Shadows come at night
Night is when you close your eyes
And fly up-up-up away home
To the land of the shadows…
Harvie sits on the floor, cross-legged, the cold metal side of her gun pressed to her cheek. It’s soothing. She must have a fever, and if they are still alive by the end of the night she should ask Curly Paw for a pill from the medikit they stole last week.
Bone to bone, dust to dust…
Stinky throws a smoke grenade. Blue mist curls up, turning the rays of light sifting through the metal grid above the ducts into a semi-transparent web. Somehow this gives her an illusory feeling of safety, as if the lines are solid.
Packsta does what packsta must…
Growler gets up and walks around, checking their ammo for the last time. He doesn’t check hers. Instead, he drops: “Take down as many as you can, then drop the guns and run. Hide. If they find you—cry.”
Packsta comes, packsta goes…
“Good hunting, Packsta,” she says.
Growler will die tonight; she knows it. He’s getting too old, almost sixteen. He’ll keep killing until the little ones are safe. The Litter always protects its young. She’s a pup, not yet twelve. She must live.
Litter runs, Litter growls…
In the blue mist she can only see the silhouettes of her mates: heads, sometimes shoulders, or a hand passing a gun. No sobs, no whispers—only the humming, the singing of “The Death Chant.”
Water drops, air howls…
She moves the power output slider into the “max” position. If the Litter has to kill, it kills.
Anywhere, nowhere, all in one, one in all.
* * *
Harvie pulled an octagun from under her pillow and checked the time on the target tracking display. 04:18. The handle under her palm smelt of warm sweat and semi-absorbed mediskin that encased the thumb she’d broken in last week’s training. She must have slept the whole night with her hand on the gun. Only yesterday she’d sworn to Jen Takura that she’d kicked the habit for good, and would move her gun to the locked weapons cabinet. “Not bloody likely,” Jen had said. Duh.
Harvie wiped the gun with the corner of her bed sheet and inspected it as she always did. She took out the battery charger and put it back to reset the gun to default, just in case she had messed it up in her sleep. She’d never done that before, but who knew? The dream, even though she’d had it many times, didn’t feel like usual. It had left her with a tangle in her stomach, anticipation for a menace much greater than the one from which she had awakened.
Like many times before, she’d dreamed of the last night she’d spent with her Litter pack, and the first night at the headquarters of the Unian Security Forces. That night Harvie had come down with a fever that nearly killed her; it kept her in bed for almost two months. The USF doctor said Harvie had contracted it living rough in the tunnels, but she knew better. Why live when she no longer had to fight to stay alive?
All in one, one in all…
Yet she’d lived. Four long years had passed since then, and she was still alive and well, and no longer eleven.
Packstas believed “The Shadow Chant” chased away bad dreams like this one. Harvie wasn’t so certain. But today she might give it a try. She closed her eyes and whispered the chant words, scanning through the patchwork of images in her head, hoping they’d fade for good.
Shadows are watching over you
Whisper, whisper, calling
Stretch their hands to take you away
To the land of the shadows…
She sat up and pressed the side of the barrel to her cheek, just like she had in the dream. The cold metal felt soothing, helping her break free from the memory that had left a tense feeling in her chest and limbs, as if her combat exosuit had malfunctioned and shrunk in, crushing her trapped body. Yet all she wore were silk pyjama shorts with a matching top the Takuras had given her for her fifteenth birthday. Jen called the colour “steel grey” and said it matched Harvie’s eyes. Harvie couldn’t care less, but natural silk fabric and her skin turned out to be a perfect match too. It was the first time Harvie had slept in something that didn’t feel like sandpaper. Ever since, she’d fallen into the habit of wearing it every night, for almost a year now.
Ten months and twenty-nine days to be precise. She’d leave the outfit tossed onto the floor every morning before changing into her sim tracksuit, and later find it again in her drawer, clean and neatly folded, begging for her to make one last effort of the day and not pass out on top of her bed in her tracksuit, soaked in sweat and sometimes blood. Most mornings she didn't even remember how she'd managed to put it on in her weariness, but she'd wake up wearing it. The handle of the gun under her pillow would feel cold and dry, meaning she'd slept through another night without dreaming.
04:20. Harvie stood up. Her bed melted, becoming one with the varistate floor. Her bedding and her pillow sunk into a milky pool that hardened and turned the colour of brushed steel, the same as the room’s walls and the ceiling. Harvie liked her room this way—no fake VR windows or interiors, no pretending this room was something other than what it was: a varistate-filled residential cell inside a space station’s module.
A place to unload, leaving everything else outside. Just a few concealed cabinets to keep her private octagon collections and a few trinkets like a book of fairy tales that Kato Takura had read to her while she was recovering from the fever.
She put her palm to the wall to open a hidden drawer. It tingled for a second while performing a bio-identity scan and then a hole opened. Harvie put her gun inside, and reached deeper. Here it was. She pulled the doll out: a palm-sized girl with silvery white hair, wearing an orange kimono. “Konnichiwa Harubi-sama,” she whispered and bowed. “Nemui desu, ne?” The doll’s facial features had worn off with time, and it did indeed look dozy. “What have you been up to this night?”
Harubi didn’t answer. The doll never said a word, not once in the past twelve years. It simply followed her, from her mother’s funeral, to the cabin on her dad’s ship. To the rescue pod that took her away from the exploding Ranger. To the Litter lair on an orbital station, once abandoned and then reclaimed by USF. Then back into the hands of the same person who had given it to her in the first place—General Kato Takura, once her father’s loyal friend and ally. His wife, Jen, had given the doll a good wash, almost restoring Harubi to her old glory.
Harvie stroked the doll’s hair and put it back. Let it enjoy the rest it deserved, in a tiny dark wall alcove, guarding Harvie’s collection of custom-made firearms. She closed the drawer.
Crossing the room, now completely void of any furniture, she took off her pyjamas and stepped into the shower. A see-through splash screen blocked it from the rest of the room. She closed her eyes and pressed her palms against black marble tiles. They were the real thing, not haptic varistate, even though nobody but her could tell the difference. Rivulets of hot water streamed down her hair and shoulders, soothing, clearing her mind.
Four years ago showering used to be a torture: water rasped her skin, burned her scalp. Harvie could feel every drop and what was worse, she could hear every drop and together they sounded like a stampeding army of spider-like tankbots marching through service tunnels, every sound magnified by the emptiness. She’d fight for her life with whoever happened to be in charge of her grooming. “It’s like washing a cat,” Jen would say, spraying mediskin over fresh scratches. After a while nobody else would even try to get close.
Now water still hurt, but it was a good pain; the kind that reminded her that she was still alive when she felt void, formless like blank varistate. “Good” pain gave form to her body. It defined its boundaries and put it firmly under her control: every nerve and muscle, every square millimetre of her ghostly-white skin. Feeling alive was to feel whole, and that wholeness often eluded her, making her wonder whether she had in fact perished with the rest of the Litter and become a Shadow, whatever that meant.
With her eyes still closed, Harvie turned the shower off. Water drops rolled off her hair onto the black stone tiles with a rhythmic sound. She turned on the air dryer and ran her fingers through her hair, wondering whether it might be time to cut it; once again it had grown into an unruly ashen mop. Ponytails didn’t work; the hairbands hurt with “bad” pain: annoying, distracting. She’d rather have her hair shorter, but for some reason Jen Takura would never let her cut it above shoulder-length or change its natural ash-blonde colour. And one never should question the advice of the principal of the USF Cadet Programme. Not if they wanted to graduate.
Harvie wanted it badly, to put an end to all of it: The gruelling study to maintain the top 10 per cent grade average at school in addition to her cadet training; the bone-breaking PT. And the worst of it: four years of Jen Takura.
“We could adopt her,” Jen had said once, tucking her in bed. Harvie had just been discharged from the hospital, no stronger than a rag doll, spending her days in half-sleep not much different from a coma. Jen spoke Japanese, not yet aware that Harvie could understand every word. “But she’ll never adopt us.” She was right about that. Jen was right about many things, even though Harvie hated to admit it.
By now Harvie should have had enough of General Takura’s wife, a skinny redhead always dressed in blue denim overalls as if ready for a full day’s work at a ranch; of her voice, low, deep and forceful, with a broad Kansas accent and a certain coarseness that came with a lot of shouting at teenage girls with octaguns. Four years of putting up with Jen’s dry sarcasm: her sharp remarks, always painful, always hitting the target. Always a “bad pain” at first. But somehow it felt better after a while. Connected. Whatever that meant.
Four years as a USF cadet. Technically, Harvie should be able to graduate this year in the rank of USF Junior Officer. But then technically she shouldn’t be on the programme at all. Most people had to be at least sixteen to enrol. Even today she was still a few weeks short. General Takura might have had enough clout to put an eleven-year-old on the training programme, but it would take a unanimous agreement of the whole Unian Board to promote an underage cadet to a USF officer. Not bloody likely. Her perks were already above a cadet’s level and she’d done a dozen field assignments she shouldn’t technically have been cleared for. Technicalities were never her forte, from the moment she was born in the medical cabin of a battleship.
Harvie returned to her room and opened a concealed wardrobe cabinet. The Supplies had already delivered a fresh change of clothes for the week—a pack of disposable undies, three workout suits, two sets of military-style uniforms. She changed into a combat track workout suit and picked a sim weapon, a custom-made precise replica of a closed-space combat octagun, without the octalon charge battery. Another cadet would never have been allowed to keep even a toy of this weapon in her room, let alone the real thing under her pillow. Certainly not a girl who screamed at night and pulled the weapon out with her eyes closed, gasping for air, aiming at enemies only she could see.
But whenever Harvie pulled the gun out, the screaming would stop. Just like Jen Takura had predicted.
No, Jen hadn’t said that, not exactly. It was Harvie’s second week at USF, and she still had the fever and she screamed every night until a nurse would come and sedate her, but then Kato Takura came and stopped the drugs, and brought along his wife to deal with the rest. “Just give her a damn gun,” Jen had said, and when another voice muttered something indistinct, she snapped. “I don’t give a horse shit if she kills someone. We don’t run a boarding school here. If they let her kill them, it’s their problem.”
4:28. Harvie put a sweatband on to keep her hair in place, put her sim octagun and a couple of water bottles into a beaten-up backpack with the USF logo. Two track runs before breakfast, then maybe two more to make sure her sim rating stayed well into the four digits. Last time she let it slip into the hundreds, Jen suggested in front of the whole assembly to add a comfort blanket and a dummy to Harvie’s “toy collection.” None of the cadets smirked or chuckled. Instead her classmates went out of their way to express their deepest sympathies.
That same night, Harvie found under her door a pile of chewed-up teddy bears, empty milk bottles and boxed pacifiers with bows made of flashing pink ribbons. Not a small feat in a space station located a few thousand miles away from the nearest infant. Someone had even procured a pack of reusable nappies and put one on a stuffed toy pup with stitched crosses in place of eyes. A note pinned to its chest read: Litter always protects the young. All in one, one in all.
Jen might’ve been a horse whisperer, but nobody tames a wild horse to give it an easy ride.
These memories were toxic; they could eat Harvie’s brain up like maggots, if she let them crawl inside her head. She rubbed the back of her neck, running once again through her mental check of the plan for the day. Two sim tracks, medium level for an easy rating boost, breakfast, then about an hour of schoolwork, then another track—this time a real thing, the highest complexity level—lunch, four more study hours while her body recovered, martial arts class, bloody homework again, quick dinner if she had time. She had to find time; Jen would take penalty points off her rating for each missed meal. Triple points if it happened two days in a row. That Harvie accepted without a grudge. She knew she could go days without food, not even noticing she was hungry until it knocked her off her feet. Taking care of her body had never been Harvie’s particular strength.
The combat sim track, unmanned at this hour, smelled of stale sweat and wet rubber. A dim security light cast long shadows across the empty industrial warehouse-sized floor covered with worn-out mats, hosed overnight with water. Harvie stepped into the freshly repainted yellow circle and waited for the sim console to boot up and scan her biosig. In a moment two projection screens appeared at her face level, one with the picture of Harvie’s head and torso, another one with her record sheet. Nine hundred and ninety-eight. Still a good 200 points higher than any of the cadets in her training group, but it didn’t matter. Fifteen hundred, said Jen, or you won’t graduate. If Harvie wanted to stay on the same terms as others she could, but then she wouldn’t be out of the programme till she turned eighteen. If Harvie wanted any more exceptions for herself, her performance had to stay exceptional.
She selected the medium level, as she had planned, but then hesitated. Perhaps it was time to up the game. Her school term results were coming in and she knew she had done a lame job on her Japanese essay. Anything less than 90 per cent and she’d earn ten more penalty points off her score, plus a point for every per cent less than ninety. Kato Takura had thrown that into the deal for her. His wife had always been relaxed about academics. For Jen Takura, manners mattered, not grades.
Harvie moved the mission difficulty level to “medium high,” then after another second’s hesitation, to “high.” She’d done that level before, many times. No reason to go easy on herself now. An amber system message alert blinked at the bottom of her record sheet. Harvie dismissed it; it was just a reminder that this was not her recommended setting for a morning workout. She could ignore the amber ones. The reds were the ones to worry about. Three red alerts in a row, and the sim mission would abort and its score would reset to zero. It had happened to her before.
She confirmed her choice and scanned through the mission specs. Setting: Nearspace, small urban station. She had to get to the third floor of a busy shopping mall, locate a pebble parked on the roof, get inside and start the engine. Time to complete: 5 minutes. Number of enemy’s forces: unknown. Weapons: unknown. Undercover or not: unknown.
Difficult? Harvie shrugged. On a good day she could pack three of these into a 30-minute workout, with short breaks in between. She chose a lighter sim gun and put it on a sling under her black hoodie. Open carry in a civil setting would earn her a red alert straight away.
Just as she always did before launching the sim, she inhaled, taking in the vast emptiness of the training room and its silence filled with barely audible hums and rattles. Then she pressed “Start.”
The sim room came to life. The walls bulged and bent, exploding with a myriad of glistening metal cylinders—varistate core bots—that joined together into metal platforms, scaffoldings, and partitions. Three or four floors? It was too quick to notice for sure. A stucco facade, brightly lit with neon signs and projected adverts, covered the interiors before Harvie could get a good look. Never mind. It would be cheating anyway.
Another cheat trick would be to linger in the yellow circle for a few more seconds. The mission timer wouldn’t start until she stepped out, but she hated doing that even with nobody around to notice. She hadn’t made it this far by cutting corners. She adjusted the hoodie to make sure once again that the gun sling was not visible, and stepped through the mall’s doors.
A whirlwind of noises, smells, lights and sounds assaulted her straight away: Sensory distractions, her weak spot. Harvie could lose up to thirty precious seconds just trying to tune them out. She paid no attention to the security guard at the door—very unlikely a threat—and headed straight into the crowd of virtual shoppers.
Not so virtual, it turned out, when a twenty-something man on a hoverscooter bumped into her shoulder. While most of the shoppers were simple 3D projections to create a feel of a busy marketplace, there always were a few android-like ones, with a varistate core. She had no way of knowing which was which from a distance.
“Hey you, watch it!” the man shouted. A few shoppers turned their heads. The security guard at the door moved towards her. If he tried to talk to her, she would lose precious time. Now making it to the top in five minutes didn’t seem as easy as before.
“Sorry,” Harvie said, forcing out a smile. The sim would register all her verbal responses and make the dummies act accordingly. The man with a hoverscooter muttered something and sped away. Harvie glanced back. The security guard at the door paced nonchalantly past a sweet shop. All seemed fine, but something didn’t feel right. No time to think about it now; she’d tackle the problems as they appeared.
Harvie spotted an escalator at the end of the hall and dashed towards the rainbow-coloured array of stepping stones that slowly drifted upwards. She walked briskly, dodging the shoppers, trying to keep her pace natural so she didn’t trigger any “suspect behaviour” responses from the sim. The closer she got to the stairs, the more she could sense the nauseating smell of fried bananas from an ice-cream parlour reeking of burnt palm oil and some other concoctions of unknown origin. C’mon, she thought. It never smells that bad in real life, this sim is so rigged!
As if the system could read her thoughts, the smell only intensified and then a loud, off-tune singing burst from the loudspeakers: “Happy birthday to youuuuuuu, happy birthday, dear Xin Li, happy birthday to…”
Block it. Harvie stopped and closed her eyes for a second. Roof. Get to the roof. A toddler ran into her path, chasing a vintage toy police car, flashing lights, sirens and all. He tripped over her foot, fell, and began wailing. More looks from the shoppers. Harvie gently picked the boy up and smiled. Manners. Blend in.
About a minute was already gone, Harvie reckoned as she walked up the escalator’s steps, and she hadn’t yet left the ground floor. Her blending-in strategy wasn’t quite working out. She looked up. A man stood on the opposite descending stairway, staring at her. Definitely the same man she’d bumped into at the entrance, minus the hoverscooter, plus a baseball cap. Harvie steeled inside. The sim never used the same face models without a reason. Yet the man was going down, away from her—why? A few seconds later their bodies became level. The man pulled out a gun and shot at her, close range.
Harvie ducked before her mind consciously registered the gun. A woman next to her yelped and clutched her bulging stomach, eyes wide with a primal fear of a mother about to lose an unborn child. A system message flashed at Harvie’s eye level: Red Alert. Civilian Casualty. The escalator froze and a few people above Harvie dashed to help the woman. Someone grabbed Harvie’s arm and yelled into her ear: “Are you okay, kid?”
Screw manners. Harvie pushed the shopper to the side and ran up the stairs, elbowing the dummies. “Miss, miss!” someone yelled at her back. “Can anyone stop her?” The upstairs’ security guard blocked her way. Likely a civilian, unarmed. Can’t shoot him, but—Harvie pulled her gun out. “Let me go,” she ordered. The guard slowly raised his arms and stepped back. Tunnels, now. At least she wouldn’t amass any more collateral damage in there.
Harvie ran towards the back door of a lingerie boutique, knocking over a couple of hangers. She pushed through a barricade of boxes and cleared the access to a small door marked “Authorised personnel only.” Which one of the shops had access to service tunnels was a hunch, based on her firsthand knowledge of the space station’s hidden underbelly. Litter’s nighttime raids on the shops had kept packstas fed and clothed; and the experience proved priceless in the sims.
She shot twice a couple of inches below the digital lock. A faint whiff of smoke curled from the hole. Harvie put her fingers inside and pulled out a bunch of wires. Red, blue, purple on the top — pop! — Here goes the lock. Do it quick, do it right and packstas gonna eat tonight. What Litter chants lacked in verse quality, they made up for in practical mnemonics.
Sneaking into the familiar world of dimmed lights, hushed sounds and steady, predictable smells of unmanned infrastructure had always been a relief. But this time Harvie felt an uneasy knot in her stomach as she climbed the steel ladder inside the water pipeline duct. A soft but persistent background hum didn’t quite belong in the place and she couldn’t work out its origin. If something felt wrong in a sim, there was always a reason—unless, of course, it was just another sensory distraction.
She had to get into an air duct; they always led to the roof—the legacy of mainland architecture. Some things were only too predictable in their lack of practical sense in Nearspace. Like roof ventilation ducts. The breathing air mix always came from downlevel, gravity-wise. The sims followed the design to a tee, stupidity and all.
Speaking of stupidity—a chilling realisation hit Harvie: she hadn’t blocked the tunnel access door behind her. A rookie mistake. A medium-level sim would let it slide, but not this one. She stopped for a moment and listened to any human or bot movements inside the ducts. The distracting hum grew louder, but finally she could place it: firefighting pumps refilling sprinkler tanks. Nothing to worry about.
Less than a minute left. She might just make it, but there was no way she could do another two sims like this one in a row. The dream had drained too much of her strength this morning; she was sloppy, unfocused. Maybe things would get better after breakfast. Harvie pulled a heavy grid off the air duct, climbed inside, and swore. Instead of the roof it ended at the side of the building, on the third-floor level.
Harvie looked down. A fall from this height would be cushioned by the training room mats, but the sim would pronounce her dead and abort the mission, with a zero score. She was sure she might be somewhere around a thirty-five to forty mark, could easily walk away with fifty points to her record. Worth trying. She aimed at the narrow walkway that ran along the wall about two metres below the duct and prepared to jump.
A flash of light blinded her. Amber alert. Firearm damage. Severity: medium low. Gunshot wounds were the most unreal thing in the sim, hurting nothing but one’s score and ego. But too much virtual damage meant a death call from the sim. A cadet with three death calls in a row would lose a good fifty points off her score. Jen called it the “You only live twice penalty.”
No more time to lose. Harvie jumped. She knew she wouldn’t make it before she landed; she’d put too much force into it and overshot. She went down two floors and crashed onto the roof of a glass-covered passage connecting two buildings. A sharp burst of pain pierced her leg. Broken? Red alert. Severe physical damage.
“Shut up, you!” Harvie’s anger swelled up. It was just a damn leg, couldn’t possibly be more than amber. The man in the baseball cap appeared in the air duct. If he shot her, she’d be out.
She got him first. The man groaned and hurled down, impaling himself on a pebble navigation antenna, which protruded from the roof of the passage. The spike came out of his back, glistening with dark red. Death in the sim always looked gory, even gorier than in real life.
“Thirty seconds to mission time-out.”
Harvie stood up and limped towards the fire escape stairway that led to the roof. She could still make it. Putting most of her weight onto her good leg, she rushed up the spiral stairs, up one floor, then another one. The gate at the top was locked. Harvie hurled over the banister and reached the roof edge.
She pulled and grabbed the ledge. A burst of water hit her in the face. Fire sprinklers. In an instant the ledge became too slippery to hang onto.
She let go of the banister and pulled up.
Harvie’s knees slammed into the wall and the pain in her damaged leg took her off guard. The ledge slid under her fingers. She fell down, crashed again into the passageway’s roof, bounced off and slammed flat onto the mats that were, when falling from this height, not much softer than solid concrete.
In the last few moments of consciousness, Harvie watched the shopping centre and its patrons decompose all the way to a varistate skeleton that crumbled and retreated into the walls, back into its neutral state. The room was once again void and silent, with the exception of a prostrate body on the floor.
The bright spotlights under the ceiling smudged into a single shining halo and then dimmed, and Harvie no longer felt any pain.
She can’t move, can’t see. The fabric sack on her head smells of chemical dye. Harvie wonders what the point of it is. Maybe they want to scare her, but she’s not afraid of the dark. She thinks of the time she floated in the rescue pod for two weeks, alone. Then she thinks of Dad.
“I want you to be strong,” he said before he sealed the pod. She wasn’t afraid. She’s not afraid now, either. She’s strong, just as he wanted, even though her pack lost the fight. She assumes they have lost, but she can’t remember any of it.
The smell becomes too much to bear. It’s not just the sack; her hair, her sweat smells too, and there is a dull metal taste on her tongue. She coughs. It’s not a dye, she realises, fighting the urge to vomit. And there was no fight. Gas bots, that’s what they used: tinier than ants, fast, deadly; very hard to acquire; expensive; illegal.
Someone comes in, lifts the sack and puts an airmask on her face. The smell subsides. They give her some water. She drinks. They take her to a toilet. She complies, even though it’s awkward in the long cocoon-shirt. A woman with a raspy, harsh voice assists her. Her hands are rough and smell of cigarettes.
When they walk back, Harvie asks about the rest of the Litter.
The woman says nothing.
Bone to bone…
Harvie doesn’t sleep. She lies on her side, the back of her head against the vibrating wall, listening to the low, steady hum of the ship’s engines. The faces of packstas come to her; she lets them go, one by one, singing the chant words in her head as they disappear into the darkness. The sense of loss is palpable.
All in one, one in all…
She tries to remember the day they found her in the abandoned cargo dock, after she almost ran out of food and water. The man Dad sent for her hadn’t come. She later saw Growler boasting a Ranger badge, but she never asked him about it. Growler doesn’t like questions. Didn’t like…
After a while she falls asleep and misses the arrival and docking. She wakes up to two voices above her, speaking Japanese. Both have accents. One is Nearspace urban, with dragging, soft vowels; the other one is distinct mainland Japanese: harsh and short.
“This is the girl who taught the Litter how to use firearms. She is quite a legend, this kid!” The Nearspacer chuckles. “It took us six months to track the gang that’s been hiding her. We’ve got two little rascals, pressed them a bit, you know. Until one of them cracked.”
Rage swells up inside her. It takes some real pain to make a packsta talk.
“That’s too much information, Lesavre, both on your sources and your methods.”
“I’ve lost twenty-three of my people to these skunks, Major General.”
“As I’ve said, too much information. But thanks for your effort. We will take it onwards from here.”
The sack on her head comes off. She blinks, getting used to the light. A middle-aged Asian man stares into her face. She stares back, scanning his every feature. She knows him. She frowns and squints, trying to remember.
A doll. A doll dressed in orange, silvery hair, white round head, about the size of her palm. He handed it to her, and she said…
“You know who I am?” He looks startled; it reassures her.
“Yes.” She answers in English. Images float into her mind. “You’re Major General Kato Takura, from USF. You visited Commander Flemming’s ship four years ago. You two talked about displacing the Legion from the quadrant between the Saudade and Helios stations. You brought a Japanese doll, a girl in an orange kimono. I didn’t like it. I said dolls are stupid.”
The man gapes at her, aghast.
“You are… Denise?” He gasps. “Deni, Rod’s little girl?”
She pulls her chin up. “My name is Harvie Flemming. There’s no Denise.” She squirms, but the shirt is wrapped tight around her chest. “Now, can you tell your people to take this thing off?”
“But, of course! I had no idea… I thought you died, with your father!” He shakes his head and mutters while the other men release her. “Rodo-san-no onnonoko… Deni—sumimasen! … Harvie-sama—”
“Onnonoko ja nai!” she snaps, squeezing her free hand into a fist. “I’m not a girl. I’m a Ranger.”
“Hai, Harvie-sama.” The man’s face is quiet, respectful. He bows, his back straight, arms pressed to his sides. The woman with the harsh voice is there too. She moves closer and leans over. Her face suddenly becomes older, and unkempt red hair disappears into a tight knot at the back of her head. She no longer reeks of cigarettes, but there is another smell that makes Harvie inhale sharply as if short of oxygen.
“What’s gotten into your head, Flemming?” the woman says.
Harvie focused her eyes. Jen Takura sat in the revolving chair next to her hospital bed. The disturbing smell came from a regenigel mixer in the room that Harvie knew all too well. A short and plump, dark-skinned doctor nodded to her like an old friend. Now it all came together: Harvie had passed out in the sim room, been rushed to the medics, and Jen had come to visit her in person. She wouldn’t miss an opportunity to give Harvie a third-degree scolding.
The wisest strategy would be to keep her mouth shut and take it. Not that Harvie had much to say. Not that she could say anything even if she wanted to. Her throat felt numb, the same as her limbs.
Jen sighed, pulled up the diagnostic screen, and zoomed in on a scan of a skull with a couple of dislodged vertebrae underneath. A trace in red indicated the place where they should have been.
“A few more millimetres and you’d be quadriplegic,” she said.
Which means I’m not, Harvie thought. The first good news this morning.