January 796 UC, Heinessen
Annerose settled in to her new posting with the Rosenritter with all of her usual dignity and grace. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Rosenritter were not typically a dignified or graceful bunch, and many of the senior officers teased her mercilessly for her brand of decorum. Annerose did not exactly give as well as she got, since she was not going to sink to their bawdy level, but she put up with what was good-natured and was sharp with what was not. And if anyone insinuated that she was less competent with an axe because of her shorter stature or smaller frame, she quickly set the record straight in practice.
Still, when it came time for her to organize the regiment’s semi-annual axe competition, Annerose seeded herself near the bottom. When she presented the schedule to Schenkopp, he raised an eyebrow at her and said, “You’re giving yourself an unfair advantage in that low bracket. I didn’t think you’d need it.” She blushed furiously, reorganized the list to put herself a bit higher, and ended up not getting knocked out of the competition until the quarterfinals, which was a respectable showing, by all accounts.
Although Annerose liked the members of the Rosenritter, she found the day to day work almost excruciatingly dull compared to her previous posting under Cazerne. Rather than working to organize whole fleets’ worth of material and people to get where they needed to be, Annerose was stuck in the small Rosenritter division headquarters, a squat building near the Heinessenopolis airfield, signing paychecks and putting in maintenance requests for equipment. Her office was far less pleasant than her old one. It was small, and on the ground floor, and the single window looked out over the parking lot. Since her new duties involved interfacing directly with almost every member of the regiment at one point or another, Annerose left her door open whenever she was in the office.
Linz had rather kindly made her a sign that read, “If your question is about my personal life, the answer is ‘NO.’ If you have an actual question, please come in.” He had stuck it to her door after she had snappily said as much to him before seeing who it was, which had been embarrassing in the moment, but she appreciated the humor in it later.
It was this sign that caused her a fresh bit of embarrassment when, unexpectedly, there was a knock on her door. “Come in,” Annerose said, without looking up for a second, with a pen between her teeth, comparing the budget listed on her computer to the stack of discretionary spending receipts she had been handed.
“I thought you were going to say ‘no’ to me,” Rear Admiral Cazerne’s voice said, “since I’m here to ask about your personal life.”
Annerose dropped the pen and stood, to salute immediately, her chair scraping back across the bare floor. “Rear Admiral! I didn’t expect to see you here!”
“I didn’t expect to find myself here, either, but I’m looking for your boss, and I can’t seem to find him.”
“Did you have a meeting scheduled with him?”
“I hope you’re not acting as his personal secretary,” Cazerne said. “That would be a waste of your talent.”
“No, sir,” Annerose said. “I just usually keep tabs on who’s where.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Of course. No, I didn’t have a meeting with him scheduled. I’m only here semi-officially. I’m trying to scope some things out.”
“Mind if I ask, sir? Or are you here to talk to me on personal business only?”
“No, it’s actually probably for the best I caught you here. Funnily enough, this is a mix of personal and work business.”
Annerose gestured at the chair. “Want any tea?” she asked. “I have a feeling you’re about to offer me a rather interesting story.”
“You know me too well,” Cazerne said. He shut the office door before he sat down. “But yes, I would love a cup of tea.”
One of the few amenities Annerose had in her office was an electric kettle, which she started boiling. As she pulled two mugs and teabags out of the bottom drawer of her desk, she asked, “How have you been coping without me?”
“Horribly,” Cazerne said. “I shouldn’t have told you to leave.”
Annerose laughed a little. “You can probably snag me back in a few years.”
“I doubt it. I suspect you’ll soon be too high up for me to have any sort of claim over you.”
“Flattery won’t get you anywhere with me, sir,” Annerose said.
“Of course not, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. How have you been liking your new posting?”
“It’s different,” Annerose said diplomatically. “Different style of doing things, different pace. Different.”
“You don’t need to be so cagey with me,” he said. “You miss saying ‘no’ to all the admirals of all the fleets.”
She laughed. “I liked saying ‘yes’ to them and getting them what they needed a lot better,” she said. “But you’re not wrong. I’m sure that when we get assigned to real deployments, things will be a lot more exciting.”
While she was pouring the tea, she asked, “So, what is this official, non-official, personal, impersonal business you want to talk to me or Captain Schenkopp about?”
“Now that you’re not working in headquarters anymore, you’re probably not as aware of all the gossip that passes back and forth between there and the capitol building.”
“I’m going to trust that this is something I actually should be hearing, and that you won’t have me dragged before a tribunal for not covering my ears for what you’re about to say.”
Cazerne laughed. “At this point, I’d consider this ‘need to know’ for you, at least.”
“Alright, I’m curious.”
“So, there’s been constant back and forth between HQ and the capitol that there is some sort of high status imperial defector hiding on Phezzan, who’s too scared to show their face to get over here.”
“High status in what way? Fleet?”
“I don’t think so,” Cazerne said. “But I don’t actually know. I don’t have that much information.”
“Oh,” Annerose said, keeping the disappointment at her stymied curiosity out of her voice. “Still, that’s interesting.”
“It is. I’ve heard that people have been debating back and forth on if we should even accept this person.”
“Could they be a criminal?”
“It’s plausible, though we’ve had plenty of fleeing imperial republicans welcomed with open arms, so probably not that kind of criminal. I don’t know. It’s hard to speculate. There haven’t been any high profile disappearances recently, as far as I know, so…” He shrugged. “Either way, it seems to me like we’re going to take them in. And they’re going to need an escort.”
“Too high profile to even trust merchants to secret them over?”
“I don’t know what the specifics are,” Cazerne said. “But I had a very interesting letter from an old classmate of mine, Commodore Blackwell, who’s the head of our fleet forces in the High Commissioner’s office on Phezzan.”
“I’m aware,” she said. “That’s Reinhard’s CO.”
“Precisely,” Cazerne said. “And I’m gratified to hear from him that the other Lieutenant Commander von Müsel has not been driving him slowly insane.”
“Were you worried that he would?”
“Oh, only the smallest amount,” Cazerne said. “But it does make me happy to hear he’s doing well.”
“What did the letter say?”
“Now, this is laundered thirdhand, so who knows if it is entirely accurate, but from reading between the lines, it seems as though Reinhard is suggesting that I arrange things so that a group of Rosenritter disguise themselves as merchants en route to Phezzan, stop there, and pick up our little defector.”
Annerose laughed a little. “Of course he would suggest something like that.”
“It’s not a terrible suggestion, all told, even if he is doing it just because he thinks that any job that can’t be completed by himself is best passed off to you or Lieutenant Commander Greenhill.”
“Do you think his second suggestion would be to have the sixth fleet invade the Phezzan corridor?” Annerose asked, half smiling.
“You would know better than I.”
“Are you actually considering this proposal?” Annerose asked.
“Well, officially, this is not my problem. I don’t think I’m supposed to even know a problem exists. But unofficially, yes, I think it’s a fairly clean solution.” There was some hesitancy in his voice, though, which was usually so decisive.
“What’s your concern?”
“Please do not take this the wrong way, Müsel,” Cazerne said, “but I believe that sending a ship full of Rosenritter into the Phezzan corridor could get… messy.”
Annerose raised an eyebrow.
Cazerne held up his hands, a conciliatory gesture. “All I’m saying is that being on a ship with what looks like a valid reason to pass through Phezzan, carrying cargo that clearly the Empire would want to have back, it’s an opportunity for someone who misses their homeland, or who wants a little taste of fame, to make some very, very bad choices. When I bring this up, someone might even make the argument that you, personally, are headed to Phezzan in order to re-defect with your brother.”
Annerose’s anger flashed to the surface, briefly, and she almost spilled her tea as she sat her mug down on the table. “I would—“
“I am aware, Müsel,” Cazerne said. “If I thought that was a legitimate possibility, I would not be here having this conversation with you. Your brother has just forgotten some of how other people might perceive this.”
“I doubt he’s forgotten,” Annerose said. “But he probably does want to give me a chance to prove myself.”
“Do you want such a chance?”
“The missions that the Rosenritter get assigned to are not my—“
“I probably have the sway to make this happen,” Cazerne said. “I think you would be well suited for it, and you were mentioned by name as having the right kind of touch, whatever that means. Aside from the way it looks, I have no problem with trying to get the Rosenritter assigned to this duty. I’m asking if you want me to try to give this to you.”
“Yes, then, if you need a one word answer. I, personally, would like to be involved. But you do need to talk to Captain Schenkopp—“
“I will,” Cazerne said. “Once it becomes official.” He stood, which made Annerose stand as well. “Thank you very much for the tea,” he said. “You should come over for dinner sometime.”
“Anytime, sir.” This felt like a very abrupt exit from Cazerne, and Annerose wondered if she had misstepped, but Cazerne smiled at her.
“I’m not officially supposed to be fixing this,” he said. “So let’s say I was here visiting you and having a quick personal chat about how Julian is doing, and leave it at that.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Would you mind if I spoke to Captain Schenkopp about this?”
He nodded. “Swear him to secrecy, though, will you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Good. I’ll let you know when I hear anything else. And if your brother gets in contact with you—“
“I don’t think he will, sir. He would have told me directly if he was going to.”
“I’m glad he understands operational security.”
“He understands a lot of things,” Annerose said.
“Indeed. Well, have a nice night, Lieutenant Commander.”
“I will, thank you, sir.”
Annerose found Schenkopp at the gym later that day, after both of their official duty hours were over. He was alone, idly taking shots with a basketball from the three-point line, his uniform jacket tied around his waist, leaving him in only his undershirt. Annerose walked underneath the hoop and caught the ball when he sunk it. She tossed it back to him and he grinned at her. “Want to play?”
“I’m terrible at it, but sure.”
Schenkopp just made one of his funny faces at her, and started to dribble the ball away down the court. She ran after him, and had moderate success when she knocked it out of his hands as he tried to take a shot. Of course, when she tried to shoot, he blocked her almost completely, and when she eventually dodged sideways and tried to get the ball out of her hands as quickly as possible, she just bounced it off the backboard, which made her huff and Schenkopp grin as he ran to retrieve the ball.
They played for a while, and Annerose did eventually score, but Schenkopp came out on top, as he usually did.
“So,” he said, when they mutually decided that they had exhausted the enjoyment of chasing each other around, and were just taking turns tossing the ball through the hoop. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
“How did you know I have something to talk about? Aren’t I usually more to the point when I need something from you?”
His smile showed teeth. “Blumhart told me that he found you putting together a mysterious list of names this afternoon.”
“Is Blumhart spying on me for you now?”
“No,” Schenkopp said. “But if you make a mysterious list of people’s names, you can guarantee that everyone on the list will be offended at their inclusion, and everyone off the list will be offended by their exclusion.”
“Rear Admiral Cazerne came to see me today.”
“Trying to get you to adopt another kid?”
“No. He was looking for you, actually,” Annerose said. “But you were out.”
“He should have talked to Linz. I told him to hold down the fort.”
“I think he didn’t want the word to spread to too many people.”
“I see,” he said. “What did Cazerne have to say?”
“Have you heard any rumors of an imperial defector stuck on Phezzan?” Annerose asked.
“Can’t say I pay attention to things like that.” Schenkopp jumped a little and tossed the basketball through the hoop.
Annerose explained everything that Cazerne had told her. Schenkopp listened carefully, occasionally asking questions about specifics, most of which Annerose couldn’t answer.
“And he wants you to lead this little mission?” Schenkopp asked.
“Only because he knows me,” Annerose said. “I think.”
He was quiet for a second. “Okay,” he said. “You can have it. Blumhart said you left the top line of your list empty, go ahead and put yourself down.”
“You haven’t even seen the list,” Annerose said.
“Then send it to me,” he said.
“You don’t want to lead the mission yourself?”
He laughed a little. “Sometimes one can best demonstrate their loyalty by staying home and not volunteering to go to Phezzan. Too many eyebrows would be raised if I went. Besides, your brother is on Phezzan.”
“He’d be unhappy if I showed up on his doorstep instead of you.”
“I don’t know why he would be.”
“He doesn’t like me, in case you had forgotten.”
“That was only because—“ She scowled a little bit. “It no longer applies.”
“You think he would be fine with me now that I’m your commanding officer, rather than your boyfriend?” Schenkopp was fine with being candid about this subject, but it was an unpleasantly sore one for Annerose.
“I don’t know,” she said, trying to keep any of the weird tone out of her voice. “He’s not thirteen anymore.”
Schenkopp chuckled. “Very true. You know, I sometimes imagine what it would be like if he said he wanted to join the Rosenritter as well. I’d take him.”
“I think he has his sights set a little bit higher,” Annerose said, which was a significant but polite understatement.
“Well, maybe one von Müsel sibling is enough.” He sunk the basketball again, and Annerose ran to grab it. “And of the two, I’d rather have you.”
“Why is that?” Annerose asked, getting her hopes up that this was a flirtatious line.
“You’re much less likely to pick a fight with everyone else in the regiment,” he said with a smile, which was true, even if it wasn’t the answer Annerose had been hoping for. “And you’re not so ambitious that I’m worried about you stabbing me in the back.”
Schenkopp laughed. “I’m joking, Müsel.”
It was the use of her last name that startled her and caused her to miss her shot. She grit her teeth as the ball bounced off the rim of the basket, then dropped to the floor, the noise of it echoing through the empty gym.
“Well,” Schenkopp said, catching her frustration and deciding the conversation was over, “I look forward to getting official orders that I can assign to you.”
“Yeah,” Annerose said. Schenkopp retrieved the ball and tossed it into the open equipment storage closet, which he then kicked shut. “Headed home?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Schenkopp said. “The night is young yet. And I don’t have any responsibilities when I’m not on duty. Unlike some other people.”
“Julian is less like a responsibility and more like a very small, very sweet roommate. I don’t even have to cook, since he likes to.”
“Hunh,” Schenkopp said. “When I was his age, I was a handful.”
They headed outside, Shenkopp pulling his uniform shirt back into place over his head. It was a hot midsummer evening, and the clouds were rose red on the horizon. In the parking lot, Annerose’s car was closer to the building, and they both lingered at it before she opened the door.
“You looking forward to your first command, then?” Schenkopp asked.
“Do you think I’ll do a good job?”
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t say that you could have it. I’d put Linz on it instead.”
“He won’t be upset that you’re giving it to me, right?”
“Nah,” Schenkopp said. “He likes you. And even if he didn’t, you need some chances to prove yourself. It’s been too long since we’ve seen actual use. Everyone’s getting a little antsy sitting around.”
“Yeah,” Annerose said. “I can tell.”
He laughed. “You’ve only been here for two months. You haven’t seen all the moods yet.”
“I look forward to learning them, then,” Annerose said.
“Well, some,” he said. He leaned on her car for a moment, the late light catching in his eyes. He was too much, Annerose thought. “Some aren’t so pleasant.”
She nodded. “Walter—“ she said, then cut herself off.
He smiled at her. “Hm?”
“I just hope that this mission will improve the mood,” Annerose said, which was a deflection. She shouldn’t have said anything.
“Certainly,” he said. He straightened up. “Well, have an excellent evening, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel.” His voice was humorously light.
“You as well, Captain Schenkopp.”
He gave her a bit of a jaunty wave as he headed off towards his own car.
February 796 UC, Heinessen
Annerose was packing a suitcase for the upcoming trip to Phezzan. Since she and the tiny group of Rosenritter she would be leading would all be in disguise, she had to pack her civilian clothing, and was hemming and hawing over what would be the most practical, easy to move in, and inconspicuous. Julian sat on her bed, watching her pick through her closet, his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees, legs crossed.
“What about that blue skirt?” he asked. “It’s loose enough for you to run in.”
“Too distinctive,” Annerose said. “I embroidered the bottom of it. I don’t want anything that could attract attention.”
“I could go buy some pants for you tomorrow while you’re at work, if you write down your size.”
She wrinkled her nose. “No, thanks. I don’t need to acquire a whole costume wardrobe I’ll never wear again.” She sighed a little, holding up a green blouse. “This is probably all right, you think?”
“What’s wrong with pants?” Julian asked.
“I grew up wearing skirts. And I wear pants every day of the week for my uniform. I just don’t prefer them.”
“Everyone on Phezzan wears pants.”
“No, everyone on TV shows set on Phezzan but intended for an Alliance audience wears pants. People on Phezzan wear the strangest things imaginable.”
“It’s true!” Annerose insisted. “For one thing, I’ve been there before. And when I was a kid in the Empire, you could have gotten me to swear that everyone on Phezzan wore these big hoop skirts—“ she gestured to indicate the size— “because Phezzan TV intended for an imperial audience caters its programming to what people in the Empire want to see.”
“Hunh,” Julian said. “But what do people on Phezzan watch?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Annerose said. “I was only there for a couple days last time, anyway. It’s a strange place.”
“I want to come with you,” Julian said.
“Please…” He made a very endearing face at her, and Annerose tossed the shirt she was holding at him. He caught it, then neatly folded it and put it in her suitcase.
“I don’t know why you think that I could just let you come on a secret military mission,” Annerose said. “This isn’t vacation.”
“You said it wouldn’t be dangerous.”
“Sure, and I hope that’s true, but it’s still not appropriate.”
“But it would add to the realism of your disguise as merchants. All merchant ships have kids running around.”
“No,” Annerose said. “And don’t think that any amount of pleading will change my mind. I’m sorry, Julian, but really, you can’t expect that I would have ever said yes.”
“I would behave,” he said. “I promise. I would be helpful.”
“Look, I would love to have you, but it really isn’t reasonable. You understand this, right?”
He frowned a little and didn’t answer. Annerose leaned over and tousled his head. “You know what, maybe next year I’ll plan an actual Phezzan vacation. That would be fun.”
“The interesting part isn’t that it’s on Phezzan,” he grumbled. “It’s that you’re doing something useful.”
“It’s not that exciting,” Annerose said, trying to spin it so that Julian was less invested. “After all, it’s not like fleeing from the Empire isn’t something I haven’t already done before.”
Although this was the silliest downplaying of the upcoming mission possible, Julian seemed to accept it. He shifted on the bed and fiddled with the latches of her suitcase. “What am I going to do while you’re gone?”
“I told you that my mom is going to come here and stay with you,” she said. “I won’t be away that long.”
“What if something happens?”
“Nothing is going to happen,” Annerose said, very firmly, and put the last clothing into her suitcase. “Reinhard and I will both be on Phezzan, and I’m sure that he’s taking very good care of the situation.”
“He won’t be coming back with you, right?”
“No, he’s still assigned to the High Commissioner’s office there. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” Julian said. “Just wondering.”
“He’ll probably get reassigned soon enough. I don’t know how long Phezzan will be able to handle him for. He’s already neck deep in all of this.”
“That’s not his fault.”
“I’m sure when I talk to him, I’ll find out that it somehow is,” Annerose said. “Though I’m not sure if I’ll get the chance to see him while I’m there. We’re theoretically doing a very, very quick handoff.”
“It’s fine,” Annerose said. “Knowing he’s looking out for me is more than enough.”
“And you’re looking out for him.”
“It’s my job,” Annerose said with a smile.
“Still,” Julian said, with the slightly pleading tone back in his voice. “I want to help.”
“You know what?” Annerose said. “I think there is a way you could help.”
“Really?” Julian asked, leaning forward.
“This person we’re picking up,” Annerose said, “I’m told she comes to us through the Earth Church. My mom is a member of the Earth Church. While she’s staying with you, if she asks you to go with her, go and maybe see if you hear anything. She’s pretty involved. Maybe she’ll have some useful information.”
“You want me to spy on your mom?”
“Not spy…” Annerose said. She honestly just wanted to give Julian a task to make him feel important, and she highly doubted that her mother would allow Julian to overhear anything that he wasn’t supposed to hear, and she also somewhat doubted that her mother knew anything about the situation in the first place, but all the same, it didn’t hurt to have Julian listen. “Not exactly.”
“Do you not trust your mom?”
“I trust her,” she said. “Reinhard gave me a very bad report on one of the Earth Church’s bishops that she made him meet with once, though. So I don’t have any particular fondness for them. I’m not sure, really, what my mom is doing.” She shrugged. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear anything. My mom knows you’re pretty smart, so she probably…”
“Wouldn’t let anything slip in front of me?”
“Well, you know,” Annerose said. “Maybe I’m giving you the wrong picture. It’s not her I’m worried about. She would do anything for me, and for Reinhard. It’s just, everyone else around her. The organization itself is concerning.”
“You think she’s in danger?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you can give me some peace of mind and tell me if I should be worried about her or not.”
Julian nodded solemnly. “Okay. I will. I promise.”
Annerose smiled, actually a little relieved, some of the worry that she hadn’t known was lurking beneath the surface of her heart assuaged for a moment. “Be careful, though. Don’t let yourself get dragged into anything.”
February 796 UC, Phezzan Corridor
It was interesting that Annerose’s first outing as an official member of the Rosenritter was on a mission where they were doing everything in their power to not look like a group of highly trained Alliance soldiers. She felt very strange leading the group in civilian clothes, and when they had first boarded the ship, named the Mary Ellen Carter, Annerose developed a little bit of a tic of mentally counting all the Rosenritter that she had in her charge. She felt rather like a schoolteacher leading a bunch of unruly students on a field trip.
The trip to Phezzan itself was completely unremarkable. The merchant ship they were traveling on was not designed to carry passengers, just huge shipping crates full of cargo, so the crew and living areas were rather smaller than Annerose expected. Being the commanding officer and the only woman on the trip, she was afforded her own room, though she would be sharing it with their guest on the return voyage, simply because there wasn’t anywhere else to put her. The atmosphere was one of general camaraderie, and Annerose felt like she got to know her travel mates fairly well by time they reached the Phezzan corridor itself.
Things grew tenser when they entered the corridor. Technically, Phezzan had the right to inspect any ship that requested to dock at the massive spaceport attop its elevator, though, in reality, they almost never did. When the pilot sent in their docking request, Annerose held her breath involuntarily, waiting for the clear signal. They got it, and docked.
To maintain the disguise as a merchant ship, the cargo bays were full of offgoing cargo, and would need to be loaded up with incoming wares, a process that would take over a day. One of the few actual members of the merchant ship’s crew would be handling all of that, but it did put some hard start and end times on when Annerose needed to be back on the Mary Ellen Carter, with her new charge and all of her Rosenritter in hand. Some of them would be remaining behind to guard the ship and ensure that nothing happened up at the top of the elevator, while the rest would be accompanying Annerose to the surface, where they were going to meet Ingrid von Roscher.
Annerose had been on the great space elevator before, twice, but it still awed her, its glittering spire looking like a spear through the heart of the planet from space, and a tower to heaven from the surface. The ride itself took several hours, but still required the use of a gravity engine to mitigate the extreme acceleration as they sped away from the port at the top and then slowed down on their approach to the surface.
Like most things on Phezzan, the trip aboard the elevator was a chance to be sold things. Since there was functionally nothing illegal to buy or sell on Phezzan, this meant that vendors were offering everything from food to currency exchange to sex to real estate (“Get Your Phezzani Citizenship NOW!!” ads proclaimed) to the widest variety of drugs that Annerose could possibly imagine. People coming to Phezzan had money to spend, and people leaving Phezzan wanted whatever they could take for the road. Although Annerose had told everyone not to purchase anything other than food, she was well aware that over the course of the trip, many of her Rosenritter slipped out of her sight, which meant that they were probably purchasing “souvenirs.” She glared at them when they came back, and only some of them had the decency to smile sheepishly. She made a mental note to search everyone’s bunks when they were on the return trip. She could flush any contraband out of the airlock without anyone needing to get in trouble on Heinessen.
The elevator was at least an enclosed space, and she didn’t have to worry about any of her team going missing, though, really, she wasn’t particularly worried about any of them vanishing. She had picked this group specifically because they were the least likely to defect, most of them having significant family ties on Heinessen.
She didn’t notice them being observed on the way down the elevator, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t being observed. After all, there were cameras strung up in visible places to deter shoplifters, and she could guarantee that there were even more that she couldn’t see.
By the time they reached the bottom of the elevator, Annerose was thoroughly tired of the whole experience, and she was not looking forward at all to the return journey upwards.
She had dressed appropriately for the weather, at least, as they emerged out into cool and damp evening air. The space elevator was by necessity directly on the equator, but this was the rainy season in this part of Phezzan. As had been planned, there were cars waiting for them in the huge garage area, which had been left parked there by the staff at the High Commissioner’s office. Annerose’s team split off into three groups of four, taking different cars. They were going to pick up Roscher from the safehouse she was being kept in. Schenkopp had convinced her during planning that it was better to have more people in more cars, rather than just a small team in one, even if that would have been less conspicuous. Twelve was a compromise. A team of four were remaining behind at the bottom of the elevator, watching their return elevator car to make sure no imperial forces boarded it.
Annerose was tense during the drive, her fingers restlessly smoothing down the fabric of her skirt.
As they drove, she called to check in with the High Commissioner’s office. She was pleased, but not exactly surprised, that Reinhard answered the phone.
“We’re en route to the safehouse,” Annerose said. “Is there anything I should be aware of? Last minute changes?”
“I would have told you,” Reinhard said. “We’re keeping an eye on the imperials, on the ground and in the air. The ship they have parked in orbit hasn’t moved, and everyone at their embassy seems to be behaving normally.”
“Do they know we’re here?”
“Yes,” Reinhard said. “They seem to be evaluating the situation.”
“I think there’s enough deterrents in place that they’ll let us have Roscher without trouble— they don’t have any use for her— but if they think we’re trying to sneak anything other than Roscher off planet, and using her as a decoy, or just trying to trick them about who we have, then they might act.”
“That would be stupid,” Annerose said, some of the stress of the moment forcing her to voice a truth she would have normally phrased more delicately.
Reinhard laughed on the other end of the line. She wished there was time for her to see him, but it was nice just to hear his voice. “There have been plenty of stupider things that people have done in this universe.”
Annerose couldn’t voice her anxiety in the car with her subordinates. Reinhard could always read her mind, though, and when she didn’t say anything, he said, “If it makes you feel any better, you probably won’t acquire a tail until after you pick her up. I suspect they’re watching you from the air. Drones, probably.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” She dropped the phone from her ear for a second, and craned her neck to talk to the two Rosenritter in the back. “Ashbaum, Jurgenson, you don’t see any drone above us, do you?”
The two of them rolled down the windows and looked up into the sky, reporting that no, they didn’t see any drones. But that didn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t one.
“We’ll keep an eye out for it,” Annerose said to Reinhard.
“Don’t bother trying to shoot it down,” he said. “No use causing a scene on Phezzan.”
“Since when have you been opposed to causing a scene?” Her facade of professionalism was crumbling, but her companions in the car just laughed.
She could hear the smile in Reinhard’s voice. “Since I became a responsible officer in the Alliance fleet.”
“We’re about fifteen minutes away from the safehouse,” Annerose said. “Call me back if anything changes.”
“I will, Lieutenant Commander von Müsel,” he said. “Good luck.”
“Thank you,” she said, and hung up.
“Why isn’t he in the Rosenritter, too?” Ashbaum asked, grinning at Annerose wickedly.
“Because when he was thirteen he tried to murder Captain Schenkopp with an axe,” Annerose said, which was almost true.
Everyone in the car laughed. “I’d pay money to see a repeat of that.”
Annerose played along a little. “I’ll go up against him in our next tournament, and you can pretend like I’m my brother. We’re identical, except he’s just a little taller.”
“Pretty boy, is he?” Jurgenson said.
“And that is another reason he’s not in the regiment,” Annerose said shortly, any of the amused mood lost. “Keep your comments to yourself, Spaceman.”
“I was only joking.”
The scenery outside changed gradually from city to suburbs, and then they finally pulled up in front of a truly inconspicuous house, two stories, painted a pleasant shade of light green. One of her group’s cars moved further down the street, the other parked a little back from the house, while Annerose’s car pulled into the driveway of the house itself. She and the two Rosenritter in the back got out of the car, while the driver remained inside.
The sun had set, and the whole scene was lit by the porch light on the front of the house, and by the streetlights that hummed and buzzed loudly on the road, along with the headlights of her own car behind her. Annerose marched up to the door, then rang the bell. There was a momentary pause, and she could feel eyes on her, even if she couldn’t see who was watching her, or from where. After a second, the door swung open.
“Lieutenant Commander von Müsel?” a man asked, standing at the door. He was too young-looking to be the Bishop Degsby she had been warned about, so she had no idea who this man was.
“I am,” she said. “Where is Fraulein von Roscher?”
The man looked outside the door, saw the two Rosenritter standing outside the car. “They yours?”
“Yes,” Annerose said.
“She’s right in here,” the man said. He held the door open. Annerose glanced back at her men, gave them a hand signal behind her back— caution, don’t follow— then followed the man in, suddenly keenly aware of the sidearm tucked in an easily accessible spot just beneath her blouse.
The interior of the house was weirdly quiet, being cut off from the sounds of birds and wind outside, but otherwise unassuming and neat. It seemed that people actually lived here: there were family photos on the walls, and a bucket full of childrens’ toys in the corner of the living room where she was led.
It was there that Annerose laid eyes on Ingrid von Roscher for the first time. Ingrid was sitting on the couch, dressed in an outfit not dissimilar to Annerose’s own: a conservative black skirt and a jacket that disguised her shape. She had her hair covered by a white scarf, but the curly ends of it peeked out the bottom, showing that it was a vivid red. Unbidden, the immediate thought that came to mind was that Ingrid’s hair looked a lot like Siegfried Kircheis’. Ingrid might have been pretty, but Annerose couldn’t really tell. Her face was half in shadow, and the melancholy expression she wore didn’t give Annerose any sense of what she would look like when she smiled.
“Fraulein von Roscher?” Annerose asked, voice coming out gentle rather than businesslike.
Ingrid looked up at her, as though noticing her for the first time, and her expression shifted, eyebrows lifting, into something like a muted surprise. Her mouth moved as though she were going to say something, but no sound came out.
“I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel. I’m here to escort you to Heinessen,” Annerose said.
“You’re his sister?” she asked.
“I am,” Annerose said. “Are you ready to go? My team is waiting outside, and my ship is waiting in port.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ingrid said. Her eyes were slightly downcast.
“Do you have a suitcase, or anything you’re bringing with you?”
Ingrid picked up a duffel bag that Annerose hadn’t seen from behind the arm of the couch as she stood.
“Is there anything else you need from us?” the man asked.
“No, I’ll take things from here,” Annerose said. “Thank you for taking care of her.”
“The Church thanks you, and the Alliance.”
“Indeed,” Annerose said, voice dry. “Behind me, Fraulein,” Annerose said as they walked to the door. She didn’t want her team waiting outside to be alarmed by someone else exiting the house first. Ingrid followed her back down the hallway like a duckling following its mother.
Outside, Annerose held open the back door of the car for Ingrid, who looked at her hesitantly. Annerose wanted her in the middle, just so that, even with the tinted windows, there was less chance of her being seen, but Ingrid seemed slightly uncomfortable, so Annerose said, “Jurgenson, take the front seat,” and slid herself into the squished middle, next to Ashbaum, and let Ingrid take the outside seat.
As they began their drive, Annerose called Reinhard back.
“I have Fraulein von Roscher,” she said. “Any updates on your end?” Annerose peered nervously backwards out the window, feeling even more paranoid now that their precious cargo was squished up right beside her. She should have told Ashbaum to ride in one of the other cars.
“There’s some movement at the imperial embassy, but it’s around the time when a lot of their regular staff leave for the night,” Reinhard said. “How is Roscher?”
Annerose glanced at her charge, who was looking out the window with wide eyes. “Fine,” Annerose said. They were speaking in the Alliance language, which Annerose had been told that Ingrid didn’t speak, so she said to Reinhard, “I can’t blame her for being nervous.”
“Tell her I’m taking care of things.”
“I have thus far,” Reinhard said. “I don’t think you’re going to have any problems. Oh, look, Muller just left their embassy.”
“Your counterpart, right?” Annerose had been given, and had dutifully memorized, a list of all the imperial embassy staff, should she need to identify any of them.
“Yeah. A little too smart for his own good.”
Annerose did not say that the exact same criticism could be levied against Reinhard. “Does he look like he’s going home?”
“I can’t tell. I don’t have his car tracked. But he’s making the same turn he usually does at night— ah, he just left my camera.”
“Do you have eyes elsewhere?”
“Not as many as I’d like,” Reinhard said.
“Too bad,” Annerose said. “We’re about forty-five minutes out from the elevator. A lot can change between then and now. Everyone reports that everything’s still quiet at our ship and at the elevator base.”
“Good,” Reinhard said. “Maybe I should meet you at the elevator.”
“What good would that do?”
“I just feel better being more physically involved.”
Annerose laughed. “Your turn to be stuck behind a desk. We’re all hoping that there won’t be any action, anyway, so there’s no point.”
There wasn’t much more to say, but Annerose kept Reinhard on the phone for a while, going over their simple plan to board the elevator, false documentation for all of them in hand, should they need it.
The elevator was very visible on the horizon, its spire lit from within, and they drove closer and closer, weaving through traffic, wanting to get to the base with time to spare before their elevator car departed.
They abandoned their cars in the garage, then made their way into the giant port building. Ingrid was clutching her duffel bag tightly in both hands, and Annerose was nervously counting her Rosenritter, making sure she had all of them, keeping her own hand on Ingrid’s arm to steer her in the right direction. The place was disorientingly crowded, which was surprising for how late at night it now was, but Phezzan as a planet never slept, so it shouldn’t have surprised her at all. It made walking through the throngs that much more difficult, and made her that much more nervous, though.
With her free hand, she signalled to her group to form up more closely, and they did. They moved faster through the crowd, their specific terminal annoyingly far from the port entrance.
As their terminal came into sight, so too did someone Annerose recognized from the briefing she had been given: Lieutenant Commander Muller. He was standing by himself, leaned against the wall near the entrance to the bathroom, dressed in civilian clothes. Being alone, he was probably not about to make much of a move, but he was scanning the crowd, watching. Annerose moved to put herself in between Muller and Ingrid. That movement caught his attention, and their eyes met.
The expression that flashed across Muller’s face started as recognition, then turned to confusion, then a weird, uninterpretable twist, and finally alarm as he seemed to realize or connect something. His mouth moved— they were too far away for Annerose to hear what he was saying over the noise of the crowd— but she could read his lips, “Rosenritter!”
Annerose’s lips curled up. Despite the seriousness of the situation, it was funny that their reputation preceded them enough to startle and alarm Muller. She and her team made it into the terminal, then hustled into the elevator car, rejoining the guards that she had left there.
She couldn’t call Reinhard, now that they were in public, but she texted him, while keeping an eye on her surroundings and a hand on Ingrid’s arm.
> Muller was at the elevator. I just saw him.
< That bastard.
> What is his deal? He didn’t do anything, but was acting very strangely.
< Like I said, he’s probably trying to decide if you’re worth sending a ship after. The one they have in orbit hasn’t moved.
< What do you mean by strangely?
> I think he thought I was you for a second.
> Then he recognized us as RR.
< Good. You’re a good deterrent. I doubt they’re going to do anything more than watch you, at this point.
> Hope you’re right.
< There isn’t going to be a shootout in the middle of the Phezzan spaceport.
< Muller knows that’s uncivilized.
Reinhard ended up being right. No imperial agents attempted to board their elevator car, and the ride to the top was incident free. Ingrid barely spoke a word the whole time. She didn’t sleep during the ride, either, though Annerose assured her that she could. Ingrid just nodded, and though she leaned slightly more against Annerose in her seat and closed her eyes, it was clear that she was still wide awake, from the way that no part of her relaxed for an instant.
Annerose couldn’t help but like this woman. She wasn’t sure what about her caused that reaction, but it was a genuine one. Even though she had barely said anything, something about the way that Ingrid looked at her, Annerose found sweet. She resolved to get to know Ingrid a little, over the trip, though not right now while they were in this public elevator car.
She kept in contact with Reinhard throughout their journey. Right as they reached the top of the elevator, Reinhard said,
< Do me a favor. Ask her about what happened with her husband, at some point.
This had not been brought up before by anyone, and Annerose hadn’t thought there was really any doubt about what had happened to Prince Ludwig— he had been murdered by Duke Braunschweig— but Reinhard wouldn’t be saying to do so without a reason. Annerose didn’t respond, because then it was time to get all of her Rosenritter off the elevator and back onto the Mary Ellen Carter, which all went without incident, and they were able to launch. Everyone was accounted for, and all (with the exception of Ingrid) were in relatively good spirits.
Ingrid looked out the window as the Mary Ellen Carter undocked from the Phezzan port, firing her sublight engines to take them to the warp point that they had been assigned.
Once in space, they couldn’t communicate with the High Commissioner’s office anymore, so Annerose felt slightly anxious, like they were flying blind, but none of the ship’s instruments indicated that they were being followed, so after they arrived at their first assigned warp point, Annerose tried to relax and trust the crew of the Mary Ellen Carter to take them home.
She left the bridge, and Ingrid followed after her, even without having been told to do so. Annerose didn’t mind the company, and she found her way to the small communal kitchen on board the ship. She rifled through the fridge and brought out some sandwich ingredients. Without asking, she made one for herself and one for Ingrid, who accepted it with thanks, and then said a small prayer before she ate. Annerose watched her, curious.
“My mother’s a member of the Earth Church,” Annerose said after a minute. They were alone in the brightly lit, small room, so Annerose felt comfortable talking. She wondered if Ingrid would feel the same.
“I know,” Ingrid said. “That’s why they chose your brother.”
“Did you like Earth?”
“What’s it like?”
“I didn’t live in the headquarters,” Ingrid said after a second. “They let me live further south, in the lowlands.” She nibbled at her sandwich. “It was cold in the winters, but the springs were nice.”
“You were there for a while, right?”
“Years,” she said.
“What did you do?”
“I worked on a farm in the summers. In the winter, we’d weave cloth, things like that. I lived in this big house with the other women in our camp.” She smiled a little, for the first time. “I wish I could go back.”
“Why?” Annerose asked.
Ingrid shook her head, eyes downcast. Annerose didn’t press the issue. They finished their meal in silence, and then Annerose went to sort out how her team was doing, then make preparations to sleep. Ingrid continued to follow her around like a shadow, even though Annerose had told her she had free rein to wander the ship, and had pointed out the room that they would be sharing, in case Ingrid wanted to sleep.
“You must be exhausted,” Annerose said when she finally did decide that she could let the Mary Ellen Carter’s crew handle things, and wake her up if there was an emergency.
“I’m fine,” Ingrid said.
Annerose gave her an appraising look. “Sure. But I’m going to bed, and if you’re going to follow me around, you might as well too.”
“Don’t apologize!” Annerose said, suddenly worried that her tone had been too strong. “I don’t mind— I understand. I trust my men to be well behaved, but I don’t blame you for not feeling the same.”
Ingrid shook her head slightly, as though that wasn’t the right reason, but didn’t say anything. The bedroom that they were sharing was tiny, and Annerose was surprised when Ingrid, seemingly without any concerns of modesty whatsoever, unzipped her duffel bag and began changing into her pyjamas. Maybe that was what things were like on Earth, but Annerose decided she would much prefer to change in the attached bathroom. It would have been one thing if Ingrid was Rosenritter, but she wasn’t. She was an odd guest.
Annerose fell asleep easily, but she found herself in the same dream she had had approximately once a week since she was fifteen. Even though the scene was so familiar that she was able to immediately recognize it as a dream, she was never able to shake herself out of the complete terror that accompanied it, change the narrative, or wake up. Someone was looming over her, and Annerose screamed—
No, wait, she never screamed in this dream. She was always silent.
Someone was screaming though.
Annerose woke up, jolting upright, her pyjamas slipping off her shoulder. In the dark, across from her, Ingrid was yelping and thrashing in her bed. Annerose knelt down next to Ingrid and shook her shoulder.
“Fraulein Roscher!” she said urgently but quietly. “Wake up!”
Ingrid’s eyes flew open, wide, like those of a panicked horse. She grabbed Annerose’s arm, fingers digging into her skin so deeply that Annerose was pretty sure she’d get a bruise. “Janie?” Ingrid gasped.
“No, Ingrid, I’m Lieutenant Commander von Müsel.” Annerose tugged herself away from Ingrid, though she didn’t let go, and flipped on the light so that Ingrid could see her better.
Ingrid flopped back onto the bed, covering her face with her free hand, though she was still holding Annerose’s arm with the other.
In the light, Annerose could see that Ingrid was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and her hand was burning hot to the touch. “Are you okay, Fraulein?” Annerose asked.
Ingrid didn’t answer. Tentatively, Annerose put her hand on Ingrid’s forehead, checking her for fever, which she absolutely had. She felt like she was on fire. Unfortunately, there weren’t any sort of medical personnel on board. Annerose bit her lip. “I should get you some aspirin; you have a fever.”
“Won’t help,” Ingrid finally muttered. She took her hand off her face, and used it to take Annerose’s off her forehead. She seemed fascinated by Annerose’s hand for a second. “It will go away eventually.”
“What do you mean?” Annerose asked.
“It’s happened before,” Ingrid said. “It’s fine.” She let Annerose’s hand fall, and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“You were having a nightmare.”
“Are you alright?”
“Nothing you can do about it.”
“Just call me Ingrid,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Please.”
“If there is something I can do for you—“
“It’s withdrawal,” Ingrid said. “I’ll be fine eventually.”
“Thyoxin,” Ingrid murmured. “Small dose.”
Annerose couldn’t help but gasp. Thyoxin was a potent drug, illegal almost everywhere (except, of course, Phezzan), that was rumored to be secretly used by commanders in the imperial fleet to make their soldiers insensitive to pain and able to fight beyond their physical limits. It was also used recreationally. “Thyoxin?” she asked.
“We all took it,” Ingrid said. “Everyone on Earth, some on Phezzan.” She coughed a little. “They gave it to us.”
“The Earth Church?” Annerose asked, even though this was beyond obvious. “Why? How?”
“In the food.” That didn’t answer why.
“How do you know that’s what it is?”
Ingrid closed her eyes. “One of the women… Emma… She got pregnant, once. We all kept it hidden, and we thought, maybe we could give the baby to someone, down away from our compound, when it came out.” She coughed again. “But it came out early. Dead.”
“Gods,” Annerose said. “I’m sorry.”
“We buried it,” Ingrid said. “In the woods. Back to Mother Earth.”
“And that was because of the drug?” She knew the whole Earth had been irradiated, in the far distant past, so perhaps it was the lingering effects of that, rather than the Earth Church drugging its own followers. Or maybe just happenstance.
“I stopped eating,” Ingrid said, which felt like a non sequitur, but then she clarified, “Just to see what would happen.”
“And what happened?”
“I got sick, just like this, and Janie, she didn’t know, she brought the doctor to me. And the doctor said it’s a sin against the Mother to not eat the gifts she gives us, and so he made me eat, and I got better. And there were other things. I figured it out.”
Annerose bit her lip to keep from swearing. “But you said you want to go back there.”
“Yes,” Ingrid said, with a laugh that turned into a cough. She draped her arm over her face. “I do. I want to go home.”
“Why? Why would you want to, when they’re… poisoning you? Controlling you?”
Blindly, Ingrid’s hand found Annerose’s, curled up in a fist on the side of the bed. Ingrid uncurled her fingers gently, then linked their hands together. Her palm was sweaty, but Annerose didn’t mind. Ingrid didn’t answer the question for a moment, and when she did, her voice was almost desperate. “Because it was good there,” she said. “We say it’s a perfect place, and we believe it, because we don’t have to think about it. It’s good to have something like that to hold on to, to push out everything else. It’s mindless. It’s heaven. Don’t you understand, Fraulein von Müsel?”
“Annerose,” she said. “Call me Annerose.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” Ingrid said. When Annerose said nothing, Ingrid said, “It’s this place where time just passes. And you don’t have to be afraid of anything, because you know that everyone feels the same way as you. There’s no schemes. There’s no one who’s going to hit you. And they say, ‘You’re home! A home you never have to leave! Even when you die, you get to return to Mother Earth, and live forever in Her arms.’ You don’t have to think about the future. There’s just this… now… that takes up all the space in your head. I thought it would last forever. I really did.” She squeezed Annerose’s hand tightly. “Don’t you understand?”
“No,” Annerose said. “I don’t.”
“Good,” Ingrid said. She fell silent, except for her labored breathing, punctuated by coughing.
“Ingrid—“ Annerose said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“My brother, he told me to ask you about your husband.”
“What about him?”
“What happened to him?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“He must be keeping it a secret for some reason.”
Ingrid laughed a little, weakly. “I don’t know why he would. It doesn’t matter now.”
“What happened to him?” Annerose asked.
“I killed him,” Ingrid said. “I stabbed him to death in our bedroom.” She lifted her hand, the one that was holding Annerose’s, turned it a little as though she was looking at it, even though her other arm was still draped over her eyes to block out the light. “There wasn’t as much blood as I had thought there might be.”
“Why?” Annerose asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe the blood got trapped in there, the way I left the knife,” she said.
“No, I mean, why did you kill him?”
“Because he would have killed me, eventually, I think. He might have that night. He was…” Her voice trailed off.
“You would do the same,” Ingrid said, but Annerose had to wonder if that was true. Despite being a member of the Rosenritter, and the fleet, Annerose had never killed anyone. She had never been tested like that. And she had always thought—
“I don’t know,” Annerose said. “Someone once told me that I’ve always been a little too good at enduring.”
Ingrid nodded. “You’re stronger than I am, then.”
“No,” Annerose said, emphatic. “Don’t say that.”
“Okay,” Ingrid said. She coughed some more, and her voice sounded quite strained.
“Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep?” Annerose asked after a moment of silence, where she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m sorry for waking you up.”
“It’s fine,” Annerose said. “I was having a nightmare, anyway.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Are you sure that there’s nothing I can do to help you feel better?”
“Just stay with me?” Ingrid asked, voice slightly plaintive. “Please.”
“Of course,” Annerose said. “I wouldn’t leave. It’s my job to protect you.”
Ingrid shifted on the bed, pressing herself against the wall. She tugged on Annerose’s hand, an obvious invitation to share the bed.
“Is this what you did on Earth?” Annerose asked, hesitant.
“Janie did,” Ingrid said. “Whenever I was sick.”
Annerose relented, though it hadn’t taken that much convincing. She pitied Ingrid, who was clearly suffering, and if this would help, then she would help. She climbed into bed next to the other woman, and Ingrid leaned back against her, her headful of red hair ending up beneath Annerose’s nose. Ingrid hadn’t yet let go of her hand, and now she pulled it so that Annerose’s arm was over her side, tucked underneath her own arm. Ingrid was so warm, Annerose thought that a blanket would have been stifling.
“I think you’ll be happier on Heinessen,” Annerose said, speaking very softly into Ingrid’s hair. “It’s a good place.”
“It’s not home.”
“It can be,” Annerose said. “I promise.”