Private Steele had been in far more life-threatening situations than the average twenty-year-old woman. But her military training and combat experience did not prepare her for this most risk-laden and treacherous of scenarios: the first date.
Steele tried not to shift in her chair, to keep her attention focused on the target seated across the table from her. She vaguely understood that the mission directive was to be “charming” and “pleasant,” but the habits drilled into her in boot camp were hard to shake.
First question: Am I in danger? Answer, yes.
The answer was always “yes.”
Define the nature of the threat.
Steele pondered. I’m in unknown territory, addressing a situation for which I have no training. I am unarmed, and my uniform… She glanced down at the flimsy, clingy, sheath-like dress that her bunkmate had loaned her… Is completely ill-suited for any sort of close-quarters maneuvering.
What is the level of physical danger?
Steele assessed the face of the man sitting across from her for the umpteenth time. It was a very nice face, with a confident smile, one tooth replaced by adamantine. He had a scar through his right eye that she couldn’t help but classify as “adorable,” and a couple others on his wide chin. His name was Kraig, and he was a minor-league terrorball player who was close to being promoted to the majors. He was a head taller than Steele and his shoulders were very broad. Yet despite his height advantage and obvious strength and agility, Steele was fairly certain that if it came to hand-to-hand, she’d be able to take him down with ease.
So, she knew she was in no physical danger, yet her heart was beating at… 2.6 times its resting rate. Her palms were sweating. And she couldn’t get comfortable in the damn dress!
Calm down, soldier. Focus.
Steele focused. Kraig was talking. He had been doing so for fifty-five minutes, since they sat down. She checked in long enough to confirm that, yes, he was still talking about terrorball. Steele often ignored verbal cues, to focus on the nonverbal.
His gaze was yearning, almost predatory. Almost every male legionnaire Steele had met, and about thirty percent of the females, had looked at her that way, at first. She had a vague but slippery understanding, which she could never grasp onto, that her appearance somehow merited these leers. Fortunately, that hungry stare was inevitably supplanted by one of wariness and a bit of fear, eventually.
He was confident, leaning toward her but with his arms wide open, as though trying to reach for her, but subtly. Of course this stance left his entire midsection open to a hit to the sternum, but the fact that he seemed unconcerned with such a possibility made him appear more assured. And that confidence was very… attractive.
And… he was drinking a lot of Grenovian wine. And he had been sure that her glass was never less than five centimeters full. So… she had been drinking a lot of Grenovian wine as well. And she was starting to care just a bit less about how uncomfortable she was.
Something had changed. Kraig had stopped talking. Steele focused.
“So the legions are treating you ok?”
He smiled, and she recognized that smile too. Every civilian gave that look when they met someone was the Imperial legions. It feigned respect and sympathy, echoed a “support the troops” mantra that all good citizens were supposed to have, and yet contained a heaping of condescension barely below the surface, mixed with pity, possible disgust depending on one’s political leanings, and evidenced a complete lack of understanding of what she was about.
Steele didn’t like to talk about herself, but she took a long sip of wine, and joined the conversation.
“Well, you know… I really like being a soldier.”
Kraig widened that irritating grin, “Seen any action?”
“Sure… My first tour, we were sent to Giza Seven to put down the rebellion there. Man, that was a mess. I think I saw action a few dozen times. I can think of seven times I was almost killed.” Steele smiled back, warming to the story.
“Almost… really? You…” Kraig paused, his voice lowered. “Have you killed anyone?”
Steele chuckled, “I said I was almost killed, didn’t I?” She winked at him.
This was good wine.
“Oh!” she said, “I have a great story from that deployment.” Steele leaned in. “So the Giza rebellion was a total cluster-fubar, you know? I mean, there had to be like a few thousand of us, and a few million rebels. They weren’t armed that well, but there were just so many of them! So my unit is in the middle of this onslaught, and it was chaos, like the biggest bar-brawl you ever saw. I’m just firing my blaster nonstop until it overheats, and then I’m hand-to hand.
“So I’m just using the blaster to beat anyone who comes near. And I’m throwing elbows, using every move I have. I’m breaking arms, legs, skulls, it’s just gruesome, I mean blood everywhere, and I’m starting to get tired because I’ve been at it for a while, you know?”
Kraig swallowed. “Yeah?”
“And so then I look around, and get this. I’m totally alone! Command called for a tactical withdrawal, and my com must have malfunctioned because I’m the only one who didn’t get the message. My entire unit has bugged out, and it’s just me fighting like a few thousand hostiles!”
Steele’s date was beginning to look a bit green, but Steele was too involved in her story to notice. “So it turns out, I was four minutes away from the flyboys dropping a quantum-fusion bomb that ended up wiping out half the continent. I mean. Literally. Half the continent.”
Steele paused before jumping into the tale of how she survived, and noticed that Kraig’s demeanor had definitely changed. Yup, the predatory smile was gone. And there was the look of fear she was used to.
She pushed her chair back, “I’ll finish that story in a second, but first I have to powder… something.”
Steele rushed to the ladies’ room.
Standing before the mirror with her hands clutching the sink, Steele felt her heart racing. She had gone into this mission… no, this dinner, with one objective. Don’t scare the shit out of her date. She needed a new topic of conversation. What did women like to talk about?
Something having to do with… colors, maybe?
As Steele tried to pull herself together, the doors to the three bathroom stalls behind her opened, in unison. Steele might have noticed that this was odd if she were not thinking about other things. Three women with identical faces exited the stalls and strode toward the sinks, also in unison. Even distracted, a tiny part of Steele’s mind noted that that was odd. Then she realized that their faces weren’t identical, they were wearing masks. This was just registering when the middle one threw a black cloth bag over Steele’s head and cinched it shut around her neck.
First question: Am I in danger?
Answer, oh yeah!
Just as the bag was closed, Steele snapped her head backwards with explosive force. The satisfying crnch she felt meant that she’d shattered the mask behind her, and probably the nose beneath the mask.
Steele momentarily considered removing the sack from her head, but fighting multiple opponents blind brought back a warm sense of nostalgia from all the times her five brothers had ambushed her back home, and she decided to keep fighting this way, in order to be more sporting. After all, there were only three of them.
She instinctively dropped to the ground as she heard the hum of something pass through where Steele’s head had been. She rolled backward, then smoothly executed the Octopus with Seven Blades and a Club. Steele’s martial arts instructor had taught her this maneuver as a joke, but she found it incredibly helpful in situations where it was necessary to match complete pandemonium with chaotic violence.
Steele seemed to find herself in such situations more than the average person.
After about three minutes, Steele could sense no movement around her. She removed the sack from her head and surveyed the three bodies, one upside-down against the wall, one hanging over the door to a stall, and one inserted improbably into the sink.
Steele sized herself up in the mirror. What little makeup she’d applied was a mess, her dress was tattered, and she had a nasty gash on her leg. She checked her pulse. Barely elevated.
Steele breathed in deeply, and smiled with the sense of serene calm that only frenzied violence brought her.
Drawing herself up straight, and smoothing out her dress as much as possible, Steele strode out of the bathroom, back to her table. She knew she’d have to draw the date to a close and report back about whatever had just happened, but hoped that she could at least ask Kraig for a rain-check.
Unfortunately, Kraig had decided to depart during Steele’s absence. At least he had been gentleman enough to pay the bill first.
Steele surveyed the empty table, sat down in her chair with a sigh and, ignoring the stares of the diners around her, requested the dessert menu.