“As vehemently as you believe it to be the case, Colonel, I refuse to believe this is our only remaining course of action.”
Lady Deirdre Skye appeared calm, running a hand slowly through her hair as she reclined further into her cushioned seat, but Santiago easily caught the tell. “My Lady,” she said, leaning just a little bit forward, “I know that this is difficult for you to accept, but I have run the schematics many times with my most capable and trusted colleagues. It is the only way-”
“No, it is not!” Deirdre snapped, at once drained of all patience. In truth she found it difficult to admit, even if only to herself, that the plan the Spartan Federation had put together was near flawless. It would solve most every problem that Sister Miriam had caused since Planetfall, and Deirdre winced at the temptation to concede and align with the proposed cause of action.
But then, Miriam had started it.
Their first skirmish had ended amicably with Deirdre’s proposal of a Treaty of Friendship between the Gaia’s Stepdaughters and the Lord’s Believers. A patrol unit swept away by erratic and inclement weather patterns had provoked Miriam into pronouncing Vendetta upon the Green faction barely five years later, but this time Deirdre had been prepared.
Armed with both fledgling capabilities in the art of psionic combat and help from the University of Planet, the Gaian forces had swept through Miriam’s territory, neutralising threats as they presented themselves, and reclaiming the land previously stolen from them by the Believers. It had only been once they had closed in on Miriam’s final three bases a century and a half into their pursuit that a ceasefire had once again been established. Still, despite Deirdre’s graceful and well-meaning acquiescence to Sister Miriam’s desperate pleas for a Blood Truce and accompanying gift of a Sea Colony Pod so that the Believers could begin exploring the oceans, the vengeful leader had once again mobilised forces and had wasted little time in approaching the edges of the forest dense Gaian borders.
What Santiago was suggesting, a swift and ruthless retaliation against Miriam’s comparatively meagre armies, would certainly provide rebuke and possibly even lasting peace.
It wasn’t as though Deirdre’s integrity amongst the Planetary Council could be diminished for such action, given that even the Peacekeeping faction had all but formally given up on trying to establish political harmony with Miriam’s colonies. Speeches after tirades after rants had been broadcast to every remaining faction from the Believers’ bases, filled with profanity and disdain for everything not sanctified by Miriam’s ever evolving and eternally self-serving Bible, and it was clear to all that Miriam’s delusions of persecution would bar further progress from being made in the immediate future, if ever.
Still, the proposal of a brutal slaughtering of Miriam’s forces did not sit right with Deirdre. She could not help but to feel somewhat sorry for the once greatly respected woman of God. The Believers and the Gaians had been the first of the factions to greet each other following Planetfall, and eagerly shared information during those first few decades. Oftentimes, Deirdre had listened over the comm links to Miriam’s preaching. Though the bulk of the message had changed to accommodate new challenges, Miriam’s hope had reminded her of the rare nights aboard the Unity that she hadn’t been called to monitor the greenhouses or teach younger scientists the intricacies of hydroponics. Despite Deirdre’s established rejection of the Christian God, she had spent a good many of those unclaimed nights perched atop an upturned crate or pile of sandbags in the makeshift chapel in Cargo Bay 4, listening to a different Miriam - a softer Miriam - preach of hope and of love and of opportunity in this new world they were headed to.
But then, hope was a rare commodity these days, and Miriam was not one prone to frivolity. The decades - no, centuries - since Planetfall had more than seen to it that Miriam’s once dedicated, unwavering faith in the presence and plan of her God had shifted into a far more sinister worship of what she could accomplish with her own edited and misapplied gospels. Gone now, were the tenets of grace and community in Miriam’s doctrine, and in their place it seemed as though only bloodlust remained. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” Miriam had warbled, her voice cracking in glee as she set her own forces against Far Jericho. The Planetary Council had observed, horrified and sick, as Miriam eradicated her own bases for disobedience to her erratic and unreasonable laws; not even the harshest of trade sanctions had tempered her wrath.
All respect Santiago had once held for the leader of the Believers had dwindled immediately, lit aflame by the screams of the Believing citizens. She had stoically given witness to the destruction out of respect for the ones losing their lives, but it had taken a long time for Santiago to shake the horrific images, as static-filled and blurry as they had been, from her dreams. Now, Santiago cleared her throat, at once pulling Deirdre from her reverie and back into their meeting.
“It is the only way,” Santiago said, measuredly and without malice. Deirdre raised an eyebrow at her from across the table, and Santiago knew that the Gaian leader was confused by the sudden softness to her tone. “Do not misunderstand me, I have also been tempted to grant Sister Miriam mercy, but I cannot condone her aggression towards us any longer.”
“She poses no threat to you, Colonel, and nor does she seem like much of one to me.”
“Any threat at all is too much of one,” Santiago replied, once more doubling down on her position. “I can have an army ready in less than a week, and fighting off Miriam’s forces in less than three.” In the face of Deirdre’s unconvinced sigh, Santiago continued, “You need not send a single unit yourself, I could-”
“Absolutely not!” Deirdre interrupted, and Santiago found herself more relieved to see a spark of passion from her tablemate than she was disgruntled at the abrupt interjection. “When I said there was a better way, I meant it.”
“Well, please do enlighten me.”
Santiago relaxed a little, settling into her chair once more, and gestured for Deirdre to continue; as sure as she was that hers would be the plan that would be decided on eventually, she saw no harm in entertaining Deirdre’s ideas. They were scheduled to be in talks for at least another half an hour regardless.
“I have a probe team waiting at Fallow Time, ready to be deployed at any moment, and my Talents are working their mindworm broods with greater results every single day.” Deirdre paused, interlacing her fingers and resting her hands on the table. “If done carefully, we may be able to undermine their progress from within. It doesn’t have to end in the deaths of our people, not this time.”
Santiago raised an eyebrow at her, unimpressed, and Deirdre - despite herself - felt her shoulders drop in hopelessness. “Colonel, there is still so much more we can learn from the-”
“At what cost?” Santiago interrupted, reaching across the table to pour herself a glass of water, “Miriam has already begun to cut down your trees. How much longer before your farms are destroyed, and your people left to starve?”
“It wouldn’t ge-”
“Are their lives not worth your action?” Santiago snapped, before waving her hand in apology. Deirdre leaned forward, one eyebrow raised, and gestured for Santiago to continue. “Whatever discoveries the Believers claim to have made will pale in comparison to the things that our factions can accomplish together. You know this, you have always known this.”
“And yet I still can’t help but be curious.” Deirdre rose slowly, her palms flat against the sturdy oak table. Leaning forward slightly, she cocked her head and met Santiago’s eyes once more, “Do you not yourself harbour any curiosity? Don’t you wish to know how such… chaos achieves anything at all?”
Incredulous, Santiago scoffed, sneering slightly in retort. “Chaos? That is ridiculous. Miriam is unstable, absolutely, but one can hardly accuse her of chaoticism. She would not have been able to come back as many times as she has without some measure of sense in her.”
“That’s not entirely true.”
“Oh, please, spare me,” Santiago said, chancing a look towards Deirdre, who had wrapped her arms around her torso, returning Santiago’s stare with a raised eyebrow. “If you truly believe that Miriam isn’t as calculated as any of the rest of us, then you’re far more naive than I’ve ever had reason to believe before.”
Deirdre pinched the bridge of her nose in consternation, and walked over to the bay windows overlooking the Centauri Preserve below. “Corazon, please-”
“Do not bely her atrocities, My Lady, they are too numerous and severe to forgive.”
“You will not back me into a corner on this matter, Colonel. The Believing forces threaten my borders, not yours, and so I will make the final decision on how best to proceed, not you.”
“I do not intend to back you into a corner, you daft woman, I am try-.”
“Daft?” Deirdre spat, and Santiago felt her stomach sink. Deirdre span around to face Santiago, glowering in sudden rage, her nose tight and lips curled down in a snarl, and Santiago winced. The Pact of Sisterhood their respective factions now enjoyed was one hard won, and many years of fighting had preceded it. Her troops had taken it upon themselves during that time to mock the Gaian leader ceaselessly, branding her an “Unhinged hippie”, “Eco-daft”, and “That Crazy Gaian Witch”. Those had been the kindest jabs by far. Those unforgiving platitudes had not begotten an easy transition into ideological sisterhood, and Deirdre flinched at the idea that Santiago still might find her lacking.
A few moments passed, the air between the arguing leaders heavy and thick. The weight of words unsaid and yearned for lingered between them, and Deirdre once more turned her back to Santiago, sighing as she ran a pointed finger along the pane of glass in front of her.
Santiago, contrite and sheepish, softened her tone. “I apologise, My Lady, it was an unfortunate choice of words.”
The tension in Deirdre’s shoulders lessened incrementally, and she remained silent for another minute whilst gathering her thoughts. Wordlessly, she offered a tight-lipped smile to Santiago, who replied with a tentative nod, and Deirdre slowly made her way back over to the desk. Sitting once more in her chair, Deirdre chose her next words carefully. “I know that the members of the Planetary Council are in almost unanimous agreement about how to deal with the Believers.”
“That is true. Captain Svensgaard himself is willing to work with us to eliminate her. He has even suggesting a cooperative attack on her ocean bases.”
Now, that gave Deirdre pause; the captain of the Nautilus Pirates wasn’t known for his collaboration with other sea-faring factions, and had wrought most efficient attacks against both Gaian and Spartan ships in the past. “Ulrik would never agree to this plan, much less have proposed it without having first thought of several ways to betray us in its latter stages.”
At that, Santiago smiled; she knew that the process of reaching an agreement with Deirdre had barely begun, but that the Gaian leader was once again referring to their factions as a dedicated partnership was progress. “Ulrik, now, is it?” she teased, “I was not aware that you were so close with our aquatically-focused friend”.
“I am on first-name terms with everybody, you know that.” Deirdre dismissed the dig with a half-hearted shrug; the Gaian Empath Guild had seen to it that Deirdre was aware of everything both up to and including the most intimate details of the lives of the other faction leaders, and so she found it ridiculous to pretend as though she did not know them so wholly. “He is not our friend,” she added with a grave sincerity, resting her elbows on the table and lowering her chin onto the flat of her clasped fingers.
Santiago did not miss the weight of Deirdre’s words. “Perhaps not, but a temporary ally is better than a constant adversary.”
“If only in the short term.”
Deirdre allowed herself a morsel of comfort, revelling in the ebb and flow of the tension in the room. At least some things would never change. There was nobody on Planet who could force her to question herself to such a degree as Santiago could, and Deirdre often tired of these meetings long before they were due to finish. Then again, they had already spent three hours trying to reach even the smallest of agreements, so perhaps her malaise was well-earned. “So, that’s it then, we just kill off the Lord’s Believers and deal with our other problems later?”
“You are still hesitant, I see.” It wasn’t a question, Santiago could still detect the worry on Deirdre’s face in the way her brows knit together in contemplation. “How might I reassure you?”
“You cannot reassure me of something I’ve never before had confidence in. Engaging in war with the Believers was foolish the first time, and it is sheer lunacy now.”
“How can you believe that?” Santiago asked, bristling once more. “They are the weakest they’ve ever been. A carefully planned few attacks would render them extinct and-”
“It’s exactly the ease with which we could destroy them that is the problem, Colonel, do you not see that?”
Baffled, Santiago could not help but to trip over her words. “I, then you, you would prefer that we give them time to recoup? To strengthen their forces in the name of good... sportsmanship?”
“Not at all, not even a little bit. You miss my point entirely.” Deirdre sighed, raking a hand through her hair and casting her eyes downward.
“Well, what do you mean to say then? If I am doing such a poor job of deciphering your words, then use ones less given to misappropriation.” Santiago’s nostrils flared, her temper once again rising. In the face of Deirdre’s silence, she continued, “I do not understand why you are so eager to let her live. She has betrayed you so many times, betrayed us all so many times. What will it take, Deirdre, what could possibly convince you?”
Deirdre’s head tilted up at the sound of her name, one that only typically passed Santiago’s lips during the rare moments they spent together tangled in between bedsheets, Deirdre’s large bathtub in her quarters at Nessus Shining, or against the walls of Santiago’s prudently modest apartment in Sparta Command. The first time it had happened, Deirdre remembered with a small, secret smile, had been the time that she’d persuaded Santiago to meet with her in the Recreation Commons of Gaia’s Landing, back when their Pact of Sisterhood had still been new and glorious with unknown potential.
Now those? They had truly been special times.
Sparing a quick glance towards Santiago, whose smile had blossomed in amusement as she correctly ascertained where exactly Deirdre’s thoughts had gone, Deirdre felt her eyebrows pull together once more, and irritation scratched at her throat. “If you mean to distract me-?”
“I do not,” Santiago said, her eyes light with affection. “We are here to discuss important things. I would not undermine that, regardless of the potentially pleasurable outcomes of such a plan.'' Seeing Deirdre’s eyes narrow further, Santiago raised her hands in surrender. “I concede. But I must insist that we work together towards an outcome we will both be satisfied by.”
“I’d like nothing more, truly, but I don’t see what there is left to discuss.”
“I would like to know more about what it is you see so worth saving in the Believing forces. You are a woman of science, I would have thought you beyond the trivialities of religion.”
At this, Deirdre’s head tilted to the left, and she once again became still. She had to admit, it was a good question and possibly the only one Santiago could have asked that Deirdre could not immediately find the words with which to adequately express her answer.
Any words, however, in the presence of the faction leader most well known for her suspicion and assumptive tendencies, were better than none, and so Deirdre began to talk as she thought. “It isn’t quite that I don’t see the very real need for dealing with Miriam. I see, perhaps more clearly than anyone else, that she will never give up on her holy wars; the bloodlust within her would be frightening if she were now even half as well supported as she once was.”
Santiago nodded, and gestured for Deirdre to continue.
“I suppose, more than anything, I’d like to know how this happened. The Miriam we see today is not the Miriam that once was-”
“Not a single one of us are who we once were,” Santiago agreed, before shaking her head in apology as she realised that she had interrupted again.
“No, don’t apologise. You’re right.”
“Oh,” Santiago sighed, once again lost in the depths of whatever it was that Deirdre was trying to communicate. “Could you elaborate?”
“None of us are who we once were, and yet I recognise us all but Miriam.”
“Yes.” Deirdre frowned once more, and Santiago took the opportunity to pour Deirdre a drink of her own.
“You are still a pragmatist at heart, Corazon.” Deirdre began, at once forgiven for her wistful slip into a more personal tone. “I do not doubt, not even for a second, that if our alliance ever became a threat to the Spartan Federation, that you would waste no time in withdrawing your troops and beginning the most brutal and calculated of attacks.”
Santiago shifted in her seat, at once both unnerved by accuracies of Deirdre’s claims and the implications of them. “I wo-”
“Yes, you would,” Deirdre smiled, a sad sort of smile that seized in Santiago’s chest. “I would accept nothing less,” she added, reaching out across the table to tap the hand of Santiago’s that was resting on a stack of paperwork. Their fingers brushed and the both of them smiled. “I cherish beyond words what our factions have managed to create together, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know that nothing is set in stone.”
“Zakharov still spends hours in his libraries chasing after his own personal interests,” Deirdre continued, pulling her hand back slowly. Santiago mourned the loss briefly, before returning her attention to the words she had so often asked of Deirdre. “Svensgaard skips stones across the freshwater rivers like a young boy, at times, and-”
“Miriam holds devotion every Wednesday and twice on a Sunday,” Santiago offered, not yet herself sure whether her words are in jest.
“She preaches a corrupted gospel her God Himself would damn her for.”
“Don’t they all?”
“Not like this, she didn’t, not before the first Vendettas.”
“Those were wars of her own making,” Santiago argued, as though Deirdre could ever have forgotten; it would do no good for the Gaian leader to lose herself in the past, not when their future was so wholly threatened.
“I understand that she must be stopped,” Deirdre repeated, an assuredness in her voice that there had not been before, a finality that piqued Santiago’s interest anew. “I would just like to discover whatever there may be that can be learned from her first”.
“Now, where have I heard that before?”
“Zakharov would sooner see all of the books in New Jerusalem burn than willingly subject himself to Miriam’s twisted theologies.”
“Perhaps he is not quite the moron that I have always suspected him to be, then.”
“Colonel?” Deirdre asked, exhausted and beyond ready to move on from this conversation.
“Perhaps we could talk about this again tomorrow? I’d like to prepare for the festivities tonight and I’m sure you’d appreciate the chance to have some quiet before dinner after all of… this.” Deirdre gestured into the air, and Santiago nodded once in agreement.
“I would. I just, before we shelve this discussion tonight, I would once again urge you to consider what I’ve said seriously. The Lord’s Believers are more of a threat than you realise.”
“Do not presume to know what I do and don’t realise, Corazon. Such ignorance does not become you.”
Santiago raised an eyebrow at the momentary flash of coldness in Deirdre’s eyes. Many had made the mistake of underestimating the Gaian leader, writing her off as someone content to farm and frolic, but Santiago knew better than that; though there remained a certain joviality in the woman before her, the centuries since Planetfall had transformed Deirdre into a capable, formidable leader. “I see.”
“Please, enough.” Deirdre asked once more, “could we resume this tomorrow?”
“Alright,” Santiago acquiesced, “But we will do it in the morning without delay. Time is of the essence and I cannot predict how much of it we have left.”
“I know,” Deirdre sighed, reaching across the table to take her lover’s hands in her own, “But, in case you didn’t realise, my love, there’s an evening that’s fast approaching...”
“...and I’d like to spend it with you.” Santiago remembered Deirdre’s words with a smile, chuckling softly as she strode purposefully down the winding, maze-like corridors of Gaia’s Regroup. The structure of the Gaian bases never failed to unnerve her, Santiago herself preferring the tight, unsentimental rigidity of her own Spartan borders. Still, such unease was a small price to pay in order to keep the terms of the Gaian-Spartan Pact of Sisterhood, and it was not as though the Spartan leader was incapable of memorising even the most labyrinthine of establishments.
Gaia’s Regroup was beautiful in the summer, or what passed for such a season on Planet. Though it had been an arduous process to replace the clay brick ceilings of what had formerly been known as Divinity Base with the Gaians’ preferred glass panes and silksteel, the construction had reached its end a few months ago. Now, thick and luscious vines crept up against the warm glass, and light flickered in between the delicate petals of barely blooming flowers as they strove to drink in the final rays of light before night fell. Soon enough, the base would be as beautiful as the Gaians’ others, the transformation all the sweeter for the decaying, soulless tomb it had once been.
If the corridors had themselves been beautiful, then the Recreation Commons were a masterpiece. True to Gaian form, greenery in its abundance thrived everywhere, filling the vast space with a richly dense and sweet breeze. Santiago peered up at the glass roofs, nodding at the moon of Planet’s that she saw the least often whilst in her own bases. It was a comforting sight, to witness that even in the most rowdy of places, that certain aspects of life remained the same. The sky had burned a twilit orange for a few hours longer than was common on this particular night, Santiago noted, which aligned with the perihelion approaching. Soon, native life would abound, as it did every century or so, decimating the weaker bases of the factions, and Santiago spared a quick thought for Fort Survivalist; the base had been established some forty years ago, but a lack of energy resources and minerals had rendered defences shoddy, and even the help lent most generously by the Data Angels would likely not prove sufficient at bolstering defences enough to last the next decade. Still, at least the Federation hadn’t paid too handsomely for the trouble, Santiago reasoned; all it had taken was the already broken promise of the removal of all Spartan probe teams from Sinder Roze’s most affluent and important bases.
A trill of laughter shook Santiago out of her reverie, and she glanced behind her, hand withdrawing to the holster on her hip. Alarmed, the group of Gaian Talents stared at Santiago with wide eyes, and held their hands up.
“Our apologies, Colonel Santiago,” the tallest of them offered, bowing her head slightly in deference, “We did not mean to startle you.”
Santiago cleared her throat and slowly clasped her hands together behind her back. “Thank you, ladies, but there is no need for your apologies; it is my own fault for having become distracted.”
“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” a familiar voice interrupted, as she walked over to join the Talents and Santiago, who at once felt completely at ease. The unexpected yet wholly welcome presence of Deirdre’s most fiercely trusted Talent was one that often soothed her, especially amidst the younger, more rambunctious residents of the Gaian bases. At once, the group of Talents nodded, and murmured their agreement. “I’ve actually come to collect you, ladies,” Lindly continued, gesturing for the Talents to line up and follow her. Whether their lack of immediate compliance rendered them obtuse or disrespectful, Santiago had not yet decided, but Lindly appeared unperturbed by their insolence.
“Doctor Scott has received news on your latest assignment, and I will be supervising your progress.”
“This couldn’t wait until morning?” A haughty tone accompanied the accusation, and it became immediately clear that at least half of the Talents were not pleased about this development.
“My apologies, Rhiannon, but it could not. We will be heading out to Autumn Grove in an hour, so please ready yourselves to board the supply crawlers in your pairs.”
“But, the party?”
“Will go on without us, Esha, completely unaffected by our absence. The way it has always been and must always be.” There was a forced cheer to Lindly’s tone, one borne of the many people she had been forced to leave behind, and Santiago felt a pang of sympathy. The last group that Lindly had been in charge of training had been exceptional and dedicated, and yet they had all succumbed to the follies of Psionic warfare. How might these less adept and far less committed young ladies fare, she wondered, and raised her eyebrows at their petulance, unimpressed.
“Okay, alright, fine,” the quietest yet of the Talents spoke up, running a hand up her more upset friend’s arm and trying, barely, to mask the disappointment on her face. “Thank you for informing us, Lindly, we will all be there and ready to go when the time arrives.”
“I look forward to it, ladies,” Lindly replied, tilting her head slightly to dismiss them. As jarringly as they had arrived, they departed, but remained close by in the arched entrance of the Recreation Commons, laughing amongst themselves and gesturing flirtatiously at passersby.
“How you put up with those dithering imbeciles is beyond me,” Santiago said, the lilt in her tone betraying the harshness of her words. Lindly laughed softly, by now more than familiar with Santiago’s dry, deadpan humour.
“Their time is limited,” Lindly said, without malice, “I could tell from the moment they were placed in my charge that these ones would not make it. I would rather their last days be filled with their laughter and fun, given that I know exactly what’s awaiting them in just a few days.”
Santiago grimaced, the memories of what she had witnessed happen to unworthy brood trainers at the will of the slippery, psionic little bastards they gave up their lives to harness was not one easily forgotten. Lindly was a rare treasure in that department, having both far surpassed everybody’s expectations in handling and breeding her own brood, who now - when permitted - followed her dutifully and without straying through the various Gaian bases in a fashion not dissimilar to that of rambunctious puppies.
“Capable Talents are hard to come by these days,” Lindly continued, raising one eyebrow and clasping her hands behind her back. “Perhaps I’m wrong about these girls,” she continued, in a tone clearly implying that she doubted it very much, “maybe they’ll surprise me yet.”
“Maybe,” Santiago echoed. It was not in her character to imbue false hope in the face of an obviously impossible situation but, for Lindly, she could try. “In any case, I hope that they do not suffer too badly.”
“Oh, they will,” Lindly’s words, nonchalant despite their implications, rang in an unsettling mix of hollowness and cheer, “but we have better things to do tonight than to talk of such horrors. Well, you do, at least.”
“Ah yes,” Santiago replied, her mood lifting once more at the thought of the promise that the evening still held, “speaking of which, have you-”
“As it would happen, I have ,” Lindly interrupted, earning herself a puzzled look. Glancing up at the domed, glass windows above, she slowly brought Santiago into an embrace, resting their cheeks together in a brief kiss. Santiago paused, briefly wondering where the eager-eyed, young fledgling Talent who had once been too afraid of her to approach when commanded had gone and found herself proudly preferring Lindly’s current cocksure and confident demeanour. “Colonel, Lady Skye is waiting for you by the balconies. I know that your meeting today didn’t go as well as either of you had hoped, but one should make the most of these times of relative peace.”
Pulling away, Lindly winked at the briefly dumbfounded Colonel, and then ushered the giggling group of young Talents away to fulfil their duties. Santiago collected herself and walked further into the Recreation Commons, the objectives of finding her wayward lover and scanning the entire facility for every conceivable threat warring in her busy mind.
The Gaian bases were an odd sight for the uninitiated, for Deirdre’s vision of an ecologically thriving paradise often included incorporating the more dangerous elements of their brave new world with the hardier elements of a long forgotten Earth. Plants Santiago recognised, by looks if not necessarily by name, mingled with those she did not and their combined colours burst together in almost as violent a fashion as their fragrances.
Fertile with both carefully created nutrients and the successful leftovers of harvests past, the red of the earth remained fetor, its stench nearly overtaken by the heady, cloying scent of the bright, abundant blooms it inspired. Merely walking along the mosaic pavements that served as the pathways separating the alcoves and gardens was enough to make Santiago’s eyes water. Her head hurt, yet still she pressed on, eager to meet her beloved before the steadily approaching dark of night rendered her reliant on the flickering, dim candlelight that had already cast a gentle haze across the vast area.
Santiago wandered the pathways for a time, becoming less militant and purposeful in her strides as she allowed the sounds of gently trickling water in the artificially constructed streams that kept the gardens hydrated and the muted laughter and sighs of passion from the lovers and friends hidden in the alcoves nearby to lull her into security. This was what Deirdre had set out to accomplish, Santiago realised, and felt a swell of pride and admiration as she paused in her steps and glanced around, her desire to experience and to understand once more overshadowing her usual, methodical approach to existing.
There were no dangers here.
The blanket of dense, vibrant Earth trees and native to Planet shrubbery covered the ground surrounding Gaia’s Regroup for many kilometers in every direction, disturbed only by the carefully disguised roads and support structures that facilitated travel for those in alliance with Deirdre’s merry band of brilliant environmentalist followers and, of course, the Gaians themselves. Overhead, in these Recreation Commons, thick, rose-tinted panes of industrial glass were sealed safely together by the best quality silksteel, their curved domes providing both an excellent vantage point for observing meteorological changes and potential attacks. Of course, the translucent structures also provided ample insulation and warmth for the rich array of both flora and fauna to flourish within its walls, rendering the inhabitants of the base almost entirely unreliant on outside farms and food trades. In fact, the abundance of food and other vegetation often made its way to the various Spartan bases nearby, a gift Santiago barely knew how to thank Deirdre for, much less repay.
Of course, there were probe teams and other units trained in espionage hidden within the depths of Gaia’s Regroup, of that Santiago had no doubt. Commissioner Lal was infamous for defending his deployment of spies in all bases as “necessary for keeping the peace”, and the other factions had gotten fairly adept at infiltration also. Still, Santiago allowed her shoulders to roll and to relax, secure in the knowledge that she was as safe as one could be on Planet, and would remain that way for the entirety of the time she was welcomed within the Gaian borders.
It was then that Santiago saw her, bathed in the glow of the last vestiges of sunset and resplendent in her abandon. Deirdre smiled, the corners of her mouth twisting upwards in a shy, almost teasing fashion, and Santiago could not help but to return the enthusiasm, her footsteps quick as she hurried to hasten their reunion.
Here, in the hubbub of the evening, as lovers emerged from their alcoves and the children who played animatedly in the gardens were rushed off to bed, where all one could hear was the gentle murmur of faraway, hushed conversations and squeals of joy and desire from hands gone awry, here they were safe.
No longer Colonel Santiago, Commander of the Spartan Federation, and Lady Skye, Leader of Gaia’s Stepdaughters, Santiago and Deirdre took a moment to take each other in, before each holding out their hands and joining in a soft, yet purposeful embrace. Just barely taller, and certainly by no more than a few centimetres, Santiago lifted her upper arm slightly in offering. Deirdre took the invitation gladly, taking the opportunity to rest her head on Santiago’s shoulder and burying her face into the warm softness of Santiago’s neck. Slowly, Deirdre exhaled, at once relinquishing the stresses of the day and tickling Santiago’s neck with her hot, if gentle, breath.
“Hi,” Deirdre murmured, before internally kicking herself for her inability to muster up words more poignant, or at the very least more indicative of the very real and all-encompassing affection and calm that had rushed its way without remorse through her very being at the merest hint of Santiago’s touch. “Oh, my love, how I’ve missed you,” she admitted, nuzzling just a little further in, and smiling at the instant twitch in Santiago’s neck as she did so.
Santiago, for her part, did her absolute best to stifle her laughter at having been so relentlessly, if unintentionally tickled; it simply would not do to have the news that she had weaknesses, even understandable, forgivable ones such as being ticklish, become common knowledge. “And I, you,” Santiago replied, her voice soft, gravelly, heavy with the weight of unshed tears she’d previously scarcely been aware that she had been holding at bay. It had been too long. That seventy years had passed since they had last held each other in this way, their earlier physical contact having been only a brief holding of hands at the Gaian greeting ceremony and when Deirdre had tapped her hand in their meeting hours ago was something Santiago could hardly believe, and she squeezed Deirdre to her just a touch more tightly.
Even though, to each other, they still felt almost entirely the same, it was the heaviness of the passing of what would for most constitute a lifetime that lingered between them, their sporadic conversations over telecommunication devices and holograms notwithstanding.
It was not as though they both did not have other lovers; this was a truth they’d shared and agreed upon long ago, but the bodies that had provided them with pleasure and affection during the times in which Santiago and Deirdre were apart could not provide them with the one connection that only the other could; the feeling of Earthliness, of home.
Life on Planet was fraught with danger and hardships beyond the scope that anyone had dreamed to predict, and though roughly three and a half centuries had passed since Planetfall neither leader could truthfully say that it felt like a home. “Sometimes I feel as though I’ll wake up in my lab back at the university,” Deirdre had confided, once, long ago, as Santiago had relaxed into her embrace, lulled by the whoosh of Deirdre’s steady heartbeat, one that had joined her own in taking on a new rhythm after a number of longevity treatments, “head on my desk and unfinished reports stuck to my face.”
Santiago had laughed then, and she did again now, suddenly overtaken with the joy of having the woman she held such desperate affection for in her arms at long last. Without even a second of warning, Deirdre pulled back, and reached a hand out to cup Santiago’s cheek. “Perhaps, next time, we could steal a night or two during the Planetary Council Summit?”
“Perhaps,” Santiago agreed, choosing to ignore that the Planetary Council did not meet in person, as the logistics of doing so were, by everybody’s metric, both physically impossible and heinously dangerous. “Or perhaps instead,” she countered, entwining her fingers with Deirdre’s and pulling her a little closer once more, “the Spartan Federation could invite our beloved Pact Sisters to our new base near the Pholus Ridge? We will be ready to receive visitors in the next five years, and would greatly appreciate help in maximising our potential to farm and thrive.”
Deirdre beamed, and Santiago’s chest fluttered at the sight; it was not often that Santiago herself initiated meetings or opportunities to be together, and a tiny flicker of guilt settled in her stomach as she remembered just how deeply Deirdre adored it when she did. “I would love nothing more, my love,” Deirdre replied, and her smile softened into an expression still just as filled with affection, but ever more serious. “Come, now, we should eat.”
Santiago’s stomach rumbled lightly in response, and the two women shared a laugh.
The first of the tomatoes had been sweet. Warm from the residual heat of Planet’s equivalent of the sun and as juicy as Santiago had come to expect from the fruits of Deirdre’s favourite harvest plants, the tomato had yielded to her bite most deliciously. Deirdre sighed, amused, her breath catching as Santiago bent her head forward slightly to kiss the hands that had plucked the fruit from its vine.
There was a certain satisfaction Deirdre enjoyed, to feeding Santiago, and it was a feeling that Deirdre had cultivated faithfully over their decades of intimacy. The joy that Deirdre had felt the first time the Spartan’s leader had accepted Gaian food returned tenfold each and every time Deirdre bore witness to her love unashamedly enjoying the abundance of Deirdre’s efforts. That first time had been a bubble of amusement, but now - all these many years later - Santiago’s kiss to her fingers was the sweetest of gestures, and Deirdre took the opportunity to swipe her thumb across Santiago’s plump, smiling lips.
“They are magnificent,” Santiago complimented, letting her eyes fall shut and a hum of satisfaction escape her, “I do not know why it still surprises me so.”
Deirdre preened at the praise of her bounty, and moved her fingers to caress Santiago’s cheek, delighted once more as Santiago turned her face once more to press a lingering kiss to the round of Deirdre’s palm. Unbidden, affection bubbled up and spilled into action; Santiago reached out to palm at Deirdre’s hips, pulling her ever closer. Deirdre sighed a laugh, and bought her other hand up to tangle in the base of the unfurling braid that held Santiago’s hair away from her eyes. Slowly, with little preamble or pretence, Santiago bent her head down to meet Deirdre where she was ready, waiting. The first touch of their lips was everything all at once: the pain of their separation, the frustration of their earlier meeting, the anticipation that had hastened their desire to find each other a mere thirty minutes before, and the blessed relief of having finally, at long last, come together again. Santiago moaned softly in relief, worrying Deirdre’s bottom lip with her teeth before soothing it at once with a series of gentler, more chaste kisses. At once overwhelmed in this affection, Deirdre pulled Santiago closer to her, tightening the loop of her arms around Santiago’s neck.
Minutes later, and yet too soon entirely, the clatter of cloches being raised and taken away from the food they were covering alerted both Deirdre and Santiago to the readiness of the night’s meal, and Santiago pulled away from Deirdre’s wanting mouth to entertain a hunger of a more pressing kind; neither woman had eaten anything of true substance since that morning, over twelve hours ago. Outside their private alcove, a steady murmur of voices indicated the beginning of the night’s festivities; Santiago’s stomach grumbled softly once more, and she leaned in to quickly kiss the laugh from Deirdre’s trembling lips. “I cannot help it,” Santiago reasoned, comforted by the play of Deirdre’s fingers on the back of her neck, “there is not a faction out there not immensely envious of the food the Gaia’s Stepdaughters enjoy”.
Deirdre grinned, bumping her nose playfully against Santiago’s. “We share,” she teased, voice rough and breathy, heavy with desire. Santiago traced a small pattern on the small of Deirdre’s back, shivering in delight at just how wrecked her lover sounded. It was true; the majority of the factions had - upon Planetfall - experienced famines the likes of which barely even paralleled by those final few years on Earth, the Spartan Federation included. The Gaians had not suffered this misfortune, however, and had been eager to share their research into Centauri Ecology with those that had the humility and conscience to ask. For all her faults, it was not in Deirdre’s character to allow starvation whilst she had the abundance necessary to provide. It was a kindness that Santiago had done her best to prevent others from misusing, once threatening great harm to the Morganites over their abuses of Gaian generosity.
“I always will.” It was a promise, and Santiago at once understood that it was not one that Deirdre made lightly.
Freed from the rigidities of a dying planet, and thrust into the realities of one in which hope was sparse yet opportunity endless, Deirdre’s nature had transformed into one that knew to bend in accordance with where the wind blew, and to nurture rather than to manipulate. Though the foundations of Gaian survival had been forged and constructed from Deirdre’s scientific passions and ambitions, the philosophies behind their political and theological leanings were ones that Santiago rarely took the time to acknowledge, in much the same way as she was sure that Deirdre turned a blind eye to the Spartan proclivity towards violence and brute force when necessary.
“And tonight?” Santiago asked, resisting the urge to pull Deirdre in yet again. “What will you be sharing tonight?”
“Lamb, my love,” Deirdre replied, leaning forward on her tiptoes to ghost a kiss on Santiago’s cheek before pulling back and taking off the lace shawl atop her shoulders, “in a cream and stock sauce with plums and dates and oranges. There are also burst yams and seeded bread to go with it, if needed.”
Santiago opened her eyes once more, desire pooling deep in her belly at the sight of Deirdre before her, edges soft in the candlelight and lips quirked crookedly in a smile. “That sounds heavenly,” she replied, all at once ravenous for such a decadent meal and all that might follow.
Outside of their alcove, footsteps once more began to sound, as another group of citizens began to make their way to the dining areas, and Santiago cringed, shoulders tightening in the anticipation of company. Deirdre laughed in return, reaching to Santiago and clasping their hands together once more.
There was nothing that sounded so terrible, Santiago thought, as the idea that they might have to leave this seclusion and eat amongst the night’s company. For as much as she had become as close as anyone might to the civilian members of the Federation’s once rival faction, Santiago felt within her core a desperate longing to keep Deirdre to herself for the night, as though they didn’t still have a week to cherish the company. Steeling herself to abandon their cosy alcove, Santiago sighed.
“Where will we be-’”
“Oh, Corazon,” Deirdre soothed, as if this had already been planned, almost like she had known that this would happen, “we’ll eat here, of course. I won’t share you, not tonight.”
If the tomatoes had been delicious, then dinner had been divine. Perfectly spiced, with hints of anise, ginger, and sesame, their bowls of the rich stew had long since been emptied. Despite the fullness of her belly, Santiago swiped one final chunk of crusty, seeded bread and scraped the very last hints of sauce from the sides of her bowl.
“How are you still hungry, my love?” Deirdre laughed, stretching lazily on her reclining seat just opposite of Santiago’s own. Santiago stilled at the sight of her lover so relaxed and carefree, licking her lips in an unconscious reaction to a hunger of the more carnal kind. Deirdre followed Santiago’s eyes down the curves of her own body, pausing briefly to observe her stomach, swollen slightly in appreciation of their evening meal. Smiling, Deirdre once again met Santiago’s eyes, reaching with both hands to gently stroke at her rounded abdomen and slide them slowly up until she gasped, suddenly overcome with want as Santiago dropped her chunk of seeded bread into the bowl. Swiftly, Santiago made her way to Deirdre’s chair, her hands meeting Deirdre’s just as they finished their journey to cup the swell of her breasts. Deirdre trembled, her chest heaving with the exertion of a desire so far left unmet.
Santiago groaned, pressing her thighs together where they met in her kneel besides Deirdre’s chair, futily attempting to alleviate the ache between them. “Deirdre, my love?” she asked, reaching over Deirdre’s body until their lips once more met in a kiss far less tender than before, but just as passionate, and somehow even more overwhelming. Santiago sighed, burying herself in the softness of Deirdre’s everything, revelling in the fullness of her own belly, which always came as a relief to her after the leaner years after Planetfall. Hunger satiated, Santiago’s desire for Deirdre soared to the forefront of her mind, and she gently squeezed Deirdre’s hand where it lied atop her breast, grinning crookedly as Deirdre gasped at the sudden stimulation. Reluctant to let up, and at once ravenous for the sight of Deirdre totally unravelled, unhinged even, in her want, Santiago reached up her other hand to card through Deirdre’s loose, untamed curls.
Rocking forward on her knees once more, Santiago pulled just slightly at Deirdre’s hair, revelling in the way Deirdre broke their kiss, hissing in pleasure.
“Please, Corazon, please?” Deirdre asked, her eyes wet and shining with the tears she’d promised herself she’d not shed tonight. At Santiago’s nod, Deirdre pulled her down once more, kissing her lover desperately, almost choking on the swell of emotion that hurt her throat and made her reach for Santiago all the more keenly, feverish in her desire to make up for time long since lost.
In between the wet, smacking sounds of their increasingly less focused kisses and rustling of the clothes they barely parted for long enough to remove and discard, the weight of all that had separated them before and was due to separate them again come morning time fell away. Suddenly it did not matter that their respective factions were navigating uncertain waters, that there were once again tough times on the horizon and more tragedy left to unfold; that was, simply put, tomorrow’s problem.
Tomorrow, they would reconvene in the depths of Gaia’s Regroup, to once again butt heads over strategy and minutiae as the proud and dedicated leaders they had grown into. Tomorrow, they would once again become angry, each retreating further back in favour of their own idealistic notions of what form warfare would most efficiently take on this still so alien planet. Tomorrow there would be silence in the corridors outside of their meeting room, scarcely looked in on by either Deirdre’s attending officers or Santiago’s dutiful soldiers, all of whom knew far better than to interrupt their leaders under any circumstances other than the gravest, most urgent of emergencies. Tomorrow, Santiago would once again argue for a sterner, more strict approach to the annihilation of their enemies, and Deirdre would counter, presenting a gentler, more diplomatic path.
Tomorrow would wait for them, as full of potential as the bounty of a balmy autumn's harvest in the first week of August.
Tonight? Tonight belonged to gentle, wanting hands and the hushed murmurs of please and yes and more. Tonight belonged to Deirdre, lax and languid with fullness and desire, tugging halfheartedly at Santiago’s hair, guiding her willing lover to where she wanted her most. Tonight belonged to Santiago, whose hard-won smiles never came quite as easily as they did when Deirdre kissed each of her fingers in turn, quietly, reverently gazing upon her as though Santiago had hung each of Planet’s moons herself.
Tonight belonged to forgetting, to remembering, to having and holding and hearing and hoping that one day all of this would have been worth it; to ensuring that it would be okay if it never was. Tonight belonged to lovers.