Sierra awoke the next morning. Her holo was flashing at her from her desk, so she decided to take a quick look. There was only one message, dated around midnight.
EC: Sorry. You were right. Will come over to talk tomorrow.
So that would be a thing, it was decided. Sierra was cautiously optimistic. She looked around her room, unsure of what to do in the meantime. She was up now -- that wasn’t about to change. The maid hoped for some direction; making dinner for her friends had been remarkably helpful in that regard. Morgan had nearly knocked her to the ground in her haste to hug the poor girl, crying as she recalled the events of the morning. Sierra had felt pretty bad for hiding in her room for the duration of the day, at that moment. Regardless of what Elaine thought about them.
Sierra turned to see a large, padded chair that had materialized in the corner of her room. Amelie was on it, still asleep.
But not for long.
“Oh shit...uh...gotta make sure Sierra doesn’t...um...hi!” she said. “Uh, morning!”
“Good morning, Ms. Amelie.” Sierra tilted her head to the side, puzzled. “Have you been here all night?”
“Heh, yeah. They were gonna pull someone from the hospital to watch you, but, well, I kind of volunteered. This chair is surprisingly comfortable! Got some sleep while you did. I was supposed to, um, wake up first, but, well….heh.”
Amelie had been there when Sierra went to bed, and had remained there while she tried to fall asleep. That had gone on for a while, with Sierra regretting the fact she’d nodded off a couple of times during the day.
“I’m sorry to inconvenience you…” Sierra said. Amelie stood up from the recliner, straightening out her wings a bit before they retreated to their usual folded position.
“No problem at all! I was worried, so I figured. Morgan wanted to do it, but she was a complete wreck, I’m sorry to say. Very keen on others’ emotions, am I right?”
“That does sound like Ms. Morgan,” Sierra agreed. “I will apologize to her when I see her. I see now I unjustly scared her.”
“You scared us all, Sierra. Natalie said that a maid would never take her own life independent of a very forceful order, but I’m not sure how much trauma the conditioning can survive. What do you think?”
“I think I acted horrifically towards everyone who cares about me,” Sierra said. “Suicide is a...remarkably selfish act, I realize.”
“I don’t think you were properly given a way to deal with everything that was on your mind,” Amelie said. “We’ve been utter fools, this whole time.”
“It was my fault! How many...sorry, ma’am,” Sierra bowed in apology.
“Why are you apologizing? You have no reason to.”
“My hubris put us all in danger! Why can’t you…” Sierra trailed off before raising her voice again. “What’s gotten into me…” she said, slouching over.
“Hey, uh...calm down, Sierra…” Amelie tried. “Where’s that snake when you need her…” she muttered under her breath.
“Please don’t worry about me, Ms. Amelie. I…” Sierra shook her head before trying again. “I simply wish everyone would let me take the blame for my own actions!”
“There you go...let it all out. I think that’s what I’m supposed to say, anyway…” Amelie said, looking uncomfortable.
“I was played, Ms. Amelie! By the Talerians! They never left!” Sierra, breathing heavily, broke down at last. She put her head in her hands, and let loose.
“N-now what makes you say that? S-silly girl…” Amelie said, realizing that she had completely lost control over the situation.
“There’s one there with them! During the press conference! Off to the side, wearing the same suit Officer Harlow had been!”
“Heheh...quite a leap to conclusions you’ve made…”
“No.” Sierra produced her holo, bringing up the news. “Look.” It showed a ship entering the atmosphere. It was a personal ship, and the Talerian rose was emblazoned on the side.
“Why would one of them land here?” The headline unfurled as the feed of the craft ended.
DISGRACED DIPLOMAT BENNETT HARLOW SENT TO EARTH BY TALERIAN SUPERIORS
“That headline,” Sierra said, “was directly transcribed from a Talerian news site. The article was released last night under the breaking section. He’s likely being processed as we speak…”
“So?” Amelie asked. “He’ll go to jail, like he should.”
“The Talerians still have pieces in play. Because I failed to complete my task. Because I’m unfit for service,” Sierra said. Amelie recoiled, as if waiting for an explosion. But Sierra….didn’t feel any different.
“I’m unfit for service,” Sierra said again. Was this it? Her greatest fear? She let the words roll over her tongue. Amelie looked stunned. They heard a knock on the door.
“Am I interrupting anything?” Elaine asked, poking her head in.
“Ms. Elaine! I’m unfit for service!” Sierra had a wide grin on her face.
“I’m sorry, what the fuck?” Elaine asked.
The Fed48 vessels gave the red ship the green light. Bennett Harlow brought his hands down the command ring, beginning the landing routines. His ship entered the atmosphere, descending gradually. Harlow began the stabilization routine.
He had, after all, all the time in the world.
On the surface, an assembled company awaited him. “Alright. Out.” An armed woman ordered, as his cockpit opened. Harlow hopped down, arms to the sky.
“Is this the treatment Stinson received?” Harlow said, smirking, as they holocuffed him.
“Oh please. Maid Sierra broke none of our laws. And besides, the Talerians handed you over, and told us we could treat you how we wished~” one of his captors lilted, a wicked grin on her face. She was pale-skinned, and appeared to have tentacles for hair. “Y’know, there’s a subsection of the maid laws, reserved for the untransformed. We haven’t had that opportunity in such a long time…”
“You don’t mean…” one of her comrades whispered.
“Please, just kill me,” Harlow said.
“Hmmm…” the tentacle-haired soldier considered. “I don’t think so. Gotta follow the law, after all. Take her away!”
Her. That was to be Harlow’s life now, wasn’t it? The diplomat was led into a suborbital craft.
“I don’t understand? Isn’t saying that sort of thing like stabbing yourself in the stomach?” Elaine looked baffled.
“What, you don’t like your pal’s new superpower?” Amelie said, dispelling her own surprise.
“What did...How the...did you?” Elaine shook her head. “How...you doing...Sierra?”
“I’m a little confused,” Sierra admitted. “But I’m glad to see you, Ms. Elaine. I wonder...what would happen if you said I was unfit for service?”
“I’m with Elaine, here...I don’t think I want to risk it…” Amelie added.
“Anyway,” Elaine said. “I came here to apologize.”
“This should be good,” Amelie smirked.
“Shut up, cop.”
“Ms. Elaine!” Sierra huffed.
“Yeah...I know. Anyway, that comment I made about...well, maids. You aren’t...what was it I said?” Elaine considered for a moment, while Sierra waited. “Yeah. ‘Mindlessly subservient’. You’re definitely not that, Sierra. And…” Elaine sighed, before continuing. “I’m sorry for being a jealous little bitch. I shouldn’t try to pull you away from your friends like I’ve been doing…” Elaine sighed again, and turned towards Amelie. “I’m Elaine. Sierra seems to like you, so...I’ll do my best not to fuck with that.”
“Charmed. I’m Amelie Rose~” Elaine couldn’t help rolling her eyes at the name.
“Lay a finger on her and I’ll break you in half,” Elaine said.
“Nice to meet you too...anyway, I’d like to see you try,” Amelie winked. Sierra silently prayed for the two of them not to kill each other. Luckily, while Elaine’s posture was aloof, it wasn’t outright hostile.
“Fight me, loser,” Elaine said, holding out her hand. Amelie took it. “Here’s the deal. If Sierra here thinks you’re alright….” Elaine turned. “Sierra?” The maid nodded vehemently. “Then I’ll be cool about it.”
“Thanks,” Amelie said, sincerely. “Sierra won’t shut up about you, y’know.”
“Such is the serpent queen’s burden,” Elaine sighed dramatically. “Hey...Sierra,” she said, in a more serious tone. “How were you able to say those words...y’know the words...about yourself without….well, suffering?”
“That’s a challenging question…” Sierra considered. “I realized the Talerians were still around...that I had failed my task. The one given to me by Ms. Mueller. But...how shall I describe it? After the initial shock and shame, I felt...underwhelmed. I’m still terrified for our future, and the role I play in it. But I think my focus now is on if there is any way I can mitigate the damage.” Sierra felt a pang of worry. “Yet I still fear this is beyond me.
“I probably should’ve phrased that question differently…” Elaine admitted.
“I’m sorry, Elaine! I’m sorry you might die because of me!” Sierra cried, pulling her into a hug.
“Hold that thought,” Amelie said, distantly. She was focused on her holo, or rather, a message she’d just received. “Holy shit. We’ve gotta go to the lobby.”
“What?” Elaine asked. Sierra pulled away, and wiped away the tears.
“You can stay here if you want, Elaine. Sierra, get cleaned up. Put on your best.”
“Still don’t understand…” Elaine said.
“The president’s personal hovercraft,” Amelie said. She sounded somewhat spaced out. “It just landed on the roof.”
A knock on the door accompanied her revelation.
“Be in the lobby in 15,” Ms. Luxe said, in a hushed voice. She stood in the doorway, looking bewildered.
“I just told them, ma’am,” Amelie nodded.
“Do you have anything better to wear?” Ms. Luxe asked Elaine.
“Hello to you, too. I didn’t...holy fuck…”
“The president is here. For you, Sierra. An unannounced visit.”
“Oh Goddess…,” Elaine looked around sheepishly. “Are you ok with me...waiting in here, Sierra? I…I never imagined, like this…” Eliane stopped there, identifiably flustered. Ms. Luxe chuckled, before she started again.
“Ms. Rose! Report outside! Maid Sierra! Get dressed, and follow her!”
“Y-yes! Ma’am!” Sierra said, as she stood to attention.
“Right away,” Amelie confirmed.
The staff of Westrhein’s Customs and Hospitality Department assembled in a line, facing the elevator. As the doors opened, a suited individual took the lead. She withdrew a small object from her pocket as she marched towards the center of the room. She outstretched her hand, dropping it in front of her, and as soon as it hit the floor, every display in the lobby came to life, bearing what Sierra could only guess was the presidential seal.
“Thanks for that unnecessary bit of ceremony, Agent Xin,” a voice said. Agent Xin gave a curt bow towards the elevator, and retreated towards the side of the room. She was soon joined by the rest of her complement, who formed a perimeter. That left the president herself. She was of average height, if a little on the short side. Her bespectacled features suggested some sort of Southeast Asian origin, and wore a white jacket over an otherwise dark blue suit. A six-colored sash completed the outfit, along with some sort of emblem Sierra didn’t immediately recognize resting atop it. Two pointed ears poked out of a head of very long black hair, much longer than Elaine’s, and she regarded them with slit-pupiled eyes.
“Madame President,” Ms. Luxe regarded. “It is a rare honor.”
“I shall cut to the chase, for time grows short,” the president began. “I would like to borrow your maid, for just a day or two.” Sierra didn’t dare say anything, but she did take a step forward, giving a slight bow. “There’s a meeting I’d like you to attend with me, Maid Sierra. How does that sound?”
Oh no. Not this again.
“Understood, M-madame...President,” Sierra said, shaking.
“Ah, you can relax,” the president said. “It’s just some guests I’m entertaining. The Council of 48, if that sounds familiar…”
The room let out a collective gasp. Sierra nearly fell over.
“Madame --” Ms. Luxe began, before she was cut off.
“Please let me finish, officer,” the president continued. “Maid Sierra. I would appreciate it if you did actually try to relax. Allow me to explain.”
The president explained.
“You’re aware of your performance in your last meeting, and I daresay you might be less than satisfied with your actions. What would be a good descriptor? An embarrassment? Perhaps a feeling of disgrace?”
Sierra was trying harder and harder to disappear. Those words cut across her with razor precision. Undeterred, the head of state continued.
“I’ve been briefed on the circumstances. I’m aware you have no memory of your own as to what went on in that room. You have only what you have been shown. I also know that a...rogue element dug into some state secrets and abandoned projects to brainwash you.”
Sierra could only nod slowly at that.
“I assure you, this time will be different. Consider it an opportunity to absolve yourself of the guilt you may feel you should bear. Wouldn’t you appreciate the chance to tell the Federation, on your own accord, what really happened? Because as of right now, they seem to be under the impression that you’ve suffered under our care. I...c’mon girl, step forward some more.” Sierra complied, before the president kept speaking. “This question is important. We have the version of the truth that we want to share, but…” she looked Sierra straight in the eye. “Have you suffered while under our care? Be honest, not that I should have to tell you that.” Sierra gulped.
“The past couple of weeks, madame, have been….some of my highest and lowest points. Please allow me to elaborate.” No one looked intent on stopping her. “Yes, I have suffered. However, that pain was something I brought with me. It is sourced from problems I had in my old life. Here, I have been treated with such kindness by...almost everyone I’ve met. It was a completely foreign phenomenon to me, with the background I had. Never have I known such warmth from, well, complete strangers, even. I will...do or say whatever it takes to preserve the people of this world. I cannot accept the thought of my actions leading to such destruction, and I am humbled and overjoyed by the opportunity I am being given to make amends.” Sierra curtsied. It felt like the appropriate follow-through. Sierra took a cursory glance around the room. Elaine had shown up at some point. She was being eyed closely by one of the president’s bodyguards.
“Well then. It seems our goals are in line with each other, that’s encouraging. Pretty good speech, too, I must say. This might actually work. You accept my request, then, Maid Sierra?”
“A thousand times over, Madame President. A thousand times over…” Sierra felt like she was floating, brought up by the combined terror and elation. Could she...really pull this off? “Madame President...what if I fail?”
“Try not to,” she said flatly. “Don’t worry too much,” she added. “We have contingency plans for every scenario, should the Federation deem us unworthy of life. Do not mistake us for being completely helpless, Maid Sierra.”
Sierra nodded in affirmation.
“Oh, what is wrong with me…” the president said, changing tone abruptly. “You are still new here, of course. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Aminah Utomo, President of Earth’s World Government, Commander-in-Chief of Her Armed Forces, yadda, yadda, yadda...you get the idea. How about you?”
“I am Sierra Stinson, madame. It’s an honor to be in your presence…”
“Calm down, girl. I’m not that important,” the president shrugged. “Well, some people seem to think I am…anyway. I would like to leave soon, Sierra Stinson. Get yourself ready, would you? Pack for….hmmm...a couple of days. I will await you on the roof.”
“Uh,” Sierra said.
“Is that a confirmation? See you soon,” the president winked, heading back towards the elevator. One of her retinue picked up the device that had been placed on the floor, returning the displays to their dormant state. She walked over to Sierra.
“We will wait by the elevator for you. Take some time to gather your things and say your goodbyes. You must come alone.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sierra said, nodding.
“What just happened?” Amelie asked.
“The president asked Sierra to go and save the world with her! Duuuuhhh…” was Morgan’s reply.
“Sierra...holy fuck,” Elaine said, racing over towards the girl herself.
“Do no harm, civilian,” one of the president’s agents said.
“Why the hell...nevermind that. Sierra, are you ok right now? You just comprehend all that?” Elaine said, trying to catch her breath. “Goddess, that was her...she was right there...talking to my girlfriend…”
“It seems relatively clear, Ms. Elaine. Madame President wishes for me to accompany her...to a meeting...with the governing...body...of the…” Sierra’s knees nearly buckled as she tried to parse the situation. “Ms. Elaine...what am I going to do…”
"This again..." Elaine shook her head. The rest of her was shaking a bit as well. "Do you...want this, Sierra? Can we fight it? Heheheh...say no to the president. Why not, at this point..."
"I need to do this, Ms. Elaine. Ah...that look...very well. I want to do this. I'm just...scared. I...wish you could come with me."
"But...you want this?"
“Then you’re going to go and raise hell,” she replied, hugging the stunned maid.
“I don’t even know where I’m going…”
“Shanghai,” an agent said, helpfully. “The president’s preferred center of governance.”
“Fuck...that ain’t close…” Elaine observed. “W-well, I guess that was pretty obvious, but…”
“Best not waste time, Sierra,” Ms. Luxe said, gathering herself.
“Go and kick some ass!” Amelie added.
“You’ll do great!” Morgan cheered.
“I will g-give it my all…”
“You got this. No mind games this time. They wouldn’t dare in a situation like this...or that’s what I’m going to tell myself…” Elaine said. “We’ll be in contact. Does the president...normally do things like this?” She wondered allowed. Ms. Capet and Ms. Luxe both nodded.
“The surprise visits aren’t anything new,” Ms. Capet chuckled. “How she exercises her power, I guess. This must’ve been known to someone at a higher level than us. Have a good trip, Sierra. You’ll do well. And you won’t be completely alone.”
“Oh...that’s right,” Ms. Luxe confirmed. “Dr. Hoffman will accompany you. It’s not into the complete unknown you’ll be diving.”
“She also awaits you on the roof,” one of the president’s women...Agent Xin, that was it...said. Sierra recalled what she had said about contacting some friends.
Could this have been her doing?
Sierra stood in front of the elevator, preparing to leave the Bundeshalle for the first time in a couple of days. She carried a small bag with meager belongings, two changes of clothes.
“Hey, uh,” Elaine said, sidling next to Sierra. “I’m...glad you’ll have Hoffman with you. And...tell her I said sorry.”
“I will do as you wish, Ms. Elaine,” Sierra replied, smiling. “And...I love you. We will see each other as soon as I get back, I’m confident of it.”
Because she had to be confident of something, she decided.
“Are you ready to go?” The agent not named Xin asked.
“Not quite yet,” Elaine said, answering for her. She leaned in and kissed Sierra on the cheek. “Get her autograph for me,” Elaine whispered. "Or deck..." The agent gave a withering stare. "Or politely tell her off if she's mean."
“I’ll do what I can, Ms. Elaine,” Sierra chuckled.
The elevator ride was a quiet one. When Sierra reached the roof, a gleaming ship awaited her. The same seal as the one that had been projected on every holodisplay was emblazoned on the side. Steps unfolded from a hatch near the back, as Sierra climbed the stairs to the helipad.
“You may board, Maid Sierra.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” The interior was decidedly opulent. Dr. Hoffman waved at her from one of the luxurious seats. Four more of the president’s personal guards awaited as well, but Sierra could not see the head of state herself.
“Want to know where she is?” One of them asked, reading Sierra’s apparent confusion. “I’m Agent Miyake, by the way,” she added. She had what appeared to be metal plates covering various areas on her body, including her eyes, which made expressions difficult to discern. “I can see perfectly well, this is simply the look I’ve had since I came of age. Anyway, care to demonstrate, Nuan?”
Agent Xin, still in possession of the device, placed it back on the ground, and a flawless, presidential hologram emerged.
“You called? Ah. You’re aboard, good. I’ll see you in Shanghai. New York and Paris also possess the proper apparatus for such a meeting, but it’s customary to employ the one closest to the sitting president’s place of origin,” the hologram explained. “The flight won’t last too long, don’t you worry. Alright, shut me off…” the device was lifted from the ground once again, leading the president to vanish.
So she was never really there in person...Elaine would be disappointed. Or...relieved? Oh well, it couldn’t be helped. Sierra buckled herself in, and the craft lifted off not long after that.
“Dr. Hoffman,” Sierra began. The president’s defenders were in the middle of their own conversation. “I have a question, if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead, Sierra. It’s good to see you again.”
“Forgive me for being blunt. Did you make this happen? When you revealed your thoughts on my memory’s manipulation at the hands of Ms. Mueller?” Sierra looked at her intently. Dr. Hoffman chuckled somewhat at the question.
“Oh, heavens no. There’s no way the government could act this quickly just on my suggestion. I think this may have been a plan the president had since the leak. I’m simply here to do what I always attempt to do, and that is ensure your wellbeing. You must feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, huh?”
Sierra nodded. “Elaine offers her apology. She wished for me to inform you of that.”
“Ah. You can tell her I accept her offer of goodwill,” Dr. Hoffman smiled. “But how are you feeling?”
“....Scared.” Sierra shook her head. “I’m frightened, doctor.”
“That’s understandable,” her therapist chuckled.
“Why does the president trust me to do this?” Sierra inquired in a far away voice.
“Practical purposes, I’d imagine. All sorts of rumors must be flying around concerning your new life, as it were. And I hate to say it, but...the Federation has a point. While I highly doubt the version of reality they peddle to their citizens is completely accurate, they aren’t completely off when they speak of our world’s maids. Us, as you know. Ms. Elaine has a point as well, as bluntly put as it was.” She had a relaxed expression, evidently unconcerned with Elaine’s insult.
“It’s not worth our extermination!”
“Of course not. But you probably know by now that the Federation has designs beyond you or me. We are merely...their newest mouthpiece.” Dr. Hoffman’s expression turned grim. “They want to free up their blockade fleet. They want to be done with us. Remain guarded when you speak to them. They are not your friend, though they will try to claim they are working on your behalf.”
Dr. Hoffman drew some looks from the president’s servicewomen while Sierra hung her head.
“I’m sorry...that was rather dark, wasn’t it?” Dr. Hoffman added.
“But it’s true,” Sierra whispered. “I’d never heard of this place before I landed here. My former home planet is not among the Federation’s 48 core worlds, but it is an affiliated protectorate.” Sierra wasn’t quite certain what prompted these memories as they emerged. “Yes...I think I understand. After Containment through Cooperation failed, you...we...became their darkest secret. But a poorly kept one. The watchful eye of the greater multiversal community made it difficult for them to sweep this planet under the rug, so to speak. So now, any excuse they deem good enough…” Sierra shook her head. “I apologize. This is all guesswork…”
They heard a chime, rather abruptly. It came from Agent Xin’s pocket.
“Put me on, put me on!”
The president emerged from the planted holoprojector a moment later.
“Very clever,” she said. “Getting into the head of the enemy, like that. The one-way information embargo makes it impossible for the average person to know who we truly are, I’d imagine. Internal Fed48 propaganda occasionally makes its way into our hands. Monsters, we are to them. Subhuman. I wonder indeed, how they may have doctored the leaked feed before it was revealed to the masses. You may not have changed all that much, Maid Sierra, since they wanted to make you sympathetic. A tragic figure, shackled by us crimes against humanity.” Sierra regarded the stately hologram with wide eyes, as she continued talking. “That’s why this meeting is critical. Direct access to the most powerful women and men of the Federation, a chance to see how their truth measures against ours. And perhaps, the time we finally shatter the info barrier with the culmination of our research into it. Know, Maid Sierra, that this is entirely confidential.”
“Yes, Madame President!”
“The best case for this meeting is your passionate defense of our ways, polycast to every Fed household. A one-and-done rebuke of the decades of mistruths. Do understand, that it is improbable for this to go that perfectly. The more attainable goal is simply swaying members of the Council’s opposition, rallying support against the hardliners. If we can manage, we will destabilize them enough for our annihilation to no longer be feasible. This is the fight for our life, and I intend to go to any length to secure my reelection.”
“Understood, Madame President.”
“That last part was a joke, by the way.”
“No it wasn’t,” Agent Miyake said, with a defiant grin on her otherwise obscured features.
“Tch,” President Utomo replied. “You’re lucky I like you, Ami.”
“Maintain professionalism, madame,” Ami Miyake replied, not losing the grin.
“Agent Morozov, Agent Lestari,” the president said, “Ms. Miyake is being mean to me...but let me get back on topic,” she said, readjusting her tone. “Ah, yes. Preventing the genocide of our people.” Dr. Hoffman and Sierra exchanged looks. “I saw that. Er...they will likely have questions to ask you. I feel that you may get the most mileage out of answering them honestly. In the process, we must decode the reasons they give for choosing now to go ahead, and dispute their logic to the best of our ability…”
The briefing went on for some time, until it gradually devolved into smalltalk.
“I am indeed the first globally-elected president not from East Asia, Europe, or North America. I’ve been saying it is time to elevate Jakarta to an official seat of extraplanetary politics, but alas, Shanghai must do, in the meantime…”
“Have you been to the Far East before, Sierra?” Dr. Hoffman asked.
“I had a client on my own planet’s version of Kyoto, many years ago. But never since then, that I know of.”
“Is Paris the largest city you’ve seen in your time here?”
“Then just you wait!” Dr. Hoffman said, enthusiastically.
“Do you travel much, doctor?”
“No…” she chuckled. “I’m quite looking forward to this. The skylines of the Asian megalopoli are so colorful! And they utterly dwarf the Parisian skyscraper districts.”
“I’m still quite anxious,” Sierra said, “despite the briefing I’ve been given....I fear I am out of my depth. My peers have placed so much faith in me, to keep pace with professional orators.” Sierra shook her head.
“This won’t be like the Bennett Harlow meeting, keep in mind. The president herself will be there, and she will very much be directing the conversation. If you are asked a question she deems inappropriate, they will hear it from her.”
“Is it wise to challenge them like that?”
“It’s how Madame President does her politics, as I understand. If she makes concessions, they happen behind closed doors. It doesn’t always work if you ask me, but it’s helped planetside morale in times like these,” Agent Miyake piped up. She carried the same easy smile on the visible portion of her face.
“It allows her to command the respect of her subjects,” another added. Agent Morozov, if Sierra recalled correctly. A tall woman with skin like porcelain, and hair the same pale tint.
“She seems worthy of it…” Sierra replied. How could she hope to measure up? Why were they giving her another chance?
Wasn’t this what she wanted, in a way? The opportunity to undo her previous mistakes...but could she ever pull it off?
Sierra had to figure that out, quickly, she realized. The hovercraft began to lower. A city had appeared below them at some point. Sierra looked out the window, as they descended into the field of skyscrapers. She only had so much time to marvel before the president rematerialized.
“Listen up! We’re basically at the whims of the Federation as far as when this happens. I’m afraid that means this meeting is happening shortly after we land. Maid Sierra, you’ve been briefed on your role….”
Sierra could no longer comprehend what she was saying. On the one hand, perhaps she should be glad, because that left no time for anyone to rewrite memories of hers beforehand. However…
“S-shortly after we land?” she whispered, stunned.
“Sorry about this,” the president said, picking up on her fear. “Just think of it like pulling the band-aid off right away!”
“Hunh…” Sierra vocalized, shaking in her seat.
“I think you’ll do well. I’m here if you need me,” Dr. Hoffman said.
“We’re landing!” One of the president’s women signalled. The thud of the ship’s contact with the ground shook Sierra to her very core.
“Everybody out! Let’s go save the world!” The president commanded. “I’ve always wanted to say that…”
They were in a small but luxurious waiting room. Sierra watched as the door opened. Agents Xin and Morozev took the lead, with President Utomo stepping in behind them.
“Hey, move aside. I’ve got people to meet,” the stately woman said. “Maid Ada...or Dr. Hoffman, I should say. Your rank exceeds your appearance.”
“I’m grateful for the compliment, Madame President.” Dr. Hoffman gave a dignified bow, accepting the president’s hand.
“And, Maid Sierra. Our permanent guest. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to this World Government capitol.”
“T-thank you.” She gulped. “Thank you, M-madame President.” Sierra put her own shaky hand into the president’s own. This time she was no hologram, that much was certain.
“Feeling a little starstruck? It’s up for debate whether the prime minister or I hold more power, since there’s little overlap. But I suppose I am the one handling all this federation nonsense...yeah. Don’t be nervous, Maid Sierra, I’m only the most powerful woman on the planet.”
Sierra looked about ready to cry. But this wasn’t the time for that. President Utomo gave her a look of purpose, one that made it clear what she was about to say.
“If you’ll follow me into the next room over, we can get this started.”
Sierra was taken to a set of double doors, which slid apart when the president gave an authoritative wave. She could see a long, U-shaped table with, if she had to guess, 48 chairs. Nothing else in the room had any relevance. President Utomo abruptly removed a pair of glasses from her pocket. Putting them on, Sierra noticed they gave her eyes a decidedly normal human appearance.
“Some of these folks get nervous about the whole slit pupils thing,” she explained. “After you.”
Sierra’s knees buckled. She looked at the one next to her, a woman who commanded such authority, about to introduce her to even more powerful men, women, and various inhuman representatives of the Federation. In the president’s place, she saw -- but for a moment -- Ms. Mueller, with her warm smile beaming down at her. She shook her head.
“I can’t do this. I can’t risk making things worse by being t-talked into a corner. I’m sorry! This is all so beyond me! I came all this way to let you down…” Sierra shuddered. If anything, she felt a bit lighter from releasing the responsibility. But that was quickly replaced by much greater guilt.
“Ok. That’s fine.”
“What?” Sierra looked in disbelief. This was the part where the president was supposed to give the simple order, to which she’d...probably comply. But that didn’t happen.
“You don’t have to do this. I’m not about to waste this chance to talk to the Council, but it’s not like our fate rests on you. Go ahead and return to the waiting room. Sorry we wasted your time.” The president proceeded to shrug, and walked into the meeting room alone. The lights came up all at once as she entered, but the table remained empty for the time being.
“S-sorry…” Sierra whispered, but the doors began to glide shut. Dejected, the maid returned to the room Dr. Hoffman was waiting in.
“Something wrong?” Dr. Hoffman asked, as Sierra slouched in.
“I don’t understand, doctor. I should want this…” Sierra collapsed on one of the chairs, feeling her body burn from the shame. “I wanted nothing more than the chance to atone and fix the problems I’d caused...but now that it’s given to me…”
“What is it exactly you’re afraid of?”
“Aside from the obvious parts...I have put some thought into this question. To start with...well, I must warn you that I’m about to say something unpleasant to people like...us.”
“Go ahead. You can say anything you like.”
“I’m not afraid of being unfit for service through my failure, if that’s what you think.”
“How in the...please, go on…” Dr. Hoffman said, awestruck.
“Every one of my failures is met with someone new to take the fall. For whatever reason, I’m forbidden from taking the blame. Ms. Mueller has a warrant out for her arrest. Mr. Harlow has been sent here for his misconduct, if the news is accurate. That leaves the remaining player in that meeting...me. Why was I not punished for handing the Federation such a distorted view of this world? Something to be adapted into a cause for genocide? And besides that, I left Ms. Elaine in Paris without a second thought. She was heartbroken when I returned home, yet she didn’t blame me for any of it.”
“That story concerning Ms. Elaine doesn’t go how I heard it. I was told you were taken against your will.”
“I could’ve put up a fight! The barest minimum for the woman I love! And now I am...I was...intended to perform in another meeting. What would’ve happened if I’d failed? Would the president be forced to resign for my mistakes? I…”
“Please, keep going. I want to hear the extent of your thoughts on the matter.”
“I’m not granted the proper agency to properly carry out what’s requested of me! How can I risk anything if my failure hurts everyone else before me? I can’t keep hurting people with my incompetence!” Sierra hunched over, still visibly shaking. “What do I do…”
“I think I know what you’re saying. And it plays into one of the cruel truths for people like you or me. Let me give an example. If a maid tells a crowd of people she killed someone, the murder weapon could still be bloodied and in her hands, and someone would inevitably respond by patting her on the head. ‘Aren’t you the cutest?’ One might say, even as the maid threatens to kill someone else. Police would reluctantly take her away while assuring her that she’ll be treated well in prison. Even though she killed someone. What I mean to say is...we don’t get to take responsibility, more often than not. I’m not going to censor myself if you’d have me keep going, so let me know now.” Dr. Hoffman looked serious.
“Keep going, doctor. I think I know where you’re going, anyway…”
“We’re objects, Sierra. Or treated as such, anyway. We’re always friendly, we cook and clean, we serve with a smile. If we make a mistake, we’ll get perhaps a slightly displeased look, while we’re kept in check by our own shame. And this gilded cage we inhabit is still preferable to the times before the maid laws, when we were liable to suffer direct abuse if we didn’t perform up to par. I would never say any of these things if we weren’t alone...even now, my words are a betrayal of everything I was taught.”
“And yet, Dr. Hoffman, a part of me is cheering at every one.”
“Thank you, Sierra. I’ve told you as much as I can bear about your predicament. Many of us come to wonder why we aren’t people...or rather, why we can’t do all the things anyone else can. I’m sorry. Allow me to gather myself. If anyone else had heard me say that…”
“I would defend you, doctor. I’m sure of that now.”
“I appreciate the gesture. And I’m sure you may have had these thoughts at certain points, though you may not have been able to properly codify them. Is that why you are reluctant to join the president in her discussion with the council?”
“No, doctor. The reason is that I am absolutely terrified of those councilors, who’d end us as soon as the vote passed. I don’t long for this world’s destruction simply because I was slighted by its rules. I care about the people I’ve met, and I can’t bear to see Ms. Elaine or anyone else die because she happens to be in the wrong place…”
“Shall we watch the meeting?” the doctor asked. Sierra hesitated.
“Very well, Dr. Hoffman.”
She pulled up a display on the far wall. Sierra could see the president, standing before the assembly of -- mostly human, but not entirely so -- Federation councilors.
“So again, tell me how exactly your constituents would condone genocide. How exactly would rival powers on the multiversal stage condone genocide? A colleague of mine called us your ‘poorly-kept secret’...do you really believe no one would dispute these acts you claim you are willing to commit?” The president regarded the room with that statement, awaiting a challenger.
“It has gone beyond what the lesser powers think of us,” a bearded councilor responded. “They will come to understand we did the multiverse a service. Recall how your...people...won this little war of yours. It started with the release of one of your most insidious projects, when you targeted the enemy leaders specifically. You’d made so many variants of your little disease.”
“So now you seek to threaten me by exposing state secrets for the world to see. I have no means to stop you, when the stakes are this high. Do your worst.”
“The same strain that the smuggler Stinson was afflicted with. You targeted rulers, elected officials, and generals alike. It turned them into thralls who wore black and white dresses, and couldn’t say ‘no’. It was a simple matter to unleash the more common strains on everyone else, to win your little war. This is what we seek to prevent from spreading.”
“So why wait so long?” the president asked, defiant.
“We know you have geo-fronts underneath your largest cities. And we know you have countless missile batteries which threaten to spread your sickness to our ships. Now we can counter both of your precious defenses. Our stellar artillery will pierce the crust and your weapons will never make it past our strike craft.”
“We’ll call your bluff. We’ll do everything we can. If my descendants curse me for the actions I took, it will be a victory, since that will mean I have descendants.”
The back and forth went on for a time. The president continued to make overtures, citing pragmatic and moral reasons for their continued existence. The speaker for the council repeatedly countered with new revelations about the planet’s past, as well as increasingly petty reasons to back up his agenda.
“There’s a lot to unpack here, if they’re telling the truth,” Dr. Hoffman observed.
“I’m going to do what I can,” Sierra said as she rose from her chair. “I can’t bear to watch anymore. Even if I fail...I must try to stop these...monsters…”
“Attagirl,” Dr. Hoffman smiled.
Sierra stood before the closed doors, trying to mimic the motion the president had done to open them.
“You’ll need one of us for that,” one of the president’s agents said. Her lapel read “Lestari”. She waved in front of the door with purpose, causing it to open. Sierra took a few deep breaths. It wasn’t too late to back out. But shaky legs carried her in.
“Glad you could join us,” the president whispered. “I’m about to tear these people a new one.” The president’s situation did not seem to match her bravado, but Sierra nodded anyway.
“Who is this?” a councilor asked, derisively. “A former opposition leader? She forgot to bring the coffee.” This got some scattered laughs from the 48.
“I think you know exactly who this is. And I think she’d like to say some things.”
Sierra nodded. This was it.
“I’d like to s-say some things…”
“Well, she can repeat other people’s statements! That sure is impressive!” one councilor snorted. Sierra cleared her throat and continued.
“I n-never knew I’d end up in a situation like this. My entire adult life until I landed had been delivery after delivery, commission after commission. Occasionally my work would bring me into conflict with your stellar navies, among countless others. When I landed on this planet, everything changed. I have sworn off my criminal past, not because of my mind being broken --”
“But your mind was broken, you say? Figures…”
“No! Let me finish. I was given a home here. Despite what I’d done in the past, I was treated with kindness. My crimes have not been forgotten, mind you. I perform services for the state --”
“They probably put you in the middle of town square and let everyone use you, huh ‘maid’?”
Sierra sighed and facepalmed. She’d just have to skip to the end.
“I love my new home here. And the fact that you intend to use me as part of your justification for your genocide…” Sierra breathed in, and out. “It is unacceptable. You are cowards, and you will be remembered as cowards. The Federation has always been a loud and authoritative voice in extraplanetary politics, and yet you treat this one little world of ours as the most dangerous threat you’ve ever faced. Wiping us off the starmap won’t impress anyone. With or without us, the Federation will fall as empires do. Sooner, as your people learn of your actions here. It is so difficult to conceal any amount of information these days.” Sierra changed gears. “It doesn’t have to be this way. These two powers could have been allies on the same field. You’ve let yourself be blinded by superstition to the extent that you’ll try to justify increasingly horrific atrocities. I know there are Earths among the core of the Federation. We share cities and cultures, and to a point, histories. I beg you to consider alternatives to this...transparent zealotry.”
“Thank you, Ms. Stinson,” President Utomo said. “Here she is, your so-called champion on the ground, who exposed all the evils of our world.” Sierra shuddered. “But it’s never that clear cut, is it? You’ll probably say that I commanded her to say that, but I think it’s obvious to some of you; when she spoke with the Talerian ambassador, she was ordered what to say. Here, she’s speaking from the heart. A notable difference, no?”
“One voice among the multitudes does not change our plans.”
“Of course not. But I know not everyone at this table is in on your so-called ‘plans’. There are voices in your own governing body who are less than enthralled by your calls to exterminate a planet of sapients.” The president looked around. One of the 48, a human who’d been silent up to this point, stood at the president’s invitation.
“You are right. Some of us will not condone genocide,” he said.
“Sit down. You had your opportunities in the proper channels. You were defeated,” the councilor who had so far taken the lead retorted. The opposition sat down, hanging his head in shame.
“You mean to say the vote was already carried out?” the president wondered aloud. She sounded...slightly amused?
“Of course it was. We will waste no time in such dire matters as these,” the lead councilor spoke. He sounded quite proud of himself. Members of the apparent opposition shot some glances; some of shame, some of anger. Sierra was privately stunned at the display. That made the trip...entirely pointless.
“We will continue to contest this abortion of justice, Madame President,” another opposition member affirmed. She looked as human as most of them. “Very few people on my planet, an Earth like yours, stand for this.”
“Happy to have your support,” President Utomo replied.
“You...do you see what she’s trying to do?” a pro-genocide councilor barked angrily.
“Enough! This meeting has concluded,” The lead Fed demanded.
“Excuse me? So soon after it began? There’s more we need to talk about…” President Utomo gathered herself before starting again. “A shame we couldn’t change your mind,” she lamented. “This is the most difficult part of the job, I find, but it seems I must prepare my people for the continuation of diplomacy.”
“For all the good it’ll do you.” The councilors’ holograms flickered off, one by one, and soon left just two people left in the room.
“Forgive my presidential language, but holy shit…” the head of state said. “I guess that went as well as it could have. You performed admirably, Maid Sierra. We’ll be returning you home soon enough. For my part, I don’t think I’m done with these Feds yet.” President Utomo considered something. “The maids’ lib groups have said similar things at various points, but you might be wondering about something that councilor said. ‘Oh Madame President, is it true that maids were created to win the war?’”
Sierra awaited the answer.
“Well, you see...that’s a yes. The answer is yes. At the time, we didn’t know they’d spill over into the greater whole of the changes, but this is why people like you or Maid Ada...er...Dr. Hoffman...exist in the way that you do. Do you feel betrayed by this revelation? You have permission to say yes.”
“It answers some questions, Madame President. And at this point in time I do have some misgivings about my fate. But these are things that can be rectified if we make it through this. I pray for your success.”
“You seem remarkably calm, considering what happened. Are you not afraid?”
“I am indeed afraid. I will attempt to explain my thought process, though I fear it may come across as self-centered.”
“Uhm...yes. My feelings are as follows. Before today, it was my deepest fear that we would all die and I would be at least partially to blame. However, the belligerence of certain voices in the Council of the 48 have made me...reconsider my guilt. A long time ago, someone very dear to me told me I should not dwell on that which is outside of my capacity to change. I feel the time may have finally come for me to follow her advice.”
“Good idea. We’ll take care of the rest, don’t you worry. I have plans, you see. Oh! Potentially unrelated, and I didn’t wear it during the meeting, but you may have noticed something that didn’t neatly fit in with my outfit when I was being projected in your home city.”
Sierra considered. It suddenly seemed like a long time ago. But recollection hit her.
“Oh my goodness...the seal. The Imperial Seal…”
“That’s correct! Thank you for my new piece of jewelry, Maid Sierra. And thanks to the Talerians for giving me permission to wear it when they broke our nondisclosure agreement.” She waved a hand dismissively. “I wonder if they think siccing the Feds on us was their master plan. You can see now, it would have someday happened, with or without them.” She gave a presidential sigh. “Such is our situation. But I don’t have the luxury of giving into despair, not when there’s work to do.”
“Madame President, if I may…”
“You dare speak out of turn? Nah...I’m kidding. If you have something to say...say it.”
“Do you know where my ship was taken, after I landed?”
“That wasn’t something I really concerned myself with, no.”
“Oh well...I will present my offer regardless. I possess more experience in spaceflight than perhaps everyone…”
“Maid Sierra, the daring action hero, come to save us all.”
“Well...yes. Should it come to the very worst, I would feel better offering my guns in service to you, rather than await annihilation on the surface.”
“Are you certain that your piloting skills have survived your change?”
Sierra pondered that for a moment.
“No.” Sierra shrugged. “But my memories remain. I have no preoccupations with believing that one ship against a fleet will win the day. But if you feel my services can be of use...I leave the decision to you, Madame President.”
“To think, just a while ago you thought you couldn’t speak before the Council, but now you’re offering to do battle on our behalf.”
Sierra shook her head.
“I would ask that you do not pierce the fragile state of confidence I find myself in, Madame.”
President Utomo laughed.
“Oh, Sierra. I’ll tell you what. With the Sword of Damocles seemingly about to fall, test flights and other forbidden exercises will soon be underway once more. I see no reason to hide, any longer. Should you wish to test your abilities in suborbital flight, in preparation for something farther out there, well...we’ll send for you.”
“And with the Federation dispatched, perhaps Ms. Elaine and I can live a normal life.”
She could at least tell herself that.