Do you remember when I lost my mind and wrote that story about Ancient soap operas?Â And then I got all caught up in the b-plot of said Ancient soap and wrote weird metaish stories about Rodney and John participating in fannish activities as part of the weird b-plot?Â I think my whole weird obsession just took on another dimension of strange.Â I present to you the story of Dr. Laila Noreen and Colonel Argent Helion:
â€œRiolariaâ€™s a memoryâ€”a conspiracy theory at best at this point,â€ Laila said, elbow-deep in the guts of a computer console.Â She was wearing gloves and three coats and still it was too cold, and not for the first time she hated that her predecessors laziness.Â â€œHow come we always end up talking about this?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ Holland said, â€œmaybe because you always end up stealing my coat and the only way I can fend of hypothermia is by harassing you.â€
Laila ducked out from beneath the computer and rushed to the space heater, tugging off her gloves and rubbing her aching fingers together to get blood flow back to the tips.Â Scientists a dozen generations ago had spent a lifetime perfecting the pendulous beauty of quantum computers and then theyâ€™d damned all their offspring to a lifetime of trying to work on machinery that had to operate at -373 degrees Kelvin.
â€œItâ€™s your sacred duty as my understudy to give me your coats,â€ she reminded him.
â€œItâ€™s my civic duty to learn as your understudy,â€ Holland sulked, huddled by the heater half a room away.Â The last time sheâ€™d let him work the guts of the system heâ€™d come away with frostbite on three fingersâ€”he was fast, but not fast enoughâ€”and sheâ€™d punished him to a month of busy work: boring, repetitive, safe.
â€œItâ€™s indentured servitude,â€ she said, decisive.Â â€œEmbrace it.â€
Laila glanced down at her sensors and pursed her lips.Â It wasnâ€™t optimal, but it was functional, and that was the best she could do with so few resources and so little time.Â â€œDo you think this will hold them?â€ she asked.
Holland looked down at her screens and nodded.Â â€œItâ€™s more than enough for their needsâ€”and the systems wonâ€™t sustain that much more exposure,â€ he said, adding, â€œI can forward you the articleâ€”you can read it while we ride the Suppository.â€
â€œI thought I told you to stop calling it that,â€ Laila said, teeth chattering on the consonants, and scrubbed her palms together: her hands were ragged, red, calloused and cut up from the naked edges of metal inside computers.Â â€œGo onâ€”cover it up.Â I think itâ€™s done.â€
Holland pulled the heavy cover over the system again, and all the systems died, briefly, rearranging themselves and refreshing to new quantum states before the near-silent whir of them revived, and Laila watched the monitors start to stream information again.
â€œGood work,â€ Holland said, bright, bolting the console shut once more.Â â€œAs usual.â€
â€œWell, obviously,â€ Laila said.Â â€œYou okay to clean up in here?â€
Holland stuck his tongue out at her.Â â€œGo on, Iâ€™ll be ready in a jiff.â€
In the hall, Laila picked up the phone.Â â€œTell Commander Zhang his substation is back online,â€ she told the operator at central command, â€œand remind him that if his soldiers keep frying my systems from downloading too much porn, heâ€™s on his own.â€
â€œIâ€™ll translate that word for word, maâ€™am,â€ the sailor on the other end said faithfully, smiling so hard she could hear it through the line.
â€œYeah, yeah, yeah,â€ Laila sighed, and hung up, glancing out the airlock window to see the faint, soft-pink curve of a Benedictine transport out the window, suspended silent and gleaming from reflected starlight in the vast darkness.
â€œOhâ€”Holland, make it snappy, our ride is here.â€
The Benedictines ran the only neutral transit in the four galaxies, operating enormous pink-colored pods of varying sizes but similar shapes which really did look like they belonged up somebodyâ€™s backsideâ€”worse yet, they were usually papered in the tackiest of tacky advertisements.Â Their ride was selling a six-day treatment for herpes with an animated short of a woman beaming as she swam and road bikes and cheered, â€œThanks to Herpi-Vax, promiscuity is fun again!â€
â€œItâ€™s ass-pill shaped,â€ Holland argued, dumping the last of their supplies in the empty galley.Â â€œYou canâ€™t dispute that.â€
â€œHolland, when we get back home, Iâ€™m going to give you a book about Sigmund Freud,â€ Laila said, curling up in a clamshell seat and turning to glance out the windows, at the inconsistent, blinking stars outside, the lazy crawl of interplanet railways.Â â€œYouâ€™re going to learn about an amazing theory about developmental stages and how it pertains to you, and how youâ€™re forever talking about asses.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure thatâ€™s somebody only extremely old people know about,â€ he said cheerfully, calling up a battered monitor and scanning the screen.Â â€œArenâ€™t you curious though, about the planet?Â Everybody else seems to be.â€
Holland, like so many young geniuses whoâ€™d flowed through the Institute throughout the years, had been plucked from the rank and file of the galactic school system, and it showed.Â It hadnâ€™t helped that the greatest minds in the empire had sent an eight year-old into her dubious care.Â The last time Laila had been politic was before the war started, when sheâ€™d been small and scared and hadnâ€™t known what and who sheâ€™d be one day.Â Either way, Laila wasnâ€™t certain about the wisdom of letting a bunch of kids who were already predisposed to being awkward escape the natural socialization process.
â€œThat sector of the galaxy was lost like, fifteen years ago, it canâ€™t have survived,â€ she shot back.Â â€œAnd if it did, why did nobody try to establish contact all these years?â€
â€œWell,â€ he said, â€œthere is that massive band of exploded planets and space mines in the way.â€Â Squirming, he added, â€œBesides, there is that theoryâ€”about the prince.â€
Laila lay down across the seats.Â â€œI canâ€™t be hearing this.Â Itâ€™s too stupid for words.â€
â€œNobodyâ€™s proven that he didnâ€™t escape!â€ Holland protested, coloring darkly.Â Heâ€™d never quite grown out of his blushing, and Laila couldnâ€™t help but think of the boy theyâ€™d ushered into her lab for the first time all those years ago.
Sheâ€™d been convinced it was a joke gone horribly wrongâ€”sheâ€™d been looking forward to having an apprentice, not a child.
â€œLet the record show these historical documents are literal gossip rags, like with sparkling font,â€ Noreen sighed.Â â€œHollandâ€”youâ€™re hopeless.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™re mean!â€ he said, pouting, just as the overhead announcement murmured, in perfect harmonics, â€œYou are now arriving in Nibbanaâ€”you are now arriving at your destination: Nibbana.â€
Holland stormed off to do whatever seventeen year-old foppish geniuses did, and Noreen was halfway out of her pants and shirt when the comm unit in her living room went off and Ten sighed, loud and staticky and miserable-sounding into her apartments and said:
â€œNoreenâ€”your filthy protÃ©gÃ© has just been sighted again in the cityâ€”can I assume that means youâ€™re here as well?â€
â€œNo,â€ Laila yelled through the cloth of her sweater.Â â€œItâ€™s all just a hallucination.â€
â€œI gave up recreational drug use when they started selling it over the counter,â€ Ten bemoaned, and with a deep, annoyed sound, added, â€œCome down to the meeting room on the command level, please, General Hopper would like to speak with you.â€
General Hopper was equal parts fatherly and creepy.Â The first time Noreen had met him, sheâ€™d been torn between telling him he didnâ€™t quite look fierce enough to be a general or tell him off, for the pictures of the massacre on the eastern front that had come through the newsâ€”the grim and stark red and gray photographs of bodies in the dust.
Sheâ€™d managed to stop herself before sheâ€™d done anything she couldnâ€™t take back.Â Besides, the hypocrisy in that sentiment had been fierce.
â€œIâ€™ll be there in fifteen,â€ she said.
â€œYouâ€™ll be here now,â€ Ten informed her and hung up.
As a compromise, Laila showed up in five minutes, since she was equal parts disenchanted with authority and the thought of being left for Vorian scavenger ships on unidentified planetsâ€”if she even survived long enough to capture Vorian attention.Â Last week, Helen Troy (the most grievously misnamed field agent in the entire trust, although only one other person had ever gotten the joke), had come home from some backwater wide-eyed, mumbling about cannibal pygmies.
â€œIâ€™m here,â€ she said, darting into the conference room, â€œIâ€™m even wearing pants!â€
â€œFor which we are all deeply, deeply grateful,â€ Ten said, unmoved and slouching in his seat.Â Â Â â€œDr. Noreenâ€”say hello to General Hopper and Colonel Helion.â€
Laila turned to General Hopper and the newcomer, and before she could say, â€œHello,â€ her eyes widened in recognition and she said, â€œOh, no,â€ instead.
â€œLet me make certain I understand this entirely,â€ General Hopper sighed, rubbing at his temples with an extremely tired look on his face.Â â€œYou, Dr. Noreen, are the reason for Colonel Helionâ€™s black eye.â€
She flushed an even darker shade of red, glancing over to where the said officer was casting her a speculative look.Â He did have a black eye, but instead of making him look sheepish and ashamed of his deplorable behavior, mostly he just looked more rakish.Â Laila hated him extremely and rubbed at her still-sore knuckles, even more bruised after an afternoon of doing emergency repairs on military outposts.
â€œYes,â€ she admitted, â€œbut to be fair, I didnâ€™t know who he was at the time.â€
At the time, all sheâ€™s known was that a handsome, sloe-eyed man whoâ€™d more or less been smiling at her with what could have been interpreted as intent all night at the overpriced club sheâ€™d been at had, instead, leaned over and asked if she would tell him her friendâ€™s name and contact information.Â Laila only realized she was scowling again when she saw a smirk make its way across Helionâ€™s face.
â€œTo be fair, also,â€ he said, â€œI didnâ€™t know who Dr. Noreen was at the time, either.â€
â€œClearly,â€ she snarled at him.Â She didnâ€™t even try to keep the acid out of her voice.Â â€œBut I doubt that had you known, it would have kept you from flirting with me all night before leaning over to ask me about my friend.â€
Helion winced.Â â€œAt the time, it seemed like a good idea,â€ he said, and it almost sounded like an apology when paired with the near-remorseful gleam in his eye.Â Laila sniffed.
â€œYou told me youâ€™d been attacked by a roving Legalize Prostitution rally,â€ General Hopper said to Helion, who didnâ€™t even have the good nature to blush as Laila felt herself gaping in fury, any generous-ish feelings for Helion vanishing.
This time, he at least colored.Â â€œI assumed at the time she wasâ€”and nobody likes getting beaten up by a girl.â€Â He paused.Â â€œSir.â€
Ten looked like he was battling a severe case of indigestion.Â â€œAs fascinating as all of this has been, can we please return to the original point of this bedamned meeting?â€
â€œAgreed,â€ the General said, glaring at his charge before turning to look across the table and pin Laila with a thoughtful expression.Â â€œDr. Noreenâ€”we need you to take on a mission.â€
Laila forced herself to look away from where she was glowering at Helion to ask, â€œWhat kind of mission?â€Â Before Ten could open his mouth, she added, â€œRemembering, by the way, that I am actually certified as the highest nerd in the land.â€
General Hopper flashed her a diplomatic smile.Â â€œWeâ€™re well aware, Dr. Noreen. Thatâ€™s precisely why your services are needed.Â This isnâ€™t so much diplomacy as pageantry.â€
â€œOh, well, thatâ€™s also something Iâ€™m terrible at,â€ Laila explained.
â€œNoreen,â€ Ten cut in, impatient, â€œwhat General Hopper is trying to tell you and failing at, spectacularly, is that rebel groups at the Western Fringe are attacking the perimeter, and as a goodwill gesture, weâ€™ve like you and several phalanxes of highly armed military escorts to enter into Vorian territory and oversee the improvement of their security measures.Â Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll be feted awkwardly and everybody will be extremely uncomfortable and that I will get no fewer than twenty insubordinate messages from you while youâ€™re away, but if I can endure your whining, so can you.â€Â He held up a quelling hand as she opened her mouth.Â â€œYes, I know itâ€™s a hideous waste of both your time and your mind but as the council impressed upon me today, itâ€™s not really up for discussion.â€
General Hopper raised his eyebrows at Colonel Helion.Â â€œAnd on second thought, Colonel Helionâ€”you wonâ€™t just be picking the contingent.Â Iâ€™m sending you to supervise.â€
â€œSir,â€ Helion said, looking equal parts pained and alarmed, â€œI already apologized about the unfortunate incident with your wife.â€
Ten looked almost pleased.Â â€œSee, youâ€™ll have a friend on your trip,â€ he said.
â€œThis completely and totally sucks,â€ Laila told them all.Â â€œJust for the record.â€
She walked faster.
â€œHey!Â Dr. Noreen!â€
She considered running, but weighed it against the always-hovering threat of her bum knee and the fact that everybody in the cream-white limestone complex of the grand councilâ€™s hive of offices hardly needed another excuse to gossip about her.
Sighing, she stopped and turned around, crossing her arms as she went.
â€œWhat,â€ she asked Helion, â€œdo you want?â€
â€œAw, come on, donâ€™t hold a grudge,â€ he said and smiled at her winningly.
Argent had already spent most of the week feeling more or less shitty for the weekend, and the more heâ€™d replayed that godawful Friday night the more heâ€™d wanted to bury his head under his pillow and never come out again.Â Heâ€™d been in bar brawls plenty, but mostly heâ€™d won and heâ€™d never been decked with one swing by a woman half a food shorter than him holding a fluorescent pink drink in her other hand.
â€œIâ€™ve been kicking myself all week and feeling like a jerk about itâ€”forgive me?â€
She narrowed her eyes at him, a fringe of black lashes thick around her green irises.
â€œYou already gave me a black eye,â€ he reminded her, pointing at his face.Â â€œIt hurts.â€
â€œA lot?â€ she asked, tipping her chin to the side.
Argent sensed capitulation.Â â€œI cried myself to sleep last night,â€ he lied.
Laila frowned for a beat before she relented.
â€œFine,â€ she sighed, leaning heavily against one of the columns in the walkway, and his gaze followed the line of it up, up, into the septpartite vaulting of the six-story ceilings, admired the way light poured into every inch of the complex.Â It was gothic in a way that people only understood in the academic sense anymore these days, but it reminded Argent of churches heâ€™d known as a child, light streaming in through multicolored glass.Â â€œBut Iâ€™m only giving in because this stupid story is just as embarrassing to you as it is to me,â€ Laila warned.
Argent recognized a stalemate when he saw one.
â€œColonel Argent Helion,â€ he said, offering up a hand.Â â€œPleased to meet you, Dr. Noreen.â€
â€œCall me Laila,â€ she told him, palms warm against his as she took his hand.Â Solid, no nonsense, Argent decided.Â â€œNobody refers to me as Dr. Noreen unless theyâ€™re pissed at me or theyâ€™re trying to frighten the interns.â€
Argent looked at the white tunic she wore over wheat-colored linen pants, the clothes looked years old and comfortable, worn in.Â They looked nothing like the pencil skirt sheâ€™d been wearing at the club, the wine-red shirt with the plunging back, and her nails were flesh colored now, not the searing red from the previous weekend, and Argent thought all in all, he liked her better this way.
â€œDoes it work?â€ he asked.
Laila looked thoughtful.Â â€œMaybe if I had my lab coat on,â€ she mused before she grinned at him, raising her eyebrows.Â â€œAnd what did you do to the Generalâ€™s wife anyhow?â€
He groaned.Â â€œLetâ€™s just say she gets amorous when she gets drunk, and I was unfortunate enough to get trapped in the coatroom at her at the last Solstice party.â€
â€œPoor form, Colonel,â€ she laughed, and the sound seemed to alert a slight, red-haired boy, who darted over from the far end of the hallway to grab her elbow, lean his weight heavily on her and stare up at her, demanding:
â€œLailaâ€”Laila, I just heard.Â Tell me I donâ€™t have to go.â€
â€œMust you always act like you were raised by wolves?â€ Laila scolded, and turned back to Argent saying, â€œColonel Helion, Iâ€™d like you to meet my living, breathing, bitching albatross, Holland.Â Holland, Iâ€™d like you to meet Colonel Argent Helion, heâ€™ll be joining you and I on our glorious trip into the Vorian badlands.â€
Holland wrinkled his nose.Â â€œI wish Iâ€™d been apprenticed to the sex workers, at least then Iâ€™d have known going in I was getting paid to be fucked,â€ he muttered before he turned to stare at Argent, eyes rounding and sharp blotches of color appearing at his cheeks.Â â€œColonel.â€
â€œNice to meet you, Holland,â€ Argent said, shuffling.
Heâ€™d heard about the baby geniuses of the ISA, but heâ€™d never seen one up close, and he could only imagine whoever got paired with the councilâ€™s equal parts loved and loathed head researcher would have to earn his keep with brilliance and borderline neuroses.Â Heâ€™d imagined thick glasses or bad skin and social awkwardness, downtrodden nerds who with translucently pale skin and mild cases of dissociative disorderâ€”Holland was bright-eyed and barely-contained energy, all teenage charm.Â Also, he was wearing sparkling pink lip gloss.
â€œItâ€™s very nice to meet you, Colonel,â€ Holland replied, mouth curving up into a smile.
â€œUm,â€ Argent said, awkward.
Laila immediately slapped him upside the head.Â â€œHolland, no,â€ she told him.Â Turning to Argent, she continued, â€œAnd youâ€”donâ€™t even think about it.â€
â€œOh, God, no!Â I would never,â€ Argent said immediately, horrified as Holland yelled, â€œLaila!Â It wasnâ€™t even like that at all!â€ and Laila shouted over both of them:
â€œDonâ€™t think Iâ€™m not smart enough to see that hormonal gleam in your eye, Hollandâ€”youâ€™re not even allowed to think about it, you little succubus!â€
Now it was Argentâ€™s turn to put his hands over his face.
â€œOh God,â€ he realized.Â â€œThis trip is going to be a disaster.â€