She was dreaming.
London was burning. The 1121st had hard-dropped into the United Kingdom’s seat of power, taking 30% casualties just on the way down, but they’d secured their objectives. Citywide power was down. Downing Street was an inferno, the British Cabinet dead almost to the last. The House of Parliament had only just caught fire. Emergency services were confused and disrupted; no one would be coming to put it out. Heathrow airport was… nonoperational. Local military responses were confused. Communications had been cut. By the time order was restored, another two thousand Hegemony troops would be in London, all of them invictus. Great Britain was about to fall. The English didn’t have the manpower to shift so many Hegemony troops from London without massive civilian casualties and by the time their American and Scandinavian allies could sort out their own problems, the United Kingdom would bow to the Hegemony.
Alexandra wrenched her combat knife out of the body of a dead English soldier, wiping the blade off on the dead man’s tunic. There had been only six of them guarding this checkpoint and she’d ripped through them. Strange though; she didn’t know what there was to protect here. Her squad had dispersed for search-and-destroy sweeps and there were reports of contact with other Coalition teams. Resistance was intensifying. That was odd. She was getting reports of casualties, but no one had reported enemy contact. She licked her lips.
Her head came up as she heard the distinctive sound of a Hegemony chaingun, followed by the discharge of a weapon system she couldn’t identify. Then silence. That was Three’s position.
“Three, this is LT Savoy. Respond.”
Only static answered her. What was going on?
She began moving, vaulting a pile of cars as easy a champion sprinter clearing a hurdle. She was almost at Three’s location, but she couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary… there! She could see a crumpled mess of armour and gore that had once been an invictus soldier. Three had been… he’d been blasted to pieces, charred fragments of armour and blackened fragments of bones scattered along the street. She knelt next to part of Three’s cuirass, touching the melted edges.
What had done this? What could have done this?
Something made her look up, some sixth sense. She was already moving as a volley of missiles powerful enough to reduce a tank to scrap cratered the street where she had been standing. The soldier raised her head, baring her teeth as it marched into view. Stooped like a troll out of legend, its thick legs moved with a brutal fluidity. It was a walking tank, its shoulders bristling with the missiles that had almost killed her. One of its arms ended in a massive weapon that she couldn’t identify, the other was balled into a fist as big as her torso. Blood was splashed across its thorax and up its arm. It pivoted at the waist with disturbing speed, still moving as it tracked towards her through the smoke. Alexandra didn’t stop to gape, opening fire as she charged. The cannon-arm whined as it built up a charge and she threw herself to one side, thermal warnings flashing across her HUD as the street bubbled and hissed, melted by the passing of the weapon.
“You’re faster than the last one,” the machine spoke and Alexandra realized that this wasn’t some automaton; there was a person inside it. “Not that it matters.” The cannon shrilled again and she hurled herself through the window of a store, hitting the ground running as incandescent fire strobed through the walls. She couldn’t possibly dodge the incoming bolts – but she could move faster than the cannon could track.
“All squads, this is Lieutenant Savoy!” she shouted as she bulldozed her way through a closed door, leaping out into an alley. “Hostile enemy contact, soldiers down. Unknown pattern – it’s a walking fucking tank! Severe threat value – do not engage without anti-armour support!” In the corner of her eye, she could see the machine’s silhouette as it paced in front of the store. Its weapons had blown straight through the entire building. Wood furnishings had burst into flame, metal supports had melted and even the concrete had run like water. The cannon hummed as it built up another charge.
“Come out and play, Vickie,” the Coalition pilot called to her, sensors straining to pick her out of the conflagration it had caused, but it was not so foolish as to try and squeeze itself into the crumbling store.
Alexandra’s teeth bared back in a snarl, every predatory instinct in her body telling her to fight, but reasoning won out and she fled, leaving the machine behind her.
Savoy sat up in bed, panting. Her clothes were soaked with sweat, her fingers dug into the satin sheets. She had to stop herself from reaching for the gun that wasn’t there. London. London had been a disaster for both sides. It had been intended to bring the United Kingdom to its knees; instead, the Hegemony had dropped into a massacre. Intel had been bad and the Hegemony both badly underestimated the resolve of the British and the surviving continental European forces as well as the engineering capability of the Coalition as a whole. That had been the first time invictus soldiers had faced Knights. It had been just as bad for the Coalition – they hadn’t expected the speed at which the Hegemony had attacked and the UK’s government had been all by decapitated, but the King and enough of Parliament had survived to keep the country running. The Coalition counter-attack had pushed the Hegemony across the English channel, almost to Paris.
The invictus tossed the sheets to one side and got up, the plush carpet soft and warm against her bare feet. She poured herself a glass of cold water and gulped it down. Lord Halkein had provided for her use a number of personal servants, but she didn’t need anyone to cater to her. She’d spent weeks in the hospital recovering from the many surgeries and treatments that had saved her life, weeks stuck in bed as curious invictus doctors whispered about her and the disturbingly-intriguing familiar nurses and orderlies tended to her. She’d had enough of that – she could get her own damn water.
Or maybe you just don’t want a serf to see one of their ‘masters’ suffering from night sweats?
Alexandra gulped down another glass, peeling her nightclothes off. The cool night air felt good against the clamminess of her skin. She braced her hands on the counter and stared at herself in the mirror, at the winding, veinlike patterns of scar tissue that wound across her skin, the faint craters that marked the entry points of bullets, the straight lines that showed where the blades had cut into her flesh. She had often wondered why she was alive; she had seen her brothers and sisters die from far less severe wounds, but somehow she had survived.
The scars had only faded slightly; she wondered if they ever would.
At least I’ll match, she thought sardonically. “Scarred inside and out.” Then, with a dismissive snort. Maudlin crap.
You are as you were meant to be, she’d been told. You were forged. To be free of fear, doubt or regret. You are the hands that will build the Hegemony. Take comfort in that and know that everything you do, is what must be done.
Her hands tightened on the marble counter-top and only a moment of self-awareness kept her from shattering the polished stone in her grip.
Across the city from the Garuda estates, Darren Hawke was also awake, the man wandering Garamond’s streets, hunched into a beaten jacket that had been made by someone who had once heard of suede. He wandered through the serf districts, ignoring the other denizens. To his right, he saw an inebriated young man about to get rolled by the hooker he was attempting to hire. She made a show of it, dismissing him as being unable to afford her services. Indignant and intoxicated, he waved a billfold at her as proof. Darren sighed inwardly. However he’d come by that much money, by morning that young man would be a pauper. On his left, a child who should have been in bed for school was sitting on the stoop of a brownstone, a lookout. The entire front of the building smelled like bleach in an attempt to obscure the scent of the products inside.
He kept walking, ignoring the entreaties from the working girls and boys he passed, brushing aside the crackhead who tried to sell him obviously stolen electronics, muttering apologies under his breath as he made way for the local leg-breakers and gang-bangers. Just another citizen out at night, a harmless, hopeless fool – one of many in this city. Darren wandered the streets, as if he had no particular destination in mind. Though he was slouched into his jacket, he was alert and wary of anyone following him. It was second-nature to him by now; but his paranoia was on overdrive and had been ever since his encounter with Savoy. He still didn’t know what game she was playing – but you couldn’t trust an invictus.
Garamond Memorial Gardens was before him. It was a beautiful, well-kept parkland there for the enjoyment of all the city’s citizens. It was also just as safe at night as it was during the day. Well-lit walking trails and frequent sweeps by surveyor drones kept the less-respectable elements of the city from taking the park over at night as had happened in many cities in decades past. They were still here, of course – but they made certain that their business was kept well away from any invictus enjoying a nightly stroll.
Darren found himself at one of the fountains, watching the jets of water shoot out and arc back down in artful loops and spurts, listening the babbling white noise. He rested his arms on the railing, pretending to enjoy the display as lights beneath the pool’s surface made the geysers appear as a kaleidoscope of colour and form. It was actually very pretty; even soothing. To his right, a nervous young man stopped at the end of a trail, looked over at Hawke before turning away, the telltale tremors in his body marking him as a junkie looking for his next fix. To his left, a pair of prostitutes laughed and engaged in an animated discussion, but the sound of the fountain washed out whatever they were talking about.
Hawke remained there for a moment or two, then turned and ambled to a nearby bench, spreading his arms over the back, listening to the water. One of the hookers said something to her compatriot and sauntered towards him, a lopsided smirk on her face. She was blonde – or at least had a very good dye job – with a gleaming blue pleather vest and miniskirt. “Hey there,” she purred. Darren looked up and smiled back. Her voice was like – what was that old cliché? – like smoke and honey. He’d always loved her voice.
“Hey,” he replied. “Warm night we’ve got.”
“Warm’s good,” the woman replied, sitting next to him. She put her hand on the inside of his thigh. “Hot’s better.”
“Could be,” he replied.
“I’m Cherise,” she told him. He knew her real name and that wasn’t it. The blonde smiled a little wider. She had a disarming grin. “You looking for someone to show you around Garamond, handsome? All the,” her eyes twinkled. “Ins and outs?”
Darren looked at her and patted his trousers. “Maybe. Why don’t you have a seat? We’ll talk about the first thing that comes up.” He restrained a snort at the sound of his own words.
‘Cherise’ smiled. “I don’t give out free samples, honey.” She leaned in, whispering in his ear. “What do you want?” she hissed. “You’re not supposed to-”
“I know,” Darren replied, pulling her closer. To anyone looking, it was a prostitute and her client getting to know each other. An easily-overlooked transgression, an obvious reason for two sapiens to be meeting here in the park. “I need some information.”
She grabbed his hand, guiding it inside her blouse. “See?” she said aloud. “They’re real. And spectacular.” Under her breath: “What about?”
Darren ignored the sensations his body was telling him not to ignore. “Savoy.”
‘Cherise’ paused briefly, before winding her fingers along his scalp, ruffling his short brown hair. “You’ve had contact with Vipress?”
“Something like that. She wanted my attention at the opera. Wasn’t what I expected.” They kept their voices low; the fountain might make it nearly impossible to overhear their conversation, but ‘nearly’ wasn’t one hundred percent.
“What do you mean?” his contact bit his earlobe.
“She didn’t have rave reviews about Triumph of Will,” Darren replied. “She told me to give my regards to the Coalition.”
He heard the woman’s breath catch in her throat, could feel the sudden tension in her muscles as she suppressed the urge to look around. “What?”
“I checked everything on my end. I don’t think I’ve been compromised, but I don’t know for certain.”
“So I’m your Judas goat. Thanks for that,” she slapped him, leaning back and shaking a finger at him warningly.
Darren put on an apologetic face and took the wagging digit, kissing her hand. “I’m sorry, Lils. I didn’t know they’d send you. I signalled in. I thought they would have told you.”
“No, they wouldn’t. Not if-” the young woman cut herself off, but both of them knew what she would have said. Not if they’ve tapped an asset.
“I don’t have a lot of other options right now,” Darren continued. “I need to know if I should be ducking for cover or going out in a blaze of glory.”
“You’ve got your lullaby?”
‘Cherise’ let out a breath. “Fuck. All right. Control’s probably checking the network now. If everything’s tickety-boo, you’ll know. If not… you’ll know that, too.”
Darren nodded. “Savoy,” he said. “She’s playing some kind of game.”
“Sounds about right,” the woman replied, slapping the hand inside her shirt away, making a ‘money’ gesture – a hooker remonstrating a client getting ahead of himself. “Not so fast,” she raised her voice. “You didn’t want falsies. Now you know I’m all-natural but anything more than that… you gotta pay to play.”
Darren grinned lopsidedly. “Trust me.” His contact’s friend was on the other side of the clearing, not so subtly watching them. He’d prefer to do without this bit of theater, but he didn’t know if she was another Coalition member keeping an eye on her charge or an actual sex worker doing the same for a friend in the trade. Even if she hadn’t been there, in Garamond you always assumed someone was watching.
“I’ve heard from other sources that all the victors and vickies – well, they don’t know what to make of our dear corpsicle,” ‘Cherise’ told him. “I think they’ve been expecting her to tell them what good little boys and girls they’ve been, how everything’s perfect and Santa’s going to visit them twice.” She chuckled low in her throat. She wasn’t even looking at him, she was glancing over his shoulder for any sign of eavesdroppers. He could feel the hard shape of the holdout derringer tucked into her jacket. “I’ve even heard there’s been some grumbling about her attitude.”
“I can see that,” Darren mused.
“Control is interested, but we haven’t had time to get anyone close to Vipress. You caught her attention. Can you get it again?”
“I don’t know what I did to get it the first time,” Hawke replied. “She picked me.”
The woman made a considering noise, raising it into a louder growl of arousal and irritation. “She’s got good taste.”
‘Cherise’ gave him an appraising look that fit perfectly with their act. “You’ve got something else planned.”
“I wasn’t the only one she had attend her. One of the comfort girls, Verona – Savoy had her for the evening. She’s a familiar, but I thought I’d take a run at her.”
“A familiar? Jesus, Darren. I mean, Jesus Christ.”
“I know. I’m going soft.”
“Soft in the head,” the young woman snapped. “She’s been bred to love those fucking monsters. No one, not one person in forty years has ever turned a familiar.”
“I’m not trying to turn her, Lils. Just… get my bearings with Savoy.”
“Well, you better do it soon. Vipress is taking up residence in her new estates by the end of the week. We don’t have anyone in her household. Whatever made her notice you before, do it again. Get her to like you. I don’t care how. Sing opera, juggle chainsaws, give her the best fuck she’s ever had – whatever. Do it and do it quick.”
The girl’s features softened. “Be careful, Darren. Okay?”
“Good. We’ll handle the security check on you. You… just don’t die.” At Darren’s nod, the woman leaned in. “Also, I’m really sorry about this.”
She punched him in the groin. Darren saw stars, doubling over and falling off the bench as the young woman shouted at him. “The fuck you mean you don’t got no money, you piece of shit?! I ain’t some fucking bag of grapes at the grocery store, motherfucker!” She kicked him in the ribs. “You don’t fucking get to sample nothing without paying, asshole!” Her confederate was running over as Lily landed a few more blows; even though they were intended more for show then damage, they stung. She stalked away, pausing to turn and jab a finger at Darren’s prone form. “I see your ass around here again, I’m going to cut your balls off!”
Darren picked himself up as the two women headed off. “…bastard had me grinding on him like he’s a big spender…” He shook his head, wincing at his collection of bruises. Well, at least he’d learned that he wasn’t the only one Savoy was throwing off. That almost made it worth it. Dusting off his jacket, Hawke headed back on the long and somewhat sore trip back to his apartment.
Alexandra yawned as she sat up in bed, running a hand through her hair. Sunlight was filtering through the windows, bathing her room in a warm yellow glow. The invictus sighed. She’d finally managed to get back to a thankfully dreamless sleep. She slumped back into the covers, staring up at the ceiling before looking over at the clock. 9:47. This was the latest she’d ever gotten up in her entire life.
She’d tried to sleep in, but it was a foreign concept. Invictus needed far less rest than sapiens did; she and her brothers and sisters had only ever slept the bare minimum necessary. She kept expecting to hear reveille being called, hear the grinding of armoured vehicles outside or the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing. Instead, save for the twittering of birds, it was quiet. She wasn’t used to that.
The invictus had barely been awake for a minute before the door chime to her quarters sounded. Alexandra raised her head. “Come in.”
One of her attendants hurried in, a dark-skinned girl with frizzy shoulder-length hair. Samantha. She kept her eyes downcast. “Your Grace.”
The invictus felt it again, that… draw familiars had on her. She didn’t like it. She should have – all of her fellow invictus seemed to revel in the presence of Homo familiarus, the way they simpered and fawned over their lords and masters as they’d been conditioned to. Sometimes she caught herself staring, watching them move. Inhaling deeper when they were around, taking in their scent. They were there for her, a conqueror’s rightful due. Her fellow invictus never questioned that belief, never thought anything of it. It made her skin crawl.
What does God need with a starship?
Alexandra’s hands twitched and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Samantha was still there. “Yes?” she asked, climbing out of bed.
“Young Lord and Lady Halkein beg the honour of your presence this morning,” the familiar said.
Savoy kept her face impassive. “Very well, tell them I would be delighted to join them at their convenience.”
“Of course, Lady Vipress.” Samantha paused. “Will you require anything else?”
Alexandra opened her wardrobe. Samantha took a half-step towards the invictus, but remembered herself. Savoy had made it abundantly clear that she needed no one to dress her. She pushed a score of masterfully hand-crafted dresses and gowns out of the way, grabbing a plainer shirt and tossing it on the bed. It was joined a moment later by a pair of trousers. “Have they fixed the training drones?”
“Engineer Hamish offers his most sincere apologies, but several of the machines are still inoperable,” Samantha said carefully. “Others are functional, but are not yet working at peak condition.”
Savoy examined two pair of white socks, trying to tell the difference between them before simply adding one to the small pile of clothes on the bed. She smiled a little. “That’s disappointing, but I suppose I have been hard on Hamish’s machines. Does he know when they’ll be ready?”
“He expects to have three fully repaired by this evening, my lady. The others he is not so sure about until he can perform a complete estimate of the damage.” The familiar paused. “Lord Halkein has asked me to again offer you the option of live duels with prisoners.”
Alexandra pulled her nightclothes off, tossing them into a laundry hamper. She’d spent virtually all her life in scientific facilities and military barracks where privacy was a luxury. “Thank Lord Halkein for his most generous offer,” she said, carefully picking her way through each syllable. She hated that she had to do that, where she had to worry about the implications of every word. It was as alien to her as everything else in this world. “But… Homo sapiens opponents are not… challenging enough for my usual regime.”
Samantha flushed, carefully looking away from her mistress’s nakedness. “Of course, my lady.”
“I’m going to shower,” Savoy informed the familiar. “Once I’ve done so, I’ll meet with young lord and lady Halkein.”
“Certainly, Your Grace.” Samantha lifted her head, but did not meet Alexandra’s eyes. “Did you wish any company or assistance bathing?” The familiar plucked at the top bottom on her uniform, but did not undo it. Her wide eyes were earnest.
Alexandra paused. Her nostrils flared as she detected the smallest change in the other woman’s scent and an image came to mind, water running down Samantha’s dark skin, the feel of the familiar’s bare flesh in her hands… “No,” the invictus said. Her fingernails dug into her palms. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
When she got out of the shower, Savoy found that her bed had been made up and her chosen outfit had been ironed and pressed.