The Choices We Made
19/09/2010 in Original
It started with five words. Not entirely innocent words, but only five – though I remember that the other affair, the one that shook our lives to the core, had also been started by only five words. Maybe that’s why I said yes so quickly, because it felt in a way as if I was brought back to happier times, before there only remained two out of the three of us.
“Let’s have dinner together tonight.”
Funny, how five words can lead to much bigger things. When I accepted that evening, I certainly didn’t think that it would turn out the way it did. Everything began so nice, with the warm breeze of the end of Harvest and the setting sun properly obscured by the tinted glass panels of the terrace. The restaurant was of a quality you wouldn’t have expected in a militarised area, especially the decoration. It was reserved to officers, of course. Neither I nor Eli would have gone and mixed in with the rank-and-file. We had just taken our seats outside – the interior was unsurprisingly full of people – and been given the menus when Eli finally said what I had been waiting for ever since he invited me out.
“It’ll be five years at midnight, Clara. Exactly five years.”
I waited for a moment, just to make sure the waiter had gone back inside, and allowed myself a sigh.
“It doesn’t do much good to always think about the past, Eli.”
“But this is our past we’re talking about. Mine, yours, and Belle’s.” He paused, and I silently counted the second before he would continue talking. It was five. “You know she’s still alive, right?”
“Of course I do” I replied in an offended tone, before softening my voice. “She’s my sister!”
“Of course,” repeated Eli with an absent-minded look. I was somewhat annoyed that he didn’t make the effort to look at me despite the effort I had put into looking decent that evening, but part of me thought that it was normal. Eli had only been a shadow of his former self since that night five years ago in the Bamboo Plains, barely conscious of his surroundings, passing through life as if he was transparent and weightless.
“They kept her alive,” he said. “I don’t know why. If I was them, I’d have killed her long ago. Why didn’t they do that?”
“She’s more valuable alive than dead and they know it as well as we do, Eli. They want her secrets.”
“But she’ll never talk.”
I shook my head, and glanced around the empty terrace. No one was here to overhear us, all other clients having preferred inside seats, but one could never be too sure. “The Emperor hears all”, wasn’t that the motto of my section at Intelligence?
“We both better hope so,” I finally said. “Because if they crack her mindlock, the first things they’ll find are our names.”
“She used to be so good at empathy and mind-reading. No wonder they can’t get inside her head if she decided she wouldn’t let them.”
The door bell tingled, announcing the arrival of the waiter. Raising a hand to hush Eli, I watched him arrive from the corner of my eye and ostensibly showed off the rank insignia on my shoulder to him as he came close to us, a trick that never failed with the locals. I had an amused smile as I saw him narrow his eyes in a struggle to remember the exact meaning of the chevrons then stiffen in a jolt of panic.
“Relax,” I said, waving at him to approach. “We’re off duty. Even Intelligence needs a break every now and then when it isn’t uprooting resistance cells. You’re not a rebel, are you? Nothing to fear then.”
It was easy to see the man was unsettled. I could even see the trickle of sweat on his temple as he advanced next to our table in an admirably steady pace.
“Major,” he said with a respectful but slightly shaky voice, “what can I get you?”
“I’ll have the roasted duck with oranges and cinnamon. What about you, Eli?”
“The pike quenelles, that’ll be good.”
“Certainly, Lieutenant. Anything you’d like to drink?”
“Just water, thanks,” I cut in before Eli could open his mouth. Although he looked clean and well-shaved, I had a suspicion he had taken up drinking too much alcohol in the recent months.
“That wasn’t a very nice thing to do,” remarked Eli softly once the waiter had gone away.
“What? The water?”
“Don’t be silly, Clara. I mean how you played with him.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I looked away while passing my finger around the base of my glass.
“It’s their fault,” I finally said. “They rebelled, we retaliated, and now we occupy their planet. Their own damn fault, not mine.”
“We weren’t like this before,” said Eli. “I mean, when Belle was still around. What happened to the three of us?”
“You known damn well what happened,” I said tight-lipped. “We betrayed her and turned her in.”
The night air wooshing through the open side window of the Valkyrie was cold, making Clara shiver in her black combat fatigues as she looked at the bamboo forest rushing under her craft. The moonlight illuminating the landscape through the scarce clouds didn’t reflect on the grey dulled-out hull, rendering the dropship almost invisible against the starry background. Ahead in the distance, a trio of lights flashed twice in a small clearing – the signal for a clear landing zone. Turning away from the window, Clara allowed herself a sigh of relief and motioned to her team to get ready as the Valkyrie altered its course slightly to head for the prepared landing area.
She jumped out first from the ramp in the whine of the dropship’s cooling turbines and immediately saw Belle’s tall, black-haired silhouette coming to meet her, framed by the light of one of the signal projectors. Belle had always had that determined pace, that particular way to walk as if nothing could ever stop her, thought Clara to herself.
“All loose ends are sorted over at HQ,” she said out loud. “How’re things on your side, Belle?”
“The area is clear and we’re within schedule. Alignment occurs less than one hour, everything will be ready.”
“Perfect. Where’s Eli?”
“Busy installing the equipment as planned.” Belle looked straight at Clara, who felt uneasy at the intensity of the stare. “Let’s end this war tonight.”
“We didn’t really have a choice” said Eli while pensively stirring his fork in the sauce around his quenelles. “We did what we had to do, didn’t we?”
“Yes. We realized too late what was really on her mind.”
Eli looked at me quizzically, his fork stopping in mid-motion. “Do you think that we would have acted differently if we had known?”
I opened my mouth to answer that yes, we would have, and was surprised – startled even – to realize that I didn’t believe in the words I was about to say.
“I think we would have pretended not to know” I finally said after a long blank.
“Until the very last moment, that is.”
I looked at Eli, unsettled and unsure of what he meant. He chewed pensively on his food for a moment, letting the silence settle before continuing.
“Like you did, I mean.”
I frowned and stared at him, forcing him to stare back.
“Are you implying something, Eli? Don’t try that on me. You were there too and we were on the same side.”
“I’m not trying to imply anything,” he replied quietly. Somehow, his calm tone unnerved me, maybe because that conversation was steadily going away from what I had hoped it would be.
“Listen to me, Eli. Belle had gone rogue and she knew we’d try to stop her if she told us the entire plan. She had never planned on telling us anything, we’re lucky to have found out before it was too late.”
“You know, I admire you, Clara.” I felt my cheeks warm up at the sudden compliment and chastised myself for being such an idiot. “Where do you find this strength? You talk about all this as if it was nothing.”
“Just coping in a different way, that’s all.” I extended a hand half across the table in hope he’d react. “You’re letting yourself slide down, Eli. I could help you.”
He simply shook his head, not bothering to notice my hand. “You know what I ask myself some days? I wonder why she mindlocked herself when we arrested her. The only answer I can find is that she wanted to protect us two, even after what we had just done to her. She was that devoted to us. What is our excuse, Clara? What justifies our betrayal?”
“Loyalty does. We were friends, but we were Intelligence. It’s our duty to arrest rogue agents, our feelings being secondary.”
“You believe feelings to be secondary? Coming from you, that’s more than a little strange.”
I withdrew my hand hurriedly, this time thoroughly blushing. I had never thought that he knew, always looking so lost in his own universe.
“That’s not what I meant,” I managed to say. “Throne, don’t you think it was hard on me too? I am her sister, Eli!”
“And I was in love with her.” He let out a deep sigh, the first slight sign of distress since he had invited me out. “Yet, we both put the handcuffs on her.”
The station wasn’t very impressive from the outside, thought Clara. A pitifully small bunker protruding from the ground and a handful of prefabs, barely a camp by decent Army standards, but she knew better than to rely on exterior looks alone. She followed Belle into the bunker and down a flight of concrete stairs, glancing at the corpses piled inside as she walked. Those men had never stood any chance. They probably didn’t even know they were already at war when the stormtrooper teams had jumped off their Valkyries.
Clara looked at her watch. The fleet’s ultimatum to the rebels would end in less than an hour. That was their deadline to completing their mission. The first part, seizing the complex, had so far gone without a hitch. The second part would be trickier.
“The Conduit’s installed and my men are set up. The techs had time to sabotage one of their generators before we got to them, but I’m told there’s still enough power for all the primary arrays.”
Eli had been waiting for them at the base of the stairs. He led them through a narrow corridor while continuing his report, until they arrived into a much larger room where agitation reigned. Team leaders barked sharp series of orders while men were plugging huge power couplings to the complex structure in the centre of the hall and others checked every control panel and console they could find. A lone tech-priest was hurriedly conducting awakening rites, an odd touch of red amongst the black uniforms of the stormtroopers.
Under the trio’s eyes, the huge machine awoke to life, deploying a multitude of metallic arms who in turn opened to form reflector dishes. It looked like some kind of giant metallic tree, thought Clara, with its branches now rotating slowly around the central trunk in a complex movement.
“Transmitter array is powering up, currently at twenty percent and rising,” announced a stormtrooper, hunched over a panel. Clara looked at Belle, then Eli, and smiled. They were going to make it. The war would end tonight, before it even started.
“You got off better than me in many aspects, Clara,” said Eli as the waiter took away our empty plates. “Straight from Lieutenant to Major, eh? I didn’t get any promotion myself. Just a medal, one I’m too ashamed to wear anyways.”
“You weren’t promoted because you refused to take credit for the arrest when I offered you the chance to,” I shrugged. “But you shouldn’t worry about that. I’ve asked that you be retired from active service once this world is fully compliant again.”
“Retired from active duty?” Eli shrugged. “It’s just as well. I’d have failed my next evaluation anyways. Too dreamy, they say, and I can’t really disagree.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you should drop off the radar for a while once this becomes official. Just in case they crack through Belle’s defences.” I looked at him, hoping he’d take the advice.
“I can’t do that.” He shook his head, suddenly frowning but still looking down at his napkin. “No, I can’t do that at all, it’s impossible that I leave. I want to stay here.”
His reaction surprised me. It wasn’t like him to act like this. It was the first time in the last five years that I had seen him refuse anything so stoically.
“I guess you can stay here if you want to. But I’ll be forced to leave, and I’d be worried to leave you behind on your own.”
“I won’t be on my own.”
I raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Is that so? Who’s going to support you when I’m not here?”
“At any rate, Clara, I want you to know that I really appreciate all you’ve been doing for me,” he said, changing the subject. “You knew about how I felt. You understood.”
My heart thumped faster in my chest. “Remember what we had sworn, Eli? That we would always look out for each other? Just keeping my word.”
“Odd that you should mention that. I remember Belle was here too when we made that oath.”
Both of us fell silent for what seemed an eternity, until Eli spoke again.
“There’s something I haven’t told you yet, the reason why I invited you out tonight.” Looking at me, he saw he had my full attention. I could hear my heart beat in my eardrums. “I asked you out because this morning, I visited Belle in her high security ward.”
My eyes opened wide. What?!
The Conduit didn’t look like much, but all three of them knew how potent the device was. No larger than a field radio, it had been linked to the transmitter array and its role was simple: generate a encrypted signal that would then be broadcast. In a few dozens of minutes, a specially equipped vessel of the Fleet would slip to geostationary orbit right over them and bounce their signal all over the planet using the satellite networking.
“Now’s the time to show that we didn’t waste our three months of preparations,” said Eli. Along with Clara, Belle and their respective teams, he had arrived on this world long ahead of the invasion fleet on an uncharted vessel that had passed completely undetected.
Their objectives hadn’t been easy to pursue. Intelligence already knew of the network of gigantic arrays hidden in underground complexes – after all, this planet had been Imperial until a very recent time, but it was up to them to determine the one who would be less guarded and best suited for their needs.
Belle had had the most difficult mission, but also the one best suited to her particular talents. Her task had been to obtain the code to be transmitted from the mind of high-ranking officials, and even all her mind-reading hadn’t been enough to obtain a complete version of the code. There had been tense moments when they had been forced to abduct and coax a senior Tech-adept into reconstructing the code from the incomplete fragments they possessed.
Now it was complete and beautiful. It was an override command, one that would temporarily remove control of all the surface batteries and missile silos from their operators. At the same moment, right at the end of the ultimatum, a full-scale air drop would secure the main cities, ending the war in one, swift strike.
“Don’t let us down, Belle,” said Eli. It was easy to hear from his voice that he was getting tense. “If the defence network doesn’t go down, all these men will be dropping towards certain death.”
“Leave it to me. I could do this with my eyes closed,” joked Belle to ease the tension. All eyes were fixed upon her, because she was the only one who could complete the very last part of the plan: manually entering the code into the Conduit, in real time.
“Alignment in five minutes!” warned Clara. “Belle…”
“I know, I know. One typing mistake, and tens of thousands die. I’m as prepared as can be. I can’t fail. The damn thing is literally imprinted on my brain, I’ve made sure of that.”
Clara watched Belle take position next to the conduit. For one brief second, she thought she saw an odd glint in her sister’s eyes, a hidden and burning intent she had never seen before. Deep inside her, a gut instinct was telling her something was way off.
“You went to see her?! How did you manage to do that?” I had to restrain myself to not get up from my chair yelling. “They never granted me the authorization!”
“You’re direct family, they couldn’t take the risk. But they didn’t know about me and Belle, so they let me in. Officially, I was there to help with the daily interrogation, having served with her and everything.”
“You wouldn’t believe the state she’s in,” he continued after a long pause, seeing that I didn’t reply. “When I entered her cell both her wrists were chained to the ceiling above her, and her ankles were cuffed to the ground. She didn’t look up when I opened her door. Her hair has grown long in all that time, I’m sure they only cut it once a year at best. I thought she looked beautiful like that – I mean, she would have looked beautiful if not for the chains.”
“Did you speak to her?” I asked through clenched jaws.
“Yes. I asked to speak to her in private, and they granted that wish, too.” Eli marked another pause. “I called her name and she looked at me. Her face, Clara, you can’t imagine what they did to her face… But her eyes were still the same, sunken from exhaustion as they might be. She recognized me, but she couldn’t talk. They made sure of that, too. She had this odd expression, I’m sure she was trying to smile.”
“She couldn’t speak? You mean she didn’t tell you anything?”
“No, she did tell me something. She didn’t need her voice to do it. It’s her eyes, you know, the way she stared at me. I think we stood there for maybe half an hour, unmoving, before I fully understood what she meant to convey to me. It was so awfully clear. I asked her if I had understood well, and she nodded in silence and tried to smile again.”
“What did she mean? Did she leave you a message for us?” Frantic, I leaned across the table and grabbed Eli by his shoulders. “Did she say something about me? Did she say she doesn’t hate me?”
Eli’s head bobbed from side to side as I tried to shake him up. He looked lifeless and pale, like a corpse, not moving a muscle. He just waited, patiently, until I gave up and sat back onto my chair. I looked around again – this slip-up of mine would have attracted the attention of passer-bys if there were any, but it seemed like the street in front of the terrace was desert.
“Yes, she mentioned you.” This time I knew better than to jump at Eli again, letting him go on. “She understands what you did, but at the time couldn’t dismiss the hope that you’d join her side. She also said it didn’t matter anymore now, and that you shouldn’t worry about the mindlock being cracked.”
I suddenly realized that there was something that had just changed with Eli. It was his eyes, or more precisely with the light in his eyes. For the past five years there hadn’t been any, but now some kind of passion had awakened deep inside him, making his gaze burn in a way I had never seen it do before. Then I understood, the force of the realization crushing me for what seemed like an eternity.
“She gave you the code? Eli, she told you how to reactivate the Conduit?!”
“Our war had gone on too long,” he replied. “We conquered them in two days, but we’re still fighting to get their compliance. It’s a fight we’ll never completely win. This war will end tonight.”
Her words, I remembered. The exact five words she had told me when I had stepped off the Valkyrie on that night and that had started the entire thing.
“Neither you nor I could ever forgive ourselves for turning against her, Clara. We can correct that tonight. At midnight, a communication satellite’s orbit will make it pass directly above the relay. We will reactivate the Conduit, bounce the signal all over the network, and give that planet the peace it asked for and we denied. “
He was right. It was feasible. The code Belle had had in her possession would not only override the defence network for a few minutes but in fact provoke a planet-wide shut-down of automated systems. Gun sentries would power down, hive security lockdowns would be lifted, the list could go on but one thing was clear: every resistance cell would immediately go on the offensive and the occupation force would be overrun.
“Eli, you’re crazy. They will come for us if we do it. It will maybe take years, decades, but they will come for us and then we will have done that for nothing.”
“That’s what I thought back then, and why I helped you take her into custody. But Belle wasn’t crazy, I know that now. She was right all along. A temporary moment of peace is better than a neverending war. I can – we can earn her forgiveness!”
With a mix of fascination and horror, I realized how terrible it must have been, waiting all those years for this to happen. Belle had endured the torture, the psychic interrogations and the prison simply to wait for this chance, for one of us to come see her. Her state was greatly weakened, but our minds – Eli’s especially – were also weakened regarding that topic. Our doubt was her way in, our admiration and love for her was her key to unlock our minds.
“Will you come with me, Clara? If I ask you to?”
Eli had gently grabbed my hand, looking at me with hope. My words were stuck in my throat as I struggled to look at all the alternatives. I knew Belle was right, I didn’t need Eli to tell me. If we triggered the Conduit one again, there would be a short period of insurrection – I knew all too well how much of the population would gladly rise in arms against us, and then there would be retribution. Unforgiving, cruel and brutal retribution.
But in between, there would be peace. Those people hadn’t risen up to wage war, they had asked for an end to corruption, unfair taxes and military oppression, raising in revolt against what they felt was the Imperium’s oppressive yoke only after all other options had been exhausted. If we set them free, there would indeed be peace.
I looked back at Eli and saw again that light in his eyes. His hand on mine felt warm, as I had imagined it would. In him, I saw that he meant what he was saying and that there was no trickery. Everything, at last, would be exactly as I had always hoped it to be. We would free Belle and take care of her, we would be together again and I would be with Eli. I closed my eyes. This, I thought, is what I had always wanted.
In the cool wind of the end of day, the gunshot seemed to detonate louder than anything I had ever heard.
“Activate the Conduit properly, or thousands will die!”
Belle stared straight at Clara’s gun sight, unflinching. “I had really hoped you’d understand, Clara. If you persist, you won’t have a choice but to turn me in.”
Around them, the storm troopers had gathered, many of them with their weapons raised, mostly trained at Belle. Clara knew that it was her formidable will that prevented them from taking the shot. This was between the two of them, Eli having gone up with his men to set up a secure perimeter.
“You think I don’t know that? You think Eli doesn’t know that? For the love of the Emperor, if you don’t type in the code these soldiers will die in the drop and we’ll still win the war in the end. Everyone is worse off if you do nothing!”
For a long five seconds, nothing happened. Then Belle smiled and threw her own sidearm at Clara’s feet, their eyes still locked.
“You know I’m right, Clara. My way was the best way. But you won’t let me and I won’t force you to believe in me. If it had been anyone else, maybe, but I can’t bring myself to do it on you.”
“Ten seconds until alignment,” yelled a trooper from behind a control station.
“I’ll type in the code. Be ready, Clara. You made your choice today, but one day you might have to make it again.”
Eli slumped forward, slamming his forehead on the table before falling off his chair. He moved his lips in silence once or twice, then he died. I looked at him the whole time, tears blurring my vision. Inside, people were yelling and screaming. In a moment, army officers would storm out to see what had been going on. In a moment of lucidity I knew that I’d be alright, that my story would add up and that my life would go on. Under the table my other hand, the one Eli hadn’t been holding, ached a little from the recoil of the gun and I let the weapon go, its barrel still smoking from the shot.
I looked sideways at one of panels of tinted glass, feeling the tears coming back. Belle had crossed the line she had set for herself and used her abilities on one of us, I was certain she had. She had forced my hand, I repeated to myself as the tears rolled down my cheeks. I would have made the choice if I had been able to, but she had forced my hand.
In the glass panel, I saw my own reflection. I looked at the red-tinted woman and wondered, before the soldiers arrived and everything was filled with noise and cries, who was that person who looked so terribly lonely.