I haven’t kept a journal in years. There’s too much that I can’t put down in one and the rest isn’t worth writing about. But as we make our way to the capital city to face the consequences of my actions, I find myself waxing introspective. My fingers itch to put pen to paper, to see my thoughts given shape and substance.
Because the words, they echo in my head. Words like … war; crusade; battle; conflict; skirmish; combat.
Euphemisms, all of them. The simple truth is, war is death. And the key to winning a war is to do death better than the enemy.
I’ve been cheating death for years and I think it shows at times like these, when my voice comes out firm and uncompromising, leaving no room for debate. At least, no one’s questioned me yet; the other grunts just watch me as we go about our business, as we wait for new instructions.
Hothe is inside being debriefed by the General’s staff, and I know that this day will mark a turning point in my career as a soldier. Either I’ll be promoted and the troops who followed me will be pardoned and even more loyal to me than before, or I won’t and they’ll resent me for leading them astray.
I’ll lose their respect if that happens.
And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want it. If I said I didn’t care about earning it, about deserving it. Hey, I could’ve taken the easy route. Even if you’re not royalty, being in on the King’s inner circle has its perks if you care to use and exploit them.
I do sometimes. I’ve used the allowance allotted to me as an official Earth Ambassador (Antar Office, since I’ve never gone back; it’s an empty title, really) to make the lives around me easier and safer, to make our time on leave more enjoyable. To make sure no one screws with the mail or food supplies, because they know that everything I see I can report back.
Of course, I rarely do. I didn’t report the soldier I caught sneaking food to prisoners when we were on low rations ourselves, although I did make sure it was just food. I didn’t report any of the soldiers I found working out their emotions with and on each other, which is against regulations but if they were discreet about it and it helped defuse tensions, I let it slide. I even let one soldier bring some kind of instrument into camp, a sort of flute he learned to play as a child on a distant planet, so that when the officers were off in meetings and talking was too hard, he could play a quiet melody for us and we’d sleep a little easier.
But I don’t let people ignore me or to exploit my connections for me. And I’ve never coerced my superiors into supporting me or letting me squirm my way out of unpleasant duties and assignments. When I make a bad judgment call, and I have made some, I get punished like everyone else.
I’m working my way through the ranks. It’s a point of honor, one of the few things in my life I am truly proud of because I know that Kyle would be proud of me for doing it.
I hope he’d be proud of me now, because it’s time for the next step.
I break away from the group. “Yes, Private?”
“You’re wanted inside.”
He hesitates but then salutes me, and, slightly embarrassed, I salute back. We’re on civilian ground and on leave; strictly speaking, neither is necessary. But apparently he feels it is.
Ironically, the Antarians found it easier to adapt Earth military protocols than to reinvent their own.
Oh, they had defensive weapons and sophisticated technologies, but what they didn’t have were the field experience necessary for effective offensive deployment. Outright war had been almost unheard of within the Antarian Empire before Khivar’s ascent to power, and their society lacked the machinations and traditions to facilitate military mobilization.
A few of the other races that make up the alliance consider the human bias favoritism, and I will admit that it does make everything a little easier on us humans who’ve found our ways into service for the Allies. But the important thing is … it works.
So when Michael proposed some new and radical changes Earth-style, they listened. And after a few demonstrations, they agreed. Even I was impressed, and I’d helped him merge the training he remembered from his past life with what we learned from Earth’s military manuals.
And we did learn a lot. It was right before the first Trejantisian strike against Earth that Isabel had the dreams, dreams of war and planet-wide devastation. Then Max started remembering more about government leadership, and Michael – well, Michael woke up every morning with some new instinct for strategizing.
The really strange part came when the rest of us came into our own powers. Suddenly Maria developed this really eerie ability to know when people were lying, and Kyle got this thing where every now and then, he’d just know what was about to happen, sort of like a limited precognition or clairvoyance. And of course, I learned how to project and, when we eventually met up with the full-blooded aliens, it turned out that I could project on a whole other level. I could hold entire telepathic conversations in my head, and some day I might not even need an alien to initiate contact.
When I think back, I think that’s when Kyle and I first realized we’d make good soldiers. We even recognized our strengths early on, as he focused more on strategic weapons training while I studied battlefield management. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but we made a really good team, almost as good as Max and Michael.
God, I miss Kyle.
Guerin – sorry, General Rath, I know, but damned if I’m going to call him that unless I have to – is waiting for me when I enter the room. All around us, serious-looking aides move about purposefully, none of them paying any attention to the quiet drama unfolding at one end of the central meeting table. Of course, they all know exactly what’s going on.
Ah, I’m here unofficially then. Otherwise he’d address me by rank or just bark out “Parker” as if we haven’t known each other since childhood.
He squints at me. I haven’t called him by his given Earth name in a long time. It sounds oddly formal after years of calling him Guerin.
“I heard about what happened, that you were the mastermind behind that little raid.”
I shrug. I don’t miss the flicker in his expression, the one that suggests I’m very different from the girl he knew as a kid on Earth. Well, I’m not but I am, and I know I have that look on my face, the one that says ‘deal with it’. The one I gave Max when I told him I was enlisting in the Alliance Terrestrial Forces and nothing he could say would change my mind.
It's the same one that got Maria off my back when she tried to cajole me into quitting. I was shocked, actually, that she’d even ask me to waste precious energy supplies just to return with her to the capital city in disgrace. But of course she didn’t understand it that way. It wasn’t her fault, but she just didn’t understand that we lived in different worlds.
That was the only time she ever ventured near any of the action, and the truth is that I was glad when she left. When she was there, I remembered that I was small, and I was vulnerable, and I was far away from home. It’s better when it’s just me, and the people who serve with me. We’re all aliens in the field, and we understand each other in ways no one who sleeps in climate-controlled comfort every night can.
I can tolerate Michael a little better, mostly because we’re both soldiers and because we don’t have to pretend to like each other when Maria’s not around. Oh, don’t get me wrong – we’d die for each other. We’ve saved each other’s ass countless times, without hesitation or expectation. We even work well together. But when it’s quiet, when we can pull back and relax, that’s when we have to keep our distance, because it’s all too easy to remember all the times we’ve ended up on opposing sides of some argument that’s never been satisfactorily resolved.
And we both know that I’d end up dead or worse if we ever got into a serious fight. Not because he might hurt me, but because his people would, if they ever saw me lay a hand on him in anger.
Now he sits back and studies me. I wait. I’ve faced just about every horror war can dish out and I can take his attitude without breaking a sweat. But it’s tedious, especially since I’ve just gotten back from the field and I’m dying for a hot, soapy bath with all the clean water I can use. Sonic field showers just aren’t the same.
“Spit it out, will you?”
He glares at me. I know he wishes I would show a little more respect to him when there are other people around. Little does he know how much restraint it takes me to treat him with any deference at all. I’m still standing, aren’t I?
“Your actions were impulsive and out of order. No one gave you permission to lead that raid.”
I concede that much. It’s true.
“The thing is,” he admits grudgingly, “it worked. I’m just not sure if you realize just how useful that little hissyfit of yours turned out to be.”
I force myself to stay calm, mentally filing that ‘hissyfit’ comment away for future consideration. It might justify some revenge at some point down the road.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you ever ask yourself why Khivar even bothered wasting resources to cause a little trouble out in the middle of nowhere?”
I don’t bother answering. Of course I wondered. But if he’d ever been at my rank, he’d know I wouldn’t get any answers. I didn’t even get to interrogate the prisoners I’d helped capture.
Michael sighs and rubs his eyebrow. It’s a nervous habit, and I know he’s building up to something. “The whole campaign was a diversion, to hide that one of the officers you disposed of was just passing through the region, carrying secret instructions from higher-ups.”
That Trejie prig that begged for his life, maybe. My gaze sharpens as I read between the lines. Alien telepathy being what it is, personal messages are only sent along when the instructions come straight from the top and physical codes are required for confirmation of something or other. Such messages are either so important or so crucial, they’re almost always carried by one of Khivar’s personal advisors.
“Did you intercept the message?” I hope so. Otherwise, killing him might have been a tad precipitous.
Michael nods. “Battle plans. We have some other people working on that.”
Good. “So why am I here?”
Michael looks at me, sharply. “I talked to Hothe,” he says, waiting for my reaction.
I suppose Hothe told him the truth. I don’t really hold it against him; he’s too honorable to do otherwise.
“He’s backing you up,” he continues. His wry expression tells me I haven’t quite hidden my surprise. “He says he field-promoted you, entitling you to take action.”
Huh. I guess I underestimated Hothe. Mentally I apologize for every negative thing I’ve ever said and thought about him and his leadership style. I owe him one now, but that’s okay. He’s also too honorable to abuse the debt.
Michael isn’t done. “Word is, Khivar’s pissed. And unless he’s a complete moron, he’s going to find out you were directly involved. He may already know.”
Oh shit. It’s finally penetrated my thick skull just what he’s getting at: my days in the field are over. I’m more of a target than ever, which makes me a liability. I’ll have to retire, or take a desk job, just so I don’t get the people around me killed.
Probably in that damned sterile cubicle of an office they allocated to me when I accepted court status, assuming it was just a title and an excuse to stay close to Max and the others.
I sink into a chair near Michael. He doesn’t say anything about the obvious breach of protocol because he knows exactly what this means for me. It’s basic veteran psychology: I’m too far gone for the 9-to-5 grind, my system too addicted to the adrenaline rush to settle for paperwork now. I’m screwed. My life as I know it is over. Part of me almost wishes I’d bought it in battle or something, although I recognize that it’s just me overreacting.
“Fuck.” That probably was too.
Michael’s eyebrows spring up, but he stays silent.
“Keep going, I know there’s more,” I say, sounding more together than I feel.
Michael stares for a moment, and then smirks. For some reason it’s faintly reassuring. “There always is.” Taking a deep breath, he leans in and speaks quietly. “There’s a plan. We think we’ve got a window of opportunity here, a chance to infiltrate Khivar’s operation, and we want to exploit it. But we need your help.”
“How?” There’s no uncertainty in my tone or in my mind. If anything, I’m relieved. This is familiar territory, just another mission. I’ve heard this spiel before, this kind of pep talk, and I’ll bite. Anything to keep me active and away from that damned desk.
“We need to get someone inside his camp. We’ve got a secret weapon we’ve been waiting to try out, and if it’s gonna work the psych guys say we need someone with field and basic hostage training but also someone important enough to be taken prisoner rather than killed. Someone he hates enough to keep close. Someone –”
“Like me,” I interrupt, and he nods. “I’ll need a cover.”
Michael hesitates then, and I know I’m not going to like what he’s going to say.
“The analysts have been running simulations. They all agree that the best chance of this working is to make it as realistic as possible, with as few complications as possible.”
I stare at him. I know what he’s getting at, and even as part of me cringes with nausea, another part of me begins to plan, to identify my role in making it happen.
For instance, I need to decide who to sacrifice on our little suicide mission, who I trust enough to watch my back but then let die defending me, so I can be captured in as convincing a manner as possible.
“Thanks a lot, Michael," I complain wryly, but my stupid attempt at levity falls flat and he doesn't respond.
I sigh. "Listen, can I think about this and get back to you later? I want to go say hi to everyone else.”
He nods and stands, officially signaling that our meeting is over. “Let me know soon.”
But we both know I’ll do it. We both know that it’s not really a request, and that I’m not really back in the world that lies on the other side of those doors. I haven’t been a part of it for a long time.
I’m unpacking my duffle when Isabel walks in. I don’t bother looking at her. I haven’t seen her in months and we haven’t held an actual conversation for a lot longer, but I know what she’s going to say.
“Don’t do it.”
“I’m doing it.”
“Max hates this. He doesn’t want you to do it.”
“He has no say in the matter.”
“Michael could stop it.”
“He won’t.” I don’t tell her it was his idea. She’d tell Max and Maria, and they’d never forgive him, not after what happened with Kyle.
Suddenly I hear her moving, and after a moment I feel her arms around me.
“I just want you to be safe. I can’t bear to lose you too,” she says, hugging me.
There’s no middle ground for Isabel. One minute she’s pulling the Ice Princess routine, the next she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve. I try not to flinch. I appreciate how hard it is for her to be so open, even after all this time, but I don’t think she realizes that I’m not, not any more. I’m a soldier now, and soldiers don’t react well to unexpected contact.
“Come on, Isabel,” I say soothingly as I pull away, concentrating hard on the tone of my voice, knowing it has to sound gentle if she’s going to believe me. “Everything’s going to be fine. Listen,” I speak quickly now, as if inspired. “I’m on leave here! Why don’t we grab Maria and get some lunch and spend the afternoon gossiping or something utterly girlish?”
Isabel smiles as she waits for me by the door. She thinks this is her triumph, she thinks she’s halfway to convincing me to change my mind. She won’t even get upset when I let her and Maria do all the talking, because she thinks if she’s just patient, she’ll get through to me somehow, bring me back into the fold.
I know this because we’ve done this before. And I’m sorry to play these games with her, but she can’t know the truth, the truth that Michael and I know, that Max refuses to face, and that she and Maria have to be protected from.
War is death. And I am at war. Therefore, I am death. And what does death do? Death kills. Well, I’ve changed. I’m death, now. I kill.
I’m a killer.
I don’t belong here.
Michael is talking, but I’m listening on autopilot. I already know the important stuff anyway.
I’m to be promoted to Lieutenant before I leave. We need visibility, need to draw out Khivar, give him a chance to make a move … and besides, I’ve earned it.
It’s also a public relations necessity. If another one of the King’s inner circle was to disappear like Kyle did, or end up dead on a field somewhere, it must be handled just the right way. The Royal House can’t be seen as weak. So if I die, I have to become a martyr, even if they have to bullshit their way through some seriously inflated stories of my battle prowess and dedication to the cause to do it.
It’s for me, too.
Part of me remembers what it was like when my family consisted of only five other people, after Jim died and we left Roswell for good to protect but also to escape from the rest of our parents. That part of me needs to say good-bye, just in case I never see my family again.
And suddenly I feel almost claustrophobic. The room seems too crowded, the air painfully charged, the light so intense it hurts my eyes.
It’s too much. I need some time to process this. Because I haven’t been that girl for a long time, the girl who put that family before everything and everyone else, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself until now. Not entirely. And I need to say good-bye, to them and to that Liz Parker.
So I wait for Michael to take a breath, and then I tell him I’ll meet up with him later. He doesn’t stop me as I leave, probably because he has a good idea of what’s going through my mind. I don’t know if it’s comforting or irritating that he knows me so well.
When I get to my quarters, I ignore the flashing light that tells me I have messages waiting, and lay down. I need to be alone right now, alone to visit with my memories.
They’re the only thing I have left that are truly mine, that no one – no one – can ever take away from me.
One of my favorite memories is of the six of us eating at the CrashDown, back when 'the six of us' meant Alex and Isabel were circling each other warily, Kyle was still hanging out with the jocks and Tess was just the name of the little girl down the street that came in for ice cream every Saturday afternoon. It's a bittersweet memory because I've never really come to terms with Alex's death, I know I haven’t, but it's a good one nonetheless.
What made that day special was this one moment where I found myself watching Maria and Michael, and even though they were bitching about something or other, he still handed her the ketchup when she needed it. Before she had to ask, even. The look on her face ... it touched something in me.
Michael and Maria never got back together, not in a married sense, but they’ve stayed close. They know each other the way no one else can, and sometimes they’re the only ones who can understand each other. Michael only needs to feel her presence nearby to stay focused, and I know I have him to thank for getting Maria through the past several years when I couldn’t be there for her.
Maria watches out for us, all of us. She always has. When the rest of us give in to the pain of a lost battle, or a disastrous judgment call, or the pressures of responsibility, she somehow manages to rally our spirits, to kick our collective asses into action. Or whatever else the occasion calls for.
It’s hard and thankless work, I know, but she’s well able for it. Of us all, I think she’s the least damaged by everything that happened.
Take Isabel. The night we left Earth to join the Alliance she’d decided to tell Jesse the truth, to ask him to come with us, to fight at her side. But before she got the chance, she overheard him speaking with her father and discovered that he was actively helping the investigation into Max, a witch-hunt he’d promised to stay out of. Heartbroken, she’d come alone to meet us out in the desert beyond Roswell, her car still packed with twice as many supplies as she needed because she’d bought enough for two.
I wonder what Jesse thought later on, when the truth got out. I wonder if he lived long enough to see her image projected on every television set around the world with her title and lineage labeled clearly underneath. I do know, because Isabel told me, that he died around the time most of the people in Roswell did, along with our parents.
But I can’t think about that, about them. Not now.
Isabel spent the time since then fighting to divorce herself from her legacy of failed relationships. And, I think, getting over Kyle, although I’m not as certain about that part of her life. He would never admit to it, but I think she let him comfort her a few times in the beginning. I’m pretty sure that’s all it was. It’s all they had time for, anyway.
Sometimes I think everything would be different if Kyle had just had more time.
My throat closes up sometimes when I remember him, and rarely a day goes by when I don’t. He’s been MIA for years now, and although by law Michael should have declared him ‘presumed dead’ already, Isabel and I won’t allow it. He doesn’t try very hard, though. We all cling to the hope that somewhere out there, Kyle Valenti is fighting to get back to us.
I know I do, anyway. I marked so many beginnings with Kyle. He was my first boyfriend. He was the first other person to know what it was like to be saved by an alien king. He even went through basic training with me when he could have opted for officer training instead. Then we got our first markings together, a sort of Antarian tattoo, although we initiated into different companies because monarchical law forbade having two people so close to the throne serve together.
I ended up in the ground forces because I felt a certain affinity with the troops who stared the enemy in the face. Not for me the machines and flyers and omni-terrain vehicles that Kyle delighted in. He liked the mechanical solitude, said it centered his energies. He liked tinkering with them and hated that I preferred firsthand combat. He especially hated that I ended up among the most easily sacrificed forces out there. It was one of the few things he and Max truly agreed on.
Max … my Max. We never married, and in a lot of ways we’re not as close as Michael and Maria are. But we do love each other, and somehow we seem to complete each other in a way no one else can.
I guess it’s reassuring that after all we’ve done and seen and lost, some things never change.
A gentle but insistent beeping snaps me out of it.
That’s enough introspective self-pity for one day. Anyway, it’s time to get up and take that bath. I have a date to get ready for.
My laugh sounds strangely hollow as it echoes around me.
Dating. Now there’s an alien concept.
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