I looked down at the corpse with a frown. It was so burned it was barely recognizable as human. It was lying on an operating table, its limbs twisted and cracked from the heat, its skin nothing but a black sheet of charcoal, flakes of it already coming off. I saw something that had once been the skull; it looked like it had exploded, perhaps as the brain inside boiled.
“Clarke, what is this?”
The old doctor shook his head. He wore a white lab coat, large coke-bottle glasses that didn’t actually do anything, and a stethoscope. He had a wild shock of pure white hair springing out of his head, only barely combed backwards, as if blown in a stiff wind. His skin was pale and wrinkled like old leather, and he walked with a limp.
All in all, he looked exactly like what you would expect the inventor of the toy maker to look like—which was the point. He wasn’t really that old; he was fifty, and very fit for his age, but he altered himself to look older, mostly because he thought it was more ‘sciency.’ His words.
“That,” he said with far too much drama, “is all that is left of Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords. He was assassinated this morning, during the screamer attack.”
I took a deep breath, touching my necklace. No crying. No emotions. I felt my nose begin to run, the first sign of tears.
No. I sniffed. No crying, no emotions. Think through it logically.
“Wha—” I paused, nearly choking. No crying. No emotions. “What do you mean, assassinated?”
“Someone forgot to lock up one of the burners properly,” he explained. “And it got out.” He shook his head again, that distinctive voice of his, like everything was the most interesting thing the world, beginning to grate on my nerves. “But the thing is, it didn’t act like a screamer. It walked out of the cage, closed the door behind it, then found the poor changeling and ashed him.”
I cursed. “The Composer can control screamers directly.”
“That’s what I assumed. Hopefully he can only do one or two at a time, though. Otherwise we’re in big trouble.”
“Did you examine the screamer?”
“Yes, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It’s in solitary confinement now. But that’s not the biggest problem right now.”
I blinked, then nodded in understanding. “The Sky-Borne Lords.”
The changelings were a close-knit group, and very insular. As escaped slaves and experiments of the fey, they knew they needed to look out for each other, or no one would. They couldn’t go back to their families; they were all mind-wiped when they were first captured, and the fey’s (illegal) genetic modification made it impossible to even figure out for certain what they originally looked like.
“They want to take the fight to him,” I muttered. This was the reason the changelings survived after they escaped. They only had one rule when dealing with outsiders: Screw with one of us, you screw with all of us. And they didn’t play fair.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Clarke admitted. “Of course, that’s not a bad idea, but they’re not going to do this the smart way. They’ll run in, guns blazing, and kill anything that moves.”
I frowned, realizing the implications of that last statement. “Wait, they have a location?”
The doctor shrugged. “They have something. Apparently there’s a hole in the culture territories, where no one has any men. They want to look into it.”
I bit my lip. “That seems too obvious. What did the Big Boss say?”
I brushed my hair back. Some of the changelings were with Necessarius, but most weren’t. If they insisted on trying to avenge Loga, they’d start another war. They had done that more than once before, but starting one with the ‘sarians was something different altogether. “If they go through with that…”
Clarke waved his hand. “Artemis is talking them down right now. Everything will be fine. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.”
I sighed. He was always like this. He changed topics more than a schizophrenic. “What is the topic at hand?”
“The screamers,” he insisted. “The attack on Loga’ha’shanar proved that there are things we don’t understand about them. They infect people and have powers, but what else?” He clicked his tongue. “Perhaps the Composer isn’t a single person, but a mind that travels from one host to the next.”
Hm. That had some merit. “And the screamers are the potential hosts?”
He bobbed his head happily, cheered that I was keeping up. “Exactly, exactly.”
“And the singers are some sort of…radio tower. They spread his wavelength around more efficiently than the other types of infection.”
“Right, that’s obvious.”
I scratched my head, frowning. “Well, the only confusing part is why a former screamer would retain powers, and be able to hear them.”
“Well, if the link is severed quickly enough, it isn’t permanent,” Clarke mused. That was our working theory on why Loga had been cured. “But the subject retains enough of a connection to keep the powers and can still ‘hear’ the hive mind, to a point.”
“At least now we have proof that former screamers can’t be reinfected,” I pointed out. “If they could, the Composer would have done that to Loga, rather than killing him.”
“Yes, unless he wants us to think that. After all, it would be disastrous if the Paladins were to be reinfected.”
It hadn’t taken us long to realize that the only logical explanation for our powers was that the Paladins, like Loga, had once been screamers. His powers and sixth sense were exactly the same as ours, so it was the only thing that made sense.
But who had cured us? It couldn’t have been random luck. If we all had the same power, then perhaps. It would be somewhat believable that the singer who turned us accidentally walked off a ledge or something and died within minutes of us getting infected. But as far as we knew, each singer only gave one power. It would be ridiculously improbable for five singers to just randomly die after empowering us.
That meant someone had done this to us intentionally.
Was it the Composer? Or was there someone else in the game?
Game. Huh. As good an analogy as any. Somebody was playing a game with the city, with rules we didn’t understand. Otherwise, they would have just hijacked a zeppelin or something with a megaphone and blasted the song to the entire city at once.
“Hopefully that’s not the case,” I muttered. “I don’t want to think too long on the implications of that.”
“Well, if we could find a way to cut you off from the hive mind completely…”
I raised an eyebrow at the old doctor. He had a look on his face that I didn’t quite like. “If you’re trying to convince me to let your perform brain surgery on me or my friends…”
“My mother says just whacking him is easier than trying to talk to him,” a female voice cut in from behind me.
I turned to see a pretty young girl, about my age, with long crimson hair tied into a single braid that went down to her waist. The color clashed a little with her pale skin, but she was slightly darker than when I had seen her last. Curious. She was also wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and jeans, which was also odd. She normally preferred short sleeves.
She glared at Clarke with her red eyes—to the best of my knowledge, the only toy she had. “I’m just here for my allowance. But I’d be happy to whack him for you.”
The doctor clapped his hands, grinning. “Robyn Joan! Good to see you! It’s been too long. How’s your mother? She hasn’t returned my calls.”
His daughter sighed. “No, dad, you haven’t returned her calls.”
He frowned. “You sure?”
“Yes. MC? Can you back me up here?”
“She’s got you there, Isaac,” MC’s voice said from one of the speakers in the wall. “You haven’t replied in months. I think you said you were busy with that heart thing, but I’m not sure. I have it on record somewhere…”
The old man brushed his hair back. “Mary Christina, couldn’t you be on my side just once?”
The reply from the speakers was instantaneous. “Nope.”
I smiled a little at their antics. It helped keep my mind off the twisted pile of charcoal that used to be someone I had promised to protect. “How’ve you been, Robyn?”
She smiled back. “I’m all right. I haven’t seen you since…” she frowned, searching her memory.
“Since you visited North Outer last year,” I reminded her. “You still dating that Frank guy?”
Clarke looked up. “Dating who in the what now?”
The red-haired girl glared at me. “Thanks for that. And no, I’m not. That didn’t last long.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” the doctor demanded, seemingly actually angry for once. “I could have—”
“Thrown your weight around and caused more problems than you solved,” his daughter interrupted. “That’s why I never tell you anything.”
I had met Robyn when we were kids. Her parents—or more specifically, her mother, since her father never left the lab—lived in NHQ, so we went to school together. She had a crush on Derek ever since he saved her from a stone-slasher gargant (one of the very first gargants, in fact) when we were kids, but she ignored it pretty well. After I left the district, she was my main source of information on what was going on in the area.
A lab tech ran into the room, throwing open the double doors with a crash, but skidded to a stop when she saw Robyn. “Doctor! Ah, if this is a bad time…”
Clarke grinned a little sadly. “No, no, my daughter should spend time catching up with her friends anyway. This is about the heart, correct?”
The tech nodded. “Yes, it has begun to beat, but it’s erratic—”
He silenced her with a wave of his hand. “Show me.” As he was leaving, he turned back. “Laura, we can discuss more theories later. And Robyn Joan, I’ll have your allowance after I’m done with this.” Then he was gone, the doors swinging a few times before stopping.
Robyn sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Which means I’m going to get the money sometime next week. Oh well,” she shrugged. “I didn’t really need it right away anyway.”
“You should be nicer to your father,” I admonished. “He means well. He just…”
“Gets caught up in things,” she finished in a flat tone. “I know. That’s what my mom has been saying for years.” She shook her head. “She knew what she was getting into when she married him, so she can live with it. I need someone a little bit more on top of things. Someone who remembers what year it is without having to look at a calendar.”
I chuckled. “Oh, c’mon, he’s not that bad.”
Robyn just raised an eyebrow. “You only see him here at the lab, so you wouldn’t know.” She shrugged again. “I’m really not in the mood to argue about this. I’ll talk to you more later, okay?” She left again before I could stop her.
I sighed. Robyn was a wonderful girl, she was just closed off. She and Derek were a lot alike, but he was more popular due to his hero complex. Saving lives earns you lots of friends. She had much the same complex, but she didn’t have the right instincts to rush into danger.
But there was something off about her today…
“MC?” I asked hesitantly, still trying to puzzle it out.
Her voice replied quickly. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Has Robyn been doing any missions lately?”
“Uh…yeah. Mostly just a few lost-and-found ones, a couple of fetch quests. That kind of thing. Why?”
I frowned. “So she hasn’t been fighting.”
“Not if we’re going by her missions. Besides, it’s Robyn.”
I touched my necklace, thinking. It didn’t make any sense. She had always been non-violent to a fault. She got queasy at the merest sight of blood or death.
Well, I had nothing else to stick around for, so I grabbed my bag and headed for the doors. Clarke would call me when he had time.
“Laura?” MC said before I could leave. “Why are you wondering about Robyn’s quest log?”
I shook my head. It had a simple explanation, I was sure, but I didn’t know what it was. “She wasn’t upset by the corpse.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 51)
Okay, the toy maker and genetic modification. This one is a little bit complicated.
First off, genetic modification with the toy maker is easy, legal, and basically useless. Knowledge of DNA is not advanced enough so that people can just code up a couple of devil horns. That’s not how it works.
However, it is advanced enough to provide minor alteration for natural things, such as skin, hair, and eye color. Normally, it is more efficient to just use the toy maker for these, since it is far faster. Sometimes people use genetic modification as a sort of “foundation” before using the toy maker, which does speed up the process somewhat. However, altering gametes (sex cells) is illegal. They’re still not quite sure of the result these modifications would have on a fetus, and it isn’t something they want to look into.
The fey do not obey these laws. When they capture people, they change absolutely everything about them, from skin color, height, weight, and even sex. That’s not even getting into the buffs. They flip these back and forth at a whim, making it impossible to determine which was the original state. And since they change the DNA as well, you can’t just “restore from backup.”
Changelings, therefore, almost universally suffer from an identity crisis. Loga’ha’shanar looked black, male, and around fifteen, but he had no idea if any of those were correct. And that’s not even getting into the fact that his first clear memory involved getting turned into a monster.