“In politics... never retreat, never retract... never admit a mistake.”
~ Napoleon Bonaparte
Everyone thought Proxima had finally gone raving mad. After Medea and Proxima had finished hunting [in a bloody rush], they’d jogged back to camp and Proxima got straight onto tormenting the black bird she’d shot down. The first thing she did was cut a slit in its center and pull out its entrails.
“The poor thing is dead,” said Roderigo, “Give it some dignity.”
Proxima glared at Roderigo wordlessly and then took the mess and moved off.
Roderigo shook his head, “What did you do, Medea?”
“Me?!” squeaked Medea irritably, “She was tried to kill me in the forest and it’s my fault?”
Roderigo furrowed his brows, “Vixen tried to kill you?”
Federico sat up and said, “She’s tried to kill you too, ain’t it? Those bruises on along your throat show it,” he gestured to Roderigo’s patchy neck, “She’s been all disturbed since she got back from the Deoroc. Is it even sane to trust her anymore? Say one bloody word to her, and she goes off in tears; say another and she’ll kill you. What are we supposed to do, eh?”
Roderigo shrugged, and turned his attention to Proxima again.
She was still rummaging wildly through the dead bird. There was a mess of blood, partly digested food, and bird droppings dripping from her hands – but she seemed unperturbed by it and the determined expression on her face said that she wouldn’t stop ripping it apart until she found what she was looking for.
Proxima shook her head, and threw the entrails away, and then started looking in the bird’s throat. A spark of relief shone in her eyes as she pulled out a small cylindrical item from the bird’s esophagus. Roderigo blinked in slight confusion as Proxima threw the rest of the bird away – as though content with what she had found – and sat away at a distance from the rest of the team.
“She really has gone bonkers, hasn’t she?” asked Federico, with more worry than anyone could expect from him.
Roderigo ignored him, and fed more wood to the fire. He looked over at Proxima again and called, “We’re starving out here; aren’t you gonna cook all this meat you’ve caught?”
Proxima regarded him for a moment and then said, “Water.”
“Water. Give me water,” she held out her filthy hands, “My hands need a good cleaning.”
“We’re out of water,” said Roderigo carefully, “The river’s still running. You can go clean ‘em there… and you can, er, fill our canisters.”
Proxima considered this, then got up, put the item she’d been so happy to find in her coat pocket, and walked off with the canisters towards the river.
Roderigo turned to the Medea and Federico, “Listen to me, Vixen won’t be long, so this’ll be quick.”
“Hold up,” said Federico, “Why are we listening to you?”
“Glint, listen, we ain’t got time for this macho nonsense. We can play that silly game some other time. Whatever Proxima’s got running through her head, murder’s at the forefront of it. You saw what she did to that bird, and I’m hoping neither of you want to be next.”
There was silence, and then Medea and Federico both nodded.
“Right, now that that’s settled – when she gets back to camp, none of us says a word. No questions at all. Maybe we can spare a few casual remarks, but nothing else. One word out of line and Vixen’ll chew us all up and spit us out again – and that could be quite literal.”
“So we don’t jump on her with our daggers and kill her before she kills us?” asked Federico.
Roderigo rolled his eyes, “Didn’t you hear anything I just said?”
“Vixen isn’t as far gone as you think. She just needs a bit of time to think things over. Run the stuff she’s seen through her mind again, and try to make sense of it – and, frankly, none of us having been letting her alone. Give the girl some time and she’s snap back into her senses again.”
“But what if she is far gone. Proxima’s a right whack job – and you know it!” said Medea, “She tried to kill me. Me! Of all bloody people! A disabled defenseless little kid!”
Roderigo tilted his head to a side, “A defense little kid with a big mouth, perhaps?”
Medea turned red in fury, “You take that back! All I did was –”
“Shh! She’s coming,” said Roderigo quickly.
Proxima stepped out of the line of trees, the water canisters sloshing as she walked up to the fire. No one said a word. She passed a glance at each face in turn, slightly unnerved by the silence, and then shrugged and started cooking their meal over the fire. Darkness fell by the time they’d all finished their food, and Proxima wondered why they had decided to go so quiet all of a sudden. Surely, it wasn’t because of Trevor’s horrible mutilation? They knew the Empire’s bird deserved it… but the bird didn’t know what it was carrying, it was just some poor animal that had been genetically modified to serve the Empire.
Just like her.
Proxima dipped her hands inside her pocket and pulled out the casket she’d found in Trevor’s body. She remembered General Rustin’s raven. The bird that spoke with her. Kaw. She stared at the bloodstained casket, knowing its contents.
More sorrow. More blood. More pain.
Proxima would kill another of her kind. Perhaps closer than she knows. She looked up, and observed all the faces in front of her. How many of them would die? How many would survive? Would she live on after this, her conscience clean? Or would the flipside of the world she’d always known appear before her; to torment and agonize her life? Or would she die? Would she ever see Cato’s face again? Or Viola’s? Or Claudia’s?
Proxima closed her eyes and sighed – half-relieved, half-frustrated.
She opened the casket, and scanned the code in without reading the message.
The blue sand-timer appeared again, but a moment later, the Twelve showed up. The others in her team straightened up, patiently waiting for Sheldon to talk.
“I see you’ve made a mess of my message-carrier,” said Sheldon, without a greeting.
Proxima bared her teeth and growled, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The Twelve looked from one to the other.
“We’ve no idea what you speak of,” said Senator Gracus, uneasily.
“Bullcrap!” Proxima held the Imocs between her fingers, “Tell them!” she commanded.
“You’ll be paying a dear price for destroying the Imocs,” said Sheldon evenly, “I don’t think Cato would be very happy with it.”
Proxima stood up, “I break this, and it’ll be the end of your silly little Roman Empire,” she retorted, “Tell them.”
“You don’t want to do that,” said Priestess Madonna.
“I said, TELL THEM!” Proxima growled again. Even Federico shivered in his place, “I won’t say it again.”
The image began to blur.
Before anyone could say anything else, Tribune Septimus stood up, “Enough,” he placed his hands on the desk, “Proxima, I will answer your, er, request. But may I just remind you – this is treason.”
“That’s your problem,” said Proxima, with a shrug, “Not mine.”
The Tribune looked at his commander, Legate Cornelius, who sat rigidly in his seat at Proxima’s words.
“Well?” said Proxima, “I’m waiting.”
Septimus hesitated, then; “General Jier Rustin… he was… he was part of…”
“Don’t try my patience,” growled Proxima, “I’ve waded through crap, I killed a general who had more right to live than any of you back in your cushy little fort at the Decagon,” Proxima stabbed a finger at the holographic images, “and I’m the one who has his blood on my hands. I have no patience. Confess, or it’s over.”
“Rustin was part of Project: Half-Caste – Phase Two,” finished Septimus quickly.
Medea and Federico looked at each other questioningly, whilst Roderigo bowed his head.
“Explain,” said Proxima, more calm than before.
“What more is there to explain?” said Septimus, irritably.
“What does this mean?” said Medea, dreading to hear the answer.
“It means,” said Proxima, looking at her, “He could have been my father. Or your father. Or Federico’s father,” Proxima looked at Sheldon, “And they didn’t tell us.”
“We did not want you to hesitate,” said Sheldon.
“Yes,” Proxima said, “You didn’t want me to hesitate in killing my possible father.”
Proxima cut him short, “Who’s our next target?”
Sheldon raised his eyebrows, “So this ‘father’ affair is concluded?”
“Indeed it is: You told me to kill my own father, and I did because I wanted to save my guardian from you,” Proxima looked away, “This isn’t even a situation of sink or swim. This is a situation of sink and swim.”
“That’s a bit of a biased opinion.”
“Of course,” said Proxima, sarcastically, “Who is our next target?”
Sheldon exchanged a look with Legate Cornelius, which Proxima couldn’t quite make out.
The Legate straightened, “Your next target is –”
“How is Cato, Legate?” asked Proxima all of a sudden.
The Legate paused abruptly, not knowing how to respond, “I have… no authority in giving you such information.”
“Do you know, or don’t you know?” she repeated.
The Legate looked away from Proxima, “I… I know.”
Sheldon glared at Cornelius.
“How is he?” said Proxima, noticing Sheldon’s icy glare.
“He’s… He’s waking, Proxima.”
An icy lump formed in Proxima’s throat, “…Waking?” she said with a gulp.
The Legate nodded.
Roderigo looked up at this point, seeing Proxima on the verge of tears, and said, “Then… you are gonna send him here, ain’t you?”
The Legate brought his elbows onto the desk and interlocked his fingers, “No,” he said simply.
Proxima stared at the Legate, teeth bared behind her parted lips.
Roderigo asked, “Why not?”
Legate Cornelius sighed and then said, “Because Cato is the prize of this mission –”
“What,” said Sheldon, his fists shaking in fury, and he stood up to the Legate, “do you think you are doing?!”
The Legate held up a dismissive hand to silence him, and addressed Roderigo once more, “Cato is the prize of this mission,” he repeated firmly, “and you will receive him when you successfully complete it. He’ll sleep until you do.”
Proxima fell on her knees, her head bowed, and her red hair covered her face. Speechless.
“Listen carefully,” continued Cornelius, “There will be no more dissent uttered by that tongue. You will kill your targets without question. You are the tools to liberate the Empire. You must accept that. There is no choice in this. And you know the punishment for traitors. Is that understood?”
Roderigo was about to protest, but Proxima stepped up, sobered, “Who is our next target?”
Cornelius relaxed a little, “Her name is Madam Lenea Meszog. She is the Minister of Propaganda.”
“Where will I find her?”
“She will be present in Escarr’s town-square on the 28th day of July, to interview the Ambassador on his arrival from Xenobia. Your third target will also be present on site, but I will not mention details of him. If you figure it out, feel free to remove him also, but otherwise concentrate on Meszog. Those are your orders. Accomplish your task,” he pointed at Proxima’s poker face, “We do what we must, and you do what you must. You will have to learn to accept that – Cato’s life is in your hands. He may be asleep, but one more word of spite, dissent, treason; and he’ll be dead. You fail and he’ll be dead. But you succeed and he will live. Remember that, and know your place. You are no better than a Senate worker.”
The image faded abruptly, and Cornelius leaned back in his seat. He realized how profusely his back was beaded with sweat. He didn’t even speak to the worst of his soldiers in such a manner. And yet… he did not regret it. The threat would keep Proxima to her word. Sheldon was still glaring at him, but less angered. He’d seen and understood the threat that Cornelius had made.
Yes. Proxima would complete the task. Or die trying.