"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--
0400, a time when the body's tides run slowest. The only light is from outside; streetlights and neon, reflected light from rain-wet streets. I've been sitting on this couch by the window for two hours, after lying in bed trying to sleep for another two. I'm not even tired, although I should be. And even if I sleep, I'll dream.
Today was one of the worst.
Zoltar attacked a provincial city with a new mech; a spider. That in itself was not so bad, we could handle it, and did. But not soon enough. The city's a smoking ruin, now. That's the thing I can never get used to, that's what will keep me awake for the rest of this night, as it's done before.
Usually we don't hang around for SAR, we leave that to emergency services, trained people. But this time...
Because it was stomping through a populated area, Mark wouldn't use our heavy armaments - the right decision although, of course, Jason bitched about it. Yes, one Spur would - probably - have finished it, but that same missile would have scattered debris and fire across half the city. For the same reason, regular forces had been pulled back, letting us take the spider on. Mark ordered me out to plant some explosives on the body of the spider.
It wasn't too hard, actually. I wanted to place sixteen charges - two to each leg, one at the joint, one where the leg joined the body. Each leg was segmented; the part leading out from the body to the first joint - the 'knee', I guess - was more or less horizontal, the segment from the 'knee' to the ground a few degrees off vertical. So I could jump to the joint, plant the charge and run along the leg and put the second package at the junction with the body. Jump off, pick another leg, repeat until finished. Not too tricky, even when the Spectran crew inside the spider figured out I was there and started shooting; maybe the motion of the spider threw off their aim.
I was on the seventh leg, at the knee, when I made my mistake. I looked down.
Now, I'm not scared of heights - I could hardly do this job if I was - so it wasn't the fact that I was forty feet in the air clinging to a giant spider's leg that made me let go in shock. It was someone I saw on the ground.
Most people had fled or taken cover, but there were still dozens running from the spider. I hadn't looked at them - hadn't wanted to, I couldn't afford the distraction and I needed to watch what I was doing carefully - but now I did. Only a glance, in passing, but it was enough to make me lose my grip, and the spider's momentum shook me loose.
I landed all right, dodged a spider-leg and froze. For one of the few times in my life, I was caught by indecision. Go after the spider, finish the job of planting the explosives...or follow that face. The face of something impossible.
Mark called on the wristband, wanting to know if I was all right. That broke the paralysis and recalled me to my job. I told him I was fine - tell Tiny to back the Phoenix off, because I'm about to set off the charges - but then I couldn't.
What if I hadn't been hallucinating, or mistaken; what if she was still in the area and she got caught in the explosion...
Jason's voice came over, telling me to blow the damn charges, not to waste time.
It had only been a fleeting glimpse, I told myself. Surely there's no chance...
I ran for cover behind a building and blew the charges by remote control.
The explosion wasn't much, but when I came out, the spider was shattered. I had fallen before I'd planted explosives on the back two legs, so they were still intact, but the body of the spider was canted forward; the back legs and the body formed a triangle with the ground. I paid no heed to that, only ran in the direction I'd last seen that face, ignoring Mark's voice and Keyop's on my wristband.
The best place to begin my search was a hastily set up camp in a park in the city's centre. I'd taken a chance to hide in a building briefly - the lobby of an apartment block - and detransmute. I turned my wristband off and stuck it in my pocket so I could walk through the camp, incognito.
It was terrible - so many injured, so many dead. There had been fires, so there were burns victims; people had been crushed trying to escape, so there were broken bones; people screamed.
I was there to look for that face that I could not possibly have seen - but I was certain that I had - but in all humanity...
I defy you to walk into hell and not be touched. I found a doctor, told her I had some training - I do, even if it's only front-line first aid - and asked her how I could help.
So I spent hours - I don't know how long - bandaging wounds, fetching and carrying, helping where I could, watching for that face all the time. I would recognise her again; seeing her had been like looking in a mirror. And I asked, anyone who was conscious and could stand the question, but no-one had seen anyone looking that her.
Like me. Like my twin.
It was dusk when I finally pulled out my bracelet and turned it back on. I stuck it in my pocket though - I didn't want anyone to recognise it, and we've all been trained in the theory and practice of paranoia. The others would be able to triangulate the signal, even if I wasn't answering their hails; they'd come and find me.
By that point, I'd had enough of the camp, and things were being brought under control - more medical staff coming in, the worst of the wounded had been shipped out to better facilities - and I had given up on my search.
No sign of a black-haired, green-eyed woman. Except for me.
When Mark came into the camp, I was at the edge of a circle of lamplight, holding a baby. She wasn't hurt but she'd been crying; there was only me and a nurse, and we hadn't had time to do much of this, just giving comfort rather than medical aid. Now we did.
Mark pulled up short at the sight of me holding, rocking a baby - I admit, I don't project much of a maternal image. Even to Keyop, I'm an older sister, not a mother. He was angry but beneath the fury was fear; he'd been worried sick that I'd been hurt. He couldn't talk to me - I was out of uniform - but he could and did handsign his half of a conversation. Ordering me to get the hell out of the camp, back in uniform and join him on the eastern edge of the camp. Then he strode on, as though he was on an inspection tour, or a search of his own.
Oddly, I was reluctant to surrender the infant, but I'd pushed my luck far enough. I gave him ten minutes to get away and make it look like my departure wasn't connected to his appearance and then put the babe back in its makeshift cot - a cardboard box lined with blankets - and covered her. Then I walked east.
Yes, Mark was furious. Keyop was ecstatic - he'd been imagining me dead somewhere. I hadn't thought of that. Hell, I hadn't thought of anything except finding that woman who could have been my sister. Jason and Tiny were relieved to see me alive and uninjured. I didn't mention where I went or why, and there must have been something in my face that told them not to ask, because no-one did. When we got back to Centre Neptune, I got held back in the briefing room when the other four were dismissed. Chief Anderson made his point about responsibility quite well, but didn't actually suspend me as I thought he might.
So I sit here in my couch, reliving over and over again that fleeting glimpse...and I'm still not certain of what I saw.
Maybe I imagined it - a chance similarity wrought it into something more, my imagination aided by the situation and the fleeting nature of the sight, but I could have sworn...
I'm an orphan. To discover...maybe a sister? My mother would have grey hair now, and I'd seen black, so, then, a sister. To discover a sister after all these years alone...
The other thing I keep reliving too, is the feel of that baby in my arms. If there is anyone I would want to have children with, it's Mark. I know how I feel about him, how he feels about me...we talked about it long ago, and we can't pursue a relationship while we're at war. It's just too risky.
I've never thought about having children, about a life beyond the war with Spectra. That we are defending our world is enough of a reason to fight.
But maybe I should think about it.
I will probably never be certain about that woman I saw; equally certainly, I was probably mistaken. I don't expect I'll be able to find her, if she existed at all. I have no family from my past. The family I have now - Mark, Jason, Keyop, Tiny - shares no blood with me, but we're bound by something stronger. And I do have the chance of a family in the future. That's the apple tree I plant; my hope of something better.
The sun's coming up, the streetlights are going out, and I'm going to have to go without sleep tonight. We're due back at Centre Neptune for debriefing at 0830 and if I sleep now I won't wake in time.
There's a gentle knock at the door; I answer it. It's Mark, and he's carrying two cups of takeaway coffee. He knows me well. "Hope I didn't wake you," he says.
I shake my head. "Couldn't sleep." We sit on the couch.
He stirs his coffee, then looks directly at me. "What happened yesterday? That's not your style, running off like that."
I take a deep breath and start my story.