The skyline of New Washington is an amazing sight. Even from space, I'm told, its lights are bright enough to be seen, a carnival landscape for a world's fair. Some who have watched it from the sky call it a blight on the green expanse of North America, and some call it the most verdant forest of concrete and chrome that ever grew. Even from the ground, it inspires awe; the skyscrapers that loom above are, I'm told, exactly like the ones before the snowfall, before the flood. I've never seen the underwater ruins of Washington D.C., but I know that they are the inspiration for this my city. My home. There is absolutely no other city on earth like it.
Perhaps that is best.
I stood this day above the ants moving about on the sidewalk, above the stores and fights and everyday war of life. This day, I stood on the level of true war. I was in the open air of the 58th floor of Andiron Enterprises, my company. I squinted my eyes against the morning sun and tasted the bitter air of New Washington's skies. This was, admittedly, an unusual experience for me to have during the workday. Normally, the 58th floor of the Andiron building would not be an open-air area. Until recently it was fully walled in, with well-furnished offices, high-end computer consoles and executives working on them. Today, the executives were gone. So were the consoles and so were the walls. All of this courtesy of our chief rival, Prostech. The part of the building in which I stood was gutted with fire and shrapnel, the dull beige of the office walls darkening to black char as they approached the outside. The very floor beneath my feet faded quickly to a sooty husk, perhaps not even stable enough to support my weight. Despite my years of training and discipline, part of me wanted to walk forward just to see if I'd fall through.
"Sir Ajeya,” someone said from behind me.
"Yes,” I replied tersely, and tore my eyes from the cityscape. The man, an employee I didn't know personally, disappeared around the corner and behind the first standing wall. I followed mutely, placing a hand on the blade at my side out of habit and to keep it steady. The man and I followed the maze of corridors to a corner office that had been converted to a small conference room after the explosion. Inside, my employer and a man whom I did not recognize were speaking in hushed tones. I had a bad feeling as soon as my employer looked up at me; I read something in his expression that I knew I wouldn't like. I was soon to be justified.
"Maggie,” he said, nodding to me and standing up, as was customary. I dropped to my knee.
"President,” I replied.
"At ease,” he said, nodding, and I rose. My apprehension couldn't wholly suppress the surge of pride I felt, reminded that my employer managed to honor the proper customs while still maintaining respect to his knights.
"What's up, Lu'thaas?” I asked, taking on slightly more casual language but still maintaining a formal voice.
President Andiron gestured to the man across the table from him, who stood. He was a young man, probably around my age. Perhaps a bit younger; he might have been fresh out of University if he had gone. Black hair, olive skin, square features and street clothes. Probably human. Like me, his height didn't quite reach six feet and he had an athletic but slight build. After noting that he had a pistol on each hip, I scanned him for additional weapons and found at least four pistol magazines concealed about his body, in addition to a pair of derringers up his sleeves. I noted a compact shield module on his belt as well. I frowned: he was obviously not a Knight, but he was armed far too effectively to be a civilian. That meant...
"Andrew,” the President said to the man, “this is Sir Margaret Ajeya, my lead CK. You will be working with her on this assignment as outlined by your contract.” My eyes flew open as I realized that my fears were not unfounded. My boss would later tease me about how foolish I looked, but I had no head for such things at the time. Lu'thaas continued. “She will act as your active supervisor, and you will answer to her in all matters concerning this job. You will find this information further detailed in the contract. Maggie,” he turned to me. “This is Andrew Pearson. He is on contract for Andiron to aid you in the investigation of the Prostech bombing."
The young man nodded and stepped forward, holding a hand out to me. “It's an honor to be working with you, Sir Ajeya."
I stared at his hand as though it were on fire, so he went on, his expression faltering a bit. “I have already heard a lot about your work. Andiron is lucky to have you."
I looked over at President Andiron, who shot me a severe look. I gingerly took the man's hand and shook it, feeling somewhat faint. I nonetheless overcame myself and gave him a conservative smile. “Charmed, Mr. Pearson.” As soon as I released his hand, I turned to Andiron. “President, I would speak with you."
Lu'thaas frowned, but followed my brisk stride out of the room. As soon as we were out of immediate range of hearing, I whirled on him with fire in my eyes.
"By the Knight's Code I should cut you down!” I roared so fiercely that even the disciplined elven CEO winced at my words.
"Calm yourself, Margaret!” he replied.
"CALM myself!” I retorted indignant. “Impossible, President! The safety and security of Andiron on the line, and you place it in the hands of a ... a mercenary!” I could scarcely speak the word through rage and disbelief.
"I place it in your hands, Sir Ajeya! Are they incapable?"
"I should ask you the same thing! I work alone!"
"For this, you will work with Mercenary Pearson,” he replied, his voice steely. “Andrew Pearson is a capable individual, and has even been considered for acceptance into the Shadowflame Organization."
I rolled my already-widened eyes sarcastically. “Oh! A thief esteemed by bandits! My pride restored!"
"Your behavior dishonors the Company, knight!" Andiron said with such authority that I could not but fall silent. He and I stared at one another for a full ten seconds, the air split by raw, tense silence. After what seemed to be a very long time, I spoke up quietly.
"I could say the same of you."
Andiron sighed heavily. When he spoke, his voice was not that of my commander and President, but of Uncle Lu'thaas, the man who had raised me as a ward of the Company since my early childhood. “Maggie,” he said quietly, “I realize that it is unorthodox to ask a knight and a mercenary to work together. But you know full well that Andiron employs both."
I pressed my lips into a thin line.
"We cannot spare more CKs for defense. We may only place you on the investigation. It is not enough; you must work with a partner for your own safety."
There was silence.
"Fine,” I replied after a time, through clenched teeth. “But I do not trust a mercenary. Should he dishonor the Company on this mission, I will slay him."
Lu'thaas smiled a little bit. “It says as much in his contract, actually,” he replied. He turned from my shocked expression, a somewhat smug smile on his face (elves!), and walked back to the conference room. After a few more moments of surprised silence, I followed.
I introduced myself again to Mr. Pearson and apologized vaguely for my behavior. He seemed to understand; apparently it had been outlined explicitly in his contract how insulted I would be to have to work with a mercenary. He surely already knew it, too; it was clear to me that he had been in 'the business' for some time. After the awkwardness of the introduction had dissipated, Lu'thaas set us down for a general briefing.
"You both have seen the damage,” he began. “We don't know how this happened. We have forensics working on what kind of a bomb or spell it was. We suspect it's something new, judging by the way that it ignored our building's shielding entirely. Naturally, you two will have full access to the files. You also might want to check in with security, as they're doing research on the visitor logs for that day."
I nodded. “Where would you like us to begin?” I asked.
"Run through your contacts,” Lu'thaas replied. “Tap our Prostech plants, if they're still alive."