Scene 58 – Salutem

SALUTEM

LING

I was flying.

Well, floating. Using the stone plates in my armor, I was able to levitate myself. Not for long; only five minutes or so. But I was getting better, my reservoir was expanding, and I was finding more and more uses for the armor. Sure, levitation was the coolest, but I could also use it to enhance my strikes and dodge faster.

It was a perfect focus for my power, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. This kind of thing happened all the time in shows; now that I had the idea, I could name a half dozen anime or comics where they used similar tricks. So why hadn’t I come up with it before?

I was too complacent, that was the problem. Go to school, play soccer, kill screamers, sleep. I wasn’t spending enough time actually thinking. Sure, Laura was better at it than me, but if I approached everything from a different angle, I might be able to find something she missed.

I was on the roof of the dorm at the moment, where no one really hung out. It was the perfect place to practice, but the sun was basically set, and I really didn’t want to accidentally float over the edge and find out if I could catch myself from a fall. So I went back down, using the elevator rather than the stairs. Well, I had to use the stairs to get back into the building, but the elevator was fine for the rest. No sane person would try to run down thirty-one floors.

Focus. I needed to think about tactics.

But what was I supposed to do? This was out of my comfort zone. Zombies weren’t a common anime topic, for whatever reason.

No, no. I was looking at it wrong. None of my interests would be directly useful, but we didn’t need help killing zombies anyway. We needed to find the Composer. Laura wasn’t having much luck with that, other than that obvious trap the changelings were looking into.

But what could I do to help?

Put myself in the Composer’s shoes, that’s what. Shouldn’t be that hard. Every show had a bad guy. I just had to put together what we knew and figure out which one he was.

Okay, we knew he wasn’t as dangerous as he could be. Even though we didn’t know everything about the singers, the Composer should be able to just hook one up to some big speakers and infect half the city. Why hadn’t he? There were only two possible explanations: Either he was playing a longer game, or he was an idiot.

I nearly dismissed the second one out of hand, but it was possible. We didn’t know where these powers had come from. Clarke’s blood and DNA tests still weren’t showing any results, and even brain scans didn’t show any abnormalities. We could apparently just do things, with no explanation. If the Composer was in a similar situation, it could be that some idiot had gotten a hold of a weird power, and in testing out its limits, had unintentionally lost important chances.

No…no, that didn’t work. Because for all his mistakes, the Composer had managed to stay hidden, had avoided fighting anyone directly. Laura had some theory about it being a disembodied mind, able to manifest in any screamer, but that didn’t make sense to me. He hadn’t paused to gloat even once. And if you’re ever gonna gloat, it’s when you can swap bodies at a whim.

So we had to assume he was smart. Smart enough so that everything was going according to plan. After all, every time a screamer outbreak started, hundreds of people were turned, and he was only getting more efficient. If he was only a little patient, he could turn the whole city. Was that the plan?

Yes. That had to be it. Revealing the singers hadn’t been necessary; it was just a little clue to keep us scrambling for information while the status quo remained unchanged, to make us think we were making progress. He didn’t need the magic bullet to win the game. If nothing changed, he’d win soon enough.

Which meant we had to raid the lair that the changelings had found, despite how obvious it was. It might be a trap, but it was our only clue.

No…

No, that was just it.

Of course it was a trap. And of course we had to investigate. The Composer knew that. So the trap waiting for us wouldn’t be a slap on the wrist. It would mean certain death for whoever went in there.

As the elevator door opened, I stepped outside, but didn’t go further. The cell reception was a little bit iffy in my room. We had asked Emily to fix our broken relay, but she apparently hadn’t done anything about it.

I pulled out my phone and called Laura. She was probably either studying downstairs or with Clarke, but either way she’d have enough free time to talk.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Hello?”

“Laura? It’s Ling.”

“Yeah, I got that. What’s up?”

“We need to bomb the Composer’s lair.”

There was a very long pause on the other end of the line. “Why would we do that.”

“Because it’s our only clue,” I insisted.

There was another, shorter pause. “Yes, that’s generally why you don’t incinerate evidence.”

“No, I mean it’s our only clue, and the Composer knows that. So the trap waiting for us is probably going to be enough to level a city block.”

“And what, you want to beat him to the punch?”

“Yes, exactly! If blow it up ourselves, some evidence might survive, and if we’re very lucky he’ll be inside at the time.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Ling, there are a number of problems with that plan. But I’m going to start with this one: We’re not going in. We’re just watching the place, to see who does go in.”

My brain screeched to a halt. “That’s, uh…”

“A better plan?”

“Well, it doesn’t involve enough explosions…”

“Funny. Look, just leave the planning to me and Derek, okay? We have everything under control.” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute. ‘Leave the planning to me and Derek.’ Those two had too many people looking to them for answers. Just because they were right most of the time didn’t mean they should get swelled heads.

Really, I was just annoyed because she shot down my argument so easily. I was used to being the stupidest person in the group, but usually I had at least something to contribute.

That friend of theirs…what was her name? Laura’s roommate? That’s right, Lizzy. She didn’t have this problem. Both times I had seen her, she just smiled and let Laura do her thinking for her. I was in a worse spot; smart enough to come up with plans, and dumb enough to think they could actually work.

I shook my head and started towards my room. I needed a break.

As I turned the corner, I saw a little girl, maybe ten years old, sitting in front of my door. She jumped up when she saw me.

“Ni Ling?” she asked.

“I don’t speak Chinese,” I explained. I was surprised she did; she was white. Didn’t ‘ni’ mean ‘two’ or something? ‘Two Ling?’ What could that possibly mean?

“Are you Ling?” the girl said, without missing a beat. When I nodded, she pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of her shirt. “Your friend Turgay, the ursa anthro, told me to give this to you.”

I reached out to take it, but stopped, frowning. “I don’t know an ursa named Turgay. I know an ave…”

She nodded and handed me the paper, then turned around and headed for the stairs without saying a word.

Still frowning, I opened up the paper slowly. The message was brief: ‘Abigail and Mechanus, ASAP.’ The intersection of Abigail and Mechanus, as soon as possible.

I sighed and headed for the elevators again. Why was he going through all this trouble? Couldn’t he just call me like a normal person?

It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the intersection in question, but I didn’t see him anywhere. Just late-night students and vampires, shopping around. There was a toy store nearby, as well as a few book shops and linens stores, all things that a college student would need. The ‘scrapers edging the square were a bit smaller than normal, maybe ten or fifteen stories. It created an interesting valley effect that you don’t often see in Domina.

But I had seen it all before. Although the lights from the buildings made them stand out beautifully in the night, that wasn’t what I was here for, and the fact that I couldn’t find what I was looking for was starting to annoy me.

He was one of like, a hundred ave anthros in the city. How could it be this hard to spot him?

I wandered around for a few minutes, at a loss as to what to do, when I passed one of the alleys between buildings and heard birdsong. Aves usually have their vocal cords enhanced to let them produce sounds like that easily; I took it as the signal it was and ducked into the deeper darkness.

As expected, there was Turgay, blinking at me with his wide eyes. He had what looked like a dirty blanket wrapped around his body, probably due to the cold. Behind him was an open crate with another ave anthro, sitting on something and clutching his side. The second ave looked like a crow or a raven, but it was hard to tell in the poor light.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

I glared at him. “You could have just called. That’s what we have phones for, you know.”

He shook his head vehemently. “No, I threw our phones away. MC was monitoring them.”

She was what? I sighed. “What did you get into this time?”

“It would be easier if I just showed you,” he said carefully, moving aside so I could get to the object he was protecting.

I stepped up to the crate, and the black-feathered ave scooted to the side so I could see what he was sitting on. It was smeared with blood, but it was impossible to mistake that mirrored coffin for anything but what it was. Clarke had spammed all of us with pictures of it the second it had gone missing.

I cursed. “Turgay, why the hell do you have the toy box?”

He nodded in relief. “Good, I wasn’t sure you’d recognize it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That work you did for Soaring Eagle…you stole the toy box?

“Yes,” he said, meeting my gaze levelly. “And now I need your help to get it to her. Before the ‘sarians kill me.”

I sighed deeply, placing my forehead against the cool metal of the most important device in the city.

Lizzy didn’t have to deal with this. No one ever asked her for help. Hell, her friends refused to even find out what her power was, they were so worried about her safety.

Must be nice.

Here I was, smart enough to come up with plans and dumb enough to think they were good, cornered and pressed for help. Couldn’t go to Laura, or Derek, or anyone else smarter than me. Couldn’t even call MC.

Must be nice, being Elizabeth Greene.

Behind the Scenes (scene 58)

“Ni Ling” means “Are you Ling.” It’s just that most of Ling’s “Chinese” is actually Japanese that she only half-remembers, and has confused for Chinese.

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