The fel threw herself at the strong metal mesh of her cage, snarling at us. Or trying to, anyway. Her mouth was open, but no sound came out, the wound that had severed her vocal cords years ago still visible as a scar on her furry throat.
“I told you, Artemis—she hasn’t settled down at all. She’s still clearly ‘aggressive.’ I don’t know why you expected her to revert.”
“It was just a theory,” I apologized, patting my friend on his shoulder. I looked down at him and smiled. He wasn’t too short, but I was tall, and he was hunched over with his fake age. “Weren’t you the one who told me to always tell you about my theories?”
Isaac rolled his eyes. “Because last time, it set me on the path to the toy maker.”
“Exactly. Sometimes you need a non-scientist to give you a fresh perspective.” I shrugged. “But if I was right every time, I’d be a scientist.”
He smiled a little. Just a little, though. We had far too much on our minds for humor.
“Admiral Ursler,” I addressed the old-looking ophidian woman who was patiently waiting a few steps behind us. “You have those numbers I requested?”
Like Isaac, Janelle Ursler used the toy maker to appear older than she actually was, but for her it was because no one would take her seriously otherwise. She was very young for an admiral. Not that I cared. I promoted my men based on merit, not age or position.
“Four biters,” she responded promptly. “One-hundred and twenty-eight burners. Five-hundred and three bats, nine-hundred and eighty bleeders, an even two-hundred skins, and nine-hundred and seventy two lasers.” She put the pad down. “That’s two-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-seven total. That includes the ones gained in testing, accidents, and those lost due to accidents.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the pad from her. “I appreciate the help.” We were short-staffed at the moment, so I had asked her to grab the data for me, even though normally someone of her rank would never have to play aide like that. “Now, what about your own report?”
“Sir,” she saluted crisply. “The Battle of Chronias was an utter failure. In addition to having the second-highest number of new screamers, we also had the highest number of deaths, and the second-highest amount of property damage. But even if that had all gone well, we still lost Zaphkiel.” She bowed—an interesting trick, with the massive tail that had replaced her legs. “I will accept any punishment you deem necessary.”
“None,” I said without hesitation, and the snake-kemo looked up at me in surprise. “You are an admiral. I know your skill on land is less than perfect.”
She worked her mouth silently, searching for something to say, before simply bowing her head again. “Thank you, sir.”
“I do have other questions, of course. First, how did Medina do?”
Ursler’s brow furrowed briefly, before clearing. “Oh, right, the Highlander.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “The…Highlander?”
She nodded. “Yes, one of my men moonlights as a bodyguard for Medina’s friend Lizzy. Apparently that’s her nickname for her.” The ophidian shrugged. “It kinda stuck with me.”
I waved my hand. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t matter. How did she do?”
“Pretty well, considering everything that went wrong. She got the Draculas whipped into shape quickly, and used them to take out the generators while the EMP had them disabled. After that, it was pretty much a turkey shoot.”
That was about what I had expected. All the reports I was getting praised Laura’s strategy; Victor and Maria would be pleased, at least. “That’s more than enough; I’m sure your written report will provide more detail.” I turned back to Kat, still thrashing about in her cage. She turned into a bat briefly and threw her herself against the double-layered mesh weakly a few times, before smoking back into a cat-girl. “What is the situation with the Northern Fleet?”
“The Rahabs are getting more aggressive—not something I would have thought possible. They probably think the screamers are weakening us.”
I snorted. “They are. The question is whether or not it will be a weakness the Rahabs can take advantage of. How many ships have we lost?”
“Just one so far, the Merchant Registry ship Eatonrun. Just a food supplier—as that ridiculous name implies—so there was minimal crew on board, and they all survived. We were also able to salvage most of the cargo, though the ‘habs stole enough of it to keep themselves going for a while.”
The Rahabs weren’t a culture, not really. They were just a gang, united by nothing but hatred. They were the last of the old gangs, in fact, largely because they kept to Whitecap Bay, where our forces were already spread thin.
But that was precisely what made them so dangerous. They didn’t have the numbers of any of the subcultures, but it didn’t take many men to sink a ship, if you knew what you were doing.
Well, I didn’t have time to worry about that right now. The screamers were taking all of my attention. “Thank you, Ursler. Admiral Briggs is in the West Wing. I’m sure you two have many things to discuss.”
The ophidian performed that strange bow again and slithered off to find her southern counterpart. It was indicative of our small navy that we had a grand total of two admirals.
I turned my attention back to my friend. “Well? How bad is it?”
He rubbed his forehead. “Between the cages, feeding them, and all the precautions we have to take in order to keep our guards and aides from getting infected…” Isaac shook his head. “Too much. It costs far too much.”
“Domina isn’t equipped with prisons,” Mary Christina noted from a wall speaker. “The city is a prison. I’m not sure how much longer we can last like this. We’re going to have to start eliminating captured screamers soon.”
I leaned heavily on my cane. Killing enemy combatants or criminals was one thing. But the only thing these people were guilty of was getting infected. If we just started throwing them to the dogs, there would be riots. And the public would find out. The Paladins would notice when the screaming started to die down, and Derek at least wouldn’t let it stand uncontested. And he wouldn’t be the only one.
“I take it you still haven’t had any luck curing them?” I asked Isaac.
He gave me a sad little smile; we both knew he would have told me about something that important. “No progress whatsoever. I think the singers might be the key, but we don’t have any of those in custody.”
“I hope that’s not what you called us here for.”
I turned at the cheerful voice to see Victor Medina and Maria Huntsman striding up.
I felt a smile find its way onto my face, despite the grim situation. Those two reminded me of happier times. “I wasn’t sure you two would make it.”
The full-bodied woman shrugged. “We were in the area. And getting past your security sounded like fun.”
I had given the pair a set of alpha-level security badges pretty much at the same time as we created the security system in the first place. Not that it mattered. They insisted on sneaking in every single time. Sometimes they actually succeeded, but most of the time my men just pretended not to see them.
“Well, nevermind that now. I have an assignment for you two.” I saw the disturbed looks on their faces. “And before you ask, it doesn’t involve capturing a singer.”
“As long as it’s not capturing the Composer himself instead, I think we’ll manage,” Maria said with a grin.
“I need you to find Zaphkiel.”
Victor leaned against the cages, either not noticing or not caring about the screamers trying (and failing) to claw at him. “What do you need the Watcher for?”
“And why do you need us to find him?” Maria pressed. “I thought you were still on relatively good terms with him.”
“I am. But he’s a screamer now, and the Composer has him.”
Maria groaned. “Silver moon and golden sun, Artemis. Can’t you ever give us anything easy?”
“If this was easy, I’d just send your kids.”
Victor held up his hand. “Wait one second.”
“Don’t worry, I know you’re busy tomorrow. This can wait a few days.”
“That’s not what I meant. We’re not exactly humble, we know we’re good. But surely you can’t expect us to beat a warlord, let alone a screamer?”
I started walking away from the cages, limping a little, and the others followed. “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to find him. I’ll have someone else capture him.”
Maria still sounded confused. “Who?”
I grinned a little wolfishly. “His mother, of course.”
Victor quickly stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You can’t get her involved. If the Mother Monster is turned—”
I raised my hand to quiet him. “Simmer down, Victor. She won’t get close to him. She hates violence, anyway.”
Mary Christina spoke up from the speakers. “Let’s just say that the most powerful monster in the city will make good bait.”
“I did most of her buffs myself,” Isaac noted at Victor and Maria’s apprehensive looks. “They’ll never catch her.”
I smiled. “And that’s why she’s good bait.
Behind the Scenes (scene 103)
Yes, Domina does not have any prisons whatsoever. It works on a more simplistic fine and penalty system that doesn’t involve long-term incarceration. The fact that most criminals get shot before any sort of official legal action takes place also keeps things easy.