Chapter 6 – Breaking Bread
Several Hours Later
“Hmm… how about this one? These aren’t too short, right?”
“…Mm… don’t know the weather.”
“That’s true, sure, but it sounds like even SERRCom doesn’t know where, exactly, we’ll wind up. Which is a little bullshit, but the only thing left to it is to prepare for any climate!”
“Lot of clothes…”
“I’m aware, but I’ve learned how to pack efficiently. My clothes also take up much less space than most others would!”
Kestrel stared at Phoenix blankly, and then glanced over at the mirror leaning against the wall — which made blatantly apparent the differences in the two womens’ statures. Phoenix’s five foot and one inch height paled in comparison to Kestrel’s six feet and two inches, compounded further by the latter’s overall fuller figure. To add to the matter, every aspect of the room they currently stood in was tailored to Phoenix’s own tastes — it was her bedroom, after all. A couple dressers and a free-standing mirror lined one of the walls of the small, cozy room, with a variety of track- and field-related trophies and medals placed haphazardly across the dresser tops. Against another wall was a virtual mountain of clothing, nearly as long as Phoenix was tall and continually growing as she grabbed outfits out of her closet and held them up to her body in the mirror, tossing any she didn’t like away and throwing the rest onto the red sheets of her twin-sized bed. A couple posters adorned the walls, most of them track or fashion related, particularly of the “athleisure” variety. Overall, little about Phoenix’s room stood out in any real way — if anything, it was Kestrel who appeared out of place in the context of the small room and the bed that was clearly shorter in length than her.
After looking around for a moment, Kestrel grunted in disapproval and sat down on the edge of Phoenix’s bed, where she hunched over with her elbows on her knees.
“Oh, c’mon,” Phoenix responded, her hands planted on her hips as she turned to face her friend. “I wish I had your height, you know. It’s hard to get people to take you seriously when you’re short.”
“…Alright, you’re right. It was insensitive of me to bring up your height out of the blue like that. I’m sorry.”
Kestrel looked up at Phoenix, though remained hunched over as she was. After a moment she looked away, still expressionless. “…It’s okay,” she eventually muttered, “you… did nothing wrong.”
“I’m not sure I agree, but I suppose I’ll take your word for it,” Phoenix replied with a wary sigh. She then turned around and stepped into her closet, where she began rummaging around through more clothing. “I still think you should embrace your body more, though. If you let me, I’m sure I could pick something cute for you!”
“…You already picked most of my wardrobe.”
“Which is how I know that it’s filled with those oversized gray sweaters, cardigans, and plain long dresses. It’s a nice look every now and then, but sometimes you need to spice it up! Show a little more skin!”
“…Well, okay, maybe not showing skin per se. I know you and the sun don’t mix well. But still, there’s a whole world of fashion out there that you’re missing out on!”
“What? How do you know? You haven’t even tried! Hell, we’re about to go to a whole new planet! The Nimalians have some interesting fashion of their own. Some of it’s kinda weird, but hey, it might interest you. You never know!”
“…If you say so.”
Phoenix shook her head in resignation as she stepped out of her closet with a crimson tank top and a pair of capri pants, at which point she held up the clothes against her body and looked herself over in the mirror. “That said…” she muttered as she continued inspecting her appearance, “the fact that we even have to go to Nimalia in the first place is… well, I’ve talked your ear off about this already, so you know well how I feel. But I don’t think I’ve heard you say much about it yourself. What do you think about this whole situation?”
Kestrel glanced over at her friend, and then leaned back, moving her arms back to support herself as she closed her eyes. “…Not sure.”
“I guess I can understand that. This has all happened pretty fast, after all. Hell, it’s been barely half a week since that fucktard EA kidnapped us… fuck, just thinking about that is riling me up. His arrogance just pisses me right off, and that’s saying something, seeing as how we’re friends with Pierce!”
“…Was right about one thing, though…”
“What?” Phoenix turned away from the mirror to give Kestrel an incredulous look. “Right about what?”
“Conscription. It’s galaxy-wide. And…” Kestrel reached out with her right hand, into which she summoned a long spear with a blade nearly a foot long and a five-foot shaft. Right where the pristine silver blade joined with the gunmetal gray shaft were spiked crossbars, forming an ‘X’ when looked at from above and bending slightly in the direction of the spearhead. Just above the crossbars was a long, dark-green ribbon, attached to the shaft just below a softly glowing dark-green orb. “…This… isn’t normal,” Kestrel continued after turning the weapon over in her hands a couple times. “Even for Chaotics.”
“…So? The Eximius Vir can summon weird weapons, too.”
“They aren’t normal, either…”
“So, what? You’re saying that’s good enough for SERRCom to just grab us off the street and chuck us at an alien planet?”
“…Weren’t you… looking forward to Nimalia?”
“Nimalia being a desirable tourist destination is completely independent from my question.”
“…Mmm…” Kestrel dismissed her spear in a flash of white light and looked down. “…Don’t know.”
Phoenix shook her head in irritation as she tossed the clothes in her hands onto her bed and retreated once more into her closet. “I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer. The best I’ve heard is some nonsense about the ‘greater good’, but I’d like to see some concrete proof on this supposed ‘good’. As far as I can tell, this is all just…”
As Phoenix began ranting while continuing to sort through her closet, she failed to catch the soft thud of footsteps just outside her bedroom door. Standing silently in the hallway was Major Rachel Hackett, with her fist just inches away from the door — frozen in place after hearing part of Phoenix and Kestrel’s discussion. After a moment of thought, the Major withdrew her hand from the door and turned away, her lips pursed in apprehension as she exited the small hallway.
Hackett glanced over at the couch placed against the back wall of the small living room in which she now stood. Sitting on the couch was a woman with a dark complexion and long, dark, wavy hair. She wore a green button-up blouse and a pair of black slacks, and she had her bare feet propped up on an ottoman set in front of the couch, seemingly relaxing after a day at work.
“…Is it Phoenix?” the woman prodded after Hackett failed to respond.
With a deep breath, the Major stepped forward away from the hallway and then stopped to lean on the wall. “No, she’s fine. There’s no need to worry, ma’am.”
The woman pulled a face. “Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, please. You don’t look much younger than me, after all. Just call me Tywin.”
“If you insist, ma— uh… Tywin,” Hackett replied.
“You military types really like your ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’am’s, don’t you?”
“…I guess you could say that.”
“Still…” Tywin leaned even further back in her chair and closed her eyes. “I can’t argue with the opportunities SERRCom has given my daughter, so I can’t complain too much.”
“Opportunities?” Hackett passed Tywin a confused look. “You… you do understand what’s about to happen to Phoenix?”
“Yes, yes. Drafted into SERRCom after she discovered some funky new powers. I take it she’s been giving you a hard time about that?”
“You could say that.”
“It figures. Phoenix has always been headstrong and independent, for better or for worse. Intensely competitive as well, that girl. Still, whether its through being drafted or her own choice, getting to travel the galaxy is an opportunity most people on Earth don’t get. It’s certainly not an opportunity I or her father would’ve been able to give her.”
The Major momentarily glanced around at the small apartment, and the relatively few furnishings or decorations. An aura of frugality emanated from the sparse living room and dining area, though Hackett suspected that the frugality wasn’t by choice.
“Now, that said…” Tywn opened her eyes and turned toward Hackett again. “If I hear that my sweet baby girl was hurt while under your watch, there will be hell to pay!”
“Understood.” Hackett offered a nod in response. “You have my word, we’ll do our best to keep her and her friends safe.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Major.” Tywin then stretched and yawned broadly before grabbing a remote and turning on a small TV on a table across the room from the couch. “Anyways, with the heavy talk out of the way. You wouldn’t happen to be from California yourself, would you?”
“I am, actually. How’d you know?”
“Just a lucky guess. But now, for the real question… Warriors? Or Lakers?”
Hackett couldn’t help but allow an amused smirk to cross her face. “Sorry, but I’m an LA girl. It’s Lakers all the way.”
“Ooooh, I should’ve figured!” Tywin shook her fist at the Major. “You Lakers fans are everywhere. Just who won the championship four years in a row a while back, huh? That’s right, the Warriors!”
“That was an impressive streak, to be sure, but that was fifteen years ago. And Shawn Wallace jumped ship to the Lakers after that, might I add.”
“Only because of all that LA money. We didn’t need him, anyways.”
“Didn’t the Warriors stop winning after he left?”
“Hmph! The fact that the Warriors were able to win in the first place was impressive enough, given the state of the Bay Area. We had money and people leaving in droves, and still, we won, four times in a row!”
“Oh… right.” Hackett pursed her lips and looked down. “…I’m sorry for making light of that.”
“Ah, it’s not like it’s your fault…” Tywin sighed wearily. “The entire Bay Area has been in dire straits for as long as I can remember. That earthquake back in ‘88 did a real number on us… not that I was old enough to remember it when it hit. But I can hardly blame people for wanting to leave for somewhere that isn’t a disaster of flooded land and floundering industries.”
“I suppose so. You make it sound rather bad around here, though. Is there a reason you haven’t left, yourself?”
Tywin smiled bitterly. “We would if we could.”
A protracted silence fell over the room as Tywin flipped through various TV channels, and Hackett avoided all eye contact. The quiet lasted for nearly a minute; eventually, the Major opened her mouth to attempt a new line of conversation, but just before she could speak, the front door to the apartment opened up. Standing in the doorway was a bald, stout man of average height and a dark complexion, slightly darker than Tywin’s. He wore a plain white t-shirt and jeans, and carried in both his hands brown bags.
“I’m home,” the man announced as he stepped inside and kicked off his shoes. “I brought dinner. And a straggler, too.”
“Apologies for intruding,” said Colonel Saito, as he stepped into the apartment behind the man.
“Colonel?” Hackett regarded him with surprise. “What are you—?”
“Ahhh, is that Chinese I smell?” Tywin interjected, sniffing the air twice before getting up from her seat to approach the man and relieve him of the paper bags. “Thanks for picking it up, Wayne.”
“It’s the least I can do when Phoenix is in town,” the man, Wayne, replied. He glanced over at Hackett, and then back at Saito, as he continued, “though… she isn’t leaving just yet… is she?”
“She’s clear until Sunday,” Saito answered. “Don’t worry, you still have some time with your daughter.”
“While I don’t mean to sound crass,” Tywin said as she began emptying the paper bags onto the small dining table, “why are you here, if not to whisk Phoenix and Kestrel away?”
“Just picking up my colleague, that’s all. I ran into Mr. Myles here completely by chance.”
Wayne grunted in response, but had already disappeared into the kitchen, so Hackett couldn’t tell what kind of expression he was wearing.
“I see.” Tywin finished setting out the various to-go boxes on the table and turned toward the hallway, shouting, “Phoenix! Kestrel! Food’s here!” She then looked back at Saito, and then at Hackett. “Will the two of you be joining us for dinner?”
“Oh, no… we couldn’t possibly intrude,” Hackett quickly replied as she pushed off of the wall and approached the front of the apartment, where Saito was still standing.
“Are you sure? The more, the merrier, I always say, especially in regards to dinner.”
“We appreciate the offer, Mrs. Myles, truly,” Saito responded, “but I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. There’s a couple things the Major and I need to attend to.”
“Alright, then. Your loss,” Tywin declared as Wayne moved into the dining area and the door to Phoenix’s room finally opened. Phoenix and Kestrel quickly emerged, with the former at first eagerly rushing toward the small dining table — only to stop when she spotted Saito and Hackett.
“…What are you doing here?” She questioned impatiently.
“Nothing that you need to worry about,” Saito replied casually as Hackett slipped on her shoes. “We’ll check in again on Friday. Don’t forget to pack your things!”
Phoenix simply huffed in response before turning back to the dining table and digging through the boxes, with Kestrel standing just beside her and looking over her shoulder.
Saito then turned toward Hackett and nodded toward the door, at which point he opened it up again and stepped out into the dusk-lit outside world. Hackett followed suit, stopping for a brief moment to bid Tywin farewell before finally closing the door behind her.
As the two began walking down the exterior stairs to the ground and then over to the vehicle pick-up zone, the Major finally broke the silence, asking, “sir, is there really anything for us to attend to, this late in the day?”
“Of course not. That was just an excuse,” Saito replied as he quickly called a car. “Forcing the new recruits to keep spending time with us won’t endear them to us in the slightest. Best to be hands off, for now.”
“I suppose that makes sense…”
“How are Myles and Nielson handling things? Could you tell?”
“They spent most of their time in Phoenix’s room, so I can’t say. Kestrel is unreadable, anyways.”
“True…” The Colonel nodded absentmindedly as an empty silver car rolled up to them in the darkness. The two officers promptly climbed in, at which point the car shot off on its way to their hotel.
“Did you have anything in mind for dinner?” Hackett questioned.
“Careful, Major, or I’ll think you were asking me out!”
Hackett passed Saito an unamused glance as the Colonel chuckled to himself.
“Sorry, sorry. Couldn’t resist,” Saito remarked, managing to suppress his own amusement with a subdued smile. “Though, now that I think about it… Hackett, doesn’t your wife live in California?”
“She does, sir, but not around here. We have an apartment near LA.”
“Well that’s still the same state, it can’t be that far.”
“It’s 5 to 6 hours from San Francisco to LA by car.”
“…Little more than I thought. Still, this is a good chance for you to spend a couple nights at home, Major. It might be the last chance you get for a while.”
“For a while?”
“Consider it a… gut feeling. Things have been escalating quickly these past two months, and I’d be willing to bet that we’re just going to get busier and busier.”
Hackett sighed wearily. “I can’t argue with that. Between these new recruits, EA, the Drakkars, and all of that Aldredian technology we recovered… still, sir. We are on the job. I’m not sure if I can justify a visit to LA…”
Saito smirked. “Well, Major, as luck would have it, Bradley’s college is near LA, and he’ll have to drop by sometime this week to clear out his dorm room. Sounds like plenty of justification to me.”
“Didn’t we determine that Bradley has the highest flight risk of all the recruits? I’d have to spend all of my time watching him…”
“He is the highest risk, that’s true, but I don’t think he’ll actually run off. For all his bluster, he doesn’t seem like the type to abandon his friends… and even if he does, he won’t be able to run from SERRCom’s beaming tech for long.”
“Major, I’m saying that you can go to LA without having to watch over Bradley. If something goes wrong, then I’ll take responsibility.”
“I can’t do that to you, sir.”
“Damn it, Hackett.” Saito passed her an incredulous glance. “Don’t make me order you to see your own damn wife.”
“…Heh.” Hackett released an amused snort. “…Alright, sir, if you insist.”
“Damn right I do. You know, Major, I don’t think I’ve ever had to spend so much time convincing someone to go home.”
“Perhaps you should take your own advice, hmm?”
“Ha! I think a trip to Japan would be a little more difficult to justify than a trip to LA. Besides, it’s not as though I have anyone waiting for me there.”
“Still no success in your dating life, huh, sir?”
“My dating life doesn’t even exist,” Saito retorted. “…I’ve never been good at the whole romance thing, anyways. It’d just be a waste of time at my age.”
“With that defeatist attitude, it’s no wonder,” Hackett remarked. “You and Travis, both. Sometimes I think the two of you actually enjoy being alone.”
“I think the Captain just likes guns too much. If his rifle could talk, I’m sure he’d have married it by now.”
The Major smirked in amusement. “I’m sure he’d love to hear that you said that about him, sir.”
“I’m not even sure that he’d argue,” Saito replied with a chuckle. “…But anyways, Major. You head back to LA tomorrow morning, Mote and I can take care of around here for now.”
“Alright, sir. Will do. Should I report back on Sunday?”
“Yeah, in the morning, preferably. Don’t want to miss those shiny new AR implants the General is giving everyone, now, do we?”
“Heh, I suppose not—” Hackett began, only for a low grumbling from Saito’s stomach to interrupt her. “…Well, sir,” she continued in amusement, “speaking of missing things, we probably shouldn’t miss dinner, huh?”
“Yes… let’s take care of that,” Saito responded as he began using the car’s center console computer to search for nearby restaurants to close out the day in.