Scene 88 – Taberna



It was a full week after Lizzy’s little stunt with the calciophage. She hadn’t promised to not do anything like that, no matter how much I asked, so I had decided to distract her with shopping instead.

“We also need something for Robyn,” she said as we walked out of the sushi place. “We forgot last time.” She chewed her tongue. “Hm…maybe a gas mask?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why a gas mask?”

“Didn’t she say something about going down into the sewers?” Lizzy shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll find some use for it.”

Well, she was always better with gifts than I was, so I didn’t argue.

“We also need to get something for Derek,” I reminded her. “Something big. His birthday is next Saturday.”

She frowned. “No, Saturday is the 22nd. His birthday is the 29th.”

I sighed. With my power on, I knew she wasn’t lying, just an idiot. “I know that. Next Saturday, Lizzy. Next.”

She blinked those beautiful golden eyes of hers, then nodded. “Right. Right. So what did you want to get him?”

I couldn’t really think of anything. “I dunno. He has pretty much everything he needs. His mom will be getting him more grenades. What else is there?”

“Food, I guess. Him and Akane spend all their money on school, healing, and mercs, in that order. We could get him some of those giant slabs of fish jerky he likes.”

Well, now that their power level had taken a bump, I doubted Derek would be spending much money on mercenaries any more, but I didn’t feel the need to explain that to Lizzy. We were still hiding the whole Paladin thing from her, and bless her heart, she wasn’t asking questions.

Either way, there weren’t many options. Jerky might work, but it still felt like a cop-out.

“Ooh, here’s that French place I told you about!” Lizzy cried, pulling me inside a small clothing store. “Let’s get you a purse.”

“There’s a meat vendor down the street,” I reminded her. “Let’s get Derek’s present first.”

She held up a little black bag to my arm. “Don’t you think this contrasts nicely with your skin tone?”

I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. So I just smiled and nodded as she squealed and went to find clothes for me to try on, and let my mind wander to more important things.

We still hadn’t made any real progress on the sleepers, which worried me. Blood tests did show a few minor chemical abnormalities in the ones we had caught, but they were so small they could have also come from drinking some bad mineral water.

“Ooh! I found a little black dress in your size!”

The Composer was good. It seemed that just like with the empowered, it was impossible to use our current medical technology to identify the sleepers. Considering that Domina was the bleeding edge of medical and bio-tech for the entire human race, that was really saying something.

Lizzy ran out of the clothes racks, held a dress up to me, and frowned. “No, that’s not…” Then she fled back to her cloth jungle.

We had to find a weakness. Some way to turn his weapons against him. A way to control screamers was a possibility. Clarke and I were beginning to think that the Paladins might be able to pull that off, but it was mostly still a theory.

No, our real hope was in researching the sleepers more. They were clearly just hypnotized, albeit to an extreme extent. If we could just find a way to identify them, we would learn so much.

The blood tests would help, if only barely. It would help eliminate suspects, at least. I made a mental note to start taking samples and performing the tests without Clarke’s knowledge, just in case. Of course, I’d need someone to get the samples…

Lizzy grabbed my hand and started dragging me to the changing room. “C’mon, tell me if you like this one.”

She came into the changing room with me and handed me a small, simple black dress with spaghetti-strap shoulders. I touched it lightly; it was made out of silk. Very nice silk, if I was any judge.

I sighed again. She kept derailing my train of thought. “Lizzy, just…no.” It ended at six inches above my knees, which was about twenty-four inches too short for me.

She pouted, in a way that reminded me why Derek was in love with her. “Something else, then?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes. Something else.” Almost anything else would do, but if I said that she’d come at me with lingerie.

She ran off, and I was able to think again.

I shouldn’t treat being with her like it was a chore, but it was, really. When I shopped, it was simple and easy. Grab what you need, buy it, leave. But Lizzy…well, she shopped like a girl. She spent hours playing in stores she had no intention of spending money in, bought things for no good reason, and altogether wasted time.

She had been like this even when we were kids. At least now she actually had money to spend. Before, Derek and I had always been forced to buy her out of the holes she had dug. Who the hell extends credit to an eight year-old?

We really did need to get Derek something, and food wouldn’t cut it. Well, we were in a clothing store. Maybe that would work. Okay, it was woman’s clothing, but it was still an idea. Maybe a t-shirt. He wore shirts.

Lizzy skipped back into the changing room, holding another dress. “Okay, do you think this is better?”

It was pretty much the exact same dress as before, but much longer. It had a replaceable bottom hem, the kind for when the dress is expected to drag on the ground a little.

“We’ll see.” I shooed her out so I could try it on.

After putting it on, I found…I liked it. It’s pretty rare for me to like something Lizzy grabs for me, but this seemed wonderful. It fell over my body loosely, not too tight at all. Normally she tries to get me clothes that are practically painted on.

I turned a few times, checking how I looked in the mirror, and found myself pleased. She did have a good eye for color. And it would be nearly impossible for me to screw up the look by wearing the wrong pants or whatever. That was the benefit of a one-piece.

I looked at the price tag. Too much, even though it was on sale. Five percent off wasn’t much…

Five percent. A very specific number. An impossibly specific number.

Not for the sale. That wasn’t important. No, it was the sleepers. At the battle with the skins, exactly five percent of the soldiers had gone crazy. The implication was obvious; the Composer had more sleepers that he hadn’t activated.

But why unveil them then? That was what we were having trouble with. There were plenty of other, better opportunities he hadn’t used. The bats, with the Nosferatu, would have been a perfect place to use the sleepers. We had enough difficulty even without rioting. Suborn a few key drivers of the Necessarian reinforcements, and the cavalry would never have arrived. The entire area would have been turned, and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it—there weren’t even any air units in range.

None of this made any sense. There was so much the Composer could be doing, but wasn’t. So many things that would make taking control of the city easier. The only logical conclusion was that he had a different goal in mind.

But we couldn’t figure out what that was. Jarasax had theorized that he was like the fey, seeking only his own amusement, but I didn’t like that idea. There was so much chaos, but it was still under control. The fey and people like them would want more than this.

The body swapping idea would make the most sense. The Composer could fight and die in as many different scenarios as he liked, then just take over a new body and play again, all without killing the golden goose—the city, in this metaphor.

No, no, no. I needed to stop focusing on the simple solutions. I had to ignore Sax’s theories, and assume the Composer was an intelligent, rational being. Because I am an intelligent, rational being, and it’s the only kind of person I can really understand.

Fact 1: The Composer was not operating at full capacity. No matter how singers and screamers are created or controlled, there were tactical solutions that he was ignoring.

Fact 2: The Composer had sleeper agents, at least five percent in nearly every militia. None had…

And there it was.

None had revealed themselves among Necessarius.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t anything, really. It could be data scatter or a deliberate false lead. But if the ‘sarians were somehow resistant or immune to this type of control, it would explain everything. The reason the sleepers only played their hand at Bombed Alley was because that was the first time non-Necessarian troops were involved in force.

But five percent…something was still bugging me about that.

What made the ‘sarians different? About a thousand things. They were better trained, more tightly controlled, got more regular medical check-ups…silver and gold, even their diets were more uniform. It was the same reason that Malcanthet hadn’t had much luck getting her own sleepers into their ranks a few years ago.

It was…

My brain came to a screeching halt.

It had taken a long, long time to discover the masking agents Malcanthet used to hide the drugs in her sleepers’ systems. Before that, there was no way to tell who could be one. In the end, the numbers were nowhere near as bad as anyone expected, but the fear nearly broke the city in the meantime.

But we hadn’t tested any of the new sleepers for the masking agent. We’d checked for some, of course, but not Malcanthet’s specifically. It was a complicated process, which was the point. It was difficult to detect even if you knew it was there.

But if it was…

We might know the identity of the Composer after all.

And I didn’t think Necessarius would be able to just carpet bomb her skyscraper this time.

Behind the Scenes (scene 88)

Sushi is one of the staples of the Domina diet, along with other kinds of fish. The other staples are mostly the kinds of vegetables that can be grown on the wall-farms, and meat. Spices are very common, and most Domina dishes make heavy use of them. Everything else pretty much has to come from space, including bread and sugar.

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