I flipped my phone closed. “That was Derek,” I explained. “He said I should stay away from the dorm for a while. Ling and Akane are apparently testing their powers a bit more.”
Lily just grabbed my arm and smiled. “Then that means we have more time alone.”
I winced as she pushed at my wounds. “Sure, just not doing anything physical. I still ache from that gargant.” The stupid metal bristles on its plating had been sharper than they looked, and had slashed the entire front of my body pretty badly. Not to mention that my shoulder still ached from being dislocated last night.
She frowned, loosening her grip. “I thought you said Doctor Clarke patched you up?”
I sighed. “Yeah, he did, but the toy maker can only do so much for me. He said something…” I paused. “Okay, he said a lot of things, but Laura explained that they were pretty much just accelerating my natural healing, which takes time.”
“Hm. I forget that without the toy maker, you can’t just pay a fee and your wounds disappear.” She shrugged. “It’s been such an integral part of the city for so long, I can’t even remember a time when we didn’t have it.”
I scratched my chin, trying to remember the timeline from my high school classes. We had only barely touched upon the toy maker. It wasn’t a military school, after all. “So that’s been, what…ten years?”
“Fifteen,” she corrected. “That’s when Doctor Clarke invented it, and Mister Butler started selling it.” She smiled a little, her fangs peeking out. That had been disconcerting at first, but I was starting to find it cute. “Soon after, Butler started his crusade to unite the city.”
I nodded in understanding. “Money opens a lot of doors.”
“Yes, but the toy maker caused a lot of problems too.” She indicated a couple of canes chatting on a street corner as we passed. “A gang is just a group of people. Eliminate the leader, and they disperse. Cultures are harder.”
“What about—” I stopped before I said the wrong thing. Lily always got edgy when I brought up Malcanthet, and I didn’t need to understand the details. “—Orcus. The leader of the orcs. They dispersed when he died, right?”
“That’s actually an excellent example,” she admitted warmly. “When he was around, they were an army, fighting to keep the cultures from destroying each other, specifically the vampires. That was before the Big Boss realized the cultures were dangerous.” She shrugged. “When Orcus was murdered, the orc gangs dispersed, but the orcs themselves remained. They weren’t gangs any more, they were an ethnicity.”
“And ethnicity gives people another reason to hate each other,” I finished.
Lily nodded. “The Culture Wars are hard to place. On the one hand, they’re gang wars, as there is nothing stopping people from switching cultures at a whim. But on the other hand, they’re race wars, since people consider their culture more natural than their own skins.”
“So, while Butler was stomping down the drug rings and smuggler groups, the vampires and the kemos and so on were getting established?”
“Exactly. Like a cancer. You can’t just burn it out without damaging the host.”
“Well, from what I’ve seen, its not too bad. I mean, two of my friends are a vampire and an angel, fighting side by side.”
She smiled sadly. “The ‘sarians are different, sweetie. They’re full of people who have given up their hatreds in hopes of attaining peace.” Her crimson eyes dimmed with sadness. “But while they’re huge for a gang, they’re not nearly enough to protect the entire city. The cultures outnumber them a dozen to one.”
“At least they’re making progress,” I mused. “Before the screamers showed up, anyway.” I grinned down at her. “You seem awfully knowledgeable about all this, for someone who claims to have skipped college.”
She rolled her eyes. “My sister rants about this whenever I give her half a chance. Besides, I hear rumors at my jobs. The point is, the people respect Necessarius, but the gangs just fear them.”
“Better to be feared than respected, right?”
“No,” she corrected. “It is better to be respected, it is easier to be feared. And it is vital not to be hated, which is the reason Necessarius is winning. Very few people truly hate them.”
“That’s something, I guess.” I paused for a minute, as I realized something, before barking out a laugh. “I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to spend the day arguing philosophy with you.”
“Well, we don’t have the whole day,” she sighed. “I have my job at the BOB’s down Nirvana street in about an hour.”
I strained my memory. “BOB is the one that makes the Olympian guns, right?”
“And other stuff. But yeah.”
I grinned. “Pick me up the Zeus while you’re there?”
She just rolled her eyes. “What is it with you and shotguns? I thought the Saint George was enough for you.”
“It’s supposed to be the best one out there,” I admitted. “But the Zeus has a better recoil.”
She just looked at me sideways. “You don’t actually expect me to buy you one of those, do you?”
I pulled her a little closer, despite the fact that it made my wounds ache. “Of course not. I’m just teasing.”
She cursed under her breath. “I’m never going to live down that time I offered to bring back clothes, am I?”
I chuckled. “Don’t be silly. Of course not.”
She probably would have said something witty in response, or perhaps just punched me in the gut—though maybe not, what with my wounds and all. But we were interrupted by a scream.
At first, I thought it was a screamer, but I quickly realized my mistake. This wasn’t a scream in the literal sense, but the tortured shriek of burning air, as an aircraft hurtled through the sky at speeds and trajectories it was not designed for. I had heard it pretty often a few years ago, when my dad became convinced he could make miniaturized rockets.
I looked up and saw something streaking across the sky, trailing smoke and fire, enough to trace its course back beyond the horizon. It was impossible to tell what it was, but it was too small to be a shuttle, and too large to be something natural.
I turned to Lily, frowning. “I thought today’s drop was done already?”
She nodded, still looking up. “And it’s way too close. It’s gonna—”
With a thunderous boom that nearly shook me to my feet, our worst fears were realized. The object had crashed less than a mile away, throwing up a huge cloud of debris that we could see from here. The dust cloud was already settling back to the Earth, but was fast being replaced by a large plume of smoke.
Whatever it was, it had missed its mark. Launching something from space—or the air, I suppose—and landing safely on solid ground was possible, but too difficult to do when there was a giant landing pad nearby. That pad, of course, being the ocean itself. The shooter or pilot or whatever had missed by nearly fifty miles. Considering how much smoke the thing had been giving off, it might have been clipped by anti-air fire. But who would be shooting at it? It had come from the west, which meant the mainland. Had they fired at it, or launched it in the first place?
“C’mon,” Lily cried, grabbing my hand. “It’s not far. Let’s see if we can help.”
I let her drag me along, towards the crash site. I was still focused on the cause.
Space drops happened every day, at noon sharp, as the space stations and colonies shot pods containing goods and materials at the city, or more specifically the ocean surrounding it. Domina’s space cannons (controlled by Necessarius) returned packages containing whatever the space habitats might need—such as food and water—half an hour later, at 12:30 exactly.
It was after two now. There was no reason for anything to be anywhere close to our airspace for another twenty-two hours.
It was just idle speculation at this point. We would know more once we looked at the object.
We reached the crash site quickly enough. The object had scored a long, deep furrow in the street, only ending where it had plowed into a building, which was now on fire, and the source of the smoke. Luckily, the structure was relatively small at five stories, and it looked like the occupants were having an easy time of escaping via the roof.
There was a crowd standing around the object, which I quickly identified as a small escape pod with the Chinese flag—scorched nearly beyond recognition—on the door. Nobody was getting too close. They were probably worried about the heat.
“We have to do something,” Lily hissed.
I looked at her sideways. “Why?”
She glared. “This could be a life or death situation, not just for the person still inside but for the entire city. Escape pods are designed to not land in the middle of cities.”
I cursed under my breath. “You’re saying it could explode?”
“Possibly.” She stopped at the edge of the mass of people, not wanting to elbow through the crowd, but I had no such compunctions.
If Lily was worried, I was worried. As I was elbowing my way through, I slowly realized that nearly half of them were two or three feet taller than me, and more than a few had strange skin colors, like blue, purple, red, and yellow.
Right. This was giant territory. I had forgotten. Well, that could be to my advantage.
Once I was on the other side of the ring of people—the same side as the pod—I immediately pointed out the biggest giant I could see, a massive Middle-Eastern man perhaps ten feet tall and with muscles to match. “You! Start organizing a team. I need at least two strong guys not afraid to get burned to get the door off. You—” I pointed at one of the trolls, one with purple skin. If memory served, they were the stealthy ones. That wouldn’t be helpful directly, but hopefully she could run fast. “Find the nearest Colossus, tell him what’s going on.” She ran off, pulling out her phone at the same time. Smart girl.
“Honored Paladin,” the first giant I had singled out said. “I have some strongarms.”
I started at first, before I remembered that ‘paladin’ was catching on as a general honorific for baselines. He didn’t know I was a Paladin.
The group he had collected consisted of one giant besides himself, and two red trolls with claws. I was pretty sure that meant they were warriors, but in this city it could just mean that they really liked canned food.
“Thank you, Honored Titan,” I replied. Best to be polite, even in an emergency. I looked over at the escape pod. It didn’t seem in danger of exploding, and by some miracle the hatch wasn’t buried under more than a little rubble, but we needed to be quick. “Okay gentlemen, there’s a Chinese astronaut in there that needs our help. Let’s start with the door.”
The big giant handed me a pair of leather gloves my size—well, not giant size, anyway—and I nodded my thanks. I stepped forward quickly, not pausing on the hot rocks of the crater, and tried to pull open the hatch while wearing the gloves. I could only pull for ten seconds or so before I had to let go, and it didn’t seem to move at all.
“There goes Plan A,” I grunted. “Plan B: Guys, see if you have any better luck.”
The trolls grunted and stepped forward. They were barefoot and shirtless, and as they got close to the pod I could hear their feet sizzling on some of the hotter concrete, but they didn’t seem to notice.
They didn’t bother just yanking the door. Instead, they used their claws to tear out the hinges, then pulled off the hatch itself with minimum effort. It was still fused into place from the heat, and every time they touched the metal it sounded like someone cooking bacon, but they managed to get it off.
I jumped inside quickly; none of them could fit anyway. It was a tiny, cramped space, with barely enough room for the one seat with the astronaut strapped in, still in one of those temporary maintenance space suits. It was uncomfortably warm, but not hot. I guess the insulation was working. The astronaut began to move slowly as I started cutting the crash webbing off him.
“Ni…shi shui?” he muttered groggily, his suit’s radio making it come out tinny.
I cursed under my breath. Of course he’d be speaking Chinese. We’d need a translator. It wasn’t exactly the most common language planetside…did Ling speak it? I didn’t think so; I vaguely recalled something about her being a third generation immigrant, not to mention an orphan.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” I said slowly, trying to look him in the eyes. His mirrored visor made that difficult, but hopefully I looked trustworthy. “Do not move.”
“I…I speak English,” he said, although with a pretty thick accent. He tried to move a little, but I placed a hand on his chest, and he stopped. “Who are you?”
“My name is Adam,” I said in a smooth voice. My mom always said people are the same as horses: If you speak calmly, they’ll be calmed in turn. “What’s your name?”
“Ru. Ru Yu.”
“Interesting.” I finished cutting the straps around his arms, and handed him another knife so he could help get his legs and torso free. “I know a Chinese girl with that last name. Is it common?”
He shrugged slightly. “A…little. I think.”
“Interesting. Why’d you get in the escape pod, Ru?”
“Uh…it was…” he touched his helmet. “I think I’m bleeding.”
“We’ll find you a doctor in a minute,” I promised, cutting through a few more of the straps holding his legs in place. There were a lot of them, and I didn’t see any sort of emergency switch to get rid of them all. Who designed this thing? “Just tell me what happened.”
“There…was a mutiny. Aboard Shaohao Station. Peng just went crazy, and locked himself in the control center. He started isolating sectors, refused to explain anything, and he destroyed the communication relay.”
“Shaohao…” I searched my memory. “That’s the big one in charge of making new shuttles, right?”
Ru wasn’t cutting anymore, which had me worried, but he nodded. “Among a few other space technologies.”
He chuckled slightly. Good. “Yes, like toilets.”
“How did he take over like that? It’s a big station, surely there are failsafes.”
“That’s just it. He subverted the failsafes. He can’t kill anyone, but he can shut down production and keep the sale from going through.”
I paused in my cutting. “Sale? What sale?”
“Sale of the station. The USP is going to buy it.”
I frowned. “Wait, I thought everything in space was already owned by the United Space Program?”
He barked out a laugh. That was good, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. “No, not for…ten years now. Longer, probably. I’m not sure. Oh.” He moved his arms and legs and the last of the straps fell free. “That’s it.”
I pushed my concerns about space and politics to the back of my mind. “C’mon, let’s get you out of this thing.” I didn’t add that I was seriously worried it was going to explode. With what I had seen so far of its design principles, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I slung his arm around my shoulder so I could support him better, and pulled him out as quickly as I could. Part of it was the aforementioned risk of serious danger, but mostly it was because my wounds screamed every second he put weight on me. It felt like some of them had opened up again. Wonderful.
Before we even cleared the hatch, long arms reached in and pulled the astronaut gently from my grasp and placed him on a stretcher far too big for him. I had half expected him to freak out when he saw the giants, but there were no trolls nearby, so he probably just thought the size discrepancy was due to the blow to the head.
“Honored Paladin,” something rumbled nearby as the ambulance shut its doors and sped away. I turned to see the biggest giant I could imagine, almost twenty feet tall, looking down at me. I couldn’t even make out any details, since all I saw was the sun shining behind his silhouette.
I brushed my apprehension aside as quickly as I could. “Honored Titan, perhaps we should get away from the escape pod. I’m a little afraid it might be…volatile.”
“Hammer and spear,” the giant cursed under his breath. “David. Send a tech team in. Remove any fuel cells.” He turned back to me, although I could only tell because the shadow shifted. “Necessarius has already been informed of the situation. Thank you for your help, but we can take it from here.”
I frowned. From some of the stories Derek and Akane told, I had assumed this would go a little differently. There were more questions, for one. “Honored Titan, I—”
“Thank you for your help, Mister Anders,” the Colossus interrupted. “I’m sure Necessarius will debrief you later. Expect a call in a few minutes.”
I nodded. Of course. The ‘sarians wouldn’t know whether this was secret-level or not. They wouldn’t want any information to leak to out. I’m sure the moment they figured out who was heading the rescue (somebody probably gave MC mine and Lily’s descriptions), they had interceded with orders for the Colossus. He probably didn’t like that. Now would be a good time to go.
I looked around for Lily. I had left her at the edge of the crowd. Where was she?
I spotted her in the same place I had left her. Although the crowd had started to disperse, she hadn’t moved. She was standing quietly at the lip of the trail of destruction the pod had caused. She seemed to sense my gaze, and turned to lock eyes with me.
She smiled, proudly.
Today was a good day.
Behind the Scenes (scene 56)
No, the story isn’t going into space. The USP, Shaohao, and the colonies will definitely be relevant, but currently there are no plans to have any narrator go offworld. This is just a side story that will be explained later.
Once again, I’m a little worried about the number of sideplots I’m dropping here, but I think it will work, especially when read in sequence.