"Life every man holds dear, but the dear man holds honor far more precious-dear than life."
~ Troilus and Cressida, William Shakespeare
Legate Cornelius was getting worried. He took another sip of water, aware of the nervous looks that Sheldon was giving him, and rested the half-empty plastic cup down on the mahogany table. It was the first day of July, and still no word had come from the M.O.s. The Legate was scared. He was anxious. He’d lost sleep from worry.
What if they failed to kill Rustin? he thought, What if he’s taken them all hostage? What if he knows what we’ve been planning? Would they tell him everything? Would they be tortured into it?
Then the Legate remembered the last thing Proxima had said through the Imocs: If you don’t get a message from me by the end of this month – don’t expect any of us to come back. And don’t expect us to be dead either.
What if they’ve defected to the Methists…?
Legate Cornelius looked up at Sheldon, and knew he was thinking the same thing. The other members of the Twelve were to meet within the next half-hour – an emergency meeting to discuss what move to make next. Of course, Proxima could simply have forgotten to message them; or she could be trying to scare them as revenge over what they’d put her into – but none of those reasons seemed credible.
“What are you thinking, Legate?” asked Sheldon, breaking the eerie, uncomfortable silence at last.
“You’re the smart one, Dr. Holmes,” commented the Legate, rubbing his nose, “You go first.”
“Well…” Sheldon ran a finger over the lines in the table idly, “There is still a signal being emitted from the Imocs – so at least we know that it’s still intact. As for the M.O.s…” Sheldon rubbed the back of his neck.
“Yes? What about them?”
“There are only three signals being emitted. Proxima’s signal is missing.”
“…What do you mean ‘signals’?” The Legate hissed.
Sheldon sniffed indignantly, “They had to be chipped –”
“You got them chipped?!”
“Legate, please! Anyway, the chips were implanted in their arms when they had their legionary tattoos imprinted. Proxima’s chip is no longer emitting a signal. I’m afraid she may have died at that blasted general’s hands. But then the Imocs would have also self-destructed. It doesn’t make any sense…”
Legate Cornelius was still getting over the whole ‘chipping’ idea, but hearing of Proxima’s death sobered him, “…Dead?”
“Not certain. The chip could have been damaged… but that’s unlikely. Unless she was struck on her arm deliberately for that purpose,” the doctor sighed, “The best we can do now is wait.”
Legate Cornelius shook his head, “I can’t believe you! They’re people, Sheldon, not pets!”
“It was necessary, Legate.”
“Yes, but I doubt even the Emperor would sanction chipping! Only Senate workers are chipped – you know that!”
A knock came at the door. Sheldon turned his face – grateful for the interruption – and said, “Come.”
A nurse opened the door, and still standing by it, said, “The reports you asked for, Dr. Holmes, sir,” she held out a file stuffed with papers.
Sheldon got up, taking the files in one hand, and ushered the nurse out with the other. He sat down in his place and looked through the file. Legate Cornelius watched him patiently, still angry with the whole chipping business. But he could see reason from Sheldon’s angle. Sheldon was practically an imperial secretary – he needed to take all the measures necessary in order to please the Emperor.
That or have his head on a pike.
Still, thought the Legate, It doesn’t justify planting a bit of metal into someone without letting anyone know.
Sheldon sighed again, and Legate Cornelius waited for him to start moaning. “The centurion is showing signs of waking,” Sheldon cupped his face in one of his hands, “If Cato wakes, what would…?”
“Cato’s waking?” asked the Legate.
Sheldon nodded, “But that could jeopardize everything.”
Legate Cornelius furrowed his brows and puffed his cheeks, “Jeopardize what?”
“Everything, Legate Cornelius. Sure, we could just send him into Methum to join the others – but how much loyalty can we expect from him? Especially after those treacherous words Proxima last uttered, how can we trust that Cato would serve us and not the Methists? Then again, how do we know that our current M.O.s are still serving us? If Proxima is dead… then what chances have the others of continuing this mission? We need to keep Cato under.”
“Holmes, there’s no good in doing that.”
“Well, the ends will justify the means.”
“No, Holmes, the ends will not justify the means. If Cato wakes, we send him in with the others. I’ve known him long enough. He won’t betray us.”
“Legate, you knew him when he was serving under you. He’s a different man now – you know that.”
“He still works under me –”
“No!” yelled Sheldon, standing up and knocking over his chair. He sighed a few times and composed himself, “No, he does not. Legate, everything he did when he was in the Legion was for the good of the Empire. Now, everything he does is for the good of Proxima – surely you see that? He isn’t in favor of the Empire. Even the idea he put forth – Phase Two of the Project – he didn’t favor. His own idea. All he cares about is Proxima. Goodness, he lives for that girl!” Sheldon sat down, putting a hand to his forehead, “It’s so blatant, how can you not see it?”
Legate Cornelius gritted his teeth. Sheldon was right. Whether or not Cato would work for the Empire was debatable, but the fact remained – everything he did was for Proxima’s benefit, if not for his own. Nay, for Proxima’s benefit – period.
The Legate placed his hands on the table, “So you’re going to keep him asleep? For how long?”
“For as long as it takes. Cato is the seal of this deal. As soon as we give him up – we can’t trust anything any more. You will not speak of this to the other members of the Twelve – or, for that matter, to the M.O.s. As far as you know, Cato is still in coma – understood?”
The Legate shook his head, “I always wondered when the day you started ordering me about would come. For a while I believed it wouldn’t. I guess I was wrong. The Apocalypse must be approaching.”
“Your word, Legate?” growled Sheldon.
“It’s yours. But note that I’m not going to like keeping this secret.”
“You don’t need to like it!”
Just then, a beeping sound rang through the room. Legate Cornelius and Sheldon exchanged a look. Sheldon opened a drawer in the table and tapped a button on a small black remote-control. The big screen at the far end of the room lit up – blue, like most of the screens – and had four letters imprinted on it; leaving the rest of the screen blank.
The letters read: Dead.
* * * * *
“How many more, Proxima?” asked Medea, as they ambled through the forest, ducking under the low branches and stepping over the overgrown roots of trees.
Proxima thought a moment, pausing for a while, and then said, “I think one more of these rats will do it. But let’s take a break now. I’m thirsty.”
The both sat on the floor, silently listening to the sounds of birds chirping and slight movements of the animals bounding from tree to tree. The thick canopy overhead only allowed small amounts of afternoon sunshine to trickle through, but it was good enough for the pair of hunters. Proxima took a long draught of water from her water skin, as she watched Medea bring out their game. Most were squirrels or small birds – but it would feed the small army well enough.
“Careful,” said Proxima, “Or a fox might just snatch a few when you’re not paying attention.”
“I know what I’m doing,” said Medea, indignant.
Proxima shrugged, unmindful of Medea’s slight anger, and said, “I’m just saying.”
Medea made a face and said, “Is our break over yet? I want to go back to camp.”
“Go back if you want,” said Proxima, “I can finish this.”
“No,” said Medea firmly, “You said I was the team’s goldmine. This is my job. I want to do it.”
Proxima shrugged again, “Suit yourself. Finish the job if you want. I’m not done resting.”
Medea sighed, “Sometimes I really wonder why you were made our leader.”
Proxima gazed passed her, a distant look in her eyes, and then said, “I wonder on that too.”
Just then, a bit of weight was snatched out of Medea’s grasp. She turned quickly, but not quick enough. She didn’t even see the culprit who’d taken the meat – just a rustle of leaves as it scampered away. Scowling, Medea counted the stock and found a good quarter missing.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she shouted.
“I didn’t see it,” said Proxima, “Besides: you made it clear that it was your job.”
“But you knew it was there, didn’t you? You knew there was something just waiting to take our food!”
Proxima was indifferent, “I warned you to watch your back,” she got up and put out her hand, “Anyway – there’s no use in crying over spilt milk. We’ll just have to hunt for a bit longer.”
Medea slapped Proxima’s hand away and rose to her feet, “I wasn’t crying over anything! If only you hadn’t gone and distracted me with your little childish act, maybe I would have been able to save our meal!”
Proxima’s lips began to tremble, “Will you quit yelling at me?”
“There you go again!” screamed Medea, “Why do have to go so quickly into leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-cry mode? I’m four years younger than you, for goodness sake!”
Proxima sniffed and nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Urgh!” Medea clenched her fists, “What is that supposed to mean?”
Medea felt a hand grab her throat with almost perfect accuracy and her head jerk back and slam against a tree. It took a moment for her vision to clear, but when the blurriness faded her eyes widened and she began to hyperventilate.
“It means,” spat Proxima, putting her forehead to Medea’s, “that I’m four years older than you, and you shouldn’t be talking to me the way you have been for the most of this hunting trip – especially since I could have recently killed my possible father or yours for that matter. I’ve put up with you – all of you – for this long, and I don’t know how long it’ll keep. I suggest you watch what your tongue says, or you could be in for a whole lot of hell, Medea.”
“You… can’t scare… me!” choked Medea, clearly frightened.
“I’m sure I can’t,” Proxima loosened her grip, and Medea fell onto the floor coughing.
Proxima dug her hands deep into the pockets of her long coat and walked off, expecting Medea to follow her for fear of getting lost. And Medea did follow Proxima. It was funny how that worked. Medea was always criticizing Proxima for being the absolute child, without actually acknowledging her own young age.
Medea took a wary glance at Proxima. The bruises on her forehead had more or less faded, but her eyes were still somewhat puffy – perhaps from lack of sleep or because she often started crying if Federico yelled at her too much. He’d cut down on it ever since he realized the effect it had on her. Roderigo was indifferent about the whole crying business for the most part, but usually cursed Federico and cut him down to size if he got out of hand. None of them knew what exactly happened in the Capital Barracks. Roderigo told Federico and Medea what he knew and what could have happened – but Proxima refused to talk about it. She was clearly hurt by the incident. The fact that she’d mentioned killing her own father to Medea came as a surprise. Then again, it could just be some psychotic delusion that Proxima believed in and said in her anger. Not that Medea was worried about Proxima’s psychological standing at present. She was more worried about watching her own tongue.
The forest floor was soundless as their soft leather socks treaded on the dark fertile soil and browning leaves; Proxima looked up as a clear patch in the canopy above shed a near-blinding amount of light. She squinted – raising a hand to shield her eyes – when a bird squawked loudly. Medea looked up also, and saw a dark bird gliding in the air, circling around the blank patch. It had peculiar red markings tipping its wings. It screeched again.
“Shoot it,” said Proxima, all of a sudden.
Medea raised her eyebrows, “What? Why? That’s the Empire’s bird! We can’t eat it!”
“I said: shoot it, damn you!” Proxima said again with more anger.
Medea hesitated, and then lowered her pack to bring out her bow.
As if sensing Proxima’s order, the bird squawked a few times in a row – as if calling for help.
Proxima hissed through her teeth, and snatched the bow from Medea’s hands. She pulled a diamond-headed arrow from her quiver and took aim. The arrow whistled in the air briefly before meeting its mark. The bird dropped out of the sky, the arrow protruding straight through its head, and landed in a heavy heap on the forest floor. There was silence in the forest for a good long while. No chatter from the animals, and not even a rustle of leaves in the trees. Proxima breathed a sigh – Medea could not tell if it was out of frustration or relief or just plain fatigue – and trudged towards the large bloody mess of feathers.