Musketeer Space Part 43: Fleet United

rustyHappy Musketeer Day!

I spent the weekend immersed in the musical hijinks of Russian Musketeers Own my Soul (1979) and any future Musketeer adaptation I watch which does not have musical numbers (or Rochefort wearing purple satin) is going to be a grave disappointment to me. I am ruined for all Musketeers, forever.

Truly, Musketeer Media Monday can be a cruel mistress.

Start reading Musketeer Space from Part 1
Missed the last installment? Track back to Part 42
Read a festive Musketeer Space prequel, “Seven Days of Joyeux.”
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE: Dana D’Artagnan is almost a Musketeer now, or at least is piloting a supplies and support transport as they all head off to war. She received a transmission that proved Conrad Su, the guy she sort of has a thing with, is still alive after being kidnapped by Dana’s greatest enemy: Milord De Winter. But there’s no time for romance and side trips with an interstellar war about to kick off… right?

NOW READ ON!

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Chapter 43: Fleet United

The Second Wave of the Combined Royal Fleet that had set out from Paris six days ago was to be found in orbit around Chaillot Station, a large deep space recharging satellite that was twice the size and three times as grimy as Meung Station.

Walking into the briefing room on the Regent’s flagship with Agent Rosnay Cho at her back made the memories of that particular stopover even sharper in Dana’s mind.

“Don’t suppose you fancy a Duel, for old time’s sake?” suggested Ro in a mocking voice. Dana glared at her, and Ro held up her hands in innocence before crossing to the other side of the room, where the Regent stood with Cardinal Richelieu on one side of her, and a grim Amiral Treville on the other.

Someone seized Dana’s sleeve, and she found herself dragged into a hug by Porthos, who led her over to the corner where Aramis and Athos were waiting.

“Making new friends?” Athos said dryly.

“Befriending old enemies, I think,” said Dana with a frown. She did not really know what to think of this new friendliness of Rosnay Cho, but war did that sort of thing, didn’t it? Bringing unlikely allies together in a common cause.

“Because that worked out so well last time.”

Dana gave him a startled, wounded glance.

Athos took a sip from a flask that was decidedly non-regulation. “Too soon?”

Dana punched him in the arm. “It’s never not going to be too soon, Athos.”

Aramis put placating hands on both of them to make them quiet down. “Treville’s about to speak.”

But the Amiral did little but wave at the crowd of pilots to command silence, before introducing the Regent herself.

Lalla-Louise Renard Royal was bright-eyed and animated in her plain black flight suit, with none of the usual cosmetic enhancements or hair baubles she favoured for public appearances. Her hair was tied up in a severe top-knot similar to the one Aramis always wore on duty. Like a real pilot.

In a grave, majestic voice, the Regent outlined the situation that Rosnay Cho had already briefed Dana about, back on the Frenzy Kenzie: the enemy had engulfed the planet of Truth in a storm of ships, creating what looked like a wall wrapping entirely around the planet.

Satellite images suggested that part of the ‘wall’ effect was an illusion created by some kind of gas, but the fact remained: they no longer had individual targets to aim at, only a single enormous target that held a planet as hostage.

“Is it possible -” Dana began to ask without thinking, then clamped her mouth shut as she remembered where she was.

The Regent’s eyes flicked in her direction, and the traitorous Athos gave Dana a shove out of the corner, so she could more easily be seen.

“You have a question -” the Regent suggested in a mild voice.

“Arms-Sergeant D’Artagnan,” the Cardinal supplied before Treville could speak up.

“Arms-Sergeant D’Artagnan,” said the Regent, not smiling but not looking entirely pissed off, either.

Dana swallowed, but everyone was looking at her now. She had no choice but to speak. “We know that the Sun-kissed – pretty much the only thing we know about the Sun-kissed is that they are shapechangers,” she said. “Is it possible that their technology – that their ships, can also change shape?”

All three commanders – the Regent, the Cardinal and Amiral Treville, went very still for a moment. Dana didn’t know if it was because this was a new, terrible concept to them, or if they had already been working from such a theory but had not intended to make it public.

“That is entirely possible,” the Regent said finally.

Around Dana, she heard the Musketeers and the Sabres muttering quietly amongst themselves, the muffled noise rising and falling in urgent waves. She didn’t blame them in the least.

Bad enough to fight against ships they couldn’t see, without those ships potentially changing size or shape at any moment.

“That’s the best theory we have for how their fleet expanded so quickly,” the Regent admitted after the muttering died down once more.

“But of course,” said the Cardinal, stepping closer to the Regent. “We have God on our side.”

The Regent Royal smiled as if this act of togetherness was spontaneous, instead of painstakingly rehearsed. “With Church and Crown working together, nothing can stop the Combined Fleet,” she said, her voice filling the room powerfully. “United, we have so much to fight for – including the very future of the Solar System.”

At that, she paused and placed a hand very deliberately on her abdomen, and it was clear from the quick look she received from the Cardinal that this part came as a surprise to her as much as anyone else.

For a moment, distaste crossed the Cardinal’s face – the very idea of producing children by natural rather than scientific means was not against the teachings of the Church of All, but was certainly not preferred when it came to royal heirs and expectant mothers flying into battle. It smacked of pandering to the Elemental populace, including Prince Alek himself.

But the expression passed so fleetingly that Dana could not be sure afterwards that she had really seen it at all. With her usual polite benevolence, the Cardinal led the assembled Musketeers, Sabres and other military personnel in a prayer for the safety of all members of the royal family, past and present.

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When the crowd dispersed, Dana considered heading back to the Frenzy Kenzie, though they weren’t due to make the final approach to the Siege of Truth for another twelve hours and she was pretty sure she needed as much of a break as she could get from Bass and Chantal. Especially now that the two of them would be no doubt vibrating with excitement over the implications of a royal pregnancy.

Dana wanted to be alone with her thoughts about the transmission she had been sent en route, and what it might mean about Conrad Su and Milord.

In the end, she didn’t get a choice in the matter. Porthos slung an arm around her waist, preventing Dana from disappearing. “Come and drink with us,” she insisted. “We’ve clearance to head down to Chaillot as long as we’re back in our bunks by 0:00 hours.”

Reluctantly, Dana agreed. “Drink with us” turned out to mean sharing a booth in the corner of a rather loud nightclub called Dovecote Red with Athos and Porthos, surrounded by most of the rest of the Combined Fleet.

“She’s queuing at subspace transport,” said Athos, when Dana asked about Aramis. “A message from a friend that had to be collected in person rather than sent over the comms.” His weary expression, lit up by the blazing pyrotechnics that poured over them from the domed ceiling of the club, revealed exactly how bored he was by Aramis and her social life.

“Speaking of friends,” said Porthos, her eyes gleaming. “What the hell is going on with you and Agent Scarypants, Dana? You were looking very cozy when you arrived at the briefing. Isn’t she supposed to be your nemesis or something?”

“Or something,” Dana said, eyes on her glass so that she didn’t give her confusion about Ro away to either of them.

There was drinking and dancing and the night was surprisingly fun considering that they were literally on the brink of war, and this club’s light show was a little too heavy on scarlet and crimson filters that made all the sweaty dancing look grisly after a few drinks.

With only 45 minutes before their curfew came down, Dana was heading to the bar for a final refill when someone smacked into her from behind. She turned and found herself with an armful of warm, drunken Aramis, who pressed her face into Dana’s collarbone as if wanting to inhale her entirely into her lungs.

“Um,” said Dana. She caught sight of Athos over Aramis’ shoulder, who simply rolled his eyes as if this was no more than he had expected of the two of them. Porthos grinned and made an encouraging gesture that was entirely unhelpful.

If she let go now, Aramis would surely slide on to the floor, presuming she was as drunk as she was acting, which seemed – extremely out of character.

Just as Dana had this thought, Aramis slithered a little higher to nip her on the earlobe and whisper. “Go with it, we need an excuse to be alone.”

Dana opened her mouth to complain that the pretence was entirely unnecessary given that the entire Fleet knew they were friends, and it would hardly be out of character for the two of them to slope off to some quiet corner together without the need for gratuitous making out.

Her mistake was in opening her mouth, because now she had Aramis’ tongue to deal with, and there was no thinking about anything remotely practical when she was having the very breath kissed out of her.

“Well, that was discreet,” Dana managed to complain, eight lingering kisses later when they finally tumbled through the door of a private room above the club.

“Possibly there was a side bet with Porthos about how enthusiastically you’d respond to espionage kisses,” Aramis said, throwing herself on the bed with smug enthusiasm.

“Because kissing hasn’t got me into far too much trouble already since I arrived in Paris,” Dana sighed, perching on the edge of what was either a very uncomfortable bed or a very soft massage table. “What on earth is all this about?”

Aramis produced what looked like an antique pear ear-drop. When she laid it on Dana’s dark brown wrist, however, it burrowed into her skin like any other data stud. “I was asked to collect message from a mutual friend of ours – and I was interested to hear quite how acquainted you are with her, since your friendship was news to me.”

Dana gave her a bleary look. “I’ve been flying a giant space boat for nearly a week with the minimum of rest cycles, do you think you could just explain in simple words, without all the flourish?”

Aramis pouted, and wriggled back on the bed until her head hit the pillow. “Flourish is my best thing.”

“Aramis, come on!”

“Fine,” her friend sighed. “You know how your Conrad was teammates with Prince Alek and my ex, Chevreuse?”

Dana hesitated. “Yes.” That seemed safe enough.

“Well, while you were running around Paris trying to seduce the relevant information out of that backstabbing alien bastard who broke Athos’ heart -”

“Without flourish, Aramis!”

“Turns out that Prince Alek launched his own rescue mission, the second that the Regent left Lunar Palais for the front. Without involving a single Musketeer, which I’m trying really hard to not take personally.”
Aramis tapped the new pearl stud on Dana’s wrist and smiled. “Want to watch him save your boyfriend?”

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Dana sat through the holographic recording, trying not to hyperventilate. This was the same transmission she had viewed back on the Frenzy Kenzie, before Bass’ security measures had severed the connection. The clip from the game, then the footage of the cell with Milord standing out of the range of the cam, taunting Conrad and, by extension, Dana.

Milord had intended her to see that footage. She knew he had. It was overwhelming to think that he had fed into someone else’s agenda as well – that this versionwas coming to her from friends instead of enemies.

“You’d be surprised how many enemies I have who think you’re worth rescuing,” she heard Milord say again. “Say hello to Sergeant D’Artagnan.”

Conrad’s eyes flicked towards the cam in surprise, then away. “You almost got me,” he said dryly. “But D’Artagnan’s not the one who’s going to get me out of here.”

“Such little faith,” mocked Milord.

“He’s quite a piece of work, this de Winter fellow,” Aramis muttered. “I mean, could he be any more villainous?”

“He’s quite good at hiding that side of him,” Dana sighed. “Under all the charm and the pretty.”

“Whatever you say, kid.” Aramis smirked. “He’s definitely not my type.”

Conrad was grinning now, his eyes looking past the cam. Even in the dingy light, his face lit up with a genuine moment of joy. “On the contrary,” he said. “I have so much faith right now, Slate.”

There was a noise: a meaty thump that meant a fight of some kind, flesh on flesh. Conrad disappeared from sight, around behind the cam.

After a moment of fighting grunts and other smacking sounds, the cam spun around to show the collapsed, unconscious figure of Milord De Winter, looking like any other battered New Aristocrat in a heap on the stone floor, his fancy suit gathering dust.

Conrad leaned into the camera with the practised ease of someone who put up with paparazzi interviews all the time. “If you’re watching this,” he said, raising his voice above the sound of a nearby commotion. “Don’t worry about coming to rescue me. My team has it covered.”

“Su, come on, stop pissing about,” said an impatient, aristocratic male voice, and another figure swept past the cam and out of range. The man was masked, and wearing the livery of a Red Guard, but Dana knew what to look for and she would have bet her life it was Alek of Auster, Prince Consort.

Conrad blew a kiss into the cam, and ran after his rescuer.

Dana stared at the fallen figure of Milord, now lifting his head slowly, before the cam feed finally bled into static again.

“They should have finished him,” she said in a low, vengeful voice. Then, more sombre than before: “I should have finished him. When I had a chance.”

Aramis lay her smooth hand on Dana’s shoulder, lightly stroking the side of her neck. “It’s a specialised skill, killing people in cold blood. We don’t all have the knack.”

The static buzzed and smoothly cut to a new recording, dated only a few hours earlier. It was Chevreuse herself, her hair pearl-white and cut into a tidy bob instead of the elaborate locks she had been sporting when Dana saw her last.

“Hey Aramis,” she said with a warm smile. Dana could practically feel her friend glow in response. “Just to let you – and your friend the little Gascon – know that the tailoring package has been delivered safely to me, and I plan to keep him well away from Paris for now.”

Chevreuse’s hand came into view long enough for her to blow a kiss. “Be valiant in battle, win the war, and get home safe, both of you.”

Relief washed over Dana. There had been a tension inside her for so long, wondering what had happened to Conrad and feeling guilty that it was at least partly her fault. He looked good, despite all that time imprisoned. She was going to get to see him again.

“She looks puffy,” said Aramis with a twist of her mouth. “Do you think she looks puffy? I mean, a little extra weight suits her, but Chev was all cheekbones and sharp edges when we were together, and now she just looks exhausted, what are they doing to her on the Daughters of Peace? I can’t imagine that a life without the Cardinal breathing down her neck is somehow less stressful than -”

“She’s pregnant,” Dana blurted out.

Aramis blinked, and looked at her. “Excuse me, now?”

Dana felt hot. She hadn’t meant to say it, possibly it wasn’t a thing even, but. “At least, she was pregnant when I saw her on Luna Palais a couple of months ago, so she must be almost completely done with being pregnant now, but there was definitely a – uh.”

“Huh,” said Aramis. “I guess that explains why she wasn’t along for the rescue, punching Milord in the head and all that. I wonder why she never mentioned it. I never thought her husband was the type to make that kind of condition. But they were re-negotiating their contract, last time I saw her in person.” She shrugged and smiled. “Fancy visiting Peace once we’re done with this whole alien armada thing? We’ll have some rec leave banked up, I can go buy ridiculous outfits for Chevreuse’s baby, and you can visit your boy.”

“That sounds like a plan,” said Dana.

Aramis gave her a big, squeezing hug. “Feel better? You can stop fretting about Conrad now – he’ll be safe with Chev until you get your squishy romantic reunion. Hey, he’s a tailor, right? He can make ridiculous outfits for the baby. Even better. I might send him some ideas, because every baby needs a miniature flight suit with sequins.”

Dana nodded, and hugged Aramis back. Safe. Conrad was safe.

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WHATEVER HAPPENED THE DUCHESS OF BUCKINGHAM?

Over the last several week, Georgiana Villiers or “Buck” to her friends has become a shell of her former self. Seemingly overnight she went from one of Valour’s most-tracked celebrities, to a social media black hole.

Was it heartbreak? Drug addiction? Mental breakdown? Or something more sinister?

Our reporter, Coral Wishlist, was able to capture Buck for some one-on-one time earlier today. As you can see from the footage, the Duchess of Danger Sports is lacking her usual energy, and has gone for a dramatic image change.

CORAL: You look amazing, Buck. What are you wearing?

BUCK: The silk dressing gown is from Shania’s latest collection. If you’re going to wear pyjamas during the day, they should at least be as expensive as a new car, right?

CORAL: Well, that quote’s going straight up on our website!

[They laugh]

CORAL: Seriously, the world has been worried about you after you dropped out of sight! Tell us the truth: was it rehab?

BUCK: I wish it was that easy to explain. I’ve been working through some emotional issues, and my therapist thought it best that I stay out of the spotlight to gain some new perspective on my life. I spent some time on an ornamental llama farm, and a fortnight at a meditation retreat in the foothills. I’m feeling much stronger now.

CORAL: I’m glad to hear you’re taking care of yourself. But I hope you’ll be tweeting again soon – the digital space isn’t the same without you!

BUCK: Believe me, I’m planning my social media comeback.

CORAL: And does all this mindful silence give you any time for romance?

BUCK: Watch this space.

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After the reporter and her cams had gone, Buck staggered back up to her private suite and splashed water on her face. She looked in the mirror for a long time, her fingertips brushing over the short curls that were all that remained of her wild, tangled bronze hair.

She had been sober for two weeks, and Winter had not made an appearance in her head. That was good, right? Perhaps he was done with her. Perhaps the implant, or whatever it was, simply dissolved after a certain amount of time.

Or perhaps he had been there all along, but had got better at erasing her memories without a trace. No, she couldn’t think like that, she couldn’t.

She really would go insane.

A trill caught her attention as a subspace call came through. Since she was already sitting at her bathroom mirror, she patched the call through.

“Hey Buck!”

To Buck’s astonishment, it was Chevreuse – a smiling, tired-looking Chevreuse, holding a bundle in her lap.

“Babe, is that a baby?” Buck blurted out.

“It’s a baby, I made a baby!” Chevreuse held up the tiny bundle long enough for Buck to see a pink, scrunched up face. “They’re so much better on the outside, believe me, though noisier and more likely to make unexpected mess at a moment’s notice. Still, I’m not doing the organic method again – pod hatching all the way for any future heirs to Montbazon’s fortune.” Her voice dropped to a more business-like tone. “Are you alone?”

No, never alone, never safe, never clear, don’t trust me. “Yes, of course. What’s up?”

“Our Conrad’s got himself into a bit of trouble. Alek and I just rescued him from this godawful tower where he’d been held on a freaking asteroid for more than a month. I’d keep him here, but I think people will start asking too many questions, and it’s not safe to send him back to Paris.”

Buck forced her face into a smile. “You want me to take him? I don’t think that’s a good idea …”

“Your place is huge, and there are always people in and out. I think it’s for the best, as long as you can keep his image off social media. Or maybe find him some cozy monastery somewhere? Valour has monasteries, right? I know you’re all about the historical reenactment bullshit. I’m putting him on a shuttle to you today.”

“Chev -” but Buck’s mouth wouldn’t work, wouldn’t let her voice any of the practical excuses that her brain was running overtime on creating.

“You have to keep him clear from any government officials, especially Milord De Winter – he’s the Secretary of the Interior on Valour, I think? In fact, if you can keep him clear of all government officials until after the Fleet have dealt with the Siege of Truth. After that, some Musketeers will be coming by to pick him up – or I will, if they can’t make it. Got it?”

No, no, no.

“No problem,” Buck found herself saying, the words coming out with an easy smile. “I’m sure we can keep ourselves occupied. I’m having a zero gravity tank installed in the summer house.”

Chevreuse laughed and blew kisses. “Awesome. Alek sends – well, you know. Completely platonic but genuine and politically-neutral expressions of friendship. You’ll have Conrad in two to three days, he’ll message you when he docks. Keep our boy safe.”

The call cut out, leaving Buck to sit at her bathroom mirror in a haze of shock. She could hear laughter, inside her head. No, not inside at all. She stood up, wrenching back the shower door to find the silver-haired man who called himself Winter lying in the empty bath with his bare feet up against the edge of the tub, laughing hysterically.

“I’m so glad I stuck around in your brain,” her personal hallucination managed to sputter out, half-choking on his amusement. “This is is going to be marvellous.”

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You have been reading Musketeer Space, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tune in next week for another chapter! Please comment, share and link. Musketeer Space is free to read, but if you’d like to support the project for as little as $1 per month, please visit my Patreon page. Pledges can earn rewards such as ebooks, extra content, dedications and the naming of spaceships. Milestones already unlocked include the Musketeer Media Monday posts, the Robotech Rewatch posts, and “Seven Days of Joyeux,” a special Christmas prequel novella which was released in December 2014. My next funding milestone will unlock GORGEOUS COVER ART.

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