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By: Jolene Lau
The makeshift altar was topped by a set of stumpy, nearly burned-out white candles. The tall, stiff-backed woman, the scabbard at her waist lightly clanging against her gleaming silver armor, drew the white cape around her shoulders and knelt before the swaying flames.
Odd, how she hadn't knelt for over two years, to anybody or anything, it suddenly occurred to her. True, she took orders from the Emperor and bowed to him out of reverence and protocol, but nobody controlled her mind and thoughts, as they once had done so closely. The scientists had stepped back and looked at her as a finished project, a piece of experimentation completed successfully. Her rounds of mental training and electromagneto-transmission treatments were also finished; therefore, according to the pompous Imperial behaviorists and biologists, she was to be set loose and allowed to make her own decisions, seeing as how she had been thoroughly programmed to the Emperor's specifications.
Then why in the hell was she here, kneeling on the ground to a faceless deity that was not her master?
It was Deverca and Alex who had placed the idea in her brain; she could imagine their words squirming through her head like hungry maggots. Maggots--heh, that was how she had begun to see thoughts awhile ago, injected by the Empire and left to fester and spawn their own offspring. It didn't escape her that the word had another meaning. "Those innocent people," Deverca had fretted, watching her preparations wistfully. "What will become of them?
Deverca was her assistant, her cabin boy of sorts, her conscience, her innocence. He sat across from her in her quarters, burnishing her shield as she sharpened her sword; she let no one touch her runic blade. She stared calmly into his anxious face. "Nothing at all--as long as they don't resist."
"Anyone would resist to keep their hometown from being conquered, ma'am," he replied softly, tentatively exploring the foreign territory of Imperial resistence.
"Silliness." She held the weapon before her face, where it could catch the light, and gently tested the cutting edge with her right thumb. "This isn't war or competition. There's no honor lost if they surrender." She fixed a glance, steely as the sword she held in her hand, at Deverca. "This is the Empire. The power of Maranda is nothing compared to ours. We've given them the facts; the people can see them with their own eyes. What they do beyond that is not our responsibility."
She stood and fastened the white cape at her neck.
"But, General, ma'am," Deverca spoke at less than a whisper, "wouldn't you fight?"
From across the room, she acted as though she hadn't heard him, and she sensed that he believed she hadn't. More silliness. What would genetic enhancement be without increased auditory sensitivity?
A knock sounded on the door, and Deverca scrambled up to answer it.
"So, our noble general prepares for Imperial conquest," a steady tenor voice intoned from the doorway.
"Alex," she said without turning around. "I'm sorry I have to miss your graduation tomorrow."
He might have shrugged, had he been ordinary, but his years of training suppressed such extraneous gestures. "No matter. Some forty-three people in the entire Empire know of it. National security makes it a minor event."
"Nonetheless," she began, but stopped; she wanted to keep herself focused. "The ships leave Albrook with our ground forces tomorrow morning, so the leaders still here in Vector are leaving for the port this evening."
"I came to wish you the best of luck," Alex said professionally, "and do be careful with yourself."
"I'm always careful," she replied breezily, strapping the scabbard to her belt with a marked gesture for emphasis.
"You're a bit of a zealot, though," he said thoughfully, regarding the side of her face carefully.
"It's a dangerous world. You can never be too certain or too well-armed. The ends justify the means."
"Perhaps." Alex's tone was neutral, even indifferent, in response to these cliches. His knowledge of human psychology was flitting through his mind, and he knew she thought this, and correctly.
"After all, it's what we've been taught, isn't it?"
He sensed the indecision in this statement, not necessarily in her words but in the rising inflection at the end of the phrase, and exploited that crack. "Teaching is teaching. Who's to say students always listen to their schoolmasters without questioning?"
Her hand, reaching for a pouch of ethers, paused in mid-motion. Wavering at a point of uncertainty, she paused before finally managing to say, "Who's to say the students have a right to criticize? Who's to say the teachers aren't omniscient?"
"Why, here in the Empire, no one, of course," Alex returned with a slight smile, letting the words sink in.
She mulled over the significance of his comment and shot a quick glance at Deverca, who was pretending to be absorbed in cleaning the shield. "Take my equipment to the stables in two hours; if any of the commanders ask, I'll be there at the established meeting time. Right now, I have some business to take care of."
Alex extended a hand and she took it. "Good luck."
"The Empire doesn't need it," she murmured.
"But you do."
Brief words of farewell were accompanied by a confident swirl of her cape. Then, her brisk footsteps traced the path to the outskirts of Vector, to a place she had nearly forgotten, in the years since she had accidentally stumbled on it. How old was she? Twelve. What was life on the outside like? she had wondered, and so she had put the guards outside the dorm compound to sleep with a quick spell and followed her governess out.
That was when she first visited the temple to the three goddesses. It was a miracle the tiny wooden structure hadn't been closed down by the Empire for supporting counter-Imperial beliefs, or hadn't burned down, for that matter. She never expected to return, but there she was years later, kneeling before its altar like any other weak-willed human; the why behind it made her wonder about herself.
A twinge. She'd felt something move in her heart, beyond the mechanics of blood circulation, that disturbed her.
She squeezed her eyes shut and hoped, begged, prayed, that she would understand what she was missing in her life.
She prayed that her conscience, wherever it was and if she had one at all, would speak to her.
She prayed that she could learn to feel, as others could.
She prayed that she was not making a mistake by doing so.
She had no idea how long she kneeled there, a part of her brain hoping that twinge in her chest would grow and spread feeling through the rest of her heart, another part--firmly rooted from her years of Imperial training and brainwashing--clinging to the vast emptiness known as emotional detachment.
For a brief moment she felt her defenses break, the ancient, surpressed warmth overwhelming her barrier of anti-sentimentality. To love--to hate--to fear--to feel compassion....
But like the sting of blood returning to deadened limbs, it was not without pain.
All the senseless violence, detached murdering, cries for mercy, and the icy face that turned away from them without a change of expression. Worse yet, the icy heart that was unashamed by the actions attributed to that face.
The mental and emotional barriers began to go up again. No! she felt a nearly-forgotten voice from her mind scream out, its tone as terrified and desperate as the shrieks of innocent civilians.
It was shoved back roughly and fell to the floor, still whimpering in protest. In automatic response, the dominant element of her mind beat at it until it was silenced. Forever, the grinning victor thought, trumpeting its triumph throughout her synapses.
And she could only watch, blankly, blandly, coldly, as her training slew her heart.
She stood slowly and faced Deverca. "What?"
"Captain Bernard requests your presence at the stables, ma'am. He says he has some matters to discuss, ma'am."
She nodded once to him, then scanned the room as though she were looking at it for the first time. "Yes. Tell him I had some...tactical matters to resolve first."
"Yes, ma'am." Deverca turned to leave.
"And one more thing, Deverca?"
She looked him calmly in the eye. "Report this place to the Imperial Intelligence Agency, for spreading subversive beliefs. Do that right away."
Celes strode to the stables, her face towards Maranda.
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