“So,” Dr. Khoura said, steepling her fingers in front of her. “Let’s review.”
The four of them were sitting at a round table at the back of what Myra had introduced as the ‘operations room’. They formed a sort of triangle: Khoura at one point, positioned to look out onto the rest of the room, with Myra in her usual position at her shoulder; Rinet, at the second point with her back half-turned to the rest of the room; and at the third point-
“Didn’t we already do that?” Ceit Barrach asked, leaning back in their chair. “Didn’t we already do that twice?”
“And now we’ll be doing it a third time,” Khoura said with an icy calm. “Unless, of course, you’d like to push through that contract dispute you won’t stop mentioning.”
Ceit grinned, leaning forward and taking up a pose that was just dissimilar enough to Khoura’s that no-one could reasonably accuse them of mocking her. “Not at all, boss lady. Just touching base. Let’s get a-reviewin’!”
The worst part, Rinet thought bitterly, is that she didn’t exactly disagree with them.
It hadn’t taken long after that initial meeting for her to find a new assignment on her desk, stating that she had been “seconded to Grand Commander Khoura as a liaison officer, effective immediately”, along with instructions to report to an airfield on the south side of Kaila five minutes ago. She’d barely had enough time to visit Gabriel in hospital and explain the situation during visiting hours, before swinging by her tiny apartment to grab her go-bag and a few extras.
Instead of the usual government security forces she’d grown used to, the checkpoint at the airfield had been conducted by Chival squires, and had been significantly more thorough. Which seemed slightly pointless to Rinet, considering their Grand Commander had just walked into her office the last time, but she’d kept her mouth shut and endured it. The alternative was losing her job, and as a 20-year-old with a head full of classified information, there wasn’t much else she was allowed to do for work.
After the most humiliating thirty minutes of her life, she’d finally been allowed through the checkpoint, and onto the large ship waiting in the second hangar.
Rinet had never been particularly interested in zeppelins, but she knew a fancy one when she saw it – and the CNS Middleground was fancy indeed.
It was a modern split-bag design; four smaller bags in a rough ‘rectangle’ with the body built around it, rather than a single large one over the body. The engines were integrated into the rear main body, hidden so well that it took Rinet a few seconds to locate them, and the entire ship was done up in the signature Chival grey and silver. The only splash of colour was the name on the… bow? On whatever the front of the ship was called, painted on in a violet so pale it almost looked white at first glance.
Not only was the Middleground fancy, it was also huge. It towered over Rinet when she entered the hangar; at least as wide and tall as a large house, and more than double the length. Walking up the lowered gangplank made her feel as if she was entering the belly of some huge beast from a story.
Inside, she’d been led by another squire through a large loading bay and up to the operations room where she now sat, just in time to be introduced to Ceit as they began their observation. And after that, Rinet had no trouble declaring herself completely and utterly out of her depth.
She wasn’t completely ignorant, of course. She knew all too well that there was a lot of scary shit out there – the files referred to people capable of creating and manipulating ghostlight as ‘variant individuals’, which Rinet personally thought sounded stupid. She knew the basics of how it functioned and what they could do; or, she’d thought she did before the morgue. Seston and Tierron had been terrifying, but put enough bullets in them and they went down, at least temporarily. Auclair, though… whatever he was, it was completely outside her knowledge base.
But even with that rudimentary knowledge, sitting with Khoura, Coleridge and Barrach as they observed the girl with hammer had left her just completely lost. Terms and phrases and names were all thrown around, Khoura and Barrach had their little back-and-forths about ‘seers’ and ‘authority’, and Rinet had just… sat there, watching the image shift and change. She’d done her best to take notes, make observations, but there was only so much that could be done with her limited vocabulary.
To be perfectly honest, she wasn’t entirely sure why she was there. Khoura hadn’t called on her, didn’t seem to expect any sort of contribution or insight. For a liason, she didn’t seem to be doing much liasing.
She sat there as Khoura and Barrach reviewed the events of the previous evening, Coleridge occasionally chiming in with a correction or a detail. Barrach’s responses had only become more flippant and unhelpful as these ‘reviews’ had gone on, as had their posture. Currently, they were leaning back in their chair, one leg loosely crossed over the other and hands behind their head. Their purple floral-print dress was short enough to ride up, but thankfully the ruffles within helped avoid any awkwardness (if not any rudeness).
Ceit was… confusing. Their pale skin and the orange tint to the fuzz on the shaved head made her think of Eirdi, but their accent was something more northern, sharp and cutting; words which also described their features quite well. The faded lilac eyes, though… those sparked something in her memory, even if she couldn’t quite recall it yet.
More than any of that, though, was their attitude.
They. Were. So. Rude.
And Rinet could handle that if it was just to her! Lord knows she’d dealt with it enough. But they were like that to everyone, including the Grand Commander that Rinet was trying very hard not to antagonise.
It was arrogance, she decided as she watched them needle at Khoura over a minor bit of wording. They knew they were valuable – at the very least, Khoura had felt the need to bring them in from outside her command – and so they were testing boundaries, seeing what they could get away with. The problem, beyond it being childish and stupid, was that Rinet also had to report to the doctor, as did every single other soul on board the Middleground. And while she didn’t seem to be the type of boss to take out her frustrations on other subordinates, she was already noticeably more snappish and terse than she had been in their first meeting.
“I asked,” she was saying, “for your opinion, Barrach. ‘I’unno’ is not an opinion.”
They shrugged casually. “Didn’t think you were paying me for opinions, boss.”
Khoura took off her glasses, pinching the bridge of her nose between two fingers. “Barrach,” she said, without looking up. “I understand you are unused to working within a formal command structure, and I am making an effort in good faith to be accomodating.”
“But,” Khoura continued, and finally looked up, glaring at them with eyes shadowed by her brow. “If that is not reciprocated, I can decide that I am no longer interested in being… accommodating.”
To Rinet, she wasn’t doing anything except glaring, but Ceit’s eyes had gone wide, hands gripping the arms of their chair. Coleridge was still standing behind Khoura, but her face was drawn and tense, feet planted firmly as if bearing against some great weight.
“Do I make myself clear?” Khoura asked calmly, still staring at Ceit.
“Y-yes,” they stammered out, former bravado nowhere to be found. “Message received.”
“Glad to hear it.” Ceit instantly sagged in relief, and the tension in Coleridge’s brow faded away, silent relief in her eyes. Rinet chanced a quick glance around, and found that none of the other staff seemed to have been affected. One more thing to add to the list of things she was ignorant of, apparently.
“So,” Khoura continued, slipping her spectacles back on, “where were we?”
It took a second of silence before Rinet realised it wasn’t rhetorical.
“Barrach’s opinion of the girl,” she prompted. It wasn’t like she had much else to contribute; she’d take being a glorified secretary over being deemed extraneous.
“Ah, yes.” Khoura gave her a slight nod. “Barrach?”
“…right.” They removed their glasses, wiping at some sweat with the back of one hand. “Obviously, she’s extremely inexperienced, but I’m having trouble squaring that with… well, anything else? I can’t comment on her shade or anything else, but just within my area of expertise, I’m… curious how someone so obviously amateurish could be putting up baffles of that degree on accident.”
Khoura raised a single eyebrow. “An accident? Not instinctive, or subconscious?”
“That’s my opinion,” they stressed, “but yes. It’s like… hm. What’s the best metaphor to use here?”
“I know my theory, Barrach. There’s no need for metaphors.”
Hesitantly, Rinet cleared her throat. “I… would appreciate the metaphors, actually.”
The corner of Khoura’s mouth twitched, just for a moment. “Ah, quite right. My apologies, Ms. Yso.”
Ceit’s gaze turned to Rinet, curious and a little bit suspicious. “Well,” they said slowly, “I suppose one way of thinking of it would be… a radio, where blocking a signal involves filling that frequency with static so nothing can be heard. If it was done intentionally, only specific bands would be blocked off, to conserve energy. In this case, though, it was like every single frequency was being filled with static.”
Rinet frowned. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t that be incredibly energy-intensive?”
“Within the metaphor, yes. It doesn’t quite work like that, it’s closer to… The point is, yes, essentially, it is. It’s generally only done by complete amateurs, who can’t keep it up for more than a minute or two, or those strong enough to be able to casually expend that amount of ‘energy’. If the latter were true, though, you’d expect to see a… much higher ‘density’ of static.”
“So,” Rinet said slowly, putting the pieces together, “as far as you can tell… we’re dealing with a complete amateur, who somehow has access to much more power than they should.”
Ceit blinked, then grinned. “Couldn’t have put it better myself.”
Khoura and Coleridge exchanged a glance, silently communicating.
“Is that… what could explain that?” Rinet asked, once it became clear no-one else was going to. “How unusual are we talking, here?”
“Not unprecedented,” Khoura answered, “but certainly unusual, yes. Thank you, Barrach – I’d reached a similar conclusion myself.”
They started to smirk, but stopped themself just in time. “So why did you ask me, then?”
“Doveryáy, no proveryá. Trust, but verify.”
Rinet made a mental note to look up the phrase later.
“Now,” Khoura continued, “Ms. Yso. Were you able to dig anything up?”
Rinet nodded, shuffling her notepad around so her documents were on top. “Yes, but don’t get your hopes up. ‘Zarah’ is a fairly common name, not something that can really be searched with any reliability. Cross-referencing it with ethnicity might return some results, but I got some… pushback, on that.”
And thank goodness, because to Rinet that was starting to edge into distinctly uncomfortable territory.
“Would you be able to force the issue?”
Rinet drummed her fingers on the table. “Possibly, using your authority, but it’d burn that contact for me, likely permanently. And… I wouldn’t, regardless.”
“Pardon?” Khoura asked, perfectly calm.
You picked a great time to develop principles, Rin. “I wouldn’t,” she repeated, forcing herself to make eye contact with the doctor, “as I believe it to be both outside the mandate of my position, and unethical.”
“…I see,” was all the response she received.
Ceit let out a low whistle, which immediately withered under the glare that Khoura turned their way.
“On the other hand,” Rinet added quickly, “I’ve passed on the relevant details to my contacts and a few partner agencies – for Seston and Auclair, too. As soon as something comes up, they’ll let me know.”
“Good.” Khoura didn’t seem angry, but there was still something… calculating in her gaze that left Rinet on edge. “Well, unless anyone has anything else to add…?”
They all shook their heads.
“Mm. Well, then I suppose we can call it a night. Tomorrow, we can begin laying out a roadmap and action plan.”
Khoura stood, and Coleridge instantly snapped to attention. Rinet didn’t feel right saluting, considering she’d never learned how, but she stood as well and straightened her posture. After a moment, Barrach did the same, albeit more grudgingly.
“Barrach, you’ve been assigned quarters on B deck. Ms. Yso, while you’re welcome to find your own accommodation off-site, it would be highly preferable if you were to stay nearby in case of any unexpected incidents.”
Translation: you don’t have to stay here, but yes, you basically do.
“Understood,” Rinet replied. “I’ll take the quarters then.”
Khoura inclined her head. “Barrach knows the way. Dismissed.”
The bustle of the room resumed, and Rinet glanced over to see the rest of the staff returning to their positions. She hadn’t even noticed that they’d been standing at attention.
Khoura turned to leave, but Coleridge put a hand on her shoulder and bent down to murmur something in her ear. Khoura nodded, and waited by the door as Coleridge walked over.
To Rinet’s surprise, she turned to her – she’d been expecting it to be something to do with Barrach.
“I’ll have a talk to her later,” Coleridge said quietly. “She can get a little… intense, I know, so good on you for standing your ground.”
Rinet pursed her lips, doing her best not to appear intimidated. “I appreciate the intent, Captain, but can you really-”
“Oh, none of that ‘captain’ nonsense.” She grinned, dropping a hand on Rinet’s shoulder.
Rinet whipped it off, stepping back. “Please don’t touch me,” she snapped, harsher than she’d intended. “I- shit. Sorry.” Nice going, imbecile.
“No, no,” Coleridge said hastily, raising her hands, “I should’ve known better. Personal space and all.”
Rinet took a deep breath. “Apology accepted,” she said, although her fight-and-flight response was still screaming at her. “I have-”
“No explanation necessary,” Coleridge interrupted. “I overstepped.” She moved back, lifting a hand. “Like I said, I’ll have a word with Ind- with her. Have a good night.”
Rinet raised a tired hand in response, before picking her bag up off the ground and turning to Barrach.
“Well?” she asked. “Lead the way.”
Thankfully, blessedly, they managed to stay silent for almost half of the walk. Long enough for Rinet to get her head screwed back on, at least, to reassert her little bubble of personal space. The corridors of the Middleground reminded her of a submarine documentary she saw once; less cramped, smooth and polished instead of dull with visible welds, but nevertheless the same sense of… pure functionality. Veins leading between the parts that actually matter.
Occasionally, they passed a grunt bustling one way or the other, but for the most part, their journey through the ship was a solitary one, as Barrach led them down two floors and to what Rinet’s internal map declared to be the rear of the ship. They’d just reached the bottom of the second ladder when they finally turned to Rinet, a smug look on their face as they opened their mouth.
Rinet got there first.
“No,” she snapped, spinning on them with an upraised, accusative finger. “Absolutely not.”
“You have to cut it out,” she hissed, backing them up against the wall. “Or I swear to God I will make your life a living hell.”
“Whoa,” they laughed, raising their hands. “Calm down, hon,-”
“Tst!” She whipped the finger forward, stopping just before hitting them. They flinched back, banging their head against the wall.
“Don’t call me that,” Rinet continued as they groaned and rubbed at their head. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but if you don’t start acting professional-”
“You’ll what?” they interrupted, expression amused. “Tell on me to the teacher?”
She wasn’t fully aware of the exact journey her facial expression went on, but judging by their reaction, it was clearly significant.
Rinet sighed, stepping back and adjusting her glasses. “Grow up,” she said. “I have a job to do, a job I need to do, because the safety of this country is at stake. And you can either stop getting in the way of that, or we can find out definitively which one of us is more essential.”
And please, God, don’t let it be them.
Ceit broke eye contact first, raising their hands in surrender. Rinet really wanted to stalk out of the room, but she didn’t actually know where they were going, so she had to wait for Ceit to realise that and resume walking.
“So,” they said after a minute or so of silence, “what’s up with your eye?”
Rinet rolled her eyes- eye. Whatever. “It’s a business thing.”
“Business, as in none of yours.”
That got a laugh out of them, throaty and melodious. “Okay, I walked right into that one. How about this, then; explain to me how exactly this whole thing is a ‘threat to national security’? I get Auclair, but the other two are just some random kids, right?”
“…how about this,” Rinet countered as they came to a stop outside an unmarked door. “I’ll explain that, but in return, you give me a rundown of all that jargon you were throwing around upstairs.”
Ceit grinned, sticking out their hand. “Deal.”
She stared at them until they lowered their hand, then gestured at the door. “Is this your room, or mine?”
They just grinned even wider, and realisation hit Rinet like- like a truck through a morgue wall.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she muttered.
“Aww, come on, roomie, it’ll be fun!” Ceit said, opening the door to their shared quarters. “Dibs on top bunk!”