Sergeant Helmi Alpassi submitted to the security scan at the entrance to Captain Night’s hangar stoically.
It’d be pretty fucking hypocritical of me to complain about getting checked for chips and jacks, after all.
She was less resigned to leaving her sidearm in the security locker there, but that was procedure they insisted on back at Pilot Roth’s hangars too and she had no reasonable justification to refuse.
And it wasn’t as if she was appreciably less deadly without her weapon as with it.
Still, options are nice things to have.
Pilot Roth, of course, had no weapon to turn over. She passed through the checkpoint with a polite, if slightly absent-minded, smile for the marines, accepted back the small parcel she had brought with her, and headed for the docking umbilical. An ensign was waiting at the top to escort them through the Utopian Ideal’s corridors, and not, this time, to the officer’s mess or the office of either Captain Night or Commander Invelen, but into an unfamiliar part of the ship where the occasional open door revealed scientific equipment and terminals that looked as if they’d be at home in the most up-to-date research facilities in the Cluster.
The ensign stopped. “Dr Toin’s lab is just along here, sir,” he said.
“Thank you very much,” Pilot said warmly. “Helmi, why don’t you wait here while I – ”
“No,” Helmi said.
“I’m quite sure,” Pilot said, in the dry tone she used when she thought she was being a woman of the world, “that I’m not in any danger from one research scientist, Helmi.”
One research scientist with spirits’ know what going on in her head after two years collared like a dog in a kennel. Helmi considered giving Pilot a brief explanation of what a person could do in the mindless panic of post-traumatic anxiety, illustrated with a couple of colorful examples from her own personal barracks-room experience, then looked at Pilot’s soft blue eyes and settled for: “No.”
Pilot sighed. “Fine. Just don’t scare her, Helmi. I don’t think she’s had a very good time of it.”
Helmi nodded. I won’t scare her.
If she doesn’t scare me.
That seemed, to Helmi, to be about fair.
She expected the door to lead to another sterile grey laboratory with banks of monitors and machines, but her first impression of the room beyond it was color. Reds and pinks, golden tones shading into orange, spilling around the room in shapes that seemed vaguely familiar from long-ago classes, strings of numbers and symbols that swooped and spun and had Helmi’s heart-rate ticking up a little in the half-second before she identified holoprojection and cut in the optical filters that damped it down to a pastel blur.
At the center of that blur was the object of Pilot’s visit, clear and sharp now in contrast to the haze in her dark blue insignia-less uniform. ID confirmation spooled across Helmi’s retinas as her internal neocom made a facial recognition match, Dr Nolikka Toin, Corporation: Ishukone, Rank: Restricted, Posting: Restricted, Age: 37, Hair: Brown, Eyes: N/A, Height: 178 cm, Weight: 50 kg.
That last Helmi assessed as being out of date, as Nolikka turned at the sound of footfalls and the holoprojection stilled. Incarceration will do that to a person.
Do other things, too.
Still, the woman didn’t seem about to fly off the handle, tense though she was, and so Helmi moved aside and let Pilot through the door after her.
“Hello,” Pilot said, her soft Gallente accent softer than usual. “Dr Toin? My name’s Cia, Cia Roth. I’m, well. Ami’s sister, among other things. I brought you – I brought you some things.”
“Ms Roth. Sir,” Nolikka said, her voice clear but without any weight to it, a voice, Helmi thought, neither used to giving orders nor having to raise itself to be heard. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to ‘sir’, me,” Pilot said. “I’m not – in your chain of command, is that the term?”
“Yes, Ms Roth.” The scientist didn’t relax from her at ease posture, not as straight-backed as Helmi would have liked to see from anyone under her command but not bad. For a techie.
Pilot set the bag down on the nearest bench. “I’ll put them – I’ll just put them here, shall I? It’s just some – some things I’d want, if I were …” She paused. “Um. Just some things.”
Nolikka looked a little baffled, as well, Helmi thought, she might. Perhaps it was the done thing in the Federation to give scented soaps and handcream to people recently escaped from slave labor factories. I’m sorry about your illegal imprisonment and abuse. Have some lavender water!
Helmi wouldn’t know.
“And this is, um. My friend Helmi,” Pilot said.
“Hello,” Helmi said neutrally.
“Sir,” Nolikka said.
“Do you have everything you need?” Pilot asked.
“Yes, Ms Roth. Thank you.”
“Do you mind if I … ” Pilot pulled a stool out from under the nearest bench, and perched herself upon it, even as she went on, “Do you mind if I sit down? It’s a long walk from the lock to back here.”
“No, Ms Roth, I don’t mind.”
Which was, Helmi judged, a lie. A good one, told with a straight face, and no betraying flicker to the voice, but a lie nonetheless, polite courtesy from a woman who wanted nothing more than for them to leave her in peace.
But Pilot hears what she wants to hear.
“How are you holding up?” Pilot asked.
“I’m well, thank you, Ms Roth.” Nolikka’s voice was inflexionless.
Pilot toyed a little with the bag on the bench. “I remember, for me … it was such a relief that it was over. I couldn’t feel anything else through the relief for a while. And when I did, it seemed so … inappropriate.” She smiled, as if Nolikka could see her. “It was over, it was past, I’d been fine. So why … ?”
There was a small silence, and then the scientist asked softly, “For you?”
Pilot shrugged. “It was different, for me. Not so long. Not for … the same reasons. I’m not pretending to know how you feel. But …” She toyed with the bag again. “After, the first thing I wanted, well, after I slept for about twenty hours, was to be clean. A bath with bubbles, and nice soap, and all the things that … just weren’t part of what had happened. I thought you might …”
“Thank you,” Nolikka said, and this time Helmi thought she meant it.
“But not,” Pilot said with a little wry twist to her lips, “Not what you were wanting?”
“I don’t want for anything, here,” Nolikka said. “But thank you.”
Pilot looked around. “Silver said you’ve been doing some exceptional research.” Nolikka looked slightly baffled, and Pilot went on, “Captain Night. He said your work is extraordinary.”
A faint hint of color in the scientist’s cheeks, then. “He’s too generous. I am quite out of the loop on latest developments.”
“I’m sure you’ll catch up,” Pilot said, studying her. “Have you thought about what you’ll do? When this is over?”
“When this is over,” Nolikka said blankly.
“Will you go back to Ishukone? Do you have family there?”
“I have a sister,” Nolikka said, and paused. “Go back to Ishukone? Of course.”
“Of course,” Pilot said gently. “Besides your sister?” At the other woman’s expression of incomprehension, she prompted, “Someone special? You’d like to see again?”
The answer came with the speed of pre-prepared fiction. “No. No-one like that.”
“I see,” Pilot said softly.
From the expression on that pretty Gallente face, Helmi thought that Pilot did see, even if what she saw was not what she'd been looking for.
And for once, heard what she didn’t want to hear, too.