November 14, 2006
West Coast Pax Tower, Los Angeles, California
“Why, God? Why do you hate me?”
The words, whispered in Italian, faded into the hum of the air conditioners as Cecilia Bianchi stared at the mangled suit of plate mail in front of her. The armor belonged to Kodiak, evidenced by the giant brown bear barely visible on the scuffed and sooty chest plate. He was the seven-foot strongman of the West Coast Pax team, easily able to deadlift a stack of main battle tanks but not able to survive their guns without some additional help.
This armor was his help. Made of 102070 eternite steel by one of the best armor-crafters in the United States it was normally a pale gold in coloration, with a mirrored surface that curved smoothly so it would cover the muscular giant completely without restricting his movement in any way.
102070 stood for the percentages of the alloy: 10% ludium, 20% kartium, and 70% iron, with a pinch of carbon mixed in for good measure. The gold color came from the kartium, which was a rich, translucent gold in its pure, unset form. No one knew what its pure, set form would look like because no crafter was strong enough to set pure kartium. The highest known alloy of kartium was the 204040 used in the Eagle’s sword and that had taken the strongest crafter in the world almost a year to set.
102070 eternite steel, though not as strong, was immune to most forces available on Earth. Even diamond wouldn’t scratch it. Most anti-tank weaponry just bounced off it. Only the hottest plasma furnaces on the planet could melt it. Considering that last reason NASA had chosen 102070 as the armor for their Near-Solar Science Probe in the hopes that it would let the craft survive a solar flare… and it had, though most of the instruments melted off.
Thus the present condition of Kodiak’s armor, covered in char, dented in places, torn in one and scuffed all over, raised immediate questions about what had been going on all day while Cecilia had been at her secluded work bench crafting a load of nanocarbon platemail destined for the US Army Border Patrol at Fort Tecate. All she knew about the day’s events was that her supervisor Emile, the head crafter technician, had dropped Kodiak’s armor on her workstation at five minutes to five, told her it had to be ready for Kodiak to wear to a press conference the next morning, then left while mumbling something about a dinner date with his wife and another couple.
She hadn’t argued. It was hard to argue with a mouthful of Italian accent and a shaky grasp on spoken English. Six years in the United States and the words still deserted her whenever she really needed them.
She ran her hand over the plates, feeling the cracking and warping in the metal, all of which had to be fixed. She was already tired. Restoring Kodiak’s armor would drain her to the core.
It would also take most of the night.
Cecilia stared at herself in the one unblemished portion of the chest plate. Sharp face with high cheekbones, smooth olive skin, wavy black hair pulled back in a bun, dark brown eyes accented with mascara.
Self-analysis began immediately.
Her face was too thin and her cheekbones stood out because she hadn’t been eating enough.
Her skin was pale under its Mediterranean tone because she hadn’t spent any time outside in months.
Her hair was dull and frizzy because she hadn’t remembered to buy more conditioner the last four times she had been to the grocery store.
Her eyes were bloodshot because she hadn’t been sleeping well.
They also had squint lines around them.
She was only twenty-four. Too young to have wrinkles.
She started crying.
The mascara ran down her cheeks.
Cecilia made it to the parking garage shortly after midnight. She was weaving on her feet and couldn’t remember where she had parked her red Porsche. She found it in the second to last row, squeezed between two SUVs, after twenty minutes of searching.
She unlocked the door with the remote, slid in to open it, and dropped her keys.
The cars were too close for her to bend down. She had to get into the driver’s seat first, then turn around in the seat and hang upside down to get the keys from where they had bounced under the car.
Her necklace fell off while she was groping blindly for the keys. She didn’t notice until she was backing out of the parking space and missed the weight of the heavy gold coin around her neck.
She stopped the car, jumped out and ran to the parking space.
The coin was lying there, glinting dully under the layer of soot she had left on it. It had been her father’s, a solid gold Papal States doppia from 1820, passed down from a great-great-granduncle who had held an important position in the Vatican. Cecilia had no brothers and so the executor had made the decision to give the coin to her.
He had handed it to her in a small box when she arrived in Italy for the funeral. She had gotten the call informing her of the fire four days before that. Every hour after the call she had been submerged in a surreal fog, unable to accept the truth.
It had finally become real when she opened the box, saw the soot dulling the gold coin, and smelled the scent of smoke rising from it.
Her parents were gone.
After the funeral she had visited the burned out ruin of the farmhouse in person. Seeing that everything was gone she had sold the land, put the coin on a new chain around her neck, and headed back to Los Angeles.
That had been six months ago. It all came rushing back as she bent to retrieve the coin. Several hot tears took its place on the pavement as she picked it up. She wavered as she stood, cheeks cold with wet, and for a moment she wasn’t sure she would make it back to the car. It waited for her, thrumming, as she tried to remember why she was supposed to go on.
She closed her eyes, missing her parents with a fierce anguish and feeling out of place in a deserted Los Angeles parking garage. She had been raised among chickens and fields and vineyards. The concrete wilderness she was in had none of those.
Had it really been that important to ride her gift to the states?
All her teachers had said it was a wonderful opportunity. MIT had one of the best crafter-training programs in the world. Once she had a degree from them she could go anywhere, work for anyone.
Not for the first time she wished she had stayed in Italy, gone to the University of Florence just long enough to learn how to keep everything on the farm running, then found a good Italian working man to marry so he could take over the farm from Papa.
She had thought she left all those simple dreams behind. Until they weren’t there to go back to anymore. Until all that was left of home was a sooty coin heavy in her hand.
Somehow, being the only Italian student in the crafter program at MIT hadn’t mattered as long as she knew that back in Camaiore, Mama was covering the long oak farm table with bread, wine, affetati, and big plates of pici for Papa and any of the workers who didn’t have families to get home to.
Somehow, struggling to make impatient professors and supervisors understand her broken English through the thick accent she couldn’t seem to get rid of hadn’t mattered as long as she knew that Papa would understand it all with a look as soon as she walked through the door.
Somehow, failing her fine arts major and abandoning art altogether hadn’t mattered as long as she knew that her parents still had on their shelves every twisting green-glass tree and galloping granite horse she had made after discovering her gift. Those had all been crushed when the roof caved in from the fire, along with all the other secret dreams she hadn’t known she had.
God had taken her peace.
She opened her eyes, stumbled back to the Porsche and slumped into the seat. Her grandmother’s rosary beads swayed in front of her eyes, hanging from the rear view mirror. She reached up and fingered the smooth rosewood beads, remembering all the prayers she had prayed with that patient woman as a child. Prayers for mercy and blessing and aid. Prayers for her parents, prayers for their neighbors, prayers for missionaries and priests her Grandmother knew. Prayers even for her.
Cecilia remembered one prayer of her own, that Jesus would be her mercy and blessing and aid just like He was for her Grandmother and the missionaries. That He would be her God and be with her wherever she went.
She remembered knowing He would be.
“Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli…” she prayed.
She trailed off. The words of the Our Father felt dead in her mouth. She had prayed them on so many lonely nights over the years that she didn’t know how she could still believe that He heard her.
Cecilia put her hand on the wheel and pulled out of the parking garage.