Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Travels with the Phoenix Queen
an Exile - Twilight - Future Imperfect - Dìqiú adventure
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2013-2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Table of Contents
Friday, February 2, 2221
Arteira system, Terminus sector
Outwardly, the only really peculiar thing about the Kowloon-class freighter drifting in the outer reaches of the Arteira system was that it was drifting in the outer reaches of the Arteira system. This was not exactly one of the galaxy's best-traveled areas; Arteira was uninhabited and not on any of the major hyperspace routes. The only regular traffic the system saw was the routine visit from the Royal Astrographic Society's survey vessels, as that august organization carried on its endless cyclical survey of the known galaxy, and that happened no more than once every ten or twenty years.
As such, today might well have been the busiest day in the history of the system, since there were not one but three starships within the heliopause today: the freighter, a United Galactica Navy Patrol Command vessel, and now - arriving in a flash from its miniature spacefold drive - one of the Wedge Defense Force's Broadsword heavy bombers.
Standing at the freighter's portside airlock observation port, a woman in the uniform of a UG Navy commander watched the Broadsword maneuver alongside and lock on. She had never seen one of these ships before, and she regarded its lines with a professional interest. They were called bombers and carried on the WDF's tactical TO&E alongside such other light spacecraft as starfighters and attack ships, but they were really small gunboats - a more liberal spacecraft taxonomist might have called them corvettes - with a crew of five and heavy weapons for their size. So adaptable had they proven that they were used for all sorts of tasks, both by the WDF and the Royal Salusian Navy - including the capacity this one was now serving in, carrying a fast-response investigator to the scene of an anomalous shipwreck.
A few moments after the Broadsword finished locking on, the airlock ran through its short pressure-on-both-sides cycle, and the inner door opened to admit a single individual in a grey-and-blue WDF field uniform.
"Commander Hutchins," said the UG officer, saluting. "Commander Bryce Tarquini, UGS Chasseur."
The man she was addressing - stocky, brown-haired, faintly in need of a shave - looked slightly bemused to be addressed with such formality, but his return salute was respectable as he replied,
"Pleasure to meet you, Commander Tarquini. What've we got?"
"We received an EPSRB transmission at 0231 hours this forewatch," Tarquini replied, nodding for him to follow her into the ship's interior. She pronounced it as a series of individual letters, as was the fashion in the UGN; in the WDF they'd have said "ep'serb". Either way, both officers knew it stood for Emergency Positioning Subspace Radio Beacon, the standard locator technology for starships in distress these last two centuries and more.
"Chasseur responded at best speed; we were on the scene by 0944," Tarquini continued. "We found this vessel drifting, powered up not under way, and unresponsive to hails. After making fast to the starboard entry port, my executive officer and a standard distress response team effected entry at 1017."
At least she didn't say "made ingress", Gryphon remarked to himself with an inward wry smile. Tarquini was a young woman to hold the rank she held; assuming she had a normal human lifespan, he would have guessed that she was in her mid-twenties, no more than five or six years out of San Francisco. She had the dark hair her surname implied, drawn back in a severe French braid, and was already developing a frown line between her dark blue eyes; clearly she took her job as one of the UGN's patrol captains very seriously. Gryphon made a mental note not to joke around with her. She was probably being as formal as she was because his reputation, and WDFers' generally, had preceded him.
As such, he didn't interrupt to tell her that she could save the precise details for her after-action report to her own Admiralty. Instead, he just kept quiet and let her get on with it.
"Lieutenant Makra and her team found the ship void of atmosphere," Tarquini reported. "They made emergency repairs to one of the pressure bulkheads to render the vessel safe for further investigation, which took approximately two hours."
"Quick work," Gryphon remarked, restraining a perverse urge to ask her to be more specific about the repair. No doubt it would be timed to within a minute in the eventual report.
"Thank you," Tarquini replied. "As you no doubt know, damage control is among the Patrol Fleet's primary tasks when rendering aid to a starship casualty."
"Subsequently, we were able to determine the ship's name and port of origin. Her identity transponder code resolves to the CanVar Carrier, belonging to CanVar Industries, an independent freight haulage firm out of Omega." Tarquini glanced at him, cracking the first hint of a smile she'd shown. "So I think we both know what that's worth."
"Quite," Gryphon agreed.
"We would probably have been able to work our way through the layers of obfuscation on top of that record by now anyway, but as luck would have it, we didn't have to," Tarquini continued. "Lt. Makra was able to ID one of the bodies from personal experience, and a genescan of the remains confirmed it." The UGN officer paused before the closed hatch to the after cargo hold, turned, and looked Gryphon in the eye to take in his reaction as she told him, "This is the Blue Harvest."
The Wedge Defender did not disappoint; both his eyebrows went up in surprise. "Vandal Carondan's ship."
Tarquini nodded. "The same." She keyed the hatch.
"What's old Vandal doing way the hell out here?" Gryphon wondered rhetorically, and Tarquini showed him another flash of dark humor as she swung the hatchway open and replied,
"From the looks of things, finally biting off more than he could chew."
The after hold, revealed by the opening of the hatch, was a shambles. It looked like a pitched firefight had been waged down here; burn scars and streaks of blistered thermocoat marred every flat surface in the compartment, and what few containers of cargo there had been were smashed, overturned, and/or melted outright. The deck was strewn with tools, weapons, and a half-dozen corpses, all men, human or humanoid. On the far side of the compartment, an emergency patch panel marked PROPERTY OF UNITED GALACTICA NAVY, braced with hydraulic struts, covered an entire section of bulkhead.
In the center of the hold was a large piece of machinery whose purpose was not immmediately apparent. It looked a bit like a biosculpt or crystorage tank, a clear cylindrical tube about six feet long by three in diameter, leaning back at a 30-degree angle in a metal cradle and surrounded by hoses, pumps, and other vaguely-ominous-looking machinery. Large tanks stood on either side of it, but they bore no markings to indicate what they might contain. The tube itself was empty, its base gaping open above a shiny-worn metal chute that led straight to an opening in the deck, though this was presently blocked by a hatch that showed signs of having been installed by hand.
Gryphon advanced into the room, his face thoughtful, and regarded this curious apparatus for a few moments.
"I'm not sure what that is," Tarquini admitted, sounding as though the confession pained her slightly. "We're looking into it."
"It's called a vitrifier," Gryphon said. "It's used to enclose volatile or delicate cargo in a durable transparent containment medium."
Tarquini raised an eyebrow. "What, like clear carbonite?"
Gryphon nodded. "It's called crystallite," he said. He checked the control console standing next to the tube. "Probably used fairly recently... supply tanks are empty." He considered the handbuilt hatch in the floor. "Whatever they sealed with it might still be down there."
Then, discarding that train of thought for the moment, he turned and crouched next to one of the bodies. It had been that of a human male in late middle age, scar-faced and white-bearded. Now, sprawled full-length on the plasma-scorched deck with his hands outstretched like claws, he was fully and unmistakably dead.
"Well, Vandal," Gryphon said, his voice quiet and not unkind. "What did you get yourself into this time, hm?" Then he peered more closely at the corpse before looking up at Tarquini. "He didn't die in the fight, he's been spaced."
Tarquini nodded. "Only three of the bodies we found have obviously fatal battle injuries," she said. "The others all died when the ship lost hull integrity. The fight was probably over by then." She nodded toward the braced bulkhead patch.
Gryphon rose, dusting off his knees, and regarded it. "They must not have noticed how badly compromised this panel was until it failed," he said.
"There are signs that they were busy with other matters," said another voice from the far end of the hold, and another woman approached them. This one wore a UGN EVA excursion suit, sans the helmet and gloves, having evidently not bothered to change after restoring the Blue Harvest's air supply. Her spacesuit's shoulder pods bore the stripes of a lieutenant. Slightly older than Tarquini, she had dusky skin and bleach-blonde hair, cut very short, and her face wore a slightly sardonic little smile as she saluted.
"Lieutenant Corinna Makra," she introduced herself. "You must be Gryphon."
"I must," Gryphon replied, returning her salute a trifle less professionally than he had Tarquini's.
"I've just been down in the orlop," Makra reported. "You guys have gotta see this, skipper."
Too intrigued to bother remonstrating with her exec for displaying this informality in front of the Distinguished Visitor, Tarquini followed Makra to the back of the hold and down a narrow companionway with Gryphon right behind her.
"When we rocked up on this scene initially," Makra explained, "we thought there were no survivors, but we were wrong. There's one. Barely."
She led them through a twisting passage threaded amid the guts of the ship, in places so narrow that she had to turn sideways to get her spacesuited shoulders through, and then out into a cramped, low-ceilinged compartment. This was nominally part of the ship's machinery space, not meant to be inhabited for any length of time, but in his day, Gryphon had known the operators of starships like this one to use it as anything from a punishment cell to super-cut-rate steerage accommodation to a sort of quaternary cargo hold.
On the Blue Harvest it was dominated - almost filled - by a single bulky object, which stood in the center of the tiny room and gleamed softly under the harsh overhead glowtape. At the sight of it, Tarquini pulled up short with a gasp, her hand dropping automatically to her sidearm.
It was a column of some transparent material, like glass or very clear ice, with roughly the same proportions as the empty tube on the cargo sealer Gryphon had explained upstairs. That was, perhaps, not so surprising. She had paid attention to the path Makra had led them on, and knew they would be directly beneath that apparatus. What was sealed inside the column, though... that was surprising, surprising enough that Tarquini had nearly drawn her weapon at the unexpected sight of it.
Gryphon didn't seem surprised, though. His face was grave and thoughtful, as it had been when he regarded the machine. He walked slowly up to the cylinder, gazing at what lay sealed within it, and placed his left palm against the clear surface without seeming to be entirely aware he was doing it.
"Of course," he murmured softly, his voice almost inaudible to the two UGN officers. "Vandal, you son of a bitch, of course you did."
The item inside the crystal column was a woman - well, a girl, really; apparently human, probably in her mid-teens, petite and athletic. She wasn't looking her best. For one thing, she'd been shot; there was a livid, bloody wound low on her left side, the blood frozen in weird ribbons around it, as if in a still frame of diffusion in water. For another, she was dressed in the ragged remains of what looked like they might have been rich garments once, and her long, coal-black hair was disordered, part of it escaping from an elaborate knot high on the back of her head, her long, centrally-parted, face-framing bangs in frazzled disarray.
Even so, there was no denying that she was beautiful. Even smudged with the grime and soot of a recent firefight, her white skin was clear and porcelain-perfect, her facial features - composed in the artificial solemnity of unconsciousness - delicate and pleasingly regular. Her eyes were closed, so there was no telling what color they were, but she had long, dark eyelashes and her eyebrows, in contrast with her hair, were perfectly groomed. The nails of her long, elegant fingers were short and practical, but neatly manicured. Recent hard times or no, this was plainly a young woman who was in the habit of looking after herself.
"You said she's alive?" Tarquini inquired.
Makra nodded, gesturing to a status display fused into the cylinder near its base. "In stable hibernation. She'll need a medic stat when she's thawed or she's liable to bleed out from that GSW, but everything else looks nominal."
Gryphon paid the byplay little mind; he was still standing with his palm against the crystallite column, gazing intently at its contents. "How did someone like you end up here?" he inquired softly, almost under his breath.
"... Do you... know her?" Makra wondered.
Gryphon blinked, as if surprised to be addressed, then looked away from his contemplation of the girl's face and shook his head at Makra.
"No," he said, "I've never seen her before. But I know what she is. Or rather, why she's here." He turned to Tarquini. "Vandal and his crew must have decided to try their hands at 'decorating'. Have you heard anything about that in PatCom?"
Tarquini shook her head. "No," she said.
"Well... you know how bounty hunters like to freeze their captures in carbonite, to make delivery easier? The usual thing is for the client to thaw out the captive after delivery, and then proceed to... whatever the next step is going to be. Judicial proceedings for the legitimate authorities... other stuff for the underworld boss types."
"Right. That I know about."
"A few years ago, it suddenly became fashionable in underworld circles to just keep their victims carbon-frozen and... display them. Like bizarre objets d'art. It started with the Hutts, we think, but nowadays all the best lowlife kingpins are into it," Gryphon added with grim sardony.
"That's some sick shit," Makra said.
"It gets better," Gryphon told her. "And by better I mean worse. The next weird twist was that certain enterprising scum started catering to that market directly - which is why they call themselves 'decorators'. They're going out and bagging complete strangers, people who don't owe the bosses money - who have nothing to do with anything - just because the decorators figure they'll make pretty wall hangings. Problem is, carbonite isn't much to look at in itself, and it obscures a lot of detail." He put a hand against the crystal column again. "Crystallite, on the other hand... "
"OK, I take it back, that is some sick shit," Makra said. "So this girl... whoever she is... was destined to be some Hutt's paperweight?"
Gryphon nodded. "Something like that."
"I guess it beats being a concubine," Makra said after a moment's consideration, "but only just."
"What happened, then?" Tarquini wondered. "Did someone storm the ship trying to rescue her? If so, why isn't there any sign of them? If they were killed, we should've found their bodies, but there's no one on board who isn't a known associate of Carondan. And if they lived, why didn't they take her with them? This compartment isn't exactly hidden."
"That's the other thing I wanted you to see," Makra told her. "I found a retrofit security surveillance computer down here. It's got camera feeds from all the holds. Why they installed it down here I couldn't tell you, but you're not gonna believe this shit."
The three of them barely fit into the tiny room abaft the orlop, where the security console had been rather haphazardly installed. Tarquini was put in mind of her academy days, when the perennial collegiate fad of stuffing public commo booths had come back into fashion. Rammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, the three stood before the console's display and watched the playback Makra cued up for them... and what they saw banished any thought of their cramped, uncomfortable surroundings.
The Blue Harvest had not been stormed from without by anyone, trying to rescue their unwilling cargo or otherwise. Rather, Vandal Carondan and his crew had discovered to their dismay that not every pretty teenage girl in the galaxy is as harmless as she looks. The sensor logs only went back a few hours, but it was evident from the scene when they began that the "decorators" hadn't frozen this one when they first acquired her. Probably they had assumed there would be no need, or they'd been hoping they'd get a higher bid for an unfrozen specimen. Instead, they'd locked her up in one of the larger containers in the after hold, rigged up as a makeshift cell.
Which had probably worked fine for a while, but by the time the surveillance holo's buffer began, it had plainly ceased to work at all. As that evidence showed, Vandal's latest find had taken violent exception to her situation - and, contrary to the old miscreant's expectations, she'd had the chops to file her grievance in the most forceful style possible.
"You know, I always hoped in the back of my mind that someday, one of these assholes was going to target a vacationing Kryptonian or something and get exactly what was coming to him," Gryphon mused as, on the screen before them, the dark-haired girl demolished the three biggest, toughest members of Vandal's crew.
"Guess you got your wish," said Makra.
"Mm," Gryphon agreed absently.
An adept martial artist, evidently pyrokinetic, and so stratospherically furious that her gas-flame-blue firebolts melted bulkheads, the girl had shown Vandal's crew exactly as much mercy as she must have expected from them, which was to say none at all. There was no sound on the recordings, so they couldn't hear what she was saying, but she'd obviously been speaking - or more likely shouting - as she threw herself headlong into battle against the outlaw crew. Presently it appeared that she had even begun to enjoy herself a bit: By the time the second of Vandal's enforcers had fallen before her, she was smiling. It was a hard, cruel smile, the smile of someone indulging a long-cultivated taste for rough justice, and it had more than a slight edge of mania in it. Gryphon found it disquieting, particularly on a face like hers.
Eventually, though, her luck ran out, or perhaps she got a bit sloppy. Vandal himself was the one who finally stopped her. Gryphon recalled that he'd always been a dab hand with a pistol. Then, in a near-frantic hurry, the pirates dumped her into the vitrifier and froze her. Gryphon chuckled darkly and shook his head at that.
"Vintage Vandal," he muttered to Tarquini's questioning glance. "Even under those circumstances, he was still thinking about the bottom line. Damaged and dangerous is worth less than intact and docile, but a corpse isn't worth anything at all."
"You almost sound like this guy was a friend of yours," Makra remarked dryly.
"Hardly," Gryphon replied. "But he was an old, old enemy."
On screen, the freezing process finished. The automatic mechanism had just delivered the crystallite column to the orlop and closed the hatch behind it when one of the damaged bulkheads, just visible off to the right of the shot, gave way.
"The rest... goes pretty much like you would expect," Makra said, stopping the playback before they had to watch Vandal and his crew suffocate.
"Well," said Tarquini, backing out of the room - there was no space to turn around - and then turning to regard the crystal-frozen girl. "I guess we'd better treat this as potentially hazardous cargo."
"Based on what we've just seen," Gryphon said thoughtfully, walking slowly around the column with his hand trailing across its smooth surface, "I suspect this young woman needs medical help on a couple of different levels."
"I wonder who she is," mused Makra.
"We'll find out when we get her back to Earth," Tarquini said. "Unless you want to take her to the SDF-17, Commander," she added, sounding as if she didn't think it was likely.
Gryphon regarded the girl in the crystal column for a few more moments, then shook his head.
"No, she'll get the best care on Earth," he said. "I don't have a problem releasing this case to you guys. I'm curious, though. Keep me posted."
Tarquini nodded. "Will do. Thanks for checking it out."
"It's what we do."
To: Cmdr. Benjamin D. Hutchins (gryphon!wdf.mil.zc)
Subject: Blue Harvest
Date: Friday 16 Feb 2221 10:19:23 -0000 GST
I almost titled this message "sons of bitches!", but I thought that might fall into your spam folder, especially coming from an Outer Rim anonymizer address. Corinna Makra here, from the Chasseur.
The Naval Strategic Intelligence Office took the Blue Harvest case away from us! As soon as we got back to Spacedock and Bryce filed her report, we had the men in black coming out our asses. They took all the logs, intercepted the salvage on the ship itself, and whisked the mystery girl in the glass pillar away without so much as a thanks-for-all-your-effort. We're under orders not to mention the matter to anybody, especially you. My ass would be in a pretty big sling if they found out about this message, but you know what, screw 'em. Goddamn suits. Most of 'em wouldn't last five minutes in a real space posting. You know what they say, those who can, do, those who can't, join the secret police.
Bryce just about hit the ceiling. I was outside her ready room and heard her reading the guy from SIO the riot act, but you know how those guys are, butter wouldn't melt, he's just like, "I assure you, Commander Tarquini - " Assholes! On her own ship! Captain, if you please! I digress, sorry, pretty drunk - "I assure you, Commander Tarquini, we're putting our top men on this case. TOP. Men." I didn't stick around for the next part, I figure that was probably about when he would start threatening her, and if I had heard that there would have had to be a fight, and then I'd be in the brig instead of on leave getting snockered in a Glasgow pub. So there's probably gonna be a fight anyway before too much longer.
Anyway, don't be offended when you don't hear from Bryce bout it, she's a much lawer-abiding citizen than I am. Orders are orders, amiright? Some days I wish I had joined the WDF even though my momma warned me about you guys.
Speaking of which, my momma warned me about you. You wanna go out sometime? I'm on leave until next Saturday, assuming I don't end up in the hospital tonight.
Gotta go. Some dude's giving me the stinkeye over in the corner and I think I'ma go see what the hell his problem is.
This message anonymized by SAMIZDAT.ORT the Outer Rim's favorite privacy service!
I: The Stone Bridge
Wednesday, June 17, 2336
Karafuto, Rigel Sector Co-Prosperity Sphere
It was typical of Sir Victor Creed's open-handedness that he would not only take his niece, Laura Kinney, to spend a month among the mountains and hot springs of Karafuto's rugged Shikuka district, but also insist that her particular friends Mairwen Porter and Rhian Lewis should come along if they wished, and not concern themselves a bit with what it might or might not be costing him. Sir Victor was a wealthy man, and besides, he found it such a delight and a relief that Laura had particular friends, he would gladly have gone to much more preposterous expense so that they could vacation together.
Karafuto was one of the Rigel sector's most obscure and remote colonies, a "back-to-basics" sort of place, settled by people from Japan and her first-wave colonies who sought a simpler sort of life than could be found closer to Earth. The Karafuto-jin didn't shun modern conveniences like some of the seriously retro societies - they had electric lights, computers, the latest medical technology - but theirs was a way of life that gave preference to the traditional. In dress, in manner, in folklore and custom, the people of Karafuto deliberately and for the most part successfully hearkened back to pre-spaceflight days.
In such a setting, Laura and her friends stood out like palm trees in a pine forest. Of the three, petite and raven-haired Laura was probably the least noticeable, but little blonde Rhian was plainly a foreigner at any distance and redheaded Mairwen, who at fifteen was already more than five feet, nine inches tall, was more obvious still. They weren't letting it bother them, though - particularly Mairwen - and the locals, after a day or two of puzzled reservation, had been charmed by their cheerful directness almost to a one. Laura was the only one of three who spoke Japanese - quietly, precisely, with no discernible accent - but Mairwen did most of the talking anyway, and if most of the people she was talking to couldn't understand a word she was saying, many of them seemed to enjoy the cadence of her Snowdonian lilt all the same.
For their part, the three girls were greatly enjoying their vacation - even Laura, though her response to it, as to virtually everything, was a very quiet and contained sort of satisfaction rather than the transports of rapture her friends occasionally experienced. All three were members in good standing of the Llanfair Regiment of Girl Guides of New Snowdonia, one of the most active of the planet's famously venturesome Guide regiments. By training and inclination, they enjoyed rugged wildernesses, craggy peaks, and all the rest. This part of Karafuto was, Rhian had declared with delight, "like Llanfair with decent weather," and the three had spent most of virtually every day exploring the wilderness around the resort town where they were lodging, often enjoying the novel and exotic sensation of hiking without being rained upon.
It was the middle of their second week on Karafuto when Laura met the little boy. He was sitting on the stone bridge over a stream, partway up the area's biggest mountain, Shikukayama, when Laura arrived at the bridge. He was perhaps seven or eight years old, old enough to be surprised by the appearance of a stranger on the trail, but not old enough to be dismayed or suspicious. He looked up at her approach and said,
"Hello," Laura replied, nodding. She stopped in the middle of the span and looked around. Then, evidently satisfied, she brushed a few pebbles away from a spot at the bridge's edge, not far from where the boy sat with his feet dangling above the stream, and lowered herself into seiza in the space she had cleared, neatly arranging the folds of her utility kilt about her.
The boy regarded her with the vague amazement many of the local children had shown toward the visitors from New Snowdonia. Too young to attach any baggage to the fact, he found her beautiful and intriguing in exactly the same way he'd have though it of a cloud or one of those cool rocks with the sparkly crystals inside. He had never seen a girl dressed in camouflage clothing or wearing military-style boots before. She had a yellow neckerchief knotted at her slim throat and a dark green beret on her head; on the right shoulder of her battle-dress-style tunic, there was a patch representing a flag he'd never seen before either, green and white with a depiction of a red creature that might've been a dragon.
"Are you a soldier?" he asked.
She turned her head to regard him with calm eyes of a remarkably clear jade green, then replied, "No."
"Oh. ... You look like you're wearing a uniform."
"I am," she said. "I am a Girl Guide."
The boy looked puzzled. "What does that mean? Do you guide girls? Or is it just that you're a girl who guides? And what do you guide people to?" He went a little red. "Sorry, am I bothering you? Are you here to meditate or something?"
Laura shook her head impassively. "No. I am waiting for my friends."
"Oh." A pause; then the boy offered pensively, "My dad says I ask too many questions."
"Your father's assertion is a reflection of his tastes, not objective reality," said Laura. "I do not mind. To answer your earlier question, a Girl Guide is a member of an organization dedicated to the promotion of healthy living, self-reliance, and the cultivation of useful life skills in young women." For the first time, she smiled very slightly. "That is a quotation from the handbook."
"Oh," said the boy. "I'm Toru."
"I am Laura."
Another pause, this one faintly awkward, at least on Toru's part. The boy seemed about to say something three or four times, but each time he looked away instead, fidgeting. Laura was not the galaxy's most adept judge of human emotions, but she suspected he was dismayed about something that had nothing to do with her - a suspicion that was confirmed a few moments later, when he suddenly blurted,
"They're taking her away."
One of Laura's eyebrows arched slightly. "Who is taking away whom?" she wondered.
"The other foreigners. The mean ones. They're taking away the glacier girl."
Laura looked more intrigued, for this was the second time in as many days she had heard that name.
II: A Bathtime Story
Now, listening to Toru tell her about his encounter with the surly strangers farther up the mountain, Laura felt a sensation that was still new to her, less than a year into what she considered her life as an actual human being: intrigue.
"They say they're archaeologists from Earth and they just want to study her, but I saw some of the stuff they had with them," Toru said. "If they're just going to look at her, what do they need those saws for? They're going to take her away and put her in a museum or something. It's not right!" he protested. "She's not theirs."
Laura considered this, then nodded.
"No," she said. "She is not."
Then, rising smoothly to her feet, she dusted down her kilt and said, "Toru, will you do me a favor, please?"
"Uh, OK," said Toru.
"Do you speak Standard?"
"Sure. Sort of. I mean, we study it in school... "
Laura seemed to think that was good enough. "My friends will be here in sixteen minutes," she said, and Toru wondered how she could be so precise about it without even looking at her watch. "You will not mistake them; they are gaijin like me, and they will be dressed very similarly." Toru nodded. "Please wait here and tell them that I have gone to look into this matter, and that they should leave it to me for the moment. I will return to the inn by 1800 hours this afternoon. If I do not appear by 1830, then they may come and look for me. Can you remember that?"
"What time is 1800?" Toru wondered.
"Civilians call it six o'clock PM," Laura explained, "but my friends are also Guides; they will know what it means."
"OK. I can do that. You'll be back by 6 and if you're not back by 6:30 they should come looking."
"Correct. Good." Laura smiled fractionally, then nodded and set off up the trail toward the Western Col.
III: Some Quick and Shocking Violence
Without having to moderate her pace for any companions - Mairwen and Rhian were in excellent condition and experienced hikers, but they lacked the almost limitless physical endurance Laura enjoyed - it took her less than an hour to climb to the entrance to the north spur, where the offshoot of the Shikuka Glacier that contained the Witch was reputed to lie. Shortly before she reached it, she slipped automatically into tradecraft, leaving the trail and making a stealthy approach by a circuitous route. This habit, long ingrained by the rigorous training that had taken the place of her childhood, showed its grudging value once again, as she immediately perceived the pair of guards standing where the trail entered the mountain notch.
Those are no archaeologists, she remarked grimly to herself as she observed them silently from a safe distance. Archaeologists, in her admittedly limited experience, did not carry heavy blaster pistols, nor wear light body armor. She supposed they might be hired guards, brought along because the dig team feared trouble from the locals, but her instincts told her no. These two, a man and a woman, were mercenaries of a different, more highly evolved clade. Not freelance guards of the type that would be hired by scientists worried about hostile natives, but hardened soldiers. Hired killers.
Laura could have eliminated them in a number of different ways, quietly and without alerting their colleagues, but it was easiest and safest just to bypass them and carry on. She didn't know yet that the situation actually called for violence. Not too long ago, that wouldn't have mattered to her, but then, not too long ago, she wouldn't have been interested in this business at all.
She carried on deeper into the col. Presently she found herself on a small ridge overlooking the glacier's face. Down there perhaps 20 feet, a group of people had set up a small base camp - portable shelters, a small fusion generator, the works. She watched for perhaps half an hour, getting an idea of their numbers as they came and went from the shelters and worked at setting up their equipment by the face. Three of them: one human, one Salusian, and a man who appeared to be a) a Zregdan and b) in charge.
To her mild surprise, Laura recognized him from a mass of underworld dossiers she'd once been required to memorize: Lefortovo "Lefty" Szoroda, slaver, purveyor of illegal substances and restricted technologies, and sometime pirate. A non-affiliated utility player in the criminal continuum of the Terminus sector, with known associates in the Blue Suns and Eclipse mercenary syndicates.
Szoroda and his team had already completed much of their work before Laura arrived. Using saws and thermo-axes, they'd cut back a section of the glacier's face, removing a ragged block with the unmistakable shadow of a figure within it, which now lay horizontal on the ground in front of the breach. Now, based on fragments of their conversations she overheard, they were trying to work out the best way of transporting it from the site to wherever their ship was, so as to minimize the possibility of running into any more nosy locals.
Laura wondered whether this was something she should really be getting involved in. What was happening down there was clearly a crime. The United Galactica might be gone, and its replacement still uncertain, but the Co-Prosperity Sphere had its own laws about antiquities and local rights to same, and these people were plainly engaged in - at the very least - grave robbing, if not archaeological plunder. Was that, though, something Laura needed to concern herself with? No one was in danger here, apart from the corpse of someone who had been dead for... well, at least a century; she doubted that the legend of a previous civilization was actually true, but the legend went back to their innkeeper's grandfather's childhood, if not further.
She was just about to start making her way back out of the col, with an eye toward returning to town and informing the local constabulary, when the entire calculus of her decision suddenly changed. One of the guards from the end of the trail walked into camp, dragging a small, struggling form along with him by the arm - Toru.
"It's that kid from before," the guard explained to the faintly incredulous Zregdan. "He tried to get back into the camp."
"So you thought you'd help him out by escorting him here?" Szoroda asked acidly. "How thoughtful of you."
"No," the guard explained patiently, "but when I told him to get lost, he said he was going to tell the local cops. He saw more of the operation when he was here before than you thought."
"Ah. That changes things." Szoroda hunkered down to regard the guard's captive. "That wasn't a very smart move, son," he said conversationally. "I'm afraid you're going to have to stay here as our guest until we finish our work now, so you don't cause anybody else to interrupt us. Don't worry, though. Once we've got what we came for, you'll be free to go. It doesn't matter to us if you tell everyone what we did once we're done doing it."
"You can't take her away!" Toru protested. "She doesn't belong to you!"
"Yeah, well, she doesn't belong to you either, and I'm bigger," Szoroda replied casually.
Then, straightening up, he turned and put a hand on the guard's shoulder, leaning toward him. What he said into the armed man's ear was inaudible to Toru - would have been inaudible to anyone with normal hearing apart from the guard - but it was as plain to Laura as if she'd been standing in his place:
"Take him to the spoil heap and grease him."
It was, Laura thought, truly remarkable how often other people were willing to help her make these decisions.
Another thing that had lately changed about Laura's way of working was that she now gave some consideration to the reactions of onlookers. In the old days, if she had involved herself in this matter at all, it would have been to strike as fast and hard as possible, applying the maximum available force so as to get the job done in the shortest time. How an eight-year-old boy might react to seeing her slaughter these people would not have entered into her calculations at all.
Now, though, she hesitated for the barest of instants before launching herself into action (all the time it took to reformulate her battle plan), then leaped down from her perch with her bionic blades undeployed. The boy was still going to see some quick and shocking violence - there was really nothing she could do about that - but she would at least do what she could to keep the blood spatter and potential for dismemberment to a minimum.
The way the "archaeologists" reacted to her attack did much to confirm her suspicions when she'd sighted the first two guards. These people were mercenaries of a fairly high order. They were fit, had proper training, were well-equipped.
They stood no chance.
The one Szoroda had instructed to deal with Toru fell first. With Laura dropping from the top of the ridge squarely onto his shoulders, he went down without ever realizing what was going on, as she essentially used his shoulders to break her fall, and then his face to break his. The Zregdan sprang back, uttering a surprised profanity, and reached for his weapon, but Laura had never stopped moving. She rolled off the crumpled guard's shoulders before he'd even finished hitting the ground and came up fighting, seizing Szoroda's gun arm at the wrist and applying torque.
He was pretty well-trained, enough that he was able to maintain his self-possession despite his surprise and the crippling pain Laura's joint lock on his wrist was inflicting. Teeth gritted, he drew a vibroknife with his off hand and slashed at her face. She leaned back just far enough to clear the arc of the blade, then stepped to her left and executed a complicated maneuver, which ended with Szoroda face-down on the ground with his gun arm broken and his knife in her hand.
By this time the other "archaeologists" were alerted by the sounds of the scuffle. They downed their tools and rushed to their boss's aid, shouting. Laura straightened, dragging Szoroda up with her, and used his body as a shield long enough to close with the Salusian. She hadn't bothered drawing the pistol at her hip, plainly assuming that her superior strength was the only advantage she was going to need. This was a conceit she had cause to regret a moment later. Laura discarded the semiconscious Zregdan, met her charge, and left her sprawled full-length on the snowy ground with a concussion that would've been a fatal stab wound to the back of the head if Laura hadn't held her captured vibroknife the wrong way round.
That left the human, a beefy male specimen. He roared an inarticulate challenge and swung the thermo-axe he'd been working on the glacier face with as though he intended to chop her clean in half. It couldn't have been more blatantly telegraphed if he had drawn her a schematic diagram first. There were nine different ways she could have made him dead before he even realized he hadn't connected, but just based on the mass of him, subduing him non-lethally was probably going to take a bit of work.
Laura decided to save him for last, so that she could give him her undivided attention, and simply avoided his wild attack, darting past to close instead with the other trail guard, who was just arriving at a dead run. She was armed and quick with a handgun, but Laura had no particular fear of handguns. She didn't want to get shot - it would be painful and inconvenient - and so took all prudent measures to avoid it, but to her, that had a lower priority than neutralizing her adversary. The woman seemed to read that in Laura's eyes as she approached, and it appeared to rattle her. Her first shot missed high. She didn't get a second one.
That left the man with the thermo-axe, and as Laura had expected, bringing him down took a bit of doing. He wasn't a skilled combatant, as his choice of weapon might have indicated, but he was very strong, very tough, and very angry. Laura let him flail, figuring he would exhaust himself that much quicker waving his awkward demolition tool around that way, and simply stayed near enough to harm's way to keep him interested. Between them they managed to wreck much of the campsite; one of the man's swings brought down a shelter module completely, smashing it into a flattened heap of fractured, partially melted plastiform panels.
That gave Laura an idea. She faded back toward the other side of the campsite, drawing him after her, and then timed her next dodge carefully. When he was absolutely committed, all his considerable bulk and momentum behind a huge, whistling overhead chop, she dove aside and rolled, tumbling out of his way -
- and he brought the axe squarely down on the fat feed cable connecting the generator to the main shelter's thermal unit. With a harsh white flash and a sharp pop, the thermo-axe's element burned out. The man couldn't even scream, all his muscles thrown into spasm, as the generator's automatic safeties cut in and prevented him from absorbing more than a few dozen microseconds' worth of its output. That was enough to knock him cold and send him flying, though; he lurched violently backward and crashed into the face of the glacier a few yards from the breach, bounced, and fell face-down to the ground.
Laura looked around the site. Of the five opponents she'd faced, all were unconscious, but none was mortally injured. She allowed herself a single moment's pride in her craftsmanship - not a bad 68 seconds' work, particularly given the handicaps she'd set herself - and then looked for Toru. She found him standing by the cutout block of ice, gazing at her with wide eyes.
"Toru?" she asked him. "Are you all right? I am sorry you had to see that, but - "
His face lighting up, the boy cried, "That was amazing! Can all Girl Guides do that?!"
Laura blinked, unsure quite how to take his enthusiasm; then she replied hesitantly, "Not... as such, no. Are you injured?" Toru shook his head. "Why did you return here?" Laura wondered.
"I was worried," Toru said. "I saw your friends and told them what you said, and after they went away again, I kept thinking about what I saw. About her," he added, gesturing to the glacier girl. "I thought they might hurt her. Or you. Or... or something."
She considered asking him how he thought he was going to prevent that, but decided against it. It wasn't a question that had an answer, so the only purpose in asking it would be as a passive-aggressive way of berating him for an incautious decision. Instead she told him flatly,
"This is no place for you. You should return home now."
"But... what are you going to about her?" he wondered.
"I do not know," Laura said honestly. "Go now, Toru. This place is still dangerous, and I have work to do."
Toru hesitated, then nodded, a little reluctantly. "Well... all right. Should I tell Judge Okada about this?"
Laura shook her head. "No. There is nothing a local magistrate can do about this situation now."
"If you say so," said the boy dubiously. He lingered for a moment at the edge of the campsite, looking like he might change his mind and ask to stay, but then waved and ran off down the trail.
With him gone, Laura set to work securing the scene. Working quickly and efficiently, she dragged the unconscious "archaeologists" into the main shelter, tied them up with the cables from their work lights, and removed anything that might be of use to them before locking up the structure. This was just as flimsy as the others, and would provide no real security in itself, but at least she would know immediately if one or more of them came to and tried to escape - not, she judged, that there was much chance of that within the next three hours, by which time she would be long gone.
IV: The Maiden in the Ice
She was standing by the ice block they had excavated, considering the shadowed form within it, when her sharp ears caught the sounds of people approaching. At first she thought it might be more members of Szoroda's team returning, having been sent off on some expedition or other, but by the time they came into view at the trail end of the campsite, she knew that wasn't the case.
Instead, the new arrivals were a pair of girls, around her own age, dressed like Laura in the field dress (regular) uniform of the Llanfair Regiment of Girl Guides - a tall redhead with a collapsible bow in hand and a composite quiver of arrows on her back, and a petite blonde carrying a stout (and, Laura knew from experience, well-balanced) walking stick.
"What ho, comrade," said Mairwen brightly, raising her free hand in greeting.
"You've been off having fun without us again!" Rhian chided her, a note of cheerful accusation in her voice.
"I thought I left word that you were to leave this to me," said Laura without rancor.
Mairwen rolled her eyes. "Right, like that was going to happen," she agreed, then collapsed her bow and racked it alongside the quiver. "So! What've we got?"
Rhian's eyes widened at the sight of the darkened figure in the ice. "Ooh! It's true!"
Laura turned back to the block, abandoning as futile the notion of remonstrating with them further, and nodded. "Yes. It does appear to be true, at least in part."
As her comrades flanked her, she stood and regarded the ice. Its surface was irregular where it had been roughly chopped away by the diggers, and through it, the figure inside could be seen only indistinctly. All Laura could tell for certain about this was that it was a humanoid shape, roughly her own size.
"Now what?" Rhian wondered. "We can't leave her like this."
"What else can we do?" Laura inquired rhetorically. "We cannot reconstruct the glacier - "
She stopped speaking then, her eyes going thoughtful, and walked closer to the block, moving her head slowly from side to side. Yes - she hadn't imagined it. There were two distinct surfaces there. The jagged, axe-hewn ice on the outside was clinging to an inner surface that was smoother, more regular.
Without thinking about it, she extended the claws of her right hand (which evinced no particular reaction from her friends, apart from startling Rhian slightly with the suddenness of their appearance), and then slowly, almost gingerly scraped them against the block, holding them edge-on to the surface. This made a disagreeable noise and an even less pleasant sensation in the bones of her forearm, but it confirmed her suspicion. The outer ice fell away, revealing the smooth, curved surface beneath. Laura retracted her claws and placed her fingertips against it, then rapped it gently with a knuckle.
"This is not ice," she said.
"What?" Mairwen asked.
"The outer layer is," Laura explained, gesturing to the fragments on the ground that she'd just scraped off, "but this inner surface is not. It is much harder, almost metallic." She tapped it with the tip of a fingernail, making a sharp ticking sound. "Crystallite."
"What does that mean?" Rhian wondered.
"It means this is not the work of gods or spirits," Laura told her. "It is a technological artifact."
"Techno - someone made it?!"
Then, with the same quick efficiency with which she had dispatched the "archaeologists", Laura retrieved Szoroda's discarded vibroknife and used it, rather than her claws, to clear away more of the ice. When she was finished, the item within stood revealed as a cylinder, six feet long by three in diameter, lying in a shallow "cradle" of ice which Laura had left to hold it in place. A small electronic control panel, fused into the surface near the base, was its only exterior feature. With the ice removed from the cylinder's surface, what it contained was plainly visible.
"Wow," said Mairwen. "I guess the legends were true. She's beautiful."
Laura had little to work with in terms of evaluating her friend's assessment, but her instincts suggested that Mairwen was correct. Just as Mrs. Arata had said, the Maiden in the Ice was a young woman, perfectly preserved, and her face and figure were very well-made. Ethnicity ambiguous, possibly Japanese; age about fifteen; light of build, but evidently healthy (apart from what appeared to be a fresh gunshot wound in her left side) and well-fed. She was disheveled, her clothing ragged, but certain clues gave Laura the impression that this was not a usual state of affairs for her. The cylinder was oriented such that she lay more or less face-up within it.
"She's hurt," said Rhian suddenly.
"Yes," Laura agreed. "She has been shot." She looked more closely at the wound. "With a medium-caliber handgun, only minutes before the crystallite was applied. You can see that the wound was still bleeding freely when she was frozen." She turned to regard the little blonde. "Does it disturb you?"
Rhian shook his head. "No," she said. "I've seen worse, volunteering at Snowdonia General." Cracking a faint smile, she thumbed one of the campaign-ribbon-style decorations above the breast pocket of her FD(R) tunic and added, "They don't give out the Field Medic badge just for reading the book." Then, returning her full attention to the glacier girl, she mused, "I wonder if it hurts."
"She is either in hibernation or dead," Laura told her. "In either case, she feels nothing."
So saying, she crouched by the base of the column and examined the control panel. This was badly weathered, the edges of its metal faceplate worn almost flush with the surface of the crystallite, but enough of it still worked for her to read its status.
"Well?" Mairwen asked.
"What does it say?" Rhian added.
Laura double-checked her findings, then straightened up and faced her friends. "She is alive, but her condition is precarious," she said. "This cylinder is over one hundred years old. People suspended in this way rarely survive so long." She pointed to the badly weathered control panel. "The embedded stasis matrix fails long before the crystallite casing itself. This one, surprisingly, has not - possibly because the cylinder itself has been in a sort of cold storage - but the readings are not encouraging."
"How not encouraging?" asked Mairwen.
"Now that the cylinder has been removed from the glacier, deterioration will progress rapidly," said Laura. "Within days - possibly hours - the stasis system will fail... " She turned her head to regard the sleeping face of the Witch of Shikuka. "... and she will die."
Mairwen's response was immediate, unconsidered, and exactly what Laura would have predicted:
"How can we save her?"
"I do not know whether we can," Laura replied with her typical blunt honesty. "However... " She paused, considering, then said, "Rhian, do you have your kit with you?"
"Of course," Rhian answered at once.
"Prepare yourself, then," Laura said, crouching behind the cylinder again. "I will attempt to trigger the cylinder's release cycle. I do not know whether it will work, but if it does, she will need treatment for that gunshot wound immediately."
Rhian blinked at her friend in momentary astonishment, then nodded firmly. "Right," she said, then unslung her rucksack and set to work. Quickly but not hastily, she spread the groundsheet from her shelter set on the ground not far from the cylinder, then unpacked her medic's kit and began arranging the items within it in a well-practiced formation at one corner.
Laura returned her attention to the cylinder's controls, then carefully manipulated a couple of them before rising and stepping back.
At first nothing seemed to be happening. Then, with a suddenness that took Mairwen and Rhian slightly aback, the cylinder turned cloudy, completely obscuring its contents, as if it were hollow glass and the interior surface had abruptly fogged up. A few seconds after that, it began to... the only appropriate word Mairwen could think of was evanesce. It didn't melt into a liquid and run off, like actual water ice would have, but nor did it appear to sublimate into vapor, like dry ice. It just... went away, little by little, like a time-lapse video of an eroding beach, the clouded surface presenting the optical illusion that it was subsiding.
Presently the Maiden's face reappeared, seeming to rise from the clouded crystal as it fell away. As the material released it, so her flesh relaxed, her lips falling slightly open. About half of the crystallite disintegrated in this way before the process halted, leaving her lying free in a bed of clouded glass. Rhian was put irreverently in mind of the contoured velvet, backed with rigid foam, inside her guitar case.
For a long moment, the glacier girl lay utterly still, showing not the slightest sign of life, and Rhian thought with a sinking heart that they were too late. Then, with just the faintest of sounds, her chest rose as she drew her first breath in more than a century.
V: Some Disorientation Is Normal
Mrs. Arata and Sir Victor Creed were not particularly surprised when the girls didn't get back from the Western Col until after dark. It was a fairly long walk, and the three of them tended not to get back in until evening anyway. It had become the innkeeper's habit to have a cup of tea in the kitchen with her guest around nine o'clock and await their return.
This time, the adults were moderately more surprised that there appeared to be four girls now, one of whom was unconscious and being carried on Laura's back.
Rhian had been a little worried about this part of the plan, pointing out (and fairly enough) that Mrs. Arata was a civilian, and that it wasn't fair to expect her not to be at least a little shocked by such a development. That concern proved unfounded, though, as the landlady saw the newcomer's bedraggled condition and went immediately into bustling helpful mode, no questions, for the moment, asked.
They got her upstairs, to the room on the corner where Victor had been staying - it had a larger bed than either of those in the adjoining room the girls were sharing - and put her to bed, Mrs. Arata clucking worriedly about the wobegone state of her clothes and her person. She immediately went off to see what she could do to rectify at least the first part of that.
While she was gone, Victor examined the fresh field dressing on the mystery girl's left side, then straighened up and pronounced it sound. "Your work, Miss Lewis?" he inquired.
"Mm-hmm," said Rhian, nodding. "It wasn't as bad as it looked. Surface wound, medium-caliber. Bloody, but it didn't hit anything important."
"Here," said Mrs. Arata, returning with some white fabric draped over her arm. "At least she won't have to wake up in those rags, poor thing." She tsked compassionately and smoothed the girl's disordered black hair a bit. "Whatever can have happened to her?" She looked up at the three Guides. "Do you have any idea who she is?"
Rhian fidgeted awkwardly and began, "Well, we're not," but Laura interrupted her, declaring flatly,
"That is the person you know as the Witch of Shikuka."
"Laura, remember what I told you about easing people into the crazy stuff?" Mairwen muttered as Mrs. Arata stared in amazement at her friend.
"Mrs. Arata is a combat veteran, Mairwen," Laura replied, unperturbed. "She does not require patronizing."
The landlady blinked a second time in fresh surprise - as did Mairwen and Rhian - then shook it all off and smiled, saying, "I won't ask how you knew that. Or whether you're serious about who this girl is, because I can see it in your face." She turned and regarded the unconscious girl again. "How did you come to bring her here?"
With the clipped, succinct efficiency she'd been trained in, Laura delivered a perfect debriefing, outlining the situation on Mount Shikuka as she had encountered it, the measures she had felt it necesssary to take, and the possible tactical situation that would result. Victor listened gravely, then nodded and told her to leave it to him for the moment, departing the room with a sort of contained urgency. He didn't bother chiding the Guides that they should have consulted the authorities and handed their unusual find over to them, or taken her straight to a medical center. There was no medical center in Shikuka, and in a situation like this, he wouldn't have gone to the local authorities either.
"There is a possibility that we have made your establishment a target by bringing her here," Laura said to Mrs. Arata when he had gone, then bowed slightly in the Japanese fashion and added, "I apologize for the potential risk. If the people who seek this girl do track her here, I will do whatever I can to protect you and your inn."
Mrs. Arata received this remarkable promise with the gravity it deserved, then smiled and told her, "Don't worry about that, dear. My days in uniform may be behind me, but I've never been one to be afraid of the likes of them." Then, her smile becoming wry, she added, "You three are certainly the most interesting guests I've had here in a while."
"We do what we can," said Mairwen, only a little awkwardly.
With the Guides' help, Mrs. Arata got her mysterious guest cleaned up, into a clean nightdress, and properly put to bed. Then, after enjoining them to call on her at once if any new need arose, she went to bed herself.
The three Guides camped in Victor's room that night, pitching their bedrolls on the floor around the bed as if at a campsite, and took it in shifts to sit by the glacier girl and monitor her for signs of waking, or of turning for the worse. In the event, neither thing happened until shortly after dawn the next morning, when she began to stir and mutter in her sleep.
Rhian was on watch when it happened, but at the lightest touch of her friend's hand on her shoulder, Laura instantly came fully awake. Mairwen took a few seconds longer, but by the time the glacier girl's eyes opened, all three were standing by her bedside.
They were a remarkable color, those eyes; a prosaic bureaucrat might have put them down as brown, but that would be to do a great injustice to what was really a rich amber. They flickered open with a faint groan from their owner, then failed to focus on anything, gazing blankly up at the ceiling. Trying and failing to sit up, the glacier girl mumbled something in a voice like a dry gate hinge, coughed, and tried again, looking around with a confused expression that was rapidly taking on an edge of alarm.
"What language is that?" Rhian wondered.
"Mandarin," Laura replied at once. "Somewhat archaic." Then, switching to that language herself, she said, <Be calm. You are injured, but safe now. Try not to move.>
Mairwen glanced at her in faint surprise. "You speak - " she began, then rolled her eyes at herself and said, "What am I saying, of course you speak Chinese."
The girl tried to raise herself up, her gaze darting uselessly around the room, then fell back onto the pillow with an exhausted groan.
<I'm... I can't see,> she said. <I can barely move.> Then, unexpectedly, her lips curved into a nasty little smirk as she went on, <Well played, whoever you are. How have you done this to me? Poison? That would be Mother's style.>
<I am not your mother,> said Laura.
The glacier girl looked thoughtful. <You sound like a Kyoshi Islander,> she mused. <One of the Avatar's little friends, maybe. Is this your doing, Aang? It has your hallmark.> Her smirk became a bit nastier. <You enjoy keeping your enemies alive, crippled and humiliated, don't you?> she asked, a taunting tone in her weakened voice. <It's the one thing about you I respect.> Her expression hardened into a scornful sneer as she added sharply, <Blinded and helpless or not, I won't be your trophy like Father.>
Laura frowned. <You are not making sense,> she said patiently. <I am not your enemy, nor am I responsible for your condition. The blindness and weakness are symptoms of hibernation syndrome. They should pass within 48 hours. What is your name? I am Laura.>
<Oh, as if you don't know who I am,> the glacier girl spat. <The others pretended they didn't either. The old man and his minions.> She shook her head. <I don't know how long I wandered the Valley, but it can't have been long enough for people to forget the name of Fire Lord Azula.>
<You were frozen in crystallite for more than one hundred years,> Laura told her remorselessly. <Anyone who knew you is probably long dead.>
<What?!> Azula snapped. <Ridiculous!> With a supreme effort of will, she tried to rise, and actually made a decent start on it, much to Rhian and Mairwen's surprise. Her eyes still unfocused but furious, she raged, <You dare even attempt to - >
Unfazed, Laura put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down, which was no harder than closing a drawer. <Lie still. You are injured. If you disturb the dressing on your wound, you may bleed to death.>
<That would be convenient for you, wouldn't it!> Azula snarled.
<You have two options,> Laura continued, as if she hadn't spoken. <You can rest quietly, or my friend can return you to a coma. Choose.>
The mysterious girl glared sightlessly in her general direction for a moment; then, like a switch had been thrown, she smiled slyly and relaxed, sinking back into the pillow.
<You intrigue me, whoever you are,> she said. <All right, I'll play along for now. Why not?>
Her fury and bravado notwithstanding, she truly was exhausted; and having stopped trying, for the moment, to force the issue, she lapsed almost immediately back into sleep, the angry lines of her face smoothing out into something like their original icebound serenity.
"What was that all about?" Mairwen asked quietly as Laura came away from the bedside.
"Her name is Azula," said Laura. "She seems to be under the impression we are participants in a conspiracy either to assassinate her, or to keep her prisoner, on behalf of a person called Aang, possibly in collaboration with her mother. She believes we have permanently disabled her, both to facilitate her captivity and to humiliate her. This did not appear to surprise her, as she claims the same person has already done as much to her father."
"That's horrible!" Rhian exclaimed, though she kept her voice down. "Did she tell you where she comes from? Or anything that might help us find out?"
"Very little," Laura told her. "She speaks an antiquated dialect of Mandarin Chinese and claims to be something called a 'fire lord'." She shook her head. "She made little sense. Some disorientation is normal, of course, but after so long in hibernation, I am afraid her memory may be irreparably damaged. I will try again when she wakes, but I can promise nothing."
Mairwen looked past her friend at the sleeping girl, frowning in thought. "How did she get into that glacier?" she wondered rhetorically. "This planet has never had a Chinese-speaking population."
"Even if it had, certain features of her dialect predate Earth Contact, let alone the colonization of the Rigel sector," Laura said. "We may be able to learn more by investigating the remnants of her crystallite stasis block. The control mechanism may be traceable, or at least its manufacturer identifiable." She turned to regard the bed. "At the moment, I am more concerned with her stability. I have the impression that she is troubled in ways only peripherally related to her long suspension."
Rhian considered her peculiar friend for a moment. It had often struck her, in the months they had known each other, that Laura embodied a strange combination of insight and naïveté. A keen observer of people but virtually helpless before most social interactions, she understood the psychology of others in almost inverse proportion to her understanding of her own. She, Mairwen, and Sir Victor did what they could to help her with that, and before them, there had been a man Laura would refer to only as "my benefactor", who had rescued her from a terrible upbringing Mairwen and Rhian had only a sketchy knowledge of and delivered her into the warm and loving home of her uncle in the first place.
Though she was devoted to her uncle and her few close friends in a quiet, undemonstrative way, her mysterious benefactor was the only person about whom Laura could ever be said to show any outright sentimentality. On the rare occasions when she spoke of him, her jade eyes took on an ever-so-slightly wistful look, as of a yearning for a path not taken - a choice not regretted, but its alternative always wondered about. She never said as much - she would not even speak his name, for vaguely defined "security reasons" - but on those occasions, it was plain to Rhian and Mairwen that she missed him.
Now, as she stood looking at the unconscious figure in the bed, Laura had a look in her eyes that was different, but of the same rare family. She wasn't attached to the stranger in the way that she was to her benefactor, but there was real concern there, and perhaps a nascent, not-yet-understood sense of kinship. She didn't understand it - was not even really equipped to explore it - but she felt it, and Rhian saw it in her.
"Hey," she said, touching Laura's arm. The dark-haired girl blinked in faint surprise and turned her eyes to her little blonde friend, who smiled reassuringly at her. "We'll figure it out," Rhian said. "It'll be OK."VI: Serious Reservations
"We'll figure it out. It'll be OK."
Over the next few days, Rhian Lewis was to privately reconsider that blithe assurance a few times. Her innate optimism and goodwill ultimately kept her from changing her conclusion, but it was a firm test of those qualities, because Azula proved to be a difficult patient.
She took a turn for the worse in the afternoon of the first day, developing a high fever. This was a not-uncommon complication of hibernation syndrome, and the incidence of post-revival fevers did tend to increase with the length of suspension. No medical literature Rhian could dig up online mentioned any case studies of durations anything like what the "glacier girl" had experienced, though - the record, as far as she could determine, was 34 years - so she was entirely playing it by ear as far as treating the condition, or even knowing whether it would resolve.
Several times they considered giving up their determination to keep the matter private and summoning a doctor from Otomari, the nearest city, but in each case the proximate crisis did resolve itself before they could put the plan into action. In the end, Rhian - with the willing support of her fellow Guides and Mrs. Arata, and the calm and steady hand of Sir Victor Creed always figuratively on her shoulder to reassure her - managed to steer her patient through the rocks; but always it was difficult, and doubly so on the occasions when Azula was at least partially awake.
Part of that was because, though she turned out to speak two languages, neither was one Rhian understood. The other, Laura reported when it appeared in fevered ravings on Thursday night, was Japanese, of an archaic quality similar to her Mandarin. Mrs. Arata and Sir Victor, at least, could also understand her when she spoke so, but Mairwen and Rhian were still in the dark.
The rest was because - language barrier or not - the patient often seemed to go out of her way to be unpleasant. When not rambling semiconsciously about matters even Laura, who at least understood the words, claimed to be able to make little sense of, she alternated between bitingly sarcastic passive resistance (and if the words couldn't find their mark, the attitude still stung) and semicoherent, raging hostility. By Friday afternoon, she had regained enough of her strength that the latter posed a real threat, as she would lash out unpredictably and generally try to make things as difficult as possible.
Through it all, while Mairwen stewed in increasing frustration and Rhian grimly reminded herself of Article Three of the Guide Law ("A Guide faces challenges and learns from her experiences"), Laura applied the same implacable patience she had shown in their first conversation, absorbing all the insults and attempted cruelties without comment and firmly, quietly insisting on what was to be done. This approach generally did succeed, and though it was always an ordeal, she never raised her voice or spoke sharply in response, no matter how she might be provoked.
It was Mairwen, finally, who decided that enough was enough. On Saturday morning, when Rhian tried to change the bacta dressing on Azula's well-healing wound, Azula let her get close enough to do the job, then seized her arm and dragged her upright, snarling something through her teeth that neither Neo-Snowdonian girl could understand, but which was plainly hostile.
"Ow!" Rhian cried. She tried to pull herself away, but Azula had recovered much of her strength by this point, and her fingers dug painfully into the flesh of Rhian's upper arm. "Stop it! I'm only trying to change your bandage. You're hurting me!"
Laura sprang up from the cot Mrs. Arata had erected in the corner of the room after the first night, awakening instantly from a nap at the sound of her friend's protest, but before she could do anything else, Mairwen had crossed the room and delivered a full-power backhanded slap to the patient's face.
<God damn your eyes, that's enough!> Mairwen thundered in full-throated Welsh, standing over the bed with her face flushed almost to a match for her flaming red hair. <Is this how you treat someone who wishes only to help you? Is this how you repay the kindness of strangers? You wretched, ungrateful hag! Take your hand off her this instant, or by God I shall wring your miserable neck, carry your carcass back up to the glacier, and leave it for the crows!>
Azula, the right side of her face crimson and the left sheet-pale, released Rhian's arm and stared, blank-eyed, in the direction of the furious redhead's voice. She was clearly as unable to follow these remarks as Mairwen was any of hers, but the intent behind them was plain in any language. She seemed stunned, not physically but mentally, as if unable to believe that
a) Someone would do that;
b) Someone could do that;
c) Someone did do that.
Laura stepped up beside her seething friend and put a hand on her shoulder. "Mairwen," she said quietly. "Enough. You have made your point."
Mairwen glared down at the patient for a moment longer, then turned away with a disgusted noise. "If she hurts Rhian again," she muttered in Laura's ear before storming off to the other side of the room, "I'll kill her."
"Rhian, are you all right?" Laura inquired. Rhian - who seemed more startled now by Mairwen's reaction than Azula's provocation in the first place - rubbed her arm and nodded. "Carry on, then," Laura told her. "I will deal with this."
<No one has ever done that to me before,> said Azula, sounding somewhere between astonished and sullen, as she lay quiet and let Rhian work. <Never. I have suffered many indignities, but no one has ever dared strike me in the face.>
<You earned it,> said Laura flatly. <I would not provoke Mairwen again if I were you. Rhian's compassion is virtually limitless. Mairwen's is not.>
<And what of yours?> asked Azula archly, regaining some of her faintly mocking aplomb as the scarlet patch on her right cheek began to fade.
<I am not motivated by compassion,> Laura replied.
<My reasons are my own. I will merely tell you this: You are free to abuse me in any way you feel you must. I do not mind it, I have endured far worse. But you will not treat my friends in this manner any longer. They wish only to help you, and they are not accustomed to cruelty. I will not have it inflicted upon them needlessly.>
Azula remained silent and looked thoughtful while Rhian completed her work. "It's fine," the little blonde reported to Laura once she had replaced the treated bandage with a fresh one. "She's responding well to the bacta. One more day should do the job."
<What's she saying?> Azula wondered.
<She is saying that you will be fine, no thanks to yourself,> Laura said a bit coldly.
<I still can't see.>
<That is a separate issue. You will regain your sight naturally in time. Rhian is treating the wound in your side. Rest now,> Laura told her. <Let the medicine do its work. Think about what I have said,> but her last remark went unheard as Azula drifted off again.
"I'm beginning to have serious reservations about this project," said Mairwen half-sardonically as the three Guides regrouped in a far corner. "Are you OK, Rhian?"
"I'm fine, it's just a bruise," Rhian told her. "I was more surprised than anything else. She's really strong!" Then, turning a faintly scornful look to her friend, she added, "And you should be ashamed of yourself, Mairwen Porter! Hitting a person in her sickbed like that."
Mairwen blinked at her. "Excuse me, I did it because she was hurting you," she pointed out. "If she's well enough to do that, she's well enough to take a smack in the face."
"And I appreciate the thought," Rhian replied, then folded her arms and declared with an arch little smile, "But it's still a clear Article Five violation."
Mairwen rolled her eyes. "That needs a qualification on it, like the First Law of Robotics. 'A Guide is polite and considerate' - "
" - 'or, through inaction, allow a sapient being to come to harm'? That doesn't make any sense," Rhian objected.
Mairwen snorted and gave up with an ill-suppressed smile. "Forget it," she said. "I'm going to get some lunch."
Azula had her worst fever episode yet that evening, drenching the bedclothes in sweat as she thrashed and clawed at the mattress in her anguish. Staring blindly about her, she raved throughout in her antique Japanese, a lurid, disjointed, rather disturbing narrative of blood, war, fire, ice, murder, revenge, and - weirdly - boomerangs. Laura, who sat at her bedside the entire time, took mental note of it all, reflecting as she did so that it had a strangely poetic quality, like a passage from Beowulf, the Kutune Shirka, or the Cheltariad. She wondered whether Azula was, in fact, reciting some memorized piece of epic folk literature, or if she had actually experienced - or at least believed she had experienced - the dreadful, world-shaking events of which she spoke.
At three o'clock on Friday morning, the fever broke at last, and Azula lapsed into a sleep so profound that Mairwen momentarily thought she had died. Exhausted from her efforts to bring the attack under control, Rhian replaced her patient's dressing one last time, oversaw the installation of fresh, dry bedding and nightclothes, and then allowed Mairwen to take her next door and put her to bed. Sir Victor and Mrs. Arata withdrew as well, leaving Laura to maintain a silent, solitary vigil.
VII: Regimental Retreat
Azula woke quietly at noon, opened her eyes, and looked around the bedroom, squinting against the painful brightness of the bar of light falling from the gap in the drapes across the foot of the bed. Observing this, Laura advised her quietly to take care, then asked,
<How much of last night do you remember?>
<Nothing. Or everything. It depends,> Azula replied. <It's all a blur, but at the same time, I felt every moment. Like balancing on the edge of eternity. I must have come quite near to falling off.>
Then, slowly, she put the covers aside and rose unsteadily from the bed. Laura stood up from her chair, but made no move toward her, letting her find her feet by herself. Moving like an old woman, Azula shuffled to the curtains and opened them, hissing slightly as daylight filled the room through the French doors beyond. She shaded her eyes against it for a few moments, then gradually straightened up and regarded the view beyond it: the streets and roofs of Shikuka village, and the great blue-grey bulk of Shikukayama beyond, rising into an azure summer sky.
<Where are we?> she wondered. <The eastern colonies? Shu Jing? Or somewhere in the Earth Kingdom?> She looked back over her shoulder with a faintly sardonic little smile. <Where does the Avatar keep his toys these days? You look like you could be from the Earth Kingdom, though I can't say I've ever seen the like of those clothes before.> She looked down at the black-striped red pajamas Mrs. Arata had put her in the night before. <Or these, come to that. Colors are right, though, at least there's that.> She turned back to Laura. <Well?>
<We are not in the Earth Kingdom,> Laura told her. <I do not think we are in the world you remember at all. This is the planet Karafuto. It has never had any nations in it like the ones you spoke of last night.>
Azula scowled at her. <This again!> she said in exasperation. <Is this some kind of preposterous brainwashing scheme? You'll never convince me I'm on some other planet. Look at this town!> she said, gesturing out the French doors. <It's clearly somewhere in the hinterlands of the Earth Kingdom or the Fire Nation. I've had little choice but to play along while helpless and blind, but now that I'm back on my feet, you'll find the case has altered, my friend. Now, I don't know who you're working for or how much he's paying you, but I promise you, holding me captive is going to be far more trouble than it's worth now that you've been so foolish as to let me regain my health.>
So saying, she let the drapes fall, turned fully to face Laura, and took up what the ex-assassin instantly recognized as a (slightly modified) kung fu starting stance.
<My name is Azula,> she said, the pupils of her amber eyes shrinking to cruel points. <I am the rightful Lord of the Fire Nation and the 53rd Monarch of the Earth Kingdom. No - more than that. With my father fallen, I am the Phoenix Queen. Now you will release me, and you will tell me where to find your masters, or you will face my full wrath yourself!>
Laura remained unmoved. <I am not your enemy,> she said. <My friends and I have only tried to help you. We would help you still, if you would let us. You are not our prisoner.>
<No more of your lies!> Azula spat. <You die - here and now!>
She took a step toward Laura, firing the kind of sharp, percussive punch that could knock a hole in a solid door. Since she was a good ten feet away, this did nothing, but that fact - self-evident to Laura - seemed to take Azula by surprise. She pulled up short and looked at her fist, first in shock, then dismay. She tried again with the other hand, similarly accomplishing nothing, then again. By this time she was near enough that she might actually have connected, but Laura merely put up a palm and blocked the blow.
<... no,> Azula whispered. She stumbled back a step and then fell to her knees, looking in horror at her hands. <he's done it to me too.>
Then, looking up at Laura with tears in the corners of her furious eyes, she sprang to her feet and snarled, <No matter! I'll crush you with my bare hands!>
She was good - well-trained, a talented athlete and martial artist. She had recovered much of her physical strength, and with the return of her eyesight, her physical confidence as well. Even handicapped by... whatever seemed to be the problem... Azula was a very able and dangerous combatant. Her timing was off, though, her agility damaged, her endurance diminished, and her wound, though no longer a threat to her life, remained painful; besides which her extreme fury made her careless. Laura was able to fend her off for a minute without either of them sustaining any significant injury. Then the spark of sudden rage seemed to burn out, and without warning she crashed into a pit of black despair, abandoning the fight to crumple to her knees and weep. She offered no resistance as Laura raised her from the floor and put her back to bed.
Once Azula was back under the covers, gazing bleakly at the ceiling, Laura sat down on the edge of the bed next to her, regarding her with steady, calm, slightly sad eyes - touched in a place she did not entirely understand by this strange, violent girl's grief.
<I think you had better tell me about it,> she said quietly.
Without really understanding why, Azula did.
It was the same story she had told in her ravings the night before, only delivered in a flat, calm, almost mechanical voice, like a court reporter reading back the stenographic record. She was, she said, crown princess of a place called the Fire Nation, the daughter of its cunning and cruel monarch, born like all their royal line with an elemental gift Laura gathered was akin to pyrokinesis, and which Azula called "firebending". Raised from infancy to carry on the family business (which was evidently murder and tyranny, for the most part), groomed as her father's heir when her elder brother had proven disappointingly willing to acknowledge principles of basic human decency, she had driven herself relentlessly all her life to live up to her father's terrifying ideals.
In the end, it had availed her nothing. If anything, she had proven even more cunning and cruel than he was, surpassing the very exemplar she had used as the model for her aspirations. Her father had rewarded her for this achievement by marginalizing her, pushing her aside on the eve of a triumph she felt she had largely engineered. When that triumph failed to materialize for him and he had gone down to ignominious defeat, it was no fault of hers, but by then, she was in a madhouse anyway.
The next part of the story made little sense even internally - something about being removed from the asylum by her brother, who had usurped the throne that was rightfully hers in the wake of their father's fall, to help him look for their missing mother. The expedition had gone horribly wrong in a way so confusing and uncontextual that Laura could make no sense of it, and the next thing Azula knew, she was in a metal room, fighting men whom Laura recognized from her descriptions as spacers of a particularly unsavory strain. Then the gunshot - she hadn't recognized the weapon, such things were unknown in her world - and she knew no more until waking in this bed on Wednesday.
Her story told, she drifted off to sleep again, spent. Laura sat looking at her for a long time, then rose and went next door to consult with the others.
It became obvious to all concerned that Laura, Mairwen, Rhian, and Sir Victor were not going to be able to leave Karafuto at the end of June, as they had planned. There was no way Azula could be made ready to face interstellar travel in that amount of time; she didn't even believe that there were inhabited planets other than the one she still thought she was on, much less that the technology existed to travel between them.
Sir Victor put it to them on Saturday that, with the girl having recovered from hibernation syndrome and her gunshot wound well on the way to healing, the honor of the Regiment was satisfied, and they could hand her over to Karafuto's civil authorities and put the matter behind them with a clear conscience.
He was not surprised when none of the three would hear of it. Nor dismayed, come to that. In fact, he would have been disappointed if they'd been willing to consider it. It would have made his life easier, certainly, and he was technically right that, having manifestly saved the girl's life, they were under no further moral obligation to her... but handing off a difficult case to the professionals just because it was difficult had never been Victor Creed's way, and it wasn't Laura's either.
They did agree, though, that staying in the village was not the best plan now that Azula was well enough to at least travel locally. Not only would that be presuming on Mrs. Arata's already-well-tried hospitality, there was still the possibility that Lefty Szoroda, or his employers, would come looking for her. Victor had certain inquiries of his own in progress regarding the Zregdan slaver and his interest in the Maiden in the Ice, but as yet they hadn't turned up anything, and so the question remained open.
Mrs. Arata herself was just as reluctant to wash her hands of the matter as the three Guides. Finally they arrived at a compromise; which was how Laura, Mairwen, Rhian, and Azula found themselves installed in the late Mr. Arata's old hunting-and-fishing cabin, halfway up a mountain a short walk outside the village proper. Here, the Guides could look after their curious patient without interruption or distraction, free from the possibility of endangering the townsfolk. Mrs. Arata visited daily, bringing up supplies and doing whatever she could to help. Sir Victor, too, was a frequent presence, stopping by to check in and update Laura on his inquiries. For the most part, though, the Guides were left to their own devices, as if on a Regimental retreat.
Rhian, her medical duties for the most part discharged, took it upon herself to take point on her erstwhile patient's orientation to her new reality. This, if anything, was a bigger challenge than seeing her through hibernation syndrome and repairing her gunshot wound had been, but the little blonde soldiered on with grace and goodwill, Laura's doggedly patient assistance, and Mairwen's reassuring presence to fall back on when things got to be too much.
For her part, after her failed attempt to do battle with Laura, Azula seemed to have lost some of her combative spirit. She was still sarcastic, often cuttingly so, and still very suspicious of her companions' motives, but it appeared she had decided that there was nothing for it but to play along and see where the game eventually led her. Once she chose to apply herself to what Rhian was trying to teach her, she revealed a new facet of her character: though unstable, quick to anger, and very possibly delusional, she was also brilliant, possessed of an intellect so quick and retentive she almost seemed, like Laura, to have been engineered for the shortest possible learning curve.
Under Rhian's tutelage, with the aid of modern teaching technologies whose very nature seemed to astonish her, she achieved functional spoken fluency in the Standard language in two weeks. This was both a blessing and a curse to Rhian and Mairwen, in that they could now speak to her and expect to be understood, but on the other hand, they now had no defense against her casual verbal cruelty or her biting sardony. She relied less and less on either as June yielded to July, though; Rhian's relentless good cheer seemed to be penetrating her shell, and Mairwen, though just as suspicious of her as vice versa, was almost unfailingly civil in a way that her own high-bred manners responded to.
As she recovered her strength, Azula began sparring regularly with Laura, remarking that even if her enemies had stripped her of her true power, she might as well at least keep in shape. These conflicts invariably ended poorly for her, but she persisted anyway, as if punishing herself for each failure.
"How did I defeat you?" Laura asked her after one such fall, while Azula knelt in the grass of the little meadow by the cabin and panted.
"You're... so fast," Azula gasped.
"Nonsense," Laura replied. "Our physical reaction speeds are roughly comparable, as are our builds and general fitness levels. We should be much more evenly matched." She shook her head. "Your weakness is not your technique."
Azula said nothing to that; merely nodded as if she already knew it, dragged herself to her feet, and squared herself to try again.
With language studies well along, Rhian started introducing basic galactic orientation materials into her lesson plans. There was some debate among the three Guides whether their curious charge was from the distant past (Laura's theory), a parallel universe (Rhian's), or simply out of her mind (Mairwen's). They flipped a coin to see whether they would start with So You Just Arrived from a Parallel Dimension or So You Became Unstuck in Time (there being, as Mairwen sarcastically pointed out, no So You're Batshit in the Bacon Publications library as yet). Laura won the coin toss. Azula maintained that she was reading the book only to humor them, but she did at least read it.
"Fine," she said when Rhian chided her for maintaining her skepticism in the face of all she had seen. "Prove it to me, then." She flipped to a page in the middle of the book and held it up, tapping the illustration in the middle with one elegantly manicured fingertip. "If we are on one planet among many, this one must have one of these 'spaceport' things. Take me there and show me. Let me see these 'starships' for myself."
"I don't think that's a good idea," Mairwen said. "You're not ready for - "
"Am I not? Or are you not ready for your lies to be exposed?" Azula put the book down and gave the redhead a cool little smirk. "I'm calling your bluff, ladies. Let's see your tiles."
Laura gazed silently at her for a few seconds. Then, a little to her surprise (and to a shared glance of mingled dismay and delight between Mairwen and Rhian), she smiled, very slightly.
"Remember," she said, "you asked for this."
VIII: The Deep End
The next day, dressed in the most nondescript traveling clothes they could rustle up, the four of them walked into Shikuka village and caught the daily bus to the nearby town of Otomari, and from there rode a train to the prefecture capital, Toyohara.
The first crack in Azula's façade of smirking disbelief was the train. The way of life and typical mode of dress on Karafuto might be deliberately backward-looking, but there was nothing antiquated about its transportation infrastructure, and it was fairly plain from her stories of life in the Fire Nation - told with increasing relish as she grew more comfortable with the people she still claimed to regard as her captors - that something like a shinkansen would be entirely outside Azula's experience. She contained her astonishment with a stonefaced effort of will, not wanting to give the Guides the satisfaction of seeing it, but she was not entirely successful...
... and the task became more or less impossible when they reached Toyohara itself. As great metropolises went, it was not much - population a mere 180,000 - but it did have all the usual furniture of a modern galactic city: skyscrapers, aircar traffic, a maglev monorail, an interstellar spaceport.
"I... is this real?" Azula demanded, standing on the central train station's forecourt and looking up at the stately grid of the aircar lanes high above the streets.
"Hey, you wanted to jump in at the deep end," said Mairwen, not entirely unsympathetically. "C'mon. Monorail's this way. Let's go watch the starships take off."
By the time they reached the spaceport, Azula had lost all of her calmly mocking I-am-humoring-you air. She was just looking around in blank-faced shock, unable to muster even token sarcasm in response to Mairwen's gentle needling, until eventually the redhead took pity on her and stopped trying.
They stood by the perimeter fence for half an hour, in an area thoughtfully designated by the spaceport authorities for just this activity, and watched freighters and starliners come and go. Azula had seen aircraft before, but only stately lighter-than-air vessels, more like sailing ships of the air than these alloy-and-nuclear-fire monsters. Nothing in her experience could just rise up, turn around, boom away into the sky, and disappear in seconds like an ion-driven stock freighter. The complex of hangars and terminals and tarmac sprawled away out of sight, covering an area larger than the whole Capital City, and this was supposed to be a modest facility.
In the main terminal building, her confusion only deepened, as she found herself confronted by the gleaming technology of the modern age: towering holopanels with animated advertisements for travel destinations, vending machines, the baggage handling machinery. Rhian's little personal computer, which she had used during her language instruction, Azula could write off as a parlor trick or some advancement that had come along during her time out of circulation. These things... not so much.
And then there were the people. Very few looked like anyone Azula had ever seen, more obviously foreigners than even these three girls... and some were manifestly, undeniably not human. Across the concourse, for instance, she saw a massive, barrel-shaped purple creature with three mouths, three tentacles in place of arms, and three short, stumpy legs. She might have assumed this was a hallucination, except that a couple of spaceport employees were standing around having a conversation with it, consulting clipboards and generally seeming to be conducting perfectly ordinary business.
"What in the world... ?" she murmured, unable to tear her eyes from the sight.
"Huh? Oh, that's a Rigellian," Rhian told her. "A native of Rigel IV."
Azula resisted an urge to rub her eyes and see if it was still there, saying slowly, "At home... that would be a spirit manifestation of some kind. The ordinary people in this place would be fleeing in terror."
Mairwen snorted. "From a Rigellian? They're harmless. Bit chatty. The only danger a Rigellian would ever pose is that he might talk you to death."
Azula didn't reply. At length, the Rigellian completed his business and shambled off down a side passage. Only then could she recall herself to business, following the others as they delved deeper into the facility.
They ate lunch at a restaurant on the upper concourse. The staff weren't human either, though much less obviously so than the Rigellian; they had little furry ears on top of their heads, peeking out through perfectly ordinary-looking hair, like the mischievous monkeyfox spirits in folktales Azula had heard in childhood. She ate robotically, too distracted by all that was running through her head to really notice what she was eating, then excused herself to use the restroom.
This, at least, was normal enough, the fixtures sleek and weirdly styled, but recognizable. She completed her business, washed her hands, and was on her way back to the table when she noticed something standing in an alcove off the hallway: a short silver pedestal with a glowing holographic field above it. A sign on the wall behind it said PUBLIC HOLONET TERMINAL.
Knowing that she only had a few minutes before someone would come looking for her, Azula slipped into the alcove and took a moment to figure out how to operate the device. It was easy, having been designed specifically to be quick and intuitive to operate, and within moments she had it doing more or less what she wanted it to do... except for the lack of meaningful results. She kept at it, growing more and more frustrated, for as long as she dared, then pulled herself away and returned to the table. Rhian was just rising to go in search of her when she returned.
She was pale and subdued for the rest of the expedition, responding only with quiet yesses and nos to the increasingly infrequent comments and queries of her companions. On the train back to Otomari she was entirely silent, sitting withdrawn by a window and gazing expressionlessly out at the speeding scenery.
"I'm afraid we might have pushed her a little too far," Rhian murmured to her friends across the aisle.
"Hey, I told her she wasn't ready," said Mairwen, unmoved.
"She will be all right," Laura said. "It is a great deal of information to process, now that she has accepted it is real."
Rhian frowned. "I'm not sure," she said. "She looks sad about something, not shellshocked. Like she knows something and it's breaking her heart."
"Assuming she has one," Mairwen muttered.
"Don't be mean," Rhian said. "I'm going to see if she'll tell me what's wrong."
Mairwen rolled her eyes. "Well, if she attacks you again, don't come crying to me."
Rhian gave her an oh-stop-it look, then glanced at Laura, but the dark-haired girl only nodded, saying nothing; so the blonde rose and went across the aisle, slipping into the seat next to Azula.
"Hey," she said quietly. "What's the matter?"
Azula glanced at her, and for a second Rhian assumed she was going to say something biting and then ignore her, as was more or less customary at such moments.
Instead, though, she sighed, looked back out the window, and said matter-of-factly, "I think I may be going mad."
Rhian was glad Mairwen hadn't heard her say that, as it would surely have produced a bark of sardonic laughter. She didn't laugh, but said, "Why would you say that? You've been doing so much better."
Azula kept looking out the window in silence for long enough that Rhian decided she wasn't going to talk, but just before the blonde could get up and leave her to her funk, she said, as if to no one in particular,
"At the restaurant, I found something called a... 'public holonet terminal'. I figured out how to use it. Some kind of galactic library. I'm sure it's very familiar technology to you." Rhian nodded. "I tried to find out what became of my world. It shouldn't have been that hard. Someone - those people I remember fighting, the old man who shot me - must have gone there to take me away in the first place. If that was a hundred years ago or more... there should be some record. But there's nothing. Not a trace, nothing even slightly recognizable. It's as if the entire world simply never existed."
She turned to Rhian, who was shocked to see unshed tears glittering in her amber eyes, and said very quietly, "This leaves me with a choice of two conclusions. Either some catastrophe has happened, and Dìqiú is no more... or it never existed in the first place, and Mairwen is right - I've simply imagined what I know as my entire life." She closed her eyes, the tears slipping down her cheeks. "You'll excuse me if neither choice delights me."
IX: Vandal Carondan's Last Score
They got back to Shikuka in the late afternoon. Azula was still withdrawn and silent as they disembarked from the bus in the village square. She responded with a noncommittal grunt when asked what she wanted to do for dinner.
"Why don't we go see Mrs. Arata?" Rhian suggested. "I'm sure she'd like to see you out and about," she said.
"If you like," said Azula dully.
"I dunno, I kind of like her this way," Mairwen muttered in Rhian's ear as they followed Laura toward the inn.
"Stop it," Rhian grumbled.
They entered the lobby of the Arata Inn, Rhian mustering all the personal light she could manage, but her cheery greeting died on her lips as they passed the threshold. There was a man standing there already, a tall and burly Zregdan, looming over the diminutive landlady in an obviously threatening manner.
"Look, lady," Lefty Szoroda growled. "I know they were here, half this stinking town saw them. All you gotta do is - "
Without hesitation, Laura stepped up behind him and seized his wrist on the side where he wore his holstered blaster, yanking the hand up behind him and driving his face into the counter so quickly that it happened before he even realized she was there.
"Leave her alone," she hissed in his ear.
"Aw, crap," he said, and then Laura went two-for-two in breaking his right arm. He didn't have long to reflect on the irony, since her next action was to haul him upright again, turn him around, and propel his forehead into her knee, putting him out like a pinched candle.
"Are you all right, Mrs. Arata?" she asked the innkeeper, who looked startled, but not afraid.
"I am now," Mrs. Arata replied. "I take it you're acquainted with this gentleman."
"He was the leader of the people who took Azula from the glacier," Laura confirmed. "Which means - "
"Uh, Laura? We may have a problem," said Mairwen from the door.
Laura wheeled and went to the door, stepping over Lefty Szoroda's sprawled bulk. In the street outside the inn, a more substantial group of armed riffraff than Lefty's crew on the glacier had gathered, perhaps two dozen strong. Beyond them, the street was deserted, the only locals in evidence peeping fearfully around doorways and corners. Laura was reminded of the showdown scenes in those Western movies Mairwen enjoyed so much, when the gang rides into town to call out the sheriff.
She supposed that made her the sheriff. The image did not displease her. Some tiny, unfledged impulse toward humor, stirring deep within her, regretted that she didn't have a badge to pin to her black leather jacket as she pushed open the door and went out onto the porch.
Behind her, Mairwen looked from Rhian to Azula to Mrs. Arata, then murmured, "Stay here," turned, and raced upstairs.
"What do you want?" Laura asked calmly.
The person in the middle of the armed formation, a tall, severe-looking woman with short-cropped iron-grey hair and a mechanical hand showing at the cuff of her duster coat's right sleeve, gave her a puzzled look.
"Who are you supposed to be?"
Laura looked coolly back at her, then smiled almost imperceptibly and replied, "Kinney, Laura. Senior Guide Sergeant-at-Arms, Llanfair Regiment. 3C45932."
The woman stared at her. "Are you fucking kidding me?" she said.
"Do I look like I am joking?" Laura replied flatly.
"You're the one who took out Lefty and his crew? Jesus. I didn't believe them when they told me what happened to them." The woman rolled her eyes. "What the hell are you, some kind of ninja Girl Scout?"
"I asked you what you want," Laura said. "This is private property."
"Yeah, well, speaking of property, you've got some of mine," the woman shot back. "The name's Carondan. Vandi Carondan. Ring any bells?"
"No," said Laura, unperturbed.
"My great-great-great-grandfather was Vandal Carondan. You musta heard of him."
"No," Laura repeated in exactly the same tone.
Vandi rolled her eyes again. "Jesus," she said, throwing up her hands. "Kids these days. Vandal Carondan was the greatest pirate in the Terminus in his day. I'd list some of his jobs for you, but you'd just gimme that blank look again, so the hell with it. Point is, I tracked down his last score. Somewhere out in Enigma, he bagged something big. So big the United Galactica secret police wasted him and took it for themselves, then lost it in some internal power struggle. Somehow it ended up here. Or to be more precise, up there," she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at the looming shape of Shikukayama on the horizon.
"My father, his father, and his father spent their whole lives lookin' for that score," she said. "I found out it was here. The locals were worshipping it as some kind of frozen idol on the mountain or some goddam thing." She shook her head. "Farmers. What're you gonna do, right? Anyway, I hired Lefty to come get it. And what does he bring me instead? Some story about how he and his boys dug it out of the glacier, and then a Girl Scout comes along, kicks all their asses, and takes it away from them. Now I gotta round up all these guys, come here myself, and get back my property. That doesn't make me happy."
"I am uninterested in your emotional state," said Laura. "You came for nothing. Turn around and leave this place, and nothing more will be said."
Vandi gave her a look of utter disbelief.
"Seriously? Seriously?" she demanded. "I got two dozen armed bastards here and you're gonna face me off? Maybe you don't understand what's going on here. I am taking what's mine. You are asking to become part of the package, and at this point I'm pretty sure I'm gonna oblige you."
"She's not yours," Rhian burst out, pushing through the door to stand next to Laura. "She's a human being, not some kind of lost property. Your ancestor had no right to her in the first place, much less you." She folded her arms. "Slavery was illegal than and it's illegal now."
Vandi gave her the same incredulous look she'd been giving Laura, then shook her head with a wry, resigned smile.
"You know what, you're absolutely right," she said; then she nodded to one of her men, who - without any warning at all - shot her down with a phaser set to stun. "Remember that when you're dancing for Gorgo the Hutt," Vandi advised her. "Boys - take 'em."
Laura's fists clenched, the corner of her right eye twitching slightly. Those were the only outward signs that she was about to explode, willingly - perhaps even joyously - unleashing all of the carefully restrained talent for mayhem that had been drilled into her by her inhumane but very efficient makers in the Facility back on Omega.
About five milliseconds before she could do so, however, another figure swept past her, chin high, amber eyes flashing, elegant mouth set in a grim, flat line.
"That's quite enough," said Azula.
Vandi blinked. "You're awake?" she said. "Huh. That complicates things, but OK. Are you gonna come quietly," she asked with a sardonic grin, "or do we get to find out what makes you so special?"
Azula met her eyes and smiled, very slightly, very coldly.
"Watch carefully," she said, and then moved.
X: The Phoenix Queen
She came down off the porch like a striking hawk, making straight for the member of Vandi's crew who had stunned Rhian. He fired at her, but she was too fast for him, closing and knocking the weapon from his grasp with an open-handed slap. He drew a vibroknife and tried to switch to close-combat techniques, but Azula was all over him. She dealt him a kick in the midsection that folded him up like a cheap chair, then swept his feet from under him, punched him unconscious on his way down, and whirled to confront the nearest of his fellows.
Across the way, a woman in scraps of what looked like they'd once been Atlas Corporation Crimson Lance armor raised a combat rifle and drew a bead. Automatically, without thinking, Azula changed her focus, sidestepping in a tight circular motion and launching one of those percussive punches she'd tried on Laura at their first clash, despite the fact that the woman with the rifle was a good twenty feet away -
- and a bolt of fire, the brilliant blue of a gas flame, shot from her fist and blew the woman off her feet, knocking her out of the combat as surely as if Azula had shot her with a blaster.
Everyone froze, staring in astonishment, as she spun out of the follow-through, blue flames crackling around her fists, and her tiny, cold smile became a rather larger, crueler one.
"... back in business," she murmured with an air of great satisfaction, and then the real mayhem began.
Laura was only seconds behind her, taking the left flank as Azula took the right. Two teenage girls against a small army of heavily armed, experienced mercenaries, neither side offering or expecting any quarter. By rights, it should have been an outright bloodbath, vicious, appalling, and brief...
... and so, indeed, it was.
The people of Shikuka would tell the story to their children for centuries to come. Within two generations it had become legend, the stuff of epic campfire tales: the day that the outlanders trifled with the Witch of Shikuka and her wolf-spirit guide, and a righteous doom engulfed them in a storm of blue flames, flashing blades, terror and blood. In reality, it was not an absolute massacre. The vast majority survived, albeit some seriously wounded and all so terrorized they would never speak of the experience again. In the memories and imaginations of later Shikukan lorekeepers, though, their annihilation became absolute, the just fate of anyone who would taunt the spirits of the mountain.
The diciest moment came when one of Vandi's men hauled out a plasmacaster. With that, he could have vaporized half the street, including several of his fellows; but he never got the chance to use it. Before Laura could reach him or Azula blast him, he stiffened, then dropped to the ground, twitching, while smoke poured from the vents of his weapon's instrument pod. Jutting from the top of that pod was the black shaft of an arrow.
Laura glanced up and back along its flight path and saw Mairwen crouching on the inn's porch roof, her bow held sideways in front of her, smiling a sardonic little smile of her own.
"Llanfair am byth, sucker," she murmured, then drew another taser arrow from her quiver and nocked it, her eyes scanning the melee for another likely target.
In the end, the mercenaries fell one by one, all their weapons and tactics availing them nothing, and only Vandi Carondan remained. Her lip curled back in a sneer, she abandoned her empty blaster and drew a vibrosword from her back, twirling it in a practiced sort of way in her flesh-and-blood left hand.
"So hard to get good help these days," she said, advancing.
"Some things never change," Azula replied with a mock-sympathetic nod.
"I'll give you this, I know why you were worth so much now," Vandi said. "I just hope a lab will be able to pull something useful out of your corpse, 'cause you're way too dangerous for me to leave alive."
Azula smirked coldly. "You haven't even seen the best part yet."
"Right," said Vandi. She broke into a trot, then a run, sweeping in with her blade held low. Laura's preternaturally sharp ears caught the strobe-light whine of a charging capacitor - some weapon concealed in the woman's robotic hand, powering up for a surprise strike.
Azula changed her stance slightly, her hands closing into half-fists, first two fingers extended. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the pirate leader approach.
An instant before Vandi would have feinted with the blade and then discharged her hidden plasma smasher, Azula struck - but not with fire, which would have taken long enough to reach her opponent that it would have been, at best, a mutual takedown. When she swept her hand forward, what emerged from her stiffly pointed fingers was not flame, but a brilliant, jagged bolt of lightning. It took Vandi square in the chest, blasting her coat to rags, and raced down her bionic arm. The metal hand exploded like a grenade as the energy reached it, then earthed from it, carving a blackened scar in the street.
The pirate screamed, flung down in a ragged heap; the smoking remains of her vibrosword flew from her remaining hand, coming to rest at Laura's feet.
Grinning in vicious triumph, Azula strode forward, used her foot to turn Vandi onto her back, and raised a crackling hand, cocking it to strike the final blow - but Laura sprang between them and took hold of it with her own hand, heedless of the shock that action earned her.
"Azula," she said. "Azula! Enough."
Azula stared at her, eyes wide, pupils contracting. "You'd put yourself in my way to protect the likes of her?" she snarled, gesturing to the sprawled and half-conscious pirate leader. "Why?" She leaned forward, her face an inch from Laura's, and repeated the question in a voice just short of a scream. "WHY?"
Laura looked her straight in the eye and replied calmly, "I am not protecting her."
Azula blinked in shock at her, the fury draining away from her face. Then she backed away, whirled, and fled.
Laura hesitated, turning toward the inn, but Mairwen and Mrs. Arata were already there, helping Rhian up.
"I'm fine! Go!" Rhian called to her, blinking away the lingering effects of the stun.
She caught up to Azula at a precipice outside of town, where the highlands on which the village was built sloped sharply away into a valley. She, Mairwen, and Rhian had come here before, early in June, before encountering Azula. With the Little Shikuka River plunging spectacularly into the gorge off to one side, it was a popular beauty spot in the area.
"Azula - " Laura began, but Azula spun toward her and cried,
"What am I? What am I? Granddaughter and namesake of a man so despised that history has forgotten him? Daughter and heir of a man so hated his whole world has been struck from memory? Fit only to rule a land that no longer exists, that may never have existed?! What am I?"
Laura seemed to have no answer for that, but Azula wasn't expecting one, anyway. She paced up and down, gesticulating, pushing her hands back through her hair over and over, as she carried on ranting.
"Is this your revenge, Aang?" she asked. "Did you decide that the world was so broken, so corrupted, by its century under my forefathers' rule that the only way you could 'balance' it was to destroy it? To wipe it away so completely that its very name would be forgotten?" She turned and looked out over the valley, as if the person she was addressing might be over there, and continued, "And can even you have hated me so much that you would leave me - only me - behind to dream of its vanished glories?"
Azula met Laura's eyes, her face stricken, and demanded plaintively, "Am I all that's left? The last firebender, all that remains of lost, forgotten Dìqiú?"
Again leaving Laura no chance to answer her rhetorical question, she turned back to the valley again, tears rolling unchecked down her cheeks, and whispered,
"Well played." Her voice broke in a choking sob. "Oh, well played, Avatar. Even in my ruin I can only stand in awe of the elegance, the totality, of your cruelty. All that time I flattered myself that I was your true nemesis in the great game." She shook her head miserably. "I wasn't even a player."
Gathering her dignity, she dashed at her tears and squared herself up. Still addressing someone who wasn't there, she bowed her head with exquisite cordiality and said, as if conceding a diplomatic point, "Your victory is complete. I resign."
Then, taking one step forward, she held her hands away from her sides and let herself fall.
Epilogue: Discarded Weapons
"No," said Laura - not a shout of dismay, but a quiet refusal, as if to say, "This is unacceptable."
Leaping, she caught Azula around the waist; for a moment it seemed that this would only take them both over the edge, but then, with a supreme athletic effort, she twisted herself in the air, driving the claws of her free hand and both feet into the cliff face. Metal shrieked on stone; she felt her right shoulder dislocate as her weight and Azula's bore almost totally upon it with a sharp jerk. Teeth gritted, she hung grimly on, levering herself upward with her toes, and heaved her limp, unprotesting burden back up onto level ground, then climbed up after to sprawl panting on the grass alongside her.
Azula lay where she'd been put, looking blankly up at the sky, for a moment. Then she turned her head and asked simply,
Laura didn't answer her for a moment, busy gathering herself back together. Then she rose, re-seated her shoulder with a crack, and took Azula's hand, pulling her upright again with her good arm so that she could look her in the eye.
"You and I are the same," said Laura. "Discarded weapons. Manufactured monsters who outlived our makers' use for us. Each of us convinced at that point that our only remaining purpose was to die." She shook her head. "I received another chance from the hand of a perfect stranger. Now it is my turn to pay it forward."
Azula gave her a skeptical look. "Why waste it on me? I'm nothing. Useless. I have no purpose. I have nothing."
"You have your life," Laura told her, seizing her shoulder. "In the end, our lives are all we have. The past is behind us. The dead are gone. We owe them nothing. Your father, my creator - the only power they have over us now, we give to them ourselves. Perhaps they gave us our lives, but they are ours now," she insisted, her green eyes shining with an intensity Azula had never seen in them before.
"... Laura," she said, startled.
"Maybe the world you remember is gone," Laura continued. "Maybe it never even existed." She raised her other hand, wincing slightly as the still-damaged joint protested, and took Azula's other shoulder, gripping both firmly. "But you are here now. So live, Azula." She shook the other girl slightly for emphasis and said, "Grab your life with both hands. Never let anyone say you don't have the right to. Not even yourself. Especially not yourself."
Azula gazed back at her, utterly dumbfounded.
"I... " She looked away, bowing her head, and then raised her eyes again, a firmer conviction coming into them. "Yes," she said.
Mairwen and Rhian arrived then, both at a dead run. "Laura! Azula!" Rhian cried as she approached. "Are you all right?"
The two girls regarded each other for a moment longer, as if weighing the question together, then turned to face their friends with small, slightly weary smiles.
"No," said Azula, "but I think it's possible we may be one day."
Tuesday, April 6, 2337
Creedmoor, outside Llanfairpwllgwyngyll
It was a sunny spring afternoon in Gwynedd County, and in the southeast corner bedroom of Creedmoor, Sir Victor Creed's country house on the heath of the same name, the baronet's two orphaned nieces were hard at their schoolwork, for some values of "hard" and "work".
Laura Kinney sat at her desk, conducting research for an in-class presentation on the fisheries of Great Anglesey. She did not find this subject in any way interesting, but that wasn't preventing her from putting in a good effort; her holonet browser's user interface was piled high with links to all manner of documentation from the New Snowdonia Department of Marine Resources' archive, and she was plowing through it with her accustomed dogged stoicism.
Behind Laura, her "cousin" - enrolled in Philip Wilding Memorial High School under the name Sarah Inazuma, but actually called Azula - lay on her stomach on Laura's neatly made bed, propped up on her elbows with her chin in one hand, reading a slim paperback book. As her amber eyes scanned the pages, she seemed to be getting more and more annoyed about something. Presently she began making little noises of irritation, then derision.
Laura ignored her for a while, then decided to humor her and said, without turning around,
Azula glanced up from the book. "This Machiavelli person was an imbecile," she said.
Laura remained where she was for a moment, then swiveled in her desk chair and gave Azula a faintly curious look, inviting her to go on without speaking.
"When I was a princess," Azula explained, "I did virtually everything he recommends here, as though they constituted some sort of industry best practice for princes." She illustrated the point by waving the book in the air, then slapping it down on the coverlet in front of her again. "And what did I accomplish? Nothing! The square root of bugger-all, as Mairwen is wont to say." She shook her head disgustedly, opened the book again, and resumed reading. "Either human nature works entirely differently in this 'Italy' place, or this man didn't have the faintest idea what he was writing about."
Laura considered her friend's remarks for a few moments, then turned back to her own work.
"Probably best not to take that line in the classroom discussion tomorrow," she observed dryly.
Azula glanced up at her back, then smirked slightly and went back to reading.
"I suppose not," she agreed. "Ah, well."
Outward Reaches >>>
Enigma sector >>
HD 23079 system >
Mojave (HD 23079 III) is a formerly-Class-M planet orbiting the F-class star HD 23079 in the Enigma sector. It's best known to laypeople for being the only one of the so-called "Lost Colonies" of the second Earth diaspora to be rediscovered to date. Of course, most of the Lost Colonies were "lost" either through colony failure and abandonment, or by being wiped out by raiders of one sort or another, and so no longer exist to be "found" in the first place.
Mojave, on the other hand, dropped off the galactic commnet a scant sixty years after its 2017 founding, and no one knew why. Located on the far side of a particularly treacherous stretch of the Enigma sector, it was safely reachable only by traversing a complicated hyperspace route with the aid of a special nav beacon in orbit around the planet. There had been beacon outages before, and no one had paid the matter much mind - with a population comfortably under 10 million and no significant interstellar exports, Mojave wasn't exactly a place that was on the tip of everyone's tongue in the greater galaxy - but on October 23, 2077, after a series of garbled, unintelligible transmissions, the beacon and the planet's hyperwave link to the commnet both went down and never came back.
With the beacon out and the original daredevils who had discovered the planet in the first place long dead, no one remaining in the United Galactica had the means - or, really, the interest - to investigate without a great deal more trouble than anyone in power thought the place was worth. By the 2070s, United Earth was pulling back from Enigma-sector colonization anyway, because of the many difficulties in supply and maintaining colonies in that area. After a cursory investigation and a few futile automated probe launches, the UE and UG governments both gave up and wrote off the colony.
In 2381, freelance explorer and sometime civilization hunter Sarah Inazuma came across a cursory mention of the colony's loss while scouring the UG legacy files in the Federation Galactic Survey's archives in search of leads on another project. Intrepid, curious, and probably crazy, Inazuma set herself the task of reaching Mojave and finding out what had happened to it. Defying the odds, she did make it to Mojave alive, but found herself stranded there.
Thus, she became the first person to learn what had actually happened to the colony in 2077. A number of Earth's early colonies suffered internal factionalism to the point of civil war a few decades after their founding, but Mojave's was the only one on record to go nuclear, and in the process, the planet's civilization was all but annihilated. The planet, largely reduced to Class-L by the war, contained only one relatively small landmass capable of supporting life, centered around what had been Mojave's principal spaceport and its former hub of recreation, the imaginatively named city of New Vegas. Within two generations, the few thousand survivors had forgotten they even were colonists, believing that Mojave was humanity's planet of origin and that they were the only humans in the galaxy.
Three centuries of tribal warfare amid the ruins of a twenty-first-century Earth colony followed, with many ingenious uses of scavenged technology but no appreciable stability, and therefore little in the way of real progress or innovation. Inazuma arrived to find herself in a scorched and unforgiving wasteland and the middle stages of a savage war between two competing protonations, in that order. In order to survive and get the lay of the land, she took a job as a courier (telecommunications being, like all other advanced technologies, virtually extinct) and spent the next few months assessing the situation.
Most hitchhikers in such a position, stranded in the middle of a war on a backfallen colony with no hope of escape, would've resigned themselves to living out the rest of their natural lives there, and only hoping that they actually made it that far without being murdered or enslaved by one side, the other, or the various gangs of post-apocalyptic raiders playing off between them. Here's what Sarah Inazuma did instead:
A bare twenty months after she crash-landed on Mojave, Imperatrix Inazuma of the United Wasteland Empire welcomed Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise to her orderly, prosperous, and vibrant domain; promulgated a new constitution which converted the empire to a republic and dissolved her own office; and persuaded Captain Kirk to get her the hell out of Dodge before the people could elect her to replace herself.
And that, children, is why Sarah Inazuma is the greatest hitchhiker who ever lived.
As for Mojave, well, it's still not anyplace most people are lining up to visit, on account of 99 percent of its surface is a bleak and lethal radioactive hell and the remaining one percent is still mostly parched and inhospitable scrubland. On the other hand, those intrepid enough to brave the still-pretty-psycho flight out there, and who don't mind a bit of heat and dust, report that it's really rather good nowadays. Crime is low, creature comforts are on the up, and the New Vegas Strip, they say, is mighty pretty on those long desert nights.
This Guide entry was written by Dr. Rhian Lewis-Porter, Chief of Neurosurgery at Saint Gulik Royal Infirmary, Westminster Prime.
Azula had already assumed, from the pre-War advertisements she'd seen and the preposterously dated way of speaking Benny had had, that she wasn't going to like the Tops Casino when, at last, she reached it. Stepping through the door into its threadbare, tacky, goofily hepcat-retro lobby, she saw that she'd been absolutely right.
This impression was only reinforced a moment later, when the greeter at the reception desk, a sharp-faced young man in the ill-maintained pinstripe suit that seemed to be the Chairmen gang's uniform, turned what he probably thought was a suave smile to her and said,
"Hey hey, baby doll, welcome to the Tops Hotel and Casino. Before you get to the action, I'm gonna have to ask you to hand over any weapons you might be carrying."
Suppressing her instinctive reaction (a mocking laugh), Azula instead gave him a sweet but vaguely challenging smile, unfastened her gunbelt, and placed it on the counter. Then she waited for him to say something smarmy about needing to do a more thorough search, at which point she would most probably break his arm and the fun would start a little early. Instead, he just gave her a slightly nervous smile in return - the contradiction in the one she'd just given him seemed to flummox him slightly - and swept the gun and holster out of sight under the counter.
"There we go, safe as houses," he said, recovering some of his aplomb with a ritualistic adjustment of his tie. "Enjoy yourself, baby doll."
"Oh, I intend to," she assured him. "Where can I find your boss?"
The greeter looked puzzled. "Benny? He's on the floor someplace. What do you want with him?"
"Unfinished business," said Azula casually, breezing past the desk toward the casino floor. "Don't lose my gun, now. It has sentimental value."
The Tops casino floor was a vaguely surreal experience, like many things Azula had encountered during her time on Mojave so far. On the one hand, it was, well, a casino floor - blackjack tables, roulette wheels, croupiers, gamblers. No big surprises there. On the other hand, it was a casino floor on a planet where, evidently, no one had done even the most routine building maintenance in 300 years. The place looked abandoned in spite of the bustle of activity. For that matter, the people looked abandoned too, wearing their dirty, tattered dress clothes like discarded shop-window dummies.
For about the thousandth time since she came here, Azula wondered why it was that no one on this planet seemed to have the slightest inclination to clean anything up. Even in places like this, where the trappings of civilization were well on their way to reasserting themselves, it was like one of the technologies lost in the Great War had been the broom. It was all so out-of-order. Did these people enjoy living in filth? Was it some kind of bizarre survivor's pride thing? She didn't know, but she wished at least a few of them would bother to dust now and again.
Putting the thought aside, she stood at the corner of the L-shaped room and scanned it with her eyes. Yes, there was Benny, unmistakable in his hideous black-and-white-checked suitjacket with its ridiculously exaggerated shoulders, standing in the far corner. His right hand was a heavily bandaged white mitt, obvious even at this distance. He had his back to the room, talking to one of the identically suited and hatted triggermen surrounding him. Bodyguards with nasty-looking little drum-fed submachineguns, four of them. Not a problem.
No one paid Azula much attention as she walked across the gaming floor. The gamblers were too intent on losing their caps and the croupiers too intent on taking them. Only one person, a bored-looking man who was evidently the escort of one of the gamblers, looked up from a roulette table to take note of her as she passed, and he didn't seem to make much of her. Just another wastelander, mildly out of place in this environment with her many-patched leather trousers, well-traveled boots, and slightly ratty vest-over-sweater top. Upon closer inspection, she was cleaner, her hair neater, and her made-and-mended clothes more meticulously maintained than most to be seen out there, but that in itself was merely a mark of eccentricity, not exceptionality.
Benny was just delivering the punch line of a dirty joke ("... and he says to the guy, 'I'm tryin'! I'm tryin'!") to one of his bodyguards when Azula slipped up next to him, clapped a hand onto his padded shoulder, and leaned to murmur in his ear,
"Hello again, Benny."
"Aaah!" Benny cried, recoiling as if she'd touched a lighted match to his neck. He whirled, one hand rising to his ear, and then goggled in utter shock as he recognized her face - most especially her eyes, that amazing shade of amber, of which he'd taken particular note when last they'd met.
"What in the goddamn?!" he blurted, the color draining out of his face. His bodyguards had all taken a step back, a couple of them reaching for their weapons, but they didn't really seem to know what to do. At least two were still trying to figure out how the mysterious chick in the red sweater had managed to walk right up to the boss without them noticing until she was practically on top of him.
Azula half-smiled, the expression containing neither mirth nor warmth. "Surprised to see me?" she asked rhetorically.
Benny stared at her, his jaw working silently for a second; then he pulled himself together and said, "OK, let's just take it easy, everybody. Smooth. Smooth moves. Easy does it." Then, with a wan smile of his own, he replied, "I gotta admit, I wasn't expectin' to see you again, babe." The smile became a rueful grin as he added, "I guess now I know why the Khans never came lookin' for the rest'a their pay, huh."
"Oh, don't worry about the Khans," said Azula pleasantly. "I made sure they got everything that was coming to them. You're the only loose end left. I'll give you this, you're a fast runner. By the time I finished with your hired muscle, I had no idea where you'd got off to in the dark."
Benny gulped audibly and tried to be jaunty as he replied, "Well, hey, everybody's gotta have a talent, am I right? So listen, uh, what'd you come all the way here for? I gotta figure if it was to waste me, you wouldn't'a shown your hand like this."
Azula chuckled darkly. "Unless, of course, I was trying to make a statement in the process." Taking a step toward him, she fixed him with a smile that had a strange combination of sultriness and cruelty in it and went on, "Then I would do it exactly... this... way."
"Guys, what're you just standin' there for... " Benny muttered, backing away. Shaking their heads, his bodyguards moved to restore their formation. The pair closest to Azula pulled out switchblades, while the other unslung their SMGs.
"'Some say the world will end in fire,'" said Azula, still smiling.
The croupiers and other members of the Chairmen gang present on the floor of the Tops that day had seen any number of screwy things in their time, first wandering the wasteland as part of the tribe that had preceded the Chairmen, then during the gang's consolidation of its position on the New Vegas strip. None of them, however, had ever seen an unarmed woman walk head-on into a straight-up fight with four heavily armed men and come out on top - let alone throw fire from her empty hands while she was at it, all while calmly reciting pre-War poetry in a low, faintly seductive purr.
she said, and Frankie Knives was down, his blade spinning from his hand as she trapped his first thrust in some kind of kung-fu joint lock, then gave him a kick that sent him hurtling over the railing and across one of the blackjack tables with his suitjacket on fire.
and Big Franny hit the deck, blasted clear to the Presidential Suite express elevator by what almost looked like a gas explosion.
and she slipped, smokelike, out of Rocky Ramone's line of fire, letting him stitch a line of bullet holes up the already-ragged wallpaper. With a karate-punch-like movement, she launched a bolt of blue fire out of nowhere. It struck his SMG's magazine, causing the ammo to cook off like a grenade in his face.
and Zippy the Jethead opened up - closer than Rocky, he couldn't possibly miss; she drew an incandescent line with an open hand, calling a sheet of that blue flame into existence between them, and Zippy's bullets vaporized before they ever reached her. Her smile becoming just a touch fierce, she spun out of the follow-through and punched through her own wall of fire, causing it to part and dissipate around her like a curtain with an audible WHUMP of heated air, and then Zippy got the same treatment as Rocky.
Still in motion, as if the whole thing had been one continuous, pre-rehearsed dance, Azula crossed the three paces to Benny and slammed him up against the wall by the neck with one hand, the other cocked next to her ear, two fingers extended, like a kid's play-gunfighter gesture. He had his good left hand in his jacket, going for a shoulder-holstered gun, but he was right-handed and obviously hadn't practiced the move much, and he hadn't cleared leather by the time she pinned him.
"Mommy!" Benny squeaked as she stared into his eyes, her own alight with the pleasure of a well-executed takedown.
"'Is also great,'" Azula purred, "'and would suffice.'"
Then, still holding him against the wall with one hand, she reached the other into his side pocket and withdrew it with the Platinum Chip between her first two fingers. With a movement like a conjuror, she held it up in front of his terrified eyes, then made it disappear, displaying to him her empty palm.
"And what have we learned?" Azula inquired conversationally.
"... you are one crazy broad," Benny gasped after a moment's fearful silence.
Azula smiled, the manic energy dissipating from her eyes. Laughing lightly, she released him and stepped back as he felt at his throat with his good hand.
"True enough," she said. Then she straightened his tie and lapels, patted him patronizingly on the cheek, and said, "See you around, Mr. Chairman. I'd stay away from Red Rock Canyon if I were you."
She was about halfway back to the door, silently enjoying the shocked stares of gamblers, croupiers, and assorted random Chairmen, when Benny's voice barked sharply from behind her, "Hey!"
Azula looked back over her shoulder to see that he'd raised himself away from the wall and drawn his gun - an ordinary replacement for the fancy custom job she'd wrecked, along with his right hand, in Goodsprings. His face crimson with humiliation and fury, he leveled the pistol and thumbed back the hammer.
Without hesitation, Azula whirled, one foot sliding in a semicircle as her body bent slightly down and to the right. The bullet cracked past her left ear and went on to ricochet from the bannister of the main staircase with a crazy zannnnngggg sound, just like in an old Western. At the same time, her left hand tucked into a fist at her side as the right thrust forward, two fingers pointing straight at Benny's heart.
The witnesses to this curious duel were expecting more of the fire she'd taken out Rocky and Zippy with, but instead, what hit Benny was a bolt of lightning, such a brilliant and - pardon the expression - shocking blue that people recoiled and covered their eyes with painful cries as it burned a vivid green afterimage in their vision. Benny didn't even scream. He didn't have time before all the apparatus he would've used to do it was vaporized and blown out his back.
What was left of him hit the floor a second after his gun, slumping to the threadbare carpet with smoke pouring from his mouth and the charred through-and-through hole in his upper torso. By then, Azula had turned around and started for the lobby again, as perfectly composed and completely unconcerned as if she'd just had a pleasant conversation with an acquaintance. When she reached the lobby, the greeter and a couple of other Chairmen were just standing there staring at her in utter disbelief, their own weapons completely forgotten.
"My gun, please," she said calmly to the greeter.
"... Huh?" he replied.
"I'm leaving," she explained patiently. "I want my gun back."
"Oh! Uh... right! Sure!" He retrieved the weapon from under his desk and slid it across the counter to her.
"Thank you," said Azula cordially. He watched in continued astonishment as she belted it back on, settling its familiar weight on her right hip; then she dug in one of the pockets of her black leather half-vest for a moment and spread a handful of bottlecaps on the counter. "Sorry about the mess," she said, and then turned and left the casino without a backward glance.
"... God damn," said Swank, the casino's newly-promoted manager, from beside the greeter. "What a dame, am I right?"
"No lie, boss," the greeter agreed, staring along with him at the closed door she'd left by. "No, fuckin', lie."
Friday, October 14, 2388
Powell, Coalhill Crown Colony
Vega Sector Crown Colonies
United Federation of Planets
In some sectors of the galaxy, the War of Corporate Occupation ended with Largo's fall at the Second Battle of Zeta Cygni. The management team who took over control of GENOM Corporation in the wake of that august event called a halt to hostilities immediately thereafter. Much of the company followed those instructions without question.
Much, but not all. In the Vega sector, for example, the Military Arm forces were under the command of a cadre of hardline officers, Largo loyalists to the end, and they weren't about to throw in the towel just because the Wedgies had somehow managed to eliminate the Master. Some of them weren't even convinced it was true. And so, there and in a few other places, the war went on, in some cases for several wearying weeks; while the new Wedge Defense Force picked itself up from the rubble of Second Zeta, dusted itself off, and reconfigured itself to undertake the task of prying the loyalist remnants out of their places.
On most of the Crown Colony worlds, the GENOM occupation continued relatively peacefully, with local forces either eliminated outright during the takeovers preceding Second Zeta or deep in hiding, too weak or cowed or both to fight back without outside help that was not yet forthcoming. Coalhill, on the other hand, had never quite been fully pacified to begin with. The local Crown Colony Commonwealth Defence Force garrison had never surrendered, but instead vanised underground to commence Werwolf operations. With news filtering in that GENOM was on the ropes elsewhere and the WDF risen again, the planet's constant low-level resistance shifted back into high gear... but too soon, too haphazardly, and at a terrible cost. Coalhill, already battered by the invasion, spiraled into the particular hell of urban warfare within 48 hours of the reopening of hostilities.
Standing at the situation table in her makeshift headquarters on the outskirts of Powell, the 3CDF officer in nominal command of the resistance knew the cause was lost. It was right there in front of her in blue and red; what few forces she had left were concentrated here, hemmed in on three sides by the enemy and the fourth by the sea. Had she been able to conduct her counterattack against the occupiers as planned, and indeed as she had been doing so throughout the occupation, this would've been the ultimate failure case scenario, reached only after months of canny hit-and-run fighting and only with the worst possible luck. With the plan thrown out the window by an overeager glory hound of a local "militia" leader, it had been virtually the start condition.
"Damn it all to hell," she muttered through her teeth. "If Kapsten were still alive, I'd be tempted to kill him myself."
Her adjutant hurried in from another room, looking dismayed, and barely remembered to salute before blurting, "Tenth Legion have taken the ADC, Colonel. We've lost all contact with Lt. Trevor's detachment."
The colonel looked up from the map, her face almost expressionless. "Well, that's that, then," she said calmly. "We've done as much as we can do, Ponsonby." She turned to another of her subordinates. "How long can we hold this position, Quentin?"
"Assuming they don't commence an orbital bombardment?" Quentin replied wryly, raking a hand back through his sandy hair. "Maybe an hour. Two if we plan to go out Martian Legion style."
The colonel didn't respond to her intel officer's strained attempt at gallows humor; she took the information on board without comment, thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Fall back to the inner perimeter. Redistribute what supplies are left accordingly and prepare for... well, prepare yourselves." She sighed, shaking her head. She was a tall, slim woman in her late sixties, her long, curly red hair only slightly dimmed as yet by the onset of middle age, but right now she showed every one of those years in the weariness on her face. Ponsonby wondered when she had last slept. Probably around the same time he had, he reasoned. They'd all been maintaining for a month and more of near-constant action, surviving on catnaps and stims. The colonel was tough, as tough as any of the hard lads and lasses in her command (many of them a third or less her age), but no one could sustain a regimen like that forever.
"I'll go and tell the doctor," she said at last. "Won't be but a minute. Carry on, gentlemen."
Turning, she went through the door at her back and on into what passed for her private quarters. In the building's previous life, it had been an executive's office, selected by Quartermaster Davidson for the colonel's lodgings because it had its own bathroom. That was the sort of soldier Davidson had been, always solicitous of the civilians, even in a time and place like this.
The doctor, a petite woman with short, subtly greying blonde hair, looked up from inventorying her much-depleted supplies at the table along one side of the room that served for a desk. She was as worn and tired as anyone else in the command post, because though not technically a member of the 3CDF, she was the only physician they had after the initial assault.
"Is it time?" she asked.
The colonel nodded. "They have the Aerospace Defence Centre," she said. "There's nothing stopping them from bringing in as many reinforcements as they like now." She unsnapped the flap of the holster she wore at her belt and drew her sidearm, then placed it on the table next to the doctor's bag. "You may need this," she said, but the doctor pushed it gingerly aside.
"I have better ways," she said cryptically. The colonel regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then picked up the blaster and put it back in its holster.
"I'm sorry I got you into this," said the colonel, her voice hushed.
The doctor finished repacking her bag, stood up, closed it, and then turned and took both the colonel's hands in hers, looking her in the eye.
"I got me into this," she said, then added with a faint, wry smile, "as always. I didn't have to come with you on your two-week temporary posting to Coalhill, but I figured, what could possibly go wrong?"
The colonel managed a wan little smile of her own for that. She leaned nearer, seeming as if she might reply, but before she could, a new and unfamiliar sound broke through the subliminal rattle of combat outside - the roar of what sounded like powerful thrusters, approaching fast at very low level. A moment later came the distinctive hissing cry of burst-firing naval phasers, then the crash of exploding concrete.
Ponsonby knocked, then flung open the door without waiting for a reply. So agitated was he that he didn't even react to having just barged into an intimate, personal moment; he merely saluted hastily again and blurted, "Colonel, you'd better come and see this."
The two women shared a speculative look, and then both of them followed Ponsonby out, the doctor pausing only long enough to grab her bag.
Outside, in the rubble-strewn remains of what had been the office park's decorative courtyard, the white-armored troops of GENOM's Tenth Legion had just begun their assault, only to find themselves confronted by more resistance than they bargained for. Not only were the few remaining 3CDF personnel concentrated into their most effective possible formation, with carefully sited automatic blaster emplacements and dug-in infantry positions, they had just unexpectedly received air support of a kind. Roughly half of what had been the GENOM force's line of attack was now a field of broken, flaming slag, impassable except by armored vehicles.
As the colonel, the doctor, and Ponsonby crouched in the cover of a transparisteel blast shield erected by the entrance, an aircraft none of them recognized swooped in from the east and strafed the far end of the courtyard again. Angular and sleek, with smooth and lethal-looking lines, the unknown ship was painted a brilliant scarlet with discreet touches of gold, more like a racing craft or particularly flamboyant luxury yacht than a combat vessel, but its weapons were real enough; its second strafing run closed off the attackers' approach entirely. Only their vanguard, thirty or so strong, had penetrated the courtyard proper by the time the red ship completed its work.
These stormtroopers - the colonel had to admire their discipline - immediately regrouped into what, to avoid using the word "wedge", the White Legion's official tactics handbook referred to as a "spike formation". Seeing that, the colonel realized at once what their orders were. They weren't interested in taking the position, or even necessarily in surviving. Their only goal was to break through to the inside...
... and eliminate her.
"You should run," she said to the doctor.
"When it's just getting interesting?" the doctor replied sardonically.
The colonel's force did what they could, their fire peeling away the outermost layer of legionaries, but the GENOM stormtroopers' armor was strong and their formation mutually supportive. The 3CDF wouldn't be able to bring enough of them down to break their assault before they reached the inner perimeter.
The mysterious scarlet aerospacecraft had completed its turn and was coming back across the courtyard again. By this time, the GENOM vanguard was too close to the building for another strafing run to be feasible; instead, to the colonel's surprise, it appeared to drop something, a dark speck falling from its partially open belly ramp to plummet toward the stormtroopers' formation. Shouting a warning to her own troops, the colonel pressed herself lower behind the blast shield, covering as much of the doctor as she could with her own body.
Although the object dropped by the scarlet ship was not a bomb, it hit the legionaries rather like one, plunging into the middle of their formation and scattering them on impact with a concussive blast of bright blue flame.
"What - " the colonel blurted. She glanced in astonishment at the doctor, who looked back at her with an identical expression, and then both of them turned to watch the show.
For the remainder of the immediate crisis, the 3CDF soldiers were too surprised and awestruck to contribute anything of note. They just crouched there behind their cover, slack-jawed, and watched as the person who had just jumped from that aircraft rose to her feet and began systematically, relentlessly, and elegantly murdering the crap out of two dozen startled and disorganized GENOM stormtroopers. It took less time to do than to describe: a lone woman, clad in black and red leather, challenging two dozen armed and armored soldiers with her bare hands... and winning.
Most of the stormtroopers' rattled, hasty blasterfire missed her; the few rounds that were on target, she intercepted with bolts of blue fire launched, evidently, from nowhere, or somehow blocked and dissipated with circular motions of her slim hands. Her counterblasts, as well as blows and kicks from fists and feet swathed in the same cerulean flame, left behind charred and melted armor, shattered weapons, broken men. Those who recognized that their weapons were useless and tried to employ their close-combat training as well fared no better than the others; they only perished slightly more tired.
And then it was over, and the woman in black and red was walking with measured, poised, very faintly provocative tread through the 3CDF soldiers' silent arcs of fire to stand before the colonel and the doctor, her face touched with an ironic little smile. She was, a stunned Ponsonby could see now, their rough contemporary, her raven-black hair just starting to go a little bit silver at the temples, but she was still the most beautiful woman he thought he had ever seen, with piercing amber eyes and near-perfect skin.
Behind her, with perfect timing, her red ship returned from dealing with GENOM's outlying forces. Maneuvering in a rather less hectic fashion now, it landed behind her, its thrusters and repulsors still audibly powered up, waiting.
"Colonel and Doctor Lewis-Porter," she said, nodding first to one woman, then the other. "Captain Sarah Inazuma, H/V Phoenix Queen. Vice Admiral James T. Kirk of the Wedge Defense Force extends his compliments and begs to inform you that relief has arrived. He awaits you aboard his flagship Enterprise at your earliest convenience." Then, her official message delivered, she smiled more fully and personally, opening her hands in greeting, and declared, "Mairwen. Rhian. Llanfair am byth, ladies. It's been a while."
While Rhian darted around the blast shield and seized their old, long-lost friend in a joyful embrace, Mairwen stared at her in complete disbelief for a couple of seconds. Then, cracking a smile of her own, she said,
"You always did know how to make an entrance, Azula."
Thursday, September 6, 2390
Imperial Hotel Lubyanka
Moscow, Eurasian Commonwealth, Earth
As she navigated the mazelike corridors of the Imperial Lubyanka, Captain S.L. Inazuma wondered what perverse impulse had caused the Imperial Hotels Corporation's managers to buy this, of all buildings, in the chaos following the fall of Olympus and convert it into an opulent boutique hotel. Oh, it was grand enough, with its parquet floors and (for Moscow) slightly florid architecture, but it was quite small by Imperial standards - not even five stories high - and its history was... not exactly in keeping with the image Imperial Hotels generally tried to promote.
On the other hand, IHC was a Salusian company. Maybe the people running it didn't know that the yellow building across from the toy store hadn't always been the innocuous insurance-company office it was when they bought it...
Then again, as she entered the third-floor room to which she'd been summoned for this meeting, she decided they probably had; or at least the person responsible for decorating this room did. Like many of the Imperial Lubyanka's third-floor rooms, this wasn't a bedroom - Inazuma was not the kind of private contractor who took meetings in hotel bedrooms - but an office, one of a number the hotel rented to businesspeople, politicians, and government officials visiting the city during the ongoing post-Corporate War reconstruction of Earth.
This one, in particular, was decorated in a very heavy, slightly sinister style. It was not in keeping with the elegance of the hotel's newly-renovated common areas, but somehow it struck Inazuma as more appropriate to the building. A fire burned in a black brick hearth on one wall; the others were covered in bookshelves, apart from the one opposite the doors, which featured a window looking out on Lubyanka Square behind a massive ebony desk.
There was a man sitting at the desk, in the larger of the room's two chairs, which was high-backed and covered in blood-red leather. He remained seated as the doors closed behind his guest, regarding the contents of a file folder lying open on the blotter in front of him. He was not a terribly impressive specimen physically, thin-faced and balding, with little round spectacles and a prominent nose; more like a bureaucrat or accountant than a man with the sort of power and position ostentatiously announced by his office. The only really remarkable things about his appearance were the strange red marks on his face, a pair of bold red slashes on his forehead, converging but not quite meeting between his eyes, and matching triangular markings at his prominent cheekbones.
Now he smiled thinly at her and said, in a low voice touched with a faint accent, "Captain Inazuma, thank you for being so punctual. I've just been double-checking a few things in your file. It's a very impressive record." After a moment's pause for comment (which she did not offer), he went on in a detached, clinical voice, "Sarah L. Inazuma, captain of the Wedge Defense Force hired vessel Phoenix Queen. Born on August 24, 2319, on Karafuto in the Rigel sector, you were orphaned in 2336 and moved to New Snowdonia, to live with your uncle and cousin. You left home in 2342, after completing baccalaureate degrees in political science and electrical engineering, and subsequently embarked on a career that can only be described as... variegated."
Consulting the file again (though Inazuma assumed this was purely for show; this was the kind of man who would have memorized these details), he went blandly on, "Explorer, mercenary, musician, courier, Outer Rim pirate queen, astrographer, privateer... " He shook his head and looked up at her, his colorless eyes vaguely unsettling behind his spectacles, and arched an eyebrow. "Where did you find the time for all that?" he wondered rhetorically.
If he expected his knowledge of her life story to rattle Captain Inazuma, the man had misjudged her; her only reaction was to arch an eyebrow at him in turn, her aspect intrigued but cool.
"One makes time for the important things," she replied nonchalantly. "Speaking of which, I notice you omitted my brief tenure as a priestess of Kossuth." She considered one carefully manicured fingernail thoughtfully. "It's just as well. I'm probably still wanted in Neverwinter."
The man inclined his head with a faint smile, as if to say, Touché, Captain. Then he gestured to the low-backed chair facing his desk. "Please. Take a seat."
Inazuma sauntered unhurriedly toward the chair, but rather than seat herself in it, she stood behind it, her hands resting loosely atop the back.
"I'll stand for the moment," she said. "You appear to have me at a disadvantage, Mister... ?"
"My name would mean nothing to you, Captain," said the man imperturbably. "I'm merely an agent, representing a powerful individual who seeks to retain your services."
"We're under contract to the WDF for another sixteen months," she said. "Unless your powerful individual doesn't mind waiting until 2392, you may want to move on to the next résumé on your list."
The man's cool little smile became a trifle wider. "You misunderstand me, Captain. My principal doesn't wish to hire the Phoenix Queen. He seeks to engage you, personally and privately, for the use of... certain others of your many gifts."
The look that crossed the captain's face was that of a woman not quite uttering aloud a mocking laugh. "How very delicately phrased," she said lightly.
The grey man looked faintly scornful. "I am unable to divulge the particulars of the job until we have an agreement in principle," he said, "but I can assure you it is nothing of that kind."
"It doesn't matter anyway," said Inazuma. "I'm not available. The war may be over, but there's still much for us to do, and I'm not about to leave the ship and go wandering off on some solo job while my crew carry on without me." She turned to go. "Good day, Mister Nameless."
She was reaching for the doorknob when, without raising his voice or even rising from his chair, the grey man said something that stopped her in her tracks and set her heart hammering behind her sternum:
"I'm afraid it's locked, Princess Azula."
She froze, hand on doorknob, and remained that way for a moment, amber eyes wide. Then, moving with a deliberate slowness that belied her agitation, she withdrew her hand and turned back to face him.
While she'd been facing away, the man had switched the folder he'd been reading from for another, this one with a bright red cover. Consulting this one, he read with exactly the same clinical inflection as before,
"Sarah Laura Inazuma: an alias for Crown Princess Azula of the Fire Nation of Dìqiú, born in the 97th year of the Ri Wu era to Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa. That would be Standard Year 2204, I believe. You crossed into Midgard proper in 2221, where you almost immediately fell foul of the slaver and pirate Vandal Carondan and found yourself frozen in crystallite. You were released in 2336 by one Laura Kinney - another individual with a truly remarkable CV - as whose cousin you subsequently posed while living with her and her uncle on New Snowdonia. Later in life you adopted her name as part of your own nom de guerre, which is interesting, but immaterial."
Azula kept her eyes cool and dismissive, her gait steady, and her hands still as she crossed back to the second chair. Inside, she was slightly stunned, her mind and heart racing. It was the first time in more than fifty years she'd heard anyone speak the name of Dìqiú, or even encountered anyone who seemed to know that it existed - but she was far too seasoned a campaigner to show those cards. Not in a room like this, to a man she thought she recognized.
When she reached the chair, she didn't sit in it, but stood behind it again, her hands atop the leather-padded back.
"You have ten seconds to tell me how you knew that," she said calmly.
The grey man's affect remained equally calm as he replied, "I'm happy to tell you where I obtained my information; however, as I said before, we must reach an agreement in principle before I can reveal anything."
Her eyes narrowing just a little, Azula told him matter-of-factly, "If you don't stop playing with me and explain yourself at once, we will agree that it was not your best course of action."
"I wouldn't advise you to indulge your penchant for violence here, Your Highness," said the grey man imperturbably. "This room is quite thoroughly soundproofed, and you will find that your... unique talents... are of little use against me."
Azula regarded him coldly for a few seconds, and then - to his faint surprise, the first outright reaction he'd shown - she smiled.
"Turn around," she said.
"I beg your pardon?" he replied, his eyebrow arching again.
"Turn around," Azula repeated patiently.
Puzzled, the grey man did so. For a moment he didn't see what she was getting at. There was nothing behind him but the window, and beyond that the traffic and tourists of the square. Across the way, the brown bulk of Dyetski Mir loomed as it always had, looking strangely dour for a toy store. He was on the verge of turning back and asking her what she thought she was playing at when he caught a glint of sunlight from the opposite roof: the distinctive blink of a telescope's objective lens.
"Boone hates it when I make him do that," said Azula conversationally. "It's so amateurish; it pricks his professionalism terribly. I've managed to persuade him, though, that occasionally a sniper is a statement that simply must be made." She smiled coolly again. "Don't you agree?" As the grey man swiveled to face her again, outrage creeping onto his face, she went on, "Now, you may well be fireproof, friend - although I find it slightly insulting that you think that, in itself, would stop me - but unless you're also bulletproof, I suggest you reconsider your position."
When he said nothing for several seconds, only staring at her in an ever-more-evident combination of disbelief and fury, Azula rolled her eyes slightly and said, "Did you seriously think I would report to a mysterious meeting with an unspecified party on the third floor of the Lubyanka and not take precautions? The owners of this hotel may be ignorant of the place's history, but I assure you, I am not."
He worked at bringing that on board for a few seconds longer, then inclined his head again and favored her with a colorless, oddly gracious little smile.
"Well played, Your Highness," he said. "Very well. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, Count of Cocytus, Director-General of His Infernal Majesty Surtur the Terrible's Directorate for Security and Intelligence."
Azula narrowed her amber eyes at him for a moment, then said coolly, "The pleasure is yours, Director Beria."
Beria seemed to find her dismissive unfriendliness pleasing. He smiled a little as he replied, "I was forewarned, of course, that you are often pleased to be difficult, but in this case your animus is misplaced. You have been given a great honor."
"Really?" Azula wondered sarcastically. "In literature, the Devil at least can be bothered to tempt mortals himself, rather than sending his underlings to do it." She looked around the room with a thoughtful air. "Was this your office?"
"Yes," said Beria. "Or as near as could be made after so many alterations to the building."
"Ah, the memories this place must hold for you," said Azula casually as she walked - "stalked" might be a better word - along one wall, running the fingers of one hand idly along the spines of the books. "All those torture sessions. Although I'm being ridiculous, you wouldn't have done that in here, would you?" she added conversationally. "Not and get blood on the rug. No, don't be absurd, Azula. You'd have done that sort of work in the basement, surely."
Then, turning to him with an upraised I-have-it finger, she went on, "The women, though. They would've been brought here. That's why the room was soundproofed, yes?" With a curious tilt of her head, she asked, "Did you have a couch in those days? Or did you just use your desk? Or the floor? A couch would've been a bit bourgeois, come to think of it. It's not as though you were some common capitalist-imperialist rapist, obsessed with comfortable furniture."
By now Beria was red-faced, not with embarrassment, but anger. Clenching his fists on his desk blotter, he said through his teeth, "Upon the urging of His minister for war, the Archduke of Antenora, my dread lord Surtur sent me here that I might arrange this meeting and propose to you the role He envisions for you in His service. The Great Fire rarely extends such courtesy. Ordinarily He would have arranged for your liberation from your mortal shell first. As such," he added with cold asperity, "you might consider taking the matter seriously."
"Hah! One of the most evil men in human history returns to the living world - to his old office, no less - in order to offer me a position in the infernal court of Muspelheim, and I'm supposed to take it seriously?" Azula replied. "Oh yes, I've heard of you, Comrade Beria, and of Muspelheim," she added to his startled glance. "In my youth I made an extensive study of humanity's foulest villains, and one doesn't spend as much time as I have delving into the dark and strange corners of the galaxy without picking up a fact or two about the larger shape of the cosmos."
Paradoxically, that seemed to calm Beria down. The flush faded from his face as he composed himself, adjusting his necktie fastidiously. Then, back in his coolly colorless voice again, he said, "Then you will understand the importance of the task before you. So much the better. Know this, then, Princess: The Ragnarök impends. The time is fast approaching when the other Eight Worlds will perish in the Great Fire's purifying flame. In a matter of mere days, my Lord Surtur's armies shall go forth to make war upon the gods." Smiling his thin smile again, fingertips spread upon the blotter of his desk, he went on, "When that happens, Archduke Ozai would have his favorite general leading the way."
At this, even Azula was unable to suppress her surprise entirely; her eyes widened a little, fixed intently on Beria's face, as she gauged whether the man could possibly be serious.
Of course he's serious, you imbecile, she told herself.
Then, narrowing her eyes again, she laughed lightly and said, "I once told Father that I'd see him in Hell. Under the circumstances, though, I think that's a promise I had best break."
Beria shook his head, a thin parody of sadness crossing his face. "I'm afraid that's not really a viable option, Your Highness. My instructions are quite clear. The Archduke prefers that you be brought to him alive and... intact, perhaps for sentimental reasons," he added with faint distaste, "but alive or dead, you will be going to Muspelheim from here."
"Do me a favor, Comrade Beria," said Azula casually, as if he hadn't threatened her. "When you see my father again, give him my regards and tell him I'll see him soon." Then, her mouth quirking into a sardonic little half-smile, she added, "But he probably won't see me."
Beria opened his mouth to utter some further threat or remonstration, but before he could get it out, the window behind him broke, cracks raying out in all directions from a neat round hole that appeared near the center. His body jerked as if someone had kicked his chair from behind.
Regarding her expressionlessly, Beria said, "You won't leave this building alive."
Azula's half-smile became a trifle mischievous. "Do you know, I rather think I will," she said, and then his body dissolved, leaving only a heap of smoldering ash in the seat of his perforated chair.
By the time she reached the lobby, the rest of her crew had moved in and neutralized Beria's remaining assets. Their long-practiced efficiency was such that the hotel's staff and the Moscow police never knew anything out of the ordinary had happened beyond the slight damage to, and mysterious disappearance of the guest in, that one third-floor room. If she hadn't been so preoccupied, she'd have felt a distinct sense of pride at the quality of their work. No one paid any attention as the black-haired woman in the black and red leather jacket left the building and walked off toward the Lubyanka Metro station.
A half-block from the hotel, she was joined by a small droid of an obsolescent but still-common type - spherical, basketball-sized, and festooned with antennae. As it hovered into "step" beside her on its repulsors, the droid emitted a stream of beep codes.
"Give me all-call, ED-E," said Captain Inazuma, still walking. The droid beeped acknowledgement. "Good work, everyone," she went on. "Get back to the Queen on the double. I want to be ready to raise ship in 30 minutes. Ronni, start pulling in all the military comm traffic you can and sweep for anomalies. We're going hunting."
"Aye aye, Captain," Veronica Santangelo's voice replied.
"I'm on my way back now," the captain went on as she and ED-E descended into the Metro station. "ETA twenty-five minutes. Inazuma out."
No one on the Sokolnicheskaya Line of the Moscow Metro paid any attention to Captain Inazuma and ED-E as they boarded a northbound train. There weren't many people on the train, and none of them appeared to care about a woman with an antique eyebot. That suited Azula just fine. She was fully preoccupied trying to process all she'd just learned, and what it implied.
Dìqiú is real, she thought, again and again, as the tunnel lights flicked past. Dìqiú is real, and I will find my way back there...
... assuming the universe doesn't end before I get the chance.
Asking Veronica to search the military comm bands for anomalous transmissions was a long shot - she had no particular reason to expect that the mortal armed forces of the galaxy would have any idea that the Ragnarök was even possible, much less impending - but her instincts told her it was her best shot at getting a line on the situation. If anyone in the mortal world was likely to end up involved in the prophesied war to end all creation, it was the people at the top of the Wedge Defense Force.
She supposed she should try to warn them about what she'd just been told, but as the train stopped and started again at Chistye Prudy, she decided that would be a waste of time. She wasn't close enough to their inner circle to assume that they would automatically believe her. Most probably, they'd either assume she was crazy (hah! she thought), or by the time she got in touch with them, they would already be involved.
Of course, if they were, and if they communicated their involvement in a way that Veronica could pick out of the æther, then it was still an open question whether Azula and her crew could position the Phoenix Queen to be a part of it; but they would have to burn that bridge when they got to it, and for now, just finding out where to go took precedence over worrying about how they were going to get there.
On top of all that, there was the deep, reverberating shock of Beria having dropped her father's name to be processed, and this she was doing very slowly and deliberately. The mere name of ex-Fire Lord Ozai no longer held any particular power to frighten or cow Azula, but having his continued (or renewed? she wasn't clear on how damnation worked) existence thrown into her sphere of consciousness so roughly took some adjustment. Her dead, despised father, the scourge of his world, now an archduke of Hell? What in the world, she wondered, did they have his ancestors doing down there?
She was still mulling that over as the train pulled into Krasnye Vorota, the last stop before she would need to leave the Metro and transfer to the high-speed express line out to the spaceport. Quite a few people boarded the train during the stop - not enough to make it actually crowded, but enough that the increased population density penetrated Azula's reverie as the train pulled out of the station. Glancing around, she saw that the carriage she was in was now about half-full of identical Muscovite commuters: grey little men in bulky grey coats, on their way to and from grey little offices in bulky grey buildings. Ah, for the life of a freebooting spacer.
She almost returned to her thoughts at that point, until it suddenly struck her just how identical they were... and all at once, she realized that everyone on the train was Lavrentiy Beria.
The realization brought a self-mocking half-smile to Azula's lips as she made eye contact with Beria, who was regarding her with the same largely blank affect he had shown through most of their earlier meeting.
"Well played, Comrade Beria," she said sincerely. "However, I wish the record to reflect that I did, in fact, leave the Lubyanka alive."
Beria smiled very slightly and touched the brim of his hat with a forefinger, acknowledging the point. All around her, Beria put down their newspapers and paperback books and began slowly converging upon her. By her side, ED-E emitted the sampled snare drum riff that served him for an "aggression detected" alert tone; above the rattle and clatter of the train, Azula could hear the thin, high whine of the droid's weapons systems powering up.
"ED-E," said Azula casually, "terminate companion protocol. Return to base, code A-one-one-three. Expedite."
ED-E made no chivalrous protest at being ordered to abandon her in this crisis. Instead, without hesitation, he pivoted 90 degrees, blasted the nearest Beria with his plasma cannon, and then darted straight through both the space where he'd been standing and the opposite window, smashing the reinforced glass like paper. The droid careened into the tunnel beyond and was instantly lost to sight, left far behind by the speeding train.
Azula and Beria regarded the heap of ash for a moment.
"I thought you said you were fireproof," said Azula reproachfully. None of Beria replied, except to resume their slow, relentless advance.
five minutes later
The Sokolnicheskaya Line platform was deserted. This was probably just as well, since if it hadn't been, the arrival of a northbound train with all the windows of its lead carriage broken and several of its seats on fire would probably not have gone unremarked.
As the train glided to a halt, one of that carriage's doors slid open, shedding fragments of blackened, broken glass from its window frames as it did, and a lone figure stepped off. With a sardonic little smile on her face, Captain Sarah Inazuma straightened her jacket and strode across to the Spaceport Express escalator, leaving behind charred and ash-strewn ruin.
Cosmonaut V.V. Bondarenko Interstellar Spaceport
Shchyelkovo, Moscow Oblast
Craig Boone looked up from the August issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine to see his captain coming up the ramp and into the Phoenix Queen's entry port (nicknamed "the lobby" by the crew). She looked a bit ruffled, though not unduly, and her face was grim and purposeful as she approached.
"Is everyone aboard?" she inquired, her voice cool and clipped, as was often the case under stress.
"Yeah," Boone replied, closing the magazine. "Cass got in about five minutes ago. Said to tell you, you owe her a Grigoriy, whatever that means."
Inazuma ignored the remark, walking past him with a noncommittal grunt. "Get ready to raise ship," she said.
"Aye aye, ma'am," said Boone laconically, and then he drew his sidearm and shot her in the back of the head.
"Holy shit!" Rose of Sharon Cassidy cried from the top of the after companionway. "Boone, what the fuck!"
Boone paid his shipmate's alarm no mind, instead kneeling next to the sprawled body to make certain of his kill. This was a mere formality - she no longer had much in the way of a head - but Boone was, after all, a professional. As he checked over the body, Cass whipped her own pistol from her belt and slowly, not-entirely-steadily descended the companionway stairs, her hands trembling slightly as she covered him.
"Tell me," she said in a breathless, overcontrolled murmur, "I've got the DTs or something. Tell me I didn't really just see you murder the captain."
"This isn't the captain," said Boone flatly. Evidently unconcerned that she was still holding down on him, he put his own weapon away, seized hold of the collar of Captain Inazuma's jacket, and stood up, pulling the garment off the limp carcass as he did so. Cass stared at him in dumbfounded horror; then, unwillingly, she lowered her weapon and looked down.
The form sprawled messily at Boone's feet retained the very convincing appearance of a thoroughly dead Sarah Inazuma for another three or four seconds... and then crumbled like a sand castle, falling away to a gently smoking scatter of ash and cinders. While Boone and Cass stood looking at each other, ED-E appeared from behind one of the stanchions and hovered into place at the sniper's right shoulder. The droid emitted a hollow, metallic click, and then spoke in the recorded voice of Azula:
"Hello, everyone. If you're hearing this, I... may have mishandled something somewhere along the line, but don't panic. We'll just have to move on to Plan I. ED-E has all the codes you'll need. I know I can rely on you. Inazuma out."
Cass looked from Boone to the droid and back again, then holstered her sidearm and asked, "What the hell is Plan I?"
Boone's face, never particularly animated, was set in a stonelike scowl. "I as in improvise," he told her, then stepped past her to the intercom panel, punched the key for communication with the bridge, and said sharply, "Veronica, Plan I. Tell me you've got something."
There was a pause while Veronica took the seriousness of his opening remark on board. Then, in a tone that mingled dismay, determination, and a hint of triumph: "Yeah. I've got something."
Boone nodded with dark satisfaction. "Then let's get to work."
There had been a time when waking in her old bedchamber back in the Fire Nation Royal Palace was the one thing Azula really wanted in life. To sit up amid the scarlet silk and golden trim of her old familiar bedclothes, surrounded by the palace's rather heavy and oppressive decor, and find that everything that had happened since the last time she lay down there and went to sleep had been some terrible dream.
As the years went on, though, that scenario seemed less and less likely. She remembered reading once that dreams took as long to be experienced as the events depicted in them would have taken to play out in the real world. If that were true, she would have been asleep for something like sixty years at this point. Someone would have noticed by now. At the very least, the proposition strained credulity.
So when, one day, she did exactly that, Azula could be excused for having experienced a certain extreme of bemusement.
Blinking, she got hesitantly out of bed and stood looking around for a moment, confused, intrigued, and virtually paralyzed with déjà vu. Yes, this was her bedroom, all right, as it had been for all her short but eventful life to date: a place of which she knew every angle, corner, detail, and quirk, from the creaky floorboard near the wardrobe to the singed corner of the one tapestry by the dressing table.
She sat down at that table and tried to think. Her head felt strange, filled with a faint, hazy buzzing, but simultaneously cold and hollow. She tried to remember where she'd been last, but it wouldn't come. Instead, it hovered somewhere just out of sight of her mind's eye, almost taunting her with its nearness, but completely inaccessible. Not déjà vu but presque vu, that. She had the vague impression that there was a great deal of memory and experience over there, giggling quietly to itself as she failed to recall any of it, but she couldn't have pointed to any specific reason why she felt that way.
Azula looked up from her reverie and regarded herself in the dressing-table mirror. The face looking back at her was her own, she knew that, and yet for a moment it seemed utterly unfamiliar to her. That phenomenon, she recalled, was called jamais vu (she wondered what language those terms were borrowed from; she was sure she had known once), and so she'd completed a sort of confusional trifecta. Why had she expected herself to be older? That was ridiculous. Surely the girl she saw in the mirror was just as she should be, gracefully surfing the wave of adolescence, poised elegantly upon its very crest: Princess Azula the Conqueror, bred for supremacy and trained to perfection, as beautiful, precise, and deadly as a razor.
She smiled at the thought, rose, and went to her wardrobe. The disorientation she had felt on waking faded away as the familiar structure of reality asserted itself. By the time she reached the wardrobe, she remembered only that she'd had a series of strange dreams, but what they had entailed, she no longer recalled. It didn't seem important at the moment, anyway. Today was far too big a day for her to waste any of it mulling over anything as ephemeral as a dream. Plenty of time for that once the work was complete.
After a moment's consideration, she clothed herself in her best ceremonial armor, befitting a grand occasion of state. Then, returning to the table, she brushed her long black hair glossy and put it up in its familiar style, affixing her elaborately folded topknot with care. A touch of sparingly applied makeup, some routine maintenance to her nails...
As she saw to the latter, Azula became aware that her reflection was no longer alone in the dressing-table mirror. Without looking up, she said casually,
"Good morning, Mother. It's been a while. I trust you're well."
In the mirror, it appeared that Azula's mother, Ursa, was standing right behind her, close enough to put a hand on her shoulder, but Azula knew from long experience that if she turned and looked, she would find that she was alone in the room. At one time, this peculiar apparition would have been enough to send her flying into a rage - she'd destroyed more than one mirror - but she was so accustomed to it by now that she didn't even bother looking up to see the reflection until she'd finished with her nails.
When she did, Ursa - looking beautiful and solemn as always - gave her an earnest look and said, "Azula, you must beware. You aren't where you think you are."
Azula sighed, rolling her eyes slightly. "Oh, Mother, really?" she said wearily. "I thought we were finished with that."
She paused for a moment, looking thoughtful - there was that strange feeling again, as if she had years of experience with this phenomenon, when plainly she did not. Then, as before, it passed, and she put down her nail file and said casually,
"Well, I'd love to stay and entertain you, Mother, but I'm afraid I must be going. Father and I have a rather big day planned, you know. We're off to destroy the Earth Kingdom."
"Listen to me, Azula," Ursa pleaded. "You must open your eyes, you're in terrible danger."
Azula made a dismissive sound. "From whom?" she wondered. "Zuzu and his little pals? Please." Raising a hand in a casual backward wave, she breezed out into the hallway, adding, "Ta, Mother. I'll send you a postcard from the ruins of the old world."
The guards in the corridor, masked and silent, might as well have been mannequins in armor. Azula ignored them, as was her custom, and navigated the familiar hallways with ease to the war room. When she entered, she found her father up on the dais and his generals and admirals all standing around the map table, reviewing the strategy - her strategy - for the final reduction of the Earth Kingdom.
"Don't tell me you started without me," said Azula with a touch of playful reproach as she strolled past the line of flag officers on the left-hand side of the table. She knew them all by name, of course, and as she passed each of them, she let fall some small, cutting remark intended to remind him of his place. Some of them were less amenable than others to being commanded by a teenaged girl, however plainly superior, and for them, a little reminder of who had the whip hand wouldn't go amiss on a day like this.
"Well, Mung, don't we look eager to get started this morning. All right, Bujing? Cannons properly foddered, I hope? Don't look so glum, Shinu, it's your big day." She paused at the end of the line, wrinkling her nose delicately. "Zhao, you reek of seaweed." She glanced with distaste at the puddle beneath the admiral's feet, then shook her head dismissively - disgusting man, perpetually soggy and unkempt - and ascended the dais.
Like Azula, Fire Lord Ozai was dressed in his most elaborate ceremonial armor; befitting his station, it was even more ornate than hers, though she liked to think that it crossed a line into gaudy excess that hers did not, illustrating the fundamental lack of class that was the man's cardinal flaw in his daughter's critical eyes. He was a cunning brute, there was no denying that, but he was still a brute: bull-necked, square-jawed, and without imagination. His father, Azula remembered, was the same. So unsophisticated. She occasionally found it difficult to credit the notion that they were her forebears.
Now he smiled, though as always, it didn't reach his eyes. Azula noticed that, but didn't mind it. She hadn't been under any illusion that her father loved her for many years now. She understood him well enough by now to be well aware that there was little room in Ozai's heart for anyone but Ozai. They were much the same in that regard, though she had come to regard it as a flaw in both their characters, and occasionally to rebel against it in her own.
Where are these thoughts coming from? she wondered. Not only was this far from the time to be ruminating about such matters, these things felt like conclusions, long- and well-considered, over a span of time that her life to date was simply not long enough to have included. Azula hesitated on the top step, pressing her fingertips reflexively against her forehead for a moment, then shook her head and got hold of herself. She had far too much to do today to be giving in to existential qualms.
Ozai didn't seem to have noticed her momentary discomfort (again, not a surprise). Still not-really-smiling, he opened his hands and said, "And here's my favorite general now. Are you ready to make an end to this long business at last?"
Azula's smile was much more genuine than her father's, albeit rather cruel, as she replied, "Of course."
As she rode northward, standing up in the cupola atop her command tank, Azula found herself grappling with a strange sense of disappointment. This was a great day - the greatest day in the Fire Nation's history - and she was its acknowledged chief architect. The honor of leading the vanguard of the assault fell to her. On her head, placed in her topknot by the hand of her father himself, was the golden flame of the Fire Lord. History would never forget her name.
She turned and looked back at the forces under her command. It was a great army, as befit a great leader on a great day, but it was so... so essentially shabby. The tanks were rusty, the men's armor was in poor repair, and the troops themselves seemed ill-nourished and strangely unmoved by the patriotic excitement of participating in such an occasion. She knew, of course, that it had been a long war, and even such an economic powerhouse as the Fire Nation couldn't sustain such a war effort indefinitely without a certain slippage of purely cosmetic standards, but even so... it was a bit of a letdown to ride into history at the head of such dilapidation.
And then there was the "Fire Lord" thing. Elevation to her country's highest office should have thrilled Azula to the bone - it was the culmination of all her life's ambitions, the honor for which she'd shaped herself ruthlessly since she was old enough to stand, or at least since she was old enough to scheme against her feckless elder brother (which in her case was much the same thing). Except it wasn't, really, because Ozai had changed the game. He'd proclaimed himself king of the world, at which point "Fire Lord" was just a fancy name for one of his vassals. The golden flame Azula wore in her hair now wasn't a badge of lofty accomplishment, it was a meaningless bauble her father no longer wanted.
She shook her head. What's wrong with me today? she wondered. I swear there are days when I can find a way not to enjoy anything, no matter how much I want to.
The army marched through the night, arriving just before daybreak at the final staging area. Cursing the frigid weather - a person would think they were attacking the Water Tribe again - Azula wrapped herself in a heavy cloak and struggled through the howling, sleet-filled gale to the forward command post.
From here, at the top of a ridge, it had looked on the map like a person would be able to see their objective, the western flank of Ba Sing Se. In daylight, that might have been possible, but with only as much muddy pre-dawn light as could force its way through the storm, all that was visible over there, even through the best binoculars, was the indistinct grey shape of the wall.
That, and the campfires of an enormous army arrayed before it.
"It looks like they're expecting us," Azula mused to her orderly (whose name she hadn't bothered to learn). Then, smiling, she added, "So much the better. Mass the earthbenders and prepare to commence the assault."
The earthbenders were, if she did say it herself, the most brilliant part of her ingenious battle plan. The defenders of Ba Sing Se had counted on their monopoly on that art to protect their vaunted wall for generations, never dreaming that anyone in the Fire Nation's armed forces would think of assembling an elite counterforce of their brother elementalists - or succeed, come to that, if anyone did think of it. It didn't seem to have occurred to them that there would be plenty of earthbenders, disaffected or otherwise... reachable, who could be recruited for such an effort by one method or another.
Azula raised her binoculars again and surveyed the earthbender force as it formed up. They were even shabbier than her regular army, most of them still clad in the ragged remains of the uniform they'd betrayed to join her. She couldn't decide for certain whether that was poetic or just pathetic, but it was a bit late to do anything about it now, so she sighed and let it pass. Lowering the binoculars, she handed them to her orderly, then turned and left the tent. At least she'd be well-dressed. No patchy leather trousers and ragged old sweater for Azula the Conqueror this time!
She hesitated at the thought; then, raising her left hand, she considered the vambrace of her ceremonial armor. It was just metal, polished and uninformative. No tactical information to be had there. She wondered vaguely why she'd momentarily expected that there might be, and why her right hand seemed to want there to be something slung at her hip for it to rest on.
With an exasperated shake of her head, she shouted over the still-howling wind, "To me, my minions!"
A few soldiers (and a very startled-looking General Bujing) looked up from making final preparations - one of them even asked in a puzzled voice, "Me, Your Majesty?" - but she waved them away and stalked out of the clearing, grumbling to herself,
"Where are those two? Oh, right! I sent them to rot forever in the dungeon. Why did I do that again?" Azula sighed. "I can't remember. Ah, well. I must have had a good reason." With a slightly nostalgic smile, she added, "I bet Ty Lee drank the last Nuka-Cola Victory again." Sensing the confused eyes of General Mung on her, she rounded on him and barked, "What are you staring at!"
"Uh, n-nothing, Fire Lord," the general mumbled, blushing bright red and turning back to inspecting his tank.
"Just impossible to get decent help these days," Azula muttered, continuing on her way to her own.
By the time they were in position for the final advance, the storm had abated somewhat, the screaming wind dying down to a stiff half-gale as the pace of the sleet slackened, but the unrelieved gloom of the sky meant that dawn passed largely unnoticed apart from a brightening of the iron overcast. A few minutes past when her pocket chronometer told her that had happened, the sound of a hunting horn cut through the wind, sending a sharp thrill up Azula's spine. It appeared the defenders had noticed them.
"Advance!" she barked, raising a hand and launching a brilliant blue signal flame into the grey sky.
As the battle began, Azula acquired a new appreciation for the difficulties of keeping track of matters across such a large front, particularly in such miserable weather. The figures of her own troops and the enemy's were almost impossible to distinguish at ranges of more than a few yards. Spotting the firebenders ought to have been easy enough, but as the combat degenerated into melee, she began to realize that it wasn't such a straightforward matter. In fact, if she didn't know better, she would almost think that they had a number of firebenders among their -
"Fire Lord!" cried the commander of her tank from his own cupola, a couple of feet to her left. Pointing with the hand not holding his binoculars, he declared, "Prince Zuko approaching!"
Azula turned and scowled at him. "What do you mean, 'Prince Zuko approaching'?" she demanded; then she snatched the optics from his hand and looked for herself.
Yes indeed, there he was, all right, big as life - her elder brother Zuko, all kitted out in his best, just like her, and unmistakable with his hilarious facial scar. She wondered how he managed to avoid being backshot by his own side, fighting for the Earth Kingdom in the dress of a Fire Prince. She very nearly shouted for her tank, and the others in the headquarters platoon, to open fire with all weapons, but a millisecond before she could, she thought better of it and handed her tank's commander back his binoculars.
"I haven't seen my darling brother in a very long time," she said conversationally to him, raising herself out of her cupola's hatch. "I believe I'll go and reintroduce myself."
Half a mile away, on one of the ramparts of the Golden City, a man in a red beret peered into a telesight and said tersely into his commbud, "I've got a shot."
"Take it," replied a woman's voice in his ear.
Carefully, deliberately - as if time were no object - he finalized his aim, looking through his SRS99 anti-matériel rifle's rangefinding telesight at the slim, red-clad figure of the opposing general as she climbed up onto the top deck of her armored vehicle and prepared to take the field. The little golden badge she wore in her hair made a perfect reference point. He dialed in a minor correction for the fierce windage, drew a breath, let half of it out, and depressed the trigger.
Craig Boone was not a praying man; but just before he sent the round downrange, he took a tenth of a second to pause and think,
I hope to Christ this works...
For his part, Zuko was astonished and disheartened to realize that the figure rising from the turret of the rusty old Fire Nation command tank in front of him was his sister. For all that seeing her again was, and long had been, one of his fondest wishes, not here, not like this. He had fervently hoped that, though she reported little encouraging about the encounter, their mother might have gotten through to her the previous day after all, and he wouldn't find her here today... but there she was, young as the last time he'd seen her so many years ago, smiling her familiar vicious little smile as she climbed out of her tank to give him battle.
And then -
- Azula flinched violently, her head snapping back, and her hands clawed at empty air for a moment as if trying to find purchase on it. A flicker of gold twinkled in the air as her Fire Lord's headpiece went flying. Suddenly loosed from her topknot, her long black hair fanned out around her like a cloud, then whipped forward and obscured the infinitely startled expression on her face as she toppled backward off the tank and disappeared from sight.
"No!" Zuko cried, horrified. That shot had come from somewhere behind him. Someone in his own force, deducing that Azula was an enemy VIP, had taken swift and decisive action to decapitate the opposing force. It was the right thing to do, the obvious tactical expedient, but by all the gods, what an ending to a story as long and colorful as hers! And for what? Why was she even here?
For all his life and some considerable time after it, Zuko had contended with the fulminating temper that was the most obvious legacy he'd received from his murderous forebears. With the help of some very good friends, he had achieved, if not mastery of it, at least a certain hard-won détente with it. Now, confronted with such a sudden, shocking loss in the midst of all this chaos, he didn't bother resisting it, and the damned and dishonored dead of the Hundred Year War in the immediate vicinity had cause to regret it as he laid into them, scattering them like burning dolls.
When the red mist cleared again and he found himself alone, Zuko felt grateful that the demands of the battle meant the others were nowhere around. At the start of this bleak day, he had regretted that they wouldn't be able to face it together, but now he was glad they hadn't been around to see him lose control that way. Winded, his fury not so much slaked as temporarily without a target, he steeled himself and trudged around the burning wreckage of Azula's command tank, then fell to his knees next to her sprawled body and bowed his head over it.
"Azula... " he murmured. "What are you even doing here? This isn't your war. You should be in Midgard, getting on with your life." He smoothed a lock of her coal-black hair away from her face, cool and serene in death, and shook his head. If any part of him noticed that there was a lot less blood than he might have expected, that realization failed to penetrate the shell of his grief as he asked her, "Why did he bring you here?"
"Why do you think, boy?" said a chillingly familiar voice behind him. Zuko stiffened, eyes widening, and turned to see his father smirking at him from behind the scarlet brands of an Archduke of Muspelheim.
Fists clenching, Zuko turned away from his fallen sister and faced Ozai, straightening up. "I wouldn't presume to guess," he snarled.
Ozai laughed mockingly. "What else would get your attention?" he asked rhetorically. "You have no idea how eagerly I've awaited this moment since I arrived in Muspelheim and learned it would one day come."
"Well, you know what they say, Father," said Zuko. "Be careful what you wish for."
The first thing Azula saw when she opened her eyes was a very familiar face she had never expected to see again; but she didn't get to see it for long, because almost as soon as her eyes opened, Ty Lee shouted, "She's alive!" and hugged her fiercely, stretching them both full-length on the snowy ground.
"Well, take it easy if you want her to stay that way," said an equally familiar voice. More-or-less-gently extricating herself from Ty Lee's embrace, Azula clambered to her feet, pressing a hand to her forehead. Her skull was ringing like a temple bell, and underneath that, the strange buzzing sensation from the previous morning was back. What was Ty Lee doing here? What was she doing here? Where was here?
As she stood unsteadily in the snow and groped internally for the scattered fragments of her situational awareness, she felt the cold prickle of a spray hypo against the side of her neck; after a moment, the buzz and the ringing both cleared. She turned to see a monk-hooded woman in battered antique powered armor grinning at her and discarding a spent Vorpanol ampoule.
"Looking good, Captain," she said, then added wryly, "I think you might be a little too young for me now, though. Just my luck."
Next to the armored woman, a hideously cadaverous-looking man in a green mechanic's coverall inquired sardonically, "You back with us, boss, or are we about to regret comin' after you?"
Azula frowned at him, brow furrowing in puzzlement; then she blinked, her eyes going wide, as all the confusion and uncertainty of the past couple of days fell away and were immediately replaced by new confusion and uncertainty.
"Raul!" she blurted. "Ronni! What are you - what am I - " She looked down at herself, then around at the little knot of people surrounding her.
Not just Raul and Veronica, but virtually the whole crew of the Phoenix Queen were standing around her, all loaded for bear - and Ty Lee and Mai were with them. For a second she thought this was another mirage, but that weird blurry feeling was gone now. She was confused, yes, but she didn't have the same epic flood of cognitive dissonance washing over her perceptions of everything around her now. The current situation was weird, maybe even surreal, but it no longer felt UNreal. A snippet of an old song flickered unbidden through her mind:
It's either real or it's a dream
There's nothing that is in between
"Where are we?" she wondered, looking around at the snowy, wreckage-strewn battlefield. In the distance on all sides, she could hear the thunder of war, as of other, equally titanic battles being waged in places just out of sight.
"Do you want the short version," Mai inquired dryly, "or the really short version?"
Azula opened her mouth to answer, but as she did, another memory fragment clicked back into place. The grey man in the Lubyanka. "Know this, then, Princess: The Ragnarök impends."
"But how did - " She shook her head. "Never mind. That's not important right now." She turned to Mai. "Where's Zuzu? Did I really see him earlier, or was that another hallucination?"
Mai shook her head, looking vaguely troubled. "No, that was real," she said. "As for where he is now... " She pointed toward someplace behind Azula.
Whirling, Azula saw what she meant, and understood why she looked worried. A few hundred yards away, carried far from where she'd fallen by the currents of battle, she could just make out two figures in the sleety murk. The armies of both sides had pulled back, at least in this sector, neither force daring to intervene as the two waged their own little war in their midst. Even at this range, Azula could tell that one was Zuko; his firebending technique was nearly as distinctive as her own, apart from the pedestrian flame color he'd always stubbornly insisted was good enough. The other was... different.
"What you're doing isn't really firebending, is it, Father?" Zuko inquired mockingly as he evaded another of Ozai's blasts. "It's a very convincing imitation, but something about it isn't quite right. What is it? Sorcery? Some kind of elemental charm?"
"It's real enough to burn that smirk off what's left of your face, boy," Ozai snarled, waving aside his son's counterattack.
"Fascinating," Zuko mused. "What the Avatar takes away, not even Surtur can give back? Aang will be very interested to learn that."
"Where is the Avatar today?" Ozai asked, his tone a parody of cordial inquiry. "I would have thought that today of all days, the so-called defender of all life would put in an appearance."
"He and the others are elsewhere," Zuko replied, unconcerned, then added cruelly, "They have much more important matters to deal with today than the likes of you."
In hindsight, Zuko considered a few moments later, that last taunt might have been a bridge too far. Faking it magically or not, Ozai was still an infernal archduke, and he had been a very potent adversary in life. Underestimating him wasn't a good strategy, and nor was twisting his tail unnecessarily. Besides which, there was one other thing about Zuko, besides his temper, that had dogged him all his life and beyond: He had rotten luck. If there was a rake to step on, a pebble to slip on, a twig to snap when silence was needed, or a tree root to trip over, Zuko would find it, as he now found what had to be the one patch of bare ice in this entire snow-filled valley.
The stars cleared from his vision just in time for him to see Ozai looming over him, a triumphant sneer on his face, as he drew back a hand to deliver a blow that, at the very least, was really going to hurt -
- and, a moment later, was struck by lightning before he could deliver it.
Surprised, Zuko looked in the direction it had come from - and saw Azula striding toward him across the battlefield, followed by a motley but formidable-looking little phalanx of people and robots, along with a handful of Einherjar they'd gathered to their banner on their way over here.
"Please assume the position," said one of the robots in an implacable synthetic voice.
Ozai, his armor smoking, picked himself up from the heap he'd fallen in and shook his head, the crisped remains of a few longer locks of his hair sloughing away to ask. "Wha - Azula!" he blurted. "But you - "
"Counting me out before my time, eh, Father?" she said with a cold little smile. "Don't feel bad. You're in excellent company in that regard." She broke into a run, energy crackling around her hands. "When you get back to Hell, be sure and say 'privet' to Comrade Beria for me."
One hundred seventy-one years before, Ozai had realized with a sudden, sharp horror that he had lavished a little too much care and attention on the crafting and honing of his favorite weapon - that Azula had become cleverer, more capable, more skilled, and more ruthless than even he himself, and that unless he did something to circumscribe her very soon, she would be a threat to everything he had worked for. On the other hand, he couldn't just discard her, as he had her brother; she was the only heir he had left, Ursa was lost to him, and there was far too little time for him to find another wife (even if any other would have done) and start again.
At the time, he'd congratulated himself for the solution he had found, which had shunted her out of his path without eliminating her in such a way that she would still be in reserve against future requirements. He'd even entertained the notion, while powerless and in prison, that he might find a way of exploiting the faultlines in her psyche to arrange his release and revenge - engineer a way back to some kind of position of power, in spite of his condition.
Instead she'd disappeared, and the whole thing had come to nothing. He'd rotted away in his own prison for long, slow decades, living long enough to watch his beloved Fire Nation sink into a disgusting, mongrelized, cosmopolitan morass under his son's weak and corrupt rule. When Beria had brought him Azula's file during the preparations for the Ragnarök, he'd nearly had the fool disintegrated, or at least demoted back to Larva Third Class. How dare he remind Ozai of one of his bitterest disappointments?
But then he'd thought about it some more, and the symmetry had proven too delicious to resist; and her refusal to join his cause willingly had perversely cemented his resolve. Ozai had always been a big believer in people knowing their place, after all. With a well-timed abduction and a little help from Beria's experts in the manipulation of mortal matter and memory, he could still apply leverage to his daughter's mental faultlines, gain a useful helper for the opening stage of the war... and position both of his children for his revenge.
It had never occurred to him that, in doing so, he'd positioned them for their revenge as well... or that what he remembered as faultlines in Azula's mind would have become, over the decades, the strongest parts of her.
The Einherjar and the damned of Dìqiú stood and watched in awe as Ozai's children - one an Einheri himself, the other a still-living mortal interloper - joined hands figuratively (and at one point literally) to avenge their ruined childhoods. So too did the crew of the Phoenix Queen, who had never entirely known whether to believe their captain's tales of her youth until now.
Zuko and Azula came together more or less instinctively, after a few perilous moments in which Ozai exploited their disunity in every way his brutal cunning could find. A moment's eye contact, a silent communication, and the whole game suddenly realigned. After that point, wherever their father turned, there was one or the other, and usually not the one he was expecting, nor from the most obvious angle.
Against either one or the other of his children, Archduke Ozai of Antenora would've had better-than-even odds of victory.
Against both of them, fighting him simultaneously but individually, he might still have prevailed.
Against both of them working together, in a way that he'd made certain they would never be able to do while he was alive?
Not a chance, as it were, in Hell.
They hemmed him in, swept aside his offense, shattered his defense, ran him ragged. With incredibly belated insight, Ozai suddenly realized what a fearsome engine his children would have been if he had raised them to collaborate this way in the first place instead of constantly pitting them against each other.
A moment after that, they linked their hands and engulfed him in a swirling vortex of blue and orange flame; then a shaft of lightning came up the middle like a freight train, and Archduke Ozai knew no more.
Zuko and Azula stood over the charred remains of their father and regarded each other, their instinctive collaboration wavering on the borderline of a more familiar mutual suspicion now that their joint enemy, and the immediate threat, was destroyed. Zuko seemed to realize for the first time that he was holding his sister's hand; hastily, as if embarrassed, he snatched his own back.
At that, Azula broke the brittle silence, remarking with a sardonic little smile, "Nice to see you too, Zuzu."
Zuko might have replied, but before he could do so, the sky above the snowy plain split open with a sound like doom off to the west, nearer to a distant seacoast that was barely visible in the ebbing storm. The damned dead cheered wildly; everyone else, from the Einherjar to Azula's crew, stared in stunned disbelief.
Alone among them, Azula turned and regarded the rift - and the flaming, laughing titan emerging from it - with a look of nothing more or less than frank annoyance.
"Oh now what," she grumbled.
Thursday, September 13, 2390
00:31 hrs Asgard Standard Time
After the day she'd just had, it almost seemed surreal for Azula to be back aboard the Phoenix Queen. She knew from the empirical evidence available that she'd been gone less than a week, but as she'd come up the ramp into the familiar, handsomely appointed space of the atrium, it felt like she hadn't seen it in years - maybe decades. Some lingering echo of the failed psychic reprogramming she'd experienced at the hands of her estranged, demonic, and now twice-deceased father, perhaps, still skewing her perceptions of time and distance a little.
She put this theory to the Phoenix Queen's prototype Auto-Doc as she emerged from its treatment enclosure.
"Well, that's really outside my field," Auto-Doc admitted in his calm, unhurried synthetic drawl, "but your psychometric readings are a little disordered. Nothin' too extreme, though, and if I had to guess I'd say it should settle down with a good night's sleep."
"Hmm," said Azula thoughtfully. "I hope so. It's not debilitating, but it does feel a bit strange."
"Other than that, you're fine," Auto-Doc continued. "All your implants are in good shape and working normally, your radiation level is nominal, and your cellular regeneration rate is A-OK. You're a perfectly normal, healthy fifteen-year-old girl... if normal fifteen-year-old girls were naturally pyrokinetic and crammed full of bleeding-edge military-spec cybernetic enhancements, anyway," the medical robot added offhandedly.
Azula glanced at Auto-Doc's side-mounted diagnostic terminal, eyebrow arched. "It's not a cosmetic modification?"
"No ma'am," Auto-Doc replied. "DNA methylation doesn't lie. Damned if I know how, I never seen anything like it, but somebody rolled back your odometer for real. Hell of a thing."
Azula frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm," she repeated. "How will that affect my PHOENIX module?"
"Doesn't appear that it has, but we'll have to monitor it," said Auto-Doc. "Unsurprisingly, there's nothin' in the literature about any PHOENIX patient who suddenly reverted to mid-adolescence before," he added dryly. "You could be a case study, if there was any way anybody would believe it happened in the first place."
"What a shame there isn't, then," Azula replied, equally dryly. Then, with thanks for the checkup, she left the Phoenix Queen's sickbay and went to her quarters.
Once there, she regarded herself in the mirror by her wardrobe for a moment. She was... not vain, exactly, but she liked the way she looked and was not above pausing now and then to admire herself in reflective surfaces. She knew she had a pleasing face, a poised and elegant manner, and a slim, athletic figure; they were part of her toolset, and though less relied upon nowadays than they had been in her youth, she took pains to maintain them anyway, because what was what she was trained to do with useful tools.
This task had never been all that challenging, and since Mojave, where she'd acquired a very handy bit of 21st-century black technology, it had ceased to require any particular effort at all. Nowadays, approaching (as near as she could calculate it) the biological age of seventy, she remained satisfied with what she saw in mirrors. It would've been nice if she'd managed to stumble across the PHOENIX modification sometime before the age of sixty, but she was well aware that there were much worse draws from the life-extension deck than perpetual, well-maintained early middle age.
The face she saw now, blinking bemusedly back at her from the mirror, was much younger - herself as she had been when she'd held half of her old, lost homeworld in the palm of her hand and anticipated the day when the rest of it would lie at her feet. That version of her face wasn't as unexpected now as it had been two days ago, but it looked sharply out of place in these surroundings, like a brand-new radio mounted in the dash of an antique car.
Azula smiled ironically at herself and started hunting for something to wear besides this slightly preposterous old Fire Nation armor.
She ended up going with her old adventuring clothes from Mojave, because they were comfortable and familiar, and because they were so threadbare and many-patched that it didn't really matter they didn't quite fit properly any more. She padded out the boots with a couple of extra pairs of socks, stuffed the now-over-long legs of her trousers into them, and that was the job more or less done. She caught herself belting on her sidearm out of sheer force of habit and laughed as she hung it back on its peg by the door. She never really needed it much of anywhere, but she particularly wasn't going to need it here, tonight.
As the Phoenix Queen's ramp hummed smoothly back up behind her, Azula pulled her cloak - the one bit of her Fire Nation ensemble she'd kept - a little tighter around her and took a moment to get her bearings. The ship was parked, along with most of the others that had come from Midgard for the occasion, at the edge of the great plain of Asgard, among the still-smoldering wreckage of the (not-quite-)Last Battle. Even out here, a good half-mile from the walls of the city, she could hear the sounds of the celebrations happening inside drifting across the cold night air. Above, the sky was a riot of color and light, the most spectacular aurora she could remember seeing.
She started off toward the city gate, then drew back with a surprised sound as she nearly ran into a very tall, broad, dark-clad man. In this context, it took her a few seconds to realize that she knew him - it was Admiral MegaZone, the supreme commander of the Wedge Defense Force. Azula had heard that he was present, but hadn't seen him in the wild chaos of the battle, and she was slightly shocked by his appearance, partly because he'd just loomed up out of the chilly darkness without warning, and partly because he looked like he'd just escaped from a lunatic asylum. (Having once done so herself, she was better-positioned than most to know what that looked like.)
Azula knew him in passing, having met him a couple of times during her time as a WDF contractor, but she couldn't claim to know him well. She and the Queen had been under the direct command of Vice Admiral Kirk, commanding Red Squadron, during the Corporate War and its aftermath, and it was he who was her closest contact within the WDF's uppermost reaches. She was familiar enough with him, however, to know that he didn't normally look so haggard or so distracted, his eyes rimmed with dark circles but bright with a weird - and familiar - energy.
"Oh," he said, sounding not so much surprised as pleased. "Captain Inazuma. Nice to see you again. Glad you made it through the mayhem today." He gave her a distractedly thoughtful look. "You seem different. Did you change your hair?"
Azula didn't quite know how to respond to that; in fact she had changed her hair since the last time MegaZone had seen her, but she - or rather her father's court wizards, apparently - had changed rather more than that as well.
MegaZone chuckled at her perplexed look, took an object from one of the pockets of his long leather coat, and pressed it into her hand. "Here," he said. "For the fairest one. 'Scuse me. Stuff to do! Or stuff is doing me. Hard to tell at the moment."
So saying, he bent and gave her a friendly kiss on the cheek, then half-loped, half-staggered off into the night, muttering something about lamions having a half-integer spin, not a full integer, those are bogons.
Azula stood, even more perplexed than before, and watched him disappear into the gloom. Then, once she could no longer see him, she looked at the object he'd given her. It was an apple, plump and fresh-looking, its skin glinting a smooth, polished gold in the glow of the Queen's parking lights. It was far too light to be made of gold, and when she sniffed at it experimentally, it smelled like... well, like an apple, and reminded her suddenly that she was, in fact, ravenously hungry. She couldn't actually remember when she'd last eaten.
Ordinarily, Azula would not have eaten anything handed to her by an obviously crazy person of no better than casual acquaintance, however hungry she might be. Tonight, though... what the hell.
She bit the apple gingerly, ready to abort the operation if its skin proved to be as metallic as it looked; but it parted easily, with a crisp, fresh-picked crunch, and the flesh within was deliciously sweet and struck just the right balance between juicy and firm. It wasn't like biting into an apple so much as biting into the Platonic ideal of apples.
Smiling, Azula made for the city, munching the golden apple as she went.
"... so Caesar says, 'Now you take this fucking Platinum Chip and go destroy whatever is in that bunker,'" said Veronica, "and the Cap'n looks at him and says, just as cool as you please," (and here she adopted quite a good impression of Azula's "coolly dismissive" voice) "'Why in the world would I want to do that? Particularly for the likes of you, you foul-mouthed, misogynistic thug.'"
"I bet that didn't go over well!" said Sokka cheerfully, raising his tankard in salute as the Phoenix Queen's crew and the Einherjar of Dìqiú roared with laughter.
"You bet correctly!" Raul Tejada assured him.
"It all kicked off then," Rose of Sharon Cassidy confirmed, nodding. "We had to kill practically every Legionary in the Fort to get out of that one alive."
Boone smiled, as much as Boone ever smiled, which wasn't much. "That was a good day," he said, in all evident contentment.
From behind him, Azula's voice said with dry amusement, "Your satisfaction was naturally my highest priority, Craig."
"And much appreciated it was too," Boone replied mock-solemnly; then he turned to face her, blinked, tipped his aviator shades down his nose to look at her over them, regarded his tankard of mead with a bemused expression, shrugged, and took a long pull on it. All around him, his colleagues and the Einherjar at their table stared in slightly less philosophical astonishment at her.
"Oh. Oh my," said Veronica.
Cass performed an operation similar to Boone's, eyeing her mead with an air of faint reproach. "This is what I get for drinking something other than whiskey," she mumbled.
"My cataracts must be getting worse," said Raul matter-of-factly.
"What's the problem now?" Azula wondered, frowning quizzically, as she slid onto the bench between Ty Lee and Sokka, elbowing the latter casually over a few inches to give herself room. Then, with a thoughtful air, she looked over that end of the table, where sat a collection of her old acquaintances from the glory days in Dìqiú.
"Well, well, look at all of you," she observed, smiling wryly. "All grown up for the afterlife. Agni, Zuzu, you actually managed to be handsome, didn't you? Stayed with the same tragic haircut, though, I see." Without giving her red-faced brother an opportunity to respond, she moved on.
"These boots are killing me," she observed offhandedly, bending to tug off one of the offending articles. "Maybe three pairs of socks was overkill, but I swear it's like they've shrunk on my way over here from the Queen."
"Uh... or you've grown," said Sokka.
Azula looked up from adjusting her footwear to eye him skeptically. "I beg your pardon?"
"He's right," said Ty Lee, nodding. "You're all grown up too." Reddening slightly, she added in a lower voice, "You look amazing."
Azula frowned at her, finished removing her extra socks, put her boots back on, then turned to one of her crew. "Veronica," she said briskly. "My colleague Ty Lee here occasionally says things that are quite ridiculous. Is this one of those occasions?"
"Uh... no, 'fraid not, Cap'n," Veronica replied; then, grinning brightly, she added, "You are all grown up and you do look amazing. Is this because of what I said earlier? You shouldn't have."
"How 'all grown up'?" Azula wondered, eyeing her skeptically.
Veronica tilted her head thoughtfully. "Twenty? Twenty-five, tops, but that's pushing it."
Azula considered that for a moment; then, shrugging, she snagged a tankard of mead from the tray of a passing feasthall steward and dealt with about half of it before even putting it down.
"This has been the oddest week," she remarked casually, and that was, apparently, exactly as far as she planned to explore the matter, because the next thing she said was, "So. I don't see Aang anywhere. Is he avoiding me? Someone might want to reassure him that I hardly ever blow up any more."
Katara, who had been scowling at her as one might an uninvited wedding guest one dares not call out for fear of spoiling the occasion, blinked and looked around. "Where did he get off to?" she wondered.
"Dunno," Sokka replied. "He went to get more chips for the salsa, but there's a lot of shiny objects in this place. You better go find him, Zuko."
"Why do I always have to go find him?" Zuko grumbled, rising.
"Because your honor demands it," all his friends chorused (even, smiling more or less in spite of herself, Katara).
"Oh, right," he said, as if he'd never realized that or been told it before, and then he plunged off into the crowd in search of the Avatar.
"How's your head?" Boone inquired.
"Fine, thanks. How did you know to do that?"
"I didn't," Boone said matter-of-factly. "I intended to take you out. Mercy killing." He shrugged. "Just missed."
Azula snorted. "You never miss. Or admit it when you do," she added. Glancing to her left, she saw that one member of the Einherjar party wasn't strictly in the spirit of the thing. "Oh, do give over, Katara," she said. "Are you genuinely planning to go on nursing your grudge past the originally-prophesied expiration date of the universe? That seems petty. Besides, you're the one who nearly drowned me. It seems to me that if I'm willing to let that go, you have few grounds for continued hostility."
"She's got a point," Toph Beifong remarked offhandedly. She knocked back a pint of mead in a single pull, wiped away foam with the back of one hand, and belched with studied gusto, then went on, "She tried to kill you a bunch of times, you ruined all her dreams and put her in the crazy house. Karmically speaking, I think that's kind of a wash. Plus, ya know, end of the universe. Are there any more of those kabob things left?"
Katara sighed. "You're all idiots," she said.
"But you love us," Sokka remarked.
Ty Lee leaned over and murmured something in Azula's ear. Leaning back to regard her skeptically, Azula said, "Are you sure?" Ty Lee nodded vigorously and murmured something else. "Hmm," said Azula. "I'm skeptical, but... what the hell, it's worth a try."
Then, turning to face the glowering waterbender, she put down her tankard, composed herself into as solemn an attitude as she could manage in this setting, and said, "Katara, what do you want me to say? That I'm sorry for doing what I had been taught was right? For loving my country? For believing in what I was told was my destiny? I was wrong, Katara, but I didn't know that at the time. I genuinely believed, based on my warped understanding of the way the world worked, that I was doing the right thing, every bit as sincerely as you did. I can't apologize for that, not truthfully, not with any integrity.
"What I can apologize for," she went on before Katara could say anything, "is making it personal. I didn't just want to win, I wanted you and those you loved to suffer." She shook her head. "That wasn't right. It was spiteful and childish, and I'm sorry."
There was a brief silence at that particular table. All around them, the celebration carried raucously on, everyone else in the feasting-hall of the victorious gods unaware of the proceedings, but to those at the Dìqiú table, it was momentarily as though nobody else was even in the room. Everyone there watched one or the other of the two women, intently curious as to what would happen next.
Katara regarded Azula for several seconds, her blue eyes hard to read. She knew of old that this young-appearing woman was a consummate liar, so adept at concealing her true intent that she could even fool Toph's almost extrasensory people-reading skills. She wanted to believe what she was being told - to believe that her most despised enemy of the elder days was really sitting there apologizing, if not for her actions, at least for her needless cruelty. But knowing what she did of Azula's mercurial temper and manipulative guile, she couldn't. Not quite.
Azula read that in her face and sighed. "What else do you want from me?" she wondered. "Shall I fall on my sword in shame? Would that satisfy you? I don't need your approval, Katara. I offer you peace in the spirit of this red day we've just survived. If it suits you to throw it in my face in payment for my crimes of old, then so be it." She rose from the table. "Just ask yourself as you nurse your old hatred - which of us is being spiteful now?"
So saying, she turned on her heel and left the feasthall.
"That went well," Mai observed from somewhere near the bottom of her current tankard.
A moment later Zuko reappeared from the other direction. "Everyone can relax, I found Aang - hey, where's Azula?"
"Katara ran her off," Toph remarked.
"Just like old times," said Sokka, nudging his sister with an elbow. "Right?"
"You guys are mean," Ty Lee said disconsolately; then she got up and went off in pursuit.
One of the interesting things about Odin's palace was that it had a remarkable profusion of balconies - enough so virtually everyone present for the post-Ragnarök feast could've had one to him- or herself if the impulse had struck them all at once. Since it generally hadn't, Azula had little trouble finding an unoccupied one from which to do a little gloomy reflecting.
From somewhere down below came faint engine sounds, and occasional drunken shouts of spectators, as some kind of race was evidently in progress in the courtyard. Azula tuned the noise out and regarded the spectacular aurora and the unfamiliar stars of Asgard, wondering what she would do next. Suddenly the whole business seemed horribly anticlimactic.
She heard the sliding door open and close again behind her, and a soft tread on the stone paving of the balcony. Assuming it was someone from the party come to try and cajole her back to the table, she turned to tell whoever it was that he was wasting his time, then drew back with a surprised sound as she saw that her surmise had been wrong.
"Hello, Azula," said Ursa quietly.
"Mother!" Azula gasped, her breath making a little cloud in the frosty Asgard air.
"Do you really believe it's me this time?" Ursa wondered with a gentle smile.
Recovering some of her accustomed aplomb, Azula gave a sardonic half-smile and said, "Well, there are no mirrors out here, so I suppose you must be." Then she turned back to regarding the velvety night again as Ursa stepped to the railing beside her.
"Tell me something, Mother," said Azula after a silent minute or so. "How many of our conversations over the past few decades have been real?"
"Oh... most of them, I should think," said Ursa. "Since you were freed from the ice, at any rate."
"Hm," said Azula, and then, thoughtfully, "I always assumed you were some sort of manifestation of my unconscious mind."
"Before you left Dìqiú, that was most likely what was happening," Ursa conceded, "but afterward... no. No, those conversations were quite real. I was astonished to learn that you were still alive, and I had to pull quite a few strings to be allowed to contact you, even in such a vague and tenuous fashion... but I'm so glad I did." Smiling, she touched Azula's arm. "I got to watch you grow into the person you were always meant to be after all. Something I despaired of ever seeing after you disappeared."
Azula turned and regarded her. "You never gave up on me," she said, not certain whether it was a statement or a question.
"Neither did your brother," said Ursa. "He wondered what had happened to you all his life. On his deathbed he asked Aang's successor to find you... but she was never able to. Once she discovered that you had left Dìqiú, she was stymied, with no way of finding out where in the vast cosmos beyond you had gone, and you've never been back." She smiled, a little wryly, and said, "Zuko was a bit chagrined to arrive here and discover that he'd set the poor woman a fool's errand."
"I was never sure the world I remembered from my childhood was real," Azula admitted. "I mean... of late I've been fairly certain, but I could never find real proof, let alone a path that would lead me there."
"That time would have come soon, even without your father's interference," Ursa told her.
Azula chuckled darkly and turned her attention back to the aurora. "It's so typical of Father that the only times he ever did anyone a favor, it was accidentally, in the course of trying to destroy something."
"Yes," Ursa agreed quietly. "Yes it is."
They stood side by side for a few moments, silently contemplating the gaily coruscating Asgardian sky.
"This has been the oddest week," Azula repeated, and the two women laughed together.
"That it has," Ursa agreed. "That it has."
The door opened again behind them; they turned to see Ty Lee standing there, looking slightly surprised that she hadn't found Azula alone.
"Oh!" she said. "I'm sorry, I thought... I'll go," she said but Ursa smiled and shook her head.
"Not at all. I was about to turn in for the night anyway. It's been a long day, and despite the occasion, I'm not really in a party mood," she said. "You young people go and have a good time." She put a hand on Azula's shoulder. "I'll see you against before you leave. But before I go, I just want to make it perfectly clear how proud I am of you, Azula. You did a great thing today."
"I had a lot of help," said Azula wryly.
"That's one of the things I'm proudest of," Ursa replied, and then - slightly to Azula's shock, then entirely to her contentment - she hugged her daughter before parting from her quietly and disappearing into the interior of the palace.
When she had gone, Azula and Ty Lee stood regarding each other in silence for a moment. Then Azula gave her ironic smile again and said,
"One almost hates to say it, but being dead seems to be agreeing with you."
Ty Lee laughed. "It's not so bad when you put it that way," she admitted. "Please come back to the party? I know Katara's being difficult, but the others would really like to see you."
"And what about you?" Azula wondered, crossing the balcony with a measured, deliberate tread. "When last we saw each other, as I recall, it wasn't to part on particularly good terms."
"You couldn't help that," Ty Lee said. "You weren't well."
"No, I suppose I wasn't," Azula agreed, "but you know... I've never been entirely comfortable with using that fact to excuse myself. It's an easy way out. At the very least, I owe you - and Mai, come to that - the same apology I offered Katara. Even though I believed that what I was doing was right, I went about it the wrong way. I treated you very shabbily indeed. It could even be argued that you have greater cause to resent me than Katara ever did. After all, you two were trying to be my friends, and I repaid you by treating you litle better than my enemies, even before the end." She stopped in front of her old friend and sighed, bowing her head. "You deserved better, Ty Lee. I'm sorry."
Ty Lee stared at her in stunned disbelief for a moment; then, a faint note of wonder in her voice, she said, "You've been thinking about this for a long time, haven't you?"
"By the time I regained some semblance of sense," Azula replied, not looking up, "you were probably long dead. For decades, I wasn't even sure you had ever existed in the first place. Either way, I didn't think I would ever have the chance to say what I just said." She raised her head then, looking her old friend in the face, and Ty Lee was shocked anew to see a tear tracking one of her cheeks. "So yes. You could say I've spent a fair time reflecting on it."
Ty Lee gazed silently at her for a few seconds, her grey eyes tinted a shifting green by the aurora. Azula assumed her long-lost friend was searching for words, or possibly preparing to punch her, which she was willing to accept - once - as her due after all this time.
What she did instead was somewhat more surprising, and almost as aggressive, but considerably less percussive.
When Azula (disheveled and contented) sloped back into the feasthall a while later, the party was still roaring on despite the lateness of the hour, and showed no signs of slowing down. Most of the tables were either vacant or occupied by scattered little groups now, as most of the dining appeared to be done with. Now there were more little islands of activity sprinkled around the room, as other kinds of recreation had broken out - arm wrestling, wrestling wrestling, various kinds of music and dancing, even a few boxing matches and several outright fights, all coexisted noisily and chaotically under the hall's high, vaulted roof.
Azula took a couple of seconds in the doorway to assess the new situation, then made straight for one of the smaller sub-groups. Her crew appeared to have dispersed - she caught a glimpse of Cass down at the end of one of the long tables, doing shots with a tall man in the uniform of an Asgardian Air Force colonel, and silently wished her luck - but the group from Dìqiú was still mostly together, talking and laughing. She was momentarily taken aback to see how tall Aang was as an adult - her mental image of him had still been both twelve and short for his age - but she put the thought aside for the moment. She had a different mission in mind.
Without breaking stride, she snagged a couple of narrow, stemmed glasses of something yellow and fizzy from a table in one hand as she passed, then sauntered up to the group and joined them. Katara noticed her first, looked as if she might say something, then frowned and looked away without doing so. Sokka took a moment longer, and only twigged to her presence when those opposite him in their little circle - Zuko and Aang - spotted her.
The Avatar, his startlingly long and bony grown-up face breaking into a smile, opened his mouth as if to address her, but Azula held up her free hand - one moment please - and turned to Sokka, who was giving her a slightly unfocused, befuddled look.
"Sokka, darling," she said casually, "would you be so kind as to ask your sister if she'll please have a drink with me and let the past lie where it fell?"
Sokka looked even more confused by this; Katara was, after all, standing right there, and could not possibly have failed to hear her, even in this noisy room. Then, with a whatever-you-say sort of shrug, he turned to convey the message to his sister, but before he could do so, she had replied - also addressing her remarks to him.
"Sokka," Katara said coolly, "please inform Princess Azula that it is not my policy to drink with tyrannical bitches such as herself."
Sokka blinked - he was a bit drunk, but not drunk enough to think saying that was a good idea - and replied, "Uh, that might not - "
"Tell her, Sokka," Katara snapped, her eyes glinting; then she shot a similarly flinty look at Aang and Zuko, driving them back a step and forestalling any attempt either might've made to intervene.
Azula, to both Katara's and Sokka's surprise, emitted a merry laugh at this, one entirely devoid of the dangerous edge it might've been expected to carry under the circumstances.
"She might consider who's talking," she said lightly, putting her free hand companionably on Sokka's shoulder. Then, leaning toward him with a conspiratorial air, she added, "After all, she should know full well by now that all bitches would be tyrants if they could."
Toph Beifong, who had stood gazing blankly off into a corner of the room and listening to the byplay, let out a peal of laughter at that which drew startled looks from various points around them, even through the cacophony of the celebration.
"Fire princess 2, ice princess 1," she remarked with a broad grin, then elbowed Katara hard enough to jostle her a half-step toward Azula (who had uncrossed the stems of her two glasses and now stood holding one in each hand with a wry little smile). Katara (pointlessly) shot Toph a glare, then turned and stared at Azula in disbelief for a second; then, almost unwillingly, she cracked a little smile, then a bigger one, and then laughed and took one of the glasses.
"Well," she said philosophically, "as one tyrannical bitch to another, I suppose I'll drink to that," and they tapped their glasses together and drained them.
Thursday, September 13, 2390
11:12 hrs Asgard Standard Time
For many, the day after the Ragnarök was little more than a continuation of the day of the Ragnarök, with the various splinters of the main celebration rolling right on through. For a large number of others, there effectively was no September 13; the day was given up entirely to sleeping off the 12th. There were those, however, who split the difference, spending the day in quiet reflection or otherwise recuperating from the ordeals of the Not-Quite-Last Battle and its titanic afterparty in low-key ways.
Aboard the starship Phoenix Queen, still parked amid the little cluster of Midgardian vessels whose crews had come to participate in the occasion, the ship's captain and a couple of visitors from Valhalla made up part of this third group. In the comfortable surroundings of the well-appointed sitting room of her quarters, Captain Sarah Inazuma sat in her favorite chair, swathed in a red terrycloth robe that was sybaritic in its plushness. She smiled through the gentle curl of steam rising from her teacup while her ship's steward finished serving her (rather more normally dressed) guests.
"Thank you," said one of those guests as he accepted a teacup of his own from the mechanical hand of the captain's steward.
"You're welcome, sir," the robot replied. "Is there anything else you require?" After a pause precisely timed for maximum effect, he added cordially, "Fisto is programmed to provide complete satisfaction."
Zuko deferred his first sip of tea just in time to avoid choking on it, took a moment to compose himself, then replied, "Er, no thank you. I'm good."
"Thank you, Fisto, that'll be all," said Captain Inazuma with a little smile and a sly wink for her discomfited guest.
"Affirmative, Captain," Fisto replied, withdrawing with a butlerly bow before discreetly leaving the compartment.
"I see you still enjoy putting me on the spot," Zuko remarked dryly as he took a sip of his tea.
"One must have one's little pleasures in life," the captain replied airily. "Besides, it's been a long time since I had the opportunity to twist your tail, Zuzu. You can't blame me if you make it so easy... "
Sitting opposite Zuko on the lounge's right-angled modular sofa, their mother smiled and chided her gently, "Azula, don't torment your brother."
"Oh, very well, Mother," said Azula with mock resignation. Then, becoming cheerfully brisk, she said, "So. Tell me all about what went on in the old country after I left. I tried to get an update or two out of Aang last night, but the only things he wanted to talk about were his children and that 'United Republic' thing, the latter of which sounded frankly ill-advised if you ask me."
Thus primed, the three commenced to catch up, trading stories and laughs, in the usual fashion of families that haven't been together in a long, eventful time. Only after a couple of hours had gone by in this pleasant fashion did it suddenly strike Azula how strange that was. She, her brother, and her mother had never actually been a family in any social sense.
"Do you know," she said suddenly, during a natural lull in the conversation, "I don't think the three of us have ever, ever done this before."
Zuko blinked in surprise and glanced at Ursa, who nodded a little sadly. "I think you're right, Azula," she said. "By the time you and Zuko were both old enough to have a day like this, you were no longer really on speaking terms... and there was always the shadow of your father," she added with a troubled frown.
"Well, we're here now," said Zuko pragmatically.
"Yes we are," Azula agreed with a dark little smile. "And Father... isn't." Then, her smile becoming less dark and more sly, she went on, "You two have me at a bit of a disadvantage. I don't know anything at all about what's been going on with you since I left Dìqiú, but it turns out Mother's been spying on me from the Great Beyond for the last sixty years, so I'm guessing you know all about what I've been up to."
"I haven't been spying on you," Ursa protested. "Only... looking in from time to time. To see how you were getting on. After the last time we saw each other in person, it seemed like the least I could do."
"Well, I'm glad you haven't been watching me all the time," Azula quipped with a sly smile. "I'm not a person easily embarrassed, but I've done a few things in my time I wouldn't have wanted my mother to watch me doing... "
Before either of the others could comment, the door behind Azula's chair, which led to her bedroom, glided quietly open. Azula, for her part, seemed unsurprised by this. She didn't even turn to look as a figure stepped, not altogether steadily, through the doorway and paused behind her chair; just sipped her tea, smiling, and said, "Good morning, sweetie."
Zuko could only stare, his jaw dropping, as Katara - still dressed in her now-very-rumpled clothes from last night, her hair in pillow-induced disarray - blinked like an owl in the gentle lights of the sitting room, then glared blearily at the back of Azula's head.
"i hate you," she muttered, her voice a dry croak, as she lurched past the chair and sank into the loveseat opposite the L-sofa.
"There's a shocking revelation," said Azula imperturbably. She casually pressed a key on the intercom panel built into her chair arm and went on, "Fisto, Empress Katara has risen and requires immediate caffeination." After a moment's consideration of Katara (who now sat with her head tipped back against the cushion, eyes closed), she added, "Better make it the special blend."
"Affirmative, Captain," Fisto's voice replied.
Zuko regarded the scene with something very like horror for a few moments, then leaned toward his sister and murmured, "Azula, I cannot believe you," in a voice full of reproach.
Azula raised a questioning eyebrow at him, replying with evidently genuine puzzlement, "What?" Then, as he scowled at her and drew breath to elaborate, she seemed to understand; with a dismissive roll of her eyes, she took a sip of her tea and said unconcernedly, "Oh, Zuzu, really. Just because you've never been able to control your baser urges, don't drag me into your private hell."
Seeing that there was no way he could approach that accusation which didn't end up making everything worse, Zuko subsided into ineffectual sputtering. A moment later, Fisto arrived with not an elegant little teacup, as the others all had, but a big, steaming mug marked with the Phoenix Queen's insignia and the name Phoenix Industries Dìqiú Limited. Katara took this without a word and downed a healthy slug of it without apparent regard for its temperature, then shook her head, opened her eyes, and sat up a little straighter, sighing.
"Thank you," she said, sounding rather more human.
"Your satisfaction is Fisto's purpose," the robot replied with a cordial bow before exiting.
"Well," said Ursa diplomatically, rising, "we had best be getting along, Zuko. We'll see you at dinner, Azula."
"Of course," said Azula. She stood as well, hugging first her mother, then her (still-slightly-befuddled) brother. "This has been lovely, you two," she said as she guided them to the exit. "We must do it again soon."
"Mother, are you sure this is a good idea?" Zuko wondered quietly as he and Ursa descended the ramp and left the ship.
"It'll be fine," Ursa told him. "You have to learn to trust your sister sooner or later, Zuko."
Back aboard, Azula closed the ramp behind them, then returned to her sitting room to find Katara still sitting on the loveseat, contemplating her mostly-empty coffee mug. As Azula entered, she glanced up, then quickly away, her expression awkward.
"I should go," she said, getting carefully to her feet.
"Nonsense," said Azula calmly. "I can't send you back to Aang in that condition, I'd never hear the end of it." Taking Katara's shoulders in her hands, she gently but firmly steered the waterbender back into the bedroom, then aimed her at another door off to one side of the rumpled double bunk. "Go on, in you get. Put your clothes in the chute and then tell the Autospa to give you a Number 34."
Katara resisted momentarily, motivated by a combination of residual distrust and instinctive contrariness, but the idea of an encounter with something called an "Autospa" just at this moment was mightily attractive. After shooting Azula a suspicious glare, she wrested her shoulders from her old enemy's hands and then took herself off to do as instructed anyway.
She emerged thirty very satisfactory minutes later to find her clean, neatly folded clothing on a shelf next to the chute she'd put it in at the beginning, got dressed, put her hair up in its long-accustomed style, and then went to see what Azula had gotten up to in her absence. The bedroom was deserted but all in order now, the bunk neatly made; the red robe Azula had been wearing was hanging on a hook next to the bathroom door. Puzzled, she went forward to find the sitting room empty as well.
Katara had only a vague idea of where anything else in this ship was; the tour she'd taken the night before had come after the feasthall but before the T'ien Zhan Reserve, so it was a bit of a blur. Out in the central corridor, the scent of something cooking simultaneously reminded her that she was catastrophically hungry and gave her all the clue she needed to find her way to the wardroom. Azula (now dressed in stylish modern street clothes, mainly red and black) was in the galley, which was separated from the wardroom only by a low counter, bustling about the compact and efficient space. At Katara's entrance, she looked up and smiled.
"Take a seat," she said, gesturing with a spatula. "Breakfast will be up momentarily."
Caution and curiosity warring within her, Katara slowly took the indicated seat. She was still trying to look suspicious, but by this point it was mainly just coming across as bemusement - which only deepened a few moments later, as Azula came out from behind the counter with a plate in one hand and a tall glass of something blue in the other, put them down in front of her, and then went back to get a similar set of items for herself.
"There," she said, sitting down opposite her guest and arranging her own place setting. "That should set you up nicely."
Katara eyed the plate, upon which a small stack of golden-brown discs gently steamed. The sight seemed to make up her mind between suspicion and confusion; with a mild scowl, she looked up from the plate and inquired sharply, "What is this, Azula?"
"A delicacy from the Big Universe," Azula replied pleasantly. "They're called 'pancakes'."
"I know what they are," Katara snapped.
Azula gave her a puzzled look. "Then why did you ask?"
Katara squelched her first response, closing her eyes for a moment to get a handle on her composure again. When she opened them again, the question she asked instead came as a slight surprise even to her:
"You can cook?"
Azula half-smiled. "Yes, Katara, I can cook. I can do quite a number of things, not to brag. I can cook, I can play drums and the guitar (not at the same time, obviously), I speak nine languages, and I'm a licensed scuba instructor. I have master's degrees in electrical engineering and business administration from the Nekomi Institute of Technology on Tomodachi. I also do calligraphy, flower arranging, and shiatsu massage."
Katara stared at her for a second or two, her expression hard to read, and then demanded, "Why are you being nice to me?"
Azula shrugged slightly. "Why not? The other way clearly never got me anywhere."
Katara closed her eyes again, pressing her fingers to her forehead. "Be serious."
"I am serious," Azula insisted. "What else can I do? Eat your pancakes before they get cold."
"... Fine," growled Katara. Picking up her knife and fork, she sawed a triangular section out of the stack and ate it, her expression slowly changing from wary annoyance to surprise as she chewed. "These are really good," she said reluctantly, as if confessing a crime.
"Thank you," said Azula cordially. "Try the bluapple juice, it's fresh."
From that point until the end of the meal, they said little, apart from the point where Azula offered and Katara accepted a second helping. After that, they lingered over another cup of coffee in a silence that had almost become companionable, until Katara asked:
"What happened last night?"
"Ahh, if I had a yuan for every time I've been asked that question over coffee," said Azula nostalgically.
Katara's cheeks reddened slightly. "No, I mean - stop that!"
"Sorry," said Azula with at least a fair semblance of sincerity. "You have to admit your wording did rather invite it," she added contritely.
Katara sighed, rubbing her forehead again. "I only agreed to have that one drink with you because if I hadn't, Aang would've given me the sad face. How did that manage to turn into a whole series of drinks, a tour of your ship, an entire bottle of wine, and waking up - fully clothed, thank you, and will you stop that - in your bed?"
Azula shrugged again, the picture of unconcern. "I have no idea," she admitted; then, with a smile that was at once slightly wry and slightly shy, she added, "But I'm glad it did. Do you remember what we discussed over the wine?"
"Only vaguely," said Katara. "I seem to recall it started with a revisitation of that half-baked non-apology you came up with at dinner."
Azula chuckled dryly. "It did, yes. From there... well, the short version is that it developed into an examination of the fruit-of-the-poison-tree doctrine vis-à-vis my actions during the War and any good I might've managed to do for anyone since." Her wry smile flickered on again as she added, "You took rather a hard line."
"Hnh," said Katara noncommittally into her coffee.
"In the end, though, I think we might've met somewhere near the middle. And, for the record, it wasn't a non-apology. You might be dissatisfied with what I apologized for, but the apology itself was sincere. I was wrong, I was cruel, I hurt you and the people you love, and I'm sorry for it."
Katara blinked at her in surprise. Azula's face had gone utterly still now, more completely serious than Katara had seen her in a long, long time - perhaps ever, because her seriousness now lacked both the manic edge it had had of old, and the slightly histrionic touch of drama she'd laced it with at the victory dinner. She was quiet, perfectly composed, her amber eyes steady and solemn, as she said,
"I suffered hardships and humiliations of my own in those days, you know." She held up a hand before Katara could say something scornful and went on, "That isn't an excuse, nor is it meant as one. On the contrary, it's an admission. It means I should have known better." She shook her head. "Instead of learning compassion from the cruelty I endured, I let it harden me."
Azula closed her eyes, and Katara was shocked to see a tear slip down her face. Her old foe had always been good at concealing her emotions, to the point where even Toph Beifong couldn't tell when she was hiding something; but this... this was different. This was new.
"Harden me... and make me brittle," Azula murmured, her eyes still closed; and then, almost inaudibly, she added in disgust: "Even when I was strong I was weak."
Katara was not a person accustomed to finding herself at a loss for words, but she did now. For a dozen or more seconds she sat regarding the still, silent figure opposite her at the wardroom table, her mind racing. A half-dozen different replies came to mind; she discarded them all before they could reach her lips, as two essential facets of her spirit battled against each other within her. On the one hand, she was a caring, compassionate woman, a doctor and healer, a person in whom hope for the future had never quite died even in the darkest moments of the war. On the other, she was a warrior of the Southern Water Tribe - tough, tenacious, a survivor; but that same tenacity made her stubborn and slow to forgive.
The latter was a side of her character of which she was not always altogether proud, but it was there and she'd long ago learned to deal with it. It was simply part of her nature, as Aang's goofy optimism, Zuko's habit of reproaching himself, Toph's megalomania, and Sokka's roving eye were parts of theirs. The important thing was to be mindful of it - to assess constantly whether it was digging in its heels for good reason, or just out of habit.
She hadn't quite decided in this case - there was so much history there, she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to just let it go - but under the present circumstances, she was shocked to find herself thinking, it might be worth at least attempting.
"You're... really serious about this," she said at length, her tone of voice suggesting that she at least wanted to believe it.
Azula opened her eyes and regarded Katara soberly for a few seconds more before replying, "I am capable of being serious; I just don't usually want to these days." She smiled bitterly. "You've seen what happens when I take life too seriously, Katara. It's why you hate me so."
Katara came halfway out of her seat and began to object automatically, "I don't - " Then she stopped, blinking in surprise at herself, and slowly resumed her seat. "... All right, maybe I do," she admitted. "I certainly used to, and... " She sighed. "I can't change overnight. Even a night like last night," she added with a wry attempt at a smile. "But... there are those here who've always had hopes for you. And your crew came all this way. Do you have any idea what an incredible achievement that is? They found their way to the Bifröst, dared to cross it, volunteered to fight in the war at the end of the world... all for you."
Azula smiled a bit wanly. "They're good people," she said.
"I know," said Katara. "I could tell. When they arrived, nobody in Valhalla Command knew what to do with them. They weren't with the rest of the WDF contingent, didn't seem to have any good reason to be here, and your man Boone was... very forceful when challenged." Azula mustered a chuckle for that as Katara went on, "They might all have ended up sitting out the Ragnarök in the stockade if Veronica hadn't mentioned Dìqiú. When the guards heard that, instead of locking them up, they brought them to me."
"And you put them in the line exactly where I would be," Azula mused. She gave her wan smile again. "Well played, General Katara. If they hadn't been there, I expect Zuzu would have had to kill me to stop me."
"I - " Katara hesitated, then said slowly, "I thought we'd have to anyway. When Boone reported that he had a shot and I told him to take it... I was expecting him to kill you."
"Ah," said Azula. "That explains why he claimed he had intended to last night; to save your blushes. Did you think I'd turned willingly? Changed my mind about rejoining Father's 'team'?"
Katara looked at her for a moment, then away. "Something like that," she admitted.
"Hm. Well, I suppose in your place I'd probably have assumed the same."
The two women sat regarding each other in contemplative silence for nearly a minute, neither moving.
Then Katara said, "This is awkward."
Azula gave an involuntary snort of laughter. "Just a bit," she allowed. Then she got to her feet, sobering again, and went on, "I don't expect you to be my friend, Katara. Not after all our history, however ancient it is now. I only hope that someday, we'll at least discover that we're no longer enemies. For now... let's just call it an armistice." She offered a hand across the table.
Katara got up and regarded the hand for a moment, then looked Azula in the eye again. Then, silently acknowledging that she would probably never really know what she saw there (and still unconsciously one-tenth-expecting some violent consequence), she took it.
"All right," she said. "Let's start there."
Azula smiled slightly. "We have to start somewhere."
The following morning, the rest of the Midgard contingent had long since departed and the spirits of the Avatars past had returned to the Spirit World. Of those who had come from without Asgard to take part in the Ragnarök, only the Phoenix Queen remained, and she too was preparing to depart. With her crew rounded up and aboard, Azula stood at the base of the ramp and said her goodbyes.
"I'd say 'look after yourselves'," she remarked, "but given that you're all dead anyway, that seems a bit silly."
"We're not dead, we're battling evil in another dimension!" Sokka insisted.
"And dead," Toph put in.
"You look after yourself, Azula," said Ursa with a smile. Beckoning her daughter into her arms, she added, "I'm looking forward to seeing you again, but I want the day when you're not just visiting to be a long time coming."
"I'll do what I can," said Azula, returning her mother's embrace. "In the meantime," she added wryly, "there are always mirrors. You'll have to show me how you do that. It has definite potential." Without entirely releasing Ursa, she turned her head and regarded Zuko for a second, and then - to his surprise - pulled him into the hug as well.
"Group hug!" Sokka declared, joining in.
"Nooope, too weird for me," said Toph.
"I know, right?" Mai agreed.
Off to one side, Suki leaned toward Katara and muttered, "Uh, did I miss a memo last night? Have they all forgotten that she's pure evil?"
"I'm... not so sure about that any more," Katara mused, drawing an incredulous look from the Kyoshi Warrior.
"Well, Mai, I guess this is goodbye again," Azula said once the others had turned her loose. "You're sure I can't convince you to run away and rejoin the circus?"
Mai actually smiled at that, albeit only faintly. "Heh, no thank you," she said. "I'm good right here."
"Suit yourself," said Azula with exaggerated resignation. "But I have to tell you, I think you're missing a good time." She ceremoniously shook her old friend's hand, then looked around. "I guess that only leaves one loose end... "
"Looking for me?" came a voice from behind her. Turning, she saw Ty Lee standing at the top of the ramp, a light travel bag slung over one shoulder, smirking faintly.
"It took you long enough to get your paperwork done," said Azula. "I was afraid I'd have to leave without you."
Ty Lee grinned. "Yeah, well, waitin' on you now," she said cheerfully, then turned and vanished into the ship.
"Out of her tiny mind," Mai deadpanned.
"I know, right?" Toph agreed.
"Well, goodbye, all," said Azula briskly. "I'd say we should do it again sometime, but frankly I think next time we should skip the end of the universe and just have lunch." She made the firebender salute and bowed, then turned and trotted up the ramp.
The group of Einherjar stood and watched, some waving, as the Phoenix Queen lifted off and winged away, disappearing into the brightly sunlit sky.
Fire Princess Katara had a secret.
It wasn't the secret some of the more waggish opportunists in her father's court thought she had; that was arrant nonsense. The idea that her unusually dusky skin tone could be traced back to some sort of shenanigans involving one of her post-War ancestors and the Water Tribe was an attractive one to a certain stripe of Fire Nation political animal, but it didn't hold up to scrutiny.
Of course, her father having named her after a prominent figure in the post-War Southern Water Tribe did nothing to dispel that kind of rumor, but such was Katara's contrariety of spirit that she'd always been vaguely disappointed that there was no way she really could be descended from her namesake. She would rather have enjoyed that on a number of levels. In the event, though, it couldn't be so; if nothing else, the timing simply didn't work. She was darker than many of her relatives because of a quirk of her mother's genetic line, nothing more. That august lady's father, for instance, had been as brown as an old copper coin.
No, Katara's secret was less salacious than that, albeit possibly not much less explosive politically: Since she was a little girl, Princess Katara had possessed an imaginary friend.
This personage first appeared to her in the summer of 277 ASC, shortly after she'd celebrated her sixth birthday. As she sat at the dressing table in her bedroom and brushed her hair one day, someone else walked into view in the mirror on the back of the table, which afforded a fairly wide view of the room to anyone seated before it. At first Katara assumed that this was her nanny, Mrs. Quan, come to help her sort out her clothes, and paid her little mind. Mrs. Quan was always trying to help, and though she often accomplished little more than to get in the way, Katara knew she meant well and rarely had the heart to scold her for it; she would usually just let her get on with it.
Only, when she finished with her hair and at last looked up, she saw that it wasn't Mrs. Quan. It was somebody Katara had never seen before: a grown-up, but much younger and prettier than the princess's matronly nanny. Dressed in archaic clothes like the ones Katara had seen in the Fire Nation Museum, she was standing by the end of the bed, looking around the room with an enigmatic little smile on her face. This broadened slightly as she saw that Katara had at last noticed her.
"Hello," she said. Her voice was unlike any Katara had heard before, a low, throaty purr with more than a hint of mischief. She stepped away from the bed, sauntering casually toward the dressing table. In spite of the fact that she was an obvious intruder, nothing about her felt threatening to Katara; there was mischief in her smile as well as her voice, but it was of a kind that invited the princess to take part in it, not threatening at all. For some reason, Katara almost felt she knew the woman, though she was certain she did not. Puzzled, the princess turned around -
- and there was no one there.
Katara blinked in confusion, then turned back to the mirror. The mystery woman was still there, closer to her now. She turned to look again, but the room was still empty.
Well, OK, she thought, and turned to the mirror once again to find that - in the mirror world, anyway - the mysterious woman was standing right next to her now.
"Uh... hi," said Katara.
"I'd tell you you're not going crazy," said the mystery woman with a wink, "but that wouldn't carry a lot of weight coming from someone who isn't really here. Is this your bedroom?"
Katara hesitated for a moment, then decided that whatever was going on, it wasn't going to be any fun at all if she didn't play along. "Yes," she said.
The mystery woman's amber eyes, bright and clear and very like Katara's own, sparkled merrily. "Do you like it?" she asked.
Katara frowned. This would've been an odd line of questioning from anyone, but particularly from a strange woman in old-fashioned clothes who only seemed to exist in her dressing mirror.
"Yes," she repeated. "It's... it's a good room. It has the best view of the gardens."
The mysterious woman's smile broadened. "I'm so glad," she said. "I always thought that was the best thing about it too. This used to be my room, when I was a little girl myself," she explained. "What's your name?"
"I'm... I'm Katara," the princess said. Then, drawing herself up a little self-consciously, she corrected herself and said formally, "Fire Princess Katara."
The mystery woman looked slightly taken aback by that for a moment, then laughed as if it were the most delightful surprise. "I'll bet that choice of name put the cat among the pigeonmice when it was announced," she said cheerfully. "Oh, wait until I tell She Who Must Be Obeyed that she's Katara the Elder now."
Katara (the Younger) looked even more confused. She glanced reflexively at where her visitor should be again, saw nothing once more, and then looked back to her reflection-that-wasn't-a-reflection and said, "She who what? Who are you? And how did you get in my mirror?" Her eyes going wide with a sudden thought, the princess added hopefully, "Are you a ghost?"
The mystery woman laughed again. "There have been times when I've wondered about that myself," she said, "but no, I'm not. I am speaking to you from the Spirit World right now, though. Do you know about the Spirit World?" Katara nodded. "Good." The woman in the mirror made the firebender salute to her and bowed. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Princess Katara. My name is Azula. I'm your... " She paused, thinking. "... great-great... great... aunt. I think. I might be off a great." Smiling again, she went on, "You've probably never heard of me."
Katara stared at her with a combination of bafflement, skepticism, and wonder. "How can you not be a ghost if you're from that long ago?"
"I eat right and get plenty of exercise," said Azula blithely.
Katara rolled her eyes - she knew a grown-up evasion when she heard one - and dropped it for the moment, asking instead, "Why are you here?"
Azula looked like she might be considering another smart answer. She crossed behind Katara's chair, trailing her fingertips idly along the top of its back, and then said, "I'm curious. I've been... away from home... for a long time. If I were ever to come back, it'd be good to have a friend." She smiled her playful smile again. "Would you like to be friends, Katara?"
"Sure," said Katara at once.
"Excellent," said Azula.
"Only right now I have to go to breakfast," Katara added, glancing at her bedside clock. "And then there are my lessons. And it's Xinqisi," she said, making a face. "Double math. Will you be here tonight?"
"I think I can arrange that," said Azula airily. "Bring your homework. I was always pretty good at math; maybe I can help you. Right now, though, you'd better get a move on. Wouldn't want to keep the Fire Lord waiting. Have you found the double secret ninja back way to the dining room yet?"
Katara looked intrigued. "No," she said. "What's that?"
Azula's smile became mischievous again as she leaned down next to her young descendant's shoulder. "Well," she said, "first you go to the south hallway..."
Even amid the wildly assorted jumble of aerospacecraft to be found on the apron at Biggles Field on any given Thursday morning, the starship Phoenix Queen stood out. Her sleek lines and brilliant scarlet livery set her apart on virtually any apron, but here, where the parked craft could and generally did range back to the earliest days of aviation (on several worlds), she was like a woman in a bathing suit amid a crowd of men in overalls.
Her captain always parked her here, though, and not at the main spaceport outside the Golden City, because it was Valhalla she was always coming to visit anyway. As one of the few and proud mortal veterans of the Ragnarök, Azula possessed the vanishingly rare privilege of returning to the Hall of Heroes whenever she liked, in order to visit her friends and relations who dwelt there in celestial glory. It was a privilege she exercised, as a general rule, three or four times a year.
At a little past noon, the Phoenix Queen's first mate woke from a heavy sleep occasioned by the gala evening before, spent a little quality time with the Autospa, and then, refreshed, went to see what (if anything) was doing.
The thing that most impressed Ty Lee about the present state of affairs was how much bigger the Phoenix Queen felt with only herself and Azula aboard. It wasn't as though the vessel had been cramped before - there had been ample space for the crew of six, not counting herself, the ship had had when Ty Lee first joined up - but with the others gone, the Queen felt positively vast. Vast and quiet, particularly on the ground, without the constant subliminal hum of the drive systems.
The sensation put her in a thoughtful, vaguely wistful frame of mind as she went forward and found Azula on the flight deck. The ship's captain sat in her accustomed seat, portside forward, with her booted feet up on a stanchion next to the console, looking at something in a holographic display window hovering nearby.
"Morning," said Ty Lee as she entered the compartment.
"Good morning, Ty Lee," said Azula pleasantly, without looking up.
"When did you get back?" Ty Lee wondered.
"Only a few minutes ago," Azula said.
Ty Lee sat down at the navigator's station on the starboard side of the compartment, swiveled the seat so it faced Azula's, and asked, "What're you reading?"
"Oh, just the mail," Azula replied. She took her boots off the stanchion and turned to face Ty Lee, placing them instead on the arm of the vacant copilot's seat, then reached back and drew the holowindow around so that it was in her field of view again. "Boone wrote this morning. Marta had the baby yesterday. A boy, apparently. They've named him Cassidy, poor thing," she added dryly.
Ty Lee wrinkled her nose. "Cassidy Boone?" she said. "That sounds like an advertising agency."
Azula shrugged eloquently. "Just be glad they didn't name him after the attending physicians," she said. "Imagine trying to get through grammar school with a name like Arcade Mitchell Boone y Velásquez."
"There's that," Ty Lee agreed. "Any other news?"
"Mmm... " Azula traced the mail window's holographic scrollbar with a fingertip, eyes scanning the message. "Nothing much. I expect he's a bit preoccupied. Not enough spare mental capacity to provide his usual exhaustive sitrep," she said wryly.
Ty Lee chuckled. "I suppose so." Then, with a mischievous grin, she added, "You missed a great party last night."
"Was there cactus juice?" Azula inquired.
"Yes there was."
Azula raised an eyebrow. "And is there video?"
"Yes there is."
"Where did you go instead?" Ty Lee wondered.
"Mother and I visited the Spirit World. It's much easier to reach from here than back in Midgard, for whatever reason. At any rate," she went on with a little smile, "I believe I've made a new friend. One I shall have to look in on whenever we're in the neighborhood."
Xinqisi, Liuyue 11, 277 ASC
Thursday, June 11, SY 2396
Caldera City, Fire Nation
Katara was delighted to discover that her ancestor's secret route shaved a good three minutes off the time it took her to reach the dining room from her bedroom. She arrived in plenty of time for breakfast, and had the pleasure of seeing the two guards by the entrance give each other utterly confounded looks as she appeared in the room without having passed them.
For as long as Katara could remember (which was, admittedly, not that long), her father had insisted that his family have breakfast together whenever it was practical to do so, which was virtually always unless unscheduled matters of state intruded. It was one of her favorite times of the day, when she got to see her father before he put his stern face on and became the Fire Lord, and her mother before she put her stern face on and became Chief Minister Haru. After nine AM, they belonged to the nation, but before then, they were just her parents.
They were most of the way through the meal when Katara suddenly asked, "Is my room haunted?"
"... Er, not that I know of," Fire Lord Qinzon replied after a moment's reflection. "Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering," said the princess with unconvincing offhandedness.
For the next few years, Azula became something of a fixture in young Katara's life. She wasn't always around; being a very busy princess, Katara didn't always have time for her, and besides, she explained, she had a lot of things to do herself. But three or four times a year, there would be a week or two at a time when she would appear nightly in Katara's dressing mirror, and they would catch up on all the things that had gone on since last they had seen one another.
Azula was right when she speculated at their first meeting that Katara had probably never heard of her, but that was an oversight the young princess corrected at the earliest opportunity. Her parents had been curiously reluctant to speak of the matter, but Uncle Kazon, her father's brother, had told her the basic facts - how Princess Azula had been old Fire Lord Zuko's sister, their dread father's favorite during the closing days of the Hundred-Year War. He glossed over the details - Katara was, after all, just a child, albeit a clever and perceptive one - but she gathered that Azula had been ill somehow, and had disappeared after the war.
The rest of it she put together piece by piece over the years, as her access to historical documents and her understanding of their use and context expanded. Whenever she put questions about her latest findings to Azula during their conversations, the elder was always ready to answer them, her manner candid and direct. She hid nothing, only occasionally deferring various details of the story until such time as Katara would be old enough to process them fully, and she always said so when she was doing that.
As Katara grew older and her life grew ever more complex and challenging, the spirit of her ancestor was one of the lodestars of her life, a comforting, supportive, nonjudgmental presence in whom she could confide pretty much anything. She shared all her troubles and heartaches (of which, the princess being a passionate soul, there were many), venting all the pressures of the royal life, the expectations, the essential loneliness of being an only child in such a rarefied position in life.
Azula, in turn, told wondrous stories of her adventures, both around Dìqiú and all over the Big Universe beyond. As Katara became more and more sophisticated, these tales took on greater subtlety of nuance, slowly evolving from simple stories of bold adventure into explorations of more mature and difficult themes. Azula didn't always come out of these in the best light, but they were what they were, and one thing she never did once Katara was old enough to understand them was whitewash her own mistakes.
In Katara's twelfth year, she left home to join her cousin Shinzen, who was several years her elder, at exclusive Piandao Academy, far from home in the eastern island town of Shu Jing. It wasn't the farthest she'd ever been from home by a long shot - she had accompanied her parents on state visits to all the world's capitals - but she had never spent more than a few days away from Caldera, and never away from them, before.
She'd also never had a full-time roommate. As an only child, she hadn't had any reason to share her bedroom with anyone other than the ghost (which Azula still insisted she wasn't, but mathematically, Katara couldn't see how she could possibly be anything but) in her dressing mirror. Two to a room was the rule at Piandao Academy, though, and there were no exceptions, not even for the crown princess of the Fire Nation herself. Apart from a couple of very discreet security personnel (so discreet, in fact, that Katara never actually saw them), nothing was to be arranged differently for her in any way.
Xinqiwu, Jiuyue 21, 282 ASC
Friday, September 21, SY 2401
Shu Jing, Fire Nation
Katara had been at the Academy for nearly three weeks when she first saw Azula there. One Friday evening, she was alone in her room in the north wing of Piandao House, doing her homework, when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye, turned in her chair, and saw her ancestor leaning casually against the frame of her dressing mirror as though it were a doorjamb.
"Aunt Azula!" she cried, jumping up and running to the mirror.
"Hello, Katara," said Azula warmly. She raised a hand as if placing it against the inside of a window, and Katara matched it on the outside of the glass, which was as close as they could get to touching. "What a pleasant little room," she added, looking around. "A bit smaller than our old place, but cozy."
"I was afraid I've have to wait until winter break to see you again," Katara said. "I didn't know if you'd be able to find me here."
Azula smiled. "I can find you wherever you are," she said, then paused, looking thoughtful. "Hmm. You know, that sounded much less creepy in my head."
Katara laughed. "It's OK," she said. Then, pulling her chair over to the mirror, she sat down and asked, "So! What's new on your end?"
"Precious little, I'm afraid," said Azula. She seated herself in an elaborately carved Azulon chair (she'd say this for her grandfather, the old bastard had good taste in furniture), crossing her legs elegantly at the knee, and went on, "The Queen is in for a refit, and until that's finished, I've nothing to do but push my sister-in-law's buttons and work on my memoirs."
Katara giggled. "You're mean," she said.
"On occasion," Azula allowed. Then, smiling, she said, "What about you? Settling in all right? I envy you, you know. I didn't get to go to an actual school until after Karafuto, and by then I was nearly too old to enjoy it properly." She nodded toward the bunk beds by the far wall. "I see you have a roommate?"
Katara nodded. "Everybody here does."
"What's she like?"
"Well... I don't really know her very well yet," said Katara. "She's really quiet. Kind of shy. She seems nice, though. Her name's Jing. She's from the Earth Kingdom."
"Oh ho!" said Azula, eyebrows rising. "Charming place, the Earth Kingdom. I used to be queen of there, once."
"Oh, you did not either," said Katara with cheerful scorn. "I read that book."
"Hmph. I see historical revisionism is alive and well in the Chun Tai era," said Azula, mock-annoyed; then she dropped the pose with an indulgent eyeroll and went on, "Well, hopefully she'll come out of her shell as she gets to know you better."
Xinqisan, Liuyue 10, 290 ASC
Wednesday, June 10, SY 2409
"Stop fidgeting, Katara, or I'll never be able to get this right."
"I'm not fidgeting," Katara objected, "you're OW! pulling my hair."
"I'm combing your hair," Jing corrected her, "because if I don't, you'll look like you've been dragged to the rehearsal behind a runaway ostrich horse. I told you not to sleep on it wet, but noooo."
Katara sighed. "I don't know why I let you talk to me that way," she grumped. "I'm a princess, I shouldn't have to stand for it."
Unconcerned, Jing carried on combing her roommate's long black hair. "A, because you love me - "
"(not in that way,)" they added, simultaneously parenthetical.
" - and B, because you know I'm right."
Katara sighed again, deeper this time, and said with heavy mock resignation, "Fine, carry on."
"Thank you," said Jing with elaborate courtesy. Finishing the repair job, she put the comb aside, wedged a few hairpins in the corner of her mouth to free her hands, and started arranging Katara's hair in the elaborately formal style she'd chosen to wear it in for their graduation ceremony.
Watching the operation in the mirror, Katara failed to stop a smile from breaking through her put-on put-upon scowl. All got up in their graduation robes, she and her roommate looked practically like adults. Katara was a head taller than Jing, but slimmer, with that lean and vaguely raptorial look many of her ancestors had sported. At seventeen she looked every inch her father's daughter, although, as Cousin Shinzen had once quipped, she made the Qinzon nose look a lot better than the old man did himself.
Jing, by contrast, was shorter, but looked stronger - not squat or stocky, but compact and powerfully built, with a round face and quick bright eyes that gave her a near-constant air of merriment. She'd had no difficulties with her own hair because she had very much less of it than her roommate. She kept it closely, almost ruthlessly, bobbed, and at the moment most of it was underneath the green and gold pillbox hat she wore as an emblem of her birthplace.
Jing was Katara's opposite in many ways: phlegmatic where Katara was sanguine, with a full measure of the sturdy practicality so stereotypical of her native land. She was a commoner, albeit a wealthy one, born to a merchant family in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, and she professed little awe at the trappings of nobility. Her only response to Katara's occasional fits of aristocratic impatience was to roll her eyes a little and patiently wait her out. It never took long, since the princess's flashes of temper would always burn out as quickly as they flared up.
They were a fixed point, these two, the semi-official class couple of Form Seven: almost always together, often bickering happily, but always mutually supportive underneath the cosmetic incompatibility. Whether by chance or the subtle design of Headmaster Changdao (who was renowned for his ability to arrange such meetings of hearts and minds in his rooming assignments), their personalities meshed in useful and complementary ways, making them greater together than the sum of their individualities.
Now, as she did her best to sit still and let Jing work, Katara smiled as a third figure joined them in the mirror.
"Well, well, well," said Azula, smiling. "Look at you two, all dressed up."
"Our graduation rehearsal is in half an hour," Katara explained.
"Thank you, I'm aware of that," Jing mumbled around the hairpins she hadn't placed yet. Then, glancing past Katara at the princess's smiling reflection, she said, "Ah, you're not talking to me." With a little grin, she raised a hand in a sardonic wave at the mirror and said in a slightly raised voice, "Hello, Katara's imaginary dead aunt."
"I can understand her assuming that I'm imaginary," said Azula for nothing like the first time, "but it really annoys me that she thinks I'm also dead."
"We could prove that you're not either," said Katara. "Graduation is this Saturday. I want you to come."
Azula blinked at her in surprise. "Are you serious?" she asked.
"Of course I'm serious," Katara replied.
"I... hmm. It's tempting," Azula allowed, "but I doubt I'd be terribly welcome."
"I can make you welcome," said Katara, her jaw jutting fiercely. "I'm the damn crown princess."
"Oh, this should be good," Jing murmured.
"Hush!" Katara snapped. "Will you do it? I want you there. I want to meet you in person at last. You've always told me you're not a ghost - well, it's time for you to prove it."
Azula regarded her several-greats-niece for a long moment, her face set in a little frown of thought, and for a second Katara wondered if she might just have pushed her mercurial ancestor a little too hard; but then the elder princess grinned, all her teeth showing, and replied,
"You're on, kiddo. Saturday, you say? Tricky... but doable. What time should I get there?"
Now it was Katara's turn to blink in surprise. When seized by the impulse to issue the challenge, she hadn't actually considered the possibility that it might work.
"Uh... ten o'clock?" she said, picking a time before the midday ceremony more or less at random.
"Done," said Azula at once. "It won't be a problem if I bring a friend, I hope?"
"Uh, no... I'll... I'll take care of it," said Katara haltingly.
"Good. Best to use my Big Universe name, I should think - I doubt your parents are prepared to cope with anything else, much less the rest of the world. Sarah Inazuma plus one, for ten o'clock Saturday. Well! I'd best get a move on! I'll see you then."
And with that, she was gone.
"So?" Jing wondered, completing her job and stepping back to regard it. "Is she coming?"
Jing shook her head with an indulgent smile. "Only you would call your own imaginary friend's bluff," she said.
"Yeah, keep laughing, you'll see," Katara said, and then thought, I hope...
Xinqiliu, Liuyue 13
Saturday, June 13
At ten minutes past ten that morning, Jing was exercising all her considerable powers of forbearance and not pointing out to Katara that no one had appeared. Lying on her bed and gazing bleakly at the ceiling, the girl looked legitimately upset, somewhat calling into question Jing's long-standing assumption that the "imaginary friend" thing was kind of a game the princess played with herself and her roommate. She seemed genuinely to believe that her long-lost great-great-great-aunt, who had been missing since the year one hundred and two, for Bosco's sake, had promised to show up for their graduation.
She was just considering how she might broach the subject without seeming to be gloating when, somewhat to her surprise, there came a knock at the door. Katara was up and halfway to the door before Jing could even draw breath. Once there, she hesitated for just a second, her hand reaching for the knob, as though she were half-afraid to open it and see who was calling. Whoever it was knocked again, a little more briskly this time. Katara took a deep breath, seemed to steady herself, and then opened the door.
There were two people standing there, both women who seemed to be in their early twenties. One, standing to the right of and a little behind the one who knocked, was a cheerful-looking girl with dark brown hair drawn back in a long braid, dressed in a pale pink sundress and low red shoes. At the sight of Katara, she grinned and saluted, army-style, a gesture that was entirely at odds with her breezily casual appearance.
The other, standing dead-center in the doorway, was a bit taller and leaner, with her long black hair worn down and loose and a slightly sardonic little smile on her sharply beautiful face. Her crisp red silk shirt and snug-fitting black trousers were rather less casual than her companion's sundress. The trousers in particular, decked with a narrow red stripe down the outseams, almost looked like they came from some sort of uniform, an appearance heightened by the tall black motorcycling boots they were tucked into.
"Sorry we're late," this individual said, smiling a little more broadly. "You wouldn't believe the paperwork at the Crescent Island Veil nexus. Honestly, it's like the Fire Sages think they own the place."
Katara stared blankly at her for a moment, sheer astonishment wiping away anything else that might've been on her face.
"... you came," she murmured.
"Of course I came," the woman in black and red replied. "I told you I would."
Katara blinked, then smiled a beaming smile and threw her arms around her visitor. "Aunt Azula!" she cried. "You actually came!"
"You. Are. Messing. With. Me," said Jing slowly.
"I wish you wouldn't sound quite so surprised about that, Katara, dear," said Azula with mock reproach as she returned the embrace. "You make it sound as if I've some long-established habit of letting you down."
Katara blushed. "No, I just, I mean, I wasn't sure - oh, never mind. Come in! Please!" She backed up a bit and gestured the two into the room. "Um, right! This is my roommate Jing."
Azula made the firebender salute to her descendant's bemused roommate, then extended an elegantly manicured hand. "Hello! We meet at last. At the moment my tourist visa says I'm Sarah Inazuma from Karafuto, and far be it from me to argue with the Customs and Immigration Bureau," she added with a conspiratorial wink. Then, noting that Jing hadn't made any effort to shake her hand, she added, "Don't worry, I don't bite."
"Not uninvited, anyway," the woman in the pink dress quipped with a wink.
Azula gave her a glance and a sardonic smile. "Behave yourself, we're guests here," she said, then turned back to Jing and said, "You'll have to excuse Ty Lee, I'm afraid she's quite incorrigible. Agni knows I've tried."
Jing hesitantly took the offered hand, still looking vaguely stunned. "Uh... hi."
"I'm delighted to meet you," said Azula, giving her hand a squeeze and then releasing it. "Katara's told me so much about you." Then, turning to the younger princess again, she went on, "So! How long do we have before you two need to start getting ready?"
"Not long," said Jing, recovering her practical aplomb quickly with a task at hand. "The ceremony's at 11, we need to be ready to march by quarter of."
Azula glanced at the clock on Katara's desk and nodded. "Not a moment to be lost, then," she agreed. "We'll go and hobnob with the visiting dignitaries, shall we, and we'll see you after the show."
And with that, and a further hug, they were gone, leaving the two teenagers to contemplate the events of the last few minutes.
"I... " said Jing, and then stopped, unable to trust herself with any further words.
Katara stood looking at the closed door for a moment, then turned a little grin to her roommate.
"I told you," she said, and then went to her wardrobe.
It took a few minutes, once the graduation ceremony got underway, for Azula to realize quite what was striking her as odd about it. It wasn't the ceremony itself, that was fairly standard as these things went; rather, it dawned on her partway through Headmaster Changdao's speech that a fair number of those attending weren't human.
The reason it took this patently obvious fact so long to register was that this wasn't in any way unusual in her everyday life. Sarah Inazuma's world was that of the cosmopolitan twenty-fifth-century spacer, constantly brushing elbows (or equivalent upper extremity articulation points) with members of a thousand species in the course of regular business, from the quarian fueling techs at Scandia-1 to that cheerful Rigellian weapons merchant who was the only reliable source for the obsolescent missiles the Phoenix Queen's launchers required.
Here in Dìqiú, though, that kind of thing had been completely unknown when she was a girl; and though she had heard from Katara about the opening of the Spirit World (which had happened years before the younger princess was born, during the elder's long sojourn in hibernation), she hadn't consciously considered what it meant until now. There weren't a lot of spirits here, but there were enough to stand out now that she had noticed them - particularly the one among the faculty up on the stage, who appeared to be a gaily colored moth about the size of a person, hovering with lazy wingbeats rather than standing.
Beyond the faintly surprising presence of the spirits in attendance, the guest speakers represented Azula's first opportunity to get a look at certain of the Important Personages of this era. One of them, naturally, was Fire Lord Qinzon, invited to speak at his daughter and heir's graduation. As with Katara, Azula thought she could detect certain perennial traits of the family in him, but others had evidently entered the bloodline after her time. She couldn't remember her father or grandfather having had that impressive beak of a nose, for instance, and certainly her brother didn't have anything like it.
The other was Aang's successor, Avatar Korra. Azula had heard many stories and seen several pictures of this individual - Katara the Elder and Zuko were both wont to get a bit sentimental about her from time to time - but she had a certain spark in person that didn't come across in photographs. She bore no particular resemblance to Aang, though, in person or manner. Azula chalked that up as evidence that the whole "they're all really the same person" thing was just as much bunk as she'd always assumed it was.
As for the two women who attended as Princess Katara's guests, their presence provoked no particular stir among the others in attendance. Those few who gave the matter any thought assumed that the black-haired one, with her faint resemblance to the princess and her obvious firebender's eyes, was an obscure relative of whom they'd never heard, possibly from the quiet and retiring Hira'a branch of the royal family; and as for the one in the pink dress, she was plainly some kind of bodyguard despite her cheerfully casual appearance.
Azula and Ty Lee hung back after the ceremony was over, waiting at a discreet distance while Katara's parents spoke with her. Even from here, the affection both the Fire Lord and his Chief Minister had for their daughter was obvious, and Azula found herself unexpectedly touched by it. She turned to see Ty Lee's reaction and saw, not altogether to her surprise, that her friend was actually tearing up a little bit at the sight.
"Sentimentalist," she said fondly.
"Uh-huh," Ty Lee agreed with a sniffling smile.
Qinzon and Haru didn't stay long, both because they had much to do and because they didn't want their royal gravity to encumber the occasion. After a few private remarks to several of the faculty (including the moth spirit) and a parting pair of hugs for Katara, they took their leave in as unostentatious a manner as was probably possible for VIPs of their caliber. As he was boarding the royal limousine for the short drive to the airport, the Fire Lord glanced over the gathered students, parents, and others, at last seeming to notice his daughter's guests; he paused for a moment, his eyes on Azula, but then got the rest of the way into the car and was whisked away without comment.
"Think he recognized you?" Ty Lee wondered.
"Probably not," Azula replied. "If he had, one tends to doubt he would've just left." She smiled slightly. "More likely he's still trying to think where he's seen me before."
"There you are," Katara's voice called to them, and they looked up to see the princess and her roommate threading their way through the crowd toward them. "Do you want to meet Korra? She and Master Shespa have to leave. Some kind of problem with the Great Library."
"I think it's probably best if we leave that introduction for another time, actually," said Azula. "I don't believe the old theory that she's literally the rebirth of Aang - for one thing, I just saw him the other day, and he didn't look like that - but all the same, she stands a better than average chance of recognizing me," she added with a wry smile. "I'm not exactly hiding, but my presence here would take more explaining than I really feel like doing today."
Katara gave a disappointed frown. "Aw, OK. Let me just go say goodbye, then."
Korra and the other person named, a woman in Air Nomad robes, departed soon after (on the back of a sky bison, which gave Azula a surprisingly pleasant little twinge of nostalgia). With them gone, she and Ty Lee circulated for a while, chatting with various students' parents and members of the faculty. The moth spirit turned out to be a very pleasant but slightly distracted science teacher, evidently concerned mainly with meteorology and environmental studies; after a few moments, she excused herself and flitted off in roughly the direction in which the bison had gone.
"Whatever's going on has all the scholar-spirits in an uproar," Katara mused as she and Jing rejoined them.
"Mm, Professor Mosura's all aflutter," Jing agreed. "As it were."
"Somebody probably outraged Mr. Owl again," said Katara.
"Maybe he finally found out there aren't really tiny actors inside television sets," Jing speculated.
"Ah, well. Korra will take care of it," Katara said. "What did you guys think of the ceremony?"
"It was lovely," said Ty Lee with a grin. "Your father's quite a speaker. I wonder where he got that from?" she added, nudging Azula with an elbow. "It was nowhere in evidence in your day."
Azula chuckled. "No indeed," she said.
Katara giggled. "He has his moments," she allowed.
"So what are your plans now?" Ty Lee wondered. "I never graduated from anyplace - well, except prison - so I'm not sure what happens next."
Ignoring the deeply dubious look Jing was giving her ancestor's companion in response to the "prison" remark, Katara replied, "That's... kind of not decided yet. I want to go to college, but Dad wants me to go home and start doing the princess thing full-time. He says if I want a degree, I can just make Caldera University give me one, which is kind of... not the point. I mean, that's the whole reason I came here," she added, gesturing around. "I could've just gone to the Royal Fire Academy, but everyone would have assumed that I'd have been an honors graduate from there no matter what. A diploma from this place means I actually know things."
"Mm," said Azula with a thoughtful nod; then she smiled and said, "Well, keep working on him. You'll wear him down."
Katara grinned. "That's my plan. In the meantime, Mother insists that I at least get the summer off before I have to start showing up for state functions and whatnot. I don't really have a plan, but... "
"Why don't you come to Ba Sing Se with me?" Jing asked. "You can finally meet my family."
Katara gave her a skeptical look. "Your family that I've never seen at parents' day or the start or end of any term? The ones who didn't even come to graduation? That family?"
"They're busy people!" Jing insisted. "When you meet them you'll understand. Come on, it'll be fun. You get us to Republic City with your fancy-pants navy connections, and then we'll take the train to Ba Sing Se. You two should come along too," she added to Azula and Ty Lee, "if you can spare a few days."
Ty Lee looked thoughtfully to Azula. "You've never seen Republic City," she said. "It's pretty good. Or it was when I was there last. Admittedly that was... a while ago."
"That sounds like a fine idea," Azula agreed. "I haven't taken a good old-fashioned road trip in a long time."
Xinqiyi, Liuyue 15
Monday, June 15
The former coastal colonies had changed dramatically and the train was much more modern than Azula remembered, but the scrubby desert outside Ba Sing Se was just the same. Watching it slide by out the window of the No. 2 sleeper car of the Western Empire Express, Azula wondered how different the Earth Kingdom's vast capital city itself would be. She hadn't been there in nearly 200 years, since departing in triumph to return to the Fire Nation and prepare for the endgame of the Hundred-Year War. It hadn't changed appreciably for many more years than that before then, but then, the world hadn't changed very much in all the many centuries Ba Sing Se had stood before she got to it.
"Uh-oh, you've got your Big Thoughts face on," Ty Lee observed, slipping into the seat next to her.
Azula glanced at her, then half-smiled and turned back to the view. "Just reflecting on how much this world has changed since I was last in it. Zuzu wasn't exaggerating after all when he said he and Aang and their friends basically reinvented the place once Father was dealt with." She shook her head. "Maybe it's just as well I missed that. I probably wouldn't have been able to handle it happening around me, particularly when I hadn't been torn down and rebuilt myself."
Ty Lee leaned a little closer and took her hand. "You'd have found a way," she said. "You were always a survivor, even then."
Azula regarded their linked hands for a moment, then raised them and kissed the back of Ty Lee's before telling her wryly, "You are a terrible judge of character."
Ty Lee would've replied, but just at that moment, she heard a sound so sharply out of context where they were now that it took her a moment to place it. She glanced at Azula and saw that she'd heard it too. Frowning, Azula turned and looked out the window again. For a moment there was nothing more to see out there than before... and then, pulling up even with the No. 2 car from behind, came another vehicle.
"Well, that's not supposed to be here," Azula remarked; for the vehicle pacing the train, a dark-clad figure astride it, was a repulsorlift swoop. As she regarded him with a quizzical frown, the man riding the swoop looked up and seemed to notice her, then hunched lower over his handlebars and opened the throttle, accelerating past the car. A moment later, another one followed him by.
Ty Lee darted across the compartment and into the aisle running along the righthand side of the car; from those windows, she could see two more swoop-mounted outriders catching the train on that side.
"They're over here too!" she cried.
Rising from her seat, Azula started forward for the door leading to the No. 1 car -
- but before she reached it, the train derailed.
She and Ty Lee were ready for that, not because they had been expecting it, but because they were more or less always prepared for such things to happen by this point in their lives. The car they were in plunged off the tracks to the left, bumping and banging over the rocky scrubland, its upper structure swaying violently. Her face set in a scowl of concentration, Azula blasted away one of the skylights above the "sitting room" area of their first-class compartment, then sprang upward, caught hold of the coaming, and levered herself up onto the roof. Ty Lee was right behind her, using one of the seats as a springboard and bounding clean out without having to use her hands at all, except for balance.
Their situation was not manifestly better up here - the sleeper car was still thundering across the hardpan, jouncing and shuddering. A mere moment after they arrived on the roof, the car struck a boulder and tipped onto its side, crashing down with an almighty smashing of glass and a shriek of metal on rock. By this point, though, it had bled off enough of its speed that the two women were able to leap clear and roll to a halt in the dust without breaking themselves to pieces.
Behind them, all but the locomotive and the first sleeper car of the Western Empire Express slid noisily to a stop in a jumbled mess, some cars fallen onto their sides, others half-run up onto the ones ahead of them and jutting up at crazy angles.
For a moment, Azula and Ty Lee lay where they'd come to rest, sprawled on the dusty ground; then, slowly, they stirred and pulled themselves together, climbing painfully to their feet. Without exchanging a word, they dusted themselves off and checked each other for serious injuries, and discovered that, though bruised and scuffed, their clothing dirty and torn, they were largely unharmed. They turned and looked up the line to see what had become of the head of the Express.
This had come to rest a half-mile or so farther along. The locomotive was derailed as well, lying over on its right side next to the tracks with a fire burning in its engine compartment, but No. 1 sleeper car was miraculously still upright, rolling gently to a stop some distance beyond the wrecked engine. The swoop outriders were circling it, reminding Azula of vultures - until one of them noticed the two survivors from No. 2 sleeper and gestured violently to another. With a nod, the second peeled away from the formation and started making straight for them.
Ty Lee looked at Azula. "Do you want this one?" she asked.
Azula smiled and made a gracious gesture. "No, by all means, be my guest."
Ty Lee grinned. "You're too good to me," she said. Then, turning to face the oncoming swoop, she pulled off her ruined sundress (this one had been white) over her head and tossed it away. Beneath it, she wore a snug-fitting dark-green garment, sleeveless and legless, a bit like a warm-water wetsuit.
Azula never tired of seeing this bit of kit in action, and she wondered what the swoop rider was making of it as the sleeves and leggings of Ty Lee's Experts of Justice smartsuit - the very latest thing from the Stark Industries tactical toy shop - extruded themselves down her limbs and mated to her half-gloves and shoes, leaving her covered from neck to toe in fireproof, bullet-resistant hypersilk.
He didn't have long to consider it, however, because within a second or so, he was on top of her. She saw his teeth flicker in a vicious smile below his goggles as he bore down on her, intending to run her down with his swoop's razor-sharp steering vanes. He had just enough time for that expression to be replaced with a look of blank astonishment as, with split-second timing, she leaped over those vanes, springing straight up between the handlebars so that the micromesh-reinforced cap of one of her tacsuit's knees rammed square into the middle of his face. His goggles shattering, he pitched backward out of the saddle, tumbled like a ragdoll across the dusty ground, and fetched up at Azula's feet.
Ty Lee balanced for a moment on the pommel of the swoop's saddle, arms outstretched, as if to demonstrate the perfection of her form for the judges; then she whirled and dropped into the seat, seizing control of the vehicle before it could crash under her. Its repulsors howled as it banked steeply to starboard, footpeg throwing up a crescent of dust. She righted it, braked, and brought it around to where Azula stood looking thoughtfully down at its former owner.
"He seems to be wearing some sort of uniform," Azula observed, disdainfully toeing over the unconscious form so that he lay on his back. His clothes did indeed seem like a uniform, mostly black leather with piping of bright sky blue, and on his breast something glinted. Frowning, she crouched and pulled it off his jacket, then straightened and held it up to the sunlight, regarding it closely.
It was a metal badge, about the size of a policeman's shield, silver-backed and richly enameled in the same azure color, and its shape was curiously familiar - like an even-more-stylized version of the Fire Nation's triple flame crest.
"What do you make of this?" Azula asked, but Ty Lee wasn't listening. Looking up from the badge, Azula saw that she was staring up the rail line, her face blank with astonishment. She turned to see what was so surprising over there, and then had to agree that it was, in fact, pretty astonishing.
"Where did that come from?" she wondered aloud, sounding (if anything) faintly annoyed.
From somewhere, while they were occupied with the outrider, another locomotive had arrived. It wasn't a Western Line rescue tender or anything of that sort, though; in fact, Azula would have bet that it belonged to no proper railroad company. Slab-sided and heavily armored, without any visible windows, it looked more like some kind of primitive siege engine than a piece of railway rolling stock. As they watched, it backed up to the No. 1 car and, since that car's coupling had been sheared away, seized hold of it with a sort of massive articulated metal claw, evidently provided specifically for the purpose. Then, its prize securely gripped, it started pulling away, accelerating smartly with only the one carriage to pull. As it sped off, the other three outriders took up formation around it.
"You don't see that every day," Ty Lee observed.
"No," Azula agreed, but before she could comment further, a bolt of fire shot past above her head.
This didn't cause her to duck and curse, as any normal person would've, but she did turn to see where it had come from. Some distance behind them, survivors had begun to pull themselves from the wreckage of the Western Empire Express. A few were sitting on the ground or leaning against rocks and bits of the wreck, clearly injured or in shock, but others - men and women in curiously similar dark suits - were running toward them, most of them shouting either at Azula and Ty Lee or into radios.
The woman in the lead had clearly just firebent that warning shot at them, and as she came within fifty yards or so, she launched another, shouting for them to stop where they were.
"Oi! At whom do you think you're shooting?!" Azula demanded indignantly.
"Uh, I think they think we're with the people who just kidnapped the princess," Ty Lee told her.
"Oh, brilliant," Azula replied, rolling her eyes. Then, swinging into the saddle behind her, she asked, "Darling, why does nothing we attempt ever go according to plan?"
"Don't look at me," said Ty Lee as she put the swoop in motion, zooming off after the train. "You're the one with nearly infinite karmic debt."
By the time they caught up with the train, they'd received another surprise, as - still a half-mile or so ahead of them and going like hell - it suddenly veered off the main line and onto a siding that wasn't there. As they drew nearer, Azula and Ty Lee could see that the tracks it was running on now weren't steel, but the shaped stone type that the Earth Kingdom's earthbender trains had run on in ages past. These were appearing - rising from the desert floor as if by their own will - a short distance in front of the speeding train, then sinking away again in its wake, leaving few traces that the vehicle had ever passed that way.
"Earthbenders," Ty Lee remarked, her voice almost snatched away by the swoop's slipstream. "What the heck is goin' on?"
"I have no idea," Azula replied. "We must be sure to ask them when we have a spare moment."
It was at about that time that the other swoop riders realized the bike catching up to them was no longer in the hands of their colleague and circled back to deal with the problem.
Two of them seemed to be firebenders, the third an earthbender, their techniques obviously adapted with some diligence and skill to the tricky business of fighting from the saddle; but none of them was half the swoop pilot Ty Lee was, nor half the bender she had for a gunner. She outmaneuvered them with fiercely grinning glee, evading the earthbender's efforts to throw up pylons and barricades in her path, confounding the firebenders' attempts to catch her in a crossfire, and positioning them for Azula to pick off one by one.
She went for the bikes at first, not the riders, wrecking the machinery with pinpoint bursts of flame so hot it seemed to warp the air around it. One of the firebenders was the first to go, and the look of astonishment that crossed his face as the azure flame blasted his steering vanes apart was one of the highlights of the day as far as Azula was concerned. The second braked hard to avoid plowing headlong into the cloud of dust and rocks thrown up by her colleague's crash, then slewed around it and poured on the coal to catch up.
Ty Lee slalomed through another array of instant stalagmites conjured from the desert floor by the earthbender, then cut across his path so Azula could torch his swoop's powerplant right out of its chassis. His dust cloud was even bigger than the other's, as he frantically piled together softer soil in an attempt to break his fall - not bad work for a man in the process of hurtling over the handlebars of his crippled bike, Azula had to give him credit for that, anyway.
The second firebender was cannier, and thought she'd already seen what Azula was capable of. She stayed at longer range, darting back and forth in long arcs, far enough away that she'd have a chance to evade any bolts of fire Azula sent her way.
Clever, friend, she thought, but not clever enough. Placing her hands on Ty Lee's shoulders, she rose to her feet, balancing on the narrow saddle, then closed her eyes and gathered her concentration. Bolts of the other biker's fire laced the air around her as she tried to take advantage of her more exposed position, but her own trick of staying at long range worked against her -
- and then, her eyes popping open, Azula showed her teeth in a cruel little grin and blew the woman clean out of the saddle with a bolt of lightning.
"Showoff," Ty Lee called cheerfully back to her as she resumed her seat.
"You know you love it," Azula replied, squinting into the slipstream past her head. "Don't lose them!"
"We're in the middle of nowhere, that would be pretty hard to do," Ty Lee said, but no sooner were the words past her lips than the train had veered toward one of the red bluffs that dotted this part of the desert. As they watched, a square opening appeared in the side of the bluff, reminding them both of the way the earthbender guards of Ba Sing Se used to work the wall. The train barreled through...
... and the "door" began to close behind it.
"Crap," said Ty Lee, bending further over the handlebars as she pinned the throttle wide open. It was no use; they were too far away to reach the dwindling opening in time.
"This isn't gonna work," Ty Lee declared, sounding more disappointed than dismayed, as they hurtled toward annihilation.
"I noticed," Azula replied dryly. "Get ready to jump." Nodding, Ty Lee sprang up into a coiled crouch on the saddle, her hands still working the controls.
"Now!" Azula cried, and without hesitation, Ty Lee backtucked, her body curling into a ball as she tumbled through the air above Azula's head. Azula timed her own exit with exquisite care, mimicking Ty Lee's starting posture; but instead of a tuck, she went straight back, her body arching, never taking her eyes off the speeding swoop as it darted away from her.
An instant before she hit the ground, Azula loosed another bolt of lightning, blasting the control cluster mounted atop the swoop's micro-reactor where it jutted up between the handlebars. The riderless machine dipped, its steering vanes biting into the earth, then cartwheeled -
- and just as it struck the vertical wall of the bluff, where the "door" had been moments before, the lobotomized fusion bottle cooked off, vaporizing the swoop in a tiny but sun-hot pulse of uncontained plasma. Rocks and dust bloomed high into the summer sky and pelted down all around Azula and Ty Lee as, for the second time in an hour or so, they rolled painfully to a halt on the desert floor.
"We have got to get a new travel agent," Azula groaned as she picked herself up once more.
"Totally," Ty Lee agreed. "Hey, it worked," she added, pointing. Sure enough, through the settling dust, a jagged-edged hole pierced the side of the bluff. Beyond it, from out in the sunshine, they could see only darkness.
"I thought it might," Azula replied, walking toward the hole. "Strangely enough, that wasn't the first time I've used a fusion-powered vehicle as a high-velocity breaching charge." She shook her head. "What is that kind of technology even doing here? Whoever these people are, they're playing with toys no one should see in Dìqiú for decades yet, at the very least."
"I dunno," Ty Lee said as she followed Azula into the bluff. "Somebody's definitely got some explaining to do."
By a strange coincidence, a very similar thought crossed Princess Katara's mind at around the same time, as, deep within the bluff, her stolen railway car came to a halt and a dozen black-clad, masked individuals stormed it. Apart from herself and Jing, the only people aboard that car were the conductor and two officers of the Fire Nation Security Service, a man and woman Katara thought she recognized from the seldom-seen detachment that had kept a discreet watch over her during her tenure at Piandao Academy.
All three - the latter out of duty, the former out of a sense of obligation to the passengers in his care - were prepared to make a fight of it, but they were woefully outnumbered and the attackers made short work of them. Almost before they knew what was happening, Katara and Jing were being bundled roughly off the train and marched deeper into the interior of the bluff.
As they went, Katara tried to keep her wits about her, taking in as much detail as she could about their surroundings while trying not to seem as though she were looking around too obviously. The huge chamber where the train had come to rest looked like it was built for the purpose, right down to the precisely cut trench for the tracks, placing the doors at floor level just like the platform in a train station.
For the first time, as she was being led away from it, she saw the mechanism by which the attackers' strange locomotive had taken possession of No. 1 sleeper car, and remarked to herself on the monstrous vehicle's heavy armor and cruel lines. This was a machine specifically conceived and constructed for this kind of mayhem, like a pirate ironclad for the land. She wondered, with a faint shiver, whether anyone had survived in the rest of the train. What they could see of its fate from the windows of No. 1 had not been encouraging.
Aunt Azula must be alive, she told herself. She's survived too much for something like that to be the end of her...
As they progressed deeper into it, Katara saw that the whole inside of the bluff was worked in a plain, but not entirely unadorned, style. The passages they were hustled through were fully finished, with smooth walls, floors, and ceilings, not rough-hewn like manually cut mineshafts or randomly textured like natural caverns. Someone - presumably with the aid of a team of skilled earthbenders, perhaps trained in mining - had put a lot of work into converting this natural landform into a sort of hidden fortress. Electrical cables, neatly secured in conduits, and pipelines of unknown purpose criscrossed the ceilings, and the entire complex was well-lit with regularly spaced glowlamps.
After a few twists and turns, and one particularly long stretch of straight corridor, the two girls' captors propelled them through a massive, iron-banded double door and into a chamber that made the train platform room seem poky by comparison. It reminded Katara a little bit of her father's throne room back home in the Royal Palace, a huge, echoing space, longer than wide, with a small dais at the far end as its focus. The ceiling seemed impossibly high, the walls (slightly angled so as to cause the room's eyelines to converge at the focus) sheer and featureless - except for the one behind the dais, upon which hung an enormous black banner featuring a giant rendition of the blue tri-flame symbol all these people wore as a badge.
And below that banner, Katara was stunned to see a massive framed painting of none other than Aunt Azula.
It was an image Katara hadn't seen before, depicting Azula as she would have appeared at about fifteen. She had her hair up in the style so familiar to her young descendant after all their mirror meetings over the years - the style in which it was also shown in most of the historical paintings of Princess Azula that Katara had seen - but in her high, folded topknot she wore the gilded flame of the Fire Lord, the same royal emblem Katara's father had sported all of her life. She wasn't smiling, but the artist had somehow contrived to give the impression that she was suppressing a smile, and not a nice one, either. There was something cruel about her eyes, and something slightly unnerving, too - the pupils a little too small, the whites visible all the way around the amber-gold irises.
She was only shown from the shoulders up, the same pose as all the official court portraits of the past Fire Lords that hung in the great reception hall of the Royal Palace, but Katara could tell that she was wearing the elaborate ceremonial armor of a Fire Army general, deep scarlet and black. Around her neck on a black iron chain, providing a slightly startling contrast, she wore a round golden medallion with a square hole in the center, its face inset with polished jade: the symbol, incongruous in this context, of the Earth Kingdom.
Not Princess Azula, then, but Fire Lord Azula, the self-declared 53rd Earth Queen. Azula the Conqueror, de facto ruler of half the world, captured in paint and canvas at the peak of her powers...
... at the peak of her madness.
Katara felt a faint chill race up her spine at the thought that she was in the presence of men and women who found that version of her beloved ancestor worthy of such blatant, fawning adoration.
And there were dozens of them, too, standing at attention in neat ranks on either side of a blue-carpeted central aisle like a small army under review. Katara and Jing's captors drove them up this aisle now, toward the dais and the portrait. There was a man standing there, tall and commanding. He was dressed like all the others in blue-trimmed black, but wore a broad blue sash around his waist.
Alone among the black-clad throng, he was unmasked, but even so, his grim and slightly bony face revealed little to Katara's inspection. He was middle-aged, slightly pale, with bushy black eyebrows and a drooping moustache to match; the hair on his head, thick and just beginning to grey, was drawn back into the sort of clubbed queue favored by old-fashioned Fire Navy sailors. Half his left ear was missing, only the lobe remaining beneath a shiny arc of scar tissue; an injury not uncommon, Katara knew, among Agni kai duelists of the old, long-outlawed to-the-death school.
When they reached the area just before the dais, the man propelling Katara and the others who had followed from the train all saluted this figure and then melted away into the gathered army, taking up places in their ranks. Only the one who had been coercing Jing remained, his heavy hand still gripping the back of her neck - a silent but unsubtle reminder to Katara that her friend was still quite directly in these people's power, and if the princess cared for her safety at all, she would do well to behave herself.
Katara made momentary eye contact with Jing, trying to look as calm and reassuring as she could, but she could tell her friend wasn't buying it from the look she got back. The girl looked utterly terrified, her grey-green eyes enormous, sweat standing out on her brow below the slightly-askew band of her cap. As she met Katara's eyes, her lower lip trembled, but then she pressed it firmly to the upper, her mouth going flat and colorless, to keep herself from crying out.
Katara's heart went out to her, knowing that nothing in her best friend's life to date could possibly have prepared her for an ordeal like this. She was a merchant's daughter from Ba Sing Se, not a member of a royal family with more than its share of trouble in its history. If Katara, who did have all that background and the training to go with it, was barely keeping a handle on her composure at the moment - and she was - there was no reasonably expecting poor Jing to maintain even her legendary sangfroid.
With no further time to reflect on her friend's plight, Katara turned her attention back to the unmasked man with the sash - who, to her faint surprise, made the firebender salute and bowed to her, a not-entirely-convincing smile coming onto his face.
"Fire Princess Katara," he said, his sonorous voice reminding her incongruously of her Uncle Kazon's. "Such a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last. I am Zhu Qiang, Speaker for the Brotherhood of the Blue Flame." He made a sweeping gesture with his right hand, taking in the vast chamber and the ranks of masked men. "Welcome."
Katara considered asking him why, if they were a "brotherhood", at least a third of the members she'd seen so far were women, but decided that was a level of conversation she did not wish to engage in with this individual at this time. Instead, she said coldly after a moment's consideration,
"Courtesy requires me to inform you that the honor... is yours."
Zhu Qiang chuckled at that, giving her a slightly indulgent look that made her dislike him even more. "Touché, Your Highness," he said. "It's good to see that the Usurper's bloodline is not entirely lacking in fire."
Katara raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?" she asked.
"Your great-great-grandfather," Zhu explained. "Plaything of Avatar Aang and his woman, betrayer of his country's principles - the architect of the Fire Nation's ignominious defeat in the War. Surely you've studied history, Your Highness."
Katara's brows knitted. "Are you talking about Fire Lord Zuko?"
Zhu startled her by spitting - actually spitting - on the floor of the chamber in response to her mention of her ancestor's name. She hadn't realized anyone still did that kind of thing outside of old movers.
"May his shade be blighted," said Zhu, and the remark, like the spitting, had a sense of ritual about it, as of something the man had been taught to do as a much younger person and now did without really thinking about it; then he gestured to the painting behind him. "We serve the true Fire Lord of his generation - the one whom Phoenix King Ozai named as his successor. Betrayed by her brother, murdered - by your own namesake, as it happens, there's a cruel irony for you - her legend erased from history by Aang and his henchmen. You will, I'm sure, never have been allowed even to hear her name."
For just a moment, Katara found herself wondering if this man's ranting could literally be true. Not the later part - she knew very well that Aunt Azula hadn't been murdered by Master Katara the Elder or anyone else - but could he genuinely be working for her? Could everything she told Katara the Younger about her life, the mistakes she'd made, the lessons she'd learned, the happiness she'd found in the Big Universe, have been an elaborate fiction, covering some mad scheme to return to Dìqiú and seize her long-lost kingdom?
No, don't be stupid, Katara, she told herself, feeling a wash of shame that she'd even considered the possibility. She turned it into scorn, elevating her chin and giving Zhu a look of such withering disdain that it took even him slightly aback.
"Her name is Azula," she said in a ringingly imperious voice, "and you will find, Zhu Qiang, that I know her far better than you do."
Zhu looked genuinely startled for a moment, meeting the princess's angry gaze; then he recovered himself and laughed lightly. "Well, well," he said. "It appears there's more to you than is evident at first glance. Very well. A point to you, Princess Katara. That saves me a bit of time, actually. If you already know of her, so much the better - for soon, so far as the world is aware, you will be ruling in her name."
Katara's eyebrow went up again, but she said nothing, remembering one of the lessons in parliamentarianism she'd learned from her mother.
Katara had seen her mother put this lesson into practice many times, using a cool lack of reaction to spur adversaries on the floor of the Assembly of Ministers into unconsidered remarks; and it had the same effect now.
"Under your banner - our banner," Zhu went on, gesturing to the blue triflame behind him, "you will restore the Fire Nation to its rightful glory, then unite it with the Earth Kingdom. Once the United Republic is crushed between them," he said, making a closing-fist gesture before her to illustrate the point, "the Usurper's mistakes will be undone. The world will be as it should have been these last two centuries. A proper balance will be restored."
Katara's facility for the provoking silence extended only so far. At that, she couldn't stop herself from remarking, "And I suppose the Earth Kingdom will just go along with that mad scheme, will it?"
"There are those in the Earth Kingdom who still remember the fall of Kuei," Zhu replied, unperturbed. "Who know, as we do, where the country's true destiny lay. You've met a few of them already, Your Highness. They made it possible for us to invite you to this gathering in the first place. When the time comes, they will not hesitate to secure your place on the Eternal Throne."
"I should think the Avatar will have something to say about that," retorted Katara, more calmly than she felt.
Zhu inclined his head graciously and assured her, "Have no fear on that account, Your Highness. The present holder of that office is accounted for; by the time we move on Ba Sing Se, she will no longer be in play. As for her replacement, well - he or she will be born in the Earth Kingdom... " He smiled slightly, which did not appreciably help her unease, and went on, "... your subject."
Katara stared at him, momentarily unable to believe what she was hearing. This man was actually, genuinely, really-out-loud talking about murdering Avatar Korra to secure an open field for the rest of this organization's plan... and however unlikely a feat she considered that to be, the look of complete confidence he wore as he discussed it led her to the chilling realization that he at least thought they could pull it off.
"You are completely out of your mind," she told him, waging a successful war within herself to keep her voice cold and even. "What in the world makes you think I would be party to any of that?" Then, as a non-rhetorical question occurred to her, she added, "And why do you even want me to? Since you seem to be convinced that my entire bloodline is unfit to rule," she added acidly.
Zhu's bland little smile returned, sending another ripple of unease through her, and he replied calmly, "Oh, you won't be ruling. Not really. But the appearance that you are will be of invaluable service in restraining certain elements of the Fire Army and the public, and once they're dealt with, you'll be a useful distraction for the opponents of progress to fixate upon. As for what will ensure that you play your part, well... does your unexpected knowledge of history extend to an organization known as the Dai Li? If so, you may be familiar with certain techniques they customarily employed to... maintain order."
Katara did, in fact, know what he was talking about - Azula had mentioned the Dai Li several times in recent years, when she had at last deemed the younger princess ready to know the strangest and most sordid details of that dark period of her life. The growing sense of apprehension she'd felt throughout this bizarre interview blossomed into a genuine pall of dread as she realized that, with those black arts in his hands, this lunatic might just be able to make at least some of his mad plan come to pass after all.
Before she could find the words to make any reply, though, there came a curious tearing noise and a grinding crunch from behind her, a bit off to the right. Turning, she saw the guard who had been holding Jing hostage pitch backward and sprawl flat on his back to the floor, as if he had taken an uppercut to the chin. In front of him, Jing stood in a peculiar stance, fists clenched, shoulders slightly hunched. One of her legs was slightly extended before her, the heel of her right shoe resting in a small depression in the floor.
Behind her back, a narrow column of stone about the diameter of a clenched fist jutted up through a hole in the carpet, standing a good six feet high. The flat top of the column was smeared with blood and studded with a couple of small objects it took Katara a moment to recognize as teeth.
Slowly, as if putting on a demonstration, Jing lifted her foot out of the divot her heel had made, and the column of stone fell back into the floor behind her; then she brushed the sleeves of her Earth Kingdom tunic up her arms and struck a wide, flat-footed, foursquare stance that was instantly recognizable to anyone with Katara's training. For a second, nobody moved, as Zhu Qiang, Katara, and every last masked person in the chamber all stared at her in shared astonishment.
"I think I've heard enough," said Jing, all traces of her earlier terror having vanished from her face. Then, tilting her head slightly at her roommate, she added offhandedly, "Close your mouth, Katara, it's unladylike to gawp."
Katara blinked at her, blinked again, and then darted to her side. Within a second, the two girls were back-to-back, both in ready stances, as the Brothers (as Katara supposed they must be called, men or women) of the Blue Flame shook off their shock and broke ranks, surrounding them.
"You never told me you were a bender," Katara muttered over her shoulder.
"You never asked," Jing replied, unconcerned.
"Oh, please, I must have asked at some point," Katara grumbled.
"Nope, I'm pretty sure you didn't," said Jing.
"Brothers, have a care," said Zhu, his manner still as calm as if he were serving dinner. "You may kill the earthbender if you like, but kindly remember that Princess Katara needs to be no worse off than someone who has survived a train wreck."
Surveying the force arrayed against them, at least a hundred strong, Katara and Jing concluded without having to discuss it that they were almost certainly going to lose this fight; but also that they were going to give the best accounting for themselves that they could manage in the process. Then the Brothers charged, and battle was joined.
It was one for the book, for the two defenders might be a pair of teenage girls, but it quickly became apparent that they were among the finest benders of the age. In Katara's case, this was perhaps not that surprising: As Fire Princess, she had had the finest teachers and the most diligent training since she was old enough to stand, starting with her own mother and father and extending to many of the greatest masters of the art. The roll call of those who had taught Katara the Younger to master the flame had included Avatar Korra herself (a firebending prodigy in her own right despite her Water Tribe lineage)... and of course her Aunt Azula, possibly the most powerful non-Avatar firebender who ever lived.
Jing's prowess was more of a surprise, particularly given that until twenty seconds ago, even Katara - her roommate all through Piandao Academy and inarguably her best friend in the world - hadn't even known she was a bender. For the past seven years, she must have received her training only during school holidays and practiced only in rare, brief private moments. Yet she was powerful, precise, and confident... and, it became apparent as the battle raged on, utterly, utterly ruthless. Even in these dire straits, Katara was trying to temper her flame, defending herself to the utmost but unwilling to employ her full power for fear of killing her opponents. Jing had no such compunctions. She held nothing back, unleashing enough havoc to destroy a small town if one had been available; she wasn't trying to kill the Brothers, but she wasn't trying not to either. It simply didn't appear to matter to her whether they lived or died, in exactly equal measure to Zhu's indifference to her own survival.
Within the space of a few minutes that felt like hours, the room was in shambles, its stone walls and floor pockmarked where the combatants had torn pieces of them away and scarred by the blackened traces of stray fire. Broken men and women in black leather lay scattered like victims of a plane crash, some dead, many merely wishing they were. The former occupants of Room 82A had accounted very well indeed for themselves; but in the end, their strength was exhausted before the enemy's manpower. First one, then the other fell before a concerted counterattack led by Zhu himself.
Katara was unconscious for only a moment after the final blow slammed her against the wall; the thirty or so Brothers who remained on their feet were still a dozen yards or more away when she stirred and tried to rise. Jing lay next to her, sprawled on her back, her face a mask of blood from a cut on her forehead, and for a horrible moment Katara thought she was dead. After a moment she roused, groaning, and opened one eye, focusing it uncertainly on her best friend's face.
"How we doin'?" she asked weakly.
"Not great," Katara replied honestly.
"Well... " Jing tried to sit up, but nothing seemed to be working any more; with a cough, she gave up and sank back down, tilting her head back to get an upside-down look at the approaching foe. "... we gave it our best shot," she concluded philosophically. "See you in the Spirit World, Princess."
"Just stay down," said Katara grimly, pushing herself to hands and knees, then rising into a crouch. "I'm not done yet."
"I have to take back some of what I said about your bloodline, Your Highness," said Zhu cordially as he strode through the ranks of his surviving minions to stand before her. "Your spirit, at least, is worthy of admiration. But the gesture is made, and your strength is at an end, I think. Are you going to go on insisting on making my day difficult now?"
"I'm going to do worse than that," Katara snarled, willing herself into as upright a position as her bruised and scorched body would adopt. "I'm going to ruin all your schemes."
"I hardly see how you expect to manage that," Zhu admitted, looking mockingly intrigued.
Katara smiled coldly at him, baring bloody teeth; looked him straight in the eye; and told him flatly:
"I'm going to give you no choice but to kill me."
An instant before she could hurl herself into a patently suicidal renewed attack, though, another thing occurred that changed the whole tenor of the occasion. Some distance away to her right, the double doors suddenly burst open, flying from their hinges in a great ball of flame, as if a tank had fired at them from the other side. They slammed to the floor, iron bands glowing cherry-red and wooden panels ablaze, and skidded a few yards into the room before fetching up against some of the rubble left behind by the battle.
Beyond them, the great corridor leading back to the rest of the compound was a scene of carnage to rival even the assembly hall itself, strewn with wreckage and the motionless forms of dozens more Brothers. Everything that could be on fire out there, was.
Backlit by the flames, two slim figures strode into the room. One, Katara saw, was Aunt Azula's companion Ty Lee, dressed in some sort of high-tech-looking commando gear, her face - to Katara's momentary surprise, until she remembered some of the old stories - painted in the distinctive mask of a Kyoshi Warrior.
The other, discarding the limp form of still another Brother as she entered, was Azula herself, proud and elegant despite the torn and battered state of her person - her red-striped trousers out at the knees, boots scuffed and marred, scarlet silk shirt ragged at the cuffs and missing half its buttons, her long black hair in wildly tousled disarray. She still held the badge from her last opponent's uniform in her right hand as she entered the great hall. Seeing her niece all-but-beaten but unbowed, and the remains of her and her roommate's handiwork scattered all around the room, she smiled.
"Katara, dear, I don't wish to seem as though I'm criticizing your kindly and open new future society, but in my day we traveled in warships and this kind of thing didn't happen," she remarked offhandedly. "I'm just saying."
"So noted," Katara replied, doing her best to keep the delighted relief surging in her heart from breaking her game face.
Azula turned her attention to the unmasked man who was plainly the leader of the force confronting her niece, sauntering insouciantly toward him and regarding the badge she held with a look of thoughtful disdain.
"'Brotherhood of the Blue Flame', eh?" she remarked. Then, stopping twenty paces or so from Zhu Qiang, she tossed the badge casually at his feet, tore a strip of silk from one of her ragged sleeves, and started arranging her hair.
"Well," she went on as she worked at that, "if you ladies and gentlemen sincerely think Princess Azula would be impressed with your actions today... "
With quick, long-practiced motions, she fixed most of her hair into an elaborately folded topknot in the old-fashioned style, then took what was left free in front and divided it with her fingers, smoothing its halves into a single lock on either side that perfectly framed her face. Fully transformed, she smiled coolly at Zhu.
"... I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
As his masked subordinates backed away in shock, clearing a path between them, Zhu stared at her in shocked recognition. It took him a few moments to find his voice; when he did, it was to cry, "How can this be?!"
"Do you know, you're not the first person to ask me that," said Azula, still advancing.
"But... " Zhu involuntarily backed up a step, then two. "Your Majesty, if you'll listen to my plan," he said, doing his best to recover his smooth confidence.
"I have listened to your plan, Admiral Zhu," Azula snapped, then muttered under her breath, "(Agni, what is it with you Navy people?)" Not waiting for him to make any reply to that, she told him, "Your colleagues outside were falling over themselves to tell me all about it. Let me see if I've grasped the basic outline."
Her tone curiously light and conversational, she went on, "You intended to use ancient Dai Li brainwashing techniques to make my niece here the figurehead of a mad plot to plunge the world into a new dark age of terror and misery. One that would make the Hundred-Year War look like amateur night at my old lunatic asylum." Zhu opened his mouth to lodge some objection, but before he could get it out, Azula cut him off, her voice suddenly a whipcrack: "In my name!" Then, with a cordially inquisitive head-tilt, she added, "Is that about the size of it? If so, I confess I'm finding it hard to articulate on precisely how many levels that is simply unacceptable."
Zhu kept staring at her, his jaw working silently, for a few moments. Then he seemed to come to some internal decision. The consternation cleared from his face, leaving it as stony and impassive as it had been when Katara first saw it. He ceased to back away, straightening up, and then assumed a firebending ready stance.
"What a terrible disappointment you are, Your Majesty," he said gravely. Shaking his head in resignation, he added, "You should have stayed dead."
Azula's mouth quirked into a sardonic half-smile.
"Look after things here, will you, darling?" she said to Ty Lee, without taking her eyes off Zhu. "The admiral and I need to have a frank exchange of views."
All other factors being equal, Azula entered this battle at a significant disadvantage. It was, for her, the end of a very long day, starting with a train wreck and escalating from there. She had long since ceased to keep count of the number of people she'd had to fight her way through - with Ty Lee's very considerable help, but still - just to get to this room. Granted, few of them had been what she would consider really able combatants, but quantity posed its own problems.
For his part, Zhu was the most formidable opponent she'd had in quite some time. Having taken minimal part in the battle just fought here, he was fresh and rested, and now that he'd gotten over his shock at her appearance and her rejection of his plans, he was focused, relentless, implacable. He was obviously not just a highly trained and experienced firebender, but specifically a duelist, a man who had optimized his skills for the task of facing and defeating other firebenders in single combat. In that very specialized field of combat, he probably had a great deal more experience than she did.
If one didn't count her collaboration with Zuko to destroy the damned and risen shade of their father on the day of the Ragnarök, this was Azula's first proper Agni kai since that long-ago, comet-fueled clash with her brother in the Capital. She recalled little of that occasion. It had gone by in a sort of liminal blur, intense but out-of-focus, the sensations smeared into a jumble of colors and sounds by the inward spiral of her madness. Since the end of the world, she and Zuko and Katara (the Elder) had all talked about it, ultimately reaching a level of understanding she would never have considered possible; but she still couldn't be said to remember the experience - which, they had all agreed, was probably just as well.
In the end, though, none of Zhu's presumed advantages mattered much. Azula may well have been the less experienced straight-up Agni kai duelist, and she was certainly battered and tired. At moments like this - despite her PHOENIX module, despite the golden apples of Asgard, despite everything - she felt every day of her nearly two hundred and five years.
But, because that was the way she was wired, every single one of them only made her stronger.
Katara sat on the floor next to Jing, whom Ty Lee had helped into a sitting position against the wall, and watched her aunt do battle with the renegade admiral. She had never seen an old-fashioned Agni kai before, only the modern sporting version, and the difference struck her at once. The sporting form was powerful and aggressive, but also decorous, almost courteous, in its formality and punctility. This kind of combat, while still obviously underpinned by ritual and tradition, had a savage edge to it that she had never seen before today. It was like her own battles against a dozen or more of the men and women who now lay scattered around the room, but more concentrated, because the two combatants were giving each other their undivided attention and holding nothing back.
And for all his power, all his technique, and all his fury, Zhu Qiang never once laid a flame on Azula. Despite being the leader of a body of people calling themselves the Brotherhood of the Blue Flame, Zhu did not possess that rare and special skill; to the best of Katara's knowledge, no one had since Azula herself, Katara included. It required an understanding of, a connection to, the Fire Within that was beyond even the most powerful firebenders of the modern age. Zhu's flame was the regular orange-red, and Azula could turn it aside with gestures that sometimes looked too casual even to have been deliberate actions. Her footwork had the elegance of a dance, so much so that it made Zhu's own expert maneuvering seem like so much flat-footed lummocking around.
Within two minutes, Zhu's uniform was ragged, his flesh beneath blistered and scorched in a dozen places. In an ordinary Agni kai, even one declared in deadly serious anger, the proceedings would have been ended with the first of those burns... but not here, not today. Dismay began rising in him as he deployed every single one of his skills at the fullest limit of his killing intent and came up empty every single time...
... at which point he revealed the true core of his character by shouting for his minions to come to his aid.
Outrage boiled up within Katara as most of the remaining Blue Flame Brothers ran to comply with their master's instruction, almost wiping away her own fatigue and pain for the moment. Her fists clenching, she made to rise and wade back into the fray herself -
- only to be stopped by Ty Lee's hand on her shoulder. She rounded on the elder-but-smaller woman, fury flashing in her eyes, but Ty Lee only smiled, the expression curiously contrasting with the fierce mask of her Kyoshi Warrior makeup.
"Relax," she said. "Stay with Jing. I got this."
And so saying, she launched herself at the back of the charging group without a backward glance.
Katara and Jing looked at each other - Jing looked much better with the blood wiped away from her face and a field dressing applied to the cut on her forehead, and her color was returning after an injection of something Ty Lee had given her while propping her against the wall - and then back at the battle. They could no longer see what was going on with Azula and Zhu. Their attention was entirely occupied by the astonishing sight of one small, green-clad woman, unarmed and a non-bender, completely owning a group of thirty fire- and earthbenders, mostly heavily built and all in a homicidal frame of mind.
She moved so fast and so nimbly that at times it seemed like there were two or three of her, and wherever she went, men and women fell. In what seemed like less than a minute, her work was finished - and as the last of them went down, Katara saw that Azula's was too.
Zhu lay sprawled on the floor, trying to scramble backward and not making a lot of progress. His impassive mask had been replaced by a look of utter, abject terror. The man was actually keening, a high, inarticulate sound of terror spilling from his mouth, as he raised his scorched and bloodied hands in a futile effort to shield his face.
Above him, just reaching the peak of a great, bounding, fire-fueled leap, Azula seemed to hang for an instant in midair, her right hand drawn back like a claw, wreathed in azure flame; and then she fell, and Zhu's keening became a full-on scream, the terrified cry of a man who knows he has just entered the last second of his life.
Azula let him scream for four seconds, until he suddenly realized that he had not in fact died in agony and, the cry dying away into a querulous noise, opened his eyes. Her fist stood a half-inch or so above his face, so near he could feel the heat of the flame, yet it did not burn him. Utterly confused, he focused past it on her face. It wore a look of utter contempt, as of a woman regarding someone she doesn't even consider worth despising.
"You lose, Admiral," she told him.
"Wh - " Zhu blinked at her, then gathered his dignity as best he could (which wasn't very) and demanded, "What are you playing at? Finish it!"
Azula's eyes hardened then, becoming ever-so-faintly like the cruel, wild eyes of the painting by the dais; then, to his shock, she withdrew her hand, dismissing the flame with a little flick of her fingers, and smiled, straightening up.
"No," she said.
Zhu gave her a look of complete incomprehension. "Why not?"
"Because that's what you want me to do," Azula replied casually; at which, just to complete her dismissal of him, she turned her back and walked toward Katara and the others.
His expression still mystified, Zhu dragged himself into a sitting position. Surrounded by the ruins of his headquarters, of his organization, and of his master plan, he just... sat. Unbound, not even really seriously wounded, he was nevertheless so completely beaten that he could do nothing but contemplate his defeat.
Ty Lee's first instinct was to go and secure him anyway. Too many years as bodyguard to the most nearly-assassinated man in the world had left her constitutionally unable to leave a potential threat just lying around. Before she had the chance, a circular section of the hugely high ceiling suddenly wasn't there any more, admitting a shaft of brilliant sunlight that lanced down through the dust and smoke of combat to paint a circle of white on the floor in the center of the room.
The few people still conscious looked up in surprise to see a single figure, silhouetted against the bright blue desert sky, drop into the hole. This figure freefell perhaps halfway to the floor, then suddenly whirled into a kind of miniature tornado that touched gently down in the middle of the disk of light.
With a blast of hot wind and a scattering of smaller debris, the whirlwind dispersed, leaving the familiar shape of Avatar Korra standing in the center of the room. Her face was fixed in a scowl of concentration as she emerged, her ponytail and sidelocks whipping in the dissipating wind. Clearly she was expecting, perhaps even welcoming, the trouble she assumed she had dropped into the midst of. When it registered on her that there wasn't any here, she blinked, looking momentarily confounded. Even after the day she'd just had, Katara couldn't help but giggle at the sight.
"... OK!" said the Avatar after a moment's consternation. "I guess everything's under control here... "
The person nearest to her, a slim, dark-haired woman in the tattered remains of a red shirt and black trousers, turned and walked toward her with a weary, sardonic smile.
"You Avatars always have such impeccable timing," she remarked.
Korra took a quarter-step back and blinked at her, blue eyes going wide with two layers of astonished recognition.
"Azula!" she declared, and for just an instant - unlike when she had been speaking to Katara's graduating class - she really did sound just like Aang, not in the timbre of her voice but her manner of speaking. "What are you doing here?" Then, before Azula could answer, she blinked again, shaking her head, and added in a voice much more her own, "I looked all over for you, where have you been?!"
Azula's smile became a bit less sardonic. "Oh, you know... here and there," she said airily. "Sorry if you were expecting some action when you got here, but we thought you might find it refreshing if someone didn't just wait around for you to save the day for once. Anyway! I'm afraid I simply can't have you broadcasting my return to the public at large, so I shall have to have my associate Ty Lee erase your memory with a secret technique she learned in Ryo Zan Paku. Be a dear and stand still. I'm assured it's mostly painless."
While Azula was speaking, Ty Lee had been gliding into position for one of her patented ambush hugs; but just before she could spring, Korra suddenly wasn't there any more, whirling and slipping out of her reach in an airbender evasion that, again, put Azula powerfully in mind of Aang. Thwarted, Ty Lee abandoned the attempt, pouting slightly.
"That was a joke, Korra, calm down," said Azula, rolling her eyes slightly. "Waterbenders. So literal-minded."
They got into Ba Sing Se Central Station an hour after dark, six hours late and without any of the Western Empire Express, though the rest of the passengers - none of whom, to Katara's mild astonishment, had been killed in the wreck - would be arriving by relief train an hour or two behind them. For Princess Katara and her friends, the ride into the city was the full VIP treatment, personally conducted by and under the protection of the Avatar herself (and her faithful polar bear dog, of course).
When they left the hollow bluff, it was already swarming with Earth Kingdom Royal Investigative Service officers and FNSS personnel, shocked into an uncharacteristic collaboration by the international nature of the conspiracy, but Katara couldn't say she cared about that right now. All she cared about, as their Avatar-propelled land raft glided into the station, was that she and Jing were alive and likely to stay that way.
The RIS and FNSS were jointly in evidence here as well, having sealed off the station platform at which they were arriving to keep the press and public at bay. The only other people waiting there were Katara's parents and a pair of people the Fire Princess recognized, with a bit of a shock, as the 55th Earth King and his wife, Queen-Consort Xian. She knew them in passing, having been introduced at several state functions over the years, but she had hardly expected to see them now.
"Oh, man," she murmured to Jing. "I guess we're in for the full royal treatment. I'm sorry, we'll just have to put up with it. Hopefully they'll let us go before too long, so we can find your parents and tell them you're all right."
Jing smiled and straightened her somewhat damaged hat. "It's OK," she assured her friend.
She was still limping, and every now and again she would move in a way that particularly hurt and flinch slightly, breath hissing between her teeth. All the same, the first aid she'd received from Ty Lee, plus a helping of waterbender healing administered by the Avatar, had set Jing back on her feet very well. Between them, they'd short-circuited what Katara had been reasonably sure would be a month or more in hospital after the terrible pounding she'd taken in their battle against the Brotherhood. The four of them were all bruised, scraped, and battered, their clothes (apart from Ty Lee's tactical gear) ragged and filthy; but they were standing straight and in good spirits as they disembarked from Korra's rail raft to stand before the four royal personages.
Before anyone could say anything, the Earth King - a tall, solemn-faced, somewhat avuncular man whom Katara rather liked for his dignity and occasional flashes of wry humor - stepped forward and addressed Jing directly:
"Jingjié. Welcome home. You are well?"
Jing interlocked her fingers before her chest in the earthbender salute and, stiffly and with a bit of a wince, bowed.
"Ni hao, Father. Well enough... " Then she straightened up and grinned, abandoning the formal pretense, and added, "... And you should see the other guys."
The Earth King laughed and embraced his daughter, remarking cheerfully, "That's my girl."
Katara - and, some part of her was gratified to see, her parents - stared at the scene in astonishment while Queen Xian laughed decorously behind her fan.
"Get out," Katara burst out. "You mean to tell me all this time - why - you told me your parents were merchants!"
Jing half-turned, still in her father's arms, and smiled. "No, I said they lived in a big house in the Upper City and were quite well-off. You assumed they must be merchants."
Katara put her fists on her hips. "I cannot believe this," she said indignantly.
"Please don't be angry with Jingjié, Your Highness," said Queen Xian gently. "She meant no disrespect; quite the opposite. She has treasured your friendship all the more because you gave it without knowing she was of a similar station."
"It's an old tradition in our family," said the Earth King with a sage nod, "to walk the world as an ordinary person, sometimes for many years, before taking up our royal duties. It began with my great-grandfather, Kuei, the 52nd Earth King - "
"I don't think this is really the time for a history lesson, Dad," Jing put in. Disengaging, she turned to Katara and said, "Mom's right, though. I might be a princess too, but... it's really meant a lot to me that I didn't have to be. C'mon. After the day we've had?" She extended a hand. "Don't be like this."
Katara folded her arms and glared. "You are a spider rat," she declared.
Jing grinned. "But you love me."
Katara sustained her glare for a second or two longer, then caved in and hugged her best friend. "Not in that way," they said in unison.
Off to one side and a little behind, Azula and Ty Lee glanced at each other and shared a private little smile - the smile of people who understood, In That Way or not, how precious such a bond could be.
A moment later, while the two princesses' mothers had their turns welcoming them back to civilization and the Earth King conferred briefly with Korra, Azula was a little surprised to be taken aside by Fire Lord Qinzon with a murmured, "Captain Inazuma. A moment, if I may."
Azula wasn't expecting to be recognized here; even without having taken her hair back down, she was confident in her real identity being so completely out-of-context that no one would think of it. It was, after all, 200 years after her time. Apart from Korra, she expected that even if anyone did recognize her, it would be to think, Hey, that girl looks like what's-her-name, the crazy princess from the War, not Hey, there's Princess Azula. (She certainly hoped that would be the case. It wouldn't have surprised her to learn that she was still wanted for war crimes in Ba Sing Se, in the same sort of sense that weird laws about people having to walk in front of horseless carriages with flags and the like were occasionally left on the books.)
As such, she was taken mildly aback when the Fire Lord scrutinized her carefully, then shook his head and said in a quiet voice,
"I don't know. I'm not sure I believe you really are who you seem to be... but Katara believes it." With a wry little smile, he chuckled and added, "Regardless, you are real, which is rather more than I was expecting out of my daughter's imaginary friend."
Azula smiled, then regarded him more closely, the expression slipping to a concerned demi-frown. Qinzon was only in his early seventies - not so old nowadays, particularly by the standards of the traditionally long-lived Fire Nation royal family - but he looked... drawn. Weary. She supposed the crisis his daughter had just been through would have something to do with that, but still - at this close range, to her perceptive eye, the Fire Lord did not seem an entirely well man.
"Are you all right?" she wondered, her voice low. "Is there anything I can do?"
Qinzon shook his head again, his wry smile flashing. "There's nothing anyone can do for me," he said matter-of-factly. "Besides, you've already done the most important thing I could ever ask of anyone. You've saved my heir... " He paused, then went on, "... and our country is going to need her soon. She isn't ready," he added in that same matter-of-fact tone, "but she's strong. She'll prevail. I hope I can count on you to be there for her again in her next hour of need."
Azula regarded him for a long, thoughtful moment; then, squaring herself to him, she made the firebender salute and bowed.
"Fire Lord," she said, "it would be my honor."
"Thank you," said Qinzon gravely, returning the gesture.
They said nothing more about it, rejoining the group without comment. Shortly thereafter, Qinzon and Haru bade their daughter a relieved and affectionate goodbye and left to return to their own capital, secure in the knowledge that Katara was in good hands in Ba Sing Se. The rest of them repaired to the Earth King's palace to partake of an enormous dinner, hot baths, and the finest available guest quarters.
"So what do you think?" Ty Lee asked after they'd shut out the lights and sunk gratefully into the colossal bed of their literally palatial guest room.
"About... ?" Azula wondered, already beginning to slide into what she was entirely certain was going to be truly enjoyable unconsciousness.
"Dìqiú," Ty Lee said, snuggling up to her back with an arm around her middle. "Has coming home been everything you thought it would be?"
Azula chuckled sleepily. "Well," she allowed, "I'm glad the old place hasn't gotten dull... "
And so saying, Fire Princess Azula slept the sleep of the just.
Babylon Project Galactic Database
Text Data Extraction Search: Shepard's Compendium of Rare and Exotic Weapons
Search criteria: that gun
SEARCH COMPLETE: MARCH 14, 2409
IPO file photo by A. Savage
is the common nickname for the heavily customized Steyr Model SL revolver carried by Captain Sarah L. Inazuma of the Phoenix Queen.
The Steyr Model SL automated1 revolver was manufactured from 2007 to 2049 by the Austrian arms manufacturing firm of Steyr AG on Earth. Never available directly to the public, the Model SL was exclusively manufactured for the United Earth Bureau of Civil Protection, which issued them officers of CP Section 44, the section tasked with hunting and neutralizing GENOM Corporation's 33-series infiltration/espionage/assassin Boomers. As a result, the Model SL was popularly known, after the common nickname for BCP44's anti-Boomer operatives themselves, as the "Blade Runner".
A large, heavy, and accurate weapon chambered for the 5.56mm NATO rifle round, the SL earned a reputation for power and reliability that made it almost mythical in the security, law enforcement, and paramilitary industries, but by the 2060s it had had its day. As part of an agency-wide conversion to phased plasma weapons, BCP44's Model SLs were decommissioned in 2064. Most were consigned to a storage arsenal and later destroyed, but a few (no one is entirely sure how many) made their way into private hands through various quasi-legal means.
Captain Inazuma's, serial number 9613, was one of these. Owing to the very-dark-grey-market nature of the first few transactions, it's impossible to know today who bought it, or in whose possession it left Earth, or when that happened. All that is known for sure is that it had seen a good deal of action and abuse before Captain Inazuma's mother - also called Sarah Inazuma and also captain of the Phoenix Queen - purchased it in a flea market on New Chiba in 2344.
It isn't entirely clear why the elder Inazuma bought the gun, since, according to her notes, it didn't actually work at the time; its servo-assisted loading mechanism had long since failed, its action had seized, and someone had tried to "officially" demilitarize it by removing the firing pin and filling the barrel with lead. Perhaps she simply wanted a project to fill the time during a long-haul hyperflight to the Rim, where she spent much of her time performing survey sweeps in the employ of the Royal Astrographic Society of Salusia. Regardless, she repaired the weapon and put it back into service as her sidearm.
Some time after that, she grew tired of constantly having to hunt for and/or scratchbuild its scarce ammunition and converted it into a blaster using the MorganArms CCRE-I system.
Where Is It Now?
Following its CCRE blaster conversion, Captain Inazuma senior carried No. 9613 for the rest of her career. Among the many adventures of hers it participated in was the recovery of the lost colony of Mojave, during which it earned the nickname that has been attached to it ever since. No one on Mojave had ever seen a stock Steyr SL before, let alone one converted into a blaster (which were themselves unknown on Mojave, though certain laser and plasma weapons did exist there). Its visual and aural distinctiveness, and the fact that its proper nomenclature was unknown, thus led the Mojavians who encountered Inazuma to call her "the lady with that gun," and the name stuck.
The elder Sarah Inazuma retired in 2390, after the Phoenix Queen served with distinction as a hired warship for the WDF in the War of Corporate Occupation. Along with the ship and the corporate entity which operates it (Phoenix Industries Limited), she passed That Gun on to her daughter, also called Sarah, who carries it routinely in the course of her business today.
N.B. By the late 24th century, Steyr SLs had become extremely rare, with only a handful in collections and no others known to be out in the wild. Very occasionally, someone will recognize That Gun and offer Captain Inazuma a lot of money for it, but I am reliably advised that she will never part with it.
1 An "automated" revolver is not the same as an automatic one. It simply means that the cylinder advance and the crane which actuates the cylinder for reloading are servo-assisted, not that the weapon has an automatic fire mode.
End of Text Data Extract
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H/V Phoenix Queen
The last creation of a reclusive and eccentric master shipwright, the Phoenix Queen represents a pinnacle of 24th-century small starship design and technology; she is as much a work of art as a working space vehicle. Aficionados of the 23rd-and-24th-century custom light starship craft movement refer to her as "the Red Ghost" or "the Last Stradivarius".
Name/Model: PQ9-class custom spaceframe
Manufacturer: Gorō Muramune
Combat designation: Long-range corvette
Entered service: 2345
Crew: Up to 5
Passengers: Up to 9, depending on crew complement
Length: 288 ft 9 in
Wingspan: 216 ft 6 in
Mass: 1.25 kt
Power system: ExoSalusia Heavy Industries Mod 44 Mk II antimatter annihilation reactor, J-228B fusion reactor, and Type 24 energy converter stack
Propulsion system: 2x General Atomics Thrustline-144 fusion impulse thrusters
2x General Atomics Thrustline-124 fusion impulse thrusters
Speed rating: 150 MGLT
Flight control system: Custom
Maneuver rating: 110 DPF
Navigation: Radekon Advanced Technology Trajectrak 17 superluminal computer core
FTL: Custom-built Cochrane space distortion drive system
Warp speed rating (cruise): Warp Factor 10
Warp speed rating (flank): Warp Factor 15.5
Secondary FTL: Corellian Engineering Corporation 2240.109d hyperspace motivator drive unit
Hyperdrive rating: 1.5
Shields: Custom-built multicore projection deflector shield system
Shield rating: 325 SBD
Armor: Composite-reinforced tritanium alloy plating
Armor rating: 275 RU
Fixed armaments: 2x custom-built point phaser arrays
4x Taim & Bak KX5 blaster cannons
Expendable armaments: 2x custom-built compact flexible-payload missile tubes
The Phoenix Queen began her career as Platform Q9, the last spaceframe to be constructed in the automated workshop of the brilliant Gorō Muramune (2202-2345), one of the last of the independent shipwrights who once flourished at the fringes of settled space. Muramune was famed for most of the 23rd century and into the 24th for the elegance, beauty, and deadly efficiency of his designs. Unlike many of his peers, he scorned the criminal underbelly of the spacer community and refused to sell his creations to smugglers, bounty hunter-assassins, or any of the other well-heeled but morally questionable figures who plied the distant spacelanes then as now. He once remarked that it was a point of pride with him that he had never built a ship that could carry any appreciable amount of cargo.
Instead, Muramune's creations were bought by elite couriers, diplomatic services, and more than one royal court around the galaxy. Salusia's House Arconian and the elected monarchy of the Outer Rim planet Naboo were both among his customers. A much-repeated legend of the time claimed that Maximilien Largo, the virtually all-powerful Master of GENOM Corporation, approached Muramune in 2290, when that corporation was consolidating its galactic hegemony in the wake of the Wedge Defense Force's fall, and tried to commission a personal yacht from him - to be turned down flat. It's said Muramune survived the encounter because, humiliated though he was by the outright snub, even Largo could not bring himself to order harm to such an artist.
Whether that story is true or not, Muramune certainly survived 2290. He cut off all contact between the outside galaxy and his hidden workshop in 2322, on his 120th birthday, and was never seen nor heard from again. Eventually his name was forgotten by all but a handful of diehard enthusiasts and spaceship historians.
Which is why few people noticed when, 23 years later, a brand-new Muramune suddenly appeared on the galactic starship registry rolls. When someone finally did spot the new record, those few remaining who knew what it implied assumed that it was some sort of hoax - some new shipwright passing off his work as that of the master. One of these people sought out the newly registered hull, which went under the name of Phoenix Queen, to demand of her captain-of-record an explanation.
That captain, a young woman from Karafuto named Sarah Inazuma, provided authentication of the ship's provenance in the form of certain deep encodings in her FTL ROM clusters, along with various identifying flourishes characteristic of the master's work. She declined, however, to explain where she had acquired the vessel, nor why such a long time had passed between Muramune's disappearance and the Phoenix Queen's arrival on the scene. She deflected all inquiries politely but very firmly, and subsequent investigations turned up nothing.
Inazuma - sometimes alone, sometimes with a small crew of hand-picked associates - would go on to have a long and storied career as an independent spacer, working as a courier, surveyor, scout, and occasional privateer from 2345 to 2390, when - much like her ship's legendary creator - she abruptly and mysteriously retired. Command of the Phoenix Queen passed to her daughter, also called Sarah, who continues to operate the vessel in much the same manner.
The Phoenix Queen is the last, and by many estimations the finest, creation of one of the greatest small-ship builders of the 23rd century. Since she was always intended to be unique, she is the fullest expression of the small-shipwright's art. All of the technologies incorporated into her fabric were either scratch-built by a master craftsman from the finest available materials, or represented the very highest state of the art that could be sourced at the time, customized and optimized by the same master.
The result is a vessel that, six decades after her launching, is still one of the most capable starships in her class, and still seems advanced - even futuristic - to modern eyes. Her sublight drives are more powerful than those found in many mass-production starships twice her size, and she's capable of warp speeds which are said to rival those of the International Police Organization's cutting-edge Next Generation Warship classes. Even her secondary FTL system, despite being a mere backup, has a lower elapsed-time rating than the primary hyperdrives fitted to modern light freighters, and despite her corvette size, she's more maneuverable than many heavy starfighters.
This speed and agility hasn't come at an appreciable cost in fragility, either. The exact composition of the Phoenix Queen's armor plating is unknown - Muramune was famously cagey about such things - but during the vessel's service under contract to the Wedge Defense Force in the 2388-2390 Corporate War and its aftermath, it was seen to withstand punishment that would have sent many comparably-sized executive transports to the scrapyard. His custom-built deflector shield generators have always been legendary for their power and reliability, and the Queen's Cochrane drive core is easily able to compensate for their equally legendary thirst for energy.
The Phoenix Queen mounts relatively few weapons. Part of her design brief was that her armed status, while not a secret, should be as discreet as possible, and bristling with unconcealed hardpoints is not compatible with that goal. The weapons with which she is equipped, though, are both surprisingly potent and exceptionally accurate. The Captains Inazuma, it seems, have both placed a high premium on skilled gunnery to compensate for a relatively low volume of firepower; in the right hands, the Queen's burst-firing phaser batteries and retractable flex-mounted blasters are capable of delivering a shattering pinpoint blow to enemies that, on paper, should outclass the ship entirely.
Like all Muramune designs, the Phoenix Queen is designed so that she can be operated by a single person if necessary, but her command and control systems are configured for maximum combat efficiency with a crew of five: pilot/commander, copilot/weapons officer, engineer/navigator, and two gunners for the blaster batteries. Over the decades, the ship's crew complement has varied considerably. At times in their careers, both Captains Inazuma have worked alone, and at others, have employed crews of up to six or seven.
Aside from her combat capabilities and interstellar speed, the Queen is equipped with a powerful sensor package intended to support the ship's true primary mission, that of a survey and scout vessel. Her brief and intermittent tenures as a hired warship have been secondary to this occupation, which she has performed under contract to the Federation Celestial Survey Bureau and Salusia's Royal Astrographic Society as well as numerous smaller local system governments over the years.
Advanced, powerful, discreetly glamorous, and with a crew space built as much for comfort and aesthetic appeal as for practical considerations, the Phoenix Queen arguably remains the finest vessel of her kind today, 61 years after she was launched. Absolutely no expense or time was spared in making this vessel the best she could be, and that huge investment has shown its worth in the ship's longevity, utility, and elegance. Some have theorized that Muramune fully intended Platform Q9 to be his last creation from the beginning of the project, and that this knowledge spurred him to lavish even more care and resources on the vessel than any of the 612 other known products of his hidden workshop (none of which can be said to have been skimped on in those regards) - making the Phoenix Queen the last will and testament not only of a man, but also of a crafting movement that more or less died with him.
Most of the Phoenix Queen's perceived drawbacks stem from the same characteristics that provide her strengths: her custom construction, scratch-built systems, and the beyond-bleeding-edge hardware that made her so far ahead of her time that she's still ahead today. With so many custom-made systems crammed so tightly into her nonstandard spaceframe, she would be an absolute nightmare for any normal shipyard or deep-space station to service or repair. Similarly, no amount of regular engineering training could ever prepare anyone to serve as flight engineer aboard the Queen; anyone Captain Inazuma takes on for that job will have to be extensively and expensively trained by hand before he or she would be competent to undertake the job. Even an out-of-the-box standard astromech droid would be flummoxed by a lot of what's going on inside that sleek scarlet hull.
As such, it has long been theorized in some circles that the Inazuma family has a secret retreat somewhere - possibly even the same place in which the Phoenix Queen was originally built - where the ship is sure to receive the highly specialized attention she requires when major maintenance and repairs are needed. Dependence on a single fixed base of operations is also a significant liability, albeit one more organizational than technological, and so cannot be discounted for purposes of this analysis.
Similarly, although neither Captain Inazuma has ever cared to share her operational balance sheets with the press or public, the rates they customarily charge give some corroboration to the logical idea that such an advanced, highly specialized vessel must be expensive to operate as well as repair. She was built with cost no object, and must be maintained, fueled, and fixed in similar fashion - to the point where some analysts think even the Inazumas' high fees cannot possibly cover the expense of operating the ship. How they compensate for this, if it's true, is unknown. Perhaps their theoretical secret headquarters includes a theoretical secret dilithium mine.
Beyond those concerns, the Phoenix Queen's only significant drawback is her dependence on accurate gunnery and high burst damage to make up for her lack of sustained firepower. In a fight, she cannot afford to be drawn into a protracted slugging match; that is a type of battle at which she is not configured to succeed. Fortunately, her captains recognize that and assiduously avoid such engagements.
The Phoenix Queen remains active today under the command of the second Captain Sarah Inazuma. As of this writing, she is under contract to the FCSB to conduct a verification survey of the Attican Traverse.
End of Text Data Extract
thank you for using the
Babylon Project Galactic Database
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Travels with the Phoenix Queen
an Exile - Twilight - Future Imperfect - Dìqiú adventure
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
in consultation with
the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects
and some pretty good ideas from
the Eyrie Productions Forum Crew
Originally released on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
except Book 10: Royal Progress
based in part on characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Legend of Korra
created by Michael Dante DiMartino
and Bryan Konietzko
and Fallout: New Vegas
by Obsidian Entertainment
and Bethesda Softworks
Laura Kinney created by Craig Kyle
Includes "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost
Azula will return
E P U (colour) 2014