Guardian Samantha breathed deeply through her nose, enjoying the smell of coffee, which due to the recent reconfiguration in the hot houses, had become an increasingly rare treat. Another rare treat was having a completely private conversation with the Lead Guardian. The dark brown-skinned, gracefully-aging woman with hazel eyes was sitting bolt upright. One of her long, elegant hands was firmly grasping a coffee mug. She was staring intently into the cup, as if the brew could answer all of life’s questions for her.
“How long has it been since you’ve had time to relax, darlin’?” Samantha asked with a cocked eyebrow. The Lead Guardian leaned back in her chair, saying nothing. Samantha waited, studying her old comrade’s face again and again and finding nothing to work with. For once, she couldn’t help but notice that Trainee Esther was a spitting image of the LG. I have no idea how that came to pass, she thought. She knew the LG from the time she was a Trainee. Pulling that stunt isn’t her style, but I can’t think of anyone who could possibly put her up to it, not even him.
The LG asked, without expression, “Have the arrangements been made?”
“Affirmative,” Samantha replied, dropping an octave to emphasize her seriousness. “As you and Elder Peter requested, the Contingencies are in place.” Samantha found the LG’s laconic silence increasingly frustrating. It used to be that she could at-least prod the LG into expressing herself. But, more and more, the LG refused to let her guard down, even in completely private meetings.
The Lead Guardian, as the top security and defense official for the Settlement, was required to meet the same selection standards as an Elder, but this current LG expressed that living the often detached life of an Elder was neither healthy nor conducive to executing her duties effectively. “Frequent and personal communication with all stakeholders—internal or external—is crucial for any commander of arms,” she remembered the LG saying.
It’s too bad you don’t follow your own advice, Samantha thought.
Samantha reached for something to either change the atmosphere to shake her commander’s funk. “Why did you pick me for the flight? I still get airsick, you know!” she said, even feeling a bit nauseous at the thought of boarding a lifter. She braced for a snappy retort, something like “Blame your birthers” or “No guts, no glory” but the LG looked squarely at Samantha, silent, for several minutes straight.
The LG picked up the cup of cooling coffee, took a long sip, and before putting the cup down, asked, “Do you think this violates the Elders’ mandates?” Samantha wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question, but it was indeed; it was the first question the LG had on her mind. The LG was even better at reading people than she was, and the LG must have decided that it was now her time to squirm. In fact, the LG was the only other Guardian who could make her feel that way. The LG didn’t wait for an answer. “The Elders will be briefed at 15:00. What is the status of the intel?”
Samantha sighed, trying to shrug off the weight of failure. “Negative. We reanalyzed the data from both our aerial and satellites and they tell us little more than the ground reports from our trade missions in Denver: A very large energy weapon, likely ionized particle, was emitted east of the Collective Army’s Denver defenses. The blast either destroyed or discombobulated the bulk of the Collective’s Sixth Front, allowing a mere two Imperium armored cavalry divisions to rush into Denver, virtually unopposed . . .”
The LG stared at the now cold cup of coffee, her tone becoming increasingly sarcastic with each syllable. “And despite all the sensors and reconnaissance drones and observation teams dispatched, we can’t find even the slightest trace of the emitter!” She yelled, releasing the cup and firmly pounding the desk with one fist, rattling the mugs on the metal table and effectively startling Samantha. In the same motion she stood up, pushing her chair back. Just as quickly, the LG regained her composure, her cold stare, and began pacing back and fourth across the cramped room.
Samantha, taking her own cold sip, was slightly warmed by the thought that her LG was showing some emotion again. “Do you think another Settlement helped the Imps?”
The LG continued pacing, taking on a thoughtful expression: “The attack wasn’t from space. If another Settlement participated, then they obviously wouldn’t talk. Even so, assisting the enemy in that way would put them at immediate risk of massive retaliation for any other Settlement.” The LG sighed, “It would have made far more sense to target our Settlement preemptively.”
“They would either have to kill us or talk to us first.”
“As for the Imps,” Samantha said with a shrug, “we have no contacts with the new kings of the monkey cage, but I’ve inserted a Cyclops team into the Denver area to investigate. We should know something about the Imperium’s disposition very shortly.”
Samantha folded her arms and leaned forward, again studying the LG’s face. She had the urge to ask. She had the opportunity to ask. She just had to ask. The LG left her no choice but to ask. They were close, since they were squad mates, so the LG had to know what she was thinking. Finally, it was her sworn duty as an LG’s Executive Assistant on watch to inform her on even small matters of importance. In almost a whisper, Samantha asked. “Esther, you think it was that wayward Elder?”
The LG stopped dead in her tracks, completely frozen. Even her eyes were frozen, lost in a cross between a deep thought and a pained expression. She stayed motionless for several seconds before continuing her pacing. “The Elders haven’t seen or heard from him in ten years.”
The LG took a short breath and continued pacing in a semi-circle around her side of the table. Samantha was so startled that she got the better of the LG, that she couldn’t quite enjoy the moment. If there was anything to that, then the LG would confer with the Elders, and not some lowly Intel Geek; not even an old friend.
She felt a bit guilty, and thought a change in subject—even the most uncomfortable personal subject imaginable—would be a preferable to her last gamble. “About our top Trainee,” she said while leaning back in her increasingly uncomfortable chair. “Ma and I suspect that she’s been rigging the tuber draws to mate with another boy.”
The LG quickly returned to her seat, and finished-off the now cold coffee in one swallow. “That sounds like a problem for Ma to figure out,” the LG replied. “Do you have any evidence?”
“We have circumstantial evidence the boy altered the records.”
“Well, that takes me back,” the LG said, relaxing back into her chair. “We don’t punish Trainees for hacking our systems, only for getting caught. Now, make sure he gets caught red-handed, or we will have to discipline some Intel Guardians for poor security management.”
“We can turn on their implants,” Samantha said with a chuckle. The LG belly laughed, and Samantha responded by comically waving her harms. Biological implants were designed to not only block but also actively resist any eavesdropping and external control. If it was possible for Intelligence to hack or control implants, then it would be possible for some enemy to do the same.
Samantha sipped, then continued: “Do you want to know about the boy?”
“Ma and Pa will handle all Trainees as they see fit,” she said with a smile. The LG quickly resumed her steely stare, her hazel eyes drilling a hole through Samantha. “As previously arranged, I will lead the security watch tonight.”
“And one more thing.”
“At 17:00, proceed immediately to your assignment. Unless an Elder asks directly, nothing leaves this room.” The LG raised an the empty cup. A gentle and grateful smile crossed her face. “Thank you, my friend, and have a safe journey.”
For the first time in weeks, Guardian Samantha felt relieved.