to see for themselves if the wheels were going round okay. "Ross! Are we good to go?"

"Yes ma'am." Maggie raised her arm, gave the other woman a thumbs up.

Tucker lowered the helmet over his head. Every pod had five operators and their coffins, the big, old-school rigs, almost a full-body cast; we'd been due to get some of the new models for three years now but Cirrus kept saying they were out.

Green lights on five helmets.

"Launch," Lindsey barked.

"Launch." They all spoke at the same time.

"Sunbeams away, ma'am." Maggie tapped her screen.

"Smith?" Lindsey was glaring at me.

"Aye, ma'am." Wasn't anything to see at first, or hear, but the readouts said everything was fine. "Sunbeams away. Green across the board."

Sunbeam RUIs. Twenty-five flights of 'em. Fifty per flight. Tiny things, not much more than a camera and a gun with a basic on-board computer. I'd seen them launch a few times from the other arms of the station. They looked like a cloud of glitter, from a distance.

Operators didn't control them as such; nobody could handle two hundred and fifty little ships at once. Flights handled like a flock of birds, for starters, and the station AIs did most of the work. Humans were mostly just there to step in if anything weird happened.

We watched as the drones danced past the window, running through the basic formations, attack patterns and such. The planet hung there, blissfully unaware.

"Tucker –" Lindsey looked up from her seat. "Tucker, you're out of position –"

"Not sure what's happening, ma'am." He was breathing hard. "Guidance routines keep coming up way off. Calibrations are all –"

"Break off." She stood up. "You're headed straight for us. Tucker, break off!"

One cloud of stars had veered way away from the others. It was brighter, now. A lot brighter.

"Switching to manual, ma'am." Sweat pouring down his forehead. "Christ – sorry, Mags – long time since I did this. Ah, Jesus –"

He stiffened, and started shaking inside the coffin, head flung back against the padding.

"Get him out of there!" But Maggie was already throwing the release. "Ross! Hit the kill switch – Ross! What the hell -?"

She'd got the helmet on, standing there, braced against the side of the rig as I heaved Tucker out and the medics burst in. I looked up through the window. One Sunbeam would barely scratch the plexiglass, but a couple of hundred –

They peeled upwards at the last second, a spray of tiny white diamond shapes that rocketed past on trails of dim red flame. They came so close I could see the Cirrus logo on 'em; corps do love their branding.

"Ross!" Lindsey slammed one hand on her console. "Stand down!"

"Aye, ma'am." She sounded... weak. Out of it. She was trying to get the helmet off, but her hands didn't seem to be co-operating.

"Smith!"

"Aye, ma’am – I got you." I popped the buckles, got the weight off Maggie’s head and set it down, then caught her as she staggered sideways.

"Everybody out." Lindsey bent over her console. The meds were getting Tucker oxygen, checking his pulse, his brainwaves; everybody else was powering down. "Jesus. Class dismissed! If you've got two good legs I want you out of my sight thirty seconds ago, understand? Smith? Get her to a med bay. Now!"

"Aye, ma'am." I hooked Maggie's left arm over my shoulder and shuffled towards the door.



"I'm fine." She kicked her legs against the edge of the cot.

"You are not." I looked at the readouts: like a fire went through her head, and the ashes were still hot. She took over for Tucker on manual, and she never even jacked into his coffin. Two hundred and fifty visual streams plus the telemetry data for a full thirty seconds or more.

You didn't literally see all that shit at the same time; I'd tried it myself. Never with a full flight, though – and you felt it, at least. Like someone just gave you a hundred arms, a thousand plates to spin and told you okay, go.

The headset handled some of this – dumb systems for prioritising the feeds and letting every drone you weren't controlling directly interpret your directions, stuff like that. Even going manual you weren't seeing it all at once. Still way beyond most people.

I knew she was good at her job but not this good –

"Mags. Stop frowning."

She jumped.

"I wasn't –"

"Yeah you were. At thin air."

She'd been trying to burn a hole in the wall a foot to the left of where I was actually standing.

"I can see you, you know." She shrugged. "I'm not blind –"

"No," I said grudgingly. "No, you're not. Eyesight should be back to normal in a couple of hours. But Jesus, Mags, you could have been killed –"

"Lindsey would've..." She didn't call me on the profanity. "She'd have had our hides if we lost a whole flight. And Tucker –"

"Was that the...?" I tapped the hollow of my neck.

She took the cross up between her fingers, flipping it back and forth.

"The decent thing to do?" She stuck her tongue out.

"I guess." I blushed. "Sorry. I didn't mean –"

"No worries." She sighed. "He didn't... none of that was his fault, right? You're wrong, though. I'm not brave. I'm just..." Again she let it trail off. "Nah. Never mind. It's not like we'll ever have to do this for real."

That confidence again. I wondered what was ever gonna shake it.



It started with a bomb.

Someone went for the tower, the one Cirrus built down in the capital, right over where they made landfall forty years ago. Blew the foundations with shaped charges and would have had the whole thing down except one of the charges didn't go off.

Still killed fourteen people. Everybody knew it was almost a whole lot more. Then the free worlders wanted to hold a demonstration two weeks later and the city council told them 'Uh, not right now?' but they wouldn't listen.

It didn't go so well.

Hardline corp supporters furious over the attack on the tower stormed the demo. Police were trying to break both sides up, and almost had 'em when someone fired on the crowd. Nobody ever found out who. The whole thing broke up into full-on street fighting. They had to call in the army.

Fifteen dead.

A month after that the wound was still pretty raw when Cirrus sent a probe across the border – nowhere near us, it was two sectors along the map, scoping out some little ball of rock had some interesting mineral deposits under the surface. But the Alliance still didn't like it.

You take that back, they said. That's our ball of rock right there. No way, Cirrus told 'em. You weren't using it. We warned you, the Alliance said. Told you if you carried on stepping on our toes there'd be consequences. You and whose army? Cirrus wanted to know.

This one right here, the Alliance said.

Oh, Cirrus said. That army.



"I don't sleep much," Maggie said. "I just..." She shrugged, toying with the cross. "It's not so bad. Pills take the edge off the worst of it. Not like I miss the dreams."

We all had 'em. Sirens, standing in a dead landscape watching fire rain down from the sky and all the rest of it. They make you watch footage of orbital bombardment in basic training; took me a week to get over it.

Now it was night after night for a month and counting, waiting to hear if we were in the firing line.

"Thought you said it was never gonna happen," Brooks muttered.

"Guess that plan needs a bit of work." Jamie leaned back from the next table, smirking.

Of course Maggie never said a word, just sat there looking at him, like she was waiting to see if he'd spit on her again.

"Piss off." I stretched my leg out and kicked the back of his chair. Kid laughed and turned away.

"You still think it's gonna work out?" Brooks drained the last of his coffee and wiped his beard on the back of his hand. "That what... he's saying?" He gestured at the cross.

"It's not a..." She took a deep breath. "It's not a twelve step routine, you know? Just –" She spread her hands. "Long as we do our best, help each other out, remember what this is all for – so people don't have to die to build another colony just because they'd rather do without power twenty-four seven if it means they don't have to follow a plan –"

It was the longest speech I'd heard from her in quite some time.

"Yeah." Brooks looked down at the tabletop. "I guess so. Sorry, Mags, I just –" He shrugged awkwardly. "Wish I had faith."

"Enough," I said, because I could see Maggie had that look on her face she got when she wanted to say something but didn't know how.

"Yeah." He blushed. "I hear that. Back to the grind, I guess. Take care of yourself, kid."

He got up and wandered away through the canteen.

"It's not, like, a magic bullet," Maggie said to herself, wearily. "It's not armour. I keep telling you I'm not –"

"Easy." I reached across the table and took her hand without thinking. She started, looked at me in surprise, but didn't pull away. "Easy. They're just... antsy, is all. Desperate for answers."

"You don't say." She sighed.

We stayed there a while, neither of us saying a word. She still didn't pull away.



I woke up to the siren going off and for a second I thought I was still dreaming but then it hit me, the sour taste of the gunk in my mouth, the itching from the redeye, the emptiness in my gut, the exhaustion, and I realised ah, fuck, this was for real.

This was it.

I threw my clothes on, made it down to engineering and into the pod in the fastest time I'd ever clocked. Crew was already there; Bergman in place of Tucker. Maggie was just a few seconds behind.

"Smith." Lindsey's voice in my earpiece. "Ross –"

"Ma'am." I swallowed. I could see Maggie listening.

"This is not a drill –" She took a breath. "As I'm sure you've already realised. Five Alliance carriers crossed the border fifteen minutes ago. No super-heavy weapons, as far as we can tell –"

"Remotes," I said.

"It looks that way." Her voice grew sharper. "No troop movement, but I wouldn't hold your breath. Intelligence suggests they've been eyeballing this place for a while and a drone strike could be aiming to soften things up before a full-scale ground assault."

"Do we have any backup?" Maggie said. One hand was clutching the cross.

"Cirrus have informed us there are three platoons inbound." She sighed. "Exactly when they're due is anyone's guess. This seems to have caught the boardroom on the hop – ah, shit. I never said that, okay?"

"Said what, ma'am?" She was a hardass, but she knew her job, and I didn't want to make things any worse.

"Nothing. You heard nothing." A sad little laugh. "Good luck, Smith. Ross. I'll be in touch."

The operators were strapped in and the lights were green.

"Launch," I said, and tried to sound like I knew what I was doing.

"Launch," they echoed.

Sunbeams, away –



Minutes dragged by, painfully slowly. I caught myself trying to look out the window to see the carriers but they wouldn't come anywhere near enough to the station that we could pick them out with the naked eye.

"Contact." Maggie tapped her screen. "Scanners have multiple targets. Indistinct movement three minutes away at current speed. Remotes, looks like."

"Flights." I checked my screen to make sure they were doing okay. No glitches. Please no more glitches. "Form up –"

These were Hummingbirds, most likely. Remote Unmanned Strike Fighters. They could do ground attacks, they were probably headed for Linton V right now, and corpsmen liked to mark them up with Ram it up Ur asS, Freebies! whenever they downed one.

Shitty jokes kept 'em going, I guess.

I could see the Sunbeams from the other pods, circling outside. Two hundred and fifty to a flight, five flights to a pod, two hundred twenty-five pods on board the station –

Thousands and thousands of glittering stars. Multiple targets. Indistinct movements.

"Intercept." I barely needed to say that much, even. The AIs could tell when an enemy contact was in range. But it helped to feel like I was doing something.

"Coming in fast." Maggie was bent over her screen. "Too fast. Mike, I –" Her voice quavered. "I think these are –"

"I'll run it through the system –" The drones moved much too fast to just watch the feeds without a headset. The AIs could pick a frame, see what we were up against. I watched the image recognition software doing its thing. "Ah, shit –"

"Smith." Lindsey's voice in my ear. "Ross. The Alliance craft are Flechettes. Repeat, Flechettes –"

"Yes, ma'am." Faster, meaner, and they could self-destruct as a last resort. Numbers were our only real advantage; these little shits were considerably heavier than the Sunbeams. Half as big as your forearm rather than the size of your hand. "Any word on those platoons?"

"I've said as much as I can, Smith." She sighed. "I'm sorry."

A click in my ear.

"Contact," Maggie whispered.



I tried on a coffin, a couple of times. Tried out for the operators when I was younger, but I wasn't good enough to make the cut. Stepped in to cover when we were running drills, once or twice.

Again, it's like your arms. You don't know what they're both doing, right? Most of the time. And if you concentrate it's usually on just the one, though you know you've got another, somewhere. Somehow.

Now imagine you've got a hundred. Imagine every one of them's doing its thing. Imagine switching your attention from one, to another, to another, checking what it's doing, just for a split second, then moving on.

Now imagine it's two hundred and fifty and it's not arms, it's eyeballs; all of 'em flung around the stars fast enough to make you puke your lunch across the room. Imagine them with a gun. Imagine fighting someone else doing the exact same thing.

And that's with the AI helping out.



The pod shook. We were right near life support down here and they were hitting us especially hard. Six Flechettes had made it through the cordon in the first wave and hit the station close enough we could see right into the hole they made.

We closed the shutters after that. Nothing to tell us what was going on out there now but the screens. Readouts. Numbers going down and down and down. Security feeds as they closed bulkheads to seal off useless compartments and shuttled people away from the worst of the fighting.

Most of the time we stood there like nurses in a sickroom in the red light from overhead as the operators jumped and shook inside the coffins.

"The capital is doing okay." Lindsey had gone hoarse long ago. "They got the Hummingbirds we were expecting. The ninth infantry are hurting but they're holding them off. But it's us the Alliance wants. If we go down –"

"Should you be telling us this, ma'am?" I wiped my face on my sleeve. The ventilators weren't doing too good.

"Probably not." She snorted. "But if we go down –"

A click again as she cut the line. The rest went without saying.

Maggie had one hand over her cross, her lips moving silently. A prayer? I almost wished I knew one, just to try it. But she was counting me in, right? Counting all of us.

Hadn't worked too well so far, though.

Jesus, how did she stay so calm –

"Four more flights inbound –" Maggie looked up. That was more than a hundred of the bastards. "Section 7G is not responding. 7H is down to a single pod." Right next door. "Mike, they're heading straight for us –"

"Vital signs are good." 'Good' was pushing it; these guys had been doing this for nearly three hours and they were all nudging into the red. But they were holding steady, hadn't moved much for fifteen minutes. "We can do this. We can do this –"

A crash and the whole room rang like a bell and the floor shot up to meet me and socked me in the chin. Alarms were going off as I picked myself up. One of the operators was screaming. Bergman. I thought it was Bergman. The rest of them were horribly still.

"Smith!" Lindsey shouted. "Smith!"

"Aye, ma'am –" I crawled along on hands and knees to rescue my screen.

"They cracked the power line!" CRITICAL SYSTEM FAILURE, the display was warning me. OPERATOR BLACKOUT. RELIEF OPERATOR ENGAGE MANUAL CONTROL IMMEDIATELY. "To the AI! Half the fucking pods just lost assists!"

"Can we get it back online?" I struggled to my feet. Only one answer; either the system came back up now or we'd all be dead in a very short space of time. The Alliance drones would overwhelm us if they had a computer to help out and we didn't.

"Yes, but it'll take time –" I heard her swallow. "Can you still fight?"

"Negative, ma'am." Bergman's screams had become a soft, empty moan. The other four weren't making a sound. If you cut the connection just like that the sensory jolt could do awful things to your grey matter. "Pod is down. I repeat, operators are down. All of 'em –"

"Ah, fuck." A moment of silence. "Okay. Okay. Medics are on their way, Smith. Get out of there. They'll be back any second, another wave –"

"Negative," Maggie said quietly, and I froze. She'd actually got Bergman out and strapped herself in, closed the lid of his coffin. "I can take over."

The pod doors hissed open. The medical team were already here, three EMTs, all far too young for this, pale and red-eyed. One already had one arm in a sling.

"Ross –" Lindsey took a deep breath. "Understood, Ross. Smith. Help the medics and then stay with her. You do not leave this pod until those bastards have turned tail and run, you hear me?"

"Couldn't drag me away, ma'am," I whispered.



"Am I green?" Maggie settled her head back against the cushions.

"You're green." The Sunbeams were still out there, whirling through the void. They could take evasive action for a while, but they wouldn't last long against a determined human operator with a fully-functional AI.

Normally the computer would sync you with a flight that was locked into a holding pattern like this but we didn't have the system up or the time to soften the blow.

"Mike –" She was sweating. Her vitals were climbing already, heart rate, body temp, adrenaline –

"I'm right here."

"How about -?" I knew what she meant; I touched a finger to the cross, lying in the hollow of her throat. She smiled weakly, under the helmet. "Thanks. Thank you. For doing this."

"No worries," I said softly. "Launch."

"Launch –"

She screamed; jerked upward inside the coffin and slammed back down again. I bit the inside of my cheek hard enough I could taste blood.

"Smith –" Lindsey again.

"She's in, ma'am," I snapped, then swallowed. "Sorry. Sorry. Just –"

"I understand." Her voice softened. "Good luck. Both of you."

Silence in the pod apart from the alarms screaming and the station trembling and the stink where one of the operators had pissed himself when the EMTs cut him loose. Maggie wasn't brain-dead, I could see from the screens she was responding, doing things, but she wasn't saying a word –

"Mike?" God, she sounded so weak; as if every ounce of her strength was going into wrestling those tumbling flecks of starlight back under control. "You there?"

"I'm here," I said.

"I got 'em." She smiled. "They're okay. I can fight. I can –"

She fell silent, and I checked the display. Brain activity sky-rocketing. Juggling more than two hundred separate inputs with no backup and a helmet she hadn't synced to that someone else blacked out in only minutes before.



I thought of even one of those things, pin-wheeling through space. They could turn on a dime, stop dead in a matter of seconds, flipping around fast enough it'd kill a passenger if they carried any.

I thought of the darkness twisting past me at breakneck speed, the flash and spray of plasma cannon going off like fireworks all around, the station, the planet hanging there, a whole other battle raging down beneath the clouds.

I thought of that times two hundred.



Another tremor rocked the station. I heard someone screaming from the corridor.

"Smith –" Lindsey sounded like she was at the end of her rope. "Mike – Alliance Flechettes are still getting through. Half of sector seven is down. Eight just lost power. Bulkheads won't seal and fire crews can't get it under control –"

"Where the fuck are those platoons?" I screwed my eyes shut. Watched the red light pulse in the darkness. "Where's the AI?"

"Relief is twelve minutes out." Lindsey coughed. "But we won't last that long. She's chipping away at the numbers but – computers are coming back but it's slow going, Mike, and you're the only ones covering that side –"

"Jesus –!" I almost dropped my screen. If they took one more good run at life support some of them would make it through and then we'd all suffocate –

"Mike." Maggie coughed. "The other flights."

"No –" This was insanity. One was bad enough –

"We're all dead otherwise!" I saw her shoulders trembling, like she wanted to grab me, shake some sense into me.

"Maggie –"

"Mike," Lindsey whispered in my ear. "Do it."

"Aye." I could barely speak for the lump in my throat. "Aye, ma'am."

I knew the procedure; they taught us how to do it in basic. But it wasn't something I'd ever expected to have to use, let alone running all five stations through one headset without a working computer.

I threw the switches, tapped in the commands, bypassed the safety cut-outs that asked me did I really, really want to do this –

No.

No.

No –

"Mike?" Her voice was almost a whisper.

"I'm here." I swallowed. "I'll hand 'em over one by one. Okay?" I wasn't going to hit her with all four together. Not even if Lindsey ordered me straight out.

I'd rather die.

"Okay." Maggie nodded. "I trust you –"

"Number two." No time for ceremony. "Three. Two. One. Go –"

She couldn't even scream: just gasped, her mouth an O of pain, as she thrashed from side to side.

I thought of everything I'd seen in my mind's eye before, then imagined it ripped apart, her consciousness torn in two, the pieces flung across... how far? The station was a mile wide, at its furthest point. No telling how far the second flight had wandered on autopilot.

But she wasn't brain-dead. She was responding. Doing things. Still.

"I got 'em." She coughed. "I got 'em. Mike? You there?"

"I'm here." I'd never felt so wretched in my life. I hardly knew this woman. We were friends, sure, but not exactly best friends, right? I'd never kissed her; barely even touched her –

And now this –

Should have been me, I thought.

"How about -?"

"Still there." I touched the cross again. It lay in a pool of sweat under my fingers. I tried not to think about what that looked like, under the lights.

"Good. Good." She smiled. "You were wrong, you know. I'm not brave. I'm not –"

"Mike –" Lindsey in my ear.

Fuck off, I wanted to say, but I couldn't do it.

"Number three," I whispered miserably.

"Do it." Maggie bit her lip.

I sent the connection through and she gave this choking gasp, the breath straining in her lungs, as if she hadn't the mental faculties left to tell it where to go. Her face was going red. Her pulse was so high I had to fight the impulse to shut down the rig there and then.

"Got 'em." At least I thought that was what she said.

"Eight minutes, Mike." Lindsey sounded like she was crying. "Eight, nine, ten more waves coming in. Alliance knows the relief's almost here. They know. AI is back up for half of your side but you're the only ones with almost five full flights and we can't get you online and they're throwing everything they have at us –"

We couldn't pull her out. She wasn't the only operator left or anything but she was the weakest link and a single break in the line could bring the whole chain down.

But Maggie wouldn't last eight minutes.

"It's not a magic bullet, Mikey." Her voice floated under the chaos. "Faith. It's not a suit of armour. Strength and my shield my –" She giggled, weakly. "My ass. Fuck. Oh, Jesus, that hurts." She took a long, shuddering breath. "I get scared, Mikey, you know? Everyone acts like I'm stone cold but I get scared just like you. I'm so scared –"

"Mike!" Lindsey pleading.

"Number four," I choked.

Maggie's shoulders tensed.

I sent it through.

She shrieked: it was a long, dry rattle like an old woman, bedridden and afraid, terrified by all those stars wheeling overhead. The screen was flashing warnings at me about the risk of severe brain damage if she stayed under another second.

"Mikey –"

"I'm here." I put my hand over the cross.

"You there?"

"Yeah, Mags. Yeah. I'm –" She couldn't sense my fingers – couldn't even hear me any longer, I realised. Everything bar that tiny thread of consciousness that let her keep talking was going into fighting off the Alliance.

Thousands and thousands of stars. Thousands and thousands and thousands –

"I can see, Mikey." She sounded even quieter, as if she was floating away from me, little by little. "Jesus, I can see forever. But I can't see you. Where'd you go? Mikey? Don't leave me. Please?"

I won't, I wanted to say. I won't leave you –

Then I saw it, creeping down from under the helmet. A trickle. Another. More of them. Sweet Jesus she was bleeding from her fucking eyes –

I wanted to look away but I couldn't. I stood there, helplessly, feeling her chest rise and fall under my hand, a little slower every time –

"Mike –" Lindsey whispered in my ear. "Twenty-two Alliance Flechettes cutting across Sector Six. Headed for the main generator. It's a suicide run – we don't have the numbers, Mike, we can't stop them –"

"It'll kill her!" I screamed.

"I know." She was crying. "I know –"

I pulled the earpiece out and hurled it across the room.

I stood there in the red light and the gloom and the flickering from the screens and I listened to a dying woman struggling to breathe and for the first time in my life I prayed.

Please, God, I thought. I know I don't believe in you but fuck it, I never asked you for anything before, and you gotta start somewhere, right? If you don't feel like doing it for me, do it for her. She’s good and decent and – she's so good. Like you wouldn't believe.

I closed my eyes and traced the outline of the cross; tried not to think of the fragile body underneath it.

She turns the other cheek every fucking day, I thought. And she stepped up to the plate here, ready to die, when everyone else was running for their lives and I couldn't do anything to help her and it's not fair so I'm just asking you –

"Please," I whispered. "Please –"

"Mikey," Maggie coughed, and I knew she was asking for the last flight, the final flight, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, and I couldn't do it, I couldn't –

I threw my head back to shout no, no, no –

And suddenly there was the loudest noise I'd ever heard –

The world shivered, cracked, bent outwards at the seams.

A wave of black light rushed through the pod. The station groaned, I heard it, every panel, every beam, singing an awful low note that drilled right into my head. The lights went out. The screens went mad, flickered with static, blinked off, then on again.

And I sank to my knees by Maggie's coffin, weeping in the sudden silence.



Apparently someone way high up in Cirrus's corporate hierarchy felt the threat of losing Linton V was grave enough to authorise fifteen heavy cruisers cutting their travel time short and jumping out of subspace right next to the station.

The shockwave took out practically every remaining drone in the vicinity. Knocked out half the station's systems, too, but the Alliance carrier group was left effectively weaponless. They weren't kitted out for ship-to-ship combat of that magnitude. So they ran.

Most of the corpsmen on board headed planetside. Some of them stayed in orbit to relieve the station. We had hundreds dead, countless more wounded, but the superstructure was mostly intact and the power came on quick enough to start saving the survivors.

I was invalided out. For services rendered. I didn't mind; I wasn't up to fighting a war.

I wear a cross, now.

I still don't believe. Least I don't think I do. But I'm scared. Seems like it couldn't hurt to have a little reminder that sometimes people do the right thing even then. When they don't know what good it'll do. When all they want to do is curl up in a ball and hide.

Well.

One more reminder.



"Mikey?" Maggie calls up the beach to me in that raspy voice. I stand up, walk towards her where she's watching the sea. I feel the sand between my toes, then the surf coiling around my ankles, shockingly cold.

I hold out one arm and she grabs hold of it with her free hand. She pulls her cane out of the sand with the other and grimaces, then stabs it back down again.

Her left eye is still clouded over milky white and doesn't move. She'll probably never see out of that one again, the doctors say. Seems like augmentation's a possibility, though the house already ate up most of the bonus package Cirrus gave us.

Still. She's walking, now, longer and longer at a time. She can talk more without getting out of breath. Her mind's returning, day by day. Week by week. And she's still her. The best part of her. It's right here. I never lost it.

I'll get the rest in time. I've got faith.



"I'm here," I tell her.

Maggie smiles and shifts her hand down to mine. She locks our fingers together and squeezes.

"Don't leave me," she says.

"Couldn't drag me away," I whisper.

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Cover art, legal stuff:



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