Sam turned slowly, knowing there was no escape this time. Those outside appeared intent on running him down and interrogating him, and so he might as well face the one here, rather than the crowd.
What he turned to, surprised him. As the voice had indicated, it was a young woman, but aside from that, there was nothing predictable about her.
She was dressed in the school uniform, like any other, but hers was covered in frills and accessories, to the point of nausea. Her arms, too, were littered with pearly armbands, golden chains, and beaded strings. Additionally, around her neck, a multitude of necklaces almost entirely obscured the skin beneath.
Compared to the rest of her outfit, her face seemed empty. However, one might argue her entire face was one great accessory, as the careful, accenting makeup and large eyes made her look like a doll. Along with her aesthetically pleasing hair, cut into a perfect frame for her face, she was entirely too beautiful for Sam to think her real.
“Well, my little hero, why don’t you join me for a bit of tea?” She asked, her voice like a crystal chime in the wind.
“I… I really don’t want to be a bother,” he said as politely as he could, hoping for a way out.
“Nonsense,” she laughed, dispelling his hopes, “Come, sit. I promise not to bite.” She followed up the jest by putting the back of her hand before her mouth and chuckling.
Sinking his spit, Sam stepped closer. She was seated beside a small round table with some fine chinaware on it. On the other side of the table, an empty chair invited him in. At least the table would still be between them…
He sat down and observed the girl closely as she picked up a picturesque tea pot and poured steaming liquid into a cup beside him. The smell of chamomile and citrus wafted through the air, allowing him somewhat to relax. At least the setting here was nice.
“Please, drink. This is my favorite blend.” He picked up the cup and took a sip. It was rich in taste, the bitterness of the citrus outweighing the sweetness of the flower. It was as calming to drink as it was to smell.
“Now,” she said, leaning back in her own seat and taking a sip of her own drink, “I do have to marvel at the chance that has sent you here. I’ve had people out looking for you from early morning, and yet you got into school without anyone as much as noticing you.”
The tea suddenly went down wrong, and Sam coughed violently. Only when he had regained control, staring at the girl with surprise on his face, did she continue. “Of course, I should have known the Rabbit would summon you, after that little stunt of yours yesterday. You’re very lucky, you know. had it been anyone else who had recorded that video, you might have already been turned inside out.”
“What do you mean?” He asked, hesitantly.
“I’ll show you,” she said enigmatically, and raised a bell beside the tray with the teapot. Chiming softly, she kept looking Sam dead in the eyes. Within a breath, a side door to the room opened, and someone stepped through the door and gave a slight curtsey.
Sam tried to keep his surprise under control when he recognized Idris. The girl looked much the same as yesterday, but this time around she wore a blue armband around her bicep.
God dammit, he growled inwardly. Was there really no escape?
“Idris, be a dear and refreshen this pot of tea. And we need some biscuits, don’t we, Mr. Welbourne? Yes, some biscuits as well.”
Idris nodded and walked closer. She picked up the tray with the pot, giving Sam a slight look out of the corner of her eyes. Her green iris was trembling slightly as she looked upon him. Was he that scary?
“She sent the video to you,” Sam said, calmly. He felt the same kind of calm coming over him that had assailed him after the brawl in the café. Idris’s face whitened, and she hurried to back away with the tray, curtseying once more before she exited the room again.
“Indeed,” the doll-like girl drawled, smiling pleasantly as she emptied her cup and gracefully put it back on the table.
“Then why did you spread it?” Sam asked, “And why alter it?” He was just guessing, but he had a feeling he was right.
“Because the Rabbit asked me to, of course,” the girl smiled. “After you fled the scene, Idris had to somehow clean up your mess. She had started filming before she realised what was going on, and when she finally did, it was too late. The video was already out in the ether, and we had to contain it. The easiest way to do that, was to spread our own video, one with slight alterations.”
“Who are you?” Sam asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“I think you know,” The girl turned her eyes on him, and he noticed how blue these were. Like sapphires, they seemed to glow with intensity.
“You’re the Blue Mink,” he finally said, knowing he had stepped into the dragon’s den by accident.
“Indeed. Or Emma, if you prefer to be informal – and I do. May I call you Samuel?”
“Just Sam is fine,” he sighed. Of course, he had already met the Lion and the Raven, why not the Mink as well?
“Sam it is. Please call me Emma. Now, I think we should begin discussing how you will pay me back for the massive favor I have just done you.”
“Favor? What favor?”
“Why, the video of course, Silly. If not for my swift actions, you might quite possibly already be in security force custody, awaiting a hearing in your case. As it is, we’ve altered the events for you, and the Rabbit has even taken the initiative to deal with the implications, since you are an academy student after all. So, you owe me.”
“Fine… What do you want?” Sam said, sensing much the same pressure from this girl, as he had felt from the two other Wells he had come into contact with.
“Oh, I’m not as crude as the Lion or the Raven, Sam. I don’t care what you intend to do, nor do I plan on recruiting you to my ‘noble cause’. Let those idiots fight over you; I am much more interested in how we can benefit one another.”
“Benefit one another? And what exactly is your ‘noble cause’, Emma? The other two were pretty clear on their way being the only way forward, so, what is your stance?” Sam asked, genuinely curious to learn what the ‘crazy Blue Mink’ was all about.
“Why Sam, it is rude to ask a lady to explain herself, you know. Nonetheless, I shall tell you: I care nothing for the ‘order’ or ‘chaos’ those two buffoons are spouting. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, these are just excuses for them to act as heavy-handed as they please. No, Sam, I have no ideals of such magnitude; I simply believe in the exchange of favors and goods. Whatever those favors are for, or however these goods are put into use, is none of my business, as long as I still come out on top.”
“In other terms, you’re effectively neutral, playing both sides against one another, while you remain unharmed on the sidelines?”
“Indeed. Clever, no? Let the boys squabble until they’ve exhausted one another. Meanwhile, my people stay out of their way, fortify themselves within my area of control, and violently lash out against anyone who dares to try and test us.”
The door to the sideroom opened again, and Idris returned with the teapot, and an additional box filled with biscuits. She put the tray down on the table beside them, letting her eyes flicker back and forth between the two Wells, then quickly retreated.
“And her?” He asked, nodding towards the door Idris had just closed behind her when leaving, “She’s one of your people? Why wasn’t she wearing an armband yesterday?”
“She’s an… unofficial part of my faction,” Emma said, pouring herself some more tea and sipping at it gracefully. “She’s not exactly a kertal, but she is aware of the danger. Her parents were killed after some infected kertal stormed the UN embassy in Germany when she was five. She watched them rip apart her mother in front of her eyes, poor thing.
“I employ several such people –those who have been faced with the hidden war– since they have a keen interest in staying safe, as well as getting a bit of revenge. With my clout, I arranged for Idris to have some part-time work in the modelling industry. Although their utility is limited, the gossip of that industry is simply worth its weight in gold.”
“And they provide you with what exactly, in return for your help?” Sam asked, pretty sure he knew the answer.
“Their undying loyalty,” Emma said, gracing him with an angelic smile, “The kind neither the Lion nor the Raven could ever achieve. My faction may not include as many kertal as theirs, but I can still make their daily lives and activities hell if I wanted to.”
“That explains the ‘favor’ part, what about the ‘products’ you spoke of?”
The doll-like girl kept smiling as she gestured towards the biscuits. “Please, try a biscuit Sam. I insist.”
Since she clearly did not intend to answer his question, Sam picked up a biscuit and sniffed it. He had been careless about the tea, although he should have been suspicious already then.
“Oh, please,” she laughed, her laughter lighting up their room with its soothing tone, “If I wanted to poison you, or anything, I would simply have coated the inside of your cup. Have no concern, Sam, I mean you no harm.”
Her words were too scary for Sam to believe she really meant him no harm, and he shuddered at the thought of it. Deciding not to let her intimidate him, he bit into the biscuit with determination, and was shocked.
A purifying sensation of lifeforce flowed through him, streaming into the seething sea in his chest and calming it, gently turning the iron hot anger within into soft irritation. He felt his connection to the other side grow stronger as well, and heard Orca’s joyful trill of excitement as she once again managed to speak to him.
“Master!” She laughed, instantly filling his head with words about how she felt, and what was happening on the other side, and when was he coming back? She was getting bored with the sentinel, and wanted to see more of the training grounds, and would he pretty, pretty please let her see his world?
He shook his head and, with all his will, closed off the connection, ignoring her pleas and instead turned his full attention on the Blue Mink.
“How is this… possible?” He asked, stunned.
“Of course it’s possible, Silly. This is the speciality of my Blue Mink faction: the production of our patented ‘lifeline biscuit’, available to anyone for the mere cost of all their current lifeforce. How do you like it?”
“It’s… incredible… I guess this is also how you keep the other two factions away?”
“Of course. Only I know how to produce these, and, if they want to buy, they have to keep themselves on my good side.” She laughed again, melodramatically putting the back of her hand up before her mouth again.
“Right, so, you’re doing great. What do you need me for, then? I’ve got no faction to speak of, and the other two are pretty much out for my head, as things stand.”
“As I’ve said, I don’t care about any faction, and won’t care even if you manage to get a proper one on its feet. What I care about is favors and goods, and I think we can help one another in both departments.” She reached for something at her side, retrieving several pieces of papers and placing them at the table between them. Sam picked one up and looked at it. He arched an eyebrow when he recognized it; this girl was just full of surprises.
“I’m sorry you had to see this, Emma,” he said, sighing, “Since I don’t really think it’s worth that much.”
“I beg to differ,” she said, picking up a piece of paper and studying it for a bit, “You’ve only been at it for a few days, and yet your ideas are very… interesting.”
He would hardly evaluate it as such. What Sam held in his hands were his own notes, copied somehow – no doubt by a less than scrupulous method.
“Tell me, Sam, what is it you are trying to make?”
“These are just preliminary concepts for creating a magnetic field,” Sam said, lightly throwing the papers back on the table, “It’s not really worth that much. I haven’t tested anything out yet, and at this point it can hardly be said that I’m trying to make anything, yet.”
“I disagree,” Emma said, her eyes narrowing as she looked the papers over, “I believe you have a very good idea about what you need, and a path to make it. Are you saying I’m wrong?”
“I…” He hesitated. She was not exactly wrong, but how was he supposed to explain the budding ideas he had been having. Finally, he sighed and said, “These are mostly just notes on the most immediate solution: a kind of ‘field generator’, placed between the Sun and Mars at at great enough distance that the – I guess you could call it the ‘shadow’ of the field, covers Mars enough to protect it. That’s already in the works, though, and there’s probably a working prototype in existence already somwhere.
“It’s the most cost-efficient method, but is also a single-failure system. The generator needs only to fail once for the new and fragile atmosphere to be blasted away again. A more sustainable solution would be to heat Mars’ core back up and get it spinning. That does, however, require a lot more resources and is a lot less cost-effective, given how advanced the technology would have to be to succeed.”
“Yes… I can see that. But you have thought of a short-cut, haven’t you? Your notes are very neat and ordered, Sam; I can tell when someone is putting up dominos in order to tip them over and start an avalanche.”
He studied her doll-like face closer. She was a scary one, and this was clearly the reason why the other two Wells steered clear of her. He had barely even formulated the ideas in his own head, and she was already seeing through him. Although the Lion and the Raven had been intimidating in each their own way, this girl felt like the much greater danger than the two of them.
“I have…” He said, slowly and with a deliberate pause, “But before that, I need to know why you’re so interested in my Mars research.”
“I’m not,” she smiled again, malevolently, “As I said, I’m interested in favors and goods. You should know, Sam, how a single idea can be used in several useful ways. And I can smell a good idea miles away.”
“Fine, but then, why should I tell you? I won’t be getting anything out of it, and no matter what favor you did me in hiding my tracks, it won’t amount to this level. I’ll gladly pay you some lifeforce, if that interests you, but this is about my future, both in this academy and going forward.”
“Very good, Sam. I’m glad you’re not a total idiot. Let’s do this: tell me what your idea is, and if I think it is feasible, I’ll personally fund your research with my credits. I have more than enough, after all.”
“You won’t fund me without terms,” Sam said and narrowed his eyes, thoughts spinning around inside his head. He might actually gain something out of this interaction. That was a first, among his meetings with the other Wells.
“No, you’re right, I won’t. I’ll, of course, require a piece of the cake in return for my backup. However, I won’t require anything like a loyalty plea, or support from you or your as-yet, non-existing faction; just a percentage of any gains from your research, as well as first offer when you’re ready to produce.”
Sam knew he would have to be careful. The Mink clearly had a better head for business than he had, and she might easily be able to rob him blind if he did not take precautions. On the other hand… ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’.
“I’ll need more than a worded agreement,” Sam said, “But, I can tell you what I had in mind, just in broad terms, of course.”
He breathed in, knowing he was stepping out on thin ice, but he had to take a chance here. Being on his own was too dangerous, and Emma was the only one who had not outright threatened him.
“I think,” he said, putting care into his every word, “It is possible to use lifeforce, or something like it; all I need to do is artificially lower the resistance.”
For a moment there was silence between them, then Emma threw back her head and laughed. The myriad of necklaces and armbands jingled as her laughter made her shake. “I… haha.. I knew I’d found someone interesting!”