It was like being bored.
Rin slowly realized she was lying partially reclined, signing forms. How had she gotten here? Nothing came to mind. What was she signing? Rin blinked slowly, but the forms kept being blurry. She kept signing them, mostly to have something to do. She wondered briefly how long this had been going on. Her hand ached something fierce. Rin could hear the whir of a fan nearby, but the papers did not stir.
She was going to go into hibernation! What had happened? Had they taken a break to sign stuff? Where was Buck? The words “Specimen” and “Waiver” seemed to feature prominently on these papers. Dr. Forth seemed to have gotten a lot of medical equipment from somewhere. She was surrounded by vague shapes with readouts and blinking lights.
“Hey, where are we? Did we all make it back to Earth?” Rin tried to ask. It came out a bit differently. “Ahe, wooa aah wa? Na wa aah maag an baan na arghk?” Someone had stuffed her mouth with cotton balls, or maybe it was just numb. Or maybe she was permanently mute.
She couldn't feel her tongue. Had they cut out her tongue? That wasn't part of the hibernation procedure, was it? No, Rin distinctly recalled being able to speak when Ando woke her up. She had asked him for coffee. Now she might never be able to ask for coffee ever again.
Rin wanted to feel terrified, but found that she couldn't. She wanted to cry, but couldn't find tears. She couldn't really feel anything. Someone patted her hand. She looked up. It was Dr. Forth, still in his EVA suit. It had changed colors. The lawyers must have stopped him before he put her under. They would be on their way soon.
The forms stopped, and Dr. Forth took them away, saying something about “Finally we can get started”. With nothing else to do, Rin passed out again.
She woke up in a much more friendly environment. Or, it seemed more friendly now that she was reclined. The blankets were comfortable, and she could barely feel the IV taped to her arm. Something still tickled at the back of her mind. Oh, she was still on Phoenix, but she was mute now too. Too bad she couldn't call for anyone. Some swampvine stew would really hit the spot.
Wait, there was no hospital room on the Armstrong. Dr. Forth must have built one. No, Dr. Forth was going to put her into RAS. That must mean... Where was she now?
Well, wherever it was, it was comfortable. There was a window to her left which looked out on... a control room of some sort. There were plenty of screens anyway. On her right was an array of tubes and trays of sealed instruments. The room seemed awfully cramped for a hospital though. And, was that wall behind her actually just a curtain?
Oh, but it was good to just lie there in bed. To not be painfully thirsty, painfully hungry. Really, just the general absence of pain. If only she could think clearly... There was something she needed to remember.
There was someone in a space suit fiddling with her IV system.
Rin struggled to raise her head. Her tongue wasn't working properly. It rubbed against something that filled her mouth. Fabric? A wad of hair? Gaining control of her arms she vaguely pawed at her lips. Cotton balls. Damp and slightly pink. Lovely.
“What happened?” Rin managed. Her voice sounded slow and indistinct.
The figure in the suit didn't turn around, and the voice came muffled through the fabric, or maybe it was her hearing. “Border crossing forms. They're over in the corner if you want to review them.”
“Mostly because they're contaminated now. Have to keep them in quarantine.”
The nurse -- for how could she be anything else -- moved on to some faintly beeping machinery out of Rin's line of sight. After a few minutes she returned and looked intently at Rin through the clear faceplate.
“How do you feel?”
Rin tried to roll her eyes, even that hurt. “Terrible.”
The nurse seemed unconcerned “Anything in particular?” She held up a small device to one of Rin's eyes and then the other. It flashed several times, painfully bright. Then she pressed the tool against Rin's skin, first on her temples, then her neck, then several times on both arms and legs. It felt like plastic, with a small cold metal stud sticking out.
“Nope. Just mostly bleh.”
Another nurse entered the room pushing a wheeled cart which rattled ominously with metallic implements.
“Good. We're going to do some response tests. Close your eyes, and tell me where you feel the pressure.”
The pair went over her whole body relentlessly, first pressing lightly with a large pad, and then a small round tool, and then with a wand that was warm on one end and cold on the other. Finally they hooked up an instrument to some electrodes which Rin was apparently already wearing and took some readings. After the examination was over the nurses left without explanation.
Rin was left alone for what seemed like a few minutes, but could have been hours. Her sense of time still felt addled. Then two doctors entered the room, one female and one male. The man she recognized at some point during the conversation as Dr. Forth. The woman introduced herself, but Rin didn't catch her name, and it seemed unimportant at the time. There was a little name-tag on her suit. Rin remembered reading the tag, but not the name printed thereon. It was a green tag, with the name printed in black. There was a small circular gold sticker in the lower right-hand corner -- or, Rin's right hand, it was the doctor's left. Rin remembered the doctor as “Gold-star” even though the sticker wasn't a star. She never did find out her name.
“...so, you probably have lots of questions.” gold star was saying. She then continued, with no discernible pause -- to Rin, anyhow, “So let's just cover the basics. You're in remarkably good health, considering what you've been through. Kidneys, liver, digestion, still functional.” The doctor flipped vaguely through some papers on a clip-board, as though looking for some detail that eluded her.
Rin wanted to encourage her to keep talking, and blurted out lamely, “That's good.” Her mouth felt strange. Had it felt strange before?
Gold-star glanced up for a moment before giving up and flipping all the sheets back flat on her clipboard. She held the board in front of her with both hands, as if it were resting on her belt, if she had been wearing a belt. “Yes, and your vitals are steady. Lots of good news.”
“Why is my mouth... strange.” Asked Rin.
The male doctor -- Doctor Forth she later discovered -- spoke up for the first time. His voice was husky with regret. “Well Rin, there's bad news too. I did a lot of work on you while you were in RAS. Some of it has permanent implications. As you've noticed, the majority of your teeth are gone.”
Oh, yeah, that's what was weird.
“You've also had some significant facial scarring. There were some contaminants in your nasal cavity and sinuses that flared up during RAS. I had to do what I could to prevent the infection from spreading.”
Gold-star chimed in “At some point you can get cosmetic surgery, but for present your system is too weak to risk it.”
Dr. Forth took a deep breath, and smiled a little, “Fortunately that's the worst of it. We took some tissue and bone samples, but there are no complications. You seem to be pulling through well.”
Rin felt vaguely ill “Anything else I'm missing?”
“About a year of good food and sleep.” Said Gold-star seriously. “You'll have to catch up while you're in quarantine.”
“Quarantine? Where am I now?”
“Back on Earth, at the ISAC medical center. You're in the secure observation center.”
Rin winced as she attempted to raise her eyebrows -- how could everything hurt at once? “Is there coffee?”
“You'll be on a strict regulated diet. We want to give your body the best chance to heal. For that, it's very important that you eat correctly, and just as important that we know what you're eating.”
Dr. Forth leaned forward slightly, his face a mask of sympathy, “No coffee.”
“If I'm really good?” pleaded Rin. She found that she was seeing double, the images lazily circling each other, stubbornly refusing to coalesce. She tried to concentrate, but the effort just made her tired without having any perceptible effect on her visual binary divergence.
“We'll be reviewing your progress frequently.” Replied Gold-star. “But honestly, stimulants and depressants are generally omitted from the diet in quarantine.”
Rin squinted her eyes shut. It hurt, but not a lot more than keeping them open. “So, I'm a deformed, toothless, bed-ridden, and... what's this in my IV?”
“Mostly saline and glucose. Let us know when you're feeling up to answering some questions. We're curious about your diet on Planet X”
“We call it Phoenix.”
“Right now you need to rest. We'll be keeping an eye on you. Ask if you need anything.”
Rin stared blankly at the back of the suits as the doctors waddled slightly from the room. The suits were not as bulky as the EVA suits, but still impeded movement. Probably just biohazard isolation or something.
Rin found that she was feeling flat. She recalled the deferred terror of earlier, and found that it was still in emotional free-fall, still waiting to land, to hit the earth. Carefully, Rin reached up with her left hand to touch her face. How bad were the scars? They felt huge of course, a veritable metropolitan transport network traced on her skin. The reality would be something less shocking, she was sure. Something less... but how much less?
With a start -- though a start with no shock to it, a kind of slow deceleration instead of a crash -- Rin realized that she could never be a doctor now. Doctors were pretty. They had all their arms and legs and teeth and their face wasn't all cut up. A doctor with facial scars would be like, a mechanic with a rusted out car? A Haberdasher in a ball cap. It was silly, she realized, and cosmetic, and completely unrelated to her proficiency at medicine, but the appearance was part of the job. Perhaps the most important part. She certainly wouldn't want to be treated by a deformed doctor. The position was more than a service technician, it was a symbol of health. When you looked at your physician, you wanted to know that you could become what you saw.
A doctor was an image of perfection, and Rin was ruined now.
Oh sure, the reconstructive surgery might help. Maybe. But the realization of the largely vain nature of the profession left Rin feeling cold. How many doctors got by on looks? How many were turned down because they were crippled? Maybe there was something else she could do. Besides, did she really still want to live in the picture on the wall? Rin couldn't even remember what it looked like. It had snow in it. Snow sounded unbelievably uncomfortable.
The days and nights blend together. There are no windows to the sky.
It felt like maybe two weeks before she was moved out of intensive care. Later Rin learned that it had only been five days. Whatever the period of time, it was a span of growing consciousness. Rin was at first aware only of her own immediate surroundings. The blankets, her own progressively more conceptually terrifying face, the walls and ceiling. She recalled staring for hours at the walls and ceiling, but could not recall anything definite about them. They were always deflecting her attentions, drawing her eye to shapes that looked like faces, or shadows, or long rolling hills, or the fingers of a hand. The lights were always on, or always off, but she never saw them go on or off. Her world was static, until she lost the energy to keep looking.
But slowly she grew into the sense of time. She watched the doctors or nurses -- in large protective suits -- go in and out. She ate and breathed and slept. A few days in she got up from her bed. That was when she learned that she was always being watched because by the time she was standing there were three people in the room. They didn't help her, but she got the feeling that they would if she had any trouble.
She really wanted to see Buck again. All the doctors and nurses were helpful, but they weren't company. They weren't there for Rin, they were just there to make sure that her body kept functioning satisfactorily. It felt like far too long since she had been sitting in the comms room, talking about nothing. And yet they were listening for their rescue. They were listening and hoping to be back here. And now that she was here, she was wishing to be back there, with real human companionship.
After a week -- or five days -- she was transferred to quarantine. She didn't know it at the time. No one told her anything. But her bed was suddenly moving, and she was in a hallway. There were plastic curtains everywhere. Everything had a kind of soapy smell. Then suddenly they were in a different kind of place, where the walls were warm and there was real furniture.
The caregivers encouraged her to walk around, and then left. Or, they kind of left. One wall of the room was transparent, much like the one in the room she had just come from. Behind it was a familiar looking observation team. She waved shyly and then tried to ignore them.
The room was small, but well furnished, though a bit stark. A stainless steel sheet metal desk sat along one side. It had a computer on it, currently inactive. In the corner was a medical sink, with both handles and foot pedals. Her hospital bed seemed quite out of place along the opposite wall, where it kept company with a toilet. The floor and ceiling was made of matching no-skid steel perforated with half centimeter holes. The walls were hung with several expensive looking lamps emitting a warm golden glow. Several utility hookups and handled drawers punctuated the walls. There was a set of clean clothes next to the computer.
With nothing else to do, Rin began to change. It was the first set of normal clothes she had put on since boarding the Armstrong, over a year ago. The IV proved to be a tricky proposition, but she figured out how to thread the bag through the sleeve without breaking anything.
She felt like a new woman.
A new woman in need of a mirror. Rin had grown more steady on her feet over the past few days. Now she could walk around without really being afraid of falling. It had never happened, but the caution of the staff made her feel like there was a real danger. As she shuffled carefully around her room she had the odd feeling of floating through the air. Somewhat like the whole room was a giant air-hockey rink. The perforated floor added to the illusion.
Satisfied that there was no mirror in her quarters, Rin ventured to open the door. It was separated from her room by a symbolic blue curtain, but otherwise seemed mundane. Once through it, she found her way down a short set of corridors to a spacious common area. It at once felt like a waiting room, a library, and an office. It seemed as if someone had tried to make it feel smaller, and Rin soon realized why. There were supposed to be more than a dozen people living here in quarantine. The Alouise had brought back three.
Rin paused in the doorway until the feeling had passed, and her skin stopped feeling hot and prickly. There was no kitchen, nowhere to eat food. But there was also nowhere to really work. It was truly a waiting room. A place to pause while the doctors satisfied themselves that they hadn't carried back any alien plagues or parasites. An expensive entertainment system dominated one corner of the room, offset by exercise equipment on the other side. Couches, chairs, and tables were scattered between, with several bookshelves worth of media around the periphery. The wall she had entered by held several other doors, presumably to the other quarters.
And that was it. She was stuck here for a month at least, maybe more. A prison, disguised as a suite. Confinement. Rings upon rings of security and safeguards between her and the outside world. Every molecule of air that sighed from her lungs, every drop of sweat that seeped from her pores, every photon that glanced off her newly decanted flesh would be stopped, screened, filtered, and obliterated. Even prisoners got yard time. Even on Phoenix she had a kitchen of sorts. Here she had a sterile -- surely it was a sterile room, except for her two partners in incarceration.
Where were they? Still sleeping no doubt. Really, what was the point of being awake? There was nothing they had to do. A team of twenty was no doubt toiling day and night to see to their every need. The very thought exhausted her. She made her way back to her bed, lay down, and slept.
When she woke up she went looking for Buck. It had been so long since they had seen each other, had talked. Really since she had had a conversation with anyone. The observation crew weren't very good conversationalists, what with the stony silence. Their window was black as midnight. She could see stars in it, glittering faintly, as if between clouds.
She made it to the common room, though it seemed a longer walk than before. She kept getting lost in the passageways. And, there seemed to be more turns than she had remembered. Had the floor always been transparent like this? She could see through to the ducts and catwalks below. She could hear the clanking of Molly's worn out feet, pacing in the depths. Molly must be trapped here as well. Buck would know how to rescue her. She needed to find him.
When she finally got to the common room, Stan was waiting at one of the tables, eating a bowl of soup. She could not see his face. She didn't want to find Stan.
“Where's Buck?” Rin asked curtly. She didn't want to talk to Stan either.
“Back there.” Stan said, and pointed behind her. Rin turned around, and there it was. A single door set in the featureless wall. She opened it, and walked out onto Phoenix, dragging her feet through the dry grass.
Clearly this was a dream. She was dreaming of finding Buck, and he was still back on Phoenix. The doctors had left him there. They thought he was dangerous, but Stan was the dangerous one. Rin heard the door close behind her.
Phoenix was beautiful. The deep azure sky was tinged with pink along the horizon. Vast luxurious clouds boiled upward with manic ferocity, fighting in the rising wind. Below them a landscape was alive with waterfalls and frolicking creatures. Their brightly colored carapaces shone like jewels among the dry grass.
Buck was with them, among them, one of them. She walked up to the creature of teal and crimson and fiery yellow. Why had the doctors left him here? He was so beautiful!
“Buck.” she said. She knew he could hear her. She knew he could speak. But he did not answer. They could never be together again, for Buck was light-years away back on Phoenix, and Rin was stuck in quarantine with Stan. She gathered his body into her arms, and Buck held her back. Rin was so lonely here without him.
It was dry, and she was back on Phoenix, and the world was on fire. But the fire did not scare her, or hurt her, though it was quite warm. “Buck.” She said. What was it she was going to say? She couldn't remember any more. “Buck, you've got to come back to the quarantine. The doctors want to watch us.”
“We're being remade Rin.” Buck said, and she knew it was true. And then she was ablaze as well, and her flesh was melting off and her bones crumbled, and she was not afraid because she was really back in quarantine, and this was all a dream. But she wished that Buck had come back with them. Then everything was bright and she awoke and the lights were on and she felt very warm beneath the covers.
She did not feel afraid, as she felt that she should have felt. Only the kind of trembling excitement that you might feel on meeting someone very important, that wanted to meet you too. But she waited, as she felt was right for the occasion. Presently she remembered that Buck was not left behind. The thought warmed her in a better way, down in the part of her that was not a robot. Then the door opened, and a nurse in a space suit came in.
“Good morning Rin, how are you feeling?”
“A little warm.” she replied with difficulty. Her mouth still worked oddly without her dentition.
The nurse paused for a moment, then said “Let's get you out from those covers.” and then once Rin was sitting on the edge of the bed, “How are you liking the new clothes?”
“Oh, they're great. Did you pick them out?”
“We all chip in to buy personal effects for the returning crew. Have to get stuff that will survive the autoclave. Normally there's more but, cutbacks since the incident... you know.”
Rin did not know, but said “Of course, thanks.” out of sheer politeness motivated force of will.
“Here's your meal.” she said, moving a tray from her cart to the table. “Your dentures have arrived as well. Would you like me to wait while you try them on?”
“No, thanks, but is there a mirror anywhere?”
“Yeah, we get that all the time. Just ask observation to turn off their lights and use the window.” Rin looked to her left just as the lights went out in the observation room, leaving only a few glowing screens and indicator lights. The window now showed mostly a dim reflection.
“Call if you need anything.” the nurse said as she backed the cart out. The door shut and Rin was alone.
Well, alone with the observation crew sitting in the dark, waiting for her to finish looking at herself. May as well get this over with. Rin got to her feet and walked the couple meters over to the window. Her face came into shadow as she approached the dark portal, but it was enough to see by. A symmetrical set of scars, curving from above her eyebrows, down on either side of her nose, and ending high on her cheekbones beneath her eyes.
No better than she had hoped, nor worse than they had felt. They might have passed for tribal markings a hundred years ago. Now they just looked like the results of some horrific drunken teen dare gone wrong. Rin took a deep breath and the lights came back on in the observation room. The three staffers gave Rin grim smiles and thumbs up. One of them wiped her eyes as she turned back to her screen. Rin turned away and found her own blurry way back to the table.
The dentures fit perfectly. The food was delicious.
Rin went to find Buck.
“Hey cutie! You're up.”
Both Rin and Stan looked up from their books. Buck was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, and taking up most of the space. Stan rolled his eyes. Rin tossed her hair a little as she stood.
“How do I look?”
Buck just looked, and smiled, and didn't move as Rin approached. She stopped with her nose a few fingers from his crossed arms. Cocking her head to the side, she craned her neck to peer up at his face. He met her gaze, but didn't move.
“You're in my way.” she pronounced in a low voice.
“There's room.” rumbled Buck, indicating with his eyes the slim fissure between his waist and the door frame.
“Not that small.” Rin sing-songed quietly.
From across the room, Stan sighed theatrically and at length.
There was a debriefing in the observation room. Rin sat by herself on a thin plastic chair while experts of all stripes gathered on the other side of the glass. The barrier was concave, so there was less room on the quarantine side. It felt like a mix between a stage and a fishbowl.
There were questions about what had happened and questions about the smells and the sounds. There were questions about what the plants had tasted like, and how she had felt after eating them. They asked about her clothes and her quarters and what waking up from RAS felt like. They asked questions over again, and argued amongst themselves over whether she had already answered questions that they hadn't asked yet.
Finally they thanked her for her time and filed out, back to their jobs. Rin got up and went back on vacation. Because quarantine had turned out to be a kind of vacation. Sure, the food stunk, and they weren't allowed outside. But after Phoenix even prison would have been a dream come true.
Rin would wake up whenever she wanted and just lie in bed -- there were no clocks, and the orderlies didn't bother them -- staring at the ceiling, enjoying feeling better than the day before. She hadn't realized how terrible she had felt. She must have been miserable all the time they were on Phoenix. No wonder everyone was so cranky all the time. It was a miracle they hadn't all killed each other before the Alouise arrived.
The recovery wasn't immediate, of course. One day she would realize that her ribs no longer ached from breathing heavily. A few days later she would wonder why her nose wasn't running, only to realize that it had probably never stopped since Ando scooped her out of the RAS-R in the Armstrong.
After a month her remaining teeth stopped aching. When had that started? She had lost a lot of them, but they were taken out while she was still in RAS. She had been pretty mad actually, but the doctors explained that they were going to fall out anyhow, and that bone samples would lend invaluable data on environmental human whatsit-jibber-jabber. Eventually she had given up. In the grand scheme of things, teeth were just not worth fighting over.
After enjoying her increasing good health for an hour or so, Rin would get out of bed and flip off the observation crew. It was a game they played. She flipped them off when she remembered they were there, and they flipped her off when they knew she was watching. They all smiled as they did it. Rin thought of it as an inside joke. Really neither of the groups wanted to be there, but they were kept from leaving by the presence of the other group. A double stale-mate. Nothing to do but give them the bird and move on with life.
In Rin's case, moving on with life next involved eating her rations. That was really the worst part of Quarantine. On Phoenix the food had been terrible, but you could have as much as you wanted whenever, wherever, and with whomever you chose. In the ISAC Quarantine and Dangerous Exposure Observation Lab the food was slightly better, but the portions were limited. Rin was never exactly hungry when she was done, but there was a certain satisfaction missing. The every-day “I'm done, I don't want any more.” was replaced by the much less sustaining “I'm done, I don't have any more.” She promised herself that, once she got her own place, she would keep a gallon of ice-cream in the freezer. Not to eat, but to know that she could eat if she wanted.
The rations had to be eaten before she entered the common area, to avoid the catastrophe that would ensue if they -- gasp! Shared! This was the other thing that made rations-o-clock the stupidest day of the year. She felt like she was a little kid being told to eat her broccoli. Did the ISAC really think they were so shortsighted? Did they suspect that Rin would immediately begin a protein bar black market if given the slightest opportunity? It wasn't that limiting, but the insistence was insulting. Plus it meant that Stan, Buck, and Rin never ate meals together.
Still, the schedule was nice. Rin would come into the common area, greet the guys, Buck in particular, and flop down in a chair. The furniture was surprisingly comfortable. All disposable Rin guessed. What would happen if they turned out to actually have some deadly disease? Would the whole place be gutted? Then she would read, watch the TV, talk, whatever. After a while she would go back to her room for dinner, and then sleep again. Over and over. The rhythm was comforting.
There was a constant hum from the air cleaners. You couldn't get away from it in Quarantine. It was a continuous reminder that anything they exhaled, excreted, or touched qualified as a biologically active toxic hazard. But the white noise was calming. Sometimes Rin wouldn't get up at all, and just listen to the rush of the clean perfectly comfortable air until she fell back asleep.
Some days she wasn't so much interested in conversation. There was a game system which someone had arranged for their use. It was several years out of date, but good enough when there were no alternatives. Several of the games were punishingly difficult, and Rin spent a week straight trying to beat one before finally mastering the technique and getting lucky enough to clear the final stage.
Other days they would get into long conversations. Plenty was going on in the world to chat about. Politics, recent bush-wars, major infrastructure projects, mass migrations. There was plenty to talk about closer to home as well. Buck had a large extended family, and he had plenty of stories about cousins' escapades or uncles' faults. Rin herself had few family tales she wanted to share, so instead she responded with stories heard from people she had met in school. They were pitifully few, but silence was welcome as well. Stan spent most of his time in his private bunk.
“I finished this morning.”
“How did you like it?”
“It was decent. Amateurish.”
“But the plot was interesting right?”
“Eh, yeah. I thought the romance was forced.”
“What? It wasn't even about romance!”
“Well yeah, so why put it in?”
“Gives the characters something to talk about.”
“Yeah, but the dialog was kind of vague.”
“You're kind of vague.”
“Hey, leave the lights off. I have a headache alright?”
“Yeah yeah. I'll bet the observation crew is starting to wonder.”
“Nah, they've got our heart rate monitors.”
“We could mess with them, do some jumping jacks or something.”
“I'd rather just lie here.”
“What'cha thinking about?”
“How about you?”
“They both start with 'P'.”
“Great minds think alike I guess.”
“That, or derivative minds can't possibly come up with something new.”
“Well, I thought of it first.”
“What, Pancakes? They were invented before you were born.”
“Maybe I'll get a patent.”
“Starts with 'P', just proves my point.”
“Hehe, you just did it twice!”
“No way! Um, I mean, Preposterous!”
“Ahh... I wonder what bots call batteries?”
“Oh no. They're full of electricity.”
“So they must be...”
“Do I have to say it?”
“Power pancakes. Ugh.”
“You know, Pun starts with 'P' as well.”
“... you bastard.”
“I was thinking of going back to school.”
“Yeah? Me too!”
“I was in pre-med. Wanted to be a doctor.”
“Well, now I'm not so sure.”
“I wanted to get into art.”
“No way! Really?”
“Yeah, painting and stuff. I've got pictures inside. I've got to get them out somehow.”
“I never see you drawing.”
“I really need the colors. Pencil and pen don't cut it.”
“I think maybe you're just lazy.”
“Yeah? Pre-med and you're, what, almost thirty?”
“Fine! I'm sure you'll have a brilliant art career.”
“Well, it all depends on what we get paid once we're out of here.”
“And who knows what that's going to be.”
“Might be enough to finish school.”
“Might be enough for a tall stack of pancakes.”
“It's good to see you all again.”
David had appeared unexpectedly at the observation room. He was requesting an audience. Asking to see them was more like, but their station in this place had taken on some of the flavor of royalty. Rin and Stan had gathered, like benevolent monarchs, in the glass walled room -- it was actually laminated glass and plastic, in case they had managed to bring back some sort of glass digesting terror from beyond the stars -- to hear his boon begging. Buck was asleep in his quarters.
“It's good to see you too...” Rin stumbled. Should she call him 'David'? What was his last name again? “Director Reed.” she finished, hopefully with enough formality that her pause would sound natural instead of neurotic.
“Yeah,” Stan put in “Thanks for sending the cavalry to rescue us.”
“Oh, you're quite welcome, but it wasn't to my credit. None of us would dream of abandoning our best and brightest.”
There was a pause, long enough for Rin to remember why he had really sent her. Did he still think of her as part of his team? Had he read her letters? The director soldiered on.
“Our board has prepared a hearing on the matter of the crash. We're all eager to hear what happened, officially of course.”
Rin was stunned. “This early? We just got back!” she blurted out.
“If you're not comfortable...?” David's expression managed to make the unspoken statement into a question.
“No, it's just that... I don't know. RAS plays with your sense of time.”
A flash of something like pain crossed the director’s face, “Rin, you've been back for several months now. It's been over a year since the Armstrong crashed. Almost two years since you left Earth.”
Rin nodded slowly. She could have done the math... but it hadn't been important until now.
David took a deep breath and fixed a smile to his face, “I'm here in an official position” He leaned a bit on “official” as if to test its solidity, “to gauge your interest in offering a testimony, on record, during the hearings into the effects and causes of the Armstrong Incident.”
Rin could read between the lines, “I can't speak for Buck, but I'm interested.” David's smile grew fractionally less brittle.
“I'm not,” said Stan. “not if it means answering technical questions.”
“But you'd...” began David.
“I don't know exactly what legal ramifications doing field research with crashed ISAC equipment entails, but until I do, I'm keeping my mouth shut. I know for sure that researchers are given rights to their patents and findings. Whatever the case, the technique works. This is my ticket Director Reed. I'm not giving it up for some 'good of humanity' jaunt.”
“Not even for space exploration?”
Stan chuckled, “They can line up along with everyone else.”
Rin was shocked to watch a rare flash of emotion cross David's face. A slight movement of the scalp and lips. His eyes changed shape for a moment. Before Rin could register what she saw it was gone, dissipated into David’s vast seas of diplomacy. Yet, she had seen it there written plain on his face. The frustration and drive of a thousand plots, beating helplessly on one man's very reasonable stubbornness, and thrown back like frothing rollers from a flinty cliff.
“No one is asking you to do anything you'll regret later. Of course you're free to turn down the invitation.”
“Yes, of course.” Stan responded, unmoved.
David nodded sharply as if he had just received a coveted but challenging promotion, “Okay. Let me know.”
Here his eyes fixed on Rin, leaving the rest of his posture still pointed at Stan. It left Rin with the impression of conspiracy mixed with predatory focus, “So, you're in, and you'll ask Buckley.”
“Yeah, we'll talk about it.” Rin said.
“Well, that's all I could ask for.”
“How is, everyone at the office?” Rin was surprised to hear herself ask.
David seemed surprised as well, “Things are a lot more relaxed now that you're all back safe.”
Rin felt her scalp prickle, “We aren't 'all' back, David.”
His mouth opened, but no words came. A flash of the same cunning she had seen earlier creased the skin around his eyes. Finally, “I should let you get some rest. Lots of big news,” Here a glance at Stan, “lots to think about. Just ask observation if you’d like to contact me.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Rin couldn't look him in the eye.
Stan managed to sound friendly. “Thanks for stopping by, Director.”
“My pleasure.” David gave a tiny bow, and strode confidently from the observation room.
“What do we need ISAC for anyhow?” said Buck.
Rin buried her face in her hands. The scars stood up against her skin like mountain ranges. “Nuclear reactors.”
“Bullshit. Lots of people have nukes.”
“Well, nukes in space then. International regulations or some such.”
“But someone could still get a license from the UN or whatever. Why is ISAC the only one?”
“It's like the post office Buck. They don't want competition.”
“So it's a monopoly on space ships?”
Rin rolled her eyes behind her hands. “That's what it looks like.”
“That sucks.” said Buck.
“Well, David was saying ISAC is our best chance.”
“Who's this David guy you keep talking about?”
Rin looked up. “David Reed?”
Bucks eyebrows went up, “You know Director Reed as David? Okay, mystery solved!”
“I guess I never...”
“I mean, we had a betting pool going on how a useless little mouthy bitch like you ended up on the mission.”
“Just as well everyone else kicked it. I had my money on you and the captain.”
Buck gave her a smirk, “Like I said, mystery solved! You were saying?”
Rin crossed her arms, “No, I'm done being mouthy.”
“So, Director Reed told you, during one of your discrete liaisons...”
“... that he's in charge of a really important organization?”
“He's just a friend!”
Buck threw his arms up in the air “Big deal! Anyone in charge would say the same.”
“Really, there's nothing going on between us!”
“What you need is independent confirmation.”
“Well, there aren't really any alternatives.”
Buck knit his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, I think there are a few.”
“Really?” Rin asked skeptically, “Like what, Catapult Aerospace?”
“So, we're stuck with ISAC for the time being. There's too much inertia behind it for any viable alternatives to spring up.”
Buck looked skeptical now, “But the director thinks we can change things by laying blame in the right place?”
“I don't know what he thinks, but I figure it's worth a shot.”
“Well, I'm going to offer my side of the story, but it's going to be MY side, not someone else's. I don't have any use for politics, whether people ask nicely or not.”
“Okay, fine.” Rin leaned forward, elbows on her knees, “But you can at least emphasize certain parts...”
“I'd like to emphasize certain of your parts.”
“While leaving off others that aren't as relevant.”
“I'd like to leave off...”
“Buck!” It was almost a shout bordering on a scream, “This is serious! Can you please stop joking around for five minutes?”
“Fine, but what's the point?” Buck stood violently, “What could we possibly say that would have any effect on that huge mess?” he walked over to the door to his room and shot off, “And even if we could, how would we know if it would have a good effect or a bad one?” before slamming the door.
Another of his pouts. Sometimes that man was completely impossible.
“... and let us know immediately if you feel any different.”
One of the quarantine nurses was standing on the other side of the main reception counter, going over what Rin hoped were the last lines of an extensive checklist. Rin was in the lobby, breathing fresh air. The late morning light, reflected from a myriad of surfaces, shone in from every window. There were strangers all around, passing on their own business without a second thought. A little knot composed of suspiciously healthy looking individuals dominated one corner of the lobby. Wheelchair bound patients occasionally trundled in and out. It was novel to cease from being the center of attention for everyone she was around. A few seemed to recognize her, but perhaps they were just being polite, smiling and nodding for courtesy.
She had signed the papers that morning. Stacks of agreement forms that ISAC was not liable if she keeled over or got hit by a truck. More stacks of forms releasing her medical records for discrete study in return for continued room and board. A slightly shorter stack of forms stating that she was feeling fine and wasn't hiding any symptoms from the professionals.
Then there were the release orders. These were much shorter, but no less tedious. A nurse insisted on reading them to Rin in full and getting a verbal response for each bullet point. No skydiving, no rollercoasters, no illegal drugs... On and on. Lots of water, balanced diet, come in for checkups every day... It was like the nagging mother she never had. Report unusual itching, report unusual swelling, report periods of unconsciousness no matter how short... Rin decided she would report normal sleep under this clause. When the pre-flight checklist was finally all checked off Rin was handed a copy of the sheet and basically told to “Be good.”
A final bag was handed to her with “Oh, and these are yours.” Inside she could see a watch, and a couple of sterile white hair clips. They had belonged to captain Wheeler, she was sure of it. The crew must have gathered these from the Armstrong, and gotten them confused with her own. Not that Wheeler would miss them now, wherever she was.
“Thanks” Rin said, and took the bag.
And then she was free to go, and found herself standing in the lobby.
It was a pleasant lobby. Pleasant until the odor of hospital wafted through the sporadically opening doors. Doors leading into the bowels of the place, where men and women rotted out their insides onto white sheets. But the lobby was pleasant. Bright enough without being too bright. It was even brighter outside.
Rin's legs walked out the doors. She had something in her hand. Ahh, a plastic bag. She put on the watch, and used the hair clips in her hair. It was short now, short like Wheeler's. The thick humid air rolled lazily over her. But no air would feel thick or humid now, compared to Phoenix.
The sun was bright though. Not as bright as Twinkle, but bright enough. Her fresh pale skin drank in the sun like dry ground drinks rain. Had she always been this pale? Her left hand went to her face, weighed strangely by the watch. The scars on her face felt old and familiar now. Her hands both looked familiar as well. What other new things would she find about herself?
She found hunger pangs clawing subtly at the insides of her hands, making them shake and sweat. Like a new but intimate friend grown close over the summer and then a stranger during the school term quite suddenly found sleeping on your couch when the holidays arrived, so hunger had arrived, both by now familiar and surprising. It pounced with an exhilarating and exhausting ferocity.
She determined to eat something delicious. Something terrible and satisfying. She had been good, had eaten the hospital gruel and hardtack and protein bars and God knows what else.
Crossing to the receptionists desk, she racked her memory for a suitably lowbrow establishment. Fast food wouldn't do, and she had money for now. But something greasy. Her memory was blank as the freeway center divider. Miles and miles of it, all the same, rain-washed and sun-bleached and whipped by the experiences speeding by. Surely she had eaten somewhere in the years of schooling? Where had David taken her? A stir-fry place? That could work.
“Miss Rin? Can I help you?” the receptionist asked.
“Oh!” Rin was startled out of her reflection, “Car please.”
“The motor pool?”
“Yes. I'd like to,”
The receptionist interrupted “Driver's on his way. Meet him at the curb to the right of the entrance. No waiting in the red zone.”
“But, you haven't called anyone yet.”
Now the receptionist's turn to be off balance, “Pardon?”
“You said the driver is on his way, but you haven't called,” said Rin “and even if you did it takes a few minutes to dispatch and get to the car. He can't possibly be on his way yet.”
The receptionist looked down and began clicking and typing at her computer “The driver will be here in about ten minutes Miss Rin. Have a pleasant drive.”
The car pulled up twenty three minutes later. There was some initial trouble with the directions, as the driver was unwilling to go looking for “That one little Asian restaurant that looks like a Laundromat.” When they arrived at the understanding that Rin was looking for comfort food of any description, the driver assured her that a nearby mom-and-pop grill was just the thing. The drive was short, but Rin was feeling weak by the time they arrived.
She walked to the front door without registering the environment. The portal itself beckoned to her, promising relief of all her ills. As she pulled it open -- so much more easily than the heavy hospital doors -- a cloud of beef and molasses and lemon scented floor cleaner swirled around her and rose into the humid afternoon air. She could feel the particles of grease congealing in her lungs. The air within vibrated lightly with conversation and televised sports as she stepped -- with a eutectic blend of uncertainty and desire -- over the threshold. A hand painted sign at eye level read “please seat yourself”. The wood was raw beneath the paint where it had been turned around countless times, do doubt to display “Please wait to be seated” on the reverse. She made her way to an empty booth.
The decor was dark with ancient dust and recent antiquing. Vague beaten brass ornaments hung on the walls, half vases and half flower pots and moose heads with beaten brass eyes. The seats were wrapped in red vinyl. It was slack and worn where one sat, and the supporting fabric showed through in places. Rin's bottom quickly discovered the un-padded plywood beneath these spots. The table was uneven and raw as well, rubbed smooth with settings, and made tacky by the omnipresent greasy haze. Rin speculated idly what would happen if the place were to catch fire.
Rin ordered “The Number One” when the waiter arrived, which was apparently a thing. Specifically, as she discovered two baskets of bleached potato fries and a glass of southern sweet tea later, a burger. Perhaps this particular burger was graced and garnished with one of each of the contents of the kitchen. It certainly proved unstable when she lifted it -- hands still shaking slightly -- to her mouth. The core of meat, cheese, greenery, marbled sauce, and a slab of pale tomato slid out the far side when she bit down, leaving her with two handfuls of toasted bun studded with some chopped red nodules and a few unidentifiable slices slathered in mustard.
Despite this initial setback the stamped silverware served well and Rin sat back satisfied several minutes later, mouth still tingling slightly at the now-unfamiliar spices. Her subconscious rebelled at this sensation. Poisonous? No, it couldn't be. People ate here all the time! Still, her stomach turned for a moment. She was so full. Maybe this binge wasn't the best plan.
“Everything alright?” The waitress asked. She was gorgeously plump, the image of a hospitable matron.
“Yeah. I maybe ate too much.” Rin admitted guiltily.
“I'll get your check.” she said, and then with a twinkle in her eye, “Smile dear! Does wonders for the digestion.”
It was a cloudy day as Rin stood at the curb. The power lines -- carrying electricity from who knows where to a myriad destinations -- skipped along like frozen waves on the sea. Their black threads scribbled civilization across the skies. Glowering from across the street, an empty lot festered with weeds and shrubs. A chain-link fence stretched like a screen door along the sidewalk, keeping out the flightless flies of humanity. Beside the fence, pavement and cement struggled against the tide of vegetation, seeping from the cracks. The vehicle noises drowned the rustle of the grass. The gutters were dusted with ground up rubber and break-pads.
The pedestrians bustled quickly from their vehicles, trying to ignore the gutters, the lot, the weather. Then they bustled back, to drive away. Rin took it all in, and it was all good. The power lines, the street, the vacant lot, the rich grilled food, the oblivious patrons. It was the land tamed. It sighed of safety. It was cultivation.
Rin recalled how many times she had longed to retreat to “the wilderness”, by which she probably meant a state park. But she had just returned from the real wilderness. The real frontier was fierce. One did not rest there. From the wild places, one ran. Perhaps one day Phoenix would have an ugly run-down street like this. People would lament the “destruction of the natural beauty”, and they might even lament the rusted row of lockers, and then they would eat barbecue for lunch and feel sick from too much food instead of too little.
Rin reached out to hug the nearby telephone pole, then paused. It was rough with splinters, and covered in old nails and staples. Well, maybe they would put up concrete telephone poles on Phoenix. She gave it a pat anyway, and regretted it instantly. Nostalgia looked better than it felt.
There were just so many places one could go, she thought as she walked slowly back to the car. The driver was content for the moment to simply idle with the AC on and wait for Rin to decide what she wanted. He had the radio on, but it was muted through the interior. She was full now, but would be hungry again soon, she always was. You could just buy food though. And she had money.
Rin leaned in and the driver rolled down the window with a skeptical look. “Is there a grocery store around here?”
“Yeah, any one in particular?”
“Does it make a difference?”
The driver thought for a few breaths, “Mostly depends on how you feel I guess.”
“I just want to go someplace where I can see a lot of food on the shelves.”
“There's a Co-op Co. a few miles down that way.”
Rin stepped back from the window and looked up at the sky again. It was so thin and blue, and yet so hard. A barrier.
“Hop in the back,” the driver prompted, “And I'll take you there.”
The last stop of the day was an outdoorsy store. Rin had the vague notion of buying a tent, “Just in case I get stranded somewhere.” The place was massive, with a label “Wilderness Ex-Tree-m Experts” in meter-high letters glowing across the top. Pity the architect who had to slap that slogan across the front of their art-deco facade. Rin walked inside. A deep balcony composed the second and third story, ringing a faux-stone climbing column studded with rainbow colored handholds. It was as if the place was a temple to the climbing wall, built around it after its fall from the sky. Rin took satisfaction in chuckling at the number of people using the escalator. Big tough outdoorsy guys, in the big tough outdoorsy store, sliding meekly and effortlessly up the slope.
Rin took the stairs.
After a brief survey from the second story, Rin realized that she would probably need a backpack. Her imaginary contingency plan would be pretty silly if she were carrying the tent around under her arm. Thankfully, the W.E.E. (“Wheeee!”) saw fit to stock an entire section with backpacks. They were arranged into sub-sections divided, Rin realized after a few minutes browsing, by brand. Any one of them would have been a real help back on Phoenix. Of course, there was no way the quartermaster could have foreseen that. Rin grabbed one small enough for her slight frame.
Next was the tent section. It was larger than the backpack area, but only because the central area had the tents all set up so you could walk around inside. A salesman swooped down from circling the area to see if Rin was “Looking for something?”
“Yeah, do you stock space stations?” Rin smiled wryly.
“Yep, we've got tents of every brand. Doing some backpacking?”
Rin thought for a moment. As long as she was carrying this thing around, “How about for two?”
“Perfect, we've got a wide selection of two man tents. Cold weather or mountain climbing?”
“How about something that's durable. I want it to last for a while.”
After five minutes of dithering over options Rin just picked one out at random. The salesman assured her that she had made a good choice. She was surprised at how large even a two man tent was rolled up, but it fit in the pack alright, and with room to spare. Now that she was thinking about it, a tent wouldn't be much good without some other equipment. A miniature hatchet/shovel went in the pack, along with a couple emergency blankets. On her way down -- from the kayak section, no way she could keep a boat with her! She grabbed a water bottle and a handful of power bars.
Looking at her increasingly heavy pack, Rin had a sinking feeling. There was no way she would survive for more than a few days with this stuff. To live even a month would require foraging food. This wasn't an emergency pack, it was a fantasy of self-reliance and independence. How long would she survive away from the technological society she had grown used to? Even on Phoenix there had been the ship for shelter. Even if she could live off the land, how would she possibly get into the situation where she would need all this stuff?
Rin set the pack down on the floor, leaning against a GPS display. This was a shop for recreation. People went out into the wilderness for fun. Well, Rin had enough fun with that already. She ran her hand down her face, absently fingering the scars.
Then leaned over and grabbed the water bottle and emergency blanket. No point in being dehydrated, and the blanket would serve as a tent in a pinch. Rin headed for the checkout.
“They are all just so pretty.”
Buck had asked her out to dinner. She was expecting the most awkward date ever, and was determined to make the most of it. Clearly, the first thing to do was to get a decent outfit. She hadn't had anything approaching nice clothes in what seemed like forever, and now was the perfect excuse to remedy that.
The problem was after second hand student's outfits, medical gowns, standard issue jumpsuits -- ever more bedraggled, more medical gowns, and clothes that had barely survived the autoclave Rin's fashion sense was badly starved. She had made her way to some brand name shop targeted at 18-24 year olds. The brightly lit interior seemed in danger of spilling ruffles onto the sidewalk whenever patrons opened the door. Inside it smelled of freshly ironed cotton and hummed with bit-jazz turned down low.
Rin realized that at this point she was primed to be floored by a simple pair of clean pants and a t-shirt. Even so the outfits were stunning. Denim and lace and sequins and corduroy and buttons shaped like bouquets! And the combinations! It quickly became apparent that the tops and bottoms were designed to flow nicely, with a swoop of fabric on the blouse continuing on pants on the other side of the store. She made one turn around the display, and determined to come back.
But the next one was just as good! Better even, because they had dresses too. Flowing ones and tight ones and dresses with long sleeves and absurdly large cuffs -- impossible to eat in, Rin thought. They were all a bit large on Rin's slight frame -- and there was no time for tailoring, the dinner was tonight! But they were fun to try on anyway. She found one that looked completely out of place with pure white, unflattering neckline, and lace in all the wrong places, almost Victorian. She examined it for a few minutes before deciding it must have been intended as a costume piece. And there were lots of fun clothes here as well.
After a few other stops she found herself rummaging through a poorly lit pit of halter tops and tattered short shorts. She doubted Buck would be dragging her to a club after dinner. Definitely time to start backtracking. She returned to the first store and made her choice. A long shirt with the sleeves slashed open from shoulder to wrist and tasteful piecework in blue on white, and a knee-length white skirt with a teal over-piece. They had a bit of matching embroidery on the hip and the back of the shoulder, done in silver thread. Perfect!
She returned to the medical center and changed in her room, waving at the observers before she left. It was still strange to be scrutinized at “home” and ignored in public, instead of the other way around. She felt much more comfortable sitting in the lobby, waiting for Buck in her pretty clothes. But then, just as buck was walking up, she remembered that she wasn't wearing any makeup. Oh well. It wasn't going to be perfect anyway.
They sat in the lobby of the medical center, waiting for the car. The lobby was clearly designed for people who were dreading some grave news. Serious armless seats and track lighting. Buck sat staring straight ahead. Perhaps he was regretting this whole business already.
Rin wasn't going to let him think along those lines. Not if she had any say in it. “Thanks for inviting me along tonight Buck.”
“Yeah?” Buck looked slightly startled, “Um, yeah, you're welcome!”
“So, what's the occasion?”
“We're free. We're alive.” Buck said it flat, as if he could still hardly believe it.
“Well, so is Stan.”
Buck shrugged. “Stan's no fun.” Rin could only tilt her head in assent.
The driver arrived about ten minutes later. As Buck and Rin climbed into the back seat the driver craned his neck around and smiled broadly.
“Hey folks! Where to?”
Buck named the restaurant and they pulled away. Rin was about to ask why they were going someplace so expensive. Her mouth was open when the driver chimed in.
“I've gotta say what an honor it is being your driver this evening.”
Rin froze, and her eyebrows went up. The driver went on.
“Can I put something on the radio? I mean, it's just a real treat. You two! Been to another planet! Awesome.”
Buck smiled and shrugged.
“What was it like? I mean, it must have been something else.”
“Look, what's your name?” said Buck.
“Brad, sir. A pleasure to meet you!” said Brad the driver.
“Look, Brad, my best buddies kicked it on that planet, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was too hot and too cold and no food and we almost all died. We all felt terrible the whole time we were there. I'd rather not talk about it right now. I'd rather not think about it at all.”
“Oh. Yeah, sorry man.” There was a long pause, “So what do you want to talk about?”
Buck rolled his eyes and sighed, “Did you know Rin here is not only the only woman to return from an extra-solar planet, but also close personal friends with Director Reed?”
“You don't say! Tell me about him Rin!”
“Um,” began Rin, “He's a nice guy. Very energetic. He helped me get on the mission.”
“Wow, cool dude.” said Brad
“In fact,” continued Rin, “He pretty much forced me to go. That bastard.”
“Yeah, and now you're famous. Tough break girl! Hey, how about those tunes? You dig slap-rap? I'm a fan.”
The rest of the trip to the restaurant was drowned by the staccato rhythms and rhymes of “The Latest and Best in Slap Rap to the max!” as the station reminded them between numbers. Buck seemed to prefer it to Brad's ebullient conversation.
As they pulled off the road, Rin glanced up at their destination. Heavy timber beams protruded above the log-pillared facade. Shingles serrated the roof line, chopping off the early evening glow. Below all this, muted light stole out the windows and through the landscaping. A small bridge crossed a channel of dry stones where the driver dropped them off.
“Well, have a good evening you two!” Brad called out over his shoulder. “It's been great getting to know you! Say 'Hi' to Director Reed for me!”
Rin just smiled tightly and nodded as they retreated from the vehicle. Buck was waiting for her at the bridge. She shut the car door and stepped up on the curb as it pulled away behind her. The restaurant was a stark contrast to the medical center. She stood for a moment, enjoying the bushes and the mild movement in the windows.
“You hungry?” Buck asked.
“Yeah. I'm just, looking.” Rin replied.
Buck turned around and looked down at the bridge, up at the door, the roof, the sky. His head turned as his gaze swept the heavens -- wreathed in pale yellow cloud -- until it rested again on Rin. His eyes lingered there, and a small smile crept across his face.
Rin smiled a little too. “See anything you like?” She asked.
Buck held out his arm, elbow first. “Not for dinner.”
Rin walked slowly up and, instead of taking his proffered arm, punched Buck in the kidneys. Not hard, but hard enough.
“You were a real pain back on Phoenix. Fighting with Stan. Running off alone. Sulking.”
“That really hurt!”
“Oh come on, I didn't hit you that hard.”
“You've got those tiny sharp fists!”
Rin rolled her eyes and began pummeling Buck good-naturedly in the belly.
“Augh! Stop! It's like hundreds of needles!” Buck crossed his arms over his abdomen and doubled over. “I give up! You're right! I was a jerk!”
“Good.” said Rin, ceasing from her assault. Instead she placed a hand on the side of Buck's face. He froze. She pulled him toward her and kissed him full on the mouth. Buck's lips tried to say something. It only lasted for a moment.
“And that's because you came back.” she released him. “And for bringing food. And cheering me up. I don't know if you ever said it, but. Thank you, Buck.” They both started across the bridge. It was just wide enough for two.
“You're welcome.” Buck draped his arm across her shoulders. “Besides, I seem to recall someone convinced the robots to spare our lives. Plus you found the swampvine.”
“Are you trying to say 'thank you' back?”
Rin smirked, “Because I'm pretty sure my way was a lot better.”
“Hey! I'm taking you out to dinner ok? We're just getting started!”
They had reached the massive solid wood doors. Buck grabbed the wrought iron handle and tugged one side open. The smell of barbecue sauce and onions rolled out to engulf them. Rin's footfall resounded faintly from the wood floor as she stepped inside. The decor was sparse and rustic, carved wood and antiqued iron. To one side an ornamental sand pit spat tiny bubbles of flame.
The hostess smiled faintly at them from behind her dark stained desk. Buck smiled back, “One adult, one child please!”
The hostess looked stunned, “Excuse me sir?”
“Reservation for two? Hoover. Just, you know...” Buck oscillated his thumb between himself and Rin.
“Ahh, I see. You'll be eating from the children's menu to go with your sense of humor. Would you like crayons as well?”
Buck's brow furrowed and he glanced to the side for a moment. “Sure, why not?”
“Very good sir. Follow me please.” She paused as she picked up two menus and then turned back to face Rin. “Excuse me, but you're Rin right?”
“Yes?” Rin said.
“Welcome back to Earth.” The host said sincerely, “I read the reports. You were amazing!”
Rin smiled, “Yeah? Why were you...?”
“Oh, I'm a fan of the space program. We're so glad you guys made it!”
“Well, thanks for rooting for us.”
“No problem. It's a pleasure to serve you. Just give a shout if you need anything.” They had reached the table.
As Buck took a seat, the hostess placed a packet of crayons and a coloring page in front of him. “Enjoy!” and she was gone. The picture was a clown balancing an elephant on one hand and a mouse on the other. Buck broke open the crayons and began to color carefully. Rin glanced around.
Their small round table was lit by a glass lamp, swinging lazily above their heads. There were real candles on the table as well, and place settings already out. The menu was bound in leather, and smelled of old books.
And everywhere there were waiters, kitchen staff going in and out. Were all restaurants this busy? How long had it been since Rin had seen, really seen, a waiter? As a child the obsequious waiters had startled her with their intrusion into the private meal. Somehow, since then, she had stopped seeing them. The staff became invisible.
But now they were visible once more. They had small conversations of their own, in corners or in passing. They were frustrated or hurried, and smoothed it away. They stole moments to sigh, or look out the window at the night sky. They had their own desires, not only to “take your order” but to order the world around them. Did they too ignore the servers when they went out to eat?
Rin realized with a start that one of the women she glimpsed clearing tables had been in one of her certification classes. Had she failed? Had she been passed over for duty? It was possible that she had been on an entire service term in earth orbit while Rin was off being encased in goo for months on end. Rin wanted to run over and ask her what her story was, but the woman spirited her load of dishes back to the kitchen before Rin could work up the courage.
Still, her eyes were fully opened now. There were even servants of the servants, the rarely-glimpsed dish washers and takers of the trash. Ando's secret bot creed came back to mind, something about “human servants share this secret, so wink at them as they go by.” Rin considered it, but it was all too silly. Besides, they might think she was flirting with them, and she was here with Buck.
Waiting for the food, they passed the time in customary conversation. It was good to be able to settle into the old comfortable point and counterpoint of comments on weather and the roads. Anything but discussing the crash really. Rin steered the topics away from calamity, and suspected that Buck was doing the same. They had been through a lot together, but exactly how much, and how bad it had been, neither of them were willing to discuss. For tonight, their words flowed in slow circles, like eddies in the shallows, until the food arrived.
The steak, slathered in golden sauce, should have been delicious. The flavors were all there. Yet somehow, eating wasn't the same as she remembered. Not as satisfying. Not as tactile. It wasn't the texture, something else. For a moment Rin felt the impulse to take over driving from Roberto, to feel the wheel fighting her. How long had it been since she had thought of her old car? But that was the difference. She wasn't really chewing her food. The dentures were chewing for her, and she would never again sense her own bones slicing the sinews. It wasn't sad so much as unsatisfying. In an effort to savor the meal as best she could, Rin slowed down.
Buck took this as a sign of dissatisfaction. “We can get a new one if that doesn't taste right you know.”
“Oh, no, just thinking.” Rin replied.
“Really? Speculating on the size of your new fan-club?”
Rin shook her head and took another bite.
Buck took a bite as well, “You know, they'll make you a new one if you ask.” he mouthed around the strip of meat, “People are really helpful at places like this.”
Rin rested cheek on hand, the room tilting slightly so much like the Armstrong had. Did. Does. “How long are we going to live Buck? People say, 'you saved my life' but they don't say for how long.”
Now Buck's chewing slowed, “About a month, maybe less.” he responded, gesturing to her plate “if you keep talking and don't eat.”
“I'm serious Buck.”
Buck raised his eyebrows, but said “You heard the docs, another twenty, maybe thirty years before the abuse starts catching up. That's if we don't have leukemia already from all that radiation.” They both chewed in silence for a minute. “Gotta die some time.” Buck concluded.
He was always so nonchalant, Buck the enigma. Rin searched his face for signs of some deeper gravity, “What are you going to do with what you have left?”
“Eat this steak. It's really good!”
Rin was undaunted “I'm going to make another try at school, maybe go into administration or something.”
“No more doctor in New England?”
“I'm surprised you remembered.”
Buck grunted, low in his gut, “Me too.”
“Yeah,” Rin sighed, “I'm just not sure I want to deal with sickness and brokenness all the time. Before I was so focused on the location, the setting, waving goodbye to people who were happy I could help them. Now when I think of being a doctor...”
The faint clink of silverware. The door to the kitchen opening to breathe out the mixed odors of dinner and dessert. The hiss of air in the nose as you inhale. The smell of death and weeping. Buck produced a sound, almost another grunt, “Relnf.”
Rin let our the breath she didn't know she was holding. “It was pretty bad, wasn't it?”
“Not the best.” Buck agreed, then began again in a lighter tone, “What am I planning to do before I kick it? Visit my cousins probably. They've got a few hundred acres up north, dirt bikes and hunting, that kind of thing.”
“Aren't you sick of 'nature' by now?”
Buck shrugged, “Back on Phoenix, that was out of control. No transportation, no food, no weapons. Go out there on a bike full of gas, with a pack full of ammo. That's something else.”
“Nice to have family.”
“You're not without family yourself... I hear.”
Rin scowled, “Where did you hear that?”
“Some guy called up, saying you're his sister? 'TacoHaco Shimazaki' if I recall.”
“Oh god, Taki. What did you tell him?”
“I didn't talk to him. The staff asked me if you'd mentioned him. I'm surprised they didn't ask you.”
“No, it's fine. He's, not really my brother.”
Buck made one last jab, “Last name fits.”
Rin rolled her eyes, “There are lots of Shimazakis in Japan.”
The wait staff thanked them on their way out the door. Back over the bridge, back up the single way, back to the place of the cars and headlights and freeway noises. There was the driver, Brad, waiting for them.
“Have a good dinner?” he said with a smile as he held the door for them.
“Yes, thanks!” said Rin, ducking inside.
Buck said nothing.
Brad shut the door firmly and walked briskly around the front, got in, and deftly buckled his seatbelt. As the car pulled out he asked “Back to the Medical Center?”
“No,” said Buck “I think we'll stop by somewhere for dessert.” Buck turned to Rin, “You up for some ice-cream?”
“Sure.” Rin shrugged. Honestly, she was pretty tired, and ready to just vege on the couch. But free ice-cream, may as well. Maybe when dinner settled her energy would return.
The trip was either short, unmemorable, or the after-dinner ennui dulled her attention. Next thing she was aware, Rin was walking into the brightly lit parlor. It was a modern decor, with brilliant colors and no door frames or trim. Polished and dyed concrete made up the floor, and the tables and chairs were abstract geometrical solids in garish yellow. Of all the things Rin had experienced, the interior of that parlor most looked like a proper alien world.
Buck picked something with nuts in it. Appropriate. Faced with the clean environment, Rin ordered vanilla. Then, second guessing herself, she asked for strawberry sauce on top. Rin remembered hating sauces of all kinds on her ice-cream, but then again, it seemed like that Rin was long ago, and maybe gone forever. The Rin of today demanded colored sauces to offset her bland white dessert!
They sat down at the oddly shaped table. Up close, it had the regular striations of custom printed furniture. The proprietor must have really thought these one-of-a-kind settings would draw in the kind of, what exactly? Hip, Avant-guard, artistically discerning, frozen dessert scarfing, tell-all-your-snooty-friends-about-it ice-cream fashionistas. The place was deserted (“When it should be desserted!” Buck would say. (shut up Meta Rin) Sigh.) at the moment.
“This is what I missed.” Buck began.
“Pretentious abstract neon decor?” Ventured Rin.
“Ice-cream. All that time on Phoenix. A bowl of ice-cream a day would have made all the difference.”
Rin nodded. What could you say to that? Finally, she stood up. “Let's go outside. This place feels more like a space-ship than a real space-ship does.”
Buck merely picked up his rubberfoam bowl and followed her out. There were no benches on the sidewalk outside, nothing to encourage vagrants to stay a while. The walked down a block together, eating frozen yogurt while the cold seeped into the roots of her teeth and brain.
“How is it?” Buck asked.
“It's good!” He had paid for dessert as well, anything but praise would be rude. Still though, a little honesty wouldn't hurt, “I'm going to leave off the syrup next time though.”
“Don't like your dessert with red-sauce?”
“My uncle has his ice-cream with catsup and mustard.”
“Please, I'm trying to eat here.”
The lights high on the nearby skyline shimmered in the evening advection. A cool breeze stirred Rin's hair, causing her to shiver and excuse herself from standing perfectly upright. The wall where she was leaning bore a “no loitering” sign. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Buck stopped when the sound of her footsteps halted.
“Hiding in the shadows ninja?”
“I'm only a ninja in half grav.” She would never be a ninja again.
He leaned against the wall next to her, boots crunching on the drift of city grime where the red bricks met the cement. The skyscrapers were full of slowly dwindling lit windows. Like clouds they never seemed to change until you were just about to look away. And, like cloud watching, Rin began to see all kinds of pixilated shapes in them if she watched long enough.
Why had they never simply sat and watched the clouds back on Phoenix? She couldn't even remember what they looked like.
Something caught her eye, glinting in the litter by her feet. She stooped and plucked a shiny nickel coated washer up off the ground. It seemed to hold an unearthly luster in the muted urban glow.
She turned and offered it to Buck, “Washer for your thoughts.”
He took it and gave it a glance before shoving it in his pocket, “I was just thinking we're both probably ready for bed.”
Rin smiled mischievously, “Separately?”
Buck smiled too, “If you insist.”
There was a contented kind of silence as they drove back to the medical center. Not the uneasy avoidance of eye contact, or the tense apprehension before a confrontation, but the simple quiet of everything in its right place. It was because of this silence that they heard the sirens from a long ways off.
“Medical emergency?” asked Rin, half hoping Buck would make a ridiculous jibe.
“Emergency of some kind anyhow. Seems to be coming from the medical center.”
As they drew closer to their destination, they could see the reflected flashing lights.
“Aren't ambulances red and white?” asked Rin.
“Something like that, why?”
“That looks like there's blue lights up there.”
The driver paused at a stop-sign, and twisted around to look into the back seat. “Would you mind if I drop you off at the back? We're supposed to steer clear of police action.”
“Yeah, that's fine.” said Rin.
The driver ended up taking an extra ten minutes retracing and driving through neighborhoods to get around to the rear parking lot. The ISAC medical center had been repeatedly expanded, and somewhere along the line the architects had forgotten to connect the parking lots. You could see from one to the other, but drainage ditches and a couple chain-link fences separated the two. This lead to a natural segregation of lot contents. The patients used the front lot, while the doctors and employees tended to use the back lot.
Of course, since the ISAC medical center was primarily a research and support facility, patients were few. This lead to the front lot being mostly empty, while the back lot became continually overcrowded. They were held up by a series of cars circling the parking lot. Rin wondered if this encouraged carpooling, or merely a black market for valet parking.
The driver dropped them off and waved good night. Rin stood outside the doors, drinking in the delicious warm humid night. A few bold stars peeked from between the sickly yellow clouds, illuminated by the myriad street lamps and billboards which fueled the city's unrelenting twilight. A far-off jet added a distinct treble to the urban rumble.
“Thanks again Buck. This was really nice.”
“Thanks for coming Rin. Let's get back in there before they get worried.”
“Hah! You know, I've never had someone staying up waiting for me to get home before.”
“Really? When you started dating your...” Buck caught himself. “Well, neither did I.”
The sliding doors parted as they approached, releasing a blast of arctic air. The guard looked up from his magazine, then did a double-take.
“You're Rin and Buck, right?”
Buck rolled his eyes, “Actually, I'm Buck, and she's Rin.”
“The astronauts, right?”
“Yeah.” Said Rin, “You know what's going on out front?”
“Mmhm.” The guard reached for his desk phone, “Apparently you two were kidnapped just a few minutes ago. False alarm I take it?”
Rin laughed, “Yeah, we were out to dinner.”
The guard gestured to Buck with the black plastic handset while he dialed. “This gentleman behave himself?”
“Oh yes, other than being a doufus.”
The guard glanced over his glasses at Buck and raised his eyebrows. Then he put the handset to his ear. “Franklin here... Yeah, I'm on duty at the back main.” He glanced down at something on his desk. “Hoover and Shimazaki just walked in lookin’ triple eff... Yeah I'll let 'em know.”
Franklin hung up the phone. “Sign out next time you two. Staff can't stand being in the dark.”
“Yes Mother.” Buck shot back as they walked past the station.
Franklin was already absorbed again in his magazine. “Tell me about it. 'Night you two.”
By the time they got back to the quarantine unit Rin was feeling nauseous. The next week was spent recovering from what the specialists termed “immuno-depressed resurgence symptoms” and which Rin only remembered as misery and fevered dreams. In them, people were always approaching her, but never got close enough to talk to. Ice-cream featured prominently as well. Vast frigid slopes of frozen yogurt. She never saw what lay beneath those smooth slopes, but she could feel things with her feet, knobs and protrusions, as she sank slowly, unable to move. Always shivering.
Rin decided she still hated sauces. Buck, however...
“Welcome back Rin! Welcome... To Earth!” David gestured grandly out the window as if he's just made her all of the ISAC campus as a present.
Rin had decided not to visit David until several days after she was released from quarantine. She was going to be spending the nights at the medical facility under observation. Re-acclimating to a normal diet and lifestyle seemed to be straightforward, but the biologists wanted more long-term data. Plus, it was free room, and this way Rin didn't have to take her stuff out of storage. She had access to the motor pool now, one more perk of almost dying on an alien planet. The driver dropped her off at the front door. It felt odd walking the same halls, taking the same elevator which, a year ago -- two years? -- had been routine. Now it was like walking into a half-remembered dream.
David's office was the same as ever. Somehow it looked bigger than before. Also, smaller. These warring facts batted at each other the whole time Rin was there, perhaps contributing to her ongoing unease. Everyone had treated her with such deference or caution since she came back that it was a relief to meet David's casual mastery of the situation and find it unaltered. Perhaps in compensation for David's concrete personality, his office had changed in subtle ways. The walls seemed wider, but the ceiling shorter. Perhaps the building was slowly drooping into a more relaxed posture.
David, on the contrary, was not. He looked, somehow, twice as polished as before. His suit... shone? No, but he had an aura of ineffable radiance about him. Perhaps he was being waxed twice daily. Soon she would have to wear a cleanroom suit when she visited him.
“Thanks. Good to be back in the old neighborhood.” Rin replied. She felt as if she should be relaxed. There were still no comfortable chairs in David's office. Rin turned, but there weren't any in the corner any more. She kept turning to look in the other corner. Nope. As she completed the full rotation -- feeling a bit like a wind-up doll -- she said, “David. Why are there no comfortable chairs in your office?” She thought she knew the answer, but to hell with it. People were complicated and maybe the answer would be interesting.
David gave her his spy smile, “My visitors are too important to just sit around.” He was still standing by the window as if he owned everything as far as the eye could see.
Rin walked around his desk and sat in his big swivel chair. It was less comfortable than it looked. Or maybe it was tailor made like his suit. There were probably biometric sensors built in that were calling security right now. Rin could just imagine the fracas down in the security office.
“We've got an 819 on David Reed!”
“Do we have a lock on the suspect?”
“Looks like sixty kilos, meter forty, probably female...”
“I want people to feel uncomfortable in my office.” It was David.
Rin looked over. David wasn't smiling any more. He wore the rare timeless look of placidity Rin had seen occasionally on others. He could have been eighteen, contemplating going to college, or eighty, thinking of the grave. As he spoke the light reflected from the ground and the sky washed his face in a subtle gradient of light. Like he was looking into the fish tank of the outside world, examining the midmorning humidity which the populace of Houston breathe instead of air.
“I want them to be uncomfortable around David Lambert Reed. People get comfortable around me, they start asking questions, start looking in the corners. Like you Rin. Pretty soon all the expensive clothes and credentials and fancy furniture can't hide the dangerous truth about me. And then they find out...” He turned to Rin, and smiled his real smile. “that I'm just like everyone else! And after that they usually ask me to do something for them. And after that It's nothing but work, work, work all the time!”
“So, you intimidate people so you can be lazy?”
“Basically. And it's fun to see people stand awkwardly and wonder where to sit.”
“So...” Rin said, swinging the chair from side to side with one toe. “Why have you come to see me?”
Shocked and slightly offended at the sight of Rin in his chair, David enunciated “That's my line.”
“And now you can stand around and wonder where to sit.” Rin delivered what she hoped was an infuriating smirk.
David strode purposefully over to his desk and half-sat half-leaned on the edge. His eyebrows lowered for a moment, but then his face cleared. “I need to explain something to you... Hold on, this isn't working.”
David got up, walked around, and faced Rin from across his own desk. “Rin, I need to explain something to you.” David placed both fists on the lacquered surface and leaned in to accentuate his point. “These hearings, they may be everything we were working toward.”
“Why Mr. Reed, whatever do yowaaAAA!” Rin had leaned back in the chair, and felt it tip ominously. Her feet came up and struck the underside of the desk with a faint thunk. The chair had merely reclined a bit, but though it had caught her, it took Rin a second to catch her breath.
“Hard being the big man behind the desk isn't it?” David said
“I'll get the hang of it.” Rin snapped defensively, “You were saying?”
“All that responsibility. All the money riding on your decisions. All the lectures disguised as friendly advice you have to listen to if you screw up.”
Rin raised her eyebrows, “Like this one?”
“ISAC has been asked, a legal inquiry you understand, why their very expensive space ship crashed. Also, it seems a few people may have died. Both the public and the officials across the globe are outraged. They want blood.”
“So... try to look wan and bloodless?”
“No no. That's what everyone else will be doing. You have to know who did it.”
“How would I know?”
“This is our chance to catalyze reform. The whole ISAC is up in the air! You're one of the star witnesses!” David painted headlines in the air, “Female survivor blames 'X' for crash! You get to fill in that 'X'.”
“So, you want me to date the commissioner and then break up with him? Not much time then.” Rin rose as if she intended to begin immediately.
“Rin, I feel like you're not taking this seriously.”
“I just don't know what you mean! Blame someone? Capitalize on reform?”
“Catalyze, instigate, ignite.”
“Whatever. I'm not going to memorize a list of your political rivals and rattle it off, if that's what you're thinking.”
“Rin, I thought you knew me better than this.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I did. Then you bribed me to my death.”
David had the acumen to keep his mouth shut.
“Maybe you're the problem David. Maybe I am.” Rin had come around to stand next to him. One of her hands rested on the table, suspended by three fingertips.
“This wasn't your fault Rin. I read your letters from the voyage. You have some good insights. The RAS-R system...”
“We would have all died David!” Rin's voice was raw and clipped. Her tears held back by rage. Why was she angry? “If I had designed the Armstrong we would all be dead. Those damn tubes saved us, and only just barely. The heat shielding, the shape of the ship, everything.” Rin turned fiercely away and squeezed the moisture out of her eyes. The scars were unfamiliar with the expression, and felt tight across her features. “If I was right we'd all be dead. Maybe that’s what we deserve.”
“It wasn't your responsibility to keep everyone safe Rin.” David sounded almost gentle. Unfortunately, “almost gentle” fell under patronizing ageing father territory.
“Yeah, and maybe I don't want it to be.”
“I'm sorry Rin. It’s just...” David's face wore an expression Rin had never seen before. Imploring sorrowful hope. “We can do so much better. I was hoping you could help me to convince everyone of that. I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I'll think about it David. Just don't be surprised if you wind up being the ‘X’.”
“I would be honored.” David said as he strode to the door. Pulling it open he bowed a little. “Please forgive me any distress I may have caused you Miss Shimazaki. Feel free to call upon me at any time if you wish to speak of these matters again.”
Rin strode purposefully through the doorway. What it was like for him, all those months... It would have been horrible, she decided as she rode down the elevator. Not that Rin was that important to him. But even if he felt no sense of responsibility for getting her assigned to the Armstrong, it would still have been horrible. The tension within the ISAC must have been immense. David would have been to hundreds of status meetings where helpless bureaucrats recited statistics from extrapolated actuarial tables. She smiled a little in satisfaction. David had probably gone through his own hell-on-Earth while the crew were undergoing their hell-on-Phoenix. Serves him right.
But, on the other hand, now Rin had clout. People listened to what she said, at least a bit more than before. She would never be in such a position if David hadn't prodded and supported her the whole way. A twinge of guilt prodded her as the elevator doors opened on the parking level.
What had he said? That she might discover an alien world? That it would be an adventure? He had been right, but for the wrong reasons, and who knew what the right reasons were? Rin had left Earth as the junior member of David’s tribe, but she had returned as... what exactly?
Rin was sitting on a dumpster when the call came.
She had been headed to the mall, but on wandering from the main roads discovered a frontage road between the stores and the freeway. This by itself was uninteresting, but a short section of bike path lay stranded alongside the frontage road. It was labeled proudly as “Part of the Municipal Enrichment Project Alternate Transport Network.” A thirty yard strip of asphalt along the sidewalk, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Predictably it was completely unused by the normal denizens of the highway -- roaring by just on the other side of the chain-link fence. What had induced Rin to climb atop the nearby dumpsters was a trio of boys using the path as a drag strip for their cycles. Somehow their seriousness and reckless devotion to victory infected her.
She had been watching for ten minutes when her phone rang. Without looking she picked it up, entranced by the unfolding drama of a regulatory dispute which had sprung up over some inscrutable technicality. Rin was sure that this would never have been an issue, except that someone had clearly won the race, which had instantly incited an investigation into the clear unfairness of the rules which would allow such an impossible outcome.
“Hello, it's Rin.”
“Hello Rin-san. This is Takehiko speaking?”
The big-shot brother. Calling to run her life just like he ran the Akimbo.
Rin decided to play it cool, “Takehiko, what's up?”
“Rin, I am so glad that you have been found alive and well.”
“Thanks.” Rin paused. What was he getting at? “Is everything ok?”
“Yes. Now that you are back we have finally been able to sleep at night.”
“You don't have to worry about me Taki. I can...”
“Of course I do! I'm your Nee-san.”
“Well, yeah, I'm good.” There was a pause, “Those bots you sent with us were great.”
“Yes? They performed well? I am sorry they were the best that could be done for you. We were all so proud to hear you had been selected for an interstellar mission. When the Armstrong was lost... Father mourned.”
Rin was stunned. Was this really her brother? Her father? The distant pair of stars, twinkling merrily in her uncaring sky?
“I'm, yeah...” was all she could say. In that moment Rin saw, with the ground liquefying insight of misplaced assumptions, her own spite. She had hated her father for being rich. She had despised Takehiko for being successful. She had left, struck out to “make it on her own”. She could never take their affection, their help. To do so would be to admit she was just like her mother. A failure. A leech. A slut.
But she had also known, and ignored, that it had hurt them. They were family, and they saw it as an unquestionable duty to look after their own. After her mother died she was their only charge. Certainly they had been busy and cold. Rin had been sent to a boarding school when mother died. She had blamed them for her death, with the unreasonable certainty of a child.
After she graduated she had refused all gestures and used her savings to go live with her mother's brother and his wife. Her father had tried a few times to contact her, and Taki had never stopped writing. She had thought of it as merely desire for control. Perhaps she didn't want to believe that she could get help. Now it seemed that she was mistaken.
They had offered to help her, put her through school, fly her out for Japanese holidays, but she had ignored the offers. Their money was too good for her. What if it was not the least, but the most they could do? Perhaps money was the best they had to offer. They were Japanese, and could not be moved to passion.
It was still a poor substitute for anything as warm as her relationship to Buck, or even David, but perhaps she had been wrong about them both.
Maybe she really could go home.
“Rin? Hello, are you still there Rin?” Takehiko was still on the line.
“Thanks Taki.” Rin swallowed and fought the burning in the back of her nose. “I'd really like to see Dad again. I'd really like to see both of you.”
“And, I got the letters. Thanks.”
“Yes you are very welcome. Rin, I heard there is going to be an inquiry at ISAC.”
“Yes, I've agreed to testify.”
“It might be an embarrasment if...”
Rin sniffed, “I ended up looking like a fool?”
“I have some friends of course.” Takehiko mentioned almost flippantly, “They will ensure you are not barred from accessing the ISAC Secure Documents Vault. What you find there will no doubt be used to avoid such an outcome.”
Political leverage. Turning on the fulcrum of her eyewitness status, Rin could move the inquiry whichever way she wished. Well, probably. Taki wanted the same angle as David.
He continued, “I would be honored if you would make a fair and unbiased report of our excellent products.”
Aha! A trade. Maybe he wasn't that different from what Rin remembered. Still looking to take advantage of the situation. Still only interested in her so far as she could make him money, bring him honor. Rin was useful now, and when she was no longer useful, things would go back to the way they were.
But even as she thought it, she knew that it would not be the same. The box of un-answered letters bore witness that accounts were not square between them.
Rin took a deep breath. But really, it was no choice at all. She let it out with a smile. “I understand.”
“We'd love to see you again Rin-chan” Of course, he would, now that Rin had agreed to help him, “Perhaps I can get away for several days.”
“I understand Taki-san.”
“But, you'll be here for the family reunion.”
“Is there one?”
“Yes, just for you. I'll fly you out. It's been so long, and now that you are back from the dead you are more popular than ever.”
Ahh, of course. Everything planned and calculated. But, why not? “Sure Taki-san. Plan on it.”