Monthly Archives: October 2011

Scene 9 – Exercitium

EXERCITIUM

DEREK

“Derek, this is a bad idea.”

I frowned at Akane quizzically. The others were looking around the empty rooftop I had brought us to, searching for things to help us test the limits of our powers. Akane, on the other hand, had a serious look on her face.

“I assume you’re not talking about the training.”

“No. Allying with the Necessarians is…” she sighed. “Something you should have thought over.”

“I did. Butler is the most powerful man in the city. His resources will be invaluable.”

She glared. “He got to his position by killing anyone who disagreed with him.”

“And by honoring deals and protecting the citizens,” I retorted. “There’s a reason he has such a large following.”

“I…” she sighed and leaned her forehead against her sheathed sword. “I really think you’re giving him too much credit. You always try to see the best in people, but…”

I put her hand on her shoulder. “Akane. I’m not asking you to trust them. I’m just asking you not to start a fight.”

She blushed. She does that a lot. “Of course. And I will. Not start a fight, I mean. But I’ll be ready if they try to start one.”

“Good. Now, c’mon. We need to do some tests.”

Akane immediately blurred forward, almost too fast for the eye to see, only to terminate, grinning, next to Laura.

No,” she admonished the swordswoman. “We need to perform actual measurements.” She fished out her phone. “I have a timer app. Let’s mark off ten feet increments and see how fast you can go.”

Akane frowned, and opened her mouth to retort, but I stopped her with a wave of my hand. “She has a point. Just do as she says. Find chalk or something.”

She shut her mouth, nodded a little sullenly, and headed back downstairs. Most of the skyscraper was made up of clothing stores, but the top two were undergoing renovations. They might have something we could use.

“I probably should have gone,” Adam noted from where he was leaning on an air conditioning unit. “It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course you do,” Laura said, probably more harshly than she intended. She strode over and handed him her gun, grip first. “You’ve shot a gun exactly once. You need practice.”

My roommate took the pistol with some hesitation. “I’m…not really sure about this.”

“Once Butler sends you your guns, I’ll show you a good shooting range,” I promised. “Right now, we just need to make sure you can shoot straight.”

He looked at me a little sideways. “I did kill someone earlier, you know.”

The way he said it—as if it was nothing particularly important—worried me, but I kept it to myself. “That could easily have been a fluke.”

“It wasn’t.”

I grinned at him. “Then prove me wrong.” I indicated the other side of the roof, where Laura and Ling were setting up a few discarded cans on the three-foot high safety wall at the edge.

Adam gave me a bit of a look, like he wasn’t sure what to make of all this, and raised the gun in one hand. He sighted carefully, pulled the trigger…

And missed. By about ten feet.

Ling laughed, but quickly covered it up with a cough. “Want some advice?”

He rubbed his forehead. “If you even think the phrase ‘in anime…’”

The little blonde delinquent just rolled her eyes and stepped up to him. She grabbed his left hand and brought it up to his right. “First off, always use two hands. You managed to shoot the screamer one-handed, but that was just luck.”

“Always use two hands,” Adam nodded. “Got it.”

“Now, widen your stance. Yeah, like that.” She moved behind him and adjusted him a little bit. “Good, that’s perfect. Breathe normally. Aim…and fire.”

Another shot echoed.

The cans stayed where they were.

Adam sighed and let his arms fall to his sides.

Ling shook her head. “No, no, that was good! You were a lot closer that time.”

Akane came back about then, before Adam could fire again, holding a few cans of spray paint.

“Hold up for a little while,” I recommended to the shooters. “Let’s see what Akane can do.”

She blushed a little as everyone turned to her, but nodded.

Laura took charge the moment it became clear we were willing to be scientific, and the rest of the time passed under her instruction. She marked off three ten-foot increments (the best we could do with the space available) for Akane to practice, and after some trial and error managed to nail down her maximum speed as about a hundred miles per hour, and activating it sped up her mind to match, but she drained through her reserves in a fraction of a second (real time) that way. She could also dial down the speed for a corresponding increase in duration.

“Ling, you’re up next,” Laura said as she noted something down in her phone.

The resident otaku frowned. She was a little busy giving Adam more tips. “Look here, Frosty—”

Laura gave her such a glare that her mouth clicked shut with an audible snap.

“Please tell me how you discovered your powers,” Laura continued. “Add in a few lies, but don’t tell me what they are.”

“Wait,” I said before Ling did anything—she certainly didn’t look like she enjoyed getting ordered around. “Didn’t you already test that truthteller thing?”

Laura shrugged. “Of course. But it doesn’t hurt to be thorough. Ling? Any time you’re ready.”

The girl looked livid, but did as suggested anyway. “Last night, when I was doing some football practice alone, I nearly ran into a concrete wall.” She shrugged. “It exploded. With a bit of effort, I found out I was able to use telekinesis on dirt and stone.”

There was a long pause.

“That’s it?” I asked hesitantly.

She grinned. “Yeah, basically. I can do some weird things with it, and I didn’t test it that much, but…yeah.” She turned back to Laura. “Well? Which parts were lies?”

“It wasn’t at night,” Laura noted. “And it wasn’t a concrete wall. Everything else was true.”

Ling frowned. “Well…no.” She scratched at her ear. “I mean, yeah, it was yesterday afternoon, and it was a brick wall, not a concrete one. But it wasn’t football. It was soccer.”

Laura cursed, and her hand went briefly to the diamond ring on her necklace. “Right. Well…since soccer is another word for football…were you specifically trying to use it to beat me?”

Ling nodded, a little worried.

“Well,” my sharp-faced friend muttered. “Clearly its not quite as infallible as I was hoping. At least I don’t seem to have this ‘reservoir’ you three mentioned. I’ve left it on ever since I found out about it.” She sighed, then shook her head to clear it. “Let’s do some more tests. See what else we can do.”

We played—ah, practiced—for a couple of hours. We learned quite a few important things. First off, Ling’s power had limited finesse, but she could shape about two hundred pounds of dirt or rock and hit people with it. Laura had her practice making walls; as she pointed out, I wouldn’t always be available, and a wall of concrete could stop bullets just as easily as my shields. Ling tired quickly; she could only make a few major shapes before having to rest.

My own were pretty easy. I could adjust the size of the shields, from a large dome to a small shell the size of a watch. Smaller shields were stronger and easier to maintain; I held up one the size of a big frisbee indefinitely. I couldn’t really change the shape, though, but maybe that would come in time.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a secondary power we all shared. At one point, Akane accidentally stepped backwards off one of the air conditioning units, and managed to do a backflip before she reached the ground. Although part of that was her speed, further testing made it clear that we all had advanced agility and coordination. I think we were a little stronger, too, but it was hard to tell. Laura claimed she was just happy she wouldn’t trip over her own feet anymore, but I had never seen her do that.

We finally slowed down at around seven, as the sun was setting. We were tired and sweaty and the building’s staff looked at us funny as we left, but we felt good. Adam and Ling were already chatting like old friends, and even Laura was putting in a comment every once in a while. Akane kept her head down, as usual, but she’s always been shy. It took her weeks to psych herself up for a roommate; this was just too much for her.

Emily was asleep on the couch when we came into the lobby. The temporary sign next to the office said the doors would lock at eight, but we had our keycards anyway, so it didn’t matter. We all piled into the elevator and tried to ignore the smell of each others’ sweat.

“I’m on floor six,” Laura reminded me. I tapped the button in question, as well as the one for floor nine.

“Don’t tell Lizzy about this,” I urged her. “I don’t—”

She glared at me with what seemed like genuine hatred. This was only the second time I had brought it up!

“I know, Derek. And it’ll be fine. I want to keep her out just as much as you do.” The elevator doors opened, and she walked out. “See you tomorrow. Unless there’s a screamer before then.”

“Ugh, don’t remind us,” I said as the doors closed. We began to rise again.

“Who’s this Lizzy I keep hearing about?” Adam asked. “Laura’s roommate, apparently?”

The doors opened again, and we all piled out. Ling glanced at us oddly; she didn’t seem to expect us to be on the same floor.

“Yeah, and a childhood friend of both of us.” I smiled fondly. “You’ll like her. She’s such a sweetheart.” I unlocked our room and turned on the light. I also noticed a box sitting outside our door, just out of the walkway. Probably the guns from Necessarius.

“Wait, that’s your room?” Ling demanded.

I blinked. “Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, Akane requested the room across from me. MC was kind enough to arrange it.”

Adam frowned in confusion. “But…didn’t you move rooms?”

“Yeah, and MC moved her as well. I guess Ling’s roommate didn’t have a problem switching.” I shrugged. “It’s no big deal.” I turned to Ling and Akane. “We’ll see you girls later.” I went into the room; Adam followed quickly and shut the door behind him. I set about getting ready for a shower.

“So about Akane…”

“She’s another old childhood friend,” I explained as I wrapped a towel around my waist and used it cover myself as I deftly stripped off my dirty clothes and threw them in the hamper in my closet. “Moved into the district right when Laura left. She’s very shy, though, which is probably why MC was so accommodating. She needs a support system.”

“And you’re willing to be that…support system?”

I blinked and paused in looking for my shower supplies. “Well…yeah. I’m her friend.” Had he missed that part? “Anyway, don’t forget that box.” I left for the bathroom, still wrapped in my towel.

The bathrooms were communal, and the men’s was just further down the hall. I was lucky; women’s was all the way on the other side.

It was also surprisingly clean. I guess no one had really used it yet. It would get worse quickly; public bathrooms always did. Better enjoy it while it lasted. I chose my stall and got ready for a nice long shower.

Behind the Scenes (scene 9)

This one was a little tricky, because I didn’t want to dump too much exposition. Most of the details on the powers will become apparent later, during the fight scenes.

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Scene 8 – Postestas

POTESTAS

LING

My name is Ling Yu. I’ve lived in Domina most of my life; my family moved here when I was two, and I got stuffed into an orphanage about a year later, when they got killed by some gang or another.

I’m not very smart. That’s just a fact. I only got into college because of my soccer scholarship—and even then, I had to personally beg the dean.

But just because I’m not a genius doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I know when to keep my mouth shut, when to listen. And now, going to see the Big Boss while carrying a corpse wrapped in blood-soaked sheets, seemed like an excellent time to just listen.

“Adam didn’t hear the screamer,” the girl with the diamond ring on the necklace—Laura, I think—was saying. “We stopped on the curb, but he stepped into the road. A truck came, and this moron—” she jerked her thumb at Derek. “—jumped in front of it. That’s when we found out about his ability.”

“You two heard the screams too, right?” Derek asked Akane. “From farther than you should have, I mean.”

Akane opened her mouth to speak, glanced at Laura and Adam, and nodded meekly instead. She had been shy when she first met me, but grew out of it within the hour. The same would probably happen here.

“So it would be safe to assume that anyone that can hear these screamers has a power,” Laura mused. “We’ll have to find out mine and…what did you say your name was?”

“Ling.”

“Find out mine and Ling’s later.”

“Sorry, Adam,” Derek said with genuine concern. “I guess that means you don’t have any powers.”

His friend snorted and shifted his grip on the corpse; I was forced to do the same to keep from dropping it. My stomach churned, but I suppressed it. It wasn’t a person, not really. It was just some kind of zombie. “We don’t know anything about these abilities yet. For all we know, you guys will turn into screamers too. I’m fine with being normal.”

“Talk later,” I grunted. I really didn’t have a good grip on the corpse; it was tiring me out. “We’re entering Necessarian territory.” While they were originally from North Central, Necessarius had bases all over the city. Including one near where we had killed the screamer.

The ‘sarians had established a perimeter around a large warehouse, probably where we were supposed to meet with Big Boss. The only thing that identified them as part of the gang was a black and red striped piece of cloth, tied around their right arms. Other than that, there was nothing resembling a dress code, although most of them stuck with jeans and a t-shirt. Of course, these were the elite, so they had the latest military rifles and body armor as well.

One of the guards stepped forward without a word and flipped out his phone. He glanced at the screen, then at us, then closed it and waved us through. He didn’t seem at all fazed by the bloody sheets; I guess that’s just something you get used to.

There were multiple layers of defense, but they all let us through without complaint. Even when we reached the actual building, we had to pass through a large maze built from walls of stacked cement bags and other construction materials. With the guards standing on top and staring down, it seemed like a pretty good fortress.

But, again, the Necessarians didn’t molest us, and we had little trouble getting through. Every once in a while a guard would drop down and point us in the right direction; I wasn’t being metaphorical when I called the place a maze.

At last, we reached the end: A ‘room’ made of piled supplies, about fifteen feet wide and long. The ‘walls’ were about equal height, with armed guards watching us warily, and the only exit was the one we had just come through.

“It is a Friday night,” a deep, calm voice said. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the source: Sitting in the center of the room, on a large wooden chair flanked by a pair of speakers, was Artemis Butler.

He was much, much bigger than he looked on TV. He wasn’t quite fat, but he wasn’t muscular either. He was just so massive that it was hard to not feel tiny—and I’m not exactly large to begin with. If he stood, I think he would have clocked in at seven feet. Not a skinny seven feet, either; he was thick like a tree.

In fact, that was the perfect word to describe him: Tree-like. Big. Heavy. Unmoving. Eternal. On TV, he was just a big man. In person, he was like a mountain.

He had a large cane in his right hand, and he wore black gloves to match his tailored black suit and sunglasses. But rather than hiding it, this all served to accentuate his unnaturally pale skin and ivory hair. If he took off his glasses, I knew we would see his red eyes—not as deep as those granted by the toy maker, but still noticeable.

“It is a Friday night,” he repeated. He sounded like a rock slide. “and I am sitting in a warehouse, surrounded by armed guards, with a dead zombie being delivered to me by five college students. I sincerely hope you have some good news for me, because I am somewhat cranky at the moment.”

Adam and I put down the corpse. Almost before we finished, a pair of ‘sarians with large rubber gloves that reached their elbows came from behind us, lifted the package, and handed it to similarly equipped men on the walls. They quickly took the body away without saying a word.

“I suppose we could have a lot of fun dancing around the point,” Butler mused. “I decide what to tell you, you decide whether I’m telling the truth, and we verbally spar for a few minutes.” He sighed. “But I don’t really have time for that. I am missing a game at the moment, and I hope to be back before the second quarter starts. And I’m sure you have things to do as well.”

Derek crossed his arms and glared at the gang lord. “I’m saving this city with or without you.” There was no boasting in his voice; just a little bit of mild accusation, directed at the Big Boss. He was going to save the city, I knew right then and there. The fact that he didn’t even know what the danger was yet wouldn’t even slow him down.

The man didn’t move, though the corners of his mouth did twitch upwards briefly. “You’re definitely your mother’s son, it seems. Let’s just share our information first, and see where we stand from there.”

Derek didn’t relax an inch. “Agreed. But you seem to know more than we do, so you go first.”

The guards on the walls adjusted their grips on their weapons; neither Derek nor Butler seemed to notice.

The gang lord nodded. “The creature you just killed is what we call a screamer—I’m sure you can guess why. It is the second one we have encountered.” The large man shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Or the fourth, depending on your point of view, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The first was twelve hours ago. I was hoping it was an isolated incident, and if we are very lucky, it still is.

“What we know is that these creatures are insane, violent, and possess powers. They are similar to zombies in many respects, including their ability to infect others.”

We came to attention at that, but the Big Boss help up his hand in a placating gesture.

“I don’t think any of you have anything to worry about. The other infected turned within minutes, and symptoms arose within seconds. As far as we can tell, if you come in contact with a living screamer’s bodily fluids, you are turned. Saliva from a bite and blood are the only confirmed instances right now.”

He frowned. “Interestingly, it seems to be only a living screamer. We took a sample before we killed the first one, and afterward it was inert. Very odd.” He leaned back in his chair a little. “But I digress.

“One of my men tried to restrain the screamer, and was bitten in the process. He quickly devolved into a similar state, with identical powers. Another was infected when he shot the first victim at close range, and was showered in blood. He turned the same way, but we were able to neutralize him without casualties.”

“What powers did they manifest?” Laura asked. She didn’t seem very intimidated by the most powerful man in the city, and instead had a very thoughtful expression on her face.

“The ability to manipulate electricity,” he answered. “Both the original and his victims. Now, please tell me that is the same power your screamer manifested.”

Derek shook his head. “Pyrokinesis.”

Butler sighed deeply and slumped a little. “Which means it’s a different strain. I suppose it was too much to hope for.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened again. “This means that there is some sort of intelligent force behind these creatures. I am certain we will see more shortly.”

“Wait,” I said before I could stop myself. Everyone turned to look at me expectantly, and I was forced to continue. “Uh…right. Sorry, it just seems like a major jump from ‘multiple strains’ to ‘intelligent force behind them.’ In anime—” now Akane was glaring at me, while the rest looked at me like I had grown a second head. “—ah. Sorry. I just think it’s a bit early to make that assumption.”

Butler nodded. “True enough. I am simply focusing on the worst-case scenario. I will be happy to be proven wrong later.” He smiled, a little bit sadly. “Unfortunately, in my experience, expecting the worst rarely leaves you surprised.” He turned his gaze back to Derek. “Now, I understand you five have powers as well.”

“Only Akane and myself for sure. But everyone but Adam heard the screamer…uh, screaming from farther away than should have been possible. We think that means we all have powers.”

“Hm,” the gang lord muttered. “Interesting. But better than I expected. We can use you to hunt down the screamers. They don’t seem to be able to shut up, which is a very good thing.”

“Wait,” Adam said. “You’re willing to work with random college students? And to put us in such an important position?”

Never turn down an asset that is available to you, Mister Anders,” Butler advised him. “None of my men—nor anyone else, as far as we can tell—have powers. Though on that note, I would like blood samples from all of you. If we are very lucky, your abilities may be transferable in the same way the screamers’ are.”

Derek immediately held out his arm, and Akane followed his example, but Laura narrowed her eyes. “And if not?”

The Big Boss matched her icy gaze without flinching. “If not, then nothing. We go back to plan B, have you help us hunt down the screamers. However, if your blood creates screamers, we’ll have to isolate you and only let you out for missions. We can’t have you accidentally starting the very zombie apocalypse we’re trying to stop if you get a paper cut.”

A couple more scientists came into the room, wearing the same big rubber gloves as before, and holding small, empty needles. They quickly drew blood from Derek and Akane; the rest of us looked at each other for a moment, sighed, and let them do the same to us.

“We’ll know the results soon,” Butler promised us.

“But if we can’t give you a spec, Big Boss can probably float you a toy voucher.”

It was MC’s voice, coming from the speakers flanking Butler. She sounded a bit stranger than normal, less formal.

Butler frowned. “Mary, what are you talking about?”

“Adam. He’ll want in on this, right? If we can’t give him a spec, we can at least buff him up with the toy maker. Give him a fighting chance.”

“I can’t use the toy maker,” Adam put in sullenly. “I’m lutum informis. It’s useless on me.”

Butler pursed his lips. “Well, not quite useless, but you are right in that it is not easy. And I don’t think it will be necessary, regardless. This will be dangerous enough for the ones with powers if all my theories pan out. If we can’t give you a power, you’ll stay out. Understand?”

The bland man frowned. “Mary’s the one who suggested it.”

“Don’t call me Mary,” MC said instantly.

Adam blinked. “But he called you…”

“Because he won’t stop.”

“Ah.”

One of the lab techs returned from the entrance behind us. “We have the results, sir.”

Butler waved his hand. “Go ahead, I don’t have time for secrecy.”

“There is no evidence that the Paladin’s blood creates screamers, sir. Unfortunately, the subjects did not exhibit any powers either.”

The gang boss raised an eyebrow. “Paladins?”

“My idea,” MC chirped in. “I passed it along to Doctor Clarke. Don’t you think it will sell?”

Butler sighed again. “Yes, very clever. Be sure to keep the test subjects in isolation for at least twenty-four hours, just in case.”

The tech left with a nod.

“Well, it was a small chance anyway. Now, Miss Akiyama—” Akane flinched noticeably. “…ah, yes, your file did mention that you were a bit shy.” He turned to Derek instead. “Mister Huntsman. I assume it was either you or your Akane who killed the screamer? Did you get it’s blood on you? I’m hoping you’ll be immune.”

Derek brushed back his hair in consternation. “No, Adam was the one who killed her. And no one came into contact with her blood until after she died. More evidence for the theory that dead screamers can’t infect people.”

“Mister Anders?” Butler looked at Adam with new interest. “That is…unexpected. I was under the impression that you had no combat experience.” He shrugged slightly. “Of course, my spies have been looking into you for about half an hour, so they may have missed some things.”

“No training,” the man in question answered. He seemed a bit offended, though I couldn’t tell why. “I picked up a gun and shot her. It wasn’t that hard.”

“Hm…doctor?”

Another one of the lab techs came in and placed a stethoscope on Adam’s heart, under his shirt.

“Hey, what the—”

“Seems normal,” the man muttered. He pried open Adam’s eyelid and shone a penlight in his eye. “He seems fine. No signs of shock. Of course, that is just a preliminary analysis…”

“Thank you, doctor. That will be all.” The man nodded and left. Butler rubbed his chin. “Now, this is very interesting. I haven’t seen a natural-born killer in some time. You could be useful after all.”

“We still don’t know why he didn’t get a spec,” MC pointed out.

“And I still don’t know mine,” I added. “Or Laura’s.”

“Oh, I figured out mine this morning,” Laura said nonchalantly. “And I’m guessing you did too.”

Everyone stared at her, but it was MC who spoke. “You were gonna mention this when?”

She shrugged. “Soon. It didn’t seem important. But my power is the ability to detect lies. Which is why I know Mister Butler has been completely honest with us, and how I know—” she smiled at me. “—that little Ling knows what her power is.”

I cursed under my breath. Somehow, I knew this was going to happen. Yesterday, when I used my power for the first time, I had known I was going to get dragged into something like this. Why had I even bothered hiding it in the first place? Oh, that’s right, because as interesting as anime is, I didn’t want to actually live one.

“At least that confirms the theory about who has powers,” Butler mused. “Although I am still interested in why you were the ones who received them, this explains why Adam was left out. If you received your powers this morning or earlier, Adam has only been here a few hours.”

“So…you’re saying Derek’s patient zero,” Laura said slowly. “Or I am. And we infected those close to us?”

“Or someone did it intentionally, since you don’t seem contagious,” MC put in.

“That seems the most likely possibility,” Derek agreed. “I haven’t seen Laura in years, and when I ran into her earlier, Adam was with me. If I was infected then, there’d be no reason he would be excluded.”

“So there are two questions left,” Adam summarized. “One: We need Ling to tell us her power.”

In all the excitement, it had seemed like everyone had forgotten about that. Apparently not.

“Two: We need to figure out who else could be infected. It shouldn’t be that hard. Call a few people, ask them if they heard screaming about an hour ago.”

“Lizzy,” Akane said. She didn’t elaborate, but Derek nodded in understanding.

“She’d be a logical choice. She’s connected to both me and Laura.”

“I’ll call her,” Laura grumbled, pulling out her phone. “She’s my roommate. And I already tested it; my ability works fine over the phone.”

“Put it on speaker,” Butler ordered. Laura nodded and dialed. She held out the phone, and we could all hear it ringing for a few minutes before it was picked up.

A sweet girl’s voice answered. “Hello? Laura? Where are you? You said you were going to get sheets over an hour ago.”

“Yeah, I ran into some people and got caught up in something. Don’t worry about it. I have a quick question: Did you hear screaming about an hour ago, but couldn’t find the source?”

“Hm? Yeah, I did. It went on for about…ten? Twenty minutes? Then it stopped. Why, was it something important?”

We all looked at each other. There it was. Confirmation that more than just the four of us had powers. I hadn’t met this Lizzy, but I guess we needed to bring her into the fold.

“Why…” Laura shook her head and started again. “Why didn’t you investigate?”

There was a pause on the other side of the line.

“What could I have done?”

Everyone looked at Laura, but she just blinked. “Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry. I’ll see you later.”

“Alright, bye.” She hung up, and Laura squirreled her phone away.

“She was telling the truth the whole time,” she confirmed. “She heard the screamer, which means she has a power.”

“A power she doesn’t know about,” Derek corrected. “I want to keep her out of this. And I’d like to ask you to do the same.” The last was directed at Big Boss; he nodded in assent. “Good, then if there’s nothing else, we’ll be leaving now. You need to get back to your game, and we need to figure out the limits of our powers. We’ll contact MC if we hear a screamer.”

“Hey, hang on,” Adam put in. “Don’t just sign us all up. I’ll admit he has some good points, but I don’t want to work with a gang lord.”

“Zombie apocalypse, Mister Anders,” Butler said with surprising gentleness. “No one gets to be picky.”

“No, I’m with Adam, we should think about this.” I thought working with Necessarius might be a good idea, but again, I’m not very smart. The least I could do was convince the smarter people to think more. “Besides, how’d you even know about us?”

“The truck driver who almost hit Derek and Adam called it in,” MC replied cheerfully. “He didn’t know what was going on, but we figured it out quickly. We called you, and were lucky enough that you had already aggroed a screamer.”

“I can understand why you wouldn’t want to work with me,” Butler continued as if no one had spoken, “but this is for the good of the city.”

“My father knew you before you became Big Boss,” Laura noted, while looking the man in question in the eye. Well, sunglasses. “He told me stories. Can you swear to me that all you want is to safeguard the city?”

“I swear that all I want is to safeguard everyone,” Butler answered quietly. “But this city is all I can control.”

Laura shrugged. “Good enough for me.”

“That’s three against two,” Big Boss said. “One of whom can apparently detect lies. Now, I won’t force you two to work with me, but if you’re not willing to help, then things will get more complicated.”

“Wait one second,” I interrupted. “Akane hasn’t answered.”

She jumped at her name, looked at me, then at Butler. She bowed her head and whispered, barely audibly, “I’m with Derek.”

“As I said,” the gang boss continued with a small smile, “three against two. So what will it be?”

Adam rubbed his head. “I…I guess I’m in. But I’ll need weapons and practice.” He smiled. “I’m already taking Applied Firearms at AU, so I guess that will help.”

Butler nodded. “A small selection of firearms will be delivered to your dorm room within an hour. The code on the case will be ‘14113.’ If you don’t like the guns we give you, call Mary, and she’ll arrange for new ones to be sent to you.”

The bland man nodded in thanks…and everyone turned to me. I sighed.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I muttered. “But yeah. I’m in.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 8)

I have a very strong desire to give an in-depth, heavily researched scientific explanation for how the powers work. I like technobabble. However, it wouldn’t fit in this case. There’s no good, unifying scientific theory that can explain the disparate powers. So I’m making this the highest canon right now:

IF ANYONE GIVES AN EXPLANATION OF HOW THE POWERS WORK, THEY ARE LYING OR WRONG. Or both.

Now, that’s not to say that questions aren’t going to be answered. I’ll reveal the differences between the screamers and the Paladins, how people gain powers and so on. What I will not explain is how those powers function. It’s not nanites or dark matter or quantum physics or anything else explainable. It is, as far as the audience is concerned, magic (please note that it is not actually magic).

The best comparison I can give is the X-Men: The Eternals created the X-gene, which gives people powers. If I had been writing that, the answer would have been limited to “the Eternals give people powers.”

Scene 7 – Ignis

IGNIS

AKANE

My name is Akane Akiyama. Daughter of Akio, son of Yoshrou. I am the last of the honorable samurai house Akiyama, founded in the first days of the Edo period. Of course, when the Tokugawa family fell into decline, our house fell with them, and it eventually became easier to leave Japan than it was to stay. That was two generations ago; I have never been to Japan, and I have little interest in doing so.

After meeting my new roommate, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was connected to modern Japanese culture.

I do not mean that as a compliment.

“So what’s your favorite anime?”

Ling Yu was a little Chinese girl, clocking in at about five feet tall. She had a wide smile plastered on her soft face, and her dyed dirty blonde hair was put up in odango style—two spherical buns worn at about forty-five degree angles at the side of the head. She looked like the most stereotypical Chinese girl in existence. At least she wasn’t wearing a Chinese dress; she had chosen a simple set of blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead. Small mercies, I suppose.

I sighed and finally answered her question. “Seven Samurai.”

“Oh, that’s cool. Not really an anime, but…unless you meant Samurai Seven?”

I didn’t know what that was. “No.”

Ling was an anime otaku. That word is a little tricky to translate, but basically it’s a Japanese nerd. They get obsessed with one subject—anime, games, computers, whatever—and learn absolutely everything there is to know about it. In recent years, the name’s been used in the states to refer to a nerd obsessed with Japanese culture, mostly anime.

Don’t ask me how a Chinese girl got obsessed with Japanese media.

“I prefer Gundam, myself. Especially the newer ones. I know everyone says it doesn’t have the same feel as the original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Uh-huh.” I glanced around the street, then crossed with Ling following only a step behind. I had left the room to get away from all the stupid anime posters she had on the wall, but with her sticking to me like glue, it hadn’t done much good. Now I was pretty much just wandering aimlessly.

“Everyone always expects me to talk about shojo, or at least magical girl anime. But I really like shounen better. Sure, the leads are usually boys, but there’s more action and less relationships.”

“Of course.” There was a pack of lupes ahead, led by a fully anthropomorphic wolf. I headed down an alley to avoid them.

“Though I’ve really never seen the appeal of harem anime. What’s the point of it? Either it’s obvious who the main character is going to end up with and the rest is just window dressing, or it’s obvious he’s never going to get anyone. I just can’t enjoy that.”

“I can imagine.” A couple rats were swarming a dumpster, but they ignored us as we walked past. Good thing, too. I didn’t think Ling would be useful in a fight.

“But what I really hate is seinen. Too much blood and sex. I mean, I can appreciate a good, violent scene that actually ends with someone dying. But throwing all the nudity and sexuality in it just ruins it.”

“That…” I stopped and turned to look at her. “That’s more thought-out than I expected. I figured you to be more along the ‘it’s stupid because I hate it’ types.”

She frowned. “Of course not. Have you been listening to me at all?”

“Not really.”

She glared at me. “Fine. Well, if you had been listening, you’d know I want to go into directing and writing for television—probably animated.”

I started walking again. “Should have seen that coming.”

She huffed impatiently. “Yes, you should have. Where are we going, anyway?”

I shrugged without stopping. “Nowhere. Go back to the room if you like.”

There was a moment of silence. I wasn’t looking in her direction, so I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but I didn’t really care. We came out of the alley to a mostly empty street; on a whim, I headed right.

“Were you avoiding that anthro?”

“Anthro…the full-animal kemos?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been hearing.”

“Well, yeah, I guess. Nothing against lupes, but…” I stopped and sighed, forcing myself with a conscious effort to articulate more clearly. “The daybreakers and nightstalkers and such…they’re a little crazy. I just avoid them all as a general rule.”

“I know what you mean, I guess. I…”

I never found out what she was going to say next, because that’s when the screaming started.

It wasn’t like someone screaming for help, it was just this voiceless, toneless cry, droning on like an alarm. There was no emotion in it, at least not that I could detect. And it was nearby.

I glanced at my roommate. She was in what looked like a fighting stance—although it wasn’t one I recognized—and was coiled like a spring. There wasn’t even a question of whether or not we were going to investigate.

“Any weapons?”

She shook her head, so I handed her my gun, a stupid little Colt revolver with five shots and a safety. I didn’t know anything else about it; I had bought it mostly because I was promised it wouldn’t need maintenance.

Ling took the gun without comment and quickly checked that it was loaded. It was; I always made sure of that. “You gonna be fine with just that?”

I took the long, thin zippered bag off my shoulder and opened it, pulling out the katana I had been given for kendo class in middle school. It wasn’t anything special, it didn’t have any deep meaning other than as a gift. It wasn’t even very high quality. But it was steel and it was sharp, and I knew how to use it.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Don’t shoot me.” We ran towards the source of the screams.

“If they have a gun, hang back,” Ling reminded me. “I doubt you can actually deflect bullets.”

I nodded That’s something that I had been worried about; that maybe Ling would overestimate my abilities. But she could apparently tell the difference between fiction and reality just fine. I really wasn’t giving her enough credit.

We finally found the source after ten minutes of searching. It was farther than we thought; two streets away. I didn’t have time to wonder how we were able to hear the screaming that far away. The noise remained throbbing in our ears the entire time, though it faded in volume every minute or so and came back moments later, as though the screamer was taking a breath. It led us to an abandoned skyscraper just a block and a half from the dorms.

I’m not sure what the place used to be. Something small, with only one register (the counter was still in and everything) and a small back room I could see from the door. The shop itself was nothing special, and looked pretty much untouched from when it had been emptied. Next to the stairs there were a few small piles of dust and trash someone had forgotten to empty into a trash can, and some screwdrivers abandoned from when they had been removing shelving, but otherwise it was downright boring.

The doorway, however, was not.

The shop was covered in a big steel folding gate, the kind they typically use in malls. Since this block was basically an outdoor mall, most of the shops had similar devices, and when this store closed down they just locked it up.

Something had torn through the steel gate like it was tissue paper, leaving a hole we could easily walk through. The glass door behind it was also shattered inward, but that was less surprising. The only good news was that whatever had done this clearly wasn’t very smart; if you’re strong enough to rip metal like that, the sole padlock would have been a much easier target.

I gingerly stepped over the threshold, walking around the broken glass and the claws of the ruined gate. Ling followed carefully behind. The screams had lulled again, for a bit longer than before. I began to think they may have stopped entirely, when they started again—from the secondary room I had seen before, not ten feet in front of us. A few spots of blood led that way; perhaps the thing was injured.

From this distance, it sounded infinitely louder, like a banshee wailing while dragging its nails on a chalkboard. I quickly rushed forward, resisting the urge to cover my ears, quickly finding the source in the old employee office.

It was…a girl.

She was average height, as best as I could tell—she was crouched in an animal stance, ready to pounce. She was white, probably; she was so dirty it was hard to be sure. Her hair was a bit past shoulder-length, and strewn about her head like a stringy mop. I wasn’t even going to try and guess what the natural color was. Her hands were bloodied; as far as I could tell, ripping open the gate had done similar damage to herself.

Her jaw was…unhinged. That’s the only way to describe it. Her mouth was open so wide it looked like she could swallow an apple whole. The second she saw us, her head swiveled in our direction, and she continued screaming without shifting her jaw at all. I did the first thing I could think of: I ran forward, drew my sword, and slashed her. It’s not exactly a complicated maneuver; I had done it a thousand times before.

But that is not…quite what happened.

When I tried to move forward, time…slowed. It was so surprising I nearly tripped over my own feet. The screaming girl’s eyes suddenly weren’t tracking me as quickly, and her screams were far deeper—something to do with the way sound travels, I’m sure. I glanced back at Ling and found her staring at me with wide eyes. She blinked, slowly.

Oh, I thought.

Time returned to normal, with Ling still staring at me. “What was that? You were moving so fast…”

I looked at my body. “I think…I think I may have super speed.” What the hell else was I supposed to think? It definitely felt like I had done something, though I wasn’t really sure what.

Ling frowned. “Wait, you didn’t know you could do that?”

Before I could say anything, the dirty girl picked up her scream again and charged forward. I tried to activate my speed again, but nothing happened.

No, that’s not true. I could feel something in my gut, a reservoir of power that was trying to fill itself. Like the burn in your legs from running too much; I knew I’d be better in moments, but those were moments I didn’t have.

The screamer leaped past me, towards Ling…and bounced off a translucent blue force field that appeared in front of her. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it looked like a softly glowing shield of blue plastic. The girl screeched and fled to the back of the room, where she eyed us warily.

I stared at Ling. She had thrown herself backwards when it lunged, and seemed to have hurt herself banging into the heavy door. “Was that you?

“No, that was me.”

I turned to see the newest arrival…Derek, as it turned out. He was panting, with his arm outstretched. He was covered in dirt-encrusted abrasions that were still oozing blood; he looked like he had survived a fight.

Behind him was another man in a similar state; other than that, there was nothing notable about him other than the two pillows he was carrying. One looked like it had been dragged through the mud.

Next to him was a girl with iron eyes. She had a gun in her hand, and looked prepared to use it, but I could tell from the way she was holding it that she wasn’t accustomed to it. I knew because it was the exact same way I hold guns.

“Akane!” Derek said. He nodded, pleased to see me, but didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “We’re taking her alive.”

I instantly sheathed my sword. “I don’t think that’s wise. She’s obviously dangerous.”

“And if we take her alive, we might figure out how she’s dangerous. C’mon, it’s you and me. Take point.”

I headed forward, sheathed sword raised. It wasn’t lethal anymore, but it was still a heavy stick. It would serve as an adequate weapon.

“Derek, she’s right, we should kill her now.”

It was the bland man, the one holding the pillows, who had spoken. I didn’t stop, carefully inching forward. I could feel my speed replenishing, but I wasn’t sure if that’s actually what it was, or something else entirely. I didn’t want to rely on that until I was sure it would actually work. Derek stayed back, near Ling, who was still near the door, rubbing her head.

“We can always kill her later,” Derek replied. His tone brooked no argument.

When I got within five feet, I stopped. I needed to finish this in one blow, if possible. If I could rely on that speed…

No. Later, once I had more practice, I could use it. Right now, I’d stick with the sword.

But before I could strike, the girl sprung into motion, screaming past me towards the most vulnerable member of the party—Ling, still dazed from earlier.

She shrieked and covered her face in a desperate attempt to shield herself. I tried to rush forward, but I was too far away, and I couldn’t activate my speed.

Before the screamer got to her, Derek interposed himself between them.

I don’t know if he was having the same problems with his powers I was or if he just forgot about them, but he threw Ling out of the way and took the crazy girl’s tackle himself. He grunted in pain, but tried to wrestle her to the ground.

“Akane!” he called.

I came up quickly and struck his assailant as hard as I could in the face. Her nose broke with a sharp crack, and her screams momentarily changed to a screech of pain, but she was otherwise unfazed. Then the pair rolled over, and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

The girl, the one with the gun rushed forward, but I stopped her. “You’ll hit Derek.”

She glared at me, but acquiesced.

I waited for another opportunity to strike, but Derek was stronger than he looked. Years of hunting rats and other, fouler things is a hell of an exercise program. Crazed as she was, the girl was outmatched. He quickly managed to pin her to the ground, though he was still having trouble keeping her there.

“Get a rope,” he ordered. “Quick.”

I searched the room as fast as I could, but there wasn’t anything we could use to tie her down.

“The sheets,” the bland man said. He ripped open a package I hadn’t noticed him carrying, pulling out a set of sheets with long tears and streaks of dirt on them. He tossed me one end. “We can catch her with this.”

We quickly braided the cloth into something vaguely resembling a rope; it would restrain the girl, if only for long enough for us to knock her unconscious.

She, however, seemed to have other plans.

The screamer gave a great howl of anger and threw Derek nearly five feet with a surge of adrenaline. She thrust her hand toward him and fire blossomed out of thin air, a cone of it rushing towards him.

He managed to get his shield up before he got hit, but I could see it was straining him. The flames were pushing against the barrier and licking the edges, and it looked like a large amount of heat was getting through; he was already sweating profusely.

I couldn’t get to the screamer with my sword. She had backed herself into a corner, and her flames would roast me if I tried to get close. If I could activate that speed again…

Bang. A gunshot echoed through the small room.

The flames flickered and disappeared, the girl fell to the ground, and a pool of blood began to grow around her chest, where I could see the exit wound for a bullet. A moment later, Derek collapsed as well as his shield died. I rushed over to make sure he wasn’t hurt, but he waved me off. He took a few deep breaths before speaking.

“Who shot her.”

I did,” the sheet-guy said. He still held my revolver in his hand. He didn’t look like he knew how to use it much more than I did. “Got it from the…” he wiggled his fingers in Ling’s direction “…her.”

Derek took another deep breath. “What part of ‘We’re taking her alive’ didn’t you understand?”

His friend seemed unfazed. “She was going to kill you.”

Derek sighed again. “Yeah, yeah, I suppose there was no choice.” He held out his hand; I helped him up. “We need to find out what’s going on here.” He looked at me. “Is there any chance you know why we have powers now?”

I shook my head.

“Yeah, me neither.” He brushed his hair back from his forehead. He didn’t seem to have any idea what to do next.

“We’ll need to see if everyone else has powers,” the girl with the gun said quietly. She had holstered the weapon in question. Reminded, I held out my hand for my own revolver, and the sheet-guy gave it. “Derek and…” she glanced at me. “…Akane know each other, so it’s logical to assume there is some common source.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, considering.

Then a phone rang.

Five simple beeps, then a pause, and five more.

No one moved.

“Who’s is that?” Ling asked groggily. I shrugged.

The bland guy jumped. “Oh, sorry, I think that’s me. New phone.” He pulled out his cell. “Adam speaking.”

Well, at least I knew his name now.

“MC? I…uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll pass it along.” He hung up. “Someone called ‘Mr. Butler’ wants to see us. She said you’d know where.”

Everyone else in the room looked up, surprised.

“He wants to meet us?” Laura asked. “Are you sure?”

“Uh, yeah.” Adam glanced around. “Guys, who is he?”

I looked at Derek. He shrugged and answered in a defeated tone:

“The biggest gang lord in the city.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 7)

I thought long and hard about the various ethnicities of the main characters. There were only two that needed to be what they are: It’s difficult enough writing serious plots about a swordswoman, but for some reason having Akane English or French just struck me as ridiculous. Adam is multinational, pretty much generic “white,” which is meant to reflect that his family was just average American until they made their fortune during Prohibition.

The others were less important. I always wanted Ling to be an anime otaku, and I thought it was funny to make her Chinese as well. Lizzy is pretty much the opposite of Adam, multinationally brown. Actually, in all honesty she’s pretty much all nationalities.

For Derek and Laura, I rolled dice. They came out Italian and Spanish, respectively, but I already had a few semi-important Italian characters, and didn’t want to imply a connection that wasn’t there, so I made him half instead.

Scene 6 – Amicus

AMICUS

ADAM

I came out of the toy shop feeling dejected. How the hell else was I supposed to feel? I didn’t know people could be immune to the toy maker. That was like being immune to organ donation. I adjusted the empty cage in my grip and turned to ask Derek about this newest roadblock. But before I could say anything, he stopped dead in his tracks, looking at someone else.

“Laura?”

I followed his gaze. He was staring at a girl standing a few yards away, a thin young woman with shoulder-length black hair and pale skin, wearing a diamond ring on a chain around her neck. She was pretty, but she wasn’t my type; she was sharp like a knife, in every way. In the way her jaw was set, in the way her eyes narrowed, in the clothes she wore, in—

In the gun on her thigh.

“Derek,” she said. Her response was cold as ice, like an experienced soldier told that she was being ambushed. Her hand went to the gun in it’s holster, but she passed over it with only the barest hint of hesitation.

“Laura! It is you!” Derek rushed forward to give the girl a hug. She deftly stepped back, and this time her hand did go to her gun.

“It’s been a while, Derek.”

My roommate looked hurt. “Laura, don’t be like that…”

“Derek, don’t antagonize her,” I advised, while my brain worked to find the nearest escape route . Yeah, piss off the crazy girl with the gun. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan.

She looked at me quizzically. “Who’s this?”

He glanced at me before turning back to her. “This is Adam, my new roommate over at AU. But never mind that—what are you doing back in South Central?”

She eyed him warily, clearly weighing whether she should tell him the truth or not. “I’m going to AU for school. So I had to come back.”

He grinned genuinely. “That’s great! I barely even recognized you. If d—your father hadn’t shown me some pictures from last Christmas, I think I would have walked right by.”

Her eyes showed no compromise. “A pity, that.”

“Laura and I grew up together,” Derek explained to me. “But she left the district seven years ago for school. I never really knew why.”

“It was your fault,” she replied icily. She wasn’t angry, just harsh. “That’s why I left.”

Derek crossed his arms and frowned. “I can’t apologize if you don’t tell me what I did wrong, Laura.”

“No, you can’t.” She sighed and took another step back. “We done here? I don’t need this today.”

“Yeah…yeah, I guess we are.” Poor Derek looked like he had lost his best friend. Maybe he had. “We’ll…see you around, Laura.” He started off, while Laura waited for him to leave, but I glanced around first.

“Oh, hey, a linens place,” I said. With a name like ‘Linens and Things,’ it was hard to miss. “I need sheets and a pillow. Let’s go in here.”

The girl glared at me.

Derek shrugged. “Works for me.” He headed inside…and Laura followed without a word. I blinked, sighed, and followed as well.

It looked pretty much the same as the other stores I had seen. One big room with the products displayed—in this case, different sheet designs hung on the walls like curtains, with pillows and blanket samples on shelves in the center—and a single register to the left of the door. Laura headed straight for the clerk, and I cautiously followed, with Derek staying by the door.

The clerk was another demon girl, younger than Lily. I was already getting used to the toys, but I was still…twitchy about Laura’s gun. No one else was commenting on it, however, so I tried to ignore it.

“I need a set of sheets for a single-size bed. And some pillows.” She turned to me. “I’m guessing you need the same?”

“Uh…yeah.” That gun was really bothering me, and some part of me wanted to take it from her before she had a chance to use it. I resisted the impulse. “The cheapest you’ve got.”

“Same for me,” Laura told the clerk. The demon scurried off to the back of the store, presumably to plunder the storeroom.

“So, Laura…”

Derek was trying to sound nonchalant, but his old friend wouldn’t have any of it. “What.”

Whatever he had been planning to say, he seemed to change his mind before speaking. “I’ve been meaning to ask…where’d you get the gun?”

Finally. Maybe she’d stop wearing it if she knew it bothered people.

“Dad gave it to me for my fifteenth birthday,” she replied curtly. If there was more of a story behind it, she didn’t elaborate.

But Derek started. “You too? He gave me one, but he didn’t mention that you got one. Can I see it?”

Laura popped off the buckle on the holster, made sure the gun was safetied, and handed it off without so much as looking at it. Derek, I noted, was much more careful, and didn’t let his fingers anywhere near the trigger.

“Occisor Mk. 2.” He turned it over in his hand. “’To my beautiful daughter, may you never need this, and always have it.’ It’s the same model he gave me.” He chuckled. “My inscription is a little different, though.” He handed it back and she took it without a word.

Before I got the chance to put a word in—maybe recommend not carrying loaded guns around, just a thought—the clerk came back with two sets of sheets and a pair of pressed pillows, all wrapped in plastic.

“16.96,” she said, plopping out purchases down on the counter. She started ringing them up.

“Isn’t that a bit expensive for sheets and a pillow?” Laura asked. I hadn’t been sure, but it did sound high.

“The sheets are 5.99, and the pillows 2.49.” The demon stopped messing with the register. “Did you still want them?”

“We’re buying them separately,” I clarified.

The clerk fixed her mistake without complaint, and Laura and I paid separately. We walked out, and when we reached the street she glared at me again. “You can stop following me now.”

I glared right back. “We’re going the same way. Unless you feel like sitting on a bench holding your sheets just to avoid us.”

She scowled. “Fine. Whatever.” She crossed the street with us beside her.

“I’m sorry about the thing at the toy store,” Derek said to me after a moment. “I didn’t realize there would be a problem.”

“It’s not your fault,” I assured him. “How were you supposed to know I’m…uh…what’d he say?”

Lutum informis, I’m guessing?”

I glanced at Laura and shifted the load in my arms. The sheets weren’t much, but the cage was annoying. “Yeah, I think that’s right. The clerk said it means I can’t use toys.”

She scoffed. “He’s a moron, then. You can still use them, it just makes things more complicated. It’s going to be ten times harder and cost fifteen times as much to do anything.”

I sighed. “Well, then I guess I don’t get vampire eyes. Not that I really wanted them.” I frowned. “But hang on, I thought the toy maker worked on everyone?”

“Approximately one person in a million is lutum informis. For all intents and purposes, it works on everyone.” She smiled a bit sadly. “Congratulations, you have a rare physiological defect.”

“Thanks,” I snarked back, starting across the next street. “Always nice to be unique.” I sighed again. “I know I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but I was really looking forward…” I glanced around. Laura and Derek had stopped walking, and were at the curb with quizzical looks on their faces.

“Do you hear that?” he asked me.

I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary; I shook my head.

Suddenly, Laura’s eyes bulged. “TRUCK!” she roared.

That’s when I realized I was standing in the middle of the road, with a sixteen-wheeler bearing down on me.

It had a tall undercarriage—I might be able to dive under it. But no, if the driver swerved, I’d get crushed by the wheels, and even if he kept going straight, it was a long shot. With no other choice, I jumped to the right, away from the curb, but the driver swerved in that direction as well, probably trying to avoid Derek and Laura on the sidewalk. I noted it ran over my sheets and the cage, which I had dropped in my panic.

I was going to die. Run over just like my stupid sheets.

I felt…

Nothing.

I looked back at the curb for some reason, I’m not really sure why. Just some last reflex.

And I saw Derek running forward, an iron look in his eyes.

He tackled me at full speed, trying to throw me—well, us—further out of the path of the truck. Luckily, it was the only vehicle on the road at the moment, so we didn’t have to worry about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It almost worked. Almost. But the driver didn’t have time to swerve away again. It was going to hit us. Not head on and not at full speed, but a truck that size would kill us at pretty much any speed.

Derek put his body between me and the truck and braced himself, while I kept my eyes open and glued on our impending doom. It edged ever closer, and then…

It crashed into a force field.

A dome of blue light, dripping azure mist, had enveloped Derek and me. The truck stopped with a hugecrash like it had hit a wall, but the barrier held. After another moment, is disappeared, leaving only a massive dent in the truck’s grill to mark its existence.

I couldn’t stop staring. What?

Laura ran up as fast as she could. “Derek! You all right?” She glanced at the truck. “What the hell was that light?”

He swallowed slowly. “I…think that was me.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 6)

Look, plot!

Laura’s gun is more of Domina’s oddness showing through. Most citizens of the city don’t think there’s anything strange about carrying a gun around in plain view. And unlike the toy maker or the monsters, most of them seriously do not know that it’s strange. After all, what’s the second amendment for if guns aren’t legal?

Also, Laura is inaccurate about her statistics here: Lutum informis is far more rare than one in a million. In Domina City, there are four. Total. That’s including Adam.

Scene 5 – Noti

NOTI

LAURA

My name is Laura Medina. I’ve lived in Domina City my entire life, without much more than my dad for company. I don’t have many friends—it’s not that I’m shy, it’s just that I spend too much time doing other things. Reading, writing, studying…I have better things to do than hang out in a coffee shop and chat about boys. And, I suppose, I’m protecting myself as well. I’ve been burned in the past.

Floor six of the AU dorms was the same as all the others, which meant it was clean but bland. My room was number sixteen, about equidistant from all the stairs. I had taken the elevator this time, because of my bags, but I was planning to use the stairs from now on. It might actually be faster, and I needed the exercise.

I knocked twice, and when I heard no answer, shifted my burdens to get at my keys. It took me a few minutes to do it, with about a half dozen different bags hanging from my shoulders. Of course, exactly as I found the keys, the door opened.

“Laura!” Elizabeth screeched as she tackle-hugged me. I managed to keep a hold of my bags, but only barely. “Isn’t it great to see each other again? I have so much to talk to you about! Just this morning I saw an absolutely adorable purse that would look great on you—”

“Lizzy, let me in,” I grunted. She just squeezed tighter. I tried to maneuver us into the room, leaving my larger suitcase behind, but it was slow going. Lizzy didn’t stop clinging to me, or indeed even notice.

“—they came out with a violet eyes cosmo that would just look dazzling with your skin tone. Oh, and maybe we could color your hair a little darker to complement—”

I threw my bags onto the unoccupied bed on the right side of the room. It was the only part that hadn’t been touched; Lizzy had gone overboard on decorating, covering everything in posters of her favorite bands and pictures of the two of us from when we were kids. At least she had selected pictures that only had the two of us in them. I was thankful for that.

“—clothes, obviously, but that’s fine because a great new shop called la Boutique Française and it just has these little skirts to die for—”

I went back for the bag I left behind, dragging my roommate as she babbled the whole way. I didn’t really have that much; my dad lived nearby, so I could get a lot of what I needed from him. Mostly, it was just clothes and textbooks.

“—don’t you think? Laura? Don’t you think so?”

She had finally come out of her little dream world and was willing to have a real conversation. “I didn’t hear you. What was that?”

She pouted. “Laura, you never listen to me when I talk. I said we need to set up a study schedule. We can’t flunk out after all this effort.”

The first thing anyone notices about Elizabeth Greene is that she’s tall, I think reaching a little over six feet. She sprung up pretty quickly when we kids, so I’ve been shorter than her for a long time. The second thing was always her eyes. Pure gold, shining like the sun. I’m still not sure whether it was a cosmo or not—she’s had them for as long as I’ve known her, but she’s never shown any interest in other toys. Her brown hair and tanned skin matched her eyes. In the right light, she looked like a shining statue made from gold.

By contrast, my hair was a bland black, my eyes matching, and my skin so pale I think one time I got sunburned by a light bulb. Lizzy is great, and always has been, but sometimes it’s hard to be her friend. Everyone always focuses on her, and it’s like I don’t even exist. I do have one advantage, however: I am ever so much smarter than she is.

“I’d be happy to help you study,” I replied smoothly, finally managing to extract myself from her arms. “You signed up for the same classes as me, right?”

“Yeah, mostly.” She sat on her own bed, legs held to her chest. “I skipped the advanced history, biology, and physics courses. I’m just sticking with four classes.”

“But that just leaves you with three. What’s your fourth?”

“Normal history.”

I nodded. Honestly, I had expected her to drop more. “Ah, well, that’s not so bad. And I can still help you if you need it.”

“Hm,” she shrugged noncommittally. She didn’t say anything else.

I started unpacking. There wasn’t much; mostly clothes, my laptop, and…

Sheets.

I searched for ten minutes—despite the fact that the problem was obvious in the first ten seconds—before Lizzy noticed and spoke up.

“What’s wrong?”

I cursed under my breath. “I forgot sheets.” I glanced around the room. “Are there any spares in the room?”

She shook her head, but didn’t say anything else.

I sighed. She could get like this sometimes. Go from a little bundle of energy to a closed-off shell for no discernible reason. Probably because I hadn’t been paying enough attention to her. She wasn’t very helpful when it came right down to it. She was very…reactionary.

I was already beginning to regret choosing to room with her, but it was either this or some random stranger. Lizzy had lots of problems, not least being that it seemed like she couldn’t do anything by herself. But she was better than whoever I would have ended up with otherwise.

I packed away my clothes in the closet; I didn’t have many, it didn’t take long. I started up my laptop and logged into the dorm’s wifi, then plugged it in and set it on the otherwise bare desk.

Lizzy still wasn’t doing anything, just sitting on her bed and watching me. I sighed again.

“I’ll be back,” I said after a moment. “I’m going to go buy some sheets.”

“Hm.” She didn’t get up.

I shrugged and left the room after making sure I still had my keys, closing the door behind me. As I headed for the stairs, I flipped out my phone and pressed the button located directly under the screen.

“MC? Can you tell me where the closest linens store would be from my location?”

“One moment.” There was a pause. “There is one at the intersection of Abigail and Limbo. I can check their inventory if you like.”

I started down the stairs quickly. “Sure, but I just need sheets. I’m sure they’ll have them.”

“Yes, you are correct. Though it depends on what type you need.”

“Something that will fit the dorm beds.”

“They have plenty in stock, then.”

“Thank you, MC.”

“Not a problem, Miss Medina.” She disconnected just as I reached the bottom of the last flight of stairs.

Lizzy and I grew up together, right here in South Central. I lived across the street from her orphanage, and I always went over to play with the kids. Lizzy was the only one my age; with kids, a year or two is a big difference.

She was never really someone I felt very close to. Our personalities just don’t mesh well. She was interested in boys and clothes and talking, while I had my nose buried in books and strategy games.

But when I decided to move back to the district for college, I knew I needed a roommate. When I first moved to North Outer, my dad had set up an apartment for me, but my social interaction dwindled to zero. Elizabeth wasn’t my first choice, but I wasn’t ready to let AU just pick one for me at random. Maybe next year.

Seven years alone in an apartment, since I was eleven years old. Dad came over for holidays, and I went out for school and food, but that was it. Luckily in Domina that didn’t completely eliminate a social life, but I could count the people I talked to on a monthly basis on a single hand.

At least that was something Lizzy could definitely help with. She liked talking, after all, so she had a lot of friends and acquaintances she was ready to introduce me to. Unfortunately, knowing her, it would be mostly boys.

Why couldn’t she take a hint? I didn’t need a man in my life. Of course, every time I said that, she immediately came up with a list of lesbians for me to meet, which I needed even less.

But I suppose I could deal with her endless parade of forced blind dates. There were always a few diamonds in the rough, and I did need a social life. As long as I didn’t run away again, I’d be fine. As long as I didn’t have to deal with—

“Laura?”

I looked around. I was only a few feet away from the linens store on Abigail and Limbo, and a plain looking man was coming out of the toy shop next door. But next to him, the man who had called my name…

“Derek.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 5)

In Domina City, orphanages are quite common, because orphans are extremely common. If a character’s parents aren’t mentioned, it’s safe to assume it’s because they’re dead.