"Depression is rage spread thin."
~ George Santayana
Why won’t the bloody idiots just shut up? thought Proxima angrily.
She didn’t mean it. She was just tired and upset. Medea was just being a little worried about Proxima’s absence. Federico was just being a dick. Proxima was back at camp, though she could hardly believe she’d escaped the Capital Barracks with only a thoroughly bruised forehead [along with bruised legs, bruised back, and a painful lump on her head], a crushed hand [and not completely broken, at that], and a cut on her right arm where Rustin’s rapier had cut her. The fact that Proxima had managed to escape with her life still came as a shock to her.
After walking out of Rustin’s office – all wounds bandaged and all marks of Human blood washed out – she passed the note that the general had written to one of his lieutenants. The lieutenant had nodded, warily, and didn’t say anything. Everyone had stared at her – like she was the ghost of some dead Dyonuxiot saint. She then made her way back to the bathrooms, opened the cubicle she’d ambushed Major Sweyn in, put on her own clothes and disappeared through the toilet. She’d climbed her way out of the Deoroc – avoiding Maraed – and made her way back to the Laebnisos Forest.
It was an achievement, and she would have been proud of herself.
If General Jier Rustin’s dying voice didn’t keep ringing in her head.
The whole way back home, the burden of killing her possible father weighed down on her, making it hard to breath, making it hard to do anything. It was like a vice around her chest, a blade piercing her throat, a mousetrap slapping down on her mind. It hurt. And the last thing she needed was for people to be yelling at her.
Just her luck.
“LOOK AT YOU,” ranted Federico, “JUST SITTING THERE! ALL CALM AND PLEASANT! WHAT?! YOU WANT US TO GIVE YOU A FREAKING CUP OF TEA? HELL, WE’VE BEEN WORRIED SICK! OLD SOD BRAIN OVER THERE,” he pointed at Roderigo, “SAID YOU WENT TO KILL THAT DAMNED GENERAL! WITHOUT US! DO YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN US, OR SOMETHING?! LISTEN TO ME, PROXIMA, JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE ALL ‘SENIOR M.O.’ AND THAT, DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN JUST RUN OFF AND EXPECT US TO BE WAITIN’ ON YOU WHEN YOU GET BACK! I SWEAR, IF YOU WEREN’T A BLOODY GIRL, I’D –”
A fist whacked Federico hard in his eye. He grunted, stumbling back and using a tree trunk for support. Proxima stood in front of him, breathing harshly through clenched teeth, fist raised – her whole body trembling.
“Enough,” she said coldly.
Federico rubbed his eye, “You what?” he said, “You kill a bloomin’ general, and suddenly you think you can take on anyone? That punch you threw at me was a lucky one! Try it again, why don’t you?”
Medea had her hands clapped to the sides of her face and Roderigo watched, eyes wide.
“No,” said Proxima.
“What?” snorted Federico.
Proxima’s teeth remained clenched as she said, “I’m done with fighting. You don’t know where I went. You don’t know what I saw. You don’t know what I felt. You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know who I killed,” Proxima’s voice shook, tears streaming down her face, “You don’t know anything!”
Federico snorted again, “You waded through some alien piss, and now you’re crying about it?”
Proxima screamed at Federico. She didn’t know what she said, but after she was done [and after she hurled a large rock at Federico], she ran off.
“Vixen!” Roderigo called, but desisted from following. He shook his head, “You always have to be the one to work her up, don’t you?” he asked Federico.
Federico rubbed his eye again, “What? I’m the one who got punched and you’re taking her side?”
Roderigo smacked his forehead, “She was right about you. You are just a meat-head.”
“Shouldn’t we go after her?” asked Medea.
“Sure, go ahead,” said Roderigo, flatly, “And if she doesn’t swallow you whole, come back and let me know.”
* * * * *
Night fell. Proxima absent-mindedly lit a fire, and warmed herself by it. She wasn’t back at camp. She wasn’t going back there. Ever. Proxima had decided that she didn’t have the patience to ‘lead’ them. More specifically, she didn’t have the patience to put up with that idiot Federico. She comes back to camp, and he couldn’t give her a moment’s peace. Not a single second. He’d been on her case – even as she was replacing the soiled make-shift bandages on her arm. Maybe she should have taken him with her, and drowned him in that crap-filled river. He would have been just as useful.
Proxima shook her head.
Don’t think like that, she told herself, You’ve already killed two people. Don’t make it a habit.
An owl hooted, and Proxima looked up reflexively. Shaking her head dismissively, she put a bit of wood in her mouth and chewed it. She wanted to smoke. She wanted to smoke really badly. It cleared her head and made her feel better. It was the one thing that could stop the annoying nagging in her brain.
It’s only a nicotine craving, she thought, Nothing else.
Proxima’s head snapped up, scanning her surroundings slowly, ears wide open. The owl hooted again, but Proxima refused to believe it was the owl that was moving in the trees.
The sound was too loud for it to come from an owl, and owls were a lot more discrete. How else would they catch their prey? Besides, Proxima would have heard the flapping of wings if it was a bird.
“Oh, come on! Not again!” said a clearly male voice, “Why does it always have to be my head – Gah!”
Roderigo fell out of the trees and landed in a heap, pulling a rodent-like animal out of his hair. He sat up and held it before his face, panting furiously, “You’re lucky I have stuff to do,” he said to it, “Otherwise I would have made a bloomin’ spit-roast out of you!”
The rodent squirted what Proxima presumed was urine at Roderigo face and then leapt out of his grasp and scampered away.
Roderigo growled and then realized that Proxima was regarding him from the other side of her fire.
“Oh,” he said, “Found you.”
Proxima held his gaze for a moment, and then stared back at the fire and said, “Go away.”
Roderigo folded his arms, noting the lack of amusement in Proxima’s face, and replied, “Look, I know what Federico said –”
“I said: Go away!” said Proxima with more hostility.
“I just want to talk –”
“I don’t want to talk!”
“YOU AIN’T SOLVING NOTHING!” yelled Roderigo. He clenched his fists, and caught a glimpse of pain pass across Proxima’s face. He sighed and then said in a more calm tone, “You ain’t solving nothing by hiding away here.”
Proxima remained silent and completely ignored Roderigo’s existence.
Roderigo got up and sat by her. He put a hand on her shoulder, “I know what it’s like to butcher your own blood,” he murmured.
Proxima’s head shot up again, her eyes widening with realization.
Uh oh, thought Roderigo.
He felt fists tighten around his collar and his head knocked against the ground so fast, he never would have thought it was possible.
“You knew,” hissed Proxima through clenched teeth.
Her knuckles dug into Roderigo’s shoulders, and his forehead beaded with sweat.
“You knew and you didn’t tell me,” rasped Proxima, “You said I could trust you. You said I ought to trust you,” Proxima’s lips trembled, “But you kept it from me!” Proxima beat her fists down on Roderigo’s chest, “I’ll kill you,” a hand went for his throat, “I’ll kill you for this.”
“Prox..ima,” choked Roderigo, his vision dimming and spots appearing before his eyes, “Stop… this!”
Proxima tightened her grip, a hand of steel.
Then Rustin’s dying face came back in her mind.
Yes, I am the one who escaped.
Shocked, Proxima let go, swallowing down a sob.
I too have been victim to the torture of tyranny.
Roderigo coughed and spluttered, taking deep breathes, relishing the feel of air rushing back into his drained lungs.
There is no enmity between us, is that clear?
“Blimey, Vixen, I thought you were really going to…” said Roderigo, but his voice trailed off.
He saw Proxima curled up in a ball, her sobs muffled beneath her arms. Roderigo saw that her arm wound had given way, blood staining through her bandages, and he edged closer to her carefully.
He tapped her lightly and said, “Let me help you.”
“No!” she said, her voice shaky, “I don’t want your help! I don’t want to talk to you! I don’t want to talk to anyone! I want to be alone!”
“You can pretend I’m not here,” said Roderigo firmly, “Just let me sort that arm of yours out.”
Proxima lifted up her head; her eyes brimmed with tears and mucus running down her nose, “Leave. Me. Alone!”
Roderigo tilted his head to a side, “You know I ain’t gonna do that.”
“RODERIGO!!” Proxima screamed, “I NEARLY KILLED YOU! I NEARLY SNAPPED YOUR BLOODY PENCIL-NECK IN HALF! NOW, L-E-A-V-E!” Proxima started crying again, “Leave, before I try it again.”
Roderigo rubbed his neck, the place where Proxima had dug in her fingernails smarting, “I can’t leave you here.”
Proxima buried her face into her knees again, “Why not?”
“Because it looks like you’ll be killing yourself before you kill anyone else.”
* * * * *
Roderigo watched as Proxima slept. She relented fussing after a while, and allowed Roderigo to fix up her arm. When he peeled off the bandages, he gasped and said, “Blimey, Vixen! What the bloody hell happened?”
He saw that the skin on Proxima’s arm had been mangled, like it had been peeled off intentionally by some wild beast with little fingernails. But Proxima wasn’t in a talking mood, so he decided to not push for an answer. He’d asked her to sleep after that, and she put her head down on the ground without so much as a shake of her head. Her sleep wasn’t troubled – opposed to what Roderigo expected – and dawn was approaching. Perhaps when she woke, she’d be in a better mood to talk and come back to camp. Roderigo shuddered as he thought about the beating he had managed to get the night before. He had been more or less certain that Proxima would kill him.
Perhaps she has a stronger will than I give her credit for, he thought.
Proxima stirred and lifted her head a little. On seeing Roderigo, she sat up, bits of soil and moving matter – which could only be insects – clinging to her hair. Her eyes were puffy, which only made the bruises on her forehead look worse and her nose was bright red. She sniffed, and regarded Roderigo for a moment.
“Sleep well?” he asked.
She shrugged, her eyes scanning the forest floor emptily.
Roderigo dug into his pack, and threw some dried fruit towards Proxima. She mumbled her thanks and ate the fruit mechanically.
How am I going to get her to talk…? thought Roderigo.
Proxima rested her head against a tree trunk, “My head hurts,” she mumbled.
Roderigo cleared his throat, “Well, it ought to from all that sniveling you did last night.”
A smile played on Roderigo’s lips, “Beg your pardon?”
Proxima looked at him wordlessly, her face blank as a sheet of paper, and the smile on Roderigo’s face vanished.
He sighed, “Look, kid, I know you had it hard –”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You knew that Rustin had been tortured and used as part of the Project. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He told you that, did he?”
“I didn’t tell you because… because your mind was made up.”
A murderous look passed through Proxima’s face and Roderigo shivered.
“What?” said Proxima, icyly.
“You were going to go after Rustin no matter what,” said Roderigo quickly, “I didn’t want to make it difficult for you.”
Proxima considered this for a moment, pulling out a few bugs from her hair, and then nodded. She remained silent, though.
“I know,” said Roderigo, “That he could have been your father but –”
Tears welled up in Proxima’s eyes again.
“Oh, come on,” said Roderigo, “don’t start that again! I know it hurts, but it’s over now! Besides, I’m sure Rustin would have preferred himself dead over the death of his own daughter! Hell, you don’t even know if it is like that! Kid, stop crying!”
Proxima threw a rock at Roderigo’s head. It missed him.
“That was a mile off!” Roderigo spat, “On your feet! Let’s go back to camp!”
“No,” Proxima whimpered.
“But what about the rest of the mission? What about not letting Cato’s life go to waste? What about all of that?”
“Why are you suddenly so eager?” returned Proxima.
“The people of Maraed treated me well. Rustin gave me half an hour to get out of his Barracks after I killed him. Hell, he died in my stead,” she looked away from Roderigo, “I don’t want to kill anymore people.”
“Is that why you ripped the insignia off you arm?”
Proxima touched the fresh bandages, “Yes. Rustin cut through it with his rapier and I ripped the whole thing off. I don’t want anything to do with the Empire. I don’t want to be their slave. I don’t want to kill anyone for them.”
“But you ain’t got no choice, Vixen,” said Roderigo, “You know that.”
And that’s what it all came down to.
Proxima sat a while longer, and then nodded, getting up to follow Roderigo back to camp. Her brows furrowed, she swore in her mind:
After this crazy mission is over, I’m never going to serve the Empire again. I’ll take Cato and Roderigo and Medea and even Federico far, far away from it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll join the Xenobians in destroying it.