“And that fast, my life shifted again.
I didn’t change, but suddenly I was different.”
-- Rachel Morgan
The elevator moved with a smoothness that belied its speed - if it weren't for numbers on the level display counting down rapidly, you could have thought you weren't moving at all. Even the deceleration as the elevator approached its destination was announced with only the barest of the faintest shudders. You didn't arrive in these elevators, instead you were simply suddenly there.
With a melodious *ding* the elevator door opened, and I stepped out onto the permanent quarters level of this Creodron station. Tastefully designed, subdued decor, plush carpet, an open bar, and again this was just the hallway!
A short walk brought me to the entrance to my actual quarters, the electronic lock glowing a reassuring red. A swipe of my keycard, the color changed to green, and latches disengaging internally. The door recessed a few centimeters, and then slid sideways out of the way with a grace and speed belying its actual weight.
I stepped inside, and the door slid close behind me, moving almost inaudibly on its gears. Triggered by my entrance, the room lighting came on, starting with the fixtures nearest to me, the others following one by one, as if I was standing in an expanding bubble of light.
Technically this staggered activation wasn't necessary, but I had found the effect so cool that I had even added to it the sound of circuit breakers engaging.
The air had the sterile cleanliness of a quarter long unused, modern day air scrubbing having become so effective that unused station quarters were signified by a total absence of dust, not an excess.
I let my gaze wander across the room, taking in its familiar features which I hadn't seen for quite some time. The couch, with the side tables, just in the right position across the viewing screen. My little workplace, terminal dark and quiet, an overturned picture frame next to it. Shelves, now mostly empty, except for a few mementos. A bar unit, currently retracted safely into the wall. Off in a side room, the kitchen, although primarily used to make coffee or tea, or breakfast. A doorway leading to the bedroom. And somewhere one or two other rooms, which I hadn't used much. It's these front rooms where my life had taken place.
Back when I was still with the Flyers. Now I was using these quarters just for my infrequent visits here. I could have given them up when I moved to Sasiekko and crashed at Eta's place whenever I was here, just like in the very old days, but it hadn't felt right.
Come to think of it, I was not completely sure what had brought me here tonight - my help wasn't needed here at the moment, and I really should head back into the war zone. But yet, the vague feeling of guilt which had befallen me whenever I stayed out of the war zone for too long - it was no longer there.
I think I yelped when suddenly I got hug-tackled from behind, and I got drawn into a warm embrace.
"You're back!", exclaimed Eta excitedly. "And not paying attention as usual!"
I squirmed around in her arms, and returned the hug, glad that she had broken my pensive mood.
"Yes, for a short bit - but I felt like coming by." I gently extracted myself from her embrace, and studied her at arm's length. "You're looking good! And apparently you still haven't misplaced that keycard for my door."
"Nope! Somebody has to feed the goldfish, y'know?"
I chuckled. Stepping fully into the room, I waved Eta towards the couch, while I walked over to the bar unit and activated it.
"What would you like?"
A few selections, and the bar obliged with two glasses of something tall, fruity and and spirited. Add the all-important umbrellas, and the drinks were perfect. I carried them back to the couch where Eta had made herself comfortable, resembling a lanky cat, and handed her one of the glasses. Sitting down next to her, we clinked the glasses together and took a draft from them.
To her credit, she coughed only once after swallowing.
"Boy, I have to be more careful what I wish for." she admitted, with twinkle in her eyes. She took a second sip. "But not bad, once you know what to expect."
"You did better than I did on my first one."
"Of course I did! I run reactors, not just puny spaceships!" She shifted around into a more comfortable position. "So, tell me, what brings you here? Aren't you supposed to be out there, fighting the enemies of the Republic?"
"Empire", I corrected.
"You know, I have been asking that myself, just when you came in." I snuggled into a better seating position myself, balancing my glass on my knee. "And I think I figured it out.
"You remember why I joined Factional Warfare?"
"Of course - ’to prove to yourself that you could hack it as a solo combat pilot’”, she mimicked my voice. "And took you long enough to convince yourself to take that step."
I blushed briefly. "Well, yes - anyway, in the beginning I had this urge to undock ship after ship, so as to not lose my moxy before I could get one solo kill. Then, finally, I fought this Thrasher and won - but it wasn't the relief I thought it'd be. I was still driven."
"Let me guess: you were secretly afraid that it had been just a fluke, that you wouldn't be able to do again."
I took a sip from my glass, and nodded. "Exactly. But then last week, the Slasher happened, and the 3-on-1 versus the Merlins, and suddenly I'm no longer wound up, relaxed even." I gestured with my free hand. "Even though I know full well just how much luck there had been involved, I can now believe that it wasn't /just/ luck."
"'Being lucky is part of an Officer's job description'", Eta recited, probably from some action yarn she had watched. "But I take it you're not coming back to us yet?"
"No," I shook my head. "I still have lots to learn, have hardly scratched the surface, and it's a good place to do so. But I think I no longer have to worry about proving myself to me - only about improving."
She nodded, sipping in silence.
"But!", I exclaimed after a few seconds, "Enough of my babbling. How are things over here? How did the POS shoot go?"
"The POS shoot?" She surreptitiously glanced towards my workstation, then smiled. "It went very well! With the third dread, and a number of alliance peeps in sub caps piling on as well, we made short work of it."
"And how did Calcinus take it once he got the battle report?"
"He said, and I quote: ‘and I'm not sure if I want to applaud or rage'." She chuckled at the memory. "But he had a faint smile going on, so I think he is leaning towards applause."
"I think," she continued, "that he is now realizing that he needs to decide just how much freedom he wants to give his corp members. Find the fine line between keeping the last word in important matters, while at the same not weighing his people down with rules and regulations." She looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I'm not envying him."
"Neither do I." I agreed, having been in that position myself (and not very successfully so).
"Which reminds me," said Eta, her eyes refocusing, "there might be more POS shoots... if you don't mind..."
I waved dismissively. "No, no, not a problem. I can be professional when I want to be. Plus," - I gave her a meaningful look - "I'll be over in the Bleak Lands anyway."
"Good - thanks!" She upended her glass to collect the last drops, and handed it to me. "Make me another one, and I'll tell you something about the boy I'm dating."
"I am intrigued!" I accepted the glass from her, and went to refill. This was one aspect of her life which Eta hardly ever talked about, even if otherwise she shared pretty much everything, so getting a glimpse was an opportunity not to be wasted. Not that I blamed her - I wasn't that much different.
I returned to her, handed her one of the glasses, and settled into one of the cushions.
"So tell me, is he cute? Can he cook? Do I know him?"
"Of course he's cute - he's Gallente! ... don't roll your eyes, you know it's true! And yes, he can cook. But I don't think you know him - he certainly hasn't mentioned you."
I moved to ask the obvious question, but she was quicker and laid a finger over my lips. "Tut-tut - don't ask. Not yet."
She looked down at the glass in her hand, mind wandering. "I mean - I'm not really sure if we're dating-dating... He's on deep-space duty, I'm mostly running around haulers, so we don't meet very often. We mostly comm. But when we meet…”
I quietly took a sip from my glass.
"Well,", Eta's brow furrowed briefly, then smoothed out again. "We did once go to visit his family - and it was the funniest thing."
Absentmindedly she took a drink, lost in the memory.
"His parents are nice people, actually. The live on a station - she's a performing synesthesis artist, he's a retired veteran of the Republic Forces, now running a security service." She looked at me questioningly: "Is that some kind of stipulation in the forces, that as veteran you have to do security stuff?"
I shrugged. "I don't know - I'd have to check my contract to find out."
"Anyway, not important." she continued. "So we get there, Mom expects us at the door, introductions are made, we get into their main room, and there sits his Dad, casually yet pointedly cleaning his service plasma rifle."
Eta had timed her sentence perfectly to end when I was taking another sip - caught between the urge to laugh, and the wish to not spray liquid all over the place, I half swallowed, half inhaled my drink, and ended coughing and laughing at the same time. Eta was just grinning at my discomfort.
"You're kidding!", I finally managed to croak. "Is he afraid that the evil Ni-Kunni girl is going to spoil the precious apple of his eye with her wicked ways?"
"Something like that.", she giggled. "My poor boy didn't know if he should laugh, or die from embarrassment on the spot. But it all smoothed out quickly, and we spent a nice afternoon with pastries, coffee, swapping stories, and stints on their shooting range. Overall, it was a really good day."
"And you met his parents...", I let my voice trail off.
"Yes," for a second she looked uncomfortable, "We'll see, we'll see." She looked around the room, then back at me.
"But for that reason I have to be a bad sister now and leave you all alone." She winked at me. "Boy's in station, but only for tonight."
A thought occurred to her: "You should go out as well."
I minutely shook my head. "Well..."
"Aw, c'mon, it'd be good for you - we both know what a hermit you can be. You start over-thinking things, and next we have to bribe officials again.
"Promise me that you do something outside these quarters before you storm back to your holy war!"
"Maybe..." I began, but Eta glared at me murderously.
I gave in: "Ok, ok, I promise."
"Good!" She drained her glass and set it besides her. "And now I really have to run, I'm sorry."
"No problem at all. Go! Shoo!"
Eta moved to get up, then had a quick change of mind and leaned forward to give me quick peck on the cheek.
"It's good to see you again.", she murmured, and then got up for real. "I'll see myself out. You" - she directed a commanding finger at me - "you put on something casual, and go have fun! That's an order, Crusader!"
"Yes, M'am!", I replied with a mock salute. "Late breakfast tomorrow, before I head back?"
"Sounds good to me."