"Make a habit of two things: to help; or at least to do no harm."
Cato wasn’t pleased with the eagerness of the Empire to sign Proxima into the Legion. And he was even less pleased when they called her in for a Senate meeting the day after she made a full recovery.
Another month she spends, trying to become herself after all the atrocities the Empire had wrought on her, and they give her a day to get used to it? thought Cato grudgingly.
Proxima didn’t seem altogether pleased by it either, but she supposed it couldn’t be worse than her time in quarantine. And if she wanted to earn the trust of the Empire – i.e. avoid a second quarantining – then she’d better get herself to the Senate.
On arrival, the uniformed Senate workers scanned both Cato and Proxima for weapons, then Proxima was led to a place to get her arm tattooed [which she put up a huge struggle against, since the procedure included the use of a needle], and she rubbed her arm angrily every couple of minutes to check if it was still there. She looked at the black letters and the insignia, and scowled. She didn’t even know why they’d called her, and they were already signing her up for this mysterious ‘task’ they kept referring to in their message.
Cato sighed hopelessly at the struggle Proxima had put up, but had put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Come on. There’s no point crying over spilt milk. Let’s go see what the Senate wants.”
But Proxima had completely ignored him, and kicked a doctor in the face and bit on the hand of another, screaming, “YOU TOUCH ME AGAIN AND I SWEAR I’LL STICK A TUBE IN YOUR NOSE, AND SHOVE A LOLLY STICK DOWN YOUR THROAT! OH, AND MAYBE I’LL JUST STICK THAT STUPID CLIPBOARD YOU IDIOTS TREAT LIKE AN IDOL RIGHT UP YOUR MEDICALLY UNHYGEINIC BACKSIDES, AND SEE HOW YOU FEEL!”
Good old Proxima, thought Cato smirking – even though he had to drag her away and give her a good fifteen minutes to calm down.
After Proxima was fairly calmed, a rather hesitant Senate worker led them to the person who had sent them the invitation. And on seeing him, Cato smiled broadly.
“Legate Cornelius al-Boudayr,” he said, shaking the man’s hand, “It’s been some time.”
“Cato,” returned the Legate, “It has indeed. How have you been keeping?”
Proxima looked up at the Legate. He was a huge Arab man, with a vast chest and a bare head. He wore standard legionary clothing, and had a sheathed sword at his side, the pommel twinkling in the awkward lighting of the Senate. The Legate’s beard was somewhat unkempt, but it suited him well. Indeed, it was hard to imagine that this sort of man had the capability of smiling – but on seeing how pleased the Legate was on reuniting with Cato, Proxima deduced that, perhaps, anything was possible.
“And you,” said the Legate, addressing Proxima, “must be the girl Cato’s always boasting about. Proxima, yes?”
Proxima nodded, and furrowed a brow at Cato, who was looking away, “Cato speaks highly of you also, Legate,” she mumbled.
“Please, there’s no need for formality. Come, sit,” Legate Cornelius gestured to a small table with four seats, “The other task-setter hasn’t arrived yet.”
Cato and Proxima sat.
“Sheldon won’t be joining us, will he?” inquired Proxima.
The Legate laughed a little, “No, no. Dr. Holmes does usually join us in such affairs, but will not, at the present, because of your staunch disapproval of him, Proxima. And I quote when I say that he wishes not ‘for Proxima to beat the living excrement’ out of him.”
“Would serve him right,” Proxima muttered.
Cato cleared his throat, and said, “So, who will be joining us, then?” Cato asked, “A senator?” he added bitterly.
“Goodness, you both seemed to have woken on the wrong ends of your beds this morning! Have no fear, our second task-setter is reliable – even by your standards, Cato.”
“Fat chance,” muttered Cato.
“Oh, calm yourself!” the Legate called on a Senate worker and ordered a few drinks. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” he said when he had placed his order, “but we can offer no more than orange juice at the present. Wine is reserved for celebratory events – the Emperor’s orders.”
Cato and Proxima looked at each other.
“Orange juice is fine by us,” said Cato, simply.
“Celebratory events?” said Proxima sardonically, “What could there possibly be to celebrate at this moment in time? The invaders are on the verge of a break-through, and it doesn’t seem that all the necessary measures have been taken to stop them.”
Legate Cornelius looked hurt, but replied, “The invaders have been kept at bay for the moment, though I don’t know for how long. Our sources tell us that they may launch another attack soon – but that’s all we know. As for celebration, we have much to celebrate, Proxima. We have found our saviors,” the Legate nodded at the tattoo on Proxima’s arm.
Proxima shook her head and waved her hands in denial, “Oh, no, no, no, no! I’m not going out there to take on an army of power-hungry aliens. I think I’ve had enough surgery for a lifetime – you can’t possibly be thinking about sending me out there to get beaten up so they can sew me back together all over again!”
Cato opened his mouth to speak, but the Legate stopped him and said to Proxima, “I am sorry, but your arm says otherwise. You are of the Legion, Proxima, and you will serve it.”
“But I didn’t ask to be –”
“You didn’t need to,” the Legate’s voice hardened and his face became stony, “You were born into it. Serving the Empire is the very purpose of your existence, and the Emperor doesn’t keep that which is not useful to him.”
That shut Proxima’s mouth firmly. The Legate wasn’t telling her this because he was trying to step on her; he was saying it because it was the truth. She was bred to be a ‘savior’ for human kind – a remover of the invaders. She and two others – Federico and the frightened little ten-year-old. How far would they get? Proxima figured that perhaps they’d be shot down within fifty miles of Dyonuxiot borders.
Proxima nodded after a moment, grim and intimidated, “I suppose you are right, Legate,” she sighed.
Legate Cornelius grunted, “It’s just something you must understand, Proxima. Your life with the Legion hereon will not be easy.”
Just then a man appeared beside the table and coughed, holding the tray bearing four plastic cups of freshly squeezed orange juice – but he wasn’t a Senate worker. He had messy blonde hair, dark gray eyes, and battle-scars dominated his face [as though his head had gotten sucked into a blender]. He was very well built and very tall – much like the Legate – and he had a bad limp in his right leg. But this man wasn’t a legionary either. He wore a thoroughly ironed, pristine gray suit and over it he wore a toga.
“Sempronius?” said Cato, all aghast.
The man laughed, “Look at your face, Cato! You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You’re a Senator?”
Senator Sempronius Axel gave a one-shoulder shrug, “Well, they discharged me from the Legion, and I reckoned that the Empire needed a Senator that knew what he was doing, so I joined.”
Cato rubbed his forehead miserably, “The next thing we know is that pigs are flying!”
The Senator put down the tray and sat down next to the Legate, sipping is cup with a smile on his face [which made him look rather grotesque].
“Sorry for the lateness,” he said, “Senate meetings can be such a drag. All they do is moan about this, and complain about that, but none of the Senators actually get around to fixing anything. And they all speak like they haven’t slept in like fifty years! But, goodness, they look like they lounge about all day – all flabby and lazy and stuff,” he looked at Proxima, “You know what I mean, don’t you?”
Proxima looked at Cato and Cato, reading Proxima’s expression, said, “Yes, he actually does talk this much nonsense.”
Proxima laughed, whilst Sempronius gave a sour look.
“Anyway,” he said slowly, “What have I missed?”
“Not much,” said the Legate, “I haven’t set the task yet.”
“Right, so… how should we put this, Legate?”
“Well, you can start by handing over the assignment from the Emperor.”
“Ah, right,” Sempronius took out a sealed letter from his breast pocket and handed it over to Proxima.
Proxima looked from one man to the other, wondering what on earth she was meant to do. She had assumed that Cato had come with her to stop whatever the Empire was planning, but he seemed awfully resigned. He didn’t even reach out to take the letter from Proxima. Cato just sat there, dormant and impassive.
“Well?” said Sempronius, “Open it.”
Proxima broke the wax seal [Wax seal? she thought], and opened up the long piece of parchment [Parchment?] and scanned the letter.
“Latin?” she said, furrowing a brow, “What day and age is this?”
Sempronius and the Legate exchanged an ashamed look – like they’d gone through this so many times – and Sempronius said, “Sorry, the Emperor is a bit… um… behind. But we’ll tell you what he wants. Just keep the letter as, um… I don’t know…” he turned to Legate Cornelius, “Legate?”
“A, uh, memento, if you like,” the Legate thought a moment and put in quickly, “Or as proof of your mission. Whichever suits you best.”
Cato bowed his head, grinning like there was no tomorrow, and Proxima said, “This is why you didn’t take it from me, isn’t it?”
Cato burst out laughing, while the other two men rolled their eyes. After long moment of hysteria, Cato said, “Nothing has changed since I left this place! Soon they’re going to be issuing you all to go into battle on horseback. Oh, who am I kidding, eh? At the time I left, you lot were parading on horses anyway, I bet you already ride them into battle.”
“That’s enough, Centurion,” said the Legate, indignantly. Cato stopped obediently, but couldn’t help but keep an amused smile on his face.
Sempronius sighed, “I’m sorry, Proxima, but we were only delaying the mission at hand. There is something we need you to do, and fast.”
Cato straightened, immediately serious, “What does the Empire need Proxima for? You're all high and mighty by the looks of it.”
There’s my Cato, thought Proxima.
“Well, if you would be so kind as to let us explain, Cato,” said the Legate and then turned to Proxima, “We need you to find someone. Back when we were commencing Project: Half-Caste, there were two adult successes –”
“Mose Ruict and Roderigo Mayson,” Proxima cut in.
“Ah, well-read,” appraised Sempronius, “Much like your guardian. Yes, we need you to –”
“The only two out of a hundred to survive,” Proxima added.
Sempronius raised his eyebrows, “Very much like your guardian.”
The Legate took over from there, “Proxima, please listen. We need you to find Roderigo – he’s still in the Empire somewhere and we’ve marked down the places that he’d most likely be on the map provided with the Emperor’s letter. He is needed for a greater mission that we’re planning.”
Sempronius rubbed the back of his neck, “We’d send the other Half-Castes with you, but they haven’t quite… recovered as quickly as you.”
The Legate also rubbed his nape, “And the legionaries are a little caught up at the moment…”
“I’m on my own?” said Proxima, frowning.
Sempronius opened his mouth to speak again, but Cato slammed his fist down on the table.
“No, you're not!” he said. He was angry, and the other two men raised their brows at this.
“Cato…?” said Legate Cornelius, carefully.
Cato shook with fury. “I’m rejoining the Legion,” he said tightly, teeth bared and jaws clenched, “and I’m coming with you, Proxima.”