Archive for October, 2012

October 28, 2012

A Second Interlude

by Mallard

Thus (finally) ends Victor’s second adventure! Thank you for reading.

Illusion the Third will begin on the 26th of November. In the three weeks preceding, there will be a short story focusing around another character, taking place immediately following the events of Those Who Lose Their Ways.

I hope you have enjoyed these first two stories. See you next week!

* * * * * * * *

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October 28, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter X

by Mallard

I dropped to a crouch and spun, staring wildly for the shooter. Another shot sounded, echoing and pounding my eardrums. Amos grunted and fell, his leg blossoming red, landing with arms splayed across the hatch. Eager hands from below reached in and pulled him out of way of further harm, but Downing and I were too far to follow.

Pirates dropped into the tank, no longer masked, wielding pistols that roared out warning shots. I gripped my own small gun in bloodless fingers, but I knew it was a futile gesture; I would never get a shot off. One of the pirates covered us as the others descended the ladder or leapt into the tank, landing with echoing thumps. The last to enter stood and grinned easily at me.

“Victor,” he said, his voice roughened from years of smoke. He grinned through a shadow of dark stubble, that roguish grin I knew quite well.

“Ed,” I replied, my voice short, my muscles tight with fear and anger.

“You seem to be doing better,” he said, his grin belying the pistol he held leveled at my stomach. The last time we had spoken, I had been a wreck. Drunk and broken, I had confessed my reservations about the war, my inability to go on with the tasks assigned to me, spying and fighting and harming those who deserved none of it. He had nodded, in a friendly, fatherly way throughout my rambling and disjointed confession, and then he had arrested me on grounds of treason. I had been fortunate enough to escape, and I ran. Unable to face my colleagues or my enemies, I had run and hidden myself in some of the most hostile wildlands in the country.

“You seem the same,” I said truthfully. “Still on the wrong side, fighting for the wrong reasons, blind to the realities of the modern world. Just what was your plan here?”

He grinned, my words washing off him like oil on water. “Why,” he said. “We desired merely to gently convince these men and women of our peaceful intentions, and let them return to their homes.” He threw a congenial smile at Downing. “The uncomfortable lodgings were merely a by-product of the lack of vacancy in this joint.”

I grimaced. Characteristic of Ed, the same nonsense and deceit that had grown to define him in the later years of the war. He would never tell us his plans, not when he felt he had the upper hand. Though, a cursed hand it was. He had lost nearly all his prisoners, and he was surely aware of the ships surrounding us, that escape was ultimately impossible.

But of course, he still had Downing and I. Bargaining chips, small though our value might be. The water in the bottom of the tank had risen to my ankles as air bubbled out the bullet holes, and I saw Joel stamping his feet unconsciously. I shivered, my limbs leaden as my wet clothes and the icy tank partnered to leech the heat from my body. No doubt Downing was worse off, having spent the night in that icy chamber.

“Now,” Ed said, as if reading my mind. “We can either stand here all day and freeze to death, or you can climb up this ladder, let us give you some warm clothes and food, and become our hostages. Don’t worry, we’ll trade you back when your army backs off.” He shrugged. “See, I know when I’ve lost, Victor. I just aim to keep my men out of prison now. So what do you say? Warm clothes, hot soup, and no one gets hurt?”

I didn’t need Kristopher to know Ed was lying, would always lie. We would never leave the rig alive. And for me, that was a risk of the job, but Downing was a civilian. A civilian I might personally dislike, but one who nevertheless deserved none of this.

I watched as Ed and his men stepped aside, forming a short aisle for us to wade to the ladder, and as they splashed through the deepening water, a desperate idea took form in my head.

I stepped forward, between the pirates and Downing, shivering violently with every movement. I took one step, then another, and suddenly the cold was too much and I tripped over my own feet, flailing my arms and landing in the icy water with an enormous splash.

Or, at least, that was what I hoped they thought.

As I fell, I kicked out behind me, knocking Joel’s legs from beneath him. The spray from my own splash rose higher than it should have, enhanced by illusion to hide Downing’s fall. I kicked Downing again, pushing him in the direction of the hatch, then stood, shaking off the icy water both real and illusory.

And to the pirates–or so I prayed–nothing had changed. There I stood, dripping wet and shivering from a foolish fall. And there stood Joel Downing behind me, white with fear but dry…and completely unreal. The real Downing lay astonished beneath the water, now under a flickering illusion of murky water and metal tank, and I hoped he was alert enough to understand what I had done, would not give up the ruse by standing. I forced myself not to look behind me.

Ed frowned, and I shivered for good measure, only half acting. “Too gods d-damned c-cold,” I said, and trudged forward, deliberately off balance. Ed’s narrowed eyes tracked me, then his fist shot out and stars exploded behind my eyes.

“Hells!” I shouted, my surprise not faked, nearly falling into the water a second time.

Ed blinked in surprise. “So you are real.” He shrugged. “Never can be sure with bastards like you, Victor. All right then, up you go.” I nodded wearily, working my jaw against the pain, and began the climb up the ladder.

With my back turned, I couldn’t tell if he noticed the slight incongruity in the water, or if he had tested Joel in the same way, but a shout let me know he had seen through the illusion.

“Damnit!” roared Ed, all traces of false congeniality gone from his voice. I whirled in time to see him empty his pistol into the water near the hatch. I held my breath as I scanned the tank, but Downing was gone. I sighed. At least one of us was safe.

Ed turned to me, his face livid. “You think to make a fool of me,” he said. My illusion grinned at him, and continued climbing the ladder, while I sat still, looking for all the world as part of the ladder myself.

“You son of a bitch,” Ed began, just as my illusion leapt off the ladder at his head.

Gunshots rattled the air, filling the chamber with an explosion of sound and riddling the walls with holes that gushed water into the tank.

Unharmed, my illusion hit the water and ran toward one side, while in another direction, an invisible man splashed through water directly toward the hatch, the knee-high water displacing and flowing as if around legs that could not be seen.

Ed is intelligent. Extremely so. But his ego blinds him, his assurance of a thing obscuring him to its facts. I had repeatedly explained to him that I could not turn myself truly invisible, never mind the rumors that abound about illusionists. And every time, he would listen, would file the information away in his cavernous brain, and promptly forget it.

So when he saw a false me running one direction, and empty footsteps racing toward the only escape from the chamber, he saw what he wanted to see and gunned me down, emptying his pistol into nothing.

My illusion reached the far side of the chamber and vanished; the invisible legs ceased to be.

And a second later, Ed’s men turned away from the distraction to see their leader, apoplectic with rage, frozen beside a man holding a spy pistol of the Republic against his head.

“Stand down,” he hissed in livid tones, his eyes black pools of hatred.

* * * * * * * *

The standoff did not last long. The soldiers outside the tank had not been idle, moving into position once Downing had escaped and explained the situation. They had wanted to swarm in at once, but Hattie had taken over for the wounded Sergeant Amos, and ordered them to wait. As soon as I called an all clear, the tiny chamber was suddenly filled with soldiers, and the pirates surrendered without further fight.

We searched the rest of the rig, but all the pirates had apparently been in the tank with us, for the living quarters were empty. Completely empty. The chests of loot from the ball were nowhere to be found, and the pirates refused to talk. Exhausted as everyone was, no one cared enough to push. The stolen goods were either on the rig, in which case they’d be found when the dogs were brought aboard, or else they were long gone, and interrogating the pirates now would be of limited use. We had enough on our hands.

There wasn’t enough room on the submersible for the soldiers, the prisoners, and the so-called pirates. But their airship was refueled and ready to go, and with Gillespie at the helm and four more besides with rifles, the pirates were loaded aboard their own airship and set on the long flight back to Kestral.

And there, I was greeted with another surprise, as it was Serah who threw open the doors of the gondola, her dress torn and covered in oil, a grease-covered wrench in one hand and a disconnected relief valve in the other. While I stood in stunned silence and Ed glared on in hatred, Serah dropped her prize and threw her arms around me with a cry. After my moment of shock passed, I hugged her tightly back, and a great anxiety loosed itself from my mind.

“Thank Lady Autumn you’re safe,” I whispered as I held her close.

Her sabotage no longer necessary, it took her only minutes to re-install the valve, and shortly after, the black airship was off, escorted back to Kestral by two much larger army airships.

“How?” I finally asked when we had a moment alone. The submersible had surfaced, disgorging the prisoners and soldiers to warm themselves in the morning sun atop the rig and wait for the steamships to pick us up. Kristopher had darted out of the submersible the moment it opened, and he flew around us in joyful figure eights, though whether thrilled to be away from the water or because Serah was back, I wasn’t sure.

Serah shook her head, unharmed, but exhausted. We were sitting on the sun-baked tarmac atop the rig, she leaning into my still-damp embrace.

“They never found me. I think they believed someone had set the beacon, then left before they took off. When they realized they were being followed, one of them climbed up and saw the beacon was active again, and cut it off, but he didn’t actually search for me.” She shrugged. “I guess they never expected anyone would be crazy enough to hitch a ride outside an airship.”

I laughed wearily. “Normally, no one would.”

Serah glared at me in mock upset. “Are you calling me crazy, mister?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. Incontrovertibly.”

She snorted, then yawned. “Stowed away on a bloody pirate airship for you; how many women would go that far…” her grumbles trailed off into a sleepy mutter.

I smiled, and tightened my arm around her shoulder, never wanting to let her go again. And at the same time, knowing somehow that this would not be the last time she would be put in such danger because of me.

“What are you thinking?” she muttered.

(He is worried for you,) Kristopher whistled when I didn’t answer, knowing me too well.

Serah nodded sleepily. “Don’t worry, dear,” she said, resting her head against my chest, her breathing slowing. I smiled faintly.

(I like her,) Kristopher sang again, as he often has before. (She is full of fire. A pity she is not a salamander). That was new. I was too tired to pursue it though, and closed my eyes, at peace in the company of the two people closest to my heart.

* * * * * * * *

Hattie frowned at me over her desk, her arms crossed, her brow furrowed. I stood silently at attention, awaiting the dressing-down I knew I deserved.

Finally, she shook her head. “My superiors think I allow too much with you, Victor.” I said nothing, not sure where she was going. “I like you. You’re good at what we do, and you have a strong sense of justice, which is the whole reason the Peace Workers were created. In some ways, you exemplify why our organization exists.” Her frown deepened. “But you are still a soldier. Insubordination is not acceptable, no matter the circumstances. I can’t keep covering for you. I can’t keep making excuses. This is the last time, Victor. One more display like last night, no matter what, and you will be done. Am I clear?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.” It was no more than I expected, no less than I deserved.

Hattie sighed and nodded. She was silent for a moment, then, “Good work, Victor. You probably saved Mayor Downing’s life, and he won’t soon forget that. Neither will I.” I blinked, surprised.

“It was my duty, sir.” And it had been. I did not have the most respect or liking for the man, but he was a civilian, and it was my duty to protect him. And, in the end, he was only human. He had admitted to making a mistake two years before, and that could go a long way toward mending my feelings toward him.

Hattie nodded. “I know. Dismissed, Haas.”

Serah waved at me when I reentered the lobby, and I smiled wearily in reply. We were both running low on sleep, and I wanted nothing more than to change out of that damned tuxedo and crawl between warm sheets.

A crash of wood and the shrill scream of a horse shattered the quiet.

“Oh, Winter blast it.” I muttered, somehow unsurprised. I pulled a resigned Serah toward the door as angry shouts rose from the outside.

“Are you blind or something!” a voice roared, and a shriller voice riposted in angry retort. I blinked in the early afternoon light, and scanned the square for the accident. It was smaller than it had sounded, two taxis having crashed into one another. One man lay on the ground clutching at his leg, though whether broken or just bruised I couldn’t tell.

I sighed, and began to cross the street, and nearly ran into the woman, standing in front of the entrance to the Peace Workers headquarters, as if waiting for someone. I pulled up in surprise, and Kristopher continued on toward the accident, drawn by the fallen man’s pain.

“Victor Haas?” the woman asked, and I blinked at her. She was tall, only a couple inches shorter than I, with black, almond-shaped eyes and dark, wavy hair that fell past her shoulders. Out of character on the streets, she wore a dress of crimson and sable, silver threads throughout sparkling in the sun that peeked between the clouds. A chain of silver filigree hung around her neck, dangling a tiny diamond ball that hung against cream-colored skin.

“Victor Haas?” she asked again when I didn’t respond. I glanced at the accident, but already there was a small crowd of helpers and onlookers, and they did not seem to need more assistance.

“Um, yes?” I said. I felt suddenly uncomfortable; this woman was clearly someone of wealth and perhaps influence, and I was still wearing that gods-damned tuxedo, rumpled and stained and ruined beyond retrieval. My shirt was untucked, my bow lost somewhere in the ocean, the shirt grayed from its pristine ivory white. One sleeve had lost a cuff link and hung open, listless.

The woman smiled, flashing pearl-white teeth behind dark red lips. “Mira Laski,” she said, and held out one hand, delicate fingers encased in crimson silk. I reached out to shake it, then started as Serah elbowed me in the ribs. I glanced at her, and she rolled her eyes, bringing the back of her hand to her lips.

“Oh, right,” I said aloud before I could catch myself, and bent over the woman’s hand, planting a chaste kiss on the back of her fingers.

“A pleasure to meet you at last,” she said. “I had heard so much about you from my close friends, I wanted to meet you in person before I left the city.”

I blinked. “You what?”

Mira covered her mouth and laughed, a quiet tinkle. “Oh, dear, I apologize. I should explain myself.” She lowered her hand. “I live in Mornova, and am visiting friends in Kestral. They told me such stories of your works in the army, I simply had to meet you. Martha Chorice especially had such high things to say.”

Aha, that explained it. A friend of Martha’s, perhaps visiting Kestral among the minister’s retinue. “Well, a pleasure to meet you,” I said.

She smiled and curtsied slightly. “The pleasure is mine.” She seemed to hesitate. “I…this may be improper of me, but I will be in town for a few days yet. If you have the time, I would love to talk with you at length, and hear all your tales first hand. I do so enjoy a good adventure story.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “Why, I heard that just recently you tangled with pirates! How exotic!”

I shrugged. “I would be happy to tell you some stories, though I warn you, they aren’t nearly as exciting as you have likely been led to believe.”

She shook her head, demurring. “Oh, don’t be modest. I am so excited. I will, of course, treat you dinner,” she added, then turned suddenly to address Serah. “That is, if you do not mind me stealing your gentleman for an evening?”

Serah laughed and shook her head. “Oh go on, I don’t mind a bit.” But she clung to my arm a little more tightly, as if afraid to let go.

Mira nodded, her delight plain in her sparkling eyes. “Would tomorrow evening be acceptable?” She looked down and took in Serah’s and my rumpled and torn clothes, and the way neither of us stood quite steady on our feet. “Or, perhaps, the following evening? It appears the two of you deserve some rest.”

I nodded in thanks. “The evening after next sounds great.” I felt Serah’s grip relax a little, and realized she had probably thought Mira meant to invite me to dinner that night; hers had not been a jealous grip, but a visceral reaction at the thought of being separated again so soon.

“Oh, wonderful,” Mira said, clapping her hands. She laughed and curtsied again. Her laugh turned into a sudden thoughtful frown. “I just remembered: I have been told you are always accompanied by a salamander of the southern fireswamps. Is it not with you now?”

I shook my head. “He got distracted by the accident,” I said pointing. “Would you like to meet him?”

Mira shook her head violently, her face pale. “No, no, oh no.” She took in my questioning glance and smiled weakly. “I am deathly afraid of fire. I am terribly sorry.”

I shook my head. “No, please, don’t be. I’ll just not bring him to dinner then, if he would distress you.”

Mira nodded thankfully. “Yes, that would be best. I am truly sorry.” As I shook my head in protest again, she glanced over her shoulder and I saw that the driver of a horse-drawn carriage across the street was waving for her attention. “I must be going now,” she said as she turned back. “I fear I am already late for another engagement. But I quite look forward to our dinner, Victor Haas! I am staying at The Parisian while I am in town. Please meet me there at six o’clock two evenings hence. Oh, I am excited!” She turned and darted across the square toward the waiting carriage, waved one last time, and vanished behind a velvet curtain.

I shared a bemused look with Serah. The Parisian? This Mira Laski was likely old money, then. A moment later, Kristopher drifted back across the square, the injured man having been removed to a safer location. I nodded at him, and then waved down a motorized taxi. It huffed to a stop before us and I helped Serah up before climbing in after.

As the carriage pulled away, I leaned back and draped an arm around Serah’s shoulders, looking forward to finally returning home. I couldn’t wait to alight at Annabella’s and take a much needed hot bath, eat a hearty meal, and fall into a deep sleep with Serah by my side.

But most of all, I could not wait to get out of that damnable tuxedo.

* * * * * * * *

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October 21, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX (3/3)

by Mallard

And slid smoothly beneath the surface, jarring but not crushing us as I had expected. But it was a short-lived relief that passed through me. The water that now surrounded us on all sides was far deeper and more menacing than any swimming pool, kept at bay only by the thin metal shell that had certainly fractured as we impacted. My eyes darted around the craft at the riveted seams, trying to spot leaks before they became too big, though there was nothing I could do. I breathed deep as the submersible sank, but the air refused to fill my lungs, and I drew harder, panting as my lungs fought to fill themselves with precious air that would bubble out and away from the craft any moment. My fingers clawed at the straps, so tight for security, but now a prison, and I could not undo the buckles with my trembling fingers–

I became aware of a gentle keening, like a street performer repeating a simple tune on a penny whistle, and my eyes slowly settled from their frantic search on the glowing orange spark that was my closest companion.

(If I am here, you are hardly in danger), Kristopher whistled gently, continuing to sing his calming tune, filling the small space. I felt a rush of relief from the men on either side of me, and realized I had not been the only one made fearful by the sudden plummet into the ocean. I ignored all else and focused on the salamander, a creature of pure fire, surrounded by cold, implacable water.

A tiny leak in the craft would be enough to take him out, end him as thoroughly as a bullet to my head would me. If he trusted this contraption, well, I could hardly do less.

At last, my mind settled, I made myself look away from Kristopher and examine the craft with a critical eye. It was designed for stealth, and had no noisy steam engine to send rumbles far out through the water, nor to spew clouds of escaped steam to bubble up to the surface. Instead, it worked on a tightly-wound clockwork system, which gave it limited range but produced next to no noise. Ballast pulled us down against the buoyancy of the air trapped inside, until the pilot of the craft released a set of levers and the craft slowed to a gentle halt. Another control, and and the strained springs began to release energy into the propeller behind the submersible, pushing us slowly toward the oil rig, dimly visible in the silt-clouded waters. It was about the size of a two-story building, most of its bulk under the surface, built awkwardly of poorly-welded I-beams, hollow sealed pipes for ballast, and a general lack of attention to reasonable principles of engineering. The lower half of the rig was all trusses and lattice work to support the drill, which was currently retracted and unmoving. Propellers spaced around the rig hooked up to inefficient engines, which rumbled and poured steam into the water, so that parts of the rig seemed to be leaking air at an alarming rate.

Of course, parts of it were leaking air, as I remembered all too well, but numerous bilge pumps kept that from becoming too much of a problem.

Above the drill sat four bulbous fuel tanks to store the oil, and the way the rig listed toward one corner told that one was more full than the others. Above the tanks sat a narrow and cramped living quarters for those who lived and worked on the rig back when it was the height of technological advancement and not a sad relic of a bygone era. Modern rigs could store this entire machine in a single tank and have ample room to spare. This was a rig designed to service a small town or naval base, and never meant to withstand the stresses that had been inflicted on it, its tired engines forced to drag it hundreds of miles up the coast where it currently sat, motoring still north at a snail’s pace.

Amos and Hattie were peering at the rig intently, and I realized they knew nothing about it. While they were trying to fathom the intent of the oddly-shaped pipes and broken latticework around the drill, I already had a good idea of where the prisoners might be. Unless the pirates had sacrificed some of the their very limited living quarters–and I had knew firsthand just how cramped they were–the prisoners would have been shuffled off to the only other open space on the rig: an empty fuel tank. Drained of oil, as they all surely were, it was waterproof and would provide ample, if not comfortable, lodging for the prisoners while they decided what to do with them.

Even I couldn’t know what that would be. Hattie had suggested public executions, but I knew these men and women. Though all had killed in the line of duty, they were not heartless murderers. They had proven to have some small scruples at the ball, the leader preventing his man from raping that poor woman.

But they had also shot Hattie without hesitation.

“What do you think, Kristopher?” I muttered.

(I do not like this,) he said.

“Me, neither,” I replied. “What do you think their plans were?”

(…Did you forget again that I cannot know all your thoughts?) His song sounded somewhat amused.

I blinked, and snorted. Of course. Kristopher can read my moods very well, and usually knows when I’ve fallen into depression or pointless self-recrimination. But he can’t actually read my thoughts any more than the men I sat next to. He had been referring to the immediate situation, as usual, discussing his dislike of the submersible and the enormous amounts of water too close for comfort. Not seeing time the same way humans do, he was always less interested in the past and future, unless I specifically asked him.

Before I could rephrase my question, Sergeant Amos was speaking, having finished his assessment of the rig. “The prisoners must be kept up top, in the living areas,” he offered. I looked at him with some surprise. Unless he was familiar with its construction, he had parsed the rig awfully quickly, understanding intuitively how it was arranged. Never mind that he was incorrect.

Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke. “I think it’s actually more likely that they’ll be kept in that tank,” I said. “There’s not enough room in the living areas to house that many prisoners without stacking them on top of each other.”

Sergeant and Sergeant Major turned to look at me, and I realized I had made a mistake. Though, my mistake had been in keeping quiet in the first place, not speaking up as soon as my information would have been useful.

“Er, can we understand that I am an idiot, and skip the recriminations for now, please? I know this rig. I…I know these people.” That hurt more than I had expected. Everyone was now looking at me, ignoring the approaching rig. I took a deep breath. “I lived on this rig, or one very like it, for over three weeks. It is small and cramped, and most of the living quarters is open common space. The bunk rooms are separated by doors that do not lock, so there is no good place to stash the prisoners. But by the list of the rig, you can tell that one of the tanks is more full than the others. I suspect they are keeping the prisoners there.”

Hattie glared at me, but Sergeant Amos simply nodded, taking the new information in stride, leaving reprimands to my superior. “Is there a way into the tanks from outside?”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember the layout of the rig. There were service hatches that led from the living areas to the tanks, but that wouldn’t be helpful. There were the pipes from the drill to the tanks, but those were sealed and at any rate, too narrow for a person to travel along. I started to shake my head, then stopped as a dim memory surfaced. “There is a port beneath the water for a ship to come alongside and transfer the oil from the rig to the tanker. It’s not airlocked, but it’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through, and is designed to be opened from the outside.”

Sergeant Amos raised his eyebrows in surprise, clearly not having expected this bit of good news. “Can you direct us?” I nodded and squeezed forward past a glowering Hattie to point the pilot to the underside of the tank where the hatch, currently invisible, would await us.

Getting inside would likely prove difficult, but the army had not come unprepared. The pilot brought the submersible skillfully up beneath the tank, maneuvering between the latticework around the drill, coming to a rest several feet below the port. From there, things moved very quickly. A hatch in the floor of the submersible was opened, and Kristopher darted to the ceiling in fear, but the air pressure in the sub kept the water at bay so long as the sub remained level. From there, one of the army personnel went outside–just dropped in as if going for a quick swim, and reappeared overhead to work the mechanism around the hatch in the tank. It was on the bottom of the tank so that the oil would, by dint of gravity, pool in one place for the tanker to pump it from the tank. This had a double benefit of allowing us to leave the hatch open once we got inside, not having to worry about air escaping to be replaced with cold water.

The mechanism stuck and another man had to go relieve the first when he ran out of air, but slowly it began to move, and then Amos and Hattie were ushering us quietly out and up, never mind that none of us were wearing proper underwater clothing. The men carried rifles in oiled waterproof bags, and someone handed me one, not knowing that I had never been a good shot with a rifle. I pulled the rifle out and dropped my pistol in, and followed them out before Hattie could glare at me. I wasn’t sure if she was glaring because I had taken a weapon despite her fears of how I might react to the pirates; or simply because, with her injured arm, she would be more of a liability than a help in this next part of the operation, and had no choice but to remain in the sub to help the prisoners out of the cold water.

I focused on this thought, on the memory of her anger as I swam the few strokes to the tank, looking only ahead at the man in front of me and firmly disallowing my mind to note that I was dozens of feet below the water, wearing clothes that hindered my movements, and relying for survival solely on the air burning to escape my lungs. My eyes burned from the salt, my clothes and the icy water made my limbs clumsy and leaden, and if I so much as hiccuped, I would be lost.

It was not a moment too soon that my head broke the surface inside the tank and found myself surrounded by people.

Due to the tank’s curvature, the prisoners could only put so much distance between themselves and the portal, but the half a dozen or so haggard individuals within had positioned themselves as far from the hatch as they could, unsure who or what was coming up. Too late, I counted us fortunate that not a one of them had tried to play hero and given the whole thing away by beating on a member of the army trying to rescue them from this improvised prison.

I shivered as I pulled myself up, the water around the tank leeching any warmth from the air. I looked around at the seven faces around us, some with the blank looks of the defeated, others perking up at the spark of hope our appearance had engendered.

Sergeant Amos, who had been first in the room, was quick to silence the prisoners, speaking in hushed whispers and replacing speech with gestures as much as possible. I expected some resistance to the notion that we wanted them to descend into the dark water, without knowing what awaited them. But perhaps they were of the mindset that anything was better than this slow, cold death, and there was little hesitation as, one by one, the government officials held their noses and jumped or crawled out to where the sub waited.

I recognized Chorice and Downing, of course, still dressed in their finery, though stripped of jewels and gold, their clothing as rumpled as my own. They looked relatively fresh, having spent only an evening in the chamber, but others had fared less well. There was Theobald Jacks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commander in Chief of the Royal Army; a man whom I had never met but whose face I had much opportunity to learn while in prison, awaiting the final decision on the amnesty. I could not imagine how they could have captured him, but then, I would have thought the same of Martha Chorice. Normally, the ministers in the Council of Governors were under heavy guard, but it seemed such guard could lapse or be rotted from within, less robust than had been believed for so long.

Of the remaining four, I could place only Shorea Quill, who held no government position, but owned a number of news agencies, and whose artwork and pamphlets had formed much of the propaganda that saturated the north during the war, poisoning their minds against the Republic and its magic. Never mind that mages in the north had levied devastating attacks against us as well, raining fire from the skies, turning our weapons to rust, leeching the oxygen out of the air around an army, confusing their minds to cause them to turn against one another. This last utilized the most insidious magic of all, that of mentalism. Little good comes from studying mentalism, and I have never met a practitioner I did not disdain.

The theme of the prisoners was obvious enough: all those who had had significant effects on the soldiers of the Republic, either during or after the war. The propaganda that had turned the north against us; the man who had argued for the death of all rebels; the commander who had led the northern armies against us; and the woman who had made a mockery of everything the Republic stood for.

Distracted as I was, only three remained before I realized that none among them was Serah. A coldness gripped my gut. There could be only one explanation for why she would not be among the prisoners. Having no political influence, no importance, she would have been deemed useless, and been cast aside.

I found I was breathing heavily, panting, and Kristopher was not around to snap me out of it. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t have killed her. Right? I had been so sure only minutes before that they were not murderers. But where, then, was she?

Scarlet colored my vision as my breathing doubled. She had to be here. If they had killed her, I would tear the rig down around them, rip the thing to pieces and destroy anyone who got in my way. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken a step toward the ladder that led up to the maintenance hatch.

A hand on my shoulder stopped me, and I whirled to find Amos behind me, his face a curious mix of furious and confused.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at me.

“Serah,” I panted, not caring that he didn’t know who she was. “She’s not here. She should be here.”

He blinked, but he is a smart man, and though he may not have known exactly what I meant, he understood. “Calm down,” he said. “She could be anywhere. Maybe in a different room, or maybe–”

“What if they killed her?” I hissed back, still mindful of the need to keep quiet. “What then?”

Amos’s eyes narrowed, his grip on my shoulder painful. “Then she’s dead,” he said flatly. “And you’ll do none of these living people any good if you storm up there alone and get yourself shot. I sympathize, but now is not the time to lose your head.”

“But–”

“While Sergeant Major Morrison is aboard the sub, you are under my command,” he said. “Either follow my orders, or get the hell out of this rig.”

My fist clenched. “I–” I took a deep breath. My vision wasn’t clear, my mind not thinking straight. I tasted bile. I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“She wasn’t brought in with us,” a voice whispered, and I turned to see Martha Chorice standing beside me. I blinked, and a weight lifted just a tiny bit. I stared at her imploringly, and she nodded. “I never saw Serah, during the flight or after.”

It didn’t mean anything, of course, but…

Joel Downing was next in line, but he hesitated, then waved Chorice ahead. A gentleman to the last. Martha’s eyes stayed on mine as she lifted her dress and slid into the water, and I let out a breath when she had gone. Joel Downing was the last in line, and I gestured him to move, my thoughts elsewhere, my motions listless. Where could she be, then?

Downing jerked back as a shot rang out, the sound deafening in the enclosed space, and suddenly water was welling into the prison through a tiny hole halfway up the side of the tank.

* * * * * * * *

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October 14, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX (cont.)

by Mallard

The aeroplane was waiting for us, the only vehicle on the field at the time, the runway having been cleared by a telegraphed-ahead request. The rear of the cargo plane was down, forming a ramp up to an opening nearly wide enough to drive the train through. Cramped metal seats lined the walls inside the bay, and I strapped in, trying hard not to think about how useless the restraints would prove when the plane fell out of the sky.

Not needing nor understanding the restraints, Kristopher wandered about the cargo bay, exploring the strange machine secured in the center. It looked almost like a smaller aeroplane, though the wings did not look quite right, stubby and rounded where the cargo plane’s were long and rectangular. Perhaps it was a glider of some sort? It was streamlined and flat where the cargo plane was bulky, and much smaller as well. Despite the difference in size, however, the strapped-in plane looked large enough to accommodate all of us, perhaps with room to spare, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was for. Would we launch the smaller plane out the rear of the cargo plane? What purpose could that possibly serve? Was it simply leftover cargo that the airfield had not had time to remove before our arrival?

“What in the hells is that thing?” Gillespie asked suddenly, and it took me a moment to realize he was looking not at the second plane, but at the fiery spark floating in circles around it. I looked over at the airship pilot, and saw that more than a few of the soldiers were staring at Kristopher.

“Er. Right. Meet Kristopher, salamander.” Not the best of introductions, but I was not in my best frame of mind, either, distracted by the imminent take-off. Have I mentioned I don’t like aeroplanes?

Kristopher whistled a wordless greeting in an almost offhand manner, intent on the machine in the center.

(It is not a creature of fire,) he said a moment later, returning to me. (Unlike most of your craft.) Which I took to mean the smaller plane was not steam-powered, but what, then, could it be? I wanted to ask, but the other soldiers distracted me with questions, some having evidently heard of the salamander within the ranks of the Peace Workers, but knowing little beyond that. I realized that perhaps I was not the only one nervous to be aboard this deathtrap, and I entertained their questions as best I could.

A few minutes later, the sunlight grew dim and vanished as the loading ramp was pulled up by powerful hydraulics and secured by two soldiers who seemed the most comfortable aboard the plane. Shortly after, a low growling enveloped the cargo bay and the aeroplane began to vibrate, rattling my teeth and bouncing my body against the restraints I had secured only minutes before. The enormous steam engines that dominated the center of the craft were powering up, beginning to spin the propellers that weighed on the wings and the nose of the craft. The low rumble gave way to a high-pitched whine as the propellers took on momentum, and slowly the heap of metal that was the aeroplane began to crawl forward.

Had I been standing safely on solid ground and watching the process, I might have appreciated the engineering that had gone into it. Decades of research and experiments, of redesign and prayer; constant failure with the rare hint of success. I’m sure Serah would gush. I just prayed to whichever of the four gods would listen that I be allowed to return to the ground in one piece.

The craft picked up speed and the straps strained to keep me from falling sideways onto the soldier next to me. The jarring grew worse, until an unseen force suddenly shoved me into my seat and the vibrations vanished as the craft rose into the air. And kept rising, soaring above Cinsa Bargo, the only sounds now the rumbling of the steam engines and the muted roar of the wind testing the imperfect seals on the cargo doors.

Part of me was terrified. Another, though, wanted nothing more than to find a window and peer outside, envying Kristopher his free reign about the craft, which he was using to the fullest, bouncing between the walls that closed us off from the engines, and the locked rear door of the bay. So intent was I on watching him that I missed the fact that Sergeant Amos was speaking. He stood with one hand on the smaller craft in the center of the bay, steadying himself against the turbulence that rocked the aeroplane.

“As you know, less than an hour ago our scout teams found what we believe to be the hideout used by the pirates. It is a small, mobile, semi-submersible oil rig, likely commandeered during the wars as an outlook.”

That got my attention. I was familiar with those rigs. No doubt this was, in fact, the same one the 14th division had ‘borrowed’ during the wars, using it as a base from which to launch boats and airships for reconnaissance missions, and to keep watch for both the steel ships of the Royal Army, and the bone-and-hide beastboats of the Patchwork Folk. The rig had barely floated, little more than a square platform and a short airship tower protruding above the waves, and it had leaked something awful, never designed for the service life it had endured. It had required several pumps running constantly to prevent it from sinking, and its drill was laughably small, useful only for shallow water drilling.

Still, it had belonged to that tiny coastal town, and they hadn’t wanted to give it up, more out of principle than any practical use they wrought from it. So we had appropriated it, sending the lone guard back to the shore on a lifeboat and motoring the ungainly thing out to sea. Thus we had become guilty of the same excesses and abuses that had caused the Republic to form in the first place, but of course, at the time we justified it to ourselves in some way or another. We had handed the thing off to the tiny navy of the Guard eventually, but it appeared the 14th infantry had taken it back once the war ended and the Guard no longer needed it. No longer existed.

Amos continued. “We have positive identification of the airship they used last night, docked at the rig. No boats have been seen near the rig since we began surveillance, but they had approximately four and a half hours between when we lost them and when the survey teams found them, so it’s possible they abandoned the base in that time. Until and unless confirmed, we will assume that the pirates are present, armed, and dangerous, and that any attempt to land at or near the base will result in immediate defensive action.”

He tapped the small, sleek craft lightly with one hand. “For those unfamiliar, this is a high-altitude deployable submersible, which will be launched from the aeroplane as we pass near the base. From there, we will need to find or make an underwater entrance. Unfortunately, we don’t know the schematics of the rig, and will need to assess the base on-site.” He didn’t look pleased at this, and I almost raised my voice to tell him what I knew, but the knowledge stuck in my throat. It wasn’t as if these people did not know that I had once fought for the Republic, but to explain that, not only had I fought for them, but had stolen for them, spied for them; had lived and worked and played with these men and women with whom we were about to engage in battle…

So engrossed was I in my thoughts, I missed his next few sentences, presumably about how to operate the high-altitude deployable submersible, whatever that seemingly-random collection of words might actually mean. Why not call it what it was? Except, what was it? Perhaps I should have been paying more attention.

There was little else to the briefing that I did not already know. Amos went over some background of the people we were up against, but I knew far more than he, and none of it was anything I particularly wanted to remember. It wasn’t that they were bad people. Or at least, they hadn’t started out that way. Does anyone, truly? But the trials of war, the shortages, the horrors of seeing your comrades ripped apart by monstrous warriors from across the sea, or gunned down by the very armies once professing to protect you…it was enough to warp any sane mind. In the years of war, I had watched my comrades change from rightfully angry protesters, to hungry and desperate soldiers who broke the rules to stay alive, to…something else. They–we–had become unhinged somehow, the line between morality and survival blurring until an act only seemed wrong if it did not further our ends.

Our squad leader had been hit the worst. He had lost his family in the war, and I watched the man devolve from a concerned citizen to half a madman. But a madman with conviction, and it was too long before I began to recognize the horror of the things he persuaded and ordered us to do. At what I had been forced to do under his direction.

No. At what I had done, willingly, willfully.

My fingers clenched, and it was several seconds before I noticed Hattie Morrison watching me with narrowed eyes. I relaxed my fist, frightened again that she might have known me better than myself, might have been right to leave me in the dark on this mission.

I shook my head violently and forced my thoughts back to the situation at hand. That the 14th division had kidnapped Joel Downing and Martha Chorice did not surprise me in the least. The first because of his extremely vocal opposition to any sort of amnesty to the rebels. And the second…that was harder to figure, actually. Martha had been one of the few to argue for the amnesty. But, if I put myself in their shoes, it made sense. The rest of the nation would see the Peace Workers as proof that the Guard had been defeated, its soldiers actively working toward the greater good of the nation, no longer a threat beyond the stories one might whisper to a child before bedtime. But to those who still saw themselves as part of the Republic, to those who resented the destruction of their nation, the death of their people, the injustices perpetrated upon them…to those, the Peace Workers would be an insult, undermining everything they had lived and died for. Undoing the works of the infant nation, defending those who had so abused their power early in the wars, helping those whose steam tanks had crushed the much smaller armies of the Republic. Yes, I could understand why someone such as Martha Chorice would be reviled by my former comrades.

* * * * * * * *

The aeroplane covered the distance to the base in less than half the time we had spent chasing the airship the night before. Convenient, I’ll admit, but I would still not wish the travel experience on anyone, strapped into a hard and chilly seat, barely able to hear the army sergeant speak above the roar of the engines and the screech of the wind.

At some signal from the pilots, Hattie and Sergeant Amos had us unstrap and load ourselves into the high altitude whatsit, strapping once again into even tighter quarters, crammed on a bench between burly men in khaki uniforms. The top of the craft was low to our heads, and more than a few nervous glances were leveled at Kristopher, who had to take care not to singe hairs.

It was only after the rushed boarding that I gained an inkling of what the craft was for, and by then it was far too late.

“Have you lost your damned mind?” I shouted at Amos above the roar of the wind that filled the cargo bay as the massive cargo ramp began to drop, cranked open by two men who stood strapped to the wall.

“Shut up, or stay behind!” was the only reply I had, and not from him either. I turned to glare at Hattie, but shut up, swallowing and tightening my straps until they dug into my flesh. I glanced at the pilot Gillespie, who sat to my right, and he nodded at me, his face ashen. Used as he was to airships, I doubted he was any more comfortable with this insane plan as I was.

With the cargo ramp fully opened, the two men pulled themselves hand over hand back inside and out of sight, and a moment later, the submersible jerked forward and stopped, then began to slide smoothly toward the opening in the back of the aeroplane.

I have heard of people who–for fun, mind you–climb aboard a perfectly good airship, fly high into the air, and then leap out of it. For fun. A giant cloth sail spreads out behind them and slows them down rapidly, bruising their upper bodies with the forces involved, until they land hard on a grassy field, sometimes breaking their legs, other times merely falling flat on their face as the parachute pulls them off balance.

All this, I say again, for fun.

Compared to what I was about to embark upon, this skydiving seemed the height of sanity.

I fought not to scream as the submersible fell out of the back of the aeroplane and plummeted like a stone to the choppy waters below.

* * * * * * * *

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October 7, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX

by Mallard

I had just enough left in me to stumble to the break room and pass out, barely managing to lay across several chairs instead of collapsing on the tiles. I was angry at Hattie, more so than I had ever been, but I trusted her to keep her word and wake me when the operation started. At the very least, she would know my threats of leaving were real, and I didn’t think she would risk that just yet.

Hattie awoke me with a kick, rattling one of the chairs I had fallen asleep on. I groaned.

“What time is it?” There were no windows in the room, no way to tell how many hours had passed.

“Just after eight. They found the hideout.”

That woke me. I nearly fell to the floor as I sat up, the chairs shifting beneath me on the tiled floor. “We’re going?”

“We’re going,” she confirmed. I followed her as she stomped out of the room, wearing her tattered uniform coat once again. A green-and-blue Peace Worker armband covered the bullet hole, though there was no hiding the bloodstains, now a rusty brown. I followed her in shoes that pinched, and grimaced. I hadn’t thought to change out of that damned tuxedo before falling asleep, and now it seemed I wouldn’t have time.

A rail line passes directly over the army headquarters across the square, so that what had once been its roof had been built up to form a small train station that serviced only soldiers. Trains were signaled up the track when they were to stop; otherwise, the station did not truly exist.

The square was busy with morning traffic, carts set up to sell hot pies and warm spiced cider, carriages and automobiles vying for space to turn through the pedestrians, cyclists weaving dangerously through the narrow spaces between. A lady called at us from a cart covered in flowers, while a carriage laden with small wooden crates bounded past, the horses wet with lather and spattered with mud. The tantalizing smells of baked goods mixed with the rich fatty scents of roasting sausage, and my stomach grumbled in displeasure.

Hattie and I ignored everything as we jogged across the square, her bloody uniform commanding respect and fear enough to grant us our way without obstruction. I, in my rumpled tuxedo and flyaway hair, garnered mostly confused looks.

The doorman knew to expect us and ushered us in at once, commenting only that the next train was arriving soon and would not wait for us. As he spoke, the building rumbled as the train neared, and Hattie and I jogged for the elevator to the roof station.

The team from the previous night were waiting for us there, and Sergeant Roger Amos gave Hattie and I a brief nod, acknowledging our place in the operation. Even though Hattie outranked him, he had been given official command of the team, as it was comprised of almost exclusively his own people. We stood in tense silence as the rumbling grew closer.

It was one of the outcity lines that passed above the building, and the double-wide tracks looked overly thick and heavy, connected by thick steel I-beams. The rumbling grew louder, traveling along the steel ahead of the train, and suddenly it was there, bursting into the room through the gaping space in the back wall of the station, a sleek metal beast with a head the size of a house and brilliant glaring eyes that flashed with firelight. Ports along the top of the train hissed steam into the cool air, the upper rafters of the space filling with fog. Brakes squealed as they dispersed the train’s enormous energy, the sound unnatural and ear-shattering in such a small space. At last, the iron beast let loose a final sigh of steam and lay still. A beat passed, and the doors nearest us opened, a conductor waving us into the car.

Those nearest the front were passenger cars, double-leveled and seating seven to a row, separated into three columns by a pair of spacious aisles. Further back would be the cargo cars, carrying machinery, food, fuel, or one of Kestral’s many exports, loaded from the trade ships that called into Kestral every day, or from the tradesmen within the city itself.

Hattie and I saw ourselves to a pair of seats by the door, ready to disembark first once we reached Cinsa Bargo, a town a dozen or so miles north of Kestral. Central to the town was the closest air field to Kestral, there being no room within the crowded city itself for such a wide open space.

At least, the lack of space was the official reason, but I was not alone in fearing what could happen if one of those insane contraptions failed in take-off or landing, and instead plowed into the city, crushing people and vehicles like bugs. The first time I rode in a aeroplane, and learned that the only thing that kept us aloft was the insane speeds at which we traveled, I vowed never again to board one of the death traps. Lead me to an airship any day, for at least if it runs out of fuel, the entire craft does not plummet out of the sky and burst into flaming wreckage.

Unfortunately, while noisier much less comfortable than a proper airship, the steam-powered aeroplanes were the fastest–and most expensive–method of travel over the relatively short distances they could traverse, and time was of the essence. There was no doubt that the pirates had noted the numerous craft circling near where we had lost the beacon the night before, and we couldn’t afford to give them time to move the prisoners. So Hattie and Sergeant Amos had requisitioned use of one of the cargo planes stored at Cinsa Bargo.

The small town was the first outcity stop for our train, and once we got out of the city limits, the train picked up speed, moving far faster than any automobile. The tracks between cities soared above the trees on arching concrete supports, which both enabled the train’s path to remain relatively level over uneven ground, and prevented the very real possibility of striking a deer or a careless automobile driver. A train with that much mass and moving at such high speeds needs to plan stops well in advance, and with that kind of energy, anything struck would be pulverized, and the damage to the train itself could be devastating.

In less than twenty minutes after we left the army headquarters, we were disembarking at the Cinsa Bargo station, and down one flight of stairs to ground level put us on the airfield.

The airfield had been built before the wars, as the utility of aeroplanes began to become more widely accepted. Hardly anyone traveled on them for pleasure, but for speedy travel with no stops, it was difficult to surpass. Only the major cities have airfields, and most of them are outside city limits due both to the noise and the expanse required to launch, land, and store the devices. Originally, the Kestral Airfield had been just that and nothing more, but as seems to be the case with everything in Kestral, the airfield grew and changed over time. People needed to buy things at the airfield, or ship items back that they couldn’t take with them; they needed restaurants to lunch at while the flight was prepped, hotels to stay at when the flight was delayed. It became clear that a smart businessman might make a profit providing such services. And soon, without official planning or sanction, shops and homes had burst into being around the airfield, and what had once been the Kestral Airfield became the small satellite town of Cinsa Bargo.

* * * * * * * *

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October 7, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter VIII (cont.)

by Mallard

She said nothing for a while, and part of me welcomed the silence, while another fretted at each wasted second. Not that there was a damned thing I could do until the army found the pirates. And would I even be included in the operation once they did?

Finally, Hattie let out a sigh. She didn’t look at me, her eyes tracing a pattern in the ceiling that she could not possibly see.

“They aren’t pirates at all,” she began quietly. “At least, they didn’t start out that way. The men and woman from tonight were once known as the fourteenth infantry division. Of the Republican Guard. Stationed in–”

“Sainted Isles,” I breathed. And suddenly everything made sense. The many and varied mismatched pieces I had been trying to sort out all night suddenly fit together, and I liked not at all the picture they formed. “You bitch.”

“Watch yourself, Specialist,” her voice cracked like a whip, sharp with command. I forced my mouth closed. My fingers clenched tight on the armrests of my chair, digging painfully into unyielding wood. I said nothing, either in apology or defiance, and after a moment, Hattie continued.

“The so-called pirates have been causing us trouble for two weeks now, taking political prisoners from all levels of government. Mayor Downing and Minister Chorice were just the latest in their kidnappings. Messages from the pirates claim the prisoners are all being kept alive, but they have not demanded any ransom. The Council of Governors is worried that the group is planning a public execution, or to make some other spectacle of them.”

She shook her head, still avoiding my gaze. “They were supposed to be elsewhere. The festival in Mornova was tonight. Most of the Council was to be there; everyone agreed the pirates would not be able to pass up the opportunity.” Mornova was the capital city of Cest-Weldersheen, north and east of Kestral by many days travel. I had no idea what festival she was talking about, and did not care.

“So all the other Peace Workers were in Mornova, is that it?” I said. “All but one.” One who could not be trusted, and my fingers gripped the armrest tighter at the thought.

Hattie nodded. “Since the pirates are remnants of the Republican Guard, this falls under the purview of the PWs.” Mornova was too far north to have a branch of the Peace Workers; we were most useful, practically and politically, in those northern cities nearest the short-lived border. Because of its size, importance, and location, Kestral’s branch was one of the largest in the nation.

“And when the pirates didn’t show up, the army realized they had been played, and sent you that ‘anonymous tip.'” All the pieces made sense, all of it was coming together. Why no other PWs had been available for the mayor’s ball, why Hattie had been nervous at the beginning of the evening, cut off from the action, not knowing how the operation was going.

I forced my voice level. “I think I understand everything. All but one. Why was I not a part of this? Why did you have me on this idiotic ball duty?” I snorted before she could answer. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? As soon as you mentioned the 14th. You couldn’t trust me.” The words tasted bitter.

Another thought struck me. “I wasn’t even supposed to be at the ball, was I? You wanted me out of this night entirely, only included me because of Martha Chorice. You found out she was going to visit. And you’re not a PW, not like I am, not a reformed soldier.” I spat these last two words. “So you needed a real representative and called me in last minute.”

Hattie nodded but said nothing.

“And you kept me in the dark. How long have I known you, Hattie? Over two years, I’d say? I think that, in that time, I’ve proven myself once or twice, don’t you? I’ve shown I’m loyal to your precious Kestral Armed Forces. I’ve taken down my own comrades, jailed more than a few. I’ve never balked at what’s been asked of me.” My mouth twisted. “What, did you think that, just because I knew the 14th personally, that I was once one of them, that I’d side with them? Or that I’d let them go?” I pounded the armchair suddenly, and Hattie jumped. “Or is it because I turned my back on them once? I’ve already proven myself a traitor, why wouldn’t I turn my coat again, is that it?

Hattie shook her head, slowly. “Your loyalty has never been in question, Victor,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Never once.”

“Then why?” I was pleading now, rigid in my chair, willing her to just look at me. If I had known, if I had been a part of this from the beginning, I could have done something. I could have been prepared. I could have saved Serah.

“Your loyalty was never in question,” she whispered again. “You have always gone above and beyond. I have no doubt that you would do your duty.” She took a deep breath. “But I could not be sure that you would stop there, would be satisfied with just imprisonment. Not in this case.”

It took me a moment to understand what she was saying, what she was implying that I might do. And when I did, I said nothing. I was too afraid, too afraid that my anger would boil up inside me, that I would scream at my sergeant, that I would strike a friend in rage at what she thought I was capable of.

And I was afraid that, maybe, she had been right to doubt me.

We sat in silence for a long time then, until exhaustion and Kristopher’s worried, wobbling flight caused the seething anger to leech away, leaving me spent.

When I at last spoke, my voice was dull and empty, devoid of rage and passion alike. “I want to be part of the mission, when you find the base.”

Hattie didn’t seem surprised. But nor did she consent. “You’ve done enough, Victor. Let the army handle it.” She glanced at the clock in the corner of the room. “Hells, it’s been enough time; maybe they’ve found the base and are rescuing the prisoners as we speak.”

I snorted. “Don’t lie to me. Not any more. You and I both know you would never sit by and let this operation happen without you. At the very least, without your knowledge. I deserve to be there.”

Hattie said nothing. I wanted to be angry, but I had no more energy for rage, and my words came out flat.

“Damnit, Hattie. You know I won’t back down on this. I’ll be there, consent or no. So either give in and make it official, or call up security to escort me out of here.” I leaned forward and made sure she was looking at me. “But do that, and I swear to you, this will be the last time I ever set foot in this office.”

After a long pause, Hattie snorted. “Don’t be melodramatic, Victor. Do whatever you want. You’re in.” In the lamplight, I could see the troubled look in her eyes, as if already reconsidering.

“Look,” I said quietly. “I’ve proven my loyalty. I promise you, whatever I feel for these people, whatever horrors I’ve seen them commit, whatever personal problems I have…I won’t do anything against your orders.”

She looked blankly at me. Then leaned on her elbows and dropped her head into her hands. “That,” she said between exhausted chuckles. “Will be a first.”

* * * * * * * *

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