“Um…Sir, may I come in?”
The voice is uncharacteristically uncertain, taut with the sort of stress that all students know.
“Of course, Starbuck,” Sys-Zero answers, looking up from his desk. He gestures towards the chairs in the room, indicating for the student to sit down. “What do you need?”
The desk, with its computer and office chair, papers strewn across it and two hard, plastic chairs at the front, is the only part of Sys-Zero’s office that screams ‘Teacher!’. The rest makes it feel more like a home study than a work office, with several padded chairs off to the side with a coffee table and diagrams of mecha and starships all across the walls. There is a corkboard in one corner with sketches of flight manoeuvres covering it, all of varying quality, and names in the corners of the papers. Starbuck knows that there is one up there that he drew in his first year taking Sys-Zero’s class.
Some primary school teachers keep drawings that their pupils have drawn for them on their walls – Sys-Zero just happens to be a university instructor who has battle flight manoeuvres on his. Starbuck has a feeling that he doesn’t really see the difference.
It’s one of the padded chairs that he approaches to sit in, rather than the plastic ones by the desk. Sys-Zero recognises the direction he’s moving in before he’s even halfway through the door and stands from his desk, crossing the room quickly enough to sit down in the chair across from the one from Starbuck at the same time he does.
“It’s…it’s, well…” Starbuck sighs, folding his hand in his lap, and then he blurts out “Professor Denara asked me to be her T.A. next year,”
“I would say ‘congratulations’ but I have a feeling that that’s not why you came to speak to me,” Sys-Zero replies. “Do you not want to take the position?”
“No! Wait, I mean yes,” Starbuck groans and drops his head into his hands “I don’t know! I want to take the position, but…” he trails off.
“But?” Sys-Zero prompts.
“ButIdunnoifI’mgoodenough,” Starbuck mumbles into his hands.
Sys-Zero sighs slightly and shakes his head.
“Starbuck,” he says, leaning forwards, arms resting in his lap. “Did you, or did you not, set the entrance exam record three years ago that has yet to be broken?”
“Well…yeah,” Starbuck says, looking up. “But what does that have to do with-”
“And did you, or did you not, have some of the highest grades of your entire year group after the exams this year?”
“I did, but-”
“And does, or does not, Professor Denara have high standards?”
“Yes! That’s the proble-”
“Ah,” Sys-Zero cuts him off, holding up a hand. He waits until Starbuck closes his mouth to continue “So, if Denara has high standards, and you got some of the highest grades this year, and set a record that hasn’t been broken in three years, what does that tell you?”
“I can tell you what it tells me,” he says, leaning forwards more. “It tells me that you meet Denara’s standards, and she thinks you’re the right person for the job and that you’ll benefit from it. It also tells me that, once again, she has an eye for talent. She’s been keeping an eye on you since you started here, you know,”
“I started by breaking a record. Every teacher had an eye on me,” Starbuck says, but there is a slight grin growing on his face and less tension to his shoulders.
“Yeah, but Denara is the one that pointed you out before you took the exam and said you were going to be good,” Sys-Zero replies, grinning mischievously when Starbuck splutters “Don’t tell her that I told you that, though,”
“Uh, yes, sir,” Starbuck stutters out. He is quiet for a moment and then asks “So…you think I’d be okay at it?”
“If Denara thinks you’re good for it, then you’ll be better than okay,” Sys-Zero replies “So, would those congratulations be in order now?”
“I suppose so, sir,” Starbuck replies, standing up. “Thank you for the help,”
“Not a problem,” Sys-Zero replies, standing as well. “If anything, I should be thanking you for giving me an excuse to put off some of my grading,”
Starbuck snorts and heads for the door. Sys-Zero walks back over to his desk and sits down in the chair.
“Oh, and before you go, Starbuck, may I ask you an important question?”
Starbuck stops, halfway out the door, and turns back. Sys-Zero is leaning forwards on his desk, hands steepled in a way reminiscent of Dean Warlic. His face is completely devoid of expression.
“Yes, sir,” the student answers, slightly worried by how serious he seems to have become.
“Do you think I should ask Dean Warlic to start paying me the salary for school counsellor?”
There is a beat of silence, and then Starbuck cracks up, barely managing to stifle the first snort of laughter and then completely dissolving into giggles, holding onto the doorframe for support. Sys-Zero cracks a wide smile at his desk as well.
“Oh come on, Starbuck, it wasn’t that funny,” he says. “And I’m serious. I’m thinking I should add it to my business cards or something. ‘Sys-Zero: Ace Pilot, GEARS Academy Flight Instructor and Counsellor’. It has a nice ring to it,”
Starbuck stifles another snort, giving his eyes a quick rub to get rid of the tears that had sprung up from the laughter.
“You have business cards, sir?” he asks, voice slightly strained.
“Well, no, but I should put it on there if I get any,”
Starbuck drops his head, hands on his knees and shoulders shaking with silent laughter. He holds up one hand, index finger raised in a clear indication to not say anything else.
Eventually, he regains control of himself and straightens up.
“Thank you, Sys-Zero,” he says, sides hurting slightly “That was a laugh I really needed,”
“You’re welcome,” he answers, pulling the records he was reviewing on the computer screen again. “But I do want an answer, Starbuck,”
“I’ll leave it to your own discretion, sir,” he answers.
Then, he turns and leaves, the wide smile on his face a sharp contrast to the worried and stressed student that walked into the office.
Her right arm doesn’t hurt.
That’s the first thing that comes to mind when she wakes up. Her arm doesn’t hurt and for some reason she thinks that it should, though she isn’t sure why.
She glances down and sees it wrapped in a plaster cast, resting on top of hospital sheets.
Oh, yeah. That’s why. I broke it in the exam.
“Ah, good, you’re awake,” someone says as she sits up. She glances towards the direction of the voice and frowns in confusion when she sees who’s standing there.
“Weren’t you the captain of the dropship?” she asks.
He laughs, stepping through the doorway to the ward – she’s in a bed quite close to it – with a mug in hand.
“Yes, yes, I was,” he answers, grinning “But, like I told several of your fellow pupils on the way here, I’m also GEARS University’s Flight Instructor,”
“Oh,” she says. And then “Wait, fellow pupils? I passed?”
“Yup,” he says, pulling a chair over next to the bed and sitting down “With flying colours,” he holds the mug out to her “Here, drink this,”
“What is it?” she asks, taking it from him.
“Just water. It’s in a mug because I couldn’t find where they keep the glasses in this place, so I grabbed that off of Helia’s desk. It was clean and empty when I got it though,” he says, grinning “I saw how much coffee you were drinking on the way here. Food, water, and exercise are the three most effective treatments for too much caffeine, and exercise isn’t exactly an option right now…”
“Thank you, but, uh, why are you here?”
“Am I not allowed to check in on future pupils?” he asks, grinning. “You are going to be taking my class, after all. You left your list on the ship,” he produces the piece of paper with a flourish and hands it to her. She’s grateful he doesn’t mention anything about not knowing the names of the teachers.
“Sys-Zero! What are you doing in here?” a new voice demands, and he flinches.
“Busted,” he hisses through a sheepish grin. Then he stands quickly, spinning with a dramatic swish of his scarf.
“Helia! Who’d think I’d see you here?”
“I work here,” Nurse Helia Quinn says, crossing her arms and looking generally unimpressed. “Unlike you. You’re not supposed to be in here, mister,”
“I was only taking care of the health of a pupil and returning lost property!” Sys-Zero says, sounding slightly indignant, a grin on his face giving the act away. “Is it not my duty as a teacher to-”
“No. It’s not,” Helia interrupts, though there’s the hint of a laugh to her voice and a twitch to her lips. “It’s mine,”
“Can’t I help?”
“No. Go on, get,” she jerks a thumb over her shoulder “Go and do your own job, Flight Instructor, and let me do mine,”
“Yes, ma’am!” Sys-Zero replies, complete with a mock salute. Helia rolls her eyes as he passes and he turns in the doorway to give Sally a grin and a thumbs up before he disappears around its edge.
“Is he always like that?” Sally asks the nurse.
“More or less,” Helia says, fond exasperation in her tone “Now, let’s check on that arm, shall we?”
She is floating, surrounded by darkness… no, by light… no, by… by… nothing. There is nothing. She is displaced, completely displaced. Something went wrong. She’s alone. Alone alone alone.
There is a victory, the feelings of achievement and winning flooding her and then failure. The victory is not a victory. There is hatred, pure hatred. clouding it. destroying it.
Destroying lives. So many lives. Lost lost gone.
Has she been here before? This feels familiar. Is she dreaming? This all feels so real.
She’s running. Running running running. She has to get somewhere. Or away from somewhere? She has to run. Run run run.
Screaming. There is screaming. So many lives lost gone destroyed. So so many. They’re all screaming. All of them.
Hatred. There’s so much of it. Everywhere. Cloying and clogging and choking.
Is her voice in the chorus of screams? She thinks it might be.
She isn’t running anymore. She needs to be but she isn’t. She’s struggling. Thrashing. Someone is stopping her restraining her and they don’t understand she has to…has to…
Someone is shouting her name. The voice is sharp and commanding and maybe worried and familiar but it is fighting to break through all the other noise in her head and it is losing. Someone is holding her arms and trying to hold her in place and she yanks an arm free and slams her elbow backwards somewhere behind her and distantly hears a thump as it connects with something but the other hand won’t letgoletgoletgo
“River! You’re safe, River, you can stop!”
No good. No good. Still held back still stopped can’t go can’t go. Death. Death all around. Lives lost. So many. So many. Every one of them screaming. Victory marred by hatred. Gone gone all gone.
The screaming chorus in her head grows louder and louder and then. stops. silence. peace.
And then a single voice, loud and powerful and broken, shatters it.
There is a sharp, pricking pain.
She inhales sharply, blinking and finding her eyes stinging with tears and her cheeks damp. Her throat hurts and something in her arm is really, really stinging. The roof doesn’t look like her quarters.
It’s not a roof, she realises. It’s a wall. She’s in the hallway outside the rec room.
When did I…?
She’s being held up, she realises. Someone has an arm wrapped around her torso, crossing from under her arm across to her shoulder, and a steadying hand on her elbow, and is carefully guiding her to a sitting position. They’re talking too.
“Easy, River, it’s okay, I’ve got you. I’ve got you, River, it’s okay. You’re safe, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay…”
The voice is familiar but her mind feels sluggish and she can’t place it. There’s something lying on the floor, something white and red and… an injector. That’s an injector, like the ones in the infirmary. There are markings on it that are vaguely familiar…
Sedative? she wonders, remembering the sting in her arm. Why would there be…?
The litany of reassurance is little more than background noise and she can feel herself drifting off. Just as her eyes flutter closed, into the first thing resembling peaceful sleep she will have had since arriving here, the voice finally clicks into place.
She wakes up in the infirmary. Alone.
She pushes herself up into a sitting position and a nurse greets her cheerfully when she notices that she’s woken – not Nurse Helia, who most of GEARS are acquainted with, but one of the nurses assigned to this mission – and asks her what she remembers of the night before.
“Not much,” she admits, rubbing her head. “I think… I was sedated? The captain was there?”
She also remembers a voice, unfamiliar and familiar at the same time, in pain and horrified, screaming “Ligeia!” but she doesn’t mention that. There’s only one person on this ship who she’s willing to talk to about her dreams, only one who doesn’t make her feel like she’s crazy when she does. And they aren’t here right now.
The nurse hums sympathetically and nods.
“Yes, that happened,” she confirms “You ran through the rec room screaming like there were monsters on your tail and gave poor Sally a right fright. You ran into the captain – literally, ran into – in the hallway outside. He tried to calm you down but, well…”
“I hit him, didn’t I?” River asks.
“Straight in the ribs,” the nurse confirms “He’s got a bit of a nasty bruise now, but you didn’t really do anything else,”
It’s silent for a moment, the nurse moving away from the bed and across the room to do something with some medical equipment that River doesn’t recognise.
“He tried to stay with you until you woke up, y’know,” the nurse says, speaking up again after a moment “It half looked like they were going to have to drag him back to the bridge. He ended up leaving himself, never one to neglect his duties, but he left some pretty strict instructions to let him know when you were awake,”
“Sounds like him,” River comments, folding her hands in her lap. “So, how long is it going to be before I’m sent back out?”
The nurse stills, and then sighs.
“Actually, Captain Sys-Zero has taken you off of combat duty,”
“What?!” she all but lurches forwards, panicked “He can’t take me off of active duty! They need me out there!”
“He hasn’t taken you off of active duty, dear,” the nurse says, shaking her head and returning to the bedside. “He’s taken you off of combat duty completely,”
River is silent, her hands firmly wrapped around fistfuls of fabric, shoulders shaking.
“Why?” she asks eventually “I…there’s an entire armada out there. I’m…I’m needed out there. Why would he take me off duty?”
“He’s worried about your health,” the nurse says simply. “You’ve been erratic and on-edge since we arrived here – everyone has noticed it. There’s the possibility that it’s combat stress – you aren’t trained for this sort of thing, no matter how well trained you are at handling a mecha. But there’s also the possibility of that asteroid being involved. Quite frankly, in the state you’re in right now, you aren’t fit to be out fighting,”
She gives a pat to her shoulder that is probably meant to be reassuring.
“You focus on your health, River. Your presence might be missed out there, but we’ll pull through,”
She doesn’t reply.
After that, everything gets hectic beyond belief. In fact, she doesn’t get the chance to see Captain Sys-Zero again until after the dragonoid is gone. She doesn’t go to him though.
He comes to her.
She is in her quarters, lying on her bed and staring at the roof, marvelling at how quiet her mind feels. After spending the past however long feeling like she was living a waking dream, the sudden absence of the feeling is somewhat disconcerting.
There is a knock at the door.
“Come in,” she calls, almost absentmindedly. She doesn’t even look to see who it is.
She hears the hiss of the door open, and then the sound of footsteps. They approach, and then she feels the mattress depress as someone sits down on the edge.
“How’s your head?” he asks, and she jerks upright, completely taken by surprise. Of all the people she thought would come by, he’s the last. Or, less than the last, actually. She’s not even sure he was on her list of people who she expected to come by.
“Better,” she says simply, pulling her legs up and swinging them around so that she’s sitting on the edge next to him. Most military officers would probably have a fit at it if they saw the situation, but Captain Sys-Zero has never been orthodox, and she’s only a university student. “Empty, I suppose. It was awful while it was happening, but now it feels like something that was there is gone,”
“That may be because something is gone,” he says, and she looks to him in confusion.
“That dragonoid was powered by an incredibly powerful mana-tech core,” he says, giving her a small smile and passing a couple of books that were sitting in his lap to her. “I believe the energy field it produced created an empathetic link between you and it. That’s what was causing your dreams,”
“If that’s what happened… why only me?” she asks, sparing the books only a slight glance and catching the word ‘magic’ before she looks back to him.
“I don’t know,” he answers, in the way of a teacher who learned how to admit that the hard way. He smiles wryly “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. Hopefully, these-” he raps his knuckles on the books “-will be a bit more helpful in that regard,”
He stands, then leaves. She glances down at the books, frowning in confusion at them. She puts aside the larger volume – something about magic theory – and flips through the thinner one. Her eyes catch on the words mana sensitivity and she settles down to read.
He’s in the mecha bay when Sys-Zero finds him. It’s quiet there, when there isn’t a battle going on, and it’s the last place people would think to look for him.
Or so he thought.
“I had a feeling you’d be here,” the captain of the Reliant says, strolling up as though things are perfectly fine when they aren’t. They really aren’t. How can he be so casual when everything is… how it is?
“Hey,” he says, not looking up, belatedly adding “Captain. Sir. Whatever,”
Sys-Zero chuckles, and leans against the railing that he is sitting on, arms folded, looking down at the mecha – battle damaged but whole - behind it, whereas Dooder has his back to it.
“It was tough out there today, wasn’t it?” the captain says, voice neutral. It’s an offer to talk, Dooder knows, but also an opportunity to avoid what is actually bothering him. He has a feeling that Sys-Zero did so deliberately.
“We almost died,” the words are strained and his voice is cracked and wow that is not what he meant to come out of his mouth at all “If you hadn’t been at the teleporter to pull us out when you did-”
“But I was, and you all made it out,” Sys-Zero says. His tone is still neutral, a statement of fact.
Dooder nods but doesn’t say anything, his throat still tight. His grip on the railing that he’s sitting on tightens and there absolutely are not tears welling up behind his squeezed shut eyes no siree.
The bay is silent again, and if it weren’t for the absence of footsteps to indicate it, he would think that Sys-Zero had left.
“How old are you, Dooder?” he asks eventually, breaking the silence.
He opens his eyes and looks to the captain in confusion. Sys-Zero’s eyes haven’t left the mecha – or, at least, he doesn’t think they have. For all he knows, they’re closed behind the goggles.
“Don’t you already know that?” he asks, belatedly tacking on “sir,”
“You can drop the ‘sir’s,” Sys-Zero says, not moving at all. “How old?”
“Nineteen,” the student says, sounding reluctant “As of three days before I arrived at GEARS,”
Three days before the war began is what goes unsaid.
“You know, on Zargon, you’re not even of legal drinking age yet,” the captain’s tone is still conversational, but there’s an undertone that suggests this is something more than idle chatting. Dooder is half tempted to ask what the point of the comment is, but he remains quiet.
“You’re too young to be out here,” Sys-Zero says eventually. He holds up a hand to stall Dooder’s protests. “You are. All of you. You’re still in school, for Light’s sake, trying to pull together degrees and doctorates in between fighting a war. It never should have come to this,”
Dooder isn’t entirely sure how he’s supposed to respond to that, how he’s supposed to react now that that’s out in the open. Throughout the entire war so far, Sys-Zero has been one of those who it didn’t seem to really affect to him. He always stood straight, always seemed to be clear-headed on the battlefield, always still managed to crack jokes off of it. But now, in the calm of the mecha bay, it’s like he can see all of the weight the war is producing pushing down on his teacher-turned-commanding-officer’s shoulders.
“’Light’s sake’?” he asks, if only to not have the silence hanging around them.
“Arthurian phrase,” Sys-Zero answers “Guess I must have picked it up from Helia,”
Dooder nods, and then sighs.
“I keep thinking about that mission with the crystal asteroid,” he says, eventually. “Back then, I just… I never realised, I suppose. What war is like, even though we were already out on the battlefield. I thought being a soldier was a cool thing and now…” he sighs, closing his eyes and drops his head “Now I’m having trouble sleeping at night,”
“It’s hard,” Sys-Zero commiserates “You worry that you could be out doing more, or that something might happen when you sleep. And when you do sleep, you may as well still be out on the battlefield,”
“It never gets easier, does it?”
“Not really, no,” Sys-Zero gives a dry, humourless chuckle “Which maybe isn’t really what you’re supposed to say, but it’s the truth. War is hard. In a way, it should be, I suppose. If war like this ever became easy, something would be very wrong,”
“So, what do you do?” Dooder asks, looking up to the far off mecha bay ceiling, the inquiry more of a rhetorical question or anything.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Sys-Zero says, answering it regardless “But at the end of the day, what I’ve found is that the most you can do is remember what you’re out there fighting for, and get home at the end of the day. You can fix everything else with time,” there is a small, wry smirk on his face “Any actual therapists would probably wallop me for giving that as advice, but it’s the best I’ve got,”
Dooder hums, rapping his fingers against the railing they are resting on.
“What do you fight for?” he asks.
“The same thing I always have – to protect,” the captain answers, the taught line to his body language making him look much older than he is “Back before I left the SDF to take up teaching, during the whole mess that earned me the title ‘Hero’, I used to fight so that others wouldn’t have to, so that the children of Loreon could stay children a while longer,” he moves his gaze from the mecha for the first time since he started talking, tilting his head so that he’s facing the student-turned-soldier. Dooder has a feeling that Sys-Zero is meeting his eyes, though he can’t actually see them. “Now? Now, I fight so that those children get to go home at the end of the day. Every Shadowscythe I’m out there fighting is one that you don’t have to,”
He looks down towards the mecha again with a heavy sigh. There is another moment of silence, filled only with the sounds of breathing.
“Thank you, Sys-Zero,” Dooder says, slipping down off of the railing and onto the ground.
Sys-Zero just shrugs, pushing off of the railing and spinning on his heel, allowing the momentum to carrying him backwards so that he’s leaning against it facing the opposite way.
“No problem,” he says. Then he smiles. “If you’re heading back up, I’d recommend going by the rec room. I passed by on the way down here, and it looked like Starbuck was pretty close to beating your high score on Planetary Defender,”
“He was what?” he asks, tone icy. It’s only slightly put on.
Then he takes off running, his heart lighter for having talked, and leaving a large chunk of what drove him to the mecha bay’s solitude in the first place behind him.
Sys-Zero watches him go, smiling slightly, and then pushes off of the railing and heads out as well.
“Hey, Cysero? Who is this person in the photo, next to the hero-lookalike?” Artix asks, picking up the frame to get a closer look.
They had come to the tower to collect some supply or other that Cysero needs for a weapon – or was it a potion? He hadn’t been clear – to help Artix fight a group of undead that have taken up residence in Doomwood as of late. Usually, he wouldn’t need to come for help but the group have been proving infuriatingly impervious to every other method of attack he has tried.
He hadn’t meant to get sidetracked, especially not where undead are involved, but the photo was sitting on a bookshelf, right way up, framed and looking like it belonged exactly there. It was so completely out-of-place normal that he couldn’t help but investigate.
The two in the photo are both smiling at making peace signs towards the camera. The hero-lookalike is winking and sticking out their tongue, looking up and towards the other person in the photo rather than at the camera.
The second person, the one in question, is taller than the lookalike, with dark skin and bright yellow-blond hair. He – or rather, Artix presumes that this is a he – is looking at the camera. Or, at least, Artix thinks so – as he is wearing a set of red-rimmed goggles with blue tinted glass, it’s hard to tell where his eyes actually are. A red scarf is wrapped around his neck, curling around and over his shoulder, and he is wearing blue and brown clothes of a design that Artix has never seen before. His free hand, the one not making a peace sign, is making a pair of bunny ears behind the hero-lookalike’s head.
There is something naggingly familiar about him that he just can’t place. He hopes it isn’t because he has run across this individual as an undead at some point – the picture looks quite old – as that would be very awkward.
“Hmm?” Cysero asks, crossing the room with an armful of questionable objects, including what looks like a cross between a dagger and a bouncy ball, and something suspiciously pink at the back that Artix is going to forget he saw. “Oh, that old thing?”
For one brief moment, completely unhidden to anyone watching, a look of utter desolation and grief and loss crosses over the weaponsmith’s face. However, it goes unnoticed – Artix is the only other one in the room, and his attention is on the photo, not his friend. The raw emotion is visible for only a second, and then it is replaced by a smile that anyone that knows him would find familiar.
“It’s no-one,” he says, shifting the pile of objects to one arm and taking the frame from the paladin with the other. “No-one important, anyways. Not anymore,”
Artix almost, almost, asks what that means but then Cysero adds “I found what I was looking for,” and he forgets all about the photo in the frame and the strangely familiar stranger in it in favour of finally solving that undead problem.
And if Cysero places the frame back down and stares at it almost longingly before tilting it so that it’s face down and not showing any more, well, it’s not as if anybody is watching.
(Later, Artix will wonder if Cysero had mentioned what he did when he did deliberately, but he will dismiss the thought quickly. Cysero is smarter than many give him credit for, certainly, but he isn’t that kind of crafty, as far as Artix knows.
Besides, it’s just a picture. One unusually normal thing in the zaniness that is Cysero’s half of the tower.
And if Cysero says the person is no-one of importance, well…
…then it’s no-one of importance.)