Monday, October 3, 2016

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter X: At the End of the Tunnel

28 Autumn 1928

Lyta stared out the window as Port Arthur shrank behind them. Her gaze held steady on the vanishing city, as though to convince herself that they had really left. Absently, her right hand traced the stitches of her seat’s upholstery, and she rolled her feet in time with the vibrations of the wheels. She had not slept, not really, since returning from the cave. Nightmares had forced her back to wakefulness and she had decided that being tired was preferable to being terrified.

She twitched every time someone passed her seat, on the way to the bathrooms or the meal car. She kept imagining the Zelanis logo out of the corner of her eye. The sunlight on the windows looked like cascading water, threatening to drown her.

A shadow across her seat. Her hand was already moving towards her holster when she looked up and realized it was Ennik. She forced her hand away from her hip and back onto the armrest.

“This seat taken?” he asked, gesturing across from her.

The four-pod Lyta had claimed for herself was otherwise empty. She shrugged, and Ennik settled down next to the aisle, facing her. Lyta regarded him in silence, too tired to tell him to move but too jumpy to look away.

He, for his part, was watching her. “I’ve seen that look on you before,” he said after a moment.

“Yeah?” It was a staccato snap of a word. “What about it?”

Ennik looked at her, his hands patting his pockets for cigarettes despite it being a non-smoking train. “You looked like that the last time we came out of the mines.”

Lyta deflated and turned towards the window. The last thing she wanted was for something external to remind her of the diamond mines, the freaks that inhabited it, or the harrowing escape in their makeshift bathysphere. Her brain was having a field day merging the two caves into one nightmarish experience without Ennik reinforcing it. “Yeah,” she finally managed.

“I get that look sometimes.” He said, the unlit cigarette dangling from his lip. “I see that face in the mirror.”

“Yeah? And then what?” She stared out the window as she spoke. She didn’t want to talk, but the silence was oppressive. And some small part of her noted that Ennik might actually have something useful to say on the subject.

“I remind myself not to have a drink. Most of the time it works.” He let out a sigh and shook his head. “Have you talked to anyone about it? Your brothers or Fennec? Or Ti?”

Lyta frowned. “No. Lukas and Todd… I don’t think they’d get it. Lukas wasn’t there the first time, and Todd’s just… I don’t understand how his brain works anymore. If I ever did. And I don’t think Fennec’s slept in three days. She’s probably crashed out somewhere back there.” She waved a hand vaguely towards the end of the train as she turned back to face Ennik. Her feet still rolled with the wheels, and she let out a slow exhale. “I wish Ti were here. He’s still only on dead-drop. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him in…” She thought about it for a moment, then gave up, too tired to do the calculations. “...half a season? Maybe more? Doesn’t matter.”

A flicker of light glinted in her peripheral vision and she tensed, her muscles ready to spring into action, to sprint or fight or shoot or duck behind cover. Her hands balled into fists even before her eyes had locked onto their target. Glass and steel. An oasis tower off in the distance, reflecting the afternoon sun. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced her hands open. Deep breaths. The roll of the wheels, the thrum of the rails. She opened her eyes. “...I think I’m fucked up,” she said at last. “Doc Chambers would have a field day with me.”

“Yeah, probably. I’m just not sure you’d be better off after it.”

He shook his head reflectively and said no more, but the intimation made something in Lyta’s gut churn. Her relationship with the Doc has become more complicated in the last cycle. She wondered what Ennik knew about that, or whether there was something else he knew about the Southerner that he wasn’t letting on.

“You’ll get through this.” His words broke into her reflection on the Doc. “I’ve seen it before. I’ve been there. Time and friends and purpose. It’s ironic really,” he said with a snicker. “It’s the pursuit of the mission that fucks us up, but in the end it’s what saves us too.”

Lyta stared at him for a long moment. Her fingertips traced the stitches on her armrest. “I guess,” she said finally. “Sometimes I just wish it could be someone else’s problem for a change.”

Ennik stood quite suddenly, his expression sour, patted his chest reflexively and spun to look Lyta in the eye. “It's been other people's problem! Remember that when we went into the mines after Katchelli and Bakov, I went for the Doc because I owed Ti. You guys went in for money. I tracked down the people on the Abacus list to pay a debt to Marshal Sullivan, while you guys took contract after contract for profit or personal gain. Ti nearly died at Nazarene dealing with this problem while you were there on someone else’s agenda.”

The cigarette which had been perched on his lips fell during his rant. He paused, his breath short and his face red and picked it up. He held it for a moment, unsure what to do with it now that it was right in front of him. Then he crushed it, tobacco and thin paper frittering out of his fist. He made a move to the door of the cabin and paused.

“Look kid, I'm sorry that you’re having a hard time dealing. If you want to get out, then get out. I mean get all the fucking way out. Get away from the Bear and Abacus, from Goddamn HIRA and NGIS, from secret bases, Earther invasions and Betabels, all of it. But that means getting away from Ti and Lukas too. Because they are neck deep in this shit and as long as care what happens to those people, this is your ‘problem’.”

At last, his anger dissipated, the same sympathy which Ennik had had coming into the berth was once again apparent but all he could offer was a wordless shake of the head as he left.

Lyta watched him go with dead eyes. Two cycles ago, she might have followed him and punched him out. Two seasons ago, hot on the heels of their job rescuing the slaves in the ESE, she might have had the mental equilibrium to listen to his point. One season ago, sitting with Thalan Jonas, she might even have agreed with him. She did not have that equilibrium now. She didn’t even have the energy to care.

She turned back toward the window, her feet rolling with the wheels. “Well, fuck you too,” she muttered.


Prince Gable’s Red Roaster was as garish as it had ever been, the chintzy reds and golds threatening to drive their clientele blind, and their cawfee threatening to burn their out their taste buds at the same time. Lyta sat with her back to the wall, wondering if going blind might have prevented some of the unpleasantness of the train trip out of Port Arthur.

She was already feeling better than she had been twelve hours previously. The sedatives that Minnie had procured before they left had done their job, and she had managed to nap on the train. As she’d stepped out of the Prince Gable station, the wind from the trench tugged at her like an old friend, a physical reminder that she was away from Port Arthur, hopefully for good. And good riddance, she added as a bitter mental coda.

She watched the door to the Red Roaster swing open and shut as she wrapped her hands around her mug. It was only a few minutes before she caught sight of a familiar set of brown hair and freckles, and a few minutes longer before Ellen Cranby sat herself across from Lyta at the table. “How ya doin’, Lyta?” she asked as she settled herself into a plastic-upholstered chair.

Lyta frowned. Better than she had been, yes, but still not good. What was the yardstick to measure mental health? Somehow, lack of hallucinations seemed like an absurdly low bar, and yet…

“I don’t know.”

Ellen’s expression softened. “You wanna talk about it?”

Lyta ran her fingertips over the design etched in the mug. “I don’t know.”

Ellen took a sip from her own mug and placed it down again, regarding the younger woman with sympathy. “I know you’re a quiet one, but sometimes talkin’ is good for the soul.”

Lyta considered this. She did usually feel better after talking with Ellen, she reflected. But what could she even say? I almost died again and this time it followed me home? Not the sort of thing she wanted to burden Ellen with.

Something in her expression must have given her away. Ellen reached out and rested her hand lightly on Lyta’s wrist. “It’s all right to be pained. Scuttlebutt is you nearly died.”

Lyta looked down at the table. “I’ve nearly died lots of times before.”

“Well, maybe some of them bullet holes let in some sense.”

Lyta smiled briefly. “I don’t think so.” Ellen’s words sunk in deeper, the casual reference to bullet wounds, and she sobered. “Lukas almost died. He should have let me stay behind and drop the blast doors.”

“But the important thing is he didn’t die, and he’ll get the care he needs. You focus on that.”

Lyta drew a deep breath and nodded. They hadn’t died. He would get better. They would move forward, together. She looked up and locked eyes with Ellen. “You know you I miss? Alain. It’s weird, but I bet he’d know what to say to help. He did it the last time we came out of the mines.”

She hadn’t realized it until she said it, but she did miss him. She thought back to it, the long caravan trip to Khayr-ad Din, with Bakov sliced open like so much tenderized meat and Katchelli chained to her bed, half-catatonic and half-crazed. Alain had pulled her away from her own mind, had let her laugh again, had shown her the way out of the hole she had curled herself into.

“What ever happened to him?” Ellen’s voice cut into her reminiscences.

Lyta shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything. I guess he’s still in deep cover.”

Ellen sighed and took a sip of cawfee. “That’s a shame. But you’ve got Ti now.”

The taste in Lyta’s mouth was almost as bitter as the liquid in her mug. “When he’s around.”

“Don’t you go on like that.” Ellen’s voice was sharp enough to force Lyta to meet her gaze. The older woman’s expression was firm. “You knew what you were gettin’ yourself into with him. He as much as told you himself. Any woman who goes after a man tryin’ to change him is gonna come away disappointed.”

Lyta looked down at her cawfee. “I know.”

“Oh, Lyta.” Ellen’s voice was softer now, realizing she’d overstepped. “I don’t mean to be lecturin’. I like Ti; he’s a good kid. But he is as he is. You ain’t gonna make him drop everythin’ to come back and hold you -- an’ you know that as well as me.”

She missed Ti’s arms around her. She missed running her hands through his hair. Missed how grounded he made her feel. She wouldn’t be like this if Ti were here. But Ellen was right. “I know,” she said softly.

“So you gotta do what works for you,” Ellen continued. “You can’t wait for a man to swoop in an’ make everythin’ better for you.”

“I don’t want him to make everything better. I just wish he were here.” Her voice sounded petulant, even to herself. She sounded like a spoiled child. She took a mouthful of cawfee to cover up the tears threatening to well in her eyes.

“If wishes were springers, everyone’d ride. He’ll come back in his own time.”

Lyta put down the mug and stared and the handle. “Yeah, I know.”

“Lyta, honey, you’ve been in bad spots before. You always came through the other side. You’ll do it again this time. An’ when Ti comes back, you can leap into his arms an’ tell him all about it.”

Somehow, the image wasn’t as comforting as she would have hoped. Mostly because she had no idea how long it would be until she next saw Ti. “I guess.”

From her peripheral vision, she saw Ellen lean forward. When she spoke, her voice was dead serious. “Lyta, how many times do I gotta tell you, you don’t need a man to get your head on straight. And if you keep waitin’ for it to happen that way, you’re gonna be disappointed the rest of your days. You need you. You already got yourself figured out, you need to trust what your gut tells you. Go run on the rooftops or whatever it is you do when you want to give us all heart attacks.”

Something about Ellen’s words cut through the morass of Lyta’s thoughts, and she gave a small smile. “Thanks, Ellen.”

“You sure you shouldn’t be wearin’ a harness or a chute when you do that?”

Her grin widened. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Ellen glared, but there was amusement behind it. “The fun is in you not dyin’ and leavin’ us all mourning for your soul.”

Lyta cocked her head to the side, her expression morphing into a smirk. “I won’t die, Ellen.”

“You better not. I don’t need to have this conversation on the other side with Ti when he comes back.”

“You won’t.”

Ellen nodded firmly. “Good. Now finish your cawfee an’ let me get outta here. Some of us got day jobs.”

“Yes, Ellen.”

Lyta leaned forward and kissed the older woman on the cheek. Ellen Cranby sighed and faced her. “You’ll be the death of me yet, girl. Just you mark it.”

But Lyta had stopped listening. Already, her gaze was out the window on the street and the buildings beyond it, tracing a path to get up to the rooftops and run, really run, for the first time in far too long.

Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game


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