Monthly Archives: November 2014

Scene 194 – Recenseamus

RECENSEAMUS

LAURA

“How’s Akane doing?”

“Still in the toy box,” MC responded from a wall speaker. “Her shoulder is mostly repaired, by Doctor Clarke wanted to keep her in for a while longer just in case.”

He fixed a shattered shoulder after just one day? That was pretty impressive, even for him and the toy box. “Okay,” I muttered. “That’s one crisis dealt with. What about those renegades who she was fighting? Any word on them?”

“No, not after they trapped the retinue and Adam. Butler has put G’Hanir under lock down, though.”

“For what good it will do. No way are the Blackguards going back, and the aves there are just bureaucrats and low-level guards plus a few independent contractors doing maintenance and installations.”

“Elizabeth thought they were important enough to send three renegades,” MC pointed out.

I nodded grudgingly. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Have interrogations turned up anything?”

“Nothing useful. A few of them were stealing office supplies and having affairs, but other than that, they’re innocent. We did get some info on previous labs where the toy box had been stored, but it was mostly stuff we already knew.”

I brushed my hair back, eyeing the map in front of me. “Let’s take this from the top. Derek has had Dispater’s warbloods running around the past couple days. Where have they checked?”

“The lab where we think Ling was grabbed, of course, but that didn’t do much good. There was no scent trail for Tecumseh to follow.”

Silver and gold, I had hoped the old wolf would have been the magic bullet to solve this in a heartbeat. But it seemed Soaring Eagle knew how to keep herself from being tracked that way. “What about Dispater’s CSI guys?”

“They found a few weird chemicals in the lab, but nothing really relevant to Ling’s disappearance. What little data they scrounged just leads back to G’Hanir. Dead end.”

“Well…what about that earlier lab? The one Adam and Ling destroyed?”

“Even less. Too old to get much of anything, and what they did get just pointed at the other lab.”

“I refuse to believe that she disappeared two days ago and we have found literally nothing in the meantime.”

“The aves are nomadic, Laura,” MC said soothingly from the wall speakers. “They always have been. That means getting a fix on their position is going to be near impossible.”

“They’re gods-damned anthropomorphic birds. They stick out in a crowd. This shouldn’t be so difficult. Everyone in the city is looking for them!”

“Everyone in the city is looking for the ones who stole the toy box,” MC corrected. “But they’re not looking too hard. The reward for finding it is substantial, but they know the aves will defend it to the death. Most people don’t think it’s worth the trouble.”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me you’re not saying we should announce that one of the Paladins has gone missing.”

“Well, even if it doesn’t help us find Ling, it will probably bring Elizabeth out of hiding…”

“Yes, and for good reason. One of our heavy hitters is gone, and we’re distracted looking for her. Now would be a perfect time to strike, and she’d know it.”

“Fine, fine, we’ll come back to that later.”

I nodded in thanks. “What have the orcs been up to?”

“The usual. Trying to coordinate between the demons and vampires. Other than that, not much, but they’re doing their best. On a related note, the Kellions were quick to offer their assistance, as I understand it.”

“But they’re soldiers. They’re not really useful here.”

“Ah…yeah. They’ve kinda been getting in the way more than actually helping.”

Silver and…of course. This was probably the first time they had ever worked with kemos or warbloods. Neither side had any idea how the other operated, and it was hard to tell which one was worse. The Kellions were a young and arrogant subculture, but Dispater was the most paranoid man on the planet. His men weren’t exactly allowed to mingle with others on a regular basis.

At least there was one bright spot in all this. “But Tecumseh’s smoothing things out, right?” The lupe had a reputation for being a surprisingly good mediator. Sure, he was blunt as a hammer, but in this city, a lot of problems could be solved with a good strong whack. Between him and the orcs, we had a chance.

“He’s doing his best,” she assured me. “But he’s busy with the actual tracking. There’s only so much he can do.”

“Right.” I closed my eyes, searching my memory. “Well, what about the retinue? Alex is a tracker, right?”

“While they’re eager to prove themselves after yesterday’s debacle, they’re having even less luck. They’ve searched everywhere anyone can think might involve the Composer, with nothing to show for it.”

I pulled out the digital pen for the map in front of me. “Where did they search, exactly?”

“The roof of your dorm, where you were ambushed. That alley where Elizabeth was captured. The bar where Mjolnir was murdered. The remains of the warcage, and the South dock on the Ring. Even her old lair, in the sewers.”

I paused as I went to mark that last one down. “The one where we found her, or the one Akane found after the Ring?”

There was a slight pause before MC answered. “The first one. No one’s checked the second yet.”

“Checked ever, or—”

“Just since Ling went missing. We sent a few squads down shortly before Elizabeth was caught, and they didn’t find anything useful. But we didn’t send down CSI’s and trackers.”

We might be onto something now. “Send in the warbloods first. They might not mix well with Alex.”

“Agreed. Anything else?”

“You said G’Hanir was on lock down. Besides the interrogations, what have we gotten out of there?”

“Not much. There’s only so much we can do, since it’s still a sovereign domain.”

I groaned. “It’s a crime scene! Tear the whole place apart to the studs!”

“It’s not that easy. Technically, only the floors where Robyn fought the renegades are the crime scenes. Everything else, we have to stay away from or we’ll hear from the Eagle’s lawyers. Who, before you ask, don’t know where she is. But they’re still on retainer.”

“She’s guilty of grand theft, conspiracy, at least a half-dozen counts of murder she hasn’t paid retribution for—”

“But she’s not the only one who lives in that domain,” MC insisted. “In fact, it wouldn’t take the aves long to point out that she spends so little time there, it shouldn’t count as her residence at all. Yes, we can nail their warlord to the wall once we catch her. But the entire culture is not complicit.”

As I finished marking the map, I slumped into my chair. “You know, I really hate all this legal stuff. Sometimes I think the zombies were easier to deal with.”

“Speaking of which, any luck with the captured ones?”

I waved my hand dismissively. “Haven’t had time recently. But last I checked, Clarke hadn’t found anything new. A few new theories, but…” I frowned. “Shouldn’t you know better than anyone?”

“He doesn’t allow cameras or speakers in those labs. He’s kinda paranoid about the screamers.”

“Huh. I hadn’t heard about that. When did that start?”

“Back when you brought in the very first burner. The dead one, I mean. He didn’t tell you?”

I rolled my eyes. “You know how he is. Sometimes he kinda forgets about other people.”

“Yeah, I guess…anyway, I texted Kelly. She’s at G’Hanir right now, doing what she can, but she’ll check on the lair once the warbloods are through.”

I nodded. “Good. And who’s with her?”

MC sounded confused. “What do you mean? The retinue, of course.”

“No, I know,” I said with a nod. “I mean, are Adam and Flynn with them?”

“Oh. Lemme check…yes.”

“Good, then—” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You do remember that Adam asked you not to track his phone, right?”

“Er…yes?”

I sighed. “What are we going to do with you? Does Lily need to give you another lecture on privacy? Especially in regards to her boyfriend?”

“Hey now!” I swear the speaker shook with the ‘sarian hacker’s indignation. “I keep an eye on him because he’s a Paladin, not Lily’s boyfriend! I never spied on her other boyfriends, did I?”

“Did she even have other boyfriends? I know she only dates people from outside the city, and even then only baselines.”

“Well, she had a few. There was that one guy who she dumped when he became an angel—”

“Wait—you don’t mean the outsider who ended up assassinating Baal.”

“Technically, he wasn’t an outsider at that point. I mean, not by Lily’s definition, anyway.”

“You know what I mean! She dated him!?” What was with that girl and sociopaths?

“Only for like a month.” She sounded embarrassed that she had brought it up. “Anyway! We’re way off topic! Did you have any specific orders for the warbloods?”

I wanted to argue more, but just sighed and waved my hand. “No, it’s fine. They have more experience with this than I do. Just tell them to be thorough.”

The hacker giggled at my indecisiveness. “As you wish, Honored Paragon.”

I groaned. “Oh, come on, not you too.”

She giggled again. “Sorry. Just kinda need a laugh right now.”

That made my anger evaporate faster than ice in a desert.

“Yeah,” I muttered. “I guess so.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 194)

These basic recap scenes are annoying, I know, but they’re important.

break

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Scene 193 – Vigil

VIGIL

KELLY

“You’re sure she’s okay?” Flynn asked for the umpteenth time.

“No,” I snarked. “Akane died a horrible death on the operating table since you asked me five minutes ago. I don’t know, baseline. Clarke—Robyn Joan—got her to her dad, and he said he was putting her in the toy box. Something about her shoulder. That’s all I’ve got.”

The swordsman settled back in his seat. “Right, sorry, I’m just worried.”

“Yeah, you’ve said that a million times too.”

“Will you both shut up?” Jarasax muttered as he made another sharp turn. “You guys are distracting me.”

Flynn and I immediately fell silent. When you’re involved in a car chase and the driver needs to concentrate, you do what he says.

I turned my attention to the vehicle we were following, a sleek black sports car that could outpace our dumpy van any day of the week. Luckily for us, Domina traffic was just as bad as always. They were swerving and dodging through traffic with admirable skill, but all they got for their trouble was shouted curses and blared horns. They’d need a good, clear straight road to get away from us, and there wasn’t anything like that nearby.

But the Blackguards were in that car. We didn’t know what they were capable of, so we had to stay on our toes.

It would have been nice to be able to follow them back to their base silently, but they had peeled out of the ave garage so fast that hadn’t been an option. Right now, our only choice was to run them down and hope someone survived to be interrogated.

If Clarke’s daughter was to be believed, General Brannigan was in the car, but that couldn’t be right. Even ignoring the fact that he should still be off in Nosferatu territory, there was no way he was one of Greene’s. He was only a few steps below Butler himself, it made no sense for him to be turned instead of a handful of grunts in easier reach.

Unless it was both…

“Window’s opening,” Anders snarled, as he readied his pistol.

He was right; one of the rear passenger windows on the sports car was rolling down—the renegades were clearly preparing for something. I pulled out my Saint Euphemia, a rifle with pretty good accuracy even in conditions like this, and rolled down my own window.

An invisible wave of force nearly ripped my nose off.

I turned to the renegade car in surprise, blinking under my daygoggles, to see a a grinning man with violet hair leaning out of the window. As I watched, he flexed his empty hand and snapped it forward like throwing a ball.

I dodged back inside, and just in time. The mirror was snapped off by the force of his power.

“I believe we’ve found the telekinetic,” Sax noted.

“Don’t be an ass,” I grumbled. “George, grenades.”

The giant tossed me a tangerine-sized explosive. I pulled the pin, counted to four, and carefully chucked it out the window at the car ahead.

My timing was perfect, but my aim was not. Instead of the grenade blowing up right under the renegade vehicle, it exploded off to the side, barely even buffeting their windows. It wasn’t a frag, so it didn’t do anything worse than scorch the paint job. At least it forced the telekinetic Blackguard back inside, where he couldn’t shoot at me any more, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Gunfire blasted from behind me; that would be Anders, opening up with his SMG. He hit the rear window of the sports car, making a few good craters but failing to shatter it.

“Bulletproof,” he muttered. “Figures.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that most of the cars in the city had bulletproof glass. He got the picture. “Keep trying, though. We’ll break through eventually.”

He clicked another magazine home. “And then what? Toss a grenade in the car?”

I blinked at him. “Uh…yeah? What else?”

“I thought we wanted them alive.”

“Blood and shadow,” I murmured under my breath. I had forgotten. Taking people alive always made life more difficult. “Okay, Anders, keep shooting, but stop if you break through the glass, and don’t aim at them if they poke their heads out. George, what other kinds of grenade you got?”

“I got a tanglefoot,” he admitted, pulling out a smaller bomb with an orange stripe down the side. “But that’s not going to do anything to a speeding car.”

Bleeding night…why didn’t any of us have anything better than guns and bombs? We were too used to fighting zombies instead of people, that was the problem. “Okay, Alex, what have you got?”

The angel shook his head. “Too bright out for my light to be any use.” He paused. “If we get close enough, I can jump to their car.”

Hm…that might work. Unexpected maneuver, playing to his strengths…he could certainly put those dayknives to good use in close quarters…I was hesitant to put him in direct danger like that, but he was a big boy, and could handle himself.

“Sax, you think you can pull it off?” I asked, as Alex started to lower his window.

The changeling swerved sharply, nearly throwing me out of my own open window. “Maybe, but I wouldn’t risk it if I were you. They’re not exactly staying still.”

I glanced at my phone, and the traffic map MC had given me. “We’re coming on a clear spot. If you floor it after the next turn, you should be able to catch up to give Alex a couple seconds.”

The driver grunted, unconvinced. “And how long is our opening?”

I winced, guessing from the map. “Five, ten seconds.”

“So Alex jumps on their car, and we crash.”

“Yep.”

He sighed. “Gods of men and darkness…fine. But if we all die, I’m not vouching for you wherever we end up.”

“Shut up and drive, changeling.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“I said shut it.”

With a grin, he wrenched the wheel around at the same time as he stomped on the gas, screeching around the corner at speeds too fast to be safe, bringing us right alongside—

Um.

Right alongside nothing.

The renegades’ car was gone.

“Spring, summer, autumn, and winter,” Jarasax cursed as he sent the van into another screeching hairpin turn to avoid traffic—and then another turn, and then we were on the sidewalk. For once, I was glad there weren’t a lot of pedestrians around these days.

“We lost them,” I confirmed as I scanned the street. “Anybody else see where they could have gone?”

“Over there,” Alex pointed at a building close to the corner of the street, just barely out of sight before the turn. “The gate’s down now, but I’m pretty sure that’s an underground garage.”

My mind raced. “You think there’s another exit?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Noapte adâncă și amurg sângerare,” I cursed. “Move us in.”

Sax backed up off the sidewalk carefully, knowing that traffic would avoid a Necessarian van but not wanting to push the issue. Everyone else—including me—started double-checking weapons, getting ready for an ambush. I’d read an article that said underground parking garages were the third most likely ambush spot, after rooftops and bathrooms. We needed to be ready for anything.

Of course, there was no ambush. There never was, after that kind of build up.

I pulled off my daygoggles—the place was lit by red nightlights, which didn’t interfere with my nightvision—before frowning and indicating for Jarasax to park the van in about the center, near the elevator.

The garage was almost completely empty, with just a couple cars scattered around a space built for a few hundred. It took less than a glance to confirm that none of them were the renegade vehicle, and there weren’t any skid marks on the ground to give us a clue to which direction they’d gone.

“Now what?” Anders asked as we all piled out of the van. “I’m guessing you have a plan.”

“Shut up and let Alex work, that’s my plan.”

The baseline blinked. “What? What can Alex do?”

The angel rolled his eyes. “Thanks, that makes me feel appreciated.”

“No, I mean—” Anders made a frustrated growl. “I mean—”

“I know what you mean,” Alex chided gently. “I’m just teasing you.”

“Alex is Night-caste,” I reminded him. At the outsider’s blank stare, I elaborated. “Spies and assassins. He’s a tracker, specifically.”

The angel used one of his hands as a flashlight, emitting a bright beam through the lens on his palm and scanning the floor.

Anders looked skeptical. “But there’s nothing here to track.”

“And that’s why I’m the tracker, not you.”

The baseline sighed. “Fine. Tell me what you can see on the concrete floor, Honored Daybreaker.”

“Tracks,” was the blunt reply. “In the dust.”

Flynn stared at the ground. “I don’t see any dust.”

“You don’t have training. Plus, your eyes aren’t very good.”

I couldn’t see any tracks either, but then I couldn’t really even look into Alex’s flashlight without wincing. “Where are they going? There are no other exits.”

“Over here…” he stopped, frowning, as his light shone on a solid wall. “That’s odd.”

“Secret door, maybe?” I asked hesitantly.

The angel rolled his eyes. “Kelly, secret doors only show up in comic books and bad fantasy novels. No one actually uses them.”

“My dad did,” I pointed out, long practice allowing me to word that sentence very carefully.

“Bad example. He was crazy.”

George knocked on the wall in question, but it sounded like solid concrete, which seemed to disappoint him. “Huh. Was kinda hoping he was right.”

Anders peered at the wall closely as well. “I don’t know…maybe it’s some kind of illusion? A power, I mean.”

“Maybe…” I admitted, scratching my fixer absentmindedly. “But how long could something like that last? I know Derek and the rest talk about ‘reservoirs,’ or whatever. A kind of mana meter.”

Jarasax shrugged. “Easy solution, then. We wait it out.”

“And if we’re wrong, they’re getting further and further away. No, keep searching.”

That made me quirk an eyebrow in his direction. “For what? A hidden switch for the secret door?”

“I keep telling you, there are no secret doors. Maybe, I don’t know, they phased the car through the wall somehow.”

“So secret doors are impossible, but moving through solid matter is a-okay.”

“That’s not what I mean. They’re ridiculous, not impossible. The only people who use them are—”

“The Composer, apparently,” Anders noted, as Flynn pulled off the fire extinguisher on a nearby concrete pillar and pushed the button hidden behind it. The solid concrete wall began to slide open, grinding into the ceiling above.

I grinned at Alex, who just glared back, before taking a closer look at the revealed room.

It wasn’t that big, but the small sports car fit inside with room for another of the same size. Other than that, it was featureless, just a dull concrete box, more like a personal garage than anything else. Who would bother making a secret garage…inside a garage?

“What do you see?” Alex asked. He was keeping his light off for the moment.

“Just the car. C’mon, let’s get a closer look.”

The angel illuminated the cubicle enough so that the others could see and avoid the car, but not disrupt my own vision too much. I peered inside; the glare made it a little hard to see, but it seemed empty.

“The place is empty,” Jarasax noted. “Unless you guys see another secret door.”

“Never hurts to check,” Anders insisted as he stepped into the room. “You want to help me with the wall?”

Then the car roared to life.

“What the—” I whipped my gun around, but it was far too late. The car sped backwards, tires squealing and leaving the scent of burnt rubber, and throwing up sparks from where the vehicle scraped against the too-close wall.

Before we could even think about following, the secret door thudded shut, whatever mechanism that kept it open against gravity disabled remotely by the fleeing renegades.

I slammed my fist against the wall, but I may as well have been throwing butterflies at it for all the good it did.

“De întunericul dintr-o noapte cu lună și fără nici stele, pătat cu sângele nevinovat, și urmarita de morți,” I hissed. “Sânge și umbra, I should have seen this coming.”

Alex set his skin glowing slightly, just enough to illuminate most of the room. “It was just bad luck all around. Don’t worry too much about it. Worry about how we can get out.”

I checked my phone; no reception. Of course. We were in a concrete box underground, the only way to get any reception in here would be with a wired cell relay. Obviously, there weren’t any.

“Not seeing any switches,” Flynn reported. “Or anything, really.”

He was right. The walls were completely bare. There wasn’t even a light in the ceiling.

I sighed. “Keep looking anyway,” I insisted. “We need to get out of here as soon as possible. Who knows how long the air will last.”

It took an hour for some nearby ‘sarians to come find us and let us out.

By that time, the renegades were long gone.

Behind the Scenes (scene 193)

This is one of those I’m not sure about, but it was still important.

Scene 192 – Proelium

PROELIUM

AKANE

“She’s what!?” I nearly shrieked into my phone, as I tried to get changed into my battle clothes in the back of the ‘sarian van. One of the benefits of being a Paladin: I could apparently commandeer a vehicle from Necessarius whenever I needed it. The Big Boss would get mad if we did it too much, but I think he’d agree this time was justified.

“Just what I said,” MC snapped. “Robyn Joan is pinned down in G’Hanir. I don’t know exactly what happened, but she stole a phone from somewhere and called me.”

It must be serious—MC never snapped like that. I guess the fact that it was her sister who was in danger was pressing on her. Half-sister, whatever.

“Sorry. Just…when you said ‘Trouble, come to G’Hanir,’ I figured someone had found Ling.” How was Robyn the one in danger? She wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of anything that looked sketchy. Derek might call it cowardice, but it did keep her safe.

“Look, just hurry,” MC pleaded in my ear. “Adam and the retinue are there, but they can’t do too much. She’s on one of the top floors—somewhere around one hundred and fifteen.”

I managed to wiggled into my jeans. In the front seat I noticed that Flynn was watching the road in front of us very closely. Our driver didn’t seem to care either way.

“Why doesn’t Robyn just jump out the window?”

“How should I know? I can’t find her cell, and she lost whatever phone she used to call me. I’m guessing the windows that high were never designed to be opened.”

And they’d be too strong to break, considering the wind speeds they were designed to handle. If we were lucky, the aves would blast open one during the fight, and Robyn would have escaped before I even got there.

Yeah, and if wishes were fishes we’d all eat for free.

“Sword,” I said, as I pulled my top on. Flynn handed it back without looking.

“What was that?” MC asked.

“Talking to Flynn. We’re almost there. Anything you can do to help?”

“Not really. The aves haven’t trusted me since they stole the toy box, so they’re on their own system. I can’t really interfere with anything for you.”

Yeah, I had expected about as much. It was never that easy. “What about Derek and Laura? Where are they?”

“Derek’s glad-handing warlords, Laura is on her way back to NHQ right now to help me look over some data.”

Great. Derek would be perfect in this situation. His shields would be more than enough to handle whatever the aves could throw at us. But it was more effective to have him elsewhere, trying to work with the warlords to actually find Ling. I could rescue Robyn on my own.

The van screeched to a stop, and our driver glanced over the scene with a practiced eye. “Your retinue is over there,” he said, pointing. “I’m gonna peel out, give them one less target.”

“Fine,” I said curtly, as I slid open the door that was facing away from the ave domain. “Flynn.”

G’Hanir didn’t take up the entire block or anything like that, but it definitely had a big chunk of it. Enough so that it could sit some twenty feet back from the street, giving itself a nice entrance area lined with flowers and trees.

While the ‘scraper itself was dominated by the massive tower stretching up almost out of sight, it also had a few shorter sections surrounding it that only went up a third or half of the way. It looked like nothing so much as a number of buildings fused together. Which might be what had happened, I wasn’t sure.

The light tan color of the building almost made it look like natural sandstone, as though this was some beach-side tower carved out of living rock by the crashing waves. The fact that the lower levels appeared to actually be sandstone (or at least covered in it for the sake of the effect) helped sell the illusion.

Flynn followed me out of the van, which immediately sped off as promised, and we both hustled over to the retinue, who were hiding behind their own vehicle with their guns out. Nobody seemed to be shooting in either direction yet, but it was best to be careful.

“Status?” I spat as I slid into place next to Adam.

Kelly was the one who answered. “They stopped shooting a few minutes before you showed up.” Now that she mentioned it, I could see a few bullet scars in the nearby concrete, not to mention the retinue’s own cast-off shell casings from their return fire.

“Good?” I asked.

“Maybe,” the Belian muttered, scratching her fixer. “But I don’t like it. It might mean they caught Robyn, and don’t need to worry about us any more.”

Alex shook his head. “They would have retreated inside and started fortifying the first floor if that was the case.”

He was right. The aves were positioned outside the building proper, hiding behind pillars and trees for cover. That was an offensive deployment. If they didn’t care about killing us, they wouldn’t have left the safety of their domain.

“I’ll go,” I muttered, readying my speed.

But Flynn placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I stopped.

I was also suddenly very aware of the earrings I was wearing.

“You shouldn’t go in alone,” he insisted.

I rolled my eyes. That was the reason he had stopped me? “I’ll be fine.”

“You will be—by cutting a bloody path through the entire building. Let’s see if we can end this with minimal death.”

Okay, that was a slightly better point. But Robyn was in trouble, and we didn’t have time to sit around negotiating with the birds.

“Make it quick, or I’ll make it quick.”

“Let me handle this,” Kelly muttered. She stepped out of cover, arms raised, and laid her rifle on the ground where the aves could see it. She didn’t drop her sidearm, though.

“Don’t come any closer!” one of them squawked. Male, judging by his voice, but that was all I could say for sure. I couldn’t even tell which one was speaking; none of them were popping out of cover to make themselves seen.

The vampire obediently stopped. “No problem, we don’t want trouble. We just want our friend back.”

“Your friend was caught sneaking around our domain! We’re fully within our rights to kill her!”

“And we’re fully within our rights to lay siege to your domain in order to prevent that,” Kelly countered. She was stretching the letter of the law quite a bit, but she was right, we weren’t doing anything against Necessarian laws. Technically. “Is there a warlord I can speak to? I want to end this without violence.”

There was a brief pause before they answered. “They’re out.”

“Okay,” she said without missing a beat. “That’s fine, I can talk to you instead. Let’s keep this simple: What do I need to give you to get my friend back alive?”

“We—” his voice cut off suddenly, and I heard excited babbling from the ave lines. Clearly, the grunts were trying to figure out terms their warlords would have agreed to.

But when the voice returned, it was to ask something unexpected.

“You Drakela Sanguinas?”

Although the vampire was wearing her daygoggles, I could somehow tell she was blinking in surprise. “Uh…yeah. Why?”

“Balan’s got a price on your head.”

They opened fire.

Kelly moved faster than I could have believed possible, jumping back behind the cover of the van as bullets scored the spot she had been standing an eye blink before.

“Blood and shadow,” she muttered under her breath as she unholstered her pistol, a sleek ‘sarian model I didn’t recognize. “I left my rifle out there.”

Adam gave her a sideways look. “Who is this Balan, anyway?”

“One of the Belian Nobles. Not sure why he put out a bounty on me, though.”

“You think it’s a mistake?”

“Correction: There are a number of reasons he’d want me dead, and I’m not sure which one he used as an excuse to put out the notice.” She frowned. “It’s odd the aves have heard about it, though. He was never one for consorting with other cultures.”

Flynn shook his head. “That’s not the point right now. Can you guys lay down covering fire while Akane and I head in?”

We all turned to stare at him.

“This isn’t training or monster slaying, baseline,” Alex insisted. “You go into combat with a sword against guys with guns, they’ll chew you up. There’s a reason I hang back during firefights.”

But the swordsman’s eyes were hard. “Akane should have someone to watch her back.”

I was oddly pleased that he had said should have not, needs. It was nice to know he didn’t think I’d be in any real danger on my own; he wanted to give me enough breathing room to fight through the building without killing everyone inside.

However, while the thought was nice, it didn’t change the fact that Alex was right. A baseline swordsman, without so much as a throwing knife to get some range, wouldn’t survive if the aves had any competence whatsoever.

Instead of arguing about it, I just activated my speed and sped out of cover.

I circled around, behind the van, so that hopefully the guards wouldn’t see me. I was only tapping my reservoir at about ten percent; enough to give me a good boost to running speed and time to draw on more power if I got into danger, but not enough to dodge bullets.

Luckily, the aves suppressing my friends were stupider than I thought, and hadn’t set up anyone on their flank to watch for someone trying to sneak by. Between the weird things my power did to sound and the thunder of their guns, they didn’t even notice me.

There were only a dozen birds, none of them paying attention to anything besides what was right in front of them. I could have killed them all without even using my speed. But my friends were relatively safe where they were, and I wanted to avoid killing as much as possible. Sure, the aves had done some things recently I didn’t approve of, but that didn’t mean I could just start slaughtering them all.

Somewhat reluctantly, I moved on, ghosting through the lobby and into the emergency stairwell before letting my speed fade. My reservoir wasn’t even halfway empty yet, but I had to be careful here.

In this case, the aves’ poor relationship with Necessarius worked to my advantage. If a ‘sarian inspector had checked out the building recently, the emergency door would have an alarm on it. Luckily, they hadn’t, so it didn’t, and I was able to start up the stairs without worrying too much about being found.

I went up as many floors as I could, taking full advantage of the fact that the birds would be more concerned with guarding the elevators than the stairs. After all, who in their right mind would run up a hundred floors?

Unfortunately, due to the way the ‘scraper was built, I couldn’t go any higher than floor one hundred, but it was probably for the best. I might be one of the healthiest people on the planet, but even I can’t go straight into a fight after jogging up a hundred floors.

While I was catching my breath, I finally managed to identify something that had been nagging at me: A slight echoing sound bouncing through the stairwell that wasn’t coming from me. This close, without any distractions, it was obvious what it was.

Gunfire. A few floors up, so I couldn’t tell how many people were fighting, but it was definitely there.

That was a good sign. It meant Robyn was still alive. It would be nice if she had escaped on her own, but wishes and fishes.

I flipped out my phone and punched the button for MC. “I need to talk to the real one,” I said without waiting to hear the fake one speak.

“I’m already here,” she replied instantly. “Let’s see, GPS puts you on…floor a hundred?”

“Yeah. Gunfire a few floors up. I’ll leave the phone on.”

“You really need to get a hands-free headset one of these days, dearest.”

“They’re too expensive.”

“They’re two hundred dollars and you have over ten thousand just sitting in your bank account.”

“Maybe later.” I slipped the phone into the breast pocket of my shirt and buttoned it over to keep it from falling out. I heard a rush of static that sounded like a sigh, but MC didn’t say anything else.

I opened the stairwell door carefully, but I needn’t have worried. The office space I entered, a basic arrangement of cubicles with some very nice window views, was completely empty of any living souls. All the aves were probably either fighting or hiding.

At least navigating the place was easy enough. Everything was arranged in a neat grid, and other than the odd toppled chair from someone’s overexcited flight, there weren’t any obstacles in my path whatsoever. Not like vampire domains, which varied between ‘pitch black’ and ‘slightly less pitch black,’ or the Heavens, which were the exact opposite.

Robyn wasn’t on floor one fifteen, I was certain of that. Judging by the gunfire, it was more like five or six floors above my head. I could run up there in a single burst of speed, if I felt so inclined.

When I opened up the stairwell in question—one that started on this floor and went up the next twenty or thirty floors—the gunfire was so loud I had to shut the door immediately. It was like thunder, crashing around inside that concrete shaft. Being in there would be like being inside a steel drum.

I couldn’t see any other option, though. This was the only stairwell up, other than the elevator, and I was not going to sit in a metal box that would cheerily announce to my enemies when I arrived on their floor, ready to get shot. If—

Wait. That might actually work.

I rushed over to the elevator and pressed the call button, almost bouncing in excitement. After a second of waiting, I realized the aves might have some way of telling that someone was calling an elevator on this floor, and dodged inside a cubicle before security showed up.

I needn’t have worried, though. Either the birds didn’t have a very good internal security system or the guards were just busy. The point is that the doors opened with a soft ding without anyone running up ready to shoot me.

I stepped inside the elevator gingerly, but held my hand over the opening where the doors had slid in to keep them opening.

This was the tricky part. I probably should have scouted ahead first, but I didn’t have time for that now. I’d just have to wing it. Judging by the sounds I was hearing from above—

Oh, right. Duh.

“MC?” I asked quietly. “I’m on floor one hundred right now, in a stopped elevator. Can you figure out where the gunfire is coming from?”

“Hm…” I heard from my pocket. “It looks like…floor one zero eight. I think. I can’t give you much better than a fifty percent chance on that. I’ve only got one sound triangulation program, and she doesn’t get used much. Hasn’t really been put through the wringer, you know?”

“That’s fine,” I assured her. I tapped the number for floor one zero eight, then slipped out the elevator and headed back to the stairwell and waited.

It didn’t take long for my plan to bear fruit.

The gunfire slowed, just for a moment, most likely when the aves saw the elevator doors opening behind them. When that happened, I immediately cranked up my speed and charged up the stairwell to floor one hundred and eight.

I had two choices: Wait behind the door for my reservoir to replenish, or barge out and hope I wasn’t too badly outnumbered. The choice seemed obvious—having more speed to work with was my only advantage—but it wasn’t quite that simple. If I waited too long, the aves would realize the elevator was a trick, and might start looking for me in other places.

Bah. I was never one for waiting around anyway.

I tapped my reservoir again, tapping into my full speed for a fraction of a second, and kicked the door in with all my might.

The large steel door, designed to survive fires and minor explosions, blew off its hinges like it was shot from a gun. As I brought my speed down to more efficient levels, I saw my improvised missile blast through a couple cubicles before smacking against the large window against the opposite wall. It didn’t break through, unfortunately; these things really were heavily reinforced.

I took in the entire room, still moving in slow motion, with a single glance. None of the aves had been killed by my stunt, it seemed—only one had been in the line of fire, and it looked like he had managed to spring out of the way with avian reflexes.

The rest of the birds were still aiming their guns at the open elevator, only slowly turning in my direction. There were three on the other side of the room, likely still hunting for Robyn, but they were coming around to face me as well.

All eyes on me. Perfect time to escape, Robyn. Don’t miss this chance.

She was a clever girl. She’d be fine.

Now I just had to escape.

No time for mercy. I sped forward, beheading the three aves closest to the elevator on a single pass. That gave me a small blind spot in their ranks, a chunk of overturned cubicles I could use as cover. They’d find me in less than a minute, but I just needed a spot to catch my breath and recharge my reservoir.

I never got that chance.

Something tripped up my legs, sending me sprawling in front of the elevator. I quickly slipped inside before peeking out, but I didn’t see anything I could have stumbled—

Someone was coming.

From the other end of the room, where the other aves were, two large men ambled up, as cool as you pleased.

One was a thin, reed-like man with bright violet hair, but otherwise baseline. He had a broad grin on his face, like a shark before the kill. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

Not like the other man.

“Heya, Red!” General Brannigan, general of Necessarius, called over to me. “It’s been a while! I think we had a chat before the bats, right?”

Violet-hair chuckled. “Don’t play with your food, Zapp. It’s unbecoming.”

Renegades. Blackguards. Whatever you wanted to call them. I should have known they’d be here. And Brannigan? We had suspected he was one for a while, ever since Elizabeth was outed and we started paying closer attention to anyone who called Laura ‘Highlander.’ But we had assumed that if a ‘sarian had been turned, things would be a lot worse.

Well, it looked like things were about to get a lot worse.

“C’mon out, Akiyama,” violet-hair cooed. “We just want to plaaay…”

“Who’s playing with their food now?” a third voice, slightly annoyed, noted. “Grab her if she tries to rush me, but that’s it.”

No. It couldn’t be. I looked out—

It was. Mitchel St. John. The guy Ling had been looking for. The orphan I had fought on the rooftop, and removed his—

—hand?

He had both hands. I could see them clearly, holding the rifle he had slung across his chest. The rifle wasn’t one I recognized, but it was probably another Hellion—

His choice in firearms was not important right now. How in Musashi’s name did he get a new hand? He couldn’t have stolen it from NHQ, and the toy maker wasn’t good enough to create a functioning hand out of whole cloth yet.

“Akane,” the green-haired freak called out, in a tone he probably thought was friendly. “Let’s be reasonable about this. Fillip’s telekinesis is stronger than your speed. Ziba can heal people—I’m sure you noticed what he’s done for the hand you took from me—and I’m quite well armed. Just give up.”

Brannigan was a healer? That was a problem. If nothing else happened here, I needed to take him out of the game. If he could restore Mitchel’s hand, who knew what else he could do.

But I couldn’t just rush out. Violet-hair—Fillip—seemed confident he could handle me, and it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out who I’d go after first. If I could get in contact with Robyn, this would go much more smoothly.

“How about this?” Mitchel called. “I’ll let Clarke’s girl go. She’s a flier, right? Fillip will blast out one of the windows, and she can run on home. All you have to do is come with us.”

…was he seriously trying to recruit me? Where did that come from? The Composer’s minions hadn’t done anything but try to kill us since this whole mess started. Sure, some of Elizabeth’s tactics didn’t make sense, but they were still consistent, just not fighting at her full strength. This abrupt left turn just seemed…weird.

The most likely answer was that it was a trick. They kill or capture both of us when we expose ourselves. Then they could drag us back to the bronze bitch for hypnotism or indoctrination or whatever.

Obviously, surrender wasn’t an option. But I had to keep them distracted until I could figure out where Robyn was.

“Why?” I called. “You’ve got ‘sarians. You’ve won.”

Mitchel clicked his tongue. “We’ve got one ‘sarian, and a stupid one at that.”

“Hey!”

“Oh, shut up Zapp, you’ve lost every battle you’ve ever fought. How’d you even get to be a general, anyway?”

“I’m a tank commander, that’s how. Only problem is, no one uses tanks here! I still haven’t gotten used to all your crap.”

Wait, there was something important there. I peeked out of my hiding spot to see the pair glaring at each other, while Fillip kept a wry eye on me.

“Outsider?” I asked.

Brannigan turned to me in mild surprise. “Yeah. Got kicked out of the army for blowing up an enemy base that had diplomatic ‘hostages.’” He used air quotes around the word hostages. “They were working with the enemy. I kept enough alive for interrogation, that’s all that matters. But the joint chiefs didn’t see it that way.”

Made sense for him to be snatched up by Necessarius, then. That was the kind of thinking Butler liked. At the same time, Mitchel had to be understating his track record—the Big Boss wouldn’t keep someone around who failed constantly.

Still, I needed to keep him talking. “And Elizabeth?”

The man shrugged. “Met her during a minor diplomatic dinner. We got to talking, and I liked what I heard.”

That would be when she brainwashed him. Either she had pulled him somewhere and done it right then and there, or convinced him to meet her later without his guards.

On the plus side, she barely ever went to any of those functions. That might explain why she hadn’t converted more of Necessarius: She just hadn’t been able to get anyone important alone without arousing suspicions. Generals and other higher-ups in the organization were allowed to keep their own doctors, as long as they sent the results back to NHQ, so it would have been child’s play to hide anything that would have given them away. For the grunts, various forms of sleeper agent testing were commonplace and mandatory. We could thank Malcanthet for that.

In the opposite corner of the room, I thought I saw a flash of red.

Robyn.

I couldn’t see much, but she was clearly still alive. Now I just needed to find a way to get us both out of here while staying that way.

“Okay,” I said slowly, an idea forming in my mind. “I’ll go.”

Mitchel narrowed his eyes. “You will, will you?”

“Yes. But the window first.”

“Hm…” The renegade knew better than to trust my abrupt about-face, just as I knew better than to trust his. But I had him backed into a corner. “That sounds fair enough. Fillip.”

The violet-haired Blackguard whipped his hand at one of the windows, and I could see the heavily reinforced glass start to shatter under the pressure.

That’s when I made my move.

The second Mitchel had given his ally the order, I had started tapping my reservoir, just enough to give me more time to react. And when Fillip’s attention was focused on the window—instead of me or Robyn—I cranked it up as high as it could go and rushed across the room.

Although it rankled me, I didn’t slash the Blackguards as I passed. I needed every spare second I could get, so I couldn’t afford to waste time with them. I still needed to kill Brannigan—preferably all of them, but definitely him—but that wasn’t the point of this.

I found Robyn, seemingly frozen in place due to my speed, peeking over the edge of an overturned cubicle. I tackled her, spreading my speed to her as much as I could, and dragged her into a nearby open door even as she yelped in surprise and fear.

In the room, which was some kind of office for the floor supervisor or whatever, I pulled my crimson-haired friend to the side of the door, out of sight of everyone outside, and placed my hand firmly over her mouth.

Then I realized my speed had already run out without me noticing.

When had that happened? I had never gone that fast for that long before, so I wasn’t quite sure exactly when it had run out. My intent had been to move fast enough so that I appeared to just disappear right in front of the renegades, but now I wasn’t sure that had worked.

“What the—where’d she go?”

“Not out the window,” Brannigan noted.

“Yes, Zapp, I can see that. Fillip, did you sense her?”

“Nope. She got us, boss. Rabbited when I was distracted.”

“Tezuka damn it…fine. Spread out, search for Clarke. Birds, keep men on the stairwell and elevator.”

A new voice, one I didn’t recognize, spoke up hesitantly. “B-but we’re not soldiers! I mean, we have pistols, but you can’t expect us to fight—”

There was a sudden sharp snap, followed by the dull thump of a body hitting the floor.

“Who’s second in command?” Mitchel demanded.

“I-I am.”

“Congratulations on your promotion. Now get some guards.”

“Y-yes sir!”

Robyn slowly pulled my hand from her mouth. “You got a plan?” she whispered.

“Escape.”

“Sound plan,” she muttered dryly.

“Think we also need to kill Brannigan.”

“Which one is that?”

“The ‘sarian. He’s a healer.”

She looked at me sideways. “So? Doesn’t the Geneva Convention say something about killing medics?”

I shook my head. “Too dangerous. He fixed Mitchel’s hand. He’s a healer, not a medic. He needs to die.”

My red-headed friend looked at me strangely, before shrugging. “Eh. Never really cared much about Geneva anyway.”

Good to hear, but we still didn’t have a way out of this, let alone a way to take out the Blackguards at the same time. Mitchel’s line about Fillip ‘sensing’ me wasn’t exactly putting me at ease, either. I had a feeling he’d be ready if I tried anything again.

The aves were probably the weak point, but there were only two exits, both on the other side of the room. I’d still have to go through the telekinetic to get out. Not to mention that Brannigan was standing next to him, and I didn’t have a gun.

“You armed?”

Robyn shook her head, which was expected. Musashi’s sword, I doubted it would have done any good even if she did have a gun. If Fillip could handle me at full speed, he could handle a few measly bullets.

But…he hadn’t handled me, right? I had managed to speed past without him noticing. So if I just…

“Your reservoir full?”

This time Robyn nodded. “I can carry the both of us, no problem. You probably won’t enjoy it, though.”

If I had to, I could just jump on my own and use my power to absorb the landing, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t think I had ever tried to absorb a terminal velocity fall, and I didn’t want to test it right now.

“You said something about super strength.”

She looked confused for a moment, before nodding again. “Oh, right, right. Yeah, I can stack a few gravities on top—”

“They’re over here!” an ave called from about two feet away. “I found them!”

Musashi’s—no time to explain. I pulled her close and cranked up my speed as high as it would go, hoping she would understand what to do.

I rushed towards the window, the window Fillip had started to break, with Robyn still pulled close. I slammed the full weight of my body into the weakened glass, knowing full well it wouldn’t be enough to break it.

But Robyn had caught on to what I was trying.

The second my shoulder hit the glass, I suddenly weighed ten times as much as I had the moment before. The window was over-engineered to the point of absurdity, but I doubt there’s anything in the world that could withstand the force of two girls weighing over a thousand pounds each slamming into it faster than the speed of sound.

That includes my shoulder.

Even as the window was wrenched free of the frame, I screamed in wordless pain as my entire shoulder exploded. Just popped like a paint balloon, sending blood and something small and hard—splinters of bone—everywhere.

Now we were falling hundreds of feet through the air, my heart was pounding harder than a drum, and I was leaving a trail of blood in the sky like a plane trying to write designs with its exhaust trails.

I didn’t have much time. Adrenaline was keeping me focused at the moment, but I didn’t have long before the full force of the pain or the blood loss made me pass out. I couldn’t survive a landing like this, not on my own. So I clutched Robyn even closer.

She shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear her over the roaring sound in my ears. Whether that was the sound of too much blood leaving my body or just the wind, I had no idea, but it didn’t really matter. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway.

My last thought as darkness claimed me was that my life was in the hands of a coward who grew faint at the sight of blood.

Behind the Scenes (scene 192)

The Necessarian inspections mentioned near the beginning of this scene are entirely voluntary regulations that companies and cultures can choose to follow or not. However, if they choose to do so, they get some tax breaks, and many have found that customers are more willing to buy from companies that are certified by Necessarius.

Scene 191 – Mater Arbor

MATER ARBOR

ROBYN JOAN

Monday, the 22nd of October. Normally, I’d be in class on a day like this. Or in bed, skipping class. But yesterday, Ling had gone missing. So instead, I was flying around G’Hanir, the ave domain, to see if I could spot any sign of her.

Again.

“I spent five hours scouting out this stupid ‘scraper yesterday,” I reminded Adam through my headset. He was in a nice warm van with the retinue while I was flying around in the cold winter air. Never hurt to remind him that I was the one doing all the work here. “If there was anything to find here, I would have already.”

“Keep it up,” Jarasax insisted over the line. “Trust me on this: Persistence is the key. You need to learn their schedules. Then you’ll be able to spot any deviations from those schedules, and investigate.”

“All I see are a bunch of people hunched over keyboards, and a couple maintenance men installing speakers and stuff,” I muttered. “Other than some of those people having feathers, it doesn’t seem any different from any other ‘scraper.”

In order to let my reservoir recharge, I landed on one of the building’s balconies, a simple plaster chin jutting out from the rest of the structure. The entire ‘scraper was covered in the same tan plaster, except for the windows of course, probably in attempt to make it look like natural stone.

The first thing I had done when Adam called me yesterday was peer at the building from a distance through a pair of binoculars, to see if there was any surveillance I’d need to avoid. Exterior cameras, guards, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. All the cameras were pointing at the street and the first couple floors, and the only live guards were on floors ten and below. For a culture trying as hard as they could to get wings, the aves weren’t exactly prepared for flying enemies.

“The anthros are the ones to watch,” Kelly mused. “They’ll be the ones who are higher up in the organization.”

“Speaking of which, have you spotted Turgay?” Adam cut in. “Bald eagle anthro. He’d definitely be willing to help if we can get him alone.”

“I haven’t seen any anthros. Do you think that means anything?”

“It could mean they really have abandoned this as their headquarters,” Alex noted. “If none of their more important members are here. Kel, what’s your take?”

“Well, I’ll admit I have some experience with subcultures that are being hunted, but I’m not sure I can help much more. The aves and the Belians are just too different. But the anthros thing might be the key. Sax, you have stats on the ratio of anthros to non?”

“I think I can help with that,” MC chirped over the radio. The real one, of course. I barely even heard the fake ones any more, since I didn’t need directions or anything and the real one had always been happy to return my calls. “The aves have approximately a 1-200 ratio of anthros to non-anthros. That means their anthros are significantly more rare than those of other kemo cultures, even before accounting for their smaller overall numbers.”

Huh. “I guess…that means it’s not weird that I haven’t seen any?”

“It means that Kelly is right—the only ave anthros are Soaring Eagle’s personal guard and other high-ranking members of the culture. If you don’t see any, it’s doubtful she’s nearby.”

I blew out a breath, watching it frost in the cold air. I was high enough that I should probably put on my oxygen mask, but I didn’t want to deal with that right now. It had been a gift from Elizabeth, and it had been hard enough for me to not throw it away when I found everything out.

“How high can you fly?” Adam asked suddenly.

“Uh…well, I think my power works by gravity, so maybe to the edge of the atmosphere. I’m not sure, exactly. It gets too cold up there.”

“But can you reach the top of Gaho…Gehin—”

“G’Hanir,” I corrected him. I looked up, frowning. “…maybe. MC, how tall is it?”

“One-hundred and thirty floors,” she answered with what almost sounded like a yawn. “One sec, lemme…that’s six-hundred and fifty meters and some spare change. You sure you can make it that high?”

Actually, no, I wasn’t. I hadn’t paid too much attention to how high I normally went, but that certainly sounded pretty damn high.

My heart skipped a beat as I had a thought. “Wait, are there any balconies up there? I don’t see any.”

“Uh…not sure. Blueprints aren’t on file.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Adam asked. “I’m pretty sure builders have to give a copy to the city for inspections and so on.”

George just laughed. “Inspections? Remind me to tell you the story of how Odin bought a hotel for a couple hundred bucks after faking a rat infestation.”

The retinue laughed at Adam’s expense, but I couldn’t bring myself to share in their mirth. I had a big lump in my throat that was making it hard to breathe.

“Robyn?” MC asked gently, the first to notice something was wrong. “What is it?”

“I’m…just a little worried about not having any place to rest. What if my reservoir runs out?”

“Then you fall and die,” Adam cut in coldly.

“Anders,” Kelly warned.

“And so does Ling,” Adam continued, ignoring the Belian. “You’re the only one who can do this. We can’t, Derek and Laura can’t. Now, you can either fly up to the top of that building, or I’ll call Akane and see if she can run up it.”

We all knew that wouldn’t end well. I had seen her pull of that trick a couple times, but only up a few stories. She just didn’t have a deep enough reservoir to pull off much more than that.

“Fine,” I growled into the headset. “You win. Radio silence, I have to put on this stupid mask.” I should have just gotten one with an integrated radio; cost less than a hundred bucks, and Uncle Art would have given one to me for free if I asked.

Adam said something in reply, but I was already tearing off the headset, and didn’t care enough to ask him to repeat it. I slipped on the mask, took a deep breath to make sure it was working, and then…

Another deep breath.

And another.

And another.

Red dusk, I could do this! There was no fighting, no blood, just flying, my favorite activity! I should be jumping at the chance!

The chance to fly higher than I ever had before.

To where it was cold enough that if I took off my mask, I might having to worry about the moisture in my lungs freezing.

And if something went wrong with the mask, I’d pass out from oxygen deprivation and fall hundreds of feet to my death.

Yeah. Even if my jack-hammering heart didn’t pop in the next five minutes or so, this still wasn’t happening. This was a job for like, Lily, or those guys on tv who stress-test the newest toys. I wasn’t built for putting myself in danger. I just…couldn’t.

But Ling was in trouble.

She wasn’t at the top of this building, I’d bet anything on that, but something up there might lead us to her.

I’m not Derek. I can’t jump in every time I see a fire, on the off chance that there’s someone who needs to be rescued.

But if I know there is someone who needs rescue…I can do it. I can. It just…takes me a second to get psyched up, that’s all.

I took one last deep breath, crouched down, and jumped straight up.

I activated my power as soon as my feet left the ground, altering the way gravity affected me and letting myself ‘fall’ towards the top floor. Some distant corner of my brain altered my equilibrium as well, so I wasn’t falling feet first.

The wind whistled past my face, the cold nipping at my uncovered ears, but thankfully I had invested in a decent pair of goggles recently, so at least my vision remained clear. The cold, tan side of the building zipped by a few feet away, broken up every second or so by something bright and shining. The windows, going by too fast to get more than even a general idea of them.

I flew as fast as I could, trying desperately to reach the top of the tower before I could think too hard about what a horrible idea this was. I was going faster than I ever had before, fast enough that I was losing track of myself. My reservoir was already almost three quarters empty, what if—

And then there was no more building. Just blank sky, with a sea of clouds stretching in every direction.

I was this high already? I had been going faster than I thought! And—

And my reservoir ran out.

Almost a hundred feet above the top of G’Hanir.

No. No no no no…

Gravity slowly remembered I was under its thrall, a lazy hand stretching upward to take hold of me again…

And then I was falling.

My sense of balance was all out of whack from the flight. I didn’t even know which way was up any more. My reservoir was already replenishing, but not as fast as Akane’s or Derek’s would have. I only had one small burst of power, enough to get me onto the roof. If I aimed wrong…

Well.

I just wouldn’t aim wrong.

Even with my mouth as dry as a desert and my heart hammering like a machine gun on full auto, I felt a strange sort of calm. It wasn’t courage, not exactly. It was just a simple, desperate knowledge.

This would either work, or it wouldn’t. But I had to try.

Fear exists for a reason, and not just to keep you out of danger. Once you’re in danger, fear is often what gets you out.

Right now, my heart was pumping enough adrenaline into my bloodstream that time seemed almost to slow. The chemical shut down the higher functions of my brain, keeping me from wasting time thinking about anything beyond the immediate task of survival. My eyes were as wide as saucers, giving me a good view of the wheeling horizon.

Ah, I was spinning as I fell. No wonder I couldn’t find my balance.

The smartest thing to do would have been to tap into my reservoir, just a hair, to stop my wild tumble and orient myself to get a better look at my surroundings, but that was the double-edged sword of adrenaline. I was operating on pure instinct, and couldn’t come up with a complicated plan like that on the spot.

Instead, I simply judged the moment as best I could even with the spinning, waited a heartbeat…

And then altered my personal gravity again, throwing myself ten feet to the side.

The inertia of the sudden shift threw my stomach into my throat, but I immediately had other things to worry about as I hit the roof at ten or twenty miles an hour.

That might not sound like a lot, but don’t be fooled. Baseline humans were never designed to go much faster than that; even Olympic sprinters can only get a little better than twenty miles an hour. Falling at that speed hurts, even in the best of circumstances.

When you’re landed roughly on a gravel roof at a roll, only to have your progress halted swiftly by some sort of large metal air conditioner, it’s a little bit worse.

Despite being the daughter of Isaac Clarke, I’m pretty much baseline. I changed my hair and eye color, sure, got a couple minor buffs for sight and so on, but nothing to lessen the gross impact of this kind of fall.

I coughed once, then twice. No blood came up, so I probably didn’t have any internal damage. I felt around my side with my hand, but didn’t feel anything poking up where it shouldn’t.

With a groan of effort, I struggled to my feet, brushing sharp and bloody pebbles out of my knees and elbows. I winced, but I’d be fine. I was finally thankful for that clotting buff my dad had gotten me a few years back. I wouldn’t bleed out from little cuts like these.

My cell phone had been smashed in the tumble. Figured. I kept the pieces in the hopes that MC could get the data off it later, but for now, that wasn’t the important part.

The important part was that I was on my own.

Swell.

First thing I noticed was that this wasn’t like a normal roof. Most roofs in Domina were completely flat, with the exception of the stairwell and a few machines. It made life easier for the inevitable roofhoppers. G’Hanir had two tiers, which was the style from about twenty years ago, with the part I was on only being a small walkway that wrapped around the taller floors in a right-angle ‘C’ shape.

I tried the nearest door, but it was locked, and I didn’t have my picks. I walked to the other side of the ‘C,’ with no more luck on that door.

Great. I get all the way up here, only to find myself stuck on a stupid maintenance ring for a bunch of air conditioners. What was the point of being able to fly—

Oh. Right. I could fly.

The center tier of the building wasn’t too much taller than the one I had been on, only four or five stories, so I felt confident floating up even though my reservoir wasn’t fully replenished. That roof looked more like what I felt was a normal roof, with a short lip to serve as a railing and a single door leading down inside.

This door was not locked. Probably because the birds liked to come out and get a taste of what they were missing, and someone had forgotten to lock it behind them. I walked down white-walled stairwell for maybe a dozen floors, until I was sure I was well below where I had landed. Then I slipped out of the dingy little access area as quietly as I could.

And immediately came to face to face with an ave.

Other than his too-large eyes, it would have been impossible to identify him as one of the birds. Dark skin, short hair, strong build…even with the eyes, I wouldn’t have pegged him for an ave. It was only in G’Hanir that it was obvious he was trying to mimic some type of owl.

“Could you move, please?” he said after a moment. “I was trying to get up there.”

“Oh, of course.” I stepped to the side, and he brushed past. He hadn’t seen my wounds, or hadn’t seen fit to comment on them, and I had hidden my mask the second I was past the cheap airlock at the top.

Okay. I was in the enemy stronghold. Now I just had to find information, avoid confrontation, and get out.

All things I was good at.

Behind the Scenes (scene 191)

“Those guys on tv who stress-test the newest toys” who Robyn is referring to is a documentary tv show called Ready or Not. It started about seven years ago, when some toy engineers needed a way to get more money for their research. Think Deadliest Catch meets Mythbusters, with more jumping off buildings and drinking poison.

Also, the reason Robyn burned through her reservoir so fast is precisely because she was flying at top speed. Like how you get the worst gas mileage in your car while flooring the accelerator.