Chapter Three

New Morning

On a little planet called Victoria, a small man, well-dressed with a finely trimmed moustache looked from the top of a large hill, surrounded by trees. In the distance, a land bridge between two continents was peppered with black marks, and white and blue flashes forced him to blink. The last time he was here was in uniform, dictating a superhuman effort with twenty separate ACUs, some converted to operate undersea, winning the Final Battle of Seton's Clutch. It was already written down in the history books, and General Hall bore a subtle smile as the clear-up of the grounds carried on, as it had done for the last two years.

When the Seraphim had finally been forced off, Hall had preceded straight to Earth, for the final battle against them-and in the case of Fletcher, his own forces. The loss of Brigadier Fletcher was not a major problem-he had been unstable and after the incident it was found he had been conspiring against the Alliance. However, the loss of a UEF commander in the last battle of the Seraphim War created a martyr, and the image of the Cybran who had destroyed the arch rift was an inconvenient truth for the UEF. The officer concerned, a certain Natasha Lenin, disappeared along with Doctor Brackman after the signing of the Seraphim Dictate, formalizing the end of the Infinite War.

The idea of ACUs going missing and not coming back up again worried Hall, as did the unknown whereabouts of Brackman. If he could be anywhere, he would be anywhere; every Cybran planet had been searched and he had not been located. How does a brain in a jar disappear? The question had been asked both by Hall, leaders, the public, and anyone with a mind. At least Burke's vanishing act was clearly the end of her-even if the Aeon refused to acknowledge that she had actually died. Most of them stubbornly saw it as her personal apotheosis to the end of 'The Way', while most sensible UEF-born citizens thought nothing of it.

"Mister President," called a voice from behind the former General. "There's a report for you." He turned around. In the hand of a carapace-wearing soldier was an old-style document, a brown folder with paper inside. This was interception proof, and that suggested this was important. The red stamped notice 'TOP SECRET' confirmed his suspicions, and as he took it in hand he could feel the familiar sense of trepidation crawl up his hand. He flicked it open, eyes narrowing as he read.

UEFREPORT EYESONLY

AEON ILLUMINATE ATTACKS ON NIBELHEIM, SERAPHIM, PROTHEAN, CORE,

ARM, BAVARIA SYSTEMS

UEF MILITARY ASSETS EVACUATED

UEF CIVILIAN ASSETS EVACUATED

AEON, CYBRAN CIVILIANS IN SAFE POSITIONS PENDING AEON ACTIVITY

QUANTUM GATE NETWORKS AROUND SYSTEMS SHUT DOWN

SYSTEMS ASSUMED CAPTURED

LEADER OF AEON FORCES ASSUMED RHIZA KAEL, RHIZA KAEL POSITIVELY

IDENTIFIED IN FIELD
ESTIMATED CASUALTIES FIVE MILLION MANNED TROOPS

TWENTY FOUR ACUS LOST

UEF MOBILIZATION UNDERWAY

Hall snapped the folder shut with a crack of his hand. It had finally happened, the revolution began. When he had taken charge after the Seraphim War, the UEF had been broken almost completely, and the lack of a stabilised central government caused the deference of power to local governments and the rise of the anti-foreign sentiment that dictated policy. Since all decisions were taken as a collective by the Senate of Governors, the racism at the bottom overpowered any sense of fairness Hall or anyone else tried to show.

Following that he could do the best by his old promises to Burke and the Doctor by staying at the top, Hall paid lip service to the Senate, while searching for a way out of the problem. Of course, to say this complicated things was an understatement of massive proportions. If he took no official action the governors of the neighbouring systems would conduct their own private wars, and if he acted it would be seen as the President, arguably the last public bastion of the idea that all men were created equal, betraying his principles and the people he had numbered as his allies only two years ago.

This required serious thought. The President called for transport back to his home, a set of quarters in the main military base inside Victoria City, renamed after the end of the war to celebrate UEF might. It was completely free from any sort of free foreign presence; every symbiont in the city was linked to a mainframe of some sort, or doing manual labour for the UEF citizens. Not a single Aeon was to be found within the city limits, excluding shanty towns on the roads into Victoria City. The adapted Stinger was not a smooth ride, nor was it well-lit, but it had the advantage of being both fast and defensible. It dusted off and landed with the assured ease of a machine, and the quiet hum of the engines died as Hall stepped onto the landing pad with the customary greeting of two hurrying soldiers rushing him underneath the roof.

It was over ten minutes of nannying and fussing about before Hall was allowed to retire to his room. It was simple, just a bunk, a desk, a computer and a few items of stationery. He had rooms like this, issued to order, on every planet in every system in the Federation-even on Earth. He had no intention of breaking with his past as the Alliance leader, even if the Alliance had been burnt down and cast aside. The military regimen he imposed upon himself, even in what he wore, was a vital constant in a galaxy he increasingly felt was less and less under his control. Instead of a suit, he wore the old dress uniform-it still smelt of command, of hours spent leaning over a table, watching results come in and directing the efforts and deciding the lives of billions of people.

He sat by the chair, old knees twinging ever so slightly as he eased into the metal seat, pulling a fountain pen from his breast pocket. Dragging a piece of paper over to himself, with the folder beside himself on the table. Digging through the contents, he took little notes here and there, formulating a plan. It had been a very long time since the blue-eyed General had sat down like this and calculated, drawing little arrows or putting circles around important facts. This was, for a little time, General Hall back in his own, natural element-and a small warmth grew inside him as he reached for another sheet of that familiar, crisp, white paper.

Darkness, then a pinprick of light. More, then sounds like machines, and then pain. Richard stirred, lying down in...he wasn't sure where. He remembered sirens, being evacuated and stuffed onto a little ship, fired into space amidst shelling and explosions, and then nothing. There was a green fuzzy light in the slit between his eyelids, widening quickly. He blinked twice, waiting for the world to sharpen. He was definitely lying down, in a dark room, a hemisphere of grey with a running green accent, causing the light that stung his eyes. He was unable to move his arms or legs, tied down by metal straps that sprung from either side of the slab he was laid upon.

His neck was free, and darting his head from side to side, blinking away tears brought on by the intense light, Richard saw more of these slabs, perhaps ten to each side of him, each with a person tied down onto it. A hissing sound met his ears and a series of footsteps came closer. "Excuse me, could you please look at me?" Richard moved his neck and looked. There was a silhouette above him, but in front of the light it was hard to tell what he or she was. "Can you hear me?" There was a pause, Richard trying to work out what the soft, quiet voice was saying over the constant humming.

"Yes, I can...where am I?"

"Try to relax," advised the figure. "You are quiet safe." The figure paused before answering the question properly. "You are in Ward F of the hospital deck of the ISS Rhianna. I am Nurse Ethos Hellenika, and I need to ask you some questions."

Richard replied dryly, "I'm hardly in a position to run away."

Ethos ignored Richard's attempt at wit, flicking through a clipboard. "What is your name, age, home system and citizenship?"

Richard groaned before replying. "Urgh...Richard Daniel Makombe, 29, New Uganda, UEF Citizen." Ethos ticked a few boxes, and lowered the clipboard. She reached up and lowered a keypad from the ceiling, pressing a few buttons. The light softened, and a light green glow illuminated the room while the formerly black walls lit up, revealing shining silver, making the room look far bigger. Ethos, revealed in the light, was a very short woman indeed, no more than five feet tall. She had brilliant green eyes and white hair, cut short and bleached beyond even platinum blond-it was as white as snow.

Just as he saw her, she moved along to the next person. "Richard, somebody will be along in a few minutes to let you go." It was not a confident-sounding voice, and even when an armoured officer pressed a button on the side of the metal slab and the metal strips containing Richard retracted. The officer spoke, hidden behind his helmet.

"You can either return to the planet's surface, or take one of your craft back to Earth." He had stated it so matter-of-factly that Richard had to wonder whether or not he was talking to an elaborately costumed Sarah, or maybe another Cybran. As he slid off the slab, he couldn't help but wonder what sort of planet would be left on the planet when he went down there. The Aeon attacking force would have performed a massive shelling, but on Nibelheim there were the bunkers-anyone could have survived in those things.

They would have nanolathed over any damage, but the problem was the people. The shelling might have driven everyone mad-what if Danny was sitting in a corner somewhere, humming something about the rain? What if Sarah had suffered...whatever passed for Cybran PTSD, and killed herself? Hell, what about the people the Aeon would bring in? While Richard could safely say he had nothing against the Aeon personally, this sort of attack would bring in all of the crazies who think ethnic cleansing is a good idea. Still, Richard was never one to over-think problems. There was nothing for him on any other planet, so it was to be Nibelheim he would stay on. Now, how to I get back Planetside?

Sarah woke with a jolt. She was in blind panic, gripped by terror. The corpses had walked-WALKED! They had shuffled and shambled and dragged her down, they had ripped her to pieces and left the individual bits to rot, torn up like vegetables in a blender. The night had been a hard one, and memories previously locked up in protected sectors had rushed to the forefront of her consciousness. She threw back the covers of her bed, tossing them to the floor. Her HUD told her that it was only zero-four-zero-three-thirty-five, and the darkness all around confirmed that.

Inside the room was herself, a quietly resting DOM, and sitting, cross-legged, in a chair on the other side of the bedroom was Ykaterina. "You sound like you've been through hell." She shone red in the darkness, facial circuits buzzing with electrons dancing across her nervous system. "Now being as you've stopped me getting any sleep at all by screaming all night, I think you owe me something of an explanation." Screaming all night? This was not something that she would forget easily-Sarah was mortified both by the residual terror of her night, and the embarrassment of keeping one of her students up like this. "Usually, I'm more familiar with making girls scream with my tongue. The last time I heard screeching like that was when I set fire to my sister's head twelve years ago." She stood up, and moved over to Sarah, sitting at her feet in the bed, Sarah's legs bent and wrapped in her arms.

Truth be told, Sarah didn't want to talk about what had followed her that night. She had locked the memories away in protected files for a reason. She had deleted all knowledge of the password for a reason, the same one, and she had no intention of discussing her dreams with someone who should have been asking her questions about the Aeon influence upon war poetry during the Infinite War, certainly nothing like what she was suggesting. "Ykaterina-"

"Please, just Kat," interrupted the young Belorussian.

"Ykaterina," pressed Sarah, "You are a student and I am a teacher. Strictly speaking, I am not even sure if you living with me is entirely legal under UEF law. I certainly have no intention of telling you personal details about my life, and I would rather not now what sort of reaction girls have to your tongue." Sarah finished her serious lecture, and Ykaterina just rolled her eyes.

"Alright, 'Ma'am'. I'll wait until you've had breakfast." She stood up, moved to the doorway, and stopped, one hand on the frame, turning back to the woman in the bed. "While we're on the subject, that leg is pretty damn sexy." Having fired her final cheeky remark, she stepped through the doorway and vanished into the darkness, the last remnants of the light from her circuits glowing and fading as she walked away.

"Great," muttered Sarah to herself. "I'm sharing my apartment with a student only just over half my age, who can't get any sleep because I'm keeping her up, and she thinks my leg is sexy." As her voice retreated into silence, she brought up a text panel on her HUD and made a note. Find out whether Ykaterina meant flesh or metal leg. Her muttering had woken up DOM, who began to glow and fired up his fans, flopping onto the bed and buzzing toward Sarah. The daft machine made a sort of mewing noise, one Sarah knew only too well. "Alright, DOM, you stupid creature. Let's find you a battery." She slid off the bed, and pressed the button at the base of her beside lamp with a limp slap.

She emerged some ten minutes later, in a white polo shirt and black jeans-she suddenly regretted having cut the whole for her leg in every single one of her pairs of trousers-wandering into the kitchen come living room, a fine example of pine and plastic, with a white sofa and a bar, behind which lay a refrigerator, oven, and all the necessities of a kitchen. Reaching up into a cupboard, she pulled on a brass knob and opened the door, grabbing a small, beaten-up cardboard box. It was black, with red and yellow brand icons on it, but the key was that inside were several batteries, and attached to each was a little black device which, through means not known to Sarah, recharged them over weeks. Every so often, DOM would get 'hungry' and request another battery, and as Sarah plucked one of the dark, box-like batteries from the box, DOM, now floating at waist height, crippled with the excitement a dog gets with a new toy or a bone, made a yapping sound. On his roof a port popped open, and a spring fired the old battery into Sarah's hand, quickly putting the hot metal down onto the counter.

The Cybran gently shoved the next battery in, and DOM whizzed off with a grateful beeping, off to go and analyse something fun. Sarah, however, did not have a fun job. She had decided that Ykaterina would have to leave-it was just too awkward, leaving her here, having her in the same apartment. She strode over, and, hands together in front of her, opened her mouth. There was a lack of any sort of verbiage, because no matter how much she willed it the words would not leave her mouth. Ykaterina was sat in the sofa, expectantly, and Sarah knew what she would say, how she would say it, and why-but the words would not leave her mouth. After what seemed an eternity, she gave an exasperated sound and the words finally came. "Fine, you can stay, but on three conditions. One, you sleep on the sofa and make no comment about how occasionally I may go mad during the night and scream blue murder. Two, you will pay some sort of rent and make no mention of me to your friends. Three," Sarah paused. A smirk crossed her face. "You are to make no attempt to seduce me into letting you fuck my brains out, no 'going out on a date' and certainly no corny lines." The smirk grew. "Unless they really are very good."

The weekend passed swiftly, and now being properly settled in Ykaterina was proving a useful house guest. Apart from paying a rent dutifully, she was also a stickler for tidiness that Sarah simply couldn't match, and the place had never looked cleaner. While Sarah had a terrible suspicion that she would come home to find Ykaterina cleaning in some sort of maid's outfit at some point, she was not going to stop her working. At the college, lessons continued quite as normally. UEF citizens were being returned to the planet not at a fantastic pace but certainly quickly. While Richard's absence from work was a worry, Sarah was now finding herself in a situation wherein she could walk down the street and the Aeon soldiers would not stop her and search her nether regions with a baton and a disrupter whistle.

On the third day, Sarah was waiting at the spaceport in the centre of the city. It was about twenty-zero, and a cold wind blew her trenchcoat about, which she attributed to being fairly high up. She had voluntarily stepped aboard a bus to this location, without duress, and she would leave when she damn well felt like. In the distant skies, a twinkling grew and a green dot became recognisable as the transport shuttles, repainted, that had been ferrying citizens back from the huge Aeon ships above down to the surface of the planet. A tannoy announced "Will all citizens please be advised that the last shuttle for tonight has just landed and will be leaving in ten minutes' time. Glory to the Princess." The phrase 'glory to the Princess' had become normal for Sarah now-all the officials used it to finish announcements and security officers often said it to passers-by.

Watching the craft land, the seed-shaped machine ejected four landing struts, a little bounce coming as it hit the landing pad. A gantry lifted down, and people began leaving, all UEF citizens from every walk of life, from bankers in fancy suits to workers who had kept their gloves and overalls on when they ran for the ships. They filed out, and in all of ten minutes, Richard had not arrived. On the first night Sarah had not checked, nor the second. It was only tonight, when he had not been there at work when so many others were, back to their normal life at the college, that Sarah began to worry. She had kept a vigil all night, for nought. Feeling defeated somehow, she looked down as she turned around, dug her hands into the pockets of her massive coat, and solemnly, alone, made her way back to the transit station.

"Where are you?"

Just so that I know people are actually reading this stuff, I'd like one proper review before I post my next chapter. As a sidenote, I'm fairly sure that traditional, modern-day sexuality no longer exists in the Cybran Nation, due to their innate closeness with all other members anyway. Sarah herself might not like girls, but she likes complements.