"The man who promises everything is sure to fulfill nothing…and is already on the road to perdition."
As he approached the door to one of the many Ludus Centers scattered across the main campus of the Dominion Stronghold, Sicarius took a deep breath.
It’d been two weeks since he’d seen Mistress Kathryn naked and demoted in Protium’s lab. She’d looked straight at him, even though he’d kept his gaze averted. Her words were cordial and professional, yet her tone was anything but.
She didn’t like him. This bothered him more than he liked to admit.
Before meeting her, his meeting with Orthus had seemed routine. “You have 12 weeks, lieutenant.” Orthus’s style of speaking never lent itself to objection or insertion of any other opinion and Sicarius was not one to negotiate terms. He’d left the Consul’s office that day feeling confident.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He could hear the borderline contempt in her voice.
He didn’t need her to like him.
He had a job.
Squaring himself, he stopped in front of the polished metal door of the training hall, narrowing his eyes and tightening his jaw. His short brown hair looked unkempt, but the rest of him was ordered to military precision. His Greys bore the plastic-scars of a dozen different battles, having seen hand-to-hand combat on multiple occasions during his tenure leading the Vanguard for the Dominion. His frame was solid yet agile, a build of a man who physically labored for a living. His gear covered him almost from head to toe, with only his face exposed. A faint, but still visible, scar ran down the length of his cheek on his left side, crossing over his stern and bright amber eye.
With one gloved hand Sicarius reached up and pulled his tactical goggles over his eyes, before pulling up the cowl of his uniform over his nose and mouth. Sicarius had never thought himself a good-looking man, but he always felt his best when in uniform. He looked dangerous and intimidating, exactly what he wanted to exude for his first day with the ex-consul.
He entered the room, his steps made no noise on the thickly matted floors. The ceilings were hangar-like. Threatening mechanical arms hung from rafters that stretched for hundreds of feet above him. By design, there were no windows in any of the Ludus, as the attention of the subordinates were meant to be focused on the instructor or the mission. The large space accommodated up to five hundred personnel, and it was currently at less than half capacity. The acoustics should have been impressive in such a theater, yet the quiet closing of the door behind him was the only noise he made. His company of Vanguard noticed and, standing at attention, planted their feet solidly in unison.
Sicarius could only see his team from the periphery as he made his way towards them. He smiled beneath his mask.
Sicarius scanned the crowd of three hundred Vanguard. His battalion was comprised of the best specialists, recruited from multiple planets and dimensions, some human, some not, their looks and abilities ran the gamut of what the Vanguard could possibly need. Most of the Dominion saw the Vanguard as disposable, the first wave of any planetary incursion was led by them. Whether it was infiltration, scouting, rapid dominance, or reconnaissance; they were trained to improvise, adapt and prevail in whatever situation needed. To Sicarius, they were the absolute best of what the Dominion had to offer – first wave or not. He knew it was through their efforts that the Dominion succeeded, and with their efforts they could save millions of Legion lives. Each of the faces of his battalion looked forward in complete discipline, expressionless, except for one.
The one that was missing.
“Kathryn Moore, front and center.” Sicarius’s voice boomed in the silence of the oversized dojo.
“KATHRYN MOORE, REPORT.”
There was some shuffling as a few heads turned to look for the disobedient pseudo-celebrity.
Sicarius’s jaw clenched and unclenched as he debated walking through the ranks to find her.
“Sir!” A voice came from the crowd. He recognized it as Da-Xia.
“Soldier?” He looked in her general direction as he hadn’t focused on her location yet.
“Mistress Kathryn has not arrived yet, sir.” He finally spotted her, her speckled and ridged skin shifting colors to get his attention. Da-Xia came from a dimension in which her species had evolved from a creature similar to an octopus. While humanoid in appearance, she was hairless, her body covered in ridges that defined her expressions and form. She had the ability to shift her physical structure and pigmentation to fit her needs. In this case, she needed his attention.
He lowered his jaw as he spoke, “VANGUARD. Our wayward new member is not to be referred to as Mistress. She is one of us now–” he paused for just a second, correcting himself, “…she will be one us.”
The commander nodded, “Da-Xia, drill them in Exterior Maneuvers, Alpha through Kilo.”
“Yes, sir!” The lithe soldier snaked her way through the few rows ahead of her to stand next to him.
Despite his annoyance, Sicarius kept his composure, waiting without movement as the ranks quieted down. While naturally soft-spoken, he had trained himself to lift his voice only when giving commands and his subordinates knew this. Speaking in hushed tones to the eager and serious brightly colored soldier now by his side, “I’ll be back when I can,” he told her.
“Yes, sir,” she responded, standing tall, shoulders back as she faced her comrades.
He turned, about face, and headed towards the door he had just came through.
He could hear Da-Xia’s voice carry through the arched hall. She barked her orders loudly, “VANGUARD. To the left of me will be Team Red,” as she said it, the semi-translucent discs of on their forearms and calves lit up, glowing a soft but distinct red, “To the right of the me will be Team Blue,” the other half followed in kind, their arms and legs now emanating a soft blue light, Today we will be-“
The door shut behind him.
Standing in front of her was a man she could have sworn she had seen before. About a foot taller than her, he had the distinct scent of minted soap that cut through the pungent smell of alcohol and revelry behind her. His face, while stern, had a soft quality to it. His eyes were just a little wide, but they were piercing and brightly colored, like a bit of amber lit from within, flecks of brown tickling the edges of his irises. His mousy brown hair was only a little disheveled, matching the pair of thick and earnest eyebrows. His disapproving stare was met with a shaven squared jaw that, the muscles in his neck and maxilla clenched, his normally full lips looked thin and grim.
“You’re late.” He said – his voice a pleasant tenor, but throaty, as if he avoided speaking loudly whenever possible.
“For WHAT?” Kathryn closed one eye as the hallway washed her in blinding sunlight.
“For your training with the Vanguard.”
Kathryn recognized him. Sicarius. Her new boss.
Flipping one of the grouped locks of hair away from her bare chest to behind her back, she smiled. She knew her nudity bothered him, “I’m not feeling well at the moment…sir.”
He didn’t break his gaze, “Report to Ludus 56 immediately.”
“I might be a while.”
The banging from the front door jostled her awake from her blissful half-dazed, half-drunk equilibrium. Heavy lids opened as she peered across the packed common area of her living quarters. She smiled lazily, seeing the bare backside of her new roommate, Ellius, lifted in the air, a naked man, maybe even a woman, beneath her. They were both passed out, their bodies still stuck to one another. Ellius’s cropped red hair blazed against the paleness of her own skin and served a great point of focus for Kathryn as she gathered herself. Dozens of others, in differing states of dress, were strewn across her dorm-like apartment; bottles of alcohol and packets of mind-altering drugs interspersed between furniture and flesh. One couple was still active in the corner by what was called, but couldn’t possibly qualify, a kitchen.
The banging on the door continued.
Kathryn ran her hand through her hair, detangling what she could. Reaching behind her on what could generously be called the window sill, she grabbed her cup. A metal and reflective material; she examined herself in its curved surface. The make-up she was wearing from the night had matted on her face, her smoky eye exaggerated from the evening’s activities. Lifting herself from the chair she had claimed as her own little throne, she waded through the mass of bodies towards the door. A few hands reached up towards her as she passed, caressing her bare flesh through the fog of inebriation, the ghost of the physical haunting them in their haze.
In nothing but a pair of synthetic shorts that clung to her curves, she looked around for her dress. It was back on the chair. Groaning, and unwilling to trek back, she took a quick drink from her cup, pulled her thick blonde hair forward, and swung the front door open towards her. The sound of the door cracking on a skull made her wince, until she heard the reply: “thank you mistress”. Laughing, she looked up through the open doorway.
“Yes?” Her voice came out clear, despite everything.
“You’re welcome to wait in here…” she stepped aside from the door, her hand waving to the scene behind her.
Sicarius nodded, unfazed, and walked inside her apartment.
Her brows furrowed, taken aback, unsure what to make of the man now carefully walking inside. He was careful not to disturb any of the sleeping, or not sleeping, revelers. Turning on his heel, he faced the door where she stood, her state of undress inconsequential to his agenda, “Shower and get dressed. The others are waiting.”
Kathryn answering the door to her new commander, Sicarius, ater her time off.
Kathryn downed her third bottle of water on the way to the Ludus, keeping silent as she walked. Her mind wandered idly as she ignored Sicarius. She’d left her apartment in a complete wreck, and she hoped that her roommate would be willing to clean up the mess on her own. Kathryn figured Ellius, ever the puritan, wouldn’t think to ask for help from some of their guests.
Sicarius was also silent, but she surmised that he was one of those ‘only speak when something is worth saying’ types.
They came to a halt.
“The Vanguard is a family – its mission is to the Dominion, but its duty is to each other. We look out for one another and we are responsible for every life in the Dominion.”
His amber eyes turned to look straight through her, “You may not take that seriously, Kathryn, but we do. And you will.”
In front of them was one of the largest Ludus she had seen, the training grounds overshadowed every other structure around it. The roof domed against the cloudless sky of the Dominion Homeworld, the supporting beams around it a testament to its sheer mass and durability. Unknown to most of the Dominion ranks, Kathryn knew that Ludus were meant not only to be used as training grounds, but also as defensive shelters. Overseer had always been precautious about his city planning and these monstrosities were meant to house and shelter entire swaths of the capital’s civilian population.
They walked in silence again for a few feet until they reached the entrance. At the door Sicarius rested a single gloved hand on her shoulder.
She flinched, brushing him off.
“I was just going to say, it’s not going to be that bad. You are a well-respected figure here.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, grabbing the door handle and yanked it open.
“I’m a person. Not a figure.” She said over her shoulder as she walked through the entry.
Sicarius smiled as he saw the Vanguard, two hours later, still in the throes of their exercises, Team Red with the upper hand.
“Give us the aerial advantage, Kathryn.”
She looked up at him, disinterested.
“That’s an order.” His even voice belied a small twinge of excitement that he felt over being able to order someone of her previously-held status.
She lifted her right hand to shoulder height, arm outstretched, palm up, fingers splayed, not breaking her eye contact with him, the air around them vibrating and buzzing as they both lifted off the ground with ease. She kept them rising until he gave the signal to stop.
They stood, suspended in air, as they watched the Vanguard in their maneuvers.
The environment around them shifted at random, as holographic projectors cycled through terrains, climates, natural debris and disasters, challenging the battalion and their team leaders to modify their tactics to each of them accordingly. They were adept at adapting.
They watched as one hundred members broke through a tree line, charging forward against a smaller regiment, the extra number of bodies helping them dominate the encounter. They observed mostly hand-to-hand combat, with a myriad of blade work on display. Some blue-lit bodies seemed to bounce off a dome-like shield of energy at the core of the smaller Red regiment, protecting a handful of the seemingly fallen team.
“That didn’t seem very hard…” her voice came almost on cue for him.
“Wait for it.”
He knew that would intrigue her. He knew she was a natural tactician and she had never seen what the Vanguard was capable of. His command was shrouded in intentional misinformation, even from the Castra of the Dominion Intelligence Agency. Kathryn had spent years making decisions based on projections, analyzations, and streams of data. It had been far too long since she’d seen or been in the thick of the action.
She leaned forward.
Without warning, the shield of energy protecting the smaller regiment, shuddered off. The source of the technological disruption came from the center of the battle, in the heart of the remaining Red team.
“Why would they shut their own shield off?” Kathryn said aloud, almost rhetorically. Sicarius didn’t respond.
One soldier manned a device half his size, his arms blazing Red. Kathryn wondered if it was a betrayal and he was a plant for Blue team. But the thought was cut short as an abrupt flash of light revealed Red’s remaining forces who en masse immediately and ruthlessly engaged with the initial Blue one hundred assault.
“Is that localized Jump technology?” Kathryn’s mouth hung open as she watched.
“Protium won’t give us the fancier weapons, so I had one of our guys make some adjustments to one of our Jump Anchors.”
For the first time since she had met him, she genuinely smiled, her eyes fixated on the battle below them, “That’s amazing, so do your implants serve as propellers?”
“Vanguard don’t have implants,” he nodded at her, acknowledging her own lack of active Jump clearance, “As Overseer put it, we are the first of what a new people will see of the Dominion. We are natural, as nature intended us to be. So, for Jumps, we’re relegated to the old-school gates.”
He lifted his chin, directing her to look at the small archaic device propped up in the distance.
“Those were discontinued. You know why, right? They have no return command. It’s a one-way trip.” She said as she began to lower them back to the ground, her interest now on the external, dated tech in use.
He shrugged, “It’s never stopped us before.”
She looked at him, her mouth pinched to one side evenly, a single, well-manicured eyebrow raised.
“You’re not Castra or Mistress anymore, Kathryn. But I know what you’re capable of. If you give us a chance you can thrive here.”
Her face was turned away as he spoke to her, but he caught the end of her mouth curl on one side as she flicked her wrist, dropping him from about fifty feet.
He landed easily on his boots, crouching with the impact, rushed to by three soldiers, their team designations turned off, who had come to his aid.
She floated above him, smiling cruelly to herself before that smile turned to a look of shock as Sicarius ordered a dampening field in the Ludus and she fell, unceremoniously, from the same fifty feet. Sicarius tried not to enjoy the look of panic in her eyes, knowing one of her new colleagues would catch her.
Her savior was massive, twice the size of Orthus, skirting eight feet, and twice as broad. His skin was a pale red with his eyes resembling that of a cat, a textured golden with slit-like pupils. Strong cheekbones made it look like he was perpetually squinting or smiling, “Do not worry, Kathryn, I will keep you safe. I welcome you to the Vanguard. My name is Sutu.”
Sutu, the protector, could always be counted on to recover any missing or injured Vanguard. He was especially adept at helping the vulnerable due to his species’ ability to control their own body temperature with phenomenal precision – from lowering fevers triggered by infection to cauterizing wounds. His enormous size simply also allowed for more straight forward, physical, methods of protection.
Another approached, a lithe and attractive man with blonde hair tied up in a bun that almost matched her own. He stepped towards Kathryn and Sutu, extending a hand in her direction. His green eyes giving nothing away of his feelings, “Samuel. Munitions.”
Kathryn awkwardly shook the hand before looking to Sutu, “Put me down.”
The large man complied, and the recruit composed herself before re-shaking Samuel’s hand.
Another voice spoke, “Next time, try not to kill our commanding officer. We know how little you care for life.” Da-Xia’s split-pupil eyes looked through Kathryn and it unnerved her. Before, as Consort, that tone would have been punishable by her whim. But now, with her willful disregard for the lives of the men and women of the Dominion so publicly known via her demotion, she was left without recourse.
Without pretense to her words, Da-Xia kept her hands at her sides, “So is it true that you slept with both Consuls to get next to Overseer?”
Sicarius had been unsure as to how the dynamics of Kathryn’s supposedly well-bred background would fair against the rank and file of the Dominion. According to the records, she had spent her entire residency with the Dominion by Overseer’s side. She had been hand-picked, enhanced, and coddled. For all he knew she was some blue-blood from a far-off dimension that the Dominion harnessed to avoid all-out war. Whatever the truth of her background was, she wasn’t going to reveal any of it to her new colleagues. Curious as he may have been, he respected her privacy enough to stop that line of interrogation by signaling to Da-Xia to reign herself in.
He watched as Kathryn’s eyes moved from person to person – gauging, appraising, and assessing.
She ignored Da-Xia’s question and leaned onto Sutu, clearly the friendliest of the bunch, and focused all her charm on him, “Thank you so much for the warm welcome, and I’m sure there’s no way I can remember everyone’s name here,” she motioned vaguely to the masses in the distance, “Sutu, was it?”
Sutu beamed, he always beamed, “Yes, Mistress.”
“No, Sutu.” Sicarius corrected him.
The giant, rusty-colored man frowned, “I am sorry. We are not allowed to call you Mistress anymore, Kathryn.”
She grinned up at him, a dazzling smile that would leave most people unguarded, “Nonsense, my dear. You can call me Katie, if you like.”
If Sutu had been beaming before, he was exuberantly shining now, “Katie!”
Sicarius couldn’t help but admire her survival instinct.
“Sicarius…sir,” she said, “Could we please speak in private?”
In the back of each Ludus was a sitting room. Usually used for recuperation or small naps between training, her new boss closed the door, making theirs a private meeting. The room was bare, marked only by a few cots, a couple of benched tables, and a small kitchenette. The walls were an off-white smooth coated material that shined in the overhead.
As the door shut, she began her case. Pacing slowly around the room methodically choosing her words to be both casual in cadence but serious in content.
“Listen, Sicarius, I feel that we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. I’m not here to hurt or fight anybody…”
Sicarius sat down at one of the tables, his elbows resting on the surface, his shoulders hunched as he leaned in to listen to her.
“I don’t think anyone is questioning the fact that what you guys do here is important...”
She watched as he kept silent, his facial expression blank and empty, his eyes on her as she spoke.
“We both know that I’m not going to be here that long.”
His face continued to give nothing away.
“You said so yourself out there. The Vanguard are natural. And, while many parts of me are natural,” she intentionally motioned to her body, the Greys hiding little of her natural assets, “Humans can’t fly.”
She continued, "I think it’d be in BOTH of our best interests if we just let me do my thing until I figured out how to…get back to where I belong.”
He said nothing.
“Because I don’t belong here, we both know that.”
She sat down directly across from him, sliding her legs under the table.
Still. He said nothing.
“I don’t…belong here,” she re-emphasized.
He took a steady breath in before replying; “Yet.”
“What?” She looked at him, confused.
“You don’t belong here, yet.”
She rolled her eyes, “I can do much more for the Dominion if I’m allowed the freedom to get things back on track.”
“You mean back on track for you.”
“Yes.” The word was stated matter-of-factly, as if she was relieved he was on board.
“But that’s not back on track for the Dominion.”
“Kathryn, I get it. Three weeks ago, I’d be literally bowing to you, and here you are having to take orders from me. It’s not a pleasant position to be in.”
Her lips tightened as he explained.
“But this is the situation you are in, and I have to follow through on my orders.”
She smiled, leaning over the table, tilting her hips to one side to allow the accentuation of her figure. Lowering her chin, she looked up at him through her lashes.
“I can think of more pleasant positions to be in, and we could always just say you followed through with your orders…”
“And what?” Sicarius seemed unamused, but she persisted.
“Well that’s entirely up to you, darling…” she had crawled onto and across the table to him, catlike, her body inching closer to his.
Sicarius sat as still as a statue.
“You killed seven hundred thousand Legion.”
She stopped, the mischievous glint in her eyes suddenly guarded.
“You do not value any life but your own…”
Kathryn began to shrink back down to her seat.
“You are here to learn the value of each life you lost.”
Her jaw clenched, and she nearly bit her tongue to keep herself from screaming the truth at him.
“I know you don’t think what we do is important. But it is.”
“So there’s really nothing I can offer y—” she started.
“I have a responsibility to my fellow Vanguard and ultimately, to the Dominion.” he said.
Kathryn caught her breath, he stopped her, “Whatever you are going to say, you are going to regret saying it. Nothing is going to change. You are here. My mission is to integrate you into the Vanguard. You have twelve weeks to learn our ways.”
There was a deep and penetrating silence between the two. Kathryn searched his face before, breaking the quiet.
She sat back, crossing her arms over her chest, and leaned back far enough to look down the straight bridge of her nose at him.
“Why do you care about what the Dominion wants? What do Overseer’s plans have to do with you?”
He blinked, “That’s neither here nor there…”
“No it’s here, your answer’s just not,” she said, “You’ve bought into all this and think that your pathetic little life somehow means something to the greater cause. Well, guess what, little assassin?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Your life doesn’t mean shit. The Vanguard doesn’t mean shit. You’re a low-ranking officer in a machine meant to dominate and rule the next planet, the next system, the next dimension.”
She couldn’t tell if her gambit was working, so she pushed even further, “You’re replaceable. Each of your little buddies out there? They don’t mean shit, either. You cling to your Vanguard and Dominion creed in some way to make your life less meaningless. But it’s a self-delusion. When you’re dying on some random planet, and you look back at the waste of life your existence has been, you’ll know I’m right.”
She expected to rattle him with her little speech. But he continued to be unmoved.
“Kathryn, believing in something outside of one’s own selfish interest isn’t meaningless, it’s meaningful.”
It was her turn to look at him blankly as he proselytized.
“The Dominion isn’t some mindless machine. Overseer isn’t some ruthless tyrant. He is a benevolent caregiver. He liberates planets. He saves people.”
She blinked at him, slowly, with purpose, during his testimony.
“I know because I help him do it in my own little way. Every world the Dominion claims, we rid of famine, illness, war, suffering, and of need. The Dominion are peace bringers. My death, all our deaths, are for the greater good.”
Kathryn realized she wasn’t going to be able to persuade him to her needs. An evangelical is an evangelical, no matter the flavor.
“Without knowing that, it is you who is without meaning. And you won’t be able to meet the requirements we’ve set for you.” he said.
“Really?” she replied, before pausing, sighing, and continuing, “I guess you’re right. I don’t really know that. And my selfishness has brought me here to learn that.”
He smiled, “Do you mean that?”
She allowed her smile to blossom, but only sheepishly, to sell it.
“Twelve weeks, right?”
“Yes. The Dominion’s next Jump is into Dimension Chi Four. We’re the first wave. Orthus has specifically required you to be part of the Alpha run.”
“It’s the first Dominion eyes into a new dimension. We don’t know if Chi Four is a habitable planet or dimension, it could be a one-way trip. All we know is that it has Deltria.”
Internally, she was screaming at the idiocy of it.
“Then…if I die furthering the Dominion, that’s a life well spent…”
He nodded, “We’ll see if you actually believe that.”
It had been two months since her private conversation with her commanding officer, and if Sicarius hadn’t believed her commitment then, she had to think he believed her now. Statistically, of which he had no reason to know this, it takes someone ten weeks to make a lifestyle change of any kind, philosophical or otherwise. She still had two weeks to go. But, again, he didn’t know that.
Her unit was engaged in yet another Manuever. Instead of evenly split with the rest of the Vanguard, this was a specialty training session, with a small group against two separate contingents – one offensive (Red) and one defensive (Blue), while her unit played both sides against one another. Always looking for an edge, and exploiting whatever resources they can, the Vanguard decided to form new tactics around Kathryn’s abnormal talents. In this case, her ability to fly.
With her arms back behind her, she sped across the changing terrain, staying close to the tree line as possible. Her knees felt the whip of new growth from the treetops reaching into the sky towards the light. She knew the trees weren’t real, but they felt real. As real as the mixing Blue and Red lit pursuers behind her, their lights peeking through the branches as they closed the gap.
“Kat, stop dawdling, hit the Echo quadrant and drop the payload.” The mind-voice of Da-Xia was transmitted to her temporal lobe via an external communication piconet cell. Placed behind her right ear, the device allowed for team communication without breaking silence protocols. It was one of the few gifts Protium granted to the Vanguard.
“You can’t milk the customer on this one, Kathryn, and we’re not your pimp.” Kathryn only ever vaguely understood
Da-Xia’s metaphors, it was such an awkward mixing of human colloquialism and alien practicality. She knew she was trying to insult her and despite the words, she could tell by their shared thought processes that the woman meant for her to get on with her mission. There was no benefit in arguing, and Kathryn knew it wasn’t their responsibility to save her.
“If I don’t lose this tail the payload is as good as wasted. They’ll just knock it out of the sky.” Kathryn thought back to her teammate in clear succinct thoughts. She was confident in her assessment because Samuel had briefed her on what weapon the other two teams would have. She knew she would now need to land inside the drop-zone itself to guarantee their target would get the maximum force of the explosive. They had to destroy that shield.
“Can we find me a gap in the shield’s resonance that I can get passed?”
It was hard, guarding her mind in such a way that the Vanguard members couldn’t read into her beyond the superficial she wanted them to know. She kept her defenses up always, never dropping the facade of full-recruit.
Despite her fall from grace and auspicious start with the Vanguard, Kathryn had acclimated well to her new life. It consisted of meals with Ellius before spending the evening reading Vanguard logistics and, what she believed to be, propaganda, was occasionally punctuated with meetings with Sicarius. But every night was ultimately spent sober, alone in bed, and passed out from sheer exhaustion. This wasn’t a just a job, it was a lifestyle, and they trained seven days a week.
“Hold.” The whole team could feel Da-Xia making the calculations, “Plug these coordinates in: 32X, 173Y, 50Z, it cycles every 15 minutes and you have less than 2 to get there.”
“Sam, can you assist?” Da-Xia couldn’t help but play mini-commander, and she wasn’t half bad at it.
“On it.” Said Samuel’s.
When looking back at the enemy behind her, Kathryn saw multiple flashes of light through her Vanguard goggles. She still wasn’t used to wearing anything that covered her face, but she had finally stopped trying to rub her eyes. They were tactical, defaulted to night vision, and provided a screen-up, head mounted display. They provided her with a supply of information from velocity, track, maps, heat signatures, to her communications. She had quickly seen the advantage to wearing them during their skirmishes.
Still soaring over the treetops, she saw her target.
“Oh right, sorry.” If she could convey the sorry being in air quotes for sarcasm, she would have.
As she moved closer to the Echo quadrant, she asked idly in her mind, “Okay, so why can’t we use drones for this?”
Because drones lack the ability to adapt to new situations. Sicarius always thought directly to her, never to the group, and she didn’t know why.
“Just get in there and drop the payload, Kat.” She could feel Da-Xia’s frustration in her thoughts.
“Kathryn.” She replied.
Without warning, the treetops turned into an inferno, columns of fire shooting into the sky as the winds whipped around her violently, trying to throw her off-course. She hit the brakes, her sudden movement jostling her hair bun, stray strands flying about her face. She didn’t have time to fix it.
“This is why I prefer to be bald.” Da-Xia said…playfully?
“When you’re able to fly into a fucking forest fire, you can shave my head.” Said Kathryn. As serious as she was, everyone on the comm line laughed.
Breathe. Sicarius’s mind-voice was annoyingly calming to her. She had grown accustomed to his steady, nearly mono-tone style of speaking and thinking. Whenever she would get frustrated during training or sparring sessions, his lack of emotional reaction and even tone would lure her back into a state of calm. She wasn’t sure if this was just her natural response to him or her more manipulative instincts simply mirroring his mannerisms back at him.
Looking forward, she saw the opening she was waiting for on the screen-up. There was a massive clearing amongst the now-engulfed forest, the flames were licking at the edges, causing a semi-transparent energy field to light up in response. Her goggles calibrated to show her the energy waves comprising the shield, bright ribbons of multi colored energy swirling around in a dome-like shape, much like thee surface of a soap bubble. Amongst the iridescent curls on the would-be surface, there was distinct dark spots, some large, most of them small, and the one closest to her that she could fit through had already begun to shrink.
“I’m going in.”
“Think it, don’t say it.” This time it was Samuel.
I’m going in. She had thought it to Sicarius.
Be careful. He responded, directly to her. It was comforting to know he was with her.
She narrowed her body as she flew, bulletlike, through the defensive opening, her incendiary device on the ready as she rolled into a tactical landing, only to launch right back into the air. If she did her job, the explosion would happen just as she reached the apex of the defensive dome, allowing her to escape, unscathed. If she did failed…
She ‘heard’ cheering in her head, one of them confirming, “ARMED!”
Don’t count. Just breathe. Her commander’s voice braced her.
Her body shook as the explosion went off, the concussive force warning her of her plight if she didn’t get the hell out of dodge.
Faster. He ordered her.
I’m going as fast as I can!
“Kat, you okay?” Da-Xia’s mind-voice sounded as distressed as it could by human standards.
Kathryn felt the explosion at her heels and she cursed Protium for a moment, knowing she could have easily outrun the damn thing if she hadn’t been powered down.
The heat nipped at her ankles.
Fuck. She couldn’t tell if that was her thought or his.
Her screen-up showed her where the barrier used to be, it was now gone, the explosion having done its job, but she just couldn’t get there fast enough.
She listened to her commander. Clenching her teeth to the point she thought she was going break them, she accelerated, pushing her regulator as far as she could.
Kathryn escaping the explosion from inside from the Ludus
As the mushroom cloud of debris began to retract behind her, she blacked out from the exertion, her limp body falling to the ground, quickly reaching velocity.
“I got this, boss.”
Sutu used his own screen-up, though on a wrist device, and calculated her coordinates.
Tossing a gate down on the ground, Sutu Jumped to her general location. It was never an exact science, and he recalibrated with his device. Charging at seven and a half feet, his immense stride got him to her faster than anyone else could have.
Cushioning her fall, he let his legs bend to absorb the impact as he caught her, his body cooling to temper the heat she gained from both the explosion and her descent.
Sicarius’s voice came across verbally to his entire battalion, “Exercise End.” At his command the holographic field destabilized, revealing the boring planes of the Ludus Center.
Sicarius walked to one of his gate operators and directed them to dial in Sutu’s coordinates.
Sicarius had always hated Jump technology. While effective, it was crude and violent to the traveler. He could endure a lot of pain but feeling his body begin to dissolve and rip apart at one location only to be mashed together again in another, it always made him nauseous and weak. And, while local Jumping was bad enough, dimensional Jumping was even worse. Orthus, whose own scientific acumen was questionable, had once attempted to explain the mechanics to Sicarius. From what he understood, Jump technology forced the traveler to temporarily exist in the fourth dimension. Since humans are not fourth dimensional creatures, their three-dimensional essence and form is disemboweled, the very molecules its composed of turning inside out as there is nothing supporting it in that plane. The only reason the traveler doesn’t experience immediate death is due to Deltria, whose properties allow the bearer to exist between planes. He was sure there was something more to it, but he hadn’t the background or clearance to understand or know.
He rematerialized a few feet from where Sutu had last geotagged.
The large grey alien held the petite blonde carefully in his arms.
“Is she okay?”
Sicarius tried to not sound too worried.
“I am unsure. I haven’t asked her.” Sutu answered.
Sutu was special. Not the brightest of the bunch, he had an ability to take orders that was unparalleled. It was what his species was initially designed for. The Dominion had not exploited that during their reign on his home world, but sometimes it just couldn’t be avoided, especially from a commanding officer.
“Katie, are you alright?”
Long lashes fluttered opened and cerulean colored eyes focused at the sound of her name, her lips curled into a smile at the sight of Sutu.
“If I’m in your arms, darling, I must be doing just fine.”
“She’s okay, sir!”
She came to in the familiar surroundings of the Ludus Center, more so in the ensuring arms of Sutu, her savior.
Are you okay? Her commander’s words were felt more than understood.
She turned her head away from Sutu’s chest to look over at Sicarius, a concerned look on his face, “I’m fine.”
Materializing nearby, Da-Xia and Samuel both came towards them, uncharacteristic smiles on their faces, “I think you’ve earned the beans tonight,” her speckled teammate boasted.
Kathryn brows furrowed as she tried to make sense of Da-Xia’s words, “I thought beans were bad?” The only other time Da-Xia had brought up beans was when she was insulting her, and she called her ‘a bean without nutrients’, in which she loosely interpreted as ‘you are empty with nothing of value to offer’, but she wasn’t sure on that.
“You did surprisingly well. It was very quick evolution out there.”
“Quick thinking, Da-Xia, not evolution, but close,” Samuel corrected. The soldier, normally stoic and statuesque was also smiling, “That was really phenomenal, Kat. We should celebrate.”
She turned her head upwards a bit, still nestled in Sutu’s arms, “How are you even smiling, Samuel?”
He continued to smile at her, “How about we do drinks?”
“Do you guys even drink? I died, right?”
“You can’t die in a simulation, Kathryn.” Said Sicarius. She had meant it as a joke of emphasis, but Sicarius almost always took things at face value.
The ex-Consort looked up at her commander, “So will you be joining us for drinks tonight then… sir?”
“Maybe. I have a lot of paperwork to do.”
“Ugh, I do not miss the paperwork,” Kathryn winked at her boss, “You can always find us if you finish early.”
She nudged Sutu to let her down and he accommodated, placing her gently on the matted floors of the Ludus. She dusted herself off and straightened her uniform, “So, where are we going?”
“We have a couple of hours.” Da-Xia replied, “Why don’t you check in with medical, we’ll send you the name of the place a later.”
“That will give me a chance to change,” Kathryn looked down at herself, drenched in sweat and debris, her uniform singed, “If you flake on me…” she raised an eyebrow at her teammate.
“I will be there.”
Kathryn turned her gaze towards Samuel.
“I’ll be there too!”
Turning on her heel, the wisps of hair framing her face now wrapped around her, her cheeks still flushed from the exercise, she stared up at Sutu, “Do your people drink?”
“No, Katie. But, I will be there to join the celebration.”
Still a bit dubious, Kathryn began turning towards the main doors of the Center, “So…I’ll expect to hear from you in an hour or so?”
“Unless you tell us otherwise.”
She nodded, headed out the door. Despite her duplicity, she had come to like the people she worked with and worked for. She just wasn’t one of them, and she couldn’t ever be one of them. But she did enjoy pretending.
She’d always enjoyed roleplaying.
“Who knew the great MISTRESS KATHRYN MOORE could slum it with us!” said Da-Xia as they raised their nearly empty glasses above their heads, varying degrees of inebriation affecting her, Samuel, and the ex-Mistress in question.
Samuel, who was about six cocktails in and never looser, grinned drunkenly at the two women, “I don’t think we need to be reminding her of her lowered status, Xia,” he blinked, one eye at a time, “Can’t we just enjoy the fact that we FINALLY got a mission complete?”
“What do you mean finally?” said Sutu, sober as a priest, “We came from a severe deficit, not only did we have an untrained team member, but we were also outnumbered and outgunned.”
Kathryn stood up, her red halter top matted to her skin from perspiration. Her teammates apparently, so unused to going out, hadn’t even changed. Anyone but Kathryn would have felt out of place amongst the uniformed crew, but she always shined as the center of attention.
It had been months since she’d a drop of alcohol and her tolerance had plummeted, “Outgunned?” She lifted her right arm, flexing, her bare skin glistening in the shallow lighting of the bar as she winked at her teammates, “Speak for yourself.”
She promptly fell back onto Sutu, her foggy mind thinking herself hilarious.
“Kat, I think you’re drunk.”
“Samuel. I am drunk.”
“I think we should get you home.”
“Okay!” She stood up enthusiastically at the idea, “I just need to use the facilities first!”
“Don’t take long!” Da-Xia said, her voice raised to reach the near-stumbling Kathryn.
“I have never understood why inebriation effects volume control so much,” Sutu could be heard saying as Kathryn headed to the back of the establishment.
She was only gone for a few minutes, but when she came back her table was empty. A moment of panic struck her and she sobered up a bit.
“Did they leave?” she asked the bartender.
“Oh yeah, almost as soon as you walked away.”
Kathryn frowned. She had thought the evening went well and that they had bonded over the silliness that alcohol brings, but apparently, she was wrong. She thought at least Sutu, of all people, would have guaranteed that she make it back to her apartment safely. But even he was gone.
Still a little dejected, she resolved herself to get going. The Dominion had an excellent public transportation system, and one she had come used to using after her demotion. During her two weeks of leave she had tried to fly home drunk, a much harder endeavor than even walking home drunk She paid her tab with credits, a pedestrian activity she’d never had to deal with until now and walked towards the transport station. She turned the corner of the street and peered down an alley, singing to herself the lyrics of an unknown song from an unknown past.
Shadowy figures blocked her path only a few hundred feet from the brightly lit transport station. While the Dominion maintained a near perfect low-crime statistic, it was only near perfect.
“I’ve had a good day…” Kathryn idly pleaded with the would-be muggers, her body beginning to sober up in earnest with a renewed supply of adrenaline as her fight or flight instinct triggered.
Eyes widened, she looked at the shadowy figures, easily able to deduce them as her teammates.
Without warning, the three descended on her.
Fists landed squarely on her body, knocking her back and forth, her head and body lashed around the alleyway, blood spewing from her mouth with each successive blow. The crack of a rib is such a unique sound from the crack of a knuckle. A breaking rib sounds like a stepped-on branch in the quiet of a forest, while a knuckle made a barely audible crunch, the sound often buried in the impact. But both were sounds that Kathryn was familiar with as she felt her body buckle under the assault of her colleagues. She could feel the blood vessels in her face burst at the flurry of blows, her orbital bone shattered in a haphazard punch from one of the men. She could only tell it didn’t come from Da-Xia due to the grunt it elicited.
“Seven hundred hits…for every thousand that died because of you.”
She couldn’t tell whose voice it was, all she knew was that she was thankful she had been drinking. It numbed her, but she could still feel each bone crushing blow. She knew if she survived it, she’d feel it in earnest whenever she woke up.
As her body began to go limp, a literal punching bag of broken bones, burst blood vessels, and bleeding wounds, she collapsed onto the filthy alleyway ground.
Her eyes were swollen shut, blood and tears flowing as she barely clung to consciousness.
Kathryn confronted: Sutu (left), Da-Xia (center), Samuel (right)
The onslaught stopped at the command.
She thought she recognized Sicarius’s voice before she blacked out.