Monthly Archives: April 2015

Scene 217 – Pecuniam

PECUNIAM

ROBYN

“We’re out of money.”

Laura rubbed her eyes as she sat up in bed. “Robyn? Why are you up so early?”

I didn’t see the need to mention that my dad had given me one of those half-insomniac glands, which cut a couple hours off my sleeping needs. “Did you hear me?” I held up the empty backpack. “We’re out of money.”

The sharp-faced girl didn’t look so sharp right now, squinting in my direction like a mouse coming out of its hole for the first time.

“We… can’t be out of money,” she said slowly. She yawned loudly. “We had something like eight thousand dollars left. Yeah, eight thousand, one-hundred and fifty.”

Impressive as her memory was, even at this hour, that didn’t change the facts. I tossed her the bag. “Take a look for yourself.”

She caught it pretty easily—it only weighed about a pound, after all—and rifled through the various pockets and compartments, her frown deepening with every moment.

“Derek,” she said, shaking the body next to her. “Wake up.”

“Uh… I didn’t mean to grab there…”

“Shut up. Did you put the money somewhere weird?”

“Whuh? Uh…” he gestured vaguely in my direction, still under the covers. “Yeah, over on the dresser. No, on the chair next to the dresser.”

Laura gave me a worried glance; I shook my head.

“Not the backpack, Derek,” she said firmly. “The money. Did you take out the money and put it somewhere else? A drawer or something?”

“…no? Why?”

She sighed. “Because it’s not here.”

There was a slight pause.

Then Derek sat bolt upright, tossing his covers aside like they were physically attacking him.

Fully awake now, he grabbed the backpack from Laura and started rooting through it.

“It can’t be gone! I had it with me all day!”

Laura didn’t bother assigning blame. “When’s the last time you checked it?”

“About an hour after we got the souvenirs. So maybe nineteen-hundred hours or so.”

“And it was here in the room all night…” she narrowed her eyes. “Robyn, where’s Akane?”

“Taking a shower,” I replied.

“Done,” came a soft voice behind me; I turned to see Akane, in a new set of clothes and finishing drying off her hair with a towel. She knew something was wrong the second she stepped into the room. “What happened?”

“Money’s missing,” Derek reported tersely. “Did anyone enter the room while we sleeping.”

Akane gave him a level stare. “You gave me very strict instructions to relax. You wouldn’t even let me sleep in front of the door, preferring for me to spend the night in bed with grabby over here.” She jerked her thumb in my direction.

I turned up my nose at her accusation. It wasn’t my fault I was a natural cuddler.

Derek just stared right back. “Of course. I’m sure that as an accomplished and experienced warrior, you are perfectly capable of turning off your paranoia like light switch, just like I can. I’m sure you didn’t spend the entire night half-awake, listening to every creak of the building. Now—what did you hear?”

The girl sighed. “Nothing. My traps on the doors are untouched, and we would have heard them go off regardless.” She indicated the empty bags of chips from the vending machines, scattered around the floor. “And the second line of defense was undisturbed. Either no one entered the room last night, or they knew my precautions better than I did.”

“But the money’s still gone,” Derek murmured. “Could it have been taken before we got to the room?” He turned his attention back to his bodyguard. “After the souvenir shop, did you leave for any reason? Bathroom, something like that? It would make sense if someone only had to avoid my notice.”

“Hey!” I snapped indignantly. “Laura and I were there too!”

Akane ignored my outburst. “Not sure… there was that time I got stuck on the opposite side of a crosswalk, but you were still in full view that entire time, and it wasn’t that crowded, so I doubt somebody could have taken it without anyone noticing.”

“What I find odd is that they were able to open the backpack and get the money out,” Laura said slowly. The covers slipped off her body, and I noticed that she was still wearing her shirt from yesterday. She had forgotten her pajamas, and I guess she hadn’t wanted to just sleep in her underwear. “It would have made more sense if they cut the straps, grabbed it, and ran. As it is, it implies someone knew exactly what we had in there.”

Akane waved her hand. “I have a list of people who saw us take the cash out. The hostess here, the waitress at the pizza place, the homeless man in the alley…”

Laura nodded. “Point. There’s a long list of suspects, not even counting any friends or family members they could call to make the grab for them.” She sighed. “I think we have to accept the fact that the money is out of our reach.”

I sauntered over to mine and Akane’s bed and rooted around in the nightstand. “Simple enough. MC should be able to wire us some more, no trouble.” Even though no Domina banks existed here and vice versa—which was why credit cards weren’t an option—she still had connections. I found my phone, tapped the button labeled ‘MC,’ held it up to my ear…

And heard nothing but static.

“We’re out of range of her primary networks,” Laura noted as she pulled out her own cell. “Didn’t she tell you before we left? We need to call one of the city’s satellites. They’re run by her programs, so we should just…” she frowned. “Huh. I’m not getting through to the satellite.”

Derek leaned over to look at her phone. “Which one did you try?”

“Prima,” she muttered. “One sec, lemme try Secundus…” Another frown. “No good.”

“Try Tertius,” Derek suggested, naming the final Domina satellite. He pulled out his own phone. “I have another idea. One sec.”

“Tertius is down too,” Laura muttered. “I wonder if it’s a problem with the cell service in this city? America’s infrastructure leaves much to be desired…”

I swallowed. “You don’t think… something could have happened to the satellites, do you?”

But the Spanish girl shook her head. “No way. Even if something could get past the defenses—which is pretty unlikely—all three are designed to send up a broadband distress signal if something goes wrong. Unless someone has found a way to vaporize three of the most heavily defended satellites known to man in less than a second, we would have heard about it.”

“Jamming,” Akane muttered.

“Not on their end. You’d need a jammer the size of a small moon. On this end, though, it’s a distinct possibility.” She thought for a second. “We should try and call someone else, see if—”

“Already did,” Derek noted, closing his phone with a snap. “That was Adam’s friend on Shaohao station.”

Laura said “Adam has a friend on Shaohao?” at the exact same moment I said “Adam has friends?”

Derek’s lips quirked upwards in a smile. “Well. Maybe ‘friend of an acquaintance’ would be a better word. He met some people because of that Chinese astronaut he saved a while ago, and gave me the number. The guy says they’re having trouble getting through too—some sort of weird ion buildup on the satellites.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Ion buildup? Really?”

But Laura nodded. “It happens. Rarely, but it happens. Most likely something broke on one of the satellites, and it started spitting out electricity, which bounced around between the three.” She sighed. “You know, Senator McDowell mentioned something like this might happened. The refuelers aren’t careful, so there’s a bunch of debris and water scattered around that can provide a hazard like this.”

Akane’s face was scrunched up in confusion. “So… what does this mean?”

“It means it will take a few hours while Shaohao or one of our other spaceborne allies gets a maintenance crew down to fix the problem and clean up the mess,” Laura explained. She turned to Derek. “Did they say how long it’s been?”

He shook his head.

“Right, but it can’t have been more than a few hours, or they would have fixed it already.”

I thought back for a moment. “Shaohao has daily data exchanges with Domina, right?”

“No, that’s the Soviet Tsiolkovsky Station,” she corrected. “It’s the communications hub for all the colonies. You should know this.”

I sighed. “Laura, I didn’t take any space classes. Just get on with it.”

“Fine.” She paused for a moment herself, thinking. “Tsiolkovsky’s exchange with Domina is at 2200 hours, two hours before the second daily space cannon packages are fired. So if they discovered it then—”

“Shaohao didn’t say Tsiolkovsky told them,” Derek cut in quickly. “I think they found out on their own.”

Laura closed her mouth, before nodding. “Okay, then that means everything was in working order last night—Tsiolkovsky would have mentioned it if it wasn’t. And, of course, it was likely still in working order at midnight, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to calibrate the cannons, and that would have raised a red flag.”

“So, what?” I asked. “One of the Chinese randomly decided to call Domina, and they didn’t answer?”

Akane spoke up again. “Shaohao has some maintenance fleets, I think. Maybe they just noticed the problem on their own?”

“That might be a good thing,” Laura said with another nod. “It would mean that a repair crew is nearby, so it shouldn’t be too much longer—”

“Adam’s guy didn’t mention anything like that,” Derek cut in again. “Actually, he said they’d be sending the crew soon. It’s going to be at least a few more hours.”

“And we have literally no money,” I emphasized. “Except for about two bucks of spare change in the bottom of that backpack—” Derek checked, and seemed delighted to find a few quarters. “—we don’t have anything we can use to buy anything. No food, no nothing.”

Laura turned to Derek with a frown. “You think we should just stay in the room for the morning? Wait it out?”

He made a face. “Well, I really wanted to get some actual breakfast, but unless anyone is willing to raid the emergency stash, we don’t really have any other options.”

His bed mate stared at him. “We have an emergency stash?

“Domina does,” I corrected. “Just ten or twenty thousand dollars in some major banks. We have to be careful about picking it up, though. If we do it wrong, the funds might get frozen, and they’ll have to start a whole new emergency stash.”

“Why not just a cash stash?” Akane muttered.

But I waved her comment away. “This isn’t for spies and assassins who need extra equipment. This is for stupid tourists—people like us, in other words—who get in a bit of trouble and need money. You’re expected to pay it back.”

“It’s a last resort,” Derek said firmly. “Not because we can’t pay it back, but because I have a feeling we’d screw up the withdrawal process. For now, let’s just wait, and in a few hours MC will be able to wire us money using less suspicious means.”

Short version: She didn’t.

Sitting around a hotel room for six hours is not the adrenaline-fueled thrill ride it sounds like. Other than getting some snacks from the vending machine, we didn’t have any food, and Lara didn’t want anyone making any tracks on the internet, so we couldn’t even use our phones to surf stupid websites.

Soon after noon, Derek finally had enough.

“Okay, this is ridiculous,” he muttered, grabbing his shoes from the dresser, bringing them back to his bed, and starting to put them on. “Laura, can you try the satellites again? If you can’t get through, I’m going down to the bank.”

Laura pulled out her phone, but she frowned at the blond boy nonetheless. “If you go, we’re all going. This is a strange city, we shouldn’t be splitting up.”

“It will be suspicious if all four of us go to the bank together.”

“It will be fine. We might get an odd look or two, but even that is unlikely.”

Derek grunted in annoyance, clearly well aware he wasn’t going to be winning this argument any time soon.

Laura clicked her phone shut. “No response. Not unexpected. I’m beginning to suspect the damage was something more major, like micro meteors.”

Akane gave her an odd look from her spot next to me on our own bed. For some reason, she still hadn’t changed out of her nightclothes. “Those are real?”

“Above the atmosphere? Yes.” She sighed and checked her watch. “Okay, it’s a little after 1300. Let’s just find the nearest bank, get some money, then get lunch.”

“And keep a closer eye on it next time.”

“Yes Robyn, we got that.” The sharp-faced girl tied her own shoes on quickly. “Everybody else ready?”

Derek and I nodded. Akane chuckled, then blurred around the room at superspeed. In less than five seconds, she was fully changed and standing by the door.

“Well? What are you all waiting for? Let’s go!”

The rest of us rolled our eyes and followed.

We didn’t run into anyone on the way down, and the hostess at the door—a different girl from yesterday—was happy to point us to the nearest bank. Fortunately, there was a small one actually inside the hotel for servicing patrons, just a short walk deeper into the building, near the cafes and bistros.

Unfortunately, it was closed.

“It’s a Friday,” Laura muttered with a frown. “After noon on a Friday. Why are they closed?”

Derek checked his phone. “It’s November the 2nd. Is that a holiday? What’s that one thing they have after Halloween? The one with the turkey.”

“No, that’s later.” She shook her head and stalked away. “Silver and gold, this is more complicated than it has any right to be!”

“Giving up?” Akane asked, incredulous. Knowing her—and Derek, for that matter—she was probably wondering why we weren’t breaking into the place and just taking some money. Not that they’re thieves, they’re just a bit blunt and not used to giving up.

“Of course not,” Laura practically spat. Thankfully, she wasn’t angry at either of us, just in general. “We’re going to find another bank, one that isn’t randomly closed in the middle of the day.” She shook her head. “Seriously, there has to be at least one.”

“Our bank is closed?” the hostess asked as she walked by us. Apparently she was going on break, judging by the bagel in her hand. She frowned in the direction we had come from. “That… is odd. Really odd. Did you try knocking?”

“Yes.” Laura’s gaze made it clear she wasn’t in the mood to elaborate.

The hostess was intelligent enough to know not to antagonize her in this state, and gave a shaky smile. “There’s another one nearby that should be open. They’re even open on holidays and Sundays, so…”

She trailed off, wilting under Laura’s stare.

Derek coughed politely, and placed his hand on the Spanish girl’s shoulder. She blinked, and most of her fury eased off. She took a step back, putting him in the front.

He smiled winningly at the hostess, and she managed a more genuine smile in return.

I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes. Of course. Leave it to this idiot to talk to women.

“Sorry about my colleague,” he apologized. “We’re just in a bit of a bind. All we need is you to point us to that bank, and we’ll be out of your hair.”

She nodded hurriedly. “Right, sure! It’s just two blocks away, on 9th Street. Go out the door, take a right, and keep walking, and you can’t miss it.”

“But what’s it called?” Derek pressed.

“9th Street Savings and Loan.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 217)

Laura’s concerns about keeping satellites clean might seem odd, but it is a very real problem in an era of semi-casual space travel. There’s no wind in space, which means nothing to blow the dust and mist away, not to mention since the satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, very little of it falls back to Earth from gravity. This has resulted in a powerful spaceborne industry based around cleaning satellites and space stations… a service Domina City has never made use of, due to budgetary penny-pinching.

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Scene 216 – Sceleris

SCELERIS

JOHN

My name is John Lennon. Yes, like the Beatles, ha ha, very funny.

Anyway, nobody wants to hear my life story, the sordid tale of a young boy screwed by the system and all that. Let’s just get down to the basics, all right? Point is, I made some mistakes, ended up owing lots of money to lots of people, killed some of the people I owed money to, so on so on.

That’s how I found myself here, in New York. I ran halfway across the country, chasing rumors of a shuttle ticket to one of the colonies. Mons Agnes on Luna, maybe, or Lemuria on Mars.

Well, that didn’t go too well either, as I’m sure you’d expect, but I picked up some friends along the way, just a handful of guys like me. Guys with more muscles than sense, and more problems than muscles. Maybe this is how gangs get started, I dunno. One of the guys tried to call us ‘the Beatles,’ until I decked him, so now if we were a gang, it was one with no name.

We were all petty thugs, and the best way for petty thugs to make quick cash without attracting attention was with muggings.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. I flunked out of high school—friggin’ physics—but I can come up with a decent plan if I have to. Usually you don’t actually have to think hard, just big.

Long story short, we were careful. We sent out our boys well-armed so the targets wouldn’t resist, made sure to avoid anywhere cops had patrolled recently. The problem was, while mugging was good money for one or two thugs, it wasn’t quite cutting it for a dozen. And if we pushed too hard, the city would start cracking down once they noticed the rise in crime rates.

So, I decided to go the classic route: Bank robbery.

Everybody’s at least thought about robbing a bank, and that goes tenfold for criminals. It’s obvious, it’s simple, there’s a lot of money sitting in one place… it sure seems easy enough.

The reality is a lot more complicated.

I tapped my finger on the floor plans we had spread out on the table. “There are only five guards for the entire place, and one goes on lunch at two. If we’re careful, we can finish this up before he comes back.”

My second eyed the plans critically. “Well, the vault is right here, not too far from the entrance. The place is low-risk enough that they might just leave the thing open.”

“Maybe, but I doubt we’ll get that lucky.” I pulled out a couple mugshots of well-dressed middle-aged men. “These are the managers who can open the vault. We only need one alive.”

Bobby, one of my oldest friends, nodded. “Kill one, the other will be more cooperative.”

“Yeah, pretty basic. Greg, you got the masks?”

He tossed the ski masks onto the table. “Sure. Enough for everyone.”

“Good. Bobby, what about guns?”

She tossed our arsenal on the table. “An AK-47, one Walther handgun, two CO2 BB guns that look real, and…” she held up a strange thing that looked like a metal sculpture of a pineapple. “Whatever this is. They say it’s from Domina City.”

“It’s a McDowell party popper,” a sultry voice from behind us explained. “Shaped charge, extremely powerful.”

We all wheeled around, brandishing knives and clubs, to see the intruder in our midst.

It was… a woman. A drop-dead gorgeous woman, at that. She was sitting in a heavy black leather chair—which hadn’t been there five minutes ago—legs crossed seductively. Her bronze skin sparkled in the half-light of the basement, and her golden eyes glittered like stars.

She smiled, amused, as we stared, and flipped her long, caramel-colored hair over her shoulder, which drew attention to her silk dress.

And what a dress. Black as midnight, with a short skirt ending just above the knees, a lacy corset that did incredible things to her chest, and long matching black opera gloves that went all the way up to her elbows.

We didn’t have time for this right now; I shook myself out of my fugue and kept my gun leveled. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

She stood slowly, her every move measured and elegant, and—

Wow, she was tall. What was that, six feet and change? Was she wearing giant shoes, or—no, she had normal shoes on. She was just tall.

“My name is irrelevant to this discussion,” the woman said soothingly. “You may call me whatever you wish. My reason for being here is far more interesting.” She picked up a briefcase that I hadn’t spotted, sitting next to the chair that she couldn’t possibly have smuggled in without us noticing. “I would like to offer you all a job.”

Bobby snorted. “We’ve already got a job. So why don’t you take your offer and shove—”

I held up my hand, stopping her before she could finish, and eyed the woman in front of me, trying to take her measure.

She wasn’t afraid. That much was obvious. Her friendly smile and relaxed stance weren’t faked. She was standing in a room with a half dozen armed and spooked criminals, and she was completely unconcerned.

Was she confident that she could take us on or escape if things got hairy, or was she just that stupid?

“State your piece,” I growled.

She gave me a pitying look. No, that wasn’t the right word. Like… your little brother does something silly and stupid. You’re not mad, you’re just like ‘Oh, you.’ That was the way she was looking at me. Like she knew me, personally, well enough to see through my bluster.

“You are planning to rob a bank,” she noted. “9th Street Savings and Loan, shortly after 2PM tomorrow.” We all flinched at the casual way she mentioned something that was supposed to be very, very secret, but she continued as if she hadn’t noticed. “There will be a man there. I need you to kill him.”

I scowled. “Look, we’re not innocent, but we’re not assassins. Murder draws attention.”

“Do this right, and it won’t be seen as murder. Just some bank robbers killing a customer who tried to play hero.”

“And if he doesn’t play hero?”

She laughed, a musical sound of genuine mirth. “He will. I guarantee it. In fact—” She nodded to herself. “Yes. I literally guarantee it. If no one tries to stop you during your heist, I will pay you the remaining sum regardless.”

Bobby narrowed her eyes, but it was a calculating look, not a suspicious one. “How much will that remaining sum be?”

“Two-hundred and fifty-thousand dollars,” the intruder replied promptly, as she placed the briefcase on the table and opened it to reveal carefully organized stacks of cash. “In non-sequential hundred dollar bills.” She looked my second square in the eye. “If you’d prefer gold or some other medium of exchange, I can procure those instead.”

I nodded, stroking my chin to hide the fact that I was virtually shaking with excitement. “Half down, half on completion?”

That small, knowing smile returned again. “Please. We were already discussing the completion bonus. Two-hundred and fifty-thousand is half down.”

Behind me, Bobby made a small strangled sound.

The mysterious woman grinned, perfect white teeth gleaming.

I coughed, trying desperately to regain my composure. “O… kay. Okay. Yes, I think…” I turned to my wide-eyed friends and subordinates, before concentrating my attention back on her. “I think you have a deal. Though I do have to ask, how do you know your target will be there?”

“I’ve carefully tracked their movements the past few days.”

“Wait. Plural?” I growled at the sudden change in parameters. “There’s more than one?”

She wasn’t off put by my posturing. “Four, actually, but Derek—blond, blue eyes, recklessly heroic—is the only one I care about. You’ll almost certainly have to kill the Japanese girl as well, but the other two should be smart enough to stay quiet.”

Bobby still wasn’t convinced. “Even if you have been keeping an eye on them, what’s the guarantee that they’ll pick this bank?”

“I haven’t just tracked them, I also orchestrated events that will lead them to the correct bank at the correct time. A minor car accident to point them in the right direction, an ambush to put them in the right frame of mind…” She smiled thinly, and I suddenly had a very strong sense of gratitude that she was on our side. “They’ll be there.”

Well. What else was there to say?

I held out my hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

She grinned and shook my hand with a strong, firm grip.

“I expected nothing less.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 216)

Hey, look, new people. Oh, and evil plots, too.

Scene 215 – Movens Pictura

MOVENS PICTURA

DEREK

After we picked up some extra clothing at the store—dropping three hundred dollars between the four of us—we finally managed to find the movie theater we had been looking for and watch one of the summer’s hit blockbusters.

We weren’t impressed.

“I’m still confused,” Robyn said slowly. “That scene in that wooden building—”

“It was a barn,” Laura supplied.

Robyn waved her hand. “Whatever. Why didn’t he just kill the guy then?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. Apparently he didn’t want to.”

“But why? He knew he was the bad guy. Killing him would have saved dozens of lives!”

Akane didn’t even deign to look at her, just continued scanning the busy street for threats. “You’re advocating violence?”

Robyn flinched. “It’s… just a movie. Besides, I’m not the one doing it.”

Before anyone could argue more, Laura undercut it with a rather inane suggestion. She always was horrible at changing the subject. “Why don’t we buy some souvenirs? You know, for Adam and Lily and—”

She stopped mid-sentence.

“…Simon and Seena,” I finished for her.

She nodded quickly, latching on to the chance to pretend those were the names she had been thinking of. Instead of Lizzy. “Right. Those two, and their friends.” She smiled a little sadly. “We might want to splurge a bit. I think they’re still going to be pissed we kept them out of the loop.”

“We also need to grab something for Akane’s boyfriend!” Robyn cooed, ruffling the swordswoman’s hair. My bodyguard knocked the red-head’s hand aside and glared, but nothing more.

“We do owe Flynn a bit more than a fruit basket,” I muttered. “I doubt we’d be able to find any swords he’d like out here, but maybe some foreign game that hasn’t shown up on the black market yet?”

“Swords could work,” Akane muttered. “Display ones.”

I shrugged. “True, true… did he have his eye on anything in particular?” I waved my hand. “Generally speaking, I mean. I know he prefers a katana for himself, but maybe a…” I frowned and snapped my fingers. “What are Chinese swords called?”

“Lots of things. Jian is probably what you’re thinking of.”

“Yeah, one of those. Or an elegant rapier, or something.”

“Chinese is probably a better bet. There’s still a bustling Chinatown around here somewhere.” Laura looked around even as we walked, as though expecting to be able to spot the ethnic district from here.

“I know, that’s why I suggested it.”

Robyn tilted her head back, looking up at the sky with a longing expression on her face. It kinda surprised me, actually. She’d been grounded less than a day. Was she really that obsessed with flying? “I’m more worried about the Lancasters. What do you get a vampire Noble and a broken demon?”

I frowned again, but not because I was considering her question. I still didn’t know the stories behind what had happened to the twins. You’d think I would have noticed one of my friends becoming a warlord, and another suffering horrific modification backlash.

“Well, we obviously don’t want to get Simon anything directly related to his condition. That will just remind him of it. Maybe a game instead?”

Laura gave me an amused look. “Is that going to be your answer to everything?”

“Maybe. What else does this city have that we can easily take back with us?”

“Clothing is always a possibility.”

I rolled my eyes. “We already spent long enough at a clothing store without finding much. We can’t—” I stopped myself with a frown. “Actually… clothing might work well… some stuff is cheaper out here, right?”

Most clothing is cheaper out here,” she amended. “I know the Lolths and the Minervas produce a lot silk, but it’s still pretty expensive.”

“Hm…” As I understood it, pretty soon silk might actually be the cheapest clothing in Domina City. We hadn’t really had much contact with other Earthbound nations for decades—except to receive prisoners on a regular basis—but the space colonies we traded with had as much trouble producing cotton and other cloths as we did, due to a scarcity of the wide-open fields that sort of thing needed.

“Seena likes that one show,” Akane noted. “The one with the guys in the office building, or something. Maybe find some merchandise from that.”

“Sure.” It was a better idea than just wandering around the city for the rest of the day. “That’s a plan. What else is there to do around here?”

Robyn Joan snapped her fingers. “Postcards!

…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Come again?”

But Laura nodded excitedly. “That’s a good idea! Cheap, but still unique enough that we can get a different one for everyone. Perfect.”

“Okay,” I said with a sigh. “Pretend for a minute that Akane and I have no idea what you’re talking about, and explain what a postcard is.”

Laura rolled her eyes at me. “You can’t have forgotten. Remember those pictures of cities that Robyn used to collect?”

“I still collect them.”

“See?”

“Fine, whatever.” I waved my hand vaguely. “Yeah, the… ‘wishing you were here’ cards or whatever. I guess those could work, if we can’t find anything more specific for anyone.”

“We do need a list, though…” Laura said thoughtfully. “Of everyone we need to buy stuff for, I mean. Lily, Adam, and Flynn, of course. Then Simon and Seena, Yolanda—”

That made me scrunch up my face in confusion. “I don’t remember Yolanda.”

“Simon’s girlfriend, Senator Evangel’s niece.”

“Oh.” They were still dating? Good for them. After the debacle with Jelena a few years ago, I didn’t think he’d ever have a stable relationship again. “May as well put Evangel on there too.”

“Ugh.” She made a face. “You’re right, we need to remember adults too. Evangel, Mom and Dad, Doctor Clarke, Butler…”

“Nervi,” Akane added.

Laura nodded. “Both of them would be best.”

“Okay, fine, we need postcards.” I spread my hand, indicating the wide and unknown New York City. “Any idea where to find those?”

“A souvenir shop, obviously.”

I gave Laura a level look. “Right. And do you have any idea what one of those looks like?

Laura stopped dead in the street, then turned to Robyn with a frown. The red-haired flier shrugged uncomfortably. No one even bothered asking Akane.

Great. “All right, fine,” I said with a sigh. “I think I have an idea.”

Even with the thick crowds of pedestrians on the sidewalk, it didn’t take too long to get to where I was trying to go: A lone man in a thick jacket, smoking a cigarette at the mouth of a nearby alley. Judging by the smell, it wasn’t a safe-cig, and I had to resist the impulse to wrinkle my nose at it.

“Excuse me,” I said with my most winning smile. “Real quick—do you know if there’s a souvenir shop near here anywhere?”

The man looked me up and down lazily, before deciding that I apparently wasn’t planning to mug him. “Sure.” He pointed back the way we came. “About a block or two back, there should be a movie theater. Cross the street, and keep walking until you start to see shops selling those little Statue of Liberty models. That’s the sign you’ve found souvenir shops.”

“Thank you very much.” I turned to the girls. “See? That wasn’t so hard.”

Laura rolled her eyes, fished around in my backpack, and handed the man a fifty. “For the information, and the imposition.”

He was surprised, but accepted the money gladly. “Uh, sure. Thanks. No problem.”

As we moved away, Akane gave her a look. “Bad idea.”

The sharp-faced girl sighed. “Look, just because you like hunting poor people for sport—”

“Ghouls only.”

“Yes, because that’s so much better.”

Robyn shrugged. “Well, she has a point. The really heavily-modded ghouls aren’t exactly peaceful men and women just trying to eke out a living. They’re monsters.”

Laura glared. “Again, Robyn, why are you advocating violence?”

“Can we please not get into this again?” I begged as I rubbed my forehead. “Let’s just accept that Akane probably should stop destroying ghoul outposts when she’s bored—”

“Haven’t for a while,” she insisted. “And—”

And,” I cut her off, taking back control of the conversation. “They’re mostly Doresain’s anyway. They’re not exactly known for playing nice with other ghouls, let alone everyone else.”

Laura looked like she wanted to argue, but just shook her head. “Fine, okay, whatever. I’ve been on the defending side of more than one of the Ghoul King’s attacks. So I won’t argue.” She waved her hand. “Let’s just find something to buy for the people back home, then go and get some sleep.”

“And dinner,” I reminded her.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, and dinner. Silver and gold, we can even get room service if you want. We have the cash for it.”

“What’s room service?”

Laura sighed.

Behind the Scenes (scene 215)

Outside the city is a little hard to write, because while on the surface it looks about the same (albeit with a few minor cosmetic differences), underneath it’s quite different. In Domina, it’s perfectly common to pay a nearby ghoul or other homeless for information, with the pay being balanced between the value of the information, how much you want the knowledge of your presence to remain a secret, and how suspicions you want to be by dropping too much money.

break

Scene 214 – Vestitu

VESTITU

AKANE

I was beginning to like this place after all. Just when I’m feeling all depressed and out of place, what happens? Three random guys try to mug us. Quick, easy, and fun. Didn’t even have to use my power.

Other than the subtly disturbing lack of anyone other than baselines on the street, the only real problem I had with New York versus Domina was the conspicuous absence of gunfire, echoing in the background from distant parts of the city. They had the car horns and the sirens and so on and so forth, same as back home, but that constant boom of firefights was missing.

Oh well. I could survive for a week or so without running out and destroying a ghoul outpost or raiding a Nessian slave caravan or whatever. Back home, the ‘sarians would be able to handle all that just fine now that Elizabeth was locked up and all her Blackguards were dead. It was their job, after all, and they got a little miffed when I horned in on their territory.

One side effect of the fight in the alley was that I got splashed with a little blood from the big guy, probably when I smashed his face in with my knee. I didn’t see it as a real problem, but Laura had a point when she said it would make us stand out too much.

So we went to a clothing store.

I’ve always had… mixed feelings about clothes. On the one hand, there was my father’s purely practical approach to it all, saying you shouldn’t waste money on some weird designer brand that was the exact same thing as all the others, but it cost ten times as much. On the surface, I agreed with him completely. With a few minor exceptions like my ribbon and my beads, I’ve always tried to be as practical as possible.

The problem was that my mother also agreed that cheaper clothes were better. So I kind of wanted to buy expensive stuff just to spite her.

As the homeless man had promised, McMullen’s was easy to find once we stepped out the other side of the short alley. It was a wide, two-story affair that felt gigantic to me, but might have been perfectly normal here. It took about four seconds to find a replacement shirt, but we decided to stay and shop for more, just because Laura and Robyn wanted to.

“Ooh!” Derek said, pulling swim trunks off the rack. “Seventy five percent off? Score.”

Okay, maybe Derek and I were a little interested too.

“When’s the last time you went swimming?” I asked him skeptically. “On purpose?”

He grinned. “You’re remembering that gargant Lori called us to deal with, too?” He nodded. “Yeah, it’s been a while. Probably because my only swimsuit is from when I was ten.”

I glanced at a bikini—which I would never be caught dead in—before moving on to the more tasteful one-pieces. “Maybe we can visit her again. When it’s not so cold.”

Suddenly, Robyn was at my side. “No no, go for the bikini! Come on, you’re got a body like a steel whip, you can at least show off a little!

I shrugged her off, but she wouldn’t be dissuaded so easily. “Come off it.”

She sidled closer mischievously. “You can show off for Derek…”

I was careful not to look at him; he seemed to be doing the same. “No, thank you.”

“Oh! Or that Flynn guy! He seems nice enough, right?”

This time, I couldn’t hide my blush. “T-that’s not—”

“He helped at the thing last night, right?” Her smile slipped for a split second, but it was back up so fast I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. “I mean… I missed a lot of the fight, but I know he was at NHQ after.”

“Yes, he…” I coughed to cover my embarrassment, and tried to shift the conversation back onto more familiar ground. “Yes, he was. He helped us hold the line against the fey monsters, and even finished Brannigan—I think you were unconscious for that part.”

Robyn’s smile was briefly more genuine. “That’s a polite way of saying asleep in my own puke. But yeah, I heard something about all that. He’s gonna be all right, right?”

I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, considering. “Clarke—your dad said so. His injuries were pretty bad, but unlike Adam, at least he can get stuffed into the box and be good as new in a few hours.”

Laura sidled up from wherever she had been hiding. “He was actually out by the time we left, though he was sleeping everything off.” She frowned at me. “I’m not sure why you didn’t know that. Didn’t someone tell you?”

I shook my head.

“Huh.” She checked a swimsuit, frowned at the design, and put it back. “Weird. Well, it was a hectic night for everyone. Probably just slipped everyone’s minds.”

“Kelly and the others will keep him safe,” Derek promised me. “He’s done his part for Necessarius and the city. They’re not gonna let him die.”

Robyn frowned. “I’ve been meaning to ask—what is up with that woman, anyway? She’s an ex-Belian, and she still has all her chem glands? Judging by the fixer, I mean. My dad could have removed those for her.”

“Lots of Belians choose to keep their glands when they leave the culture,” Laura pointed out from somewhere behind me. I turned to see her comparing socks. “They just keep the fixer so that in a pinch, they can pull it off.”

“Pull it off… and what? Wait twenty-four hours for the fixer to finish cycling through their systems, and then they turn into drugged-up zombies?”

“It’s more like two or three hours, but yes, basically.” The Spanish girl shrugged. “It might sound stupid, but it works. You ever fought a Belian sclav?” She looked up with a frown, as though suddenly remembering who she was talking to. “No, of course you haven’t. But they’re a nightmare. Strong as an ox, fast as a snake, and they feel no pain.”

Our red-headed little flier was unconvinced. “But what about all their behavioral conditioning? Doesn’t that get heightened by the drugs, or whatever? I’ve heard stories about freed sclavi running straight back to Phlegethos.”

But Laura shook her head. “The Big Boss is smarter than that. The conditioning fades over time, and he has psychiatrists to speed the process along. By the time they’re back in the field, they don’t have to worry about any of that, or about getting suborned by the first Belian warlord who issues them an order.”

“Well, that’s good, I guess, but I still don’t like it. Anybody who was willing to ruin their body with chems once will do it again.”

I closed my eyes. I knew what was coming.

Derek sighed. “Robyn, please, don’t make me do the rant again…”

She glared at him. “What? I’m supposed to feel bad for some jackasses who decided to shoot up a bunch of combat stims?”

“They were forced into it, Robyn…”

“Forced by what? Nobody makes them pop a handful of Buffout or plug a Jet breather. I know that for a fact—the Belians go trawling for junkies, they don’t make the chem-heads themselves.”

“Please stop parroting Kongeegen talking points, okay? Ignoring for a moment that the hags have been known to kidnap random people and physically force drugs on them, that’s not what I mean.” He shifted his weight, settling in for a long argument. “When someone has no option but drugs—”

“Stop it, both of you,” Laura said curtly as she came back, some black jeans draped over her arm. “This isn’t the time or the place.”

That’s when the rest of us noticed that the clerk was close enough to overhear our conversations. Not too big a deal, but still, better safe than sorry.

Maybe it would best to take his mind off what we had just been talking about. I sidled up to him, smiling as best I could, and managed to get a question out. “Boots?”

He seemed to understand that this was hard for me, and just nodded politely before gesturing. “Over here, miss. The sizes are underneath the displays.”

It didn’t take more than a minute to realize their selection was limited to hiking boots and some decidedly impractical high-heeled leather thing that seemed to be pretending to be something anyone would wear, ever.

I tugged on the clerk’s shirt to get his attention as he walked away. “Combat boots.” I pulled up my jeans to show him the ones I was wearing: Thick black leather with steel toes, and an ankle low enough so that I could retain most of my footwork. Gunners preferred high-top boots, since they valued stability and protection over agility, but swordsmen didn’t have that luxury.

He shook his head apologetically. “Sorry, that’s all we have. We don’t carry service boots—or combat boots, if that’s what you call them.”

I stared at him. Don’t carry combat boots? I thought this was a general clothing store, not some rich specialist place.

But snapping at him wouldn’t do any good. “Shirts.” I plucked at the wrist of the long-sleeve shirt I had already bought (and put on) to replace my bloodstained one. “With pockets.”

He bit his lip, confused for a moment, before nodding. “Right, okay, right over here.”

He led me to another rack, near the changing rooms, with a bunch of long-sleeved shirts with breast pockets. A brief rummage was enough to tell me they weren’t what I was looking for.

I shook my head at the clerk, and plucked at my sleeve again. “Sleeve pockets.”

He was clearly trying as hard as he could not to look at me like I was crazy. “Uh… miss, we don’t have any shirts with… pockets in the sleeves. I honestly don’t know what you would use them for.”

I stomped back over to Laura. “We need to go somewhere else.”

She arched an eyebrow at me. “Okay. Why?”

“This store is a joke. No combat wear, nothing with sleeve pockets.”

The Spanish girl blinked in surprise before sighing. “Right, of course. You want something you can use to hide your knives.” She shook her head. “You’re not going to find that here.”

“I know. But we can find another store—”

“No, Akane, we can’t.” She placed the bras in her hands back on the rack, giving up on finding anything reasonable that would fit her. “They don’t have that kind of thing here. At all. I told you about this, on the plane. Why do you think we had to leave our weapons behind?”

But… “Nothing? At all?”

“You can probably find combat boots and a leather jacket somewhere, but that’s it. The only armor they’re gonna sell to civilians are bulky bullet-proof vests, the kind kids wear. Nothing more specialized, and definitely nothing to help conceal weapons.”

The look in her eyes made it clear that this wasn’t a joke—not that she was known for kidding around anyway. In this entire city, I wasn’t going to be able to find any decent clothes to wear.

Okay, maybe this place wasn’t so great after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 214)

I’m a little worried there’s too much emphasis on the minor differences between Domina and New York here, but I still wanted to put them in at some point. This isn’t the last scene with this sort of thing, but it’s the worst of them.

Also, “sclav” is simply Romanian for “slave,” with sclavi being plural.