The world that Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun had been born into was not kind.
Technically, she had not been born at all, instead waking up in the desolate landscape of an unnamed planet, where the skies never cleared, where there was not sun nor rain nor moon, and when Tamora thought back on it—when she cared to think back on it—her memories were both fragmented and so vivid it was good as getting knocked out for the second or two it took for the flashback to play through.
Her programming told her that she had been engaged to another soldier named Brad, and that now she was stuck on a godforsaken planet as humanity’s last hope or whatever the hell it was. Her programming also told her, simultaneously, that she was part of an arcade game, that there were certain rules, duties, and protocols associated with her position, and that at the end of the day, she and her men were allowed to spend their leave time in the arcade’s Game Central Station, as well as the other terminal stops connected to it.
Life was a goddamn bitch.
Tamora Jean Calhoun and her men had mandatory counseling sessions each week. She wasn’t sure how well it was all working out, but the idea was to keep them all from going over the deep end. They all had counseling sessions to cope with the war, and Tamora had counseling sessions to cope with memories that technically had never even goddamned happened.
The office was a part of the train station facilities, and her therapist was a Toadstool from the Mario games, and Toadstool told her about how, the way it used to be, the arcade characters had never been programmed with these kind of vivid memories. It was a new development, maybe something to do with the changing times, the changing trends, and there wasn’t honestly a lot any of them could do except try to take it one moment at a time, one game at a time.
The first time Toadstool told her this, she had felt like punching him in the face. The irony was: the world was not kind, but Tamora was, in her own way, so she had held her fist in check, and did as she was advised. She took it one day at a time. She took it one game at a time. She had a duty, see? And she was going to stand by it, whatever else the hell happened to her.
She had nightmares, sometimes. She had anxiety attacks. Never when the game was running, but sometimes outside of it, when the atmosphere and scenarios were outside her programmed protocols. Some of her men went out drinking, and Tamora sat on one of the benches in Game Central, watching the civilians without really watching anyone, and chowing down on fruit smuggled out of Pac-Man. Hero’s Duty was stocked with soldier’s rations: everything canned, dried, and packaged until it didn’t even look like real food anymore.
The first time security inspection tried to confiscate her fruit, she really did let him have it then. She punched him in his smug little programmed face, and they never did bother her again.
Fix-It Felix was a silly little man from a game so old he shouldn’t have been able to cross over from his world into hers, but his heart was stronger than nearly any man’s she knew. He was a good man, her Felix.
When they started—well, dating was what it was, technically—anyway, when they started seeing each other regularly, Felix would come meet her in Game Central with flowers, or pie, or even beer sometimes—sometimes she could appreciate a little alcoholic buzz, Tamora Jean Calhoun could—but he always hovered over her a bit then, and supplied root beers afterwards. He was a little concerned about encouraging alcoholism, as well he should. He’d probably heard stories about the men in her squad, and Tamora would always take his root beers afterwards with a little smirk, and saying that she appreciated his looking after her.
Felix would always blush and beam at her.
He was a strange little man, her Felix.
Every night, she was a soldier come back from the war on leave, and every night he was a maintenance man who regaled her with stories of mended windows, restored piping, and reinforced brick walls. She had on-going therapy for PTSD, and he brought her pies with a hopeful, sad little smile, and maybe that didn’t fix anything, but it was better than nothing. It was better than sitting alone in Hero’s Duty, staring at the gray sky and being certain that life was nothing but hell and hell and hell.
He was a good man, her Felix, and she loved him.
Maybe Brad’s death at the altar never really did happen, but it made her feel better to see her men training their guns at the stained glass above the wedding ceremony.
Brad had never existed, and then he had died.
Felix was real, and he would die for real if a Cy-Bug ever got its ugly goddamned claws into him. The two of them could have had the ceremony in Game Central Station instead of her game, to be honest, but Felix had insisted.
He had said, he wanted to make this real for his Sgt. Tamora Calhoun.
He had wanted to give her real memories.
And he did.