The mission was in peril. Agent Beru didn’t understand how, but the only conclusion she could draw was that the hunter-killer team from the Office of Security possessed some way of tracking her that the Office of Science hadn’t known about. At least, such information hadn’t been provided in the briefing data they had loaded onto her atmospheric entry pod. The only saving grace is that whatever this hypothetical method was, it did not provide them with her precise location. Even though the pair had been able to stay relatively on top of her throughout this protracted chase through the wilderness, their behavior indicated they were yet to acquire her visually. Otherwise, Beru suspected she would have been fired upon by now.
That was the only factor in her favor, however. The pair of GunValkyrie undeniably knew her goal was to reach a human settlement. They had favored covering the direction towards Beru’s target city and had both taken to the air momentarily when Beru managed to get within a handful of kilometers. She had no choice but to fall back and now she was moving away from her target south by southwest. She was considering which way to loop around to attempt another approach or whether it would be better to target a different city and hope for more favorable geography.
She also was struggling with the urge to hunt her hunters. She found herself fantasizing about lining up a perfect headshot and with one single shot equalizing this small facet of the Martian civil conflict. It was the stress and fear accumulating from being unable to disengage. She also hadn’t been able to rest at all since her crash landing and the mental fatigue was doing her no favors.
There were also sentimental difficulties. Before the schism that arrayed the ruling offices of Martian society against each other these hunting GunValkyries would be considered her sisters. The Zeromer breed had even been developed with the GunValkyrie breed as the primary base. She was burdened by the ethical primer included in the personality download that had given rise to her consciousness and it was pushing for her to try to communicate with the OffSec hunter-killer team. Perhaps the only thing stopping her was the knowledge that OffSec’s templated personas had far less prosocial calibration. Tragically, they wouldn’t be receptive to her suing for peace. Doing so would only imperil the mission.
She had to continue the mission.
As the celebration dragged on after dark at the Borysov compound, a bonfire had been lit and a hobby band from town was playing simple, upbeat music. Many of the ranch pokegirls and young men and women from town were dancing in a ring around the blaze. Some of the girls at the ranch used to be classmates of the youth and while their transformation from threshold changed their status and the dynamics of any relationships, the primitive social bonds were still there so it was easy to fall back into communal play. Even the pokegirls who had been born as such enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with the humans of their generation. When the next wave of tamers came of age, it was this simple dance that could lead to them picking a girl from this ranch to start their adventure.
Neasa looked up from where she was glowering at the dancers from the shadows. Someone else had sat down at the table she was occupying and she hoped maybe they’d be scared away like the others when she made eye contact with them. Her new companion at the table was nearly twice her size and the blue skinned infernal pokegirl clearly was not someone easily intimidated. She was dressed in the way humans dressed when they felt they were important, stiff black fabrics with sharp creased edges. Neasa found herself admiring the martial poise of this newcomer. This pokegirl was undeniably a warrior by nature and trade.
The infernal extended a hand out towards the Elf, fingers outstretched and wrist turned so the thumb pointed up. Neasa knew this was a form of greeting in human cultures, so she stretched out her hand in return. “I am Astoreth,” the towering newcomer said as she enacted the rest of the gesture by grasping Neasa’s wrist.
“Neasa.” The Elf reciprocated the firmness with which Astoreth gripped her arm, at least so far as her fingers would wrap around. It was a curious exchange but something about the display was both peaceful and warlike and it appealed to Neasa on a fundamental level.
“I understand you don’t care much for humans, yet here you are,” Astoreth stated in a plain tone. Her expression was calm and even seemed sympathetic.
“I fought to protect my people from being enslaved by humans. It is difficult to love an enemy.”
“I don’t know about that. But it is easier to hate them.” Neasa’s attention had been on the figures ringing the bonfire but no longer. Astoreth was watching the fire as well but her attention flicked to Neasa for a moment and she grinned at what she saw. It annoyed Neasa some because she could recognize this sort of baiting attitude but the young Elf couldn’t resist the chance to learn from an obvious veteran.
“Who did you fight?” Neasa’s curiosity was too powerful to resist asking.
“The humans, just like you. Back when they were at their most powerful, but still no match for us. Back when it was their males that fought.”
“Is that why you can love an enemy? You fell in love with a human soldier?”
“I did. But I didn’t realize it until years later, after a friend helped me understand. In the beginning, all I understood was the Melian Dialogue.”
“Who was Melian speaking with?”
Astoreth smiled at Neasa’s question. She had a better grasp on language than some wild Elves. “It was two cities of classical Greece, from the Amethyst league’s history. Melos, a small island city state, and Athens, a much larger and more powerful city from the mainland. Athens was in a conflict with another great city, Sparta, and Melos wished to remain neutral. Athens wanted Melos for strategic reasons. The dialogue was between the Athenian envoys, who had come with the Athenian navy and army, and the commissioners of Melos. Both sides knew the negotiation was a formality because Melos’ only choice was surrender or death. ‘The right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ That was the response of the Athenians when Melos made a plea regarding the law of nations.”
“So the humans have always been this evil.”
“Yes, they have. But then, how did they make all of this?” Astoreth stood up and carefully peeled herself out of her jacket, which she left resting on the back of the chair she’d been sitting in. “It’s a game they play, Neasa. One most of them don’t even realize they’re playing. I don’t understand it, so I study their rules and their history in order to understand. Anyway, I am going to go dance with my man. It seems like a good time to enjoy the game.” She waded through the much shorter humans and pokegirls in her skirt, stockings, and bra to possessively claim Isaac. Jin had dragged him out to frolic but was struggling to keep challengers for Isaac’s attention away. All of the ranch girls scattered like minnows before a shark as Astoreth pulled Isaac between herself and Jin.
Neasa sat to ruminate on the question Astoreth had left dangling, chewing it over in her mind angrily. She couldn’t think of what Astoreth had meant when she had said, “all of this,” so how could she answer? Was it this ranch? Was it the fire? The dancing?
She was distracted watching the dancing. Isaac was graceless, Jin wasn’t much better but at least she moved with energy and purpose. Astoreth was graceful but in a way that lacked beauty, the infernal could move but not along with the rhythm. They were all playing. Neasa hadn’t danced for almost a year and a half but she wouldn’t be content unless she showed these humans and slaves what Elven grace looked like. She rose and listened to the music play, letting the beat and melody percolate in her mind before she stepped into the light of the bonfire.
Elena smiled to herself as she watched Neasa vanish underneath a throng of onlookers and admirers. The Elf was oblivious thanks to her hostile preconceptions, but the other children and young adults had all been fascinated by her aloof presence. Now that Neasa had not only joined in but began to show off there was no escaping their attention.
The Grandelf had never been much of a participant in these sorts of dalliances but she did enjoy watching and listening. She had been spectating the festivities along with Chandrakanta but the Megami had spotted an opportunity to volunteer to help so she had abandoned her poor Nell. Elena then found the environment of the ranch put her in the mood to check on the rest of her pupils beyond Isaac, Jin, and perhaps, Neasa.
Most of her students from the ranch were out dancing and she’d already been keeping tabs on them. That’s why she knew she had yet to spot three girls in particular. Half of Albina’s daughters had been purchased over the spring but half of them remained.
Elena spotted Inessa, Albina’s second daughter by order of birth, being comforted by the miller’s boy. Natalka, Albina’s fifth, was with Chandrakanta ladeling punch. That left only Albina’s fourth daughter, Lera. Elena sighed and thought she had a good idea of where Lera might be. She was always the most sensitive of the septuplets.
Elena found the troubled young Witch where she expected, on the roof of one of the outer buildings that also functioned as a walkway along the perimeter wall. Lera was leaning against the parapet looking out into the woods Isaac and Jin had fled through over a year ago. Elena approached the pensive Witch tentatively and put a hand on her shoulder when Lera looked up to see who had come up to her. She tried to force a smile and dabbed at her eyes. “Oh, Mizz Elena. I’m sorry, I was just… thinking.”
“It’s alright Lera.” Elena could feel bodily tension through the little contact she had with Lera’s shoulder, so she gave the tight bunch of muscles a small, firm rub. Lera felt as if she were being pulled in for an embrace and desperately hugged her teacher, leaving Elena no recourse but to wrap her arms around her student.
“Jarek didn’t run away after frauding the ranch, did he?” Elena fought not to become too rigid. Lera had always been the most sensitive because she was the most observant.
“What makes you think that?”
“I’ve been helping Mr. Grigory since he took over and we went through the finances. Jarek would have taken a lot more if that was his plan.” Lera pulled away from the hug and stood up straight. She wasn’t trying to look strong, wasn’t trying to appear confrontational. She simply seemed desperate to know. “I saw Jin scratching something into the wall of the building that exploded the night she vanished. I went to tell Mother but she was gone. Jarek had taken her and his two favorites, plus Olena. Mother was sure Jin was going to try to escape and she told Jarek.” Lera’s eyes were locked onto Elena’s. She knew.
“Mizz Elena. You killed Jarek, and Mother, and the other three, didn’t you?”
“I did.” She could have pointed out she spared Olena but was that really important? Elena closed her eyes after making her confession. They snapped open in surprise as Lera threw herself into her arms again.
“Why couldn’t we save her? Why couldn’t we get her back from him? She did it to protect us. She always did what he told her so he wouldn’t hurt us.” Elena didn’t have any answers. Honestly she was grateful Lera wasn’t holding her responsible. It still felt like a cold blade in her chest to admit it.
Elena never had a mother. She couldn’t imagine the pain of losing one. How could Lera be so ready to forgive Elena for taking away hers? “I don’t know, Lera. I couldn’t save her either. I think losing Emiliya was too much for her.” Emiliya had been the first born of the septuplet Witches to come from Albina. She was the one that had been traded away to Edo for Jin. “I should have- I could have… I knew what Jarek was doing, I knew. It still took me so long, until he was hurting Isaac…”
“It’s okay Mizz Elena, it’s okay. No one else really tried, did they?”
“I don’t know. Sheriff Kohut was willing to hear me out but Marta wouldn’t let him take the risk.”
Lera took a step backwards and blinked away some fresh tears. “I think I want to stay here, at the Ranch. I can help Mr. Grigory and I can try to make sure nothing like that happens here again. And I can help you teach the younger girls.”
“You’d still…” Elena trailed off as she looked at Lera in wonder, her ears slowly twitching.
“It wasn’t your fault, Mizz Elena. I think you’re right. I think losing Emiliya broke Mother. She was beginning to hit us too, before the end. You put her to rest and got revenge for us all.”
Elena shook her head and stared out into the woods. “And I came up here to comfort you. I think Mr. Grigory will be lucky to have your help, Lera. I will as well. I’ve been struggling a bit recently, with my emotions. I don’t understand why but it’s harder for me to set them aside so I can focus on things.”
Lera giggled as she wiped at her eyes. “Mizz Elena, you’re happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen you before. If you’re struggling with your emotions maybe you need to stop struggling.”
Elena thought about the young blonde Witch’s words and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Mr. Grigory will definitely be lucky to have you.”
The mission was nearing conclusion. The Vanguardia wing failed to prevent the target from entering the Terran atmosphere and had returned to Frontier leaving the chase to Martian Interdiction Agent Hera and her sister Juno. After forty-two hours of pursuit they had the renegade operative from the Office of Science out maneuvered. Juno had spotted the opportunity to entrap the rogue recon agent right before they switched out; Juno recovering her plasma reserves on the ground while Hera took to the skies to set the trap.
The recon operative was wiley and if it hadn’t been for the specialized transceivers the interdiction agents had been provided she would have been lost to them nearly a day ago. Individuals of the Zeromer breed were constantly beaming signals up to a satellite constellation that was maintained in orbit above the blue planet. The data was then bounced to Frontier for decryption and transmission to the Office of Science on Mars. Hera and Juno’s transceivers picked up this signal as well and indicated the point of origin for the broadcast. Had they received authorization to deploy as a full squad they would have triangulated the signal and converged on the rogue agent easily. Unfortunately for their efficiency, Frontier command had held the rest of its interdiction team in reserve in case the rebellious elements of the Office of Science deployed additional operatives along with this one Hera and her sister were targeting.
It filled the GunValkyrie with righteous indignation that the high-minded academics of the colony were so ready to sell out their home and people based on their predictive models and pet theories. Martian problems would be solved by Martian blood, sweat, and tears just as it always had been. The Office of Science was using a short term logistical failure as a justification to push its own agenda, promising the Colonial Council the moon if it allowed them more samples for their genetic engineering projects.
Hera paused for a fraction of a second to consider if another phrase would be more appropriate. The Colonial Council already held control over the moon, afterall.
Her focus returned to the task at hand, neutralizing the Zeromer sent down to Terra from Mars’ ivory towers. Up to now she’d had the advantage of terrain but her clever use of the natural topography had turned against her. This particular band of forest concealed an eroding cliff face from where the crust had split and shifted during the disasters centuries in the past. Hera suspected it wasn’t visible from the ground, however, and the readings from their tracking equipment suggested their quarry hadn’t planned on encountering the sudden obstacle. She couldn’t pass over it without giving her position away, either by dropping her stealth to fly or by the rocks that would become disturbed and slide downhill by her weight.
She was trapped, or at least trapped enough for the GunValkyrie to execute. There would be a minor reprimand for the destruction they were about to unleash, but they were deep in the wilderness. Any Terrans that happened upon the scene would only be able to conclude an intense battle occurred at this location, and intense battles between ferals happened all the time on the chaotic blue planet.
Hera could see the entire stretch of cliff and the places where it had fallen in a landslide. She was maintaining her position in the air and could cover any vector their prey would attempt to flee along. “Plasma reserves are fully charged,” Juno’s voice spoke through her ear piece.
“Executing.” Hera’s response was a single word as the twin plasma artillery cannons rolled out and assembled themselves from their stored configuration along the backplate of her armor. She concentrated on the ground below her as her mind assembled a firing solution for the attack she was about to unleash.
There was a small thundercrack as each load of ionized matter contained in an electromagnetic bottle launched from the barrels of her weapons. Barrel velocity and trajectory were altered in the span of a breath so that every single shell would impact within the same fraction of a second. The estimated blast radius of each round would overlap with at least one other, the field of fire would cover the entire small forest the Zeromer was hiding in.
Hera touched down in time to take in the full splendor of fire and fury. Her plasma converter wound up to recharge from the massive expenditure of her volley. If the attack hadn’t neutralized their target, which, in spite of the pyrotechnic display, it likely did not, it would fall on Juno to deliver the killing shot.
A flying metallic figure shot out from the cloud of smoke and dust. “Target fleeing, 10 o’clock and low.” Hera calmly stated over her communicator.
“Acknowledged.” Juno’s reply was equally dispassionate. A line of pure blue-white light connected their target to the location where Juno had set up with her long range precision rifle. The Zeromer tumbled to the ground in an uncontrolled fall.
“Target down, moving to confirm,” Hera spoke over the mic. She cautiously started to hover towards where the OffSci agent had fallen, somewhere among the trees above the cliff Hera and Juno had used to trap her. She nearly had line of sight on the impact location when the device given to her for tracking their Zeromer target blared out a warning tone.
“Final memory dump broadcast. Contingency nanite release detected. Hera, do you have her?”
Hera deployed her twin rotary cannons as she acquired a new contact running on foot. She was fast, twice as fast as Hera or Juno at their maximum flight speed, and was running in a wild, bounding zigzag. Hera sprayed a few bursts of plasma at the rapidly fleeing target. “Negative,” Hera cursed into her mic.
The mission continued.
(-[|]-) End 6.3 (-[|]-)
Elena’s hand shot out and all of the others walking home with her stopped and looked to her for an explanation. “Someone just entered my property from the Northeast. I have no idea who she is, but she doesn’t appear hostile.”
“Details?” Astoreth asked.
“Some sort of bunny,” Elena responded, eliciting a groan from the infernal. “Maybe Gun, I can see some metallic bits. She seems rather afraid and is heading directly for the house. She’s moving too purposefully to be feral. Candi?”
The Megami raised her palms up in a shrug. “I’m not sensing immediate danger. We could talk to her.”
Elena nodded. “Candi take Isaac, Star take Jin. Neasa,” the Grandelf reached out a hand to the Elf who was walking along the same path towards the same destination but was going out of her way to not appear as a part of their group. “I’ll carry you and we’ll teleport.”
The strange pokegirl crossed the threshold of the clearing that held Elena’s home not even a minute after the six of them. She was caked with dust and soot and some of it was wet and muddy red from minorly bleeding wounds. She was unclothed and froze with wide eyes as soon as she spotted the waiting occupants.
She focused on the only male among them. “Are you Isaac? My- Her memories say Isaac would help me. I need help.”