From Alexandra to Amberglow
by Rich Matrunick
Allie’s mind was immersed in a simple, solitary thought: I never knew red was red.
The target freighter was enveloped in a brilliant fireball; crimson shrapnel left screeching marks against the darkness of space. She was caught for a moment, losing herself in the emerging patterns, wrapped in each detail of the explosion. Time slowed to the gentle pace of a flower’s bloom; her new eyes refused to let go.
But then the shockwave hit, rocking the Amberglow, shaking her mind free. Allie gripped tight to the controls, fighting against the blast, bringing what order she could command to the spacecraft. Sweat ran down her headset, curving around her cheek.
“Dammit, Allie, away from the freighter!” Jim yelled from the back of the cockpit.
“I can get through,” she replied.
“Keep it smart. Port!” Her hands flexed at the controls, jerking the ship away from the freighter’s hulking ruin. The cockpit’s view filled with a new scene: the darting movements of countless personal fighters, the massive hulls of a hundred warships, and millions of stars dim against the battle’s raging.
Allie was presented with the infinite directions of space. She had no wingman, support, or protection to concern herself with. Her new eyes took it in, all of it, drinking every last detail.
The scene processed; her thoughts focused on a lone enemy space dock. Instinct flared and she cut hard towards it, faster than Jim could give the order.
“Crossfire above, keep it low,” Jim called. “Don’t make our path too obvious. Keep clear of the grav!”
“I’m aware, Jim.” Ignore him. Concentrate.
The Amberglow closed the distance, responding to the slightest of Allie’s twitches upon the controls. Flashes of white-hot cannon fire cut at the vacuum from all angles, a combination of sporadic blasts from battleships and fighters alike. Allie wove the five-man mercenary craft through the gauntlet, her reactions intoned from battles past.
One twist too many. Streaking towards her was an enemy squadron, their triangular forms bristling and deadly, a stream of cannon fire plowing the way before them.
Allie cut away, losing sight of the dock, spinning the ship in a delicate corkscrew.
“Don’t lose the target. You can’t—”
Allie pushed back towards the vague direction of ‘down’, cutting Jim off mid-sentence. The dock reappeared into view, a grey metal cross clinging against the azure and rust backdrop of the planet beyond.
“Free path now,” Allie said, giving in to the ships thrust.
“Good. Keep the. . .” There, just outside of gunner range, Jim went silent. Allie could visualize him behind her, pressing his headset tight against his ear. She knew ‘the call’ had come through.
The only time he’s quiet.
“All right,” Jim said. “We’ve got word: Camp Bravo. Allie, get us out of here. Marco, Fenny, keep the rear guns hot.”
Without incident the sides disengaged—a strange, silent parting of two forces that were bent on killing each other seconds before.
Allie had the Amberglow back into the retreating mass of their employer’s ships within moments, docking upon the carrier ship Sun Spire. The defensive systems began their cool down.
Allie relaxed her grip from the controls, tossed her headset upon the console, and tucked her brown hair into a ponytail.
She leaned back into the bucket seat, closing her eyes for just a moment, the onslaught of color finally catching up with her. I never could have dreamed. A hand came to rest on her shoulder.
“Better,” Jim whispered into Allie’s ear. “It’s something else entirely. I’ve—I’ve never seen flying like that.” The pressure released off of her shoulder. She spun the chair to face him, only to catch the briefest glimpse of his back as he exited the cockpit.
He can’t quite look at me yet. It’s still too different for him.
After she had finished her final checks, Allie began down the only hall of the Amberglow. Out of habit she gave its hull a reassuring pat; the five man ship had been her home for nearly six years. For us to have survived for this long, in this war, in the number of missions we have flown. . .
It was a long tour, but for all of its risks, the money was good. And with each passing mission Allie found herself one step closer to being out of the game, closer to the day when she would no longer have to wear the tag of ‘mercenary’. Though Jim likes the term ‘contractor’ over mercenary. ‘It’s just a language thing,’ he says, and ‘a job is a job.’
Allie pulled at her tank top, still clinging with sweat, as she punched at the codes to her quarters.
The door slid open, presenting a view of Allie’s small piece of the world. It contained the scattered remnants of her life’s journey: holos hanging from the walls with scenes of planets and battles past, and various trinkets and mementos from conquered planets and tourist traps alike. Her small cot was even beginning to give way to the clutter.
The Amberglow wasn’t designed for long stays, but it had become their only home as of late. Camp Bravo did not contain the niceties of so many of their other launching points. It orbited no planet to stretch their legs on, was near to no trading posts or inter-stations. It merely sat in a small patch of space that had been deemed worthy of a docking place. Supplies, fuel, and food were flown in from elsewhere. It was enough to keep them stocked for the next mission and no more.
Eventually our enemies’ line will break and we’ll have the foothold we need for a permanent residence. She had seen it unfold before. She was sure she would see it unfold again.
“Here, Kitty, Kitty,” a voice came from behind her, full of a certain slimy charisma. Fenny.
Allie didn’t turn. “Should I meow?” She turned. “What do you want, Fenny?” The man was convinced that Allie turned into Alley Cat turned into Kitty was somehow clever. It was a nickname he had tried to force upon her for over a year now.
“How did you like ‘em?” he asked, the cocky grin splitting his beard in two. His hand absently scratched at his bulging stomach, the mass stretching his white tank beyond the point of no return. He was greasy as always, from the black hair that clung to his head down to his stained cargo pants. “I’m sure they make Fenny look extra sexy.”
“Yeah, they work fine, Fenny.” Allie glanced into his eyes, to the implants he had for years, black spheres where white once was, drinking in every last bit of light. The truth is that they’re the best investment I’ve ever made.
“Brilliant, isn’t it? You see it, and you don’t need to bother to wince. You can bring it all in.” He smiled again, the grin reaching up to his deep onyx eyes. “Unfiltered. . . just like me.”
“So charming, Fenny,” she snorted.
“You know, we got the same eyes now. So now you know what old Fenny sees.”
He never tires.
“I’m taking a nap.” Allie stepped through the doorway, closing the door tight behind her.
The mess hall aboard the carrier ship Sun Spire did little to improve the scenery. Their employer, operating under the catch all name United Empire, was not exactly the most gracious host. The cavernous room contained row after row of the same long gray tables and blue benches. There was a single serving line and rather limited options.
The majority of the tables housed the ‘rightful soldiers,’ recruits of the thirty-two planet UE. By unspoken rule, they sat together near the front of the mess while the mercenary crews were relegated to the back corners.
Allie sat alone, hunched over her meal, eyes closed, replaying the last sortie in her mind. The pure clarity of the scene, even hours removed, astounded her. She could feel and track the movement of each pixel as it danced about her head.
A tray came down in the seat across from her, the clack causing her to open her eyes. Jim.
He smiled at Allie. Her onyx eyes explored every last detail: tussled chestnut hair, boyish grin, and face a week removed from his last shave. She blinked, wondering at how little the implants changed her view of him. To her eyes, Jim was Jim.
“I thought you weren’t talking to me,” Allie said.
“I cool down quickly, you know that.”
“I know.” She paused, trying to choose her words. “They really are amazing, Jim. I’m still getting used to—”
“I love you Allie, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it,” he replied. “I came here for something else.”
“And that is?”
“Just, here, take my hand,” Jim said, placing his on the table.
“All right,” she replied, hesitantly. His calloused grip closed around hers and their fingers intertwined. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“Now close your eyes.”
“I want you to think back to Alexandra—right before I was ready to depart—just a few days before I convinced you to leave. You took me to a place, high up in the trees. An elevator took you up to the top, or, rather, what I assumed was the top. But the place had another top. A wrapping staircase that took you to the smallest wooden gazebo, perched above the treetops.
“Now, I admit, I was a bit nervous with the whole ‘wooden structure’ business, but the view. . . you could see for miles. The hills and mountains rose and fell, and the endless green. . .” he paused. “We sat there the whole afternoon and into the evening.”
“Very luckily you had brought an assortment of romantic candles,” Allie chimed.
“Alexandra was only a week long resupply. I had to pull out all of the stops if I was going to get you to come with me.”
He continued. “As night fell, and the candlelight flickered around us, the faint glow of this one, solitary house stood out in the distance. It was peaceful, tranquil, amongst the hills—solitary and beautiful.
“I remember you telling me about ‘beauty in simplicity,’ being away from the chaos, not worrying yourself with the world. Just you and those you love.”
“That’s not how you saw the house at the time,” Allie replied.
“No, can’t say that I did. But it was always in the cards.”
Allie opened her eyes. “Why are you telling me this, Jim?”
“I don’t think I like ‘you’ll see.’”
“Just hold on to that image for a bit,” Jim said, standing.
“And where, exactly, are you off to?”
“You’ll see,” he winked.
He’s definitely up to something.
After she had changed into her bedclothes—another gray tank and a pair of fleecy dark pants—Allie drew up a holo. The channels that normally piqued her interest were of current news and world events, something to keep herself attached to the universe, something to keep aware that the universe still moved on despite the sedentary pattern of the Amberglow.
Tonight she called a different image. Home, Boreal.
The holo flickered and then sprang to life, filling the center of the room with a large sphere: a planet, emerald green and circled by four gray moons.
“Center Alexandra, zoom three,” she whispered. The holo, responding to her voice, rotated the planet before her to a different hemisphere, drawing closer until Boreal flooded the room. “Zoom five.” The magnification increased once more, an explosion of color assaulting the deep onyx of her eyes.
Trees, tall and broad limbed, towered above the land, blotting out stream and mountain alike with their unified canopy. A solitary break in the forest defined the only manmade settlement for miles. It was the small village that brought back far too many memories. Alexandra.
“Zoom eight.” The village filled the screen: shades of brown, green, and gray, earthen homes made of clay and stone intermixed with the metals and faint glows of technology. It was a snapshot from a brief moment in time; the holo stills were only updated once every few months.
To her, now so travelled, Alexandra seemed oddly quaint, backwoods in its feel. She saw the outdated models of technology: old autos, old doors, old lights, and old electronics. She saw details of wear and rust. In other spots her eyes came upon dry rot, clinging to the building walls. Alexandra seemed left behind, trapped in a past reserved for still photos. Was it always like that?
But, all the same, with as many years that had passed from Alexandra to Amberglow, she remembered every instant of her youth. She remembered birthday parties and tree climbing, schoolyard playmates and her first skimmer. It was a planet full of her firsts, with family that could claim a large part in most of the memories. And it had ended with a flash the day she chose to leave with Jim. Allie blinked her eyes, regretting the tears that were absent.
“Reminiscing?” Jim asked from the doorway.
“End holo.” Allie glanced up from her bed. “Something like that.”
Jim lowered himself to the bed beside her. He brought her close, kissing her deeply on the lips; there was a noticeable pause as he stared back into her eyes. “I miss your baby blues, you know,” he said, voice full of melancholy. “It’s a lot harder to tell when you’re sad.”
“I don’t know if ‘sad’ is the right word,” Allie replied. “It was just strange looking back this time. I’m. . . I’m not seeing. . .” she paused. “It’s through different eyes. I see all of the imperfections, all of the little hindrances that I never would have seen before. I’m seeing it perfectly, I guess, but it’s just weird.”
“Well, that sounds sad to me.” Then the somber look faded and the impish grin sprang to life. “I hate to think how I look to you right now.”
“Don’t fret you vain man, you’re still pretty.”
“Well, that’s one piece of good news.” He licked his lips, rubbing a hand nervously on his knee.
All right, Jim, what are you up to?
“I’ve got another piece of good news,” he continued, hand reaching into his pocket, pulling out a single scrap of paper, folded several times. “Here, you open it.”
Allie furrowed her brow and took the scrap from his hand. She unfolded it once and then a second time, turning it over. Staring back at her was a number running out to ten digits, scrawled in black ink.
“What is this?”
“That, my dear, is the sum of my account. . . plus the sale price of the Amberglow.”
“Sold?” Her stomach turned.
“Yes. It’s done, we’re done. . . we can leave the game.”
Silence filled the room; Allie’s mind chased frantically after her thoughts. We discussed this so many times: our goal, our endpoint. Images of the family promised danced before her eyes, sounds of children filling the imagined home. But so soon? So sudden?
“Okay,” he drew out, “not quite the reaction I was expecting. I was hoping for a shout, maybe a little dancing around the room. . . certainly at least a smile.”
Allie did give him a smile at that, but she wondered how strained it looked to him. “It’s wonderful Jim, it really is. It’s just sudden. I’ve got—” I can’t be out, not yet. Not now.
“You’ve got what?”
“Well, my plans, Jim!” He doesn’t get it, springing this on me. ”I’m almost saved up for the Echo, and—”
“No. Damn you Allie, you don’t need it. Please, not another alteration.” Jim took her hand and gently brought it over to his lap, turning her palm upward. With one hand he cradled underneath hers, and with the other he drew a slow finger down from her wrist to the tip of her index finger, tracing the synth-skin.
“Not yours,” he said solemnly, still tracing her hand. “There was a scar here, a nasty gash you took before we had even met. I remember you telling me how you got it from the tree that had bested you just once. Last year you had them put in the robotics, and away went the scar.”
“I hate going over this with you, Jim. It was needed. My fine motor movement is fifty times what it was before.”
Jim let her hand fall, reaching up to her shoulder, playing with the strap of her tank top. “And a mole right here,” he said.
“Better rotation, Jim.”
He reached over to her chest, placing his hand over her heart. “The drip,” he said.
“Keeps me even.”
His sad eyes reached up to hers. “Your blues.”
“Stop it, James!” Allie yelled. She was immediately taken aback at her own outburst; she calmed and took Jim’s hands in hers. “We survived forty-six skirmishes. Forty-six! I had to make myself the best pilot I could be.” Allie shook her head. “I can’t keep having this conversation with you. The sad puppy-dog shit is really getting on my nerves.”
“But why don’t you see it? We have enough. We don’t have to do this anymore. The solitary house in the hills, the family— just like you always wanted. You can be done now!”
“But I’m not perfect yet!”
The room fell silent once more. Jim shook free from Allie’s hands, rising from the bed. He stood over her, but refused to look into her eyes. “Don’t become another one,” Jim said.
“Another one what?”
“Tech-addict? I’m no Fenny, James.”
“Same hands, same shoulder, same eyes, and soon same ears. You feel as he feels, move as he moves, see as he sees. Allie, you are Fenny.”
Jim turned to leave, but paused in the doorway, his back turned to Allie, leaning heavily with his arm against the doorframe. “The Amberglow is sold, Allie. It changes hands in less than a week. I’m asking, begging, please come with me.” With those final words he slipped around the corner.
“Past your bedtime, Kitty,” Fenny’s voice came from behind Allie, more than a little slurred and reeking of alcohol. She ignored him, continuing her work at the console, soldering up a bit of loose wire.
“Besides,” he continued, “this bucket’s sold anyhow. You’re off with captain handsome to some who knows where, why even bother to—”
“I’m just not tired, that’s all,” Allie growled, turning to face him.
A large, slimy grin reached his face, his eyes sparkling from some inward glee.
“So that’s what the yellin’s been about,” he laughed. “You ain’t goin’.”
“Don’t pretend to know me,” she replied, words laced with ice.
“Pretend nothin’. I know when it’s got its claws in you. That little itch.”
“Only you would know, Fenny. I see it in you. I see you perfectly.”
“I’m not doubtin’ it,” he laughed again. “Ain’t much I care to hide, and the rest the onyx’ll do. Probably see ol’ Jimmy boy pretty as a picture too. But that’s the thing, ain’t it? Onyx don’t exactly point the other way.”
The treetops of Boreal spread outward for miles. Allie looked upon the forest below, watching over the endless sea of green. She inhaled, drawing in deeply, then slowly exhaled, letting her breath wash over the scene.
The trees did not move—they never did. The shadows did not stretch or shrink with the passing of hours. There was no sound. And this updated snapshot was the same as the last; as always, the porch light remained lit on the solitary house in the hills. Jim never turned it off. Waiting.
The scene from Boreal was chased from her room, leaving Allie alone on her small cot aboard the Amberglow. Her eyes fell to the piece of paper clutched delicately between her hands.
The paper was small and worn with years gone by, falling apart at the creases. The note, barely white, was short on words.
In the center, scrawled in black ink, was a ten digit number with a solitary line struck through its center. Below it read the following words, reflected upon the deep onyx of her eyes: ‘You were always perfect to me.’