This one's actually the latest story in my fanfic series—non "Daria" fans might be a little confused, but maybe it has crossover appeal. (Er...no pun intended.)
As you can hear from the soundtrack, it's a bit grizzled, wistful, AND morbid! Yaaaay!
A waft of oily smoke passed overhead, thick enough to dim the light of the reddening sky as Daria ascended the rungs to the conning tower.
She brushed aside some spent brass as she heaved herself through of the deck hatch. "As you were," she huffed at the striped shirt sea-viper manning a chain gun at the rear of the tower.
The man mumbled a "yo ho," not turning his head—just as well. She didn't need him to see her gagging on the first lungful of the muggy, pungent air outside the boat.
Operation "October Surprise" was not going well.
That was putting it nicely. The situation in the media control room below had finally gone from frustrated helplessness to outright macabre…she figured it had been sometime after the last video footage of their last (loyal) agent provocateur being set upon by a mob was transmitted by their last monitor cyborg; the picture being inverted, as the cyborg was being hanged by it's ankles outside a gas station when the feed cut off. That was when the Shadaloo minion operating the thing had tried to hang himself.
Actually, you could say the operation had gone very
well. Very very
well. Wildly out of control well. Well enough to set up opportunities for exploitation of an anarchic post-bellum environment in the subcontinental region…yes, that was what she'd probably call it. At her court martial. If there were enough bosses left to call one.
There'd been precious little reason for Spindoctor to stay below, she'd eventually realized. She wasn't sure how long it'd been—she peaked out over the stern gunwale of the Leviathan
's tower, towards the town and hilly jungle country beyond the long pier. The sun, and what she thought was the Andaman Sea were at here back, so she was pretty
sure it was evening. Mostly.
She struggled not to rub at a bleary eye. She'd decided that she might do some good being where she could be seen, not hunkered below, surrounded by her own failure…she'd at least look the part, by damn.
Maybe she shouldn't have bothered—none of the Cobras she could see looked un-busy enough to be inspired…"
Un-busy"? Was that even a word?
No...no, it was not
She tried not to push through the cotton in her head to think about it as she watched the works going on on deck. Mostly, it was the last of the mangrove camouflage netting being hurriedly cut down from the Leviathan's
football-field length stern. Most of it was just going over the side, or getting trampled to the concrete mulberry.
It really shouldn't have surprised her—it made sense, with everyone either retreating, or covering the retreat. Probably the only reason they were bothering was because it made it easier to unload the trucks…
In the distance, anti-air tracers lanced up, rattling into the sky in a long arc, and just as suddenly cut off with a flash and a boom at ground level. The teeming crew on deck, which had slowed, dumbstruck at the spectacle, collectively paused for a long moment of horror, then redoubled their efforts.
The frantic chatter grew in volume. Punctuated by audible sobs.
Daria found her chin resting on her forearms, miserably. That was
an advantage…she didn't have to worry about leaving anyone behind. Sure, with the remains of her
ghost army and all her minio—section agents turned, triple-crossed, gone to ground, or…"gone to ground."
Or just had the unusual good sense not
to stick around within fleeing distance of a front line to at least try
to contain a total cluster-slugmatch out of some stupid sense of duty to what was
their damn stupid job, after all…
She frowned…wait, "cluster-slug" wasn't a word, either, was it? Gah
…what was the term she was looking for...?
She let her mind laze over the problem as she watched the scene on deck. An overloaded flatbed with UNICEF markings on the doors had been backed down a gangway, parking over the rear missile hatches. 'Looked to be evacuating critical supplies and materiel…non-standard issue weapons; 3D big screens, some even in boxes; a lot of what she strongly suspected weren't
1-kilo bundles of brown sugar, stacked up like bricks…the Leviathan's
purser was going to have kittens. Probably literally…the woman had
looked about ready to drop when Daria last saw her… "Total...Goat rodeo.'"
was the term she was looking for.
She was contenting herself watching the stream of traffic running down the pier turn into a flash flood when the voice interrupted her.
Daria looked over her shoulder, where a crimson helmet was emerging from the deck hatch. "For the time being. What's wrong now?"
Fred wriggled out of the hatch, having trouble with the scaled flak jacket. "Nonsense, what makes you say that?"
She turned away again, deciding to suddenly find the coast shallows very interesting. "Just keeping up the positive thinking…say, have you ever acted as 'Second,' Fred? Sati's not really my style…"
The Guardsman didn't answer; Daria just sighed.
From the starboard quarter, a dark gray wedge was approaching with an airborne burst, belching smoke as it limped along, low on the water—the pirate PT boat they'd contracted to shuttle the mercenaries. And related dirty deeds, none dirt cheap.
She spotted the rough characters it's deck, and frowned, recognizing them immediately. It just figured
that the Dreadnoks would make it back…back to slay the sum of things for pay. At least they
got to follow their calling...
Her attache appeared at her side, holding out a glassy black rectangle. "'Incoming message for you, sir."
Daria squinted at the thing, frown deepening. "I thought I threw that away."
"Yes, sir. In the compactor." He gave the iPhone a jiggle. "They're holding, sir."
Spindoctor's shoulders slumped. "Remind me to have you flogged, later." She took the phone without looking, and returned to her slouch on the railing. "Hello?" she answered.
There was no reply. Nothing…nothing, except maybe some whispering, it sounded like.
Daria frowned. "Excuse me?" The same nothing again, but she kept listening—it might have been a connection problem, along with the delay. After all, it was probably being bounced off a couple dozen satellites and some abandoned telegraph cables…
She took the moment to scope out the pirate boat, again, as it pulled alongside the sub. One of the pirates was tying up the boat—a lithe, fierce looking woman with a brace of pistols, a deep tan, very short shorts…long legs…
Daria shook her head, scoffing at herself. Egads,
she'd been at sea too long…geez, girl, how long have you NOT been a teenager, aga—
Suddenly, there was a shrill, tinny blast in her ear. She jumped, heart rocketing into her throat, as the kazoo cut off, and the singing began: "Happy birthday to you/haaaapy birthday to youuuuu!"
She blinked, blinked again, then remembered to breathe as the chorus continued,
"Happy biiiiiiirthday dear—"
the trio of voices diverged, overlapping with different names. She thought she caught "Daaaaaria
" and "kiddo
"—"happy birrrrthday to youuuuuu!"
The song ended with frenetic claps, cheers, and another blast from the kazoo. "Happy birthday, my little thirty year old!"
Daria coughed up her tongue. "Mom?" "Sweetie, you didn't think we'd forget, did you?" "I didn't! Tell her I didn't!" "No you didn't, daddy. Happy b-day, sis! Hope we didn't wake you, with the time-zone thingy and everything..."
Daria blinked again. "Uh, thanks, no, you didn't, it's…" she automatically peeled her glove back from her watch face, before realizing that it was still on Zanzibar time. "…I was up."
Checking the date was probably pointless, too…date-line thingy and all…she was suddenly aware of how icy cold her blood was as it drained down her spine. Good god
….had she really forgotten…?
A curtailed sigh "—as your sister was saying, we
tried your office, but all they would tell us is that you were
still out of the country—oh and on your birthday—and you don't want to know the trouble I went through to get this number—"
Her father's voice cut in. "You're, uh, all right, aren't you, kiddo? We thought—
—you'd said you'd be in Asia, but I didn't know the
country, and, well, I've been watching the news…
" The voice dropped into a husky whisper. "…if there's some gestapo listening in, try and signal—I still know Morse!" "JAKE!"
Dad," Daria said, rubbing her forehead. "I'm in…" her eyes snapped open, as it dawned on her that she had no idea
what country they had docked in. Or really, she supposed, sardonically, what country it was now.
With the lines and governments shifting…the Gabel Republic? South Thietvanne? Nation of Monica? Jeez…how many of those names had she
come up with, herself, in the last few months?
But she'd dawdled too long…and it was all irrelevant; she sure as hell wasn't going to tell
them where she was. "…I'm in the Marianas." Technically, that wasn't a lie
, just premature
. She was
going to the Marianas…just "trench", not "islands." "It's all quiet. I'm, ah, actually spending the day off. Sailing around off the coast." "Wow! Like a cruise ship?"
"Well, technically it's a only a 'boat'…" she said, glancing over the submarine's massive side… God
, she thought...that water was so blue… "Daria? Sis, you still there?"
She shook her head, again. "Sorry, I'm here." She sighed. "I'm still here. I was just…" "Aw, don't sweat it, Daria. I remember how it was when
I turned 'A Certain Age'…you wake up, suddenly it hits you that
you're the old man with two kids of your own, your own business, a ring on your finger…" "Oh, daddy…"
"No, really, I was just—" "…and that you're just not a kid anymore, you've left those days behind you, forever!" "Uh, Jake…" "I mean,
I sure as hell tied one on that night, I sure get that YOU'D want—" "JAKE!"
Funny…her mouth had gone dry, too. "Wait…was that when I turned thirty, or forty?"
"Look, everyone, as much as I appreciate—" A shaggy goon in black caught her eye; he was trying to squeeze a Vespa TAP through a loading hatch, without success, looking increasingly desperate.
Simple self-preservation kicked in—she figured what would happen next. "Uh, would you hold on a second?" Spindoctor cupped her hand over the phone, and hollered "METALHEAD!"
The man wasn't just startled; he fell flat on his rear. Missile holsters clattering. "Try putting it in FRONTWAYS not SIDEWAYS!"
she yelled, with a snarl. The man looked confused, then the face behind his targeting goggles brightened into a puppydog smile.
Spindoctor gritted her teeth, started to turn back to her phone, stopped, then yelled out a final admonishment; "And that THING better be unloaded, or I'll have your HEAD!"
Metalhead flashed a double thumbs-up. Daria grumbled, deeply, and leaned back against the periscope housing.
"Sorry…uh, trouble with the cabana boy." "Whoa. Uh, what kind of cruise did you say that was? It sounds, uh…"
Another loud commotion had broken out on deck—whatsername, the pink-haired Dreadnok, and the pirate gunwoman had gotten into a tug-of-war over a steamer trunk of loot, and were looking to come to blows. A gang of sea-vipers stood by, looking too scared to take sides.
"…it's just the kind I like. Lots of trashy women, craven seamen."
Horrified noises came over the phone, bordering on squeals. Daria felt a gioncondan smile rise, and she stage chuckled. "You never change, do you, dear?"
Came her mother's voice, fairly dripping.
"Aw, I just wouldn't want you to feel bad about not throwing me a party s'all…" "Are you
kidding? Of course we're having a party!"
There was a little pop
over the phone, like a champagne cork.
Off in the distance, a contrail rapidly arced up from the ground, catching the sunlight, before terminating in a starburst of smoke.
Something corkscrewed out of the sky nearby, flaming. The sound reached her some moments later.
And a faint throng of cheers. She had no idea from which side.
Her smile faded. "Hell, you're
still the ones missing out. We've got fireworks." Another three fingers of smoke rose up. One missed.
"Ooh…that was a big one." "Oh, sweetie, if only you could be here, too, for once—I just wish!"
"Yes, if only I could wish that, too, for once." "Daria? Jane says hi, too."
Something fluttered under Daria's ribcage. "…really? She's there?" "She just stopped by—she said to say happy birthday, and…I dunno, something about choosing the wrong grail. 'Said you'd get it."
Daria chuckled, once, despite herself, eyes squinting. "That's great…great. "
She flopped her head back against the periscope, barely noticing the tube rotating behind her shoulder blades. "Tell I 'chose…poorly.'"
"Wha-atever, sis. So, 'you going to get your old lady butt back home soon? Jane said she'd wanted to meet up, when you could make it..."
Daria's heart sank, again. She stood up again, puffing out a long breath in the muggy air. She made a quiet, supple stride to the edge of the gunwale again.
They were trying to pull the gangplank, but a straggling gang of labor corps-ers and Harem Vipers were having none of it.
An armored trooper was holding the gate, but a bearded snakeling yelled loud enough to hear that he was
the Shore Patrol…one of the girls flicked a wrist, glinting steel…
The ballast tank vents sputtered, twice, howling spray, then quieted. The boat lurched under her boots. The Leviathan
was moving. "…aria?"
She winced. "I said, 'it could be awhile'…maybe a month. Or three." Enough time to lay low…they had
that much food onboard, didn't they? "No WAY!"
"Aww, man, for
She almost didn't recognize the alarm sounded, then it clicked—not the dive klaxon; the forward batteries. The deck guns.
The forty centimeter pulse cannon deck guns.
The whole hull vibrated as the turrets started traversing.
"'For real'? Believe it or not, I ask myself that every single day…"
Spindoctor made herself look over; the barrels had rotated back far enough to brush against the conning tower itself. They were going to fire "over the shoulder"—that was a relief. It meant they weren't going to have to shoot their way out
And she could feel
the guns powering up: a mantle of heat, and a wave of static charge that was raising her hair on end….
"Guys, I have to hang up. I'm about to go through a tunnel." "But I thought you were on a crus—"
"Gotta go. I lo…I love you."
"Love you too, sweetie! Happy birth—"
She thumbed off the connection just as the guns spoke.
Her teeth rattled with the basso thrum
of the report; the shots too brilliant and fast to register as more than arcs of light coursing into the distance, blindingly harsh.
Her skin tingled painfully. For a second, the air tasted like Lead.
Then it was over, and the world was still again. Save for the gentle plopping of flash-cooked seabirds falling into the water.
While she waited for her retinas to start working again, Daria dutifully started patting down her hair with as much dignity as she could manage. It hadn't caught on fire this time, but between the electrical surge and the humidity, she knew she had to look like…Margaret Atwood. After a bender…
She groaned, crestfallen. That wasn't even the first name she'd come up with for her inner snarking. It hadn't even been Colette
…the first faces that came to mind were from the collection of freaks, maniacs, and mad scientists. With bad hair.
That she knew personally.
Before she was thirty.
"Well, sir" Fred said, mildly, catching the iPhone before it hit the deck, "for what it's worth…happy birthday."
Daria couldn't find the words...Spindoctor quietly croaked out a thanks.