It was not quite morning and not quite noon and she heard polite clapping right through the curiously manual door to the Hall of Valor. She imagined the crowd in there, waiting. The red and gold decorations gleaming, and on-floor tourists just all full of nervous energy quivering and shivering and ravening just to fucking meet her—for a moment she wanted to ignore the hunger in her and turn around and walk away, but then that felt like defeat, and the sting of that thought was enough to get her to go inside.
But it was not her they were cheering, though a few people did notice her. A new arrival, another pilot; a star was clipped onto the nape of a maroon uniform. She stood out in that, looking archaic against the more modern outfits of the tourists, though it went well with the red-and-gold decorations of the Hall. Above them all was the manifold cross, and even through the cheer the captain heard it humming.
The newcomer caught sight of her and saluted, grinning, and Captain Perea saluted back, disconcerted by the mirrored feel of it. And the civilians started clapping now, the cheering subsiding and giving way to the clatter. Two war-injured heroes meeting again, what a sight!
“Talk about a crowd,” said the arrival.
“You’ll get used to it,” said the Captain. “I’m Carla.”
“Sun,” the other said. They shook hands. Then they stood there, not sure what to do after, but the tourists took care of that. They bustled around the two pilots. Many hands were shaken and more than a few hugs were endured, and there in the press of people Carla saw mirrored on Sun’s face the same irritation she’d imagined on herself, but it disappeared and was replaced with a fixed grin which no doubt was again a reflection of her own. This fixed grin persisted even through a minor scandal, when a tourist asked for a gene clipping to the outrage of all those around them. Keep smiling. That’s all she had to do.
Back in her room, Captain Perea looked up the new patient. It looked like she had flown for two years before being brought down. Some details about her family life, which were all very much like Carla’s. No mods going into birth, just luck of the draw, peak reflexes and conditioning produced via coincidence. A very normal origin.
She finished her food—it was only there that she realized what she’d been eating, chicken salad—and that was when Sun arrived.
“Is it like that every day?” Sun asked.
“What, the civilians? Yeah. Every day, morning, night, they’ll always be there.”
“Definitely not what I wanted to hear,” said Sun. She took a chair, slumped down on it, the smile gone and the face blank with the sort of fatigue Carla had seen as a child on the faces of all those around her. The night-face, at the dinner table. Slack, loose, eyes staring somewhere unfixed.
They tried to talk. It didn’t work out very well and in the silence that followed they tried to share some anecdotes about their stints in the academy, but their experiences were depressingly similar and not much was gained from the conversation. It had been a dull, sterile place. The walls had been white; they remembered that, the white walls, the white bed, the white uniforms. Occasionally a candidate had been dismissed from class—these were the only exciting things they could remember—the summary dismissals that left the candidate weeping as they gathered their things, having failed to measure up to all the mysterious metrics the pilots-to-be had been subject to. But this didn’t last long, being too unpleasant to chat about. No one had known just what the dismissed had failed at. There had been no noticeable lack or misbehaving from them—just, they’d not been enough.
And so they talked a little about their assignments, what they remembered of the action and the aftermath. There was very little of the former—after all, there was no memory of the actual loss, only the aftermath—waking up in the cracked-open shell of her ship, alarms a distant echo as the medics cut her out of the antishock bubble. The ship’s AI keeping up a running commentary, meant to be soothing no doubt, fading in and out as they treated her burns right there; there had been no pain, but she remembered looking down at her arms as they pulled her free from the bubble and the sight had made her wonder. The image in her memory was fuzzy and she suspected some post-shock tampering. Had it been that bad? It must have been—yet her arms were fine now—but still, here she was recovering, though the specifics of what she was recovering from were denied to her.
As for Sun, she recalled being pulled from the carcass of her ship, just like Carla herself. The details were a little clearer for her, as similar as the two’s experiences were, and went all the way down to the shape her vessel had been in, slowly melting as if its golden surface had turned to wax or tar, with a deep gouge on the front that had presumably been the cause of her injury. But that was all; Sun could not recall the shape of their enemies or the contents of their action, and neither could Carla. It had been described as a safety mechanism, the combat fugue, and the two of them mulled over it, trying to find a fragment perhaps of what they’d experienced but forgotten in each other’s memories, but for each the experience of the other was disappointingly similar and vague. So they were left with their injuries as proof that they had suffered something, in the act of doing something.
The two of them joked about it, the good fortune they shared, how they’d basically won a goddamn lottery. In the era of 0.14% casualty rates they had each somehow become one of that rare few, damaged so heavily they could no longer serve, not until they were restored to full health and met some metric whose standards neither of them knew the details of. What good luck, to be war-wounded heroes.
The conversation died there. They sat in silence, and a few minutes passed before Sun rose and the two of them agreed to meet again and Carla figured she’d find something to talk about before that. It was necessary; she remembered the scene at the Hall, how ecstatic everyone had been at the sight. Two heroes for the price of one. What a deal.
A major part of being a starship pilot was the lack of other human beings in flight. The ships needed a human being to fight, but not humans, nothing plural. It was rare for the rest of the crew to even have bodies onboard; they were processes, intelligences, and communicated by speech, but this speech was always truncated, and despite programming making such things impossible, Carla had always sensed impatience from the AIs whenever they communicated, whenever she gave orders that would be interpreted and analyzed to their optimal conclusions. And of course, they could feel nothing, no matter how cheerful or upbeat they insisted themselves to be.
But the morning after Sun’s arrival, there they stood, physically present in a bipedal chassis, roughly human in form but with monogrammed faces, features composed of shifting tiles that granulated to approximate emotions and tone. The first, Carla recognized as Tommy the navigational aid, his voice deeper than the others, and on the monogram a craggy brow formed above the glaring eyes. It was effective enough; she reminded herself that in the end there was no real individual identity to these presences; Tommy, Heller, Annie, so on and so forth, they were just different masks for her vessel to put on and swap when needed.
“Good morning, Captain Perea.” And the robot bowed.
“Good morning, Tommy.” Carla tried to smile. Meanwhile the tourists who’d come through the door were ecstatic and she heard their excited chatter. Such leadership! That’s how you do it. Even robots, dear. I wish our staff were like this too.
“We wanted to see how you were doing.” And the monogram shifted. It was Heller this time, who handled the distribution of necrotic clusters in the front according to calculations she was not privy to, but whose leavings were determined, she’d been told, via predictive analysis of enemy shift patterns.
“After all,” Heller announced, “you are our captain!” Cheerful little shit. “All hands for Captain Perea, everyone!”
Applause. Carla stood there, working out just how firm her smile should be. She didn’t want to show her teeth. Just have the lips curve up. And they did. That was all. She smiled and waved.
She managed to get a tray of food—pandan waffles with some white coconut cream—and hurried back to her room, glad to escape the well-wishing bipeds and the tourists.
And Sun was there, and she looked angry, and Carla wondered if her own face was like that too, but honestly, she wasn’t angry, just … worried? Annoyed? Something along those lines. Something about Tommy and Heller—AI couldn’t mock anyone, they had no emotions, right?—but Heller, and Tommy, and Annie the life-support companion, something about that collection of guises made her wary, made her suspect some patronizing tone, and she sat down and tried not to think about it anymore and remembered she’d forgotten to say hi to Sun, and so she said hi, at the same time as Sun, and she felt even more awkward. She wished she’d not been injured—the fucking lottery she’d won—and she wished she could go back to the front, even if she could ultimately never remember the combat, but was that not a good thing? The start of each run a blackout thing, brain in hibernation before being roused awake at its end. It reminded her of an awkward interview a few years ago, when she too had been just a civilian, fifteen and dreaming of space. The most decorated human pilot in the fleet had been asked about his time in combat, to which he’d replied with a summary of documents stamped and procedures approved and oh by the way, the coffee is amazing, but when pressed could answer nothing about time spent actually fighting. He had stammered, had excused himself by stating it was confidential information. The audience had booed. Withholding the exciting part, the killing part, that was inexcusable. Carla had felt the same way, then later she’d understood why. He’d simply had nothing to tell, because he could remember none of it.
“Anyway,” said Sun, “the weirdest thing happened this morning. Right as I was getting out of PT, my crew arrived.”
“Same here. Well, okay, at breakfast I mean, when I went to get food.”
“I feel so much less special now. What happened?”
“Nothing much. Some tourists, and the crew said hi and bye and left a little after.”
“Sounds staged. Okay, definitely staged. They’re robots! It must’ve been some publicity thing. I bet the visitors lapped it up. I just hope they don’t come by again before, well, you know.” Sun raised her new arm into the air, pointed at the ceiling a few meters above them. The ceilings were all so damned high. Was that what she was saying? Carla had no idea.
Carla dwelt on the other things Sun had said, and found comfort in them. As some publicity thing it had to have been ordered and thus not a decision undertaken on their own initiative. It meant that the other things—the patronizing tone and attitude she suspected of the crew—were just something conjured up by her mind, had been the case all along. They were here because they’d been ordered to, not on their own initiative. They were still nothing but programs; they had no emotions, and their decisions weren’t independent things and thus whatever she suspected of them was just her projecting. At least, the thought made her feel better.
But before she could reply, there came a knock on the door.
Silence; another knock; Sun got up to open the door, and there were two bipeds, both identical in form save for the monograms on their smooth curving faces. One of them had Tommy’s face on. The other had to be Sun’s crew.
And behind the bipeds stood the tourists. She heard them marvel over the door, at how you had to open it yourself—manually—wow!
Would there ever be a break? Not until she recovered, though she wasn’t certain as to just what was actually wrong, what had to recover for her to return to action. It took her back, to pre-combat routines, being swallowed by the antishock bubble, navigating the jelly to grasp the finned controls. The feel of those fins in her hands, breathing in and out in that thick jelly, reciting pre-combat phrases so her mind could slip into combat fugue with no trouble. And she’d wake up at the end with a neat report of the results all done up as percentages and statistics, number of clusters dropped, the damage inflicted by said clusters, a thank-you on the screen, thank you for your service, you did well—but did what? She had no idea what it was she fought, if she fought anything at all. Perhaps she didn’t fight at all. This idle thought scattered into fears and worries and speculations. She tried to dismiss them, and it would’ve been easy in the rhythm of active duty, surrounded by people just like her, but here, in this relative isolation, it was hard. Perhaps there was nothing. Perhaps there were no enemies. Perhaps, if there were enemies, she didn’t fight them at all—perhaps the fugue was a lie—perhaps she was simply knocked out and woken up later for some unknown purpose, like the metrics the candidates had been subjected to in the Academy.
This terrified her, the purposelessness of it, her training, everything. Perhaps the AI controlled the combat too, like it did everything else. Everything, and the thought wanted to claw up and out, but she resisted, because they were here—there they were, the robots, the people, and here she’d been just trying to talk to someone. She glanced at Sun and the other was silent too; she wondered if Sun felt the same way; could this not be a blessing, maybe? Once the bipeds were gone and the humans too, they could just talk about this, and laugh about it, but why laugh when that too would just be watched, because they had to be watched, how else would all these spectators have known where to find her, where to find Sun? She wanted to scream. Instead, she stood and saluted, and Sun followed, and some of the people peeking in let out an audible “ooh,” and Carla saw her, saw Sun, bite her lower lip with her teeth.
“Thank you for visiting us,” said Carla.
“Thank you for letting us visit you,” said Tommy. “And as always, thank you for your service, captain.”
“It’s no problem. Just my duty.”
“Yeah,” said Sun, “just my duty, right?”
And the biped next to Tommy nodded. “Indeed, Captain Gaang. Just as it is ours to serve you. But we do so with the comfort of knowing that you are the best possible option to carry out that service.”
“Hey now, what about Carla right here? She’s right there, fellas! Program in some tact next time, yeah?”
“For our ship in particular,” said the biped. “I’m sure Captain Perea’s crew feels the same way about her.”
“Indeed,” added Tommy, “for us, Captain Perea’s leadership and immense poise under duress are inspiring in the field, and she is without doubt the best possible pilot for the battles ahead.”
“Thanks,” said Carla. She was tired. She wanted to lie down. Not to sleep, but to just lie there, that’s what she wanted. But she stood, and stayed standing, and chatted with the bipeds.
And she wondered how it had come to this. When she was sixteen she’d been chosen right out of IT. Then had come the academy. Won the lottery basically. Then she’d won it again with the injury. Winning, again and again. There was no end to these victories.
Finally, finally, the bipeds had enough, or perhaps the tourists behind them did, and everyone saluted each other and that was that, the bipeds left, and the door closed, and the two of them sat down, and quickly discovered that they still had nothing to talk about. Carla wondered if she should voice the fear that had returned. And the fear, the thought of it, it roused something up in her head, and chest, this desperate longing for someone else to fear the same thing, to suspect, to speculate. How would she start? Could she even start? No doubt they were still being watched, somewhere, by someone. A mouth full of dirt.
There was another knock on the door. They both lurched a little, startled, bothered. Whoever knocked opened the door on their own—they peered in, asked timidly if anyone had seen a bag, must have dropped it somewhere—they said no, and the door closed after a muttered apology. She saw Sun open her mouth as if to say something, then the two of them couldn’t help it, they glanced at the door again, expecting another intrusion. But none came.