I was half-hoping the ready room would be empty; I'm balanced on that edge between wanting and not wanting company. But the trailer was too empty.
Princess is the only one there, sitting on the edge of the couch and playing her acoustic guitar. She acknowledges me with her eyes, just keeps on playing.
I sit in Tiny's usual chair, and listen. She's going from disconnected chord to chord with nothing like her usual confidence; A minor to E minor, then a discordance that makes her grimace until she gets the fingering right.
Princess will give me silence, but my mind won't give me rest. For three days, I've been reliving the race across Africa; for three nights I've been dreaming of mechanical animals and transformations, feeling something tearing loose inside me.
Remember. That's what she said at the last, and I can't stop. Much as I try to turn my mind to something else, I remember her eyes, the way her skin shredded to reveal metal.
To see her again, and then lose her like that...
Time passes. None of the others come in; maybe they're getting dinner, maybe Mark's flying, Tiny and Keyop are fishing, I don't know. Princess keeps playing, starts a soft hum, and suddenly they're not random chords anymore. There's a tune there, something reaching.
"I was thinking about going upstairs," she says eventually, over the guitar. "It should be a good night. Come along?" The strings speak a little as she lifts her fingers from the fretboard.
Upstairs; she means the island which caps and hides Centre Neptune. It's uninhabited except for seabirds; only a few buildings, one of which houses the entrance. "Yes."
The night is so clear; stars are brilliant as we walk from the elevator. It's a quick walk to the beach. Misnamed, for there's no sand, only gravel. The sea breathes in, out, hushes over the stones, and the wind carries the scent of salt. As we walk, Princess takes my hand, her slim fingers twined in mine; this close, the ocean smell mingles with the rose fragrance she wears so often.
"You knew her."
I nod, but hesitate before answering. Once I start talking, it's going to go on, and maybe I'm not ready for that just yet. But Princess looks at me; while she's not the kind to run an interrogation, she's good at digging out answers. A few quiet questions, and that doe-eyed look of hers and you're talking without realising how much you're saying. "A few years ago, before the war started. Racing, like you'd expect." We'd been seventeen, eighteen, hanging out at racetracks, me driving and her watching. I had the edge on her; I already had a car from ISO, experience and training. "The first time I saw her she was trying to get a couple of drivers at the local track to give her lessons. It didn't go down well. There are a few drivers who have an attitude about women."
That was putting it mildly; they laughed at her. "She told them what she thought of them, promised they'd be eating her dust one day."
Princess smiled a little. "She made an impact on you, then."
"We talked; I gave her a few lessons and she was good, better reflexes than almost anyone I'd ever seen. And nerve." That's so important; you can't be a coward on the track; sometimes you can't even pause to consider. You've got a split-second to decide yea or nay and if you can't act fast - and have confidence in your judgement - every other driver will eat you alive.
She's still looking at me. "The rest of it?"
I shake my head. "That's it."
The trouble with trying to lie to Princess when she's paying full attention is, you can't. Indrawn breath, hand tremor, whatever, she'll see it; she's a witch that way. She decided years ago, rightly, that she was terrible at lying except in matters of tact, so she doesn't do it much. And she's so honest herself, she unconsciously demands the same honesty back. Most of the time she gets what she wants. In this situation, I could ignore Tiny or Keyop, tell Mark to go to hell, but I can't say that to her.
"No," I say. "No, it isn't." There are things about Lucy and me I've never told anyone else, and I'm not sure where to start.
That's the other thing about talking over the ticklish things with Princess. She waits, and she'll wait as long as it takes to get the answers. She knows people grow uncomfortable with silence when they've left something unsaid.
"She and I..." We recognised something in each other, I think, a thing in common; we both will fight to the last breath for something we believe in or need. She wanted to be the best, she burned with it.
"The first race she won, I was there for it. We went out to celebrate. Afterwards..." Afterwards, we went back to her place, made love. I wanted to stay there.
"This was not long before the war started?" she asks.
"A few months."
"I wondered then whether you weren't seeing someone. You never said anything."
"Chief would have locked me up if he'd known."
She laughs quietly. "You might be right. How long were you seeing each other?"
"A few months."
We'd lived in each other's pockets, as much as was possible. It wasn't easy; I never told anyone, and there was so much I couldn't tell her.... Then the war started; she found a sponsor and started to race more. That meant a lot of travelling, time away. We didn't so much break up as drift apart. But I never forgot her.
Princess tilts her head to one side. "And during the race..."
"We talked. You've got time when you're driving." Long distance races give you hours of it, with nothing from the outside to distract you. Most of them, anyway. This one was something different. "She...most women wait. If something goes wrong, they'll defer. Lucy acted. She was more alive, and..." I've run out of words; I can't explain. She didn't quit. The animals, all the attacks; hell, she was ready to take on the Phoenix with that damned gun of hers. She didn't quit. She didn't quit. They...
The thing is, we're such a mixture of steel and chalk; weak points where they're least expected. Mark's insecurities, the way he snaps sometimes; Keyop's youth, his need to prove that he's our equal. Tiny's slowness. I always took pride in having no gaps in my armour; no Achilles' heel.
I have one now, and I hate Zoltar for that as much as for taking Lucy's life. If I could get my hands on Zoltar now, the war would be over.
Our path is blocked by a tumble of boulders on the strand; the footing's uncertain so Princess releases my hand and jumps. Two quick, light leaps carry her to the top of the fall, and I follow. We sit, close. Princess watches the water, braids her hair back, fingers quick in black. She pulls a hairband from her pocket, finishes the braid, then looks at me.
"She was beautiful," I say. It's true, and her beauty was mostly that dare you look in her eyes. "Even after not seeing her for years, she still got me." Lucy was gut-level; you can't analyse that sort of attraction. I look straight at Princess, give her the chance to dispute what I've said, but she doesn't; she waits for me to go on, but I can't.
I have so many questions; the main one is when? When did she cease to be human and become cyborg? Did she allow it, or was it something that was done to her? I know vengeance won't heal; only time will do that, if healing is possible. At the moment, it doesn't feel possible; I can't see past the red of anger and hurt, and oh God it hurts losing her...
When I finally cry, Princess holds me.
She holds me for a long time. Even when I stop, she still holds me and what was tearing loose is maybe a little more anchored.
"The rest of us have been lucky. We haven't lost anyone close. In the war, at least." She hesitates a little, and I know she's called up again the memory of how close Mark came last time out; he's her weakness. "Promise me something," Princess says. "If you go driving tonight..."
"I'll be careful." We all have our coping mechanisms, how we deal with reality and escape it for a little while. I drive. There are good roads on the mainland, not too far away with virtually no traffic, where you can drive and listen to the engine, make it sing. And not think. Again, I know what she's thinking, and it's good that she doesn't try and talk me out of going. If I try and sleep tonight, I probably won't be able to; if I do, I'll only dream of skin tearing back.
She nods; my word's good enough for her.
* * *
The trailer's still empty when I return. I make coffee then abandon it and try to get some sleep.
When I start to dream of mechanical animals and Lucy's last look as she falls, something else takes over; sea and rose, sea and rose, and I don't wake until well after sunrise.