Richard Houchin

Cost of Living

"Stasia?" Nikita asked, his voice radioed directly to her implants. Sunlight caught the dun skullplating of his head, wrinkled and sunbronzed skin meeting the metal around the earline. Matte black filters slid from watery blue eyes.

Stasia looked up, large hands pausing in their inspection, backgrounded by the roaring engines of the dropship. Nikita smiled and settled his back against his seat with a clang.

Stasia's green eyes met Nikita’s blue. She absently replied, "Yes, sir?" as her hands tightened on the barrel of her rifle.

"I just wanted you to stop worrying that rifle and sit up straight," Nikita remarked. "Your posture's terrible."

Stasia, mouth twitching open, didn't know what to say. "My posture, sir?"

"Relax your arms and shoulders, now, and don't hunch," Nikita rumbled. Stasia laughed and leaned back, tense shoulders standing out against the stark daysky. "You've still got flesh on you," Nikita continued, sadness flashing in watery blue, "in addition to the machine." He brought back a grizzled smile. "You ought to take care of it."

Lips pressing together in a rueful grin, Stasia agreed, "Yes, sir." Still, she added to herself, the rifle needed to be checked; they would be at the drop point soon.

Nikita watched her, as well as the other two soldiers in the dropship. Two men, silhouettes bulky from their armor, stood behind Stasia. He smiled proudly, unaware of the expression. Consumed by decades of dedication to the Rescue Team, such smiles had become a rarity.

Catching himself in the smile, he turned his thoughts to the time, far gone, when he had a broader scope of love, one that had included his family, and the woman he would have married. Kate -- an island of illumination in the wasteland of his memories. Feeding on old regrets, her flame had turned ghostly.