Being thrown with enough force to put a dent in concrete was not an enjoyable experience. Val spit out a glob of blood and smiled though. Things were only going sixty percent as bad as she’d imagined they might.
“So this is it? You’ve won?” Val asked the woman who currently had her in an unbreakable hold.
“Essentially? Yes,” Misha said, her breath almost as hard and ragged as Val’s. “Your enchantments won’t last much longer and once they fade, PrimaLux security will handle the rest.”
“Don’t suppose you’re inclined to let me go while we wait?” Val asked. It wasn’t easy to talk with the weight Misha was using to drive her into the wall of the parking garage but Val made an effort to sound as breezy and unconcerned as she could.
“I can’t,” Misha said, sounding more regretful than Val had expected.
“No worries,” Val said. “I don’t blame you for being smart and careful.”
“You would do the same in my position, I imagine,” Misha said, easing off the force she was using to pin Val.
“Believe it or not, I wouldn’t,” Val said. “I mean, I get that we’re on opposite sides here, but I don’t have any interest in killing you or turning you into a mindless drone.”
“If I thought we could trust you, I would extend the same offer Aaliyah is making to Ms Le,” Misha said. She adjusted how she was standing behind Val to be a little more comfortable. While it was true that the magic powering them both was too potent to last long, even a pessimistic estimate suggested Val would remain a threat for several more minutes.
“That’s not in the cards though is it?” Val asked. She could have used Misha’s shift in stance as an opening to fight for leverage or freedom but she didn’t need to. Misha’s hold on Val had stopped the fight and was just as effective at keeping Misha in one spot as it was for doing the same to Val.
“I don’t think it ever can be,” Misha said. “Trust is built on experience. If someone is willing to change sides when under duress then they’ve proven they have no loyalty to what they claimed to believe in. How could you ever trust someone like that?”
“I think it depends on why they choose to change their loyalties,” Val said. “Sometimes all that’s keeping us from changing is that no one has offered us the chance to yet.”
Misha shook her head.
“People don’t change because of words. If it was that easy, everyone would be the best version they could imagine themselves to be, just by talking themselves into it.”
“Yeah, not just because of words,” Val said. “If we can’t imagine something though it’s a lot harder to make it real. That’s what talking is for. You know, to give us new perspectives, make us see things we couldn’t before.”
Misha relaxed her grip a bit more, either giving Val an opening to escape, or daring her to try to take it.
“Oh? And what could I offer you that would make you see the wisdom in joining our team?” Misha asked.
“Tell me about the things you like,” Val said. “Tell me how working for PrimaLux allows you to be who you want to be.”
“That’s not how things work here,” Misha said, her voice frosting over like a wine glass in winter.
“Shouldn’t it be?” Val asked. She shifted her weight, but leaned into the wall further to signal that she wasn’t trying to escape.
“How things should be doesn’t matter,” Misha said. “We have to live with things as they are.”
“Where does that get you at the end of the day?” Val asked.
“As the one who’s not pinned face first against a wall,” Misha said.
“Are you sure about that?” Val asked.
The explosion in the parking garage had sent people within the PrimaLux HQ scurrying to their windows, but since that was on the opposite side of the parking garage from where Misha had thrown her, Val wasn’t worried about being seen. The only thing behind Misha was a lovely little patch of woods, one which none of the common class of PrimaLux employees was authorized to walk in.
“I think it’s pretty clear which of us is making it out of this situation,” Misha said.
“That’s today,” Val said. “How’s tomorrow looking for you?”
“Like I’m going to have one,” Misha said.
“That wasn’t ever in doubt though, was it?” Val asked.
“You came armed with the same sort of tricks I did,” Misha said.
“Could I have gotten your attention without them?” Val asked.
“I have an email address, and voicemail,” Misha said.
“If you’re calling about thwarting our plans for world domination, press 1, if you’re calling to join our evil cabal, press 2, for all other inquiries stay on the line and someone will suck your soul out while you wait,” she said.
“World domination is 2,” Misha said. “To join the evil cabal you have to call Human Resources.”
“Is that how they got you?” Val asked. “You returned a call and got snared in the automated phone system?”
“Something like that,” Misha said.
“And now that they’ve got you, leaving isn’t really an option is it?” Val asked.
“Why would I want to?” Misha said. “I travel the world. I have an expense account that could buy a small country. And the work I do matters. I’m not one of the drones. I’m the one calling the shots in my domain.”
“The drones matter,” Val said.
“The people who do the regular, normal work,” Val said. “They matter too.”
“Some people matter more than others,” Misha said.
“A life is a life,” Val said. “You served. Would you have taken a bullet for a fellow Marine?”
“If I had to,” Misha said.
“Would their rank have mattered?” Val asked.
Misha didn’t respond at first but finally sighed and conceded the point with a short “No.”
“Why did you leave?” Val asked.
“I thought Ms Le had detailed files on all of my team? Don’t you know already?” Misha asked.
“I’d rather believe what you say than some official report,” Val said.
The smoke from the explosion was gradually starting to clear and Val knew that the fire trucks wouldn’t take long to arrive. Her best chance to escape was when Misha force marched her away from the parking garage, but that wasn’t going to happen for a few minutes, and Val had no intention of trying to break loose even when it did.
“There wasn’t anywhere for me to go,” Misha said. “I’d hit a ceiling and my CO made it abundantly clear that I was never going to be promoted any higher. My choices were to wait until he put in enough false conduct reports to get me kicked with a General Discharge or resign when my next re-enlistment was up. So I did the smart thing.”
“What if you could have won that fight though?” Val asked. “Would you have stayed in? Would you have even wanted to move up the chain of command?”
“Look where I am now and take a guess?” Misha said.
“Well, from where I’m standing, I’d say you like to keep your hand in the game,” Val said, glancing back to catch a glimpse of Misha’s expression. “That’s not exactly typical work for a General.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t normally be doing this,” Misha said. “You’re a special case.”
“Believe it or not, I’ve heard those exact words a few times before,” Val said. “I’ve got to say though, I’m not all that special. This is something you’ve just got to accept about yourself. You like this. It’s what you really want to be doing.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe somedays work out ok,” Misha said. “Honestly, it’s a shame how this one is going to work out for you though.”
“That’s not something you think you can change though is it?” Val asked. “Any more than you could change how your CO was treating you?”
“There are some things you can fight, and some things you can’t,” Misha said. “The ones you can’t fight, you have to accept and move on.”
“Sure, but how do you know what you can fight until you’ve really tried?” Val asked. “And even if you can’t win, if the alternative is unacceptable, don’t you have to fight anyways?”
“No,” Misha said. “You can choose to survive. Whatever it takes.”
“Do you remember who you were when you went into Marines,” Val asked. “Was that woman the same woman you are today?”
“Of course not,” Misha said. “I hadn’t seen any of the things then that I’ve seen now. I didn’t have any idea how the world really worked.”
“But she was still you, right?” Val asked.
“I don’t understand the question,” Misha said.
“The person you were then, and the person you are now, they’re both you with the difference between them being the choices you’ve made and the experiences you’ve had,” Val said.
“Ok, yes, that’s true,” Misha said.
“That’s why you need to fight, even when you’re going to lose,” Val said. “You know what PrimaLux is doing is unacceptable. As long as you’re with them though, they’re making your choices for you. What they’re doing, what they’re making you protect, are the kind of things you can never justify, and never accept. You said you can could choose to survive, but is it survival if the person you become is the person someone else decided you should be? If you compromise everything, then what’s left that’s really you anymore?”
Misha was silent for long moment before answering.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe there’s nothing. But it doesn’t matter. If you’d beaten me, you could have forced me to see things your way. Maybe it would even have been better. But that’s not how things turned out. At this point either you’re going to die, or we’re both going to die, and since I get choose, I’m going to pick the option where I get to enjoy my coffee tomorrow morning.”
“You know what’s funny?” Val said. “Forcing you to see things my way is the one thing I can’t do. That would just be replacing your choice with mine, which would kind of defeat the purpose of my whole argument. What I can do is prove to you that there’s another option.”
“Pardon my disbelief, but how exactly do you think you can do that?” Misha asked.
“You cut off my comms, but I know you kept your own intact,” Val said. “Ask your support staff to look up the status of your former CO. I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere. Yet.”
Misha was silent for a moment, Val guessed subvocalizing the request to the staff she had backing her up. A minute passed by and Val felt the enchantments she was carrying beginning to fade faster every moment, and in the distance the fire truck’s sirens began to blare.
“He’s gone,” Misha said, her voice fluttering as her hold on Val went slack. “Dishonorable discharge. Conduct unbecoming an officer.”
“He was a parasite and he ruined more careers than yours,” Val said. “So we did something about it. It was too late to fix things for you, but not for the women who follow your lead.”
“Who?” Misha asked, dropping her hands away from Val entirely.
“You know that you had a small of band of groupies right?” Val asked. “There were women who enrolled because they met you. There are ones still serving who cite you as the reason they were able to make it through basic. Doing the things that Prima asks, you might not feel like a hero, but to them you always will be.”
“But why? Why would you do that?” Misha asked as Val turned to face her.
“Because it was the right thing to do. As soon as I read your dossier, I saw that,” Val said. “And I wanted to show you that some fights are worth taking on, even if the odds look terrible.”
“But you lost here,” Misha said, her eyes searching for any confirmation that her words were true.
“Did I?” Val asked.
From the garage, a car revved its engine and pulled out. Val recognized the sound. It was the getaway car she’d stashed on the opposite side of the elevators from Claudia Goodwin’s car. The side of the garage that hadn’t been caught in the explosion.
As Val watched, former-Vice President Goodwin drove out of the parking garage and pulled around to the back where Val and Misha were waiting.
“How?” Misha asked, looking between the smiling Val and the inexplicably still living Claudia Goodwin.
“Only one way to find out,” Val said, gesturing towards the car and offering Misha her hand.