Liminal Masks

I stood alone at the ball as the most important people in Genesis mingled about me. My mask, an ornate affair cast in white, gold, and silver pinched my nose and cheeks. It hadn't been made for me, but instead my elder brother who had, at the last minute, decided he would rather engage in dalliances with his Caldari "friend" than attend. Our father had been suitably enraged, but it was too late to do much about it, as my brother had taken a family shuttle all the way to New Caldari, a total of twenty jumps from our home of Sibe.

Even if father had wanted to spare the expense and embarrassment of sending the family's security team to retrieve him, he would never have been back in time to make it to the ball on time. So I was pressed into last minute service, pulled away from preparation for the Imperial Navy's officer exam to serve as a family representative to this rather uninteresting affair.

I should not, perhaps, say it was uninteresting, but rather point out merely that it is uninteresting to me. A sefrim ball was not high on the list of things I would attend were I in charge of my own schedule. Unfortunately, my father was too ill to attend and as a good son of a Holder (albeit one who was not in line to inherit anything of note. Despite my brother's indiscretions, he was still firmly in my father's good favor. Which, were I to be perfectly objective about it, was probably for the best. Being a subjective man, I frequently railed about the unfairness of it all), I was the only one left to attend.

Oh, I suppose my mother could have attended, but she was born of a much lower house and, despite marrying into ours, she still had lower blood and we couldn't very well send her to see the sefrim, could we? She might be struck dead by their beauty despite their vaunted masks.

My father had said all that with a laugh and smirk as my mother hung her head and refused to meet either of our eyes. How I wished once again to remind him that his own standing had been so poorly viewed that she was the one he'd ended up with, but I knew that in exchange for a brief restoration of my poor mother's pride I would draw down his wrath (not physical, because frailty was taking him despite his relative youth, but his mind was still whip-perfect at inflicting psychic welts), not toward me, because I could handle it, but at her when they were behind closed doors when no one could witness his shameful displays.

So I kept silent and accepted the mask which was crafted for my brother's rather narrower nose and cheeks and dealt with the uncomfortableness. It was not so tight as to cause pain, but rather enough to inflict mild discomfort the entire night which manifested itself in a constant fidgeting on my part as I attempted to adjust it to some position in which it might provide a moment of comfort.

To my misfortune, this fidgeting was being interpreted as nervousness by some of the more loquacious members of Genesis nobility, who insisted upon approaching me and engaging in the most inane of small talk. I mostly stood there as they talked at me, regaling me with stories of their own oh-so-clever triumphs over the other Holders in the room. Every so often I would, after a moment's expectant stare from my conversational partner, emit a sound that might be confused for a word by the very drunk, thus turning the awkward monologue into a far more decorous dialogue.

Eventually, they were each driven off by the lack of interesting gossip that emerged from me and drifted away with some mild pleasantry aimed at preventing offense, though I had taken far more offense at their arrival than I ever could by their departure. Fortunately, after a few hours, it seemed word of my disinterest had filtered through the crowd and no more of the Holders or their designated representatives approached me. I stood thankfully apart from them and adjusted my mask once again, taking solace in the brief moment of comfort before realizing the pinching had merely been transferred to another point, and sipped slowly on a cocktail composed of Starsi and gin which was sweet nearly to the point of sickliness, but which was just up my alley.

Then a chime rang throughout the ballroom and the voices of the gathered nobility fell swiftly to silence as all eyes turned toward a raised balcony which, until now, had been surrounded by a thick curtain. Now the curtain was drawn away and upon the balcony stood seven figures, all masked and clad in robes. The sefrim.

They were not truly sefrim, of course, but rather actors selected by the Holder throwing the ball to portray them. They were arranged in a hexagonal shape in a particular order that anyone politcally savvy enough could easily divine as long as they had a basic knowledge of heraldric colors. At the rear stood two sefrim, one dressed in dull green and gray featuring a mask with both eyes impaled by crosses, the other in cobalt and slate wearing a mask which resembled a bird with multiple horns. In the middle row stood three sefrim, one wearing a rather sinister appearing black and organish-red robe coupled with an angular mask with interlocking eyeholes, flanked by one sefrim wearing shades of gray and another in gold and bronze, the former's mask a perfect circle with two crescents emerging from the sides, while the latter's rather uncreatively had two topazes cut into the shape of blades crossed over the front of it.

At the front of the group stood a sefrim clad in pure gold, her mask broad with two upturned horns and two curving downward around a small beak. I would have expected the final sefrim, standing as an equal beside the Imperial one and wearing the Khanid black and silver, to be wearing a mask in inversion of her fellow. Instead, the mask was triangular and had a vast, central eye. I wondered if this was some subtle insult to the King or if, perhaps, the mask was actually ancient and priceless.

My interest in the sefrim had just about waned and I was ready to look away, when the Imperial sefrim turned her head and, by utter coincidence, happened to lock her eyes with mine.

In them I witnessed a glittering of fear and revulsion that set my heart aflutter.

The sun set. Its rays barely reached the bodies. A soldier, his dropsuit of Amarr design, slowly walked among them. He leaned heavily on his laser rifle. He limped. The eyes of his helmet were covered in a black blindfold. His vision was not actually obscured by it. In a grave of indistinguishable corpses, it mostly set him apart.

He appeared to be searching for something in the rubble. He stopped at a body, unarmored, and knelt down. The body was burnt beyond recognition. He gently rolled it over and stared at the face. The face could not stare back as it had been thoroughly destroyed by whatever weapon had killed it.

He stood. He left the body behind, not bothering to return it to the position it had fallen in. The next unarmored body he came to was in better condition. When he turned it over he dropped to a knee and brushed the hair away from the face, then pried the eyes open. After a minute he dropped the body and moved on to the next.

Twilight engulfed the cooling battlefield. The lone soldier continued to move among the bodies.

In those glorious brown eyes I had seen a look I empathized with more than anything in the world. The poor woman, whomever she was, did not want to be at this damned ball any more than myself. Where before I had no interest in any sort of socialization with the petty nobles, now I knew I had to meet this woman and say...

Well, I knew not what I would say to her. I did not know the first thing about her, other than she must be a rare beauty to have been selected to represent our Empress and that she had in her the same disgust for social encounters as I.

I briefly paused to consider that position and the potential trap into which I was throwing us both, then allowed myself a rare smile and moved further through the ball. After allowing the assembled several minutes to gaze upon them, the sefrim had once more been sequestered behind their curtain.

I wondered if she would remove her mask when she was hidden from view and craned my neck in an attempt to see between the folds of the curtain, but naturally was unable to see a thing. Disappointed but not dissuaded, I began to imagine ways I could steal a meeting with her.

Perhaps since I was the son of a Holder I could utilize a portion of my influence to win a private meeting with her. “My holy sefrim,” I would say to her as we met in some private chamber, “I know you are not normally interested in the words of such foolish men as I.” I would smile at her as I said this and she would wonder how I knew and perhaps even ask.

“My majestic sefrim, I saw your eyes and surely they were a mirror of my own.” She would smile back then and say something unflattering about the tainted nobles and we would laugh together about their inanity. And from then, who knows what might happen?

But first, I needed a way to meet her and standing around daydreaming about it would not serve that purpose in the slightest. So I began to look around the room and hopefully identify someone who could make that desire a reality. It was only as I looked from one masked visage to the next that I realized how truly out of my element I was.

I knew who few of these men and women were. I thought I recognized a few family colors on the masks, but there were hundreds of us here and a limited number of color combinations and, besides that, there was no telling whether the person wearing the mask was a Holder, a son or daughter of some merit, or merely someone forced into attending for lack of a more suitable alternate as with me. And with that understanding, I came to realize that I would not be getting an audience with my beloved sefrim merely by the weight of my family name.

For, as I had so frequently reminded my father in the past, our family name is worth quite little and that name attached to an unneeded second son meant precious little indeed. No, it would only be by securing the favor of someone who actually mattered that I could ever hope to approach her and commiserate about the hardships of socialization.

Which, of course, circularly led me back to my original epiphany of strangeness and my despair at ever finding said person of import.

I despaired a moment at my lack of upbringing, or rather, the lack of attention I had paid to that upbringing. My elder brother, I knew, would have no problem telling me exactly who that woman in the loose, flowing dress which hid her lumpy hips was, nor would he hesitate in identifying the man with the mask of red, blue, and green who had his hair shaved down to the skin save an odd, irregular patch on the crown of his skull.

My sweet sefrim with the shy brown eyes would forever slip beyond me, I knew at that moment, thanks solely to my lack of culture. I tapped my fist against my leg in nervous frustration. There was no chance I would be able to meet her. It was a silly thought. Why, even, would she want to meet with me? I was a nobody, a poor second son of a meaningless Holder who had nothing to offer her. My fist beat a heavier tattoo against my leg until I suddenly struck myself so firmly that it hurt. I grimaced in anguish, unsure if it was from the physical pain or the mental.

But then a moment of clarity washed away my self-loathing and I realized I had my own strengths. I was an intelligent man and surely, despite my lack of familiarity with courtly matters, I could surely figure out through deduction who it was that might be able to grant my desire. It was a simple matter after all, which gave me a surge of relief.

I looked around the room, immediately pushing aside any of those whom I had brushed off earlier as unlikely to assist me at this point. I needed someone richly dressed, as they would be the most wealthy and influential. They must be rather affable as well and willing to entertain the request of a person they had never met before.

After a few moments of scanning, I spotted my mark. It was a Holder in a well-tailored robe which accentuated his broad chest while drawing attention away from the rather spindly arms. His mask was in gold and platinum, which either meant a family of age and influence or one which had the willingness to fake it. From the crowd gathered around him, listening to him tell a story about something, it seemed at the very least he'd be willing to talk to me.

I gulped down the dregs of my drink and handed the empty glass to a servant before making my approach.

An explosion rocked the building. Debris flew in a shower. It bounced harmlessly off the shields of the soldier wearing the blindfold. He snapped a new charge pack into his laser rifle and waited. Another explosion. He quickly spun from cover and sprinted out into the open.

Bullets pelted his shields. He pivoted toward the source. The sun, still several inches above the horizon, obscured the shooter in its heavy glare. But the sensors on his helmet quickly located a target.

He raised the laser rifle and fired. The beam sliced through the air. The assailant, perhaps expecting to have been shielded by blindness, reacted too slowly. It took only a second for the laser to break his shields and slice through his armor.

Several minutes of silence passed before the blindfolded soldier lowered his rifle. The battle had been long and tiring. He placed the butt of his rifle into the ground and leaned heavily on it. Dirt and grime and blood covered his dropsuit. He took a step forward and, the adrenaline finally running out, stumbled slightly on his wounded leg.

He looked down at it. The blood still trickled out of the gash in his armor. It did not hurt. The implants in his head took care of the pain for him. He should have it tended to.

But there was no one to tend to this wound, or any other. The battlefield was silent. He turned and limped off through the blown-out buildings and shattered vehicles.

I stood at the outskirts of the Holder's social circle for quite some time before he even acknowledged I was present. Even then it was a mere turn and nod and a jovial smile that nonetheless did little to invite me to converse with him, as he was quickly drawn into a conversation with another noble about someone I had never heard of doing something which had little importance to me. I struggled to maintain my concentration on their words in the event that I could make use of it, but quickly found my mind sliding away from it.

Once this Holder helped me meet my darling sefrim, I could just imagine her joy. “Oh, I have been so tired of dealing with all this,” she would say, her voice soft and lilting, perfectly feminine. A singer's soprano; I knew it despite having never heard it.

“I'm done with them too,” I'd say. “Though I had to put up with them in order to get a chance to speak with you.”

“You poor thing,” she would have said with a light laugh. “I can just imagine how terrible that was for you.”

“Yes, but worth it.”

She would smile and easily dismiss my naïve attempts at charming her, but my own bashful smile would let her know I understood how contrived the line was, yet had no choice but to speak the truth. She would give me her name; it would be a beautiful one, a Jyna or a Luemyl. Something which dripped off the tongue.

I would give her mine and she would be unimpressed by it. “I am the son of a Holder,” I would tell her. My attendance at the ball would have made it obvious I had some standing, of course, and a son of a Holder is no big thing. I would add, “The second son of a Holder. Unlikely to inherit anything. Training to be an officer in His Majesty's fleet.”

Truly a lowly person I was, unworthy of speaking with a beautiful sefrim such as her. But my honesty – no, my boastfulness of unimportance would be far more intriguing than bald arrogance. Here was not a man intending to win her favor through money and power, but rather through more honest means.

The Holder had finally begun talking to me and I realized, with mild embarrassment, that I had not heard a single word he said whilst caught up in my dreaming. I blinked and stared at him, hoping to figure out what had been the gist of the conversation without revealing my inattention.

"... mask is clearly a new thing," the man was saying. "Lacking all pretension of history or pride. It is, rather, quite blatantly an attempt to win favor of our Empress, even though Her Majesty is not with us today." He waved his hand absently at me. No, not at me, but at my mask. There was a tittering of laughter from the other guests and for once tonight I was grateful for the mask, which hid the blanching white of my cheeks.

The Holder looked at me expectantly, almost as if daring me to respond to him. Yet there were no words that I could muster to adequately riposte his tear-down of my family's honor. Indeed, I suspected he was quite right. My family colors were not gold, white, and silver; those most surely were the colors reserved for our sovereign and in wearing them it was not only an insult to the Empress (for who was my family to believe it could wear such attire!), but also my own family, as we were too lowly to even have pride in our colors!

Flustered, I stood there and said nothing, merely looking down at the chests of the assembled to avoid looking into their eyes. After a moment, the Holder, apparently not willing to wait for my reply any longer, began to speak about someone else's mask. "Of course, we cannot all be as well off as the Lady of Ice. Her mask, at first glance, seems to carry both the air of humility and the grace of age and personality. You see, the rounded edges and uncomplicated colors tell me it is from a time when bombastry was unappreciated! Yet the vein down the center confuses me. It is in the Khanid King's colors, yet this mask cannot be only a few hundred years old. Certainly not! I suspect instead it must be a reference to the time of Damius II, when that 'venerated' emperor called for a year of mourning after his empress, whom they popularly knew as the Golden Queen after her hair, fell ill and died at a young age. All noble women across the Empire dyed their hair black to mourn with the emperor.

"So we see, while it appears to be befitting your great house, it's merely a great, great, great grandmother complaining about having to dye her blonde hair black to appease an emperor for whom she cared little."

The group of Holders, including the poor woman this beast was busy denigrating, all burst into titters of laughter which reminded me nothing more of the chittering of angry furriers. The Lady of Ice - I seemed to recall, from some tedious lecture on style-titles - was from Keri, famed for its ice fields. Her silvery hair, which cascaded down her back in ringlets, gave me a stark reminder of white glaze ice.

Even though everyone seemed to be having a merry time, I turned and slinked away. I do not believe any of them gave cause to notice my abrupt departure, for I had not said a single word during the entire time I had stood there and aside from the brief moment of embarrassment at the hands of the Holder had likely made no lasting impression upon them at all.

Truly I was a poor choice for my father to send; when court gossip reached his ears he would surely be led to believe I had never even come to the party. I felt a swell of anger that he had even sent me at all and wasted my time like this, when he knew I would be a terrible choice.

Then the image of the brown-eyed sefrim in her gold flittered back into my head and I banished all notions of anger. I might not do a proper duty for my father tonight, but something much greater would come of it.

Alone, the soldier dashed across the road from one building to the next. The tails of his blindfold fluttered in his wake. A report of gunfire echoed through the dead city. Miniature explosions of concrete burst from the ground before him. The attempted assailant was leading him too much. The next burst would likely be better aimed. It did not come before he slid into the entryway.

The polyglas windows were thick and reinforced. No gunfire would penetrate them. The sun, angled high enough to be just above the skyline, illuminated the inside with their rays. He held a moment and waited. Waited. Waited.

There, a glimmer of red and gold. Sunlight glinting off a dropsuit. His enemy had appeared out from cover. He raised his laser rifle and pulled the trigger. The beam passed effortlessly through the window and similarly through the charging man's chest. He ran several more steps and even raised his assault rifle before stumbling forward. He fell to the ground, dead.

The blindfolded soldier turned and ran once again. Out the back of the building. Into an alley. It was cramped. His helmet-sensors picked up a small heat signature in a dumpster. He threw the lid open and pointed his rifle in.

A feral furrier hissed at him, but backed away, into a corner. It was thin. Its had several bald patches in its downy, yellow feathers. He considered pulling the trigger. He let the lid close with a bang and turned to start running again.

He held a hand to the side of the helmet, as if trying to block out noise. There was no noise but his boots on the ground. And his heavy breathing. No comms chatter from a squad. No orders coming from command.

He couldn't be the only one left. There had been no evac. His link up to the CRU told him there were over a dozen clones left. The rest of his side was still out there. Somewhere, they were fighting.

But everything was quiet. He glanced over his shoulder. The alley remained empty. He kept running, away from it.

"And what about your mask?" I should have said. "Gold and platinum? Clearly we have here a family compensating for its lack of real influence and prestige by showing off the most banal and base manner of importance; money. What are you, an Udorian? A Ni-Kunni? Whatever wealth you wasted on that gaudy showpiece could have been spent finding an artist of real talent to craft something of dignity."

That would have shown that loud-mouthed braggart a thing or two. I could just imagine the face he would have made, jaw slack and dumb, after my retort opened him from stem to sternum. It would have been quite a sweet victory. Perhaps then I would have turned to the dignified Lady of Ice and said to her, "Ma'am, your mask is a rare and noble as your own house. A house that can trace its mask to Damius II is older and more prestigious by ten times than this faux-scholar."

He would have blustered and said, "Now see here, whelp! I happen to know more about masks than you know about any subject! I'll pit my knowledge against anyone's!"

And I, being the clever man I am, would let my lips curl in the slightest hint of a smile. His eyes would go wide behind his ostentatious mask as he worried I, perhaps, knew some renowned professor of sefrim masks or perhaps was even one myself. Yet I was much more clever than that and would instead say, "Perhaps we should ask the sefrim themselves about the provenance of the masks. Who better would know than they?"

And the nobles gathered about us would have clapped their hands with joy at the clever suggestion and all agreed that we must simply ask the sefrim about their masks. And who, oh who could get us an audience with the sefrim? I would profusely apologize for my lack of connections because I was, I would say with a plainly false humbleness, a man who lacked "any pretension of history or pride".

The blustery Holder, now shamed multiple times over, would nod his head vigorously and say, "Why, I'll show you how little influence I have!" and storm off with the lot of us in giddy tow toward whomever could make my imagined meeting with my lovely sefrim a reality.

I worried my lip in frustration as I floated through the guests. Had I only had the presence of mind to come up with the quip, I would have gotten what I wanted. But it was too late now. I couldn't simply go back and deliver the line. It would look utterly ridiculous.

The chimes sounded and my head whipped around, back toward the balcony. The curtain was slowly parting and there, once again, was my sefrim in pure gold. She stared off into thin air, her brown eyes dull with tedium and exasperation. I looked beyond those eyes now and noticed her full lips, pressed into a tense line, painted silver with a gold stripe down the center. Much of the rest of her face was obscured by the mask so I could only speculate on the beauty hidden behind it.

Oh, I could imagine her as lovely as a true sefrim, able to sear the flesh from men should she remove the mask. It must be so, else would God be so cruel as to hide her away from view?

I kept staring as she turned to the Khanid sefrim and clasped arms with him. They bowed their heads toward one another, her wavy brown hair dropping to obscure her face. Slowly they began to turn in a ritual dance. I gaped at them as they spun and spun in a slowly increasing pace.

It was only when they were whirling in a circle that I noticed there was a solemn, weighty music being played by some hidden orchestra on great bowed instruments. As the low, heavy hum seeped into my consciousness, I broke my eyes away from the sefrim long enough to see that the rest of the attendees had found partners and were engaged in the same ritual dance, spinning in circles, not making a sound save for the rustling of their robes or dresses as they brushed against each other and the floor.

I alone was standing still, unpartnered.

The squad of seven soldiers advanced swiftly under the high sun. They matched their pace to their slowest member, a soldier in an Amarr Sentinel dropsuit carrying a heavy machine gun. The woman in the Minmatar Logistics suit mirrored him closely, her repair tool at the ready should they come under hostile fire. Flanking them both were the blindfolded soldier in his Amarr Assault suit carrying his laser rifle and a woman in a Gallente Assault with an assault rifle. Streaking ahead was a man in a Minmatar Scout carrying only a pair of nova knives and no other weapon of note. Trailing behind was a Caldari Assault with an Ishukone sniper rifle at the ready and a Gallente Scout with a mass driver.

The only noise was the sound of their boots crunching the pavement as they ran down the street. They rounded a corner and came face to face with a much larger group of the enemy, wearing dropsuits stained in red. The heavy machine gun leveled and fired, spraying bullets into their midst. Three of them dropped before they could even react. The rest tried to raise their weapons, but were too slow.

The mass driver exploded into their midst, throwing several off their feet. Two were cut down by the laser rifle, two more dropped by the assault rifle. In their midst, somehow avoiding the weapons fire as if he were intangible, the nova knives scored more kills than any other, plunging blades through two chests, slashing another's throat, and splitting the head of a fourth.

The sniper rifle did not even get a chance to fire. He lowered his weapon silently and fell back into formation as the group moved steadily, with purpose, toward some sort of goal. The blindfolded soldier reached up and touched the side of his head, as if listening for some instruction. No voice reached him, but the others raised their hands to their heads as well.

They all dropped them in unison and made a sudden turn down an alley. There was a low thrumming sound and the nova knives raised his hand. It was not necessary. The entire squad had stopped. After a moment, he sprinted down the alley and by a junction. A split second after he cleared it, an explosion from a forge gun shattered the wall and sent debris flying.

Immediately, the squad rushed around the corner as the hum began to rise again. The alley junction emptied into a square, where a large group of hostiles had formed a makeshift bunker.

The heavy machine gun opened up with covering fire, but the hum continued to rise. He walked forward, spraying bullets at the fortifications but without scoring any hits against those behind cover. The nova knives spun back around the corner and sprinted forward, ducking beneath the hail of bullets.

The laser rifle began slicing away at the fortifications, though it was slow going. They were made of pieces of light gray concrete. When a hostile tried to peek out from behind cover, the assault rifle fired and immediately forced him back down. But another popped up in a different location and scored several hits against the heavy machine gun with a scrambler rifle, stripping his shields and quickly tearing into his armor.

The repair tool immediately went into work, sending a swarm of nanobots to suture the rends in his armor. The energy bursts from the scrambler rifle continue to strip away the armor faster than the repair tool could fix it, however. The heavy machine gun continued to whirr, the belt of bullets rapidly reaching its end.

The mass driver let out a chunky thump as it launched a lump of matter in an arc over the fortifications. It exploded right beside the hostile with the scrambler rifle, shattering the man's legs and sending him flying from the battlements. A large chunk was blown in the makeshift structure, revealing two others who had been killed by the explosion.

The humming reached a steady thrum and suddenly the forge gunner stepped out from his hiding spot. Almost instantly his head disappeared in a shower of blood as the sniper rifle struck true. The hostile toppled forward and in his death throes ejected the charge into the ground at his feet, blowing apart another section of the bunker.

Suddenly, the entire bunker began to implode, the damage done having ruined its integrity. Hostiles began to pour from the cloud of dust and debris, though many more were crushed or otherwise injured in the collapse.

The heavy machine gun quickly reloaded while the laser rifle and assault rifle provided cover fire. The tightly packed hostiles were like best-case-scenario simulation targets for the mass driver. They died by the score. Any stragglers who picked themselves out of the rubble were quickly dropped by the sniper rifle.

Within a few minutes, the entirety of the hostile force was dead and the squad had only minor damage to deal with. The repair tool went to work, patching their armor, as the squad regrouped and scanned the area for surviving hostiles.

There was no movement or sound. After several moments, the squad began to move. But the blindfolded soldier lingered. He saw a dead hostile, a woman, most of her helmet blown away. Blood trickled from her slack mouth and matted her hair to her head, staining it a dark red. Kneeling, he began to reach for the last fragment of her helmet, which covered her eyes.

His hand stopped short and he stood bolt up. His squad had stopped and were all looking toward him. He reached his hand up to his head and touched over his ear. The rest of the squad did the same. He lowered his hand at the same time they did and began jogging toward him.

His helmet sensors alerted him to a small heat signature in an overturned garbage receptacle right next to his squad. He glanced at it only briefly, then turned away. It was too small to be of concern.

Then the receptacle exploded. Though he was several meters away, the blindfolded soldier was flung backward by the force of it. He landed in a dazed heap. The world spun around him, slowly at first but growing more and more rapid.

His implants kicked in and his head quickly cleared. He sat up and saw the corpses of his squad. He put his hand to his ear, but heard nothing. He lowered it slowly. With some difficulty, he pushed himself to his feet, using his laser rifle as a brace to do so.

Alone, he jogged off. His reborn squad would have to catch up.

Jealousy overflowed in me. My gorgeous sefrim had been dancing with another. It felt like a knife had been stuck into my stomach and twisted slowly. I found a servant and had another drink of Starsi and gin, gulping it down quickly. It had been mixed with preference given to the alcohol so that it burned as it settled. I had eaten little in the day, so it quickly began to make my head tingle.

But after a while, my emotions calmed as my rational mind took control. It was all part of a ritual, of course. She and the other sefrim had probably never met before today. They were selected by some Holder for their beauty, slapped into costume, and told what to do and when. I was fretting over nothing.

After the dance, most of the attendees were sweating and gasping for breath. Of course, a few of the nobles engaged in high-intensity exercises in their spare time, so the dance did not wear them out. Having had no partner to dance with, I appeared to be one of these few. Most who noticed gave me impressed looks, as they would not have imagined someone simply did not participate.

I pondered my situation and the my possibilities for meeting her. I could try to find another influential Holder, perhaps one not so predisposed to mockery. But I dismissed that thought, as my earlier experiment had proven the likelihood of failure. Even were I to find someone who might be amiable to the idea, I would lack the social skills to present my request to them. But I sadly could not think of any way to meet the sefrim otherwise. She would likely be whisked away after the ball, back to whatever life she lived in before...

Well, there was an idea. Even if I couldn't manage to speak with her this evening, I should be able to track her down afterward. I could manufacture a reason for having my father ask after her. Even though his influence was waning, it was unlikely the Holder throwing this ball would ignore his questions. Then I could present myself to her with much more preparation.

Yes, that could certainly do...

The chimes rang once again. The curtains parted, but this time the sefrim were joined by an eighth figure. He was unmasked but I could tell from his robes that he was a priest. He was an older man, or made up to resemble one in the haughty style of some Holders, with a Omenish nose, recessed chin, and thick silver hair. He raised his arms and everyone fell to their knees, bowed their heads, and clasped their hands. Everyone except the sefrim, of course, who were far too holy to kneel before even the holiest man.

I joined my fellow mortals on the floor and joined them in prayer. The priest's voice rose above everyone as he recited a holy prayer.

"Oh, holy sefrim
Grant us your strength."

The people recited the prayer, their voice a monotone drone. I joined along with them, reciting perfectly.

"High servants of God
Grant us wisdom."

Once again we recited. I did not recognize these prayers. I surely should have, for I had, as all good nobles, attended church sermons regularly.

"Great glorious Lord
Our humble praise."

It was almost like a strange poetry I had not heard before. A verse in a meter I did not recognize, yet knew deep down. The words felt pure and perfect coming from our mouths.

"We are unworthy
Ask for your grace."

My lips felt heavy and clumsy. I was missing some of the verses, I was sure. They made no sense together. They were disjointed.

"Grant us five blessings
We shall prosper."

My head was starting to swim. Was it from the alcohol? I had not drank that much, but I had eaten little as well.

"All give praise to the
God of Amarr."

I forced my eyes up, away from the ground as proper, to the priest and sefrim above.

"Truth shall be spread to
Four cardinals."

Her brown eyes stared back down at me, wide. I gaped.

The squad of seven sat within their mobile command center as it brought them toward their objective. They were mostly still, save for the nova knives, who twirled his weapons around in his hand and did tricks with them. The heavy machine gun had his head turned toward him, but whether or not he was actually watching was debatable.

The only sound was the rumble of the MCC's engines as it propelled them through the air and the faint hum of the ship's shields. They filled the air and made it impossible to hear anything else. None talked, regardless. There was nothing to talk about.

Despite heading to battle, no tension filled the bay. That there were only seven of them instead of a full unit meant only that there was no real resistance expected. Their enemies would likely not even be cloned soldiers. Ordinary human beings who had to face the fear of death every time they stepped onto the battlefield.

Those were not people to be worried about.

The assault rifle stared down at the jump door, which was closed for now but would eventually be opened for them to leap out into the battlefield. All of them could picture what they would see if the door was open. Faint wisps of white cloud passing by the shielded opening as the world trundled slowly pass them below.

They had been released from the warbarge near their objective, but not directly over it, which meant the enemy likely had surface-to-orbit defenses that could have shot down the warbarge if it strayed too close. The MCC would be in danger as well, though this low to the ground no orbital cannons would be aimed at it. The destruction they could cause would only be worth it as a scorched earth tactic.

More evidence their enemies could not clone. It might be worth it to take out the MCC and risk localized destruction if those aiming the cannon only found death a temporary concern. If they could not, they would not do it even if it might spare a fight altogether.

The mass driver began tapping his foot impatiently against the deck. The metallic clink of each tap was barely audible. Soon six other feet had joined him, tapping in perfect unison, echoing through the bay like a symphony that drowned out even the whirring of the engines.

After several minutes of this, the repair tool raised her hand and the rest of the unit stopped their tapping. They returned to their silent immobility, even the nova knives. Their blank, expressionless helmets stared forward at each other and nothing. Though they were still distant from the battlefield, none thought to remove them.

They hid any fear and removed any sense of self from them. They each liked it that way. They were a squad. The squad was important. The squad was everything. They all turned to each other in that moment, for only a second, before going back to their hidden gazes.

Several more silent moments passed until a chime sounded. As one the squad raised their hands and touched them to the sides of their helmets, where their ears would be. A second later they turned to face the front of the personnel bay, where a hologram of their commanding officer was projected.

He wore a dropsuit like them, patterned after the Amarr Templar style, but he wore no helmet. He was an older man, sourly dignified in the way only the Amarr can manage, with a thin, straight mouth under his beakish nose. His silver hair was cut short and combed modestly.

"God's grace be with you," he greeted the squad. The squad all raised their hands as one in a salute. He smiled. "Good. You are well trained. Perfect for this job. Hah. Of course you are. You were born for this. Well... Reborn for this." He smiled again at his joke. The squad remained silent, all eyes on the hologram.

A projection of a map replaced him, lit with blinking points. "This is the city of Khvaban. It has been attacked by the Blood Raiders. They are holed up the locations represented by the red checkpoints." Five of the points turned red and began to blink at a faster rate. "You will be dropped off here, where the MCC shall stay for the duration of the attack." One point turned blue and slowed its blinking. "It cannot get any closer because of the city's null cannons, which are here." The final four points, each in a corner of the city, turned yellow. "Your objective is to go in, take out the Blood Raider fortifications, then capture those null cannons and bring them back under friendly control."

The map floated there for a moment until it was impressed into each of their brains. Not that they would need to memorize it; their dropsuits' onboard computers could bring it up at a moment's thought. It flashed and then was replaced by the commander.

He looked slowly at each of them. "Civilian concerns are expected to be negligible at this point. Our satellites report that much of the city has already been damaged, so do not withhold your weaponry for fear of further damage. Are there any questions?"

Of course there were dozens of questions that could be asked. If there was no concern for civilians or structural damage, why not just glass the city from orbit? Why not just wait for the Blood Raiders to attempt an evac and destroy their ships as well? Why not surround the city with conventional soldiers and starve the Blood Raiders out?

But none of these questions were raised. Each of them had their own guesses as to the answers and any of them might have been true. It did not matter.

The commander nodded his head. "Good," he said. "Then get ready. We are only a few minutes from the drop point." The hologram then flickered into nonexistence.

The squad all turned back toward the still-closed drop door. Laser rifle reached down and grabbed a long piece of black cloth. He wrapped it around his helmet, right over the brown eyespots of his helmet, and tied it in a knot.

He looked at each of his squadmates and said, "Die well."

"I will die well," they each echoed back as the drop door slowly began to open and the MCC came to a sluggish halt.

I was exhausted and could barely keep my arms up. I trudged back toward the shuttle that would return me to my family's estates in Sibe. I briefly thought plaintively of the officer's manual I was supposed to be studying and how I would be too exhausted to finish it. My exam with the Imperial Navy was coming soon and if I were to do poorly on the exam, I would never be admitted to the Imperial Academy. It had taken all of my father's influence for them to allow me to take the test in the first place. My interview had not gone well.

But all that was overshadowed by my sorrow at not meeting the sefrim. After the prayer, they had disappeared behind the curtain once again. The ball had resumed, at a much more subdued level, with nobles discussing politics in whispers and groups of three or four. I could find no way to inject myself into any conversation, not that I had the fortitude to do so.

As the guests began to meander home, I lingered on, hoping there would be another sighting of the sefrim. Yet no more did the chimes sound. The sefrim did not descend from their balcony to mingle with the mortals.

I eventually gave up and decided to go home. It was, yet again, another missed opportunity in my life. Those green eyes would haunt me for the remainder of my days, I knew.

I reached the shuttle, where my father's slave was waiting for me. He was a refined man of Sebiestor heritage, well suited to the genial task of ferrying nobles from place to place onboard the rather opulently furnished shuttle my father owned. A few steps before I reached him, he turned his head slightly, looking at something behind me.

I turned and there she was, still wearing her mask, with her eyes looking down toward the ground in exhaustion. I froze in place, wide-eyed, as she walked closer. A few feet from me, she seemed to notice someone was standing in her path and she looked up at me.

"Hello," I said. "You did a wonderful job as the Imperial sefrim. It's very nice to meet you."

She smiled a tired smile and said, "Hello. Thank you very much." Her voice was deeper than I expected it to be, though soft and appreciative of the compliment. She stood there for several more moments, looking at me almost expectantly. I said nothing. My mind was racing and I could not think of a single thing to say. "Well, nice to meet you too," she said awkwardly and turned to walk past me, toward her own waiting shuttle.

I watched her go, then entered my father's shuttle with a sigh.

The doctor sat on a comfortable chair in his sterile office. He was an older Amarr, his silver hair combed flat in a bland, professional style. "You're back," he said.

"Yes. It happened again."

The doctor nodded and tapped on his data pad. "That's not unexpected," he said. "And what did you do?"

"The same thing as always."

The doctor raised his eyes without moving his head, looking over the rims of the glasses which were perched at the end of his hooked nose. "The same thing? Didn't we talk about this?"


"So you didn't try to say anything?"

"I did."

The doctor's eyes lit up and he raised his eyebrows. "Oh. You did? That's a good step. A very good step." He rubbed his small, flat chin. "And was there a response?"


The doctor waited several seconds. When it seemed no further information was forthcoming, he pressed, "And? What was it?"

"The same thing I said. More or less."

"More or less?" the doctor asked, leaning forward and paying less attention to his data pad than before.

"Yes. More or less."

The doctor once again waited for more, but it once again did not come. He sighed and rubbed the side of his face. "Well, that's progress at least. And your sleeping... Are you still having trouble?"

"No, I'm doing better. I think you were right about the light. Now that it's blocked out, I'm sleeping much better."

The doctor did not smile, but nodded in satisfaction. "I figured it would be. Keep using it if it helps. No one will think less of you for it."

"Thank you."

"Are you having any other problems? Voices? Strange feelings? Anything with numbers?"

"No, doctor. Everything's better now. Except, you know..."

The doctor smiled at him then, a weary smile of acceptance. "I know. You don't need to be embarrassed by it. Some people have it much worse than you. And you're making progress. Soon, I think, you'll be perfectly fine."

"I hope so, doctor. But... It's not easy."

"No," the doctor said. "It never was going to be easy. That's why you came here, even though it's far from home. Because here you could get help."

"To make me better. Yes. Praise the empress."

"Yes, praise the empress," the doctor said, reaching out and giving a comforting touch on the shoulder.

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