Monthly Archives: October 2016

Scene 291 – Victoria

VICTORIA

ROBYN JOAN

The cork from the champagne bottle almost hit me in the eye.

“To victory!” Tekhiko yelled, holding aloft the foaming bottle. He hadn’t noticed the near-miss. “Domina City still stands! Sumus firmi stare!

Sumus firmi stare!” the rest of us echoed as we raised our glasses. There was much clinking and smiles, even before most people got any champagne.

“I would like to say something,” Fimmtu said as Tekihoko filled his glass. “First, thank you Orla, getting this nice little venue arranged on such short notice.”

Calling this place a ‘venue’ was giving it too much credit; it was just a reserved room at Nervi’s. It was on the second floor, so most people didn’t even know it existed. So, yeah, I guess Orla did a good job finding it.

There was some polite clapping, and a single cheer from Tekihoko. How much had he had to drink?

Fimmtu smiled an ave smile, but continued. “Domina City won its first war—its first war against outsiders, I mean.” There was some chuckling at that. “That’s something to be proud of.” He shrugged. “And, yeah, we fliers didn’t really do anything, but personally, I’m fine with that. We were ready, but we weren’t needed. I’m not sure what else we could have asked for.” He raised his glass higher. “To victory.”

“AD VICTORIAM!” Tekihoko cried, then burst out laughing.

Fimmtu chuckled. “Sure, buddy. Ad victoriam.”

Ad victoriam,” everyone else said, much more calmly, as we drained our glasses.

The toast done, the group broke apart into little cliques of three or four people. Orla went with Justine, Reinhold went with Sascha and Kora, so on and so on. Platon half walked, half carried Tekihoko over to a seat. Other than that, there weren’t any actual drunks yet.

Fimmtu sidled up to me. “Hey, boss.”

I smiled. “Hey. What’s up?”

He shook his head and pretended to sip at his wine. He couldn’t actually drink it, at least not easily, since the glass wasn’t designed for his ave beak. “Hell of a thing that happened here today. Never thought I’d see the day where Domina was attacked by outsiders.”

I rolled my eyes. “My dad saw this coming. Well, he’s just generally paranoid, but he was right this time. I have a feeling he and Butler would have unveiled something nasty if things hadn’t gone our way.”

“How is your dad?” Fimmtu asked. “NHQ, I mean. Did it get attacked at all?”

“Didn’t you look at the battle maps?”

“Local ones only. I couldn’t find the city maps.”

MC had given those to me without a second thought. “They’ll probably get published soon. The Americans didn’t penetrate far, and definitely not as far as NHQ. I think they barely got as far as Little Romania. Even that’s just because the vampires were having too much fun playing with their food.”

“I heard North Gate got hit pretty hard, though.”

“Mostly the gate itself. Shops and businesses. Though I hear they did put a pretty big dent in Seventeen Forge, so that’s gonna be annoying.”

Fimmtu looked thoughtful for a moment. “Seventeen is fully automated these days, right?”

I shook my head. “You’re thinking of Ninety-Seven, over in Dire Maul. I didn’t hear anything about it getting attacked. Besides, it’s still just an experiment anyway.”

He shook his head. “Which one is Seventeen? What’s it called?”

I struggled to remember. “…Tanzō.”

He nodded. “Right, right. Yeah, I spent some time there. Basic assembly line work. You have a casualty report?”

“I could look it up.”

“Nah, it’s fine.” He sighed. “It’s got safe rooms and all that. If any of my friends got killed, it was because they were too stupid to run.”

I frowned. “Victim blaming isn’t healthy.”

He raised an eyebrow, which was impressive to see on a full ave anthro. “Since when did you sound like a psychologist? Have you actually been showing up to class?” He chuckled. “Surprised the school hasn’t shut down completely.”

I took a deep pull of my wine. “I’m…”

In therapy.

I could say it. No need to mention Silk or any of the weirder stuff. Just… I’m in therapy. Simple and easy. All I had to do was say it.

The only problem was that Domina didn’t like therapy. In this city, if you had problems, you were supposed to go out and kill something like a normal person. Monsters were great for catharsis.

“I’ve picked up a few things here and there,” I said. “Being trapped in NHQ for a few years gave me a lot of free time.”

“I can imagine.” He shuffled his wings. “Any chance you’ve picked up anything about bird mites?”

I chuckled. “No. Pretty sure you’re one of the first humans to have that problem. Why don’t you go ask Delia, or someone else at G’Hanir?”

He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t exactly leave on good terms.”

“So? First time I was there, Akane exploded her shoulder breaking through a top story window. We’ve gone back there a few times since, no problems.”

Fimmtu gave me a confused look. “I know what those windows are made of. How did she just shoulder it open?”

“Super speed. Like a bullet from a gun.”

He shivered. “Ugh. She’s lucky she didn’t just splat like a bug.”

“Speaking of bugs…”

He rolled his eyes again. “Okay, I set you up for that one.” He pretended to sip his drink again while scanning the party. “I’ll look into it. Some of the hawkmasters might have something. Until then, let’s just enjoy this party.” He took a deep breath. “I doubt things are going to stay peaceful forever.”

I chuckled. “Half the city is partying right now. We won a war!”

“Parties can turn to riots when enough drink is involved. Besides, it’s not like the entire city stopped fighting each other to defend against the Americans. The ‘sarians still have plenty to worry about.”

“Like what? All the major cultures were involved in the fight, even the fey. Unless you think the skulls used the opportunity to try and claim some territory.”

He wasn’t amused by the joke. “Off the top of my head, I didn’t hear anything about the Nessians in the fighting.”

My smile disappeared. “Did they take someone?”

“I’m sure they did, but no, I don’t have any direct evidence of it.” He sighed. “I’m sure someone will just disappear in the chaos, and we’ll never find them again. Maybe one of the lesser kemo clans will get a new slave, but no one will be able to prove anything.”

I leaned back against the wall. “Is Asmodeus still doing business with the fey?”

Fimmtu gave me a sad ave smile. “Skies above only know. I haven’t heard anything about it since their reformatting. They might have just taken it underground. On the other hand, the fey don’t seem to need slaves these days. People are joining them willingly.”

“Maybe it will be enough to finally kill them off,” I said. “The Nessians, I mean. Force of arms couldn’t get rid of them, but if they have no customers, they’ll dry up on the vine. Even the Belians are ignoring them now.”

Fimmtu looked confused for a moment, before nodding. “Oh, right, Fierna cut ties with them. I heard about that. She seems to be doing well—better than her father, at least. She sent some drakes to help on East Gate.”

Fierna. Yeah. Kelly had been doing well for herself. Or at least the best she could.

I sighed. “I’m gonna go get another drink.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 285)

Sumus firmi stare is the official Domina City motto. It doesn’t get much use, but nothing stirs patriotic feelings like being attacked by an outside army.

Scene 290 – Cladis

CLADIS

RICHARD

“Sir,” Senator Grain said. “We need your approval.”

The Football lay open on the desk in front of me.

It was a medium-sized brown briefcase, filled with buttons and dials and locks. It should have looked weird, maybe even silly. Instead it looked like a tiger, purring in its sleep, just waiting to spring into action.

It controlled the United States nuclear arsenal.

It was always near me, handcuffed to one bodyguard or another. Sometimes when I lay up at night, I could feel it in a nearby room, just waiting for me. Patiently. It was in no rush. It would most likely only be used once, after all. It didn’t need to hurry.

Hundreds of silos, nuclear-equipped submarines, and who knew what else. All available at a touch of a button. Oh, there were safeties and secondary safeties and tertiary safeties and so on. Even I couldn’t just randomly decide to nuke us back into the Stone Age. But for all the grandstanding about responsibility and oversight, in the end, it was all up to me. Once I decided to use it, it only took a few minutes to get all the proper authorization.

Now it was just a touch of a button away.

Domina City had an energy shield we couldn’t pierce. They had an aquatic defense we couldn’t match, ground troops we couldn’t overcome. As far as anyone could tell, dropping a small-scale tactical nuclear warhead on their heads was the only way we could defeat them. If we were lucky, it would just crack the shield. We could then shell the city with mainland artillery batteries. Those were even now were rolling into position.

This had not been a very lucky day for us.

“Mister President?” one of the generals said quietly.

“Give him a moment,” Miss Silk said.

The general swallowed, but nodded.

This shouldn’t trigger world war. We were attacking our own territory. We were using a missile that was tiny by nuclear standards. Of course the other countries would still know about it, spies and satellites and all that. But the point was no one would be able to complain that the blast got too close to their own lands.

I just had to push this button and kill everyone in Domina City.

Even ignoring our own soldiers—which I shouldn’t—the cost was almost too much to bear. Population estimates put the city at anywhere between two hundred and four hundred million people. They weren’t all soldiers, and they couldn’t all be criminals, even going by the fact that we had a broader definition of criminal than they did.

Four hundred million people, killed in an instant. If they were lucky. If the shield took the brunt of the blast, they might die of horrific and irreversible radiation sickness instead. I had seen more than a few pictures of people who got too close to a nuclear detonation. I wouldn’t wish that one my worst enemy.

I wasn’t sure anyone in Domina City should be my enemy.

“Mister President,” Senator Grain whispered.

I took a deep breath and reached forward—

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I switched tacks with indecent haste, grabbing my phone so fast I almost dropped it. I took another deep breath, steadier this time, and flipped the phone open in the middle of a second ring. I thought for a second, then switched it to speaker.

“Hello?”

“Hello,” Artemis Butler said on the other side. “I would like to commend your soldiers, especially those on North Gate. They put up a better fight than we expected.”

I glanced up at the digital map on the wall. The North Gate had been almost covered in blue, representing our strong base camp and forays deeper into the city. Although it had been slow going, they had been making progress. Then we had lost contact with the camp, and the ship reported an explosion. That was the last we heard from them. Some reports from short-wave radios had gotten through, but nothing substantial.

“Thank you,” I said with an even tone. “These… abilities of yours were unanticipated. I’m curious, while the strength and the horns and so on are all obviously from the toy maker, what of the rest? The shields, the fire, the other, stranger abilities? Do those have the same source?”

“They have the same source,” he confirmed. “That source is not the toy maker.”

“More’s the pity.”

“These are things we can discuss in more detail at a trade negotiation. Perhaps set up some sort of knowledge exchange. I was quite impressed with those echos of yours, for example. I knew about them, of course, but seeing them in action was something else altogether.”

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. There were just somethings the President of the United States had to do. Whatever idiot had called me the most powerful man in the free world should be tarred, feathered, and tied to a post in the middle of the desert.

He’d still have more freedom than me.

“Mister Butler, the war is not over. If you would like to discuss a cease-fire, then we can make arrangements right now, if you like.”

Butler sighed. “Mister President, do you know the difference between your nation and mine?”

I was tempted to make a quip. Something about how his wasn’t an actual nation, or how mine wasn’t full of criminals. Or maybe just some joke about the fact that his island was literally made out of trash.

But I didn’t. Didn’t see the point.

“No,” I said.

“The difference, Mister President, is that my nation is younger. More fragile. We have more to lose. It makes us significantly more desperate.”

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“I am willing to do anything it takes to win. You are not. That is why you haven’t pushed that button.”

I felt my heart freeze in my chest, but dismissed it. It was just a lucky guess. The Football was far from secret.

“The more you talk, the less guilty I feel about nuking your city.”

“You’re a good man, Mister President.”

“You think that means I won’t do what’s necessary?”

“Maybe. But more to the point, it means you’re a terrible liar. You’re sweating like a pig.”

I fumbled for my handkerchief and wiped my forehead.

“Nice handkerchief. Gift from your wife, I take it? No wait… the stitching is poor quality. Ah, a gift from your daughter, then. That’s sweet.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

When I opened them again, everyone was staring at me. Not like they were judging me, but like they were worried about me, and what this conversation would mean for this country. And especially where Butler was getting his information. A couple of them were subtly trying to look around the room, as if they’d find a spy hiding behind a newspaper.

But I had another solution.

“The United States cannot condone your actions, Mister Butler.” Because we would lose face, I added silently.

“I never expected you to.”

“We can, however, offer you a cease-fire of indefinite duration. We will stop attacking your city, and in exchange you will send ambassadors to the UN building in New York City. Does that seem fair?”

I kept my eyes on the generals and senators at the table as I spoke. Some of them wouldn’t like this. Some of them wanted me to push the button.

I took note of the ones who looked annoyed, and those who looked relieved. But no one said anything. No one wanted to be the one to suggest nuking an American city. Yes, this was a closed-door meeting with no records. But word would get out, one way or another. It always did.

“Ten ambassadors,” Butler said. “And their bodyguards, of course. Would that be fair?”

“Yes, quite so.”

“Good. Any ambassadors you send to Domina—”

“No.”

“No?” I could almost see him raising his eyebrow on the other end of the line. “May I ask why not?”

“Because I have a feeling if I send anyone else to your city, they’ll have a series of fatal accidents. We’d be lucky to get their bodies back for burial.”

Several of the more diplomatic senators flinched, but Butler just laughed. “You do learn quickly, don’t you? Very well then, one way exchange. Of course, my ambassadors have nothing to fear from your city.” He sighed. “From each other, on the other hand…”

He seemed genuinely annoyed. It was a surprisingly honest moment.

“But that is my problem, not yours. As for time…” His tone turned thoughtful, with a hint of humor. “Perhaps ten in the morning, New Year’s Day? All nice and symbolic, definitely look good for the history books.”

“January 1st, 2002,” I said. “Next Tuesday. At ten AM, I expect your ambassadors to be knocking on the door of the UN building. None of that crap about being fashionably late or whatever.”

“Do I seem like the kind of man who appreciates tardiness, Mister President?”

“No, but maybe your people think they can get away with it. Ten AM sharp, Mister Butler. Please tell them to dress nice.”

I hung up.

I took a deep breath. I should have waited a bit more, talked with him a bit further and discussed how we were getting my men out of the city. But it was important to show that I still had some power.

I carefully closed the Football and put it aside. “Jefferies, would you take care of this for me? Thank you.” I turned to everyone at the table. “Please begin a full withdraw. All ships are to cease fire at once and focus on retrieving our men. They are not to open fire under any circumstances. Is that understood?”

One of the generals, or maybe the admirals, coughed awkwardly. “They, uh, actually stopped firing a few minutes ago. When you got the call, I figured it might be best to…” He trailed off.

I nodded. “Good man. Maybe we can finish this without getting anyone else killed.”

“This is ridiculous!” a senator shouted, red-faced. What was her name… “You cannot allow a terrorist rebel to dictate terms! He should be brought to heel!” She took a deep breath. “I understand why you do not want to use the nukes. Honestly, I was worried enough about the artillery. But an American city cannot simply declare itself its own country and ignore our laws!”

“We tried doing it the other way,” I said. “Nukes are all that’s left.”

“Send more men,” she said. “More echoes. Those were doing well, with only a few unexpected setbacks. Send in a full platoon of them, that will make everyone sit up and take notice.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, what is the current estimated cost of this operation?”

“Two hundred and sixteen billion dollars, sir. Not counting payouts to families of the fallen soldiers.”

The senator shut her mouth.

“We’ve lost thousands of men,” I said. “About a dozen ships, who knows how many echoes, and all for what? A city that doesn’t want us?” I shook my head. “We completely misjudged the situation. No, I misjudged it. Sele played me like a harp the whole time. She didn’t want justice, she wanted revenge. Revenge on the city that cast her out, nothing more. This is officially not worth it.”

“This will make us look weak,” a general said. I couldn’t tell if it was an admonishment.

I rolled my eyes. “We are weak. If any of the space colonies had decided to help Domina—who, I should note, they like better than us—we would have been dead before this war even started. I don’t mean the country would be dead, I mean us, personally, would be dead. You ever head of a god rod? Toss a tungsten rod at us and let gravity do the rest?” I whistled like a bomb drop, then mimed an explosion.

“The space colonies will rebel,” Grain said, his tone neutral. “They’ve been waiting for an opportunity for this. Ceres and Lemuria, especially, will probably just cut ties entirely.”

“They’ll hold off until the meeting,” I said. “They’ll want to see what happens. Make sure we don’t turn on the Dominites, that we uphold our end of the bargain. Whatever that bargain turns out to be.” I smirked. “Politicians always wait to see which way the wind is blowing.”

“And what happens if Domina gets the upper hand in the negotiations?” that same female senator asked. Emily, right? No, but that felt like the right track. “Do we allow the other colonies to secede as well? We trade with them far more than Domina! What happens if we lose Mons Agnes, or Marius Alpha?”

I chuckled. “We’re not losing Marius Alpha. They’re all soldiers up there, living fat on pensions. Last time we tried to get them to be self-sufficient, they went on strike. Do you remember that?”

She faltered. “No.”

“Yeah. Says a lot about the important work they do, doesn’t it?”

She frowned and rallied. “Regardless! Vesta has been considering leaving for years, and at this rate we could even lose Bakerston or Cytherean Watch!”

I blinked. “Bakerston? Really?”

Senator Grain nodded. “They’ve been supplementing their budget with trade. At this point, they might decide to cut ties and go their own way.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, start drafting a letter to Bakerston Station. Basic idea, they won’t have as much time for science if they have to get trade running.”

She nodded, tapping something into her phone.

“As for the rest,” I said, turning back to address everyone in the room. “I have some ideas. Some non-violent ideas.” I made a face. “I never liked getting rocks thrown at me as a kid. I think I’ll like rocks from the asteroid belt even less.”

The angry senator Vemil—that was her name, Vemil—frowned. “…why did they throw rocks at you as a kid?”

“Greasy hair and a smart mouth. Now.” I clapped my hands and smiled. “Our troops have just had a rather bad day. Why don’t we find something nice to greet them with, eh? Some hearty Christmas dinner should do the trick, right? Miss Silk, call the caterer. You know the one I like. Anyone have any other suggestions?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 290)

I’ve always been worried about this sequence. I knew from the very beginning that the war between Domina and America was inevitable, but I also knew that it would be hard to keep the war from getting too destructive. For all their newfound powers, Domina cannot stop a nuke.

We’re not quite done yet, of course. Very close, but not quite.

Scene 289 – Portam Bestarium

PORTAM BESTIARIUM

JEFFERIES

My name is Curtis Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the north side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty, and found ourselves in a narrow square. There were lots of shops and little restaurants, with a dozen small streets spinning off like spokes from a wheel. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We heard distant gunfire long before we encountered the enemy, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

Things went well, for the most part. The enemy fought back harder than expected, but our echoes pushed through them. Even though they had these giant bear and wolf things, we made steady progress through the district. It was slow going, and we took heavy losses, but we were doing better than the others. At least going by what I overhead from the lieutenant’s radio. She had the volume turned up too high. When the shield popped up and shells started slamming into it, some people freaked out, but it had nothing to do with us.

Then the base camp exploded.

I was maybe a hundred yards away, down one of those little side streets, when it happened. The blast wave blew a cloud of choking dust through the alley. My entire squad stumbled, trying to keep our feet.

Behind me, I heard the dull whoosh of a fire igniting.

I had heard that sound too much today.

I spun around, gun up, to see one of the beast-men grinning at me. He was a furry dog-thing, and his hand enveloped in white flame. I shot at him, but he dodged to the side faster than I would have thought possible. He tossed a fireball at us before anyone else had a chance to react.

One of my squadmates screamed as she took the full brunt of the attack. On the plus side, her sacrifice meant the rest of us weren’t even singed. We opened fire, cutting down the monster in a hail of bullets, then moved as fast as we could to try and put our friend out.

We had far too much experience with this.

She died fast enough, leaving nothing but a crispy, smoky corpse. It was for the best, since without the base camp there were no medics around to patch her up or even just keep her alive. We’d have needed real doctors instead of field medics, and those hadn’t shipped out with us. Something had delayed them at the last minute.

I took a deep breath through my mouth, trying to avoid smelling anything. These things had… weird powers and abilities. Fur and fangs were one thing. But fire and electricity and shapeshifting? The toy maker didn’t give these people these abilities. We were missing something important here.

“Lieutenant,” I said. “Orders?”

She looked up from the corpse at her feet. She shouldn’t even be here, with us. She should have been at the base camp, giving orders to the sergeants leading squads like ours. But the captain had wanted her to check something out, so she had gone out with three squads.

The triple squad was now half the size of a normal squad. The lieutenant was likely the highest-ranked officer on the battlefield.

“Your orders, lieutenant,” I prompted again.

She blinked, then nodded. “Collect her dog tags, then we move deeper into the city. Defensive formation.”

One of the other squad members looked up. “Sir? Not back to the gate?”

She shook her head. “That’s what they’ll be expecting. Anyone headed that way is going to walk into an ambush. We need to get to safety, then we can get the new lay of the land and strike from a position of surprise.” She clicked her radio off. “Full radio silence. Just to be safe.”

Everyone nodded and turned their radios off. I reached down to the charred corpse at our feet. I winced as I touched her crispy skin, and yanked the dog tags off her neck. The lieutenant took them with a nod of thanks and pocketed them, and then waved to our point man.

He led the way south, down the winding streets and away from the gate we had entered the city through.

There were six of us. We couldn’t fight the entire city by ourselves. But we could make life difficult for the enemy. That was all that was left to us at this point.

We stumbled onto a patrol of the cat-men, but we caught them by surprise. We were able to cut them down before they even got a shot off. One started healing rapidly even as we watched, so I shot her a few times in the head to make sure she stayed down.

This crazy city…

“Somebody might have heard that,” the lieutenant said. “Police their weapons, and let’s get moving.”

It took us a second to realize what she meant, but she was right. We put our own guns in our backpacks and collected the weapons and ammo of our enemies. We didn’t have much ammo left for our military-issue guns anyway.

Most of them had sleek, futuristic-looking rifles with digital ammo counters on top. Etched onto the side was the legend St. Euphemia. Underneath that were stats which didn’t make sense, except for the caliber. They were 4.5 mm, which seemed common here.

I flicked the safety off, and noticed that a little red symbol appeared on the ammo counter. It looked like an unlocked padlock. Oh, it told you when the safety was off. That was clever. But the gun didn’t make any annoying chirps or beeps, so that was nice.

Although we didn’t have time to actually test fire the guns, we were all confident with them. We moved on to securing a location for a new base camp.

We were surrounded by massive skyscrapers, but unfortunately that didn’t help at all. Not only did few of them have doors into this dirty little alley, but we had no way of knowing which ones were empty. If we picked the wrong one, we’d find ourselves outnumbered a hundred to one. And that was before they inevitably called for reinforcements.

The squad followed the point man silently, though we glanced at the lieutenant every few minutes to see if she had any ideas. That haunted look was gone from her face, at least, though she still looked confused and worried.

“Hold,” she said finally, right before we were about to round a corner.

Everyone stopped, ears straining.

Then we heard it too—barking laughter, as one of the beasts told a joke to his friends. Armed? Almost certain. We hadn’t run into a single civilian in our time here. The captain had said they should have all retreated into their homes.

That thought made me pause. These buildings surrounding us—were they businesses or homes?

The lieutenant signaled for us to pull back, and we retreated to a small grubby door in the side of the alley. One of my squadmates was working on the doorknob with a set of lockpicks. He was a private with a name like Smith or Jones or something else boring like that.

The beasts behind us said something else. All I heard was “And then he exploded!” and raucous laughter. They were entertained for now, but sooner or later, they’d come patrolling…

The lock popped open with a click, and we slipped inside as fast as possible. The lieutenant closed the door behind us and locked it again. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

It was too dark to see anything. Our point man turned on his flashlight and shone it around the room while the rest of us kept our guns level. There was nothing special about this place. It just looked like a normal lobby, with a small waiting area with couches. There was even a small room with a window space, presumably where the receptionist sat. It was currently empty. I could still hear distant gunfire, echoing through the streets. At least it was muffled by the walls.

There were no windows to the outside. There was something creepy about that.

The flashlight lingered on a cheerful poster proclaiming ‘Vampire-friendly environment! Nightlights and strong shades available throughout the complex!’

I closed my eyes. “Sir, this is an apartment building.”

The lieutenant looked like she was struggling with something.

“Shit,” someone muttered. “We’re not supposed to endanger civilians.”

“This is good,” the lieutenant insisted before anyone else could complain. “We just need to find an empty apartment and hunker down. Brown, check out that computer, see if you can find any information on which are vacant.”

The indicated soldier moved to the computer and started tapping away at the keyboard. “I’m in. Give me a few minutes to find some sort of directory or whatever.” He cursed under his breath. “Someone is using this as their personal computer. This is going to take a little while.”

While he did that, I started searching through drawers, hoping to find… something. Anything, really. A hard copy of the current residence list would be nice, but I was just doing it to kill time.

I frowned and pulled something out. “Who keeps grenades in a file cabinet?”

The lieutenant looked at the little cluster of explosives I was holding, and shook her head. “I hate this freaking city.”

“Enough here for everyone,” I said, pulling the grenades off like bananas off a bunch. I tossed one to everyone except for Brown, who was still busy with the computer. “Anyone else find anything?”

“Papers, files,” the lieutenant said with a sigh as she rifled through some drawers of her own. “Nothing else.”

“I found some ammo,” someone else said. He peered at a handful of bullets that he appeared to have collected from a candy bowl. “High-caliber rifle rounds. Won’t fit these guns, though.”

“Lieutenant Backstrom!” Brown said. “I got it!”

She smiled. “You found us an apartment?”

He nodded. “Third floor, room six. The ones on either side are empty, too. It’s perfect.”

“Good. Where are the keys?”

“They use keycards. One second…” He typed something else, and then a small device on the desk whirred, and spat out a small white card. “Here we go. I had to hack it to say we bought the room, but I backdated it a couple weeks and said we already paid. That should keep them off our backs for at least a day.”

The lieutenant had a thoughtful look on her face. “What name did you put it under?”

“Yours,” Brown said. “It’s common enough not to arouse suspicion.”

She nodded. “Yes, good.” She snatched up the keycard. “Everyone, advance to the stairs, but quietly.”

“What about our guns?” I asked.

She looked like she was struggling with something. “…leave them out for now.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

We moved forward in a standard fire formation. It was optimized for close quarters like these hallways. We didn’t encounter anyone, but we kept our guns raised. At the lieutenant’s urging, we moved into the stairwell as quickly and quietly as we could. Three floors up, we exited, still didn’t find anyone, and made it to room six without difficulty.

The lieutenant nodded to Corporal Kine, then put the keycard in and opened the door. Kine moved in, sweeping her gun left and right, searching for any hidden hostiles. After a moment, she lowered her weapon, then nodded to us.

We filed in as fast as possible, then closed the door behind us. The lieutenant flicked on the lights. They were just dull red lights, the kind you used when you were worried about preserving your nightvision. She frowned and played with some more switches, and got the real lights on.

The place was furnished, but only bare bones, with a couch pointed at an old tv sitting on a cabinet in the corner. The kitchen wasn’t quite a separate room, with only a half-wall separating it from the main room. There were two doors on the other wall that should lead to a bathroom and a bedroom.

“Thick shutters on the windows,” I noted. I didn’t lift the blinds, in case there were any snipers watching from outside. There was still gunfire echoing around out there, and I couldn’t tell how much of it was close by. “This place feels like a fortress.”

“Feels like a normal apartment in gang territory to me,” Corporal Horn said. “I grew up in a place like this.” She smirked. “Except for the weird lights.”

The lieutenant checked behind the doors. “We shouldn’t be here long, but keep those radios off for now. We don’t want to give up this location too easily. Set up a base camp. Brown, try and figure out a way to contact command without letting anyone trace us.”

“You think that’s what they were doing?” I asked as I put my gun down on the couch and started stripping off the rest of my gear. The others followed suit.

She shook her head. “Maybe? It’s the only thing that makes sense. None of our ambushes were working, and then we turned off our radios and it was like we were invisible.”

“We should be out there,” Hall said, holding his gun almost protectively. “Not hiding in here.”

The lieutenant sighed. “Private, with the base camp destroyed, our side of the invasion is done. We’re not soldiers any more, we’re insurgents. Saboteurs.”

“You said the ship was still intact! They could have rebuilt the forward base by now!”

“In which case we will be even more important,” she said. “As we are behind enemy lines, ready to provide support.” She nodded at Brown. “Help with the radio. I want to figure out exactly what’s going on out there.”

Hall looked annoyed, but did as ordered.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have any orders, so I just picked up the remote and turned on the tv. It immediately showed a scene I recognized, the North Gate of the city and our base camp burning in front of it.

“Casualty reports are still incoming,” a smooth female voice said. “But at current estimates, analysts are agreeing that the battle for North Gate is largely over—albeit at high cost. Early mistakes during the battle allowed American forces to gain a foothold into the city and spread throughout kemo territory, especially domains belonging to the fels and the murids, who are still recovering from the death of the Lady of the Plague.”

I glanced at the lieutenant. She was watching with her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed.

“The invaders’ base camp was destroyed when their explosive and ammunition stockpiles went up in a chain reaction. The exact cause of this is unclear, but sources inside Necessarius say that this was a planned counterattack, not a lucky accident.”

“Well, that explains one thing,” Horn muttered.

“Shush,” the lieutenant said, not taking her eyes off the tv.

“There are still enemy forces present in North Outer, so residents are advised to remain in their homes for the time being. Butler’s official statement is that the situation will be resolved within a few hours.”

I looked at the lieutenant. “You think he’s exaggerating to make himself look better?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Now quiet.”

“In related news, the battles at East, South, and West Gates have also ended in the city’s favor. Property damage is extreme in both the East and the West, but in the South the demons kept everything contained without too much difficulty. The Dagonites sunk the majority of the enemy fleet, and while the remaining ships are still shelling the city, the shield remains stable. Residents are still being advised to stay indoors, but the threat has largely passed.

“In other news, the Thors have attacked a mancal enclave—”

The lieutenant pressed the mute button. I hadn’t even seen her grab the remote.

“It can’t be over,” Hall said. “Right? It can’t be that easy!”

“We made a dent,” I said.

“We made a dent,” Horn said with a laugh. “A dent in a city we were supposed to be able to tear apart. And we were the best of the battles?” She shook her head. “What happens now? Do they just nuke the city?”

I paled. “The president wouldn’t do that.”

Hall glared. “Are you sure about that?”

“Enough,” the lieutenant said. “We stick to the plan. Lay low and fortify. Keep an ear out, and get that radio working so we can call out securely. One way or another, the higher-ups will come up with something. We just need to survive long enough to provide support.”

Behind the Scenes (289)

This one went to interesting places in the end, though not the way I planned it. I like it when that happens.

Scene 288 – Scuta

SCUTA

LAURA

Of all the people with shield powers in the city, not even Derek could deflect an artillery barrage. He might manage one shell, perhaps, but it would have knocked his reservoir all the way into the red, like when he caught that building. And yet, we needed some way of blocking them. It was inevitable the city would be shelled, and our point-defenses would barely catch a fraction.

I was proud of my solution.

I was also terrified of it.

We sat in one of the war rooms of NHQ. It was a large and fortified chamber with countless computer screens on the wall and a real-time tactical table in the middle. The table was updated on the fly by MC’s programs, using information from all over the city. Akane and Flynn were there, in addition to myself, Butler, Clarke, and about a dozen of their aides.

And, of course, the Shield Wall.

That’s what we were calling them, because it was just the only thing we could think of. Thirty-six shield-producers like Derek were sitting on the floor in a ring around the war table. Each one had someone standing behind them, hands on the shielders’ temples, concentrating as hard as they could.

Those were telepaths, the best and most trustworthy ones we could find in the city. They used their powers to connect the shielders to themselves and each other, creating a hive mind. It was like what the pod-brains used, but this time made up of seventy-two people.

“Shield Wall,” I said. “What is the status of the barrier?”

One of the girls spoke in a flat tone without opening her eyes. “Barrier is stable. Sectors A-17, A-18, B-29, and C-09 are under fire, but holding. Enemy fire has been reduced, and is virtually non-existent in all other sectors.”

This hive mind was an invaluable field asset, but I was worried about side effects, both long-term and short-term. What would happen when we tried to untangle them? They could all die, or just refuse altogether. Would the other members of the hive remember Derek’s secrets even after they were separated? Would Derek even be the same person?

I touched the ring on my necklace. I had just got him. I had waited nearly my entire life, and I had finally got that idiot to pay attention to me as a woman. Had I just killed him, all for some momentary tactical advantage?

I closed my eyes. No matter what happened, I would not apologize for saving this city.

I opened my eyes and managed a smile. “So the Dagonites took down the fleet.”

“White-Cap Bay is their territory,” Butler said. “The fleet was an insult.”

I scanned the war table. “They’ve still got more ships afloat than I’d like. MC, what’s the status of those?”

“They’ve repulsed the Dagonites,” she said, her voice coming through the wall speakers. “I’m not sure how. Maybe they got lucky and saw them in the water before they set the bombs, started shooting or something. I don’t know. They’ll have to retreat once the Dagonites regroup, but that will be at least a few hours.”

I nodded. “Shield Wall. How long can the barrier last at current attack rate?”

A different shielder spoke up, with the exact some dull tone. “Approximately three-point-seven hours.”

I frowned. “Cutting it a little close.”

Clarke looked up. “Could the Atlanteans help?”

I scowled. “Yes, they could. But they won’t. They think they’re safe on the damn ocean floor. I half hope one of the sinking ships squashes them.” I tapped at the war table, and it reconfigured to overlay the location of the Atlantean cities. “Nope, they’ll be fine. I guess I should be happy.”

“Besides, they’re busy fighting off the Rahabs,” Butler said. “Blame them if you wish the Atlanteans could join the fight.” He thought for a moment. “MC, call up the kelpie warlords. Ask them the exact path the ships would be forced to flee on.”

I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t elaborate. How would this help us drive them off faster? Whatever.

I sighed and turned back to the board. “Demon Gate is holding strong.”

One of Butler’s aides—a demon, funnily enough—stepped forward. “The Erlking reports that the stoneshapers are invaluable. He thanks the Gravers for organizing this so quickly. He also says…” She checked her pads. “’Ripping apart their silly robots is far too much fun.’”

I frowned. “Robots? The US has robots?”

“Mechanized heavy battle armor,” Butler said.

“Oh. Echoes.” I shrugged. “Not robots, but whatever. I imagine they’re sending those at every gate?”

Butler nodded. “West Gate isn’t quite as successful as South, but the giants are holding strong. At last report, Odin said they managed to cut the army in two. They’re actually capturing soldiers alive.”

“Excellent. That will play well on the news.” I tapped East Gate, which showed an angry red scar reaching nearly a mile into the city. “What about the vampires? I’m still worried they let the enemy get too far in.”

Butler smirked. “That’s the perfect word. ‘Let.’ They knew that ambushing at the gate itself would be too costly, so they drew them to spread their forces thin, and are now striking at targets of opportunity. The enemy seems to be terrified and demoralized.”

I sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of property damage once this is over. They still haven’t finished repairing from the Rampage.”

“I’ll offer tax breaks to anyone who helps rebuild at reduced rates. I should extend that to the rest of the city…” He sighed. “Worries for another time. Right now, my bigger concern is North Gate.”

North Gate, also known as Beast Gate, Kemo Gate, and the Sprawl. It was a maze of tiny alleys and confused buildings, some of which had managed to partially collapse into each other over the years. The place barely had any streets, because the kemos of the area preferred to travel by rooftops.

We had expected that it would be easy to hold, but that was proving incorrect.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, as I observed the glowing red wound on the city. It was spreading farther and wider than it should. At least the vampires were keeping the intruders confined to a few single streets. “The kemos should never have let them run free like this.”

“Here, miss,” an aide said, as she handed me a pad.

I glanced through it. “Field report from Delia. She’s crediting the echoes.”

Butler sighed. “They were designed for urban warfare. Superheavy infantry, capable of breaching buildings and weathering moderately heavy fire. We should have seen this coming.”

I shook my head. “They shouldn’t even be able to get inside the buildings. What are the kemos doing, throwing rocks at them? Bottle them up and pour fire at them until they go away.” I read a bit more. “Ah, here’s the problem: A bunch of idiots tried to take them out hand-to-hand.”

“It worked in South Gate,” Clarke said.

“For the Erlking,” I said. “None of the kemos have that kind of raw physical power.” I paged through it a bit more. “Let’s see… yes, they fell back and started using ambush tactics, but by that point the invaders had a foothold.” I sighed. “The kemos are winning, but slowly and expensively.”

Another aide handed Butler a pad. “The Gatorcroc says he can drop a building on them, if necessary.”

I closed my eyes. “Does he even understand the phrase ‘collateral damage?’”

“Probably not.”

I thought about it. “Akane.”

She perked up. “Yes?”

“How fast can your kensei get to North Gate?”

“I can have ten men there in ten minutes.”

I nodded. “It will do. Send them. Tell them to focus on the echoes, then retreat to the warlords and request further instructions. They’re a fire team, we need them at hotspots the kemos can’t handle on their own.”

She nodded and stepped aside for some privacy as she pulled out her phone.

“We should have sent the kensei up earlier,” Butler said.

“You agreed to keep displays of powers to a minimum.”

“They should have been ready, though.” He turned back to the map. “But that’s not an issue any more. We need to figure out what to do with North Gate. They’re too dug in. The kemos will take heavy losses if they attack.”

“Bomb them,” I suggested. “Soften them up for the kemos to finish them off.”

He shook his head. “Not with the shield up. I don’t want to worry about them hitting it.”

I took a deep breath. “We have some people with invisibility. Not many, but—”

“Closest is an hour away.” He showed me a green dot on the map, moving towards North Gate. “She was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but she’s running late for some reason. We don’t have anything else in the area. All the civilians have evacuated.”

“If Obox-ob was around, we could surprise them through the sewers.”

“Still no sign of him. The only other thing that uses the sewers is…” He trailed off.

“The fey,” I finished.

Clarke looked thoughtful. “They did offer…”

“No,” Butler said sharply. “Only as a last resort. They promised to stay out of this unless we asked. I want to see if they can hold to that.”

“Oh, of course we could,” a pleasant female voice said. Every gun in the room immediately turned to point at Maeve, who was standing at the door, smiling. “If you ask, Mister Butler, we’ll stay hidden until this city is nothing but cold ash in the wind. But we would like to offer you some other options.”

Behind her, one of her Princes walked in, holding a small plastic box in her arms. It was the winged girl from the Wild Hunt, Aitil Péine. She blinked in the light—harsh to her nighteyes—but otherwise just stood quietly next to her Princess.

“Lady Maeve,” Butler said, a little stiffly. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Maeve smirked. “Just doing my duty for the city, Mister Butler.” She nodded at her Prince.

Aitil strode up and plopped the box on the war table, before opening it up to reveal… a radio. A radio with perhaps a larger antenna than normal, but nothing else particularly remarkable about it. I had built better radios than that.

There was a pause.

“I’m not playing along, Maeve,” Butler growled. “Explain.”

“It looks like the radios the US uses,” I said.

Maeve smiled. “I’m sure MC has already hacked the enemy communications.”

“Of course,” MC said from the speakers. “Though honestly it’s not very useful at the moment. The battlefield is nearly small enough that everyone can see what is happening. Several ambushes have been foiled, but—”

“Mary Christina,” Butler said, admonishing her. He turned back to Maeve. “Continue. Please.”

“This is something else. It is tied to their explosives.”

The room was silent. I thought I heard someone choking in surprise.

I blinked. “You managed to hack their bombs? How is that possible?”

She smiled. “Some of our feyborn have that invisibility. Such a useful talent. We simply had them slip into the camp and make a few adjustments to the equipment. Not everything has a remote trigger, of course, but those that don’t should go up in a chain-reaction when the rest blow. The base camp will be destroyed, and all that will be left is to hunt down any stragglers.”

Butler narrowed his eyes and loomed over her. “What is the price?”

Maeve smirked. “You’ll owe me a favor?”

“No,” Butler said instantly. “Name a firm, specific price, or the deal is off and you have to replace a homunculus.”

“Speaking of homunculi, did you know that there are a few scattered among the enemy troops? Very interesting—”

“Your price, fey.”

Maeve’s smile finally faded. “We want to go to New York.”

Butler rocked back on his heels. “I see.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Even assuming your homunculi can operate that far from your real bodies, what would you want there?”

“Legitimacy,” Butler said.

Maeve nodded. “Once this little war is over, one way or another, negotiations will need to occur. Many warlords will wish to send their ambassadors to represent the greatest cultures of the city, and Butler will of course agree. We just want to be remembered as one of those great cultures.”

“Instead of a bunch of insane monster makers.”

Maeve smirked. “Do I look insane, Honored Paladin? Does my dear Aitil look like a monster?” She shook her head. “Did you ever consider that perhaps the fey have moved on from their darker origins?”

None of that was a lie—but then, none of it was really a statement of fact, either.

“What about the gargant?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The one at Acheron.”

Maeve’s smile disappeared.

“That is not relevant to this discussion.”

“You have a gargant hunting down people like dogs, and it seems to have a power—”

“Laura,” Butler said. “Now is not the time.”

I scowled, but stepped back.

“So,” Maeve said, as if nothing had happened. “Do we have a deal? The radio for the position?”

“No,” Butler said. “We have a deal—if this works. I’m not promising you anything in exchange for a broken radio.”

She smirked. “Come now Butler, give us some credit. Funny as that would be, it would gain us nothing in the end. The bombs will explode. Anything that happens after that, I cannot guarantee. So, deal?” She held out her hand to shake.

Butler stared at it for a moment like it was a poisonous snake, before grudgingly shaking it.

“Deal,” he said tiredly. “Miss Medina. If you would.”

I nodded. “MC, order any troops near the enemy base camp to retreat.”

“Done,” she said. “There weren’t many.”

“All right,” I said. I picked up the radio, looked at it for a moment, and then found that the ‘talk’ button had been crudely taped with red duct tape as a label. Its purpose was obvious. I took a deep breath, then pressed the button.

I imagined I could feel the shaking from here.

“Reports coming in,” one of the aides said immediately, hand to her earbud. “Big explosion at the gate… lot of smoke and confusion… enemy echoes seem to be down… no friendly casualties reported.”

“Tell the kemos to send in the best they have,” I said. “Retake that gate immediately, and hold it. Everything else is secondary.”

Maeve clapped her hands, just once, to get everyone’s attention.

“Well, that was fun,” she said cheerily. “Who’s up for Chinese?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 288)

One of the interesting things about writing these war scenes is the power difference. America could wipe Domina City off the map, shield or no, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. But the thing is, with their powers and toys and sheer bull-headed stubbornness, Domina can defeat any army America sends at them. They outnumber the enemy at least ten to one, and that’s before civilian militias come into play.

So the biggest difficulty here is finding ways to justify keeping things difficult for the city. I’m proud of the echoes, but most higher-level warlords can beat one in a fair fight (though there are far more echoes than there are warlords of that level). So what other advantages does America have? Short of giving up and nuking the place, of course.

Scene 287 – Impetum Lupus

IMPETUM LUPUS

VOVK

My name is Nathaniel Vovk, First Lieutenant of Necessarius. I was once an important part of the Great Wolf’s pack, back in the beginning of the lupe culture. I still am, in many ways, but nothing official. Now, I’m just another old ‘sarian wolf trying to make the city a better place.

At the moment, that involved fighting the American soldiers who had taken North Gate.

They had moved fast, with those walking tanks in front to take the brunt of our fire. While our own anthros and warlords had been able to dent them, it wasn’t enough. The Americans had managed to clear the area in front of the gate. Now they had set up a base camp and began sending forays deeper into the city. We hadn’t been able to oust them yet.

Not that we hadn’t tried. We were just… having problems.

I sighed. “Sir, what do you mean we don’t have any missile launchers?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” the captain snapped. He was half my age, but had somehow managed to rise in the lupes quite quickly. I had no idea how, but I was sure it wasn’t for his organizational skills.

“When are reinforcements coming? A few warlords or even high-level ursas would be able to break through that barricade—”

“They have a hundred of those damned echo machines, Vovk! We’ll find another way!”

I ground my teeth. “What other way? Our powers? We never did manage to get a list of what everyone could do!”

The captain hesitated. “I have a pain induction ability—”

“Ranged?”

He blinked. “What? Uh, no. Touch only.”

Useless. “I can walk through solid matter. If you give me a couple bricks of hyper-cyclonite or even just regular C4, I can bring down those walls.”

He sighed. “Not an option, I’m afraid. We don’t have any explosives beyond regular grenades.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“Did we prepare for this fight at all?

“Of course we did!” he snapped. “Did you miss the part where they blew up the stockpile?”

I blinked. “Uh, yes, actually.”

The captain’s glare softened. He waved at a tall plume of smoke rising from behind the nearest ‘scraper. “First thing that happened. They busted in, a dozen echoes leading the way, and tossed a grenade at our supplies. The Alphas are trying to bring more in, but you known they’re like cats in a bag on a good day.”

I ran a hand through my hair. It was meant to resemble fur, since when I had first been modified real fur had still been out of our reach. “All right. That explains a lot.” We were still incompetent, but at least we were reasonably incompetent. I had been dealing with this sort of problem all the way back before the warden died. The only reason we lost Eden was because a crate of body armor got mislabeled and the English got their hands on it. “What’s the plan, then?”

“Currently? Hold the line.”

I nodded. Simple and effective. Usually. In this case, we’d probably end up in a stalemate, which admittedly wasn’t the worst way this could go. But the Americans were well-equipped and well-organized, while we were kemos. Cats in a bag.

“The warlords will be moving up,” I said, half to myself. I glanced at the grunts of the squad. They were standing a few yards away so that they didn’t have to hear their superiors arguing. “The obvious ones, at least. Dane and Lord Arisen, maybe Tecumseh and a few of the Moonlords.”

“Senator McDowell,” the captain said.

I grimaced. “Definitely. Which means we need to finish this up before he gets here.”

“I thought McDowell was good in a fight?”

“He’s an Iluvatar,” I said. “We need someone more experienced. Have we tried sending people into the sewers?”

Kemos hated sewers as a general rule, since almost all of us had an enhanced sense of smell. But the Americans had a pretty big base, so there had to be at least one sewer exit in there somewhere.

“Yes, that was the last I heard from General Silverback. The attack failed, so attempting it again is unwise.”

Silverback. He was a terrible general, but a great warlord. Which probably meant he was dead by now. His first instinct when things went wrong would have been to charge in himself, and the echoes would have torn him apart.

“All right, forget the sewers.” I glanced over at our men. None of them had true sniper rifles, but a few had scopes on their Ueno rifles, which might be enough. “Has anyone tried scaling the buildings yet?”

“Of course they have! We’re kemos! I don’t know what happened to them, though. Obviously they didn’t succeed, but beyond that…”

I nodded. “Good.” I raised my voice, loud enough to make the men sit up and take notice. “An excellent idea, sir!”

The captain figured out the game very quickly. “Good man! Take Yemen and Clawbreaker; they’re my best shots.”

The named soldiers—well, as close as kemos ever got to soldiers—perked up. One was a cane with brown fur and dog ears, but little else, and the other was a fel who had gone full lioness anthro. Her whiskers twitched when I looked at her.

They were the ones with scopes on their guns. I nodded in appreciation to the captain, then pointed at the ‘scraper right next to us. “Time to head up, kids! Keep on this side, away from the American base.”

We climbed.

My claws were still old and metal, not designed for climbing, but it didn’t matter. This was the heart of kemo territory. Every single building had handholds every foot or so to make climbing easier. Even a complete baseline wouldn’t have had too much difficulty. I might be fifty, but I was healthy and buffed. I could climb a hundred stories without worrying about losing my grip at the wrong moment.

The other two reached the roof a few moments ahead of me. They already had their guns out and sweeping the area by the time I pulled myself up. Again, this was kemo territory, so the roof was just like any other floor of the building. It was well-traveled with a few empty shop stalls. It also had a zip-line to the nearest ‘scraper.

I stayed low, but pulled out a pair of binoculars and started scanning the nearby buildings.

“Uh, boss? Honored Alpha, sir?” the cane said hesitantly. At least both of them had the brains to lay down prone next to me.

“What?” I asked, not stopping my search.

“The base camp is down there, sir.”

“Don’t you think it odd, pup?”

“Sir?”

“Kemos are the best climbers in a city of rather good climbers. We are currently in a section of the city designed to be easy to climb. Don’t you think that if our warlords sent up men, they’d have started to make a dent in the enemy forces?”

“I… suppose so, sir,” the cane said.

“Which means that someone has been killing them. And since the roofs would give too much cover from down below, that means that these killers are on the rooftops. They likely ascended using those handholds we so thoughtfully built into every building in the sector.”

“So you’re looking for an enemy sniper,” the girl, the fel, said from my other side.

“Not looking. Found.” I pointed about sixty degrees off center. “Do you see that?”

They both remained silent for a moment.

“Saw it,” the fel said. “A glint.”

I put my binoculars down. “That’s him. Either his scope or his binoculars, either way, he’s hunting for us. All we can do is hope there’s only one, but it wouldn’t take much. Can either of you hit him from here?”

“Yemen is the better shot,” the lioness said. “John, you spotted it yet?”

“Yeah,” he said. He slowly set up his scoped Ueno in front of him, leaving the cap on the end of the scope. He sighted it for a few moments, before taking a breath and removing the cap. “I see him. Barely. I’m going to have to wait until he gets ready to take a shot.”

“Clawbreaker,” I said, finally remembering the girl’s name. “How’s your dodging?”

She scowled, whiskers scrunching up. “Could be better.”

I smiled. “I’m not going to tell you to get up and wave your hands around like an idiot. Just start crawling to the other end of the roof. If this sniper is as good as I think it is, it should be enough.” And if she got shot in the process, well, that was just the price we had to pay for our victory. She was an anthro. She might survive.

She nodded, and started crawling across the roof. She kept low as if trying as hard as she could to keep from being seen. It would look good to the American sniper, and should entice him to at least take a closer look.

Unless he realized that this was too good to be true, and figured out it was a trap…

A shot rang out from next to me. It was silenced, but even with a silencer, a gun is loud when it goes off a few inches from your ear.

“Got him,” Yemen said.

I nodded. “Good. We take up positions for overwatch on the base below.” I considered for a moment, then stood.

Yemen tried to pull me down. “Sir, if there are any other snipers—”

I waited for a moment, but no one shot me.

“My power should let me survive a bullet if I’m prepared,” I said. Of course, I hadn’t tested it. “Looks like there was only the one sniper. Come on.” I walked over to where Clawbreaker was waiting. Behind me I heard Yemen scramble to his feet and follow. “Anything interesting?”

She shook her head.

I pulled out my binoculars again and looked down. The Americans were to be commended. They had set up their base camp with admirable speed. They blocked off the alleys leading into the square right outside North Gate, using cars and tables and whatever else was at hand. They had brought in some canvas canopies, which wouldn’t stop a bullet but would keep us from targeting anyone. Well, we could shoot the sentries on the outer walls, but they were the only ones exposed. And that would only help if we timed things just right with a ground attack.

A ground attack wouldn’t be a good idea, though. There were still those walker-machines. I also had a feeling they were hiding more conventional miniguns under those canopies. The streets leading up to the camp would be killing fields now.

I scanned them with the binoculars. There was no cover on any of the streets. The little side alleys leading into the square would be horrible even at the best of times. Right now, they’d be pure suicide for any large force. But the main street leading south, farther into the city, might work. We’d have to bring our own shields, but we might be able to do it. This would be easier if our warlords hadn’t denied help from the Gravers or the kensei, but we were hardly helpless. Maybe if we—

I stopped, and adjusted the binoculars.

Yes, there. There was a girl skulking up the street towards the American camp. Definitely not a kemo, but her blue skin made it clear she wasn’t a baseline, either. A troll? They were the only ones who used the skin color cosmos regularly. But she didn’t have the size or the claws of a troll…

She disappeared, right in front of my eyes. In the space of a single blink, it was like she had turned invisible.

Or maybe she had…

I put the binoculars down. “Clawbreaker, climb back down. I need you to give the captain some intelligence.”

She nodded. “What is it?”

“Tell him I think we have fey on the field.”