ACCESSIMUS AD INFEROS
“Hey there, Curtis,” a lupe said as I passed by. He was manning a stall on the street, selling raw meat. “You want some doggies? They’re fresh!”
I managed a smile. “Not today, Ahmik.” I held up my bag of groceries. “Already got enough for dinner.”
Ahmik smiled, showing his sharp wolf teeth. He wasn’t a full anthro, just the teeth and the ears. Probably an improved sense of smell, too. “Another time, then. You make sure to tell that girl of yours to stop by, you hear?”
I smiled again and nodded before hurrying on.
I still wasn’t used to this place. We had been here almost a week—six days, to be exact. But the fact that there were monsters milling about on every street still made my head spin. Even now, I had to force my way through a small crowd of lupes and leos. This wasn’t any specific culture’s territory, so the clans mixed here. There had been a shooting earlier today, but no one seemed to care now.
I coughed into my hand, then looked at it. Blood. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about this crazy city for much longer. My body, flash-cloned and stuffed full of chemicals, was dying. I only had a week or two left.
I hurried along the street. It didn’t take long to find the apartment building. I slipped inside, nodded to the desk attendant, and ran up the stairs to our stolen apartment. I knocked on the door.
It opened, revealing Corporal Horn on the other side. “Jefferies? What—”
I shoved past her and stumbled into the kitchen, where I spit up into the sink. The white porcelain was stained red with blood. I spit a few more times, but nothing so large as the first one. I stood there a few minutes, breathing hard.
“Jefferies,” Horn said. “What the hell?”
I took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to spit up blood in the street. Too many strong noses.”
“I—well, that’s a good point, but why are you spitting up blood in the first place?”
“Because he’s dying.” We both turned to see Lieutenant Backstrom step out of the bedroom. She had turned it into a command center. She was the only member of the squad who I had shared my… condition with. “I’d guess about a week.”
“Maybe two,” I said, my voice hoarse. “If I’m lucky.”
“We haven’t had much luck.” She pulled the shades back and looked out the window. “Of course if you had a power, it would be something that would let you survive. Healing, or maybe self-shapeshifting.”
“No luck there,” Horn said. “Everyone says the same thing: They don’t know how to spread the powers without the screamers or the Composer.”
Backstrom nodded. “I have Kine out looking again. As long as everyone else has powers and we don’t, we’re at a major disadvantage. She’s actually searching out the fey. It’s a long shot, but it’s all we have.”
We had learned a lot in six days. About the true extent of the toy maker, the cultures, and some recent events. We were still missing a lot, though. No one dared log into the internet. Even the most basic functions required signing into ‘Fundie,’ a sort of city-wide browser service. Necessarius would be able to track us through that, we were sure.
So much we didn’t know were things that the people of the city found so obvious that there was no need to explain them. I had been able to determine that Zero Forge was the city’s first foundry, but nothing more. Apparently it was located near the ruins of Eden, and I had no idea what that was. Horn had discovered the existence of the fey when she overheard some fels. They had been wondering why they weren’t doing Hunts anymore, but that was all we knew. Hall had been able to tease out a bit more information about their recent activity, but not much. We didn’t know anything about what they had been like before their ‘reformatting.’
And of course, there was always Necessarius. We had been told that they were a large street gang led by some fool with delusions of grandeur. Nothing to worry about. The army would cut them down to size.
Turns out the ‘sarians had their own army. Theirs was bigger.
“Any word from command?” I asked, changing the subject.
Backstrom gave me a look, but didn’t force the issue. “No. They don’t know we’re here, and we have no way of contacting them. And I still can’t tap into anything outside the city. We don’t know what they’re saying about the war.”
“They can’t have given up,” Horn said.
“That’s what Butler is saying,” I said, as I washed out the sink. “They’re sending ambassadors to New York tomorrow morning.”
Both women frowned at me.
“Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” Backstrom said.
“I just found out an hour ago,” I said. “Heard it from that pine girl who works at the grocery. And then we got distracted talking about me…” They were still glaring. I forced myself to stand up straight, and saluted. “Apologies, sir. Won’t happen again.”
“Good.” She looked thoughtful. “The pine girl. She’s just a grocer, right?”
“As far as I can tell.”
“Then that means the average person on the street knows about this.” She picked up the remote from the couch and tossed it to Horn. “Check the news. See if you can find someone talking. That Cassan girl usually seems to have her finger on the pulse.”
Horn nodded and turned on the tv, flipping through channels. She didn’t sit down. I had a feeling she thought it would somehow be shirking her duty if she sat down.
I turned back to the kitchen and started loading food into the fridge. I had a hard time buying things, since the others insisted on only eating what they could recognize. I would agree—the most common meat here was rat, after all—but since I was dying anyway, it felt like a waste of time.
“Found something,” Horn called, over the sound of people arguing on the tv. I continued with my work. She was talking to Backstrom anyway.
“What is it?”
“Confirmation. They’re expected to be at a meeting tomorrow in New York at 1000. Let’s see… no word on who is going.”
“Then what is it they’re yelling about?”
“The fey and the dragons are both sending ambassadors. The other cultures are all unhappy about it for some reason.”
I closed the fridge and walked back over to the women. I ignored the tv. It was just a couple talking heads yelling at each other. We still didn’t have enough context to understand.
“No clue on why?” I asked.
“If it was just the fey, I’d say it’s because no one likes them,” Horn said, half to herself. “But with the dragons thrown in, I’m not sure. I thought people liked them.”
The talking heads were yelling about how the dragons hadn’t ‘earned the right.’ The fey seemed to have been dismissed as obviously unfit, and thus not even worth arguing about. Understandable, considering that from what we had heard, the fey were completely insane. As in, as likely to smile at you as to gut you.
There was a knock on the door, and I walked over to look through the peep hole. It was Private Hall. I could see Private Brown just behind him.
I opened the door. “I thought you two weren’t due back until tonight.”
“Got our hands on some juicy info,” Hall said. “Wanted to bring it back right away.”
Backstrom frowned at them. “And it required both of you?”
Hall shrugged. “No phones. Didn’t want either of us getting lost out there with no way back.”
I rolled my eyes. The pair treated the city like it was some jungle forgotten by man, and refused to leave the building alone. In fairness, the city was dangerous, but their paranoia was interfering with their work.
“What is it?” Backstrom said tiredly.
“A boatload of scientists arrived in the city,” Brown said. “Not secretly, but definitely quiet. Not sure if it’s official or anything, but they’re headed for one of the lupe Moonhomes. I heard someone mention Ithaeur.”
“That’s one of the lupe castes,” I said. “The scientists.”
“These scientists are from America?” Backstrom asked.
Hall nodded. “Near as we can figure. Nothing official, just some guys from some tech company. But they’re getting escorted through the city, no trouble with the locals. Someone knew they were coming.”
“Domina is having dealings with the mainland,” I said. “Besides the ambassadors.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Backstrom said, as she paced to and fro. “Or maybe it’s not the city as a whole. They’d go straight to the ‘sarians if that were the case. The lupes must have cut a deal.”
“I don’t see how,” Hall said. “They weren’t keen on taking prisoners.”
“Obviously they changed their minds,” I said.
Hall looked like he was going to snark back, but Backstrom stepped between us before he had a chance. “Enough. Hall, you two wrote down everything you saw, correct? Number of scientists, times, so on?”
Hall looked offended. “Of course.”
“Good. We’ll add it to the file. Otherwise, there’s not much to do. We are not raiding one of the Moonhomes to hunt for some stupid kids who want to play in a sandbox filled with broken glass.”
I shivered. The lieutenant sometimes had a way with metaphors.
“The powers are still our number one priority,” she continued. “I’m beginning to think it might be worth making an account on Fundie after all. This would be so much easier if we could just check the internet.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Horn said. She was still watching the news, not even looking at us.
I shrugged. “It can’t be too dangerous. This city still has criminals that Necessarius hasn’t stamped out. That means they can’t be using it as a Big Brother thing. Besides, it’s not like we’ll be looking up anything dangerous. I doubt checking a few history sites will get us put on any watchlists.”
Backstrom sighed. “This would be so much easier if any of us knew shit about computers.” She nodded. “All right. We’ll make an account of Fundie. False name and everything, of course. Nothing too obviously fake. Go with… Jake Bernstein.”
“Sounds good,” I said. I grabbed one of the laptops from the couch.
“And do it at the coffee shop down the street,” she added. “I don’t want them tracing it straight to us.”
Now it was my turn to sigh. “Okay, fine. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” I walked over to the door and opened it.
On the other side, just about to knock, was Corporal Kine.
“Private,” she said curtly. “Where are you going?”
I stepped aside to let her in. “Lieutenant Backstrom agreed that Fundie would be worth the risk after all. I just have to log on somewhere away from here.”
Kine frowned at me, then stepped inside and addressed the lieutenant. I closed the door behind her. “Sir, I don’t think that will be necessary. Or rather, I believe we need all hands on deck for this next part.”
Backstrom nodded. “Report.”
Kine stood there, back as straight as an arrow. “Sir. As instructed, I searched the city for members of the fey culture. I began my search in the sewers, where I was told that they often made their lairs.”
“Get to the point, Kerry,” Horn said. “Did you find the fey or not?”
Kine didn’t so much as glance at Horn. “I did. I encountered a man who introduced himself as Gealach Tapaidh. He called himself the Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn. The fey hierarchy seems a little more confused than that of the kemos, but I gather that he is approximately equivalent to a lupe or fel Hunter. He agreed to set up a meeting with his Lady.”
“The Ladies are the fey themselves, correct?” Backstrom asked.
Kine nodded. “Correct. I have received multiple confusing pieces of information regarding them, so it is difficult to say what is true. Some people have said that they resurrect on death, but they were quite clear that this was before the powers. There also used to be more of them, apparently, but they didn’t recruit at the time.” She shook her head. “I am sorry I cannot be more helpful.”
“Better than what the rest of us have got,” Hall muttered.
“When and where is this meeting to take place?” Backstrom asked, ignoring Hall.
“Tomorrow, near where I found him,” Kine said.
Backstrom sighed. “In the sewers.”
“In the sewers,” Kine confirmed, no inflection in her voice. She might as well have been mentioning that the sky was overcast today.
“Hardly the worst thing we’ve had to do for our country. I’ll go down there with you, Kine, and everyone else will wait here just in case it’s a trap. I doubt we’ll find anything super important, but I think it’s our best shot—”
“Stop,” I said with a frown.
She raised an eyebrow at me. “What?”
“Do you hear that?”
Everyone stopped, and just listened for a moment. I wasn’t even sure they breathed.
For a moment, there was nothing. Just the normal humming of the building’s air conditioning. The background noise of the tv turned very, distant gunfire and car horns from the streets…
And then, just when I thought I had imagined it, I heard a creak from outside the door.
All six of us dove to the ground with the reflexes of lifetime soldiers.
A split second later, the door exploded inward.
Behind the Scenes (scene 295)
Felt a little unsure of whether or not I should split this in two, but I ultimately decided to go with it. Flows better with a mini-cliffhanger.