.

Perceptions

"Is something wrong, Captain?"

"Colonel now, actually...and no. Nothing's wrong."

Jan Templar knew that was a lie, at least outside the realm of personal feelings. Physically, he was fine. Mentally, he was fine, bar lingering regret about Vaughton, Luger and many other individuals he knew less well, but were no less important to the ISA. But in regards to the galaxy? Vekta in ruins, the helghast not in ruins besides the Third Army and with neither the ISA nor helghast willing to back down despite the UCN's desire for a mediation of the crisis...no. Things were wrong.

"Colonel?"

And despite her demeanour, he suspected Evelyn Batton knew it as well.

"I understand you've volunteered for this assignment," Jan said eventually, glancing away from the now planetside New Sun to the scientist standing in front of him. "To be shot ten astronomical units to a planet that wants to shoot us back, or at least just shoot us."

"I'm used to shooting sir."

"I didn't say you weren't. But-..."

"Red Dust is my creation. My responsibility. The thought of it being in the hands of those...animals..."

Batton trailed off. She kept to 'attention' (if the term could really be applied to a non-combatant), but Jan knew that in the realm of wrongness, they'd stepped out of the star system level to enter a personal one. He respected doctor-patient confidentiality, but Batton was portioning for a position in Battlegroup Mandrake, which gave him some leeway in regards to her personal file. A file he'd contributed to in a sense, via rescuing her at Rayhoven a few months back, but it was also a file that her helghast captors had also... 'contributed' to. And in much less savoury ways.

Was "responsibility" really on the doctor's mind, Jan wondered, as he looked for chinks in Batton's emotional armour? Or was it good old fashioned revenge?

Heck, revenge I could use. Revenge is going to be on everyone's mind once we arrive at Helghan. Revenge would be easy...

But still, nothing was ever that easy. If it was, Jan would have still been a RRF captain and the war would be over.

"Sir, if I may?" Batton asked eventually.

"May what?"

"May I point out that despite whatever reservations you might have, I'm not just some egghead looking for revenge."

Damnit.

"The helghast have Red Dust," Batton continued, her mind as unreadable as Luger's on a good day. "But not the codes to use it. I stopped them from that, at least, and-..."

"Yes, I know," Jan interrupted. "We all do. You did the ISA a great service." He leant forward on his desk. "But what did it accomplish you, Evelyn?"

"Pardon?"

"I mean, what favours did it do you? What the helghast did..."

"That's irrelevant."

"Is it?"

It wasn't. Jan knew it. Batton's shrink knew it. And despite her denials, she probably knew it as well. Torture at the hands of the helghast was sure to leave a mark on anyone, both physical and mental. And while Batton seemed to have recovered physically, Jan didn't feel qualified to pass judgement on whether the mental scars would be a liability at Helghan. Whether he'd have to live up to his surname and play the knight in shining armour.

But this isn't the typical damsel we're dealing with here. And provided Operation Archangel goes without a hitch, there'll be no chance of distress either. Not to mention that if Red Dust is the proverbial dragon, then the damsel is the only one that can stop it.

"You can take your leave doctor," Jan said eventually. "I'll get back to you."

The colonel returned his eyes to Batton's file, not waiting for a salute he knew would never come. Nor did he glance up as he heard her soft footfalls exit his office, her boots of a lighter calibre than the ones he and every other poor grunt on Vekta was forced to wear. Lucky girl.

Or not so lucky. After all...

Or very lucky. He'd saved her after all. She'd turned out to be made of stronger stuff. Potentially hard under the right circumstances.

Or wrong circumstances...and by the way, are you actually seeing her? Or what you want to see?

Jan shook the voice away. Batton wasn't Luger. Couldn't be. Wouldn't be. Unlike the shadow marshal, he actually knew where she was.

And as he laid back in his chair and glanced back at the New Sun, he wished he knew where he was as well.