Note: This excerpt contains spoilers for Firebox.
Alex didn’t feel at all cold as she stood atop her rock. That was partly because her coat was buttoned up all the way, and partly because she was a Champion and therefore largely immune to these temperatures. Mostly, though, it was because her dad was with her.
When she’d been younger, she and her father had always come up to this headland, and this rock in particular, to watch big ships approach the Narrows. Now that the Special Service Squadron was due, repeating the routine was important.
She was still her father’s daughter. That was one anchor she could always count on.
She had no idea what she’d do if she ever lost him, or her mother. Perhaps lacking such parents was the reason Emily had gone so wrong, and the reason so many other Champions could be edgy.
Alex could hardly imagine what that would be like, and certainly didn’t want to think of the absolute reality that one day she’d lose her parents. That event would be… had to be… a long way in the future.
Long after she’d figured herself out, killer whitecoat that she was.
She felt very silly for being uneasy about doing what she’d done in Virginia. Killing two men in a Jeep who were trying to murder Champions-in-training and soldiers was both justified and her responsibility.
But it had been so easy. Perhaps harder in the moment than she remembered looking back, but if she could already kill with that sort of certainty, what would the future hold?
It would have been better, perhaps, if she’d been having nightmares about it… or even having her old nightmares about Emily… but instead she was sleeping soundly. It was as though her mind simply wasn’t shocked by carnage any more. And that really had to make her wonder; if those sorts of days became normal, would she end up like Emily?
Deep dark questions, and as Alex realized they were preoccupying her, she shook her head. This needed to stop, but she wasn’t sure how or when it would.
Surely the ships would appear soon to distract her –– the might of the Royal Navy was coming to Newfoundland for a special summit, and Alex wanted to see the great ships when they arrived off St. John’s. She’d always loved big ships, because they made even her abilities seem somewhat small. She’d once been aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, and that battleship had been so massive, so overtly powerful, that it had filled her with wonder.
Unlike the skycruisers, big ships from the Royal Navy were all built by men. Vessels like George Tucker made everything seem easy (when they were undamaged), but ships like Queen Elizabeth wrestled with the mighty forces of nature every day. They weren’t above the storms; they drove fearlessly through them. They were awesome in every sense of the word.
And the ships due today were even grander than Queen Elizabeth, if that was possible. The Royal Navy’s Special Service Squadron was carrying the British Prime Minister, Lord Halifax, and the fifteen-ship formation was reputed to include the mighty aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Rodney, and of course, His Majesty’s Ship Hood.
Hood happened to be, by reputation and every photo Alex had ever seen, the most beautiful warship ever. She was the flagship of the Royal Navy –– the pride and joy –– and exceedingly powerful to boot.
Alex wanted to see all these ships as they reached Newfoundland… but as was often the case, the mists of the sea were getting in the way.
“I think there’s more fog rolling in,” she said after a while, frowning and looking down at her father. “Maybe we should leave and see them another day?”
Ten years earlier, Smith’s daughter would have refused to give up until she’d spotted what she’d come to see, or until night had made seeing it impossible. Her more reasonable stance now was probably wise, but the former-drifter didn’t accede to it, “We can sit a spell longer.”
“You sure?” she asked, and he could sense that she wasn’t just wondering if he was cold, or bored, but whether she wanted to be there herself. It was one of those double-meaning questions that the former-drifter had become accustomed to since starting a family, and now he shifted slightly in his saddle before responding.
“I’m still here, whatever you want, and whoever you think you are,” he replied. “You’re always my daughter.”
Alex was caught off guard by the answer to the question she technically hadn’t asked. She shouldn’t have been –– ask a loaded question, get a loaded answer –– but she was so surprised she looked away. Fortunately the wind was sharp enough that it was making her eyes water anyway.
She was glad she’d come up to the clearing with her father, even if they couldn’t see a damned thing. It was an important place to her, and one that somehow proved that, while she wasn’t a child anymore, she was still her father’s daughter. Having such an anchor made it easier to put other things in context.
Just as she thought that, and with the sort of timing that was slightly unnerving, the sun came out from behind a bright cloud and shot a beam of (relative) warmth at both of them. Narrowing her eyes, she managed to look back at her dad, “Did you time what you said to go with the sunlight?”
Smith had noticed the strange timing of the cloud too, but he was no good at fibbing, “No.”
Choosing to hear the word ‘yes’ instead, Alex smiled at her dad, “You’re the best.”
He knew better than to start an argument, so he simply shrugged his shoulders, then changed the subject, “I see ships.”
The sunlight was spreading fast over the headland and the water beyond –– the speed of weather changes in Newfoundland was legendary –– and sure enough, as the fog lifted, a flotilla of great gray leviathans appeared in the water, still miles out to sea. Mighty ships, beautiful ships, riding the choppy waves with majestic power.
Alex smiled and then started rocking up onto the balls of her feet to wave to them. They were too far out to have a chance of seeing her, especially since her white coat caused her to blend into the snow-covered trees that backed the clearing, but…
She shouldn’t have rocked up onto the balls of her feet.
Alex knew this boulder well –– she’d been climbing it for years. But usually she didn’t get atop it in winter, and she’d momentarily forgotten the patches of ice that had tucked into its crags.
The next thing she knew she was on her back, looking up at the sky, with an explosion of fine snow particles –– blown into the air by her landing –– flurrying down on her. She lay there for a second, not sure if she should be embarrassed or not, and then her father edged his horse sideways so he could lean out of the saddle and into her line of sight.
“Making a snow angel?”
That sounded like a workable excuse, so she nodded, “That’s exactly what I’ll tell people. Do you think anyone on the ships would have seen me fall over?”
Smith reached up and adjusted his hat, “Probably not.”
“Good,” she said. “But if they did…”
“Snow angel,” Smith confirmed. “Intentional.”
Crisis averted, and with good news for everyone: Lady Alex Smith was still at least a little awkward. Probably more than a little.