As we walked away from the airport—if you could call it that, there was only one runway—with the other Paladins flying towards New York, I frowned to myself. “Is it weird that I don’t really know what to do without Derek and Akane around?”
Lily smiled as we walked down the street—a street significantly more populated than I had seen of late. The Composer’s capture and the outing of the Paladins had alleviated a lot of pressure, even considering that Wild Hunt thing the fey had pulled last night. “I think it’s cute.”
“I don’t know—maybe I should have gone with them. We could have stayed at my place.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want your parents to know about…” She waved her hand vaguely. “…everything. Besides, you’re still injured.”
I winced a little as she reminded me of the pain I was in, but soldiered on. “It’s not that bad. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. The stab missed pretty much everything important, I just needed blood.” Lots of blood. Normally the toy maker could clone—was that the right word? Clone?—up liters upon liters of blood at the drop of a hat. As a clay, that wasn’t really a viable option for me, but at least I had a relatively common blood type. Clarke just cloned up blood from a matching donor and gave me a transfusion. It worked pretty well.
“If you really have nothing else to do, you can spend the day with Flynn at NHQ if you want. Just stay on the sidelines and don’t strain yourself.”
“I thought no one was going to his classes any more.”
My girlfriend shrugged as we boarded the light rail. “Participation has been swinging back up recently, and Elizabeth’s capture will only help with that.”
“Well, I will think about it,” I promised. “But I think I’m just going to stick around South Central and AU for a while. Maybe buy some real armor.”
She gave me a look. “You can’t try on armor while you’re injured. I said no strain.”
“Okay, okay, fine.” I thought about what else was in the area. “George said he knows some good game stores. I can get something for Derek. A ‘thanks for not letting an entire skyscraper fall on my head’ present.”
Lily laughed musically. “Well, I guess that’s as good a reason to get someone a present as any. You have anything specific in mind?”
I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, I know what genres he likes and stuff, so I’ll talk to the clerk and then make sure to get something he doesn’t already have.”
“That’s certainly a good start.”
“Yeah…” I sighed. “Remind me again why you have to be with Doctor Clarke all day?”
“You know why. Surgery.”
“Not that. I know that. I mean why are you getting a freaking heart transplant? Didn’t you get one like…” I thought back. “A week ago? No, it was longer than that…”
“Adam, I…” She leaned against my shoulder, clutching my arm. “This city has done so much for me. Helping Doctor Clarke test out the newest toys is a small price to pay. Besides, if he can make my heart work, he can make anybody’s.”
“Yeah, he said that before,” I murmured, mostly just enjoying the warmth of her next to me. “But you said your system is already unstable. Is adding more toys really a good idea?”
The train stopped before she managed to answer.
“Necessarius Headquarters perimeter,” MC’s fake voice announced over the speakers. “Necessarius Headquarters perimeter. Please have your passes ready by the time you reach the checkpoint.”
Lily stepped up on her tip-toes and kissed me on the cheek. “This is my stop. We’ll talk later, okay? I’m gonna be busy all day, but if you stop by tonight, we might be able to have dinner. Or maybe I’ll meet you at your place.”
I smiled as best I could. “Looking forward to it.”
She waved goodbye as the doors shut between us.
I sighed as the train started up again.
Lily was wonderful, in every sense of the word, but sometimes I just took a step back and realized that I was dating someone who had invested about as much money in her body as America had in its army. I was never sure how to feel about that.
As I got off the light rail near the dorms, I knew the retinue would be nearby, but decided to deal with them later. When I had met with them earlier, they were a little overprotective, probably because they had barely been any help at all when the people they were supposed to be guarding got caught between the fey and the Composer. I just didn’t want to deal with that right now.
So, instead of calling George for the location of that game store he had mentioned earlier, I just returned to the dorm and tried to strike up a conversation with Emily, the RA, who was sitting behind the counter reading a magazine.
She looked up lazily when I asked my question. “You want to know if there are any game stores nearby?”
“Yes,” I said as patiently as I could muster. It took an effort of will not to add something snarky along the lines of that’s why I asked. “You’re the RA, you should know the area pretty well, right?”
“So should you, considering you’ve been here a while.”
I smiled painfully. “…yes, well. I’ve been busy these past few months. Haven’t really had time to just stroll around town much.”
She gave me a dull look.
“The faster you tell me where one is, the faster I leave.”
“North side of AU, across the street.”
“Thank you.” I headed upstairs to put down my guns and grab my wallet.
When I came back down ten minutes later, Emily hadn’t moved an inch. I don’t think I had ever been in the lobby and not seen her. Seriously, did she sleep down here?
Either way, the directions she gave me were simple enough. Once I got to the school, I followed the Springfield wall until I reached the north side, and immediately spied the game store across the street.
Inside, it was… I don’t want to say crowded. There were two or three people in there, plus the clerk behind the counter, but considering the current state of the city, maybe that was crowded. Sure, things had improved since last night—
I was over thinking the whole thing. I put it all in the back of my mind and walked up to the counter, managing a smile for the young man working there. He was probably fourteen, maybe fifteen, but work laws were more relaxed in Domina City, considering the fact that most people didn’t live to twenty.
“Hi,” I said pleasantly. “I’m looking for a strategy game for a friend of mine. Anything you can recommend?”
The clerk shrugged. “Well, that depends. What—”
My phone rang. Five simple beeps.
I sighed. “Just give me one second…”
“No, it’s fine,” he insisted. “I’m sure it’s important.”
I nodded in thanks, and answered as the tone started to repeat. “Hello?”
“What are you—” I checked the screen; yes, it was the real MC. “Okay, slow down, who…” I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. “Right. I know who you mean.” I was careful not to say the name aloud; everyone in the store would panic. “What happened?”
“She rusted through the wall or somesuch!”
“Wasn’t that Mitchel’s ability?”
“Yeah, thought it nixed with him. Not a spinward portent, to say nothing worth hearing.”
Nothing worth hearing sounded right. “Slow down and speak English. What’s the situation?”
There was a pause, where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “If she has the same powers as the renegades, that’s bad. She’s out, I have no idea where. She already killed Doctor Henry and his guards, I don’t know—”
She was interrupted by a loud screechy noise, echoing from outside the shop. Everyone I could see—both on the sidewalk and inside the store—winced at the sound. It was like the noise you get when you’re having trouble adjusting the microphone.
“Wait,” MC muttered in my ear. “Hang on—”
“Attention, Domina City.” It was the calm, somewhat mechanical voice of MC’s programs, coming from somewhere I couldn’t quite identify. Oh, wait, no, there were some speakers I could see installed on the street corners and alleys and so on.
“This is a message from MC,” the announcement continued.
I frowned and spoke into my phone. “Hey, what are you—”
“THAT’S NOT ME!” she shrieked in my ear. “That’s not my system! It’s broadcasting throughout the entire city, and I can’t stop it!”
My brain flashed back to the burner attack. When we first saw the singers.
Everyone in an entire building had been turned through their PA system. MC had taken measures to make that impossible, to make it so that no one could use her system in that way again.
But if someone set up their own system, physically installed their own speakers…
My body felt like it was moving on its own. I slammed my phone down on the counter, ignored the surprised look from the clerk, and grabbed two cheap pens from the jar.
Then I stabbed my own eardrums out.
Suddenly, the world was empty. Like a house with every single appliance turned off. Just a dull white… lack of sound. I only distantly registered my own mouth opening in a scream.
My hands were wet with my own blood, my vision… blurry, disjointed from the pain. But the world was… silent. Completely and absolutely silent, quiet as the grave.
I looked up and saw the clerk through my tears. He was saying something, but God only knows what. He looked confused and scared, which was understandable. Even in a city this crazy, people don’t normally go around stabbing themselves in the ears.
I opened my mouth to explain…
Then the clerk’s expression shifted.
First in confusion.
Then in bliss.
Then in rage.
Mother of fire, why couldn’t I have been wrong? Why couldn’t I just have been paranoid?
The screamer opened his mouth, screaming a blood-curling cry that I couldn’t hear. I had the presence of mind to snatch my phone off the counter and run for the door, but it didn’t do me much good. The skinny little fifteen year-old kicked the counter, shattering it from the bolts affixing it to the floor and sending it crashing across my path.
The main entrance was out, which meant I needed to find another exit, and fast. I glanced behind me—
Just in time to see one of the customers roaring towards me, as silent as a ghost to my ears.
I dove under the demon’s grip, knocking him to the floor as I scrambled to my feet, wincing at the pain in my side from the strain.
Tactics. Needed to think tactically, or I was dead. There were four screamers in the store. Couldn’t fight them hand to hand with my injuries, didn’t have my guns. Needed to—
A hand scratched at my arm. I pushed it aside and kicked the woman in the chest, sending her careening through a display.
First rule: Keep eyes on everyone at all times.
I put my back to a wall, a spot where they couldn’t sneak up on me but I could survey the whole store. The clerk was eyeing me from a distance, considering the best way to attack, the two I had disabled were already recovering, and the fourth was—
Where was the fourth?
I turned just in time as a kemo of some furry subculture I couldn’t identify leaped from the top of the stairs at the back of the shop, aimed straight at me with claws outstretched and mouth open wide and screaming. I hadn’t even considered they might attack from there; it was too big a jump for your average person, even your average person with a few buffs.
But the buffs combined with the increased athleticism of the power package made it very possible indeed.
I dove forward again, but the first screamer, the demon, had learned his lesson. He anticipated my move and tackled me as I tried to slide across the ground. I did still manage to avoid the kemo, but the demo slammed my back into the sharp corner of the wall.
I cried out in pain—I think—grabbed the demon’s head, and slammed it into the ground. He pulled back his lips, either hissing or snarling, and I slammed it again, and then again, and his grip finally loosened.
Kicking him away as fast as I could, I pulled down a rack of merchandise behind me to deter pursuit and ran up the stairs.
Like most buildings in Domina City, each floor was a single shop, with the stairwell in the back left open so that customers could easily find their way to the higher levels. I skipped the next three floors altogether; I needed to gain some distance on the zombies, and hopefully the trick would work and they’d waste time searching those floors.
These guys weren’t like the screamers I was used to fighting. They were smart. As smart as they were before they were turned, or close enough that it made no difference. Normally, the defensive screamers were rare, and could switch to aggressively stupid at the drop of a hat, but that didn’t seem to be happening here. Was that a sign of some core difference, or just a coincidence?
On floor four—a clothing store—I abandoned the switchback stairwell and dove into the relative safety and concealment of the broad racks of garments.
I didn’t see any screamers, but that didn’t mean much. I found a wall, one with a window, and stayed low with my back to it, scanning the room. At that angle, I could see under most of the hanging clothes, and didn’t see any enemies. Still, I wanted to be sure before I—
My phone vibrated in my hand.
I nearly yelled, but kept quiet by physically clamping my hands over my mouth. When I was sure no one had heard anything, I peered at the device I still held in a death grip. Once again, I found myself glad Derek had insisted on the armored version.
The screen proclaimed I had a text from MC.
I flipped it open instantly, reading the message like it was a lifeline.
It was… more difficult than it had any right to be.
A3 liv? + RUN
I closed my eyes—a bad idea, considering sight was my only reliable sense right now, but chatspeak gave me headaches.
Okay… was it a set of instructions? ‘Liv?’ was one, and ‘RUN’ another, so… live and run? But run was capitalized, what if it was an acronym? That could mean… a billion things and more. What if—
No, wait, ‘A3’ was the acronym. And the internet liked more advanced ciphers than just using a plus sign for ‘and.’ So, translated, the message was…
Adam Andrew Anders alive? If positive: RUN.
Would it really have been that hard for her to just type that out? Seriously.
After scanning around the store to make sure I wouldn’t get ambushed while typing, I hurriedly composed a reply:
Alive. Hiding. Deaf on purpose. Help. Don’t chatspeak.
The answer was immediate:
I’ve turned on your speakerphone. You can speak, and I’ll hear it, and I can hear things sneaking up on you. For now, go up to floor nine. There’s no one there.
Okay, go up to floor nine. Got it, that was a simple enough plan for me.
I noticed that she hadn’t said there wasn’t anybody on the floors between four and nine, so I was very careful as I snuck up the stairs. Whether I was stealthy enough or if there just weren’t any screamers, I had no idea, but the point is I got to the designated floor without running into anyone.
It was some sort of electronics boutique, a gadget store advertising a bunch of obscure devices I had never heard of. It was also far more open than the clothing store, with most of the merchandise confined to the walls and a few lonely sales racks. One glance was enough to confirm that the place was empty.
“Okay, MC, I’m here.”
My phone vibrated in my hand.
Get a cell phone holster (behind register). Get an eyepiece (on rack near window).
I found the first in about two seconds, and quickly separated the leather thing from its packaging and clipped it onto my belt, where I could put the phone safely. If I was forced to pay for it later, I might be a little annoyed—fifty bucks for a leather pouch?—but I could live with it either way. The eyepiece proved more difficult to find.
“I can’t find an eyepiece,” I whispered. “I don’t know what it is, and nothing says eyepiece on it.”
My phone vibrated again.
Small clip with a glass screen. Common brands. Might say ‘hands free.’
I grabbed one of the more expensive ones. Hey, it was the end of the world, I could splurge. “Okay, got it.”
Get batteries. Watch size (behind register).
“Got them, and I’ve put them in. The eyepiece is glowing in a couple spots now.”
Follow the instructions on the phone.
As promised, a moment later my phone proclaimed that an unregistered eyepiece was nearby. It took ten rather frustrating minutes to get the two devices to synchronize properly, but when it was done, the phone was back in the holster, and the eyepiece was clipped to my right ear, with the screen covering my right eye.
“MC, I’m done.”
This time, the text went straight to the eyepiece, which made talking to her feel a bit more natural, considering the circumstances.
“Good. Now hurry to the roof. You should be able to escape there. But be careful—there are screamers in a couple of the stockrooms.”
I nodded silently in approval of the plan. Once I got to the roof, Necessarius would be able to send a chopper to pick me up—or, failing that, at least direct me to other survivors.
Despite the hacker’s warnings, once again my flight up was cheerfully uneventful. Sure, it took almost an hour to go twenty-one floors, but I’d rather be stealthy and a little slow than fast and attract every screamer in the building.
The first thing I did when I emerged onto the roof was close the door behind me and shove a crowbar through the handle. It wouldn’t stop anyone for long, especially if that one with super strength was involved, but it might slow them down long enough for me to survive.
After scanning to make sure I truly was alone, I sat down, my back against an air conditioner unit, and took a few deep breaths. “All right MC, I’m up here. Any chance I’m getting a chopper?”
“Uh… no. Why would you think otherwise?”
I closed my eyes—again, bad idea when you’re deaf, but I had the mother of all headaches. “Because hope springs eternal.” I opened my eyes so I’d be able to read her response. “Anyway, where’s the nearest batch of survivors? If they have spare guns, I can go meet them.”
Her response was slow.
“MC, it’s Domina City. If you’re trying to tell me they don’t have a few extra weapons to hand out, then I think you’re—”
“There are no other survivors.”
I had to read that line ten times before I could formulate a response.
“The Composer’s signal got everyone. Absolutely everyone, including the fey and the Dagonites. She’s been planning this since the beginning, if not before.”
I shook my head. “No, no, come on, there have to be other people. I can’t be the only one who thought to deafen myself.”
“Thought of it? No. Succeeded in doing it? Also no, but that number is smaller. However, you are the only one who was not turned within moments anyway, due to being caught off guard by screamers.”
“The signal couldn’t have reached everywhere. People who were in, I don’t know, soundproof rooms or something should have been safe.”
“There were one hundred and seventeen people in soundproof rooms at the time the Composer’s signal started broadcasting,” she replied promptly. “Mostly in the music and voice acting industries. The screamers broke through the walls or simply opened the doors. Three of them are dead, the rest screaming.”
I rubbed my hair. No no no… “The deaf. The naturally deaf, I mean.”
“The toy maker is a miracle. The naturally deaf do not stay that way for long in this city. Throughout the entire city, there were two-hundred and seven people who were deaf for whatever reason. Six died. The rest are screaming now.”
No. God, no. This was not… I couldn’t…
When I opened my eyes again, there was another message waiting for me.
“You are currently the last living, sane person in Domina City.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 222)
Adam refers to blood produced by the toy maker as “cloned” blood. This is incorrect; normally when someone needs their blood supply restored quickly, they are given a few select chemicals produced by the toy maker, which vastly increase their body’s natural ability to produce blood. Unfortunately, this is not a viable option for clays, but it wasn’t difficult to find someone of Adam’s blood type, give them the chemicals, and then siphon off the extra blood for a transfusion.