Kansas. Silk had teleported us to Kansas. Why Kansas?
The farmer peered down from his seat in the tractor. “Miss, is your friend okay?”
I patted Turgay—covered in a tarp we had found—and smiled, careful not to show my teeth. I could kill this man if I needed to, but my power was still recovering, and my fleshy bits still sore and even torn in places. “He’s just sensitive to the light. We drank way too much last night.” I looked around. “Can you point us to the nearest city?”
We had raided a barn—this guy’s barn, probably—for clothes, but there hadn’t been any transportation we could use. The car with the Kansas license plates had been too rusted over to start. Right now, our only choice was to walk until we found something that could get us back to Domina.
I wasn’t sure if I would go, once we found that plane or boat or whatever. I still felt sick and dark in the soul. But I could at least go looking. Turgay had information that the city needed. If nothing else, he could tell them to not bother sending assassins after Soaring Eagle.
The farmer looked skeptical at my explanation, but shrugged and pointed off to the west. “Sure. Kansas City is that way.”
I bowed politely. “Thank you kindly. Come on, Guy.” We started walking.
“You’re gonna hitch the entire way?” the man behind us asked incredulously.
Actually, I had been planning to walk, but whatever. “Yes, why?”
“It’s like a hundred miles!” He shook his head and sighed. “Give me ten minutes, and I’ll drive you idiots in myself.”
I shook my head. I really didn’t want to give this man more of a chance to see Turgay under the hood. He seemed like a nice man, and I didn’t want to have to kill him. “Oh no, that’s not necessary. I’m sure you’re very busy—”
“A couple hours out of my way isn’t gonna hurt anything.” He waved his hand at the empty fields of dirt. “Not like I have much to do right now, anyway. Just turning the soil.” He turned the tractor back towards his house. “I’ll be back in a minute. Just need to get the car and tell the hubby what’s happening.”
Well, it took him about half an hour to come back, not ten minutes, but it wasn’t like we were going anywhere. If he did call the cops anywhere in the meantime, I didn’t notice, and I’d be able to handle them anyway.
His car turned out to be a dusty old blue pickup with the distinct acrid stench of a gasoline engine, rather than the pure electric ones we used in the cities. The farmer smiled as I wrinkled my nose.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But we keep the gas-guzzler around for long-distance travel. The electric biddies are nice, but they just don’t have the range. I don’t want to have to charge up again when I’m in the city, you know?”
I nodded as we both piled in. Turgay still hadn’t made a sound, but at least he seemed to be moving on his own now. “I guess I understand that. Sort of.” I shrugged and smiled slightly. “I grew up in a city. Being out here, away from tall buildings, freaks me out.”
The farmer chuckled and changed gears, slowly picking up speed on the dirt road through his property. “Yeah, that’s my problem. Well, opposite, but you know what I mean. I just need open space, you know? Cities feel closed off and small.”
I smiled at that, more genuinely this time. Domina was a lot of things, but small wasn’t one of them. At a hundred miles in diameter, all packed solid with various urban structures, it was probably the largest city in human history. Well, Ceres up in the asteroid belt might be bigger, but I couldn’t remember.
“Your dirt is sweet, by the way,” I said by way of conversation. It just sort of popped out.
He chuckled. “I’m not gonna ask how you noticed that, but yeah. There’s sugar mixed in with the soil. It’s important for the genetically modified crops. Basically, they were made to need lots of sugar to grow, to make it impossible for them to grow wild and uncontrolled.”
“I know a little about that.” Not much, but a little. Domina City used some of the super high-yield modifications for our crops. My matron liked to grow pumpkins big enough for kids to crawl inside after we finished carving them for Halloween. “Do you focus more on size, or efficiency?”
“Efficiency,” he said, pleased that I understood at least a little of what he was talking about. “You gotta take care of the soil, or it will dry up like a well. Of course, no matter how efficient your super-corn is, it’s gonna suck up all the nutrients eventually, but that’s what crop rotation is for.”
“What about blight?” I asked. This was a question that I had no idea of the answer to. Domina didn’t really have to worry about crop blight, since our own fields were so small and they weren’t really our primary food source anyway. But I knew it was still a problem for real farmers outside the city.
He sighed. “That’s been a problem. The blight’s been getting stronger recently. That’s why it’s important to have more than one type of crop. But it’s starting to jump species.” He shook his head. “When a field gets blighted, you gotta burn it, and hope it doesn’t infect anything else. I hear they’re actually starting to invent new types of crops, making new species to stay ahead of the blight. Corn crossed with wheat or whatever. I dunno, I’m not sure that’s gonna work, but my husband is confident that he can make the new cash crop. There are lots of people like him, so someone will figure it out.”
I had to admit, I was starting to get a little bored of this conversation, but I still had to bring it up. “What about blight eaters?”
The farmer looked away from the dirt road for a moment to raise an eyebrow at me. “Excuse me?”
“Animals that eat the blighted crops,” I explained. “They eat the healthy crops too, of course, but if you’re already planning to burn the whole field, that’s not a big deal. Then you eat the blight eaters. Or feed them to something else and then eat that. Repeat as necessary.”
He was considering the idea, I could tell, but he still looked hesitant. “No, we don’t use anything like that. And I don’t see how it would work. Animals don’t eat blighted crops. Even locusts avoid it, most of the time.”
“You can modify the animals,” I pointed out. I didn’t actually know what they used for modifications out here, but they clearly had something. Maybe just a weaker version of the toy maker? “Make animals that can eat the blight. It’s not that hard.”
“It’s very hard,” Turgay said from behind us. I turned to see him sitting up in the back seat, tarp still pulled low over his face. I could see hints of his beak through the shadows, but hopefully the farmer wouldn’t be looking so hard. “Modifying an animal’s diet isn’t easy, and making it so that they can eat blighted crops without just dying is even harder. Even rats usually can’t do it.”
“But rats can do it,” I countered. That was how we dealt with blight in Domina: Open the gates and let the rats in. “Then they run off and get eaten by something else, so on so on until they end up on your plate. Circle of life.”
“You skipped the part where they walk over to the healthy fields and eat everything there,” the farmer said. “I don’t think that’s an actual plan.”
I shrugged. “Fences.”
“That’s a lot of land to fence off, and besides, rats can dig right through those.”
“Use a sonic fence,” Turgay suggested. “Pointed inward. It emits a tone that drives rats back, but leaves humans unharmed.” He thought for a moment. “Even if humans are harmed, you can just have the workers wear noise-canceling headphones.”
We finally came off the dirt road onto a real asphalt one. I assumed that meant we were leaving the farmer’s property. “Hm… that’s an idea, but those sonic things are expensive. And I fix tractors. I don’t know how to set one of those things up. I’d have to hire someone.”
“Is all that more expensive than losing an entire field with no way to recoup the losses?” I said.
“No… no, I suppose you’re right.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, it’s an idea, I’ll give you that. I’ll bring it up when I get back home. Not sure that anybody’s going to like the idea of eating rats, though.”
I kept my mouth shut. Rats were probably one of the most common meats in Domina, right after dumpster dogs. What else were we going to eat, beef? It cost something like a hundred bucks a pound just to get it raw.
The next hour or so passed in pleasant silence, or rather no talking. Our escort did put some country music on, but he left it low enough that it was just background music rather than blaring. It wasn’t a song I recognized, but of course it wasn’t.
He seemed a nice enough man, and knew better than to pry for details about our lives, which I appreciated. Turgay settled back into his seat, wrapped in his tarp and keeping nice and quiet to reduce the chance of his beak or feathers being seen. All in all, it was a rather pleasant drive through a sunny countryside, full of fields empty for the winter with a handful of exceptions.
It took me a while to realize that we had reached the city. There was no wall around it, no clearly marked borders. I had been to the Dagonite domains before—not to mention had seen this sort of thing on my way to the Pentagon—but it still annoyed me. The city just sprang up like weeds, with no rhyme or reason, growing taller and taller as we reached the center.
Traffic started to get bad as we edged deeper into the city. That reminded me of home, but I had a feeling that our driver wouldn’t exactly feel nostalgic.
“You can let us off here,” I said. We were in stop and go traffic, so we could literally get off anywhere. “I think that freeway entrance up ahead leads out of the city.” That’s what the sign seemed to imply, anyway, but I wasn’t exactly used to reading street signs like that.
The farmer blinked, then smiled. “I completely forgot to ask where you’re going! I was just heading to the hardware store like always. But yeah, I can let you off here if you’re sure. Where exactly are you headed, anyway?”
He frowned. “That should be at the edge of the city, right? Big open fields?”
I shrugged. “No idea. We’ll figure it out.” I shook his hand firmly. “Thank you very much for the help, sir.”
He frowned down at my gloved right hand, likely noticing that it seemed suspiciously rock-solid for something supposedly made of flesh. I withdrew quickly.
He still managed a smile, and didn’t press. “Well, don’t let me keep you. You kids get home safe.”
I nodded and stepped out of the truck, Turgay doing the same from the back.
We found ourselves in a world gone mad.
Everything about this city was wrong. The ‘scrapers weren’t even really skyscrapers, not really. Oh, there were tall buildings, forty or even a hundred stories tall, but most were more like twenty, and there were plenty of short five or ten story buildings as well. I even saw some one story buildings. What was even the point of building them that short?
The cars were all of designs I didn’t recognize, more metal than plastic on their frames. I suppose that just made sense, since they didn’t have to deal with the sea air rusting everything, but it was still odd from my perspective. Even if a lot of Domina companies just randomly thought it fun to make outlandish design choices, it was still more familiar to me. I would have felt more comfortable if I saw at least one car with a hovercraft booster fan on the back.
And of course, there were the people.
They were… white and black and brown, and that was it. No purples or reds or yellows, not even any snow white or jet black colors. Even the hair was depressingly mundane, without any pink or blue or anything even slightly interesting.
No one had any fangs, or claws, or scales or feathers or horns or even daygoggles. There were no giants shoving their way through the crowds, no goblins leaping around the fire escapes, and no kemos clambering up the walls. For crying out loud, no one was even armed.
“This place freaks me out,” Turgay muttered from under his tarp as the crowd pushed him from behind. No one had noticed anything odd about him yet, but I knew it was inevitable. His tarp would come off and start a riot any minute.
“Come on,” I said, pulling him towards an empty alley. “Let’s get on the roofs, get a better view.”
Clambering up the fire escapes was more annoying than it should have been. I was able to levitate up without any difficulty, lowering the ladder for Guy, but why was that even necessary? There should have been some chain or something to pull it down from the ground. Stupid Kansas.
Still, we got to the roof of the annoyingly short building easily enough, giving us a nice wide panoramic view of the city, without any of those pesky people annoying me just by their presence. It wasn’t their fault or anything, but still. They were annoying.
“Took you idiots long enough.”
We both wheeled around to see a woman, with bronze skin and jet-black hair, sitting on a nearby air conditioner with a completely bored expression on her face. She had her legs crossed, and she was wearing dark jeans and a loose t-shirt.
“…who are you?” I asked after a moment, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to attack us. Not right away, at least.
“You can call me Nephorthees,” the woman said, raising her hand as if to tip her hat, despite not actually wearing one. “Silk sent me. Said you might need a little bit of help today. Something something war this, war that.”
We didn’t have time for this. “Yes, a war is coming to Domina city! We need—”
“Oh, already?” Nephorthees said, yawning. “I thought it was later. Maybe I really should start reading those stupid memos she sends out.” Another yawn. “Anyway, you’re not getting back to your city just yet.”
I fell into a fighting stance. “You think you can stop us?”
She quirked her head and eyed my stance critically. “Spread your feet out more. Someone with your powers needs raw strength more than speed. You need to be solid as a rock, or people will bowl all over you.”
I tried not to blush as I followed her advice. “F-fine! We’re still getting past you!”
“Yeah, no you’re not.” She didn’t look any more interested than a couple minutes ago. “Even if you could somehow manage that, the chances of you getting a flight to New York, then a boat to your little island, are laughably small.”
Then she was behind me. Between blinks, she just disappeared from in front of me and was suddenly there behind me. I could feel her presence, but before I could wheel around and attack, she had kicked me in my rear and sent me stumbling forward.
By the time I turned, she was gone again.
“I can teleport,” she said calmly. I turned to see her sitting in the same spot as before, calm as can be. “You can’t. That basically means I win, end of story. Even if you manage to escape me, I know where you’re going.”
I wanted to fight, but I knew when I was outmatched. “Fine. What do you want?”
Next to me, Turgay put a claw on my shoulder. I ignored the attempt at comfort.
Nephorthees didn’t seem to care one way or the other. “I told you. I want to help.”
She smiled thinly. “By helping you assassinate a few key players before this little war of yours even gets started.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 267)
Ling’s scenes always take so long, and I have trouble with Turgay. But she works well with Nephorthees, so the next one with them will be nice and smooth.