Authors: Alex Powell
Tags: #F/F romance, sci-fi
Kaede is a Source, capable of powering a machine with her own energy, but she has been hiding the full extent of her abilities. Given the tenuous relations between her country and their rivals, she fears discovery of her full power would provoke the war that hangs over them. But others disagree, and firmly believe that power like Kaede's is far too valuable to be hidden away...
By Alex Powell
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Amanda Jean
Cover designed by London Burden
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition April 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Alex Powell
Printed in the United States of America
Kaede finally felt herself breathe again as her power-ports disconnected from her war machine. The surface of her skin buzzed once more with a last crackle of energy, and she slumped slightly in her seat and waited for her pilot to power down their vehicle and open the hatch to let them out.
She was never sure whether she breathed while in her source-trance, but every single time she came back to herself, she felt breathless, as if a weight had been sitting on her chest for an extended period. She rubbed her hands over her bare arms, feeling a slight jolt under her fingers as she ran them over the metal ports embedded in her skin. It left behind a familiar tingle that never quite faded.
"All ready to go, Nomura?"
Her pilot flicked a switch without waiting for an answer, and the bridge door opened, allowing natural light to filter in. She didn't remember his name, and he was wearing a non-regulation jacket over his uniform, so she couldn't see his nametag. He was a pilot, so of course he wasn't following the rules. They never did.
She envied the pilots a bit, if only because they could wear a full suit of clothing while driving. A source, like herself, could wear very little in order to allow the machine access to her ports.
She stood, stretching out her muscles, trying to shake out the stiffness her body accumulated from staying in one position for such a long time. Her neck cracked loudly and she winced. Her usual shifts were only four hours, but she was pushing seven.
, docking completed. You are clear to disengage."
At the radio's crackle, the pilot was already halfway out the door, barely sparing her a glance as he fumbled with something in his jacket pocket. A moment later, he had a cigarette in his hand, and a curl of smoke drifted back to her on the air. She wrinkled her nose in annoyance. Smoking was not permitted in the docking bay, she wanted to tell him, but her mouth thinned and she remained silent.
After a long shift like this, her skin was still warm and pulsing with residual energy, feeling as if it might burst with the slightest pressure. When she stepped down out of her chair, the cold metal of the deck was a shock to the system. She scanned the area for her sandals and let out a huff of frustration as she realized that they were nowhere in sight, although she'd left them close by before they'd started.
She searched them out and found them hidden in a corner of the cockpit. She slipped them on, and they were tight and rough on her sensitive skin.
With another faint huff, she exited her machine and stepped out onto the ramp, where the sharp, briny tang of sea air hit her nostrils. She looked out over the steel and concrete docking bay from her vantage point and found that
was the last Level 3 machine to be docked. She made her way along the central catwalk past all the engineers that had taken over the late work shift to do maintenance on the machines once all the pilots and sources had left.
"You're in late, Nomura!" one of the engineers complained on the way past, hefting her toolkit over one shoulder. "You were supposed to be in two hours ago."
"Blame the pilot," she said, rolling her eyes. "I'm just as annoyed as you by the delay, trust me. My neck feels wrecked."
The engineer waved one hand at her over her shoulder in answer. Kaede kept going, sighing as a breeze from the open hangar door brushed over her exposed body. Goosebumps sprung up all over her legs and arms.
She quickened her pace and found her way to the locker room connected to the Source 3 hangar Bay where she had a spare yukata hanging in her locker. By the time she got there, she had sweat dripping down between her shoulder blades and her hairline was soaked. The period after disconnecting from their machine was the worst for a source, especially a high level one. It made the body go a bit haywire, as if they really were a part of the machine, and readjusting to being an organic system was a shock.
The hot water was glorious on her sore muscles, and she was almost done when the locker door opened and someone called inside, "Kaede, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me!" she yelled back.
The door closed and she heard footsteps on the tiled floor.
"The whole room is full of steam," came the complaint.
"I did just spend over six hours powering a machine with an incompetent pilot," she replied curtly, peering around the curtain at her fellow Level 3 Source. "Don't I deserve a little relaxation?"
"Really, that long?" Sae asked, eyes wide. "Didn't you drain out? I know that if I even start pushing five, I'm done. Pilots know they're not supposed to leave you that long without a break to replenish!"
"Well, he didn't, but we got the job done," Kaede snorted. "He hid my sandals before he left though. How childish can you get? Ugh, pilots."
"I know, right?" Sae said, holding out a towel for her as she finished up. "It makes me wish I was a Level 9 sometimes. Can you imagine having such a light source-trance that you can pilot your own vehicle?"
"What, and then you could have your own motorcycle and the cool image to go with it?" Kaede laughed. "Don't forget the salary cut."
"I only said sometimes," Sae sniped back. "You know, just so I wouldn't have to put up with a pain-in-the-behind pilot all the time. And it would be nice to get somewhere in minutes instead of hours."
"Our slow-moving machines have enough fire-power to eradicate an entire village in one shot," Kaede reminded her.
"Can you imagine what it must be like to drive a Level 2 and not even have to share a docking bay?" Sae chattered over Kaede's practical words. "Are you sure you're not a Level 2, Kaede? You have such strong endurance that I sometimes think you have to be more powerful than a Level 3."
"I'm sure I'm not a Level 2," Kaede replied tightly, hoping that Sae hadn't voiced these thoughts to anyone else. The Elite Ten wouldn't like another source encroaching on their territory, not when there were only ten Level 2 machines. "I must be somewhere in between."
She quickly finished dressing and pulled her long, inky hair into a loose tail. She kept it up in tight braids for work, so at the end of the day she liked to give her scalp a break from the tension. Sae watched patiently until she was done, then turned for the door as Kaede fell into step beside her. No words were needed, they both knew where they were going.
The day had faded into evening and the air had cooled, but she could still feel the residual heat from the concrete under her feet. She could hear cicadas in the tall grass as they left the docking area and veered off onto a path through a decorative garden. Just because they were military didn't mean that they didn't appreciate beauty after all.
"It's quiet tonight," Sae remarked, and Kaede nodded in agreement. The bar was unusually quiet, and only a few people could be heard from the patio above, talking in low voices. Their destination was on the other side of the garden, still a ways off.
"No pilots?" Kaede suggested, as they were typically the source of the most noise.
They continued up the creaking wood stairs. The bar was one of the only non-metal structures on-base. There was no one standing around the front door; Kaede frowned. Something was definitely up. Almost nothing put the pilots off their smoking habits. She couldn't remember a time when there hadn't been at least one person lounging against the wall with a cigarette or roughhousing in a group outside.
They entered the bar area, and although it was a weekend, the music was low. Everyone inside was subdued and murmuring together in groups.
"Kaede! Sae! Over here!" one of the other Level 3 Sources raised an arm to get their attention.
Several sets of eyes turned to their direction at the sound of a raised voice, but they turned away again. Kaede made her way toward the table, sweeping the room. There were very few pilots in the room, and those that were had on a solemn face.
"What's wrong?" Kaede hissed as she settled into a seat and pointedly looked around the room. "I've never seen it so quiet in here."
"Morwe," Natsuko sighed, slumping.
"It's always Morwe. What have they done this time?" Sae pouted. "It must have been something really dreadful to get this reaction."
"There are reports that they've found a Level 1 Source."
Kaede went rigid out of instinct and tried to relax her posture into something that wasn't so visibly alarmed.
"Impossible," Sae said. "They had one not five years ago! It's too soon."
"One every fifteen years is only the average number for a nation as big as Morwe," Miyuki, one of the older sources, reminded them. "It could be that they've found one."
"We haven't had one for nearly twenty," Sae complained. "How is that fair?"
"Well, let's hope that they really haven't found one," Kaede cut in quickly. "This could shift our ongoing rivalry from cold to hot."
"There won't be open war," Sae replied. "The Inner Kingdom will intervene."
they'd intervene. Who could tell if they really would or not?"
This immediately prompted a swift and increasingly loud debate on whether or not finding a Level 1 Source would start a war. The next table over joined in, and within a minute, the entire bar was shouting at one another. Kaede winced as Sae got into a very heated screaming match with someone right over her head.
"Well, at least the bar is up to its usual noise quota," she said, although her comment went unheard by the people around her.
She thought that the 'will-start-a-war' side was winning when the door opened with a bang and a group of pilots entered the bar. The arrival of what seemed like most of the Level 3 Pilots silenced the debate as everyone turned to look.
"So, what's going on?" Natsuko asked.
"False alarm," one of the female pilots said, chewing on the end of a toothpick.
"How do they know? Maybe Morwe covered it up better than our intelligence could find out," Sae piped up from beside her, hands on her hips and cheeks still flushed from her argument.
"The source is claiming that it's a
Level 1 Source. And we all know there's no way that's true."
The conversations around them started up again with less urgency.
"That's true, I guess," Sae sighed. "There's no way that it's true. There's never been a documented male Level 1 Source in all of history!"
Everyone knew that. Kaede nodded along and relaxed again, consciously relaxing the muscles in her shoulders. Sources were predominantly biologically female. Only Level 9 Sources had about equal numbers of male and female sources, and the numbers dwindled rapidly after that. There were only two Level 3 Sources who identified as male, and one of them was transgender.
"Well, at least we don't have to worry about escalation of hostility," Kaede said after a long period of silence. "It's bad enough with the arms race. We'll have more war machines than sources at this rate."
"Ha, not if they keep up such aggressive source recruitment," Sae replied. "That's how they got me; kept offering me more and more benefits until it was complete madness to say no."
Kaede nodded. "Me too. I put off signing up for weeks before I finally agreed. But you know, they tried to recruit me when I was still in school. As soon as I turned sixteen, they wanted me. Thank the heavens that my mother vetoed it right off, or I might have agreed then and there and missed all the really good benefits."
"I wonder if anyone does sign up right away at sixteen?"
"No idea. Sources look so young that I can never tell what age they are unless they're nearing retirement. I still get ID'd when going to off-base bars," Kaede said.
After that, conversation turned to old stories about recruitment and training, funny things that were easier to dwell on than the constant threat of open war.