Sierra woke up early, as was usual. She was pinned down by parts of her lover, who was still asleep. She contemplated the prospect of trying to move her legs, but that would require displacing too much of Elaine’s length. As far as the girl herself...Sierra could feel her steady breath tickling her ear. Her arm rested across Sierra’s abdomen, the hand hanging off somewhat.
They had...last night…
Sierra smiled at the memory. Sunlight was peeking through the blinds. Sierra considered for a moment -- they had one more full day in Paris, and then they would be departing tomorrow evening. Sierra had an idea, something Elaine would hopefully enjoy.
She’d need to do some shopping.
Sierra wriggled against her confines, which led to Elaine’s outstretched hand closing in on her.
“Mine~” a sleepy voice lilted. “You’re not getting away that easily…”
“Is there anything you’d like to do today, Ms. Elaine?”
“I know what I’d like to do toniiiiiiight~”
“Certainly. But I’d like to know if you have any plans for us...in the city. We are on vacation, if you’ll recall.”
“Ugh, Sierra, you make the plans. You’re paying for this, we do what you want.”
“What I want is your input on what you’d like to do or see while we’re here, Ms. Elaine.”
“Fiiine,” the serpent relented. “What do I want to do? You. What I want to see? I don’t know. We could go look at that museum of yours or whatever.
“Please, Ms. Elaine. That’s not what I meant. And just for that, I’m wearing a long skirt today.” Sierra smiled at that last part.
“Go ahead. It’ll only make you cuter. Look, I already chose one thing. Notre Dame, remember?”
“Yes, Ms. Elaine. I will never forget Notre Dame.”
“Look...I’ll cover the next trip. And we’ll do what I want to do. But for now...it’s your dream vacation. Make it happen...fuck, what time is it…”
“6:30, Ms. Elaine. You may sleep in if you want, but I’d like to do some errands, for a plan of mine which you so wanted to follow.”
“Not ready to let go of you yet…”
Sierra couldn’t say no to that. Elaine was so warm…
“Very well then, I am happy to remain here for as long as you’d like me to.”
Sierra felt her cheeks warm at that statement.
Sierra led them to a relatively open, riverside park on the outskirts of town.
“Time to find out the result of those mysterious errands you needed to be alone to do,” Elaine said, smirking. Sierra placed the basket she was carrying on the ground, and revealed the contents. “A picnic? How kitschy…” Elaine looked at Sierra with a warm grin. “I love it.”
“I’m glad, Ms. Elaine. I figured you’d want a break from walking, but I wasn’t sure the best way to do that.” Sierra laid out a blanket for them, and placed the basket on the corner. Elaine sprawled out along two sides of it, drawing close to the ground.
“Especially after how much we walked to get here. But hey, can’t argue with the view.” Light from the setting sun played on the river below them.
“I simply wanted an area not overpopulated by tourists. I hope you’ll forgive the effort I put us through in getting here.” It was true that they’d gone quite a way. Any further, and they would’ve been solidly within the countryside. As it was, however, they had a wonderful view of the city.
“You really are full of surprises...I’m glad I was able to do this with you,” Elaine said, examining the contents of the box. Sierra withdrew materials for sandwiches, including a baguette which she’d cut in half for them.
“I don’t exactly know what you like on your sandwiches, so I gave us some options. For whatever’s left over, I intend to use the refrigerator in our hotel room.”
“Oh, Sierra...after a trek like that? You think there will be leftovers? All of this looks amazing,” Elaine said, wearing the broad grin that Sierra loved to see. “I can’t imagine,” she continued, “putting as much effort into everything, as much as you do. It blows me away.” Elaine began piling ingredients onto her half of the loaf.
“I put in the effort if I know it will get results, Ms. Elaine. I’m happy to please you.”
“I...ah fuck, Sierra...I don’t deserve this. I haven’t felt this...happy...in such a long time.”
“You deserve to be happy, Ms. Elaine,” Sierra responded, assembling her own sandwich.
“You can’t possibly treat all girls like this,” Elaine mused. “You’d have to get tired eventually, right?” Sierra looked her companion directly in the eyes.
“I believe I made it clear, Ms. Elaine. With other girls, I was gone by now. I simply don’t believe Soren...I...ever met someone quite like you.”
“Stooooooop! I can’t handle the praise...I better do this to get you to shut up…” Elaine leaned in and kissed the maid, gripping her shoulders.
“Mmmm,” Sierra murmured, bringing both arms around Elaine.
Elaine’s stomach rumbled, which forced Sierra to stifle laughter as they held together. Elaine pulled away, cursing herself.
“Way to ruin the moment, me.” She angrily took a bite of her sandwich. “Goddess, this tastes fantastic…” Sierra couldn’t deny her own hunger, and started on her meal. They spent the next few minutes eating in silence, though Sierra had the bright idea of leaning against Elaine’s coils as she partook in her dinner. Elaine’s tail slowly came inwards, tickling her legs.
“Did you plan for us to be here as the sun was setting? Makes for one hell of a view…”
“Indeed I did. I calculated our time of arrival, taking into account your slow pace, Ms. Elaine,” Sierra said, with an evil grin.
“Tch. I open my heart to you and this is how you repay me.”
“It seems that I am, in fact, exactly what you deserve, Ms. Elaine.”
Elaine put her hand against her forehead and leaned back in a dramatic pose.
“Oh, woe! This burden I must bear! Held prisoner by this adorable demon!”
“It’s a pleasure to serve, mistress.”
“Mmmff. There you go using that word again. It’s making me horny.”
“What can be done about such an ordeal?” Sierra asked rhetorically. She gave Elaine a playful look.
“I can think of some things…” Elaine looked around, as did Sierra. It was a public place, but they were very much alone. “...Ah, let’s wait until we get back to the hotel. I’m going to make you scream...hey wait, do you hear something?”
Sierra was broken from her revery by a familiar sound.
“Oh what the fuck is it NOW?” Elaine said as a VTOL descended nearby. Sierra drew close to her, watching the cockpit spring open.
“Ohmygoddess Sierra! We were sooooo worried!” Morgan had sprung out of the cockpit and ran towards her. Sierra stood up, confused, as Amelie hopped out of the ship as well.
“...What?” Sierra was dumbstruck.
What was going on?
“Uh. Friends of yours?” Elaine asked, visibly annoyed.
“That is correct, Ms. Elaine. That over there is Ms. Amelie, and this is — oomph!” Sierra was interrupted by Morgan’s sudden bear hug. “Are you...crying, Ms. Morgan?” She asked, recovering from the tackle.
“I will handle the explanation, Morg,” Amelie said, having caught up. She looked at Sierra with concern written in her features. “You ok, Sierra?” The maid remained bewildered.
“A-as far as I know, Ms. Amelie.”
“Y’know I kind of feel like I’m out of the loop on some things,” Elaine interjected. “And by some things I mean everything.” Sierra nodded at that.
“You...must be Elaine. Sierra...well, she mentioned you.”
“I’m honored. But that doesn’t change the fact you kind of barged in during a private moment.” Elaine put a protective arm around Sierra “So what’s the big idea?”
“I’ll be honest. When we saw that Sierra was in Paris again, we thought we’d find Ms. Mueller with her. When we checked her data from the night before the meeting, some things didn’t add up, and now...” Amelie looked around for the feathery diplomat, just to be sure.
Sierra shook her head. No Ms. Mueller here.
“Do you mean to say you’ve been. Fucking. Tracking. Her?!” Elaine bristled, furious.
“You should know that I’m armed, civilian,” Amelie said. Morgan nodded along vigorously.
Sierra realized she had to find a way to defuse the situation. She tugged on Elaine’s arm.
“What?! Er...um, sorry. What do you need to say, Sierra,” Elaine said, deflating somewhat.
“Please let them speak, Ms. Elaine. I trust these people — Ms. Morgan and Ms. Amelie.”
“I...ok, Sierra.” Elaine waved a dismissive hand at the two soldiers. “She says I can’t kill you.”
“I hate to be the one to say this. I really do,” Amelie said, apologetic. “But we’ve been ordered to take you back to Aachen, Sierra.”
“No…” Elaine spoke. She sounded hollow. “No...you can’t...d-do that…” Elaine turned to Sierra, her voice breaking. “You d-don’t want to g-go back with them, do...you...Sierra?”
“Of course not, Ms. Elaine. I want nothing more than to enjoy this night with you, to say nothing of the day we have left tomorrow. But…”
“I’m sorry, Sierra. But you have to come back with us. I’ll do my best to explain the situation on the ride back.” The uniformed demoness turned to Elaine. “I’m not allowed to tell you what’s going on, I’m afraid, but...it’s probably going to go public soon enough. But I feel that it’s very important that you’re there for Sierra when the time comes. You’ll know when.”
“I don’t fucking know anything. I don’t know why you can’t let Sierra live her fucking life. I don’t know why I’m the only one who’s trying to treat her like more than a fucking pawn.”
“Ms. Elaine, please.”
“Yeah. I know. Would hate to embarrass you in front of your friends, Sierra.”
“That was uncalled for, Ms. Elaine.”
“I know. Sorry. It’s just...none of it is fucking fair. Not to you. Not to me. Go back home, Sierra. I’m not...mad at you. I won’t be mad if you leave. Ok, I will be, no denying it. But I won’t hold it against you. Life happens, I get it.”
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Elaine.” Sierra embraced the serpentine woman, sobbing softly. “I had no idea this would happen. I certainly didn’t want it to.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and turned to Amelie and Morgan. “I will accompany you back.”
“Hey, Sierra,” Elaine said, before she began to walk towards the craft. “Promise me something. Promise me you’ll survive all the bullshit. Promise me we’ll make it to the point where we’re past the mind games, the interruptions. That we'll make it to the point we can just be us, without performing for others.”
“You have my word, Ms. Elaine.” Sierra curtsied.
“I’ll stick around for a bit, I guess. Will probably head home early,” Elaine pondered aloud. “Well, we’re in contact. I’ll see you soon, Sierra. Good luck with whatever the suits want with you.”
The two hugged, one last time. Amelie smiled, but also motioned that it was time to go.
“Fuck it. Y’know what Sierra? Let’s fuckin own it.” Elaine brought the maid in for a kiss, a motion that Sierra matched.
“They’re so cute together!” Morgan commented.
“We really do have to go now,” Amelie said, smiling sadly.
The VTOL lifted off with a roar. Elaine got smaller and smaller as they ascended. The door to the main cabin closed on its own, with a click.
“You’re probably wondering what the hell is going on,” Amelie confessed. Sierra nodded. “Look, I’m just going to say it. We received footage of the meeting. We know what went on.”
“If you know anything, then I am afraid that’s more than I recall, Ms. Amelie.”
“Ah...damn, that’s right. You didn’t meet Ms. Mueller when you returned to Paris?”
“No, ma’am. It was a trip undertaken only by Elaine and myself. I’m sorry to cut it short.”
“Yeah, well...orders. Luxe always puts me in the worst positions, heheh.”
“I don’t blame you, Ms. Amelie.”
“I gotta get back on topic. The meeting. We’ve gotta find out whatever we can before...well, never mind that. And Mueller’s flown the coop...is that racist?” Amelie questioned, absently. She shook her head and continued. “We just need your help to figure out what’s going on.”
“I have no idea what’s going on!” Sierra blurted, exasperated. She abruptly bowed her head. “Please forgive me for raising my voice. Can you tell me what happened at the meeting?”
“I can...but...I don’t know if I should be the one. It’ll be upsetting news. Maybe that Ms. Hauptman or whatever.”
“Dr. Hoffman?” Sierra asked, to which Amelie nodded. “Please, ma’am. I trust you. I can handle whatever you wish to tell me. About the meeting, or anyone else. You owe it...nevermind, forgive that near transgression.”
“Very well, Sierra. I’ll tell you to the best of my ability. There was the usual back-and-forth. Rhetoric gradually became more hostile. Midway through, The Tally Diplomat told Ms. Mueller to leave the room…” Amelie scratched her chin.
“Heh. Tally,” Sierra chuckled
“Anyway, when Ms. Mueller left, it all kind of went to shit. He said some stuff in...his own language, I guess. You told him what your life was like...you made it sound miserable, but I’m sure Mueller wanted you to. You said something following orders, and then…” Amelie gathered herself. “That bastard took that as an invitation.” Amelie paused again. Anger made waves in her voice. “He...that fucking scumbag, he broke the number one rule, the cardinal sin.” The violet woman trailed off.
“I don’t understand?” Sierra questioned.
“There are some things you just don’t do. Telling a maid to kill herself is one such thing.” Sierra’s eyes widened. “Oh, but it gets worse. It very much gets worse. Most maids can brush off such an order from a complete stranger, especially one who gives it with such...callousness. But it still fucks them up...Anyway. You proceeded to set up some kind of makeshift noose. I thought it was downright bizarre, but...you had this look in your eye. You were about to...kick the chair when Ms. Dramatic Timing swept back into the room. Like it was all her master plan. She gave these grand overtures about how you were trying to ‘escape your punishment’ or some bullshit. The Tally dipshit laughed, said he’d seen enough, and signed off. A successful meeting.” She nearly spat those last three words as Sierra could only gawk in disbelief back at her.
“Did I...try to kill myself, Ms. Amelie?” It was inconceivable, especially after she’d had such a wonderful time with Elaine. What had made her willing to throw that away?
“I don’t know. It was either that or some upsettingly effective acting. I want to believe it was all just practiced melodrama. Maybe it was. I hope so. But I don’t know what other -- nevermind that last part,” she added quickly. “Alexandra fucking Mueller is the only one who knows anything and she’s disappeared somewhere.” Sierra was slowly putting the pieces together. She was slowly wishing she hadn’t.
“How many people know about this?” she asked, in what was barely a whisper. Amelie put a hand on her shoulder.
“I just can’t keep any sort of secret from you, huh?” She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Sierra. It’s been leaked. We don’t think Mueller did it. We think it was the Talerians. By tomorrow it’ll be on all the news channels, and...who knows where else.”
“Oh.” That was all Sierra could muster, as she felt like she was sliding out of her own body. Her consciousness formed a puddle on the floor of the cabin. It looked up at herself, And at Amelie. “That sounds like a problem,” her voice said, from some far away source.
“So that’s one of the reasons we’ve decided you’re better off with us for the time being. We’ll protect you from the press the best we can.”
“It was...foolish of me...I suppose. To think that maybe I was finally free of fame. That I could stop being the girl who fell from the sky and just be someone normal. If the meeting is as you described...I suppose it’ll never be what I want it to.” Sierra was losing her composure, quickly. “They’ll probably think I wanted attention. They might even be right, and I’ll have no way of knowing. Elaine will see it...and…” Sierra’s speech devolved into silent weeping. It was her nightmare, coming true at last, and she could only watch as her world collapsed around her in slow motion.
“I’m sorry...I’m sorry! Dr. Hoffman should’ve been the one to tell you...I just thought...ah, focus on flying, Morgan, we’re almost home...it breaks my heart to see you like this, Sierra. If we could’ve just...gotten you processed and settled into a quiet life...you could’ve been happy, and we should’ve just told the Talerians to kindly eat a fucking bullet. Fucking politicians see a crisis in the making and think they can pretend to be big girls on the multiversal stage if they pull the right strings...they don’t care who’s at the other end of them….Goddess fucking dammit!”
Something deep in Sierra’s gut alerted her that the plane was gradually descending. Sure enough, she could hear the shift as the craft shifted gears to begin its landing. Sierra shambled out of the craft like a zombie, in the vague direction of the elevator that would take her home. She hoped someone had watered her rose while she was gone.
“Shame on you,” Morgan said. It was directed at Amelie. “Making Sierra cry like that.”
“I’m sick of people hiding the truth from her,” Amelie retorted. “But I guess I could’ve been a little less blunt. Um...Sierra?”
Sierra stopped, and turned towards her friends.
“Don’t feel like you did anything wrong. Maids don’t do things just for the attention -- any functioning person can figure that much out. And there’ll be other things on people’s minds soon enough, I’m sure. Nothing lasts forever in the news cycle, y’know?”
“Thank you, Ms. Amelie. For trying to make me feel better. I’ll be ok in the ennnmmmph.” Sierra was interrupted as Morgan hugged her again.
“We won’t let! Anything! Happen!” she said. “We care about you!”
The elevator descended but did not stop at her usual floor. The floor they did stop on, however, was one Sierra did recognize as she was led out into the halls. They came to a familiar room.
“Hello, Sierra. Let’s talk,” Dr. Hoffman said. “How’re you holding up?”
“I’m doing alright...I’m just a little…”
“Shell-shocked? Did they immediately tell you everything?”
“Do you have the video available, doctor?”
“Yeah, I do. They showed me the feed, told me it had leaked. Told me Mueller was gone. How are you feeling in the wake of all this?”
“Pretty terrible, if I’m being honest.”
“I remember what you told me about wishing you weren’t on the news,” Dr. Hoffman nodded, sadly.
“There’s more that I’m worried about. Does...the Federation have access to this recording?
“Oh Sierra...don’t say such things. But I can tell where your mind is going. Please don’t worry. We’ve had crises before, times where things have seemed pretty bleak. But you can tell in any sort of news report…” Dr. Hoffman smiled. “They’re afraid of us. Afraid that we could breach containment once the veneer of civility falls away, once they decide it’s time for us to die. They have this underlying tone, anytime the topic falls on us. They can’t help but wonder if this mysterious disease of ours will crawl up their deathrays and turn everyone aboard their ships.”
Sierra chuckled at the image, and then frowned at the sort of upheaval that would cause.
“Is that how that works? I doubt it,” Dr. Hoffman continued, straightening her skirt. “This mutual terror is eating away at all parties involved, but...it’s kept us alive so far. But that’s the military’s problem. I want to know how you’re doing.”
“I should say that I have no memory of my own as to how the meeting went. If you would show me the recording, I’d be very grateful. I’d like to see it here, before...I see it on the news.” Dr. Hoffman looked at her in shock.
“You don’t remember anything?”
“Nothing of the period behind those doors, doctor. Or...I remember one thing. The very end...no, after it was over. Ms. Mueller looked ecstatic about something. And she said we should celebrate.”
“That’s very strange....I was told that she used The Words, but...that doesn’t add up. How would forgetting how you carried out your mission retroactively work towards ensuring your success? No...there’s something else going on here. Officer Mueller might know, but she disappeared…” Dr. Hoffman’s eyes widened once more. “Sierra? Were you alone with her at all before or after the meeting?”
“Yes, doctor. She took me to dinner the night before. It was…” Sierra blinked. “Ms. Mueller treated me to a very pleasant dinner at a quiet little restaurant on the banks of the Seine,” she said, almost mechanically.
“Are you ok, Ms. Sierra?”
“I’m fine? Upset, still...but I’m fine?”
“What did you eat at that quiet little restaurant on the banks of the Seine?” Sierra scrunched her face in concentration. What did she eat?
“I don’t remember. But it must not have been that filling. I recall being quite hungry still, afterwards.”
Dr. Hoffman pressed on. “Do you ordinarily have much of an appetite?”
“Not particularly, doctor. I eat enough to maintain my weight, and I’m not often that hungry for much more.”
“But you were still hungry after your dinner with Officer Mueller.”
“That is correct.”
“Do you remember the name of the restaurant?”
“It was...a...quiet little restaurant...on the banks...no. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant.”
What was wrong with her all of a sudden?
“It seems there’s something Officer Mueller hasn’t told us. But let’s move on.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No, Sierra, not at all. I’ve just got some things to think about, and probably a report or two to file. Are you ok with me telling some friends of mine what you said? About that quiet little restaurant?”
“Thank you, Ms. Sierra. Nothing’s concrete for now, but this might help us to explain your memory loss.”
“I’m very confused.” Sierra realized that Dr. Hoffman was being unusually evasive.
“I’m sorry. It’s probably nothing, and I don’t want to tell you in case it actually is nothing. But I will tell you that you’re not crazy. And you’re not losing your memory.”
“I feel like I’m crazy when people keep telling me half-truths under the guise of protecting me. I feel kind of crazy when people treat me like a child.”
Wow, Sierra thought to herself. Did she say that?
“I’m sorry. You’re right. Look Sierra, it sounds like Officer Mueller tampered with your memory.”
“I might just be jumping to conclusions. But when I asked if you had been alone at all with Ms. Mueller, you gave an answer that sounded recorded. Rehearsed. Like someone had fed it to you. But…” Dr. Hoffman chuckled. “It sounds like whatever modification she tried to make was poorly done. She gave you one line to cover up the truth, but the facade collapses after the slightest bit of probing. You couldn’t tell me what you ate, but you knew you were still hungry afterwards.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Again, I apologize. More upsetting news on top of upsetting news. But you never went to that restaurant, whatever restaurant it was supposed to be. It was a cover-up for what she was actually doing to you that night. Goddess...the postwar maid experiments...did she tap into that pandora’s box? I thought that was shut down once it was exposed…” Maid experiments sounded ominous. But Sierra decided it was best to keep on task.
“Why is it I can’t remember the meeting, then? Could Ms. Mueller not have replaced that with anything, if she was able to replace other memories?”
Don’t think about the implications of that sentence, she told herself. That was a dark path.
“I don’t know, exactly. But I think we might be able to figure something out -- get an idea at the very least.” Dr. Hoffman looked intently at her, right in the eyes. “Are you ready to see what happened, Ms. Sierra?” She nodded.
“I will have to, so that I may understand.” Dr. Hoffman pulled up her personal display, angling towards something that was labelled as confidential.
The feed began playing. Sierra saw herself, and Ms. Mueller. A hologram of a third person emerged from the ground -- this one was a man.
“That must be the Talerian ambassador,” Sierra said. Dr. Hoffman nodded.
The assembled figures went through their introductions. The Talerian accused Sierra of being a stranger, demanded to know where the real Sierra was, as he knew her. Sierra winced as the diplomat insisted that the one he was after was a man. Ms. Mueller told Sierra to recount her landing, which she did.
No, something was off, she realized, as the Sierra on the screen recalled her misadventure.
“That’s not what happened!”
“I suppose Ms. Mueller could have told you to lie -- what to say and how to say it,” Dr. Hoffman wondered aloud.
“But she didn’t...I don’t think? I don’t remember that briefing.”
The video played on. Ms. Mueller was asked to leave, a request she accepted. The Talerian redoubled his efforts to find out who this girl was, and the Sierra on screen once again told him.
“Not very bright, is he?” Dr. Hoffman chuckled. The virtual Sierra described her new life, or someone’s version of it. The real Sierra expressed concern.
“I sound so miserable.”
Sierra watched as the Talerian diplomat dropped the bombshell, and as she had put up a weak resistance to the idea. And then Sierra’s cheeks burned as she watched her virtual doppelganger’s suicide attempt.
“I did that? What in the...I...what the hell was I doing?” Sierra put her head in her hands. Just the embarrassment she was feeling now, and the whole world and beyond was going to see her perform tomorrow. “My cuff? A coat rack?” Dr. Hoffman cut the video. “People are going to see this, Dr. Hoffman! Amelie sounded worried but this?” Sierra’s voice raised despite herself. “This is pathetic!” she wailed. “This is a joke!”
“Suicide isn’t a joke, Ms. Sierra.” Sierra erupted into nervous, maniacal cackling, accompanied by a fresh flow of tears.
“The world’s going to see this! Taleria’s going to see this! The Federation...Ms. Elaine…” the cry-laughing gave way to just crying as Sierra shuddered on Dr. Hoffman’s couch.
“This is going to end up worse for this Mr. Harlow, if I had to guess. He committed a pretty despicable felony. Do you know what I think, Ms. Sierra?” Sierra didn’t stop crying, but she did shrug to indicate she was listening. “I think this’ll backfire on Mr. Harlow more than anyone. Let’s see here...we’ve got this maroon-suited dolt who insists you’re not the right person even though he knows the transformations are a thing. Are you listening, Sierra?”
“Trying to…” she sobbed.
“He gets angry, just by looking at you. Really, just this whole aura of impotent rage he’s got going on. And then, this decorated diplomat tells you to kill yourself like a middle school bully. So what do you do? You make this fanciful demonstration that no one in their right mind would believe. I mean, that cuff would snap right away.” Dr. Hoffman awaited Sierra’s fresh outburst. “What does he do? He eats it up! Giggles like a schoolboy at the display, but not because he thought it was fake, ooooh no. Again, the schoolyard bully thinks he’s won. But did he? Hell no! Do you think anyone will ever take the Empire of Taleria seriously again, if this is what they call their Diplomatic Corps? I know I won’t!” Sierra wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I appreciate your attempt to improve my mood, Dr. Hoffman. But I’ll never be able to live this down. This is it...and I didn’t even succeed in my mission, if the Federation takes action because of this.” She looked up at Dr. Hoffman with hollow eyes. “I’m unfit for --”
“Don’t you dare,” Dr. Hoffman said, completely seriously. “Weren’t you listening? With this video made public, you made the Talerians regret ever harassing us. And here on Earth, people will respect your gumption.”
“There was no ‘gumption’, Dr. Hoffman! It was desperation! Stupid desperation! I’ve made a complete mockery of all maids!” Sierra’s throat burned. Her voice was becoming hoarse. Dr. Hoffman produced a glass of water from somewhere -- Sierra hadn’t noticed the minifridge in her office at all.
“Is that what you think? *I* don’t feel very mocked. Look, Sierra. Officer Mueller isn’t willing to face the music for her obviously illegal methods now that the cat’s out of the bag. But you? You will feel no shame. You’ll keep your head held high, because you performed your duty, and performed it well, despite the...hiccups after the fact.”
“So then why would the Talerians leak the video, if it makes them look so bad?” Dr. Hoffman turned downcast at that.
“I...don’t know. Look, we don’t know if it was the Talerians who leaked it. Maybe they did, and maybe they thought it would paint them in a different light. They’re wrong. Whatever happens...I know that you’re a good kid. Ms. Elaine, if she is as you describe her, won’t think any less of you. None of the people who actually matter in your life will cast you aside because they think you embarrassed them. What about those two soldiers who brought you here? Do you know them?
“Yes, doctor. They are my friends.”
“I’m sure they saw the leak. What did they think?”
“They were...worried. They were really worried. When they picked me up, Ms. Morgan immediately ran out to give me a hug. Ms. Amelie was angry. Not at me, though. She was angry that...I had to go through this…”
“So it sounds like, so far, the people who care about you still care about you. And they’re not vain enough to stop just because of what others may think.” Sierra formed a shaky smile.
“T-thank you. Dr. Hoffman. I’m glad...you said that.” Sierra felt a self-conscious smile form, which gave way to a yawn. “What time is it?”
“Not too late. Sun went down, but the night is young, as it were...and I’m glad I could help. No one knew what had happened behind those doors, and I don’t think anyone expected anything like...that. Officer Mueller seems to have tried to play herself off as some sort of all-knowing chess master...she’s not as good at chess as she thought!” Dr. Hoffman chuckled.
“I suppose she took her pawn to the end of the board and traded it in for another pawn,” Sierra said, forcing a grin.
“I don’t think that’s a legal move.”
“I don’t play chess, Dr. Hoffman. I hope everything works out tomorrow...I really do.”
“You and I both. I’d hate for you to be able to tell me I was wrong.”
Sierra was back in her boring white room, at long last. It was a shame, really, she thought as she examined her drooping rose. This was a night she should’ve spent in the coils of her new-found lover. But that wouldn’t have changed the inevitable, she admitted to herself. She’d just turn on the news, and learn about her pathetic attempt on her life that way.
Probably much more traumatic to have it happen that way. What was Elaine doing? Was she still in Paris? Sierra suddenly remembered she had a means of finding out. She withdrew her holo and accessed her contacts.
A few minutes passed after Sierra dropped that line. There were plenty of reasons Elaine might not return a contact immediately, of course, such as --
EC: that ur way of starting a conversation ?
SS: Good Evening, Ms. Elaine.
Sierra thought for a moment.
SS: Is there a possibility that you can take a call?
That resulted in silence for a few moments, until her holo was set alight by an incoming voice contact. Sierra waved a confirmation and a small hologram of Elaine emerged out of the lens. She waved.
“What’s on your mind?” Elaine asked. The hologram squinted for a moment. “Ah shit...you look rough. Hope they didn’t mindfuck you already.”
“I simply wish to know if you remained in Paris, Ms. Elaine.”
“I thought about it. But that room is too big without you in it, y’know? Didn’t feel right, so I’m catching the night train home. Don’t feel bad, it’s my own decision. You look like you’re sitting down cross-legged. Are you on your bed?”
“That is correct, Ms. Elaine. I am home now.”
“Your eyes look red. What did they tell you?”
“I’m not sure how to describe it, but it involves the meeting I had with the Talerian diplomat.” Sierra shifted on her bed. “Well, I do know how to describe it, I suppose.”
“It has gone public, Ms. Elaine. You will likely see it on the news tomorrow.”
“Is that bad? You make that sound bad.”
“It was supposed to remain private. And...it proceeded in a rather...strange matter. My performance was, in hindsight...utterly humiliating, Ms. Elaine.”
“I feel you. I suck at public speaking, believe me. You afraid of being embarrassed on the news?”
“It goes somewhat beyond that. It’s….”
“Too painful to talk about, it sounds like.”
“Please, Ms. Elaine. Don’t think too badly of me when you see the news.”
“Sheesh. You make it sound like you killed someone.” Sierra turned away, covering her eyes with one hand. “Wow. Did they deserve it?” That was phrased like a joke, but Sierra didn’t feel like laughing.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Elaine. I feel rather tired. I think I may go to bed now…”
“Good Goddess, Sierra. You sound like you watched someone die. Look, I’ll give you some space if that’s what you want. Please...just hang in there. I’ll call you tomorrow. And...I’ll still love you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m petty, but I’m not so petty that I’d dump you just because you did something embarrassing.”
“I appreciate that, Ms. Elaine. I am hoping as much as anyone else that this works out in the end.”
Bennett Harlow faced his superior.
“Your actions are being reviewed by a tribunal, Officer Harlow. It is as you were warned, I’m afraid. The...unexpected leak has put your inappropriate behavior to the forefront. The Federation, as well as the government of Earth 721, are demanding answers from our diplomats.
“Permission to speak, sir…” Mr. Harlow grumbled, eyes planted firmly on his feet.
“I understand my part in all of this. We now await the Fed48’s response towards the Earth 721 government. They shouldn’t be too happy about a foreigner being held hostage and nearly driven to suicide.”
“You are right that your actions are not entirely undeserving of praise, Officer. Heavy handed though your methods were, depending on the Federation response, purification of the Imperial Seal of the Taleriana will grant you absolution in the end.”
“Forgive my audacity, sir. But is it right? This ploy at manipulating the Federation to...countless human lives will be lost.”
“Do not mistake them as humans! They are a scourge on the multiverse, should they escape their confinement! And we had no knowledge of the danger until they stole our most important artifact!”
“Understood...sir.” The officer knelt before his commander, who changed his tone.
“We have one final mission for you. If the thief Stinson is truly suicidal, then this need not be an issue, but…”
“You’re going to Earth 721 to snuff out the thief, if they still live. This will also serve as your punishment, pending the response from the tribunal. If our plan succeeds, you will be pardoned by the Federation’s orbital bombardment. If it fails...well, I do believe you’re a wanted felon there, now.”
Bennett Harlow did not look up. But this...was this right? Was he always the sacrificial lamb? Were his actions going to condemn an entire planet of sapients to death?
“What of the people of Taleria, sir? What will they know of our role in the extermination of a full population?”
“The people of Taleria need not bother themselves with the details, Officer. We are not burdened by a free press like lesser empires. Now say no more and accept your continued role in our mission.”
The diplomat, already kneeling, bowed his head even further. His faith in the crown was shaken more than it had ever been. Was there any word for this other than evil? No...they were a scourge, it was true. Their annihilation would be a benefit. He’d seen their depravity demonstrated first-hand, and the Federation would, too.
“I accept the task I have been given, sir. For His Glory.”
“For His Glory, and That of the Empire.”