Knight of the Blue Rose
It was another one of those mornings where some sign tipped me off to the trouble ahead. In this case, the sign was easy enough to interpret as inauspicious; it’s never going to be a good cycle when you’re broken out of sleep by someone pounding on your door. I struggled out of my floatbag and punched the bunkroom control panel. Reb was out in the passage anchored to the doorframe footholds. As soon as the hatch slid away, she flung herself in and grabbed me by my shoulders.
“Ash, it’s a disaster; you’ve got to get up,” she said with a shaking voice. She looked half between mania and despair. “Diego was detained on Central Orbital!”
I closed my eyes to push the confronting world back just enough for breathing room. Her momentum knocked us to the far wall of the bunk where she all but pinned me in her zeal. I didn’t even try to hide my stony tone when I acknowledged the girl in front of me again.
“What’s the situation?”
“We were getting on the shuttle back when he was pulled aside by these phony security guys. They looked the part, but these weren’t the usual guys; these guys were the coldest blue I’ve ever seen.”
“You need to come to the president’s suite. He said he wants to see you. Please…”
You were about to make the taboo request, right? I’d told them all plenty of times that I didn’t come aboard to go back to being a Knight; that I was just there to provide a bit of tutoring. But I would at least go hear what Burton had to say. Even if I stayed behind, it was only right to talk it through.
Bracing myself against the wall, I pushed Reb back out into the corridor so that I had space to zip into my flight suit. The way Reb was floating out in the hall and watching me with such anxious eyes was making me anxious too.
“Go on ahead and tell Burton I’m coming up,” I said. It was a snappier tone than I’d ever used with her before, but the decisive order shook her out of her miserable daze. She kicked at the wall and disappeared up the cylindrical corridor. Alone, I sighed, tied my hair back, and thought about the mess in front of me. Not the mess in my room, but whatever it was that Reb had brought to my door. I kept telling you it was too dangerous to keep jetting around station to station yourself.
Despite my reluctance to accept what might have to happen, I looked around my small room with the sense that I wouldn’t be coming back. It’s not like the hole in a wall was great or anything, but if I was giving up on coming back then I might as well just give up on staying detached. If I got involved, there’d be no way to keep up the charade of just drifting along normally. It wasn’t an excuse; I was scared, but what always scared me the most is what I’d do if I went back to that way of living without doubt. It was a rollercoaster with no breaks and I never managed to figure out if I’d been right when we started our fight the first time. I could feel my heart start to beat faster as the possibilities stretched out ahead of me.
Since there was nothing I really wanted to take with me, I prepared to pull myself into the corridor. My eyes lingered on my computer where it rested tied to the wall. There was a strong impulse to dash off an email to my folks. I don’t even talk to them that often, but I felt that maybe I should at least tell them I might be out of touch for a while, or forever. I hesitated. How would I even explain it to them? What would they say? Probably it would be some months before I found a secure enough connection to bother checking for a reply, but just the prospect of words of disapproval coming into existence overrode my hesitation.
I locked the bunk behind me and leapt off from the doorframe to propel myself up the shaft running through the center of the dorm block. The padded, off-white passage was empty and still. All around, the quiet hum of the climate control filled the silence with white noise. The lonely corridor was a surreal, oppressive place.
A dozen meters away the block joined to a connector junction through which I sprang acrobatically and came out into the academy’s core tower. At that early hour, there were only a few students drifting from block to block.
However, at the top of the tower there was a crowd of students coming and going through the narrow connector leading up to the president’s block. More ominously, the gate to the old maintenance shaft was open and the source of the greatest flow to and from the crowd. The tilting faction was fully mobilized; I could put a name to almost every face there. As I glided closer, a wave swept through the swarm. They parted before me like a membrane accepting in a permeating molecule.
Damn you all; do you even intend to take responsibility for those expectations?
I went straight to the front of the line to enter the spire corridor. Once I was inside, they gave me double the distance before they sent in the next ascender. It drove an impulse I had to lag far behind the student in front of me. But that’s not how I can be perceived, is it? No, I have to dash upwards and breathe down that guy’s neck to make my heroic entrance.
Halfway up the spire I brushed past a descender with an octopus of gnarly looking cables tangled around her. I realized it was Reb just as she opened her mouth.
“You’re lucky,” she stabbed as we flashed past each other.
A response died in my throat; it wouldn’t reach her unless I had the conviction to shout down the corridor, and I wasn’t sure what to say. You’re right, but not for the reasons you think I am and that makes it sting even more.
I hit the exit connector and pivoted myself into orientation with the exterior office. The entranceway was open enough, but farther back the room was stuffed with all sorts of gear and supplies as well as the students unpacking crates and arranging the equipment into coherent stockpiles that hovered from wall to wall except for an open channel going to the threshold of the next room. The chatter flying around the room slowed when I passed, becoming whispers tinged with awe. As I entered the inner office, the pull of gravity reasserted itself and I swung my feet out to land in the upright room.
The shouting I’d heard on the way in died out entirely in reaction to my presence. Burton stood leaning on his desk near the center of the small chamber. A pair of students crouched at small battlestations that had been set up in the far corner. Animated by their constant typing, projected images and dataqueues floated around the periphery of the finely furnished room. The cases of rare books were shielded from the laser show, metal plates lending the place a less scholarly atmosphere than usual. The aristocrat’s castle transformed into a temple of Mars in a heartbeat.
“Miss Seidel, I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances.” His characteristic smile was entirely dried up. Truly grim determination shone in his eyes.
You’re not like the kids here, old man. You’ve played the game with these stakes before. “What the hell’s going on?” I demanded. The silent students looked to their boss for approval. He motioned for them to continue their work.
“Just about the worst scenario,” Burton began. He looked to have aged a few years in just hours. Whatever rejuv treatments he was on clearly couldn’t deal with stress well enough. Perhaps ambiguously thirty before, the oligarch now looked more like the silvery distinction fitting for his erudite pretension.
“Isidro was snatched by some group on Central; spooks, or maybe mercenaries, that much is clear.”
“Did they say anything?” I asked.
“Detained for additional processing.”
That was vague enough to be clear. If they had any questions about that faker, we had to assume the jig was up. I worded my next question with great care.
“And what can you do about it?” I’m not about to offer anything, wannabe-king.
“I can sit here pulling strings and throwing out static, but there’s no guarantee I can get him back. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the odds lean toward impossible.” He hesitated. When he went on, his words were precisely measured. “But the alternative is infiltrating Central and taking him by force.”
“And you’re prepared to take the plunge?” Go ahead, bastard. I’m going to extract the most noble bullshit from you and savor every bit of your hypocrisy.
“Well I certainly can’t send one of the students; you know the difference between sympathies and tech work and fieldwork. This is a raid, not the place for a first timer.”
“But you’ve also just been sitting behind your desk, moving pieces on the board.”
“So what?” he roared. “I’m not some saint walking on the backs of others over the muck! Do you think there’s any less blood on my hands? I’m not a participant in the great game you know, allowed to disrupt this and that because everybody profits. You can turn on me at any time and they’ll leave you in the dust running to come take my head.”
He didn’t return my glare. Instead, his eyes were set to receive the blow of any insult.
“And so you want me to pick up the gauntlet and go…”
“It’s me or you.”
I really want to refuse no matter what just to test his resolve. But what would I actually do if he broke down in cowardice? “What do you have planned?”
Burton didn’t miss a beat and rolled out a smooth briefing on the mission. “One infiltrator, full systems takeover, manual extraction, Manchurian Exit.”
He’s not serious, is he? De-orbiting and ditching in the Scrapyard? But those were only some of the problems. “You mean to have one person storm the largest station up here?”
“The exfil shuttle only has room for two. Anyone else who goes will be left stranded.”
He had answers for all the questions I could give him; my thoughts slipped out. “You planned for this all along.”
“Of course I have. I’m confident that we could stay hidden forever as long as we kept to the shadows, but confrontation has to be inevitable when you go kicking hornets’ nests,” he said with some resignation. “Because I’m serious about this, I’ve been scheming away to cover for these types of scenarios.”
Finally we came to the crux of the matter. I wielded my voice like a club. “And I’m one of your pieces on the board.”
“All I can do is invite you along. I’ve told you from the start: blackmail isn’t a strong enough motive to see this through to the end. If you’ve perceived any arm-twisting from me, I think it comes from your own psyche.”
I hate arguing with you. At least that idiot is naive enough to be ill at ease with his own confidence.
“So I need to know, do you want to go?” He dropped his voice to its gentlest as he asked the question; severity put edges back on it. “There’s no coming back from this. Whoever goes is going all the way to the finish line from here.”
Wow, I thought, What a pitch. Care to crank the pressure any higher. But Burton simply waited.
During the moments of my indecision, the older gentleman elegantly directed the chaos erupting within the academy. Another couple of students landed at the doorway and hefted some heavy duty cases into the room. The first opened hers and began pulling out an environment suit. The second opened his and presented the unlocked chest to me and the president.
“I’m not asking you to change your mind about me being a devious radical. The only question to answer is if you will regret idly standing by no matter what ends my plans come to.”
Of course I’ll regret it. It made me sick to my stomach, but I couldn’t deny the pull. Whether or not it’s the right thing to do in the grand scheme of things, I liberated myself from that worry. I may not be able to come back from this, but I can quit going forward the moment his schemes overtake my limited interest. For just that person’s safety, and not for any greater cause. A tortured end in some blacksite dungeon is not what he deserves.
“You’ll owe me for this, just accept now how petty I really am.” Recklessly, heedless of uncertainty, I declared it.
Burton rubbed his graying beard. In a deadly hush, he intoned, “I’ll give you the world if you can take it.” For the first time, I felt we were speaking truthfully to each other.
I reached into the offered case and pulled out the Hand of Glory. The armored gauntlet was maintained like a sacred relic, cleaned to the last smudge of oil and repainted meticulously so that every carbon plate was a pristine, even white. Not a single fiber of the black underglove was frayed. It’s the absolute symbol of my hubris.