The man was sitting on a chair, waiting patiently, his face betraying no emotion whatsoever. He was young, maybe in his early twenties, with pale brown hair and a small scar on the left side of his jaw. His countenance was that of one who had a duty to perform, though his thoughts about this were hidden to all but himself. His suit was crisply pressed, the edges looking sharp enough to cut paper. He was not at ease.
The door opened, admitting a young woman into the room. She was dressed in a lounge-singer's outfit, a wireless microphone still in her hand, her brow covered in sweat. She startled at the sight of the young man in the chair but said nothing, waiting for him to make the first move. Finally, he stood up quietly and gave her a brisk salute. "Ms Dancer, ma'am? My superior would like a word with you, if you please."
Yellow Dancer gave a tired little smile and moved to her dressing table. She sat at the stool and proceeded to shuffle the myriads of cloths, powders, liquids and puffs that were arrayed there for her. "You must have the wrong person, young man. I have nothing to do with the military."
"So I have been told, ma'am. Nevertheless, my instructions where to get you in contact with Lieutenant Tokimatsuri."
Yellow looked up in surprise, her make-up removal forgotten. "Tokimatsuri? Eve Tokimatsuri?"
"Yes ma'am. Do you know her?"
"I know of her." She resumed removing the make-up form her face. "Well, young man, you've got my attention. What does the legendary Eve want with an unknown lounge-singer?"
"Lieutenant Tokimatsuri has been following your career with interest. She instructed me to establish contact so that she may discuss certain affairs with you."
"And she's waiting outside? In the lounge?"
"Not quite, ma'am"
Yellow sat staring at the communications device the courier had left on her desk. It was the size of a briefcase, with a flip-up screen and no discernible aerial. A state-of-the-art portable scrambler. Following the instructions she had been given, Yellow turned on the device and waited as it went through its self-diagnostics before attempting a link-up with a relay station located anywhere up to a thousand kilometres away. Untraceable, untappable, completely portable. Yellow was impressed.
The screen displayed static for a few moments, then abruptly resolved itself into the features of a woman with long platinum hair. "Yellow Dancer, I presume?"
"On the button. I'd say that you're Eve... Except you're too young to be her."
The woman on the screen poke her tongue out at Yellow then smiled. "Flattery will get you nowhere. I assure you I am Eve Tokimatsuri, physical appearances notwithstanding. I have access to my own personal Fountain of Youth, remember? The Singer Eternal."
"I thought that was just P.R.," replied Yellow.
"We both know how public-relations rumours are just perfect for hiding the truth, don't we?"
Yellow froze, her face a mask. "I don't understand what you mean."
"Come on, Yellow. I'm not as stupid as I look, OK? All of a sudden, a singer appears on the circuit - a good singer at that - and I never even heard of her. Kinda made me suspicious, that did. I may not be in the singing business any more but I like to keep an eye on the competition, if you know what I mean. You've got to know the opposition."
"I couldn't agree more," said Yellow. "I assume this has a point?"
"Point being, smarty-pants, that I started searching the civilian databanks for any-one that matched your description. And guess what."
"What?" answered Yellow, playing along with the game.
"You don't exist. Kind of annoying, that was. So in pure desperation, I searched the military records. And there you were, reported missing in action."
"I assure you I've never had any dealings with the military."
"Yellow Dancer may not have - but Lancer Belmont... well, that's another story." Eve edged forward, leaning closer to the pickup in front of her. "So. Are we going to lie to one another for much longer?"
"No. I guess not. Every time I went on stage I kept expecting someone to recognise me. It had to happen some day." Yellow finished removing her make-up and stepped out of her dress. She placed it on a hanger, and gazed at it for a moment. "Goodbye Yellow. It was fun while it lasted."
Eve broke through his reverie. "Hey, hold on! What are you doing?"
"Now that the military know who I am, you'll want to re-instate me. Isn't that how it works?"
"Who says the military know anything?" asked Eve.
"But didn't you... What about the G-man outside my door?"
"My ties with the military are, er... shall we say, loose? As for Galahad - he does what I tell him and no more. No less, either."
"'Sans peur et sans reproche.' It's just my nickname for him. Don't tell him about it, he'll just die of embarrassment."
"I promise, not a word." promised Lancer
Eve breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks."
"...So long as the military don't find out about me."
"Deal." quickly replied Eve, smiling at him. "Now, for the reason I contacted you. I would like you to join the underground."
"Underground? You've got the wrong person - I don't know any of them... I wouldn't even know where to start."
"You don't, but I do. For the last three months, I've had Galahad contact various members of the Resistance in the South American Quadrant. They were more than happy to set up a railroad to pass information along. However, we need someone as a rallying point. Someone who can travel all over the continent unsuspected, whose travels would be viewed as normal."
"I think I see where this is going," said Lancer, leaning back on his seat. "The perfect cover would be a tour, wouldn't it? The sympathiser authorities might suspect the roadies or even the manager - but who'd suspect a meek singer?"
"Correct. And there you suddenly popped out of the woodwork when I needed you. No prior records, no arrests - no wonder, since Yellow doesn't exist. So I want you to become a courier between the various groups. See if we can't co-ordinate our resistance approach and disseminate any information that's discovered by a group to all the other groups."
"A carrier pigeon."
"If you wish to think of yourself as such, yes. What do you say?"
Lancer shook his head. "I say no, Eve. I'm sorry, but my fighting days are over. I'm a singer now. I've got someone whom I care about. The last thing I want is to get back to the chaos."
Eve sighed as she close her eyes. "I understand. If you ever change your mind," she continued, "here is the address of a contact in this city. He is the owner of a recording studio. He'll be able to get in touch with me." A slip of paper appeared from a slit at the side of the console, an address printed upon it.
"Don't hold your breath Eve. I won't use it."
Eve smiled at him before disappearing from the screen.
Lancer was lying next to Carla in the darkness of their room. He had awoken in a cold sweat, having relived the last terrifying moments of his plane's headlong plunge to the ground, of the sudden impact as he hit, and of the knowledge that he would die if found.
He had been thinking of the Invid Sympathisers then, humans who had banded together and were hunting down REF and ASC troops and delivering them to the Invid in return for the safety of their village. Sometimes the Invid obliged. And sometimes, they simply obliterated everyone. But it was not a group of sympathisers that had found him. Instead, Carla had pulled him out of the wreckage and into her home, nursing him back to consciousness. It took the sympathisers nearly fourteen hours of combing the countryside before they decided to search the houses nearby the crash-site. Obvious amateurs. By this time, however, Carla had worked her make-up magic upon Lancer, turning him into her sister. The sympathisers apologised for the interruption and left. Not one of them noticed the remnants of Lancer's uniform still smouldering in the fire-place.
Twenty-four hours later, Carla and Lancer left the town in the dead of night. Two bus trips took them far enough away for them to start feeling safe, to start behaving normal again. But Carla's savings had soon dwindled to change, and so Lancer had looked for work. But in the post-invasion economy jobs were becoming scarce. Factory after factory was being shut down by the Invid, the workers simply turned out without a word. In desperation, Lancer once again donned his female guised and applied for a job as a lounge singer. It seemed that no matter what happened, the entertainment industry would prevail.
Lancer's habit of dancing on stage rather than simply standing behind the microphone, coupled with the cheap foundation cake he was using, soon earned him the name 'Yellow Dancer', one he continued to use for the next few months as he travelled from town to town, earning a living by singing old Minmei songs. Though well received, none of the songs he sung were chart-breakers, none grabbed the audience's attention - Yellow Dancer was just another unknown lounge singer travelling where the money was, and Lancer wanted to keep it that way.
And all during this time, Carla had stood by Lancer without a word of complaint.
He turned towards her, taking in the form of her body beneath the covers as he contemplated their travels, the number of towns they had seen. Carla had been his anchor, his reason for continuing on living. He owed her his life and more. He had no right to return to the life she had saved him from.
It was the last show Yellow was to perform in this city before moving on to her next destination. The stage was lit by a couple of projection lights as Yellow danced her way from one side of the stage to the other, putting her arms around the club's backup singers - nameless, almost faceless, performers hired by the club on an as-needed basis. Their performance was appropriate but tonight, again, that spark that would make this song more than it was simply was not there. As Yellow finished singing, she motioned at the band to immediately move on to the next song, one she had picked from Eve Tokimatsuri's old repertoire. Somehow, it had seemed appropriate to include one of Eve's songs in the night's selection.
'When you are feeling
Was this what was happening? Was there something missing from Lancer's life? If not, why did he keep on finding hidden meanings behind every word in the songs he had sung that night?
'When simple answers
Yellow glanced around the room as she sung the lines, taking in the faces in the crowd. Most of them where ordinary people, their countenance tired and grim. Life was simply passing them by, and the Invid where not making things any simpler.
'You can call on me,
To the right of the stage, in a dimly lit area, was a set of tables apart from the others. Around these were the well-to-do, the elite. More specifically, those who had sided with the Invid when they had suddenly appeared above the skies of the Earth, coming out of fold almost down to street level. Yes, these were the men who had it made. Their faces might change, but in every war they had the same name - sympathisers.
Still singing, Yellow concentrated on that group, singling out one lone figure at his table, a stack of empty glasses and bottles a tribute to the length of time he had spent drinking. Yellow could see his features from where she was, a long and languid face etched with sorrow and misery. Not a sympathiser, then - a man with nowhere to run. What hold did the Invid have on him? His wife? His kids? Maybe even his parents? Or maybe he was yet another entrepreneur caught in the middle, caught between having his business used to further the Invid occupation and putting entire families out in the cold by closing down. Not all sitting at those tables believed in the Invid but were like this man - stuck where they were, with no-one capable of helping them.
Yellow finished her last song and bowed to the audience before leaving the stage, her eyes shut, trying to exorcise the image of the broken man from her mind.
They were eating their dinner in their room, the darkness lit by a single candle - power shortages were becoming increasingly frequent, even in a city of this size. Carla was relating the current set of news to Lancer as he chewed on his salad. "The city's governing council has issued a new proclamation this afternoon. They want all vehicles to be converted to use protoculture thermal-generators before the end of next month." Lancer put down his fork, not believing what he was hearing. "Rumour has it," continued Carla, staring at her plate, "that every other town in the area has issued similar statements. 'All vehicles to be converted to protoculture-usage.'"
Lancer's brows met as he frowned. "All vehicles... With the Invid controlling the production of protoculture canister, and the sympathisers controlling their distribution..."
"... it means that the Invid will effectively have a grip on population movements. Damn! They don't need to impede civilian movements - soon, the only traffic will be that allowed by the sympathisers thanks to cell rationing."
Carla looked away, avoiding his gaze. "You haven't heard all of it. All energy-producing devices are to be converted as well. Generators, power-plants, everything." A tear fell out of the corner of her eye.
"Damn..." Lancer grabbed his head in his hand, his elbows on the table, looking beaten. "They've got us cornered."
The train was getting ready to leave the station. Carla and Lancer where standing in the carriage, near the doors, waiting for the final signal that would precede the train's departure. The locomotive was an old steam-driven machine, pulled out of moth-balls by the increasing lack of petro-chemical fuels. It was serviceable, though slow, and added an air of old-style charm to the train station as it puffed to itself.
Lancer glanced out the window while Carla counted their luggage, making sure they had not left any behind. The crowd on the station was thin, another sign that the Invid's attempt at discouraging travel was bearing fruit. He looked at the faces of those walking past the carriage, the long drawn-out faces which reminded him so much of that man in the club the night before. People trapped where they were. Some were attempting to get out, to get to somewhere else, all the while knowing, deep in their heart, that things would be the same no matter where they went.
The whistle blew, and as the doors closed Lancer threw himself past them and back onto the station's platform, landing on one knee. Behind him, he heard the carriage doors close and Carla's fist hitting them in desperation. She called out his name as the engine built up steam and finally started moving the carriages out of the station.
"I'm sorry Carla," he muttered to himself, fist clenched.
"Alright, people! Look lively, we're on in five... four... three..." The man stopped counting out loud but continued the count on his fingers until he reached zero, at which he swung his arm around and pointed at the presenter.
"Welcome back. Tonight we have a treat for you. Eve Tokimatsuri has agreed to come out of retirement for us and has teamed-up with a local talent, Yellow Dancer." The show's presenter continued his banter, announcing that tonight's song was an exclusive to the studio. Yellow was not listening. Instead, her gaze was fixed on the empty spot beside her where Eve should have been present. The second singer was late, not having made her entrance yet with scant seconds before the song's opening notes. Already, Yellow could see the band get ready as the presenter wound down his spiel and introduced the duo - half of which was still missing. <Oh heck, the show must go on> Yellow thought to herself as the band started to play.
'There's something going on
Yellow sustained the last note, aware that Eve was not there to pick up on her part of the song. She was about to sing it herself when Eve's voice filtered through the pickups.
'Maybe we ought to run
Looking at the monitors Yellow saw that the cameras where showing Eve standing next to her on her right, microphone in hand. Up in the control booth, the show's producer started making hand signals, urging Yellow to continue singing the duet.
'Just listen to me
Trying to look at the other booths from the corner of her eyes, Yellow continued to sing with her invisible partner. Though she inspected all the other sound stages, she still could find no trace of Eve.
'Maybe you can't contend
On the screen, Eve turned towards Yellow and put her hand on Yellow's shoulder. She moved to Yellow's left, pointing at the screen.
'But you must realise
Remembering her thought at the beginning of the piece, Yellow simply smiled and started her stage act, imagining where Eve would be actually standing. Up on the control screens, Eve's follow-ups where flawless.
'Don't talk in your sleep
Both singers were facing each other now, playing off one another. Eve matched Yellow's stage antics blow for blow, smiling all the time.
'Maybe we should all go underground
Checking the screen, Yellow suddenly noticed that the studio's background had faded from behind her and that a field of grass had replaced it instead. A few trees here and there provided some shade to the cows grazing in the field. As she and Eve continued to sing, the seasons changed.
'Do you think you're gonna miss the summertime
Yellow smiled, finally at peace with herself. She had a mission now - her fear of become like that crushed man in the club had vanished and had instead been replaced with a sense of purpose, a deep seated need to see her work completed. She twirled around the virtual space occupied by Eve, raising her voice and her hands to the sky.
'Maybe we should all go underground...'
<Yes>, Yellow agreed inwardly. <Underground.>