Sierra woke up around six. The maid looked around her opulent hotel room. Still in bed, she waved an arm to alert the holodisplay. It was on a news channel. Sierra quickly turned it off. She vaguely recalled Ms. Mueller telling her to avoid the news, for reasons that weren’t clear. Something psychological about it, maybe?
That seemed like a reason the diplomat would give. Sierra imagined the birdlike woman giving the instruction:
“We want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind for your Big Day, so please avoid following the news for the time being.” She would follow that up with her knowing smile, and add “It will help ensure success.”
Today was the day, wasn’t it? The girl felt surprisingly underwhelmed. She’d worried so much about the day arriving, that now that it was here…
Sierra shrugged and got ready. She prepared her change of clothes, which amounted to the fanciest version of her one outfit that she had available; frills were frillier, and designs were more intricate. There was a silver filigree which did not lend itself to cleaning or other “normal” maid activities. She hesitated -- should she hold off on donning her finest until she had first eaten breakfast? No reason to risk it, she decided, equipping the basic model before going downstairs.
Sometime later, Sierra joined Ms. Mueller at the agreed location.
“Welcome to New Elysee, the seat of executive power for the entire province of Westeuropa. Rebuilt after that awful war.” Ms. Mueller announced, as Sierra followed her into a large courtyard. New Elysee Palace emulated the older styles of architecture, but was identifiably more recent in its construction. “I’d tell you to be on your best behaviour, but we both know that comes naturally to you.”
“I can only do my best, madam,” Sierra grinned demurely. Ms. Mueller greeted the gate guards, who let them through.
“Wait ‘til you see the holoroom -- it’s a true marvel,” the diplomat exclaimed. The pair travelled through gilded halls to their destination. “It’s a shame the Westeuro governor is out today, I would’ve loved to introduce you to her.” Eventually they came to a surprisingly nondescript door that was flanked by Amelie and Morgan in guard’s attire.
“Good luck, Sierra!”
“We’re rooting for ya!”
Sierra wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she would enter the meeting room. Part of her imagined a projection of the Talerian ambassador already there and waiting for them. She also imagined a grand ballroom, with nothing but a table and three chairs in the center. Sierra walked through the door, bracing herself, and stepped into a pristine white box. There were various divots on the floor, walls, and ceiling.
“Watch this,” Ms. Mueller grinned at her as she walked to the center of the room. With a twirl of her hand, the diplomat brought up a display menu. “It can deploy furniture, serving a variety of functions, but more importantly…” She gestured at one option, and Sierra nearly fell over.
They were suddenly standing in an expansive and gaudy hall. The walls displayed priceless works of art, and artificial light filtered down from windows in the ceiling. Sierra discovered a corona of light would appear on a wall if she got close to it, signalling where the room stopped and the background began. Ms. Mueller flourished her hand again, and they were standing in a low, rolling meadow. Idyllic mountain villages were painted in the simulated distance. Ms. Mueller shuffled through a variety of options -- a castle hall, a cavern, the surface of the moon -- before settling back on the magnificent hall she’d first selected.
One more thing before we begin, Sierra,” the diplomat turned and smiled warmly at her. “Initiate sleepstate.”
Sierra’s mental landscape was once again as blank as the room they’d first entered.
“Memory input Twelve-Yellow.” Sierra blinked. “Exiting sleepstate. The honorable ambassador will arrive any moment. Are you ready?”
“Yes ma’am,” the maid confirmed. Right on cue, a man in a burgundy uniform materialized in front of them. He had slicked back red hair, and his chest was adorned with medals. Sierra realized she couldn’t recall the last time she saw a male of her species.
“Madame Ambassador. My name is Bennett Harlow. I represent Greater Taleria and His Imperial Majesty, as a diplomatic officer.”
“It is a pleasure, Officer Harlow. I am Alexandra Mueller, senior diplomat of the World Government of Earth (Earth 721, anyway). The reformed individual beside me is Ms. Sierra Stinson. As I understand, officer, she is the reason we are here today.” Sierra curtsied. Mr. Harlow frowned.
“I understand the purpose of our meeting, madam ambassador. What I fail to grasp is why you have taken a random girl off the street to present as the thief who made off with our most priceless treasure. A treasure, which I may add, still remains on your planet.”
“Your concern is expected, officer. Ms. Stinson here has undergone many changes as part of her rehabilitation. You will find that we dispensed justice on her as we would any of our own kind.”
“Madam ambassador. The one we are after is a man.”
“Ms. Stinson here was a man when she landed here. But understand officer, that not a single man on this planet stays that way for very long. You know this -- it is why you have chosen to attend this function remotely.”
“Yes, I know about your peoples’...affliction. But I see no identifiable proof that this oddly dressed girl is the smuggler we chased all the way here.” Sierra tugged on her skirt self consciously.
“We have no reason to hide Ms. Stinson away from you, officer. And if we wanted to, we simply would have said she died on entry. But we believe in diplomatic integrity. Would you care to share what happened once you landed, Sierra?”
Sierra reached for a memory and managed to find it. She remembered...she had woken up in her ship, which was in the middle of an open field. She heard rummaging and voices.
Wait, had she?
She hopped out of her craft, her blaster Old Riley in hand.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she’d cried. One of the soldiers had turned to face her.
“You’ve been quite the naughty boy, Mr. Stinson.” Yes, that’s right...she had still been a man at this point. Another soldier walked up, holding an ornate box of gold and rosewood. “Do you expect us to believe this belongs to you? The alert was given while you were passed out in the cockpit. It looks like there are people out there who really want your head.”
The Talerian nodded at that. Sierra continued her recollection.
Sierra could see the changes beginning as she was led down a dimly lit hall in handcuffs. Her demands to know what was happening were continually shrugged off.
“Lucky for you, Ms. Stinson, we’re not in the business of killing if we don’t have to. Instead you will be repurposed for everyone’s benefit.” The soldier, who had unusual violet colored skin, looked at the smuggler with a cruel smile.
...Amelie? But hadn’t she only ever treated Sierra with kindness? The maid put a hand up to her temple. Her head hurt, all of a sudden.
“Amusing story so far, madame ambassador. I can really see the dots starting to connect. Forgive me for the request I’m about to make, but I’d like to hear the rest of “Ms.” Stinson’s story in private.” Ms. Mueller hesitated, and looked at Sierra, who was already staring bewildered at her. Ms. Mueller smiled.
“Very well, officer. I will...comply with this request.”
Harlow made some motion with his hand, accompanied by a slight bow.“ I apologize for the inconvenience, madame ambassador.” Ms. Mueller exited the room.
The hologram turned and looked at Sierra, who was now alone.
“Who are you. What do you know. Where. Is. Stinson.”
“I apologize for the c-confusion, sir. But I am Sierra Stinson, formerly Soren Stinson. In accordance with my crimes, I was repurposed for service and submission. I remember nothing of my life before, excluding the actions that brought me here.” Sierra looked around the simulated hall. “I admit I am out of my depth here, sir. I am not accustomed to handling matters of statecraft.”
“You must pay for your crimes, if you truly are him.”
“What would you do to me, had you captured me?”
“Public execution. In the imperial city for all to see -- a reminder of the Emperor and his Might.”
“I’m sorry this didn’t turn out how you had hoped, Mr. Harlow. That seems fair treatment for a wretch like me. However, I hope I can demonstrate how this was the next best option. I exist only to serve now, rather than subvert. The rest of my life will be spent acting in atonement for the greatest of crimes.”
“I still don’t know who you are.”
“You switched to Talerian Common when you described how I should be punished, Mr. Harlow. No one here speaks Talerian, and I myself only ever picked up a few phrases. My universal translator can interpret it though, and devices like that are not prolific here like they are elsewhere.”
“Interesting. Tell me, then. What is your life now.” He’d switched to his own language again.
“I do as I am told. I speak only when spoken to. I serve with a smile even if I am miserable. This is how I cope with the shame of my crime.” Sierra could tell this wasn’t working, as the ambassador looked upon her with increasing disinterest. She had to save it, somehow. But she was without any further guidance. Sierra felt very alone, she realized. Suddenly, however, the diplomat’s eyes narrowed.
“Let’s test your statement, then. Kill yourself.”
The maid looked at Officer Harlow with a shocked expression.
“Giving a maid such an instruction is...a felony, sir.” Sierra’s headache was getting worse, making it hard to think clearly. How anyone could hate her so much…
The Talerian diplomat gestured with his hands, as if to say,
“Get on with it.”
This was...what could she do? Sierra closed her eyes, head pounding. What was there for her here...what was there for her anywhere. Would this help her complete her mission? Sierra opened her eyes. She sighed, walking to the center of the room. She summoned the display menu, just as Ms. Mueller had. Sierra scanned through her options. First, the background disappeared, leaving only the vacant white. Sierra pressed a button which brought a chair up from under the floor. She then found an option which brought a ring of coat hooks down from the ceiling, but not too far. Then she pulled on one of the hooks, slowly increasing the pressure. It held fast. Sierra considered her next step. She turned towards the Talerian officer and removed one of her cuffs, pulling the fabric taut, and then letting it snap back to its original shape. She pulled it harder, but the band did not break. Sierra stepped up onto the chair, and set the cuff around one of the coat hooks. She pulled the material down, and slipped it around her neck.
“I’m sorry, Elaine,” Sierra said, a tear running down her cheek.
“That’ll be enough of that. Sierra, I order you to remove your head from that makeshift noose and step down from that chair.” Ms. Mueller was back in the room, walking in with purpose. “What do you think you’re doing? Trying to subvert your sentence by offing yourself? You will be punished later.”
“I...understand, ma’am,” Sierra said, bowing her head. Both heads turned towards the Talerian, who had started bellowing laughter.
“You are one twisted -- ahem. I seem to have temporarily lost myself.” Mr. Harlow was jubilant. “I believe I have seen enough. I believe the council will be very interested in this, so please let me return to my superior. But between you and me, after that display, I fully expect that we will be willing to leave this criminal in your care.
“I’m very glad we could come to an agreement, officer. Please remember that this is a closed door meeting as per our agreement. I’m certain you will honor the deal, but protocol dictates I remind you.”
“Very well, madame ambassador. I believe that concludes our talks, but we will contact your superiors if we have additional requirements. Farewell, on behalf of the Talerian Empire.”
“The World Government bids you farewell, officer.” The hologram dematerialized, leaving Sierra and Ms. Mueller alone in the room.
What just happened?
“That was absolutely brilliant!” Ms. Mueller shouted, beaming. “You’ve exceeded all expectations today, Sierra!”
“T-thank you, madame,” the maid said, still processing the past few moments.
“Initiate sleepstate. It’s time for your reward, Sierra. Disable memory input Twelve-Yellow.” Sierra blinked twice. “Delayed memory input Fourteen-Cerulean, tomorrow 0400 hours.” Sierra blinked again. “Exiting sleepstate. Let us go and celebrate our victory, Sierra!”
Ms. Mueller picked out an upscale restaurant in the city center.
“Uh, the government is footing the bill for this, right? This is not the kind of place one usually eats at when they’re on a grunt’s salary,” Amelie questioned.
“Of course, Ms. Rose. We are celebrating, after all,” Ms. Mueller declared.
“Heh...hell yeah.” Amelie’s eyes strayed towards more expensive items on the menu. Morgan and Sierra sat on either side of her, while Misses Luxe, Capet, and Mueller sat across.
“Perrrr-mission to get Smashed, ma’am?” Morgan grinned.
“Permission denied, Ms. deGaine. You’re still on the job and I don’t want you waving that gun around while drunk,” Ms. Luxe said.
“Phooey,” Morgan huffed as Amelie chortled.
“Anything on the menu catch your eye, Sierra?” Ms. Capet asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to pronounce any of these names, ma’am,” Sierra chuckled. She pointed at a spot on the menu. “This one sounds heavenly,” she said.
“Croque Tartine Parisienne, can’t go wrong with that,” Ms. Capet said.
“Goddess I’m hungry...I need something with flesh~” Amelie crooned.
“Get a roooooooooooom!” Morgan squealed.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Morg. And don’t threaten me with a good time.”
“Maintain professionalism, soldiers,” Ms. Luxe deadpanned.
“Aaaah, let them have some fun! They finished their task,” Ms. Mueller said.
“I will choose to overlook your subversive demand, madame diplomat,” Ms. Luxe chuckled.
“And don’t forget, it’s customary to have a glass of wine before your meal, so think of the local traditions when considering your department’s image.” Ms. Mueller was relentless, and Ms. Luxe had no choice but to fold under the assault.
“Everyone’s allowed one drink,” the goblin sighed.
“Hell yeah!” Morgan declared in triumph.
“You’ll forgive me for having operated in Paris for a long time, Officer Luxe,” Ms. Mueller said.
“You’ve already won, so you have permission to shove it, madame diplomat.” Ms. Luxe couldn’t help the smile crossing her face. Sierra was simply content to watch this verbal battle as the before-dinner show. Eventually, everyone ordered drinks, and everyone turned to look at Sierra. A tall and crimson-skinned waitress stood by patiently.
“Your drink, ma’am?” The waitress asked. Sierra wasn’t a drinker; she remembered that from her shattered memories. But she would make a sacrifice in the name of diplomacy.
“I would like the restaurant’s specialty wine, ma’am. Thank you.” Sierra put her menu down. Did she even like wine?
Only one way to find out…
Dinner was superb. The wine wasn’t bad either. Sierra went after her egg-topped sandwich with a knife and fork; she wasn’t about to throw basic manners to the wind. Ms. Capet raised a glass.
“To Sierra, who got those ugly red ships out of our orbit!”
“To having one less thing to deal with,” Ms. Luxe smirked.
“Thank you so much, everyone,” Sierra said, blushing. “I owe everything to each one of you.” The maid took a hearty swig of her Sauvignon Blanc, grimacing somewhat. She had not yet acclimated to the taste of the acidic beverage.
What would happen now? The thought inserted itself into the back of her mind and would not be dislodged. Did the Customs and Hospitality Department no longer have a use for her? Maybe they would keep her around to clean. That would be nice, if she could stay close to her...friends. Or maybe she’d be shipped off to a private chateau somewhere in the countryside, to wait on some business tycoon or high-ranking official. In any event, Sierra wanted to see Elaine. She still felt bad for yelling at her.
“You look like something’s on your mind,” Amelie said. “Hey. Yeah, I’m talking to you, silly girl.” The soldier lightly tapped Sierra on the shoulder.
“Ah...sorry. I must confess my thoughts have turned to the future. I don’t know what happens next,” Sierra looked around. “I really don’t mean to ruin the mood, so we can probably discuss this later.”
“Well, that’d be primarily up to you, dear,” Ms. Luxe said. “You’re free of your responsibilities to us, and you’ll be granted payment for your services.” Seeing the worry on the maid’s face, she added “You’ll always have your room on the C&H floor, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’m very grateful for the security, ma’am,” Sierra said, bowing slightly.
“I believe you’d make a fine diplomatic aide, Sierra. I’m sure there’s room in my department, but truly, you have the whole world available to you,” Ms. Mueller added. Sierra looked at the senior diplomat, unable to pinpoint just why that invitation filled her with a mild foreboding.
“I would happily consider that, madame Mueller.” Personal feelings did not halt Sierra’s automatic response. But they did have another effect on the maid, as tears once again started to flow.
“Eh? Sierra?” The person to her immediate left asked.
Why was this happening? She had won, right? But her feelings were what they were. The cascade did not abate despite how much she tried. Sierra tried to find her emotional bearings, blindfolded in her own mind. Why did she...why didn’t she...Sierra looked around at the table, at the strangers staring at her. Who were they? Who was she? Her grasp on reality was slipping.
What happened at the landing? What happened at the meeting?
And why had Sierra tried to kill herself? People at the table tried to comfort the maid with words she couldn’t make out. Sierra didn’t know these people.
Ms. Mueller, meanwhile, simply turned away.
“Officer Harlow. Were those actions really what you consider to be the proper diplomatic channels? Demanding people take their lives does not fit in the interest of keeping the peace.”
Bennett Harlow faced his superior on the X-Dim. The diplomat bowed his head in shame as the hologram addressing him gave a detached, calculating look.
“I apologize, sir. I let my emotions get in the way of my mission.”
“I understand your anger at the blatant disregard these people have shown for His Imperial Majesty. I’m aware of what these...once-human individuals do to anyone that gets caught in their atmosphere. And I know they’ve tainted His Majesty’s Seal with their disease. It’s a tragic circumstance we find ourselves in. But you mustn’t lose yourself. What if your behavior in that meeting leaked? Would you be willing to pay the price to preserve our multiversal standing?”
“For His Glory,” the diplomat replied, solemnly. “And for that of the Empire.”