Scene 313 – Aestas Domus

AESTAS DOMUS

JEFFERIES

Baile Samhraidh was like something out of a fairy tale.

When I realized we were being led into the sewers, I had expected… well, a sewer. The kind of thing you see in games. Dripping water, green slime, gelatinous monsters. And Domina’s sewers didn’t disappoint there. But just because Baile Samhraidh was in the sewers didn’t mean that it was a sewer.

We had been here for two days, and I still hadn’t gotten over the majesty of it all. The fey had dug down deep, creating a single room thirty feet tall, a hundred feet long, and about forty wide. Massive concrete pillars, crafted to look like stone, held up the ceiling. There were smaller side rooms and hallways, but there was no question that this one area—called the Park—was the center of it all. The walls were steps, like a Mesopotamian pyramid, and filled with beautiful plants and flowers.

In fact, the entire room was filled with plants, anywhere they could fit. Flowers around the edges. Bushes and herbs in plants along the walkways. There were thick trees wrapped around the stone pillars like vines, their leaves covering the ceiling above. Even with the canopy, the bulbs set in the ceiling created perfect artificial sunlight, providing light and nourishment to the plants below while making the entire place feel like a natural forest.

Despite it still being winter outside, the entire demesne was a balmy eighty degrees. It was comfortable enough that most of the feyborn walked around in short sleeves and shorts. The whole place smelled of life and nature, and I could even hear birds somewhere. It was easy to forget that you were under a city when you were here.

I was sitting on one of the steps, looking at a butterfly that had alighted on a nearby flower. Seriously, a butterfly. I couldn’t believe that they could even survive down here, so far from the sun. I was so distracted I almost didn’t notice when someone sat down next to me.

I turned to see Maiden Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, smiling at me. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, and she wasn’t the one in charge of this entire demesne.

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked.

“This is a very beautiful place you have,” I said, keeping my voice carefully polite.

Her smile turned sad. “That’s not what I asked.”

I looked away.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know that the treatments are painful.” She chuckled. “And Titania’s bedside manner leaves much to be desired. But we’re almost done fixing your flawed body. By the end of the week, there will be no difference between you and a natural-born human.”

“That’s just the problem,” I said. “What do I do once I’m not dying?”

“…I assumed you’d contribute to the betterment of the city. Get a job. Slay monsters, fight Nessians. Something like that.”

I gave her a look, and lowered my voice. “Most changelings… they’re made from scratch, right?”

She nodded. “Mostly. We throw in a bit of DNA from random human samples and let it cook in an artificial womb. We let it grow to a random age, give it an imprint from the game maker, and then wait for them to escape.”

I frowned. “Game maker?”

“It’s a memory modification device,” she said. “Like the toy maker, but for minds.” She chuckled. “Hilariously impractical, though. It has absolutely no effect on normal brains. It only works on newborn changelings because they’re blank slates. It wouldn’t work on anyone else, even a newborn baby. Even then, we can’t do much more than give them basic instincts. Give them a starting point to learn language, motor skills, and so on more easily early on. If we didn’t use it, every changeling would take about eighteen years to grow to adulthood.”

I stared. “Is… is that something you should be just telling me?”

“People already know about the game maker,” she said, unconcerned. “It’s been on the open market for almost fifteen years—it’s just completely useless to everyone but us. And you already know where changelings come from.” She leaned back on her hands. “Though I am curious how you got your mind.”

I shook my head. “We’re getting off track. My mind is what I wanted to talk about. I’m not just a vatborn human. I’m a clone, body and mind, of a specific man. One of the President’s bodyguards.”

“That seems odd. Why was he chosen?”

“I was told it would be harmless,” I said. “And it was, I think. They needed someone loyal and self-sacrificing, someone who was in peak physical condition. That was me.” I paused. “Him. It was him.”

She frowned, but nodded. “Okay, let’s put aside the question of how the memories got copied so perfectly. What’s the problem?”

I sighed. “The problem is that there’s already someone out there living the life I want. My dream job, my dream family… I can’t even use my old name.” I put my head in my hands. “This was all so much easier when I only had weeks to live. I figured I’d either go to the afterlife and deal with this then, or not, and never have to worry about it.”

Aurora snorted, a surprising sound from her. “I don’t trust the afterlife. I much prefer to obtain real, tangible immortality, rather than just hoping in something beyond death. Every religion feels like a scam to me.”

“Uh…”

She forced a smile on her face. “But this isn’t the time to discuss my views on religion. The point is that you were procrastinating. Trying to put off the decision to later, when hopefully it wouldn’t matter. Now it is later, and it does matter. You have to decide who you want to be.”

I remained silent.

“Thankfully, you’re not alone.” She stood, and I followed her gaze to see Lieutenant Backstrom and Hall walking towards us. “I’m sure that your friends have opinions that could be helpful. One way or the other.”

“Private,” Backstrom said by way of greeting. She nodded at Aurora. “Honored Princess.”

“So polite,” Aurora said. “I’d love to speak with you more. But I’m sure you three have much to discuss, so that will have to wait for another time.” She patted me on the hand as she left. “Good luck, Mister Jefferies.”

Backstrom watched her go with a critical eye. “I’m still not sure I trust that woman.”

I shrugged. “If she wanted to kill us, why bring us here? Why feed us, shelter us, and heal me?”

“Because the fey are crazy,” Hall said. “Even the feyborn say that.”

“Regardless,” Backstrom said. “Even if she isn’t planning on killing us, she clearly wants something. She wouldn’t be investing so much unless she expected to reap some reward in the end.”

“Maybe.” I stood up, stretching. “I’m not going to worry about it, though.”

Backstrom raised an eyebrow. “You’re not?”

I shrugged. “What would it get me? Some ulcers? No choice but to deal with it when the time comes.” I winced and poked at my side. “I was going to take a walk. Either of you want to tag along?”

“You shouldn’t,” Hall said. “You don’t want to strain yourself.”

“I won’t go far,” I said. “I was just going to walk down Primrose Path.”

“I’ll come with you,” Lieutenant Backstrom said. “The last thing we need is for you to have an accident or something.” She shook her head. “I’m guessing that without you, our contract with the fey would be voided.”

Hall frowned. “What makes you say that? The fey didn’t mention it.”

“I just went for the most inconvenient thing I could think of. It seems like what they would do. Anyway, Hall, you go back to our quarters, make sure the others haven’t set anything on fire or gotten themselves killed or something.”

Hall looked like she wanted to argue, but just shrugged and saluted, then ran off.

I started walking towards the exit—the Primrose Path was in that direction—and Backstrom gave me a look. “You are going to be all right, aren’t you?”

I gave her a weak smile. “For this walk? Yes. For good? I have no idea. This body wasn’t designed to last more than a couple weeks at most. The fact that the fey have kept me going for as long as they have is a miracle.”

Backstrom fell into step beside me. “You never told me why you agreed to get cloned in the first place.”

“I thought—” I sighed. “Sorry, Bryan Jefferies thought that he was serving his country.” I chuckled. “The doctors say it’s important that I distinguish myself from him. We have all the same memories up until my creation, but we are not the same person.”

“So he’s still alive?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Secret Service, personally protecting the President.”

Really.” Backstrom shook her head. “That just raises more questions. Why would you—I mean, he—agree to this, or even be selected in the first place? And then they sent you off as a random grunt in a war. I’m not sure what the point was.”

“Proof of concept, mostly,” I said. “For both the clone bodies and the memories. As for why Bryan was selected, part of it was his peak physical fitness. The much bigger part, though, was his self-sacrificing nature. They wanted clones who wouldn’t mind that they were going to die after just a few weeks.”

Backstrom stared. “That might be the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard.”

I shrugged. “What would you prefer? Pick people who aren’t willing to die? Or just choose people at random, without giving them any say in the matter at all? I’m sure they learned a lot from me and my…” I waved my hands. “Whatever you’d call the others. My brothers, maybe? I dunno. I’ve never had brothers.”

Backstrom sighed, then gently took my arm and led me down a side passage. It wasn’t the Primrose Path yet, but I could smell it. “I suppose of all the terrible ways this could have gone, this was the best solution. Though I still don’t understand why it was important in the first place. What concept was being proven? Is there really such a use for a dozen clones bodyguards?”

“That’s way above my pay grade. I think they wanted to find a way to copy skilled people so that there can be more than one of them around at a time, but that’s just a guess. They didn’t tell me much.”

“Of course,” she said bitterly. We took a turn, and there was the Primrose Path before us. It was just another tunnel, but it was lined with primroses. Hundreds of them, of every color imaginable. It was beautiful, and smelled heavenly. Good thing, too, since this was the path to the sewers themselves. There was a guard at the far end of the path, a bored kemo standing in front of the door.

“I’m sure it’s for a good cause,” I said. “They were prepping for full production when I left, and they’d only do that if they had a really good reason.”

Backstrom frowned. “What is full production, exactly? How many?”

“I heard someone say ten thousand.”

TEN THOUSAND!?” she screeched. She glanced around, then continued in a lower voice. “What could possibly require ten thousand short-lived clones of a Secret Service agent? I don’t care if you—”

“Bryan,” I said.

“Whatever! I don’t care if these clones come out as the best soldiers the world has ever seen! I can’t imagine how they could ever be worth the cost. From both a monetary and moral perspective.”

I shrugged again. “I trust them.”

“What, a bunch of scientists who wouldn’t even tell you why?”

“No, I mean the clones. They wouldn’t do anything crazy, like execute a coup or destroy the country.”

She paused for a minute, staring at me. “Well, I suppose you know yourself well enough.”

I chuckled. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“I’m still curious how the memories were transferred, though. That’s far beyond what the toy maker is capable of.”

“Aurora mentioned something called the ‘game maker.’ Apparently it’s like the toy maker, but for memories.” I shook my head. “Except it can’t do anything like this either. Not yet, anyway. They use it to implant their new changelings with basic skills, but that’s about it. Full memory transfer should be impossible.”

Backstrom pursed her lips. “I’d like to say they’re underestimating America, but given all we’ve seen…”

“If the fey say something is impossible, I’m inclined to believe them,” I said. We reached the end of the path, with the kemo guarding the door. “But obviously, it happened. There’s no use arguing about it.”

She chuckled. “You’re just letting everything slide off your back, aren’t you?”

“I could die any day,” I said. “I don’t have time for stress.” I turned to the kemo. “Can we go outside?”

Backstrom frowned. “Jefferies!”

“What? You’re with me, you’re armed. It will be fine.”

“Lot of monsters just find bullets annoying,” the guard said. “Especially sewer monsters. You gonna try to shoot a jumper swarm? A school of mudfish? Fur and fang, even a basic leapeater will probably kill you before you can pump enough lead into it.”

“We’ll take our chances,” I said.

Backstrom rubbed her forehead. “Jefferies…”

“What, I’m not allowed to take risks?” I said. “Come on. I just want to see something besides flowers for once.”

“So you want to go out into a sewer.”

I shrugged. “Better than nothing.”

“Most people would disagree. It is, in fact worse than nothing, because it’s a sewer.”

“Filled with monsters,” the kemo added.

I shrugged again.

Backstrom sighed. “You know what? Fine, I don’t care. Let’s go.” The kemo opened the door for us, and she paused. “If we come running back here with monsters on our tail, you’ll open the door for us, right?”

He smirked. “Sure. Funny as it would be not to, Aurora would get mad.” His smile disappeared. “No one wants to see Aurora mad.”

I nodded in thanks and stepped outside.

The sewers… well, they were sewers. Not modern sewers, either. They were like underground rivers, flowing down stone tunnels with walkways on the sides. The walls and ceilings looked like they were stone blocks, but I was pretty sure that was just a texture on top of concrete. Or whatever it was what modern sewers were normally made of. Metal, maybe? No, that would rust. Plastic, then?

I started walking north. It was slightly darker than the other direction. Most of the electric lights had broken, and the only illumination came from the phosphorescent glow of insects too small to see.

“Jefferies,” Backstrom said, her tone curt. “Where are we going?”

“Just walking,” I said.

“You’re walking too fast for someone who is just walking. You have some goal in mind, and you’ve been too set on the sewers from the start.” She stepped in front of me and turned to face me, hands on her hips. “Tell me what your plan is or I’m dragging you back to the demesne. Are you running away?”

I rolled my eyes and handed her the note Aurora had given me. “Here.”

She frowned and took it. “’Walk the Primrose Path to the sewers, then turn to the darkness. You will find something interesting.’” She looked up. “Who gave this to you? One of the feyborn?”

“Aurora herself,” I said. I pushed past her. “I didn’t see much of a choice.”

Backstrom hurried to follow. “Fine. And what if this is a trap?”

“Aurora doesn’t seem that malicious.”

“Maybe trap is the wrong word. Possibly-lethal prank, maybe?”

I winced. “Okay, yeah, that’s more in-character for her.” I sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t think she’d do anything to risk me, but it’s hard to tell with her.”

“Then why go along with it?” She waved the note. “This doesn’t promise any reward.”

“I just thought it was a good idea to obey her,” I said. “Keep her happy. Besides, maybe ‘something interesting’ will be a good thing.”

I heard gunfire up ahead. Just a single shot, echoing through the tunnels.

I stopped dead and glanced at Backstrom. We waited a few moments.

“Monsters don’t use guns,” I said. “And a person would have kept shooting.”

“Unless the monster killed them after the first shot,” Backstrom said.

I struggled to make a decision, then ran forward. If I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow, I didn’t have a choice. I heard Backstrom grumble something, but she followed a moment later.

It wasn’t far, which was good, because my body still wasn’t in perfect shape yet. I was already panting at the first turn, but we found what we were looking for right there. A bodyguard’s eyes were sharp, and I took in the scene in a glance.

Three people stood on the sides of the sewer. One was big with jet-black skin and a powerful tail, one was a baseline male with a ‘sarian band tied around his arm, and the last was a kemo female with the same band. She had feline ears, maybe tiger. Hard to say. She was the one with the gun out, though it was pointed at the ground.

In the middle of the sewer, in the water itself, was some kind of gargant. Large, maybe eight feet long, and muscled like a linebacker. It seemed to be quadrupedal, but it might have just been on its hands and knees. It was covered in hair so thick that it was impossible to tell much else about it. I couldn’t see a mouth or eyes. For all I knew, it didn’t have any.

Backstrom pulled her gun out with a practiced motion and pointed it at the gargant. “Friendlies! What’s the plan? Fight or retreat?”

The kemo and the one with the tail stared at her, but the baseline reacted quickly. “Neither. Diplomacy.” I noticed that he had a gun of his own, though he hadn’t drawn it. “Where’d you two come from?”

“Baile Samhraidh,” I said. I jerked a thumb back the way we came. “One of the side exits is pretty close. Situation stable?”

The man glanced at his partner and frowned. “…stable enough.” She gave him a glare, but pointedly holstered her gun. He turned to us. “I’m Detective Abraham Gosling. This is Detective Utako Tora, and Noble Nyashk of the Mals.”

“I’m—” I stopped as his words sunk in. “Wait. Why is Necessarius running around the sewers with a vampire warlord?”

“I am helping them with…” She glanced at the gargant. “…their problem.”

“What are you doing here?” the kemo—Tora—asked. Her hand was still on her gun.

I forced a smile onto my face. “I am Curtis Jefferies. Just Jefferies will do fine. This is Evelyn Backstrom. We were sent out here by one of the fey.”

“Which one?” Nyashk asked.

“Aurora. Maiden of Summer.”

The three of them glanced at each other.

“Aurora… took something from me,” Nyashk said. “At least, I believe it was her. It was before the reformatting.”

Backstrom shook her head. “Before we get into the politics, can we please discuss the giant ugly gargant?”

The gargant growled and rose out of the water. I could see two beady little red eyes under the fur, glaring at Backstrom. And there was… something else. A feeling in my chest. Not quite pain, but definitely pressure.

Nyashk rushed over and smoothed down his fur, whispering something. The pressure in my chest faded, but the gargant still stood there, glaring.

“…what was that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Nyashk said. “He didn’t like her tone, that’s all.”

“Lady, I’ve worked with animals before.” Well, Bryan had, but whatever. “Backstrom’s tone was fine. Her words set him off. He understood her.”

The gargant slowly turned to face me. The pressure in my chest returned.

“And he has a power, doesn’t he?” I whispered.

The pressure in my chest increased.

Nyashk pet the gargant more, whispering where his ears should be. The pressure eased up again, but slowly.

Gosling coughed to get my attention. “As far as we can tell, the fey engineered him with a blood weakness so that he couldn’t turn on them. Either too high pressure or too low pressure, I’m not sure, but he needed them to fix it. Then when the Rampage hit, he gained the power to control blood, including his own. And suddenly he didn’t need them any more.”

I clutched my chest. “So he—”

“If he wanted you dead, he’d make your heart explode out of your chest,” Gosling said. “He’s done it before.”

I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I really hated these powers. Monsters, I could deal with. Yeah, they were weird, but in the end they were just big animals. The powers… I could deal with those on a case-by-case basis. Pyros were just like people with a flamethrower, telepaths were basically just really good spies.

But a gargant with a power… that was something else.

What did Aurora expect me to do here? Kill him? I’d probably have more luck killing a mountain. Take Nyashk hostage to force his compliance? She was a warlord. Besides, I still didn’t know what exactly their connection was. Maybe it would just send him into a mindless rage.

“How?” Backstrom asked.

I frowned. “What?”

“How did he get a power? None of the other monsters did. What makes him special?”

I stared at her. “You really don’t know?”

“Know what?”

I glanced at the others. The ‘sarians looked embarrassed, but I wasn’t sure Nyashk was even listening. She was still petting the gargant and whispering into its ear.

“I don’t exactly know the full details myself,” I said. “I just made some guesses. Maybe you guys can fill in the blanks?”

“…I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Tora said. “I think this whole thing might technically be classified something or other. It’s not really a standard case. I mean, it started as a standard case, and then everything went sideways…”

“Tora,” Gosling said. “Who are they gonna tell? The fey? They obviously already know.” He jutted his chin at the gargant. “I’m guessing they’ve got a tracker in our friend here. It’s the only way they found us so easily.”

“Will someone explain something?” Backstrom demanded. “I have had it with insane fey, monsters, and now super-powered gargants—”

“He’s my son,” Nyashk said.

Backstrom’s mouth shut with a click.

“I wasn’t sure about the son part,” I said, “but otherwise… yeah. Only humans got powers when the Composer hit the whole city.” Aurora had helped a bit with recent history. “If he got a power, that means he’s human. Simple as that.”

“I…” Nyashk took a deep breath. “I made a deal with the fey. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn’t, but I made it. They weren’t supposed to… anyway. They took one of my eggs. They grew the egg.” She patted the gargant again, tears in her eyes. “Modified it. Turned it into a weapon. I still don’t know why.”

“What about the other gargants?” Backstrom asked. “Were they all human—”

“He is human,” Nyashk snapped, eyes flaring.

“Right. Sorry. My point is, do the other gargants have powers?”

Nyashk glanced at the ‘sarians.

“No one has seen any,” Gosling said. “And no one has ever seen a gargant—besides this guy—display anything more than bestial cunning. I’m guessing the rest are just what we always thought: Normal animals, horrifically modified.” He looked sadly at the gargant. “Then someone got a bright idea to modify humans in the same way.”

“Like changelings,” I said.

Everyone stared at me.

“I mean, sort of.” Changelings were homunculi like me, made from scratch, but as far as I knew there was no reason they had to be. “In the end, isn’t that pretty much what he is? A changeling that’s more monstrous than usual? I heard that some of them don’t even look human when they escape. And, well…” I shrugged uncomfortably.

“You know, that’s a good point,” Tora said. “The changelings might be able to fix him. Revert the modifications.”

“He was modified as an egg,” Gosling said. “Not even as an embryo, a God-dammed egg. I think you’d find it easier to grow a human from scratch than fix him.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Nyashk said. She was still petting the gargant. “I have a friend among the changeling warlords. She’ll be willing to take a look, if nothing else.”

The gargant seemed to like that idea. He nuzzled her hand, and she smiled. But how much did he really understand? Yes, his monstrous appearance was making me underestimate his intelligence, but how long had he been alive? How much knowledge or experience could he have accumulated?

Huh. Accumulated. I was spending too much time around the feyborn. A lot of them were college-educated toy nerds. Their higher vocabulary was rubbing off on me.

“Well, good luck,” I said with a smile. I was afraid if I said too much more, I’d say something stupid and insensitive. “We should really be getting back.” I grabbed Backstrom’s arm. She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t resist.

“Wait,” Tora said. “That’s it?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to… I dunno… try to capture him? Or us? Or convince us to bring him to Summerhome?”

I smiled. “I don’t have any orders here. Not even a suggestion of an order. If Maiden Aurora wanted me to do something, she should have said so. Not just thrown me in this direction and hoped for the best.” I nodded politely. “Hopefully we will see you around, detectives, Noble. It’s been a pleasure.”

They didn’t say anything as we walked away.

Backstrom pulled out of my grip once we turned the corner. “Interesting choice.”

“Only choice, from my perspective.”

“Uh-huh. And what if this is what the fey intended from the start? For you to drive the gargant into the waiting arms of the changelings? Maybe use it to ferret out some hidden base or destroy a troublesome warlord?”

I sighed. “I think, at this point, I can safely say that it’s just not our problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 313)

The gargant has been a long time coming. His plot is mostly done, but there’s still a little bit left.

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