War of the Second Iteration, Book Five

“Combat training?” Robert reacted too quickly to keep the shock from coming through in his tone of voice. “In combat armor?”

“Powered combat armor,” Alicia corrected.

“Indeed,” was all Holm said.

“Have you slipped your orbit? What made you pick something – like that?” He almost said that dangerous, but some instinct stopped him at the last possible moment.

For all the good it did him. “Something this dangerous?” Alicia asked. Her voice had that quiet, flat quality that told Robert he was already a step away from going too far.

“The word did come to mind,” he admitted, working to keep his tone more level. “Look, I can understand your wanting a more active role in the habitat’s defense, but…”

She waited for a long moment, then said, “You were going to say?”

Robert got up from the dining room table and walked to the entrance of the porch. Outside was only the dark of night, with a sprinkling of lights spreading out and up from his vantage point. The glass of wine he’d been drinking was clutched in his hand, but he’d lost any interest in the small amount of malbec it contained. He knew what he wanted to say. Robert also knew he would be wrong to say it. He turned back to face them, standing still, at a loss for what he should do or say next.

Suddenly the feeling in the dining room was one of twisted déjà vu. It felt to Robert very much like they’d done this before, but not quite the same way. Like a distorted echo in an empty fuel chamber. And of course, he knew very well they had all been through this before, although this time around, Melep wasn’t there beside Holm.

“So, you don’t approve?” Alicia asked.

Robert thought about his response for a moment, and then said, “That isn’t quite the right way to put it. It implies that you need my blessing or, worse, permission to do this. Clearly, you don’t.”

“Well, what is it then?” she demanded.

“Surprise, I suppose,” Robert replied. He looked at Alicia and saw uncharacteristic anxiety there, just as he’d heard it in her voice when she had announced her decision. “And, well, I’m afraid for you. I mean – powered combat armor? And here I thought you were uncomfortable handling weapons. This is off the scale by comparison.”

“And I would have thought the Institute left you little time for other pursuits,” Holm added.

“I’m more an administrator of the Institute these days than a researcher. The Institute practically runs itself! And with the children away I, uh, well – I have time on my hands.” She was quiet for a long moment after saying that. Her eyes strayed to the wine bottle near the center of the table, but she shook her head slightly and looked up at Robert. “I’m uncomfortable with guns, yes. But I’ve been that way about space travel and EVA suits, as well. I got over those.”

“I think the, ah, problem with EVA suits is one reason your choice startles me,” Robert told her. He didn’t give her a detailed reminder of how she’d briefly gone mad while wearing one aboard the wrecked probeship during the William Bartram salvage mission. “I’d have thought powered armor would be too – similar.”

“It was, at first,” Alicia replied, her voice quiet and eyes downcast. Then she looked up at him. “But I did it! I wore the damned thing and made it through the initial exercises. I can do this!”

“That’s – good,” Robert said. “Jeanine would be pleased to hear it.” Jeanine Milhouse, whose career in the Republic had been that of a grief and trauma councillor, had been instrumental in Alicia’s recovery following the flashback aboard the Bartram.

“She was there, Rob,” Alicia informed him. “I checked in with her before moving forward.” She sighed and said, “That’s what you’re afraid of? A relapse?”

“That’s part of it,” he admitted. “But, well – I guess what it comes down to is I’m no more at ease with the thought of you standing in harm’s way than you are with me out there aboard Surnia.

“And I’m not, of course,” she said with a tiny shrug.

He returned to the table and sat beside her, aware that Holm watched every move. Robert found himself looking into her green eyes. “But the idea still frightens me,” he said bluntly. “The mental image of you wearing one of those things, fighting the Faceless instead of locking yourself safely into a shelter…”

“Would I be safer?” she asked calmly. “Even the Hroom don’t put all of their faith in those shelters, and they developed the tech for the Concordance! And would I be in any greater danger, if the Faceless get into Bartram, than you are while facing their warships aboard the Surnia?”

“No,” Robert replied, slowly shaking his head. “No, you probably wouldn’t be. I know that. At least, I know it here.” He tapped the side of his head. Robert lowered his hand and briefly touched his fingers to his chest. “Here, it’s a different thing altogether.”

Alicia reached out to take his hand between hers, drew it to her lips and kissed it. “I know,” she whispered. “I do know it!”

After a long moment without words, still holding hands, Robert said, “I’ll no more demand that you drop this than you would expect me to hand over command of the Surnia. We both know why. We settled the matter right here, a long time ago in this very room, when I accepted the pilot’s berth on the John Xantus. And again, when I accepted command of the Surnia.”

Nat’ashim seth,” said Holm in a low voice. “Yes, it is such a matter yet again. Knowing the task is yours, and accepting it. You have done this, and now Robert and I face our own nat’ashim seth on your behalf. For our task now is to support you fully, as you have supported us all along. It will not be easy. Robert spoke truly and for us both. It is a frightful thing! The idea of you…” Holm paused and turned slightly to include Robert as well. “The idea of either of you, two of the gentlest souls I have ever known, finding it needful to learn to fight and kill – it breaks the heart.”

Posted May 11, 2017 by underdesertstars

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