by John R. Plunkett
The main screen showed a horizontally compressed panoramic view of the concourse. Every so often a yellow carat flickered around something the security AI found interesting. A secondary display, sitting on the Admiral's desk, showed a high resolution close up view of the targeted area.
A middle aged Terran patted his shirt pocket and partially withdrew what was clearly a pack of cigarettes, but tucked them away again and glanced around guiltily.
A Voxxan child, no more than three, dropped his lollipop. He cried when his mother refused to pick it up for him.
A young Terran woman walked off and left her empty coffee cup sitting on the edge of a planter.
A pair of adolescent Caitain boys ran back and forth, laughing and fighting playfully, while their father slouched in a chair, reading from a data pad, ignoring them.
An elderly Terran couple stood by the edge of the crowd gathering at Gate C. The man had his arm around the woman's waist. He let his hand slip down, and gave her bottom a squeeze. She responded with a laugh and a playful slap.
A Chakat bounded right over the railing into the arrival area. Shi flung hirself into the arms of a new arrival- another Chakat- and the two of them embraced passionately, capering like kittens. Other passengers scrambled out of the way to avoid getting trampled. The other Chakat's luggage trailer tipped over, tripping up its owner.
Admiral Kline sat in semidarkness, illuminated only by the view screens. The lighting, and his expression, made his normally cheerful countenance as harsh as undressed stone. That he moved not a muscle as the scene played out only heightened the illusion. His eyes occasionally flicked from one screen to the other. Beyond that he might have been a statue in truth.
In the lower left corner of the big screen a door opened. A Terran male wearing a port worker's overalls, helmet, ear protectors, and goggles walked purposefully up a narrow stairwell and onto the concourse floor. The detail view screen focused upon him, then upon his right hand, which held a 1cm powergun sub-machine gun, Starfleet standard issue from about 20 years previously. Rainbow discolorations on the barrel and receiver showed that the weapon had seen use, if not combat. In a brisk, unhurried, and entirely professional way the man raised the weapon, deployed the folding stock, set it to his shoulder, and flicked the fire selector from "safe" to "single shot."
Admiral Kline closed his eyes. Flashes from the powergun lit his face in a steady rhythm, like a low speed strobe. With each flicker his expression became tighter and harder. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
The room lights came on suddenly. The Admiral's eyes snapped open, his head whipping around. The storm clouds gathered in his eyes surged forward-
"Sir," Lieutenant Kemmer said, "Go home." She spoke calmly and quietly, but in a tone that brooked no disobedience.
Admiral Kline slumped back in his chair, exhaling the breath he'd drawn in order to make a scathing remark. "How could this happen?" he demanded. "How?" He punctuated the question by smacking his fist on the desktop.
"Sir, anyone and everyone who could possibly contribute anything meaningful to answering that question is already doing so," Lt. Kemmer responded, not without sympathy. Nevertheless, the unspoken corollary hung in the air. If you aren't doing anything right now, it's only because your particular talents wouldn't help at this particular moment.
"Sir, do I have to call Midnight to come get you?" Lt. Kemmer threatened as the silence dragged on.
Admiral Kline sighed again. "No. All right, I'm going." He rose from his chair, leaving the clip running. Lt. Kemmer drew a breath to speak again, but the Admiral brushed past her without leaving an opening for any more comments. She bit her lip, watching him worriedly.
The weather outside suited Admiral Kline's state of mind: dry, dusty, heavy with the threat of an impending storm that hadn't yet materialized. Heat lightning flickered constantly in the distance. The flashes were almost exactly like the powergun discharges, though not as regular. Also, actual powergun bolts would have a warmer, pinker color, as opposed to the cold white stuttering and rumbling among the dark, low-hanging clouds.
At this time of night there weren't many people out and about, even if the threatening storm hadn't kept sensible folk indoors. To think, I wanted a groundside deployment, as relief from this last cruise, the Admiral thought grimly to himself as he headed for the tram stop. On the platform he slumped against a pole supporting the canopy, scrubbing his face. I was there. I was right fucking there. Forest and I went to meet Goldfur when shi got in. We walked right past that bloody concourse. If we'd been fifteen minutes late... just fifteen minutes...
Something pattered on the canopy. With frightening speed the sprinkling of fat, heavy drops gave way to a roaring deluge. Water sluicing from the canopy fell in a solid curtain from the edge, like a waterfall. Spray danced on the street, and muddy torrents surged in the gutters.
We have all kinds of protocols in place to prevent this sort of thing, the Admiral thought, facing down the street but with his eyes focused on something far, far away. We have checks on the protocols, in case something goes wrong, and we have checks on the checks. Things like this have happened before. And We knew the Earth for Humans types were getting restive. Everyone kept saying something was bound to happen. We conducted exercises and readiness drills. We set tiger teams to try and break our defenses, in the hopes of revealing any hidden flaws. We did not become lazy. We did not get complacent. We did absolutely everything we possibly could.
Nevertheless, an unidentified Terran male entered Terminal 17 at the Cape York Aerospace Port and opened fire into the crowd. He scored 34 kills: only two short of the number of rounds in his weapon's magazine. Then, as suddenly as he came, he disappeared without a trace. All those preparations, all that work, came to nothing at all.
The admiral sank onto a bench, face in his hands, rocking slowly back and forth, moaning softly. How could we have missed this? he asked, over and over again. How could I have missed this?
The admiral's head snapped up. He blinked owlishly. The rain had stopped, leaving a wet, glistening sheen over everything. Midnight stood beside him; a yellow poncho covered hir completely except for hir face, hands, feet, and tail. The effect reminded him incongruously of a groundcar with a tarp over it.
"Oh, Midnight, you shouldn't have come," the admiral muttered, shaking his head slowly. "Look at you, you're soaked. Why didn't you put on any boots?" Hir feet and legs were dripping wet.
"Lt. Kemmer called me when you left the office," Midnight replied, laying a hand on Boyce's shoulder and caressing it. "I waited and waited, but you never showed. So I came."
"It hasn't been-" Boyce glanced at his watch. It was well past midnight. He'd been sitting here for... hours.
"Come on." Midnight gently hauled Boyce to his feet. "I know how you feel. I was there too. I still have nightmares about it. Just fifteen minutes..." Hir voice trailed off. Shi stared down at hir forepaws, one arm around Boyce's waist, holding him close and also guiding him.
Boyce's mouth worked. You don't understand, Midnight. It isn't just that people I know and love might have died. It's-
"I do know what it's like, Boyce," Midnight said, as if shi'd read his mind. "I'm Chief of Security on board Pegasus, remember? Then this happens-" shi gestured savagely- "and I'm left standing around like a fool. As if everything I'd done, all the work and sacrifice I'd put into it, didn't amount to a hill of beans. I makes me so sick I want to throw up. and then every single morning I wake up and it all comes cashing back on me. It makes me so heartsick I want to die. It's like Greypaw all over again, but times a thousand. All over Australia- all over the world- there's people waking up and reaching out... then remembering that whomever they're reaching for isn't there any more. And they feel just like I do: that some essential part of them was ripped away, leaving a bloody, jagged hole that starts hurting again every time they remember."
Boyce slipped an arm around Midnight's shoulders and hugged hir tightly. He felt hir quivering, and on top of everything else now he felt like a heel for being insensible to hir pain. "How-" he began, but couldn't continue. A welter of thoughts and feeling burst into his mind, wheeling and veering like a flock of frightened starlings, leaving him utterly unable to form a coherent question.
"I remind myself that there's people who are still alive that need me to be there," Midnight said, turning in Boyce's arms and laying hir head against his chest. "I remind myself that people I love are also hurting, and I can help them even if I can't help myself." Shi slipped hir arms around Boyce's waist, pressed hirself against him, and started purring.
In spite of himself, Boyce relaxed. He couldn't refuse Midnight, not even now. He slipped a hand under the poncho, stroking hir fore-shoulder. "I- I failed, Midnight," he blurted suddenly. "I wasn't there when people needed me." He swallowed, but once released the flood couldn't be staunched. "You're in security, and you know how shocking it is when security fails. But this- this- the reason I'm here is to, to stop this from happening! It was my job to stop this from happening! It's the whole reason I exist! I should have stopped this but I d- d- d- didn't! I, I should have been there, I should have done something! Even if- if- all I could do was stop a bolt meant for someone else! I- I wish I could go back there so I could stop a bolt, then I wouldn't have to live knowing how badly I'd-"
Midnight halted the tirade through the simple expedient of kissing Boyce firmly on the mouth. When he struggled shi bore him backwards against the shelter support post, pinning him there with hir greater weight and strength. All the while shi purred ardently, conducting the sensation to him through hir own flesh.
For a moment Boyce quivered with incredible tension. His body relaxed, his eyes closed, and his face settled into a peaceful expression. "Thank you," he said quietly. "For... for reminding me what really matters." He stroked Midnight's face and shoulders.
"What happened happened," Midnight replied. "It was horrible. Indescribable. All that. And we can't change the fact that it happened, no matter what we do."
"But we can look to the future," Boyce pointed out.
"We can," Midnight agreed, freeing one arm so shi could walk with Boyce at hir side, using the other to keep him snuggled against hir. "The future I see for us is a bath, hot tea, and bed."
Boyce sighed. "I could probably use some sleep."
"Who said anything about sleep?" Midnight purred.
A smile quirked the corners of Boyce's mouth, and he gave Midnight a hug.
But as quickly as it came, the smile faded. Boyce's features hardened in a way Midnight would surely have found alarming, had shi seen it. Yes, he needed to unwind and get his head straight. But the people who'd committed this atrocity were still out there. I'll grant that you won this round, he told them silently. But now it's my turn. And I swear to God, there is no place in Heaven or earth you can go to escape me.