A note from tkayo

(in which we take a peak behind the curtain)

Sergeant Park took a step back and made a cutting motion with her hand in front of her. “Alright, I’m calling it.”

“No,” Rinet wheezed, “I can still-”

The fact that she didn’t even have enough air to make it to the end of her own protest ended up undercutting her own point slightly.

“Sorry, kid,” Park said, not unsympathetically. “But there’s no way in all the hells that I’m gonna be the idiot that lets the boss’s pet project keel over from exhaustion. Take five, get some water-” she paused, glancing at where Rinet had doubled over, resting her elbows on her knees to avoid collapsing, “-and yeah, catch your breath, kid.”

“Pet- project?” Rinet panted, as indignantly as she could manage while feeling like she’d just run a marathon.

Park shrugged. “Hey, just calling it as I see it.”
“You couldn’t- call it a little more- diplomatically?”

“Teacher’s pet?” Park suggested with a smirk.

“That’s worse. I know- you know that’s worse.”

The gymnasium aboard the CNS Middleground wasn’t a large room – space being at something of a premium aboard an airship. It was about the size of three standards bunkrooms, with mats on the floors and equipment lined up along the walls. Thankfully, it also had excellent ventilation, as the cool breeze running across the back of Rin’s neck could testify. When she’d initially come aboard, she’d heard others referring to “the icebox”, and had been very confused as to why such a modern ship would have something so outdated until she’d visited the gym for the first time and made the connection.

As for why she was there, well…

“Agent Yso.”

Rin looked up from her notes, startled to find Dr. Khoura standingng in front of her.

“A-ah,” she stammered hastily, coming to attention. “Ma’am. I didn’t see you there.”

“Mm.” The commander had a way of smiling without smiling, something she did with her eyes. “I imagine you didn’t. Nothing to worry about, though. How have you been finding things?”

“Er…” Rin mulled her next words carefully, trying to find the right balance between courtesy and her actual thoughts. “Not stressful, certainly.”

That earned a proper smile, albeit a tiny one. “No need to prevaricate, I promise.”

“Bored,” Rin said instantly. “Bored and extraneous, which is related.” She’d spent most of the previous week shadowing Dr. Khoura through a bunch of meetings full of terminology she didn’t understand.

“I’d assumed as much. My apologies for that. When you spend enough time in an organisation like this, ‘hurry up and wait’ gets entirely too normalised.”

Rin took a breath. “Ma’am, permission to speak freely.”

“Granted,” Khoura said immediately. “And, for the record, you’re not technically my subordinate, so you don’t actually need to ask.”
“Sure,” Rin said dryly, “and everyone salutes you because they want to. With all due respect, ma’am… why am I here?”

“Is that ‘why am I here?’, or ‘why am I here?'”

“Maybe it’s ‘why am I here?’,” Rin countered dryly. “Ma’am, if you can’t say, I’d prefer you just said so.”

Khoura chuckled. “Fair enough. Then, right now, you’re here because you may prove useful, and if such a situation occurs, I want you on-hand.”

Rin processed that. “So… hurry up and wait?”

“Hurry up and wait. To be honest, I meant shadowing me to be a consolation of sorts; these are privileged meetings you’re sitting in on. In hindsight, though, I can see that I misjudged the situation.”

“Ma’am,” Rin said (and she didn’t miss that despite her quibbling about chain of command, Khoura never told her to stop using that), “the only words in any of those meetings that I’ve actually understood have been ‘and’, ‘the’, and occasionally ‘because’. Unless I wanted to practice shorthand, I can’t really see myself ever getting anything out of them.”

Maybe that was a little too free, but then again, what was the worst she could do?

…well, kill her, probably. But if the doctor wanted her dead, there probably wasn’t anything Rin could do about it. Besides, Khoura seemed like she’d taken a liking to her, for whatever reason, and she wasn’t above leaning on that.

“I suppose not,” Khoura agreed, with a little chuckle. “I understand this is not exactly an ideal situation for you, which is unfortunate.” It didn’t escape Rin’s notice that that wasn’t actually an apology. “With that in mind… if there is something that would actually lessen the blow of your situation, ask away. Within reason, of course.”

“Explanations,” Rin said immediately. “I don’t understand a single damn thing anyone around here talks about, and I’d really like to change that.”

“Hm.” The doctor frowned. “I take it that Barrach’s tuition is proving less than ideal, then?”
Honestly, Rin wasn’t sure why she was surprised that Khoura knew about that. “I get the impression it’s a bit like a nuclear physicist trying to teach a toddler,” she admitted.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be quite so hard on yourself there. Barrack’s explanations are particularly incomprehensible in and of themselves.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, that’s the only real reason I’ve allowed it to happen in the first place. There are reasons you don’t know these things to begin with, Agent Yso, and while I’m willing to occasionally bend the rules, these are ones I can’t and won’t. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Rin replied immediately. As far as she was concerned, politics was best appreciated from a distance. Behind cover, if possible.

Khoura nodded once. “That being said… you seem like someone who appreciates practical solutions best, no?”

Rin nodded hesitantly.

“Excellent,” Dr. Khoura said. “Then I believe I have a compromise.”

Which, a few days later, had lead to her pager beeping to inform her that she’d been reassigned, effective immediately and indefinitely, and to report to Sergeant Park in the exercise facility at oh-eight-hundred.

Where she had spent the mornings for the last fortnight learning to fight, and getting her ass handed to her in the process.

After a few minutes of rest, during which Rin drank and refilled her entire water bottle twice over, the sergeant called her back over and had her do some stretches before they got back into it.

Park was a short, stockily-built woman, with straight, chin-length black hair tied back in one of those weird half-ponytails Rin had never known how to describe, with the front sections pulled back into a small wolftail at the back. So far, Rin had gotten the impression of a woman who was the epitome of ‘harsh but fair’; she worked her to the bone, but never with the intent of being cruel, and always with growth in mind.

(It made Rin wonder what exactly her normal role was, the one that she was being pulled away from for half her days to train Khoura’s ‘pet project’, but she figured that if it was something she was supposed to know, she’d have been told).

They’d spent most of their time so far assessing Rin’s basic level of skill, which Park seemed mostly happy with. She didn’t have much in the way of formal training, some martial arts lessons her moms had packed her off to when she was younger and then a few tussles here and there, but she was fit and light on her feet, which apparently counted for a lot. The exact words Park had used had been ‘the best I’ve ever seen from someone with one eye and no training’, which was condescending and overly-specific, but still a little nice.

Today, though, they were finally getting round to the actual point.

“Here,” Park said, passing her the handle of a blunted training knife again. Rin took it, testing its weight as she shifted it through a few grips – it was shorter and lighter than the knife she’d been using. “We’re gonna work on effective ranges after this, but let’s run down why that last round went so poorly for you.”

“Because I’m just an ordinary person?” Rin quipped, a little sarcastic. “With lungs and a limited stamina?”

To her surprise, Park didn’t brush off the joke. “In part,” she confirmed. “You’re joking, but if you’re going to be fighting chromats, it’s important to understand your own limitations. Even the most unskilled, fresh-off-the-block burner is gonna be stronger and faster than you, gonna last longer and go down harder. What’s your counter to that?”

“Overwhelming force,” Rin answered instantly. “Preferably from a distance.”

Park laughed. “Okay, yes, ideally. But if it’s just you, up close and personal?”

Rin thought she knew the angle this was tilting in. “Fighting smarter, not harder, right?”

“Yep,” Park nodded. “Trite but true. You’ve got a pretty good grasp of that already with the regular stuff, but you’ve got to turn it right the fuck up for situations like this. One good hit and you’re down, maybe permanently. So you’ve gotta make sure you don’t get hit, and the longer a fight goes on, the harder that gets. Which means…?”

“Hit hard and fast before they can,” Rin finished.

Park laughed. “I was gonna say ‘play it safe and wait for an opening’, but, well… you ready to go?”

“One second,” Rin said, closing her eyes.

In previous sessions, they’d established that seeing shades was more of a psychological trick than a specific action. Apparently, most people thought of it as something related to focal length, un- and -refocusing or ‘focusing beyond focusing’, whatever that meant. None of those really worked for Rin, though; her single eye didn’t really do any of that to begin with. After the first few tries, though, she’d found a trick that was more her speed.

Rin raised her head and opened her eyes.

Both her eyes.

Not literally, of course – not only was she wearing an eyepatch while training, but opening or closing her right eyelid involved doing so manually with her fingers. But focusing on the phantom sensation of an eyelid pulling back, still familiar enough after two years, was apparently sufficient enough a mnemonic.

Overlaid on top of the sergeant’s form was a series of twisting, orange ropes, the thick, rough kind that made Rin think of sailships and rigging. They wrapped around her limbs and torso, draping down in ways not quite congruent with gravity, and the way they moved with Park’s motions was slightly stuttery and out-of-sync.

As she looked, an odd expression flickered across Park’s face, and she shivered slightly.

“You okay?” Rin asked.

“Fine, fine. Someone must’ve walked over my grave. Don’t know why they keep the AC in here so fucking cold, I swear.”

Then, without any warning, she darted forward, a matching knife to the one she’d handed Rin in one hand. It’d been at her side before, but Rin hadn’t seen her draw it at all.

She hastily ducked backwards away from the first swing of the knife, bringing her own up into a guard as she got her feet under her. The next strike came terrifyingly quickly, the glow of blacklight around Park thin and barely visible in the bright fluorescent lighting, and Rin only barely managed to turn it aside, using her free hand to push on the other woman’s wrist and change its trajectory.

Rin was fully aware that she was being bullrushed, but it was all she could do to stay on her feet and defend herself, let alone do something to change that. Park was obviously trying to make a point – she couldn’t blitz an opponent who was ready for her.

Finally, she managed to successfully read a blow, ducking forward slightly under a lateral swipe and feeling it pass just over the top of her head. Instead of trying to turn it to her advantage, though, she let her momentum carry her past the sergeant entirely, spinning adroitly once she’d put a bit of distance between them.

“Good,” Park said calmly, not even sounding slightly winded. “Smarter.” She moved to close the distance, but Rin backed up commensurately, keeping the space. “Good,” Park repeated. “See what I mean?”

Rin didn’t bother wasting air on a reply. She started circling, trying to keep the other woman to the left of her. The large blindspot on her right side was her biggest weakness, and it was one that Park hadn’t hesitated to take advantage of before.

Sure enough, Park moved against her rotation, forcing her to abort the forward movement. She was getting close to the edge of the room now, but while the wall limited her movement, it also made sure that her blindspot was covered.

Park noticed what she was doing and smirked – never a good sign. She started to advance, forcing Rin backwards towards the corner in order to maintain the distance. Either she let herself get backed into a literal corner, or she exposed her right side by moving away from the wall.

Park liked situations like that; giving her two bad choices and seeing which one she took and why.

And she was always the most satisfied when Rin found an alternative.

She dashed forward, eliciting a sceptical eyebrow-raise from Park, who moved forward to meet her, switching her blade to a reverse grip.

After only a few stops, though, Rin came to an abrupt halt, and slammed her hand against the wall.

Or, more specifically, the lightswitch.

The room was plunged into darkness as the fluorescents cut out, leaving only the faint glow of Park’s blacklight tracing her silhouette.

“Ha!” The sergeant sounded genuinely pleased. “Good thinking, kid.” With the glow coming from her own body, she was lit up like a target, while simultaneously being unable to see clearly into the darkness that still shrouded most of the room. “Next lesson, then.”

Her blacklight suddenly flared sharply, chasing the shadows from every corner of the room with its unearthly, Stygian light.

It also illuminated Rin as she bore down on Park, holding one of the weights bars from the other side of the room like a club and swinging it with all her might directly at Park.

The older woman swore, bringing her arm up just in time to catch the weighted bar as it swung towards her torso. Rin had been partially blinded by the improvised flashbang, but she’d already had momentum and a target, which carried her over the finish line.

There was a distinct, muffled crack as it impacted, forcing her back and to the side a step.

Its purpose fulfilled, she immediately let it fall from her hands, the muffled thump of it hitting the ground accompanying her steps. While Park was still off-balance, Rin used her momentum to shoulder-charge the other woman, a solid impact that knocked her off her feet.

Rin let her momentum carry her down and forward, landing on top of her opponent. When she hit the ground, though, the impact was enough to jar the knife free from where she’d been holding it between her teeth, sending it clattering across the ground. Her eye tracked it for just a second before snapping back, but it was enough for Park.

In a blur of motion, Rin found herself face-down on the padded floor, one arm twisted behind her back, the cold edge of a knife at her throat.

“Yield,” she managed to get out, and the hold immediately released, the knife disappearing. She sat up slowly, rolling her shoulder and wincing. “Well,” she said, “that was embarrassing.”

The effortless pin was a little humiliating, but it wasn’t where she’d actually lost.

Seeing shades was one thing, but affecting them was another; anyone could do the former, but unassisted, the latter was apparently about as possible as… doing something that was actually impossible, she supposed. A lot of the examples she’d have used a year or two ago had proven to be pretty conclusively false.

Of course, the key word was ‘unassisted’. The blunted training knife Park had handed her was treated in a way that allowed it to affect shades ‘and other semireal shit’, in the woman’s own words. An explanation on how it worked hadn’t been forthcoming; Rin assumed it fell under the broader category of things she wasn’t allowed to know.

The point was, she’d lost the fight the instant she’d dropped the knife. Without the ability to damage Park’s shade, her options were a drawn-out loss of attrition, or a quick and dirty one.

All things considered, Rin thought she actually preferred this one. At least it saved time.

“Not too shabby,” Park said, rocking back on her heels as Rin clambered to her feet. “Not bad at all.”

“Whatever’s got you suddenly trying diplomacy,” Rin said, “you can save it. I know I fucked up.”

Park shrugged one shoulder. “I mean, yeah, obviously. You lost. But, y’know, you were always going to lose.”

“Thanks,” Rin said dryly.

Park rolled her eyes. “Ha ha. You’re half my age, baseline, and even if I were as well, you don’t have the muscle to take advantage of the height difference. Hand-to-hand, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you lose, and the one is luck.”

She held up a finger.

But. You adapted quickly, did a pretty decent job of holding your own, and the thing with the lights and the weight bar was inspired.”

Despite herself, Rin straightened up her spine slightly, the praise soothing the burn of the earlier breakdown. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Fair warning, it’s a known weakness, so don’t expect any burner worth their salt to be caught off-guard with it. Still, figuring that out from first principles shows you’re thinking along the right lines, and doing it under pressure. That’s the kind of thing we want to be encouraging, not magically teaching you the one secret trick that doctors don’t want you to know.”


“Doesn’t matter. Point is, knife training is to get you used to the imbalance, not something you should actually be doing. We’re not done yet, ‘cause I want you to get more used to the experience, but that’s about speed and strength and reaction, not about actual tactics.”

The more she talked, the more Rin began to think that her regular role was not as martial as she’d initially assumed. There was a cadence that started to seep through the older woman’s speech when she got going, something calm and measured and steady.

“You’re never gonna win a knife fight, but that-” she gestured over her shoulder to the discarded weight bar, “-is the kind of thing we want to encourage, the kind of thing that might actually save your ass.”

That… genuinely did make Rin feel a little better, so she said as much.

Which, of course, meant that that was the exact moment that the door slid open and Barrach walked in.

Rin spun around at the sound of the door to find them standing there, looking at the two of them with that infuriating, ever-present smirk of theirs on their face. Today, they were wearing a loose, asymmetrical top that left one shoulder bare and draped over their hands entirely, along with a pair of bell-bottom jeans and some strappy sandals. All of which, of course, was coloured various shades of purple.

“Someone said ‘ass’, and I came as fast as I could,” they said, leaning against the door with arms folded. “Mornin’, roomie.”

Rin just grunted in response, walking over to where she’d left her water bottle and towel. Their fashionable outfit made her hyperaware of her own state of disarray; loose and unflattering exercise clothes damp with sweat, hair up and overdue for a wash.

“Vera,” they added, shamelessly letting their eyes scan down and back up the sergeant’s form. “Looking well as always.”

Park rolled her eyes, seemingly more amused than offended. “Sure, kid,” she drawled. “You got a reason to be here, or are you just gawking?”

Rin had so far catalogued three distinct responses to Barrach’s incessant flirting from the crew of the Middleground. The first, and most expected, was appreciation, sometimes with fluster involved; Barrach had an odd style, but they had confidence and charm, and for some people it was a combination that worked. The second was a blank shutdown, which, to their credit, they seemed to respect.

The third was what Park was now evincing, a fond, slightly exasperated amusement, like the way one might treat a puppy growling at them.

Rin found it… frustrating. To say the least.

“I do indeed,” Barrach said overdramatically. “Rinet, we’ve got a meeting with the captain in fifteen minutes.”

Rin finished her drink, wiping the stray drops away from her mouth with the back of one hand. “No, we don’t,” she said. “I checked this morning.”

“Yes,” Barrach said, voice kindly and patient like they were talking to a child, “that is because it was only scheduled half an hour ago. Which is why we check our postings for updates regularly.”

Fuck off and die. “Sorry, Sergeant,” she said, quickly dabbing at her forehead with her towel. “I’ve gotta-”

“‘Course,” Park agreed immediately. “No way I’m ending up on the Cap’s shitlist.”

Rin nodded gratefully, then grabbed her bag and ducked out through the doorway, deliberately knocking into Barrach with her shoulder as she did.

They winced overdramatically as they pushed off the wall. “Trying to make me look bad in front of the lovely sergeant, Yso?”

Rin rolled her eyes. “Do you ever turn it off?”

They chuckled, sauntering alongside her. She was taller, but they still managed to keep pace without seeming to exert any effort. “Sure I do. You don’t see me dropping lines on Coleridge, do you?”

“No, because you’d got tossed off this ship before you even got the first syllable out.”

“Hey,” they protested, “give me a little credit. Second syllable at least.”

Rin rolled her eyes. “Sure. Whatever.” The washroom facilities weren’t far from the gym, for obvious reasons, and Rin stopped just outside the door, fingers digging into the strap of her bag.

“…thanks, I guess,” she said. “For letting me know. You didn’t have to do that.”

Barrach raised a single, perfectly-groomed eyebrow in amusement. “Wow. ‘Thanks, I guess’. Sure you’re not going a bit overboard with the emotion, there?”

“Oh, fuck off and die,” Rin snapped, stalking into the washroom and slamming the door behind her.

Sixteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, Rin stepped through the door onto the Middleground’’s bridge, freshly-bathed and dressed in her usual white shirt and slacks, the closest thing she had to a uniform. Barrach could get away with all the purple-coloured outfits that had their shared closet space filled to bursting, but they were a private contractor, one for whom Khoura had shown a degree of tolerance. Rin was technically in the chain of command, even if she was seconded in from a civilian role, and she had a reputation to maintain. If not her own, then at least that of her office.

Captain Coleridge stood at the elevated section of the bridge, reading something on a tablet. Rin had often seen her around the ship with the top half of her uniform tied around her waist, but today, she had it on properly, ironed into lethal crispness.

Barrach was already there as well, but surprisingly, they were waiting near the entrance, leaning against the wall with one foot propped back against it. It was a gesture considerate enough to make Rin uncomfortable, so she chose to ignore it, striding quickly towards the Captain without a word of acknowledgement in Barrach’s direction.

“You’re welcome,” she thought she heard them mutter as they fell into step behind her.

Coleridge looked up from her tablet as they approached, and flashed a quick, easy grin.

“Mornin’, kids.”

“I appreciate you not adding ‘good’,” Barrach responded with a lazy salute.

Rin kicked them in the shin. “Ma’am,” she said while Barrach winced in exaggerated, farcical pain. “Apologies for the tardiness.”

“Apology accepted,” Coleridge said immediately. “You kids ain’t military, the expectations are different.”

“Really going hard on the ‘kids’ thing, huh,” Barrach observed. Rin went to kick them again, but they nimbly hopped out of the way.

Coleridge laughed. “I figure if you make it to sixty, you can call anyone younger than you a kid pretty safely.”

“You’re sixty?!” Rin blurted out instinctively, then immediately slapped a hand over her own mouth, mortified.

Coleridge didn’t seem offended, though; just amused in a way that Rin thought she ought to find condescending but was mostly just friendly. “I’ll choose to take that as a compliment,” she teased.

“I’m sorry,” Rin said immediately, “so sorry, I just thought-” She’d thought that the other woman was either a very hale forty, or a particularly world-weary thirty. Admittedly, yes she was greying, but some people greyed young, and her face was relatively unlined, beyond the crow’s feet of someone who smiled easily and frequently.

“We-ell,” Barrach said, impressed. “Objection retracted! You look good for your age – any chance I can crib your exercise routine?”

Coleridge chuckled. “Oh, you don’t want that. Now,” she continued before Rin could ask what that was supposed to mean, “‘Dira is away at the moment, so she asked me to debrief with the two of you.”

“Oh?” Barrach asked, sounding intrigued. “Where’s she gone?”

“Away,” Coleridge repeated with a tiny smirk. “Now, Ceit, how are things going with the squires?”

Barrach made a face, and a ‘so-so’ hand gesture. “Look,” they said, “hand to tit, I’m doing my best over here, but I’m a freelancer, not a teacher.”

“You can’t even teach basic techniques or concepts?” Coleridge asked, sounding more genuinely curious than doubting.

“I’m trying.” They sounded uncharacteristically frustrated. “But the way you lot teach the basics is- ehh, counterintuitive? For my purposes, anyway.”

Coleridge made a note on her tablet. “I see. So you think you’d get better results with students who haven’t been through the academy framework?”

“I mean, maybe. Self-taught or whatever can still get you some weird shit. Ideally, it’d be easiest with absolute beginners, but that’s not particularly feasible, is it.”

“That it is not,” Coleridge confirmed. “Well, I’ll pass that one, and see what I can do about squirrelling out some alternative candidates from the volunteer pool. Would being able to read over some of the academy material help you out?”

Barrach blinked behind their glasses. “That… could help, yeah. Couldn’t hurt, at least.”

“Great. I’ll get in touch with the… hrm. The Phyrwyn academy is probably closest. They should be able to send a few things my way.”

Her tablet made a little swooshing noise, presumably as she sent an email. It was a standard-issue tablet, and Rin hadn’t heard any of the dozen-odd other tablets ever make that sound, so she had to assume Coleridge had specifically set it to do that herself.

“Okay, great,” she said, glancing up. “Rinet, then.”

Always with the personal names.

Rin snapped off a salute. “Sir.”

“At ease,” Coleridge said with another of those should-be-condescending smiles. “If every cadet was as much of a stickler for propriety as you, my life would be a lot easier.” Rin nodded solemnly, and carefully tucked the bit of praise away for later. “Everything going okay with Sergeant Park? I know it ain’t the most exciting, but-”

From one second to the next, Dr. Khoura was just there.

Rin had been practically looking right at the spot next to Coleridge, and she’d have sworn on the grave of every ancestor she could name that she’d just appeared. One second, empty space – the next, a woman.

A very angry-looking woman.

It was as if the room itself flinched, going dead-quiet in an instant.

The doctor’s face was heavily-lined with barely-contained fury, posture rigid in a way that seemed entirely uncharacteristic.

To her credit, Coleridge reacted quickly. “Officer on deck,” she barked, her posture immediately straightening like someone had rammed a steel bar up her- spine.

There was a second or two as the rest of the deck crew scrambled to attention, and then another of that deafening silence.

“…as you were,” Khoura said at last. Slowly, the bustle of the room picked back up, a little more hesitant and subdued than before.

“Indira. What’s going on?” Coleridge’s voice was quiet, and Rin abruptly felt like she was intruding upon something; she’d never heard the captain use her… use the doctor’s full name.

Trying to leave would be even worse, though.

“The situation has changed,” Khoura said, a little distant. “Quite drastically in fact.”

“Did something happen to the Moon?” It took Rin a moment to realise that that was probably the name of a ship, rather than the literal article. “Did you make it to the anchor?”

“Just this morning.”

“Wha- you couldn’t have, not that quickly. The Moon couldn’t-”

“I took a few shortcuts. The ship will be back in a few days.”

“…’Dira, was that really wise?”

“It was prudent, considering the fact that they’re all broken. Every single one.”

That stopped Coleridge dead in her tracks. “…what?!”

“Every single one,” Khoura confirmed bitterly. “That thrice-digested shite of a man-”

“Wait, wait,” Coleridge interrupted, “what do you mean, broken? How badly?”

“Variable, from the ones I saw. Briarton had just broken down, but Azhav and Hatton were both barely intact.”

Coleridge looked like she very badly wanted to swear. “That little…”

“Mm,” Khoura agreed sourly. “Quite.”

“Hey, so.” All eyes turned towards Barrach, who waved jauntily. “Also part of this conversation, still?” Rin sidled away from them slightly. “Mind not speaking in vague, dramatic references and bring the rest of us up to speed?”

Khoura looked at them, head tilting to the side slightly in a manner that made Rin think of an owl, only far more predatory. “I see,” she said after a moment. “Would you prefer, then, that we talked about the ███████ and how █████ █████████████████ with █████████ ████████ ███?”

“What the fuck,” Rin said.

“…point acknowledged,” Barrach said sheepishly. “Should we just… go, then?”

“…no, I don’t think so. You’re already here, so we might as well do this now.”

“Seriously,” Rin blurted, “how the fuck did you just do that with your mouth-“

“The good news,” Khoura continued right over her, “is that the two of you are no longer on standby.

“About bloody time,” Barrach muttered under their breath.

“The bad news is that circumstances are significantly different than they were believed to be two months ago, which means that certain operational decisions we now know to be… sub-optimal.”

“…such as?” Rin asked warily.

Khoura sighed. “Primarily, to let the aftermath of the school incident lie. Under normal circumstances, it would have resolved itself quite handily, but- well, I’m sure you can guess by this point. The Middleground will be doing a circuit of the border, something of an all-hands-on-deck situation-“

“Which means you’re throwing us at the problem cause we’re all you can spare,” Barrach finished. “That about right?”

“About, yes.”

Barrach clicked their tongue. “Wonderful. I do so adore being hired as a scryer and then end up doing grunt work instead.” At Khoura’s single arched eyebrow, they immediately backed down, raising their hands defensively. “Sorry, sorry. Yes sir, three bags full, sir.”

“‘How high’ is also acceptable,” Khoura replied without missing a beat. “But yes, while I continue to fix the mess my wastrel of a predecessor left behind, you will be recovering our three suspects-at-large.” She held out her hand, palm upright. “Seston, Auclair, and… let’s designate this one Fulana, for now.” Three pictures appeared above her hand as she said the names, floating in the air like holograms with the faintest purple tint to them.

The first two were familiar; the identification photo for Auclair that had been provided by The Employers That Rin Wasn’t Allowed To Know The Name Of, and Seston’s cropped passport photo. The third was much poorer quality, as if taken from a distance and zoomed in, and wasn’t detailed enough to make out more than white hair, brown skin and a yellow raincoat.

“Fulana?” Barrach asked, saving Rin the embarrassment of having to do so. “I thought they hadn’t been identified?”

“Correct,” Khoura said, and utterly failed to elaborate. “I won’t sugarcoat it; two months leaves an awfully cold trail.”

“It’s the job, ma’am,” Rin said, and Khoura favoured her with a small smile.

“It is indeed. Anticipating something like this eventuality, I have retained the services of a more experienced individual, but unfortunately, circumstances dictate that they can’t enter the country for a few hours at a time, so what assistance they can offer is limited, and will be mostly remote.” She gestured, and there was a card in her hand.

“‘Dira,” Coleridge sighed.

“Priorities, dear,” Khoura replied. She handed the card over to Rin, who glanced down at the blocky, almost typewriter-esque penmanship. It read “Cassius Fallow” and then what looked like a radio frequency.

“I’ll make sure she knows to expect your call, but you’ll have to make contact yourself. Stop by the quartermaster on your way out, requisition two comms- actually, no.”

“Indira,” Coleridge said admonishingly, pre-empting Khoura by barely a second as the doctor gestured again and was suddenly holding two small comm devices, along with a small but bulky book.

“Now,” she continued, as if she hadn’t just summoned items out of the fucking air, “pack a bag and be at the sally port in twenty minutes. We can spare the catboat – Barrach, I presume you won’t have any trouble refueling.” Rin filed away ‘catboat’ in the long, long list of words she had no idea the meaning of.

“Oh, so you only want me for my body, I see.” They grinned. “Yeah, no problem.”

“Good. Any questions? Keeping in mind that your timer has started.” “Yeah,” Barrach said. Rin braced herself for another burst of secondhand humiliation. “What about the other person?”

“The other… ah, from the school, the veiled one.”

“Yeah, them. You mentioned the others, but nothing for the person who can put up a veil like that? Not to gas myself up, but it ain’t just anyone who can put up something I can’t see through at all.”

“Your priorities are as listed already,” Khoura replied neutrally. “That is all.”

Barrach squinted at her. “Wait, seriously? Three random kids are a big deal but a random stranger with enough skill and experience to veil themself – and, I should note, paranoid enough to do it even when they had no way of knowing they were being watched – just goes unremarked?”

“Technically,” the doctor noted, “it’s only two random kids. Auclair is a fully initiated member of the Blackguard; despite his demeanor, he is not to be taken lightly.”

“Great, fine. That’s not actually an answer.”

“Correct. Well observed of you.”

“…so, it’s like that, then.”

“Another excellent observation. Any questions?”

Rin started to raise her hand, then caught herself and hastily lowered it. “Will we be able to contact the ship, ma’am?”

Khoura nodded approvingly. “Not over comms, but the catboat has a radio transceiver that should be able to reach us under most circumstances. If it can’t, assume we’re simply out of range.”

Rin nodded. “And- excuse the bluntness, but is this the sort of thing that my superiors- er, my normal superiors, should know about?”

“No.” Coleridge gave her a stern, disapproving look. “…bare minimum information, at your discretion.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Rin said, relieved. For a second there, it seemed like her split loyalties were about to be tested- and if she was honest, she wasn’t sure which side she would fall on.

“But,” she continued, “your highest operational priority is now avoiding any public incidents. Discretion needs to be your watchword, so no additional manpower, no law enforcement.”

“Wait,” Barrach protested. “You seriously expect the two of us to take on two burners, a Blackguard and a dog? No offense, Yso, but a baseline cyclops doesn’t inspire much confidence.”

Well fuck you too, buddy.

“Hm,” Khoura allowed. “Good point. With Fallow’s limited capacity… hm.”

Coleridge nudged the doctor in the side, a smile tugging at the edge of her mouth. “Doesn’t it just so happen that we’ve already got a sergeant on non-standard duties?”

The expression that stretched across Dr. Khoura’s face, on the other hand, was only a smile in the most technical of senses. “So we do.”

“Yeesh,” Barrach muttered under their breath, “I’m not sure if I feel worse for the sergeant, or for those kids.”

Third option, Rin only barely stopped herself from saying.



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