Chapter Seven

The Pacific Ocean was beautiful from space. A bright blue, covering half the planet in its loving embrace. Relaxing, to look upon such a pure color, in orbit, hundreds of kilometers away.

Hundreds of centimeters away, relaxing was hardly the word for it, Yevgeni thought, warily keeping an eye on the head a few meters aft. Not in Mr. Tomlinson's boat, out past the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"You can't be seasick," a woman's voice teased. "I thought you were an admiral."

Weakly, he answered, "An admiral of the stars, Xara, not of the waters."

Xara laughed. The trip, just the two of them, had been her idea. Yevgeni had been a military man his entire life. He couldn't remember any other way. Neither could Xara, for that matter. 120 years of being the underdog, then seeing your opponent vanish into thin air, left one with the feeling of, "What do I do now?" In that, she saw the same in Yevgeni. So, she decided to try something her mother had taught her: boating.

"Eat some crackers, the bread will help." Yevgeni didn't reach. "That's an order, mister," Xara said in a mock-serious tone. Still Yevgeni hesitated. Xara dropped the mocking. "Do I have to force-feed you?"

Yevgeni ate the crackers, drank some water.

Xara sighed. This wasn't working. She had turned off the yacht's engine and decided to coast a couple kilometers out in international waters, trying to get Yevgeni to just open up.

Well, if he won't, I will.

The teakettle started whistling, and Xara started talking. "Life just hasn't been the same since double-ewe-double-ewe-four. Earth's really suffered... and prospered."

That got Yevgeni's attention. "What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously.

"I mean what Aria's brought Earth, besides the last war. Europe, South America, and especially Africa have all become self-supporting. Earth's population is approaching prewar levels again. We still have industrial pollution - Southeast Asia is one big mess, always has been - but health care for the planet has never been better. Some people besides Cory and me remember the war... and can talk clearly about it."

Considering the war happened 120 years ago, that was nothing short of miraculous. Senility usually claimed one of the Colonies by age 80... if nothing else had.

Yevgeni muttered, "We remember the war, too." It was bitter in his mouth.

"But you don't know the peace."

"Is that why so many voted against us at the U.N.?"

"Were you expecting unity? Besides, the Security Council gave you 13-zip."

"Fat lot of help that does us."

"People are scared. They don't know what to expect." Xara decided to change tacks. "Let me tell you a story, which started two days after Forsythe's Fires. It's what I've been up to while you were starfaring..." Xara's tone turned much more somber.

Tijuana, a city hit by the blasts that took out San Diego. Forsythe didn't give a damn about collateral damage, and the city hadn't had a typhoon recently, so it was hit pretty hard. I was there, hiding from six Primes on my tail. The Arions had announced a bounty on my head, for "questioning." Right. Like I was going to answer to them. They called me their Public Enemy Number One.

While I was hiding, one of them decided to be a real bitch. She grabbed a little girl in the town center, cried out so that all eyes were on her, and snapped the girl's neck. Then she made her demand. My surrender, without resistance. Every hour I failed to report in meant another child's death, she said.

One problem, though. The dead girl's name was Consuela Carrubalos. Her father was Felipe Carrubalos, and Felipe was a member of the Blue Death cartel. Blue Death smuggled guns to Latin America. Big ones. They called themselves Blue Death because they took on the cops and won, several times.

Consuela was dead, and the Mexican police could do nothing. You can negotiate to delay a human, but that buys you time to kill the criminal. It's a lot harder to negotiate with a Prime. Especially when heavy assault rifles are useless, and body armor only protects you from ricochets. There were six of them, and they gathered all in one place. The cops couldn't do a damn thing except evacuate the civilians.

Felipe could do something, and did. He got on the cell phone to his boss, and in less than fifty minutes, he showed up... with over a hundred associates packing some very illegal hardware. The cops weren't exactly happy to see them, until Blue Death started giving them extra guns. The heaviest ordinance they kept for themselves. Before the Primes grabbed another hostage, they opened fire.

I'd never seen so many GAR weapons in one place. The Primes didn't have a chance. Neither did half a square mile of Tijuana, caught in GAR crossfire. The downtown was wrecked... but there were six new Prime bodies laying in the wreckage, in eight different places.

Afterward, I went to thank Felipe, not knowing why he'd come in. It was brave, it was stupid... it was fatherly.

I met Miguel, Felipe's other child, at the Consuela's funeral. His eyes were on me the whole time. He knew who I was. So did the TV cameras, who also put me on the air. The Empire didn't mess with me that time, though I was a perfect target for them. They didn't want to mess with the hundred-odd men packing those big guns for "security". Poor Miguel, he was only fourteen when Consuela died. Consuela was 12.

At their house, Felipe poured me a drink. "You know," he said in an almost-country accent, "Miguel has a crush on you."

If it hadn't been for what brought me and Felipe into the same room, I would've smiled. Of course I knew. I'd graced magazine covers for decades. Felipe was obviously uncomfortable, but more concerned for his grieving son. We started talking, and it was clear the Empire was bad for his business. I, on the other hand, was good. I had nowhere to go, and Blue Death had already sided with me against the Arions. So I stayed with them.

Miguel grew up and joined Blue Death. At first he tried everything he could to profit from having a supergirl like me allied with him. Protection rackets, eavesdropping for secrets, even prostitution. I beat the shit out of him when he tried to pimp me. Not bad enough to kill him, not nearly, but I put him in the hospital. Never try to pimp a supergirl. His father, angry about the beating, agreed with me in the end. Miguel was a big boy now, and had broken the rules. Besides, Blue Death was about gunrunning, not prostitution or any of that other crap. He learned the lesson after he woke up with a week missing from his memory.

What did I do for Blue Death? Nothing criminal. I actually made it honest. I took it off the path of crime. I funneled the rest of Mom's money, earned from ACR, to buy guns and hire mercenaries. I kept the hired hands paid, trained... and off the market. I may have hated the Arions, but chaos was their friend, so I kept that toy out of their hands whenever I could. Thousands of mercenaries retired on Mom's... on my dime.

Besides, my day of reckoning would come. The Arions had pissed on my Mom's good name, and I was going to make them pay for that one day.

Eighty years later -- forty years ago for you -- I was looking at the rebuilt San Diego, and Mike was head of Blue Death. He was senile, but he was beloved by the Organization. He had these big binoculars and was goofily looking out through them at the American city. "You're wasting your time, Mike," I told him.

Miguel grinned the stupid toothy grin he always had. "Who the hell cares, Xar? I'm going home. Eighty years." So Miguel was born in the US. I was homesick too, but Miguel was going overboard with his Padres ballcap. Blood, sweat, stale beer... who knew what went on that hat. He never washed it.

He never washed himself, either, not anymore. Hell, he was over ninety now. "Saving that bath for the Big Bay, Xar. Skinny-dipping." I almost gagged when he wheeled into a room. Or worse, when he had to climb stairs and I had to carry him on a short flight of ten meters. I owed it to him, but that was a bit much. He stank so bad, I couldn't describe it to you. About the only thing about him that hadn't rotted was his sense of timing.

O'mara took a trip one day to Titan -- some labor union problem -- and then Miguel surprised me. He declared war on San Diego.

Actually, the Mexican government declared war on the Arion Provisionals. But it was through votes he controlled in their Congress. We were excited, and ready for some payback. They all knew my story, and Miguel called it an early birthday present. Over ninety years old, and he still had a crush on me. Padre Miguel had no kids of his own, and had designated me his heir. I was happy, even though I'd effectively bought B.D. with my inheritance anyway.

We owned the city in two days. But the Provisionals went to work while we hunted them down. They broke every major service the city provided. We didn't think about that at first. We had bigger fish to fry, we thought. The plan was to use San Diego as a launching point for recapturing Los Angeles...

The best-laid plans never survive contact with the enemy, Yevgeni thought. Aloud, he asked, "What happened?"

Xara set down her teacup. The ship lurched sharply to starboard. "Anarchy."

Aside from setting up defenses, none of us knew how to run a city. The ones who did were the Prime's assistants, and we didn't want their help. Have you ever had four million people asking them to give you what they want, and they all want something different?

Because of me and Blue Death, the San Diego was worse off than it had been. Rioting in the streets, city services such as water and the fire department were down... I couldn't have stopped it without cracking down ten times worse than the Empire ever had. I tried, for about the first hour or so, but it was too much. Meanwhile, O'mara returned and sent conventional forces against us, with herself as backup. I never faced O'mara directly; I never had the chance. The city fell in three hours, as torn up as it was.

As we were pulling out, letting the Provisionals retake the city, Miguel begged me to take him to the Big Bay, to the waterfront. The two of us were alone, watching the sunset while he took his clothes off. I remember seeing a mortar hit the water past us, but Miguel ignored it. He made me promise not to help him, not even when he leaned forward in his wheelchair to dive into the water.

I didn't see Miguel, but I heard him paddling, laughing, coughing. Finally, all three stopped. I called his name, heard only seagulls and the tides brushing the pier. I jumped into the water, and to hell with that promise.

I found him under the pier, floating against a pylon. His eyes were closed, and he was smiling. I opened his eye, but it didn't turn to look at me. He had no pulse. His chest didn't move. I buried him in the seafloor.

After San Diego, I slowly dismantled Blue Death. It had served its purpose, and I wouldn't let it go back to crime. It was useless. I was beaten. O'mara took her fury out on the Mexican national army, ignoring Blue Death entirely. She never realized that Miguel and I had been behind the whole ordeal. It was just as well. I took our failure out on the payroll.

Ultimately, though, it was my fault. In war, there are no bad armies, only bad officers. I had failed them, I'd failed everyone in San Diego, by not planning beyond the fight.

Xara looked Yevgeni in the eye. "That was the last time I actively opposed her. I kept planning to kill her, but I was always stopped by memories of L.A. Chaos on a global scale was too high a price to pay."

Yevgeni scrutinized her for a moment. Xara was nearly 300 Terran years old... and in that moment, Yevgeni saw every year on her face. A weariness, a fear. A weakness to be guarded.

Xara looked at the deck. "That's why I panicked when you killed her. I feared the end, World War Five, had finally come."

Yevgeni, between gulps of water to settle his stomach, said, "But it didn't."

"It didn't. You were very smart, Admiral, to strike when you did. The Empire grew complacent about Earth after I gave up. That's exactly what I did: I gave up. You've restored hope, Admiral Yevgeni, and you've cleared my mother's name. People are still scared, but O'mara had already give Earth back to Earth's governments. I didn't see that. I didn't see O'mara as a figurehead, didn't see her city as the only symbol of the Empire. Earth was already free, and only the Arion presence stopped any of us from seeing it. Our resistance would never win while they were here, because we believed we would never win while they were here."

Xara had slowly crept to his side as she'd spoken. Now she dropped to one knee, to bring her motherly face below his fatherly one while he sat. "You've opened our eyes, Admiral. Let me open yours to Earth. To us."

Yevgeni was moved by her words - he forgot his seasickness, captivated by her beautiful face, her pleading eyes.

He'd misjudged her. He'd thought of Xara as Velorian, Protector, alien and outsider. But time and again, she'd shown her devotion to Earth. She wasn't human by biology... but she was human by her heart. By her soul.

To save my people from yours. Yevgeni had never actually said that to her. But he'd said it to himself.

He laid a hand on her cheek as the yacht rocked hard to port; she nearly lost her balance, yet his arm held her there while she regained it. "Tell me what it's like on Velor."

Xara faltered. "I... I don't know. I've never been there. I was born on Earth, and..."

It was as if the yacht had flipped over, the shock he felt. Xara was born here???

Xara looked away, choking on her words. She'd opened up, and the tears in her eyes threatened to burst through her dam again.

Yevgeni pitied her. Of all the casualties of war and the years onward, here before him was the one who'd suffered the most. For her, life on Earth... no, life... had been pure hell. Worse than for him, for the Colonies he'd brought home. Aria, the Empire, had repaired much. But here in his hands, delicate as a steel flower, was the real damage. It would take so little to break that flower's stem.

Not steel, aluminum. She was so strong, so light... and so wounded.

Earth had recovered long ago, and could stand for itself with the Colonies.

Xara had lost so much, she might never recover.

And so, a touch of anger, righteousness, and perhaps madness came upon the admiral. His hand trembled on her cheek with rage. What Aria had done for Earth suddenly paled for him. He vowed, The Empire will pay for this, too. Raids against Protectorates weren't enough. Holding Earth wasn't enough. He had to hurt them, hurt them to make them concede to him.

Unfortunately for all concerned, he knew just how to do that...