LAST EDITED ON May-03-14 AT 06:47 PM (EDT)
I've given this its own thread rather than replacing the original because that thread has 57 replies already and I'm not 100% sure of the Forum's stability in such cases. The parts that the two versions have in common are virtually identical anyway; this is an extended remix, if you will, filling in some of the gap between the original and the next installment, Nothing That Is In Between.
This is a slightly experimental release; I refer the reader to the discussions of Agreement rev A and Nothing for background on the process that led to the expanded part presented here, and leave it up to your own judgment whether the expansion supports or detracts from the cold open of the latter.
Also, you may notice that the date of this piece has changed. This is connected to a larger issue to do with the timing of Twilight overall, which is outside the scope of this board and will probably be explored under separate cover elsewhere.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.
Thursday, September 6, 2390
Imperial Hotel Lubyanka
Moscow, Eurasian Commonwealth, Earth
As she navigated the mazelike corridors of the Imperial Lubyanka, Captain S.L. Inazuma wondered what perverse impulse had caused the Imperial Hotels Corporation's managers to buy this, of all buildings, in the chaos following the fall of Olympus and convert it into an opulent boutique hotel. Oh, it was grand enough, with its parquet floors and (for Moscow) slightly florid architecture, but it was quite small by Imperial standards - not even five stories high - and its history was... not exactly in keeping with the image Imperial Hotels generally tried to promote.
On the other hand, IHC was a Salusian company. Maybe the people running it didn't know that the yellow building across from the toy store hadn't always been the innocuous insurance-company office it was when they bought it...
Then again, as she entered the third-floor room to which she'd been summoned for this meeting, she decided they probably had; or at least the person responsible for decorating this room did. Like many of the Imperial Lubyanka's third-floor rooms, this wasn't a bedroom - Inazuma was not the kind of private contractor who took meetings in hotel bedrooms - but an office, one of a number the hotel rented to businesspeople, politicians, and government officials visiting the city during the ongoing post-Corporate War reconstruction of Earth.
This one, in particular, was decorated in a very heavy, slightly sinister style. It was not in keeping with the elegance of the hotel's newly-renovated common areas, but somehow it struck Inazuma as more appropriate to the building. A fire burned in a black brick hearth on one wall; the others were covered in bookshelves, apart from the one opposite the doors, which featured a window looking out on Lubyanka Square behind a massive ebony desk.
There was a man sitting at the desk, in the larger of the room's two chairs, which was high-backed and covered in blood-red leather. He remained seated as the doors closed behind his guest, regarding the contents of a file folder lying open on the blotter in front of him. He was not a terribly impressive specimen physically, thin-faced and balding, with little round spectacles and a prominent nose; more like a bureaucrat or accountant than a man with the sort of power and position ostentatiously announced by his office. The only really remarkable things about his appearance were the strange red marks on his face, a pair of bold red slashes on his forehead, converging but not quite meeting between his eyes, and matching triangular markings at his prominent cheekbones.
Now he smiled thinly at her and said, in a low voice touched with a faint accent, "Captain Inazuma, thank you for being so punctual. I've just been double-checking a few things in your file. It's a very impressive record." After a moment's pause for comment (which she did not offer), he went on in a detached, clinical voice, "Sarah L. Inazuma, captain of the Wedge Defense Force hired vessel Phoenix Queen. Born on August 24, 2319, on Karafuto in the Rigel sector, you were orphaned in 2336 and moved to New Snowdonia, to live with your uncle and cousin. You left home in 2342, after completing baccalaureate degrees in political science and electrical engineering, and subsequently embarked on a career that can only be described as... variegated."
Consulting the file again (though Inazuma assumed this was purely for show; this was the kind of man who would have memorized these details), he went blandly on, "Explorer, mercenary, musician, courier, Outer Rim pirate queen, astrographer, privateer... " He shook his head and looked up at her, his colorless eyes vaguely unsettling behind his spectacles, and arched an eyebrow. "Where did you find the time for all that?" he wondered rhetorically.
If he expected his knowledge of her life story to rattle Captain Inazuma, the man had misjudged her; her only reaction was to arch an eyebrow at him in turn, her aspect intrigued but cool.
"One makes time for the important things," she replied nonchalantly. "Speaking of which, I notice you omitted my brief tenure as a priestess of Kossuth." She considered one carefully manicured fingernail thoughtfully. "It's just as well. I'm probably still wanted in Neverwinter."
The man inclined his head with a faint smile, as if to say, Touché, Captain. Then he gestured to the low-backed chair facing his desk. "Please. Take a seat."
Inazuma sauntered unhurriedly toward the chair, but rather than seat herself in it, she stood behind it, her hands resting loosely atop the back.
"I'll stand for the moment," she said. "You appear to have me at a disadvantage, Mister... ?"
"My name would mean nothing to you, Captain," said the man imperturbably. "I'm merely an agent, representing a powerful individual who seeks to retain your services."
"We're under contract to the WDF for another sixteen months," she said. "Unless your powerful individual doesn't mind waiting until 2392, you may want to move on to the next résumé on your list."
The man's cool little smile became a trifle wider. "You misunderstand me, Captain. My principal doesn't wish to hire the Phoenix Queen. He seeks to engage you, personally and privately, for the use of... certain others of your many gifts."
The look that crossed the captain's face was that of a woman not quite uttering aloud a mocking laugh. "How very delicately phrased," she said lightly.
The grey man looked faintly scornful. "I am unable to divulge the particulars of the job until we have an agreement in principle," he said, "but I can assure you it is nothing of that kind."
"It doesn't matter anyway," said Inazuma. "I'm not available. The war may be over, but there's still much for us to do, and I'm not about to leave the ship and go wandering off on some solo job while my crew carry on without me." She turned to go. "Good day, Mister Nameless."
She was reaching for the doorknob when, without raising his voice or even rising from his chair, the grey man said something that stopped her in her tracks and set her heart hammering behind her sternum:
"I'm afraid it's locked, Princess Azula."
She froze, hand on doorknob, and remained that way for a moment, amber eyes wide. Then, moving with a deliberate slowness that belied her agitation, she withdrew her hand and turned back to face him.
While she'd been facing away, the man had switched the folder he'd been reading from for another, this one with a bright red cover. Consulting this one, he read with exactly the same clinical inflection as before,
"Sarah Laura Inazuma: an alias for Crown Princess Azula of the Fire Nation of Dìqiú, born in the 97th year of the Ri Wu era to Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa. That would be Standard Year 2204, I believe. You crossed into Midgard proper in 2221, where you almost immediately fell foul of the slaver and pirate Vandal Carondan and found yourself frozen in crystallite. You were released in 2336 by one Laura Kinney - another individual with a truly remarkable CV - as whose cousin you subsequently posed while living with her and her uncle on New Snowdonia. Later in life you adopted her name as part of your own nom de guerre, which is interesting, but immaterial."
Azula kept her eyes cool and dismissive, her gait steady, and her hands still as she crossed back to the second chair. Inside, she was slightly stunned, her mind and heart racing. It was the first time in more than fifty years she'd heard anyone speak the name of Dìqiú, or even encountered anyone who seemed to know that it existed - but she was far too seasoned a campaigner to show those cards. Not in a room like this, to a man she thought she recognized.
When she reached the chair, she didn't sit in it, but stood behind it again, her hands atop the leather-padded back.
"You have ten seconds to tell me how you knew that," she said calmly.
The grey man's affect remained equally calm as he replied, "I'm happy to tell you where I obtained my information; however, as I said before, we must reach an agreement in principle before I can reveal anything."
Her eyes narrowing just a little, Azula told him matter-of-factly, "If you don't stop playing with me and explain yourself at once, we will agree that it was not your best course of action."
"I wouldn't advise you to indulge your penchant for violence here, Your Highness," said the grey man imperturbably. "This room is quite thoroughly soundproofed, and you will find that your... unique talents... are of little use against me."
Azula regarded him coldly for a few seconds, and then - to his faint surprise, the first outright reaction he'd shown - she smiled.
"Turn around," she said.
"I beg your pardon?" he replied, his eyebrow arching again.
"Turn around," Azula repeated patiently.
Puzzled, the grey man did so. For a moment he didn't see what she was getting at. There was nothing behind him but the window, and beyond that the traffic and tourists of the square. Across the way, the brown bulk of Dyetski Mir loomed as it always had, looking strangely dour for a toy store. He was on the verge of turning back and asking her what she thought she was playing at when he caught a glint of sunlight from the opposite roof: the distinctive blink of a telescope's objective lens.
"Boone hates it when I make him do that," said Azula conversationally. "It's so amateurish; it pricks his professionalism terribly. I've managed to persuade him, though, that occasionally a sniper is a statement that simply must be made." She smiled coolly again. "Don't you agree?" As the grey man swiveled to face her again, outrage creeping onto his face, she went on, "Now, you may well be fireproof, friend - although I find it slightly insulting that you think that, in itself, would stop me - but unless you're also bulletproof, I suggest you reconsider your position."
When he said nothing for several seconds, only staring at her in an ever-more-evident combination of disbelief and fury, Azula rolled her eyes slightly and said, "Did you seriously think I would report to a mysterious meeting with an unspecified party on the third floor of the Lubyanka and not take precautions? The owners of this hotel may be ignorant of the place's history, but I assure you, I am not."
He worked at bringing that on board for a few seconds longer, then inclined his head again and favored her with a colorless, oddly gracious little smile.
"Well played, Your Highness," he said. "Very well. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, Count of Cocytus, Director-General of His Infernal Majesty Surtur the Terrible's Directorate for Security and Intelligence."
Azula narrowed her amber eyes at him for a moment, then said coolly, "The pleasure is yours, Director Beria."
Beria seemed to find her dismissive unfriendliness pleasing. He smiled a little as he replied, "I was forewarned, of course, that you are often pleased to be difficult, but in this case your animus is misplaced. You have been given a great honor."
"Really?" Azula wondered sarcastically. "In literature, the Devil at least can be bothered to tempt mortals himself, rather than sending his underlings to do it." She looked around the room with a thoughtful air. "Was this your office?"
"Yes," said Beria. "Or as near as could be made after so many alterations to the building."
"Ah, the memories this place must hold for you," said Azula casually as she walked - "stalked" might be a better word - along one wall, running the fingers of one hand idly along the spines of the books. "All those torture sessions. Although I'm being ridiculous, you wouldn't have done that in here, would you?" she added conversationally. "Not and get blood on the rug. No, don't be absurd, Azula. You'd have done that sort of work in the basement, surely."
Then, turning to him with an upraised I-have-it finger, she went on, "The women, though. They would've been brought here. That's why the room was soundproofed, yes?" With a curious tilt of her head, she asked, "Did you have a couch in those days? Or did you just use your desk? Or the floor? A couch would've been a bit bourgeois, come to think of it. It's not as though you were some common capitalist-imperialist rapist, obsessed with comfortable furniture."
By now Beria was red-faced, not with embarrassment, but anger. Clenching his fists on his desk blotter, he said through his teeth, "Upon the urging of His minister for war, the Archduke of Antenora, my dread lord Surtur sent me here that I might arrange this meeting and propose to you the role He envisions for you in His service. The Great Fire rarely extends such courtesy. Ordinarily He would have arranged for your liberation from your mortal shell first. As such," he added with cold asperity, "you might consider taking the matter seriously."
"Hah! One of the most evil men in human history returns to the living world - to his old office, no less - in order to offer me a position in the infernal court of Muspelheim, and I'm supposed to take it seriously?" Azula replied. "Oh yes, I've heard of you, Comrade Beria, and of Muspelheim," she added to his startled glance. "In my youth I made an extensive study of humanity's foulest villains, and one doesn't spend as much time as I have delving into the dark and strange corners of the galaxy without picking up a fact or two about the larger shape of the cosmos."
Paradoxically, that seemed to calm Beria down. The flush faded from his face as he composed himself, adjusting his necktie fastidiously. Then, back in his coolly colorless voice again, he said, "Then you will understand the importance of the task before you. So much the better. Know this, then, Princess: The Ragnarök impends. The time is fast approaching when the other Eight Worlds will perish in the Great Fire's purifying flame. In a matter of mere days, my Lord Surtur's armies shall go forth to make war upon the gods." Smiling his thin smile again, fingertips spread upon the blotter of his desk, he went on, "When that happens, Archduke Ozai would have his favorite general leading the way."
At this, even Azula was unable to suppress her surprise entirely; her eyes widened a little, fixed intently on Beria's face, as she gauged whether the man could possibly be serious.
Of course he's serious, you imbecile, she told herself.
Then, narrowing her eyes again, she laughed lightly and said, "I once told Father that I'd see him in Hell. Under the circumstances, though, I think that's a promise I had best break."
Beria shook his head, a thin parody of sadness crossing his face. "I'm afraid that's not really a viable option, Your Highness. My instructions are quite clear. The Archduke prefers that you be brought to him alive and... intact, perhaps for sentimental reasons," he added with faint distaste, "but alive or dead, you will be going to Muspelheim from here."
"Do me a favor, Comrade Beria," said Azula casually, as if he hadn't threatened her. "When you see my father again, give him my regards and tell him I'll see him soon." Then, her mouth quirking into a sardonic little half-smile, she added, "But he probably won't see me."
Beria opened his mouth to utter some further threat or remonstration, but before he could get it out, the window behind him broke, cracks raying out in all directions from a neat round hole that appeared near the center. His body jerked as if someone had kicked his chair from behind.
Regarding her expressionlessly, Beria said, "You won't leave this building alive."
Azula's half-smile became a trifle mischievous. "Do you know, I rather think I will," she said, and then his body dissolved, leaving only a heap of smoldering ash in the seat of his perforated chair.
By the time she reached the lobby, the rest of her crew had moved in and neutralized Beria's remaining assets. Their long-practiced efficiency was such that the hotel's staff and the Moscow police never knew anything out of the ordinary had happened beyond the slight damage to, and mysterious disappearance of the guest in, that one third-floor room. If she hadn't been so preoccupied, she'd have felt a distinct sense of pride at the quality of their work. No one paid any attention as the black-haired woman in the black and red leather jacket left the building and walked off toward the Lubyanka Metro station.
A half-block from the hotel, she was joined by a small droid of an obsolescent but still-common type - spherical, basketball-sized, and festooned with antennae. As it hovered into "step" beside her on its repulsors, the droid emitted a stream of beep codes.
"Give me all-call, ED-E," said Captain Inazuma, still walking. The droid beeped acknowledgement. "Good work, everyone," she went on. "Get back to the Queen on the double. I want to be ready to raise ship in 30 minutes. Ronni, start pulling in all the military comm traffic you can and sweep for anomalies. We're going hunting."
"Aye aye, Captain," Veronica Santangelo's voice replied.
"I'm on my way back now," the captain went on as she and ED-E descended into the Metro station. "ETA twenty-five minutes. Inazuma out."
No one on the Sokolnicheskaya Line of the Moscow Metro paid any attention to Captain Inazuma and ED-E as they boarded a northbound train. There weren't many people on the train, and none of them appeared to care about a woman with an antique eyebot. That suited Azula just fine. She was fully preoccupied trying to process all she'd just learned, and what it implied.
Dìqiú is real, she thought, again and again, as the tunnel lights flicked past. Dìqiú is real, and I will find my way back there...
... assuming the universe doesn't end before I get the chance.
Asking Veronica to search the military comm bands for anomalous transmissions was a long shot - she had no particular reason to expect that the mortal armed forces of the galaxy would have any idea that the Ragnarök was even possible, much less impending - but her instincts told her it was her best shot at getting a line on the situation. If anyone in the mortal world was likely to end up involved in the prophesied war to end all creation, it was the people at the top of the Wedge Defense Force.
She supposed she should try to warn them about what she'd just been told, but as the train stopped and started again at Chistye Prudy, she decided that would be a waste of time. She wasn't close enough to their inner circle to assume that they would automatically believe her. Most probably, they'd either assume she was crazy (hah! she thought), or by the time she got in touch with them, they would already be involved.
Of course, if they were, and if they communicated their involvement in a way that Veronica could pick out of the æther, then it was still an open question whether Azula and her crew could position the Phoenix Queen to be a part of it; but they would have to burn that bridge when they got to it, and for now, just finding out where to go took precedence over worrying about how they were going to get there.
On top of all that, there was the deep, reverberating shock of Beria having dropped her father's name to be processed, and this she was doing very slowly and deliberately. The mere name of ex-Fire Lord Ozai no longer held any particular power to frighten or cow Azula, but having his continued (or renewed? she wasn't clear on how damnation worked) existence thrown into her sphere of consciousness so roughly took some adjustment. Her dead, despised father, the scourge of his world, now an archduke of Hell? What in the world, she wondered, did they have his ancestors doing down there?
She was still mulling that over as the train pulled into Krasnye Vorota, the last stop before she would need to leave the Metro and transfer to the high-speed express line out to the spaceport. Quite a few people boarded the train during the stop - not enough to make it actually crowded, but enough that the increased population density penetrated Azula's reverie as the train pulled out of the station. Glancing around, she saw that the carriage she was in was now about half-full of identical Muscovite commuters: grey little men in bulky grey coats, on their way to and from grey little offices in bulky grey buildings. Ah, for the life of a freebooting spacer.
She almost returned to her thoughts at that point, until it suddenly struck her just how identical they were... and all at once, she realized that everyone on the train was Lavrentiy Beria.
The realization brought a self-mocking half-smile to Azula's lips as she made eye contact with Beria, who was regarding her with the same largely blank affect he had shown through most of their earlier meeting.
"Well played, Comrade Beria," she said sincerely. "However, I wish the record to reflect that I did, in fact, leave the Lubyanka alive."
Beria smiled very slightly and touched the brim of his hat with a forefinger, acknowledging the point. All around her, Beria put down their newspapers and paperback books and began slowly converging upon her. By her side, ED-E emitted the sampled snare drum riff that served him for an "aggression detected" alert tone; above the rattle and clatter of the train, Azula could hear the thin, high whine of the droid's weapons systems powering up.
"ED-E," said Azula casually, "terminate companion protocol. Return to base, code A-one-one-three. Expedite."
ED-E made no chivalrous protest at being ordered to abandon her in this crisis. Instead, without hesitation, he pivoted 90 degrees, blasted the nearest Beria with his plasma cannon, and then darted straight through both the space where he'd been standing and the opposite window, smashing the reinforced glass like paper. The droid careened into the tunnel beyond and was instantly lost to sight, left far behind by the speeding train.
Azula and Beria regarded the heap of ash for a moment.
"I thought you said you were fireproof," said Azula reproachfully. None of Beria replied, except to resume their slow, relentless advance.
five minutes later
The Sokolnicheskaya Line platform was deserted. This was probably just as well, since if it hadn't been, the arrival of a northbound train with all the windows of its lead carriage broken and several of its seats on fire would probably not have gone unremarked.
As the train glided to a halt, one of that carriage's doors slid open, shedding fragments of blackened, broken glass from its window frames as it did, and a lone figure stepped off. With a sardonic little smile on her face, Captain Sarah Inazuma straightened her jacket and strode across to the Spaceport Express escalator, leaving behind charred and ash-strewn ruin.
Cosmonaut V.V. Bondarenko Interstellar Spaceport
Shchyelkovo, Moscow Oblast
Craig Boone looked up from the August issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine to see his captain coming up the ramp and into the Phoenix Queen's entry port (nicknamed "the lobby" by the crew). She looked a bit ruffled, though not unduly, and her face was grim and purposeful as she approached.
"Is everyone aboard?" she inquired, her voice cool and clipped, as was often the case under stress.
"Yeah," Boone replied, closing the magazine. "Cass got in about five minutes ago. Said to tell you, you owe her a Grigoriy, whatever that means."
Inazuma ignored the remark, walking past him with a noncommittal grunt. "Get ready to raise ship," she said.
"Aye aye, ma'am," said Boone laconically, and then he drew his sidearm and shot her in the back of the head.
"Holy shit!" Rose of Sharon Cassidy cried from the top of the after companionway. "Boone, what the fuck!"
Boone paid his shipmate's alarm no mind, instead kneeling next to the sprawled body to make certain of his kill. This was a mere formality - she no longer had much in the way of a head - but Boone was, after all, a professional. As he checked over the body, Cass whipped her own pistol from her belt and slowly, not-entirely-steadily descended the companionway stairs, her hands trembling slightly as she covered him.
"Tell me," she said in a breathless, overcontrolled murmur, "I've got the DTs or something. Tell me I didn't really just see you murder the captain."
"This isn't the captain," said Boone flatly. Evidently unconcerned that she was still holding down on him, he put his own weapon away, seized hold of the collar of Captain Inazuma's jacket, and stood up, pulling the garment off the limp carcass as he did so. Cass stared at him in dumbfounded horror; then, unwillingly, she lowered her weapon and looked down.
The form sprawled messily at Boone's feet retained the very convincing appearance of a thoroughly dead Sarah Inazuma for another three or four seconds... and then crumbled like a sand castle, falling away to a gently smoking scatter of ash and cinders. While Boone and Cass stood looking at each other, ED-E appeared from behind one of the stanchions and hovered into place at the sniper's right shoulder. The droid emitted a hollow, metallic click, and then spoke in the recorded voice of Azula:
"Hello, everyone. If you're hearing this, I... may have mishandled something somewhere along the line, but don't panic. We'll just have to move on to Plan I. ED-E has all the codes you'll need. I know I can rely on you. Inazuma out."
Cass looked from Boone to the droid and back again, then holstered her sidearm and asked, "What the hell is Plan I?"
Boone's face, never particularly animated, was set in a stonelike scowl. "I as in improvise," he told her, then stepped past her to the intercom panel, punched the key for communication with the bridge, and said sharply, "Veronica, Plan I. Tell me you've got something."
There was a pause while Veronica took the seriousness of his opening remark on board. Then, in a tone that mingled dismay, determination, and a hint of triumph: "Yeah. I've got something."
Boone nodded with dark satisfaction. "Then let's get to work."
"Agreement in Principle" (revision B) - A Twilight / Desolation Angel Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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