The Better Part of Valor
"But no one’s gonna come down on me for this, right?"
"Don’t worry about a thing. The agency will cover your back legally, we’ll assign a pseudonym, you’ll be absolutely fine."
"Yeah. I just need to be sure there’s absolutely no…"
"Mr. Sitsui. Remember what we talked about."
"I know, I know." The young man tugged absently at the dark tin figure-eight woven through both nostrils. The sight of his skin stretching made her nauseous.
"Okay," she said, with more finality than she felt. She fixed her gaze on the table between them. "Whenever you’re ready, go ahead and start from the beginning. If you want to reword something, just stop and say ‘I’d like to reword, please.’ If you aren’t sure you’re remembering something correctly, it’s very important that you mention that, even though you’re going to give us the events as they transpired to the best of your recollection. All clear?"
She leaned back in her chair and briefly thought about lighting a cigarette, then decided against it. Better to let them ease into it on their own. Wait until they find their feet in the story, then light the torch as a sign that everyone’s at ease.
"Okay. So we’re sitting there, there’s about four of us..."
"Wait. Start by telling me a bit about who you are. Sorry."
"Oh. Okay. I’m Orin Sitsui. I’m, uh, I’m a materials tech for Caldari Constructions, here under service contract with Kaalakiota Second Command, currently on eighth year of service."
"All right, that’s good. Thanks."
"Sure. So, yeah. Four of us, I think maybe five, but I’m pretty sure four."
"This was where?"
"In my section. The east ridge, level 55. My hab was in a real sweet spot, right next to the Syntact galleries and a row of restaurants. A small group of us who’d been in training together, we used to always hang out there. And this time that I’m talking about – we’re all pretty new, you know, and most of us have never been exposed to how strict the regulations really are up here. I mean, we were told in training but I guess they didn’t do a good enough job of hammering it in or something, because almost everyone I knew would have a story within like a week. One guy got trapped in the laundry room after hours and had to be rescued by maintenance drones. One guy wore a wristpiece that covered up a part of his ID derm and got zapped by his own doorway. Everybody was adjusting, you know?"
She nodded, bunching up her toes inside her shoes. That cigarette was calling her.
"So, right. We’re sitting in one of the places near my hab on a Wednesday afternoon, and we’ve just finished a long bout of shifts so we’re looking at four days off. We’re drinking, you know, getting fast on cheap stimstickers – yeah, legal ones, of course – and just having a good time, and then there’s a commotion. Turns out there’s a capsuleer coming through. Now, this was before the big boom, so eggers were ultra-rare. None of us had ever laid eyes on one.
"Turned out there wasn’t much to see. He was really short. Dark hair, nondescript face. Civire, I’m pretty sure. He had a contingent of Home Guard guys with him, real nasty pieces of work. You constantly heard about the Home Guard guys on the station. Infantry grunts, right? Signed up for war. Getting put on space station guard duty, for these guys, was like being told to cook and eat your own face. One of the guys in our section had a brother who was a Home Guard recruiter, and he said the guys who got assigned to the space stations were all being punished for insubordination, even if they did end up leading squadrons of the contract grunts. He said they joked that being a Station Sergeant was a demotion from Private.
"I really should have known better, I guess. Should have, I don’t know, I should have put two and two together. But whatever."
She took the cigarette case from her pocket and nimbly fished one out, then placed it between her lips and lit it. Distantly he stared at the cherry of her flame for a few seconds.
"Would you like to take a break?" she said. "There’s no rush. If this is hard for you to tell, we can wait a bit." She blew a column of smoke into the air-conditioned swirl above them.
"Nah," he said, leaning back in the chair and putting his hands on his knees. "Nah, I’m fine." He resumed his story.
"So I’m quite lifted, you know? I got four days off, I’m getting pretty loose off the stim-alcohol mix, and Janeira’s on the other side of the table giving me all the right signals. And at one point I look over, and I make eye contact with one of the Home Guard guys.
"This guy had the weirdest look. He was staring right at me when I looked over, but still it felt like he couldn’t see me somehow. At first I thought it was ‘cause of my skin, since there aren’t many halfbreeds like me running around on the upper decks. But then I realized it was because of the way I was sitting. I was sitting on the back of my chair with my feet on the seat, and station regs frown upon that, you see. I felt ridiculous suddenly, like a kid in a lunchroom who was about to catch a whack from the minder. And, I don’t know, maybe that was exactly what made me do it, but out of nowhere I looked back at him and then pursed my lips in a little kiss.
"And just as I do it his eyes sort of widen a little bit, and Janeira notices me doing it and looks back, and when she sees who I just did it to she goes into this barely-subdued fit of laughter, and then the other people at the table catch on, and all the while the guy’s just standing there, glaring back at me with the meanest god damn expression you ever saw. I felt this weird combination of fear and elation, like I was playing this danger game and it could go either way, you know, and I think I acted it too. But it was all for show, really. As soon as I made that air-kiss, something deep inside of me just went ‘oh man, you did it now,’ and this creeping sense of dread set in.
"So after staring at me for a few more seconds the guy breaks his gaze and goes back to looking around, guarding the egger guy, and the egger by this point is talking with another guy who’s arrived at the table. Things are quiet for a few minutes, and I kind of stop worrying about that glare and start thinking I lucked out, you know, got away with it. And then suddenly there’s this mad shuffle of movement, and the egger stands up and kind of stumbles back, and the guy he was talking to is just kind of sitting in his chair shaking, and something black and round falls from his hand, under the table.
"Took me a while to notice that the grunt who’d been staring at me was holding out a little pistol-shaped thing in the guy’s direction. He had this intense look of concentration on his face, but hateful too, like he was gonna end this guy right then and there. A couple of seconds pass and the guy’s just sitting there, jiggling and foaming at the mouth, and all the grunts are just kind of staring, and I mean, us too, everybody in there is just staring at this guy get slowly roasted.
"Then all of a sudden the soldier stops and the guy just slumps forward on the table. The Home Guard guys go into this big huffing kind of secure-the-perimeter dance and one of them leads the egger away. We’re just sitting there slack-jawed, looking at the whole thing unfold, right? And then I notice that, sure enough, the one who’d been staring at me is making a beeline for our table, and my feeling of dread just comes powering back. We’re all kind of rattled by the scene, so as he approaches we’re sort of half-standing up. My friend was about to say something to him, but he just walks right up to me and grabs my arm. He’s pretty flustered, like he doesn’t know himself exactly what he’s gonna do next, but there’s this anger in his eyes, this absolute insane rage, you know?
"So he grabs my arm and I instinctively resist, right? I don’t know what he wants with me, so I kinda pull my arm back and it makes him lose his balance momentarily. I start to say something, but just as I’m starting the sentence he whirls around and just smacks – he’s carrying this compact bullpup piece with a chromed handle-end , right, and he just smacks it right into the bridge of my nose.
"Now, I’m no fighter. I grew up in a KK creche, never been in a scrap in my life, never had much interest in any of the fighting sports. So I guess up until that moment I had a pretty dim idea of what could happen and how bad it could be. Man, it was bad. First thing, my eyes just open up. I mean a full force torrent. I couldn’t see anything. There was this disgusting crack, and I fell back down on the chair with this slick heat spreading all over my mouth and down my neck. I wanted to say or do something, but I was way too shocked to do anything but sit there and blink and sputter.
"Jaseira told me later that the guy took another look at everyone around the table, just sort of coldly took stock of the situation and then decided it was well within bounds to do it again, so he did. Twice. The second one made me black out, thankfully."
She regarded him with what she hoped was a compassionate look. He was tugging at his nose contraption again.
"I was too scared to register a complaint but I found out a couple days later that Jaseira had gone and done it anyway, behind my back. She was way more angry about the whole thing than I was. I guess maybe she felt partly responsible because she’d laughed at the guy too.
"Anyway, we never saw him again. I got some kind of standardized letter of apology from their station commander a couple weeks later, but it didn’t say anything about what they’d done with him or whether they’d even done anything at all."
"You’re positive it was him?" she asked.
"Yeah. I wouldn’t have called you guys otherwise. I’m not stupid. I know things have a way of getting out despite best intentions, and I know this isn’t gonna make me very popular with the guy or his cronies. I just need the money. I’m splitting."
"A few of you are, huh?"
"Yeah. Just doesn’t feel right around here anymore. I mean, we worked for the glory of the State before there was a big man at the top. We worked for the State because of what it represents. And there’s one guy up there now with everything under his heel. What happened to the needs of the many outweighing the gains of the one? I mean, I like what he’s doing, some of it anyway. The mood here is more optimstic than I’ve ever seen it, and there’s this really strong sense of purpose, but I just, I don’t know. I guess I got my reservations about what kind of foundation it’s all built on."
"Where are you gonna go?"
"I’d rather not talk about that, if it’s all the same." He looked at her for a few seconds, then gave a rueful little half-smile.
"Okay," she said, giving the signal for the recorder to be shut off. "Okay, well, I think we have everything we need. Your compensation should be in your account already. Thanks for your candor, Mr. Sitsui."
It was evening in the office-box of Executive Editor Harben Mullar, and outside its two small windows the studio assistants were busily disassembling the day’s sets, tools whizzing and clicking under the artificial light. She was standing in front of his desk. Her finished piece was lying upon it.
"The story was corroborated by three of the four other witnesses. The girl has been relocated to a different part of the region. I wasn’t able to get a hold of her."
Mullar didn’t look at her. He drummed his fingers on the table. "Okay," he said.
"Sitsui himself says he doesn’t think the attack was racially motivated, but I think the story will speak for itself."
"It’s funny. He has this ancient reconstructive wire-mesh thing in his nose. Vherokior tech from hundreds of years back. I asked him why he didn’t just get it regrown. Said he needed the reminder to not do stupid things. All very dramatic."
Mullar nodded. Bi-di-dim,bi-di-dim, went his fingers on the table.
"Everything checks out. Heth was with the Home Guard at the time, and he’d been assigned to the station in question just three weeks earlier. He was dismissed four months after the incident. The official reason was budget cuts, but this wasn’t an isolated incident and I doubt his superiors could ignore that type of thing for very long."
Mullar ceased his tapping and leaned back in his chair. He sighed. "I know it all checks out," he said. "It’s a good piece, Rekka."
His tone had a terribly familiar ring to it. She looked at him for a long while.
"No way, Harb," she began.
"Yup. Just got a call from Agency Central. They’re redlighting the piece."
"No way, Harb," she said.
"Yup. Indefinite standby. Directive came from right up top."
"But it’s a good piece. It’s inbounds. It’s not a bullet." Her voice was rising. "I thought we agreed, we’re just illustrating… "
"We agreed, Rekka, but you know as well as I do that if AC decides we can’t run it, then we can’t run it. It’s out of my hands."
"Did they give a reason, at least? Or is it the usual need-to-know bullshit?"
Mullar fished a cigarette out of his case. "Take tomorrow off," he said, screwing it between his lips. "There’ll be time to talk after the weekend."
She stood there, staring at him. For a while she stared, as he clicked open a small lighter and briefly bathed the end of his cigarette in blue flame. He looked at her with resigned firmness and blew a plume of smoke into the space between them.
She turned on her heel and walked out.
The door shut on the office of Harben Mullar, and as it did the studio’s lights winked out, one by one by one.