“She still dresses like a soldier,” Young Lord Garuda, Trevor Halkein, commented to his twin sister. They were the younger children of Geoffrey and Annabelle Halkein, Lord and Lady Garuda. Both of them were black of hair and hazel-eyed, lighter in complexion than their older brother Sammael who was currently off on official business.
Victoria Halkein, the Young Lady Garuda, shrugged, accepting another sweetened grape from her current favourite, Aarib. The serf plucked another, dipping it in a small bowl of chocolate before offering it the young woman. The invictus closed her lips around the seedless treat, leaning back into her Roman-style couch. “She dressed up for the opera and,” she smiled as Aarib handed her a glass of spiced wine. “From what I understand, she turned a head or two.” The young woman laughed. “Lady Condor looked like a primped-up peacock next to her. I think that might be the new trend. Something simple, yet elegant.”
“Delightful,” Trevor grunted. “Yet I suspect if we take our lessons from Vipress, furniture makers will have a booming year.”
“Oh, please,” Victoria said with a wave of her hand. “As if anyone cares. Father doesn’t. Sir Atlas doesn’t. In fact, he considers it a compliment to see how moved she was by the play! The cast has been gossiping about how they reached the Hero of Johannesburg with the force and depth of their portrayal.” She leaned forward, her eyes alight with amusement. “You’re just bitter that she invited a sapiens and a familiar to her side instead of you.”
“That’s hardly the point,” Trevor sniffed. “We are her hosts. It was only proper that someone from Garuda be with her during an event we staged in her honour. That she chose to view it alone was a deliberate snub.”
“Oh, brother dear,” Victoria purred mockingly. “Had you been in the room with her during that play, you’d now be wondering why she hadn’t chosen solitude if it was going to affect her that much.” She put on an exaggerated frown, deepening her voice to a passable imitation of Trevor. “I don’t know why she bothered to have us there if she was going to get all weepy and emotional. That’s a private moment we don’t need to be a party to!” The raven-haired invictus sagged back into her couch, reaching up with one finger to trace the definitions of Aarib’s muscles, smiling coyly up at the sapiens. “Honestly, I don’t think you’ll ever be satisfied without something to complain about.”
“She’s been distant,” Trevor pointed out.
“She’s a soldier,” Victoria sighed. “She fought in the Final War. That was mere weeks ago to her. Imagine spending your life in blood and fire and then suddenly you wake up nearly a hundred years in the future. Do you, perhaps not imagine a little distance might be expected?” The young woman ran her hand up and down Aarib’s arms. “She was personally created by the primogenitors. One of the primagens, Trevor.” The young woman cast her eyes away from her serf to her brother. “She could break you in half.”
“I hardly think she’s that-”
“She broke Sammael’s records in the gym, Trevor. All of them. All week long. She’s been training with drones set to invictus levels and they’ve been going to the machine shop in pieces.”
Trevor blinked. “I hadn’t heard that.”
“You need to be more attentive,” Victoria chastised. “There are so many things you can learn if you stop swaggering about everywhere. Isn’t that right, Aarib?”
“Of course, my lady.”
The young man rolled his eyes. “And listen to the chatter of familiars and sapiens?”
His sister glared at him. “‘Chatter’ has a usefulness all its own. You can learn all sorts of things.” She smiled then, all teeth. “Like a certain member of Garuda’s penchant for rendezvous with a certain archivist.”
Trevor’s cheeks flushed angrily. “My business-”
“-is yours, of course. The point is that I wouldn’t know about your business were it not for the chatter you so despise.” Victoria arched an eyebrow. It was easy to forget that beneath her decadent, pleasure-seeking exterior lay a wicked – even devious – mind.
Trevor half-bowed in defeat. “Your point is taken, dear sister.”
“Hmm,” Victoria doubted that her brother had indeed, internalized the lesson, but she wasn’t going to press it. Instead, she took another drink of spiced wine, waiting in silence for their guest to arrive. Even with an invictus’s hearing, Savoy was quiet, all but appearing ghost-like in the antechamber’s doorway. True to Trevor’s prediction, she was dressed without flair, a simple grey T-shirt and pair of trousers.
“You wanted to see me?” Savoy said. Victoria hid a small grin. She liked the other woman’s directness. Garuda ruled Garamond; they were the most influential House in the Americas and their rivals and vassals offered too much insincere praise and honeyed words. Lady Vipress was as blunt as a rifle butt to the back of the head. After dealing with so many flatterers and smirking competitors, Victoria found the soldier refreshing. Sadly, her brother put far too much stock in those same honeyed words of their subordinates and peers and saw Savoy’s lack of appropriate bowing and scraping as an affront to the house. Personally, Victoria would have the other nobles learn from Vipress rather than the other way around.
“Yes,” the Young Lady Garuda said, sitting up and gesturing to one of the room’s unoccupied chairs. “Please, join us.”
Alexandra set herself down. She didn’t say anything, looking between her hosts. Trevor Halkein, the ‘young lord Garuda’ was hiding a sneer, but then that seemed to be his default facial expression. His sister played at utter decadence – and from what Alexandra had seen it wasn’t all an act – but the truth was in her eyes. They were always assessing and observing, taking in everything while still seeming to belong to someone who neither knew nor cared about much beyond her own world. Since she had woken up, Savoy had seen only one other set of eyes like Victoria Halkein’s.
The former soldier took a small breath. Invictus senses were sharper than those of sapiens and hers were keener still. She could hear the beating of Victoria’s serf’s heart, smell the aromatic food and the flush of adrenalin in Trevor’s veins. She waited patiently for either sibling to tell her why they’d wanted to see her.
Trevor shifted uncomfortably, shooting his sister a discrete yet undeniably annoyed glance. She ignored him. “Thank you for coming to see us,” the Young Lady Halkein said smoothly. “Our parents and elder brother have been called away on urgent business, else they would have done so in our place.” Some might take it as a slight that the youngest members of a bloodline were chosen to speak with them. Victoria doubted that Vipress would see it that way, but it was best to observe the formalities. “We have received word from your demesne. They have almost finished preparations for your arrival. If you would care to depart early, they will have a shuttle for you at your convenience, but I hope you will stay a few days longer. There are still some people in Garamond who would be disappointed if they missed their chance to meet the Hero of Johannesburg.”
Savoy said nothing, her expression neutral. “Thank you,” she said at last. “If I am not an imposition, I would enjoy the chance to see more of the capital and I do appreciate your hospitality.”
Victoria gestured breezily, speaking up before Trevor had the chance to open his mouth and put his foot inside it. “It’s nothing,” she assured Vipress. “House Garuda is pleased to be able to host such a distinguished war hero. It truly is our honour.”
“Thank you again,” Alexandra said, standing up, her hands clasped behind her back as if she was standing at ease. “Was there anything else?”
“Yes,” Victoria put in. “I understand that you wished to visit the Gardens of Sacrifice?”
Savoy nodded. “I was told that they’d been closed due to terrorist actions.”
“Sapiens vandals,” Trevor snorted. “Flatlines.”
“Yes, well,” his sister said. “They were reopened this morning. Transport is yours if you wish it. If you would like the company, I know both Trevor and myself would be pleased to accompany you.” Trevor opened his mouth and closed it just as quickly. Victoria hid a small smile. “Although I would only ask that I be given a moment to change into something more… appropriate,” she motioned with a self-deprecating air to her outfit.
The taller woman was silent for a short moment, then tilted her head. “Of course, Lady Halkein. I would be… grateful for the company.”
“Then we’ll meet you in the foyer in, say, thirty minutes?”
Savoy nodded once and departed.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Trevor rounded on his sister. “Why did you suggest us going with her?” he snapped.
Victoria sighed, sitting up and summoning a pair of servants. “For the same reason I listen to chatter, dear brother.” She looked towards her serfs. “Find me an outfit for going out. Nothing ostentatious – something restrained.” She smiled again. “Simple, yet elegant.” The women hurried off to fulfill their mistress’s commands. Victoria looked over at Aarib. “You’ll wait here,” she purred. “When I get back, I’ll want some fun.” She tapped his chin. “Go find that page Lucas and be ready when I return. I always like watching you two.” Ignoring the flicker of hesitancy on her favourite’s face, the young invictus stretched luxuriously, looking at her sibling. “You should find something appropriate to wear, brother.” Her grin turned into that of the proverbial cat that had eaten the canary “The public awaits.”
The Garamond Gardens of Sacrifice were located where the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool had once stood. Rather than the much larger Memorial Garden, which commemorated the establishment of Garamond and the more general sacrifices of its construction, the Gardens of Sacrifice were a tribute to members of the Hegemony that had fallen in the war, both forerunners and primagen invictus. Even those sapiens that had fought for the Hegemony were remembered here, as a lesson that even the least of the human races could strive for something more.
It was a masterfully tended open-air arboretum, copses of trees selected from each continent, commemorations of every notable battle memorialized with plants from those regions. At each site a polished-smooth rock stood, engraved with the names of the Hegemony dead. Like the plants, these gravestones were hewn from the battlegrounds they commemorated.
The air buzzed with the insects drawn to the floral odours, butterflies, bees and flies all clustering around the blossoming flowers. Spring was only just beginning. There were a handful of people present – most were tourists and most of those were invictus, their familiar serfs or human vassals trailing behind in their wake. There were only a few familiars and even less sapiens, the latter watched carefully by security.
There were guards posted at every entrance, looking snappy in their clean uniforms, white trim on blue. The black leather of their belts, boots and holsters gleamed. To Alexandra, they looked like toys that had just taken been out of the box and never used. Nor were they meant to be used; they were there to look pretty and intimidating.
They’d never had to crawl through mud, blood and piss, to fight for hours on end until even their post-human physiologies were on the verge of collapse. She was struck by the urge to scoop up a handful of the rich, moist soil and throw it at them just to see it splatter all over those nice, clean outfits, but that would hardly be appropriate, would it?
A rustle of conversation followed Savoy as she travelled through the gardens, her presence noted and commented on by the other visitors. Heads turned, gawkers muttered and whispered. Her skin crawled. It was like she’d told that sapiens, Darren – they’d made her into an idol, a fetish. The Halkein siblings trailed behind her, Victoria smiling and pausing to shake hands and offer comments and good fortune, Trevor sulking along behind her.
Alexandra ignored them both, stopping at the markers from each of her battles. She had perfect recall; every name came with a face. Every face was matched by the vivid memory of watching them die, or seeing their sheet-covered corpse.
“Samantha Vane,” she said aloud. “Venice. An anti-tank rocket blew away her left arm, shoulder and most of the tissue on that side. She held onto her gun long enough to kill the Coalition trooper who’d shot her and two others.”
She stopped at another marker. “Rolando Vasquez. Rio de Janeiro. He was a Colombian mercenary. He threw himself on a grenade right in front of me. I spent the rest of the campaign with my armour coated in his blood.”
Another marker. “Jacob Xin. London. He was the first one in my platoon to kill a Knight. Its partner caught him. He just… ended at the waist.”
“Katherine Heisler. Johannesburg. When we deployed, she was in the pod next to me. The blast that knocked me off course killed her. Before I crashed, I saw that the only thing left of either her or her pod was bits of shrapnel.” Alexandra looked over her shoulder at the Garuda twins and, past them, the hangers-on. “Do you know what they all have in common?”
Victoria bit her lip and shook her head. “No.”
“They all died for you,” Savoy replied.
“They died for the Hegemony,” Trevor interjected. His sister flashed him a warning look, but he didn’t notice. “They didn’t die in vain. They brought glory to the primogenitors and ensured the success of their vision. All of these honoured dead did.”
Savoy rubbed a hand over her chin. She laughed, low and rough. “Is that how you remember it?” she said quietly, crouching next to the Berlin gravestone. She put her hand out, tracing along the names. “Glory. That’s what you’d tell some poor, dumb sapiens bitch who signed up with us to feed her family. You’d tell her that as she’s knee-deep in mud, screaming over and over and trying to hold her intestines in. She’s getting covered in glory.”
“Yes,” Trevor replied, stiff and haughty. “She would have died for the greater good, to ensure the supremacy and everlasting domination of her betters.”
“Oh,” Savoy said, rolling the syllable down her tongue. “Is that a fact.”
Victoria inhaled sharply as Lady Vipress straightened, turning towards Trevor. There was something in her expression that the Garuda only seen before in Sammael’s eyes. Even then, it hadn’t been like this. “Then you can tell me her name,” Savoy said quietly.
Trevor blinked in surprise. “Whose name?”
“I’ll make it easy,” Savoy purred. “The Battle of Corsica. That should help. What was her name? You must know; she died a glorious death, after all. You said that she was among the ‘honoured dead’, so you must know her name. What is it?”
The Garuda pursed his lips, his cheeks flushing red. “I don’t know,” he admitted through his teeth.
Alexandra stepped in front of him; even for an invictus she was tall. “No, you don’t,” she said. “How much glory did she really earn then?” She lowered her voice. “Be careful when you talk about the ‘honoured dead’ if you can’t so much as give them the names they deserve.” Her voice dropped lower still. “And never talk about the soldiers that fought and died next to me with that smug little grin on your face again.”
Victoria stepped forward, putting her hand on her twin’s shoulder. “My brother meant no offence, Lady Vipress,” she interjected before Trevor could do more damage. “He was merely attempting to articulate that all the losses of the war were for a purpose. I apologize that his efforts fell short of the mark, but I promise that no insult to any of the soldiers under your command was meant.
“We may not be familiar with every soldier or human auxiliary who perished, but we acknowledge their collective sacrifice. The struggles of your age were awash with horrors, but it was for a reason. It helped bring about this new order. We’ve brought peace and prosperity to what was once a world wracked by war, by racial and religious tensions. We’ve conquered disease and created a unified humanity where once there were only a thousand different groups, each threatening to tear everything part. To you, someone who fought through all the nightmares of the Final War, we must seem like we take much for granted. I suppose we are guilty of that at times. It is easy to concern oneself with the now when we have forgotten the cost in acquiring it. That is why House Garuda is so grateful to you,” Victoria smiled, slowly pushing Trevor back and stepping into his place next to Savoy. “Why all of us are.”
“You come from a time when the wonders we’ve made were only dream. You saw the cost of what we have now. You fought for it and saved us from extinction. You are a reminder of the responsibility we have, to honour each and every life that came before us, primagen, forerunner and sapiens alike. They gave their lives and we owe it to them to make sure that that precious gift is never forgotten. We must move forward to ensure that the legacy they gave so much for will flourish. You,” she took Savoy’s hands in hers. “Will make sure of it. We owe a debt to past generations.” She turned to her brother. “Don’t we?”
Trevor nodded. “Yes,” he said.
Victoria smiled, looking to the crowd beyond. She’d made sure that they’d heard her. “Don’t we?”
There was a rumble of assent, a smattering of applause and the Victoria’s smile widened. She turned back to Savoy, folding her arm into the taller woman’s. “Come with me,” she said. “I want to show you why you’re so important.”
“All of them?”
Victoria nodded. “You’ve asked why you haven’t met any of the other primagens. This is why.” She stood next to Alexandra. This part of the gardens were taken up by a single black marble wall, upon which was carved the name of every invictus soldier who’d fought in the war. Rather, almost all. The primogenitors had given their children many gifts; long life had been one such intended boon, but in Alexandra’s generation, that near-immortality had never been realized. The improvements which made primagens such excellent soldiers had also shortened their lives drastically. Very few of the war’s survivors had lived to see fifty. If she hadn’t been in cryogenic suspension, Savoy would have died with the rest of her generation. Fortunately for her, the flaws in her makeup had been accounted for when she had been woken up and she was undergoing treatments to ensure her life would be as long as any other invictus’s.
Alexandra knelt in front of the marker, her finger running along each name. There were so many. This was why everyone she’d asked about the others from her time had given her a non-answer. Maybe to spare her feelings, maybe to spare themselves if she reacted poorly. She closed her eyes, resting her forehead against the cold stone, taking a moment for her grief. Everyone she’d ever known was dead. “Are there any left?” she asked without looking up. She couldn’t imagine that there would be, not after all this time-
“Yes,” Victoria replied. “Just one.”
Savoy’s head snapped up. “I want to see them.”
Garamond Veterans’ Sanctuary was a combination hospital and care facility. The latter saw little use these days. In fact, they had only one permanent resident.
Patricia Jayne lay in her hospital bed, connected to life support machines via IVs and catheters. The enhancements that had made her a peerless killer had ravaged her body. She slept most of the days away, unable to do more than that. Sometimes she would tell the doctors and nurses that she wanted out of the bed, that she was going for a walk under her own power. Dutifully, they would disconnect and reconnect each bit of equipment as the woman struggled to stand on shaking legs. Sometimes she almost made it down the hall before she collapsed.
No other primagen had lived as long as she had; by medical logic, she should have died decades ago with the others, but somehow she had held on.
She was awake when Alexandra arrived, staring out the window at the green, sculpted lawns that she hadn’t set foot on in years. When she looked over at her visitor, she smiled, wheezing and struggling lift herself up. A familiar nurse rushed forward to help her, but Patricia snarled. “I can do it!” After a moment, she managed to sit up, lifting a trembling arm in salute. “Corporal Patricia Jayne, reporting.” Even that exertion was almost too much for her.
Savoy returned the salute. “At ease, corporal.”
Patricia let the nurse ease her back onto the mattress. “Took you long enough.”
“Bet those cunts never told you I was here,” Jayne interrupted. She waved in the general vicinity of the rest of the hospital. “Weren’t sure how you’d take it, I bet. Wanted to-” she coughed, taking a sip of water that her nurse lifted to her lips. “Wanted to make sure you wouldn’t pull someone’s head off for bringing you bad news.” She coughed again. “Cunts.” She smiled. “‘course it ain’t all their fault. After the war, we got a… reputation.”
An orderly bustled in a chair for Alexandra, vanishing just as quickly. “Or maybe you gave us a bad name, corporal,” Savoy said, sitting next to her former subordinate. “You always had a temper. Like that time in Budapest.”
Patricia laughed, started coughing. After a moment, the fit subsided. “Good to see you came out of the deep freeze with everything upstairs. I wondered about that, you know. Didn’t know whether it’d be better for you to remember or not.”
“I’m still not sure myself,” Alexandra admitted.
The older woman grunted. “I know the feeling.” She nodded up at the television screen hanging from the ceiling. It was muted, closed captions scrolling across the bottom. There was a news feed running, switching from stories about the next space launch, to tales of Coalition actions, to gossip about Savoy herself. There was a short clip of her getting out of the car outside the hospital’s grounds, just minutes old. “Camera loves you, though. More’n me.”
“The camera can go fuck itself,” Savoy replied.
“Heh. Remember Berlin? That snot-nosed reporter Command sent us as an ‘embedded journalist’?”
“Not one of my finest moments.”
Patricia rasped another chuckle. “You told him to get his camera out of your face or you’d fuck him bloody with it because,” she tried to imitate Alexandra’s voice. “‘We’ve got a war to fight’. And that ended up on the news, as an example of the dedication and no-nonsense attitude of the soldiers on the ground.”
“I remember an endless series of assholes who liked to quote that line when I wasn’t around and didn’t think I could hear them.”
“Or when you were,” Patricia smiled. “I think the only reason you didn’t shoot me that day was because the Colonel was there.”
“When he did that snort trying to keep his laughter in, I almost shot him.”
Patricia nodded. “Those were simpler days. Take the gun, point the gun, shoot the gun. We always had a target.”
“There’s still plenty of targets.”
“The Coalition’s nothing,” Patricia said. “Bunch of sapiens rabble-rousers holding onto a dead name, spray-painting buildings and setting fires. The war’s been over for ninety years. That’s what the talking heads say.”
“Wasn’t talking about the Coalition.”
“Careful,” Patricia said, raising herself up a touch. “They don’t like that kind of talk. I used to get visitors. Reporters asking for my opinion on anniversaries, memorial days and celebrations.” She waved towards the door. “Ain’t so many there now. This generation, they think they’ve done it all and made it to the top. They don’t like to be reminded about the climb.”
Alexandra nodded. “I caught some of that.”
“You? You’re the Hero of Johannesburg,” Patricia coughed again. “Not some bitter old woman too stubborn to die. You went from Hell to Heaven just like that,” she tried to snap her fingers. “They’re waiting for you to tell them how wonderful it is, how they’ve fulfilled the vision you fought for, that you should thank them with tears in your eyes for what a paradise they’ve created.” She coughed again, hacking phlegm into a container the nurse provided. “Cunts.”
Alexandra was silent for a moment. “I should have come sooner. I should have pressed harder to know about the rest of us.”
“Eh,” Patricia waved the comment away. “Don’t worry about it. You were recuperating and then they wanted to show you all the pretty little shinies without putting a damper on your enthusiasm. I’m still here, so it ain’t like you missed the chance. Fucking doctors keep trying to understand why I’m still alive. They think it’s their experimental treatment regimes, recombinant gene therapies and the rest of the shit they spent ninety years stabbing into me. Simple truth is, I was waiting for you. Couldn’t let you be the last one of us left among the rest of these cunts.” She sighed. “I lived a long time, LT. Too long with this. I’m glad you came back when you did.” She closed her eyes. “I’m tired.”
Alexandra took the other woman’s hand. She didn’t know what to say.
“I,” Jayne sighed. It took her a long moment before she continued. “I don’t think it’ll be too long for me now. I know I wasn’t your favourite squaddie, but I left you some things. Figured even if I couldn’t wait for you, they would.”
“Yeah, don’t get too mushy, LT.” Jayne closed her eyes. Another long moment passed. “You don’t have to come back. I know you’ve got that shiny new Midwest home that they gave you. I,” she paused, taking another sip of water. “Just needed to make my report.”
The nurse came up behind Alexandra. “She needs to sleep,” the familiar said, gently but firmly.
Savoy stood. “I’ll try and make it back before I go.”
Jayne nodded. “Don’t trouble yourself too much, LT. Just be careful out there. Make sure those cunts remember.”
“I will.” Alexandra turned to go, pausing at the door. “What does God need with a starship?” she said.
Patricia opened her eyes a crack, looking at her former lieutenant. For a moment, she was puzzled, then certainty set onto her features. “Nothing, LT. Nothing at all.”