Sinduin wore a tabard to be discreet -she had the privilege of forgoing one as a Councilor's personal agent- but even so she had a vague sense as she walked that everyone knew exactly who she was. Well, not who she was exactly. She'd know if that was the case. Still, it felt icky. She was there of her own volition this time. A few days ago, she had received a black envelope, with her address handwritten in clear, cursive letters on an oval sticker with a cherry at each end. On a hunch she scratched and sniffed, and yes, the smell of maraschinos had survived the journey... but where from? There was no return address.
Inside there was a photo of a young woman in the process of (Shakti-)patting a candy lemon firefly. The word P E A C E was written in the same cursive. The oversized hand just screamed Incula, even though the woman wore a Human outfit, and, well, the glowworm thing. She had a strong impression that this was some perverse imitation of Misato’s postcard to Shinji in the Eva opener. She hadn't seen the show in a while so she filed that away. Anyway, the only folk in Incudea who knew enough to reach her onn Earth were working for A22, and this wasn’t Marjuin, and certainly not Durgaun. After some serious head scratching, she finally did a search and pulled that scene from Evangelion. Drats. Conclusion inescapable: thi was a thoroughly unprofessional A22 newbie, and creepy as ****.
Further communication came from Marjuin soon after. One Sandalion Pelrin out of Parasai ("so she's from Glowgem’s colony, the impudent brat", finally understanding the bug's presence for the insult it was), had been selected a few months earlier and was hard at work absorbing Human culture inside a simulation centroid, preparing to support Agent Sinduin at some point in the no doubt still distant future.
Sinduin was not even close to being mollified. Months?! She’d been eagerly hoping and lobbying for another scout to help her, but this disrespectful Daka-moon-pale pipsqueak was simply not the right choice. Her request to meet with the Supreme Commander was immediately granted. Unnerving that, but fine, good, we'll take it.
The final hallway was bereft of guards. Sinduin dreaded this part, because every single time she came to Durgaun’s door was different from the last. Sometimes the door would slide down of its own accord, the standard function in the Silver Planet. But sometimes it would slide diagonally or upward, or you’d have to push it, or pull it. Sometimes there wasn’t even a door there, so she’d turn around and find Durgaun already looking straight at her from another location Somrimes when she walked through doorless way, she'd feel a field of some sort, as if there was a door after all, and who knows what it registered or how it decided to let one in or out.
This time it looked conventional enough, but it wouldn’t budge. After a minute, Sinduin resorted to a single knock. The door slid right to left and she stomped in quickly just in case it changed its mind.
Durgaun was not one for pleasantries, not when subordinates were concerned. She was quick with a “So?”
”Is she here?”
”Where is she?” Durgaun asked, throwing Sinduin off until she noticed the question was directed at a third presence, sitting on a chair to Durgaun’s left, half in shadows.
”Udon Bubble,” replied Marjuin. “Obverse: Rear Army training; Reverse: Simcen study.”
Durgaun smiled at Sinduin. “There you have it.”
Sinduin half-wished she was working for Lambian still. 26 years without a single guessing game. Her former boss loved to explain and explain and explain. But that was in the past, so she proceeded to make her case as venomously as she could:
”I have no doubt this Sandalion is spectacularly gifted. No doubt whatsoever. Third grade by age 15? Impressive. Aurology reports sent me were more than msuperb. To be blunt, if you were anyone else, I’d counsel you against fostering someone so prone, so predestined, to the sort of sorcery you cannot keep back in the box once you’ve released it.”
”Like Pandora?” Marjuin asked excitedly, with plenty of confident she knew the reference, but with a hint of nervousness remaining.
”Yes, like Pandora.” It was good to know someone was reading her essays on Human culture, even if now was not the time. Durgaun, on the other hand, opened her mouth dumbly as if to say: Nope, don’t know what you guys are going on about. And of course she didn’t -she was too busy to do anything but skim reports- but the awful way she had of letting you know was extra -on the house.
Sinduin tried to get back on course. “It’s your thing though, you know how to handle people. That’s not the issue...”
She paused when she noticed both Marjuin and Durgaun were smiling at her. She thought it had to do with herself being handled and how foolish it was, at the end of the day, for her to come all the way from another universe to try to persuade her boss to go back on a decision. The truth is, however, that she had it wrong. Both of them smiled because they found it hilarious that Sinduin was here speaking of the dangers of employing overly magical folk when she fit that exact profile. Sinduin, however, was born in a forlorn moon and had only reached the second grade at age 123, so she had a penchant for undervaluing her own achievements.
”Do you know how I found about the new recruit?” She held out the message, and noticed Marjuin reach just a tiny bit forward and out of the shadows, while Durgaun continued to play comatose. Sinduin walked over to the Supreme Commander, upset at yet another feature of the place: Durgaun’s study was as nude as she was, and so there was no writing table to put the thing on, no minion to hand it to, no read console to process and read out loud for everyone’s benefit. You had to go up to her, seated as she always was on one of her stupid worms, and give it to her straight. This time, however, the boss bent her neck ever so slightly in Marjuin’s direction, and the latter stood up and took the photo from Sinduin before she had taken three steps.
”It’s a joke...” Marjuin said in a monotone, gobbling the photo up with her eyes. She turned it around slowly, then raised up her eyes expectantly as soon as she confirmed it was blank.
Sinduin wasn’t up for explanations. “Not a good one, trust me. Starting this relationship with such...levity, makes me doubt her suitability. Not despite her talents, actually, but because of them. That-“ she pointed to the item, which Marjuin was finally handing over to Durgaun, “is precisely what I would expect of someone with huge potential that will never be fulfilled. Not here. I mean, not there, not on Earth.” Sinduin felt tired all of a sudden. She only added: “It’s hard to explain.”
”She’s only young,” Durgaun said, tossing the photo behind her. “To be expected. She is the best person for the job. Not the right person for the job, but I don’t have time to comb the whole universe for that. She’ll have to do. That said,” she smiled winsomely, “I’ll talk with her. This is a big deal, I don’t have to tell you ladies. And first and foremost, she needs to respect you and follow your advice."
Sinduin remained quiet, not sure what she could say. This Sandalion didn't seem the order following type.
”Believe me, she’s eager to learn from you,” Durgaun added. Coming from a spymistress, that really didn’t mean very much, and Marjuin did not support the statement. She had by now retrated back to the shadows.
”When do you think you’d be deploying her to Earth?”
Durgaun responded casually, scratching her cheek for good measure: “Eighteen years from now, give or take.”
Sinduin clenched her fists. Patience came with the job, she reminded herself, but the anger would not abate.
Supreme Commander Durgaun stood up and began admiring a scene from the War with Echoglass, newly etched on the inside of the door. She didn’t walk there, mind you, but contented herself with looking over Sinduin’s shoulder. She spoke, saying:
”You’re both victor and vanquished. Your operations on the other side have been so successful that we feel confident you can carry on alone for a little while longer.”
A little while?! though Sinduin.
”For one, just this month I had her enroll at the Academy. That’s Kaga grounds, which only means it’s teeming with Kobol flies. If we pull her out too quickly, with her being the Wunderkind she is, we invite questions, and questions lead to exposure. Randolein and Kanmadein think I spend my days worrying about the flower invasion, which is scarily close to the heart of the matter, but that’s good. Being so close to the truth makes their ignorance nearly invincible. Nearly...”
Marjuin picked things up where Durgaun left them, saying: “You’re providing us with enormous amounts of data, and it’s all I can do to organize it and try to make sense of it, let alone to actually understand it.” She tapped her knee with the photo to bring the point home. “The new recruit is actually living the data, learning it from the inside. Yes, the risk of losing perspective, of being trapped even, is there. But I’ll see to it that she doesn’t. I’ll be studying from the outside, she from the inside, and you-“
”You,” Durgaun interrupted, “need a break. Even interdimensional scouts need some happiness in their lives. How can we make you happy?”
Sinduin scratched both shoulders and thought: You tell me, thoughtreader! Why don’t you get into my head and figure it out yourself? You have no respect for me at all, except for the weird thing about not reading my mind, which would actually help sometimes, you know?
Durgaun puffed her cheeks, then put a finger to her painted lips. “Marjuin,” she said, eyes always on Sinduin, “fetch me the dossiers on the newbie’s personas. I want to take advantage of the fact that Sinduin is here to get her input on the simulation work.”
”Right away, Supreme Commander. I think I have a copy on my console. It’ll only take me a minute.”
”No, no. We might as well get the latest updates. Go over to Central.”
Metacomm material was always inspected by conciliar sub-division personnel. Durgaun was Supreme Commander of CSD-A. And yet, the A22 project was unknown to most at the sub-division, so in order to keep it that way they communicated with Sandalion by sending and receiving metacomm disguised as intracomm at Central in the Tetrad, where regular folk communicated with their relatives out in the Exotics, placed bets on megastorm patterns, mundane stuff. Marjuin didn’t hesitate because she had somehow forgotten this, but because she remembered that Sandalion had sent an update a couple of days earlier, and she never sent more than one a week. They had the latest dossiers right there in Manampika.
The analyst from Gorgo had been in Durgaun’s service for some time, the last two years spent in A22. A glance at her boss told her she had not forgotten the timing of the last communication. She simply wanted her gone. Well, thought Marjuin, I do have some shopping I’ve been meaning to do at Central so...
”Yes. Excuse me.”
As Marjuin exited the room, Durgaun walked slowly back to her chair, her worm. She sat down and crossed her legs.
”What time is it now? Twelve longhours and three? There’s a transport leaving at twelve-six for Notun. You should hop on it.”
”If you can’t be happy in Notun, there’s no helping you. I can give you the access code for my favorite spot there. It’s top shelf. I guarantee you won’t remember why the newbie bothered you. By Tebrash, you probably won’t even remember there ever being a newbie at all, once they’ve had their way with you.”
Sinduin shook her head and tried to avoid blushing. “No, thank you. I’d rather be dismissed so I can go rest in my quarters until Marjuin returns."
”Fine,” Durgaun said with a frown. She cracked her neck to one side.
The sound of the door behind her locking -whether by magic or technology who could know?- told Sinduin her request for dismissal had been denied.
”What now?” she muttered, afraid for the first time that day.
”We have a longhour and a half, less if Marjuin can resist the urge to splurge. Ah, why kid ourselves, knowing her we probably have a full two longhours...”
Sinduin just stared at her.
Sinduin arched back, almost laughed. Durgaun was buck naked, so it was impossible to call her bluff if there was one. She could only ask:
”Undress? Is that an order?”
Once again Sinduin found herself staring at her boss, always so full of surprises. Durgaun leaned back, expecting compliance and exuding confidence, among other things. The worm beneath her stopped squirming as if on cue. To Sinduin, the silence was deafening.
”Well,” Sinduin started, “You realize even if you were Ulmain the Ugly, it’d be hard for me to pass up on the chance to mate with a princess. It's a great story to tell at the saloon.”
”I can imagine.”
”Oh, there are watering holes in Starbody and Dementi with critics much more demanding than any film scorers.” Sinduin immediately regretted what she said. It made her sound drunk. Pathetic. Truth be told though, she could use a good lay, and this was guaranteed to be better than good.
Durgaun looked Sinduin up and down with a hint of impatience. “Well?”
Be serious. “Isn’t this a dangerous thing to do? In the light of our relationship and the importance of our mission and everything?”
”If I thought you couldn’t handle it as a professional, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I'm not asking you to dinner in Aurena Green or anything like it.”
Sinduin reached for the clasp at her nape. As she unfastened it, she tried to summon the wisdom of the Pyrodules -which she had never properly learned- or that of the Zennists -which she was just as ignorant of- and just guide herself smoothly to full nudity and final equality with Durgaun. Somewhere almost beyond consciousness she heard the latter say:
“I’m almost four hundred and I’ve never been with someone from your goddessforsaken moon.”
Sinduin took this insult in stride. In fact, she was happy that the Supreme Commander of CSD-A and ruling Princess of Incudea felt compelled to resort to contempt. Why else but to mask any semblance of longing? The agent wasn’t dumb, and she knew how to extract a confession in these circumstances. The rest of her clothes came off easily after that.