Monthly Archives: May 2015

Scene 222 – Discrimine

DISCRIMINE

ADAM

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?”

“She’s sprung.”

“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.

“Adam…”

“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.

“What?”

“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.

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Scene 221 – Effugere

EFFUGERE

ELIZABETH

TWO DAYS AGO

I grinned. “The Paladins have left the city.”

The ‘sarian torturer, Doctor Henry, frowned at me. He did that a lot—he didn’t like how little sense my anatomy made to him. Stupid backwoods yokel. “What? How could you possibly know that?”

“I can sense them,” I explained casually, enjoying the shock on his face. I couldn’t tell if the shock was from what I was telling him or just that I was telling him anything at all, though. “Anyone who has heard the Song can sense the general presence of anyone else who has heard the Song.” I shrugged as best I could, considering I was strapped to the steel wall of the warcage. “Range is a hundred miles and some spare change.”

He opened his mouth for some snappy retort, before closing it thoughtfully. “…a hundred miles and change. Domina City is a hundred miles in diameter.”

“Plus Whitecap Bay,” I noted. “Which is why I avoided the place.”

“That’s why you chose Domina? So you’d always be able to sense the screamers and the speakers anywhere on the island?”

“Well… yes and no.”

He waited for me to continue.

It’s always so delicious when you have something someone wants, and they have to actually come out and ask for it.

He bit the inside of his cheek before he managed to get the words out. “…what exactly do you mean by that? Is that not why you chose this city?”

I did my little half shrug again. “Kinda. More specifically, it’s the reason we built this city.”

“That’s impossible. You’re not even twenty.”

I laughed out loud. “Oh come on! You’re not going to seriously make the mistake of trying to gauge an immortal’s age by her face, are you?”

The doctor cursed under his breath. “Fine. Thirty years ago, you had Domina City built to provide the perfect playground for you and the Paladins, where you could sense each other from anywhere on the island.”

I nodded… then frowned. “Okay, no, that’s my mistake. Kind of… misleading word choice. Composers can sense anyone who has heard the Song within a one-mile radius. Directors can only sense chorus and conductors.”

“You mean speakers, screamers, and singers.”

“Call them whatever you like. I don’t care.”

The Necessarian selected a few tools from a rack. One was a very interesting device that looked like a cross between a blowtorch and a small hose. The hose probably spit out liquid nitrogen; he wanted to see how I dealt with fire and ice at the same time.

I didn’t flinch as he brought the torture implement closer—it would hurt, but it wouldn’t kill me, so I really did have nothing to fear—but he paused before switching it on.

“You didn’t build this city to be your playground,” he said slowly. “You’ve been far too restrained for the past twenty years or so for that. The screamers and the Paladins… they were an experiment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes, congratulations, go get a cookie. But the interesting part is this:” I leaned in as close as I could, considering my position. “What is the experiment?”

He met my gaze without fear—which just proved he was an idiot. “I suppose you’re going to tell me?”

Pulling back, I snorted derisively. “Hardly. Not like I even know. Something about… something. And stuff. I dunno, there were some rules I had to follow and a bunch of stupid stuff like that. I stopped asking questions a couple centuries back.”

“So there is someone pulling your strings.”

Duh. Do you think this stupid city would still be in one piece if I was allowed to do whatever the hell I wanted?”

“And you want me to figure out their goals for you.”

I laughed again. “What gave you that idea?” I chuckled, and shook my head to throw a lock of hair out of my eyes. “No, no, I don’t care what their goals are. Knowing her, it’s something stupid, anyway.”

Henry had put the nitrogen/blowtorch thing down, and had a genuinely confused expression on his face. “Then why are you telling me all this? What’s the point?”

That made me grin as wide as possible, baring my too-sharp teeth. “Isn’t that obvious? It’s so much more fun to kill people when they know they have information their friends need.”

He realized how close he had gotten to me, and slowly started backing towards the door.

Yes,” I hissed, still grinning like a cannibal. “That’s the look I wanted to see, good doctor. The look of the cow at the slaughterhouse, who has realized why he’s been fattened up.”

“All your Blackguards are dead,” he muttered in a shaky voice. He clearly didn’t believe it.

“You’re right,” I admitted, to his surprise. I sighed in mock disappointment. “Every single one I gathered over the years is dead and gone. I overplayed my hand recently. Let too many of them get within sword range of Akiyama.” I grimaced. “Strategy has never really been my strong suit.”

He swallowed; he knew better than to relax. “Then you can’t escape.”

“Oh? Tell me, good doctor… didn’t you ever notice that I have some of the same powers as the Paladins?”

He frowned, thought for a moment, then opened his mouth to answer.

“I have some of my Blackguards’, as well.”

Then I placed my bare palm on the steel wall, and felt it rust away beneath my touch.

Doctor Henry tried to run.
I love it when they try to run.

Behind the Scenes (scene 221)

I debated for a long time whether to include this one or not. In the end, I decided that it does fit, despite being short.

Scene 220 – Fiat

FIAT

DEREK

“This is a robbery!” a strong, authoritative voice yelled. “No cops, no one tries to play hero, and everyone will make it out of this alive!”

A quick glance told me that the half-dozen masked men were all armed with some type of automatic rifle. They looked shiny and new, too, and smelled of the kind of oil guns were treated with for shipping.

Except for the leader. While he had a rifle slung across his chest, he was holding a powerful shotgun in his hands. While I didn’t recognize the model—it was undoubtedly some brand we didn’t have back home—it was easy to tell that it was a ten-gauge, firing solid slugs. Depending on exactly what ammo he was packing, his shots could easily punch through most of the shields I could put up.

I glanced over in the direction that Akane and Laura had gone, but didn’t see them. Good. We just needed a bit of time.

“Hello,” I said in a friendly, non-threatening tone as I raised my hands above my head, indicating my lack of weapons. “Why don’t you tell us exactly what you want from us, and maybe we can finish this without bloodshed?”

I was hardly a diplomat, by any means. But this wasn’t a formal embassy dinner, this was a hostage negotiation. While I still wasn’t exactly an expert, that was at least something I had real experience with.

Of course, normally I wasn’t one of the hostages

Still, as long as I could keep them focused on me, rather than the bank tellers cowering behind the counter or the dozen or so customers hiding behind the rows of desks behind me, we should be able to get out of this.

The man with the shotgun gave me an odd look, but it was a little hard to interpret with that bandanna covering most of his face. “You’re brave, boy. What’s your name?”

“Derek Huntsman.” Over at the coffee table, Robyn glared at me. She clearly didn’t think I should have given out my real name.

An expression I couldn’t identify flitted across the robber’s masked face. He slowly and deliberately raised his shotgun, pointing it square at my head. “And what are you going to do, Mister Huntsman?”

I didn’t flinch. “Just what I said. I want everyone to get out of here alive.”

He glared at me.

Then he lowered the gun.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “You can start by getting me the bank manager.”

“Are you planning on killing him?”

The gun came back up. “You’re not in a position to ask questions.”

“Everyone is always in a position to ask questions,” I said, remembering Laura saying the same thing once. “Spreading knowledge is always better for everyone.”

The man growled. “Fine. Then no, as long as he cooperates, then we won’t do anything to him.”

“Then I’m sure he’ll be revealing himself shortly.”

The leader glared, gun still leveled at my head. “What do you mean—”

“Please, put the gun down,” the bank manager, Mike, said pleadingly as he rose up from behind me. “He’s just a customer. He has nothing to do with this.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t,” the man said dryly. “But why don’t we get right down to business, hm? You can open the vault.”

Mike swallowed. “Actually, no not alone—”

Suddenly there was a shotgun pointed at his face.

“We didn’t pick this bank out of a hat, you know,” the robber said calmly. “We did our research. So, I’m going to try this again: You can open the vault.”

The manager nodded nervously.

“So do it.”

“It’s not… not that simple—” He shut his mouth with a loud clicking noise as the shotgun was shoved into his nose. “I—I can’t—”

I pulled Mike out of the way swiftly, taking his place in front of the gun and ignoring the clenching in my gut. That’s the best way to confront fear: Grab it by the horns and force it out into the open. “Shooting him isn’t going to solve anything. Why don’t you listen to what he has to say, instead?”

There was that strange emotion, flickering in his eyes again. What was it? It was hovering somewhere between anger and frustration… was he just annoyed that I was getting in his way? That made some sense, but he had to understand that randomly killing people wasn’t going to get him anywhere.

Either way, he took a step back and lowered the shotgun, acknowledging that I had a point. “Fine. You, manager. You were saying?”

The man in question swallowed visibly. “Y-yes. I have the codes, but the vault needs two people to open it. And both need to be high-ranking bank employees.”

How high-ranking?”

“M-manager. Or assistant manager. No lower.”

The robber’s eyes were narrow, and his hand inched towards his gun. I subtly moved myself between him and the manager again, but he noticed anyway, and glared at me.

He didn’t mention it, though, just turned his attention back on the cowering man behind me. “And the alarm? How is that turned off?”

As far as I could tell, Mike was genuinely bewildered. “Alarm? What alarm?”

“The alarm that trips whenever the vault is opened,” the man explained with exaggerated patience. “It goes to your head office, and they know to check your security cameras for anything suspicious. How do we turn it off?”

“How should I know?” the manager asked incredulously, his voice cracking a little from the strain. “I didn’t know we even had something like that until just now!”

The robber growled and raised his shotgun again, but I just interposed myself between the two again.

“Hey, he’s telling the truth,” I assured him. “Think about it. If you had a system like that, would you tell anyone at the bank about it?”

He glared at me again. “Then do you have any ideas on how to turn it off?”

“Not a clue,” I admitted. “Though if I had designed the system, I’d make it impossible to disable without opening the vault first.” I shrugged. “Maybe even have a constant signal in there that’s blocked by the door, and when it’s opened, the signal can get out. No way to jam it unless you know exactly what kind of signal.”

I could see him frown under the mask. “Yeah, that makes sense…” He glared at the manager again. “Where’s the security office?”

“What?”

He raised the shotgun again; I got in the way again. “The security office. Where the cameras are controlled. Where is it?”

“They’ll notice if the cameras are dead,” I warned, though I was pretty sure he had already thought of that.

“Shut up.” He didn’t take his eyes off the manager. “Where?

Mike pointed a shaky finger towards the back offices.

“Greg,” the leader grunted as a command.

One of the other robbers, a slightly shorter man, handed off his rifle to a friend and drew a large pistol from a hip holster, and headed off towards the back offices. He clearly had at least some real training; in the close quarters of the offices, a big bulky automatic would get in the way, and probably damage something important. A small, compact pistol was better.

I wanted to stop him, but there was no way I could think of that wouldn’t be unspeakably suspicious. I just had to grind my teeth and let him go.

“Bobby, once he secures the office, go see if you can get a loop on the feed going, something to trick corporate for when they take a peek. Needs to be as long as possible.”

“On it,” another robber, who I thought might have been a woman, said as she pulled out a phone of some kind, presumably checking some program or other she might need.

“And you—get me a second man who can open that vault, now, or I start shooting people.”

Several things happened at once.

The first thing I noticed was a middle-aged man in a decent suit coming out from behind the counter. Presumably, that would be the second manager.

At the same time, I heard a female squeal of fright behind me, and I turned to see a little boy running in my direction, away from his terrified mother—and out of the comparative concealment and safety the desks provided.

And then Greg found Laura and Akane.

“Ah HAH! John, I found some more!”

The leader—John, I assumed—backhanded me in the face, shoved me aside, and grabbed the boy by his collar. I collapsed on the floor, playing up the injury for all it was worth. Which wasn’t saying much; I wasn’t even sure I was bleeding.

But I needed every advantage I could get, as fast as I could get, or a lot of people were going to die. I could look like a wimp for five minutes if I had to.

It seemed to have worked, too. The man glared down at me like I was a worm beneath his contempt. “Some ‘hero’ you turned out to be.” He pressed his gun against the side of the boy’s head; considering the size of the shotgun, this was actually a very awkward position to hold a weapon, and with luck I could take advantage. “Now, I think it’s time we stopped playing games.”

I shivered on the floor as best I could, only glancing towards the back offices to see that yes, Greg had captured Laura and Akane. They were both unharmed, as far as I could tell, and so was he—which told me that Laura had kept Akane from doing anything rash.

Yes, we were in a bad position right now, but the robbers still didn’t want to kill anyone, and I was sure that went double for children. We just needed to get through this.

With all eyes in the bank focused on me, I slowly rose to my feet, hands raised peacefully. “Right, no games. From the start, all I’ve wanted is to finish this up as quickly as possible without bloodshed. We can still do that.”

John glared at me even more. While he couldn’t point his own gun at me, his men had me covered pretty well. “If so, then why did you send your girls into the back offices?”

I blinked. “Wait, how’d you know they were mine?”

“I didn’t.”

Silver and gold… an obvious trap, and I strolled right into it. Laura wouldn’t have made that mistake. “Yes, of course. I just wanted them out of danger, that’s all.”

“They were doing something in one of the offices, John!” Greg called. “Dunno what.”

John pressed his gun harder against the boy’s temple, and my heart skipped a beat. “Funny thing about hostages. I’ve got spares. So you tell me what the hell is going on here, or I kill this brat and we start negotiating using his mother.”

I swallowed, not even bothering to try and hide my anxiety. “I’m doing my best to resolve this as peacefully as possible, for everyone’s sake, and you don’t want—”

I didn’t hear the gun go off.

I didn’t hear the hostages screaming.

I think John said something, some taunt of one-liner or something, but I didn’t hear it.

There was… a buzzing noise in my head, where my thoughts used to be. The sound of dead air, of a station that doesn’t know what to play.

The boy’s headless corpse was on the ground.

John was covered in blood that wasn’t his.

The floor had a bright red splash of crimson, and an ever-widening puddle of life fluid.

Some of it had splashed on me, as well.

John fired his shotgun into the ceiling again.

Sound returned to the world, and the hostages stopped screaming. Only one woman—the boy’s mother, I assumed—was still making any noise; just a quiet, pathetic sob.

“Benny, grab the woman,” John said curtly. “Now—”

“Akane,” I ordered. “Kill him.”

Then she was at my side, a bloody letter opener in hand.

The robber frowned. “How’d you—”

The deep slash across his throat killed his words almost as effectively as it killed him. He got out a few last gurgles as he collapsed to the ground on top of the boy he had just killed, but nothing meaningful.

It took a second for the rest of the robbers to react.

The one closest to us, the woman, Benny, swung her rifle around. “You bastard—”

I stepped inside her reach and swatted the weapon aside. It went off, of course, but it only fired a few useless rounds into the floor.

Before she had a chance to recover, I grabbed her face—digging my fingers into her eyes for grip—and slammed her skull into the hardwood floor before she even had a chance to scream.

I got more blood on me.

As I stood up, eyeing the remaining four bank robbers from a cold, tactical perspective, they finally got their wits about them and fired.

I raised a wide shield, fixed in place and leaking blue mist, and all their bullets bounced off harmlessly. They might have caused some trouble if they had decided to start firing at the tellers still sheltering behind the counter, but they were too shocked to do anything like that. They just stumbled back, staring at the azure fore field in front of them.

The shield fell with a snap, and then Akane was among them.

She didn’t move as fast as she had against the leader, but it was still plenty fast enough. The first died with a slashed throat. The second actually managed to block her first attack by parrying with his rifle, but she just stabbed him in the heart instead. Number three almost got a shot off, but she cut the tendons in his wrist and stabbed him in the neck when he tried to scream. The last one was too shocked to do anything but die.

All this happened in less than ten seconds.

As the last bank robber hit the ground with a wet thump, Akane returned to me, walking back at normal speed as she wiped the dull blade of the letter opener on her shirt. I finally noticed where Robyn had gotten to—she was in a corner, retching into a trash can.

“We’re not done yet!” a shaky voice called.

I turned to see Greg behind the counter, holding his large pistol to Laura’s head. While he was sweating visibly and shaking, the hand that held the gun was rock-steady. “Look, I just wanna leave, all right? So just—”

“Reverse decimation,” I said.

He blinked. “What’s—AGH!”

Akane had cut off his hand; it fell to the floor, still gripping the gun tightly.

“It is a Domina combat doctrine. The opposite of decimation,” I explained dispassionately. “Instead of killing ten percent, you kill ninety percent, and maim the remainder. The survivors serve as a warning.”

“A warning?” the man gasped. “What warning?”

“You do not harm children,” I said coldly. “Ever.” I turned to go. “I suspect you’ll be hearing of me again soon.”

I had some things I needed to talk to Butler about, regarding Domina’s relationship with the outside world.

Maybe the imperialistic bastards in the Granit party weren’t so far off the mark after all.

Once we got outside the bank—with Akane and Laura dragging a limp Robyn Joan behind us—we got a few odd stares from pedestrians, but nothing much worse.

Except when my coldly logical heart started to melt, and I was forced to feel again.

I leaned against a nearby wall with my eyes closed, breathing deeply.

I just needed… needed…

“Derek?” Laura whispered.

“What? I’m—Laura, find somewhere we can sit down, okay? Somewhere out of the way. I’ll take—let me help with Robyn.”

Laura and I switched places, with me under one of Robyn’s arms and Laura unburdened to find things. She didn’t take long; she quickly pulled us into a dirty alley out of sight of the street. We sat on the back porch of some building or whatever.

It was filthy. I couldn’t bring myself to care.

A child dead. If I had just fought from the beginning… or even when he grabbed the kid, if I had ordered Akane to strike then…

“They know we’re from Domina,” Laura muttered, mostly to herself. “You told them. Combined with the powers they witnessed, that might cause problems.”

“Yeah.”

“I have an exploit into their security system, so we should be able to erase their tapes, but we need to be quick. Once they copy them onto something physical, it will be impossible to keep this contained.” She cursed. “Silver and gold, and we still don’t have any money. We need to try MC again. The second—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

Laura blinked. “Huh. Uh… you going to answer that?”

I did, though my hands were still shaking. “Hello?”

Derek?” she nearly shrieked in my ear. “Thank GOD, I’ve been trying trying to reach you since yesterday morning!”

Now it was my turn to blink in surprise. “Wait, what? The satellites have been down that long?” I shook my head to clear it. “No, that’s not the point. Why have you been trying to call?”

“Well…” she said slowly. “That… is a long story.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 220)

Killing ninety percent of a group would technically be called nonomation, but no one would understand it, and it sounds weird anyway. It’s mostly not actually a word.

Scene 219 – Taciturnitas

TACITURNITAS

AKANE

I could kill everyone in the bank within the blink of an eye.

No,” Laura whispered before I could so much as twitch. “We might be able to end this without bloodshed.” She was touching the diamond ring on her necklace, frowning. “Assuming Derek doesn’t do something too stupid.”

Depended on how she defined ‘stupid.’ He certainly wasn’t going to tackle them if they had guns, but he also wasn’t going to sit idly by if people were in danger.

And neither would I.

I went deeper into the bank, past the water fountain and the bathrooms, pulling Laura behind me. She came without protest, likely realizing that getting spotted by the robbers wouldn’t end well for anyone. We crouched down low to keep out of sight and to force us to move more slowly, and thus more quietly.

There were a number of bland offices, individual rooms quite a bit nicer than the little cubicles we had back home but otherwise nothing special.

“Stop,” Laura said. She tried a door and frowned. “You have your lock picks on you?”

I nodded and pulled them out and started working on the lock. I might be a bit out of practice, but this lock wouldn’t keep out a five year-old. “Why do you want in?”

“This is the manager’s office,” she explained, pointing to a nameplate on the door. “There might be something in here we can use.”

“They might agree.”

“I know,” she admitted as I got the door open. “Stand guard. I just need five minutes.”

To my surprise, she kept her promise—she was out in four and a half minutes, a small flash drive in her hand. In my experience, people like her tended to lose track of time on missions, which could easily get them killed. I guess she had learned quickly when dealing with the screamers not to waste time.

“This is a copy of the code for the security system,” she explained. “Cameras and so on. I didn’t have time to hack it, but MC should be able to if we need her to.”

I frowned. “You planted a wi-fi bug?”

She shook her head. “I don’t have any on me. But I have an idea—this way.”

She led me around the corner, to another office out of sight of the first. I could hear yelling coming from the lobby, but no gunfire yet, so that was a good thing. I estimated we only had a couple minutes before someone checked the manager’s office; hopefully Laura hadn’t left any sign she was there.

“This one will do,” she whispered as she tried the knob for an office that had some obscure bureaucratic job title on the door. “Get us in there as fast as possible.”

Seconds later, she shuffled past me into the office, this time pulling me in as well.

“Shut the door, quick.” I did, as quietly as possible. “Look for a phone, a pad, anything with wireless capabilities.” To demonstrate her point, she started rooting through the desk—again, quietly.

“Here,” I said, handing her a phone of a strange design I didn’t recognize. It was nothing but a palm-sized touchscreen, almost like a small, fragile datapad.

She took it, a little bewildered as she switched it on. “Where’d you get this?”

I just pointed at the small desk next to the door, with a purse and a bowl of keys. The phone had been sitting right there.

“Oh. Okay. Um…” She turned her attention to the phone, before cursing under her breath. “Stupid thing is locked.”

“Can you hack it?”

“Sure. But with the time we’ve got, a four-digit combo may as well be four thousand. Any chance you’ve got a set of electronic lock picks?” I shook my head. “Yeah, me neither.” She used her nails to pop the case off the back, and sat down at the desk, in front of the computer. “See if you can find anything useful in that purse.”

I rooted around for a moment, to no luck. There wasn’t even a hairpin.

“That’s okay,” Laura assured me when she noticed my failure. “This isn’t the most sophisticated… right, got it.” A chip of silicon popped off. “Right. It’s not going to be much use for pretty much anything right now, but it will still get a signal.” She pulled a small cord from the desk, plugged one end into the phone and one end into the computer itself at her feet, and hid the phone behind the machine.

“Done?”

“Done,” she confirmed, getting out from behind the desk.

“Couldn’t you have just used one of ours?”

“Maybe, but the design’s are too different. I would have had to jury-rig a connector, and that would have taken too long.” She opened the door. “C’mon, we need to hurry before—”

“Ah HAH!” the robber roared from about a foot in front of us, as he pointed a large black handgun of an unrecognized model at our faces. I felt Laura’s arm in front of me, barring me from doing anything stupid. “John, I found some more!”

“Good!” I heard someone male call distantly from the front of the bank. “Bring them in!”

Handgun-man prodded us forward down the hallway with his single gun. Just one gun. Even without powers, I could take him in the blink of an eye, but Laura’s intentions were clear. She wanted to see where this was going.

The answer: Nowhere good.

The half-dozen bank robbers were all armed with shiny new automatic rifles that looked like they had been bought today. Derek sat next to Robyn and the bank manager, sporting a bloody cut across his face. He was playing it up, making it look worse than it was, but I knew him better than that. Under normal circumstances, he would have finished this before Laura and I had even finished hiding.

This was not normal.

“Now,” the leader, a tall man with a red bandanna covering his face, said as he pressed his gun against the skull of the little boy shivering in his grip. “I think it’s time we stopped playing games.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 219)

Wow, that’s a short one. Sometimes you just don’t notice until it happens.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 218 – Necopinato

NECOPINATO

LAURA

Well, the annoying girl from the hotel was right about one thing. We didn’t miss the bank.

It wasn’t huge, but it was certainly big, with marble columns and a Greek-style ceiling making up the entrance. It wasn’t particularly crowded, either, but it was open, and that was the important thing. We should be able to get enough money to last another week or so without any trouble.

Like anything in life is ever that easy.

Please, just look up Lucius Faber,” Derek begged the teller. “It’s a special account my uncle set up for the family. It just needs a code number.”

“That’s not the way our accounts work,” the young woman insisted firmly. “If you don’t have ID, we might be able to find you through your fingerprints, but a name isn’t enough.”

“I told you, it’s not my account. My uncle set it up—”

“If your uncle set it up, your name should be on the account. Just show me some ID—”

“I’m not on the account. There’s a whole bunch of people he wanted to give access, more than what your bank allows. So he had them set up a unique passcode system—”

“Sir, you’re making no sense. If you don’t have ID, please move out of line.”

Derek looked like he wanted to punch something, so I quickly pushed him out of the way so I could talk to the teller myself. “Hi, I’m Laura.” I glanced at her name tag “Sarah, is it? I understand that this whole situation seems a bit odd. Is your manager in? I’d like to talk to him.”

She frowned, but reached for her phone. You can always trust a bureaucrat to shrug responsibility off to someone else if given the opportunity. “Fine. He’s probably busy, though.”

“That’s fine,” I assured her. “Please tell him to take his time. We’re in no rush.”

“Yes we are!” Robyn cut in. “We haven’t even eaten today!”

I didn’t even look at my old friend, I just gave the teller a pained smile. “…although we would definitely prefer if he could come out before dinner time.”

Her expression softened slightly. “It shouldn’t take too long. An hour, at the most. Just take a seat over there, next to the coffee.”

I bowed slightly. “Thank you very much.”

We did as suggested, with Derek calming down pretty much the second there wasn’t someone immediately in front of him to be mad at. Robyn took longer, pacing in small circles and muttering under her breath, but eventually she got bored with that and sat down as well. Akane, of course, was as silent as a statue.

It took almost half an hour for the bank manager to come out, which was longer than I expected, but still not too bad. He was a well-dressed Caucasian man with a haggard expression on his face, papered over with a hasty customer service smile.

Derek rose to greet him, but I beat him to it, knowing that his blunt approach to diplomacy would do more harm than good here.

“Hi,” I said as I shook the man’s hand. “I’m Laura. We’re having some trouble with a bit of an odd withdrawal. How much did Sarah tell you?”

“Not much,” he admitted. He gestured towards a nearby desk with a computer and some seats. “Why don’t you catch me up real quick, and then I’ll see what I can do for you?”

Derek and I took the chairs in front of the desk, while the manager—Mike, judging by his name tag—sat across from us, in front of the computer. He glanced at Akane, standing a few feet behind Derek exactly like the bodyguard she was, but didn’t say anything. Robyn just stayed in the snack area.

“We’re trying to withdraw cash from an account that doesn’t belong to us,” I explained. “Our names are not on it anywhere, so our ID’s will do no good. The man who created the account wanted to give access to an indefinite number of people, so he set up a system where we could simply give you a code that would allow us access. This is obviously a non-standard set up, so your teller is unaware of it.”

The manager frowned. “You know, that all does sound somewhat familiar, but I’m not sure from what…” He typed at the keyboard for a second. “I’m honestly not even sure how to search for something like that. Do you happen to know what name is on it?”

“Lucius Faber,” I responded promptly.

A little bit more typing. “Oh, this one.” He chuckled. “Yeah, there was a big fuss when it was first made. When was that, ten years ago?”

“I think it would have been four or five.”

He grinned. Ah, that had been a test. “Yeah, that’s right.” His expression became more serious. “Now, I can’t really give you any cash. The system is set up to put the money on a no-fee debit card.”

I nodded. “That makes sense. We’re supposed to pay it back eventually, there’d have to be some way to track expenses besides the honor system.”

“As I understand it, it was insisted on by the people in charge of the bank at the time.” He shrugged. “You’re less likely use anything traceable to buy illegal goods, after all. It made them feel better about…” He trailed off.

“The fact that this is kind of incredibly shady?” I finished for him.

He gave me a pained smile. “Something like that, yes. It is odd, you have to admit. I mean, our bank lets you put up to a hundred people on an account. No one else has ever needed more than a couple dozen. But this guy said it wouldn’t be enough.” He shrugged. “Just kinda weird.”

“It’s an emergency fund,” Derek explained. “For when stupid tourists get robbed and need money, fast.”

Mike raised an eyebrow. “You got robbed?”

I sighed, touching my necklace almost unconsciously. “Something like that.”

“We woke up in the morning and all our cash was gone,” Derek elaborated grumpily. “And we were in a hotel, too. Not like we passed out drunk at some bar.”

The manager rolled with the odd situation without difficulty. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Since you’re here, I’m assuming you haven’t had any luck retrieving the money you lost. So why don’t we just get down to brass tacks. How much money did you need?”

I glanced at Derek. He shrugged. I frowned and turned back to the manager. “Well, we lost a little over nine thousand. We probably don’t need all of that, but four or five thousand would be nice, for the sake of safety.”

He just stared at me.

Derek sighed. “Why don’t we skip your shock at whatever it is she just said that’s so weird, and you explain what the problem is?”

Mike coughed. “Yes, well… the account only has eight hundred dollars. And sixty-four cents.”

Now it was our turn to stare.

He quickly continued. “I don’t know how much you need, but if you are careful, that can probably keep you afloat for…” He thought for a moment. “A… month? Maybe? How long were you expecting to need it to last?”

“A week,” Derek grunted. “Maybe two. But that was before we got cut off. Something’s wrong with the satellites, and we can’t call for funds or pickup or anything.”

The manager smiled a little shakily. “Well then. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make it last that long. I mean… I’m not really sure why you had nine thousand dollars cash on you in the first place…”

“Because it seemed easier than dealing with credit cards,” I said with what I felt was admirable calm. All things considered, the chances of an outside city recognizing Domina credit varied somewhere between infinitesimal to none. We should have at least left half the cash in the room, though. Why hadn’t we? “Can you just give us that debit card you mentioned, and we’ll be out of your hair?”

He nodded. “Yes, of course.” He tapped a few more commands into his computer. “I will need you and your husband to sign some forms, but that shouldn’t take too long.”

I kneaded my forehead. “We’re not… fine. Whatever. Do we both need to be here for this?”

“Uh, no, but—”

“Good.” I got up from my chair. “I just need some water. There wasn’t any by the coffee. You got a drinking fountain or something?”

The manager pointed at the line of tellers servicing customers. “Behind the counter. Just tell them I sent you. They’ll give you an escort, of course, but it’s not far—”

“Thank you.” I headed off without another word, and didn’t react when Akane fell into step behind me—presumably at Derek’s unspoken order.

I was going to get a drink. I wasn’t planning on raiding the vault.

But I could understand why he’d assign me a shadow anyway. This day was not going well, and if I was ever in a mood for doing something reckless and stupid, today would be it.

They let the both of us behind the counter without much complaint, and quickly led us to a short drinking fountain next to the employee bathrooms. It was barely even around the corner; I could still see half the tellers. Why did they even bother—

A gunshot split the air.

Shotgun, to be specific. Couldn’t identify the model by sound; probably not a Domina brand. Mid-level gauge, though… ten or twelve, maybe.

Akane had already pulled me down to the ground the second the shot went off, so I couldn’t see what was happening past the counter.

But I could hear it well enough.

“This is a robbery!” a strong, authoritative voice yelled. “No cops, no one tries to play hero, and everyone will make it out of this alive!”

No one try to play the hero?

Yeah, we were all dead.

Behind the Scenes (scene 218)

Timing and coincidence, eh? Scary, how things just seem to line up…