I tried to busy myself by going on and getting a new journal because the other one is almost full, but that’s not the only reason I decided to just disappear into the base’s store for a few hours. Last night was… a bit of a wild ride, no pun intended.
Just a few days after I got released from the custody of Doctor Delhoun, we got sent to perform recon on an absolutely hellish planet that was supposedly being used by a base for space pirates. The atmosphere was toxic, so that meant spending the entire week in bulky suits. All I kept thinking about was the silver flowers being studied on the Gateway labs, and how I made the mistake of going near them-twice. These flowers aren’t harmless little daisies. They give off a hallucinogenic fume that’ll restrict your breathing and eventually kill you if you don’t get fresh air in time. I was thinking about how often I had a mask strapped to my face or machinery stuck in me. I know I was in the spacesuit longer than I was in a hospital, but the nerves and fear and memories were beginning to piss me off.
We were finally sent back to Earth, at a good-sized base just off the coast of Australia, and the day we arrived, I finally got the chance to talk to Vasquez alone. As everyone left the mess hall after lunch, I motioned for Vasquez to stay behind. We really didn’t get the chance to talk ever since my sentence was up, so this came as a bit of a relief. I mean, we talked during the mission, but that was purely professional. “Hey, you got a minute?” I asked.
“What for?” she replied.
“Well, we haven’t been able to spend time privately together, and I was wondering if we could just… sit and talk.”
“You’re not gonna cry, are you? I don’t know what they did to you when you were gone, but I sure do hope they didn’t make you a crybaby.”
I shook my head. “Trust me, honey, I am not a crybaby.”
Vasquez sighed. “Alright, Drake, what do you want?”
I leaned in to whisper. “Can you leave your door unlocked tonight?”
“Ohh…” Vasquez gave me a knowing look. “It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Over a month,” I pointed out. “Since before LV-400.”
“Alright, then,” she gave a rare smile, a gesture that was reserved almost exclusively for me. “Come by at 2300.”
“Thanks, baby,” I smiled, leaning in to give her a kiss.
If there’s one thing that I’ve been hesitant to write about in these journals, it’s my… relationship with Vasquez. I didn’t mention anything about it in the last book because I was afraid of someone reading it and finding out about our secret. But so far several of the others have seen my journal and none of them have expressed any interest in it, so I think it’ll be okay. Given how often we work with classified information and go on missions that we’re not allowed to talk about, I had to ask Viano if I was even allowed to keep a journal in the first place. She said it was fine as long as I kept it in a secure place, so I don’t think anyone will ever see this unless I let them. Vasquez and I have been together since before boot camp.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. I can remember she wasn’t like the other female cons. I can remember there was still something human about her. She’s tough, but she’s smart. That was her main difference even back then, and the fact that I was curious about her.
The only time the males and females ever mingled was the one day we were all allowed in the yard. I remember perching on the bars of a piece of exercise equipment near the fence when a teenage girl with really short dark hair walked over and hopped up to grab the pull-up bar next to me. She glanced at me once, saying, “What’re you doing? Some freaky meditation shit?”
That and her accent were what sold me. I gave her a charming grin before saying “no,” and explaining that I was working on my balance. Take note that crouching on a bar while maintaining your balance will give you some serious pain in your legs for the next several days.
She continued doing her pull-ups, occasionally looking at me like she expected me to do something. “You’re not gonna beat me up?”
I frowned. “No. Why the hell would I do that?”
“Because that’s usually what the creeps in the back do; they wait and then they grab you when you’re alone.”
“Maybe I’m not a creep, then,” I replied.
To this day, I still remember the look she gave me after we talked to each other for a few minutes. She had been analyzing my body language, the way I spoke, everything. I guess she realized that I wasn’t lying in wait for anyone and I was just sitting there being a loner and thinking more than acting. When our conversation ended, she was staring at me with wide, deep brown eyes and slightly parted lips, like she was fascinated in me.
We didn’t see each other for another week. When we did, we talked again. I hadn’t thought much about her since our first encounter, but she had. I could tell that she was trying to conceal some mild anxiety, like she knew liking me was wrong in this setting. Once I could tell Vasquez was harboring some form of interest in me, I became conflicted. A relationship in prison seems like the shit of poorly written books, but I was bored and I had way too much time alone with my thoughts. All that time became a breeding ground for my emotions. A festering, disgusting breeding ground. I let my emotions run free.
Out of all of them, everything from anger to happiness, the worst of all of them was love. I have, well, a love-hate relationship with love. Everyone experiences love differently. It’s like water: it takes the shape of whatever container it’s in. That container happened to be me. As time passed on, Vasquez and I were slowly falling in love, but we never fully realized it until we were about to be sent to boot camp. I was the one who finally broke it to her, hoping that she wouldn’t think I was a creep after all, or hit me. She looked away, and then back, barely daring to raise her voice above a whisper as she admitted she felt the same way. That was the day we kissed for the first time.
In some ways, I think having each other is what got us through boot camp. It didn’t matter how much the instructors tried to beat us down, or how many rules there were restricting our free time, we found ways to sneak at least a few moments together almost every day. It was Vasquez who had eventually figured out that the two of us were surpassing most of the other recruits in our training squad. Way surpassing them, actually. Unlike me, she actually had a drive to do something with her life, and she started pushing herself harder, while I just followed her lead. When we got a personal visit from a RIFT instructor, announcing that he had been sent our performance scores and wanted to offer us a chance at RIFT training, Vasquez had jumped at it, and even though I wasn’t particularly interested, I took the offer in the hopes that we’d be able to stay together.
The next sixteen months were far harder than boot camp had ever been. There were nights where I was so sore I couldn’t get comfortable in bed, but many other nights where I was too tired to care. Once again, we carried each other through our shared hardships, even the time where Vasquez broke down in tears because of how tired she was. It was getting each other through RIFT training that showed me just how strong we were together, and I started thinking about our future together more seriously. Two days after we had finished training and were waiting for our unit assignment, I made the decision to go off base and do a little bit of shopping.
That night we met up in one of the base laundry rooms, illuminated only by the glow of the emergency exit sign, and I pulled out the little box that I had gotten in town. I opened it, and as soon as she saw the first glint of what was inside, Vasquez cursed in surprise. “Drake, pendejo, is that supposed to be an engagement ring?”
“Not exactly,” I said, wondering from her reaction if I had made a mistake. “I didn’t have the money for an engagement ring, and I didn’t want to get you something cheap, so this is just supposed to be a promise ring. I’m not asking you to marry me right now, but I’m asking if you’ll stay with me, so that one day I can ask you properly.”
She looked away, muttering in Spanish to herself. She had taught me some of the language, but not enough for me to understand what she was saying. Finally she looked back to me, a strange look on her face. “Why?”
“Uh… why?” The question caught me completely off guard, and I froze, my heart pounding. Was it all about to fall apart?
“Yes, stupid, why? Why should we wait?” She shook my shoulders. “We’ve known each other for five years. Five years of hell. And through every day of those five years, we’ve been loyal to each other. We’ve stood by each other, backed each other up, always been there when one of us needed the other, the whole nine yards. Now we’re getting our first assignment, and for all we know, we’re both going to die on our first mission. If I’m going to die tomorrow, or the day after that, or fifty years from now, I want to know that I did something good with my life. So yes, I’ll be your wife, for better or worse, rich or poor, sick or healthy, to have and hold and all that happy horseshit.”
I probably would have laughed at that if my heart hadn’t been caught in my throat. “Uh… Are you… are those supposed to be vows? Are you saying you want this right now?”
“Drake,” she gave me an exasperated look. “Whether either of us is good at saying it or not, we’re not going to get any closer to each other. What difference does it make if we have a piece of paper to prove it or if we shout it to the world? Hell, if we shout it to the world, we’ll probably get separated. I don’t think the military likes the idea of two sweethearts serving together.”
“I-I don’t know what to say,” I stammered weakly. Vasquez slapped me lightly. “You say your vows back to me, put the ring on my finger, and then kiss me, dumbass.”
I fumbled and tripped over my words in the most pathetic way possible as I tried to repeat the words back to her. I couldn’t tell if the one emotion in her eyes was pity or hidden laughter as I tried to get them out, but I knew the other emotion I saw there was love, and that’s how I managed to finally say the words, and put the ring on her finger. When I did that, I understood what she meant. It felt like I had finally done one good thing in the world.
Needless to say, military base was hardly the right place for a new couple to celebrate. We had to wait until the weekend when we were able to get off base and go into town. We took the entire weekend together in town, spending the night in a motel room. That was the first time we were together-really together. Husband and wife. That’s what we call each other, at least. I’m really not sure what someone else would say since it’s not legal.
Unfortunately, things weren’t so sweet after that. Our relationship, unofficial marriage, whatever you want to call it, was just fine, but the way we went about it changed when we were assigned to the Ninth Regiment’s RIFT platoon. When Apone gave us a rundown of the rules, there was a little tidbit in there that both of us must have missed in training, namely that RIFT members are allowed to have romantic relationships with each other as long as they get permission from the team commander and it doesn’t affect their work performance. I was all for telling Apone what was going on so we didn’t get in trouble if we got caught, but Vasquez insisted it was no one’s business. “We got away with it in prison and in training without getting caught,” she pointed out. “Why should we put our personal business out for everyone to talk about?”
I tried to argue but it wound up being one of the topics that she was unmovably stubborn about and in the end I gave up. That weekend in town became one of the only weekends we had completely to ourselves. As much as I didn’t like it, I agreed with Vasquez that if we were going to keep it secret, it wouldn’t help if we left the base together every weekend, so most of our private moments were stolen hiding away in a storage room or vent somewhere on the base. Occasionally, we’d leave base separately on a weekend and then meet up later, but those times were rare. The only other times we had the chance to be… intimate together was when one of us would sneak into the other’s room at night, but all I’m going to say about that is that we got really good at being quiet about it, and we were both extremely grateful for the privilege of having private rooms that came with being members of the regiment’s most elite unit. Even the ring I had given her remained hidden away, reserved for the private time we spent together.
I lay in bed with Vasquez, breathing hard and grinning. I glanced at her and saw she was smiling at me.
“Are you proud of yourself?” she asked.
“Uh, that depends. Was my performance-”
“Superb as always,” she said playfully. “I think we both needed that.”
“We’ve had a rough month,” I pointed out. “Maybe I got the worst of it, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy not having me around for three weeks.”
“Having to put up with Hudson being even more obnoxious than ever to make up for you not being here was more than enough torture, I promise.” Vasquez rolled her eyes. “I’ll tell you a secret, my deepest fantasies aren’t about doing dirty things with you, they’re about finding ways to shut Hudson up for good. This was a good way to relieve a lot of that stress, and just… spend time with each other.”
This is the side of her that, as far as everyone else is concerned, doesn’t exist. To the rest of the world, Vasquez is the rough, tough, muscular Marine gunner who doesn’t have a gentle bone or thought in her. She likes it that way. I’m the only one who’s ever allowed to see her caring side, and she’s made certain threats towards my ability to have children if I ever blab about that.
“It was,” I agreed, nuzzling her neck before giving her another kiss, which she kept going. I was just starting to think that things were going to get heated again when she pushed me away, saying, “Before I forget, I heard Viano and Apone talking today. Apparently there’s a party in Brisbane for the Corps’ seventy-fourth anniversary that’s being turned into some kind of inter-forces celebration and we’re all supposed to be there representing the elite of the United State military or something stupid like that.”
“Great,” I groaned. “Think I can talk them into letting me stay behind?”
“One, no, and two, even if you could, they wouldn’t let me stay too, and if I have to go, so do you.”
“Fine. Don’t expect me to get dressed up, though.”
“You are getting dressed up, Drake!” Apone glared at me in the morning at breakfast. “All of you sweethearts are getting dressed up! We want to look good, look like we care about not just the Colonial Marines as a whole, but about ourselves and how we present ourselves to civvies as well.”
“Can I wear a pink bowtie, Sarge?” Hudson asked with his mouth full.
“No, you may not! Quit talking with food in your trap, Hudson.”
At this point, I was thinking about how I’d rather have Winnie, Delhoun’s Annexer, watch me sleep than get dressed up for a banquet. “Fuck this,” I grumbled.
“What was that, Drake?” Apone shot me a look.
“Spunkmeyer’s gotta remember to shave, man!” Hudson crowed.
“Piss off!” Spunkmeyer said from across the table, glaring at Hudson.
“If he forgets before we go, we’re holding him down and shaving all that stubble right off,” Frost laughed.
“You try to shave my face, I’ll shave your balls! Every last one of you!” Spunkmeyer glared at us with narrowed hazel eyes. “Maybe I’ll shave your fucking armpits, too!”
“You’d need a lawnmower to shave Hudson’s!”
The thing about dress uniforms is that wearing them is the only time you get to show off any medals you received. Vasquez has a medal for marksmanship that she earned in a competition in RIFT training. I might have one too if I didn’t feel so… anxious every time they competitions came up.
Every. Single. Time. I couldn’t bring myself to participate. I know I’m a good shot, but to do it with so many people watching and judging me? No. I just couldn’t do it. I froze up and tried to hide every time. Even when I got to watch Vasquez, I felt horrible about myself and my abilities and how I would never be good enough to get a medal of any kind.
I caught a brief moment alone with Vasquez about fifteen minutes before we were going to take a ferry out to Brisbane. I found Vasquez looking at herself in a mirror, and she didn’t do half-bad with putting her uniform together. My gaze settled on her marksmanship medal and I wasn’t sure if it was jealousy or my own self-doubt that were creating a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Hey,” I said, trying to sound somewhat encouraging, “you look nice.”
“Thanks.” She looked at me. “You look like you got a broomstick shoved up your ass and duct-taped to your spine.”
I took a breath. “Well, thanks. It’s very hard to slouch in this uniform.”
“That might be the point, you know.”
I made an effort to smile, occasionally looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was trying to walk in on us. “So, um… are you looking forward to this?”
“Drake, are you stupid? No, I’m not looking forward to this. It’s just a big show where we stand around and look pretty and the only people who get to talk are officers and everyone higher than corporal.”
I shrugged. “Maybe there’ll be food, and hopefully it won’t be leftover rations somebody dug up in a storage unit.” My stomach grumbled when I began thinking about the fresh, hot breakfasts Delhoun would make just about every morning. There was always coffee and rare gems like bacon and peanut butter and fruit, and Delhoun once made a spiked citrus drink. I missed those. You just can’t go back to rations after such good breakfasts.
“Go ahead, Drake, keep hoping.”
Her tone was a little sarcastic. I smiled a little, having missed Vasquez’s sarcasm. I had missed everything about her, yet… I couldn’t bring myself to talk about what happened in the labs, or about my dreams and hallucinations.
The bus ride to the banquet hall was quiet except for Hudson asking if there was going to be dancing and who would be dancing with who. He just had to go up to me and Vasquez and touch our shoulders and ask if we’d be dancing with each other. It took a lot of strength for me not to punch him, and I think Vasquez felt the same way. Being on our best behavior is hard and easy at the same time.
To my surprise, it was Captain Viano who rescued us. “Perhaps you’d like to be my dancing partner tonight, Hudson,” she suggested firmly. I almost laughed at the look of frozen horror on Hudson’s face as he stammered, “Uh, uh, not me, man, er, ma’am!”
Apone smirked. “I think it’s too late, Hudson. Didn’t anyone ever teach you not to refuse an officer?”
Hudson sat down with an unhappy thump and I heard him muttering something about not getting to stuff his face now. I looked over at Viano and I’m sure I saw her trying to hide a smile.
The banquet hall was brightly lit, and most of the other units were already there along with several dozen suit-wearing civvies and a number of soldiers in Australian dress uniforms. I remembered what Vasquez had said about the party being turned into some kind of diplomatic exchange between the US and ANZAC forces. Great. This was bad enough without having to be polite and diplomatic.
There were heavy curtains draped in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, all closed as the sun had begun setting just a few minutes ago. A deep red-orange hue still penetrated through, casting long shadows around the hall. Every table already had nametags on plates and glasses of water. Everyone had to adopt a “get fancy” attitude, which I felt would be hard considering we’re all battle-hardened grunts.
After a moment, I spotted Colonel Hardy sitting at one of the tables reserved for the senior officers and civvie diplomats. He had more medals than I could ever hope to have. I couldn’t even identify most of them. He’s an older gentleman with thinning blond hair and such a skinny build that I’m surprised they make uniforms that small. I highly doubted he’d ever acknowledge my existence here. Looking at him made me feel small.
We were dismissed, and dispersed to our tables. I was sitting with Hicks, Vasquez, and three guys from other squadrons, including some of the Australians. I wasn’t paying attention to anything anyone was saying; in fact, I was glancing at Vasquez. If we were just a little more comfortable with showing people we were in a relationship, you can bet your boots I’d be taking her out to the dance floor.
One of the soldiers I didn’t know was talking about desert warfare and giant centipede-like creatures he and his unit faced not that long ago on LV-155. Part of my brain was going back to Annexers and how there’s no way they would let giant centipedes fuck around with them.
I was bored and hungry. Hicks was managing the conversation and Vasquez was talking about some of the missions we’ve been on. The other guys were glancing at me, probably wondering if I was mute or something. Finally, I got up and headed over to the table covered with appetizers. The feeling of being left out was something I’m fairly used to, but I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation, so it didn’t bother me as much as it normally would.
I took my dish and wandered around to some of the other tables. Spunkmeyer, of course, was leading the conversation at his table with a bunch of other dropship pilots, and I swear no one would believe the way he was talking and talking and talking unless they had actually been there to witness it. He probably started talking as soon as we sat down and hadn’t shut up since. All you could hear was his New York accent at that table. I definitely didn’t feel like I could join that conversation; I’d just be joining the audience to the Spunkmeyer Hour.
I certainly wasn’t joining the table where Hudson was. There wasn’t any strong alcohol, so the moment Viano went off to greet some of the higher-ranking officers he loaded his plate down with donut holes and began showing off in front of the other Marines. How? Well, he started sticking the donut holes in his cheeks. One after the other. Some of the guys were impressed, while the others rolled their eyes and decided to go sit somewhere else. Smart. I applauded them in my head. The ones who were impressed were urging Hudson to put more food in his cheeks, and there were calls of encouragement in both American and Australian accents and then a smooth, calm voice that silenced them all. “Don’t forget to save some of those for the rest of us, Hudson.”
Once again, Viano got the better of the poor guy, sneaking up on him so quietly that he didn’t notice until she was close enough to speak right in his ear. He jumped and it looked like he almost choked as he tried to swallow rapidly. He let out a muffled mumble, trying to speak around the donuts still in his mouth, and then made a noise of protest as Viano picked up the plate and brought it over, sitting down across from us and putting the plate in the middle of the table.
“We don’t get food like this every day, so you might as well all enjoy it while you can,” she suggested. She seemed to be coming out of her reserved shell a little bit and I wondered if this was a situation where she felt more comfortable or if there was something else I was missing. On the other hand, I was certainly not comfortable. Not because of Viano or any of the others, even Hudson’s antics as he replaced the donut holes with cake slices, but just uncomfortable with the setting itself. I ended up requesting to step outside for a little bit to get some air when things got a little nutty. I saw a few other Marines standing on the boardwalks and having a smoke. Hicks was one of them. He was staring out at the ocean, a gentle breeze ruffling his hair as he took a draw on his cigarette.
I walked a good distance away from them, sighing as I leaned against the railing, watching the Pacific lap at the shore. Behind me, everyone else was going about their night.
A sound made me turn, and I looked to see Delhoun, the doctor who watched over me on Gateway, strolling over with his Annexer partner, Winnie. What’re the odds?
“Hello,” Delhoun said, stopping next to me. “Didn’t we just see each other?”
“Yeah. A month ago,” I replied, looking down at Winnie as she sniffed me. “What are you up to? I knew you were gonna be coming down to Earth, but I didn’t know you’d be here, in Australia.”
“Pure coincidence. My lab is here in Brisbane.” Delhoun glanced at me. “How’ve you been faring since… since the silver flower?”
I shrugged. “Been okay. Nothing’s changed between me and the others.” I watched Winnie hop up on the railing. “And how’ve you been doing?”
“I came down to check on one of my facilities I’ve been using study Annexers. Planet-side housing is easier than on a space station. They’re highly adaptable creatures, but in space they start to suffer mentally. I can’t host them on Gateway forever.”
I sighed, only partially listening. “So, you’re here because you’re taking care of all your… guests. Okay.”
“You could put it that way,” Delhoun replied. “There are other matters I’m tending to, but, yes, taking care of my studies is the main one. Though I am glad we ran into each other, Drake.”
“Because you’re a friend and that’s what friends do.” Delhoun smirked. He looked at my uniform. “And I see you’ve run off from a Marine gathering?”
“Yeah. Just needed some air. I… I started to feel like no one… no one noticed me.” I looked at him. “Is that a weird thing for me to be upset about?”
“No, not at all. The feeling of being left out is never a pleasant one, and I highly doubt you’ve done anything to warrant anyone leaving you out of anything.”
“It’s just general conversations and shit. No one’s talked to me at the banquet.” I looked over the railing. “I don’t even think they miss me in there.”
“Someone in there is wondering where you are. I can almost guarantee it. You are, after all, a part of a team, and teammates care about one another on multiple levels.” Delhoun kept his ruby gaze on me. “I know you’ve never been a ‘team player,’ but perhaps if you showed some care for them, they’d show the same for you.”
I shrugged again. “I’m surprised no one really showed any care for me since I was put in this squad.”
Delhoun let out a quiet sigh. “Try a different approach. I’m going back to my headquarters for the night. Feel free to visit me if you have any questions.” He slid a card in my hands.
I looked down at the card and saw it had all his contact information printed on it. Frankly, I didn’t think I was going to take him up on his offer to visit, but at the same time, I didn’t know anyone else who could give me good advice for anything. Sighing, I looked up at the night sky. Every little star twinkled and glowed.
Little. Glowed. Those flowers were little and glowed. I swallowed hard, suddenly feeling uncomfortable outdoors.