Deirdre's frequency was the only one Santiago used. She had no interest in contacting anyone else on the goddamn planet, the less she heard from her old superior the better, and she had no interest in what the others were doing, but... Deirdre Skye was a name that had stuck with her.
She had had little contact with the chief botanist working in hydroponics in the ship but their paths had crossed before the mutiny, and the name – and the face – had stayed with her.
So she initiated contact between their factions, and as ridiculous as she found the whole “Lady Deirdre Skye of Gaia's Stepdaughters,” she had to admit their adapting to the conditions of their new home planet were impressive.
They were cordial, if mistrustful in the beginning, but they kept in touch, discussing the location of the other factions, their demands and successes, their wars and odds. They even shared some findings of their scientists, although Santiago held on tightly to the military adaptations, and Deirdre – Lady Deirdre – to their successes with the alien life forms.
At some point, Santiago realised she was looking forward to those calls, to sharing the news with Deirdre, hearing about her faction, her life. While she couldn't really appreciate the sentiment behind her trying to grow trees of their old home planet, she could admire the excitement in her voice, the way her serene façade was usurped by the glowing excitement of a youth, the hairs escaping from her messy bun dancing around her face.
It was only natural she'd check her own appearance in a mirror before each call. She was Colonel Corazón Santiago, and she had to represent her people with dignity. And maybe a new, shiny uniform.
When they made contact, and came to an agreement about the placement of the border between their areas (and Santiago didn't even reinforce her negotiation position with strategic troop movements, as she had with Lal and Zakharov), they started to skirt around the issue of a face to face meeting.
It was a reckless risk to take, Santiago knew that – the only way she was willing to be in the same space with any of the other faction leaders was if they were shackled in her dungeons. Not that she was planning on doing anything like that. Or had, with the crazy fanatic, Miriam. It wasn't like she had a specially crafted cell just waiting to house Yang in it.
She had to admit that their conversations had started to have less and less to do with diplomatic negotiations and more with touching base with... a friend? A friendly acquaintance, a non-threatening sounding board? In any case, the conversations had shifted, and she could only be glad. It was lonely being a leader, and the companionship over the comm lines was appreciated.
There were signs that things were changing for Deirdre as well, like when she called because her intelligence reports had told her of the Spartans' recent losses in a war against the hostile lifeforms of the planet.
“I heard about the recent mind worm attack... Santiago, I want to share our research on the local fauna with you, so that you can better protect yourselves from them.”
“And what do you want in return?” she asked, because despite the worry in the other woman's face and voice she was still a faction leader – as ruthless as any of them when protecting the interests of her own people.
“Maybe I want your people to not die, that's what I want in return!”
That's when Santiago knew she could risk the meeting. That she wanted the meeting. Because friendships were not conducted over a comm.
- - -
Deirdre looked so different here, without her uniform, in a flowing, shapeless dress that seemed to shimmer and flow around her. Her hair was in her characteristic messy bun, and her skin was as smooth and unlined it had been back at Unity, as if it had been mere weeks ago. She was smiling, and it wasn't the annoying little thing she wore in the beginning that vacillated between serene and smug, but something far more genuine and personal.
Santiago had known Deirdre wished this meeting, had worked to secure it for what felt like centuries, but to actually see her look happy to be meeting her... it was heady.
The self-declared Lady took Santiago (and her bodyguards) to her pride and joy, the garden filled with plants from Earth.
It should have felt like something else than just weird, but Santiago did not miss the Earth, or feel nostalgic about it because she remembered the pain and the hunger and the strife it represented. And suddenly the only thing she could think of was, I met you in a garden.
It was their pride and joy in the Unity, the few green trees and plants they'd managed to keep alive in space, and the chief botanist had apparently spent all her free time there. So when the young security officer came looking for her, officially for a statement, unofficially to sound the mood about the hydroponics labs, she was directed to the garden.
She had been in uniform, then, but her science whites where a sharp contrast to the security black. Her hair had been shorter, and the bun more orderly, hiding the curls in her hair. She hadn't smiled when Santiago first saw her, her face almost pensive, like she was already feeling the burden of command, but it had turned into a smile when she noticed the other woman. It was a polite smile, true, distant and impersonal, but I changed her face from petulance to beauty.
She noted it in an impersonal way back then, but now, when the smile was directed at her, and the uniform had been replaced by a dress that seemed to hug her body when she moved, despite its apparent shapelessness... Now she wasn't sure her noticing was impersonal. Or even friendly.
On a whim, she dismissed her bodyguards.
“How can you stand being constantly shadowed?” Deirdre asked, and Santiago scoffed.
“I'm not followed in my HQ.”
“Ah. We are a threat then?”
“You are as yet unknown in person. I mean no disrespect.”
“Oh, I didn't take it so. I just thought... well, it's much nicer to be able to ditch the formality of being a leader every now and then, isn't it? When everything you say isn't being evaluated?”
Santiago bowed her head in a slow nod, because she did agree, but did not want to appear too eager to do so.
They spent a pleasant afternoon in the garden, only referencing their negotiations in passing, and while with anyone else Santiago might have used the time to gather data to use against the other, now all her unconscious mental notes concerned the way Deirdre looked in a certain light, or the foods she mentioned liking a turn of phrase she enjoyed using.
She had not even mocked the other woman for her poetry, although luckily Deirdre had not forced too much of it on her.
It wasn't really that surprising that they'd get along in person too. They had so much in common, regardless of their different backgrounds, their seemingly different goals. But they were both leaders of their people, willing to fight tooth and nail for them.
That was one thing she had recognised almost instantly on the other woman – the charisma of a leader. Lieutenant Commander Deirdre Skye was more than just the head of the biology department, she was the leader of her side of the ship, the person these people looked up to, and if she herself had her followers, so did this woman.
Santiago did not know back then whether it would be relevant to anything, but it had not surprised her that much that Deirdre had been at the head of one of the groups commandeering a pod for a landing on the planet.
She had maybe been surprised how many people followed herself, even from Yang's own troops. Not that she'd blame them, but she admitted to certain level of bemusement – she hadn't realised how highly she was regarded by the security forces. She had been ready to go at it with just a few loyal people, her own co-workers and underlings, but in the end her starting base rivalled Yang's in size.
Deirdre had also done well for herself. Even though Santiago placed no value on sentiment herself, she had to admire the tenacity of growing Earth plants on the planet surface, as well as the harmony she'd reached with the planet life itself.
She had to admit one thing she hoped to gain from these meeting, these negotiations, was a deeper understanding of their relationship with the planet. If the fungus could be a tactical advantage instead of a hindrance, if the mind worms could be allies instead of a monster from childhood fairytales... the things they could achieve on this planet, if they only worked together!
“I doubt that vine interests you so, as I saw only politeness on your face as I showed off our treasures. What is on your mind?”
“Are you sure you want to hear it?”
The smile was warmer now, almost intimate. Did she expect sweet nothings, or deep confidences?
“I was thinking of... joinings,” she said, and maybe she didn't meant to phrase it so flirtatiously... or maybe she did.
“I see how you've blended the planet life with our earthly plants, how it all grows in harmony here, in this little protected sphere. How do you think they'd fare if taken out, exposed to the real world?”
“Maybe they would be overgrown, or maybe they would survive. One could never know without testing these things.”
“Maybe it is enough to hide them here, then.”
“Are we still talking about the plants? Or are you suggesting our friendship should also remain here, in this protected sphere, and not follow us into the negotiation table?”
“Can one leave something so integral behind?”
“I thought your pragmatism would demand it.”
“Keeping this little garden in balance requires ruthless hand in weeding out the unwanted and needless sprouts. I think we are evenly matched in that sense if not others.”
“Shall we leave this sphere, then?” An instinct made her offer her hand to Deirdre, who took it without hesitation. She did not know if that was an agreement or encouragement to buck the gloomy vision she'd painted with her words.
“Maybe we could take the protection of this isolation with us?” Deirdre suggested, as they reached the gate.
“I fear we are getting too metaphorical for a simple soldier like me,” Santiago replied, already regretting the symbolical conversation.
“I shall speak to thee plain soldier, then.”
“That was a quote, wasn't it? Should I know it?”
“A dead white man, you surprise me.”
“The Bard knew the magic of words well enough.”
“I am no poet.”
“But you are a diplomat to your people.”
“As I must.”
“We could achieve so much were we to combine our strengths!”
And there it was. The official portion of the visit had arrived, or maybe it had been present the whole day, just hidden under the pretty surroundings, and the double speak. Plain soldier, indeed.
“What was the Bard's 'plain soldier' speak, then?”
“I don't think we are quite there, yet.” Was there something wistful in her tone, Santiago wondered, or was it as put on as the flirtation earlier. Had Deirdre decided her charms would help her with the negotiations? And was she right? “Although I may admit that his words do echo in my mind.”
“You have me at a disadvantage then, hearing someone else's words,”
Santiago said, almost dismissively.
“I might wish they were yours,”
Deirdre countered, with a sidelong glance at her, and Santiago found herself amused despite herself.
“Should I guess, then?”
“If your mind is where mine is, I think we would know. Should we take our evening meal now, and maybe compare notes from our scientists while we are at it?”
“You offered to me the findings of your scientists regarding the mind worms, earlier.”
“And the offer stands. I can't bear to think of your people needlessly dying in agony when I have the means to aid you.”
“But you must expect something in return.”
“And what would you trade it to?”
“As a leader, or as a soldier?”
“As a friend?”
“Why do you think we are meeting like this? I wouldn't let the other leaders into my base except in chains.”
“Maybe you mean to chain me.”
“They can build a prison sounder than any metal.”
“You surprise me yet again, Corazón. You reject rhetoric yet come up with a metaphor like that again. Maybe you do have a soul of a poet inside you.”
“There's no cause to insult me,” she said, trying to sound stern, but the image amused her greatly. If Deirdre could see poetry in her plain soul, that might not be a bad thing. After all, the woman seemed to appreciate pretty words. “You really do not expect the technology of our superior weaponry in exchange? No credits, no troops, no aid in your wars?”
“Only in the mental level – I hope to have your ear when I need to unwind, to forget my position for a while, to... chat with a friend.”
“And you are trying to, what, quantify that friendship and pay for it in kind?”
“Well, truly in kind, by friendship – you have my ear when you need it.”
“It is a pretty ear, but I'd rather you keep it. You might look lopsided without.”
“I have plenty of hair to hide the lack. And I can't believe you can say things like that with a straight face! That is the most basic kind of humour, taking everything at the face value.”
“Who says I was joking?”
“Your laughing eyes.”
“I will not part with them, either.”
“I don't want you in parts.”
“But you do want me?” She hadn't meant to be so abrupt about that line of questioning, but she was what she was, she only had so much patience for the pretty word games of diplomacy.
“So very much,” Deirdre replied simply, and she looked so earnest, so guileless, in that moment, one might be forgiven to forget she was centuries old, and carried the scars of the dying Earth with her, just as deeply as Santiago herself.
“I am what I am,” she said, spreading her arms.
“I speak to thee plain soldier,” Deirdre quoted again, with a soft smile. “If thou canst love me for this, take me.”
Santiago merely looked at her, but the other woman had to see something responding on her face because her smile widened. “And I would take you, any way you allow me to.”
“Are we talking sex already?”
“Your sense of humour will be my death.”
It was lightly said, but Santiago baulked at the idea. She'd lost so much, so many, on Earth, during the voyage, and on this planet. She would not lose this shining person who had become the bright point of her existence here. Their talks had sustained her for years, and to be offered more...
“I'll refrain, then,”
she said, simply, hoping even something of her thoughts were visible on her face, as she lacked the words to share them, unused to being so open, leaving herself so vulnerable.
“Never be anything but you in my presence,”
Deirdre admonished, as if taking her words at their face value in her turn.
“In our little protected sphere?”
“We'll never flourish unless we test our shared strength against the real world.”
“Pact sisters, then, to sweep all others from our way?”
“Bonded pair, working to better all our people's lives – your pragmatic spirit of survival, combined with our way of living in harmony with the planet – who could oppose us?”
“Many will try.”
“So let's make an example of Lal.”
Santiago let the smile she'd been fighting for the last minutes to finally break free. “I love the way you think.”
“Mama always told me to wait for someone who'd love me for my brain.”
“And you waited centuries to find that?”
“I waited centuries for you, Corazón. You had me at my garden in Unity, when your scorn to my little experiments turned to respect for me as a leader. Your faith in my abilities in that moment gave me strength to lead my faction to the Planet surface, and into this harsh existence.”
Santiago was speechless, at the honesty, the sincerity, at her openness, as well as the plain content of her words. For a moment she was truly shocked to silence.
“Yours was the first comm frequency I tried,” she said, a little inanely. “You were the only one I wished to locate in this wilderness.”
“Have we wasted centuries?”
“We have many more left.”
If she had any say in it, forever. No one knew the limits of the longevity treatments, except that they hadn't reached them yet.
“Could you see yourself living here?”
“We'd need to make a few changes. A Command Centre for a start.”
“And that defence field surrounding your cities, does that help against worms?”
“It helps against anyone trying to attack us.”
“Let's have one of those, too.”
It was absurd, the speed they were moving but what was the alternative? Wait for decades more to be able to meet like this again.”We'll have Tachyon Fields in all your bases – it should help with Lal chipping away your troops at the eastern border.”
“And you shall have your own mindworms at every base, and preserves to slow down the ecological damage that causes so many of the attacks.”
The garden she could live with, Santiago decided, with a little more surveillance around. And her own troops residing in the command centre, air centre and naval yard. They could rule over their factions from here, jointly. She could take care of the troops, and the fighting side of it, and Deirdre could concentrate on the efforts to get everything out of the Planet in the most optimal way. They could deal with the other factions together, and make life safer and better for all of their people.
It felt like an ending in a storybook, a fairytale her abuela had told her centuries ago back on Earth. Yet it also felt like the soundest tactical decision she had ever made, the best strategy for survival here.
No, not just survival. Something that could give value to survival. Their protected sphere. And that reminded her...
“But the most important question remains. Where would we sleep?”
Deirdre's sparkling laughter speeded their way towards her personal quarters, and to Santiago's private but heart-felt relief the other woman had an actual bed instead of a meadow or a pile of pillows on a floor, or anything like that.
“I cannot promise you'll get a lot of sleep, though” Deirdre said with false solemnity, before pulling her closer for a kiss.
Santiago had had enough of flowery phrase and suggestive lines, and quickly and efficiently divested the other woman of her clothes, even as she returned the kiss with interest before replying, “Like I give a damn.”