Chapter 3

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By the time the helicopter descended on the ruined laboratory complex, the smoke had settled into a hazy, grey sheet over the ground. Charlotte had an unamused frown on her face when the leading pair of imperial agents walked up to her. Alex had to hold back a smirk.

Those two women had no idea what was coming.

"Lady Charlotte. We weren't expecting you here," the older one said. She was short and stocky, with more than a few soft flaps of flesh under her sweaty pink chin. Alex had spent far too much time listening to Charlotte's rants on the useless, corrupt, and lazy Colonial Justice Agents. Seeing two living examples of her complaints in uniform for himself made it clear why she'd felt so strongly.

"And evidently you also weren't expecting... oh how many was it? Seven Amazonian militants? Do remind me what exactly they pay the lot of you for," Charlotte snapped.

"We enforce the will of the Crown throughout the colonies! We let the locals police themselves most of the time!" the first woman muttered. The Knight rolled her eyes in exasperation.

"And yet I can tell from one glance neither your blades nor your firearms have been used. Strange that two so-called police officers somehow decided it was a better idea to use their bare hands to fight the heavily armed militants. That is, I presume, the justified and dignified explanation?" She was met with silence. "I'm taking command of the forces in the area. Take me to the local sheriff."

"The... you want to talk directly with the mainlanders?" the other fat woman said. Charlotte glared at her.

"Did they actually fight and see the terrorists? Or did they share a panic room with you?" The officers had no response. "I need women who understand discipline and duty. Not gluttony and nepotism."

***

The tiny, cloudy colonial town of Huntington was, even compared to the internment zones of his youth, an utterly unimpressive sight for Alex. There were maybe three paved streets in the entire sleepy town, including the one he and Charlotte were driving on. On either side of the one lane road, there were mostly small single story houses shaped like boxes occasionally interspersed with a dilapidated shop or two. When the car came to the police station, Alex was only marginally impressed. It was far larger than most of the surrounding infrastructure and appeared much sturdier. That didn't necessarily indicate much given the paltry condition of the town.

"Don't look too glum. We won't be here for long," Charlotte said as she stepped out of the car. As Alex followed, he took a deep breath through his nose. The massive pine forest surrounding the town gave the air a fresh, earthy scent.

Inside, a half dozen local police women had gathered on the Black Knight's order. The fluorescent white light on the ceiling illuminated their unpolished features. Like the threadbare, gray room filled with at most half a dozen antiquated computers, the women were all dressed in simple, worn blue overalls littered with streaks of dirt.

Unlike the useless imperial officers from earlier, they all had hardset physiques built from decades of labor and fighting, with grim eyes to match. All of them were armed to the teeth with both guns and runesteel daggers. Unlike the stooges from Home Island, Alex could tell none of these women would bow or give deference to Charlotte's rank. Each of them glared at the Knight with heads held high, daring her to confront their impudence. For whatever reason, Charlotte ignored the locals' combative gestures and kept her expression neutral.

"You gonna harp on us for not catching all of 'em?" one of them drawled. Her mainland accent made her difficult to understand.

"How many did you get?" Charlotte asked.

"Just one," the same woman grumbled. "They were fast. By the time those fat bitches from Home Island called us, the plant was already on fire. At least none of us got hurt in the firefight."

"My apologies. I assure you we'll find the savages responsible. With the exception of the Mad Bear herself, I'll let local authorities deal with the perpetrators as they see fit," Charlotte said.

The scowls on the women's faces softened somewhat. "And how the hell are you planning on gettin' any of those buggers in the first place?" another woman snapped. Her long blonde hair fanned out into an unruly mane, a common sight among mainland commoners. Her veiny arms and calloused hands told the story of a working class woman.

"Give me one week and access to your police reports. In return I'll show the whole town this dangerous savage's head before I deliver it to our Queen."

"And what about that mongreloid with you?" someone hollered. All eyes turned to Alex. He remained stoic and kept an unmoved expression, as Charlotte had trained him to. This was hardly anything new or worth feeling anything over.

"This is my squire. He'll aid me in this endeavor as he has countless other times," Charlotte replied. Though her expression was cool and steady, Alex could tell from her twitching hands she was getting impatient with the locals.

"Why'd she pick a half breed? And a boy? Did they run out of good, purebred girls?" a woman was whispering to her colonial comrade.

"At least he's good looking. Maybe the Princess here just wanted something tasty in bed?" another woman whispered, to the sniggers from her colonial peers. Knight and Squire both remained even-tempered. It was never worth the bother of shouting back.

"Alright," the oldest woman of the group said. Alex could tell she was the sheriff by the unique badge on her uniform. "Give these good folk from the capital what they want and get back to work. Power plant's five miles out of town. Focus on policing the town limits, ladies."

Once the area had cleared of local police officers, Charlotte took Alex into the conference room at the back of the small building, locking the door behind her and checking through the windows to ensure no eavesdroppers were nearby. It was a cramped, faded white space, a far cry from the amphitheater of screens and computers Alex had often been briefed in back at the Capital. There was only one wide screen television mounted on the back wall, and it was scarcely an arm span across.

"I'm surprised they bother keeping any records of the complex," Charlotte muttered. "Mainlanders aren't known for caring a fig about Imperial property." She pulled up a satellite photo of the recently raided facility, zooming in on a heavily distorted still of the raid in progress.

"Heliocrystals," Alex muttered. "We'll never get anything meaningful with that much interference in the air."

"Come now, boy. I taught you to see beyond what every mouth-breathing moron around us sees. Take a closer look." Charlotte folded her arms and pursed her lips. She wasn't going to give Alex anymore hints.

Alex took a step forward. The waves of energy emanating from the destroyed buildings made it nearly impossible to make out the black specks that he surmised were the bandits. No matter how hard he squinted, he still couldn't make out anything meaningful from the splotches. Instead, he turned his attention to the waves distorting the air around the attack site. He wanted to slap himself for not seeing it earlier. Though seemingly random to the less trained, a squire of his skill should have seen the pattern immediately.

"It's a deliberate stealth shield!" he exclaimed. "And a really crude one too. Damn savages probably don't know anything about higher energycasting. If we comb through the rest of the satellite footage, I think I could trace these bandits to their hideout."

A subtle but unmistakable smile of pride came onto Charlotte's face. "And I was starting to think taking you on as my squire was a colossal waste of my time."

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