November 18th, 2001. A Sunday. A beautiful, sunny day, if a bit chilly from the winter wind rolling off the ocean and around the city. This was the kind of day best spent in a cafe, preferably one with a nice windbreak, enjoying the fresh air.
Instead, I was in NHQ. And I planned to stay there for the foreseeable future.
I emptied the clip on my Sica, putting twelve holes in the torso of the target that was placed at the other end of the firing range. I had specifically chosen a small and out of the way range which I knew most people avoided, but there were still a handful of men and women scattered around. Like me, they all wore noise canceling headphones to keep from being deafened by the constant gunfire.
That was one of the reasons I had decided to come to a shooting range today. Sure, I needed to practice, as always, but this was one of the places that had held out longest during the MEE against the city of screamers. They had fallen in the end, of course, but their headphones had saved them from the initial attack, and they had survived the siege for hours.
These people treated me with respect, but not awe. They had been in my shoes. They hadn’t done as well as I had, but they had done well enough. They didn’t feel the need to bow and scrape before me.
Lily handed me my Caedes as the target was automatically changed. She wasn’t wearing headphones, but still seemed completely unconcerned by the noise. I knew she got new toys every couple days, but she shouldn’t be so blasé about it.
Well, it wasn’t like I could ask her any pointed questions considering the noise, so I just took the sub-machine gun and unloaded it at the target. The shots went wide—I wasn’t firing in bursts like I was supposed to, just holding down the trigger and letting it go. Fully half the bullets impacted into the sand backstop, but I still managed to scythe through the paper target.
Another gun in my hand. My Olympian Athena. Mid-range sniper rifle. This shooting range wasn’t really long enough to use it properly, but I could still practice a bit. I took a deep breath, then brought the scope up to my eye and fired as fast as possible.
I got the target in the shoulder. A horrible shot by most measures, but pretty good considering I was all but firing from the hip. I fired four more times the same way, with one missing the paper completely, two hitting the chest, and one getting a headshot purely by luck.
It went against pretty much every way you were supposed to use a sniper rifle, but I had learned that sometimes you had to use weapons in situations they simply weren’t designed for. Like when you’re being charged by a vampire and the only thing in your hand was a rifle.
I reached for the Sica again, then frowned as I noticed it hadn’t been reloaded. I looked at Lily, but she just shrugged, a small smile on her face, and strolled out without a care in the world. I sighed, gathered up my guns, and followed.
“Was there a reason for that?” I asked once we were out of the sound-proofed room and I had pulled off the headphones. This part of the shooting range was just a bog-standard gift shop with a nice wide window overlooking the city. “I thought you said you’d reload for me.”
“My sister called while you were shooting,” she explained, smiling. Oh, that smile. There should be laws against a smile like that. It still made me weak in the knees. “She needs your help with a few things.”
I sighed, knowing full well that arguing would just be delaying the inevitable. “All right, what exactly does she need? More tactics discussions?” Sure, she had been the one to lead me through the city, but MC still wanted detailed reports on how it had looked from my perspective.
“No, I think she’s done with that for now. She actually wanted you to talk to the CS squad.”
“Oh. Okay, I can do that.” The countersong squads were the anti-speaker soldiers, trained to use the devices we had gotten from Silk to neutralize powers, then move in and mop up any resistance. Everyone had them in some form or another, but the Big Boss knew it was important to make sure his were the best.
I still wasn’t sure how I felt about using anything obtained from that woman, though. Yeah, they seemed to be working well enough, but she was patient. She’d wait years to spring a trap if she had to, I knew it.
But that also meant that there wasn’t much use worrying about it. If she was really immortal, she could turn on us centuries after we were all dead of old age. Who knew how people like her thought?
As Lily led me upstairs to the CS training room, I began to wonder. Who did know how immortals thought? The fey. Sure, they weren’t hundreds of years old or anything, but their homunculi gave them an interesting perspective. Maybe I could talk to one of them about it.
They were technically a culture now, right? Though who knew what that whole Wild Hunt thing had to do with anything. I had heard Butler hadn’t even leveled any retribution fees at them, since they had helped fight Elizabeth—but they had donated money to help repair the damage regardless. So odd.
How would I even set up a meeting? I wasn’t a warlord. I wasn’t even a speaker. I was just a clay, with no toys and no powers. I had nothing to offer them, no reason they would even acknowledge my existence.
Lily’s swishing tail drew my eye as she walked up the stairs in front of me. While I was enjoying the view, a thought occurred to me. Hadn’t she mentioned something about having lunch with the fey? Of course, that was before they went even crazier than normal, but during the Wild Hunt, they didn’t attack her, so maybe…
“We’re here,” Lily said cheerily before I could ask. “MC?”
“Right here,” MC answered from one of the wall speakers. “The CS squad is getting changed in the room next door. They’ll be out in a moment—oh. Or they’ll be out right now, I suppose.”
The squad consisted of six men, two baseline, two kemos, and a demon and a vampire. They were dressed in full-body black tactical armor, a bit more formal and professional than I normally expected from Necessarius. They generally preferred a distinct lack of uniform.
But these men fell into line and saluted as smartly as any soldier I had ever seen, backs straight as arrows and eyes strong as iron. They were only a few years older than me, mid-twenties at the latest, but I was getting used to that. Dying young was very common in Domina City, especially for soldiers.
They remained sharply at attention for almost a full minute, and it took me a moment to realize what they were waiting for.
“At ease,” I ordered. They relaxed. Slightly. “What have you been told about the plan for today?” I made it sound like I just wanted to know how it looked from their perspective, but the fact was that I didn’t know at all. MC hadn’t had a chance to brief me.
“Sir!” One stepped slightly ahead of the others, one of the kemos. What culture was he? He didn’t have enough fur to really tell. Just the ears and some sharp teeth. Reminded me of a weasel, actually. Weasel kemos weren’t a real sub-culture, just one of the many kemo quasi-cultures.
Regardless of his choice of toys, he was clearly the leader of this little band. He wasn’t wearing any name tag or rank insignia, though. That might make things slightly difficult. Well, I could make do until MC gave me more detail.
“Sir, President Butler has given us direct orders.” I kept forgetting that Butler was the president of Domina. According to the outside world, the city was just another American territory, sitting in the same legal area as Washington DC. But Domina had been doing its own thing pretty much since the very beginning. “We are to train with you, learn how to fight powers and the Composer.”
I nodded. “Of course. Thank you.” The man recognized the dismissal, and stepped backwards into line with the others. “Now, do any of you know why you were sent to me, specifically?” This was a question I did know the answer to.
The leader frowned. “Because you fought the Composer and her Blackguards—”
“So did Huntsman,” I noted. “And Medina. Even Corporal Sanguinas or another member of the Paladins’ retinue would have done the job. Better, perhaps; at least they’re actually ‘sarians. Why were you sent to me instead of any of them?”
“Because they’re busy?” the demon asked hesitantly.
“True,” I admitted. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Lily, leaning against a nearby window, next to a rack full of training weapons. She looked… contemplative. I turned my attention back to the team. “But someone could have covered for any of them. Bringing the entire team in to train you might have been the best idea; in fact, I’m planning on doing that eventually. So why me? What makes me different than anyone else who has fought the Composer?”
“You won, of course,” the vampire pointed out. “No one else has done that.”
“Huntsman has. And he did it with his bare hands, after his reservoir was drained so dry his body was starting to break.” I met each of their gazes in turn, one at a time. “Now. Why were you sent to me?”
There was a long, long pause.
I sighed. “Honored Lily,” I called. “Would you care to enlighten them?”
“That’s not the proper form of address—” MC started from one of the speakers in the walls.
“Oh hush sis,” Lily interrupted as she ambled up beside me. “This is more important.”
The men weren’t excessively tall, but next to Lily, they may as well have been giants. I didn’t think too much about it, but she was barely five feet tall, while they all edged towards six. She said there were reasons she was so short, and I knew better than to pry.
Despite the height differences, though, she still seemed to tower over them. They shrank as she approached, not out of fear, just subtly relaxing in ways I could never have ordered—in ways I doubted they even noticed. They felt… comfortable around her. Safe.
She too met each of their gazes in turn, but while they had met my eyes with confusion and awe, they each bowed their heads to her in turn, a quick but unmistakable sign of respect. I wasn’t offended—or surprised, for that matter—but it was a stark contrast.
“I hate giving out the answers,” she mused aloud. “It defeats the point of testing. You’ll never learn if you don’t figure it out for yourself.”
“Honored—” one of the men started, but she cut him off with a single raised finger.
“I will give you one hint. A simple and easy one, so you don’t spend too much time chasing rabbits as the deer gets away.” She smiled gently, not the one she used on me, but a friendly, almost grandmotherly smile. Except younger. Did that make sense? Grandmotherly, but younger? “What is it that Adam and I have in common?”
I could see their brains working. Though her hint was confusing, it ruled out powers and toys—I had neither, Lily had both in abundance. It couldn’t be empathy, either; it was already well-known around the city that I was a sociopath, and that didn’t describe my girlfriend by any stretch of the imagination.
Though Laura had mentioned she was pretty sure I wasn’t actually, psychologically speaking, suffering from anything worse than a number of sociopathic tendencies. Overinflated rumor or not, you’d think that sort of thing would freak people out. But this was Domina City; sociopathy was a valid and valued skillset.
Finally, after looking at each other awkwardly to see if any of them had any ideas, the team gave up. “Sorry, miss. We just… have no idea what you mean.”
I sighed. “It is about survival.”
The squad looked confused, but allowed me to continue.
“I didn’t survive the MEE because I’m some unstoppable badass. I survived because surviving is what I do. When given a choice between deafening myself and turning into a zombie, I chose the former.”
Lily stepped forward. “Powers are varied and unpredictable. I’ve met people who can animate their own blood, shoot bone spikes, mind control the enemy, and make exploding butterflies. Training you to fight each and every one individually is impossible. So you are simply going to be trained to survive.”
The men nodded, a little hesitant, still not quite sure what we meant.
“Let’s start simple,” I said. “Verbal exercises. A kemo, no visible enhancements, with the power to make aluminum explode. How would you handle it? Begin.”
Despite their confusion, they caught on quickly. “Battlefield?” the leader asked.
“Indoors,” I improvised as I nodded in approval at the question. “Department store.”
“Keep him away from trash cans and soda machines,” the vampire murmured, almost to himself. “Anywhere you could find aluminum. Obviously we’d have the countersong up, so spread out, surround him in a wide net so that he can’t catch more than one in an explosion at a time, and tighten the noose until he’s in range of the devices.”
I nodded. “Very good. That would work. Now, what if the devices aren’t working for whatever reason?” I waved my hand. “Say you were at the barracks, sleeping, and they were too far away to get to fast enough.”
“We’d have them at our bedsides,” Leader-Kemo said. I really needed his name.
I smiled. “Good. That’s what I wanted you to think of. But still, your devices aren’t working. They were sabotaged somehow, or damaged during the fight. How would you handle him then?”
“Stay loose, on our feet,” one of the baselines piped up. “Like an enemy with grenades or any other explosive. Stay away from each other so we don’t lose too many in one hit. Don’t—” He frowned. “Wait. What’s the range on this power of his? Can he make stuff explode from a distance?”
“Excellent question,” I said with a grin. “Let’s say he can. Range about thirty feet, but he needs line of sight.”
“So he can make mines,” the demon grunted. “So need to keep an eye out for those…”
“Try and draw him out onto the street,” the leader added. “Or better yet, a field. Somewhere open, where we can see everything, and with minimal bystanders. Tight quarters favor explosives.”
“All excellent answers. But you’re missing something important. Does anyone know what it is?”
They stared at me blankly.
“He has no defensive abilities,” I reminded them. “So you can just shoot him in the head.”
The kemo frowned. “But sir, you said—”
“I asked how you would handle him. Not how you would arrest him or take him down non-lethally. As I understand your mission charter, you are to attempt such solutions if at all possible, but the safety of the civilians is top priority, and you have kill authorization at your discretion.” I smiled sweetly. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, sir,” the kemo muttered, a little annoyed.
“This is what I mean,” I insisted, serious again. “You have more training and experience with your weapons and each other than I ever will. But you need to alter your mindset, to figure out how to fight people with powers you can’t even imagine.”
The entire group nodded somberly.
“Now, let’s say there’s a girl who can turn invisible for a seemingly indefinite period of time…”
Behind the Scenes (247)
This went in a slightly different direction than originally intended, but I think it works.