I kneaded my forehead. “Okay, so when you say ‘the fey have gone crazy,’ you mean…?”
“They’re a culture now,” Derek insisted. “Apparently they’re recruiting and everything.”
I was having a little trouble figuring out what my roommate’s problem was. “Well, isn’t that a good thing? Now they have to play nice with everyone else, right?”
“Yes, because the cultures are known for their boundless friendship and camaraderie.”
“Fine, I get your point. What I don’t get is why we’re here.” I indicated the building we were standing in front of. It was a large, industrial structure at odds with the general architecture of the Central district, located about ten or fifteen minutes away from NHQ. “What’s so special about this place that you had to drag me out of bed so early in the morning?”
He looked at me sideways. “It’s ten.”
I shrugged. Between studying for class and the fact that my sleep schedule was still screwed up from the screamers, I had been waking up at noon or later some days.
“Anyway, this is part of the whole fey thing,” my roommate insisted. “Kinda. This is the Zero Forge.”
Well, I knew that name. “You mean that company that makes those Black Knight guns?”
“They’re named after it, yes, but they don’t actually own it. The Zero Forge was the very first factory ever built in Domina City. Before they had even started drawing up the blueprints or importing workers.”
“Okay, that’s kinda cool, but what does that have to do with the fey?” I hadn’t paid too much attention to the history of the city and the Culture Wars and all that, but any idiot knew Domina was thirty years old, and the toy maker only fifteen. The fey couldn’t have been involved back then.
He rolled his eyes. “Just come inside.”
The first thing I noticed when I walked through the doors was the noise. The clang of metal, the hiss of steam, and the wrenching screech of something I couldn’t quite identify all echoed through the room in a constant din of work and motion.
And what a room it was. The entire building was hollow on the inside, thirty floors removed to make space for tall machines and piping of some arcane purpose I couldn’t discern. There were pistons and conveyer belts and troughs filled with molten metal, illuminating the chamber so much they didn’t even need lights.
Chamber. That was a good word for it. That’s what it felt like. The den of some great beast. Something old, and worthy of respect.
There were workers, bustling to and fro, many of them sporting the now-familiar horns that marked them as demons. I also spotted a few vampires, who I assumed to be Canians. It would only make sense for them to have a presence here.
It took me a moment to realize that I was supposed to be looking for something specific—something to do with the fey. But I couldn’t see anything that popped out.
“Well, they seem to be making…stuff.”
Derek clapped me on the back, hard. “Very observant.”
I rolled my eyes. “Then why don’t you tell me what I’m supposed to be looking at? Because until five minutes ago, I couldn’t tell this place from one of the Heavens.”
My blond friend winced slightly, and I realized I must have hit a nerve. He was still a bit touched over the damage Elizabeth had done with her screamers, including the fall of Chronias.
I stumbled over my words a little. “Just…am I looking for a new type of gun? Or have the fey hijacked the factory?”
Derek grinned, which was a relief. “Trust me, if they hijacked Zero Forge, you would have heard about it already. No, just look.”
I did. I saw the workers, bustling about like insects in a hive, components being pulled off assembly lines and carted off deeper into the facility, saw the boilers and the cutters and—
I blinked. “They’re not making guns.”
“Of course not. The Zero Forge doesn’t make guns.”
I ground my teeth, beginning to feel frustrated. “Then I don’t see how this is supposed to help against the fey.”
He smiled, and placed his hand on my shoulder. “It’s not. I just wanted you to see it.”
“Is this really the time for tourism?”
“Yes, it is.” He smiled at the factory floor. “Look at it. The Culture Wars are a hair’s breadth away from going hot again. The fey have decided to take a more active role in the city. And there is some…thing unleashing zombies on the city. But this…”
I saw it then. Not in the factory. That didn’t look any different to me. But reflected in his eyes, I saw…something. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Silver and gold,” he said quietly. “The Zero Forge is the heart of Domina, and it’s still beating strong.”
Is that what it was?
He was staring at the same thing I was—a dirty, busy, dangerous factory—but we didn’t see the same thing. He didn’t see just another production plant, albeit an impressive one, with metalshops and (judging by the signs leading to the back) liquid nitrogen and all sorts of other things grinding away at all hours of the night. He saw something beautiful.
It was like when my mother had taken me to see the Statue of Liberty, I realized. Everyone else had seen something. They looked at that titan of steel and saw everything it represented. They hadn’t been in awe, but they had certainly been impressed.
I had just seen a really big statue. Impressive? Maybe. But I hadn’t been inspired, or anything like that.
This was Domina’s Eiffel Tower, or Great Wall of China, or Reiner Gamma Memorial. A stupid, pointless, inefficient relic that could be torn down and replaced…
But it meant something.
Damned if I knew what.
My phone rang, thank God. I felt uncomfortable with Derek baring his feelings like that. Like an atheist stumbling into Sunday mass. I might be welcome, but this place…was not for me.
I went outside as quickly as I could; the din and clang of machines would have made talking inside impossible. I didn’t even bother checking the caller ID before answering. There were only three people who called me. Laura was MIA, and Derek was right behind me. “Hey, Lily. What’s up?”
I blinked. The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I glanced at the screen—number blocked. Annoyed, I returned the phone to my ear. “Excuse me, who is this?”
“That’s no way to talk to me, young man. Have you forgotten all manners in just three months? I knew letting you go to that God-damned city was a mistake.”
“Yes, who did you think?”
“I thought…I…” I shook my head. I had sent her my number, of course, but I hadn’t expected her to actually call! Or be able to, for that matter. “How’d you get a hold of me? Domina is supposed to be on a completely different system.”
“Oh, yeah, Chris mentioned that.” That would be my father’s head of security. “It was taken care of.”
I sighed. Somehow, I doubted getting a line to Domina City was quite that simple. While my mother might be willing and able to drop the amount of money to make such a thing possible, Chris Clemens was a practical sort, and wouldn’t do so lightly. Certainly not so my mother could catch up with her son.
I decided to blame MC. Lily claimed the hacker liked practical jokes, though I had never seen any evidence before now.
“What’s up, mom?” I said with the same interest I had always feigned when talking with my mother.
“With me? Nothing. I want to know what’s going on with you.”
“Why? I haven’t seen you in three months! Surely something interesting must have happened since then!”
Let’s see…attacks by six different types of supernatural zombies, monsters roaming the streets, friends of mine—including my own girlfriend—molded and modified by illegal technology to fit legends, battles with people who could throw cars and shrug off bullets…
And the Composer, laughing above it all.
“Nothing much, uh, I guess.”
“Really?” She sounded dubious. “Because there are all these horrible things on the news…”
That gave me a start. I hadn’t even thought about what the outside world had heard about the screamers and everything. “What? What are they saying?”
“That there are gangs, kids putting on plastic devil horns, pretending to be vampires, all sorts of things like that.”
That was…too precisely inaccurate to be anything but deliberate. “Well, I mean, it’s not really that bad…”
“So you’re not in a gang?”
Did Necessarius count? Probably not, and even if it did, I wasn’t really part of it. “No.”
My mom jumped on that word like it was a confession. “You hesitated. Adam Andrew Anders, if you’ve joined a gang, I swear to God, I’ll have Chris pull you out of that city even if—”
“I didn’t join a gang!” I shrieked. A few nearby workers installing speakers on the corner—Canians, if I was any judge—looked at me oddly, but I waved them off.
“Hm,” she muttered on the other side of the line. “I suppose I’ll have to take your word.”
I brushed my hair back. She always did this. She had this knack for throwing me off. “I’m…mom, I’m fine.” I took a deep breath. “I promise. Better than ever, in fact. I’m making friends, having fun. Seriously, I love it here.”
“Well…that’s good. It can’t be too bad if you really like it that much.”
“I do, and it’s not.”
“What about Dale? You two still getting along?”
“I…” Dale? She was still thinking about Dale? I hadn’t talked to him in months, before I got to the city in fact, and in Domina City that almost certainly meant he was very, very dead. Why would—
Oh, right. I hadn’t told her that. Duh.
“Adam,” my mother said in a low, dangerous voice. “What happened with that boy? The only reason I let you go in the first place was because he seemed like a safe, kind young man.”
“Uh…well, see…when I got to the room, there was someone else there. Apparently they got switched by the system, or whatever.”
“And you just let that go? You need to flex your muscles more. If you just let people walk all over you, they’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.”
“I know, mom, I know. Anders are fighters. I’ve heard it before.”
“Then why didn’t you fight?”
“Because it wasn’t important,” I snapped, forgetting for a moment who I was talking to. “Because I had bigger things on my mind than a friend who hadn’t returned my calls in a week, and I wouldn’t know how to fix it anyway.” I winced at my tone. “It’s…just not real important, mom.”
There was a brief silence.
“Fine,” she muttered curtly. She knew when it was time to change the subject. “Let’s talk about something easier. How are you doing in school?”
“Uh…” That was an odd question. On the one hand, I was about half a step away from failing every single class except Applied Firearms. I just didn’t have time to study, what with the screamers disrupting my sleep schedule and helping Derek out on hunts.
On the other hand, the hunts were going great, and I was making boatloads of money. Especially since right now I wasn’t paying for my own room. The property prices in this city were absolutely ridiculous, but luckily my parents still had that under control.
“School’s going well.”
“What did I just say about lying?”
God dammit, how could she always tell? “It’s hard to explain, mom.”
“What are your grades?”
“That’s not really—”
“That’s enough of an answer. What is the problem? You’re going to class, right? You’re a smart boy, as long as you go to class you’re halfway there.”
I looked around desperately, searching for some excuse to get out of this conversation, but to no avail. Even the Canians were gone, either their lunch break was over or they had decided to give me privacy. “Things…come up…”
“I know they do, sweetie, and that’s a big problem with college. You’re thrown into a new environment, with no support. It’s easy to just sleep in, or go to parties instead of studying. That’s why I was happy you would be with Dale.”
“Mom, I can’t get into it too much, but trust me, there are really good reasons why I’m missing classes.”
“Parties?” she asked, skeptical.
“No, mom, not parties.” I shook my head. “I’ve only been to two parties since I got here, and those were both just birthday parties, in the middle of the day.”
God, I just realized that. I really hadn’t been to any parties since I got here. Not any real ones, like at a frat house or whatever. Did AU even have fraternities? I hadn’t seen any, but I had been kinda busy.
“You can’t get away with just a few words,” my mom warned. “Why have you been missing classes? Are they too hard? Dale did say it was something of a prestigious school. Maybe you should drop one if you need more time.”
God damn…I rubbed my forehead, trying to find a way to placate her that didn’t involve the words ‘guns,’ ‘monsters,’ or ‘killing for money.’ “I’m…preparing for my future, mom.”
She wasn’t buying it. “You do that by going to class. Right now, that’s the most important thing.”
But I finally had a way out. “No, it’s just like dad always says. I’m networking, you know? Talking to high-powered people. Mother of fire, the other day I had a long conversation with Isaac Clarke, the inventor of the toy maker!”
Oops. That might not be the best thing to bring up. I had intentionally not mentioned Butler—my mom probably wouldn’t know he was a gang lord, but better safe than sorry—but bringing up the toy maker wasn’t much better. If she asked a few pointed questions…
Thankfully, she was distracted by my other mistake. “Mother of fire? What’s that mean?”
“Oh, uh…” It meant I had been hanging out with Lily too much, that’s what. “It’s just some new slang some of the kids around here use. I’m not quite sure what it means…”
“It refers to Mary Christina, one of Isaac Clarke’s engineers,” Derek said from behind me. “He was the father of fire—the toy maker—and she was the mother, the one who brought it into this world.”
I turned to see the blond young man smiling at me, not a care in the world.
“I was talking to the foreman,” he said, explaining his absence until now. “What about you?”
“Who’s that?” my mother said into my ear. “What did he say?”
I held up a finger to Derek, before turning my attention back to my phone. “Mom, that’s my roommate. I gotta go—”
“Your roommate? Put him on. I want to talk to him.”
“No, he’s busy, he can’t talk—”
“I have a few minutes,” he said cheerfully, completely failing to read the mood. He held out his hand for the phone. “I’d love to talk to your mom.” He grinned. “You’ve already met mine, after all.”
Cursing my luck and praying he didn’t say anything too stupid, I handed him the phone.
He took it happily, switching it to speaker mode. “Hello? This is Adam’s roommate, Derek Huntsman. I understand I’m speaking to his mother?”
“Yes, that’s right,” her voice came out, crisp and cautious. “Why did you switch with Dale? I don’t like the idea of my son rooming with a stranger.”
“I don’t know the full details on Mister Abraham,” he apologized. “I just know that I got a call the day before I moved in, saying I was now on the ninth floor. It wasn’t until Adam explained the situation that I realized he was as much in the dark as I was.”
“Hm,” my mother muttered, slightly mollified. “Fine then. I need to know more about you, if you’re planning to continue as my son’s roommate.”
“Well, we have been living together for three months now, and I haven’t gotten him killed yet. Surely that’s a point in my favor.”
“A small one,” she admitted, not realizing that in this city, it was an absolute miracle. But I was happy Derek hadn’t brought up the fact that he had literally saved my life on the first day. That would have raised too many questions. “He said he hasn’t been going to parties. Is that true?”
He looked at me sideways. “Well, he went to my birthday party, and Akane’s before that, but otherwise…”
“Who is Akane? A girl he likes?”
“No she’s my—”
“Then what about this Lily girl?”
“Oh yeah, that’s his girlfriend.”
I closed my eyes. Crap.
Well, I suppose if given the choice between this and my mom finding out I was getting into life-or-death situations on a regular basis, her finding out I had a girlfriend was the lesser of two evils.
There was a very, very long pause on the other end of the line.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said slowly. “I don’t think I caught that. Could you repeat yourself, please?”
“Lily is Adam’s girlfriend,” he obliged, seemingly unaware of the importance of those words. “They got together the…” he thought for a second. “The second day he was in the city, actually.” He looked at me. “Wow, I guess that means you guys have been together three months already, huh?”
My mother remained silent.
“Uh…” Derek seemed to have finally realized that this was all a surprise to her. “She’s a nice girl. Very well known around here, for…being friendly with everyone and so on. She’s two years older, but that’s really not a big deal, I mean…I don’t think it is…” He trailed off.
The silence was deafening.
“Mom?” I said after a minute. “You still there? Mom?”
After about five more minutes of yelling at her over the phone, my dad wandered in to find my mom unconscious on the floor, and the rest of the call consisted of lots of yelling for ambulances and doctors.
She had fainted when she heard I had a girlfriend.
What the hell did that mean?
Behind the Scenes (scene 157)
Been wanting to bring up the Zero Forge for a while, this seemed like the spot.