Sierra was standing in the middle of a room. She couldn’t make out any defining features, but it didn’t seem to be the same one as hers.
“What a state you’ve gotten us in.”
Sierra looked up at the man standing in front of her. He was tall and lean, and had short cropped hair. Soren continued speaking.
“We never took any shit from anyone...well, except when we were taking shit from people.” Soren wiggled his eyebrows. The smuggler was momentarily distracted as Sierra entered the room, curtseying. The maid looked at...the Sierra that Soren had been talking to, addressing her.
“Shall I deal with this unwanted intruder within our mind, Ms. Sierra?”
“Sure…” the real Sierra heard herself say. She looked at the old her, clad in the spacesuit that had ended up a casualty of her transformation. And then a more recent version of her, likely wearing what had used to be the same suit. “Um...no...wait…”
It was too late. The maid gestalt drew a naginata from thin air with a wicked grin on her face. Soren had no time to react as she lopped his head off in one fluid motion. The smuggler’s body crumpled to the ground with the head already fallen out of view.
“Now we will have no trouble performing our duties,” the maid told herself.
Sierra woke up. She looked around her room absently, just to make sure this actually was her room.
What a strange dream.
Sierra wasn’t entirely sure when they’d be leaving for Paris. The maid decided in the meantime, a shower would do. She had taken one the night before, of course, but right now she felt...a bit fuzzy. The water would help to clear her head.
With that out of the way, the girl got dressed. It was as easy as ever to decide on an outfit. Sierra wandered out into the hall and into the lobby, just to see if anyone was around.
“Hello, dear. Our train leaves at four, so we will all leave around three. Make sure you are ready,” Ms. Luxe greeted her.
“Good morning, ma’am. I will ensure I am prepared for our trip,” Sierra replied automatically. “Shall I cook you breakfast?”
“I ate before I came here, but you should make yourself something regardless.”
“Very well, ma’am.” Sierra departed for the kitchen.
Sierra wasn’t sure what to do. Ms. Capet had told her she had “cleaned enough” around 12:00 pm, and should focus on making sure she was ready.
It was 1:00 now. She was as ready as she could be. Sierra idled in front of the tv display, which wasn’t currently on. The fuzziness she hoped would depart when she showered had, as it turned out, gone nowhere. Sierra felt out of focus. The maid decided to run through the plan for the meeting in her head. She was to inform the Talerian emissary that there was nothing mentally left of…
That there was nothing mentally left of…
What was she supposed to do?
Consider it a form of method acting…
Sierra racked her brain. What was going on? Why was a simple maid supposed to perform a diplomatic function? This was far above her station. But it was what Madame Mueller desired of her.
Ms. Mueller….of course! She would be able to explain her task to her. However…
Sierra suddenly felt guilty. Ms. Mueller would be displeased when she gave her report...that she had completely forgotten her duty. Guilt turned to fear as Sierra remembered what the senior diplomat had told her. Failure would mean….
Sierra shuddered. The stakes could not be higher. Maybe someone nearby would be able to give her direction.
“Ah...hello, dear,” Ms. Luxe said. “We’ll be leaving before too long.”
“Ma’am,” Sierra tried to keep her composure, but was quickly failing. “I...I n-need to speak with Madame Mueller. It’s r-really important…”
“Settle down, Sierra. Ms. Mueller is already in Paris. But...ah, here we go. She gave me this note. Please, read it.”
“Y-yes ma’am.” The maid grabbed the note with a shaking hand, and examined the contents.
Are you finding that you have completely forgotten what you were supposed to be doing? Have you suddenly blanked on just why you were taking part in this meeting?
If so, you may be worried about completing your task, or you may even fear punishment. However, please do not worry yourself. What you may be interpreting as a sudden lapse in memory is indeed a part of my plan. You’re doing fine Sierra, so please settle down. When we meet with the honorable Talerian ambassador, you will stand by me and await instruction. If you are asked a question by either them or I, please answer it to the best of your ability. Your honest responses will be instrumental in our shared success.
I await your arrival in Paris.
Senior Officer of the Global Diplomatic Corps,
Oh. Sierra felt the tension roll off her shoulders. This was all by design. Sierra was suddenly very grateful for Ms. Mueller’s expertise. Everything would be...fine.
“Seems like whatever was in that letter eased your mind,” Ms. Luxe said. “Please wait in the lobby if you are ready.”
Ms. Luxe and Ms. Capet proceeded along busy streets. Both wore very official looking clothing -- tailored suits with insignias and symbols denoting their positions. Sierra hurried behind them, while Amelie and Morgan followed along. The two women taking up the rear were in combat fatigues, and toted some deadly looking energy rifles.
“The central station is close enough that taking the metro is redundant,” Sophie Capet explained. We will take the bullet train from platform five at 1600 hours. We will be in a private car for the duration of our journey. Ms. Rose and Ms. Degaine will act as escorts. We suspect no danger; this merely follows protocol.”
“We’re making sure the doors stay closed on this closed-doors meeting,” Amelie added.
The central station was easily identifiable by the sleek lattice which rose above a network of platforms. The rail hub stuck out among older looking buildings, which included the station itself.
“Officer Luxe, party of five,” Ms. Luxe announced, to a shadowy silhouette of a woman who was apparently an attendant who’d been awaiting their arrival.
“Welcome, welcome,” the living absence of light beckoned. “Please follow me. You can board the train early if you like.” The attendant led them to platform 5, in which a train was only partially adjacent.
“Only the very front few cars are currently accessible,” the shadowy woman explained. “Yours is the fourth car from the front. Please enjoy your trip,” she said, bidding the group farewell.
“Let’s be on our way, then,” Ms. Luxe told the rest of them.
“Have you ever been on a bullet train before, Sierra?” Ms. Capet asked.
“Umm…” Sierra searched through obscured memories. “I apologize, ma’am. I can’t seem to recall.”
“Ah. Right. That makes sense, Sierra, don’t worry.” Gesturing at the train, she added, “the trip will take no time at all, on one of these.”
The private car was quite luxurious
“GDC is making sure we travel in style, huh,” Amelie said.
“Nah, Mueller’s just a showoff,” Ms. Luxe chuckled.
“She’s taken every measure to ensure success,” Sierra said, in monotone. Morgan tugged on Amelie’s arm.
“Hasn’t she been acting kinda weird? Like, more than a normal maid, weird?”
“Well first off Morg, that’s racist,” Amelie replied, half-teasing, half not.
“Ms. Mueller used The Words,” Ms. Capet said, with a sardonic look on her face.
“That’s privileged information, Sophie --”
“No way,” Amelie blurted out. “I’m...I’m so sorry, Sierra…”
“Your apology is unnecessary. I am willing to do what is needed in order to perform well,” Sierra said, a distant look on her face.
“Are The Words bad?” Morgan asked.
The train was in motion. Sierra watched the landscapes out the window zip past.
“Anyone want to hear a fun fact about the Federation?” Amelie had her pocket display out, and had dug into the extraplanetary ‘net. “One of the Fed48’s planets is a mirror Earth (like ours), except...humans who live on that planet are all simultaneous hermaphrodites!”
“That means they all have both sets of equipment, Morgan. Around the age of fifteen they have a ceremony to decide their gender identity. Seems to be that the ones who get pregnant eventually lose the ability to, well, get other people pregnant.”
“Yeah, kind of.” Amelie kept scrolling, while Morgan joined Sierra in looking out the window. Ms. Luxe and Ms. Capet were across the aisle, discussing something or another.
“Oh. Hmmm…” Amelie’s face turned. “You want to hear a...less fun fact about the Federation?”
“Uh, shoot, I guess…”
“So. Before any of us were born, not long after our peoples’ first contact, there was a bill on the table in the Fed39’s chambers. Yeah, I guess they had fewer planets then. Anyway, it was something called the “Containment Through Cooperation” idea. Basically, the Federation found us, and, of course, found out how our...um...society works, and so they had to debate on how to handle our “contagion”. Y’know. The thing that makes the transformations happen. If this idea of theirs had become law, we would have been subject to a planet-wide quarantine, kind of like we are now. However! We were to be offered a seat on their council -- becoming the 40th member planet. We would have held some small amount of power in the Federation, access to their resources…”
“So what happened?”
“The bill was shot down. The hardliners, conservatives, et cetera, in the council coalitioned their votes against it, claiming that we would abuse our positions and “corrupt” the rest of Federation. And relations have been cold ever since. We’ve been closely guarded by people who despise us.”
“Ah, well, what can we do?” Amelie kept looking at her pocketholo, while Morgan pulled out her own. Sierra kept looking over the countryside as it whizzed by.
What would it look like if the ships above released their payloads? Fired their wide-range disintegration beams? There’d probably be nothing left.
“Don’t look so glum, Sierra. We’re not going without a fight. Pretty sure the Feds know we’re not worth the effort of exterminating.”
“I suppose we can only hope they don’t get any sudden bursts of motivation, ma’am.”
“Nah. The Feds know that the second they warm their death rays, we’ll fire every rocket we got at them. And if they don’t know, well, what a pity. But these rockets won’t be your average everyday warheads…” Amelie looked directly at the maid. “Do you know how we won the war, Sierra?”
“I’m afraid I know very little about the war you speak of, ma’am.”
“Well, in the middle of the twentieth century, so, well before any sign of contact with the Feds or anything like that -- back when we were functionally alone in our little corner of the multiverse, there was a war. A really. Really. Big war. It spanned the globe. On one side were people like us, gifted by the transformations, and then on the other side were those that rejected the changes. Now, for a long time, various governments had aligned themselves along numerous planes and axes, but one of the major ones was whether they saw the transformations as a boon to be spread or a scourge to be feared. I’m talking whole countries of people like us, and others of people that weren’t. No matter how any particular nation aligned themselves, there was always a minority within who went the other direction. So of course there were crackdowns, revolts...eventually countries on either side threw their weight behind foreign dissidents that aligned with them, until we had a global war. Stuff happened...people died -- a lot of people died -- but eventually, we won. Scientists had managed to isolate and modify the phenomena that made the transformations happen...and manipulate them. They created that which suffuses our society today -- the extremely contagious, airborne forces that make the changes happen. They released the new formula, and soon there was only one side left.”
“That’s quite a lot to take in, ma’am, if I’m being honest.”
“Ahaha, sorry for talking your ear off. Everyone learns about the war in school, and then they teach it in excruciating detail to those of us who join the military. It’s the foundation of a lot of modern tactics, and so on, and so forth. I really simplified it quite a bit.”
“Good thing, too. We can’t be divesting every state secret.” Ms. Luxe had entered the conversation. Outside the window, Sierra started to see a metro area take shape. Scattered buildings became clustered buildings, surrounding broad Parisian boulevards. Beyond that, gleaming skyscrapers crowned the skyline.
Something Sierra couldn’t quite place seemed off about the French Megalopolis.
“Welcome to the Ile-de-France!” Ms. Capet said. Surroundings became crowded as the train plunged into the city center, before gliding into a station platform. “Here’s our stop, Gare du Nord.” Doors swung open as the travelers descended into the throngs. Certainly the busiest place Sierra had been in, the maid thought. They proceeded into an opulent main hall which made the Aachen station seem quaint.
“Let’s not waste any time,” Ms. Luxe said. “Remember we are here on business. Sierra will be meeting with Ms. Mueller at the Hotel de Ville.”
“Is that our hotel?” Morgan asked.
“It is not -- French is just a funny language. The Hotel de Ville is the city hall. Ms. Rose will escort Sierra there, while you will accompany us, Ms. deGaine.”
“Try and keep up, Sierra!” Amelie said, bouncing along. “It’s about a four kilometer walk if my holo is correct.”
“Let us be on our way then, Ms. Amelie.”
The two had little trouble with the crowds as they enjoyed the evening air. It very likely had something to do with Amelie being visibly armed.
“I can’t believe she would use The Words. That’s extremely illegal, among other things. How bad is your memory loss?” Sierra thought for a moment. She had the vaguest awareness of what seemed to be her life -- a very ordinary servant’s existence.
“I cannot recall how I became involved with either the local Westrhein or global governments, I’m afraid. I have a clear memory of the past few days, but...it’s strange. I remember places and events, but I can’t remember what I was doing at these places. Who I was in these moments. And anything beyond maybe four days; I remember almost nothing.”
“You can’t remember anything before the landing...I see. That’s in line with Ms. Mueller’s feigned identity death plan, but…” Amelie seemed to be searching for the right words. “I can’t believe she’d go to such lengths. I believe you’ll recover your memory soon enough…”
“I have faith in Madame Mueller’s plan.”
“I...trust your judgment, Sierra, but I can’t agree with what she did. She’s tampering with your personhood.” Amelie stopped walking.
“Yeah, sorry. I’ll take you where you need to go, but...ok. Listen. Give me your transponder for a moment.” Sierra fished through her bag and produced the round and silvery object Ms. Capet had given her.
“Let me just see here…” Amelie tapped some keys on a holodisplay. Sierra hadn’t actually used the thing yet -- could she have used it to contact Elaine? The maid quietly cursed her own thoughtlessness. “Here you go,” Amelie said, handing the device back. “My contact info is in there now. If Ms. Mueller does anything strange, or violates your boundaries in any way...just give me a ping, ok? Look, I’m just a grunt. I probably won’t be able to do anything significant. And interfering with your mission could land us both in a lot of trouble.” Sierra nodded at that. Amelie continued on, “I want you to be able to confide in me. You are owed the same dignity as anyone else.”
“Thank you, Ms. Amelie. Truly. I believe Ms. Mueller has only the best of intentions...but I will keep in mind what you have said.”
“Please do. You are not a machine, Sierra.” Amelie seemed to abruptly perk up. “Now we’ve been following the one road, and ah, yes. I can see the river! Do you see that big old looking building, Sierra? That’s your destination.”
The parisian city hall was the complete opposite of the sleek tower that housed the government in New Aachen. It was a squat, ornate building that faced an expansive courtyard. Ms. Mueller awaited them at the entrance, extending both feathered arms with her usual grandeur.
“I must take my leave now,” Amelie announced. Leaning in towards Sierra, she added, “remember what I said.”
“Farewell, Ms. Amelie. I thank you for seeing me to my destination.” Sierra turned towards the gate, as well as the avian diplomat standing in front of it.
“Sierra! So good to see you again.” Ms. Mueller beckoned the maid over, and led her inside. “This place makes me so nostalgic. I did some work with the local government before I became what I am now,” she explained. “It is important to note that we will be meeting at the New Elysee Palace tomorrow, rather than here. I just wanted to take a trip down memory lane, and, ah, I have something I’d like to show you.”
The two walked through a resplendent hall to the elevators.
“After you, my good dame,” Ms. Mueller beckoned. There were a surprising number of basement floors, one of which the diplomat selected. “This lovely metropolis has been an important stronghold for our people since before the war, and a place where a lot of important decisions were made. The various government buildings are connected by a sort of ‘city under the city’. In the worst days of the fighting, the people hid down here to hide. Our enemy breached it, but only once.” Ms. Mueller winked at that statement. The elevator had been descending for some time, Sierra noted. It eventually halted, opening into a sterile white hallway. Dormant lights flickered on upon their entrance. It felt reminiscent of a hospital.
“There’s something here that will be of great use to us tomorrow, now if you’ll follow me...Ah! Here it is.” Ms. Mueller opened a door that required a security card to access. “Please have a seat.”
An ominous-looking chair was planted in the center of the room. Sierra’s hand felt for the transponder in her bag. Another doorway seemed to lead into some sort of communications room.
“Ma’am...what is this place?”
Ms. Mueller gently took her bag away.
“This is our ace in the hole, Sierra. The thing that will help us convince the Talerians to leave. Sitting in that chair will all but guarantee our success.”
“V-very well, ma’am.” Where was this uneasiness coming from? Sierra moved slowly towards the chair, and then stopped. “I’m sorry ma’am...but I’m feeling anxious about something, all of a sudden. Are we allowed to be here? W-where are all the other people?” The maid looked at Ms. Mueller, whose face was full of understanding.
“I know you are worried about tomorrow, Ms. Stinson. You continue to prove that you are a sharp young woman, so I won’t insult your intelligence by hiding the truth. This chair is something of an old government project. It’s a miracle of technology! It links with your nervous system, and allows another user (that’s me) to affect the subject’s memories. Results are always temporary, so you need not worry about anyone trying to rewrite your personality or anything. I’m not a mad scientist, Sierra. I simply believe that you will be much more persuasive tomorrow if you think you are telling the truth.”
“That’s...very clever, ma’am. I’m ashamed that I doubted you.”
“Fear is as natural a response as anything. And as for your old memories...you need not worry. They were regrettably suppressed by my reckless actions yesterday, but those too will return.”
Sierra sat in the chair.
“Linking...now!” Ms. Mueller had found a terminal somewhere. Spidery steel tendrils seemed to emerge from the headrest. They surrounded Sierra’s head, but did not make contact.
“Initiating sleepstate. I had a much better idea than our old plan!” The maid felt a slight vibration. Sierra did not fall asleep, but instead felt...far away. Someone had turned off the lights in her head. Ms. Mueller chattered about something, but words were currently beyond Sierra’s comprehension. Sierra stared at nothing with wide eyes, still blinking occasionally. She was locked in a chamber in her own head, completely vulnerable to whatever the diplomat had planned.
“Such a waste they shut this program down. It showed so much promise. This place is all but forgotten now.” Ms. Mueller tapped away at some keys on an actual, tangible keypad. “I can only imagine how far the tech would have come if they had kept working on it. Alas, we can only play with the hand we’re dealt. Now...let’s see what we’re working with here. Oh, good...the ‘Soren’ persona is disabled. I see that’s how your mind interpreted The Words. It’s a little different for every maid, and always depends on context. Seems it thought your past would be a hindrance, which makes a certain amount of sense. That gives me the opportunity to fill the void...temporarily, of course. Now let’s see...what I can come up with.”
Ms. Mueller’s fiddling went on for over an hour, and Sierra was checked out for all of it.
“Oh my...the things I could use this for...such a beautiful piece of machinery...no. No! I will not abuse my power, nor will I abuse Sierra’s trust. Only the minimum required. I acknowledge the temptation for what it is, but I will not give in. The world is counting on me, just as they are you, Sierra. I am in love with you maids...we as a society owe you so much. We learned so many things, trying to end that terrible war. Learning to manipulate the transformations like we did...we truly became divine. And I will do all I can to protect that divinity from those terrible heathens in orbit.”
Ms. Mueller stepped away from the terminal.
“Oh, Sierra...you are our savior, I know it. I could kiss you…” The diplomat went as far as to lean in towards the maid’s passive form. “But I will not. I remain a professional, and personal feelings will not interfere with my duty. And I know you have feelings for Ms. Claire. Now, I think that should wrap things up. This is progress…I was able to resist the old temptations. Ah, my misspent youth…” Ms. Mueller walked over to the terminal, and hit some more keys. The metal prongs around Sierra’s head retreated back into the headrest.
“Up, Sierra. To the elevator.” Sierra rose mechanically, and walked back into the hall. She stopped at the elevator. Ms. Mueller tapped the up button. “Walk in the elevator.” Sierra’s body complied. The diplomat followed her in, and addressed the maid. “Time for a little test. Memory input Seven-Maroon.” Sierra blinked. The elevator began to rise. Ms. Mueller slipped the strap of Sierra’s bag around the maid’s neck.
“Exiting Sleepstate. Did you enjoy dinner, Sierra?”
“Very much so, madame. You have exquisite taste.”
“The food here really is quite something, don’t you think?” Sierra nodded. “I will escort you to the hotel. I’m staying there as well. Tomorrow we’ll leave at nine for the New Elisee.”
“Certainly, ma’am. I appreciate the company.”
Sierra still felt rather hungry for some reason.
“How’d it go? You were gone for quite a while.” Amelie greeted her in the hotel lobby.
Had she been gone all that long?
“Ms. Mueller treated me to a very pleasant dinner at a quiet little restaurant on the banks of the Seine,” Sierra recalled. Amelie looked visibly relieved.
“Discuss tomorrow at all?”
“We did, yes. I’m afraid I’m unable to go into the details, Ms. Amelie.”
“Yeah, that makes sense I guess. What’re you going to do now?”
“I suppose I must figure out how this device works,” Sierra said, pulling out the transponder.
“Your version is a bit limited, I’m afraid, when you compare it to a normal pocketholo. You have access to the internet, but not the extranet or the multinet. You have only a few approved contacts, one of which is me, now, so congrats on that. Still, fiddle around with it, see what you can find out.”
“I shall do that, Ms. Amelie.”
“Hey, can I see that real quick?” Amelie raised her eyebrow at something regarding the holo.”
“Weird...the tracker shut off. Didn’t know how to handle leaving Aachen, I guess. It’s back on, now. And don’t you worry, you’ll be free of it soon. Kind of sucks that they’ve been tracking you in the first place, but it’s out of my hands.”
Sierra reclined on her hotel bed, examining the rounded silver disc in her hands. It was thicker in the center, where a small insert she recognized as a display base was housed. Sierra pressed a button on the side, which caused the holo to rise out of the center. A rudimentary menu appeared, with options arranged in a circle. Sierra quickly found she could select the options by simply twirling her finger.
Sierra amused herself for a short while by seeing how quickly she could make the menu spin. After enough rotations, the little choice bubbles started to fly out from the center. Sierra stopped twirling her finger and watched as the flying particles slowed and contracted back into a tighter formation. Sierra examined individual bubbles. She had choices such as BROWSER, CONTACT, MUSIC, and SETTINGS.
Sierra had no way of knowing about the much more advanced model she had on her ship.
The maid looked at her brief contact list. There was “Curfew Transport”, “Natalie Luxe”, “Sophie Capet”, and, the most recent addition, “Amelie Rose~”.
Sierra expected nothing in the music section, but was surprised to find a small library in three sections;
- Amelie’s Playlist
- Sophie’s Old Person Music
Sierra smiled at her discovery. Each list had a decent chunk of songs from a variety of artists she’d never heard of. Sierra contemplated a deep dive into her friends’ music -- the maid couldn’t remember what the heck she liked to listen to. But instead she realized she was quite tired.
And hungry, despite the fact she’d eaten.
She would have a busy day tomorrow.