“We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
~ Benjamin Franklin
Proxima had thought over Legate Cornelius’s words. Different ideas were floating around in her mind.
Could they work as a team? How long would it take to train them? What if they showed signs of teamwork here, but changed when they got to Methum? What if one of them turned renegade?
She shook her head. It was after two days that she finally decided she’d take them. Proxima called everyone back to her apartment [Viola was relieved that Proxima’s bruises had faded] and told them all what she thought.
“I’m sorry, Proxima,” said Federico, looking amused, “But remind me… who died and made you Emperor?”
Roderigo was about to punch Federico in Proxima’s defense, but she stopped him and said, “Cato died, and the Emperor made me Emperor. If you don’t like it, then I’m more than happy to let you lot loiter about here until I get back.”
“Right,” Federico snorted, “You really think you can do it on your own?”
Proxima gritted her teeth, “I’d have a better chance, than be paired up with a whiny little bastard like you.”
“Ooh, feisty one, eh?” said Federico, “I’m sorry, Empress FitzGerald, but I think it’s important to mention that I’d be your most loyal subject. Wang has AVSD; she gets out of breath easily and might get a heart attack if she doesn’t take enough rests. Mayson is an all-out nutter – enough said there. You’re more or less gaga by the sound of it as well, and you act like an over-emotional little daddy’s girl. If there’s anyone who’s going to get this mission done, it’s me.”
Proxima raised an eyebrow, “I think you should know that fat-heads with an ego the size of the universe, whilst having a brain the size of a peanut, don’t get very far in any field. And just in case you didn’t get that, Federico, I meant you.”
“She’s got a point there,” Medea said hotly.
Federico knitted his brows, “What? Are you all gonna take up arms against me? Go ahead; I’ll pummel you all before any of you lift one finger!”
Proxima smacked her forehead.
What am I doing? she thought.
“I think this is going to take a little reconsidering,” she said, “Maybe I should go on my own.”
“Is that meant to be a threat?” Federico scoffed.
She let him finish laughing and then said, “No. I’m being serious,” she stood up, “If we can’t work as a team, there isn’t a point taking you all to Methum and then failing there. Failing in Methum in fatal.”
Claudia nodded, “Proxima is right. You all need to be able to work with each other. You are your own little army now.”
“Hold on one second,” said Federico, “That means I have to take orders from her?”
“Yes, Federico,” said Viola calmly, “It does. Proxima is Senior M.O.”
“So what am I meant to be? A junior? A performance monkey?” said Federico.
“I think that latter fits you just fine,” commented Roderigo.
Proxima ignored them both, “You’re a soldier. A legionary. You all are, come to think of it.”
“Yeah,” said Federico, “But then that makes you Legate! You hardly deserve that post.”
“Believe me, Federico,” said Proxima, “I’d gladly give it up. But it isn’t my choice. The Emperor chose me. I was the quickest to recover; I was the longest in quarantine; I was given a mission before you and Medea could even remember your own names; I made the deal with the Emperor and I’m Senior M.O. If I choose to go on my own and the Emperor knows about it, nothing you say or do will change it. I haven’t got time to sit around bickering with you. Any of you. Cato’s still in coma and he’s going to die, unless I get this over and done with before the end of the year – with or without you. So, if you want to help, then stop being a nuisance and start helping.”
“The speech was lovely but–”
“No. Questions. Asked.”
Federico scowled, but clamped his mouth shut.
Roderigo nodded, and said, “Alright, kid. We’ll have it your way. What’s your game-plan?”
Proxima raised her eyebrows, and didn’t speak. She hadn’t actually thought of a plan.
“What’s the matter?” Federico sneered, “Cat got your tongue?”
“I haven’t really thought on that point…” Proxima admitted, rubbing her nape and turning pink.
“Right,” Roderigo cut in, before Federico could say anything, “then, since we’re talking about teamwork, I suggest we start acting like a team,” he gave an accusing look at Federico, “Why don’t we share an apartment?”
“Psht! Share an apartment? With you lousy buggers?” scoffed Federico.
“It’s a good idea,” said Viola.
Federico stared at her, “But…”
“Get with the picture, Fed. You’re going to have to learn to live with each other. You’ll be in worse situations when you get to Methum. So, stop complaining!”
“My apartment’s free, now that there’s just me,” said Proxima, “You guys can have Cato’s room. Medea will share my room with me…” she thought a moment, “and I’ll get rid of the beds. I’ll put Senator Sempronius on their case; get him to recycle them or something. We’ll sleep on the floors, since we’re probably going to be sleeping rough in Methum.”
“Wait, wait,” said Federico, “I have to share a dead-man’s room with him,” he stabbed a finger at Roderigo, “What if he stabs me in my sleep?”
“I’m sure you’ll be sorely missed!” Roderigo growled.
“I can set up a training scheme with Legate Cornelius,” continued Proxima, “for Federico and Medea – even to suit her deficiency – and Sheldon can arrange Senate meetings. Stuff we might need – canned food, weapons, armor, disguises, iodine tablets…”
“Sounds like a plan, kid,” commented Roderigo.
Proxima wasn’t listening. She got up and retrieved a notebook and a pen. She wrote down everything – reminders and things she’d need to throw out of the apartment [grudgingly] – the tip of her pen dancing along the lines of the pages furiously.
“Right,” said Claudia, “So what’s first?”
Proxima chewed the end of her pen, thinking, “I’ll talk to Cornelius. He’ll get Medea and Federico a training scheme in no time, and find them some sparring partners.”
“Bother finding!” said Viola, “They already have partners.”
Viola and Claudia smiled up at her.
“So they do,” laughed Proxima.
“What should I do?” said Roderigo.
“Um… you can join them if you like. Or you could call Sempronius for me. While you lot are out training, I’ll get this place cleared-up,” she looked around, “It’s going to take some time.”
“I love how you’ve started calling everyone by name,” said Federico, “Someone might think they were your equals.”
This surprised Proxima. She had started calling the Legate by name. And Sempronius. She didn’t reply to the comment, by made a mental note of not letting this ‘Senior M.O.’ stuff get to her head.
“Medea?” said Proxima, “You haven’t said much. Anything you want to chip in?”
Medea looked up, her mouth parting a little, but then shrugged and said nothing.
“Alright,” said Proxima, “Let’s get to work.”
* * * * *
Looking through Cato’s belongings hurt Proxima. She didn’t want to throw any of it out. Cato had said it was all hers, now that he was gone.
Stop thinking like that, Proxima told herself, Cato isn’t gone.
Proxima opened up his cupboard. There were only a few clothes in there – because they hadn’t really grabbed any stuff from their house at the Gateway – but Proxima smiled.
Cato’s possessions were always first-class – monochrome ties, crease-resisting shirts, and single-creased trousers – but all of it was stuffed and jumbled-up at the bottom of the cupboard, unfolded and inside out.
Proxima shook her head. When people gave surprise visits, they always thought Cato was Mr. Neat-and-Tidy, and Proxima was the slob. She couldn’t remember a day when Cato decided to wear something a bit more casual – like a homemade woolly jumper or a pair of jogging bottoms. Even in winter, it was either a monochrome polo neck or freezing to death.
Proxima quickly cleared out the clothes – noting the musky cupboard smell mingled with Cato’s scent that still lingered on them – and placed them in a basket she’d brought with her. Under all the clothes, she found a large chest. She didn’t need to think about it. She knew what was inside. With care, she lifted the heavy oak lid, and nodded.
I knew it, she thought.
All the items they had retrieved from the Gallery glittered in the dim lighting of Cato’s room. Proxima bit her lip when she saw an enveloped message lying unopened on top of everything. She opened the letter – trying her best not to tear it – and saw that the message consisted of only two words:
Cato had known it, thought Proxima, He knew that this would happen.
Of course he did. Cato always did.
Her head snapped towards the doorway. Roderigo stood there warily. Proxima wondered for how long he’d been there, watching her.
“You all right?” he asked.
Proxima shrugged, “I never thought I’d have to throw all this stuff away.”
“Well… you’re doing it for Cato. Ain’t that something?”
She shrugged again.
“Sempronius is here,” said Roderigo, “He told me to tell you that he ain’t ‘any old garbage disposal officer’.”
“You can tell him that I said I know he isn’t,” replied Proxima, grateful for the change of subject, “He’s my garbage disposal officer.”
Roderigo laughed, “I’m not sure he’ll like that. He’s got a bunch of Senate workers with him. Anything you’ve got ready to, what was it you said, ‘recycle’?”
“Yeah, everything wrapped in black in the other bedroom. I’ll be done with this one too, in a minute.”
Roderigo nodded, “You’ve done a good job – stripping this place bare,” he disappeared from the doorway and Proxima stayed silent as she listened to Roderigo giving muffled orders to the Senate workers.
Proxima looked back at the chest, and took what she thought she would need. She took extra arrows – diamond and regular – the gun, and the water-skin of Dyonuxiot blood; which was currently half-empty because of the Buck’s Tooth incident and smelt a lot better because Cato had changed the skin. As an afterthought she also took Cato’s Kevlar suit and his broadsword, because she couldn’t bear to see them thrown away. She’d pack them away somewhere; maybe take a short trip to the Gallery, until Cato regained consciousness, so he could take then back in his own time. Carefully tucking the revolver into her pocket, she carried the other items to her bedroom – which would now be shared with Medea – and piled them up in a corner [being careful to hide the gun]. She then stalked back to Cato’s room, to help the workers remove the rest of his belongings.