Alpha Centauri System, Planet Chiron TL-191e, Coalition Military Base "Tartarus."
1409 Hours, January 5.
Deep within the recesses of the underground stronghold, Miranda Reigns tried her best to look just the right amount of scared as the elevator cabin sank deeper toward the facility below.
The four military police officers around her certainly took their task of making sure she didn't do anything stupid before the debriefing with an almost psychotic level of dedication.
You see, no matter how badly things got, seeing it for the sixth time took some magic out of it. In fact, the only place Miranda saw law officers take themselves so seriously was during her final days in secondary school last year...innocent days that now felt like decades ago.
She remembered when campus police barged into the girls bathroom in their JAW-300 urban assault suits, Taser guns sparking...and weren't surprised to find the burgundy-haired, scrawny girl she used to be hunched into a ball in the corner smoking marijuana.
She said nothing to defend herself as she stood--even offered them the Ziploc clear bag she'd carefully folded the weed into that morning. The campus police routinely cuffed and marched her out the bathroom.
Situation normal: all fucked up.
The only thing different in this situation was that her jailers were the same bottom-rung rank-and-file as herself, which made it wholly impossible to even take them seriously. Other than that it was the same shit she'd seen before: a ring of cold hard faces towering over her, with eyes that conveyed the promise of violence if she did anything stupid.
The elevator stopped; the doors slid open. A cold palm roughly encouraged her forward and Miranda strode out into a dimly lit corridor. Ahead, two more soldiers stood guard on either side of a black door. One of her jailers stepped forward, fished out a clear badge from a utility belt; one of the guards met him half way and accepted it, then fed it into a slot by the double doors that, a moment later, split open down the middle. Miranda nearly rolled her eyes. Another bunch of middle-managers on a power trip.
But what laid ahead baffled her.
Rather than a military court with a panel of stern officers, she found a small office on the other side dominated by a worn, large antique oak table covered with the oddest of all things: printed paperwork, most stained with coffee mug rings, and lit by an incandescent desk lamp.
Sat at an angle behind this mess was a woman who dismissed the jailers with a casual flick of the wrist. Mid-forties if Miranda had to guess, with crow's feet at her hazel eyes, chin resting on palm in deep thought. The door closed, and for the longest moment the woman continued to ignore her while she eyed intensely at a piece of paper.
Miranda wasn't sure whether to salute or not; the woman had the formal blue-grey flight suit of a Coalition Navy Officer--but sat with her legs kicked up on the desk, and wore the her jacket unbuttoned with all the disdain of a teenager forced to dress up for an event she clearly didn't want to attend. The label CPT. KIERAN J. WILKES was embossed into the name bar that she haphazardly used as a paperweight.
"Don't stand on ceremony on my account; sit where ever you want," Captain Wilkes said without looking; she reached out across the desk and grabbed a cup of coffee, swirled the cold dregs with a sour look on her face before she drank it.
Miranda slowly took a seat opposite the Captain.
"What's the matter?" Captain Wilkes continued, eyes still on the piece of paper. "Given your numerous runs law on and off campus, I imagine this shouldn't be any different from sitting in the Principal's office."
"With respect, ma'am, I was expecting to debrief in a much more detailed and..." another glance at the disorganized table, then back at the Captain who still refused to even so much as acknowledge her, "...more formal circumstances."
"If you're going to talk like that, then you need to get me another coffee."
Miranda made a show of her cuffed hands.
"Ah, damn it. Okay, wait here," Captain Wilkes pushed away from her desk, and with an irritated huff walked out the office. She returned a moment later with the contact key and pressed it between the restraints.
Captain Wilkes sat back in her chair. "Well, at any rate, forget about the coffee; just don't talk like another office drone and put me to sleep. What the hell did they do to you in just one year to take away all that smack-talk and sass?"
"I had to learn to hide it while in training," a nervous glance. "Look...why am I here?"
"Because I'm promoting you."
Miranda gave a short laugh, "is this a joke?"
"Do you think I'm joking?"
"Well," Miranda smiled, "I think it wouldn't be something beyond you."
"Appearances can be deceiving, Miranda. Take you, for instance," she brought out a folder labeled LCPL. MIRANDA REIGNS (MIRA-RE0714), and from this worked free her full body shot from the first week in training and pointed at the recorded weight: 95.21lbs.
Miranda paid particular attention to the rank on her folder: Lance Corporal.
"You went from that to fully mission capable at 142 pounds. Mission recorder showed two kills during the ambush on your first deployments, moments before you...volunteered to take a snap shot image of the battlefield for the benefit of your company. Care to explain these heroics?"
Miranda glanced away, "just felt like the right thing to do at the time."
"Your previous history states that despite multiple interventions involving both your step-parents, recreational drug use, promiscuous behavior in general and in particular toward a Private Mike Stassen--a known gang member--along with numerous counts of assault, vandalism and theft. We knew all of this before you even left secondary school."
"What do you want from me?" Miranda shrugged.
"A certain Sergeant Major Velasquez worriedly noted that 'displays of valor may be an expression of hidden attempts at self-harm or masked suicidal tendencies, both likely due to low self-esteem and a poor self-image.' "
"So tell me," Captain Wilkes leaned in close. "Did it ever occur to you why the Coalition would make take the risk of training such a volatile character to kill and give her free access to weapons? Why none of your convictions ever went beyond a month in juvenile detention?"
"Clearly because you need another body on the front-line, and we both know a poor mining colony like Chorus couldn't afford to keep me locked up for longer anyways. I do miss the three hot meals and a bed, however--"
"Stop thinking like an insect," Wilkes snapped. "You're here because I willed it. When I saw that ninety-pound twig trying to pick a fight against overwhelming odds just to prove that she exists, I was convinced I found a piece I needed for a bigger puzzle."
"Then you're talking to the wrong person."
"I'm rarely ever wrong, Miranda. You throw your anger at anything and everything, any way you can. Even now, I suspect, you think I'm here to try and reform you or whatever, but that's not the case. In fact, changing you at all would be counterproductive."
"So...you're going to promote someone clearly 'volatile, unpredictable and suicidal.' "
"Well, I believe you're more than that. You just don't know it yet. People need heroes, Miranda. The Coalition was created to maintain order throughout humanity's interstellar empire, but everyone knows that once faster-than-light travel and terraforming became dirt cheap, we expanded far too quickly and too far for our own good."
"We prepared as much as possible to put down rebellions--even crushed one twenty years ago, but this scale is unprecedented. We're naked out there, Miranda, and the enemy knows it. We're so desperate that we have fresh kids on the front line like common savages, for god's sake!"
"You've seen it: they have access to our weapons and can disable or even countermand our autonomous drones. The Ghosts are now whittling away at our strength with hit-and-run tactics that we haven't put in practice for centuries when we were all-too happy to just send in the machines. If anything, this is more like a civil war than the rag-tag rebellion PSYOPS would have the rest of humanity believe."
"So who else but you, the perfect underdog: bloodied but not beaten by the same cowardly tactics that grieving fathers, wives, and brothers who lost their loved ones in similar circumstances as your squad know too well. I'm making you and your friends heroes."
Lance Corporal, she thought in disbelief. It never occurred to Miranda that anyone would see anything in her, and often she dreamed the joy of the moment she stood above others, and people could no longer look down upon her. Today, however, the weight of her sudden victory stirred nothing in her heart.
"If that's what we need," Miranda answered flatly.
"That's what I wanted to hear. Here is your new squad, unit designation TEAM LEONIDAS." Captain Wilkes pushed three folders toward her, each labeled respectively: PFC. CHITRA KUMAR, PVT. VIC HEALY, and PFC. ADAM LOVELL.
Miranda glanced over each dossier summary, puzzled. Every person she was in charge of had far more combat experience than she did, and in reality outranked her in every dimension. That was the moment Miranda worried what this woman was really up to.
"There's a couple of new faces," Captain Wilkes continued. "I tried to keep most familiar."
"And where am I leading these men...assuming I can lead them at all."
"We've got some trouble brewing near the Antarctic. Ghosts have overrun one of our research outposts down there, with some rather sensitive material onsite. I need your team down there for data recovery. Torch and burn if necessary. Fly out after a week of R&R."
Miranda took a deep breath, nodded then turned to leave with the dossiers.
"And one more thing," Wilkes pressed the button to open her office door. "There's the matter of the sixth number on your team. You wouldn't believe the trouble I went through to make it happen, but I pulled you one ace."
Another familiar face stepped in. Last time Miranda heard of Arya, she had been hospitalized and was supposed to be in intensive care, but there was no mistaking the killing intent in those eyes, the way she carried herself, and the silvery-white hair.
Arya was still the dainty five-foot tall lass of woman beneath the arctic blue night robe she wore. She didn't even bother to look at or salute Captain Wilkes as she peeled away the tiny cast on her left index and middle finger.
"Don't know who the fuck you are, Captain," Arya started, "but make it fast; I have a rather promising date tonight and places to be tomorrow."
"Actually, if you don't mind, I countermanded the PSYOPS section Chief to assign you as her bodyguard," Wilkes nodded for Miranda to introduce herself to Arya, as if she didn't know they had already served together in Velasquez Company; Miranda played along and kept her mouth shut for now. At the very least, she now understood this "Captain", who vastly overstepped her authority and could countermand a whole arm of the Coalition, wasn't all powerful or all knowing.
"You're supposed to be on life support," Miranda incredulously greeted Arya with a handshake.
"And you aren't supposed to amount to anything," Arya shot back.
"People change," Miranda smiled. "They become stronger through hard work alone."
"I wouldn't say that," Arya just stared off into the distance and smiled, an act Miranda considered absurd when they were half a mile underground. What the hell was so funny all of a sudden?
"In fact," Arya continued, "I'd beg to differ."