Second Floor Balcony, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
D’ron planted his arms on the railing and ran his eyes over the organized chaos below, on the main floor. Smiling, he watched the young men and women scurrying back and forth directing the servitor robots decorating the room.
In an uncharacteristic display of nepotism, he had agreed to allow the Senior class of Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy, the class in which his sister would graduate tomorrow, to use the Imperial House’s ballroom for their senior dance. At least it had not been his idea. Jessica had been on the dance’s planning committee, and had broached the idea to him on her birthday back during December.
His eyes flickered over the bobbing and weaving heads on the floor below. Where’s Jessica? D’ron could not spot her light curled brown hair anywhere below. She ought to be here, somewhere, since she knows the room and the rules of the house better than anyone else on the committee.
Suddenly, two thin arms wrapped around D’ron from behind, and he tensed instinctively before his brain managed to catch up with his body.
The soft soprano belonging to the owner of the arms spoke. “Surprise, big brother.” The happiness in Jessica’s voice at having snuck up on her brother was quite evident.
The Imperial President turned around and hugged his little sister, while glaring over the top of her head at the two Presidential Guardsmen who were supposed to be watching his back, not grinning when his sister surprised him. “Heya, kiddo. How goes the decorating?”
Jessica pulled back and smiled up at him. “It’s going good.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks for letting us use the ballroom.”
D’ron smiled and rubbed his sister’s hair. “Not a problem.” He glanced down at the main floor. “You better get back to work, before they miss you.”
The young woman smiled. “That was my plan, since I’d just dashed off to the kitchen’s to check on lunch.”
D’ron feigned anger. “You’re using… Is it not enough to got the ballroom, and my band, but you have to steal my cooks too?”
Jessica giggled. “Yep.” She bounced down the grand staircase, calling, “See you later, D’ron,” over her shoulder.
Grinning, the Imperial President shook his head at youthful impetuosity, and turned to leave, back to his office, the Guardsmen trailing silently behind.
Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy Senior Dance, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
The great crystal chandeliers sparkled, sending rainbows of light to reflect from the polished teak of the dance floor. The lights glittered from every polished surface, metal inlays, gold shining on the uniforms of the Guardsmen flanking every doorway, blued steel of shouldered weapons ready for instant use, folded blades gleaming lethally as they hung from the mess dress uniforms.
A hundred and eight students, dressed in their most formal clothing, populated the room, milling about as the hour approached. Some moved towards the tables of refreshments lining one wall, a few sipping drinks, chatting with their dates and their friends.
All this Jessica saw as she entered from the interior corridor on Darren’s arm, the two of them the last to arrive despite having the shortest distance, having only come from her suite on the other side of Imperial House, yet she had purposely delayed until they would be the last to arrive.
And like a form of the night, arrive they did. Jessica wore a midnight blue gown, strapless, cut low in the front, and lower in the back, though it was mostly covered by her hair, held by a jeweled clasp at the nape of her neck, then cascading down and out to the small of her back. Matching gloves came to the midpoint of her upper arm. Darren was dressed in traditional formal blacks, black leather calf boots, polished blue, a cape falling to the top of his boots, bloused trousers with a light blue stripe with a maroon core down the outer seams, a black, high collared tunic shirt, tucked in, with the same stripe just above the cuffs. A silver aiguillette hung on his left shoulder, indicating he was the second son of Mister and Misses Louis Cartesano.
Jessica glided along with Darren’s measured stride as the moved towards a table containing punch, and nearly tripped as Darren stopped dead, the music beginning, the unmistakable strains of House Atredies filling the air. Her gaze darted around the room, searching for her brother…
Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy Senior Dance, Second Floor Balcony, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
D’ron stepped off on the first note of the Presidential Theme, coming down the inside half of the grand marble staircase that dominated the north end of the ballroom. Like Darren, he also wore traditional blacks, but his were slightly different. His cape was floor length, as befit his status as head of his family. His shoulder bore a gold aiguillette, and the braid on his legs and wrists was gold with a black core. From his belt hung Kánomegil, platinum, falcon shaped hilt protruding from the blackened sheath.
But he was not about to look down at his outfit, or even at the stairs upon which he trod, for it would not befit his dignity as Imperial President of the Federation of Sentient Peoples, nor did his clothing or footing compare to the vision of fire crowned green floating down the stairs opposite him.
Lesley Ann Smith, nee Collins, his wife.
Titanian red hair was piled atop her head elaborately, making her appear considerably taller than she really was. Eye catching as the hair was, it seemed perfectly positioned to send your eyes downward, into the deep green eyes, brought out by the forest green halter dress clung to her body all the way to the floor. She wore no gloves, showing off a generous amount of lightly freckled skin. Smiling, she revealed perfect white teeth between her lightly colored lips.
Internally, D’ron grimaced at the music, and the stage managing. He had wanted just to attend as a chaperone of the event, but unfortunately, things had conspired against him. Firstly, even though it had not really sunk in after five years, he was always the President while he was in Imperial House. Tradition forbade anyone but his immediate family from addressing him by name, though he was breaking down the cabinet members from that foolishness slowly. Additionally, this was a highly formal event, and so, D’ron had to be in his highly formal persona, the Imperial President. Neither of those would have particularly bothered him, since he had the legal authority to overrule them, but the last straw had come from an entirely different direction than tradition. The senior class had learned he planned to chaperone the dance, and unanimously voted they would rather him be there as the Imperial President than as Field Marshal (Ret.) D’ron Smith.
They met halfway down the stairs, halfway through the song, on the landing where the two upper pieces of the grand staircase rejoined. Lesley took D’ron’s proffered left arm, and they proceeded down the last set of stairs. Exactly one minute and thirty-five seconds after the first note, D’ron’s booted foot came down on the edge of the dance floor, and the music faded away.
D’ron felt a grin spread across his face as he swept Lesley into his arms as the First Army Orchestra began a waltz, All Hallow’s Eve Ball.
Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy Senior Dance, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Lesley grinned as D’ron pulled her close as the waltz began. Her fingers twined in his gloved ones, gold braid under her right hand, leathered fingers gentle on the small of her back. Her feet easily found the pattern to which her husband led her. With their eyes locked to each other, they slowly began to spin across the dance floor.
Around the room, the students began to the follow the adults’ example. It was obvious that some of them knew what they were doing, easily picking out the strong, weak, weak pattern that so characterized the style of the music. As she allowed her eyes to wander, it was clear to Lesley that some were much better dancers than others. She forced down a giggle as she caught one boy mouthing “one, two, three” silently as he moved with his taller female partner. Fortunately, the girl did not appear to be any better than the young man.
But for the most part, the students could at least handle the basic movements of the dance. That was only to be expected, considering the families from which these students came, since Vanderbilt Prep was not exactly an inexpensive institution of education. Among the upper crust of Federation society, it was expected that one would be able to at least fake proficiency at the formal ballroom dances. But the majority of the students appeared to be able to do more than fake it.
Lesley’s eyes returned to D’ron’s, and flickered with excitement as she heard the music begin to change. After all, All Hallow’s Eve Ball was not exactly the most traditional of waltzes. Brown eyes twinkled back then vanished as a simple angling of her husband’s hand sent her out, spinning under his uplifted arm.
As she moved back against D’ron, the music underwent an abrupt change. Formerly soft and gentle, smooth, it became hard and driving, powerful. Black covered arms wrapped around her body as Lesley’s back pressed against the smooth fabric coating her husband’s chest. Gloved hands ran along bare arms, crossing them over her chest. Her knees flexed slightly, pressing her hips against D’ron’s. His larger form was supporting her body, as she nearly sat in his lap while he stood, thigh to thigh, calf to calf, her back to his chest. Her hands found and flattened against his hips and leather gloved fingers curled around Lesley’s waist. Her hair stood out, red on black, as she leaned her head back on her partner’s shoulder, his head angling to nuzzle against hers, his eyes grinning as they easily matched the most suggestive, erotic motions that any of the young people around them might practice in clubs.
The pattern of the music changed again, and she felt herself spinning out along a nanofabric sheathed arm, black cloth whispering against her skin as she continues to spin, her arm above her head, her gown flaring out below the knees with the speed of her motion. Lesley spun back in along D’ron’s arm, her chest pressed against his, her eyes sparkling when the met his, before her gaze was torn away by the continued rotation, as she spun in the opposite direction under her husband’s now raised left arm.
Once more Lesley spun back into black clothed embrace of the man who loved her, and the final fanfare sounded in the music, she leaned back against her husband’s arms as he dipped her backwards, and the Imperial President lightly pressed his lips to those of his First Lady.
Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy Senior Dance, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Jessica watched, grinning, as D’ron slowly lifted Lesley back to her feet, smiling broadly. She turned her head back to her date, who was just as enthralled as she had been with her brother’s performance, but not as quick to recover.
At least, he was until she punched his shoulder.
“Hey?!” His head whipped around to consider his fifteen centimeter shorter partner. “What was that for?”
Jessica looked petulant, and slightly bemused. “How come you don’t dance with me like that?” She was clearly referring to the show her sibling had just put on.
“Well… I…” Darren stuttered. No one else was able to reduce him to that, but Jessica. He was normally quite composed. “I mean… we’re not… you know.”
She could not hold back the giggles anymore at her date’s stuttered defense. “I’m only joking, Darren. I don’t expect one of my oldest friends to dance with me like that.” She leaned in close, whispering into his ear. “I wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable.” Stop kidding yourself, Jess. You know you do. She grinned, and he grinned back.
“Uncomfortable? Around you?” He shook his head. “Mostly, Jess, I’ve never even contemplated dancing with anyone like that before. Hell, until I saw that, I didn’t know people could dance like that.” He smiled, his eyes twinkling with barely contained mischief. “But if I ever decide to dance like that with anyone, I’ll let you know.”
Jessica blinked. That was the most open hint of any interest beyond purely platonic she had ever heard from her best male friend. After all, that had been a very intimate dance Lesley and D’ron pulled off.
She had lost them in the motion following the dance, and her eyes flickered around the room, until she spotted her tall brother, speaking amicably with one of the older teachers.
Jessica turned back to the young man beside her as she tossed her punch cup in an artfully disguised receptacle. “Shall we dance?” she queried, noticing the orchestra getting ready to play again.
Darren grinned. “Of course. That is the reason we are here, is it not?”
“True.” Tugging on a black gloved hand, she pulled her date onto the teak floor just as the orchestra began a foxtrot…
Vanderbilt Prepatory Academy Senior Dance, Emperor Roger II Ballroom, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
The dance was scheduled for four hours, from eight o’clock until midnight, from full dark until deepest blackest night. And deepest night was fast approaching, for dark had departed some three hours previous, and even the powerful lights of the garden had given up on illuminating the scene outside the ballroom’s south windows.
As the night had worn on, D’ron had partnered many of the teachers, his sister, and a few lucky other female students. Even with that, two thirds of his dances had gone to his wife, who had found great amusement at some of the partners her tall husband had ended up with. Misses Beatrice Stewart, a tiny white haired teacher of more than eighty years, and more than fifty centimeters shorter than the President, for example, had been in striking contrast to the thirty-one year old dark haired D’ron.
Now he was standing with his arm around Lesley now, his lips close to her ear. But not for a kiss. “Ready for something a bit more challenging, love?”
She turned her head and smiled up at him, and only someone who knew her extraordinarily well would catch the hint of nervousness that flickered in her eyes. “I suppose so. As long as you don’t slip.”
Laughing softly, he kissed her forehead lightly. “I’ll be alright. Fortunately, I can’t hurt you. Not with this sword.” One of Kánomegil’s magical properties was that it could not injure one to whom it was blood sworn. D’ron shivered slightly with a memory as he considered that.
And while neither of them put much stock in magic and legends, Lesley had seen D’ron use a sword many times, and was perfectly confident in his abilities, especially since they had practiced the coming dance barehanded and with practice blades. But the live steel added an edge of nervousness they would be foolish to deny, despite their absolute trust in one another.
For the Sword Dance had always opened the last quarter of a formal ball, or at least as far back as could be determined, the highly structured, eight phase formalized dance had fallen three quarters of the way through a formal ball. At a minimum, 1500 years prior, the Emperor Roger II had decreed that all of his liegemen of fighting age had to participate in the Sword Dance to judge their fitness with a blade, and to make sure these warriors truly were fit, the dance was fixed in the last quarter of every Imperial Ball. The order had become a tradition by the Fall of the Empire, 300 years previous, a tradition today still more inescapable than law, even if there were no liegemen, and the military was unlikely to use its swords in combat.
D’ron realized, as the Announcement began, that he was probably the only one who would be using a live blade, as none of the children or teachers were armed, and the Guardsmen were on duty. He grinned briefly as his weapon flashed into his hand from its sheath under his cape. Light glittered off the blade as Lesley froze, gleaming steel flashing towards her body. During the Presentation of the blade, the female partner was not supposed to move, as the dance grew increasingly complex as it wore on, but this was the easiest part, for just as a fixed target is easiest to hit, it is also the easiest to miss.
Thrust and slash and hold and parry… the blade moved only as a gleaming light over Lesley’s body, her form blurred by the flickering steel, blazing within the tiniest distance from her skin, whose coloring would instantly reveal any mistake.
But D’ron made no mistakes, as Lesley held her position, unwavering and unafraid, or at least, letting no fear be seen.
As the music thundered onward, it drew into the next part of the dance’s sequence, as strong bass beats began to indicate each step of the Stalk. The flat of the blade whispered to a stop under Lesley’s chin, as the two lovers both stepped out with their left foot. Over the gleaming steel surface, two pair of eyes, one brown, one green, met in blazing emotion, outshining the lights reflected from the steel into their eyes.
Slowly, on every other beat, one foot moved, left out, right to left. The tip of Kánomegil’s blade remaining poised against the soft white skin of Lesley’s throat, as she and the Imperial President revolved clockwise, their eyes as unwavering as the position of the blade and its possibly deadly pressure against her neck.
And again, an abrupt change in the music brought about the new series of movements of the Duel. As before, the flickering of the of the sword of state’s blade blurred the woman around which it moved. But this time, as D’ron whipped the sword through its paces, Lesley moved with it. Slashes resulted in leaning and ducking, thrusts in leans and flexes of the young woman’s body. Together they moved, faster and faster, bodies bending in tandem, the sword whispering close enough to raise goosebumps on Lesley’s skin.
Then, as it seemed to be approaching the point at which the blade would have no choice to begin carving into the ivory flesh over which it skimmed, the music changed yet again, the heavy beats returning, initiating the Hunt. The shining blade glittered to a stop, the flat resting along the underside of Lesley’s jaw, held as an extension of D’ron’s arm, the razor sharp edge pressed with no force to the First Lady’s neck. And once more, the slow circle began, right foot out, left crosses right, right out again, moving in the opposite direction of their rotation before.
And for a single heart stopping moment, D’ron released Kánomegil’s hilt and spun, his floor length cape billowing out like a storm cloud as Lesley spun with him. Behind his back, his gloved hand closed once more on the falcon hilt, holding the flat just as tightly against his wife’s other jaw, as the slowly continued their circle, now facing away from each other.
With the music drawing closer to the end, and the Hunt completed, it was time for Combat. The next change in the in music brought D’ron whirling about, cape billowing, blade flashing as he turned even more vigorously then before on his red headed wife. As his sword movements began anew, both of them continued to spin, with reversed thrusts and blind counter movements added to the dangerous mixture. Faster and more furious the music grew, and with it, the flickering blade and the sinuous movements of both adults grew fasters and more deadly, were any mistake to be made.
And again, with its shocking suddenness, that so characterized the music of the Sword Dance, the music changed once more. Facing each other again, D’ron and Lesley began to spiral together as the moved in a counterclockwise circle, each of D’ron’s steps bringing him both around and inward. But still his blade sawed through the air, for the first time having to account for lateral movement with each step, each thrust as its target continued to writhe just out of contact with the magical edge.
Lesley gasped with the suddenness as the flat of the blade came to rest in the small of her back, her body pressed against D’ron’s, pinned by the sword, held on either side of her by his hands. His lips met hers for the barest instant, before he spun away, sword flashing before her eyes. The point of view changed as she flexed her knees, dropping a deep curtsey as D’ron finished the formal salute as the back of the blade tapped vertically against his right shoulder.
As she stood, Lesley watched the grin spreading across her husband’s face, through his heavier than normal breathing. He sheathed the sword with relief obvious to those who knew him and wrapped his right arm around her shoulders as their concentration slowly faded out and reality faded back in.
A stunned silence from the onlookers greeted them, as few, if any, had ever seen a Sword Dance performed with a live blade before. And then the silence was broken by a sound of two hands striking each other, then more, and more, until everyone was clapping.
D’ron and Lesley flushed, though it was hardly noticeable, as their faces were already red from the dance. Nodding in acceptance of the compliment being bestowed upon them, they made their way to the edge of the room.
As he handed her a drink, D’ron was chuckling slightly, and Lesley looked at him enquiringly.
“I hadn’t thought about the fact that most of these teens had never seen a Sword Dance done properly before.”
“I bet it was a surprise for them.”
“Probably,” D’ron responded as he brought his breathing back under control.
She leaned up and kissed him softly on the cheek. “You’re out of shape. Stamina’s low.”
D’ron looked affronted, and spoke in a low voice. “I heard no complaints from you last night about my stamina.”
His wife flushed, and looked around, but no one was close enough to have heard. “Yes well, I remember when I first met you, you could four and five dances in a row.”
He shrugged. “Too much chair parade, I guess. Too much damn work.”
“That’s what you get for being President, love. If you’d been sensible, you’d have given it up when I did.” She smiled.
Residence Hallway, First Floor, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Jessica smiled up at Darren as they stopped outside the door to her room. “I had a really good time tonight, Darren.”
He reached down and turned them both so that they were facing each other. “So did I, Jess.” Their eyes met and for a brief moment, there was utter silence. “So, uh, er, I guess I’ll see you in the morning, at graduation?”
Jessica blinked as Darren broke the spell of the moment and shifted her gaze slightly. “Yeah, I guess so.” She continued to look at him, almost as if she was expecting him to say something else.
But he said nothing. Or at least, almost nothing. “Goodnight, Jess.” He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and squeezed.
Her arms went around her friend’s neck, and pulled his head down as Jessica returned the hug. But if Darren was expecting anything more than his hug returned, what he got was not it. Ever so lightly, the young woman brushed her lips against Darren’s before she broke contact and stepped back, turning to enter her room. “Goodnight, Darren.”
Shock nearly held him in place too long, too silent. “Jess, I…” He paused, trying to gather his words.
“Yes?” When she turned back, half hidden excitement colored her voice, and her face brightened slightly.
“I was… I wanted to…” Darren faltered, and silently cursed his nervousness. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he finished lamely.
“Oh.” Her face fell and went dark. “Goodnight, Darren.” Jessica stepped back through the open doorway. In the sudden stillness, the whisper of the door closing was loud with the crushing finality of a guillotine’s slam.
“Goodnight, Jess,” Darren whispered to the closed door. And after a long moment, he turned, and walked away.
Camp Zorro, Location Classified, FSP
Darren blinked himself awake at the soft sound, then suddenly found himself airborne. What the he… WHAM!
He slammed into the ground. Hard. Nose first. He started to press up from the dirt, and shook his head. Which is when the voice finally penetrated his sleep fogged mind.
“LET’S GO, YOU BUMS! WAKE UP AND FALL IN!” Obviously the voice was talking to him, and the other people in the communal tent. He stood up, dressed in his boxers and t-shirt, from his sleep, and shook the last sleep from his eyes. As he did, Darren scanned the ground for his shoes, and spotting them, leaned down to the grab them.
SNAP! The uniformed nuisance that he had noticed yelling had somehow gotten close to him and had snapped him across his rear end with a swagger stick. He spun upright, and turned, his fist clenching, tired and angry enough to take a swing…
But he never even made it halfway. The uniformed corporal knew exactly what Darren was about, and knocked him down on his rear before he even made eye contact. “Let’s go, recruit,” he said more softly.
Darren’s eyes drifted to his shoes again, and the corporal shook his head. “No time.” Then he shifted to his louder again. “SO GET ON YOUR FEET AND MOVE!” All the while he was yanking, Darren easily to his feet and pushing him towards the exit.
The line of other young men and women, boys and girls, really, none more likely than a few months passed their eighteenth birthdays, was forming up outside. Everyone of them was in their pajamas, and without shoes.
This was in a very direct contrast to the instructors scattered about, in immaculate black field uniforms, bush hats for the most part tilted rakishly. Their boots were shiny enough to use as a shaving mirror, and their chins gleamed clean. Even for all that, they still appeared to be demons straight from hell in the pre-dawn gloom, appearing from and vanishing into the shadows with absurd ease.
Except for the man who appeared to be in charge, flanked by a huge man and a woman only slightly smaller. The man’s black skin matched his uniform almost too exactly, and his hair was worse. A solid wraith of solidified darkness, stalking down the line of recruit troopers.
It spoke. “Welcome to Camp Zorro, recruits. I am Career Master Sergeant Thomas.” His voice was fatherly, almost kind, and fairly soft, then he smiled, at it was clear at once, that would be the last nice thing out of his mouth for a while. His detailed recital was quite impersonal, in that he never directed an insult at anyone in particular, just lobbed huge masses of them at the whole. Finally, he snarled, as the sun came up. “I believe I had a better toy orc army when I was a boy, than you all will be.” As the rays of sun blazed into the ranks from directly behind the man, turning him into a perfect black shadow on the surface of the sun, he shook himself slightly. “Let’s see what you’re made of. One hundred jumping jacks, now!” The last word simply exploded from his mouth. It was followed by crunches, push ups, and then a multi-mile run, the instructors helping all along the way.
By the time they collapsed into their benches in the mess tent, still in their pajamas, and without shoes, Darren had sworn to sleep in his shoes and something a little better suited for exercise. He was dripping wet, and much to tired to appreciate anything but the plentiful food, even if some of the girls would have normally caught his eyes, even had their sleepwear not been soaked with sweat.
But he, and everyone else, were too tired for that nonsense today, as pain in every portion of their bodies announced their newly changed lifestyle. For at least the next five years, they were committed to serving the Federation in whatever it demanded of them. This was most likely only the beginning of the harsh new reality.
The Sergeant stood up on a podium near the front of the tent. “Now that we’ve all been properly introduced, I thought I’d let you in on the plan for the rest of the morning. Today you will be getting to know your camp, and the rules for living here. Follow the rules, or…” He shrugged. “That’s up to you, I suppose. Your lives are still your own. That’s the only thing I’m not allowed to take from you without any reason.” An evil smile broke that harsh scowl. “For example, any of you who brought any personal luggage have had it confiscated while we were out this morning. You will get it back, some of you no doubt sooner than others.” He shrugged. “Again, up to you.” Glancing at his watch, he smiled. “You’ve got five minutes to finish eating.”
* * * * *
The recruits were lined up, alternating male and female, in three columns, leading to a series of doors in the only permanent looking building as far as the eye could see. It was in fact about two and a half stories tall, but its mottled appearance would have made it hard to see against the forest from far away.
“This is the bathhouse. And it is time for your showers, so strip, now.” Darren blinked at the command, and reached for the hem of his shirt, and pulled it over his head. Of course, it was a simple mud splattered t-shirt, hardly significant, but some people had considerably better sleep wear on than him. His blue and red stripe boxers were next, and he held them both in his hands, and ran his eyes over the other recruits. Some of the girls did look nice, shivering slightly with nervousness, some trying to cover themselves, some unashamed. The guys were no different, though. In fact, the proportions even seemed to be about the same.
The front of the lines began to move, entering in through the doors, and Darren was particularly unimpressed with the screams which began to echo as the people went inside the building. He tossed his own clothing into the growing pile, and stepped inside.
The first noticeable thing was the icy cold water spraying down on him at high pressure. He closed his eyes, and just in time, as something particularly foul smelling slimed across him, coating him from head to toe in no time. He kept walking, as the only way out was forward.
Burning hot water now, cleansing his skin, which felt all tingly as a result of the shower. Certainly one of the easiest showers I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt cleaner. Then Darren realized why he felt all tingly. All his hair had been removed. Completely, from his entire body. He was still in line, as there was still no way out.
He was next, as he stepped up to the counter. “Name?” said the clerk behind the counter.
“Cartesano. Right.” A whirring buzz came from the counter, and a box and a duffel bag slide out of the counter top. “These are yours. Go to your right.”
Darren reached out and took the bag and box, and proceeded down the hallway to his right, and stopped as he entered a big room, full of people in varying states of undress. His fellow recruits, a couple of whom he had just been growing able to recognize. Not any more, for all of them, male and female, were completely hairless, as the slowly put on identical black uniforms over standard issue khaki underclothing.
He sighed. This was even more than he had been expecting…
Medical Center, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Lesley sighed softly as she undid the buttons of her blouse, and shrugged out of it, folding it neatly before setting it down. Her shoes and stockings were next, followed by her skirt, then her underwear, carefully folded and placed in a pile on the hospital bed. She pulled on the hospital gown, and smiled to herself in the mirror.
And to think, I was just starting to get used to being pregnant.
She pushed the curtain around the bed aside, and found her husband standing there, smiling at her. Ready? his eyes seemed to ask, without speaking, but the love sparkled in their depths. Lesley nodded to him, and then turned to the waiting doctor. “Alright, let’s do this.”
* * * * *
They knocked her out, of course. She would not feel a thing. It was a routine procedure, one that the doctor, who had been brought it from Griffin Metro Hospital, must have done a hundred times, if not more.
D’ron watched, the blood not phasing him a bit as he stood beyond the sterile field protecting the surgical area. Her body was sliced open, her abdomen peeled back. That was all he could see, but he knew the rest of the operation.
They would be cutting into his wife’s womb, and removing their child. He had purposely not asked anyone if the child was male or female. Archaic though it might be, he wanted to be surprised when the child was born.
Except, in a sense, it was being born now, not a month after it was conceived, forcefully taken from Lesley’s body and placed in a cold metal chamber, which would sustain it until it was old enough to survive on its own. A uterine replicator, a place much easier to monitor than his wife’s body, where their child would be safe.
It was independently powered and shielded against most everything it could be shielded from. Not as perfect as D’ron would have preferred, but then, his navy’s ships were not invincible either, so it would be hardly realistic for this much smaller and cheaper piece of technology to be.
But considering his position, and Lesley’s as First Lady, it was considerably safer for the baby to be where the doctor was moving it.
He smiled when the doctor turned and gave him a thumbs up sign through the sterile field. The baby was safe. He let his gaze slide over the blinking green lights of the replicator as the surgeon made to close his incisions. Within days, Lesley would be on her feet again, ready to help him in his never ending struggle as Imperial President.
* * * * *
The light hurt her eyes as they cracked open, and she squeezed them shut. As she opened them again, she saw that the light was dimmed. “Are you alright, dear heart?” a soft male voice whispered.
“I’m fine.” Her voice trembled a little with sleep. Thoughts flickered through her mind, trying to piece together something her brain was not quite right on top of. The baby. Her baby. Lesley smiled. “And the baby?”
“It’s fine.” D’ron leaned over and kissed her lips softly. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
International Relations Directorate Training Facility “Camp Fozzie,” Dominion of Vanderhill, FSP
BEEP……. BEEP…….. BEEP…. BEEP…. BEEP…. BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP BEEEEEEEEEP
Jessica rolled over and slapped her alarm clock, and groaned as she saw the time. 0730 hours. Of all the god forsaken times, why did I… oh. She bolted upright as she realized the ceiling was not her own, the bed not her own. Today was the first day of her school. She had graduated two days ago, and was already back in school. Such was life.
Or at least, her new adult life. On her own, without her brother, for the first time ever. She loved her brother, true. But he was the President of the entire Federation. Nearly three billion people he was responsible for.
She did not want his job, ever. Would not have traded anything, been paid anything to take that job. D’ron felt a duty to a post, a Federation that had stolen his life from him, or perhaps had taken what was willingly given.
Anyways, breakfast was in less than an hour, and she wanted to present her best face. She pulled off her t-shirt and shorts, and wrapped herself in a towel. It might be an individual room, but showers were down the hall.
* * * * *
She walked into the hall, and smiled broadly at the sights and sounds of the dining hall. Her graduation was the first time she had ever been in a huge crowd before, and though this crowd was not that big, it was probably the largest she had even been in without knowing there to be guards nearby.
And there were none here. Anyone entering the IRD’s premier academy was of course extensively screened, not that Jessica worried about that overmuch. Except for those disturbed criminals that one time, she had never met anyone with a true desire to hurt her in any way.
She stood in line, and watched as her plate was handed to her. Whatever it was on the plate, it did not look like breakfast. In fact, it looked a lot more like something she has once, in a dim memory, seen the family cat barf out on the carpet.
A hairball was the only thing that compared to how perfectly disgusting her ‘breakfast’ looked. But it least the food smelled better. She moved to a table, and sat down, noticing that everyone had the same food she did. At least I’m not alone in being disgusted.
The boy across the table was playing with the food, but not eating it, as Jessica spooned the first bite into her mouth. She almost gagged; it was completely vile. Managing to swallow it down, she looked at him. “What is this?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat it, and now, seeing your reaction, I know I don’t.”
Jessica shook her head. “No, you better eat it. You’ll be hungry. Besides, it could be worse.”
The boy looked up, interested. “How?”
Smiling enigmatically, she managed to put down another bite, then another. Soon, her plate was clear. She had been hungry, despite the disgusting taste. At some point, the boy had begun to eat as well.
And high above, though not a single person there knew it, monitoring AI kept track of each individual’s reaction to the food.
Inter-Directorate Cafeteria, Primary Federal Government Compound, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Second Ambassador, Undersecretary for Alliance Relations, Head of Diplomatic Training, and General All Around Fix It Man Bruce Reynolds stepped out of the line carrying a tray of food.
The IDC was open twenty four hours a day, fortunately, for it was late into the night over the southern city. Well, no. It was actually early in the morning. Or late in the morning.
Or something. 0355 hours. And of course, this was dinner. Or again, something. What meal, what time of day it was, Bruce was not really sure.
He was mostly living off of his bio-enhancements, with too much work to do, and no time to rest, for there were no where near enough hours in a day for sleep. Bruce had not seen the inside of his apartment for over two weeks, living out of his office. He had had his secretary go and get him some clothing from home, which he was about out of now.
He would have to have the cleaners come pick up some clothes today, to get them cleaned, so he would have wearable clothing again. He was glad of the shower in his office, for sure.
His gaze wandered across the open dining area. Even the executive level was huge, for a government that effectively ruled over three billion people, even a tiny, efficient government was big. Of course, the Federation government was beginning to bloat, as well.
Part of the reason Bruce had so much work to do. And not surprising, so did a number of other people, considering the crowd in the dining area at this time of day. Perhaps a fifth of the chairs were occupied, but probably not even that.
But the quick glance confirmed one thing about the room. Everyone but one person was paired off in conversation. Being a diplomat, Bruce had no desire to interrupt any ongoing conversations, but being exhausted, tired enough he was afraid he would fall asleep, and a man, he was drawn to the table with only a single occupant.
The person was facing away from him, and attractively female, at least from behind. Navy blue hair fell to somewhere about the middle of her back, and she was wearing a skinslick of blood red.
It was the skinslick that drew Bruce’s attention, for they were rare for government duty wear, though they remained quite popular off the clock. Not that anyone who could eat in this cafeteria worked on a clock. All professionals here.
Bruce moved over the table, and looked down at the woman, his guess confirmed as he got close enough to see her face. Well, at least, more of her body. She was looking down, eating with a single minded intensity, some of her hair dangling across her face, apparently just as tired as Bruce was. “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” He referenced the seat directly across from the woman.
“Bruce?” Rebecca Cameron looked up at the Second Ambassador. They knew each other, but not very well. She was a few years younger than the man, but the age difference was nothing in a country with the life lengthening treatments that the Federation could take for granted.
“Rebecca?” Bruce’s surprise was evident. Of course, it was little surprise that he hadn’t recognized her. Both times he had met her, in purely official functions, her hair had been brown. Of course, she changed it every day, but Bruce could not remember this specific color scheme. “I didn’t recognize you, with your hair, and the, ah…” He gestured loosely in the direction of her outfit, such as it was. Or was not, as might have been more appropriate.
The young woman laughed. “That was somewhat the idea. Please, sit down.” Setting his tray down, Bruce obeyed the instruction with all due speed.
After taking a sip of his drink, Bruce returned his gaze to Rebecca, who had paused in eating to look at him questioningly. Better have something to say. “So, Rebecca, what kept you at work this late?”
The woman sitting across from him sighed. “Well, a few things, really. Mostly, though, it’s the workload. Organizing a new Directorate from scratch is hard work.”
Bruce frowns slightly. “I know it’s got to be, but you can’t do all the work without sleeping.” He picked up some eggs on his fork.
The Minister of Public Information laughed softly. “You’re one to talk. Just by looking at you, I can tell the last time you had a full night’s sleep was, oh… two weeks ago?”
Bruce nods, acknowledging the hit. “You’re good. It was fifteen days. Or sixteen. I’ve lost count in there somewhere.”
That woke a giggle from Rebecca’s perfectly shaped lips. “So what all is keeping you awake, Mister Undersecretary for Alliance Relations?”
“Well, that’s unfortunately only one of my job titles.” Bruce sighed, then took another bite of his…Might as well start calling it breakfast.…food. “I’m also responsible for overseeing the new training candidates, and I’m trying to set up an ambassador for the new ICEL trade ship.” His face grew thoughtful for a moment. “And I’m researching into the next place for a colony is in the Sol system. We’d like one in the outer system as a base. Plus there is the…”
“Stop it.” Rebecca was giggling again, probably because she was so tired. “That’s enough, I get the idea.” Her face grew slightly serious. “And you thought I needed sleep to deal with all my problems. I’m hardly going to have to deal with other governments while dealing with those problems. Why don’t you go home and get some sleep?”
Bruce nodded. “I really should, I know. But I lose an hour to the commute every day if I do that. So I don’t go home when I’ve a lot of work to do. Inefficient.”
Rebecca shook her head. “At least you’ve got somewhere to go home to.”
Bruce blinked, the statement confusing him completely. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been working so hard on getting the new Directorate together I haven’t had time to find an apartment in the city.” She sighed tiredly, letting a weariness show through that rarely did. “All my stuff is still in storage in one of the lower levels of the PID Tower. I’ve been sleeping on the couch in my office suite for the last month.”
The older man smiled slightly. “I must say, I couldn’t’ve told that from looking at you, especially when you appeared on the HD.”
She laughed again. “Well, I’d like to think that my training comes in handy sometimes. I can’t after all sell my stories if I’m exhausted, or at least, appear exhausted, can I?”
“No, I suppose you couldn’t.” He smiles. “Is that why you dress like you do?”
“That’s part of it. I can distract from any tiredness I’m feeling with a bit of sexiness.” She blushed slightly. “I know I look good, so why not use it?”
Bruce laughed softly. “Very true. Use everything you’ve got.” He yawned widely, belatedly covering it with his hand, and then looking down at his half empty plate of food. “Speaking of that, I’ve got a bed that I’ve not been using enough lately.” He blinked sleepily. “I think I’ll go ‘use everything I’ve got.’”
The joke was poor, but it was very late, so Rebecca laughed anyway. “Sounds like a good idea, Bruce.” She took a sip of her coffee.
Bruce shook his head slightly, as if to clear a fog away. “I’ve also got a guest bed, if you want to borrow it. I can have them move it up to your office. It’s one of those everythings I don’t use.”
Rebecca blinked. “That sounds wonderful. A real bed, for the first time in a month. You mind if I try it out first?” Bruce looked confused, brain quickly shutting down, his coffee not helping. She continued. “You expecting visitors tonight, Bruce?”
“Oh. Uh…” He shook his head. “Not at all. You’re welcome to come try it out. You want the code to the door?”
She smiled. “What, you think I’m going to stay here longer? I’ll meet you in the IRD executive garage in ten minutes, if you don’t mind giving me a ride.”
The Second Ambassador shook his head. “Not at all. I’ll see you there.”
* * * * *
Eleven minutes later, Bruce stood next to his sky car, blinking sleepily, with his hand resting on the canopy to hold himself up. He would need to be awake enough to instruct the car in getting home.
Is she coming or not? Maybe I should call up to her office. Just then, the door on the far wall slid open, and Rebecca walked briskly out, wrapped in a black overcoat that basically hid her entire body, the hood pulled up covering even her dark blue hair. Since it sank down to ankle length, only black heeled boots showed under it, running up to mid calf, as Bruce knew from earlier. In fact, he would not have recognized her at all without his enhanced eyesight picking her face from the dark folds of fabric, which even disguised how she moved.
As she reached the car, Bruce flipped open the back seat for her, seeing that she had a bag with her. Well, as much as his sports car had a back seat, that was. Mostly, he leaned the passenger seat forward and extended his hand to take her bag, which ended up in the back seat. After Rebecca nodded to him, and slid into the front seat, Bruce closed the door, and walked around the front, getting the ‘driver’s’ side. But that was only for emergencies, or long car trips. In the city, traffic control computers did all the driving for you.
“Home.” The simple word from Bruce’s lips gave the car power, and it edged out into the traffic stream, which, at the exit from the government’s main compound, was still fairly heavy, even with the time as late as it was.
The car silently flew onward for a moment, before Rebecca broke it. “So, any thing interesting in the training reports?”
Bruce shook his head as the cityscape rushed by at a hundred kilometers an hour. “Not at all. Everything seems to be going fine. No one’s died yet, so I suppose that’s an improvement.”
She turned her head sharply. “What do you mean?”
“Last year one of the new diplomatic corps kids decided to jump out a window. We don’t know why. Everything seems to indicate suicide, since everyone is basically accounted for.”
Shock. Horror. Sadness. Then… “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
Bruce laughed and nodded. “Of course I am. If anything like that had happened, it would have been reported.”
“You… you…” Rebecca was shaking, a combination of both anger and mirth, laughter finally winning out. “I can’t believe you said that with a straight face.”
Still chuckling, Bruce grinned at her. “One of the skills of the diplomat. Being able to lie with a straight face.”
She shook her head. “You really are too much, you know.” Leaning back against the side of the car, she smiled. “Maybe we should try meeting when neither of us is so tired.” She turned at looked him steadily. “So that I can get to know the real you, instead of the running on empty you.”
Bruce nodded. “Say, in the morning, over another breakfast? My treat?”
“I’d like that.” Rebecca turned and stared out a the massive towers drifting by, even at the speed they were traveling. She was silent for a moment, and when Bruce looked back at her, her eyes were closed.
“Rebecca?” There was no reply. Asleep, and missing the city I doubt she’s had much time to see since she got here. Oh well, I’ll let her sleep until we get home.
Bruce Reynolds’ Apartment, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
“Rebecca? Rebecca? Wake up, sleepy head.”
The voice penetrated her sleep fogged mind, but only enough to wake her slightly. “I don’t want to go to school, daddy. Can’t I sleep more?” Laughter. She opened her eyes. “Oh God, Bruce, where, what?” Her voice trailed off, as she stared up at him, then blinked against the light in the room.
“I figured you’d had enough sleep since yesterday, so I figured I’d better wake you up.” She blinked, still confused. “It’s tomorrow, Rebecca. You slept the entire day. In fact, for the last,” Bruce looked at his watch, “twenty eight hours.”
“How did I get here?” She looked around, indicating the unfamiliar surroundings.
“I carried you in from the car yesterday morning when I couldn’t wake you up.”
She blinked again, and yawned, stretching out her arms over her head. “This is a nice bed, for a guest bed.”
Bruce nodded. “It is. I get paid quite a bit, though probably not as much as you, Minister.”
She laughed, and sat up, and feeling the blanket slide down her body, quickly grabbed for it, thinking that she was exposing herself, forgetting the skinslick, which transferred feelings exactly as they were. Looking down, she shook her head. “I’ve never slept in one of these before.”
Bruce smiled. “I didn’t think it would be apropos for me to take it off of you, though your boots are over in the corner.” He gestured towards the foot of the bed, where her boots sat next to the bag she had brought with her the day before. He turned his back and headed to the door, turning as it slid open for him. “I’m going to go make breakfast. The bathroom’s the first door on the left.”
Rebecca slipped out of the bed, and stood unsteadily on the floor, muscles having remained in one position too long protesting the movement. She padded over, and picked up her bag and boots, and set off down the hallway. She stepped through the next doorway, and blinked at the bedroom there, in ocean blues and greens, very soft and soothing.
On the left, silly girl. She turned around and went through the door opposite, and found herself in a marble bathroom, much more luxurious than she expected. Setting her bag on the toilet, boots on the floor, she turned on the water in the gigantic tub, really wanting to just soak for a bit. Noting the vials on the edge, she opened one and squirted some in, watching as it tub filled with thick white foam.
After a moment, Rebecca peeled off her skinslick, overcoming her hesitation about being naked in a strange man’s house. Turning off the water, she slid beneath the bubbles, the water’s heat soothing to her abused body.
She was not entirely sure how long she sat there before the knock came on the door. “Rebecca? Breakfast is ready.”
“Okay, Bruce. Let me find a towel and I’ll be out in a minute.”
“I can bring the breakfast in there if you want,” Bruce offered, able to tell from the soft sounds that she was in the bath and not taking a shower, and that she might want to soak some more.
“Uh…” Rebecca, Head of Public Information, was at a momentary loss for words, thoughts of her lack of clothing flashing through her head, the thick bubbles, the warmth and soothing quality of the water. “Oh, alright.” She sank lower, so only her head was above the bubbles.
The door swung open a moment later, long enough for Bruce to have walked back and gotten a tray, then returned. He set the tray down on the edge of the tub, and smiled. “I’ll be just down the hall if you need anything. Or you can talk to Saira.”
“Saira?” Rebecca blinked, then thought through everything she knew from Second Ambassador Reynolds’ dossier. Nothing about a Saira. “Your household AI?”
Bruce nodded. “Of course. She keeps me on task, and looks after me, like my big sister used to.”
Rebecca chuckled. “Alright then. I know who to call now, if I have any problems.”
Bruce made a slight wave of his arm, acknowledging the hit, before he backed out of the room.
In a bit, once she had finished her breakfast, and Bruce was either an excellent cook, or knew where he could get good Readi-Meals. Gently setting the tray to the side, she took a deep breath and sank under the water. Running her hands through her hair, she felt it heat up, as the water worked its magic, as Rebecca concentrated on a deep red, much the same color as her skinslick from the day before.
Taking in a deep breath as she lifted her head out of the water again, she stood, water cascading down her form, bubbles dripping, running down her luscious curves. Stepping out of the bath, she grabbed a thick towel from the rack and began to dry off. Bunching up her skinslick, she opened the bag and deposited it, drawing out another one, the tiny outfits being all that would easily fit into a briefcase. The new skinslick was almost solid black, but considerably racier than the one from the day before, in that the areas not solid black were completely transparent, running down her arms and sides.
Damn it, I thought I got the solid black one. Oh well. She packed up her bag, and hung up the towel, and as the tub began to drain, picked up the tray and her bag, and, after stepping into her boots, walked out into the hall, in the direction Bruce had gone.
After walking by a few pictures, mostly of places she recognized, and some she did not, she found Bruce watching the holodisplay in the kitchen, munching on a bowl of cereal, a cleaned plate, which held the remains of a hot breakfast matching hers sitting nearby.
At the click of her bootheels on the floor, he turned around, and his jaw literally dropped as his eyes widened. But a trained diplomat, he immediately began spinning damage control. Or, at least, trying. “That’s a nice outfit,” he managed to get out after opening and closing his mouth a few times, and returning his eyes to her face, from their journey over her body. “And I like your hair too.” He blinked, and then had another spoonful of cereal, which he seemed to swallow without chewing. “Just a guess, but cosmetic nanites?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I got them a long time ago. I change my hair color everyday, usually in the shower. Lots of times, I’ll make it to match or deliberately contrast what I’m wearing, and others, I’ll just have it blend.”
“Like today.” It wasn’t a question as Rebecca sat on the stool on the other side of the island from where Bruce sat and set down her tray.
“Like today,” she confirmed, nodding. “You’re an excellent cook, Bruce.”
He laughed. “Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I’ve tried hard to become proficient at its preparation, but I am by no means an excellent cook. It comes from being a bachelor.” He smiled at her, quickly becoming more at ease with her, despite the revealing outfit. “But thank you anyways. Always nice to get compliments from a lady.”
Rebecca giggled. “Are you always this charming? Or am I not awake yet?”
“Ouch.” Bruce smiled. “They don’t call it Charm School for nothing.”
“Call what charm school?”
“Camp Fozzy.” Bruce smiled, referencing the diplomatic corps training camp, where potential ambassadors learned their trade.
“Oh.” She laughed. “I obviously need to get out of my office more, and learn about the interactions of the government circles, including our slang.”
Bruce smiled. “Probably. Have you toured Griffin yet? I mean, just wandered around, looking it?”
She shook her head. “Too busy. Too much to do.”
He laughed. “Well, it’s a good thing I called in sick for both me and you today.”
“WHAT?!” Her outrage was palpable, an immediate and complete change from the genial atmosphere of just moments before. “I’ve so much work, and…”
“Nonsense. You’ve got to have some balance.”
“But I feel fine. I’m not tired at all.” It was not exactly true, but Rebecca felt better than she had in weeks.
“Again, nonsense. We’re going to tour the city, have a nice lunch and dinner in the best restaurants, since you need to know those to work in the government, and then you’re going to get a full night’s sleep before you go back to work in the morning.” Bruce’s tone was firm with her, and she nodded.
It was not like Rebecca did not want to spend the day with him. He was an intriguing and entertaining man. “Very well.” She gave him her most dazzling smile. “Let’s do it.”
Bruce grinned. “Good. First things first, though.”
Rebecca arched an eyebrow inquiringly. “What?”
“We need to get you some less revealing clothing, or people will think I’m a, well… nevermind.”
International Relations Directorate Training Facility “Camp Fozzie,” Dominion of Vanderhill, FSP
Jessica sighed softly, as she stared into the flat computer screen. This place really was just like school. Right down to the tests. One of which, she was taking now.
The Federation is currently at war with the Confederacy of Lost Americans. Name at least five other states with whom the Federation has been at war with in the last ten years.
Bending her fingers to the keys, she quickly typed in her answers. The Five Kingdoms of Melkor Unchained. The United Peoples’ Confederacy of Abu-Dhabi Khristatata. The Empire of Kalessin. The Empire of Automagfreek. The Dominion of Barry Manilow Next Question.
Describe in brief the resolution of these conflicts.
“Hmmm.” Jessica twirled her stylus between her fingers as she thought, then set it down to type again. The war with the Five Kingdoms and the Empire of Kalessin remains officially unresolved, though armed conflict is absent currently. There are no diplomatic relations at current with either nation. The abortive war with the Empire of AMF ended when, as the opening salvos of the space battle began, the nation as a whole sank into the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again. As for the conflict with ADK, it ended just recently with the completion of Operation Crying Rock, in which the entire population of the Khristatatan Earth settlements was deported to another solar system. The Dominion of Barry Manilow was totally defeated by Federation forces, and is now part of the Federation, specifically, the Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples. None of these conflicts was solved by diplomatic diplomacy. Smiling, Jessica advanced to the next question.
You are working in the IRD Division of Non-Government Travelers. The person who needs your help is leaving the country for the first time to go to the Dutch Democratic Republic of Knootoss. What four things must they purchase from you before they can leave? They must also show these before leaving the country.
Jessica blinked. That was a change of pace. Four things… what four things…. ah ha. She began to type. Hardcopy Passport, Exit Visa. She paused. Those are the standard things for a first time traveler. What’s special about Knootoss? Then it hit her, and she began to type again. Anti-addiction medicines and a medical warning card to prevent euthanasia should they be injured. She shook her head. Odd people.
What, if any, multilateral treaty relationships is the Federation currently a part of?
Easy. Jessica felt good about these kind of questions. Mostly, she guessed, because spending the last few years in Imperial House had given her the answers to them all. The Martian Free Trade Organization. The Space Exploration and Alien Contact Treaty Organization. Next Question….
End of Exam. Thank you. Jessica pressed for next screen, exiting the examination, not wanting to go back and review her answers. Submit she selected from the menu, and pushed her chair back slightly from the desk. When the proctor nodded to her, she stood, and left the room, hurrying back to her dorm area to prepare for the night. They were having a simulated Imperial Reception for a place called North West Elsizistan Prime. She had managed to draw the roll of the Empress, and wanted as much time as she could to get in character. Fortunately, North West Elsizistan Prime spoke Federation Standard.
* * * * *
Crystalware chimed, chinking softly through out the room. Fozzie watched carefully. But then, Fozzie watched everything that went on here carefully. Such was his job, as the EI in charge of this facility. He made sure the students did not cheat. He alone graded their work, determined who was what, and gave out assignments. It was much easier that way, for sure. It limited the human staff, for sure, though there were still plenty of them. But with Fozzie as adjudicator, it kept everything fair. That was the intent, after all.
And so, he watched the students at the North West Elsizistan Prime Imperial Reception. So far, not one of them would score above a sixty-five percent, whether they were in the roll of an Elsizistani or a Federal Citizen. Very sad really. They had all been doing so well up until this point, too.
Ah well, it was not like this would make or break them. Another student moved into view. Ah, yes. She would be passing, though, Fozzie realized as everyone turned to stare at her.
* * * * *
Jessica had taken most of the afternoon to get prepared for her task as Queen, and she had carefully reviewed the cultural information on The Holy Unmasked Empire of North West Elsizistan Prime. As far as she knew, it was a fictitious place, but she was not entirely sure. There were certainly a lot of nations in this screwed up world that was sometimes called Earth. And elsewhere, like Mars, and Venus, and the out system moons. She had even heard of a few nations of some sort on Mercury.
There must have been a hundred trillion sentient beings in the Solar System, all living away happily together. Or nearly so. Which is why there was IRD. But Jessica had an assignment now, and she had to get it right. Unfortunately, it was likely to be the oddest assignment she had ever had.
She had decided to read through her information one more time, just because she still could not believe it. But she ought to be okay. After all, everyone else had the same assignment, basically, though each had a different role to play. The final read through confirmed it for her, and she sighed, and drew her full body length cloak out of the closet, laying it on the bed. Then the make up, more than she had ever had in her life. First, a shower, though, as she prepared for the oddest experience in her eighteen years. I just hope all the boys behave, she had thought.
It was hours later now, and she was ready to go out. But one last glimpse in the mirror, first. Her hair was piled atop her head in an unsteady crest that arced up then flowed down her back. The make up on her face was pale white, shot through with streaks of gold, while dark black triangles extended down her cheeks from her eyes, the gold lines drifting across them. From her bottom lip blood red seeped down her chin, edged in blue and purple.
She glanced down at herself. Deep purples and blues slithered around her arms in tight spirals to the blood red which covered her torso, to the black below her waist and down her thighs, tapering off above her feet. The colors of the Royal House of North West Elsizistan Prime, in the most elaborate design she could manage. Touching the colors with her finger, she smiled, then pulled on the cloak, wrapping it around herself, hiding her body under the black cloud of fabric.
No need to go wandering through the entire facility like that.
* * * * *
Fozzie would have smiled, if he had had a mouth to do it with. This early in the program, most people failed the first simulation. In fact, only about one in three training groups had anyone pass with more than a sixty five percent. Fozzie was glad that this would be one of them.
The reason was simple, of course. While North West Elsizistan Prime might not exist, it had a very rigorous set of cultural rules. The country was supposedly equatorial, with all the pleasantness that brings, including fairly stable weather patterns, and with it, its own way of interpreting clothing. Clothing was for protection, and for those people who had something to hide. Soldiers, people traveling into the unknown, people in bad weather, people needing alternate environment gear. They wore clothing. No one else did.
Honors and awards, ranks and positions were displayed in complex layers of face and body paints, and occasionally ribbons and open headgear. This prevented the wearing of clothing for identification purposes.
To do so in a diplomatic or other form of negotiating setting was tantamount to stating when entering the room that one was not negotiating in good faith, that one was holding something back, or hiding something. Hiding something that was potentially deadly as well. No one ever entered the presence of the Elsizistani Royal Family clothed. To do so would be a mortal insult.
And yet, every year, the students, bright though they were, intelligent and eager, willing to please. Every year, they pretty much all failed by wearing clothing to the reception. But occasionally, one student passed.
* * * * *
When Jessica was ready to enter through the ‘royal’ entrance, she hung her cloak on the hook, and shivered as the cold air struck her naked body. Pasting a smile on her face, the one numerous public appearances had made appear real, she stepped from the opening into the crowd of people. Here goes nothing.
Camp Zorro, Location Classified, FSP
The last month two months had been hard, forcing the recruits to get in the best shape of their lives. They did at least five kilometers a day running, and spent an hour each day lifting weights and doing other exercises. And that was before breakfast.
They woke daily at dawn, worked until they dropped, and got back up, repeating this until they could not get back up, usually sometime around sundown. At which point they ate dinner. Then they studied, reading books on warfare, on the Federation, on the Ground Force. Some days they were tested on the books they were reading.
But most of the days were spent learning unarmed combat, hand to hand training, and knife fighting. They were also taught how to use swords and sticks and ropes. Close range weapons were their friends, for they studied nothing that could strike and enemy further away than a weapon could be thrown.
And now, Darren sat in his field uniform with the remaining recruits. This morning they had gotten another cleansing, with all their body hair removed, and they knew what was coming. Surgery. Hours and hours of it, while their bio-enhancements were installed.
What would happen to them had been in one of the books they had read in the last week, to give them the option of opting out of the procedure. Only two recruits had done so, that had survived this far in the training. Admittedly, that was a little over half what they had started with, the physical requirements, the mental requirements, being too much for some.
Darren sighed, and slumped in his chair, the chair and the slump rare opportunities now, and reviewed what was about to happen. There was the physical enhancement first. His bones would be four times as strong as the average human, his muscles just as increased. To make up for the increased stress on his skin, it would be changed too, toughened considerably. Merely those things would make him never able to walk through a metal detector in his life again. Then there would be the internal enhancements, in his brain and his vital organs. Implants that would provide him with a computer memory, datajacks for interfacing with equipment and vehicles, medical supplies, toxin screens, communications devices, and all manner of other things. And his nerve conduction velocity would be increased by nearly ten percent. He would be faster, stronger, and smarter, in the sense of retaining information than any normal human. People of an earlier time would have called him a cyborg. People now merely called him military.
The doctor came out into the waiting room. “Cartesano.” Darren stood and walked forward.
Medical Center, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
Lesley sat, her fingers barely brushing the dark surface of the uterine replicator, as she stared unseeingly into its depths. She could not see the small life within, growing steadily older, but the blinking displays told the tale quite well enough. The child was safe and protected.
And to think, she had been worried about it, she had hated D’ron for the suggestion, she had thrown baseless accusations at him, all trying to hurt him, all knowing he was right, but not wanting to admit it, afraid she would lose something special to her.
It had been a week after she had found out she was pregnant, when D’ron first broached the idea, and she had asked him to give her another week to think about it, for her sake, and the baby’s.
He had. He loved her, and wanted her to make the decision, but she could see the fear in his eyes at the possibility of losing them both if something went horribly wrong, either during the birth, or before hand. She had seen it, she had known. But still she pushed the decision away, unwilling to make it.
Then he had brought it up again, eight days later, in fact, giving her an extra day. It had been after dinner, while they were sitting in their suite, him reading reports, her reading a novel. He had set a report down, finished with it.
“Have you thought any more about the uterine replicator?”
“No.” Her response had been short and to the point.
“No, you haven’t thought about it or no you won’t do it?” he asked, reaching out to pull her to him.
She recoiled from him, not letting him touch her. “I don’t have to think about it. I don’t want to give up the baby. And you can’t make me.” Already, apparently, the pregnancy had been effecting her, because she began to cry then.
“It’s safer for you, and the baby, dear heart,” he said softly. “I only want what’s best for you.”
She never knew why she had exploded at him then, had level the accusations she had known were not true, but she said it anyways. “No, you’re just trying to ruin it. I won’t give up my baby. I won’t let you destroy it. It’s mine and you can’t make me. Part of me.”
D’ron had frowned, and glanced away. “I don’t want to take it from you, Lesley. I want to protect both you and the child.” He turned his head and picked up another report, this one from Minister Cameron of the PID, his finger running over the lines of the cover page.
She had snarled at him when her angry mind saw him touch the name of Rebecca Cameron. “I know why you want me to give up the child now. So you can take it, to be with her.” The last word had come out as a curse, and D’ron had looked up, confused. “You want the baby, to have a child, and you want her, not me, because she’s better looking than me. I know how she got the Minister position.” His face reflected stunned disbelief, but she had continued, raging, fighting the inevitable, not wanting to surrender, striking back with what she had. “Does she act out some perverted fantasy for you? In your office? Or do you share our bed with her?”
The disbelief had become anger and shock. “What are you talking about?” He had blinked, forcing his voice back down. “You think I’m sleeping with Rebecca?” The shock was still there. “Do you trust me so little?” He had stood, throwing the reports to the floor, glaring at her. “I only want what is best for you, safest for you and our child. Our child,” he had repeated. “I love you, Lesley, and if you can’t see that, I don’t…” His voice had died away and he had collapsed onto the couch again, staring at her, aghast.
She had realized her mistake. She had hated herself for it. How could she have accused him of such a thing. Disloyality was not a word in his vocabulary, much less his character. She had burst into tears, had let herself be gathered in his arms, had let him rock her in his lap, until she had felt better, safer. She had apologized, profusely, as he had soothed her, comforted her. Finally, she had agreed to give up the child, knowing she was not actually giving it up, but merely beginning to be a good mother to it early, protecting it as best she could.
Lesley sighed. She was glad she had made the decision, though she still felt bad over what she had said that night. A soft touch on her shoulder made her glance up, and smile as her eyes found D’ron, looking down at her. “Everything okay?” he asked softly.
She nodded. “It is now.” Standing, she hugged him tightly, and then, they left, the lights of the replicator gleaming softly behind them.
Bruce Reynolds’ Apartment, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
There really isn’t anything going on with Bruce and me, Rebecca thought as she landed her aircar in Bruce’s garage. We’re just friends. Good friends, to be sure, but only friends. She snorted mentally as she turned off the car. Yeah, keep telling yourself that. She glanced down at her outfit as she got out of the car and moved to the door. You wouldn’t have worn this to a purely friendly dinner, girl. Get real and admit it. A skinslick might be tight, and leave nothing to the imagination, but the dress she was wearing now was possibly even worse. The black was set against her creamy white skin, the four pieces of fabric moving from her waist, one on each side, left right, front, back, hiding absolutely nothing. Nor did the three strips of fabric that made up the top half of the dress, one up her spine, the other two coming up from below her navel, across her breasts, and around her neck. Matching the dress was her jet black hair, and her leather boots, only coming up above her ankles, making sure plenty of leg was revealed.
She had called ahead, to make sure Bruce had known she was coming for dinner. You know, you’ve had plenty of time for find your own place by now, ‘Becca. You really shouldn’t keep imposing on Bruce. He’s not complained. So, you know the reason why you’ve not done anything about housing. It’s him. Yes, it is him, damn it. I really like him. She punched in the door code, and walked into the hall, moving in the direction of the kitchen, and swayed in, the heels of her boots clicking on the floor. Bruce turned, and his jaw literally dropped, his hand holding a spoon covered with spaghetti sauce. Do it, she thought. Get it over with, and then find out if there is a future there. She walked straight up to him, and tilting her head, kissed him firmly on the lips of his open mouth.
Rebecca heard the wooden spoon clatter onto the counter, and since Bruce has freed his hands, she took that as a sign to continue, swinging her arms up around the Ambassador’s neck. She soon felt his large hands on her back, pulling her into the kiss. Moments passed, long and short, before she pulled back. “Hello, Bruce.”
The man grinned down at her goofily. “’ello, Rebecca.” He smiled. “What happened to just friends?” His voice was light and playful.
“You happened, Bruce.” She kissed him again. “Anything I can do to help with dinner?”
Bruce looked her up and down. “Sit in the other room so I’m not distracted and don’t burn the food?”
She giggled. “If that’s what you really want me to do.”
Shaking his head, he pointed to the cooler. “There is a bottle of wine in there, if you want to get it.” She nodded, and set about the work. As she got down the wine glasses, she smiled at Bruce.
“So, do I still need to sleep in the guest bedroom?”
Bruce grinned at her. “Only if you want to.” He chuckled at the look she gave him, then glanced down to check the pots bubbling merrily on the stove. “If you’ll get plates and stuff, I think we’ll be ready to eat.”
* * * * *
The food had been excellent, the wine excellent, and the entertainment even better, Rebecca reflected as she lay draped across Bruce’s half awake form. By the end of the meal, she had been draped across his lap, and they had only made it to the couch in the living room before the first time.
Smiling slightly to herself, ‘Becca vowed never to do it on the leather again. She reached up and traced Bruce’s chin with a single finger, and he turned to smile at her, arching an eyebrow up inquisitively. “Dessert?” she asked softly.
“What would you like, love?” he asked, gently rubbing the back of her thigh.
Shivering with pleasure, she kissed his cheek. “Whatever you have.”
Bruce rolled out from under her and stood, light coming in the window gleaming off his body as he walked to the door. “I’ll get some ice cream and apple pie.”
Rebecca’s eyes lit at the last. “Oooh, you know my weakness.”
Bruce turned in the doorway and grinned. “I’m certainly not the one who ordered apple pie at every restaurant we’ve been to in the last few months.”
Rebecca laughed, and made a shooing motion with her hand. “Well, don’t come back without it.” He didn’t.
International Relations Directorate Training Facility “Camp Fozzie”, Dominion of Vanderhill, FSP
Jessica sat back as she watched the screen switch itself off, her brother’s face fading from view. She had just sent him his birthday greeting, since she was not allowed out of the facility, even though everyone else was not around.
Of course, they were all in the hospital, getting their bio-enhancements done. She has only had a couple small things to do, and had only been in the hospital overnight. She fondly recalled the time she had spent in the Dominion, a trip from which most of them had returned unscathed. A couple people had a few more black marks on their records, and one person had been thrown out, apparently by her brother, for his conduct in the Dominion.
She sighed. She was glad they had not had their bio-enhancements before the trip, or the brawl might have been far more deadly than it was. She idly opened up a novel and began to read…
Kendra woke to bright sunlight. It hurt. A lot. Her legs and feet were a pounding, itching ache, her sinuses felt like cotton bales and…* Jessica smiled, settling back on her bed. It was always nice when they had to read novels for training, instead of dry training books. She had three more days to complete the book and write her paper, and she would not be recovering from massive surgery in the mean time.
*Excerpt from Chapter 5, Freehold, by Michael Z. Williamson.
Camp Zorro, Location Classified, FSP
“Very well, recruits, you’ve passed the first stage of your training, and we think you’re valuable enough that we’re going to issue your combat gear to you now.” Master Sergeant Thomas stood idly, addressing the remaining recruits into the Federation Ground Force. Having passed the first six months of training, only one in twenty of the remainder would fail out. “When your name is called out, come forward and get your gear. Make sure you go over it to make sure everything is present and functions.”
The corporals standing by each rank of trainees began calling out last names. Darren was first in his line, and collected the heavy box with both hands. He moved off a distance, then squatted down to go through the box.
The first thing he noticed that the heavy box was very light, relatively. He still was not used to his augments, though he certainly enjoyed what they gave him, and even as a soldier trainee he had learned to appreciate their utility. Strength, speed, memory, communications, medicine, all available in greater quantities than ever before, and he carried them inside himself.
Opening the box, he pulled out his semi-powered armor piece by piece, then the nano-fabric jumpsuit which went on under it. Slipping off his uniform jumpsuit and folding it carefully, he pulled on the stretchy black fabric, watching as it shone slightly in the sunlight. Then he added the pieces of the armor, legs, torso, arms, boots, gloves, and finally his tactical environment helmet. For a moment, he felt disoriented until the connections were made with his implants and the display came alive in perfect detail. Next out of the box was the utility belt and backpack combination, which carried heavier duty power supplies and other useful items, such as MREs and emergency supplies. He was completely connected into the artificial environment of his suit as watched as he turned his gaze on others as classifiers popped up on them, coloring them green. He knew if he was holding a weapon, it would refuse to fire unless he triggered an override. Cycling carefully through each of his available communications channels, he noted with satisfaction that each one functioned perfectly. Everything was green, and this suit of Jackson Arms Mark III Combat Armor was now his.
Out next came the Federated Arms Personal Duty Weapon, which was a five millimeter gravpulse pistol, which spit solid or explosive shot at a thousand meters a second. Both semi and fully automatic, it held twenty rounds. The pistol slid easily into its holster on his right thigh. Out next came the Falcon Arms Mark IV Civil Duty Tool, which was an ultrasonic stunner and electric shock stick. Darren swung this up into his backpack, on the side pouch designed specifically for it.
A combat knife slid into his boot. Three throwing knives slipped into carefully concealed places on his armor. The last item out of the box was the Federated Arms Mark XVI Battle Rifle with mounted light and bayonet. He raised the rifle up and activated the scope, watching as he focused in on a small building on the horizon. The laser sight came online at another silent command over his neural interface. His heads up display showed exactly what he needed to see. Setting the selector to semi-automatic and the ammo selector to solid shot, Darren shifted his aim point to a leaf on a tree about two kilometers away. The safety came off. The rifle surged only slightly against his shoulder and the leaf tore apart as Darren depressed the trigger, a four by twenty millimeter dart ripping downrange at half a thousandth of the speed of light. He smiled. Zooming back slightly on his scope, he watched others ripping leaves apart as well to test their rifles.
A voice came over the command frequency. “Alright, recruits, when you’re sure that everything works, sling your rifles and collapse the boxes to carry to the armory.” The armory was the building Darren had spotted earlier, and was about five kilometers away. He resigned himself to a run, despite the trainees having already gone twenty that morning. He followed his orders, and a few minutes later, began to run.
Stacks, Physical Library, Griffin Campus, Vanderbilt University
Jason Cusbetti set down the paper book with a sigh. It appeared, to him, that he would have to do something he rather regretted. But these books were no help to him at all, they contained nothing on how to avoid what would happen…
Though there were some ideas for the follow up and the action itself most definitely…
He slammed the book shut with a grin, and spinning his cloak, stalked out of the library, reaching into his pocket for his mask. It would not do to be late, after all. The white plastic fit snugly against his face, clashing with his dark hair and black outfit, and his grin was, for a moment, anything but mirthful.
The police flyer screamed through the night of Griffin, its computers clearing it a path through the light nighttime traffic, the traditional lights swirling, though it moved far to fast for a siren to do it any good.
But then it slowed, and officer Spooner sighed as the problem area came into sight. Over a kilometer into the sky, the glaring light of blue flame was impossible to miss as it streamed out of the side of a residential tower. Plasma flare as it burned out the oxygen of likely an entire section of that tower.
Spooner could nothing but wait on someone else to arrive and take care of the problem, for his simple patrol flyer would do no good against the very fires of hell that could burn through the metals that protected life.
Hopefully they would arrive before the flames cut through too many supports. Far too many people knew what happened when towers collapsed on themselves.
* * * * *
Later that same day, Spooner lifted up the blanket to cover another woman’s face before they took her body away. She had been the same as all the others, her face burned half gone by the intense heat, the other side of her face blue from the oxygen that had been torn from her body.
Del did not know enough about what happened when a plasma grenade went off to know if she had died of no air or of the fire. But he supposed that someone would tell him, if he needed to know.
He stood from the crouch he had been kneeling in and walked into the part of the building where the damage was the greatest, and turned to look at the fireman. “Any chance of find anything here?”
The man turned to look at him with a look of utter disbelief on his face. “What are you, stu…” He broke off, shaking his head. “No, not a chance. This was definitely a military grade plasma warhead of some sort, probably a grenade. A civilian structure? We’re lucky the building is still intact.”
Spooner nodded. “Well, let me know if you can find anything. Four people lived here, the Cusbetti family. It would be nice to know what happened to them.”
The fireman nodded, slumping against a blackened wall in his protective gear. “I will.”
* * * * *
Five kilometers away, Jason lowered the electronic binoculars on their strap around his neck. Even from here, he could see the gaping hole, unassisted. That was where he used to live, before he had had to change.
But the things that had to be done, had to be done. He would miss his sister, but not his parents. They had been too damn understanding about what had happened to him. They always had been, always would be.
It was time to change some things, but first, he had to show up to collect his inheritance. He kissed the girl he had hired for last night and left her sleeping in the hotel room, skipping out the door with a bounce in his step. Once he was in the lift, though, he schooled his expression. It would not do to know anything about what happened before he got home.
He allowed himself a brief grin, but it never touched the darkness in his black eyes, nor dampened the cold flame that consumed his soul.
Somewhere in Ameranada
Jason leaned back in his chair, listening with satisfaction as the wooden legs scraped across the stone floor of his new hiding place. He looked across the table at his compatriot and smiled, but made no noise of his own.
He just kept grinning.
Surprisingly, this managed to unnerve the being sitting across from him, who, after a time, spoke. “I suppose this will do for what you had in mind?”
“Of course,” Jason responded. “Though one thing confuses me. What was this place used for? I mean, it’s obviously not natural, but it also hasn’t been used in a long time, despite the cleaning you hired those poor shmucks to do when they moved the stuff in.”
“They should be bringing the last load up from the, uh, market soon.”
“Good. It’s about time we got set up. I’ll get the generators and set up our production facilities, and you can set up our communications.”
The being smiled. “I’ll also set up the medical facilities once we have some power.”
Jason turned away from the icy expression, letting his eyes flick to the wall behind him. “That’s fine.”
Ridgeland Mountains, Location Classified, FSP
Two hundred and fifty recruits in gleaming green semi-powered armor stood in the morning sun before their instructors. All their heads looked far too small for their bodies, which was not really surprising, considering that not a single one of them wore their helmets.
“Welcome to your final test as a recruit for the Federation Ground Forces. Today you will know if you graduate or if you get to try again.” The Sergeant smiled somewhat evilly. “In six months. Six months that you’ll spend with me. Your task today is to eliminate all the enemy in the area and capture the weapons depot which they are guarding. To do this, you will be organized as an oversized infantry company without vehicle support. You will have all the other tools which you have been trained to use over the last fourteen months. When you put on your helmets, it will let you know what role you will be playing, from captain down to private. These ranks are based somewhat on your performance during the last year and your drill instructors opinions of you. All your other briefing information is on your memo pads. Do you get me?”
“WE GET YOU, SIR!” came back the response from the gathered troops.
“Very well, you may put your helmets on in one minute. You are expected to start operations thirty five minutes following that, and the game goes live ten minutes after you seal up.” The large black man began to stride away towards the forest.
Darren, a boot corporal, commanding his little group of recruits (well, at least until he found out what his roll was), dared to ask a question as the sergeant strode away from them. “Sir, may the recruit ask a question, sir?”
The head drill instructor turned back and smiled, as if he knew what Darren was about to ask. “Go ahead.”
“Who will be the OpForce in this exercise, sir?”
“Your instructors will be, Recruit. Thirty seconds.” He turned back, and just before he hit the woods, his armor shimmered and vanished.
Active Camo. Shit. That was what Darren was thinking as he pulled on his helmet to find himself in command of the entire operation as company commander. Double shit.
Somewhere in Ameranada
Darien Clegg flopped the box down with a huff, unloading it from the back of the old beat up pickup truck that he loved so very dearly, with its dented fenders and the gun rack in the back. The rifle up there was unloaded, he could not afford any ammunition for it, but he had inherited it from his dad. “That’s the last big one,” he said to his girlfriend, another drifter type like him.
Well, maybe not his girlfriend, but they got along well enough and fucked regularly, and hung out in his pickup truck, driving from town to town to find odd jobs that would let them eat semi-regularly. Neither one of them had any living family, so when the young kid had offered them five thousand Federation credits to run supplies up into the mountains for them, they had asked no questions. He gave them five hundred in cash at the conclusion of each supply run, so they kept returning, even after meeting his very odd associate.
“So, anyways, you stay here and rest a minute and I’ll go back and get the rest by myself.” She nodded and relaxed, plucking at her tank top which was fitting better now that they’d been eating regularly for the last couple of weeks it had taken to make all these supply runs up here, and was sticking to her since they’d been carrying the heavy boxes in. To celebrate their good fortune, he knew just what they would do tonight once they were done with the job.
As he approached the mouth of the cave, he stopped briefly, and listened to an offer that made him sort queasy inside, as apparently the young kid had notice Jordan looking better, as he was offering her a thousand more credits to have sex with him. Darien admitted to himself that they had both done that in desperate times before, but they had more money right now than they ever had before. He walked out of the cave before he heard the answer, though.
But he found out the next time he came back in and heard the moaning, and he squeezed his eyes shut to block out the sight of Jordan naked on the rocky floor with that kid pumping into her. But that only brought the sounds in clearer, his Jordan’s voice crying out, “Harder, Jason! Faster you big stud! You’re so much bigger than Darien, oh, yes, give it to me!”
Darien nearly ran from the room at the sounds and the sights, trying not the stumble on the uneven rocks. He did trip, finally, as he made it back out to the pickup, and saw Jason’s associate standing there, the soulless eyes gazing pitilessly at him. “So, I gather you saw the little arrangement my friend Jason has made with Jordan?”
“What do you mean, arrangement? He just offered her money for sex, that’s nothing new,” Darien said as he picked himself up, moving forward to get the last box.
“No, I suppose not.” The soulless eyed man grinned again. “Tell me, will she mourn your death? I would hate for Jason’s toy to become broken so soon.”
Darien blinked, and turned to face the man directly, forgetting the box as the stranger’s strange words. “What do you…” mean?.
The last word came out somewhat garbled, though, as a knife, moving faster than it had any right to, slashed open his throat and he spun back towards the truck.
Odd, I never noticed that red splatter pattern on the tailgate before. Darkness descended, and Darien died. R-Bloodied 5Razor chuckled softly, and wondered how many more meatbags he would have as suits to wear thanks to Jason Cusbetti.
Imperial Medical Center, Imperial House, Griffin, Commonwealth of Sentient Peoples, FSP
At this moment, the Imperial President was not the Imperial President right now, he was merely D’ron Smith, husband of Lesley Smith.
And the First Lady of the Federation was not the First Lady, but was merely Lesley Smith, wife of D’ron Smith.
And they were both now the proud parents of another generation of Smiths. Daniel Conner Smith.
Ridgeland Mountains, Location Classified, FSP
Darren stood atop the mocked up forest base, his battle rifle in his hand, still slightly warm from power expenditure. He helped Master Sergeant Thomas to his feet with a grin that was hidden by his helmet. But somehow, the drill instructor knew anyway.
The assault had been text book in its ferocity, though fortunately for the instructors perhaps, the OpForce had really been training androids guarding the fake weapons cache. Darren’s troops had torn it wide open, slaughtering their ‘droids. Yes, they had been instructed to capture the ammunition dump, and they had, ninety odd percent of it. But a few rockets had given them the large explosion they needed to open a hole in the inner perimeter to avoid prohibitive losses from storming it. Only one of Darren’s troops had been seriously injured, and his scouting teams had done even better. They had found the bunker from where the instructors had been controlling the training ‘droids over three kilometers away, and while the majority of Darren’s force had carried through against the primary target, he had led a picked force of his own boot squad, young men and women that he trusted completely now, here, to assault it. The lack of weapons had caused them to only hit it with one real explosive, fortunately for the instructors, who had been unarmored inside, apparently missing his squad’s approach.
“Good job, Cartesano. I knew you had it in you to take the ammo dump, but I’m impressed. No one has hit this bunker in the entirety of the four years I’ve been a drill instructor. Hell, I think only one other group has even found it.”
“Four years is only four recruit regiments, sir.”
“Not quite. Camp Zorro is not at all the only camp to use this facility. You and all your soldiers are going to make a fine addition to another generation of the Federation Ground Force, Darren.”
Somewhere in Ameranada
“So, Razor,” came Jason’s voice as he strode out of the bedroom he had claimed as his own, fastening up his pants, the screams from the other room having faded a few minutes before, “how goes your search for information?”
“Well,” drawled the electronic intelligence wearing a human suit, “I found out that this was a separatist base during the Fall of the regional alliance. The Imperial President’s little sister got kidnapped and taken here, apparently, until some of the then Spartans came and got her out.” He pulled up a map on the monitor for Jason to see. “It appears she was being kept in the room you’re using now.”
“Hold up a second, this place is already in the Justice Directorate general database? We’ve got to move now, and quick. I knew this was too easy.” Jason’s eyes had gotten wide and frantic with horror at the idea of his base of operations being discovered far too easily now.
“Relax,” scoffed R-Bloodied 5Razor, “I’ve removed it from the general database, but I can’t tell what other databases it’s in easily, and not from an external terminal, for sure. Justice is too tight, but that’s enough action to make us secure for a while, anyways. There’s been no record of regular checks, since this territory became Ameranadan with the Fall, so we’re safe, unless someone hears that girl screaming.”
Jason sprawled out heavily in another chair. “Hey, its hardly my fault she doesn’t want me fucking her any more.” He glared at his partner. “I wasn’t the one who nearly separated her boyfriend’s head from his neck while she was whoring herself out.” He shrugged. “She’s asleep now. I’m done with her, if you want her for whatever it is you do to them.”
R-Bloodied 5Razor smiled. “Excellent. I’ll try not to make as much mess with this one. Maybe I’ll even screw her once to see what it is you meatbags find so appealing about the activity.”
Jason chuckled harshly. “Fine with me, as long as you don’t mind sloppy seconds.” When the EI arched an eyebrow inquisitively at him, he grinned. “Look it up on the ‘net, Razor.” He stood. “I’m going to explore the rest of this base, and see what the Fall Rebels left behind for another generation of rebellion.”
The EI plugged back into the network, a search function already running…