The Sadovo Interplanetary Spaceport, the Parliamentary Kingdom of Mars, Phobos.
Sidney Takumi checked her watch again. The emerald green digits flickered 21:59, lighting her concerned face and reflecting in her olive eyes. She'd been standing at the tunnel corner for the last fifteen minutes, patiently watching the occasional guest enter and exit the little box cafe on the corner of Valentina. Sadovo -or anywhere on Phobos for that matter- was a network of cramped tunnels. A claustrophobic landscape of cheap neon signs, thick black wires and dripping pipes. All with their own distinct sight, sound, and smell, and having seemingly been placed with little concern of any coherent scheme for the station. The arranged meeting place was not far from her personal hub, but Sidney had no intention of being the first to arrive, nor did she wish to sit there on display for all of Phobos to see. Sadovo had been her base of operations for a solid year now. A rusting tin box, half-buried on a dirt rock, forever orbiting Mars, and her cover could very likely be blown as a result of this last minute lunch date with a Union lackey. Everyone from the top down had been on high alert since the bizarre bombing in Novograd, and as a result the suits were dragging her out of the shadows.
The emerald light flickered again. 22:00. She begun crossing the street, pulling her black hat down to avoid any unwanted attention, hurriedly scanning the area in the process. Her figure was deceptively thin; hiding a muscular, athletic frame under the thick hoodie and leather jacket. Whenever people noticed how defined her body really was, she would quickly blame it on her work as a cargo cleaner, and on the lack of any real social outlets on Sadovo, leaving her with few options but to do burpees in her hub all day. What no one here knew, however, was that Sidney had trained martial arts for most of her life. As a child, she had won the ITU Florida Youth Muay Thai Trophy twice before the boys had reached puberty, after that she couldn't keep up. They broke her nose twice before she learned that hard lesson. As a result, the then adolescent teen had taken up Union Physical Defense instead. Learning how to use momentum to her benefit, throwing opponents over her shoulder, and strangling them with her legs in the process. Sidney wasn't all that tough, though. She was 'too dainty' as the coach once told her. Too short, and not enough muscle mass. Not to mention the delicate way she would carry herself, even more so than her female friends. Her family had loved her deeply and given her a warm upbringing. She in return had spread that love to a few less-than-good boys, causing plenty of heartache and grief, both in her life as well as her parents'. A stumbling entrance into adulthood her father had called it, an awkward chapter in her life, but nothing a turning of the page couldn't mend, nothing they hadn't forgiven her for... That was until she - at the age of 19 - enrolled at the Military Academy at Ocala a year after yet another horrible breakup, leaving the young lady desperately looking for a new direction in her life, foolishly heeding her uncle's advice to join the armed forces. All this was under her birth-name of course; A childhood picture of a little girl in a summer's eve dress, with big red boxing gloves and a black eye. Another of a determined green cadet in a ITU uniform.
For the last 3 years she had been Miss Takumi. Her once long flowing black hair now cut jagged and short. Colourful dresses changed out for more practical garments, such as jeans and jackets. She was publicly a worthless grub now. Miserably slaving away at the shipping station for a lousy pay-check, just like everyone else here. In reality, the Intelligence Department had sent her on a covert assignment to monitor the ever-strained tension between the Confederacy and Martian Empire. Sadovo was a known stomping-ground for all kinds of people; an off-planet harbour for Sino-Russians to come and discuss matters with the Parliamentarians, where radical Confederates could recruit outsiders to join in their cause, or low-life mobsters could rule like big fish in a little pond.
Sidney slowly pushed the door open and entered the establishment. Inside, the Valentina Cafe looked like any other place on Sadovo: Small, dull, and grey. Standardised metal walls covered by cheap trinkets in the misguided belief that it would 'spruce up the place'. Most moon bases were built to be highly cost-effective. No one wanted to slap some expensive rockets on a baseball stadium and send it all the way up here. No, Phobos and her sister moon Deimos were low-gravity ports; where massive ships could dock on their long voyages between planets. The smaller ferries would then shuttle the travelers back and forth to selected terminals on Mars. Sadovo was simply a connection between worlds, or in her case; a dead end.
"What can I get you?" The bartender asked.
"Oh, I'll just have a beer, please." Sidney softly replied as she glanced over her shoulder. The door creaked open again and a shadowy figure in blue slipped in, moving hurriedly past them towards the more secluded area, all whilst avoiding eye contact with anyone.
"Could you make that two?" She smiled to the bartender and slid two yen across the counter.
Alcohol was the only good thing about Phobos; beer in particular. The weekly transport ferries would ship tons of it from the Martian Empire. Kemper Breweries was one of those major corporations that spanned most of the Solar System. Never involved in politics, but always had a finger in the pie. That's how companies would operate across borders; with a wink and the almighty Yen. She reckoned the regular crews stationed here knew the value of bringing some decent beer on their long hauls to the far reaches of Sol, and Kemper Beer was more than willing to supply them. In fact, Kemper reminded her of Florida, the good part of it, anyway. Watching her friends run laps on the beach, daring each other to jump from the broken pillars, and shotgunning beers around the campfire 'til one of them threw up. It was dirty, but it was home.
"Good evening, Miss Takumi." A shrill voice said nonchalantly as she entered the secluded area of the cafe. The shadowy figure had folded the blue jacket behind the chair, and had revealed herself to be a middle-aged woman with greying hair, and thick rimmed glasses. Her name was Moe, and she was Sidney's handler.
"Evening?" Sidney complained. "Is that what they call it when they dim the lights here?"
"Ah, I take it you don't like the assignment you were given," Moe replied, never looking up. "Do you want to file a formal complaint?" Her eyes calmly moved from right to left, skimming through the important papers in front of her. Sidney stared down at her beer, gritting her teeth together.
"No, ma'am," she mumbled, whiles thinking of Florida. "It's the jolliest tin-can this side of the belt, I'm really enjoying myself." The year had been tough on her. The isolation was one thing, she was used to dealing with that, to being alone, to making it up as she went along, but Phobos was such a tiny place, and Sadovo even smaller. It was hard to keep to oneself when the men were drunk and lonely here. Even harder to be a spy. The organised crime family had taken an immediate interest to her the moment she had landed, and as a result she had suffered 3 broken fingers, a tooth, and was now knee-deep in debt with the mobsters, all just to have some space to operate in. Now she was sporting a cheap silver knock-off, and was effectively banned from downtown Sodovo. "I love this place, Ma'am." She smiled, while quietly wondering why they had sent her to this hellhole. Keeping an eye on any socialist revolution was a joke. What revolution? She barely saw anything resembling one, aside from people rightfully complaining about dirty cops and utility leaders on the take. Moe on the other hand lived in the Martian Empire, working close to the ITU embassy in Solits. Mars was the oldest terraformed planet in the solar system. The air had settled. Rain, real rain. Large, fat droplets of water pouring down from the open heavens. The sun high above, slowly, but surely moving across the sky. The planet was as good as Earth, if not better. At least the Parliamentarian part. The Confederacy on the other hand was its disfigured twin. A clashing horizon of twisted, decrepit skyscrapers. Smog as far as the eye could see. Crime in the overcrowded streets. But not the Martian Empire, no, the Martian Empire was majestic. Solits, the capital stretched towards the air with open arms. The parks were sacred places where good people could sit and watch ducks in the pond, the trees blowing carelessly in the wind.
"And how's your mother?" The words snapped her out of her daydream and pierced the soul. She looked back in time to see Moe stealing a glance from behind her thick glasses.
"Good....How's yours?" She awkwardly and pathetically retorted. Clenching her thighs hard together and in her mind pretending to flip the table over and choking the older woman lifeless. Moe, as calm as always, simply raised her right eyebrow in response, and continued reading.
"Well you'll be sad to hear that you are being re-assigned then." She said apathetically, and barely audible.
"Wait, what?" Sidney blurted out, letting her mask slip for just a moment.
"Ah, yes, Miss Takumi." Moe replied. "It appears that The Gardener is in need of your skill set somewhere more... critical."
Sidney was tumbling into a tunnel of false hope and desire. Was she getting out of this purgatory? Was the hell of boredom in exile finally over? Even a new dump like Deimos seemed like a vacation about now. Anywhere away from the crime family, anywhere but here.
"Well I'm sure you've heard the news." Moe's old voice crackled through the air.
"The New Bakhir Palace bombing?"
"Indeed," she replied, still casually flipping through her papers. "What do you know about it?" Moe said, now subtly more interested in gaging Sidney's form.
"Well," she leaned back, pretending to be at ease in her newfound role as a private detective for the ITU. "Someone blows up the General's family, and they want it to look like the Martian Empire did it."
"And what do you think?" Moe finally looked up, curiously studying Sidney's response.
"Not sure why they would attack, knowing full well General Dinamo was out of town, and on top, leaving such an obvious trail back to them."
"Yes, that's The Gardener's problem too." She took out her pocket flask and poured a few ounces into her beer while continuing to talk. "They're worried someone is trying to offset the balance we work so hard to maintain."
"What's the word from the Martian Empire?"
"Official condolences and the usual." Moe took a large sip. Her facial expression never changing as she swallowed the bitter brew. "But Solits is on high alert, Py is on lockdown and they're indiscreetly mobilising everything they have to the borders. They've even reached out to us for help, Not to mention their big, bad mother."
"RZRR?" Sidney said in a hushed tone, as if mentioning a ghost.
"The one and only." Moe squawked. "We reckon it will take them 3 weeks until they can park the entire Inner Sol Command right outside these docks."
Sidney closed her eyes and leaned her head back, envisioning the colossal RZRR Battlecruisers, with hundreds of smaller support vessels, all crowded around Mars, ready for the showdown. The Venusians would love the opportunity to respond in force to that, supporting with their much smaller, but deadlier fleet. Things could escalate very quickly. Things could get ugly.
"So we have the angry Confederates backed up by Venus on one side, and the Martian Empire with the Sino-Russians on the other. That leaves the good old Union Empire on the fence, watching from afar."
"I take it that you're sending me to Mars then?" Sidney casually threw out the question she knew could very much change her life. Her toes and fingers crossed. Surely the embassy would need every available operative in the area.
"Yes," Moe replied, "But we don't require your assistance in Solits." She lowered her voice to a near whisper. "We're sending you to Novograd."
The worlds stopped. The tunnel of hope and desire closed shut around her throat. "Wait." Sidney pulled away from the table. "You can't send me there. I have spy written all over me, they'll eat me alive." Her cool composure was gone, her mask had slipped to the ground, leaving only a horrified expression.
"I trust you can manage, Ms. Takumi." Moe replied coldly. "Unfortunately you're the only one we have in the vicinity."
Sidney's skin had turned paler than usual. Her pupils constricted, and the hair on her neck stood up. If Moe could see any of this she was clearly ignoring it.
"A few quick things before I give you the briefing from The Gardener," she said, before leaning forward and half-whispering again. "HMS Albion will from here on out only be referred to as Seagull. Remember that. The New Bakhir bombing will from here on out only be referred to as The Frozen Pond. Remember that."
"Wait, the HMS Al...?" Sidney mumbled confused. She was going to Confederate Mars, with a big target on her back. She would be arrested the second she showed them her passport...
"Remember that." Moe urged again as she sat back, and pulled out an envelope from her dossier.
"Here's a quick briefing from the boss upstairs." She said, and slid it across the table. "Read it and destroy it. I'll wait."
EYES ONLY - BURN AFTER READING.
I'll leave it to The Caretaker to fill you in on all the boring stuff.
You are to leave for your assignment ASAP on a transport that will be assigned to you by The Caretaker. Small suitcase. Burn the rest.
Your objective is to investigate Seagull and any possible connections to The Frozen Pond.
OFF THE BOOKS. So you'll be on your own.
The Caretaker will set you up with a suitable dead drop.
Your codename will be Red Rose.
Catchy? I know.
I love this spy shit.
Don't fuck this up.
God save the Queen.
"Wait, what?" Sidney's mind was flooded. Seagull, dead drop, Red Rose.
"Well it's better than The Caretaker. I sound like an old bag." Moe muttered as if she had read Sidney's mind. All while she casually begun packing the papers back into her briefcase. "I don't need to tell you this conversation never happened." Moe placed a brown envelope on the table and slid it across. "This should be more than enough for you to reach Novograd and set up operations."
"You must be joking." Sidney blurted out, no longer caring how she presented herself. "What about the visa entry, filing for an apartment? The Confederacy is a military state. You don't just waltz in there. Someone's gonna ask for papers. Someone's gonna know."
"This is not your first Rodeo."
"It's my second." Sidney moped.
"I just handed you 20 000 yen, Miss Takumi," Moe said annoyed and distant. "That is more than enough to make the necessary arrangements."
"That's not even my name." Sidney was at her rope's end. Phobos had been a difficult task as is, now they were sending her into the mouth of the beast to get her head chopped off, all just to appease some suits and uniforms at the top.
"Act like a bloody professional." Moe grunted as she stood up and threw the blue jacket around her shoulders. "Send me a message when you've set up operations. The address is in the envelope." She turned around and tucked her suitcase back in under the jacket. "Oh, and destroy that paper" She groaned as she walked away.
"I'm so screwed.." Sidney mourned as she crumpled a piece of the paper, stuffed it in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of Kemper beer, knowing that she was sullying the comforting memory of watching Sol dip into the magnificent Atlantic ocean, standing on the piers of St. Augustine, together with her friends. Instead it would forever remind her of the year in this gasoline smelling dump, and the plane crash that turned out to be her career.