From where she sat, Captain Jane Appet could see the prisoner leaning to peer over the edge of the climbing wall. There wasn’t a hint of a breeze moving through the huge room, so the strands of brown hair that were wafting around the prisoner’s face must’ve been moving due to her gentle rocking back and forth.
It’s probably not too wise to sway like she’s doing. Jane mused, especially with her arms chained behind her. No one else around her seemed to be concerned, and of the rows and rows of spectators, there was surely someone more qualified to make the call than she. Jane kept her mouth shut and watched.
Three judges approached the prisoner, each with heavy black cloaks that obscured their faces to everyone, even the prisoner, who stared at them through haunted eyes. Even with her arms twisted behind her back the prisoner seemed hunched over on herself, as if the disapproval from the crowd would be lessened if she could keep the glares from her exposed face. Of course, teetering up there on the edge of the climbing wall, unsecured and without a tether, Jane would probably be just as uncomfortable in her place.
It was a strange sort of trial for several reasons, Jane suddenly realized. The judges were too far away for the audience to hear anything they said, and it was hardly fair to place the defendant in so precarious a position before the trial had even started. No sooner had she realized it than Captain Appet felt the edge of the wall beneath her feet, and her shoulders ached at the awkward position the manacles held them in.
“Ah. One of these dreams then.” Jane glanced at the judges standing in front of her, purposely avoiding looking behind her at the long drop. She had been ten the first time she’d found herself in a nightmare, aware but unable to wake up. In the ensuing years she had learned to deal with them, trying to stay calm and let them run their course, although even as an adult she often woke from them in a cold sweat.
“Maybe I don’t want to play tonight, maybe I just take a step backwards and wake up early.” She said to no one in particular. Her instincts told her to cower and quake, but Jane straightened her spine instead, staring the judges in the face. When they slowly lowered their hoods, the judges’ expressions told her that they didn’t believe her blustering for a moment.
“Stupid idea anyway, trying to bluff my own subconscious.” Jane muttered to herself, her gaze travelling from face to face. The first was Captain Leon, looking as young as the day he had given her the ceremonial graduation pin. The second judge was General Auspus, the old commander of Orbital Academy. The third was, of course, Patrick Appet, her instructor, her first love, the man who had died to keep her safe on the horrible surface run. “So which lecture from my subconscious will it be tonight? ‘You’re worthless Jane, you don’t deserve your Captain wings?’ Perhaps a rendition of ‘you’re such a slut, everyone hates you’? Or will it be that old classic ‘you should’ve died instead of Patrick’?” Jane spoke angrily, but she couldn’t meet the judges’ eyes.
“Captain Jane Cripshaw.” The voice didn’t belong to any one judge, but it somehow encompassed all of them, it was Patrick, it was Auspus, it was her father and her mother and everyone who had ever been in authority over her.
“Captain Appet.” Jane spat, but the voice continued, unstoppable as she knew it would be.
“Thee stand accused of treason and treachery, of betraying thy command, thy Orbital, even unto thy entire race of Orbitans. How do thee plea?”
“Oh hurray, this is a new one.” Jane could feel the old panic of her childhood rising in her throat, and despite how ludicrous it was she could feel a draft from the chasm behind her. “How exactly am I supposed to have I betrayed anyone?”
Though none of their expressions changed, Leon, Auspus and Patrick managed to look incredulous.
“‘Twas thy trained Rookies that split the Orbit, sparking the first flame of war in ten-score years! ‘Twas thy trained Rookies that rebelled against Orbital Academy, and thy trained Rookies that even now sit in the Terran halls. How can’st thee ask the question?”
“First of all, fuck off with the speech impediment; I don’t talk like that so it’s stupid that my subconscious does. Secondly, sure I trained the rookies, but they’re their own people, the choices they made had nothing to do with me! Oh fuck-” Jane groaned as Captain Leon stepped forward. She had handed her subconscious a perfect lead-in to Leon’s favorite line, the one he used during every graduation speech.
“No one quite knows where we got the old phrase ‘a captain goes down with her ship’. Any ship that explodes will take a captain with her, but inside that obvious gem is a gleam of truth. When you become an Instructor-Captain, the squaddies under your tutelage are like a part of your ship. By giving you this Captain’s Pin, we make a public statement that your trainees are molded and shaped by you. Every success of theirs is something to take pride in, and you should learn as much as they do from each of their failures.”
His message imparted, Captain Leon vanished, defying physics by melting and evaporating at the same time. Jane sighed, weary in a way that had more to do with her heart than her aching arms. The other judges probably had something to say as well. She turned to General Auspus, looking into his unnaturally young face.
“My rookies made the right choice with you, Auspus. They might’ve rebelled, but I should’ve gone with them sooner, is that what my subconscious is feeling guilty about here? For following Auspus for as long as I did? I trained the rookies, I made them the best in their year, but I didn’t listen to them?”
“Would you feel guilty for giving a knife to a baby?” Auspus replied to her directly. “You made them the best, but did you give them the guidance to use the power you gave them? Or did you prime them for battle just for the bragging rights?” Jane blinked.
“I…hadn’t been expecting that argument. What’s the problem? I was supposed to train them, and I made them the best damn Rooks the station had ever seen.”
“You gave a pack of children a set of loaded guns, just to assuage your pride and salvage your reputation.” Auspus sneered.
“The Orbital deemed them ready to use that power!” Jane protested. “And I wanted to shake that reputation! People know me now! They don’t just say I’m the slut in Academy, they actually think something of me!” Auspus’ image had already melted away before she finished protesting. Jane turned to Patrick, alone in the emptiness with him. The audience had melted away, and somewhere in the argument the chasm and shackles had disappeared as well. It was only her and the image of the man she loved, his beloved face masking the bite of her own self-doubt.
There were tears in her eyes as she stood straighter, lifting her chin as if waiting for a blow to fall. When he finally spoke, his voice was so quiet that she would’ve missed it if the world around her wasn’t silent.
“Congratulations, you’re not ‘Academy’s Slutty Captain’ anymore. Now you’re Academy’s Slutty Idiot who’s rookie became a Terran and doomed us all.”
Even knowing it was a dream, even knowing that her Patrick would never, ever say something like this to her, his words felt like a punch to the gut.
“Fuck you.” She snarled, even though her vision was blurry with tears. “I’d do it again. I told them I’d teach them and I did. When I wake up I’m going to go find them and teach them even more, just to show you I can. I’ll finish their training in this little Terran-infested wreck, just to prove it to y- to myself.”
“If you’re even allowed to. If you even have that much time left.”
Jane didn’t know what he meant, but she knew he would clarify. The nagging doubts that wore the face of her boyfriend leaned in closer, his voice growing quieter still.
“Think about it Rook. Now that even Academy doesn’t want you, your life isn’t protected by the Marshall’s covenant. How long do you think before Pivot command realizes that…and realizes that all of these problems they’re having can be traced back to you?”
“Captain Appet, this is your wake up call.”
There were still tears in her eyes when Jane opened them, and she stared at the ceiling for a few moments before she blinked them away. A glance at the timepiece over her doorway indicated that it was 0447.
“Did you wake me up early Blue?” Jane sat up and shook her head a few times, as if she could shake the dream away from her mind like droplets of water. As always, the dream had made her sweat, and her muscles felt weak.
“You didn’t seem to be enjoying your dream very much. You were crying. I used my better judgement.”
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but there just something perverse about hearing you use the phrase ‘better judgement’.” Jane managed to joke weakly. It wasn’t a very good one, but Blue chuckled all the same. “Thank you.” She added quietly. Unlikely as it had been, Jane often appreciated the disembodied voice that came from the speakerboxes around the Orbital. It was like talking to herself, but without the disadvantage of wondering if she was crazy.
“Of course Captain Appet. Not that I would ever monitor your brainwaves or anything, but it seemed like a rather tense dream.”
Jane stretched and hauled herself out of bed. Without the official instructor position to motivate her in the mornings it was tempting to curl back beneath the covers, but she moved instead to the closet.
“I think we’ve all been a little tense lately.” She answered honestly. “I guess I just internalize it more. The more stressed I am, the worse my dreams are.”
“Really? When Hunter gets more stressed he just gets hornier.” Jane snorted a laugh and then struggled to keep her face straight as she stepped into the shower, leaving her clothes in a loose pile in the corner.
“I don’t think General Hunter would appreciate you telling me that, Blue. Sharing personal information about the General poses a potential security risk.” She smiled. A small stream of water trickled from the ceiling into the cloth she held, and she used it to clean herself.
“I’m allowed to have friends.” Blue sounded defensive. “And I can gossip with them about our superior officer all I want, it’s not a security risk…oh. A joke.”
“At least you eventually picked up on it this time.” Jane teased as she scrubbed herself down with the cloth. The rough weave felt good on her skin, and the cold water invigorated her. “I do feel a little guilty though, what with you calling me your friend.”
“Is that not what we are? I thought we had established some kind of ‘rapport’ in the past few weeks, but I’m rather clumsy at reading that sort of thing.”
“No, it’s an apt word to describe it. And I think we get along so well because we’re both rather clumsy at reading that sort of thing.”
Blue was silent, but Jane didn’t mind. It was nice to have someone to joke around with, even a computer. It certainly beat being alone with the dream still vivid in her mind. Leon, Auspus, and Patrick would never say the things her mind supplied, but a part of her couldn’t help but wonder if they should have. Was she responsible for her rookies’ actions? Should she have been more careful about what she taught them and how she had trained them?
Patrick had made teaching look so easy, and back when she didn’t care about the job it had been easy for her too. Maybe she should have kept to the system that worked; skating through training a batch of rookies, screwing one or two of them, then doing it all again the next year. She would have lived the rest of her life as Jane Appet, the captain who was nothing but a good flyer and an easy lay.
“Why the sudden surge in your orbitofrontal cortex?” Blue asked, jerking Jane out of her thoughts.
“I was just musing on the connection between a Captain and her rookies.” Jane made sure to slip into her uniform before exiting the shower. She didn’t know if her computerized companion had cameras in every room, let alone if Blue would waste the power keeping them live, but she prefered to play it safe.
“I wouldn’t know about that connection, but I was given to believe that’s a pretty happy relationship. You don’t seem too happy.”
“I was just wondering if the General will hold me responsible for the Academy Rooks.”
“I’ll ask him!” Blue said brightly and Jane winced but said nothing.
So much for waiting for the other shoe to drop. Jane grabbed the Captain pin from her bedside table, fastening it to her front on her way out of the room.
“He has asked to schedule a meeting with you at 1300. Oh, where are you going?” Blue asked from the room.
“I made a promise to my subconscious.” Jane replied over her shoulder.
Jane stood in the doorway of the room, arms folded, chewing her lip as she looked down at the sleeping pair of rookies.
“Hmm, standing at the door staring down at a sleeping couple…If I interpreted holomovie cues correctly, this is the scene right before the teacher snaps and starts her murderous rampage.” Blue’s voice in the speaker next to her was low enough that Jane barely heard it, although the computer could of course not whisper. Despite her introspective mood Jane smiled.
“They just…they’re rooks, you know?” Jane whispered. “They’re supposed to be naive and dumb, but they seem so old now.”
“Because they looked like kids before? Given that you slept with one of them, I think normal humans would find that pretty disturbing.”
“No, not like that.” Jane furrowed her brow. “It just feels like things can’t go back to how they were. What right do I have to be their instructor, act like I know better than them, when they’ve been through all that I have and more?”
“You still have more knowledge.” Blue said. “But if you’re uncomfortable acting like their instructor now that they have more experience than you-”
“They don’t have more experience than me.” Jane interrupted, but she suddenly realized that was exactly what had been bothering her.
“Experience in different areas then.” Blue continued unbothered by the outburst. “Maybe things shouldn’t go back to how they were. Maybe you need to find a new way for things to be.”
“Patrick…” Jane’s whisper broke for a moment, “…my old instructor, he was able to make the whole squad feel like a team from day one. Felt like he had our backs, you know? I don’t even know anything about who my rooks are, not really.”
“Is there anything stopping you from finding out? Well, assuming they listen to you at all.”
Jane considered the question for a few long moments, looking down at the bed where the two lay. Missy had fallen asleep on Preston’s stomach, her brown ringlets spread out across his chest, and his hand was in her hair as if he had fallen asleep in the middle of stroking it. Jane shook herself as if she had been asleep, and flicked the lights in the room on to full blast.
“Oh they’ll listen.” She answered quietly, before raising her voice to a yell. “Up and at ‘em Rookies.” The old reflexes from their Academy days were obvious as Missy and Preston both leapt into action, but their long break since those days was just as obvious as they tumbled into clumsy heaps in the tangled sheets.
“S’matter not runnin’ no alarm.” Preston tried to salute without opening his eyes, and Missy was blinking so rapidly it was a wonder she didn’t get dizzy.
“True to my word, I’m getting you back on schedule.” Jane barked. “This is your 0500 wakeup call, and since we’re easing back into things I’ll give you until 0530 to get ready and join the squad in the meeting hall.” Without waiting for a response she spun on her heel and stalked out.
“What the hell was that?” Blue asked from the speaker that Jane passed on her way down the hall.
“What? I’ll normally have you ring alarm bells in their room at 0500, but I had to tell them where to meet.” Jane didn’t bother pausing in her march down the hall; Blue would be able to pick up on her words no matter where she was in the station.
“You just said you were going to try to get to know them better. What are you going to do, order them into a better relationship with you?” Blue admonished, and Jane paused in front of one of the doors.
“What do you mean?”
“If you want to change how you interact with them, you’re probably going to have to…you know…change how you interact with them.”
“How…” Jane stared at the door that led to Jackson’s room. “…what do you suggest I do then?”
“You have no idea how fucked up it is that I am giving advice on human interaction,” Blue chuckled, “but as I understand this sort of thing, you just have to act in the way you want them to take you. If you don’t want to be the yelling drill-captain instructor to your rookies, don’t act like the yelling drill-captain instructor.”
“But I don’t want to go back to being the kind of captain no one respects.” Jane fiddled with her hands, still staring at the door.
“Then don’t do that either! Just,” Blue sighed, “be the kind of captain you would respect. Go to the meeting room and wait for your rookies, I’ll wake them up and let them know where to meet you.”
Jane tapped her foot against the floor, the dull click of her heel on the metal plating resounding in the empty room. She would’ve drummed her fingers, but there was no table in the cramped room which used to be a storage space, only a ring of chairs. Although the room was completely different, Jane couldn’t help but remember the first day she had met the rookies, waiting for them to arrive in a conference room, deciding how she would greet them.
“Your rookies are on their way.” Blue sounded distracted, rushed. “Listen, something’s come up that I have to give my full attention. Just remember what I said, and you’ll be fine.”
The room fell silent again, and Jane resumed her tapping. There was a knot in her stomach for some reason, and she couldn’t seem to talk herself into calming down. When the door to the improvised meeting room slid open, she jumped. The rookies filed in as a group, and Jane couldn’t help but wonder if they had been waiting outside for the entire squad to arrive.
“Have a seat.” Jane gestured awkwardly at the room in general, trying to gauge moods from faces. The rookies seemed careful somehow. Guarded, closed off.
Okay, you can do this. Jane told herself, searching for the right words. She tried to picture what the captain she wanted to be would say, but nothing occurred to her, and for a few terrifying moments she just sat and stared at the closed and stony faces.
“I uh…” Jane cleared her throat. “I took on the job of giving you all and whatever Pivot pilots we had security training.”
“You told us that at the meeting.” Alex said neutrally. Jane cleared her throat again, glancing from face to face. They were all so still, like they’d been carved from stone, and she couldn’t get a read on any of them. Or was it that she didn’t ever know them well enough to read them? Had she ever seen any of them really angry before? Or happy for that matter?
“You don’t um…you don’t have to be here.” Jane stammered. “I mean, the combat training for you and the Pivot forces, General Hunter wants you all to do that, but…” She took a deep breath. “I want to finish training you. Finish giving you the full curriculum. On my own…our own time. With the state the Orbital is in, no one’s going to order you through the year’s training, and I’m not your official instructor any more, but if any of you want my help, as a peer or a friend-”
“Why on earth would we accept your help.” Missy almost made it a statement instead of a question, and Jane rocked back in her chair at the venom in the girl’s words.
“I just…I thought if you wanted…” She stammered, but Missy cut her off.
“You were ready to abandon us to Auspus’ plans on Academy, even though you knew he what he was capable of. You shot at us, in the dogfight around the Orbital. You stopped us from rescuing Preston, Alex, Tess and Julia from the surface.” Her eyes bored into Jane as she ticked the items off of her fingers. “What have you ever done for us that makes you think we would want you as a peer, let alone a friend? Doing your job and teaching us? Finally joining Pivot once you were out of options?”
Jane didn’t know how to respond. All of the accusations were true, and the fact that none of the other rookies were saying anything meant that they clearly saw it too. She stared at the pattern of metal pieces in the floor.
“I didn’t do anything to you when Auspus ordered me to kill you.” She said quietly. “And I reported him to the Marshall and got him removed. I at least did that.”
“So you didn’t kill us, what a great hero you are.” Missy had been the most shy and quiet girl in the entire squad, and the scorn and sarcasm in her voice felt like a slap in the face. It was a different kind of hurt than had been in her dream. It was worse.
“I fucked up, okay?” Jane lifted her head and met the squaddies’ eyes. “I fucked up and let you all down, in a lot of ways. This is the only way I know of to even try to apologize for that. I know how much I let you down, and I’m sorry.” There was silence in the small room for a moment, until Jackson finally spoke.
“You did what you thought you had to do.”
“Jackson!” Missy turned to her squaddie angrily, but he held up a hand.
“She didn’t do anything to hurt us, and towards the end she went against direct orders to keep us safe. Captain Appet isn’t my favorite person in the world right now,” Jane winced at Jackson’s bluntness, “but if she’s trying to make amends I don’t think we need to throw that in her face.”
“Tess is a Terran because of her!” Missy was on her feet now. “Preston almost died because of her! A shrike team got through to an Orbital for the first time in history because of her!”
“Because of Academy.” Jackson corrected gently. “Because of Orbital Academy, and General Auspus and Winchest’s decisions, not because of Captain Appet.” His words seemed to draw Missy up short, although she remained on her feet, hands clenched into fists. “You have every reason to hate Academy, Missy, we all do.” Jackson continued. “But she’s not them.”
The room was quiet for long moments, and Jackson and Missy looked at each other as if they were having a telepathic conversation. Finally Missy took a deep breath and turned. The pit in Jane’s stomach lurched at the hard look her former rookie gave her.
“You realize that you made mistakes, which I’m glad for. Jackson’s right, it is Academy I’m angry at, not you. But right now I can’t separate the two of you in my head. I don’t hate you, Captain Appet, but I’d rather spend as little time around you as I can.”
Jane watched her go, unsurprised that Preston followed without a word. When had that happened, the dynamic between the two of them switching around? Jane braced herself when Alex opened her mouth to speak, but there was none of Missy’s venom in the olive-skinned rookie’s voice.
“I would like to finish the training. We were well ahead of the others in our year, and if we’re lucky and we ever get off of Pivot I’d like to test into Pilot level. That being said,” the tension in Jane’s shoulders that was starting to release sprang back, “I went through a lot on the planet’s surface. And when someone finally came to rescue me, it wasn’t you, it was my squaddies.”
Her expression was grave, and Jane had the impression that her rookie was looking straight through her, seeing something that Jane didn’t quite want to imagine.
“I’m having a hard time separating too.” Alex finished. “But I would like the training.”
“You don’t have to like me, or forgive me, or accept me.” Jane said quietly. “This is just the only way I know how to even begin to make things right.” The answer seemed to be enough to satisfy Alex, who nodded once. Around the circle the others who were left also nodded; Aimee, Jackson, Li, and Marcus, all quiet and serious.
It’s a start, at least. Jane thought.
“Ehm, now that we’re at a good pausing point,” Blue’s voice from the speaker in the ceiling made them all jump, “if I could break in for a moment, Captain Appet is needed in central command.”
“Can it wait Blue?” Jane asked.
“I don’t think so…General Hunter said to order you up here immediately three minutes ago, but I used my better judgement and let you finish your conversation…” For a robotic voice, Blue sounded positively nervous. “…that delay might have been a mistake in judgement Jane. This is bad.”