The point of her opponent’s épée slammed into her mask as the electronic buzzer sounded loudly on the wall. Her mind snapped back to the present, the day dream of her past disappearing in a haze of pressure and noise. Carol stepped back and shook her head, focusing on long deep breaths to bring her back to the present moment. The large gymnasium was packed with various Deus Ex staff all cheering on for the bout of the year. At some point in the recent past she had been convinced to defend the honour of Ex Mentis against Ex Gladius in a somewhat unsanctioned fencing match. So far she was losing.
The pull of the cable anchoring her to the wall and the scoring box dragged her backwards as she tried to refocus on her opponent. Private Brack eschewed the standard white fencing uniform and instead stood before her head to toe in black. His jacket bore the Ex Gladius patch of two lions separated by a sword with the words “Deorum Defende” embroidered in white underneath. Fitting.
Her own fencing outfit had seen better days, the crisp white had faded over time and use into a dull grey. She was surprised it still fit to be honest, albeit a little snug. Carol realised mid match that she hadn’t actually fenced since the day Sarah died. It was something she thought she had dealt with a long time ago, but apparently the muscle memory coupled with the sights and smells dragged up bitter memories of that day. That’s why she was losing, her mind had decided to replay that day for her over, and over again. It didn’t help that the tight fitting plastron and jacket strained against her chest protection triggering her anxiety, the cage she wore over her head wasn’t helping either. She was quite literally trapped in a prison of her own making.
Her old lover, Commander Richard Lavin, had offered his services to referee the match, like he used to do for her and Sarah.
Carol gripped her épée tighter, its moulded pistol grip feeling small and fragile under her leather gloves.
She swallowed hard, trying to focus her mind on the match. Her eyes flicked to Richard, was that concern on his face? No, he’s always looked like that. She sank back into her en-garde position, grounding herself against the inevitable attack from Brack.
Carol remained crouched while Brack launched himself against her, relying on strength to win the point. Sarah had always gone on the attack as well, preferring to take the high risk chance of landing a hit before her opponent could react. Carol was of the opinion that a solid defence, coupled with a calm mind could overcome even the most difficult opponents. She once had a match called for time because neither her nor her opponent moved the entire round.
Brack’s blade shot forward aiming directly for her face. In a split second Carol used minute control of the blade to deflect the oncoming attack by millimetres and slid her own blade up along the shaft of Brack’s. She could see his eyes widen through the pitch black mesh covering his face as her point was guided perfectly along the blade and landed solidly on his face mask. The buzzer sounded and the crowed erupted into cheers as she brought the match back up to a tie. A string of obscenities flowed from Brack’s mouth as he retreated back down the piste.
‘Watch yourself, Private.’ Warned his commanding officer.
The crowed cheered both fencers on as Lavin readied them for the deciding point. Carol steadied herself into the en-garde position, watching Brack’s body language to see how he might react this time. He was clearly annoyed and angry at himself for letting her land that last point. Usually people lash out when they let their emotions drown out rational thought, but she knew Brack. His psych profile and post mission debriefs showed that while he was young and passionate, he tended to be calm under pressure. As he grounded himself, she watched a wave of stillness fall over him. He’d wait for her to come to him? Maybe.
Lavin called ‘Allez’, and the crowd hushed as neither of them moved, apart from a low bounce to keep their weight shifting back and forth. Brack slowly stepped forward and back, trying to entice her in to his weapon range. She kept her distance, following his lead perfectly. They danced like this for a while, occasionally Brack smacked away her blade in an attempt to get her to react. She smiled under her mask, this was what she loved about fencing. Getting into your opponent’s head, trying to make them react in the way you wanted them to. The Private stomped his foot aggressively with a fake lunge, yet she remained perfectly still. The timer counted down the seconds of the match, one of them would need to make a move soon or the result would be a tie, and neither of them wanted that.
Brack changed tactic and started to encroach on her space, forcing her back along the piste. Cornering her at the edge was a good tactic, she’d have to react or risk going off the back and awarding the winning point to him. Carol formulated a plan of attack in her mind, she’d parry the blade, move inside his weapon range, and then score another point on his mask. It was risky but she was confident and focused for the first time since starting this match. Brack pushed her back again till her foot was just touching the back line of the piste. Now! She beat his blade pushing it down and away from her, and in a split second before he could recover, flicked her blade up and aimed for his head. Brack realised his mistake and quickly tried to recover aiming for her body trying to score the point before she could.
Carol loaded her back foot with her weight and lunged forward, moving her front leg out of reach of his blade tip. She allowed a sly smile to cross her face as she lunged, confident in the win. It was then she noticed the tall brunette woman standing off to the side. Her arms folded as she looked on at the match, an empty expression on her face.
‘Sarah?’ Carol whispered to herself as she forgot everything in the moment. Luckily, the momentum carried her and her blade forward scoring a hit seconds before Brack’s own sword hit her foot. Unfortunately for Brack, the self control that held back Carol’s full strength slipped, and his mask bent inward as the sword made harsh contact and snapped in half. His head whipped back and he dropped his weapon, it dangled uselessly from his jacket sleeve as the connecting wires stopped it from falling completely.
He grabbed at his mask, stepping back from her as Lavin rushed over to grab her hand. Swinging it up he declared her the winner of the match to an eruption of applause from the Ex Mentis and Libris teams, and a harsh boo from the Ex Gladius and Machina supporters. Carol didn’t take much of it in as she was focused on watching Sarah shimmer out of existence. She’d told herself before that ghosts weren’t real, but it was hard to believe when she was haunted daily by her past. Pulling her hand away from Lavin’s she disconnected her blade and walked briskly to the change rooms. At some point someone had disconnected her from the scoring box which was convenient as she had completely forgotten about it.
It wasn’t until she was alone in the empty change room that she removed the mask. The tears that had started to fall down her cheeks now ran in a stream as she let the feelings rush over her.
‘The dead should stay dead!’ Carol screamed in frustration and grief, slamming her fencing mask across the room and into one of the metal lockers lining the walls. The harsh sound echoed around the small room hurting her ears. She backed up into one of the lockers and allowed her body to collapse under her, sliding down to the cold floor, crumpling into the smallest shape she could manage. This was how Richard found her a few moments later.
‘Carol, they want you to…’ He didn’t finish the sentence as he noticed her sobbing quietly on the floor. ‘Oh, love.’ Richard said kindly as he moved to sit with her.
‘What the fuck, Carol? You nearly killed me out there!’ Brack yelled as he barged into the change room, holding up his severely dented mask and pointing to the dark bruise forming on his forehead.
‘Not now, Private.’ Said Lavin dismissively.
‘Sir! She almost…’
‘I said, not now Private.’ His voice didn’t raise but the tone shifted to that of a commanding officer and Brack stowed away his objections. The angry Private looked down at Carol and passive aggressively saluted Lavin before removing himself from the room. Carol was only vaguely aware of the interaction, holding in her tears long enough for Richard to put a comforting arm around her.
She leant heavily into him and let go of the last mental threads holding herself together. The guilt of being a mess for Richard to clean up added to the anger, frustration, grief, and yet more guilt she was already feeling. She tried to say sorry but all that came out were horrid sobs. Richard told her to hush and simply held her tighter, letting her cry it all out. She wrapped an arm around him and let herself go, willing her feelings to flow out of her, to leave her empty and hollow. Of all people, she knew this wasn’t a viable or healthy option but for now all she wanted was to forget everything and never have to think about Sarah ever again.