Jenn Shu was lost and loving it…
Here she was, once again, dancing in the dark, somewhere amongst a mass of swaying, gyrating bodies. She was adrift in a crowd of hundreds, beneath a vast array of hypnotic, ever changing lights and powerful, pulse pounding rhythms. This is what she did all night, every night… or at least every night she wasn’t on a mission outside The City. That her actions were bordering on self destruction had occurred to her. That they were starting to affect her life, her work, and her team had occurred to her as well, but none of it mattered as long as she didn’t have to remember the past and didn’t have to be alone. Not even that it was Christmas Eve mattered. This is where she belonged tonight, where she belonged every night.
Here, the grind of tightly packed bodies kept her fears immobilized, the strobing lights kept her fears disoriented, the heavy beats kept them distracted, and the darkness kept them anonymously hidden. Besides, she justified to herself again and again, what other options were there? To go crawling back to therapy and be tied down by doctors and well wishers once more? Absolutely not! To someone like her who had lived her whole life free, being stuck in a comfortable room, always watched, always medicated, always guarded… It was almost as bad as the memories and nightmares… Or maybe it was worse? And what other options were there?
Should she go out on the wall with Philip, as he stood guard, vainly wishing for a snowfall that would never come? Or should she resign herself to being stuck in some archival library with Nairb as he pieced his way through the history and technology of the past in an equally futile effort to gain the respect of his fellow Warlocks, or even less likely, the renewed respect of his father? No, that wouldn’t do either…
But neither then would being alone… not anymore…
Alone, she would have to admit that her spirit had been broken, that she no longer found joy in venturing ahead into the unknown as she had since she was just a child. That she was, for the first time in her life, afraid. Everyone here was really afraid anyway though… right? She was just one among many, wasn’t she? Even if she wasn’t, here, at least, there was enough free flowing alcohol to keep her fears submerged so deep that they would never be able to surface.
Or so she had thought.
At first, Jenn was sure that she was mistaken. People pushed their way through the crowd dozens of times each night. That the large man pushing towards her looked remarkably like Philip didn’t even occur to her until after he had none too gently gripped her by the elbow and began pulling her back through the crowd.
“What are you… let go of me! What are you even doing here?!” Jenn protested angrily as she ripped herself free of her team member’s grip once they’d made it outside. She wanted to shove him away, or maybe even take a swing at him. Instead, she had to make do with staggering sideways into the nearby wall. Jenn put one hand over her face, her fingers unconsciously aligning themselves along the gruesome scar that ran from above her left eye, through her partially severed nose, to the line of her right jaw. It was a bad habit she was sure she would never be able to shake… Sighing, she tried again.
“Why… why are you here, Philip?” she asked slowly, carefully controlling her voice to make sure the words came out unslurred. She’d never told Philip or Nairb about coming here… never wanted to be seen like this… by them… She grimaced as she asked the question. Both at the guilt and embarrassment of being caught, and because of the painful throbbing inside her head. How could being away from the blaring music inside make her head hurt worse?
“We have a mission. I was sent to find you,” the plain-clothed Titan responded matter-of-factly. “You good?”
“Next time just page me,” Jenn groaned, ignoring his question. Instead, she pulled her light jacket tighter around herself then glanced guiltily towards the phone on her hip as she realized that she had switched it off hours before… in direct violation of regulations. It had seemed clever at the time. Who would bother contacting her on Christmas Eve? Now? Not so much… Philip gave her a knowing look then turned and headed towards the City’s nearest transit hub. Unable to come up with a valid reason to stay behind, seeing as the truth was not an option, Jenn followed.
Two hours later, Jenn found herself armored up, standing on the cold, dark, moonlit beach of a small forgotten island some three thousand kilometers southwest of The City. Her drunkenness and headache were gone thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, but she would have gladly taken them back in exchange for returning to the safety of the party. Reluctantly, she watched as the dropship that had deposited her and her fire team there arced out over the ocean, heading north towards where the Traveler was hiding below the horizon. It only took a few seconds for the aircraft to disappear, its faint engine glows blending in with the bright, starry sky.
Nairb’s in flight briefing had been, as always, short, to the point, and highly factual. An unusually large amount of Glimmer had been detected on this small, unassuming island three hours earlier. A group of Fallen ships had been recorded near the area as well, but The City’s patchy, unreliable detection grid had been unable to determine if the aliens had uncovered a lost relic, had dropped off some large piece of equipment, another drill perhaps, or if they had simply crashed landed throwing up an easily detected plume of the substance that passed for currency among those who lived beneath The Traveler.
“Jenn, are you ready?” Nairb calmly asked.
“Yeah, just double checking something,” she lied. Fiddling with her rifle helped sell it. “I thought it was Philip’s job to worry too much,” she added teasingly, feigning confidence that she didn’t actually feel.
In the past she would have immediately ventured into the thick tree line, seeking out the Glimmer’s coordinates, trusting her instincts and natural talent to keep her safe. Now, she hesitated.
“Ok, I’m good,” she lied once more as she pulled herself away from the stars and forced herself to move. Hiding the truth from those who trusted her, who’s lives depended on her, was hard, but letting her fears be known, spending the rest of her days in the careful, considerate, confining care of others was harder still. So she moved.
Jenn assumed her position at point and lead her team into the densely packed trees. Soon, her uncertainty gave way to real confidence, as she remembered how good it felt to push ahead of the others.
She was damaged, yes, maybe even irrevocably broken, but she was still one of the best at what she did. It only took watching Philip trying to move silently through the trees and undergrowth in his bulky armor to remind her of that. Nairb was doing a little better in his Warlock robes, Jenn admitted, but even he might as well have been shooting up signal flares compared to the way she was able to slip silently through the jungle.
“Keep it quieter you two,” she complained. More false bravado, but it made her feel a little better.
True, she didn’t strike out as far ahead as she might have in the past, but she had managed to separate herself from her fire team by a good margin by the time they completed their ten kilometer hike through the forest.
“Hold position,” Jenn called out over her encrypted radio before she dropped prone. She readied her sniper rifle, crawled forward, and pointed it in the direction of the disturbance ahead. Two kilometers down hill, in a newly created clearing blasted from among the trees, sat not a piece of mobile artillery or the beginnings of a new forward base, but the remains of a crashed Fallen dropship. The orange dancing light of an ever expanding circle of burning trees made infrared imaging of the crash site almost useless. It did, however, provide Jenn with near perfect illumination for a visual scan with her high powered scope. She patched the feed to the rest of her fire team as she provided commentary.
“I can’t spot anything that would have caused a Glimmer plume other than the crash itself,” she reported. “I see one badly damaged dropship in the middle of the clearing. It looks unserviceable. Behind it, by about twenty meters, in that dark section of tree line I’m fairly certain is a Spider Tank, fully functional. You can make out its legs and main gun… Surrounding the dropship I count… ten, eleven on that side, twelve on the other… upwards of twenty lower classed Fallen soldiers and one… one Captain.”
Jenn’s targeting sight settled between the Captain’s four eyes almost of its own accord. Hatred, and not a small twinge of fear sprung up inside her as she looked upon the magnified alien. That image conjured up another like it, that of a Fallen Captain and his electrified sword as it arced up towards her helmet and face more than a year ago. Her finger moved inside her rifle’s trigger guard and began a slow stead pull. She would have her measure of revenge, consequences of drawing return tank fire be damned. Hell, the consequences might even be welcomed…
“Agreed,” Nairb said, an instant too soon, unknowingly interrupting her firing motion. “There’s nothing here worth securing tonight, and the site is too hot for just us. Come on back, we’re going home.”
Tears welled up in Jenn’s eyes, clouding her vision as she fought both for and against the urge to unleash retribution upon the distant figure centered in her crosshairs. Ultimately it was the tremors of rage and fear shaking her body… throwing off her aim… that forced her to hold her fire. With a crushing sense of regret Jenn inched backwards, breaking her line of sight with the clearing then stood and quickly withdrew.
“…I wish I had been there in the early days, back when The City needed to salvage every crash site and weapon they could get their hands on,” Philip was saying as Jenn rejoined her fellow Guardians. “They wouldn’t have passed up a find like this back then. I think we could have taken them. You’re with me, right Jenn?” Philip asked. She remained uncharacteristically silent, not trusting herself to keep the churn of negative emotions out of her own voice.
“We are not passing it up,” Nairb reminded the blue clad Titan. “We did our job and determined the nature of the Glimmer signature. I’ve marked the site for Vanguard followup. If it is still there in the morning we will reap what resources we can from it.”
“Yeah… maybe,” Philip replied.
Jenn cringed as he looked over to her, his gaze not leaving her. He knew her too well, knew that her silence meant something was wrong. She could just imagine the look of concern on his face, beneath his armored helmet.
Concern was something to be avoided… It lead to pity, which lead straight to being grounded within The City’s walls… for her own protection. Something she very much did not want.
“Jenn?” he began.
This was it, the question she knew would eventually come. The one she was no longer able to avoid. The one that would see her locked away with all the others who were traumatized… broken.
“Wha… would you look at that!” he said instead.
Jenn opened her eyes, thank god for emotion concealing helmets, and couldn’t help but smile as she saw what had distracted the Titan, and given her a few more days… or weeks… or months of freedom.
“Snow!” Philip exclaimed. “Real, honest to God snow!”
“Looks like you got your wish, too,” Jenn said as the levity of the moment helped pause her emotional slide. “Look at the time. We just passed midnight.”
“Haha! Christmas?! It’s a white Christmas!” Philip said a moment later.
“Only here, it is still much too warm at The City,” Nairb said, always the stoic party pooper. But even he, Jenn noticed, unlatched one of his sealed, interconnected gloves and reached a hand up into the increasingly dense swirl of falling white.
Jenn played along. She touched the flakes with ungloved hands like the others, and even laughed and playfully cursed when Philip lifted her up and spun her in exuberant circles. On the ride home, helmet off, she managed to keep herself and her team distracted with talk of the snow, and what might have caused the Fallen ship to crash, and by belatedly agreeing with Philip that yes, they could have taken them.
She said anything and everything she had to to make it back to the party with the others unaware.
Back in her comfort zone she danced and swayed and drank longer and harder than ever before. Except something wasn’t right, it wasn’t the same. This time it wasn’t working. This time the press of bodies and blare of music couldn’t drown out that almost asked question, or that flash of terror, or the shot she had very nearly taken. She could have gotten her entire team killed! But it didn’t matter now, she kept telling herself. It was, like everything else, in the past. She could just keep dancing, even as tears streamed down her face, altering course as they tried to cross her long, deep scar. She could just keep dancing and no one would notice. She was safe as long as no one noticed…
But then, somebody did notice.
“Hey! Are you all right?!” some random guy asked, shouting above the music, trying to be helpful. His question was anything but.
“No… no I’m not…” Jenn answered truthfully. It may have been the first honest answer she’d given in months. She didn’t give the stranger time for a follow-up. She was already pushing her way towards the door before he even thought to ask.
Security Report: 82129
Sector 10, Block 6 (“Baudway”)
Incident: Single gunshot reported at or near civilian housing #1504. Housing owner not responsive to inquiry. Emergency entrance authorized. Owner found DRT. No foul play suspected.
Subject name: Jennifer Shu
Case Closed, Pending FOTC Investigation.