I was beginning to remember why I hated being outside Domina City.
It’s all the little things you take for granted that hit you hardest when you leave home. I knew not to expect to be able to call MC, or to have weapons within reach at all times. It was the loss of the rest that got to me.
Easy access to the internet. Mission boards for cash, roofs built to make jumping and traveling between them easier.
And, of course, no one here used the toy maker.
It made me shiver, just a little, every time I looked out onto the crowds filling the sidewalks like packed sardines, and not seeing a single modification. No anthros or giants standing out from the crowd, no demons with nothing more than horns or tails, no kemos with fur or animal ears.
I didn’t have any obvious toys myself, of course. A few internal buffs for poison and disease resistance, a cosmo to clear up a few blemishes and other scars of puberty, some other minor enhancements.
No one here had any of that.
Last time I left Domina City, I stayed in my room as much as humanly possible. I had heard horrible things about the outside, about racism and prejudice based on nothing but the way you were born, and I had no interest in seeing any of it for myself. That wasn’t really an option this time.
We found a place to eat right across the street from our hotel, a small one-story pizza kitchen with a bit of outdoor seating that reminded us of home. The waitress—a baseline girl with freckles—did a double take on seeing Robyn’s red eyes, but managed to cover up her surprise with a smile.
“What can I get for you today?”
Derek frowned at the menu, not liking what he saw. “I’m not sure… do you have any rat?”
The waitress opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “We don’t—this is a clean restaurant, sir.” She pointed at a certificate on the wall with a shaky hand. “Health inspector was here just last month. No rats.”
“What? No, I mean—”
I stomped on his foot as hard as I could.
“Apologies,” I said to the poor, confused girl as Derek cursed under his breath and nursed his foot. “He’s Canadian. We’ll just have one extra large pepperoni. And four waters.”
The waitress managed to plaster a reasonably friendly smile on her face, took our menus, and sashayed away.
“What was that about?” Robyn asked with a raised eyebrow. Akane was probably just as confused as her, but she was in sentinel mode, keeping her mouth shut and her eyes open, scanning the restaurant for potential threats. “They don’t eat rats?”
“Giant rats are a result of the toy maker,” I reminded her. They were an extremely simple result, of course—just tweak a few genes so they grew more than they were supposed to—but they still wouldn’t be seen outside Domina. “Out here, rats are just dirty little rodents. Maybe a little bigger than mice.”
“Makes sense,” Derek grunted. “Couldn’t you have warned me some other way, though?”
“Without using the phrase ‘they don’t eat rats?’ Probably not.”
I made note of his odd behavior. Derek wasn’t one for sullenly ending a conversation. Maybe he was disturbed by this place more than I had expected.
“Let’s just take things one at a time,” I suggested. “For now, we can eat, and then go see a movie. There has to be a theater nearby.”
“There is,” the waitress assured me as she passed out our drinks. “On the other side of this block. Fastest way to get there is take a right out of our door, a right at the corner, then a right at the next corner. You’ll spot it soon enough.”
“We could have found it on our own,” Robyn muttered.
“Robyn Joan Clarke,” Derek snapped, making her wince. “Seriously, your mom would smack you if she heard you talking like that.” He turned to our waitress with a smile. “Sorry. Thank you very much for the directions.”
The girl nodded, obviously more than a little confused, and moved away again.
“What is up with you?” Robyn snapped back once our waitress was out of hearing range. “Last time you got like this was that time I got drunk and licked Akane.”
“We’re representatives of the city right now. We have to be on our best behavior.”
“I thought the point was not to let them know… you know… that.”
He rubbed his forehead. “I know, it’s just… okay, that’s not it. I’m sorry, I’ve just been on edge. With everything that happened yesterday. I mean…” A pained look passed his face. “How many people died? Do we even know?”
“Less than would have if we hadn’t intervened,” I reminded him. “That’s all you need to know.” I reached over and placed my hand on his. “What’s done is done. Try not to worry about what could have been.”
Derek clasped my hand tightly and managed a smile, and—
“Wait, are you two dating now?” Robyn said, snapping us both back to the present. Derek released my hand. “I hadn’t heard anything about that.”
I sighed. “No.”
“Really? I thought you had that thing about no touching—”
“Robyn, just drop it,” I spat, more harshly than intended.
She gave me a look—not hurt so much as just confused. “Red dusk, you too? I wasn’t the one running around killing people! I just—” Her mouth slammed shut so fast I was pretty sure I could hear it click. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked away.
So. She was still having problems with killing Nabassu. I had very little idea of how to deal with this. My first kill had also been self defense, but more importantly it had been at a distance, with a remote explosive. It’s a bit easier to rationalize killing—at least for me—when there’s no recognizable corpse left behind. Derek and Akane both had their first kills when I was in North Outer, so I didn’t know how they had dealt with it. And Adam, of course, had taken to killing like a fish to water.
I’m not a people person in general, and helping someone get over murder guilt was far beyond what little armchair psychology I had gained from watching that one cop show with the psychologists.
As a city, Domina had never been especially fond of psychologists, psychiatrists, and anyone like them. Criminals and prisoners didn’t like people trying to psychoanalyze them, and then one of the therapists at the most successful mental hospital in the city went crazy, turned the place into a giant torture house, and ended up creating the fey, so that hadn’t exactly done the discipline any favors.
Still, Butler surely had some on staff. He had a crazy behavioral sociologist studying the effects of blues music on the flu virus (not the virus infecting people, just when it was floating around in the air), we could find someone Robyn could talk to about her problems.
After a few more minutes of awkward silence, the steaming pizza came out, and our still confused waitress put it on an ingenious little metal stand that kept it about half a foot off the table, where it didn’t take up as much room.
“Um,” Akane said, drawing the waitress’ attention. “Do you—” But she fell silent and looked away when the girl turned her attention on her.
I sighed. “Just tell the poor girl what you need,” I ordered firmly. “We’ve made her work hard enough today.”
Said waitress shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s fine! You all have done nothing wrong! I just—” She interrupted herself before she said something she shouldn’t, and plastered a smile on her face, before turning back to Akane. “What can I get for you?”
The swordswoman muttered something under her breath.
The waitress leaned forward. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Spiced parmesan,” she said, a little louder. “Please.”
There was a long pause.
“Huh?” The girl turned to Derek and I, perhaps sensing that we were in charge. “Is that… normal, where you come from?”
Oh, she was more clever than she looked. She had guessed we weren’t from around here. Hopefully she hadn’t realized precisely where we were from, but it wouldn’t matter too much.
“No,” I answered. “It’s not.” I eyed Derek. “At least, I’ve never heard of it.”
“No, you’re right, it’s Akane’s thing.” He smiled at the waitress as best he could. “If you could just bring out a shaker of garlic powder, we’d appreciate it.”
Akane looked like she wanted to say more—maybe ask for a different type of spice—but wisely kept quiet as the girl moved away. Rather than arguing with Derek, she just gave him a brief glare and switched back to sentinel mode, surveying the room carefully.
I raised my eyebrow at Derek. “What was that about?”
He shrugged. “We normally get pizza at Nervi’s. She’s more than happy to mix up this weird… Parmesan/garlic/pepper… I don’t know, there’s a lot of stuff—”
“Parmesan/garlic/hot pepper/oregano/basil/onion,” Akane interjected quietly.
Derek sighed. “Yeah, that. It’s easy if you’ve got a bunch of it on hand, of course, but you can’t expect some random restaurant to have all that, or be willing to mix it all up for you.”
His bodyguard resolutely ignored him.
We ate mostly in silence, though I was able to strike up a conversation with Robyn about the inadequacy of some of MC’s map and guide programs, and within twenty minutes or so, the pizza was completely gone.
After we left—leaving behind a big tip—we sort of stood around awkwardly out front for a few minutes.
“So…” Robyn said slowly. “Want to try that movie theater?” She shrugged. “I guess. No harm in just taking a look, right?”
No one had any particularly loud objections to that plan, so we ambled off in the direction our waitress had indicated.
I kept my eyes down as much as I could. Not our of fear of provoking anyone, I just… did not want to look at people. I wasn’t one of those anti-baseline freaks—obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t still be a baseline—but still. All the unaltered faces were a little disturbing.
I was so focused on keeping my head down, I almost didn’t notice that Derek had stopped right in front of me. I looked up to see a few blue wooden saw-horses blocking the sidewalk, and a large crowd trying to see what was going on.
We, however, were a few yards too far back to see anything other than a few blue-uniformed men and women patrolling the other side of the barricade. Lawmen, I assumed. But what were they protecting people from? I didn’t smell any gunsmoke, so it probably hadn’t been a firefight. Unless it had already been a few hours, but then why would they still be blocking the way?
Robyn was as curious as me, if not more. “I can—”
“No,” Derek and I said at the same moment.
Our red-haired friend looked a little hurt. “It was just an idea.”
“It’s an idea that might get us lynched,” Derek retorted.
“Shot, maybe,” I mused. “No one lynches people any more.” They didn’t in Domina either, so I wasn’t sure why Derek though they might out here. “Akane, take a quick look.”
The swordswoman nodded, and in the space of a blink, she was gone and back. It was extremely doubtful anyone noticed, or had any idea what had happened if they had.
“Car crash,” she reported.
Derek rubbed his forehead. “Okay, okay, we’re not getting through here…” He looked around. “That alley over there. Maybe we can cut through to the other side of this mess.”
It took longer than it had any right to for us to shove our way through the crowd of gawkers, but most people let us by once they realized we weren’t trying to move to the front.
The alley wasn’t really anything special. Dirt and grime everywhere, trash in the corners, and a couple dumpsters next to the back door of what appeared to be restaurant. I could almost believe I was back in Domina, getting dragged into another disgusting monster lair, except the homeless man huddled against the wall was completely baseline. We had homeless baselines in Domina, of course, but most took the Cannibalism buff to make eating easier.
Robyn made a face as she stepped to avoid a puddle of something that was probably just rain water. “Ugh, this is worse than the alley with the brick-plated gargants.”
Derek snorted. “That was barely even an alley. I mean, it had a freaking park and—” He frowned. “Wait, you weren’t there.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Of course I was. Who did you think saved you idiots?”
He opened his mouth, blinking owlishly for a moment before speaking. “Oh. That makes sense. I mean, at the time, we just thought it was Lizzy, but in hindsight…”
But now I frowned too. “Wait. MC knew that Elizabeth was claiming credit.” Well, she had implied she was claiming credit, which let her dodge my power. “Why didn’t she mention anything?”
Robyn shrugged. “Because I didn’t tell her about the alley. Didn’t see the point.”
Akane gave her a look. “You didn’t want to explain why you stole the calciophage.”
“It wasn’t—I mean, I just—uh… hi.”
The last was spoken not to Akane, but to the large, broad-shouldered baseline man who had stepped up to block our path through the dingy little alley.
He was reasonably well-dressed, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans that, though cheap, were clean and new enough. He might actually have been a bit dirty and dingy, but in this alley, the mere fact that he had bathed some time in the last month made him seem a level above.
His nationality was a bit hard to pin down. His olive skin pegged him as Mediterranean, but at a couple inches over six feet tall and seemingly the same wide, he was bigger than anyone from that region I had ever seen. Of course, he was bigger than any non-giant I had ever seen period, so maybe that wasn’t the best point of comparison.
“Morning,” he practically growled as a greeting. His eyes were sharp and cold, and measured us up with cruel pragmatism.
I turned to look behind us, and my suspicions were quickly confirmed. Two more baseline men, smaller but still strong of arm, had blocked the way we had come. The homeless man was quite wisely pretending to be asleep.
“Let’s keep this easy, all right?” one of the men said calmly, as he and his partner produced large and dangerous combat knives. The bigger one remained unarmed, I noted.
Derek looked back and forth between the smaller pair and the not-giant, frowning.
“I’m confused,” he said slowly.
“It’s not hard,” the other knife-wielder wheezed in a high-pitched, nasally voice. “Money, now.”
Derek raised his hand to forestall any complaining. “No, no, I get that. You’re mugging us, you don’t want any trouble, money or your life, so on and so forth. I understand. I’m just wondering where the rest of you are.”
The first knife-wielder, the one with an African skin tone and an accent to match, raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“The rest of you,” Derek repeated. “Standard ambush tactics are to either attack from surprise—which you blew in order to request a surrender—or strike with some other overwhelming advantage, most commonly numbers. So…” He spread his hands wide, indicating the still-empty alley. “Where are you reinforcements.”
Nasal-voice hissed. A baseline human’s hiss is significantly less intimidating when you’ve been hissed at by ophidians with carefully crafted vocal cords made to produce a real hiss, not to mention the poison fangs to back up the threat. “Shut up! Just give us your money!”
Derek looked at me, then at the not-giant, then back at the pair with the knives. “So am I to understand you three are the extent of this ambush?”
The big guy growled out a word again. “Yeah, and we’ll be more than enough to—”
Akane shattered his knee with a single kick.
He bellowed like a gargant, tumbling to the grimy floor, but before he could recover the little Japanese girl was already in motion. She took his head in both hands and slammed her knee into it at full force, shattering his nose and causing him to rear back in pain.
Once again, she was ready. A series of lightning-quick jabs to his throat caused him to choke in pain, and when he tried to bring up his hands to fend off her attack, she ghosted behind him and kicked him hard in the small of the back.
The not-giant went tumbling forward, bloody face grinding against the dirty water of the alley floor, and he did not stir.
This all took less than twenty seconds, and the knife men, being obvious amateurs, spent half a minute gawking instead of moving to help their ally or just run away. Seeing their muscle hit the ground like a sack of potatoes seemed to galvanize them into action, though.
The African one was the first to move, slashing quickly and lethally at Derek’s throat. The blond monster slayer caught him easily by the wrist, twisted the offending limb—causing his opponent to cry out in pain, but keep a grip on the weapon—before wrenching the knife-wielder’s arm behind him and dislocating it from the shoulder with another expert twist.
As his second ally fell to the ground, nasal-voice was finally compelled to motion.
He may as well have not bothered. When he swung his knife, it was an awkward overhand stab that any idiot could have dodged. Derek did so, then jabbed the man in the side to cause him to double over in pain, kicked him in the back of the knees to send him to the ground, and grabbed the man’s skull in a way that would make it child’s play to snap his neck.
The idiot didn’t realize how much danger he was in, and tried to stab the arms that held him—not realizing, of course, that he could easily miss and kill himself.
Derek wasn’t in the mood for that much blood, so he grabbed the knife hand by the wrist, wrenched it—forcing his opponent to drop it—and then kicked nasal-voice in the back, sending him sprawling.
But nasal-voice didn’t know when to quit. He grabbed the knife from his fallen friend and charged at Derek, blade raised and face contorted with rage.
With a flick of his foot, Derek flipped the other knife up into the air, grabbed it, and threw it with lethal accuracy.
In the space of a blink, nasal-voice’s knife hand was pinned to the brick wall of the alley by a combat knife never designed for throwing. Akane couldn’t have done it better herself.
The man winced and hissed, before trying to pull the knife out of the wall with his free hand—
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” I warned. “You’ll do a lot of damage if you manage to pull that out, not to mention that right now its the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death. Even if you don’t pass out from the pain, you’d probably be dead pretty quick. Easier to just wait for an ambulance.”
He hissed at me again. “You bastards don’t know who you’re messing with—”
“We left you alive on purpose, you idiot,” I explained calmly. “Although, by all means, keep talking about how unbelievably dangerous you all are, and how you’ll hunt us down and kill us. It’s not like we’re in a position to kill all three of you with zero effort, right here and now.”
Finally showing some degree of wisdom, he shut his mouth.
I patted him on the shoulder as I walked by, stepping over his fallen friends. “Just wait for the cops, cool off in jail. Better than dying.”
A quick assessment confirmed that Derek and Robyn were ready to go, but Akane was staring at her white shirt in annoyance.
“What’s the problem?” Derek asked, knowing that under normal circumstances she would already be leading the way in case of any further ambushes.
“Blood,” the swordswoman muttered, presenting the red droplets on her otherwise pristine shirt.
I frowned. “Of course. And you don’t have any other clothes, do you?” She shook her head. “Didn’t think so.” I turned to the homeless man in the corner. “Hey you, there any clothing stores nearby? A bit on the cheaper end would be fine.”
The grimy man cracked open an eye, realizing that continuing to feign sleep would do him no good.
“There’s a McMullen’s nearby,” he said calmly, as if people asked him for directions every day. Maybe they did. “Once you come out the other side of this alley, it’s right across the street. Can’t miss it.”
“Thank you,” I said genuinely, then handed him two hundred dollar bills to make sure he knew I meant it. “I’d recommend getting out of here, in case these guys do have friends.”
The man eyed the money with suspicion, then surprise, then nodded. “Will do. You kids have a good day, now.”
“Likewise,” Derek said with a smile.
Behind the Scenes (scene 213)
Fascinating, isn’t it, how they just manage to stumble into an ambush like that?