Verona couldn’t sleep. She was too wound up from the excitement of the day, thinking too many thoughts.
Her bedroom was on the third floor, across the hall from Lady Vipress. Normally, she would have taken a place in the servant’s quarters until and unless Alexandra sent for her. It was… presumptuous to take a room normally reserved for one of the masters, but most of the mansion was empty. There’d been seven members of House Capricorn living here until the family’s rule of the Minnesotan Territories had been called into question and they’d returned to Garamond in disgrace. Now, all of the suites and rooms that would normally have housed invictus were empty. It was still presumption to take one of the rooms and Verona had been fraught with indecision over doing so. She wanted to be close to her mistress and as presumptuous as taking one of the upper bedrooms was, she knew that Savoy would have seen moving into the master chambers as worse. Still, she’d nearly talked herself into taking her bags back down to her room in the servants’ wing. Alexandra had seen her dithering just outside the room’s threshold and given her a wordless nod.
That approval had been enough for the familiar and she’d moved into the spacious quarters. She’d never lived anywhere so fine before, but even now she couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t belong, that this room wasn’t for her and that she shouldn’t be here. She had her mistress’s blessing – why did she feel so guilty, like she was doing something wrong?
She climbed out of bed, pausing in front of the window. It was made from the same type of privacy glass as the booths at the theater, allowing her to see out while preventing anyone from looking in. It was a clear night, the moonlight reflecting off one of the small ponds in the front yard, the stars shining down. She’d never seen the stars before, not like this. All the light from Garamond blocked them out and she indulged herself in enjoying their simple, unfettered beauty. She opened the window, inhaling the scent of grass and water as a cool night breeze wafted through her room. She lay back down, but after several minutes she found that she still couldn’t sleep. She’d explore the mansion, she decided. She’d already memorized the layout, but she hadn’t really seen much of it during the day. It would be a good way to burn off some nervous energy, if nothing else.
Verona slid on a pair of slippers on and opened the door, padding out into the hall. She didn’t get very far when she noticed the gleam of light coming from under the door that led into the master bedroom. Savoy was up as well. The familiar almost continued by, but something made her stop. She was only up because she was anxious and restless. Did that mean…?
She tapped on Lady Vipress’s door, but there was no answer. The familiar took a breath as she reached for the handle. The door opened noiselessly and Verona cautiously entered the room. The light was coming from the master bath. She could hear heavy breathing and she approached cautiously. Looking through the open door, she could see Savoy. The invictus was clad in a thin grey shirt and panties, both of which were soaked with perspiration and clung to her sweat-slick skin. Her scars stood out as angry pink cracks and blemishes. She had her eyes closed, resting her head against the mirror, her fingers holding tightly onto the counter, her chest rising and falling with deep, ragged breaths. She’d missed Verona’s arrival, but she sensed her presence soon enough and her eyes snapped open, her head whipping around, something savage in her expression.
Verona backed away. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have- I saw you were awake and I… I’m sorry!” she made to flee as quickly as decorum allowed, but a word from Savoy froze her in her tracks.
Verona turned back around, worrying her hands over one another. The ferocity in her mistress’s eyes was gone. “I didn’t invite you. Why did you come in?”
“I…” Verona struggled not to look away, her anxiety spiking. She was more than a little frightened.. “I was… I was worried.”
“I’m fine,” the younger woman lied. “You can go.”
Verona almost did. She’d been given an order by an invictus, by her mistress and she should obey it. Instead, she dared to ask a question. “Was it the war?”
“The… the dream.”
Savoy blinked, caught off guard by the familiar’s perceptiveness. “Yes,” she said at last. Verona took that as her cue to leave, but before she’d taken a handful of steps, the invictus spoke again. “Austria.”
“You mentioned Austria on the way back from the square,” Verona commented. Well, what Alexandra had [actually said was ‘it’s just like fucking Austria’, but Verona hadn’t understood the reference. She knew Austria had fallen to the Hegemony but other than that, she couldn’t have said what Savoy had meant.
“Did… did you want to talk about it?” Verona offered, wanting to come closer but still acutely aware that she should go as she’d been ordered to. All her life, she’d avoided the disobedience that landed other familiars and many sapiens into trouble. She’d always been complimented on her dutiful, respectful nature by other familiars and invictus, by Mr. Volker and her previous masters and the impulse to be proper and mindful of her place warred with the fact that she could see her mistress was in distress, even if Savoy wouldn’t admit it.
Alexandra laughed. It was ugly and rough and didn’t seem to match the invictus’s youth. “Why? What good would it do?”
That stung. “I don’t know,” Verona admitted. “I just thought… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have intruded.” She’d pushed more than she should have. She should have followed her impulse and she cursed herself for forgetting her station. She almost made it to the door this time.
“It took less than four seconds,” Savoy said. Her voice was hoarse.
Verona paused. “What did?”
The invictus looked up and her mouth was drawn back in a humourless rictus, made all the more macabre by her scars. “There were four of them,” she said. “They’d been caught plotting against the Hegemony, so Mariposa wanted to set an example. She had them executed and left their bodies to hang as a warning to rest of the city. That kicked off a series of riots. There were a dozen different mobs running through the streets. They were burning recruitment centers, pulling down banners, setting fire to the homes and businesses of ‘collaborators’. One of the mobs was headed for the square with the bodies. They were going to tear down the gallows. Mariposa sent my unit to stop them. She didn’t want her lesson interfered with. I’d deployed my other squads throughout the city to safeguard more vital areas. That left my command unit. Five of us. One hundred and seventy-three protestors.” That toothy, unhappy grin widened. “There were one hundred and forty-five casualties. Very few wounded. Most were dead.”
The sun was already setting when the crowd stomped into the town square. Many of them were carrying torches in their hands as well as an assortment of makeshift weapons including, of all things, pitchforks. Alexandra didn’t know where they’d gotten them from. Linz was known for its steel, not its agriculture. She was with the other four members of her command squad standing in front of the gallows and the four bodies hanging from the ropes there. ‘They refuse to learn,’ Regional Director Isabella Mariposa had hissed to Alexandra, pacing back and forth in her opulent office. “Ingrates and traitors. They think they can score some kind of a blow for their little rebellion. They won’t. My lesson will stand. Make sure it does, lieutenant.”
The mob was traipsing towards the gallows now, shouting and cheering nationalistic slogans and jeers in German. Alexandra couldn’t help but find that darkly amusing. With the fading sun shining into their faces, it took the crowd several moments to notice the five invictus. As they did so they faltered, their resolve wavering. “A curfew is in effect,” Alexandra’s voice boomed out through her helmet’s speakers, rolling through the square. “This is an illegal assembly. Return to your homes immediately.”
For several long seconds, it looked like they would. In their combat armour the five invictus soldiers were an imposing sight, but there were still only five of them. There were nearly two hundred protestors and the crowd did the same math. “Go back to Hell, you freaks!” someone screamed and a bottle arced through the air, shattering against Geoffrey’s left pauldron. The crowd roared and charged, bellowing curses. Rocks, bottles and other makeshift missiles pattered down around the invictus soldiers. Director Mariposa’s ‘lessons’ had angered the populace beyond rationality.
Alexandra shifted into a combat stance, bringing her rifle up. They’d had their chance. They wanted to die? Fine. She’d oblige them.
“Engage,” she ordered. Nearly two decades of training took over and the five invictus opened fire simultaneously. Bullets intended to pierce Coalition armour tore easily through clothing and flesh, each round going through two or three bodies before it finally stopped. The first ranks disintegrated as the men and women that made them up fell, turned into shattered, boneless ruins. The jeers of the crowd faltered, turning to shocked wails, but those in the back were still pushing ahead. The wounded and dead alike were trampled by their own comrades. The invictus continued to fire and more Austrians fell, the mob falling to pieces as its members died. There wasn’t enough time for them to realize what was happening and most died before they realized how badly they were outclassed, but a bare few had just enough time for their arrogance to dissolve into dreadful comprehension and terror.
In four seconds, there was nothing left of nearly two hundred men and women but ruined corpses and sobbing, bleeding wrecks. Alexandra listened to the cries and moans and her lips curled back in disgust. “Command, this is One-Seven-Seven Alpha One,” she reported in. “Threat neutralized. Objective secure.”
“Weapons,” Alexandra mused. “That’s what we were. They told us otherwise, but we were their weapons.” She grinned without any humour. “They told us over and over about glory and posthumanism and a thousand other pretty lies. At first, I almost believed them.” She looked at her hands, remembering with perfect recollection, the pattern of blood on them and the look on Lisander’s face just before she caved his skull in. Until Venezuela and Yuliana..
“Female one-zero-zero-eight decanted successfully,” Verona said, remembering Alexandra’s words at the theater. Try as she might, she couldn’t help thinking about that crowd. Two hundred against five. They’d never had a chance. Savoy had just described cutting down nearly a hundred and fifty civilians with as much affect as a farmer burning a plague-ridden field and a trickle of something wound its way through Verona’s spine.
“Yes,” the invictus replied. “Exactly. We weren’t leaders. We were soldiers. We weren’t meant to lead. We were supposed to conquer. We drowned nations in their own blood. That was our function.” She closed her eyes. So why can’t I get these thoughts out of my fucking head?
Verona looked over at the bed, the tossed sheets. She could smell invictus sweat in the air. It was a different odour than she was used to, not simply because it was lacking the pique of arousal that she was familiar with. Not strong or unpleasant, just… different. A primagen’s scent. Something that she’d never experienced before now. No one had.
…no one. A flash of insight struck her and she lifted her head. “It’s quiet here,” she noted. “You haven’t slept alone for a very long time,” she said, putting her thoughts into words. “I don’t mean with someone… I mean that there was always someone nearby… and now there isn’t.” She had exceeded propriety now, but she knew Alexandra wouldn’t punish her for asking a question. That certainty was indecently exhilarating. “Am I… am I right?”
The answer was a long time in coming, but Savoy nodded slowly. “Yes.” She’d slept in barracks, shared tents, in troop transports or on the ground next to her unit. There’d always been someone there. If not next to her, then close enough that she could hear them. Her brothers and sisters. Some, like Roberto, by blood. Some, like Jason and Patricia, by cause. She remembered with perfect recall the sound of Jason’s heartbeat as they’d lay against each other. One reminder out of hundreds of what she was fighting for. Her family.
“It’s quiet here,” she repeated the familiar’s observation. On the few occasions that she’d had her own quarters, there’d always been something. The rattle of air through the vents, the slosh of waves against a hull. Something.
She’d been given an order and Verona knew that she should follow it, but she also knew what her mistress needed, even if she wouldn’t admit it. The familiar climbed onto the bed, tucking herself into the blankets and making a space for Alexandra.
The invictus shook her head. “No,” she said. “I don’t-”
“I know,” Verona replied. “We won’t. Not until you say.” She bit her lip. “I’ll go if you want. But you can sleep and listen. It won’t be so quiet.” She looked up at her mistress, afraid of being rejected or chastised, but equally earnest in her desire to do something, anything that she could.
Another long moment passed before Savoy accepted the offer, sliding into bed next to Verona. She could hear the soft rasp of air through the other woman’s lungs and the lub-dub of her nervous heart, even the sound of blood moving through her veins. “What does God need with a starship?” she asked softly.
Verona thought for a moment. “I don’t see why He would,” she answered. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” Alexandra said, her eyes closing. “It’s perfect.” It wasn’t so quiet anymore. It didn’t take long at all before she drifted into a blessedly dreamless sleep, no longer alone.
Darren was tottering back to his own room in the servants’ wing, appearing more wobbly on his feet than he truly was, murmuring the words to an old song under his breath, but not so loudly that it would wake his neighbours. He’d been talking with the head mechanic, Alan Redford. There was a small passel of workers to tend to the estate’s cars and aircraft and if Darren was going to be driving the former, he wanted to know as much about them as possible. Redford was on edge – most of the former Capricorn sapiens were – but the mechanic more than most. He was unofficially in charge of the motor pool and that the previous chauffeur had managed to fool him for so long hadn’t reflected well on him. Nor had the fact that the woman who’d been executed had been his own god-daughter. Suspicion alone had almost made him the fourth body on the end of a rope. If Darren was ever found out, Redford would most certainly never work again, although Darren suspected that that would not be a problem for very long.
The mechanic wasn’t in the best of moods, but the bottle of scotch Darren had brought from Garamond helped with first impressions. It also helped that he was from the area. Or within a few hundred miles, but who was counting? Still, Darren had stayed on safe topics, getting the mechanic to talk about himself. He was up late working on one of his pet projects, restoring a pre-war car. Darren didn’t know vehicles, but Redford had himself admitted that the make and model was nothing special, but being pre-war was enough. Alan had a fondness for older vehicles. He’d restored two already. One, he’d made a gift to Lord Capricorn. It was sitting in a corner of the parking garage, left behind when the House had left the Territories.
“A toast,” the mechanic said. Both of them were well into their cups, but Darren held his liquor better than the older man. He also hadn’t had quite as much to drink. “To our new Lady. Long may she reign.”
Darren nodded. “A toast.” Their glasses clinked against each other.
Redford was quiet for a moment. He seemed to be staring through the bottom of his cup at the floor. “You knew the Lady from Garamond,” he said at last, swirling the last bit of drink in the bottom of his glass.
Darren nodded. He’d been anticipating this. “A little bit. I waited on her at the theater.”
“What’s she like?”
Ah, there it was. Darren thought for a moment. He remembered the first time he’d seen her. Dressed to kill, but looking desperately out of place, anxious and unsure amidst the crowd. The displeasure radiating from her as she stood in front of Otinder’s nephew. The softening of her posture when Verona nestled closer. The light of the rising sun on her hair as she waited to humiliate Mendula. A gene-bred killer that was the symbol of everything he hated and fought against, one who’d made this world a reality… and yet, he could never shake the memory of her bitterness and disgust. “She’s different,” he said, taking another sip from his glass. “Cut from a different cloth.” That much was certainly true. How different he was still trying to parse out.
Redford was silent for several more seconds. He was still staring into his glass. “If…” he began, stopped himself. Then he seemed to muster his courage and tried again. “If she’d been here earlier… Do you think we would have had that spectacle?”
They were getting into dangerous ground now. Darren had learned that ‘spectacle’ was that the locals called the public displays of punishment that Lord Capricorn and Director Mandula had favoured. “I think,” he said carefully. “That after the loss of the warehouse, our Lady would have dragged every sapiens in the city in for questioning if she could. I think she would have put each of them through the wringer until she knew who was guilty and who was innocent.” The bitch is an invictus and a Black Friday, a part of his mind whispered. Are you so sure she’d even care which was which?
He wasn’t. It wouldn’t surprise him one iota to see her put the barrel of a gun in a sobbing sapien’s mouth and set an example. But – and he hated to admit this, even to himself – he could see her examples being far less ostentatious than any other Vickie’s. And wasn’t that a perfect microcosm of how fucked-up the world was? A primagen might be more merciful than her descendants. “I think she would have taken the guilty, lined them up against the most convenient wall and had them shot,” he finished. “I think she would have done it herself if given the chance. But…”
“But?” Redford pressed.
“But I think that wall would be well out of sight. I… don’t think that you’d have had a spectacle.”
“Good,” grunted Redford. “That’s good.” He didn’t say whether or not his approval was for Savoy’s ruthlessness or her discretion. Darren didn’t push. The empty photo frame on Redford’s desk could, like his answer, mean antipathy towards traitors or grief at seeing what happened to a loved one. The conversation petered out after that. Too much honesty could be poisonous in this day and age. Hawke took his leave. There was still half a bottle of scotch left, there for the other mechanics.
He found his way back to his quarters, putting on the show for the watching security cameras and anyone who happened to be awake. Happy drunks were easy to ignore. When he reached his quarters, he washed up and slumped into his bed. It was surprisingly comfortable, a far cry from the lumpy mattress on a squeaking boxspring he’d had in Garamond. There was no camera here – at least none that he’d been able to find. Some lords and ladies felt that their serfs didn’t require privacy, but Capricorn had not had that particular failing. Still, the rules of the game still applied: always assume you’re being watched.
Tomorrow was a big day. He needed to get some sleep. Darren closed his eyes, letting his mind empty and shortly enough he drifted off to sleep. He dreamt of an unwavering gun barrel pointed at his head as a child’s cold green eyes stared at him, deciding his fate.