I turned to see Delphie waving at me from across the street. She was standing with Jelena and a few girls I didn’t recognize; probably their roommates. I jogged over to them, only pausing for a moment to let a big truck pass.
“Hey Del, Jel.” They both scowled, and I grinned. It was fun teasing them, but one of these days they were gonna claw my eyes out. “Who’re your friends?”
Jelena rolled her eyes (she wasn’t wearing her daygoggles), but answered. “This is Yolanda,” she indicated a young-looking blonde demon with small horns, who smiled politely. “And this is Veda.” The bronze-skinned Indian girl nodded by way of greeting. She had kemo ears instead of human ones, but I couldn’t quite tell what species. Something brown and furry, which didn’t narrow it down at all. “They’re my roommates.”
“And I’m Zusa Pham, Delphie’s roommate,” the third girl introduced herself, reaching out to shake my hand. I did so, careful to avoid the claws. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Veda warned, and from the winces at that I realized belatedly that I had been called over in a failed attempt to derail a conversation no one wanted to listen to. “You haven’t explained just what the hell is wrong with VCS: Shootout III.”
Zusa shook her head. “Besides the fact that its an FPS based on an RPG based on a bad anime? It’s exactly the same as the second one. And they screwed up the shotgun!”
“That’s how shotguns act in the show. Its more accurate.”
“No, that’s just the problem. I have better aim with the garden hose.”
“The garden hose is a joke gun—”
“I know that, that’s my point—”
“The baseline is Pam, Seena’s roommate,” Jelena cut in, trying to put a cork in the inanity.
Unfortunately, the girl with the reddish hair didn’t seem to appreciate it. “I think I can handle it myself, thanks.”
In an attempt to defuse another situation before things got out of control, I smiled and held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Simon, Seena’s brother.”
The baseline smiled shook my hand firmly, then glared at Jelena. “See, he can be polite.”
I let go of her hand and glanced around. “Where is Seena, anyway? I thought she didn’t have any classes on Friday.”
Jelena winced. “She’s…avoiding us a little. She told us yesterday about something stupid she did a few years back.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s no big deal, but…”
“No big deal?” Pam demanded. “She—”
Jelena immediately covered the other girl’s face with her hand.
“She did something embarrassing that she wouldn’t like spread around,” the Glasyan noted. She nodded to her and Delphie’s roommates. “Sorry girls, you understand.”
Zusa rolled her eyes—at least, I think she did. Hard to tell under the daygoggles. At least she had stopped arguing with Veda. “I know how that is. C’mon, let’s find somewhere to sit down.”
There was an internet cafe nearby, at the corner of Baator and Melange. We found a nice table outside in the shade, though it was still too bright for Zusa to take off her goggles—in fact, Jelena put hers back on. The kemo, Veda, immediately turned back to Zusa as though their conversation had never been interrupted.
“The fact that the guns are the same isn’t the point. The single-player is completely different, and the AI vastly improved.”
The vampire shook her head. “Who cares about single-player? The multiplayer scene is the same—or it would be, if anyone was playing it. The unlockable pistol breaks the game so much no one is even bothering.”
I waved Lily over as quickly as I could. I got enough of this at work, I didn’t want to listen to it here.
The little demon deftly interjected herself in a break in the conversation, managing to interrupt without actually seeming rude. “Can I get you anything?”
I glanced at the others. They just shrugged, though Zusa and Veda still seemed to be ready to start sniping at each other the second they had the chance.
“I think a few waters will be enough, thanks.” The little demon girl nodded and sashayed off, her tail swishing back and forth. I was considering getting one too, but I kept hearing bad things about them.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Zusa said with a grin.
I blinked. “What?”
“We all saw you staring,” Pam put in. “You know Lily doesn’t date anyone, right?”
Jelena drummed her fingers against the table. “She does one-night stands though, I think. Not often, but sometimes.”
I rubbed my forehead—almost slicing my hand open on my horns in the process—and sighed. Annoying as it was, at least teasing me had got them off that stupid game. “Nine hells, I was not leering.”
Pam rolled her eyes. “Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Seriously. I was wondering if I should get a tail, that’s all.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Lily said as she started passing out glasses of ice water from her tray. She was a sneaky little thing; I hadn’t even heard her walk up. “They’re cool once you get used to them, but before that you’ll break pretty much everything withing five feet of you for about a week.” She put down the last glass and shrugged. “Plus, they’re not strong enough to be useful, you know? Unless you’re willing to spend a couple hundred bucks.”
“Well…thanks for the advice,” I managed. “I’ve just been thinking about getting some new toys, is all.”
“You should try a pheromone buff,” Delphie suggested. That’s also about when we all noticed that there was a mouse in her lap, nibbling on a piece of cheese. “They’re pretty useful.”
Zusa cocked her head. “Wait—you’re a murid? Is that why you hate laces?”
The brown-haired girl shrugged. “Sometimes they hunt us for sport.”
The murids were mice kemos. Delphie was a bit of an oddity in her subculture…in any subculture, really. All her toys were completely internal, so most people couldn’t tell she was anything but baseline. The only one I knew about for sure was the mouse pheromone buff she had just mentioned. She had a habit of befriending mice when she was bored.
Pam glared. “Could you not do that at the table?”
Delphie looked at her a little oddly. “What? It’s not like we’re eating.”
Jelena rolled her eyes. “Anyway, you guys hear about that screamer attack the other day?”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “It was a lot worse than the first one. Pretty much the entire area is gone, right?”
“Call if you need something,” Lily said as she quickly excused herself.
We didn’t pay her any mind. “I found some weird theories on the internet,” Zusa admitted. “Not really sure what’s real or not.”
“I heard Senator McDowell was there,” Jelena added. “Though that’s probably BS political stuff.”
“No…” Yolanda said so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. “He was definitely there.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t just being optimistic about his honesty; she was certain of it.
I took a sip of water. “I’m not sure where you get your news, but since they didn’t release any pictures, how can you know?”
The blonde demon twiddled her fingers. “There were some pictures…but anyway, he’s my uncle.”
Jelena, who had been sipping her own water at the time, suddenly snorted so hard that water dribbled out of her nose. As expected, she didn’t let that stop her. “Wait, you’re one of those McDowells? I thought it was just a coincidence!”
Yolanda shrugged uncomfortably.
The Glasyan frowned. “Wait, isn’t his apartment in that area? I thought I read something about that.”
Yolanda shifted awkwardly in her seat. “His apartment was nearby, but it wasn’t hit. He was shopping right there when the attack started.” She smiled a little. Just a little, but it was still cute as a button. “Actually…you might be more interested in this part: He said he met the Paladins.”
Pam leaned forward at that. “Really. You know, I was half sure they were just bullshit ‘sarian propaganda.”
I rolled my eyes. “C’mon, the Big Boss doesn’t do that.”
The baseline let out a barking laugh. “Yeah, you keep thinking that.” She grinned a little cruelly at Zusa. “What about you, Zuzu? You look like an optimist too. You think he manipulates the media?”
The vampire glared back pretty impressively considering she still had her daygoggles on. “No, actually, I don’t think so.” Pam laughed, but the vampire continued. “Also, I need to ask you not to call me ‘Zuzu.’” She shook her head. “I hate that nickname, but Lizzy won’t stop calling me it.”
I set my glass down. “As in Elizabeth Greene?”
Veda finally looked up. “Wait, the voice actress?”
Zusa sighed. “Yeah, her.” She shrugged and sipped at her water. “You know how it is. She’s sweet, but once she gets an idea into her head she just won’t let it go. She spoke nothing but Vietnamese to me the first day we met, until I finally got up the courage to tell her I only understood like three words.”
Delphie grinned a little. “Yeah, that’s Lizzy.”
“But then she switched to Hebrew…” she sighed again. “I didn’t even tell her I was Jewish. She guessed from my name.”
I frowned. “Wait, what’s your last name?”
“I told you already. My last name is Pham. That’s Vietnamese. But Zusa is Hebrew.” The vampire waved her delicately clawed hand. “Or Yiddish. I can never keep those straight.”
“I still want to know about the Paladins,” Jelena insisted. She turned back to Yolanda. “Did your uncle say anything about them?”
But the demon just shrank back and shook her head, clearly overwhelmed by the attention. Lord help me, but she looked cute when she was embarrassed.
“Say anything about who?” Derek asked, as he pulled up a chair next to me.
I motioned to Lily, across the cafe, to get another water, and she nodded. “I thought you said you had a job today.”
He shrugged. “Pushed it back. I forgot Akane had kendo.”
I nodded in understanding. This was the first week of school, after all. It was only expected that not everyone remembered everyone else’s schedules quite yet. But still, it was a bit surprising to see him regardless. Usually when his plans fell through, he just found an excuse to stay at home researching or whatever. This was the first time we had hung out together outside of school in…I don’t know how long.
“Have you met everyone yet?” Jelena asked. “I know you know Delphie…”
“No, I don’t think so.” He smiled warmly as he shook Zusa’s, Veda’s, and Yolanda’s hands in turn, and they all introduced themselves. “Pleased to meet you all. I’m Derek Huntsman.”
Veda gaped. “Wait, that Derek? Lizzie’s boyfriend?”
He instantly turned red as a tomato. “W-what? No! We’re not…” he turned away.
The Indian kemo nodded. “Right, right. That’s what the blogs are saying. But aren’t you in love with her, or something?”
The blond man coughed. “T-that is highly personal, and I don’t think—”
“That’s a yes,” she declared immediately. She whipped her phone out, grinning. “I am so putting this on my Fundie.”
Jelena snatched up her phone before she could do anything and tossed it to me. “Don’t be stupid, Headlights. He asked you not to.”
Veda tried to reach across the table and grab her cell back, but I held it out of reach. “She’s right, you know.”
She sighed and stopped grabbing for her property. “But it’s not fair. She always blogs about her celebs.”
The Glasyan smiled. “I don’t know any ‘celebs,’ Headlights.”
The cherve—now that Jelena was referring to her as the short form of ‘Deer in Headlights,’ it was obvious that Veda was a deer kemo—actually laughed. “Oh, really? And I suppose you’re not itching to post about how you met Senator McDowell’s niece.”
Derek, having regained his composure, raised an eyebrow. “He has a niece?”
Yolanda waved a little weakly. So cute. “Yeah, that’s me.”
Lily placed Derek’s water on the table, and he took a sip. “I’m sorry, but I can’t quite remember which one he is. He’s the demon who keeps petitioning to get more infrastructure on the Fusion Islands, right?”
The blonde demon laughed for the first time since I had met her. Like before, when she had smiled, it was something else entirely. She was cute when she was embarrassed. She was beautiful when she was happy. “No, no, not at all. He’s an ursa anthro. Melano, to be exact.”
Derek spat his drink across the entire table, splattering everyone with the contents of most of his glass.
“He’s a SENATOR?” he practically shrieked. He had a completely dumfounded look on his face that I usually only saw when he was around Lizzy. “Big panda, maybe seven feet tall and built like a truck? Black fur clustered around his head?”
Yolanda frowned. “Yeah. You know him?”
“He…” he paused, searching for the words. “I saw some pictures of the burner attack on Monday. He was in a couple of them.”
Jelena chuckled. “Yeah, I saw those too. Not quite sure they weren’t photoshopped, but I’m coming around.”
I grinned and clapped Derek on the back, mostly to try and get him out of his shock. “Isn’t that good news? Disproves that stupid motto of yours.”
Jelena brushed her hair away from her horns. “What?”
“Non est salvatori salvator, neque defensori dominus, nec pater nec mater, nihil supernum.”
We all stared at Pam.
She shrugged. “We’ve met a couple times. It stuck with me.”
I shook my head to clear it. “Well, yeah, that’s the one. ‘The savior has no savior.’ Aren’t you glad that’s not true?”
He grinned back. “Yeah, definitely. It’s good not to have to be the white knight all the time.”
But his grin was weak, and I knew he didn’t believe a word of it.
Behind the Scenes (scene 22)
Normal-size rats still exist in Domina, but they are generally mistaken for dirty mice. A lot of the younger generation don’t even realize they’re separate species. ‘Mouse,’ therefore, can refer to either one. For the record, the one Delphie is playing with here is a mouse.
Also, Lizzy actually spoke Yiddish at Zusa. But as you may have noticed, she’s not really clear on all the details of her heritage, so she didn’t know the difference.