Her new life begins with fire, scattered across the endless black of space in the aftermath of nuclear fission. She remembers the sky lit up with it, bursting across the back of her eyes, everything spiralling into a tight pain that knotted in her chest and pulled and pulled. Silence spilled over her like a warm blanket, the end of everything she knew and everything that she had made herself to be, and her last thought was I will never forget.
She is reborn in a hospital on Earth, amid bright fluorescent lights and sterile tiles, everything hung over with the smell of bleach and ashes. She is comforting and consoling, moving through the halls like a ghost and watching the effects of war unfold before her; she is gathering names for a list, which she will lay to rest with him in his grave. It is what he would have wanted.
Sally Po moves in her peripheral vision like a supernova of colour, all honey-blond plaited hair and green eyes like sunshine through treetops. She is controlled and focused, an electric current of energy that animates the medical centre and pulls her patients through by sheer force of will. She is so fiercely good, so morally certain, that Lady finds herself content to simply be around her, like a moth drawn to the flickering warmth of a candle.
On the third day after the ceasefire, the two meet in a small office. Sally has stacked files in boxes all along the wall, cleared off the surface of her desk to a semblance of order. Her cheeks are flushed and her lips curve into the promise of a smile, so perfectly herself that Lady feels like a pale imitation of what she once was. Everything has been torn out from underneath her so that the earth waves and shatters with every step; she is like a newborn foal, still trembling, still blinking in the brightness of the sun.
"How are you finding your medication?" Sally says, her hand poised with a pen over an open file. The psychiatric evaluations will end soon, when all military operations have been dismantled and Lady is relieved of her weapons, but for now they are routine, as steady as the passing of seasons.
"Fine, I suppose," Lady says.
"No unmanageable side-effects?"
"No. Some headaches, but I was told that was to be expected."
"Yes," Sally replies. "If it continues, please let me know, and we can adjust your dosage."
Their conversation is natural, stripped of the formalities that usually build up like an unscalable mountain within the social confines of the military. Lady has done her best to fill his shoes; her subordinates refer to her as a commander, and she has not allowed herself to think about this beyond small, passing flickers of uncertainty. But Sally speaks with no preamble, no artificiality. She is respectful in her own way, hopeful.
"Do you never get tired of this?" Lady says. "The war dead, or the dying—I imagine it might be depressing."
"Sometimes," Sally says, a sigh. "The war may be over, but for the rest of us, this is just the beginning of a much longer battle."
"I envy him." The words burst uncontrolled from her, fluttering in the space between them like a bird. "He didn't—didn't think about the rest of us, did he?"
"Lady . . . "
"I'm sorry. How incredibly selfish of me." She speaks in a breathy laugh, a voice she does not recognise as her own. There are many things she does not recognise about herself now. The truth is that she was shaped by him like a clinging vine, growing up around the structure of his body and now laid bare along the frozen ground of winter. Outside, the snow drifts down across the grey square of the window, as silent as a heartbeat.
Sally reaches across the table and takes her hand; her skin is warm and dry, lined with pale white scars in the criss-cross pattern of flying shrapnel. Her touch is soft and foreign, gentle like a memory.
"We are still so very young," she says. "I think we all have things to learn now."
Lady nods, an inexplicable tightness in her throat. "I feel empty," she says. "Do you know?"
"Perhaps you feel you lack purpose?"
"I suppose I never believed—that I would have to find my own way."
"Many people have never known peace. It's only natural that you would feel unsure."
Lady's reply is a gentle hum of acknowledgment, thrumming in her chest. The world is stretched out vast ahead of her, a world of unresolved conflicts and homeless soldiers, frantic diplomats. This is a new world, where battles will be fought not with weapons but with careful words and negotiation, a push and pull of compromise as ceaseless as the tides. The thought of it envelopes her, surrounds her and squeezes the breath from her lungs: a new world, a new life.
"We will always be needed," Sally says. "This peace is such a fragile thing, so tenuous."
"Like life itself," Lady replies. "He would have said that."
"Do you not believe that each of us was placed here for a reason?"
"No, I do—Of course I do. But my reason . . . "
"Is the same as it always was. This new world will rise up from the ashes like the rest of us."
Through the gap in the doorway, the hospital is a blur of colour and sound, of movement. All of it has faded so distantly, so far away from the separate peace that they have created for themselves. Lady has one clear memory of a moment like this one, a hazy recollection of lying in a hospital bed, a rush of oxygen and the smell of roses that fades as quickly as it came, a voice that will echo in her thoughts until the end of time.
"Our work isn't over yet," Sally says, and she releases her hand in a whisper of cool air.
"No," Lady replies, distantly, the flickering ember of peace burning in her heart. "No. Perhaps this is just the beginning."