Sadovo Interplanetary Spaceport, Parliamentary Kingdom of Mars, Phobos.
Sidney Takumi checked her watch again.
The green digits flickered, 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 few guests enter and exit the little box cafe on the corner of Valentina.
Sadovo—or anywhere on Phobos—was a network of cramped tunnels. A claustrophobic landscape of cheap neon signs, thick wires and dripping pipes. All with their own distinct sight, sound, and smell, and having been placed with little concern for esthetics.
The arranged meeting place was close to 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. Her cover could easily be blown by having a 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.
She crossed the street, pulling her hat down to avoid any unwanted attention, hurriedly scanning the area. 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, or on the lack of social outlets on Sadovo, leaving her with few options but to do burpees in her hub all day. Both were close to the truth, but no one here knew 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 before she learned that hard lesson. Then the teenage girl had taken up Union Physical Defense. Learning how to use momentum to her benefit; throwing opponents over her shoulder, and strangling them with her legs. 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 loved her deeply and gave 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 to herself and her parents. A stumbling entrance into adulthood her father had once proclaimed. An awkward chapter in her life.
Nothing turning a page couldn’t mend, nothing they couldn’t forgive her for...
That was until she, at 19, enrolled at the Military Academy at Ocala. It was after yet another horrible breakup, leaving the young lady desperately looking for purpose, 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. A newer one of a determined green cadet in an ITU uniform.
For the last 3 years she had been Miss. Takumi. Her once long flowing black hair cut jagged and short. Colorful dresses gone for more practical garments, such as jeans and jackets.
She was publicly a worthless grub now. 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. She was to monitor the ever-strained tension between the Confederacy and the Martian Kingdom.
Sadovo was a known stomping-ground for the bad kind of people. An off-planet harbor 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 fishes in a small pond.
Sidney slowly pushed the door open and entered the establishment.
Inside, the Valentina Cafe looked like any other place on Sadovo: Cramped, dull, and gray. Standardized metal walls covered by cheap trinkets in the misguided belief it would ‘spruce up the place’.
Most moon bases were built to be cost effective. No one wanted to slap expensive rockets on a baseball stadium and drag it all the way up here. No, Phobos and her sister moon Deimos were low-gravity ports. Where massive ships docked on their long voyages between planets. The smaller shuttles would then bring the travelers back and forth to terminals on Mars. Sadovo serving only as 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 replied as she peeked over her shoulder.
The door creaked open and a shadowy figure in blue slipped in, hurriedly moving towards the secluded area.
“Could you make that two?” She smiled at the bartender and slid three 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 Kingdom. Kemper Breweries was one of those giant corporations that spanned the Solar System. Never seen on the political stage, but always had a finger in the pie. That’s how companies could operate across borders; with a wink and the almighty Yen.
She reckoned the crews stationed here knew the value of decent beer. Lives spent hauling cargo to the dark reaches of Sol. Kemper Beer were more than willing to make that trip bearable.
For her, Kemper Beer represented Florida. The good part, anyway. Watching her friends run laps on the beach, daring each other to jump from the broken pillars, shotgunning beers around the campfire ‘til one of them threw up. It was dirty, but it was home.
And she missed it.
“Good evening, Miss. Takumi.” A shrill voice said as she entered the secluded area of the cafe.
The shadowy figure folded the blue jacket behind the chair, revealing herself to be a middle-aged woman with graying hair, and thick-rimmed glasses. Her name was Moe, and she was Sidney’s handler.
“Evening?” Sidney answered. “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. “Do you want to file a formal complaint?” She didn’t look up. Her eyes calmly moving from right to left, skimming through the important papers in front of her.
Sidney stared down at her beer, gritting her teeth.
“No, ma’am,” she mumbled, whiles thinking of Florida. “It’s the jolliest tin-can this side of the belt.”
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 was even smaller.
It’s hard to keep to oneself when the men are drunk and lonely. Even harder to be a spy.
The organized crime family took an interest to her the moment she landed. She suffered 3 broken fingers, lost 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 in practicality banned from downtown Sodovo.
“I love the place, Ma’am.” She lied. Quietly wondering why they had sent her to rot in this hellhole.
Keeping an eye on any socialist revolution was a joke. What revolution? She barely saw anything resembling one. Just people complaining about dirty cops and incompetent utility leaders.
Moe was lucky enough to live in the Martian Kingdom, 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 floating across the sky. The planet was as good as Earth, if not better. At least the Parliamentarians.
The Confederacy, on the other hand, was its disfigured twin. A clash of twisted, decrepit skyscrapers. Smog as far as the eye could see. Crime in the overcrowded streets.
But not the Kingdom, no, the Kingdom was majestic. Solits, the capital, stretched out with open arms. The parks were sacred avenues where good people could sit and watch ducks in the pond, trees blowing carelessly in the wind. Where good people could take a breath and allow themselves to be happy.
“And how’s your mother?”
The words pierced her the soul. She looked back in time to see Moe stealing a glance from behind her thick glasses.
“Good... How’s yours?” She clenched her thighs together, in her mind pretending to flip the table over and choking the older woman out.
Moe, as calm as always, raised her right eyebrow, and continued reading.
“Well you’ll be sad to hear that you are being re-assigned then.” She said, barely audible.
“Ah, yes, Miss. Takumi.” Moe replied. “It appears that The Gardener is in need of your skill set somewhere more... important.”
Sidney was tumbling into a tunnel of deceptive hopes and desires. Was she getting out of this purgatory? Was the hell of exile finally over? Even a new dump like Deimos seemed like a vacation. Anywhere away from the crime family.
Anywhere but here.
“Well I’m sure you’ve heard the news.”
“The Palace bombing?”
“Indeed” Moe replied. “What do you know about it?” she seemed subtly more interested.
“Well,” Sidney leaned back, pretending to be at ease in her newfound role as a private detective. “Someone blows up the General’s family, and they want it to look like the Kingdom did it.”
“And what do you think?”
“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.” Moe took out a pocket flask and poured a few ounces into her beer. “They’re worried someone is trying to offset the balance we work so hard to maintain.”
“What’s the word from the Kingdom?”
“Official condolences and the usual.” Moe took a large sip. Her face made of rock. “But Solits is on lockdown, Py is in a state of emergency and they’re indiscreetly mobilizing everything to the border. My, 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 shivered. “We reckon it will take them around 3 weeks before they can park the entire Inner Sol Command next to this moon.”
Sidney closed her eyes, envisioning the horrifying RZRR battleships with hundreds of smaller support vessels. All floating above Mars, ready for the showdown of the century. The Venusians would love the opportunity to respond in force to that. Things could turn very bad very quickly.
“So we have the offended Confederates backed by Venus on one side, and the Martian Kingdom with Mother Sino-Russia on the other. That leaves the good old Union Empire on the fence, watching from afar.”
“So, you’re sending me to Mars then?” Sidney asked casually. Words she knew could change her life. Her toes and fingers crossed. Surely the embassy would need every available operative in the area.
“Yes,” Moe replied. “…But your assistance in Solits is not required.” 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 poker face slipped to the ground, leaving only a horrified little girl left.
“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. The hair on her neck stood up. If Moe noticed any of this she was ignoring it.
“A few quick things before I give you the briefing from the boss upstairs,” she leaned forward and whispered. “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’s world crumbling before her eyes. She was going to Confederate Mars with a big target on her back. She would be arrested the second she arrive...
Moe pulled out an envelope from her dossier.
“Here’s the instructions from The Gardener.” She 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 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.” Moe muttered “I sound like an old bad”. She casually started packing her briefcase. “I don’t need to tell you this conversation never happened.” She placed a brown envelope on the table and slid it across. “This should get you to Novograd and cover the operation.”
“You must be joking.” Sidney no longer cared 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.”
“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 chewed off. 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,”
“I’m so screwed..”
Sidney ripped off a piece of the paper, stuffed it in her mouth and washed it down with Kemper beer. She knew she was sullying the 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 was turning out to be her career.