A soft beeping woke Larkins, and she looked around, trying to figure out where she was. The smell of medicine and sterilizing agents was the first clue that she was in the infirmary, which was confirmed when she saw the monitors she was hooked up to. She wasn’t feeling any pain, so she lifted her hands to check her face. Her hopes that the attack had been a dream were destroyed when she felt the bandages on her face and a tape brace across her nose.
Stein appeared in the doorway. “You’re awake. Good.”
“What happened?” Larkins asked dazedly, still not fully believing her own memory.
“Someone attacked you in the dropship bay. Beat the absolute shit out of you and left you unconscious and cuffed to the dropship.”
“Not someone,” Larkins sighed, lying back and looking at the ceiling. “Several people.”
“Did you see who it was?”
“No. They shut the lights off. I saw someone with night-vision goggles right before I got attacked, but I heard several sets of footsteps from different directions and there was definitely more than one person hitting me.”
“I see.” Stein checked the monitors. “You’re lucky. Your injuries amount to a minor concussion, a fractured nose, cuts on your face and arms, bruising over most of the upper half of your body, and some bruises on your legs. Whoever did it must have really been angry. Wouldn’t have something to do with the reason why Mathis was in here a few hours beforehand with a broken nose of her own and a few punches to the stomach, would it?”
Larkins gave him an accusing glare. “Maybe you should talk, Stein. I know you’re all buddy-buddy with her. Maybe you and a couple of the others figured you’d get revenge on me and give me a taste of what Mathis got. Is that it?”
The PFC leaned angrily over her, a glare on his face as he said, his voice low and threatening, “I had nothing to do with this, Larkins. But if you want to toss out wild accusations at the first person who tries to help you, maybe I should just allow myself the liberty of giving into the overwhelming urge to give you a second dose of what you’ve already gotten. Trust me when I say that we’re all glad you’re leaving and honestly, it’s probably better for your safety. I would hate to find you dangling in a doorway with someone else’s belt around your throat, lying in bed with a bayonet stuck in your ribs, or hanging upside down halfway out of the dropship with a bullet between your eyes.”
He turned and stomped out, leaving Larkins alone. She knew she shouldn’t have said that. There had been three, maybe four people who attacked her. Eleven possible suspects, and after Reverdin and Lucero, Stein was probably the third least-likely to have been in on it. Fourth, actually. Sloan was the most unlikely. She would never get her hands dirty like that, especially not when there were others to do it for her. She might not even have known about it. It could have been some of the others deciding on their own to enact justice. Hopefully whoever it was would out themselves and be punished appropriately.
Regardless, she would be leaving tomorrow when Berkley finished his inspection. It was over for her. No more of Sloan’s torture. Now she would have the company of a cell and prison guards instead. The uncomforting thought stayed with Larkins until she let her eyes close and drifted back to sleep.
Stein kept her in the medical bay until Commander Berkley arrived the next day. Larkins rushed out to the line to form up with everyone else as Berkley and Staff Sergeant Amato from the 29th’s RIFT 1 arrived. Berkley looked closely at Larkins’ injuries, but said nothing to her. After he dismissed them, Berkley went inside with Sloan and Amato to continue the inspection while Larkins sat outside waiting for the inevitable.
Eventually, Sergeant Amato came back out and Larkins stood to attention. “Commander Berkley wants to see you in Sloan’s office, Corporal.”
Game time. Swallowing nervously, Larkins walked inside and went to Sloan’s office, saluting Berkley as she entered. “Corporal Larkins reporting as ordered, sir.”
Berkley was sitting on the edge of Sloan’s desk, while the sergeant was sitting in the chair behind it.
“Sergeant Sloan tells me you’ve had an interesting few days, Corporal.”
Larkins shifted nervously. “You could say that, sir.”
“I’ve got serious issues with your confrontation with PFC Mathis, Corporal, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sergeant Sloan has told me you have no idea who it was who attacked you in the hangar bay. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir. I…” Larkins hesitated, and cast a quick glance at Sloan’s expressionless face before looking back at the commander. “I had hoped that something would be salvageable from the security cameras. It was too dark for me to see when they came into the hangar bay, but they had to go past cameras in the hallways, sir.”
“No, the Scott’s cameras weren’t operational at the time,” Berkley informed her. “I have Visalli looking into it.”
Larkins gave him a confused glance. “Sir, with all due respect, Visalli is the team technician. He’s more likely than anyone else to have had something to do with the cameras not working in the first place!”
“And what evidence do you have that Visalli was involved?” Berkley asked seriously.
“Well, well, I… nothing, sir,” mumbled Larkins. It was true. She had no way at all of knowing who was involved.
“That’s unfortunate. Because as serious as this is, I have a crime on my hands and absolutely no evidence as to who did what. Everyone else in the unit has already accounted for themselves and each other. Getting a full investigative team out here would be a red tape nightmare, and by the time they actually got here, any trail that might exist to who was responsible will be beyond cold.”
“Collins,” Larkins said suddenly, remembering the corporal’s words as she helped Mathis out of the hangar. “She threatened to kill me.”
“Corporal Collins was with me,” Sloan spoke up. “Thank you, Corporal, but I don’t appreciate you accusing the most trusted member of my command, especially when I’m the one giving her an alibi.”
Fucking bitch! Most trusted member of her command, my ass! Larkins was seething internally and she wondered if she was about to have a stroke. “So what you’re telling me, sir,” she addressed Berkley again, “is that there’s nothing you can do and you’re just going to let it go?”
“At the moment, I have no choice,” Berkley said. “I don’t like it, and it’s not going to look good at all when I have to report this to command, but conducting an investigation under the circumstances would be borderline impossible.”
“But what about me?” Larkins asked. “What happened to justice, sir? I don’t understand.”
Berkley turned to Sloan. “Sergeant, could you please give us the room?”
“Yes, sir.” Sloan got up and saluted Berkley before leaving and closing the door, giving Larkins a smug grin as she walked past.
“You ask about justice, Corporal, and yet you were the one who just hours before this attack launched an unprovoked assault of your own against another Marine.” Berkley picked up a folder from the desk. “Do you know what this is, Corporal?”
Larkins eyed the folder, but didn’t recognize it. “No, sir.”
“These are all disciplinary and infraction reports. Reports on you, Corporal, and you alone. From what Sloan tells me and from looking at these reports, you’ve done a lot of good while you’ve been a part of this unit, but for every good thing, there’s something bad as well. You’re not the kind of Marine the Corps wants in a frontline unit. Hell, if you were regular infantry you’d already be behind bars for this and even as a RIFT member my first instinct is to lock you up.”
“So what’s going to happen to me, sir?” Was she not going to be put in prison? Was there some other punishment in mind?
“As I’m sure you know, RIFT training centers are always looking for experienced RIFT veterans to act as instructors for the trainees. Most of the vets they pulled in have minor injuries that prevent them from seeing active combat but still make them excellent for training roles. There’s always room for more, though. That’s what I see in your future, Larkins. You’re going to be pulled off of active combat and become a flight instructor.”
“Sir, I…” Larkins was speechless. She knew all about the injured veteran program. One of her instructors in RIFT flight school had been deaf in one ear, and the other had a prosthetic leg. Neither would ever have been able to go into combat again. She didn’t want to work with a bunch of washed-out Purple Heart carriers. Disgusted, she spat out, “With all due respect, sir, that job is for cripples!”
Berkley’s face contorted with rage and he stood up off of the desk, standing over her. “I suggest you watch your tone and attitude very carefully, Corporal. This position is your one last chance at redeeming yourself in the Corps’ eyes. You don’t have to take it, but I promise you if you refuse, I’ll see to it that your only alternative is to be locked away in a cold, dark place for the rest of time. Quite frankly, Sloan and I agree that this is a mercy you don’t deserve, but at least it’ll give you a chance to make a decent Marine out of yourself. I’m willing to look at your assault on Mathis as a one-time issue given that you’ve never gone this far before, or otherwise we wouldn’t put you anywhere within a hundred miles of RIFT trainees. And believe me, Larkins, if you cross that line again the Corps will punish you far more quickly and more seriously there than we ever could all the way out here. Do you understand me?”
Larkins realized that she had crossed a line with her outburst and needed to regain some ground. Backpedaling hastily, she said humbly, “Yes, sir. I understand. I’ll accept the instructor assignment.” It was tearing her apart to say the words, but it was becoming increasingly obvious it was her only real option.
“Good. Now I suggest you go get packed. I want you waiting in my dropship when I’m finished my inspection. You’re dismissed, Corporal.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Larkins turned and walked out, barely acknowledging Sloan, who was standing just outside the door. A strange mix of emotions was spinning around in Larkins’ heart like a tornado. After eight years, she was free from Sloan. But her freedom came with shame and defeat. She had destroyed her own career. She’d never pilot a dropship on a combat mission again. She had broken the promise she had made to herself and the rest of the team. Biting her lip, Larkins entered her quarters and pulled out her duffle bag, beginning to pack her things.
The door opened and Reverdin came in. She stood watching Larkins for a moment before asking, “So what now?”
“They’re not sending me to prison,” Larkins said. “They’re going to make me a flight instructor.”
“That’s… better than the alternative,” Reverdin offered hesitantly.
Larkins continued shoving clothing into her bag. “Yeah. Thanks for checking up on me, Reverdin, but if you don’t mind, I’d rather be alone right now.”
“No problem. I’ll leave you to it.” The other corporal left as Larkins began to empty out her footlocker. Someone had brought her Mossberg and other gear in from the dropship bay and dumped it on her bed, and she unfolded the soft carry case from inside the locker, unzipped it, and placed the shotgun inside before zipping it back up and setting it on the bed.
The sight of her baseball cap as she began to pack her civilian clothes reminded her of the restaurant she had gone to on her last day of leave. She wouldn’t get to go back there now. Maybe it was for the best. She could let it live as one of the few good memories she would ever have of the entire planet and her time assigned there.
She had almost finished packing when her privacy was intruded on yet again, this time by Mathis. Larkins sighed and looked the younger woman in the eyes, not understanding everything she saw there. “Mathis… I… I’m shit at saying things like this, but I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through since you got here. I’m sorry for what I did to you yesterday. It was wrong and I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting it. I’m not asking you to forgive me, but I want you to know that.”
Mathis walked right up into Larkins’ personal space, her gaze intent. Her voice low, she said, “And there’s something I want you to know. I had nothing to do with you getting the shit beaten out of you. But I know who did. I know exactly who it was in the hangar bay yesterday. But if I was you, I wouldn’t bother telling anyone. I’ll take those names to the grave with me, because they did me a favor, Larkins. So keep your mouth shut. You’ll only make things more complicated for yourself, especially when they come to me and I tell them I have no idea what you’re babbling about. And I want you to spend the rest of your life regretting it. You should, for every moment of hell I put up with because of you.”
Mathis pointed to her taped-up nose. “As horrific as she is, at least Sloan never did anything like this to me. You’re lower scum than she ever will be, you motherfucker.”
She turned on her heel and stomped towards the door, looking back as she opened it, her tone bitingly sarcastic. “Have a wonderful life, fucking bitch. I hope the next time you go flying you get shot down and the canopy doesn’t blow and you snap your neck against it when you try to eject.”
She slammed the door, leaving Larkins in stunned silence. She wasn’t sure which startled her more, the outburst and overwhelming hate from Mathis or the fact that she had actually dared to admit she knew who was responsible for the attack. But there was nothing that could be done. Just like Sloan, Mathis was getting the last laugh this time, and Larkins was the ass end of the joke.
Larkins finished packing sullenly and slung her shotgun case over her back before picking up her duffel bag. Taking one last look around the room, Larkins breathed in deeply and stepped out, shutting the door behind her.
But the moment she turned away from the door, she was violently shoved back against it. Sloan grabbed her by the throat, squeezing just hard enough to hurt. “I’m gonna miss you, grunt. Out of all of these motherfuckers, you were the most fun to watch when you cried or squirmed around. I had fun with you, at least for a while. Once you started fucking around with my other toys, that was when you became useless to me. Remember that, Larkins. You fucked with the wrong woman and now you’re paying the price. If I wasn’t worried about Berkley showing up, I’d have you do one last round of push-ups just for memory’s sake before you leave, but it looks like you’re getting off easily. Now say, ‘Yes, ma’am, and thank you for all you did for me. Goodbye, ma’am.’”
Larkins found herself staring into Sloan’s eyes, and she saw something there she had never noticed before. Complete emptiness. Cold, heartless, uncaring nothingness. And she knew then that Stein was right. No one had made Sloan the way she was. She had always been that way and always would be. A true psychopath. And there was nothing anyone could do to fix that. She would continue her destructive rule until she was forced out by old age or until someone with a gun got the better of her.
But Larkins would never have to deal with her again. It was the last time she’d have to endure the psychopathic mistreatment. So she said as calmly as she could while still trying to breathe, “Yes, ma’am, and thank you for all you did for me. Goodbye, ma’am.”
Sloan released her and stepped back, letting Larkins walk past. As she began the walk down the hall, Larkins heard Sloan call from behind her, “Hey, party girl! Don’t forget to have a drink for me when you get back to Earth!” The sergeant burst into laughter, a sound that followed Larkins down the hall and out the main doors, but Larkins didn’t care anymore.
It felt strange to walk across the compound knowing it was the last time she ever would. As much as she hated the place, it had been home, after all. It had been the place she was used to returning to at the end of every mission and it didn’t feel right to not be coming back.
She passed several of the other Marines, but none of them paid any attention to her. Then she saw Reverdin coming towards her, and the APC commander stopped and stuck out her hand, saying, “Good luck, Larkins.”
Larkins clasped Reverdin’s hand. “Thanks.”
“Hey, don’t forget,” Reverdin pointed out, “It’ll be around Christmas time when you get home. Enjoy the holidays back on Earth.”
Christmas. Right. That meant she would be stopping by her parents’ house at some point. They had exchanged several video messages over the years, but she hadn’t seen them in person in a long, long time. Not since she was first sent out to LV-327. It was going to be quite a reunion.
Larkins continued on her walk to Berkley’s dropship. On the way she happened to look over to the open-sided building where their ground vehicles were kept, and she saw one of the Blazers had its hood open, and Collins was leaning over the engine. The mechanic looked around, saw Larkins watching her, and straightened up and turned around to look at her, picking up a dirty rag to wipe her hands with. Larkins’ eyes narrowed as she remembered the dirty, oily taste of the rag that had been used to gag her in the hangar bay. Then she saw there was a smug, satisfied glint in Collins’ eyes, and she knew the truth then. Whoever else had been involved was anyone’s guess, but she was certain Collins had been one of them. She could never prove it but that smug expression was all the evidence she needed. Collins had been behind it, maybe even the one who came up with the idea. And Sloan had covered her ass.
“Son of a bitch,” Larkins muttered, turning away from the corporal’s sneering look. She had to let it go. She knew she was skating on extremely thin ice and if she tried to confront Collins, even the instructor position would be nothing more than a dream for her.
Larkins boarded the dropship and stowed her bags in the carrying compartment before settling down into one of the fold-down passenger seats. Berkley always kept his inspections quick and to the point, so he would probably be returning before long. As she waited, Larkins reflected that she had been right about Collins after all. At the end of the day, the corporal was just another worthless piece of trash living out a pathetic existence under the monster called Sloan. There was nothing special about Collins. Nothing that made her better than Larkins. Larkins might have attacked Mathis, but it was in the heat of a rage-induced moment. Collins had planned her attack and gotten help and equipment to carry it out. Larkins closed her eyes and cursed Collins to a slow, painful death.
Sure enough, she didn’t have to wait long before Berkley and Amato returned to the dropship. They said nothing to her, but Amato disappeared into the cockpit for a moment to instruct the pilots to take them back up to their ship. Larkins watched as the ramp closed slowly and her view of the dusty ground grew narrower and narrower until her last look at the surface of LV-327 disappeared entirely. She felt the gentle tug of inertia as the dropship lifted off and headed for space, leaving behind the last seven years of Larkins’ life.
There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the trip home for Larkins. The supply ship for Berkley’s team had arrived at LV-623 just before they did, and she ended up going home onboard it. Once they arrived back at Earth, Larkins reported to Crandall Marine Space Station and was told she’d be staying there for several days while some paperwork was finalized. When she realized it was the twentieth of December, she applied for three days of leave for the day before, of, and after Christmas. After being granted it, she spent the next four days secluded in the temporary quarters they had given her. There was no emotion for her to feel. She had already felt it all on the way out of LV-327. Now she just wanted to feel nothing for a while. She had been out of control of herself for so long that she desperately needed to spend some time back in control. She needed to assert her dominance over herself again.
But when it came time for her to head down to North Carolina, she still felt as if she was barely in control of herself. The days of seclusion had started something dark inside her, and she realized it was going to be yet another battle to control it. Maybe seeing some familiar faces and a comforting setting would help. Home might help.
At the Raleigh spaceport, Larkins picked up the rental car she had scheduled and headed to her parents’ house, imagining what it would be like when she got there. It was already 1700 on Christmas Eve, so she expected that they were just getting ready to sit down to dinner. Sherri and Cory, her brother and sister, would probably be there with their families as well. The house would be warm and welcoming, filled with the smell of good cooking.
Sure enough, when she pulled into the driveway, she saw Sherri and Cory’s cars already parked outside. Hopefully seeing them again would go well. They hadn’t always gotten along, largely because of Larkins’ antisocial attitude, but they had never hated each other.
Striding up the sidewalk, Larkins rang the doorbell and waited for someone to answer the door. When it opened, Sherri was standing behind it. She looked startled but smiled broadly, saying, “Well, I think you’re the last person any of us expected to see tonight! Come on in! Hey, Mom, Dad, Cory! Look who’s here!”
Her mother and brother appeared from the kitchen at the same time her father came out of the study to see who it was. Their astonished, pleased greetings blended together and Larkins could barely understand one of them from the other, but she didn’t care. It was good to be home again. She was surprised but grateful when they each clasped her hands. She hadn’t been sure if they would remember after seven years that she didn’t like hugs.
Her family’s excited chatter filled the room, and it only got louder with the arrival of two more adults and several children. Larkins had never met any of them but she knew they had to be Sherri’s husband, Cory’s wife, and the two couples’ children. She found herself being ushered over to the dinner table, where her mother’s traditional Christmas Eve ham casserole was ready for serving. Larkins remained mostly silent as the food was served, letting everyone else talk and simply enjoying the relief of being with people who weren’t nerve-wracking to be around. Eventually, however, the discussion turned to her.
“Where’d you get banged up like that?” Cory asked casually.
“Oh, I’ll get to that,” Larkins said, looking around the table. She needed to find a way to put a good spin on bad news. “I, uh, I have some good news. I’m going to be around a little more throughout the year. I’m getting moved to an Earth-based unit.”
“Oh? What happened to the Special Forces team?” her father asked curiously.
Larkins swallowed. There was no point in lying. They’d figure it out eventually. “I… I got removed from my unit. They’re bumping me down to a flight instructor as a punishment.”
In an instant, all the warmth and welcoming disappeared from the entire house as everyone fell silent. “What did you do?” Sherri asked quietly, looking at everyone else. Larkins was about to answer when she saw her parents exchange glances and then her father asked, “Skye, can you please leave the table and give us a few minutes?”
Surprised, hurt, and angry at their collective reaction, Larkins dropped her fork onto her plate with a clang, shoved back her chair, and walked quickly out of the room before she said something she regretted. She went out the front door and sat down on the front step, looking up at the stars. She already missed them. She missed being out in the open expanses of outer space, exploring and fighting in the farthest places where only a few humans dared to go. She had lost the privilege of being one of that small number, however. She hadn’t been strong enough to hold herself together under the barrage of outside forces tearing her down. She had lost the fight.
The door opened behind her and Cory came out. Larkins stood up to face him and asked bitterly, “So what are they saying about me? How much of a failure I am?”
“Actually,” Cory hesitated awkwardly, “It’s a little more than that.”
“Oh?” Larkins demanded, in no mood for bullshit. “What?”
“Mom and Dad asked me to come out here to tell you that you need to leave. Now.”
Larkins laughed incredulously. “This is a joke, right?”
Cory shook his head seriously. “No. I’m not joking.”
Larkins glared at him. “You’d better not be fucking around with me, Cory. What the hell is going on?”
Her brother began to get defensive. “Don’t you get it, Skye? This is the last straw for them, and for Sherri and me.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Larkins was indignant now.
“Skye, are you really that clueless? Did you never hear all the conversations about you when we were kids? All the talk behind your back about what an embarrassment you were to all of us?”
“An embarrassment? Me. I was an embarrassment,” growled Larkins, still unable to believe what she was hearing.
“You were never normal, Skye. Other people, kids and their parents, always looked at all of us like there was something wrong with us. Because of you and how you were… are. It was embarrassing for all of us. We tried to protect you from it, but honestly, as much as we all love you, it was a relief when you went off to basic. We knew nothing good would come from you sticking around. Now after all this time you show up and immediately announce that you’re every bit the failure we all expected. I hate saying this because you’re my sister, but you’re a bad apple, Skye. Always have been and always will be. And we don’t want you spoiling the rest of us, so just go. Go away and forget you ever knew any of us.”
“You son of a bitch!” Larkins snarled, straightening herself to punch him, but he interrupted sharply, “Walk away, Skye! Don’t do this. Don’t make me call the police on my own sister. Especially not on Christmas Eve. I think you’ve got enough trouble back in the Marines without adding this on top of it, so just walk away. And don’t look back.”
“Fuck you, then,” snapped Larkins, feeling as if the tiny piece of her heart that was left was being chopped up and ripped out. “Fuck all of you. You can all go to hell and burn.”
She stormed down the sidewalk and jumped in her car, rigid with fury as she backed out of the driveway and sped off down the road. She was too angry to think clearly, but she was paying enough attention to her own actions to head downtown. She stopped at the first decent-looking motel she came across and paid for a room for one night.
It wasn’t until she was inside her room and beginning to settle down for the night that Larkins began to break down. “Why?” she asked out loud, her voice quavering. “I didn’t want this. I wanted… I wanted to see them again. Why do they all hate me?”
Her voice cracked on the last two words and she collapsed onto the bed. It hadn’t ended with Sloan. It hadn’t ended when she left LV-327. The agony was continuing, and she was helpless to stop it. She had no power in the world over anything, not even her own life. All she could do was try to keep her head above the rushing water just long enough to take a gasping breath to last until she could get space for another. It was a battle that wasn’t worth winning.
She had been completely abandoned. Everyone she had ever counted on was gone. Hanstad had died. She had been ripped away from her unit. Now her family had rejected her. What would happen to her when she was too old to serve anymore? Where would she go when she retired? Her family had been all she really knew of the civilian world, and she had always assumed she’d stay anchored to them after her career was over. Now that idea was gone and she knew she’d have nowhere to go when the time came.
Why couldn’t she cry? The urge was becoming overwhelming but the tears refused to fall. She didn’t care about holding them back anymore. She didn’t want to be strong anymore. Didn’t want to control herself. All she wanted was to let her feelings take over and rule her. She wanted to submit to her own weakness. Why couldn’t she give in and cry?
Larkins pulled herself up out of the bed and went into the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror. She looked awful. Her face was incredibly pale underneath the bandages, making her crimson hair and blue eyes stand out more sharply by contrast. “Go on, bitch. Cry,” she demanded of her reflection. Still nothing. “Cry! Cry, motherfucker!” Once more, the tears remained elusive, refusing to fall. Desperate, Larkins plunged one hand into her pocket, pulling out her switchblade and opening it.
“Cry, damn it, or I’ll really give you something to cry about, you weak piece of shit!” she exclaimed, pressing the edge of the blade to her wrist. Just do it, Skye. Slash. End it.
She began to push down, slowly dragging the blade across her wrist. But as the outer layers of skin separated around the blade, pulling away like a zipper opening, something penetrated through to her grief-ridden mind and she realized what she was about to do. “No, I don’t want to!” she wailed, jerking the blade away from her wrist before she had even drawn blood. Finally, the tears came. The knife clattered to the floor and she leaned heavily on the sink as her entire body shook with sobs and the tears poured down. Larkins lowered herself weakly to the floor, curled up, and let everything come to the surface. All the pain, sorrow, stress, and desperation came flooding out and she once more had the sense of being swept along in a powerful current that she could do nothing to save herself from. She didn’t care if anyone in the neighboring rooms heard her agonized sobs. She just wanted to let it all out.
After a long time, the tears ended on their own. Larkins continued to sob dryly for several more minutes until the involuntary sounds slowed to a stop and she weakly pulled herself up off the floor. She looked at her reflection again and giggled bitterly. “You’re a fucking ugly crier, Skye. So fucking ugly. But it suits you, doesn’t it? Ugly inside, ugly outside. Maybe you should walk around crying all the time so people know just how ugly you are.”
A sudden rush of anger replaced the grief, and before she could stop herself, Larkins punched the mirror hard. It cracked with a loud, tinkling snap, and although it didn’t shatter, Larkins felt a sharp pain run through her fingers. With a surprised, hurt gasp, she pulled her fast away from the mirror and saw her fingers were bleeding. Looking back at the spider web of cracks spreading out from where she had punched the mirror, she wasn’t surprised. She’d have to pay for that in the morning. “Stupid Skye. Stupid fucking moron.”
Her fingers weren’t cut badly. She had no first aid kit, and she knew she should at least try to wrap them to stop the bleeding, but she didn’t care. Let them bleed. Let the pain come. Stumbling weakly out of the bathroom, Larkins fell onto the bed again as exhaustion replaced everything else, causing her senses to fade away until there was nothing left.
The morning brought no comfort. Larkins awoke feeling nothing but emptiness. The anger was gone. So was the grief. In their place was… nothingness. Not even the will to live. She lay in the bed looking up at the ceiling, lacking the energy or desire to even move. Sloan could have kicked in the door and come in screaming her head off and Larkins wouldn’t have even budged. She had nothing left inside herself. She had cried it all out the night before. Her mind was empty and blank, and she had no conscious thought. She merely existed. I think, therefore I am. The logical counter to that was I think not, therefore I am not. And she had no thought. Which meant she was not. She was nothing. She could already sense it. The darkness was approaching, and she could feel her life fading away as she lay helpless, immobile. Surrendering to the inevitable end. She closed her eyes, sinking in to the darkness as she felt her dull heartbeat begin to slow. The woman who was Skye Larkins was losing her grip on existence as the end came, and she welcomed the opportunity for final peace. Her heart would beat more and more slowly until it stopped altogether. She would either slip into a state of nonexistence or be taken up in the warm, loving embrace of someone watching over her. It would all be over.
But then, somewhere deep down inside, in the deepest, most hidden part of her heart, she found something unexpected. Something that no one, not even Sloan or Collins, could touch. A faint spark, glowing softly in the blackness. She approached it, feeling the meager warmth it offered. She didn’t know what it was or how it had survived the blackness overtaking her, but it was there. And it was keeping back the dark, warming her and making her blood flow again. As weak as it was, it had just enough strength to keep her from letting go. So she nurtured the spark, focusing on it until it began to grow stronger and burst into a flame that pushed the darkness away and banished the cold from her heart.
She opened her eyes and sat up, feeling the tiniest bit of hope and purpose. Just like the spark, she grabbed onto it desperately despite the overwhelming urge to lie back down and give up. She wasn’t dead yet. She had walked to the edge and looked over, but she hadn’t jumped. She had turned away at the last second because there was something more for her. That spark, that tiny bit of light that defied all description and existed despite everything else, wouldn’t go out. It wouldn’t let her die. And so she was going to let it burn and give her strength again. She was going to see what it was calling her to do and where she was meant to go. She wasn’t going to give up even if it meant settling for being a lowly flight instructor.
Flight school. That’s why. Larkins jolted and almost fell out of bed as the reason struck her squarely between the eyes. “Son of a bitch!” But this time, the words weren’t an expression of anger but rather one of shock as the pieces suddenly fell together. Of course, that was it! That was the reason why she was holding on. She had been granted a unique opportunity that would go along perfectly with her experiences over the past several years. And she was going to take it. She’d become the best flight instructor the Marines had ever had. She’d train those cadets like no one ever had before. She would do whatever it took and go to whatever lengths she had to in order to prepare them for the harsh realities they would face on the front lines. She would build them up until they were capable of fighting in any battle and strong enough to resist someone just as abusive and sadistic as Sloan. There would be no more repeats of Hanstad. No more repeats of Mathis. Just competent, highly-skilled, strong pilots going into RIFTs from now on, as long as she had a say in the matter.
Larkins jumped out of bed and began hurriedly throwing the few personal items she had unpacked last night back into her bag as the overwhelming urge to get back to work filled her. Fuck her old unit, fuck her family, and fuck everyone else who got in the way. Nothing was going to stop her from making the best combat pilots the world had ever seen. She would do it alone if she had to, but one way or another, she was going to succeed. They would all thank her in the end. She could save so many lives this way. All of her suffering would be worth it for that. This was the beginning of a new life for her. Throwing her bag over her shoulder, Larkins strode quickly to the door and threw it open, stepping out into the sunlit morning.