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The Stars at Dawn

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Her first memory, after, is of a terrifying numbness, her body paralysed, her thoughts like bullet-ridden steel.

She panics.

"At ease, Corporal," says a voice from somewhere to her left, brusque and impersonal, while a sharp hissing sound punctures somewhere to her right. "We've got you."

She can't move -- can't think -- can't breathe --

"Medic!"

Blackout.




You died, they tell her later. And, Your Federation still needs you.

(Neither of those things surprises her.)

In the healing tank, she looks for Johnny in the face of every passing medic and visitor and patient and can't understand why he doesn't come.

You died, they tell her again.




In recovery, she scans the feeds for Johnny, for the Roughnecks, for anything that might fill the void she's been existing in. She's tried writing him, of course, and the lack of a response isn't all that surprising considering he's probably too busy killing bugs -- she knows the Federation has three brain bugs now; that the Fleet has lost seventeen more ships and MI upwards of forty thousand souls; they're winning this war, clearly -- but:

"I want to know more," she tells the medics looking after her reintegration.

She's allowed a temporary login for the Network and searches through every recent battle, all one hundred and ninety-two of them, until:

RICO, J. MIA.

"I want to get out of here," she tells them.




She's assigned to the Twenty-Second division on the Thomas Baker three weeks later.

"So you're one of the ones that died," Colonel Kendritz says, studying the SC-1798 form in her file. "Status corrected following a successful application of the Federation's life reintegration procedure."

"Sir," she says, at attention and gaze focused on the sharp line of his right shoulder. "With respect, I'm better now. Sir."

"Apparently." Closing her file, he waves her away. "That will be all, Corporal."

She snaps to. "Yes, Sir."




There are three other post-KIA's in Kendritz's Killers apart from her -- Ruiz, Smithers and Jorgenson -- and she learns quickly that their sufficiently horrific deaths and subsequent reincarnations are about all that they have in common.

Well, that and a desire to kill bugs.

Chambering another nuke into Smithers' launcher, she slaps the back of his head and takes cover while he aims for the nest they've found here on Planet Raxtoth; sprays the bug crawling up on them from behind with bullets while she waits for the explosion.

Hoorah.




Her family was incinerated in Buenos Aires, along with most everyone else she used to know outside of the service, so she's not surprised when her twentieth birthday passes quietly with just an auto-write from the Federation's Department of Identity, Status and Relationships acknowledging the date and reminding her of what she already knows -- her Federation needs her and thanks her for doing her part.

(A part, she knows, she will play for at least the next six years now that the Federation has added five years to her original term of service as payment for the return of her breathing privileges. She probably should have paid greater attention to the Federation's "dead or alive" mandatory service extension clauses when she took her original oath.)

She tries reaching out to Carl, once, in the days following her birthday and gets no response. Sees Carmen on a recruitment short on the network, twice, and switches views.

Johnny's status is changed to KIA the same day he would've turned twenty, with Ace, Sue-Ellen, Michaels and rest of the Roughnecks' statuses updating soon after.

She thinks about going career.




On Eosphorus they give her the squadron again and this time she doesn't die, and that and her promotion to Sergeant should probably have her celebrating harder than she ever has in her life before, but.




In a bar on the edge of the Zone, she makes a new friend.

"Nice tattoo," he says, after, still sprawled on the bed, his eyes on her arm.

Pulling down her shirt, she adjusts her dogtags and steps into her boots. "Yeah," she says, trying to remember his name and failing, heading for the door. "We're done here."




She gets an auto-write from Carl, thanking her for wanting to know more about his Department's work and providing her with a network login to a behind-the-scenes look at what they're doing with some of the brain bugs they've captured recently.

The splatter radius, especially, is quite impressive.




A dozen more battles and she survives each one with barely a scratch which means she's just that good at killing bugs dead.

Then she sees Ruiz's wounds and Jorgenson's blank stare back on the drop ship (Smithers bought it on Hanna the previous month, this time permanently) and she remembers she was on Planet P, once, too.

She applies for OCS.




She doesn't mind the theory so much, nor the fact that she's back at school, analysing strategies and case studies, but the sterility of the environment is a shock that's hard to get used to. There's not a lot of bugs to kill between the pages of a textbook.

It takes three months and a final exam on a planet literally crawling with bugs, thank god, but she graduates as Second Lieutenant Isabel Flores a little under a year after her death, hoorah.

Making her way through a bottle of celebratory whiskey, she cups her arm and rubs her thumb over her tattoo, thinking about everything and nothing and beginnings and endings.

On the network screens in the bar recruitment vids are looping non-stop, the familiar refrains of "would you like to know more?" and "do your part!" humming under the chatter of patrons.

When she realises she's waiting for Johnny's arm to sling around her shoulders and hug her briefly into his side, a move he'd done a hundred times or more, a thousand years ago, after winning games back in BA, she buys another bottle.




She's assigned back to the Twenty-Second in time for a new series of raids deep into the Arachnid Quarantine Zone, bugs ripe for slaughter on every planet everywhere. Following the coordinates provided from High Command, she leads her squad towards one of the markers sent down after the initial nuke run Fleet made on the planet, losing only two infantrymen on the way. It's good intel, for once, and they hold the marker easily for three days and nights until they're relieved.

The Thomas Baker is even more chaotic than usual when she gets back on board and for a moment she thinks, we did it, we did it, we WON! before she realises there's no victory banners anywhere.

"Private!" she snaps, grabbing the attention of a passing enlisted. "What's the deal here?"

"Sir! Survivors, Sir! From one of the old Sky Marshal Meru missions!" With a hasty salute, the private slips back into the melee of cheering soldiers fast gathering around the drop station parallel to hers.

That's good news, she thinks, watching her men and women join in with the others as they file out of their ship -- while her squad survived mostly intact, she already knows others won't have been so lucky and MI'll need experienced replacements.

Absently joining in with some of the cheers, she starts trying to wind her way towards the officer's deck, weaving in and out of the celebrating mass like she's got the ball, only to find herself slamming straight into another body when the crowd surges.

Pulling back a half-step, she looks up intending to tell them to watch their step, only --

He looks terrible, covered in dirt and blood and god knows what else, his armour in tatters, his tattoo sliced down the center, and his expression is twisting between shock and horror and something she doesn't know how to define because she's never seen him look at her like that before, and.

"You're dead!" he blurts out, his hands latching tight around her arms, his thumb digging into her tattoo.

And he must be right -- she must be dead again, or dying now -- because that's got to be the only possible explanation as her breath catches in her lungs and her heart skips too many beats to keep going. Just barely, she manages, "so are you."

She kisses him, or maybe he kisses her, and the crowd cheers and cheers and cheers.




In the morning, he finds her on one of the observation decks, the planet rolling slowly beneath the ship. When he stands beside her, his arm is warm where it presses against hers.

"Diz," he says.

"Johnny," she says, feeling his fingers brush and catch hers. She smiles.

"So," he says, slowly, almost thoughtfully, "what's new with you?"

She laughs.



The End