Because I’m supposed to capture a queen.
Well, she’s not a queen exactly, but she looks like one.
I rub my hands nervously as I look down at the woman in white and blue. She looks…not angelic, but divine in her elaborate clothing.
Too good to be touched by me and my uncertain, grasping hands.
What am I thinking? Focus, Zero.
Yet, I’m supposed to. I’m supposed to capture her. The leader of KAIROS.
I can’t see her face behind her intricate silver and blue mask, but I’m curious as to what she looks like.
I squint harder from my vantage point at her as she watches Eight sing, as if I could see behind the mask if I try hard enough.
Maybe I could…
“Zero. How are you doing?” Six’s cheerful voice comes in clear through my augs.
I know he’s trying to calm my nerves, and I’m grateful.
“Good. Four just notified me he’s in position, if you need him.”
That’s part of why I’m so nervous. If things somehow go wrong on my end…Four will kill her.
Nine’s voice comes in this time. “Let’s not need him. I’d like to avoid any bloodshed.”
“Aah, seriously try not to get her killed. I want her data,” Three chimes in.
“Focus on your mission, Zero,” Four says.
I take a deep breath, closing my eyes and shaking my head.
No pressure, right…
“…Understood,” I whisper.
The comms finally go silent and the sound of Eight’s aria comes back in.
It’s beautiful, but I’ve heard him practice enough times that I find myself softly humming along to it.
I focus back in on High Priestess from the pillar I’m standing beside. I note that none of her normal entourage seem to be with her.
There’s no one matching the descriptions of Temperance or the Magician sitting next to her, and no sign of Icarus, either.
I shift my gaze to where my map says Five is. I can see him speaking with a woman with long black curly hair, dressed in black and gold.
They both have wine glasses and she’s leaning in towards Five.
It seems like all Five has to do is play around with women.
I suppress a sigh and look around for Six instead.
As expected, I can’t see him, but I know he’s watching the exits. I don’t even know where Seven is…Somewhere mixed in with the crowd, maybe.
I focus and turn on my augs to tell everyone what I’ve seen.
“High Priestess seems to be alone…At least Magician and Temperance aren’t with her.”
It’s Three who replies first. “My info says they’re here, so they’re here. They should be sitting with her.”
“Obviously they aren’t. Could they be onto us?” Four asks.
“Six,” Nine’s calm voice cuts in through the chatter. “Can you try to find them?”
“On it,” Six says.
“Zero,” Nine adds. “I think it’s time to move.”
My stomach turns, and my heart rate speeds up in response.
“How should I do it? I mean…What do you want me to do, Nine?”
“Hmm…Direct is your style, right? You should do what you’re best at. I trust your judgement, Zero.”
Seven’s voice adds in: “You’re going to do great, Zero!”
My face heats up at this direct compliment and I’m at a loss for words.
“Thanks. I’ll do my best,” I manage to say.
Our plans settled, I stare down at High Priestess, and she suddenly looks up.
Up at me.
Normally, I wouldn’t be able to see her eyes from this distance, but…
From behind the mask, I see two brown eyes gazing straight into my soul.
I feel attacked…exposed, suddenly. I know I have to make my move NOW.
Let’s go, Zero!
I start running and leap right off the balcony…
Landing right in front of her.
People scream at my sudden appearance and I hold my right palm up, letting High Priestess clearly see my power glove.
She merely gazes up at me with a strangely kind smile.
“No one move. I-” I begin, my voice cracking under the force of her gaze. “You come with me, or I’ll use this. It’ll disintegrate you on contact.”
She tilts her head, her colorful hair falling over her shoulders.
“Really? Good to know.”
High Priestess slowly stands up then, and I’m relieved, but I don’t move my hand.
She holds out hers instead. “I’m so happy to meet you, Zero.”
I only stare at her hand in confusion. Three’s voice comes in my ear: “KAIROS doesn’t have any good data on your class.”
Six’s voice comes in almost right on top of his. “They want to capture you, don’t you forget that.
I nod faintly at their advice and steady my gaze.
Right, I can’t forget that.
“Sorry,” I say, ignoring her hand. “Let’s go.”
High Priestess sighs, letting her hand drop. “I’m sorry, too. But you’re the one who has to come with me.”
Before I can even question it, chaos erupts around me. All at once, everyone in their chairs stands up, taking out various weapons and aiming them at me.
The orchestra below stops playing and Eight stops singing abruptly.
Nine’s voice comes in loud and clear:
“It’s a trap!”
I hear Four’s familiar “Tch” and then a fight breaks out behind High Priestess. I look behind her and see Four struggling with one of the armed partygoers.
“We need to get out of here,” Six yells over the comms. “We’re outnumbered!”
But with the entire balcony crowd’s weapons trained on me, I can’t even make a move. High Priestess only stands watching, smiling mysteriously at me.
“I can’t move or I’ll get shot,” I say to let them know.
But it’s the woman before me who responds.
“And I’m advising you to not even try. You’ve gotta know when to fold them, Zero.”
“Ugh,” I glare at her in frustration, but I swear her smile turns a bit sad.
“High Priestess,” Nine’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
But this time, it’s not from my comms, but from the mic in the orchestra pit down below.
With a last glance at me, she walks towards the balcony’s edge next to me to look down at where I assume Nine is standing.
“Ah, there you are,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I wish I could say the same, but considering the circumstances…” High Priestess trails off.
“Maybe some other time then?” Nine says pleasantly. “Your organization is certainly skilled, and I do admit defeat.”
“Are you trying to flatter me? It won’t get you anywhere.”
“Then how about negotiation? Operative Seven has found Artemis and Icarus.”
“It isn’t hard to find someone who’s hiding in plain sight. Still, you’re not as stupid as I thought, then.”
I wrinkle my nose at her insult.
Nine is a genius…And he’s gonna get us out of this, I know it.
“Ah, thank you for the compliment,” Nine says. “You know what I’m implying, though, right? Or do you not care about them?”
“I do. More than you care about your team for sure,” High Priestess says.
I feel angry at this as well, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Then to my surprise she adds: “I don’t want to lose a single life if I can help it.”
“Then…Your subordinates in exchange for letting us go? Two lives for us getting out of your hair sounds like a good deal.”
“Maybe so…” High Priestess trails off and then looks to the side, at me. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, but she doesn’t look happy at all.
“Besides,” Nine continues. “You know we won’t go down without a fight, right?”
She inhales, and then looks back at Nine.
“Indeed. I’ll accept your trade…This once anyway. You can all leave, but you should be thankful. I’m being extremely kind.”
Nine inclines his head. “Yes, I agree. Thank you.”
Seriously? We can go? Just like that?
High Priestess sighs again and then waves her hand at the crowd with their weapons trained on me to lower them.
She only stares at me evenly as I put my hands down, and hop on the railing.
I hear her voice behind me.
“Next time, I won’t let you go. So, be ready.”
There’s something in her voice that almost gives me chills…
I glance back at her one more time before I jump off to the floor below to join my team.
* * *
As we walk out of the ballroom, every member of Phantom Alpha all seems to be feeling differently.
Some of us are disappointed, some cautious, and others still confident, looking only ahead.
As for me, I can’t stop trying to understand what just happened.
I can’t stop trying to understand why KAIROS let us go, or unravel the mystery that is High Priestess’ motivations.
We failed in our mission and that’s tough to swallow, but…
As we walk past the Halloween party-goers that are our enemies, I glance at the inscrutable eyes that watch us.
I can’t help feel…that the masks disguise their true natures.
…What is it that KAIROS really wants?