Flight of the Claymore -chapter 27

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Chapter 27
The Battle platform Ryuk.
Andria Cole led her oldest daughter and son through the corridors of the massive battle platform. She moved as if she knew exactly where she was going. Then again this was not her first time aboard these Shinigami. She had spent her first tour of active duty walking these corridors as a young Medical Officer. The sights and sounds of the ancient warship were a welcoming embrace.

“Mom do you have any idea of why we’ve been pulled out the line?” Sylvia asked.

“I have an idea Sylvia, but until I get confirmation I’m keeping it to myself.” Andria’s answer pissed off both of her oldest children. Especially Sylvester.

“General, you can take that answer and shove it. What the frack is going on?”

“Sylvester, I am still your mother. You will keep a civil tongue in your head. I don’t care how many jumps you got under your belt.” Andria snarled. “If you can’t do that I’ll be more than happy to beat the ever-loving crap out of your ass.”

Andria’s sharp retort brought both younger Coles up short. They could tell that their mother was on edge. Not just from the long shifts in the O.R. or commanding a MASH unit on the move for seven days straight. They knew their mother was worried about their sister. It had to be that as no one had heard from their sister Terresa since the end of her squadron’s last mission. The last anyone had heard they were redirected to one of the carriers for refueling. That was over two days ago.

Andria was even more pissed off when she heard that her daughter’s squadron had been diverted to provide air support to one of the RCTs. It was bad enough they were flying at the extreme range of their fighters. But to have some REMF sitting back in a control center giving them additional secondary missions was too much. Andria had been fuming over those orders since she found about them.

Then there was the arrival of a HSST shuttle at her MASH unit. The only thing that kept Andria from just shooting the pilots and their escorts was their uniforms. If they had been any other Death Dealer unit the men and women would be on an operating table having their asses reattached. Andria took one look at the Hellhound insignias and demanded what they wanted. After a second landing at the Command Post for the 101st Special Operations to pick up Sylvester the HSST flew out over the water to the Royal Battle Platform. Andria knew the ship at first sight. It was like a dream or nightmare from her past raising up out of the ocean’s surface. She still hadn’t figured out which one yet.

When they touched down on the flight deck they were greeted by an escort of Hellhounds. After a quick shower and change of uniforms their escort led them towards the center of the ship. Andria knew where they were going the moment they passed the central elevator banks. The guards guided them into the waiting elevator that only went to one set of decks. The Royal Family residence.

“Let me be perfectly clear children. Whatever happens do not reach for or activate your weapons. I want to collect as much of my retirement as possible.” Andria knew for a fact that the Hellhounds were the meanest of the mean, badest of the bad, deadliest of the deadly. They were truly a cut above the rest of the Death Dealers. They had to be. They were the Royal Bodyguards, and their loyalty was without question. The last person who tried to attack the Royal Couple never got past the point of reaching for their weapon.

“Mom, I know this is going to sound stupid. But just where the hell are we?” Sylvia asked as they exited the elevator to find six Hellhounds in full Land Warrior Armor.

The biggest of them pointed to a table. “Place your knives, and sidearms on the table.” It was not so much a request but outright order. One the Cole family quickly followed. They may be Death Dealers, but they were facing Hellhounds in Land Warrior Armor. They were at a very distinctive disadvantage. “Follow the red line.”

The Cole siblings fell in behind their mother as she led the way. Andria Cole knew where that red line led. She wasn’t too sure as to why they would be on this deck level, but she had her suspicions. As they neared the end of the corridor there was a set of golden double doors. Andria knew that those doors may appear to be gold they were far from it. Each weighed close to fifteen-hundred pounds apiece and were made of solid battleship armor plating. Embossed on each was the crest of House Nakatoma in black and red. Those two doors could take a direct hit from a PPC and ask for more. On each side of the doorway stood a Hellhound in Land Warrior Armor. All three Coles knew they were in a part of the battle platform that was rarely seen by outsiders.

Andria looked over at her oldest daughter. “You want to know where we are Sylvia. On the other side of those doors are the Royal Apartments.”

“You have got to be shitting me mom? Please tell me that this is a great big fracking joke. That we really are not about to be in front of Death’s Own Daughter.” Sylvester was almost shitting his pants at the thought of being before the Empress. It was bad enough he had to deal with the Crown Prince as one of his COs. Dealing with the Empress and the War Princess was a totally different story. The Hellhound guard to his left chuckled at hearing the Special Operations Officer whine about having to face his boss. Then again, most Line Officers were afraid of the Empress.

Sylvester gave the man a death glair. “You know this isn’t funny Captain?”

“Sorry, Colonel Cole, but yes, it is. Empress Maiha is not the great bogyman that everyone makes her out to be. Just relax and be yourself.” The Hellhound answered happy that his helmet hid his smiling face.

“Relax the man says. I wonder if he would be so calm if he was the one facing his execution?” Sylvester grumbled just before Andria elbowed him.

“Do not antagonize the Royal Guards, Sylvester.” Andria hissed. “They don’t need permission to shoot your ass.”

“Even here General Cole, there is this little thing we like to call the Law. The Empress would personally gut anyone of us if we do not have a DAMNED good reason for shooting first and asking later.” The Captain corrected Andria. He held his hand up and then signaled the other guard. The two of them reach over and twisted a handle next to the doors. “You can go in now General.”

The massive doors slid open to reveal the private chambers of Empress Maiha and the Royal Family. Unlike the Royal Throne Room this area lacked the opulence and trappings of Royalty. The area was modestly appointed in the traditional Japanese style of the late Tokugawa period. All three Cole family members were stunned by the simplistic beauty that surround them. They were so entranced by the beauty they failed to notice the five women and one man standing at the center of the room.

“Here I go out of the way to arrange for their transport to Ryuk. And what do they do? Stair at the furniture. Gee thanks a lot mom.” Terresa quipped.

All three of the older Coles turned to face Terresa each with a different expression. One of joy, one of confusion, the last was one of wonder. Upon seeing her younger sister Sylvia Cole ran across the room. Sylvester just stood there staring at Terresa as if she had risen from the grave. A grave that belonged to some ancient Scottish noble woman. Andria though took in the whole image before her and the four women, one man standing with her youngest daughter. Of all the Coles, only Andria had ever truly been in the presence of the four women that stood with James and Terresa. Andria wanted to smack her daughter Sylvia for not showing the proper decorum in front of the Royal Couple and their two most trusted advisors.

Terresa choaked out. “Jesus, sis. Can you let me get my breath, already?”

Sylvia let go and stepped back only to Terresa in the shoulder. “The next time you go galivanting off you better inform Command where you’re going.”

“Sorry, Sylvia. It’s just that Air Command ordered us off to provide Air and Ground Support for a unit in deep shit. We were the only Air Asset in the area that had the needed firepower. We went, we saw, we kicked their fracking asses.” Terresa smirked at her sister’s annoyed face. Only to get slapped on the back of the head by Sylvester as he walked up to her. “Ow! What the hell was that for?”

“For being a dumbass and not passing on your new landing zone. You stupid dink.” Sylvester snarled. “And I don’t care if James is banging your ass. You’re still part of this family and you don’t drop off the radar like that. Got it?!”

Terresa just smiled at her brother and sister. She had already figured out that they hadn’t noticed the Empress and War Prince standing just a few feet away. When Terresa looked over at her mother it was whole another story. Andria Cole was walking slowly over to stand before the Royal Family. With her back ramrod straight, arms at her sides, and head slightly bowed, Andria Cole bowed deeply.

“Thank you, Your Majesties, for looking after my daughter. I hope she hasn’t embarrassed our family while in your care.”

“Rise, General.” Maiha commanded with a smile. “Family should not be so formal when in private. And no, your daughter has not been an embarrassment.”

Andria stood straight then smile at the Empress. “It has been a long-time since I last walked these halls, Your Majesty. I doubt that I would be considered as family. After all it has been more than twenty years.”

All four of the women laughed at Andria’s reply before Terresa held out her hand to her mother. “Um… mom, I think that me being engaged to the Crown Prince kind of makes us family, now. I’m still trying to figure all that out.”

“YOU’RE WHAT?!” Sylvia shouted then grabbed her kid sister’s hand. There on the ring finger of the left hand of Terresa Cole was a diamond big enough to be classified as a deadly weapon. “OH MY GOD! HE FINALLY ASKED, AND YOU SAID YES?!”

Even Sylvester couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing. His one-time baby brother, now baby sister, was engaged to the Crown Prince. The rock on her hand provided the truth to what had to be a dream or nightmare. He wasn’t sure which. Sylvester looked over at James who was nodding his head at the unspoken question. They really were engaged to be married.

Andria though had a slightly different opinion of the situation, then her two oldest children. “Is this what you want Terresa?”

Terresa smiled and nodded her head. “Yes, mom. I really do want this.”

Andria turned to Prince James, not General James Nakatoma, but the Crown Prince. Andria didn’t care that the Empress, War Princess, and his grandmother, Grand Lady Dai Etsu were present. “I hope you remember the warning I gave you James. Because if you haven’t I will carry out my promise.”

James swallowed hard as both of his mothers and grandmother started to chuckle. Maiha gave her son a look that said more than her words. The faint smile did nothing to warm the look in her eyes. “Remember my son. A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter though is a daughter all of her life. Mothers tend to be far more unforgiving when it comes to their little girls. Just ask your two sisters, and how we always saddled them with more guards than we did you or your brothers.”

“Damn it mom. I know that already. Sheesh, I think the one guy that tried to date Ahmie is still in hiding on some back-water planet.” James griped.

Andria though wasn’t paying attention to the by-play of the Royal Family. She was looking at the silver circlet that Terresa was currently wearing. There was something about that simple silver band that tugged at Andria’s memory. Then as if struck by a bolt of lightning Andria remembered where that particular tiara belonged. With a bow that match the one she gave Maiha, Andria smiled at her.

“Greetings, your Highness. It has been a long time since the people of Fire Winds had reason to celebrate.” Andria’s sudden change of attitude toward their sister grabbed both Sylvester and Sylvia’s attention.

Alice started to chuckled. “I see that the General’s memory is still as sharp as ever. Yes, General Cole, that is indeed the tiara for the Kingdom of Fire Winds.”

“I was the one to bestow the title and peerage, General.” Maiha said with a smile. “No, it was not so she could just marry my son either. Of all the Death Dealers on New Texas, your daughter has done the most to shorten the war.”

“Excuse me, your Majesty, but how does what my sister did equal her becoming a Princess?” Sylvia asked bluntly. “What I mean to say is.”

Maiha, Alice, Dai Etsu, and Katsumi all chuckled. Maiha placed her right hand on Sylvia’s shoulder. “Relax, LADY Sylvia. I understand what you mean.”

Dai Etsu stepped up the to the confused younger woman. “Under normal circumstance what your sister has been able to accomplish would be impossible. Her uncanny abilities and selfless dedication were more than enough to promote her elevation to Princess of Fire Winds.”

Looking over at Sylvester Dai Etsu let her smile grow slightly. “Your sister Lord Sylvester is one in a very small few who truly understand the meaning of the words Loyalty, Honor, Integrity, Duty, Sacrifice. Of all our subjects your family shinning examples of what should be the standard among all of citizens. It was not the Empress who made the decision to coronate your sister. I was the one who made the suggestion and proposed the Princedom for her to hold.”

“So, she really is a Princess in her own right?” Sylvia asked.

“Very much so, Lady Sylvia. By the way with your sister now being a Princess you are all by extension among the Nobility of Fire Winds as well. Sorry no help for it really. You see, this is what you get when the Crown Prince is your future brother-in-law.” James grabbed Sylvester by the arm. “Come on brother, time for a little brotherly bonding. I know of this great little off the grid place.”

With that the two young men walked out of the Royal Apartments. Leaving Terresa, to deal with her mother, sister, and future in-laws. “Just fracking great. Not even married yet, and my future husband is being stolen away by my brother.”

Terresa’s bitching got a laugh out of the gathered women. Andria pulled her youngest daughter into a hug. “It’s alright darling. Your brother will bring him back in time for the ceremony. James has to have a bachelor party after all.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that James is in for the time of his life.” Maiha snarked. “I know for a fact that his lance mates are waiting to ambush him tonight.”

“Excuse me your Majesty. But where is this bar that Prince James was talking about?” Sylvia asked in wonder. She had heard that all of the Fleet Vessels were dry. It had to be doubly so for the Royal Battle Platform.

Katsumi chuckled. “I think I should answer this one Maiha. Lady Sylvia, it may be Fleet policy for all combat vessels to be dry, but that policy is hardly ever enforced. That policy is there for the few Captains whose ethics point to a sober life. There is at least one speak easy bar on every ship. Even the Flag Ships.”

“Oh. But where do they get the booze and beer? They just can’t put in a requisition.” Sylvia pointed out the one problem with those bars.

“Where does any soldier get their booze and beer, child? They brew it themselves.” Katsumi chuckled as she pointed out the answer for the young woman. “Ah, it is so refreshing to find one that has yet to be soiled by the harsh reality of life. A truly innocent among the jaded.”

“No offence Reverend Mother, but I am not that innocent. I just couldn’t figure how or let alone where, some could setup a still on a warship.” Sylvia groused.

This got her mother laughing. “Sylvia, I love you dearly but like the old saying goes. Where there is a will there is a still.”

Terresa just chuckled as she thought about all the illegal stills and breweries that she had already found as a young line officer. Sylvia may have more time in service, but she was a Medical Officer. There was always an EM, NCO, and Officer club nearby those units. Something that combat units normally didn’t have on the line. There was always at least one mobile hooch or gin mill in every line unit. Why not have a speak easy on a warship.

The talk soon turned to the upcoming wedding of Terresa and James. Maiha decided to hold this conversation in a more comfortable setting. Leading the Cole women deeper into the Royal Apartments she took them to a small room that held a tea table and eight chairs. After seating everyone Maiha looked over at Gin and Kina. The two elderly maids quickly set to work preparing tea for their Ladies and their guests. Maiha and Alice had offered the two old women their retirement several times and been told they would retire when the time was right. Just as Nia had told them that she would be the one to decide when she was ready to retire.

Andria and Sylvia were amazed at the way the two elderly women still moved. Little did they know that both Personal Maids were well into their nineties. Neither one showed any sign of slowing down. For Terresa it was something she was still trying to understand. Her first introduction to the three Personal Maids had been yesterday and involved her being dressed as be fitting a Royal for the first time. That lesson had also come with a very rude and pain paddling.

Yesterday had also involved her explaining to her squadron they had been transferred to the Royal Battle Platform. Of the twenty-two pilots only one wished to remain on New Texas, Bobby ‘Snowman’ White. All of the others had jumped at the chance to leave New Texas, as they had no ties holding them to the planet now. Bobby was the only one who still had family on New Texas and he wanted to stay to help rebuild. Terresa used her new position among the Royal Family to swing his reassignment to the garrison force that would remain on New Texas. The Amazon forces had capitulated within hours following the destruction of their Command structure. By the early morning hours of today, all resistance to the Imperial Forces was crushed.

The war was over on New Texas. Even on the Home Planets of the Amazon Collective the war was rapidly winding down. The sheer firepower of the Death Dealer Battle Groups was sweeping away any and all resistance. All thanks to Terresa’s battle plan of targeting their High Command Centers for the Home Guard. Only the Drone Class was spared the wrath of the Empire’s deadliest combat units. The reports coming in from the other Battle Groups showed that within the next week the Warrior and High-Born Class’s of the Amazons would be a thing of history.

For Terresa and her squadron this meant they were no longer needed for combat missions in the foreseeable future. Maiha had placed them on Stand-bye until further notice. Peace had finally returned to the backwater planet of New Texas and the New Confederate Systems. The Amazon gamble had failed. All that remained now was to plan the next Royal Wedding. For which the greatest challenge was turning a very reluctant young lady named Terresa Cole into a refined and cultured Lady befitting the tittle bestowed on her by the Empress. Even Andria Cole, a battle-hardened combat medical officer, had to cringe at the thought of that battle. When Dai Etsu commented that Gin and Kina were more than capable of handling the challenge it was Terresa who cringed this time. Much to the amusement of her sister and mother.

“I still don’t understand why I can’t just where my dress blacks for the ceremony?” Terresa whined as she rubbed her backside. “By the way, has anyone ever thought to check and see if Personal Maids can be brought up on Crimes Against Humanity?”

The supercarrier Akagi
Emily Calisto sat up slowly in her medical bay bed. Looking down at the new cyber prosthetic arm and leg she could only imagine what her life would have been like if she had, had this type of medical care in the Amazon Collective. Unlike the old ones, where you see the physical differences, there was no demarcation between flesh and prosthetic. Even though she had lived with her prosthetics for years now, she was having problems adjusting to the new limbs. She was more surprised by the way her captors were treating her than anything else.

Emily had expected to wake up from her surgery in an isolation cell. Instead she woke to find herself in the medical bay of the Carrier Akagi. Not only had the nurses and corpsmen fed her, they treated her with respect. When the Intelligence Office had come in to question her a few hours after her surgery one nurse threatened to have them brought up on charges. Then the short but extremely feisty young Lieutenant had the guards throw the Intelligence Officers out of the medical bay. Saying something about the health of her patients came first.

“Well, looks like I get to at least live long enough to face a War Crimes Trail.” Emily mumbled to herself.

“I hate to tell you this Flight Leader Calisto, but you’ll most likely be getting a pardon.” The man in the bed next to her commented. At Emily’s look of confusion, he started to chuckle. “Lieutenant Jack Hunter, ma’am. I asked who you were when they brought you in yesterday. You are the Black Witch, Emily Calisto?”

“I am. I’m also a little surprised by your statement about a pardon. Why would the Empress or any member of the Empire pardon any of us, Lieutenant? We’re all war criminals by the Conventions.” Emily was truly confused.

“We got into the clone programing records Flight Leader. We found the blind loyalty conditioning programing that you all undergo. In fact, more than a few us on the ward are trying to figure out how you were able to break your conditioning.” Emily could tell that the Lieutenant was being honest with her.

“I can give you that answer with two words. Terresa Cole.”

“Hold on here a moment Flight Leader. What does Colonel Cole have to do with you breaking what was supposed be unbreakable?”

“Terresa Cole is a COLONEL?!” Emily practically screeched. When the man nodded his head, Emily slumped back in her bed. “I never stood a chance. I was trying to fight someone way out of my league. No wonder she wiped the floor with me. Even with me having the advantage in two out three fights, she was just that much better. Gods how could I have been so arrogant?”

Jake sat up in his own bed looking worriedly over at the woman next to him. He had expected some great resistance to his questioning of her. Instead what he got was honest respect and fear of Terresa Cole. This was not what the Profiler had told him he would be finding. Something was wrong, and he needed to figure out what it was. Excuse me Flight Leader, but you don’t look to well. Are you okay?”

“It’s just Emily now Lieutenant. And please drop the act. I know that you’re with Counter Intelligence.” At his stunned look Emily chuckled. “Please, it is the oldest trick in the book. I’ll save you the hassle and answer your questions freely. What do you really want to know? Before you ask, I may have been a Flight Leader, but I was never privy to the High Commands over all plans. For that you need to capture Supreme Commander Von Bencher. His current command post location is the Huston Spaceport. I believe your forces know where that is. If not ask Colonel Cole.”

“That won’t be necessary Flight Leader Calisto. Supreme Commander Von Bencher died during the bombing of Huston Spaceport by the triple seven Wraiths. Now can we please return to my original question? How did you break your conditioning?”

“I found that I faced a foe who did not act the way I was taught by the Political Officers. I was forced to think outside of the box to fight her. Every time I faced off against Terresa Cole she would do something so insanely impossible I had to figure out how she did it. I had to push my boundaries to be a better pilot just to survive against the woman. The more I did this the more I questioned my Commander and those above me in the Chain of Command. I was still a soldier Lieutenant, but I would no longer blindly follow the horseshit dogma of the Political Officers.”

Jake sighed and then stood up. “I was afraid it was something like that. I wish that it was not the case, but it can’t be helped. You truly are a one of a kind Emily Calisto. Just as your adversary is a one of a kind.”

“May I know why you wanted to know how I broke my conditioning Lieutenant?” Emily was afraid of the answer she was about to get. She had a good idea of why.

“The few prisoners that we have been able to take are all showing signs of suicidal tendencies and thoughts. We’re trying to prevent any needless and avoidable deaths.” Emily could tell that Jake was being honest with her. The thought of hundreds of clones just committing suicide was abhorrent to the Lieutenant and the Imperialists. “We were hoping that you could give us a clue in how to break their conditioning.”

Sat there looking at the young and inexperienced Intelligence Office for a few seconds before chuckling. “Just give them an order to not die, Lieutenant. Have one of your Generals walk out in front of them in uniform and give the command to live. You’re capturing members of the Warrior Class. Every last one of them. Give them an order and they’ll follow it to the very end.”

“No offense, Flight Leader Calisto, but it can’t be that simple.”

“It is that simple, Lieutenant. You have to remember that they are clones conditioned from the day of the conception to follow the orders of the superiors blindly. No matter who that superior is. You just need to place a General Officer of the Medical Field in front of them and give the order.” The more Emily explained the situation to the Lieutenant the more the man stared at her in disbelief. The answer was so simple that no one even thought to try it.

“Thank you, Flight Leader. You may have just saved the lives of those men and women.” With that the young officer got up and hurried out of the medical bay.

Emily just laid back in her bed chuckling. “Some one should talk with that Lieutenant about keeping his cover until AFTER he has completed his assignment.”

“I’ll see what I can do about that Emily.” The voice was familiar, but the face was a total unknown. Not that Emily needed to know the face to know who this person was. She just wasn’t expecting to see the woman here in a medical bay. There was no doubt as to the young woman’s identity in Emily’s mind. She would have to be a fool to not recognize Terresa Cole. She was after all the only Claymore pilot among the Death Dealers. “How are the sawbones treating you? You need anything?”

Emily chuckled at the young woman’s total lack of respect for the Medical Officers. “I take it that you hate doctors, as much as I do, Terresa. Though I can honestly say that these doctors are far more competent than the ones I am used to.”

“It’s good to hear that they’re treating well.” Terresa moved to stand next to Emily’s bed. “As you have most likely guessed I am not here for a social visit.”

“I figured as much. What can I do for you Colonel Cole?”

“We need to know how many satellite air bases were set up.” Terresa figured that being honest with Emily would get better results than trickery. Besides she had far too much respect for her former enemy.

“I wish that I could give you an accurate account. That was one of the many defense plans that Von Bencher kept to himself. I know of only fourteen satellite bases for certain. There were rumors of more, but no one could find proof. Sorry I can’t be of more help. Towards the end Von Bencher trusted me and the other Sub Commanders less and less with each mile lost to the Death Dealers. He became extremely paranoid. The man didn’t even trust his Vice Commanders.” The more Emily told Terresa the more Terresa frowned. Emily wanted to shorten the war as fast as possible now.

“Emily, tell me something. Those four bombing attacks. On whose orders were those attacks carried out? The local Supreme Commander or the Collective’s High Command.”

“Those orders came from Von Bencher only. The Collective High Command had no idea of what he was doing. As for the pilots and crews of those bombers don’t waste your time hunting for them. I blew them out of the skies. I had no problem targeting military personnel and equipment. But I never held to the idea of civilians paying the price for rebel forces. Those attacks should never have happened.”

“Thank you, Emily. You answered a major question for us. Do you know why Von Bencher ordered the attacks by chance?” Terresa knew that Emily’s answer would go a long way towards removing her from the War Criminal list.

“Retribution for all the Insurgent Attacks. Von Bencher felt that if he destroyed the four cities with the highest Insurgency levels, while laying the blame on the Insurgents, he could quell the uprising.” Emily’s blunt answer floored Terresa. “If you’re wanting the REAL criminal behind those attacks Von Bencher’s headquarters is underneath the Control Tower at Huston Spaceport.”

Terresa visibly winced when she heard the location for the Amazon headquarters. “Looks like we won’t be bringing him or his staff before a Military Tribunal. The Tower took a direct hit from a Mark forty-eight torpedo.”

“Holy Shit! You used forty-eights for your attack on the spaceport! Are you crazy?! What the hell were you trying to do?! Shatter the coastal quake zone?!” Emily couldn’t believe the sheer audacity of the woman before her.

Terresa smirked. “Nope. If I wanted to do that I would have arranged for the use of the main guns on the Katsumi. Besides, I knew that you wouldn’t come out to play if you weren’t faced with a flight of aerospace fighters. Why would I use a sledgehammer when a scalpel would get the job done?”

Emily looked up at Terresa for a few seconds before finally bursting out laughing. It took the older woman more than ten minutes to regain her control. “Terresa Cole, if I could get my hands on a bottle of good Brandy right now. I would get you rip roaring drunk. As it is I owe you a drink for sparing my life.”

Terresa reached into the thigh pocket of her flight suit. She pulled out a silver one-liter flask with the crest of the Royal Family. Screwing off the top Terresa hand the flask to Emily. “It’s not Brandy, or Scotch, but it has alcohol.”

Taking the flask Emily tipped it back and took a swallow of the fiery liquid. Emily screwed her eyes shut and coughed as the liquid burned its way down her throat. When she could finally breath again, Emily coughed out. “What the hell is that shit? Is it even considered alcohol? By that I mean on any planet.”

Terresa just chuckled and took the flask of moonshine back. After taking a sip Terresa handed it back. “That, Emily is some of the finest moonshine in the Empire. And yes, it is considered alcohol. Illegal alcohol, but alcohol none the less.”

Following Terresa’s example, Emily took a sip of the potent beverage. Returning it to Terresa with a smile. “Nice flask there, Colonel. When is the wedding?”

“Not for a few weeks, Emily. And it is just Terresa, between us now. The Amazon Collective and its Warrior Class is now a relic rendered to the annals of history.” Terresa told her with a chuckle. “You’ll be happy to know that yes you and all of those not among the General Command Staff will be pardoned. The Empress has taken your conditioning into account as the primary factor for the pardons.”

After taking another sip Terresa handed the flask back to Emily. “You never answered my question, Terresa. When is the wedding?”

Chuckling at Emily’s persistence Terresa gave her the answer that was on everyone’s mind in the Royal Battle Group. She waited until Emily was taking her sip from the flask. “Next month on Hades Prime. How would you like to be a bridesmaid?”

Emily’s spit-shot was perfect. The moonshine came out of both of her nostrils. Once she had regained her composure again. Emily gave Terresa a death glare before questioning her sanity. “Now I know what this stuff is used for. You do know that torture is against the Conventions.”

“Hay! That’s ten credits worth of grade A hooch in that flask. I should know, I paid for it.” Then Terresa smirked. “But, you’re right. I should have waited for you to swallow that last tug. Now, you going to answer my question?”

“You’re not serious about me being a bridesmaid?” When Terresa just raised her left eye brow, Emily realized that she was. “Good lord! Me? A member of the Wedding Party for the Royal Couple. Why on earth would you want me there?” Taking another sip of the shine Emily handed the flask back to Terresa. As if by some unspoken agreement the flask and moonshine had become a symbolic peace treaty.

“Simple, I want you there as both an honored foe and respected friend. Of all the pilots I have face in this war, you were the only one who was a true challenge of my skills. I had to keep pushing myself to be better. You were just too damned good to not take seriously and show you the respect you had earned.” Terresa smiled at Emily then dropped the bomb she had been holding back. “Besides, part of the conditions for your pardon is ten years of service with the Wraiths.”

“Wait what?!” Emily’s eye bulged out at what Terresa said. “You know that I can’t serve with your squadron. They’ll skin me alive the first chance they get.”

“That’s why you’ll be escorted off the Akagi later on this afternoon by two Nightingale Sisters. Emily Calisto will die of her wounds while being treated. It will be someone else who joins my squadron. You get to pick your new name, Emily.” As Terresa laid out the plan for her to disappear Emily began to believe she might truly get a second chance in life.

“Why are you putting yourself on the line here Terresa? You don’t owe me jack shit. Why do this?” Emily knew there had to be more to it than just the pardon.

“Simple, Emily. The Empire was able to crack the main servers for the Collective. All of the cloning records are now in our hands. We know all about the conditioning and illegal cloning practices.” Terresa took a swallow of the moonshine and handed the flask to Emily. She knew that Emily would need the alcohol for what she was about to learn. “You’re not the only Emily Calisto. There are over a hundred and fifty copies of you.”

Emily stared at Terresa in shock for a few moments then threw back the flask taking a massive swig of the moonshine. She had always believed that she was the only one. Yes, she knew that she was a clone, but she was told there was only one of her at a time. To know that she had ‘sisters’ out there somewhere was a disturbing thought. Terresa could see that the revelation was having an effect on Emily. Reaching into her top breast pocket Terresa pulled out a pack of Empire Blacks and a lighter. She gave them both to Emily with a smile. At the woman’s questioning look Terresa just said. “Screw the docs. You need one of those right now. I can tell.”

After lighting one of the cigarettes and taking a deep drag Emily smirked. “Won’t be the first time I’ve pissed off the Medical Staff. Do I get a choice about joining your old squadron?”

“Nope. I’m down one pilot and you fit the bill. And what do you mean by old squadron? I have transferred out yet. And I’m not about to just turn it over to some yahoo.” Terresa gripped. Only to have Emily chuckle as she hand the flask back to Terresa.

“You need that more than I do right now. You might want to join me with a cig.” Emily watched as Terresa gave her the evil eye but did as suggested. Once Terresa had a lit cigarette Emily explained her reasoning. “Do you really think that the Empress and War Princess are going to let you continue to fly in a war zone? The answer to that is no. Besides I doubt that you and the Crown Prince will have much time to yourselves. The whole Empire has known of the Empress’s desire to step down for ten years now. She and the War Princess want to go off somewhere and be teachers. You and Prince James getting married is just the needed excuse.”

Terresa sat there smoking her cigarette and drinking from the flask. “Do me a favor and keep your theory to yourself, Emily.”

“Don’t worry Terresa, I will. Besides I doubt that anyone will believe me.” Taking a deep and final drag of her cigarette, then a final swing of the moonshine. “When am I supposed to be moved?”

“Later today. Why? You going to accept the offer?”

“Considering that I have nowhere else to turn to. I might as well sign up for life. At least with you I’ll still get to fly.” There was a wistful smile playing at the corners of Emily’s mouth. That was all she needed to see to know that Emily would be one of the most loyal pilots in the Wraiths.

Terresa raise the flask. “Here’s to new beginnings.”

Emily took the flask from Terresa and repeated the toast. “New beginnings.”

It had taken another three months to hash out all of the wedding plans for Terresa and James. The biggest problem they had was with finding enough bridesmaids for Terresa. She ended up using four members of her squadron as bridesmaids and her sister Sylvia as her maid-of-honor. Then there was the dresses. Terresa wanted to just wear her dress black uniform. The Royal Herald not to mention the Grand Ladies Dai Etsu and Andria put a stop to that idea. The location was another fight.

The Nakatomas want the wedding held on Hades. The Coles wanted the wedding held on Fire Winds. James and Terresa want to hold it on a neutral planet. Some place like New Texas or Earth Prime. Thankfully that problem was salved by Ryuk. He suggested that the wedding be held aboard him on the flight deck. After all, Terresa was a pilot and her bridesmaids were pilots that it was only befitting.

Between the three mothers they had the actual wedding ceremony was planned out as if it was a planetary assault. Poor Terresa was driven to taking her fighter out for two to three hour long flights. Even in deep space the Claymore was a cut above the fighters of Ryuk’s other squadrons. The triple seven, were fast to earn a reputation as the squadron to beat. For Terresa, those little flights were her way of escaping the stress of planning her wedding.

It was during the second month that a new Colonel arrived abroad Ryuk. The woman was a tall statuesque beauty with raven black hair. Her accent was a little off putting as no one could nail it down. The new Colonel quickly proved to the Wraiths that only Terresa was her equal. The two women would often take training flights that pitted them against each other. Their mock battles quickly became a new income source for the bookies as members of the different squadrons would place bets on the winner. The only thing that no one could figure out though was where the new Colonel came from. She was as big a mystery as Terresa Cole was at times. All anyone had been able to find out about Colonel Raven Nevermore was her number of victories and years of service. That and she had been raised by the Knights of Ida-ten.

No one could figure out how Raven and Terresa first met or became friends. They just knew that they were good friends and that Raven was taking over the triple seven following Terresa’s marriage. The day before the wedding Ryuk made planet fall on New Texas. It had been decided that Ryuk’s upper flight deck with the blast doors open would be used for the ceremony. It also gave enough room for all the guests and the press with their equipment to cover the wedding.

On the day of her wedding it was Raven that helped to calm Terresa’s nerves. No one knew what was said but the two women laughed for more than thirty minutes until Terresa was ready. The ceremony was a simple one, even if well-attended. There was a Representative from every system in the Empire at the ceremony. All walks of life were represented at the Wedding of the century. The squadrons of the Royal Battle Group did fly-byes during the wedding. The last fly-bye was timed to happen with the end of the ceremony. With the Wraiths thundering passed overhead an extremely happy Princess Terresa Cole y’ Nakatoma walked down the isle on the arm of her Prince to the sounds of the National.

The next morning Ryuk once again lifted off for the stars while the young couple slept. Andria, Sylvester, and Sylvia joined Maiha and Alice for breakfast in the Royal Apartments. Maiha and Alice discussed their plans for the newest Royal Couple with the Cole family. Only Sylvester found a problem with their plans and voiced his opinion. Of course, he was shot down by his mother and sister. They, along with Maiha and Alice were sure that their plans were in the best interest for the young couple. Besides Maiha and Alice had been planning for this day for years.

Maiha smiled as the young couple finally joined them for breakfast. “Well, James. Now, that you're all settled, I'm going to schedule the coronation for next week and start moving Alice and me to the Dower house.”

“But, Mom! I'm not ready to be Emperor…” James figured that he could avoid this conversation for a few more years. He just had to figure out an angle.

“Emperor? Who said anything about crowning you? We'll just crown Teresa as Empress. Maybe Ryuk can keep her out of trouble.” Maiha smirked as she looked over at a stunned and very confused Terresa.

When Maiha’s words and their meaning sunk in Terresa rounded on James screeching. “WHAT???!! MEE??? I am not even one of the so-called High Families Ladies! I can’t be EMPRESS!! Tell me she’s kidding James, or I’m OUTTAHERE!”

The deep rich baritone voice of the ancient AI known as Ryuk broke the silence of the dining room. “My Empress, commencing hyperspace jump. Next stop, Hades System.”

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