Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Penny
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New Concordia - Day One

The summer heat pressed down like a steaming wet blanket. Clouds of tiny barely visible insects swarmed around the sweating, shirtless men. The pinhead sized bugs were native to New Concorida’s Earthlike biosphere and were not sufficiently interested in human biochemistry to bite or sting. They were feasting on the microscopic algae the men were disturbing as the labored in the muddy field a feast unlooked for in the usually placid surface of the rice paddy. The lack of malice made them no less annoying.

Rene Quentain straightened having finally managed to get the synthetic strap secured beneath the komo. The big beast, a reptilian equivalent of a draft horse on as many planets as their were humans, hissed in distressed confusion. The komo had trod on one of the local rock snakes and the resulting bite had sent it into a panicked bolt. Unfortunately for it, and its owner, that had landed it sunk waist deep in the boggy rice field.

“Alright, spin her up! Slowly for the Stars sake,” Rene yelled. He wiped a mud slickd hand across his brow in a forlorn effort to mop away sweat. The action succeeded only in replacing the sweat with a broad streak of brackish mud. Rene was of slightly more than average height and of a somewhat rangy build. Four years in the Imperial Marine Corp had clothed his spare frame with a sheath of wiry muscle though he lacked the bulk of the dedicated gym rats. His face, lacking its current adornment of river mud, was a handsome one in a lean and aristocratic caste. The slightly angular planes of his face might have made another man look grim but his lively green eyes recovered his features remarkable.

An electric winch began to whine from the solid embankment a few meters away. The rice paddies were arrayed in loose rid patterns which followed the curve of a low walled river valley. The southern lowlands of New Concordia’s single continent were largely given over to agriculture of various types but it was low tech local production, at the ‘komo level’ for the most part. Fortunately this particular field was close to the shoulder of the valley and the roadway embankment which served as its border was solid enough to permit a rescue attempt.

The braided wire tow cabled drew tight, pulling the improvised harness Rene and his partner had spent most of the morning fashioning and fighting snug against the beasts underside. Fitting the damn thing had been the real problem, passing the cloth support straps beneath the stranded beast with nothing but an entrenching tool had been a hell of a job. Rene’s eyes followed the cable up to the improvised derrick of high pressure plumbing tubing. From there it ran back to a massive gnarled oak which squatted readily along the bank of the paddy, eagerly drinking from the abundant water for untold generations. Beyond that and as out of place here as a formal dinner, sat a dusty marine patrol vehicle.

Beside the air cushioned jeep stood Konrad Bowie, shirtless with combat pants and boots, and one hand on the manual control lever for the winch. Bowie was a five year veteran who would have been a sergeant by now if he could watch his mouth for more than a minute, a skill which seemed as far beyond Bowie as piloting a starship most days. His skin as dark copper in contrast to the paler Rene but it had the virtue of being mostly mud free at the moment. Bowie was a wise assed, bragart who found trouble for himself and anyone near him at every opportunity. Rene had liked him immediately.

“You know this aint gonna fucking hold Galahad! I can’t imagine why they didn’t send you to the engineers,” the other maine called, gently backing the throttle from the which as the motor began to whine.

“Yeah well if not you told me so,” Rene shouted back. Beside Bowie a small sun darkened farmer in a broad brimmed hat of woven reeds and a shapeless smock rocked back and forth in a mixture of fear and hope. Rene could understand his concern, the komo probably represented a good portion of the fellows survival margin. Still he would have had no chance of ever getting the thing out if Rene and Bowie hadn’t come pasted on their afternoon patrol. Rescuing animals was no job of the Marine Corp but it was a job and Rene wasn’t the sort to let something go undone simply because no one explicitly required him to do it. Bowie on the other hand had objected loudly and continually to the proposal despite the fact that Rene was handling the dirtiest most unpleasant elements. Bowie would complain if the Emperor himself arrived and offered him a palace on Capella and his daughter's hand in marriage but despite the continuous stream of complaints he hadn’t made a serious effort to derail the plan. Obligatory bitching aside service on New Concordia as boring. Days and months of the same patrols, the same sweeps of routine maintenance, the same faces and the same places, could drive a man insane. Without relief from routine a man could go crazy. Turn to booze, put a gun in his mouth or simply run off into the torrential monsoons in the strange seasonal madness which loomed so large in Neo Concordite folklore. Rene’s scheme at least promised diversion in a life which sorely lacked anything to differentiate one day from another.

The mud around the animals six legs began to bubble as the winch took up the weight. Rene spared a concerned glance for the pressurised tubing and then leaned his weight against the komo, feeling is scaly skin rough against his shoulder. He began to rock back and forth, trying to create air pockets to break the suction.

“Give her a bit more!” Rene shouted at his fellow Marine. Dutifully Bowie pulled back on the lever and the motor increased its power with a rising wine. The komo hissed like a steam line as the cloth straps bit into its underside and then, with a suddenness that shocked all three onlookers the paddy gave up its hold on the animal. With a wet pop the seal broke and the winch lifted the animal free. The beast screethed in panic and kicked Rene hard in the chest, sending im sprawling face first into the muck.

“You are three hours late because you got lost?” Lieutenant Van Heck’s voice was dangerously pleasant. Van Heck was a small neat man with a neatly manicured mustache. His blue eyes bored into Rene and Bowie as the two marines stood at attention before his desk. Van Heck’s office as a small room constructed of used supply boxes and furnished sparsely with a simple desk, a small holo projector and a number of printed flimsies marked with watch and patrol assignments. A single large filing cabinet stood in a lonely corner, it had not been opened in the three years Rene had spent rotting in this backwater.

“Yes sir,” Rene and Bowie responded in unison to precise to have been rehearsed. Rene couldn’t actually hear the Lieutenants teeth grinding but his ruddy skin turned a noticeable shade darker. With a visible effort he picked up a faded flimsy and made a show of studying it.

“You got lost on a patrol route that both of you have been driving twice a week for three years?”

“Yes sir, no excuse sir!” Bowie snapped. Both Marines kept their eyes focused on the wall behind the officer, refusing to make eye contact in a technique which had existed as long as there had been soldiers. It hung there for a moment. There was no way Van Heck could prove anything so long as their story hung together, which Van Heck had enough experience to know it would. Rene doubted the officer was primarily angry at them, they just provided a convenient outlet for his frustrations. People didn’t get posted to a black hole like New Concordia if their carers were going well. Isolated bases like this were dumping grounds for the chronically insubordinate like Bowie and the politically embarrassing like Rene. As the throbbing vein in the officers temple slowed, Rene wondered what sin had bought Van Heck to this Star’s forsaken place.

As the officer opened his mouth to decree the punishment for their tardiness, the chain link gate began to squeal on its oil starved track. All three man instinctively glanced from the single window. A column of men in green on green mottled fatigues were marching into the camp. They carried assault rifles, slug throwers rather than the more powerful plasma rifles the Marines used, but were otherwise lightly equipped. Only their officers wore any armor at all and they only had ceramic chest plates hinged open against the oppressive heat. Behind them an armored fighting vehicle, a locally constructed light tank by the looks, chuffed along on what smelled like a diesel engine.

“What are the damn Gids doing here?” Van Heck wondered, his pique momentarily forgotten, “Its early in the year for them to be exercising.”

Gid was catch all and uncomplimentary term used to describe locally raised soldiers. Allegedly it derived from General Indigenous, a force organisation term from local soldiers outside the Imperial hierarchy but Rene had heard several other less flattering etymologies. The Empire consisted of many thousands of worlds and maintaining an Imperial organization that spanned such a reach of space and cultures was a practical impossibility. The solution, for this as most other problems was delegation, local nobles were entrusted with raising, training and equipping forces for their, and in theory, the Empire’s, needs. In return the Imperial bureaucracy paid a portion of the raising costs. The practice was a predictable focus of corruption, any fool could create paper soldiers who ate no rations, and received no training but nonetheless were paid for. So long as it didn’t get too out of hand, the Imperial government was content to let it slide.

Of course some Imperial forces were required to maintain Imperial power. The Marines and the Imperial Navy were outside of the chains of command of local magnates and tended to more direct Imperial needs. Regional nobles were theoretically barred from operating warships but the ban was laxly enforced both because it was impossible to regulate armed merchantmen and because a certain amount of anti piracy activity was necessarily a local affair. Relations between Gids and Imperial forces were seldom good, but it tended to run towards bar fights rather than battles.

“Are we dismissed sir?” Rene asked with courtly politeness. It as the wrong thing to say, Van Heck whirled on the pair with a malicious gleam in his eyes.

“Why yes corporal, why don’t you take the private here and clime the southern sensor mast, the receiving head needs replacing and maybe the exercise can help you to get the lay of the land straight in your lofty aristocratic head yes?” Rene though the venom reserved for aristocrats in the officers voice might hold some clue as to why Van Heck as exiled here but it wasn’t the time for speculation.

“Yes sir!” both Marines chimed in sing song perfection but the Lieutenant was already waving a hand and punching buttons on his holo terminal doubtless looking for the movement orders of the recently arrived Gid detachment.

Rene stepped out of the office and into the cooling afternoon with a sigh. Outpost Romeo Tango Two Six, or the Rat Trap as it as known to its inmates, was not prepossessing. The firebase was located on a small bald which rose from the highlands which bordered the river valley. It essentially consisted of a hundred square meters of bulldozed hilltop. The waste earth had been scraped into a low defensie berm which had been treated with an industrial plasticizing agent to stabilize it. A few extra feet were gained with a crown of sandbags and razor wire. Several large cargo containers and command trailers were laid out to provide housing, storage and command and control. In the summer it was hot, in the winter it was cold and in all seasons it swamed with insects of all types.

“Galahad, remind me to punch you in the mouth the next time you open it will you?” Bowie asked morosely as he pulled a tab stick from he pocket and tapped the contact ignitor against a dirt stained fingernail. Rene nodded solemnly and made a motion of zipping his lips. Replacing the sensor head meant climbing the thirty meters to the top of the antennae and then laboriously disconnecting and replacing the old unit. It was two hours work even in full daylight and that was failing quickly.

“Whats the good word Gid!” Bowie called around the tab stick to one of the local soldiers. The boy, he couldn’t have been twenty, turned and looked at the two Marines with an expression of abject terror. Rene cocked an eyebrow at the reaction but the man as already turning and hurrying away towards his fellows.

“What is his problem?” Rene asked as they strode towards the antennae at the southern end of the compound. Bowie puffed smoke out of his mouth and shrugged his shoulders apathetically.

“What am I the fucking Gid whisperer now?” the veteran demanded. They reached the bottom of the antennae, a triangular ladder like structure three meters to a side and with a heavy sensor box suspended from the top. Rene shrugged himself into a canas climbing harness and began to climb the metal superstructure. He had just set the first safety clip, clamping his line to the metal structure of the antennae when grinding of metallic gears sounded across the camp. Rene looked out from his elevated position and frowned. Most of the Rat Traps thirty two Marines were outside. Some were heating ration packs on chemical stoves, others were just taking the opportunity to relive their boredom by watching the Gids. Rene saws Lieutenant Van Heck speaking to one of the Gid officers. The grinding was the tank, it appeared to be backing up as though intending to turn and exit the camp. Gid soldiers were spreading out throughout the camp though Rene doubted that as obvious to anyone without the advantage of his elevated view point.

A sudden cold chill flashed through Rene as his mind collated the various inputs he was receiving. It seemed impossible to contemplate but there was no arguing with the stark logic of the situation.

“Bowie get-” he started to scream a heartbeat before the Gid officer drew a pistol and shot Van Heck in the chest. The fussy little Lieutenant staggered back with a look of comic shock on his face before a second round sent him spinning to the dirt. The camp exploded in chaos as Gid riflemen unslung their weapons and opened fire on the unsuspecting marines. They weren’t crack troops, but they were trained, they were close and they had modern automatic weapons. Rene saw a half dozen marines go down around a cook stove, one of the rounds striking the propellant tank and spraying the screaming wounded with burning kerosene. Grenades sailed through open doorways and windows blowing storms of glass and smoke from every opening as they detonated with hollow booming crumps. Below him Bowie unslung his plasma rifle, a marine never went without a weapon, and sent two terrified looking Gids toppling to the ground, their combat webbing blazing where the plasma bolts spent their energy in blasts of heat and light.

“Get the fuck down here!” Bowie screamed as he scanned for a target, rifle to his shoulder. Rene tried to jump but his webbing as still attached to the safety line and snubbed him up with a chest crushing jolt. He screamed in frustration and grabbed for his belt knife, not trusting himself to find the release catches in time. The tank fired with a world ending crash, the recoil of its heavy electrochemical canon rocking it back on its poorly maintained suspension. Bowie seemed to leap sideways as the base of the antennae erupted in fire and smoke. The shockwave drove Rene upwards but his climbing harness again caught him like a fish on a line, biting white agony into his shoulders as it arrested his motion. The world spun drunkenly and steel screamed like all the butchered animals in the universe as the antennae began to topple. Amazingly Rene still had his knife in his hand. Frantically he hacked at the climbing harness as the multi ton array began to topple with the peculiar grace of the truly catastrophic. One of the canvas straps parted a omnt before the antennae hit the berm. The final jolt snapped the mutilated harness and Rene flopped to the ground, gasping desperately but unable to suck in any air to clench the fire in his chest. He had just enough time to look up and see the shattered remains of the sandbag wall tumbling down the berm towards him. He made a single feeble attempt to rise but his muscles refused to do anything more than desperately suck at the air. A moment later the world disappeared in an avalanche of sandbags and razor wire. Pressure. Air. Darkness.
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Hidden 10 mos ago Post by Syrenrei
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"Are you going to go out with him? You have had a dry spell lately," Marlene teased. She gave a cheeky laugh and turned back to her work without waiting for a reply. The young countess was the epitome of modern beauty although it had not been given to her at birth physically; it was her birth into a lineage of extreme wealth that had shaped her features and physique. All of her clothes had been sent straight from designers so long as they would be appropriate for the formal business atmosphere of the embassy at which she had been stationed. Even her hair had been genetically modified to be thicker and stronger than the plebeians that made up the majority of the empire she served. Frequently Marlene complained that there was too little time in the morning for proper styling of the aforementioned expensive tresses and as a result she simply left if long and untouched. Even this cultivated envy in the office. Very few had the luxury of manipulating themselves at a cellular level to be 'naturally' attractive.

"I don't know," Solae sighed indecisively as she stared at her screen, tapping icons to adjust the font size and shift her keypad to a different language. The illuminated blue letters disappeared and were replaced by symbols utilized by another planet's native citizens. Their written language was logographic in nature rather than employing an alphabet, which meant as she translated essential documents she had to hold down multiple keys at once to create a new logograms. Understandably an extensive array of linguistic symbols, no matter the origin, could not be comprehensively included on such a small keypad.

Polished fingernails, painted with an expensive lacquer to mimic impossible health and shine, hovered above as she felt an almost imperceptible tremor in the ground. Lifting her eyes from her console she glanced around. Most of the office were still sitting at their desks or standing with others in conversation. The layout of the floor was open so that translators such as Solae and Marlene could more easily work in a collaborative fashion on a project. A row of offices were on the north and east sides of the buildings but reserved for those who had been loyal to the empire for at least two decades, had purchased favors to skip work requirements for promotion, or had simply been rewarded out of favoritism and fame. The offices were highly coveted for their privacy and even Marlene had not been able to 'out bid' any of the occupants. It was a well-known secret that half of her superiors had affairs behind the tinted windows and thick mahogany doors. It was not surprising to her that no one had poked a head outside their sanctuary of vices. Mr. Anderson in particular, her direct manager, believed even the titled men and women below him on the 'floor' were unworthy of his presence more than once a day.

Solae tried to shrug off a feeling of tension spreading over her chest, supposing that there was heavy machinery being moved down the street for construction or unrelated purposes, but then she glanced over to her glass of water. The crystalline did not obscure the minuscule ripples in the surface of her liquid beverage. Anxiety wound a knot deep in her stomach. "Marlene, do you..." she began, turning her head to look at perhaps one of her only friends in the office.

They had taken no chances in striking at the loyalists that worked inside the embassy, many of whom were well-educated, descended from prestigious bloodlines, and heavily rewarded for their fealty to the empire. Later Solae would realize they knew very few, if any, of those she had seen on a day to day basis had even the smallest chance of defecting to the duke launching his rebellion. Mr. Anderson's family had been gifted vast expanses of land on a fertile, undeveloped planet. He would have never jeopardized their gains, damning generations to veritable slavery for treachery, even if it cost him his life. Marlene was as materialistic as a human being could be, declining the pursuit of true love in favor of the richest suitor she could turn the head of on New Concordia, but she would have seen they would have used her and then killed her. Shallow she undeniably was but vapid she was not.

In the same instant the north and south walls exploded inwards, stone and twisted metal blasted in opposite directions across and through entire floor, irreverent of office walls that had been there seconds earlier. Debris collided fatally with her co-workers as it demolished everything in its path. Shrapnel impaled Marlene twice- a jagged fragment of a wall brace sliced through the right side of her throat while an indistinguishable fragment of a desk struck her shoulder with such force Solae could see the bone. The image seared itself in her mind. Never before had the young noble heiress seen anyone or anything die in front of her eyes. Death of family pets (few that there were) had been shielded from Solae as if she were a delicate flower incapable of emotional hardship. Blood oozed from Marlene's wounds, marring her previously perfect complexion. There was a gurgling noise as her head lolled to the side and her eyes fixated on the distance of non-existence. Countess Marlene Elaine Lares was no more.

Screams of abject terror and excruciating pain were drowned out by the the thunder of the destruction and a second load of fire screeching through the air before impacting with the east and west walls. Walls were crumbling as concrete, stone, and alloy fell towards the ground in massive chunks. Deafening silence, caused by the inability of human ears to cope with the violent high decibel cacophony, crippled the few people still alive. Windows had shattered and shards had been transformed into missiles that mercilessly assaulted animate and inanimate alive. What had become a plush, respectable place of work for the elite was now a death trap.

"Mother!" she called out as she walked past a library of the familial estate on New Concordia. All literature was now easily accessible by electronic device but printed volumes were kept as status symbols by many, including the Marquess and Marquise Falia. Almost all of the tomes were older than either of her parents and had been passed down by her ancestors as they had started the collection when the title of Marquess had first been bequeathed onto them. Solae paused in her hunt for the Marquise Falia as the reflection of stained glass windows glittered and shone on the bindings, giving them a mystical appearance despite their age.

"In here, dear," was the calm and composed reply of Marquise Falia. Solae tore her eyes from the allure of reading adventures, scribed by people centuries past, and continued on into one of their sitting rooms. Sitting in an antique chair upholstered in priceless burgundy brocade was a lady born and bred for the aristocracy. Never had Solae witnessed her mother falter in her representation of refined etiquette- even with her children. Her back was slightly arched so that even as she sat the Marquise's shoulders were directly over her hips. Her face did not reflect warmth nor derision; it was polite, blank, and inscrutable as always.

"Mother, I've been assigned to the embassy," Solae told her breathlessly in wonderment. She had not expected to fail her testing or interviews, but she also had not expected such a prestigious assignment from her initial application. In preparation for a less than ideal assignment she had begun a list of the essentials that would need to be shipped via interstellar means.

"Of course you have, my dear. New Concordia is not ripe with applicants that have your credentials. You are a Falia. I am sure this is only temporary until they find a place on a more appropriate planet. They would not keep a Marquise here of all places. You are meant for better things. You always have been." Her voice was even and impassive. Solae chose to believe her mother loved her but she could not ignore the possibility that this love was a result of Solae's obedience in bringing further prestige to them. It reflected well on the Marquess and Marquise that their daughter was climbing the ranks of empire diplomats.

"I'm not really a Marquise yet, Mother," she said. The title would be officially conferred onto her only when both of her parents were dead. As their only child there was no question that it would be her inheritance along with all of their material possessions. Solae stared at her mother, admiring the beautiful golden white color of her hair, the same color that had been passed to Solae and had inspired her namesake. Even if her parents were not the adoring pair applauded in fiction, she was certain that this position, and that this Falia lineage had meant she was blessed by divinity for reasons she could not comprehend.

Solae's memory dissipated. She was uncertain if she had fallen unconscious or merely been jolted into nostalgia by trauma, but the threat of her attackers was still imminent. From what little she could see from her vantage point not a soul was moving in the building; it was a still tomb for the deceased. A residual high pitched whine filled her ears yet, making her unable to discern if there was anyone approaching, but she could not lay and wait. Panicking and gasping she crawled from her splintered desk and husk of a chair to a giant chasm in the floor. Seizing the opportunity she had, knowing that it would not last if the goal was to kill everyone in the embassy, she hurtled herself into the gap that had been created.

The fall was only a single story and something cushioned her fall sufficiently that she did not break a limb on impact. Solae was terrified to look down and see what had softened her drop but she knew instinctively that it was a corpse. Men in fully body armor and wearing rifles were visible outside a window as they waited for survivors to emerge from the rubble. One of their mouths was moving, and the ground below her was vibrating, but had neither the ability nor time to deduce their next course of action. Staying low to the ground she closed her eyes, elbows and knees propelling her over slick, soft, burning, and splintered obstacles that she dared not comprehend. Her fingers jammed themselves into something brittle and, reaching for it gingerly, she confirmed she had reached a wall.

With reckless abandon Solae crawled towards a triangular crevice in the wall to her left. Every part of her ached and she became astutely aware of throbbing pain on her forehead. Shadows from the openings that had once been windows played tricks on her vision. Delirious, hallucinating, traumatized, and imagining benign changes in light were omninous, Solae finally reached her place of escape, thrust herself through the unforgiving and rough rock, leapt to her feet, and sprinted down the street aimlessly.

If she had been spotted by the soldiers that had so callously murdered every embassy worker they did not shoot and did not catch her as she fled. Perhaps it was because she turned into every alley she found, scrambling over fences and gates, ducking under shrubs, and trampling any plant life that was shorter than her knees. At least half an hour passed before the adrenaline coursing through her body gave way to sheer exhaustion. Solae did not recognize the scenery; she was sure she had not been here before, wherever "here" was. She took a few short, staggered steps into a patch of grass and then collapsed. Her blouse and skirt were drenched in sweat. Somewhere during her flight she had lost both her shoes or cast them off leaving her bare-footed. Long pale hair stained by blood was plastered to her neck and back. Muscles in her legs trembled even as she laid on the ground grateful for the respite and struggling to breathe.

She was safe... for now. But as Solae tried to process what she had just endured she was stricken with the realization that anyone bold enough to attack the embassy, and would want her dead, would have the resources to know where she lived. It was impossible to return home. She was stranded alone in foreign location without food, water, shelter, or even a way to defend herself from the wilderness much less whomever might hunt her.
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Rene woke in darkness. Pain blossomed across his chest and the world went black again. Consciousness returned in stages, somehow the stepped increase of pressure and pain made it more bearable. He seemed to recall he should be doing something but the particulars slid away from his intellect like pieces of oiled glass. The details of the attack, present in his mind only as disconnected facts, crashed over him like a shower of winter rain. The vision of Bowie’s body smashing against the berm, Van Heck spinning into the dirt and the flashing reports of automatic weapons echoed in his mind shocking him into crystal clarity. With a strangled shout his body convulsed but the sandbags pinned him more secure than security restraints could have done.

Forcing down his rising panic he steadied his breathing and tried to relax his muscles. Bunching his shoulder he managed to move his left wrist precious inches towards his belt. The belt was gone, torn in the fall or in the avalanche of sandbags. Something sliced painfully into his palm and he bit down on his lip to keep from screaming. It was the razor wire of course, the coiled ribbons must have come down with the sandbags, he was probably lucky not to have been wrapped in the stuff and sliced to bloody ruin. Carefully, he found one of the small metal bladed and took it between blood slicked finger tips. With swift sharp strokes he began to slash the canvas casings of the sandbags, spilling the dirt into the interstices of the pile.

Progress came quickly after that and fifteen minutes later, gasping for air and covered from head to toe with dirt adhered to sweat, Rene pulled himself free of the pile. The humid night air was the sweetest thing had ever tasted and for long moments he could do nothing but suck in great lungfuls. Everything hurt, it was amazing that he had avoided breaking any bones, but he had received enough bruises and contusions to compensate. Pushing it from his mind he forced himself to take stock of the situation.

The base was quiet in the deeping twilight. Fires, started by grenades or by enthusiastic Gids in the aftermath, still smoulderd at a dozen points. Thick ropes of acrid smoke curled from the windows of the communications trailer and all three barracks units. The whole place stank of burning insulation, burning flesh and the sweetish reek of corpses beginning to superate in the tropical heat. Of the Gids themselves there was no sign, a good thing because Rene hadn’t given them a second thought in his desperation to escape entombment beneath the sandbags. The armored vehicle was gone, the impressions of its tracks evident even in the uncertain light of burning buildings, as were both of the marine patrol vehicles. Looted by the Gids Rene presumed.

There were bodies also, a haphazard collection laid out against the berm. Rene stumbled towards them, realizing as he did so that he had lost a boot in the collapse, the lack making his gait awkward as he crossed the twenty meters to the rank of bodies. All of them were dead, Rene hadn’t held out any hope but there was a finality to seeing the dead that he hadn’t been prepared for. Most had been killed in the initial volley, though a few had received a coup de grace in the form a shot between the eyes which distended their features horribly. The Gids had obviously dragged the bodies to the berm to search and count them. It was a reasonable step though there was no way they could have accounted for the bodies that had burned up in the trailers. Bowie’s body was at the end of the line. He had been dead when the Gids found him, killed by the blast which had sheared the antennae. There was surprisingly little visible damage, overpressure from the blast Rene figured, dredging the information from a half forgotten military first aid course. Bowie’s face was frozen in a sardonic smile, doubtless the result of random muscle contraction rather than a genuine expression of emotion, but it suited his friend so perfectly that it made Rene’s heart lurch. Tears welled in his eyes and he sank to the ground beside his friend and stared sightless at the uncaring stars.

New Concordia - Day Two

The soldier zipped up his fly and tossed his tab stick into the irrigation ditch. The burning end of the stick fell so close to Rene that he could have reached out and grabbed it. He didn’t move. He tried not to breath. The soldier let out a sigh of relief and ambled back towards his companion. Rene relaxed by a minimal increment. He had reached the outskirts of Armistice, the administrative capital of New Concordia in a little under two hours. The base had been thoroughly looted by the Gids and he hadn’t been able to find a weapon or any functional communications gear. He had made his way to one of the nearby hamlets and stolen one of the six wheeled trucks the locals used to deliver crops to the Starport in Armistice.

At first Rene no plan beyond to get away from the slaughter at the Rat Trap but as he had driven along the darkened country roads a plan had began to form in his mind. Rebellions were not uncommon in an entity as large as the Stellar Empire. Usually it was a matter of the local army crushing whatever aggrieved section of the populace had been forced into an orgy of looting and destruction. This had to be something different. The Gid attack had been carefully planned and well executed, not a spontaneous riot of drunken or mutinous troops. That kind of attack only made sense in the scope of a much larger rebellion. Rene’s duty was clear, he had to report what had happened to his commanders, the simplest way to do that was to reach the Imperial Embassy.

Unfortunately that plan had hit a snag when he reached the first roadblock. Gid troops were searching vehicles coming in and out of the city. Rene had pulled off onto a side road before he was noticed and ditched the truck behind a stand of trees. He had thought to approach the city through the semi rural suburbs but had almost ran right into a Gid patrol as he crossed a field bordered by a low stone wall. It had been pure good fortune he had managed to dive into this ditch when the locals emerged from behind one of the low stone structures.

“Why are we out looking for this bitch again?” one of the soldiers, still only ten or a dozen meters away griped. Rene frowned, he had imagined they were trying to stop him, or someone like him, from getting into the city.

“Look how the fuck should I know?” another voice responded. Rene had seen three soldiers in the brief instant before he took cover, this one had the bored superiority of non coms the galaxy over.

“You gotta know something Xui, I saw you talking with the captain before we got sent on this miserable goose chase.” There was a long pause and then a long suffering sigh.

“All I know is that some broad bolted from the embassy earlier, or so they think, couldn’t match her body to any of the stiffs they pulled out of there.”

Rene’s stomach sank. The embassy was one of the few places on the planet sure to have a PEA. Positronic Entanglement Arrays, or PEAs, were insanely expensive communication devices for real time transmission across interstellar distances. Because they were so expensive and because each PEA could only send to its partner device, they were only used for sensitive military and diplomatic traffic. He had planned to use it to call off world to report the attack but that hope seemed dashed with the soldiers world. Who was this woman though.

“Sarge!” it was the first voice again, and it had dropped to a low whisper. Rene risked a look over the lip of the trench. The three soldiers were focused on a low stone wall, their backs to the marine. As Rene watched he saw movement. It was a woman, moving slowly but not quite as well concealed as she evidently thought.

“By the stars we will all be rich,” the Sergeant breathed his voice hungry for more than money. Rene stifled a curse as the soldiers began to fan out. He had no idea who this woman was, but her couldn’t stand idly by and let her be taken by these Gids. Steeling himself he pulled the length of razor wire he had bought with him and pulled it taught between his fists. These were very poor odds. The soldiers spread out like the claws of a scorpion, anchored by the sergeant. The woman froze and dropped behind the stone wall, either spotting her hunters or simply spooked by the sudden quiet.

“Stand up slowly and keep you hands where we can see them!” the sergeant shouted. Rene sprang from concealment like an uncoiling spring. The sergeant was only ten strides from him and didn’t even realise the marine was there until a moment before the loop of razor wire closed around his neck. Rene reefed with all his strength. The wire sunk into the man's throat with shocking ease, cutting to the spine with a spray of arterial blood. The other two soldiers spun, alerted by the sudden commotion. Rene let go of the wire, his right hand snatching the pistol from the sergeant's belt, letting gravity complete the draw as the corpse slumped to the ground.

As a squire Rene had spent countless hours training with both pistol and blade. His body settled instinctively into a dueling stance which would have made his Mistress-at-Arms proud, profile to the first assailant, pistol leveled. The stolen weapon boomed, powerful electromagnets accelerating the round down the coiled bore. The round punched into the mass of veins and arteries just above the soldiers heart. He was already pivoting to the surviving Gid when the spinning man opened fire. It was wild and from the hip but something hot plucked at his shirt a heartbeat before he fired the second round. Rene hadn’t corrected for the lift of his first shoot and the second round smashed the right cheekbone of the soldier, dropping him in a boneless heap. For a moment the night was silent as the gunfire died away. Rene let the pistol drop to his side while his left hand reached down to his chest. Blood welled from a narrow graze across his ribs. He examined his fingertips with a combination of exhaustion and wonder.

“This really isn’t my day.”
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Solae had laid on the grassy slope beside the roadway for what felt like centuries but what could have been no more than an hour. As sweat cooled on her body she found herself chilled yet extraordinarily thirsty. Adrenaline had caused her to over-exert herself and made ever muscle scream in pain no matter the respite it was granted. Breathing was steady through her chapped lips whose blood had congealed with the now stopped stream from her forehead. She was light-headed and dizzy, hungry, and nauseous all at once. The noblewoman was both numb to the sensations that rolled over her body in waves of anguish and overwhelmed by them.

For all the academic learning she had conquered with almost two decades of education she did not remember any lessons in survival. Only a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy, basic emergency medicine, and vague recollections of colonization stories seemed applicable to her situation. Fresh water was her top priority; her body could not exist as long without it as food or shelter. Exposure to the elements with a climate such as New Concordia's was not a threat immediately. Solae struggled to focus on the word deficiency to center herself mentally on the pursuit of water as she started to crawl on her belly.

Singular focus brought clarity. The diplomat slowly managed to force her elbows and knees under her as she pulled herself along the scraggly overgrown weeds of the embankment. Pebbles, grit, and dirt embedded itself under her nails and in the abrasions of her knees but she didn't care- she couldn't afford to let it impede her progress. Bit by bit, with teeth clenched together in determination, and only sheer willpower to fuel her she managed to propel herself upright. Solae's gait was staggered, unsteady, and feeble but it was movement nonetheless.

Sometime during her repose on the greenery her hearing had begun to return though it was still muffled. A shrill whine, which she recognized passively as damage to her ear, persisted but with concentration could be ignored. In the distance were the shouts of either soldiers or citizens as they called to one another. Gone were the alarms of enemy attack for, in the short time that had transpired, the imperial forces had been demolished. Solae still did not grasp her situation fully but her sense of self-preservation was still kicked into proverbial high gear. Everything in her exhausted body told her that to return to the city was suicide.

Night began to descend over Armistice and the surrounding lands as Solae made her way across the landscape. Geography and astronomy were subjects she had scored well in but neither the direction of the setting sun nor the arrangements of the stars offered relief. To seek their guidance was to have a destination and she was utterly aimless in encroaching despair.

In the dwindling light she happened upon a farm with a well which she stole water from as the family happily dined behind smudged windows carved into a humble home. She felt guilty for taking from people who had so little, but her conscience did not overcome her excruciating thirst. Solae drank until she was satiated and the meal was completed. Traumatized and melancholic she watched as they cleaned the table, talked to one another, and flickered on the lights that led to the bedrooms upstairs. The peaceful joy was as foreign to her now as the agony of today had been prior to the embassy's destruction. Commoners accused the titled elites of living in bubbles, in capsules of protection that made them indifferent to the suffering of the poor. In a day's time the tables had been turned for Marquise Solae Falia.

For minutes after the last light from the farmhouse had been snuffed out she stared after its darkened silhouette. Fine people they might be but she could not gamble on their compassion. Solae did not know their circumstances. While she did not doubt they were humane and empathetic, life on New Concordia created wounds, festering wounds, and the higher social caste was almost always blamed regardless of the cause. Gentle farmers were not without limitations of the abuse they could suffer before they saw a victim such as Solae as an oppressor deserving their rage.

She turned, walking to the edge of the property and, parking herself next to a half-rotted stump, she finally allowed herself to collapse again and fall into a dreamless sleep of fatigue.

DAY TWO

Morning brought hope. Slumber had refreshed her mind. With the death of Marlene a day behind her, and no visual reminders of callous murders and near death experience, Solae found it easier to compartmentalize the past and present. Wary of venturing back towards the farm of last night she headed in a different direction as she kept Armstice's skyline on her left. One of the fields she traversed through had slightly under ripe fruit dangling from trees on its borders. She ate three that were roughly the size of her fists as she walked, discarding the skin, cores, and seeds in shrubs to make it appear an animal had devoured them instead of a vagrant.

Success emboldened her. Slowly she navigated away from rural domiciles and closer towards the surburbs that spread from Armistice in a perfect circle. When she had initially flown to New Concordia with her mother and father years ago she had marveled that so long after settlement planning was enforced stringently enough not a single estate was out of place. Now she realized that there was cruelty in such unmerciful design. People were not free, even so far away from the central planets of the empire, to build what they wished wherever their heart desired.

Thoughts of a rambling mind were interrupted by something she could not place- a sound or lack thereof had made her pause mid-step beside a stone wall she had been creeping beside for the last several minutes. Her heart raced as she struggled to find the source of the instinctual freeze in her posture but she did not have to wait long. Solae had dropped behind the wall to collect her breath (which had caught in her throat) when a booming male voice lifted from the other side a short distance away.

“Stand up slowly and keep you hands where we can see them!” called out a man that the intuitively knew was armed without peeking over the masonry that separated them.

Solae's returned hearing was both a curse and a blessing. A lethal altercation took place she deduced by the sounds of moving bodies, panting, a strangled cry, and three blasts of gunfire. Terrified to move she waited for a sign what had just transpired had ended or the parties engaged in combat had moved on. There was but a brief moment of silence and then a male voice, different from the first one she heard, muttering to himself, "“This really isn’t my day.”

Options were limited. Either she could try to escape the attention of whomever just spoke, taking her chances in solitary survival, or she could stand, expose herself, and parley. Why had that first man wanted her to come out to him instead of shooting to kill without reservations. Had someone or something wanted her alive? And why had someone intervened before she was taken captive? Was he hoping to have him for herself or were his intentions more pure? Solae's heart continued to race so hard and fast as she contemplated her choices she was worried cardiac arrest was an actual possibility. The stranger hadn't asked her to come out nor had he let the lapse in time be used to strike at her. Chances were greater he was an ally than an enemy based solely on the little information available.

"Who... who are you?" Solae asked as she rose. As the morning light shone on her beaten and stained figure her hair, still flaked in dried blood, gleamed a golden white in the soft illumination. There were very few people in the universe that had the hue the late Marquise Falia had passed onto her daughter; in fact, it was rumored to have been inserted in bloodlines through embyronic genetic manipulation and subsequent generations had created their children like designer handbags since. Technology allowed the wealthy to chose gender, hair color, and eye color as they toyed with life to feed their godly complexes. Solae had suspected but never confirmed her mother had made certain her offspring bore the recessive trait for her hair color. In any other circumstances it would have been a positive boon to recognition, but as the duke's rebellion raged on it only helped to identify her as an important target.
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Rene stood shivering slightly despite the morning heat. Adrenaline still surged in his system making his skin prickle unpleasantly in time with his thudding heart. The woman who rose from behind the stone wall was beautiful despite the filth and blood that caked her. It wasn’t the kind of beauty that occured naturally, no natural face was as perfectly symmetrical or as crisply defined. Her hair caught the light of the rising sun glinting like gold as it refracted the radiation. It was the kind of beauty that only the scions of the nobility could afford. For a moment his heart throbbed painfully in his chest and he was standing over Amellia’s body, as it lay on the blood stained sheets eyes wide in wonder or terror.

He blinked back to the present his mind registering that she had spoken to him and that it was rude not to respond. A noble could be cruel, but they should never be rude. It wasn’t a maxim that had served him very well as a marine but it was deeply ingrained in his psyche. Muscle memory compelled him to make an abbreviated courtly bow.

“I am Rene Quentain… My lady,” he responded, realising as the words left his mouth that what she really meant is what are you doing here. He was acutely embarrassed to be still holding the pistol and lowered his arm to hold the weapons muzzle down close to his thigh. The barrel still warped the air slightly as waste head cooled the barrel. Electromotive slug throwers were extremely powerful but the flux needed to accelerate the slugs heated the ceramic barrel after even a few rounds.

“Ma’am,” he tried seeking to clarify his earlier statement and switching to the appropriate form of address. My lady as a form of address between nobles and not something a lowly marine as he now was ought to adopt.

“I’m with... or that is I’m an Imperial Marine my garrison was attacked…” he trailed off and made a gesture to the three slain soldiers with his free hand. The sergeant had been nearly decapitated by the wire and the air stank of blood and worse things. He looked over the dead as though seeing them for the first time. Rene had trained to kill but he had never actually don it until today. Irrational embarrassment washed over him to be standing amidst such carnage with a highborn lady.

He wondered what he looked like to her, his own aristocratic features drawn and haggard from the exertions of these last few hours. He was at least partially dressed as a marine, brown on green camouflage pants with tan boots and a tan PT shirt but he lacked armor and his only weapon was the looted pistol. Blood leaked slowly from the graze on his chest and older blood stained the side of his head from a pressure cut. Self conscious, he ran his fingers through his dark hair feeling the slime of mud and sweat which coated him. His eyes fixated on the blood that stained her pale skin.

“I don’t know what is going on I thought I would head for the embassy and…” he trailed off again uncertain where to take the conversation and aware that the shots would surely bring other Gids before too long. He reached down and scooped up the boxy assault rifle the sergeant had flung away in his death spasms and reflexively checked the safety.

“Are you ok ma’am?”
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Long ago in centuries past, back when humanity was chained to a singular planet and had not discovered interstellar travel, there had been fictional stories called fairy tales read to children. Most had, according to her literature stories, meant to be allegories or cleverly disguised moral lessons that could be consumed by young minds. Her father had a few tomes of these fantastic tales on a shelf in the library, but they were for display only; he had never bothered to read them. Solae had been confined to the estate one summer in her teenage years due to a leg injury. Curiosity and a desperate need for entertainment had resulted in her reading volumes plucked from the bookcases indiscriminately. One ancient faded brown binding contained fanciful descriptions of princes, princesses, knights, villains, and the like. It had not been much to her taste and once she finished the last page she had carefully closed the book, slid it back on the shelf, and not thought of it again.

Until now.

Even with corpses strewn on the ground, blood pooling beneath the neck of a solider whose head had almost been brutally sheared off, Rene was reminiscent of a proverbial knight in shining armor. True he had a pistol rather than a sword, sullied garments instead of plate armor, and no pristine steed to carry them off towards safety, but he was a radiant beacon of protection in an terrifying blizzard of violence.

Solae's gaze had flitted momentarily to the deceased as she evaluated the situation. The spectacle of three bodies, their eyes glassy, their faces frozen, with muscle and bone visible made her stomach lurch. Muscles of her neck tensed as it forced down the bile and swelling nausea that had nearly bubbled for the surface. Solae's chest heaved with the effort as she refocused her pale eyes upon Rene.

Rene Quentain. Somewhere in the depths of her mind Solae recalled having heard the name before. There were things more immediately pressing than trying to excavate the memory associated with the allusion (for she was certain they had never met before this moment) but the familiarity spoke to a truth: he had to be noble. Sheltered as she was in the Falia lineage and employment with the embassy she'd not come across commoner names nor retain a shred of them. The slip of Rene's tongue in referring to her as lady only verified her belief. Underneath the grime that painted his handsome features was a birth of aristocracy. That he called himself a marine and tried so valiantly to self-correct into that station made Solae wonder why he hid and discarded his heritage. Was his name associated with shame or criminal behavior?

"They're all dead," she whispered, more to herself than to him. She climbed over the stone wall, undoubtedly flashing him considerably more skin than was proper, but given the circumstances neither of them could be bothered with etiquette and pretenses. News of the destruction of the Imperial Garrison slowed her mental processes as her psyche tried to shield her from grim reality. It had faltered and failed her this far but it had not abandoned her yet. Solae swallowed hard as her intellect failed her. Sanity begged her not to draw the inevitable conclusion that these two assaults met for her present and future.

"They destroyed the Imperial Embassy. I'm the only survivor," she admitted, choking on the words as tears sprang up in the corner of her eyes. "And even if you could have made it there, you couldn't have sent out a signal. The PEA requires genetic identification- living identification at that, it was recently revised in light of the rebellion on Duivis last year- which is only granted to embassy employees after their first year provided they have the correct qualifications." It was the most tactful way reference she could make to the nobility requirement without outright admitting the aristocracy were sectarian.

"My name is Solae Falia," she introduced briefly. For a second she considered not confessing that she also possessed a title, one she knew had passed to her in the last day. These enemy forces, regardless of who they were loyal to, would not let the Marquess and Marquise live if they had murdered all the diplomats and marines. "Marquise Solae Falia, but I'd prefer you just call me Solae. If they..," here she choked again, silent tears running down her face that she felt but chose to ignore, "if they executed all the supporters of the Empire, some of their homes will be empty. We might be able to find one to clean up and eat," she suggested, doing all she could to maintain some semblance of composure.
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Solae Falia. The name, the family name at any rate, as dimly familiar from long ago lessons on the political make up of the Empire though he couldn’t imagine that made much difference at the moment. Rene supposed he would have helped anyone whom the Gids were hunting but he wasn’t so much a fool as to believe that the fact that she was noble and attractive didn’t move him. Some instincts couldn’t be ground out of you even in the brutal year long induction that the marines used to grind down the individual.

Gunfire crackled in the distance an echo from the horizon rather than anything to do with them but it served to break Rene out of the adrenaline induced reverie he seemed to be falling into. In the wake of any successful rebellion, and the destruction of the marine outpost and the embassy certainly meant that this one was successful at last locally, there were likely to be executions both of loyalists and those not sufficiently enthusiastic in their loyalty to the new regime. That was rarely the end of it however. Common people had grudges to settled, people they owed money, someone who stole a wife or girlfriend, and anyone unlucky enough to fall in the way of the mob.Columns of smoke already rose dark against the horizon. One of those would be the embassy and perhaps other official targets but some would be the result of an excess of excitement, alcohol and arson.

“Yes ma’a… Solae,” Rene corrected himself, deliberately keeping his eyes from focusing on her tears. He wondered how she had survived an attack on the embassy, he didn’t kid himself that it had been anything other than luck that saved him during the attack on the Rat Trap. If the attack had been anywhere near as well executed it a miracle she was alive at all. His stomach growled as the adrenaline left his system and his body reminded him that it had been well over a day since he had eaten anything. Going to ground made sense, he had been focused on reaching the embassy, not because it was the best plan but because it was a plan. With that gone they needed time to regroup.

“We should get under cover,” he agreed crouching down to strip the webbing belt from the dead soldier. He pulled a canteen free and drank greedily before offering it to Solae who took it eagerly. The strapping as of unfamiliar design so he hoisted it over his shoulder rather than try to put it on. It would have made sense to take the jackets of the dead men, but in all three cases they were sufficiently spattered with gore to make the prospect unappealing.

“I’m not very familiar with Armistice,” he admitted, the few leaves he had been granted didn’t give him much confidence, “do you know of a place?”

Solae did. It took them an hour to circle around the outskirts of the city, keeping to hedgerows and the light manicured woods where they could. Several times they had to stop and hie while patrols passed close by but the killings seemed to have drawn the manhunt eastward. The Gids had to assume that Solae, whom Rene now realized was the real target of the manhunt, was trying to get out of the city rather than back into it. They approached a small manor house along private drive flanked perfectly manicured Xhasson trees. The trees were from Pyris Reach originally but were cultivated extensively by the rich and powerful throughout the empire. The bark was a brown so dark as to be almost black but shot through with traceries of bright gold. The leaves were the same metallic hue though they shifted from gold to silver in slow pheromone mediated waves which passed from tree to tree. The sight woke an unexpected pang of homesickness and Rene wondered if the gardener who devoted so many hours to the plants had been swept up as a loyalist or was part of a drunken rampaging mob.

The door of the large two story house was ajar, broken from its frame by a ram when the rebels had come for whomever had lived here. Rene gestured Solae down with a marine hand signal that the woman had no way of recognizing, fortunately his intent was clear enough and she flattened herself behind a nearby bush. For long minutes he watched the house, the door swinging open and then closed banging against its warped frame as the wind willed. Finally he relaxed.

“Looks like the rebels have been and gone,” he said with obvious relief lowering the rifle from his shoulder as he looked at the beautiful, if disheveled, marquesa.
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Although Solae had expected that her absence as a casualty of the Imperial Embassy would be noticed, her blood ran cold when the first patrol passed within close proxitity and she heard an allusion to her person. Humanity had been stripped from her existence by the rebellion. The beautiful noble was a target, a bitch, a thing for them to possess undoubtedly in an effort to communicate with the Empire. No device they found would be functional without her genetic identification. While the operation of a PEA or other long-range transmitter required her alive, she had no illusions as to what they could and would do as they gleefully utilized her to send missives. Solae would be a trophy, a depository for their lust, an avenue to take out their aggression and rage, a toy that they could force to continue one of their own genetic lines. The leader of the rebellion had not yet been unmasked to her, but her status (and that of any children she bore, bastard or not) had to be tantalizing if they must to keep her breathing. In her heart Solae was not certain that her survival of the assault on the embassy been a blessing.

Revelations regarding herself as prime prey for the coup's forces made her question the motivations of Rene. Being of noble birth was not compelling for his investment in allying with Solae; he had shed whatever finery and position he once possessed when he enlisted as a marine. They were not fellow scions of the Empire. Swooping in when she had been cornered by hostile Gids had been a risk he was not bound by blood oath to take. Had he slipped by in the shadows, unseen as he had obviously been before he leapt out and killed the sergeant, none would be the wiser.

Rene had not made any requests of her yet but it was necessity that strangled their conversation and kept them silently bound together. Solae could not find any clues in his countenance, his steady gait, his broad shoulders, nor his slightly stiff mannerisms that she suspected came from the knowledge she was a Marquise. Despite her suspicions she found that her analytical staring only made her more hyper-aware of qualities she found fundamentally attractive. Underneath the sweat and grime he was muscular but not to an intimidating degree, his step was sure and confident, his cheekbones were high, his jaw was masculine, and his hair long enough to be luxurious rather than course stubble. Once he had reached back to grab her wrist before she blundered into the vision of a contingent jogging by and her heart had fluttered at the contact.

"I know... knew the owner," Solae said as she squinted in the bright light. It was deathly silent with the singular exception of the door that was battered by the wind. No plumes of smoke nearby indicated a rebel encampment or presence. Without waiting for Rene's permission she squeezed by him and through the doorway without touching either the frame or door itself; rather, she timed to pass through while it was agape.

The interior had been predictably ran-sacked. A streak of blood as wide as a man's torso led down the left side of a grand staircase and out through were they had came. Solae paled slightly at the reminder of the inhabitant's demise but did not dwell on the crimson stains soaked into pale carpet and polished marble flooring. Portraits of the owner's ancestors had been ripped from their gilded frames and littered the entryway. Delicately she nudged the folded oil canvases to the side with her bare feet.

"He was a bachelor," she elaborated as she heard Rene enter the home behind her. "We dated briefly... long enough I know the layout and that no one is coming here. His parents and sister live on Ilnora II." Nimbly she led him towards the back of the house, navigating through hallways that once had been lavishly decorated with priceless original paintings. Only the decorative lighting above each piece remained as the rebels had sensibly looted the treasures. "My mother and father were fond of his family," she told him, trying to make conversation before they emerged in a large dining room. In the center, in front of a wall of windows programmed to let in light and yet conceal the occupants for the sake of privacy, was a statue nearly eight feet tall. The subject of the carving, clearly meant to mimic 'classical' pieces from renaissance ages, was a chiseled figure that was naked except for a draped that was not meant to completely obscure its endowment.

"I'll let you imagine why it didn't last," Solae remarked dryly as she looked at the statute and then drifted into the adjoining kitchen. Cabinets had been thrown open looking for delicacies but the majority of the food stock had not been confiscated. There would not be fine china to dine upon but the cutlery and dinnerware meant for the servants had been left untouched. She lightly touched a panel on the wall and it sprang to life as a synthesized female voice emerged from speakers seamlessly integrated across the domicile.

"Greetings, Lady Solae," it purred. Most programming did not have a sultry undertone to its artificial intelligence systems, but the yet-unnamed lord of this manor had proclivities that did not cease to amaze. He had customized his luxurious bachelor pad to emulate a woman that was absent in his life. "How may I assist you today?"

Solae groaned under her breath but turned to Rene. "Food or shower first?" she asked.
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Rene chuckled at the joke partly to conceal the fact that he had nearly jumped out of his skin when the AI greeted Solae. The palatial surroundings made him ill at ease. The De Quentain estates were of a more austere style but there were enough similarities to conjure a sense of dreamy unease which strained his nerves. Four years had been enough to draw a gauzy curtain over his previous life, to suddenly have that torn away, both by the manor and the presence of the beautiful and highborn Solae, was disorienting in a way that even the combat earlier hadn’t been.

He reached into one of the concealed storage cabniets and began to pull out cans and boxes of food. It was of good quality but largely instant. Rene wondered if the former owner had an autochef function or if he simply ate alone most of the time. One of the cabinets was a discrete refrigerator and he pulled several bottles of chilled fruit juice and set them down on the counter with a glassy clink.

From a purely military standpoint it made sense to eat. There was no telling how long they would be safe here or when supplies might be available again. There were other considerations than the military though. Solae had been through an ordeal and it was more than just physical. He safed the assault rifle and then reluctantly set it down atop a marble countertop.

“Let’s take a shower,” he declared and then immediately coughed in embarrassment at the unexpected implication. Solae was an attractive woman beyond any doubt but that was no excuse for discourtesy.

“I mean… not together…” he trailed off and then cleared his throat.

“You take a shower and I’ll keep watch,” he clarified a rueful grin spreading across his lips despite himself. You couldn’t be certain you wouldn’t be embarrassed unless you were dead. Given the likelihood that he would be dead in the next few hours or days maybe he should try to worry less.
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For as unnerved as the small estate made Rene, and it was small compared to what she had seen owned by Dukes, Earls, Counts, Viscounts, and the like, it helped to calm the quell inside Solae. Admittedly it was not as sprawling as the towering structure that her parents had purchased on New Concordia, but it felt the same. Outside these walls everything was foreign, terrifying, and threatening. Inside were the tattered remains of a life she had known all her life and that now condemned her future as surely as it had guaranteed its accomplishments. Her fingers ran along a crack on the edge of the screen thoughtfully. Even Mia, artificial and with her 'brain' locked far below ground, had not escaped the assault unharmed. Technology was innocent of malevolent intentions but no less punished.

Solae had flushed pink from the apples of her cheeks to her hairline, her features a baffled mixture of flattered and fearful. Tempted as she was to retreat physically she was too shocked to move. A tiny exhalation escaped when he clarified 'not together.' Rene was handsome and tragedy had made him twice as heroic, charming, and alluring as he might ordinarily be, but she had been apprehensive that there was a price of intimacy he expected for his daring rescue. Not everyone was selfless and Solae had only her body to give had he demanded it of her.

"Keep watch... of the door, not the shower?" she clarified with a light laugh as she visibly relaxed. She glided over to where he stood, standing on her toes to reach one of the top shelves with cups fashioned of synthetic opaque material, and pulled down two- one for him and one for herself. She poured a full glass of fruit juice as her stomach growled in protest at the suggestion bathing take precedence over eating.

"There's more than one shower and I don't know that I could return the favor of keeping watch," she confessed lightly. The now deceased Marquise Falia would have insisted on dainty, measured sips from a crystalline glass worth no less than one farmer's salary in value when in the presence of a gentleman. Solae was certain that this instruction would be unaltered even if she knew her daughter was quite literally in the midst of a war. With blatant irreverence for societal expectations and proper conduct she drank the entire cup in one continuous gulp.

"After we eat and each shower, it might be safe to sleep here," she said as she thought aloud. "It could be easier to move at night when it's harder for them to find us. After that... I don't know. They'll be waiting for me if I try to go home," she murmured this time to herself as she covered her face in thought. The tip of her left digits brushed past where she had been veritably concussed the day prior in the embassy and she flinched reflexively. Medical attention with be difficult if not impossible to come by. Letting her palms slip down she was reminded of the wounds she had seen on Rene.

"Mia, can you please retrieve Lord Armon's emergency medical kit from storage?" she asked the electronic sentience.

"Yes, Lady Solae," it purred obediently. There was a quiet hum of machinery behind the wall. Many nobility had extra rooms built underneath their mansions not in case of apocalyptic disaster or rebellion (they were too arrogant to admit these possibilities) but for storage that lifeless servants, such as Mia, could deposit and withdraw items from with instruction.
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Despite Rene’s words it was impossible for one man to keep an effective watch on so large a house. The galaxy rarely provided a perfect solution to any problem but he did the best he could. Fortunately the house was equipped with a number of holocams and accompanying pickups. With a little ingenuity, and a good deal of subvocalized cursing, Rene was able to convert several of the holographic art pieces which hung on the dining room wall into improvised security cameras. The external cameras were clearly designed with a view to bringing in views of the garden rather than detecting intruders but the result was better than he could have achieved by walking a patrol.

With his improvised security station completed and Solae in the shower he turned his attention back the food. The contents of the cabinets seemed like a cornucopia after so long on a diet that consisted almost entirely of bland Imperial issue ration packages. He retrieved some of the dinner ware and set two places at the table, laying down an off planet ham and slicing off thin precise slices with a silver embossed carving knife. There were Terran pomegranates in the produce draw and cracked one open and lay one half on each of the plates he was preparing before removing two packages of some unfamiliar vegetable mix from the dry storage and pulling the tabs. The small silver boxes hissed and steamed as their integral catalytic cookers steamed the vegetables inside before the internal pressures lifted the lid to reveal the perfectly prepared side dish.

While Rene worked a section of the marble countertop slid downwards into a recess that was invisible to the naked eye. The effect was flawless and doubtless very expensive. The marble rose back into sight bearing a large white box marked with the simple red cross which universally denoted medicine. The catches on the side opened easily and he opened the leaves out to spread the contents over the counter. Phials of medicine, bandages, sprays, syringes and a variety of other medical devices were laid out in neat precision. There was even a bioscanner and an attached medical computer tucked into the top of the unit. Rene wondered if the homes owner had chosen the unit or it was simply placed there by the staff as an expected security measure.

Tending his wounds would need to wait till after his own shower. There wasn’t much point in trying to clean a wound when his whole body was covered with filth afterall. Instead he laid out the items he had taken from the soldiers hunting Solae and spread them out beside the first aid kit. One rifle - sixty rounds, one pistol - eighteen rounds, three ration bars one half eaten, a fold out map of Armistice and its surrounding suburbs, a military first aid pack that was older than Rene and two canteens of water. It wasn’t much against a whole planet. Things would look better after they had rested. Solae's suggestion that they sleep here was a good one, who knew how long it might be before they had another chance. Assuming of course.

He heard Solae’s soft footstep and turned to the stairs she had ascended for her shower.

“All set ma… Solae?” he asked making an off handed gesture to the food he had prepared.

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After ascending the right staircase to the second floor (as to avoid the blood trail that dripped down the left) she had quickly swept through a hall with holes battered into the walls and splintered remains of a destroyed banister strewn about the floor. At least one resident or servant thereof had been battled their assailants. Most of the guest rooms had been untouched simply because they held no real valuables; Lord Armon didn't want his finery 'wasted' on rooms that saw so little use. Vanity urged him to keep his jewels on display where he could more easily admire them and himself.

Lights illuminated as she walked through the beautiful room with hardwood floors and lavish rugs depicting one of many worlds conquered and colonized by the Empire. Solae unzipped her skirt and stepped out of it as it fluttered to the floor. Undergarments were shrugged off and unclipped after she pulled her torn blouse over her head. Rather than depend on Mia she slipped into the large shower and manually adjusted the controls to spray her with the hottest water she could tolerate without scalding. A mesmerizing display of lights accompanied the blast of steam but the heiress was could not find her spirits lifted by the ambience they created.

Solae knew there would not be time to properly mourn or grieve the lives lost. Here in the shower, however, she was protected and alone. With the knowledge that the room had been soundproofed, and Rene was too far away to hear even if it was not, she slid down a slick mosaic wall and sobbed. The marquise wept for Marlene, who was spoiled but did not deserve callous murder, for imperfect parents that she knew had been executed, for innocent staff in the Imperial Embassy and the 'Rat Trap' who had committed no crimes except seeking employment. Every tear was carried away in the cleansing streams.

Until she saw it swirling on the floor of the enclosed chamber Solae had not been aware how much blood had been on her. Some had been her own but most had been from sprays of co-workers, from landing on a corpse, and crawling through the debris of the ruined embassy building. The rinse ran pink, speckled with flakes and crusty globs of crimson, until several minutes had passed. She washed the stain out of her golden platinum strands and scrubbed it off her skin. A few areas burned despite a more gentle touch. Both knees were raw and covered with abrasions, the right slightly more pitted than the left. Walking barefoot over the terrain had left her with cuts, three splinters, blisters, and the side of a toe scraped from a rock that had removed the topmost layer of skin. Considering she had escaped being killed by heavy weaponry these were minor and a small price to pay. The gash near her hairline the left side of her forehead proved to be the worst wound she bore. Solae dared not touch it directly- she had clenched her jaw in pain every time she tried- but she was fairly certain a medical professional would recommend stitching the sides together.

Crying had unloaded only some of the emotions that had accumulated in the last day but she felt lighter than before. The accommodations were opulent but they could not afford her the luxury of time. Dwelling on the anguish the rebellion brought would not help her survive. Solae dissociated from the trauma as she stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around herself. She did not let her mind wander back to the the horrific event, instead mentally carefully boxing the memory and shelving it to revisit a later date.

"Mia," she called out as she looked towards the mirror. A faint yellow glow appeared in the center as a visual cue that Mia had been appropriately summoned. "Does Lord Armon have any women's clothing in storage?"

Mia had salvaged the undergarments with startling efficiency but Solae knew the blouse and skirt were a lost cause. Repairs could have been made but a skirt was impractical at best and the silken shirt was not made to endure. Unfortunately Lord Armon had no paramours at present and thus no women's clothing much less anything in her size. Out of desperation she had a men's shirt, clearly too large for her frame, over exercise shorts Mia had affirmed no less than four times were unused and clean.

"If you want to take a shower now I can wait to eat with you," she suggested affably. As ravenous as she was she did not want to be rude to her savior; Solae was incredibly aware of how in Rene's debt she was. Her hair was still a wet curtain of shimmering unnatural aureate coloration that was loose in hopes it would dry quickly. "I had to improvise," she immediately explained, slightly embarrassed at her state of psuedo-dress.
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It was amazing what a shower could do. It had been obvious even under the dirt and grime that Solae was a beautiful woman but clean she nearly sparkled. Perhaps it was the effect of seeing her filthy first, the way a gemstone might be more austonding if one had seen the rough hewn rock before it was cut and polished. Her hair, still wet from the shower as like spun electrum and the loose shirt and exercise pants hung in a loose profusion which suggested her figure more powerful than a more revealing outfit could have managed.

“I imagine your improvisation makes them look far better than they ever did on their owner,” he said with a wan smile. The style on Capella at the time of his disgrace had run to ridiculously closely tailored suits with natural striations and short capes. Judging by what Solae had found he didn’t need to worry too much about finding something that would fit.

“You don’t need to wait if you don’t want too but I’ll just be a minute.”

Following Solae’s directions he found the shower without difficulty. The shower unit was modern and stylish and certainly cost more than a marine made in a year. The floor and walls were laid out with hand crafted tiles that looked like naturally weathered stone of a warm brown yew. Rene stripped off his boots and socks and placed them carefully in a corner. Painfully he removed his shirt, the act made difficult by the bruises and contusions that coated his upper body then stripped off his pants and undergarments and carried them into the shower with him.

“May I assist you sir?” asked the sultry voice of the house AI. Rene nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of an unexpected female voice when he was completely naked.

“Throne curse you!” he breathed leaning both hands against the tiled wall of the shower and letting his forehead rest on the cool stone surface.

“No I can manage,” he told the AI curtly and touched a control to activate a sonic scrub. An inaudible bath of sonic energy washed over him. Dirt and dried blood fell away from his skin in a dusty shower, his teeth ached slightly and the bullet graze across his chest began to ooze blood. He deactivated the sonic and turned the water on. Hot water seemed like decadence as it poured down over his battered form, washing the dirt and blood into the drain like a red stained river. The heat felt good on muscles bunched in tension for long hours and he had a momentary desire to stay under the running water forever. Remembering that Solae was waiting he quickly scrubbed himself and turned the water off.

“Stars..” he marveled as he walked out of the shower, tossng his soaked pants over the partition to dry. The full length mirror was specially finished so that it didn’t fog in spite of the steam. His entire muscular torso was covered in bruises. Foremost were the three red black lines where the harness had caught him when he fell from the disintegrating communications antennae. Even through his shirt the canvas safety straps had abbraided his skin though the fact hadn’t been evident to him when he had been shot full of adrenaline. Further bruises, from falling sand bags compounded the effect, making him look like a child had painted him with black and purple paint. His right hand had been cut by razor wire through the wound had already sealed itself and been puckered red by the hot water. The bullet graze was mercifully shallow, only a few millimeters deep than the stars, and it wept a slow trickle of blood. Rene took one of the pristine white hand towels and pressed it to his side. The Gid had been lucky, there was no doubt about that, but he had been good enough to spin and fire when taken completely by surprise. Rene hoped that was an exception rather than a measure of the opposition.

Rene did somewhat better than Solae had when it came to clothing. Armon’s wardrobe furnished him with a set of what it claimed were hunting pants, the only thing available with pockets, but from the crisp dark grey finish Rene doubted they had ever been taken on a hunt. He put the pants on and laboriously hooked his equipment belt to the unfamiliar garment before pulling his combat boots back on over the fine socks of natural wool. The effect of the belt and the boots with the expensive pants was vaguely ridiculous but this was no time to make a fashion statement. Mia also provided him with a white button down shirt, this he didn’t put on just yet, there was no point until he had seen to his wound, but rather tossed it over his shoulder. Transiently he wondered if he would be shot if he were captured out of uniform. Well uniforms hadn’t saved Bowie and the others. A growl in his stomach reminded him that Solae was still waiting to eat and he headed back down the stairs.

“Still a bit of a mess I’m afraid,” he joked as he returned to the kitchen, deliberately making his tone light. Even clean he must look a fright.

“Let’s eat and then we can see what we can accomplish with the first aid kit.

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"You are too kind," Solae replied reflexively. Though his compliment was genuine she had become accustomed to flattery, sincere and not, as a means to gain her favor. Without fail it was accompanied by or chased by a request for an audience with her parents, utilizing her status for their benefit, or entertaining an engagement proposal. As a future Marquise she knew that her chances for a relationship and wedding borne of romantic passion were slim. No matter how prolific nobility thought they were with exacting someone's intentions and motivations, they were far from perfect.

It was only after Rene had left to shower that she realized that his comment had no apparent ulterior motive. If anything the Imperial Marine was helping her rather than the other way around and had not exacted any price for doing so. Idly she considered that he might have joined the military not to avoid a sordid or criminal past (as she had initially assumed) but because he did not have the disposition for ruthless double-speak of the courts. He was kinder, selfless, and more thoughtful than any Lord, Count, Viscount, Marchess, Duke, or other associated title she had met.

"Mia, do you have the recipe for Grundel Biscuits?" she asked the artifical intelligence system after sitting in silence for a moment.

"Yes, of course Lady Solae," it purred as it displayed a list of ingredient as well as instructions in pale golden text in the center of the kitchen. Grundel Biscuits were created during one of the man wars the Empire engaged in to make a civilization submit to their rule and control. Citizens left at home created a foodstuff that did not require refrigeration, lasted as long as most rations, but had more nutrients- so long as you were willing to pay the price for the expensive groceries required to create them. Lord Armon was not a man of moderation and thus Solae found everything she needed even if it meant further interaction with a sultry synthetic being.

Chopped nuts, seeds, dried fruit, grain, and a medley of fruits crushed into a powder were mixed together with a flour grown on a distant planet that created a dense, slightly crunchy bread with unrivaled shelf life so long as it was not damp. Solae kneaded the materials together, formed them into a ball that she then shaped into a block, and sliced the dough into squares before sticking it into the oven. Perhaps it was not a delicacy (even to an enlisted man), but if they were running from rebellion forces for weeks they would need more than could be found foraging.

With an eye towards preparedness Solae hummed and began a list with Mia of essentials to be packed before they left the residence. The linguistic expert did not foresee needing to evacuate before dawn, and if they were lucky not for a couple days, but preparing for the worst case scenario soothed her. Focusing on practical issues, creating a solution, and working her way through a task did not allow her to dwell on what she could not change. Rene was still the brawn of the pair but she could contribute to their survival in different ways.

"Oh, you're back," she remarked with a smile. The faucet turned itself on as it sensed her hands underneath and she rinsed off the sticky residue off her fingers. Flicking them dry she spun and saw Rene standing in the doorway covered with more bruises than she thought possible. Solae's face was clearly showed horror at his injuries, not because they were ghastly to behold, but because she could not imagine how much pain they must be causing her companion. A split second later it registered he had no shirt on and her perfect courtly mask faltered as she flushed at the musculature he was so passively displaying.

"Are you okay?" she heard herself say, though she knew he couldn't be 'okay.' For the same reason she had dodged that exact inquiry earlier she expected he would do the same. He was injured, he was tired, he was famished, and he was devastated not only at the loss of his friends and family on New Concordia but also of the life he had led until yesterday.

"Lady Solae, Sir Rene, are you related?" Mia asked. Solae was so dumbfounded by the question that she had immediately said, "No," without thought about why the strange, sensual voice of the AI was asking.

Immediately the lights in the dining room and kitchen dimmed until they were no brighter than candlelight and classical music began to play softly over Mia's system. A subtle scene of flowers was released into the immediate vicinity, which made Solae (who was startled and half-terrified at the light reduction) relax despite herself. "Mia... Mia, what are you doing?"

"I am programmed to provide the best atmosphere for my guests," Mia breezily replied. "I have been monitoring your vital signs since you entered the manor so I may best alert you of physical distress exceeding what you have already sustained. Just now I sensed a slight rise in both your core temperatures as well as a slight acceleration of the heart rate, indicative of a desire to..."

"All right, all right, thank you Mia," Solae quickly intervened in a tight, high voice. In all her life she did not think she had ever been quite as mortified as she was now.
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Over the years Rene had gotten a surprising amount of practice at controlling his emotions. Drill sergeants and officers had tried to provoke him, comrades had mocked him out of hate for his birth and those members of his family which still spoke to him had cursed him. None of it really affected him. Despite that he felt his face heat slightly with embarrassment. Not so much for himself, though by the Throne the AI’s accurate reading of his reaction to Solae WAS embarrassing, but because Solae herself was so clearly humiliated. He paused and cast his eyes skyward as though seeking an observer on high.

“Yeah ok, starting to think naked marble statue wasn’t the first red flag with this guy,” he quipped. Solae laughed inspite of herself and he felt some of his own tension fade as he crossed the room to take a sat beside her.

“I’m ok,” he told her, returning to her original question. There was a faint nutty odor rising from whatever it was Solae had been preparing though he couldn’t imagine what it could be. There was a distinct growl from his stomach. Some vestige of courtly etiquette made it h ard for him to start eating before a lady, though the marine indoctrination screamed at him to eat while he had the chance. Instead he pulled an antiseptic spray from the opened medical kit.

“Well for rather skewed values of ok. It just looks bad because I’ve been shot, and I got blown off an antennae, and a wall fell on me…” the sentence trailed off as he triggered the spray and the cold bitter vapor burned across the line the bullet had drawn. He sucked in a breath but forced himself to make a second pass. Once that was done he picked up a second aresol sprayer loaded with synthetic skin intened for burns and blisters. The pinkis synthetic was incongrously bright against his tanned and bruised chest. Though he was in pain he didn’t dare take any analgesics, he couldn’t afford to dull his reflexes.

“There, good as new,” he lied and slipped the shirt on though he didn’t try to button it. He looked at her, trying to inventory her scrapes and scratches rather than focusing on her beauty.

"What about you?"


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"It looks bad because it is bad," she countered almost immediately. Seeing that he was not eating (presumably because she was not), Solae picked up her knife and began to habitually cut her ham into delicate lady-sized pieces with great precision. Once she had mused to an etiquette tutor that nobles made excellent surgeons because of the practice and refinement with blades required just to survive a six-course meal. The elder countess was not amused at this observation and had chastised her for comparing the skills. Age seemed to diminish the sense of humor if it was not completely eradicated by proximity to the throne.

She took a singular bite, chewed thoroughly, swallowed, and motioned for him to indulge himself even as she ate slowly. Truthfully the stress was tying her stomach in knots such that she was both famished and nauseous all at once. "I'm sure in the Imperial Marines you must minimize your injuries and power through them, but it puts me in a bad spot if you're worse off than I am and say you're fine," she said with a soft smile.

"I can't be sure- I haven't had a singular course in medical training- but I believe I'll need to stitch my forehead back together," she admitted in reference to the gash. It had stopped oozing blood even after the shower but it was still an open wound. The skin was split from where a foreign object had collided with her forcefully during the initial blast at the Imperial Embassy. Fortunately, despite the unpleasant appearance and swelling, there was no damage to her skull itself. Solae crossed her ankles under the table and was glad that her knees and feet were both concealed from his sight. "If it scars that will reduce my value on the market, so I'm somewhat hoping it does," she added impishly in light allusion to her unwed status and the prominence of arranged marriages for a woman of her status.

Solae pushed a piece of meat around on her plate as she sighed and allowed her mind to wander. "Did you know that every language has a word for the concept of 'luck?' Not every abstract thought translations between cultures, but that is one of the ones that does. I keep wondering why I was so lucky to survive. I know part of it is because I went under my desk after the first round of fire, and that shielded me, but that answer isn't satisfying. All of my friends on New Concordia worked for the Empire and have almost certainly been killed. My parents are unquestionably dead- they would be too large a political threat and liability for a rebellion of this size- and it makes me wonder about my 'luck.'" In the common tongue this was called 'Survivor's Guilt,' which she knew, but reading about it and feeling it so acutely were incredibly different experiences.

"Why did you save me, Rene? You could have walked away," she asked boldly as she raised her eyes to his. In the pale illumination they were more gray than blue, reminiscent of a cloudy see on a sunless day. "If you turned me in now they might be willing to allow you to escape to your home planet, wherever that might be." There was an unspoken understanding that doing so would condemn Solae to a fate worse than death and hand the the coup keys to even further success. Solae made a compelling hostage in more ways than one and, with her genetic code and linguistic abilities at their disposal, they could spread their word farther than just the nearest communication station for the Empire. This greater costs might not mean anything to a common man, however; people tended to be selfish. They thought only of their personal gains and losses and not that of a greater populace.
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Rene chewed hungrily on a piece of cheese before helping himself to more ham. Although he knew the sensation had no foundation in biology he could feel the nutrients absorbed into his body with each mouthful. The lifestyle of a marine, even on a backwater like this didn’t give one the luxury of much stored body fat, a fact that was true in spades for a scion of a noble house whose genetic code had been altered to repress the tendency to avoid plumpness. The last meal he had eaten had been with Bowie before they set out on their patrol. He wondered if the owner of the komo had noticed the destruction of the base.

Silence fell between them at her words save for the quiet mastication of his jaw as he continued to eat with stoic determination. Rene found he was reluctant to answer, not because he feared to speak but because he didn’t rightly know what the truth was. A dozen half truths and partial answers swirled in his mind, no one thing fully satisfying. With careful deliberation he set the knife down and looked up into Solae’s eyes.

“I suppose I could say that it as my duty as a marine,” he began, resting his palm on the tabletop and feeling the cool of the marble beneath. Rene took his duty seriously but truthfully risking himself to save someone he knew nothing about did nothing to warn his superiors about what had happened on New Concordia and probably on other worlds in the sector. It had felt good to pay back the Gids for the blood and horror of the Rat Trap but that was an effect of the action and not its motivation.

“But that wouldn’t be the real reason, not the whole reason anyway.” His eyes focused at a point in the distant past, a different life, where Renard Du Quentain had knelt before the Empress in the vast crystal throne room in Capella and she had touched him on the shoulder to elevate him into Knighthood. Despite everything that had happened, Amellia, the corp, the rat trap, at his secret core he was still that serious, earnest young man who had laid his blade before the Throne. The realisation made him slightly queasy for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

“Rene?” Solae prodded gently and his eyes focused back on the present and on her beautiful face. The reverie must have lasted longer in reality than on the brittle surface of his mind.

“The truth is, that I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know who you were or why they wanted you but I knew that you were in trouble. What sort of person would I be if I hid in a ditch when I could help?” The answer wouldn’t have pleased his rhetoric teacher, but it had a simple honesty which would have been apparent to a child.


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Had Lord Armon, instead of 'Sir' Rene (as Mia preferred to address him), been sitting opposite her and confessed his conscience alone had sprung him into action she would have known him to be lying. The prolonged silence, the contemplation, the meandering as he tried to establish his own motivations spoke to Rene's honesty. Solae wasn't certain what answer she had expected from her query but she was dumbstruck by his reply nonetheless. She did not suppress the surprise that spread across her features. If Rene had a past of aristocracy as she suspected he had to know how profound of a revelation this was for any elite to hear. There were kind souls littered amongst them but their fealty was to the throne, not to each other.

"A less injured person with an easier route to safety," she finally remarked dryly.

Realizing that this might sound like criticism instead of praise, Solae leaned forward and placed her hand on his. Through the small touch he could feel how warm her fingers and palms were- something Solae herself was acutely aware of- but she smiled and hoped he wouldn't be put off by the heat her body was radiating. The raise in her 'core body temperature' had been caused by none other than Rene himself. "Thank you. I don't have any way to make it up to you right now, but I'd like to try in the future. The Empire could use more people like you."

"Lady Solae, the Grundel Biscuits have finished baking," Mia interrupted with a soft purr. Solae's heart nearly leapt out of her chest and her fingers on top of Rene's had jerked when she startled. Without realizing she had been staring at Rene, thinking how wonderfully handsome he was despite his injuries. There was something horribly captivating and enchanting about his demeanor, his morality, his simplicity that drew her in with such force she hardly remembered to breathe. Flustered she broke eye contact, inadvertently glanced at his bare chest behind the unbuttoned shirt, and then jumped out of her chair.

"I should get those," she explained as she tried to compose herself. Solae leaned down, brushing his cheek with a gentle kiss of gratitude, before making her way into the kitchen. The oven had already ejected a silicone-covered baking sheet with the square biscuit slices onto a counter to cool. The marquise had made two sheets out of an abundance of caution about future food sources and placed the second of these into the oven.

"Fair's fair," she called from the adjoining room. "Since I asked you a difficult question, you can ask me any one you like. I promise there are no topics off boundaries," she offered. It was an unconventional approach; anyone with a title was used to demanding things of their 'inferiors' with no reciprocation. In the few times they allowed themselves to be questioned it was never with such an openness as Solae was demonstrating now- but she wasn't in the palace or a royal estate. She was alone with a man who had saved her, wanting nothing and expecting nothing, who was her equal if not 'superior' in their race for survival, whom she felt compelled to be honest with if for no other reason than she liked him.
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The brush of Solae’s lips tingled on Rene’s cheeks like pin pricks of static electricity. He watched her go to retrieve the cookies, trying to avoid focusing on the soft curve of her figure as she busied herself with the supplies. Beyond the window he could see dark clouds gathering out over the distant oceanic horizon. The wind was already coming up as the incipient storm system sucked cooler air towards it. The tropic heat gathered vast thunderheads of an evening, discharging the days pent up fury in spectacular thunderstorms. If it had happened yesterday Van Heck would never have ordered him to climb the antennae and he would certainly be dead, his body rotting against the berm back at the Rat Trap.

Rene didn’t believe in luck or fate in a meaningful sense although like all soldiers he carried the sense that somehow he personally would be spared. His life so far had been an indifferent experiment, born into the tiny minority of privliged nobillity, to have accomplished the great ambition of his young life, only to have it all come crashing down in Amellia’s blood stained bed chamber. And yet here he was, alive by the most haphazard series of events. It was tempting to look at it as karma for stopping to help the farmer. The notion woke a memory of an old proverb about a farmer who experienced a string of alternating triumphs and catastrophes. No matter how much his neighbours sang his triumps or mourned his losses, the farmer simply responded: We will see. Was he lucky to have escaped and to have saved Solae? Or was he about to suffer another shattering reversal. After all, saving the komo hadn’t exactly paid of for Bowie.

Perhaps it was thoughts of fate and luck that gave him pause when Solae offered to answer a question for him. A half dozen questions from the verbal games he had played with the ladies of the Court sprang into his mind. Rather than answer immediately he set down this utensils and stood up moving around behind the noblewoman. If she was alarmed she gave no sign and he wordlessly picked up a small spray applicator from the med kit. As gently as he could he gathered up her golden hair, marvelling at its silky fulness as he gathered it away from the cut on her scalp.

“This will sting but only for a moment,” he told her and then began to spray a thin jet of aerosolized fluid against the cut, moving from the front backwards in a slow progression. The spray contained healing factors, antiseptic and a topical anesthetic which numbed the pain the otherwise harsh chemicals would inflict.

“What is it that you want Solae?” he asked as he finished the application and picked up a small sutcher applicator. The thing functioned like a stapler which applied discrete naturally decaying surgical closures. It would be painful if he used it without preparation but the topical anesthetic would make the process only slightly unpleasant. He placed the first sutcher and pulled the trigger, the device clicked an whired a second from storage. He smiled at her joke about market value as he sank another one ten millimeters above the first.

“In the universe I mean, not like a brigade of Imperial Armor to land and rescue us. You have all the wealth you could desire, high position. What is it that you are striving for?”
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Solae had frozen when Rene rose from his seat and joined her in the kitchen. It was this sort of stunned reaction she had around the other sex that Lord Armon had exploited more than a few times to push through her poorly construed social barrier. Of course her feeble walls had not truly existed around Rene due to the debilitating trauma of watching her co-workers die, falling on a corpse, running from armed forces, and narrowly escaping execution or worse from three soldiers. As he brushed aside her hair she rationally knew that Rene was likely trying to evaluate her wound but her heart still fluttered regardless. Rene had more than one opportunity to make a romantic overture if that was his intention, and moving her hair the way he did was not a gesture that any of the courting gentlemen she encountered had used. Cursing in a foreign language at herself she waited to see his prognosis. The Imperial Marines had more medical training in a month than she'd had in a lifetime.

"Oh you don't have to..," she began but he was already spraying the irritated and inflamed skin. Solae had been blessed with a slightly higher than normal pain tolerance but she felt the promised sting. She closed her eyes both to protect them from any errant drops and so that she wasn't staring at Rene's chest again; their proximity, height difference, and the slight bow of her head so he could work more easily had put the opening of his shirt directly in front of her gaze.

Most assumed soldiers, no matter their division or allegiance, were men with brawn and little wit or intelligence. Solae suspected Rene bucked this stereotype. The soft click and whir of the device as it tugged at numbed flesh and knitted it together was unsettling. That he had waited to pose his question until she could use a distraction to be a good patient spoke more to clever planning than coincidence.

"I find language fascinating, but I wouldn't say I am striving for one particular thing," she said after some thought. It almost certainly wasn't the answer he was looking for and it didn't feel fair to Rene to let that been the totality of her response. "That's what I do, or rather did, at the Imperial Embassy. I translate documents we receive and also what we send to other planets in the sector. Not everyone's quite as fluent as with the common tongue of the Empire as it mandates we are."

"When I was really small, before I started my formal education, I know my nanny used to encourage me and tell me that old adage of 'you can be whatever you want to be.' I don't believe she meant to lie. As far as she knew I was rich, I was going to be a Marquise, and I'd never want for anything. Mother waited until I was a little older until she shut those proverbial doors for me. I couldn't be a mother who stayed home and raised her children, like the nanny raised me, because noble women were above such things. I wouldn't marry on the whims of my heart like other people did because I had my reputation to consider. Growing a garden, fixing some of our malfunctioning machines or computers, studying to be a nurse instead of a doctor, building a masonry wall near the stables, riding a horse bareback... well, you get the gist. There are more things a lady ought not to dream of and seek to do than things she should. Yearning for what you can't have only causes heartache."

Solae wasn't seeking his pity, just his understanding. She was not being willful or malicious in her failure to produce a wonderful goal for her life. Like so many others she was coasting through life, trying to ascertain what opportunities she could seize before they passed her by, and hoping she was not trampled by the merciless passage of time as she did so. As a woman in her twenties she could have rebelled against her parents but she would have risked severe punishment. Only someone of higher position than a Marquise, such as a Duke or the Empress, could or would have intervened on her behalf if her parents retaliated against her. Now that they were both dead she had freedom if she could survive the rebellion. What she would do with it she did not know.

"Lady Solae," Mia started, "a thunderstorm is approaching. The front door is in a state of disrepair and I am unable to mitigate the sound of thunder as you have requested prior. I recommend utilizing an upstairs room as I show all of their doors are operable and the insulation to prevent sound pollution remains intact."
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