Meet Kaname Sterling. She's a perfectly normal girl starting the second half of her perfectly normal junior year at the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute. She's her dorm floor's Resident Advisor, sits on the Yearbook Committee, and has been known to play some baseball. There's nothing about her or her life that is strange or amazing in any way.
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
DSM Panic! Volume One
by Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Geoff Depew
© 2011-2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Table of Contents
Thursday, January 14, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
Kaname couldn't shake the feeling that she was being watched.
It had started several days ago; ever since she had gotten back to DSM from Christmas vacation with her folks. No matter where she went on campus -- the admin buildings, the classrooms, the Commons, the library, the dining hall -- she just couldn't get rid of the sense of being observed. Now it was the first week of classes, and the sensation still hadn't stopped.
Kaname was not, by nature, a particularly paranoid person, but there was a limit to everything, and by the Spirit, she was starting to reach it.
"I just don't get it," she complained as she and her companion ate lunch, as they usually did, at table seventeen in the main dining commons. "I've been here for over a year and a half now, everything's been going great, I haven't been particularly hit on or anything, and now this happens! It's enough to make a girl go crazy."
Lindsey Willows tilted her head curiously, regarding her turquoise-haired older friend. "It's been getting that bad?" she enquired, before taking a bite of her (thankfully fresh) shyam.
Kaname groaned, and rolled her eyes. "Lins, I've been getting this feeling even in MY DORM ROOM. Which, I'm telling you, is seriously freaking me out. Even when I'm making my rounds in Hamlin Four, it just hasn't - let - up. If this doesn't stop, I'm going to start going stir-crazy."
Lindsey nodded, and made a thoughtful sound. While her friend had a reputation for being something of a workaholic, and definitely had a driven personality that had drawn comparisons (both favorable and non) to one of the founders of the Duelists' Society in the past, she wasn't somebody who was excessively high-strung or hair-triggered. She could reach startling heights of aggression when she got going, but she was just as often willing to take a deep breath, relax, and have fun. If she was getting this worked up over seemingly nothing, something had to be going on.
She flicked a glance over Kaname's shoulder briefly, and then asked, "Are you getting that feeling right now?"
Kaname paused in her consumption of her chef's salad, chewed, swallowed, and regarded Lindsey with a measure of confusion. "Huh?" She hesitated for a moment as she set down her fork, then slowly took a breath. "... yeah, now that you mention it..."
"Don't look around," Lindsey continued, in a quieter tone of voice. "Just keep your focus on me, make like ... like you're about to check your face for salad dressing."
Kaname caught on quickly; she reached into her school bag for her compact, and flicked it open. "Damn it, do you have a napkin?" she casually asked, indicating the wadded up paper on her tray. "I used up my original one cleaning a spill by the soda machines."
"Sure, here." Lindsey handed the replacement over to Kaname, and as their hands touched, she murmured under her breath, "Four tables back, to your left. The guy who's sitting at attention, dark hair, dusky skin --"
"-- and with a scar on his cheek. Got it," Kaname replied, dabbing with the napkin as if she was cleaning off a particularly stubborn spot of ranch dressing. She waggled her compact mirror so that it was pointed in approximately the right direction over her shoulder, and studied her quarry more closely.
He was a human male, about the same age as her, if she was any judge, with the aforementioned dusky skin and close-cropped dark hair, either black or a really dark brown, she couldn't tell for sure. On his left cheek there was a curious, x-shaped scar. But the most striking thing about him was his eyes: somewhere between grey and blue, with a surprisingly intent expression in them.
"Huh. He doesn't look like much," Kaname muttered to herself, wiping at her own cheek before setting the napkin down. "Let me know if he does anything before we finish eating, ok?"
"Sure thing, Kaname," Lindsey replied, and with that matter settled, they resumed their meal. It passed with little incident, save for the continued presence of the unwanted observer. Aside from eating his own meal, he did not appear to take notice of the other students moving around him, instead keeping his focus on the two girls.
Lindsey sighed, finishing her shyam. "Still no change, Kaname."
"Right. No help for it, then." Squaring her shoulders, Kaname put both of their dishes on her tray, shouldered her school bag, and stood up. "Follow my lead."
Kaname started toward the exit, moving with a sort of casual purposefulness. Now that she was facing him, the Mystery Guy wasn't looking at her, but he wasn't doing it in a painfully obvious way. She was approaching so briskly that he couldn't get up and try to slip out without running into her, so he simply sat where he was and waited for her to go past.
Which she didn't do, instead sliding suddenly onto the seat opposite his at the table while Lindsey, improvising fast, sat down next to him. Short of overturning the table and escaping in the confusion, there was no way out for him now.
"Hey there, new guy," said Kaname with exaggerated friendliness - so exaggerated that it would have taken a real block of wood not to detect the undercurrent of barely contained menace in it. "Say, listen, I realize DSM has this mission of cultural diversity and all, and I don't know where you're from, but around here it's sort of generally considered uncool to stare at girls like that. Particularly girls you don't even know. It's seriously rude."
"And creepy," Lindsey added.
The young man looked from one girl to the other and back, his expression almost entirely blank. He didn't seem embarrassed - didn't seem to have any reaction at all, in fact. His reply, when it came, was as flat as his affect, a deadpan, monotone, "I wasn't staring at you."
The denial was utterly unconvincing, but at the same time, weirdly unanswerable. It was just so bald-faced, there was no crack in it for Kaname to get her fingernails into. She ended up just staring at him for a couple of seconds, willing herself not to sputter, and then saying,
"Yeah, sure, pal. Look, I know when I'm being stared at. Are you new? 'Cause I've felt like I was being watched since the semester started, and that's quite a coincidence."
The young man nodded once, mechanically, and replied in that same blank, nothing-to-get-ahold-of voice, "I'm a new transfer, yes. But you're quite mistaken. My presence here is only a coincidence. Excuse me."
So saying, he rose, slipped nimbly past Lindsey without seeming to be nimble about it, and left the dining hall. The two girls sat and gave each other did-that-just-happen looks for a few seconds.
Then Lindsey turned her head to look at the exit he'd just left through and said, with a slow smile that said the matter was starting to catch her interest, "Let's test that, shall we?"
They emerged from Hannibal Hamlin Hall's main ground-floor exit onto the Institute Common, a large, irregular, grassy expanse in the center of campus. As they passed the big sycamore tree by the bike racks, Lindsey asked in a slightly-louder-than-normal voice, "Hey, Kaname, can you give me a hand with my math homework?"
Kaname eyed her friend for a second, wondering what she was yelling about, before she caught on and replied in the same exaggerated voice, "Sure, if you can help me out with my revisions for sociology."
"Great! Let's go to my room, it's quieter."
Since Lindsey was a member of the Institute Duelists' Society, her room was in the Castle, up at the top of Castle Hill on the edge of campus. From the Common, this was ordinarily reached by a footpath that led up the side of the hill, past Spencer Lab and through a small wood, a short and pleasant walk in good weather.
It was in the Single-Acre Wood, as she had expected, that Lindsey leaned toward Kaname and murmured, "Yep. There he is." She kept walking, maintaining a stream of innocuous chatter, until they reached a bend in the footpath through the wood - then suddenly whirled and backtracked, vanishing behind a tree with a sharp cry of "A-ha!" - followed immediately by a high-pitched sound of dismay and a heavy thud.
"Lins? Lindsey!" Kaname shouted, following her friend's path into the brush. She rounded the tree to see Lindsey, half-sitting against the base of another tree a short distance away, covered in snow that had fallen from its branches when she hit the trunk, looking dazed and trying to get something out of an inside pocket of her coat. Opposite her, in a combative semi-crouch with some kind of giant military knife in his hand, was the New Guy.
A phenomenon Kaname had noticed only a few times before in her young life settled over her then, as she barged around a tree and into the face of what appeared to be distinct personal danger. It was a side effect of her peculiarly mixed genetic heritage, one which, though useful, she didn't find particularly pleasant and generally went out of her way to avoid - a sort of analytical fugue, in which a valve at the back of her mind opened and the knowledge and experience of her vast and complicated bloodline flooded in, semi-submerging her own identity in a hugely competent but unnervingly impersonal collective that would do whatever was necessary to remedy the situation.
Through eyes no longer entirely her own, Kaname took a few milliseconds to examine the New Guy's stance, his weapon, and his tactical options in minute detail, as a whispering polyphonic voice murmured in her mind's ear:
Target's body at forty-five degrees, motion of the right arm back, bent at an angle. Grab with right hand to pull off balance, pivot own body counterclockwise to face the target's back. Twist right wrist at pressure point Kappa. Kick with left leg at the back of the knee, shove with palm behind the shoulders, lean in with the torso to accelerate and force target down.
Follow with the full weight of the body, leading with the knees to pin. Remove firearm from small-of-back holster before impact.
Result summary: Right hand temporarily useless. Bladed weapon dropped. Balance hopelessly compromised. Winded from impact with the ground. Leverage eliminated. Firearm confiscated. Further aggression impossible.
Total time to pacification: nine seconds.
She didn't remember following that plan, as such, because it all happened so fast and, in a sense, she wasn't driving. It must have worked, though, because when she came back to herself she was kneeling astride the New Guy's back, one of her knees pinning each of his elbows, and she had a pistol - which she had apparently taken from under his jacket - aimed at the back of his head.
Lindsey Willows finished getting to her feet and deployed the collapsword she'd taken from her inside pocket, not that it was necessary now. "What the crap," she said to no one in particular.
"uhm srfmdr," the New Guy mumbled into the snow.
"Damn right you do," said one of Kaname's ancestors before the collective relinquished her nervous system fully. Riding the crest of the adrenaline wave and trying not to think too hard about what she'd just done, she sprang up, seized the New Guy by his collar, and dragged him to his feet, then shoved him. He stumbled a few yards away, slightly favoring his left knee, and then turned to face her, rubbing at his right wrist with his left hand. His expression was still basically blank, as if he had no particular emotional response to what had just happened to him.
It only really hit Kaname then that she was holding a firearm. Blinking, she said, "What's this?" Quickly and efficiently, she checked the status of the weapon - loaded, round chambered, safety on - then thumbed the safety off and pumped three rounds in a neat triangular group into a nearby tree that had nothing of note behind it but a small ridge of earth.
"OK, it's real, then," she mused matter-of-factly. "Spirit, what's with the hand cannon here?" She re-safed the gun, reversed it in her hand, and held it out to Lindsey, who had put away her sword again and come up behind her. "Lins, secure this, will you?"
"Can do - waaaait a second," said Lindsey, taking the pistol. She eyed it narrowly, then looked over it at the impassive face of the New Guy and said, "Where'd a punk like you steal an A&K Mark 23? This is a CID Lensman's gun."
Kaname stared, first at Lindsey, then at the New Guy. Her expression hardening, she took two steps straight into his personal space, getting eye-to-eye with him. "You better have some damn good documentation, my friend, otherwise I will report you to Campus Security."
The young man looked gravely back at her for a moment, then said, "May I retrieve my identification?"
"Do it slowly," Kaname told him, nodding. "Right hand."
The New Guy nodded and fumbled in his top pocket for a moment with his still-somewhat-numb right hand, withdrew a small leather fold, and tossed it at her feet. While she crouched, not taking her eyes off him, to pick it up, he came to something like attention and said briskly,
"Sagara. Sergeant, TechCom, B-1328, assigned to protect you."
Kaname blinked at him. "... What?" She picked up the ID fold, straightened, and opened it, examining the document within. "'Sergeant Sosuke Sagara,'" she read. "'TechCom Security Solutions, a Member of the Rhodos Group.' OK, I guess that does license you to pack heat on campus," she conceded, "but it doesn't entitle you to pull a shiv on my friend here."
"I apologize for that," Sagara said with a slight bow. "She surprised me. I believed myself under attack and reacted by instinct." Then, with a very slight archness, he added, "Upon identifying her as no threat, I would not have harmed her."
"No threat, my ass," Lindsey muttered, but Kaname shushed her, looked at the young man's ID once more, then closed the fold and tossed it back to him. He made no move to intercept it, letting it fall at his feet.
"So you're like a mall cop," she said.
"I'm a private security consultant," he replied, not really correcting her. "My assignment is to ensure that you come to no harm. I apologize for presenting the appearance of stalking you. My instructions were to avoid direct contact if possible. Ideally, you weren't supposed to know I was even here."
Kaname snorted. "They might want to send someone a little more subtle next time, then," she said. "Like, I don't know, a marching band. OK, so who hired you?"
Kaname's eyes narrowed. "'Classified'? Seriously? It's classified who hired you to stalk me? Yeah, you're gonna want to re-think that."
"That's for Command to decide," Sagara replied stiffly. "I'm just a soldier. I do what I'm told to the best of my ability." Lindsey and Kaname just stared at him, once again left without any real response by his strangely unanswerable matter-of-factness. When they didn't reply, he picked up his knife and ID and went on, "With your permission, Miss Willows, Miss Chidori, I will return to my duties. If I may be dismissed?"
Kaname blinked at him, then decided there would just be no percentage in chasing this car any further up the block right now. "Um... all right." She gave Sosuke a brief salute, which he crisply returned. Beside her, Lindsey saluted as well, if not as vigorously. "You're dismissed, sergeant."
"Thank you, ma'm," he replied, before making an about-face and heading back towards the campus Commons.
Puzzled, Kaname watched as Sosuke retreated down the hill. "... why the hell did he call me by my middle name?" she asked nobody in particular.
"Beats me, Kaname Chidori Sterling. Now, about my math homework?" Lindsey asked with a grin.
"Right, right," the taller girl acquiesced, and together, the two friends headed up the hill to the Castle.
"Oh, yeah," Lindsey added as if she'd just thought of it, "and I'm gonna have to get rid of this gun. But that's OK. Boba'll know what to do with it... "
Friday, January 15, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
Kaname Sterling was lying on her bed, working on her reading assignment for Introductory Chemistry and trying not to think about her stalker when there came a knock at her door.
"'Sopen," she called. Since she was an RA, she was in the habit of leaving her door unlocked during the day, to make it easier for those who might be seeking her help. (In fact, she had occasionally considered that RAs' rooms might better be equipped with a Dutch door, so busy did things sometimes get on the weekends.)
She closed her chemistry book on her finger and sat up, expecting to see one of her floor's students entering with a problem or question, but instead she saw Lindsey Willows carrying a large silver valise that looked like a cross between an aluminum attache case and one of those expensive camera cases.
"Oh, hi," said Kaname, puzzled. "What's in the box?"
"Just stay right there," Lindsey told her. Humming cheerfully, she put the case down in the middle of Kaname's desk blotter, popped the latches, and opened it up, revealing an intricate arrangement of little articulated shelves and compartments that put Kaname in mind of a high-tech fishing tackle box. From one of the compartments the younger girl removed a pair of bright purple nitrile gloves, which she fitted onto her hands with confident ease.
"Um... what?" said Kaname.
"Well," Lindsey told her, withdrawing a device that looked like a flashlight with delusions of weaponhood from a compartment in the front of the box, "remember earlier when you said you even feel like you're being watched in here? I've been thinking about that ever since yesterday, and so I've come to process your room. If Sgt. Strangelove has been in here, he's left traces, I don't care how careful he was. And if he's left traces," she added with a grin, switching on the light and directing its eerie blue beam at the wall, "I'll find them."
Kaname, slightly too weirded out to respond, pulled her feet up under her and just sat and watched as Lindsey connected a small module with an unusually bright orange status light to Kaname's desktop dataterm. Once that was done, she let it pulse away ominously in the background while she methodically worked over the room, first with the blue light, then with a device like a medical tricorder with a different antenna. Working quickly but carefully, the petite blonde dusted a few of the more likely areas for fingerprints, got down into the corners of the room to scan the dust, climbed under the bed like a mechanic going under a car, delved into the back of the wardrobe, and then climbed up on a chair to inspect the light fixture in the center of the ceiling.
"OK!" she said at the end of an hour or so's work. At the foot of Kaname's bed, she spread out a large sheet of white paper, then arrayed a few small electronic devices, unidentifiable to Kaname's eye, upon it. "Here's what I've got. This is an omnidirectional listening device that was under your desk. Here are a couple of biometric sensors that he installed on the underside of your mattress. This came out of the light fixture, unsurprisingly it's a wide-angle holocamera, and there was a backup in the corner by the window. I'm not even sure what this is, but it definitely doesn't belong where I found it."
Kaname sat, dumbfounded, and looked at Lindsey's haul of surveillance devices while Lindsey peeled off her gloves and continued, "There are unknown fingerprints all over in here, some of them are probably from members of the cleaning staff - I can eliminate them when I get back to my room and slice the personnel department's computers. And speaking of slicing," she added, disconnecting the flashing orange widget from the terminal, "I'm not at all surprised to discover that he's had a keylogger and a camjacker on your term since Christmas. Because I guess surveilling you from only two angles just wasn't good enough."
"Oh yeah. Not the usual skript-kiddie crap, either, this is some pretty hardcore intrusion software. And this gear is all milspec, too," Lindsey added, gesturing to the array of gadgets on the paper. "Even used I could probably get five, six grand easy for this stuff on SpyBay. Whoever this dude is, he's got some serious backing. He's not just your ordinary pervert. Which reminds me, incidentally, you may be relieved to know that I didn't find any, uh, anomalous biological material whatsoever. If he is doing this to get his jollies, he's not gettin' 'em in here." She winked. "Small favors."
Kaname stared at her, face completely blank, for several seconds. Then her expression slowly hardened, crystallizing from nothing whatever to shock to dismay to a pure, transcendent rage.
She stood up, dropping her chemistry book, and said flatly, "He dies. He dies now. Let's go."
The walk from Hamlin Four to Dennis Blair Hall took about ten minutes to accomplish, a fact for which Lindsey Willows was quietly grateful. This meant in the time it took to cross the Commons on that crisp winter evening, Kaname Sterling had stood down from her original state of incandescent fury (what Lindsey thought of as DEFCON 1) to a more reasonable level of driven intent (DEFCON 3). She was always more manageable in this state, and much less likely to break something in the process.
This didn't mean she was easy to talk to at the moment, and Lindsey didn't try. She just walked alongside her, keeping up as best she could while carrying her evidence kit and the plastic bag containing all the stuff she'd found in Kaname's room, and warding off anybody who might get in their way in the process. Not that anybody with a measure of sense would try, seeing Kaname's current expression.
Still intent, Kaname swept through the lobby doors without stopping, and didn't bother waiting for the elevators. Instead, she headed straight for one of the access stairwells and began taking the steps two at a time with her long legs. Lindsey followed along, and double-timed it up the steps to keep pace with her friend.
"So, he's here?" Kaname asked as she opened the stairwell door to the fourth floor. Beyond were several freshmen and sophomores, who looked over curiously as the two entered the hallway from the side door.
"According to the student directory, Blair 407," Lindsey confirmed. She waved cheerfully at a couple of the students that she knew, and then caught up to her friend as she was already halfway down the hallway to the room at the end, nearest to the elevator lounge. She took brief note of the sign on the door ("401: N. Kruger -- Resident Advisor"), even as Kaname was knocking on it.
"Come on, be in already," Kaname muttered under her breath, but then halted in her motions as the door opened. "Oh, good."
Beyond the threshold stood another girl, shorter than Kaname but taller than Lindsey, with long, straight black hair and a serious mien. She was clad in the standard DSM checkered skirt and white shirt, but had apparently replaced the sweater for the evening with a thin orange vest. Her arms were crossed, and she was regarding Kaname with only slight disgruntlement in her green eyes.
"Sterling. It's not like you to be out at this hour. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Kaname sighed, ran a hand through her hair, and looked straight at her fellow RA. "Natsuki. I need to see the inside of one of your students' rooms. Yesterday."
At Natsuki's arched eyebrow, Lindsey added, "We believe that he's been surveilling Kaname for some time now. We observed him following her during the school day, and I found a whole raft of covert ELINT gear in her room less than a half hour ago."
Natsuki frowned. "You're saying he bugged her room? That's a serious charge, Willows. And you're certain that this has been ongoing?"
"Well, I can't be a hundred percent certain, not without running his prints, but I believe we have enough probable cause to warrant it."
"Well, unless you have verifiable proof, I'm afraid that student privacy takes precedence," Natsuki replied, flicking a strand of her hair with her right hand. "You know the rules, Sterling. You went through the training, the same as I did. If you've got that kind of case you need to be talking to the Campus Police."
Kaname groaned. "Oh, come on, Natsuki! We haven't got time to call in the donut jockeys - we need to get on top of this before he spooks and runs!" She gestured down the hallway frantically, before returning her full attention to the other girl. "Look, it's just this once!"
"'Just this once' often turns into 'just one more', Sterling. We can't be abusing our charges, you know that."
"Look, who was it that helped you and your friends with your calculus study group? Who helped sponsor you for the pistol team last year? Who was it that helped vouch for your blue-wolf-thing - oh, hey, Duran - with campus security and ResLife when you wanted to bring him full-time on campus? " Kaname gestured at the large blue-grey wolf in question, which had been lying down at the foot of Natsuki's bed before it heard its name mentioned and looked up at the grouping at the doorway.
Seeing that Natsuki wasn't being moved, Kaname played her final available card. She leaned in close, and pitched her voice low in the hopes that Lindsey wouldn't hear it. "... And who was it who covered for you with ResLife back in early September? When you and Shizuru celebrated your one-year anniversary, and didn't get back from Botrell Beach until the next day?" At Natsuki's widening eyes and growing blush, Kaname grinned, and she knew she had her. "Yeah, I thought so."
"All right, you made your point!" Natsuki exclaimed, and then coughed in an attempt to recover her poise. Behind Kaname, Lindsey made a show of not having heard or noticed anything. "Give me a moment, and I'll get my keys."
As Natsuki rummaged around the depths of her room, Lindsey nudged Kaname and asked quietly, "What was that all about?"
Kaname leaned over and replied, equally quiet, "Let's just say that while I certainly am not going to complain about people's choices in partners, and if they're happy, I'm all for it? But sometimes discretion is the better part of valor."
Further discussion was prevented by Natsuki's return. In her hand was a chunky-looking keyring with several nonstandard keys on it. "All right, I'm ready. Stay there, Duran." Her pet wolf nodded and folded itself back up at the foot of the bed.
Together, the three girls strode down the hallway towards the middle section. The commotion garnered some attention from the other students in the hall, but the look on their RA's face prevented them from asking any questions. The three of them arrived at their target's door ("407: S. Sagara"), and regarded it.
"Well, at least he's not trying to hide where he lives," Lindsey muttered.
Natsuki glanced at Kaname. "I repeat, are you sure about this?"
Kaname nodded brusquely. "Yes. Do it."
To her visible dismay, Natsuki proceeded to knock on the door.
"What the - " Kaname caught herself. " - hell are you doing?!"
"It's polite, and it's policy," Natsuki replied imperturbably. "You really didn't pay attention in resident advisor training, did you?"
"Whose side are you on?!" Kaname demanded. "It's like you want him to get away!"
There was no answer, so Natsuki shrugged inwardly and moved on to the next phase. She had deep misgivings about it - it was entirely contrary to the accepted procedure - but Kaname had her over a barrel.
Like all of the Resident Advisors at DSM, Natsuki had been issued a master key for the dorm rooms on her floor. They were provided for use at the RA's discretion, in the possibility of circumstances (medical emergencies, assisting first responders, crisis resolution) where an adult would not get there immediately. They were an emblem of responsibility that were not handed out lightly.
They were also biometrically and password encoded, to prevent other students from making off with them and trying to duplicate them. Each RA could only use his or her own key, and only for that RA's specific area of responsiblity.
Natsuki inserted the key in question, and then gripped the keyring. With a clear voice, she announced, "Room Door Key Override, Identify - Kruger, Natsuki. Password - Electric Barbarella." There was an answering beep from the keyring, and a reconfiguring sound from within the door lock.
Lindsey and Kaname blinked and looked sideways at Natsuki as she turned the doorknob and opened the door. She glanced back at them, as if daring them to comment, and that settled the matter.
Any further discussion was halted as they stood in the entrance and looked into the room. At first glance it looked like any other single room in Blair Hall. Which is to say, a great deal like a one-bed room at a middling-grade long-stay hotel in some city with a bent for minimalism in its public spaces - Niogi, say, that Bauhaus-influenced neighborhood near the spaceport. The surfaces were mostly white and mostly flat, with sparing accents of chrome or black piano wood, and the simple and handsome furniture was in a complementary style. Through the far window, Kaname could clearly see the façade of Hannibal Hamlin Hall, and she had a strong and sinking suspicion that she could see her own window from here in this room.
The odd thing about Blair 407 was that it was a complete cipher. Most students took advantage of all that flat white wall to personalize their space with posters, holos, what have you. In Blair Hall they were even allowed to paint their rooms if they signed an agreement to paint them back again at the end of the year. This was exactly what the architects had intended, each room as a blank slate for the occupants to stamp their personalities on. This room had absolutely no personality at all. It looked like it had just come out of the shrink wrap, right down to the Mondrian-precise, perfectly smooth black and white counterpane on the bed.
And there was no one home.
Frowning, Natsuki turned back to look at Kaname and Lindsey with a pointed expression and a cool tone of voice. "Well. It looks as if your suspicions were incorrect, Willows. Now, if you'll excuse us, my fellow RA and I need to have a discussion about various things."
Lindsey was not about to be cowed by any cold dismissals, however. She frowned thoughtfully, then tilted her head as a thought occurred to her. "No, wait..." Without waiting for the older girls to comment or try to stop her, she took several steps further in, and reached her arm out in front of her, towards the center of the room.
Her arm vanished halfway into the middle of the air, up to her elbow.
Lindsey grinned. "Now we're getting somewhere. C'mon!" With that, she strode boldly through the newly discovered holoscreen, forcing the other two girls to catch up.
Beyond the screen was the same room in shape and size, but definitely not in decor. Practically every available horizontal surface had been stacked high with boxy electronic equipment, only some of which Kaname recognized. Another device was propped against the window, facing outwards. The corners of the room had what appeared to be the components of an acoustic damper web mounted and active. The collapsed plastic packets of empty MREs filled the room's institute-issue trash can, and a stack of unopened ones were piled nearby. A military foot locker was wedged up against the wall at the foot of the bed. Said bed was only lightly rumpled, as if the owner of the room had just stepped out.
Natsuki stared, her previous glacial calm finally broken by the total incongruity of the revealed contents of the room. ".... what the HELL??"
Lindsey whistled. "There has to be at least twenty thousand credits worth of monitoring equipment in here."
Kaname frowned as she looked around. "But where's the Unknown Soldier?" she asked the air, but even as she said the question she was answered by a quick rustling noise underneath the bed. Startled, Kaname jumped back as the man in question rolled out from underneath, and while still lying on the floor, drew another pistol from somewhere, aiming it up at them.
Before either Kaname or Lindsey could react, Natsuki shoved herself in front of the other two, and in a flash she was holding a pistol of her own -- a small derringer-style pistol with a curious spherical "cylinder". She glared down at Sosuke, her eyes meeting his, as they drew down on each other.
Kaname didn't blank again, for which she was unconsciously very grateful. What she did instead was declare in a commanding voice,
"Whoa whoa WHOA!! Settle down, partner! Heel, boy!"
Sosuke kept his aim steady, not evidently discouraged by the RA's weapon, and said, "We appear to have a standoff, Miss Kruger." Then, with a faint trace of humor - the first Kaname could remember seeing from him - he added, "And I believe you're trespassing."
"You could have mentioned he was armed, Kaname," Natsuki muttered out of the side of her mouth.
"We took it away from him! I didn't think he'd have another!"
"You took a gun off him before and didn't take the matter to the Campus Police? What else haven't you told me?" Natsuki wanted to know.
"Well... he's licensed," Lindsey admitted. "He works for some security firm. His ID checked out, but he's still totally stalking Kaname," she added, more insistently. "That's still not cool."
"I am not stalking anyone," Sosuke objected calmly, then went on, directly addressing Kaname, "I told you. I've been assigned to protect you."
"So what's this stuff all about?!" Kaname demanded, snatching the plastic bag of surveillance equipment from Lindsey and brandishing it.
"I can hardly safeguard you if I'm unaware of your location and activities," Sosuke told her, and somehow made it sound so reasonable a conclusion that she found herself making the you-have-a-point noise before remembering she was supposed to be furious with him.
"That's not - " she began, but before she could get any further, Natsuki cut in with,
"Can we not have this discussion while holding each other at gunpoint?! This is ridiculous."
Sosuke regarded her for a few moments, then relaxed his arm, lowered his Glock, and put it away as he climbed slowly and unthreateningly to his feet. The RA kept holding down on him for a second, then holstered her own weapon as well.
Sosuke sat down on the edge of his bed, his hands on his knees, and said, "I'm sorry if my monitoring equipment disturbed you, Miss Chidori. I'm only trying to do my job."
"Who the hell is - " Natsuki started to murmur to Kaname.
"Skip it," Kaname told her with an exasperated gesture. "So answer me this, dude, what were the biosensors for?"
"Ah. You even found those." Sosuke nodded. "Congratulations, you must be very skilled."
"Actually, that's all me," said Lindsey with a grin.
"Waiting for my answer here," said Kaname testily.
"It's an intruder detection system."
"Intru - oh, man, what." Kaname put her hand to her forehead and said nothing for a few moments as the implications of that worked their way through her head.
"Well, Kaname," Natsuki observed after a few seconds' silence, "bizarre as this entire situation is, I don't see anything here that's actually a violation. Mind you, I can't tell visually what most of this stuff is," she muttered.
"I assure you all my equipment is quite legal," Sosuke told her.
"Wait, are you bailing on me here?!" Kaname asked. "This guy's got more spy gear in here than they have at the Tomodachi Ninja Museum, he pulled a gun on you, he's admitted to wiring my room for biometrics, and you're gonna walk?"
"As I tried to tell you when we started," said Natsuki with exaggerated patience, "this is way above my level. Talk to Chief Odo if you want to take the matter further. I'm out." Turning to go, she added privately into Kaname's ear, "I'll be generous and say we're even."
"Bitch," Kaname muttered back, but Natsuki just smiled coolly and sauntered off down the hall, waving bye-bye over her shoulder without looking back.
Kaname glared after her for a second, then seemed to deflate with a sigh and turned back to Sosuke.
"Great, OK, so, I just burned all my political capital on this floor and what have I got to show for it? Bupkis. You are way more trouble than you're worth, mister."
"I apologize," Sosuke said, and he sounded sincere, but unmoved; then he repeated, "I'm only doing my job."
"And you still won't tell me who you're doing it for."
Sosuke shook his head and said flatly, "I can't. Sorry."
"And you're not going to knock it off if I ask you very nicely."
"Again, not on the table."
"I could have you thrown out of school," Kaname said, more as a thought aloud than a threat.
"That would inconvenience me," Sosuke said, "but I could relocate my command post into the hills within an hour. I would be unable to respond to potential incidents as quickly, however. You would be exposing yourself to unnecessary danger."
"Can you even tell me who you're supposed to be protecting me from? I mean, the last time I checked I didn't exactly have enemies. I'm 17, for Spirit's sake."
Sosuke looked her in the eye and replied with perfect seriousness, "Anyone and anything."
For some reason, the look in his eye and the tone in his voice struck Kaname cold. She just stood staring at him for a few seconds, lost for words.
"Ummmmm," said Lindsey hesitantly. Both looked sharply toward her; Kaname had almost forgotten she was there. "OK, look, before we take this to the next level and glass starts getting broken, can I make a suggestion?"
"By all means, Miss Willows," said Sosuke, and then, with that faint trace of humor again, "I'm not unreasonable. Only determined."
"OK. Sergeant What's-your-name, you want to protect Kaname, and you're willing to go live in the woods in winter to do it if we get you tossed out of the Institute."
"Sagara. Sosuke Sagara. And yes, if that's what it takes."
"Well, then... look, Kaname, if he's that serious about it? I think maybe you ought to just go with it." Before Kaname could protest, she went on, "You just need to establish some boundaries. Figure out an arrangement that works for both of you. Like, I'm just throwing this out here, you agree to a listening device and the biometrics, but no camera and the keylogger comes off your terminal, and you," she added to Sosuke, "no more lurking at the edge of the frame all the time. If you want to keep an eye on her that's fine, but the Stalky McStalkerpants crap has to stop. Like, if you want to be sure nobody gets the drop on her at lunch, just, you know, come over to our table and hang out. We don't bite." The little blonde grinned. "Much."
"Lins... " Kaname began, sounding like she was about to get testy again, but then she trailed off and considered the alternatives. What Lindsey was proposing was reasonable, at least compared with the crazy-bucket level of what was already happening. And something about the conviction in the young soldier's face as he'd told her he was prepared to protect her from "anyone and anything" had rattled her a little. It might be a flash of insight from the always-lurking collective, it might be her own instincts, or it might just be her buying into whatever his damage was, but she was inclined to take it seriously.
She sighed. "OK. I can't believe I've arrived at a place where what Lindsey just said was the rational alternative to what's going on in my life, but... OK. You stay on your end of the couch and I won't take this stuff to Odo. But," she added, raising a finger sternly, "you put one toe out of line and I will bury you. Understood?"
Sosuke's face passed through a fleeting expression that might have been a faint smirk, so quickly gone that Kaname wasn't sure she'd really seen it. Then he got to his feet, squared himself at attention, and saluted her, as he had in the wood the day before.
"Understood. I accept your conditions - provisionally," he said briskly. "We'll need to document the specific rules of engagement as soon as possible to avoid future misunderstandings."
Kaname regarded him for a second, then shook her head, smiling ruefully in spite of herself.
"Are you for real, man?" she wondered.
"I'm as real as it gets, Miss Chidori," Sosuke assured her.
Kaname sighed and returned his salute. She wasn't sure why she kept humoring him that way, but it felt right somehow. She realized in that moment that, whatever else she thought of the guy (and she wasn't sure of most of that yet), she did believe he was a soldier, and not just some random nut.
He might still be some random nut, but not just some random nut.
"All right, uh... carry on, Sgt. Sagara," she said, a little awkwardly. "I'll have my people call your people in the morning and we'll talk specific terms. Think you can survive that long without my room all wired up?"
Sosuke nodded. "Affirmative," he said, gesturing to the device on the tripod in front of the window. "The acoustic laser will suffice for this evening, though if you're planning to go out I would appreciate notification."
"Acoustic - ... yeah, OK, I'm just going to go back over and study and not think about that," Kaname said. "See you, Sgt. Rock."
Sosuke replied stolidly, "Good night, ma'm. Miss Willows," he added with a polite nod to Lindsey.
"Don't even say anything," Kaname said to Natsuki Kruger as she passed the latter's door. Natsuki just smirked, and with a flick of her hair, she turned and closed her door.
"When are you going to tell him your last name's not Chidori?" Lindsey wondered as they descended the stairs.
"I want to see how long it takes him to figure it out for himself," Kaname replied. "It's a little weird that a guy with as much backing as he obviously has got such a crappy briefing he doesn't even know who I am. That's how I know none of my relatives were involved. Ooh, unless they gave him the wrong name on purpose so I wouldn't think it was them. Aaarrrgh." She palmed her forehead and didn't speak again until they were crossing the Common, when she suddenly sighed and observed,
"Lindsey? It's gonna be a looooong semester."
Saturday, January 16, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
Kaname Chidori Sterling couldn't get to sleep.
It had been a long day by anybody's standards. Add to that the nearly critical confrontation in Blair 407 with her still strangely-acting observer, and she definitely didn't want to deal with any more weirdness. For the rest of the evening, she busied herself with the sorts of things that she would normally do on a Friday night. She finished up her Introductory Chemistry reading assignment, pausing only to help some of her younger charges with some task or another. She posted the notice for her floor's weekly movie night (tomorrow night's presentation: Godzilla's 11), before making the final room sweep to confirm that those who were supposed to be there were there. She performed her evening's ablutions, and then returned to her room to hopefully sleep...
... but once all her physical activity ceased, there were no distractions to prevent her mind from running at a high tempo thinking over everything from earlier that day and the day before.
She raised her head slightly and looked at the dataterminal that was part of her room's built-in desk, its holopanel's frame now covered with a shirt to block the pickup of its camera module; Lindsey had said she'd scrubbed the intrusion software and put a block in place against its replacement, but Kaname didn't like the idea of the thing looking at her anyway. Just looking over there reminded her of the towering rage she'd been in when she first set out to go over to Blair Hall and confront the New Guy. The walk, and the hassle of getting into his room in the first place, had cooled her temper somewhat, but she'd still been ready to throw down with him, until Lindsey had stepped in and suggested a conference, of all things.
And she'd gone along with the whole cockamamie idea. Why?
Grudgingly, Kaname admitted to herself that Lindsey had had a good reason, and not the stated one earlier that evening. It was a delaying tactic, one that would give Lindsey time to perform whatever investigations she could squeeze in, while giving herself sufficient time to cool down. It wouldn't have done to have had a throw-down in the middle of Natsuki's dorm floor; that was a certain one way ticket to the Port Jeradar Bus Stop, by way of President Tiefield's office for an official notice of expulsion.
All this was true, but it didn't mean she had to like it.
Lindsey was right to stop me from starting something right then and there, she admitted to herself, but why didn't I go straight to Campus Security?
She lay there for a while, looking up at the shadowed ceiling and turning the situation over in her mind. Kaname had been raised in a military family, and though her parents had been at pains to give her the chance to grow up in as normal an environment as possible, it had still rubbed off on her a good deal. That part of her kept coming back to Sosuke Sagara's claim that he was a soldier prosecuting a mission, and therefore only coincidentally a guy spying on a girl. Could she possibly give an idea like that credence?
If he's an "invisible", she thought, where's his support team? He ought to have two more people at least. OK. Maybe whoever hired him didn't have the budget for that. In a situation like that you make do. I should have asked Lindsey where those cameras she found were aimed. Automatic surveillance would go a long way toward taking up that slack, particularly if he had the one over by the window angled to watch the door and the one in the light fixture covering the window. Which he probably did if he's anywhere near as professional as he acts...
... Spirit of Light, Kaname, are you seriously playing devil's advocate for the guy who bugged your room here? What is your major malfunction? Next you'll start considering how you would've done it yourself.
Something was tugging at her mental sleeve and trying to get her to see it, something about the young man's demeanor, but she couldn't get a fix on it. It was like thinking of the perfect thing to say and forgetting it before a break in the conversation came along in which to say it. She tried to think what it might be.
The practical army-brat side of her nature, looking at the problem from a tactical perspective, was wrestling with the normal-girl part that just wanted to curl up, put the covers over her head, and go OMFG A GUY PUT CAMERAS IN MY ROOM for a while, preventing either of them from getting anything done - or getting to sleep. For nearly an hour she tossed, mind running in circles, not getting anywhere.
Kaname yawned, and rolled over, facing the rest of her room. The glowing dial of her clock looked back at her impassively from the nightstand, and if she focussed her eyes carefully, she could barely see the very faint shimmer of the previously mentioned acoustic laser refracting through the window glass, and the more visible dot on the far wall.
She groaned. Couldn't he at least have sprung for a laser that was a little less obvious? she thought with minor irritation. Now that it had been brought to her attention, she could find herself picking out more and more incidents over the past week where he had just been on the periphery...
...damn it, at this rate I'm never going to get to sleep. Sighing, Kaname sat up and rubbed her eyes. She didn't bother turning on her nightstand light, instead using the reflected light from outside to make her way through her room. She chanced a look out the window, but all she saw from the rooms of Blair 4 were darkness. She wondered whether the mystery sergeant was awake over there, sitting in the dark with headphones on, listening to her not getting any sleep. Shaking her head, she picked up her keys, her cell phone, and Bonta-Kun, and got out of bed. Taking a moment to put her slippers on her feet, she then left her dorm room.
The hallway that ran the length of Hamlin 4 was empty and dark, illuminated only by a few low-power glowstrips on the ceilings and floors that lit the way to the exits in case of emergency, and the faint light that could be seen around the corner in the vicinity of the elevator lounge. With nobody present, Kaname could look down both wings of the hallway to the end windows. There were no lights visible through the underside of the doors, a good sign. At least the sprogs are getting their rest, she reflected ruefully.
Letting out another sigh, Kaname rounded the corner to the lounge proper. It was in the shape of a capital letter T, with the elevator bank bracketing the stem, and the crossbar forming a large general-purpose room that overlooked the Commons through several banks of windows. The two hallways opened into that common area, allowing quick and easy access to the elevators, and provided a good place for friends and study groups to congregate. At the "base" of the stem were several more doors, one leading to an emergency stairwell, one to the floor's supply closet, and one to the floor's efficiency kitchenette. The closet and the kitchenette usually remained locked, at the RA's discretion.
It was to the kitchenette door that Kaname now went, unlocking it and slipping inside. She knew where most of the supplies were by heart now, and didn't bother turning on the light. No need to ruin her night vision, especially with the small window in the room. She rummaged around one of the cabinets, pulled out the teakettle, and filled it before putting it on the stovetop to heat up. A second search yielded a DSM-Issue Coffee Mug, a third unearthed a box of tea-packets. She looked at the box lid -- it was some brand she didn't recognize, but that Shizuru Viola had recommended and given to her as a gift before the christmas break -- shrugged, and popped one of the packets into the mug.
A minute passed while she stood there, clutching her plush Bonta-Kun in one arm, her keys and cell phone in the pocket of her pajamas, and feeling equal measures of forlorn and mildly silly at being up this late. Any further thoughts along those lines were halted as the teakettle started to faintly whistle. Reacting quickly, she turned off the stove before the whistle could get louder and wake anybody else, and then poured the nearly-boiling water into the mug. The aromatic steam wafted as the tea leaves in the packet began to do their work, and she took a deep breath, inhaling the fumes.
Damn. If this tastes as good as it smells, I'll have to write Shizu a thank-you note, she reflected with a slight smile as she stepped back outside, mug now in hand and Bonta-Kun still under the opposite arm. She walked back to the main part of the elevator lounge, and briefly surveyed the area. Tables and chairs were neatly arranged, a pair of couches on the opposite ends, a few lounge chairs and endtables interspersed between them. After a moment's thought, she chose the lounge chair that was in front of the wall between two windows, allowing light to enter and illuminate the nearby area without herself being seen.
Settling back, she took a sip of her hot tea, and immediately revised her initial impression. It tasted even better than it smelled. Taking a deeper drink of the heady brew, she just savored the tea for several minutes in silence, alone in her thoughts.
Eventually, she set the mug aside on the nearest endtable. With a little shifting around, she pulled out her cell phone and flipped it open. She considered for a moment, then dialed a number one-handed from memory, then when the first ring occurred, she entered another, longer sequence. This changed the tone of the ring, and she waited anxiously for the other end to pick up.
It took three rings and a click before a female voice on the other end asked, "Kaname? What are you doing up so late?"
The sound of the voice on the other end, even drowsy as it was, caused a wave of relief to course through Kaname's body. Her features softened as she answered, "Hi, mom. Sorry if I woke you up."
"Oh no, it's all right, dear. It's been a while since you last called your poor mother, I'll take what I can get," Miranda Sterling said with an audible smile. "What's up?"
Kaname hesitated for a moment, before deciding to just cut to the chase and get it over with. "Mom? Are there any incipient threats lurking around that I should worry about?"
Kaname could imagine her mother looking at her phone in confusion before replying, "What brought this on?"
"I... look, I'll get into the whys in a minute. Just answer me if there's anybody hanging fire on us."
"Well, Xera and Mira had to help Emi fight off some Klavaarite border raiders at a build site for Cianbro, and Maia was looking into something going on in the Corporate Sector and won't be back until the end of the month. Komi and Terry are busy with the final preps for the Prometheus. Voronda Elendil is out on maneuvers, so that's the usual crew there."
Kaname nodded to herself as she made a sound of acknowledgement. With a family such as hers, it wasn't unheard of for her aunts (and uncles) to be spread across the known galaxy for weeks, sometimes months, at a time.
"Other than that, aside from the usual cautions of crazies wanting to get the goods on your father's side of the family, and the usual anti-WDF nuts, I don't think there's much out there that's a pending threat to the family at the moment."
"Ok, that good, at least. And I'm assuming nobody in the family's put out a watch request for me..."
"If we did, it wouldn't be through a third party. It'd be like, I don't know, dad replacing Hannibal Hamlin Hall's janitor for a few weeks."
Kaname paused for a moment as she tried to imagine her grandfather, the galaxy-renowned Veritech ace Maximilian Sterling, moonlighting as her dorm's janitor. "... great, now I'll be paranoid. Thanks, mom."
"Would you rather I suggest having Tessa or Kyoko registered as students at DSM?"
Kaname groaned. "Oh Spirit no. I'd never live it down from those two."
"Oh, Kaname, I doubt it would be that bad. Much." There was a soft chuckle from Miranda, before she continued in a more serious tone. "Now, would you care to tell me what this is all about?"
Kaname sighed. She had gotten her initial questions out of the way. Now it was time to face the music.
"What this is all about. Huh. Well... OK, I met this guy... "
"Oh ho!" said Miranda, sounding amused. "Well, I should have known it was only a matter of time -- "
Kaname closed her eyes in exasperation and scowled, not that her mother could see her, and said through her teeth, "Not. In. That. Way."
"-- oh. Sorry. Do go on," Miranda replied, the indulgent amusement plain in her voice.
"Mom. C'mon. Pretend you're not Aunt Maia's twin sister and be serious for five minutes, I'm having my first major brush with teen angst over here."
"OK. I'm serious, I swear," Miranda promised, but she didn't really sound it.
"Good. 'Cause this is no joke. There's a new guy at school this semester, name of Sosuke Sagara. He's been following me around. At first I thought I was just being paranoid, but Lindsey and I caught him redhanded yesterday and he admitted it. Now today I find out he's bugged my room."
There was a momentary silence on the line, and when Miranda spoke again she no longer sounded even a little amused: "OK, that is serious. You have my undivided attention now."
Kaname, feeling a perverse sort of triumph that the situation was actually capable of taking her mother aback, laughed hollowly. "Oh, ho ho, no, it's way weirder than you're thinking now. When we cornered him he claimed to be part of a security outfit hired to protect me. Even coughed up an ID to prove it. Ever heard of something called 'TechCom Security Solutions'? Or the 'Rhodos Group'? The ID looked legit, but what do I know about mercenary security services? That's more in line for you or Aunt Maia."
"Can't say they ring any bells, Kaname, but I'll be the first to admit that that particular job category has rather high turnover in the lower ranks. I can look into seeing what I can find out, if you'd like."
"Thanks, Mom, I'd really appreciate it. There's something niggling in the back of my head, but I just can't pin it down onto what."
"All right. Now, about this 'Sakara' fellow..."
"Sagara, Mom. Sosuke Sagara." She shook her head. "It's just weird. I mean, most guys who meet me for the first time give me a once-over -- you know the type -- just because of who I am or how I look... but he didn't. I'm not sure if it registered to him that I was even female."
"Maybe he swings the other way?" Miranda offered. "It's been known to happen, you know."
Kaname coughed. "Nooo... I don't think that was on the table for this. It's just that he's bound and determined to try and 'protect' me, and won't tell me why. And has gone to such lengths that I don't think it even dawned on him that he could be misinterpreted. Which takes a special level of cluelessness that I didn't think was humanly possible. Hmm. Maybe he's not human! I hadn't considered that -- no, no, if he was a robot that wrist thing wouldn't have worked so he must at least be an organic life form -- am I gabbling?"
Kaname sighed. "Right. Sorry." She squeezed Bonta-Kun a little tighter, and went on. "Anyway, it was Lindsey who found the bugs, and swept the rest of my room for anything else... 'anomalous'. And if she says it's clean in that regard, then I believe her."
"And how did she determine this?"
"Well, she used the Flashlight of Truth."
"I... see." After a moment's thoughtful pause, Miranda continued, "I was unaware that you had a friend who could process a bedroom for forensic evidence, Kaname."
Kaname rolled her eyes. "Aw, mom, you've met Lindsey before, remember?"
"Yes, but I didn't know she was going around with Alternative Light Sources in her pockets."
"C'mon, she doesn't do that..." Kaname snorted, before hesitating a moment. "At least, I don't think she does..."
"All right, all right," Miranda laughed softly. "I get the gist of it, Kaname. So he told you that he's been hired to be your bodyguard, but he won't say by whom."
"No. He just says it's 'classified'. That's why I asked if there was anything special going on. I half wondered if it was one of you guys. But we've already gone over that." Kaname sighed deeply. "I don't know, I'm tired and kind of freaked out, my mind keeps going around in circles. I almost convince myself that he must be on the level just because his story's too screwy to be made up, and then I almost convince myself that he must just be some kind of nut. If I keep at it much longer I'll just be some kind of nut."
"Well... " Miranda considered for a moment. "For what it's worth, I think you made the right call walking away from the situation tonight. And by sitting down with this mystery man tomorrow and talking, you might get closer to the bottom of this. One of the most important things I learned as one of the Nazgûl is that sometimes you make greater gains by waiting and watching than you do by striking at the first opportunity." She chuckled. "It wasn't an easy lesson for me to learn, so I'm proud of you for thinking strategically."
"It's more Lindsey's strategy than mine," Kaname admitted.
"But you saw the value in it, even if you weren't quite consciously aware of it," Miranda pointed out. "That matters. It shows you have good instincts. I'd like to take credit for that, but I don't think it's really something that can be taught. Now, you didn't ask, and you're there and I'm not, but if one old lady's opinion is worth anything to you, here's what I think: Go to your meeting tomorrow; learn as much as you can; and when it comes time to weigh all the factors and make a decision... trust your instincts." Miranda laughed quietly. "This parental wisdom brought to you by that Mythbusters episode about the Force."
Kaname laughed, but then asked seriously, "And if my instincts say this was a bad idea after all?"
"Then you've still got options," Miranda replied. "And you shouldn't hesitate to exercise them if you feel it's the right move. And you won't hesitate," she added positively. "I know you're not about to let anyone abuse you, Kaname. You're a Sterling. As your Aunt Maia would say, that's not how we roll."
Kaname laughed again, stronger this time. "Yeah. Yeah, I hear you, Mom." Then she yawned so hugely that she was glad no one was around to see her. "Damn... I've really got to go. I think the day's finally catching up to me. Love to dad and sis."
Miranda chuckled on the other end of the line. "Of course I will, dear. Take care, and be safe, all right? Let me know how it goes tomorrow."
"I will. Spirit of Light watch over you, Mom."
"Ilúvatar watch over you, Kaname."
Kaname closed her phone, sat regarding it for a moment, then squared away the tea things, put her mug in the sink, and went back to her room. After that conversation, she felt bold enough to toss a jaunty salute out the window in the general direction of Blair 407 before shutting the blinds on the laser dot and climbing into bed.
Good night, Sergeant Sosuke Sagara, she thought as she began, at last, to drop off. Remember what I told you. You put one toe out of line... and I will bury you.
Then, smiling in half-sleep, she added, But if you don't... then this might turn out to be interesting.
Friday, January 15, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
Lindsey Willows hadn't been able to concentrate all evening, and it showed in the completely scattershot condition of the homework cluttered around her desk. No matter what she tried to work on, her attention kept straying back to the object sitting at the corner of her blotter. It wasn't that she was dismayed at the idea of having a powerful firearm in her presence. She owned one herself, albeit not one quite so powerful as this. It was just that she hadn't been able to find out what she wanted to know about it right away.
Similarly, she hadn't made any progress learning about the other thing she'd wanted to know, though she had at least made a start on it. That was just a matter of waiting for the wheels she'd already put in motion to finish turning -
- and the cry of Godzilla, cutting across her train of thought, informed her that the time for that was now. Grinning, she turned to her dataterm and informed the agent program she'd set into action an hour before that she was ready to review its results.
Half an hour later she was still mulling over what she'd just learned when her desk clock caught her eye and she realized that the other thing she'd been waiting for was at hand. Lindsey picked up the phone and hit one of the speeddial buttons, waited through a phone maze prompt, and since she knew her party's four-digit extension, she entered it now. Two rings followed, and then a click and a man's voice, as the face that went with it appeared on the pop-up vid screen:
"Crime lab, Brown."
"Hiiiii Warrick!" Lindsey sang, her smile broadening.
"... Who is this?" Warrick replied after a pause.
Lindsey sighed, remembering belatedly that the dorm phones defaulted to video off, and switched the pickup on. "It's me, Warrick. Lindsey."
Warrick grinned. "Hey, kid. Didn't recognize your voice! What are you doing up at this hour?"
"Waiting until I knew I'd catch you at your desk," Lindsey replied. "I need a favor."
Warrick eyed her. "Uh-oh. The kind of favor you can't ask your mom?"
"It's nothing bad. I think. Doesn't really even involve me, directly," she said. "But you know how Mom worries. I don't want to get her started. I just need you to run the numbers on an IPO firearm and tell me who's supposed to have it."
The investigator blinked. "An IPO - girl, what have you gotten yourself mixed up in?"
"I'm not sure yet. That's why I need the gun traced."
After a thoughtful pause in which his dark eyes scanned her face for clues, Warrick reached a decision, gave a businesslike nod, and said, "OK, shoot. What are we looking for here?"
"It's an AK23. Serial number is three charlie juliet five four niner niner tango bravo zero zero two seven."
Warrick's eyes moved from the telephone screen to another one outside the phone's field of view; she could hear typing, and a moment later, a beep.
"OK, got it. That weapon is assigned to a Detective Inspector Randall Buck, CID Special Branch."
"And where's he?"
"Uh... " There was a negative-sounding electronic blat. "Classified. Deep-cover assignment of some kind." He looked back at the phone screen. "You want to clue me in?"
"Can you give me a description of this guy Buck?" Lindsey asked.
"Human, white male, six foot two, hundred and seventy-five pounds, blond, blue, no distinguishing. The guy next door, if you live in Stockholm. Why?"
Lindsey nodded as if she'd had a suspicion confirmed. "'Cause that's definitely not the guy Kaname took this gun off yesterday."
"OK, I'm officially curious now," Warrick said.
Lindsey gave him the short version, insofar as she knew it, and then swore him to secrecy, saying, "I think he's legit, as far as he goes. I mean, if he is a skeeve, he's the most inept one I've ever even heard of. But I'd really like to know where he got this gun... "
"So would I. So would the Chief, come to that."
"Let me make a few more inquiries on this end," Lindsey said. "You might want to drop a hint to someone higher up the chain that they should check on Lensman Buck, though."
Warrick nodded. "I'll do that. And Lins?"
She nodded. "Sure. You know me, Warrick."
He smiled. "That's what I'm afraid of. See you."
"Bye, Warrick." Lindsey commed off, sat thinking for a moment, then sighed at the lateness of the hour and turned once more to try getting some of her homework done.
The next morning she went downstairs to the office of the club president, who happened to be at his desk dealing with a few minor matters.
"Hey, Boba?" she asked from the doorway. "Got a minute?"
Boba Fett looked up from his work. "Sure. What's on your mind, Lindsey?"
"Well... something kind of weird is going on."
Fett smiled. "What else is new around here?" he asked. "What's up?"
Crossing to his desk, Lindsey gave him a quick run-down of the first encounter she and Kaname Sterling had had with the weird new guy, Sagara, on Thursday. She finished up by placing the weapon Kaname had taken from Sagara on Fett's desk.
"I talked to one of my contacts at IPO CSI last night," she told him, "and he dug up the Armory Section record for this piece. It's been issued to a CID Lensman, Inspector Randall Buck, and he hasn't reported it missing, but he's undercover somewhere and my contact wasn't cleared high enough to find out any details. He's going to run it by someone higher up, but in the meantime, I don't really want it kicking around my bedroom."
Fett nodded, picked up the weapon, stripped it, then put it back together, rose, and locked it in the wall safe behind the vice-president's desk.
"Should be safe enough in there until CID sends someone to get it," he said. "What about the guy Kaname took it from?"
"Well, that's where it gets even weirder," Lindsey said, and then filled him in on the events of the previous day. "I ran a third-level crawl on him when I got back to my room last night. Took my softagent an hour, but everything that came back was encouraging. He works for a security agency called TechCom Security Solutions. Heard of them?"
Fett shook his head. "No, but private security's a little outside my field."
Lindsey nodded. "Figured as much. It's part of a larger conglomerate called the Rhodos Group."
Fett raised an eyebrow. "Them I've heard of. They're what they call 'corporate security consultants' out in the Sector. Corpsec for companies too small to have their own armies. Mall cops with heavy weapons and Arm Slaves, basically. Didn't know they'd branched into bodyguarding for hire."
"Yeah, that squares with what I found," Lindsey said. "Are they legit?"
"As legit as anything is in the Corporate Sector," Fett replied, shrugging. "I've never heard of them being involved in anything seriously black-hat, if that's what you mean. They're not the Blue Suns. Are you sure this guy really works for them?"
"They've got a file on him. The ID number he gave us matches; so do the biometrics. They won't confirm what he's doing here, of course. Confidentiality."
Fett looked thoughtful, and a little doubtful. "Hmm."
"He and Kaname are supposed to meet somewhere this morning to work out the details," Lindsey went on, "and I thought it'd be good if we could have it in the Castle. She'll feel safer. Not that she's worried about him, really, but he seems so convinced she needs guarding that it's freaking her out a little... "
Fett folded his arms and leaned back against the safe, his face in a thoughtful frown. "You sure she wants to cut a deal with him? Sounds like something Odo ought to be handling to me. Or I could have a word with him if you'd rather keep it unofficial."
Lindsey shook her head. "No, I... it's hard to explain, you'd have to meet him to understand, I think, but... I think he's for real, now that his credentials have checked out. What I'd like you to do is lend us the conference room for a while, get a discreet look or two at him while he's here, and give me your impressions when he leaves."
Fett nodded. "I can do that."
Kaname Sterling arrived at the Castle promptly at 0930 hours, as Lindsey had proposed by telephone after her meeting with Fett. She'd been to the Castle before, but she'd never seen the conference room up on the second level, overlooking the ballroom-like practice hall. It was beautifully, tastefully appointed, like everywhere else in the Castle she'd seen, with a long table flanked by rows of plush chairs. Of particular interest to Kaname was the large painting on the wall behind the chair at the head of the table. It depicted a duel between two young women, one pink-haired and dressed in black and red, the other blonde and wearing a fencing costume, on what appeared to be the middle of a football field. A brass plate in the center of the bottom rail of the picture's frame read, The Duelists' Society Earns its Charter.
Kaname was no Duelist, but she hung around with one and knew several others, and she'd heard the story before, so she knew the players here. The pink-haired girl was Utena Tenjou, one of the Society's legendary founders; her opponent, captured just in the instant of losing the duel in this painting, was Liza Shustal - Liza Broadbank, as she had been then - at the time the captain of the Fencing Club. This had happened at the school the original Duelists had attended before DSM was founded, back on Earth. Kaname had only encountered Utena Tenjou a handful of times and didn't really know her, but several of her friends had compared them in general temperament, which Kaname supposed was a compliment, since everything she'd ever heard about the woman was good.
She was pulled from contemplation of the painting by the arrival of Lindsey and, a moment after her, Sosuke Sagara, the latter looking grave.
"Good morning, Miss Chidori," he said, inclining his head. "I trust you slept well."
"Don't you know?" Kaname couldn't stop herself from asking archly. To his credit, Sagara had the decency to look slightly abashed by the question; he looked away and said nothing.
"A-hem, let's stay focused here, people," Lindsey put in. "We're here to work out terms for détente, not kick off Round Three."
"You're right," Kaname said. "Sorry." She sat down at one side of the table, Sosuke took the seat opposite her, and Lindsey positioned herself at the head, ready to take notes. "Let's talk boundaries."
The first stage of the talks... didn't go well. Having had difficulty getting to sleep, Kaname was underslept and irritable, and now that she'd had time to think about it, her acquiescence to the situation the previous evening rankled. Despite Lindsey's admonishment and her own tendency toward good faith, she had a hard time stopping herself from being waspish and curt. The entire situation seemed utterly ridiculous and contemptible in the morning light, and several times she came close to just calling everything off and going for the scorched-earth solution to the whole problem.
Finally, just before noon, she stood up and said in a tone of supreme frustration, "Well, I hate to tear myself away from all this fun, but I have an RA Council lunch meeting to attend. That means not only am I not going to be able to finish this, I have to go sit across from Natsuki frickin' Kruger, who will be smug at me. This day just gets better and better." She sighed, pulling a hand down her face, and then said, "After that I've got a Yearbook Committee meeting and then I promised Mizuki I'd help her with rehearsal scheduling. I'll be back here at 3:30." Pointing magisterially at Sosuke, she added, "And if I so much as see you between now and then you can just start packing your stuff, because we're not finished here yet. Got it?"
Looking straight back at her, the young soldier inclined his head and said gravely, "I will be invisible," which was not nearly as reassuring as he probably thought it was.
Kaname made an I-don't-even-know-what-to-say-to-you gesture, then threw up her hand and said, "Ahh, good enough." As she left the room, she could be heard muttering under her breath, "... whole thing is crazy in a box with a side order of fries."
Sosuke watched her go, then got up, bowed slightly to Lindsey with a cordial, "Miss Willows," and left just long enough after Kaname that he couldn't quite be said to have followed her.
Lindsey followed him out, but by the time she got around the table and into the hall he'd already vanished.
"Huh," she said.
"Problem?" asked Boba Fett from the door to his office down the hall.
"Colonel Flagg up and disappeared on me." She shrugged. "Nobody gets him, he's the wind." She went into his office and out onto the balcony, watching the distinctive dark-teal blur of Kaname's hair disappearing into the Single-Acre Wood as she went back down the hill to the main campus, and then turned to the Duelist president, who'd come back in behind her.
"We're not done yet. Breaking until 3:30," she told him. "What'd you think?"
Fett stood looking thoughtfully into the wood for a moment, then looked at the girl and said, "Lindsey, do you know how people sometimes assume that I must be one of those psychically scarred former child soldiers from some third-galaxy hellhole on the Rim?"
"Uh-huh," Lindsey replied. She'd heard this rant a couple of times, most notably after the Castle's new House Guide, a well-meaning but very green psychiatric intern on loan from Starfleet Medical, had joined the school the previous fall.
"Well," Fett replied without a trace of humor, "unless I miss my guess, that young man actually is one." Leaving her gaping at him, he crossed to his desk, sat down, and opened his top drawer, removing a small black notebook. "I've got about three hours to see what I can dig up that you didn't already get," he said. "In the meantime... " He looked up, meeting Lindsey's eyes, and his own were dark and very serious. "... I think you should stay as close as you can to your friend."
Lindsey stood regarding him for a moment, her face faintly troubled; then she darted out the door, and Fett started working the phone.
It took him about an hour and a half to reach out to a half-dozen contacts in the bounty hunting, private investigation, and mercenary soldier rackets (which overlapped a considerable amount, especially out on the Rim, where he and his father had done the bulk of their business over the years). Satisfying himself that Lindsey's info was correct - there really was a Rhodos Group subsidiary named TechCom, and one Sosuke Sagara really did work for them - took only the first few minutes. After that he was mainly digging for information about the strange young man who was causing his fellow Duelist and her friend such consternation. What he found did not make him particularly happy.
By the end of those 90 minutes, Boba Fett had pulled together only the sketchiest impression of Sagara - the guy was a cipher, even to the merc community - but what he did know formed a picture of a young man with the kind of facility for military work, including wetwork, that spoke of long, hard experience. Possibly not as long as Boba's own, but arguably harder, since as far as he could tell from the few records he'd found, Sagara was an orphan. Fett leaned back in his chair and considered what he would be like with all the same hard-won experience he had now, but without the constant, steadying presence of his father and his Mandalorian cultural heritage in his life.
He didn't think he would have turned out to be a very nice boy.
Sighing, he picked up his phone and made one last call. It was a long shot that he'd even find his party in, but stranger things had happened, and in fact the phone was answered on the fourth ring by a scarfaced, white-haired man with bicolored eyes and a generally forbidding aspect - which softened a bit when he saw who was calling him.
"Hey, kid," Zaeed Massani rasped, his face coming as close as it ever did to a smile. "Long time. What can I do for you?"
"Maybe nothing," Fett replied, "but I'm grabbing at straws. You ever heard of a merc named Sosuke Sagara? Human, about 17, black hair, grey eyes, cross-shaped scar on his left cheek."
To Fett's surprise, Zaeed nodded at once. "Yeah, I know the kid. Grew up on a Far Rim rock name of Helmajistan. Kind of place you'd expect with a name like that. It was a shithole then and it's a shithole now. The only way a kid can survive in a place as hard as Helmajistan is to be even harder. Sagara used to be a nasty piece of work."
Fett raised an eyebrow. "'Used to be'?"
"He got out," Zaeed told him. "Just in time, you ask me. Fell in with an old buddy of mine from the 9th Lancers, name of Kalinin. Last I heard they were on Donatu IV working corpsec for a datavault company." Then he looked curious and said, "Why do you ask? Jeraddo's a funny place for a guy like that to be popping up."
Fett gave a wry smile and said, "It's not where you'd automatically think to look for me, either. He's turned up here enrolled as a student, and he's following one of the other students around. Claims he's been hired to protect her, though he won't say by whom, and it's freaking her out."
Zaeed chuckled. "I can imagine. I can't picture anyone more ill-suited to be a bodyguard, except maybe me, but it takes all kinds." He shrugged. "I guess he's branching out."
"So you think he's for real?" Fett asked.
"Funny thing about these wasteland kid soldiers," Zaeed replied. "They learn to survive, they learn to fight, and they learn to kill, but not one in a hundred of 'em ever learns to lie worth a damn." He nodded. "Yeah, if he says he's there to protect this girl, then that's what he's there to do. As far as he knows," he added, sharing a knowing look with the young Mandalorian.
"Mm," Fett replied. They didn't need to say more; despite the 80-year difference in their ages, both were seasoned campaigners and each recognized the other's expertise. "Well, thanks, Zaeed. You've been a big help."
"Happy to," Zaeed replied, sounding only slightly sarcastic. "Take care, kid. Say hey to your old man for me next time you see him."
"Will do. Don't get shot. Fett out."
Zaeed's image disappeared; Fett put down the phone, sat in thought for a few moments, then rose from his chair and left his office.
Sosuke Sagara lay at the edge of Colman Hall's roof, gazing through a pair of compact electrobinoculars through one of the upper-story windows of the building opposite. E.B. White Hall, the building housing the Language and Literature department, was also home to several of the campus clubs that were connected in some way to the written word, including the one whose executive committee was meeting at this moment.
Watching as Kaname had what appeared to be a towering, arm-waving argument with one of the other members of that group, he murmured into a small recorder, "Two twenty-four PM. Subject is engaged in Yearbook Committee meeting." Then, after a slight pause and without a trace of irony, he added, "All appears normal."
A moment later, he heard a scrape of bootsole on asphalt behind him and turned to see the tall, sturdily built figure of Boba Fett standing at the opposite edge of the roof. Fett was wearing a grey coverall like a flightsuit without coat or hat, but he didn't seem to notice the cold as he stood there, arms folded, regarding Sosuke with a thoughtful expression.
Sosuke put away his binoculars and got to his feet. "Is there something I can do for you?" he asked blandly, as though they weren't both standing around on a building's roof in January.
"I've done some checking up on you," Fett told him. "What I learned was... interesting, but not necessarily reassuring. So I guess you could say I'm still trying to decide what to do about you."
"I wasn't aware you had to 'do' anything about me."
"You're causing a lot of difficulty for a friend of a friend," Fett replied. "To a Duelist that's all it takes to make you my problem."
"Miss Chidori and I haven't concluded our negotiations," Sosuke said calmly.
"I know that," Fett acknowledged. "But before I let those talks continue in my Castle, I need to be confident that both parties are negotiating in good faith. I'm not convinced of that yet."
Sosuke came close to shrugging and replied matter-of-factly, "There's nothing I can say that can get you any closer to that conclusion."
"I know," Fett repeated. "But there may be something you can show me." He moved his feet a precise distance apart, centering his mass over them, and said, "A mentor of mine once taught me that you never truly know someone until you fight him."
Sosuke stood regarding him for a moment, then put down his equipment pack, pushed it a few feet away with his foot, and nearly smiled.
"I accept your challenge," he said, and the two young men started advancing toward each other.
Thirty-six minutes later, Lindsey Willows and Kaname Sterling entered the president's office to find Boba sitting at his desk, finishing up a formal invitation to the society's distinguished alumni to next month's Winterfest open house, one of the relatively few really gala events on the Castle's calendar. He looked up and smiled slightly as they entered.
"Got your page," Lindsey said, slightly out of breath. "What's up?"
"Lindsey," he said. "Kaname. Thanks for coming. I thought you'd like to hear what I've found out before Sagara gets back."
"You think we should go ahead?" Kaname asked.
Fett nodded, rising. "I do. Sagara has a past, and not all of it's pretty, but after digging a little deeper and talking with him myself, I'm confident that he's at least trying to play this straight. He still bears watching, and I'm going to try to keep him in the corner of my eye, but for now... it's worth pursuing. He's a merc, but all indications are that he's an honest one, and you could do a lot worse. And you might, if you put the run to him and his company sends somebody else."
Lindsey blinked. "Oo. I hadn't even thought of that. You sure know how to make a girl paranoid, Boba."
Fett gave her a rueful smile. "Everybody's got a talent," he said. "Anyway, that's my assessment, for what it's worth."
Lindsey nodded. "OK. Thanks, Boba. I won't ask how you came to that conclusion in just a couple of hours, but I trust your instincts." She looked at her friend. "How about you?"
Kaname looked thoughtful for a moment, then got that decisive look that, Lindsey knew, all the women in her family got at moments like this. "OK," she said, then added wryly, "As long as you guys have got my back."
"Count on that," Fett replied. "I don't think I'm wrong, but if it turns out I am, even a little bit, come to me." His smile became slightly dark as he went on, "I'll sort him out."
Kaname was faintly surprised to realize that, if she could at all help it, she would rather not consign anyone, even Sgt. Stalkerpants, to be "sorted out" by Boba Fett. The sentiment was reassuring, though, all the same, and she thanked him for it.
Lindsey glanced at her watch. "Just about time to get back to it."
Fett's smile remained a trifle dark as he told her, "Sagara might be a couple of minutes late."
Sosuke Sagara was, indeed, a couple of minutes late, and apologized sincerely for it when he arrived. He'd changed his clothes and seemed to have just had a shower. Lindsey suddenly remembered noticing that Boba's hair had been slicked-down wet as well, and an inkling of how the Duelist president had formed his opinion of the young mercenary began to take shape in the back of her mind.
She smiled and said, "OK, well... shall we try it again from the top?"
Just then they were interrupted by the arrival of a fourth person - a tall, slim, sandy-haired man in the brown uniform of the Bajoran Department of Public Safety, who entered the room, cast an apparently disinterested look at the three teenagers, and retired to the far corner of the room, where he folded his arms and leaned back against the wall.
"I'll just stand over here, if you don't mind," said Chief Odo of the Campus Police. "Do carry on."
Sosuke didn't react to the officer's presence at all, apart from a casual glance in his direction. Kaname and Lindsey looked at each other as if to say, I thought you called him, then shrugged and got on with the job in hand.
The second round didn't take them long, nor did the discussion threaten to turn rancorous again. Kaname felt an acute sense of surreality whenever it occurred to her that she was basically negotiating the terms under which this guy was going to be allowed to stalk her, but...
... well, it wasn't really. There was a difference, one she had a hard time putting her finger on at first, but which she wouldn't have been letting this go on without, even with Boba Fett's input. It wasn't until they were nearly finished that she realized, with a sudden epiphany, what it was. It was what she had been trying to put her finger on all last night but had never consciously reached.
Stalkers - and she knew this because she'd had a friend in middle school who was really and truly subjected to such a thing, by a genuinely scary dude - did what they did because they were warped inside, twisted such that they had an unconquerable lust for control. It was about power and possession, not even really sexual except in some bizarrely peripheral way. The people who did it felt they were expressing a sort of... ownership of the unfortunate objects of their attentions.
This guy... this guy was weird, no two ways of slicing that, but he wasn't giving off that vibe. He wasn't even trying, in that particularly horrible and distasteful way her friend's tormentor often had, to be charming or glib. Since being confronted he hadn't made the slightest effort to conceal what he was doing, apart from that first pathetically lame denial, which he almost seemed to give as a matter of form. He was... well, he said he was a soldier and that keeping her safe was his mission, and try as she might to remain skeptical, there was simply no other interpretation Kaname could fit around his behavior.
Basically, if he was a stalker, he was the most incompetent one who ever lived, and his story was simply too daft not to be true. That was strange, and would get laughed out of a court of law, but Kaname had always been raised to cultivate, and then trust, her instincts in matters like this.
What was more, Kaname knew soldiers - knew how they thought, how they operated. Her parents were soldiers. Most of her aunts and uncles, all of her grandparents, almost all the significant friends-of-the-family she could think of - all were or had been members of uniformed services. Unconventional soldiers, to be sure - Wedge Defenders, most of them, and a good many in the Mars Division, which was to the WDF as the WDF itself was to most "normal" armed forces - but still soldiers.
And, she reminded herself as the negotiations drew to a close, she did still have leverage. If it turned out that this whole thing was some kind of weird-ass scam - and she couldn't think for the life of her what its object could be, since she'd already ruled out the Usual Things - she could still invoke the nuclear option and remove the opposing piece from the board at any time. Her strategic position remained superior, even with the tactical concessions she was now in the process of making.
Spirit, she thought as that last notion crossed her mind, now I'm thinking like Grammy Miria.
"... then I guess we have a deal," Lindsey said. She finished writing in her notebook, then rotated it 180 degrees and pushed it down the table so that it came to rest between the two parties. "Who wants to sign first?" she asked with a smile.
Both parties reached for the pen sitting in the center of the open page, simultaneously saying, "I will." Both realized the other had taken the initiative and paused at the same instant, their hands barely touching over the pen, then withdrew them almost precisely the same distance and sat there staring at each other in sudden, blank surprise for a moment.
Sagara regained his composure first, if he could even be said to have lost it; he opened his hand and said calmly, "After you, Miss Chidori."
"Uh... right. Thank you," Kaname said with an almost imperceptible headshake. She picked up the pen, pulled the notebook toward her, quickly read through the ten points of the agreement Lindsey had drawn up, then applied her signature to the bottom in a big, bold, looping hand before smartly reversing the pad and shoving it across to Sagara. He read the page as well; one of his eyebrows elevated a fraction of an inch as he saw her signature.
Oh well, she thought, so much for that. Should've known if we were going to do something like this, that'd be the end of my little joke...
Then, apparently unconcerned, Sagara signed below her name, put the pen down, and pushed it and the notebook back to Lindsey. She signed it as witness; then, slightly to her surprise, Odo appeared beside her and affixed his signature as well.
"You will, of course, be giving Campus Security access to your new internal surveillance devices at Hamlin Hall, Sergeant," he said. "Our own protocols for the accommodation of covert bodyguarding arrangements are quite strict in that respect, though in light of present circumstances I'm inclined to let slide your failure to register with my office when you first arrived. Oh - and now that we'll be working together," he added with faint archness, "you should know that I've had administrative control of your external surveillance devices since about an hour after you emplaced them."
Everyone around the table - Lindsey, Kaname, and even (perhaps especially) Sosuke - sat and gaped at the security chief in flat astonishment. Then, turning to Lindsey, Odo said, "CSS will distribute the required copies of this document and return the original to President Fett."
"Uh... good enough?" said Lindsey, still not sure what to say to the revelation he'd just dropped.
Seeing Sosuke still staring at him in bafflement, Odo gave a thin smile (the only kind that really suited his face) and said dryly, "As Commander Ivanova says, Sergeant, this isn't my first time at the rodeo."
With that, he inclined his head cordially, wished everyone a good day, and left with Lindsey's notebook under his arm. Sosuke sat looking after him with a look of mingled amazement and... was that self-deprecating amusement?!... before composing himself, rising, and addressing both girls.
"Thank you for your cooperation," he said, evidently in complete earnest. "I appreciate your acceptance of my good faith and will make every effort which is compatible with my mission objectives to see that it is not misplaced."
"Uh... yeah. Well, remember what happens if you don't," Kaname replied, standing as well.
"I'll bear it always in mind," he promised with that same perfect sincerity. Then he went on, "If you'll excuse me, I must revise my operational plans with our new agreement in mind. I'll see you at dinner." Bowing to Lindsey, he added, "Good afternoon, Miss Willows... " Then he turned to Kaname with the barest, most deniable hint of a smile and punctuated his bow to her with a deadpan, "... Miss Chidori."
Kaname watched him go, then sat back down, leaned back in her chair, and let out a huge sigh.
"Lins, what the hell did I just do?" she asked rhetorically through a half-smile.
Monday, February 1, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
The storm that swept through the Lake Jeradar region on the afternoon of the first of February grabbed the attention of virtually everyone at DSM, simply because it was so anomalous. Wild weather was not that unusual in DSM's neighborhood, but it was the wrong time of year for electrical storms, and while there had been high winds to go with the thunder and lightning, there was no precipitation of any kind - no snow, no hail, not even a light mist. Then, too, the event was weirdly brief, lasting no more than twenty minutes from the time the abnormally warm wind first started to kick up to the last fluttery gusts and distant rumbles. No injuries were reported, nor any significant damage. The school meteorologists confessed themselves baffled as to the cause of the freak storm, eventually (and a bit lamely) chalking it up as just one of those things.
What was arguably the most freakish fact of all about the storm went almost entirely unremarked: In twenty minutes of furious, gusting winds and ominous thunder, there had been only one stroke of lightning. This occurred in the Single Acre Wood, between the Duelists' Castle and the center of campus. Those who saw it from a distance reported that it had looked strange: not white, nor jagged, but straight as a lance and of a peculiarly prismatic coloration. Everyone assumed its curious appearance had been a trick of the light, though, and as it happened during the sixth period, there was no one nearby the point of impact. No one potentially in harm's way... and no one to witness what happened next.
Some distance from the footpath through the Wood, the lightning strike that was not a lightning strike had created a small new clearing. Oddly circular, around 20 feet in diameter, it was completely devoid of trees, snow, even grass and rocks, as if something had stripped away everything but a disk of perfectly level, hard-packed earth. The snow around the edge, as precisely removed as if it had been cut with a die, steamed gently in the chill afternoon air.
In the center, two huddled figures stirred, then began slowly to pick themselves up with muted groans and shaken heads. For the first few seconds, they were entirely wrapped up in their own personal worlds, running internal diagnostics and checking themselves for proper limb counts. Then, slowly, they began to engage with the world outside their heads, blinking around at the woods. At first they were looking away from each other, coming to a basic grasp of where they were. Then, at virtually the same instant, both whirled as if in sudden alarm, wild-eyed with something like panic - until they caught sight of each other, at which point they fell together like lost souls, holding on as though to keep from drowning.
They were thus occupied for nearly a minute, filling that time with soft, wordless sounds of relief and affection, and with caresses and kisses intended to convey not physical desire, but rather a kind of profound existential gratitude on the part of each for the mere presence of the other. Finally they seemed satisfied that they really were together. Parting, they each stepped back a pace or two to take a first good look at the other.
They were a boy and girl in their middle teens, she coltish and tall, he slim, nearly the same height, and wiry. He had a shock of sandy brown hair and a thin, sharp face dominated, but not quite overpowered, by a prominent nose; despite his youth he could have done with a shave. She was the classic green-eyed redhead, pale-skinned and round-cheeked, her long coppery hair a tousled riot. Both wore what appeared to be school uniforms, mostly charcoal grey with white shirts and red neckties, under warmer outerwear - a dark wool overcoat for him and a retro-mod fishtail parka for her.
"Oh... my God," he said, his voice colored with what in this time would be taken for a Westminstrian accent. "You're... "
She nodded. "So are you," she said, her own inflection rather more Caledonian. She dug in an inside pocket of her parka and came up with a plastic card bearing a holo of her face. Peering at it with a semi-frown, she took a moment to absorb what it said, then looked up and said, "I've got a student ID card from the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute." She glanced down at herself and smoothed the pleats of the checkered skirt she wore over her heavyweight black winter tights. "Guess that explains the uniform... "
He nodded, holding up a similar card. "As do I," he replied. Looking more closely at his, he brightened slightly and said, "2410, hey! At least we're not before plumbing this time."
She put her ID back in her pocket and looked around again. "So why are we in a wood?"
In the distance, a bell rang, the kind that could generally be found in clock towers and churches. The two paused and listened; it sounded three times.
"Three o'clock," he said. "We're late for - ow," he added, putting a hand to his temple with a wince. "I hate that part."
"Right then," she said, checking her pockets in sequence. "Inventory. ID: check. Dismayingly small amount of the local currency: check." She reached behind her right shoulder and touched the grip of a Japanese-style sword she didn't seem surprised to find there. "Sword of Destiny: check." Putting her arm over his shoulders, she gave him a joggling half-hug and continued, "Boy: check."
"Oh, thank you," he said dryly.
She smiled, tweaked the knot of his tie slightly, and then took his hand, lacing her fingers with his. "C'mon, let's go see what they've got for us this time."
They passed out of the trees and into the neatly tended grounds of the Institute's central campus, looked back, and knew at once (though they had never been there before) that they had just come from the Single Acre Wood. Beyond it, rising high on its hill and lording over the campus, was the cream-and-red eminence of the Duelists' Castle. Now they were coming into the southwest corner of the Common, in the angle formed by Churchill Hall on the left and Hopkins Hall on the right. Other, similarly-uniformed students passed here and there, bound on their own errands. A few noticed the pair and waved or nodded acknowledgement to them.
One, a serious-looking girl with long turquoise hair, paused near them and said with a hint of asperity, "Rory. Amy. PDA? We've talked about this."
The two new arrivals looked in puzzlement at each other - What's she on about? - and then realized that they were still holding hands and released each other, stepping slightly apart.
"Sorry, Kaname," said Rory sheepishly.
"Hey, don't get me wrong, it's no skin off my back," Kaname Sterling told them, smiling. "But you don't want Natsuki, She-Wolf of the RA Council, to report you again, right?"
"No argument here," Amy agreed, nodding. Then, noting the slender blonde who had trotted over to catch up with Kaname, she smiled and said, "Hey, Lindsey."
"Hey, Amy," said Lindsey Willows. "Rory. She getting you in trouble again?"
"That's why I hang around with her," said Rory, making Lindsey grin.
"Hey, don't you guys both have classes at three?" Kaname asked, glancing at her wristwatch. "Running late... "
Amy grinned. "In the Wood, lost track of time, you know how it goes," she said, nudging Rory with an elbow.
"You were in the Wood just now?" Lindsey asked. "Did you see the lightning?"
Amy glanced mischievously at Rory (who reddened a little and looked ostentatiously away), then said to Lindsey, "Not really. Bit busy... "
Kaname rolled her eyes. "So much more than I need to know," she said. "I'm Rory's RA, not his mother. Anyway, speaking of Natsuki, we've got an RAC meeting at quarter past. I better get a move on or she'll find something to report me for. Catch you guys later."
As ever at this time of day, Sosuke Sagara was waiting for her at the South Bridge over Mandeville Stream. She acknowledged him with a nod, then realized that he wasn't looking at her but past her, to the spot where the two she'd just been talking to were standing in front of Hopkins Hall, evidently conferring. He had that look on his face, the one that said his mercenary weirdo radar was picking up something he thought was interesting.
"What?" she said.
Sosuke kept gazing at the pair from the Wood for a moment, then shook his head. "I have no concrete evidence at this time, but my instincts tell me there's something very odd about Williams. He obviously has military training, but of a type I can't identify, which... shouldn't happen."
That only got a snort out of Lindsey, but Kaname laughed and said, "You think Rory's like you? Rory Williams? Undercover army bodyguard boy? Ha!" She glanced back over her shoulder, then looked at Sosuke again, shaking her head with an indulgent smile. "If so he's way better at it than you are."
"That's possible, however unlikely," Sosuke said as the trio set off across the bridge toward the admin building, and Kaname had to pause for a moment and try to decide whether he was being sarcastic. Could Sosuke be sarcastic?
"Also," Kaname went on, "having trouble thinking of a girl at this school who needs a bodyguard less than Amy Pond."
"You?" Lindsey hazarded. "The only one here who has one?"
"Thank you, Miss Willows, that'll be all," said Kaname mock-wearily. "What cracks me up," she went on to Sosuke after a moment, "is that you think there's something odd about Rory but you're perfectly OK with his six-foot Scottish Valkyrie girlfriend and her samurai sword."
Sosuke looked puzzled by the objection. "Miss Pond is a Duelist," he said. "In that context the sword is perfectly normal. It would be strange if she didn't carry one. Also, she isn't six feet tall, she's five-foot-ten. Though I do think it's extremely probable that she'll reach six feet within the next two years."
Kaname gave him a resigned smile. "Are you for real, soldier boy?"
"I'm the realest person you're ever going to meet, Miss Chidori," he replied stoically.
Back in front of the science buildings, Rory and Amy made ready to report late to their respective classes in Hopkins and Maxim Halls.
"Well... looks like this is it," said Rory. "I'll see you at dinner, yeah?"
"Table 14, like always," Amy replied, then blinked and shook her head. "I never get used to that." Then she grinned, straightened his tie again, and said, "Good luck, Mr. Pond."
"Be good, Mrs. Williams," he said; then they high-fived as they passed each other, and each went into the opposite building.
Tuesday, February 2, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
Although the dining commons on the first floor of Hannibal Hamlin Hall was the primary location for students to eat while on campus, it was hardly the only place at DSM to obtain sustenance. There was the Henry Knox dining commons near to the athletic complex, recently opened but sparsely attended due to the fact that Residence Group East had only just started to fill with students. There was the "Cafe-on-the-Commons", a bistro-style dining establishment attached to the Student Union that offered somewhat more elegant fare for outdoors dining when the temperatures weren't fifty-or-below degrees. And then there was the Walker Auditorium "Snack Bar", which also operated the refreshments stand during performance intermissions, and was a popular hangout for those students involved in the performing arts.
Kaname Sterling wasn't a theater major by far, but she didn't mind helping out her friends who were involved, and her organizational streak was considered to be practically a compulsion by some of her more waggish detractors. So it was that this day she was currently taking her lunchtime meal in the Snack Bar, accompanied by Lindsey Willows and several of their mutual friends.
"Ok, so, we're waiting on a break while some of the set for the shop is being repaired," Mizuki Inaba explained to her (mostly) attentive audience while they ate. "James, who's playing the plant, is busy going over some of the choreography with the guy playing Seymour. They're doing their thing while Trudy comes walking along in her Audrey costume."
"Ok, so far, so good..." Kazuya Kurauchi nodded, showing he was paying attention.
"Anyway, he's got the medium-sized puppet of the plant, and he's doing his thing, and Trudy walks past. The plant lunges forward, snags on her dress, and --- woosh! Away goes her dress COMPLETELY, because she was just getting her costume fitted, and it was just tacked together -- it just fell apart! Leaving her in her underwear!"
"Oh man," Nao Zhang groaned with a facepalm and a smile.
"So we're all just sitting there, in that moment of 'WTF'-ery, when James just looks at her, blinks, and exclaims, 'Sorry!' Trudy smiles, nods, and that looks to be the end of it."
"Well, when you have something like that happen, what else can you do?" Maya Mukai asked rhetorically.
Mizuki laughed. "And then, oh, this is the best part -- Mother Superior, who's been standing out in the audience with a totally flummoxed expression, watching all this, comes up on stage, and says --" At this, Mizuki pulled herself upright, affecting the calm, pleasant tones of the drama and dance teacher, Ms. Steinberg, "'Miss Galloway. While I can certainly appreciate the desire of comfort while on stage, I would appreciate it if, during the performances, you did not wear your 'Hello Goth Kitty' underwear ensemble. In the interests of historical accuracy, of course.'"
Despite herself, Kaname had to laugh. Just then, a sturdy female voice interrupted them, asking, "Hey, Kaname. Mind if we sit here?"
Kaname paused, and looked up at the two new arrivals to the table. She briefly hesitated, before gesturing towards two of the remaining empty seats across from her. "Sure, Chie, go right ahead. You too, Aoi."
Kaname had nothing personal against Chie Hallard and Aoi Senoh. They were both good people, upright and optimistic, and generally well-liked across campus. However, they were both members of the staff of the primary student newspaper, and she always felt the need to watch what she said around them. She never could tell when something she said or did in their presence would end up on one of the pages of the Institute Intelligencer.
They didn't seem to be in "snouting for news" mode just now, though; in fact, like everyone else on campus, they wanted to talk about how much they were looking forward to Sanity Week. The run from the start of C-term in early January to the much-anticipated week-long break in the middle of February was a long one, unbroken by any holidays - that was why the break was called Sanity Week - and everyone on campus was feeling the first tickles of serious eagerness for it now that it was within sight.
"Have you heard anything about who Student Activities has lined up to play the Winterfest dance?" Chie asked the group in general.
"No, but it'll be the Art of Noise," said Nao. "Castle Alumni Day is that Saturday, right? So they'll be here, and if they're here, who else is gonna do it?"
"They might not be looking to put on a show," Aoi put in. "I'm not even sure all of them are going to be here this year. Lindsey, you hang with that crowd, have you heard anything?"
Lindsey shook her head. "Nope, but I wouldn't bet against Nao's hunch."
Chie took a pull on her Coke. "I dunno if the school can afford them nowadays."
"I don't think they charge the school," Lindsey mused. "Alumni spirit and all that."
"Yeah, well, more power to 'em. I graduate from this place, I'm never lookin' back. Don't get me wrong, I like the place," Nao insisted, "but I'm not the nostalgic type."
"Aw, c'mon, Nao," Maya chided her. "Look me in the eye and tell me you're not going to miss the good old days."
"The Halloween Gala," Mizuki said.
"The Paul Szlyk Club of America Club cookout," Aoi chimed in.
"The Autobahn at night," Kazuya agreed.
"Soldier Boy blowing up the mailroom," Chie said, and they all laughed.
"Speaking of, where is Sergeant Furij the Howling Commando today?" Nao asked when they'd finished.
Kaname looked around the table, noticed everyone was looking at her, and went red. "How should I know?" she asked over-casually. "He's the one who's got me under surveillance, I don't know where he goes."
"That whole deal is just sixteen flavors of weird," said Mizuki.
"Pff, tell me about it," Kaname replied. "Point is, whatever you guys think, I am not holding his leash. In fact, beyond our little 'arrangement', which was not supposed to be a matter of public record thank you Constable Odo, I really don't know anything about him, other than that he's a military nut and a huge pain in my ass."
"And cute," Maya remarked, making Kaname cough on her soda.
"When he's not launching a pre-emptive strike on the Snacktron in the Union lobby," said Chie. "What was that about?"
"Or what about the time he hauled out a spear gun during water polo practice?" Lindsey asked.
"Well, to be absolutely fair, he did think I was being attacked by a shark," Kaname said, not entirely sure why she felt the need to defend him.
Kazuya looked at Kaname skeptically. "In the pool?"
Nao nodded. "Yeah, ol' Shark Week didn't think it was that funny."
"He is cute, though," Maya put in again, speculatively tilting her head while Kaname looked at her funny.
Nao snorted. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, of course he's cute, but he's a retard or something."
"That's ridiculous," Lindsey protested. "Sosuke's not retarded..."
Kaname resignedly muttered, "That we know of."
"... he was raised by wolves," Lindsey continued, ignoring her friend's interjection.
Chie considered this proclamation thoughtfully. "That would explain the incident at lunch last week."
Aoi added, "That or paranoid schizophrenia."
"A schizophrenic might believe the Jell-O was poisoned, but he wouldn't take a flamethrower to it," Kazuya countered.
Kaname rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on. It was only a small fire."
"It set off the sprinklers!" Nao exclaimed.
Kazuya hrmed, and thoughtfully admitted, "It was really bad Jell-O, though."
"And it was only a small flamethrower," Lindsey pointed out.
The sound was so familiar, and yet so wildly out of place, that for a few moments it didn't consciously register on Sosuke Sagara's mind.
He was en route from Lobachevskiy Hall to Walker Auditorium, mildly annoyed with himself for the lapse in concentration that had led him to linger at the former when he knew perfectly well that Kaname was going to be lunching slightly earlier than usual at the latter. The job, he knew, was threatening to settle into a routine. Routine was the enemy of preparedness; it dulled one's edge. He would have to find ways of working around the set structure of the school day and maintain a proper level of -
- what was that noise? He could swear he'd heard it before. It was tickling at the edges of his perceptions, a heavy mechanical rumbling noise interspersed with little squeaks and rattles, the sound of a large machine. An earthmover, perhaps? No... the pitch of the engine was wrong, and...
Sosuke broke into a run, veering off from his planned path between Maxim and Hopkins Halls, and following the sound to the southeast instead, back around Lobachevskiy and up the slight ridge that separated the science buildings from the banks of Mandeville Stream and the athletic complex beyond. Some distance away, trundling across one of the athletic practice fields, he saw a low, dark shape. Dropping instantly to the snow and wishing his uniform were somewhat less obviously black against the white, he pulled a pair of collapsible electrobinoculars from his pack and zeroed them on the anomalous object.
That was why the sound was so familiar.
It was a tank.
Specifically, his well-trained eye recognized it at once as a Neue Deutsche Waffen-und-Mechafabrik Panzerkampfwagen XXVI - the cutting edge of Niogan main battle tank design circa 2390 and still in front-line service with numerous small armies and planetary defense forces around the galaxy. Sosuke watched it moving across the field and ran down his mental list of quick things he knew about it. Mass, about 55 tons; armament, one 120mm Class X autocannon by Rheinmetall-NDWM, three 12.5mm machineguns; powerplant, 14-cylinder Maybach diesel; rated road march speed, 45 mph. Its Niogan crews call it the Honigdachs: "honey badger". A robust and formidable fighting machine if well-handled, with an outstandingly accurate and reliable main gun, though the power train can be temperamental if not meticulously maintained.
To that list, after a moment's reflection, he added one more known fact: It was not, insofar as he knew, supposed to be here. There was no reason for an armored fighting vehicle to be making its way across the practice fields on a crisp Tuesday in February. Who had brought it here, what they were hoping to accomplish, he neither knew nor, right now, cared.
What mattered to Sosuke was that the tank's anomalous presence made it a threat; one that could not be tolerated.
Lunch could wait.
He crept back behind the brow of the ridge until he was sure he was out of the tank's line of sight, rose, and ran toward Spencer Labs.
"Are you sure you left him a message, Kaname?"
Kaname sighed. "Yes I did, Lindsey. I left him a phone message, an email, two texts, and even gave him a post-it at breakfast letting him know I'd be here instead of Hamlin."
"Gee, one would think you were really worried about him being out of the loop, Kaname," Maya commented with a grin.
"Who, me? Hah ha ha, no, of course not!" Kaname said with a rather forced laugh. "I just want to make sure I'm not in violation of Article Eight. Who cares if he's actually here..."
"Mmm-hmm, of course not," Lindsey murmured with a slight smile. "That's why you've looked at your watch six times in the last - " She blinked, letting the indictment hang, as movement near the entrance caught her eye. "Uh oh, Kaname. Incoming freshman at five o'clock low."
"Eh?" Kaname paused, then turned around to look across the building's lobby. Over by the far entrance, she could see a smudge of rust-red hair, and the glint of glasses, as the head they were attached to quickly surveyed the area before plunging into the snack bar seating area several steps shy of a dead run. The figure got closer, weaving around the planters and tables, and soon it dawned on Kaname that it was one of her floor residents, Irina Woods. Within moments, she had arrived at their table, and came to a halt next to Kaname, hands on knees as she tried to recover from her rapid approach.
Kaname had a distinct sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that had nothing to do with the Red Matter she'd eaten earlier in the meal. She reached out with her hands to steady Irina's shoulders, and said, "Hey, hey, Irina, where's the fire? What's up?"
Panting for breath, Irina looked up at her RA and said simply, "It's Sosuke."
Kaname groaned. It would just figure that the reason her self-proclaimed bodyguard was late was because he'd gotten into some trouble. Again. What would it be now? Deciding to proactively detonate a "tampered" mailbox? Sweeping the trash disposal area for "harmful biological contaminants"?
Kaname didn't get a chance to ask, because just then there was a faint, but noticeable "boom" sound from outside. She couldn't identify the specific source of the sound offhand, but she'd been around enough military hardware in her life so far to be able to recognize the sound of a heavy-caliber cannon firing in the distance.
"Oh no," Kaname murmured, her eyes going wide. Then, without further discussion or debate, she handed her school bag to Lindsey, pulled on her winter coat, lept from her seat, and left the snack bar area at a dead run.
Kaname's companions looked at each other in brief confusion, before Lindsey spoke up, gathering up her own things along with Kaname's. "I, uh, better go help her before anything else goes boom. Later!"
The group watched as Lindsey raced out the lobby doors, in the same direction as Kaname had taken. Chie looked at Aoi. "Scoop?"
Aoi nodded. "Scoop."
With a grin, Chie apologized to the remaining people at the table. "Sorry, gotta go, news awaits! Wait up, Aoi!" she called out, going into a run to follow her roommate as she readied her camera-enabled cell-phone.
Again, the other students at the table watched as the pair departed, and then Irina cried out, "Wait for me!" and ran after them.
For several moments, the remainder seated at the table just sat there, stunned at the rapid departures of half their lunch companions.
Finally, Kazuya spoke. "So... how about them Knights?"
Once out of the warm confines of Walker Auditorium, Kaname poured on the speed, rapidly leaving her friends in the dust. At the best of times, it would take her about twenty minutes or so to cross from the corner of the Performance Center and Residence Group West to the edges of the athletic fields, longer if it was a pleasant day and she didn't have anywhere particular to go.
Today, driven by necessity, she intended to cross the distance in five minutes or less.
And it was hardly a pleasant day, seeing as it was still the middle of winter in the Jeradar Valley.
But that didn't matter to Kaname Chidori Sterling. The eldest Sterling granddaughter was a very athletically-inclined individual. She had a long history of competing in track and swimming events (often placing first or second) at the middle and grade-school level. Although she wasn't formally a member of any of DSM's interscholastic sports teams, she was more than willing to participate in the in-school intramural versions. If a member of a team was sick and unable to play, Kaname was often the first person to be asked to stand in -- which she often did, willingly. In fact, the softball teams had just yielded to the inevitable and issued Kaname her own locker, because she semi-regularly attended their practices and games due to her love of the sport.
These traits all combined to form another point of commonality between Kaname and the famous DSM alumna, Utena Tenjou. Though, to the best of Kaname's knowledge, Utena hadn't attempted sprinting across snowpack and incompletely-plowed sidewalks in the middle of winter. Or if she had, nobody else lived to tell the tale.
Immediately her mind surveyed the available paths ahead of her as she ran. Fortunately, it was a cloudy day, so she wasn't blinded by snow glare. A trampled path cut across the southwest corner of the common, forged by many students making their way from Maxim to the Fountain of Art's small plaza over the past few weeks. Good enough. She tore down the trench rapidly, weaving around the few students who didn't immediately get out of her way.
The unofficial path soon joined the official one that marked the southern edge of the Commons. This one was at least plowed, but in turn that meant that while it was mostly free of snow, some parts had melted and refrozen, leaving a barely perceptible sheen of ice over the sidewalk. Kaname entertained a brief moment of wishing for her softball cleats, but crying over lack of equipment never did anybody any good, so she returned her focus to the path ahead. Instead she jumped between the icy patches, taking care to land on the parts that had been sanded and salted.
Before she knew it, the footbridge over Mandeville Stream loomed in her vision. If she kept on her current path, she would need to proceed further, past the recently opened Residence Group East, and take a right at the swimming facilities to reach the practice fields.
Kaname couldn't afford that delay. As she ran, there was a sharp, staccato popping sound, occuring in tripled bursts, from the vicinity of the athletics complex. Unbidden, a tiny voice in her mind spoke up, providing salient information to the current situation:
Roginov BK-540 37 mm Assault Rifle, common medium-range Arm Slave weapon, used by -
Will you SHUT UP already? Kaname retorted angrily, and the mental presence rapidly withdrew. She was already crossing the bridge, she didn't have time for this. Going the usual route would take way too long; she was going to have to take a shortcut.
Before she reached the edge of the bridge, she vaulted over the railing.
Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, Mandeville Stream and its banks were not frozen over, courtesy of the steam pipes that ran underneath the campus. (The previous year, this had led a student from Toril, in the far-Rim Abeir system, to dub it the "Little Neverwinter River".) Although the banks were somewhat rocky and dirt-strewn, they were clear, which was much more important to Kaname at the present time.
By the time she reached the lower bridge that marked the path from the Castle and the science buildings to the athletic fields, she was getting pretty winded, but her heavy breaths still weren't enough to hide what sounded to be a pretty sizeable crowd in the distance. She scrambled back up the bank, through the snow, up to the other path, and didn't have much longer to reach the playing fields proper.
The sight that greeted her briefly took her aback. A mass of black and grey, which quickly resolved into groups of students, was gathered along the edge of the fields closer to the Commons and along the Athletics path. She couldn't get a clear view of the practice fields proper, due to all the bodies in the way, but at least one of the things on the field was readily visible due to its height. She had to pause a moment just to take it in, her initial disbelief warring with the side of her that was evaluating the scene with cool dispassion.
"Spirit of Light, he didn't..." Kaname muttered, and then she shook her head. "No, of course he did."
Grumbling to herself, Kaname began to wade through the assembled students. Along the way, she bumped into another teen who was heading the other direction. They both stumbled, but kept their footing, and the one she ran into straightened his glasses and then exclaimed with surprise,
"Kaname! Thank god Irina found you!"
Kaname didn't waste time on pleasantries. "Shinji, sitrep!"
Shinji Kazama gathered himself with visible effort, and confronted with an irate Sterling, rapidly explained the situation as best as he was able. "Irina and I were working extra time in the MechaEng shop in Spencer when Sagara barrelled in, asked if the weapons were loaded on Kermit, and then powered him up and started heading out even as we tried to explain that we only had a low-ammo assault rifle and a half-working monoblade for practice. Then he started running across the field, and then..." He shuddered, briefly. "Then I had Irina run off to find you."
Kaname pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to forestall the headache that would occur if she thought too much about the situation. "Dammit," she muttered under her breath, before going on in a more normal tone, "Does he want to get expelled? Because at this rate, I don't see what else is gonna happen." Not waiting for a reply, she frowned and shouldered her way through the rest of the crowd, finally coming to its edge, which was being demarked by a line of Resident Advisors who had deployed to contain the crowd.
So emplaced, Kaname could now see the action on the practice fields in full, and what she saw didn't lift her spirits any.
It was a scene that could have been lifted straight out of the Niogi-Novaya Rodina Winter War of 2392. A single tank was roaring across the practice fields, facing off against a thin-limbed, bulbous-bodied fighting machine that was doing its best to keep from being shot with the tank's cannon, returning fire when it could. Kaname didn't recognize the make and model of the tank, but she did recognize the mecha it was fighting with, for a very good reason. She had last seen it crouched, nestled in a wall gantry, in the Spencer Mecha Engineering Lab, where it was used as a demonstration and testing article for the more technically-minded mecha-heads among the students.
Admittedly, the whole thing took on a level of surreal comedy, given the fact that the Rk-92 Savage Arm Slave that was on the field of battle was painted not its original Neo-Soviet brown nor in any of the several standard camouflage patterns, but a bright green. Not the best color for winter stealth, but in a battle like this one, cover and maneuverability were more important that concealability.
"This is a classic faceoff," she heard someone say in a voice like a sportscaster's. Pushing the rest of the way to the front, she saw Professor Hammond standing with the control headset that went with one of those multi-camera repulsor drone cinéma vérité recording systems on his head, speaking cheerfully for the record.
"The Panzer 26 was the front-line tank employed by Niogi's New German Bundeswehr against the Neo-Soviet invasion forces of the Winter War," Hammond went on. "Many times during that war, they found themselves confronted by the Neo-Soviets' most numerous armored weapon: the Savage."
Hammond kept up his cheery play-by-play, apparently indifferent to the danger, as the tank and the Arm Slave jockeyed for position. Both vehicles had ceased firing, for the most part, and were spending all their time in a sort of ground-based mechanical dogfight, each trying to line up the perfect shot on the other while staying out of the line of fire - or to keep from firing into the crowd. The Savage was at a bit of a disadvantage here, lacking the tank turret's 360-degree field of fire, but it was moving with shocking fluidity for such an aged and decrepit (to say nothing of jury-rigged) piece of machinery.
"Now, while the Savage is perfectly capable in urban environments, mountainous terrain, and against infantry and light-armored vehicles, usually it is not capable of going up against modern heavily armored tanks," Hammond said. Then, with complete equanimity, he added as the Savage pulled off a lightning-fast course change to box the tank in against the embankment at the corner of Walsh Arena and the football stadium, "However, the skills of the operator can sometimes overcome this, as we can see."
Aboard the Panzer, James May contemplated the tank-shaped hole he had just nearly punched in the back wall of the hockey arena and inquired calmly, "Permission to say 'oh cock,' Generalfeldmarschall von Clarkson?"
From the turret above and behind him, Jeremy Clarkson replied not at all calmly, "JAMES, GET US OUT OF HERE BEFORE HE TURNS US OVER!"
May did his best to comply, but the Savage was closing fast, and unless he was willing to damage one building or the other, he'd have to make about a 150-point turn to escape (for which there wasn't time), or just throw it into reverse and ram the Arm Slave, which stood a fair chance of getting them fatally grappled and/or speared with the anti-armor vibroblade the Savage held in the hand that wasn't clutching its assault rifle. He had just about made up his mind to try his luck with the arena - this was a life-or-death situation, after all, or so it appeared to him - when intervention, in the form of an electronically amplified voice, roared:
"YOU, IN THE FROG! DROP THE KNIFE AND STEP AWAY FROM THE TANK!"
The Savage paused, its body language evincing its operator's surprise (which was another way in which May, no amateur MechWarrior himself, recognized that operator's skill), and turned its sensor-turret head toward the source of the voice: a tall young woman in a student's uniform, standing on the far ridgeline with a megaphone in her hand (clearly just snatched from the startled grasp of the person standing next to her).
May took advantage of his foe's momentary distraction to reverse the Panzer through the narrow gap left, pivot away from the arena, and head out into the open field again. He still wasn't sure where he was going - there wasn't really anywhere to go out here - but at least he was no longer pinned.
"What are you waiting for, Jezza?!" he demanded. "Fire!"
"OH DAMN AND BLAST," Clarkson not-really-replied, and May rolled his eyes, wondering how his colleague had managed to disable one of the galaxy's most reliable autocannons.
Sosuke recovered from his shock and gestured for Kaname to find cover - what did she think she was doing, standing out in the open like that? - before pivoting the Savage and striking out in pursuit of the tank again.
Kaname watched him go, resisted the urge to hurl Yukino Chrysant's bullhorn to the ground in frustration, handed it back to its owner instead, and asked, "Professor Hammond, do you have a line to the guys in the tank?"
"I - "
"RICHARD THIS BLOODY CANNON'S JAMMED AND WE'RE GOING TO BE KILLED! WHERE IS THE AIR FORCE?!" the handy-talky on Hammond's belt bellowed.
" - as a matter of fact, yes," said Hammond with considerable sangfroid. He removed the radio from his belt and presented it to her, adding heartily, "Best of luck!"
"Thanks," Kaname replied; then she pressed the push-to-talk and said, "Hello, hello, can you hear me? Who's driving the tank?"
"Who's this?! What've you done with Hammond?" Clarkson's voice replied.
"Calm down, Jeremy, honestly, the more centuries go by, the more like an old woman you get," May interrupted. "James May here, luckily I'm the one driving. Tell me you have a plan, whoever you are."
Kaname peered across the field, gauging distances in her mind, and then said, "Turn left about 30 degrees and make for that stand of pine trees. About 20 yards before you get there you'll cross over a drainage ditch you can't see, it's hidden by the snow. If you're going fast enough you should clear it."
"But with luck our friend in the Savage won't," May replied in a voice like a thoughtful nod. "Good thinking. Thanks. I'll be calling you back for Plan B if that doesn't work," he added wryly.
"That is Plan B," said Kaname.
"I was afraid of that," said May. "Here we go - !"
It was almost an anticlimax, really. The Panzer hurtled over the ditch at its much higher flanking speed, barely clipping the lip at the far side; Sosuke realized its presence too late to halt the Savage's headlong charge and blundered straight into it, going down in a tangle of limbs. The Savage's turbine ingested snow and flamed out. By the time he could restart it, the tank would have time to come back and finish him off three different ways, so instead he shut down the electrics and prepared to bail out.
When he emerged into the daylight, it was to see the tank parked at the edge of the ditch, a few yards away, with two members of the faculty climbing from the hatches - and what looked like about three-quarters of the campus police surrounding the Savage.
"Sergeant Sagara, why am I not surprised," said Odo, deadpan.
Sosuke blinked the snow-dazzle out of his eyes. "Constable Odo," he said. "What... "
"I take it you were unaware that Professors Clarkson and May had scheduled a joint session of their fourth-period classes today," Odo went on dryly.
"Classes?" Sosuke pondered this for a moment. Clarkson taught vehicle technology and engineering; May was a military history professor. Sosuke had considered taking the latter's class for professional enrichment purposes, but it conflicted with part of Kaname's lunch hour, and the mission, of course, had to come first...
"I must say," May remarked, "I had intended to give a little talk about the advantages and disadvantages of bipedal mecha versus conventional armored fighting vehicles on the modern battlefield, but the visual aids I was planning on using were a bit smaller-scale than this."
By this time Hammond, Kaname, Lindsey, and a few others had made their way across the snowy field as well, and curious onlookers were taking advantage of this opportunity to see the school's Savage from an unaccustomed angle.
Sosuke looked from May to Clarkson to Odo, then - looking only slightly abashed - said, "Ah. My mistake. I was under the impression this was a hostile incursion onto campus, not a safed-weapon battlefield demonstration. I will be sure to check my schedule and announcement bulletins for more information in the future."
Standing next to Sosuke now, Kaname turned to her best friend and said too-calmly, "Lins? Fan."
Like the second at a pistol duel, Lindsey ceremoniously removed an object from Kaname's satchel and handed it to her. This was a large, meticulously folded, paper fan. Kaname had made it in a fit of pique once she had realized that she would not always have a rolled-up magazine with which to smack some sense into Sagara, and that using a baseball bat would be counted as aggravated assault under the Campus Security rules.
Now she swung it with all her might, bringing it down on the top of his head with a tremendous crash of paper, and yelled at the top of her voice, "THAT DOES NOT MAKE IT OK!"
Sosuke raised a hand and rubbed the top of his head. "That actually hurt," he said in a tone of mild surprise.
"If that's the worst punishment you receive for this incident, consider yourself fortunate," Odo observed. "Let's go... President Tiefeld will have to decide your fate himself. I don't even have a regulation for firing artillery at faculty members... yet."
Watching as her self-proclaimed bodyguard was meekly led away by the campus police, Kaname gave a huge, deflating sigh and handed the fan back to Lindsey.
"This is not going to look good on my résumé," she moaned.
Lindsey snorted unsympathetically. "Come on, you're lovin' this," she chided her friend. "Normal girls run the risk of getting abusive boyfriends. Not Kaname Sterling! That crap is bush-league. You get crazy mercenaries."
Kaname made the I'm-surrounded-by-imbeciles face, but didn't have the energy to issue an actual denial, as she trudged away after the dispersing crowd toward the cooling remains of her lunch.
"Well, lads," said Hammond to his colleagues, "on the plus side, that was some excellent footage; and if we ever find we need a 'Mech Stig, I think I know who we can call!"
"Christ, don't even joke," Clarkson said. "That young man's some kind of maniac."
"Yeah, but I think he might be our kind of maniac," Hammond said, and Clarkson eyed him skeptically for a moment, then grinned and admitted,
"I think you might be right."
"Chaps... " said May thoughtfully.
"Yes, James?" Clarkson asked.
"How are we going to get it out of the ditch?"
"Well... " Clarkson stood gazing at the fallen Arm Slave for a moment, then shrugged and said, "We'll just have to start it up and... climb out. I mean, how hard can it be?"
When the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute was established on the Bajoran moon of Jeraddo, one of its stated goals had been "to retain all of WPI's best traditions while at the same time using our unique location and opportunities to forge new ones." Traditions such as Homecoming, the Spring Formal, and the Spring Recital had made the transition without too much trouble. New traditions also sprang up, such as the "End of Summer" party at Botrell Beach in late August, and "The Rolling of The Gömböc" on the Commons in the middle of May. But one tradition that nobody was keen on resuming was the effects of the much-dreaded C-term.
Initially, the school calendar had stayed much the same as it had been at WPI: four quarters, separated by recesses of varying lengths. This, however, left a major chunk of uninterrupted time in the middle of C-term, which when compounded by the Jeradar Valley winter, was a sure recipe for emotional disaster. One couldn't count on a repeat occurrence of the Great Blizzard of '06 to shut down the school for an extra week, after all.
But the administration, after seeing the higher-than-average C-term exam scores after the unintended interruption back in 2406, decided after long deliberation that it might be time to try something different. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, they decided to codify the break in the schedule as a "recuperative recess". With the chance to catch their metaphorical breath, the faculty hoped that the students would enter the rest of C-term, and the term's final exams, mentally refreshed.
The students, however, didn't worry about the educational theory underpinnings of the mid-C-term break. All they cared about was the fact that it worked -- and they had a much more succinct name for it.
They called it "Sanity Week".
Monday, February 8, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
At the rate she was going, Kaname Sterling thought she would lose her sanity before the titular week arrived.
She hadn't technically been tasked with managing absolutely everything to do with Winterfest. Nominally, she was the chairwoman of the Winterfest Committee, which meant her official function was to designate various committee members to handle various tasks and then sit back and bask in the reflected glory, or watch them take the fall if they didn't get their jobs done. This was the way such committees had always been run - it was an accepted part of the structure of life in any democratic or even pseudo-democratic society.
Unfortunately, delegating and sitting back was not in Kaname's nature, and so she delegated and then suffered approximately 140 "No! No! Plus is positive, minus is negative - oh let me!" moments per hour until the other committee members wisely adapted their roles. By a sort of silent consensus, they shifted from planning to execution and just let General Sterling handle the top-level details. By midday on Monday she'd commandeered the Hamlin 4 lounge as a sort of Winterfest War Room and ensconced herself in the corner from which the TV couldn't be seen, surrounded by folding tables and documents.
This wasn't Kaname's first Winterfest; she'd had a tremendous amount of fun at 2409's winter sports gala. But she hadn't appreciated just how much effort went into organizing these things, and she mentally cursed that part of her that couldn't help but to plan and coordinate when others seemed unwilling to do it.
"The thing looks a whole lot different from the other side of the planning table," she sighed to herself. "As usual."
"Did you say something, my Not-Quite-As-Tallest?" asked a small green figure who had been watching the TV in the other part of the lounge.
"No, not really, Zak. It's nothing. Go back to what you were doing."
"Yes, my Not-Quite-As-Tallest!" saluted her floor's Irken student, who then returned to watching the Food Network's special on the making of cream-filled cakes.
Shaking her head, she returned her focus to the planned schedule of activities she was working on:
Ice skating on Lake Jeradar, with a sideline of some impromptu hockey? Better check with May and Steinberg to see what the progress was in making the lake safe to skate on.
Ice boating competition on Crowe Reservoir? Better send an email to Hammond and Clarkson, make sure they're still on track for getting the venue set up and that the safety measures are in place -- and that the teams are ready with their entries.
Sledding down Castle Hill? Check in with Boba Fett, make sure they're still cool with the sprogs doing that.
Organized snowball fights? Make sure Sakomizu was keeping Sugiura from slacking off, and instead setting up the snowball fight arenas on the practice fields.
The bonfire on Saturday night? Coordinate with Campus Security, the Campus Fire Department, and Plant Services to make sure that everything was provided and safed for the still-accumulating burnables pile in the middle of the Commons.
And then, finally, get everything lined up -- food, facilities, and entertainment -- for the Winterfest Dance on Sunday evening.
Reaching that line item, Kaname hesitated. It was called the "Winterfest Dance", but really, everybody knew what its real purpose was, no matter how much the school tried to nondenominationalize it.
It was a Valentine's Day dance, pure and simple, and everybody knew it.
The organization of the dance itself wasn't the issue for Kaname. Some of the work had already been done by the Student Activities office - as Nao Zhang had predicted, The Art of Noise was scheduled to perform Sunday Evening in the Jer Johnson Student Union Ballroom. Food would be provided by Campus Dining in association with some of the students; she'd already tasked her friend Shiori Kudo to oversee that. Decorations would be supplied by the theater department; Maya Mukai and Mizuki Inaba were handling that task.
No, the problem was what it represented. Kaname was of two minds about the entire holiday and its trappings. On the one hand, it was nice to have an extra holiday to celebrate close connections to loved ones, and she had a lot of loved ones in her extended family to celebrate with. In fact, one of her aunts on her father's side was even born on Valentine's Day (which reminded her, she'd need to get a card for her and mail it out), which suited that aunt's temperament to a tee. She definitely didn't begrudge the couples that she knew on campus having a special day to celebrate, even if they were relentlessly cheerful the day after the event.
But, on the other hand, as depressing as it was to dwell on it, Kaname Chidori Sterling hadn't had much Romance™ in her life so far. Oh, she thought about it, off-and-on (what girl her age didn't?), and occasionally fantasized about what it would be like to have a special someone to rely upon like that; but so far, the reality was leaving something to be desired. Her attempts at dating during her freshman year at Jindai High (often by the suggestion of her friends there) had been an almost comedic series of failures, though she hadn't thought they were all that funny at the time.
Before she'd left Jindai High at the end of her freshman year, she had gained the reputation of "The hottest girl at school that you wouldn't want to date," and, she had to admit, this was partly her fault. She knew she wasn't the easiest person to deal with when she got going, but that's the way she was raised - to speak her mind and to be proactive. But then again, the quality of the dates she had gone on had been notably sub-par, in her estimation, and she was not above complaining about it. She didn't want to hear a guy go on about whatever the hell it was was special about his life, she wanted to know what he thought of the world and their place in it. Spirit, was that too much to ask of the male species these days?
Ever since coming to the Institute, Kaname had pretty much stopped trying to look for "that special someone". She wouldn't turn down such a thing if offered or found, but only if it was sincere, and there were plenty around (like Mizuki's old boyfriend, the two-timing snake) who didn't even make it past the first evaluation. You'd need to be pretty determined and sure of yourself to try and date a Sterling anyway, and so far nobody that she thought might make the cut had dared to try. If this kept up, she might well have to take matters into her own hands, if only to quash the rumors that had started flying about herself and the Military Menace.
Of course, it didn't help matters that as part of the terms of his probationary release, Sosuke Sagara had been seconded to the Student Council as a "Sergeant-at-Arms", to be tasked with any duties (no matter how low) that the Council deemed fit. It was meant to serve as a long-duration Detention, and a member of the student government was to keep watch on his activities at all times. While theoretically this was meant to be a punishment detail, it was a going question for Kaname as to whom it was a punishment for.
Speaking of Sosuke, where the hell was he, anyway?
"Fallyna-clan, I would have a word with you!"
Kaname lifted her head, and then the rest of her body, to look over the table's edge. Before her stood a rotund figure - a volus in its pressurized encounter suit - and if the blinking of its translator lights were any indication, this particular volus was pretty irate.
"Hey, Jan. What can I do for you?"
"Have you seen this 'student campus defense plan' your pet soldier is working on?" Student Council Treasurer Jan Orlahn demanded, brandishing a datapad. "He's just forwarded me a draft outline."
"I'll take that as a no," Jan said, tossing the datapad onto the table. "You might familiarize yourself with it, it's diverting reading. Barking mad diverting, but diverting, nonetheless. It would probably work, I'm no security expert, but I can tell you this: It would bankrupt the Student Council. It would require using up all the Council funds, not just those allocated for Winterfest but all of them for the rest of the fiscal year, and borrowing against the appropriation for the next fiscal year!" The volus accounting student paused to take a deep, labored breath from his respirator, then blustered on, "If my calculations are correct, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, we can say goodbye to all our spring events and next fall's Homecoming, the Halloween Gala, maybe even the Yule Ball! It would be a catastrophe of Worcesterian proportions!"
Kaname was genuinely worried that the Treasurer was going to blow a seal by this point, so when he next stopped for breath, she said, "Hey, easy there, Jan. It's just a draft, right? He hasn't started, you know, building anything... ?"
"No, and he won't as long as I'm Treasurer of the Council!" Jan replied. "Such arrant fiscal irresponsibility is exactly the sort of thing I'm here to prevent. Student campus defense? Who ever heard of such a thing?" Jan shook his head. "I fear for your boyfriend's sanity, Chidori."
"He's not my boyfriend and don't call me Chidori," Kaname replied automatically. People had taken to doing both things lately; the first was annoying and the second slightly baffling, but apparently had something to do with Sosuke's persistent use of the name. She rubbed wearily at her eyes for a second, muttering to herself, "He screws up, and I'm the one who gets the complaints? When I said the stuff about leashes, I didn't mean to be so literal." Still grumbling, Kaname got up to get her coat. "OK, come with me, let's get to the bottom of this."
They found Sosuke in one of the engineering simulation labs in Spencer, tinkering with the details of what was, in fact, an extremely elaborate plan of checkpoints, earthworks, barricades, and weapons emplacements. Standing speechless in the middle of about a quarter-acre of scaled-down holographic campus, Kaname slowly turned and took it all in, remembering half-buried lessons in the military arts from her mother, aunts and various relations. She wasn't an expert either, by any means, but even to her unpracticed eye it seemed evident that Sosuke's plan, if implemented, would convert the campus into a makeshift but effective fortress.
"All right, I'm impressed," Jan Orlahn admitted. "Are you sure your friend is not part turian, Kaname Chidori? Of course, it's still entirely out of the question. Far too costly, and I doubt we would even be able to get possession of... " He peered through his encounter suit's optics at the identifying tag on the nearest weapon emplacement: EWHB. "... an 'e-whub', whatever that may happen to be." Turning, he added airily, "Well, I have a class to get to. I leave it to you," and stumped out.
"Thanks," said Kaname wryly. Then, turning to Sosuke, she said, "OK. Explain."
"It's a campus security augmentation plan," Sosuke told her. "It's all in my report."
"What possessed you to think we needed something like that?" Kaname demanded. "This is a school, not an Outer Rim pirate fort."
"I've been considering the matter since the incident with Professors Clarkson and May," Sosuke replied at once. "That was a false alarm, but the central problem remains: In the event of an actual incursion, this campus would be hopelessly exposed - practically indefensible, except for the Castle, and falling back to that one strong point is not practical for the entire student body." He toggled a couple of holographic keys on the simsuite's control module and reverted the campus holomap to its original configuration. "Particularly in light of this weekend's planned activities. Look - there is a distinct lack of perimeter control in the entire athletic complex, for both the participants and the spectators. This is doubly evident in the vicinity of Lake Jeradar and Crowe Reservoir. It would be very simple for a determined attacker to duplicate or even exceed the results of the Species Separation League terrorist attack on the 2386 Winter Olympics."
"We're just trying to set up some winter sporting events for the kids!" Kaname declared with a frustrated gesture. "Not trying to make a fortress to rival Queen Asrial's palace!!"
Sosuke frowned thoughtfully. "Actually, the Palace Imperial in Saenar is not nearly as secure as you would think..."
"THAT'S NOT THE POINT!" Kaname roared, cutting him off.
He stood and regarded her silently while she took a few deep breaths to regain control of herself, then offered in an unaggressive tone, "The scenario is not as far-fetched as you seem to believe. Our neighbors, the Xavier Institute, came under armed attack by elements of the Big Fire terror syndicate just last December."
Sosuke nodded. "Several of the Duelists participated in repelling the assault, along with a number of high-level IPO operatives. Big Fire's aim seems to have been the abduction of a number of students."
"I thought that was a drill or something," Kaname objected.
"That was the public cover story. The authorities wished to forestall the possibility of a panic here, since the incident was not directly linked to this school. In light of which, I acknowledge that the Xavier Institute's student body as a whole has certain qualities that makes it a more attractive target for such operations than DSM's. Regardless, I still believe such a strike isn't entirely inconceivable here... and as matters currently stand, we would be hard-pressed to defend ourselves."
Kaname regarded him for a few seconds as if trying to decide whether he was out of his mind or the galaxy was. She was on the verge of telling him to get hold of himself and forget the whole thing when what he'd just told her combined with the memory of another recent conversation to give her pause.
Kaname sighed deeply, rubbing a hand down her face, and then said, "Well, we can't build this. It'd bankrupt the Council. Jan was furious. So... wrap it up, put it all in a final report, and send it to Odo, with copies to Hayashimizu and President Tiefeld's office. I don't think the administration will have any interest in turning the school into an armed camp, but if anybody's going to make that decision it's them, not us, and then they can pay for it." She sighed again. "OK?"
Sosuke nodded. "As you say." He rezzed up his alterations to the map again and set to work, adding finishing touches and cleaning up the presentation.
Kaname watched him at it for a few seconds, then asked wryly, "Man, what were you like in kindergarten? King-of-the-Sandbox must have been an exercise in generalship with you around."
Sosuke paused for a moment, turned to regard her without much of any expression, then said, "I wouldn't know," and returned to work.
Wow, that was dumb, can't believe I did that, Kaname grumbled to herself, and left him to it. It wasn't as though she didn't have work of her own to be doing, after all.
Tuesday, February 9, 2410
Tuesday afternoon found Kaname setting up a sort of temporary backup War Room in Hamlin Hall's ground-floor lounge. This was not because she'd been turned out of the one up on the fourth floor, but because she'd arrived back at the building an hour or so before dinner and couldn't be arsed to go up only to come back down in an hour. Instead she spread out the paperwork she had with her, which mainly had to do with event scheduling, and worked quietly at it while she waited for the metaphorical dinner bell.
So engrossed was she in this that she didn't notice Sosuke, sitting in the corner of the room (where the sightlines were best to the windows and the archway leading out into the corridor), at all. That was fine with him; his tasking did not require her attention, only her presence. In ways, it was easier when she didn't interact with him.
Five times in the last twenty minutes, his vigil had been interrupted not by anything Kaname did, but by other students passing by the room, noticing him, and coming in to speak to him. This was unusual, bordering on anomalous. He was normally much more successful at blending into the background, at least when tactical exigencies didn't force him to take the kind of action that automatically became something of a spectacle.
Not today, though. Today no fewer than seven classmates had approached him while Kaname, oblivious, labored at her paperwork. He was still frowning in contemplation of the phenomenon when she reached some kind of endpoint, sat back in the couch, and gave an exasperated sigh, then noticed him. The look on his face must have caught her attention, because she abandoned whatever she'd been about to say and asked instead,
"What's eating you?"
Sosuke considered keeping the matter to himself, but as any situation in which he became involved stood a better-than-even chance of involving Kaname, he decided that would have been unfair. So he replied,
"I'm unsure. I think there may be some sort of conspiracy developing that involves an unsettling number of our classmates."
Kaname gave him a more-wary-than-normal look. "Uhhh... explain?"
"Since we have been sitting here, seven of our classmates who would not normally go out of their way to speak to me have come into this room specifically to seek me out and ask me a question. The same question. This is beyond the bounds of reasonable coincidence. My supposition: They were all put up to it by the same unknown third party, most likely for purposes of distracting me and achieving some kind of infiltration."
"Uh... huh. And what question would that be?"
"Whatever their purpose may be, it seems that it would be served by my attending the Winterfest Dance." Sosuke shook his head thoughtfully. "Most peculiar."
Kaname's look shifted more toward the are-you-for-real end of the spectrum. "These... classmates... would they happen to have been girls? Not that there's anything wrong with it if they weren't!" she added hastily, her cheeks going a bit red. "I just, you know, seven of them, that's not statistically - never mind. Anyway... ?"
"They were," Sosuke replied, "though I don't see... "
Kaname dropped her forehead into her palm. "Spirit, you are dense," she said. "They weren't asking you to just go to the dance, they were asking you to go to the dance with them. You know. On a date? Imbecile."
"Oh. This would be a purely recreational function?"
"Yyyyyeah, they usually are... "
"Then, in your estimation, it isn't part of a distraction operation for some as-yet-unknown tactical expediency?"
"Uh... no. Well, probably not. Who were they?"
Sosuke looked at Kaname intently as he listed off the names of his querents. "Ena Saeki, Nao Zhang, Maya Mukai, Jessica Albrecht, Haruka Suzushiro, Mizuki Inaba, and Nelyna of Thessia."
"Yeah, uh, I don't think anybody on that list is strategic conspiracy material. Except maybe Inaba. She's treacherous," said Kaname with a little smile.
"I'll make a note of that," Sosuke deadpanned, and Kaname genuinely couldn't tell whether he was serious. Then he said, "You seemed exasperated. Was the unexpected room traffic disturbing you?"
"Huh? Oh. No. Actually I didn't even notice that. It's just that I noticed I have a huge hole in Sunday's schedule. From lunchtime until the dance there's bupkis. I could double up some of the stuff from Saturday, weather permitting, but that would be kind of lame. I hate repeating myself."
Sosuke looked interested. "How much of a time span are we talking about?"
"Four, five hours," Kaname replied. "Say from 12:30 'til dark, and maybe a bit past, depending on what was going on. It'd have to wrap up by five o'clock or so either way, so everyone would have time to get some supper and change for the dance." She spread out the papers again and surveyed them glumly. "The ice boating is going to be all done Saturday. I suppose we could just do more snowball fights, but, I mean, how many snowball fights can we have? We're not six years old any more. That kind of thing gets old."
Sosuke gave a decisive nod. "It's not a problem," he said firmly. "Leave it to me."
Kaname blinked. "... Seriously?"
"Seriously. I'll take care of it."
"Uh... OK, well, thanks." Out in the hall, students started passing in small groups, bound for the dining common. Kaname started gathering the papers up and stuffing them back in her bookbag. "I'll need to have your plans for whatever it's gonna be by Thursday morning, so I can coordinate with whoever's in charge of the facilities it'll be using."
"Can you give me a hint?"
"Fine, be that way." She finished packing up and paused, eyeing him thoughtfully. "So... all these girls wanting to go to the dance with you."
"Are you going to?"
"Of course not," Sosuke said flatly. "As the event organizer, you'll have to be present in some official capacity. When you're out in public, I'm on duty."
"Oh. Yeah. 'Course." Kaname went a bit red again and glanced away awkwardly. Then, to laugh it off, she said, "I can't believe you didn't know they were asking you for a date."
"Dating is outside my occupational specialties," Sosuke replied.
"Yeah, well, so's a lot of stuff you ought to try," Kaname said. "I'm going to be holed up in here working on Winterfest stuff for the rest of the week. You should go out one of these nights."
What the hell are you talking about? she asked herself.
Sosuke frowned as if only his inherent reserve was preventing him from asking the same thing. Then, brow still furrowed in puzzlement, he said, "What would such a thing entail?"
"Well... first you ask somebody. And if they say yes, then you set a time and... I don't know. There isn't really much of a nightlife around here," said Kaname, facing the awkward realization, now that he'd asked, that she really had no idea what one would do for a date on Jeraddo. "Go out for dinner, I guess. If you really wanted to make an occasion of it, you'd go someplace fancy, where you wouldn't normally go."
"Hmm. This might be a worthwhile reconnaissance operation," Sosuke mused. "Perhaps Mr. Weeks - "
Kaname would've choked if she'd had a beverage, envisioning Sosuke going out on the town with DSM's one and only Carcharoid student, Frank "Shark Week" Weeks. Shark Week not only wasn't human, he wasn't even from a species that had gender as humans understand it. He was only called "he" because he was way too laid-back to insist on gender neutrality in a language that didn't really have a provision for it, and because he happened to have picked a masculine Standard name when emigrating with his parents from Parathrox to New Avalon some years before.
"No, Sosuke," she said after taking a moment to get hold of herself again. "A girl. Or at least another humanoid life form," she qualified.
Sosuke took that on board with his usual grave expression, then nodded and rose to his feet. "Very well," he said, and then strode to the archway (with a startled Kaname trotting to keep up with him) and said to the nearest female schoolmate he recognized, "Miss Tesla."
Mileva Tesla skidded to a halt, breaking off from her conversation with her roommate Irina Woods, and said, "Uh... yes?"
"Let's go on a date."
Mileva blinked a couple of times, utterly baffled, then replied, "Uh... OK?"
Kaname stared blankly at the two for several long seconds.
Wednesday, February 10, 2410
"This is ten different degrees of wrong," Kaname grumbled, pacing outside the elevator doors, waiting with Mileva Tesla for Sosuke to arrive.
Bad enough that Mileva was the youngest person on her floor. (She was twelve, having been home-schooled up to this point by some of the most brilliant people in the galaxy.) Bad enough that she was one of the relatively few other non-Duelist students besides Sosuke who held a weapons permit from the Campus Security Service. Bad enough that she was quick-witted, clever, almost relentlessly cheerful, and - despite what could only be seen as a very sheltered upbringing - outgoing. She also, on top of all that, happened to look great.
Kaname wasn't one of those catty girls who could never bear to admit it when another girl looked good, and Mileva was looking very well-turned-out tonight, in a crisp white blouse under a peppy little Klein-blue jumper dress, GI black cold-weather tights, and smart-but-practical boots. She even had on a matching little Garibaldi hat at a rakish angle, which was a more than a trifle old-fashioned, but somehow timeless on her, and over her arm she carried a navy-blue wool pea-jacket. She wasn't ravishing - not at twelve, and possibly never - but with her big brown eyes, her perfectly straight nose, her short black hair, and her general air of fresh-scrubbed, clean-living wholesomeness, she was completely adorable. Kaname reminded herself firmly several times, as they waited, that this was a ridiculous thing to be resenting. (And where had she learned to put on makeup, growing up surrounded by Action Scientists?)
The elevator dinged, the doors hissed open, and there was Sosuke. Instead of the usual DSM school uniform Kaname had grown used to seeing him in, he was wearing a garment she'd never seen before - like a suit, but with a double-breasted, lapelless jacket over a white shirt with a stiff, upright collar. The suit was dark charcoal grey and structured so that it managed to look casual and formal at the same time, which was, Kaname dimly recalled, the hallmark of some Salusian fashion house or anoth -
Emporio Armani di Saenar, Salusian fashion firm established 2005 by Giorgio Armani, an Earthman already famous on his homeworld for -
Not NOW -
Sosuke, unaware of the mild ripple he'd just caused in the collective psyche of a species (never mind among the students who "just happened" to be loitering in the lounge), nodded cordially. "Miss Chidori." He then turned his attention to Mileva, and what he said next startled Kaname clean out of reflections on his fashion sense:
"Good evening, Miss Tesla. You look lovely."
Mileva blinked - clearly she hadn't expected him to say that either - but recovered quickly and thanked him with a slight blush, adding, "You clean up pretty good yourself."
"Where did you steal that suit?" Kaname asked before she could stop herself.
Sosuke didn't seem offended; he merely replied, matter-of-factly, "It's standard issue. When TechCom personnel are assigned to guard civilians, there's always the chance we'll need to blend in on a higher social level than is usually encountered in everyday life."
"Oh. So it's part of your spy gear."
"Essentially, yes," he said. "Shall we, Miss Tesla? Our table at Pellucidar is reserved for 1930 hours."
"Remember, lockout is at eleven," Kaname said. "That's 2300 to the military brain. And I don't want to find out tomorrow that you messed with the security system or teleported in after hours or some such craziness," she added sharply, though whether for Sosuke's benefit or Mileva's she couldn't have said.
As she put on her jacket, Mileva only giggled and replied, not all that reassuringly, "Don't worry, Kaname... you won't."
"We'll be back in plenty of time," Sosuke promised stolidly. "I'm uncomfortable about being out of fast-return range for even that long - "
"I'm not going to be anywhere but the lounge and my room. Now go, before I change my mind!" Kaname declared, gesturing to the elevator. Then she softened a little - hell, it was probably Tesla's first date, no need to be such a tyrant about it - and said, "Have a good time."
Once they were gone, Kaname returned to the War Room, ensconced herself in the corner again, and resolutely buried herself in her work, determined to give the pair of them no further thought until they returned.
Thursday, February 11, 2410
"Kweh! It's morning! Kweh! Get up! Kweh! Kana-chan, you'll be late! Kweh!"
Kaname didn't think of herself as a "morning person", and there was plenty of evidence to back up that assertion.
"Kweh! Kweh! Good morning, Kana-chan, you'll be late!"
It usually took two iterations of her alarm clock to even get her out of bed, and she couldn't be considered functionally ambulatory until after her morning shower. Fortunately for her, the woman's bathroom and shower on Hamlin Four was directly opposite her room, so she didn't have to worry about getting lost along the way.
Getting dressed and getting packed for her morning classes was usually an automated process. Her clothes and books were laid out ahead of time, and quickly taken care of. At that point it was a simple matter to head out, board the elevator, and head down to the dining common on the first floor. Still ensconced in her little world, she barely registered that Sosuke wasn't present for breakfast; but he had to have gotten back in time, because Mileva's check-in hadn't triggered any red flags or alarms.
Therefore, it was not until she had consumed breakfast and was headed out the doors of Hannibal Hamlin Hall, that she realized there had been a strange conversational undercurrent among the students in the dining hall. She tried to think of what it could be, but her mind had been much more preoccupied with the circumstances behind Mileva and Sosuke's date...
Spirit, you're obsessing, Sterling, she chided herself. If they had a good time, more power to them. It's not my business to pry. ... Never mind they're both my responsibility, and Sosuke has no clue what's really involved in a date, and Mileva's technically underage. Spirit of Light, what was I thinking??
Kaname was so lodged in her dudgeon as she walked that she didn't notice Lindsey Willows approaching until she was beside the taller teen and poking her in the side.
Kaname jerked, startled. "Huh? Wha?"
"I said 'Hi, Kaname!' Jeez, you're out of it today." Lindsey peered at Kaname thoughtfully. "You feeling all right?"
Kaname grunted. "Had a late evening," she stated by way of explanation. "Still booting up."
"All right," Lindsey conceded. She then continued, "I take it Sosuke and Mileva's date went OK, because otherwise there would've been at least two thermonuclear explosions last night and we'd be due one this morning."
"I wouldn't know," Kaname grumbled, looking away. "I'm the one under surveillance. Besides, what am I, the cruise director?"
"Maybe they're up on the lido deck!" she mentally continued. Why do people keep bringing that up?
Lindsey blinked. "Cripes, Kaname. No need to bite my head off."
Kaname seemed to return to herself then; she shook her head to clear the mental static and looked back at her friend. "Sorry, sorry. I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all."
"Mm-hmm. So I see."
"I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop," Kaname explained as they turned a corner to start walking along the north Commons path. "Sosuke still hasn't delivered on -- what the hell is that?!"
Kaname came to an immediate halt, staring across the snow-covered Common. The gently rolling terrain, cut by the deep blue line of the Little Neverwinter and crisscrossed by student paths, was a long-familiar sight.
The two thick, blocky structures that were now present at either end of the Common? Those were new.
Lindsey blinked. "... that's a pretty big 'shoe'."
Slowly, as if in a dream, Kaname stepped out onto the Common. Her mind continued to try and parse what she was seeing. At first glance, they looked like nothing less than block-built military bunkers, and indeed there was a definite air of brutal unsophistication to them.
Getting closer, however, revealed interesting variations in the design, that made the structures more than just bunkers. They seemed to be circular in shape, with slightly sloped outside edges. A ramp in one curved wall led up to the upper surface; Kaname supposed there would be a matching ramp on the opposite side. Up on top there were large, bulky barriers regularly spaced, like crenelations on an ancient fort, to serve as cover for whoever was on the roof.
Climbing up the ramp was not difficult; the material it was made of looked to be akin to rather dirty snow, but it definitely supported her weight and Lindsey's. Now on the roof, she could see that the change in altitude gave a nice view of the Common and the matching structure on the opposite side in front of Main Administration. And if that wasn't high enough, there was even a sniper tower on one "corner" of the structure for better observation capability.
An opening in the roof revealed an inner space, and it looked like it wouldn't be too dangerous to jump in if need be. Presumably there would be exits from the room inside. Scattered here and there, both up above and down below, were Dumpster-like metal bins, painted blue and evidently empty. Bright dots of color in the distance showed that the opposite fort was similarly equipped, but the bins over there were red.
"Good morning, Miss Chidori," said Sosuke with an air of satisfaction. He stood at the base of the sniper tower, looking off toward the opposite fort through a pair of collapsible binoculars, apparently pleased with what he saw. Not far away, Mileva Tesla was speaking into a handy-talky, evidently directing unseen activities within one of the two structures.
"What is this?" Kaname asked, mystified. "What did you do?"
Sosuke lowered his binoculars, turned to face her, and replied, "As you requested, Miss Tesla and I have solved the afternoon recreation gap."
"This thing is the snow fort from hell!"
Sosuke nodded. "That was the basic idea, yes." He gestured toward the opposite fort. "If our calculations are correct, combining the innocent childhood pleasures of snowball fighting with the small-unit tactics and teamwork of a basic capture-the-flag exercise should yield a most satisfactory afternoon's entertainment for the more physically inclined and competitive students."
Appearing to digest that, Kaname sat down on one of the lower crenelations, then sprang up again in surprise. "What the - this isn't snow, it's rock-hard!"
"It's a composite material called pykrete. It was developed on Earth in the mid-twentieth century."
Lindsey rapped experimentally on the smooth surface with a knuckle, then asked, "What's it made of?"
"Ice reinforced with sawdust. It's an economical and quick building material in sub-freezing conditions, and surprisingly resilient." Sosuke gestured to the front of the fort, which sloped sharply down to the Common like the face of a dam. "This glacis would easily withstand up to 80mm mortar fire."
"How are we going to get RID of these things after Sanity Week ends? Jackhammers?"
"Not a problem. Miss Tesla and I have it all worked out." Crouching, Sosuke picked up a bulky object that had lain at his feet, concealed by the battlement at the base of the tower, and hefted it into view. Mileva wheeled over another, very similar object, this one mounted on a small cart. They were strange-looking things, part industrial tool, part weapon, with heavy-duty controls and a curious cowling at the front on which some jaunty soul had painted fighter-plane-style shark teeth.
Kaname said nothing.
"Salusian-issue M7057/Defoliant Projector, for progressive meltdown," Mileva explained. "We start at the top, work our way down, job done. Should take about half an hour."
"You're going to melt it with flamethrowers?! What about the sawdust?"
"... Sawdust is flammable, Miss Chidori," Sosuke pointed out as if reluctant to believe she wasn't aware of so basic a fact.
"spiritiamnothavingthisconversation," Kaname muttered through her teeth, and then, out loud, "Lindsey? Take me away from here before I do something Sosuke will regret."
"You didn't ask," Lindsey observed cheerfully as they left the fort, "but I think this is gonna be bitchin'."
Friday, February 12, 2410
Kaname didn't really mind that the final push on the prep work for Winterfest had kept her in her corner bunker in the common room past midnight. She was getting a lot done, and starting to form real confidence that everything was, in fact, going to be ready in time. Besides, it was nice and quiet with everyone else on the floor in bed.
Almost everyone else.
"Rory," she said flatly, without looking up from her work. "In here. Now."
There was a pause; then Rory Williams entered the room from the hallway, looking a bit sheepish. "Uh... hey, Kaname," he said with feigned bonhomie. "Still hard at it, I see."
Kaname held up a hand for him to wait and be quiet, used the other to finish filling in a form, then put her pen down, got up, and regarded him with an expression that was not so much annoyance as resignation.
"Rory... " she said, then sighed. "You have to stop sneaking in here after curfew every night. I mean, you're good at it, props for that, but my ass could end up in the sling with yours if you get caught." She put her hands on her hips. "It's very dashing and romantic, I'm sure, but can you honestly not live without your girlfriend for a whole eight hours a day? Seriously. I know you're not a frosh, you're only on my floor because the housing numbers were weird this year, but I can only cut you so much slack for that. You keep this up and I'm going to have to go to Dean Montaigne eventually."
Rory raised a hand and opened his mouth to reply several times, each time frowning at himself and pacing away a few steps before returning to try it again. Finally he stopped, looked her straight in the eye, and said,
"All right, look, I'll level with you. Amy and me?" Kaname raised an eyebrow, wondering where this was heading, but in none of the scenarios she envisioned in the second or so before he went on did she come anywhere close to predicting what he actually said next: "We're time travelers. We're not really 15, we've been together for something like 20 human lifetimes at this point. Sometimes... sometimes we get separated. When that hasn't happened, we prefer to keep it that way as much as possible." He shrugged. "So."
Kaname looked back at his perfectly earnest face for a couple of seconds, her own expression completely blank; then, finally, she couldn't hold back the laughter any longer and giggled her way back into her chair.
"Awright, points for creativity. You're off the hook this time, but do me a favor and try to get back here by 11 most nights, huh?" She shook her head, picked up her pen, and moved on to the next form. "Good night, Rory."
With a slight smile on his face, Rory sketched a salute. "Ma'm," he said, and turned to go.
"And shave properly in the morning!" she called after him. "This is school, not a music video."
"Yes, ma'm," he replied, followed by the sound of his room door opening and closing again.
The assembled students milled about in the Student Union's Grand Ballroom, waiting for somebody to come and explain what was up with the two structures that had appeared on the Common the previous day. A schoolwide email had been issued, stating that explanations would be forthcoming for anybody who wanted to hear them; but in order to hear them, they'd have to come to the ballroom at a certain time in the afternoon, and this was nearly that time.
They didn't have to wait long. At 5 PM, Kaname Sterling stepped out onto the ballroom's small stage, came to a halt behind the podium that was there, and composed herself.
"Hello!" she declared, her voice amplified to reach the far corners of the great room. "May I have your attention please?" The murmuring tapered off as everyone turned to face the stage. "Ah, good. Well." She smiled cheerfully. "Thank you all for coming. You all know why we're here. Sanity Week is upon us, and we're going to kick it off in style with the fourth annual Winterfest!"
Kaname waited for the cheers this remark roused to subside, then went on, "Now, for those of you who've done this before, you can relax - we've got all the stuff you know and love from last year's Winterfest coming up. Ice boating, lake hockey, the cross-country ski race, it's all in there. Full details are available in the schedule packets you should all have found in your mailboxes this morning." She held up an example of the colorful publication in question, in case anyone hadn't grasped what they were. "However, this year, we're also going to try something new. You may have noticed," she added dryly, "the ice structures that have been erected out on the Common? Well, it's not some kind of weird avant-garde art installation. That's the venue for an experimental new Winterfest event!"
She took one hand off the lectern and gestured grandly to her right, where a simplified, idealized, slightly cartoonish holo of the two ice bunkers and the no-man's-land in between them appeared. "We call it... Snow Gulch."
After giving her audience a few seconds to take in the holo, Kaname stepped from behind the lectern and paced in front of it, explaining as she did so,
"Semi-organized snowball fights are a Winterfest tradition, but Snow Gulch is a snowball fight with a difference. You will divide into two teams, codenamed Red and Blue; preliminary selections to be made now, final rosters must be posted by dinnertime tomorrow. Professor Moore will be faculty supervisor for Red, Professor MacGregor for Blue, but internal organization of those teams - chains of command (if any), areas of responsibility, and so forth - are entirely up to you.
"At one PM on Sunday, the teams will report to their obvious rallying points and the game will begin." The holo switched from an isometric perspective to the view from the blimp, enabling Kaname to point out various blinking waypoints. "This will be a simple capture-the-flag exercise, with which many of you are no doubt familiar from all that online gaming you do when you're supposed to be studying." That got a mild, vaguely guilty laugh, as Kaname pointed out the flashing red and blue triangles in the centers of the two forts.
"On the off chance that anyone doesn't know how this works, each team will have an obvious and accessible token in a central location," she said. "You are not allowed to remove your own token from its designated area. The object of the game is to enter the opposing team's fortification, seize their token, and convey it back to your own fort without losing your own token." To illustrate this point, the red triangle left its place in the red fort, moved across the battlefield, and took up a position next to the blue triangle. "When one team has both tokens in their central holding area, the other team will have two minutes to remove one or both from that area. If they do not succeed in doing so, the team holding both tokens is awarded a point, the round ends, the tokens will be reset, and a new round begun."
Really getting into the general-on-the-stage thing now, Kaname turned and paced back toward the lectern, her hands folded behind her back. "We'll start with a couple of rounds with small test teams, just to make sure the system works and there are no unforeseen glitches with the scoring. If all goes well, all-hands battles will follow. Play will continue until three rounds with the full teams are complete, or until dark, whichever comes first. At the end of that time, the team with the most points is the winner. In the event of a tie because we ran out of time, the referees may make a decision based on creativity, team spirit, casualty rates, or other factors, or we might put it to a vote. Sportsmanship is expected."
Having gone up and down a couple of times, Kaname arrived in front of the middle of the holo again, turned to face the audience fully, and said, "And that brings me to the most important rule: Your only weapon - and I cannot possibly stress this enough - will be snow. That's it. No other means of attack will be permitted. You can be as creative as you want about how you employ it, but the only thing I want to see hitting people out there is snow, and not snow packed so tightly it's basically ice. And a bit of light wrestling is OK in close combat, but no brawling! I know some of you people can get pretty competitive - " (that drew another laugh) " - but this isn't actually a war, so control yourselves. It's supposed to be fun. If anybody gets hurt, we won't be doing this again." She held her firm gaze on them for a few seconds, letting that sink in, then smiled to break the tension. "Any questions?" She nodded to the owner of the first hand up. "Yes. Frank."
"What about equipment?" Frank Weeks asked. "You said we could be creative, does that mean we're allowed to make things?"
"Well spotted, yes," said Kaname. "You are allowed to build devices that throw snow, if you think of any. Just a couple of things. They either have to be fixed in position, in which case, go nuts, or they have to be small and light enough that one or two people, no more, can carry and operate them. And you have to be able to make them out of stuff that's readily available on campus in the next day. Anything you build has to be vetted by the referees by the team selection deadline tomorrow."
"What about a trebuchet?" someone asked.
Kaname laughed. "Sure, if you can build one by six o'clock tomorrow night," she said.
There were a few other questions, mainly procedural; then she turned them loose to set up their teams, and the gathering dissolved into what looked from a distance like chattering chaos as the students began to discuss the matter animatedly among themselves.
Kaname smiled with satisfaction as she watched the mass of students break up into smaller clusters, as teams were formed and battle lines drawn. Everyone seemed excited, which she took as a good sign, and she found herself looking forward to this crazy idea coming to fruition more than she might have expected she would before delivering the briefing.
"Not bad, not bad at all," Lindsey commented as Kaname dismounted from the stage to land on the ballroom floor. "Our most famous alumna couldn't have done it better herself."
"You know, Lins, I think you may be right. This is gonna be 'bitchin'," Kaname said with a wink. "And I should hope so, I've had plenty of practice."
The two went out into the room, half-listening to snippets of various groups' negotiations as they began to form coalitions and build up into what would become the two armies. Sosuke, who had hovered off to the side during the briefing, joined them.
"Mileva's idea appears to be a popular one," he said, sounding gratified. "I look forward to seeing it in practice."
"Will you be playing?" Lindsey wondered.
"Negative, Miss Willows. My experience in these matters would give me an unfair advantage."
"Oh, pff," said Kaname. "It's an organized snowball fight, not the Battle of Debney Ridge. I bet some of these kids are way better at it than you are."
"That sounds challenge-like to me," Lindsey observed.
"I suppose I could moderate my participation," Sosuke allowed after a moment's consideration. "It would be a useful opportunity to observe the other students' performance in a simulated crisis."
"There, you see? You can even turn fun time into work," said Kaname. "Also, hang on, she's Mileva now? What happened to Miss Tesla?"
Sosuke glanced at her, then replied with a perfectly straight face, "She asked me to call her Mileva. It's only polite to comply."
"What, so all I have to do is tell you to stop calling me Miss Chidori?"
"Negative. The situation is very different. You're not a girl, you're my assignment."
Kaname sighed. "Get out of here before I hurt you."
Sosuke nodded. "Affirmative. Excuse me while I make preparations."
As he was turning to go, the three passed the very girl they'd just been talking about, standing with her roommate Irina. They'd have gone on by, except that Kaname happened to catch the word Panzer in their conversation.
Looking over her shoulder at the two youngsters, Kaname proclaimed, "... NO TANKS!"
Irina looked crestfallen. "Aw, but Mileva and I were hoping..."
"No. Just... no."
"The school's Panzer 26 would be inappropriate for the terrain and environment, anyway," Sosuke observed helpfully. "You would be much better served with a Napoleon-class microtank. Their turrets can be easily swapped out - "
Kaname glared at Sosuke. "DON'T ENCOURAGE THEM!"
"I thought encouraging the younger students to push their limits was part of an upperclassman's responsibility," Sosuke protested mildly, and Lindsey burst out laughing at the look on Kaname's face as she realized he'd just played back something she'd said.
"Go!" Kaname commanded, pointing imperiously in a randomly chosen direction. Sosuke, with the faintest hint of a smile, saluted and took himself off to do something out of her way for a while. Irina and Mileva departed in another direction, revising their plans as they went.
Mizuki Inaba drifted out of the crowd, arriving just as the other three left, and inquired cheerfully, "Trouble with Electra Girl and Bomb Boy?"
Rolling her eyes, Kaname sighed. "That kid's a bad influence."
"Who? Sagara or Tesla?" Mizuki asked.
Kaname flatly replied, "Yes."
Lindsey considered this for a moment, then opined, "He encourages her to think bigger, she encourages him to think non-linearly. That's a terrifying kind of feedback loop. I think we need to separate them for the galaxy's protection."
Saturday, February 13, 2410
Saturday morning opened bright and clear, a beautiful opening to 2410's Winterfest.
Day One ran like clockwork, a testament to Kaname's meticulous planning and the hard work of her delegates (who had taken to calling themselves "General Sterling's colonels"). The daylight hours were full to bursting with wintry fun. For the more sedate and artistic, there was ice skating on Lake Jeradar. For the slightly hardier, several old-timey lake hockey games were waged nearby, with the rink defined by hay bales (where had Professor May gotten hold of baled hay in February?) and the players learning first-hand how good they had it, playing their regular games in state-of-the-art Walsh Arena. For the really hardy, and the speed demons, there were the iceboat races over on Crowe Reservoir.
Up on Castle Hill, the younger members of the Duelists' Society cheerfully proctored the use of their clubhouse's perch - the only clear high ground on the campus proper - for sledding. Inside the Castle itself, the senior Duelists welcomed anyone who cared to stop by for some hot cocoa, perhaps a baked good, and a spot of good-natured interpersonal violence. They were having their Alumni Day that day too, so a number of the club's alumni - wryly nicknamed the Elder Gods by some of the youngsters - were on hand as well.
Kaname spent the morning feeling like she was pretty much everywhere at once, and more than once she thought what she really needed was an International Police Lens. That way she wouldn't be at the mercy of Student Activities' slightly battered handy-talkies, which had an annoying habit of automatically seeking to the same frequency that was used by the drive-thru at the Port Jeradar KFC if you weren't careful. Several times that day she found herself trying to reach the Crowe Dam team and finding herself taking somebody's order for a party bucket.
Of course, that would only have helped her get in touch with a bare handful of people on Jeraddo, and most of them were over at the Xavier Institute, so she still wouldn't have been able to communicate with the two lake venues without the use of Student Activities' also-slightly-battered van. Things calmed down a little bit after lunch, since operations at the reservoir were wrapped up by then (without casualties, amazingly enough, unless you counted Professor Hammond's pride), leaving only the skating, the freestyle snowball fighting on the practice field, and the action up on Castle Hill.
With her most trustworthy colonels in full charge at the lake and on the field and the radios more or less behaving, Kaname felt - barely - clear to spend most of the afternoon at the Castle. This was mostly in her role as Hamlin 4's Resident Advisor, since a number of her charges were attending the open house, but also partly as Winterfestführerin (as Professor Kesselring had dubbed her upon stumbling across her command post in the Hamlin 4 common room). She had to deal with the band, after all, and they were all up there. Or at least that was the excuse.
Dinner in the Hamlin Commons was more boisterous than usual, everyone red-faced and genial, talking that little bit more loudly as people who have been outdoors all day tend to do. The fact that it was fully dark outside by suppertime at this time of year was usually a bit of a downer, but tonight the darkness outside the windows, broken by the frosty glow of the campus streetlamps and the lights in the windows of other buildings, seemed almost homey when viewed from the brightly lit, happily communal dining hall.
"It's going really well," Lindsey remarked, her own voice raised to be heard over the cheerful din.
"So far, so good," Kaname replied.
Everyone raced through dinner at an unseemly pace, in anticipation of what came afterward. Kaname had the sense that she was leading a parade, or perhaps an unusually chipper protest march, as the Res Group West students streamed out onto the Common, past the frozen fortifications of Fort Sagara (the red one opposite had, inevitably, been called Fort Tesla), and met up with the smaller contingent from Res Group East in the center of the snowy expanse.
Here loomed the Fire Pile, several tons of wood and other combustible material, intricately stacked and interlocked by students under the supervision of Professors Hammond and Mikelewski of the civil engineering and physics departments, respectively. Maya Ibuki, the chemistry department's beloved Science Ninja, had provided a massive quantity of some highly classified accelerant, dousing the stack with a contraption that looked like the kind of thing an airport would use to foam the runway, and it had been soaking in all day. She guaranteed that, exposed to a temperature above a very specific threshold, the whole heap would be fully involved within moments.
"Are we ready?" Kaname asked the night in general. A roar like that of the crowd at a sporting event was her response. She turned to Sosuke. "Sergeant-at-Arms, do your duty."
Sosuke nodded. Having vetoed the plasma rifle plan, she was expecting him to haul out a firelighter or a road flare at this point, but instead, he turned and marched away from the Pile, the crowd of students parting to let him pass, until he stood about forty yards away. Then he reached into his coat and pulled out a pistol-shaped object that glinted brass-golden in the glow of the streetlights. This he proceeded, with a sort of ceremonious precision, to break open like an old-fashioned shotgun, so that he could slide a fat plastic shell into its breech and snap it shut. As he thumbed back the hammer and raised it, aiming into the air above everyone's head, Kaname could see that the device's muzzle was belled like a trumpet, and in that instant she recognized it. She'd seen something just like it in a movie once.
Sosuke pulled the trigger, and with a sharp PHUT the antique Very pistol in his hand spat a brilliant red signal flare into the air. It traveled in a hissing parabolic arc, plunked down squarely on top of the Pile, and easily ignited Professor Ibuki's secret accelerant. Fire cascaded down the sides of the stack, racing through the cracks and seams in the timbers, and within moments - just as promised - the whole thing was ablaze, flooding the center of the Common with heat and merry orange light. The student body and assembled faculty broke into spontaneous applause and cheers.
"Oooooo. Classy," Lindsey murmured.
As Sosuke returned to her side, tucking his flare gun back into his coat, Kaname smiled and told him, "OK, I admit it, that was cool."
He nodded cordially. "Thank you, Miss Chidori."
Sunday, February 14, 2410
Sunday morning opened grey and overcast, a suitable air of tension permeating the air, heralding the conflicts to come. Although the morning was still allocated for sledding and ice skating, the majority of students who were involved in Winterfest activites were already directing their attentions towards preparations for that afternoon's entertainment.
By the time lunch rolled around, those students who had chosen to participate in the grand experiment had gathered at the steps of the Student Union facing the Commons. Those who hadn't chosen to participate, yet were still interested in the proceedings, had begun to gather in small groups along the edges of the Commons.
In front of Fort Tesla, Professor Charles Moore had dressed for the occasion in a battle-dress uniform he appeared to have borrowed from the 20th-Century Earth faction of the Institute's Society for Creative Anachronism chapter, the bright red beret on his head displaying his team affiliation plainly. With his hands folded behind his back, he paced up and down before his troops, surveying them with flinty eyes. Many of the freshmen from Kaname's floor were here, keyed up and ready to play. A few wore sports equipment, mainly hockey helmets and a few cricket shinguards. Rory Williams, though not a freshman, had joined his floormates, toting a tall, curved, gaily painted red-and-gold shield he'd appropriated from the Theatre Department props room (a leftover from the previous fall's Shakespeare-on-the-Common production of Julius Caesar).
"Now I want you all to remember something," he said, his voice deliberately pitched in a lower, raspier register than his students were used to. "General Sterling told you on Friday that this was a game. But this is not a game! This is war! And nobody ever won a war with guts alone!" He rounded on them. "Wars are won with brains! And tools! Mr. Weeks!"
"Here!" Shark Week declared.
"Is your invention ready?" Moore demanded.
"Affirmative, sir!" Weeks replied, brandishing what looked like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a firehose.
"All right. Everybody use your heads, think tactically, and don't let those Blue - " He hesitated fractionally. " - bozos taunt you into losing your cool! We're gonna win this thing by fighting smarter, not harder!"
Meanwhile, at Fort Sagara, Professor William MacGregor had adopted an entirely different persona. As a proud son of New Caledonia, he was decked out in the full Highland regalia, as if he'd just arrived from the Battle of Culloden. Most of the Duelists who were taking part were on his side, as well as a handful of the alumni who'd come to campus for the festival. Down in front, Amy Pond - probably the only person in the B'hava'el system who was more Scottish than MacGregor, being from the genuine and original Inverness - had taken his theme fully on board, sporting not only slightly ragged Clan MacIntosh tartan but vivid blue war paint. Nobody else had gone quite that far, but they all looked cheerfully up for a scrap.
"I'll bet ye ennathin'," MacGregor bellowed, his burr even broader than usual, "Old Nancy Moore is over there righ' noow tellin' his kids tha' this is a war, an' ye win a war wi' smarts. Bu' we all knoow tha' isna so! Ye win a war by bein' harder than the other fella! By nae bein' afraid!" He brandished his round Scots targe. "By knoowin' tha' they may take our lives, but never our honor! Now go ou' there an' show 'em wha' for!"
After the faculty-advisor pep talks, the first couple of rounds were almost anticlimactic. Fought with small squads, skirmish-style, they were only intended to test the mechanics and make sure the timing of the game actually worked. The referee panel (two deans, Odo, and President Tiefeld) carried out a few rules adjustments on the fly, tweaking the precise workings of the game based on the results of these rounds, and by one-thirty, everything was in place for the all-hands showdowns to begin.
Blue took the first round, but messily, with heavy losses. Red took the second, but it was a laborious process, featuring a number of gambits that were canny and well-thought-out, but lacked something in spectator appeal. For the third and final, tie-breaking round, the referees ruled that the faculty captains were far too invested in the thing and ordered them off the field, to be replaced with player captains selected by popular demand.
To no one's great surprise, the Duelist-heavy Blues immediately dragooned their emerita VP, the most senior member of the Interscholastic Duelists' Federation participating in the game. To no one else's great surprise, the Hamlin 4th-dominated Reds responded by naming their beloved RA.
Stepping to the center of the pitch for the kickoff to Round Three, Kaname grinned and inquired, "You ready for this, Utena?"
Utena Tenjou responded with a trademark grin of her own and replied, "Let's give 'em a show."
"Oh it is on," Lindsey Willows cried happily from the Blue side as the 30-second warning horn sounded. The two captains shook hands ceremoniously, parted and walked back to their lines.
"What's the plan, Miss Chidori?" Sosuke inquired as Kaname entered the Red command post.
Kaname grinned. "That's your department, Sergeant-at-Arms."
Sosuke looked a little taken aback for a moment, then smiled slightly and gestured for the others to gather around. When they had, he indicated points on the big tactical map and began rapping out instructions: "Kazama. Holstein. Kruger. Proceed to point delta-four and await Miss Chidori's signal. Avoid engagement until that time if at all possible. Yumemiya, Wáng, Williams, I need you right here. Woods, Hallard, Senoh, echelon left. Mukai, Inaba, Zak, echelon right. Everyone else, stay here, defense formation C, but be prepared to move out. Miss Chidori, you're with me."
Outside, the "commence game" siren wailed. Kaname's grin widened; she clapped the sergeant on one shoulder, grabbed a snowball out of the nearest bin, and said, "Right, then. Let's get it on!"
Red's assault force burst out of Fort Sagara with a suddenness and cohesion that took Blue somewhat by surprise - they were clearly expecting a few opening minutes of probing attacks and feints, not a frontal assault - but they were ready to defend themselves. The main force encountered heavy resistance almost from the start, first in the form of plunging fire from the Fort Tesla battlements, then - as they drew nearer - direct fire from the front-line defenders. Trainee Invader Zak was the first to get it, falling with a despairing cry of "I have failed you, my Not-Quite-As-Tallest!" as they crossed the centerline of no-man's-land. On the left flank, Irina Woods was next to go, although - with a mighty effort - she dispatched her roommate even as she fell.
When they reached the outer perimeter of the Blue side itself, Sosuke put the next phase of his plan into action, relaying instructions through Kaname and her handy-talky. On the far side, having crept into position all but unnoticed amid the fury of the frontal attack, Shinji Kazama's sapper team began scaling the rear of the fort, stealthily eliminating the handful of Blues chafing at their rearguard assignments. Once they were in position, Kaname - at a tense nod from Sosuke - ordered the breaching phase to commence.
Arika, Nina, and Rory broke away from the main force and ran for the Unionside front corner of the opposing team's fort, Sosuke and Kaname a bit to their right, the rest of the formation trailing a few paces and maintaining volley fire over their heads. To the left, in the most exposed position on the wedge, Rory hustled along next to the two girls, keeping them covered with his giant shield. Arika glanced at her roommate, asked quickly with a grin, "The one-two?" and received a curt nod in reply.
Nina and Rory sprinted ahead to the base of the fort, using an inside corner of the walls for cover from two sides while Rory hunkered down and grounded his shield to cover the third. Arika took a moment longer to accept snowballs from her teammates, handed to her while on the run. Then, without breaking stride, her arms full of snowballs, she ran straight for Nina, who had crouched down and laced her hands together.
As soon as Arika's foot was in Nina's improvised sling, Nina bent her entire body back and raised her arms, launching Arika into the air with a mighty "HUP!"
Now airborne, Arika easily soared over the upper ramparts of the base, taking the few students stationed up top by surprise. Skillfully thrown snowballs pasted two in the face, and the remainder were dumped, claymore-style, on three more before she landed among their fallen forms. With the top now distracted, Arika called out to her compatriots, "The top's clear! GO GO GO!" As Sosuke, Kaname, and the rest of the assault force scaled the glacis, Arika rushed to the nearest snow bin to resupply for the inevitable counterattack.
When it came, it was massive and furious, all hands on the Blue team rallying to defend the nerve center of their citadel. Had it been anything more serious than a snowball fight, the carnage would have beggared description, because - with the hour growing late - everyone sensed that this was it. Seeing that Blue hadn't had time to mount a strike of their own, Kaname called out most of the reserves she and Sosuke had left behind. The final confrontation, the climactic battle of this epic afternoon, was at hand.
Amid the melee, a hundred little dramas played out individually. In lonely corners of the battlefield, friends, roommates, even brothers and sisters were pitted against each other in this final, feral, merciless phase of the Snow Wars, often with endings that were straight out of Greek tragedy. As everyone had known from the start was inevitable, Amy and Rory exterminated each other all but simultaneously, Rory abandoning his shield upright to protect Kaname's left flank and then fearlessly meeting his lover's banzai charge with one of his own. Off to the right, Nina and Arika perished in a withering crossfire set up by Lindsey and Boba Fett before the former fell to Shark Week's snow bazooka and Tom Palmer - having traitorously agreed to switch teams for balance's sake after Round Two - picked off the latter with a surgically applied snow slider. Onager fire from the upper battlement swept away much of the Red afterguard before Shinji's sappers, striking from behind, could silence the weapon and most of its crew.
Spying the pink streamer of Utena's hair as she jumped down from the doomed onager's platform with black-clad Corwin Ravenhair alongside her, Sosuke turned to Kaname and said, "Miss Tenjou's all yours, Miss Chidori. I'll deal with Ravenhair."
Kaname nodded and went to the left as Sosuke broke right, loading up his non-throwing arm as he went - and so, as everyone had also known would be inevitable, it came down to a snipers' duel between team captains. While their bodyguards were busy annihilating each other with massed fire, Utena Tenjou and Kaname Sterling pitted their pitching arms against each other across the circular gallery overlooking the flag room - a distance, entirely by design, of exactly 60.5 feet. In many ways this was a classic confrontation: lefty versus righty, power versus finesse, Utena's crushingly direct four-seam fastball against Kaname's trademark viciously late-breaking cutter.
While the combatants dug themselves out of the deep spots, brushed themselves off, laughed uproariously, and in a couple of cases got in a little surreptitious making out under cover of snowdrifts before emerging, the final score had to be determined with a frame count of video footage from Chie Hallard's handycam. This showed that, though both teams had suffered 100% losses in that final assault, and therefore, strictly speaking, no one had won Round Three, Red's captain had "lived" exactly 0.027 seconds longer than Blue's. Therefore, based on the overall scores, Red were the afternoon's ultimate winners - though all agreed that, in the final analysis, they'd all won because damn, we are so doing this again next year.
Hearing the verdict at the scorer's table, Utena finished wiping snow out of her eyes, turned to Kaname, and offered her hand again with a smile, remarking, "You've got a hell of a breaking ball there. Good game!"
"Thanks," said Kaname, shaking it. "Are you guys staying for the dance?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
Having combed the snow out of their hair, changed clothes, and grabbed a quick dinner, the students reconvened in the Grand Ballroom. This was an altogether less, well, formal affair than the Spring Formal. There was no chamberlain at the Winterfest Dance, no announcement queue, no photo line, not even the standard tacit expectation that the attendees would come as couples (though most still did). In keeping with the Winterfest/Sanity Week theme, it was more like a big, school-sanctioned party: Come as you are and be prepared to get down.
The ballroom was configured in a modified concert auditorium setup. Up on the stage, the briefing equipment from Kaname's introductory speech on Friday had been removed, the curtain closed, and the risers, amps, and stacks of a rock band erected on the apron (along with the Union's upright piano), but down in the main room, the floor was as devoid as ever of seating, apart from the benches along the room's long walls.
Precisely on the dot of seven, the band took the stage, six figures unmistakable to anyone at all familiar with the school's history. A slim, dusky girl with wiry grey hair, her golden eyes glittering in the stage lights; a dark-eyed, auburn-haired young woman in a black tank top printed with an industrial safety sign (DANGER: THIS MACHINE ROCKS AUTOMATICALLY); the massive black-clad form of a Hoffmanite; a slender, blue-haired young man in a ruffly shirt and leather jeans; a bespectacled brunette in what looked to be a white marching-band jacket and cargo pants; and a tiger. Wearing sunglasses.
"Ladies and gentlebeings!" Moose MacEchearn boomed, not requiring amplification to reach the farthest corners of the ballroom with his stentorian voice. "Welcome to the fourth annual Winterfest Dance! We - are the Art of Noise!"
And with no more buildup than that, they were off, laying down the intro of the song they'd chosen as this year's regular opener.
Kaname watched from the sidelines as her classmates danced and mingled, enjoying the music in the moment. Despite Kate's concerns that the Art of Noise was more accustomed to playing concerts, where the audience might occasionally get up and boogie in the aisles in reaction to one song or another, and not an actual full-on dance, the band acquitted itself admirably. The people around her were gettin' down and feelin' the sound, as the saying went. Kaname half-suspected that Kate had been protesting more as a matter of form than an actual legitimate complaint, anyway. If her expression was anything to go by, Kate was experiencing no doubt about the gig now, as she stepped to the center mic and hit the chorus harmony with Azalynn and Miki on either side of her.
I understand about indecision
But I don't care if I get behind
People livin' in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind
Besides, didn't they play the music for Anthy and Utena's wedding reception? From all reports, that was spectacular, Kaname reflected to herself with a grin. Hutchins, thou dost protest too much.
One of the things the students In the Know were waiting for during the first set of the Winterfest Dance slash Concert was the guest stars. For some time now the Art of Noise had been known within their fan base for abruptly producing the most unexpected guests during their shows, usually without any advance promotion whatever. The Superconducting Supercolliders, Minmay and the Marauders, Sheryl Nome; you just never knew who might suddenly take the stage alongside Kate and the gang during an Art of Noise performance.
The first set ended without one, though, as most of the band left the stage while Kaitlyn stayed behind her bank of keyboards. All the lights went down apart from the one on her as, without comment, she busied herself making some config changes to the stack of gear that stood to her right. This was also part of the Art's standard operating procedure. After a few moments of this she squared herself behind the array, touched a key, and a spine-chilling electric sound planed down to a simple but driving bassline that hammered from the speakers: the signature undercurrent of the most distinctive television music in the galaxy, the theme from Professor Enigma.
She played a very minimalist version of it at first, twice through the main theme with the soaring bridge section in between, held the last note of the outro for a moment... and then started again, this time with a much bigger sound.
This arrangement was new, not precisely any of the many versions that had graced the show's opening titles since its debut in the mid-20th century, with the kind of lush instrumentation that suggested it was meant to be played with a full orchestra's backing. Sharp-eared fans, and there were more than a few in this audience, caught some of the distinctive sounds of the very first arrangement, circa 1963, layered into the soundscape. Others remarked to themselves (it being largely impossible at this point to remark to anyone else) that her synthesizer array was doing a really good job of simulating the sound of an orchestra behind her.
Until the lights came back up in the middle of the reiterated bridge and they saw that she had an orchestra behind her, along with the rest of the Art of Noise. The Art were known for creeping back during the blackout, but to bring an entire concert orchestra with them was taking the stunt to something of a new level.
They finished the theme with a variant on the traditional thundering crescendo. As it was fading, before anyone in the audience recovered enough to start applauding, a woman nobody recognized emerged into the light a short distance from Kaitlyn. About Kate's age and serious-looking, with dark hair pulled back in a rather severe French braid, she was dressed in a kind of Victorian adventuress costume, if "adventuress" in Victorian times had implied two-fisted tomboy action and not unsuitable romantic decisions: white high-collared shirt, blue waistcoat with watch chain, sharply creased turnup trousers and sturdy shoes. She stepped up to the center mic (vacant since Kate was behind the keyboards) and said, in a quiet but intense, portentous voice,
"No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched by intelligences which inhabited the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded the Earth with envious eyes... and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us."
Even in a student body as eclectic as DSM's, there were relatively few young people who had heard of the 1970s rock opera version of The War of the Worlds, but after the Art of Noise's performance of its first song, quite a number made mental notes to track it down, even if it had been a bit difficult to dance to - and to find out who the woman was who was doing the narration and the vocals.
"The chances of anything coming from Mars
Are a million to one," he said
"The chances of anything coming from Mars
Are a million to one"
But still they come...
(The first time that refrain appeared, the school's one Martian student got a big laugh from those near her by shrugging with a 'well, hey, what're you gonna do' expression on her face.)
At the song's end, the woman in the Victorian waistcoat broke her character's serious mien with a dazzling great smile and declared, "Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Westminster Prime, give it up for the BBC Æthereophonic Orchestra!" While they cheered, she raked her fingers through her hair, shaking it out of the braid and down around her shoulders, and suddenly at least a handful of people in the audience realized who she was. She wasn't galactically famous, certainly not to the standard established by other Art of Noise guest stars over the years, but she'd enjoyed a certain amount of success in the Crown Colonies, which were well-represented in DSM's student population.
True, when last they'd seen her, she was appearing in the music video for the one song of hers that had charted off her homeworld, and in that she was blonde and dressed like a skater grrl, not a brunette in Victorian Gentleman drag - but no one who had ever seen Rose Tyler smile like that could ever really be said to forget it.
When the lights went out on the orchestra, Rose and the Art played that one song - a bit poppy by Art of Noise standards in its original incarnation, but they rocked it up nicely, reinforcing some people's suspicions that it had been intended to be harder-edged when originally written. Then she joined them for the Art's signature "welcome guest artists!" number, "I Think I Like It", after which she thanked them and Kate and left the stage. Only once she was gone did it occur to many students that she hadn't actually mentioned who she was, leaving it for the people who knew to explain to the people who didn't.
Naturally, when the lights came up again behind the band, the orchestra was gone, and the Art went on with their second set as if nothing unusual had happened. They looked like they could've gone all night, but even the Winterfest Dance eventually had a curfew, and as the time came up toward 10 PM, they started to wind things up. Kate reiterated the names of her bandmates as, one by one, they dropped out of the long windout of "Sultans of Swing" - a practice she referred to as "outroduction" - and left the stage, until finally she was once more alone. She finished "Sultans" alone, racked her Stratocaster, and went back to the keyboards. For a second it looked like she was just going to start shutting things off, thank everyone for coming, and go, but then a thoughtful look crossed her face and she switched her keyboard-stack mic back on.
"So, listen," she said. "I've been gone for a while - does the school still have that rule about public displays of affection?"
Yes, the crowd replied, a trifle ruefully.
Kate considered that for a second, then said, "Hm. Well... sorry in advance, then," and began to play a slow, deliberate, faintly haunting melody in a synthetic organ voice.
Now that's just mean, thought Kaname wryly. She leaned against the upright of the archway leading out to the Student Union's main lobby, her eyes seeking out various couples and little groups as they danced or just hung out to this last song. Slow numbers at dances and school policies on PDA had always and forever been in opposition, and Kaname was pleased to see that both sides of the eternal divide were doing what they could to maintain détente tonight: the students by not pushing the line too far, their chaperones by not toeing it too strictly. (Indeed, the only really diligent chaperoning going on right now, she noticed with a suppressed giggle, appeared to be Professor Steinberg struggling to keep Professor Sugiura off Professor Hammond, and that had been going on more or less all night.)
There'd been a lot of mixing and matching over the course of the evening, naturally, but for this last number, it seemed like all the school's "canonical" couples were out on the floor. Natsuki and Shizuru, playing it cool, as though they could've just happened to be dancing with anyone, like that was fooling anybody. Chie and Aoi - strange to see them moving so slowly under any circumstances. Amy and Rory might've been the only people out there, so collected and smooth she could almost believe they'd done this a thousand times. Shark Week and Nelyna, hey, why not. Steve Dukat and Nita Daran, ditto. Kazuya and Akane, no surprises there. Mizuki and - hang on, Mizuki and Boba Fett, really? Well, OK, he's a lot better than the last jerkweed she dated.
And so it was later
As the miller told his tale
That her face at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale...
Kaname smiled to herself. Yeah, see, this was why she got involved in things like this. Not for power or for glory, but for the satisfaction of seeing her friends having a good time and knowing that she had a hand in making it come to pass.
She suddenly detected a presence at her side; turning, she saw Sosuke Sagara, a flute of mineral water in each hand. He presented one to her, keeping the other for himself.
"Thanks," she said. "You know, Mileva did have a great idea. You guys really came through for me. That was the perfect way to cap off the festival and set everything up for the dance." She grinned. "People'll be talking about this year's fest for years."
Sosuke inclined his head. "Then I must conclude that Operation WINTERFEST is a success, Miss Chidori."
Kaname gave Sosuke a cockeyed grin, as she lifted her glass of water and tapped it against Sosuke's. "I'll drink to that."
And so they did.
Wednesday, February 10, 2410, 2119 hrs GST
Green Sector Core Shuttle Station #4 (Garden Central Station)
International Police Station Babylon 6
It wasn't that Mileva Tesla hadn't had a nice time, because she had. Pellucidar was an excellent restaurant, one that did not for a moment rest on its gimmick despite having one of the greatest gimmicks in the galaxy - the fact that it was located inside the hollow world of Babylon 6's O'Neill cylinder. The management knew full well that the diplomatic clientele, to say nothing of the various dignitaries who could be expected to pass through the station from time to time, weren't likely to stand for being fobbed off with just the fancy setting, so the service was impeccable and the food outstanding.
It was just that she was pretty sure there was more to a date than just showing up at the restaurant and having a nice time. Unfortunately, neither she nor her escort, Sosuke Sagara, seemed to have any idea what that "more" might actually be. He was a very polite young man and knew what to do in a fine-dining environment thanks to his training, but he clearly regarded the occasion as a mission, not a recreational activity, and was approaching it with all due seriousness. This was better than at least some alternatives, but it did have the handicap of not being very interesting.
For Mileva's part, she'd never been on a date before. Raised in the always fascinating, but not conventionally socializing, world of Tesladyne Heavy Industries, she was at ease with higher math, lightning guns, and the other traditional hallmarks of action science, but had only the vaguest expectations in this unfamiliar milieu. She sensed on an almost instinctive level that there was something missing from the experience, but couldn't put her finger on what it was.
As such, she was feeling a faint but undeniable sense of disappointment as she and Sosuke stood waiting for the B6 core shuttle - the monorail tram that would take them back to the main spacecraft docking area and their flight back to Jeraddo. She felt like she ought to be saying something, finding a way to make the personal connection that had been lacking beneath the polite and pleasant, but mainly insubstantial, conversation they'd been making all evening.
I knew this would happen, she fretted silently.
Now, waiting for the core shuttle, Mileva was riffling through a mental Rolodex she had to admit was mostly empty, searching in vain for something to say that might spark up a real conversation - bring her some sense of connection with this odd but strangely compelling young man. She was smart enough to realize that it wasn't entirely her fault that they didn't seem to be able to engage, but she was determined not to give up.
She hadn't made much headway on the project when something occurred to distract her from it. A group of three more people arrived on the shuttle station platform. Two were men, one middle-aged, the other young and beefy, dressed in the showy and elaborate fashion of Centauri men of means out on the town, and they had the hairstyles to match. The third was a young woman Mileva realized, after a couple of seconds, she recognized - their waitress from Pellucidar, evidently having just gotten off her shift.
The three arrived together inasmuch as they came onto the platform at the same time, but they were clearly not a social unit, or at least not all of them thought so. The elder of the two men was following the young woman closely - too closely - and making remarks to her in an undertone that Mileva didn't have to hear clearly to know were lewd suggestions. He was unsteady on his feet and otherwise gave clear signs of intoxication.
The younger man didn't involve himself, except to stand - loom might have been a better term - just outside arm's reach and at such an angle that he blocked the woman's only obvious route of escape. His body language suggested that he was quite sober, and in a position of some deference to his elder. An employee, perhaps. Judging by the size of him and the way he carried himself, very likely a bodyguard.
Mileva glanced at Sosuke, curious to see how he would react to this. At first he didn't appear to react at all, other than to regard the trio with a calm, not-really-interested look -
- until their waitress - Aniri, that was her name, she'd introduced herself when they arrived - pushed the elder man away and said something that, though Mileva didn't understand Centauri, was obviously a very firm negative. She sensed Sosuke tense slightly beside her then, as if taking the situation somewhat more seriously now that it was escalating.
The elder man wasn't very pleased with that, and even less pleased when he pressed his case and she slapped him, then turned and tried to dart away. She found her path blocked by the younger man, pulled up short to avoid running into him, and turned looking for another way out of the situation, but before she could find one, the elder man had caught up with her, spun her by the shoulder to face him, and struck her a backhanded blow that nearly knocked her to the deck.
That made up Sosuke's mind. Before Mileva could react, he moved, taking two brisk strides across the platform and seizing the elder Centauri's drawn-back arm before it could deliver another blow.
"Leave her alone," said the young mercenary in a sharp, uncompromising voice.
The middle-aged Centauri rounded on Sosuke, wrenching his arm free, and snarled something in a slurred-sounding dialect from his homeworld.
"Garibaldi's toy soldiers are getting younger all the time," the bodyguard-type remarked with a sneer, apparently misreading Sosuke's body language and taking him for an off-duty security officer. "This one's not even old enough to understand that his kind aren't to harass their betters."
"Well, tell him," said the elder in blurrily accented Standard, "that I am Vice-Consul Tahaar of the Centauri Republic, and if he interferes with me again I will see that his employment is terminated for violating my diplomatic immunity."
Sosuke ignored them both and addressed Aniri. "Is this man bothering you?" he asked, though Mileva figured the answer to that was pretty self-evident.
"Yes," said Aniri in a small voice; then, drawing some courage from the young human's air of complete self-possession, she glared at the Vice-Consul and added, "What he demands, not even the Emperor is entitled to require of his subjects today."
Inexperienced in the ways of the world he might've been, but Sosuke clearly didn't need a diagram drawn for him here. He nodded to her and turned to address Tahaar.
"Leave this woman alone," he repeated calmly. "Turn around and walk away. I'm not going to tell you again."
"Pah!" the Vice-Consul spat. "I'll do as I like!" He seized Aniri's arm and pulled her roughly to his side, despite her efforts to get away. "What business is it of yours, human?"
"None at all," Sosuke replied agreeably, and then he punched the Vice-Consul in the stomach, folding him up like a cheap beach chair.
The bodyguard let out a yell at that and lunged. Sosuke took a half-second to shove Aniri out of the line of fire, as it were, and then ducked the bodyguard's first wild swing, stepping away from the crumpled Vice-Consul to give himself some more room to maneuver. His first attack having failed, the bodyguard smartened up, recognizing Sosuke's training in the way he moved. He ignored the little girl in the blue dress, concentrating entirely on the scar-faced young man who had just assaulted his boss.
Both men were well-trained in hand-to-hand combat; the Centauri bodyguard was bigger and had longer arms, but Sosuke was quicker on his feet and seemed to possess an almost supernatural sense for what his opponent was going to do. They circled, making feints and probing attacks, blocking and evading, never getting in a solid blow, for several seconds...
... and then the bodyguard suddenly stiffened, his eyes going wide and his hair standing even more on end than was normal. For two or three seconds he stood rigid, popping eyes fixed on Sosuke's with a look of infinite surprise. Then they rolled up and back, and he collapsed in a heap to the deck at Sosuke's feet and lay there twitching.
"Hey, look at that," Mileva remarked brightly from behind where he'd just been standing, a cheerful little crackle of lightning still playing between the two tiny metal discs set in the palm of her right glove. "Turns out diplomatic immunity doesn't extend to Ohm's law. Who knew?"
Just then the shuttle finally arrived, offering Sosuke, Mileva, and Aniri the opportunity to get the hell out of there before either Centauri could come to and call security.
"Thank you," Aniri said to them once the train had started again and they were safely away from the station. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there."
Sosuke nodded and said only, "Ma'am."
"Will you be OK?" Mileva asked her. "I gather that guy's kind of important."
Aniri sniffed disdainfully. "He's a drunken pig."
"His drinking habits aside, he may seek revenge once he recovers," Sosuke said practically. "If you have no legal recourse, I recommend you procure a weapon and some training in its use."
Aniri smiled. "Tempting... but I think simply reporting him to the embassy will do. Ambassador Mollari is also a drunkard, but he only gets maudlin and tells dull stories when he's in his cups. I doubt he'll tolerate behavior like Tahaar's in his staff."
She rose at the next stop and said, "I should get off here. My quarters are in Red Sector - back the other way."
Sosuke wouldn't hear of her returning home unescorted after all that, and she didn't require a lot of persuading. He and Mileva saw her safely to her door. When they passed back through the Garden station, there was no sign of the two men.
"Thank you," Aniri said again in her doorway. "Will you tell me your names? I won't mention you to Mollari, but... I would like to know."
Sosuke nodded. "It's Sagara, ma'am. Sergeant Sosuke Sagara."
"I'm Mileva Tesla," Mileva said. "And you're welcome," she added with a smile.
Neither spoke until they were facing each other across the aisle of another core shuttle, once more on the way to the docking complex.
"Well," said Mileva. "That was exciting. It's just never dull with you around, is it, Sosuke?"
Sosuke glanced at her, then shrugged slightly. "I don't look for trouble, Miss Tesla," he said. "But I'm not going to back away from it when it finds me."
Mileva laughed. "Yeah, I'm like that too. I get it from my dad. 'I am a peace-loving man, Mileva,' he told me once," she went on, doing a passable imitation of her father's slight accent, "'but that does not mean I am willing to tolerate injustice for the sake of peace.'"
Sosuke smiled slightly. "I like that," he said.
"Will you call me Mileva, please?" she asked. "It seems weird being called by my last name on a date."
He looked as though that hadn't occurred to him, then nodded. "If that's what you want," he said. "Mileva."
Mileva beamed, proud of herself for having forged an actual connection, however small. Then, emboldened, she asked, "So what's Her Dread Majesty got you working on in the holo lab? I heard a rumor that you were going to bankrupt the Student Council."
Sosuke looked puzzled for a moment, then realized what she was talking about and said, "My campus security plan? That was a separate project. My actual tasking from Miss Chidori involves developing and planning a recreational activity to occupy the space between lunchtime and the Winterfest Dance on Sunday afternoon." He sat back in the tram seat facing her, arms folded, and went on, "I confess this has proven a more difficult task than I was anticipating when I told Miss Chidori I would take care of it. It should have occurred to me at the time that my experience and expertise in recreational matters is very limited... but she has a way of making me... " He searched for a phrase, then settled on, "... pay insufficient attention to my limits."
Mileva nodded, her face thoughtful. "Hmm," she said. "Something fun to fill up Sunday afternoon... that you would actually know something about." Then she blinked as a thought began to germinate in the back of her mind. She sat forward and asked, "Do you have your campus security plan on you?"
Sosuke gave her another quizzical look. "Yes," he said. "Why?"
"It's based on the standard holomap of the school we use in Surveying and Landform Design?"
"Yes," Sosuke repeated, and Mileva grinned.
"What time is it?" she asked.
Sosuke glanced at his black plastic milspec watch. "2145 hours."
"So we've got a little more than an hour. That'll do!" She jumped up and grabbed his arm, pulling him upright. "Come on, we're getting off at the next stop."
"The next station is the Blue Sector hub," Sosuke said. "That puts us nearly half a mile from Docking Area C."
Mileva's grin got wider. "I know," she said. "Trust me."
At exactly 10:57 PM and 46 seconds, a shuttlecraft bearing the distinctive logo of Tesladyne Heavy Industries landed about 10 feet from the front door of Hannibal Hamlin Hall.
"Thanks, Ada!" Mileva said, springing down from the side hatch before the ramp had time to fully reach the ground. "You're the best."
The redheaded woman in the Tesladyne jumpsuit at the shuttle's controls leaned back in her seat to look out the hatchway and grinned. "I'll tell Robo you said so!" she said. Mileva laughed.
Disembarking behind Mileva, Sosuke paused just outside the hatch and said, "Are you sure you don't need my help to begin site preparations, Dr. Byron? The security and student tracking system in my residence hall is trivially easy to - "
"Get to bed, young man," said Ada mock-sternly. "Don't worry about a thing. My team and I have it all under control." Indeed, Sosuke could see other Tesladyne shuttles vectoring to land at strategic points all around the Common now. The nearest one, as soon as it was down, disembarked a team of engineers with a briskness and dispatch he'd rarely seen in civilians, or even soldiers not under fire.
"By the time you're up and about in the morning," Ada went on, "we should be just starting Phase III. Then we're going to want your help. For now, rack out, Sergeant! That's an order!"
Sosuke drew up and saluted her. "Yes, ma'am," he said with a hint of a smile; then he stepped back as Ada returned his salute, then powered up the shuttle's repulsors and lifted off again.
"Sosuke," said Mileva. He broke off watching the shuttle's departure path - bound back to B6 to collect another group of action engineers - and turned to her. "I have to run, but... " She hesitated, color rising slightly in her cheeks, then stood on tiptoe, her arms going around his neck, and stretched up to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for tonight," she said quietly. "I had a great time. It was my first ever date."
Sosuke looked utterly taken aback for a moment, then recovered himself and smiled - only a small smile, the only kind she could really imagine his face ever making, but a genuine one for all that. "You're welcome, Mileva," he said. "I had a good time as well. And thank you for helping me with my project. I think everyone will be very pleased with it."
"Oh, you're welcome. I hope so." She took his arm and looked at his watch. "Oh, jeez, I gotta go. Lockout in 20 seconds." She broke away, ran to Hamlin Hall's front door, pulled it open, paused for one last wave, and then vanished inside.
Sosuke turned and ran toward Blair Hall, which he reached with a full four seconds to spare, and wondered belatedly whether he should have mentioned that it was his first date as well.
Ah, well. That probably wasn't important.
Saturday, February 13, 2410
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor
The Winterfest activities were well underway, but that didn't mean that Kaname Sterling could rest. There were still brush fires to put out, status reports to read, and last-minute decisions to make. There was also overseeing various of the events (and participating in them, just a little), and keeping track of the residents of her dorm floor.
So it was that Kaname found herself trudging up the path to the Duelists' Castle, surrounded by about a quarter of her floor residents and flanked by Sosuke Sagara.
Every half-year, during Homecoming in A-term and Sanity Week in C-term, the Institute Duelists' Society held an open house, wherein the Castle's doors stood open (albeit not literally, at least not in C-term) to anyone who cared to stop by. The club's officers were on hand, ready to explain to any curious individuals exactly what it was the Society did, and why, and are they insane to let you do that, and so forth. Other members conducted tours of the building, showing visitors the library, conference room, and other non-private spaces. Still others were stationed in the Great Hall, answering questions about or demonstrating the use of various weapons.
"Most people who join the Society are invited, either because they've done something to attract the officers' attention, or because they know someone who's already in the club," Lindsey Willows was explaining to Kaname's student group as they approached the Castle's great main doors. "Potential recruits do have to demonstrate that they know what they're doing, and this is the place where they do it. Others come to our open houses specifically to try and make that first impression." She smiled. "Test matches aren't the same as full-on duels between two members, but they're still quite a workout. We also get challengers coming in from dueling clubs at other schools sometimes. Maybe we'll get to see one today."
Sosuke leaned toward Kaname so the younger students wouldn't hear and asked her, "What is their usual rate of recruitment?"
Kaname wiggled her free hand. "Well, they don't really have formal recruitment per se, but if you split between the scouting and personal recommendations Lins was just talking about, versus the open-house applicants and challengers making the grade, you'd be looking at a sixty-forty split."
"Do you attend these events regularly?"
"Well... yeah, I'm usually here," Kaname said. "I mean, Lindsey and I have been friends since before either of us came here, and since I became an RA there's usually a few kids on my floor who want to check it out. Besides, I mean... " She shrugged. "It's not my own scene, exactly, but it is pretty cool to watch."
The smaller door inset into one of the Castle's great doors opened at their approach, and they found themselves beckoned into the entrance hall by the distinctive figure of the Society's faculty advisor, Professor May, bundled up in the kind of parka that made him look like he might be setting off for an expedition to Ice Planet Hoth.
"Welcome!" he said cheerfully, gesturing them inside. "I'm just off to look after the afternoon round of the lake hockey tournament. Come in, have a look round. The officers and some of the alumni are here to answer any questions you might have."
"I'll stop back by later to see how the hockey's wrapping up," Kaname told May as she ushered her charges past him into the building.
"Righto, don't worry about a thing," he said, then winked and added, "I've arranged things so that Clarkson and Hammond won't be anywhere nearby, so everything should remain under control."
Kaname laughed and repeated that she'd see him later, watched as he hurried off down the hill, and then stepped inside and closed the door. She turned from that task to see the others she'd brought with her all standing in a little knot, gazing (mostly in delighted wonder) at the magisterial creature who had come to meet them.
All except Sosuke, who immediately stepped in front of her with one arm outstretched, his other hand plunging into his coat. "Stay back, all of you," he barked in a tone so commanding it startled several of the freshmen.
Kaname sighed and flicked him painfully on the nearer earlobe with a fingernail. "Ow!" he cried, startled, and took his hand out of his coat to cover the offended part.
"Spirit, stand down, you imbecile," Kaname snapped. "That's Sergei, he's not going to bother anybody unless they make trouble."
Sosuke gave her an is-that-a-joke look, then turned to see that the students had - ignoring his instruction - flocked around the massive Siberian tiger. The tiger's reaction to this was to sit down, yawn gigantically (drawing cries of delight), and settle in to accept the adulation that was his natural due.
"... oh," said Sosuke.
"It is Alumni Day," a young woman with long, slightly curly brown hair remarked wryly from the doorway to the library. "Kaname, nice to see you again. This must be the bodyguard your mom told me about."
Kaname managed to smile and roll her eyes at the same time. "Hey, Kate, long time. Yeah, this is him. Sosuke Sagara, mercenary in need of adult supervision: Kaitlyn Hutchins, mistress of ceremonies, samurai film star, tiger wrangler." She leaned and muttered in his ear, "If you had drawn that gun, she'd have had your arm off at the elbow."
"So noted," Sosuke replied out of the side of his mouth; then he bowed to Kate and said, "I apologize for my reaction. I... wasn't expecting to find a tiger here." He turned and crouched in front of Serge, examining him more closely, then looked back over his shoulder at Kate. "He's most impressive. Siberian Neo?"
Kate nodded. "You know your neocats," she said with a slight smile.
"They're very noble animals. May I?" Sosuke inquired; at her nod, he turned back and gently stroked the tiger's head, then got to scritching, eliciting a low growl of contentment.
Boy soldier bonds with apex predator, Kaname thought. There's something you don't see every day.
"Do you have a minute to go over the setlist for the show tomorrow?" Kaname asked Kate. "This'd be a good time for it, while the Tiger Whisperer's busy."
"Sure, that works," Kate replied, then gestured to the library and said, "Step into my office."
"Sosuke. I'll meet you in the Great Hall in a few minutes, OK?" said Kaname. Then she added with wryly, "I ought to be safe enough with Kate."
Sosuke nodded and replied without evident irony, "I know, I've seen New Century Zatoichi. That will be satisfactory."
I can never tell whether he's messing with me, Kaname mused as she followed Kate into the library.
"Where'd you find that one?" Kate wondered.
"Don't even start," Kaname replied.
Going over the songs Kate and her band were planning for the next day's Winterfest Dance was the work of only a couple of minutes, mainly because Kate didn't like to plan her shows exactly. She and Kaname discussed which songs the band ought to make sure they played and which were perhaps best omitted in a high school dance context (not that the Art's repertoire involved many of those), then went out to find that a test duel was about to begin in the Great Hall.
"Oh boy, here she goes again," murmured somebody in the crowd. Kaname didn't know who "she" was in this context for a moment, until she saw one of her own young charges, making her way out of the crowd to enter the dueling floor proper.
Arika Yumemiya was an interesting study. Cheerful and optimistic, she had a strange combination of wisdom and lack of common sense that seemed to reflect her upbringing on some far-Rim planet that Kaname had never heard of before. She faced the wonders of the inner galaxy with equal measures of confusion and delight, and refused to allow any impediment to hinder her for long.
(Case in point: she had arrived at the Institute at the last moment, just before classes were about to start, due to an unfortunate series of incidents that had left her stranded on Tuchanka for several weeks. When questioned as to why she had endured such hardships just to attend DSM, she'd answered, "I want to become a Duelist!" and that pretty much settled the matter, as far as she was concerned.)
Now, she was clad in what looked to be a cross between workout spandex and a cheerleader's outfit: snug black bike pants and a shoulderless dark magenta top, accompanied by dark magenta elbow-length gloves, thigh-high white stockings, and a small white frill of a skirt. Clutched in one hand was a long thin staff, with slightly clubbed ends that put Kaname in mind of an extremely stretched cheerleader's baton.
Boba Fett, acting as MC-cum-referee, explained the rules of engagement to both the challenger and the audience at large. "This is not a proper Rose Duel, the usual form we use when dueling each other," he said. "We won't be using live edges or the standard rose targets. Too dangerous. Think of this as more of a friendly sparring match. Three touches, no throws. OK with that?"
Arika nodded. "I'll do my best!" she declared.
Smiling, Fett turned to the group of Duelists who had been conducting demonstrations in the Hall until this challenge had arisen, all of whom had gathered in the corner to open the largest possible space in the middle. "Who will take this young lady's challenge for the Society?" he asked.
A tall, redheaded figure detached herself from the group, putting up a hand. "I'll take that action," said Amy Pond with a grin.
No fancy dueling clothes for Amy; she wore the standard DSM uniform, even though it was a Saturday. Her only preparations for dueling were to duck out of the strap of the sword she wore across her back, shrug out of her blazer, and hand them both to the sandy-haired young man who stood next to her, then loosen her necktie slightly, undo the top button of her shirt, gather up her waves of flame-orange hair, and pin them into a haphazard cockernonnie with a pencil. Fight prep done, she snagged a bokuto from the Wall o' Weapons and advanced into the middle of the room, twirling the weapon lazily in her left hand.
"Ready?" Fett asked.
"Ready!" Arika confirmed, eyes shining with glee.
"Always," said Amy, still grinning.
Fett clapped his hands together. "Begin!"
Those in the room - and there were more than a few - who had seen Arika's prior attempt during the Homecoming open house weren't expecting great things this time. That prior attempt had gone down in Duelist history as the shortest duel of all time. No one had kept track of exactly how many seconds it had taken Sakura Byakuro to disarm and simulate subduing the girl, but it hadn't been very many. Nobody could fault her drive or her energy; her competence, on the other hand...
This time, though, to almost everyone's surprise, she seemed to have improved dramatically. Almost everyone's surprise, but not Kaname's, particularly. One other thing that Kaname had noticed about Arika was her remarkable capacity for improvement. Ever since her first unsuccessful duel the previous fall, Arika had engaged in a regimen of study and exercise in her off-hours, often dragooning her roommates' sometimes-reluctant help. It was a common sight to see Arika, Nina, and Erstin jogging around the Common in the evenings, or sparring bare-handed or with staves in the gym's workout rooms.
Apparently, all that hard work had paid off. The length of her staff compensated for her opponent's considerable height and reach advantages, more or less leveling the physical playing field, and though Arika was still plainly the less skilled of the two combatants, she wasn't so outclassed that the fight was over before it began. She and Amy went back and forth, up and down the room, trading strikes, parries, and athletic maneuvers for nearly two minutes, both plainly enjoying the experience.
"She's not bad," Kaname murmured to Sosuke, impressed.
"Miss Pond is sandbagging," Sosuke replied.
"Uh, well yeah, duh; she doesn't want to kill the poor kid at an open house," said Kaname sarcastically, but Sosuke shook his head.
"No, I mean really sandbagging. Watch." He narrowed his eyes as Amy stepped back from a jabbing strike from one end of Arika's staff, knocking it away from her with a slightly awkward twist of her wrist. "There," he said. "That's a two-handed weapon, but she's only using her left hand."
Kaname gave him a so-what glance. "Well, yeah, like I said."
"No," he said. "Look again. Observe, don't just see." He gave her a few seconds to do so, then added, "She isn't left-handed."
Kaname blinked and looked more closely. Yes, now that he'd said it, she could see what he was talking about. Amy's movements were fluid and sure, but ever so slightly hesitant, and she was constantly having to make small corrections - because she was mentally remapping everything she was doing to the other side of her body, overriding what were obviously well-trained muscle memories. She was just that good that it wasn't immediately obvious, at least not to anyone who wasn't Sosuke Sagara.
"She is plainly a far superior combatant to Miss Yumemiya," Sosuke went on, "but does not wish to humiliate her unnecessarily. Very interesting."
And so much for insight, Kaname thought with a mental sigh, then told him, "I think you'll find that's generally how normal people roll."
"I sincerely doubt Miss Pond is normal people, Miss Chidori," he replied, not taking his eyes off the duel, "but you were right about one thing." He glanced at Rory Williams, who still held Amy's jacket and sword as he watched, then returned his attention to the duel. "She clearly does not need a bodyguard."
"Told you," said Kaname a little smugly.
Unfortunately, despite all the effort Arika had put in over the past five months, it presently became apparent that it hadn't been quite enough. Even the handicap Amy had set for herself wasn't holding her back quite enough for the energetic freshman to defeat her. Arika did score one touch, and came within a hairsbreadth of another, but ultimately, the tall redhead was able to parry a slightly-too-enthusiastic overhand strike, spin the staff out of her hands, and score a third and final touch to the center of her chest - though, Kaname realized, she'd had to use both hands to do it.
"And that's that!" Amy said cheerfully, then whirled her bokuto back and rested the flat of it on her shoulder. "Good game, though," she added, slightly out of breath. "Keep at it like you have been and you'll make it next time for sure."
"Grandma said that there's always next time," Arika said with a grin as both combatants accepted towels from Lindsey. She bowed to Amy, who returned it with a smile, her towel draped around her neck. "Thank you for an excellent battle!"
Kaname watched and applauded as Arika left the dueling floor. The freshman was soon surrounded by the rest of her floor-mates, who were congratulating her for having survived the duel, and providing words of encouragement as to her chances for next year. Even serious-faced Nina Wáng gave her grudging approval of her roommate's progress, while Erstin Holstein was much more outgoing with her praise.
Kaname nodded with satisfaction as she watched Amy return to the Duelist contingent.
"Well, that's a relief," she said. "Any day when Arika doesn't have to go to the infirmary... "
With that taken care of, the group from Hamlin 4 was free to take the rest of the tour. Despite the size of the Castle, this didn't take all that long, mainly because it was confined to the building's public spaces. As she conducted them through the halls and showed them secondary practice spaces, the library, the dining hall and so forth, Lindsey explained that it wasn't really a castle, as such, but rather had been an outpost of the Order of Jedi Knights, long, long ago.
"Ah," Sosuke mused. "That explains the lack of proper defensive features," but before he could elaborate on that, Kaname had stepped on his foot.
When they got back to the Great Hall, another round of demonstrations was in progress, and leaving her students to take them in, Kaname crossed to the corner where most of the senior Duelists were hanging around. One, an old friend she hadn't seen in some time, happened to be off by himself at the moment, and she'd been looking forward to renewing their acquaintance today.
Corwin Ravenhair wasn't actually an alumnus of DSM, never having attended the school, but he was a Duelist, for complicated reasons Kaname had never been 100% clear on. She'd always liked Corwin; when they were little and she'd lived in New Avalon, they'd hung out a lot, occasionally having adventures that ranged from "an excellently spent afternoon" to (on one epic occasion when they were eight and seven, respectively) "oh man oh man oh man I can't believe we did that". They'd gone to separate schools after the fifth grade, which had cut into their face time a lot, and since Kaname had left town altogether to come to DSM, their face-to-face meetings had gotten less frequent still, but she always looked forward to them. Somehow, whatever happened to them as adolescence did its terrible, wonderful thing, she could always count on Corwin to just... be Corwin. And not whatever it was that so many other boys turned into when the hormones started flowing.
Mind you, she saw as she approached, he was rather more Corwin now than he had been last time she saw him. (What big hands you have.) Same eyes, though. Same grin, too. Now say it.
Yes. Excellent. Still Corwin. Kaname hugged him without hesitation - that was the same as always, too - and then stepped back and said, "Hey, Corwin. How are things?"
"Things are good," he said, leaning back against the wall next to one of the weapons displays. "Real good." He nodded toward her charges, who were currently watching in rapt astonishment as Sakura demonstrated some flashy ninja stuff. "Looks like a decent group of kids you've got there, Kaname."
"Yeah, they're a handful, but it's rewarding. They've just got this... energy." She rolled her eyes. "I swear, if we hooked Arika up to the power grid, we could power Hamlin Hall with her. And Irina and Mileva would know how to do it, I bet."
Corwin grinned some more. "Mileva's on your floor? Now I really know what you're up against." He reached into an inside pocket of the black-and-grey-checked wool jacket he was wearing and removed a silver envelope, then handed it to her. "Here! For you. I was gonna mail it, but then I thought, wait, I'm going to be on Jeraddo next weekend."
"What is it?" she wondered, taking it.
"A wedding invitation," Corwin replied cheerfully.
Kaname's brow furrowed. "To whose wedding?"
"Oh." She tilted her head and regarded him curiously. "Who are you marrying?"
Corwin gave her a wry look. "Kaname. C'mon."
"What?" Kaname glanced to her right; a few yards away, graduated Duelist VP Utena Tenjou stood talking with Amy about something. "But - "
Corwin nodded, smiling. "Yes."
"And - " Kaname began.
Corwin nodded again. "Probably."
"With - "
Corwin shook his head. "I doubt it."
"STOP that," Kaname said, swatting his shoulder.
"Sorry," Corwin said. "But yes. Utena and me. And probably Anthy and me later, under separate cover. I haven't asked her yet." He shrugged. "Heck, I didn't actually ask Utena, she beat me to it. Anthy might do the same, but she's waiting until this round of crazy is over. She tires easily just at present," he added wryly. "Having a nap upstairs as we speak, in fact."
Kaname shook her head with an indulgent smile, starting to open the envelope as she did so. "Man, what is it with you? Seventeen years of nothin' and then suddenly I need a scorecard."
Corwin laughed. "You're asking me? If I knew, it probably wouldn't have worked in the first place."
"Ha. Fair point."
Utena finished her conversation, saw Kaname chatting with Corwin, and moseyed over, smiling. "Hey, Kaname!" she said. "Been a while. How've you been?"
"Oh, I get by, Utena," Kaname replied with a nonchalance she didn't entirely feel. "Corwin was just telling me the good news. Congratulations! And," she added with a slightly evil grin, "I bet I'm not the first to say, 'bout frickin' time."
Utena grinned a little sheepishly in return, going pink across the bridge of her nose. "Heh, well, thanks," she said.
Kaname finished opening the invitation, drew it out, scanned it, and then said, "Wow, Corwin. I've never seen a wedding invitation that just says 'TBA' instead of where you're supposed to show up."
Utena rubbed at the back of her neck, looking a little more sheepish. "Uh, yeah, we kind of... don't know yet. Dad's supposed to be handling it."
"I see." Kaname smiled her slightly-evil smile again. "Well, I know one place you won't be having it." At Utena's querying look, she angled a thumb at Corwin and said, "Dr. Science here is banned for life from Fumo Fumo Land."
Corwin snorted, facepalming theatrically. Utena turned a raised eyebrow to him, but he replied only, "I can't discuss it. Part of the settlement."
"All I said was that I wished the teacups could go faster," Kaname said.
"Shh!" Corwin cautioned her, though with a mischievous smile. "Lawyers are everywhere. Anyway," he went on as if the digression hadn't happened, "if it's not right around here someplace, we'll take care of transport," Corwin said. "You just need to be available."
"Hmm," said Kaname. "March 5, that's the Friday before Spring Break. I don't think I have any finals on Friday this term." She glanced across the room at Sosuke, who stood with her students and Lindsey near the entrance, explaining something to the kids with unusually expansive hand gestures. "Have to verify that with my adjutant general."
Corwin laughed. "Yeah, OK, what's the deal with that?"
Now it was Kaname's turn to look a little sheepish as she explained why she had a bodyguard - or at least why, insofar as she even knew why, she'd elected to put up with it for the time being. Lindsey arrived for the end of the explanation, enough to know what they were talking about, and agreed with Utena's observation that the situation was just the tiniest bit wack.
"You're just lucky you're not going to my alma mater," Corwin remarked. At Kaname's puzzled look, he angled a glance toward Sosuke's watchful remove and explained, "Mr. Strickland would not be havin' any of that."
"I'm still amazed that they're allowing it here," Kaname admitted. "I shudder to think what he would've gotten up to at ol' Jindai High."
"He might've gotten away with it... if they heavily bribed the school, or something," Lindsey suggested. "But since as far as I know his backers haven't been doing it here, well..." She shrugged.
Corwin dug around in his inside pocket, then said, "Hum. Looks like I forgot your invitation, Lins. Or maybe I mailed it? Anyway, you should come too! It's gonna be good times."
Lindsey looked puzzled. "What is?" she asked.
"My wedding!" Corwin said.
"Ahem," Utena put in.
"Our wedding," Corwin amended.
"You're getting married?!" Lindsey blurted. "And I'm invited?"
"Of course you're invited!" said Corwin with a broad grin. "If I gotta put up with my aunt Freyja going, I can at least insist on the freedom to invite second-degree sorta-cousins I love but hardly ever see any more."
"Oh, that reminds me," said Kaname, consulting her invitation again. "Does it say... aha. Yeah. It might not be a problem, depends on whether you have it in this star system, but... " She glanced at Sosuke again. "You mind if my plus-one is a heavily armed borderline sociopath with a thing about sightlines?" she asked wryly.
"He won't be the only one we get," Utena quipped.
"Sure, bring him along!" Corwin agreed. "Our door is always open to crazy soldiers. Master Chief Spartan'll be there, and all the Repo Men, so he'll even have people he can talk to in his own language."
"Speaking of military stuff, what's with the forts?" Utena asked, gesturing vaguely toward the rest of campus. "We didn't have that at our Winterfest."
"You just didn't think big enough," said Kaname. "Or have Sosuke Sagara on any committees. I envy you. They're for the new event we're trying out tomorrow, in between lunch and the dance. Sort of a regimented snowball fight, capture-the-flag kind of thing."
Utena raised her eyebrows. "You guys are having snowball CTF tomorrow afternoon?"
"That's right," Lindsey said, beaming.
Utena grinned. "I am staying."
Kaname laughed. "You'll have to take that up with the referee board," she said. "I just organized the Fest, I don't make the rules." She glanced at her watch. "Anyway, you guys, good talking with you, but it's getting late. I better round up the sprogs and get them headed back to Hamlin for dinner before the bonfire."
Utena looked at Kaname, a little askance. "You call your floor students 'sprogs'?"
"Well, not to their faces, that'd just be stupid and insensitive." Kaname shrugged. "I could call them 'Gurab', but that'd be insulting to every Gurab'lo and Gurab'pa that I've ever known." Kaname shook her head, apparently not noticing Utena's puzzled reaction (or Corwin's quiet giggling). "I swear, I've got protosapient cousins who have more common sense than some of these guys. But hey, if you're sticking around for the rest of the Fest, I'll see you tomorrow."
She gave Corwin another hug, told him not to be a stranger, and was just turning around and drawing breath to round up her crew when a calm, pleasant voice spoke from the crowd,
"Excuse me, please? Would there possibly be time enough for one more?"
An excited murmur spread through the remaining crowd as it parted in two, revealing the speaker as she stepped forward. Kaname blinked in surprise.
"Spirit of Light, Shizuru's actually going for it," Kaname murmured to herself, drawing a questioning glance from Utena. Seeing that no explanation would be forthcoming from the turquoise-haired teen, she shifted her attention to the figure that had just stepped out from the crowd.
It was a young woman of about Kaname's age, with light brown back-length hair, a reasonable figure, a pleasant face, and playful red eyes. She was dressed not in the usual DSM girl's winter uniform, but an outfit that was similar - a light tan jacket with a short warm-grey pleated skirt, an underlying white blouse with a red bow ribbon at the neck, and black knee-high socks. She moved with the unhurried confidence of one who has no doubts of her abilities or of her place in the world.
"I don't get it - what's the big deal?" Utena asked to anybody nearby as the girl in question headed over to Boba Fett's location, presenting him with a precisely folded missive, which he accepted and unfolded to study.
Lindsey leaned in close to Utena. "That's Shizuru Viola. She's a junior. You probably haven't heard of her, but it's been rumored for years that she might be interested in joining up with us. She's got some sort of weapon training - she often goes off into the Single Acre Wood by herself, or into one of the Gym's free-workout rooms, sometimes for hours - but none of us have actually seen her with a weapon. I think only Natsuki Kruger - that's her over there, green eyes, black hair, cranky attitude - really knows what's going on, and like hell she's going to tell anybody else." Lindsey rolled her eyes slightly. "She won't even admit Shizu's her girlfriend, like anyone could fail to notice that."
Utena nodded, smiling faintly at the last remark, and then looked over at where Fett and Shizuru were in quiet conference. Boba arched an eyebrow, and looked seriously at the younger woman. "Are you sure you want to do it this way?"
Shizuru smiled coyly. "I'm more than sure, President Fett. As you can see, my paperwork is all in order..."
Boba nodded, and then raised his voice to catch the attention of the rest of the quietly-discussing crowd. "If I may have your attention? ... thank you." He gestured next to him. "For our final engagement of the afternoon, we have a unique request. Miss Viola here has recently passed her journeywoman trial for her ancestral naginatajutsu, the Fujino Chougaja Ryu. As such, she has requested a true Rose Duel as her challenge. Given the circumstances, I have decided that this is acceptable."
An excited murmur, and some applause, rippled through the crowd as Shizuru gave those assembled a smile and a polite nod of the head. "Thank you. I hope I won't disappoint you."
Boba turned towards the remaining Duelists, some whom had been packing up their gear. "Who will take this young lady's challenge for the Society?"
There was a murmur from the Duelist contingent as they looked amongst themselves, and then they moved aside to allow the other tall redhead among them to approach.
"This sounds interesting. I accept Miss Viola's challenge," Juri Arisugawa said with her piper's smile as she stepped forward, her crescent-hilt broadsword at her hip.
Kaname stared. "Man, having this open house on Alumni Day was SO not fair," she muttered underneath the more excited murmurs that were building among the students. "What next?"
"It will be an honor to duel you, Ms. Arisugawa," Shizuru Viola said with a gleam in her red eyes. "I hope that I prove a satisfactory opponent. Just let me get ready."
What happened next, Kaname couldn't quite describe. One moment, Shizuru was standing there with her arms relaxed and hands open -
- the next, she flexed her arms and there was a polearm in her hands, held at the ready, as if it had always been there. The shaft of the weapon and its blade were a deep, lustrous red that matched Shizuru's eyes. The blade itself was thick and curved at both ends with a narrower center portion, and it was attached to the shaft at two points at the lower third. Rounding out the entire assemblage was a long purple tassel at the other end, secured with two golden beads.
What made the whole thing so remarkable was that the weapon was half-again as tall as Shizuru herself. There was no way that the thing could've been carried in there without people noticing, but Kaname couldn't figure out for the life of her how Shizuru had gotten it into her hands. Maybe it was like Corwin's thing with Stick? But she didn't think Shizuru was from Asgard...
Juri arched one slim eyebrow, and then glanced sidelong at Boba Fett. "I think we'll need to go to Condition One for this, Mr. President."
Boba nodded. "As you like it, Ms. Arisugawa. Now hear this! Clear the lower level!"
Kaname and the rest were caught up in the crowd as they headed for the doors of the Dueling Hall and the stairs beyond. As they funneled upstairs, she heard snippets of conversation:
"Good god, is Shizuru crazy?"
"Dude, if that's crazy, we need more of it."
"Oh man, Shizuru's so awesome!"
"C'mon, Juri's going to wipe the floor with her."
"Wait, is that a glaive or a guisarme?"
"Does it matter?"
"It's a voulge, you dopes."
Finally, the students and Duelists and hangers-on were ensconced in the upper galleries. Kaname found herself standing near to Lindsey, Utena, and Corwin, with ever-watchful Sosuke standing on her opposite side. Below, they watched as Boba performed his own 'magic trick' and produced two roses: an orange one, which he pinned above Juri's heart, and a scarlet one which he pinned over Shizuru's.
"Now, I'm reasonably certain you both know the stakes. Lose the rose, lose the duel. Aside from that..." Boba Fett looked briefly amused. "... I'm sure you two can figure it out."
"I think I can manage," Juri said with quiet amusement as she drew her sword.
"I do believe that I have the gist of it, President Fett," Shizuru replied as she took several steps back, and made several test sweeps with her voulge, a swish of air passing in the blade's wake.
"Ready?" Fett asked.
"Ready," Juri replied, her eyes now only for her opponent.
"Yes, quite ready," Shizuru replied, meeting Juri's gaze.
Fett clapped his hands together even as he rapidly withdrew. "Begin!"
There was the briefest moment of absolute silence as the crowd held their breath, watching the two below closely, to see who would make the first move.
Then both women sprang into motion at the same time, Shizuru's voulge sweeping in a tight arc, while Juri expertly sidestepped to parry with her broadsword. There was a ringing crash of metal upon metal, and then the Rose Duel was on in full.
It rapidly became evident that both women knew what they were doing. For Juri, that was a given, considering her long membership in the Duelists' Society, but for Shizuru, it was a revelation to most in the audience. She moved with a fluid efficiency, putting her weapon's sizable reach advantage over Juri's to good use, attempting to control the dueling space. Her voulge made great circles around her, the tassel and blade whistling through the air as she blocked and parried Juri's sword thrusts.
The main strengths of a weapon like Shizuru's were, oddly, also its main drawbacks in a situation like this. Its length and heft gave it terrific reach and striking power, but they also made dueling with it a bit like barrel rolling an airliner: technically possible, but way, way off-label. It was a weapon of war, designed mainly to cleave in half the skulls of people standing ten or so feet away, not one intended for personal combat - particularly personal combat in which killing one's opponent would be frowned upon.
It had momentum, which was useful, but also inertia, which was less so. Parries didn't always go quite as planned, and she always, always had to keep moving in order to maintain that momentum. Sudden reversals were more or less out of the question - if something didn't work out as she wanted, Shizuru's only real option was to go through it and try to shape the next evolution more to her liking. Even in a room this size, there wasn't always quite as much space for that as she would have liked.
For Juri's part, she had all the room she could possibly have wanted, but Shizuru's constant motion kept her in constant motion as well, leaving her little time to consolidate her position or form elaborate strategies, much less put them into action. She could cut, thrust, back away, and try new angles more or less at will, but if she had tried to parry a weapon like Shizuru's conventionally she'd have lost her blade, and possibly a few fingers, so she needed all that mobility.
Presently, after taking her measure with a few exploratory passes, Juri penetrated Shizuru's guard - another drawback of the younger woman's weapon was that its great length gave it a substantial minimum range; only a hasty and slightly painful-looking block with the staff part of the voulge saved Shizuru's rose that time. Her counterattack, though, demonstrated the main danger of closing in that much. The move turned her completely around, 360 degrees, and the blade described a helical path that brought it up from below, an uppercut strike that could've cut an unsuspecting opponent clean in half.
Juri sprang up and back, clearing the blade by an inch or two, the evasion so violent that it turned into a neat aerial backflip. She came down in a half-crouch, her free hand splayed on the floor, and slid back nearly to the wall, the soles of her shoes hissing on the stone. Raising that free hand, she brushed her by-now-somewhat-disordered orange curls out of her eyes and smiled at her opponent.
"Oh my," said Shizuru appreciatively, whirling her weapon out of its follow-through and halting it across her back, the blade jutting up above her right shoulder. "I had no idea you were such an acrobat, Ms. Arisugawa," she went on.
Juri's smile changed, becoming more of a grin than most of the onlookers were accustomed to seeing on that face. From some, it drew almost as sharp a gasp as the near-miss had in the first place. With the suddenness of a released spring, she lunged up from her half-crouch, switching hands with a little flourish that reminded Utena (not coincidentally) of Kaitlyn. Shizuru barely evaded her leap, taking the blow on the haft of her voulge again.
"One learns a thing or two over seven years in Utena and Kaitlyn's house of flying daggers," said Juri wryly over their momentarily locked weapons. "And please - call me Juri."
Shizuru went slightly pink, but maintained her calm, polite poise as she replied, "Why, thank you. In which case you must call me Shizuru."
Juri's wry grin turned back to a more personal smile, and her green eyes seemed to smolder slightly as she said (purred, really), "It'll be my pleasure."
Shizuru blinked at her, then smiled faintly and knocked her away, returning to the offensive.
"... are they flirting?" Arika stage-whispered to her roommate, who ignored her. A few places down, Natsuki Kruger thumped her forehead lightly against the railing a couple of times. On the opposite side of the gallery, Utena glanced (a little incredulously) at Kate, who just shrugged, smiling.
"What can I say? She's got good taste," Kate said mildly.
Not long after, Juri thought she'd literally cornered her opponent, having read her pattern and intercepted her just as she ran out of wall; but Shizuru slipped out of the trap with a smooth sidelong maneuver that put Juri in mind of the serpent mentioned in the name of the younger woman's fighting style. On a purely aesthetic level, she readily admitted that Shizuru's performance was almost certainly more fun to watch than her own. Like the other naginata stylist of her acquaintance, Sumire Kanzaki, Shizuru seemed to be as much dancing as fighting.
By a strange coincidence, that same thought had just occurred to at least three of her friends up above. "Man," Utena mused as one of Shizuru's great circular overhand moves sent Juri skipping back out of range. "Too bad Sumire the Elder isn't here. That'd be a thing to see."
Corwin looked around at the normally-capacious Great Hall. "We'd need a bigger boat."
"We'd need a whole container ship at this rate," said Kaitlyn.
Neither combatant showed any sign of tiring, though both were flushed and perspiring, as the duel approached the four-minute mark. By this point Erstin Holstein had actually cheered herself hoarse, and several of the other youngsters looked like they might pass out. Natsuki might well have been holding her breath the entire time. Only the most experienced Duelists in the upper gallery recognized the moment at which the two decided - as if by telepathic mutual consent - that the time had come to end it.
Utena and Kaitlyn both did. They glanced at each other, each confirming that the other had seen it, as Juri and Shizuru swept out of still another inconclusive pass and then seemed, almost simultaneously, to set themselves, their jawlines hardening.
This is it, Utena thought, feeling an echo of that same warm glow she always felt when she reached the same moments in her own greatest battles. She took Kate's hand in one of hers, Corwin's in the other, an unconscious smile tugging at her lips, as Shizuru and Juri sprang toward each other.
Shizuru's move was that same helical uppercut that had nearly scared half the audience to death before; Juri's was a starting-blocks leap not unlike Utena's own signature finisher, her sword held at a lower guard than the Rose Prince generally chose. As they passed each other, Juri threw in an extra twist - literally - rolling her body so that Shizuru's weapon whispered past her. The sharper-eyed observers actually thought they saw her rose move, though it did not fall, as she turned the twist into a fall, down and away to the left. Had she not done so, even if she had managed not to be struck by Shizuru's blade, her own would have stood a fairly even chance of running her opponent clean through, as the momentum of Shizuru's own charge drove her shoulder onto the point of Juri's blade; but the fall-away was perfectly timed so that the uprising point of her sword neatly nipped away the younger girl's flower without unpicking a stitch of her jacket.
Miki, Juri knew, would have managed to hit the floor and roll to his feet in such a way that he came up holding Shizuru's undamaged rose in his left hand; Utena's exploding ki would have blown it apart, showering the entire west end of the Great Hall in its petals. Juri, though, was not the showy type. She merely rode the roll upright again, spun to face her defeated opponent, and swept her blade into the elegant half-curtsey sword bow the Duelists had learned from their friends among the Jedi Knights. As she did, the red rose fell, mostly intact, to the floor at Shizuru's feet.
For a moment, no one seemed able to react; then the room filled with applause, cheering, and more than a little whistling. Breathing hard and smiling without reservation, Juri sheathed her sword, swept her now quite ragged curls out of her face, and walked toward her opponent.
Shizuru righted herself from the slightly-off-balance position her follow-through had left her in, using her weapon to help regain her balance, and turned with smiling acceptance to face the victor; then, having glanced upward while straightening, she smiled a little more winsomely and aimed her index finger up along the voulge's shaft.
Juri looked, then blinked as her emerald eyes focused on the very tip of the weapon's point. There, pierced through the center, was a single orange rose petal.
"Well," said Juri, her smile returning. "Satisfactory." She glanced up into the gallery, making momentary eye contact with Boba Fett, then Kaitlyn, then Utena. All three nodded in turn, smiling. "Most satisfactory," Juri went on. Reaching Shizuru, she extended her hand. A hush fell over the room as the younger woman took it, and Juri's voice was plainly audible to all as she said warmly, "Welcome, Shizuru. Welcome to the Order of the Rose."
For just an instant, the expression of pleasant, dignified reserve on Shizuru's face cracked, revealing beneath it a look of pure and simple delight. Then, blink-and-you-missed-it, the mask was back; but a faintly mischievous twinkle in the girl's red eyes let Juri know that she knew, and didn't mind, that her elder had caught a glimpse of her true face.
The crowd of students surged down the stairs and flooded back into the Great Hall. Adoring younger students and congratulatory older ones mobbed Shizuru, who dismissed her weapon (after removing and carefully pocketing the rose petal) and handled them all with calm, even-handed aplomb.
"So," said Utena cheerfully as she and Kate brought Juri a towel and a bottle of water off to one side of the throng. "That'll be this year's model of you, then, basically."
"Basically," Juri agreed, sipping her water.
"Well, we'd better keep Azalynn away from her," said Kate. "I hear the Kruger girl's a shootist."
That selfsame girl had finally reached Shizuru's side as the crowd began to disperse; from where they stood, Kate, Utena, and Juri couldn't hear what they were discussing, but based on their body language - Natsuki's tense and stiff-necked, Shizuru's calm and faintly but kindly indulgent - they guessed it was something along the lines of "what the hell were you thinking" against "aw, you do care, that's so sweet." (This assumption - which was correct - was reinforced by the scene's ending, in which Shizuru touched Natsuki's cheek gently and Natsuki's face went a very interesting crimson just as they left the Great Hall.)
Corwin, Kaname, and Lindsey, who had taken their time and stayed out of the crush on the stairs, arrived as the mob was breaking up. Most filtered out in the wake of the departing pair, apart from Kaname's group and the various Duelists, who still stood around in little knots talking about all the excitement. Off to one side, Sosuke returned to his earlier study of the Wall o' Weapons, his face in a thoughtful but largely unreadable frown.
"Wow," said Corwin. "One petal, did that even happen in the old days?" he mused to Utena. "What would that have meant? Anthy's still engaged to you but has to do Shizuru's laundry for a week?"
Utena laughed. "We'll have to ask her when she wakes up." She looked at her watch. "For now, we've got just enough daylight to get in a little more sledding."
"I'm up for that. Hey, Kaname, you want in on this action?"
Kaname glanced at her students. "I dunno, I should - "
"I'll take the gang back to Hamlin," said Lindsey. "You go ahead."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Old times' sake." She grinned. "Take half an hour off, Winterfestführerin. I'll make sure nobody finds out."
Kaname laughed. "OK, OK. Hey, Lins?"
"Not a problem. Yo! Sarge!"
Sosuke looked up from his consideration of a Magnaguard electrostaff. "Yes, Miss Willows?"
"I'm taking the kids down the hill. Kaname's going sledding. Do not shoot anyone," she said mock-sternly.
Sosuke's face was perfectly straight as he nodded and replied, "Wilco, Miss Willows."
Lindsey grinned. "Yeah, we've about got him housebroken, I think. Have fun, you guys!"
"She's enjoying this," Corwin observed as Lindsey trotted over to round up the sprogs.
"Yes, yes she is," Kaname replied with a sigh.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
DSM Panic! Volume One
Philip Jeremy Moyer
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Geoff Depew
And all the EPU Usual Suspects
Compiled and prettied up a bit by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
E P U (colour) 2013