This chapter contains explicit sexual content.
“Ensign Anahid, how do you feel about the Republic of Alayze? You can be candid.”
It’s a dump.
A failed state.
We should be ashamed. We should beg for forgiveness.
“I think as the sole remaining democracy of the sea, it’s worth fighting for.”
Ensign Samuel “Sam” Anahid stood in the middle of a dim blue windowless room with a high ceiling. In this room there were only three things. The desk of the Director of the General Intelligence Agency, the director himself, behind the desk, and a miasma of palpable deceit that was everywhere in the Republic of Alayze. No adornments, no windows; this cell-like room was the heart and the soul of the G.I.A.
Wearing a neutral expression, Sam told a lie. Not a muscle in his face twitched out of place.
“Good answer, candid and honest. You are quite correct Ensign. Ours is not a perfect country; everyone can see this easily. But our role, nonetheless, is to protect it with all of our might. Because its people can still make it great. If we surmount the firestorm of this era, because we are a democracy, we can achieve anything. Those despots in the Imbrian Ocean can only lord over an unchanging and stagnating relic.”
It was customary for G.I.A. officials with important missions to take on new identities.
To become Director, the man before Samuel had to abandon his old name. That plaque on his desk, which read Albert Ford-Reagan, was just another falsity that was borne out of this room and its mission. For a man who sat behind a desk all day and gave orders, he was solidly built, broad-backed, square-jawed. He had an open case of cigars on his desk from which many pieces were missing. His eyes were crystalline and upon them information could be seen flitting– cybernetics. His hair was voluminous for his age, slicked back. There had been an older Director when Sam first joined. But he looked like this too.
Maybe if Sam did outstandingly, he might someday be reborn as a broad-backed blond bear.
Rather than a narrow-chested, slender-limbed twink, hiding half his face behind his long hair.
But the thought of becoming like that man– disgusted him.
He had some unreachable ideas of what he wanted–
No use contemplating it. Not here anyway.
Sam was sparse with his words. What could he say?
He didn’t even know why he was summoned.
And no matter what he said, he would find out sooner or later.
“From now on, you will go by Blake McClinton.” Director Albert said suddenly.
“We’re assigning you a valuable mission in the Imbrian Ocean. Your right to forfeit this mission was the question that I asked you earlier.” Director Albert said. “You will receive field training and full details in the coming weeks. You are now a full-fledged field agent, Ensign. Congratulations.”
It was that sudden.
And that was, truly, all the Director said, or needed to say.
Every blank he left was filled in by the culture of the G.I.A. Sam did not even have to acquiesce or accept the mission. He had accepted such a mission already, every time he lied in order to protect his career prospects. He had done the work to remain in the office, to continue to don his badge, and he had done enough that there was no running away from it anymore. He was the best analyst, so there was only one way for him to go. The G.I.A. had more desk officers coming, and the Republic’s war was endless.
All of this because I was too much of a pussy to fight on the front lines from the start.
He made Ensign off the back of being able to read better into data than his colleagues.
All because he didn’t want to die in a Cutter’s bridge fighting the Hanwans or Imbrians.
Now he was getting field duty– in Imbria, no less.
Sam quietly left the office after the conversation with the Director.
There was nothing more to be said.
He left for home while he had the chance.
Madison Station was the home of the G.I.A Central Directorate. It was a squat cylindrical station with only two stories, the top tier having discrete buildings inside while the bottom provided transport infrastructure to outlying habitation spires. Overhead, the thick titanium roof was like an eternal gray sky. There was a fake, grassy park stretching out from the white slab of the Central Directorate building, surrounded by high fences patrolled by quad-rotor drones. Each stretch of the park had a sun-lamp to keep the grass alive that was uncomfortable to stand under. And in fact, even agents would be chased off by the drones if they loitered in the lawn anyway– to say nothing of the few bubbles which contained trees. Everything was look-don’t-touch, the tiniest splash of aesthetics below the grey horizon.
Outside the fences, there were long roads for personal electric cars and for the electric ferry. There were few such cars parked near the street. Cars were like toys; you could drive your car if you lived in the habitat in Madison itself, and you drove it from your work which was a few blocks away and back to your home. It was a novelty. If you lived in an outlying hab like Sam, you could not possibly take your car there and back. Some people did keep a car in the car park in Madison, so they would tube to their hab and back, but drive to work using their car– it was nonsense. He had the money, but why would he bother?
Besides the cars, the streets around the Directorate were sparse with people.
Across the road, however, the crowd was much thicker.
The Central Directorate was an isolated bubble.
Everywhere else stood the teeming mass of the Republic’s people. Madison was nowhere near the most crowded, but Sam still had to push in a little after crossing the road. Office buildings, restaurants, store-fronts, no matter where he walked, the street was teeming. Dim lights. Everything was dim, as if the city feared any bright colors. Amid a crowd of people in similar office-wear to his own, all dimly looking around as if dazed. Sam had been places where walking down the street felt like a queue system.
Madison was not that bad– yet. It would get there someday.
There were less and less stations going up these days. Building them had become very convoluted.
Politically and financially–
No sense in thinking about it too much.
He made his way to an elevator and rode it down into the lower tier.
Here, the steel guts of the station were on full display. There was nothing but metal, tubes and vents and pipes, sealed off rooms with mechanisms. No attempt to embellish anything. Wide and broad hallways full of people led between tube stations out to the outlying spire hab blocks that surrounded the main structure of Madison. There were some shops here and there for the people coming and going, cramped little restaurants that were literally holes in the wall, kiosks with patriotic trinkets for folks visiting the Capital. With his hands in his pockets, Sam made his way to the tube out to Hab block “Clancy.”
Entering a tight train car, standing in the center holding himself up with a bar.
Once the train got going, fake windows would project an idyllic view of the outside.
Madison had been built at 300 meters depth on the Great Alayze Reach.
That was the base. These tubes were actually at 250 meters depth.
The Great Reaches were sacred places rendered safe by some poorly understood force, maybe some weather pattern, magnetic field, some forgotten surface device, God knew why– but there was none of the aggressive megafauna, wild currents, storms, red tides, and residual corruption that plagued the rest of the photic layers of the ocean. So when Sam peeked out of those false windows there was a bit of light outside, the marine fog was not as thick. Everyone felt safe. Nobody was terrified of the water.
You could see schools of fish, life, a place teeming with biological hope.
To leave Madison for the neighboring Pennsylvania Station you had to cross the Upper Scattering Layer and dive down into the aphotic depths, as most of the Republic lay between 900 to 1500 depth in the Cogitum Ocean. The USL was called that because most of human civilization was beneath it, but Madison was one of the few places above the USL where the moniker made no sense to the ruling class of people who got to live in this privileged bubble. Sometimes Sam nursed a catastrophic idea– if the Surface got worse, and the Great Reaches became as dangerous as the rest of the photic ocean around them.
Madison and the entire Republic government would be completely annihilated.
Maybe that was what it would take. The Imbrians, Hanwans, Katarrans, they could not end the Republic.
But maybe someday God would strike the Republic down just as He struck the surface down.
When the tube stopped inside of Clancy hab, the view became a lot less pretty.
Out on the platform, a police officer had pulled aside a civilian. There was a brief argument before the officer laid an unprompted beating that Sam could not bear to watch it and hurried away.
Leaving behind the depressing tube platform he found himself at the base of the hab, a cylindrical promenade around the elevators, where there was a shabby cafeteria and a few sparse storefronts. Nothing staffed by people, everything was pay-to-operate and self-serve. Sam hated these– he would not eat here unless the situation in his apartment was truly dire. But he was well paid, he could afford to keep his own food at home. Most of the people in this hab were immigrants in the service industry.
Yellow lights gave the halls leading to his apartment a gloomy ambiance.
Everything was so dim– why? Why couldn’t they have some brightness for once?
When Sam arrived at his own hall there was an enormous mess in front of him.
There was an eviction happening in his hall, so a person’s belongings were getting dumped out of an apartment like trash by several police officers. Sam had to navigate a maze of trash bags and furniture to get through, and the police officers gave him a disdainful look for it and barked at him to hurry up. There was a bloodied young man up against a wall, his nose punched deep purple — Sam didn’t know anyone here so he didn’t know who it was. He assumed that was the former inhabitant after the police got him.
Evicted from here, he’d be taken directly to a prison station.
He would either rot in jail or be sentenced to a Debtors’ Corps for work or war.
When Sam finally got to his own door, the hallway lights were blinking on and off.
He sighed. They couldn’t even have steady power– how would they manage color?
Then, he got his colors–
Inside, the first thing he saw was a big red flashing warning on his wall.
Rent due: $2000 Republic New Dollar or RND.
That warning would flash like a mental assault at him from every wall until it was paid.
Exasperated, Sam easily dispersed the warning by flashing his bank card at the wall.
Turning the dire red light back to the dim, depressing yellow.
$2000 RND was like a fifth of his monthly salary. It was barely anything to him.
For the laborers it could be close to three quarters of it.
Sam imagined that for that evictee, this warning flashed at him for a whole month.
He saw it every day awaiting the knock from the police, helpless.
Some holy land, the Great Alayze Reach. Some country, the great Republic of Alayze.
Sam slammed the door behind himself and laid back against it, breathing heavy.
He almost thought he would have a panic attack.
Rotten fucking day– rotten fucking place–
“What do I think of this place? I fucking hate it. I can’t imagine Imbria is any worse.”
Sam took in a deep breath.
Using the wall to help himself stand back up straight.
Thumbing the wall touchpad to bring up the lights, brightening up his 7 by 5 meter space.
They never got too bright, but it was a less dim yellow than the halls now.
The apartment was divided into three sections, the living space, kitchen, and bathroom.
There was an island that separated the living space and kitchen, while the bathroom was tucked away behind another door. From the hallway door, Sam was in his living space, with a combination sofa and bed, that folded out, a table, a combination video-screen and terminal mounted on the wall that had its own processor, making it just a bit faster and nicer than using the room computer. In his kitchen, there was an electric cooktop with a small convection box, and an icebox and pantry.
Sam used to pay to get his food automatically restocked, but he stopped. It was people from Clancy that delivered it, and he hated the idea of his neighbors running to Madison and back for him.
So he just made it part of his routine to shop in Madison and bring stuff back sometimes.
It also gave him an excuse to stick around Madison– sometimes he needed that.
Soon as the lights went on, Sam pulled off his tie, dropped his suit jacket on the floor. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it too but kept his pants on. He had a little ritual– he was deeply ashamed of it, but it gave him a specific thrill that made him feel more at home with himself. He would grab a smoke, lay on the sofa in just his pants, shirtless, no shoes– but he would put on a woman’s brassiere.
A black, padded bra that fit tight on him, sleek, with a floral pattern. He had picked it out, bought it “for a girlfriend” that he obviously did not fucking have. Then he wore it at home– it felt sexy.
Between drags of his cigarette he would look down at his chest. It titillated him a bit.
“I’m nothing but a fucking pervert. But so is everyone fucking else in this country.”
This wasn’t something that was wholly unknown to the Republic–
Tranvestism– no, it was transgenderism— whatever. Wanting to be a woman.
Sam could have talked to a doctor, gone through psych evals, gotten real-looking tits.
He could afford it– but–
It’d have ruined his career.
That sort of thing was tolerated, but not truly permitted.
He was in his early 20s and already Ensign. He was good at lying and fucking people over and arranging schemes for the most evil and savage freaks on this planet so they could keep killing in the name of democracy and freedom. That was his job, and he was good at it, and if he showed up to those people in a pencil skirt and tights and makeup with a pair of C-cups they would politely make her a lowly accountant who could just barely afford her room and diet until she just quit.
Sam considered himself far too entrenched in his work, and too useless at anything else.
He looked feminine enough in his own estimation to feel like a woman at home.
That would have to be enough. He was barely alive now; if he was fired it’d really kill him.
Smoking cigarettes at home in women’s underwear, hair long and loose, lounging.
He’d tried makeup, sometimes. It was fine. Everything was just fucking fine–
“I wish I’d been brave enough to just fucking die in the wars.”
Sinking in an awful little ship somewhere that was peaceful before the Republic got there.
Torn apart by a torpedo from a Katarran or a Hanwan or an Imbrian even.
“Maybe I’ll have a chance soon.” He thought morbidly, his mood crashing.
He was headed to the Imbrium to do God knows what. He would almost certainly die.
And even if Blake McClinton did not die then, Samuel Anahid was already dead.
The Republic of Alayze had a single connection to the Imbrium Ocean that was indisputably under their control and contiguous to their territory. Navigating the Cogitum into the northern Nubium sea that lay within the continent of North Occultis, to a small gap in the continental wall into the Imbrium, called Ratha Flow. Ratha Flow served as the most recent Naval Headquarters of the Republican Navy, having moved there from the inner Cogitum hundreds of years ago when the Republic and Empire declared war.
The Republic had a much larger share of the world’s wealth than any other power.
It spent an outsize amount of these resources on its military, crusading for “global democracy.”
The Hanwans and the Katarrans were the nearest enemies, but the chief evil of the world, according to the Republic’s politicians and media, was the Imbrian Empire, hegemon of the western hemisphere of Aer.
At all times, the Nubium Sea was required to host at least 800 to 1000 vessels, for defense.
Then, when the Republic war machine really got going, it would send an additional 800 to 1000 vessels to Ratha Flow, which had to possess the capacity to temporarily host them. This reinforcement was always in preparation for a concerted attack on the Imbrium Ocean. Across from Ratha Flow was the conflict zone known as the Great Ayre Reach. Beyond the Ayre Reach they could attack the Empire’s throne state of Palatine, or the economically powerful financial-industrial state of Rhinea. If the Republic could successfully occupy either state, it’d be a death-blow to the Empire in their great war.
There had been numerous battles for Ayre Reach in the history of the Great War.
Because of the war, the Nubium Sea bases and Ratha Flow itself, were overcrowded, dismal and miserable. Everywhere, so-called elite soldiers lived shipment to shipment from the Cogitum.
There was no production of anything in the Nubium, it was all bases and stockpiles, nothing but huge dock-stations and barracks-stations and depot-stations. Nothing was made there, everything had to be shipped, so there would be space to hold the massive fleets in place ready at a moment’s notice, as well as the absurd mass of human life required to fight for, direct and maintain the war machine.
Stockpiles were jealously guarded, to be cracked into only if there was a delay in the tight logistic chain from the Cogitum’s rich core stations to the “trenches” of the Nubium Sea and Ratha Flow.
The Republic of Alayze almost felt like it was designed to be this rich, this powerful, so it could afford the insane, bleak task of having 2000 ships in an 800 by 200 kilometer stretch of habitable water, surrounded on all sides by either the hopeless ice wall of the pole or the corrupted mass of the continent and its evil weather and monstrous fauna. The Nubium, and Ratha Flow, were the vilest fucking places on Aer, Blake McClinton thought, as he stared at the scope of the human suffering contained in each base.
Everywhere, the soldiers tried to put on a brave face. It had been drilled into them that they were the front line in a global war between democracy and despotism. They had to suffer endless days with poor food and little entertainment, working hard to keep their equipment ready and their skills sharp, their boredom broken up by drills and military panic, so that they could “defend their way of life” by invading the Imbrian Empire and being repulsed, time and time again, with only the Ratha Wall staving off defeat.
“This is a pure atrocity. Only we could’ve done this shit this bad.”
It was no wonder the Empire continued to defeat them. Who would have the energy to fight for this?
Nevertheless, the Great War for Global Democracy continued apace.
There were always soldiers, whether the brave and bold, the poor and hungry, or prisoners without choice. Despite his relative privilege– Blake characterized himself as a prisoner without choice.
“Imbria, here I come.” He joked dismally to himself.
When Blake McClinton arrived at Ratha Flow, preparations were underway for a massive attack, perhaps the largest in the history of the Great War. He would not be part of it. Instead, he would be sallying out with a small raiding force that would provide cover for him to infiltrate the Empire in a tiny vessel.
At the moment, the Empire was facing some unrest within its southern colonies.
There were rumors of rioting and a potential slave revolt that could brew in the coming months if something was not done. The Republic did not have much hope of these actions leading to a larger revolt within the Empire and felt they would be put down very quickly; but they could use the distraction, if they could attack while the Empire was gathering or in the process of a punitive expedition.
To support a potential upcoming attack on the Great Ayre Reach, Naval HQ had requested for the G.I.A. to reinforce its intelligence gathering position in the Empire with extra field assets. Priority was placed on gaining access to the Imperial dynasty– if unrest could be spread into the Emperor’s court, the Republic believed that the “despotic top-down leadership structure” of the Empire could be brought to a crisis point. Combined with the southern unrest and a massive attack from Ratha Flow, the scales would tip.
And so, Blake’s duty was to become an “extra field asset” in the Palatine state for this purpose.
Aboard the infiltration cutter Mata Hari, Blake waited in a small, cramped break room alongside two other agents destined for the Imbrium Ocean. Cutters due to their size had few amenities. On most ships, the roof was at least two meters up, but here, even someone Blake’s size would feel like they were a fish being canned. His compatriots, both taller than him, seemed to relish getting to sit down somewhere.
One was a dark-skinned man, hair packed into tight braids which were themselves tied into a ponytail. He looked young, just a bit older than Blake perhaps. He was tall, physically fit, and looked friendly.
They were both accompanied by an older gentleman, who exuded a bit of adventuristic charisma, the sort of man who smelled heavily like whiskey and cigarette smoke, slicked silver hair, a mustache and shaved beard but with such a deep shadow that one could imagine how thick it must have been. A man who looked like he belonged on the cover of a thriller movie poster holding a woman a fraction of his age.
He introduced himself first, before anyone asked: “Piedmont’s the name, Dusan Piedmont. Is this your first time venturing out into the Imbrium? Don’t worry one bit– I’ve got everything down to a science.”
Blake immediately disliked him.
“I’m Burke, Burke Zepp.”
The dark-skinned man beside Blake reached across a tiny fold-out table between the two cramped little couches in the Cutter’s break room. Piedmont looked delighted to be shaking his hand.
Blake noticed Piedmont seemed to be making much more effort with the shake than Burke.
“Firm grip, Petty Officer Burke! That’s good. You can tell a lot about a man by–”
Blake started to tune him out. He was careful not to roll his eyes too obviously.
He introduced himself in the least dismissive voice he could muster.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClinton.” Piedmont said, briefly looking Blake over. “May I inquire as to your specialty? I like to know the skills of those I am working with– Mr. Zepp’s faculties are quite evident, but I’m very interested in what you bring to the table. It’s always the unassuming agents who end up being the most critical for the mission in the end, in my vast and credible experience.”
Burke did not respond to Piedmont’s clear typecasting of him.
Blake sighed internally.
He was going to have to get along with this fucking cartoon for months, maybe years.
“Disguise.” Blake said. “I’m good at disguises, makeup, forging identities.”
“Disguises? Fantastic! And if I may be so bold as to say– both genders, correct?”
Blake had not wanted to bring it up. Now he understood why Piedmont was staring at him.
“Yes.” He said bluntly, and no more. Piedmont must have thought he was a fucking queer.
Though it was something he did recreationally, the makeup skills and cross-dressing had ended up being part of what his G.I.A. handler noted about him as a potential asset in his ascension to field agent.
New agents were put through simulations of fieldwork to prove they had what it takes to be sent to the Imbrium or Hanwa as infiltrators. Blake characterized himself as a good liar and during the simulations deceit was, in his estimation, his key weapon to the fieldwork problems given to him to solve.
He was not going to fight his way into or out of anywhere and he frankly thought such a meatheaded approach would have made any intelligence he acquired along the way functionally useless. In his mind, field agents should get close to objectives and secure them wholly unnoticed to maximize their value. A lot of his solutions ended up incorporating constructed identities, creative use of fashions, and even impersonating people to get in and out while being able to interact with the operational space.
He played to his strengths a little too well.
To the point that the kit of gear prepared for his Imbrium journey now had a set of professionally-crafted breastforms, a full makeup kit and a fitted cocktail dress so he could cross-dress like a pro. He was not necessarily ashamed of his assessment, since as long as he was thought of as male it was only a skillset he used in his job and not something about him that was viewed as strange. But of course, a fossil like Piedmont who groomed his fucking mustache must have seen him as a limp-wristed freak.
Thankfully he had precious little time to say anything to Piedmont right then and there.
Alarm lights flashed red in every compartment.
“Imbrian vessels dead ahead! There’s– there’s a lot!”
On a nearby monitor the bridge crew piped in footage from the predictors of the larger vessels in the fleet. The Republican flotilla numbered six ships, a cruiser, a destroyer and three frigates escorting the disguised cutter. Opposite them, the Imbrian fleet– had several dozen ships. Led by a Koenig class dreadnought, there must have been at least thirty. An entire combat group approached.
“I’m fucking dead.” Blake whispered under his breath.
Staring at the monitor, that projection of barely-lit black water replete with clouds of brown biological dust, the distant outlines of the mass of enemy vessels, it was like swimming at full speed into a wall. Every nightmare Blake had ever had about fleet combat, what he had always ran away from, what he lied and struggled not to experience, it was all right here in front of him. He had run away too strongly and too well– he had circled right around back to the feared Imbrium and its deadly machines.
Maybe it was for the best to die alone with nothing but fantasies of a better life–
As soon as the Imperial ships began firing, Blake’s ship dove right to the ocean floor and cut away from the battle, moving within the chaos. On the monitor, a text overlaid on the video bid the crew to be silent as the cutter slinked away. Blake briefly watched the fleet being blasted to pieces on the cameras while his own ship stole from the battlefield beneath the notice of his absolutely massive enemy.
Somehow, within minutes, he had put that nightmarish sight of the enemy fleet behind him.
It would not be the first time that people would die to propel his journey forward.
Piedmont, that fucking idiot!
Blake seethed internally.
He scanned his eyes across the colorful ballroom from the second story. Overhead, the grand gilded arch of the ceiling played host to chandeliers with LEDs providing a sensuous, simulated ambiance below. Used to the dim but consistent yellow from ordinary station lights, Blake had trouble spotting his man in the crowd below. Besuited men, women in colorful dresses, dancing in the glamorous ballroom floor. On a small stage a brunette in a revealing red dress sang a song of love and longing that stirred his heart.
An ostentatious festival of barely-hidden sexuality– Blake even smelled it in the air.
That hedonism which characterized the Empire to him in the past few months.
On some level he had come to respect it. Despite all the money it had, the Republic was a bleak place utterly without aesthetics or sensuality. For the imperial ruling class, money was about the aesthetics. Rich finery, beautiful homes, retinues of servants and frequent, feverish trysts. To have power was to exert it for pleasure. Blake would have felt a bit more alive if he performed all his misdeeds for a beautiful and lively woman like the Lady of the House, Leda Lettiere. He had heard many rumors about her. It was the gravest misfortune of his birth that he instead worked for the tasteless, anhedonic stock-hoarders of the Republic.
Today the theater in which his continuous misfortune played out was Schwerin Island.
A beautiful station in the Palatinate, it once served as the “summer palace” of the Emperor, now given over to his newest, youngest wife as a semi-permanent abode. The Lady of this House was the mysterious and much sought after Leda Lettiere. She was not the target tonight– the G.I.A.’s mission was not so ambitious yet. But this was a place where they could gamble on finding a steppingstone to Leda, and from there, to begin building a network adjacent to the ruling Fueller family in some capacity. Because of the gamble and the rewards it could bring, the G.I.A. had to be absolutely, ironclad cautious tonight.
“It’s already cocked up. We’ve already fucked it up completely.”
Blake muttered to himself, scanning the vast room in a panic.
That moron, Piedmont, was nowhere to be seen. They had gone out of contact!
Blake was supposed to stand in the upper story with a fan over his richly dolled-up face.
Wearing his red cocktail dress, made up to be ‘Christina Becker’, aspiring theater actress.
With his dark hair done up in a fancy bun. He surprised himself how well he pulled it off.
Christina was supposed to stick to the second story to signal Piedmont, who was “Lord Beck.”
There were a few dangerous individuals here tonight, to be avoided at all costs.
Blake nearly choked on his wine when he spotted the worst one of all.
There would be a single person in attendance wearing a gray uniform–
–with a blue and green shoulder cape and a stylized semiconductor symbol upon it.
Norn Tauscherer, the most feared of the ruling Fueller family’s bannermen.
Nowhere that the G.I.A. went in the Imbrium did they fail to uncover myth and legend surrounding this vastly evil woman. Invincible, unkillable, seemingly all-knowing, plots broke upon her like tides on rock. She alone was responsible for more G.I.A. casualties in the Imbrium than the entire Imperial Navy, and it was her doing that an entirely new cell had to be created to gather intelligence. An entire cell fell to her a few years ago. The silver lining was that, reportedly, Norn had done such a thorough job of uprooting them that she believed she had wiped out the G.I.A. in the Imbrium entirely, and of course, she could have had no awareness of when or where they would rebuild their networks. This allowed Blake to do his job without having her immediately on his back — for now. And it absolutely had to stay that way.
From up above Blake spied her in the crowd, the cape an easy beacon of her position among the peacocks and doves playing out their grand mating rituals below. She was a good-looking, fair-skinned blond of unexciting stature with a sabre gleaming on her hip. Both handsome and beautiful as if each angle of her face could show a new and different side to her– each side still grinning maliciously.
Even going near this woman was game over for them.
“We have to abort if Norn even looks at you. We can’t take any risks.” Blake had said.
“Of course, of course. I’ve also heard of how scary she is, I’m not deaf to it.”
“You’re not deaf, but you’re too proud. Don’t chase anything if the cost is her attention.”
Piedmont hadn’t responded to that in their briefing. Of course he hadn’t.
He was off being a big trumped-up hero somewhere– until Norn caught up to him.
Then he would be an extremely dead hero.
Blake tracked Norn from the second story while trying to spot Piedmont in the crowd.
They had all these novel physical signals they practiced so as not to have to carry hidden equipment. And all those signals depended on Piedmont being the hall and looking up! Helpless, Blake scanned the entrances he could see, the middle of the ballroom, the positions of servants, back to Norn–
He felt something like a wind rushing past him.
His exposed back shuddered.
Norn had tipped her chin up, brought up her eyes, scanned across the second story–
Blake thought for a brief instant they had made eye contact– and it terrified him.
Those vast red eyes and the promise of their infinite violence–
He looked away and began to fan himself with his carbon-fiber fold-out fan.
It had a red back and a green front. If Piedmont saw him he would know to abort.
Thankfully Norn continued to walk among the crowd. But her behavior–
She’s looking for something. God damn it. She’s not mingling at all.
Her trajectory was like a shark sniffing blood from kilometers away.
Why does everything go wrong for me? Literally everything!
There was no training on Aer that could prepare an agent for the plan going awry.
At that point, it was down to experience, instinct, luck, x-factor, whether an agent survived.
Blake tried to calm himself down. He tried think about his options rationally.
All he could do was to weigh the pros and cons and optimize for the best outcome.
For the moment Blake could at least keep track of Norn. However, she was clearly heading through the crowd and might leave into one of the adjoining halls. When she did so, Blake would lose track of her. And unless Piedmont magically showed up from the opposite end of the ballroom like a fucking cartoon character, Blake would have no agent to support and no enemy to track. He could stand around uselessly until he was certain Piedmont was not coming back for good, or he could leave his position.
If he left his position, he could either escape, try to gather information on his own, perhaps approaching one of the lesser noblemen or women– or try to find Piedmont and extract together.
“If I go looking for him I might expose myself. It’s a huge risk.”
Blake’s fingers tightened on the fan. He knew in this situation that he should run away.
They had a lot riding on this. It was not so easy to leave empty handed.
Despite the legendary graciousness of the hostess, Schwerin Island only rarely opened to the aristocratic masses rather than a few intimate, select invitees. While the crowd below was quite rich it was not entirely exclusive. Leda Lettiere was giving the bourgeoise and aristocracy a rare chance to network within her home, to potentially meet her, thus displaying her social power. The G.I.A. had worked hard to create the conditions for Piedmont and Blake to attend this ball while remaining anonymous and being able to leave behind their identities if needed, and it was the design of the party itself that allowed for this. They could not have been invited to such a thing, at least not yet. It was a juicy opportunity.
However, if they all got caught it would be for nothing.
Their cell was still relatively new. Living to fight another day was warranted.
Blake could run away, rendezvous with Burke, return to the cell and hatch new plans.
Empty-handed, maybe having lost Piedmont, but with hope for a future.
There were other nobles, other social events, entire other avenues of networking to pursue.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck me.”
Muttering under his breath Blake gathered all his strength into putting up a smiling façade.
And ventured into the adjoining halls, walking delicately on his heels, fan aloft.
Piedmont, if I can get you out of here I’m going to kill you myself.
He was just going to do some reconnaissance. Ready to leave at any moment.
That’s what he told himself.
Blake took the stairs down on the opposite side of the building from where he had seen Norn going. Downstairs and in the outlying hallways there were very few people. Most of the crowd stuck to the ballroom hoping to get a chance to see Leda Lettiere come down to meet them. Those few who were out in the halls were typically younger, perhaps children of the social climbers in the ballroom area or perhaps romantically eager lords and ladies hoping for more pleasure than business on this evening.
Everything was absolutely ostentatious, the walls in the hall looked like they had been made of pearl, the corners etched like false colonnades. On the southern-facing halls there were gaps in the wall with long horizontally stretched oval windows out into the vast green fields outside. Blake could not just run through the halls at full speed without drawing attention, so he walked, smiling, and acknowledging the few people that he passed by, stealing glances into the ballroom through the doors as he passed them.
He saw servants refreshing the caviar, crostini, and drinks for the ball.
No sign of Norn Tauscherer. He had completely lost her from this vantage.
He would have to be extremely careful.
When he circled around the eastern halls adjacent to the ballroom there were far more people.
That eastern hall connected with the central wing of the palace, through which there were still people arriving, some latecomers, and some caterers getting ready to serve a banquet in the palace interior. Blake had initially that hoped Piedmont would have found someone to sit at the banquet with, and then he himself could have held back and avoided the whole situation, since his own position was more precarious when it came to finding himself a “date” for the evening. No such luck now.
Now he had to leave, to escape. But if he saw Piedmont somewhere–
From afar, at the other end of the hall.
A tall, silver-haired gentleman in a suit, walking away with urgency.
Toward the northern wing, perhaps out to the interior garden in the center of the palace.
Blake could not call or signal to him. Nobody was supposed to go back there.
He looked around, briefly, trying to see if anyone could have been following Piedmont.
No one that looked obvious– certainly not Norn.
God damn it Piedmont!
Masking his anger, Blake gracefully followed the trail of Piedmont from afar, walking across the eastern hallway, waiting until no one was looking and then sneaking out of the ballroom wing entirely, taking the main hall in the north out of the palace entirely to a hallway encircling an open air garden. Under a stone ceiling lifted by more fake colonnades, half without a wall. Simulated moonlight shone down upon a tree grown on a mound of rich soil in the center, surrounded by grass and flower bushes. There was a small path which led through the garden from one end to the other, but Blake would not take it.
He walked around the corner from the garden, got his first glimpse of the moonlight–
And immediately saw Piedmont face to face with Norn Tauscherer.
In that instant Blake, praying to have not been seen, hid with his back to the corner.
Out of sight. No one else around.
“Madame, I’m afraid your treatment of me tonight has been quite irregular.”
Piedmont, you useless fossil.
Then, for the first time, Blake heard the deep, viper-like voice of the fabled Norn Tauscherer.
“Good men with nothing to hide don’t approach me so brazenly, lord Beck. It is only the scoundrels of the world who will flirt with Norn Tauscherer after everything said about her. I was immediately suspicious of you, but your rat-like behavior since your initial error can only possibly point to conspiracy. This garden is off-limits to guests, lord Beck. You will now follow me to the police station for a chat instead.”
That fool must not have realized it was Norn! But he was debriefed?! How the fuck–?
How did all of this happen? After all their preparations, how? Was he just not listening?
“Oh dear. It’s funny, lord Beck. Even now, you truly don’t know who I am, do you?”
Blake had no weapons, and even if he did, escape after shooting Norn would be impossible.
He peered around the corner again–
–and saw Piedmont turning a firearm on Norn. Blake was speechless.
His heart sank. Where had Piedmont gotten a gun? They had agreed not to bring any gear!
All of this time, that old bastard was doing everything his own way!
He had thrown all of their preparations into the trash!
“I’m afraid it is you, my dear, who does not–”
Blake hid back behind the corner. Piedmont did not get to speak a final sentence.
Cut off, abruptly, and then a gurgling sound–
Though Blake did not know how, there was no gunshot, and everything became silent.
Frightened out of his wits, Blake started walking back toward the ballroom area again.
He had to escape, he could not possibly remain in Schwerin now.
Norn Tauscherer could have glimpsed him and taken off down the hall.
Every moment he heard nothing his imagination grew more vivid in its terror.
Halfway down the hall, he saw another figure come turning into the palace interior. Trying to mask his fear and discomfort, Blake kept walking. He recognized the woman as they closed. It was the singer, from the ball. Red dress, brown hair– a pair of spectacles perched on her nose. Blake tried to act like he belonged there. Walking casually, without acknowledging anyone, despite his quick-beating heart.
Blake barely walked past her–
–when he felt something jab him in the side, sharp and hot.
His legs turned to jelly, his vision swam, and he fell into a sudden darkness–
Something hot and fast struck his face but only half-awoke him to his surroundings.
His vision was blurry, he was nodding off. Colors, snatches of a face, a glint of metal.
Everything smelled strangely sweet. And there was gentle music playing.
A shot of pain right through the core of his body jolted him awake.
That glinting– a knife. He had been cut across the chest with a knife.
Pain burned across the center of his chest, but he was still only barely aware.
Running on animal instinct–
Blake struggled, tried to get up–
He could not move.
His field of vision was filled with the sight of a person– pearlescent skin, long hair–
a woman in a pale blue dress– a radiant woman framed in an arch of blue moonlight–
–smiling as the knife laid shallow upon his skin and easily drew his blood,
“Is this what brings our mystery woman back to the world? Does she respond only to pain?”
She had his arms bound.
He was bound to something, soft below, hard behind.
He was on a bed. Her bed; arms bound behind him to the rear post.
That sliver of glinting light that had already tasted his blood retreated from his chest.
Blake felt a brief, cold touch between his legs.
He was nude.
He was nude and bound and at the mercy of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
His captor was staggeringly, blindingly beautiful. Had she not had the backdrop of arched balcony doors letting in a beam of white-blue light, Blake felt she would have shone on her own, hair blowing light in the gentle midnight breeze. Her skin, an unblemished pearl-pink, her indigo hair lustrous and long. Long-limbed, lithe in figure, almost diaphanous in her silken dress. Red lips ever so expressive with the slightest movement of her cheek. Her ears were a bit sharp. She was an elf– a most uncommon ethnicity in Imbria.
“I can be cruel or kind at your behest.” She said. “Crueler or kinder than you’ve ever seen.”
Her voice was as a melodious as the orchestra music playing in the room.
“Please don’t. Please.”
Finally voice managed to escape Blake’s dry, burning throat.
She smiled at him. But the knife hovered close to his dick, nonetheless.
“You had no identification on your person. And not even in your coat and purse. I had a feeling about you, seeing you from afar, but you went into the inner garden. Did you think I would not notice it? Were you so desperate for an audience? Now Norn Tauscherer made a scene– I’m quite concerned.”
She turned the knife on its side and stroked Blake’s genitals with the cool, blunt metal.
Blake shuddered and squirmed. He was beyond caring if he looked pathetic.
His mind and body torn between pain and pleasure driven into erratic physical reactions.
“Who are you? You looked fantastic in a dress– are you a woman or a good actor?”
She winked at him. She was just toying with him now. He was truly helpless.
Blake was not going to fight it. He wanted to give up– he wanted to surrender to her.
He tried to rationalize his cowardice, but he was in truth completely broken down.
Emotions like he had never felt swelled in his chest.
Nevertheless in his mind he thought– Piedmont is gone.
Burke, by design, would have no idea if anything went right or wrong until they returned. He was just on a clock and if they did not come back to station then he had to live on and do what he could for the G.I.A. until more agents arrived. Blake could not possibly rat him out– they had agreed to disband their current hideout and switch after this mission and only Burke knew where he would go if Blake and Piedmont never returned. So it was not as if Blake had much to give up to his captors anyway.
That wasn’t even the salient point. Blake had suffered so much– and for what?
The Republic, the G.I.A, it was all a bunch of crap. None of it was worth dying for.
Even if giving himself up to this woman so immediately and without resistance would end up constituting the beginning of the end for the Republic somehow, Blake would not mourn it. He went so far as to think– maybe the Imbrian Empire deserved to crush the Republic of Alayze! Fuck their so-called democracy, individual liberty, fuck all of it, none of it was real, it was slogans, hot air! There was no act of bravery or cowardice that mattered to the soulless inhuman ghouls running Alayze! Blake was nothing to them despite all of his service and anyone beneath Blake was less than nothing to them!
None of them were worth defending!
Blake had told himself time and again that he had no choice. The G.I.A. had been his only means of escape from a life of either poverty and struggle or suffering and exploitation on the front lines. Now he had a choice, the clearest choice that ever faced him. Painful death; or even a second more of life.
He could get his dick chopped off or he could surrender to the sliver of moonlight filling his eyes.
There was no question, between his bleak colorless masters and this richly glowing fairy.
“I’m Blake McClinton! General Intelligence Agency. I will cooperate. Please just– don’t hurt me anymore. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know without lies. I’ll give it all up I swear but– I– I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Our structure is semi-decentralized, so no matter what you cut, there’s shit I can’t–”
“That’s fine enough, Blake. I’d prefer you resist dashingly than start crying.”
Smiling, she set the knife aside, and with a slender finger, tipped his chin up.
She looked him directly in the eyes, just centimeters away. “G.I.A you said? Interesting.”
That touch sent a thrill right down his core. And her scent– it was incredible–
Blake started to weep, overcome with emotion. Leda Lettiere simply continued smiling.
“Would you consider leaving the Republic to work for me when I rule the world, Blake?”
Blake stared directly into those crystalline eyes that seemed themselves to glow. Her voice, the gentle movement of her lips as she whispered to him. There was power, so much power that suffused her, power and beauty and ambition. Just being touched by her sent an ardor through Blake like he had never felt in the Cogitum Ocean. She was unreal, sorcerous, pleasure made flesh, setting his synapses alight.
“I would do anything for you.” Blake whimpered. “Anything. Just– please–”
“I won’t hurt you. I have a good feeling about you. You weren’t sent here to kill me.”
“I wasn’t! That was never my intention! I would never do anything to hurt you.”
“We can be more than allies. It might be impulsive– but I feel a resonance from you.”
He felt her fingers, silk-soft touch teasing where the blade once was.
Gentle and firm between his legs with a playful smile. Caressing him first– then stroking.
His back shuddered, his toes curled. He thought his head might go hazy.
Was he really awake? There was so much color, such a rush of sensations.
He could barely breathe as if emotion like he had never felt before stood to choke him.
“Blake, I meant it when I said I could be crueler and kinder than you’ve ever seen.”
One gentle stroke of her hands across the length of his shaft–
Blake gritted his teeth, sucking in air.
He thought he might cum just from the briefest brush of her skin on his own.
She leaned in over his shoulder, whispering into his ear.
“Let’s use each other.” She said. “I’m a powerful woman. I can give a lot to the G.I.A.– but so much more to you. You want to make war on the Empire? I could be your greatest weapon, Blake McClinton, and you mine in turn. All I ask is that you put me ahead of your paymasters and have a little fun. I’m a jealous woman. When I get a hold of a treasure,” her fingers squeezed to punctuate, “I cannot just let go.”
“I’m– I’m a treasure to you?” Blake said. It was the most beautiful thing anyone ever told him.
Leda laughed, gentle and songbird-like. Even just hearing her laugh drove Blake crazy.
“It’s just a feeling I have. Something subtle and soft that I feel from your aura.”
“My aura–? I don’t–“
She laid a finger over his lips– while her other hand squeezed his cock.
Blake was stunned to silence, not as much by her bidding but by the overwhelming heat in him.
“Quiet now. Over time, we can substantiate it. We can call it anything we like. But for right now–”
She reached for the knife and dexterously maneuvered it behind the bedpost.
Setting Blake free– but he was so shocked, his hands remained as if bound behind him.
Even as her own free arm coiled around him and took him into her sensuous embrace.
Eye to eye, lips grazing, her weight bearing on —
“For right now just take in the mood. Your miraculous survival and my glorious mercy.”
“Let’s go. We don’t want to linger here.”
“Marina, don’t disobey the head maid.”
Bethany winked at her. ‘Marina’ was a female name Blake had been feeling out.
They departed from the central palace building at Schwerin, making their way out north, to the “back.”
The two of them were made up to look like Leda’s maids, in long frumpy dresses and aprons. Bethany did this often, and was, essentially, already Leda’s head maid. Marina, however, was always disguised one way or another. She felt somewhat uncomfortable to have a disguise chosen for her this time. Especially last minute. After everything they had worked on for the past year, she felt a creeping dread that day.
And not just for Leda alone– not anymore.
“Don’t worry. Leda is not afraid of Norn. She’ll handle her and we’ll wait until it blows over.” Bethany said.
Contrary to their intention, those words shook Marina even more.
“She should be afraid Bethany. Norn is a demon.” Marina replied, clutching her hands together.
Schwerin Island had been their fortress for months. From here the three of them, Leda the mastermind, Marina her attack dog and Bethany in support, lied and fucked and killed and ran through every documented sin in their ambitious climb to the throne room in the Imperial Palace at Heitzing, and the death of Konstantin von Fueller. But not only that– had Leda wanted him dead, Marina felt she could have done it. Killed him out of passion and vengeance and suffered the consequences for it.
Leda wanted to replace him. She wanted to take on Konstantin’s power.
That took more than just killing him. She could not just stab him in his bed at Heitzing.
They needed contacts, supporters, resources. To isolate the Emperor at his court.
Little by little, blackmailing, corrupting, bribing and liquidating, using every dirty trick.
They were almost poised to make a move on Heitzing.
And it was that which, on that fateful day, brought Norn Tauscherer to Schwerin Island.
Despite all the care Marina had taken– she couldn’t help but feel responsible.
Somewhere along the line, she fucked up. Despite her paranoid attention to detail.
Marina had made some mistake that led Norn to suspect something.
Clutching her heart, gritting her teeth, feeling unworthy to stand beside her partners.
Hating herself, powerfully hating herself, for even potentially hurting Leda and Bethany.
“Listen, Marina, if Leda is confident, we should be too. Don’t worry yourself sick.”
“If you say so.”
Trying to avoid the imperial inspection, Bethany and Marina stepped out of the palace into the garden in the far north of the grounds. There was a gentle breeze carrying the smell of flowers all around them.
Outside the pearlescent archway of the rear door a tiled path flanked on all sides by bushes led to a small hill upon which sat a naturally growing tree. Encircling the hill were vast fields of all manner of flowers, like a biological rainbow carefully tended. Overhead the artificial lights were configured to resemble the sun, and a sophisticated projection system created a blue sky. Marina had never seen anything like it in the Republic. She still marveled at it even if she could now see such things frequently. It baffled her that the Republic, with all its wealth, never tried to create something this beautiful, this organic and real.
Perhaps it was a waste– but if you were rich, why not live it up?
After years of dim, stultifying existence in the Republic, Marina refused to surrender this bliss.
At the top of the hill, Marina expected to see Elena, Leda’s daughter. Five years old or so, an incredibly beautiful and energetic kid that took after her mother. She was sent back here to play with a friend, a child of the Schwerin guards’ captain. Gertrude, Marina thought it was, Gertrude something or other. Elena was a precious little elf in a long-sleeved dress, hair a lighter a hue of purple than her Leda’s, while Gertrude was a swarthy dark-haired little tomboy in a long shirt and pants with suspenders.
However, when Marina and Bethany got outside, they saw that the children were not alone.
There were two figures sitting down with them, playing, and laughing with them.
One was a tall man, brown-haired with dog-like ears on his head and a bushy tail. Dressed all in black, with an impressive cape upon which he was casually seated while next to the children atop the hill. Beside him was a blond woman dressed in Imperial navy grey, a blue and green armband on her right arm, gloved hand stroking Gertrude’s hair and laughing with the little tomboy. Elena, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to whistle and started spitting on the dirt in her efforts– this caused all the laughter.
Marina tried not to panic.
“Keep trying!” Norn Tauscherer said, laughing and encouraging Elena who continued to spit on the dirt. “You’ll get it eventually! Remember Elena, you can only fail if you give up and do nothing!”
“Can she run out of spit? I’m worried she’ll run out of spit.” Gertrude joked.
“I will not!” Elena said determinedly. “I will whistle, and I will not run out of spit.”
“That’s it! That’s the indomitable Fueller spirit!” Norn guffawed.
“I believe in her. She’s got her mother’s force of will.” Said the man sitting with them.
“She’s got her mother’s everything!” Norn said. “That’s why she’s such a delightful kid!”
Marina eyed Bethany, who laid a hand on Marina’s own and squeezed to comfort her.
She raised a finger to her lips to signal for Marina to be silent.
Then she led her toward the hill, approaching the merry little group that had formed there.
Marina could not allow herself to panic– the sight of Norn sent a chill down her spine, but a maid would not have thrown at the fit at the sight of a Fueller bannerman. After all, Norn was supposed to also be one of Leda’s bannermen, she was part of the Fueller family. Elena was the Emperor’s daughter.
Above all the bannermen, Norn was extraordinarily privileged, too.
She was the favorite enforcer of Konstantin von Fueller, someone rumored to be loved by him as much as he loved his wives. She had defeated many obstacles in his path over the years. Nobody could criticize her, and by all accounts, while brutal with her enemies, she behaved honorably and did not harm anyone with which she had no personal quarrels. She was certainly welcome to play with Elena and Gertrude and there was no fear that she would have caused them any harm or endangered them.
Looking at that woman, laughing and smiling with the kids– who would have panicked?
If Marina broke down at the sight of Norn, it was a clear sign that something was off.
And Norn was an expert at noticing the tiniest things wrong with her surroundings.
Marina had spent considerable effort and resources to escape Norn’s notice.
Now, she was walking right up to that demon who had killed so many people like her.
“Excuse us, lords! We were sent to care for the children. I hope they are not troubling you.”
Bethany called out with a smile and bowed her head to Norn from the foot of the little hill.
Beside her, Marina bowed as well.
“I am Bethany Skoll, and this is Marina Holzmann. We are maids in our Lady’s service.”
“Greetings, greetings. Of course the children are not troubling us. Pardon our intrusion.”
Norn stood up from the floor, wiping dirt from her pants.
Beside her the man in Inquisitorial garb stood up as well.
“How may I assist you today? Are you the guests our Lady is waiting for?” Bethany said.
“Indeed. We were simply inspecting the garden. It’s magnificent.”
Norn turned a smile on them completely unlike how she looked with the children.
Marina realized she had been genuinely happy with the kids, but with them–
That dark, malicious grin, with her billowing blond bangs lightly shadowing her eyes.
“I am Norn Tauscherer, a humble bannerman of the Fueller family.”
Norn put a fist to her own chest then waved over her companion.
“This is Vekan Inquisitor Pavel Andrevi Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”
At her side the Inquisitor gave a shallow bow back, running a hand through his brown hair.
“Pleased to make the acquaintance of such lovely ladies. Call me Andrevi.”
“Do not call him Andrevi. Call him Inquisitor or Lord Samoylovych-Deepestshore.”
Norn elbowed him gently and the Inquisitor laughed. His dog-like ears folded slightly.
“Norn let’s not take up their time. We saw what we wanted back here anyway.” He said.
Marina felt a flash of fear at that comment. What had Norn and the Inquisitor seen?
At that point, as if in the very instant that Marina’s fear actualized in her own mind–
Norn turned her eyes on her, walking down from the hill with the Inquisitor.
Giving that devilish smile to Marina who tried strongly to hide her own expression.
She was good at lying. She was the best liar in all of Madison Station.
All of them had believed that she was a democratic, patriot man who would die for them.
When she purged her face of all emotion, when she got into the character of the maid.
Marina was assured of her own success. She felt relief– she felt like she mastered herself.
She was sure she was able to lie to Norn Tauscherer right to her face–
–until Norn stopped at her side, briefly, and looked her over.
And for a second, Marina’s calm face struggled titanically to hide the storm in her chest.
Those bright red eyes–
and the unfathomable depth of the violence they had seen and committed–
“Marina Holzmann? It’s nice to see Lady Lettiere has help of such fine breeding.”
The Inquisitor laughed. “She sure knows how to pick ‘em.”
With that brief tease, Norn continued, and the Inquisitor followed.
Until both of them were out of sight.
“Calm down, Marina.” Bethany said. “They don’t know anything. Let’s just stay here.”
“Bethany, what if they want to hurt Leda?” Marina whispered.
They were trying to keep the kids from overhearing.
Bethany fixed Marina with a serious look.
“Can you stop them? Could you heroically fend off Norn and Samoylovych and whatever small army awaits behind them and save Leda then?” Bethany said. “Norn is a threat that can’t be physically defeated. I believe you are well aware of this. However, she is not a ravening beast. She is here to carry out an inspection, and I am almost positive she will not work one more second than she has to or do anything other than follow the letter of what she was told to do. She is just a servant– just like us.”
“Just a servant?” Marina asked. Nearly reeling– how could Bethany be so sure?
“Marina, the Imbrian Empire is the thing Leda fears– not just someone like Norn.”
“I know you love her, Marina. But if you love me too– just calm down and trust me.”
Leaving behind the garden path the two of them reached the top of the little hill.
“It’s okay if you can’t whistle. I’ll do all the whistling for you.”
“You will? You really will?”
“Sure! I’ll whistle whenever you want!”
Gertrude began whistling while Elena clapped her hands joyfully.
Marina and Bethany sat under the tree’s shadow, looking at the massive palace sprawling before them, surrounded by fields of flowers. Wind gently blowing their hair. Aside from the breeze the only sound was the children playing. Gertrude and Elena hardly paid the maids any attention, and ran into the flower field, laughing and jumping around, calling each other’s names and saying silly things. They were so carefree. In their minds, there was nothing sinister or wrong happening around them. Those happy days of theirs would stretch on forever under the false blue sky and in the carefully tended flower garden.
Marina wished she had the same confidence that they did. Everything felt so fragile.
No matter how well they lied to Norn today everything felt like it was teetering.
They were always close to the edge. Everything they loved and had could be taken.
“Bethany, I do love you.” Marina said.
“As much as you love Leda?” Bethany said. She had on a mischievous grin.
“Don’t do that, it’s really not funny.”
“What if I said I loved you more than Leda?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
Bethany shrugged. “Hardly matters anyway. You’re still a good lay even if you hated me.”
Marina sighed. But she felt a little less burdened after a bit of teasing. Leda Lettiere’s head maid was really something else– she had to be as much a woman as her Lady to keep up with her, after all. She had grown to really admire her, to desire her, to love her. She and Leda meant the world to Marina.
That little storm of laughter they were looking after finally wound its way back up the hill.
Gertrude sat down under the tree near Marina, catching her breath with a big smile.
Close behind her, Elena walked up, face flushed, hiding something behind her arms.
“What do you have there?” Bethany asked the little princess in a playful tone.
Smiling, Elena unveiled a crown of flowers, and set them playfully on Gertrude’s head.
“It’s for Gertrude! She’s my prince now, just like how I am a princess!” She declared.
Gertrude squirmed a little bit, clearly embarrassed by the younger girl’s effusive affection.
It was such a beautiful sight. Marina could not help but liven up.
“You hear that, kid?” Marina said, finally speaking up, giving Gertrude a mischevious little look. “You’re her prince! You need to take care of her, okay? You gotta make her smile from now on, you hear?”
In response, Gertrude rubbed her hands together, but smiled gently.
“I will.” She said.
She looked down at the grass, cheeks turning a little red.
“I will. I love her a lot.” She whispered.
As if only for Marina to hear and not for Elena or for Bethany.
Marina laid a hand on Gertrude’s head, stroking her short hair.
“I know you’ll make her happy, kid.” She said. In her heart, truly wanting to believe it.
It felt like the ocean had never been darker.
Why? Why do I always come up short? Why do I always fuck everything up?
In front of her, the enemy Diver stood as an insurmountable obstacle/
This knight-armor clad pilot had completely dismantled Marina McKennedy.
Looming powerfully in the sea before her, shield in one arm, assault rifle in the other.
In the cockpit every red flashing warning that could do so pulsed and throbbed in her face.
Fuck. Fuck. Some fucking hero I am! I can’t do anything but fail her, over and over!
The S.E.A.L.’s chest was pitted with dozens of shallow detonations, one of the shoulders was nearly destroyed, the jet anchor’s inner workings spilled out like entrails. Some of the hip armor was gone, exposing a leg joint, and one of the leg verniers on the opposite side had blown. One of the arms had a broken extension rod so she could barely flex it anymore. She had maybe 70% of her normal thrust if she blasted with her remaining verniers every time she tried to move from now on. Meanwhile that colossus in front of her was unblemished, its pilot clearly far more experienced than Marina, practically dancing around her while taking initiative to attack wherever they pleased with a superior machine.
Only one thing had saved her– the pilot wanted to get away.
They were desperate to attack the Brigand. Marina was just a waste of time for them.
And all Marina could do was stand in their way, take a lump, and stand in the way again.
She was buying time but for what? Nobody else was backing her up.
On the communications all she heard was a bunch of inaudible trash. She was alone.
Alone with her ghosts, the burden of her failures, and the reaper that had come for her.
Her vibro-axe was nearly broken in half from blocking the enemy’s sword.
She had reloaded her rifle in the last exchange, but her aim was garbage.
What the fuck am I going to do?
Die, she thought. I am going to die here. I was never made to be a soldier.
All of the things she endured that did not kill her.
For all of the people that she had loved who were no longer with her.
And now, she was going to be killed here at her lowest point.
No, forget about me, damn it.
Marina cracked a grin, her own grim reflection on one of the darker screens.
All of this sorrow and frustration she felt was the result of one thing.
Unlike when she called herself Sam, she now had something worth fighting for.
More than the vapid ideas of Republic “democracy” or the paycheck to make rent with.
She could not surrender to this enemy. She could not brush off this defeat.
She had too much to lose.
“What’s there to feel sorry for? I never had any expectation of living a life worth feeling sorry for. Right now, nobody would mourn me– but we’ve all given up so much for that little girl with the purple hair. Even if she doesn’t mourn me or doesn’t care. She’s a victim of all this too, but she’s helpless to do anything about it. That’s just– that’s always stuck in my fucking craw. Elena deserves better!”
Smiling to herself, pumping herself up (lying to herself).
Her grip tightened on the sticks. She was still standing between that pilot and the Brigand.
That pilot would charge again, as they had been doing.
They knew that they were wearing Marina down while minimizing their own damage.
All of this could be Marina’s advantage. After all– she was a great liar, wasn’t she?
And as bad as she was at tactics, she still knew deception was important on the battlefield.
She quickly switched weapons between the S.E.A.L.’s hands.
Axe to the good arm —
Rifle to the damaged arm–
If I’m right, this might get her to draw her sword–
Marina could not lift her rifle arm, so she used the rifle camera to align herself with the enemy, an obvious movement to shoot. Before she could pull the trigger, that mecha came hurtling toward her.
Rather than shoot, however, Marina charged as well, brandishing her vibroaxe to retaliate.
Trying to throw her one good shoulder forward.
They were not far apart, and they cut the distance to each other within seconds. Rather than its powerful grenades or rifles, the enemy lifted its vibrosword to finish her, conserving its precious ammunition — it did everything to spare its resources for the Brigand while being rid of a pest barring its way.
I got you, you son of a bitch.
That blade rose and fell with a flash and Marina’s vibroaxe clashed with it.
Already damaged, Marina’s vibroaxe practically snapped like a twig.
Holding its shield in front of itself, the enemy suit launched a vicious overhead slash that sundered her axe from head to handle and crashed into her functioning shoulder. Slicing through layers of metal armor, power routing cables and gear, the water system for the backpack– and entombing itself in the steel.
Her enemy’s sword did not go through one end of her mecha and out the other.
Chopping vertically through her axe into the thick tangle of systems within her armor, it became stuck.
She could pull it out but, but–
For a split second, Marina had the enemy suit where she wanted it!
Without moving her arm, Marina held down the trigger for her rifle.
At point blank range 37 mm explosive shells crashed one another after into the shield.
Her cockpit shook from the repeated close blasts.
Under a dozen pressure bubbles and shockwaves the shield pitted, buckled, and shattered.
With a panic, the enemy thrust back with everything it had, absorbing stray shots to its chest once its shield split into pieces, pulling out its sword and clumsily retreating several meters away.
Debris and gases and water vapor obscured the two enemies from each other momentarily.
Marina hovered on one side of the cloud, completely helpless.
Several systems went completely offline. She could not move either arm.
Her backpack thrust was nearly dead. She could only thrust with the legs.
Electrical power was uneven. If she made any more effort her life support might blink out.
She had broken the shield and pushed her enemy back one last time.
One last time– there would be no further resistance. She had nothing.
Without the rush of adrenaline, without another option, without the ability to claw for life.
Everything seemed to come crashing down.
Her hands left the useless controls of her now disabled machine.
Madison, Ratha Flow, Schwerin, Heitzing, Vogelheim–
Her life flashed before her eyes. She had seen so much, felt so much–
Had her journey been for nothing? Had she finally failed all those people she loved and lost?
She raised her hands to her face and felt compelled to cry out. “Elena,” Marina said, hoping and praying that it might reach the Brigand somehow. “Please survive this and find your own strength. That’s what your mother would have wanted– and–” she sighed, tearing up. “Bethany, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t do anything. I love you so much Bethany. After everything you gave up– if we meet again this soon, will you spit on me in heaven? Have I really lived a life that was worthy of you and Leda?”
When the gases dispersed enough, Marina could see the enemy mecha across the cloud.
Their rifle unfolded from its stowed position.
Lifting the barrel, the machine took aim at her.
Slight pits from shell impacts and detonations on the breastplate– not enough to stop it.
Had they only wanted the Brigand they could now sweep past her useless machine.
Now, however, they were furious.
To deliver the coup de grace. To finally end Marina’s long, arduous journey.
But she felt no peace. She had lost everyone and left everything unfinished.
In that moment, she prayed, she begged, pleaded dearly for even one more day of life–
“Agent McKennedy! Don’t give up!”
Her once useless communicator suddenly sounded with a crisp, clear voice.
Rather than shoot, the enemy dashed to the side to avoid the grasp of a pair of jet anchors.
They retracted to the chest of a Diver that shone like a sun underwater.
As if in its presence it was suddenly easier to see through water.
Interposing itself between Marina and the enemy, a golden knight against her silver reaper.
“I’ve only known you for a short time– but you’re still a comrade to me. I don’t want to see anyone who fights bravely for the Brigand lose her life. Please retreat, Agent McKennedy! Let us handle this!”
Marina could not help but smile at the foolish voice of Murati Nakara on the communicator.
You don’t know anything about me– but thanks, you big-hearted commie fool!
She tried to wipe her tears, but she found herself weeping even more.
Weeping for the life she had again–
Back in Schwerin, she thought she had been blessed with life by a being of moonlight.
And just when she really thought everything was going to end–
Now, that life was protected by a colossus made of the sun.
Broad-shouldered, with strong limbs, clad in bright, perfectly sculpted armor.
Appearing out of nowhere to confront that mysterious enemy.
Those commies, even in their darkest hour, they always came up with something.
Her prayers had been answered.
Even despite everything, Marina McKennedy was still fighting for the light she had found.
“This one’s no joke!” Marina called out, heart soaring. “Give ‘em hell, commies!”
Her heart lifted–
As she bore witness to nothing short of a miracle.
Like Leda had once said– a glorious mercy.
Two pilots called out over the communicator from the machine.
Both voices finished as one with a roaring determination–
“Arrived at the combat area! SF-014X Helios, ready!”